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Art of Boxing Series: Paulie Ayala (Part Two)

David A. Avila

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It was like a duel between two Old West gunslingers as Paulie Ayala a little-known Texas southpaw stood poised to greet New Mexico’s Johnny Tapia, the mercurial world champion from Albuquerque.

When the bell rang that Las Vegas night on June 26, 1999, the tightly wound bantamweights delivered the most riveting battle of the year. Showtime will replay the 1999 Fight of the Year on Friday, April 17 as part of their “Rivalries” series.

Their battle proved so captivating they did it again a year later.

Ayala grew up in a town famous for producing world champions in the 1980s. And though his amateur career fell short, it allowed him to realize he could compete with the best. It also allowed him to sharpen his fighting style to hair-splitting accuracy that still goes unnoticed.

As a youth, he served as a sparring partner for world champions like Freddie Norwood and Stevie Cruz. Norwood would defeat Juan Manuel Marquez and Cruz would hang a loss on Barry McGuigan. Those victories by his stablemates opened up his eyes to his own possibilities.

“Freddie Norwood beat Marquez. And to me he didn’t train 110 percent and to be able to do what he was able to do and fight the way he fought, he was really a goofy guy,” said Ayala thinking back on helping Norwood prepare for Marquez in 1999. “So, when he beat Marquez I wondered how long he trained for that. Probably nothing. He beat Juan Manuel Marquez; that’s crazy.”

Ayala toiled away sparring against some of the most talented fighters in the world in hopes of getting his own world title shot.

“I was never really concerned who I was going to fight because my sparring was better than anybody I was going to face at that point of my career until I fought for a title. I sparred Freddie Norwood, Robert Quiroga, and John Michael Johnson when he was getting ready for Junior Jones. I sparred a lot of top guys during that time,” said Ayala of his battles in Fort Worth. “Sparring in those days was like war every day.”

After three years of mowing down the competition, Ayala captured the NABF bantamweight title with a third-round knockout of Miguel Espinoza on March 1995. He held it for more than three years, wondering when he would get a world title shot.

Yokohama, Japan and La Vida Loca

Sometimes when you lose you win. That proved true when Paulie Ayala arrived on the shores of Japan to challenge for the WBC bantamweight world title against Joichiro Tatsuyoshi.

Despite starting strong, an accidental clash of heads resulted in a technical decision loss after six rounds in front of 22,000 fans in Yokohama Arena on August 1998.

“I thought I was in control. He was a boxer and had a little charisma in his boxing and little flamboyance. In the first round I caught him and he buckled so I started boxing him and tried to see if I could catch him again. He had a little cut in his left eye so I started working on that, so the next thing you know I went to the body and we crashed heads. The referee deducted two points from me. They said I intentionally did it. It ended in the sixth round,” said Ayala. “It was one of my biggest disappointments because I wanted that green belt.”

After waiting six years to get a world title opportunity he worried that another might not come around for another six years. He was wrong.

“I immediately went back to the gym when I got home and took a couple of quick fights. And next thing you know I got a phone call from Top Rank and they said we got another title shot for you. This time it’s in the states and that’s when it was with Johnny Tapia,” said Ayala. “To me, I know they accepted the fight because my fight in Japan was not televised here. So, no one got to see it. That’s why I thought I even got that opportunity anyway. They didn’t see the fight. They just know I went to fight for the world title and I lost. I think it was a blessing in disguise.”

Tapia was undefeated and perhaps the most charismatic bantamweight in the history of prizefighting. His “Mi Vida Loca” tattoo said all you needed to know about his lifestyle but fans loved the bad boy from Albuquerque who spent several years in jail. When he returned to boxing his popularity soared once again.

In 1994 Tapia won the WBO super flyweight world title by knockout against Henry Martinez and held on to it for 11 title defenses. Then on July 1997 he engaged in a battle to unify the super flyweight division against crosstown rival Danny Romero who held the IBF version. Tapia won the bloody rivalry by unanimous decision after 12 rounds in Las Vegas.

After two more defenses of the WBO and IBF super flyweight titles, Tapia moved up a weight division and captured the WBA bantamweight world title by majority decision over Nana Yaw Konadu in Atlantic City. After one more fight Tapia was ready to defend the bantamweight title and Ayala was the chosen opponent.

“He was a super popular guy,” said Ayala. “Definitely I was the underdog. I was going to take the back seat. Johnny Tapia was the fan favorite, media favorite, I mean everybody loved him.”

The first press conference took place in Beverly Hills, California and the media showed up in full force at the Friars Club on Santa Monica Boulevard. Tapia was surrounded by reporters with cameras, microphones and handheld recording devices.

Near the entrance to the Friars Club sitting on a metal chair next to his trainer was Ayala who calmly watched the media frenzy around Tapia. It was the only time Tapia would enjoy dominance.

“When you start the press conferences and the press tours everything is cordial. Then there is camp and you come back and it’s time to fight. When we first saw each other at the first press conference, we made eye contact and I could see, not concern but he knew I was focused,” said Ayala.

Mandalay Bay

Just three months earlier the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino had opened its doors for the first time. As a boxing venue, it was still brand new when Paulie Ayala and Johnny Tapia met for the WBA bantamweight title on June 26, 1999.

It would soon become home to a bevy of epic prize fights starting with the bantamweight clash. There’s a particular reason why casinos in Las Vegas love boxing. It has a seductive allure to gamblers, real sports fans and boxing fanatics.

Prizefighters are a different breed.

Outside of a boxing ring many prizefighters are congenial, and eager to talk to fans and media. But once the weigh-ins take place their faces and demeanor change drastically like Jekyll and Hyde.

“I feel that’s another part of the fight, It’s a mental fight,” Ayala said about the drama involved at weigh-ins and pre-fight press conferences days before the fight.

When the two bantamweights stepped in the middle of the ring to hear instructions Tapia was hyper and eager to unload. Ayala quickly noticed as referee Joe Cortez gave his instructions.

“I could see in his eyes he had a totally different demeanor. His eyes were like gone. He was into the fight. I already knew he was angry. And to me, that’s better. The more angry he is the less he is going to listen to Freddie (Roach),” said Ayala remembering their face-to-face moment seconds before the fight. “He kept looking at me (during instructions) and he kind of jumped to the side and I jumped to the side. But I didn’t know he was going to come and push me.”

Tapia shoved Ayala seconds before the actual fight.

“Joe Cortez said specifically to me ‘Paulie if you do anything and don’t let me do my job I’m going to disqualify you.’ And I already lost my first world title (bid) I wasn’t going to risk something stupid to lose the fight like that again,” said Ayala.

Tapia was an excellent boxer and could be difficult to hit. But his main weakness was his machismo inside the boxing ring. Ayala figured it out quickly.

“I kept catching him, I would kind of go whew! Every time I hit him with a good shot I’d go whew. And he hated that,” said Ayala explaining that the verbal taunts set off Tapia to engage more. “The main thing is I got him out of his fight game for one, of course Freddie Roach was trying to get him to box, and turn, then counter. But he wasn’t listening.”

Suddenly the tactical skirmish turned into an all-out war. Neither was willing to move backward and the two 118-pounders were blasting each other relentlessly daring each other to match power shots. It was exciting stuff for the fans who roared and reacted every time a big blow landed.

Early on Ayala thought Tapia was tiring. But he was mistaken.

“I thought he was already tired the way Johnny would suck up all the air after a round. So, I thought it was already downhill for him. So, we’re getting into the 10th round he is still doing the same thing. But his work ethic in the later rounds was even more intense. So, I was like ‘man, this is what championship boxing is all about,’” Ayala said.

Ayala was in his element as Tapia attacked with his unrelenting assault. The Texas southpaw caught many of the blows off his gloves and slipped and countered with perfect timing. It was memorable stuff as the pair of pocket-sized destroyers traded bombs over 12 rounds.

“He was boxing good but he wasn’t landing any hard shots and I was landing way better shots than he was landing. That’s why he decided to stop boxing and moving and he decided to trade with me. I’m not saying he made it easier but he made it better, by far for me. Because I was having to cut off the ring and it was a lot more work than for him to just stay there in the pocket and we could just fight it out right there.”

It was the type of warfare that Ayala preferred: in-the-pocket exchanges. The kind he had perfected for years in Fort Worth sparring sessions against world champions.

When the final bell sounded Ayala slumped to the ground.

“Right when the bell rang to complete the final round I fell down in the middle of the ring, not only because of the excitement but I was exhausted. I used everything I had,” recalled Ayala.

Ayala knew he was not the favorite and Tapia had never been beaten. But he hoped the judges saw what he felt was his victory.

“All I was waiting for is when they said ‘and the new champion of the world!” That was an experience that I will never forget,” said Ayala who won by unanimous decision 116-113 twice and 115-114.

Bedlam ensued and some booed and others cheered. According to CompuBox, an unofficial group that tabulates punches for the television fans, Tapia landed more blows. But Ayala had a style that wasn’t easy to tabulate correctly.

All in all, it was a spectacular fight and one that would later be voted Fight of the Year by Ring Magazine. For the impressive win, Ayala was also selected Fighter of the Year in 1999 by the same publication. Think of it. He was voted over Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad, Roy Jones Jr. and Lennox Lewis.

Ayala was the last fighter to win that honor in the 20th century.

“That was the greatest feeling. Look at all the champions around. You had everybody. You had the Klitschkos, De La Hoya, Vargas, you had all these guys. Erik Morales, you had Johnny Tapia all these guys that are in the Hall of Fame. I beat all them for Fighter of the Year award. That was in 1999. I mean everybody was fighting. Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao those guys were all fighting back then too. People don’t take that into consideration. I was going against the top guys so for them to even consider me that was so awesome,” said Ayala.

Ayala in the 21st Century

Ayala and Tapia would fight again 16 months later but at the MGM Grand. Once again Ayala would defeat the New Mexican fighter but at a catchweight of 124 pounds. Just like their first encounter the pair of sluggers let the punches fly.

The Texas southpaw would defend the WBA title successfully three times then move up a weight division and defeat Clarence “Bones” Adams for the IBO super bantamweight title twice. And just like the Tapia clashes the wars with Adams proved scintillating too.

Ayala tried the featherweight division too and was denied by Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera. He finally retired after the loss to Barrera in Los Angeles.

“In boxing you have to have that killer instinct. You are training for war. It’s not a sport where you are in there to win on points. You are in there to hurt that guy, to take his will,” said Ayala. “It doesn’t matter what a fighter says after the fight. Sometimes you know you took his soul.”

Ayala still lives in Fort Worth, Texas with his wife Letitia. They have two grown offspring and maintain a boxing gym called the University of Hard Knocks Gym. They provide classes for those suffering from Parkinson’s Disease called Punching Out Parkinsons. They also provide boxing therapy classes for At Risk, suicidal and autistic youth.

They have an Instagram account called Paulie Ayala’s UHK and can be found on Twitter.com too.

Don’t forget to watch Ayala vs. Tapia 1 and 2 on Showtime’s boxing series on Friday April 17.

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel 

To comment in this story in The Fight Forum CLICK HERE

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

Matt McGrain

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It has been interesting to see how transient fighters are when they inhabit the smaller divisions. Up at cruiserweight, fighters spent on average 50% of the decade in their division to earn their spot among the top ten; here at 122lbs it is nearer 30%.

This results in a list of fighters with less purchase on the list, generally. Occasionally though, even at the smaller weights, a fighter will rack up a list of serious victories in a short space of time and hit the heights – and the divisional stalwart is also not unheard of. Here, one of each of these type towers over the rest of the decadal division but the numbers ten through three kick up a lot of interesting fights, and some very interesting fighters.

In accounting for these fighters, the term “one hit wonder” is used liberally. Here I am not seeking to denigrate either the fighter or his wider opposition; it merely denotes a fighter who has one win of real significance which is often accounted for in some detail.

This is another symptom of a generation of fighters happy to put on a mere four pounds to visit the next division up for their next big test.

10 – Rico Ramos

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 16-6 Ranked For: 18% of the decade

The tenth slot was a shootout between Kiko Martinez, who did a little more at the weight, and Rico Ramos, who did a little less, but who was defeated at the poundage only by Guillermo Rigondeaux; Martinez, meanwhile, was thrashed twice by Carl Frampton and once by Scott Quigg. The Scott Quigg tilts me towards Ramos, whose purple patch of 7-1 gets him over the line.

The jewel in his super-bantamweight crown for the period January 2010 until December 2019 was his come-from-behind knockout victory over Akifumi Shimoda, one of the top contenders of 2010 and 2011. Shimoda himself has a claim to the number ten spot based primarily upon his superb victory over Ryol Li Lee, but Ramos eliminated him when they clashed in Atlantic City in July of 2011.

Ramos, an American of Puerto Rican descent, had been boxing since he was eight years old but seemingly had no answer to the Shimoda jab which was opening up other opportunities for the Japanese; Ramos, circling to his right at the beginning of the seventh, brought Shimoda onto a left hand, but it was unheeded and Shimoda continued to boss the real-estate and find a home for his bodypunches. A right hand from Rico seemed to gather his attention though and having landed yet another left Rico finally had his man rooted to the spot, and circling, he landed a left hand as beautiful as any thrown in the 122lb decade. Shimoda was up at nine but immediately took a second header to the canvas.

Ramos was chased from the division by Rigondeaux, as noted, but certainly there is no shame there.

09 – Rey Vargas

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 34-0 Ranked For: 42% of the decade

Rey Vargas has traced an old-fashioned career arc, occupying a spot at super-bantamweight since 2015 and slowly creeping his way up the ranks to inhabit the number one spot, without, really, meeting anyone to justify that ranking. Sometimes longevity is its own reward.

His highest-ranking victim was Tomoki Kameda, and it showed when they met in July of last year; Tomoki had real success early and took a handy lead out of the first third of the fight. Vargas though is a freakishly tall superbantam at near 5’11 and he has the reach to match. From the fifth on, he deployed a controlling jab birthed by a pedigree amateur career that has been augmented by some serious professional experience. The double-uppercut right hand he landed in that round set him apart; the cards may have been a little wide but clearly Vargas was the right man.

He was the right man too five months previously when he was faced with another tough assignment in Franklin Manzanilla. Manzanilla, out of Venezuela, had scored an impressive victory over Julio Ceja in just four rounds in his previous fight and set some problems for Vargas with his rushes and fouling. Vargas found himself with cuts over both brows from “accidental” head-clashes as early as the eighth and Manzanilla had two points docked for hitting on the break and pushing. But Vargas showed some of his best boxing, dominating at distance with the jab and outlanding Manzanilla with fluid combination punching when they met at mid-range.

Vargas has a little more depth than these two fights – Azat Hovhannisyan and Ronny Rios have both made waves since he beat them – but they remain his fistic cornerstones, and despite some impressive boxing this makes him borderline for inclusion. His paper record and longevity in the ratings at 122lbs has seen me favour him over one-hit wonders like Jeffrey Mathebula and Akifumi Shimoda.

08 – Isaac Dogboe

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 21-2 Ranked For: 18% of the decade

Isaac Dogboe’s pressure appeared functional rather than thrilling before his big step up against Jessie Magdaleno in 2018. Magdaleno had been inactive but had also defeated no less a figure than Nonito Donaire in 2016 and was heavily favoured.

In the first round Dogboe was dropped while pressing Magdaleno too hard and he lost the third too, to a gorgeous Magdaleno counter left. But all the while his pressure was beginning to look a little more than workmanlike. He was adept at keeping Magdaleno moving and again and again Dogboe, out of London via Ghana, would fetch his man up against the ropes and let go. Still very much in touch on the scorecards after four, Magdaleno was being aggressively outgeneralled and was steadily losing touch with the fight. His solution was to come out at the opening of the fifth and attack; Dogboe promptly dropped him with a single left hook.

Dogboe so dominated Magdelano that night that the favourite found himself in need of a knockout by the ninth. The then world’s number one super-bantamweight showed no sign he might achieve it and in fact slipped further and further from his technical best, eventually reduced to sagging on the ropes and beckoning Dogboe in. It was a sorry sight and one the referee interrupted in the eleventh after Dogboe perpetrated the second knockdown of the round over his withering opponent.

It was an impressive and rather unexpected performance, albeit against an opponent who seemed to struggle a little with rust after a year out of the sport and it set Dogboe up as the world’s number one super-bantamweight.

Dogboe never added to his 122lb legacy though; his own nemesis was lurking in the wings.

07 – Emanuel Navarrete

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 31-1 Ranked For: 26% of the decade

Like Dogboe, Emanuel Navarrete fought the usual learning fights, stepped up to take on some journeymen and was then launched right into the deep end to face off with the world’s number one super-bantam. Dogboe-Navarrete was a fascinating contest in that it pitted a Johnny-come-lately against an even more recently arrived contender. Dogboe, as the man with the pedigree opponent on his ledger, was favoured.

Navarrete, who is tall with a reach that seems planetary, allowed Dogboe inside to do his work. It felt wrong and even dangerous until Navarrete landed a triple left hook, up and down, on the inside, to win the second round. From here he controlled the fight, impressive and dominant in out-fighting the smaller pressure fighter whose nightmare had come to visit him in the ring: a fighter he could not push back but rather who was pushing him back. The ninth through twelfth were a parade, the bigger man marching down the smaller pressure fighter in what amounts to the most disheartening position a pugilist of any kind can find himself.

Unfortunately for Dogboe he had a rematch clause. Navarrete, who now knew how Dogboe moved, thought and fought, beat him mercilessly in that rematch. The fight becomes difficult to watch around the eighth; Dogboe’s corner, brave to the near last, finally pulled him as he was blasted to the canvas in the twelfth and final round.

It seemed to me that something special had emerged in that fight, but the truth is we don’t yet know. Navarrete has fallen afoul of the ABC strap he wears in defending against underqualified challengers whose selection for their “title shot” is based upon matters other than fistic. So, the jury remains out on Navarrete, who nevertheless was impressive enough in his twin maulings of Dogboe to comfortably make the list.

06 – Jessie Magdaleno

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 27-1 Ranked For: 22% of the decade

Here, we meet the last of the one-hit-wonders on the list but Magdaleno possesses the finest of all of them: Nonito Donaire. Donaire, it is true, had had some of the glitter removed by Guillermo Rigondeaux, but in November of 2016 he remained the top contender to the legitimate title he had once held. Then Magdaleno came calling.

What most impressed me was Donaire’s near abandonment of his left hook. It was oft repeated that he had one of the “best left hooks in the sport” and if Bernard Hopkins had established the removal of such a potent weapon much ink would have been spent on his exaltation. Magdaleno was less fashionable and has remained so, but it was a wonderful technical achievement. Moving unhurriedly, seeking for single shots, he countered beautifully throughout with the right jab and right hook of his own, taking every opportunity to strike without – shades of Hopkins again – ever over-extending himself. The result was Donaire sheathing his own hook in obedience of the rule that you don’t hook with a hooker, while Magdaleno freely threw his own; to the body, especially, he was prestigious.

Donaire went to the straight right and a fascinating tussle ensued, summed up perfectly in the ninth where Donaire hurt Magdaleno on the ropes, only for Magdaleno to charge him and dominate the remainder of the round, putting him out of sight on the cards; Donaire closed with real strength as Magdaleno’s energy waned.

But the decision clearly belonged to Magdaleno.

It was not too long after this that Magdaleno ran into Dogboe. The reasonable question would be, if Dogboe beat Magdaleno how does Magdaleno come to be ranked above him here? It’s a fair question. The mathematics, for me, says that Magdelano’s defeat of Donaire is more impressive than Dogboe’s defeat of a rusty Magdaleno; I accept that this is arguable but balk at Magdaleno as low as eight given his wonderful performance against Donaire.

05 – Toshiaki Nishioka

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 4-1 Ranked For: 19% of the decade

Toshiaki Nishioka was the number one super-bantamweight coming into the decade and remained so until he was removed by the sumptuous power-punching of Nonito Donaire (and an over-excited referee).

How you feel about his overall standing here will depend upon how you feel about Rafael Marquez and his standing in October of 2011. Having lost three of his last six, including two of those wars with Israel Vazquez, Rafael was ostensibly on the slide, but the fight itself shows a fighter that, while no longer at his withering best, remained stoic and technically brilliant, very much a fighter that had to be mastered.

This, Nishioka did. To this day he maintains that Rafael is his most skilled opponent and he boxed with great care to control him, refusing to contest the inside and avoiding any over-commitment with the jab. Meanwhile he drilled Marquez with his trailing left, a wonderful punch that he throws with as much variety as anyone this century. Flying it quickly to the body was his stock in trade in the early going but he began to risk a wilder, wider, harder punch when he realised how wary Rafael had become. Rafael had success, not least in the second half of the eighth round where it seemed he might actually assume control of the fight, but Nishioka out-fought and out-worked the former lineal champion in the tenth and eleventh to put the decision to bed. It was a deeply impressive performance that cemented his status as the first number one super-bantam of the decade.

Nishioka’s other wins do little other than demonstrate his superiority over the field, especially his October 2010 contest with Rendall Munroe. Munroe brought guts but little else as the fight turned into something of a parade down the stretch; still, re-watching it was worth it for the feinted straight and uppercut through the middle that Nishioka used to tilt Munroe’s head back in the third.

Placing him at number five is a borderline call, but Nishioka was a clearer number one than anyone running eight through six. I am happy that should see him placed above, rather than below, the one-hit wonders.

04 – Leo Santa Cruz

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 24-1-1 Ranked For: 27% of the decade

Leo Santa Cruz departed 122lbs in 2015 with his undefeated record intact having made his impact on the first half of the super-bantamweight decade. His meaningful arrival at the poundage, the equivalent of a Mack truck pulling up inside a jewellery store, came in August of 2013 against Victor Terrazas. Terrazas, a tough, dangerous fighter was unsupported by the type of chin that would have made him genuinely world class. Nevertheless, the world’s number two contender was a serious proposition for Santa Cruz, and was coming off a nerveless, brutal battle with Cristian Mijares which he won by the narrowest of margins.

Terrazas started aggressively as Santa Cruz brought pressure, all high guard and work-rate. But, as we saw while looking at featherweight, Santa Cruz is much more than that. His punch selection is excellent, his sense for the backfoot superb for a front-foot fighter, his jab is thudding and accurate but he can box squarely enough – weight generally over his back leg, when he does so – to lead with the right without courting disaster. Terrazas was complimented during fight commentary for “making this an inside fight” – but an inside fight suits Santa Cruz just fine. He has reach and the technique to use it but is comfortable trying to land punches behind the elbows.

The two fought on even terms until they didn’t, when towards the end of the second Santa Cruz, tougher and better, opened up while the two stood head to head at the ropes. Terrazas emerged wounded and in the third, emerged giving ground. Dropped twice, he seemed broken in part by the psychological pressure, although it was the consistent, severe punching that did the damage.

Santa Cruz’s number two win was over Mijares, undoubtedly damaged goods, but still ranked. Santa Cruz couldn’t stop him, but what he did was in many ways worse: in a fight as different as that with Terrazas as could be imagined, he thrashed Mijares and rendered him a fistic irrelevance.

Santa Cruz was a very dangerous super-bantamweight.

03 – Carl Frampton

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 24-2 Ranked For: 35% of the decade

Carl Frampton slotted in right behind Santa Cruz at featherweight, but here he nips in just ahead of his great rival. A clash at 122lbs would have been helpful though – there is very little to separate them.

What does separate them is the additional work Frampton did at the very top of the division. He met no fewer than three top five contenders during his time fighting as Guillermo Rigondeaux’s understudy – the Cuban was champion throughout Frampton’s stay at the poundage – and soundly defeated all of them.

First up was Kiko Martinez, who Frampton had already defeated in a European title tussle but met again in 2014. Frampton, who probably entered his peak that night, couldn’t put the more experienced Martinez away as he had in their first fight but he did dominate almost completely with a healthy mix of jabs and bodyshots. Chris Avalos, who failed miserably when he moved up to featherweight but was a serious super-bantamweight, visited Frampton’s Belfast stronghold in 2015.  This was Frampton’s finest performance at the weight, his right hand excellent, despite the scruffy squabbling in the second his dominance near-complete.

Frampton’s final fight at 122lbs showed the toll weight-making was taking upon him. He was dominant over the first six against a reticent Scott Quigg, even breaking his jaw in the fourth, but the Englishman came on in the second half of the fight which was, in the end, very close.

Santa Cruz was more impressive in the victories he did have at 122lbs but it was Frampton, in the end, who scored the more numerous and more impressive victories.

02 – Nonito Donaire

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 18-5 Ranked For: 25% of the decade

The decade 2010-2019 produced two legitimate super-bantamweight champions and it is fitting that these two lead the pack. Nor is it close – there is so much clear blue water between Nonito Donaire at #2 and Carl Frampton at #3 that they may as well be on different lists.

Donaire stepped up to 122lbs in 2012 and immediately tackled a divisional strapholder, the number eight contender, Wilfredo Vazquez; after taking a decision form him over the twelve, it was Jeffrey Mathebula, the number six contender who towered over Donaire but nevertheless gave up a similar decision. This second fight is crucial because against both he and Vazquez it is possible to see Donaire over-reaching, under-boxing, pushing far too hard for the knockout which he openly demanded of himself in the press. In the tenth round of his fight with Mathebula, Donaire was so completely out-boxed that in the eleventh and twelfth he limited himself to his more direct sphere of influence and in doing so dominated Mathebula completely, cracking one of his teeth in the process. You could almost hear the penny drop.

I consider that Donaire found himself at 122lbs that night and the result was Donaire’s 118lb form suddenly materialising in the super-bantamweight division. His next fight was against no less a figure than Toshiaki Nishioka, the most accomplished fighter in the division, a meeting between the two best super-bantams in the world and so the beginning of a new lineage at the weight. Donaire was the absolute pinnacle of cool as far as his inherent aggression would allow; he won every round and devastated Nishioka in the ninth round of a non-competitive rout propelled by his right hand rather than left hook. When he butchered Jorge Arce two months later, in December of 2012, he had completed the single best unbroken run of the decade at 122lbs and one of the better runs at any weight.

This being boxing, the end of that run was just around the corner.

01 – Guillermo Rigondeaux

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 15-1 Ranked For: 92% of the decade

Donaire met with Cuban amateur legend Guillermo Rigondeaux in April of 2013 in a huge fight between the two best super-bantamweights in the world. It was also as one-sided as any top tier match of the decade as Rigondeaux, in absolute control for ten of the twelve rounds, picked Donaire’s wings off in a study of lethal economy.

Rigondeaux breaks rhythm. A combination of feints, very astute defensive dips and slips and single power-punches make establishment of offense against him agonising. Donaire, a fluid fighter who counter-pressures his opponents to the canvas, was particularly afflicted by the Rigondeaux malaise.  Rigondeaux threw infrequently; still he out-landed Donaire in every round but one.

The Cuban spent the years in which Donaire was tying together his superb 122lb run emerging from the pack and was just 6-0 when he tangled with number five contender Ricardo Cordoba. Rigondeaux dominated with ease until Cordoba snapped his head back with a jab, flashing him.  Rigondeaux responded in away entirely unacceptable to the American fight fraternity: he ran away.

Rigondeaux took a split decision and learned his final lesson: professional fighting in America calls for more fighting than amateur boxing does anywhere. Rico Ramos, then still unbeaten at 20-0, was the man to bear the brunt of this newly learned lesson as he was blasted to the canvas in the first round and tormented through the sixth when a body punch – and the better part of valour – kept him on the canvas.

So Rigondeaux was primed when he stepped into the ring with Donaire, for all that he was professionally inexperienced. Donaire was made to understand it and the litany of excuses he laid out after the fight – his shoulder was bad, he didn’t study his opponent, his was distracted by his wife’s pregnancy – could not disguise his out-and-out inferiority to Rigondeaux.

The argument as to who would be the decadal number one at 122lbs ended there, but there is more to recommend Rigondeaux as one of the longest serving lineal champions in boxing. In a division that sees fleeting commitment, even by its most prominent fighters, Rigondeaux’s devotion to super-bantamweight has been unusual.

He never became the superstar his management wanted to make him – too technical, too careful, too defensive – but there is no questioning his status as the best of the decade.

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Remembering “Doin’ Damage”

Ted Sares

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Remembering-Doin'-Damage

On June 3, 1997, Darroll “Doin’ Damage” Wilson met Courage “No Limit” Tshabalala at Philadelphia’s legendary Blue Horizon where no seat was a bad seat. The fight was a true Philly Classic, one of the most exciting fights of the year. The result was a surprise, but not as surprising as the upset that Darroll Wilson pulled off in March of the previous year when he fought the much bigger Shannon Briggs at the Convention Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Wilson vs. Briggs

Brooklynite Shannon Briggs (25-0) had achieved a reputation for being a guy who ended his fights early, as in first-round KO’s, but on this occasion, things kind of reversed themselves, as the gutsy Wilson (15-0-2 going in) survived a furious first round and then used his superior skills to shockingly take out “The Cannon” with a sharp left hook two rounds later.

Wilson, who lived close to Atlantic City in Mays Landing, N.J., had done considerable damage to his opponents until he met David Tua (24-0) in Miami and was KOd in the last second of an otherwise even first round by the streaking “Tuaman.” But losing to the short but super-powerful Tua was no disgrace. In fact, for Darroll, the best was yet to come.

 After beating limited Ron McCarthy, Darroll met the highly-touted Tshabalala (20-1). “Courage” had previously been shocked by Brian “Bam Bam” Scott (21-3) in the late Scott’s career definer in 1996, shattering the myth of the South African’s extraordinary power and alleged 72-1 amateur record (with 71 knockouts). Scott won using a fast and sharp combo, stopping him in the second round. Most of the 270-pound native of Kansas’s opponents had losing records which further amplified the shock factor– though Courage’s level of opposition was equally suspect.

Wilson vs Tshabalala (June 1997)

After Ed Darian Derian announced the fighters, the bell rang and Courage quickly decked Wilson with a power jab and then dictated matters for the rest of the round as he went on the stalk. The second round was uneventful until the last 15 seconds when Tshabalala opened up with a number of power shots. Wilson answered, but his answer came after the bell for which he received a firm warning.

Late in the third round, Wilson was hit clean by a perfect Courage right cross. He went down hard, got up, and then fell back down on Queer Street. Just as Referee Rudy Battle was about to signal the end of the fight, the round ended and Wilson was allowed to continue. Lou Duva, Courage’s manager, protested the call in his usual hyper/hysterical fashion but to no avail. Lou’s signature protests had acquired the feel of the little boy who cried wolf too often and this one was no exception.

Tshabalala came out fast in the next round trying to put away a still stunned Wilson, but the muscular Darroll did what he did against Briggs and, weathering the fierce storm, began to connect with his own shots. Both men went at it full-tilt boogie until the South African, exposing a stamina issue, finally went down, spit out his mouthpiece, and was counted out. He had nothing left. The Blue Horizon went bonkers.

Tshabalala had now participated in one of the upsets of the year and one of the most exciting fights of the year. Though a loser in both, he was nevertheless on everybody’s radar.

Bert Cooper (September 2002)

Darroll would go on to win some and lose some but against the very best opposition including David Izon, Frankie Swindell, Mike Rouse, Tim Witherspoon, Ray Mercer, and Oliver McCall. He ended his career in 2006 with a 27-10-2 slate and– before he took three years off–he scored another big win by stopping Bert Cooper (36-21) at the Blue Horizon in 2002. After this loss, Bert himself would take an eight-year hiatus from boxing, but for all practical purposes, he was done. (Cooper was a tragic figure with a deceptive record—a quintessentially sad boxing story– and the ups and downs of his life beg for a telling.)

As for Darroll Wilson, he always gave his best and on at least three occasions, he did some remarkable damage.

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com or on Facebook.

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Leo Upends Williams as Boxing Returns to ‘Showtime’

Arne K. Lang

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Showtime Boxing kicked off their late summer/fall season tonight with a three-fight card behind closed doors at the Mohegan Sun Casino Resort in Uncasville, CT. Tonight’s show is the first of nine live boxing events that the cable TV giant announced on July 22. The season will run through Dec. 12 with the concluding match a WBC bantamweight title bout between defending title-holder Nordine Oubaali and ageless showstopper Nonito Donaire.

Unfortunately for Showtime, there was a COVID-19 complication right out of the box. Philadelphia bantamweight Stephen Fulton, who would have been the “A” side in tonight’s main event, tested positive on Wednesday, forcing some shuffling. Tramaine Williams was bumped up from the co-feature to challenge Angelo Leo for the WBO world super bantamweight title vacated by Emanuel Navarette.

Angelo Leo hadn’t prepared for a southpaw and it took him a bit find his groove, but he found it and won a fairly lopsided decision over a previously undefeated opponent who was fighting in his home state. The scores were 117-111 and 118-110 twice.

Leo, 26, worked the body well and had more fuel in his tank as the bout progressed into the late rounds. In winning, Leo became the first world title-holder from Albuquerque since Johnny Tapia. Promoted by Floyd Mayweather’s “Money Team”, he advanced his record to 20-0. It was the first pro loss for New Haven’s Williams who fell to 19-1.

It figures that Leo will make his first defense against Stephen Fulton.

Other Bouts

In another 122-pound match that was also penciled in for 12 rounds, Ra’eese Aleem thoroughly outclassed late sub Marcus Bates en route to a 10th round stoppage. This was their second meeting and Bates, who entered the contest 11-1-1, was looking to avenge his lone defeat. In their initial go in Philadelphia in April of 2018, Aleem won comfortably on the scorecards. Bates recently explained that loss away by saying that he believed that someone tampered with his water bottle, giving Aleem an advantage.

Aleem, 30, steadily broke Bates down. The referee halted the one-sided match when Bates, who appeared to have sprained his right wrist, turned his back on Aleem after absorbing a hard left hook. Aleem, the pride of Muskegon, Michigan, improved to 17-0 with his 12th knockout.

In the opener, a light heavyweight match slated for 10 rounds, Houston’s Joseph George (11-0, 7 KOs) landed a bombshell of a left uppercut in the ninth frame to put away Marcos Escudero (10-2) who was well ahead on the scorecards when lightning struck.

This was a rematch. When they fought last November on ShoBox, Escudero outworked George, but George landed the crisper punches and prevailed on a split decision. Escudero, who is from Argentina but had his early pro fights in Florida, outworked George again (George likes to fight with his back against the ropes, a strategy he needs to reconsider) but as they say, it only takes one punch in this business, and Joseph George, who is managed by NFL all-pro tackle Trent Williams, brought the howitzer.

Photo credit: Amanda Westcott / Showtime

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