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Stablemates Isley and Davis Lead the Parade of Boxers into the Olympic Trials

Arne K. Lang

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America’s premier amateur boxing event starts on Dec. 9. The host city is Lake Charles, Louisiana. The event, a six-day affair, is climaxed by the finals of the Olympic Team trials.

Sixty-four male boxers in eight weight divisions will be competing to keep their Olympic dreams alive. The top two in each division will advance to a box-off at the Olympic training facility in Colorado Springs.

There are fewer boxers competing this year than in 2015 when the Olympic trials for men were held in Reno. That’s because there are two fewer weight classes. The light flyweight (108 pounds) and light welterweight (141 pounds) classes have been expunged, reducing the number of Olympic weight classes for men from 10 to eight. (There are now five weight classes for women, up from three in previous years.)

The sixty-four boxers represent 26 states and the District of Columbia. Defying the odds, two of the favorites are products of the same gym. The Alexandria Boxing Club in Alexandria, Virginia, spawned Troy Isley and Keyshawn Davis. Best friends born five months apart, both are expected to be #1 seeds in their respective brackets.

Troy Isley

Isley, 21, took up boxing at the age of nine. His family then resided five blocks from the gym which sits in a rec center in a gentrifying neighborhood in North Alexandria that is historically an African-American district.

Isley first came to the fore in 2012 when he won a National Police Athletic League title, defeating Devin Haney on the road to the finals. In 2017, he scored a split decision over Uzbekistan’s super-talented Ismail Madrimov at a tournament in Hamburg, Germany. This year, he avenged a previous defeat to Cuba’s Arlen Lopez, narrowly out-pointing the 2016 Olympic gold medalist at a tournament in Nicaragua.

Isley competes at middleweight (165 pounds), a deep division despite some recent defections. Money Powell IV abandoned the amateur ranks in January of 2017, signing with Richard Schaefer’s Ringstar Sports. In July of last year, Team USA lost the services of Nikita “White Chocolate” Abibay who was poached away by Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom organization. As an amateur, Abibay split two fights with Troy Isley.

Keyshawn Davis

Davis, 20, hails from Norfolk, VA, the same hometown as the late, great Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist. Like his buddy Troy Isley, he started boxing at the age of nine and went on to become a two-time National Police Athletic League champion.

A lightweight, Davis is a clear-cut #1 seed after winning silver in the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, and in the 2019 World Championships in Ekaterinburg, Russia. In both tournaments, he came up a tad short in the finals against Cuba’s gifted Andy Cruz.

Kay Koroma, the Common Thread

The patriarch of the Alexandria Boxing Club is Dennis Porter who has been there for more than 20 years. He’s a plumber by trade, as is second-in-command (but more hands-on) Kay Koroma who has quietly risen up the U.S. amateur boxing ranks to where he now spends more time in Colorado Springs than back home in Virginia. An assistant coach with the 2016 U.S. Olympic boxing team, Korona, 39, will serve in the same capacity in 2020 when the scene shifts to Tokyo.

Koroma, whose legal first name is Kompa, had a brief pro career, winning five of six documented fights. Three of those bouts were in Virginia; the others in Zambia, Kenya, and China.

Shakur Stevenson’s back story as a boxer began in Newark where he took up boxing at age five under the watchful eye of his grandfather Wali Moses. But it was Koroma who polished Stevenson into an Olympian. Stevenson won silver in Rio, one of only two U.S. male boxers to medal (light flyweight Nico Hernandez won bronze).

Korona has continued to work with Stevenson who was brilliant in his last outing, snatching the vacant WBO world featherweight title. He also continues to work with Mikaela Mayer who was eliminated by eventual gold medal winner Estelle Mossely in Rio, subsequently signing with Top Rank, under whose banner she is 12-0 as a pro.

kay shakur

Koroma is as comfortable working with the women as with the men. He has worked extensively with Virginia Fuchs, the LSU grad who is America’s most established female amateur boxer, and with Maine lightweight Amelia Moore who took up residence in Alexandria to speed up her development. At last glance, Moore was ranked third in her weight class.

Will Koroma continue to work primarily with amateurs after Tokyo, or will he follow the example of several previous U.S. Olympic boxing coaches and go pro full-time? Time will tell, but he was recently hired as a consultant by fledgling New Jersey promoter Vito Mielnicki Sr whose precocious 17-year-old son, a welterweight, is a blue-chip prospect in the PBC stable.

“Kay is going to be the next top trainer in the business,” says Mielnicki.

At the amateur level, Koroma is already there. He is on pace to become recognized as one of the greatest American amateur boxing coaches ever!

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Fast Results from London: Massive Heavyweight Joe Joyce Keeps on Rolling

Arne K. Lang

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Ponderous but formidable Joe Joyce moved one step closer to a title fight tonight at the Wembley Arena with a sixth-round stoppage of Carlos Takam. Carrying 264 pounds on a six-foot-six frame, the 2014 Olympic silver medalist was simply too big for his 40-year-old French-Cameroonian adversary.

In his previous bout, Joyce methodically dismantled favored Daniel Dubois with a steady dose of his thudding right jab. Dubois quit in the 10th round with a busted eye socket. Tonight’s fight followed a somewhat similar pattern.

Takam landed some good shots in the first two rounds as Joyce was slow to find his rhythm, but Joyce stuck to his game plan which was to wear him down and Takam’s punches gradually lost steam in the face of Joyce’s constant pressure.

Early in round six, Joyce rocked Takam with a big right hand and didn’t let him off the hook. Takam protested when the referee indicated that he had seen enough and the stoppage did strike many as premature, but the handwriting was on the wall for the veteran who declined to 39-6-1. The official time was 0:49.

Joyce is of Scotch-Irish and Nigerian descent. College educated with a degree in fine arts, he acknowledges that he has no great passion for the sport of boxing and is in it for the financial rewards, not the glory. At age 35, he isn’t going to get any better, but he appears to have a rock-solid chin and his nickname, Juggernaut, is quite fitting.

Joyce entered the bout ranked #2 by the WBO, a notch below Oleksandr Usyk who challenges title-holder Anthony Joshua on Sept. 25.

Other Bouts of Note

Ekow Essuman, a 32-year-old Nottingham man, born in Botswana, unseated British and Commonwealth welterweight champion Chris Jenkins, winning on an eighth-round stoppage. A hard right hook followed by a flurry of punches forced the referee to waive it off. The official time was 0:53.

Essuman, who was favored in the 3/1 range, improved to 15-0 with his sixth win inside the distance. A Welshman, Jenkins (22-4-3) was making the fourth defense of his domestic title.

London super welterweight Hamzah Sheeraz, who has been training at the Ten Goose Gym in Van Nuys, California, improved to 13-0 (9 KOs) with a fifth-round stoppage of Spain’s Ezequiel Gurria (15-2). Gurria was down twice in the fifth round before the bout was halted at the 2:23 mark.

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Steen, Bocachica, and Martino Jules Stay Unbeaten in Cornhuskerland

Arne K. Lang

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The long-running Showtime series ShoBox:The New Generation was at the Heartland Events Center in Grand Island, Nebraska last night. Super middleweight Isaiah Steen and welterweight Janelson Figueroa Bocachica, both of whom are managed by 2020 BWAA Manager of the Year David McWater, were featured in the main bouts.

Cleveland’s Steen, the half-brother of 2016 U.S. Olympian Charles Conwell, improved to 16-0 (12) with a 10-round unanimous decision over previously undefeated Kalvin Henderson (14-1-1). Steen started slow and slowed down again in the final two rounds, but dominated the middle rounds and won by scores of 96-94 and 97-93 twice. Henderson, a part-time schoolteacher in Fayetteville, Arkansas who earned a degree in music from the University of Arkansas, was hampered by a pulled muscle in his right shoulder which he believes happened in the fourth round.

Steen hopes to land a spot on the big show coming up in Cleveland in five weeks. Charles Conwell is already booked. He will oppose Massachusetts veteran Mark DeLuca in a supporting bout to the freak fight between Jake Paul and Tyrone Woodley.

Janelson Figueroa Bocachica, a Detroit native of Puerto Rican ancestry, kept his undefeated record intact, but just barely. He was held to a draw by Shinard Bunch who appeared to have done enough to edge it.

Bunch, whose middle name is Showtime (no fooling) fights out of Trenton, New Jersey and is trained by Chino Reyes who guided Jason Sosa and Tevin Farmer to world titles. He entered the bout with a 15-1 (13) record but was moving up in class in his first scheduled 10-rounder. Only six of his wins had come against opponents with winning records.

Bocachica (17-0-1) performed below expectations for the second straight fight, having been hard-pressed to turn away Mark Reyes Jr. in his previous go. One of the judges scored it for him (96-94) but the others had it 97-93 Bunch and 95-95.

The TV opener was an 8-round featherweight contest between Martino Jules, a 24-year-old southpaw from Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Aram Avagyan, a 30-year-old Armenian who began his pro career in Russia and is currently domiciled in California.

Although neither were big punchers, the Armenian had the odds in his favor. A 2016 Olympian, he had fought the tougher schedule and was the bigger man, coming in two pounds over the featherweight limit (which reportedly cost him $2000). But his performance was sloppy – he was repeatedly warned for leading with his head – and the decision was a foregone conclusion when Jules was credited with scoring a knockdown late in the final round.

In his biggest win to date, Martino Jules improved to 11-0. It was the first pro loss for the 30-year-old Avagyan who declined to 10-1-2.

Photo credit: Esther Lin / SHOWTIME

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Les Bonano, Mr. Boxing in New Orleans, Enters the NOLA Sports Hall of Fame

Bernard Fernandez

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He is perhaps the final ruler of what remains of a fraying and depleted boxing kingdom in the formerly great fight town of New Orleans. For 50-plus years Les Bonano has fought the good fight, both when things were going well or not so much in a unique American city familiar with pronounced pendulum swings not necessarily linked to his favorite sport.

Now, at 78, the boxing lifer who accepted the baton in a relay race of sorts whose previous carriers included such similarly distinctive local legends as Whitey Esneault, Allen “Black Cat” Lacombe and “Leapin’” Louie Messina, all of whom have taken their earthly 10-count, gets the championship turn none of his fighters were quite able to present him when he is inducted Saturday night into the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame at the Hilton Riverside.

Bonano thus will become the 13th person affiliated with boxing to be enshrined in the GNOSHOF – hey, 13 is a number “Black Cat” Lacombe (who, like Messina, is not an inductee) would surely love, were he still around – but it might be a long time before No. 14, if there ever is one, gets the next call to the hall. All 12 of the previous pugilistic honorees are deceased, and those potential candidates who might have a case for being recognized have to date drawn scant support from a selection committee whose members are not seemingly disposed to acknowledge their places in the city’s once-rich boxing history. Before it was the “Big Easy,” New Orleans was known as “the city that care forgot.”  In terms of boxing in the here and now, 21st century NOLA might be more aptly described as “the city that forgot to care.”

But any woulda, coulda, shoulda arguments that have been waged or will continue to be on that front can’t detract from Les Bonano’s five-decade march to a level of recognition in his hometown that few boxing figures have attained. In boxing parlance, he will have gone the distance, arguably a longer trek and arguably a more improbable one than any of his predecessors.

“There is such a tremendous honor. I’ve won some awards, but this will be the greatest in my life,” he said when informed that he had finally gained entry into the exclusive boxing wing of the GNOSHOF. “It means so much to me, it’s hard for me to explain. I can’t put it into words.”

It is the fickle finger of fate that touches boxing’s peripheral presences – promoters, trainers, cut men, etc. – to either bask in the glow of their involvement with elite fighters, or be shrouded in the shadows along with their charges who never quite make it all the way to the top of the mountain. Angelo Dundee is a global legend, an inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, in no small part because he trained, among others, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Carmen Basilio. The same can be said of Emanuel Steward, Eddie Futch, Freddie Roach and any number of other chief seconds who were fortunate to bring their knowledge and expertise to the corners of fighters who were world-class talents and commanded the spotlight. Instantly identifiable promoters such as Don King, Bob Arum, Tex Rickard and others have plaques hanging in Canastota, N.Y., because they handled the big acts.

Bonano began his boxing journey, as so many do, as a jack of all trades. He is primarily known as a promoter of fight cards in New Orleans and its environs these days, but he also has served as a trainer, cut man and doer of all things that are necessary in a trade where general handiness can be rewarding.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of good people in boxing,” he recalled. “And I was a sponge. I wanted to know everything. I learned from everyone that I could. Vincent Arnona (also not a GNOSHOF inductee) was a great New Orleans trainer and a legendary cut man who taught me everything he knew. I think I had success because I incorporated methods from all the different people that I met and worked with.”

Among Bonano’s guides along the way were Lacombe, a boxing and thoroughbred racing handicapper whose N’Awlins accent was as thick as Bonano’s, and Messina, a promoter who staged shows involving world-rated welterweights Percy Pugh and Jerry Pellegrini. Home-grown main-eventers, Pugh (black) and Pellegrini (white) regularly drew full houses before loud, enthusiastic audiences in Municipal Auditorium in the 1960s and early ‘70s. And when they squared off for the Southern 147-pound championship on March 3, 1968, the joint was filled to overflowing. The slick-boxing Pugh won a 15-round unanimous decision over the harder-hitting Pellegrini, a virtual replay of the 10-round UD Pugh scored in their first meeting on Sept. 21, 1967.

“So many people were there, or wanted to be there and couldn’t get in,” Bonano, who later employed Pugh as a trainer of some of his fighters, said of those standing-room-only turnouts promoted by Messina in the 5,000-seat arena. “It’s something I’ll never forget. The place was packed, man.”

Neither Pugh nor Pellegrini ever got the chance to fight for a world title, however, which is a distinction several of the more prominent members of Bonano’s promotional stable were able to accomplish. Light heavyweight Jerry Celestine, an ex-con who came out of the Orleans Parish Prison boxing program instituted by Bonano when Les served in the OPP sheriff’s department, upset third-ranked Vonzell Johnson and later challenged WBA champ Michael Spinks, losing on an eighth-round stoppage. Melvin Paul floored Charlie “Choo Choo” Brown in the 15th round when they squared off for the vacant IBF lightweight title, but Brown beat the count and won a close and controversial (in Bonano’s opinion) split decision. And John “Super D” Duplessis got a shot at WBC/IBF super lightweight kingpin Julio Cesar Chavez, but, predictably, he had no chance against an all-time great and was whacked out in four rounds.

It is Paul’s narrow loss on points to Brown, a Philadelphian fighting in nearby Atlantic City, N.J., that has been most irksome to Bonano, who referred to the outcome as a “hometown” decision.

“Melvin thought he had the fight won,” Bonano said. “He ran to the side of the ring and was calling out to his wife and celebrating on the ropes. The (pro-Brown) crowd was going crazy, but Brown somehow was standing up. I was screaming at Melvin to knock him out, but he couldn’t hear me. Brown wobbled on his feet for about 30 seconds and was saved by the bell. Melvin was robbed.”

Although denied his own world titlist, Bonano had ample opportunity to be involved with indisputably great fighters – Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones Jr., Roberto Duran and Larry Holmes, among others — when he worked in conjunction with bigger-name promoters Bob Arum and Lou DiBella to bring fights to Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis, Miss., within easy driving distance of New Orleans.

When Esneault, the legendary New Orleans trainer whose own list of fighters included world champions Willie Pastrano, Ralph Dupas and Freddie Little, as well as title challengers Bernard Docusen and Tony Licata, was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2016 (I served as his presenter), it reminded me of what New Orleans fight writer Waddell Summers wrote about “Mr. Whitey” when he passed away on Jan. 20, 1968, at the age of 76.

“When Whitey Esneault died, the Golden Age of boxing in New Orleans was laid to rest in St. Rich No. 2 cemetery,” Summers predicted. But that gloomy pronouncement might not have been absolutely accurate, even if Esneault was a World War I veteran whose life experiences dated back to the 19th century. New Orleans was once one of boxing’s hottest of hotbeds, the site of the Sept. 7, 1892, megafight, fought under the still-new Marquess of Queensberry Rules, in which “Gentleman” Jim Corbett dethroned John L. Sullivan, the “Boston Strongboy,” on a 21st-round knockout. The city’s deep roots in boxing date back further than that, to the 1870 pairing of Jem Mace and Tom Allen in what was considered the first legitimate heavyweight prizefight.

In later and more flush times, the Louisiana Superdome was the site of Muhammad Ali’s reclaiming of the heavyweight championship (for a record third time) on a 15-round UD over Leon Spinks on Sept. 15, 1978, a Mardi Gras-level event witnessed by an announced crowd of 63,350, and Roberto Duran’s “No Mas” surrender to Sugar Ray Leonard on Nov. 25, 1980, which drew a turnout of about 30,000. On a somewhat smaller scale, Roy Jones Jr. defended his WBA, WBC and The Ring light heavyweight belts on a 10th-round RTD over 30-1 underdog Eric Harding on Sept. 9, 2000, in the New Orleans Arena (now Smoothie King Center), now the home of the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans.

Bonano doesn’t want to be New Orleans’ last inclusion in the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame; he is a staunch proponent of Pugh getting the recognition he believes is long overdue, and he also figures the committee that approved him might want to take a look at Licata and Messina. But of perhaps greater importance is the need to rebuild upon traditions that are on the verge of going permanently fallow, unless a new face in an old place steps forward to accept the baton from Bonano.

Can New Orleans boxing be revived to a reasonable facsimile of what it once was?

“First of all, you gotta have somebody local that can develop into a world-class fighter, to draw attention to the game,” Bonano said. “Once that happens, you’d see a lot of young guys get involved in boxing, a lot of spectators coming back to see fights. But there has to be a lead person to draw that attention.”

And is there a possible successor to himself that might be ready to embark onto his own long journey toward the GNOSHOF?

“I got a good friend of mind named Toby Wattigney, who loves boxing,” Bonano offered. “He’s a trainer. I think that Toby will wind up taking over as a promoter. He’s great and I really believe he will carry on the tradition I’m leaving behind.”

Here’s hoping Wattigney can fill the large footsteps of New Orleans’ last (for now) link to what was. But, hey, miracles can and sometimes do happen. After all, the New Orleans Saints did win Super Bowl XLIV on Feb. 7, 2010.

In addition to Bonano, other inductees into the GNOSHOF (*for those now deceased, **for those also enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame), listed alphabetically with the year in which they are enshrined, are:

*Referee Elmo Adolph (2000)

**Former lightweight champion Joe “Old Bones” Brown (1970)

*Fighter and promoter Marty Burke (1978)

**Three-division former world champion Tony Canzoneri (1984)

*Former welterweight contender Bernard Docusen (1976)

*Former WBA/WBC super welterweight champion Ralph Dupas (1978)

**Trainer Ernest “Whitey” Esneault (2016)

*Dr. Eddie Flynn, a gold medalist at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics (1981)

*Harry Gamble, a multiple-sport athlete, including boxing, at Tulane University (1983)

**Former bantamweight champion Pete Herman (1971)

**Former unified light heavyweight champion Willie Pastrano (1973)

*Former world-rated featherweight Jimmy Perrin (1979)

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