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It Was TV Mogul Michael King, Not Don King, Who `Discovered’ Dominic Breazeale

Bernard Fernandez

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Dominic Breazeale

The late Michael King obviously had an eye for talent. One of six siblings who inherited a failing television syndication company, King World, from their father Charles King in the early 1980s, Michael and his similarly prescient older brother Roger believed they could go international with a Chicago talk-show host with a strictly local audience. Oprah Winfrey is now arguably the most powerful woman in the entertainment industry, and a billionaire. But Oprah wasn’t the only beneficiary of Michael King’s vision of what American viewers might like to see; he also shepherded such modest little game shows as Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! to iconic status, making Pat Sajak, Vanna White and Alex Trebek, among others, hugely popular and highly compensated celebrities.

Not that Michael King, whose income from his deceased father’s company at the time he and Roger took over was $150 a week from Little Rascals reruns, was satisfied with being a king- (and queen-) maker for daytime TV. After he made his vast fortune, Michael, a rabid sports fan and New Jersey native, became a minority stakeholder in the New York Yankees, New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets and New Jersey Devils. Still, it troubled him that the United States had ceased, or was in the process of doing so, to be the world’s foremost power in Olympic boxing, particularly a heavyweight division that once was dominated by the likes of American gold medalists and future pro superstars Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman.

King, who was 67 when he died on May 27, 2015, from complications arising from pneumonia (Roger, then 63, had passed away on Dec. 8, 2007), decided he had the determination and deep pockets necessary to restore his country’s ebbing place in that particular global world order. He founded All American Heavyweights in 1986 in Carson, Calif., with the idea of recruiting large and talented athletes from other sports, primarily football and basketball, if their dreams of making it in the NFL or NBA were not fulfilled.

“A great athlete in any sport can pick up another sport faster than most people,” King – who sold King World to CBS in 1999 for $2.5 billion in stock – said of his grand scheme to produce a pugilistic version of Oprah, and maybe even several of them. “It (America’s receding place at the heavyweight table) really all stems from a lack of talent and lack of apprenticeship for trainers. The pipeline is dead … It’s not an NCAA sport, so it’s totally dependent on the Olympic program, and that NGB (USA Boxing is its national governing board) does not have a lot of resources.

“Instead of getting some thug off the street, why not tap into the greatest talent pool in the United States? You’re talking about elite athletes who are in great shape, who are really big, who are unbelievably coordinated, and they are articulate college graduates.”

About 3,000 recruited candidates eventually bought into King’s sales pitch, or at least those made on his behalf by talent scouts who fanned across the nation in search of diamonds in the rough. With one exception, all were found wanting in one way or another. The sole survivor of the now-defunct All American Heavyweights, Dominic Breazeale (20-1, 18 KOs), gets his second crack at his sport’s most prestigious prize when he takes on WBC champion Deontay Wilder (40-0-1, 39 KOs) in the Showtime-televised main event Saturday night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The 6-foot-7, 255-pound Breazeale, now 33, previously challenged IBF heavyweight champ Anthony Joshua on June 25, 2016, before a sellout crowd in Joshua’s hometown of London. Although Breazeale became only the second of Joshua’s 17 opponents to that point to last more than three rounds, his relative inexperience at the elite level – not surprising for someone who didn’t even take up boxing until he was 23 – was evident and he was dropped twice in the seventh round, at which point the fight was stopped by referee Howard John Foster.

Since then Breazeale, the U.S.’s super heavyweight representative at the 2012 London Olympics, has put together three straight victories, all inside the distance. He said he is a much improved version of himself than the one who gamely took a licking from Joshua. Not only that, but he opined that Wilder, his -900 favoritism (a bettor would have to wager $900 on him to win $100) notwithstanding, isn’t nearly as polished as Joshua, who has added the WBA and WBO titles to his now three-belt collection. Breazeale is convinced he will delay or even end speculation about a Joshua-Wilder unification showdown by upsetting Wilder, preferably by knockout, and thus earn the do-over with the big Briton he has wanted since he suffered his first and only pro defeat.

“I don’t see any fundamental skills,” Breazeale, who will be making his first ring appearance with new trainer Virgil Hunter, said of Wilder, the Tuscaloosa, Ala., native who took a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “He hasn’t grown. He hasn’t changed. Yeah, he’s got a big right hand, but don’t we all in the heavyweight division? We all have knockout power.

“It’s going to be an explosive night. You’ve got two 6-7 guys. I’m super-excited to be involved in the event, and I’m super-excited to get a big KO win. I think I’m walking into a fight where I’m the more-skilled, more-athletic fighter.”

Trash talk is the coin of the verbal realm when it comes to hyping high-visibility boxing matches, but the animosity between Breazeale and Wilder, despite their commonality as American Olympians, gives no hint of being manufactured. The bad blood between them dates back to Feb. 25, 2017, when they both appeared on the same card at the Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Ala. Wilder defended his IBF title with a fifth-round stoppage of Gerald Washington in one of his periodic return bouts in his home state, with Breazeale knocking out Izuagbe Ugonoh in the fifth round as the lead-in. There was a later confrontation at the hotel where both fighters and their entourages were staying, the blame for which depends on who’s telling the story.

“He insulted my wife in a situation that was not boxing-related,” Breazeale said. “The gratification of getting my personal revenge, knocking out Deontay Wilder, is a lot bigger than a win or a KO on any other given night.”

Not surprisingly, Wilder claims it was he who was the aggrieved party. He said Breazeale’s brash prediction is just so much hot air.

“I’m going to smash this fly,” vowed Wilder, who will be making his ninth title defense. “This is a personal fight for me. When I take a fight personal, something magical is going to happen. I haven’t been this excited about destroying an opponent since Bermane Stiverne (in their first fight, in 2015).

“I’ve already stated what I want to do, and I’m gonna do what I say I’m gonna do, just like I do all the time. But with this particular opponent I’m gonna make sure I do it in the most painful way possible.”

If it is Breazeale whose hand is raised, however, it is fairly certain he will acknowledge someone who is no longer around, a would-be maker of miracles who lost, by his estimation, “tens of millions of dollars” on All American Heavyweights but still somehow might hit it big from beyond the grave.

Michael King.

“The idea (of Brezeale trying his hand at boxing) first came across in a phone call,” Breazeale recalled. “I told the gentleman that called, Joe Onowar, who was the recruiter, that he was crazy. There was no way in hell I was going to pick up boxing at 23 after I’d done football, basketball, track, baseball, hockey, wrestling, all that as a kid. I had never set foot in a boxing gym. Besides, I thought I was at the end of my athletic career. Honestly, at the time I thought it was a dumb, dumb idea.

“Three months later I had my first amateur fight. Eighteen months after that I was a U.S. Olympian (losing in the first round, 19-8, to Russia’s Magomed Omarov). Now, 10 years later, I’m fighting for the WBC world title.

“I think Michael King was the smartest man on the planet. For me to be the one to come out on top from 3,100 athletes who went through that the door … I thought Mr. King trying to turn Division I athletes into professional boxers was crazy then, but now I think it was a phenomenal idea.”

Breazeale, from Glendale, Calif., almost certainly wouldn’t have given boxing a try had he been a better NFL prospect. He had some good moments during his two seasons as Northern Colorado’s quarterback, and he admits having entertained thoughts of latching on with an NFL team. But he went undrafted and came to realize that dream was never going to be realized. That’s when another dream, Michael King’s, became his dream as well.

Asked if he would ever have considered boxing had he been a good enough pro football prospect to be drafted in, say, the first three rounds in 2008, Breazeale said, “No way. I was pursuing the NFL. Things didn’t pan out the way I wanted, but Michael King was still there when the NFL door closed. I thought, `I’m a big man, I’m powerful, I’m aggressive.’ That type of thing.  So why not?”

What Breazeale did not realize – not then, anyway – is that he had a genetic connection to boxing that had nothing at all to do with Michael King. It was New Year’s Eve, the last day of 2015, and Breazeale was training for a Jan. 23 fight with Amir Mansour at the Staples Center in Los Angeles when he was told that his mother, Christina “Tina” Breazeale, 56, had suffered a massive heart attack. Shortly after her son arrived at the hospital, she died.

As Breazeale and his three siblings went through his mother’s possessions, he found boxes containing boxing items from the biological father, Harold Lee Breazeale, he barely knew, including a Golden Gloves state championship belt, boxing shoes, a mouth guard and some news stories.

“I can’t believe she didn’t tell you,” a family member told Dominic.

“I have the pedigree, and I didn’t even know it,” Breazeale said in describing the moment to the Los Angeles Times. “I guess it’s natural to me. It’s in blood.”

Another thing: when a much younger Dominic, who had tried his hand at just about every sport and was good at all of them, asked his mom if it would be all right for him to go to a boxing gym with some of his friends to see if he’d like it, she put her foot down. She told him to “stick to football and basketball.”

“It makes sense now,” said Breazeale, who considers his stepfather, Terry, to be his dad of choice. “There was no explanation, just a `No, you’re not doing it.’ She was a huge supporter of what I do, but she wanted to keep me away from boxing.”

It’s funny how things work out sometimes. It might even be the perfect scenario, should Breazeale, the ex-quarterback, wind up shocking Wilder, the former star wide receiver for his high school football team. Breazeale would necessarily have to be the guy pitching most of the leather, with Wilder the target for all those bombs.

Might even be good enough for Breazeale to wangle a guest shot on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Somewhere, somehow, you’d have to think Michael King would approve.

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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Book Review

“Sparring with Smokin’ Joe” is a Great Look into a Great, Complicated Man

Phil Woolever

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BOOK REVIEW – Some rare moments arrive, as either a blessing or a curse, to cast definitive impressions of how someone might be remembered. As anyone reading this should well know, such a moment occurred 50 years ago today (March 8, 1971) at Madison Square Garden for Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.

For Frazier, a punishing 15-round victory became the foundation to his legacy. That leads us to Sparring with Smokin’ Joe by Glenn Lewis, the latest biographical volume to focus on Frazier, with a timely release date close to the “Fight of the Century” anniversary that should provide plenty of solid promotional material for the book.

As a piece of literature the book, published by Rowman & Littlefield, stands up quite well on its own, and as a piece of boxing literature it stands out, through previously unpublished situational information on Frazier.

I found it to be a must-read for Frazier fans and a solid plus for most boxing libraries.

Author Lewis is a graduate school professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) and director of journalism at the affiliated York College with decades of expertise on his resume. This project is expertly constructed and reads very smoothly throughout. Beside the many insightful instances regarding Frazier himself, a very thoughtful portrait of his son Marvis Frazier runs through the narrative, which also conjures a vivid depiction of Frazier’s Broad Street Gym in North Philadelphia.

The book’s unique highlight is the ongoing tale of traveling with Frazier and his all-white band (with multiple Berklee school members) during a tour of southern states.

The first 140 pages or so (out of a listed 256), make up a fascinating memoir of getting to know Frazier and his circle during 1980, around four years after his second crushing defeat to George Foreman. At that point in his life, Frazier was trying to settle into retirement, guide Marvis’s culminating amateur career, and transition from boxing superstar to fledgling vocal attraction.

I devoured the opening sections of the book with reader’s glee, far more than enough to highly recommend Lewis’ book, but toward the end it seemed maybe he should have quit while and where he was ahead.

The last third gets substantially less engaging. The author grew distanced from his subject’s proximity and it shows, as the tale becomes far more familiar in relating already well-documented fight data.

There is still some fine perspective from Lewis like Joe’s hugely destructive obsession with rushing Marvis into disaster versus Larry Holmes, but for many of the closing segments you could cut and paste the same period of Frazier’s career out of Mark Kram Jr’s recent book Smokin’ Joe (2019) and gain a bit more personal touch.

That’s not at all to imply that the boxing writing is weak. Lewis makes an excellent case that Frazier won the rematch with Ali, not only the first fight; which leads to justified speculation on what could have occurred had Frazier gotten the second nod. Back then I shared Lewis’ opinion on the scoring, and his detailed analysis inspires taking another look at the replay.

Some minor gym characters or business associates become animated as if they’re standing in front of you, but I was disappointed in how a charming, complicated guy like Jimmy Young was overlooked and how larger-than-life characters like Gil Clancy and especially George Benton (a living example of where playwright August Wilson drew inspiration) came across rather subdued compared to the boisterous conversationalists I spoke with many times not long after the year Lewis’s story begins.

There are also a couple of minor omissions that, though based on very brief listings, still stick out when considering Lewis’s scholarly, journalistic credentials.

James Shuler is mentioned, but there’s nothing about his tragic death in a motorcycle accident a week after losing to Tommy Hearns in a minor title fight, nor the touching story about Hearns at the funeral, offering to put the belt in Shuler’s coffin. Frazier’s restaurant, Smokin’ Joe’s Corner, is also listed a couple times but there is no mention of the horrible murders that took place there during an inside job robbery and how that tragedy probably put the final nail into Frazier’s aspirations in the food industry.

I also hoped for some tidbits from Frazier’s thoughtful and wise older brother Tommy who provided me with some rare insights (and had an offbeat sense of humor about his name), a stoic trickster who seemed to lovingly enjoy putting his famous sibling on the spot.

Still, the overall impression I got was fantastic. A memoir should share time, location, emotion, and reflection. Lewis achieves all those things many times over.

Which leads to my primary, personal takeaway of this very worthwhile book. Based on a few of the lengthy encounters I was lucky enough to share with Joe Frazier (boxing and non-boxing related), it’s difficult for me to imagine that a canny observer like Lewis didn’t emerge from the amazing and enviable access he got with more wild tales, especially from nights on the road.

So, I’d have to guess, and bet, that Lewis let some of the more sensational situations or quotes remain aloft in the mist of the past, which to me is admirable, even more so in these social media dominated days.

Here’s a non-controversial quote that is included, which provides a sample of the many fine nuggets to be found:

“I don’t think you’re less of a man for crying,” said Joe, taking me by surprise. “It’s healthy for you. I cry if something goes wrong- I’ll cry right out. But if I cry out of anger, look out! Somebody’s in trouble. Crying shows a man has heart and helps him out of his pressures. Just don’t cry for nothing.”

I could almost hear Frazier’s voice when I read that, and descriptions of places I’ve been like Frazier’s gym read true enough to give the entire book an aura of accuracy.

A dozen excellent photographs serve as a first-class coda.

Fifty years after his biggest triumph, Joe Frazier remains a compelling topic in the discourse of sociological significance. This well written tribute does him plenty of justice.

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The Fight of the Century: A Golden Anniversary Celebration

Arne K. Lang

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In professional boxing, fights can be rank-ordered as generic fights, big fights, bigger fights, mega-fights, and spectacles. The first fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier wasn’t merely a spectacle, but the grandest spectacle of them all. This coming Monday, March 8, is the 50th anniversary of that iconic event.

Ali-Frazier I was staged at three-year-old Madison Square Garden, the fourth arena in New York to take that name. It drew a capacity crowd: 20,455 (19,500 paid). An estimated 60 percent of all the tickets sold fell into the hands of scalpers.

The fight was closed-circuited to more than 350 locations in the United States and Canada. At some of the larger venues, it established a new record for gate receipts, and this for an attraction that wasn’t produced in-house. In Los Angeles, 15,333 saw the fight at the Forum and 11,575 at the nearby Sports Arena.

Bill Ballenger, the sports editor of the Charlotte (NC) News, saw the fight at the Charlotte Coliseum. He reported that the audio – Don Dunphy did the blow-by-blow with Burt Lancaster and Archie Moore serving as color commentators – was loud enough to be heard outside the arena and that many folks, either unable or unwilling to purchase a ticket, loitered outside and followed the action in 30 degrees weather.

An estimated three hundred million people saw the fight worldwide. In England, by some estimates, half the population tuned in, watching either at home on BBC1 or at a theater where one could watch the fight unfold on a movie screen. Now keep in mind that in England the fight didn’t commence until 6:40 in the morning on a Tuesday!

Inside Madison Square Garden, the large flock of celebrities included many folks one wouldn’t expect to find at a prizefight. Marcello Mastroianni, Italy’s most famous movie star, made a special trip from Rome. Salvador Dali was there and Barbra Streisand and Ethel Kennedy, widow of Bobby Kennedy, seated next to her escort, crooner Andy Williams. Frank Sinatra was there working as a photographer for Life magazine. Lore has it that Sinatra wangled the assignment after failing to boat one of the coveted ringside seats.

The scene was made brighter by human “peacocks,” the label applied to Harlemites with an outrageous sense of fashion, and the electricity was palpable. When Ali appeared at the back of the arena, making his way from his dressing room to the ring, everyone had goosebumps.

The late, great New York sportswriter Dick Young once wrote that there is no greater drama than in the moments preceding a big heavyweight title fight and that was never more true than on March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden.

Ali (31-0, 25 KOs) and Frazier (26-0, 23 KOs) were both undefeated. Both had a claim to the heavyweight title, Ali because the belt had been controversially stripped away from him for his political beliefs. Opinions as to who would win were pretty evenly divided. In Las Vegas, Joe Frazier was the favorite at odds of 6 to 5. Across the pond in England, bookies were quoting odds of 11 to 8 on Ali.

Those that favored Ali were of the opinion that ‘Smokin’ Joe was too one-dimensional. That much was true. Joe was as subtle as a steam locomotive on a downhill grade. He ate Ali’s hardest punches, said Boston Globe reporter Bud Collins, as if they were movie house popcorn and he eventually wore Ali down. There was little doubt as to how the judges would see it after Joe knocked Ali down in the 15th round with a frightful left hook. When Ali arose, it appeared that he had been afflicted with a sudden case of the mumps. The decision was unanimous: 11-4, 9-6, 8-6-1.

This wasn’t the greatest fight of all time, but it was a fight that more than lived up to the hype. And, as several people have noted, the event took on a life of its own without the benefit of modern technology to push it along. The buzz was fueled in a large part by newspapers, the “antiquated” sort of newspapers that a fellow fished from his driveway or purchased at a newsstand on the way to or from work. If twitter and facebook had been around during Muhammad Ali’s prime, Ali would have blown the doors off the internet.

A cultural touchstone is an event that remains sealed in our memory. As we slide into old age, if we are lucky enough to live that long, we may not remember what we had for breakfast in the morning, but some long-ago events are as vivid as if they had happened just yesterday.

Boxing historian Frank Lotierzo has written poignantly about how overjoyed he was when he was surprised with the news that his father would be taking him to the fight. “To this day it remains the biggest thrill of my life!” wrote Lotierzo, who was then in the seventh grade. “And it’s not even close!”

I didn’t see the fight, but I can recall the faces of people that I overheard talking about it, people whose interest in the fight struck me as odd as I knew they had little interest in the world of sports. So, when the fight is replayed in its entirety on Sunday – it airs on ABC at 2 p.m ET and again at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN – I will be watching it for the first time. And it will be bittersweet as I will be reminded that I am in the twilight of my life and my thoughts will inevitably drift to my friends and loved ones that have left this mortal world in the years since that grand night in 1971 when Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier locked horns in the Fight of the Century.

I get misty-eyed just thinking about it.

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Yoka TKO 12 Djeko in France: Claressa Pitches a Shutout on Ladies Day in Flint

Arne K. Lang

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Yoka TKO 12 Djeko in France: Claressa Pitches a Shutout on Ladies Day in Flint

March 8 is International Women’s Day which is actually a formal holiday in many parts of the globe. It was somehow fitting that female boxers were on display on the Friday feeding into it, a weekend without a must-see attraction on the men’s side.

Today’s activity began in the French port city of Nantes where 2016 Olympic gold medal winners Tony Yoka and Estelle Mossely, husband and wife, kept their undefeated records intact, both advancing to 10-0, against European opponents. Yoka (10-0, 8 KOs) was matched against Joel “Big Joe” Djeko (17-3-1), a 31-year-old Brussels native of Congolese and Cuban extraction who had fought most of his career as a cruiserweight. Mossely, a lightweight who now goes by Yoka-Mossely, drew Germany’s Verena Kaiser (14-2).

At the Rio Olympiad, Yoka got by Filip Hrgovic in the semis and Joe Joyce in the finals to win the gold, winning both bouts by split decision. Both would be favored over the Frenchman in a rematch fought under professional rules.

Against the six-foot-six Djeko, Yoka controlled the fight with his jab, repeatedly backing his foe against the ropes. Very few of Djeko’s punches got through Yoka’s high guard. Had the fight gone to the scorecards, it would have been a rout for Yoka, but it didn’t quite get there as Djeko turned his back on the proceedings midway through the 12th round after absorbing a sharp jab and it went into the books as a TKO for Yoka. At stake was some kind of European title or a derivation thereof.

Mossely’s fight with Kaiser, slated for 10 two-minute rounds, followed a somewhat similar tack, save that it went the full distance. With only one knockout to her credit at the pro level, Mosseley, typical of female boxers, lacks a knockout punch. But she’s a good technician and had too much class for the German.

Flint

A Covid-19 limited crowd of perhaps 300 was on hand to watch hometown heroine Claressa Shields oppose IBF 154-pound title-holder Marie Eve Dicaire at a 4,400-seat arena in Flint. There were five bouts on the undercard, three of which were women’s bouts.

Claressa

Claressa Shields

Shields, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was seeking to become a four-belt title-holder in a second weight class, having previously turned the trick at 160. Dicaire, a 34-year-old southpaw, brought a 17-0 record but she had never won a fight inside the distance and all of her previous bouts took place in French-speaking Canada.

The self-proclaimed GWOAT, Shields has no peer between 154 and 168 pounds. Heading into this contest, she had hardly lost a round since meeting Hanna Gabriels and tonight was another total whitewash, her fourth overall in 10-round fights.

Claressa Shields, now 11-0 (2) may be too good for her own good. Her fights are so one-sided that they are monotonous. Her TV ratings have actually been falling. Today’s show was a $29.99 pay-per-view on FITE when the established networks refused to meet her purse demands. It will be interesting to see how many tuned in.

In another fight of note, 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Marlen Esparza, in her first fight as a bantamweight, dominated Toronto’s Shelly Barnett en route to winning a 6-round unanimous decision. There were no knockdowns, but the scorecards (60-54, 60-53 twice) were indicative of Esparza’s dominance.

Esparza, who pushed her record to 9-1 (1), came in ranked #1 by the WBC in the flyweight class. Her lone defeat came at the hands of rugged Seniesa Estrada. Barnett declined to 4-4-3.

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