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Re-Visiting Ten Fascinating Heavyweight Prospects One Year Later

Matt McGrain

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Back in the summer of 2018 we took a look at ten selected heavyweight prospects and put them under the microscope, an article you can see here.

One year later we are re-visiting the ten selected heavies to see who has done what to whom and why; who has been moved along too quickly and who not at all; who is positioned for a title shot, and when it is likely to come.

It doesn’t always make for pretty reading. Last time around we came across some fighters of walloping potential who found themselves mired in professional-loser hell and for some the year gone by has made little difference. Faceless opponents slip by unremembered and unmotivated, satisfied at a brief brush with potential greatness, apparently not unlike some of the associated promoters. But it’s not all bad news. We now have a national champion among the ten; others are following a well trodden path to a title shot via alphabet escalator. And two of the below men are even fighting each other, which is more old school than any training method or punch selection more likely to be named as such.

A quick reminder that this isn’t a “top ten”, just a fascinating ten, some more fascinating than others, most more fascinating than they were in 2018.

THE COLOSSUS: ARSLANBEK MAKHMUDOV

FROM: Russia HEIGHT: 6’5.5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 250lbs AGE: 29 RECORD: 8-0 with 8 KOs

“It sounds ridiculous given that he has only fought three contests,” I last wrote of Arslanbek Makhmudov, a supplanted Russian boxing out of Canada, “but Arslanbek Makhmudov isn’t being moved fast enough.”

In part, this was due to his age. Makhmudov is thirty this week.

Happily, this gargantuan heavyweight has been moved along apace since last year, even finding some fighters who were able to extend him beyond the one minute mark. Emelio Zarate, the owner of the most spectacularly broken nose in the whole division, managed to take him as far as the second round in his fourth contest; Zarate had previously extended the debuting Sergey Kuzmin the six round distance.

Later, Jason Bergman, who once survived Joseph Parker for eight rounds, resumed normal service for Makhmudov opposition, flattened in a round, the left hand this time playing its part (Makhmudov is better known for his prestigious right). There are small gains on display here.

Most recently, in May of last year, Makhmudov stepped up to the ten round distance and identified his preferred ABC, fighting for something called the “World Boxing Council Continental Americas Heavyweight Title”. His opponent was a respectable one, the American Jonathan Rice, a fighter who had previously taken prospect Tony Yoka the distance over in Paris and a fighter who had never been stopped.

Makhmudov crushed him in seconds.

The Colossus has had a good year. He’s moved up in class and there has been no affect upon either his power or his person. Next year should see him ranked in the WBC top ten; the one after that will see him dueling legitimate top ten contenders.

SIX NINE: IVAN DYCHKO

FROM: Kazakhstan HEIGHT: 6’9 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 250lbs AGE: 28 RECORD: 8-0 with 8 KOs

It’s been a bad, bad year for the six foot nine inch Ivan Dychko.

“But wait a moment Matt!” I hear you cry, “Ivan has won every fight he’s been in by knockout since last June. How can that be a bad year?”

Firstly, Dychko has only been out of the garage three times in comparison to Makhmudov’s five; he’s boxed only five rounds in those three fights against opponents with a shared loss ledger numbering thirty-eight. The best of his paid victims was the fighter formerly known as Ray Austin, now aged forty-eight and with a record of 1-5 from his last six coming into his contest with Dychko.

In fairness, the Kazakhstani looked slick and hard-handed while beating up the blubbery, stumbling former contender, who was pulled with an arm injury in round three; but the sight was too sad to enjoy.

Dychko was complaining this time last year about the miserable level of his opposition, and if anything, it’s dropped off. The highlight of his year has been the miniscule level of attention he generated when bizarrely volunteering to replace Jarrell Miller against Anthony Joshua based upon their amateur rivalry.

If he was unhappy in 2018, he must be beside himself now. His Australian promotion team is failing him.

THE QUIET ONE: DANIEL DUBOIS

FROM: Great Britain HEIGHT: 6’5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 239lbs AGE: 21 RECORD: 11-0 with 10 KOs

Daniel Dubois has had perhaps the finest year of any of our heavyweight prospects, going 4-0 against steadily improving opposition. He also got priceless, priceless rounds under his belt when veteran spoiler Kevin Johnson took him the ten last October and what is more he won every one of them.  Johnson, who has fought a who’s who of heavyweights, was impressed.

“His jab got the power of a right hand,” Johnsons said after their contest. “I could not get past that jab.”

In additionally rating Dubois jab superior to Vitali Klitschko, Johnson has made quite the statement.  Johnson did also express reservations, however, not least over Dubois’ explosiveness; the veteran found it lacking. This illustrates further concerns over Dubois’ paucity of handspeed. It hasn’t cost him yet but the giant Englishman is not blessed with quick mitts. Speed can be improved, especially in a young fighter, especially when it comes to knitting punches together in bunches, but this prospect’s has not improved. Sometimes I feel he looks slower.

This just hasn’t mattered so far; not when he met the onramp to the WBO title path; not when he blasted out Razvan Cojanu, a former victim of both Luis Ortiz (KO2) and Joseph Parker (UD12) in just two rounds; and he will hope not when he meets fellow UK prospect Nathan Gorman next month.

Dubois and Gorman clash on the thirteenth in London when they will become the first two men from this list of prospects to meet. The winner will become the pre-eminent name among his peers.

THE BRUTE: SERGEY KUZMIN

FROM: Russia HEIGHT: 6’3.5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 245lbs AGE: 31 RECORD: 15-0 with 11 KOs

“Sergey Kuzmin,” I wrote last year, “is a pressure fighter with a stylistically stated preference for power-punches.  He throws with bad intentions, sometimes wildly, while tucking his head into chest and giving the impression that he would rather be smaller than bigger.”

That was probably the best summary I wrote and it remains as true now as it was then.

Kuzmin has on paper had a quiet year compared to many of the others listed here, but at 15-0 is assuming the tone of a fighter no longer a prospect. His opponents have improved accordingly.  David Price was an interesting and sensible opponent, a vulnerable giant with good name recognition in a new market for the Russian. His trip to the UK sadly ended in Price’s withdrawal with an arm injury rather than with the hoped-for knockout, but Kuzmin took it in his stride and flew back to the USA where he matched the 6’4 240lb fleet-footed LaRon Mitchell. Kuzmin hunted him down in six brutal rounds, ostensibly stopping him with an eye-watering uppercut but really stopping him with a summary attack that he sustained from beginning to end.

Then came Kuzmin’s match with Joey Dawejko in March of this year. I thought the judges had it a little too close across the board and the majority decision in favor of Kuzmin favored Dawejko in my opinion, but it is nevertheless a fact that Dawejko did give Kuzmin some problems he did not entirely overcome. Given that there are many levels between Dawejko and the best opponents Kuzmin will meet in the next two years, his team may have cause to worry; the Russian looked occasionally bereft of ideas during these ten absorbing rounds.

He nevertheless remains the most spiteful piece of work on this list.  I’ll stick my neck out and nominate him to be the third to achieve a TBRB ranking, too.

THE AMERICAN: DARMANI ROCK

FROM: USA HEIGHT: 6’5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 240lbs AGE: 23 RECORD: 15-0 with 10 KOs

He’s from the right country, is the right age, has the right name and the right physical attributes, but still the silence around Darmani Rock remains deafening. I can’t quite decide if his promotional team is being very, very smart or very, very dumb; time, I suppose, will tell.

And Rock has plenty of it. Aged just twenty-three, moving him slowly is valid, and for all the impatience of the iPhone era, a reasonable approach to developing a fighter. That said it is a little disturbing to me that so little is said about him even when he is moved on, as he was against Pedro Rodriguez last October. Rodriguez, perhaps, is the wrong side of shot having been the discerning prospect’s opponent since 2012, but up until very recently he has been beaten only by the best. At the very least he had more name recognition than typical Rock fare.

I would describe the fourth round stoppage for you, but I’ve never seen it. I’m not even sure that the fight was televised and if it was the internet does not appear to be carrying it, almost unheard of.

Again: very smart, or very dumb?  That is yet to be revealed, but I don’t think we can expect much movement from Rock over the next twelve months.

MY FAVORITE: FILIP HRGOVIC

FROM: Croatia HEIGHT: 6’6 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 230lbs AGE: 26 RECORD: 8-0 with 6 KOs

Technically proficient, quick of hand and thought, physically imposing and clearly in great shape, Filip Hrgovic is confirmed as having everything he needs to be a champion in the heavyweight division except the important ones: chin and stamina. These still remain unconfirmed, although his adventures in the WSB suggest he owns a sturdy mandible at the very least.

Hrgovic was scheduled to fight ten rounds with a name opponent last September and it seemed we might get to find out about his stamina, too. Amir Mansour, after all, had yet to be stopped in nearly thirty contests except by a self-inflicted injury to his tongue.

Hrgovic changed all that. With a Klitschko-like control of range and tempo, Hrgovic dominated the fight from beginning to end. Then, in a style all of his own, he closed the blinds on Mansour in just three rounds in what was a physical and technical mismatch.

Defensively we have also seen some improvement though neither in parrying or blocking, but rather in the form of generalship and so the old concern is also the new concern. Hrgovic may find himself in unnecessary firefights, something I can’t say I’m anything but delighted about except to say that it may at some time cost him.

Hrgovic followed this up with an eight round decision victory over Kevin Johnson in December and then a gorgeous one round destruction of American Gregory Corbin. Corbin had been disqualified for a single loss in his sixteen fight career but three right hands, all different, all delivered with the same withering certitude to different parts of Corbin’s anatomy, saw him exit the Hrgovic story stage left.

Hrgovic has no fight scheduled currently. My prediction is that he will be ranked in either the TBRB or Ring rankings before we speak again.

HAYMAKING: JOE JOYCE

FROM: Great Britain HEIGHT: 6’6 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 255lbs AGE: 33 RECORD: 9-0 with 9 KOs

“Joyce in many ways is the most interesting fighter on this list,” was my claim this time last year, “because he probably will not be in competition with the other men listed but rather with the current generation of heavies. I suspect Joyce will find his way into the ring with an international class opponent before he hits 10-0 and a world level fighter before he hits 15-0.  This is likely a space worth watching.”

Sure enough, Joyce is slated to meet Bryant Jennings in his tenth professional contest in London next month. In actual fact though, Joyce pre-dated my prediction by two fights, thrashing Bermane Stiverne in six rounds this past February. Those who wish, understandably, to write off Stiverne as washed up should keep in mind that his previous opponent was Deontay Wilder. Joyce is mixing it with fighters who have recently mixed with the elite, and David Haye and his promotional team are to be lauded for the speed with which they are moving a heavyweight who is in his mid-thirties.

Jennings may provide a different and stiffer test and is an even braver piece of match-making. Joyce has the same problem as Dubois: his hands are slow, and sometimes it seems they are comically so.

But he has an elite level workrate and excellent accuracy. If you can control your positioning and are defensively aware, this can go a long way to making up for physical shortcomings.

Joyce will need this and more on July thirteenth. Should he win, a fast-burning addition to the heavyweight melting pot is complete. I make Joyce a slight favorite in what is absolutely a legitimate graduation night, and given the speed with which he is being matched, I think you can expect to see him in with a legitimately ranked opponent before summer 2020.

THE PUB BOUNCER: NATHAN GORMAN

FROM: Great Britain HEIGHT: 6’3 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 250lbs AGE: 22 RECORD: 16-0 with 11 KOs

“Nathan Gorman isn’t really a pub bouncer,” I explained last year, “but because he looks a little like one, he’s been consistently overlooked as a heavyweight prospect in the UK in favor of the ripped Joe Joyce and the less tubby Daniel Dubois.  This is unfair.”

Gorman will get to show how unfair or otherwise it is on the thirteenth of July when he meets Daniel Dubois ring center in London’s O2 Arena.  It’s a fascinating tussle not too unlike the recent Joshua-Ruiz upset; Dubois, the enormous, chiseled, money-maker has been pitted against a smaller, less svelte fighter with quicker hands.

The Dubois fight is everything to Gorman. There will be no unearned second coming should he lose, just a long and difficult slog back to where he is now followed by the real work. Gorman, for all that he could be another all-action feel-good story with all the benefits that brings, has it all on the line in a way that Dubois, perhaps, does not.

And I really think he might win. His strengths line up well with Dubois’ weaknesses. One thing is for sure though: Gorman’s status next time we check in with him will be more dramatically affected by his next fight than every other man on this list.

THE LITTLE GUY: OLEKSANDER USYK

FROM: Ukraine HEIGHT: 6’3 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 220lbs AGE: 32 RECORD: 16-0 with 12 KOs

To our great frustration, Usyk pulled out of his heavyweight debut, scheduled to take place in the United States late last month. The proposed opponent was a legitimate one, specifically Carlos Takam who had previously given Anthony Joshua one or two moments.

Truthfully though, he was perfect for Oleksander Usyk. Quick feet, quick hands, legitimate mobility and the generalship and gas tank to utilize it are going to be the antidote to many of the turgid heavyweights that swarm just outside the top ten.

More disturbing than Usyk’s injury is talk of his moving between cruiserweight and heavyweight for a period. That seems unwise. Freeing the body up to unlimited before packing it back in a cruiserweight box could be detrimental to both Usyk’s performance and his potential heavyweight ranking. Hopefully this time next year Usyk will have bid adieu to 200lbs and begun his assault upon the biggest division in earnest.

It wouldn’t surprise me if he has come into possession of some minor strap by next June.

AT THE SCHOOL OF MANNY STEWARD: VLAD SIRENKO

FROM: Ukraine HEIGHT: 6’3.5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 243lbs AGE: 24 RECORD: 11-0 with 10 KOs

Former Manny Steward disciple James Bashir went a long way to train Vlad Sirenko; Sirenko’s steady improvements have been their dual reward.

Sirenko had a big 2018/19, moving out of South Africa where he boxed his apprenticeship and into his home of Ukraine and to Germany, where his mid-term future may lie.

In terms of opposition there has been little offered with the Congolese African champion Rocky Kaleng the probable high mark. Kaleng hadn’t been stopped since 2010 in just his fourth contest.  What’s more, he actually gave Sirenko a little fright, landing a series of stern left hooks in the opening minute as the Ukrainian looked to out-squabble his opponent in close. It was in close, too, that an overeager Sirenko landed a clunking rabbit-punch and the fight immediately drifted from Kaleng’s forty-year old legs. Sirenko ended matter with his own left hook moments later, although there was some ambiguity regarding the veracity of the stoppage; was the rabbit-punch, the menacing left hook of Sirenko or Kaleng’s age most culpable for the first round knockout victory?

There was no ambiguity where Sirenko’s knockout of Leonardo Robutti in Germany for the national belt of that country was concerned, however. The three piece combination to finish that fight would make the highlight reel of any active heavyweight.

Of all the fighters on our list though, Sirenko has the most work to do. He is too upright and Kaleng showed him vulnerable to the left-hook. There is no hiding this footage which is readily available online; look for every new opponent to land their own high left hands early. It’s the job of James Bashir to stop them.

THIS TIME NEXT YEAR

Zero losses and a raft of victories is what our heavyweight prospects have delivered over the last twelve months.  I can guarantee that the next time we check in, losses will have been suffered.  Even if Dubois and Gorman stage an unsatisfactory draw, Joyce, Usyk, Hrgovic and Kuzmin, at a minimum, will be keeping serious company going forward; I would also expect the winner of Dubois-Gorman to be matched heavy in the months after their contest.

Dychko, Rock and Sirenko will likely continue to tread water, in the case of Dychko, itching for a shot at Anthony Joshua, seemingly very much against his will; meanwhile Makhmudov holds perhaps the most interesting hand of all. He’s ready, he’s been creeping forward at a more measured pace, but whether or not he will move up in class and out of his Canadian stronghold is unclear.

This time next year, we’ll break it down again and see what has transpired.

Photo left to right: Daniel Dubois, promoter Frank Warren, Joe Joyce, Nathan Gorman

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3 Punch Combo: Scoping Out Teofimo vs Nakatani, Ajagba vs Demirezen and More

Matt Andrzejewski

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THREE PUNCH COMBO — Boxing on ESPN+ returns this Friday with a card from the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, MD headlined by the fast-rising lightweight sensation Teofimo Lopez (13-0, 11 KO’s). Lopez will be facing the undefeated Masayoshi Nakatani (18-0, 12 KO’s) of Japan in a final IBF eliminator to become the mandatory challenger for champion Richard Commey (29-2, 26 KO’s). While Lopez is a known commodity to most boxing fans, the same cannot be said of Nakatani. So just who is this unheralded fighter from Japan and does he pose any threat to Lopez?

Nakatani, 30, turned pro in 2011 after an amateur career that by most accounts consisted of somewhere between 50 and 60 bouts. As a pro, he has never fought more than three times a year and never outside of Japan, but by managing to stay undefeated he has crept into the Top 15 rankings of three of the four major sanctioning bodies in the lightweight division.

Looking closer Nakatani’s resume, the overall level of his competition is highly questionable.  Probably his best win was in his eighth pro fight when he won a 12-round unanimous decision against Ricky Sismundo. Sismundo has sprung some surprises in the past and as a matter of fact gave undefeated rising contender Maxim Dadashev a scare earlier this year, but this is the same Ricky Sismundo who was defeated by Ruslan Madiyev last week in California, bringing his record to 35-14-3.

Other than Sismundo, the names on Nakatani’s resume are hardly recognizable.

Nakatani, an orthodox fighter, is tall for the lightweight division standing nearly six feet in height. As such, he likes to work behind the left jab. However, that jab is not very sharp or powerful, but used as more of a range finder and to set up his right hand. Sometimes he will follow the right with a left hook but his primary offense is the left jab followed by the right.

Nakatani is not that athletic or quick inside the ring. His hand speed is below average for the division. He is also not a powerful or heavy handed puncher. The knockouts are more from his level of competition than anything else.

Here are a few other notes on Nakatani based on my observations: He does not like to fight on the inside and will initiate clinches when his opponent closes the distance. And he has a habit of trying to avoid punches with his legs, often times pulling straight back with his hands down. He has gotten clipped quite a few times but fortunately for him those fighters that have done so have not possessed big punching power.

I actually do think Nakatani is the strongest opponent for Lopez to date. That being said, however, I do not think he will give Lopez much trouble. Teofimo may get frustrated some by Nakatani’s constant clinching on the inside, and he may get hit with a few range finding jabs, but expect another Lopez knockout here sometime in the first half of the fight.

Under The Radar Fight

The attention of the boxing world this week is going to be focused on the big welterweight pay-per-view title fight between Manny Pacquiao (61-7-2, 39 KO’s) and Keith Thurman (29-0, 22 KO’s). Also on the show is an intriguing heavyweight fight that is falling deep under the radar between a pair of 2016 Olympians in Efe Ajagba (10-0, 9 KO’s) and Ali Eren Demirezen (11-0, 10 KO’s).

Ajagba, 25, represented his native country of Nigeria in the Super Heavyweight division of the 2016 Olympics where he lost to Ivan Dychko in the quarterfinals. Since turning pro, he has really turned heads, building a reputation as a fearsome puncher.

Ajagba is a big imposing heavyweight. He stands 6’5” tall and possesses a massive 85-inch reach. Best described as an aggressive boxer puncher, he will press the action, often times behind a very stiff and powerful left jab from the orthodox stance. Very athletic for a man his size, he possesses above average hand speed for the heavyweight division. His best trait is his power; he possesses legitimate one punch knockout power in both fists. The natural tools are all there for Ajagba to potentially one day be a dominant force in the division.

But there are things Ajagba needs to work on, namely his defense. Right now, he lacks any sort of head movement and often poses in front of his opponents after punching them to admire his work. He hasn’t paid yet for his lack of attention to defense but that may change as his competition rises.

Demirezen, 29, represented Turkey in the Super Heavyweight division of the 2016 Olympics where he lost to Filip Hrgovic in his opening fight. Since turning pro he hasn’t had much fanfare, but has amassed quite an impressive early pro record while fighting mostly in Germany.

Though he may not have the imposing physique of Ajagba, Demirezen possesses some solid skills as well as some surprising athleticism. As a matter of fact, I’d go so far as to call him a poor man’s version of Andy Ruiz Jr.

Demirezen will look to apply pressure behind the left jab and work combinations with his quick hands behind that jab. He does not really possess one-punch power but is heavy handed and his punches can take a cumulative effect on his opponents. His best punch is a quick left hook to the body that he often lands with precision.

If physiques won a boxing match, this would be no contest. But as we saw with Joshua-Ruiz, physiques don’t always win. Ajagba will be favored and rightfully so, but Demirezen can fight. This is an interesting fight between two undefeated heavyweight prospects who were recent Olympians and one that I am very much looking forward to on Saturday.

Prospect Watch – Luis Arcon

 There is a lot that gets me excited about the future of the sport. Not only is the sport being broadcast like it never has before but we have many good prospects who are beaming with talent. So many good prospects, as a matter of fact, that some very talented young fighters are falling a bit under the radar. One such fighter is junior welterweight Luis Arcon who moved to 8-0 with 8 knockouts this past Friday with a third-round knockout of Mario Lozano.

Like many of today’s top prospects, Arcon has a strong amateur pedigree. His amateur background includes representing his native country of Venezuela in the 2016 Olympics.

Arcon, 27, turned pro in March of 2018 in Mexico. So far he has breezed through his competition though it must be noted that he hasn’t faced the toughest of challenges. But he has looked very good so far in his early pro career and has been flashing some incredible talent.

Fighting from the orthodox stance, Arcon likes to work behind a well-timed and very powerful left jab. His footwork is excellent and he often positions himself at the right angles to land combinations behind that jab. He possesses very fast hands and can often fire off a volley of power shots before his opponent can react.

And then there is the power. Perhaps this is what stands out most when watching Arcon on video. Granted, as noted earlier, the competition has not been the stiffest, but he has displayed devastating knockout power in both fists. His best punch is the left hook to the body which often has a paralyzing effect on his opposition.

With his amateur background, Arcon is ready to take the next step in his career. His game is polished and he possesses massive power in both of his hands. He belongs on all top prospect lists and has a bright future in this sport.

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R.I.P. Pernell ‘Sweet Pea’ Whitaker, One of the All-Time Greats

Arne K. Lang

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Tributes are pouring in for Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker who was killed last night (Sunday, July14) after being struck by a car while walking across a busy intersection in Virginia Beach, Virginia. An Olympic gold medalist who won six world titles in four weight classes,  Whitaker was a defensive wizard. At his peak he was considered the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world. In 2002, The Ring magazine named him the 10th best boxer of the last 80 years.

Whitaker, who turned 55 in January, turned pro in 1984 at Madison Square Garden on a show that included five of his U.S. Olympic teammates – Evander Holyfield, Mark Breland, Meldrick Taylor, Tyrell Biggs, and Virgil Hill.

As a pro, Whitaker was managed by Main Events, a Duva family company, and did most of his training in Philadelphia under the watchful eye of George Benton. In his 17th pro fight, Pernell ventured to Paris to challenge WBC lightweight champion Jose Luis Ramirez who was 100-6 going in. Whitaker came up short on the scorecards, losing a split decision.

This ranked among the worst decisions in boxing history. Whitaker’s chief second Lou Duva accused WBC president Jose Sulaiman of fixing the fight so as not to spoil an all-Mexico showdown between Ramirez and Julio Cesar Chavez.

Two fights later, Whitaker won his first title, taking the IBF lightweight belt from Greg Haugen. Pernell won all 12 rounds on two of the cards. He added the WBC belt in a rematch with Jose Luis Ramirez, winning a wide decision, and added the WBA belt with a first-round stoppage of Puerto Rico’s Juan Nazario in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

Between his first fight with Ramirez and his April 4, 1997 encounter with Oscar De La Hoya in Las Vegas, Whitaker was undefeated, a span of almost 10 years consisting of 26 fights. During this run he won world titles at 140 and 154 pounds before dropping back to welterweight for four successful title defenses.

There was one “blemish” late in this 26-fight run, a draw at the San Antonio Alamodome with Julio Cesar Chavez. This was also controversial. The post-fight report by William Nack was the cover story in Sports Illustrated. The headline was “Robbed!”

Sweet Pea lost a unanimous decision to De La Hoya that most ringsiders thought was a lot closer than what was reflected by the scorecards (DLH won by margins of 4, 6, and 6 points). A poll of 26 ringside reporters by the Las Vegas Review Journal revealed that 14 scored it for Whitaker with one having it a draw.

Six months after his bout with De La Hoya, Whitaker opposed Andrey Pestryaev at Foxwood’s Resort in Connecticut. He won a unanimous decision but wasn’t himself. A post-fight urine test revealed the presence of cocaine. That dictated a six-month suspension during which he failed a random drug test. He wouldn’t step back into the ring until Feb. 20, 1999, when he opposed IBF welterweight champion Felix Trinidad at Madison Square Garden.

This would the first fight in Whitaker’s remarkable career that he lost without controversy. Trinidad broke Pernell’s jaw during the bout and retained his title with a clear-cut unanimous decision.

Whitaker retired, but launched a comeback 26 months later with a fight in Lake Tahoe against Mexican journeyman Carlos Bojorquez. In this fight, Whitaker suffered a fractured clavicle in the second round. He soldiered on, but 27 seconds into the fourth, seeing that Whitaker was a one-armed fighter in considerable pain, referee Joe Cortez pulled the plug. This would be the final fight of his career. He left with a record of 40-4-1 and 1 “NC” (the Pestryaev contest).

Less than 48 hours later, back home in Norfolk, Virginia, Whitaker was rushed to the hospital with an apparent overdose. His girlfriend called 911 after finding him having a seizure on the floor of the bathroom, his body covered in sweat.

Sweet Pea, who worked as a boxing and personal trainer in retirement, appeared to have it all together back in June of 2007 when he was formally inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. His emotional speech was the highlight of the induction ceremony. But in 2014 he was back in the news again when he was forced to evict his 73-year-old mother from the home she had occupied for 30 years. He said that he could no longer afford to maintain the home which he had always kept in his name. The United Press wire story said that Whitaker had squandered millions on drugs and legal expenses.

The man that struck Whitaker with his vehicle remained on the scene. Preliminary reports indicate that the driver was not impaired in any way. We here at The Sweet Science extend our condolences to Whitaker’s family and loved ones.

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The Battle of Wits Between Roach and Birmingham May Decide PacMan vs. Thurman

Bernard Fernandez

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The Battle of Wits Between Roach and Birmingham May Decide PacMan vs. Thurman

It is the boxers who are the center of attention, of course, and that is how it always has been and always should be. But there are a select few high-visibility bouts in which the lead trainers play a more significant role than usual, so much so that their prefight and in-fight strategizing could make the difference between victory and defeat for their guy.

Although it isn’t an undercard attraction in its own right, a mental scrap worth monitoring pits Freddie Roach, Manny Pacquiao’s longtime strategist and a seven-time winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America Eddie Futch Award as Trainer of the Year, against Dan Birmingham, a two-time BWAA Futch winner whose status as one of the elite trainers has dimmed somewhat over the past decade and a half. But the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Birmingham’s reputation could be buffed and polished to its former sheen should Keith “One Time” Thurman win as spectacularly as he has vowed to do on July 20.

The matchup of Pacquiao vs. Thurman might turn out to be just such a fight in which a spotlight, for better or worse, is shone upon the handiwork of the trainers. Those in attendance in Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena won’t able to hear their spoken instructions between rounds, but subscribers to the PBC on Fox Sports Pay Per View telecast should pay close attention to what takes place in those vital one-minute interludes when all the preparation that went before is either working as planned, or is undergoing a hurried rewrite on the fly. Seemingly unlikely victories have been procured, more often than casual observers of the sweet science might realize, because the chief second offers just the right bit of tactical advice or just the right inspirational message at precisely the right moment.

The prevailing story lines before the first punch that counts is thrown have been fairly standard stuff: Pacquiao (61-7-2, 39 KOs), the living legend and only world champion in eight separate weight classes, attempting to extend the outer limits of his prime at the improbable age of 40, and Thurman (29-0, 22 KOs), the WBA welterweight champion and 10 years Pacquiao’s junior, out to demonstrate that injuries and two-plus years of near-total inactivity haven’t done to him what the natural laws of diminishing returns might or might not have done to the Fab Filipino.

If there were sports books odds dealing with the corner battle involving Roach and Birmingham, Roach, a disciple of the late, great Eddie Futch who has had Pacquiao’s ear for their 16 years together, with the exception of a one-bout absence, almost certainly would be as much a favorite as Mike Tyson was over Buster Douglas or Anthony Joshua over Andy Ruiz Jr. Roach, 59, doesn’t need to make a case for his future induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame as he already has been enshrined, in 2012. Should Pacquiao demonstrate that he is still an elite fighter of the here and now instead of a cherished but faded icon of the past, Roach could take a step toward an almost-unimaginable eighth Futch Award.

And Birmingham?

Like Roach, a former lightweight who posted a 40-13 record with 15 knockouts in a professional career that spanned from 1978 to ’86, Birmingham is a life-long devotee to a sport that got under his skin at an early age and took permanent root. Unlike Roach, who at one point was 25-2 and world-rated under the tutelage of the sainted Futch, Birmingham, 68, never even sipped the proverbial cup of coffee as a pro. He began boxing at 15, weighing all of 112 pounds, in his gritty hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, until he decided that sun and surf were preferable to soot and rust, necessitating a relocation to more pleasant environs along Florida’s Gulf Coast.

There are other differences between Roach and Birmingham, both subtle and stark. As a devotee to Futch, Roach was always in relatively close proximity to the old master’s retinue of stars and hot prospects, laying the groundwork for Roach to begin his own career as a trainer, if not exactly at the top, then at least a ways removed from the bottom. Birmingham, whose other passion besides boxing is rock ’n’ roll – he describes himself as a “guitar-playing 1960s hippie who was at Woodstock” – also had a mentor in Ben Getty, Thurman’s original coach, who took the Ohio transplant on as an assistant trainer to Thurman, then a youthful prodigy.

And while Roach has long since established his bona fides apart from Futch, who was 90 when he passed away on Oct. 10, 2001, to some it might appear that Birmingham is still playing the role of understudy to Getty, who was 63 when he died unexpectedly in 2009.

Thurman was a seven-year-old kid with no discernible purpose in life when he came into contact with Getty, a former serviceman whose post-military life had been unceremoniously reduced to that of a janitor at a Clearwater elementary school. It was Getty who brought Thurman to his after-school YMCA boxing program, where he learned – and loved – to shadowbox, jump rope and spar. It was like the boxing version of Luke Skywalker mastering nuances of The Force under Obi-Wan Kenobi or Yoda.

“Ben Getty was a very special man,” Thurman said in 2015.  “He was the one who taught me to go for the KO. He used to say this line that pissed me off a lot. I don’t know if he said it to piss me off, or if he just said it because he never wanted me to forget. But he used to say, `You are nothing without your power.’ It took me a long time to understand what that really meant.

“To me at first it was real basic. I took it as telling me I can’t box. Maybe to a degree he did mean that, but throughout the years as I reflect, I think he just never wanted me to forget how important my power is, and how my power has the ability to change the outcome of a fight.”

Getty’s sudden death left a still-developing Thurman at a career crossroads. Shelly Finkel, manager of or adviser to some of boxing’s greatest champions and biggest draws, recommended that Thurman turn himself over to Roach, whose Wild Card Boxing Club in Los Angeles had become a preferred destination for fighters such as himself, brimming with potential yet to be maximized. Thurman politely declined, choosing instead to remain on home turf and with Getty’s right-hand man, Birmingham, who might have been better known at that time than Getty thanks to those two Futch Awards. Thurman continues to publicly revere Getty, wearing trunks with “Ben” stitched across the waistband. You might think that Birmingham takes at least some umbrage to that, but he insists it isn’t so.

“It hasn’t been uncomfortable at all,” Birmingham said of his station as a sort of ersatz Getty, as far as Thurman is concerned. “Ben Getty and I were very close friends. I gave him the keys to my gym so he and Keith could come and go as they pleased. When Ben passed away, just a couple of days later Keith came to me and asked, `Would you take over?’ I said, `Absolutely.’

“Keith’s history with Ben makes my job a lot easier. I don’t have to teach him any basics, that’s for sure. We just analyze the opponent, see what we need to do on fight night to win, and I train him that way. Pacquiao is a diverse fighter. He’s got quick hands, quick feet and he’s a good boxer. He’s fairly unpredictable.”

Not so Thurman, who apparently is holding firm to Getty’s sacred mandate that punching power must remain his No. 1 priority. He has predicted that Pacquiao will go down inside of six rounds, which might be easier said than done even against a Manny who no longer is at peak form.

Make no mistake, though, Birmingham should not be considered a Getty clone that has slavishly adhered to every verse from the Gospel of Ben. In 2004 and 2005, the years he won his Futch Awards, Birmingham was boxing’s tastiest flavor of the moment. His charge Ronald “Winky” Wright, who was inducted into the IBHOF in 2018, outpointed Shane Mosley in a super welterweight unification showdown on March 13, 2004, and followed that up with another points nod over Mosley the same year. In 2005, Wright turned in a career-best performance, utterly dominating Felix Trinidad en route to a one-sided decision, to which he added another UD12 over veteran Sam Soliman.

While Birmingham primarily was recognized for his work with Wright, he augmented his rising profile by taking a lesser talent, 2000 U.S. Olympian, Jeff “Left Hook” Lacy, to the IBF super middleweight title in 2004. Lacy won four times in those two years, three coming inside the distance.

It should be noted that Wright, a clever southpaw who was never known for his ability to get opponents out of there with one shot or even a semi-fusillade of them, was far different stylistically than is Thurman. It therefore seems reasonable to assume that this updated version of Dan Birmingham is no more an exact duplicate of Ben Getty than Freddie Roach is of Eddie Futch.

There are different methods by which a trainer gets his fighter to rise to the occasion when the stage is most brightly lit. Angelo Dundee, Lou Duva and Richie Giachetti, all regrettably gone, embodied the motivational techniques favored by excitable men of Italian heritage. Who can forget Dundee, in maybe the signature moment of his remarkable career, forcefully telling Sugar Ray Leonard, “You’re blowing it, son!”  after the 12th round of his epic welterweight unification matchup with Thomas Hearns on Sept. 16, 1981. An energized Leonard, his eyes swollen and behind on the scorecards, responded by flooring the Hit Man in the 13th round and stopping him in the 14th.

Futch and George Benton, also regrettably gone, were more professorial in their demeanor, rarely raising their voices and disinclined to resort to rah-rah stuff. If Thurman, who has a Nepalese wife and has walked the Himalayas in a quest to find some measure of inner serenity, were to seek out some ancient and wise soothsayer he could do worse than to come across some Tibetan version of a Futch or Benton.

So pay keen attention to the 60-second breaks between rounds when Roach – who, it should be noted, is listed as Pacquiao’s co-trainer, in addition to Manny’s friend and associate Buboy Fernandez – and Birmingham dispense their abbreviated instructions. Whoever wins those small battles of the brain might determine who wins the larger conflict inside the ropes.

Photo credit: Andy Samuelson / Premier Boxing Champions

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