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What is the True Mark of Greatness in Boxing?

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What is the True Mark of Greatness in Boxing?

By Special Correspondent Darren Martindale — Is it about mesmerising opponents with dazzling displays of defensive genius? Is it reducing them to rubble with devastating punching power? Is it having the guts to overcome adversity – getting off the floor to win, finding a way to triumph against an opponent of equal talent, or landing that last-round haymaker when trailing on the scorecards?

Greatness can contain any, or all, of the above. But there’s something else. It’s a precious ingredient that can define someone – not only as a fighter, but as a human being. It can either ruin or revitalise a career, especially when the stakes are high, and yet it’s just as critical to a novice amateur as it is to a world champion.

It is knowing how to lose.

Very few quality world champions have managed to retire undefeated. Heavyweight icon Rocky Marciano is one oft-cited example. In more recent years, Welshman Joe Calzaghe became another paid-up member of that exclusive club. Sooner or later, however, almost all the greats are beaten.

How they come back from that defeat often defines the merely ‘good’ from the genuinely ‘great’.

Can a fighter turn a loss into a learning experience? Are they able to come back stronger, smarter and with a renewed focus, like Lennox Lewis following his upset stoppage by Oliver McCall in 1994? After that shock, Lewis went soul-searching, switched trainers to Manny Steward and returned a better, more mature fighter. He easily dispatched McCall in their rematch.

Or, are they psychologically damaged, their confidence and aura ruined along with their unbeaten record, as American Jeff ‘Left Hook’ Lacy seemed to be after Calzaghe outclassed, dominated and destroyed him in ripping away his IBF Super Middleweight  title?

The reaction to a loss can be particularly telling in the early stages – when the fighter’s response is instinctive, their emotions raw. It offers a fascinating insight into their character, intelligence and motivation. It can reflect where they’ve been prior to the loss and which way they’re likely to go after it. Here is how the days and weeks that follow a prize fight can be as revealing, and sometimes as entertaining, as what went on between the ropes.

We’ve seen two big-name boxers taste defeat in recent months, then display fantastically differing reactions to it. One showed us everything that is pure and good about this sport that we love. The other revealed, perhaps, rather too much about what’s wrong with it.

Nobody would consider Deontay Wilder’s destruction at the hands of Tyson Fury, in February 2020, as anything less than traumatic for the banger from Alabama. Fury out-jabbed him. Then he out-punched him. Then he mauled, manhandled and bludgeoned him until Wilder’s treasured WBC heavyweight title belt fell off his shell-shocked frame. It was a defeat so complete that Wilder must have wondered whether he’d disappeared down a wormhole and then popped back up in some parallel universe where, instead of a feared, undefeated world champion, he was some hapless journeyman getting paid to be crucified by this grinning, taunting, shaven-skulled giant.

Yet, even with all that considered, the now ex-champ’s excuses, following his mugging by the self-styled ‘Gypsy King’, ranged from the ludicrous to the outright embarrassing.

Wilder couldn’t seem to make up his mind about who, or what, to blame. One moment, it was his cornerman’s fault for pulling him out too early. Then, it was his bicep, which was apparently torn during the bout and had him feeling ‘like a zombie’. At times, Wilder had us wondering whether he’d paid an impersonator to fight Fury for him:

“He [Fury] knows that wasn’t me. I know that wasn’t me. Everyone knows that wasn’t the real Deontay Wilder…”

The greatest howler of all, however, was Wilder blaming his defeat on his elaborate ring walk costume. Reportedly weighing about 40 pounds, this crushing burden had drained his legs of all their strength (“my legs were just shot all the way through”). Unfortunately, with its mask, gown, tinselly crown and glowing red eyes, the outfit also made the ‘Bronze Bronzer’ look like a Transformer that had got all dressed up for the Christmas party – and gone way over the top.

wilder

I like Wilder. Although his comments, in the past, have swerved in tone from pure class to the totally crass, you instinctively feel that he’s a good guy. I’d like to think he’s a great father to his many children, and that’s a far more important job than being a boxer.

What really stuck in the craw of the boxing establishment, however, was that this man – who had once slammed an opponent, Bermane Stiverne, for making excuses after Wilder had beaten him (“nobody wants to hear an excuse once you lose. When you lose, you lose. Deal with it.”) – refused to recognise the legitimacy of Fury’s win and his status as a unified champion. It was as if this reversal was entirely unconnected with the shovel-sized fists of Fury, and had everything to do with everything else.

Dumb move, Deontay.

According to the Swiss psychologist Kubler-Ross, there are 5 stages in the process of coping with grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. While it’s not a bereavement, it is reasonable to see the removal of Wilder’s hard-earned champion status and unbeaten record as a crushing loss for him. Parallels might be drawn with George Foreman’s reaction after his 1973 knockout at the hallowed hands of Muhammad Ali, in the iconic ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. Foreman has since reflected that he felt he’d lost, not only his unbeaten record and world heavyweight title, but also part of himself as a man.  It took Big George years to recover.

Wilder is clearly stuck at the same stage of anger and denial. How he moves toward ‘acceptance’, what he learns about himself and how he rebuilds, is likely to determine his ultimate place in history.

In stark contrast, let’s look again at the World Boxing Super Series final, in November 2019, when Naoya Inoue and Nonito Donaire staged 12 rounds of beautiful brutality to determine who was the best bantamweight on the planet.

Inoue’s nickname is terrifyingly simple – and simply terrifying: ‘The Monster’. A rising star in the ‘pound for pound’ rankings, the unbeaten Japanese knockout artist had dispatched his quarter and semi-final opponents in a grand total of five minutes and 29 seconds. Donaire, while a former ‘pound-for-pounder’ himself, now had several losses to his name. Ten years Inoue’s senior at 36, the ‘Filipino Flash’ was generally considered lucky to have reached the final. The scene was set for a classic ‘passing of the torch’ finale, with Donaire swept aside and Inoue assuming his rightful place as WBA and IBF kingpin and the division’s undisputed leading man.

The players opened the drama as might be expected, with Donaire pressing forward behind a high guard, targeting Inoue’s body with sweeping hooks. The seasoned veteran was playing the long game; looking to patiently wear down the young pretender. Inoue played his part with a more swashbuckling style; flashing jabs with his low-held left, then slamming in hooks or dropping right hand bombs over the top.

If Inoue hadn’t realised he was in for a tough night by the end of the first round, it certainly registered in the second. Donaire decided he’d dispense with the script and crashed in a left hook which ripped open the flesh over Inoue’s right eye. Inoue later reported that the punch had fractured his orbital bone and that he suffered double vision for the remainder of the fight. One can only imagine what it looks like to be attacked by two Nonito Donaires.

An orbital fracture is a serious injury – it has led to stoppages, retirements, and fighters losing their eyesight in the past. Inoue simply shrugged it off and battled on for 10 more gruelling rounds.

Indeed, he controlled most of them, but every minute was a dour struggle for both men. Hurt in the fifth, Donaire clawed his way back then rocked Inoue with a booming right in the ninth. Yet, the pendulum would swing again as Inoue floored his opponent with a perfectly-placed left hook to the liver in the penultimate round. Somehow, the ‘Filipino Flash’ survived both this and the furious onslaught that followed.

When the bell finally rang to end a torrid twelfth, the pair fell into each other’s arms, drained but jubilant.

The post-fight hug is surely one of the most beautiful, bizarre, mystifying and life-affirming factors in the crazy sport of boxing. It is a moment of tacit recognition, between exhausted rivals, that they have found, bared and shared parts of themselves that very few people will ever need – or wish – to explore.

Yet there were, at first, interesting differences in the body language of the conqueror and the conquered. Donaire gripped his rival tightly around the shoulders and held him to his chest, like a loving father welcoming a prodigal son, while Inoue’s grip was slightly looser, and he was the first to break away. He knew he’d won, and he was the star with the glittering future. He had one eye on the ring that he stood in, but the other was peering toward the horizon where future rings, battles and conquests awaited.

The nuances told us that this episode had meant more to Donaire, in a sense, than it had to his opponent. It could have been his last hurrah, after all, and he’d made his statement – he’d gone down proudly and with all guns blazing. He would not be brushed aside. The titles were Inoue’s, but the night belonged to Donaire.

Moments later, the victor walked over to Donaire’s corner to, again, offer his commiserations and thanks for the broken eye. This time he knelt before Nonito, who slid off his stool to meet him, and they embraced again. The now ex-champion almost seemed to be consoling Inoue, tenderly cradling his head, as if it were the younger fighter who had lost.

The image of two proud, unbelievably tough warriors embracing on their knees, in a palpable expression of gratitude and respect, will live long in the memories of anyone privileged enough to witness it.

Later, there was one final scene to this heroic drama. Inoue loaned his former foe the WBSS trophy so that Donaire could fulfil a promise to his sons – that they would see it in the morning (Donaire: “And with tears in my eyes, I humbly asked Inoue to borrow it for a night, not for me but for my word”). A video of the hooded ex-champ, consoling his distraught sons with the huge golden trophy, is another memorable image in a story that’s studded with them.

Indeed, Donaire framed his defeat as a ‘life lesson’ for his boys (take note, Mr Wilder): “You will win. You will lose. But in either aspect you will do so graciously.”

This was a fighter showing his class. This was how to accept a defeat and grow from it. This was a true mark of greatness.

About the Author: Darren Martindale is a senior manager in education in the UK, and an ex-teacher, and moonlights as a freelance writer. When he’s not writing about education, he indulges his passion as a lifelong boxing fanatic. Once the world returns to a semblance of normality, he will resume training for a White Collar boxing bout, which he’s also writing a story about…watch this space! 

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel 

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Mbilli Stays Unbeaten: Outpoints Gongora in a Bruising Tiff

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Camille Estephan’s “Eye of the Tiger” promotions returned to the Montreal Casino tonight with an 8-bout card capped by an intriguing match between super middleweights Christian Mbilli and Carlos Gongora, both former Olympians.

The Cameroon-born Mbilli (pictured on the left) represented France in the 2016 Rio Games. He was undefeated (23-0, 16 KOs) coming in and ranked #2 by the WBA. The Massachusetts-based Gongora, a two-time Olympian for his native Ecuador, brought a 23-1 (16) record, his lone defeat coming on the road in Manchester, England, to currently undefeated Lerrone Richards.

When the smoke cleared, Mbilli won a unanimous decision, but the scores (99-91, 98-92, and 97-93) were misleading as this was an entertaining fight and the granite-chinned Gondora, a southpaw, was always a threat to turn the tide with his signature punch, a left uppercut. In fact, he may have landed the best punch of the fight when he hurt Mbilli in the opening minute of the eighth round. But the muscular Mbilli shook off the cobwebs and stormed back, dominating the final minute of the eighth and then finishing strong, nearly forcing a stoppage with a non-stop assault in the final frame.

Mbilli would love to fight the winner of Saturday’s tiff between David Benavidez and Caleb Plant, but that’s not likely to happen. A more likely scenario finds Mbilli opposing fellow unbeaten Vladimir Shishkin, the Detroit-based Russian.

Co-Feature

Simon Kean, a six-foot-five, 250-pound heavyweight from Three Rivers, Quebec, advanced to 23-1 (22 KOs) with a seventh-round stoppage of 40-year-old warhorse Eric Molina (29-9).

Both were tentative during most of the match. The end came rather suddenly when Kean knocked Molina down with an overhand right after landing a good left hook. The punch did not appear to land flush, but Molina was swaying as he made it to his feet and the referee called it off.

It was not a particularly impressive performance by Kean. Molina, a special education teacher in the Rio Grande Valley community of Edinburg, Texas, hinted before the bout that this would be his final fight. That would be a sensible idea. He has been stopped six times in his last 10 outings and nine times overall.

Also

In a 10-round bout contested at 140 pounds, Calgary veteran Steve Claggett improved to 34-7-2 (24) with a TKO over Mexican import Rafael Guzman Lugo (26-3-2) whose corner pulled him out after seven frames. This was a good action fight fought at close quarters, albeit Claggett was clearly in control when the bout was halted.

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A Conversation About Boxing with Author and Journalist Steve Marantz

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If you ask former sportswriter Steve Marantz when was boxing’s Golden Age, he’s quick with a response.

His answer just so happens to coincide with the period when he was on the beat as a boxing columnist for the Boston Globe (1979-1987).

“You could argue that boxing has had a few Golden Ages, but yes, that was an exciting and memorable era,” said Marantz, who sat ringside for many legendary matches. “The round-robin bouts amongst [Ray] Leonard, [Marvin] Hagler, [Thomas] Hearns and [Roberto] Duran, certainly was a major element.”

Those four legends are important but other weight division kings also played an integral role in boxing’s global popularity.

“Let’s not forget [Aaron] Pryor, [Alexis] Arguello, [Julio Cesar] Chavez, [Salvador] Sanchez, [Hector] Camacho, [Wilfredo] Gomez, Michael Spinks, [Dwight Muhammad] Qawi, [Donald] Curry, [Mike] Tyson and [Evander] Holyfield,” Marantz offered. “The key was competitive balance in most of the divisions.”

Marantz began his journalism career in 1973 at the Kansas City Star after graduating from the University of Missouri. After leaving the Globe, he worked for the Boston Herald (1999-2004) and ESPN (2004-2016). Nowadays, in addition to freelance writing for publications such as the Jewish Journal of Greater Boston, he produces the podcast “Championship Stories.”

Marantz recalled one particular moment that stood out while covering boxing and it happened at Aaron Pryor’s training camp.

“I have a vivid memory of his workout before he fought Arguello in Miami, November 1982. He had a hot funk song on the speakers, “You Dropped A Bomb On Me,” and as it played, loudly, he shadow-boxed to its beat and lyrics,” he recalled. “A rope was stretched across the gym, four feet off the floor, and Pryor moved along the rope, ducking under and back, gloves flashing. He was hypnotized by the music, in a trance. Hypnotized me, too. A moment that made boxing so cool to cover.”

That classic matchup at the famed Orange Bowl was halted in the 14th round with Pryor winning by technical knockout.

Anyone at Caesars Palace on April 15, 1985, knows what happened over roughly eight minutes of hot action when Hagler and Hearns tangled. It was nonstop punches from both participants.

“Hagler and Hearns fought as if possessed,” recalled Marantz of that showdown. “The stark final image [for me] was that of Hearns, now helpless, semiconscious, looking very like a black Christ taken from the cross, in the arms of a solemn aide.

“Hagler’s pent-up bitterness found release in a violent attack, even as each crack of Hearns’ gloves reinforced a lifetime of slights. In the end, Hearns was martyred to absolve Hagler of victimization. The first round is legendary, among the most vicious and splendid ever fought on the big fight stage. Action accelerated so quickly that spectators were left breathless. Punches windmilled into a blur, though the actual count was 82 punches for Hagler and 83 for Hearns, about three times that of a typical round.”

While that fight has blended into boxing folklore, a 1976 Olympic gold medal winner from Palmer Park, Maryland, was the epitome of true greatness for Steve Marantz.

“The way Sugar Ray Leonard maneuvered [Roberto] Duran to ‘No Mas’ in their rematch was brilliant. His grit and toughness beat Hearns, one of the great fights of the 1980s. And he beat Hagler with brains and psychology. Not to overlook his win over [Wilfred] Benitez in 1979. He was gorgeous to watch, stylish and rhythmic. His combinations were a blur. And he strategized like a chess master. Smooth and cooperative in interviews, always aware of the marketing and promotional necessities. Leonard was the gold standard.”

Marantz re-visited the Hagler-Leonard fight and the drama that surrounded it in “Sorcery at Caesars: Sugar Ray’s Marvelous Fight,” first released in 2008 and now available as an eBook.

Boxing’s been called the cruelest and the most unforgiving sport, but it’s also filled with high drama.

“It’s a test of athleticism, intelligence, grit and character. At its best, it’s dramatic and unpredictable, exciting,” Marantz said of the fight game. “A rich history of iconic personalities and events. Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, for example. A window into history bigger than just sport, a window into popular culture and politics.”

Marantz fondly recalls some of the characters he met while covering the sweet science: “Promoters Don King and Bob Arum, both conniving quotable snakes. Trainer Ray Arcel, in his 80s, a pillar of honesty and integrity. Emanuel Steward and Prentiss Byrd, running the Kronk Gym as a beacon of light and hope in Detroit’s blighted inner city. In Brockton, Massachusetts, two Italian-American brothers, Goody and Pat Petronelli, formed a sacred trust with an African- American boxer, Marvin Hagler.”

Marantz went on: “On my first newspaper job with the Kansas City Times/Star, I met a kindly trainer, Peyton Sher, who welcomed me into his gym and taught me the basics,” he said. “Never will forget Daeshik Seo, the Korean therapist for Larry Holmes who two weeks before the Holmes-[Gerry] Cooney fight in June 1982, tipped me to a story that a member of Holmes’ entourage pulled a pistol on Cooney’s entourage at Caesars Palace. Caesars top brass had to call Holmes on the carpet to get his people under control. Holmes was incensed at the story. In his media session after he won, he said I wrote it because I was [expletive] … and that I worked in a racist city, Boston.”

Marantz has never been put off by the seedy elements of the sport. “I don’t feel polarized by it.,” he says. “Nobody is forced to box. Nobody is forced to watch it. The world has bigger problems than boxing.”

Marantz has fond memories of the people he met and the friendships he made while covering boxing. Does he miss not being rinigside? “Not really,” he says. “My time came and went. Journalism and life took me in other directions. I do have some nostalgia for that era, and for the people who were part of it.”

Having been around the sweet science for a spell, Marantz offered sage advice to anyone inclined to mix it up: “Be disciplined, work hard, find a good trainer, learn the subtleties, read the tea leaves and don’t be pig-headed.”

Actually, all of those traits are always handy, even if one doesn’t step into the ring.

You can read more about Steve Marantz at his website: www.stevemarantz.com

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Mercito Gesta Victorious Over Jojo Diaz at the Long Beach Pyramid

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LONG BEACH, CA.-Those in the know knew Mercito Gesta and Jojo Diaz would be a fight to watch and they delivered.

Gesta emerged the winner in a super lightweight clash between southpaws that saw the judges favor his busier style over Diaz’s body attack and bigger shots and win by split decision on Saturday.

Despite losing the main event because the star was overweight, Gesta (34-3-3, 17 KOs) used an outside method of tactic to edge past former world champion Diaz (32-4-1, 15 KOs) in front of more than 5,000 fans at the Pyramid.

The speedy Gesta opened up the fight with combination punching up and down against the peek-a-boo style of Diaz. For the first two rounds the San Diego fighter overwhelmed Diaz though none of the blows were impactful.

In the third round Diaz finally began unloading his own combinations and displaying the fast hands that helped him win world titles in two divisions. Gesta seemed stunned by the blows, but his chin held up. The counter right hook was Diaz’s best weapon and snapped Gesta’s head back several times.

Gesta regained control in the fifth round after absorbing big blows from Diaz. He seemed to get angry that he was hurt and opened up with even more blows to send Diaz backpedaling.

Diaz targeted his attack to Gesta’s body and that seemed to slow down Gesta. But only for a round.

From the seventh until the 10th each fighter tried to impose their style with Gesta opening up with fast flurries and Diaz using right hooks to connect with solid shots. They continued their method of attack until the final bell. All that mattered was what the judges preferred.

After 10 rounds one judge saw Diaz the winner 97-93 but two others saw Gesta the winner 99-91, 98-92. It was a close and interesting fight.

“I was expecting nothing. I was the victor in this fight and we gave a good fight,” said Gesta. “It’s not an easy fight and Jojo gave his best.”

Diaz was surprised by the outcome but accepted the verdict.

Everything was going good. I thought I was landing good body shots,” said Diaz. “I was pretty comfortable.”

Other Bouts

Mexico’s Oscar Duarte (25-1-1, 20 KOs) knocked out Chicago’s Alex Martin (18-5, 6 KOs) with a counter right hand after dropping him earlier in the fourth round. The super lightweight fight was stopped at 1:14 of the round.

A battle between undefeated super welterweights saw Florida’s Eric Tudor (8-0, 6 KOs) emerge the winner by unanimous decision after eight rounds versus Oakland’s Damoni Cato-Cain.

The taller Tudor showed polished skill and was not bothered by a large cut on his forehead caused by an accidental clash of heads. He used his jab and lead rights to defuse the attacks of the quick-fisted southpaw Cato-Cain. The judges scored the fight 80-72 and 78-74 twice for Tudor.

San Diego’s Jorge Chavez (5-0, 4 KOs) needed less than one round to figure out Nicaragua’s Bryan Perez (12-17-1, 11 KOs) and send him into dreamland with a three-punch combination. No need to count as referee Ray Corona waved the fight over. Perez shot a vicious right followed by another right and then a see-you-later left hook at 3.00 of the first round of the super featherweight match.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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