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Oleksandr Gvozdyk’s Opponent Didn’t Have a Leg to Stand On

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PHILADELPHIA – It is a fairly common practice in boxing for a newly minted world champion to make his first title defense against an opponent who might be considered a bit of a soft touch, particularly if he rose to the top of his alphabet fiefdom by dethroning an especially dangerous predecessor.

If one oddsmaker is to be believed, WBC light heavyweight champ Oleksandr Gvozdyk’s first defense of the belt he lifted last Dec. 1, on an 11th-round knockout of the long-reigning and favored Adonis Stevenson  – arguably the hardest-hitting 175-pound ruler since Michael Moorer, or maybe even all the way back to Bob Foster – was easier than most such ritualistic demonstrations of superiority. So dismissive was one sports book linemaker of Doudou Ngumbu’s chances against Gvozdyk that the champion opened as an -8000 wagering choice, meaning a bettor would have to put up $8,000 on the 31-year-old Ukrainian in order to win $100. The message sent by such an absurdly wide line was clear: as an aspirant to displace Gvozdyk, Doudou, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo now living in France, was, well, more like doo-doo.

It would be unfair to Ngumbu (38-9, 14 KOs), who at 37 was getting his first, and undoubtedly last, shot at a bejeweled belt, to point out that his official fifth-round technical-knockout loss, at the sold-out 2300 Arena here, came about without a punch being landed by Gvozdyk (17-0, 14 KOs), whose victory was all but assured from the moment contracts were signed. To his credit, Ngumbu was trying his darndest to cash that lottery ticket, although his darndest  never was going to be good enough to pull off an upset twice as unlikely as Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson. But when Ngumbu, his face contorted in pain, began hopping around on his left (good) leg, what was already a long and weird night became stranger still.

Referee Eric Dali appeared to be momentarily flummoxed by Ngumbu’s impersonation of a one-legged Easter bunny. Dali first called time to allow the challenger time to recover, ruling an accidental foul had occurred, even though Ngumbu’s distress had not been caused by a punch from Gvozdyk, legal or otherwise. What followed was a scene straight out of the fight game’s theater of the absurd, with Dali, Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission executive director Greg Sirb, the ring physician and members of Ngumbu’s corner team, none of whom apparently spoke English, bunching up on the ring apron to decide what determination needed to be made.

It finally was decided that Ngumbu had suffered a torn Achilles tendon, an injury more serious than a cramp or pulled calf muscle, which would have been bad enough. Gvozdyk, a bronze medalist at the 2012 London Olympics, was awarded a less-than-satisfying win by stoppage, after an elapsed time of 58 seconds.

“(Gvozdyk) didn’t even hit him,” Sirb noted. “That’s a cheap KO. There was no foul. (Ngumbu) was trying to avoid a punch, and he obviously hurt himself trying to twist away. He wound up tearing his Achilles tendon. That’s nasty. You could see it. He couldn’t put any pressure on his right leg.”

For Gvozdyk, whose celebration of the take-down of Stevenson was muted when the stricken champion had to be rushed to a nearby hospital where he underwent surgery for two brain bleeds and was placed in an induced coma (Stevenson is, thankfully, recovering, but his boxing career is over), another ending to a winning fight ended in an unexpected manner.

“I’m satisfied I won. I keep my title,” he said in his dressing room, apparently unaware of the extent or legitimacy of Ngumbu’s injury. “How it happened, I’m definitely not satisfied with. Probably the people who came are not happy. It’s important to make your fans happy. I tried to do my best in this fight. What happened was not my fault. I guess the guy just came to get a paycheck. I don’t know. I don’t want to insult him.

“Maybe something happened. I don’t know. I don’t feel I hurt him. For a second time something screwed up my celebration. I really thought the fight would go longer and be more exciting. I was just starting to accelerate.”

For numbers-crunchers interested in such things, Gvozdyk landed 47 of 204 punches (23 percent) to just 18 of 108 (17 percent) for Ngumbu, who went in as the WBC’s eighth-rated light heavyweight contender. But while winning and losing is always of paramount consideration, how either outcome is achieved also matters, and Gvozdyk did not win with the flourish he and his many supporters in the standing-room-only crowd of 1,350 or so had anticipated. That opened the door for a couple of snide remarks from at least one interested onlooker.

Philadelphia’s Jesse Hart, a two-time world title challenger as a super middleweight who is planning to move up to light heavyweight, is a member of the Top Rank promotional stable, as is Gvozdyk, and he said he could and would eventually capitalize on the openings he saw against the champion that the limited Ngumbu was unable to.

“(Gvozdyk) fought down to the kid’s level,” Hart said, although, at 37, few would characterize Ngumbu as a kid at this late stage of his career. “He should have gotten him out of there within the first four rounds.”

Nor was the ESPN-televised lead-in to the main event — Philly welterweight “The New” Ray Robinson (24-3-1, 12 KOs) vs. Egidijus Kavaliauskas (21-0-1, 17 KOs), a Ukrainian now fighting out of Oxnard, Calif. — particularly compelling, although it did provide a symposium for debate on the vicissitudes of how to score a boxing match. One judge’s scorecard had Robinson winning by 97-93, while the other two saw the fight as a 95-95 standoff – a majority draw.

For those who place a high value on slick boxing technique, the mobile, jab-flicking Robinson deserved a clear-cut victory. One ringside writer had him winning nine of the 10 rounds. ESPN boxing writer Dan Rafael went way over to the other side, giving nine rounds to the continually stalking Kavaliauskas, a -1800 favorite.

Despite the fact that seven of the 11 bouts on the card ended inside the distance, three of which were one-round quickies, fans who came early and stayed late must have felt like they had attended a double-feature at their local movie theater, with Dr. Zhivago followed by Lawrence of Arabia, with a half-hour intermission in between. With the first bout getting underway at 5:30 p.m. EDT, and Gvozdyk-Ngumbu wrapping up near midnight, the 6½-hour  marathon tested the endurance, and possibly the bladder capacities of fans who helped pass the time with multiple trips to the beer concession stand.

The audience, reflecting the global lineup of fighters, was a blend of many nationalities and cultures. Including those representatives who pledged allegiance to two flags – like Ngumbu, who was born in the Congo and became a naturalized French citizen – countries represented were Ukraine, Mexico, Malaysia, Uzbekistan, Japan, Canada, Cameroon, Ghana, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, France, Congo, Guatemala and Puerto Rico, although the last is technically an unincorporated territory of the United States. The loudest contingent appeared to be Ukrainians and Ukrainian-Americans, not surprising in that 20,000 or so such residents of the U.S. can be found in the Eastern seaboard corridor from metropolitan New York to Philadelphia and many are rabid boxing buffs. From the first round on, Gvozdyk backers shouted “Gvozdyk! Gvozdyk!,” which for the phonetically challenged sounds very much like Vod-zik. By decibel level, the Ukrainians seemed more plentiful and louder than Philly patrons, who made themselves known with their off-key renditions of “Fly, Eagles, Fly,” the local NFL team’s fight song.

In other action:

*Kudratillo Abdukakhorov (16-0, 9 KOs) of Malaysia by way of his native Uzbekistan scored a unanimous, 12-round decision over Japan’s Keita Obara (20-4-1, 18 KOs) in an IBF welterweight elimination bout.

*Super middleweight Christian Mbilli (14-0, 13 KOs), from Montreal by way of his native Cameroon, saw his knockout streak ended as he settled for an eight-round, unanimous decision over Mexico’s Humberto Gutierrez (33-8-2, 18 KOs).

*Juan Ruiz (22-4, 14 KOs) of Mexico came away with a fourth-round TKO victory over Ghana’s Fredrick Lawson (27-2, 21 KOs) in their scheduled eight-round super welterweight bout.

*Super featherweight Joshafat Ortiz (6-0, 4 KOs), a Puerto Rican based in Reading, Pa., needed just one of the six scheduled rounds to put away James Thomas (6-5, 6 KOs), of Grand Rapids, Mich.

*Popular Philadelphia heavyweight Sonny Conto (2-0, 2 KOs), a recent addition to the Top Rank lineup, bombed out Omar Acosta (1-6, 1 KO) of Hereford, Texas, in one round and will next be seen on June 15 in Las Vegas on the  undercard of a show headlined by Tyson Fury against Tom Schwarz.

*Jeremy Adorno, a lanky super bantamweight from Allentown, Pa., by way of Puerto Rico, made his pro debut by pitching a four-round shutout at Sebastian Baltazar (1-4), from Tacoma, Wash., by way of his native Guatemala.

*Super featherweight Donald Smith (9-0, 6 KO), a southpaw from Philly, seemed headed to a four-round unanimous decision over Jose Antonio Martinez (11-18, 6 KOs) when he turned out the lights on the Mexican, now residing in Albequerque, N.M., with an overhand left late in the final round.

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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O.J. Simpson the Boxer: A Heartwarming Tale for the Whole Family

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O.J. Simpson passed away on Wednesday, April 10, at age 76 in Las Vegas where he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. For millions of Americans, news of his passing unloosed a flood of memories.

The O.J. Simpson double murder trial lasted 37 weeks. CNN and two other fledgling cable networks provided gavel-to-gavel coverage. On Oct. 3, 1995, the day that the jury rendered its verdict, CBS, NBC, ABC, and ESPN suspended regular programming to cover the trial. Worldwide, more than 100 million people were reportedly glued to their TV or radio.

O.J.’s life can be neatly compartmentalized into two halves. The dividing line is June 12, 1994. On that date, Simpson’s estranged wife, the former Nicole Brown, and her friend Ronald Goldman were found stabbed to death in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood at the home that Nicole shared with their two children.

Before then, O.J. was famous. After then, he was infamous.

Simpson first came to the fore on the gridiron. In 1968, his final season at the University of Southern California, he was so dynamic that he won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide, out-distancing Purdue’s Leroy Keyes by 1,750 votes. This was the widest margin to that point between a Heisman winner and runner-up and a milestone that stood for 51 years until surpassed by LSU quarterback Joe Burrows in 2019.

In the NFL, among his many achievements, he became the first and only NFL running back to eclipse 2,000 rushing yards in a 14-game season, a record that will never be broken.

But one can’t appreciate the depth of O.J.s celebrityhood by citing statistics. He transcended his sport like few athletes before or since. Owing in large part to his commercials for the Hertz rental car chain, he became one of America’s most recognizable people.

O.J. Simpson was raised by a single mother in a government housing project in the gritty Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. Unlike many of his boyhood peers, he was never quick to raise his fists. Weirdly, he once said that running away from fights proved useful to him when he took up football. It helped his stamina.

Although he never boxed in real life, O.J. portrayed a boxer in a made-for-TV movie. Titled “Goldie and the Boxer,” it aired on NBC on Sunday, Dec. 29, 1979, two weeks after O.J. played in his last NFL game. Co-produced by Simpson’s own production company, it starred O.J. opposite precocious Melissa Michaelson who played the 10-year-old Goldie.

In promos, the movie was tagged as a heartwarming tale for kids and their parents. Associated Press writer John Egan described it as “a cross between the Shirley Temple classic ‘Little Miss Marker’ and a low-budget ‘Rocky.’”

Here’s a synopsis, compliments of New York Times TV critic John J. O’Connor:

“The year is 1946, and Joe Gallagher is returning to Louisiana as an army veteran. He is quickly ripped off by a succession of thugs and finds himself broke and battered in Pennsylvania where he is befriended by a young Goldie. Her father is a boxer and Joe joins the training camp as a sparring partner. When the father dies, Joe takes his place on the fight circuit and Goldie becomes his manager…”

The consensus of the pundits was that O.J. the actor was very much a work in progress, but that he had great potential. And the movie, despite its hokey plot, attracted so many viewers that NBC wanted to turn it into a series.

O.J. had too much on his plate to commit to doing a regular series. Among other things, he had signed on to become part of NBC’s main stable of reporters at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, a gig that evaporated when the U.S. under President Jimmy Carter joined 64 other nations in boycotting the Games as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, the movie did spawn a sequel, “Goldie and the Boxer Go To Hollywood,” with Simpson and Michaelson reprising their roles.

I never met O.J. Simpson, but have a vivid memory of finding myself walking behind him into the outdoor boxing arena at Caesars Palace. If memory serves, this was the Hagler-Hearns fight of 1985, in which case the lady on his arm would have been Nicole as they were married earlier that year. She was quite a dish in that tight-fitting pantsuit and I remember thinking to myself, “of all the trophies this dude has won, here is the best trophy of them all.” (Forgive me.)

Simpson had cameo roles in several movies before leaving USC. When he finally turned his back on football, the world was his oyster. O.J., wrote Barry Lorge in the Washington Post, was “bright, affable, charming, articulate and credible, a public relation man’s dream-come true.”

No one would have foreseen the swerve his life would take.

When the jury, after only four hours of deliberation, returned a verdict of “not guilty,” there was cheering in some corners of America. The overwhelming consensus of the white population, however, was that the verdict was an abomination, a gross miscarriage of justice.

We’ll leave it at that.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 280: Matchroom Snatches ‘Boots’ Ennis and More

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 280: Matchroom Snatches ‘Boots’ Ennis and More

It was bound to happen in professional boxing.

A British promotion company lured one of America’s top, if not the top, welterweight prizefighter in the world in Jaron “Boots” Ennis it was announced this week by Matchroom Boxing. It’s a multi-fight deal.

Ennis (31-0, 28 KOs) holds the IBF welterweight title after knocking out Venezuela’s Roiman Villa last July in Atlantic City. The Philadelphia-based fighter has long been considered one of the most talented and complete boxers in the world. And now he’s signed with Matchroom Boxing based in London.

“I’m excited for this partnership with Eddie Hearn, Matchroom and DAZN,” said Ennis. “I can’t wait to continue making my mark and becoming undisputed world champion.

It was just a matter of time before British promoters latched on to America’s best talent. Instead of pitting British fighters against American fighters, why not sign American fighters too.

Most fans in America fail to realize that boxing in the United Kingdom is a bigger more popular sport in that nation. Boxing ranks high in England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. It also ranks high in British Commonwealth countries like Australia.

Now Matchroom Boxing which streams boxing cards through DAZN will have another American star on its platform. The company previously had boxing’s biggest star, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, until his contract ran out. Signing Ennis could be the answer in finding the next big thing in boxing.

“I’ve watched this young man for many years, and I always believed he would become a pound-for-pound great, and I have no doubt he is already the greatest fighter in the division,” said promoter Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Boxing. “To win the race to sign Jaron is a massive coup for Matchroom Boxing and DAZN.”

Matchroom already has Conor Benn and the addition of Ennis gives the British promotion company two of the best welterweights in the division.

The signing of an American star like Ennis in some ways represents the international competition for sports talent whether its soccer, boxing or baseball as what we saw in the signing of Japan’s two biggest baseball stars by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Streaming has replaced television and the ability to watch fights live from any spot in the world has changed how we watch boxing and other sports.

A massive struggle by streaming giants has commenced and DAZN along with ESPN and Prime Video have joined the battle.

Manchester Card on Saturday

Two female world title fights lead the charge this weekend for Matchroom Boxing along with a men’s super featherweight clash between two former EBU titlists Jordan Gill and Zelfa Barrett.

IBF super bantamweight titlist Ellie Scotney (8-0) meets France’s Segolene Lefebvre (18-0) the WBO super bantamweight titlist in a unification match on Saturday April 13, at Manchester Arena in Manchester, England. DAZN will stream the Matchroom Boxing card.

Also, Rhiannon Dixon (9-0) meets Argentina’s Karen Carabajal (22-1) for the vacant WBO lightweight title.

R.I.P.

Promoter Gary Shaw passed away this week according to several sources including WBC President Mauricio Sulaiman.

I first met Shaw when he was COO of Main Events in the late 1990s after Dan Duva passed away. At the time Ferocious Fernando Vargas was a rising star and the promotion company was a major player in the boxing scene. They also had Meldrick Taylor, Pernell Whitaker, and Arturo Gatti on their roster.

Later, he moved on to form his own company and with fighters such as Rafael Marquez, Diego Corrales and others he staged many fights on Showtime. If I recall correctly, Shaw was connected with the Diego Corrales vs Jose Luis Castillo battles and the Israel Vazquez vs Rafael Marquez wars.

The fights between those warriors are considered the best for that period in the early 2000s.

Another sports figure, OJ Simpson passed away too.

I mention OJ because I often came across the USC Trojan football running back who lit up the gridiron during the 1960s and 70s.

As a college student I lived a few blocks from Simpson in the Brentwood area and often saw him with his family. Once while in New York City visiting a friend I ran into him again at La Guardia Airport.

Simpson was accused and acquitted of murdering his wife and her friend in 1994.

Fights to Watch

Sat. DAZN 9 a.m. Ellie Scotney (8-0) vs Segolene Lefebvre (18-0)).

Sat. ESPN 7 p.m. Jared Anderson (16-0) vs Ryad Merhy (32-2); Efe Ajagba (19-1) vs Guido Vianello (12-1-1).

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Resurgent Angelo Leo Turns Away Eduardo Baez on a Wednesday Night in Florida

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Resurgent Angelo Leo Turns Away Eduardo Baez on a Wednesday Night in Florida

The latest in the series of bi-monthly Wednesday Night Fights played out tonight at the ProBox TV Events Center (formerly Whitesands) in the Tampa Bay area community of Plant City, Florida.

In the main event, featherweight Angelo Leo improved to 24-1 (11) with a unanimous 10-round decision over stubborn but outclassed Eduardo Baez (23-6-2). The judges had it 97-93 and 98-92 twice.

Leo, from Las Vegas by way of Albuquerque, was formerly a key member of Floyd Mayweather Jr’s “Money Team.” He briefly held a version of the world super bantamweight title, a diadem he lost to Stephen Fulton in his first title defense. Baez, a former world title challenger, never stopped trying, but Leo was stronger and sharper while scoring his third straight win at this venue following stoppages of Nicolas Polanco and Mike Plania.

Leo has his sights set on IBF world featherweight title-holder Luis “Venado” Lopez.

Co-Main

In a well-matched, 8-round super featherweight contest, Puerto Rican southpaw Jaycob Bradley Gomez (10-0-1) kept his unbeaten record intact with a hard-fought majority decision over scrappy Jose Arellano (11-2). The scores were 76-76 and 77-75 twice.

Gomez, whose father was a former cornerman for Miguel Cotto, was making his sixth appearance at this venue. Arellano, a Mexico-born Coloradoan, fought most of the fight with a deep cut over his right eye. Without that impediment, he just might have sprung the upset.

Other Bouts

In another super featherweight match, also slated for “8,” Puerto Rico-born Dominic Valle, a local product, improved to 9-0 (7 KOs) with a second-round stoppage of Mexico’s Angel Vazquez Lupercio (12-2). Valle hurt Lupercio with a body punch and then backed him into the ropes and unleashed a barrage of punches, leading referee Alica Collins to waive it off. The official time was 2:27 of round two.

A third-generation prizefighter who has a side gig as a model, the 23-year-old Valle is managed by the influential David McWater who also handles Valle’s brother Marques, a junior middleweight who fights here in two weeks.

Yoel Angeloni, a 20-year-old welterweight, stamped himself a fighter to watch with a 74-second blowout of obscure 42-year-old Michael Williams. The son of an Italian father and a Cuban mother, raised in Italy, Angeloni was purportedly 140-2 as an amateur (9-2 per boxrec).

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