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The Hauser Report: Wilder – Fury II in Perspective

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On Saturday night, February 22, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Tyson Fury knocked out Deontay Wilder in round seven of a rematch of their December 1, 2018, draw. With Anthony Joshua having faltered as a fighter since his comeback victory over Wladimir Klitschko three years ago, the consensus is that Fury is now the #1 heavyweight in the world.

Wilder-Fury II shaped up from the start as an intriguing drama. Fury has a fighter’s name (first and last). “Deontay” sounds like a fashion designer’s moniker. But don’t be misled. Wilder has an aura of menace about him. In the ring, he evokes images of a deadly raptor ripping its prey to shreds with a single strike.

Fury has an erratic persona. By his own admission, he has struggled with severe depression for most of his life. On November 28, 2015, he decisioned Wladimir Klitschko to claim the WBA, IBF, and WBO belts. Then he began spouting homophobic, misogynist, anti-Semitic dogma before abandoning boxing to deal with his emotional problems.

“Part of the attraction with Fury,” British journalist Ron Lewis writes, “has always been, you genuinely don’t know what he is going to say. Sometimes he will just make stuff up. In the modern boxing media where video journalists generally outnumber writers, the soundbite is king. Soundbites are rolled out and the outlandish remarks are gobbled up as good material. And Fury gives good soundbites. Whether they are true or not doesn’t really matter. What counts is that people click.”

Fury returned to the ring in 2018 after a thirty-month absence and notched lackluster victories over Sefer Seferi and Francesco Pianeta. On December 1, 2018, he survived ninth and twelfth-round knockdowns en route to a draw against Wilder. Less-than-impressive triumphs over Tom Schwarz and Otto Wallin followed.

In his most recent ring appearance, Tyson journeyed to Saudi Arabia for an October 31, 2019, staged wrestling spectacle that pitted him against WWE strongman Braun Strowman.

Fury has good boxing skills for a man his size. He stands close to 6-feet-9-inches tall and fights in the neighborhood of a non-svelt 260 pounds. There’s a lot of jiggling when he moves around the canvas. At age 31, he entered the ring for Wilder-Fury II as an undefeated professional boxer with 29 wins, 20 knockouts, and a draw in 30 fights.

Wilder captured a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics as a raw 23-year-old. Seven years later, he annexed the WBC heavyweight title by decision over Bermane Stiverne. Since then, he has successfully defended his belt ten times against mostly pedestrian opposition. His most credible opponents were Luis Ortiz (twice) and Fury.

Deontay has made some good life choices and also some bad ones. There have been incidents of violence outside the ring and public utterances that made him look and sound like a bully. There’s a nagging feeling that he unwisely left a lot of money on table and lost an opportunity to consolidate all four heavyweight championship belts when he blew off a three-fight $100 million offer from DAZN last year.

That said; Wilder can punch. Bigtime. Entering the ring on February 22, he had 40 knockout victories in 42 fights, with only Fury and Stiverne having gone the distance against him. And Stiverne was obliterated on a first-round knockout when they met in the ring for the second time.

As writer Carlos Acevedo noted, “There is no softening-up process necessary for Wilder to demolish an opponent. Cumulative damage is not a prerequisite. He picks his high-spots (moments when he fully commits to his bludgeonous right hand) with care, and few can withstand its direct impact.”

Fighters are associated with certain phrases . . . Joe Louis: “He can run but he can’t hide” . . . Mike Tyson: “They all have a plan until they get hit” . . .

Wilder sums up nicely when he says of each opponent, “He has to be perfect for twelve rounds. I have to be perfect for two seconds.”

Let’s say it again. Wilder can punch. His right hand is devastating. And not only isn’t he afraid to throw it; his entire fight plan (at the risk of losing round after round on the judges’ scorecards) is about trying to land it. His conventional boxing skills are limited. His chin is suspect, but he has learned to use his height and reach to protect it. Give him time to set up and proceed at his leisure, and he will destroy you.

Moreover, Wilder carries his power late. As Fury found out in round twelve of their first encounter, Deontay is dangerous until the final bell.

“This is a gladiator sport,” Wilder says. “It ain’t no room for weakness in this sport, especially when you’re a champion because you’ll always be a target. You’re always gonna have a bullseye on your back. So you’ve gotta have a mentality like that. It’s good to be nice and kind and shit like that. But when it comes to boxing, you can’t show no weakness. You’ve gotta show that you’re a savage, that you ain’t nothing to be messed with, and that’s what I show. Put fear in these guys’ hearts and really mean it. When you fight Deontay Wilder, I take something from you. I take years from your life.”

As for Fury’s psychiatric issues, Wilder acknowledged, “We all have mental problems. Ain’t nobody one hundred percent. I’m crazy at times. I go do things at times. I been had a gun in my hand before thinking about committing suicide. I mean, shit. It ain’t no different. I can be a role model, but you have to accept me and embrace me for who I am. I may say some crazy stuff. I may make up my own words at times. I’m human. I don’t walk a straight path and a lot of things may go wrong in my life and it’s going to be up to me to correct them. I just tell people to accept me for who I am. I am who I am. I’m not perfect.”

For a while, Wilder was skeptical that the rematch would take place.

“Fury doesn’t want to fight me again,” Deontay said. “He’s satisfied with the draw and he wants to run with a moral victory.” That was followed by reference to Fury rising from the canvas after what initially seemed to be a fight-ending knockout: “I knocked some marbles out his head. When a man doesn’t know how he got knocked onto the ground or how he got up, that ain’t no good sign. His family don’t even want him to fight me again. He don’t want to either, but he’s got to.”

In due course, the rematch was signed with the two sides agreeing to a 50-50 revenue split.

It would be Wilder (backed by Premier Boxing Champions and FOX) versus Fury (in league with Top Rank and ESPN). Thereafter, Top Rank CEO Bob Arum predicted that Wilder-Fury II would engender two million pay-per-view buys. That left a lot of observers willing to bet the “under,” since Wilder-Fury I was generously estimated to have generated 325,000.

In truth, neither Fury or Wilder had sold well to the public in the past.

Wilder had headlined two previous fight cards in Las Vegas. According to numbers released by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, 4,074 tickets resulting in a live gate of $755,200 were sold for his 2015 outing against Bermane Stiverne. Deontay’s 2019 rematch against Luis Ortiz generated a live gate of $4,063,141 on 7,403 tickets sold. Depending on whom one believes, Wilder-Ortiz II (which was distributed on pay-per-view by Fox) engendered between 225,000 and 275,000 buys. Since FOX is reported to have guaranteed 500,000 buys for Wilder-Ortiz II, that translated into a lot of red ink.

Meanwhile, the live gate for Fury-Schwarz at the MGM Grand was $882,145 with 5,489 tickets sold. The live gate for Fury-Wallin at T-Mobile Arena was $999,723 with 3,577 tickets purchased. There were more comps (3,898) for Fury-Wallin than tickets sold.

To state the obvious, these are not good numbers. But ESPN and FOX (which jointly handled the pay-per-view for Wilder-Fury II) went all-in on promotion of the rematch.

FOX is available in 120 million American homes. ESPN has 83 million domestic subscribers. ESPN put the promotion into high gear on December 28 when Fury appeared on its College Gameday program prior to the Bowl Championship Series semi-final football game between LSU and Oklahoma. Then, on February 2, FOX broadcast two Wilder-Fury II commercials during Super Bowl LIV. According to Nielsen Media Research, the first Super Bowl promo (which ran at 8:02 PM eastern time) was seen by 103.5 million viewers. The second (which aired 35 minutes later) drew 101.1 million. There were also seven pre-game promotional spots that averaged 18 million viewers each.

Given the fact that in-game Super Bowl commercials normally cost advertisers as much as $10 million a minute, this marked a significant investment by FOX in the promotion.

The lead-up to Wilder-Fury II was marked (and sometimes marred) by back-and-forth utterances between the fighters.

Fury did his part to debase the public dialogue during a media scrum immediately after the January 13 kick-off press conference in Los Angeles. Discussing his preparation for the rematch, he declared, “I’m masturbating seven times a day to keep my testosterone pumping. Pump it, pump it, pump it, pump it up! Don’tcha know! I gotta to keep active and the testosterone flowing for the fight.”

Later, Tyson declared, “I look at Wilder and I don’t see a tough fight. I see a long-legged pussy that I’m going to break in. A big 6-foot-7-inch virgin that ain’t been rodded before. I’m going to bend him over and scuttle him backwards nice and slowly.”

Fury further pledged, “After this fight, I’m going to binge on cocaine and hookers. Is there anything better than cocaine and hookers? I go to the cheap thirty-dollar ones. Always give yourself a shot of penicillin before shagging ‘em. If you haven’t got the penicillin, always double-bag up.”

Wilder responded more simply, saying, “This is unfinished business that I will finish. Come February 22, I’m going to rip his head off his body. The first fight was a very controversial fight. We left people confused about who won. This is where we come and settle everything. This is judgment day.”

When fight week arrived, the hype machine went into overdrive, proclaiming that Wilder-Fury II was one of the most anticipated heavyweight championship matches of all time. There was a massive amount of network shoulder programming including extensive on-site coverage from February 18 until fight night.

ESPN and FOX, which talk breathlessly about “unified titles” when match-ups like Vasyl Lomachenko vs. Jose Pedraza occur, suddenly forgot that the WBA, WBO, and IBF (each of which recognizes Anthony Joshua as its heavyweight champion) exist. Also forgotten was the fact that, in Wilder-Fury I, the fighters had landed a total of only 155 punches between them. That’s six punches per fighter per round.

No matter. The twelfth-round knockdown and Fury getting up from it had elevated Wilder-Fury II as a commercial attraction. The fight sparked high interest in the boxing community. Whether or not this interest was spilling over to general sports fans and beyond was a separate issue. Tickets were available at list price until three days before the fight.

Fury predicted that he’d knock Wilder out in the second round. That earned a scornful rejoinder from Deontay, who proclaimed, “Fury has got pillows as fists. We all know he don’t have no power. He’s just a tall big man that can move around a ring and that’s about it. As far as him knocking me out, he don’t believe that himself. He can’t even see that in his dreams.”

There was the usual idiotic (and dangerous) shoving and shouting at the final pre-fight press conference on Wednesday, all of which was gleefully distributed as a marketing tool by the promotion (except for the part where Wilder and Fury trashed each other as being unmarketable).

Among other things, Wilder berated Fury, saying, “When I found you, you was strung out on coke. When I found you, you was big as a house, contemplating about killing yourself. So don’t you ever forget who brought you to bigtime boxing. I brought you back. I put food on your table for your family to eat. Don’t you ever forget that.”

On Thursday, to its credit, the Nevada State Athletic Commission ruled that, for security reasons, the fighters would not be allowed to engage in the ritual staredown at the close of Friday’s weigh-in. Arum complained about the ruling, but all was not lost. After the weigh-in, as Fury and Wilder stood on opposite sides of the stage with six commission inspectors between them, Fury gave Wilder the finger and Deontay responded by grabbing his crotch.

For their first encounter, Wilder had weighed in at 212-1/2 pounds. This time, he tipped the scales at 231 (his heaviest ever). Fury had weighed 256-1/2 pounds the first time around. Now it was 273 (three pounds less than his all-time high). The general feeling was that the extra weight would help Wilder and hurt Fury.

It was a pick ’em fight with a slight edge in the odds, if any, toward Wilder. Looking at the two bouts that each man had engaged in subsequent to their first encounter, Deontay had seemed to be improving (against Dominic Breazeale and Luis Ortiz). Fury, on the other hand, had appeared to be stagnating (against Tom Schwarz and Otto Wallin).

“Deontay does not get the credit that he deserves for the improvement,” Jay Deas (Wilder’s co-trainer and adviser) said in a February 12 media conference call. “I don’t think people totally get what they’re seeing, and sometimes they don’t understand the nuances of the sport. We do what we call a six-month test. Every six months, we ask ourselves, ‘Would you right now beat you from six months ago?’ And I can answer one hundred percent honestly that, since the beginning of the first day that he came in the gym, that answer has been yes. He keeps getting better and better and better and smarter and refined with the technique. The things that people don’t really get is the timing, the distance, the spacing, the positioning, all those things that allow you to land those big punches. That’s skill. And he wants to learn. He’s the kind of guy that is still hungry to get better and better.”

ESPN commentator Teddy Atlas was in accord, saying, “I feel like Wilder has added something. He’s added a delivery system where he mesmerizes you with the jab and then BOP, the right hand is right behind it, George Foreman did it, Teofilo Stevenson did it. They lie to you. They make you think you’re safe because they’re only throwing the jab three-quarters so you think that’s the end of the line for danger. But it’s not. It’s about three inches further because they didn’t extend the jab. And Wilder has learned how to do that by making you think you’re safe. You cooperate a little, and then BOOM!”

In December, Fury announced that he was replacing trainer Ben Davison with Sugar Hill and that Stitch Duran (not Jorge Capetillo) would be his cutman for the February 22 rematch. Fury and Hill soon began talking about tapping into a new reserve of power. But as Don Turner (who trained Evander Holyfield and Larry Holmes late in their respective ring careers) observed, “You don’t take a fighter in his thirties, change his style, and teach him to punch with more power in an eight-week training camp. The fighter makes the fighter. The trainer only helps.”

Those who picked Wilder to win the rematch noted that, as Wilder-Fury I progressed, Deontay seemed to figure Tyson out. He’d knocked Fury down in both the ninth and twelfth rounds and was likely to set up his punches more effectively the second time around.

Also, there was the matter of “the cut.” Fury had suffered a gruesome gash along his right eyebrow courtesy of a left hook from Wallin in round three of their September 14 bout. The cut bled profusely throughout the fight and required 47 stitches to close.

The scar tissue from that cut would be an attractive target for Wilder. “No matter what he does,” Deontay said, “when he fights me, it’s going to open right back up. I’m going to pop it right back open. He can get plastic surgery, duct tape or staples, super glue or hot glue, cement glue. Shit, he can go get some of that flex glue. It ain’t gonna to matter. I definitely look forward to re-cutting open that eye.”

And finally, there was the biggest factor of all – Wilder’s power.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Bob Arum (who co-promotes Fury with Frank Warren) said. “It’s actually accentuated by the fact he doesn’t know how to box. He’s a horrible boxer. He puts on a clinic of how not to box, but he has that right hand.”

“For one punch,” Teddy Atlas added, “just one punch, I think Wilder is the hardest puncher in the history of the sport.”

Yes, Wilder was a one-trick pony. But it was quite a trick.

Meanwhile, the case for a Fury victory began with Wilder’s limited repertoire. Bart Barry spoke for many when he wrote, “Wilder only took what he did best and committed to doing it better. If the holes in his style aren’t any larger now than when he started, they are, surprisingly, no smaller.”

Fury’s partisans also reasoned that their man would be in better shape for the rematch than for the first fight and wouldn’t tire down the stretch as he had before. Also, they were confident that, this time, in addition to making Wilder miss, he’d make Deontay pay when he missed.

Asked what he’d learned from Wilder-Fury I, Tyson responded, “He’s got a big right hand and that’s it. He’s a one-dimensional fighter. The biggest mistake I made last time was not making him pay when he was hurt. I didn’t know what I had in the tank last time. This time, I know I can go the distance. I’ll throw everything but the kitchen sink at him, and he won’t know what hit him.”

As for the knockdown in round twelve of their first encounter, Fury explained, “I backed up in a straight line and got clipped with a right hand and it was good night, Vienna. That was all she wrote. But then I rose from the canvas like a phoenix from the ashes to get back into it, take him up, and finish the fight the stronger man.”

There were a host of battles between ESPN and FOX behind the scenes with regard to a whole range of issues. Finally, it was agreed as to on-air talent that Joe Tessitore (ESPN) would call the blow by blow with expert commentary from Lennox Lewis (FOX) and Andre Ward (ESPN). Host Brian Kenny (FOX) would be joined at the fight-night desk by Max Kellerman (ESPN), Shawn Porter (FOX), and Timothy Bradley (ESPN). In addition, Mark Kriegel (ESPN), Kate Abdo (FOX), and Bernardo Osuna (ESPN) would serve as ringside reporters while Larry Hazzard (FOX) would be the unofficial scorer and rules expert.

There was a lot of chatter during the televised portion of the pay-per-view undercard about how this would be Wilder’s eleventh consecutive heavyweight title defense, breaking a tie that he’d held with Muhammad Ali. This ignored the fact that Ali was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world during his reign while Deontay was one of many. Max Kellerman then analogized Fury’s boxing skills and elusiveness in the ring to that of Wilfred Benitez and Willie Pep.

Viewers were also told that the live gate for Wilder-Fury II had surpassed $17 million which made it the largest live gate in the history of heavyweight boxing in Nevada. Lewis-Holyfield II in 1999 had grossed $16.86 million. Of course, accounting for inflation, $16.86 million in 1999 would be worth $26.28 million today.

Fury, wearing a red velour robe and sitting on a throne, was wheeled to the ring by four buxom women while a recording of Crazy sung by Patsy Cline played over the public address system. Wilder’s opted for glitzy black body armor accessorized by a black mask during his ring walk with rapper D Smoke providing the soundtrack.

Then came the moment of reckoning.

Fury dominated the action from beginning to end. He came out aggressively in the first two rounds, stalking and outjabbing Wilder, who hardly jabbed at all. As is usually the case, Deontay did little to set up his punches and looked simply to land the big one. His deficiencies as a boxer showed.

Boxing Fury is a bit like boxing a mountain. Wilder was having trouble coping with a bigger man who chose this time to come right at him, throwing punches.

With 38 seconds left in round three, Fury dropped Wilder with a clubbing overhand right that landed on Deontay’s left ear. If Wilder had looked bad before, from that point on, he looked awful. His legs were weak. His balance was unsteady. He bled profusely from his left ear and seemed confused if not dazed. He wasn’t just losing rounds. For the first time in his career, he was getting beaten up.

Referee Kenny Bayless helped Wilder a bit by breaking the fighters at times when Fury was working effectively inside. Then, not long after Tyson dropped Deontay with a hook to the body in round five, Bayless (without previous warning) took a point away from Fury for hitting on the break.

By round six, Wilder was fighting like he was out on his feet. And more significantly, his power had deserted him. It no longer looked as though he had the ability to change the course of the fight with one punch. It was then that Fury had the poor taste to lick Deontay’s neck during a clinch to taste the blood that was flowing from his ear.

The mauling continued. One minute 37 seconds into round seven, with Wilder trapped in a neutral corner and Fury pounding away, Mark Breland (Deontay’s chief second) threw in the towel.

“Things like this happen,” Wilder said in a post-fight interview with Bernardo Osuna. “The best man won tonight. I just wish my corner would have let me go out on my shield.”

He’s fortunate that they didn’t.

Fury’s story is a remarkable tale of redemption given the mental health issues that forced his hiatus from the ring four years ago. As for what comes next; Wilder has thirty days to exercise a rematch clause for a third fight that would be contested with a 60-40 revenue split in favor of Team Fury.

Meanwhile, in the weeks ahead, there will be a lot of talk about “greatness.” Thus, it’s worth considering the thoughts of Carlos Acevedo who wrote, “Of all the concepts, phrases, and words that have devolved in boxing over the years, none has slipped so drastically as the notion of greatness. Writers and reporters take many of their cues directly from press releases, publicists, promoters, and network puffers. This is like taking advice from a three-card monte dealer on where the queen of hearts may be.”

In his most recent fight preceding Wilder-Fury II, Fury struggled against Otto Wallin. Against Wilder on Saturday night, at times he looked sloppy. Two victories – against Wladimir Klitschko and now Wilder – don’t qualify a fighter for greatness.

Fury himself seems to understand that notion. During a media conference call to promote Wilder-Fury II, he declared, “The only thing that means anything to me is winning these fights. That’s it, period. I’m a purebred fighting man through and through. And when it’s over, it’s over. I’m not really concerned about the legacy. I’m not overly concerned about what happens when I’m done. We can only take one chapter of our lives at a time, and I’m just enjoying living in the moment right now. I’m living my dream, my childhood dream, my young adult dream, and my midlife dream. I really don’t care about legacy because what somebody thinks of me when I’m finished is unimportant. It’s all sticks and stones. Whether it’s good or bad, everyone is entitled to their opinion. And there will be somebody else to replace me just like every other champion.”

Photo credit: Al Applerose

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – A Dangerous Journey: Another Year Inside Boxing– was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. On June 14, 2020, he will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

To comment on this story in The Fight Forum CLICK HERE

Thomas Hauser is the author of 52 books. In 2005, he was honored by the Boxing Writers Association of America, which bestowed the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism upon him. He was the first Internet writer ever to receive that award. In 2019, Hauser was chosen for boxing's highest honor: induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Lennox Lewis has observed, “A hundred years from now, if people want to learn about boxing in this era, they’ll read Thomas Hauser.”

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A Pearl from the Boxing Vault: Fritzie Zivic Will See You Now 

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“He was a great teacher,” said Billy Conn. “[Fighting Zivic] was like going to college for five years, just boxing him ten rounds…”

Fritzie Zivic never asked why. He never asked if his opponent hit hard, if his opponent deserved the shot, if the opponent would be tough. He just said “yes” and signed the contract. While [Jake] LaMotta, who somehow gained the reputation for fearlessness of which Zivic was more deserving, was asked about Charley Burley, he is supposed to have muttered “Why do I need Burley when I have Zivic?” Zivic, of course, stepped out of his weight class to lose an under-celebrated series with LaMotta, and was one of the few top white contenders to ever meet the avoided Burley.

Perhaps this fearlessness is the reason why Zivic may have fought a better array of boxers than any fighter in history. In addition to the multiple contests with LaMotta and Burley, he met Kid Azteca, Bob Montgomery, Beau Jack, Henry Armstrong, Freddie Cochrane, Lew Jenkins, Izzy Jannazzo, Phil Furr, Bummy Davis, Sammy Angott, Lou Ambers and Jimmy Leto, something very close to a “who’s who” of boxing’s golden age, and he met most of them more than once. He didn’t always win, but he always gave his all and for this the people and the promoters of his hometown of Pittsburgh and beyond loved him. Other fighters? Not so much.

“He’s the dirtiest fighter I ever met,” claimed Charley Burley after his disputed points loss in their first fight. “He thumbed me over and over again.”

“When you fight for a living,” Zivic would explain years later, “if you’re smart you fight with every trick you know. If I hadn’t known nine zillion of them I never could have won the welterweight title from Henry Armstrong.”

In the modern era, fighters can come to a title without even matching a top contender. Forty fights is a career. But in the 1940s, it was unusual to see a champion with so few fights, even a young one. Like other trades, to reach the top of the heap a fighter had to become a master craftsman, the tools at his disposal needed to be of the highest quality. To this end, fighters needed to be matched often or tough or both. But there were and are some fighters who can provide a special lesson to that prospect or contender, a boxing lesson that, win or lose, crystallizes the nature of the sport for the man in the opposite corner.

Fritzie Zivic was such a fighter. Unquestionably world class in his own right, Zivic was a quick learner who took his “zillion tricks” and applied them to roughhouse boxing that tested every corner of his opponent, technical, physical and mental. Anybody that beat him looked destined for the top, anyone that lost could still pick up more than a thing or two. Unquestionably teak-tough, a stinging if not prohibitive puncher, he could box inside or out and a tight defense and iron chin kept him to two legitimate stoppage losses in a 232-fight career. But unquestionably, Zivic’s greatest strength were his smarts, the tricks, traps and roughhouse tactics he absorbed like a sponge during his eighteen years in the ring.

In December of 1936, Zivic would teach some of these tricks to a wonder-kid tearing his way up the middleweight division, one Billy Conn. Zivic was not yet in his own absolute prime but he was twenty-three and listed as a veteran of some sixty-eight fights. Still a teenager, Conn would at least have had bulk to fall back on as a substitute for experience, weighing some seven pounds heavier on fight night at just under 157lbs.

Zivic started fast, attacking with both hands and Conn allowed him his way, trying to outbox and outpunch the smaller man in the pocket. This had become Billy’s habit, fighting, as he did, in a fan-friendly manner that had made him Pittsburgh’s favorite prospect. He had been in a desperately close series with resident local tough and brutal infighter “Honey Boy” Jones. According to some, Conn had been lucky to emerge from their third fight with a decision, his inability to adapt costing him dear in points and punches. Now Zivic fought in a style intent on taking advantage of the same flaws Jones had partially exposed, and Billy was paying for it in blood.

“Through two torrid rounds,” wrote Regis Welsh for The Pittsburgh Press, “Fritzie belted Conn to a fare-thee-well, but never quite touched the vital spot. At the end of the second…[Conn] was smeared with blood from a cut on his left cheek and a badly battered mouth.”

The press hadn’t yet been enlightened to Conn’s iron chin and it’s quite possible that Fritzie had found the “vital spot” over and again throughout the fight. As time would tell, even history’s mightiest puncher would struggle to get over on the near invulnerable Conn. However, at the beginning of the third Billy looked “tired, weary and worn out” and “in the fourth and fifth, Zivic, in a rushing charge, bore Conn to neutral ropes and belted him about the head and body until it seemed that the anticipated kayo was inevitable.”

It needs to be said though, that in spite of his fighting the wrong fight, Conn was doing his own good work, mainly to the body. Some reports credit Conn with turning the fight with a body punch as early as the third, but whilst the supposed fight of two halves (Zivic winning the first five, Conn coming back in the second half of the fight) did not occur, it’s unlikely that Conn’s hooks had the supposed affect this early. Only two judges scored the third for Conn, and all three gave Zivic the fourth. Conn wouldn’t win a round on all three judges’ scorecards until the sixth.

It was in the sixth round that Conn cracked, and went outside. In the seventh and eighth Conn “boxed beautifully…he danced, feinted, pranced and punched.”  Zivic, now out of his element as a bullying counterpuncher and destructive infighter struggled to get past Billy’s “piston-like” jab. Conn had been trained for this by defensive specialist Johnny Ray from the very beginning, but he had been unable to make the transition in the ring until Fritzie had forced it. As one would expect, Zivic now changed tactics too, gunning almost exclusively for the body, only hunting Conn with power punches, bringing him the eighth round on one card. In the tenth, they went at it toe-to-toe again. “The boys used everything but knives,” stated the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “A wild-eyed crowd looked on.” The final round was shared on the three official cards resulting in a split decision win for Conn (6-3-1, 5-4-1, 4-5-1).

“From a mile in the rear to a nose in front takes heart in a man or a horse,” wrote Welsh in The Press. “Particularly in a novice of Conn’s immature ring experience against a seasoned veteran of Zivic’s type.”

Zivic’s type indeed! Fritzie was hell on wheels for a young fighter, one that hadn’t seen a top class cutie, never mind a back-alley wizard. But Conn knew what that fight had been worth, and he knew he was the better for it.

“He was a great teacher. [Fighting Zivic] was like going to college for five years, just boxing him ten rounds…I learned a lot in that fight. He’s a tough fighter, but I believe I’m just as tough.”

It’s a double lesson for a relative novice like Conn. First, he remembers every foul, every slither out of sight of the referee, every feint that cost him a round, every dig inside on the break. But it also teaches him that he can take it, that he can get in there with world-class fighters who know more than him and beat them. The first lesson is priceless, but the second can be the key to a career. Over the next twelve months the young Conn, who had struggled so desperately with Honey Boy Jones only three months earlier, would defeat great champions and ring legends such as Teddy Yarosz, Young Corbett III and Vince Dundee before adding Fred Apostoli and Solly Krieger and annexing the world’s light heavyweight title in 1939.

In 1941 he would be matched with the great Joe Louis. It would be unfair to Conn’s great trainer Ray, and to Conn himself, to lay too much credit for Conn’s legendary performance at Zivic’s door, but Conn’s tactics against Louis—mixing careful, punch-picking infighting with beautiful movement and judge of distance on the outside—were basically a more perfect version of the tactics he used in rounds six, seven, eight and nine against Zivic.

As for the teacher, he was naturally disappointed and was keen on a rematch, but fate was to intervene. Zivic would contract pneumonia the following summer whilst training for a match with Vince Dundee.

Chet Smith, then editor of The Pittsburgh Press: “There didn’t seem to be a chance for him…so we collected all we knew about him, wrote it into a story and sent it to the composing room…There were two weeks when it was touch and go with Fritzie, and the hospital folk refused to give out a single cheerful bulletin. We knew of course when he finally came out of the hospital that his boxing days were ended.”

I guess Zivic would have snorted at that. However they build them out in Zivic’s ancestral Croatia, they build them tough because Zivic was not only far from ended as a boxer, he would get better. There were more lessons to give out. The greatest fighter that would ever draw breath, he needed a lesson.

“I learned more in these two fights with Zivic than in all my other fights put together!”

So said Ray Robinson after pulling off the extraordinary feat of stopping Zivic in January of 1942. But this was the second time Zivic, a rarity in that he never discriminated against opposition on the grounds of colour or quality, had met Robinson. The first had occurred when Zivic had already slipped past his absolute prime, in October of 1941.

“It might have been a draw. It was close,” wrote the correspondent for The Telegraph Herald, but Zivic, the heavier man for a change, looked unsurprised at the unanimous decision against him. In the middle rounds he had, to a degree, had his way with Robinson but Sugar’s explosive domination of the ninth had left him struggling and at no time had he solved the Robinson jab. He knew he was beaten. “[Robinson] took a unanimous decision with such a convincing demonstration of speed and power,” wrote United Press ringside reporter Jack Cuddy, “that he will be favored to win the title.”

Robinson was learning from Zivic the same thing Conn had, that he could master a man at the next level, a veteran, a bigger one at that. But he learned more specific and unpleasant lessons in this fight, too.

“He was about the smartest I ever fought,” Robinson would later say in conversation with writer WC Heinz.  “…he showed me how you can make a man butt open his own eye…he’d slip my lead, then he’d put his hand behind my neck and he’d bring my eye down on his head. Fritzie was smart.”

He also taught Ray that he could coast a little in those middle rounds, that at the highest level he didn’t need to put forth every ounce in every moment, that he could let the occasional round go as long as he was paying attention. The same pattern that Sugar used in his first fight with Zivic he would use in his sixth fight with LaMotta, for the middleweight title, contesting the early rounds, easing off in the middle, and finishing so strongly as to stop the unstoppable, lifting the title on a late TKO. He sharpened that tool for the first time against Zivic.

By now Zivic was almost past the stage of teaching fighters of Robinson’s calibre lessons, but he had one more to give in their second fight just three months later.

Firstly, Robinson showed the importance of a lesson learned, nullifying Zivic’s darker arts, like Conn he was a better fighter for his 10 rounds in the ring with Fritzie. He worked hard to the body in clinches he couldn’t contest with craft or strength (something else he would repeat against LaMotta in their title meeting) and he was careful to break clinches at any cost when Zivic looked to utilize those lethal butts. When his opponent tried holding and hitting on the referee’s blindside, instead of trading he would dance away. Robinson had learned that the man who owned the real estate would win the negotiation and Zivic was being outclassed as a result. Of the first six rounds he won perhaps the first. In the seventh though, Robinson momentarily forgot himself and Fritzie delivered his last lesson. As Robinson came in Zivic stepped back and cracked Robinson with a left hook. “It really hurt. I was coming in and it met me on the chin!” Robinson would say afterwards that it was the hardest punch he had ever been hit with, according to The Afro American.

In the middle of the ninth, Robinson dropped Zivic with a perfect mirror image of the punch he had been shown in the seventh, using the right hand to ditch the heavier man as he was on the way in. Up at nine, Zivic never recovered, and although he was likely stopped prematurely in the tenth, he had nothing left to teach, at least not to Sugar. At 28-0, Ray, like Billy before him, saw his 20 rounds with Zivic as nothing less than finishing school for one of the most storied careers in boxing. They are only two of the dozens of fighters that Fritzie took to school, but perhaps they are the gifts he helped in giving that we can be most grateful for.

For the purposes of this article we’ve taken a look at three Zivic losses. I hoped, by looking at his fights with Billy Conn and Sugar Ray, we might see the benefit of letting a top prospect meet a dangerous genius-thug like Fritzie, the self-proclaimed “second dirtiest fighter in history” (he reserved top spot for Harry Greb). But Zivic did lose those fights. Let it not be forgotten then that between losing to Conn and Robinson, Zivic lifted the world’s welterweight title, destroying with a mixture of aggression, uppercuts and that dirty bag of tricks for which he remains famous, one Henry Armstrong. Zivic finished Armstrong as title material, beating him for the championship of the world not once but twice.

A 4-1 underdog, Zivic had been magnanimous about his own chances going in to their opener.

“If I lose it won’t be the first fight I lost, and if I win it, it won’t be the first fight I won.”

But Zivic had learned his own brutal lessons across the years and would be merciless in bringing them to bear. Also, across the years, between his title win and these more enlightened times, Zivic’s achievement in beating Armstrong has been undermined. Armstrong was old. He was past his best. Zivic had to get dirty to do it. All of that may be true, but it needs to be remembered that Armstrong had gone undefeated in thirteen bouts prior to meeting Zivic and that all of these fights were in defence of his welterweight crown, outside of one, his celebrated tilt at a world middleweight title. It needs to be remembered that in the previous three months, Armstrong had knocked out world-class contenders Phil Furr and Lew Jenkins. It needs to be remembered that Armstrong had his own bag of tricks, and that referee Arthur Donovan’s famous refrain, “if you guys wanna fight like that it‘s okay with me” was prompted by an Armstrong foul and not a Zivic one.

Most of all it needs to be remembered that Zivic never asked why, he just signed the contract. Whichever way you want to look at it, they just don’t make them like that anymore.

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Abraham Nova and his Mascot are Back in Action on Friday Night

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With his black beard dyed gold, junior lightweight Abraham Nova is one of boxing’s most recognizable practitioners. Sometimes there’s two of him which makes him stand out even more. His twin is an inflatable mascot painted to look just like him. On fight nights they are inseparable. The mascot shadows Nova on his ringwalk, bouncing up and down and dancing to animate the crowd.

Some gimmicks are just plain hokey. Some are annoying. But there’s something whimsical about Nova’s invention that brings a smile to boxing fans of all ages. “Abraham Nova having his own mascot is one of the coolest things in boxing,” says fight writer Ryan Songalia.

“I played all sports in high school, football, baseball, track, and got the idea of it from other sports,” says Nova of his twin who he unveiled in January of 2020 at the Turning Stone Casino and Resort in Verona, New York, where he upped his record to 18-0 with a fourth-round stoppage of Mexican journeyman Pedro Navarrete.

He’s 5-2 since then, the smudges coming against future world featherweight champion Robeisy Ramirez (KO by 5) and defending super featherweight world champion O’Shaquie Foster where he came out on the short end of a split decision. This coming Friday, in his first assignment since failing to de-throne Foster, he opposes 21-0 Andres Cortes at the Fontainebleu in Las Vegas on a Top Rank card airing on ESPN+.

“I was the one who asked for this fight,” says Nova. “Top Rank offered me a match on their June 8th Puerto Rican Parade Weekend show at Madison Square Garden against an opponent who was 17-2, but I turned it down and asked for a better opponent and they accommodated me.” Las Vegas native Andres Cortes, who has been profiled in these pages, is ranked #2 at 130 pounds by the WBO.

In common with boxing’s historical pattern, Abraham Nova had a hardscrabble upbringing.

Born in Puerto Rico to parents from the Dominican Republic, the second-youngest of 10 children, he came to the U.S. at the age of 1 where the entire family was initially shoe-horned into a two-bedroom apartment in Albany, New York.

His father, Aquiles, had a friend here who was the pastor of a church and in need of an assistant pastor to help with his growing congregation. Aquiles eventually founded his own church in Albany, The Pentecostal Church of Unity & Prayer where services are held in both Spanish and English.

As a toddler, Nova lived briefly in Guatemala and Mexico where his parents were called to “spread the word” and to assist in redevelopment projects. The family traveled 5,500 miles in a rickety old school bus from Albany to Guatemala during the end days of the Guatemalan Civil War.

Each of Nova’s four brothers boxed, but he was the only one to turn pro. As an amateur, he won the 2015 Olympic Trials Qualifying Tournament in Memphis, defeating Frank Martin and Richardson Hitchins in back-to-back fights, but failed to make the U.S. team for the Rio Games when he lost a split decision to Gary Antuanne Russell at the Olympic Trials in Reno. Those bouts were contested at 141 pounds.

A 30-year-old bachelor, Nova had his final amateur fights in Lowell, Massachusetts, a pillar of amateur boxing in New England, and has remained in the Boston area without losing his Albany identity. He is trained by ex-U.S. Marine Mark DeLuca, a boxer of some renown who sports a 30-4 record and may not be done with fighting quite yet at age 36.

Nova’s opponent, Andres Cortes, has won five of his last seven inside the distance beginning with a smashing first-round knockout of 34-2 Genesis Servania. On paper, it’s a 50-50 match-up. (The pricemakers are flummoxed; as of this writing, they have yet to establish a betting line.)

Abraham Nova’s mascot may never become as well-known as some of the costumed human mascots in college sports (e.g., West Virginia’s Mountaineer or Michigan State’s Sparty), let alone as beloved as the University of Georgia’s flesh-and-blood bulldog mascot Uga, but give the boxer credit for originality and for bringing a little levity to a sport too often besotted with incivility.

Note: Abraham Nova vs. Andres Cortes is the co-feature. In the main go, new Top Rank signee Rafael Espinoza makes the first defense of his WBO world featherweight title against Mexican countryman Sergio Chirino. Espinoza forged the 2023 TSS Upset of the Year when he got off the deck to defeat Robeisy Ramirez on Dec. 9 in Pembroke Pines, Florida, winning legions of fans with his unrelenting buzzsaw attack. Action from the Fontaineblue begins at 4:00 pm PST on ESPN+.

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A True Tale from the Boxing Vault: When the Champion Refused to Fight

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A True Tale from the Boxing Vault: When the Champion Refused to Fight

BY TSS Special Correspondent David Harazduk — A hundred years ago, ducking a worthy challenger wouldn’t simply stoke the ire of the fans, it came with the prospect of jail time.

On Thursday, November 3, 1927, 16,000 fans packed Wrigley Field in Los Angeles hoping to witness their local favorite challenge for the welterweight world championship. Nicknamed the “Nebraska Wildcat,” Ace Hudkins had relocated to the Pacific Coast where his devil-may-care style in the ring made him instantly popular among Angelino fight fans. He was set to battle Joe Dundee, the champion, an Italian immigrant who had settled in Baltimore at a young age. But there was one problem.

The champion refused to fight.

Members of the California boxing commission, along with promoter Dick Donald, raced to the Biltmore Hotel to plead with Dundee (pictured) and his manager Max Waxman to come to Wrigley Field and fight. Waxman steadfastly refused. Donald, a quick-witted cigar-chomping Irishman known as the “Boy Promoter,” had promised Max’s man the ungodly sum of $60,000, and Dundee wouldn’t enter the ring for a penny less.

Under the rules of the California commission, a fighter could only receive a guarantee of $500. The rest of the purse came from a percentage of the gate: 37.5% for the champion and 12.5% for the challenger. Waxman insisted that Donald had offered $60,000, but the commission couldn’t enforce this side deal.

Tickets in the bleachers were sold at $2.20 a pop while those closer to the ring went for $11. The most the gate could possibly produce would be $90,000. Add in Wrigley Field’s 15% usage fee and payments to the preliminary fighters, officials, and even to rent the chairs situated around the ring, and Dundee’s dreams of $60,000- $75,000 if he lost the title- never had a prayer of being realized. After all, 37.5% of $90,000, plus $500, is only $34,250.

Meanwhile, Eddie Mahoney, a preliminary fighter, entered the ring at 8:30pm. Mahoney was scheduled to fight Joe Dundee’s brother Vince, a future middleweight world champion. When Vince didn’t follow Mahoney into the ring, Mahoney soon left, much to the bewilderment of the crowd.

Donald scrambled to find a plan B. He searched for welterweight contender Sergeant Sammy Baker to replace Dundee and fight Hudkins. When Baker couldn’t be located, Donald asked a preliminary fighter, Olympic gold medalist Jackie Fields, to take on Hudkins instead. Hudkins and Fields had been sparring partners when the featherweight champion of the 1924 Games in Paris was a nascent pro back in 1925. Fields’s manager, Gig Rooney, felt Hudkins was too big for the Olympic champ at this stage of his career and preferred to remain on the undercard against San Francisco’s Joey Silver.

With no plan B, Donald and the commissioners went back to Waxman in a last desperate plea to coax Dundee to defend his title. One commissioner, Charles Traung, offered Waxman an additional $10,000 check for Dundee to fight. Waxman stubbornly held out for more.

At 9:20pm, back at Wrigley, Donald signaled Jackie Fields and Joey Silver to enter the ring. Though Fields was wobbled twice, he opened up a cut over Silver’s left eye and split the San Franciscan’s lip on route to a convincing points victory in a ten-rounder. A few minutes after 10pm, Mahoney and Vince Dundee finally entered the ring for their clash. Dundee starched Mahoney inside of two rounds. When Waxman, who also managed Vince, heard of the second-round stoppage, he said “Vince knocked that guy out, eh? I told him to carry him along.” Waxman had hoped to stall for time.

Soon after the end of the Dundee-Mahoney fight, Ace Hudkins waltzed to the ring. He spent fifteen minutes seated in his corner, covered in a bathrobe and towels to keep him warm. Dundee never showed.

At 11:25pm, ring announcer Frank Kerwin slid into the ring and bellowed, “Owing to the fact that Joe Dundee did not receive his guarantee, he refused to go on with his match against Ace Hudkins.” The crowd was advised to “hold their seat checks and watch the newspapers for other announcements.”

The fans didn’t take too kindly to the announcement and hurled those rented chairs in disgust. Fights broke out all over the stadium, spilling into the ring. All available police officers in the area rushed to Wrigley Field, wielding their nightsticks in a bid to subdue the violent mob. Dozens of fans were injured in the fracas. To add insult to injury, those who had paid $2.20 for their seats in the bleachers were out of luck; they had never received a ticket in the first place.

The next day, Waxman and Joe Dundee checked out of the Biltmore Hotel at noon and made their way to the train station. Later that night, they were pulled off an eastbound train at Pasadena and arrested for false advertising.  Waxman posted a $1,000 bond for each of them.

A warrant was issued for Donald on the same false advertising grounds. He phoned into the police station promising to turn himself in once his feelings of humiliation subsided. The police agreed to wait.

Ultimately, all accused would be acquitted. Waxman would return the $22,249.43 that had been placed in his account and an $11,000 check.

Fans didn’t receive refunds as it was deemed unfair to give them only to those who had bought $11 tickets since the gallery patrons had no ticket stub and thus, couldn’t get a refund anyhow. After the preliminary fighters, Wrigley Field, officials, ushers, and the chair rental company were compensated, the rest of the money was placed into a community fund.

Because he had entered the ring for his title challenge, Ace Hudkins declared himself the new champion, but no commission accepted his claim. Dick Donald’s promotional career, once so promising, abruptly ended. In 1935, he took one last gasp in boxing, serving as matchmaker at the famed Olympic Auditorium for a brief spell.

Joe Dundee would never fight in California again. His championship reign ended dishonorably a year and half later when several commissions agreed to strip him of the title for refusing to fight any top contenders. When Jackie Fields won the vacant title, he and Dundee were matched for the undisputed crown on July 25, 1929. With Dundee a two-to-one underdog, Waxman and Dundee bet $50,000 on Joe to win, with fouls canceling the bet. Fields shellacked Dundee, knocking him down twice. In the second round, after the second knockdown, Dundee knew he was licked. He got up and hit Fields low as hard as he could. Dundee was instantly disqualified, losing any claim to the title as disgracefully as his hold-out against Hudkins.

If only some of the alphabet champions of today had to post bail under the threat of jail for ducking contenders, maybe boxing would be in a better state.

EDITOR’S: Author David Harazduk has run The Jewish Boxing Blog since 2010. You can find him at  Twitter/X @JewishBoxing and Instagram @JewishBoxing

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