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38 Knockdowns! Jeannette-McVey III in 1909 Was One For The Ages

Bernard Fernandez

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Jeannette vs McVey

A few weeks ago, my TSS colleague Ted Sares polled a number of boxing notables as to which fight they would most like to have seen in person. My snap judgment was to go with the epic first clash of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, which seemed an easy and logical choice at the time. Upon further reflection I still would stick with my original selection.

But with the 110th anniversary of a mostly forgotten classic, heavyweight Joe Jeannette’s last-man-standing slugfest with Sam McVey, fast approaching on April 17, I have some cause for reconsideration. In the entire history of boxing there might never have been anything like the third of the five matchups of future Hall of Famers Jeannette (pictured on the right) and McVey, a demonstration of heart, will and endurance that went an almost-incomprehensible 49 rounds, lasted 3½ hours and featured a widely accepted total of 38 knockdowns.

“It was amazing either man was still alive,” boxing historian Gerald Early said of a prolonged torture test that had no judges and no scorecards to be tallied (there was a referee, Emile Maitrot), a real fight to the finish not all that dissimilar to gladiatorial contests in the Colosseum in ancient Rome that literally were to the death.

Jeannette, the eventual victor, nearly was knocked out in the first round of the unique bout, which was billed as being for the “Colored Heavyweight Championship of the World” and staged before 2,500 spectators in the Cirque de Paris in France’s largest city. But Jeannette, spurred on by pride, ambition and a burning desire to come away with some sort of title, even if it wasn’t the one he most wanted, arose in a dazed condition from that first flooring and continued to plug away on instinct and muscle memory. Through 17 rounds he went down 21 times, and 27 in all before his dogged refusal to yield began to turn the tide. Exhausted and thoroughly battered himself, Jeannette was declared the winner when McVey, both of his eyes swollen shut, indicated to his corner that he’d had enough. It is one thing to fight on through incredible pain and fatigue, quite another to try to do so while literally blinded.

In another remarkable exhibition of two-way determination, the “Thrilla in Manila,” Ali said that his 14-round trial by combat with the wounded but relentless beast that was Frazier was “the closest thing to death” he’d ever experienced. And it very likely was just that. But, still, you have to wonder: what if “The Greatest” and “Smokin’” Joe were asked to dig even deeper within themselves for whatever it takes to keep on keeping on to the extent that Jeannette and McVey exhibited in an era when a black fighter’s courage and resiliency were not nearly as admired, appreciated and rewarded as they should have been?

“Most doors were closed to them,” another boxing historian, the late Bert Sugar, once said of the late 19th– and early-20th century America in which poor blacks such as Jeannette, from Union City, N.J., and McVey, from Oxnard, Calif., by way of his native Waeider, Texas, came up. “There weren’t even Negro baseball league teams then. The only door open to an athletic black youth was boxing.”

Even for the more skilled practitioners of the pugilistic arts with dark skin, the pay was lousy and working conditions sometimes perilous, but it could have been worse. In a profile of Jeannette that appeared on the Fox Sports Network’s Amazing Sports Stories, Early, who also is black, said that boxing back then held an undeniable appeal to male members of his race because “if someone paid you $25 for a fight, even some kind of pickup fight, that was incredible. That was more money than the average black farm worker or sharecropper was going to make. He’d be lucky if he made $25 in a year.”

As the unseen narrator of the FSN documentary noted, “liberated by law but chained by prejudice, black Americans lived under a violent and oppressive regime: lynchings in the South, race riots in the North.” Few white fighters would even consent to test themselves against their black counterparts in such an emotionally charged climate, and when those bouts did occur the black fighter often received death threats that might or might not have been legitimate. In any case, there were always suggestions, direct or veiled, that the black fighter, in order to get more such better-paying gigs, would be well-advised to either lose or not look too good in winning.

The high and seemingly impenetrable walls of prejudice in effect obliged such gifted black heavyweights as Jeannette, McVey, Sam Langford, Harry Wills and Peter Jackson to keep beating up on one another while the heavyweight championship of the world was locked away by white fighters they believed, with some justification, to be less capable then themselves. But then one of their own, Jack Johnson, broke through to become the first black heavyweight champion when he outpointed Canada’s Tommy Burns on Dec. 20, 1908, in Sydney, Australia. Fighters such as Jeannette, who had already fought Johnson six times in non-title bouts, going 1-5 (his lone victory by disqualification) but giving a good account of himself on each occasion, now saw a clearer path to a shot at his sport’s most prestigious prize.

But Johnson, whose flamboyant personality and dalliances with white women had the effect of antagonizing the white establishment like a matador waving a red cape at a bull, was not disposed to open the door to the throne room to others of his race.

“What really could have been the Jackie Robinson of boxing turned out to be a far worse chapter in America’s history,” offered still another boxing historian, Kevin Smith, who said Johnson was more disposed to make societal waves than to calm the waters. “America’s racism was like the scab and Jack Johnson kept picking it. Every time it healed a little bit he’d pick it a little more. You know, just saying, `Hey, white America, I’m the best there is and you can’t beat me. Come and try.’ And when they sent their men at him he basically slapped them around and laughed at them while he was doing it.”

Sugar’s take on the “Galveston Giant’s” intransigence may have owed to his enjoyment of the singularity of his accomplishment, something he did not want to possibly share with the men of color whose dreams were the same as his had been, and he knew to be dangerous enough to possibly knock him off.

“Jack Johnson did everything he could to flaunt – not just being the heavyweight champion, but being the black heavyweight champion,” Sugar said. “He not only cavorted with white women, he married ’em. He would race cars 100 miles an hour down the wrong-way streets. He thumbed his nose at white society as much as he could. It was probably the worst thing that had happened to white America and they had to get their crown back.

“After he became champion he didn’t want to defend his championship against another black man. He was so proud of being the first black champion that he wanted to be the only black champion.”

To an honest workman like Jeannette – who, ironically, also was married to a white woman – Johnson’s refusal to advocate equal opportunities for all was a bitter betrayal. “Jack forgot about his old friends after he became champion and drew the color line against his own people,” Jeannette groused.

But there were fewer restrictions of movement and more money to be made in Europe, where fighters such as Jeannette and McVey were viewed more with fascination than hostility by white boxing buffs. So when French promoters dangled a purse of 30,000 francs, the equivalent of about $6,000 in the U.S., the offer was too enticing for either to decline, even given the prospect of their having to fight an unspecified number of rounds. Adjusted for inflation, that $6,000 purse would be worth $162,000-plus today, chump change to the Canelo Alvarezes and Anthony Joshuas at the top of the food chain but a king’s ransom in 1909.

“The Europeans seemed to be rather taken with African-Americans generally, with African-American culture,” Early opined. “It seemed exotic, different, primitive. They were able to better make a living over there than over here.”

So two gallant warriors – Jeannette the skilled craftsman, McVey the pure power-puncher – gave every bit of themselves until there was absolutely nothing left to squeeze out of their depleted bodies. “Whatever you make of it, it was one of the great, great fights of all time,” said Sugar, who acknowledged that no boxing commission in today’s safety-conscious times would ever consent to allow two human beings to subject themselves to what was asked of and delivered by the men who participated in the greatest fight that no living person in 2019 can claim to have seen. Nor is the abuse they heaped upon one another 110 years ago available for viewing on tape; no footage of that fight is known to exist. But it did happen, and maybe that is enough for historical purposes. Just because there is no film, tape or television coverage of Julius Caesar conquering Celtic Gauls at the Battle of Alesia in 52 BC doesn’t mean it did not happen.

“I don’t know that Joe Jeannette is overlooked, (but) he’s almost obscure,” Sugar said. “He happened before there was film; there’s none found of him. But Joe Jeannette should be remembered, and he doesn’t need film to remember him.”

Maybe so, maybe not. The passage of time, if enough of it goes by, wipes clean not only eyewitness accounts, but what happened in the distant past always loses some relevancy as more recent developments tend to relegate the old stuff to footnote status. But that doesn’t make it right. So take a moment to salute McVey (63-12-7, 48 KOs, according to Boxrec.com), who was just 37 when he died on Dec. 23, 1921, and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1999, and Jeannette (birth name: Jeremiah Jennette), who lived a full and prosperous life until his death, at the age of 78, on July 2, 1958. Considering what Jeannette, who was enshrined in the IBHOF in 1997, went through during his boxing career, with an official record of 82-10-10 (69), and another 62 no-contests, it’s a shame his body and brain weren’t left to science. For those who’d like to learn more about him, there’s a 448-page book authored by Joe Botti, Joe Jennette: Boxing’s Ironman, that offers so much more than can be culled from an 1,800-word boxing web site piece.

“It’s not just a book about boxing, it’s a book about a great man who lived a great life,” said Botti. “If you’re into boxing, there are some terrific stories in the book about some great fighters. But even if you’re not, it’s a story about life and love, and, unfortunately, the racism Jennette and his family dealt with.”

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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Berchelt TKOs Valenzuela in Mexico City

David A. Avila

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Mexico’s Miguel Berchelt hammered his way to a decisive knockout victory over fellow Mexican Eleazar Valenzuela in a non-title light fight on Saturday.

After nearly nine months off, WBC super featherweight titlist Berchelt (38-1, 34 KOs) unraveled a withering body attack including numerous low blows but Valenzuela remained upright in front of a sparse TV studio audience until he could take it no longer.

Berchelt used a seven-punch combination to knock the senses out of the very tough Valenzuela who hails from Sinaloa. The referee saw enough and stopped the fight with Valenzuela leaning against the ropes with a dazed look.

The champion from Cancun used a triple left hook in the first round to floor Valenzuela and it looked like the fight would not last more than two rounds. But Valenzuela, a sturdy veteran, bored into Berchelt to keep him off balance and was able to stop the momentum.

It did not last.

A vicious attack to the body sapped the energy from Valenzuela who has fought many elite fighters in the past, but none like Berchelt. He was able to batter the veteran round after round.

Valenzuela sought to reverse the momentum with some combinations of his own. Berchelt opened up with some combinations from the outside and cracked his foe with some skull-numbing blows that clearly affected Valenzuela’s senses. The referee wisely stopped the fight at 1:03 of the sixth round to give the win to Berchelt by knockout.

The victory opens the door to a potential clash with featherweight world titlist Oscar Valdez of Nogales, Mexico who has a fight of his own planned next month. Both champions are promoted by Top Rank.

Other Bouts       

Omar Aguilar (18-0, 17 KOs) bushwacked veteran Dante Jardon (32-7, 23 KOs) within a minute of the first round to win by technical knockout. A barrage of blows by Ensenada’s Aguilar opened up the fight and a four-punch combination forced the referee to stop the super lightweight fight with Mexico City’s Jardon against the ropes.

A battle between super bantamweights saw the taller Alan Picasso (14-1) out-hustle Florentino Perez (14-6-2) in an eight round clash between Mexican fighters. Mexico City’s Picasso fought effectively inside against the shorter Perez of Monterrey and was able to maintain a consistent pace. Neither fighter approved the use of a jab but Picasso was more effective inside with body shots and uppercuts and dominated the last half of the fight.  The six judges scored in favor of Picasso.

The WBC instituted the extra judges as a means of tabulating score cards efficiently. Three judges scored from the television studios and another three judges scored from the USA. It was the second time WBC judges officiated remotely and all six scorecards were official.

Photo credit: Zanfer Promotions

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Boxing Odds and Ends: Big Baby Miller, Roberto Duran and More

Arne K. Lang

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Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller just can’t keep his hands out of the cookie jar. It was announced today (Saturday, June 27) that the jumbo-sized heavyweight from Brooklyn tested positive for a banned substance, forcing him out of a July 9 fight at the MGM Grand “Bubble” against Jerry Forrest. The story was broken by Mike Coppinger of The Athletic who breaks more hard news stories than any other boxing writer.

Miller, needless to say is a repeat offender. He failed three different PED tests in a span of three days for three different banned substances leading into his planned June 2019 match at Madison Square Garden with WBA/IBF/WBO world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua. That cost him the fight and a reported $5 million-plus payday. Andy Ruiz filled the void and scored an historic upset.

When the first test came back positive, Miller wailed that he was the victim of a faulty test. “My team and I stand for integrity, decency and honesty and will fight this with everything we have,” he said in a prepared statement. He later changed his tune. “I messed up,” he said.

In a story that appeared on these pages, Thomas Hauser noted that Big Baby had a history of PED use dating to 2014. In that year, he was slapped with a nine-month suspension by the California Athletic Commission following a kickboxing event in Los Angeles.

Counting this latest revelation, it’s five strikes for Big Baby. He’s taking quite a roasting right now on social media. Some of the harshest criticism is coming from his fellow boxers.

Assuming that Top Rank can’t find a replacement for Miller, this is another tough break for Jerry Forrest, a 32-year-old southpaw from Virginia with a 26-3 (20) record. Forrest was scheduled to fight hot prospect Filip Hrgovic on April 17 on a card at the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, a show swept away by the coronavirus outbreak. Forrest has been matched very soft throughout his career, but he acquitted himself well in his lone previous TV appearance, losing a split decision to undefeated Jermaine Franklin on “Showtime: The New Generation.” The decision was controversial.

There’s talk now that Carlos Takam is angling to replace Big Baby. The French-Cameroonian, a former world title challenger who turns 40 in December, was billed out of Henderson, Nevada, in his last ring appearance that saw him winning a unanimous decision over fellow greybeard Fabio Maldonado in Huntington, NY.

—-

When it comes to Murphy’s Law (“anything that can go wrong, will”), there’s no sport quite like boxing. Just ask Bob Arum. The most mouth-watering matchup in his ESPN “summer series” fell out this week when Eleider Alvarez suffered a shoulder injury in training, forcing a postponement of his July 16 date with Joe Smith Jr. The match between Alvarez (25-1, 13 KOs) and Smith (25-3, 20 KOs) would have been a 12-rounder with the winner guaranteed a shot at the vacant WBO light heavyweight title, a diadem that Alvarez previously owned.

Joe Smith Jr, a Long Island construction worker once dismissed as nothing more than a club fighter, won legions of new fans in his last start, a one-sided (to everyone except one myopic judge) win over Jesse Hart in Atlantic City.

Cancelled matches have become a recurrent theme in ESPN’s semi-weekly boxing series. The very first card in the series lost what shaped up as its most competitive fight when Mikaela Mayer tested positive for COVID-19, scuttling her bout with Helen Joseph. In subsequent weeks, the manager of Mikkel Les Pierre tested positive for COVID-19 as did WBO junior lightweight champion Jamel Herring. Those bad test results forced the postponement of two main events. Then earlier this week, hot lightweight prospect Joseph Adorno was lopped off Tuesday’s card after feeling sick after coming in overweight at the previous day’s weigh-in.

The undercards of the Tuesday/Thursday ESPN fights have left something to be desired, but that’s understandable. As Bob Arum noted in a conversation with veteran boxing scribe Keith Idec, Top Rank’s matchmakers Bruce Trampler and Brad “Abdul” Goodman have had a hard time fleshing out the cards because with so many gyms closed there’s a shortage of boxers who are in shape to fight on short notice. Then there are the COVID-19 travel restrictions and (something Arum did not acknowledge) budgetary restrictions more severe than an ordinary Top Rank card. Most of the undercard fighters have come from neighboring states such as Utah, saving Top Rank the cost of air fare. Fighters from faraway places, with some exceptions, were already training in Las Vegas.

Kudos to the entire Top Rank staff for keeping boxing alive during these challenging times.

It’s old news now, but Panamanian boxing legend Roberto Duran, 69, tested positive for the coronavirus and was hospitalized in Panama City with a viral infection. There’s been no update on his condition but his son Robin Duran wrote on Instagram that his father is not having any symptoms beyond those associated with a common cold. We will update you when new details become available.

Duran’s hospitalization came just a few days after the 40th anniversary of his first fight with Sugar Ray Leonard in what would say was Duran’s finest hour. They met on June 20, 1980 at Olympic Stadium in Montreal.

Duran won a unanimous decision. Converting the “10-point must” system into rounds, Duran prevailed by scores of 3-2-10, 6-5-4, and 6-4-5. As Yogi would have said, you could look it up.

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Fast Results from the Bubble: Jason Moloney TKOs Baez

Arne K. Lang

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Top Rank was back inside the MGM Grand “Bubble” tonight for chapter six of their semi-weekly ESPN summer series. Jason Moloney, one-half of Australia’s Moloney twins, accomplished what his brother Andrew Moloney was unable to accomplish in this ring on Tuesday night, adding a “W” to his ledger and looking good doing it. It came at the expense of Mexicali’s Leonardo Baez.

It was Jason Moloney’s second start on U.S. soil after coming up just a tad short in a bid for the vacant IBF world bantamweight title at Orlando in October of 2018. Against Baez, he fought a smart tactical fight, blunting the Mexican’s superior reach by fighting him at close quarters. Baez fought from the third round on with a cut over his right eye and then suffered a cut over his left eye in the seventh round. By then the fight was becoming increasingly one-sided and Baez’s corner did not let him come out for round eight.

Jason Moloney improved to 21-1 with his 18th knockout. Leonardo Baez, who took the fight on short notice after Maloney’s original opponent Oscar Negrete was forced to withdraw with a detached retina, slumped to 18-3.

Co-Feature

In the 10-round co-feature, Abraham Nova advanced to 19-0 with a unanimous decision over Philadelphia’s Avery Sparrow but won no new fans with a lackadaisical performance. Nova, born in Puerto Rico to parents from the Dominican Republic and raised in Albany, NY, showed little but his jab through the first seven rounds until hurting Sparrow with a big right hand in the eighth. The judges had it 96-94, 97-93, and 99-91.

Sparrow (10-2), whose lone previous loss was by disqualification, was making his first start in 15 months. He was slated to fight Ryan Garcia in Los Angeles last Sept. 14 but never made it to the weigh-in after being arrested by U.S. marshals on a charge of threatening a woman with a gun after she threw his clothes out the window…

Other Bouts

In an 8-round featherweight contest, Puerto Rican southpaw Orlando Gonzalez advanced to 15-0 with a unanimous decision over Ecuador’s Luis Porozo (15-3). The scores were 76-74 and 77-73 twice.

Gonzalez wasn’t particularly impressive although he did score two knockdowns. He decked Porozo near the end of round two with a left hook following a straight left and decked him again near the end of round seven with a left uppercut to the body.

In a rather ho-hum fight, welterweight Vlad Panin improved to 8-1 with 6-round majority decision over San Antonio’s 36-year-old Benjamin Whitaker (13-4). Panin, a Belarusian who grew up in Las Vegas and earned a BA in English from UCLA, has a good back story but seemingly a limited upside in the fight game.

In an entertaining 6-round welterweight clash, Filipino campaigner Reymond Yanon improved to 11-5-1 with a split decision (59-55, 58-56, 56-58) over Clay Burns. A 33-year-old ex-Marine from Fort Worth, Burns declined to 9-8-2.

The opener, a heavyweight bout slated for six rounds, matched two Phoenix-based fighters in a rematch. Kingsley Ibeh, a former standout defensive lineman for the Washburn College Ichabods, avenged his lone defeat and improved to 4-1 with a fourth-round stoppage of Waldo Cortes (5-3). Ibeh, who at 286 had a 39-pound weight advantage, softened Cortes up with a series of uppercuts and Cortes was on his way down when he was tagged with a glancing left hand. He got to his feet, but referee Vic Drakulich waived it off. The official time was 1:41.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams for Top Rank

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