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The Hauser Report: Glen Sharp’s “Punching from the Shadows” (Book Review)

Thomas Hauser

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McFarland & Company publishes books about boxing on a regular basis. Some of them are solid works that contribute to the historical record of the sport. Others have the feel of vanity publishing, although McFarland doesn’t take payment from authors. On occasion, a particularly good book makes its way through the pipeline. Punching from the Shadows by Glen Sharp is a particularly good book.

Sharp has an undergraduate degree in economics and an M.A. in English. He has worked in state government for more than thirty years and is currently an analyst and editor at the California Energy Commission. Within that milieu, his most unique credential is that he boxed professionally for a year before retiring with a 1-and-2 ring record. His sojourn through the sweet science is realistically and evocatively written from the early roots of his journey to the end.

“I had major league dreams but not even minor league success and was haunted by my failure for years,” Sharp writes in the Preface to his book. “I thought telling my rise-and-fall story about a boxer that does not have much rise to it might be of help to me, too.”

Sharp grew up in a reasonably comfortable middle-class environment in a small farm town in Illinois.

“A common social confusion is that economic impoverishment is what leads people into boxing,” he notes. “But that is not the case. People are attracted to boxing or not, just as they are drawn to writing or acting or playing a musical instrument. But boxing is such difficult, painful, and dangerous work that the temptation to turn away from its call is difficult to ignore, and this is especially so when opportunities for an easier life are available elsewhere. Poverty does not force someone to begin boxing. There are billions of poor people in the world but not billions of boxers. But having some money in the bank, or even a chance to obtain cash any other way than by fighting, can lead someone to stop, which I would eventually discover for myself.”

Sharp’s introduction to boxing, his first sparring session, the Golden Gloves, and other rites of passage are well told. He recreates the sights and sounds of gym life well. He had decent physical gifts (in his imagination, he fancied himself a smaller version of Joe Frazier) and recalls, “I had been gifted with the ability to punch, especially with my left hand, in the same way other guys can throw a ball ninety-five miles an hour or more. I might not have had the best location, so to speak, or any off-speed stuff to set up my power, but I could rear back and fire.”

He also recreates an early amateur fight that saw a trainer named Alex Sherer in his corner.

“I had a difficult first round with the guy I was fighting,” Sharp recounts. “He landed lot of punches on me, including one right hand that left my nose bleeding. My nose wasn’t broken but the faucet was certainly on. As I sat on the stool in my corner after the round, Alex climbed into the ring and wiped my face with a towel. I was breathing heavily already and, with every exhalation, a fine mist of blood would float into the air between us. Alex, kneeling right in front of me, looked like he was in a state of shock. I thought he was worried about me but I was wrong. “This is a brand new shirt, goddam it,” he yelled at me, pointing at his chest while the red cloud settled on him like fog upon the ground. “This is the first day I’ve worn it.” He stood up and stepped back to look at the damage. “Jesus Christ,” he kept yelling. “A f****** brand new shirt and you’re getting blood all over it.”

Eventually, Sharp took his quest to the next level.

“A young person with decent athletic ability can be taught well enough to compete successfully at lower levels of boxing without having to discover how brave he is,” he notes. “At some point, however, as he progressively fights stiffer competition, it will become apparent how much of a stomach he has for boxing.”

Sharp had the stomach for it. At least, he thought he did. But his motivation was suspect. After graduating from college, in his words, “I began living like a lot of directionless college graduates, which is a lifestyle not much different than being in school except it’s better because you don’t have to attend classes. I worked out sporadically, getting in shape for a fight when drinking beer and having fun got boring. I stayed in decent condition, but the inconsistency of training did not allow for much in the way of skill development.”

But reality was calling.

“The world expected me to become a contributing member of society,” he recalls. “Going to school was never fun for me and could sometimes involve a lot of work, but at least it allowed me to partially avoid the responsibilities of life. It finally dawned on me to become a professional boxer. After graduating from college, I didn’t see any other option for me. Some people might laugh at the idea of a guy fighting professionally because he is too lazy or egotistical to get a job, but it doesn’t seem funny to me.”

In late-1981, Sharp decided to turn pro and took a job as a service attendant on the night shift in a gas station to pursue his ring career. Joe Risso (a restaurant owner who knew virtually nothing about the business of boxing) became his manager. Former middleweight champion Bobo Olson (who might have had trouble training a fish to swim) was hired by Risso as Glen’s trainer.

Sharp’s relationship with Olson was doomed from the start. First, Bobo was disinterested in his new charge. And second, he insisted that Sharp fight “out of a shell.” But Glen didn’t have the physical gifts to implement that style.

“Each boxer,” Sharp explains, “has a basic style of fighting which reflects his physical assets and limitations, his personality and temperament, how much punishment he is willing and able to endure, his experience, and who trained him and how. But all successful boxers develop their own particular style for the same root reason – to land punches while at the same time minimizing the number of punches the opponent lands in return. As an amateur, I had two main talents. I could punch hard and I could take a punch. I relied on that ability and accepted the consequences of my other shortcomings. I knew what I had to do to win, and I knew how I would lose if I could not impose myself on my opponent. Everything about my fights made sense to me, even when they were not going well. I needed to learn how to pace myself. How to throw decoy punches. How to set up big punches. How to counter more cleanly and strategically. How to make my counterpunching so smooth and effective that my offense and my defense were not clearly distinguishable. I needed to improve a lot. None of the teaching that I needed, however, would have conflicted with my intent to become a smart slugger. My intentions would have become more sophisticated, but not more confused.”

“But Bobo’s demands,” Sharp continues, “were alien to me both physically and psychologically. Neither my body nor my mind was designed to fight like Bobo wanted, and I knew it. With Bobo’s shell, I punched less often, less quickly, less powerfully, and less accurately. My defensive skills were reduced. I couldn’t move my head as freely or as quickly. I couldn’t follow my opponent’s punches as well as I had before. I knew what Bobo wanted was wrong for me, and so I was at war with myself. Boxing is a difficult enough sport when you are comfortable with what you are trying to do in the ring. Trying to bring someone else contentment by parroting what he or she wants is suicidal.”

Then Yaqui Lopez came into Sharp’s life.

Lopez was a world class fighter who had fallen just short in championship outings against John Conteh, Victor Galindez, and Matthew Saad Muhammad. Like Sharp, he fought as a light-heavyweight.

In March 1982 (two months before Sharp’s first pro fight), Joe Risso arranged for Glen to spar with Lopez several days a week. That meant training with Olson in Sacramento on some days and driving to Stockton to spar with Yaqui on others. Sharp’s exposition of the year that he spent as Lopez’s sparring partner is superb:

*          “This is what the first day with Yaqui felt like. I knew I was going to get the worst of it when I was in the middle of the ring, when I was at the end of his jab. I expected that. I didn’t know exactly how bad the worst of it was going to be, but I knew it was going to be kind of bad. What I didn’t expect was for it to be the same when I was inside his reach, boxing at close quarters. There was no place I could find to mount any kind of offense. There was no punch I could throw from any angle that seemed to bother Yaqui at all. In the three rounds we boxed that day, I don’t think I landed a single punch. I got pieces of him, glancing blows off the top of his head or body punches that he did not completely block, but I did not land any clean shots. Worse than that, there was no place in the ring I found to be safe. Everywhere I moved, I was at Yaqui’s mercy. He picked me apart with his jabs and rights from a distance. When I stepped closer, he would combine the right hands with left hooks. When I got on top of him, he would blast me with uppercuts along with the hooks. Yaqui was better than me in every phase of boxing. He had an absolute advantage in everything we were doing in the ring, and I had never experienced that before.”

*           “There was not much drama or art to be seen in my boxing with Yaqui. He quickly established that he was the hunter and I was the prey. Although I would occasionally challenge this hierarchy, my efforts always proved to be unsuccessful except for the briefest of moments. Until meeting Yaqui, I had something of an alpha male attitude about myself, always thinking I was the hunter in a boxing ring, and so my demotion was hurtful psychologically as well as physically. Every time I attempted to assert myself and temporarily reverse our roles, he would become even more assertive in response.”

*           “In the short-term, in the course of a fight, you can commit yourself to taking more punches than you world normally enjoy. You might make that commitment because you see it as your only chance to win. But in daily sparring, there is no competition to win a contest, and it becomes difficult to commit yourself to taking that level of punishment on a regular basis day after day. I would go home every day and stand under the shower for fifteen or twenty minutes, hoping the water pounding on my head would balance the throbbing coming from the other direction. I tried not to think about how it was going to happen all over again the next day. In the worst of the days with Yaqui, I did not feel much like someone who used his sparring with world class talent as a learning experience. I thought of myself as being more like the aging failed fighters who were just trying to make a few dollars by letting themselves be punched around.”

*           “As physically demanding as boxing with Yaqui was, the most difficult part was emotional as I saw no light at the end of the tunnel. You develop a unique perspective on life when you rise at six in the morning to run a few miles and one of your first waking thoughts is that, later in the day, you are going to get beat up. Every day during the hour drive to Stockton, my stomach would tighten as I went over what would take place once I got there, knowing there was nothing I could do or change to stop what was going to happen, knowing the next day was going to be the same. I could not ask for relief, either. Yaqui was not taking cheap shots at me, he was only doing his job, and I was the one who had put myself in the position of being his sparring partner. You cannot ask another man to lighten up on you. You can wish for pity. You can hope the guy kicking your butt begins to feel sorry for you, or at least his cornermen do and tell their guy to ease up a bit. You can even think about developing a religious life with the hope God might have mercy on your soul. But you cannot ask the guy you are boxing with to lighten up on you.”

Sharp’s first professional fight was contested in Stockton on May 5, 1982. The opponent was an 0-and-1 novice named Lamont Santanas.

“Besides boxing differently depending upon whether I was training in Stockton or Sacramento,” Sharp writes, “I had two completely different training routines. I had Bobo’s routine when he was in the gym, and I trained like Yaqui when I was with him and Bobo was not around. Not only were there differences in personalities and struggles for power, I was being taught two entirely different ways to fight. Every morning upon waking, I would remind myself what kind of fighter I was supposed to be that day.”

Against Santanas, Sharp won a four-round decision but recalls, “I only won this fight because I regressed to my amateur style. Three months of training with Bobo, and I fought better by ignoring most of what he had taught me. I knew my amateur approach was not the ticket to long-term success, but Bobo was not taking me where I needed to go, either.”

Eight weeks later, Sharp was in the ring again. His original opponent fell out. Glen was then required to weaken himself by dropping down to 165 pounds to face a 6-and-12 journeyman named Michael Hutchinson (the only opponent that Risso could get on short notice). Making matters worse, Hutchinson blew off the weight and came in at 174 pounds.

“This describes my relationship with Joe pretty well,” Sharp writes. “He was a good decent person in most every way. He didn’t know anything about boxing, though, and was even less aware of how little he knew. Joe wanted to be a deal maker. He thought having a manager’s license made him a player in the world of boxing. What having a manager’s license means in reality, though, is that the manager could afford the thirty dollars application fee for a license. It was his job to have said that his fighter who had barely eaten for the past week so he could lose an extra eight pounds was not going into the ring with someone who hadn’t starved himself at all. The manager makes his money because he is supposed to protect his fighters from the promoters and matchmakers and other managers who have other priorities and interests. But that’s not what Joe did.”

Meanwhile, shortly before the bout, Olson called and told Glen that he had hurt his back and would be unable to work his corner for the fight.

“Bobo told me to box the way he had taught me,” Sharp recalls. “I thanked him and hung up the phone. It was the last time we would speak.”

Yaqui Lopez was in Sharp’s corner for the fight against Hutchinson. Glen picks up the narrative after the first round.

“The next thing I remember, I am sitting on the stool in my corner as the bell rings. Thinking the next round had just begun, I stood and took a step toward the center of the ring, but Yaqui grabs my arm and tells me the fight is over.

“Who won?” Sharp asked.

Looking back on that moment, Glen observes, “A good general rule in boxing is that, if you have to ask who won the fight you were just in, the answer is probably the other guy. Hutchinson had dropped me with a right hand and, when I rose, he hit me with about a dozen more punches before the referee stopped the fight. This all happened in the first round, and I have no memory of it.”

Thereafter, insult was added to injury.

“The morning after the fight,” Sharp recounts, “I called one of the doctors employed by the California Athletic Commission as ringside physicians during fights and explained my nose had been broken in Stockton the night before. He asked about the swelling, and I told him it was substantial. He said I should make an appointment for the next week when the swelling had subsided, and I did. When I saw [him] a week later, I had no bruising or swelling, and the only evidence that my nose had been broken was that it was crooked and made noises when I inhaled. The doctor said the bone was already healing and that he could no longer treat me for a broken nose. ‘You should have come here last week,’ he said, ‘before the bone began to set.’”

On November 27, 1982, Sharp entered the ring for the third and final time as a professional boxer. The opponent, Joe Dale Lewis, was making his pro debut and would finish his career with 2 wins, 9 losses, and 7 KOs by. Glen was stopped on cuts in the third round.

“My head was hanging in the air like a pinata,” Sharp writes. “Lewis must have thought it was his birthday. I could not figure out how he was hitting me so easily. I have replayed this fight in my mind thousands of times. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion over and over again. I could see the punches coming, but I could not get out of the way. I knew I was confused by what was happening, but I could not understand why what was happening was happening the way it was. It’s called freezing. I stood in front of Lewis like a deer caught in headlights. I have not been shy about expressing how disappointed I was with those around me [with regard to the weight issue] when I lost my fight with Mike Hutchinson. But this loss rests squarely on my shoulders. This was all mine.”

After the loss to Lewis, any thoughts that Sharp had of becoming a world-class fighter were in the past.

“I was a 1–2 fighter who had lost two fights in a row,” he acknowledges. “And those two losses did not happen by accident. I still thought I could probably become a decent fighter, but the world is full of decent fighters. It is one thing to be a utility infielder on a major league baseball team. But it is something completely different to be a utility boxer, to be a club fighter. I had lost hope that I could become a really good fighter, good enough to make the kind of money that validated the decision to box in the first place. If I was going to end up sitting at a desk anyway, why would I want to spend the next ten years just making ends meet – getting beat, getting hurt, wearing my body and my mind out – to eventually need the same sort of job I had been desperately trying to avoid, only to be ten years behind in that race.”

So Sharp retired. But something was eating away at his soul. In his words, “When Marlon Brando’s character, Terry Malloy, said to his brother in On the Waterfront, ‘I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody,’ he is talking about being someone to himself. When he said he could have had class, he meant he could have had self-respect. He could have been proud of the character he played in his own story if he had only allowed himself to play that role. That is what he most wanted in life.”

Sharp wasn’t proud of himself. To the contrary, the more time passed, the more he became ashamed of how he had approached boxing.

“The idea of a professional boxer being someone who makes money from fighting is true only in the most literal sense,” he writes. “One is a professional more as a function of attitude than a matter of compensation. My aim was to be a successful professional boxer so I didn’t have to get a job, which means I was destined to fail. My attraction to boxing was legitimate, but the relationship I developed with it was not. Boxing is a skill sport more than it is an athletic contest, and I was athletic enough to have become skilled enough. But I had not done the work necessary. Then I ran away from it when the work became too demanding. It is not easy to see yourself being less honorable than you thought you were.”

In 1987, Sharp started thinking about a comeback.

“I began training again,” he writes, “to finally make the commitment that I had failed to do when younger and had led to the failure. I hoped it was not too late. I wanted the story of my life in boxing to be an honorable one, even if unsuccessful. It was an attempt to atone for squandering a gift I had taken for granted when young and not realized how much I loved.”

Sharp trained for close to three years. Then reason prevailed in the form of advice from boxing minds wiser than his own. He never fought again.

Punching from the Shadows deserves a wide audience. Sharp brings a lot to the table. Unlike most writers, he has been in the ring. His journey through boxing was standard in some ways but unusual in others. And he writes well. Things that the reader thinks will happen don’t. And things that the reader is sure will never happen do. There’s a self-revelatory examination of Sharp’s personal relationships – particularly with his father and some of the women he dated – but not so much that it becomes cumbersome.

There are short axiomatic observations:

*         “Very little in life is as truthful as a fight.”

*         “Two contests are going on in a boxing ring, the boxer with his opponent and the boxer with himself.”

*         “The fight itself is often fun. Waiting for the fun to begin is not.”

*         “Getting concussions is probably not the best way to learn how to box.”

At times, the book is an intelligent exploration of the psychology of boxing.

“For the boxer,” Sharp explains, “two primal and perfectly natural responses – either fighting or taking flight – must find a way to live with each other. Being brave is not a matter of mindlessly throwing caution to the wind. Strength of character is required to hold both heroic intent and the desire to be safe in balanced tension with one another. A tremendous amount of work is required to strengthen oneself to hold that tension, to remain mindful, which is a state of awareness that strives to perform courageously but not unintelligently so.”

In other places, Punching from the Shadows is an engaging primer on boxing fundamentals.

Sharp offers an exceptionally good explanation of Joe Frazier’s fighting style and Frazier’s strengths and weakness as a fighter. Other insights include:

*         “All good fighters learn to regulate their breathing, inhaling and exhaling rhythmically, a pattern upon which everything else is based. Every punch, every feint, every defensive move, every step forward or backward or sideways is coordinated with breathing. This reminds me of the schoolyard maxim that, if you ever get into a fight with someone who breathes through his nose, you should probably turn around and run because that guy knows what he is doing.”

*         “The face is rubbed with Vaseline primarily so that, when it is hit with a punch, the leather gloves will slide off the skin more easily than otherwise would happen, reducing the chances of the facial skin being cut by a punch. The body is rubbed with Vaseline to make sure the opponent’s gloves are in contact with grease as often as possible. Every time boxers are close together or punching to the body or in a clinch, the gloves are rubbing against Vaseline, becoming coated with grease.”

*         “Although hitting the speed bag can look impressive, I don’t know that it provides much benefit. The idea is that it increases your hand-eye coordination. But once you learn what you are doing and get a feel for the rhythm of the specific bag you are hitting, you can do it with your eyes closed. I would think that developing hand-eye coordination requires the eyes to at least be open. But I could be wrong because a guy with a 1–2 record obviously has a lot to learn about boxing.”

In the preface to Punching from the Shadows, Sharp writes, “I hope that you find me to be a pretty good storyteller, because I sure wasn’t much of a fighter.”

Sharp is better than a pretty good storyteller. He’s first-rate.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – A Dangerous Journey: Another Year Inside Boxing  – will be published next month 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.

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Ten Heavyweight Prospects: 2021 Catchup

Matt McGrain

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I started this series in 2018, selecting ten fascinating heavyweight prospects and committing to follow them until such time as they were eliminated or entered the Transnational Boxing Rankings and this time, we have a few.

The series was updated in the summer of 2019 and this entry was delayed due to the most severe of circumstances, the COVID-19 pandemic that prevented not just boxing but so many other aspects of life. It’s nice to be able to catch up with these men once again in what was a twenty months as incident-filled as the preceding twelve.

THE COLOSSUS: ARSLANBEK MAKHMUDOV

FROM: Russia HEIGHT: 6’5.5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 250lbs AGE: 31 RECORD: 11-0 with 11 KOs

The enormous Arslanbek Makhmudov has been out just three times since the summer of 2019, slow going in more ways than one. Yes, inactivity is a consequence of a global pandemic that has hampered more than the prospects of exciting boxing prospects, but the selection of Makhmudov’s opposition has remained stubbornly unambitious.

That looked momentarily set to change in September of 2019 when Julian Fernandez, then 14-1, stepped into Makhmudov’s ring. While Fernandez has certainly never beaten meaningful opposition, he had been in with meaningful opposition, stopped in two by Tom Schwartz the year before. Makhmudov, who was a clean clear winner in his usual impressive style, nevertheless for the first time came off worse in the meaningless comparisons so often thrust upon heavyweight prospects, in that he took three rounds to do what it had taken the much more experienced Schwartz just two rounds to do.

More than this, the response of collective fighting news was disinterest. The fight was neither widely reported upon nor remarked upon and nothing is more discouraging to a promotions team than that. Perhaps in an attempt to increase coverage of their prospect, promoter Camille Estephan took the well-trodden path of digging up the bones of a once notorious contender and lobbing them at his charge. Samuel Peter was the victim and Makhmudov (pictured) disposed of him in seconds. Though the fight succeeded in generating column inches, it also did nothing for Makhmudov’s learning curve.

Doubly disappointing then was his first pandemic-opponent, Dillon Carman. Having boxed even fewer rounds than Makhmudov in 2019, Carman was also coming off two quick stoppage losses. Of course, he was butchered in the first. Since, Makhmudov’s team have been calling for Joe Joyce, Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury.  That is exciting and in the case of Joyce might even be serious, though Joyce’s people will have little problem sidestepping Makhmudov, who is a massive-punching problem nobody needs. Hopefully Estephan and his team will take note of the wide open space between a fighter like Carman and a fighter like Joyce and act upon it, fast.

SIX NINE: IVAN DYCHKO

FROM: Kazakhstan HEIGHT: 6’9 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 245lbs AGE: 30 RECORD: 9-0 with 9 KOs

Ivan Dychko is in danger of becoming a cautionary tale.

Last time we discussed the towering Kazak he had failed in a seemingly serious campaign to replace the disgraced Jarrell Miller against Anthony Joshua based upon their amateur rivalry. Having missed the boat on that chance, grabbed so forcefully by Andy Ruiz, Dychko consoled himself by fighting someone named Nate Heaven.

Heaven, who retired in 2015 and has not won a meaningful fight since April of 2014, inexplicably unretired to absorb this beating, which he did, showing bravery all the while. Dychko looked organised and quick, heavy-handed and well-organised.

Since then: nothing.

Dychko has sparred with Wladimir Klitschko and Deontay Wilder, apparently without upset. He now seems to be hocking those wares to Tyson Fury. Meanwhile, he avoids the ring entirely. Dychko looks fabulous in training footage and is still spoken of highly by those who have worked with him, but that makes his inexplicable inactivity more, not less, frustrating. It should be remembered that Dychko spent eight months doing nothing before the pandemic hit and fought six rounds in twelve months before that. Dychko is a potentially splendid fighter going very much to waste.

THE QUIET ONE: DANIEL DUBOIS

FROM: Great Britain HEIGHT: 6’5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 239lbs AGE: 23 RECORD: 15-1 with 14 KOs

Great Britain continues to deliver on meaningful clashes between heavyweight prospects and the past eighteen months has delivered something of a blockbuster in the shape of Daniel Dubois versus Joe Joyce.

The reason the world is more likely to contain Dychko or Makhumudov than Joyce or Dubois could not be illustrated more keenly than it is by the fallout from this fight. Dubois has been routed by both social media and boxing reporters, very much along the lines of “did he quit?” and “was he exposed?”

But when two prospects meet, of course, some shortcomings and some failings are to be revealed.  By very definition, a prospect is not a finished article. It is true, also, that there was something depressing about Daniel’s apparent inability to defend a wounded eye that came to define his fight as he was jabbed into literal submission by a tougher, technically superior, much more experienced, older boxer. Worse was that he seemed so under-prepared for a potential change in the manner in which he might defend himself. His failings were not entirely his own.

Still, aged just twenty-three and with his heavy hands confirmed by fourteen knockouts, Dubois has plenty to rebuild with, most of all keeping in mind that his hands are just tools and his plans in the ring are mostly there to be disrupted. Watching him explain openly and honestly his decision to “take the knee” despite a clear understanding of the unfortunate cultural associations with our sport that has developed around any notion of surrender has been heartening and frankly impressed me.

Perhaps this a young man who actually will “learn from a defeat” rather than merely paying it lip service. It is that opportunity and where it might lead him that convinced me to leave him on this list, and we will drop in on him next February to see what has occurred.

THE BRUTE: SERGEY KUZMIN

FROM: Russia HEIGHT: 6’3.5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 245lbs AGE: 33 RECORD: 15-2 with 11 KOs

Last time we spoke of Sergey Kuzmin he was 15-0; this time he is 15-2. I’ll avoid platitudes such as “it’s a long road back for the thirty-three-year-old” on this occasion and just state Kuzmin will never be champion.

The scene for his downfall straddled the continents and boxing history as he was found wanting first in the immortal Madison Square Gardens, New York, and then Wembley, London. Tough to the last, Kuzmin was stopped by neither Michael Hunter, who he met in America, nor Martin Bakole, who he met in Great Britain. On each occasion though, he was thoroughly beaten.

His Waterloo came in the fifth against Hunter. Hunter, who had been making all the running, flashed Kuzmin in the fifth with an unexpected cannonball left. Generous onlookers may have found two rounds for the Russian but it was clear he did not belong in the ring with a fighter as good as Hunter. As if to prove it, he took a step down in his next contest against Bakole. Looking fleshy and tentative, Kuzmin dropped a clear and drab decision.

Boxing isn’t kind and it was possible to feel the world’s interest wane during the Bakole fight, or at least that part of the world that remained interested up until that point. Kuzmin tried to take control in the second round, got hit and seemed cowed. He has proved a disappointment; I predicted he would get as far as a legitimate heavyweight ranking. He did not get there, and it seems unlikely now he ever will. Either way, he passes from the realm of prospect to that of gatekeeper and will not figure on our prospect list this time next year.

THE AMERICAN: DARMANI ROCK

FROM: USA HEIGHT: 6’5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 240lbs AGE: 24 RECORD: 17-1 with 12 KOs

If I hoped for a ranking for Kuzmin, I was less convinced by Darmani Rock, whose promotional team seemed either to be very smart or very dumb in the glacial way they moved the youngster along.  Still just twenty-four they could even have continued to make him wait – instead, they took the plunge and the result was a disaster.

Michael Polite Coffie, a fascinating 6’5 southpaw, prides himself on his ability to learn and his military record both, although his time in service prevented him applying learning to boxing until he was rather late in life. Arguably though, he had already achieved more in his eleven professional fights than Rock had in his seventeen. It showed. Coffie, ripped where Rock was flabby, showed the supposedly more experienced man more looks in the first than Rock mustered in the three short rounds the fight lasted. In the third, Rock rattled out of the corner and fired with real aggression having been out-hit through the first two rounds. It was an exciting moment for our prospect-watch, one where we were to learn about a man we were interested in. Instead, Rock revealed a jaw that was anything but as Coffie cleaned him out before a minute of the round had elapsed.

Rock’s moment of truth came and went; Coffie is interesting. If he continues to fight and goes unbeaten, perhaps we will even sneak him in here this time next year. At 34 I think the former Marine will be a little too late to the game though.

MY FAVOURITE: FILIP HRGOVIC

FROM: Croatia HEIGHT: 6’6 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 230lbs AGE: 26 RECORD: 12-0 with 10 KOs

“Technically proficient, quick of hand and thought, physically imposing and clearly in great shape,” I wrote of Filip Hrgovic in 2019, “[he] is confirmed as having everything he needs to be a champion in the heavyweight division except the important ones: chin and stamina. These still remain unconfirmed, although his adventures in the WSB suggest he owns a sturdy mandible at the very least.”

And that, pretty much, is where we still stand today. Hrgovic has been busy though, managing four outings, well above average for this list, it’s just that none of them really told us anything we don’t already know. He thrashed a molasses-like Mexican named Mario Heredia in August 2019, and turned in an impressive display. Using the left hand to open up opportunities for the right, Hrgovic scored with straights, bodyshots, narrowed it up to throw a short overhand on the inside, and most of all landed brutal uppercuts. Heredia was fearless but wilted under this attention. The brutally of those right hands escalated in the third and final round.

From here, Hrgovic went on to dispatch a wobbly Eric Molina in December, and also in three, before waiting out much of the pandemic and returning to the ring in September of 2020 against an ageing Greek with ten fights named Alexandre Kartozia, who offered even less resistance. In November he met the forty-year-old Rydell Booker and beat him up for an eye-watering five founds.

It’s not so much that his opposition is truly awful, more that you can’t shake the feeling that Arslanbek Makhmudov would have knocked them all over too – and in double quick time, too.  Either way, there is still an awful lot that is not known about Hrgovic that I would like to know before he fights for a title, which, to hear the fighter tell it, is imminent. Maybe Martin Bakole will tell us more. He has been chasing Hrgovic for a year now and seems convinced he can trouble him.

Either way, we won’t be hearing any more from Hrgovic in our prospect-watch; he breached the TBRB rankings in December of 2019.  He is a contender now, a prospect no more.

HAYMAKING: JOE JOYCE

FROM: Great Britain HEIGHT: 6’6 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 255lbs AGE: 35 RECORD: 12-0 with 11 KOs

“From the supposed pick of the crop in Hrgovic to the man who beat him.”

Yes indeed; but Joe Joyce needn’t rest on the laurels in earned back in his World Boxing Series any more. He arguably owns the best win of any of the fighters on this list.

Nor was he the betting favourite when he met Daniel Dubois late last year in a match that for the boxing-loyal, fight-starved British public was something of an event. Joyce, a rarity in that he feels even bigger in the ring than his listed stats, spent ten rounds doing essentially the same thing, pushing out hard straight punches to allow metronomic scoring while occasionally getting hit with harder punches, as in the second, where Dubois seemed ready to clean him out. But Joyce is hard; the science to that remark, such as it is, is only in that it is an observable fact. While Dubois lashed him, Joyce calmly continued to deploy himself and by the eighth, although Dubois was in touch on the cards, there was a sense of inevitability about the Joyce victory, which came via TKO in the tenth round.

Joyce is probably a little better than I credited him for, though I always figured him the fighter on this list most in a hurry; that urgency will continue as David Haye’s prodigy has now turned thirty-five.  Britain is stuffed with heavyweights currently. Joyce is now third among them, an enviable spot, one that is now seeing him hunted by names.

He is also wonderfully positioned for a shot at a strap, and if he can keep it right, he might even be positioned for the many millions a fight with the emergent victor from any Tyson Fury-Anthony Joshua series.

Either way, Joyce will no longer be labelled a prospect the next time we come around. He will be replaced by a new man next year.

THE PUB BOUNCER: NATHAN GORMAN

FROM: Great Britain HEIGHT: 6’3 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 250lbs AGE: 24 RECORD: 17-1 with 11 KOs

After the hurt that Joe Joyce put on him, it is forgotten that Daniel Dubois had previously won his own battle of the prospects, beating up Nathan Gorman in July of 2019.

“The Dubois fight is everything to Gorman,” I wrote in 2019. “There will be no unearned second coming should he lose, just a long and difficult slog back to where he is now followed by the real work…Gorman’s status next time we check in with him will be more dramatically affected by his next fight than every other man on this list.”

And so it was. Gorman was brave and he had certain but slight advantages that did nothing like enough to cover the distance in talent that lay between them. Cut in the second round, dropped in the third before being stopped in the fifth, he was clearly outmatched. Gorman will never be a legitimate contender to the world’s heavyweight champion.

That does not mean there isn’t money to be made and fights to be won. Gorman was back and winning late last year after a prolonged rest and goes again in March. Likeable and brave, Gorman remains on my watch list, for all that we won’t see him again on this list.

THE LITTLE GUY: OLEKSANDR USYK

FROM: Ukraine HEIGHT: 6’3 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 220lbs AGE: 34 RECORD: 18-0 with 13 KOs

Oleksander Usyk is another fighter to be removed from our heavyweight prospect list, but for different reasons; Usyk made the TBRB top ten and as such is no longer eligible. Usyk is stalking belts, not status.

I’ve followed Usyk since before the beginning of his professional career and written about him for years. During all those years I’ve been clear about one thing: he will grab himself a heavyweight strap. In truth, everything truly meaningful is tied up with Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua so while I continue to stand by my ancient prediction, it is likely to come now only in the most unsatisfactory of fashions, perhaps upgraded from some ridiculous interim alphabet belt to “full champion” when Joshua or Fury refuses to match him but rather rematches the other for tens of millions.

My other prediction – that Usyk is serious trouble for Joshua and all but chanceless against Fury – may be undone on all fronts by the passage of time. Usyk is thirty-four and like the rest of us, is getting no younger.

During the time between lists, Usyk has beaten up journeyman Chazz Witherspoon for a seventh- round stoppage and out-pointed gatekeeper Dereck Chisora in an interesting fight seen by many as his first true test at the poundage. In many ways, Usyk did it the old-fashioned way, for all that he served his “apprenticeship” as an all-time great cruiserweight. The next eighteen months will tell us whether or not he can achieve major status at heavyweight.

AT THE SCHOOL OF MANNY STEWARD: VLAD SIRENKO

FROM: Ukraine HEIGHT: 6’3.5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 243lbs AGE: 26 RECORD: 15-0 with 13 KOs

Vlad Sirenko’s most recent opponent was a 7-8-1 Ukranian named Kostiantyn Dovbyshchenko who has now lost five of the last six but who nevertheless rattled Sirenko in Kiev last December.

On the face of it, this seems a disaster, but of all the fighters on this list, Sirenko is the one most deserving of time. Aged just twenty-six and with little to speak of in terms of an amateur career, Sirenko’s 15-0 is real; as are the numbers, so is his experience.

Despite this, when Dovbyshchenko opened an irritating cut on his right brow in the fifth round, Sirenko did not panic. He stuck to a tidy-handed, neat boxing style that got him across the line over ten and gifted him something the likes of Makhmudov and Hrgovic have yet to receive: a genuine test of his temperament.

Still, the scores were not wide and although Dovbyshchenko was a little better than his paper record allows – neat, tidy and mobile, and never stopped – Sirenko’s limitations were underlined. He can hit, but his power isn’t darkening; he is organised, but he often waits his turn – he is busy but cannot counter or punch well enough to truly discourage his opponent. In short, well-schooled quality on technical punching is what won him this fight. That is honourable, but it is not what should be separating him from journeymen. If he is unable to overwhelm or at least control such limited opposition with physical advantages, heavyweight waters will likely be too deep.

Still, he speaks so well about boxing that I want to believe he can learn about boxing. Sirenko, who is not shy at sharing his opinions, predicted Joyce’s victory over Dubois with calm certainty having previously sparred with both. It is only one example, but every time I hear him speak in excellent English, I am impressed with what he has to say. Connections to Manny Steward disciple James Ali Bashir and therefore to the Oleksandr Usyk camp are other reasons to be hopeful.

As is Sirenko’s abandonment of his South African base and relocation to Germany, under the auspices of Maxim Michailew who has so far preferred him to box in his native Ukraine. He has also made Sirenko one of the busier prospects on this list and that, too, bodes well for the future.

Sirenko though remains the most interesting prospect here listed, which is another way of saying he has the most to prove.

THIS TIME NEXT YEAR

It was strange re-reading former entries in this series before writing this one. That I would be writing another a year later seemed a given and if 2020/21 has taught us anything it is that nothing should be taken for granted. None of us could imagine an event so overwhelming as to make an absence of boxing seem meaningless, but it happened.

It hurt the prospect more than any other kind of fighter; even the true journeyman will tend to have other sources of income. For an elite prospect who has devoted himself to boxing, the end of the fight game was a disaster. That said, the fight fan may prosper; it could be that a sudden and unplanned break might press some reluctant promoters, managers and boxers into action.

Hopefully we will be back in around a year to find out why.

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Joseph Parker vs. Junior Fa Has Marinated into a Kiwi Blockbuster

Arne K. Lang

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The upcoming fight between Joseph Parker and Junior Fa at a 12,000-seat arena in Auckland is well-marinated. “Momentum is slowly building,” wrote New Zealand sports journalist Liam Napier way back in September of 2016. The promoters think the revenue from pay-per-view (it’s on DAZN in other countries including the U.S. and UK) may set a new benchmark for a fight in New Zealand between domestic rivals, breaking the record set in 2009 when heavyweights David Tua and Shane Cameron clashed in Hamilton.

There was a time when Joseph Parker was looked upon as the third-best heavyweight in the world behind only Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder. Back-to-back losses to Joshua and Dillian Whyte (and the return of Tyson Fury) knocked him down several pegs.

Parker (27-2, 21 KOs) has won three straight inside the distance since the setback to Whyte, but against soft opposition, namely Alexander Flores, Alex Leapai, and Shawndell Winters. This is the same Alexander Flores that would go on to get stopped in 45 seconds by Luis Ortiz. The veteran Leapai and the mysterious Winters were both 39 years old when Parker fought them.

Junior Fa (19-0, 10 KOs) has been inactive since November of 2019 when he won a lopsided 10-round decision over Devin Vargas. That bout was in Salt Lake City where Fa had something of a homefield advantage.

Parker vs. Fa was originally slated for Dec. 11, but Fa backed out because of a health issue, a blood disorder that made him sluggish and required surgery. The particular ailment — presumably it had a name — and the type of surgery performed were never revealed to the media. (Apparently New Zealand has very stringent health privacy laws.) However, the word is that Fa is completely recovered and fully fit to go 12 hard rounds if necessary.

Junior Fa is bigger than Joseph Parker, customarily carrying about 260 pounds on his six-foot-five frame, and although he’s less experienced at the pro level, he’s the older man by 27 months. Fa delayed the start of his pro career to start a family. During the hiatus, he worked for a company that manufactured doors and windows.

This will be their fifth meeting. They locked horns four times as amateurs and the series is tied at 2-2.

That’s part of the intrigue, to see who can break the deadlock. The ethnicity factor adds relish. Parker’s ancestry is Samoan, Fa’s is Tongan.

The two Polynesian groups have a lot in common – family members of Parker and Fa are actually members of the same South Auckland LDS church – but friendly relationships evaporate on the rugby field where the two nations have an intense rivalry that in some respects mirrors the fierce rivalry between India and Pakistan in cricket.

In the United States, Samoans and Tongans are identified with the sport of football. They are over-represented in the NFL by a very wide margin. The majority are linemen, but there are notable exceptions such as quarterback Tua Tagovailoa who started nine games last year as a rookie for the Miami Dolphins.

Tagovailoa, born in Hawaii to Samoan parents, will undoubtedly be rooting for Joseph Parker. To ratchet up his interest in the fight, we would suggest a side bet with Kalani Sitaki, the Tonga-born head football coach at BYU. Tua will be required to lay odds, not merely because Parker is a solid favorite but because he makes more money (although Sitaki is due for a big raise after guiding BYU to an 11-1 season).

Truth be told, it wouldn’t surprise us if this was a rather boring fight. Neither man has a big punch. A fair guess would be that this fight takes a similar tack to last weekend’s heavyweight fight between Otto Wallin and Dominic Breazeale with Parker, the more mobile fighter, playing the Wallin role.

However, Parker’s bout with Dillian Whyte was a very chippy fight in which Parker was on the deck twice but scored a knockdown of his own in the final round. Parker vs. Fa doesn’t have to be at the level to still be a very entertaining affair. And before one dismisses Fa’s chances, we would interject this note of caution: Underdogs, in case you haven’t noticed, have been on quite a roll lately.

This fight was in jeopardy of being postponed again. The authorities threatened to push it back if Covid restrictions were not loosened. Last week, all of New Zealand with the exception of Auckland was in Phase One. Auckland remained in Phase Two which prohibited gatherings of more than 100 people. But on Tuesday of this week (Monday in the U.S.), Auckland joined the rest of the country in Phase One. Facial coverings are still required on public transportation and everyone is encouraged to practice social distancing, but other mandates have been lifted. This event will potentially draw the largest attendance of any boxing show in the Covid-19 era although that may be quickly surpassed by the turnout for Canelo-Yildirim at the home of the Miami Dolphins where attendance will be capped at 20 percent of capacity.

If you plan to watch the Parker-Fa fight, set your alarm clocks. Owing to the time difference, the DAZN telecast will go at 1:30 a.m. ET which is 10:30 p.m. on Friday night for us westerners.

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HITS and MISSES: Oscar Valdez, Adrien Broner and More 

Kelsey McCarson

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HITS and MISSES: Oscar Valdez, Adrien Broner and More

Boxing was in full swing again over the weekend, so there was plenty of action to consume via all the various television networks and streaming platforms available today in the United States.

Most notably, the sport saw undefeated star Oscar Valdez establish himself as one of the top fighters in the sport against Miguel Berchelt on ESPN.

Plus, several established veterans made their presence known again on the PBC scene in 2021 with their first fights of the year on Showtime.

Here are the latest HITS and MISSES after another busy weekend covering the sport.

HIT: Valdez’s Epic Upset and Scary KO

People often tout Mexico vs. Puerto Rico as one of the best rivalries in boxing, and it is. But there have been plenty of great throwdowns featuring Mexico vs. Mexico, and so it was again on Saturday in Las Vegas.

Valdez, 30, was a former 126-pound titleholder who was moving up to challenge current 130-pound champion Berchelt. Heading into the fight, the bookies believed Berchelt, 29, would be too big and possess too much power for Valdez to overcome. Most boxing fans thought the same.

Boy, was everyone wrong about that.

Instead, Valdez showed he was clearly a step or two above Berchelt in terms of class, and that’s huge considering that Berchelt was considered one of the top fighters in a stacked division.

Valdez’s epic upset and scary knockout vs. Berchelt stole the show this weekend. It put Valdez on the map as a legit star and will attract bigger and better fights to the undefeated Mexican in the immediate future.

MISS: AB’s Return

Beleaguered boxing star Adrien Broner returned to action in the main event of a Showtime card on Saturday, one that seemed pretty much entirely dedicated to getting Broner back into the sport.

Broner, 31, picked up his first win in four years against Jovanie Santiago by unanimous decision. That the talented American was going to be handed the win by the judges so long as he stayed upright over the 12-round fight was a given. That’s just how boxing works.

But what was also a given was that Broner would probably alienate himself from boxing fans and media almost immediately upon getting his foot back in the door. His post-fight comments were atrocious and they illustrated the biggest problem for “The Problem” himself.

Look, Broner’s life is probably better with boxing in it, but the sport is definitely better off without him. It’s probably time for the powerbrokers in the sport to recognize that.

HIT: Fluke vs. Fury Debunked

Heavyweight contender Otto Wallin was the betting favorite against Dominic Breazeale on Saturday, but there were some in the sport who still wondered whether the Swedish boxer’s near-miss against Tyson Fury in 2019 was just a fluke.

Wallin might not have the same kind of wallop in his fists as ex-heavyweight titleholder Deontay Wilder, but the southpaw’s wide array of skills were on full display against Breazeale in a way that suggests he might box the American’s ears off over 12 rounds if given the chance.

Wallin has now won two straight fights after nearly pulling the upset over Fury. The lineal champ required 47 stitches after the outing, and the fight easily could have been stopped by the ringside doctor because of all the blood. Instead, Fury rallied for the heroic win and Wallin continued his career as a potential contender.

Wallin’s stoppage win over Travis Kaufmann in 2020 and his decision victory over Breazeale on Saturday in the co-main event of the Showtime card prove beyond doubt he’s one of the better heavyweights in boxing today.

Any notion that Wallin’s performance against Fury was just a fluke has now been completely debunked.

MISS: Fast-tracked Olympian Needs to Slow Down

Talented 26-year-old Josh Kelly lost his unbeaten record to David Avanesyan on Saturday in London.

Kelly had represented Great Britain at the 2016 Summer Olympics, and his fast hands and feet were shuffled quickly up the professional ranks to the point that he was challenging EBU European welterweight champion Avanesyan in the main event at Wembley Arena in London.

Kelly got off to a hot start, but the brash 147-pounder was eventually overwhelmed by the 32-year-old EBU champ’s constant pressure.

Avanesyan is a solid fighter, but he’s not elite compared to the world level. So, where some believed Kelly might be on his way to being something more than a British-level fighter, his handlers might have to rethink that after his loss to Avanesyan.

If anything, maybe Kelly was moved too quickly up the ladder. Fans and media love pro fighters to take the biggest and best challenges available to them as fast as humanly possible but most people in those same groups quickly scatter when that kind of approach blows up in a fighter’s face.

Kelly might still have a bright future, but he’ll need to slow his march up the rankings the second time around.

HIT: The Circle of (Irish Travelers) Life 

Once upon a time, Irish Traveler and boxing phenom Andy Lee was brought over from Ireland to be promoted to the American audience as a top prospect with world title aspirations. While it probably took Lee longer than his handlers had hoped to live up to the hype, he did eventually score two dramatic upsets in a row to capture a world middleweight title in 2015.

Today, Lee is guiding Irish Traveler and boxing phenom Paddy Donovan up the ranks, and his protege looks every bit the part of being Andy Lee 2.0.

Like Lee was over a decade ago, the lanky southpaw carries with him into the ring on fight night a promotable face and name to go along with it but also the kinds of punches that make all that other stuff matter.

In his own professional fighting career, Lee had famously moved to Detroit to train under the late Emanuel Steward at the legendary Kronk gym. While Lee will forever remain attached to the gym’s storied history, the fighter was candid in his 2018 autobiography about some of the things he felt Steward and others at Kronk hadn’t taught him heading into important fights.

In fact, Lee didn’t win his title belt until he left the United States to train under Adam Booth in England.

So, the circle of life is this: Lee has the chance now to give Donovan everything he had as well as all the stuff he had to learn later the hard way.

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