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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.

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Regis Prograis and Fabio Wardley Excelled on the last Saturday of November

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Two fighters at different stages of development – Regis Prograis and Fabio Wardley – made great gains this past weekend. Prograis, a junior welterweight, was already recognized as one of the top fighters in his weight class, but had become something of a forgotten man. Wardley stepped up in class and collapsed Nathan Gorman in the third round, registering his fourteenth straight knockout.

Prograis got a lot of ink as he was climbing the ladder, partly because of his back story. Uprooted from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina — the awful storm demolished his family’s home — Prograis found refuge in Houston but his tie to the city of his birth remained strong. The tattoos that cover his chest pay homage to NOLA, the city where he spent the first sixteen years of his life.

Then there was that colorful nickname, Rougarou, a mythical creature in Cajun folklore, similar to a werewolf. In a sport littered with hackneyed nicknames, Prograis had one that stood out from the pack.

Of course, boxing writers would not have become enamored of him if he wasn’t also charismatic inside the ropes. “Prograis is a true rarity in boxing, a pressure fighting southpaw who slips and parries punches while moving forward in a patiently destructive way that might even make the great Roberto Duran feel proud,” wrote Kelsey McCarson in an article that appeared on these pages.

This story ran as Prograis was preparing for his first world title fight, a match with Kiryl Relikh for the WBA 140-pound belt. Prograis won every round before stopping Relikh in the sixth. In the process, Rougarou became the first New Orleans fighter to win a major world title since Willie Pastrano controversially out-pointed Harold Johnson in 1963.

Prograis vs. Relikh was also a semifinal contest in the 140-pound division of the World Boxing Super Series, an 8-man invitational tournament. It boosted Prograis into a match with IBF belt-holder Josh Taylor, an undefeated Scotsman. They met in London on Oct. 20, 2019.

Heading into this match, there was a raging debate about whether Prograis belonged on the pound-for-pound list. That talk quieted after Taylor won a majority decision in a bruising skirmish so spirited it was named the TSS Fight of the Year.

After this tiff, Prograis receded into the shadows. His last three fights preceding his match this past Saturday with Jose Zepeda were against Juan Heraldez, Ivan Redkach, and Tyrone McKenna, none of whom offered much in the way of name recognition.

The fight with Heraldez was buried on a show anchored by a match between Gervonta “Tank” Davis and Leo Santa Cruz. His match with the uninspired Redkach played second fiddle to a fight between youtuber Jake Paul and Ben Askren. He fought Northern Ireland’s McKenna on a card in Dubai that got very little attention in the United States.

Prograis was favored to defeat Jose Zepeda when they met this past Saturday at a sports park in the Los Angeles County city of Carson, but Zepeda, an LA-area native, represented his strongest test since he went overseas to fight Josh Taylor. Zepeda’s only losses had come on the road in title fights with Terry Flanagan and Jose Carlos Ramirez. He dislocated his shoulder against Flanagan, forcing him to retire after two frames, and lost a majority decision to Ramirez in Fresno where Ramirez had a big following. His 35-2 (27) record included a stoppage of Ivan Baranchyk in a wild slugfest at the MGM Bubble in Las Vegas, a runaway pick for the 2020 Fight of the Year.

Zepeda edged the first round, a feeling-out round for Prograis, and held his own in round two, but from that point on until the fight was stopped in the 11th round, it was all Prograis. Indeed, his performance called to mind Vasiliy Lomachenko on one of Lomachenko’s best nights.

The 140-pound weight class is top-heavy with talent. In addition to Prograis, Taylor, and Ramirez, there’s Teofino Lopez plus Gervonta Davis and Devin Haney, both of whom appear poised to move up in weight. Prograis wants a rematch with Taylor, but the best guess is that he will fight Ramirez next. Regardless, he has emerged from the shadows at age 33 and figures to finally cash in on his immense talent.

Wardley

Fabio Wardley’s bout this past Saturday in London with Nathan Gorman attracted more buzz than the main event (Dillian Whyte vs Jermaine Franklin) and delivered more entertainment, notwithstanding the fact that it lasted less than three full rounds.

Wardley, who turns 28 next month, hails from the historic English port city of Ipswich, near the North Sea. He was 14-0 heading in and had stopped his last 13 opponents, but there were a lot of doubts about him. His amateur experience, as it were, consisted of only four white-collar bouts and as a pro he had answered the bell for only 35 rounds. Gorman, Tyson Fury’s cousin, had come up short in his first crossroads fight, getting blitzed by former amateur rival Daniel Dubois, but that was his only setback in 20 pro fights.

Gorman had all the best of it in the opening round, repeatedly finding a home for his right uppercut, and in the second frame he busted Wardley’s nose wide open. But the site of his own blood emboldened the Ipswich man who decked Gorman twice before the round was over and then, in the next frame, decked Gorman again, bringing forth the white towel from Gorman’s corner.

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Fabio Wardley, who carried 240 pounds on his six-foot-five frame, remains very much a work in progress – foremost, he needs to tighten up his defense – but with the victory he claimed the British heavyweight title vacated by Joe Joyce and stamped himself as arguably the best of the next generation of British heavyweights.

To that list one can add the name of Johnny Fisher, the Rumford Bull, who is built along the same lines as Wardley. A hot ticket-seller with a rugby background, Fisher, 7-0 (6 KOs) is also very much a work in progress, but a fight between him and Wardley, even at this juncture of their young careers, would be a box-office bonanza.

Regis Prograis photo credit: Tom Hogan / Hogan photos

Arne K. Lang’s latest book, titled “George Dixon, Terry McGovern and the Culture of Boxing in America, 1890-1910,” has rolled off the press. Published by McFarland, the book can be ordered directly from the publisher (https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/clash-of-the-little-giants) or via Amazon.

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Ian Thomsen Recalls His Days with Buster Douglas Before Buster ‘Shocked the World’

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Mike Tyson’s reign of terror in the heavyweight division began on March 6, 1985 at the Plaza Convention Center in Albany, New York, when he flattened Hector Mercedes in one round and it concluded for all intents and purposes on February 11, 1990 at the Tokyo Dome in Japan when James “Buster” Douglas stunned the boxing world by knocking him out in the tenth round, scooping up the World Boxing Association, World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation titles in the process.

Several weeks before the bout in which odds-makers had established “Iron Mike” as a 42-1 betting favorite, sportswriter Ian Thomsen spent time with Douglas in his hometown. The result was an insightful feature in the short-lived National Sports Daily that appeared in the February 9-10 issue and ran four pages.

On the cover and at the bottom of the newspaper, this teaser appeared: “Buster: Big Talk, Little Chance” and the subhead said “Tyson’s Saturday Opponent Confident Of Upset.”

The headline above the story blared: “All Alone With Mike Tyson” and the subhead stated: “Alone, Except For Jesus Christ And Woody Hayes And Even They Might Not Be Able To Help.”

“I was with The National Sports Daily [1989 through 1991] and they had four of us doing long stories. They called them the main event and they were take outs. They wanted me to go out to Columbus, Ohio, and spend a week up there and get to know him and let people know who he was before he submitted to what everybody figured would be a loss,” explained Thomsen who came to “The National” from the Boston Globe. He subsequently worked for the International Herald Tribune (1992-1997) and was with Sports Illustrated from 1998 until 2014 where he covered the NBA and wrote the first story on Kobe Bryant for the magazine.

Given Tyson had a 37-fight winning streak and had stopped 23 of his victims within the first two rounds, few gave Douglas any chance of coming away with a victory.

“I didn’t go to Japan for the fight, I just spent the time with Buster,” Thomsen said. “There is a story that when [Associated Press boxing writer] Ed Schuyler was filling the form for security at the airport and he said it was a business appointment, they asked how long he was going to be there and he said about ninety seconds. That’s what everybody thought.”

Thomsen, who currently works for news.northeastern.edu, a website that covers Northeastern University in Boston where he has been a multimedia reporter since 2018 writing on all subjects involving Northeastern happenings and interviewing university experts for their opinions on national and global events, said the set-up for Douglas wasn’t filled with glitz and fanfare, but there was a sense of confidence within the camp.

“When I went out there I didn’t know a thing about Buster. I remember my first day there I went out that night and went to the training ground and he was at a health club in Columbus and they roped off a corner of the health club so all these people are there after work,” he said. “Behind a curtain in the health club there was a ring set up for Buster and the only people I remember being there were his manager John Johnson, his uncle and trainer, J.D. McCauley and another trainer [John Russell], who helped him out.”

Johnson was a former assistant football coach at Ohio State University during the time head coach Woody Hayes patrolled the sideline. In many ways, Hayes, who passed away in March 1987 at 74, was a mentor and an inspiration to Johnson.

Thomsen, a Northwestern University journalism graduate who penned the 2018 book “The Soul Of Basketball: The Epic Showdown Between LeBron, Kobe, Doc, And Dirk That Saved The NBA,” said the more time he spent at the camp, the more he could see Douglas feeling at ease.

Still, there’s always that bit of doubt because of what Tyson had accomplished.

“And you’re watching him work out and you’re saying to yourself, ‘this guy is going to beat Mike Tyson?’ It was such a small production,” Thomsen remembered.

That aside, there was a real belief in the camp that Tyson was going to have his hands full.

“He [Buster] thought he was going to win and John Johnson thought he was going to win but doesn’t every fighter think he’s going to win?” Thomsen said.

Tyson seemed indestructible at this juncture of his career and it was almost inconceivable that he would lose.

“You watch Tyson’s fights and you see what happens to them [his opponents]. Buster was going to take on a great challenge and the more I got to know him, the more you had to admire him,” Thomsen said of Douglas.

Boxing was in his DNA, Thomsen pointed out.

“His dad [William “Dynamite” Douglas] was an ex-fighter and a really tough guy and was hard on Buster,” he noted. “It was one of those troubled relationships that you’re never good enough. It was an impossible standard to live up to.”

The elder Douglas, who posted a 42-16-1 professional ring record with 32 knockouts, was a contender in the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions.

Father and son were vastly different according to Thomsen.

“Buster was a more gentle guy than his father. That was clear from spending time with both of them,” he pointed out. “His mother [Lula Pearl] was a wonderful person and spoke highly of everybody. You could see how important she was in his life. After I left she died [at age 46 from a stroke] about a week before the fight. Obviously there were questions of whether Buster would fight.”

Though Thomsen wasn’t certain of the outcome, he felt Douglas was sincere and hard-working. “Maybe if I hadn’t spent any time with him I would have dismissed him as another guy that’s going to get killed by Mike Tyson, but when you spend a week there and you see what it’s all about and everything he’s overcome and the fact that he’s put in this position, instead of writing a story dismissing him or making fun of him, you want to convey a sense of respect for him,” he said.

It seems Douglas and his handlers were impressed by Thomsen’s feature because after the victory, he was asked to join them in Sin City.

“It meant something to him. That’s why I was invited to be part of the group after he beat Tyson,” he said. “I flew out to Las Vegas in Steve Wynn’s private jet.”

Thomsen said Tyson’s loss that night was the beginning of the end for the one-time Brooklyn bad boy.

“Tyson was not as technically sound a fighter as he had been before,” he said. “When Tyson lost he was a global figure. Everybody knew the heavyweight champion. No one came along to match the stature of Tyson. It was the end of boxing as we knew it.”

Like so many during the 1970s, Thomsen followed boxing and recalled some of the big names and bouts of that era.

“I loved boxing as a kid growing up and watching it and the big fights that would be on ABC on the weekends, especially Friday nights,” he said. “You knew all the heavyweights. It was a great honor to be heavyweight champion of the world.”

Some of the names of that era are folk heroes.

“I remember [Muhammad] Ali was making his comeback against Joe Frazier,” Thomsen said. “I remember and was horrified to see what [George] Foreman did to Frazier and [Ken] Norton breaking Ali’s jaw.”

“The one big fight I covered was the [Marvin] Hagler-[Ray] Leonard fight in Las Vegas,” he said. “Steve Marantz [the boxing writer] and [columnists] Leigh Montville and Ron Borges were there. I was a young guy. I didn’t talk to Hagler. I spent more time talking to Angelo Dundee. But you could see the energy there.”

When Thomsen worked at the International Herald Tribune and was based in Europe, he spent more time ringside.

“I covered a few Lennox Lewis fights. I covered a fight in Cardiff, Wales, against Frank Bruno [1993]. It was like midnight and 2 or 3 in the morning,” he said. “It was very strange. Frank Bruno was a limited fighter. He had a big punch but not much else.”

Thomsen recalled a prescient conversation he had more than two decades ago.

“I used to work at the Boston Globe [1983 through 1989] and it was an honor to work with Will McDonough, who was one of the top newsmakers in sports writing,” he said. “We were playing golf one day about 20 years ago and he said in the 1950s the big three sports in America were horse racing, boxing and baseball. He was pointing out just how quickly things change. Back then in the 1950s in the NBA, you couldn’t make enough of a salary to do it full time. A lot of NBA players had off-season jobs to make ends meet. Boxing was the glamour sport. Now it’s the opposite.”

It seems that no truer words were ever spoken.

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Regis Prograis KOs Jose Zepeda at Dignity Sports Health Park

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Regis Prograis KOs Jose Zepeda at Dignity Sports Health Park

Not all big bangers are the same.

Regis Prograis slugged it out with fellow knockout artist Jose “Chon” Zepeda and after 11 rounds of tactical battle ended the WBC super lightweight battle with a flourishing knockout on Saturday.

Prograis (28-1, 24 KOs) becomes the first two-time super lightweight champion from New Orleans after his win over Zepeda (36-3, 27 KOs) at SoCal’s Dignity Health Sports Park. It had been more than three years since he last held a world title.

“This was the hardest fight of my career,” said Prograis after the strategic clash between the super lightweight division’s biggest punchers.

The heavily favored Prograis and Zepeda were cautious under the cold outdoor weather arena. Many a previous world title match ended quickly under similar circumstances and both were wary.

Zepeda was slightly busier and able to connect early with his deceptively fast left cross. Though the first two rounds were not very action-packed, it seemed Zepeda landed more effective blows.

Then Prograis went to work.

“At first, I wanted to come out and box him. Maybe in the third round I caught my rhythm,” said Prograis. “Then he caught on to that.”

Behind his awkward head movements and more agile movements Prograis used jabs and counters to force Zepeda into a more defensive stance. Though neither fighter dominated a round it was the New Orleans native who dictated the pace and action.

Round after round was going into the books favoring Prograis, not until the eighth round did Zepeda make a move into a more aggressive mode and finally out-punched Prograis. But the former world champion adapted again.

Prograis and Zepeda slugged it out in the ninth round. Zepeda connected with a left uppercut but Prograis withstood the blow and continued moving forward. Once again Prograis out-punched Zepeda in a very close round.

Both seemed ready to make the 10th round their own and Zepeda connected with a left cross that landed flush. Prograis barely was moved and then increased his output and the two super lightweights exchanged furiously with the New Orleans fighter seeming to out-punch Zepeda again. It was a telling round.

Prograis had withstood Zepeda’s biggest blows and was ready to unload some of his firepower. He had dominated most of the fight behind his jab and quick combinations. Now he was ready for the big shells.

Both super lightweights opened up in the 11th round with each connecting early. Suddenly an overhand left by Prograis sent Zepeda reeling backward and he did not let up. A furious 13-punch barrage was unloaded and down went Zepeda. Referee Ray Corona did not bother to count and ended the fight at 59 seconds of the 11th round.

“In the 11th round I felt like taking him to deep waters and drown him,” said Prograis.

Once again Prograis holds a super lightweight world title.

“I heard the small talk. I heard the rumors. I want to congratulate Zepeda, that guy was tough, tough, tough. He gave me my hardest fight,” said an ecstatic Prograis. “Listen, I got 29 fights, this was probably my hardest fight.”

Yokasta Valle beats Evelin Bermudez

Seeking big challenges Yokasta Valle (27-2, 9 KOs) rallied after a slow start and out-boxed Argentina’s Evelin Bermudez (17-1-1, 6 KOs) to win the WBO and IBF light flyweight world titles by majority decision after 10 rounds.

After absorbing big right hands from Bermudez during the first two rounds, Valle solved the problem and out-hustled the taller world champion behind quick combinations and making the champion shift her feet. It was a simple but effective plan and led to Valle storming down the stretch with more effective punching.

Bermudez had steamrolled most of her opponents behind a relentless attack that focused mainly on her big right cross. But against Valle that punch was mostly eliminated after the third round.

Valle slipped under Bermudez’s attacks and countered with her combination punching. Occasionally the Costa Rican fighter connected with a big shot that caught the eye of the judges.

After 10 rounds, one judge scored it 95-95, while two others saw Valle the winner by majority decision 99-91, 97-93.

Valle, an IBF and WBO minimumweight world titlist, moved up a division to win her second weight division world title.

Conwell Wins

In a savage battle Ohio’s Charles Conwell (18-0, 13 KOs) bludgeoned his way to victory over Juan Carlos Abreu (25-7-1, 23 KOs) by unanimous decision after 10 rounds in a super welterweight contest. It was a skillful display of 1950s-style fighting that saw Conwell showcase his strength and canny punch selection in out-fighting veteran slugger Abreu.

Heavyweights

Former Olympic super heavyweight gold medalist Bakhodir Jalolov (12-0, 12 KOs) knocked out Curtis Harper (14-9) in the fourth round with a barrage if blows. Twice he knocked down Harper who had been deducted a point for an intentional head butt.

Vargas Brothers

Both sons of boxing great Fernando Vargas emerged victorious in their bouts. Fernando Vargas Jr. (7-0, 7 KOs) knocked out Alejandro Martinez (3-3-1) in the second round of their super welterweight bout. Amado Vargas (5-0, 2 KOs) won by decision after four rounds versus Osmar Hernandez (1-2) in a featherweight match.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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