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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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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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