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

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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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Artur Beterbiev: “I’d prefer to fight Bivol because he has the one thing I need”

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Russian Artur Beterbiev, triple champion of the 175-pound division, is the only current world champion who, thanks to the enormous power he wields in his fists, has won all his fights inside the distance.

Beterbiev has 18 victories by way of chloroform since he debuted as a professional fighter in June 2013 when he anesthetized retired American, Christian Cruz, in the tenth round at the Bell Center in Montreal where Beterbiev currently resides.

Beterbiev, who turned thirty-eight last Saturday, will defend his WBC, IBF, and WBO titles against Brit Anthony “The Beast from the East” Yarde (23-2, 22 KOs) on Saturday, January 28th at the OVO Arena in London.

Beterbiev obtained the WBO belt on June 18th this past year when he defeated American Joe Smith (28-4, 22 KOs) in the second round at Madison Square Garden. This was Smith’s second defense of the belt.

Earlier, in November 2017, Beterbiev won the vacant IBF belt after defeating German Enrico Koelling (28-5, 9 KOs) by knockout in the twelfth round in Fresno, California.

Two years later, Beterbiev seized the WBC belt from Ukrainian Oleksandr Gvozdyk (17-1, 14 KOs) in Philadelphia. Three knockdowns in the tenth round forced referee Gary Rosato to stop the lopsided bout with 11 seconds remaining in the round.  Beterbiev maintains that although his intention is to win each fight, in no way does he want to harm his rival and that his greatest wish is for both of them to leave the ring healthy.

Referring to his upcoming matchup, Beterbiev told BoxingScene that “after the fight, I just hope he (Yarde) is okay.”

He acknowledged that he does not know much about the British boxer, although he has watched several of his fights: “He’s a good fighter, has good experience as a professional and he’s a boxer. He’s dangerous so I have to prepare for this fight like I always do.”

Beterbiev said that his main motivation is to successfully defend the three belts he owns and that is why he will try to be one hundred percent ready and then it will be evident who is the better fighter.

Regarding his knockout streak, Beterbiev emphatically denied that he enjoys knocking out his opponents: “No. There’s no pleasure in it. I just hope everything is OK with them. I just want to do good boxing, not hit people.”

Beterbiev smiles enigmatically and stares at the horizon when they ask him to what he attributes the strength of his fists to. “I know for sure, 1000 percent, that the secret to my power is somewhere in my boxing gym but I don’t know exactly where,” he adds. “I don’t know which exercise or bag gave me this secret. I don’t know where it comes from. I wasn’t always like this either, it has come from working every day. But really my dream is to be a good boxer one day.”

Aside from the upcoming fight with Yarde, Beterbiev acknowledges in each interview that his goal is to be the undisputed champion of the division, which means facing (and defeating) the undefeated Russian Dmitry Bivol (21-0, 11 KOs), who holds the WBA light heavyweight super championship belt.

“I need Bivol,” Beterbiev admits. “I’d prefer to fight Bivol because he has the one thing I need. I hope I fight him in 2023 but the hold-up is not from my side, it’s from their side. In the last three years he always says he will fight me next but in this time we’ve done unification fights against Oleksandr Gvozdyk and Joe Smith. We’ve done that whereas he has just been talking about it.

Beterbiev recalled that he was with Bivol on the Russian national team where they were amateurs. “I knew him then, but he is younger than me. We haven’t talked for 10 years now. He was 75kg back then, too small for me. We were never friends.”

Article submitted by Jorge Juan Alvarez in Spanish.

 Please note any adjustments made were for clarification purposes and any errors in translation were unintentional.

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Boxing Odds and Ends: A New Foe for Broner and an Intriguing Heavyweight Match-up

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Boxing Odds and Ends: A New Foe for Broner and an Intriguing Heavyweight Match-up

BLK Prime’s inaugural venture went off without a hitch. An announced crowd of 14,630 turned out in Omaha to watch native son Terence Crawford dismantle David Avanesyan. BLK Prime’s second promotion, slated for Feb. 25 at a 5,000-seat venue in Atlanta, has been messy from the get-go. The executives at the fledgling company, based in Hayward, California, are learning to their dismay that the sport of professional boxing is governed by Murphy’s Law: whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.

Adrien Broner’s nickname is “The Problem” (how perfect!) but the problem isn’t him but finding a suitable opponent for the former four-division title holder who purportedly signed a three-fight deal with BLK Prime that will pay him an absurd $10 million. As reported in a story that ran on these pages last week, Broner’s original opponent Ivan Redkach pulled out and was replaced by Hank Lundy. Today (Tuesday, Jan. 24) it was revealed that Lundy was also off the card and would be replaced by Michael Williams Jr.

Prior to being lopped off the card, it was reported that Hank Lundy had been suspended by the California Athletic Commission for failing to honor his contract to fight up-and-comer Ernesto Mercado (8-0, 8 KOs) on Feb. 4. The match was to be an 8-rounder in Ontario, California. According to prominent boxing writer Jake Donovan, Lundy provided paperwork to the California commission showing that he was unable to keep his commitment because of a cut he suffered in sparring.

Some state athletic commissions automatically honor a suspension handed down in another jurisdiction. Other commissions evaluate each situation on a case-by-case basis. It’s a fair guess that had Lundy kept quiet about the (alleged) injury, the Georgia commission would have allowed the Broner-Lundy match to go forward. Regardless, he’s out and, barring more upheaval, Broner (pictured) will be touching gloves with Michael Williams Jr.

The son of an Army veteran who serves as his chief trainer, Williams Jr, 23, was born in Fort Riley, Kansas, and grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, home to Fort Bragg. As a pro, he’s 20-1 with 13 KOs but those 20 wins came against a motley bunch of opponents and he failed miserably on the one occasion that he stepped up in class. On Dec. 11, 2021, he was stopped in four rounds by fellow unbeaten John Bauza on a Top Rank card at Madison Square Garden. Williams suffered five knockdowns before the match was halted. “He’s got a lot to work on. There are some glaring issues here,” said ringside TV commentator Andre Ward.

Although the Fayetteville area has long had a reputation as pugilistic feed lot (a place where boxers go to fatten up their records), the feeling is that Williams may have been awed by his surroundings that night in the Big Apple, hence his poor showing. During the early portion of his career, he was co-trained by Roy Jones Jr who reportedly hooked up with the young junior welterweight after witnessing him bully a bunch of ex-cons while sparring at a gym in New Orleans.

Does he have the tools to make things interesting against Adrien Broner? Likely not, but Broner tends to fight down to his level of competition, so it wouldn’t surprise us if Williams wins a few rounds.

Heavyweights at the Crossroads

SHOWTIME drops anchor in San Antonio on Feb. 11 with a card headlined by a match between Rey Vargas and O’Shaquie Foster. They will compete for the WBC 130-pound world title vacated by Shakur Stevenson.

Truth be told, this isn’t a contest that gets our juices flowing. The undefeated Vargas, who has won world titles at 122 and 127, is a solid technician but doesn’t fight with pizzazz. He hasn’t won a fight inside the distance since 2016. Foster is on a nice roll – he’s won nine straight, advancing his record to 19-2 — but likewise lacks charisma.

The pay-per-view opener, however, seized our interest. It’s that very rare contest between two rising heavyweights at the same juncture of their respective careers. On paper there’s little to choose between Viktor Faust (11-0, 7 KOs) and Lenier Pero (8-0, 5 KOs). Both are the same age (30), are roughly the same size (in the six-foot-five and 240-pound range) and were outstanding amateurs.

Faust

Viktor Faust, aka Viktor Vykhryst, is from the Ukraine. In 2017, he won the European amateur title, defeating future Olympian Frazer Clarke in the finals. He turned pro in 2020, spurning an opportunity to represent Ukraine in the Tokyo Olympics.

Faust, says prospect watcher Matt Andrzejewski, is extremely fluid for his size and his hand speed is well above average. He also has one-punch knockout power as he demonstrated in his third pro fight when he starched the Spaniard, Gabriel Enguema. However, his most recent fight on U.S. soil, a match in Hollywood, Florida, against Iago kiladze, left many questions unanswered.

This was a wild and wooly affair that ended in the second minute of the second round. Kiladze was down three times and Faust twice during the tumult. Because Kiladze was on the small size for a heavyweight, one was left wondering whether Faust could have weathered the storm if he were matched against a bigger man.

Since that scuffle, Faust has added two more wins to his ledger, comfortable 8-round decisions over 40-something gatekeepers Kevin Johnson and Franklin Lawrence.

Pero

Lenier Pero, a Cuban defector, was never an Olympian, but had a more extensive amateur career. He was 9-3 in the semi-pro World Series of Boxing but what really stands out is that he was 5-1 against countryman Frank Sanchez who has made great headway as a pro since leaving Cuba in 2017 and is currently ranked #3 by the WBC and #2 by the WBO.

Although the amateur careers of Faust and Pero overlapped, their paths never crossed. However, Faust did fight Lenier’s younger brother Dainier Pero who is currently 2-0 as a pro and may actually be a better prospect than his sibling. Faust and Dainier Pero met in 2018 at a tournament in the Ukraine and the Cuban won a close decision.

Perhaps that’s an omen. Regardless, Lenier Pero looks like the right side in what has the earmarks of an entertaining shootout.

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David Benavidez and Caleb Plant Both Want ‘Canelo’ Álvarez

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American Fighter David Benavidez has been in constant pursuit of an opportunity to face Canelo Álvarez and, until now, it has been an unrealizable dream. For his compatriot Caleb Plant, his match up with Canelo in 2021 resulted in a resounding loss.

For several years, Benavidez has been trying to cross gloves with Mexican star Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez (58-2-2, 39 KOs), who has avoided facing him despite receiving countless criticisms from boxing fans.

Undefeated in the ranks, everything indicates that today Benavidez (26-0, 23 KOs) is closer than ever to finally matching up against Canelo, the current holder of the four most prestigious super middleweight titles in boxing: WBA, WBC, IBF, and WBO.

Previously, by order of the WBC, Benavidez faced Canadian David Lemieux (43-5, 36 KOs), to whom he applied chloroform in the third round in Glendale, Arizona, where the winner conquered the Interim title of that sanctioning body.

After the victory, the WBC declared that Benavidez had the obligation to collide with Caleb Plant (22-1, 13 KOs), who was ranked the number one contender by both the WBA and the WBO and third by the IBF.

According to Mauricio Sulaimán, president of the WBC, the winner between Benavidez and Plant becomes the mandatory challenger for Canelo in a battle for that organization’s belt.

However, the future seems quite complicated for the winner between Benavidez and Plant, since Canelo is currently in negotiations with British southpaw John Ryder (32-5, 18 KOs) to fight in May and, subsequently, in September, to carry out the rematch against Russian Dmitry Bivol (20-0, 11 KOs), who defeated him unanimously on May 7 of last year at the T-Mobile Arena where the European retained the WBA light heavyweight belt.

Benavidez has been outspoken about Canelo’s refusal to face him: He (Canelo) knows I’m the biggest threat at 168.” Benavidez stressed the fact that Canelo avoids him because he knows that if he accepts the fight, the same thing will happen to him as against Dmitry Bivol, an adversary who is also larger and equally as strong as the Mexican redhead.

Despite the efforts and multiple statements by Benavidez (also by José Benavidez Sr, his father and trainer), Canelo has always chosen other adversaries with the excuse that Benavidez has not fought any elite rivals that would make him worthy of the opportunity.

CALEB PLANT WANTS REVENGE AGAINST CANELO

“That wasn’t my best camp going into that fight,” said Plant about last year’s battle with Canelo, “but, regardless, that’s not the reason I lost. I lost because I got caught with a great shot and I got stopped.” Plant was clear about wanting to meet Canelo in the ring again. “I want a rematch with Canelo. If I have to pick up every last top super middleweight in the division to get to that, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Canelo’s victory against Plant at the T-Mobile Arena in November 2021 made him the first boxer from Latin America with the four most important titles, in any weight category. But six months later, in May of last year, Álvarez suffered the second setback of his career, losing unanimously to Bivol who retained his WBA “super” title belt at 175 pounds.

Four years ago, on January 13, 2019, Plant won the IBF belt, unanimously defeating Venezuelan José Uzcátegui (32-5, 27 KOs) at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. Uzcátegui went to the canvas in both the second and fourth rounds. Plant lost the IBF title in the unification match against Canelo, a title that Plant had defended three times prior.

Mauricio Sulaimán confirmed to several media outlets that the winner of the upcoming battle between Benavidez and Plant will be the mandatory challenger for Canelo’s WBC super-middleweight title. Per ESPN’s Mike Coppinger, Benavidez vs Plant will take place on March 25th at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Article submitted by Jorge Juan Alvarez in Spanish.

 Please note any adjustments made were for clarification purposes and any errors in translation were unintentional.

To comment on this story in the fight Forum CLICK HERE

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