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Ralph `Tiger’ Jones, Conqueror of Sugar Ray Robinson, was the Ultimate Gatekeeper

Bernard Fernandez

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Ralph "Tiger" Jones

Being a gatekeeper, especially in boxing, can be a lonely and underappreciated function. And in the 1950s, a golden age for the sport, that might have been especially true for a highly competent but not-quite-elite middleweight named Ralph “Tiger” Jones, who fought so often on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports’ Friday Night Fights that he came to be known as “Mr. Television,” a sobriquet he shared with another frequent face of the relatively new medium, comedian Milton Berle.

Jones, who was 66 when he passed away on July 17, 1994, is not enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. The Brooklyn-born, Yonkers, N.Y.-based scrapper has never even appeared on the IBHOF ballot. Then again, why should he have been? His career record of 52-32-5, with only 13 victories inside the distance, isn’t particularly impressive, unless you take a closer look at the who’s who list of guys with whom he shared the ring. He holds victories over, among others, IBHOF Hall of Famers Sugar Ray Robinson, Joey Giardello and Kid Gavilan (Giardello and Gavilan each defeated him twice), and he gave such capable and even world-class fighters as Gene Fullmer (twice), Laszlo Papp, Bobo Olson, Johnny Saxton (twice), Joey Giambra (twice), Rocky Castellani (twice), Paul Pender, Johnny Bratton, Rory Calhoun (twice), Joe DeNucci (thrice), Bobby Dykes, Chico Vejar, Charlie Humez (twice), Victor Salazar, Ernie Durando and Del Flanagan all they could handle.

Given the high level of competition he so routinely faced, it is remarkable that the Tiger was stopped only once, and even that was a bit of an outlier, a one-round TKO against someone named Henry Burroughs on Jan. 13, 1951. Burroughs, who went 3-4 in an abbreviated professional career, quickly vanished from the fight scene, but for Jones, who had come in 9-0, the shocking defeat might have had the effect of instantly downgrading him from hot prospect to “opponent” and, ultimately, gatekeeper of a loaded 160-pound weight class. Interestingly, Jones had virtually toyed with Burroughs in winning a four-round unanimous decision only two months earlier.

There are those who insist that Jones’ most shining moment inside the ropes came when he stopped Dykes (career record: 120-23-8, with 57 KOs) on March 8, 1954, in Brooklyn when, well behind on points, he rallied to register two emphatic, outcome-shifting knockdowns in the 10th and final round. But even that keepsake triumph pales in comparison to what took place in Chicago Stadium on Jan. 19, 1955, when he presumably was served up as a sacrificial offering to the incomparable Sugar Ray Robinson. Sugar Ray, then 33, was in the early stages of a comeback after he failed to make it big as a tap dancer on a tour of Europe. Fighting for the first time in 2½ years, Robinson had stopped journeyman Joe Rindone in six rounds on Jan. 5, 1955, in Detroit, and the bout against Jones, an 8-1 underdog, was widely viewed as merely another step forward in the former welterweight and middleweight champion’s graduated path back to the superstar status he once held and almost everyone believed he would soon reclaim.

But the outcome that was anticipated by the in-house turnout of 7,282 and a national TV audience underwent a quick rewrite when Jones, who had lost his previous five bouts, was the aggressor in the opening stanza of the scheduled 10-rounder, which ended with the great Sugar Ray — who had come in with an incredible 132-3-2 record — bleeding from a cut to his nose. It was more of the same in round two, Jones adding to Robinson’s seepage when the living legend went back to his corner with another cut, to his right eyelid.

It should have been apparent to everyone, even then, that this was not going to be Sugar Ray’s night, and it wasn’t. Referee Frank Sikora submitted a scorecard favoring Jones by a 99-94 margin, with judges Ed Hintz and Howard Walsh seeing it as an even bigger rout for Jones, at 100-88 and 98-89. Years later, the punch-counters for CompuBox reviewed tape of the fight and determined that Tiger had connected on 232 of 407 (57 percent) to just 176 of 514 (34 percent) for Robinson.

But as is often the case when a legendary fighter is made to look something less than superhuman, the big story was not that Ralph “Tiger” Jones had won, but that a humbled Sugar Ray Robinson was now on his last legs, his nimble feet and fast hands left behind somewhere on nightclub stages in a far-away continent.

New York Journal American columnist Jimmy Cannon for all intents and purposes authored Sugar Ray’s boxing obituary in his paper’s Jan. 20 editions, opining that “There is no language spoken on the face of the earth in which you can be kind when you tell a man he is old and should stop pretending he is young … Old fighters, who go beyond the limits of their age, resent it when you tell them they’re through … what he had is gone. The pride isn’t. The gameness isn’t. The insolent faith in himself is still there … but the pride and the gameness and that insolent faith get in his way … He was marvelous, but he isn’t anymore.”

And this, from The Associated Press report of the fight: “The former welterweight and middleweight titleholder … who started his comeback after 30 months as a song-and-dance entertainer by kayoing Joe Rindone two weeks ago, was handed the worst beating of his career by Jones … Time and again Tiger drove Robinson into the ropes and mauled him pitifully.”

But as was the case with the false rumor in 1897 that novelist/humorist Samuel Clemens – better known by his pen name, Mark Twain — had passed away, any suggestion that Sugar Ray Robinson was finished as a top-tier fighter proved to be premature. The Sugar man held the middleweight championship five times in all, three of his title reigns coming after Cannon advised him in print that he was washed up.

“I never figure to win them all,” the battered Robinson said after taking his licking from Jones. “You’ve got to figure you’ll get beat somewhere along the line. I don’t want to quit. This was a test. Like my manager said, it was just too tough for a second fight on a comeback.”

And Jones?

He continued to get regular TV gigs because he was more skilled than many, doggedly determined to put on a good show and no day at the beach for any of the six world champions he fought on 10 different occasions. But he never got a shot at a world title, a cruel twist of fate for someone who not only had paid his membership dues in the school of hard knocks, but continued to pay them right up to the end, a 10-round, unanimous-decision loss to IBHOF Hall of Famer and three-time Olympic gold medalist Laszlo Papp of Hungary on March 21, 1962. Tiger was floored in three separate rounds, but true to his unyielding code of honor, he gutted it out to the final bell. His pride would not allow him to do otherwise.

As a child growing up in New Orleans and the son of police captain Jack Fernandez (career record: 4-1-1, 1 KO), a former welterweight of scant pro accomplishment whom I idolized as if he had been a world champion, it seemed to me that, if Tiger Jones didn’t appear every week on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, he was in the featured bout at least every month or so. The best of the gatekeepers from that glorious era deserve at least some reflected glory for hanging in with their betters, and Jones holds a special place in my recollections along with, among others, Florentino Fernandez (I liked to pretend we were somehow related), Holly Mims and “Hammerin’” Henry Hank, the Detroit middleweight and light heavyweight who fought so often in New Orleans (18 times) that I chose to believe he was almost as local as Willie Pastrano, Ralph Dupas, Percy Pugh and Jerry Pellegrini. Hank, who was 62-30-4 with 40 KOs in a career that spanned from 1953 to ’72, was a virtual replica of the never-say-die Jones, never fighting for a widely recognized world title (he did drop a 15-round decision to Eddie Cotton for the Michigan version of the light heavyweight championship) and losing just once inside the distance, on a ninth-round stoppage by Bob Foster on Dec. 11, 1964, in Norfolk, Va.

Yeah, that would be the same Bob Foster who would go on to become one of the most accomplished 175-pound champions ever and was inducted into the IBHOF in 1990.

Bernard Fernandez is the retired boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. He is a five-term former president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, an inductee into the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Atlantic City Boxing Halls of Fame and the recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Boxing.

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New Zealand Heavyweights Fa and Ahio Have a Home Field Advantage in Utah

Arne K. Lang

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Go West, young man,” said Andrew Greeley, a New Hampshire man by birth best remembered as the founder and publisher of the New York Tribune. Boxing promoter Lou DiBella, a hard-shell New Yorker, is the latest to heed Greeley’s famous admonition. This Friday, Nov. 15, DiBella is anchoring his long-running Broadway Boxing series in Salt Lake City.

With heavyweights Junior Fa and Hemi Ahio appearing in the main bouts, the Utah city was a natural destination. Fa (18-0, 10 KOs) and Ahio (15-0, 10 KOs) are New Zealanders, but their family roots are in the kingdom of Tonga.

Approximately one in every four Tongan-Americans resides in Utah. There are more than 9,000 Tongans in Salt Lake County, roughly a third of whom reside in Salt Lake City proper.

The presence of a large body of Tongans in Utah is a residue of the work of Mormon missionaries in Polynesia in the late 19th century. The population of Tonga is now about 60 percent Mormon. As a percentage of the population, Tonga ranks #1 in Mormons (more formally members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). Regional rival Samoa is #2.

It figured that when land became hard to acquire in Tonga, an agricultural nation, many emigrants would choose to settle in Utah where they knew they would be welcome.

In Utah, Tongan and Samoan males are noted for their prowess on the football field. The best high school players in the Beehive State are disproportionately Polynesian, and overwhelmingly Polynesian in the offensive and defensive lines. There’s now a fierce tug-of-war for their services between Utah’s two major universities and out-of-state schools, particularly schools in Washington, Oregon, and California. The head football coach at BYU, Kalani Sitake, was born in Tonga, but even he has had limited success in slaking the scattering of standout Polynesian players to out-of-state schools.

Tonga is a small country, so it’s no surprise that few Tongans have made their mark in professional boxing. Paea Wolfgramm was an Olympic silver medalist whose pro career never did gain traction. He retired with a pro record of 20-4 after getting stopped by Corrie Sanders. Samson Po’uha, who fought out of St. George, Utah, was a great prospect who lacked the discipline to maximize his potential. He was stopped by journeymen Jesse Ferguson and Craig Payne and by Andrew Golota.

As weird as it sounds, if Junior Fa and Hemi Ahio are looking for a former boxer to serve as a role model, we would suggest Vai Sikahema. Yes, the same Vai Sikahema who set NCAA records for punt returns at BYU, was a great special teams player in the NFL and, in retirement, settled into a nice career as a TV personality in Philadelphia.

Sikahema, who was born in Tonga, boxed in the amateurs. In 2008, 15 years after he left the NFL, Sikahema was matched against former baseball star Jose Canseco in a celebrity fight in Atlantic City. Sikahema gave away seven inches in height and 40 pounds, but he blew right through Canseco, knocking him down twice before the bout was stopped in the very first round.

Of the two Kiwi heavyweights on DiBella’s Salt Lake City show, Junior Fa is the most advanced. As an amateur, Fa, now 30 years old, split four fights with fellow New Zealander Joseph Parker who went on to win the WBO version of the world heavyweight title. He twice represented Tonga in the Commonwealth Games and had eight bouts in the semi-pro World Series of Boxing where he defeated highly touted Arslanbek Makhmudov and lost a 5-round decision to Oleksandr Usyk.

In his last two starts, Fa knocked out Neufel Ouatah, a hapless Frenchman, in the opening round and was extended the full 10 by ancient Dominic Guinn. For the Guinn fight, he carried 259 ½ pounds on his six-foot-five frame.

On Friday, Fa is matched against Toledo’s Devin Vargas, a former U.S. Olympian. As a pro, Vargas’s career was moving along smoothly until he was stopped in the sixth round by Kevin Johnson. By all appearances, Vargas then lost his passion for boxing. Fighting sporadically, he’s 4-4 since then with all four losses coming inside the distance. But in his last fight in August in Massachusetts, Vargas stopped house fighter Niall Kennedy so perhaps his enthusiasm for boxing has been re-kindled.

Hemi Ahio, 29, kas fought once previously in the United States, stopping unnoteworthy Ed Fountain on a DiBella show in Columbus, Ohio. His last start was in Saudi Arabia where he knocked out an undefeated (7-0) fighter from Germany who had previously fought only cadavers.

Short for a modern era heavyweight at 6’0”, Hemi’s torso coupled with his aggressive style of fighting has led some to anoint him the Tongan Tyson. He’s matched against fluffy Joshua Tufte (19-3, 9 KOs) who hails from Kernersville, North Carolina, and probably would have no stronger chance of winning if the fight were being held in Kernersville.

The Nov. 15 edition of Broadway Boxing will be live streamed on UFC Fight Pass starting at 8 pm PST/11 pm EST. Topping the undercard is a 10-round welterweight contest between Brooklyn-based-Ukrainian Ivan Golub (17-1, 13 KOs) and Columbia’s Janer Gonzalez (19-2-1, 15 KOs).

There’s something intrinsically magnetic about an undefeated heavyweight who may have a big upside, even if he’s being thrust against an opponent with scant chance of causing a derailment. On Friday we get two for the money and considering the venue, it’s a safe bet that both will bring their “A” game.

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Avila Perspective, Chap 73: Gesta vs Morales, Celebrity Boxing, Liston and More

David A. Avila

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One of the rewards for journalists following smaller boxing cards is watching new talent emerge. Every so often you spot the gold nuggets among the heap.

Some fighters stand out immediately before even stepping in the prize ring. Others walk in hesitantly with dirty towels wrapped around their shoulders.

On Thursday, Carlos “The Solution” Morales (19-4-3, 8 KOs) and Mercito “No Mercy” Gesta (32-3-2, 17 KOs), who arrived on the hard road of boxing, meet in a lightweight match set for 10 rounds at Belasco Theater in downtown L.A. DAZN will stream live.

Two classier guys you will never meet than Gesta and Morales.

Gesta, a southpaw from Cebu, Philippines, arrived in 2007 and immediately found work on casino fight cards in Arizona, California and Nevada. His athleticism was obvious and he raced through competition till he met Mexico’s Miguel Vazquez for the IBF lightweight world title.

In that first loss, fans learned what Gesta was all about. He was gracious in defeat and fans loved his character. From that point on more people wanted to see the Filipino lefty perform. After Top Rank let him go, Golden Boy Promotions picked up his contract and he became a staple on the Southern California fight scene.

Win or lose, fans adore Gesta who was trained by Freddie Roach at the Wild Card Boxing club in Hollywood but now works with Marvin Sonorio. A decision loss to WBA lightweight titlist Jorge Linares at the Inglewood Forum did nothing to diminish Gesta’s fan base.

“I need challenges and I like challenges,” said Gesta during an interview with Beto Duran on Golden Boy’s Ring Side show. “I still feel great and still feel in the game.”

How could you not like a fighter like Gesta?

On the opposite corner at Belasco Theater will be “The Solution” Morales.

When Morales first entered the professional fight scene he stumbled a bit with a loss then three consecutive draws. I saw all four fights in person. The Mexican-born fighter needed about two years to figure out what worked for him.

He’s found it.

Morales, a gym rat if I ever saw one, purchased his own gym in the Alhambra area. He’s a family man, worker and businessman all rolled into one. The Mexican fighter needed time to discover his assets in the ring and use them in a productive manner.

Though he’s lost three of his last six fights they all came against top competition such as world champion Alberto Machado, ranked contender Rene Alvarado and current star Ryan Garcia. In each and every one of those fights Morales was up to his neck in battle.

“I definitely need a win over a name like Mercito Gesta,” said Morales. “He’s been in the game a long time.”

In local gyms he spars with many of the best and on occasion they understand what “the Solution” is all about.

“He is very, very good,” said one visiting Japanese fighter who witnessed Morales knock out a sparring partner in one particular session. “A very professional style.”

Both Gesta and Morales represent the side of Los Angeles most fans don’t get to see. Once upon a time, matchups like these were common in the L.A. area. Golden Boy Promotions has been slowly building up these local fighters and if you have paid attention you know this will be a firecracker of a show.

This is a 1930s kind of match you used to see at the old Olympic Auditorium or Hollywood Legion Stadium when guys like Speedy Dado, Baby Arizmendi, Chalky Wright and Newsboy Brown would fight each other and fill the arena. Dado would bring the Filipino crowd, Arizmendi the Mexican crowd, Wright the African- American fans, Newsboy Brown the Jewish fans and so on.

Gesta versus Morales has that 1930s flavor. If you close your eyes you might expect a ghost or two from boxing’s past to be in attendance at Belasco Theater. It’s an old venue where famous bandleaders like Duke Ellington once played. It’s got a lot of history and this fight was tailor-made for the old stylish building.

Celebrity Boxing

Nowadays celebrities come from different directions.

Last week, celebrities who gained fame via social media avenues like YouTube.com, Twitter and Instagram, arrived at the Staples Center in Los Angeles with hands wrapped, gloves on and a license to box professionally.

Their names were not familiar to regular boxing fans, but to millions of youngsters and young adults who do not normally follow boxing, these guys named Logan Paul, KSI and Joshua Brueckner were super stars.

It was a massive hit according to DAZN and Matchroom Boxing, the promoters.

I walked around the arena to take a look at the people arriving to see the boxing card. What I saw were moms and their sons and daughters, groups of girls in their early teens, and pale boys who normally don’t see much sun because they’re usually planted behind a computer playing video games. They all had a blast.

Most of these fans had never seen live boxing and got their first glimpse of prizefighting at a high level when Ronny Rios defended his WBA Gold super bantamweight title against Colombia’s Hugo Berrio. The Santa Ana fighter Rios came out firing thudding body shots that echoed in the arena. You could hear the responses from the new fans who openly expressed their amazement with a roar of applause at the display of power.

It’s one thing to see a fight but a whole new thing to hear power shots bouncing off another human being. Rios pummeled Berrio up and down and eventually knocked out the Colombian with a three-punch combination in the fourth round. Fans were awestruck.

You never forget your first live prizefight. It burns in your memory forever. All of these new fans will never forget watching a live boxing card.

Watching the responses of the new kind of crowd was an experience in itself. Many of these fans will return for more. Their excitement was pure and untainted.

Showtime

A feature documentary visiting the life of Sonny Liston called “Pariah: The Lives and Deaths of Sonny Liston” makes its debut on Friday Nov. 15 on Showtime at 9 p.m. (PT).

Liston was one of the most mysterious and feared heavyweight champions of all time. Read the story by Bernard Fernandez to get a preview of what to expect from the documentary. It’s riveting stuff: https://tss.ib.tv/boxing/featured-boxing-articles-boxing-news-videos-rankings-and-results/61445-from-womb-to-tomb-the-fate-of-sonny-liston-was-seemingly-preordained

Though Liston died 49 years ago in December 1970, he’s still discussed by boxing people especially in Las Vegas where he lived and died.

Fights to Watch (all times Pacific Coast time)

Thurs. DAZN 7 p.m. Mercito Gesta (32-3-2) vs Carlos Morales (19-4-3).

Fri. ESPN+ 12 p.m. Rocky Fielding (27-2) vs Abdallah Paziwapazi (26-6-1).

Fri. Showtime 7:30 p.m. Erik Ortiz (16-0) vs Alberto Palmetta (12-1).

Sat. ESPN+ 12 p.m. Lee McGregor (7-0) vs Kash Farooq (13-0).

Photo credit: Kyte Monroe

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Ortiz Accuses Wilder of ‘Borderline Criminal’ Tactics; Wilder Takes Umbrage

Bernard Fernandez

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Yes, Deontay Wilder still wants to knock out each and every man he faces in the ring. But a bond the WBC heavyweight champion has shared with his Nov. 23 rematch rival and fellow family man, Luis Ortiz, had caused Wilder to have a somewhat more conciliatory feeling toward the Cuban southpaw given the fact that each power puncher knows what it’s like to deal with a child facing significant health issues.

But Wilder’s small but oft-expressed well of goodwill toward Ortiz may have dried up Tuesday afternoon after he learned of derogatory comments Ortiz had made about him during a teleconference with the media, prior to Wilder joining the call. Ortiz (31-1, 26 KOs), who had Wilder (41-0-1, 40 KOs) in the danger zone in the seventh round of their first bout, on March 3, 2018, at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, couldn’t seal the deal and went down and out himself in the 10th round. All three judges had Wilder ahead by the same razor-thin margin, 85-84, when the end came.

The do-over will take place at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and will be televised via Fox Pay-Per-View

Wilder, although promising to win inside the distance as he always does, again gave props to the 40-year-old Ortiz, a father of three whose daughter Lismercedes suffers from epidermolysis bullosa, a painful skin condition. That struck a sympathetic chord with Wilder, who has eight children, one of whom, daughter Naieya, was born in 2005 with spina bifida.

“Ortiz has a family,” Wilder said when it was his turn to answer reporters’ questions. “I grew a great bond with Ortiz the first time with his child. My child was born with a disorder as well. I know personally how hard it is and how much it takes to take care of a child with a disorder. It takes a lot of money and it takes a lot of care, so I wanted to bless him again (by granting him a rematch) – not only for being a great warrior, one of the best in the world, but also for his family.”

Wilder had scarcely finished lauding Ortiz as a fighter and a father when he was told that his ring tactics had been characterized by Ortiz in less than flattering terms.

“Some of the antics that Wilder does, like the illegal blows that he throws with the inside of his fists and punching from the top of the head down … all kinds of craziness,” Ortiz, who does not speak English, said through his trainer/translator, Herman Caicedo. “It makes it very difficult to get settled in. Quite frankly, that stuff is borderline criminal.”

Wilder, who figured he had “blessed” Ortiz by granting him a high-visibility, good-paying shot at his title 20 months ago, and was doing so again, seemed taken aback by the suggestion that his free-swinging ways and code of ethics had been called into question.

“I never heard of that,” Wilder said. “I think he’s being sarcastic. The only thing that’s criminal is me hitting people with the right hand and almost killing them.

“Someone will have to ask him to clarify what he meant by that. I would like to know myself. If it was something to tear me down, I would feel some type of negative vibe toward him, after I’ve blessed him twice. That’ll make me want to hurt him more than I want to do now. Because when I get mad, it’s over.

“Right now, I’ve been very respectful to him. He don’t want me to take this wrong because then I’d really want to beat his ass.”

Boxing being what it is, mutual respect tends to be put on hold in any case when the action gets hot and heavy. It was pretty intense in the first time around, the seventh round representing the most perilous spot Wilder has been in since turning pro after taking a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But “The Bronze Bomber,” as Wilder is known, said that being taken to the brink and fighting his way out of trouble is as big a plus as any of his exclamation-point KO victories.

“That seventh round was an amazing time for me,” he said. “It allowed me to see what I’m really made of. I was very proud of myself to be able to handle that situation, and go be able to go into the fight with the flu. Proper protocol is to (postpone) that and wait ’til a later date when you’re healthy. But being me, I’m hard-headed and that makes me different from the rest.”

Ailing daughters or not, it really would not make that much of a difference had Ortiz tossed verbal bouquets at Wilder instead of incendiary accusations. Wilder, who will be making the 10th defense of the WBC championship he won on a 12-round decision over then-titlist Bermane Stiverne on Jan. 17, 2015, believes that, at 34, he is the best heavyweight on the planet, worthy of discussion as one of the best big men ever to lace up a pair of gloves, and arguably the most devastating puncher ever.

“We already know I’m the hardest hitter probably in boxing history,” he said with typical immodesty. “I see this fight going only one way, and that’s Deontay Wilder knocking out Luis Ortiz. He knows it, and I know it.”

Well, maybe Ortiz isn’t quite convinced of the inevitability of his getting starched again.  He was a live underdog the first time he and Wilder swapped haymakers, and he’s a live underdog again. His dream is to become the first Cuban heavyweight champion, and he insists he is as mentally and physically prepared as he’s ever been for a fight.

“He can bring whatever he’s going to bring, no problem,” Ortiz said of Wilder.

Could Ortiz have been playing standard-issue mind games by claiming the champion’s style is almost felonious? Maybe. But if he really wanted to get under Wilder’s skin, he could have said something about how much he enjoyed LSU knocking off the Alabama Crimson Tide this past Saturday. Wilder, a native of Tuscaloosa, Ala., who grew up dreaming of someday playing football for his hometown university, would instantly have been whipped into a frothing rage.

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