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60 Years Ago This Week, Cassius Clay Brightens Up The Eternal City

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On Aug. 17, 1960, the first of five planeloads of U.S. Olympians arrived in Rome. The boxers came with the first wave because boxing would be first on the “bout sheet,” beginning right after the opening ceremonies on Aug. 25. Three members of that team would win gold medals including the heavily touted Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., an 18-year-old light heavyweight from Louisville.

Amateur boxers got a lot more exposure back in those days. The previous year, Clay’s bout with Tony Madigan was televised nationally on ABC along with two other bouts from Chicago Stadium. The occasion was the annual Chicago/New York Inter-City Golden Gloves meet matching the top amateurs from the East and West.

Tony Madigan was a two-time Olympian for Australia. He had taken up residence in Rye, New York, a bedroom community of New York City, for the purpose of honing his game under the schooling of Cus D’Amato who had guided 17-year-old Floyd Patterson to a gold medal in the 1952 Games in Helsinki. With all that experience, it wasn’t surprising that Madigan outclassed the field in his weight division in the New York tournament.

Tony Madigan was 29 years old. Cassius Clay was 17. It was boy against man in Chicago and the boy won. Madigan pressed the action, but Clay’s “pointed combinations” prevailed.

Clay won several more tournaments after that, most notably the 1960 Olympic Trials in San Francisco. He almost didn’t go because he had a phobia of flying.

The stars of the 1960 U.S. Olympic team were flag-bearer Rafer Johnson who set an Olympic record in the decathlon, sprinter Wilma Rudolph who took home three gold medals and was proclaimed the fastest woman in the world, and a basketball team starring Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas that clobbered their eight opponents by an average of 42.4 points per game.

And, of course, the kid from Louisville who knocked off old foe Tony Madigan in the semi-finals and then on Sept. 5 conquered a Polish southpaw with an impossibly long name to capture the gold. But the kid wasn’t celebrated for only what he accomplished in the ring.

If I may digress for a moment, Dr. Robert Voy, who runs a sports medicine clinic in Las Vegas (and still practices at age 87) has worked with numerous Olympians over the years, both Summer and Winter. Voy, who was the Chief Medical Officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1984-89, once told this reporter that of all the athletes, he most enjoyed working with the boxers because they were the most unspoiled. There were no prima donnas in their ranks; that came later after they turned pro and were exposed to all the venal characters that inhabit the sport at the professional level.

Dr. Voy wasn’t in Rome in 1960; that was a little before his time. But if he had been there, he would have had a very pleasant time interacting with the unspoiled kid from Louisville.

In Rome, the Eternal City, Cassius Clay was the unofficial Mayor of Olympic Village. He was dubbed as such because of his outgoing personality. “Cassius Marcellus Clay is a delightful, refreshing, naïve extrovert,” wrote Sid Ziff, on assignment for the Los Angeles Mirror. “Completely without inhibitions, he even made friends instantly with the Russians. He stopped a party of them marching to their quarters, refused to be rebuffed and soon had his picture being taken with their arms around him, everyone wearing ear-to-ear smiles.”

Let’s put this into context. In the year 1960, relationships between the U.S. and Russia were especially tense. We were in the midst of the Cold War. On the very same week that the U.S. boxing team arrived in Rome, CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers was convicted of espionage in a Russian court after his U-2 plane was shot down on a reconnaissance mission. Air raid drills in American public schools hadn’t yet run their course. The possibility of a nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers seemed very real.

If Americans weren’t conditioned to despise the Russians (the “lousy Commies”), they were at least conditioned to be wary of them. And the Russians undoubtedly felt the same way toward us. But no one told the kid from Louisville.

The purpose of the Olympic Games, at least in theory, is to build a more peaceful world through “mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” In the Olympic Village of Rome in 1960, no one better embodied the Olympic spirit than Cassius Clay. “We’d walk around and he’d go up to (strangers) and shake their hands,” recollected his teammate Wilbert “Skeeter” McClure. He seldom went anywhere without his camera. He was building a scrapbook to show the folks back home.

Back home in Louisville, he received a royal welcome. He was feted at a ceremony at Central High School, his alma mater. “When we consider all the efforts that are being made to undermine the prestige of America, we can be grateful we had such a fine ambassador as Cassius to send over to Italy,” said Atwood Wilson, the school’s Principal. “If all young people could handle themselves as well as he does, we wouldn’t have any juvenile problems,” added Louisville Mayor Bruce Hobitzell. “He’s a swell kid.”

Cassius was named after his father. There were other Cassius Marcellus Clay’s in Louisville as the boxer was growing up there, including a prominent State Senator. The others were white folks, descendants of the original Cassius Marcellus Clay, a fiery abolitionist who among other things donated the land for Berea College, the first racially integrated college in the South when it opened in 1855.

Cassius liked his name back then, he thought it had a nice ring to it, but as we know he would eventually abandon it. Under his new name, Muhammad Ali, he became a polarizing figure, a man beloved by millions around the world but yet loathed by many of his countrymen. He was a shoo-in for Fighter of the Year in 1966 after making five successful heavyweight title defenses, but The Ring magazine, the sport’s self-proclaimed Bible, refused to recognize him and left the laurel vacant. “Most emphatically,” wrote Nat Fleischer, the magazine’s founder and editor, “(Ali) could not be held up as an example to the youngsters in the United States.”

Over time, Fleischer’s opinion got turned on its head. Ali came to be seen as a positive role model, a “tireless humanitarian and philanthropist” in the words of the press release announcing that he had been selected to receive the prestigious Liberty Award, an honor that came his way in 2012. Last year, three years after his death, Louisville honored him by naming the city’s airport after him.

Muhammad Ali, the former Cassius Clay, the “swell kid” from Louisville, would go on to become the most famous person on the planet. At the height of his fame, it was said of him that if he dropped out of the sky and landed on a remote island where there was no television, no newspapers or magazines, the natives would still recognize him. And his first step in becoming a global superstar came 60 years ago this week in Rome, the Eternal City.

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Former World Bantamweight Champion Richie Sandoval Passes Away at Age 63

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Richie Sandoval, who won the WBA and lineal bantamweight title in one of the biggest upsets of the 1980s and then, not quite two years later, suffered near-fatal injuries in a title defense, has passed away at the age of 63.

News circulated fast in the Las Vegas boxing community on Monday, July 22, the grapevine actuated by a tweet from Hall of Fame matchmaker Bruce Trampler: “Boxing and the Top Rank family lost one of our own last night in the passing of former WBA bantamweight champion Richie Sandoval. It hurts personally and professionally to know that Richie is gone at age 63. RIP campeon.”

Details are vague but the cause of death was apparently a sudden heart attack that Sandoval experienced while visiting the Southern California home of his son of the same name.

Richie Sandoval put the LA County community of Pomona, California, on the boxing map before Shane Mosley came along and gave the town a more frequently-cited mention in the sports section of the papers. He came from a fighting family. An older brother, Albert “Superfly” Sandoval, became a big draw at LA’s fabled Olympic Auditorium while building a 35-2-1 record that included a failed bid to capture Lupe Pintor’s world bantamweight title.

Richie was a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic boxing team that was stranded when U.S. President Jimmy Carter (and many other world leaders) boycotted the event as a protest against Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan.

As a pro, Sandoval’s signature win was a 15th-round stoppage of Jeff Chandler. They fought on April 7, 1984 in Atlantic City. Chandler was making the tenth defense of his world bantamweight title.

Despite being a heavy underdog, Sandoval dominated the fight, winning almost every round until the referee stepped in and waived it off. Chandler, who was 33-1-2 heading in and had avenged his lone defeat, never fought again.

Sandoval made two successful defenses before risking his title against Gabby Canizales on the undercard of Hagler-Mugabi in the outdoor stadium at Caesars Palace. In round seven, Sandoval, who had a hellish time making the weight, was knocked down three times and suffered a seizure as he collapsed from the third knockdown. Stretchered out of the ring, he was rushed to the hospital where doctors reduced the swelling in his brain and beat the odds to save his life. This would be Richie’s lone defeat. He finished his pro career with a record of 29-1 (17 KOs).

Bob Arum cushioned some of the pain by giving Richie a $25,000 bonus and offering him a lifetime job at Top Rank which Richie accepted. And let the record show that Arum was good to his word.

A more elaborate portrait of Richie Sandoval was published in these pages in 2017. You can check it out HERE. May he rest in peace.

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Amanda Serrano and Jake Paul Vanquish Overmatched Foes in Tampa

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Amanda “the Real Deal” Serrano mowed through knockout puncher Stevie Morgan in less than two rounds on Saturday and Jake Paul soundly defeated bare knuckle champion Mike Perry by knockout too.

Paul and Serrano move on to bigger things.

“It’s feels great, it feels amazing. My 50th fight, my 31st knockout, I’m super blessed,” said Serrano.

Despite jumping up three weight divisions Serrano (47-2-1, 31 KOs) showed more than 17,000 fans and Morgan (14-2, 13 KOs) at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida, how she was able to win seven weight divisions.

Fans and perhaps Katie Taylor breathed a sigh of relief that Serrano is truly back. In Serrano’s last fight she was forced to withdraw back in March due to an accident to her eye moments before a fight. Now the Puerto Rican and Irish super stars will meet in Texas on November 15.

Fans can expect a rematch of one of the greatest fights of all time.

Tonight, before walking into the boxing ring, Morgan had commented that of all the top female fighters Serrano was low hanging fruit. The Puerto Rican legend merely shrugged her shoulders and replied that she lets her fists do the talking.

Both fighters hesitated touching gloves but did. After that, Serrano immediately went into assassin’s mode and moved forward while punching like a finely tuned hemi-engine. Morgan tried to keep up but discovered Serrano was not easy to hit.

Serrano moved forward smoothly while slipping and punching. A stiff looking Morgan, whose legs seemed unbent, tried to fend off the Puerto Rican champion’s blows but was smacked repeatedly in the first round with lefts and rights.

When the bell rang to end the first round, it was obvious that Morgan was overmatched.

As the second round commenced Serrano immediately slipped into attack gear behind her southpaw defensive guard. Once again, she fired combinations while moving quickly forward against the taller Morgan.

It was even worse than the first round as Serrano unloaded a dozen unanswered blows forcing the referee to stop the fight at 38 seconds of the second round.

“I think these girls were mistaking my kindness for weakness,” said Serrano. “If you’re not on my level that’s what happens.”

Morgan quickly learned she’s not on the championship level.

“Stevie Morgan just started a little while ago. I knew it would have been a little too much for her,” said Serrano. “My hat goes off to her. It’s not easy.”

Now it’s on to Katie Taylor.

Jake Paul KOs Mike Perry

In the co-main event Jake Paul (10-1, 7 KOs) floored Mike Perry (6-1) the Bare Knuckle Champion in the first and second round of the cruiserweight fight. And then battered the smaller fighter with a jolting jab to the body and head that opened up cuts on the former MMA fighter.

Paul continued to show improvement and proved once again that whether its MMA or Bare Knuckle fighting, his boxing skills are superior to their combat champions.

“Man, he’s tough as nails. I’m sorry it took so long. Respect man. He’s the king of violence,” said Paul about his fallen foe whose nickname is the “King of Violence.”

Paul attacked the body with a strong left jab while circling slowly left and right. Perry stood straight up with a low guard and his chin up. Paul hit that chin repeatedly and eventually cracked it in the fifth round.

Perry survived.

In the sixth round the bigger blonde fighter Paul bludgeoned Perry with another left jab and then opened with a barrage of blows that blasted the bare knuckle fighter to the canvas. Though he beat the count, he stumbled and the referee stopped the fight at 1:12 of the sixth round.

“I kind of expected that,” said Paul.

Perry was honest about the outcome.

“I tried man, but the kid hit me hard,” said Perry.

Now it’s on to Mike Tyson on November 15 in Arlington, Texas.

“Mike. I love you. But this is my sport now. I’m so honored but I’m going to take your throne.”

Other Bouts

A lightweight battle between undefeated fighters saw Canada’s Lucas Bahdi (17-0, 15 KOs) lose every round until he unloaded a three-punch combination that rendered Ashton Sylve (11-1, 9 KOs) unconscious before he hit the canvas.

Sylve utilized his speed and counters for five rounds and seemed to cruise for five years. But Bahdi showed a good chin especially against lightning uppercuts that sneaked through the guard.

“He’s very twitchy and very quick. I was trying to get to his body early on,” said Bahdi. “He’s very fast and has good counter punches.

In the sixth round Sylve was opening up a little more with his hands down and Bahdi saw the opening and quickly launched a right followed by a left hook that knocked out Sylve before he hit the floor at 2:27 of the sixth round.

“I knew his head’s there in the center all the time,” said Bahdi. “I think I stole the show tonight.”

Prelim Bouts

A rematch between lightweights saw Corey Marksman (10-0-1) win by majority decision against Tony Aguilar (12-1-1) in a back-and-forth battle. Marksman out-worked Aguilar with an especially effective counter-right that scored repeatedly. Their first encounter last February ended in a draw.

Shadasia Green (14-1, 11 KOs) stumbled a bit but got the win against Natasha Spence (8-5-2) to win by unanimous decision in a super middleweight. It was her first fight since losing to Franchon Crews-Dezurn for the world title.

Green was cruising for most of the fight behind a sharp jab and rights to the body but during an offensive out burst Spence caught her with a counter right and floored her in the seventh. It was half punch and half slip, but she was knocked down.

Though Green did not get a knockout she emerged with the win 78-73, 77-74 twice.

“I had fun in there tonight,” said Green. “I belong at the top with the best.”

Alexis Chaparro (2-0) knocked out Kevin Hill (1-2) with a five-punch combination at 2:01 of the second round in a middleweight fight.

Angel Barrientes (12-1) defeated Edwin Rodriguez (12-9-2) by majority decision after six rounds in a super bantamweight fight. The scores were 57-57, 60-54 twice for Barrientes who resides in Las Vegas.

Photo credit: Esther Lin / MVP Promotions

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Nakatani Strengthens his Pound-for-Pound Credentials: Blasts Out Astrolabio

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Junto Nakatani is the best 118-pound boxer in the world. Tonight, in Tokyo, he reinforced that judgment with a first-round knockout of Vincent Astrolabio at Japan’s national sumo arena. A short left to the solar plexus left the Filipino writhing on the canvas. He tried to rise but fell back down, forcing referee Tom Taylor to waive it off. It was all over in less than three minutes, 2:37 to be precise. Nakatani (28-0, 21 KOs) was making the first defense of his WBO bantamweight title after previously winning title belts at 112 and 115.

Tall for the weight class at five-foot-seven-and-a-half, the 26-year-old Japanese southpaw produced his second highlight reel knockout in his last four fights. The first come in May of last year at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas where he scored a frightening, 12th-round one-punch knockout of Andrew Moloney.

Nakatani won’t have to travel far to unify the belt. The other three current bantamweight champions are also Japanese. Down the road, potentially, is a showdown with countryman Naoya Inoue. That match, should it transpire, would be the biggest domestic fight in Japanese boxing history. Astrolabio, who had been stopped only once previously and was making his second stab at a world title, declined to 18-5.

Other Title Fight

LA’s Anthony Olascuaga, a stablemate of Nakatani (both train in LA under the tutelage of Rudy Hernandez), won the vacant WBO flyweight title with a third-round stoppage of Riku Kanu. A left uppercut put Kano (22-5) on the deck for the full count. The official time was 2:50 of round three.

Olascuaga (7-1, 5 KOs) was rucked out of obscurity in April of last year when he dropped down a weight class and performed far better than expected, albeit in a losing effort, against Kenshiro Teraji, a fight that he took on 10 days’ notice. Despite his inexperience and the locale, the LA fighter entered the ring a consensus 3/1 favorite over Kanu.

Also

In his first 10-rounder, ever-improving Tenshin Nasukawa (4-0, 2 KOs) stopped U.S. invader Jonathan Rodriguez in the third round. Five unanswered punches climaxed by a straight left ended matters at the 1:49 mark. The bout was contested at a catchweight of 120 pounds.

Nasukawa, a baby-faced, 25-year-old southpaw, transitioned to boxing after becoming famous in Japan for his kickboxing exploits. His first foray into boxing was an exhibition with Floyd Mayweather who knocked him out in the opening round, but he’s made considerable progress since then.

Against Rodriguez, Nasakawa was dominant from the get-go. Rodriguez was in dire straits as the second round ended. The first fighter from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley to fight in Japan, Rodriguez (17-3-1) joins the ranks of one-hit wonders. He scored a shocking first-round KO of former title-holder Khalid Yafai, but then lost his very next fight en route to this affair.

The promotion lost a bit of luster when the title fight between WBO 115-pound belt-holder Kosei Tanaka and Puerto Rico’s Jonathan Rodriguez (no relation to Nasukawa’s opponent of the same name) fell out when Rodriguez weighed a staggering six pounds over the limit.

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