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Award-Winning Writer John Schulian Reflects on His Days on the Boxing Beat

Rick Assad

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A TSS CLASSIC: Bill Shoemaker was born to ride thoroughbred race horses. Pablo Picasso to paint. Tony Bennett to sing. Marlon Brando to act. John Schulian to write.

Schulian has written for six newspapers including the Washington Post, Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News, and has contributed to such weighty periodicals as Sports Illustrated, Gentlemen’s Quarterly, Inside Sports and Playboy.

In time, Schulian would turn his attention to the bright lights of Hollywood where he was a staff writer for “L.A. Law,” “Miami Vice,” “Wiseguy,” “The Slap Maxwell Story,” and “Midnight Caller.”

Schulian also co-created the worldwide hit television show “Xena: Warrior Princess.”

And if that wasn’t enough, Schulian edited or co-edited four sports anthologies and had three collections of his sports writing published: “Writers’ Fighters And Other Sweet Scientists,” “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods,” and “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand.”

After our initial meeting over a three-hour lunch and through continued correspondence via email, the Los Angeles native who holds journalism degrees from the University of Utah (BA) and Northwestern University (MS) agreed to answer a handful of questions for “The Sweet Science.”

Like so many people, Muhammad Ali’s passing at age 74 in Arizona hit home for Schulian.

“My first thought is that I’m hardly alone in having memories of Ali,” he said. “He belonged to the public in a way that no other athlete – no other public figure, really – has belonged to the public. Some people still remember how he shed the name Cassius Clay and stood over the supine Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine, daring the big ugly bear he had just knocked down – or had he? – to get up.

“Others remember Ali’s trembling hand when he lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996. And then there are those who lucked into more personal moments: a kid who met Ali by chance in an airport or a woman who saw him give her husband the once-over at a banquet and then tell her, “You can do better.”

“Sometimes it seemed as if Ali was put on earth to brighten peoples’ lives that way. I know he certainly brightened mine the night I was sitting next to him on the dais at a banquet in New York. He drew the globe complete with continents on a paper placemat, then he nudged me and pointed at it. “I used to be champion of all that,” he said in a raspy voice. He was through with fighting by then, and yet his words still gave me a chill. For some of us, he would always be a champion even if he wore no crown.”

Schulian, who was offered Red Smith’s column at The New York Times, which he turned down, covered boxing in the 1970s and 1980s. Among the many fights he watched, which stand out?

“I wish I could put an Ali fight on this list, but all the fights I covered showcasing him never should have happened,” he said. “He left the last vestiges of his greatness in Manila, just as Joe Frazier did, and it was only after he was back home that I began writing about him.

“The one really good fight Ali had in that era was with Earnie Shavers in Madison Square Garden, but Ali still took some ferocious shots, and I’m sure he paid for them later.

“Now, to get back to your question: [Ray] Leonard-[Thomas] Hearns was a great fight. Hearns had him beat twice, but Leonard had too much heart and brainpower to be stopped.

“The first [Aaron] Pryor-[Alexis] Arguello fight, in Miami, was a study in courage and the thrilling nobility that such a brutal sport can summon from combatants. Of course, a lot of people scarcely remember that because of Duk Koo Kim’s fatal injuries in the ring the next evening.

“[Roberto] Duran-Leonard I was fascinating because of the education Leonard took away from it. In their second fight, he let Duran know that school was out. The best fight I covered – the most electric fight and the most dramatic – was [Marvin] Hagler-Hearns. I never saw anything like it. They charged out of their corners at the start of the first round, and everybody at press row and in the crowd came out of their seats like they’d just taken 1,000 volts in the ass.

“Nobody sat down until Hagler had landed so many punches that all of Hearns’ synapses were misfiring. Of such violence are legends made.”

There are enough great boxers to fill a good-size garage. Who stands above the rest?

“I didn’t start writing about boxing extensively until after the Thrilla in Manila, which means I covered Ali at a time he shouldn’t have been fighting at all,” said Schulian, who had his first novel, “A Better Goodbye,” published in 2015. “So I can’t call him the best. The Hagler-Hearns fight was the best I covered and the most electric event I’ve seen in any sport, but that doesn’t put Marvelous Marvin atop my list.

“The same goes for Roberto Duran, who was a brilliant defensive fighter as well as a terrifying puncher, and Larry Holmes, a great heavyweight with a wrecking-ball jab and the bad luck to succeed Ali as champion.

“The best fighter in my time, however, was Sugar Ray Leonard. He proved how big his heart and talent were when he beat Hearns, but that was just part of what made him so great. He also had a rapacious intellect when it came to boxing. He watched film of every great old fighter  and he went to school on all of them. And his education in the ring was enhanced exponentially by the way his trainer Angelo Dundee brought him along, pitting him against every possible type of opponent, sluggers and cutie pies, southpaws and stylists, and defensive specialists and guys who, given the chance, would try to gouge out his eyes.

“Leonard beat them all, and did it with the same flair and personality that the public fell in love with at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Once his name was included among boxing’s all-time greats, however, something in him changed. He began retiring and un-retiring and he slowly got rid of all the people who had helped him get to the top, Dundee and lifetime friends like Dave Jacobs and Janks Morton, and the lawyer who made sure he would always be financially secure, Mike Trainer.

“It happens in every profession, I suppose, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Leonard beat Hagler, either. But he was still the best fighter I covered in what was boxing’s last golden era.”

What separates covering boxing from other sports? “I hope you don’t mind if I quote myself,” he said. “This is from my introduction to “At The Fights,” which George Kimball (RIP) and I edited for the Library of America.

“[Boxing] is the best friend a writer ever had. It doesn’t matter whether the writer is a newspaper wage-slave feverishly trying to make his deadline after a title fight or a big-name author who has parachuted in to survey toe-to-toe gladiators and the exotica surrounding them.

“There is an undeniable jolt to watching violence in the ring, an almost electrical charge composed of equal parts beauty and savagery, and it can stir the poet in a writer who doesn’t realize he has poetry in him.

“I’m sure our very best boxing writers, from A.J. Liebling to Mark Kram to Richard Hoffer, would have wonderful things to add to that, but if you read their work, you’ll see the points I made driven home in high style.”

Was it more fun covering boxing during your era versus the present day? “I’m not out in the gyms and ballparks anymore so it’s hard for me to give you a definitive answer,” Schulian pointed out. “But judging by what I hear from old sports writing friends, read in papers and magazines, and see on TV, the job looks a hell of a lot harder than it used to be.

“The best sport of all for guys who would bend your ear was boxing. If you walked into a gym or arena with a notebook in your hand, you were instantly surrounded by people with stories to tell. All anyone cared about was that you spelled his name right, and that included Don King, who just laughed every time he got caught short-changing another fighter.

When Angelo Dundee was in his final years, I needed to talk to him for a piece I was writing about Ali. It had been years since we’d last spoken, so I felt compelled to introduce myself. “Why you doin’ that?” Angelo said. “I oughta punch you in the nose. We’re friends, for crying out loud.”

For the late Sports Illustrated scribe Pat Putnam, he used Liebling’s words to help elevate his prose. What took Schulian to the next level?

“Maybe I would have written better if I’d read Liebling too, but, no, I never did anything like Pat did,” he noted.” The fighters were always my inspiration. If they weren’t up to the challenge, then I’d fall back on the world I was in at every fight, with a cast of characters that seemed to have stepped out of a noir novel. I didn’t always write an “A” story, but the material for one was almost always at my disposal.”

Schulian received the prestigious PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing this year.

“It was the biggest and best surprise of my career,” he said. “You have to realize that I left daily newspapering for Hollywood thirty years ago. It was a move that I always assumed rendered me a non-candidate for any journalism awards even if I kept my hand in sports writing by doing occasional pieces for GQ, Sports Illustrated, the L.A. Times, Deadspin, and Alex Belth’s Bronx Banter Blog.

“What can I tell you? I’m a compulsive writer. And there were things I wanted to say and subjects that editors wanted me to write about. The great discovery of this second phase of my sports writing career was that l felt like I’d somehow become better at putting words on paper.

“Maybe I needed time away from the grind of doing four columns a week and always having a freelance magazine piece going on the side. Maybe I learned something from the incredibly smart people I worked with in TV – nothing about writing prose, mind you, but plenty about thinking and challenging the norm and being exposed to new ideas.

“Whatever the reason, I ended up doing some of the best pieces of my career, about Ali, Josh Gibson, Chuck Bednarik and the obscure legends that help make baseball such a compelling game. But once they were in print and I’d cashed the checks I got for them, I figured that was the end of the line.

“When PEN e-mailed me early this year to say I’d won the award, I was gobsmacked. I didn’t even know I was in the running, and I still don’t know who nominated me, but I hope that whoever it was realizes how grateful I am. I’m equally grateful to Dave Kindred, Sally Jenkins and Senator Bill Bradley, who comprised the panel that selected me.

“They put me in the same sentence with Roger Angell, Dan Jenkins, Frank Deford, Dave Anderson and Bob Ryan, the award’s previous winners. It’s hard to believe that a guy who co-created “Xena” could keep such distinguished company, but I’ve got the plaque to prove it.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally ran on August 23, 2016

——

Rick Assad has covered sports in Southern California for almost three decades. You may contact him at yankeespride55@gmail.com

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Pradabsri Upsets Menayothin, Ends the Longest Unbeaten Streak of Modern Times

Arne K. Lang

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During the wee hours in the Americas, a big upset was brewing in Thailand. In Nakhon Sawan, a city roughly 150 miles north of Bangkok, Panya Pradabsri (aka Petchmanee CP Freshmart) out-pointed Wanheng Menayothin (aka Chayaphon Moonsri) in a domestic clash with international significance. Manayothin entered the bout with a 54-0 (18) record and was making the 13th defense of his WBC world minimumweight title.

Pradabsri had been defeated only once in 35 previous starts, but only 11 of his 34 victories had come against fighters with winning records. According to ringside reports, he kept Menayothin at bay with good fundamentals, a stiff jab, and good lateral movement. All three judges had it 115-113. The fight wasn’t without controversy as Menayothin finished stronger and many folks scoring off the live video thought that he had done just enough to retain his title.

How good was/is Menayothin? That’s a question that serious boxing fans will likely debate for decades.

In the summer of 2019, Menayothin signed a co-promotional deal with Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions. At time, GBP president Eric Gomez described him as one of the best fighters in the world. “We really want to bring him to the U.S. so people can see how talented he really is,” Gomez told England’s Sky Sports.

Menayothin was expected to make his U.S. debut in April of this year, but the pandemic ruined that plan. Earlier this year, he announced his retirement, but rescinded it after only two days.

Scottish boxing historian Matt McGrain, who has an exclusive arrangement with this web site, had lukewarm opinion of the Thai mighty-mite although he rated him the second-best 105-pound boxer of the decade, trailing only his countryman Thammanoon Niyomtrong (aka Knockout CP Freshmart).

“He is disciplined, strong, brings good pressure and is armed with a very decent range of punches,” said McGrain, “(but his record) is comprised mostly of men any competent fighter would be expected to beat.”

Although only one boxer from Thailand has been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame (Khaosai Galaxy, class of 1999), the Southeast Asia nation has produced some outstanding boxers over the years – Chartchoi Chionoi, Sot Chitalada, Pongsaklek Wonjongkam, and Srisaket Sor Rungvisai to name just a few. The difference between these fighters and Wanheng Menayothin is that they all left the comfort zone of their homeland to score one or more important wins on foreign soil.

Menayothin may yet display his wares in a U.S. ring. But at age 35, an advanced age for small fighters in particular, we won’t get to see him at his best and now that his bubble has been burst, disinviting further comparisons to Mayweather and Marciano, the curiosity factor has been tempered.

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Yoka vs. Hammer Kicks Off the Thanksgiving Weekend Slate on ESPN+

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PRESS RELEASE— Tony Yoka, the dynamic heavyweight punching Parisian, aims to impress in his ESPN platform debut. Yoka, who won a super heavyweight gold medal for France at the 2016 Rio Olympics, will fight veteran Christian Hammer in a 10-rounder Friday at H Arena in Nantes, France.

Yoka-Hammer will stream live and exclusively this Friday, Nov. 27 in the United States on ESPN+ beginning at 2:55 p.m. ET/11:55 a.m. PT.

The ESPN+ stream will also include the return of unbeaten 2016 French Olympic gold medalist Estelle Yoka-Mossely against Pasa Malagic in an eight-round lightweight bout. Yoka and Yoka-Mossely, who have been married since 2018, welcomed their second child in May.

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Earlier this year, Yoka inked a promotional agreement with Top Rank, which will co-promote him with Ringstar France.

“Tony Yoka’s potential is limitless, and he is a grounded young man who is motivated to be a great professional fighter,” said Top Rank chairman Bob Arum. “France has never had a world heavyweight champion, and I believe Tony is the one to bring the sport’s biggest honor home.”

The 28-year-old Yoka’s stellar amateur run included a berth at the 2012 London Olympics and gold medals at the 2015 World Championships and 2010 Youth Olympic Games. Before his triumph in Rio, he’d already defeated the likes of former heavyweight world champion Joseph Parker and current undefeated prospects Joe Joyce and Ivan Dychko. At the Rio Olympics, he defeated Croatian standout Filip Hrgović in the semifinals and edged Joyce in the gold medal match.

As a professional, Yoka (8-0, 7 KOs) made his debut in June 2017 with a second-round stoppage over the previously undefeated Travis Clark. Apart from a decision win over Jonathan Rice in his second outing, Yoka has stopped every foe, including durable Englishman David “White Rhino” Allen and former European champion Alexander Dimitrenko. He made his 2020 debut Sept. 25 and stopped former world title challenger Johann Duhaupas in one round.

Hammer (25-6, 15 KOs) has fought many of the leading heavyweight names during his 12-year career, falling short against Tyson Fury, Luis Ortiz and Alexander Povetkin. He’s notched myriad upset victories, including a highlight-reel knockout over David Price and a 2016 split decision over Erkan Teper for the WBO European belt. In March 2019, he went the 10-round distance against Ortiz and has not been stopped since Fury forced him to retire on his stool after eight rounds in their February 2015 clash.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 115: Macho, Freddie and More

David A. Avila

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Camacho me and Mia

“Macho.”

That single word is how Hector Camacho presented himself when introduced. It was the only word needed for the three-division world champion from Puerto Rico who was raised in Harlem, New York.

The first time I met Camacho was in a dark and packed Las Vegas nightclub in the MGM where he was a guest of Oscar De La Hoya back in March 2001. Though it was difficult to see, when Camacho was introduced, I could see the large gold medallion with the word “Macho” in letters six inches high.

Showtime network will be presenting a documentary called “Macho: The Hector Camacho Story” on Friday, December 4 at 9 p.m. on Showtime. It sparks memories of how a fighter in the lower weight classes grabbed the attention of the boxing world.

Camacho was more than flash or words, he was an electrifying boxer who stood out in the 1980s, an era dominated by the “Four Kings” Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns, Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard. Oh, and also a guy named Mike Tyson.

The fast-talking Camacho was a phenomenal fighter who swept aside opponents with his blinding speed and shocking power. It was against Los Angeles-based fighters like Refugio Rojas and Louie Loy that I first read about his exploits. Both were knocked out.

A third Southern California fighter John “Huero” Montes was thought to be the one to give Camacho a real challenge. The fight was televised to a national audience in February 1983. At the time I was watching it on a tiny black and white television and at 1:13 into the first round Camacho unleashed one of those lethal uppercuts and Montes was out-for-the-count.

Camacho arrived that day.

From that point on few could withstand the speedy southpaw’s blinding charges. Six months later he stopped Mexico’s “Bazooka” Limon to win the vacant super featherweight title.

One fighter who heard the final bell was Freddie Roach who could take a punch and knew a thing or two about fighting southpaws.

“I liked fighting southpaws,” said Roach via telephone. “My dad taught me early to keep my foot on the outside and lead with right hands.”

Roach had never lost to a southpaw. The winner that day between Camacho and Roach in Sacramento, on December 1985, was supposedly going to fight Puerto Rico’s heavy-handed Edwin Rosario.

Using his surefire method of fighting southpaws, Roach managed a knockdown of Camacho with the help of his foot. But it was not enough.

“He was very difficult. Lot of people raved about how fast his speed was. You didn’t really realize until you got into the ring with him,” said Roach. “I wasn’t the slowest, but wasn’t the fastest. I just couldn’t keep up.”

Despite using roughhouse tactics against the lefty speedster, Roach said that Camacho invited him to dinner after the fight.

That pretty much explains Camacho, a talented and big-hearted guy.

Last Stages

The last time I ran into Camacho was at the Pechanga Resort and Casino when he and Mia St. John were about to fight on the same boxing card in 2009. He was much heavier but still able to defeat middleweights.

How good was Camacho?

He defeated two of the Four Kings when he beat Roberto Duran twice and stopped Sugar Ray Leonard by knockout when they fought in 1997. Yes, Leonard was 41 and had not fought in six years, but this was Sugar Ray Leonard.

“I didn’t think he would ever beat Leonard,” said Roach.

Neither did Leonard.

“I just felt that I was a bigger man. I was smarter, stronger, all those things, but the first time he threw a punch, it was like, Pow! And I said, ‘Wow, that hurt,’” said Leonard about their encounter. “I tried the best I could to just go the distance. When he was at his best, he was a thing of beauty.”

What I remember after Camacho beat Leonard was how sincerely apologetic he was after the victory. He could talk the talk and walk the walk but inside he remained the kid from Harlem who was given extraordinary talent. And he was humbled by it.

Roach remembers their dinner together after their fight.

“That night he took me out to dinner with his friends and said you fought a good fight,” said Roach adding that Camacho was a very likeable guy. “I saw him along the way in his career.”

Roach, who would later train another astoundingly fast southpaw named Manny Pacquiao, said he never fought anyone again as talented as Camacho.

“You hear rumors of drug problems and training problems. But when he fought me, he was in for 10 and I tried every trick in the book but it didn’t work. He was in a higher class than I was,” Roach said. “He was one of the best fighters in the world.”

Don’t miss this Showtime documentary next week.

Jacobs and Rosado

Speaking of Roach, the famous trainer will be working the corner of Gabe Rosado (25-12-1, 14 KOs) when he meets Daniel Jacobs (36-3, 30 KOs) on Friday, Nov. 27, at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Florida. DAZN will stream the Matchroom Boxing card.

It’s Philly versus Brooklyn.

Rosado has long proven to be a real professional who keeps adding elements to his fight game. Paired with Roach he has further developed under the guidance of the Southern California-based trainer. Plus, Rosado can plain fight.

Jacobs, a former world champion, has proven to be an elite middleweight and looks just as comfortable as a super middleweight.

Expect the kind of prize fight they used to show in the Golden Age of boxing in the 1950s when you had guys like Johnny Saxton fighting Denny Moyer. It should be that kind of battle of wits and skill. I’m looking forward to it.

Photo: Hector Camacho, David Avila, and Mia St. John. Photo credit: Al Applerose

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