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Is Erislandy Lara Still Elite?

Kelsey McCarson

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“Erislandy Lara has always been one of the best fighters in the world,” said longtime trainer Ronnie Shields. “He knows exactly what he’s doing inside the ring. He takes advantage of what the opponent does. It takes skill to do that, and not many fighters know how to do it.”

Lara, 35, faces secondary titleholder Brian Castano at Barclays Center in Brooklyn this Saturday night on Showtime. Lara is ranked No. 2 at junior middleweight by The Ring despite coming off a split-decision loss to unbeaten IBF and WBA titleholder Jarrett Hurd last April in a consensus “Fight of the Year.”

Shields said Lara handled the heartbreaking loss as well as could be expected, especially considering Lara was ahead on all three scorecards entering the final round when Hurd scored that left-hook knockdown which ultimately swung the scorecards the other way.

“It was a great fight, but we, on our side, think we won,” said Shields. “And I think we have a legitimate argument for it.”

The argument is predicated around judge Dave Moretti scoring four of the first six rounds for Hurd despite most observers believing Lara did his very best work in the very close fight during that very same timeframe. By comparison, judges Glen Feldman and Burt Clements scored those rounds 3-3 and 2-4.

Having suffered other narrow misses while working Lara’s corner in the past, most notably a split-decision loss to Canelo Alvarez in 2013, Shields is frustrated with the current state of judging in the sport.

“I just don’t know what they look for. It seems like they change the criteria on what you’re supposed to be looking for. The one judge [Moretti] that gave Hurd four of the first six rounds has to be crazy. You know, you just don’t know what he’s looking for. If this guy judges the fight by what he’s supposed to be looking for, even with the knockdown, Lara wins the fight.”

According to CompuBox, Hurd landed 217 of 824 (26%) total punches to Lara’s 176 of 572 (31%).

The silver lining to it all, of course, was that Lara, a southpaw stylist who plies his trade using a risk-averse Cuban-style usually not known for producing scintillating action fights, might have suddenly gained new followers after his FOTY performance.

“That fight being recognized as ‘Fight of the Year’ shows my versatility as a fighter,” said Lara via press release. “I was on the ballot before with Alfredo Angulo [in 2013], so it was good to get recognized for being a warrior, not only a craftsman.”

Curiously enough, it was Shields who encouraged Lara to forgo his usual style against Hurd and instead take the fight right to the younger, larger champion.

“I think we really surprised Hurd when I sent Lara right to him,” said Shields. “We fought Hurd at his own fight. That’s the best tactic I saw that would work for us. And it did work for us.”

One must wonder then: How might Lara fight against Castano?

Lara, -400, opened with oddsmakers as a significant favorite over the 29-year-old Castano, +275. While Castano was a decorated amateur in his home country of Argentina and has remained unbeaten over the course of his near seven-year professional career, there’s nothing on his resume to suggest he should be able to defeat a fighter as talented and decorated as Lara unless Lara just suddenly isn’t the same fighter anymore.

Despite the loss and perhaps, more importantly, even with being on the wrong side of 30, Shields laughed off the suggestion that Lara might not be able to seriously compete anymore with the very best fighters in the division.

“This guy, he ain’t going anywhere. He’s still there, and he can still compete with the very best fighters in the world.”

Shields said Lara, perhaps motivated by missing the chance to become just the seventh unified junior middleweight champion in boxing history, completely surrendered to one of the most grueling, and probably most important, training camps of the 35-year-old’s life.

“He gets up for every fight,” said Shields. “No matter who he’s fighting, he works hard every single day. I’m proud to work with him because he sets an example for every other fighter I have in the gym.”

A win for Lara would net the fighter the regular WBA title, but more importantly, it would solidify him as the next logical choice for unified champion Hurd after former WBC champion Jermell Charlo shockingly lost to Tony Harrison in December.

The stakes would be even higher in the rematch. With both Lara and Hurd ranked atop the division by The Ring, the return fight would also crown the champion according to that organization, along with universal recognition as being lineal champ.

But Shields said not to dismiss Castano. He hailed the underdog as a serious threat, but one Lara would ultimately defeat.

“It’s not going to be a cakewalk either way, but we feel confident because we know the ability level of our fighter, and that’s something Castano will have to figure out.”

Shields wouldn’t divulge what Lara’s strategy will be this time. Will Lara box carefully the way he did over most every other fight of his six-fight championship reign? Or will he take the fight to Castano the same way he did against Hurd?

Whatever happens, Shields just hopes boxing fans are finally giving Lara his due.

“He’s the real deal,” said Shields. “All you have to do is pay attention to what he does. It’s easy to see. He’s a skilled boxer. He’s not a one-punch knockout kind of fighter, but his power gets respect from every fighter he faces in the ring.”

Photo credit: Hosanna Rule / Team Lara

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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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