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This Week in Boxing History: New York’s ‘Night Mayor’ Emancipates the Sweet Science

Arne K. Lang

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Sunday, May 24, marked the centennial of an important date in boxing history. On that date in 1920, the Governor of New York, Al Smith, signed into law a boxing bill sponsored by Sen. Jimmy Walker. The law changed the face of professional boxing, not only in New York, but around the country as the Walker Law became the template for boxing reform laws elsewhere.

James John “Jimmy” Walker, born in 1881 on the west side of Lower Manhattan, served 15 years in the New York State Legislature but would be best remembered as New York City’s colorful Jazz Age mayor. Before we give the man a closer look-see, let’s look at the law that he fathered and the conditions that existed before the law came into being.

From 1911 through 1917, professional boxing in New York was governed by the Frawley Law. It restricted bouts to licensed athletic clubs, in theory to protect the public from fly-by-night promoters, set the ceiling at 10 rounds, and stipulated that no decision could be rendered.

Gov. Charles Whitman, who assumed office in 1915, loathed prizefighting. For Whitman, the last straw came on Jan. 30, 2017. On that date, a young boxer making his pro debut suffered a fatal injury on a card in Albany. That very afternoon, not far from the boxing arena, state’s attorneys had grilled Fred Wenck, the chairman of the state athletic commission, regarding accusations that he had taken kickbacks from boxing promoters in return for certain favors.

Whitman persuaded the legislators to repeal the Frawley Law. For a three-year period beginning in the fall of 2017, New York had no boxing law whatsoever. The absence of any law was construed to mean that a licensed athletic club could continue to stage “scientific sparring exhibitions” for the edification of its members providing that no admission was charged. Big fights had a trickle-down economic effect and swelled the state treasury with tax money. Whitman, a Republican, was reproached for corking that spout. In the 1918 election he was unseated by Al Smith, a Tammany Democrat.

The main feature of the Walker Law was that everyone involved in a boxing match — from the lowliest spit-bucket carrier to the promoter — had to be licensed. The licensees were accountable to the boxing commission which had the power to approve matches, assign the officials, establish and collect fees, and revoke the license of wrong-doers. Matches were approved up to 15 rounds and decisions were allowed. Two ringside judges determined the winner and if they disagreed, the referee would act as the tie-breaker. A 5 percent tax was assessed on gate receipts.

Gov. Smith (pictured on the right; Walker on the left) was fond of Jimmy Walker with whom he had much in common, but he was reluctant to approve the Walker Law for fear of incurring the wrath of the Protestant clergy. An ambitious man, Al Smith aspired to be America’s first Roman Catholic president (he was the Democratic standard-bearer in 1928) and needed all the help he could get. Smith had already ruffled the feathers of many clergymen by signing into law a bill that allowed New York’s baseball teams to play on Sundays. That measure was also the handiwork of Jimmy Walker.

The Walker Law found an unlikely ally in J. Drexel Biddle, an eccentric millionaire and ex-Marine of Quaker Stock who had founded an international Bible society with a purported 200,000 members. An avid boxing fan, Biddle — as the story goes — reached out to the leading members of his society and asked them to send a telegram to Gov. Smith encouraging him to approve Jimmy Walker’s bill. Swamped with telegrams, the Governor acquiesced. In the eyes of the cynics, the senders operated out of fear that Biddle would cut off their supply of free Bibles.

Jimmy Walker

When Jimmy Walker ran for mayor of New York in 1925, he was pitted against Frank Waterman, the fountain pen magnate. It was no contest. In the final tally, Walker won by a margin of 402,123 votes.

When he ran for a second term, his opponent was Fiorello LaGuardia.

Handicappers noted that LaGuardia had a lot more going for him. Born in New York City to Italian immigrants – a lapsed Catholic father and a Jewish mother — LaGuardia, nominally an Episcopalian, was married to a woman who was descended from a long line of German Lutherans. He was a balanced ticket all by himself said the wags, seemingly the perfect choice to represent the melting pot that was New York. But Walker blew him out of the water, winning by a plurality of nearly 500,000, a record up to that time. If this had been a 15-round fight, Jimmy Walker would have won every round. (LaGuardia rebounded nicely; they would name an airport after him.)

Like all great Irish politicians, Jimmy Walker had a remarkable facility for remembering names. He also had the soul of troubadour. Before making his mark in politics, he was a Tin Pan Alley songwriter with one big hit to his name. He wrote the lyrics to “Will You Love Me in December as You Do in May?”, which would have topped the charts, had there been charts, in 1906.

Growing up on the west side of Lower Manhattan, an Irish stronghold in his day, it was perhaps inevitable that Walker would become a big boxing fan. He also loved the theater. As mayor, he attended the opening of every Broadway play. Reporters dubbed him the “Night Mayor.” His chief lieutenant, a man named Charles Kerrigan, became the “Day Mayor.” Another of Walker’s nicknames was “Beau James,” an allusion to the British dandy Beau Brummel. All of Walker’s clothes, which filled several closets, were custom-made.

Walker was in great demand as a toastmaster and after-dinner speaker. In 1942, with the war heating up in Europe, Walker presented the Edward J. Neil Memorial Trophy to Joe Louis at the annual dinner of the Boxing Writers Association. The award was given to the person who “has done the most for boxing in the preceding year.”

“Joe,” said Walker, looking directly at the boxer, “when you donated your purse from the Buddy Baer fight to Army and Navy Relief, you laid a rose on the grave of Abraham Lincoln.”

There were a lot of hard-boiled characters at that gathering and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

On July 5, 1932, in his capacity as mayor, Walker officiated at the wedding of his great friend Damon Runyon and Runyon’s trophy bride, the exotic Spanish dancer Patrice Del Grande. The nuptials were held at the home of New York American sports editor Bill Frayne. Runyon, like Walker an inveterate night owl, and Frayne would later hook up with Broadway ticket broker Mike Jacobs, a fledgling boxing promoter, in the formation of the 20th Century Sporting Club, a clear conflict of interest.

Jimmy Walker, who was tight with the speakeasy crowd, was guilty of a lot of conflicts of interest during his tenure as mayor, far too many to touch upon in this story. It did not redound well to him that Madison Square Garden matchmakers James J. Johnston and Dan McKetrick had an office at City Hall.

The dirty laundry came out in the hearings of the Seabury Commission, a body established by Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Facing impeachment, Walker resigned and left town for an extended stay in Europe. He was accompanied by his mistress and future wife Betty Compton, a stunningly attractive actress and singer. They tied the knot in Cannes, France, on April 18, 1933. He was 52 years old and she was 29. It was his second marriage and her third.

She did not love him in December as she had in May. She divorced him after seven years of marriage.

When Walker returned from Europe, he was considerably lighter in the pocket. In a burst of compassion, Fiorello LaGuardia, his successor, created a sinecure for him, a job as an arbitrator of disputes between garment manufacturers and their unionized workers. It paid $20,000 a year, good money in those days but hardly enough to allow Walker to keep up appearances. During his mayoral years, he purchased an impressive 6,500-square-foot home in the tony Long Island suburb of Old Westbury, a place that he hardly ever occupied. After Betty Compton flew the coop, he moved in with his sister and her two sons in a home in a middle class neighborhood in Pleasantville, New York, 30 miles north of the city. As for going out on the town, he limited himself to the Friday Night Fights at Madison Square Garden and a late dinner afterward with a few old friends.

He and Betty Compton had adopted two children, little babies when they brought them into their world. As Walker grew older and started having health problems, it bothered him greatly that he would not be able to leave them an inheritance. He reached out to Gene Fowler, a friend of long standing, and arranged for Fowler to write his life story with an eye toward selling it to Hollywood; for a writer, that’s where the big money was. Fowler had previously written a biography of the famous actor John Barrymore.

The biography was titled “Beau James” and it did indeed spawn a movie. Bob Hope, in a rare straight role, portrayed Walker. But Walker died before the manuscript was finished.

It isn’t a stretch to compare the arc of Jimmy Walker’s life with that of a prizefighter. He built up his fan base as a state legislator, similar to a boxer working his way up the ladder to a title shot. His days as a title-holder, meaning his days as the mayor of one of the greatest cities in the world, were frothy days that would seemingly never end. But, of course, they did end and, in his dotage, like an old fighter, Walker rued that he hadn’t squirreled away more of his money when things were going good.

Walker died on Nov. 16, 1946 at age 65 of a brain aneurism after being in a coma for 36 hours. At his funeral service, a high requiem mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, the sidewalk outside was jammed with people for whom there was no room in the church. Estimates ran as high as 5,000. A reporter noted the presence of several old Irish women with tears in their eyes clutching rosary beads.

The man they remembered was the dashing fellow that personified the spirit of Broadway in the Roaring 20’s, not the man that left office in disgrace and became another symbol of municipal corruption. And in that way too, the arc of Walker’s life was like that of a prizefighter. As we grow older, the good memories come flooding back and we forgive the sports heroes of our youth for letting us down as their careers unravelled.

There was always a lag before a new piece of legislation took effect. Signed into law on May 24, the Walker Boxing Law took effect on Sept. 1, 1920. James J. “Jimmy” Walker was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the class of 1992.

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Brandon Adams Bursts Bohachuk’s Bubble in Puerto Rico

Arne K. Lang

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Brandon Adams Bursts Bohachuk’s Bubble in Puerto Rico

Ring City USA, a new promotional entity, debuted on Nov. 19, 2020 with a show staged in the parking lot of Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, CA. Ring City stayed outdoors for their first offering of 2021, but the company was a long ways from California. Tonight’s card was staged on a roundabout near a municipal gym in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.

The headline attraction was an attractive match between junior middleweights Serhii Bohachuk and Brandon Adams. The bout was originally set for Dec. 3, but had to be pushed back when Bohachuk tested positive for the coronavirus.

Bohachuk, a 25-year-old California-based Ukrainian, had stopped all 18 of his previous opponents. He had never gone past six rounds. Brandon Adams, a former world title challenger, represented a step up in class.

Bohachuk was well on his way to winning a unanimous decision when the tide turned dramatically in round eight. Fighting on a slick canvas, Adams suddenly found a new gear, unloading a series of punches climaxed by a thunderous left hook as Bohachuk retreated. The Ukrainian beat the count, but was teetering on unsteady legs and the referee properly called a halt.

Adams was without his regular trainer, 80-year-old Dub Huntley, who remained back in LA as a health precaution. In winning, he elevated his records to 23-3 (15). It was his best performance since defeating Shane Mosley Jr in the finals of Season 5 of the “Contender” series.

In the co-feature, an 8-round featherweight contest, Puerto Rico’s Bryan Chevalier improved to 15-1-1 (12) with a third-round stoppage of Peru’s Carlos Zambrano (26-2). Chevalier scored two knockdowns, the first a sweeping left hook that appeared to land behind Zambrano’s head, and the second a punch to the liver that left Zambrano in severe distress. The referee waived the fight off in mid-count.

The official time was 2:21. Chevalier, a tall featherweight (5’11”) made a very impressive showing; he bears watching. This was Zambrano’s first fight since April of 2017 when he was knocked out in the opening round by Claudio Marrero in a bout for the WBA interim featherweight title.

The TV opener was an entertaining fight between contrasting styles that produced a weird conclusion when Danielito Zorrilla was awarded a technical decision over Ruslan Madiyev. The bout was stopped at the 1:16 mark of round eight after Zorrilla sank to his knees after absorbing a punch to the back of the head. The ringside physician examined him for evidence of a concussion, but ultimately it was Zorrilla’s choice as to whether the bout would continue. He declined and was reportedly taken to a hospital for observation.

Madiyev, a California-based Kazahk, was the aggressor. He fought the fight in Zorilla’s grill, often bullying him against the ropes. In round five, he had a point deducted for hitting behind the head, squandering what was arguably his best round.

The fight went to the scorecards with Zorrilla winning a split decision (77-74, 77-75, 73-76), thereby remaining undefeated: 15-0 (12). Ironically, Madiyev (13-2, 5 KOs), suffered his previous loss in a similar fashion.

Madiyev’s new trainer Joel Diaz reportedly discouraged his charge from taking this fight for fear that he wouldn’t get a fair shake in Puerto Rico. Diaz’s apprehensions were well-founded.

Photo credit: Tom Hogan / Ring City USA

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Book Review

Ed Odeven’s New Book Pays Homage to Sports Journalist Jerry Izenberg

Rick Assad

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It’s one thing to get to the top, but it’s something else entirely to remain there for more than half a century. Jerry Izenberg, longtime sports columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger, now semi-retired and living in Henderson, Nevada, has done just that.

Izenberg is the subject of Ed Odeven’s book, “Going 15 Rounds With Jerry Izenberg,” which was released New Year’s Eve and is available at amazon.com.

“By all accounts, he should be recognized as one of the greatest American sports columnists,” said Odeven, a 1999 graduate of Arizona State University who has lived in Japan since July 2006 and is the sports editor for the website Japan Forward. “A versatile professional, he was equally skilled at writing books and magazine articles and producing sports documentaries and crafting essays for the groundbreaking ‘Sports Extra’ television program on Channel 5 in New York in the 1970s.”

Odeven went on: “Jerry has seen everything and been seemingly everywhere. He brought gravitas to the newspaper sports section with decades of sustained excellence.”

During a seven-decade career in sports journalism, the 90-year-old Izenberg, found time to write 15 non-fiction books and one novel. His affinity for the manly sport is reflected in his 2017 book, “Once There Were Giants: The Golden Age Of Heavyweight Boxing.”

“From the 1950s to the present day [including recent years’ coverage of Tyson Fury and Manny Pacquiao, for instance, Izenberg has shined in his boxing coverage,” Odeven said. “You can’t ignore his remembrance pieces on fighters and boxing personalities across the decades [such as a terrific column on the late Leon Spinks in which he weaved a tapestry of the fighter’s life and his family’s struggles into a powerful piece], either.”

One of Izenberg’s favorite topics is Muhammad Ali.

“Izenberg first observed the great fighter’s infectious personality, popularity and boxing talent on display at the 1960 Rome Olympics,” Odeven said. “Cassius Clay was unlike any other famous pugilist in those days and for the rest of his life.”

Odeven spoke about the support Ali received from Izenberg: “When very few were publicly taking a stand to support Ali, Izenberg wrote columns that defended his right to fight. He took the boxing establishment to task for stripping Ali of his titles even while Ali’s case was making its way through the courts – and ultimately the United States Supreme Court.”

Izenberg, a graduate of Rutgers University who covered the first 53 Super Bowls, and Ali were close. “As friends, they were around each other in all corners of the earth,” Odeven said. “They shared highs and lows during periods of personal and professional success and disappointment.”

Here’s Jerry Izenberg talking about Ali’s humanity: “I was a single father and when my children came to live with me, they were very nervous. I took them to Deer Lake [Pennsylvania] for a television show I was filming as an advance to the Foreman-Ali fight. After the filming, knowing my situation, (Ali) took my son aside and put his arm around him and said, “Robert, you have come to live with a great man. Listen to him and you will grow to be a great man just like him.

“On the way up my daughter, who was seven, had said, ‘I hope Foreman beats him up because he brags too much and you always told me to not brag.’ “I told her, ‘you are seven and you have nothing to brag about. Both of these men are my friends. When you get there, keep your mouth shut.’ When we were packing up the equipment, he saw her in the back of the room and hollered, ‘come up here little girl. You with the braids.’ She was convinced I had ratted her out about what she said and tried her best to melt into the wall because she was frightened. As she walked toward him, she lost the power of speech and mumbled. He was 6-3 and she was 4-5. He grabbed her and held her over his head. ‘Is that man your daddy?’ All she could do was nod. ‘Don’t you lie to me little girl, look at him,’ and he pointed at me. ‘That man is ugly…ugly. You are beautiful, now gimme a kiss.’ On the way home she said, ‘I hope Muhammad can win,’ and I said, ‘you are just like the rest of them. The only difference is your age.’ He was one of my five best friends. When he died, I cried.”

Odeven offered his slant on why Izenberg was at home at major boxing events: “It was clear that Jerry was in a comfort zone on the week of a big fight, writing the stories that set the stage for the mano a mano encounter and the follow-up commentary that defined what happened and what it meant.”

Izenberg, noted Odeven, had worked under the legendary Stanley Woodward, as had Red Smith and Roger Kahn, among others, the latter most well-known for having penned the baseball classic, “The Boys Of Summer.” Many insist that Woodward, who read the classics, was the greatest sports editor.

Woodward, Odenven believes, helped shape Izenberg’s world outlook. “Izenberg became keenly aware of this human drama at its rawest form that existed in boxing,” he said, noting that in decades past the public was captivated by the big fights. “Examples, of course, include the first and third Ali-Frazier bouts and The Rumble In The Jungle [against Foreman]. Let’s not forget they were cultural touchstones.”

Referencing the third installment of Ali-Frazier in Manila, Izenberg said, “I’ve probably seen thousands of fights, but I never saw one when both fighters were exhausted and just wouldn’t quit…My scorecard had Ali ahead by one which meant if Joe knocked him down in the 15th, he would have won on my card. But there was no 15th because Joe’s trainer, Eddie Futch, ordered the gloves cut off after the 14th.

“At the finish, Ali collapsed. Later as Ali walked slowly up the aisle supported by his seconds, he leaned over toward the New York Times’ Dave Anderson and me and said through puffy lips, ‘Fellas. That’s the closest you will ever see to death.’”

Izenberg remembered his lead: “Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier did not fight for the WBC heavyweight title last night,” he wrote. “They did not fight for the heavyweight championship of the planet. They could have fought in a telephone booth on a melting ice flow. They were fighting for the championship of each other and for me that still isn’t settled.”

What makes Izenberg relevant even today? “His canvas was the global sports landscape and he explored the human condition in each of his columns in some way,” Odeven stated. “He recognized what made a good story and sought out individuals and topics that fit that description – and he still does.

“You could read a random stack of columns about any number of topics from the 1960s or ’90s and be enlightened and entertained at the same time…He has always had a razor- sharp eye for details that illuminate a column and a source’s words to give it added verve.” Moreover, added Odeven, Izenberg had a never-wavering commitment to championing a just cause: “Speaking out against racism and religious bigotry, he gave a voice to the voiceless or those often ignored.”

Note: Jerry Izenberg was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the Observer category in 2015.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 126: Viva Puerto Rico, Claressa Shields, Canelo and More

David A. Avila

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 126: Viva Puerto Rico, Claressa Shields, Canelo and More

In the age of Covid-19 fights get canceled and re-arranged and that’s found here in this second attempt to stage Serhii Bohachuk versus Brandon Adams in a super welterweight showdown.

This pairing was first talked about back when the Dodgers and Lakers both won world championships last October. Finally, it’s ready to cast off.

Beautiful Puerto Rico will be the locale for Bohachuk (18-0, 18 KOs) when he meets Adams (22-3, 14 KOs) on Thursday March 4, at Felix Pintor Gym in Guaynabo. NBC Sports Network will televise the Ring City USA fight card.

“Flaco” Bohachuk has rampaged through the super welterweight division like a ravenous Ukrainian version of Pacman. Who can stop him?

Adams has fought the better competition including a world title match against Jermall Charlo that he lost by decision less than two years ago.

Other factors exist.

Bohachuk was formally trained by Abel Sanchez in Big Bear Mountain but now works with Manny Robles at sea level. Will it make a difference when he trades blows against the smaller but seemingly stronger Adams?

“We’re taking this fight seriously against Adams,” said Robles who has trained numerous world champions including Oscar Valdez and Andy Ruiz. “Adams is a very strong fighter.”

Bohachuk last fought deep in the heart of Mexico and emerged with a stoppage that saw him scrap with little-known but tough-as-nails Alejandro Davila. Both landed serious stuff but Bohachuk just had more firepower.

Adams says he has seen firepower like Bohachuk’s before. He went toe-to-toe with Charlo for the WBC middleweight title and never touched the canvas. He’s smaller but more muscular and has fought taller guys most of his career.

This is one of those fights that used to be held at the Olympic Auditorium back in the day. Ironically, there is a documentary that has just been released about those days before it was closed to boxing in 2005.

Added note: Fernando Vargas Jr. will also engage on the fight card. The son of “El Feroz,” Fernando Vargas Jr. fights out of Las Vegas and will be in his second pro fight as a super middleweight.

Women’s pay-per-view

An all-women fight card led by Claressa Shields takes place on Friday March 5. It will be streamed by FITE.tv beginning at 6 p.m. PT. Price is $29.99.

Shields (10-0) faces her toughest foe yet when she steps in the boxing ring against Canada’s undefeated Marie Eve Dicaire (17-0) for the undisputed super welterweight world championship.

Dicaire is a tall southpaw with speed and agility who has defeated several world champions.

Shields is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and former undisputed middleweight world champion and super middleweight titlist who dropped down two weight divisions to pursue this venture.

Also, just added is Marlen Esparza, a USA Olympic bronze medalist, and current flyweight contender.

Esparza (8-1) agreed to fight on the pay-per-view card and meets Shelly Barnett (4-3-2) in a six-round bout set for the super flyweight division. Her last fight took place in October and she handed talented Sulem Urbina her first loss as a pro.

Barnett is a Canadian veteran of nine pro fights including an eight-round battle with Florida’s Rosalinda Rodriguez.

Rumor has it that Esparza is getting prepared for a showdown with Mexico’s Ibeth “La Roca” Zamora for the WBC flyweight world title later in the spring.

It’s a pretty good pay-per-view card that also features Danielle Perkins, Logan Holler and Jamie Mitchell in competitive fights. If you haven’t seen women fights, take a look. Shields alone can astonish with her fighting skills.

Canelo

That redhead from Mexico continues to decimate the competition whether its from England, Turkey or Russia. Line them up and let them fly.

Saul “Canelo” Alvarez holds the WBA and WBC super middleweight world titles and was forced to fight the number one contender Avni Yildirim and promptly stomped him out like a bug on the rug.

Fans get upset. They don’t understand that ratings exist and with four or five sanctioning organizations all having different standings, a fighter like Alvarez who has two titles is forced to fight fighters ranked number one through 10. But it’s just a part of boxing that has to be done.

Alvarez had already skipped Yildirim before to fight Callum Smith for the WBA title which he won by unanimous decision. Now he will be meeting another Brit in Billy Joe Saunders who has the WBO version of the super middleweight title. It will take place on May 8, most likely in Las Vegas. That’s Cinco de Mayo weekend. Las Vegas needs the bank. Once again it depends on the Covid-19 situation.

Off topic, Canelo recently had an exchange with Claressa Shields who posted on social media that the Mexican redhead is one of her favorite fighters. She likes working on technique and posted one of her workouts where she is hitting a heavy bag with a combination that she saw Canelo use.

Canelo saw it and gave her a few tips. Champion to champion. That was kind of cool.

Farewell to L.A. Favorite

Featherweight contender Danny Valdez passed away on Sunday February 28 in Los Angeles. He was 81.

Valdez held the California Featherweight title when the state championship was not easy to gain. He also vied for the world title against Davey Moore in April 1961 in Los Angeles.

Many of his battles took place at the vaunted Olympic Auditorium where he fought the likes of Gil Cadilli and Sugar Ramos. Back in those days there was no better place to fight than the Olympic. But Valdez did engage in battles at Wrigley Field and the Hollywood Legion Stadium too.

Though Valdez fought up and down the West Coast in Oregon and California, he primarily battled at the Olympic Auditorium, a total of 24 times in all. If you ever watched a boxing card at the Olympic, it was a magical place.

Fights to Watch

(All Times are Pacific Time)

Thurs. 6 p.m. NBC Sports Network Serhii Bohachuk (18-0) vs Brandon Adams (22-3)

Fri. 6 p.m. FITE.tv.  Claressa Shields (10-0) vs Marie Eve Dicaire (17-0); Marlen Esparza (8-1) vs Shelly Barnett (4-3-2); Logan Holler (9-0-1) vs Schemelle Baldwin (3-1-2); Danielle Perkins (2-0) vs Monika Harrison (2-1-1); Jamie Mitchell (5-0-2) vs Noemi Bosques (12-15-3).

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