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Regis Prograis Shines a Bright Light on Bobby Benton’s Houston Gym

Kelsey McCarson

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Prograis

“It’s everything. You know? It’s life,” said Bobby Benton, a man best known to mainstream boxing fans as the trainer of burgeoning junior welterweight star Regis Prograis. The question was about the sport, what it means to him and why he does it.

Benton admitted he’d never given much thought to doing anything else with his life and also hadn’t considered if he thought he’d have found his way to boxing had circumstances been different.

“Who knows? I try to keep things simple.”

Benton (pictured on the left) had already built a local legacy before Prograis came along, one that will last far beyond his years here on earth. It’s just that in training fighters like Prograis, a man most consider the top 140-pound fighter in the world, more people happen to find out about the trainer, what he does and where he does it.

All that’s great for Benton who runs the Main Street Boxing & Muay Thai Gym, one of the most successful boxing gyms in Houston. It’s a place built primarily on word-of-mouth marketing and social media efforts, and business is good.

“You come here and you get real training,” said Benton. “You’re not going to places like Title Boxing where you’re just getting a workout. Here you’re getting trained by world champions and by real fighters.”

Tucked inside a nondescript building and surrounded by a confusing array of paid parking lots and cryptic storefronts, it all seems to mesh together into one amorphous blob of downtown Houston cityscape.

But the people who come out of this particular place are sweaty and tired, and they tend to look you in the eye when they speak instead of scurrying on by with their heads down. That’s how you know you’re at Benton’s gym where some of the very best fighters in Houston come to train every day.

Some are business people who fight their alarm clocks every morning so they can make their 6 am Muay Thai class. Others are construction workers who fight their tired bodies to come throw punches at each other later that afternoon. Some are amateur or professional fighters hoping to become the next Regis Prograis.

But whether favored to win on the biggest stages in the sport, or just a local underdog who wants to trim a few pounds before summer hits, Benton welcomes everyone.

“It’s how we keep the gym open,” said Benton about all the different kinds of people he trains Monday through Saturday from the time he gets to the gym every morning at 4:30 to the time he leaves for home late in the evening.

“We even had a guy come down here for about six months who had Parkinson’s,” said Benton. “He went back to his doctor and the doctor asked what he had been doing because his symptoms had gotten so much better.”

Owned by Benton, former heavyweight boxer Lou Savarese and famed MMA coach Bob Perez, everyone who comes to Main Street is a fighter. And every fighter at the gym is part of something more.

“We’re a family here.”

The gym traces its roots to the Heights Boxing gym situated way across town which was opened by Benton’s father in 1986. The current configuration takes its name from a move three years later to the Midtown intersection of Main Street and Elgin. But the gym has been located at 1612 Austin Street for over 20 years now.

Benton said he had one amateur fight before he began training fighters at age 18. He said he lost the fight, but thought he should have been given the decision. Regardless, he stopped competing as a fighter and moved on to his chosen profession.

“I grew up in the gym, so I just started training guys,” said Benton. “I never second-guessed myself.”

Benton learned his trade from famed Texas boxing legend Al “Potato Pie” Boulden, who worked the corners of Savarese, Frank Tate, Iran Barkley and many other fighters at various gyms across the city.

“He was like a mentor to me. I learned a lot from him.”

When Boulden passed in 2002, Savarese asked Benton to step in as his new trainer. Benton went on to work Savarese’s corner for the remainder of his boxing career, including his fights against Tim Witherspoon and Evander Holyfield.

Benton has been an integral part of the Houston-area boxing scene ever since. He’s worked the corner of some of the brightest prospects in the city, and his current stable of professional fighters includes Progais, a New Orleans transplant since Hurricane Katrina, undefeated junior welterweight Darwin Price, who spent his last dollar to move from St. Louis so could chase his boxing dreams, and junior lightweight contender O’Shaquie Foster.

But with all the success he’s achieved training professional boxers, as well as the significant impact he’s made on the local Houston community, Benton has yet to work the corner of a world champion, at least on the night they become it.

“Regis will become champion on my 41st birthday,” said Benton about the possibility of that changing Saturday night in Lafayette, Lousiana. Prograis is set to face WBA titleholder Kiryl Relikh in the semi-finals of the World Boxing Super Series, and the oddsmakers like his chances.

But don’t expect Benton’s life to change all that much should Prograis become champ. In fact, don’t expect Benton’s life to change if the fighter ends up becoming the next Floyd Mayweather. Benton, after all, is the kind of person who already knows what he wants out of life. It’s what he’s already doing.

“If I hit the lotto, I’ll still be doing what I’m doing,” said Benton. “Boxing is my life.”

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank

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“—C’mon!” (from the pen of Springs Toledo)

Springs Toledo

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-C'mon

“—C’mon!” said Teofimo Lopez with two seconds left in the 12th round. It was a Brooklyn thing to say on a Brooklyn-type Saturday night, and Lopez timed it well. He’d just crashed two hooks at either side of Vasiliy Lomachenko’s head and ended their saga as it began—with sharp words.

“My son will destroy Lomachenko,” Lopez’s father told EsNews in August 2017. Three months later Lopez was in the gym mimicking his style. “Same side always,” he said as he tapped the bag and dipped to his right. “Nuthin’ different.” “Lomachenko is a diva,” he said last week. “I don’t like him … I’m the type of person, I say something I mean it. If you have a problem with it, come see me.” Lomachenko came to see him all right, and both brought their fathers as if the whole thing was a schoolyard scrap.

Lomachenko’s father is a silent sage. His modern training techniques are part of the “performance revolution” that has transformed every sport, including the sport that’s barely a sport, and not necessarily for the better. Papa Chenko’s futurama theories seem at once scientific and idiosyncratic. Pundits who never heard of Freddie Brown think they’re next-level stuff. There’s Lomachenko holding his breath under water to build lung strength; there he is touching that board with blinking lights to improve hand-eye coordination. When Lomachenko was 9, his father went so far as to enroll him in a Ukrainian folk dance school to expose him to hobak, hutsulka, and the kolomiyka, and you can see it in all the hopping and side-stepping he does around the ring at 32.

Papa Lopez is anything but silent, though he too is a sage—a naysaying sage with street instincts picked up during a few round trips through hell. He takes no one’s word for anything and if he takes a break from a tirade and asks a question, it has about as much tact as a shiv. When Lomachenko is holding his breath in the pool is someone else there too, denting his rib cage with hooks? Those lights blinking on the screen, do they feint? And dancing school? Dancing school? Brooklyn itself rolls its collective eyes.

Papa Lopez laughs without mirth at the consensus opinion, at the so-called experts. But he couldn’t laugh off the indisputable fact that Lomachenko has been knocking off a parade of world-class fighters. So he plopped down in front of YouTube to see for himself what was happening.

And what did he see?

He saw that the so-called Matrix style is a series of tricks; that Lomachenko is pulling fast ones on the gullible in the opposite corner and in press row. He saw opponents cooperating with him as he gauged their strengths and weaknesses in the first round or two and measured the distance between his glove and their chin. He saw them mesmerized by nothing-shots—“pitty pats,” he called them, “patty-cakes,” and wondered if it would have been easier or harder, given the language barrier, if Lomachenko just came out and asked them to throw something so he can find the best route around it to sock them in the chops.

Papa Lopez also saw that Lomachenko is preoccupied with not getting hurt; that he habitually slips, dips, and veers off to his right against the conventional stance. Teofimo, 23, saw the same thing. They both know why he prefers that direction: it’s the safest route.

His offense, which has two prongs and lots of frills, doesn’t contradict his preoccupation. Lomachenko wants to draw out his opponents to counter them. He stands a half-step off the perimeter where they can’t quite reach him and he can’t reach them. Then he baits them. If they take the bait, he hops in with a jab and then hops back out of reach. He’s making calculations, looking for patterns, and once he finds them he exploits them with minimal risk to himself because, like Floyd Mayweather, he already has a pretty good idea of what they’re going to throw. When is he most aggressive? When his opponent is least aggressive—out of position or covering up. He isn’t comfortable with uncalculated risks. Like Floyd, he wants control; and that only happens with an opponent’s cooperation.

Stanley Crouch, the late cultural critic and Brooklynite who was at least as contentious as Papa Lopez, understood the set-up. “What a boxer ideally wants to do is turn the opponent into an assistant in his own ass-whipping,” he said. “That’s really what you want the other guy to do—to assist you in whipping his ass.”

Lomachenko built a reputation on willing assistants.

And defeating him was easier than anyone anticipated. The fighter of the future bowed to all-American unruliness and old-fashioned fundamentals.

Old School’s comeback Saturday night was long, long overdue. Lopez used his strength and length to draw an invisible border with a warning that said “this far and no farther.” Then he enforced it. Instead of letting Lomachenko freely angle around him like he’s some stiff at the prom, he angled with him and threw punches. When Lomachenko slipped and sallied past his invisible border, he adjusted his distance and sent the dogs out. He stopped his momentum. He never let him take control. He never cooperated.

By the 8th round, Lomachenko realized that he had no chance to win unless he let go of his preoccupation with defense. He had to “sell out,” as Andre Ward said, by getting closer and sallying in when it wasn’t safe. Lomachenko won the 8th round—the first of only three that two judges scored his way—but it didn’t matter. His mouth had dropped open as if he was getting ready to admit futurama’s failure. “I heard him huffing and puffing and I knew I had him,” said Lopez.

The 12th round reminds us that Old School remains the gold standard in the sport that’s barely a sport. When Papa Lopez had a nervous moment in the corner and urged caution, Lopez refused. “I’m a fighter, I can’t give him that,” he said, as if to remind us that Old School is more than dust, that it’s a disposition.

Teofimo Lopez now stands in a succession of lightweight kings whose dispositions were the impetus behind achievements that make this succession very possibly the most majestic of them all: Joe Gans. Benny Leonard. Tony Canzoneri. Barney Ross. Henry Armstrong. Ike Williams. Carlos Ortiz. Roberto Duran. Julio Cesar Chavez. Pernell Whitaker.

Floyd Mayweather is in that succession too, but the business model that guided his career was rebuked Saturday night. Lopez pointed to the past, polished it up, and declared its superiority. “We’re bringing back what the Old School was. You fight the best and push on it. I’m not here to pick and choose who I want to fight because I want to defend my title and keep that 0,” he said and shook his head. “No. Nah!”

The lightweight king now beckons chief rivals Devin Haney, Ryan Garcia, and Gervonta Davis to disavow the business model and take up the red flag. He looks north to Josh Taylor and Jose Carlos Ramirez’s battle for the jr. welterweight crown and beckons either of them—or both.

 “—C’mon!”

 

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank

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Kelsey McCarson’s HITS and MISSES: Takeover Edition

Kelsey McCarson

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Kelsey-McCarson's-Hits-and-Misses-Takeover-Edition

Boxing is back!

Okay, boxing had technically been back for a few months now. But didn’t it seem to be more fully back to normal with the weekend’s lightweight unification battle between Teofimo Lopez and Vasiliy Lomachenko on ESPN?

Make that double the case now that another edition of HITS and MISSES follows the latest big weekend in boxing, the first installment since the global pandemic began. 

HIT: Teofimo Lopez’s Undisputed Takeover

It’s one thing to parade something like “Takeover” around as your nickname while promising to be the next great fighter in the sport. It’s quite another to actually pull that takeover off, and do it at the tender age of 23 against a three-division world champion that’s a massive betting favorite. 

But that’s what Lopez did on Saturday night in Las Vegas, and he accomplished it in a way that almost nobody expected. 

Lopez dominated Lomachenko from the start of the fight. He outboxed the clever southpaw savant in a way few people dreamed possible and took home the unanimous decision win. Even among the few who thought the young lion might somehow usurp the old guard, most of that crew thought it would probably be one big punch that sent Loma down for the count.

By the end of the night, Lopez had solidified his status as boxing’s newest superstar. He also became the first undisputed lightweight champion since Pernell Whitaker. 

But even if the whole WBC Franchise fiasco leaves you in a place that questions that specific designation, Lopez used his post-fight celebration time to call the other WBC belt holder Devin Haney about a possible future showdown. 

So, Lopez is the undisputed best thing to happen to boxing in a long time. 

MISS: Vasiliy Lomachenko’s Slow Start

I like to think Lomachenko is still somewhere out there right now feinting and shuffling his feet around like a dancer. Seriously, though, what was Lomachenko doing for most of Saturday night? He certainly wasn’t attempting to win the fight. 

Much was made by the ESPN announcers about how Lomachenko would start slow in fights because he liked to download his opponents’ movements before settling on his attacks. But Lomachenko didn’t seem all that interested in attacking Lopez until somewhere around the eighth-round. By that time, the 32-year-old was way too far down on the scorecards for anything to matter all that much.

Sure, the last third of the fight was fun to watch. Lomachenko did end up having his moments including a strong 11th round, but it would have been a better fight if Lomachenko had started sooner. 

Instead, the fighter ESPN has long argued deserved to be ranked above everyone else regardless of weight class dispassionately saw his titles ripped away from him with relative ease. 

HIT: Edgar Berlanga’s KO Streak

Last year, I noted that Berlanga’s incredible streak was probably a case of matchmaking gone awry and that Berlanga would likely suffer later in his career because he wasn’t getting any rounds under his belt that mattered. 

My reasoning? Even terrifying power punchers like Deontay Wilder and Gennadiy Golovkin didn’t dispatch their early opponents in such decisively one-sided ways. 

Maybe it was just the lack of boxing around due to the global pandemic, but now I’ve flipped on Berlanga’s knockout streak. The 23-year-old scored his 15th first-round stoppage in a row against Lanell Bellows on Saturday’s Top Rank on ESPN card. 

It’s become one of the most interesting and noteworthy streaks in the sport, and this time Berlanga stopped an opponent who had never suffered that fate before in any round, much less the first. 

Berlanga’s 15 KOs in 15 fights is good television. 

MISS: Boxing Judge’s Viral ‘Social Dilemma’

Lewis Ritson was awarded a split-decision victory over former lightweight titleholder Miguel Vazquez on Saturday in England in a junior welterweight bout dubbed by the Sporting News as the “worst decision of 2020.”

According to CompuBox, Ritson’s “constant forward movement and snappier punches” earned him the nod on two of the judges’ scorecards even though Vazquez had out-landed him in all the important punch stat categories (193-141 overall, 80-75 jabs, 113-66 power).

But the biggest controversy was the viral picture of judge Terry O’Connor apparently looking at his phone during the fight that he scored 117-111 for Ritson. 

That didn’t sit well with anyone who believes judges should be watching the fights they’re tasked with scoring.

But in the wake of Netflix’s documentary film “The Social Dilemma,” that shows just how ingenious today’s artificial intelligence is at boosting user engagement so companies can sell advertising time to the unwitting people on the other end who don’t know why they can’t put their phones down. Maybe O’Connor and others should be mandated to place their phones in a place they can’t be accessed during fights. 

That would keep the social media outrage that’s going on right now over the few seconds O’Connor spent looking away from the action and point it more toward what appears to be boxing’s bigger problem: phones or no phones, too many boxing judges don’t know how to score fights. 

HIT: The Wonder of Complementary Programming 

Boxing counterprograms itself so much these days through the different promotional companies and networks out there that it’s nice to enjoy at least one day in recent history where a big fight happened and there weren’t any other big fights attempting to grab our attention. 

Not only did that happen, but ESPN wisely chose not to split programming between it’s MMA and boxing audiences on Saturday. 

ESPN is the home to Top Rank on ESPN boxing as well as the world’s leading MMA promotional company, UFC.

Like Top Rank, the UFC had a massive fight card on its schedule on Saturday, and the boxing/UFC audiences are fractured enough that both cards could have somewhat reasonably ran against each other. 

Instead, the UFC’s Fight Night card in Abu Dhabi ran early in the evening, and it meant UFC fans who might be somewhat interested in the big fight in boxing could be funneled to the main card featuring Lopez vs. Lomachenko. 

That’s great for both sports, the promoters and ESPN, too. Top Rank’s Bob Arum and UFC’s Dana White might hate each other for personal and political reasons, but the rising tide of complementary programming on ESPN will ultimately have all ships rising. 

Check out more boxing news on video at the Boxing Channel 

To comment on this story in the Fight Forum CLICK HERE

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank

 

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 Teofimo Takes Over: Upsets Lomachenko

Arne K. Lang

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Teofimo Takes Over: Upsets Lomachenko

Four belts were at stake tonight when Vasiliy Lomachenko locked horns with Teofimo Lopez at the MGM Grand Bubble. There were two stand-alone belts (IBF and WBO), one fractured belt (WBA), and one belt of little provenance contrived especially for this fight. But this was a fight that didn’t need any alphabet baubles to legitimate it. In the history of the 135-pound division, few matchups have been as compelling.

Heading in, Lomachenko had faced eight former or current world title-holders and had won 13 straight. Lopez, nine years younger at age 23, was undefeated (now 16-0) but few thought that he was ready for the likes of the Ukrainian marvel who many considered the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world. But the Brooklyn-born Lopez, who represented Honduras in the 2016 Olympics, started fast and finished with a flourish to win a unanimous decision.

The judges had it 116-112, 117-111, and 119-109, the latter score turned in by Julie Lederman whose tally struck the TV commentators as way too wide. Lomachenko started slow, arguably losing the first six rounds, and when he finally let his hands go more freely he was playing catch-up with too big a deficit to overcome.

Co-Feature

Los Angeles junior welterweight Arnold Barboza Jr., a consensus 13/5 favorite, maintained his unblemished record with a unanimous decision over former world title challenger Alex Saucedo who suffered his second loss in 32 fights. Saucedo scored the bout’s lone knockdown with a straight left hand in round seven (it was initially ruled a slip, but overruled by replay judge Joe Cortez), but Barboza, now 25-0, had the faster hands and routinely beat Saucedo to the punch to win by scores of 96-93, 97-92, 97-92.

Berlanga

Edgar Berlanga, the 23-year-old Brooklyn-based Puerto Rican, continued his spectacular start to his pro career with another first-round knockout, his 15th in as many opportunities. The victim was 34-year-old Lanell Bellows (20-6-3), a Mayweather Gym product who hadn’t previously been stopped.

A super middleweight, Berlanga, the 2019 TSS Prospect of the Year, hurt Bellows with a sweeping left hook and opened a gash over Bellows left eye with an overhand right before referee Robert Hoyle interceded. The official time was 1:19.

Other Bouts

In a bout contested at the catch-weight of 142 pounds, 22-year-old Bronx southpaw Josue Vargas, whose lone setback was by disqualification, improved to 18-1 with a unanimous decision over San Antonio’s Kendo Castaneda (17-3). The judges had it 100-89, 99-90, and 98-91.

Vargas, who was Teofimo’s chief sparring partner, scored a flash knockdown in round two with a straight left hand. Castaneda, who acquitted himself well in defeat in a Bubble bout with Jose Zepeda that he took on 7-days notice, is an honest workman hampered by a lack of punching power.

Featherweight Jose Enrique Vivas (20-1, 11 KOs) wasted no time dismissing John Vincent Moralde (23-4), whacking out the Filipino at the 1:16 mark of the opening round. The Mexico-born Californian, Vivas sent Moralde to the canvas in the opening minute with a cuffing left hook and then went for the kill, felling Moralde for the count with a vicious body punch.

In a 6-round welterweight contest, Houston’s Quinton Randall advanced to 7-0 (2) with a unanimous decision over Jon Carlos Rivera who was 4-0 with 4 KOs (and 1 ND) coming in. The scores were 59-55 and 58-56 twice.

Rivera, from Philadelphia via Vieques, Puerto Rico, was the aggressor, but the 30-year-old Randall, who is backed by a strong team, had height and reach advantages that Rivera couldn’t overcome.

In the TV lid-lifter, 17-year old welterweight Jahi Tucker improved to 2-0 with a unanimous decision over Charles Garner (1-1). All three judges gave Tucker all four rounds, but Garner wasn’t fazed by Tucker’s amateur pedigree – the Deer Park, Long Island teenager, was ranked #1 at 138 pounds while still a sophomore in high school – and acquitted himself very well in defeat.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank

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Conor McGregor vs. Pac-Man: The Circus is Back in Town

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