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In Oleksandr Gvozdyk, Teddy Atlas Finds One More Fighter He Can Trust and Love

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Atlas and Gvozdyk

Teddy Atlas was so very young, just 19, when his mentor, Cus D’Amato, recognized his special gift for comprehending the many nuances of the sport they both loved, and imparting that knowledge to others. The “young master,” D’Amato dubbed Atlas, and the wise-beyond-his-years kid from Staten Island, N.Y., whose own boxing career had been sidetracked by a back injury, soaked up D’Amato’s dictums as if he were a sponge. He trusted Cus implicitly and if the old master, who was 77 when he died on Nov. 4, 1985, instructed him to do something, he did it. Every time.

Well, almost every time.

“I never wanted to love a fighter. It’s a cardinal sin. Cus told me you’re not supposed to do that,” Atlas, 62, recalled of the sole D’Amato rule that never quite took root with him. But not every human being, including boxing trainers, is wired the same, and thus an intractable rule for one might not be the right thing for someone else.

Atlas, forever a Cus disciple in so many ways, has been burned more than a few times by fighters who initially pledged their undying fealty but later chafed at the conditions he had insisted upon at the outset of their association. Love and trust are wonderful things in any personal or professional relationship, but only if it’s a two-way street. When it isn’t, breakups are inevitable and usually painful. Teddy’s pugilistic divorces from, among others, Donny Lalonde, Shannon Briggs, Michael Moorer and Alexander Povetkin – champions all – left scars upon his psyche as deep and distinctive as the one down the left side of his face, which required 400 stitches (200 inside, 200 outside) to close and was inflicted long ago by a knife-wielding opponent in a street fight.

“I look back sometimes and I wonder how the hell did I do this with so many fighters, going back more than 40 years, and still be whole,” Atlas recalled of a career that will gain him induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame on June 9 – but as a commentator for television, not as a trainer, which he has always considered himself to be first and foremost.

“But I’m not completely whole,” he pointed out. “You do lose bits and pieces of yourself, and maybe that’s why you hesitate before you do it again.”

After the retirement of former super lightweight and welterweight titlist Timothy Bradley Jr., a fighter loved and trusted by Atlas to a degree he thought might be beyond duplication, the recalcitrant trainer was even more reluctant to believe he could expose himself to the possibility of having more jagged bits and pieces of his inner self cut away. Oh, the offers still came pouring in, from talented fighters and their managers, many of whom might be prepared to talk a good game when it came to the nitty-gritty of committing to always doing things the Atlas way. And for any potential pupil – Atlas sees his role as that of an intense but caring teacher — going part or even most of the way was never going to be sufficient for someone who demands 100 percent, of himself as well as of his fighter.

“I’m afraid,” Atlas said of his apprehension of again plunging into a part of his life that could be, at alternate turns, exhilarating or depressing. “I don’t mind saying that. Some people say fear is a forbidden word, a taboo word, because it shows vulnerability. But we’re all vulnerable, I think, whether we show it or tell it. I’m strong when I have to be, but part of being strong is knowing that you can be hurt. It’s just being honest with yourself.”

But Atlas’ children, Nicole and Teddy III, knew their father well enough to recognize that his being semi-idle and unfulfilled was as bad or worse than risking more disappointment. Teddy Atlas’ destiny was made clear to him at an early age, and what he needed, maybe more than he realized, was another opportunity, albeit just the right one, to again do what he was meant to do.

So Atlas will again be the chief second for WBC light heavyweight champion Oleksandr Gvozdyk (16-0, 13 KOs) of the Ukraine when he defends his title against Doudou Ngumbu (38-8, 14 KOs), of France by way of his native Congo, in the ESPN-televised main event Saturday night at the 2300 Arena in South Philadelphia. It will be just the second fight together for Gvozdyk and Atlas, the first being Gvozdyk’s dethronement of long-reigning WBC champ Adonis  Stevenson, via 11th-round knockout, on Dec. 1, 2018, in Quebec City, Canada.  It might be said that Atlas and Gvozdyk, 31, are still in the honeymoon phase of their relationship, but Nicole Atlas thinks this is a union that benefits both parties and has a chance to go the distance.

“My dad has had a lot of fighters, and his share of great ones,” said Nicole, an attorney whose childhood and adolescence were so immersed in her father’s occupation that she came to think of the men he trained almost as surrogate brothers. “We spent many holidays with the fighters and their families.

“You know, it’s kind of funny. In the twilight of his career – I guess it’s never too late – he finds Alex (Gvozdyk), who is the perfect fighter for him. Not everyone has the personality and makeup to be trained by my dad. He likes to control every aspect of training camp and, because he puts everything he has into it, he expects no less from his fighters. And Alex does that. That’s part of what makes their relationship work. It’s still early on, but you can see that there’s a special chemistry between them.”

Gvozdyk said that special chemistry was not instantaneous.  The first contact with Atlas was made by Gvozdyk’s manager, Egis Klimas, who invited Atlas to fly out to Oxnard, Calif., where Gvozdyk now resides, for a get-together to determine if fighter and would-be trainer might prove a good fit.

“It was difficult at first, because I was two months before the biggest fight of my life,” Gvozdyk recalled. “When Teddy came for a weekend he never told me whether he was going to train me or not. I couldn’t understand why. But we talked a lot. I introduced him to my family. I think he wanted to find out what kind of person I am. I waited two weeks before he made his decision.

“I am so glad he trusts me and agreed to train me. People need to be important not only for themselves, but for somebody else. Teddy makes me a better fighter. But I think I help him in some ways, too. It is important to him to be a trainer, to have someone to teach. This is what he does best. He was born to teach boxing. He is still a pretty young person at 62. This is not a time for him to retire. If he can do this and enjoy it, staying involved in boxing is really the only right decision for him.”

Interestingly, it is Nicole and Teddy III, who is the head of scouting for the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, who urged their father to fly to California to determine whether he and Gvozdyk might be compatible on a personal as well as a professional level. It’s not the first time that Atlas’ children had nudged him back into a sometimes-harsh game, having done so previously with Bradley.

“My children are smarter than me,” Atlas said. “I’m very blessed by what kind of people they are, how caring they are, how intuitive they are. They both told me that Alex was the perfect fighter for me. I would not have gotten involved again if that hadn’t been the case. I was inclined to say no; I’d had enough. I’d lost trust in the business of the game, for different reasons. When Egis called me and asked if I would consider training Alex, my initial thought was to stay out.

“But then my children reminded me of how I had told them about the privilege I had had to be a trainer and a teacher. They said I had a gift and the privilege to do that and, like all gifts, it doesn’t last forever. Yes, it is a job and it can be a heavy responsibility, but it’s also a privilege. I could still help someone to improve.

“So who knows? Maybe I’m being given another opportunity to do what I was put on this earth to do.”

It might be the last such opportunity and privilege. Unlike some other trainers who already are or eventually will be enshrined in the IBHOF, Atlas is selective. He cannot fathom how other trainers can work with 10 or 12 fighters, parceling snippets of their time to each instead of going all-in with just one.

“I know this (his involvement with Gvozdyk) could lead to something special,” Atlas said. “I get that. But I also know that it can lead to something I don’t want it to lead to, and I know what it can take out of me.

“Right now there’s only one fighter I could even think about training, and it’s the one I am training. I can only do this for a special person, and this kid is a special person.”

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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Boxing Odds and Ends: A Travesty of a Heavyweight ‘Title Fight’ Jake Paul and More

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It’s official. On Wednesday, Feb. 22, a formal press conference was held in Sofia, Bulgaria, to announce the forthcoming fight between Mahmoud Charr, formerly known as Manuel Charr, and Kubrat Pulev. They will meet in Bulgaria’s capital city on March 30 at a 12,000-seat arena.

Charr vs Kubrat bears the imprimatur of a world heavyweight title fight (WBA version). Charr is considered the champion, notwithstanding the fact that others have held the title since he first laid claim to it more than six years ago.

The WBA, as we know, recognizes two champions in some weight classes, a “super” champion and a “regular” champion. The “super” designation was created in 2000. It was designed to segregate title-holders into levels of accomplishment. In theory, a “super” champion has made five successful defenses and is recognized as a world title-holder by at least one of the three other major sanctioning bodies. “Super” champions are allowed certain liberties with respect to mandatory title defenses.

The bifurcation was greeted with hoots of derision. The Panama-based WBA trivialized the sport.

Mahmoud Charr

Mahmoud Charr was born in Beirut but has resided in Germany since he was a little boy. He won the vacant title with a 12-round decision over unexceptional Alexander Ustinov in Oberhausen, Germany.  It was a close fight. TSS ringside correspondent Phil Woolever had Ustinov winning 7 rounds to 5, but conceded that the verdict could not be called an injustice.

The title that Charr won was vacated by Ruslan Chagaev who won the belt from Fres Oquendo, lost it to Lucas Browne, and got it back by decree when Browne’s post-fight urine tests showed evidence of banned substances. But Chagaev never fought again. His fight with Browne was his last.

Charr’s first defense was to come against Fres Oquendo. Slated for March 23, 2019 in Cologne after being pushed back from September of the previous year, the match never came to fruition when Charr tested positive for two banned substances. Things get really muddled from here with Charr pushed to the sideline by legal battles complicated by Don King’s shenanigans. King arranged a fight in Florida between Charr and his fighter Trevor Bryan and succeeded in getting Bryan the WBA belt when Charr was unable to get a visa. The belt is vacant again after Bryan was knocked out by Daniel Dubois who, in turn, was knocked out by “super” champion Oleksandr Usyk.

There are more threads to this saga but let’s not go there. Suffice it to say that after defeating Ustinov, Charr was out of action for the next three-and-a-half years. He’s had only three fights since 2017 and to say that his opponents were men of low repute would be giving them the best of it. In his most recent assignment, in December of 2022, he scored a second-round stoppage over 46-year-old Swiss-Albanian slug Nuri Seferi. That brought his record to 34-4 (20). He has been stopped three times, most recently in 2015 when he was halted in five frames by future cruiserweight champion Maris Briedis.

Kubrat Pulev

Kubrat Pulev will have the home field advantage in Sofia. Charr will have youth on his side. He’s 39; Pulev is 42.

Pulev sports a 30-3 record. The losses came at the hands of Wladimir Klitschko (L KO 5), Anthony Joshua (L KO 9), and Derek Chisora (L SD 12). He last fought in December at the OC Hangar in Costa Mesa, CA, where he won a lopsided decision over Polish journeyman Andrzej Wawrzyk.

In a previous engagement here at the Hangar, a concert hall that seats a shade over 3,000, he TKOed Bogdan Dinu. That bout is remembered mostly for what happened after it ended. In an incident that went viral on social media, Pulev surprised Jennifer Ravalo, a self-styled journalist, with a kiss on the lips. That animated women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred and led to an 8-page spread in Playboy (of Ravalo, not Allred). The California State Athletic Commission fined and suspended Pulev and mandated that he undergo sexual harassment training. The suspension lasted 120 days.

The match between Charr and Pulev, says a blurb about it, is an “eagerly anticipated” clash between “two evergreen living legends.” We will let you provide the punchline, The winner is expected to fight Martin Bakole who was knocked out by Michael Hunter.

Jake Paul

Jake Paul, the enfant terrible of prizefighting, returns this Saturday on a card in San Juan, Puerto Rico, that will air on DAZN. Paul, an influencer who brought his big social media following with him when he took up fisticuffing, is coming off a first-round stoppage of Andre August, a no-name fighter from Texas. Saturday’s sacrificial lamb is a fellow from Dickinson, North Dakota (by way of Benicia, California) named Ryan Bourland.

Bourland, who is reportedly 35 years old but looks older, scored his signature win in 2018 when he avenged a previous defeat with a 10-round majority decision over Jose Hernandez. He has fought only one since then, TKOing a fighter with a losing record in a 6-rounder at a lodge on a remote Indian reservation in North Dakota. That improved his ledger to 17-2 (6 KOs).

Regarding Jake Paul, Thomas Hauser once wrote that he’s worked hard to become a better boxer and is “certainly better than a Golden Gloves novice.” There was a time when this reporter, perhaps naively, thought that Jake had the potential to become a legitimate top-15 cruiserweight, but his recent choice of opponents suggests that he is comfortable just spinning his wheels.

His bout with Bourland will play second fiddle to Amanda Serrano’s featherweight title defense against Germany’s Nina Meinke (18-3, 4 KOs). Although Amanda has a lot of mileage on her odometer, she is expected to have little difficulty with Meinke. In another bout of note, Puerto Rican campaigners Jonathan Gonzalez (27-3-1, 14 KOs) and Rene Santiago (12-3, 9 KOs) will meet in a 12-rounder with Gonzalez’s WBO light flyweight title at stake.

—-

Let’s conclude this write-up on an upbeat note. Hall of Fame boxing writer Bernard Fernandez, a frequent TSS contributor, informs us that his fifth and presumably final anthology is nearing completion with a likely release date of April or May. “Championship Rounds, Round 5” includes a foreword by Gerry Cooney and has drawn glowing reviews from the likes of Dave Kindred and Dr. Gordon Marino who both had an early peek at the manuscript. Kindred, a renowned sportswriter and author, was the subject of a 2021 piece on “60 Minutes.” Marino, a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, has written extensively about boxing for the Wall Street Journal.

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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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