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Iran Barkley and Junior Jones: After the Final Bell, the Real Fight Began

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Iran Barkley and Junior Jones: After the Final Bell, the Real Fight Began

A TSS CLASSIC — The stifling heat of Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn makes for an unforgiving environment, and it seems to be taking its toll on the grunting heavyweights sparring in the main ring.

A muscular black fighter, who has made fifteen professional outings and considerably outweighs his pale amateur opponent, is dominating the affair. With one minute remaining, the pro unleashes a sustained barrage of heavy hooks to his opponent’s
head. The despondent novice is backed into a corner and absorbs the blows with little resistance as his nose ruptures, turning his white face into a crimson mask.

Most ringsiders holler in approval at the striking power. But one observer is not impressed.

“Hey, hey, that’s not right, shouts Iran Barkley, a physically imposing 220-pound ex- pug that wears the remnants of a 63-fight career on a battle-scarred visage. “Sparring is about learning, not getting beat-up. Nobody gets anything out of a beating.

As the vanquished fighter exits the ring holding a claret-stained towel to his nose, he is approached by Barkley. “Yo, you’re not here to get beat-up, offers the three-time world champion. “Don’t let anyone do that to you. You have to look after yourself.

Barkley’s act of empathy contradicts his reputation as a malevolent slugger who held membership in New York’s violent Black Spades street gang.

After consoling the bloody novice, the 49-year-old Barkley strides with his head-down towards a treadmill to begin an hour-long exercise routine that includes calisthenics, weightlifting and shadowboxing.

Midway through the workout Barkley pauses to wipe the trickles of sweat from his shaven skull. His left eye is barely visible through a thick mass of tissue that overhangs his brow; an everlasting consequence of claiming world titles in three different weight
classes, ranging from middleweight [160 pounds] to light heavyweight [175 pounds].

“I like to work out as much as I can, he says. “I also work a few days a week helping out kids in a neighborhood in the Bronx. It gives me something to do.

*****
A bank worker’s attempts to casually ascend the steps from Manhattan’s Penn Station are stymied when an opposing swarm of rush-hour commuters surge down the stairway. His unassuming demeanor proves no match for the bustling horde and his slim frame quickly becomes lost in a wave of humanity.

There is an added element of chaos to the busy walkway on 34th street as noisy groups of hockey fans make their way towards Madison Square Garden. Big events at the fabled arena create a unique energy in the vicinity; energy this worker has experienced in a deeper sense than most.

A nose curved where it should be straight and flat where it was once curved alludes to Junior Jones’s former profession. He fought at the Garden on six occasions during a 56- bout prizefighting career; an occupation far removed from his current employment
in an administrative role at a New Jersey branch of the UBS financial services firm.

These days his work is conducted during daytime hours, but walking past the Garden rekindles memories of big nights at the fabled arena.

“It was such a rush fighting there in front of my hometown fans, says the Brooklyn-born Jones in a soft tone that belies the brashness of his surroundings. “But sometimes in the Garden I tried so hard to impress everybody that I got carried away.”

Inside the ring, Jones was often guilty of letting his emotions overrule rationale; yearning a spectacular knockout instead of utilizing his polished skills. Such an attitude helped him halt 28 of his opponents inside the distance and merit recognition as one of leading fighters of the mid-1990s. That mind-set also saw him suffer five knockout defeats that mark his 50-6 record.

Yet despite the turbulent nature of his former career, Jones has no ill-feeling towards the outcome of a 13-year pro tenure in which he won major world titles in the bantamweight [118 pounds] and junior featherweight [122 pounds] divisions.

“I don’t miss boxing and I’ve no real regrets, explains Jones matter-of-factly as he takes his seat in a Manhattan restaurant. “I know I did the best I could do and fought my heart out every time. I loved fighting and at times I overextended myself. But people come
to see a fight, not to see me run around the ring with my hands up. People pay good money.”

Smartly attired and perpetually understated, Jones seems to take greatest pleasure in talking about his two children and current job, making it difficult to believe he engaged in some of the last decade’s most exhilarating fights. And while his last professional contest was in 2002, he maintains an athletic build and looks younger than his 39 years.

“I work out at a gym I own in Brooklyn and I know that if I train hard, I still have enough left to beat a lot of the guys out there, he imparts with a wry smile.

Iran Barkley and Junior Jones share many similarities. Both fighters managed to distance themselves from street life in their respective deprived New York neighborhoods to achieve world titles and significant monetary rewards. The formative years were challenging for both men and each points to a sister as the catalyst for a boxing career.

“I was a skinny teenager and there was a big bully called the Bear who would steal kids’ money and sneakers,” recalls Barkley, who grew up in the menacing environs of the South Bronx Patterson housing projects. “I was really afraid of him but one day he ran
into my sister and he never touched us again.”

Barkley’s sister Yvonne was one of the pioneering professional female boxers and routinely defended her younger sibling. But a few years later Iran grew into a wild street fighter and became a valuable asset to the local gang. As his involvement with the Spades intensified, Yvonne appealed with Iran to turn his attention to boxing. He eventually heeded her pleas and after tasting amateur success developed a fanatical obsession with the sport.

“I trained non-stop,” Barkley says after completing 50 sit-ups on the floor of Gleason’s. “I worked so hard, obsessed to get my world title. When I look at some of my cousins who were dealing dope, now some of them are in prison for 30, 50 years or more, I feel
blessed I chose boxing and didn’t take that route.”

***
Jones’ sister was also an inspiration, albeit in a rather less benevolent manner. “My sister Renee used to beat the hell out of me, hit me with pots and pans, put me out on the fire escape with no clothes,” he reveals with a bashful smile. “People used to laugh that I couldn’t beat her up.”

Jones’s humiliation came to an end when he joined the Police Athletic League gym in Bushwick and eventually gained the respect his neighbors.

“It was rough where I grew up, but the older guys, hustlers and drug dealers got to know me and knew I was doing well at boxing, so I was protected,” he explains. “But I was never a follower. I was in the gym, I was travelling to competitions somewhere. I didn’t
have idle time.”

Jones had an exceptional ability to generate fierce punching power and earned distinction as a world titlist in 1993, overcoming Jorge Elicer Julio. But two consecutive upset defeats to relatively obscure journeymen severely damaged his standing. Even so, he worked his way back to contention and outscored future Hall of Fame entrant Orlando Canizales before being awarded a title opportunity against one of the era’s great fighters, Marco Antonio Barrera.

While many boxing observers rightly denounced Jones’s chances, the fighter retained the unwavering support of his long-time manager Gary Gittelsohn. In an uncommon attempt to instill confidence in his charge, Gittelsohn vowed to forsake his fee from Jones’s purse regardless of the fight’s outcome.

“I didn’t take the money because I always had confidence in Junior that he would win and go on to become a big star,” said Gittelsohn about his act that refutes the grubby reputation of boxing managers.

Jones ultimately repaid Gittelsohn with a rousing performance that resulted in a fifth- round disqualification victory when members of Barrera’s team entered the ring to rescue their dazed fighter. Jones subsequently proved the triumph was no accident by out-toughing Barrera in a rematch five months later.

That win would be the zenith of his achievements and was followed by inconsistent performances. Gittlesohn urged Jones to retire after a loss to Erik Morales in 1998 and again declined to take a management fee from his fighter’s check; this time without the
expectation of future remunerations. And even though Jones didn’t heed Gittlesohn’s pleas, he remembers with fondness the actions of his manager. “I was lucky to have him, remembers Jones. “He always stuck by me. I put the money I made away and invested it in trusts for the long-term. And now I’m not struggling financially, thank God.”

Back in the searing temperatures of Gleason’s, Barkley has just completed six minutes of shadowboxing and is walking towards a set of weight machines when he encounters the black heavyweight from the earlier sparring session. The young fighter, relaxing on a bench, calls out to Barkley.

“Hey man, I recognize you,” he yells. “I know your face.”

Barkley coldly nods his head at the fighter and keeps walking, perhaps disgruntled that his name is not remembered.

“Fighters these days,” remarks Barkley as he picks up a 20-pound dumbbell. “They’re not as tough today; fighting whoever they like. They have it easy, getting paid more and having easier fights.”

Money is a thorny issue with Barkley. Despite reaping an estimated $5 million during his prizefighting career, he now lives a meager existence in the same housing projects he grew up in. He cites a lack of financial knowledge as the cause of his current
predicament.

Barkley burst onto the global boxing scene in 1988 when he shockingly knocked out the much-vaunted Thomas Hearns for the middleweight title in one of the sport’s great upsets. And like Jones, Barkley vindicated his unexpected triumph by out-pointing
Hearns in a light heavyweight rematch four years later.

In between the battles with Hearns, Barkley suffered competitive defeats to some of the period’s elite fighters, most notably Roberto Duran, Michael Nunn and Nigel Benn. He also captured a super-middleweight world championship by overpowering Darrin Van
Horn.

But in another parallel to Jones’s career, Barkley’s second victory over Hearns proved to be his final significant pugilistic conquest. One year after that rematch, Barkley garnered $1 million for a one-sided loss to the exceptional James Toney. The subsequent six years saw Barkley traverse America and venture to Australia and Europe in search of paychecks on small-time promotions. He lost as many fights as he won and on many occasions weighed 60 pounds greater than the middleweight limit, as the competitive edge that once earned him the moniker “Blade” steadily dulled. In 1999, his final year as an active fighter, Barkley traveled to Finland to lose a 12-round decision in a pitiful spectacle against former WWE wrestler Tony Halme.

“I take some of the blame for my [current financial] situation, but not all of it,” contends Barkley. “Years ago, I just didn’t know what to do with money when I had it. My family never had much when I was growing up. I didn’t know how to save, how to invest it.”

While Jones had the watching eye of Gittlesohn, Barkley lacked such stable guidance and was under the management of various figures throughout his career. “I had to teach them how the boxing game worked,” Barkley claims.

“I learned that my only real friend is God,” he continues, with his eyes fixed on the grimy gym floor. “Everyone else will let you down in the end.”

Some of his money was invested in apartments and a car wash facility, but the ventures proved loss-making and after tax issues and two divorces his wealth evaporated.

“I don’t know where his money went,” says the owner of Gleason’s Gym, Bruce Silverglade. “But he always helped people out. He’d give you the shirt off his back. He has a heart of gold. Even today he’s always willing to talk at hostels and to kids.”

But such admirable efforts fail to pay the rent.

Barkley now lives in an apartment with his sister and nephew in the Patterson Houses. He lost two of his brothers to cancer and his sister is currently hospitalized after recently developing a long-term respiratory illness.

Earlier this summer Ring 8, a New York-based group that provides assistance to retired boxers, held a benefit dinner for Barkley, but he says the funds generated at the event have already been spent. He claims a return to prizefighting is the only long-term
answer to his financial problems and has informed the sport’s major promoters of his intentions. Thus far his approaches have been firmly dismissed.

“I can’t get a promoter yet,” he reveals. “But someone somewhere will promote me. I’ve no fear of boxing. I got through twenty years without getting hurt.”

At present there is no official financial aid package for retired prizefighters, but Barkley says he has been in touch with a number of politicians in New York with the goal of lobbying for a pension plan. “Look at everything I put into boxing,” he laments. “Ex-
fighters like me should be getting something. I want to have enough to provide for myself and my four daughters.”

Yet Barkley has been presented with multiple opportunities to find a new direction in his life. Post-retirement, he worked brief stints as a car salesman and shop assistant before getting bored with the roles. He also had the opportunity to train fighters, but admits he
found it difficult to relate to pupils that lacked the same tenacity he was renowned for in his prime.

“I want to work for myself and I’m not going to chase fighters around either,” he rasps. “I’m not calling a guy to make sure he comes to the gym. If they don’t have the same determination and commitment that I had then I’m not interested. I want to be able
to find and promote talent, but I have to get a lot of money together before I can do that.”

***

Changing careers can be a difficult endeavor, especially when a man has tasted the adoration that accompanies world championships and million dollar paydays. And as Junior Jones can attest, moving into an alien environment can be intimidating, even for a prizefighter.

“When I retired I’d never worked a day in my life, I was terrified of working,” Jones admits. Sitting in the noisy restaurant, he keenly pulls himself forward on his chair, eager to engage as his widening eyes oppose a subdued voice.

“I’ve got a great job and I like everybody there,” he says. “I really enjoy it. I don’t miss training. I don’t miss anything about fighting at all. I’ve done it at the highest level and I accomplished more than I ever expected to accomplish. What’s better than that?”

Superficially, two years of managing deposit slips and checks at a bank may not seem like the most stimulating time in Jones’ life, but the occupation seems to have provided him with a security that transcends wealth.

“You have to be comfortable who you are,” he says. “I like who I am now.”

Having sprayed a steak sandwich with mustard, Jones prepares to take a bite. But he abruptly becomes uncharacteristically agitated. The subject of aged fighters flouting retirement has just been raised. Jones puts down the sandwich, shakes his head and
exhales in vexation.

“It’s crazy for guys to be fighting past 40,” he says while stabbing his finger at the table. “The fighter knows when it’s over and it’s the fighters that make the sport bad too, not just the promoters. Some fighters like people telling him they’re going to win and get
back to the top.”

Jones retired days before his 32nd birthday after taking a sustained beating from unheralded journeyman Ivan Alvarez. Even though a fighter may leave his profession with faculties intact, the symptoms of punch-induced brain damage can take years to
appear. A variety of observers have expressed concern at the apparent decline in the clarity of Jones’ speech. His voice was never particularly voluble, but in recent years it does take greater effort to discern his sentences.

In contrast to Barkley’s dismissive approach, the physical costs of a boxing career do perturb Jones, whose pensive personality has led him to explore the worst possible scenario. His eyes look downward as he describes the brutal consequences of a
prizefighting vocation.

“You’re getting hit with an eight or ten ounce glove with a pair of [hand] wraps on and gauze and tape,” he says with a sense of reluctance. “Your brain sits on top of your head in fluid and every time you get hit, your brain hits against the skull. It crashes the wrong way.

“I want to stay the way I am now, he declares. “I want to be like this as my kids go to college and remember everything they do.”

While Jones has successfully redefined his life since retirement, no matter how far he distances himself from boxing he knows nothing can reverse the effects of absorbing countless head blows. “I’ve been fighting since I was ten; all that adds up,” he acknowledges. “I’m fine now but will I be the same when I’m 50 years old? The scary truth is it’s not a guarantee.”

***

After leaving the highly-charged atmosphere of Gleason’s and sucking back a bottle of iced tea, Barkley seems rejuvenated as he takes a deep breath of the cool air and heads toward Clark Street subway station.

“It’s good to do a workout,” he says. “I always feel good afterwards.”

Upon entering a crowded subway carriage, Barkley moves to sit down in the last remaining seat but quickly jumps back up when he sees a woman with a crying young boy enter the train.

“These subways can be intimidating if you’re not used to them,” he remarks in reference to the wailing child.

Barkley then spends the short journey making comical faces at the boy, pulling goofy smiles in a successful effort to put the youngster at ease and distract him from the daunting surroundings. The distinctive facial features that were so intimidating in
Gleason’s now act as a soothing source of comfort.

Leaving the train, our conversation turns to Barkley’s past trips to Europe and the sudden death of Tony Halme earlier this year.

“Wow, no way!” Barkley exclaims, evidently surprised at the news. “Wow, I didn’t know he died.” Barkley pauses and looks into the distance. “Halme seemed so big and strong,” he finally remarks. “You never know what’s around the corner. I guess it puts
my problems into perspective.”

Editor’s note: This story by award-winning writer Ronan Keenan first ran on Aug. 17, 2010. The photo is of Gleason’s Gym.

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The Top Ten Super Bantamweights of the Decade: 2010-2019

Matt McGrain

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It has been interesting to see how transient fighters are when they inhabit the smaller divisions. Up at cruiserweight, fighters spent on average 50% of the decade in their division to earn their spot among the top ten; here at 122lbs it is nearer 30%.

This results in a list of fighters with less purchase on the list, generally. Occasionally though, even at the smaller weights, a fighter will rack up a list of serious victories in a short space of time and hit the heights – and the divisional stalwart is also not unheard of. Here, one of each of these type towers over the rest of the decadal division but the numbers ten through three kick up a lot of interesting fights, and some very interesting fighters.

In accounting for these fighters, the term “one hit wonder” is used liberally. Here I am not seeking to denigrate either the fighter or his wider opposition; it merely denotes a fighter who has one win of real significance which is often accounted for in some detail.

This is another symptom of a generation of fighters happy to put on a mere four pounds to visit the next division up for their next big test.

10 – Rico Ramos

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 16-6 Ranked For: 18% of the decade

The tenth slot was a shootout between Kiko Martinez, who did a little more at the weight, and Rico Ramos, who did a little less, but who was defeated at the poundage only by Guillermo Rigondeaux; Martinez, meanwhile, was thrashed twice by Carl Frampton and once by Scott Quigg. The Scott Quigg tilts me towards Ramos, whose purple patch of 7-1 gets him over the line.

The jewel in his super-bantamweight crown for the period January 2010 until December 2019 was his come-from-behind knockout victory over Akifumi Shimoda, one of the top contenders of 2010 and 2011. Shimoda himself has a claim to the number ten spot based primarily upon his superb victory over Ryol Li Lee, but Ramos eliminated him when they clashed in Atlantic City in July of 2011.

Ramos, an American of Puerto Rican descent, had been boxing since he was eight years old but seemingly had no answer to the Shimoda jab which was opening up other opportunities for the Japanese; Ramos, circling to his right at the beginning of the seventh, brought Shimoda onto a left hand, but it was unheeded and Shimoda continued to boss the real-estate and find a home for his bodypunches. A right hand from Rico seemed to gather his attention though and having landed yet another left Rico finally had his man rooted to the spot, and circling, he landed a left hand as beautiful as any thrown in the 122lb decade. Shimoda was up at nine but immediately took a second header to the canvas.

Ramos was chased from the division by Rigondeaux, as noted, but certainly there is no shame there.

09 – Rey Vargas

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 34-0 Ranked For: 42% of the decade

Rey Vargas has traced an old-fashioned career arc, occupying a spot at super-bantamweight since 2015 and slowly creeping his way up the ranks to inhabit the number one spot, without, really, meeting anyone to justify that ranking. Sometimes longevity is its own reward.

His highest-ranking victim was Tomoki Kameda, and it showed when they met in July of last year; Tomoki had real success early and took a handy lead out of the first third of the fight. Vargas though is a freakishly tall superbantam at near 5’11 and he has the reach to match. From the fifth on, he deployed a controlling jab birthed by a pedigree amateur career that has been augmented by some serious professional experience. The double-uppercut right hand he landed in that round set him apart; the cards may have been a little wide but clearly Vargas was the right man.

He was the right man too five months previously when he was faced with another tough assignment in Franklin Manzanilla. Manzanilla, out of Venezuela, had scored an impressive victory over Julio Ceja in just four rounds in his previous fight and set some problems for Vargas with his rushes and fouling. Vargas found himself with cuts over both brows from “accidental” head-clashes as early as the eighth and Manzanilla had two points docked for hitting on the break and pushing. But Vargas showed some of his best boxing, dominating at distance with the jab and outlanding Manzanilla with fluid combination punching when they met at mid-range.

Vargas has a little more depth than these two fights – Azat Hovhannisyan and Ronny Rios have both made waves since he beat them – but they remain his fistic cornerstones, and despite some impressive boxing this makes him borderline for inclusion. His paper record and longevity in the ratings at 122lbs has seen me favour him over one-hit wonders like Jeffrey Mathebula and Akifumi Shimoda.

08 – Isaac Dogboe

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 21-2 Ranked For: 18% of the decade

Isaac Dogboe’s pressure appeared functional rather than thrilling before his big step up against Jessie Magdaleno in 2018. Magdaleno had been inactive but had also defeated no less a figure than Nonito Donaire in 2016 and was heavily favoured.

In the first round Dogboe was dropped while pressing Magdaleno too hard and he lost the third too, to a gorgeous Magdaleno counter left. But all the while his pressure was beginning to look a little more than workmanlike. He was adept at keeping Magdaleno moving and again and again Dogboe, out of London via Ghana, would fetch his man up against the ropes and let go. Still very much in touch on the scorecards after four, Magdaleno was being aggressively outgeneralled and was steadily losing touch with the fight. His solution was to come out at the opening of the fifth and attack; Dogboe promptly dropped him with a single left hook.

Dogboe so dominated Magdelano that night that the favourite found himself in need of a knockout by the ninth. The then world’s number one super-bantamweight showed no sign he might achieve it and in fact slipped further and further from his technical best, eventually reduced to sagging on the ropes and beckoning Dogboe in. It was a sorry sight and one the referee interrupted in the eleventh after Dogboe perpetrated the second knockdown of the round over his withering opponent.

It was an impressive and rather unexpected performance, albeit against an opponent who seemed to struggle a little with rust after a year out of the sport and it set Dogboe up as the world’s number one super-bantamweight.

Dogboe never added to his 122lb legacy though; his own nemesis was lurking in the wings.

07 – Emanuel Navarrete

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 31-1 Ranked For: 26% of the decade

Like Dogboe, Emanuel Navarrete fought the usual learning fights, stepped up to take on some journeymen and was then launched right into the deep end to face off with the world’s number one super-bantam. Dogboe-Navarrete was a fascinating contest in that it pitted a Johnny-come-lately against an even more recently arrived contender. Dogboe, as the man with the pedigree opponent on his ledger, was favoured.

Navarrete, who is tall with a reach that seems planetary, allowed Dogboe inside to do his work. It felt wrong and even dangerous until Navarrete landed a triple left hook, up and down, on the inside, to win the second round. From here he controlled the fight, impressive and dominant in out-fighting the smaller pressure fighter whose nightmare had come to visit him in the ring: a fighter he could not push back but rather who was pushing him back. The ninth through twelfth were a parade, the bigger man marching down the smaller pressure fighter in what amounts to the most disheartening position a pugilist of any kind can find himself.

Unfortunately for Dogboe he had a rematch clause. Navarrete, who now knew how Dogboe moved, thought and fought, beat him mercilessly in that rematch. The fight becomes difficult to watch around the eighth; Dogboe’s corner, brave to the near last, finally pulled him as he was blasted to the canvas in the twelfth and final round.

It seemed to me that something special had emerged in that fight, but the truth is we don’t yet know. Navarrete has fallen afoul of the ABC strap he wears in defending against underqualified challengers whose selection for their “title shot” is based upon matters other than fistic. So, the jury remains out on Navarrete, who nevertheless was impressive enough in his twin maulings of Dogboe to comfortably make the list.

06 – Jessie Magdaleno

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 27-1 Ranked For: 22% of the decade

Here, we meet the last of the one-hit-wonders on the list but Magdaleno possesses the finest of all of them: Nonito Donaire. Donaire, it is true, had had some of the glitter removed by Guillermo Rigondeaux, but in November of 2016 he remained the top contender to the legitimate title he had once held. Then Magdaleno came calling.

What most impressed me was Donaire’s near abandonment of his left hook. It was oft repeated that he had one of the “best left hooks in the sport” and if Bernard Hopkins had established the removal of such a potent weapon much ink would have been spent on his exaltation. Magdaleno was less fashionable and has remained so, but it was a wonderful technical achievement. Moving unhurriedly, seeking for single shots, he countered beautifully throughout with the right jab and right hook of his own, taking every opportunity to strike without – shades of Hopkins again – ever over-extending himself. The result was Donaire sheathing his own hook in obedience of the rule that you don’t hook with a hooker, while Magdaleno freely threw his own; to the body, especially, he was prestigious.

Donaire went to the straight right and a fascinating tussle ensued, summed up perfectly in the ninth where Donaire hurt Magdaleno on the ropes, only for Magdaleno to charge him and dominate the remainder of the round, putting him out of sight on the cards; Donaire closed with real strength as Magdaleno’s energy waned.

But the decision clearly belonged to Magdaleno.

It was not too long after this that Magdaleno ran into Dogboe. The reasonable question would be, if Dogboe beat Magdaleno how does Magdaleno come to be ranked above him here? It’s a fair question. The mathematics, for me, says that Magdelano’s defeat of Donaire is more impressive than Dogboe’s defeat of a rusty Magdaleno; I accept that this is arguable but balk at Magdaleno as low as eight given his wonderful performance against Donaire.

05 – Toshiaki Nishioka

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 4-1 Ranked For: 19% of the decade

Toshiaki Nishioka was the number one super-bantamweight coming into the decade and remained so until he was removed by the sumptuous power-punching of Nonito Donaire (and an over-excited referee).

How you feel about his overall standing here will depend upon how you feel about Rafael Marquez and his standing in October of 2011. Having lost three of his last six, including two of those wars with Israel Vazquez, Rafael was ostensibly on the slide, but the fight itself shows a fighter that, while no longer at his withering best, remained stoic and technically brilliant, very much a fighter that had to be mastered.

This, Nishioka did. To this day he maintains that Rafael is his most skilled opponent and he boxed with great care to control him, refusing to contest the inside and avoiding any over-commitment with the jab. Meanwhile he drilled Marquez with his trailing left, a wonderful punch that he throws with as much variety as anyone this century. Flying it quickly to the body was his stock in trade in the early going but he began to risk a wilder, wider, harder punch when he realised how wary Rafael had become. Rafael had success, not least in the second half of the eighth round where it seemed he might actually assume control of the fight, but Nishioka out-fought and out-worked the former lineal champion in the tenth and eleventh to put the decision to bed. It was a deeply impressive performance that cemented his status as the first number one super-bantam of the decade.

Nishioka’s other wins do little other than demonstrate his superiority over the field, especially his October 2010 contest with Rendall Munroe. Munroe brought guts but little else as the fight turned into something of a parade down the stretch; still, re-watching it was worth it for the feinted straight and uppercut through the middle that Nishioka used to tilt Munroe’s head back in the third.

Placing him at number five is a borderline call, but Nishioka was a clearer number one than anyone running eight through six. I am happy that should see him placed above, rather than below, the one-hit wonders.

04 – Leo Santa Cruz

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 24-1-1 Ranked For: 27% of the decade

Leo Santa Cruz departed 122lbs in 2015 with his undefeated record intact having made his impact on the first half of the super-bantamweight decade. His meaningful arrival at the poundage, the equivalent of a Mack truck pulling up inside a jewellery store, came in August of 2013 against Victor Terrazas. Terrazas, a tough, dangerous fighter was unsupported by the type of chin that would have made him genuinely world class. Nevertheless, the world’s number two contender was a serious proposition for Santa Cruz, and was coming off a nerveless, brutal battle with Cristian Mijares which he won by the narrowest of margins.

Terrazas started aggressively as Santa Cruz brought pressure, all high guard and work-rate. But, as we saw while looking at featherweight, Santa Cruz is much more than that. His punch selection is excellent, his sense for the backfoot superb for a front-foot fighter, his jab is thudding and accurate but he can box squarely enough – weight generally over his back leg, when he does so – to lead with the right without courting disaster. Terrazas was complimented during fight commentary for “making this an inside fight” – but an inside fight suits Santa Cruz just fine. He has reach and the technique to use it but is comfortable trying to land punches behind the elbows.

The two fought on even terms until they didn’t, when towards the end of the second Santa Cruz, tougher and better, opened up while the two stood head to head at the ropes. Terrazas emerged wounded and in the third, emerged giving ground. Dropped twice, he seemed broken in part by the psychological pressure, although it was the consistent, severe punching that did the damage.

Santa Cruz’s number two win was over Mijares, undoubtedly damaged goods, but still ranked. Santa Cruz couldn’t stop him, but what he did was in many ways worse: in a fight as different as that with Terrazas as could be imagined, he thrashed Mijares and rendered him a fistic irrelevance.

Santa Cruz was a very dangerous super-bantamweight.

03 – Carl Frampton

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 24-2 Ranked For: 35% of the decade

Carl Frampton slotted in right behind Santa Cruz at featherweight, but here he nips in just ahead of his great rival. A clash at 122lbs would have been helpful though – there is very little to separate them.

What does separate them is the additional work Frampton did at the very top of the division. He met no fewer than three top five contenders during his time fighting as Guillermo Rigondeaux’s understudy – the Cuban was champion throughout Frampton’s stay at the poundage – and soundly defeated all of them.

First up was Kiko Martinez, who Frampton had already defeated in a European title tussle but met again in 2014. Frampton, who probably entered his peak that night, couldn’t put the more experienced Martinez away as he had in their first fight but he did dominate almost completely with a healthy mix of jabs and bodyshots. Chris Avalos, who failed miserably when he moved up to featherweight but was a serious super-bantamweight, visited Frampton’s Belfast stronghold in 2015.  This was Frampton’s finest performance at the weight, his right hand excellent, despite the scruffy squabbling in the second his dominance near-complete.

Frampton’s final fight at 122lbs showed the toll weight-making was taking upon him. He was dominant over the first six against a reticent Scott Quigg, even breaking his jaw in the fourth, but the Englishman came on in the second half of the fight which was, in the end, very close.

Santa Cruz was more impressive in the victories he did have at 122lbs but it was Frampton, in the end, who scored the more numerous and more impressive victories.

02 – Nonito Donaire

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 18-5 Ranked For: 25% of the decade

The decade 2010-2019 produced two legitimate super-bantamweight champions and it is fitting that these two lead the pack. Nor is it close – there is so much clear blue water between Nonito Donaire at #2 and Carl Frampton at #3 that they may as well be on different lists.

Donaire stepped up to 122lbs in 2012 and immediately tackled a divisional strapholder, the number eight contender, Wilfredo Vazquez; after taking a decision form him over the twelve, it was Jeffrey Mathebula, the number six contender who towered over Donaire but nevertheless gave up a similar decision. This second fight is crucial because against both he and Vazquez it is possible to see Donaire over-reaching, under-boxing, pushing far too hard for the knockout which he openly demanded of himself in the press. In the tenth round of his fight with Mathebula, Donaire was so completely out-boxed that in the eleventh and twelfth he limited himself to his more direct sphere of influence and in doing so dominated Mathebula completely, cracking one of his teeth in the process. You could almost hear the penny drop.

I consider that Donaire found himself at 122lbs that night and the result was Donaire’s 118lb form suddenly materialising in the super-bantamweight division. His next fight was against no less a figure than Toshiaki Nishioka, the most accomplished fighter in the division, a meeting between the two best super-bantams in the world and so the beginning of a new lineage at the weight. Donaire was the absolute pinnacle of cool as far as his inherent aggression would allow; he won every round and devastated Nishioka in the ninth round of a non-competitive rout propelled by his right hand rather than left hook. When he butchered Jorge Arce two months later, in December of 2012, he had completed the single best unbroken run of the decade at 122lbs and one of the better runs at any weight.

This being boxing, the end of that run was just around the corner.

01 – Guillermo Rigondeaux

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 15-1 Ranked For: 92% of the decade

Donaire met with Cuban amateur legend Guillermo Rigondeaux in April of 2013 in a huge fight between the two best super-bantamweights in the world. It was also as one-sided as any top tier match of the decade as Rigondeaux, in absolute control for ten of the twelve rounds, picked Donaire’s wings off in a study of lethal economy.

Rigondeaux breaks rhythm. A combination of feints, very astute defensive dips and slips and single power-punches make establishment of offense against him agonising. Donaire, a fluid fighter who counter-pressures his opponents to the canvas, was particularly afflicted by the Rigondeaux malaise.  Rigondeaux threw infrequently; still he out-landed Donaire in every round but one.

The Cuban spent the years in which Donaire was tying together his superb 122lb run emerging from the pack and was just 6-0 when he tangled with number five contender Ricardo Cordoba. Rigondeaux dominated with ease until Cordoba snapped his head back with a jab, flashing him.  Rigondeaux responded in away entirely unacceptable to the American fight fraternity: he ran away.

Rigondeaux took a split decision and learned his final lesson: professional fighting in America calls for more fighting than amateur boxing does anywhere. Rico Ramos, then still unbeaten at 20-0, was the man to bear the brunt of this newly learned lesson as he was blasted to the canvas in the first round and tormented through the sixth when a body punch – and the better part of valour – kept him on the canvas.

So Rigondeaux was primed when he stepped into the ring with Donaire, for all that he was professionally inexperienced. Donaire was made to understand it and the litany of excuses he laid out after the fight – his shoulder was bad, he didn’t study his opponent, his was distracted by his wife’s pregnancy – could not disguise his out-and-out inferiority to Rigondeaux.

The argument as to who would be the decadal number one at 122lbs ended there, but there is more to recommend Rigondeaux as one of the longest serving lineal champions in boxing. In a division that sees fleeting commitment, even by its most prominent fighters, Rigondeaux’s devotion to super-bantamweight has been unusual.

He never became the superstar his management wanted to make him – too technical, too careful, too defensive – but there is no questioning his status as the best of the decade.

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Remembering “Doin’ Damage”

Ted Sares

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Remembering-Doin'-Damage

On June 3, 1997, Darroll “Doin’ Damage” Wilson met Courage “No Limit” Tshabalala at Philadelphia’s legendary Blue Horizon where no seat was a bad seat. The fight was a true Philly Classic, one of the most exciting fights of the year. The result was a surprise, but not as surprising as the upset that Darroll Wilson pulled off in March of the previous year when he fought the much bigger Shannon Briggs at the Convention Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Wilson vs. Briggs

Brooklynite Shannon Briggs (25-0) had achieved a reputation for being a guy who ended his fights early, as in first-round KO’s, but on this occasion, things kind of reversed themselves, as the gutsy Wilson (15-0-2 going in) survived a furious first round and then used his superior skills to shockingly take out “The Cannon” with a sharp left hook two rounds later.

Wilson, who lived close to Atlantic City in Mays Landing, N.J., had done considerable damage to his opponents until he met David Tua (24-0) in Miami and was KOd in the last second of an otherwise even first round by the streaking “Tuaman.” But losing to the short but super-powerful Tua was no disgrace. In fact, for Darroll, the best was yet to come.

 After beating limited Ron McCarthy, Darroll met the highly-touted Tshabalala (20-1). “Courage” had previously been shocked by Brian “Bam Bam” Scott (21-3) in the late Scott’s career definer in 1996, shattering the myth of the South African’s extraordinary power and alleged 72-1 amateur record (with 71 knockouts). Scott won using a fast and sharp combo, stopping him in the second round. Most of the 270-pound native of Kansas’s opponents had losing records which further amplified the shock factor– though Courage’s level of opposition was equally suspect.

Wilson vs Tshabalala (June 1997)

After Ed Darian Derian announced the fighters, the bell rang and Courage quickly decked Wilson with a power jab and then dictated matters for the rest of the round as he went on the stalk. The second round was uneventful until the last 15 seconds when Tshabalala opened up with a number of power shots. Wilson answered, but his answer came after the bell for which he received a firm warning.

Late in the third round, Wilson was hit clean by a perfect Courage right cross. He went down hard, got up, and then fell back down on Queer Street. Just as Referee Rudy Battle was about to signal the end of the fight, the round ended and Wilson was allowed to continue. Lou Duva, Courage’s manager, protested the call in his usual hyper/hysterical fashion but to no avail. Lou’s signature protests had acquired the feel of the little boy who cried wolf too often and this one was no exception.

Tshabalala came out fast in the next round trying to put away a still stunned Wilson, but the muscular Darroll did what he did against Briggs and, weathering the fierce storm, began to connect with his own shots. Both men went at it full-tilt boogie until the South African, exposing a stamina issue, finally went down, spit out his mouthpiece, and was counted out. He had nothing left. The Blue Horizon went bonkers.

Tshabalala had now participated in one of the upsets of the year and one of the most exciting fights of the year. Though a loser in both, he was nevertheless on everybody’s radar.

Bert Cooper (September 2002)

Darroll would go on to win some and lose some but against the very best opposition including David Izon, Frankie Swindell, Mike Rouse, Tim Witherspoon, Ray Mercer, and Oliver McCall. He ended his career in 2006 with a 27-10-2 slate and– before he took three years off–he scored another big win by stopping Bert Cooper (36-21) at the Blue Horizon in 2002. After this loss, Bert himself would take an eight-year hiatus from boxing, but for all practical purposes, he was done. (Cooper was a tragic figure with a deceptive record—a quintessentially sad boxing story– and the ups and downs of his life beg for a telling.)

As for Darroll Wilson, he always gave his best and on at least three occasions, he did some remarkable damage.

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com or on Facebook.

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Leo Upends Williams as Boxing Returns to ‘Showtime’

Arne K. Lang

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Leo-Upends-Williams-as-Boxing-Returns-to-Showtime

Showtime Boxing kicked off their late summer/fall season tonight with a three-fight card behind closed doors at the Mohegan Sun Casino Resort in Uncasville, CT. Tonight’s show is the first of nine live boxing events that the cable TV giant announced on July 22. The season will run through Dec. 12 with the concluding match a WBC bantamweight title bout between defending title-holder Nordine Oubaali and ageless showstopper Nonito Donaire.

Unfortunately for Showtime, there was a COVID-19 complication right out of the box. Philadelphia bantamweight Stephen Fulton, who would have been the “A” side in tonight’s main event, tested positive on Wednesday, forcing some shuffling. Tramaine Williams was bumped up from the co-feature to challenge Angelo Leo for the WBO world super bantamweight title vacated by Emanuel Navarette.

Angelo Leo hadn’t prepared for a southpaw and it took him a bit find his groove, but he found it and won a fairly lopsided decision over a previously undefeated opponent who was fighting in his home state. The scores were 117-111 and 118-110 twice.

Leo, 26, worked the body well and had more fuel in his tank as the bout progressed into the late rounds. In winning, Leo became the first world title-holder from Albuquerque since Johnny Tapia. Promoted by Floyd Mayweather’s “Money Team”, he advanced his record to 20-0. It was the first pro loss for New Haven’s Williams who fell to 19-1.

It figures that Leo will make his first defense against Stephen Fulton.

Other Bouts

In another 122-pound match that was also penciled in for 12 rounds, Ra’eese Aleem thoroughly outclassed late sub Marcus Bates en route to a 10th round stoppage. This was their second meeting and Bates, who entered the contest 11-1-1, was looking to avenge his lone defeat. In their initial go in Philadelphia in April of 2018, Aleem won comfortably on the scorecards. Bates recently explained that loss away by saying that he believed that someone tampered with his water bottle, giving Aleem an advantage.

Aleem, 30, steadily broke Bates down. The referee halted the one-sided match when Bates, who appeared to have sprained his right wrist, turned his back on Aleem after absorbing a hard left hook. Aleem, the pride of Muskegon, Michigan, improved to 17-0 with his 12th knockout.

In the opener, a light heavyweight match slated for 10 rounds, Houston’s Joseph George (11-0, 7 KOs) landed a bombshell of a left uppercut in the ninth frame to put away Marcos Escudero (10-2) who was well ahead on the scorecards when lightning struck.

This was a rematch. When they fought last November on ShoBox, Escudero outworked George, but George landed the crisper punches and prevailed on a split decision. Escudero, who is from Argentina but had his early pro fights in Florida, outworked George again (George likes to fight with his back against the ropes, a strategy he needs to reconsider) but as they say, it only takes one punch in this business, and Joseph George, who is managed by NFL all-pro tackle Trent Williams, brought the howitzer.

Photo credit: Amanda Westcott / Showtime

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