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Looking Ahead to Canelo-Kovalev, Looking Back at Robinson-Maxim

Jeffrey Freeman

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Looking Ahead to Canelo-Kovalev, Looking Back at Robinson-Maxim

Will boxing history repeat itself again? 

In modern era prizefighting it is almost unheard of for a reigning middleweight champion to challenge a reigning light heavyweight champion for his title. It’s a fifteen pound climb on the scales; the second biggest weight gap between any of boxing’s eight original weight classes.

Undisputed middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler was wise to resist the temptation; choosing to let Michael Spinks go up 25 pounds to heavyweight rather than moving up himself to challenge the then undefeated Spinks “Jinx” for his unified light heavyweight titles.

As it turns out, Michael could handle the heavyweights. He beat Larry Holmes twice and blitzed Gerry Cooney. He might well have handed Hagler an ugly loss, maybe even one by knockout.

Bernard Hopkins moved up to light heavyweight a year after losing his middleweight titles. He won some and lost some before being knocked out of the ring, and out of boxing, by Joe Smith Jr.  James Toney went from middleweight to heavyweight but he did it slowly over two decades.

CHAMPIONSHIP POUNDS

More often than not, it is the natural middleweight champion (160) fielding challenges from welterweight (147) or junior middleweight (154) while today’s light heavyweight champions (175) sometimes see action from the super middleweights (168) who pack on seven extra pounds.

The most recent example of a middleweight champion moving up in weight to box a defending light heavyweight champion for his title is still Sugar Ray Robinson’s ill-fated challenge of Joey Maxim at Yankee Stadium in New York City on June 25, 1952. Theirs was one hell of a fight.

According to the United Press, the summer heat in the outdoor ring reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Robinson weighed-in at just 157; Maxim at 173. Robinson was better, quicker, and more skilled. Maxim was stronger and he took a much better punch than the lighter Sugar Ray.

“Time after time [Robinson] danced into the attack with his stinging combinations and slipped away from Maxim’s jab,” penned Jack Hand from ringside for the St. Petersburg Times sports page. “But the time came when he could dance no more. As the 13th ended, he collapsed wobbling against the ropes near a neutral corner and had to be dragged to his own stool.”

Robinson retired in the corner after the thirteenth round‒well ahead on points. Referee Ruby Goldstein also failed to go the distance due to desert-like temperatures and dehydration. Ruby was replaced by referee Ray Miller after an especially sweat-drenched tenth frame.

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The only one in the ring who could take the literal and proverbial heat was Maxim, thus he became the only fighter to stop Robinson, the greatest pound-for-pounder of all time, before going on to engage in a trilogy with Archie Moore; losing all three bouts by unanimous decision.

Robinson retired but came back three years later in 1955, actively competing until 1965.

As a middleweight.

HISTORY AWAITS…

On November 2 in Las Vegas, Nevada at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, Golden Boy’s superstar “Canelo” Alvarez will challenge WBO light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev.

The unique move by Alvarez comes after an anticipated third fight with Gennady Golovkin failed to materialize in 2019. Airing on DAZN, there is no catchweight BS and Kovalev (1-1 against Latinos named Alvarez) will be allowed to box without having a hand tied behind his back.

Whether he gets fair officiating in Vegas is another story. Canelo, like Robinson, will be attempting to make history by winning a third world title in as many weight classes but can he pull it off? Is Canelo finally biting off more than he can chew after gradually easing into middleweight and then seizing the crown last September from the long reigning Triple G?

“Historic fights have been a hallmark of this company and we are pleased to once again live up to the high expectations we’ve set for fans. The best pound-for-pound fighter is also boxing’s biggest star. I am certain he will stop Kovalev,” predicts Canelo’s promoter Oscar De La Hoya.

Oddsmakers have already installed Canelo as the betting favorite (4 to 1 on some books) just as they did in 1952 when Robinson was favored (13 to 10) to defeat the then 78-18-4 Maxim.

With all due respect to Vasyl Lomachenko and with all promotional hyperbole aside, Canelo is arguably the top rated P4P boxer in the world today with decision victories over Gennady Golovkin, Miguel Cotto, Erislandy Lara, Austin Trout, and Danny Jacobs on his record.

His lone loss to Floyd Mayweather Jr. made him a better boxer, particularly on defense. The skilled redhead is now 52-1-2 with 35 knockouts. He rolls with the punches like ‘Money May’ and by that I mean to say he shoulder-rolls and parries like no Mexican fighter I know of.

RISKY BUSINESS

“The second phase of my career is continuing as planned,” says Canelo. Whether or not that includes a third fight with GGG remains to be seen but Kovalev’s Main Events promoter Kathy Duva is happy to see Golovkin wait. “Canelo is to be praised for challenging Krusher Kovalev. Win or lose, he will make history and Sergey is extremely pleased to get the chance to test his mettle against another future Hall-of-Famer. I have a feeling that this will be one for the ages.”

Last month against Anthony Yarde, Kovalev, 36, showed that he is still very vulnerable to the body. During the eighth round of his WBO title bout in his Russian hometown of Chelyabinsk, Kovalev’s abdomen came under attack from Yarde who almost did what Andre Ward did in his rematch with Kovalev; namely buckle the big guy over and make him quit from bodyshots.

Kovalev weathered the storm and used his long stiff jab to put Yarde down and out in the 11th.

Canelo, 29, is coming off a May win against Danny Jacobs, a unanimous decision in which he proved beyond a shadow of any doubt that as the one who beat Golovkin, he is the best and most accomplished middleweight in the world‒the legitimate world champion of the division.

There’s really nothing left to prove there.

“I want to be remembered as one of the greats in boxing and that is why I continue to work hard and continue to take on these type of fights, so that I can keep on writing my own history. That is why I’ve decided to jump two weight classes. Kovalev is a dangerous puncher, and he’s a naturally bigger man but those are the kinds of challenges and risks that I like to face.”

“In order to be the best you have to beat the best,” acknowledges the 34-3-1 (29) Kovalev. “I always tried to fight the toughest opponents in my division. Canelo wanted to fight me; to step up to a higher weight and challenge for my belt. I will be ready on November 2nd,” he promises.

If he hopes to beat Canelo and redeem himself for the technical knockout losses to Ward (in 2017) and Eleider Alvarez (in 2018), Kovalev will have to be in the best shape of his ten-year career and more ready than he’s been recently to go hard for the full twelve rounds.

Poor stamina must not be an issue again. It’s time to put down the vodka and pay close attention to trainer Buddy McGirt. “He still has that fire inside to be the best,” insists Buddy.

Alvarez is a thunderous body puncher and the best counterpuncher in the game today. But it’s hard to land downstairs or counter to the head effectively when you’re being kept at a safe distance by a bigger, stronger man using his long reach and superior power to his advantage.

Kovalev pumps an outstanding jab and it’s his most important weapon for upsetting Alvarez.

While one can see Canelo working his way inside and crushing a tiring Kovalev’s body, one can also see a motivated Kovalev taking advantage of this golden opportunity to remind us all of the talented fighting machine who beat Bernard Hopkins and appeared to have done enough to deserve the judges’ decision in his first encounter with the now retired P4P star Andre Ward.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

They say that history is written by the winners but in the case of Robinson-Maxim, it appears to have been written by the loser, or at the very least by those sympathetic to him. Ask anyone about the fight today and all you’ll hear about is how Robinson wilted like a raisin in the sun.

Maxim gets little to no credit.

But according to Maxim’s manager Jack Kearns, all the hot talk was just hot air, an excuse.

“Robinson was nailed good in the belly in the tenth and again in the twelfth. And he got a left hook and a right to the head at the end of the thirteenth when he was on the ropes. If the bell hadn’t rang he’d be dead,” he said. “We had Joey lay back and let Robinson punch himself out.”

Who’s to say it didn’t work?

If Canelo’s plan is to wait until Kovalev gets winded and then go to work on his body like Ward and Yarde, he might be able to achieve what even the great Sugar Ray Robinson was unable to accomplish. And if Kovalev is fit and ready on fight night as promised, he has the physical tools to win; proving that a good big man almost always beats a good (even GOAT) small man.

Canelo-Kovalev is a real fight.

May the best man win.

*****

Boxing Writer Jeffrey Freeman grew up in the City of Champions, Brockton, Massachusetts from 1973 to 1987, during the Marvelous career of Marvin Hagler. JFree then lived in Lowell, Mass during the best years of Irish Micky Ward’s illustrious career. A new member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and a Bernie Award Winner in the Category of Feature Under 1500 Words, Freeman covers boxing for The Sweet Science in New England.

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Vic Pasillas: An East L.A. Fighter

David A. Avila

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When East L.A.’s Vic Pasillas enters the prize ring this weekend he follows a path that many from his area have trod before. Not all were successful, but those that succeed become near legendary.

But it’s definitely not easy being from East L.A.

Pasillas (16-0, 9 KOs) meets Michigan’s Raeese Aleem (17-0, 11 KOs) for the vacant interim WBA featherweight title on Saturday Jan. 23, at Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn. Showtime will televise live.

Once again, a fighter from East L.A. stands pivoted for greatness. Can Pasillas go all the way?

For the past 130 years, prizefighters from East Los Angeles have developed into some of the best in the world if you can get them into the prize ring. Oscar De La Hoya and Leo Santa Cruz are two who were able to duck drugs, crime, street gangs and longtime allegiances that can often mislead aspiring boxers toward deadly endings.

One of the first featherweight champions in history lived in East L.A. Solly Garcia Smith won the world championship in 1893. He was the first Latino to ever win a world title.

There are many others from “East Los” who were talented prizefighters that were sidetracked into oblivion. Talented pugilists like brothers Panchito Bojado and Angel Bojado were derailed by mysterious obstacles that East Los Angeles presents. Others like Frankie Gomez and Julian Rodriguez showed dazzling promise but disappeared.

It’s almost as if a curse hangs over East L.A. area like a blanket of smog.

Many were surefire champions. But for some reason East L.A. or East Los as it’s called by those living in the 20 square mile radius, seems to have a dark lingering spell that makes it extra difficult for prizefighters to succeed.

Back in the 1950s a supremely talented fighter named Keeny Teran was skyrocketing to fame when heroin dropped him like an invisible left hook. Celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Danny Kaye were his biggest backers. Yet, not even they could help Teran.

Drugs almost took Pasillas too.

The fighter known as “Vicious” Vic Pasillas could have tripped into one of those sad stories from East L.A. you often hear about from your abuelitas. The streets can easily claim you if you let your guard down. Who is a friend and who is a foe are not often clear as the colors brown or white. It’s a potholed journey to navigate the barrio streets that look tame during the day, but ominous when the darkness arrives.

Barrio Life

Growing up with parents who were incarcerated led Pasillas to find loyalty from the vatos on the street. They treated him well and gave him protection and a sense of family, but often led to being involved in petty and major crimes.

“I moved out of the neighborhood. I had to get away from my friends. No disrespect to them but I knew that I would end up in jail,” said Pasillas who moved to Riverside, Calif. which is 60 miles east of East L.A. “Nobody knew where I was.”

One thing certain: prizefighting was his gift. All that he encountered recognized his boxing ability.

“He was always a gifted fighter,” said Joe Estrada, who would often take him to tournaments around California or in other states. “Every tournament he entered he won. He has always had speed, power, and defense. He’s always been a great boxer, but trouble was always around him.”

Gangs had always been a part of Pasillas life. He was born into gangs in South El Monte and even after moving to East L.A. it was not an escape. It was vatos locos that took him under their wing and showed him love and respect. They took care of him; some were also boxers.

East L.A. is an area much like a spider web. You can travel a quarter mile in one direction and suddenly you are in enemy turf. Gangs are everywhere. If you are an adult male you can’t simply walk outside a door without looking in all directions. It makes you razor sharp in recognizing danger. You always look out for danger.

Pasillas loved boxing and loved his friends, the big homies, but cutting off one for the other was the most difficult decision. He would train, fight, and win but then hang with the homies and end up being arrested with the rest of them.

“The cops would come and everybody would run so I would run,” said Pasillas. “I didn’t do anything, but I would get busted with everybody else for trying to evade the police.”

Things remained the same until he met his wife. The streets never had a chance. Once married he moved to the Riverside area. It was 2011 and newly married he needed to make a decision on whether to try and make the Olympic team or turn professional.

“I was ready to go to the Olympics. First, I was going to smash everybody but my wife got pregnant at 2011. It forced me to get a job at a warehouse. I was making 50 dollars a week. Pennies,” said Pasillas. “I got a call from Cameron Dunkin and Top Rank. They offered me a fight on the third Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez fight. That was my pro debut.”

Sadly, the streets reclaimed him again.

Reckoning

A move to northern California seemed to change things but the struggle to stay outside the grasp of the streets remained real even hundreds of miles away. Despite the dark times Pasillas still had friends and admirers.

Seniesa Estrada, who holds the interim WBA flyweight title and is poised to fight for a world title in March, remembers sparring with Pasillas when she could not find girls to spar.

“Vic was always very good. He would take it easy on me, of course, but I would learn so much from sparring with guys like him and Jojo Diaz and Frankie Gomez,” said Estrada, who grew up and still lives in East L.A.

Pasillas, 28, had more than 300 amateur fights. He lost only eight times. Anyone who ever saw him fight immediately recognized his immense talent.

“Vic is one of the best fighters I ever saw,” said Joe Estrada. “Everyone knew that when he’s in shape he can’t be beat. Just so much talent.”

That talent will be tested on Saturday when he meets Michigan’s undefeated Aleem. Whoever wins their battle will meet the winner between Angelo Leo and Stephen Fulton who fight for the WBO super bantamweight title.

“I want to fight the best now, and Pasillas is one of the best fighters in the division. I’m not ducking or dodging anyone. I’m going to be a world champion by all means necessary,” said Aleem who now fights out of Las Vegas.

Pasillas doesn’t doubt that Aleem has talent.

“I don’t want to give up my game plan but best believe I’m going to do whatever it takes to win this fight. If he wants to bang, then we’ll bang, if he wants to box, we’ll box. I’ve seen so many different styles in the amateurs, there is nothing that he brings that I haven’t seen. My power is what he’s going to have to deal with,” Pasillas said.

It’s been an incredible up and down journey so far for Pasillas; a lifetime of dealing with hidden traps on East L.A. streets that have toppled many previous fighters now long forgotten.

Or will those same streets show the way to glittering success as former champions De La Hoya, Santa Cruz, Joey Olivo, Richie Lemos, Newsboy Brown and Solly Garcia Smith discovered.

One thing Pasillas already discovered was his own family.

“People invite me all the time to events and parties but I tell them I already have plans with my family,” said Pasillas who has a wife and two elementary age children. “I never really had a family like other people.”

Now he has his own family. Something he didn’t have during his youth due to drugs and the streets.

“It’s just a domino effect. I’m making sure I’m going to stop that s—t,” says Pasillas. “It’s going to be good for East Los. I’m a born and bred fighter from East Los.”

Sometimes the streets can break you or make you.

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Hank Aaron and Muhammad Ali

Thomas Hauser

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Hank Aaron, one of the greatest players in baseball history, died today (January 22) at age 86.

Aaron is best known for breaking Babe Ruth’s mark of 714 career home runs. He finished his sojourn through baseball with 755 homers, a record that stood until 2007 when it was eclipsed by Barry Bonds. He still holds the MLB career records for most RBIs, most total bases, and most extra base hits while ranking third on the list for most hits and most games played and fourth in runs scored. He was a thoughtful gracious man who inspired a generation.

Decades ago, I was conducting research for the book that would become Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. As part of this process, I interviewed many great athletes. Some, like Jim Brown, had played an important role in Ali’s life. Others had interacted with Muhammad in a less significant manner. The people I spoke with included sports legends like Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, and Reggie Jackson. On September 5, 1989, I was privileged to talk with Aaron.

Aaron had broken Babe Ruth’s record in 1974, the year that Ali dethroned George Foreman to reclaim the heavyweight championship of the world. The thoughts that Aaron shared with me – one great athlete talking about another – follow:

“I was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1934. I came up with the Braves when I was twenty. And coming from Mobile, I was very shy. I wasn’t satisfied with the way things were, but I felt like I had to do something special in baseball in order to get people to listen to me. By the time Ali came along, things were a little different but not that much. My first awareness of him was when he won the gold medal. And I saw greatness stamped all over him. How great, I didn’t know. But I was impressed by his ability and his confidence.

“Being a gifted athlete, being one of the best in the world at what you do, is a great feeling. But sometimes it’s kind of eerie because you wonder why you’re blessed with so much ability. I’d go up to the plate to face a pitcher and I’d know that, before the night was over, I was going to hit one out of the ballpark. I felt that, and I’m sure Ali felt the same way. That no matter who he got in the ring with, he was better and he’d figure them out. He had all kinds of confidence. And I was the same way. The only thing that scared me was, when I was approaching Babe Ruth’s record, I got a lot of threatening letters. I’m sure Ali went through the same thing with letters from people who didn’t want him to be heavyweight champion. Most of that stuff is nothing but cranks. But one of them might be for real, and you never know which one.

“I don’t think there’ll ever be another fighter like Muhammad Ali. I’m not putting anybody else down. Maybe someone could have beaten Ali in his prime, but I’m not concerned about that. There’s just no one who could possibly be as beautiful in the ring as he was. For a guy to be that big and move the way he did; it was like music, poetry, no question about it. And for what he did outside the ring, Ali will always be remembered. When you start talking about sports, when you start talking about history; you can’t do it unless you mention Ali. Children in this country should be taught forever how he stood by his convictions and lived his life. He’s someone that black people, white people, people all across the country whatever their color, can be proud of. I know, I’m glad I had the opportunity to live in his time and bear witness to what he accomplished. God gave Ali the gift, and Ali used it right.”

I remember very clearly reading to Ali what Hank Aaron had said about him. And Muhammad responded, “Hank Aaron said that about me? I’m honored.”

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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The Ups and Downs of Hall of Fame Boxing Writer Jack Fiske

Arne K. Lang

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Hall of Fame boxing writer Jack Fiske passed away 15 years ago this coming Sunday, Jan. 24, 2006. Fiske was 88 years old.

Fiske was one of the last of the breed, a full-time boxing writer for a major metropolitan daily. They don’t make them like that anymore.

In his final years as a journalist, however, Fiske no longer worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, his longtime employer. To read his stuff required a subscription to a newsletter. And the newsletter, in common with Fiske, had become a dinosaur in a world where the only constant is change. It went belly-up several weeks before Fiske passed away.

Born in New York City in 1917, Jack Fiske attended the University of Alabama where he covered the school’s boxing team for the school newspaper. The star of the team, Fiske was fond of recollecting, was a fiery bantamweight, George Wallace. America would come to know Wallace as the fiery segregationist who served four terms as Governor of Alabama and was a failed U.S. presidential candidate.

After graduation, Fiske worked for a paper in Virginia and two small papers in the Bay Area before latching on with the Chronicle. In addition to covering the fights as a ringside reporter, Fiske authored a twice-weekly feature called “Punching The Bag” that circulated widely among hard-core fans and industry insiders.

Fiske had to be on his toes because for much of his tenure at the paper the arch-rival San Francisco Examiner had a fine full-time boxing man of their own, Eddie Muller, whose son of the same name hosts “Noir Alley” on Turner Classic Movies.

“Punching The Bag” was jam-packed with information and editorial content. Fiske had little tolerance for inept ring officials and regulators who owed their cushy jobs to political connections. First-time promoters, the lifeblood of the sport, were assured of positive ink. But once a promoter became established, he had to earn his props by making competitive matches.

During Fiske’s early days with the Chronicle, the top sports in terms of newspaper coverage were baseball, horseracing, and boxing, and the Bay Area was a beehive of boxing activity. In 1955, there were 73 boxing shows in San Francisco, Oakland, and nearby Richmond. The biggest shows were usually held at the Cow Palace. Ten title fights were staged here beginning with Ezzard Charles’ 1949 world heavyweight title defense against local fan favorite Pat Valentino.

One can guess where this is heading. Bit by bit, the Bay Area boxing scene became fallow. In the eyes of the Chronicle higher-ups, Fiske came to be seen as superfluous. In 1992, the paper let him go. “Punching The Bag” died after an amazing 43-year run.

Fiske hastened his demise as a newspaperman by his disinclination to become more versatile. He never wanted to cover any sport other than boxing. His attraction to the sweet science was manifested in his vast collection of boxing memorabilia which dominated every room of his home.

In 1994, Fiske was persuaded to resurrect his column for “Professional Boxing Update” and its sister publication, “Flash.” These were 12-page newsletters cranked out by a fellow from Capitola, CA, named Virgil Thrasher, a big boxing buff with a second sideline as a blues harmonica player.

At their peak, Thrasher’s newsletters had 6000 subscribers, 10 percent overseas. Circulation-wise, this was a big comedown for Fiske, but he was too professional to approach his assignments half-heartedly. Although he held a grudge against his former employer, his bitterness surfaced only once.

When the Chronicle made no mention of the passing of World War II era lightweight champion Ike Williams, Fiske carped that the sports department was run by clowns more attuned to women’s volleyball than to matters of significance.

“Professional Boxing Update” and “Flash” were modest endeavors, but the contributors were first-rate, most especially during the mid-1990s. Jack Fiske was then in good form, as was acerbic Las Vegas oddsmaker Herb Lambeck, a peerless boxing pricemaker. In those days, no one was better at dissecting a forthcoming fight than lead writer Graham Houston, himself a Future Hall of Famer. Houston, who was the North American correspondent for several British publications, stayed on with Thrasher’s newsletters until the very end.

For some subscribers, these publications functioned mostly as tip sheets. When the opinions of Houston and Lambeck dovetailed, one could wager with a high degree of confidence.

Within four years of joining PBU/Flash, Jack Fiske’s health began to fail and he was unable to meet his deadlines. To ease Fiske’s slide to infirmity, Thrasher took to reprinting some of his old Chronicle columns.

When Virgil Thrasher launched his newsletters in 1985, he stole readers from established magazines by delivering information in a timelier fashion. Ironically, he became a victim of the same force. A new generation of fight fans, weaned on the internet, demanded updates quicker than the mailman could bring.

It would have been nice if Thrasher had continued on for a few more weeks, thereby affording readers a tribute to Jack Fiske on the occasion of his passing. But at least Fiske wasn’t entirely forgotten.

In 2003, at age 85, Fiske was ushered into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. As is the custom when an inductee passes away, the flag atop the Canastota shrine was lowered to half-staff when news arrived of his passing.

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