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Avila Perspective, Chap. 93: Best of Prizefighting

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 93: Best of Prizefighting

Boxing powers are suggesting a return could be imminent but minus the clatter and chatter of a live audience. The threat of death by virus still looms large.

No fans allowed.

Television and streaming devices pay for the bulk of major prize fight confrontations so promotion companies like Top Rank, UFC, and Matchroom Boxing are considering a return next month, but minus the fans.

It got me thinking.

Though the actual combat participants may or may not be affected, whether its boxing or MMA the audience or fans will truly be missing a major reason they love prizefighting.

Watching a prize fight live in person just cannot be beat by any other sport. Though I love baseball, basketball, football and soccer without the flopping, when it comes to watching a world championship fight those other sports take a back seat.

Over the years I’ve witnessed some incredible feats in person. Watching fights on television is fine, but watching in person I’ve witnessed remarkable displays of physical talent that stand out. Here are some of the things I’ve seen:

Fastest Combinations with Power

Manny Pacquiao, Roy Jones Jr. Oscar De La Hoya

Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao could reel off a powerful combination faster than most people could think. He did it against Marco Antonio Barrera and then did it again. There are a lot of fighters that have fast hands, but few could muster up a fast combination with power behind it. Pacman could. Today, not so much, but when he began mowing down the featherweight division it was something to behold. He seemed like a freak of nature.

Roy Jones Jr. could hit you with a lightning combination as could Oscar De La Hoya in their primes. Any one of their lightning blows could result in seeing another fighter unconscious.

Fastest Feet

Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson, Roy Jones Jr., Guillermo Rigondeaux

When Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson dominated the flyweights, he was near impossible to hit. He would dart in and out quicker than anyone I have ever seen. If he didn’t want someone to hit him, they could not hit him. But he did occasionally take some chances or else everyone in the audience would have fallen asleep from boredom. In his prime, he was untouchable.

Roy Jones Jr. was pretty fast on his feet too. What makes Jones special was he did it in the light heavyweight division for years. When those legs got older and heavier is when the competition finally caught up to Roy Jones. I still remember when he fought the late Julio Gonzalez at the Staples Center and though 10 feet away Jones covered the 10 feet distance in the blink of an eye and connected with a left hook. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Cuba’s Guillermo Rigondeaux also has very quick feet and deserves honorable mention.

Best Left Hook

Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad, Mike Tyson

It was a sound I’ll never forget when Oscar De La Hoya connected with a left hook to the jaw of Rafael Ruelas in their lightweight unification battle in Las Vegas on May 6, 1995. It sounded like a bazooka blast. De La Hoya could unleash a left hook so potent and seemingly from any angle. When he knocked out Oba Carr that blow was almost invisible and left the talented fighter unable to defend himself. But that knockout against Ruelas when they met outdoors at Caesars Palace remains the single loudest punch I’ve ever heard in person. That sound remains vivid in my memory.

Puerto Rico’s Felix Trinidad also possessed a lethal left hook and it was fully loaded when he dropped and stopped David Reid outdoors at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

“Iron” Mike Tyson also had one heck of a left hook too. I only saw Tyson fight once live and witnessed his speed and power when he eliminated Orlin Norris when they met in Las Vegas. He was a human tornado.

Best Right Cross

Floyd Mayweather, Roy Jones Jr. Juan Manuel Marquez

Floyd Mayweather rarely knocked out opponents after he entered the welterweight division, but in his super featherweight and lightweight days that lightning quick right cross was deadly. Nobody throws a more perfect right cross than Mayweather. It is short, concise and undetectable. It’s also one of the hardest punches to land when the opposition knows it’s coming. Yet, Mayweather could land the right cross better than anyone I’ve ever seen. Just look at his knockdowns of Diego Corrales when they fought.

Roy Jones Jr. was cat-quick with his right cross, but needed his legs to deliver it. Because of his overall quickness, he was able to deliver a right cross from across the ring.

Juan Manuel Marquez had his right cross cocked and loaded at all times as he showed against Manny Pacquiao in their last fight that ended in knockout.

Best Uppercut

Vernon Forrest, Randall Bailey, Nonito Donaire

The late, great Vernon Forrest had one of the best uppercuts I’ve ever seen and when he delivered it the opponent was usually out. He caught Shane Mosley with that uppercut and almost turned out his lights. Forrest was a technically perfect fighter and his uppercut was a thing of beauty.

Randall Bailey was able to win world titles years apart thanks to his power punching. But when things got nasty Bailey could end the fight quickly via the uppercut. He won his first world title in 1999 against Carlos “Bolillo” Gonzalez by knockout. Lost the title in 2000 and kept his place in line via the uppercut until he regained a world title in 2012 against Mike Jones in Las Vegas.

Nonito Donaire had lightning in both fists but his uppercut was a thing of beauty. You never saw the punch coming. Whether his knockout win over Vic Darchinyan was a true uppercut or a slightly tilted left hook is debatable. But the uppercut he dropped Fernando Montiel in a world title unification battle in February 2011 was scary good. That was an uppercut to remember.

Best in the Pocket Defensive Fighters

James Toney, Winky Wright, Paulie Ayala, Floyd Mayweather

James “Lights Out” Toney was a master at fighting in close distance and making an opponent miss. Watch his fight against Evander Holyfield and be amazed. Or take a look at his fights against Mike McCallum or Iran Barkley. Amazing stuff. His defense is why I consider him the greatest fighter in the last 60 years. And his offense is not shabby either. He could write a master thesis on the subject.

Winky Wright often gets overlooked but if you need proof watch him disable Felix Trinidad’s offensive tools round by round when they fought. Wright might be one of the most under-rated fighters of all time. Nobody had an easy fight against Winky. Nobody.

Paulie Ayala is another who gets overlooked because he fought in close. But he could catch and parry with the best of them. Recently, Showtime televised some of his fights and it was a revelation. He could fight toe-to-toe and come out looking fresh as a daisy. Even CompuBox stats were bamboozled by his abilities to block, catch and slip. They seldom got the numbers right when Ayala fought.

Best Counter Punchers

Floyd Mayweather, James Toney, Juan Manuel Marquez

All three of these fighters are so equal in talent especially when it comes to counter-punching. Mayweather, Toney and Marquez could be lumped into one when it comes to delivering counter blows effectively.

All three of these fighters mentioned had so many examples that it’s needless to point out any single fight. My favorite of Mayweather was his single punch knockout of Ricky Hatton on Sept. 8, 2007. That night thousands of Brits invaded Las Vegas and saw Mayweather deliver his counter-punching magic.

Toney introduced his counter-punching skills to the boxing world when he knocked out the speedy Michael Nunn in May 1991. He brought back a surgical fighting style used by Ezzard Charles, or Jersey Joe Walcott, and dumped many a bigger man using his  counter-punching style throughout his career.

Mexico’s Marquez was another counter-punching master. He showed that speed is good, but timing is everything.

Best Chins

James Toney, Vitali Klitschko, Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather, Shane Mosley

These fighters, all now retired, displayed chins made of granite during their careers. I vouch for all five of these retired fighters who absorbed some of the biggest blows and remained standing.

Klitschko, for example, took tremendous punishment when he fought Lennox Lewis in Los Angeles. He was tougher than his brother who was the technician. Vitali had one heck of a chin.

Toney was a middleweight fighting heavyweights when he finally retired. He never came close to hitting the floor.

De La Hoya began at super featherweight and showed his chin could withstand middleweight power. Mayweather also began at super featherweight and even super welterweights could not knock him out.

Mosley was another who fought incredible wars and remained standing despite fighting killers like Miguel Cotto, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, Fernando Vargas and De La Hoya.

Best Jabs

Floyd Mayweather, Joe Calzaghe, Oscar De La Hoya, Vernon Forrest

All four of these fighters could win a fight by merely using his jab. Mayweather, in particular, did it on several occasions. De La Hoya could split an opponent’s eye open with his jab. Forrest was one of the best and could have posed a big problem for smaller welterweights like Mayweather had he lived. We will never know. Calzaghe could fire off a four-jab combination jab like a machine gun. The guy retired undefeated because of his jab. So did Mayweather.

Best Body Punchers

Marco Antonio Barrera, James Toney, Julio Cesar Chavez

I’m starting with Barrera because I saw him fight in person many more times than I saw Chavez. But, of course, Chavez was a master of the body shot or the “gancho.”

Barrera stopped two world champions, Johnny Tapia and Paulie Ayala, with body shots that still send shivers down my spine. If you have ever been hit with a good body shot you will never forget the pain. The Mexico City assassin was as good a body puncher as I’ve ever seen.

I only saw Chavez fight a few times live and he was not the young destroyer that used his body attack to render his opponents helpless.

Toney showcased his skills, especially when he broke down the bigger Evander Holyfield and defeated the gladiator by knockout via the body shots. Those body blows were fearsome and enabled the much smaller Toney to invade and defeat bigger competition throughout his Hall of Fame career.

Most Flamboyant

Prince Naseem Hamed, Jorge Paez, Hector Camacho Jr.

Who can forget Prince Hamed descending into the boxing ring dangling from a steel line at the MGM when he fought Marco Antonio Barrera. The speedy Brit was probably the most flamboyant fighter to ever come out of Europe. And he was as quick with the word as he was with his fists.

Jorge Paez, “El Maromero,” was the king of flamboyant when he fought and often to the point of distraction. More than once he fought in a dress. But the boxer from Mexicali, Mexico was a world champion. He could truly fight and was quite a character.

Hector Camacho Jr. once arrived to fight on top of a camel. I don’t think his pops did that.

Smartest Fighters

Ricardo Lopez, Bernard Hopkins, Joe Calzaghe, Floyd Mayweather

When it comes to intelligence these guys reign supreme. The quickest at analyzing and dissecting an opponent in my estimation was the little guy Ricardo “Finito” Lopez. The Mexican minimum and light flyweight world champion had a variety of moves and flinches that would open up an opponent’s defense. Once he figured it out, that guy was gone in an instant.

Perhaps the most spectacular was his one punch knockout over Thailand’s Anucha Phothong (Ratanapol Sor Vorapin) at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas on Dec. 2, 2000. Both were two feet apart and frozen when Lopez fired a crisp uppercut and down went Phothong for a knockout loss. It was so quick and effortless that it left the audience amazed and dumbfounded. I asked one world champion what he thought happened and he said “the other guy blinked.” I felt that was a good enough answer.

Lopez never lost a fight and retired undefeated.

Talk about smart fighters, Bernard Hopkins and Joe Calzaghe were two of the smartest fighters to ever meet. They used every trick in the book against each other when they fought in 2008 in Las Vegas. It was like watching two warlocks cast spells on each other and sometimes it was difficult to decipher. But the busier fighter Calzaghe won by split decision and eventually retired undefeated. Hopkins was just getting started. He would fight for the light heavyweight world title and win when the odds were against him. According to odds makers Hopkins was not supposed to beat Kelly Pavlik, Roy Jones Jr., Jean Pascal, Tavoris Cloud, or Antonio Tarver.

Then of course there is Mayweather. The Las Vegas fighter who began at super featherweight used his ring intellect to win world titles and become the richest fighter in the history of the sport. He figured out what he wanted to do and then used it to perfection such as his dominant signature wins over Manny Pacquiao and Ricky Hatton. They don’t come smarter than Mayweather who like Calzaghe and Lopez retired undefeated.

Fights to Watch

Showtime Boxing will be televising Lucas Matthysse versus John Molina on Friday, April 24. They are also televising John Molina versus Mickey Bey. Both were interesting slam bang affairs that displayed Molina’s willingness to take a shot to give a shot. Great stuff.

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel 

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Boxing Odds and Ends: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

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Boxing fans in Australia are still buzzing over Jai Opetaia’s gritty, title-winning effort on Saturday, July 2. Opetaia overcome significant adversity to wrest the IBF and lineal world cruiserweight title from Mairis Briedis in a pulsating and bloody battle in Broadbeach, Queensland.

A two-time finalist in the World Boxing Super Series, Mairis Briedis was widely regarded as the sport’s best cruiserweight. His lone defeat prior to Saturday was a narrow setback at the hands of Oleksandr Usyk.

It was plain at the end of the fight that Opetaia had suffered a broken jaw. The words coming out of his mouth during the short, post-fight interview were unintelligible. However, it was worse than assumed. An x-ray showed that the jaw was actually broken in two places and that the fractures were on both sides of the mandible. The first break occurred in round two and the second in round 11.

“Opetaia would have to be considered the toughest fighter on the planet after continuing on from round two with one side of his jaw broken, then the other side broken late in the fight and still winning rounds against a vicious puncher in Briedis,” Opetaia’s promoter Dean Lonergan told Sky Sports.

Opetaia turned 27 two days before the fight. The match transpired exactly five years to the day from Jeff Horn’s massive upset of Manny Pacquiao in Brisbane.

Briedis was a consensus 11/5 favorite, but there was plenty of money on the undefeated (21-0, 17 KOs) Opetaia who represented Australia in the 2012 Olympics at the age of 16, making him the youngest Aussie boxer to ever compete in an Olympiad.

Opetaia will reportedly need at least three months to recover before he can resume sparring. As for what is next for him, speculation has centered on a pair of undefeated Brits – Richard Riakporhe and Lawrence Okolie. Riakporhe is the highest-rated contender in the IBF rankings; Okolie owns the WBO cruiserweight belt.

Opetaia would be favored over Riakporhe, but not over Okolie. However, at six-foot-five and with an 82 ½-inch reach, Okolie is poised to join the heavyweight ranks and may not be willing to wait around for a unification fight.

A rematch with Briedis is also a possibility. The decision in Opetaia’s favor, although unanimous (115-113, 116-112 x2), was far from clear-cut. Had the fight been held on Briedis’s turf in Latvia, the decision would have likely gone the other way.

To Briedis’s credit, he offered not a whimper of protest when the decision was read and went to Opetaia’s dressing room to congratulate him before leaving the arena.

Zolani Tete

He’s back

On Nov. 18, 2017, Zolani Tete stopped Siboniso Gonya with a KO that went viral. If you choose to check it out — it’s still up there on youtube — don’t blink. The entire fight, which ended with Gonya flat on his back, unconscious, lasted all of 11 seconds. A world bantamweight title was at stake and the one-punch knockout stands as the fastest stoppage in world championship boxing history.

Three fights later, on Nov. 20, 2019, Tete was stopped in three rounds by John Riel Casimero. Prior to this fight, he had been forced to pull out of his scheduled match with Nonito Donaire in the semifinals of the World Boxing Super Series because of a shoulder injury.

Tete was out of action for 25 months after the Casimero defeat. He returned to the ring in December of last year in Johannesburg in his homeland of South Africa for a tune-up fight in which he blasted out his overmatched opponent in the opening round. This past Saturday, he resurfaced in London and resurrected his flagging career in a super bantamweight contest for the British Commonwealth title.

Tete was pit against Jason Cunningham, a Doncaster man riding a seven-fight winning streak. On paper it was a competitive match, but Cunningham was out of his element. Tete controlled the first three rounds with his jab and then brought the heavy artillery. It was all over at the 0:34 mark of round four.

At age 34, it would appear that Tete still has a lot of mileage left in him. There was a time when people were salivating over the thought of a match between him and Naoya Inoue. That match may well come to fruition, but not likely anytime soon. A match between Tete and WBO 122-pound title-holder Stephen Fulton is no less intriguing and may well happen within the next 12 months.

Looking Ahead

The boxing slate over the Fourth of July weekend was rather soft – there was nothing of consequence on American soil – and this coming weekend is also skimpy.

Saturday’s heavyweight match In London between 41-year-old Kubrat Pulev (29-2, 14 KOs) and 38-year-old Derek Chisora (32-12, 23 KOs) doesn’t get the juices flowing. They fought six years ago in Hamburg, Germany, and although the decision favoring Pulev was split, that was only because of a head-scratching scorecard. The Bulgarian controlled the fight which wasn’t particularly entertaining.

The co-feature between super welterweights Israil Madrimov (8-0, 6 KOs) and Michel Soro (35-3-1, 24 KOs) is also a rematch. The talented Madrimov, who has never fought a pro fight scheduled for less than 10 rounds, won the first meeting on a controversial stoppage. The Spanish referee did not hear the bell ending the ninth frame and stopped the bout well after the bell had sounded. The match was held on Madrimov’s turf in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

The WBA, which sanctioned the bout as a final eliminator for Jermell Charlo’s 154-pound title, let the result stand but ordered an immediate rematch.

Looking further down the road, the Sept. 10 card at London’s O2 Arena shapes up as a lively affair. The women take center stage with a pair of title unification bouts. WBC/WBA/IBF world middleweight champion Claressa Shields (12-0, 2 KOs) meets WBO title-holder Savannah Marshall (12-0, 10 KOs) in the featured bout. Marshall, who hails from the English port city of Hartlepool and had her first pro fight in Las Vegas under the Mayweather Promotions banner, is the only person to defeat Claressa Shields in a boxing ring, accomplishing the feat in 2012 at an amateur tournament in China.

Shields has out-classed all of her professional opponents — has she even lost a round? – and it’s odd to find her in the role of an underdog, but Marshall, who packs a bigger punch, is currently a small favorite. No odds have yet been posted on the co-feature, a 130-pound title unification fight between Americans Mikaela Mayer (17-0, 5 KOs) and Alycia Baumgardner (12-1, 7 KOs), but on paper this will be Mayer’s toughest fight.

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When Boxing Was Big on the Fourth of July: A TSS Classic

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We’re going way back, but there was a time when the Fourth of July was a big day for boxing in the U.S. The high-water mark, according to BoxRec, was set in 1922 when there were 67 shows spread across 27 states. In that year, the holiday fell on a Tuesday.

Two of the most historically significant fights were staged on the Fourth of July. In 1910, in a fight that “marinated” for almost five years, Jack Johnson successfully defended his world heavyweight title at the expense of former champion James J. Jeffries. Measured by the amount of newsprint expended on this story as it developed, Johnson vs. Jeffries was the biggest single-day sporting event in the history of man. In 1919, Jack Dempsey dethroned Johnson’s conqueror Jess Willard, the first big bang in the Golden Era of Sports. And although it didn’t move the needle, how appropriate in hindsight that Joe Louis began his pro career on the Fourth of July.

During the early years of the 20th century, promoters often hitched their events to other events – county fairs, carnivals, race meets, national conventions of fraternal organizations, and so forth. One might call these festival fights. The 1931 show in Reno featuring Max Baer and Paulino Uzcudun was an example. It was, in many ways, the quintessential Fourth of July boxing show, a window into western Americana.

In 1931, Reno (the “Biggest Little City in the World”) was home to about 20,000 people. Twice that number swarmed into Reno on that year’s Fourth of July. “Special trains by the score, automobiles by the hundreds and airplanes by the dozen poured into the famous divorce metropolis from the Pacific Coast. From the sandy wastes of Nevada came prospectors on burros, cowboys on horseback and ranchers in buckboard wagons,” said the correspondent for the United Press.

The race meet was in progress and there were sundry other activities arranged to make the day special, but the big shebang was the prizefight.

The spearheads of the promotion, Bill Graham and James McKay, owned the Bank Club, Reno’s biggest casino. Business was booming now that Nevada had legalized gambling, not that it made much difference in Reno where gambling was wide-open before the new law took effect.

Graham and McKay had made their fortunes running gambling saloons in Nevada mining towns and could afford to commit big dollars to the promotion. They brought in the great ring announcer Dan Tobey from Los Angeles (520 miles away) to serve as the master of ceremonies — Tobey was the Michael Buffer of his day — but their big coup was getting Jack Dempsey involved. Dempsey was retired, having last fought in 1927, but the Manassa Mauler was still a towering personality and his involvement ensured good national newspaper coverage. For advertising purposes, he was named the actual promoter, the makeshift wooden stadium erected in the infield of the thoroughbred track was named for him, and he would serve as the bout’s referee.

At this stage of their respective careers, Max Baer and Paulino Uzcudun were borderline journeymen. Baer’s best days were ahead of him, but he had lost three of his last five. Uzcudun had lost four of his last seven beginning with a 15-round setback to Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium. But Baer was still recognized as a man with a pulverizing punch and the pairing was smart from a geographical perspective. Baer had cultivated a strong following in northern California, Reno’s primary tourist market. Uzcudun, who had his early fights in Paris, hailed from the Basque region of Spain.

The Reno area was home to many people of Basque descent, and Uzcudun, nicknamed the Basque Woodchopper, had a ready-made fan base. It was 11 pm on June 4 when Uzcudun arrived in Reno on the Southern Pacific to set up his training quarters, but despite the late hour, thousands were reportedly at the rail terminal waiting to greet him.

Baer arrived a few days later. It was customary in those days for the headliners in a big show outside a major metropolis to arrive in the host city several weeks before the event. They held public workouts and were squired around town to press the flesh to goose the gate.

With the city about to be inundated by a great throng, the Chamber of Commerce undertook a campaign to discourage price-gouging. The District Attorney cautioned homeowners renting beds to visitors to exercise caution when accepting checks, “particularly checks drawn on banks in other cities.” Those that came by rail and could afford a berth in a Pullman car brought their own hotel rooms. The Pullmans were diverted to a side track where they sat until the excursionists were ready to leave.

There was never a dull moment in Reno, a place where gambling houses operated around the clock. Reporters had plenty to write about besides the big fight. The cantankerous mayor, E.E. Roberts, was quite a character. To boost tourism, he “advocated placing a barrel of corn whiskey on every corner of the city with a dipper attached and a sign directing all favorably inclined to drink as much as they pleased.” Prohibition was still in effect and this didn’t sit well with federal prohibition agents. On June 30, the day prior to the start of the racing meet and four days before the big fight, agents from the San Francisco office descended on the city, raiding 19 saloons and arresting 37 people for violating the Volstead Act. By most accounts, this barely dented the city’s saloon industry.

The Fight

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Although no title was at stake, the bout — billed as the “Battle of the Sagebrush” — was scheduled for 20 rounds. It was a messy affair fought on a sweltering day where the temperature at ringside climbed into the mid-90s. “On occasion they butted like goats,” said a ringside reporter.

The match, which lasted the full distance, struck some reporters as vicious and others as rather tame – there were no knockdowns — but on two matters everyone agreed: it was a closely contested contest and both Baer and Uzcudun exhibited great stamina. By and large, Baer landed the cleaner punches but Uzcudun, who had a famously awkward style, a peek-a-boo defense grafted to a low crouch, stubbornly pressed the action and was commended for his tenacity.

At the end of the 19th round, referee Dempsey, the sole arbiter, leaned over to a group of reporters and told them that he would award the fight to the man that had the best of it in the final round. That proved to be the Basque Woodchopper, who had attracted most of the bets in the betting shed built adjacent to the arena.

The attendance was listed at 18,000, but it would be reported that only 9,260 paid. Looking back 10 years later, an attendee recalled that “gatecrashers by the hundreds swarmed over the racetrack fences and infiltrated from all angles. There just weren’t enough cops, ushers, and guards to handle them.”

The promoters reportedly lost money, but the visitors must have been good spenders because Dempsey was back in Reno with another Fourth of July prizefight the following year. The 1932 promotion, pitting Max Baer against King Levinsky in the main event, was a big disappointment, playing out in a half-empty stadium, but at least those in attendance could say that they got to see a future heavyweight champion in action. Not quite two years later, Baer massacred Primo Carnera at an outdoor arena in Queens, igniting a short- lived title reign. (Rising heavyweight contender Joe Louis would subsequently defeat all three of the Reno headliners, knocking out Levinsky, Baer, and Uzcudun, in that order, in consecutive bouts.)

Reno’s second “Battle of the Sagebrush” was a would-be extravaganza that fell flat, the fate of most holiday festival fights, a development that the late, great sportswriter John Lardner attributed to “chuckleheaded boosterism.”

That’s a story for another day. In the meantime, here’s wishing everyone a Happy Fourth of July.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a reprint of a story that ran on these pages on July 2, 2018.

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Arne K. Lang’s latest book, titled “George Dixon, Terry McGovern and the Culture of Boxing in America, 1890-1910,” will shortly roll off the press. The book, published by McFarland, can be pre-ordered directly from the publisher (https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/clashof-the-little-giants) or via Amazon.

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The Hauser Report: The ESPY Awards and Boxing

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The annual ESPY Awards are a celebration of sports and the role that they play in American society. Jim Valvano, who was dying of cancer, energized the first ESPYs telecast in 1993 with his powerful message, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” The ESPYs have gotten bigger since then. They’re now a mainstream cultural happening. But for knowledgeable boxing fans, their credibility just took a hit.

The ESPYs are (in ESPN’s words) about “celebrating major sports achievements, remembering unforgettable moments, and honoring the leading performers and performances” of the preceding twelve months. On June 28, ESPN announced the nominees for the 2022 ESPY awards. The winners will be revealed during a July 20 telecast. Most of the nominees were well-chosen. But the nominees for “best boxer” appear to have been chosen with an eye toward promoting fighters aligned with ESPN rather than “celebrating major sports achievements, remembering unforgettable moments, and honoring the leading performers and performances” of the past twelve months.

The ESPY nominees for “best boxer” are Tyson Fury, Katie Taylor, Shakur Stevenson, and Mikaela Mayer. In other sports (such as soccer, basketball, golf, and tennis), the ESPYs have separate categories for male and female athletes. Rafael Nadal doesn’t compete against Emma Raducanu at Wimbledon or in the ESPY balloting. So, it’s unclear why Tyson Fury should compete against Katie Taylor.

The ESPY’s tilt toward boxers who are aligned with ESPN is more troubling. Fury and Taylor belong on the ballot. During the preceding year, Fury knocked out Deontay Wilder and Dillian Whyte, while Taylor decisioned Jennifer Han, Firuza Sharipova, and Amanda Serrano. The historic nature of Taylor-Serrano validates Katie’s inclusion.

But Stevenson and Mayer are a stretch. Both of them have promotional contracts with Top Rank which has an exclusive licensing agreement with ESPN. During the preceding year, Stevenson beat Jamel Herring and Oscar Valdez. Those were nice wins but hardly remarkable. Mayer’s ESPY credentials are limited to decisions over Maiva Hamadouche and Jennifer Han.

Why isn’t Oleksandr Usyk (who dethroned Anthony Joshua) on the ballot? What about Terence Crawford (KO 10 over Shawn Porter) and Dmitry Bivol (whose victories included a unanimous-decision triumph over Canelo Alvarez)?

Hint: Usyk and Bivol are currently aligned with DAZN. And Crawford has signaled his intention to leave Top-Rank-slash-ESPN to pursue a unification bout against Errol Spence on Showtime-PPV or Fox-PPV.

If Netflix hosted the Oscars and stacked the ballot with Netflix programming, it would be comparable to the ESPY’s handling of this year’s “best boxer” award.

When the ESPY nominations were announced, I reached out to ESPN for comment. Initially, I asked, “What is the process by which the four nominees for ‘best boxer’ were chosen?”

Speaking on background, an ESPN publicist responded, “Nominees are chosen by a mix of ESPN editors, executives and show producers.”

“On background” means that a reporter may quote the source directly and may describe the source by his or her position but may not attribute the statements to the source by name.

I followed up by asking, “How many people choose the nominees and what are the criteria for choosing them?” There was no response.

I’m also curious to know the identity of the “editors, executives and show producers” who selected the ESPY nominees. Did knowledgeable ESPN boxing people like Tim Bradley and Mark Kriegel have a significant voice? I think not. Here, I should note that ESPN analyst Andre Ward is also knowledgeable about boxing. I omitted his name from this paragraph because, given Ward’s ties to Shakur Stevenson, he probably shouldn’t participate in the nominating process.

In recent years, boxing fans have grown accustomed to boxing telecasts on all networks being as much about hype as honest commentary. The 2022 ESPY nominations for “best boxer” are about ESPN hyping its own fighters and advancing its own economic interests.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Broken Dreams: 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. In 2019, he was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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