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

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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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Results from Orlando where Berlanga KOed McCrory in a Possible Prelude to Canelo

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Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom organization was at the Caribe Royale tonight, a non-gaming resort near Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Unbeaten super middleweights Edgar Berlanga and Padraig McCrory squared off in the main event.

The fight started slow, but it soon became apparent that McCrory, a 35-year-old father of three from Belfast, Northern Ireland, was a domestic-level fighter, notwithstanding his undefeated (18-0) record. Berlanga, whose last five fights had gone the distance, roughed him up with some dirty tactics before taking him out in the sixth round with a crunching right hand that sent the Irishman face-first to the canvas. As McCrory pulled himself upright on rubbery legs, the towel flew in from his corner. The official time was 2:44.

As well-documented, Berlanga opened his pro career with 16 consecutive first-round knockouts. Nonetheless, he was let go by Top Rank in what purportedly was an amicable divorce. This was his second fight under the Matchroom banner. Eddie Hearn signed him with an eye on scoring a big-money match with Canelo Alvarez. The red-headed Mexican superstar is committed to returning to the ring in May on Cinco de Mayo weekend in Las Vegas, but hasn’t yet locked in an opponent.

If Berlanga gets the nod, he would be a heavy underdog, but the Mexico vs. Puerto Rico angle (coupled with Berlanga’s new-found reputation as a dirty fighter) would make it an easy sell.

Co-Feature

In only his third professional fight, Cuban defector Andy Cruz was bumped into the co-feature. That was in recognition of his amateur pedigree. Among his accomplishments, he was 4-0 vs. Keyshawn Davis with the last win coming in the gold medal round of the Tokyo Olympics.

Cruz, 28, was expected to win as he pleased against his Mexican opponent, Bryan Zamarripa, and he did win all 10 rounds on all three scorecards, but in common with many great Cuban amateurs, he seemed to lack something in the power department. Zamarripa was 14-2 heading in.

Other Bouts of Note

In a 12-round welterweight contest that was devoid of drama, Uzbekistan native Shakhram Giyasov, an Olympic silver medalist who has lost precious few rounds as a pro, won a lopsided technical decision over well-recycled 34-year-old Mexican Pablo Cesar Cano.

Giyasov (15-0, 9 KOs) sent Cano (35-9-1) to the canvas in the third round with a body punch. At the end of round 11, as their feet were tangled, he pushed Cano to the canvas and the Mexican ostensibly suffered a broken ankle when he fell. That sent the bout to the scorecards where the decision (109-99 x3) was a formality. With the victory, Giyasov earned a shot at WBA belt-holder Eimantas Stanionis.

The 12-round bantamweight match between Antonio Vargas and Jonathan Rodriguez, two fighters of Puerto Rican descent, was framed as a WBA bantamweight title eliminator. Rodriguez, the underdog, floored Vargas in the opening stanza. He had scored a stunning first-round knockout of 27-1 Khalid Yafai in his previous start and it appeared that another upset was brewing. But the match quickly turned one-sided in favor of Vargas who put Rodriguez on the canvas in the very next frame (and had two points deducted for hitting him after the bell) and then put him down again at the end of round seven with a sweeping left hook after which Rodriguez’s corner properly pulled him out.

Vargas, a 2016 Olympian who had home field advantage in Florida, improved to 18-1 (10 KOs) and became the mandatory opponent for Takuma Inoue who won earlier today in Tokyo. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Rodriguez declined to 17-2-1.

The opening bout on the TV portion of the card was a 10-round flyweight affair that looked like a runaway for showboating Yankiel Rivera until gritty Andy Dominguez made things interesting.

Rivera, who improved to 5-0 (2), was Puerto Rico’s lone representative in the Tokyo Olympics. In Mexico-born Andy Dominguez, he was fighting a former three-time New York City Golden Gloves champion who was also unbeaten (10-0 heading in). Rivera dominated the match but was caught napping in round nine and Dominguez, although all busted-up, hurt him and almost put him down. That was most lopsided round of the fight, but also the only round that Dominguez won in the eyes of the judges.

Photo credit: Ed Mulholland / Matchroom

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Junto Nakatani Turns in Another Masterclass on Saturday’s Tripleheader in Tokyo

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In a rather odd juxtaposition, several of boxing’s best little men were on display today at Japan’s National Sumo Arena in Tokyo. The best of the lot, Junto Nakatani, improved to 27-0 (20 KOs) while tearing away the WBC world bantamweight title from Tijuana’s Alexandro Santiago (28-4-5) who was making the first defense of the title he won in Las Vegas in May when he upset Nonito Donaire.

It was a one-sided beatdown. Nakatani, who had a 5-inch height advantage, won every round before ending the contest in the sixth. The end came at the 1:12 mark when Nakatani terminated the affair with his second knockdown. The first came earlier in the round, the result of a straight left hand. The finisher was a big right hook.

With the victory, Nakatani became a world title-holder in a third weight class. He’s an outstanding talent, worthy of pound-for-pound consideration, and would be favored in a unification fight with Takuma Inoue.

Inoue, the younger brother of pound-for-pound king Naoya “Monster” Inoue, did his part to bring the match to fruition with a ninth-round stoppage of Filipino veteran Jerwin Ancajas in the main event. Inoue (19-1, 5 KOs) was making the first defense of the WBA diadem he won with a wide decision over Venezuela’s mildewed Liborio Solis. That title was conveniently vacated by Takuma’s renowned brother.

This figured to be the most competitive match on the card and Ancajas (34-4-2) had his moments before Inoue ended the contest at the 0:44 mark of round nine with a four-punch combination climaxed by a shot to the liver. Heading in, Ancajas, who had a long title reign at 115, was 9-2-1 in world title fights and hadn’t previously been stopped.

In the first of the three title fights, 29-year-old Kosei Tanaka became a four-weight belt-holder in record time with a unanimous decision over Mexicali’s stubborn but out-classed Christian Bacasegua “Rocky” Rangel. At stake was the vacant WBO junior bantamweight title.

Tanaka, who previously held belts at 105, 108, and 112, started slow but the outcome was never in doubt after he knocked “Rocky” to the canvas in the eighth frame. The judges had it 119-108, 117-110, and 116-111. With the victory, Tanaka improved to 20-1 (11). In his only defeat, he was stopped by countryman Kazuto Ioka. He hunkers for a rematch but, if it happens, he might wish that it hadn’t. Ioka is long in the tooth – he turns 35 next month – but is very good and shows no signs of slowing down. Rangel (22-5-2) had won nine straight heading in, but against questionable opposition and was making his first start outside Mexico.

The Teiken Promotions card was presented in association with Top Rank and aired in the U.S. on ESPN+.

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Rising Contenders Gor Yeritsyan and Cain Sandoval Stay Unbeaten at Chumash

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Rising Contenders Gor Yeritsyan and Cain Sandoval Stay Unbeaten at Chumash

Two Southern California-based fighters cracked the top 10 list on Friday in Central California on the 360 Promotions card.

Armenia’s Gor Yeritsyan (18-0, 14 KOs) captured the WBC Continental Americas welterweight title with a steady and persistent attack against defensive-minded Quinton Randall (13-2-1, 3 KOs) of Texas at Chumash Casino in Santa Ynez, California.

“This is my first step,” said Yeritsyan (pictured with promoter Tom Loeffler). “Remember my name.”

Yeritsyan was always on attack but had prior knowledge and preparation under trainer Freddie Roach for the counter-punching style of Randall. He pounded away while rarely unleashing more than three-punch combinations. It was effective.

Randall was never over-run by the strong Armenian fighter but he rarely stepped into an offensive mode. That cost him over the 10 rounds and all three judges scored for Yeritsyan who captured the WBC title and will now be ranked in the top 10.

“My opponent was a very good boxer,” Yeritsyan said of Randall.

In a super lightweight match, young firebrand Cain Sandoval (12-0, 11 KOs) met former contender Javier Molina (22-6, 9 KOs) and had his knockout streak snapped, but still won by unanimous decision. The Sacramento fighter now has the WBC Continental Americas super lightweight title.

Molina has never been stopped and showed why over the 10 rounds. In his 15-year career despite facing knockout punchers such as Jesus Ramos Jr., Amir Imam, and Artemio Reyes, none of his losses were via knockout.

Despite a consistent Sandoval battering from the third round on, nothing seemed to penetrate Molina’s defense. But when Sandoval directed his blows to the body it opened up more opportunities and the Sacramento fighter maintained control.

After 10 rounds all three judges scored in favor of Sandoval by unanimous decision, but his knockout streak was stopped. Molina’s streak pf never being knocked out continues.

“I thought I would stop him,” said Sandoval. “I just want to win.”

Other Bouts

Central California’s Jorge Maravillo (9-0, 8 KOs) out-fought Santa Ana’s Jesus Gonzalez (7-2-1) in a six-round super welterweight fight. Maravillo, who is trained by Max Garcia in Salinas, used crisp rights to batter the gritty Gonzalez especially inside.

Maravillo was sharp throughout the fight and though his knockout streak was snapped it took a determined Gonzalez to gut out the fight after being dominated in the fifth round. All three judges scored it 60-54 for Maravillo.

Upland, California’s Daniel “Chuckie” Barrera (5-0-1) floored veteran Jonathan Almacen (7-10-3) twice in the second round with lefts. The end came at 2:35 of the round when Barrera knocked out the Filipino fighter with a left hook in a super flyweight match.

Cuba’s Osvel Caballero (5-0, 4 KOs) was too sharp and too strong for Jason Buenaobra (10-10-3) and won by stoppage at 2:22 of the fourth round in a featherweight fight.

A super bantamweight clash saw Mexico’s Alfredo Castro (10-0, 7 KOs) and Riverside, California’s Ezekiel Flores (4-3) engage in a back-and-forth battle for six rounds. Castro could not miss with the right cross and Flores could not miss with uppercuts. But two knockdowns by Castro proved the difference and he won by unanimous decision after six exciting rounds.

Photo credit: Lina Baker

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