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25 Years Gone, This Old Welterweight is Still a Champion in My Eyes

Bernard Fernandez

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I never saw my favorite fighter in action. His last professional fight took place before I was born. There are no videotapes of him boring in, springing from a crouch and landing his trademark left hook. All that remains of his boxing legacy are a few yellowed newspaper clippings, the memories of a diminishing number of elderly friends and family members and, oh, yes, a framed poster from Aug. 18, 1944, that lists his name as an undercard performer for a show headlined by the great Archie Moore. The Mongoose fought Jimmie Hayden; my favorite fighter fought Jimmy Hatmaker.

By all accounts, Bernard “Jack” Fernandez Sr. – whose nickname was conferred by someone long, long ago because his boxing style supposedly was reminiscent of Jack Dempsey’s – was no one’s idea of a great fighter. Boxing did not bring him wealth and fame, only a few trophies from his amateur days in New Orleans and a love of the sport he passed on to his only son. But the old clippings, and the enthusiastic recollections of those who saw him fight, are enough to make me think that he must have been entertaining to watch. The word – confirmed by the somewhat unnatural configuration of his nose and ears – is that my favorite fighter, a scrappy welterweight, always gave as good as he got. Those who knew him then enthusiastically told me of his willingness to take one – or two, or three – to connect with one of his own.

One clipping, previewing Archie Moore’s 10-round main event with Amado Rodriguez in San Diego, described my favorite fighter thusly: “The opener matches Jack Fernandez, a wild-hooking slugger, against a good shock absorber, Mike Pacheco.”

Another, in the New Orleans States-Item, was a personal note from Art Burke, a fellow New Orleanian who later served as the newspaper’s executive sports editor, to then-sports editor Harry Martinez, who reprinted the letter in his column.

“We had a monthly `smoker’ here at the gymnasium Wednesday night (which opened with the returns of the Joe Louis-Billy Conn fight) and one of our New Orleans Reservists, Jack Fernandez, fought on the eight-bout boxing program and scored the only clear-cut knockout of the night,” Burke, a member of the U.S. Naval Reserves then serving in San Diego as was my father, wrote to Martinez. “You may remember this boy since he reached the semifinals of the Sugar Bowl boxing tournament in 1940. His victory was all the more thrilling by the fact that the boy he kayoed in the second round was Utah state 145-pound boxing champion for three straight years and had not been knocked out in 75 fights.”

It was my dad who taught me how to defend myself – and was called to the principal’s office at St. Stephen School when, as a second-grader, I dispatched a would-be bully with, you guessed it, a left hook. Obviously, the nuns there had not seen Ingrid Bergman’s reel-life portrayal of Sister Benedict in The Bells of St. Mary’s. The real-life Sister Marie’s preferred remedy for left-hooking second-graders: detention for life, and lots of knuckle-rapping with rulers.

It was my dad who, when he wasn’t pulling a night shift, sat with me and explained what was going on during telecasts of the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports. The only fifth-grader at St. Stephen who idolized Carmen Basilio as my classmates did, say, Mickey Mantle, there were many nights when I went to sleep with Don Dunphy’s voice in my head.

It was my dad who took me to amateur cards at St. Mary’s Italian gym, where world champions Ralph Dupas and Willie Pastrano (later trained by Angelo Dundee) first learned boxing from the venerable Whitey Esneault.

It was my dad who took me to pro shows at Municipal Auditorium to see the likes of New Orleans-born lightweight champion Joe “Old Bones” Brown and “Hammerin’” Henry Hank, a middleweight from Detroit who fought so often for promoter Louie Messina I believed he, too, was local.

It was my dad who was buttons-popping proud when I succeeded Elmer Smith on the Daily News boxing beat in October 1987.

For nearly seven years, my dad was my primary sounding board. He saw on TV most of the fights I covered and, those few he didn’t, I sent tapes for his review. He’d make observations, again giving me the benefit of his wisdom and insight. We’d speak at least once a week, and the conversation often turned to boxing. It was not nearly our only common bond, but it was a shared passion.

Once, when my dad was in town for a visit, I took him to the Blue Horizon, where he was introduced to America’s most knowledgable boxing crowd by ring announcer Ed Derian. I also took him to Las Vegas, for the rematch between Mike Tyson and Razor Ruddock, and to London, where his most lasting memory was not of the fight he had come to see, in which Lennox Lewis knocked out Ruddock, but of a one-hour coffee-shop sitdown with Dundee, with whom he spent more time discussing Dupas and Pastrano than Angelo’s more famous pupils, Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard.

Dad always thanked me for providing him a re-entry of sorts into a long-closed chapter of his life, but no trips I arranged to glitzy arenas could ever repay the debt I owed. It wasn’t just boxing he taught me; it is said that that an honest man’s pillow is his peace of mind, and my father, who retired as a much-decorated New Orleans police captain in 1972, never spent a conflicted night.

My dad passed away on March 4, 1994, after suffering a heart attack. He was 74. I flew to New Orleans and made it in time to be with him in what proved to be the final hour of his life. The fighter in him, I’m convinced, wouldn’t allow him to take the 10-count until I arrived.

When I came onto this beat, I hoped that someday I would be fortunate enough to win the Nat Fleischer Memorial Award, a lifetime achievement award conferred by the Boxing Writers Association of America. I could envision my dad sitting at my table, smiling, living a championship of sorts through me.

On Friday night, I will receive the Fleischer in New York. My wife, mother and three of my four children will be there for the high point of my newspaper career.  So, too, will several of my friends.

My favorite fighter also will be there. Oh, it’s not quite in the manner in which I had envisioned, but he’ll be there. The empty seat at our table won’t really be empty. Those who love you never really leave, and the old left hooker has never left me. Not then, not now, not ever.

Yo, Dad, we did it.

Postscript: There have been other moments in my life, and in the lives of those who were fortunate enough to know my father, for which I wish he could have been there. Although all my adult children are old enough to have known and loved him, the same can’t be said of his six great-grandchildren who can’t truly relate to the verbal history of our family as it pertains to a patriarch who left this world before they arrived in it. But it is not only the lives of the rich, famous or much-accomplished that deserve to be remembered and commemorated. A recent obituary in my former newspaper, the Philadelphia Daily News, paid tribute to an unsung hero who had just passed away at 76, Jim Nicholson, who for many years wrote touching, informative and surprisingly personal obituaries about regular people who at first glance might seem to have led ordinary, mundane existences. But everyone has a story to tell, Jim reasoned, and everyone has something about them that is special and worthy of recognition. Jim made an art form of obituary writing. I wish he could have authored a piece about the old left-hooker which would have allowed readers to know him as I did. Jack Fernandez might not have been a world champion boxer, but he was a world champion human being and role model. I thank TSS readers for allowing me this opportunity to let you know a little about who and what he was, and the legacy he created that I strive every day, not always successfully, to live up to.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this story appeared 20 years ago this week in the April 6, 1999, editions of the Philadelphia Daily News.

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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Gvozdyk vs. Beterbiev: Point Counterpoint

Ted Sares

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Gvozdyk vs. Beterbiev: Point Counterpoint

Putting pineapple on pizza is not a good idea but it IS an example of point counterpoint, and when these two boxers meet on Friday in Philadelphia with the WBC and IBF world light heavyweight titles at stake, it also will be a contrast—but not of tastes as much as styles..

There are, however, many similarities. Both are Eastern European boxers though one, Gvozdyk, is a Ukrainian and the other, Beterbiev, is a Russian and this particular regional difference has sparked a lot of conversation. (Interestingly, Beterbiev has never fought professionally in Russia, nor has the English-speaking Gvozdyk ever fought in the Ukraine.)

Both have superb amateur credentials but this has a flip side in that too many amateur fights can add to the wear and tear of these Eastern Euro warriors when they become professionals. Beterbiev is 34; Gvozdyk 32.

Both are undefeated with outstanding knockout percentages. Gvozdyk, aka The Nail, is 17-0 with 14 KOs. Beterbiev (14-0) has won all of his fights inside the distance.

Both are excellent finishers and when they have their man hurt, it’s all over.

Both have excellent corners and handlers and will be fit and ready to rumble.

“This could very well be the fight of the year…These are two evenly matched, undefeated light heavyweight champions. There is nothing better in the sport of boxing,” says promoter Bob Arum.

Styles

The 6’0” Beterbiev’s style is one of a stalking aggressor and he is especially dangerous when his opponent engages him in a heated exchange as that allows him to land one of his heavy-handed bombs. To use an old cliché, Artur has “bricks in his fists.” He also is dangerous when he is stunned as Callum Johnson discovered.

Some say Beterbiev’s chin is a question mark but his style allows an opponent to nail him (no pun intended) as he moves in. That may well be more a function of his go-forward movement than it is any weakness in his chin.

Conversely, The Nail is a very accurate and powerful puncher and is technically (and defensively) more sound than the bludgeoning Russian. He uses a super-fast jab and counters with sharp stuff. This 6’2” slickster combines exceptional speed and deceptive power. He is patient, relaxed, and fluid.

Intangibles

Has Gvozdyk’s psyche been altered by the events of his December 2018 fight with Adonis Stevenson wherein Adonis (thankfully now recovering) was severely injured? While The Nail was somewhat stymied by his last opponent, Doudou Ngumbu, the thinking here is that that had more to do with Ngumbu’s awkwardness than anything else—and that the Stevenson matter is mostly in the past. In short, the Nail’s focus on Friday should be right where it should be.

With a KO percentage of 100%, Beterbiev has answered the bell for very few rounds, only 52 to be exact. This could weigh against him.

Prediction: Gvozdyk’s superior boxing skills should begin to bear fruit in the mid to late rounds when a frustrated Beterbiev is forced to take risks for which he will pay dearly. I see “The Nail” winning by late stoppage or by UD.

A Russian vs. a Ukrainian — one who lives in Canada and the other who lives in California.  Heck, it’s the battle of ex-patriots. If ever a fight was much anticipated, this is the one.

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com

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Terence Crawford is Bob Arum’s Yuletide Gift to New York

Arne K. Lang

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Terence Crawford is Bob Arum’s Yuletide Gift to New York

Throughout history, boxing promoters have shunned the weeks before Christmas. The conventional wisdom is that the typical fight fan has little money at his disposal for a frivolity such as a night at the fights, having exhausted his funds buying Christmas presents. But don’t tell that to Top Rank promoter Bob Arum who has flouted this dictum and profited handsomely.

Back in 1995, Arum secured Madison Square Garden for the night of Dec. 15 for a show that pitted Oscar De La Hoya against Jesse James Leija in the main event. The cynics said the date was all wrong, let alone the location for a match between two Mexican-Americans from out west, one from LA and the other from San Antonio. But lo and behold, the show was a big money-maker, attracting a crowd of 16,027, more than 15,000 paid.

Arum anticipates another box office bonanza on Dec. 14 when he plants an ESPN and ESPN Deportes tripleheader in America’s most famous sports arena, an event headlined by Terence “Bud” Crawford’s WBO title defense against Egidijus Kavaliauskas. Crawford, who turned 32 several weeks ago, moved up to welterweight after grabbing all the belts at 140 and will be making his fourth welterweight title defense.

The opening bout on the telecast pits featherweight Michael Conlan against former amateur rival Vladimir Nikitin. Conlan will be making his sixth appearance at the Garden. In the co-feature, Richard Commey defends his IBF world lightweight title against Teofimo Lopez.

Although many rate Terence Crawford the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world, he has been something of a forgotten man lately. Almost 10 full months have elapsed since he last fought. Oscar De La Hoya, who had a bitter break-up with Arum late in his boxing career, recently took a swipe at Arum for not keeping Crawford more active, suggesting Arum’s “inertia” might be keeping Crawford out of the Hall of Fame.

The Crawford-Kavaliauskas match-up serves as Arum’s retort as it will shine a bright spotlight on Crawford, the pride of Omaha, Nebraska, as Arum’s show will air on ESPN directly following the Heisman Trophy presentation. Now it behooves Arum to pull some strings so that the Heisman Trophy show doesn’t run too long as has happened in the past.

At the moment, parlaying Terence Crawford (35-0, 26 KOs) to Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa seems like a safe bet, but Egidijus Kavaliauskas, a two-time Olympian who was profiled on these pages in July of 2016, is no slouch.

True enough, Kavaliauskas (21-0-1, 17 KOs) didn’t look all that sharp in his last outing when he was held to a draw by Ray Robinson, but Philadelphia’s Robinson had an awkward style (think former heavyweight contender Jimmy Young) and was fighting in his hometown.

If Kavaliauskas were a horse, we would say that he comes from a great barn. The 31-year-old Lithuanian is a stablemate of the Big Three in the barn of Egis Klimas: Vasiliy Lomachenko, Oleksandr Usyk, and Oleksandr Gvozdyk.

Richard Commey (29-2, 26 KOs) hails from Ghana but now hangs his hat in Brooklyn. His losses were both by split decision in back-to-back fights with Robert Easter and Denis Shafikov and he has won five straight since then, most recently an eighth-round stoppage of veteran Ray Beltran in the first defense of his IBF title.

Teofimo Lopez, 10 years younger than Commey at age 22, is moving up in class, but will yet go to post the favorite. In his last start, Lopez won a unanimous 12-round decision over Masoyoshi Nakatani, ending a skein of highlight reel knockouts. In December of last year, Lopez scored a one-punch knockout over Mason Menard in a bout that lasted all of 44 seconds. It was named the TSS Knockout of the Year.

Lopez (14-0, 11 KOs) grew up in Davie, Florida, but was born in Brooklyn and currently has a home there, giving the show even more of a local flavor. He and his Honduras-born father of the same name are not shy when it comes to boasting of his prowess and Teofimo’s braggadocio has enhanced his appeal with young fans.

Michael Conlan (10-0, 7 KOs) and Vladimir Nikitin (3-0, all by decision) met in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Nikitin got the decision, a jaw-dropper that spawned the most indelible moment of the Games when an enraged Conlan gave the judges a two-middle-finger salute.

The rematch between them was hatched at that moment although it took awhile for Arum to rope the Russian into the fold. They were originally slated to fight on Aug. 3 at an outdoor show in Conlan’s hometown of Belfast, but Nikitin suffered a torn bicep in training and had to pull out.

This is the kind of match that Bob Arum can really get his teeth in. The crusty octogenarian and former attorney would have it that all people of good character ought to be rooting for Conlan in the interest of seeing an injustice rectified.

Regardless, Arum’s Dec. 14 show is a nice Christmas present for Big Apple boxing fans.

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Three Punch Combo: Gvozdyk-Beterbiev Thoughts and More

Matt Andrzejewski

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Three Punch Combo — For hardcore fans, one of the most attractive fights of the year takes place on Friday when undefeated light heavyweight champions Oleksandr Gvozdyk (17-0, 14 KO’s) and Artur Beterbiev (14-0, 14 KO’s) battle in a title unification bout. This contest will headline an ESPN televised card from the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia, PA. Here are a few subtle things that could play a factor in how this fight plays out.

A Tactical Fight?

Twenty years ago, Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad met in a welterweight title unification fight. It was a super fight between two explosive punchers. Everyone expected fireworks, but as we all know, it turned into an all-out chess match for twelve rounds.

When two big punchers meet, sometimes we get fireworks and sometimes each fighter respects the other’s power so much that they both become somewhat tentative inside the ring.

Keep in mind we have seen in several Gvozdyk fights a somewhat cautious approach. He will take what is given and nothing more. As for Beterbiev, he has typically been a very aggressive fighter (more on that later) but has had his moments where caution has entered his mindset. Just take a look back at his 2017 fight with Enrico Koelling.

I know it is the unpopular opinion but we could certainly see a very tactical chess match between these two on Friday.

Beterbiev’s Defense and Chin

Beterbiev, as noted, is a very aggressive fighter. But with that aggression comes an almost complete lack of focus on the defensive side of the game.

So far, Beterbiev’s offense has been his best defense as many times his opponents have simply been too fearful of opening up. But at times the cracks have shown. Callum Johnson, for example, wasn’t afraid to throw in spots and when he did, his punches landed.

In that fight, we saw Beterbiev get hurt and dropped. Beterbiev showed a ton of heart to come back from that moment and later stop Johnson, but his chin is certainly a question mark. And Gvozdyk, aside from carrying one-punch power, is a very sharp and accurate puncher who has shown excellent finishing skills thus far in his career.

Gvozdyk’s Mindset

A little more than ten months ago, Gvozdyk wrested away the title from Adonis Stevenson. But on what was supposed to be the night where Gvozdyk’s dream came true, things almost turned tragic as Stevenson suffered a brain bleed that nearly took his life.

Gvozdyk has had one fight since against journeyman Doudou Ngumbu. Though Gvozdyk won easily, there was something about his performance that just didn’t feel right. Gvozdyk had a fighter in front of him who offered little resistance but seemingly didn’t want to fully step on the gas.

In order to compete with Beterbiev, we have to see the same Gvozdyk that we saw against Stevenson. But has Gvozdyk’s mindset permanently been altered by the events of that evening?

Under The Radar Fight

A pivotal crossroads bout in the welterweight division between Luis Collazo (39-7, 20 KO’s) and Kudratillo Abdukakhorov (16-0, 9 KO’s) is also on Friday’s ESPN broadcast. The winner will be in prime position for a title shot in 2020.

Collazo, a world welterweight titlist back in 2005, is in the midst of yet another career resurrection. After getting stopped by defending WBA welterweight champion Keith Thurman in 2015, Collazo has won three straight. And these wins were not against subpar opposition. Two were against up-and-coming young fighters in Sammy Vasquez and Bryant Perrella; the other against fringe contender Samuel Vargas.

At age 38, Collazo has proven he still has plenty in the tank and has clawed back up the rankings in the welterweight division. But to get one more shot at a title, Collazo must find a way to get past another young up-and-comer in Uzbekistan’s Abdukakhorov.

Abdukakhorov, 26, is coming off the biggest win of his pro career this past March when he won a 12-round unanimous decision over former 140-pound title challenger Keita Obara. That win boosted Abdukakhorov into the number one position in the IBF at welterweight and in line to one day be the mandatory challenger for current belt-holder Errol Spence Jr.

Stylistically, I love this matchup. Abdukakhorov is an aggressive boxer-puncher. He will look to press the attack and won’t be afraid to lead looking to land his best punch which is the overhand right. Collazo is a southpaw who is a natural counterpuncher. He will look to make Abdukakhorov’s aggression work against him and should find plenty of opportunities to do so.

I think we are going to get an action-packed, competitive fight. This should serve as an excellent appetizer to Gvozdyk-Beterbiev.

What’s Next For Dmitry Bivol?

This past Saturday, Dmitry Bivol (17-0, 11 KO’s) successfully defended his WBA light heavyweight title with a wide unanimous decision over Lenin Castillo (20-3-1, 15 KO’s). Though it wasn’t the most exciting performance, the win keeps Bivol in line for bigger opportunities down the road. So, what’s next for him?

Saturday’s title defense marked Bivol’s second consecutive appearance on the streaming service DAZN. DAZN needs future opponents for its two biggest stars in Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin. Clearly part of the reason for DAZN showing interest in Bivol is geared toward him potentially getting one or the other down the road.

Though Alvarez is fighting at light heavyweight in November, this appears to be a one-time appearance for the Mexican superstar in that division. He is likely headed back to middleweight or the 168-pound weight class. As for Golovkin, he has fought his entire 13-year career at middleweight. A move at some point soon to 168 would not be a surprise.

Bivol and his team have made it very clear that he can get down to 168. With DAZN’s two biggest stars hovering around that division, a move down to 168 seems likely.

The WBA champion at 168 is Callum Smith who is slated for a title defense in November against UK countryman John Ryder. Assuming Smith prevails, he would make a logical opponent for Bivol in the spring of 2020.

Smith-Bivol would be a big fight between two young undefeated fighters and the winner would then be in position for a mega fight later in 2020 against either Alvarez or Golovkin.

But what if Smith goes a different direction following the Ryder fight? If that is the case, Bivol may instead just look to dip his toes in the water at 168 with someone like Rocky Fielding.

Fielding is a tough, gritty competitor who is popular in the UK and has name recognition in the US based on his fight last December with Canelo. But as we saw in that fight, Fielding is very limited.

Fielding is just the type of opponent who could bring out the best in Bivol. A spectacular knockout would help erase some of Bivol’s recent lackluster performances. And this would, of course, make Bivol much more marketable for a future date with Alvarez or Golovkin.

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