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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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NEWS FLASH: Leon Spinks Hospitalized; Reportedly Fighting for His Life

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The gossip site TMZ is reporting that Leon Spinks is hospitalized in Las Vegas and is fighting for his life. TMZ acquired this information from Spinks’ wife Brenda Glur Spinks after spying her social media post. “It’s been a tough year for us,” she wrote. “Leon has endured a lot of medical problems. I’m reaching to ask that you pray for my Beautiful Husband Leon. So that he may overcome the obstacles that crossed his path.”

Her sentiment was echoed by Leon’s son Leon Spinks III who posted this message on his facebook page: “My Dad isn’t doing so good now and his wife Brenda Glur Spinks and I ask that u pray that he weather’s this storm. My dad is all I have left and I really appreciate it if yall let God know that he is not in this battle alone.”

A gold medal winner at the 1976 Olympics, Spinks, 66, is best remembered for upsetting Muhammad Ali in 1978 to win the world heavyweight title. He lost the title back to Ali in his next fight.

This is a developing story. As new details emerge, we will share them with you.

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Crawford-Kavaliauskas is the Main Go, but ‘The Takeover’ is the Stronger Allurement

Arne K. Lang

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Crawford-Kavaliauskas is the Main Go, but ‘The Takeover’ is the Stronger Allurement

Terence Crawford puts his undefeated record and his WBO welterweight title on the line Saturday when he opposes Egidijus Kavaliauskas at Madison Square Garden on ESPN. Kavaliauskas is no slouch. The two-time Olympian for Lithuania is also undefeated (21-0-1, 17 KOs), but Crawford is so highly regarded that he is a massive favorite.

If one were arranging the bouts according to the degree of intrigue, using the odds as the barometer, Crawford vs Kavaliauskas wouldn’t sit atop the marquee. That honor would go the IBF lightweight title fight between Richard Commey and Teofimo Lopez. Moreover, it’s a fair guess that if this fight were to fall out (perish the thought) it would result in more refunds than if Crawford were a late scratch.

The challenger, Lopez, is favored, currently in the vicinity of 9/4, but this is a price that usually translates into a very competitive fight and the stakes are high. The winner will almost assuredly advance to a rich engagement with Vasiliy Lomachenko who holds the other three meaningful 135-pound title belts

Commey (29-2, 26 KOs) won the IBF lightweight title – it was conveniently vacant – with a second-round stoppage of Russia’s Isa Chaniev and stopped Raymundo Beltran in eight rounds in his first title defense. Commey dominated both fights, scoring seven knockdowns in all, but the Russian was a sad excuse for a world title challenger and Beltran, although a solid pro, was past his prime at age 38.

Commey’s two losses came in back-to-back fights in 2016 and both were by split decision. He lost to Robert Easter Jr in Reading, Pennsylvania, and then, eight weeks later, was upended by Denis Shafikov before a tiny crowd at an actual boxing gym in Moscow.

There was nothing controversial about those losses, but in both instances Commey was in hostile territory. Toledo’s Easter brought a large delegation of fans to Reading and Shafikov was fighting on his home turf. The crowd on Saturday will almost assuredly be skewed against Commey again, but it won’t be as pronounced. Commey, born and raised in Ghana, has a home in the Bronx. Lopez was born in Brooklyn, a bond that his Brooklyn-born promoter Bob Arum likes to emphasize, but grew up in Davie, Florida.

Teofimo

At age 22, Teofimo Lopez (14-0, 11 KOs) is almost 10 years younger than Richard Commey. A year ago, at this very venue, he scored his most memorable triumph, a highlight-reel, 44-second, one-punch knockout of Mason Menard that was named the TSS Knockout of the Year. He has won three fights in the interim, most recently a 12-round decision over Masayoshi Nakatani.

Teofimo won comfortably on the scorecards, but his performance left much to be desired. The Japanese was a tall, rangy fighter. In Richard Commey, he is meeting a man of similar height. Both are listed at five-foot-eight.

Lopez has developed a large following in a short time and his in-ring heroics are only part of the story. He’s quite the showman. After each win he adds an exclamation point with a celebratory back-flip and outside the ring his brash persona has enhanced his notoriety.

When a fighter has a common surname, it helps to have a unique first name. The reality is that Lopez would not have built his brand as fast if his first name had been, say, Miguel, or Carlos, or Juan. And he had the foresight to supplement his unique first name with a unique nickname: The Takeover.

The nickname, says Lopez, doesn’t just refer to taking over a specific weight division (he’ll move up to 140 before the year 2020 is over) but, rather, taking over the whole sport in the sense of becoming boxing’s biggest pay-per-view attraction. Early into his pro career, he began calling out Lomachenko.

Teofimo’s biggest cheerleader is his Honduras-born father and trainer of the same name and the elder Lopez has even more hubris than his son. “My son is too strong for Lomachenko….he would walk through anything that Lomechenko throws at him,” Teofimo Sr. told veteran boxing writer Bill Tibbs prior to his son’s match with Mason Menard. “Liston, he has God-given gifts and he’s simply the best out there. (My son) has the best parts of Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard, GGG, Floyd, Andre Ward, all the best of them in him.”

The Lopez that defeated Nakatani would not have defeated Vasiliy Lomachenko. And there are those that think he won’t beat Richard Commey unless he brings his “A’ game. It’s an interesting fight.

—–

The main fights on Saturday’s Top Rank boxing card will air on ESPN’s flagship station. The boxing card, which opens with the rematch between Michael Conlan and Vladimir Nikitin, follows the show in which the Heisman Trophy is presented to LSU quarterback Joe Burrow. The Heisman telecast will begin at 8 pm EST.

The same situation prevailed last year when Top Rank’s Madison Square Garden card was headlined by the fight between Vasiliy Lomachenko and Jose Pedraza. To the consternation of diehard boxing fans, the Heisman presentation show ran late. Don’t be surprised if it happens again.

Photo credit: Stacy Verbeek

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Will U.S. Olympic Boxers Fare Better in Tokyo Thanks to Yesterday’s Ruling?

Arne K. Lang

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The road to the medal round for U.S. boxers at the forthcoming Tokyo Olympics just got easier. But maybe not.

“Russia Banned From The Tokyo Olympics” screamed yesterday’s headline, but reading between the lines there’s more to the story. A more carefully worded headline would have read “Russian Olympic Athletes in Limbo.”

We have been down this road before. WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, recommended banning Russia from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The agency accused Russian authorities of a massive cover-up that erased hundreds of positive test samples.

WADA then did something of an about-face and decided to evaluate each case individually. Ultimately, 278 Russian athletes were approved to compete in Rio; 111 were denied. All 11 Russian boxers who survived the various qualifying events made the cut.

This new ban (which will be appealed) also emanates from WADA which alleges that the Russian authorities continued the massive cover-up using the “disappearance methodology.” But, if upheld, it’s a more severe penalty in that it bans Russia from major international sporting events for the next four years. That would include the World Cup, the biggest sporting event in the world by far. The next edition of the World Cup is slated for 2022 in Qatar.

“There’s still…the possibility of clean athletes to compete in the Games,” Svetlana Romashina, a five-time Olympic gold medalist in synchronized swimming, told Moscow correspondent Andrew Roth of The Guardian. “I believe the punishment of clean athletes to be unacceptable,” continued Romashina. “We have done nothing wrong.”

The reality, as it now stands, is that Russian boxers and other Russian athletes, if deemed clean, will be able to compete in Tokyo, just not under the Russian banner. As is common in some wrestling tournaments, their affiliation will be “unattached.” And Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is a big fan of amateur boxing and other combat sports, won’t be there. The ban prohibits Russian officials from attending major international sporting events if their team has been expelled.

—–

Historically, the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team has excelled in the Summer Games. But that’s yesterday’s news. In the last three Olympics, U.S. male boxers won only three medals, one silver and two bronze. By contrast, during the same period, Russian boxers walked off with 10 medals including three gold.

The prognosis for the 2020 U.S. team looked dim once again when the U.S. contingent earned only one medal (a silver by lightweight Keyshawn Davis) at the recent AIBA men’s World Championships in Ekaterinburg, Russia. The host team garnered four medals, including three gold. If one conjoined the Russian squad with former Soviet Union satellites Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the count grows to seven gold medals (of a possible eight) and 15 medals overall.

Russia’s gold medalists at the World Championships were welterweight Andrey Zamkovoy (pictured), middleweight Gleb Bakshi, and heavyweight Muslim Gadzhimagomedov. Zamkovoy and the heavyweight (who will badly need a new name if he ever turns pro) are outstanding amateurs and may have been favored to win their divisions in Tokyo.

Zamkovoy, 32, represented Russia in the 2012 and 2016 Games and medaled in 2012 where he defeated Errol Spence Jr en route to the semi-finals. The heavyweight (a cruiserweight by pro standards) is an ever-improving, 22-year-old, six-foot-four southpaw who has already amassed an amateur record of 60-5.

The competition for the U.S. team at overseas tournaments has gotten a lot tougher in the last two decades as several Eastern European countries have become more like Cuba, investing state resources into their amateur boxing programs with an eye to building a powerhouse. Perhaps the WADA edict will aid the U.S. boxing team in shaking the doldrums in 2020, but that assumption seems premature.

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel 

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