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British Boxing 2019 in Review

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2018 was an astonishing year for British boxing and for all that 2019 didn’t quite measure up, there were some notable names and some astonishing moments, not to mention some astonishing fights.

Here we take a closer look, naming a British Boxer of the Year, a British Fight of the Year, the British Prospect of the Year, the British Breakthrough of the Year and finally the British Trainer of the Year.

This one is in the bag; I’ll see you this time next year for another yearly appraisal.

British Boxer of the Year: Josh Taylor

A lot has been said about the terrible emotional turmoil inflicted upon Josh Taylor in this past year, which should have been the best year of his life. Suffering a death in the family makes going to work in an office extremely difficult, so we can, some of us, imagine the terrible difficulty in putting your health on the line in one of the most emotionally wrought professions a person can chose. But set that aside. Strictly in sporting terms, Taylor has a head a year for the ages.

Set aside, too, just for a moment, his October meeting with Regis Prograis and look instead to his May clash with Ivan Baranchyk. Baranchyk was and remains absolutely real, a light-welterweight of prestigious strength and formidable durability. His 2018 walkdown of Anthony Yigit was painful to watch and saw Baranchyk ensconced in the top ten. This was the man Taylor had to overcome in the semi-final of the World Boxing Super Series.

He did so, and in doing so he fitted the last piece of the puzzle in his stylistic jigsaw, repeatedly slipping and ducking Baranchyk’s wild hooks, hooks he threw with both hands as he aggressively pursued a Josh Taylor that seemed happier on his toes than at any point in his career. It was a demonstration of stylistic flexibility unlike any seen on these shores for a number of years.

In the fourth, Taylor started to come down, to meet his more aggressive foe in the pocket. He was dominant here too, his more varied offense crowned with two-handed uppercuts and a sneaky trailing left from the southpaw stance.

Hit and hurt in the fifth he went to war in the sixth and twice dropped Baranchyk, who had never been down much less beaten in his 19-0 career. This was the round that determined his wide points victory.

Still, Prograis was something else again. Skilled, quick-witted and seemingly faster than Taylor he was a genuinely menacing opponent and at 24-0 was also more experienced. Expectations were that Prograis would box and move and that Taylor would have to assume the Baranchyk role in trying to hunt a more mobile fighter down and take it away from him. When Prograis elected to hold his ground, the result was a fight of the year contender and the result, a narrow decision victory for the Scotsman, made him the only reasonable choice for British fighter of the year.

It also saw him crack the TBRB pound-for-pound list at number ten.

So, Taylor had a hard year but a good one. It ended though, on a sour note. Scotland is not an easy place to be famous and Scottish blood runs hot come the weekend. In December, Taylor appeared in court having been involved in an altercation with a nightclub bouncer in the early hours of a Sunday morning during which he threw homophobic and racial insults. He pleaded guilty to the latter of these while charges relating to possession of cocaine were dropped.

If 2020 is to be as outstanding for Taylor as 2019 was, changes need to be made.

British Fight of the Year: Lewis Ritson UD12 Robbie Davies

Nowhere in the UK does big time sport quite like Newcastle. As a Scotsman, that’s not easy to admit and while I’d argue Glasgow a close second, Newcastle remains number one.

Lewis Ritson (20-1) is that city’s favorite fighting son and Robbie Davies (19-1) showed guts even agreeing to make the match there. What followed was as fine a demonstration of heart and intestinal fortitude as was seen in Britain this past year.

Brutal exchanges in the first foretold a knockout, but it was not to be. Despite Davies switch hitting impressively and scoring with either trailing hand, Ritson came roaring back in the final minute; they re-joined in the second and fought as though tethered. Ritson, ostensibly the puncher in the fight, couldn’t hit hard enough to get Davies off him. The referee was a mere spectator – clinches were as rare as retreat.

Both men were exhausted by the sixth but had gone to that strange place boxers visit when they know if they don’t hit, they’ll get hit. Every truly great fight of any length sees the combatants visit that netherworld, I think, and the man who copes with it better emerges triumphant.

And that man was Riston. This fight was, perhaps, a little too wide to be immortal, Ritson winning by valid scores of 117-112 and 116-112 twice (my score), but the twelfth round gives pause for thought.  Davies strength of character in coming back over and over again from Ritson bombs in this round was the highlight of both the fight and the British boxing year.

British Breakthrough of the Year: John Ryder

John Ryder (28-5) traveled out to Las Vegas in May and blasted out the unranked Australian puncher Bilal Akkawy in three. This put him in line for a shot at the world’s number one super-middleweight Callum Smith. This was awkward for Smith, who believed he was ready for box office. Ryder wasn’t that. He was, on paper, merely a solid contender, and with a 5’9 frame and 72” inch reach, probably a middleweight one. Smith, at 6’2, 78”, could perhaps be forgiven for taking the fight a little lightly.

If he did, it was in error.

Ryder slipped Smith’s very first jab beautifully. He then nicked a desperately close round on generalship. His plan, to wait, wait and wait, then punch his way in and aggressively smother Smith on the ropes with busy hands, resulted in a fight that was, although not electric, poised, absorbing and fascinating.

Again and again Smith seemed to find the range but again and again Ryder, using a deep stance but bracing his weight across alternate legs depending upon Smith’s position, continued to upset his rhythm and his work with rushing, mauling attacks. It was comical at first to see the little man bury himself on Smith and whale away but by the fourth it was clear that Smith was in a fight.

After eight they looked dead level and when Ryder crashed out of his corner in his tenth and eleventh the fight seemed in the balance. With a torrid twelfth too close to call any one of three results seemed possible.

With so many close rounds – and the first, second, fifth, eighth, tenth and twelfth were all desperately close – it is always possible that the official scorecards will seem unsatisfying and this was such an occasion. 116-112 twice and 117-111 seemed off. I had it a draw – many had Ryder the winner.

The reaction to this result was fascinating. Sympathy for Ryder was almost universal and it is interesting to me that the TBRB, Boxing Monthly and Boxing News all continue to rank Ryder among their top ten in the division. Even more unlikely, Eddy Reynoso, who coaches Canelo Alvarez, has mentioned Ryder as a possible future opponent. He made an impression in defeat that many fail to make in victory.

Ryder lost the only truly meaningful fight he boxed in 2019 but he’s the breakout star from the UK with some massive fights a possibility in his future, not least a possible rematch with Smith.

British Prospect for 2020: Daniel Azeez

Daniel Azeez (11-0) had a busy 2019, boxing thirty rounds across five different fights, all victories, four of them by knockout. But it is another number which makes Azeez my British prospect to watch for the coming twelve months and that number is “30”, his age.

Azeez took up boxing as an amateur late and after a respectable if unglamorous unpaid career, turned professional in 2017. A light-heavyweight, he’s not in a desperate hurry, but his apprenticeship should be truncated given his years.

As to that inglorious amateur career, Azeez is sure his style is more suited to the paid ranks.  This is a bell often rung by amateurs who met with limited success, but Azeez is a little more specific than most, picking perhaps the most “professional” fighter of all as the one his style most echoes, Marvin Hagler.

Azeez is built a little like the great middleweight, defined but with a certain litheness, and he favors the same attire for the ring: old-school ring-robe, knee-high socks, even the maroon colored trunks Marvin favored.

As to his style, there are some similarities. Azeez stepped up this past June against the stoic Charlie Duffield, who he did away with in six. What most impressed me about this performance was the steady manner in which Azeez broke his man down. He started off confidently, no small matter given that he was on the undercard of the Dillian Whyte-Oscar Rivas pay-per-view card, and by the fifth was exhibiting total dominance. That speaks of a layered offence rather than athletic superiority, though he enjoyed aspects of that too.

What made Hagler a genius was economy; he wasted almost nothing and that is perhaps the hardest skill to master in the ring because it combines so many elements of other skills and abilities. Azeez has the beginning of excellent timing in the ring and if he displays one third of what Hagler had in that department he has the makings of a very good fighter.

azeez

In the plus column: his uppercuts are already wonderful, he has two very different right hands, one short, one over the top and both of them are very good punches; his jab is hurtful; he has footwork and balance of a much more seasoned fighter and sudden attacks don’t seem to compromise it.

In the minus column: he doesn’t use his jab nearly enough, though his use of upper-body feints mitigate that somewhat from a defensive perspective; his chin, of course, is unknown; I’m interested to see how he does against top drawer hookers; he’s in a very tough division.

It all adds up to very interesting and with an English title under his belt courtesy of his clear points victory over the awkward 9-0-1 Lawrence Osueke earlier this month and the man himself hinting at a shot at the British title in 2020, it is likely to become more so in this coming year.

British Trainer of the Year: Robert McCracken

Yes, that Robert McCracken, the one that oversaw Anthony Joshua’s disastrous knockout loss to Andy Ruiz before, admittedly, overseeing a victory in the return – the Rob McCracken everyone thought Anthony Joshua should have fired. The truth is that no British trainer has moved me to any great extent in 2019 so I am taking the opportunity to pay tribute here to McCracken’s wider work.

As the performance director at the English Institute of Sport, McCracken has worked at some point with not one, not two, but all six of the current British fighters to hold an alphabet title. Alphabet titles are murdering boxing, but getting one isn’t easy. So, it is worth noting that while he may not have worked directly this year with the likes of Callum Smith or Kal Yafai, he had a hand in the development of each and every one of them as well as any number of decorated amateurs.

And with 2020 being another Olympic year, he may just get the nod again in twelve months’ time.

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Who Murdered Peter Bufala? A ‘Whodunit’ with a Boxing Backdrop

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On Friday, Oct. 8, 1976, Peter Bufala returned home from work just as a new day was dawning. The Las Vegas baccarat dealer pulled his Cadillac into his circular driveway, exited his car, walked toward his front door, and was felled by two bullets from a 9 mm handgun, one entering his chest and the other his brain. A neighbor fetching his morning newspaper found him lying in a pool of blood on his front lawn. He was dead when the police arrived. He was 33 years old and left behind a wife and two young daughters.

A 12-year resident of the fast-growing southern Nevada gambling mecca, Bufala grew up in Chester, Pennsylvania, a blue collar suburb of Philadelphia. He had come here to rekindle his boxing career.

A Middle Atlantic amateur featherweight champion, he had begun his pro career on a high note, winning a 4-round decision over a fellow novice on a show at New York’s St. Nicholas Arena that included Rubin “Hurricane” Carter who would go on to fight for the world middleweight title but would be best remembered for the many years he spent behind prison walls for his alleged involvement in a triple homicide.

Following his New York engagement, Bufala fought in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Virginia. As a pro, he never fought in his home state and there was a reason for it. In 1961, while undergoing a routine medical examination at an amateur show, he was diagnosed with a heart murmur. The Pennsylvania Boxing Commission rescinded his license. He subsequently underwent a series of tests at Temple University Medical Hospital and was given a clean bill of health, but the Pennsylvania authorities were unyielding and, bit by bit, in a day when news traveled slowly, other jurisdictions fell into line.

Nevada was the Wild West. The regulators there had looser standards and Bufala resumed his career on Sept. 2, 1964 at the Castaways, out-pointing his opponent in a 5-round match to improve his ledger to 7-3. The publicity man misspelled his name, adding an extra “f”, and he would remain Pete Buffala whenever his name appeared in the sports section of the local papers.

Fifty years ago, in 1964, approximately 165,000 people resided in all of sprawling Clark County, home to Las Vegas. The thought that Vegas would someday host a Formula 1 Grand Prix or a Super Bowl, two of the grandest sports spectacles in the world, was preposterous. The only local sport that ever made the national news wire was boxing.

The fulcrum was Bill Miller, a hot-headed boxing junkie from Elmira, New York, who owned a saloon on the Las Vegas Strip that he out-fitted with a boxing gym in the basement. Miller’s “Strip Fight of the Week,” which bounced from one little casino to another during a run that lasted well over a decade, bucked the national trend. Small fight clubs, with very few exceptions, had fallen by the wayside, a development triggered by the mass production of televisions.

Miller was hardly immune to all the little hassles that plague a grass-roots boxing promoter. Matches were constantly falling out. But he had several things working in his favor. As opportunities dried up elsewhere, journeymen boxers were drawn here by the promise of steady work. And although Miller couldn’t afford to pay enough to make boxing a full-time profession, good-paying jobs were plentiful in the construction and hospitality industries.

To be certain, there were also push factors. Chester, Pennsylvania, a shipbuilding hub during World War II, had fallen on hard times, plagued by unemployment and racial strife. Lowell, Massachusetts, a city known for its vibrant amateur boxing culture, was likewise hurting economically with row after row of textile factories sitting vacant. Lowell produced Eddie Andrews, a hard-hitting middleweight who would be the first fighter to make promoter Miller any significant money without having to take him on the road to a larger precinct or overseas.

Andrews supplemented his ring earnings dealing blackjack at Caesars Palace. For a time, Ralph Dupas was a co-worker. A former world title-holder at 154 pounds, Dupas settled in Las Vegas in the mid-1960s as his career was winding down and remained here until his encroaching dementia passed the tipping point and family members brought him home to his native New Orleans to live out his final days.

Returning to Peter Bufala, he worked his way up the ladder on Miller’s promotions, eventually topping the marquee for a fight with Johnny Brooks. They fought at the Hacienda, a grind joint at the south end of the Strip (where Mandalay Bay now sits) on April 13, 1965. Brooks was nothing special, but he was better than his 17-6-3 record. He would go on to last the distance in 10-round fights with future Hall of Famers Emile Griffith and Carlos Monzon.

Bufala was bloodied in the third round and knocked down in the fourth, but mounted a furious rally and at the end of the 10 rounds the judges could not pick a winner and the match went into the books as a draw. Working on the “5-point-must” system, the scores were 46-44 Bufala, 46-45 Brooks, and 46-46. (Trivia time: The 46-46 tally was turned in by ringside judge Harry Reid who would go on to become the most powerful man in the U.S. Senate. Nowadays, visitors flying in to Las Vegas arrive at Harry Reid International Airport.)

Had Bufala won the bout, his next fight would have been a 12-rounder against Reno’s Dave Patterson, the Nevada Lightweight Champion. But when he returned to the ring the following month, it was in a 6-rounder against an unsung fighter from Los Angeles named Davey White and, in a shocker, White blasted him out in the second round.

Bufala announced his retirement after this fight. It warranted scarcely a mention in the Las Vegas papers, but the folks back in Chester hadn’t forgotten him. “Pete Bufala Quits Boxing for Health,” read the bold headline on the sports page of the June 9, 1965 issue of the Delaware County Daily Times. The accompanying story said that Buffala, “Chester’s most promising professional fighter,” had emerged from his most recent bout with a blot clot in his neck and was troubled by chronic back problems. (Buffala would have one more fight before quitting the sport for good. He won his final fight, a 6-rounder, bringing his final record, per boxrec, to 16-5-2.)

Bufala never returned to Chester. He married a local girl and, in short order, was a father of three, two girls and a boy who tragically died at 16 months when he crawled into a plastic laundry bag and suffocated as his mother was distracted writing checks.

In December of 1973, the MGM Grand opened on the southeast corner of the busiest intersection on the Las Vegas Strip. This was the city’s original MGM Grand that would take the name Bally’s and was recently re-branded the Horseshoe. With 2,100 rooms, a 1,200-seat showroom and a jai alai fronton, the MGM Grand made its competitors look puny by comparison. Peter Bufala was there on opening night, dealing baccarat.

In terms of the money put at risk, baccarat is the crème-de-crème of card games. It attracts the whales, the high-rollers that leave the biggest tips. On a good night at a high-end establishment like the MGM Grand, it wasn’t uncommon for a dealer to rake in $500 in gratuities. Bufala worked the graveyard shift (likely 9 pm to 5 am; it varied by hotel), the most coveted shift for a dealer in a day when visitors to Las Vegas were more nocturnal than they are today.

One didn’t get to be a baccarat dealer in a ritzy joint by working his way up from the bottom. One had to know the right people. In the vernacular, one got juiced into the job. And the juicer might expect a kick-back.

One of the most influential people in Las Vegas was an outsider who tried to keep a low profile, Gaspare “Jasper” Speciale. A transplanted New York bookmaker, Speciale co-owned and managed the Tower of Pizza restaurant which sat a stone’s throw from the MGM Grand on the opposite side of the street. Speciale opened doors for dozens of people seeking employment in the hospitality industry. If one was new in town and needed work in a hurry, Jasper was the man to see.

Until the arrival in Las Vegas of the notorious Tony Spilotro, Speciale was the city’s premier private money lender. He would eventually serve four years in a federal prison for loan-sharking.

Whenever there was a murder in Las Vegas that had the earmarks of a mob hit, speculation always centered on Gaspare Speciale. It mattered not that he was active in his church and donated lavishly to local charities. Moreover, he had a warm spot in his heart for prizefighters. In the spacious backyard of his home, chockablock with mementos of his boyhood in New York City, there was a replica of Stillman’s Gym complete with a punching bag and rubbing tables.

Another theory, although one that acquired less currency, pointed the finger at Bufala’s father-in-law who was the beneficiary of Peter’s life insurance policy. The two were partners in a small sporting goods store where it was rumored that one could purchase an unregistered firearm.

On the day that Peter Bufala was assassinated, the story about it in the Las Vegas Sun, an afternoon paper, said that the former boxer had no bad habits – he didn’t drink, smoke, gamble or chase women — and that he was well-liked by everyone that knew him. But, said a police detective, “Someone wanted him dead and eventually we’re going to find out who that someone is and why.”

Forty-seven years after the fact, the who and the why remain as baffling as ever. If Peter Bufala were alive today, he would be 80 years old. This is a mystery that will likely never be solved.

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The Hauser Report: Foster-Nova at MSG and Other Notes

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The Hauser Report: Foster-Nova at MSG and Other Notes

Boxing returned to Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, courtesy of Top Rank and ESPN. The festivities started at 5:30 PM and lasted until close to midnight. That meant there was plenty of time to talk with boxers and boxing enthusiasts like Rosie Perez, Gerry Cooney, and (drumroll please) former lineal heavyweight champion Shannon Briggs.

Briggs was in the house as part of an effort to lay the groundwork for a boxing gym and a documentary about the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Who does Shannon think is the best of today’s heavyweights?

“I don’t know,” Briggs answered. “I thought it was Tyson Fury, but his fight against Ngannou was weird. And Wilder against Parker; that was weird too. Joshua; you never know where his head is at. And I’m still not sure about Usyk as a heavyweight. Like I said, it’s weird.”

Briggs also said that he has signed a contract for an eight-round boxing match against former UFC champion Rampage Jackson to be contested on June 1 in Qatar and that he is slated to receive a purse of $5,000,000. I hope Shannon gets a letter of credit from a reliable bank sooner rather than later.

As for the fights at hand; the nine-bout card went pretty much as expected. Some of the “A-side” fighters were there because they’re prospects; others because they’re ticket-sellers. Top Rank has two Hall of Fame matchmakers – Bruce Trampler and Brad Goodman – so the favorites went nine for nine.

Arnold Gonzalez won a decision over Charles Stanford who was one of the opponents brought in a while back to get knocked out by Evan Holyfield.

Ofacio Falcon, who has been steered clear of fighters who might test him, fought Edward Ceballos (who couldn’t test him). Falcon won every round on each judges’ scorecard.

Isaah Flaherty (who can fight going forward and going forward) was cut high on the forehead by an accidental clash of heads in round one and forced the action against Julien Baptiste en route to a six-round shutout decision.

Referee Benjy Esteves let a fight between Euri Cedeno and Antonio Todd go on too long before saving Todd from further damage by halting the beating in round five.

Later, referee Shada Murdaugh let an overmatched Moses Johnson hit the canvas five times in the first round (the knockdown that started it all was mistakenly called a push, so there were only four official knockdowns) before waiving off things in favor of Italian heavyweight Guido Vianello late in the stanza.

Andres Cortes was battering Bryan Chevalier around the ring when Chevalier’s corner appropriately waved a white towel late in round four.

The best prospects on the card were Bruce “Shu-Shu” Carrington and Delante “Tiger” Johnson.

Johnson (11-0, 5 KOs) squared off against Paulo Cesar Galdino (13-7-2, 9 KOs, 4 KOs by). Galdino had won only one of his last five fights, and that was against an opponent with three wins in 13 outings. Referee Ricky Gonzalez wisely called a halt to the action with Galdino taking a beating in round one.

Carrington (10-0, 6 KOs) is a slick stylish fighter. Bernard Torres (18-1, 8 KOs) had been chosen as his opponent because he’s one-dimensional, slower than Shu-Shu, and doesn’t have much of a punch. As the fight wore on, Torres (a 10-to-1 underdog) had the look of a man who was thinking, “I have no idea how to solve this puzzle that’s in front of me.” Late in round four, Carrington (who can whack when he sets down on his punches) launched a brutal right hand that deposited Torres face down, unconscious on the canvas.

The main event matched O’Shaquie Foster (21-1, 12 KOs) against Abraham Nova (23-1, 16 KOs, 1 KO by).

Foster won the vacant WBC 130-pound title by decision over Rey Vargas last year and, trailing badly on the judges’ scorecards, salvaged his belt with a dramatic twelfth-round knockout of Eduardo Hernandez three months ago. He deserves credit for working his way up from B-side status in several earlier outings to where he is today.

Nova was an 8-to-1 underdog. But Foster-Nova turned into a hard, grinding fight with neither man able to establish dominance over the other. Referee Steve Willis did a good job of controlling the action without inserting himself in the flow more than necessary. I had Foster winning by one point with a flash knockdown that he scored in round twelve being the difference. The judges favored O’Shaquie with a 116-111, 115-112, 113-114 split verdict.

—-

Kansas City’s dramatic overtime victory over San Francisco in last Sunday’s Super Bowl drew the largest viewing audience in the history of television. So it’s safe to assume that many of you who are reading this column watched the game. With that in mind, I’d like to comment on the furor surrounding 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan’s much-criticized decision to receive the ball first after winning the coin toss at the start of overtime.

The NFL’s overtime format for playoff games differs from the rules used during the regular season. Each team is guaranteed one possession in a playoff game unless the defense scores a touchdown or safety on the other team’s first possession. If the game is tied after each team has possessed the ball once, the next score wins.

Shanahan elected to receive the kick-off at the start of overtime. San Francisco marched down the field, but their drive stalled at the Chief’s 9-yardline and the 49ers settled for a 27-yard field goal.

Then it was Kansas City’s turn. And even though the Chiefs were trailing, they had a slight tactical edge because they knew what they had to do; tie or win. Punting wasn’t an option. So when Kansas City was faced with a fourth-down-and-one situation on its own 34-yard-line, the Chiefs went for the first down and Patrick Mahomes kept the drive alive with an 8-yard run. Ten plays later, Kansas City scored the winning touchdown.

Did Shanahan “blow it”?

No.

If the game had been tied after the teams had one possession each, the next score of any kind would have won. And the 49ers would have had the ball first on each exchange of possessions from that point on until the end of the second overtime. That would have been a significant advantage.

Also, consider the fact that Kansas City had scored only one touchdown in sixty minutes of play prior to the overtime.

Shanahan and the 49ers lost the game. They didn’t “blow it” with what I think was a reasonable coin-toss decision.

—-

The future of Sports Illustrated is in doubt. Last month (on January 19), a series of unpaid financial obligations reached critical mass and massive layoffs decimated its editorial staff. SI is likely to survive in some form, perhaps as an online-only publication. But its glory years are in the past.

Sports Illustrated was first published in 1954. Spectator sports were on the verge of exploding in popularity in tandem with the expansion of television. SI rode that wave. It was one of the first national publications to understand and exploit the growing popularity of pro football. Its editorial staff recognized Muhammad Ali’s prowess as a fighter and his importance as a social and political figure while most mainstream publications still referred to him as “Cassius Clay.” Long-form articles and in-depth reporting made it a “writers’ magazine” of the highest order. Wordsmiths like Frank Deford, Herbert Warren Wind, Paul Zimmerman, Dan Jenkins, Jim Murray, William Nack, Robert Creamer, Tex Maule, Jack Olsen, Roy Blount Jr., Walter Bingham, and Rick Reilly plied their trade for SI. Its print circulation peaked at more than three million subscribers. The annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (inaugurated in 1964) became a national institution.

Boxing (according to the SI archive) was featured on the magazine’s cover 138 times. Forty of those covers belonged to Muhammad Ali. Only Michael Jordan (with fifty covers) surpassed that total. Other cover subjects from the sweet science (listed alphabetically) included Carmen Basilio, Nino Benvenuti, Riddick Bowe, George Chuvalo, Gerry Cooney, Oscar De La Hoya, Buster Douglas, Roberto Duran, Joe Frazier, Marvis Frazier, Gene Fullmer, Joey Giardello, Marvin Hagler, Gypsy Joe Harris, Roy Harris, Thomas Hearns, Larry Holmes, Evander Holyfield, Ingemar Johansson, Sonny Liston, Danny Lopez, Ray Mancini, Rocky Marciano, Christy Martin, Floyd Mayweather, Tom McNeeley, Carlos Monzon, Ken Norton, Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Patterson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Earnie Shavers, Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks, Mike Tyson, Chuck Wepner, and Pernell Whitaker. To that list, one could add Don King and (most recently) Jake Paul.

From its inception, SI chose a “sportsman of the year” (later referred to on occasion as its “sportswoman” or “sports team” of the year). Three boxers were accorded that honor: Ingemar Johansson (in 1959), Muhammad Ali (1974), and Sugar Ray Leonard (1981).

But in recent years, the economics of publishing have changed. And the instant flow of information in a digital age made a sports weekly less relevant. In 2018, Sports Illustrated became the property of Meredith Corporation which acquired Time Inc. (SI’s parent company). A series of licensing agreements and resales involving the magazine followed. In 2020, it transitioned from a weekly to a monthly publication. Meanwhile, the quality of its editorial content was declining.

Worse, SI seemed to be losing its moral compass. For some subscribers, the final straw came when the magazine designated Deion Sanders as its 2023 “Sportsman of the Year”.

That honor (as defined by Sports Illustrated) is bestowed annually upon the athlete or team whose performance most embodies “the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement.” In its article celebrating the choice of Sanders, SI talked at length about how Deion had “transformed a moribund Colorado football program” and “transformed a community.” Nothing was said about his removing more than sixty scholarship players from the team roster (young men who had enrolled at Colorado in good faith) and replacing them with players brought to the university through the transfer portal.

Mark Whicker (whose credits include the BWAA’s Nat Fleischer Award for Career Excellence in Boxing Journalism) put the matter in perspective when he wrote, “SI was celebrating an egomaniacal huckster who ran off dozens of players who didn’t fit his template, with his son’s media company taping every move. In doing so, he dislocated lives and relationships. Some refugees said that Sanders never even bothered to learn their names.”

The selection of Sanders might have engendered a lot of publicity and “clicks” for SI. But did he really (Colorado finished the season with a 4-and-8 record) embody “the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement” more than Shohei Ohtani (whose 2023 season was unmatched in baseball history), Nikola Jokic (arguably the best big man ever who led the Denver Nuggets to the 2023 NBA crown), and Novak Djokovic (who cemented his status as the best tennis player of all time in 2023)?

I grew up with Sports Illustrated. I began reading the magazine when I was a boy. It has been in my home ever since. In 1991, I crossed an item off my “bucket list” when I wrote an article that was published in SI. On numerous occasions, I’ve relied on its archives for research. I miss the magazine that it was.

That magazine isn’t coming back.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His next book – MY MOTHER and Me – is a personal memoir that will be published by Admission Press this spring and is available for pre-order at Amazon.com. https://www.amazon.com/My-Mother-Me-Thomas-Hauser/dp/1955836191/ref=sr_1_1?crid=5C0TEN4M9ZAH&keywords=thomas+hauser&qid=1707662513&sprefix=thomas+hauser,aps,80&sr=8-1

In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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Friday Night Fights: Nontshinga Wins by TKO in Oaxaca; O’Shaquie by SD at MSG

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South Africa’s Sivenathi Nontshinga (13-1, 10 KOs) came from behind to recapture the IBF light flyweight (108-pound) title with a 10th-round stoppage of Mexico City’s Adrian Curiel in Oaxaca, Mexico in the featured bout of a Matchroom card that aired on DAZN.

This was a rematch. Last November in Monte Carlo, the the supposedly feather-fisted Curiel with only four stoppages to his credit in 28 pro bouts, snatched the title from him and changed the trajectory of his career with a shocking one-punch, second-round knockout. In that bout, Nontshinga was a massive favorite but tonight the roles were reversed with Curiel favored in the 9 to 5 range in large part because of the locale.

Curiel, whose record declined to 24-5-1, was conspicuously ahead after eight frames. He was the aggressor and the busier man and it didn’t help Nontshinga’s cause that he was docked a point in round seven after a clash of heads. But late in round nine, there was a sudden turnabout when the fighter from South Africa’s Eastern Cape rocked his Mexican foe with a big left hook. Curiel was saved by the bell and it was all over 44 seconds into the next round when veteran Texas referee Mark Calo-oy pulled the plug with Curiel trapped in a neutral corner eating a barrage of punches with nothing coming back in return.

A rematch is in order although Nontshinga may seek a match with WBC/WBA title-holder Kenshiro Teraji, the paramount fighter in the weight class, or perhaps the winner of the forthcoming fight between WBO belt-holder Jonathan Gonzalez and his Puerto Rican countryman Rene Santiago.

Co-Feature

Mexico City’s Mauricio Lara (26-3-2) and Hermosillo’s Daniel Lugo (27-2-1) battled to a 10-round draw. It was the first fight at 130 for ex-featherweight champion Lara who was making his first start since last May when he was out-pointed by Leigh Wood in their rematch in Manchester, England.

The Theater at Madison Square Garden

O’Shaquie Foster (22-2, 12 KOs) successfully defended his WBC 130-pound world title with a hard-earned decision over Abraham Nova (23-2) in the featured bout of a Top Rank card that aired on ESPN. The 30-year-old Foster, who hails from Orange, Texas, and trains in Houston, was making the second defense of the title he won with an upset of previously undefeated Rey Vargas.

It was the 12th straight win for Foster after his career was interrupted by legal troubles. Late in the final round,  he put Nova on the canvas with a sweeping left hook. Referee Steve Willis hesitated before starting a count, uncertain whether it was a true knockdown, but replays showed that it was a legitimate knockdown, albeit of the flash variety. Two judges had it for Foster (116-111 and 115-112) with the dissenter favoring Nova by a 114-113 tally.

Co-Feature

Las Vegas junior lightweight Andres Cortes (21-0, 12 KOs) scored an impressive fourth-round stoppage over Bryan Chevalier (20-2-1). Cortes, who was credited with landing 23 power punches in the last full round, was too strong for his lanky, five-foot-eleven Puerto Rican opponent whose corner tossed in the towel at the 2:17 of round four.

Also

In the opening bout on the main ESPN platform, a featherweight contest slated for “10,” Bruce “Shu Shu” Carrington made a significant jump in public esteem with a brutal one-punch knockout of Bernard Torres (18-2). Carrington, who is big for the weight class and had a 6-inch reach advantage, set the tempo and ended the contest with a sweeping right hand at the 2:59 mark of round four. Torres landed face first and the bout was stopped without the formality of a count. “She Shu” represents the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, but has been training in Las Vegas under Kay Koroma.

Torres, a Filipino by birth who has been living in Norway, lives to fight another day. He is booked to fight again on April 6 in Oslo.

Other Bouts of Note

Italian heavyweight Guido Vianello, a 2016 Olympian, improved to 12-1-1 (10) with a first-round demolition of Huntington, Long Island’s Moses Johnson (11-2-2). Early in the opening round, Vianello buzzed Johnson with a short fight hand to the temple. Referee Shada Murdaugh apparently thought it was an illegal rabbit punch followed by a push and called time out rather than start a count. But Johnson wasn’t right and would be on the canvas four more times before Murdaugh finally stopped it with only one second remaining in the round. “It was not his best night,” said broadcaster Bernardo Osuna referencing Murdaugh in a great understatement.

In his career-best performance, Cleveland super lightweight Delante “Tiger” Johnson, a Tokyo Olympian, improved to 11-0 (6 KOs) with a first-round stoppage of Brazilian southpaw Paulo Galdino (13-8-2). Johnson decked Galdino in the opening round with a short left uppercut and then went for the kill. Moments after snapping Galdino’s head back with a short right hand, the referee stepped in and stopped the fight. The official time was 2:49.

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