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Where Goeth the World Boxing Super Series?

Arne K. Lang

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World Boxing Super Series

The first edition of the World Boxing Super Series was a mixed bag. Season Two appears to be hanging on by a thread.

The inaugural World Boxing Super Series (henceforth WBSS) consisted of two eight-man single elimination tournaments featuring boxers in the super middleweight and cruiserweight divisions. The nuts-and-bolts of the tournament were laid out at a hastily arranged press conference in New York in March of 2017. The kick-off event was a glitzy gala in Monaco on July 8 of that year. All 16 participants were present.

Historically, pro boxing tournaments never play out as planned; something always goes wrong. The WBSS 168-pound tournament, to no great surprise, was messy. Nor was the cruiserweight tourney free of hiccups.

German veteran Juergen Braehmer looked good in dispatching Rob Brant in his quarterfinal match in the 168-pound competition. That boosted him into a fight with top seed Callum Smith, but Braehmer was a late scratch, reportedly suffering from a severe case of the flu. That opened the door to an obscure Dutch fighter named Neiky Holzen when both of the alternates – Germany’s Vincent Feigenbutz and Denmark’s Patrick Nielsen — were unavailable.

Holzen lasted the distance with Smith but was widely outpointed in a humdrum fight.

The other semifinal matched George Groves against Chris Eubank Jr. In a mild upset, Groves outclassed Eubank. But during the fight he dislocated his shoulder. That pushed back his fight with Callum Smith. It didn’t come off until Sept. 28, by which time it was something of an afterthought. The tournament, as initially scoped out, was supposed to have concluded in May.

The cruiserweight tournament was an artistic success. The organizers succeeded in boating all four of the significant title-holders. The finale between #1 seed Oleksandr Usyk and #2 seed Murat Gassiev was arguably the most eagerly anticipated cruiserweight fight since Evander Holyfield fought Dwight Muhammad Qawi in 1986. The fight didn’t live up to its billing — Gassiev, a fierce puncher, had difficulty laying a glove on the slick Usyk — but produced the first unified cruiserweight champion in the four-belt era.

It was an artistic success, yes, but was it an economic success? The organizers had difficulty locking in venues (the match between Yunier Dorticos, a Miami-based Cuban, and Russia’s Dmitry Kudryashov was planted in San Antonio, of all places), with the consequence that the cruiserweight tournament also ran late, concluding on July 21.

More damaging from a bottom line standpoint, the organizers were unable to secure a U.S. TV partner. The cruiserweight finale between Usyk and Gassiev eventually aired in the U.S. on KloudTV, a fledgling live-streaming subscription service based in Alexandria, Virginia.

The money behind the WBSS comes from Comosa AG, a subsidiary of a larger entertainment company based in Switzerland. Kalle Sauerland and Richard Schaefer hold key executive positions. Sauerland oversees the boxing division of German powerhouse Sauerland Event, the firm founded by his father Wilfried Sauerland, a 2010 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Schaefer, a Swiss national with a background in investment banking, founded Ringstar Sports in 2016 and was formerly the CEO of Golden Boy Promotions.

The WBSS backers purportedly ponied up enough money to ensure that the WBSS would have at least a three-year run. They added a third tournament for the 2018/19 season, seemingly a statement that everything was hunky-dory. The new 140-pound tourney is especially strong. It’s a weight class brimming with good young talent with Regis Prograis and Scotland’s Josh Taylor leading the pack. But cracks have appeared in the WBSS armor and there’s concern that the entire shebang may implode.

In the 140-pound tourney, Prograis, Taylor, Ivan Baranchyk, and Kiryl Relikh advanced. The matchups for the semis are Prograis vs. Relikh and Taylor vs. Baranchyk. But Prograis and Baranchyk are threatening to pull out.

Both are frustrated with the slow pace of the tournament but there is more involved. Prograis advanced to the semis and a date with Kiryl Relikh when he outpointed Liverpool’s Terry Flanagan at New Orleans on Oct. 27. That fight, held in Prograis’s hometown, reportedly drew only 2,000 paid, roughly half as many as turned out at the same venue to see his previous fight against a lesser opponent, Argentina’s Juan Jose Velasco. Top Rank was the lead promoter for his bout with Velasco. Prograis feels that the WBSS did a poor job of promoting his match with Flanagan.

The WBSS is reportedly trying to make the Prograis-Relikh fight for New Orleans on May 18, but that’s still three months away. Winning the Muhammad Ali Trophy that goes to the victor of a WBSS tournament would be a nice feather in his cap, but Prograis is anxious to get on with his career. There are other lucrative matches out there for him, especially if he is willing to move up to 147.

David McWater, the manager of Ivan Baranchyk, says his fighter will drop out unless the WBSS gets its finances in order. In a tournament match, both fighters are paid the same with the winner receiving a bonus. McWater says that Baranchyk had to wait two months to receive the bonus that was owed him. But that hasn’t stopped the WBSS from ballyhooing the Baranchyk-Taylor fight on their web site. They say it will come off in Glasgow on May 18 with the bantamweight semi-final between Naoya Inoue and Emmanuel Rodriguez serving as the co-feature.

Prograis and Baranchyk aren’t the only boxers with a gripe against the WBSS. Nonito Donaire is penciled in against Zolani Tete in a semi-final match in the bantamweight tournament, but the date and venue are as yet undecided. The cruiserweight semifinal between Yunier Dorticos and Andrew Tabiti is likewise in limbo.

Will season two of the World Boxing Super Series make it to the finish line? Your guess is as good as mine.

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Berchelt TKOs Valenzuela in Mexico City

David A. Avila

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Mexico’s Miguel Berchelt hammered his way to a decisive knockout victory over fellow Mexican Eleazar Valenzuela in a non-title light fight on Saturday.

After nearly nine months off, WBC super featherweight titlist Berchelt (38-1, 34 KOs) unraveled a withering body attack including numerous low blows but Valenzuela remained upright in front of a sparse TV studio audience until he could take it no longer.

Berchelt used a seven-punch combination to knock the senses out of the very tough Valenzuela who hails from Sinaloa. The referee saw enough and stopped the fight with Valenzuela leaning against the ropes with a dazed look.

The champion from Cancun used a triple left hook in the first round to floor Valenzuela and it looked like the fight would not last more than two rounds. But Valenzuela, a sturdy veteran, bored into Berchelt to keep him off balance and was able to stop the momentum.

It did not last.

A vicious attack to the body sapped the energy from Valenzuela who has fought many elite fighters in the past, but none like Berchelt. He was able to batter the veteran round after round.

Valenzuela sought to reverse the momentum with some combinations of his own. Berchelt opened up with some combinations from the outside and cracked his foe with some skull-numbing blows that clearly affected Valenzuela’s senses. The referee wisely stopped the fight at 1:03 of the sixth round to give the win to Berchelt by knockout.

The victory opens the door to a potential clash with featherweight world titlist Oscar Valdez of Nogales, Mexico who has a fight of his own planned next month. Both champions are promoted by Top Rank.

Other Bouts       

Omar Aguilar (18-0, 17 KOs) bushwacked veteran Dante Jardon (32-7, 23 KOs) within a minute of the first round to win by technical knockout. A barrage of blows by Ensenada’s Aguilar opened up the fight and a four-punch combination forced the referee to stop the super lightweight fight with Mexico City’s Jardon against the ropes.

A battle between super bantamweights saw the taller Alan Picasso (14-1) out-hustle Florentino Perez (14-6-2) in an eight round clash between Mexican fighters. Mexico City’s Picasso fought effectively inside against the shorter Perez of Monterrey and was able to maintain a consistent pace. Neither fighter approved the use of a jab but Picasso was more effective inside with body shots and uppercuts and dominated the last half of the fight.  The six judges scored in favor of Picasso.

The WBC instituted the extra judges as a means of tabulating score cards efficiently. Three judges scored from the television studios and another three judges scored from the USA. It was the second time WBC judges officiated remotely and all six scorecards were official.

Photo credit: Zanfer Promotions

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Boxing Odds and Ends: Big Baby Miller, Roberto Duran and More

Arne K. Lang

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Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller just can’t keep his hands out of the cookie jar. It was announced today (Saturday, June 27) that the jumbo-sized heavyweight from Brooklyn tested positive for a banned substance, forcing him out of a July 9 fight at the MGM Grand “Bubble” against Jerry Forrest. The story was broken by Mike Coppinger of The Athletic who breaks more hard news stories than any other boxing writer.

Miller, needless to say is a repeat offender. He failed three different PED tests in a span of three days for three different banned substances leading into his planned June 2019 match at Madison Square Garden with WBA/IBF/WBO world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua. That cost him the fight and a reported $5 million-plus payday. Andy Ruiz filled the void and scored an historic upset.

When the first test came back positive, Miller wailed that he was the victim of a faulty test. “My team and I stand for integrity, decency and honesty and will fight this with everything we have,” he said in a prepared statement. He later changed his tune. “I messed up,” he said.

In a story that appeared on these pages, Thomas Hauser noted that Big Baby had a history of PED use dating to 2014. In that year, he was slapped with a nine-month suspension by the California Athletic Commission following a kickboxing event in Los Angeles.

Counting this latest revelation, it’s five strikes for Big Baby. He’s taking quite a roasting right now on social media. Some of the harshest criticism is coming from his fellow boxers.

Assuming that Top Rank can’t find a replacement for Miller, this is another tough break for Jerry Forrest, a 32-year-old southpaw from Virginia with a 26-3 (20) record. Forrest was scheduled to fight hot prospect Filip Hrgovic on April 17 on a card at the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, a show swept away by the coronavirus outbreak. Forrest has been matched very soft throughout his career, but he acquitted himself well in his lone previous TV appearance, losing a split decision to undefeated Jermaine Franklin on “Showtime: The New Generation.” The decision was controversial.

There’s talk now that Carlos Takam is angling to replace Big Baby. The French-Cameroonian, a former world title challenger who turns 40 in December, was billed out of Henderson, Nevada, in his last ring appearance that saw him winning a unanimous decision over fellow greybeard Fabio Maldonado in Huntington, NY.

—-

When it comes to Murphy’s Law (“anything that can go wrong, will”), there’s no sport quite like boxing. Just ask Bob Arum. The most mouth-watering matchup in his ESPN “summer series” fell out this week when Eleider Alvarez suffered a shoulder injury in training, forcing a postponement of his July 16 date with Joe Smith Jr. The match between Alvarez (25-1, 13 KOs) and Smith (25-3, 20 KOs) would have been a 12-rounder with the winner guaranteed a shot at the vacant WBO light heavyweight title, a diadem that Alvarez previously owned.

Joe Smith Jr, a Long Island construction worker once dismissed as nothing more than a club fighter, won legions of new fans in his last start, a one-sided (to everyone except one myopic judge) win over Jesse Hart in Atlantic City.

Cancelled matches have become a recurrent theme in ESPN’s semi-weekly boxing series. The very first card in the series lost what shaped up as its most competitive fight when Mikaela Mayer tested positive for COVID-19, scuttling her bout with Helen Joseph. In subsequent weeks, the manager of Mikkel Les Pierre tested positive for COVID-19 as did WBO junior lightweight champion Jamel Herring. Those bad test results forced the postponement of two main events. Then earlier this week, hot lightweight prospect Joseph Adorno was lopped off Tuesday’s card after feeling sick after coming in overweight at the previous day’s weigh-in.

The undercards of the Tuesday/Thursday ESPN fights have left something to be desired, but that’s understandable. As Bob Arum noted in a conversation with veteran boxing scribe Keith Idec, Top Rank’s matchmakers Bruce Trampler and Brad “Abdul” Goodman have had a hard time fleshing out the cards because with so many gyms closed there’s a shortage of boxers who are in shape to fight on short notice. Then there are the COVID-19 travel restrictions and (something Arum did not acknowledge) budgetary restrictions more severe than an ordinary Top Rank card. Most of the undercard fighters have come from neighboring states such as Utah, saving Top Rank the cost of air fare. Fighters from faraway places, with some exceptions, were already training in Las Vegas.

Kudos to the entire Top Rank staff for keeping boxing alive during these challenging times.

It’s old news now, but Panamanian boxing legend Roberto Duran, 69, tested positive for the coronavirus and was hospitalized in Panama City with a viral infection. There’s been no update on his condition but his son Robin Duran wrote on Instagram that his father is not having any symptoms beyond those associated with a common cold. We will update you when new details become available.

Duran’s hospitalization came just a few days after the 40th anniversary of his first fight with Sugar Ray Leonard in what would say was Duran’s finest hour. They met on June 20, 1980 at Olympic Stadium in Montreal.

Duran won a unanimous decision. Converting the “10-point must” system into rounds, Duran prevailed by scores of 3-2-10, 6-5-4, and 6-4-5. As Yogi would have said, you could look it up.

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Fast Results from the Bubble: Jason Moloney TKOs Baez

Arne K. Lang

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Top Rank was back inside the MGM Grand “Bubble” tonight for chapter six of their semi-weekly ESPN summer series. Jason Moloney, one-half of Australia’s Moloney twins, accomplished what his brother Andrew Moloney was unable to accomplish in this ring on Tuesday night, adding a “W” to his ledger and looking good doing it. It came at the expense of Mexicali’s Leonardo Baez.

It was Jason Moloney’s second start on U.S. soil after coming up just a tad short in a bid for the vacant IBF world bantamweight title at Orlando in October of 2018. Against Baez, he fought a smart tactical fight, blunting the Mexican’s superior reach by fighting him at close quarters. Baez fought from the third round on with a cut over his right eye and then suffered a cut over his left eye in the seventh round. By then the fight was becoming increasingly one-sided and Baez’s corner did not let him come out for round eight.

Jason Moloney improved to 21-1 with his 18th knockout. Leonardo Baez, who took the fight on short notice after Maloney’s original opponent Oscar Negrete was forced to withdraw with a detached retina, slumped to 18-3.

Co-Feature

In the 10-round co-feature, Abraham Nova advanced to 19-0 with a unanimous decision over Philadelphia’s Avery Sparrow but won no new fans with a lackadaisical performance. Nova, born in Puerto Rico to parents from the Dominican Republic and raised in Albany, NY, showed little but his jab through the first seven rounds until hurting Sparrow with a big right hand in the eighth. The judges had it 96-94, 97-93, and 99-91.

Sparrow (10-2), whose lone previous loss was by disqualification, was making his first start in 15 months. He was slated to fight Ryan Garcia in Los Angeles last Sept. 14 but never made it to the weigh-in after being arrested by U.S. marshals on a charge of threatening a woman with a gun after she threw his clothes out the window…

Other Bouts

In an 8-round featherweight contest, Puerto Rican southpaw Orlando Gonzalez advanced to 15-0 with a unanimous decision over Ecuador’s Luis Porozo (15-3). The scores were 76-74 and 77-73 twice.

Gonzalez wasn’t particularly impressive although he did score two knockdowns. He decked Porozo near the end of round two with a left hook following a straight left and decked him again near the end of round seven with a left uppercut to the body.

In a rather ho-hum fight, welterweight Vlad Panin improved to 8-1 with 6-round majority decision over San Antonio’s 36-year-old Benjamin Whitaker (13-4). Panin, a Belarusian who grew up in Las Vegas and earned a BA in English from UCLA, has a good back story but seemingly a limited upside in the fight game.

In an entertaining 6-round welterweight clash, Filipino campaigner Reymond Yanon improved to 11-5-1 with a split decision (59-55, 58-56, 56-58) over Clay Burns. A 33-year-old ex-Marine from Fort Worth, Burns declined to 9-8-2.

The opener, a heavyweight bout slated for six rounds, matched two Phoenix-based fighters in a rematch. Kingsley Ibeh, a former standout defensive lineman for the Washburn College Ichabods, avenged his lone defeat and improved to 4-1 with a fourth-round stoppage of Waldo Cortes (5-3). Ibeh, who at 286 had a 39-pound weight advantage, softened Cortes up with a series of uppercuts and Cortes was on his way down when he was tagged with a glancing left hand. He got to his feet, but referee Vic Drakulich waived it off. The official time was 1:41.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams for Top Rank

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