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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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Anderson Cruises by Vapid Merhy and Ajagba edges Vianello in Texas

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Jared Anderson returned to the ring tonight on a Top Rank card in Corpus Christi, Texas. Touted as the next big thing in the heavyweight division, Anderson (17-0, 15 KOs) hardly broke a sweat while cruising past Ryad Merhy in a bout with very little action, much to the disgruntlement of the crowd which started booing as early as the second round. The fault was all Merhy as he was reluctant to let his hands go. Somehow, he won a round on the scorecard of judge David Sutherland who likely fell asleep for a round for which he could be forgiven.

Merhy, born in the Ivory Coast but a resident of Brussels, Belgium, was 32-2 (26 KOs) heading in after fighting most of his career as a cruiserweight. He gave up six inches in height to Anderson who was content to peck away when it became obvious to him that little would be coming back his way.

Anderson may face a more daunting adversary on Monday when he has a court date in Romulus, Michigan, to answer charges related to an incident in February where he drove his Dodge Challenger at a high rate speed, baiting the police into a merry chase. (Weirdly, Anderson entered the ring tonight wearing the sort of helmet that one associates with a race car driver.)

Co-Feature

In the co-feature, a battle between six-foot-six former Olympians, Italy’s Guido Vianello started and finished strong, but Efe Ajagba had the best of it in the middle rounds and prevailed on a split decision. Two of the judges favored Ajagba by 96-94 scores with the dissenter favoring the Italian from Rome by the same margin.

Vianello had the best round of the fight. He staggered Ajagba with a combination in round two. At the end of the round, a befuddled Ajagba returned to the wrong corner and it appeared that an upset was brewing. But the Nigerian, who trains in Las Vegas under Kay Koroma, got back into the fight with a more varied offensive attack and better head movement. In winning, he improved his ledger to 20-1 (14). Vianello, who sparred extensively with Daniel Dubois in London in preparation for this fight, declined to 12-2-1 in what was likely his final outing under the Top Rank banner.

Other Bouts of Note

In the opening bout on the main ESPN platform, 35-year-old super featherweight Robson Conceicao, a gold medalist for Brazil in the 2016 Rio Olympics, stepped down in class after fighting Emanuel Navarrete tooth-and-nail to a draw in his previous bout and scored a seventh-round stoppage of Jose Ivan Guardado who was a cooked goose after slumping to the canvas after taking a wicked shot to the liver. Guardado made it to his feet, but the end was imminent and the referee waived it off at the 2:27 mark.

Conceicao improved to 18-1 (9 KOs). It was the U.S. debut for Guardado (15-2-1), a boxer from Ensenada, Mexico who had done most of his fighting up the road in Tijuana.

Ruben Villa, the pride of Salinas, California, improved to 22-1 (7) and moved one step closer to a match with WBC featherweight champion Rey Vargas with a unanimous 10-round decision over Tijuana’s Cristian Cruz (22-7-1). The judges had it 97-93 and 98-92 twice.

Cruz, the son of former IBF world featherweight title-holder Cristobal Cruz, was better than his record. He entered the bout on a 21-1-1 run after losing five of his first seven pro fights.

Cleveland southpaw Abdullah Mason, who turned 20 earlier this month, continued his fast ascent up the lightweight ladder with a fourth-round stoppage of Ronal Ron.

Mason (13-0, 11 KOs) put Ron on the canvas in the opening round with a short left hook. He scored a second knockdown with a shot to the liver. A flurry of punches, a diverse array, forced the stoppage at the 1:02 mark of round four. A 25-year-old SoCal-based Venezuelan, the spunky but out-gunned Ron declined to 14-6.

Charly Suarez, a 35-year-old former Olympian from the Philippines, ranked #5 at junior lightweight by the IBF, advanced to 17-0 (9) with a unanimous 8-round decision over SoCal’s Louie Coria (5-7).

This was a tactical fight. In the final round, Coria, subbing for 19-0 Henry Lebron, caught the Filipino off-balance and knocked him into the ropes which held him up. It was scored a knockdown, but came too little, too late for Coria who lost by scores of 76-75 and 77-74 twice.

Suarez, whose signature win was a 12th-round stoppage of the previously undefeated Aussie Paul Fleming in Sydney, may be headed to a rematch with Robson Conceicao. They fought as amateurs in 2016 in Kazakhstan and Suarez lost a narrow 6-round decision.

Photo credit: Mikey Willams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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Ellie Scotney and Rhiannon Dixon Win World Title Fights in Manchester

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England’s Ellie Scotney started slowly against the long reach of France’s Segolene Lefebvre but used rough tactics and a full-steam ahead approach to unify the super bantamweight division by unanimous decision on Saturday.

“There’s a lot more I didn’t show,” said an excited Scotney (pictured on the left).

IBF titlist Scotney (9-0) added the WBO title by nullifying Lefebvre’s (18-1) reach and dominating the inside with a two-fisted attack in front of an excited crowd in Manchester, England.

For the first two rounds Lefebvre used her long reach and smooth fluid attack to keep Scotney at the end of her punches. Then the fight turned when the British fighter bulled her way inside with body shots and forced the French fighter into the ropes.

Aggressiveness by Scotney turned the fight in her favor. But Lefebvre remained active and countered with overhand rights throughout the match.

Body shots by Scotney continued to pummel the French champion’s abdomen but she remained steadfast in her counter-attacks. Combinations landed for Lefebvre and a counter overhand right scored to keep her in the contest in the fifth round.

Scotney increased the intensity of her attack in the sixth and seventh rounds. In perhaps her best round Scotney was almost perfect in scoring while not getting hit with anything from the French fighter.

Maybe the success of the previous round caused Scotney to pause. It allowed Lefebvre to rally behind some solid shots in a slow round and gave the French fighter an opening. Maybe.

The British fighter opened up more savagely after taking two Lefevbre rights to open the ninth. Scotney attacked with bruising more emphatic blows despite getting hit. Though both fired blows Scotney’s were more powerful.

Both champions opened-up the 10th and final round with punches flying. Once again Scotney’s blows had more power behind them though the French fighter scored too, and though her face looked less bruised than Scotney’s the pure force of Scotney’s attacks was more impressive.

All three judges saw Scotney the winner 97-93, 96-94 and a ridiculous 99-91. The London-based fighter now has the IBF and WBO super bantamweight titles.

Promoter Eddie Hearn said a possible showdown with WBC titlist Erika Cruz looms large possibly in the summer.

“Great performance. Great punch output,” said Hearn of Scotney’s performance.

Dixon Wins WBO Title

British southpaw Rhiannon Dixon (10-0) out-fought Argentina’s Karen Carabajal (22-2) over 10 rounds and won a very competitive unanimous decision to win the vacant WBO lightweight title. It was one of the titles vacated by Katie Taylor who is now the undisputed super lightweight world champion.

An aggressive Dixon dominated the first three rounds including a knockdown in the third round with a perfect left-hand counter that dropped Carabajal. The Argentine got up and rallied in the round.

Carabajal, whose only loss was against Katie Taylor, slowly began figuring out Dixon’s attacks and each round got more competitive. The Argentine fighter used counter rights to find a hole in Dixon’s defense to probably win the round in the sixth.

The final three rounds saw both fighters engage evenly with Carabajal scoring on counters and Dixon attacking the body successfully.

After 10 rounds all three judges saw it in Dixon’s favor 98-91, 97-92, 96-93 who now wields the WBO lightweight world title.

“It’s difficult to find words,” said Dixon after winning the title.

Hometown Fighter Wins

Manchester’s Zelfa Barrett (31-2, 17 KOs) battled back and forth with Jordan Gill (28-3-1, 9 KO-s) and finally ended the super featherweight fight with two knockdowns via lefts to the body in the 10th round of a scheduled 12-round match for a regional title.

The smooth moving Barrett found the busier Gill more complex than expected and for the first nine rounds was fighting a 50/50 fight against the fellow British fighter from the small town of Chatteris north of London.

In the 10th round after multiple shots on the body of Gill, a left hook to the ribs collapsed the Chatteris fighter to the floor. He willed himself up and soon after was floored again but this time by a left to the solar plexus. Again he continued but was belted around until the referee stopped the onslaught by Barrett at 2:44 of the 10th.

“A tough, tough fighter,” said Barrett about Gill. “I had to work hard.”

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O.J. Simpson the Boxer: A Heartwarming Tale for the Whole Family

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O.J. Simpson passed away on Wednesday, April 10, at age 76 in Las Vegas where he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. For millions of Americans, news of his passing unloosed a flood of memories.

The O.J. Simpson double murder trial lasted 37 weeks. CNN and two other fledgling cable networks provided gavel-to-gavel coverage. On Oct. 3, 1995, the day that the jury rendered its verdict, CBS, NBC, ABC, and ESPN suspended regular programming to cover the trial. Worldwide, more than 100 million people were reportedly glued to their TV or radio.

O.J.’s life can be neatly compartmentalized into two halves. The dividing line is June 12, 1994. On that date, Simpson’s estranged wife, the former Nicole Brown, and her friend Ronald Goldman were found stabbed to death in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood at the home that Nicole shared with their two children.

Before then, O.J. was famous. After then, he was infamous.

Simpson first came to the fore on the gridiron. In 1968, his final season at the University of Southern California, he was so dynamic that he won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide, out-distancing Purdue’s Leroy Keyes by 1,750 votes. This was the widest margin to that point between a Heisman winner and runner-up and a milestone that stood for 51 years until surpassed by LSU quarterback Joe Burrows in 2019.

In the NFL, among his many achievements, he became the first and only NFL running back to eclipse 2,000 rushing yards in a 14-game season, a record that will never be broken.

But one can’t appreciate the depth of O.J.s celebrityhood by citing statistics. He transcended his sport like few athletes before or since. Owing in large part to his commercials for the Hertz rental car chain, he became one of America’s most recognizable people.

O.J. Simpson was raised by a single mother in a government housing project in the gritty Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. Unlike many of his boyhood peers, he was never quick to raise his fists. Weirdly, he once said that running away from fights proved useful to him when he took up football. It helped his stamina.

Although he never boxed in real life, O.J. portrayed a boxer in a made-for-TV movie. Titled “Goldie and the Boxer,” it aired on NBC on Sunday, Dec. 29, 1979, two weeks after O.J. played in his last NFL game. Co-produced by Simpson’s own production company, it starred O.J. opposite precocious Melissa Michaelson who played the 10-year-old Goldie.

In promos, the movie was tagged as a heartwarming tale for kids and their parents. Associated Press writer John Egan described it as “a cross between the Shirley Temple classic ‘Little Miss Marker’ and a low-budget ‘Rocky.’”

Here’s a synopsis, compliments of New York Times TV critic John J. O’Connor:

“The year is 1946, and Joe Gallagher is returning to Louisiana as an army veteran. He is quickly ripped off by a succession of thugs and finds himself broke and battered in Pennsylvania where he is befriended by a young Goldie. Her father is a boxer and Joe joins the training camp as a sparring partner. When the father dies, Joe takes his place on the fight circuit and Goldie becomes his manager…”

The consensus of the pundits was that O.J. the actor was very much a work in progress, but that he had great potential. And the movie, despite its hokey plot, attracted so many viewers that NBC wanted to turn it into a series.

O.J. had too much on his plate to commit to doing a regular series. Among other things, he had signed on to become part of NBC’s main stable of reporters at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, a gig that evaporated when the U.S. under President Jimmy Carter joined 64 other nations in boycotting the Games as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, the movie did spawn a sequel, “Goldie and the Boxer Go To Hollywood,” with Simpson and Michaelson reprising their roles.

I never met O.J. Simpson, but have a vivid memory of finding myself walking behind him into the outdoor boxing arena at Caesars Palace. If memory serves, this was the Hagler-Hearns fight of 1985, in which case the lady on his arm would have been Nicole as they were married earlier that year. She was quite a dish in that tight-fitting pantsuit and I remember thinking to myself, “of all the trophies this dude has won, here is the best trophy of them all.” (Forgive me.)

Simpson had cameo roles in several movies before leaving USC. When he finally turned his back on football, the world was his oyster. O.J., wrote Barry Lorge in the Washington Post, was “bright, affable, charming, articulate and credible, a public relation man’s dream-come true.”

No one would have foreseen the swerve his life would take.

When the jury, after only four hours of deliberation, returned a verdict of “not guilty,” there was cheering in some corners of America. The overwhelming consensus of the white population, however, was that the verdict was an abomination, a gross miscarriage of justice.

We’ll leave it at that.

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