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Hits and Misses from Boxing’s Historic Weekend

Kelsey McCarson

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Fight fans had the first week in November circled for a long time.

After all, Canelo Alvarez was attempting to become one of the very few sitting middleweight champions ever to move up and rip the title away from a light heavyweight king.

But there were tons more fights around the world, too. Mexico’s Miguel Berchelt made the sixth defense of his WBC junior lightweight title. Popular Manchester native Anthony Crolla was competing in front of his home crowd at Manchester Arena in a farewell fight. Heck, there was even a PBC on FS1 card in Maryland.

With all that on the docket, there were lots of swings at making our hits and misses list. Here are the ones that made the cut during boxing’s latest big weekend.

HIT: Canelo Alvarez’s Rare Historical Achievement

Already the reigning middleweight champion and arguably boxing’s biggest star, Alvarez did something pretty spectacular on Saturday night in Las Vegas when he toppled Sergey Kovalev to become the new WBO light heavyweight champion.

No, it wasn’t the narrative that Alvarez became the fourth Mexican to win world titles in four different weight classes, joining Erik Morales, Juan Manuel Marquez and Jorge Arce. In fact, I’m not even sure that Alvarez really accomplished that feat beyond mere technicality. While it’s true Alvarez won legitimate world titles at 154, 160 and 175, when did any of those secondary WBA belts like the one he snatched from Rocky Fielding last year at 168, become part of these historical designations?

What was truly rare and important was that the sitting middleweight champion moved up 15 pounds to dominate such a highly regarded light heavyweight titleholder. Even more impressive was that he did it against such a well-schooled boxer and sharp puncher in Kovalev. Even greater was that he did it by walking the much larger man down to deliver such a brutal knockout in the 11th round.

MISS: DAZN’s Reactive and Disordered Scheduling Decision

DAZN delayed the start of the Alvarez-Kovalev bout until after the finish of the UFC 244 main event between Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz and it brought to light a least a couple of reasons to be concerned about the company’s future.

First, it suggested that one of boxing’s biggest stars in Alvarez in one of the biggest fights of the year was less important than a battle between two UFC contenders with double-digit losses on both sides of the ledger.

Second, and perhaps most troubling, it indicated a potentially disordered focus by DAZN executives on prioritizing potential subscribers over the current customer base.

DAZN’s main goal should be delivering top quality content for subscribers. The message instead was that current customers, the ones that pony up every month so DAZN can continue to exist, aren’t nearly as important as potential subscribers who haven’t shelled anything out all year but really might consider it so long as everything is made super convenient for them.

Minimally, that seems based on a scarcity-based mindset, one that suggests there aren’t enough people for there to exist both boxing and MMA fans. Surely that model has been debunked by now.

Moreover, the decision wreaked of desperation. Exactly many more subscribers does DAZN need in order to justify that $365 million contract it gave to Alvarez last year?

Whatever the answer, delaying the start of one of the biggest events for over an hour and a half suggests the brain trust at DAZN might not be making the best decisions right now.

HIT: Miguel Berchelt’s Continued Excellence

Berchelt has quietly put together a sustained run of divisional excellence, and it looks like things might get a whole lot louder soon. Berchelt dominated and stopped former titleholder Jason Sosa in just four rounds on Saturday night in Carson, California. The Mexican displayed his usual knack for throwing huge amounts ofhard punches, and it made for some really solid action.

That’s the thing that makes Berchelt special. Not only has he looked excellent in his six title defenses at 130 pounds, but he’s won those fights with a fan-friendly and aggressive style that makes for good television.

It’s such good television, in fact, that it seems like the 27-year-old from Mexico should be a bigger deal by now. That he’s not already on just about every boxing fan’s must-watch list tells us that his promoters over at Top Rank need to start getting him bigger fights.

Hopefully, that’s about to happen. Undefeated 28-year-old former featherweight titleholder Oscar Valdez seems to be shortlisted for the next crack at Berchelt. That’s a big fight between two guys who really know how to produce quality action, and one that deserves all the bells and whistles of a regular ESPN showcase.

But if that bout falls through for some reason, there are plenty of other 130-pounders to consider, too. The list of backup plans should start with the three other titleholders (Jamel Herring, Andrew Cancio, Tevin Farmer) and go on from there. It’s high time those fights between the top junior lightweights in the world start getting made. If that happens, Berchelt will finally have a chance to prove he belongs among boxing’s biggest stars.

MISS: Evan Holyfield’s Debut Cut Short

Evan Holyfield made his professional debut on the undercard of the Alvarez-Kovalev card, and it seems like people were genuinely interested in seeing how the career of Evander Holyfield’s son would play out.

But we didn’t see very much. The junior middleweight prospect landed a number of punches on opponent Nicholas Winstead right at the opening bell and dumped his unheralded foe to the canvas within the first 10 seconds.

Winstead rose to his feet, looking clear-eyed and ready to continue. But referee Robert Hoyle waved the contest off at 0:16 seconds of the first round anyway, so the fight was over before it ever really started.

Maybe Hoyle saw that Winstead was hopelessly overmatched. That’s certainly possible, and if he stopped the fight because he feared for Winstead’s life, he should be commended for it. Moreover, it’s that was the case, the blame should fall on promoters and matchmakers for making the fight at all.

But it looked more like Hoyle just made a bad call in stopping a fight early that probably should have continued. Sure, it’s always better to stop a fight too early than too late. But what’s best is stopping a fight at the exact right time, and that’s not what happened in Holyfield’s debut.

HIT:  The Flair of Blair Cobbs

Is there any more compelling prospect right now than Blair “The Flair” Cobbs?

The flamboyant 29-year-old welterweight prospect has one of the most intriguing backstories in boxing. He employs an awkward but effective style in the ring, and it seems like he might be on his way to becoming one of boxing’s next big things.

To do that, though, he’ll absolutely need to become a better fighter. Cobb stopped journeyman Carlos Cervantes in six rounds on Saturday night, but it sure didn’t look easy. The positive thing to say about it was that Cobb showed resiliency in rising from a first-round knockdown to get the stoppage win.

But the issue the promoters over at Golden Boy Promotions will have on their hands going forward is that Cobb attracts a fanbase that will want to see the fighter steadily move up in competition.

He’s not ready for that quite yet.

If anything, it would be best for the fighter to take the slow and steady approach Deontay WIlder’s team employed in taking that fighter up the ranks. Nobody liked it back then, but it sure has paid off.

Still, Blair is already great at every other part of the sport that’s important. He knows how to attract fans and already seems to wield a gravitational force of personality that most boxers never come close to enjoying.

However this thing works out, many will be watching with great interest.

MISS: The Continued Existence of Farewell Fights

Anthony Crolla defeated Frank Urquiaga by majority decision in what was Crolla’s farewell fight on Saturday in Manchester. It’s certainly understandable why a fighter like Crolla would want one last bout against lesser opposition like Urquiaga. It’s a chance to soak everything in for one last time.

But I’m not sure I’ve watched many farewell fights that didn’t seem like everyone involved was just going through the motions.

Part of what makes boxing special is the passion the fighters muster. Boxing isn’t a game like basketball. It’s physical combat between two souls who have to pour themselves out completely to claim victory.

Farewell fights, such as Crolla’s decision win over Urquiaga, don’t really seem like real boxing. It’s more like a sparring session or something else that people shouldn’t have to purchase tickets to see.

Crolla enjoyed a tremendous career. He won British, Commonwealth and even a secondary world title. He was a legitimate world title challenger and even managed to fight arguably the best fighter of his generation in Vasyl Lomachenko.

But nothing that happened on Saturday in his farewell fight did anything to enhance, or even highlight, those things. In fact, it was a virtually meaningless exhibition that probably shouldn’t have happened at all.

HIT: The PBC’s Unique and Important Ability 

With all the other boxing over the weekend, it’s not out of line to suggest most boxing fans didn’t watch the PBC on FS1 card featuring junior middleweight prospect Brian Castano’s stoppage of Wale Omotoso.

Even so, it shouldn’t go unnoticed how many TV slots Al Haymon-managed fighters seem to get these days even if hardly anyone gets to see them.

It might even be frustrating to have so many different fight cards on at the same time. Gone are the days of either HBO or Showtime vying for our attention, or even the minor inconvenience of having to switch back and forth between the two networks when they had competing shows.

Today’s boxing landscape is almost too difficult to follow. There seem to be three or four major cards on every single weekend, many of them going head-to-head against each other. While that can be frustrating (and seemingly even unnecessary), it should be noted that it’s one of the better times in boxing history to be a professional prizefighter.

Of all the competing factions, the PBC seems most adept at putting all sorts of fights across many different networks, many of which often feature fighters that wouldn’t have had a chance for opportunities under the old model.

The best part of that is that it means fighters who otherwise wouldn’t have made as much money 10 years ago are able to secure greater portions for themselves and their families. If that’s not the highest good in boxing, I’m not really sure what is.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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Scoring the Hagler-Leonard Fight With Fresh Eyes: More Fuel for the Fire

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Monday, April 6, marks the 33rd anniversary of one of the most famous fights in boxing history. On that date in 1987, Sugar Ray Leonard upset Marvelous Marvin Hagler at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, ending Hagler’s 36-fight unbeaten streak. The Marvelous One never fought again.

It wasn’t a great fight, but it was a great spectacle. The split decision favoring Sugar Ray was highly controversial and remains a bone of contention to this very day. The only thing that everyone seems to agree on is that the score turned in by Mexican judge Jo Jo Guerra – he had it 118-110 for Leonard – was ridiculous.

TSS New England correspondent Jeffrey Freeman re-visited that fight in an article published on this site in April of 2017. Freeman went back and meticulously studied the tape, re-scoring the fight round-by-round. His conclusion may surprise you.

Here we go, a blast from the past. (Click here to read Jeffrey Freeman’s full 2017 article.)

ROUND ONE: Leonard is on his bicycle immediately, dancing in circles around an orthodox Hagler. Immediate first impressions are that Leonard looks a little bigger than Hagler, not unlike Danny Jacobs last month against Gennady Golovkin. Leonard does not stop to punch very often but the first time he does strike, he unleashes a fast combination from which a left hand clips Hagler on the chin. Marvin smiled and Sugar Ray went back to dancing but the message was received loud and clear. Leonard was for real.  And now he was taunting Hagler by sticking out his chin. More combination punching from Leonard outscores Hagler’s initial body attack.

Leonard wins the first round 10-9.

ROUND TWO: Still fighting orthodox, Hagler is looking to close the distance quicker and punch more. A wide left hook grazes Leonard early in the round. Leonard is boxing well and showing flashes of the defense he’s well known for. Leonard grabs on for the first time after punching while Hagler pounds the body with his free right hand. A whipping right from the outside catches Hagler high on the head. Leonard places a nice left to the body under the elbow. Leonard clinches. With thirty seconds left in the round, Leonard connects with a clean right hand to the side of Hagler’s head. Another left to the body from Leonard at the bell.

Leonard wins the second round 10-9.

ROUND THREE: Fighting southpaw for the first time, Hagler is bobbing and weaving but he’s having a hard time keeping Leonard in one place long enough to punch at him. Lead right hands from Leonard are actually landing cleaner than anything Hagler is throwing in the challenger’s direction. Hagler cannot land his right jab effectively and his uppercut is not breaking up and through the guard of a very defensive minded Leonard. With less than thirty seconds to go, a pair of one-twos from Leonard connects.

Leonard wins the third round 10-9.

ROUND FOUR: Hagler is boxing southpaw and trying unsuccessfully to catch up to Leonard. The challenger is sliding around the ring while Hagler swings and misses. A lead right hand from Leonard connects before a quick clinch. While tied up, Hagler worked the body a few times with his free hand. Leonard landed a clean right to the head on the break, a sign that he is neither intimidated by nor respectful of Hagler. Leonard confirms this fact later in the round when he winds up a showboat bolo punch that lands directly on Hagler’s groin. Referee Richard Steele warns Leonard but Sugar Ray is doing what he wants in there when he wants to do it.

Leonard wins the fourth round, 10-9.

ROUND FIVE: Leonard starts the round strong with a pair of one-twos that connect as Hagler tries to get inside. Leonard is still moving well, beating Hagler to the punch. It looks at times like Hagler’s feet are stuck in mud, while Leonard looks to have wings on his tasseled heels. With less than thirty seconds in the round, Hagler lands a right uppercut on the inside and Leonard is knocked back wobbly from the impact of the punch. Hagler hammers Leonard on the ropes at the bell. Hagler was out-landed this round, but Leonard was hurt.

Hagler wins the fifth round 10-9.

ROUND SIX: The fight is being fought at a familiar pace. Hagler is pressing forward trying to connect. Leonard is boxing from the outside, potshotting Hagler off the jab. Hagler’s stance switches don’t seem to bother Leonard at all. From the southpaw or orthodox position, Hagler misses wildly while Leonard glides away to safety or stands right in front of Hagler; bending back and away from the champion’s wide punches. The objective reality is that Leonard is landing more than Hagler and Hagler is missing more than Leonard.

Leonard wins the sixth round 10-9.

ROUND SEVEN: With Leonard beginning to show his first signs of weariness, Hagler takes advantage to close the gap, landing well with the southpaw jab. Leonard is still countering more effectively but Hagler’s power is starting to find the target. A left uppercut on the ropes from Hagler distorts the pretty face of Sugar Ray. As the round times out, Leonard reverts to shoeshine punches from the outside while Hagler deters his movement and puts Leonard on the ropes for some much needed body punches. This was a very close round.

Hagler wins the seventh round, 10-9.

ROUND EIGHT: Despite Leonard using every inch of an unusually large boxing ring, Hagler’s long right jab lands clean in the first minute of the round. Hagler is starting to look marvelous for the first time in the bout. Leonard is not so tired yet that he can’t keep moving but he is fading to the point where his punches lack the hard snap of earlier. Hagler makes Leonard pay when he opens up and exposes himself to counters. Leonard stands and fights on semi-even terms with Hagler to close out a good round for the defending champion.

Hagler wins the eighth round 10-9.

ROUND NINE: Before the bell to start the round, Leonard’s trainer Angelo Dundee can be heard begging Ray to “just box” and not stand toe-to-toe. By contrast, in the opposite corner, the Petronellis are very calm and collected. Almost too calm. Like an “IBM board meeting” kind of calm. When the action resumed, both Hagler and Leonard went back to what they found effective earlier, Leonard boxing on the outside and Hagler trying to get close with the jab to rough Ray up inside. At the halfway point in the round, Hagler finally has Ray on the ropes, standing straight in front of him. Hagler does great work with his more powerful punches. Under fire in the corner, Leonard shoots off a lightning fast combination as he spins away from danger. It’s clear that Leonard can hit Hagler. It’s not so clear that he can hurt him. Hagler is walking through Leonard’s punches to land harder shots of his own in a great ninth round.

Hagler wins the ninth round, 10-9.

ROUND TEN: With nine minutes left to go in the career of Marvin Hagler, the champion comes out to start the round with a wild right hand that misses. While both fighters are showing some signs of fatigue, it is Hagler who is landing the harder punches as Leonard’s ability to move diminishes. Hagler is the more aggressive fighter in this round, although not always the more effective boxer. Leonard is still scoring points with basic boxing as Hagler wades in head first. Another extremely close round to call.

Leonard wins the tenth round, 10-9.

ROUND ELEVEN: The pace is slow to start the first minute of the championship rounds. Leonard is still finding Hagler’s chrome dome with left-right combinations. Leonard starts to showboat again, taunting Hagler; then unloading with slashing punches. The majority of Leonard’s punches miss but he is now more active than Hagler. Showing his first signs of desperation, Hagler lunges in with wide punches that Leonard is able to deftly avoid by leaning back at the waist. A clean left to the body, then upstairs, lands for Leonard.

Leonard wins the eleventh round, 10-9.

ROUND TWELVE: With three minutes left in the fight, Leonard is ecstatic in the corner before the bell. Both he and Dundee feel they have the fight won as Dundee yells out “new champion” over and over again.  Leonard beckons Hagler to the center of the ring where Steele makes them touch gloves. Hagler goes on the attack immediately, perhaps sensing the seriousness of the situation. Pinned on the ropes in a corner, Leonard again impresses the crowd with a flashy combination to Hagler’s head before dancing away to circle the ring. With ninety seconds left to go, Leonard looks content to run and grab. Hagler misses with a left and a right over the top of a crouching Leonard with a minute to go. Both boxers begin to acknowledge the crowd by raising a fist. Leonard again holds and Hagler punches him repeatedly in the side of his body. They trade inside with Leonard’s back to the ropes to close out the fight.

Hagler wins the twelfth round, 10-9.

I scored the fight 115-113 for Leonard, the same as on the night I first saw the fight live in 1987. Judge Lou Filippo scored it 115-113 for Hagler. Judge Dave Moretti scored it 115-113 for Leonard. And Judge Jo Jo, well, you know what he did.  The A.P. scored for Hagler. The Boston Globe scored for Leonard. HBO’s Harold Lederman had it 115-113 Leonard.

Larry Merchant?  He had it a draw.

Ultimately, Leonard was much better than anyone could have realistically expected. And Hagler was much farther past his prime than anyone truly realized. Quite naturally, it was the perfect time for Leonard to have come out of retirement for a fight with the aging Hagler. So there you have it folks.  I’ve thrown down the gauntlet.  Feel free to pick it up and tell me where I’m wrong.

How did YOU score the fight?

Who REALLY won?

Was it Hagler?  Was it Leonard?

The debate rages on…”

Boxing Writer Jeffrey Freeman grew up in the City of Champions, Brockton, Massachusetts from 1973 to 1987, during the Marvelous career of Marvin Hagler. JFree then lived in Lowell, Mass during the best years of Irish Micky Ward’s illustrious career. A new member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and a Bernie Award Winner in the Category of Feature Under 1500 Words, Freeman covers boxing for The Sweet Science in New England.

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Art of Boxing Series: Tim “Desert Storm” Bradley

David A. Avila

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Few things compare to watching the rise of a virtual unknown boxer to world champion status and that’s what transpired in the amazing career of Tim “Desert Storm” Bradley Jr.

From the first day Bradley stepped into the outdoor prize ring in Corona until his final clash against a super star almost exactly four years ago in Las Vegas, it was like watching a classic painting in the works, a Rembrandt, a Picasso, a Renoir – layer by layer of clashing colors and resistance to opposing forces.

Not all prizefighters are the same.

Bradley, though tough as they come and as fast as a zephyr, was forced to rely on limited physical tools and a mental aptitude for studying the opposition the way a Nobel prize winning physicist might study molecules.

He is a member of a limited few who mastered the art of boxing.

It all began in the starched and heated area of Palm Springs where temperatures soar above 115 degrees on a regular basis in the summer. It can also dip below 30 on a winter night. It was around 1994 that Bradley found boxing.

Always short for his age, others picked on Bradley and he quickly retaliated with flashing fists. He was expelled twice and nearly booted from an entire school district. But he found a loophole when a friend told him about a boxing gym.

“A friend of mine was doing it. His name was Julio and we was always slap boxing around in school, just kidding around trying to hit each other in the face,” said Bradley recounting his elementary school days. “I was quick and very athletic and was always able to get to him before he was able to get to me. And he was boxing. So I begged my dad for almost two months to take me to the boxing gym.”

Bradley’s father worked across the street from a Palm Springs boxing gym and it coincidentally was the same gym his friend Julio attended. Father and son visited the gym one day. Bradley was 10 years old.

“I felt like I was walking into my heaven. I remember it was a blue heavy bag when we walked in the door to my right. I saw the ring, it was off to the right in the corner. And the speed bags were directly in front of me and they had these platforms if you were short so you could reach the speed bags. And I remember seeing all these different pictures on the wall of fighters and trainers and champions,” Bradley recalls.

After signing waivers and getting weighed, the older gentleman, a husky caretaker named OJ Kutcher from Boston, took a good look at young Bradley and tapped him lightly on the chest.

“He looked at me and said ‘oh, you’re different. There is something about you kid. You are going to be a champion’ and my dad started laughing,” said Bradley about what the old trainer said in his Bostonian accent.  “My father said we just want to box. Don’t fill my son’s head up. You don’t got to sell us on this man. We just started laughing.”

It wasn’t a laughing matter once actual training commenced. Immediately Bradley excelled and surpassed the others in his ability to do more push-ups, run faster and train harder. In two weeks he got his first fight. Shortly after, he was pit against a youngster who would be a future amateur legend.

“I remember fighting Panchito Bojado in my second fight. He beat me. I fought hard as I can but I didn’t really know a lot. Then I met him again in my fourth fight in the tournament,” said Bradley chuckling at the memory. “So then I went to the junior golden gloves and he beat me again. He started boxing early, early. I fought hard but he had some experience on me. I never fought him again.”

Bradley quickly became the best fighter in the desert region. Now he set his goals on bigger game.

National Recognition

Though small in stature, Bradley was making a big impact on the amateur boxing world. Stars like Andre Ward, Andre Berto, Andre Dirrell were all future foes and obstacles for Bradley who fought at 147 and 152 pounds as he got older.

His favorite amateur fight took place in the early 2000s.

“My favorite fight was against Edgar Sanchez. He was from Arizona. He’s a lefty. He had just beaten Andre Ward in the Blue and Gold Tournament. I remember watching that fight. I fought Andre Ward in the same tournament. Andre ward beat me 2 to 1, and then Edgar Sanchez beat Andre next day. And that was the last time I saw Andre Ward lose actually,” said Bradley about his favorite amateur win. “That guy, I fought him in the Silver Gloves regionals in the finals and I remember him beating Andre Ward and he beat a couple of other guys that were top-notch from California. I remember getting in the ring with him and I ended up beating him.”

Bradley said he carefully watched Sanchez defeat Ward with an intense pressure style. He devised his own plan to defuse the aggressive boxer and when they met, he emerged the winner.

“I was able to out-box him. Set traps and just let him run into punches. I ended up beating him,” said Bradley remembering the victory. “That was probably my favorite amateur fight.”

Around this same period Bradley was trying to make his long-sought dream of making the US Olympic boxing team. He had two more opportunities when he fought in the Police Athletic League Nationals.

“I fought in the PAL Nationals semi-finals and I fought someone from the Army team. It was tied up 10-10 I think. Then, in the last round, I went straight at him pinned him on the ropes, drilled him and no doubt in my mind I won the fight. After the fight I put my hands up because I had no doubt in my mind I won,” Bradley said of the fight held at 152 pounds. “But they raised his hand instead. That’s just crushed me when I lost. My dream was to go to the Olympics at 152.”

Despite severe height disadvantages at the 152-pound weight class, Bradley felt he was capable of still making the Olympic team.

“I had one more chance and lost the challenge to Vanes (Martirosyan). I had never seen him before. He was tall and long and had good power and skill, he surprised me. He shook me. I was like wow, who is this kid,” said Bradley at the memory. “I fought against the Dirrell brothers, Andre Berto, Andre Ward, I fought all of them. But yeah, I ended up losing and that crushed me. I thought about quitting boxing.”

Enter Thompson Boxing

Months passed by and Bradley decided to partake in teen activities like partying and partying.

“I was finally doing things a teen-ager does,” said Bradley. “I had always been so disciplined and did nothing but train. But with no boxing, I started partying.”

Then one day, at a Palms Spring golf course, Bradley was attending a party when he saw a group of people with shirts that had Thompson Boxing emblems. He asked a man wearing a Thompson Boxing shirt about the company and also informed him that he was a boxer.

“This guy said put your hands up and then he slapped me in the face. Then he slapped me in the face again and we got into a little tussle. I started coming after him. I was furious. Then Ken Thompson’s son Steve ran over to help. I was trying to kill that dude. Steve (Thompson) said, I like your spirit.”

Thompson Boxing agreed to give Bradley an audition fight. But first, Bradley sought out a trainer to make the transition from amateur to professional boxing.

He found Joel Diaz and his brother Antonio Diaz in Indio.

“The Diaz brothers had a big reputation in the Valley. Julio won two world titles, Antonio fought Shane Mosley and Joel fought as well. I just trusted those guys. I knew I had to learn how to really step into the jab. Growing up in boxing you know the lingo,” said Bradley about making the transition in six months. “It was mentally draining, I had to learn distance.”

Finally, on August 20, 2004, Bradley made his pro debut at Omega Products International at Corona, California. It was an outdoor event and facing him was a guy named Francisco Martinez who was also making a pro debut.

“I fought a kid who had just turned pro too and the first jab he hit me with was like getting hit in the face with a brick. Oh my goodness. He’s not hitting me no more,” said Bradley about his first prize fight. “I knew I had more skill than he had. Joel taught me how to break down guys to the body. You got to take something out of them by beating them to the body.”

Bradley won by second round technical knockout.

To be continued…….

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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Stonewalled by the Coronavirus: Dee-Jay Kriel’s Unhappy Story

Arne K. Lang

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They say that good things come to those who wait, but that old bromide gives little solace to a boxer whose career has been frozen by the great pandemic. Some cases evoke more sympathy than others and the case of Dee-Jay Kriel in particular strikes a sympathetic chord.

It’s been 13 months since Kriel last had a fight of any consequence. Opportunities arose but then for one reason or another were pulled off the table. And then finally the logjam was broken, a match with IBF title-holder Felix Alvarado on a big Golden Boy Promotions card later this month on April 25.

The pandemic torpedoed that show and ultimately every other boxing show slated for the month of April and who knows how far beyond? And once again, Dee-Jay Kriel was left in limbo, not knowing when he would fight again.

Chances are you are not familiar with the name Dee-Jay Kriel. Boxers in his weight class, with very few exceptions, toil in anonymity outside the Orient. But Dee-Jay is no club fighter; he actually won a world title, achieving that distinction on Feb. 16, 2019 in Los Angeles when he upset previously undefeated Carlos Licona.

If you missed it, you weren’t alone. The match was left off the televised portion of the show which aired on FOX. In fact, some ringside reporters missed the fight, or at least left it off their post-fight story. It was the walkout fight and they were likely busy interviewing the victorious headliner Leo Santa Cruz  back in his dressing room.

That’s what happens – indifference or downright disdainfulness — when you compete in the smallest weight class. Licona vs. Kriel was contested for the IBF minimum-weight title. And, so it is that when Dee-Jay Kriel looks back at the proudest moment of his pro career, his self-satisfaction is tempered by the realization that few people got to share the moment with him.

“That’s too bad,” he says, “because it was a very exciting fight.”

Indeed it was. Heading into the 12th round, Dee-Jay was ahead by one point on one of the cards but trailed by seven points on the others. It wasn’t sufficient that he go out and hammer Licona from pillar to post in the final stanza; he needed a knockout to win. And he rose to the occasion, scoring three knockdowns before the referee waived it off with less than a minute remaining on the clock.

“It was like a Rocky movie,” says Kriel.

Kriel is from Boxburg, South Africa, a community on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The Licona fight, which he took on short notice, was his U.S. debut. He had come to Las Vegas six months earlier to hone his game under the tutelage of veteran trainer Kenny Adams.

“There just wasn’t enough opportunity in South Africa,” he said. Like many other boxers around the world looking for that one big break, Las Vegas was seen as the promised land.

In Las Vegas, things have not proceeded as quickly as he had hoped, but frequent sparring sessions with Nonito Donaire sharpened his tools and increased his confidence. “I learned a lot from Nonito,” says Dee-Jay.

It’s a long way from Johannesburg to Las Vegas, more than 10,000 miles. You can’t fly there non-stop and you can’t get there in one day. And for a young boxer leaving home for the first time, heading off to a strange land, the trip must seem even longer. Kriel is very close to his extended family and came here without his wife Denica (pictured) who wasn’t able to join him until October of last year.

When he was just starting out, Kriel seemed like the longest of long shots to win a world title. He was 0-3 as an amateur and lost his pro debut. But he stayed the course and would not lose again. He currently sports a 16-1-1 (8 KOs) record, the most recent “W” coming in an un-taxing, stay-busy fight in Tijuana.

Kenny Adams, who turns 80 this year, has had health problems that have forced him to cut down on his workload. Brandon Woods has assumed the role of chief trainer. Woods is a fixture at Bones Adams gym in Las Vegas, or was until the coronavirus turned the world upside down. Now, instead of working with boxers in a communal setting, Woods trains fighters one-on-one in his home.

“I still work out every day,” Kriel told this reporter by phone. “I run and jump rope and work the mitts with Brandon.”

It can’t be very much fun. Woods is a no-nonsense trainer. In the gym, he runs the show like a drill sergeant. It is the camaraderie that makes it easy to digest; there’s a sense of community there, a family-like atmosphere that can’t be replicated in a one-on-one setting.

Winning a title wasn’t life-changing. The IBF ordered Kriel to defend the belt against Pedro Taduran, but Taduran’s management offered less money than Kriel had made fighting Carlos Licona and they insisted that the fight had to take place in the Philippines. Ergo, Kriel relinquished his belt without defending it, moving up to a higher weight class.

Kriel’s dream fight was a unification bout with long-reigning WBC title-holder Wanheng Menayothin, aka Chayaphon Moonsri, whose record, currently 54-0, gives him a Mayweather-like aura, if only in his native Thailand. (Ironically, Menayothin was also slated to appear on Golden Boy’s April 25 show, but against an opponent who would not have posed as big a threat to him as Dee-Jay Kriel; such are the politics of boxing.)

Dee-Jay could be forgiven for walking away from the sport in frustration, but returning home right now isn’t an option. South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdown is among the world’s most stringent. Jogging and dog-walking are prohibited. In Johannesburg, the militia are patrolling the streets.

The Republic of South Africa has produced a few good heavyweights and one great junior lightweight in Brian Mitchell, but for whatever reason an inordinate number of South Africa’s best fighters have toiled in the smallest weight classes. Baby Jake Matlala, who had to stand on his tiptoes to be five feet tall, became a national hero after upsetting Michael Carbajal at Las Vegas in 1997. Zolani Tete, a former two-division champion, began his career at 111 pounds. Moruti Mthalene is the reigning IBF world flyweight champion and former world minimum-weight title-holder Hekkie Budler is currently ranked #1 by the WBC at light flyweight.

As shown by Matlala, and many years earlier by mighty-mite Vic Toweel, South Africans revere their world boxing champions, no matter how big or how small. When Dee-Jay’s sponsors Ryan Erasmus and Kagiso Mokoduo chose to back him, the potential return on investment was obviously a lesser motivation than the chance to be involved in a project that would hopefully uplift the spirits of their countrymen. Erasmus and Mokoduo are the co-founders of a prominent South Africa law firm.

“They are good guys,” says Kriel. “They look after me.”

Does he worry that in these troubled economic times his sponsors may be compelled to pull the plug? “It preys on my mind,” he says, “but so far there has been no indication of that.” Should that transpire, Dee-Jay couldn’t count on financial help from his wife. Denica was a bookkeeper for a financial services firm in South Africa but is in the U.S. on a student visa that prohibits her from entering the work force.

Dee-Jay knows that he has it a lot better than other fighters who can no longer afford to keep their nose to the grindstone. He’s also lucky to live in the Internet age where keeping up with the home folks doesn’t involve the post office. He communicates with his family in South Africa by video every day. His father has a small towing business. “We were never poor,” he says, “but my parents never had a lot of money. I want to help them out. That’s my first goal and then I would like to leave a legacy.”

Dee-Jay bucked big odds when he snatched away Carlos Licona’s title. Licona had 75 amateur fights, was schooled by the renowned trainer Robert Garcia, and was fighting in his backyard. And he will be a substantial underdog again when and if his bout with Nicaragua’s Felix Alvarado comes to fruition. Alvarado is 35-2 with 30 knockouts, has won 17 in a row, and has been in with stiffer competition. His twin brother Rene Alvarado recently won the WBA 130-pound title.

Alvarado seemingly has another factor in his favor. As I write this on April 3, Nicaraguan strongman Daniel Ortega has yet to impose social distancing. One presumes that Alvarado’s regular routine hasn’t been disturbed.

“I believe a fighter needs to fight,” says Kriel, “just as a footballer (i.e, a soccer player) needs to keep playing football.” Expressed more tersely by an old-time fight handicapper of this writer’s acquaintance: rest makes rust.

The Dee-Jay Kriel story isn’t a great tragedy like so many COVID-19 stories, but it’s hard not to feel for him and for all the other boxers who have been marooned, in a manner of speaking, by this surreal situation.

Hang in there, guys.

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel 

To comment on this story in The Fight Forum CLICK HERE

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