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Sergiy Derevyanchenko and the Harsh Reality of Boxing

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When Oscar De La Hoya was nearing the end of his storied ring career, he offered a stark assessment of the risks inherent in the trade he had chosen.

“I hate getting hit,” De La Hoya said. “Getting hit hurts. It damages you. When a fighter trains his body and mind to fight, there’s no room for fear. But I’m realistic enough to understand that there’s no way to know what the effect of getting hit will be ten or fifteen years from now.”

Boxers are not like ordinary people. They court danger and have a tolerance for pain that most of us think we can imagine but can’t. That harsh reality was on display when Gennady Golovkin and Sergiy Derevyanchenko met in the ring at Madison Square Garden on October 5 in a fight that will be long remembered as a showcase for the brutal artistry of boxing.

Derevyanchenko, age 33, was born in Ukraine and now lives in Brooklyn. He had roughly four hundred amateur fights in the Ukrainian amateur system which gave him a wealth of experience but also put considerable wear and tear on his body. He turned pro in 2014 and, prior to facing Golovkin, had a record of 13 wins against 1 loss with 10 knockouts. The loss came in his one outing against a world-class opponent – a 115-112, 115-112, 113-114 split-decision defeat at the hands of Danny Jacobs at Madison Square Garden last year.

Derevyanchenko is soft-spoken with a brush haircut, often impassive face, and eyes that can be hard. He understands some English but prefers to have questions translated into Russian and answer in his native language.

“I don’t like to talk about myself,” Derevyanchenko says. “I’m a private person. The attention that comes with boxing is a double-edged sword. For the money it helps me make, the attention is good. But the loss of privacy sometimes, especially when I am out with my family, it is not so good.”

Golovkin, age 37, is well known to boxing fans. Born in Kazakhstan, now living in Los Angeles, he brutalized a succession of pretty good fighters like Matthew Macklin and David Lemieux en route to becoming the best middleweight in the world. But thirty months ago, Gennady struggled to win a narrow decision on points over Danny Jacobs at Madison Square Garden. Thereafter, he’d had four fights: gimme knockouts of Vanes Martirosyan and Steve Rolls and two outings against Canelo Alvarez. The first Golovkin-Canelo fight (which most observers thought Gennady won) was declared a draw. The second ended with a credible 115-113, 115-113, 114-114 decision in Canelo’s favor, the first loss of Golovkin’s ring career.

Golovkin-Derevyanchenko crystalized how bizarre the business of boxing has become in recent years.

Last year, the IBF stripped Golovkin of its 160-pound belt for not fighting a mandatory defense against Derevyanchenko. Then Jacobs beat Derevyanchenko for the vacant IBF title but lost to Canelo Alvarez in his next outing. Thereafter, the IBF stripped Canelo for not fighting a mandatory defense against Derevyanchenko despite the fact that Sergiy’s only win after losing to Jacobs was a decision over lightly-regarded Jack Culcay. Thus, Golovkin was fighting Derevyanchenko for the same belt he was stripped of for not fighting Sergiy last year.

If that sounds strange, the money being thrown around was stranger.

Traditionally, a fighter had to win one or more big fights before getting a seven-figure purse. But DAZN, ESPN, Fox, and Showtime are locked in a bidding war that has led to huge license fees that often bear no correlation to revenue generated for a network by its fighters.

DAZN (which has a multi-fight deal with Golovkin) wanted Golovkin-Derevyanchenko as the launching pad for the final quarter of its 2019 season. The network was already locked into a deal that would pay Gennady a reported purse of $7,500,000 in cash plus $7,500,000 in stock in DAZN’s parent company to fight on October 5. DAZN then leaned on promoter Eddie Hearn to contribute significantly to Derevyanchenko’s purse to bring Sergiy into the fold.

Thus it was that Derevyanchenko (a largely unknown fighter with thirteen pro victories on his resume and who had never beaten a world-class fighter) was rewarded with a purse totalling $5,200,000 to fight Golovkin. Training expenses, manager Keith Connally’s share, taxes, and whatever PBC took (Derevyanchenko is a PBC fighter) came out of that total. Still, very few fighters in history have had a payday approaching that number. A marketable belt was at stake, but the fight wasn’t even for “the” middleweight championship of the world (a title that presently resides with Canelo).

“I like the sport,” Sergiy said when asked about boxing three days before fighting Golovkin. “I like the business. The business is crazy now.”

It certainly is. And adding to the drama, there was no rematch clause. Win or lose, Derevyanchenko would be contractually free to fight any opponent on any network after fighting Golovkin.

There was no trash-talking by either side during the build-up to the fight. The only sour note came at a sitdown with reporters just prior to the final pre-fight press conference when Golovkin was asked one question too many about a possible third fight against Alvarez.

“All these questions about Canelo,” Gennady answered. “It’s your problem, not mine.”

Golovkin was a 4-to-1 betting favorite over Derevyanchenko. He and Sergiy had each fought on even terms against Jacobs. But styles make fights. And the feeling was that, while Gennady and Sergiy had similar styles, Golovkin did everything a little bit better. He hit harder, took a better punch, was a shade faster, and so on down the line. ESPN asked eleven of its boxing reporters to predict the outcome of the fight. Ten thought that Golovkin would win by knockout. The eleventh chose Gennady by decision.

But while few insiders predicted that Derevyanchenko would win, no one was counting him out.

The question most often asked when the outcome of the fight was discussed was whether Golovkin had slipped with age. And if so, how far? Also, Derevyanchenko was in the best condition of his life, having spent six weeks in California preparing for the bout at Victor Conte’s SNAC conditioning facility.

This was Sergiy’s chance to prove that he belonged at the table with boxing’s top-echelon middleweights.

“Gennady has been a great champion but his time is coming to an end,” Derevyanchenko prophesied. “I want to be the one who makes it come to an end.”

Wearing a black Nike track suit with white trim, Derevyanchenko arrived in his dressing room at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night at 8:20 PM.

The room was roughly thirty feet long and twenty feet wide with a linoleum floor styled to look like hardwood planks. Ten folding cushioned metal-frame chairs were set against the walls. A two-seat, green imitation-leather sofa fronted a large flat-screen television mounted on the wall opposite the door. A college football game – Oregon vs. California – was underway.

Some fighters – Manny Pacquiao for one – like lots of action in their dressing room. Ricky Hatton’s dressing room was a mad cacophony of music and dancing from the moment he entered until he left for the ring.

Derevyanchenko prefers calm and no distractions. For the next two hours, he was remarkably quiet and self-contained. Except for manager Keith Connolly, no one would even look at a cell phone. From the moment Sergiy entered the room until he walked to the ring, everything was businesslike and low-key.

After leaving the room briefly for a pre-fight physical, Derevyanchenko returned, sat on a folding metal chair with his hands clasped behind his head, and stretched out his legs. Then he moved to the sofa and adopted a similar position.

A handful of people came and went – Sergiy’s wife, Iryna, Pat Connolly (Keith’s father), PBC representative Sam Watson.

Co-trainers Andre Rozier and Gary Stark, Sergiy Konchynsky (a friend of Derevyanchenko’s since childhood), and cutman Mike Bazzel were a constant presence. Unlike Jacobs-Derevyanchenko, when Rozier (who trained both men) worked Danny’s corner, Sergiy’s team was now unified.

At nine o’clock, Sergiy rose from the sofa, walked over to a shrink-wrapped package that contained 24 bottles of Aquafina, opened a bottle, and took a sip. Then he began changing into his boxing gear, folding his street clothes neatly before putting them aside.

At 9:05, referee Harvey Dock came in and gave Sergiy his pre-fight instructions: “There is no three-knockdown rule . . . If your mouthpiece comes out . . . If you score a knockdown . . .”

When Dock was done, Keith Connolly raised the issue of Golovkin hitting opponents on the back of the head and asked the referee to affirm that he would take strict action in the event of a foul. Dock promised to enforce the rules. Connally repeated his point and got the same answer the second time around.

At 9:15, Stitch Duran (Golovkin’s cutman) came in to watch Stark wrap Sergiy’s hands.

Rozier fiddled with the TV remote until the DAZN undercard appeared on the screen.

At 9:34, the wrapping was done.

Sergiy began stretching on his own.

Connolly handed him a smart phone. Al Haymon was calling to wish Sergiy well. The conversation was short, a ten-second best wishes for the fight.

Sergiy put a white towel on the floor and continued stretching. When that was done, he stood up and Stark led him through more stretching exercises.

Konchynsky approached Maggie Lange (the lead New York State Athletic Commission inspector in the room) and showed her a silver cannister labeled “Boost Oxygen.”

“Is it all right if we use this?”

“What is it?” Lange countered.

“Oxygen.”

“I don’t know,” Lange said. “Let’s go for a ruling.”

Konchynsky and the inspector left the room to consult with the powers that be.

Derevyanchenko began shadow boxing.

“It’s your night, bro,” Rozier told him.

Konchynsky and Lange returned. The powers that be had said “no” to Boost Oxygen.

Stark gloved Derevyanchenko up.

Sergiy pounded his gloves together and hit the pads with the trainer.

Mike Bazzel greased him down.

Rozier led the group in a brief prayer.

Golovkin’s image appeared on the TV monitor. If he and Sergiy weren’t about to fight each other, one could imagine them sitting side-by-side in someone’s living room watching the fight together on television. By virtue of their origins and trade, they had more in common than most people in the arena.

Sergiy shadow boxed a bit more, then paced back and forth, deep in thought. He had followed these rituals many times before. But the stakes had never been this high. Glory and a possible eight-figure payday for his next fight if he won. And the very real possibility that he would be physically damaged before the night was done. This wasn’t a movie about life. It was the real thing. More than anyone else, fighters know what’s at stake every time they enter the ring.

*

Even “name” fighters have been struggling at the gate lately in the United States. Golovkin was no exception. In the days leading up to the fight, a large number of tickets had been given away by the promotion. Even so, the announced attendance of 12,577 was far short of capacity.

Golovkin had fought in the main arena at Madison Square Garden on four previous occasions and twice in MSG’s smaller Hulu Theater. He was the crowd favorite.

Both men started cautiously. Then, two minutes into round one, Derevyanchenko ducked low as Golovkin threw a right hand. The punch landed just behind the top of Sergiy’s head and put him down.

“He hit me in the back of the head,” Derevyenchenko said later. “I didn’t see the punch, but it didn’t really affect me that much. I got up and I wasn’t really hurt, so it was nothing too bad.”

But the round had been up for grabs until that point. Now it was a two-point round for Golovkin. And the next stanza brought something very bad for Sergiy. A left hook landed cleanly and opened an ugly gash on his right eyelid.

Referee Harvey Dock mistakenly ruled that the cut had been caused by an accidental head butt. And because the New York State Athletic Commission doesn’t allow for instant video review, that ruling stood although it’s unclear what information was transmitted to the fighters’ corners.

Be that as it may, Derevyanchenko was now at a distinct disadvantage. Cutman Mike Bazzel swabbed adrenaline into the cut and applied pressure after every round. But he was never able to completely stop the flow of blood. The dripping was a distraction. And as the bout progressed, Sergiy had increasing difficulty seeing Golovkin’s punches coming.

“The cut really changed the fight,” Sergiy said afterward. “I couldn’t see at times. And he was targeting the eye.”

Now Derevyanchenko was in a hole. But a fighter can’t let his mind wander to what happened the round before or several punches ago. He has to stay in the moment.

Sergiy’s response to adversity was to fight more aggressively. “When I started moving [in the first two rounds],” he explained later, “I felt like I was giving him room and I was getting hit with those shots that he threw. That’s why I started taking the fight to him and getting closer and not giving him room to maneuver.”

The strategy worked. Golovkin appeared to have the heavier hands. But Derevyanchenko began winning the war in the trenches. Several body shots hurt Gennady. He seemed to be tiring and losing his edge. One had the feeling that, if Sergiy’s eye held up and he was able to take the fight into the late rounds, an upset was possible. Golovkin had a look about him that said,  “Either I’m getting old or you’re good.”

Brutal warfare followed. Choose your metaphor. Two men walking through fire. A dogfight between pitbulls.

The crowd roared through it all.

Neither man shied away from confrontations. In round eleven, Sergiy’s left eyelid (the one that hadn’t been cut) noticeably puffed up. It round twelve, it looked like a balloon. Both men dug as deep as it was possible to dig. And then some.

Most ringside observers thought Derevyanchenko won the fight by a narrow margin. But before the decision of the judges was announced, DAZN blow-by-blow commentator Brian Kenny observed, “You come into the fight with a certain mindset. Golovkin is the favorite. You expect him to do better.”

That mindset was reflected in the judges verdict: Frank Lombardi 115-112, Eric Marlinski 115-112, Kevin Morgan 114-113 – all for Golovkin. The crowd booed when the decision was announced. They weren’t booing Gennady, who had fought as heroically as Sergiy. They were booing the decision. A draw would have been equitable. One point in favor of Golovkin was within the realm of reason. 115-112 (7 rounds to 5 for Gennady) was bad judging.

Golovkin himself seemed to acknowledge the iffy nature of the decision when he said in the ring after the fight, “I want to say thank you so much to my opponent. He’s a very tough guy. This is huge experience for me. This was a tough fight. I need to still get stronger in my camp. I need a little bit more focus. Right now, it’s bad day for me. It’s a huge day for Sergiy. Sergiy was ready. He showed me such a big heart. I told him, ‘Sergiy, this is best fight for me.'”

That thought was echoed by Johnathon Banks (Golovkin’s trainer), who later acknowledged, “I don’t remember the exact scores, but I thought the fight was a lot closer than that.”

After the fight, the skin around Derevyanchenko’s eyes was swollen to the point where each eye was almost shut. His right eyelid was purple, bulging, and sliced open. There was a huge pocket of blood beneath his left eyelid.

Neither fighter attended the post-fight press conference. Sergey Konchynsky came into Derevyanchenko’s dressing room, packed Sergiy’s civilian clothes in a gym bag, and left. Then he went with Derevyanchenko to Bellevue Hospital where they were joined by Golovkin who was brought in as a precautionary measure.

“It took forever at the hospital,” Keith Connolly recalls. “Sergiy and Gennady might have been the only patients there who weren’t handcuffed to a gurney.”

Derevyanchenko was stitched up and released from the hospital around 5:00 AM. Then he, Iryna, Konchynsky, and Connolly went to the Tick-Tock Diner on 34th Street where Sergiy ate blueberry pancakes before going back to his hotel to sleep.

The middleweight division has some quality fighters. Derevyanchenko can now be counted among them. The way he fought against Golovkin on Saturday night raised his profile. Big-money bouts that might be available to him in the near future include a rematch against Gennady or an even more lucrative outing against Canelo Alvarez on Cinco de Mayo weekend in 2020. Alternatively, Al Haymon might come to manager Keith Connolly with an offer for Sergiy to fight WBC 160-pound beltholder Jermall Charlo.

But for now, let’s celebrate the courage and fortitude that Sergiy Derevyanchenko and Gennady Golovkin showed in the ring while battling against one another. And remember: Fighters are damaged every time they step into the ring. Fights like this take a heavy toll on both fighters. And sometimes the winner is damaged more than the loser.

PHOTO (c): Wojtek Urbanek

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – A Dangerous Journey; Another Year Inside Boxing – is being published this autumn 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.

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel  

To comment on this story in The Fight Forum CLICK HERE

Thomas Hauser is the author of 52 books. In 2005, he was honored by the Boxing Writers Association of America, which bestowed the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism upon him. He was the first Internet writer ever to receive that award. In 2019, Hauser was chosen for boxing's highest honor: induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Lennox Lewis has observed, “A hundred years from now, if people want to learn about boxing in this era, they’ll read Thomas Hauser.”

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Anderson Cruises by Vapid Merhy and Ajagba edges Vianello in Texas

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Jared Anderson returned to the ring tonight on a Top Rank card in Corpus Christi, Texas. Touted as the next big thing in the heavyweight division, Anderson (17-0, 15 KOs) hardly broke a sweat while cruising past Ryad Merhy in a bout with very little action, much to the disgruntlement of the crowd which started booing as early as the second round. The fault was all Merhy as he was reluctant to let his hands go. Somehow, he won a round on the scorecard of judge David Sutherland who likely fell asleep for a round for which he could be forgiven.

Merhy, born in the Ivory Coast but a resident of Brussels, Belgium, was 32-2 (26 KOs) heading in after fighting most of his career as a cruiserweight. He gave up six inches in height to Anderson who was content to peck away when it became obvious to him that little would be coming back his way.

Anderson may face a more daunting adversary on Monday when he has a court date in Romulus, Michigan, to answer charges related to an incident in February where he drove his Dodge Challenger at a high rate speed, baiting the police into a merry chase. (Weirdly, Anderson entered the ring tonight wearing the sort of helmet that one associates with a race car driver.)

Co-Feature

In the co-feature, a battle between six-foot-six former Olympians, Italy’s Guido Vianello started and finished strong, but Efe Ajagba had the best of it in the middle rounds and prevailed on a split decision. Two of the judges favored Ajagba by 96-94 scores with the dissenter favoring the Italian from Rome by the same margin.

Vianello had the best round of the fight. He staggered Ajagba with a combination in round two. At the end of the round, a befuddled Ajagba returned to the wrong corner and it appeared that an upset was brewing. But the Nigerian, who trains in Las Vegas under Kay Koroma, got back into the fight with a more varied offensive attack and better head movement. In winning, he improved his ledger to 20-1 (14). Vianello, who sparred extensively with Daniel Dubois in London in preparation for this fight, declined to 12-2-1 in what was likely his final outing under the Top Rank banner.

Other Bouts of Note

In the opening bout on the main ESPN platform, 35-year-old super featherweight Robson Conceicao, a gold medalist for Brazil in the 2016 Rio Olympics, stepped down in class after fighting Emanuel Navarrete tooth-and-nail to a draw in his previous bout and scored a seventh-round stoppage of Jose Ivan Guardado who was a cooked goose after slumping to the canvas after taking a wicked shot to the liver. Guardado made it to his feet, but the end was imminent and the referee waived it off at the 2:27 mark.

Conceicao improved to 18-1 (9 KOs). It was the U.S. debut for Guardado (15-2-1), a boxer from Ensenada, Mexico who had done most of his fighting up the road in Tijuana.

Ruben Villa, the pride of Salinas, California, improved to 22-1 (7) and moved one step closer to a match with WBC featherweight champion Rey Vargas with a unanimous 10-round decision over Tijuana’s Cristian Cruz (22-7-1). The judges had it 97-93 and 98-92 twice.

Cruz, the son of former IBF world featherweight title-holder Cristobal Cruz, was better than his record. He entered the bout on a 21-1-1 run after losing five of his first seven pro fights.

Cleveland southpaw Abdullah Mason, who turned 20 earlier this month, continued his fast ascent up the lightweight ladder with a fourth-round stoppage of Ronal Ron.

Mason (13-0, 11 KOs) put Ron on the canvas in the opening round with a short left hook. He scored a second knockdown with a shot to the liver. A flurry of punches, a diverse array, forced the stoppage at the 1:02 mark of round four. A 25-year-old SoCal-based Venezuelan, the spunky but out-gunned Ron declined to 14-6.

Charly Suarez, a 35-year-old former Olympian from the Philippines, ranked #5 at junior lightweight by the IBF, advanced to 17-0 (9) with a unanimous 8-round decision over SoCal’s Louie Coria (5-7).

This was a tactical fight. In the final round, Coria, subbing for 19-0 Henry Lebron, caught the Filipino off-balance and knocked him into the ropes which held him up. It was scored a knockdown, but came too little, too late for Coria who lost by scores of 76-75 and 77-74 twice.

Suarez, whose signature win was a 12th-round stoppage of the previously undefeated Aussie Paul Fleming in Sydney, may be headed to a rematch with Robson Conceicao. They fought as amateurs in 2016 in Kazakhstan and Suarez lost a narrow 6-round decision.

Photo credit: Mikey Willams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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Ellie Scotney and Rhiannon Dixon Win World Title Fights in Manchester

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England’s Ellie Scotney started slowly against the long reach of France’s Segolene Lefebvre but used rough tactics and a full-steam ahead approach to unify the super bantamweight division by unanimous decision on Saturday.

“There’s a lot more I didn’t show,” said an excited Scotney (pictured on the left).

IBF titlist Scotney (9-0) added the WBO title by nullifying Lefebvre’s (18-1) reach and dominating the inside with a two-fisted attack in front of an excited crowd in Manchester, England.

For the first two rounds Lefebvre used her long reach and smooth fluid attack to keep Scotney at the end of her punches. Then the fight turned when the British fighter bulled her way inside with body shots and forced the French fighter into the ropes.

Aggressiveness by Scotney turned the fight in her favor. But Lefebvre remained active and countered with overhand rights throughout the match.

Body shots by Scotney continued to pummel the French champion’s abdomen but she remained steadfast in her counter-attacks. Combinations landed for Lefebvre and a counter overhand right scored to keep her in the contest in the fifth round.

Scotney increased the intensity of her attack in the sixth and seventh rounds. In perhaps her best round Scotney was almost perfect in scoring while not getting hit with anything from the French fighter.

Maybe the success of the previous round caused Scotney to pause. It allowed Lefebvre to rally behind some solid shots in a slow round and gave the French fighter an opening. Maybe.

The British fighter opened up more savagely after taking two Lefevbre rights to open the ninth. Scotney attacked with bruising more emphatic blows despite getting hit. Though both fired blows Scotney’s were more powerful.

Both champions opened-up the 10th and final round with punches flying. Once again Scotney’s blows had more power behind them though the French fighter scored too, and though her face looked less bruised than Scotney’s the pure force of Scotney’s attacks was more impressive.

All three judges saw Scotney the winner 97-93, 96-94 and a ridiculous 99-91. The London-based fighter now has the IBF and WBO super bantamweight titles.

Promoter Eddie Hearn said a possible showdown with WBC titlist Erika Cruz looms large possibly in the summer.

“Great performance. Great punch output,” said Hearn of Scotney’s performance.

Dixon Wins WBO Title

British southpaw Rhiannon Dixon (10-0) out-fought Argentina’s Karen Carabajal (22-2) over 10 rounds and won a very competitive unanimous decision to win the vacant WBO lightweight title. It was one of the titles vacated by Katie Taylor who is now the undisputed super lightweight world champion.

An aggressive Dixon dominated the first three rounds including a knockdown in the third round with a perfect left-hand counter that dropped Carabajal. The Argentine got up and rallied in the round.

Carabajal, whose only loss was against Katie Taylor, slowly began figuring out Dixon’s attacks and each round got more competitive. The Argentine fighter used counter rights to find a hole in Dixon’s defense to probably win the round in the sixth.

The final three rounds saw both fighters engage evenly with Carabajal scoring on counters and Dixon attacking the body successfully.

After 10 rounds all three judges saw it in Dixon’s favor 98-91, 97-92, 96-93 who now wields the WBO lightweight world title.

“It’s difficult to find words,” said Dixon after winning the title.

Hometown Fighter Wins

Manchester’s Zelfa Barrett (31-2, 17 KOs) battled back and forth with Jordan Gill (28-3-1, 9 KO-s) and finally ended the super featherweight fight with two knockdowns via lefts to the body in the 10th round of a scheduled 12-round match for a regional title.

The smooth moving Barrett found the busier Gill more complex than expected and for the first nine rounds was fighting a 50/50 fight against the fellow British fighter from the small town of Chatteris north of London.

In the 10th round after multiple shots on the body of Gill, a left hook to the ribs collapsed the Chatteris fighter to the floor. He willed himself up and soon after was floored again but this time by a left to the solar plexus. Again he continued but was belted around until the referee stopped the onslaught by Barrett at 2:44 of the 10th.

“A tough, tough fighter,” said Barrett about Gill. “I had to work hard.”

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O.J. Simpson the Boxer: A Heartwarming Tale for the Whole Family

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O.J. Simpson passed away on Wednesday, April 10, at age 76 in Las Vegas where he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. For millions of Americans, news of his passing unloosed a flood of memories.

The O.J. Simpson double murder trial lasted 37 weeks. CNN and two other fledgling cable networks provided gavel-to-gavel coverage. On Oct. 3, 1995, the day that the jury rendered its verdict, CBS, NBC, ABC, and ESPN suspended regular programming to cover the trial. Worldwide, more than 100 million people were reportedly glued to their TV or radio.

O.J.’s life can be neatly compartmentalized into two halves. The dividing line is June 12, 1994. On that date, Simpson’s estranged wife, the former Nicole Brown, and her friend Ronald Goldman were found stabbed to death in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood at the home that Nicole shared with their two children.

Before then, O.J. was famous. After then, he was infamous.

Simpson first came to the fore on the gridiron. In 1968, his final season at the University of Southern California, he was so dynamic that he won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide, out-distancing Purdue’s Leroy Keyes by 1,750 votes. This was the widest margin to that point between a Heisman winner and runner-up and a milestone that stood for 51 years until surpassed by LSU quarterback Joe Burrows in 2019.

In the NFL, among his many achievements, he became the first and only NFL running back to eclipse 2,000 rushing yards in a 14-game season, a record that will never be broken.

But one can’t appreciate the depth of O.J.s celebrityhood by citing statistics. He transcended his sport like few athletes before or since. Owing in large part to his commercials for the Hertz rental car chain, he became one of America’s most recognizable people.

O.J. Simpson was raised by a single mother in a government housing project in the gritty Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. Unlike many of his boyhood peers, he was never quick to raise his fists. Weirdly, he once said that running away from fights proved useful to him when he took up football. It helped his stamina.

Although he never boxed in real life, O.J. portrayed a boxer in a made-for-TV movie. Titled “Goldie and the Boxer,” it aired on NBC on Sunday, Dec. 29, 1979, two weeks after O.J. played in his last NFL game. Co-produced by Simpson’s own production company, it starred O.J. opposite precocious Melissa Michaelson who played the 10-year-old Goldie.

In promos, the movie was tagged as a heartwarming tale for kids and their parents. Associated Press writer John Egan described it as “a cross between the Shirley Temple classic ‘Little Miss Marker’ and a low-budget ‘Rocky.’”

Here’s a synopsis, compliments of New York Times TV critic John J. O’Connor:

“The year is 1946, and Joe Gallagher is returning to Louisiana as an army veteran. He is quickly ripped off by a succession of thugs and finds himself broke and battered in Pennsylvania where he is befriended by a young Goldie. Her father is a boxer and Joe joins the training camp as a sparring partner. When the father dies, Joe takes his place on the fight circuit and Goldie becomes his manager…”

The consensus of the pundits was that O.J. the actor was very much a work in progress, but that he had great potential. And the movie, despite its hokey plot, attracted so many viewers that NBC wanted to turn it into a series.

O.J. had too much on his plate to commit to doing a regular series. Among other things, he had signed on to become part of NBC’s main stable of reporters at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, a gig that evaporated when the U.S. under President Jimmy Carter joined 64 other nations in boycotting the Games as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, the movie did spawn a sequel, “Goldie and the Boxer Go To Hollywood,” with Simpson and Michaelson reprising their roles.

I never met O.J. Simpson, but have a vivid memory of finding myself walking behind him into the outdoor boxing arena at Caesars Palace. If memory serves, this was the Hagler-Hearns fight of 1985, in which case the lady on his arm would have been Nicole as they were married earlier that year. She was quite a dish in that tight-fitting pantsuit and I remember thinking to myself, “of all the trophies this dude has won, here is the best trophy of them all.” (Forgive me.)

Simpson had cameo roles in several movies before leaving USC. When he finally turned his back on football, the world was his oyster. O.J., wrote Barry Lorge in the Washington Post, was “bright, affable, charming, articulate and credible, a public relation man’s dream-come true.”

No one would have foreseen the swerve his life would take.

When the jury, after only four hours of deliberation, returned a verdict of “not guilty,” there was cheering in some corners of America. The overwhelming consensus of the white population, however, was that the verdict was an abomination, a gross miscarriage of justice.

We’ll leave it at that.

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