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The Hauser Report: From 9/11 to COVID-19

Thomas Hauser

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The Hauser Report: From 9/11 to COVID-19

Felix Trinidad and Bernard Hopkins were supposed to fight at Madison Square Garden on September 15, 2001. Then 9/11 intervened. After Trinidad-Hopkins was postponed, I visited an empty Madison Square Garden on the night that would have been.

“Tonight was a perfect mid-September evening,” I wrote. “Clear skies, temperature in the low sixties, a hint of autumn in the air. No events were listed on the Garden marquee; just the digital image of an American flag at half-mast. This was to have been ‘ground zero’ tonight. Bernard Hopkins versus Felix Trinidad for the undisputed middleweight championship of the world. Screaming partisans had been expected to turn Madison Square Garden into a sea of red, white, and blue flags. Puerto Rican flags. A half-dozen uniformed New York City cops stood outside the employees entrance at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 33rd Street. Other cops were sprinkled in and around Penn Station, which lies beneath the Garden. The main arena was dimly lit, its floor still covered with ice put in place for New York Rangers practices earlier this week. Eventually, things will return to normal in America, although the definition of ‘normal’ will change.”

I thought about that night this week. Fight cards were scheduled to be promoted by Top Rank at Madison Square Garden on March 14 and March 17. The first of these was to have featured U.S. Olympian Shakur Stevenson. The second – a St. Patrick’s Day special – would have been headlined by Irish Olympian Michael Conlan. Then COVID-19 (an acronym for “coronavirus disease 2019”) intervened.

The 1918 influenza pandemic, commonly referred to as the Spanish flu, infected an estimated 500 million people (roughly 25 percent of the world population at that time). No firm numbers are available, but it’s estimated that the illness was responsible for 50 million deaths.

The population of the United States in 1918 was 106 million. An estimated 670,000 Americans died as a consequence of contracting the Spanish flu. That’s equivalent to 2.1 million deaths in the United States today.

Most fatalities from influenza occur in infants under the age of two and adults over age 70. The Spanish flu was unique in that almost half of the 670,000 deaths in the United States were of men and women between the ages of 20 and 40.

Most viruses abate during the warm summer months. The 1918 Spanish flu came in two waves. The second wave, which swept over America in October, was deadlier than the first.

The first cases of COVID-19 were traced to China in November 2019. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization formally classified the spread of the disease as a “pandemic.” As of this writing (March 14), more than 145,000 cases in 130 countries resulting in 5,400 deaths have been confirmed. That’s a death rate of 3.7 percent as compared to the one-tenth of one percent death rate for more common forms of influenza.

There have been more than 2,600 confirmed cases of COVID-19 resulting in 56 deaths in the United States.

All of these numbers are expected to rise.

Efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in travel restrictions, the quarantine of geographic regions, event cancellations, and the shutdown of businesses. Schools and other institutions have closed their doors. Religious services have been canceled. Millions upon millions of people have changed their habits. Many are now working from home.

This is the new normal.

The sports world has ground to a halt.

Team rosters in baseball and other sports were depleted during World War II but the games went on. Champions like Joe Louis reported for military duty but professional boxing continued.

This is different.

On March 11, the National Basketball Association announced that it was canceling all games until further notice. That same day, the NCAA announced that the men’s and women’s basketball championship tournaments would be played with no one other than essential personnel allowed in the arenas. One day later, the NCAA announced that “March Madness” and all other NCAA winter and spring championship events had been canceled in their entirety.

On March 12, Major League Baseball announced that it was canceling all remaining spring training games and delaying the start of the regular season (scheduled for March 26) by at least two weeks.

On March 13, officials at Augusta National Golf Club announced that The Masters, scheduled for April 9 through April 12, had been postponed.

When the NBA, “March Madness,” Major League Baseball, and The Masters shut down, people pay attention.

Boxing matches in the United States and around the world have been canceled.

On March 11, governor Gavin Newsom announced that California public health officials had advised him that, until at least the end of March, gatherings of more than 250 people should be postponed. One day later, the California State Athletic Commission announced that all combat sports events in the state through the end of March had been canceled.

In New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, and New York Philharmonic Orchestra announced temporary closures. Broadway shows were suspended through at least April 12. For the first time since its inception 258 years ago, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade was postponed.

As for the Shakur Stevenson and Michael Conlan fight cards . . . On March 12, Top Rank issued a press release that read in part, “Due to the coronavirus pandemic and to ensure the health and safety of boxing fans and the fight participants, the March 14 and March 17 events at Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden will proceed without spectators. The only individuals granted access to the events will be essential production and support staff in addition to fighters and necessary team members and credentialed media. Both events will still be shown live on their respective ESPN platforms.”

The plan to hold the fights without spectators in the arena evoked the memory of baseball great Willie Keeler who, when asked for the secret of his success as a batter, replied, “Hit ’em where they ain’t.”

But on a more serious note; fighters risk their lives every time they step into the ring. State athletic commission inspectors and others who work in close proximity with fighters and their camps on fight night shouldn’t.

Moreover, COVID-19 has been taking a toll on hospital emergency rooms, which would make treatment for a fighter who is seriously injured during a fight even more problematic. Thus, on the night of March 12, Top Rank announced, “After close consultation with the New York State Athletic Commission, it has been determined that Saturday’s and Tuesday’s events cannot proceed in light of the ongoing Coronavirus crisis.”

Dozens of future fight cards have been canceled. Events like Daniel Dubois vs. Joe Joyce in London on April 11, Canelo Alvarez vs. Billy Joe Saunders in Las Vegas on May 2, and Anthony Joshua vs. Kubrat Pulev in London on June 20 are in limbo.

Sports will recover. There was no World Series in 1994 due to a rift between management and the Major League Baseball Players Association. Baseball survived and came back strong. More recently, NBA and NFL seasons have been shortened by labor unrest with no longterm damage to either league.

As for now; the immediate message is, “This is serious. This is not a time for games.”

9/11 was a blow to most Americans. But after the initial attacks, it didn’t directly threaten their lives. COVID-19 does. And it’s not a Democratic or Republican virus. It’s not a Christian, Jewish, or Muslim virus. It’s a not a straight, gay, or transsexual virus.

Medicine is far more advanced now that it was in 1918. But medicine can’t cure every malady (think cancer). And even under the best of circumstances, medical treatments take time to develop. As famed scientist Wernher von Braun noted, “Crash programs fail because they are based on the theory that, with nine women pregnant, you can get a baby a month.”

It’s likely that, no matter how devastating COVID-19 becomes, someday it will be looked upon as little more than a blip in the timeline of history. That’s how the 1918 pandemic appears to us now. But for those who live (and die) through the present crisis, the immediate consequences are very real. The 1918 pandemic seems less distant and more real in our minds now than it did a month ago.

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.

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Ramirez vs. Taylor Adds Luster to an Already Strong Boxing Slate in May

Arne K. Lang

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Boxing will heat up big-time in May. Canelo Alvarez will defend his WBC 168-pound title on May 8 against Billy Joe Saunders. Two weeks later, WBC/WBO 140-pound champion Jose Ramirez (26-0, 17 KOs) meets his IBF/WBA counterpart Josh Taylor (17-0, 13 KOs). Teofimo Lopez’s title defense against George Kambosos may transpire in May and now there’s talk that Manny Pacquiao will also return in May with Mikey Garcia in the opposite corner.

The Ramirez-Taylor fight was announced today (March 2). The match between the undefeated belt-holders, both former Olympians, will produce the fifth unified champion of the four-belt error. Middleweights Bernard Hopkins and Jermain Taylor, junior welterweight Terence Crawford, and cruiserweight Oleksandr Usyk are the only boxers to have held this distinction.

Ramirez vs. Taylor will be on ESPN. The fight appears headed to an MGM Grand property in Las Vegas. The T-Mobile Arena, the city’s largest indoor sports arena, is likely in the running. The arena houses the city’s professional hockey team, the Golden Knights, which played their first game in many moons with fans in attendance on Monday. Attendance was capped at 15 percent of capacity and the game was a “sellout” with all 2,605 available seats attracting occupants.

Josh Taylor, who made his pro debut in El Paso, of all places, will be making his second appearance in Las Vegas, assuming the fight transpires there. The Tartan Tornado appeared at the MGM Grand Garden on Jan. 28, 2017, on a card topped by the WBA featherweight title rematch between Carl Frampton and Leo Santa Cruz. Taylor and Frampton then shared the same trainer, Shane McGuigan.

In the words of Bob Arum, “Ramirez vs. Taylor is the best boxing has to offer, two elite fighters in the prime of their careers colliding in a legacy-defining matchup for the undisputed championship of the world. It’s a true 50-50 fight….”

In boxing, unlike other sports, anything under 2-to-1 is basically a “pick-’em” fight, so Arum isn’t far off the mark. For the record, however, the first betting lines to appear show the Scotsman the favorite in the 7-to-4 range, a price obviously based on the assumption that the fight will be held in Nevada, or at least anywhere other than Glasgow or Fresno.

Ramirez didn’t look sharp in his last outing when he scored a majority decision over Victor Postol at the MGM Bubble. Ramirez said he was burned-out after a long training camp – the fight was postponed twice – and said he thought the sterile atmosphere affected him; he was used to feeding off the energy of a crowd. Josh Taylor also had a tough time with Postol when they met in a 12-round bout at Glasgow on June 23, 2018 (the gritty Ukrainian is a tough nut to crack), but one would not have gleaned that from the scorecards which were soaked with hometown bias.

Josh Taylor’s last fight was at fan-less York Hall in London. The Scotch southpaw was entitled to a breather after his epic encounter with Regis Prograis and the IBF had just the ticket in mandatory challenger Apinun Khonsong. Taylor dismissed the overmatched Thai in the opening round with a body punch. This was Taylor’s first fight with new trainer Ben Davison.

The last time that Arum called an upcoming match a 50-50 fight, he was hyping the all-Mexican showdown between Miguel Berchelt and Oscar Valdez. That was no 50-50 fight, Berchelt was a solid favorite, but as it turned out, the pricemakers had underestimated the underdog who delivered the goods in a wildly entertaining skirmish.

On paper, Ramirez vs. Taylor will also be a very entertaining affair.

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From the Desert, Jack Dempsey

Matt McGrain

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Jack Dempsey, who has been matched by Jack Goodfriend to fight at the Hippodrome Monday, May 31 is expected to arrive from Reno within a day or two.  The match will be a ten round contest and preceded by a couple of good preliminaries. (The Goldfield News, May 22nd, 1915.)

In May of 1915 Jack Dempsey found himself trapped in Nevada and between purses. Fifty miles from his payday with no rail to ride, he walked out of the desert and into Goldfield, stuck the bewildered promoter for an advance and hired a sparring partner, knocked the sparring partner out and hired another.

Walking in ninety-five-degree weather can be dangerous for even an experienced athlete, but it seemed to agree with Jack. He had marched into Goldfield to meet a light-heavyweight named Johnny Sudenberg, a game but limited battler who had for the first time strung a decent run of wins together, all of them fought in the desert Dempsey travailed on foot. Dempsey had scored a series of knockout wins in Salt Lake City, enough that his name was known and interest in his proposed match with the local man stoked.

“Jack Dempsey, the husky Pueblo middleweight, who will meet Johnny Sudenberg at the Hippodrome next Monday night in a ten round bout arrived in camp this morning,” reported regional press. “Several local men have seen Dempsey in action…and all [are] united in the prediction that Johnny had better be ‘right’ when he crawls through the ropes.”

It speaks of boxing’s burgeoning’s status in the United States that there were two gymnasiums in Goldfield capable of staging training. Dempsey worked out at the Unity Club, little more than a middleweight, perhaps not least because of his fifty-mile travail through the desert earlier that week. He boxed a local footnote named Dick Trounce and he may also have boxed some rounds with the world class bantamweight Roy Moore.

Sudenberg, stung by assertions that it was Dempsey, not he, who was the puncher in the fight, bristled and demanded of himself a knockout while training down the street in the Northern Gymnasium.

There is a divergence now between Dempsey’s recollection of the fight and the newspaper reporting of the day. Before the fight, although he may have shared a ring with Jack Dempsey, not known for his tender attentions of even much smaller sparring partners, Roy Moore advised his sparring partner to steer clear. “Don’t slug with Sudenberg.  He’s awful strong. Stay away from him.”

Dempsey claims to have dismissed this advice, telling Roger Kahn, author of A Flame of Pure Fire, that the match was a brutal slugfest from the first. Local press though reported on a fight that was marked by cautious sparring early, and that after “feeling each other out” for two rounds that Dempsey dominated, it was Sudenberg who changed the pattern and “owing to the greater height and reach” Dempsey possessed, brought the fight to the inside. A fine battle resulted and one that saw Dempsey descend into total chaos for the first time, a feeling that would become as familiar to him as slipping on a pair of old shoes.

“I just kept swinging. Sometimes I think I saw a face in front of me, sometimes I didn’t. I kept swinging.”

Dempsey claimed he could remember nothing after the fifth.

A rematch was not immediately slated, but the failure of a potential Sudenberg opponent to deliver on a sidebet let Dempsey back in just days later. Dempsey moved a bit further north with the purses, his second battle with Sudenberg staged in Tonopah. Still years from the three-ringed circus his career would become, there was interest surrounding the young scrapper who trained for the fight in the town’s casino. Tonopah was a young but bustling setting, festooned with banks and lawyers and saloons as money poured in from Nevada’s second largest silver strike. By 1920 they had pulled $121m out of the ground and Dempsey was there to pull out his own piece.

“A great many were dissatisfied with the decision last Monday,” wrote the Tonopah Daily upon the fight’s announcement. “Dempsey gave Sudenberg the best fight he has had in this part of the country.”

Sudenberg, who seems to have been a prickly character, held the power in his relationship with Dempsey and so clearly backed himself to win a rematch. A fascinating aspect of the fight is their respective sizes. Dempsey was referred to as a middleweight in the earliest dispatches surrounding the fight, but in the ring made an impression upon ringsiders as the bigger man. Taller, rangier, it is possible he was already the heavier of the two or it may be that his trek through the surrounding desert left an early impression of litheness which slipped away as Dempsey, holding cash, boxed and ate his way to a size advantage during the build-up. The Goldfield News described him upon entering the ring for the rematch as looking “more like an overgrown schoolboy than a fighter” as he stepped on the canvas before noting wryly that he “proved otherwise.”

The fight quite literally drew from miles around, with “Goldfield well represented at ringside” and “eight to ten auto loads” appearing from nearby mines. Dempsey grabbed their attention early, a man you will recognise, coming out of his corner like a rocket and deploying what the Tonopah Daily Bonanza named “Dempsey’s mass attack,” presumably an early incarnation of the terrible beating he would inflict upon Jess Willard in Toledo with the world’s title at stake. Indeed, Sudenberg does appear to have visited the canvas in that first round, but Dempsey, over-eager, under-seasoned, missed with key punches following up his advantage and the canny Sudenberg survived a round of murderous intent.

Papers also report the use of straight punches by Dempsey, that he preferred range and looked to that superior range to dominate. Early Dempsey contests fascinate me in that they repeatedly throw up this story, of a fighter who at just 6’1 was able to dominate most of the desert’s pugs with height and reach. Here he plays the role that would later be played by Willard, Carl Morris and Fred Fulton, longer men trying to control the range while Dempsey tormented them with slips and punches.  Here it was Sudenberg who in the third and fourth seemed to do something of a job, getting inside and hitting to the belly while the two accused each other of low blows.

Dempsey is a victim of some criticism over his own use of low blows, alleged or otherwise, in huge fights with Tommy Gibbons and Jack Sharkey. It should be remembered always that he learned his trade in spots like Tonopah and Goldfield where local referees were not sympathetic to pleas for justice to be dispensed. Dempsey fought like a fistic savage because he was raised as one.

After just four rounds in Tonopah, he was tired, feeling the effects of a difficult month and a fast fight. “Dempsey takes punishment well and ducks cleverly,” noted The Bonanza, while The News saw Dempsey holding on a good deal more in the second half of the fight.

By round eight, Sudenberg began to show the effects of Dempsey’s right hand which he worked “like a sledgehammer” while Sudenberg “lands heavily on Dempsey’s digestive apparatus.” At the final bell the two worked one another mercilessly in search of the decision, but they were greeted by a draw.

Under a more modern ruleset I suspect that Dempsey would have received the nod. He crushed Sudenberg in the early part of the fight and more than matched him late, but with the referee acting as a single judge, draws in fights where a winner was not inarguably apparent were common.  Fighters expected it and pressmen expected it, which is perhaps why some of those in attendance saw the result as eminently reasonable. Dempsey clearly landed the better shots, but Sudenberg was rewarded for his gameness in “carrying the fight” a tenet of the era.

Dempsey had impressed though. “In Dempsey, who gives the promise of developing into a heavyweight,” stated The News, “there is room for a world of improvement, and with the experience he will gain during the next few years he should make a formidable opponent for any scrapper.”

Portentous words.

When Dempsey left Tonopah – history does not record whether he walked out – he was mere days from his twentieth birthday, an overgrown schoolboy appearing on the good end of draws against older, more experienced men, already determined to become heavyweight champion, already of the belief he would become one. History tells of a third fight between he and Sudenberg the following February, a more mature Dempsey thrashing a cowed Sudenberg in two rounds.

I spoke to Dempsey scholar and author of the outstanding In The Ring series, Adam Pollack. “Didn’t happen,” was his verdict.  “I am certain it didn’t take place.”

It is nice to have this one cleared up. Dempsey did not need to defeat Sudenberg to leave him behind. Dempsey, like any heavyweight champion has his obsessed fans – among them the men who developed a single thin thread concerning a third Sudenberg match and turned it into a truth that was reported in A Flame of Pure Fire and elsewhere – and obsessed haters, but there is no denying what he did. Irresistible and eternal, people will generate and propagate myths about Jack Dempsey for as long as there is fighting.

This story is about his beginnings – see the single-minded determination that saw him walk fifty miles through a desert? See the legendary fast start in the second fight? The mid-round sag that would lead Jack Johnson to label him a three-round fighter? His bending of the rules? Then again, what of his seeming determination to box against a smaller opponent? This was something he abandoned in time to avoid disaster against geniuses like Tommy Gibbons although it would not be enough to save his weary legs from Gene Tunney’s escape.

Dempsey’s matches with Sudenberg were his emergence from the desert in more ways than one.  They were where his pursuit in earnest of the world’s heavyweight title began. These were his first major steps outside of Salt Lake City where his ambitions were as penned as Sudenberg’s were in the desert; the defining series of an emergent Jack Dempsey.

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Jerry Forrest: When Heart Counts

Ted Sares

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While many Canelo fights end up in some fan’s memory bank, that probably won’t be the case given what occurred this past Saturday night in Miami. However, the show was salvaged by the entertaining heavyweight draw between China’s Zhilei “Big Bang” Zhang (22-0-1) and Jerry “Slugger” Forrest (26-4-1) on the undercard. This one had the fans up and roaring but for different reasons.

The 6’6” Zhang (with excellent amateur credentials) floored the American once in each of the first three rounds and the crowd sensed a stunning KO was on the way. But lo and behold, it didn’t come.

Then things began to change, subtle at first, as a determined Forrest survived the onslaught and began to fight back working well inside and landing shots both upstairs and to the body.

A Shift in Momentum

The momentum clearly changed in the fifth as Zhang used his body to lean on “Slugger” to tire him out, but in the process he didn’t mix and thereby lost rounds. Soon this strategy (albeit illegal) backfired and served to tire “Big Bang” more than Forrest and making matters worse for Zhang, he was deducted a point in the ninth by referee Frank Gentile for holding. (Given that he had been holding since the fifth round, the deduction was spot-on and could well have come earlier.)

Going into the last round, the fight seemed to be up for grabs and the fresher Forrest obliged as he landed crunching shots that had the fickle fans (are there any others?) now in is corner. He was actually chasing the gassed Chinese monster at the end and had the fight gone another minute, “Slugger” likely would have lived up to his moniker.

“For Jerry Forrest, this is a momentous result after a terrible start, and keeps him in the mix as a high-level gatekeeper, someone who will take on basically anyone and give it the effort. He’s a danger to prospects and mid-tier veterans alike,” wrote prominent boxing writer Scott Christ.

The scores were 95-93 Forrest and 93-93 twice for a majority draw. Zhang was lucky to keep his undefeated record intact.

Jerry Forrest showed a tremendous amount of heart. Hopefully, when folks look back at this card, Canelo’s blowout of Avni Yildirim won’t completely overshadow this entertaining heavyweight match.

(Note: Zhang was taken to a hospital for observation when his handlers noticed some concerning symptoms in the locker room after the fight. According to a published statement from Terry Lane of Lane Brothers Management, Zhang was found to be “suffering from anemia, high enzyme levels, and low-level renal failure, which may have been caused by severe dehydration. The good news is that all of his neurological signs are clear…Credit and respect to a game Jerry Forrest who battled back for a ten-round draw…Zhilei will be back.”)

Photo credit: Ed Mulholland / Matchroom

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com

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