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Super Featherweight Champ Tevin Farmer is Proof it’s Never Too Late to be Great

Bernard Fernandez

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The story of Tevin Farmer’s career – his whole life, really – is printed in black letters on the front of his white T-shirt. The three-word message of hope it conveys, Never Too Late, applies to the late-blooming IBF super featherweight champion, of course, but it could apply to anyone who’s ever been rejected, disrespected, kicked when they’re down or told they’re not good enough to ever amount to anything.

Farmer (28-4-1, 6 KOs), who defends his 130-pound title against Ireland’s Jono Carroll (16-0-1, 3 KOs) in the DAZN-streamed main event Friday night at Philadelphia’s Liacouras Center, now knows what it’s like to be on top and it’s clear he enjoys the view. But his memories of the bad old days, which weren’t so very long ago, are still fresh enough to keep him from ever making the mistake of believing that the good times will last forever.

“I’m Never Too Late,” Farmer, from the hardscrabble North Philly neighborhood that has spawned so many great and might-have-been great fighters, said after a brief workout session at the Everybody Fights Gym on Tuesday afternoon that mostly served as a meet-and-greet with the media. “That’s what I stand for. That’s my slogan.”

Farmer’s slogan of choice is on the front, his autograph printed on the back of T-shirts that will be available to the public beginning on March 15, the day before he swaps punches with fellow southpaw Carroll, the IBF’s No. 4 super featherweight contender. Sales of the shirts in Farmer’s hometown and its surrounding areas aren’t apt to result in the same sort of mad rush by Phillies fans to purchase No. 3 jerseys that marked the team’s signing of high-priced free agent Bryce Harper, but he figures if somebody wants something bad enough and long enough, anything is possible.

“What I stand for is not only boxing,” the 28-year-old Farmer continued. “It could be for anything or anybody. You been in jail, or had a bad start in your career or life? You’re older, you’re 40, you ain’t where you want to be? Well, it’s never too late to make things right.

“I got my opportunity and I took advantage. That’s what can happen in life. It’s all about opportunity and timing. When your time comes, you got to take advantage because you never know if or when it’s gonna come again. Where I’m from, we face a lot of obstacles. That was nothing I wasn’t used to. I had a horrible start to my career. But I knew if I could get over that hump, I could get over anything. And you know what? I’m happy I went through that. It just made me better. Everything happens for a reason.

“I can’t complain or cry about it because what’s done is done. You got to move forward. That’s it. I’m blessed to have that mentality. I’m saying that like it’s really easy; I know it’s not easy. You got to build yourself up mentally to make it easy.”

Farmer’s tale of multiple travails faced and overcome would be fairly standard if all that it involved was the halting start of a pro career that saw him go 4-3-1 and be regarded, if he was regarded at all, as an “opponent.” He had a certain amount of natural talent, that much was obvious, but Farmer – who didn’t start boxing until he was 19 — was being paired with more experienced fighters for short money, a dead-end street from which there often is no escape to something better. Worse, Farmer was beginning to think of himself as a perpetual victim of circumstance, which caused him to do something he would never do today: take shortcuts in training because, hey, once you’re designated for the scrap heap, why dare to believe you can rise above all the negative perceptions?

But early defeats were not the worst of it. In March 2017 he nearly drowned while vacationing in Puerto Rico. A month later, he tore his right biceps, which required surgery, taking much of the luster off the 10-round unanimous decision he scored over Arturo Santos while basically fighting with one good arm. And if all that weren’t enough, in July he was shot through his right hand and was told by a doctor that it was inadvisable that he ever fight again.

The tsunami of misfortune in and out of the ring was compounded when a refocused and fully committed Farmer, who had begun to live the slogan he would turn into a personal mantra, took on Japan’s Kenichi Ogawa for the vacant IBF super featherweight title in Las Vegas on Dec. 9, 2017. The split decision awarded Ogawa was roundly criticized as a great injustice, still another slap to Farmer’s face and an outcome that might have crushed the spirit of a less resilient sort. It hardly seems to matter that the disputed victory for Ogawa was changed to a no-contest after he failed a drug test.

Promoter Lou DiBella, who by that time had taken a flier on Farmer in much the same way that a racetrack bettor plunks money down on a longshot he has a good feeling about, marvels at the way the recent addition to his stable of fighters stared down more disappointment with the same positive attitude that suggested he would again bear down and find a way to overcome.

“I love this kid,” DiBella said of Farmer. “He’s one of the best kids I’ve ever worked with. He has an incredible never-say-die attitude. I would never have believed in Tevin if he hadn’t believed so much in himself.”

Farmer didn’t have to wait long for a chance to make amends for the Ogawa debacle. He journeyed to Sydney, Australia, to take on popular Aussie Billy Dib for the IBF title Ogawa had been obliged to vacate. This time there would be no controversy as Farmer won a one-sided unanimous decision, by scores of 120-107, 119-108 and 118-109. Beaten in his home country from Sydney to Melbourne, Dib promptly announced his retirement.

After successful defenses against James Tennyson (KO5) and Francisco Fonseca (UD12), Farmer again will attempt to hold onto the world title he so cherishes against fellow lefthander Carroll, who claims he will have greater crowd support than the Philly fighter on a St. Patrick’s Day weekend card that is liberally dotted with Irish fighters, most notably 2012 Olympic gold medalist Katie Taylor (12-0, 5 KOs), the women’s WBA and IBF  lightweight champion who takes on WBO titlist Rose Volante (14-0, 8 KOs) of Brazil in a unification matchup.

Carroll, whose black beard extends nearly down to his chest and might require a trim before he is allowed into the ring, claims to be unimpressed by Farmer’s inspirational back story or his overwhelming favoritism.

“I feel very confident about this fight,” Carroll said. “Tevin Farmer is a great champion but I’m ready to take that belt off him and be a great champion myself. I want to be Ireland’s next superstar. Winning this fight is what I need to do, and it’s exactly what I will do.”

Farmer smiles at Carroll’s brashness and expressions of confidence. He knows what it’s like to be the underdog, going into another fighter’s backyard to do what a lot of people say can’t be done. But now that he’s reversed that role, he has no intention of switching back again.

“Everybody’s gunning for him,” DiBella said of Farmer-the-target. “He represents their Super Bowl. They’re where he was a year and a half ago, and he knows it.”

So, does Farmer worry that Carroll will go all Never Too Late himself and pull off the upset?

“He can’t beat me, no way, shape or form,” Farmer said. “He’s no competition. I’m just hoping he comes in the best shape possible and gives me a good fight ’cause I’m beating guys too easy and I’m able to get back in the ring two months later. I want to be tested. I called all the champs (other titleholders at 130 are the WBC’s Miguel Berchelt, WBA’s Gervonta Davis and WBO’s Masayuki Ito) and I can’t get a fight with them, so I got to fight the people that’s next.”

Asked what it’s like to now be swimming with the sharks, a brimming-with-confidence Farmer said, “I am the shark.”

What he is, without question, is the busiest world champion in some time, the Carroll bout being his third title contest in four months. Nor is that hectic schedule apt to subside any time soon; Farmer says he hopes to fight six times in 2019, and DiBella and co-promoter Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Sport hope to provide him with a steady stream of challengers.

Interestingly, Farmer has never heard of another Philly guy, Freddie Pendleton, who traveled a similarly bumpy road from non-relevance to a world title. “Fearless” Freddie was a piddling 12-12-1 through the first 25 fights of his pro career, but he drew the attention of millionaire manager Edward Gersh and he continued to persevere until he won the vacant IBF lightweight title by outpointing Tracy Spann on Jan. 10, 1993.

“I should think there’s a lot of fighters like that,” Hearn said of Pendleton and the more accomplished Farmer, gifted fighters who needed to catch the kind of break that doesn’t always come along. “When Tevin started out, he wasn’t quite the fighter that he turned out to be, but he learned from those early losses and was clever enough to adapt. He obviously had natural ability. It’s really about mindset. His mindset now is phenomenal. A lot of fighters, if they went through what he went through, would have just packed it in or settled for being a journeyman.  But Tevin knew he had more to give, and the turnaround has been massive.”

Another fact of the Tevin Farmer story is that, well, it’s such a great story. As is the case with Matchroom America stablemate Daniel “Miracle Man” Jacobs (35-2, 29 KOs), the IBF middleweight champion who  overcame cancer and takes on WBA/WBC titlist Canelo Alvarez (51-1-2, 35 KOs) on May 4 in Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena, Farmer is a survivor who fans find it easy to root for.

“He has a brilliant story and it’s going to get better,” Hearn said. “He’s just scratching the surface right now, as far as where he can be and where he’s going to be. I’m very excited about him. I think he’s an outstanding fighter.”

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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Michael Coffie vs. Darmani Rock Smacks of Joe Joyce vs. Daniel Dubois

Arne K. Lang

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Although it wasn’t a world title fight, the match between Joe Joyce and Daniel Dubois which took place in London on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, attracted a lot of buzz. Only one heavyweight bout in 2020 was more eagerly anticipated, that being the rematch in February between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder.

Joyce vs. Dubois was that rare pairing of two undefeated heavyweights who were roughly at the same stage of their career. Dubois was 15-0 (14 KOs) heading in; Joyce was 11-0 (10).

And that brings us to the crossroads fight on Jan. 30 at the LA Shrine Expo between Darmani Rock (17-0, 12 KOs) and Michael Coffie (11-0, 8 KOs). Unlike Joyce vs. Dubois, this is not a well-marinated showdown, but yet there are some parallels, most notably it’s a match between unbeaten heavyweights in which the victor will undoubtedly make a big jump in public esteem and the loser, more than likely, will be pushed back into the shadows.

There was a big age gap in the Joyce-Dubois fight. The 35-year-old Joyce was the older man by 12 years. Likewise, Rock vs. Coffie features a young old-timer vs. an opponent who is merely young.

Michael Coffie, 34, came to boxing late after serving eight years in the Marine Corps. He entered the New York City Golden Gloves tournament on a whim and with virtually no formal training and yet he succeeded in reaching the finals.

When Coffie (pictured)  turned pro, his manager was none other than Randy Gordon, the former chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission who has kept his hand in boxing as a journalist and radio personality, co-hosting a boxing-themed talk show on Sirius FM with Gerry Cooney. Gordon knows more than a little about heavyweights, having been involved with Bonecrusher Smith who was briefly (very briefly) the WBA world heavyweight champion.

“(Bonecrusher) was not anywhere near the fighter that Mike is,” Gordon told Hall of Fame boxing writer Bernard Fernandez on the occasion of Coffie’s pro debut in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. On that night, Coffie needed only 61 seconds to dismiss his opponent, ending the contest with a short right hand. The sacrificial lamb, wrote Fernandez, “went down like an anvil dropped in the ocean.”

In his most recent fight, on Nov. 7, Coffie was matched against Minnesota veteran Joey Abell, a noted spoiler. Abell would have been a good measuring rod for assessing Coffie’s progress, but unfortunately the bout was over almost before it started. Early in the second round, Abell suffered a biceps injury while throwing a punch and couldn’t continue.

The “A” side in this fight, however, isn’t Coffie but the other guy. Darmani Rock, 24, had an outstanding amateur career, winning several important tournaments including the 2014 Youth World Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria. Rock was upset in the finals of the 2016 Olympic Trials and then turned pro, signing with Roc Nation, the deep pockets sports management company founded by Jay-Z.

darmani

Darmani Rock on the right

Questions have been raised, however, about Rock’s dedication. He weighed 278 pounds in his last fight, 30 pounds more than in his pro debut. (Coffie’s fighting weight also hovers around 270 and he is the same approximate height – both are listed at 6’5” — but Coffie has always been big.)  Moreover, Rock has been inactive for 15 months and may have trouble shaking off the rust.

Darmani Rock hails from Philadelphia; Michael Coffie from Brooklyn, more fodder for the tub-thumpers. Philadelphia was the stomping grounds of Smokin’ Joe Frazier. The City of Brotherly Love has arguably produced more good prizefighters per capita than any city in the country. Brooklyn spawned Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe, and Shannon Briggs, all of whom bubbled out of gritty Brownsville which also happens to be the neighborhood where Michael Coffie spent much of his youth until he was spirited away to a less threatening environment by foster parents.

I don’t want to get carried away with the Joyce-Dubois analogy. Joe Joyce had a stronger amateur pedigree than Darmani Rock. Daniel Dubois had a spectacular run leading up to his match with Joyce including a one-sided triumph over well-regarded Nathan Gorman. Moreover, neither Joyce nor Dubois had ever fought an opponent with a losing record. The same can’t be said of Coffie and Rock who have built their records on the backs of the usual suspects. Darmani Rock’s last two opponents were both 42 years old.

Moreover, Coffie vs. Rock isn’t the main attraction on the PBC card. Top billing goes to Caleb Plant’s 168-pound title defense against Caleb Truax.

As we recall, the Joyce-Dubois fight produced a major upset. Dubois was understood to be faster on his feet and more heavy-handed – considered more likely to turn the tide with a single punch – but youth was not served on that night at the historic Church House in Westminster. Joyce methodically peppered Dubois with his jab which caused a big lump to develop over Dubois’s left eye. The eye eventually shut completely and the fight ended in the 10th round with Dubois taking a knee and allowing himself to be counted out. Joyce’s victory elevated him to #2 in the WBO rankings, a notch below Oleksandr Usyk who is potentially his next opponent.

One doesn’t know what will transpire when Coffie fights Rock, but as Michael Buffer would say, “someone’s ‘O’ will have to go.” Fights of this nature are inherently intriguing and that goes double when the combatants are heavyweights.

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“One Night in Miami”: Film Review by Thomas Hauser

Thomas Hauser

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On February 25, 1964, Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. defeated Charles “Sonny” Liston in Miami Beach over the course of six remarkable rounds to claim the heavyweight championship of the world. Late that night, the new champion found himself in a room at Hampton House (a black hotel in segregated Miami) with Malcolm X, several other followers of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, and football great Jim Brown. Soul singer Sam Cooke (a friend of Clay’s) had been at the fight, but there’s no historical record of his being in the hotel room with the others at that time.

One Night in Miami is built around imagining what transpired in that room amongst Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke. Directed by Regina King from a screenplay by Kemp Powers, it’s available on Amazon Prime.

The film fits into the genre known as historical fiction. Dramatic license was taken. Viewers should understand that, at times, it’s allegorical rather than an accurate factual recounting. The larger question is whether the film is impressionistically honest. The answer is “yes.”

One Night in Miami begins with the 1963 fight between Clay and Henry Cooper in London. It then segues to Cooke being treated rudely by an all-white audience at the Copacabana, followed by Jim Brown (the greatest running back in National Football League history) being reminded by a patronizing southern gentleman that he’s just a “n—–.” Next, we see Malcolm as the Nation of Islam’s most charismatic spokesman, after which the scene shifts to Liston-Clay I.

Thirty-four minutes into the film, the drama moves to Hampton House.

Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke were prominent in different ways. Each was young, black, and famous. But Malcolm was a social and religious figure of considerable intellect while the other three were known as entertainers.

The dialogue between the four men is light at first and then turns serious.

Malcolm is played by Kingsley Ben-Adir. On what should have been one of the greatest nights of his life, his world is slipping away. His deadly rupture with Elijah Muhammad is almost complete. Soon, Clay will abandon him. Ben-Adir comes across as a bit weaker and more tentative than one might expect, although Malcolm’s intellect is evident in his performance.

It’s hard to imagine anyone playing Cassius Clay well except the young Muhammad Ali. But Eli Goree bears a resemblance to Clay and is pretty good in the role.

Jim Brown was an intimidating physical presence. Aldis Hodge lacks this physicality but his performance is solid.

Leslie Odom Jr, who plays Sam Cooke, has star quality. He’s the only one of the four major actors who has the charisma and presence of the man he’s portraying. But as a result, Cooke has a stronger on-screen persona than Malcolm. That’s a problem as tensions between the two men boil over.

Toward the end of the film, Malcolm reveals that he intends to leave the Nation of Islam because of differences with Elijah Muhammad and will found a new organization.

“Who’s gonna be in this new organization?” Clay asks.

“I think lots of people will follow me over,” Malcolm answers. “Especially if you come with me.”

Clay, of course, didn’t follow Malcolm. He sided with Elijah Muhammad. One year later, he and Jim Brown were the only participants from the hotel room gathering as portrayed in the film who were still alive. Sam Cooke was shot to death in a California motel on December 11, 1964. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.

One Night in Miami cautions us that our icons are flesh and blood human beings with strengths and flaws. In its best moments, the film is a powerful reminder that the issues of self-respect, black empowerment, and racial equality are timeless.

Pictured left to right: Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown), Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X) Leslie Odom Jr (Sam Cooke) Eli Goree (Cassius Clay)

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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Crossover star Holly Holm Adds New Dimensions to Claressa Shields

Kelsey McCarson

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She laughs about it now, but back then it wasn’t all that funny.

Boxing champion Holly Holm was competing in her first professional MMA fight, and all her years of training inside the ropes as a world champion boxer had just taken over her entire body.

Holm had kicked her opponent down to the ground, so she did what any well-schooled boxer would do. She pivoted away from her fallen prey and headed over to the neutral corner.

All of that was wrong.

“What are you doing?” her coach yelled from cageside. “Finish her!”

It was Holm’s first big mistake in moving over from boxing to MMA, but she was lucky that night. It turned out that Holm’s opponent was finished whether she had run over there or not, so it was a lesson she could learn without much consequence.

But the instruction of that moment stands true today, so it’s just one of the many things Holm has shared with 25-year-old boxing champion Claressa Shields as the two-time Olympic gold medalist attempts to follow in her footsteps.

“I was thinking yeah, that will definitely happen to me!” Shields said.

After Shields signed a three-year promotional deal in December with the Professional Fighters League (PFL), the first thing Shields needed to do was look for the right gym.

Shields found that place at Jackson Wink MMA Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, one of the most famous MMA gyms in the country, and the one most recognized among the masses as the home gym of former UFC women’s bantamweight champion Holm and pound-for-pound king Jon Jones.

Holm remains the only fighter (male or female) to have won legit world championships in both boxing and MMA, and Shields said Holm welcomed her to Jackson Wink with open arms.

“She’s been super great and very nice to me. We both come from the same background…and she actually turned out to be a world champion [in MMA], actually turned out to be really good,” Shields said.

But Holm’s funny story about her first MMA fight is something that points to just how large a hill Shields has decided to climb.

Whereas pop culture has just recently started to realize the power of habits through the work of writers such as Charles Duhigg and James Clear, it’s something professional fighters have known for a long time now.

“Oh, you’re going to have a habit of this because you used to box.”

That’s something Holm tells Shields almost every time they work together, and there are just so many examples.

In fact, just watching the 25-year-old boxing champion trying to learn to do all these new things in a different way is exhausting.

That Shields practically lives inside the gym for weeks at a time so she can train four or five times a day for all the kinds of things she never had to worry about before as a professional boxer is a testament to her seriousness and her courage.

But perhaps the most amazing part of the entire story is that Shields still plans on boxing.

While Holm won world championships in both sports, she achieved those things separately. Meanwhile, Shields said she wants to do the same thing Holm did but at the same time.

So, while I’m standing there with her inside an MMA cage in New Mexico, Shields is plotting fights in both sports. On one hand, she’s talking to me about a title unification bout in boxing against Marie-Eve Dicaire. On the other, she’s talking about future superfights in MMA against the likes of UFC champ Amanda Nunes.

“I’m trying to separate the two,” Shields said specifically about her training that day but she might as well have been talking about her whole life right about now.

It’s arguably the most amazing storyline right now in combat sports.

Shields started boxing when she was just 11 years old. She earned her first gold medal at the Olympics at 17 and her second four years later.

Today, Shields is a three-division world champion, and she says she’s not nearly finished adding to her growing number of boxing belts.

But all those years and all those successes have built so many habits. Ducking and slipping is great for boxing, but both become considerable detriments to defense when you suddenly have to worry about things like knees and kicks.

And what about wrestling and jiu-jitsu?

But all that stuff together is exactly what makes Shields’ epic decision to dare to be great at both sports at the same time so amazing in the first place.

Look, Shields might never accomplish the same amazing feat Holm did when she shocked Ronda Rousey in 2015 for the UFC women’s bantamweight championship.

But she’s aiming to eclipse that incredible mark anyway, and with Holm and many others offering Shields ideas about what she needs to think about as she climbs up the steepest hill she can find, she’ll definitely have her best chance at doing it.

Kelsey McCarson covers combat sports for Bleacher Report and Heavy.

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