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Rest in Peace, Curtis Cokes

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Curtis Cokes was born in 1937 into a world of segregation, competing with his seven siblings for the attention of his parents, dreaming of baseball.  There is even a story, reported in the Dallas Observer that Curtis nearly made it, that he missed out on a career as a professional baseball player by a narrow margin, returned, from Florida to Texas, and somehow found himself a fighter.

Curtis had no amateur career, although he appears to have been put through his paces in a local YMCA as a teenager.  For a black man in Texas in the 1940s making amateur contests was, according to Curtis himself, challenging, so he cut out the middle-man and turned professional, first lacing up for pay aged twenty.

“I just picked it up watching fights on TV,” he told the Cyber Boxing Zone in 2013.  “I picked up and copied everything I saw. I would even tie my boxing shoes the way I saw Ezzard Charles do it.”

Just like he saw Ezzard Charles do it.  He would be welterweight world champion within a decade.

Watching Curtis box, you can see the Charles influence.  He had the same deceptive languid, looseness to his technique, a sense that he was rested when he was anything but, a pleasing fluidity to his work that makes a fighter look natural.  My favourite of his readily available filmed performances was his fifth round knockout of Willie Ludick in what was his fourth title defence; the attempted counter-uppercut he throws at forty seconds of the first round is a mirror of the punches Ezzard Charles threw at a befuddled Pat Valentino all those years earlier and just like Charles did to Valentino, Cokes steadily broke Ludick into pieces, technically outclassing, then thrashing him.  The orthodox right hand was the classic version of the killing punch.

This was a punch he perfected under the tutelage of Robert Smith, alias Cornbread, a fighter who learned his trade in smokehouses and carnivals before a black champion could even be named a common theme, a fighter who learned the importance of not being hit and not being hurt by the punches with which he was hit, something he imparted to young Curtis while he was styling that right hand.

That right hand and his unerring, shuttering left were what would bring him the welterweight championship but what most fascinates about Curtis’s career is that the man against whom he turned professional, Manuel Gonzalez, was also the man with whom he would contest that title, eight years and five fights spanning their rivalry.  Curtis won four of them and on the final, fateful night when Curtis would etch his name on the same historical page as Ray Robinson and Ray Leonard, he won unequivocally, splattering his nemesis with a heavy right hand in the twelfth for a four and then a standing eight count.  Curtis followed up but he had to wait for the decision to lift the gold.  This was typical of his approach.  He was a professional.

Cokes

Cokes circa 1965

There was some static surrounding the contest which had been one-sided and less than electric and which was the result of a tournament that had excluded some of the era’s top contenders.  For Curtis, though, the main objection was the absence of Cornbread in his corner.

“I don’t know what I would have done without him,” he said of his mentor, postfight, “he always said I’d win the title.  Too bad he couldn’t see it.  He’s dead.  He was with me anyway.”

Curtis though, was very much alive, and he would go on to defend his title on five separate occasions, all the way through until 1969 when the great Jose Napoles found him.

Before he had even come to the title, however, Curtis had rendered himself immortal in a series of fights with the great Cuban, Luis Rodriguez.  Rodriguez, who is famed now as much as anything for his series of fights with the great Emile Griffith, was arguably unbeaten in those contests but he couldn’t live with Curtis.  The two met in three titanic contests in the sixties and Curtis emerged with the best of it, finally stopping the Cuban in the fifteenth round of their third contest.

“I beat him pretty bad,” Curtis said of their first fight, “I had him down and earned me a PHD.”

Curtis lost the second fight but had his opponent’s number by the time of their third fight, slowing him down with a body attack and taking away his legs, much to the chagrin of Angelo Dundee who was training Rodriguez.  This superstar pairing meant nothing to Curtis who “turned tiger” in the fourteenth round and “resumed the assault in the fifteenth” (Associated Press) prompting the superstar trainer’s signal of surrender on behalf of his superstar charge.

Curtis was never a superstar.  He was underrated then, starting as an underdog, and he’s underrated now, often appearing below Rodriguez on modern-day welterweight all-time great lists, if he appears on them at all.

He flirted with stardom himself upon retirement though, appearing in the superb fistic movie “Fat City”, playing his non-fistic part with the same understated excellence with which he fought his fistic career before returning to Dallas and opening a boxing gym with an eye on keeping kids off the streets and out of trouble.

“I started out wanting to be world champion and I accomplished that,” he told Mike Silver in 2014. “I’m in the Hall of Fame. I retired from boxing because it was time for me to go. Nobody took advantage of me. Before I became a pro I attended college for two years. I had a good education. I knew how to take care of myself. I knew how to count my money too. I didn’t need a manager to count my money to me. I counted out my money to him.”

The rare glory in that should not be underestimated.

His death of natural causes this Friday at the age of eight-two has been predictably under-reported.  I suspect it may not have displeased him.

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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