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Joshua-Miller Stirs Memories of Frazier-Mathis and Another Era’s Garden Party

Bernard Fernandez



Joshua - Miller & Frazier - Matthis

What goes around eventually comes back around? Well, not always. But there are certain long-separated, seemingly unconnected events that draw such distinct parallels that it can appear as if history, or at least certain elements of it, is being repeated, with different players in previously assigned roles.

On June 1, IBF/WBA/WBO heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua (22-0, 21 KOs) defends those titles against Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller (23-0-1, 20 KOs) in the DAZN-streamed main event in Madison Square Garden.

On March 4, 1968, Joe Frazier (who went in 19-0, with 17 KOs) won the vacant heavyweight championship – the version recognized by the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois and Maine, in any case – with an emphatic, 11th-round stoppage of Buster Mathis (then 23-0, with 17 KOs), in the first boxing card held in the current (and the fourth overall) incarnation of the Garden. Although Mathis, who was behind on two of the official scorecards (referee Arthur Mercante Sr. had it even), beat Mercante’s count, he was clearly discombobulated after getting nailed by “Smokin’” Joe’s signature shot, a short left hook to the temple. Mercante did the prudent thing by waving off the scheduled 15-rounder after an elapsed time of 2 minutes, 33 seconds.

So, if the same plot from nearly 51 years ago is followed to a more or less identical conclusion, does it mean that Joshua – the more likely stand-in for Frazier – gets Miller,  suitable in so many ways to assume the role of Mathis – out of there in the later stages of a scheduled 12-rounder? Not necessarily. If there’s one thing we have learned from remade movies of familiar originals, it’s that endings can undergo radical revisions. Perhaps this eerily reminiscent do-over of Joe ’n’ Buster has the updated Mathis – uh, Miller – flipping the script and being carried out of the ring on his jubilant handlers’ shoulders, provided they are strong enough to handle the weight.

But the closing scene, whatever it is, doesn’t alter the fact that up to now much of what led to Frazier-Mathis is again playing out for a two-generations-later audience. It’s like one of the best-remembered sayings uttered by that master of malaprops, the late, great Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, who once observed that a particular set of circumstances was “like déjà vu all over again.”

Consider the following:

*Joel Fisher, executive vice president of Madison Square Garden Marquee Events, described Joshua-Miller, in which England’s Joshua will be making his much-anticipated American debut, as an “epic event” and an almost-certain sellout after it shattered MSG’s pre-sale record. Frazier-Mathis also was a box-office smash, with a paid attendance of 18,906 and a live gate of $658,563, which set a record (long since broken) of $511,000 for the third installment of the Floyd Patterson-Ingemar Johansson trilogy in Miami Beach. For those not fortunate enough to hold tickets for Frazier-Mathis, it was available for viewing elsewhere via closed-circuit, although the fight was blacked out within a 150-mile radius of New York City, making for many angry would-be customers. The nearest cities offering the CC action to those in the restricted area were Philadelphia in one direction, Boston in the other.

*Regardless of the outcome of Joshua-Miller, the winner can’t claim to be the undisputed and absolute king of the heavyweights, since Deontay Wilder still holds the WBC belt as well as a loyal if more limited percentage of global devotees. Frazier-Mathis also was for a few small slices of a very large pie, much of the world and most of the United States still recognizing Muhammad Ali, who had been stripped of his title for refusing to be inducted into the Army, as the legitimate heavyweight champion.

*Joshua is a former Olympic gold medalist, having won the super heavyweight portion for the United Kingdom at the 2012 London Games. Frazier took heavyweight gold for the U.S. — as an alternate to the injured Mathis! – at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

*As previously noted, Joshua, the 8½-1 wagering choice, and Miller both come into their showdown undefeated, as was the case when Frazier, a 2-1 favorite, squared off against Mathis. Barring a draw, which would allow Joshua to retain his titles, somebody’s “oh” will have to go.

*Perhaps most significantly, the underdog in each instance was widely perceived, fairly or unfairly, as, well, fat. The 6-foot-4 Miller isn’t called “Big Baby” for nothing; although he has weighed as little as 242 pounds for a bout, that was 6½ years ago. He has tipped the scales at 300-plus for his last three ring appearances and, if he does so again (he was 315¼ pounds for his most recent fight, a fourth-round knockout of Bogdan Dinu on Nov. 17 of last year), he figures to outweigh the 6-6 Joshua anywhere from 45 to 70 pounds. His frame might be a bit more defined than the vintage Mathis, and if you want to describe Miller as large-boned or just sort of chunky, fine. The 6-3 Mathis came in at an almost-svelte 243½ against Frazier, but even so he outweighed his 5-11½ and harder-punching opponent by 39 pounds.

At whichever weight, Mathis understood that no one was going to confuse him with an Adonis. Twice he defeated Frazier in the amateurs, and he was a very jiggly 310 when he outpointed him in the Olympic Trials finals in Flushing, N.Y. He doused Joe’s smoke by winning another four-round decision later on at the Olympic Box-offs in Los Angeles, fighting from midway in the first round with a fractured knuckle on his right hand. The injury kept Mathis, born in Sledge, Miss., as the youngest of eight children but who moved with his family to Grand Rapids, Mich., when he was a child, from representing his country in Tokyo. It pained him considerably when Frazier, in his stead, took the gold medal.

Mathis’ past brushes with Frazier of course added intrigue to their fight for those portions of Ali’s heavyweight realm lifted by organizational decree. Four years had passed since Mathis had twice bested Frazier in the amateurs, and while the oddsmakers figured that the Philadelphian was the wiser play because of the higher quality of his opposition to that point and the fact he packed more power, Mathis trainer Joe Fariello was convinced his guy was destined to disappoint that other Joe again.

“We don’t even think about losing. We haven’t made any plans for that,” Fariello said at Mathis’ training camp in Rhinebeck, N.Y., a village in Duchess County located 100 miles or so from midtown Manhattan. “Somewhere along the line, I have the feeling that Buster will knock him out. If by chance I’m wrong, Buster’s capable of going the distance, more so than the other guy.

“He’s never been on the floor in the amateurs, as a pro or in sparring. That means he’s got to be able to take a punch. I’ve seen him take good punches, too. Leotis Martin hit him on the chin. So did Jose Torres. Frazier got him squarely when they fought in the Olympic Trials.”

Publicly, Mathis expressed the same supreme confidence as Fariello. But privately, a seed of doubt had been planted in his mind and it was gnawing away at him. Out-boxing a still-raw Joe Frazier over four rounds a couple of times in the amateurs was one thing; trying to keep the more-experienced, wiser and just as hard-hitting left-hooking machine from Philly at bay for 15 rounds was quite another.

I spoke to Buster Sr. in August 1994 when he was training his son, Buster Mathis Jr., then 14-0 with three KOs, to take on former champ Riddick Bowe later in the month in Atlantic City, a fight in which Buster Jr. was knocked cold in the fourth round, although the outcome was changed to a no-decision because Bowe’s takeout shot landed with Mathis down on one knee. Buster the elder, even then suffering from a number of physical maladies, admitted he had gone into the Frazier fight with an unshakable sense of foreboding.

“Joe had that big left hook, his .357 Magnum,” Buster, then 51 and back up in the 300-pound-plus range, recalled. “Every second of that fight I was scared. I always knew he could land that Magnum.

“Two people have been living with me for the last 30 years – my wife (Joan) and Joe Frazier. In the quiet hours, when I’m sitting in my chair, lights out, everybody in bed, I think about Joe Frazier. I’ll bet I’ve fought Joe Frazier a million times in my mind. And you know what? I always beat him.

“But you can’t change the facts. You can cry over them when they don’t turn out your way, but you can’t change them. The fact is that when I did fight Joe Frazier, I lost. Got knocked out. I’m not complaining. I’ve had a pretty good life. I was never champion, but I guess everybody can’t get to be champion. I was fortunate enough to get close. That’s more than a lot of people in this business can say.”

Some might say that the “good life” to which Mathis referred could have been much better. His manager, Jim Iselin, one of the three young owners of Peers Management, turned on his fighter as if he had committed an unpardonable sin by losing to Frazier, which in retrospect hardly qualifies as a dishonor.

“It would be only anticlimactic to pursue such a course now,” a miffed Iselin said of his decision to stop distributing the keychains, lighters and buttons that had proclaimed Mathis as the “Next Heavyweight Champ.” “We’re taking Buster’s name off the gym (in Rhinebeck), and we’re taking down all the pictures on the wall. He’s not a prima donna any more.

“He’s going to have to wash dishes if he wants to be fed, and help clean the gym and his room. He either will respond, as did Joe Louis after being knocked out by Max Schmeling, and become a great fighter, or go the other way.”

Nobody can say that Buster didn’t try to shape up. He sweated himself down to a career-low 220½ pounds for his third fight after losing to Frazier, a 10-round split decision over Amos Lincoln on Sept. 5, 1968. But he would never get another shot at a world title, and the mental toughness required for him to overcome his genetic disposition for gaining weight to unhealthy levels soon began to ebb. The son of a 300-pound father and 180-pound mother, the three-pound preemie who had entered the world six weeks earlier than nature intended got picked on a lot as a child until, he said, “one day I woke up and I was a big boy,” one who soon gravitated toward boxing and a slew of might-have-beens.

Throughout his too-large and too-short life, Mathis retained a pleasant demeanor that seemingly was at odds with his brutal profession. In the winter of 1993, Frazier consented to appear at “Buster Mathis Day” in Grand Rapids, an invitation that some fighters would be loath to extend to the man who had extinguished their dreams of greatness. But then Buster Mathis was never one to hold a grudge.

“Joe is the nicest guy in the world,” said Buster, who in a 30-4 (21) career did get another high-visibility, potentially life-changing bout, losing a 12-round, unanimous decision to Ali for the minor NABA heavyweight belt on Nov. 17, 1971, in the Astrodome. “They were going to show a tape of our fight and Joe said, `Don’t let them show the 11th round. This is your day, Buster. Nobody wants to see you get knocked out, including me.’ That touched me to my heart.”

In a perfect world populated by those old enough to remember the way it was and in a position of authority to meld past and present, Buster Mathis and Joe Frazier would be at ringside and maybe to take a bow on June 1, before Joshua and Miller, no doubt unaware of events that had taken place more than a half-century before, did their thing in the ring. But Garden movers and shakers John F.X. Condon and Teddy Brenner have taken their celestial 10-counts, as have Smokin’ Joe, who was 67 when he died of liver cancer on Nov. 7, 2011, and Buster, just 52 when, on Sept. 6, 1995, he succumbed to a witch’s brew of ills that included two strokes, a heart attack that resulted in the installation of a pacemaker, diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney failure.

Maybe Miller, 30, gets to live the dream that never quite came true for Mathis. His attitude appears to be positive enough, with the life-long Brooklyn resident insisting that he’s fighting not only for himself, but for “all the underdogs” in life that have been told they’re “not good enough.”

“Just keep pushing,” said Miller, a harder-edged, harder-hitting replica of Mathis seemingly not possessed of the more gentle nature that might have doomed his forebear, in a professional sense, as much as his legendarily insatiable appetite. “I’ve proven that with hard work and dedication that you can go far.”

Whether it will carry him far enough might depend on just how much of an approximation Anthony Joshua is to Joe Frazier where it counts, inside the ropes.

Photo (AP): Frazier and Mathis flank Emile Griffith who fought Nino Benvenuti in the co-feature.

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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3 Punch Combo: Scoping Out Teofimo vs Nakatani, Ajagba vs Demirezen and More

Matt Andrzejewski




THREE PUNCH COMBO — Boxing on ESPN+ returns this Friday with a card from the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, MD headlined by the fast-rising lightweight sensation Teofimo Lopez (13-0, 11 KO’s). Lopez will be facing the undefeated Masayoshi Nakatani (18-0, 12 KO’s) of Japan in a final IBF eliminator to become the mandatory challenger for champion Richard Commey (29-2, 26 KO’s). While Lopez is a known commodity to most boxing fans, the same cannot be said of Nakatani. So just who is this unheralded fighter from Japan and does he pose any threat to Lopez?

Nakatani, 30, turned pro in 2011 after an amateur career that by most accounts consisted of somewhere between 50 and 60 bouts. As a pro, he has never fought more than three times a year and never outside of Japan, but by managing to stay undefeated he has crept into the Top 15 rankings of three of the four major sanctioning bodies in the lightweight division.

Looking closer Nakatani’s resume, the overall level of his competition is highly questionable.  Probably his best win was in his eighth pro fight when he won a 12-round unanimous decision against Ricky Sismundo. Sismundo has sprung some surprises in the past and as a matter of fact gave undefeated rising contender Maxim Dadashev a scare earlier this year, but this is the same Ricky Sismundo who was defeated by Ruslan Madiyev last week in California, bringing his record to 35-14-3.

Other than Sismundo, the names on Nakatani’s resume are hardly recognizable.

Nakatani, an orthodox fighter, is tall for the lightweight division standing nearly six feet in height. As such, he likes to work behind the left jab. However, that jab is not very sharp or powerful, but used as more of a range finder and to set up his right hand. Sometimes he will follow the right with a left hook but his primary offense is the left jab followed by the right.

Nakatani is not that athletic or quick inside the ring. His hand speed is below average for the division. He is also not a powerful or heavy handed puncher. The knockouts are more from his level of competition than anything else.

Here are a few other notes on Nakatani based on my observations: He does not like to fight on the inside and will initiate clinches when his opponent closes the distance. And he has a habit of trying to avoid punches with his legs, often times pulling straight back with his hands down. He has gotten clipped quite a few times but fortunately for him those fighters that have done so have not possessed big punching power.

I actually do think Nakatani is the strongest opponent for Lopez to date. That being said, however, I do not think he will give Lopez much trouble. Teofimo may get frustrated some by Nakatani’s constant clinching on the inside, and he may get hit with a few range finding jabs, but expect another Lopez knockout here sometime in the first half of the fight.

Under The Radar Fight

The attention of the boxing world this week is going to be focused on the big welterweight pay-per-view title fight between Manny Pacquiao (61-7-2, 39 KO’s) and Keith Thurman (29-0, 22 KO’s). Also on the show is an intriguing heavyweight fight that is falling deep under the radar between a pair of 2016 Olympians in Efe Ajagba (10-0, 9 KO’s) and Ali Eren Demirezen (11-0, 10 KO’s).

Ajagba, 25, represented his native country of Nigeria in the Super Heavyweight division of the 2016 Olympics where he lost to Ivan Dychko in the quarterfinals. Since turning pro, he has really turned heads, building a reputation as a fearsome puncher.

Ajagba is a big imposing heavyweight. He stands 6’5” tall and possesses a massive 85-inch reach. Best described as an aggressive boxer puncher, he will press the action, often times behind a very stiff and powerful left jab from the orthodox stance. Very athletic for a man his size, he possesses above average hand speed for the heavyweight division. His best trait is his power; he possesses legitimate one punch knockout power in both fists. The natural tools are all there for Ajagba to potentially one day be a dominant force in the division.

But there are things Ajagba needs to work on, namely his defense. Right now, he lacks any sort of head movement and often poses in front of his opponents after punching them to admire his work. He hasn’t paid yet for his lack of attention to defense but that may change as his competition rises.

Demirezen, 29, represented Turkey in the Super Heavyweight division of the 2016 Olympics where he lost to Filip Hrgovic in his opening fight. Since turning pro he hasn’t had much fanfare, but has amassed quite an impressive early pro record while fighting mostly in Germany.

Though he may not have the imposing physique of Ajagba, Demirezen possesses some solid skills as well as some surprising athleticism. As a matter of fact, I’d go so far as to call him a poor man’s version of Andy Ruiz Jr.

Demirezen will look to apply pressure behind the left jab and work combinations with his quick hands behind that jab. He does not really possess one-punch power but is heavy handed and his punches can take a cumulative effect on his opponents. His best punch is a quick left hook to the body that he often lands with precision.

If physiques won a boxing match, this would be no contest. But as we saw with Joshua-Ruiz, physiques don’t always win. Ajagba will be favored and rightfully so, but Demirezen can fight. This is an interesting fight between two undefeated heavyweight prospects who were recent Olympians and one that I am very much looking forward to on Saturday.

Prospect Watch – Luis Arcon

 There is a lot that gets me excited about the future of the sport. Not only is the sport being broadcast like it never has before but we have many good prospects who are beaming with talent. So many good prospects, as a matter of fact, that some very talented young fighters are falling a bit under the radar. One such fighter is junior welterweight Luis Arcon who moved to 8-0 with 8 knockouts this past Friday with a third-round knockout of Mario Lozano.

Like many of today’s top prospects, Arcon has a strong amateur pedigree. His amateur background includes representing his native country of Venezuela in the 2016 Olympics.

Arcon, 27, turned pro in March of 2018 in Mexico. So far he has breezed through his competition though it must be noted that he hasn’t faced the toughest of challenges. But he has looked very good so far in his early pro career and has been flashing some incredible talent.

Fighting from the orthodox stance, Arcon likes to work behind a well-timed and very powerful left jab. His footwork is excellent and he often positions himself at the right angles to land combinations behind that jab. He possesses very fast hands and can often fire off a volley of power shots before his opponent can react.

And then there is the power. Perhaps this is what stands out most when watching Arcon on video. Granted, as noted earlier, the competition has not been the stiffest, but he has displayed devastating knockout power in both fists. His best punch is the left hook to the body which often has a paralyzing effect on his opposition.

With his amateur background, Arcon is ready to take the next step in his career. His game is polished and he possesses massive power in both of his hands. He belongs on all top prospect lists and has a bright future in this sport.

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R.I.P. Pernell ‘Sweet Pea’ Whitaker, One of the All-Time Greats

Arne K. Lang




Tributes are pouring in for Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker who was killed last night (Sunday, July14) after being struck by a car while walking across a busy intersection in Virginia Beach, Virginia. An Olympic gold medalist who won six world titles in four weight classes,  Whitaker was a defensive wizard. At his peak he was considered the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world. In 2002, The Ring magazine named him the 10th best boxer of the last 80 years.

Whitaker, who turned 55 in January, turned pro in 1984 at Madison Square Garden on a show that included five of his U.S. Olympic teammates – Evander Holyfield, Mark Breland, Meldrick Taylor, Tyrell Biggs, and Virgil Hill.

As a pro, Whitaker was managed by Main Events, a Duva family company, and did most of his training in Philadelphia under the watchful eye of George Benton. In his 17th pro fight, Pernell ventured to Paris to challenge WBC lightweight champion Jose Luis Ramirez who was 100-6 going in. Whitaker came up short on the scorecards, losing a split decision.

This ranked among the worst decisions in boxing history. Whitaker’s chief second Lou Duva accused WBC president Jose Sulaiman of fixing the fight so as not to spoil an all-Mexico showdown between Ramirez and Julio Cesar Chavez.

Two fights later, Whitaker won his first title, taking the IBF lightweight belt from Greg Haugen. Pernell won all 12 rounds on two of the cards. He added the WBC belt in a rematch with Jose Luis Ramirez, winning a wide decision, and added the WBA belt with a first-round stoppage of Puerto Rico’s Juan Nazario in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

Between his first fight with Ramirez and his April 4, 1997 encounter with Oscar De La Hoya in Las Vegas, Whitaker was undefeated, a span of almost 10 years consisting of 26 fights. During this run he won world titles at 140 and 154 pounds before dropping back to welterweight for four successful title defenses.

There was one “blemish” late in this 26-fight run, a draw at the San Antonio Alamodome with Julio Cesar Chavez. This was also controversial. The post-fight report by William Nack was the cover story in Sports Illustrated. The headline was “Robbed!”

Sweet Pea lost a unanimous decision to De La Hoya that most ringsiders thought was a lot closer than what was reflected by the scorecards (DLH won by margins of 4, 6, and 6 points). A poll of 26 ringside reporters by the Las Vegas Review Journal revealed that 14 scored it for Whitaker with one having it a draw.

Six months after his bout with De La Hoya, Whitaker opposed Andrey Pestryaev at Foxwood’s Resort in Connecticut. He won a unanimous decision but wasn’t himself. A post-fight urine test revealed the presence of cocaine. That dictated a six-month suspension during which he failed a random drug test. He wouldn’t step back into the ring until Feb. 20, 1999, when he opposed IBF welterweight champion Felix Trinidad at Madison Square Garden.

This would the first fight in Whitaker’s remarkable career that he lost without controversy. Trinidad broke Pernell’s jaw during the bout and retained his title with a clear-cut unanimous decision.

Whitaker retired, but launched a comeback 26 months later with a fight in Lake Tahoe against Mexican journeyman Carlos Bojorquez. In this fight, Whitaker suffered a fractured clavicle in the second round. He soldiered on, but 27 seconds into the fourth, seeing that Whitaker was a one-armed fighter in considerable pain, referee Joe Cortez pulled the plug. This would be the final fight of his career. He left with a record of 40-4-1 and 1 “NC” (the Pestryaev contest).

Less than 48 hours later, back home in Norfolk, Virginia, Whitaker was rushed to the hospital with an apparent overdose. His girlfriend called 911 after finding him having a seizure on the floor of the bathroom, his body covered in sweat.

Sweet Pea, who worked as a boxing and personal trainer in retirement, appeared to have it all together back in June of 2007 when he was formally inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. His emotional speech was the highlight of the induction ceremony. But in 2014 he was back in the news again when he was forced to evict his 73-year-old mother from the home she had occupied for 30 years. He said that he could no longer afford to maintain the home which he had always kept in his name. The United Press wire story said that Whitaker had squandered millions on drugs and legal expenses.

The man that struck Whitaker with his vehicle remained on the scene. Preliminary reports indicate that the driver was not impaired in any way. We here at The Sweet Science extend our condolences to Whitaker’s family and loved ones.

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The Battle of Wits Between Roach and Birmingham May Decide PacMan vs. Thurman

Bernard Fernandez




The Battle of Wits Between Roach and Birmingham May Decide PacMan vs. Thurman

It is the boxers who are the center of attention, of course, and that is how it always has been and always should be. But there are a select few high-visibility bouts in which the lead trainers play a more significant role than usual, so much so that their prefight and in-fight strategizing could make the difference between victory and defeat for their guy.

Although it isn’t an undercard attraction in its own right, a mental scrap worth monitoring pits Freddie Roach, Manny Pacquiao’s longtime strategist and a seven-time winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America Eddie Futch Award as Trainer of the Year, against Dan Birmingham, a two-time BWAA Futch winner whose status as one of the elite trainers has dimmed somewhat over the past decade and a half. But the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Birmingham’s reputation could be buffed and polished to its former sheen should Keith “One Time” Thurman win as spectacularly as he has vowed to do on July 20.

The matchup of Pacquiao vs. Thurman might turn out to be just such a fight in which a spotlight, for better or worse, is shone upon the handiwork of the trainers. Those in attendance in Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena won’t able to hear their spoken instructions between rounds, but subscribers to the PBC on Fox Sports Pay Per View telecast should pay close attention to what takes place in those vital one-minute interludes when all the preparation that went before is either working as planned, or is undergoing a hurried rewrite on the fly. Seemingly unlikely victories have been procured, more often than casual observers of the sweet science might realize, because the chief second offers just the right bit of tactical advice or just the right inspirational message at precisely the right moment.

The prevailing story lines before the first punch that counts is thrown have been fairly standard stuff: Pacquiao (61-7-2, 39 KOs), the living legend and only world champion in eight separate weight classes, attempting to extend the outer limits of his prime at the improbable age of 40, and Thurman (29-0, 22 KOs), the WBA welterweight champion and 10 years Pacquiao’s junior, out to demonstrate that injuries and two-plus years of near-total inactivity haven’t done to him what the natural laws of diminishing returns might or might not have done to the Fab Filipino.

If there were sports books odds dealing with the corner battle involving Roach and Birmingham, Roach, a disciple of the late, great Eddie Futch who has had Pacquiao’s ear for their 16 years together, with the exception of a one-bout absence, almost certainly would be as much a favorite as Mike Tyson was over Buster Douglas or Anthony Joshua over Andy Ruiz Jr. Roach, 59, doesn’t need to make a case for his future induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame as he already has been enshrined, in 2012. Should Pacquiao demonstrate that he is still an elite fighter of the here and now instead of a cherished but faded icon of the past, Roach could take a step toward an almost-unimaginable eighth Futch Award.

And Birmingham?

Like Roach, a former lightweight who posted a 40-13 record with 15 knockouts in a professional career that spanned from 1978 to ’86, Birmingham is a life-long devotee to a sport that got under his skin at an early age and took permanent root. Unlike Roach, who at one point was 25-2 and world-rated under the tutelage of the sainted Futch, Birmingham, 68, never even sipped the proverbial cup of coffee as a pro. He began boxing at 15, weighing all of 112 pounds, in his gritty hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, until he decided that sun and surf were preferable to soot and rust, necessitating a relocation to more pleasant environs along Florida’s Gulf Coast.

There are other differences between Roach and Birmingham, both subtle and stark. As a devotee to Futch, Roach was always in relatively close proximity to the old master’s retinue of stars and hot prospects, laying the groundwork for Roach to begin his own career as a trainer, if not exactly at the top, then at least a ways removed from the bottom. Birmingham, whose other passion besides boxing is rock ’n’ roll – he describes himself as a “guitar-playing 1960s hippie who was at Woodstock” – also had a mentor in Ben Getty, Thurman’s original coach, who took the Ohio transplant on as an assistant trainer to Thurman, then a youthful prodigy.

And while Roach has long since established his bona fides apart from Futch, who was 90 when he passed away on Oct. 10, 2001, to some it might appear that Birmingham is still playing the role of understudy to Getty, who was 63 when he died unexpectedly in 2009.

Thurman was a seven-year-old kid with no discernible purpose in life when he came into contact with Getty, a former serviceman whose post-military life had been unceremoniously reduced to that of a janitor at a Clearwater elementary school. It was Getty who brought Thurman to his after-school YMCA boxing program, where he learned – and loved – to shadowbox, jump rope and spar. It was like the boxing version of Luke Skywalker mastering nuances of The Force under Obi-Wan Kenobi or Yoda.

“Ben Getty was a very special man,” Thurman said in 2015.  “He was the one who taught me to go for the KO. He used to say this line that pissed me off a lot. I don’t know if he said it to piss me off, or if he just said it because he never wanted me to forget. But he used to say, `You are nothing without your power.’ It took me a long time to understand what that really meant.

“To me at first it was real basic. I took it as telling me I can’t box. Maybe to a degree he did mean that, but throughout the years as I reflect, I think he just never wanted me to forget how important my power is, and how my power has the ability to change the outcome of a fight.”

Getty’s sudden death left a still-developing Thurman at a career crossroads. Shelly Finkel, manager of or adviser to some of boxing’s greatest champions and biggest draws, recommended that Thurman turn himself over to Roach, whose Wild Card Boxing Club in Los Angeles had become a preferred destination for fighters such as himself, brimming with potential yet to be maximized. Thurman politely declined, choosing instead to remain on home turf and with Getty’s right-hand man, Birmingham, who might have been better known at that time than Getty thanks to those two Futch Awards. Thurman continues to publicly revere Getty, wearing trunks with “Ben” stitched across the waistband. You might think that Birmingham takes at least some umbrage to that, but he insists it isn’t so.

“It hasn’t been uncomfortable at all,” Birmingham said of his station as a sort of ersatz Getty, as far as Thurman is concerned. “Ben Getty and I were very close friends. I gave him the keys to my gym so he and Keith could come and go as they pleased. When Ben passed away, just a couple of days later Keith came to me and asked, `Would you take over?’ I said, `Absolutely.’

“Keith’s history with Ben makes my job a lot easier. I don’t have to teach him any basics, that’s for sure. We just analyze the opponent, see what we need to do on fight night to win, and I train him that way. Pacquiao is a diverse fighter. He’s got quick hands, quick feet and he’s a good boxer. He’s fairly unpredictable.”

Not so Thurman, who apparently is holding firm to Getty’s sacred mandate that punching power must remain his No. 1 priority. He has predicted that Pacquiao will go down inside of six rounds, which might be easier said than done even against a Manny who no longer is at peak form.

Make no mistake, though, Birmingham should not be considered a Getty clone that has slavishly adhered to every verse from the Gospel of Ben. In 2004 and 2005, the years he won his Futch Awards, Birmingham was boxing’s tastiest flavor of the moment. His charge Ronald “Winky” Wright, who was inducted into the IBHOF in 2018, outpointed Shane Mosley in a super welterweight unification showdown on March 13, 2004, and followed that up with another points nod over Mosley the same year. In 2005, Wright turned in a career-best performance, utterly dominating Felix Trinidad en route to a one-sided decision, to which he added another UD12 over veteran Sam Soliman.

While Birmingham primarily was recognized for his work with Wright, he augmented his rising profile by taking a lesser talent, 2000 U.S. Olympian, Jeff “Left Hook” Lacy, to the IBF super middleweight title in 2004. Lacy won four times in those two years, three coming inside the distance.

It should be noted that Wright, a clever southpaw who was never known for his ability to get opponents out of there with one shot or even a semi-fusillade of them, was far different stylistically than is Thurman. It therefore seems reasonable to assume that this updated version of Dan Birmingham is no more an exact duplicate of Ben Getty than Freddie Roach is of Eddie Futch.

There are different methods by which a trainer gets his fighter to rise to the occasion when the stage is most brightly lit. Angelo Dundee, Lou Duva and Richie Giachetti, all regrettably gone, embodied the motivational techniques favored by excitable men of Italian heritage. Who can forget Dundee, in maybe the signature moment of his remarkable career, forcefully telling Sugar Ray Leonard, “You’re blowing it, son!”  after the 12th round of his epic welterweight unification matchup with Thomas Hearns on Sept. 16, 1981. An energized Leonard, his eyes swollen and behind on the scorecards, responded by flooring the Hit Man in the 13th round and stopping him in the 14th.

Futch and George Benton, also regrettably gone, were more professorial in their demeanor, rarely raising their voices and disinclined to resort to rah-rah stuff. If Thurman, who has a Nepalese wife and has walked the Himalayas in a quest to find some measure of inner serenity, were to seek out some ancient and wise soothsayer he could do worse than to come across some Tibetan version of a Futch or Benton.

So pay keen attention to the 60-second breaks between rounds when Roach – who, it should be noted, is listed as Pacquiao’s co-trainer, in addition to Manny’s friend and associate Buboy Fernandez – and Birmingham dispense their abbreviated instructions. Whoever wins those small battles of the brain might determine who wins the larger conflict inside the ropes.

Photo credit: Andy Samuelson / Premier Boxing Champions

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