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Mark Kram Jr, Author of a New Bio of Joe Frazier, Pays Homage to his Father

Rick Assad

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Mark Kram Jr, Author of a New Bio of Joe Frazier, Pays Homage to his Father

When it comes to writing about sports, the Kram duo, father and son, have produced many notable works.

The late Mark Kram, whose byline ran in Sports Illustrated from the mid-1960s through the late-1970s, delivered some of the most melodic prose this side of Red Smith.

His son has followed in his footsteps. Known as a longform specialist and a columnist, Mark Kram Jr. is also the author of several books. “Like Any Normal Day: A Story of Devotion,” won the 2013 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing, and he is the author of the recently-released biography, “Smokin’ Joe: The Life of Joe Frazier.”

Having a successful father can sometimes be daunting for the offspring. Has the last name opened more doors than it’s closed?

“It’s been far more of a help than a hindrance,” Kram Jr. (pictured) said in an e-mail. “Of course, we shared the same byline for years while I worked in newspapers. That led to some awkwardness. Understandably, people would call thinking I was him. When I began writing for Philadelphia magazine in the 1990s, I adopted “Jr.” to clarify who was who.

Technically, I am not a “Jr.” He changed his name from “George” to “Mark” three years after I was born in 1956, when he started covering high school sports for the Baltimore Sun.”

Kram Jr., whose efforts have appeared in “The Best American Sports Writing” series and in “The Great American Sports Page: A Century of Classic Columns From Ring Lardner to Sally Jenkins,” an anthology edited and selected by John Schulian, said that although his father made an impact in journalism, it didn’t necessarily propel him into the business.

“Not particularly,” he said of his ultimate career choice. “When it came to writing, I was very much a late bloomer, as Dad himself had been. He neither encouraged nor discouraged me. When I got to college at the University of Maryland, I told myself that if I could learn to write while I was there, it would be a skill that could keep me gainfully employed in the years to come. So I began working for the college newspaper. But like Dad, I was more or less self-taught.”

The elder Kram passed away in 2002 at age 69. That he accomplished what he did is remarkable, given where he began.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 6, 1932, Mark Kram wasn’t blessed with a silver spoon in his mouth. Books and high-brow literature weren’t laying around the house. The Daily Racing Form and tout sheets were.

Kram was a three-sport athlete in high school who went on to play minor league baseball. His hopes of playing in the big leagues were dashed when he was beaned. He was drafted into the military in 1953 and spent a very short period of time at the University of Georgia.

Kram would find work at Sports Illustrated where he became one of its rising stars.

Boxing was Kram’s primary beat and it coincided with the time Muhammad Ali, along with Joe Frazier and George Foreman, dominated the heavyweight division.

“Well, he came along during a period that is looked upon now as the golden age of Sports Illustrated,” said Kram Jr. “For a young man who had finished tenth from the bottom of his high school class and had no college to speak of, he was on a very fast track when he got to New York in 1964. But he worked very hard to develop his skills and just became better and better.”

Kram Jr. went on: “Along with his boxing pieces, he took on an array of off-beat bonus pieces that enabled him to grow artistically,” he said. “I remember he told me he once had lunch with Joseph Mitchell, the legendary New Yorker writer. Dad was interested in moving over to the New Yorker. Mitchell told him, “That can be arranged. But why would you want to? Everything is happening where you are.”

On some level, it may appear that writing is something that anyone can do. Maybe? But it’s another matter to write well.

“Dad used to say he was as fast as he had to be. For Ali-Frazier I and II, he had an hour to write his stories and he did it,” said Kram Jr., who was a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News from 1987 through 2013. “When he was working on something longer, he tended to bleed over every comma. At his office at Sports Illustrated, he would type a few lines, get up and pace the halls, thinking.”

Kram Jr. continued: “As he walked, he would puff on his pipe. By the time he was finished writing, the back of his shirt would be soaked with sweat. Remember, he worked on a typewriter as opposed to a computer screen, which is an inherently slower process. Even so, it would never have come easy for him, just as it would never become easy for me.”

The elder Kram’s piece de resistance was his Sports Illustrated story on Ali-Frazier III filed on deadline from Manila. Titled “Lawdy, Lawdy, He’s Great” (those words were uttered by Frazier about Ali after his trainer Eddie Futch threw in the towel just before the start of the 15th round), it ran as the S.I. cover story on Oct. 13, 1975 and was later expanded into a book, “Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.”

What prompted Kram Jr., who was also employed at the Detroit Free Press and the Baltimore News American, to write his two books?

“The appeal of that story to me,” he said, referencing his first book, “was how ordinary people found themselves caught up in extraordinary circumstances. The principal subject of the story, Buddy Miley, had severed his spinal cord in a high school [football] game in 1973. I interviewed him for the Philadelphia Daily News in early 1993. He had lived as a quadriplegic for 20 years, his every need seen to by his mother Rosemarie at their suburban Philadelphia home.”

Kram Jr. added: “Four years later after I wrote about him, he was found dead in a Michigan motel room. He had been assisted in his suicide by Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Buddy had talked his younger brother, Jimmy Miley, into taking him to Michigan in what would become an act of complicated love,” he said. “Fearing reprisals from the authorities, Jimmy had kept his role to himself until he sat down with me for a piece in 2006. The story ended up on HBO Real Sports and would become the foundation for the book I would publish in the spring of 2012.”

Kram Jr. added: “‘Like Any Normal Day’ enlarged the struggles of a heretofore anonymous family into something universal. If you looked hard enough at the characters in the book, you could see yourself in one of them. In “Smokin’ Joe: The Life of Joe Frazier,” I was with characters who were just the opposite. Frazier was internationally known. The challenge for me was to bring to his life a certain degree of intimacy.”

Regarding his father’s famous story, this is what Richard Deitsch, a longtime Sports Illustrated writer and current scribe at The Athletic, tweeted on June 4, 2016, the day after Ali passed away at age 74. “I consider this Mark Kram piece on Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier the best piece in the history of @SI.com.”

“Simply, it is a lovely piece of skillful writing,” said Kram Jr. “The opening sequence of it is haunting; Ali and Frazier had placed their bodies on the line, had given every ounce of their resolve, and now they were both exhausted and battered. From there, the story shifts perspective and point of view almost line by line; you can feel the energy in it building to a crescendo. Reflecting upon it as a piece of event reporting, a Sports Illustrated editor called it ‘the apotheosis of the form’. I would agree.”

There is a link between father and son when it comes to Frazier. It seems that because of Ali’s towering presence, Frazier has been somewhat overlooked.

“Is he? I think you have to judge athletes in the context of their era,” Kram Jr. pointed out. “To my way of thinking, the 1960s and early 1970s were the golden age of heavyweights. The talent pool was very, very deep. Frazier was on the smallish side for a heavyweight – far smaller than his chief rivals, Ali and Foreman – yet he was the consummate overachiever who never backed up an inch. Though Ali and Foreman both beat him twice, he acquitted himself with courage even in defeat. I have no idea how he would have fared against Jack Dempsey or Joe Louis or Rocky Marciano. No one else does either.”

Father and son are wonderful story tellers. What makes one so? “Curiosity; the desire to tug at loose threads until you come across one that leads somewhere intriguing; the ability to subordinate yourself to the subject you are writing about,” Kram Jr. said. “Nothing gets me to put a story down faster than the overuse of the first person. Generally, your presence in a piece of writing should be felt, not seen.”

Kram Jr. added: “Plus – and this is paramount – you have to have patience, the willingness to take the necessary time to get something the way it should be. There is a sign I keep over my desk that says ‘Things of Quality Have No Fear of Time.’”

Kram Jr. edited and chose a collection of his father’s best work titled, “Great Men Die Twice: The Selected Works Of Mark Kram,” published in 2015.

Looking back, is Kram Jr. glad he initiated the project? “Very much so,” he said. “Few journalists have written as gorgeously as he did. Some of his sentences are pure poetry. He was quite deserving of a collection. I only wish it had been longer.”

The last time father and son saw each other was June 8, 2002 when Lennox Lewis knocked out Mike Tyson in the eighth round of their title fight with three belts on the line.

“(Dad) had done a Playboy interview with (Mike) Tyson and figured that Tyson was worthy of a book,” Kram Jr. said. “I joined him in Memphis for the fight. We had both arranged for credentials, but when we showed up in the press tent to get them, there was only one for Mark Kram. I remember it was funny. The young fellow handing out the credentials looked at Dad, then looked at me and said, ‘so there ARE two of you!’ We had a lot of fun that week in Memphis driving around and hitting the spots. But the fight was awful. Even from our seats up in the stands, it was clear that Tyson was finished. Lewis wiped the floor with him. Five days later Dad died of a heart attack back in Washington.”

What does Kram Jr. think his father would want people to most remember about him?

“Like I tend to think about Joe Frazier, a good but not a perfect man,” he said. “That is perhaps the best any of us can do.”

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Berchelt TKOs Valenzuela in Mexico City

David A. Avila

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Mexico’s Miguel Berchelt hammered his way to a decisive knockout victory over fellow Mexican Eleazar Valenzuela in a non-title light fight on Saturday.

After nearly nine months off, WBC super featherweight titlist Berchelt (38-1, 34 KOs) unraveled a withering body attack including numerous low blows but Valenzuela remained upright in front of a sparse TV studio audience until he could take it no longer.

Berchelt used a seven-punch combination to knock the senses out of the very tough Valenzuela who hails from Sinaloa. The referee saw enough and stopped the fight with Valenzuela leaning against the ropes with a dazed look.

The champion from Cancun used a triple left hook in the first round to floor Valenzuela and it looked like the fight would not last more than two rounds. But Valenzuela, a sturdy veteran, bored into Berchelt to keep him off balance and was able to stop the momentum.

It did not last.

A vicious attack to the body sapped the energy from Valenzuela who has fought many elite fighters in the past, but none like Berchelt. He was able to batter the veteran round after round.

Valenzuela sought to reverse the momentum with some combinations of his own. Berchelt opened up with some combinations from the outside and cracked his foe with some skull-numbing blows that clearly affected Valenzuela’s senses. The referee wisely stopped the fight at 1:03 of the sixth round to give the win to Berchelt by knockout.

The victory opens the door to a potential clash with featherweight world titlist Oscar Valdez of Nogales, Mexico who has a fight of his own planned next month. Both champions are promoted by Top Rank.

Other Bouts       

Omar Aguilar (18-0, 17 KOs) bushwacked veteran Dante Jardon (32-7, 23 KOs) within a minute of the first round to win by technical knockout. A barrage of blows by Ensenada’s Aguilar opened up the fight and a four-punch combination forced the referee to stop the super lightweight fight with Mexico City’s Jardon against the ropes.

A battle between super bantamweights saw the taller Alan Picasso (14-1) out-hustle Florentino Perez (14-6-2) in an eight round clash between Mexican fighters. Mexico City’s Picasso fought effectively inside against the shorter Perez of Monterrey and was able to maintain a consistent pace. Neither fighter approved the use of a jab but Picasso was more effective inside with body shots and uppercuts and dominated the last half of the fight.  The six judges scored in favor of Picasso.

The WBC instituted the extra judges as a means of tabulating score cards efficiently. Three judges scored from the television studios and another three judges scored from the USA. It was the second time WBC judges officiated remotely and all six scorecards were official.

Photo credit: Zanfer Promotions

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Boxing Odds and Ends: Big Baby Miller, Roberto Duran and More

Arne K. Lang

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Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller just can’t keep his hands out of the cookie jar. It was announced today (Saturday, June 27) that the jumbo-sized heavyweight from Brooklyn tested positive for a banned substance, forcing him out of a July 9 fight at the MGM Grand “Bubble” against Jerry Forrest. The story was broken by Mike Coppinger of The Athletic who breaks more hard news stories than any other boxing writer.

Miller, needless to say is a repeat offender. He failed three different PED tests in a span of three days for three different banned substances leading into his planned June 2019 match at Madison Square Garden with WBA/IBF/WBO world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua. That cost him the fight and a reported $5 million-plus payday. Andy Ruiz filled the void and scored an historic upset.

When the first test came back positive, Miller wailed that he was the victim of a faulty test. “My team and I stand for integrity, decency and honesty and will fight this with everything we have,” he said in a prepared statement. He later changed his tune. “I messed up,” he said.

In a story that appeared on these pages, Thomas Hauser noted that Big Baby had a history of PED use dating to 2014. In that year, he was slapped with a nine-month suspension by the California Athletic Commission following a kickboxing event in Los Angeles.

Counting this latest revelation, it’s five strikes for Big Baby. He’s taking quite a roasting right now on social media. Some of the harshest criticism is coming from his fellow boxers.

Assuming that Top Rank can’t find a replacement for Miller, this is another tough break for Jerry Forrest, a 32-year-old southpaw from Virginia with a 26-3 (20) record. Forrest was scheduled to fight hot prospect Filip Hrgovic on April 17 on a card at the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, a show swept away by the coronavirus outbreak. Forrest has been matched very soft throughout his career, but he acquitted himself well in his lone previous TV appearance, losing a split decision to undefeated Jermaine Franklin on “Showtime: The New Generation.” The decision was controversial.

There’s talk now that Carlos Takam is angling to replace Big Baby. The French-Cameroonian, a former world title challenger who turns 40 in December, was billed out of Henderson, Nevada, in his last ring appearance that saw him winning a unanimous decision over fellow greybeard Fabio Maldonado in Huntington, NY.

—-

When it comes to Murphy’s Law (“anything that can go wrong, will”), there’s no sport quite like boxing. Just ask Bob Arum. The most mouth-watering matchup in his ESPN “summer series” fell out this week when Eleider Alvarez suffered a shoulder injury in training, forcing a postponement of his July 16 date with Joe Smith Jr. The match between Alvarez (25-1, 13 KOs) and Smith (25-3, 20 KOs) would have been a 12-rounder with the winner guaranteed a shot at the vacant WBO light heavyweight title, a diadem that Alvarez previously owned.

Joe Smith Jr, a Long Island construction worker once dismissed as nothing more than a club fighter, won legions of new fans in his last start, a one-sided (to everyone except one myopic judge) win over Jesse Hart in Atlantic City.

Cancelled matches have become a recurrent theme in ESPN’s semi-weekly boxing series. The very first card in the series lost what shaped up as its most competitive fight when Mikaela Mayer tested positive for COVID-19, scuttling her bout with Helen Joseph. In subsequent weeks, the manager of Mikkel Les Pierre tested positive for COVID-19 as did WBO junior lightweight champion Jamel Herring. Those bad test results forced the postponement of two main events. Then earlier this week, hot lightweight prospect Joseph Adorno was lopped off Tuesday’s card after feeling sick after coming in overweight at the previous day’s weigh-in.

The undercards of the Tuesday/Thursday ESPN fights have left something to be desired, but that’s understandable. As Bob Arum noted in a conversation with veteran boxing scribe Keith Idec, Top Rank’s matchmakers Bruce Trampler and Brad “Abdul” Goodman have had a hard time fleshing out the cards because with so many gyms closed there’s a shortage of boxers who are in shape to fight on short notice. Then there are the COVID-19 travel restrictions and (something Arum did not acknowledge) budgetary restrictions more severe than an ordinary Top Rank card. Most of the undercard fighters have come from neighboring states such as Utah, saving Top Rank the cost of air fare. Fighters from faraway places, with some exceptions, were already training in Las Vegas.

Kudos to the entire Top Rank staff for keeping boxing alive during these challenging times.

It’s old news now, but Panamanian boxing legend Roberto Duran, 69, tested positive for the coronavirus and was hospitalized in Panama City with a viral infection. There’s been no update on his condition but his son Robin Duran wrote on Instagram that his father is not having any symptoms beyond those associated with a common cold. We will update you when new details become available.

Duran’s hospitalization came just a few days after the 40th anniversary of his first fight with Sugar Ray Leonard in what would say was Duran’s finest hour. They met on June 20, 1980 at Olympic Stadium in Montreal.

Duran won a unanimous decision. Converting the “10-point must” system into rounds, Duran prevailed by scores of 3-2-10, 6-5-4, and 6-4-5. As Yogi would have said, you could look it up.

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Fast Results from the Bubble: Jason Moloney TKOs Baez

Arne K. Lang

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Top Rank was back inside the MGM Grand “Bubble” tonight for chapter six of their semi-weekly ESPN summer series. Jason Moloney, one-half of Australia’s Moloney twins, accomplished what his brother Andrew Moloney was unable to accomplish in this ring on Tuesday night, adding a “W” to his ledger and looking good doing it. It came at the expense of Mexicali’s Leonardo Baez.

It was Jason Moloney’s second start on U.S. soil after coming up just a tad short in a bid for the vacant IBF world bantamweight title at Orlando in October of 2018. Against Baez, he fought a smart tactical fight, blunting the Mexican’s superior reach by fighting him at close quarters. Baez fought from the third round on with a cut over his right eye and then suffered a cut over his left eye in the seventh round. By then the fight was becoming increasingly one-sided and Baez’s corner did not let him come out for round eight.

Jason Moloney improved to 21-1 with his 18th knockout. Leonardo Baez, who took the fight on short notice after Maloney’s original opponent Oscar Negrete was forced to withdraw with a detached retina, slumped to 18-3.

Co-Feature

In the 10-round co-feature, Abraham Nova advanced to 19-0 with a unanimous decision over Philadelphia’s Avery Sparrow but won no new fans with a lackadaisical performance. Nova, born in Puerto Rico to parents from the Dominican Republic and raised in Albany, NY, showed little but his jab through the first seven rounds until hurting Sparrow with a big right hand in the eighth. The judges had it 96-94, 97-93, and 99-91.

Sparrow (10-2), whose lone previous loss was by disqualification, was making his first start in 15 months. He was slated to fight Ryan Garcia in Los Angeles last Sept. 14 but never made it to the weigh-in after being arrested by U.S. marshals on a charge of threatening a woman with a gun after she threw his clothes out the window…

Other Bouts

In an 8-round featherweight contest, Puerto Rican southpaw Orlando Gonzalez advanced to 15-0 with a unanimous decision over Ecuador’s Luis Porozo (15-3). The scores were 76-74 and 77-73 twice.

Gonzalez wasn’t particularly impressive although he did score two knockdowns. He decked Porozo near the end of round two with a left hook following a straight left and decked him again near the end of round seven with a left uppercut to the body.

In a rather ho-hum fight, welterweight Vlad Panin improved to 8-1 with 6-round majority decision over San Antonio’s 36-year-old Benjamin Whitaker (13-4). Panin, a Belarusian who grew up in Las Vegas and earned a BA in English from UCLA, has a good back story but seemingly a limited upside in the fight game.

In an entertaining 6-round welterweight clash, Filipino campaigner Reymond Yanon improved to 11-5-1 with a split decision (59-55, 58-56, 56-58) over Clay Burns. A 33-year-old ex-Marine from Fort Worth, Burns declined to 9-8-2.

The opener, a heavyweight bout slated for six rounds, matched two Phoenix-based fighters in a rematch. Kingsley Ibeh, a former standout defensive lineman for the Washburn College Ichabods, avenged his lone defeat and improved to 4-1 with a fourth-round stoppage of Waldo Cortes (5-3). Ibeh, who at 286 had a 39-pound weight advantage, softened Cortes up with a series of uppercuts and Cortes was on his way down when he was tagged with a glancing left hand. He got to his feet, but referee Vic Drakulich waived it off. The official time was 1:41.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams for Top Rank

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