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Avila Perspective, Chap. 80: Boxing 101 (Part Two)

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Little did I know, not everyone was taught how to jab at three years old or put in boxing rings to spar other kids.

Welcome to my life.

On one side of my family – my mother’s side that hailed from Arizona – was a great grandfather, Battling Ortega, who fought more than 70 professional fights beginning in 1916. My great grandmother’s side also produced one world champion, Manuel Ortiz, who fought in the 1930s to the 1950s.

My father’s side was not as decorated in boxing as my mother’s family, but beginning with my grandfather Jesus Avila in World War I, the prize ring was where he made extra money while working for railroad companies in the east coast. His sons would also box during World War II but not professionally. My father Amado was the only professional boxer on his side of the family.

When I was three years old my father Amado “Mara” Avila was boxing at the Olympic Auditorium and would teach me how to stand, throw combinations and block punches. After spending the mornings at the Main Street Gym in Los Angeles with his trainer Harry Kabakoff, he would return home and teach me boxing skills as my mother prepared dinner.

It was decided early for me that I be taught boxing so as not to be bullied by other kids on the East L.A. playgrounds. My mother had seen kids push me around in the sand box and was frustrated by my failure to respond. My mom, bless her, grew up in East L.A. and knew what to expect on the streets.

Boxing became part of my daily world as each day was spent working on combinations and defense. By the time I was four years old my father put me in the boxing ring against older kids. I lost almost every fight in every tournament for three years.

Maybe losing is what made baseball so appealing to me. While I lost most of my bouts in boxing to older kids, in baseball I was above average as a pitcher from an early age. But my father wanted me to continue boxing and I did. I got better as I got older. By the time I was nine years old I stopped losing. But it was not my sport of choice.

By the age of 14 I had grown rather tall and at nearly six feet in height and 135 pounds I had a tremendous advantage in boxing. My father had stopped boxing because of a head injury suffered after a fight at the Olympic Auditorium. Though naturally a featherweight, during a scheduled fight he failed to make weight and instead of canceling his slot, he opted to fight a lightweight and was promptly knocked down by the bigger fighter. After the knockdown he tried to continue fighting but suffered blindness that lasted for several minutes. He never boxed again.

By the time I was 10 years old baseball consumed most of my time away from school. Though I kept boxing occasionally on smokers, it was baseball that was my true passion as I played year after year in City Terrace Park and Belvedere Park both in East L.A.

When I was 14 I attended a fight card at the Olympic Auditorium. Later, at a restaurant on Figueroa in downtown L.A., my father’s former trainer Harry Kabakoff approached me with an offer to train me professionally.

I turned him down.

Though I was now winning all of my fights, I knew that boxing on a professional level was quite different. It’s a very unforgiving sport and even with advantages in height, speed or power, it’s not enough. Prizefighters are a different breed. The good ones have a killer instinct and a very high degree of pain tolerance.

Some guys shrink into a shell when they are hit with a painful blow, other’s draw into a survival mode. And still others wake up suddenly more alert than ever as if a light was turned on. And a small few can see the road starkly clearer as time seems to slow down and they slip into a higher fighting mode. These are your champions.

As a member of a boxing family we would spend Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s sitting on sofas watching television and talking about the fight game. It was a favorite subject of my great grandfather who spoke about fighting Benny Leonard, Soldier Bartfield and many others. Our family consisted of boxers on all sides so it was the natural topic.

Of course, I had no idea who Benny Leonard was but according to my great grandfather, he was the best fighter he had ever faced. And he fought dozens of world champions in a day when there was only one world champion, not four to six world champions like today. His stories about the old days were pretty interesting. They made good money in those days even though it was 100 years ago. Prizefighting was extremely popular. It helped him buy a house in East L.A. down the street by the old Resurrection Gym. It’s now where Oscar De La Hoya Animo High School stands.

The stories we shared around the dinner table were engrained in me along with my own experiences in the boxing ring. For years I forgot all about them until boxing returned to my life and something woke up in me.

Boxing reclaimed me.

2010s the Decade of Growth

One of the worst economic downturns in world history failed to kill the sport of prizefighting. Instead, boxing remained one of the main attractions utilized by Las Vegas casinos to lure customers through their glitzy doors.

Floyd Mayweather picked up the baton from Oscar De La Hoya as the money-maker for the sport in the 2010s and was the fighter everyone wanted to face. His ascent to the top as a gate attraction began with a victory over Zab Judah in 2006 and was steadily moving upward monetarily.

By 2010, Mayweather was the top star along with Filipino superstar Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao. One of the top fights that year was his battle against Sugar Shane Mosley at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Mayweather escaped after absorbing a big right hand bomb from the Pomona fighter.

Later that same year, Mosley fought Sergio Mora to a disputed draw at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

East L.A.’s Mora had been one of those fighters I spotted early in his development. During his first pro bout at a boxing card in Anaheim, I could see he had a different fighting style along with athleticism that was going to be hard to beat. I predicted in his fourth fight that he would one day be a world champion. When he fought Vernon Forrest, I predicted Mora would win and he did. To my knowledge, only Doug Fischer and I predicted the victory.

As a boxing journalist it’s important to watch young fighters develop early. Anyone can predict greatness for someone winning an Olympic gold medal, but there’s always someone who sneaks in through the cracks and makes it to the top. Those are the real stories in prizefighting.

Another guy named Sergio was slipping through the cracks from South America. He was a super welterweight named Sergio Martinez. 2010 was a spectacular year for the slick fighting Argentine named “Maravilla” as he defeated Kelly Pavlik in April and knocked out Paul Williams in the second round of a November fight. He was named the Fighter of the Year by the WBC and was recognized as such in a ceremony in San Bernardino along with Tim “Desert Storm” Bradley for an extremely good year.

The biggest grossing fight of all time took place when Mayweather and Pacquiao finally met on May 2, 2015. After years of debate the two stars met in Las Vegas and their pay-per-view fight generated more than 4 million buys. It remains the most successful pay-per-view boxing match of all time. Mayweather’s victory set him apart as the most successful fighter in terms of financial gain. He has cleared more than $1 billion as a prizefighter according to Forbes Magazine.

Around this time another middleweight was stirring up things in the boxing world after moving from Germany to Big Bear, California. His name – Gennady Golovkin.

GGG

Big Bear, California had been a favorite spot for prizefighters for several decades. Oscar De La Hoya, Mike Tyson, Fernando Vargas, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and many others throughout the years had prepared for mega fights in the mountain resort spot popular for skiing at its 12,000-feet elevation. It’s located in the Inland Empire area east of Los Angeles County.

Abel Sanchez, a building contractor and boxing trainer, had personally built a compound at Big Bear and was preparing fighters down the street from Sugar Shane Mosley’s training site.

When K2 Promotions signed Golovkin it was Tom Loeffler who brought Golovkin to Sanchez and together they all made history and a lot of money with their “Mexican style” boxing.

Loeffler invited me to see Golovkin train at the mountain headquarters and his power and skills were instantly impressive. It took a few years for the rest of the world to catch on and believe in GGG.

Over the decades my experience as a boxer and as a journalist gave me insight into what separates great fighters from normal fighters. With Golovkin it was the pure power in his fists for a man his size. There was a certain sound when he hit a heavy bag that was different. His skills were also pretty sound, he didn’t have flaws in his technique that I often see with other fighters. Some drop their hands during combinations, others expose their chin to counters and still others telegraph their punches so badly a blind man can see them.

Golovkin was tight from the start.

Before he fought in front of American audiences on HBO it was clear Golovkin was going to be a star. It just took a little time for the rest of the world to be convinced.

Around this same time another fighter moved into the Inland Empire area named Mikey Garcia. He had purchased a house in Moreno Valley, California and moved from Oxnard to set up shop. Within a couple of years his family would follow including brother Robert Garcia and father Eduardo Garcia.

It was a move that would soon change the boxing landscape as the Garcias opened a gym in Riverside, California. Soon, many top fighters from around the country and world would sign with the Garcias and begin training in the hills of Riverside.

More and more boxers were arriving to the many gyms throughout the Inland Empire from all over the world. An explosion of talent arrived and very few outside of the elite had any idea it was transpiring.

Fighters like Golovkin, Mikey Garcia, Tim Bradley, Shane Mosley, and even Terence Crawford and Andy Ruiz were working out in the Inland Empire gyms.

Because of its 60 miles or more distance from Los Angeles few reporters covering the sport made the trek to visit the more than 35 gyms scattered throughout the Inland Empire.

Social Media

Though my own beginning as a boxing journalist began with newspapers, it’s not difficult for me to point out the poor coverage and ineptitude of those covering the sport for print.

The development of boxing web sites easily took over coverage of the sport with various names like SecondsOut.com, House of Boxing, Fight News and The Sweet Science to name a few. Now there are literally hundreds of boxing sites throughout the world.

Most coverage is devoted to the top echelon of the sport of prizefighting, but a few make a determined effort to trace the beginnings of pro boxers as they make their journeys.

Only one newspaper, the Riverside Press-Enterprise was at ringside when Saul “Canelo” Alvarez made his American debut at Morongo Casino in Southern California.

When Alvarez fought Mayweather in 2013, his journey was well-documented by most boxing web sites, but newspapers – aside from the Riverside Press-Enterprise – were forced to play catchup.

Mayweather easily defeated Alvarez on points and though he never hurt the Mexican redhead, he did deliver an important teaching lesson that “Canelo” and his team never forgot. Defense was equally important as offense and it served them well.

Eddy Reynoso, the trainer for Alvarez, has never wavered from expressing how much they learned from that fight against Mayweather in September 2013.

“From people like Mayweather, we learned a lot. It wasn’t for nothing, he was the best in the ring,” said Reynoso last month. “Fighting against Mayweather you learn a lot of different levels. The loss teaches you to do better.”

Now, seven years later, Canelo Alvarez reigns as the top money-maker and a multi-divisional world champion.

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Anderson Cruises by Vapid Merhy and Ajagba edges Vianello in Texas

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Jared Anderson returned to the ring tonight on a Top Rank card in Corpus Christi, Texas. Touted as the next big thing in the heavyweight division, Anderson (17-0, 15 KOs) hardly broke a sweat while cruising past Ryad Merhy in a bout with very little action, much to the disgruntlement of the crowd which started booing as early as the second round. The fault was all Merhy as he was reluctant to let his hands go. Somehow, he won a round on the scorecard of judge David Sutherland who likely fell asleep for a round for which he could be forgiven.

Merhy, born in the Ivory Coast but a resident of Brussels, Belgium, was 32-2 (26 KOs) heading in after fighting most of his career as a cruiserweight. He gave up six inches in height to Anderson who was content to peck away when it became obvious to him that little would be coming back his way.

Anderson may face a more daunting adversary on Monday when he has a court date in Romulus, Michigan, to answer charges related to an incident in February where he drove his Dodge Challenger at a high rate speed, baiting the police into a merry chase. (Weirdly, Anderson entered the ring tonight wearing the sort of helmet that one associates with a race car driver.)

Co-Feature

In the co-feature, a battle between six-foot-six former Olympians, Italy’s Guido Vianello started and finished strong, but Efe Ajagba had the best of it in the middle rounds and prevailed on a split decision. Two of the judges favored Ajagba by 96-94 scores with the dissenter favoring the Italian from Rome by the same margin.

Vianello had the best round of the fight. He staggered Ajagba with a combination in round two. At the end of the round, a befuddled Ajagba returned to the wrong corner and it appeared that an upset was brewing. But the Nigerian, who trains in Las Vegas under Kay Koroma, got back into the fight with a more varied offensive attack and better head movement. In winning, he improved his ledger to 20-1 (14). Vianello, who sparred extensively with Daniel Dubois in London in preparation for this fight, declined to 12-2-1 in what was likely his final outing under the Top Rank banner.

Other Bouts of Note

In the opening bout on the main ESPN platform, 35-year-old super featherweight Robson Conceicao, a gold medalist for Brazil in the 2016 Rio Olympics, stepped down in class after fighting Emanuel Navarrete tooth-and-nail to a draw in his previous bout and scored a seventh-round stoppage of Jose Ivan Guardado who was a cooked goose after slumping to the canvas after taking a wicked shot to the liver. Guardado made it to his feet, but the end was imminent and the referee waived it off at the 2:27 mark.

Conceicao improved to 18-1 (9 KOs). It was the U.S. debut for Guardado (15-2-1), a boxer from Ensenada, Mexico who had done most of his fighting up the road in Tijuana.

Ruben Villa, the pride of Salinas, California, improved to 22-1 (7) and moved one step closer to a match with WBC featherweight champion Rey Vargas with a unanimous 10-round decision over Tijuana’s Cristian Cruz (22-7-1). The judges had it 97-93 and 98-92 twice.

Cruz, the son of former IBF world featherweight title-holder Cristobal Cruz, was better than his record. He entered the bout on a 21-1-1 run after losing five of his first seven pro fights.

Cleveland southpaw Abdullah Mason, who turned 20 earlier this month, continued his fast ascent up the lightweight ladder with a fourth-round stoppage of Ronal Ron.

Mason (13-0, 11 KOs) put Ron on the canvas in the opening round with a short left hook. He scored a second knockdown with a shot to the liver. A flurry of punches, a diverse array, forced the stoppage at the 1:02 mark of round four. A 25-year-old SoCal-based Venezuelan, the spunky but out-gunned Ron declined to 14-6.

Charly Suarez, a 35-year-old former Olympian from the Philippines, ranked #5 at junior lightweight by the IBF, advanced to 17-0 (9) with a unanimous 8-round decision over SoCal’s Louie Coria (5-7).

This was a tactical fight. In the final round, Coria, subbing for 19-0 Henry Lebron, caught the Filipino off-balance and knocked him into the ropes which held him up. It was scored a knockdown, but came too little, too late for Coria who lost by scores of 76-75 and 77-74 twice.

Suarez, whose signature win was a 12th-round stoppage of the previously undefeated Aussie Paul Fleming in Sydney, may be headed to a rematch with Robson Conceicao. They fought as amateurs in 2016 in Kazakhstan and Suarez lost a narrow 6-round decision.

Photo credit: Mikey Willams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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Ellie Scotney and Rhiannon Dixon Win World Title Fights in Manchester

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England’s Ellie Scotney started slowly against the long reach of France’s Segolene Lefebvre but used rough tactics and a full-steam ahead approach to unify the super bantamweight division by unanimous decision on Saturday.

“There’s a lot more I didn’t show,” said an excited Scotney (pictured on the left).

IBF titlist Scotney (9-0) added the WBO title by nullifying Lefebvre’s (18-1) reach and dominating the inside with a two-fisted attack in front of an excited crowd in Manchester, England.

For the first two rounds Lefebvre used her long reach and smooth fluid attack to keep Scotney at the end of her punches. Then the fight turned when the British fighter bulled her way inside with body shots and forced the French fighter into the ropes.

Aggressiveness by Scotney turned the fight in her favor. But Lefebvre remained active and countered with overhand rights throughout the match.

Body shots by Scotney continued to pummel the French champion’s abdomen but she remained steadfast in her counter-attacks. Combinations landed for Lefebvre and a counter overhand right scored to keep her in the contest in the fifth round.

Scotney increased the intensity of her attack in the sixth and seventh rounds. In perhaps her best round Scotney was almost perfect in scoring while not getting hit with anything from the French fighter.

Maybe the success of the previous round caused Scotney to pause. It allowed Lefebvre to rally behind some solid shots in a slow round and gave the French fighter an opening. Maybe.

The British fighter opened up more savagely after taking two Lefevbre rights to open the ninth. Scotney attacked with bruising more emphatic blows despite getting hit. Though both fired blows Scotney’s were more powerful.

Both champions opened-up the 10th and final round with punches flying. Once again Scotney’s blows had more power behind them though the French fighter scored too, and though her face looked less bruised than Scotney’s the pure force of Scotney’s attacks was more impressive.

All three judges saw Scotney the winner 97-93, 96-94 and a ridiculous 99-91. The London-based fighter now has the IBF and WBO super bantamweight titles.

Promoter Eddie Hearn said a possible showdown with WBC titlist Erika Cruz looms large possibly in the summer.

“Great performance. Great punch output,” said Hearn of Scotney’s performance.

Dixon Wins WBO Title

British southpaw Rhiannon Dixon (10-0) out-fought Argentina’s Karen Carabajal (22-2) over 10 rounds and won a very competitive unanimous decision to win the vacant WBO lightweight title. It was one of the titles vacated by Katie Taylor who is now the undisputed super lightweight world champion.

An aggressive Dixon dominated the first three rounds including a knockdown in the third round with a perfect left-hand counter that dropped Carabajal. The Argentine got up and rallied in the round.

Carabajal, whose only loss was against Katie Taylor, slowly began figuring out Dixon’s attacks and each round got more competitive. The Argentine fighter used counter rights to find a hole in Dixon’s defense to probably win the round in the sixth.

The final three rounds saw both fighters engage evenly with Carabajal scoring on counters and Dixon attacking the body successfully.

After 10 rounds all three judges saw it in Dixon’s favor 98-91, 97-92, 96-93 who now wields the WBO lightweight world title.

“It’s difficult to find words,” said Dixon after winning the title.

Hometown Fighter Wins

Manchester’s Zelfa Barrett (31-2, 17 KOs) battled back and forth with Jordan Gill (28-3-1, 9 KO-s) and finally ended the super featherweight fight with two knockdowns via lefts to the body in the 10th round of a scheduled 12-round match for a regional title.

The smooth moving Barrett found the busier Gill more complex than expected and for the first nine rounds was fighting a 50/50 fight against the fellow British fighter from the small town of Chatteris north of London.

In the 10th round after multiple shots on the body of Gill, a left hook to the ribs collapsed the Chatteris fighter to the floor. He willed himself up and soon after was floored again but this time by a left to the solar plexus. Again he continued but was belted around until the referee stopped the onslaught by Barrett at 2:44 of the 10th.

“A tough, tough fighter,” said Barrett about Gill. “I had to work hard.”

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O.J. Simpson the Boxer: A Heartwarming Tale for the Whole Family

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O.J. Simpson passed away on Wednesday, April 10, at age 76 in Las Vegas where he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. For millions of Americans, news of his passing unloosed a flood of memories.

The O.J. Simpson double murder trial lasted 37 weeks. CNN and two other fledgling cable networks provided gavel-to-gavel coverage. On Oct. 3, 1995, the day that the jury rendered its verdict, CBS, NBC, ABC, and ESPN suspended regular programming to cover the trial. Worldwide, more than 100 million people were reportedly glued to their TV or radio.

O.J.’s life can be neatly compartmentalized into two halves. The dividing line is June 12, 1994. On that date, Simpson’s estranged wife, the former Nicole Brown, and her friend Ronald Goldman were found stabbed to death in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood at the home that Nicole shared with their two children.

Before then, O.J. was famous. After then, he was infamous.

Simpson first came to the fore on the gridiron. In 1968, his final season at the University of Southern California, he was so dynamic that he won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide, out-distancing Purdue’s Leroy Keyes by 1,750 votes. This was the widest margin to that point between a Heisman winner and runner-up and a milestone that stood for 51 years until surpassed by LSU quarterback Joe Burrows in 2019.

In the NFL, among his many achievements, he became the first and only NFL running back to eclipse 2,000 rushing yards in a 14-game season, a record that will never be broken.

But one can’t appreciate the depth of O.J.s celebrityhood by citing statistics. He transcended his sport like few athletes before or since. Owing in large part to his commercials for the Hertz rental car chain, he became one of America’s most recognizable people.

O.J. Simpson was raised by a single mother in a government housing project in the gritty Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. Unlike many of his boyhood peers, he was never quick to raise his fists. Weirdly, he once said that running away from fights proved useful to him when he took up football. It helped his stamina.

Although he never boxed in real life, O.J. portrayed a boxer in a made-for-TV movie. Titled “Goldie and the Boxer,” it aired on NBC on Sunday, Dec. 29, 1979, two weeks after O.J. played in his last NFL game. Co-produced by Simpson’s own production company, it starred O.J. opposite precocious Melissa Michaelson who played the 10-year-old Goldie.

In promos, the movie was tagged as a heartwarming tale for kids and their parents. Associated Press writer John Egan described it as “a cross between the Shirley Temple classic ‘Little Miss Marker’ and a low-budget ‘Rocky.’”

Here’s a synopsis, compliments of New York Times TV critic John J. O’Connor:

“The year is 1946, and Joe Gallagher is returning to Louisiana as an army veteran. He is quickly ripped off by a succession of thugs and finds himself broke and battered in Pennsylvania where he is befriended by a young Goldie. Her father is a boxer and Joe joins the training camp as a sparring partner. When the father dies, Joe takes his place on the fight circuit and Goldie becomes his manager…”

The consensus of the pundits was that O.J. the actor was very much a work in progress, but that he had great potential. And the movie, despite its hokey plot, attracted so many viewers that NBC wanted to turn it into a series.

O.J. had too much on his plate to commit to doing a regular series. Among other things, he had signed on to become part of NBC’s main stable of reporters at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, a gig that evaporated when the U.S. under President Jimmy Carter joined 64 other nations in boycotting the Games as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, the movie did spawn a sequel, “Goldie and the Boxer Go To Hollywood,” with Simpson and Michaelson reprising their roles.

I never met O.J. Simpson, but have a vivid memory of finding myself walking behind him into the outdoor boxing arena at Caesars Palace. If memory serves, this was the Hagler-Hearns fight of 1985, in which case the lady on his arm would have been Nicole as they were married earlier that year. She was quite a dish in that tight-fitting pantsuit and I remember thinking to myself, “of all the trophies this dude has won, here is the best trophy of them all.” (Forgive me.)

Simpson had cameo roles in several movies before leaving USC. When he finally turned his back on football, the world was his oyster. O.J., wrote Barry Lorge in the Washington Post, was “bright, affable, charming, articulate and credible, a public relation man’s dream-come true.”

No one would have foreseen the swerve his life would take.

When the jury, after only four hours of deliberation, returned a verdict of “not guilty,” there was cheering in some corners of America. The overwhelming consensus of the white population, however, was that the verdict was an abomination, a gross miscarriage of justice.

We’ll leave it at that.

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