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The Fearsome Sonny Liston was a Man of Mystery

Rick Assad

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Sonny Liston

If physical presence and demeanor were the only factors that determine which boxer prevails inside the ring, Sonny Liston would have been undefeated.

It was said of Jack Dempsey that his opponents were already beaten before he stepped into the ring. The same could be said of Mike Tyson, tabbed “Kid Dynamite” by Sports Illustrated when he was only 15 fights into his pro career. Until he was knocked out by James “Buster” Douglas in February of 1990, no one really wanted any part of Tyson, knowing an early dispatch was likely.

Liston, hardly tall by heavyweight standards at 6-foot-1, was all that and more at the peak of his prowess.

Liston, who usually tipped the scale at 215 pounds, was a mass of raw musculature, especially across his broad shoulders and neck. Add to the equation Liston’s fists, which measured 14 inches, the biggest ever by a heavyweight, and then toss in an incredible 84-inch reach.

When Liston laid a glove on an opponent, he knew that he had been hit with raw power, or maybe a sledge hammer. “In the ring,” said Johnny Tocco, one of Liston’s early trainers, “Sonny was a killing machine.”  But Liston’s scowl was equally intimidating and went a long way in helping the former Missouri State Penitentiary inmate finish with 50 victories in 54 fights and 39 knockouts over a 17-year professional career.

Sonny Liston was born in Sand Slough, Arkansas to a sharecropper, Tobey Liston, who fathered 25 children, the second youngest of whom was Charles, Sonny’s real name, born from Tobey’s marriage to Helen Baskin, a woman nearly three decades younger than he. But the year of Sonny’s birth, like the circumstances of his death, remain a mystery.

Many boxers come from impoverished backgrounds, but Liston’s was worse than most. “I had nothing when I was a kid but a lot of brothers and sisters, a helpless mother and a father who didn’t care about any of us,” he said. “We grew up with few clothes, no shoes, little to eat. My father worked me hard and whupped me hard.”

The many whippings that Tobey administered on him had a lasting effect. “The only thing my old man ever gave me was a beating,” said Liston, who claimed to be born in 1932.

Liston’s mother fled to St. Louis when Liston was about 13 years old and in time Sonny would follow her there. Schoolwork was difficult for him and because he couldn’t read or write, he was unable to find decent work.

Seeing a very limited future, Liston gravitated toward a world of crime that included muggings and armed robberies. He went to the well one too many times and in early 1950 was caught and sentenced to five years in the Missouri State Penitentiary. His stretch began in June of that year.

In prison, fate would intervene in the person of the penitentiary’s athletic director Alois Stevens, a Catholic priest, who told the young inmate that he should try boxing.

Liston took Father Stevens advice and showed real promise while sparring with Thurman Wilson, a professional heavyweight. The session lasted two rounds and Wilson was glad to leave the ring in one piece after the pounding Liston gave him.

Liston’s amateur career wasn’t very long, but was memorable. In March of 1953 he won the Chicago Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions with a win over Ed Sanders, the 1952 Olympic champion. Later that month, he outpointed Julius Griffin, the winner of the New York Golden Gloves Championship and captured the Intercity Golden Gloves title. In that encounter, Liston was knocked down in the opening round, but rallied to take the second and third rounds with Griffin holding on for dear life.

Liston also participated in the 1953 Amateur Athletic Union tourney and lost in the quarterfinals to Jimmy McCarter, who became one of Liston’s sparring partners. Liston then boxed in the International Golden Gloves Tournament at Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis, knocking out West Germany’s Hermann Schreibauer in the opening round in June. The previous month, Schreibauer had won the bronze medal at the European Championships.

With nothing more to prove, Liston turned pro.  Because of his checkered past, few wanted to invest in him. Liston would get backers, but they would be men known to be mobsters.

Sonny made his pro debut in September 1953 with a first-round technical knockout over Don Smith at the St. Louis Arena. Six wins followed until Liston lost an eight-round split decision to journeyman Marty Marshall at the Motor City Arena in Detroit in September 1954.

This setback would prove to be an aberration as Liston would meet Marshall two more times. Liston earned a TKO win in the sixth round in April 1955 in Kiel Auditorium and a unanimous decision victory over 10 rounds in March 1956 at Pittsburgh Gardens.

In April 1959, Liston snatched a TKO win in the third round over Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams in Miami Beach and beat Williams again in March 1960 by TKO in the second round at the Sam Houston Coliseum in Texas. Liston then added five more wins to his ledger, including four early knockouts, to earn a date with Floyd Patterson, the reigning heavyweight champion.

On September 25, 1962 Liston took apart and then knocked out Patterson with a left hook to the jaw in the first round to begin his title reign.

Proud of his accomplishment, Liston was told by boxing writer and confidant Jack McKinney on the flight back to Philadelphia, his adopted home, that a warm reception would greet him. But when the plane landed and Liston looked for the adoring throng, there was none, save for some reporters and airline workers.

Larry Merchant, the longtime analyst for HBO Boxing, but then writing for the Philadelphia Daily News, penned this line: “A celebration for Philadelphia’s first heavyweight champ is now in order,” he wrote. “Emily Post would probably recommend a ticker-tape parade. For confetti we can use shredded warrants of arrest.”

Ten months later, Liston once again battered Patterson, knocking him down three times in the opening round at the Convention Center in Las Vegas, retaining his belt and adding the inaugural World Boxing Council bauble. But the title and its significance never really gained traction with boxing fans as Liston became the anti-hero.

Even President John F. Kennedy made it known that he was rooting for Patterson, in essence because he represented all that was good while Liston represented all that was bad. And the NAACP also shied away from Liston because of his shady past, saying at this time in America’s history Sonny was the last person it wanted to represent its people as king of the heavyweight division.

Columnist Jim Murray, writing in the Los Angeles Times, said of Liston, the ex-convict, “It was like waking up and finding a live bat on a string under your Christmas tree.”

Liston resigned himself to his fate, accepting the notion that he was the villain. “A boxing match is like a cowboy movie,” he said. “There’s got to be good guys and there’s got to be bad guys. And that’s what people pay for – to see the bad guys get beat.”

Liston’s next fight after demolishing Patterson in their rematch was a title defense against a 22-year-old named Cassius Clay, the “Louisville Lip,” who came into the bout in Miami Beach on February 25, 1964 as a 7-1 betting underdog despite a flawless 19-0 record. In what turned out to be a shocker for the ages, Clay, with a 78-inch reach, out-boxed, out-jabbed and out-fought Liston, who failed to answer the bell for the seventh round.

Fifteen months later, at St. Dominic’s Hall  in Lewiston, Maine, in a clash that ended in the first round, Clay, who had changed his name to Muhammad Ali after winning the title, once again prevailed, but this time with a single shot. The knockout punch, a short chopping right to Liston’s head, was described by New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, as “not having enough power to squash a grape.”

Even ringsiders were without a clue as to what actually happened.

Many years later, in an interview with Mark Kram, the boxing writer for Sports Illustrated, Liston admitted to taking a fall. “That guy [Ali] was crazy,” he said. “I didn’t want anything to do with him. And the Muslims were coming up. Who needed that? So I went down. I wasn’t hit.”

Were those fights predetermined in Ali’s favor, or where they legitimate?  More than a half century has passed since those two fights and there are as many questions as answers about them and about Liston, the man.

Following his second loss to Muhammad Ali, Liston soldiered on, winning 14 fights until meeting former sparring partner Leotis Martin in what would be his next-to-last fight at the Hilton International Hotel in Las Vegas in December 1969. Sonny was knocked out in the ninth round. Six months later, he stopped Chuck Wepner in the ninth round at the National Guard Armory in Jersey City, New Jersey.

In January of 1971, Liston was found dead by his wife Geraldine at his home in Las Vegas. Was he a victim of foul play? Shaun Assael, in his book “The Murder Of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin And Heavyweights,” argues that Liston was murdered. All that is known for certain is that the coroner recorded his death as a drug overdose.

Novelist James Baldwin was sent to the Windy City by Nugget Magazine to cover the first Liston-Patterson tussle and knew very little about boxing, which probably helped him.

Upon meeting Liston, Baldwin wasn’t taken aback by his physical presence, his menacing stare or his lack of education.

“He is inarticulate in the way we all are when more has happened to us than we know how to express,” Baldwin wrote, “and inarticulate in a particularly Negro way – he has a long tale to tell which no one wants to hear.”

It seems that Baldwin, himself black, hit the proverbial nail on the head.

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WBO Title-holder Emanuel Navarrete Defends at Banc of California Stadium

David A. Avila

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WBO Title-holder Emanuel Navarrete Defends at Banc of California Stadium

LOS ANGELES-World champions are gathering at a busy street corner of Los Angeles that has been the site of numerous heroic, villainous and emotional moments in the history of the second largest city in the USA.

Two full scale riots erupted and flamed out on that corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Figueroa Avenue in the 60s and 90s.

A presidential debate took place between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon on those same grounds when they were running in 1960.

NBA superstars Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Michael Jordan performed their magic on that corner too.

On Saturday, WBO super bantamweight titlist Emanuel Navarrete (27-1, 23 KOs) defends against Arizona’s Francisco De Vaca (20-0, 5 KOs) in the main event at the sparkling new Banc of California Stadium. ESPN will show the Top Rank fight card.

The stadium stands on the same location where the LA Memorial Sports Arena once stood proudly until it fell into disarray and was torn down several years back.

Sixty years ago, the first world championship boxing match was held on these same grounds and fans saw France’s Alphonse Halimi lose to Mexico’s Jose Becerra by fifth round knockout at the LA Memorial Sports Arena. Seven months later they fought again next door at the LA Coliseum and Becerra won by knockout again.

That was only the beginning, others like Muhammad Ali, Archie Moore, Sugar Ray Robinson, Bobby Chacon, Jerry Quarry, Danny “Lil Red” Lopez, Ruben Olivares, Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez and Amir Khan all fought on those same grounds.

Imagine, when Navarrete (pictured above) rises from his corner to fight Phoenix’s De Vaca on Saturday, he will be continuing the ever-growing streak of civil and professional fights that took place on that same historic street corner.

WBO Super Bantamweight Title

Navarrete erupted on the fight scene like a ghost when he first defeated Isaac Dogboe last December at Madison Square Garden. It was supposed to be a Broadway opening for Dogboe, but instead turned into a horror story as those long arms of the Mexican fighter proved perplexing. The rematch was even more horrific for Dogboe.

Now the Mexico City fighter meets little known challenger De Vaca, who comes from an area that has recently been developing boxing talent in the desert city of Phoenix.

“The truth is that it doesn’t matter who is my opponent. I always prepare 100 percent for each of my fights, and this was no exception,” said Navarrete, 24, who is making his second defense of the WBO title. “We already did the hard work in the gym, and we are ready for a great fight. If De Vaca comes to fight hard, I am prepared to go even harder. I’m ready to give a great battle to all the fans.”

Can De Vaca do what Navarrete did to Dogboe last year?

“I wanted to fight for a world title since I was 5 years old, and now that we have the opportunity, we are going to make our dream come true this Saturday,” said De Vaca, 24, who fought once in Southern California back in 2016. “Come Saturday, there will be a new world champ for Phoenix and Michoacán. I’m coming for that world title.”

Co-Main

Former super bantamweight titlist Jessie Magdaleno (26-1, 18 KOs) meets Rafael Rivera (27-3-2, 18 KOs) in a featherweight match set for 10 rounds. After struggling to make the 122-pound super bantamweight limit, the Las Vegas southpaw now fights at 126 pounds. It’s made a difference.

“He’s a totally different person at 126 pounds,” said Frank Espinoza who manages Magdaleno. “Even the way he talks and thinks is different. Who would have thought four pounds would make such a difference.”

Magdaleno, the former WBO super bantamweight titlist, now meets Tijuana’s Rivera who never fails to provide high intensity fisticuffs.

“I don’t take none of these guys lightly. Every opponent is difficult. He’s fought great fighters. He’s been in there with great fighters and done a hell of a job. I can’t overlook him because he’s here to put on a great show as well,” said Magdaleno, 27. “He throws a lot of punches, and he’s quick. That’s what I am, and that’s what is going to make a hell of a fight for this fight card.”

Rivera fought featherweight champion Leo Santa Cruz earlier this year. Though he lost by decision, he gained fans for his ferocity.

“I’ve been fighting against top-level fighters for a long time, so I feel confident and secure that whether it’s against a world champion or a former champion, I’ll put up a good fight,” said Rivera, 25. “Jessie is a good fighter. I’ve seen him fight before. He’s an aggressive fighter, but I’m just here to do my work.”

It’s a rather strong and lengthy fight card to baptize the new stadium into the world of prizefighting. Expect a lengthy line of fans on the same corner where many historic events have taken place.

Boxing has returned to the same street corner where legends like Ali, Sugar Ray, Quarry and Schoolboy Chacon previously performed. It’s a corner with many memories, both pleasant and notorious.

Photo credit: Hector De La Cruz

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Ruiz vs. Joshua: Enough is Enough; Let’s Get it On

Ted Sares

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Ruiz vs. Joshua: Enough is Enough; Let’s Get it On

In October of 1974, when Muhammad Ali was in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) to fight George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the people cheered him as he trained on the roads. They backed off when Big George walked his menacing German Shepard. It was love vs. fear and fear never had a chance.

When Foreman hit the big bag, there was no “Night Train’ playing in the background; it just went “Thump, Thump Thump” and it was ominous.

As Jonathan Snowden wrote, “Far from the charming infomercial king who would later grow rich selling American electric grills bearing his name, this Foreman was hard to reach—a mystery not just to white sports writers of the time, but to his African hosts as well.”

He added, “Two African-American fighters were competing, for the first time, in the heart of Africa, under the watchful eye of military strong man Joseph Mobutu.” Mobutu guaranteed the combatants upfront money. His goal was to put his country on the global map.

Upon visiting Mobutu’s palace, Drew “Bundini” Brown said, “All my life I’ve been hearing about the White House, today I visited the Black House.”

Among other things, Mobutu was famous for corruption and nepotism while the people of Zaire suffered from poverty and human rights abuses.

Meanwhile Don King made his bones as a promoter and James Brown did his thing. An international press corps that included literary heavyweights George Plimpton and Norman Mailer enjoyed the scene. It was one big party. It was “When We Were Kings.” It was grand.

During the fight—one in which many feared for Ali’s life—Muhammed taunted with “Is that all you got, George?” In the end, Ali’s “rope-a-dope” strategy paid off. As Archie Moore related, “Ali had him thinking and worrying, and he wasted too much ammunition on Ali’s arms…And when George got tired against a skilled warrior like Ali, that was the beginning of the end.”

The end came in the eighth round when Ali knocked out a discouraged, depleted and tired Foreman. Let the celebrations begin. “Ali bomaye!”

The fact that this spectacular event took place in an edgy country with a reputation for corruptness did not amount to a hill of beans in the final analysis. After all, this was boxing.

Fast Forward

“We wanted to go somewhere that believed in the sport of boxing, which had a vision. We already knew Saudi Arabia was for real and knew they were investing in the sport of boxing. That was very important for us.” — Eddie Hearn

Now, like Mobutu, Saudi authorities will try to improve their image on human rights by hosting—or at least trying to host– the Anthony Joshua vs. Andy Ruiz rematch in what has been billed as the “Clash on the Dunes.” The event will unfold in Diriyah, a town on the outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capitol and largest city.

A brand-new term has entered the language to explain the actions of the Saudi authorities: “Sportswash.” If fact, that’s exactly what Mobutu did before the term was invented.

“If Saudi Arabia is going to invest in these fights, with the population they have, with the potential to grow the sport of boxing, you could be seeing a big change in the dynamics of the sport, which truly excites me.” — Hearn.

Boxing is a tough way to make a living and many fighters end up badly damaged. Relatively few ever get an opportunity to make life-changing money. Ruiz and AJ, like Ali and Foreman, should be able to do their thing without the self-righteous nonsense. Heck, when did integrity ever get in the way of the boxing community ever doing anything? Ruiz and Joshua have nothing to do with the way people live in the Arabian nations.

Enough is enough. Let’s get it on.

Ted Sares is a lifetime member of Ring 10, and a member of Ring 4 and its Boxing Hall of Fame. He also is an Auxiliary Member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA). He is an active power lifter and Strongman competitor in the Master Class.

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From Child Prodigy to Elite Trainer, ex-Champ Bones Adams has had a Bumpy Ride

Arne K. Lang

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PART ONE OF A TWO-PART STORY — Las Vegas boxing trainer Clarence “Bones” Adams (pictured working the mitts with Amir Khan) has something in common with Tiger Woods. Both appeared on the TV show “That’s Incredible.” The show, co-hosted by former NFL quarterback Fran Tarkenton, had a five-year run (1980-84) on ABC.

Tiger hadn’t even started kindergarten when his father brought him on the show to show off his acuity at hitting golf balls into a cup. Many viewers undoubtedly wondered if this painfully shy five-year-old kid would hit his peak as a golfer before he hit puberty.

Bones Adams wasn’t as cuddly cute as Tiger when he appeared on the show, his small hands encased in oversized boxing gloves, but, of course, he was a lot older. The precocious puncher was eight.

Precocious indeed. Reportedly 176-4 as an amateur, Adams was 15 years old when he made his pro debut on April 3, 1990 in Memphis, Tennessee. In the opposite corner was Simmie Black, a veteran of 158 fights.

Black was a professional loser of the stripe that has become virtually extinct in the United States, but he was 37 years old and had swapped punches with several top-shelf fighters, and here he was matched against a 15-year-old kid with no professional boxing experience whatsoever.

The kid won a 4-round unanimous decision and several years later, at age 18, he would fight a future Hall of Famer for the bantamweight championship of the world.

Clarence Richard Adams Jr has been called Bones ever since he was a little boy. The nickname was attached to him because someone said he was all skin and bones and he embraced it because he always hated the name Clarence. He spent his formative years in Henderson, Kentucky, where his father was a truck driver until blood clots in his legs forced him to quit. New employment was hard to find. Tobacco and coal, the prime economic movers in the growth of Henderson County, were in decline.

For a time, the family lived in Smith Mills, Kentucky, in a house without electricity and running water. To help out his parents, Bones worked in the fields, picking soybeans, corn, and tobacco. Working in the fields and honing his skills as a boxer – the gym was in Evansville, Indiana, 11 miles from Henderson – left little time for school. He dropped out in the eighth grade.

“No disrespect intended,” says Bones, “but the kids in the projects in the inner cities had it easy compared to us.”

The Adams’ later moved to Detroit where they lived along 7 Mile Road, the grittiest corridor in the city. They then settled in the town of Carmi in southern Illinois (a little more than an hour’s drive from their ancestral home in Henderson) where Bones’ father, since deceased, ran pizza parlors. Bones was living in Carmi when he turned pro.

Bones brought a 26-0-1 record into his March 27, 1993 bout with IBF world bantamweight champion Orlando Canizales at Evian les Bains, France. But it was a soft 26-0-1, a record forged against no-name opponents in tank towns like Greenville, South Carolina, Saint Joseph, Missouri, and Eldorado, Illinois. At this stage of his development he had no business being in the same ring with Canizales, the pride of Laredo, Texas, who was making the 12th defense of his title and would come to be regarded in many quarters as the top bantamweight of the modern era.

“When the fight was pitched to me,” says Bones, “I was told that the venue was neutral, but when I got over there I saw people coming up to Canizales saying ‘how nice to see you again’ and I learned that one of the judges was from Texas.”

The previous year, Canizales had twice defended his title in France. The Texas judge, Ronnie Ralston, was working his fourth Canizales title fight. (Astoundingly – but hey, maybe not; this is boxing – when Canizales lost three years later to Junior “Poison” Jones in a bid for the IBF super bantamweight title, Ronnie Ralston scored the fight 119-109 for Canizales. The other judges had Jones winning by six and seven points.)

Bones was being thrown to the wolves, but he was no pushover. Canizales broke Bones’ jaw in the third round, but the kid kept plugging away. After ten frames, Canizales led by two points on all three cards; the fight still hung in the balance. But in the 11th, Bones’ father, who had no boxing experience but was working his corner, tossed in the towel.

Canizales vs Adams was held in a classy joint, the Casino Royale resort overlooking Lake Geneva, a favorite getaway for European bluebloods. This was quite a departure for Bones who was only a few years removed from scrounging through dumpsters for aluminum cans and other stuff that could be sold to a recycling center or a junk dealer. But the luxurious accommodations were no consolation. At an age when many young men are hijinking through their freshman year of college, here was Bones Adams nursing a painfully broken jaw on a long flight home across the Atlantic, a jaw that would be surgically repaired at his own expense.

In both of his next two fights, Bones dislocated his left shoulder and was forced to shut it down. With three straight losses, all inside the distance, his future looked grim. But Bones persevered and in 1995 was accorded a match in Las Vegas with Kevin Kelley on the undercard of the world lightweight title fight between Oscar De La Hoya and LA-area rival Genero “Chicanito” Hernandez.

They fought outdoors at Caesars Palace in the early evening on a swelteringly hot day. Fighting for a purse of $40,000, Bones fought the last four rounds of the 12-round fight with a badly swollen left eye that appeared to ringsiders, but not referee Mitch Halpern, to be the result of an accidental head butt. When the smoke cleared, veteran Las Vegas judge Bill Graham had it 116-112 for Bones Adams, but he was overruled by Art Lurie, another local man, and Rhode Island import Clark Sammartino who both had it 114-114 and it went into the books as a draw.

A former featherweight champion, Kevin Kelley, the Flushing Flash, was 43-1-2 going in. He was one of the great action fighters of his day, but this particular fight was rather dull. “And that tells you right there I got screwed,” says Bones. “I controlled the ring, I made him fight my fight.”

Bones would be on the wrong side of another questionable decision in an even bigger fight, but prior to that disappointment, all of his hard work finally paid off and he experienced the highest high of his boxing career.

On March 4, 2000, at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Adams deposed WBA super bantamweight champion Nestor Garza. Although he broke his hand in the eighth round, he won a wide decision.

“I was having a lot of aches and pains,” Bones recalled, “but when I woke up on the morning of the fight, I felt great, I felt very strong. I called all my friends and told them to bet on me. I had a lot of friends that night.”

Bones says that going into the fight he had only $980 to his name. He bet $900 on himself and says he secured 8/1 odds. (In truth, Garza wasn’t quite that big a favorite. In boxing, upsets invariably become bigger upsets in the re-telling and with the passage of time.)

After two successful title defenses, Bones returned to Mandalay Bay to oppose Paulie Ayala. Bones held the WBA 122-pound title, Ayala was that organization’s 118-pound champion, and yet there was no title at stake, save that of a fringe organization (we wouldn’t even try to explain how that came about – hey, this is boxing).

Title or no title, the fight created a lot of buzz. Wladimir Klitschko’s WBO title defense against Charles Shufford was relegated to the undercard. And the bout was a humdinger that went to the scorecards after 12 nip-and-tuck rounds. Bones won the last round on the card of all three judges, but that wasn’t sufficient to get him over the hump. Ayala won a split decision.

Bones didn’t bring the same fire into his rematch with Paulie Ayala who was returned a clear winner after 12 rounds. He felt that he deserved no less than a draw in his next fight, a 12-round featherweight contest with tough Guty Espadas Jr, but that fight too ended with Bones on the wrong side of a split decision. For this bout, Bones had a 12-week camp in Big Bear and felt that he had over-trained.

He would go on to have six more fights for small purses before calling it quits, retiring with a record of 44-7-4. When he left the sport, he wasn’t yet 26 years old, but he had a lot of mileage on his odometer – as a pro, he had answered the bell for 344 rounds – and it was time to say goodbye.

Bones concedes that he began to make some bad choices following his first loss to Paulie Ayala, for example using recreational drugs as a crutch to uplift his spirits. He then made a whopper of a bad choice when he accepted an offer of employment from the predatory Charles Horky.  To be continued……

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