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The Force is With Anthony Joshua as `The (British) Empire Strikes Back’

Bernard Fernandez

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The date was Dec. 8, 2007, and WBC welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather Jr., who had just doused the hopes, if not the enthusiasm, of thousands of British boxing fans who had traveled to Las Vegas from the United Kingdom to cheer countryman Ricky Hatton in his bid to dethrone the favored American, spoke of a trans-oceanic trip he hadn’t made, and never would have to.

“I always wanted to fight in the UK,” Mayweather mused after he had dominated and then stopped the previously undefeated Hatton in the 10th round. “But because I couldn’t, I had the best fighter in the UK come to me.”

Mayweather never made it across the pond because he had the power and leverage to make all challengers travel to a place of his choosing, which frequently was the MGM Grand on the Vegas Strip. When you are the perpetual side `A’ and highest-grossing prizefighter of all time, it’s not difficult to make side `B’ dance to your tune when it comes to negotiating contractual terms.

Times have changed, and the first working assignment in America for British’s vastly popular world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua (22-0, 21 KOs), who takes on blubbery Mexican-American Andy Ruiz Jr. (32-1, 21 KOs) in the DAZN-streamed main event Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, bears little to no resemblance to the trip made by Hatton nearly 12 years ago. It most definitely is not reminiscent of the seemingly endless decades of failure by British big men, who without exception were required to journey to the United States and take regularly scheduled beatdowns from clearly superior American champions. That happened so often and over so long a period that it resulted in the coining of the term “horizontal heavyweights” to describe the manner in which most of the Brits’ longshot challenges were so emphatically squashed.

The non-boxing British Empire – which once was called “the empire on which the sun never sets” – officially became a thing of the past in 1997 when the UK ceded control of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. It must have been a bitter pill to swallow for a relatively small island nation that, in 1913, held sway over 23 percent of the world’s population and 24 percent of the land mass. The ebbing of British influence in a general sense more or less correlates to the lengthy gap between the heavyweight title reigns of Bob Fitzsimmons, who held the title from March 17, 1897, to June 9, 1899, and the first of three separate title ascendances for Lennox Lewis, achieved when he was arbitrarily declared the WBC champion on Dec. 14, 1992, in place of American Riddick Bowe, who had publicly renounced that sanctioning body’s recognition by dumping its bejeweled green belt into a trash can.

Thus did Lewis, born in London to Jamaican immigrant parents, become the first British world heavyweight champion of the 20th century. And when he made the first defense of that title on May 8, 1993, with a 12-round unanimous decision over former IBF titlist Tony Tucker in Las Vegas, it ended an ignominious streak of 13 consecutive championship-bout defeats by British heavyweights to American titlists, all of which occurred on U.S. soil.

But Lewis did not so much take his various titles back to the UK as to keep them on semi-permanent loan to the U.S. Of the 18 world championship bouts in which he participated, 14 were in America, three in the UK and one in Africa. That, he has consistently stated, was by his choice and in recognition of the United States as the epicenter of all boxing and especially championship-level heavyweight boxing.

“In the beginning when I started boxing in America, I used to get booed because I was the Brit coming over to their country,” said Lewis, now 53 and retired since June 2003. “But when I won over there, they said, `Fine, he’s an OK Brit. He boxes well.’ They accepted me as a good fighter.

“In any case, you really had to go to America in those days for the big fights with Tyson, Holyfield and those guys.”

Similar sentiments were echoed by long-reigning super middleweight champion Joe Calzaghe, the undefeated Welsh southpaw who logged 42 of his 46 career victories in the UK, one each in Germany and Denmark and two – the last two of his storied career – in the U.S., one in Vegas and one in New York.

“Brits, in order to prove themselves, always have to go over to America,” Calzaghe remarked a few days prior to his lifting of The Ring magazine’s light heavyweight championship belt on a 12-round  split decision over Bernard Hopkins on April 19, 2008, in Las Vegas’ Thomas & Mack Center.

Ah, but that was then and this is now, most pointedly in a heavyweight division in which America’s stranglehold of all or most of the undisputed and alphabet championships has devolved into a significantly loosened grip. Although the United States, with 54, remains far and away the leader in world heavyweight titles once or now held by representatives of a particular nation, the United Kingdom, a distant second with eight, is doing its best to paint over any lingering vestiges of the dark days of its “horizontal heavyweights,” an era in which defeat not only was anticipated, but accepted without complaint if the occasionally valiant loser exhibited what the British like to call a stiff upper lip.

“They love a loser in this country,” a perplexed Calzaghe said in Wales while preparing for his date with Hopkins. “It’s ridiculous.”

Four of the six Brits to have held some version of the heavyweight crown have done so since Lewis:  Herbie Hide (WBO, two reigns), Frank Bruno (WBC), Henry Akinwande (WBC) and, of course, Joshua. But the WBO was not regarded as a “major” organization when it was presenting championship straps to Hide and Akinwande, and even the thickly muscled and beloved Bruno was generally dismissed as a minor player during a time ruled by such renowned U.S. heavyweights as Tyson, Holyfield, Bowe, Larry Holmes, George Foreman and Michael Spinks.

All of which is reason enough to believe that Joshua, an overwhelming favorite over a game but seemingly overmatched Ruiz, will be at the Garden only to better introduce himself to American fight fans before returning to his comfort zone in the UK, where he is far and away the most popular and marketable fighter in Europe. No American fighter – and the only one who can even be mentioned in the same breath at this point is WBC champ Deontay Wilder (41-0-1, 40 KOs) – can pack arenas and even massive stadiums as does Anthony Oluwafemi Olaseni Joshua, the super heavyweight champion at the 2012 London Olympics and son of a Nigerian mother and Nigerian-Irish father. Joshua fought before crowds of 90,000 and 80,000, respectively, for defenses against Wladimir Klitschko and Alexander Povetkin in London’s Wembley Stadium, sandwiched around capacity turnouts of 78,000 in Cardiff, Wales’ Principality Stadium against Joseph Parker and Carlos Takam. If and when Joshua and Wilder agree to a much-anticipated full unification showdown, if AJ wants it on home turf, it will be so, and most likely not for the 50-50 revenue split that Wilder insists should be his because he ostensibly is in possession of the scepter once held by the regal likes of such American heavyweight legends as Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Foreman, Holmes, Mike Tyson,  Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe.

Those days, at least for now, are past, and Joshua is a British big man who does not have to go America to stake his claim to what already is demonstrably his.  He holds three titles (four, if you include the IBO’s) to Wilder’s one and is the more established drawing card. Unlike other UK heavyweight wannabes, and even champions, including Lewis, he almost always gets to set terms favorable to himself.  In a very real sense, until further notice, he is what Mayweather used to be, big enough and important enough to get the world to come to him.

For now, though, he is in America for what could ultimately prove to be a one-and-done. It will be interesting to see if his fans, like those who followed Hatton to Vegas for the likely come-uppance from Mayweather, are as supportive of and passionate about a major favorite as they were of an underdog with a puncher’s chance to defy the odds. Will they again show up by the thousands, screaming themselves hoarse singing “Rule, Brittania” and “God Save the Queen”? Or have they become too comfortably familiar with success, now that it’s Americans, and likely soon a Mexican-American, who is left horizontal on the canvas?

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Introducing Top Prospect Raeese Aleem, the Pride of Muskegon

Arne K. Lang

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At age 29, Raeese Aleem has yet to appear in a 10-round fight, but that will almost assuredly happen this year. The undefeated (15-0, 9 KOs) super bantamweight from Muskegon, Michigan, takes another step in that direction on Friday, Feb. 14, when he opposes San Antonio’s Adam Lopez (16-3-2) at Philadelphia in a bout that will air on “ShoBox,” the long-running SHOWTIME series that’s been a springboard for 81 fighters who went on to win world titles.

Aleem earned a black belt in karate before taking up boxing and becoming a four-time Michigan Golden Gloves champion. As an amateur, he and his coach Terry Markowski did a considerable amount of traveling between meets to find good sparring. Grand Rapids, an amateur boxing hotbed, was just down the road, but Detroit and Chicago were a good three hours away and on occasion they went on an even longer excursion into Ohio.

Aleem turned pro in 2011 and had his first 10 fights on the Midwest circuit, venturing as far north as Green Bay and as far south as Cincinnati. At the time, he worked in the produce department of Meijer’s, a regional rival of Walmart. His bosses, he notes, were generous in letting him juggle his work schedule around his boxing assignments.

For a boxer with designs on winning a world title, the Midwest circuit is like a bicycle with training wheels. Aleem had to shake free of it to see how far he could go. Besides, getting fights was getting tougher and tougher. There’s a 28-month gap in his pro timeline that includes all of 2013. He had several fights fall out during this frustrating quiescence.

If you’re an aspiring film actor, you go to Hollywood. If you’re an aspiring boxing champion, you go to Las Vegas. Not a week goes by without a young fellow turning up here to test his mettle in one of the many local gyms with the hope of attracting the eye of one of the major promotional firms.

“When I came to Las Vegas,” says Aleem who has a daughter back in Michigan, “I had no family here, no friends.” He was directed to Barry’s boxing gym, run by ex-boxer Pat Barry and his wife Dawn, retired Las Vegas police officers, and started training under their son-in-law Augie Sanchez. But Sanchez, the last man to defeat Floyd Mayweather Jr (accomplished when they were amateurs), had other priorities. He is an assistant coach with Team USA which obligates him to spend a good deal of his time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

Things started looking up for Aleem when he joined the Prince Ranch stable under the management of Greg Hannley. At the Prince Ranch Gym, where the head trainer is Bones Adams, he has sparred with such notables as Nonito Donaire and former WBO 122-pound champion Jessie Magdaleno.

Aleem doesn’t miss the weather in Muskegon, a lakefront city where sub-freezing temperatures are the norm in the dead of winter and snow is forecast for all of next week. But he still has one foot in his hometown, as evident by his unbroken bond with Terry Markowski. In an era when some boxers appear to change trainers as often as they change their underwear, Aleem has remained loyal to Markowski who has been in his corner for all of his pro fights and will be there again on Feb. 14.

Markowski, who teaches boxing at the Muskegon Rec Center, is a protégé of Muskegon’s most esteemed boxer, the late Kenny Lane. The epitome of a crafty southpaw, Lane, a lightweight and junior welterweight, was a three-time world title challenger during a 100-fight career that began in 1953.

The relationship between Raeese Aleem and Terry Markowski dates back to 2003 when Aleem resided in the nearby village of Ravenna, where Aleem’s father, the patriarch of a large blended family, planted Raeese and his siblings to get them away from the temptations of Muskegon which has several blighted areas. “It was a culture shock for me when I started going to school in Ravenna,” says Aleem, looking back, as none of his schoolmates looked like him.

This will be Aleem’s fifth fight in Pennsylvania where he has made four of his last five starts. The connecting thread is Reading, Pennsylvania gym operator-turned-promoter Marshall Kauffman who has been credited with keeping boxing vibrant in the Keystone State.

This being Aleem’s national television debut, it’s important that he make a good showing. His Las Vegas trainer Bones Adams, a former world champion in Aleem’s weight division, expects nothing less. “I’m confident he will be a world champion someday,” says Adams.

Photo credit: Mario Serrano / Prince Ranch Boxing

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A Bouquet for Danny Garcia in This Week’s Edition of HITS and MISSES

Kelsey McCarson

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Two-division champion Danny Garcia had the spotlight all to himself over the weekend in a stay-busy fight against Ivan Redkach on Saturday night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. It was the main event of a Showtime Championship Boxing tripleheader that had the odd privilege these days of not being counterprogrammed by a Top Rank show on ESPN or any other kind of boxing card on DAZN.

So Garcia, 31, from Philadelphia, had the chance to remind people how excellent a fighter he is in full force, which would help him greatly in his effort to secure an unlikely bout against WBA champ Manny Pacquiao or remain first in line to face WBC and IBF champ Errol Spence whenever the Texan recovers from the injuries he sustained in a car accident in October.

But did Garcia pull it off? Here’s the latest edition of HITS and MISSES.

HIT – Danny Garcia’s Pristine and Precise Technique 

The best parts about Garcia were on full display against Redkach. That was made easier by Redkach’s lack of anything that might have given Garcia any real problems, but nonetheless Garcia was able to show the lovely footwork and balanced countering ability that made him so formidable at junior welterweight. There’s just something special about seeing Garcia fight. The economy of his movement inside a boxing ring is something that is just plain different than just about any other world-class fighter in the world today. In a fight that most people probably would have preferred he just skipped, and one that didn’t turn out to be any different than everyone expected, at least Garcia’s beautiful boxing was on display.

MISS – Showtime Sparring Sessions

In addition to Garcia-Redkach, Showtime rounded out its tripleheader with undefeated junior featherweight Stephen Fulton taking on former Muay Thai fighter Arnold Khegai and former unified junior middleweight champion Jarrett Hurd taking on career welterweight Francisco Santana. While Fulton’s fight against Khegai seemed like a legitimate prizefight, there was something about the other two bouts that screamed sparring sessions. That was especially the case for Hurd’s bout. Not only was Hurd in there with a middling welterweight, but he also used the rounds of the fight to work on vastly different boxing techniques than what made him so popular in the first place. Showtime might not have the pull they once had with the people over at the PBC offices, but they for sure need to get more involved in vetting matchups if they hope to remain afloat within the competitive boxing landscape of today.

HIT – Stephon Fulton’s Title Chances at 122 Pounds

Fulton is a very solid boxer who digs to the body and has a fast, clean jab. Khegai was the perfect kind of opponent for the 25-year-old. He was very game and never stopped trying to win. Additionally, his background in Muay Thai offered some different looks to Fulton that should help him on his way toward world title contention. In the end, Fulton outworked Khegai to hand the tough 27-year-old the first loss of his career. Now let’s hope Fulton is off to bigger and better things such as challenging for a world title. He’s ready right now.

MISS – Andy Ruiz’s Continued Soap Opera

The best thing former unified champion Andy Ruiz could have done after blowing the rematch against Anthony Joshua in December is getting right back to work in the gym. What better way to show trainer Manny Robles that he was taking responsibility for his actions than to get right back to work with the same team he had just let down so badly? Instead, Ruiz fired Robles and is considering other trainers. That would make more sense if there had been some sort of tactical error in the fight. But Ruiz already admitted he simply didn’t train for arguably the biggest fight of his life, and that’s not anyone’s fault but his own.

HIT – Former Middleweight Titleholder Andy Lee’s Second Act

It appears former WBO middleweight champion Andy Lee found his second act in life as a trainer, which makes a ton of sense if you followed Lee’s career under the tutelage of the late Emanuel Steward. Lee, 39, left Ireland after his amateur days to live with Steward in Detroit and train at Kronk. The two had a very close personal relationship and that experience ultimately helped Lee win the world title in 2014 two years after Steward’s passing. Now, Lee is passing on what he knows in the same way Steward did with him to other fighters. He trains and manages Irish upstart Paddy Donovan, is guiding Jason Quigley back to contention and even helped orchestrate distant cousin Tyson Fury bringing on Javan “SugarHill” Steward for the heavyweight’s upcoming rematch against Deontay Wilder.

Photo credit: Amanda Westcott

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The Hauser Report: Garcia-Redkach and More

Thomas Hauser

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Boxing made its debut at Barclays Center on October 20, 2012, with a fight card headlined by four world title bouts. Danny Garcia, Erik Morales, Paulie Malignaggi, Peter Quillin, Devon Alexander, Danny Jacobs, and Luis Collazo were in the ring that night. The franchise grew nicely. Fans who went to Barclays saw good featured fights with solid undercard bouts. But as of late, the arena’s fistic offerings have faded.

Barclays cast its lot with Premier Boxing Champions. And PBC has moved its prime content to greener pastures (green being the color of money). There were five fight cards at Barclays Center in 2019. Each one struggled to sell tickets.

January 25 marked the thirty-ninth fight card at Barclays. The arena was half empty. The announced attendance was 8,217 but that included a lot of freebies. There were six fights on the card. As expected, fighters coming out of the blue corner won all of them. That’s what happens when 6-0 squares off against 2-10-1.

Three of the fights were televised by Showtime Championship Boxing, which has also been diminished as a consequence of a multi-year output deal with PBC.

In the first of these bouts, Stephen Fulton (17-0, 8 KOs) and Ukrainian-born Arnold Khegai (16-0, 10 KOs) met in a junior-featherweight bout. Each had fought the usual suspects en route to their confrontation. There was a lot of holding and rabbit-punching which referee Steve Willis ignored. Eventually, Fulton pulled away for a unanimous-decision triumph.

Next up, Jarrett Hurd (23-1, 16 KOs) took on Francisco Santana (25-7, 12 KOs).

Hurd is a big junior-middleweight who held the WBA and IBF 154-pound titles until losing to Julian Williams last year. Santana is a career welterweight who had lost three of his most recent four fights and had won only three times in the last five years.

Hurd was expected to walk through Santana. But he was strangely passive for much of the fight, which led to the strange spectacle of Santana (the noticeably smaller, lighter-punching man) walking Jarrett down for long stretches of time. Francisco is a one-dimensional fighter and was there to be hit. When Jarrett let his hands go, he hit him. But he fought like a man who didn’t want to fight and didn’t let his hands go often enough.

By round seven, the boos and jeers were raining down. Hurd won a unanimous decision but looked mediocre. That’s the most honest way to put it. One wonders what tricks losing to Julian Williams last year played with his mind.

Also, it should be noted that, when the winning fighter thanks God in a post-fight interview and the crowd (which supported Jarrett at the start of the bout) boos at the mention of The Almighty, there’s a problem.

“The crowd didn’t love it,” Hurd acknowledged afterward. “But you gotta understand; I got the unanimous decision and I did what I wanted to do.”

The main event matched Danny Garcia (35-2, 21 KOs) against Ivan Redkach (23-4-1, 18 KOs).

Garcia had a nice run early in his career, winning belts at 140 and 147 pounds. But later, he came out on the losing end of decisions against Keith Thurman and Shawn Porter. Other than that, he has gone in soft for the past five years.

Redkach is a junior-welterweight who had won 5 of 10 fights during the same five-year time frame.

There was the usual pre-fight nonsense with Garcia telling reporters, “We picked Redkach because he’s dangerous and we knew he’d be tough.” But in truth, Redkach had been whitewashed by Tevin Farmer at 135 pounds and was knocked out at the same weight by John Molina Jr (who never won again).

Garcia, like Hurd, was a 30-to-1 betting favorite.

Redkach fought a safety-first fight. Also, safety second and third. There wasn’t one second when it looked as though he had a realistic chance of winning the fight or fought like he did.

One of the few proactive things that Ivan did do was stick out his tongue from time to time when Garcia hit him. Then, at the end of round eight, he bit Danny on the shoulder while they were in a clinch. At that point, one might have expected referee Benjy Esteves to disqualify Redkach. But Esteves seemed to not notice.

Rather than go for the kill after the bite, Garcia eased up and cruised to a unanimous decision. Meanwhile, by round eleven, the crowd was streaming for the exits. Most of the fans were gone by the time the decision was announced.

Garcia and Hurd had set-up showcase fights scheduled for them. And neither man delivered the way he should have.

Meanwhile, a final thought . . . Sunday, January 26, would have been Harold Lederman’s eightieth birthday.

Harold was the quintessential boxing fan and loved the sport more than anyone I’ve known. He never missed a fight at Barclays Center unless his health prevented him from coming or he was on the road for HBO. He died eight months ago.

As Saturday night’s fight card unfolded, I imagined Harold sitting beside me. He would have had a kind word for everyone who came over to say hello and loved every minute of it. Harold Lederman at the fights was a happy man.

Photo credit: Amanda Westcott

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book — A Dangerous Journey: Another Year Inside Boxing — was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. On June 14, 2020, he will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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