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Golden Child Mike Lee Finally Gets the Chance to Prove His Doubters Wrong

Bernard Fernandez

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Mike Lee

Most professional boxers, for whatever reason, have nicknames. With as unadorned a given name as Mike Lee, you might think that the guy who on July 20 will challenge IBF super middleweight champion Caleb Plant, whose nickname is “Sweethands,” would also have a catchy nom de guerre. Ah, but what would it be? “The Fighting Would-Be Stockbroker”? “The Subway Kid”? “The Golden Domer”?

Lee (21-0, 11 KOs) is now 31 and he’s heard all the snide and very likely envious remarks since he turned professional on May 29, 2010, with a four-round unanimous decision over Emmit Woods at Chicago’s UIC Pavilion. From the outset of his pro career, Lee’s background stamped him as markedly different from most other fighters who are obliged to start at the bottom and, hopefully, work their way up to some degree of recognition and decent paydays. For Lee – affluent white kid, University of Notre Dame graduate with a degree in finance (he had a 3.8 grade-point average and offers from Wall Street) and backing from a powerful promotional company (Top Rank) – it must have seemed that he was starting at the top and would have to demonstrate he had enough of what it takes to avoid sliding toward the bottom.

And then there were all those television commercials he did for the Subway sandwich shop chain, the most prominent of which drew a massive audience when it ran on Super Bowl Sunday in 2013. Although he was just one of several athletes in different sports to appear in such spots during a marketing campaign that lasted several years – some of the others were football stars Michael Strahan, Ndamukong Suh and Justin Tuck, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, baseball slugger Ryan Howard, NBA standout Tony Parker and NASCAR driver Tony Stewart – Lee, who at that point had accomplished little of note, was clearly an outlier, famous mostly for being famous.

But Lee said those who resented him for taking advantage of the kind of exposure that almost never is afforded anyone who has not painstakingly established his bona fides would have done exactly what he did.

“I wasn’t going to turn down these amazing opportunities that I had outside the ring, and I don’t think anybody would, but obviously you get doubters and haters,” he once said of the criticism he has had to deal with solely because he does not fit the profile of what many think a fighter ought to be.

It has been years since Lee last appeared in a Subway commercial. The attention he once routinely drew for being different has been tamped down. But enough residual animosity remains to make him a target for some of the same thinly veiled or outright putdowns. At an introductory press conference in New York attended by both Lee and Plant, as well as Manny Pacquiao and Keith Thurman who fight on Fox PPV following the Lee-Plant match on Fox and Fox Deportes, Plant (18-0, 10 KOs) depicted himself as the dues-paying traditionalist who has had to scrap for everything he’s ever wrung out of boxing, while Lee’s education and prominence allows him any number of fallback life options should his first shot at a world title result in a crash-and-burn scenario.

After Lee, speaking first, said he has “nothing to lose” in a bout in which he is a significant underdog, Plant turned toward his smartly dressed opponent and said, “I’ve been doing this (boxing) for 18 years straight – no breaks, no distractions and no Plan B. I commend you for this, but there’s no college degree for me. No high school sports, no acting gigs, no Subway commercials. Just boxing, day in, day out, rain, sleet or snow.

“You may have a financial degree, but in boxing I have a Ph.D. And that’s something you don’t know anything about. If this guy thinks for one second that I would let him mess this up for me and send me back (to his hardscrabble beginning) … unlike him, I have everything to lose.”

Lee has heard it all before. As intimated by Plant and others, he arrived from Notre Dame’s Golden Dome with a silver spoonful of caviar stuck in his mouth. As such, he is merely dabbling in the fight game, which outsiders see as his hobby rather than his vocation, until it’s finally time for him to take advantage of his degree, put on thousand-dollar suits and head to work every morning carrying an expensive leather briefcase rather than a gym bag. And that could happen yet.

There is no shortage of evidence to suggest that Lee still is the beneficiary of circumstances that have always made him such a marketable commodity. For one thing, he has fought as a light heavyweight his entire pro career, yet is getting a world title shot in his first bout at a new and lower weight class. That in and of itself suggests some level of preferential treatment for someone who is not ranked in the top 15 at super middleweight by any of the four major world sanctioning organizations.

Without doubt, Lee’s path to the precipice of the world championship he has long believed to be his destiny has been comparatively obstacle-free. A multi-sport star at the exclusive Benet Academy in Wheaton, Ill., he first drew attention as a boxer after winning three straight Bengal Bouts titles at Notre Dame, his “dream school” to which he transferred after spending his freshman year at the University of Missouri. The Bengal Bouts were started in 1920 by legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne on the principle that “strong bodies fight, that weak bodies may be nourished.” Toward that end, in Lee’s senior year the Bengal Bouts raised more than $100,000 to combat poverty in Bangladesh, where Lee traveled for two weeks to teach English and mathematics.

“Bangladesh opened my eyes,” Lee said of that experience. “To go to a Third World country like that and see people that are really struggling for simple necessities that we take for granted, it made me extremely grateful and, I think, a more charitable person.”

It came to the attention of Top Rank founder and chairman Bob Arum, who transformed blimpish Eric  “Butterbean” Esch and Latina hottie Mia St. John into TR undercard staples, that there were a couple of amateur boxers at Notre Dame that might also someday prove useful to his company’s bottom line. One was Tommy Zbikowski, an All-America safety and punt returner for the Fighting Irish who had had his first sanctioned amateur bout at the age of nine but had retained his love of boxing even as his reputation as a big-play-maker in football increasingly steered him in that direction. Arum paid Zbikowski $25,000 to make his pro debut, as a smallish heavyweight, on June 10, 2006, in Madison Square Garden, where he stopped Robert Bell in one round.

Arum said his interest in Zbikowski was piqued not only because he was a star football player, but because of his college affiliation. “Oh, absolutely,” Arum said in acknowledging that “Tommy Z” probably wouldn’t have gotten the Garden gig had he played at, say, Weber State or Northern Iowa. “Notre Dame has a cachet to it in athletics and popular culture.”

Although Zbikowski wound up having eight pro bouts, seven as a cruiserweight, and won them all with five KOs, he remains better known for his football exploits at Notre Dame and with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, for whom he was voted special-teams player of the year in 2009.

And the other Notre Dame fighter to draw interest from Top Rank? It was the handsome, bright, personable kid who had helped build schools and health-care facilities in Bangladesh, a veritable Mother Teresa in padded gloves. If anything could transform Mike Lee into a prepackaged star, it was Bob Arum’s always whirling hype machine. And, for a while, it was a mutually beneficial arrangement, Lee compiling an 11-0 record for Top Rank until his contract ran out and he was unable to negotiate an extension to his liking.

Not that Lee ever was the phony creation as some have depicted him. Yes, he has a background of wealth and privilege, but it was not always so; his father, John Lee, served 18 years in the Army, most of those with the 101st Airborne Division, before he entered private life and made his fortune as the manufacturer of barcode machines. John reveled in his only son’s love of contact sports, and he did not object when Mike indicated that he’d rather try his hand, at least initially, as a pro boxer than as a wheeler-dealer on Wall Street.

“Both my parents grew up in the city (Chicago) under tough upbringings,” Lee noted. “My dad didn’t even graduate high school. And that’s how I was raised, not with a suburban vanilla outlook on life.”

Still, Lee’s career choice must seem confounding to some. But who’s to say someone, anyone, should not follow his heart?

“Boxing brought out an adrenaline rush that I was seeking,” Mike said of a passion that for him the business world could never duplicate. “I always excelled in different sports, but there’s nothing like boxing to me where it’s one-on-one. There’s no excuses, there’s no timetable.”

So fight fans have to view Mike Lee from two perspectives. One is that he’s the pampered suburbanite who was born on third base, in a manner of speaking, and will think he hit a home run if he advances another 90 feet to home plate. The other is that he’s as gritty and committed as anyone who gravitated to boxing from the ’hood or barrio. How many fighters of any stripe would or could have dealt with the nearly two years of debilitating pain that kept him sidelined until, four years ago, he received the correct diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis, which is similar to rheumatoid arthritis and causes inflammation, fatigue and headaches that made him feel as if his skull was about to explode.

“This is the culmination of years of hard work, sacrifice, pain, in and out of hospitals,” Lee said of the journey he has undertaken to get to this point. “Most importantly, getting somewhere no one thought I could get to. A lot of people didn’t think I could get to 10-0, 20-0, let alone (a shot at) a world title.

“I’m fine being the `B-side,’ the underdog. I feel like I got nothing to lose in this fight. I’m coming out with everything I got. This is everything I ever wanted. I plan on making it my moment, and I’m going to keep proving people wrong.”

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WBO Title-holder Emanuel Navarrete Defends at Banc of California Stadium

David A. Avila

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WBO Title-holder Emanuel Navarrete Defends at Banc of California Stadium

LOS ANGELES-World champions are gathering at a busy street corner of Los Angeles that has been the site of numerous heroic, villainous and emotional moments in the history of the second largest city in the USA.

Two full scale riots erupted and flamed out on that corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Figueroa Avenue in the 60s and 90s.

A presidential debate took place between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon on those same grounds when they were running in 1960.

NBA superstars Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Michael Jordan performed their magic on that corner too.

On Saturday, WBO super bantamweight titlist Emanuel Navarrete (27-1, 23 KOs) defends against Arizona’s Francisco De Vaca (20-0, 5 KOs) in the main event at the sparkling new Banc of California Stadium. ESPN will show the Top Rank fight card.

The stadium stands on the same location where the LA Memorial Sports Arena once stood proudly until it fell into disarray and was torn down several years back.

Sixty years ago, the first world championship boxing match was held on these same grounds and fans saw France’s Alphonse Halimi lose to Mexico’s Jose Becerra by fifth round knockout at the LA Memorial Sports Arena. Seven months later they fought again next door at the LA Coliseum and Becerra won by knockout again.

That was only the beginning, others like Muhammad Ali, Archie Moore, Sugar Ray Robinson, Bobby Chacon, Jerry Quarry, Danny “Lil Red” Lopez, Ruben Olivares, Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez and Amir Khan all fought on those same grounds.

Imagine, when Navarrete (pictured above) rises from his corner to fight Phoenix’s De Vaca on Saturday, he will be continuing the ever-growing streak of civil and professional fights that took place on that same historic street corner.

WBO Super Bantamweight Title

Navarrete erupted on the fight scene like a ghost when he first defeated Isaac Dogboe last December at Madison Square Garden. It was supposed to be a Broadway opening for Dogboe, but instead turned into a horror story as those long arms of the Mexican fighter proved perplexing. The rematch was even more horrific for Dogboe.

Now the Mexico City fighter meets little known challenger De Vaca, who comes from an area that has recently been developing boxing talent in the desert city of Phoenix.

“The truth is that it doesn’t matter who is my opponent. I always prepare 100 percent for each of my fights, and this was no exception,” said Navarrete, 24, who is making his second defense of the WBO title. “We already did the hard work in the gym, and we are ready for a great fight. If De Vaca comes to fight hard, I am prepared to go even harder. I’m ready to give a great battle to all the fans.”

Can De Vaca do what Navarrete did to Dogboe last year?

“I wanted to fight for a world title since I was 5 years old, and now that we have the opportunity, we are going to make our dream come true this Saturday,” said De Vaca, 24, who fought once in Southern California back in 2016. “Come Saturday, there will be a new world champ for Phoenix and Michoacán. I’m coming for that world title.”

Co-Main

Former super bantamweight titlist Jessie Magdaleno (26-1, 18 KOs) meets Rafael Rivera (27-3-2, 18 KOs) in a featherweight match set for 10 rounds. After struggling to make the 122-pound super bantamweight limit, the Las Vegas southpaw now fights at 126 pounds. It’s made a difference.

“He’s a totally different person at 126 pounds,” said Frank Espinoza who manages Magdaleno. “Even the way he talks and thinks is different. Who would have thought four pounds would make such a difference.”

Magdaleno, the former WBO super bantamweight titlist, now meets Tijuana’s Rivera who never fails to provide high intensity fisticuffs.

“I don’t take none of these guys lightly. Every opponent is difficult. He’s fought great fighters. He’s been in there with great fighters and done a hell of a job. I can’t overlook him because he’s here to put on a great show as well,” said Magdaleno, 27. “He throws a lot of punches, and he’s quick. That’s what I am, and that’s what is going to make a hell of a fight for this fight card.”

Rivera fought featherweight champion Leo Santa Cruz earlier this year. Though he lost by decision, he gained fans for his ferocity.

“I’ve been fighting against top-level fighters for a long time, so I feel confident and secure that whether it’s against a world champion or a former champion, I’ll put up a good fight,” said Rivera, 25. “Jessie is a good fighter. I’ve seen him fight before. He’s an aggressive fighter, but I’m just here to do my work.”

It’s a rather strong and lengthy fight card to baptize the new stadium into the world of prizefighting. Expect a lengthy line of fans on the same corner where many historic events have taken place.

Boxing has returned to the same street corner where legends like Ali, Sugar Ray, Quarry and Schoolboy Chacon previously performed. It’s a corner with many memories, both pleasant and notorious.

Photo credit: Hector De La Cruz

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Ruiz vs. Joshua: Enough is Enough; Let’s Get it On

Ted Sares

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Ruiz vs. Joshua: Enough is Enough; Let’s Get it On

In October of 1974, when Muhammad Ali was in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) to fight George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the people cheered him as he trained on the roads. They backed off when Big George walked his menacing German Shepard. It was love vs. fear and fear never had a chance.

When Foreman hit the big bag, there was no “Night Train’ playing in the background; it just went “Thump, Thump Thump” and it was ominous.

As Jonathan Snowden wrote, “Far from the charming infomercial king who would later grow rich selling American electric grills bearing his name, this Foreman was hard to reach—a mystery not just to white sports writers of the time, but to his African hosts as well.”

He added, “Two African-American fighters were competing, for the first time, in the heart of Africa, under the watchful eye of military strong man Joseph Mobutu.” Mobutu guaranteed the combatants upfront money. His goal was to put his country on the global map.

Upon visiting Mobutu’s palace, Drew “Bundini” Brown said, “All my life I’ve been hearing about the White House, today I visited the Black House.”

Among other things, Mobutu was famous for corruption and nepotism while the people of Zaire suffered from poverty and human rights abuses.

Meanwhile Don King made his bones as a promoter and James Brown did his thing. An international press corps that included literary heavyweights George Plimpton and Norman Mailer enjoyed the scene. It was one big party. It was “When We Were Kings.” It was grand.

During the fight—one in which many feared for Ali’s life—Muhammed taunted with “Is that all you got, George?” In the end, Ali’s “rope-a-dope” strategy paid off. As Archie Moore related, “Ali had him thinking and worrying, and he wasted too much ammunition on Ali’s arms…And when George got tired against a skilled warrior like Ali, that was the beginning of the end.”

The end came in the eighth round when Ali knocked out a discouraged, depleted and tired Foreman. Let the celebrations begin. “Ali bomaye!”

The fact that this spectacular event took place in an edgy country with a reputation for corruptness did not amount to a hill of beans in the final analysis. After all, this was boxing.

Fast Forward

“We wanted to go somewhere that believed in the sport of boxing, which had a vision. We already knew Saudi Arabia was for real and knew they were investing in the sport of boxing. That was very important for us.” — Eddie Hearn

Now, like Mobutu, Saudi authorities will try to improve their image on human rights by hosting—or at least trying to host– the Anthony Joshua vs. Andy Ruiz rematch in what has been billed as the “Clash on the Dunes.” The event will unfold in Diriyah, a town on the outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capitol and largest city.

A brand-new term has entered the language to explain the actions of the Saudi authorities: “Sportswash.” If fact, that’s exactly what Mobutu did before the term was invented.

“If Saudi Arabia is going to invest in these fights, with the population they have, with the potential to grow the sport of boxing, you could be seeing a big change in the dynamics of the sport, which truly excites me.” — Hearn.

Boxing is a tough way to make a living and many fighters end up badly damaged. Relatively few ever get an opportunity to make life-changing money. Ruiz and AJ, like Ali and Foreman, should be able to do their thing without the self-righteous nonsense. Heck, when did integrity ever get in the way of the boxing community ever doing anything? Ruiz and Joshua have nothing to do with the way people live in the Arabian nations.

Enough is enough. Let’s get it on.

Ted Sares is a lifetime member of Ring 10, and a member of Ring 4 and its Boxing Hall of Fame. He also is an Auxiliary Member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA). He is an active power lifter and Strongman competitor in the Master Class.

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From Child Prodigy to Elite Trainer, ex-Champ Bones Adams has had a Bumpy Ride

Arne K. Lang

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PART ONE OF A TWO-PART STORY — Las Vegas boxing trainer Clarence “Bones” Adams (pictured working the mitts with Amir Khan) has something in common with Tiger Woods. Both appeared on the TV show “That’s Incredible.” The show, co-hosted by former NFL quarterback Fran Tarkenton, had a five-year run (1980-84) on ABC.

Tiger hadn’t even started kindergarten when his father brought him on the show to show off his acuity at hitting golf balls into a cup. Many viewers undoubtedly wondered if this painfully shy five-year-old kid would hit his peak as a golfer before he hit puberty.

Bones Adams wasn’t as cuddly cute as Tiger when he appeared on the show, his small hands encased in oversized boxing gloves, but, of course, he was a lot older. The precocious puncher was eight.

Precocious indeed. Reportedly 176-4 as an amateur, Adams was 15 years old when he made his pro debut on April 3, 1990 in Memphis, Tennessee. In the opposite corner was Simmie Black, a veteran of 158 fights.

Black was a professional loser of the stripe that has become virtually extinct in the United States, but he was 37 years old and had swapped punches with several top-shelf fighters, and here he was matched against a 15-year-old kid with no professional boxing experience whatsoever.

The kid won a 4-round unanimous decision and several years later, at age 18, he would fight a future Hall of Famer for the bantamweight championship of the world.

Clarence Richard Adams Jr has been called Bones ever since he was a little boy. The nickname was attached to him because someone said he was all skin and bones and he embraced it because he always hated the name Clarence. He spent his formative years in Henderson, Kentucky, where his father was a truck driver until blood clots in his legs forced him to quit. New employment was hard to find. Tobacco and coal, the prime economic movers in the growth of Henderson County, were in decline.

For a time, the family lived in Smith Mills, Kentucky, in a house without electricity and running water. To help out his parents, Bones worked in the fields, picking soybeans, corn, and tobacco. Working in the fields and honing his skills as a boxer – the gym was in Evansville, Indiana, 11 miles from Henderson – left little time for school. He dropped out in the eighth grade.

“No disrespect intended,” says Bones, “but the kids in the projects in the inner cities had it easy compared to us.”

The Adams’ later moved to Detroit where they lived along 7 Mile Road, the grittiest corridor in the city. They then settled in the town of Carmi in southern Illinois (a little more than an hour’s drive from their ancestral home in Henderson) where Bones’ father, since deceased, ran pizza parlors. Bones was living in Carmi when he turned pro.

Bones brought a 26-0-1 record into his March 27, 1993 bout with IBF world bantamweight champion Orlando Canizales at Evian les Bains, France. But it was a soft 26-0-1, a record forged against no-name opponents in tank towns like Greenville, South Carolina, Saint Joseph, Missouri, and Eldorado, Illinois. At this stage of his development he had no business being in the same ring with Canizales, the pride of Laredo, Texas, who was making the 12th defense of his title and would come to be regarded in many quarters as the top bantamweight of the modern era.

“When the fight was pitched to me,” says Bones, “I was told that the venue was neutral, but when I got over there I saw people coming up to Canizales saying ‘how nice to see you again’ and I learned that one of the judges was from Texas.”

The previous year, Canizales had twice defended his title in France. The Texas judge, Ronnie Ralston, was working his fourth Canizales title fight. (Astoundingly – but hey, maybe not; this is boxing – when Canizales lost three years later to Junior “Poison” Jones in a bid for the IBF super bantamweight title, Ronnie Ralston scored the fight 119-109 for Canizales. The other judges had Jones winning by six and seven points.)

Bones was being thrown to the wolves, but he was no pushover. Canizales broke Bones’ jaw in the third round, but the kid kept plugging away. After ten frames, Canizales led by two points on all three cards; the fight still hung in the balance. But in the 11th, Bones’ father, who had no boxing experience but was working his corner, tossed in the towel.

Canizales vs Adams was held in a classy joint, the Casino Royale resort overlooking Lake Geneva, a favorite getaway for European bluebloods. This was quite a departure for Bones who was only a few years removed from scrounging through dumpsters for aluminum cans and other stuff that could be sold to a recycling center or a junk dealer. But the luxurious accommodations were no consolation. At an age when many young men are hijinking through their freshman year of college, here was Bones Adams nursing a painfully broken jaw on a long flight home across the Atlantic, a jaw that would be surgically repaired at his own expense.

In both of his next two fights, Bones dislocated his left shoulder and was forced to shut it down. With three straight losses, all inside the distance, his future looked grim. But Bones persevered and in 1995 was accorded a match in Las Vegas with Kevin Kelley on the undercard of the world lightweight title fight between Oscar De La Hoya and LA-area rival Genero “Chicanito” Hernandez.

They fought outdoors at Caesars Palace in the early evening on a swelteringly hot day. Fighting for a purse of $40,000, Bones fought the last four rounds of the 12-round fight with a badly swollen left eye that appeared to ringsiders, but not referee Mitch Halpern, to be the result of an accidental head butt. When the smoke cleared, veteran Las Vegas judge Bill Graham had it 116-112 for Bones Adams, but he was overruled by Art Lurie, another local man, and Rhode Island import Clark Sammartino who both had it 114-114 and it went into the books as a draw.

A former featherweight champion, Kevin Kelley, the Flushing Flash, was 43-1-2 going in. He was one of the great action fighters of his day, but this particular fight was rather dull. “And that tells you right there I got screwed,” says Bones. “I controlled the ring, I made him fight my fight.”

Bones would be on the wrong side of another questionable decision in an even bigger fight, but prior to that disappointment, all of his hard work finally paid off and he experienced the highest high of his boxing career.

On March 4, 2000, at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Adams deposed WBA super bantamweight champion Nestor Garza. Although he broke his hand in the eighth round, he won a wide decision.

“I was having a lot of aches and pains,” Bones recalled, “but when I woke up on the morning of the fight, I felt great, I felt very strong. I called all my friends and told them to bet on me. I had a lot of friends that night.”

Bones says that going into the fight he had only $980 to his name. He bet $900 on himself and says he secured 8/1 odds. (In truth, Garza wasn’t quite that big a favorite. In boxing, upsets invariably become bigger upsets in the re-telling and with the passage of time.)

After two successful title defenses, Bones returned to Mandalay Bay to oppose Paulie Ayala. Bones held the WBA 122-pound title, Ayala was that organization’s 118-pound champion, and yet there was no title at stake, save that of a fringe organization (we wouldn’t even try to explain how that came about – hey, this is boxing).

Title or no title, the fight created a lot of buzz. Wladimir Klitschko’s WBO title defense against Charles Shufford was relegated to the undercard. And the bout was a humdinger that went to the scorecards after 12 nip-and-tuck rounds. Bones won the last round on the card of all three judges, but that wasn’t sufficient to get him over the hump. Ayala won a split decision.

Bones didn’t bring the same fire into his rematch with Paulie Ayala who was returned a clear winner after 12 rounds. He felt that he deserved no less than a draw in his next fight, a 12-round featherweight contest with tough Guty Espadas Jr, but that fight too ended with Bones on the wrong side of a split decision. For this bout, Bones had a 12-week camp in Big Bear and felt that he had over-trained.

He would go on to have six more fights for small purses before calling it quits, retiring with a record of 44-7-4. When he left the sport, he wasn’t yet 26 years old, but he had a lot of mileage on his odometer – as a pro, he had answered the bell for 344 rounds – and it was time to say goodbye.

Bones concedes that he began to make some bad choices following his first loss to Paulie Ayala, for example using recreational drugs as a crutch to uplift his spirits. He then made a whopper of a bad choice when he accepted an offer of employment from the predatory Charles Horky.  To be continued……

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