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New Usyk Opponent Chazz Witherspoon Had a Good Story Spoiled by Harsh Reality

Bernard Fernandez

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New Usyk Opponent Chazz Witherspoon Had a Good Story Spoiled by Harsh Reality

All other things being more or less equal, if pressed every writer or columnist would admit that their professional instinct is to pull for the story.

Once upon a time, heavyweight prospect Chazz Witherspoon had a very good and marketable story. He is the second cousin of two-time former alphabet heavyweight champion Tim Witherspoon and, in contradiction to all those wrong-side-of-the-tracks tales of boxers trying to rise above the impoverished circumstances of their upbringing, he was bright, polite and well-educated, so much so that the former star basketball player at Paulsboro, N.J., forsook the opportunity to walk on in that sport at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia to concentrate on academics. His classroom performance at Paulsboro High earned him a full scholarship at St. Joe’s where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in pharmaceutical marketing. Even his ring nickname, “The Gentleman,” set him apart from the trash-talking, profanity-spewing street guys who might have had genuine talent in the ring but sometimes got publicity for all the wrong reasons.

“Chazz Witherspoon was a good story,” admitted Teddy Atlas, the longtime ESPN boxing analyst who is now on Witherspoon’s old turf (Chazz was born in Philadelphia, as well as having gone to college there), where he is readying WBC light heavyweight champion Oleksandr Gvozdyk  for his Oct. 18 unification matchup with IBF titlist Artur Beterbiev at the 2300 Arena in South Philly. “He was a nice kid, someone you root for. But that doesn’t mean every good story has a happy ending.”

It has been at least seven years since those who pay attention to the sport of boxing, and those who write about it, took much notice of the gentlemanly Chazz Witherspoon and his story. That, however, changed – at least temporarily – when he was named the replacement for a replacement as the opponent for former undisputed cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk (16-0, 12 KOs), who makes his heavyweight debut against Witherspoon (38-3, 29 KOs) Saturday night at Chicago’s Wintrust Arena. The scheduled 12-rounder will be streamed by DAZN.

“I can’t wait to face Usyk,” said Witherspoon (pictured at yesterday’s open workout in Chicago). “I have been in training, ready for a big fight, and it doesn’t get any bigger than this.” Selected from a reported field of five fighters on standby in case of still another main-event adjustment, Witherspoon took the bout on four days’ notice after another designated victim, Tyrone Spong (14-0, 13 KOs), failed a test administered by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA) and was scratched from his slot by the Illinois State Athletic Commission.

“Oleksandr is stepping up to heavyweight – and he’s going to find out it’s a totally different game. I’ve won my last eight fights, and I really feel that I’ve been waiting in the wings for a huge opportunity like this. I am going to put every ounce of myself into the fight on this massive stage.”

All well and good, and boxing doesn’t always follow the expected script, as demonstrated by such previous heavyweight longshot winners as Buster Douglas and Andy Ruiz Jr. Atlas expects Witherspoon, now 38 and likely facing his final opportunity to restore the career momentum blunted by past failures when stepping up in class, to dutifully play the same role assigned to Non-Power Five college football teams tasked with playing the Alabama Crimson Tide. Someone does periodically beat overwhelming odds to win the Powerball Lottery, right? But even Witherspoon has to realize that he was chosen for this dream shot not because he is the same reasonably hot prospect he once was, but because he is an aging trial horse with some residual name value and a story that can be milked of its last few drops of relevancy.

“He’s a competitive guy, so he’s going to go in there thinking he at least has a chance to win,” Atlas continued. “He’s a fighter, a real fighter, and real fighters always believe they can win. He wants to challenge himself, and I give him credit for that.

“But let’s be realistic. We live in the real world, not the world we wish it to be. This is Usyk’s first time putting his toe into the heavyweight pool. His handlers want him to make a big and impressive splash, and they want to be as certain as possible that they can control the result.

“This is not a learning experience for Usyk. They figure he’s learned enough. He’s undefeated, an Olympic gold medalist and the undisputed cruiserweight champion. This is not a Sherlock Holmes mystery that has to be solved. It’s pretty solvable. The butler didn’t do it. The proof is in the pudding. The pudding here is that three times Witherspoon stepped up and three times he lost convincingly.”

You want to compare odds? Douglas shocked Mike Tyson as a 42-to-1 underdog. Ruiz was a mere 11-1 outsider when he took down Joshua.  At this time there are no odds posted regarding Witherspoon’s chances of upsetting Usyk, who, it should be noted, was 2018’s Fighter of the Year as selected by the Boxing Writers Association of America and The Sweet Science. If you want to surmise that “The Gentleman” is a 100-1 longshot, that might not be too much of a stretch. The plan always has been for Usyk, arguably the greatest cruiserweight of all time, to take just a few fights against Witherspoon-level opponents before testing himself against the heavyweight division’s major players, be it Deontay Wilder, Tyson Fury, Ruiz, Joshua or whomever else might fit that description a bit down the road.

Which is to say the Ukrainian southpaw would likely have been almost as overwhelming a choice to have won against his originally announced opponent, Carlos Takam (37-5-1, 28 KOs), or Spong, a former kickboxer whose pugilistic resume was crafted against a lineup of hand-picked opponents as soft as Spong’s six-pack abs are hard, which might owe in part to his now-verified use of clomiphene, a banned substance that can be used to increase testosterone. At least the 38-year-old Takam, at first glance, would appear to have posed a more legitimate test for Usyk than Spong or Witherspoon, in light of the fact that the veteran from Cameroon, now living in Las Vegas, lasted until the 10th round before being stopped by then-WBA/IBF champ Joshua on Oct. 28, 2017. His scheduled go at Usyk, originally scheduled for May 25, was scratched when Usyk suffered a torn bicep in training and had to withdraw.

Chazz Witherspoon might never have risen to the level of a Wilder, Fury or Joshua, or even that of cousin Tim, now 62, who has not been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame and may never be, but who had quite a nice career in giving the great Larry Holmes one of his sternest tests in addition to having had separate and brief reigns as the WBC and WBA heavyweight titlist.

After a second-round knockout of Nigeria’s Innocent Otukwu on Sept. 16, 2006, that improved his record to 14-0 (8), Chazz was asked whether his “good family genes” were a contributing factor to his rising prominence.

“Oh, definitely,” he said. “You know you have it in your makeup when you got a champion’s blood running through your veins.”

Chazz remained a person of interest when he was paired against another young heavyweight with a hook of a story, Chris Arreola, whose stated goal was to become the first big man of Mexican heritage to win his sport’s most prestigious prize. When they squared off on June 23, 2008, a bout for the WBC Continental Americas belt that was televised by HBO, Witherspoon was 23-0 with 14 KOs and Arreola 23-0 with 21 wins inside the distance.

“Witherspoon and Arreola clearly are the two most advanced, relatively unknown American heavyweights,” veteran HBO analyst Larry Merchant opined before that bout. “The winner will emerge as the better of the two and immediately goes on the short list of U.S. contenders who could be in line to get a crack at one of the world titles in the relatively near future.”

Merchant’s words, as it turned out, were prophetic. Arreola – who, four bouts later challenged WBC champ Vitali Klitschko and would fight three times in all for heavyweight titles, losing each — had to settle for a third-round disqualification victory when Witherspoon’s corner team, having heard the bell, entered the ring while referee Randy Phillips was in the process of administering a count after Witherspoon had gone down a second time. Although Phillips’ decision to end the fight was a stunner, the outcome likely would have been the same; Witherspoon was wobbled in the first round and was decked twice in the third, lurching to his feet on shaky legs after the second knockdown.

There would be no title shots for Witherspoon, and an expected loss to Usyk likely would mean there never will be. In his two most important ring appearances after the Arreola disaster, ’Spoon was stopped in nine rounds by veteran contender Tony Thompson, then 38, on Dec. 5, 2009, and in three rounds by former Michigan State linebacker Seth Mitchell, a Golden Boy protégé, on April 28, 2012. Mitchell fought only three times after his stoppage of Witherspoon, sandwiching knockout losses at the hands of Johnathon Banks and, yes, Arreola, around a points nod over Banks, a onetime pupil of the late Emanuel Steward now best known as the trainer of Gennadiy Golovkin.

While it is true that Witherspoon has strung together an eight-fight winning streak, those outings were spread over five years and against suspect opposition. Raise your hand if you are familiar with the careers of the men defeated during that run by Witherspoon, a list that includes the non-celebrated likes of Tyyab Beale, Cory Phelps, Galen Brown, Nick Guivas, Michael Marrone, Carlos Sandoval, Lamont Capers and Santander Silgado.

Which is not to say that Witherspoon will not at least remind some people of the promise of better things that marked his emergence as a fighter to be tracked. If all the stars align just so, he could come away as a sort of Otto Wallin, who gave such a good, and surprising, account of himself in his recent points loss to Tyson Fury. Avoiding humiliation against a clearly superior fighter like Usyk in a high-visibility scrap might provide enough incentive for him to keep on keeping on. Even being on the wrong side of a rout might not be all bad.

“At least there should be some fairness in this because he’s going to get a decent payday,” Atlas, ever the pragmatist, noted. “I’m sure he’s getting paid pretty well because he had the promoter (Eddie Hearn) over a barrel at the 11th hour. I just hope he doesn’t get hurt too bad.”

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Remembering Leotis Martin who KOed Sonny Liston 50 Years Ago Today

Arne K. Lang

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On Dec. 6, 1969, 50 years ago today, former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston fought former sparring partner Leotis Martin on the stage of the showroom of the newly built International Hotel in Las Vegas, a property that subsequently took the name Las Vegas Hilton and is called the Westgate today. The Sunday afternoon fight was televised by ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” with Howard Cosell behind the mic. The match was slated for 12 rounds. The victor would be recognized as the heavyweight champion of the newly formed North American Boxing Federation.

Leotis Martin, who resided in Philadelphia, was a former national Golden Gloves and national AAU middleweight champion. As a pro, he was 30-5 with 18 knockouts. But he was given scant chance of defeating Sonny Liston (49-3, 38 KOs) who had won 14 in a row, 13 inside the distance, since his second defeat to Muhammad Ali. Although Liston had defeated no one of note during this run, he had yet re-established himself in the public mind as one of the hardest hitting punchers ever.

Martin had several other things working against him. He was a small heavyweight. Liston, who came in at 220, would out-weigh him by 21 pounds. And he wasn’t a full-time boxer. In Philadelphia, he was a machinist for the Budd Company, one of America’s leading manufacturers of metal components for automobiles and railroad cars.

Martin had helped Liston train for his matches with Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali. When a big name fighter is matched against a former sparring partner, there is always the suspicion that a gentleman’s agreement is in effect.

Liston vs Martin played out somewhat like the recent fight between Deontay Wilder and Luis Ortiz although it lasted two rounds longer.

After eight frames, Liston was ahead by two points on one of the scorecards and by three points on the others on Nevada’s “five-point-must” system. A flash knockdown of Martin in round four contributed to the imbalance.

Martin could sense that Liston was tiring, but it wasn’t apparent to those in the audience – reportedly 1,800 paid – and that made the drama that was about to unfold all the more dramatic.

In round nine, Leotis landed three unanswered combinations, one right after the other. The third was the classic one-two: left to the body, right to the jaw. Sonny Liston pitched forward, landing face first to the canvas, dead to the world. The ref counted “10” over his prone body. “He could have counted to 300,” said Review-Journal ringside reporter Jimmy Cox.

Nevada’s ringside physician, Dr. Donald Romeo, came equipped with capsules of ammonia. The first one that he broke and waved under Sonny’s nose had no effect. The second capsule brought Liston out of his slumber.

Sonny Liston was reportedly 39 years old, but was widely considered to be somewhat older than his listed age. The brutal manner in which he succumbed to Leotis Martin seemingly indicated that he had reached the end of the line, but he wasn’t done quite yet. Six months later, at the Armory in Jersey City, he butchered Chuck Wepner, the “Bayonne Bleeder,” in a fight stopped by the ring doctor after nine rounds.

That would prove to be his final fight. On Jan. 5, 1971, Sonny’s wife Geraldine returned to their home in Las Vegas from a 12-day holiday trip to St. Louis, her hometown, and found her husband dead in their bedroom. Rigor mortis had already set in.  The coroner’s report said Liston died from congestive heart failure, but that didn’t explain what brought on the coronary and there’s strong circumstantial evidence that he was a victim of foul play.

Leotis Martin’s triumph elevated him to #1 in the heavyweight rankings of the WBA, the sport’s paramount sanctioning body. A fight with fellow Philadelphian Smokin’ Joe Frazier was his likely reward. But it wasn’t to be.

Martin emerged from his fight with Liston with a detached retina. Back in those days, retinal detachment surgery was a hit-and-miss proposition. The most famous boxer to have his retina repaired mid-career was Sugar Ray Leonard, but that didn’t happen until 1982 and it was a far more complicated procedure than what it is nowadays. Three ophthalmic surgeons attended Sugar Ray during his two-hour operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

Leotis Martin basically had no choice but to retire. His signature win would be the final fight of his career.

Martin returned to Philadelphia and to his job in the foundry and lived out his days quietly in the city’s racially diverse Mount Airy neighborhood. In November of 1995 he passed away after suffering a stroke brought on by diabetes and hypertension. He was 56 years old.

By the way, Tim Dahlberg was one of the ringside reporters. This was his first prizefight. In time he would travel the globe as the National Sports Columnist for the Associated Press and he’s still going strong today.

Reminiscing about his first prizefight with Las Vegas sports columnist Ron Kantowski, Dahlberg recalled that there was a young heavyweight on the Liston-Martin undercard that looked pretty good.

The kid’s name was George Foreman.

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Downtown LA Fight Results From the Exchange

David A. Avila

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Downtown LA Fight Results From the Exchange

LOS ANGELES-Built in 1931 the Exchange was the former home of the stock market exchange for the West Coast. On Thursday night it was the home for professional boxing.

Jessy Martinez led a slew of prospects ready to showcase their fighting skills among the many business types at the Exchange located on the 600 block of Spring Street. He didn’t need more than one round to reveal his talent at the Bash Boxing show.

Martinez (14-0, 9 KOs) used the first minute or so to determine the incoming fire from Mexico’s Carlos Huerta (6-5-2), a fighter of similar height and speed. Once he learned the magnitude and strength of the punches coming his way, Martinez (pictured on the left) unfurled his own combination and saw his right cross visibly do damage.

A slow developing 12-punch combination by Martinez rocked Huerta who tried to evade the blows to no avail. Finally an overhand right dumped a bleeding Huerta into the ropes as referee Wayne Hedgpeth immediately waved the fight over at 2:26 of the first round.

It was a short but destructive win for Martinez who fights out of toney Woodland Hills, California.

“Hard work pays off,” said Martinez.

Another featured fight saw Compton featherweight Adan Ochoa (11-1, 4 KOs) slug it out with Chile’s Juan “La Maquina” Jimenez (8-9) for five destructive rounds. Though Ochoa had the height, speed and skill advantage, the Chilean fighter walked through every exchange and was cut in the first round because of his reckless charges.

But he fought hard.

Ochoa seemed to have Jimenez in trouble early with single power shots, but was unable to put the final touch. In the fifth round a clash of heads resulted in a gash above Jimenez’s forehead and blood came streaming down. The fight was stopped and due to the cut caused by an accidental clash of heads, the fight was stopped and Ochoa was deemed the winner by technical decision 50-45 twice and 49-46.

“He’s an Hispanic fighter and all Hispanic fighters are tough,” said Ochoa.

A welterweight fight saw Vlad Panin (7-0) use his physical superiority to defeat Mexico’s Daniel Perales (11-19-2) in a four round contest. Panin is a fighter of Belarus lineage and had solid support from his fans who saw him handily defeat Perales by unanimous decision.

Other Bouts

Five of the bouts featured four-round fights and the best of them all saw Orange County-based Victor Rodriguez make his pro debut. He looked very sharp for someone getting his baptism under fire.

Rodriguez (1-0) trains at Grampa’s Gym in Westminster and showed off a very sharp left jab that kept Osman Rivera (2-12-1) from penetrating into the fire zone. Both boxers had large followings and the crowds exchanged competitive cheers for their fighters throughout the four round match. Rodriguez was just a little too sharp for Rivera who was slightly frustrated. All three judges scored the fight 40-36 for Rodriguez.

Other results: Keehwan Kim (4-1) defeat Percy Peterson (3-16-3) by majority decision in a super featherweight contest that opened the show.

Isaac Lucero (1-0) won his debut by knockout in the first round over Anthony Zender (1-6) in a welterweight clash. Lucero floored Zender twice before the fight was stopped at 1:29 of the first round.

Austin Gudino (5-0) remained undefeated by decision after four rounds versus Nobelin Hernandez (0-4) in a super lightweight fight.

Moises Fuentes (4-1) slugged out a win over Sacramento’s tough Moris Rodriguez (8-16-1) after six rounds in a welterweight clash. Each round was hotly contested. The scores were 60-54 twice and 58-56.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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Thomas Hauser Enters the Boxing Hall of Fame

Arne K. Lang

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There were 25 names on the Observer Category ballot sent out to those casting votes for the next round of inductions into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Voters could choose as many as five. The top two vote-getters would get in.

A range of disciplines are included in the Observer category: journalists and photo-journalists, TV executives, broadcasters, record-keepers, statisticians, cartoonists. Some of the 25 potential inductees are long dead such as Percy Dana the great photographer who was omnipresent back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the San Francisco Bay area was swarming with big fights. The majority of those on the ballot, however, are still active. They are contemporaries of the electors.

This reporter had a strong feeling that longtime boxing writer and current TSS mainstay Bernard Fernandez would make the cut. Induction into the IBHOF is by nature a lifetime achievement award and Fernandez certainly qualified on that count. Among those stumping for him was ESPN’s Dan Rafael who shares his picks with his readers. Rafael’s opinions circulate widely among his peers.

We guessed right with Fernandez and then had more reason to strut when the other top vote-getter turned out to be frequent TSS contributor Thomas Hauser.

We didn’t see that coming. Yes, we thought that Hauser was more than qualified. Considering some of the “Observers” that were ushered into the Hall before him, his induction was long overdue. But much of Hauser’s work falls under the heading of investigative reporting and he has never been shy about airing his political views so we figured that he had alienated just enough voters to ensure that he would be kept waiting indefinitely.

We miscalculated.

Thomas Hauser

Thomas Hauser was born in New York City and grew up in Larchmont, an upper-middle-class village roughly 25 miles north of the city in Westchester County. His father was an attorney with a small general practice in the city and Hauser followed him into the practice of law, clerking for a federal judge and then working as a litigator for a Wall Street law firm after graduating from Columbia Law School.

When Hauser got bored with the life of a Wall Street lawyer, he thought he would give writing a try and then hit the jackpot with his very first book. “The Execution of Charles Horman” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, Bancroft Prize, and the National Book Award.

Horman was a left-leaning journalist who was murdered while investigating the possible American masterminding of a military coup in Chile. The book spawned the movie “Missing” which earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Jack Lemmon), Best Actress (Sissy Spacek) and an Adapted Screenplay Oscar for director Costa-Gavras.

The movie put a brighter spotlight on Hauser’s book which was re-titled “Missing” and sent him off on the lecture circuit. Here’s Hauser in 1982 as depicted in a Los Angeles Times story following his talk at UC Irvine.

hauser wong

Hauser went on to write so many books that the exact number is uncertain (but somewhere north of 50). That includes works of fiction, works of general non-fiction and, of course, non-fiction books about boxing of which, at last count, there are eighteen. The opus is “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times.” Harking in its design to the works of the great Chicago oral historian Studs Terkel, the book, released in 1991, won the William Hill Award for best sports book, a prestigious award in Great Britain.

Completing the book was an arduous task. Hauser interviewed approximately 200 people. He and Ali spent countless days at their respective homes and after the book was published the two went off on a book signing tour that spanned several continents.

Ali TH w book

Hauser had interviewed Ali long before they collaborated on the biography. It came when he was a 19-year-old undergraduate at Columbia hosting a weekly sports talk radio show on the student-run radio station. Ali was in town to fight Zora Folley at the old Madison Square Garden – Ali’s final fight before his exile – and Hauser wangled his way into Ali’s dressing room after Ali completed a public workout and taped an interview. It wouldn’t be the last time that he wangled his way into a fighter’s dressing room.

Four years later Hauser was at the newly reconstituted Madison Square Garden for the Fight of the Century, the first meeting between Ali and Joe Frazier. It was an epic confrontation, an event that Pete Hamill, writing for Harper’s Bazaar, called the most spectacular event in sports history. Hauser’s ticket bought him a seat in the last row of the mezzanine, as far away from the ring as one could be.

“Muhammad Ali” was actually Hauser’s second boxing book. “The Black Lights: Inside the World of Professional Boxing,” published in 1986, looks at all the machinations that led up to the Nov. 3, 1984 match between 140-pound title-holder Billy Costello and Saoul Mamby. Hauser’s portrait of Don King jumps off the page.

Hauser’s 2001 book, “A Beautiful Sickness: Reflections on the Sweet Science” is noteworthy because it was published by the University of Arkansas Press which has been publishing a Hauser anthology every year since. The books are compilations of Hauser’s favorite columns from the previous year.

The books invariably include at least one dressing room story as Hauser takes the reader into the dressing room of a fighter before a fight, giving us a peek at what happens during those pregnant moments before a fighter is summoned to the ring. In the fraternity of boxing journalists, Hauser is the consummate fly-on-the-wall.

Another hat he wears is that of a reformer. Boxing has become a niche sport, he laments, and it brought it upon itself, alienating the fans with too many champions and too many mismatches rather than the best fighting the best. “Having three heavyweight champions,” he says, “is like having three Kings of England.”

One of Hauser’s most admired people in boxing is Dr. Margaret Goodman, the Las Vegas neurologist who is the co-founder and the face of VADA, the Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency. “The most pressing issue facing boxing today,” says Hauser, “is the rampant use of performance enhancing drugs.” Hitting a baseball harder and further is one thing. Hitting a man in the head harder warrants greater reproach.

The new inductees will be formally enshrined in the Hall on Sunday, June 14, the climax of Hall of Fame weekend, a four-day event.

From our perspective here at The Sweet Science, it will be cool to see Thomas Hauser and Bernard Fernandez on the dais together in Canastota. I wonder if we could induce them to wear a “The Sweet Science.com” tee shirt?

Probably not.

Photo (c): Wojtek Urbanek

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