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The Top Ten Super-Middleweights of the Decade: 2010-2019

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The Top Ten Super-Middleweights of the Decade: 2010-2019

Super-middleweight offers a surprisingly shallow decadal well with a top two written in stone, no defined number ten and a fuzzy nine through six, although, as always, meetings between some of those fighters helped straighten a few things out.

That the 168lb Super Six tournament, the inaugural super series, was mid-flow on January 1st 2010 means that not all of those results are considered, which hits some harder than others. It took some time for a new generation to traverse the rubble left behind by the monstrous divisional number one and two, but when they did they flooded the top five, usurping men like Mikkel Kessler who left the best part of his career behind in the 00s.

The picture is complicated and often the differences between fighters are small but it made for a fascinating if under-whelming 168lb decade.

10 – David Benavidez

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 22-0 Ranked For: 32% of the Decade

A surprising inclusion, David Benavidez makes it in at ten based, in all honesty, upon the total absence of an outstanding candidate.

Lucian Bute was the early runner, and at the dawn of the decade it would have been hard to imagine him not making a list like this; a final paper record for the decade of 7-5 all but excludes him though and his best win being over a collapsing Glen Johnson is the final nail in that particular fistic coffin.  Andre Dirrell ran him close but actually achieved surprisingly little between his controversial 2009 loss to Froch and his 2015 defeat to James DeGale. It’s not clear-cut, but Benavidez is the right choice.

He survived a startling gut-check in 2017 when dropped by Romanian tough Ronald Gavril in the final frame of his first twelve round contest in a fight he won by the narrowest of margins. Benavidez proved the value of such lessons in an immediate rematch, winning almost every round in a near-shutout of high caliber.

As 2019 came to an end and with this list (then only thought of) completely bereft of a tenth entry, Benavidez stopped Anthony Dirrell, then the number four contender, to seal the low spot. It was an impressive performance as he out-hustled and out-jabbed a faster-handed fighter, a layered offense built of two-handed attacks to body and head barracking severe pressure. Benavidez has a bright future, here he is lauded for his fledgling past.

09 – Arthur Abraham

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 16-6 Ranked For: 66% of the Decade

Arthur Abraham lost majority of his big fights in the 2010s; by disqualification to Andre Dirrell; by shutout against Carl Froch; by outclass against Andre Ward: even against elite prospects once he had limped past his prime.

The two things that speak for him here are his dogged commitment to the weight-class, which he inhabited from 2010 until his retirement in 2018 and his series victory over Robert Stieglitz. Stieglitz, himself a contender himself for this list, was a highly ranked and formidable fighter who prioritized a regional rivalry with Abraham above all other things. Abraham, out of Armenia, had relocated to Germany, just as Stieglitz had done from Russia; the German yard seemed big enough for only one super-middleweight.

Abraham puts me in mind of a less dangerous Huck, which is perhaps damning with faint praise.  Nevertheless, it is hard not to see the similarities in the first fight between Abraham and Stieglitz as Abraham overcame a relative paucity of activity to surge from the ropes and win key sections of key rounds and a narrow decision. The fight was so close (I scored it a draw) that a rematch was inevitable, and Abraham lost that rematch, his left eye closed by an unerring Stieglitz right hand which saw him stopped in three one-sided and foul-filled rounds. In the third fight, by which time Stieglitz was being favored, the men were sharing a purse of over $3m; Abraham, viewed, perhaps, as sliding, was as good in the second half of this fight as he had ever been. In a chaotic, filthy match his punching was consistently cleaner, his footwork markedly better even in the exhausted twelfth round in which he received a beating for more than two minutes before countering with a gorgeous uppercut to seal the victory with a knockdown. In the fourth and final fight, Abraham was at last able to see off his great rival in a sixth-round stoppage.

This series is the bedrock of Abraham’s ranking in the 10s, his biggest wins over Jermaine Taylor and Edison Miranda all coming in the 00s.

08 – Gilberto Ramirez

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 34-0 Ranked For: 49% of the Decade

The inclusion here of Gilberto Ramirez may raise some eyebrows but in truth, leaving him out is next to impossible. He defeated Arthur Abraham after all, and so clinically that only Andre Ward and perhaps Carl Froch can claim to have matched him.

What most impressed me about Ramirez, who fought Abraham on the undercard of the Manny-Pacquiao-Timothy Bradley rematch from 2016, was how he handled the veteran’s tempo. Abraham had been fighting at title level for as long as Ramirez had been fighting and he ceded the tempo of the fight to the younger man early, allowing him to force the pace. Ramirez eschewed the classic mistake of pushing too hard. He accepted responsibility as the general and then boxed at his own steady rate, deploying a beautiful right hook to the body, moving well but not excessively, jabbing the Abraham high guard to keep him occupied, finding what gaps there were.

It was a beautiful performance.

Abraham, it might be argued, was past prime – it is worth reminding the reader though that he had just turned in two of his career’s best in 2014 and 2015 against Stieglitz. That was the Abraham Ramirez faced.

Ramirez spent almost the entire decade fighting at the poundage and his raw numbers are impressive. It’s jarring to see him at number eight, and perhaps revealing of 168lbs strength in depth, but he’s unquestionably a special fighter and arguably has the best signature win of anyone outside the top six.

A quick word for Andre Dirrell, who also holds a win over Abraham from 2010 but doesn’t make the list. Fairly or unfairly (and it’s unfair as Dirrell was clearly winning the fight at the time of the stoppage), a victory by disqualification is less impressive than a wide UD, so Dirrell misses out.

07 – James DeGale

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 20-3-1 Ranked For: 56% of the Decade

The most instructive fight of James DeGale’s career, and perhaps his best, is his 2015 points victory over Andre Dirrell. DeGale, slightly out-sped, was clearly uncomfortable in the very early moments of the round, Dirrell’s quick jab and a gorgeous counter-uppercut giving him pause for thought. A beautiful left hand from a stance neither southpaw nor orthodox but somewhere in between (DeGale switched), changed the direction the fight seemed to be taking. DeGale took over.

Then, in the seventh, he gassed. It was clear and it was sad, a fighter gone from close control fostered by deep combinations to walking in wide circles with low hands, pot-shotting. He clearly lost the seventh, eighth, ninth and then the tenth. It made his heart-fuelled rally in the eleventh and twelfth all the more thrilling.

A Rolls-Royce with a scooter’s gas-tank, DeGale’s great flaw made him a much more interesting fighter, drawing him into thrillers where a man of his talents probably would otherwise have coasted. It cost him dearly in legacy, however – every blip on DeGale’s record owes something to his stamina issues.

Dirrell was clearly his best win and to be frank it is troubling to me that his second is likely Caleb Truax – but Truax was only highly ranked as a super-middleweight because he had previously beaten DeGale in one of his most pronounced fades; he was barely able to avoid a repeat in the rematch.

That said, he could have taken a victory in his hairline defeat to early nemesis George Groves, sending him off on a different trajectory. Having looked carefully at him here, however, I’m struck by the idea that given his very real limitations, DeGale squeezed almost everything he could have from his rather fascinating career.

06 – Mikkel Kessler

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 4-1 Ranked For: 38% of the Decade

At first I thought Kessler’s decadal legacy may be the weakest of all the divisional number sixes we will run into. A wonderful fighter, he threw punches in anger just five times at the beginning of the decade and never ranked higher than #2. His inclusion here stands upon what is likely the single best 168lb performance of the decade not executed by Andre Ward, the April 2010 clash between he and Carl Froch.

Prime Kessler was such a rare sight. No fighter of the era struggled so desperately with injuries – back, eye, and especially elbow troubles tormented him; but on that April night in Denmark you saw the closest thing we ever saw to Kesslerian perfection.

Not that he had it all his own way; the fight was thrilling, brutal, accompanied by some horrible facial injuries and some violent punches. Technically superior to Froch and sporting arguably the best traditional one-two punch in the sport at that time, Kessler survived one of Froch’s patented late surges to pull out the final rounds on my card and win a desperately narrow decision. It was a thing of savage beauty.

He lost the rematch but in between did some fine work, including an unprecedented three round destruction of Brian Magee and a crushing knockout of super-six competitor Allan Green. So on second thoughts, Kessler is just about good for this spot, not an outstanding number six but probably not a problematic one.

05 – George Groves

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 21-4 Ranked For: 77% of the Decade

When George Groves met James DeGale in 2011 their combined record was 22-0, prospects foolishly but gloriously jumping the gun to settle a domestic rivalry that hadn’t even had the proper time to coagulate.

DeGale was favored; Groves won, a fascinating and tension-filled combat, unexpectedly boxing off the back foot to out-squabble and counter his way to the narrowest of victories. It was not undisputed by ringsiders.

Groves and DeGale never met again and their respective careers plunged in and out of the choppy 168lbs waters, now one pre-eminent, now the other. Both achieved the number one contender’s spot, both won straps, neither lifted the undisputed, legitimate championship of the world and here, in the end, I have Groves edging him out in terms of legacy.

Groves made his mark, but he did it the hard way, with grit, gumption, heart and nerve. People forget how close he was to retirement after his loss to Badou Jack and how much his status within the fight game was propped up by his two exciting losses to Carl Froch. Exciting losses are fine, perhaps, for gathering cash but are worth very little in the cold eyes of history.

It was important for Groves to carry on after the loss to Jack because his two most important wins, over Martin Murray and Chris Eubank, came after that night. This hardly makes for an impenetrable top-five resume for the decade, but as we’ve seen, competition is a little sparse and so his determination to fight on where so many may have slung in the towel scrambles him over the line.

04 – Callum Smith

Peak Ranking: Ch Record for the Decade: 27-0 Ranked For: 38% of the Decade

So, Groves becomes the gatekeeper to the decade’s true elite. Numbers four, three and two all defeated him and for each of them he was a win of major importance, none more so than Callum Smith.

This is true for two reasons. Firstly, Groves was nothing less than the world’s number one contender, and with no true champion on the throne, the most important fighter at the poundage.  For all that he was sliding, he had also summitted. The man to knock him off his perch was always going to benefit, and that man was Smith.

Secondly, Smith only arrived as a major force taking significant scalps at the decade’s end. The Groves fight, in 2018, was his first of any true global significance. After this he mercilessly buried contender Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam in just three rounds before running into the diminutive John Ryder where he was arguably lucky to get a unanimous nod in a close fight.

Against Groves though, he had been dominating, imperious. Groves, who scored his two most meaningful career wins in the previous eighteen months, had only ever been stopped by Carl Froch, but this was something else again. There was a sense of overlapping generations, even eras, as Smith, who looked bigger, stronger, flat-out healthier, faster and more powerful, countered and battered Groves around the ring. It felt like the emergence of someone a little special.

His shaky performance against Ryder has since cast doubt upon that perception, but not upon his placement here. Smith is locked into the top five.

03 – Badou Jack

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 18-3-3 Ranked For: 48% of the Decade

Badou Jack’s 168lb career is fascinating and scoring his cornerstone fights is fascinating. Jack met Anthony Dirrell (W, MD), George Groves (W, SD), Lucian Bute (Draw, later changed to a DQ after Bute tested positive for drugs) and James DeGale (D). All fights that were called controversial for one source of another and all back to back. We don’t have the space here to deep-dive each but a brief summary is called for.

His fascinating tussle with Dirrell is one of my favorite lo-fi combats of the decade and sees Jack slowly take over from his more highly ranked opponent, finally going to work on him on the ropes to take a justified decision in a fight that seemed at times contested in the proverbial phone-booth, yet somehow rambled across the whole ring. Against Groves, in another fine fight, Jack started faster, scoring a knockdown with a pair of flashing right hands in the first, and finished the stronger, rattling his man with that same punch in the twelfth. Once more, the fight was close, but the scoring was justifiable. Against Bute, Jack was unlucky to see the official scorecards a draw, but this wrong was righted when Bute was unfortunately busted for performance enhancing drugs, the fight now listed a win for Jack. Finally, against DeGale, a justifiable draw was rendered, but given that he threw more punches and landed at a higher rate and came reasonably close to a stoppage in the twelfth, he can probably count himself a little unlucky here.

Jack’s appearance at number three may be unexpected to some, but it shouldn’t be. He mixed it at the highest level and for the most part he came off best. His single loss at the weight, a bizarre first round defeat to the little-known Derek Edwards should arguably relegate him to the fourth spot, but Smith arrived just one fight too late to overhaul him for me.

02 – Carl Froch

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 7-2 Ranked For: 50% of the Decade

I did no analysis at all before installing Carl Froch at number two and I’m glad that this decision has been borne out by the review. Nobody came close to usurping him and the gap between two and three is probably bigger than the gap between three and nine.

Froch lost twice. In 2011, he was outclassed by one of the best super-middleweights in history, our number one, and the year before he was pipped by Mikkel Kessler in a thriller. The rematch, too, would be thrilling and is among the most fascinating I have seen in terms of adjustment and counter-adjustment deciding the outcome. Froch was “basic” according to Antonio Tarver and so many others, but in fact he was layered and thoughtful. If the Kessler performance doesn’t persuade you, the Arthur Abraham one certainly will. Froch turned pure-boxer that night, in his ungainly way, to all but shut Abraham out on the cards. Whether he was throwing over a thousand punches (Kessler II) or fighting in staged raids against a supposedly superior opponent (Lucian Bute), Froch tended to find a way to win.

And he did so against a glorious level of opposition, taking more ranked scalps than anyone on this list outside of Ward while actually doing slightly more damage to the top five. Froch squeezed every single drop out of his potential during a run (2008-2014) held to be the most difficult ever traversed by a British fighter. Had Andre Ward never been born, Froch would be the clear number one for the decade.

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01 – Andre Ward

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 11-0 Ranked For: 47% of the Decade

Andre Ward was born, however, and stands as a number one even more unassailable than Oleksandr Usyk who seemed so imperious at cruiserweight. In truth, he’s not that far ahead of Froch in terms of his 168lb resume, but the difference maker is his crushing victory over the divisional decadal number two, so one-sided as to be trivial.

Froch, who showed so many adaptions in his career, could do nothing with Ward. He tried the backfoot when Ward outfought him ring center, then he tried those two-handed surges that did so much damage against so many world class opponents. Ward was one step ahead of him at every turn, technically out-matching him with a left-hook stood against his high guard and also matching him for strength, so surprising for those who had not been paying attention; but Ward had done the same in out-classing Mikkel Kessler two years before and was never out-muscled in any fight I ever saw him in. A stinging rather than a hurtful puncher, he was otherwise as complete a fighter as walked the earth.

Why, it was often asked, did nobody just rush him? Ultra-aggressive fighters like Sakio Bika, Arthur Abraham and Froch, why didn’t they just try to boom through him and make him pay? And the answer is that it was really, really hard. Froch got in and threw body punches and tried to rough his man up and was consistently out-fought and out-mauled, it was Ward, not Froch who won these spells. Abraham ended up stacked behind his ear-muffs, being savagely punished to the body. Allan Green, Chad Dawson, Edwin Rodriguez, they all had plans and they all failed utterly.

“I’m bitterly disappointed,” said Froch after Ward demoted him to the era’s number two for all time.  “He’s a very tricky, very slick very awkward…very good fighter.  Credit to Andre Ward.”

Every man who ever faced Andre Ward ended up similarly disappointed. His was an understated reign of terror. The man brooked no resistance.

Photo credit: Tom Casino / SHOWTIME

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Results from Las Vegas where Rafael Espinoza Retained his WBO Title in Grand Style

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Top Rank made its first foray to the newest Las Vegas Strip resort, the Fontainebleu, tonight. Topping the bill was an all-Mexican featherweight title fight between Guadalajara’s Rafael Espinoza and Oaxaca’s Sergio Chirino. The lanky Espinoza, at six-foot-one the tallest featherweight world title-holder in history, was making the first defense of the title he won with a shocking upset of Robeisy Ramirez and tonight he looked sensational.

Espinoza, who advanced his record to 25-0 with his 21st KO, had his countryman on the canvas in the very first round, the result of a counter left uppercut. Chirino wasn’t badly hurt, but it quickly became apparent that he was out-gunned. In round three, Espinoza sent him to the canvas again with a four-punch combo climaxed by a short left to the liver, and Chirino would be down once again in the following round, hunched down from a series of punches that caught only air. At this juncture, referee Raul Caiz Jr wisely stepped in and stopped the fight. The official time was 2:45 of round four. Chirino, who came in riding a 13-fight winning streak, declined to 22-2.

Espinoza is expected to have a rematch with Ramirez, provided that Robeisy gets past his Mexican opponent later this month in a match that, on paper, looks like an easy win for the Cuban southpaw. In their first meeting, the unheralded Espinoza was a massive underdog. Based on his showing tonight, he looks no worse than “pick-‘em” in the sequel.

Co-Feature

In a 10-round junior lightweight fight, North Las Vegas native Andres Cortes scored a unanimous decision over former world title challenger Abraham Nova. The scores favored the local fighter by scores of 96-94 and 97-93 twice.

Cortes had the crowd in his corner, but the reaction when the verdict was announced was one of surprise. Nova, who was credited with throwing and landing more punches, was in better condition and seemingly had the best of it in the late rounds. It was the twenty-second win without a loss for Cortes. Nova (23-3), a class act,  was diplomatic in defeat.

Also

In a true crossroads fight (a “pink slip” fight in the words of ESPN commentator Mark Kriegel),Troy Isley, a former Olympian and stablemate of Terence Crawford, out-worked Javier Martinez to win a unanimous 10-round decision. The judges had it 96-92-and 97-91 twice.

The middleweights were well-acquainted, having split four fights at the amateur level. Isley, from Alexandria, VA, improved to 13-0 (5) Martinez, born in Milwaukee to immigrants from Mexico, was 10-0-1 heading in. Both fighters lost a point for low blows after repeated warnings from referee Tony Weeks.

Other Bouts of Note

In an 8-round bantamweight fight that turned zesty after a slow start, Floyd Mayweather Jr protégé Floyd “Cashflow” Diaz improved to 12-0 (3) with a unanimous decision over Tijuana’s Francisco Pedroza (18-12-2). The judges had it 78-73 across the board. Diaz was making his second start under the tutelage of Brian “Bomac” McIntyre. Pedroza lost a point in round six for hitting on the break.

Steven Navarro, a hot prospect from a prominent SoCal boxing family, won his second pro fight with a 6-round shutout over rugged but outclassed Juan Pablo Meza (7-4), a 33-year-old Chilean.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank

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Will Eumir Marcial be the First Filipino Boxer to Win an Olympic Gold Medal?

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Will Eumir Marcial be the First Filipino Boxer to Win an Olympic Gold Medal?

Over the years, some of the world’s best boxers have been Filipino. Long before Manny Pacquiao there was Pancho Villa (Francisco Villaruel Guilledo) who became a national hero at the age of twenty-one when he captured the world flyweight title with a one-sided beat-down of Jimmy Wilde in 1923, knocking the legendary Welshman into retirement. But one thing is missing from the Pinoy boxing catalog, an Olympic gold medal. There have been eight medalists in all, four silver and four bronze, but the coveted gold has proved elusive.

Eumir Marcial came close in Tokyo. He advanced to the semi-finals in the middleweight competition where he lost a razor-thin decision to his Ukrainian opponent. Two of the judges favored him, but that was one short of what was needed.

“It took a long time for me to get over it, but I came to accept that God had a different plan for me,” says Marcial who gets another crack at it next month. He survived the qualifying tournaments and is headed to Paris where he will carry the flag of the Philippines into the Games of the XXXIII Olympiad.

Eumir (you-meer) Marcial grew up in Zamboanga City in the southern region of the archipelago, a two-day trip to Manila by ferry. He was introduced to boxing by his father Eulalio Marcial who besides being a farmer and a jitney driver is also the head coach of the Zamboanga City (amateur) boxing team.

Eulalio’s son is a big wheel in his native habitat, one of the more urbanized areas of the Philippines. This past October, when Eumir returned to Zamboanga City with his silver medal from the Asian Games in China, a motorcade awaited him at the airport and he was whisked to City Hall where he was feted in a ceremony organized by civic leaders.

In Las Vegas, where he was been training for the Olympics, he’s anonymous. No one genuflects when he walks into the DLX Gym in the company of his attractive wife Princess. He’s just another face in the crowd and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Marcial had one pro fight under his belt before the Tokyo Games. In December of 2020, he won a 4-round decision over a 3-1 opponent from Idaho on a card in Los Angeles. Not quite two months before that fight, while training at Freddie Roach’s gym, Marcial, who has two sisters, received the devastating news that his only brother Eliver had died in the Philippines of a sudden heart attack at age 39. Despite the age difference, the two were extremely close.

Marcial has had four more pro fights since then, advancing his record to 5-0 (3 KOs). In two of those fights, he had anxious moments.

In his second pro fight, he was knocked down three times in the first two frames, but gathered his wits about him and stopped his opponent in round four. In his next outing, a 6-rounder on the undercard of a Showtime PPV, he fought through a bad gash over his right eye, the result of an accidental head butt.

“I learned a lot from those fights,” says Marcial, “and they will make me a better Olympian than I was in 2021.”

Marcial spent nearly 10 years in the Philippines Air Force, but as somewhat of a civilian employee, spending little time around aircraft. He attracted a lot of attention after winning the AIBA world junior championship as a 15-year-old bantamweight in Kazakhstan in 2011. The Air Force seized on his growing fame to make him a recruiting specialist.

The word icon is over-used, but not when applied to Manny Pacquiao who overcame abject poverty to become an international superstar. “He was an inspiration to me,” says Marcial who references “PacMan” as Sir Manny or Senator Manny when he speaks about him.

The two would become well-acquainted. Pacquiao co-promoted Marcial’s last pro fight in Manila which was nationally televised in the Philippines and billed as a homecoming for Eumir who hadn’t fought in a Manila ring in five years. (He knocked out his Thai opponent in the fourth round.)

Marcial recalls some advice that Pacquiao gave him: “He said to me, ‘the higher you get, the more humble you should be.’”

Humbleness comes natural to the affable Marcial who is unstinting in his praise of those who have helped him along on his journey. “I would not have gotten through the qualifying tournament for the Paris games if not for my coach Kay Koroma,” he says.

Nowadays, whenever a Filipino boxer appears for a photo-op, Sean Gibbons is certain to be standing close by. Gibbons, who has homes in Las Vegas and the Philippines, has had an amazing ride since the days when he plied the Oklahoma and Midwest circuits, driving hundreds of miles each month to small shows in the sticks, transporting carloads of journeymen boxers with him. “[Sean Gibbons] helps us with accommodations, rental cars, whatever we need, and I am so grateful to him,” says Marcial of the man (pictured above on the left) who wears many hats but is perhaps best described as a facilitator.

Making matters more daunting for Marcial going forward, his weight class was eliminated when the governing body of the Olympics added a new weight category for women, subtracting one from the men. A middleweight (165-pound ceiling) in Tokyo, he will perform as a light heavyweight (176-pound ceiling) in Paris.

Eumir Marcial will return to the pro ranks regardless of what happens in France, but lassoing that elusive Olympic gold medal would likely bring him more joy than anything he may accomplish at the next level.

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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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