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The Top Ten Featherweights of the Decade 2010-2019

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The featherweight division of the last decade lacked focus, personified in its failure to produce a single legitimate champion. There are beltholders aplenty but no lineal kings; there are also numerous number one contenders as the torch passed from beast to beast on what was a dangerous fistic landscape.

So, several of these men crossed paths and it is well that they did. There is so little to separate the top five from one another that those meetings are woven gold in organising a very tight pack.

Rankings, as always, are by Ring Magazine from January 2010 to October 2012 and thereafter by TBRB.

10 – Nonito Donaire

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 18-5 Ranked For: 10% of the decade

Filipino legend Nonito Donaire’s featherweight decade is sheer ranking confusion.

He was chased from the super-bantamweight division by a deadly Guillermo Rigondeaux and rolled straight into a rematch with Vic Darchinyan who was slipping but still ranked. A tense, cagey squabble ensued, shaded by Darchinyan’s two-handed punch-picking pressure, most especially his left hand; Donaire was neatly bailed out by his power, a degree of which he had carried with him to 126lbs. A divisional warning had been sung.

Donaire, never shy of a meaningful challenge, next matched featherweight number one Simpiwe Vetyeka, the conqueror of Chris John who had in turn outpointed Juan Manuel Marquez. This fight was a terrific mess, including low blows, head-clashes, one of which caused a serious cut on Donaire’s left eyelid. Donaire went on to dominate despite this cut, arguably losing the second but clearly winning the third, and dropping Vetyeka in the fourth with a gorgeous counter-left.

But referee Luis Pabon repeatedly visited with the ringside physician and began the fifth round hanging over the top rope deep in conversation with the WBA (just who you want on hand in times of difficulty). The fight was called at two seconds of the fifth and Donaire was awarded a technical decision.

Donaire was then firmly out-monstered by Nicholas Walters after which he dropped back down the divisions, returning in 2017 for a pair of featherweight fights culminating in a spirited loss to Carl Frampton. All this adds up to a very mixed bag and it could be argued that Donaire should be excluded in favour of Abner Mares or Jhonny Gonzalez; but Donaire did defeat a divisional number one in the shape of Vetyeka, and despite the strangeness surrounding that fight, it’s enough to see me favour him here.

09 – Gary Russell

Peak Ranking: 3 Record for the Decade: 24-1 Ranked For: 40% of the decade

Gary Russell remains most famous for his 2014 defeat at the hands of Vasyl Lomachenko but his recovery and fistic retribution has been impressive. When Russell met Jhonny Gonzalez in 2015 it was in pursuit of the strap that Lomachenko had denied him. Gonzalez, as perennial as any featherweight contender has been, was ranked two at the time of their confrontation, but Russell dominated from the first and with ease. It may be that Russell lost in Lomachenko to the only featherweight able to outspeed him in phases. Gonzalez did not have the pressure to keep Russell from stepping into his punches nor the power to dissuade him; Russell found him with his southpaw left in the third and the fight was effectively over from that point, though it was the right hook that did the real damage. Gonzales was cracked in four.

After two softer engagements, both of which he won by knockout, Russell met with the baby-faced Joe Diaz. Diaz brought pitiless pressure in the first half of the fight, carving up rounds with Russell as an equal, neutralising his speed with brave pressure and a vintage southpaw hook to the body. Again and again he forced Russell to give ground but Russell adjusted like a veteran. Rather than boxing an endless retreat he favoured exacting the maximum toll as Diaz bored inside. Diaz rallied beautifully ten through twelve to make this fight a borderline classic, but Russell’s adjustment made him tentative in the middle rounds, and it was by bagging those that Russell made himself a clear winner.  It was the best performance of his career.

There is no shame in his single defeat and his rebuild is one of the best stories of the featherweight decade. I am glad he slips in at nine.

08 – Vasyl Lomachenko

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 14-1 Ranked For: 20% of the decade

Vasyl Lomachenko is 0-1 versus ranked featherweights where he fought the infancy of his professional career. The circumstances of that loss are well known and understood – Orlando Salido came to the ring well overweight and proceeded to foul a green Lomachenko out of his rhythm, all of which was inexplicably ignored by boxing’s worst referee. This loss, then, alights upon rather than crushes Lomachenko’s legacy.

As for wins he has a handful but nothing desperately impressive. His featherweight legacy is essentially comprised of the brilliance with which he conducted himself within the ring during that early part of his career and his victory over Gary Russell.

Gary Russell was at a strange point in his career when he ran into Lomachenko having met fighters with decent paper records but having also expressly avoided sharing the ring with anyone who might conceivably beat him, all, according to the man himself, a part of the plan. But Russell was excellent against Lomachenko, matching his speed to the blinding quick combination punching genius of Lomachenko and emerging with his pride intact. As we have seen, he emerged as a person of interest for the decade.

And Lomachenko bossed him. He boxed with the surety of an eight year veteran not the uncertainty of the two-fight novice, already moving up and down with as much fluidity as any featherweight that decade; anyone doubting the decision of trainer Lomachenko Senior to place the young Vasyl in dance lessons should look no further than his reaction to Russell’s attempt to bring volume in the eighth and ninth.

Lomachenko was a special fighter, and although on paper he has no special featherweight win, Russell probably qualifies in this context. That, and his brilliance, is enough to get him in one slot ahead of that fighter.

07 – Mikey Garcia

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 20-1 Ranked For: 17% of the decade

Mikey Garcia had an enormously impressive 2010 to 2019 and nothing illustrates it more than the number of times we have run into him on these lists. From 126lbs through to 140lbs, Garcia has made the cut.

He has never cracked the top of any divisional list though, his fleeting relationship with each a limiting factor. 126lbs is where he made his bones although he departed almost immediately, usually by design but in this case out of necessity – Garcia found making 126lbs a difficult experience as we shall see.

Before he became a victim of one of boxing’s oldest problems though, he turned in what remains my favourite Mikey Garcia performance, his January 2013 domination of Orlando Salido. Salido was then the general of the featherweight division but Garcia laid him bare, moving in and out with varied commitment, compromising Salido’s pressure and balance both while his superior footspeed made him defensively safe if not always sound. Salido, frustrated by his lack of success, repeatedly over-extended himself in search of his tormentor and Garcia repeatedly punished him, flashing him four times and breaking his eye socket. Even dominating Salido has its dangers though, and in the eighth an apparently accidental clash of heads saw Garcia emerge with a broken nose. An eight round technical decision in his favour was the result.

It was a beautiful performance and one that should be argued as the bedrock of a much higher ranking. Unfortunately, the only other relevant fight Garcia made at 126lbs was against Juan Manuel Lopez in a fight for which Garcia missed the weight. It was an impressive victory but over-the-weight matches for me only provide a sliver of the credit with which they would normally be bequeathed. Garcia could not make the 126lb limit (and he tried) so it is difficult to see the fight as a major enhancement of his 126lb standing. Garcia left his strap behind him on the scales and disembarked for super-featherweight.

06 – Carl Frampton

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 24-2 Ranked For: 31% of the decade

There is little to separate the man ranked seven from the man ranked two; small matters become pertinent. Carl Frampton’s number two victory at the poundage was over Nonito Donaire, whose career vagaries we have already explored. When he met with Frampton, Donaire was not ranked at featherweight and had not been ranked at featherweight for several years. Donaire remains a valid opponent, however, and Frampton’s clear victory over him seems even more impressive considering Donaire’s near run at Naoya Inoue last year; but the fact that the Filipino was unranked at the time of his meeting with Frampton probably makes the difference between his ranking fifth and sixth.

For obvious reasons Frampton is neck and neck with the fighter ranked one slot above him.

Frampton traveled from his native Northern Ireland to Brooklyn in July 2016 to meet that man, the Mexican Leo Santa Cruz. This, their first fight, was something rather special as Frampton shuffled into range, looked, threw if he felt it was safe to do so before moving out, sometimes in a straight line. It worked like a charm; Santa Cruz repeatedly over-extended himself allowing Frampton to do his best work – hard, consistent punching often ending in a bodyshot.

Frampton throws a single punch as beautiful as anyone on this list. The gorgeous counter left he sent Santa Cruz crashing back into the ropes with in the early going; the peachy uppercut he used to steal the third.

Frampton did not have a problem placing Santa Cruz where he wanted him for his blows for stretches of the fight and although it was close, the majority decision in Frampton’s favour felt right as a description of what occurred.

The rematch would be different.

05 – Leo Santa Cruz

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 24-1-1 Ranked For: 40% of the decade

The rematch was different in that Leo Santa Cruz absolutely refused to become overextended physically or strategically. He consistently boxed within a more natural scope of influence, forcing Frampton to work harder for the range and when they exchanged he relied upon his quickness to allow him to dominate and to smother Frampton’s work with volume. In this, he was successful often enough that his revenge victory over Frampton felt more complete than Frampton’s victory over him. Reason enough to rank Santa Cruz ahead of Frampton perhaps but Santa Cruz has more, being ranked as a featherweight for a longer stretch of the decade and having twice overcome the ranked Abner Mares.

Mares, himself a contender for the number ten spot, first ran across a fresh-faced Santa Cruz in 2015 and Santa Cruz delivered a fine advertisement for superior footwork as key in placing a swarming opponent under control. Mares had an early plan that looked menacing, placing his head not just on Santa Cruz’s shoulder but behind it while working away to body and head against a smothered opponent. It worked in the first round; Santa Cruz turned him beautifully in the second and outfought him in the pocket, seemingly discouraging Mares. The rest of the fight was a canter home for a fighter clearly in the mood, entering a prime that stretches to this day. In the rematch he was almost as dominant, Mares finding an extra round on my scorecard but at no point threatening a win. Santa Cruz essentially excluded Mares from the divisional decadal top ten that night and did much to propel himself into the top five.

04 – Josh Warrington

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 28-0 Ranked For: 20% of the decade

Josh Warrington, it is said, gets by on workrate and fitness; he would have to overpower the “slick” Lee Selby to beat him for his big 2018 step up. That was not what happened. Rather, Warrington overcame the beltholder and favourite as much by giving ground and bringing Selby onto his counter-rushes and by out-jabbing “The White Mayweather” for key spells of the fight. Selby, who finished the fight dripping in blood and gore, was soundly thrashed down the straight by the much vaunted Warrington workrate but it was the intelligence with which he boxed early that kept the fight close and made that rush decisive.

Still, against the more storied Carl Frampton a similar story was told. Warrington’s best chance was to weather the storm early because Frampton was sure to place him under control with his superior jab and then use his superior boxing to make use of his superior power. Instead, Warrington rocketed out of the blocks, hurt Frampton repeatedly during the early rounds, before romping home to a clear unanimous decision.

These were Warrington’s marquee wins and they lock him into the top five, but he fell short with his last significant performance of the decade, his June 2019 split decision victory over Kid Galahad. In a close fight that I scored a draw, Warrington was seen by many as lucky to get the nod as Galahad pivoted, held and potshotted his way to a near shock. Ranked number nine in the world it was he rather than the more accomplished Selby or Frampton who made him look like the limited fighter some still name him.

Either way, Warrington got the nod and it was no robbery. These wins combined with his unbeaten status puts him on the shortlist for the number one spot; that his half of the decade was less dramatic and danger-filled explains his ranking behind the standouts from the first.

03 – Juan Manuel Lopez

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 10-6-1 Ranked For: 27% of the decade

Seen retrospectively, the destruction of wrecking machine Juan Manuel Lopez by Orlando Salido makes sense, but in real time it was almost impossible to understand. All but brand new to featherweight at the dawn of the decade, Lopez spent 2010 ravaging the 126lb ranks before running into his nemesis and certainly did enough in that time to be included in the top five.

First up was the capable number two contender Steve Luevano. Luevana was stopped just once and it was on the night of January twenty-third, 2010 when he took on Lopez. Limber on his feet, Lopez boxed with a low chin and an exploratory southpaw jab that was deceptively heavy. His other punches booked no deceit and were clearly killing blows. Long on the outside, compact on the inside, Lopez was technically sure at all ranges; swift; powerful and as he proved in a minor disaster at 122lbs against Rogers Mtagwa, tough, Lopez was grinding down Luevana in big chunks from at least the third and probably before. Unearthed by hooks in the seventh, Luevana was stopped on his feet.

Next up was the number six contender Bernabe Concepcion. Concepcion was basically finished as an elite fighter against Lopez, but their first round was perhaps the best featherweight round of the decade, both men hitting the deck during a three minute war Lopez dominated but seemed never fully in control of; Lopez emerged in the second the cooler man and stopped Concepcion, the first man to do so, the only man to do so this quickly.

That fight was a graduation night for Lopez’s straight right having previously relied primarily upon the hook. He was absolutely primed then for Rafael Marquez, emerging from his epic four-fight series with Israel Vazquez and vulnerable to a fighter of Lopez’s machinations. Marquez fought bravely, and had his moments, but was broken in eight rounds.

Enter Orlando Salido, stage left.

02 – Orlando Salido

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 10-4-2 Ranked For: 44% of the decade

A mugger, a bandit, Orlando Salido waited in the wings throughout the decade ready to spoil in a manner utterly unlike a spoiler, the rise of the Next Big Thing. Twice between 2010 and the end of 2019 he brutally sabotaged what seemed an inevitable crowning. His first victim was Juan Manuel Lopez and it is his two-time destruction of Lopez that locks him into the top five.

Lopez, 30-0 and a marked favourite as well as a crowd favourite in their first contest fought in early in 2011 in Lopez’s Puerto Rico stronghold, started well, boxing within himself, seemingly aware of Salido’s danger punch, the overhand right. But Salido is Salido. He deploys himself and turns the screw; he waits, he takes his lumps and patiently sets out to see if he can find his man along whatever strategic line has been identified. A lost first round matters no more to him than a mine to a mountain. As early as the second he was closer; Lopez reigned down punishment, worked to maintain the distance. The gift of the pressure fighter is his momentum and his control of the real estate. He can, at the very least, choose when and where he will be hit. Even if he is losing badly, if he can persist, the fight, suddenly, can be changed; this was the case in the fourth, which was the first round Salido won and the first in which the controlled retreat of Lopez began to look disorganised.

Drawn into a firefight he was dropped and hurt in the fifth, dominated by a merciless Salido in the sixth, rallied in the seventh and was changed forever as a fighter by Salido’s ceaseless attack in the eighth.

Lopez was subject to divorce proceedings at the time and stopped prematurely while standing, so received a rematch. Salido, who knew and understood how Lopez moved now, dominated him even more completely though Lopez managed to last until the tenth.

In 2014 Salido performed a similar mugging against Vasyl Lomachenko although it was comprised of a cooperative referee and numerous low blows; more than that, a weight advantage in that he did not appear to try that hard to make the 126lb limit and missed it by distance; the credit bequeathed here for such a victory is very limited – but those two glorious nights on which he mastered Lopez and longevity at the weight qualify him for the spot.

01 – Yuriorkis Gamboa

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 14-3 Ranked For: 18% of the decade

It is possible that the memory is fading now, but there was a short spell in the early part of the decade where Cuban Yuriorkis Gamboa was rated the next big thing. Watching him now, it isn’t hard to see why. His offence was gorgeous. A stocky, muscular fighter, he nevertheless moved beautifully; capable of brutal yet compact hooks from a deep stance he was also delightfully mobile; a gunslinger, hands low, often eschewing the jab for leading power punches which sometimes qualified as monstrous.

But he was flawed. Questionable temperament and a propensity for being hit even while winning were always going to prevent him reaching the Pacquiao-like heights some predicted for him. Little of this manifested itself at featherweight, however, and it is featherweight that interests us here.  Between 2008 and his leaving the division in 2012, Gamboa was at his glittering best.

This included his very best years, 2010 and 2011, during which he began to meet ranked men. In his first and in what remains for me his most sparkling performance, he clearly out-pointed the world’s number one featherweight Orlando Salido. Gamboa was never more explosive in punching, favouring a lead left-hook/short-right combination and for a while, Salido seemed outclassed and in imminent danger of being stopped, but being Salido he refused to go away and even flashed an overeager Gamboa with a right in the eighth; but that and the ninth were the only rounds I could find for Siri. Gamboa dominated Salido and dropped him in the twelfth, not once but twice, was docked two points for hitting his man when he was down, flashing that temper even as he seemed imperious. A typical Gamboa Saturday night.

He was nearly as good months later against the number five contender, the puncher Daniel Ponce de Leon. Again, Gamboa hardly dropped a round against highly ranked opposition.

Supplementary wins over a slipping Jorge Solis and Jonathan Victor Barros bolster his standing but I am not overjoyed with Gamboa as a number one. He barely passes in terms of the time he spent in the rankings, and although his resume is good it is not special. He is the least qualified decadal divisional number one we have seen, I think, but Gamboa was unbeaten and really the only other contender for the #1 spot is Warrington. His domination over Salido and Salido’s domination of Juan Manuel Lopez all but ties these three in this order, and Warrington, for all his excellence, hasn’t met with the same level of fighter and nor was he ranked in the featherweight division much longer (just 2% more).

So, it’s Gamboa – a thrilling but flawed king for a thrilling but flawed featherweight decade.

The other lists:

Heavyweight

Cruiserweight

Light-Heavyweight

Super-Middleweight

Middleweight

Light-Middleweight

Welterweight

Light-Welterweight

Lightweight

Super-Featherweight

Photo credit: Ed Mulholland

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Results from Las Vegas where Rafael Espinoza Retained his WBO Title in Grand Style

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Top Rank made its first foray to the newest Las Vegas Strip resort, the Fontainebleu, tonight. Topping the bill was an all-Mexican featherweight title fight between Guadalajara’s Rafael Espinoza and Oaxaca’s Sergio Chirino. The lanky Espinoza, at six-foot-one the tallest featherweight world title-holder in history, was making the first defense of the title he won with a shocking upset of Robeisy Ramirez and tonight he looked sensational.

Espinoza, who advanced his record to 25-0 with his 21st KO, had his countryman on the canvas in the very first round, the result of a counter left uppercut. Chirino wasn’t badly hurt, but it quickly became apparent that he was out-gunned. In round three, Espinoza sent him to the canvas again with a four-punch combo climaxed by a short left to the liver, and Chirino would be down once again in the following round, hunched down from a series of punches that caught only air. At this juncture, referee Raul Caiz Jr wisely stepped in and stopped the fight. The official time was 2:45 of round four. Chirino, who came in riding a 13-fight winning streak, declined to 22-2.

Espinoza is expected to have a rematch with Ramirez, provided that Robeisy gets past his Mexican opponent later this month in a match that, on paper, looks like an easy win for the Cuban southpaw. In their first meeting, the unheralded Espinoza was a massive underdog. Based on his showing tonight, he looks no worse than “pick-‘em” in the sequel.

Co-Feature

In a 10-round junior lightweight fight, North Las Vegas native Andres Cortes scored a unanimous decision over former world title challenger Abraham Nova. The scores favored the local fighter by scores of 96-94 and 97-93 twice.

Cortes had the crowd in his corner, but the reaction when the verdict was announced was one of surprise. Nova, who was credited with throwing and landing more punches, was in better condition and seemingly had the best of it in the late rounds. It was the twenty-second win without a loss for Cortes. Nova (23-3), a class act,  was diplomatic in defeat.

Also

In a true crossroads fight (a “pink slip” fight in the words of ESPN commentator Mark Kriegel),Troy Isley, a former Olympian and stablemate of Terence Crawford, out-worked Javier Martinez to win a unanimous 10-round decision. The judges had it 96-92-and 97-91 twice.

The middleweights were well-acquainted, having split four fights at the amateur level. Isley, from Alexandria, VA, improved to 13-0 (5) Martinez, born in Milwaukee to immigrants from Mexico, was 10-0-1 heading in. Both fighters lost a point for low blows after repeated warnings from referee Tony Weeks.

Other Bouts of Note

In an 8-round bantamweight fight that turned zesty after a slow start, Floyd Mayweather Jr protégé Floyd “Cashflow” Diaz improved to 12-0 (3) with a unanimous decision over Tijuana’s Francisco Pedroza (18-12-2). The judges had it 78-73 across the board. Diaz was making his second start under the tutelage of Brian “Bomac” McIntyre. Pedroza lost a point in round six for hitting on the break.

Steven Navarro, a hot prospect from a prominent SoCal boxing family, won his second pro fight with a 6-round shutout over rugged but outclassed Juan Pablo Meza (7-4), a 33-year-old Chilean.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank

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Will Eumir Marcial be the First Filipino Boxer to Win an Olympic Gold Medal?

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Will Eumir Marcial be the First Filipino Boxer to Win an Olympic Gold Medal?

Over the years, some of the world’s best boxers have been Filipino. Long before Manny Pacquiao there was Pancho Villa (Francisco Villaruel Guilledo) who became a national hero at the age of twenty-one when he captured the world flyweight title with a one-sided beat-down of Jimmy Wilde in 1923, knocking the legendary Welshman into retirement. But one thing is missing from the Pinoy boxing catalog, an Olympic gold medal. There have been eight medalists in all, four silver and four bronze, but the coveted gold has proved elusive.

Eumir Marcial came close in Tokyo. He advanced to the semi-finals in the middleweight competition where he lost a razor-thin decision to his Ukrainian opponent. Two of the judges favored him, but that was one short of what was needed.

“It took a long time for me to get over it, but I came to accept that God had a different plan for me,” says Marcial who gets another crack at it next month. He survived the qualifying tournaments and is headed to Paris where he will carry the flag of the Philippines into the Games of the XXXIII Olympiad.

Eumir (you-meer) Marcial grew up in Zamboanga City in the southern region of the archipelago, a two-day trip to Manila by ferry. He was introduced to boxing by his father Eulalio Marcial who besides being a farmer and a jitney driver is also the head coach of the Zamboanga City (amateur) boxing team.

Eulalio’s son is a big wheel in his native habitat, one of the more urbanized areas of the Philippines. This past October, when Eumir returned to Zamboanga City with his silver medal from the Asian Games in China, a motorcade awaited him at the airport and he was whisked to City Hall where he was feted in a ceremony organized by civic leaders.

In Las Vegas, where he was been training for the Olympics, he’s anonymous. No one genuflects when he walks into the DLX Gym in the company of his attractive wife Princess. He’s just another face in the crowd and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Marcial had one pro fight under his belt before the Tokyo Games. In December of 2020, he won a 4-round decision over a 3-1 opponent from Idaho on a card in Los Angeles. Not quite two months before that fight, while training at Freddie Roach’s gym, Marcial, who has two sisters, received the devastating news that his only brother Eliver had died in the Philippines of a sudden heart attack at age 39. Despite the age difference, the two were extremely close.

Marcial has had four more pro fights since then, advancing his record to 5-0 (3 KOs). In two of those fights, he had anxious moments.

In his second pro fight, he was knocked down three times in the first two frames, but gathered his wits about him and stopped his opponent in round four. In his next outing, a 6-rounder on the undercard of a Showtime PPV, he fought through a bad gash over his right eye, the result of an accidental head butt.

“I learned a lot from those fights,” says Marcial, “and they will make me a better Olympian than I was in 2021.”

Marcial spent nearly 10 years in the Philippines Air Force, but as somewhat of a civilian employee, spending little time around aircraft. He attracted a lot of attention after winning the AIBA world junior championship as a 15-year-old bantamweight in Kazakhstan in 2011. The Air Force seized on his growing fame to make him a recruiting specialist.

The word icon is over-used, but not when applied to Manny Pacquiao who overcame abject poverty to become an international superstar. “He was an inspiration to me,” says Marcial who references “PacMan” as Sir Manny or Senator Manny when he speaks about him.

The two would become well-acquainted. Pacquiao co-promoted Marcial’s last pro fight in Manila which was nationally televised in the Philippines and billed as a homecoming for Eumir who hadn’t fought in a Manila ring in five years. (He knocked out his Thai opponent in the fourth round.)

Marcial recalls some advice that Pacquiao gave him: “He said to me, ‘the higher you get, the more humble you should be.’”

Humbleness comes natural to the affable Marcial who is unstinting in his praise of those who have helped him along on his journey. “I would not have gotten through the qualifying tournament for the Paris games if not for my coach Kay Koroma,” he says.

Nowadays, whenever a Filipino boxer appears for a photo-op, Sean Gibbons is certain to be standing close by. Gibbons, who has homes in Las Vegas and the Philippines, has had an amazing ride since the days when he plied the Oklahoma and Midwest circuits, driving hundreds of miles each month to small shows in the sticks, transporting carloads of journeymen boxers with him. “[Sean Gibbons] helps us with accommodations, rental cars, whatever we need, and I am so grateful to him,” says Marcial of the man (pictured above on the left) who wears many hats but is perhaps best described as a facilitator.

Making matters more daunting for Marcial going forward, his weight class was eliminated when the governing body of the Olympics added a new weight category for women, subtracting one from the men. A middleweight (165-pound ceiling) in Tokyo, he will perform as a light heavyweight (176-pound ceiling) in Paris.

Eumir Marcial will return to the pro ranks regardless of what happens in France, but lassoing that elusive Olympic gold medal would likely bring him more joy than anything he may accomplish at the next level.

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A Pearl from the Boxing Vault: Fritzie Zivic Will See You Now 

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“He was a great teacher,” said Billy Conn. “[Fighting Zivic] was like going to college for five years, just boxing him ten rounds…”

Fritzie Zivic never asked why. He never asked if his opponent hit hard, if his opponent deserved the shot, if the opponent would be tough. He just said “yes” and signed the contract. While [Jake] LaMotta, who somehow gained the reputation for fearlessness of which Zivic was more deserving, was asked about Charley Burley, he is supposed to have muttered “Why do I need Burley when I have Zivic?” Zivic, of course, stepped out of his weight class to lose an under-celebrated series with LaMotta, and was one of the few top white contenders to ever meet the avoided Burley.

Perhaps this fearlessness is the reason why Zivic may have fought a better array of boxers than any fighter in history. In addition to the multiple contests with LaMotta and Burley, he met Kid Azteca, Bob Montgomery, Beau Jack, Henry Armstrong, Freddie Cochrane, Lew Jenkins, Izzy Jannazzo, Phil Furr, Bummy Davis, Sammy Angott, Lou Ambers and Jimmy Leto, something very close to a “who’s who” of boxing’s golden age, and he met most of them more than once. He didn’t always win, but he always gave his all and for this the people and the promoters of his hometown of Pittsburgh and beyond loved him. Other fighters? Not so much.

“He’s the dirtiest fighter I ever met,” claimed Charley Burley after his disputed points loss in their first fight. “He thumbed me over and over again.”

“When you fight for a living,” Zivic would explain years later, “if you’re smart you fight with every trick you know. If I hadn’t known nine zillion of them I never could have won the welterweight title from Henry Armstrong.”

In the modern era, fighters can come to a title without even matching a top contender. Forty fights is a career. But in the 1940s, it was unusual to see a champion with so few fights, even a young one. Like other trades, to reach the top of the heap a fighter had to become a master craftsman, the tools at his disposal needed to be of the highest quality. To this end, fighters needed to be matched often or tough or both. But there were and are some fighters who can provide a special lesson to that prospect or contender, a boxing lesson that, win or lose, crystallizes the nature of the sport for the man in the opposite corner.

Fritzie Zivic was such a fighter. Unquestionably world class in his own right, Zivic was a quick learner who took his “zillion tricks” and applied them to roughhouse boxing that tested every corner of his opponent, technical, physical and mental. Anybody that beat him looked destined for the top, anyone that lost could still pick up more than a thing or two. Unquestionably teak-tough, a stinging if not prohibitive puncher, he could box inside or out and a tight defense and iron chin kept him to two legitimate stoppage losses in a 232-fight career. But unquestionably, Zivic’s greatest strength were his smarts, the tricks, traps and roughhouse tactics he absorbed like a sponge during his eighteen years in the ring.

In December of 1936, Zivic would teach some of these tricks to a wonder-kid tearing his way up the middleweight division, one Billy Conn. Zivic was not yet in his own absolute prime but he was twenty-three and listed as a veteran of some sixty-eight fights. Still a teenager, Conn would at least have had bulk to fall back on as a substitute for experience, weighing some seven pounds heavier on fight night at just under 157lbs.

Zivic started fast, attacking with both hands and Conn allowed him his way, trying to outbox and outpunch the smaller man in the pocket. This had become Billy’s habit, fighting, as he did, in a fan-friendly manner that had made him Pittsburgh’s favorite prospect. He had been in a desperately close series with resident local tough and brutal infighter “Honey Boy” Jones. According to some, Conn had been lucky to emerge from their third fight with a decision, his inability to adapt costing him dear in points and punches. Now Zivic fought in a style intent on taking advantage of the same flaws Jones had partially exposed, and Billy was paying for it in blood.

“Through two torrid rounds,” wrote Regis Welsh for The Pittsburgh Press, “Fritzie belted Conn to a fare-thee-well, but never quite touched the vital spot. At the end of the second…[Conn] was smeared with blood from a cut on his left cheek and a badly battered mouth.”

The press hadn’t yet been enlightened to Conn’s iron chin and it’s quite possible that Fritzie had found the “vital spot” over and again throughout the fight. As time would tell, even history’s mightiest puncher would struggle to get over on the near invulnerable Conn. However, at the beginning of the third Billy looked “tired, weary and worn out” and “in the fourth and fifth, Zivic, in a rushing charge, bore Conn to neutral ropes and belted him about the head and body until it seemed that the anticipated kayo was inevitable.”

It needs to be said though, that in spite of his fighting the wrong fight, Conn was doing his own good work, mainly to the body. Some reports credit Conn with turning the fight with a body punch as early as the third, but whilst the supposed fight of two halves (Zivic winning the first five, Conn coming back in the second half of the fight) did not occur, it’s unlikely that Conn’s hooks had the supposed affect this early. Only two judges scored the third for Conn, and all three gave Zivic the fourth. Conn wouldn’t win a round on all three judges’ scorecards until the sixth.

It was in the sixth round that Conn cracked, and went outside. In the seventh and eighth Conn “boxed beautifully…he danced, feinted, pranced and punched.”  Zivic, now out of his element as a bullying counterpuncher and destructive infighter struggled to get past Billy’s “piston-like” jab. Conn had been trained for this by defensive specialist Johnny Ray from the very beginning, but he had been unable to make the transition in the ring until Fritzie had forced it. As one would expect, Zivic now changed tactics too, gunning almost exclusively for the body, only hunting Conn with power punches, bringing him the eighth round on one card. In the tenth, they went at it toe-to-toe again. “The boys used everything but knives,” stated the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “A wild-eyed crowd looked on.” The final round was shared on the three official cards resulting in a split decision win for Conn (6-3-1, 5-4-1, 4-5-1).

“From a mile in the rear to a nose in front takes heart in a man or a horse,” wrote Welsh in The Press. “Particularly in a novice of Conn’s immature ring experience against a seasoned veteran of Zivic’s type.”

Zivic’s type indeed! Fritzie was hell on wheels for a young fighter, one that hadn’t seen a top class cutie, never mind a back-alley wizard. But Conn knew what that fight had been worth, and he knew he was the better for it.

“He was a great teacher. [Fighting Zivic] was like going to college for five years, just boxing him ten rounds…I learned a lot in that fight. He’s a tough fighter, but I believe I’m just as tough.”

It’s a double lesson for a relative novice like Conn. First, he remembers every foul, every slither out of sight of the referee, every feint that cost him a round, every dig inside on the break. But it also teaches him that he can take it, that he can get in there with world-class fighters who know more than him and beat them. The first lesson is priceless, but the second can be the key to a career. Over the next twelve months the young Conn, who had struggled so desperately with Honey Boy Jones only three months earlier, would defeat great champions and ring legends such as Teddy Yarosz, Young Corbett III and Vince Dundee before adding Fred Apostoli and Solly Krieger and annexing the world’s light heavyweight title in 1939.

In 1941 he would be matched with the great Joe Louis. It would be unfair to Conn’s great trainer Ray, and to Conn himself, to lay too much credit for Conn’s legendary performance at Zivic’s door, but Conn’s tactics against Louis—mixing careful, punch-picking infighting with beautiful movement and judge of distance on the outside—were basically a more perfect version of the tactics he used in rounds six, seven, eight and nine against Zivic.

As for the teacher, he was naturally disappointed and was keen on a rematch, but fate was to intervene. Zivic would contract pneumonia the following summer whilst training for a match with Vince Dundee.

Chet Smith, then editor of The Pittsburgh Press: “There didn’t seem to be a chance for him…so we collected all we knew about him, wrote it into a story and sent it to the composing room…There were two weeks when it was touch and go with Fritzie, and the hospital folk refused to give out a single cheerful bulletin. We knew of course when he finally came out of the hospital that his boxing days were ended.”

I guess Zivic would have snorted at that. However they build them out in Zivic’s ancestral Croatia, they build them tough because Zivic was not only far from ended as a boxer, he would get better. There were more lessons to give out. The greatest fighter that would ever draw breath, he needed a lesson.

“I learned more in these two fights with Zivic than in all my other fights put together!”

So said Ray Robinson after pulling off the extraordinary feat of stopping Zivic in January of 1942. But this was the second time Zivic, a rarity in that he never discriminated against opposition on the grounds of colour or quality, had met Robinson. The first had occurred when Zivic had already slipped past his absolute prime, in October of 1941.

“It might have been a draw. It was close,” wrote the correspondent for The Telegraph Herald, but Zivic, the heavier man for a change, looked unsurprised at the unanimous decision against him. In the middle rounds he had, to a degree, had his way with Robinson but Sugar’s explosive domination of the ninth had left him struggling and at no time had he solved the Robinson jab. He knew he was beaten. “[Robinson] took a unanimous decision with such a convincing demonstration of speed and power,” wrote United Press ringside reporter Jack Cuddy, “that he will be favored to win the title.”

Robinson was learning from Zivic the same thing Conn had, that he could master a man at the next level, a veteran, a bigger one at that. But he learned more specific and unpleasant lessons in this fight, too.

“He was about the smartest I ever fought,” Robinson would later say in conversation with writer WC Heinz.  “…he showed me how you can make a man butt open his own eye…he’d slip my lead, then he’d put his hand behind my neck and he’d bring my eye down on his head. Fritzie was smart.”

He also taught Ray that he could coast a little in those middle rounds, that at the highest level he didn’t need to put forth every ounce in every moment, that he could let the occasional round go as long as he was paying attention. The same pattern that Sugar used in his first fight with Zivic he would use in his sixth fight with LaMotta, for the middleweight title, contesting the early rounds, easing off in the middle, and finishing so strongly as to stop the unstoppable, lifting the title on a late TKO. He sharpened that tool for the first time against Zivic.

By now Zivic was almost past the stage of teaching fighters of Robinson’s calibre lessons, but he had one more to give in their second fight just three months later.

Firstly, Robinson showed the importance of a lesson learned, nullifying Zivic’s darker arts, like Conn he was a better fighter for his 10 rounds in the ring with Fritzie. He worked hard to the body in clinches he couldn’t contest with craft or strength (something else he would repeat against LaMotta in their title meeting) and he was careful to break clinches at any cost when Zivic looked to utilize those lethal butts. When his opponent tried holding and hitting on the referee’s blindside, instead of trading he would dance away. Robinson had learned that the man who owned the real estate would win the negotiation and Zivic was being outclassed as a result. Of the first six rounds he won perhaps the first. In the seventh though, Robinson momentarily forgot himself and Fritzie delivered his last lesson. As Robinson came in Zivic stepped back and cracked Robinson with a left hook. “It really hurt. I was coming in and it met me on the chin!” Robinson would say afterwards that it was the hardest punch he had ever been hit with, according to The Afro American.

In the middle of the ninth, Robinson dropped Zivic with a perfect mirror image of the punch he had been shown in the seventh, using the right hand to ditch the heavier man as he was on the way in. Up at nine, Zivic never recovered, and although he was likely stopped prematurely in the tenth, he had nothing left to teach, at least not to Sugar. At 28-0, Ray, like Billy before him, saw his 20 rounds with Zivic as nothing less than finishing school for one of the most storied careers in boxing. They are only two of the dozens of fighters that Fritzie took to school, but perhaps they are the gifts he helped in giving that we can be most grateful for.

For the purposes of this article we’ve taken a look at three Zivic losses. I hoped, by looking at his fights with Billy Conn and Sugar Ray, we might see the benefit of letting a top prospect meet a dangerous genius-thug like Fritzie, the self-proclaimed “second dirtiest fighter in history” (he reserved top spot for Harry Greb). But Zivic did lose those fights. Let it not be forgotten then that between losing to Conn and Robinson, Zivic lifted the world’s welterweight title, destroying with a mixture of aggression, uppercuts and that dirty bag of tricks for which he remains famous, one Henry Armstrong. Zivic finished Armstrong as title material, beating him for the championship of the world not once but twice.

A 4-1 underdog, Zivic had been magnanimous about his own chances going in to their opener.

“If I lose it won’t be the first fight I lost, and if I win it, it won’t be the first fight I won.”

But Zivic had learned his own brutal lessons across the years and would be merciless in bringing them to bear. Also, across the years, between his title win and these more enlightened times, Zivic’s achievement in beating Armstrong has been undermined. Armstrong was old. He was past his best. Zivic had to get dirty to do it. All of that may be true, but it needs to be remembered that Armstrong had gone undefeated in thirteen bouts prior to meeting Zivic and that all of these fights were in defence of his welterweight crown, outside of one, his celebrated tilt at a world middleweight title. It needs to be remembered that in the previous three months, Armstrong had knocked out world-class contenders Phil Furr and Lew Jenkins. It needs to be remembered that Armstrong had his own bag of tricks, and that referee Arthur Donovan’s famous refrain, “if you guys wanna fight like that it‘s okay with me” was prompted by an Armstrong foul and not a Zivic one.

Most of all it needs to be remembered that Zivic never asked why, he just signed the contract. Whichever way you want to look at it, they just don’t make them like that anymore.

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