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R.I.P. Willie the Worm and Billy Joiner, Emblems of a Bright and Bygone Era

Arne K. Lang

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The recent deaths of two former ring personalities went largely unnoticed. On June 26, Willie “The Worm” Monroe passed away at age seventy-three. Three weeks earlier, Billy Joiner drew his last breath at age eighty-one. Neither won a world title and Joiner was a mere journeyman, but both shared the ring with giants of their craft in one of boxing’s brightest eras.

Willie the Worm, who was born in Alabama, the fifth-youngest of 17 children, learned the rudiments of boxing in Rochester, New York, where he reputedly carved out a 43-0 mark as an amateur, and then plied his trade in his second adopted home, Philadelphia, where he trained in Joe Frazier’s gym under the watchful eye, at various times, of three of the sport’s greatest trainers: Yank Durham, Eddie Futch, and George Benton. Durham reputedly gave Willie (pictured) his nickname, likening his fighting style to a sleek and slippery worm. But Willie also packed a knockout punch. He stopped 26 of his 51 opponents, concluding his career with a record of 40-10-1.

Twenty-nine of Monroe’s 51 pro fights were in Philadelphia where he made his pro debut at the legendary Blue Horizon. In Philly, he didn’t have to go far to find a good sparring partner; the city was a hornet’s nest of top-shelf middleweights. Bennie Briscoe, Eugene “Cyclone” Hart, Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts, and Stanley “Kitten” Hayward were contemporaries. Their gym wars were legendary.

Monroe defeated Hart and Hayward, but was never better than on the night of March 9, 1976, when he scored a 10-round decision over Marvin Hagler at the Spectrum, Philadelphia’s largest sports arena. Monroe was a clear winner, punctuating his performance with a strong 10th round. In the fifth round of that fight, he hit Hagler with three consecutive uppercuts, knocking his mouthpiece out and leaving Hagler with a bloody nose that never went away.

Hagler suffered only three defeats in 67 starts. His first loss, in Philadelphia to the aforementioned Bobby Watts, was assailed as a rip-off. His third loss, to Sugar Ray Leonard in his final pro fight, was highly controversial.

Willie the Worm, rest his soul, remains the only man to defeat Hagler decisively. Unfortunately, few got to see it. Philadelphia was strafed by a late winter snowstorm on the day of the fight, hurting attendance and preventing the film crew from getting to the Spectrum. There is no video footage of the fight.

(In common with the great Joe Louis, Marvin Hagler was lethal in rematches. He would twice avenge his loss to Willie the Worm, first on a 12th round TKO in Boston in a good back-and-forth fight, and then taking him out in the second round in the rubber match at the Spectrum. Between his setbacks to Monroe and Leonard, Marvelous Marvin went 11 years without tasting defeat, a stretch of 37 fights.)

In retirement, Willie Monroe drove a delivery truck for the Philadelphia Inquirer, worked as a security guard at Garden State Racetrack, and for a time was a professional boxing referee. His death in the Philadelphia suburb of Sicklerville, New Jersey, was attributed to complications of Alzheimer’s. He is survived by his wife of 51 years, two daughters, and three grandchildren. Willie Monroe Jr, a former two-time world title challenger currently campaigning as a super middleweight, is Willie the Worm’s great nephew.

Billy Joiner

Summon up BoxRec and dial in “Billy Joiner” and what you will find is a fighter who compiled a pro record of 12-13-3 and was stopped five times. And if that’s all you learned about Billy Joiner, then you wouldn’t know even half the story. Joiner was the only man to fight Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston twice.

Cincinnati has a rich amateur boxing history dating back to the days of Ezzard Charles. Billy Joiner’s father, John Joiner, trained 1948 Olympian Wallace “Bud” Smith, a future lightweight champion, and the younger Joiner followed Smith’s footsteps into a decorated amateur career.

A three-time finalist in the National Golden Gloves Tournament in a day when the annual event in Chicago was attended by some of America’s best-known sportswriters, Joiner won the competition in 1962 in the 178-pound weight class and, for good measure, went on to win the AAU tournament before turning pro under the management of George Gainford who also handled Sugar Ray Robinson.

Joiner’s two fights with Ali came as an amateur, long before Ali adopted his Muslim name. In a 2016 interview with Peter Wood, Joiner said that both losses were by one point, which is entirely plausible. Their second meeting was at an outdoor show in Toledo, Ohio, perhaps Ali’s last fight before heading off to the Rome Olympics, as he had already secured that berth.

They also met up again as professionals. On Dec. 8, 1969, they appeared at a press conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to announce their forthcoming fight to be held on Jan. 10, 1970, at a 4,000-seat privately-owned rodeo corral on the outskirts of Tulsa. Blackballed for his refusal to be drafted into the Army, this would be Ali’s first fight in almost three years.

Oklahoma was picked because the state had no boxing commission. In theory, Ali could not be denied a license to fight because there was no licensing agency. To make the fight more palatable to local authorities, it was announced that the proceeds would be donated to a charity benefiting retarded children. But commission or no commission, the authorities killed the fight, yielding to pressure from veterans’ groups. Ten more months would elapse before Ali finally got back in the ring, launching his second coming in Atlanta against Jerry Quarry. (For all the books that have been written about him, his aborted 1970 fight with Billy Joiner remains a little-known incident in Ali’s career.)

Joiner sparred with Sonny Liston in the post-Ali phase of Liston’s career before their two meetings. They fought at LA’s Olympic Auditorium in May of 1968 and then again 10 months later in St. Louis. Liston won the first fight on a seventh round TKO but the rematch went the full distance, ending Liston’s skein of 11 straight knockouts. Joiner subsequently fought Larry Holmes (L TKO 3) on a show in Puerto Rico that included future Hall of Famers Roberto Duran and Wilfredo Gomez and went 10 rounds with rugged Argentine bruiser Oscar Bonavena in Bonavena’s final fight.

It would be said of Billy Joiner that he never lived up to his promise, but if he had come along today he likely would have made his mark as a cruiserweight, a division that did not exist in his day. He was simply too small to compete successfully with the top heavyweights in an era of outstanding heavyweights. In his two fights with Sonny Liston, Billy was out-weighed by margins of 32 ½ and 24 pounds.

In retirement, Joiner spent 30 years with the Ohio State Highway Maintenance Department, rising to the position of superintendent. At the time of his death, the Queen City native resided in Springdale, a Cincinnati suburb.

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Gvozdyk vs. Beterbiev: Point Counterpoint

Ted Sares

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Gvozdyk vs. Beterbiev: Point Counterpoint

Putting pineapple on pizza is not a good idea but it IS an example of point counterpoint, and when these two boxers meet on Friday in Philadelphia with the WBC and IBF world light heavyweight titles at stake, it also will be a contrast—but not of tastes as much as styles..

There are, however, many similarities. Both are Eastern European boxers though one, Gvozdyk, is a Ukrainian and the other, Beterbiev, is a Russian and this particular regional difference has sparked a lot of conversation. (Interestingly, Beterbiev has never fought professionally in Russia, nor has the English-speaking Gvozdyk ever fought in the Ukraine.)

Both have superb amateur credentials but this has a flip side in that too many amateur fights can add to the wear and tear of these Eastern Euro warriors when they become professionals. Beterbiev is 34; Gvozdyk 32.

Both are undefeated with outstanding knockout percentages. Gvozdyk, aka The Nail, is 17-0 with 14 KOs. Beterbiev (14-0) has won all of his fights inside the distance.

Both are excellent finishers and when they have their man hurt, it’s all over.

Both have excellent corners and handlers and will be fit and ready to rumble.

“This could very well be the fight of the year…These are two evenly matched, undefeated light heavyweight champions. There is nothing better in the sport of boxing,” says promoter Bob Arum.

Styles

The 6’0” Beterbiev’s style is one of a stalking aggressor and he is especially dangerous when his opponent engages him in a heated exchange as that allows him to land one of his heavy-handed bombs. To use an old cliché, Artur has “bricks in his fists.” He also is dangerous when he is stunned as Callum Johnson discovered.

Some say Beterbiev’s chin is a question mark but his style allows an opponent to nail him (no pun intended) as he moves in. That may well be more a function of his go-forward movement than it is any weakness in his chin.

Conversely, The Nail is a very accurate and powerful puncher and is technically (and defensively) more sound than the bludgeoning Russian. He uses a super-fast jab and counters with sharp stuff. This 6’2” slickster combines exceptional speed and deceptive power. He is patient, relaxed, and fluid.

Intangibles

Has Gvozdyk’s psyche been altered by the events of his December 2018 fight with Adonis Stevenson wherein Adonis (thankfully now recovering) was severely injured? While The Nail was somewhat stymied by his last opponent, Doudou Ngumbu, the thinking here is that that had more to do with Ngumbu’s awkwardness than anything else—and that the Stevenson matter is mostly in the past. In short, the Nail’s focus on Friday should be right where it should be.

With a KO percentage of 100%, Beterbiev has answered the bell for very few rounds, only 52 to be exact. This could weigh against him.

Prediction: Gvozdyk’s superior boxing skills should begin to bear fruit in the mid to late rounds when a frustrated Beterbiev is forced to take risks for which he will pay dearly. I see “The Nail” winning by late stoppage or by UD.

A Russian vs. a Ukrainian — one who lives in Canada and the other who lives in California.  Heck, it’s the battle of ex-patriots. If ever a fight was much anticipated, this is the one.

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com

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Terence Crawford is Bob Arum’s Yuletide Gift to New York

Arne K. Lang

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Terence Crawford is Bob Arum’s Yuletide Gift to New York

Throughout history, boxing promoters have shunned the weeks before Christmas. The conventional wisdom is that the typical fight fan has little money at his disposal for a frivolity such as a night at the fights, having exhausted his funds buying Christmas presents. But don’t tell that to Top Rank promoter Bob Arum who has flouted this dictum and profited handsomely.

Back in 1995, Arum secured Madison Square Garden for the night of Dec. 15 for a show that pitted Oscar De La Hoya against Jesse James Leija in the main event. The cynics said the date was all wrong, let alone the location for a match between two Mexican-Americans from out west, one from LA and the other from San Antonio. But lo and behold, the show was a big money-maker, attracting a crowd of 16,027, more than 15,000 paid.

Arum anticipates another box office bonanza on Dec. 14 when he plants an ESPN and ESPN Deportes tripleheader in America’s most famous sports arena, an event headlined by Terence “Bud” Crawford’s WBO title defense against Egidijus Kavaliauskas. Crawford, who turned 32 several weeks ago, moved up to welterweight after grabbing all the belts at 140 and will be making his fourth welterweight title defense.

The opening bout on the telecast pits featherweight Michael Conlan against former amateur rival Vladimir Nikitin. Conlan will be making his sixth appearance at the Garden. In the co-feature, Richard Commey defends his IBF world lightweight title against Teofimo Lopez.

Although many rate Terence Crawford the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world, he has been something of a forgotten man lately. Almost 10 full months have elapsed since he last fought. Oscar De La Hoya, who had a bitter break-up with Arum late in his boxing career, recently took a swipe at Arum for not keeping Crawford more active, suggesting Arum’s “inertia” might be keeping Crawford out of the Hall of Fame.

The Crawford-Kavaliauskas match-up serves as Arum’s retort as it will shine a bright spotlight on Crawford, the pride of Omaha, Nebraska, as Arum’s show will air on ESPN directly following the Heisman Trophy presentation. Now it behooves Arum to pull some strings so that the Heisman Trophy show doesn’t run too long as has happened in the past.

At the moment, parlaying Terence Crawford (35-0, 26 KOs) to Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa seems like a safe bet, but Egidijus Kavaliauskas, a two-time Olympian who was profiled on these pages in July of 2016, is no slouch.

True enough, Kavaliauskas (21-0-1, 17 KOs) didn’t look all that sharp in his last outing when he was held to a draw by Ray Robinson, but Philadelphia’s Robinson had an awkward style (think former heavyweight contender Jimmy Young) and was fighting in his hometown.

If Kavaliauskas were a horse, we would say that he comes from a great barn. The 31-year-old Lithuanian is a stablemate of the Big Three in the barn of Egis Klimas: Vasiliy Lomachenko, Oleksandr Usyk, and Oleksandr Gvozdyk.

Richard Commey (29-2, 26 KOs) hails from Ghana but now hangs his hat in Brooklyn. His losses were both by split decision in back-to-back fights with Robert Easter and Denis Shafikov and he has won five straight since then, most recently an eighth-round stoppage of veteran Ray Beltran in the first defense of his IBF title.

Teofimo Lopez, 10 years younger than Commey at age 22, is moving up in class, but will yet go to post the favorite. In his last start, Lopez won a unanimous 12-round decision over Masoyoshi Nakatani, ending a skein of highlight reel knockouts. In December of last year, Lopez scored a one-punch knockout over Mason Menard in a bout that lasted all of 44 seconds. It was named the TSS Knockout of the Year.

Lopez (14-0, 11 KOs) grew up in Davie, Florida, but was born in Brooklyn and currently has a home there, giving the show even more of a local flavor. He and his Honduras-born father of the same name are not shy when it comes to boasting of his prowess and Teofimo’s braggadocio has enhanced his appeal with young fans.

Michael Conlan (10-0, 7 KOs) and Vladimir Nikitin (3-0, all by decision) met in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Nikitin got the decision, a jaw-dropper that spawned the most indelible moment of the Games when an enraged Conlan gave the judges a two-middle-finger salute.

The rematch between them was hatched at that moment although it took awhile for Arum to rope the Russian into the fold. They were originally slated to fight on Aug. 3 at an outdoor show in Conlan’s hometown of Belfast, but Nikitin suffered a torn bicep in training and had to pull out.

This is the kind of match that Bob Arum can really get his teeth in. The crusty octogenarian and former attorney would have it that all people of good character ought to be rooting for Conlan in the interest of seeing an injustice rectified.

Regardless, Arum’s Dec. 14 show is a nice Christmas present for Big Apple boxing fans.

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Three Punch Combo: Gvozdyk-Beterbiev Thoughts and More

Matt Andrzejewski

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Three Punch Combo — For hardcore fans, one of the most attractive fights of the year takes place on Friday when undefeated light heavyweight champions Oleksandr Gvozdyk (17-0, 14 KO’s) and Artur Beterbiev (14-0, 14 KO’s) battle in a title unification bout. This contest will headline an ESPN televised card from the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia, PA. Here are a few subtle things that could play a factor in how this fight plays out.

A Tactical Fight?

Twenty years ago, Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad met in a welterweight title unification fight. It was a super fight between two explosive punchers. Everyone expected fireworks, but as we all know, it turned into an all-out chess match for twelve rounds.

When two big punchers meet, sometimes we get fireworks and sometimes each fighter respects the other’s power so much that they both become somewhat tentative inside the ring.

Keep in mind we have seen in several Gvozdyk fights a somewhat cautious approach. He will take what is given and nothing more. As for Beterbiev, he has typically been a very aggressive fighter (more on that later) but has had his moments where caution has entered his mindset. Just take a look back at his 2017 fight with Enrico Koelling.

I know it is the unpopular opinion but we could certainly see a very tactical chess match between these two on Friday.

Beterbiev’s Defense and Chin

Beterbiev, as noted, is a very aggressive fighter. But with that aggression comes an almost complete lack of focus on the defensive side of the game.

So far, Beterbiev’s offense has been his best defense as many times his opponents have simply been too fearful of opening up. But at times the cracks have shown. Callum Johnson, for example, wasn’t afraid to throw in spots and when he did, his punches landed.

In that fight, we saw Beterbiev get hurt and dropped. Beterbiev showed a ton of heart to come back from that moment and later stop Johnson, but his chin is certainly a question mark. And Gvozdyk, aside from carrying one-punch power, is a very sharp and accurate puncher who has shown excellent finishing skills thus far in his career.

Gvozdyk’s Mindset

A little more than ten months ago, Gvozdyk wrested away the title from Adonis Stevenson. But on what was supposed to be the night where Gvozdyk’s dream came true, things almost turned tragic as Stevenson suffered a brain bleed that nearly took his life.

Gvozdyk has had one fight since against journeyman Doudou Ngumbu. Though Gvozdyk won easily, there was something about his performance that just didn’t feel right. Gvozdyk had a fighter in front of him who offered little resistance but seemingly didn’t want to fully step on the gas.

In order to compete with Beterbiev, we have to see the same Gvozdyk that we saw against Stevenson. But has Gvozdyk’s mindset permanently been altered by the events of that evening?

Under The Radar Fight

A pivotal crossroads bout in the welterweight division between Luis Collazo (39-7, 20 KO’s) and Kudratillo Abdukakhorov (16-0, 9 KO’s) is also on Friday’s ESPN broadcast. The winner will be in prime position for a title shot in 2020.

Collazo, a world welterweight titlist back in 2005, is in the midst of yet another career resurrection. After getting stopped by defending WBA welterweight champion Keith Thurman in 2015, Collazo has won three straight. And these wins were not against subpar opposition. Two were against up-and-coming young fighters in Sammy Vasquez and Bryant Perrella; the other against fringe contender Samuel Vargas.

At age 38, Collazo has proven he still has plenty in the tank and has clawed back up the rankings in the welterweight division. But to get one more shot at a title, Collazo must find a way to get past another young up-and-comer in Uzbekistan’s Abdukakhorov.

Abdukakhorov, 26, is coming off the biggest win of his pro career this past March when he won a 12-round unanimous decision over former 140-pound title challenger Keita Obara. That win boosted Abdukakhorov into the number one position in the IBF at welterweight and in line to one day be the mandatory challenger for current belt-holder Errol Spence Jr.

Stylistically, I love this matchup. Abdukakhorov is an aggressive boxer-puncher. He will look to press the attack and won’t be afraid to lead looking to land his best punch which is the overhand right. Collazo is a southpaw who is a natural counterpuncher. He will look to make Abdukakhorov’s aggression work against him and should find plenty of opportunities to do so.

I think we are going to get an action-packed, competitive fight. This should serve as an excellent appetizer to Gvozdyk-Beterbiev.

What’s Next For Dmitry Bivol?

This past Saturday, Dmitry Bivol (17-0, 11 KO’s) successfully defended his WBA light heavyweight title with a wide unanimous decision over Lenin Castillo (20-3-1, 15 KO’s). Though it wasn’t the most exciting performance, the win keeps Bivol in line for bigger opportunities down the road. So, what’s next for him?

Saturday’s title defense marked Bivol’s second consecutive appearance on the streaming service DAZN. DAZN needs future opponents for its two biggest stars in Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin. Clearly part of the reason for DAZN showing interest in Bivol is geared toward him potentially getting one or the other down the road.

Though Alvarez is fighting at light heavyweight in November, this appears to be a one-time appearance for the Mexican superstar in that division. He is likely headed back to middleweight or the 168-pound weight class. As for Golovkin, he has fought his entire 13-year career at middleweight. A move at some point soon to 168 would not be a surprise.

Bivol and his team have made it very clear that he can get down to 168. With DAZN’s two biggest stars hovering around that division, a move down to 168 seems likely.

The WBA champion at 168 is Callum Smith who is slated for a title defense in November against UK countryman John Ryder. Assuming Smith prevails, he would make a logical opponent for Bivol in the spring of 2020.

Smith-Bivol would be a big fight between two young undefeated fighters and the winner would then be in position for a mega fight later in 2020 against either Alvarez or Golovkin.

But what if Smith goes a different direction following the Ryder fight? If that is the case, Bivol may instead just look to dip his toes in the water at 168 with someone like Rocky Fielding.

Fielding is a tough, gritty competitor who is popular in the UK and has name recognition in the US based on his fight last December with Canelo. But as we saw in that fight, Fielding is very limited.

Fielding is just the type of opponent who could bring out the best in Bivol. A spectacular knockout would help erase some of Bivol’s recent lackluster performances. And this would, of course, make Bivol much more marketable for a future date with Alvarez or Golovkin.

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