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132,000-Plus….A Boxing Attendance Record Unlikely to Ever be Broken

Bernard Fernandez

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You always hear that records are meant to be broken, but, barring a stunning change in national policy by a Communist country unwelcoming to outsiders, the 132,000-plus that turned out to see Julio Cesar Chavez pummel Greg Haugen on Feb. 20 1993, at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca likely will forever stand first for live attendance for a boxing event.

Chavez’s intentionally cruel thrashing of the lippy Haugen enabled the Mexican national hero variously known as “JC Superstar” and El Gran Campeon to successfully defend his WBC super lightweight title for the 10th time. That fight was the capper to an incredibly deep card dubbed the “Grand Slam of Boxing” by promoter Don King, which also featured title retentions by such top-shelf attractions as Azumah Nelson, Terry Norris and Michael Nunn. But make no mistake, those outstanding fighters – Nelson and Norris, like Chavez, have been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame – merely served as fillers until the main event. The massive crowd might have been nearly as large and boisterous had the only scheduled bout been the white-hatted Chavez vs. Haugen, the presumptive American villain.

azteca

The announced attendance of 132,247 for a showdown fast approaching its 27th anniversary shattered the previous high for a boxing event, the 120,470 that filled Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial Stadium on Sept. 23, 1926, to see Gene Tunney lift Jack Dempsey’s heavyweight title on a 10-round unanimous decision. (A crowd estimated at 135,000 turned up in a public park in Milwaukee to see Tony Zale fight Billy Pryor on Aug. 16, 1941, but that doesn’t count as there was bleacher seating for only a few thousand and the event was free for everyone.)

The recent incidence of stadium bouts with impressively large gatherings – 90,000 jammed London’s Wembley Stadium on April 29, 2017, to watch Great Britain’s Anthony Joshua retain his WBA and IBF heavyweight titles on an 11th-round TKO of long-reigning previous champion Wladimir Klitschko – hints at more large throngs willing to leave the comfort of their living rooms to see live boxing, but no promoter can fit a gallon into a quart bottle. Live attendance at least partially hinges on how much space there is in a place, and there is only one stadium that presently has a seating capacity larger than that of Estadio Azteca in 1993. That would be Rungrado 1st of May Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea, which has a capacity of 150,000. But that huge facility is used primarily as a means of the country’s populace dutifully assembling for the purpose of feeding the ego of dictator Kim Jong Un.

It’s a sharp drop from Rungrado 1st of May Stadium to the 110,000-seat capacity of Sardar Patel Gujarat Stadium in India, known mostly as a cricket venue, and the 107,601-seat Michigan Stadium, the “Big House” of college football in the United States. Sesquicentennial Stadium (later known as John F. Kennedy Stadium) was demolished in 1992, and even Estadio Azteca, which was erected to host the soccer matches at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, has been downsized, having undergone renovations in 1999, 2013 and 2016. It now lists a capacity of “only” 87,523.

All of which likely stamps Chavez-Haugen as a pugilistic equivalent to Woodstock as a you-had-to-be-there human magnet in the estimation of renowned ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr., whose memories of the literally biggest event he ever worked are as vivid now as they were then.

“I can’t remember if they had large projection screens like they do now, but I’m assuming they didn’t have them then,” recalled Lennon, who joined referee Joe Cortez in sharing their recollections for this story. “Here you had this vast sea of people.  I saw these little fires high up in the stands. People brought their own food and were cooking way up in the more distant seats. I remember thinking this was more of a mass celebration than just a sporting event. Whether or not a lot of people could really see much down in the ring, it certainly seemed that they were enjoying themselves. It was kind of like the huge crowd for Woodstock; just being there was a huge part of it.”

Cortez, now 76 and retired from refereeing, said he also was amazed by the gargantuan crowd.

“Walking into the stadium that day was like walking into a different world,” he said. “You had to be there to believe it, an event with that many fans, almost all of them rooting for Chavez.

“When Chavez was making his walk to the ring, the cheers were so incredibly loud I almost had to cover my ears, and the boos for Haugen when he was making his walk to the ring were just about as loud. It was an intense feeling, I think, for everybody. I knew it was for me. I never had been in a situation like that. I remember thinking, `What the hell can the people in the seats farthest away from the ring see, unless they have binoculars? The fighters must have seemed like two little ants, with me the third ant, in a tiny box. I knew then it was going to be an experience I would remember the rest of my life, and I still feel that way.”

Even though Chavez was and is the most popular Mexican fighter ever, the scene might not have been so incredibly jam-packed or emotional were not for the opponent. The ill will Chavez harbored toward Haugen, a onetime “Tough Man” contestant who had risen above those humble circumstances to win titles at both lightweight and super lightweight, was palpable, and had been simmering for three years. Each new affront by Haugen only served to harden JCC’s determination to someday make him pay.

The feud began behind closed doors, when Haugen showed up at a Chavez sparring session. As Chavez left the ring, Haugen approached him and sneeringly said that his sparring partners were “nothing but young little girls with dresses on.”

“I hated him from that moment on,” Chavez would later say, with Haugen seemingly enjoying any occasion by which he could verbally torment a fighter who the trash-talking antagonist knew would represent his biggest payday.

The stakes were raised on Dec. 13, 1992, moments after Chavez had scored a sixth-round TKO of Marty Jakubowski at The Mirage in Las Vegas. Haugen entered the ring and again confronted Chavez, telling him that his 84-0, with 72 wins inside the distance, had been crafted against “Tijuana taxi drivers that my mom could whip.” But this insult was heard on television, a flung gauntlet that Chavez was only too glad to pick up. He would make Haugen, who came in 32-4-1 with 16 KO victories, regret such impudence.

“I will not have mercy on you,” Chavez told Haugen. “I will rip your head off.”

King immediately realized that this fight called for the biggest possible setting, and what could be bigger than Estadio Azteca? His Hairness played up the revenge angle to the hilt, which was to be expected, except that it wasn’t standard pre-fight hype this time. Chavez, who was known to inflict as much pain as possible on any opponent who did not pay him his due as a great fighter, was on a mission to hurt and humiliate Haugen more so than anyone he had faced. There is little doubt that Chavez’s making the bout personal imbued his many supporters with the determination to be there so they could someday regale their children and grandchildren with the tale of how they witnessed their glorious knight slay the impudent dragon.

“I arrived very early at the stadium, maybe 1 p.m. or 1:30,” Lennon recalled. “I was in my tuxedo and practicing my announcements, but even then, maybe nine hours before the main event went on, there had to be 15,000 people in the stands. They were cheering as I practiced my introduction of Chavez. It’s always kind of awkward to practice your introductions in an empty arena, but it sure wasn’t empty then. Of course, all 132,000 hadn’t shown up either.”

Cortez, as was the case with almost everyone there except the few hardy souls who had come to support Haugen, figured Chavez to win. But what if the brash underdog from Washington state pulled off the upset that could spoil the festive mood of all those JCC supporters?

“The security was unbelievable,” Cortez said. “There were so many police officers and military people with their plastic shields, and a lot of them had German Shepherds on leashes. If a riot broke out, which nobody wanted, the security people were ready, but how ready could they have been with a crowd that big?”

Fortunately for all concerned, maybe even Haugen, the hordes of Chavez fans who had come anticipating another sterling performance by their hero got it, which enabled all of them to go home happy. Chavez dropped Haugen with an overhand right just 25 seconds into the first round, the first time the challenger had been decked as a pro, and he might have finished him off shortly thereafter had he pressed the issue. But Chavez eased his foot off the gas pedal, the better to do what he had vowed to do, which was to prolong the pain he was so intent on dishing out. That plan must have been obvious to everyone, even to the folks in the nosebleed section who paid only 5,000 pesos for their bargain tickets, then the equivalent of about $1.65 U.S.

“He has no way to keep Julio Cesar Chavez off, except mercy on the part of Chavez, and he has none,” TV commentator Ferdie Pacheco said of the systematic disassembly of a fighter who had no chance of winning but was too proud and determined to quit.

“I remember the way Chavez punished Haugen to the body instead of getting him out of there quickly,” Lennon said. “But that was the way Chavez was. You had the sense he was controlling every moment of the fight and could have ended it whenever he wanted to.”

Finally, after an elapsed time of 2 minutes, 2 seconds in the fifth, Chavez decided Haugen had had enough. Or maybe it was the compassionate Cortez who chose to intervene, wrapping his arms around the valiant but thoroughly beaten-up American.

Asked what he thought about all those “Tijuana taxi drivers” who he had characterized as Chavez victims, Haugen said, “They must have been very tough taxi drivers.”

No fight is made memorable solely by the number of butts occupying the seats. Upon reflection, Chavez vs. Haugen was utter domination of a good fighter by a clearly superior one. There have been many of those in the annals of the sport. But still …

“That is definitely one fight I won’t forget,” Lennon said. “When people ask me about the most memorable fights I’ve done, that one is right up there. If it isn’t No. 1, it’s pretty close, if only for the size of the crowd.”

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Ten Heavyweight Prospects: 2021 Catchup

Matt McGrain

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I started this series in 2018, selecting ten fascinating heavyweight prospects and committing to follow them until such time as they were eliminated or entered the Transnational Boxing Rankings and this time, we have a few.

The series was updated in the summer of 2019 and this entry was delayed due to the most severe of circumstances, the COVID-19 pandemic that prevented not just boxing but so many other aspects of life. It’s nice to be able to catch up with these men once again in what was a twenty months as incident-filled as the preceding twelve.

THE COLOSSUS: ARSLANBEK MAKHMUDOV

FROM: Russia HEIGHT: 6’5.5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 250lbs AGE: 31 RECORD: 11-0 with 11 KOs

The enormous Arslanbek Makhmudov has been out just three times since the summer of 2019, slow going in more ways than one. Yes, inactivity is a consequence of a global pandemic that has hampered more than the prospects of exciting boxing prospects, but the selection of Makhmudov’s opposition has remained stubbornly unambitious.

That looked momentarily set to change in September of 2019 when Julian Fernandez, then 14-1, stepped into Makhmudov’s ring. While Fernandez has certainly never beaten meaningful opposition, he had been in with meaningful opposition, stopped in two by Tom Schwartz the year before. Makhmudov, who was a clean clear winner in his usual impressive style, nevertheless for the first time came off worse in the meaningless comparisons so often thrust upon heavyweight prospects, in that he took three rounds to do what it had taken the much more experienced Schwartz just two rounds to do.

More than this, the response of collective fighting news was disinterest. The fight was neither widely reported upon nor remarked upon and nothing is more discouraging to a promotions team than that. Perhaps in an attempt to increase coverage of their prospect, promoter Camille Estephan took the well-trodden path of digging up the bones of a once notorious contender and lobbing them at his charge. Samuel Peter was the victim and Makhmudov (pictured) disposed of him in seconds. Though the fight succeeded in generating column inches, it also did nothing for Makhmudov’s learning curve.

Doubly disappointing then was his first pandemic-opponent, Dillon Carman. Having boxed even fewer rounds than Makhmudov in 2019, Carman was also coming off two quick stoppage losses. Of course, he was butchered in the first. Since, Makhmudov’s team have been calling for Joe Joyce, Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury.  That is exciting and in the case of Joyce might even be serious, though Joyce’s people will have little problem sidestepping Makhmudov, who is a massive-punching problem nobody needs. Hopefully Estephan and his team will take note of the wide open space between a fighter like Carman and a fighter like Joyce and act upon it, fast.

SIX NINE: IVAN DYCHKO

FROM: Kazakhstan HEIGHT: 6’9 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 245lbs AGE: 30 RECORD: 9-0 with 9 KOs

Ivan Dychko is in danger of becoming a cautionary tale.

Last time we discussed the towering Kazak he had failed in a seemingly serious campaign to replace the disgraced Jarrell Miller against Anthony Joshua based upon their amateur rivalry. Having missed the boat on that chance, grabbed so forcefully by Andy Ruiz, Dychko consoled himself by fighting someone named Nate Heaven.

Heaven, who retired in 2015 and has not won a meaningful fight since April of 2014, inexplicably unretired to absorb this beating, which he did, showing bravery all the while. Dychko looked organised and quick, heavy-handed and well-organised.

Since then: nothing.

Dychko has sparred with Wladimir Klitschko and Deontay Wilder, apparently without upset. He now seems to be hocking those wares to Tyson Fury. Meanwhile, he avoids the ring entirely. Dychko looks fabulous in training footage and is still spoken of highly by those who have worked with him, but that makes his inexplicable inactivity more, not less, frustrating. It should be remembered that Dychko spent eight months doing nothing before the pandemic hit and fought six rounds in twelve months before that. Dychko is a potentially splendid fighter going very much to waste.

THE QUIET ONE: DANIEL DUBOIS

FROM: Great Britain HEIGHT: 6’5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 239lbs AGE: 23 RECORD: 15-1 with 14 KOs

Great Britain continues to deliver on meaningful clashes between heavyweight prospects and the past eighteen months has delivered something of a blockbuster in the shape of Daniel Dubois versus Joe Joyce.

The reason the world is more likely to contain Dychko or Makhumudov than Joyce or Dubois could not be illustrated more keenly than it is by the fallout from this fight. Dubois has been routed by both social media and boxing reporters, very much along the lines of “did he quit?” and “was he exposed?”

But when two prospects meet, of course, some shortcomings and some failings are to be revealed.  By very definition, a prospect is not a finished article. It is true, also, that there was something depressing about Daniel’s apparent inability to defend a wounded eye that came to define his fight as he was jabbed into literal submission by a tougher, technically superior, much more experienced, older boxer. Worse was that he seemed so under-prepared for a potential change in the manner in which he might defend himself. His failings were not entirely his own.

Still, aged just twenty-three and with his heavy hands confirmed by fourteen knockouts, Dubois has plenty to rebuild with, most of all keeping in mind that his hands are just tools and his plans in the ring are mostly there to be disrupted. Watching him explain openly and honestly his decision to “take the knee” despite a clear understanding of the unfortunate cultural associations with our sport that has developed around any notion of surrender has been heartening and frankly impressed me.

Perhaps this a young man who actually will “learn from a defeat” rather than merely paying it lip service. It is that opportunity and where it might lead him that convinced me to leave him on this list, and we will drop in on him next February to see what has occurred.

THE BRUTE: SERGEY KUZMIN

FROM: Russia HEIGHT: 6’3.5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 245lbs AGE: 33 RECORD: 15-2 with 11 KOs

Last time we spoke of Sergey Kuzmin he was 15-0; this time he is 15-2. I’ll avoid platitudes such as “it’s a long road back for the thirty-three-year-old” on this occasion and just state Kuzmin will never be champion.

The scene for his downfall straddled the continents and boxing history as he was found wanting first in the immortal Madison Square Gardens, New York, and then Wembley, London. Tough to the last, Kuzmin was stopped by neither Michael Hunter, who he met in America, nor Martin Bakole, who he met in Great Britain. On each occasion though, he was thoroughly beaten.

His Waterloo came in the fifth against Hunter. Hunter, who had been making all the running, flashed Kuzmin in the fifth with an unexpected cannonball left. Generous onlookers may have found two rounds for the Russian but it was clear he did not belong in the ring with a fighter as good as Hunter. As if to prove it, he took a step down in his next contest against Bakole. Looking fleshy and tentative, Kuzmin dropped a clear and drab decision.

Boxing isn’t kind and it was possible to feel the world’s interest wane during the Bakole fight, or at least that part of the world that remained interested up until that point. Kuzmin tried to take control in the second round, got hit and seemed cowed. He has proved a disappointment; I predicted he would get as far as a legitimate heavyweight ranking. He did not get there, and it seems unlikely now he ever will. Either way, he passes from the realm of prospect to that of gatekeeper and will not figure on our prospect list this time next year.

THE AMERICAN: DARMANI ROCK

FROM: USA HEIGHT: 6’5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 240lbs AGE: 24 RECORD: 17-1 with 12 KOs

If I hoped for a ranking for Kuzmin, I was less convinced by Darmani Rock, whose promotional team seemed either to be very smart or very dumb in the glacial way they moved the youngster along.  Still just twenty-four they could even have continued to make him wait – instead, they took the plunge and the result was a disaster.

Michael Polite Coffie, a fascinating 6’5 southpaw, prides himself on his ability to learn and his military record both, although his time in service prevented him applying learning to boxing until he was rather late in life. Arguably though, he had already achieved more in his eleven professional fights than Rock had in his seventeen. It showed. Coffie, ripped where Rock was flabby, showed the supposedly more experienced man more looks in the first than Rock mustered in the three short rounds the fight lasted. In the third, Rock rattled out of the corner and fired with real aggression having been out-hit through the first two rounds. It was an exciting moment for our prospect-watch, one where we were to learn about a man we were interested in. Instead, Rock revealed a jaw that was anything but as Coffie cleaned him out before a minute of the round had elapsed.

Rock’s moment of truth came and went; Coffie is interesting. If he continues to fight and goes unbeaten, perhaps we will even sneak him in here this time next year. At 34 I think the former Marine will be a little too late to the game though.

MY FAVOURITE: FILIP HRGOVIC

FROM: Croatia HEIGHT: 6’6 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 230lbs AGE: 26 RECORD: 12-0 with 10 KOs

“Technically proficient, quick of hand and thought, physically imposing and clearly in great shape,” I wrote of Filip Hrgovic in 2019, “[he] is confirmed as having everything he needs to be a champion in the heavyweight division except the important ones: chin and stamina. These still remain unconfirmed, although his adventures in the WSB suggest he owns a sturdy mandible at the very least.”

And that, pretty much, is where we still stand today. Hrgovic has been busy though, managing four outings, well above average for this list, it’s just that none of them really told us anything we don’t already know. He thrashed a molasses-like Mexican named Mario Heredia in August 2019, and turned in an impressive display. Using the left hand to open up opportunities for the right, Hrgovic scored with straights, bodyshots, narrowed it up to throw a short overhand on the inside, and most of all landed brutal uppercuts. Heredia was fearless but wilted under this attention. The brutally of those right hands escalated in the third and final round.

From here, Hrgovic went on to dispatch a wobbly Eric Molina in December, and also in three, before waiting out much of the pandemic and returning to the ring in September of 2020 against an ageing Greek with ten fights named Alexandre Kartozia, who offered even less resistance. In November he met the forty-year-old Rydell Booker and beat him up for an eye-watering five founds.

It’s not so much that his opposition is truly awful, more that you can’t shake the feeling that Arslanbek Makhmudov would have knocked them all over too – and in double quick time, too.  Either way, there is still an awful lot that is not known about Hrgovic that I would like to know before he fights for a title, which, to hear the fighter tell it, is imminent. Maybe Martin Bakole will tell us more. He has been chasing Hrgovic for a year now and seems convinced he can trouble him.

Either way, we won’t be hearing any more from Hrgovic in our prospect-watch; he breached the TBRB rankings in December of 2019.  He is a contender now, a prospect no more.

HAYMAKING: JOE JOYCE

FROM: Great Britain HEIGHT: 6’6 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 255lbs AGE: 35 RECORD: 12-0 with 11 KOs

“From the supposed pick of the crop in Hrgovic to the man who beat him.”

Yes indeed; but Joe Joyce needn’t rest on the laurels in earned back in his World Boxing Series any more. He arguably owns the best win of any of the fighters on this list.

Nor was he the betting favourite when he met Daniel Dubois late last year in a match that for the boxing-loyal, fight-starved British public was something of an event. Joyce, a rarity in that he feels even bigger in the ring than his listed stats, spent ten rounds doing essentially the same thing, pushing out hard straight punches to allow metronomic scoring while occasionally getting hit with harder punches, as in the second, where Dubois seemed ready to clean him out. But Joyce is hard; the science to that remark, such as it is, is only in that it is an observable fact. While Dubois lashed him, Joyce calmly continued to deploy himself and by the eighth, although Dubois was in touch on the cards, there was a sense of inevitability about the Joyce victory, which came via TKO in the tenth round.

Joyce is probably a little better than I credited him for, though I always figured him the fighter on this list most in a hurry; that urgency will continue as David Haye’s prodigy has now turned thirty-five.  Britain is stuffed with heavyweights currently. Joyce is now third among them, an enviable spot, one that is now seeing him hunted by names.

He is also wonderfully positioned for a shot at a strap, and if he can keep it right, he might even be positioned for the many millions a fight with the emergent victor from any Tyson Fury-Anthony Joshua series.

Either way, Joyce will no longer be labelled a prospect the next time we come around. He will be replaced by a new man next year.

THE PUB BOUNCER: NATHAN GORMAN

FROM: Great Britain HEIGHT: 6’3 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 250lbs AGE: 24 RECORD: 17-1 with 11 KOs

After the hurt that Joe Joyce put on him, it is forgotten that Daniel Dubois had previously won his own battle of the prospects, beating up Nathan Gorman in July of 2019.

“The Dubois fight is everything to Gorman,” I wrote in 2019. “There will be no unearned second coming should he lose, just a long and difficult slog back to where he is now followed by the real work…Gorman’s status next time we check in with him will be more dramatically affected by his next fight than every other man on this list.”

And so it was. Gorman was brave and he had certain but slight advantages that did nothing like enough to cover the distance in talent that lay between them. Cut in the second round, dropped in the third before being stopped in the fifth, he was clearly outmatched. Gorman will never be a legitimate contender to the world’s heavyweight champion.

That does not mean there isn’t money to be made and fights to be won. Gorman was back and winning late last year after a prolonged rest and goes again in March. Likeable and brave, Gorman remains on my watch list, for all that we won’t see him again on this list.

THE LITTLE GUY: OLEKSANDR USYK

FROM: Ukraine HEIGHT: 6’3 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 220lbs AGE: 34 RECORD: 18-0 with 13 KOs

Oleksander Usyk is another fighter to be removed from our heavyweight prospect list, but for different reasons; Usyk made the TBRB top ten and as such is no longer eligible. Usyk is stalking belts, not status.

I’ve followed Usyk since before the beginning of his professional career and written about him for years. During all those years I’ve been clear about one thing: he will grab himself a heavyweight strap. In truth, everything truly meaningful is tied up with Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua so while I continue to stand by my ancient prediction, it is likely to come now only in the most unsatisfactory of fashions, perhaps upgraded from some ridiculous interim alphabet belt to “full champion” when Joshua or Fury refuses to match him but rather rematches the other for tens of millions.

My other prediction – that Usyk is serious trouble for Joshua and all but chanceless against Fury – may be undone on all fronts by the passage of time. Usyk is thirty-four and like the rest of us, is getting no younger.

During the time between lists, Usyk has beaten up journeyman Chazz Witherspoon for a seventh- round stoppage and out-pointed gatekeeper Dereck Chisora in an interesting fight seen by many as his first true test at the poundage. In many ways, Usyk did it the old-fashioned way, for all that he served his “apprenticeship” as an all-time great cruiserweight. The next eighteen months will tell us whether or not he can achieve major status at heavyweight.

AT THE SCHOOL OF MANNY STEWARD: VLAD SIRENKO

FROM: Ukraine HEIGHT: 6’3.5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 243lbs AGE: 26 RECORD: 15-0 with 13 KOs

Vlad Sirenko’s most recent opponent was a 7-8-1 Ukranian named Kostiantyn Dovbyshchenko who has now lost five of the last six but who nevertheless rattled Sirenko in Kiev last December.

On the face of it, this seems a disaster, but of all the fighters on this list, Sirenko is the one most deserving of time. Aged just twenty-six and with little to speak of in terms of an amateur career, Sirenko’s 15-0 is real; as are the numbers, so is his experience.

Despite this, when Dovbyshchenko opened an irritating cut on his right brow in the fifth round, Sirenko did not panic. He stuck to a tidy-handed, neat boxing style that got him across the line over ten and gifted him something the likes of Makhmudov and Hrgovic have yet to receive: a genuine test of his temperament.

Still, the scores were not wide and although Dovbyshchenko was a little better than his paper record allows – neat, tidy and mobile, and never stopped – Sirenko’s limitations were underlined. He can hit, but his power isn’t darkening; he is organised, but he often waits his turn – he is busy but cannot counter or punch well enough to truly discourage his opponent. In short, well-schooled quality on technical punching is what won him this fight. That is honourable, but it is not what should be separating him from journeymen. If he is unable to overwhelm or at least control such limited opposition with physical advantages, heavyweight waters will likely be too deep.

Still, he speaks so well about boxing that I want to believe he can learn about boxing. Sirenko, who is not shy at sharing his opinions, predicted Joyce’s victory over Dubois with calm certainty having previously sparred with both. It is only one example, but every time I hear him speak in excellent English, I am impressed with what he has to say. Connections to Manny Steward disciple James Ali Bashir and therefore to the Oleksandr Usyk camp are other reasons to be hopeful.

As is Sirenko’s abandonment of his South African base and relocation to Germany, under the auspices of Maxim Michailew who has so far preferred him to box in his native Ukraine. He has also made Sirenko one of the busier prospects on this list and that, too, bodes well for the future.

Sirenko though remains the most interesting prospect here listed, which is another way of saying he has the most to prove.

THIS TIME NEXT YEAR

It was strange re-reading former entries in this series before writing this one. That I would be writing another a year later seemed a given and if 2020/21 has taught us anything it is that nothing should be taken for granted. None of us could imagine an event so overwhelming as to make an absence of boxing seem meaningless, but it happened.

It hurt the prospect more than any other kind of fighter; even the true journeyman will tend to have other sources of income. For an elite prospect who has devoted himself to boxing, the end of the fight game was a disaster. That said, the fight fan may prosper; it could be that a sudden and unplanned break might press some reluctant promoters, managers and boxers into action.

Hopefully we will be back in around a year to find out why.

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Joseph Parker vs. Junior Fa Has Marinated into a Kiwi Blockbuster

Arne K. Lang

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The upcoming fight between Joseph Parker and Junior Fa at a 12,000-seat arena in Auckland is well-marinated. “Momentum is slowly building,” wrote New Zealand sports journalist Liam Napier way back in September of 2016. The promoters think the revenue from pay-per-view (it’s on DAZN in other countries including the U.S. and UK) may set a new benchmark for a fight in New Zealand between domestic rivals, breaking the record set in 2009 when heavyweights David Tua and Shane Cameron clashed in Hamilton.

There was a time when Joseph Parker was looked upon as the third-best heavyweight in the world behind only Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder. Back-to-back losses to Joshua and Dillian Whyte (and the return of Tyson Fury) knocked him down several pegs.

Parker (27-2, 21 KOs) has won three straight inside the distance since the setback to Whyte, but against soft opposition, namely Alexander Flores, Alex Leapai, and Shawndell Winters. This is the same Alexander Flores that would go on to get stopped in 45 seconds by Luis Ortiz. The veteran Leapai and the mysterious Winters were both 39 years old when Parker fought them.

Junior Fa (19-0, 10 KOs) has been inactive since November of 2019 when he won a lopsided 10-round decision over Devin Vargas. That bout was in Salt Lake City where Fa had something of a homefield advantage.

Parker vs. Fa was originally slated for Dec. 11, but Fa backed out because of a health issue, a blood disorder that made him sluggish and required surgery. The particular ailment — presumably it had a name — and the type of surgery performed were never revealed to the media. (Apparently New Zealand has very stringent health privacy laws.) However, the word is that Fa is completely recovered and fully fit to go 12 hard rounds if necessary.

Junior Fa is bigger than Joseph Parker, customarily carrying about 260 pounds on his six-foot-five frame, and although he’s less experienced at the pro level, he’s the older man by 27 months. Fa delayed the start of his pro career to start a family. During the hiatus, he worked for a company that manufactured doors and windows.

This will be their fifth meeting. They locked horns four times as amateurs and the series is tied at 2-2.

That’s part of the intrigue, to see who can break the deadlock. The ethnicity factor adds relish. Parker’s ancestry is Samoan, Fa’s is Tongan.

The two Polynesian groups have a lot in common – family members of Parker and Fa are actually members of the same South Auckland LDS church – but friendly relationships evaporate on the rugby field where the two nations have an intense rivalry that in some respects mirrors the fierce rivalry between India and Pakistan in cricket.

In the United States, Samoans and Tongans are identified with the sport of football. They are over-represented in the NFL by a very wide margin. The majority are linemen, but there are notable exceptions such as quarterback Tua Tagovailoa who started nine games last year as a rookie for the Miami Dolphins.

Tagovailoa, born in Hawaii to Samoan parents, will undoubtedly be rooting for Joseph Parker. To ratchet up his interest in the fight, we would suggest a side bet with Kalani Sitaki, the Tonga-born head football coach at BYU. Tua will be required to lay odds, not merely because Parker is a solid favorite but because he makes more money (although Sitaki is due for a big raise after guiding BYU to an 11-1 season).

Truth be told, it wouldn’t surprise us if this was a rather boring fight. Neither man has a big punch. A fair guess would be that this fight takes a similar tack to last weekend’s heavyweight fight between Otto Wallin and Dominic Breazeale with Parker, the more mobile fighter, playing the Wallin role.

However, Parker’s bout with Dillian Whyte was a very chippy fight in which Parker was on the deck twice but scored a knockdown of his own in the final round. Parker vs. Fa doesn’t have to be at the level to still be a very entertaining affair. And before one dismisses Fa’s chances, we would interject this note of caution: Underdogs, in case you haven’t noticed, have been on quite a roll lately.

This fight was in jeopardy of being postponed again. The authorities threatened to push it back if Covid restrictions were not loosened. Last week, all of New Zealand with the exception of Auckland was in Phase One. Auckland remained in Phase Two which prohibited gatherings of more than 100 people. But on Tuesday of this week (Monday in the U.S.), Auckland joined the rest of the country in Phase One. Facial coverings are still required on public transportation and everyone is encouraged to practice social distancing, but other mandates have been lifted. This event will potentially draw the largest attendance of any boxing show in the Covid-19 era although that may be quickly surpassed by the turnout for Canelo-Yildirim at the home of the Miami Dolphins where attendance will be capped at 20 percent of capacity.

If you plan to watch the Parker-Fa fight, set your alarm clocks. Owing to the time difference, the DAZN telecast will go at 1:30 a.m. ET which is 10:30 p.m. on Friday night for us westerners.

Check out more boxing news on video at the Boxing Channel

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HITS and MISSES: Oscar Valdez, Adrien Broner and More 

Kelsey McCarson

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HITS and MISSES: Oscar Valdez, Adrien Broner and More

Boxing was in full swing again over the weekend, so there was plenty of action to consume via all the various television networks and streaming platforms available today in the United States.

Most notably, the sport saw undefeated star Oscar Valdez establish himself as one of the top fighters in the sport against Miguel Berchelt on ESPN.

Plus, several established veterans made their presence known again on the PBC scene in 2021 with their first fights of the year on Showtime.

Here are the latest HITS and MISSES after another busy weekend covering the sport.

HIT: Valdez’s Epic Upset and Scary KO

People often tout Mexico vs. Puerto Rico as one of the best rivalries in boxing, and it is. But there have been plenty of great throwdowns featuring Mexico vs. Mexico, and so it was again on Saturday in Las Vegas.

Valdez, 30, was a former 126-pound titleholder who was moving up to challenge current 130-pound champion Berchelt. Heading into the fight, the bookies believed Berchelt, 29, would be too big and possess too much power for Valdez to overcome. Most boxing fans thought the same.

Boy, was everyone wrong about that.

Instead, Valdez showed he was clearly a step or two above Berchelt in terms of class, and that’s huge considering that Berchelt was considered one of the top fighters in a stacked division.

Valdez’s epic upset and scary knockout vs. Berchelt stole the show this weekend. It put Valdez on the map as a legit star and will attract bigger and better fights to the undefeated Mexican in the immediate future.

MISS: AB’s Return

Beleaguered boxing star Adrien Broner returned to action in the main event of a Showtime card on Saturday, one that seemed pretty much entirely dedicated to getting Broner back into the sport.

Broner, 31, picked up his first win in four years against Jovanie Santiago by unanimous decision. That the talented American was going to be handed the win by the judges so long as he stayed upright over the 12-round fight was a given. That’s just how boxing works.

But what was also a given was that Broner would probably alienate himself from boxing fans and media almost immediately upon getting his foot back in the door. His post-fight comments were atrocious and they illustrated the biggest problem for “The Problem” himself.

Look, Broner’s life is probably better with boxing in it, but the sport is definitely better off without him. It’s probably time for the powerbrokers in the sport to recognize that.

HIT: Fluke vs. Fury Debunked

Heavyweight contender Otto Wallin was the betting favorite against Dominic Breazeale on Saturday, but there were some in the sport who still wondered whether the Swedish boxer’s near-miss against Tyson Fury in 2019 was just a fluke.

Wallin might not have the same kind of wallop in his fists as ex-heavyweight titleholder Deontay Wilder, but the southpaw’s wide array of skills were on full display against Breazeale in a way that suggests he might box the American’s ears off over 12 rounds if given the chance.

Wallin has now won two straight fights after nearly pulling the upset over Fury. The lineal champ required 47 stitches after the outing, and the fight easily could have been stopped by the ringside doctor because of all the blood. Instead, Fury rallied for the heroic win and Wallin continued his career as a potential contender.

Wallin’s stoppage win over Travis Kaufmann in 2020 and his decision victory over Breazeale on Saturday in the co-main event of the Showtime card prove beyond doubt he’s one of the better heavyweights in boxing today.

Any notion that Wallin’s performance against Fury was just a fluke has now been completely debunked.

MISS: Fast-tracked Olympian Needs to Slow Down

Talented 26-year-old Josh Kelly lost his unbeaten record to David Avanesyan on Saturday in London.

Kelly had represented Great Britain at the 2016 Summer Olympics, and his fast hands and feet were shuffled quickly up the professional ranks to the point that he was challenging EBU European welterweight champion Avanesyan in the main event at Wembley Arena in London.

Kelly got off to a hot start, but the brash 147-pounder was eventually overwhelmed by the 32-year-old EBU champ’s constant pressure.

Avanesyan is a solid fighter, but he’s not elite compared to the world level. So, where some believed Kelly might be on his way to being something more than a British-level fighter, his handlers might have to rethink that after his loss to Avanesyan.

If anything, maybe Kelly was moved too quickly up the ladder. Fans and media love pro fighters to take the biggest and best challenges available to them as fast as humanly possible but most people in those same groups quickly scatter when that kind of approach blows up in a fighter’s face.

Kelly might still have a bright future, but he’ll need to slow his march up the rankings the second time around.

HIT: The Circle of (Irish Travelers) Life 

Once upon a time, Irish Traveler and boxing phenom Andy Lee was brought over from Ireland to be promoted to the American audience as a top prospect with world title aspirations. While it probably took Lee longer than his handlers had hoped to live up to the hype, he did eventually score two dramatic upsets in a row to capture a world middleweight title in 2015.

Today, Lee is guiding Irish Traveler and boxing phenom Paddy Donovan up the ranks, and his protege looks every bit the part of being Andy Lee 2.0.

Like Lee was over a decade ago, the lanky southpaw carries with him into the ring on fight night a promotable face and name to go along with it but also the kinds of punches that make all that other stuff matter.

In his own professional fighting career, Lee had famously moved to Detroit to train under the late Emanuel Steward at the legendary Kronk gym. While Lee will forever remain attached to the gym’s storied history, the fighter was candid in his 2018 autobiography about some of the things he felt Steward and others at Kronk hadn’t taught him heading into important fights.

In fact, Lee didn’t win his title belt until he left the United States to train under Adam Booth in England.

So, the circle of life is this: Lee has the chance now to give Donovan everything he had as well as all the stuff he had to learn later the hard way.

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