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`Cold War’ in Boxing Fully Thawed? Maybe So, Maybe Not

Bernard Fernandez

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The times they are a’changing. Some would say that, in terms of professional boxing at the international level, they already have changed, and for the better.

Others would say that the “Cold War,” which existed from the end of World War II until Dec. 26, 1991, when the Soviet Union officially was voted out of existence by the Supreme Soviet, and which once placed the United States against the USSR in a constant state of mutual distrust, still has a distinct chill. It’s just that the shape of what was and what still might be has undergone alterations over the past 27 years, with the presumed good guys now barely distinguishable from the presumed bad guys.

As fighters from Russia and many of the 14 now-former Soviet republics (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Lithuania, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Belarus, Moldova, Latvia, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Estonia and Tajikistan) now routinely appear on high-visibility cards in America, one veteran U.S. boxing insider insists that some of the familiar tensions still are or should be in play. The conflict now is not necessarily the fault of the fighters from the former USSR who arrived on U.S. shores to advance their careers and quality of their lives, but far higher up, among those in positions of power who allegedly are freer to manipulate the business of the sport since the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

“We still have a Cold War, it’s just different,” said the source, who asked not to be identified. “More and more fighters from those countries are flooding into our country. F— that.

“The Russian mob basically runs boxing. I’ve never seen things more corrupt than they are now. The fact that people (in America) aren’t more up in arms is because they’re stupid.”

That is perhaps an overly harsh assessment, but there can be no denying that fighters from Russia and other Eastern Bloc nations either are or are becoming staples in U.S. arenas and on American television. This Saturday night, DAZN will stream the matchup of established superstar Gennadiy Golovkin (39-1-1, 35 KOs), a native of Kazakhstan who now resides in Los Angeles, and top contender Sergiy Derevyanchenko (13-1, 10 KOs), 31, a Ukrainian who has made himself right at home in Brooklyn, N.Y. The bout, for the vacant IBF middleweight championship, will be staged at Madison Square Garden and marks the 37-year-old Golovkin’s 15th pro ring appearance in the U.S., and ninth at MSG.  For Derevyanchenko, the fight is his 15th in the U.S. (he has never fought anywhere else) and fifth in New York City.

Two weeks later, on Oct. 18 at the Liacouras Center on the Temple University campus in Philadelphia, the main event, for the unified light heavyweight championship, pits WBC titlist Oleksandr “The Nail” Gvozdyk (17-0, 14 KOs), of Oxnard, Calif., by way of his native Ukraine, against IBF kingpin Artur Beterbiev (14-0, 14 KOs), of Montreal by way of his native Russia. ESPN and ESPN Deportes will televise that fight, as well as a matchup of former WBA welterweight champ Luis Collazzo (39-7, 20 KOs) and No. 1 IBF contender Kudratillo Abdukakhorov (16-0, 9 KOs), now a resident of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, but originally from Uzbekistan.

Elsewhere, signs of the westward migration of world-rated Eastern Europeans are no less evident. On Oct. 12, undisputed cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk (16-0, 12 KOs), who is from Ukraine and actually still lives there, makes his heavyweight debut in Chicago against Tyrone Spong (14-0, 13 KOs), of Miami by way of his native Suriname, a fight to be streamed by DAZN. In the co-featured bout, Dmitry Bivol (16-0, 11 KOs), born in Kyrgyzstan but now living in Russia, defends his WBA light heavyweight belt against the Dominican Republic’s Lenin Castillo (20-2-1, 15 KOs).

A bit further down the road, on Nov. 2 at the Las Vegas’ MGM Grand, WBO light heavyweight ruler Sergey Kovalev (34-3-1, 29 KOs), a Russian who resides in Los Angeles, puts his title on the line against Mexican national hero Canelo Alvarez (52-1-2, 35 KOs), the WBA/WBC middleweight champion who will be moving up two weight classes. That fight also will be streamed via DAZN.

What does this massive influx of fighters from Russia and former Soviet republics, the most celebrated representative of whom might be pound-for-pound lightweight Vasiliy Lomachenko, whose primary residence is in Ukraine but who lives in Oxnard when he is in America to train, mean to U.S. boxing fans? Maybe nothing when placed in an updated context, but there can be no denying the startling difference between now and the world in which American citizens lived during the last couple of generations.

In a 1983 speech by then-President Ronald Reagan, the Gipper referred to the USSR as an “evil empire” and “the focus of evil in the modern world.” Most Americans had no difficulty buying into that concept, just as most Russians were instructed to regard the U.S. as the primary threat to their peace and well-being.

As the global superpowers peered at one another across a chasm of understandable apprehension, boxing, like so many other elements of everyday life, was easily cleaved into us-vs.-them camps. Evidence of that was provided during an Oct. 2, 1990, fight card at Philadelphia’s Blue Horizon, where three Soviets – the first pros from the USSR to be brought here to ply their pugilistic trade – were greeted by a near-record venue turnout of Americans who frequently erupted into chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” and treated the visitors as they might any invaders from an enemy regime whose mere presence tapped into their darkest fears.

“He wants so much to be liked that when he hears that `U-S-A, U-S-A’ stuff, he feels like a villain,” Tommy Gallagher, the New York-based trainer of the three Soviets, said of heavyweight Yuri Vaulin, who came away with an eight-round split decision over Philly journeyman William Morris. “He has to learn to deal with that b.s. and to block it out of his mind.”

The Soviets could have been warned beforehand that they were about to be treated by Philly’s notoriously inhospitable sports fans as might members of any visiting pro team from New York City or, even worse, the despised Dallas Cowboys. But old, ingrained habits are hard to break, and especially so for Americans caught up in nationalistic fervor fueled by such movies as Red Dawn (1984) and Rocky IV (1985).

A little more than 14 months after the Soviet trio came to regard the Blue Horizon as their personal house of horrors, the USSR dissolved and U.S. citizens were advised to begin learning the meaning of such Russian words as glasnost (“openness” in the loosening of government restrictions) and perestroika (a reference to the program of economic and political reform initiated by former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbavhev).

And now?

Golovkin should be box-office gold this weekend given his legendary punching power and the fact he appears at the Garden almost as often as the Knicks, Rangers and Billy Joel. But while that might explain why his faceoff with Derevyanchenko is costing a reported $20 million to stage, the unidentified source said it doesn’t explain why “they’ve only sold 3,000 tickets,” a figure I have not been able to verify or disprove.

Nor is the highly attractive unification pairing – on paper, at least — of Gvozdyk and Beterbiev selling like TastyKakes on North Broad Street in Philly, just a few blocks from where the Blue Horizon, now shuttered, catered to some of America’s loudest, most passionate fight fans, not to mention the most hostile to visitors who once bore the mark of the Red Peril. Oh, sure, Gvozdyk and Beterbiev will square off before screaming, flag-waving partisans of their or their forebears’ birth countries, but the locals mostly seem to be unaware of how potentially entertaining and competitive the main event should be.

“There are almost no tickets being sold in Philadelphia for those two guys,” the source said. “I can’t spell the name of either one. If one of them bumped into me in the street, I wouldn’t know who he is. They don’t connect at all with the American public. I don’t know their stories. I don’t know where they’re from. And I don’t give a f— about them.”

Just a thought, but it could just be that the homogenized nature of boxing in the 21st century has gradually tamped down interest in the U.S., pro or con, for fighters from foreign nations, including those countries whose representatives Americans once loved to hate. Does anyone think the “Miracle on Ice,” in which a hockey team of American college kids shocked a veteran Soviet squad in the semifinals of the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics, would have meant so much had not the red-clad favorites also been cloaked in foreboding mystique? How much different can “they” be from “us” when a Russian billionaire – talk about a strange form of communism – currently owns the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center?

“Alex’s fans are still mostly Ukrainians, which I think also is the case with Lomachenko and Usyk,” said Teddy Atlas, who will be in Gvozdyk’s corner for the third time on Oct. 18. “But more people are beginning to recognize him here. Fighting on ESPN can only increase (his visibility in America).

“Look, we don’t have the Cold War anymore. We don’t have communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union anymore. There is no Soviet Union anymore. People from those countries have freedom. It’s different when you have freedom. We’re all the same now. There’s no separation.”

Freedom to choose is always good, be it in boxing or anything else. Lack of separation, though, can pose problems for those who find it necessary to pick a side or a fighter to root for, or against.

Pictured: Ukrainian stablemates Usyk, Lomachenko, and Gvozdyk

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Carlos Morales and Mercito Gesta Fight to a Technical Draw in L.A.

David A. Avila

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LOS ANGELES-Two of L.A.’s most popular prizefighters collided with Mercito “No Mercy” Gesta and Carlos “The Solution” Morales matching wits and crowds before an accidental clash of heads ended the lightweight fight in a technical draw on Thursday night.

It was fun while it lasted.

Gesta (32-3-3, 17 KOs) and Morales (19-4-4, 8 KOs) tested each other before a sold out crowd at Belasco Theater. Both combatants brought their small armies of supporters to the downtown entertainment venue. It was colorful and it was loud.

Behind a small coterie of fans carrying blue, white and red flags, Gesta walked into the boxing ring with a well-known resume that includes two world title challenges. Morales walked with banda music playing loudly as he trotted into confidently to meet the classy Filipino fighter. The crowd was anxious.

Both fighters found it tough to connect against each other. Their defense was tight and their punches tighter. But soon Morales began finding the range and began shooting rights to the body and head.

Gesta, 32, a southpaw who moves smoothly on his toes, needed a little time before he began finding the range with body shots and shorter punches. In the third round, as the fight was heating up, a clash of heads occurred during an exchange of blows. Morales emerged with a small cut above his left eye. It would not go away.

For three more tense rounds the two popular fighters tested each other’s defense and neither could surge ahead to any definitive advantage. At the end of the sixth round the ringside physician looked at Morales and ruled he could not continue. According to California State Athletic Commission rules the fight was stopped because of an accidental cut and would go to the scorecards.

“The ref said the cut was too deep. I had trouble seeing out of my left eye. The medicine kept getting in my eye, and I kept trying to get it out,” said Morales, 29.

One judge saw Morales winning 58-56, but two others saw it 57-57 to make it a technical majority draw.

“I wanted to keep going, and I know he wanted to keep going,” said Gesta. “But that’s the way it is. This is boxing, and it happens. We can definitely do this again if the fans want it.”

Other Bouts 

Puerto Rico’s Jonathan Oquendo (31-6, 19 KOs) shut out Charles Huerta (21-7, 12 KOs) a local fighter by winning every round in their 10 round super featherweight showdown fought mainly in the trenches.

After a close opening round that saw Oquendo barge in and hold, Huerta seemed to be unable to match the Puerto Rican fighter’s energy. He was always a step behind in every round as Oquendo barreled his way inside and simply out-hustled Huerta. It was a surprising display for the local fighter from Paramount who has a large fan base.

All three judges correctly scored it the same 100-90 for Oquendo.

“I knew he was the kind of fighter who likes to trade and I think I used that to my advantage,” said Oquendo.

Texas super welterweight Travell Mazion (16-0, 12 KOs) won a hard fought 10 round bruising battle by unanimous decision over Mexico City’s Diego Cruz (19-8-2, 15 KOs). Both landed crushing blows against each other from the opening bell but it was the taller Mazion who was able to use his skills and size to his advantage. Surprisingly there were no knockdowns despite crushing blows from Cruz left hooks and Mazion right hand scud missiles.

Cruz had never been knocked out and though Mazion clobbered him with some bombs he also took a few himself to show he also has a pretty good chin. After 10 rounds one judge saw it 98-91 and two others 99-90 all for Mazion. Both hugged it out after the war.

“He was really tough. I knew he was going to come in with some hell of a shots, and he did, but I knew I was going to come up top,” said Mazion who fights out of Austin.

A battle between southpaws saw Evan Sanchez (6-0, 5 KOs) blast out Mexico’s Hector Hernandez (2-2, 1 KO) in a mere 23 seconds of their welterweight clash. If you blinked it was over as California’s Sanchez and Hernandez immediately exchanged and the undefeated lefty landed a crisp right hook and left cross combination that delivered Durango’s Hernandez to the floor. Though he beat the count, referee Raul Caiz saw that Hernandez was unsteady on his feet and stopped the contest giving Sanchez the win by knockout.

Undefeated lightweight Oscar Acevedo (6-0), a southpaw, had a little trouble with Darel Harris (3-18-1) but was able to pull out the win by landing the stronger punches. Harris gave problems with his skittish movements but only landed touch punches and seldom connected with any power. It works in the amateurs but not in the pros with judges that are looking for punches with force. After four rounds one judge scored it 39-37 and the other two 40-36 all for Acevedo who hails from Kansas.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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New Zealand Heavyweights Fa and Ahio Have a Home Field Advantage in Utah

Arne K. Lang

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Go West, young man,” said Andrew Greeley, a New Hampshire man by birth best remembered as the founder and publisher of the New York Tribune. Boxing promoter Lou DiBella, a hard-shell New Yorker, is the latest to heed Greeley’s famous admonition. This Friday, Nov. 15, DiBella is anchoring his long-running Broadway Boxing series in Salt Lake City.

With heavyweights Junior Fa and Hemi Ahio appearing in the main bouts, the Utah city was a natural destination. Fa (18-0, 10 KOs) and Ahio (15-0, 10 KOs) are New Zealanders, but their family roots are in the kingdom of Tonga.

Approximately one in every four Tongan-Americans resides in Utah. There are more than 9,000 Tongans in Salt Lake County, roughly a third of whom reside in Salt Lake City proper.

The presence of a large body of Tongans in Utah is a residue of the work of Mormon missionaries in Polynesia in the late 19th century. The population of Tonga is now about 60 percent Mormon. As a percentage of the population, Tonga ranks #1 in Mormons (more formally members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). Regional rival Samoa is #2.

It figured that when land became hard to acquire in Tonga, an agricultural nation, many emigrants would choose to settle in Utah where they knew they would be welcome.

In Utah, Tongan and Samoan males are noted for their prowess on the football field. The best high school players in the Beehive State are disproportionately Polynesian, and overwhelmingly Polynesian in the offensive and defensive lines. There’s now a fierce tug-of-war for their services between Utah’s two major universities and out-of-state schools, particularly schools in Washington, Oregon, and California. The head football coach at BYU, Kalani Sitake, was born in Tonga, but even he has had limited success in slaking the scattering of standout Polynesian players to out-of-state schools.

Tonga is a small country, so it’s no surprise that few Tongans have made their mark in professional boxing. Paea Wolfgramm was an Olympic silver medalist whose pro career never did gain traction. He retired with a pro record of 20-4 after getting stopped by Corrie Sanders. Samson Po’uha, who fought out of St. George, Utah, was a great prospect who lacked the discipline to maximize his potential. He was stopped by journeymen Jesse Ferguson and Craig Payne and by Andrew Golota.

As weird as it sounds, if Junior Fa and Hemi Ahio are looking for a former boxer to serve as a role model, we would suggest Vai Sikahema. Yes, the same Vai Sikahema who set NCAA records for punt returns at BYU, was a great special teams player in the NFL and, in retirement, settled into a nice career as a TV personality in Philadelphia.

Sikahema, who was born in Tonga, boxed in the amateurs. In 2008, 15 years after he left the NFL, Sikahema was matched against former baseball star Jose Canseco in a celebrity fight in Atlantic City. Sikahema gave away seven inches in height and 40 pounds, but he blew right through Canseco, knocking him down twice before the bout was stopped in the very first round.

Of the two Kiwi heavyweights on DiBella’s Salt Lake City show, Junior Fa is the most advanced. As an amateur, Fa, now 30 years old, split four fights with fellow New Zealander Joseph Parker who went on to win the WBO version of the world heavyweight title. He twice represented Tonga in the Commonwealth Games and had eight bouts in the semi-pro World Series of Boxing where he defeated highly touted Arslanbek Makhmudov and lost a 5-round decision to Oleksandr Usyk.

In his last two starts, Fa knocked out Neufel Ouatah, a hapless Frenchman, in the opening round and was extended the full 10 by ancient Dominic Guinn. For the Guinn fight, he carried 259 ½ pounds on his six-foot-five frame.

On Friday, Fa is matched against Toledo’s Devin Vargas, a former U.S. Olympian. As a pro, Vargas’s career was moving along smoothly until he was stopped in the sixth round by Kevin Johnson. By all appearances, Vargas then lost his passion for boxing. Fighting sporadically, he’s 4-4 since then with all four losses coming inside the distance. But in his last fight in August in Massachusetts, Vargas stopped house fighter Niall Kennedy so perhaps his enthusiasm for boxing has been re-kindled.

Hemi Ahio, 29, kas fought once previously in the United States, stopping unnoteworthy Ed Fountain on a DiBella show in Columbus, Ohio. His last start was in Saudi Arabia where he knocked out an undefeated (7-0) fighter from Germany who had previously fought only cadavers.

Short for a modern era heavyweight at 6’0”, Hemi’s torso coupled with his aggressive style of fighting has led some to anoint him the Tongan Tyson. He’s matched against fluffy Joshua Tufte (19-3, 9 KOs) who hails from Kernersville, North Carolina, and probably would have no stronger chance of winning if the fight were being held in Kernersville.

The Nov. 15 edition of Broadway Boxing will be live streamed on UFC Fight Pass starting at 8 pm PST/11 pm EST. Topping the undercard is a 10-round welterweight contest between Brooklyn-based-Ukrainian Ivan Golub (17-1, 13 KOs) and Columbia’s Janer Gonzalez (19-2-1, 15 KOs).

There’s something intrinsically magnetic about an undefeated heavyweight who may have a big upside, even if he’s being thrust against an opponent with scant chance of causing a derailment. On Friday we get two for the money and considering the venue, it’s a safe bet that both will bring their “A” game.

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Avila Perspective, Chap 73: Gesta vs Morales, Celebrity Boxing, Liston and More

David A. Avila

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One of the rewards for journalists following smaller boxing cards is watching new talent emerge. Every so often you spot the gold nuggets among the heap.

Some fighters stand out immediately before even stepping in the prize ring. Others walk in hesitantly with dirty towels wrapped around their shoulders.

On Thursday, Carlos “The Solution” Morales (19-4-3, 8 KOs) and Mercito “No Mercy” Gesta (32-3-2, 17 KOs), who arrived on the hard road of boxing, meet in a lightweight match set for 10 rounds at Belasco Theater in downtown L.A. DAZN will stream live.

Two classier guys you will never meet than Gesta and Morales.

Gesta, a southpaw from Cebu, Philippines, arrived in 2007 and immediately found work on casino fight cards in Arizona, California and Nevada. His athleticism was obvious and he raced through competition till he met Mexico’s Miguel Vazquez for the IBF lightweight world title.

In that first loss, fans learned what Gesta was all about. He was gracious in defeat and fans loved his character. From that point on more people wanted to see the Filipino lefty perform. After Top Rank let him go, Golden Boy Promotions picked up his contract and he became a staple on the Southern California fight scene.

Win or lose, fans adore Gesta who was trained by Freddie Roach at the Wild Card Boxing club in Hollywood but now works with Marvin Sonorio. A decision loss to WBA lightweight titlist Jorge Linares at the Inglewood Forum did nothing to diminish Gesta’s fan base.

“I need challenges and I like challenges,” said Gesta during an interview with Beto Duran on Golden Boy’s Ring Side show. “I still feel great and still feel in the game.”

How could you not like a fighter like Gesta?

On the opposite corner at Belasco Theater will be “The Solution” Morales.

When Morales first entered the professional fight scene he stumbled a bit with a loss then three consecutive draws. I saw all four fights in person. The Mexican-born fighter needed about two years to figure out what worked for him.

He’s found it.

Morales, a gym rat if I ever saw one, purchased his own gym in the Alhambra area. He’s a family man, worker and businessman all rolled into one. The Mexican fighter needed time to discover his assets in the ring and use them in a productive manner.

Though he’s lost three of his last six fights they all came against top competition such as world champion Alberto Machado, ranked contender Rene Alvarado and current star Ryan Garcia. In each and every one of those fights Morales was up to his neck in battle.

“I definitely need a win over a name like Mercito Gesta,” said Morales. “He’s been in the game a long time.”

In local gyms he spars with many of the best and on occasion they understand what “the Solution” is all about.

“He is very, very good,” said one visiting Japanese fighter who witnessed Morales knock out a sparring partner in one particular session. “A very professional style.”

Both Gesta and Morales represent the side of Los Angeles most fans don’t get to see. Once upon a time, matchups like these were common in the L.A. area. Golden Boy Promotions has been slowly building up these local fighters and if you have paid attention you know this will be a firecracker of a show.

This is a 1930s kind of match you used to see at the old Olympic Auditorium or Hollywood Legion Stadium when guys like Speedy Dado, Baby Arizmendi, Chalky Wright and Newsboy Brown would fight each other and fill the arena. Dado would bring the Filipino crowd, Arizmendi the Mexican crowd, Wright the African- American fans, Newsboy Brown the Jewish fans and so on.

Gesta versus Morales has that 1930s flavor. If you close your eyes you might expect a ghost or two from boxing’s past to be in attendance at Belasco Theater. It’s an old venue where famous bandleaders like Duke Ellington once played. It’s got a lot of history and this fight was tailor-made for the old stylish building.

Celebrity Boxing

Nowadays celebrities come from different directions.

Last week, celebrities who gained fame via social media avenues like YouTube.com, Twitter and Instagram, arrived at the Staples Center in Los Angeles with hands wrapped, gloves on and a license to box professionally.

Their names were not familiar to regular boxing fans, but to millions of youngsters and young adults who do not normally follow boxing, these guys named Logan Paul, KSI and Joshua Brueckner were super stars.

It was a massive hit according to DAZN and Matchroom Boxing, the promoters.

I walked around the arena to take a look at the people arriving to see the boxing card. What I saw were moms and their sons and daughters, groups of girls in their early teens, and pale boys who normally don’t see much sun because they’re usually planted behind a computer playing video games. They all had a blast.

Most of these fans had never seen live boxing and got their first glimpse of prizefighting at a high level when Ronny Rios defended his WBA Gold super bantamweight title against Colombia’s Hugo Berrio. The Santa Ana fighter Rios came out firing thudding body shots that echoed in the arena. You could hear the responses from the new fans who openly expressed their amazement with a roar of applause at the display of power.

It’s one thing to see a fight but a whole new thing to hear power shots bouncing off another human being. Rios pummeled Berrio up and down and eventually knocked out the Colombian with a three-punch combination in the fourth round. Fans were awestruck.

You never forget your first live prizefight. It burns in your memory forever. All of these new fans will never forget watching a live boxing card.

Watching the responses of the new kind of crowd was an experience in itself. Many of these fans will return for more. Their excitement was pure and untainted.

Showtime

A feature documentary visiting the life of Sonny Liston called “Pariah: The Lives and Deaths of Sonny Liston” makes its debut on Friday Nov. 15 on Showtime at 9 p.m. (PT).

Liston was one of the most mysterious and feared heavyweight champions of all time. Read the story by Bernard Fernandez to get a preview of what to expect from the documentary. It’s riveting stuff: https://tss.ib.tv/boxing/featured-boxing-articles-boxing-news-videos-rankings-and-results/61445-from-womb-to-tomb-the-fate-of-sonny-liston-was-seemingly-preordained

Though Liston died 49 years ago in December 1970, he’s still discussed by boxing people especially in Las Vegas where he lived and died.

Fights to Watch (all times Pacific Coast time)

Thurs. DAZN 7 p.m. Mercito Gesta (32-3-2) vs Carlos Morales (19-4-3).

Fri. ESPN+ 12 p.m. Rocky Fielding (27-2) vs Abdallah Paziwapazi (26-6-1).

Fri. Showtime 7:30 p.m. Erik Ortiz (16-0) vs Alberto Palmetta (12-1).

Sat. ESPN+ 12 p.m. Lee McGregor (7-0) vs Kash Farooq (13-0).

Photo credit: Kyte Monroe

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