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Michael Hunter is Fueled by Thoughts of his Father as he Pursues Heavyweight Glory

Arne K. Lang

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“I got into boxing because of my dad and then I stayed in it because of my dad.” So said Michael Hunter who fights undefeated Sergey Kuzmin a week from Friday at Madison Square Garden on DAZN with the winner very much in the mix for a shot at a world heavyweight title in 2020.

For the uninitiated, Michael Hunter is the son of the late Mike “The Bounty” Hunter. Active from 1985 to 1996, Mike Hunter, an undersized heavyweight, was one of the more interesting fighters of his era. He had a unique style, a style that defied description. Perhaps the best comparison would be Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson, a boxer best remembered for his two fights with Floyd Patterson. “Name a punch,” said Arthur Daley of the New York Times, “and (Hurricane Jackson) has it. He also has a few nobody ever thought of before.”

All comparisons are imperfect and this is giving Mike Hunter the worst of it. He was very hard to hit cleanly. There were elements of his game similar to (take your pick) Young Griffo or Willie Pep or Pernell Whitaker. And he had a granite chin. He was stopped only once and that was in his final pro fight in Copenhagen against Brian Nielsen when he retired on his stool after four rounds with an injury of dubious authenticity. At that, he lasted one round longer than Tony Tubbs who went out the same way. The expression “There’s Something Fishy in Denmark” didn’t originate with Danish boxing promoter Mogens Palle but it could have.

Mike Hunter finished his career with a record of 26-7-2 with one no-decision. Who knows how far he would have gone if he had packed a harder punch? He scored only eight knockouts. But despite this drawback, he was one of the great spoilers in heavyweight history. Among his victims were Oliver McCall, Pinklon Thomas, Ossie Ocasio and Tyrell Biggs, all of whom out-weighed him by 16-20 pounds. On one of the rare occasions when he was pitted against a man of his own poundage, he dropped down to cruiserweight and won a wide 12-round decision over Dwight Muhammad Qawi.

Many boxing mavens know only the raw details of Mike Hunter’s life. They know he served time in prison before starting his boxing career at age twenty-six. They know he died under strange circumstances. He was shot during an altercation with two plainclothes policemen on the roof of the gone-to-seed St. Moritz Hotel in Hollywood where he had been staying. The cops were reportedly conducting a routine drug sting. He was shot twice and died from his wounds.

These raw facts, while true, obscure the true Mike Hunter. Among other things, he was a family man, devoted to his children. In Las Vegas, where he lived during the bulk of his boxing career, he usually brought his kids with him to the gym. In 1990, when he went off to Australia to fight hot prospect Jimmy Thunder, he arrived in Melbourne with his family, including two-year-old Michael, in tow. After Mike knocked out Thunder, the family remained in Australia for almost two years. (It was there that young Michael Hunter first learned to talk. When the family returned to the U.S., Michael’s playmates were bemused by his Australian accent.)

When Michael Hunter says that he got into boxing because of his father, he is referencing the fact that he literally grew up in the sport. There was also a boxing connection on his mother’s side. His maternal grandfather Norman Henry was a matchmaker in Philadelphia and for a time ran a boxing gym in Santa Monica. Norman Henry was close pals with Archie Moore and served as an adviser to George Foreman when Foreman re-entered the sport after a 10-year absence.

Michael idolized his father. In one of their conversations, the elder Hunter told his son how proud he would be if he became an Olympian. It eventually happened, but it took two tries.

Hunter made the 2008 U.S. Olympic team as a super heavyweight, but had to clear more hurdles to punch his ticket to Beijing and came up short in the final Olympic qualifier in Guatemala. Pressured to turn pro, he elected to give it one more shot although that meant staying an amateur for four more years.

In 2012, competing as a heavyweight, he represented the U.S. at the London games, fulfilling his father’s dream. But he failed to medal, losing his second-round contest to Russia’s Artur Beterbiev on a close and controversial decision.

Hunter won his first 12 pro fights before running into fellow unbeaten Oleksandr Usyk. Hunter had his moments, but the Ukrainian cruiserweight, who had a big 12th round, won by seven points on all three cards. Michael’s management then decided that henceforth Michael would compete only as a heavyweight.

Hunter, in common with his father, had always fought bigger men. While still a teenager, he sparred with the likes of Samuel Peter and Hasim Rahman, the latter a long-time family friend who is now a member of his brain trust. As an amateur he swapped punches with the towering Tyson Fury at a U.S.A.-England dual meet. The judges gave Fury the decision in the 3-round go which Hunter insists was a great injustice. His former sparring partners include both Klitschko brothers, Vitali and Wladimir, who brought Hunter to their training camp in a small skiing village in the Tirol mountains of Austria, a place that Hunter would like to re-visit. He says it’s the most beautiful place on earth.

Since fighting strictly as a heavyweight, the results have been smashing. He’s won five straight, including stoppages of Martin Bakole Ilunga (KO 5) and veteran Alexander Ustinov (TKO 10).  The previously undefeated Ilunga, who carried 256 pounds on a six-foot-six frame, was touted by no less an authority than Barry McGuigan as the next big thing. They fought at London’s venerable York Hall.

Stylistically, Michael Hunter doesn’t fight anything like his father. But like his dad, he has embraced the role of a spoiler.

This past April, Hunter signed a promotional deal with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom organization. Shortly thereafter, Anthony Joshua’s fight with Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller fell out when Miller tested positive for PEDs. Several writers, including this reporter, rated Hunter the favorite to fill the empty slot, but Hearn ultimately picked Andy Ruiz.

Hunter was ringside for Joshua-Ruiz. When Ruiz scored his first knockdown, Hunter remembers shouting to no one in particular, “I told you so; I told you.” Hunter had sparred with Ruiz and like all the others that had shared the ring with the Mexican, he knew that there was more to Ruiz than meets the eye.

Hunter’s nemesis Oleksandr Usyk had previously signed with Matchroom. As first reported by The Athletic’s Mike Coppinger, Usyk will make his debut as a heavyweight on Oct. 12 in Chicago against Suriname-born Tyrone Spong, a former champion kickboxer who left that sport in 2014 after suffering a fractured leg in a fight in Istanbul.

“Skill-wise,” says Hunter, “Oleksandr Usyk can out-box any heavyweight. However, he doesn’t fight like a heavyweight and for that reason he may have trouble getting big fights. Heavyweights don’t like to get out-boxed. If they are going to lose, they would prefer to lose to a slugger.”

These remarks harked to his father. No important heavyweight wanted to fight Mike “The Bounty” Hunter, for even if he were to beat him, he wasn’t likely to look good in the process. The elder Hunter secured several big fights only because a replacement was needed and the promoter was desperate. He fought Tyrell Biggs for the vacant USBA title on 24 hours notice, salvaging a Top Rank ESPN fight that unraveled when Tony Tubbs tested positive for cocaine, his second infraction. Oh, and by the way, Hunter won the fight.

In addition to being a participant, Michael Hunter is a fan of boxing. He’s very much looking forward to the forthcoming light heavyweight unification fight between Oleksandr Gvozdyk and his old amateur rival Artur Beterbiev. “This will be a beautiful fight for the fans to watch,” he says. “It will be a test of wills. Beterbiev has great timing and I think he will do really well in the middle rounds.” But can he sustain it? Hunter is non-committal.

It’s an awkward question, but we had to ask it: Does Michael Hunter believe that the circumstances of his father’s death were accurately reported by the media? Mike Hunter was reportedly shot after hitting one of the officers over the head with a fake handgun.

“We’ll never know what really happened,” he says, noting that there were no witnesses. “The police may have drawn their guns a little too soon. There’s that tendency when they confront a black male they perceive to be a threat.” He says this matter-of-factly, without raising his voice, while acknowledging that the father he lost when he was seventeen years old, the man whose memory he cherishes, had personal demons and fell prey to drugs.

Michael Hunter has a younger brother who may get there ahead of him in the race to fight for a world title. Keith Hunter, a 27-year-old welterweight, is 11-0. The brothers, who train in the same Las Vegas gym, are both “The Bounty” Hunters. Like father, like sons.

Sergey Kuzmin, Michael Hunter’s opponent on Sept. 13, hails from St. Petersburg, Russia, and, like Hunter, had a wealth of amateur experience. Kuzmin is 15-0 (11 KOs) with 1 no-decision, that coming in a match with Amir Mansour that was stopped in the third round when both suffered severe cuts following an accidental clash of heads. In his most recent fight, Kuzmin scored a majority decision over rugged Joey Dawejko.

The oddsmakers have chalked Hunter (17-1, 12 KOs) the favorite, but the odds are short, seemingly portending a very competitive fight. As always, Michael will feel his father’s presence as he enters the ring. And whatever the outcome, he has the satisfaction of knowing that his father would be very proud of him.

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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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