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The Top Ten Flyweights of the Decade: 2010-2019

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The Top Ten Flyweights of the Decade: 2010-2019

As we near the end of a lengthy series, a reminder of our criteria.

These are decadal lists, placing under the microscope the fights and fighters that occurred between January first, 2010 and December the thirty-first 2019; no fights outside these dates are considered.

Fights that occurred outside the weight class to hand, in this case flyweight, are only of passing interest – we appraise here the men who fought at 112lbs only. In doing so I utilise a number of different tools, from the video upload sites delightfully stuffed with boxing of all shapes and sizes, to the DVDs I continue to buy with inexplicable regularity to the detailed rankings helping to decipher who was who the day two contenders met.

Those rankings are from Ring Magazine from 2010 through 2012 before the founding of the TBRB allows independent rankings to be utilised for the remainder of the decade.

Finally, achievement, the who and the how, are given much heavier weight than more speculative concerns like perceived skillset and projected head-to-head predictions.

With the boring stuff out of the way, allow me to introduce you to the top ten flyweights of the decade past.

10 – Sonny Boy Jaro

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 17-7-5 Ranked For: 10% of the decade

The Tale of Sonny Boy Jaro is one of the great and under-told stories of the decade.  A journeyman, he also had an iron will that saw him bounce his equally iron-hewn physique from 108lbs up to 118lbs and back, fighting a busy schedule in his native Philippines and beyond. Problematically, he would also lose whenever he stepped up to elite level.

Until he ran into the great Pongsaklek Wonjongkam. That Jaro was able to beat him is astonishing.  Then ranked the world’s number eight fighter pound-for-pound, Wonjongkam was probably approaching a place where he might have been ready to be taken, but he just didn’t lose to the likes of Jaro, a type he ran into often. Jaro though, had learned his trade. He hurt the champion with the very first punch he threw and dropped him with the fourth or fifth, then he stayed right on him throwing consistent, hard punches, staying rough and aggressive. In the sixth, Wonjongkam was suddenly and finally worn, down twice, the second time dangerously under a vicious assault; the fight was waved off.

Jaro, alas, did not shake off his tendency to lose the big ones and dropped the title in his first defence. This makes Jaro’s hold on the number ten spot a little tenuous, but the fact is that nobody in contention held anything like as superb a win over so accomplished a fighter. From Daigo Higa to Artem Dalakian to Hernan Marquez, nobody did enough to supplant him.

09 – Amnat Ruenroeng

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 20-3 Ranked For: 22% of the decade

First, let’s get Amnat Ruenroeng’s 2015 defeat of John Riel Casimero out of the way. You can read about this insane parody of a prize-fight, for which Ruenroeng receives no credit, here. As I wrote at the time, “referee Larry Doggett…was very clearly guilty of, at the least, ineptitude. Like much in life that is truly ludicrous, it was funny and tragic in equal measures.”

His best win neutralised by his indiscipline, Ruenroeng’s victories of note become a little thin on the ground, but as we have seen, there is no depth of competition for these lowest slots. 2014 was his key year and in May Kazuto Ioka, one of the better 108lb boxers in the world, stepped up. It was bizarre to see the smaller man bringing the pressure while Ruenroeng maneuvered, seemingly spooked by Ioka’s beltline work and prodding straight; he found the gaps though, especially for an impressive uppercut which allowed him to hang on to Ioka’s coattails and a late rally saw him hold on to his strap in a widely judged split decision where each and every card somehow seemed reasonable.

This confusion, this chaos, is Ruenroeng’s hallmark, and whether he was throwing knees and elbows or waiting and deploying his jab, he had an air of intimidation matched by his ability to get under his opponent’s skin. Against McWilliams Arroyo he was dropped in the sixth by a winging left hook, cast adrift on the cards left and in need of five of the remaining six rounds. He got them. He got them by swapping out his cautious countering for sudden, rampant aggression and discombobulating holding and wrestling, culminating in his throwing Arroyo to the canvas in the tenth. Arroyo, furious and thrown from his rhythm, won only the last of the second six.

Ruenroeng earned supplemental wins over Rocky Fuentes and Shiming Zou and was a bubbling, vicious handful for absolutely every flyweight he ever met.

08 – John Riel Casimero

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 15-4 Ranked For: 19% of the decade

After being mugged by Amnat Ruenroeng in Bangkok, Filipino John Riel Casimero was made to wait an entire year for a rematch, to be fought on neutral territory in China. Preparation was disastrous for Ruenroeng who managed to weigh in over the super-flyweight limit on his first attempt, finally making the 112lb limit four hours later at the hotel in front of few witnesses. Whatever occurred, Ruenroeng looked sharp in bagging the first but his dark arts were firmly under the control of referee Tony Weeks, although he did manage to cast Casimero to the canvas in both the third and the fourth.

But later in the fourth, Casimero did the casting, dumping Ruenroeng into prayer position with a lighting left hook as the two twisted inside. Ruenroeng made it up but in what must rate as the most satisfying moment of his career, Casimero achieved his revenge, untidily but definitively by knockout in the fourth.

This was a good summary of Casimero in those flyweight days. He was brave and direct but sometimes disorganised; fun but a little frothy although he had more than enough though to see off future beltholder Charlie Edwards, among others. Casimero couldn’t hold the poundage long enough to make a serious dent but he is happily locked above his nemesis Amnat Ruenroeng, a real case of the good guy finishing first.

07 – Pongsaklek Wonjongkam

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 17-2-1 Ranked For: 18% of the decade

Pongsaklek Wonjongkam (also known as Phongskorn Wonjongkam or Pongsaklek Sitkanongsak) is the greatest flyweight on this list – but as far as the decade goes, we capture only the last meaningful wins of a once pre-eminent fighter’s career, followed by his shocking loss to Sonny Boy Jaro. Behind that loss, Wonjongkam achieved no other wins of interest and in fact managed to throw in another shocking loss.

In 2010 though, Wonjongkam was holding onto the very last of it and in the ring with the division’s number one contender no less, Koki Kameda. In an impressive veteran’s performance, Wonjongkam won clear, despite the inexplicable drawn card found by judge Predrag Aleksic. He can be seen punishing Kameda for even minor transgressions in positioning, finding him with punches if Kameda moved across him rather than taking a half step back and going across him, forcing Kameda to circle more widely, taking more steps than he would have wished, forgoing the range and movement he appeared to have trained for. Perhaps not unrelated was Pongsaklek’s strong finish. Despite being the more shopworn of the two, he dominated the late action.

A year later, Wonjongkam met the final ranked contender he would defeat in his storied career in the form of Edgar Sosa, a near peer, a man born just two years after him who nevertheless had fought just over half the contests. It showed. Once more Wonjongkam finished the fight the stronger of the two in winning a wide decision victory fighting at a fast pace but he earned that right by out-hitting his fresher opponent throughout the entire contest, by wasting little, by knowing where his opponent was at almost all times. These behaviours are learned rather than taught and it was wonderful to watch a master of them ply his trade.

Not so much that Wonjongkam could be installed at number six though; he does post losses to Jaro, perhaps the least likely true champion since James Douglas, and then Rey Megrino, a professional loser of the type Wonjongkam had been beating up for walking-around-money for years. Still, his sun setting on the era was one of the events of the flyweight decade.

06 – Kosei Tanaka

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 15-0 Ranked For: 11% of the decade

Kosei Tanaka stepped up to 112lbs early in 2018, quickly tested the water versus the overmatched Ronnie Baldonado, then steamed headlong into Sho Kimura and the fight of the flyweight decade.

Writing about Tanaka back in 2015 with his record at just 4-0, I named him the world’s brightest prospect but pointed out that his mobile but aggressive style was a demanding one. “Does he have the engine for it?” was my question. “If he does, will he hold his power late enough for it to matter?”

Tanaka answered the first of these questions gloriously and forever against Kimura. Kimura, at that time the world’s number two contender, is a granite-jawed pressure fighter with the type of insistent pressure that only elite power can dissuade. Tanaka whaled on him early, a glorious left hook to the body his main power shot, but straight punches and dashing hooks were sprinkled liberally throughout. Tanaka has delightful footwork but rather than moving (some short late spells aside) he used it to form a tight, constricting circle while throwing serious punches with a fluidity which would have pleased Roman Gonzalez. Kimura, ceding rounds early, nevertheless threw return punches relentlessly, himself a technician of no small note.

Re-watching them for this article (and for any other reason I can think of) I had the sense that each man’s punch resistance relative to the other’s power meant they could barely hold one another’s punches comfortably enough to retain form and no more; slightly more power on either side would have upset the rhythm of this glorious fight. As it was, each hurt the other but once, Tanaka bending Kimura’s knee briefly in the second, himself stalling under the fuselage that was the height of Kimura in the twelfth and final round.

A lifelong atheist, I occasionally pray for a rematch.

Also, in my 2015 appraisal of Tanaka I claimed that his power would remain a limiting factor – that “I don’t think he will ever be the kind of fighter to be rescued by his power.” One of the great glories of following Tanaka’s career has been watching him emerge as a puncher, not a darkening one, but something more than just stinging, too. He proved this most of all in August of 2019 against number ten contender Jonathan Gonzalez. Gonzalez is far from impossible to stop, the trick has been pulled twice before but it was Tanaka’s relentlessness that impressed me as much as anything else. He determined to apply pressure to a moving opponent and at some point around the sixth his technically sound punches morphed into technically competent meathooks. Gonzalez went from moving to outright fleeing to being lashed to the canvas by a body-attack that is painful to watch.

One suspects the next flyweight decade will belong to Tanaka.

05 – Akira Yaegashi

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 16-5 Ranked For: 15% of the decade

Akira Yaegashi wasn’t really a flyweight but a Japanese superfight with Toshiyuki Igarashi was impossible to turn down; Yeagashi won and found himself on an exciting, enriching and impressive flyweight adventure as well as the legitimate flyweight champion of the world. It made his legacy.

Igarashi just didn’t have the power to keep Yaegashi under control, nor the silk to throw fluidly enough on the move to consistently outscore him, so the fight devolved into a brutal and aggressive shoot-out, a fight that Igarashi could not possibly hope to win. Yaegashi was the champion of the world. He beat up a wilted Oscar Blanquet in his first defence and then matched the number three contender, Edgar Sosa, a tough fighter in the best form of his life.

Yaegashi thrashed him. This fight was a little different, the Japanese working to keep one step ahead of his opponent, but generally speaking, he was a shark in the ring, irrefutable upon smelling blood but vulnerable when he ran up against superior firepower. Such was his fate in 2014 when he ran into the irresistible Roman Gonzalez in the absolute prime of his career.

He immediately dipped back down to 108lbs, where he probably belonged, re-emerging briefly at flyweight in 2019 where he suffered another loss. More of Yaegashi, who may prove to be underrated in a pound-for-pound sense, next time, but credibly cracking the top five at 112lbs is no mean feat. It will be his highest divisional ranking.

04 – Brian Viloria

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 12-4 Ranked For: 66% of the decade

It makes me uncomfortable when a fighter’s keynote win is a fighter from the division below moving up, but I make an exception for Brian Viloria in the case of Giovani Segura, who moved up from 108lbs to take him on at 112lbs in 2011. Segura was, at that time, ranked among the top ten fighters in the world pound-for-pound having twice blasted out the great Ivan Calderon and if anyone deserves the nod four pounds north it is him. Viloria though demonstrated how much those four pounds can matter, negotiating Segura’s hard-swung punches to stop him in eight one-sided but exciting rounds.

This fight came as a part of Viloria’s golden 2011/12 run and even more exciting had been Viloria’s nine round destruction of Julio Cesar Miranda five months earlier. Viloria, a powerful puncher, dropped Miranda in seven but the number seven contender came back steaming and an electric battle for territory followed, fought at pace and for the most part on the inside, a fight which Viloria won. Miranda, unable to fight going backwards, was neatly dispatched in the ninth.

Viloria looked near invincible when he was dominating but in fact he was easier to hit than is normal for an elite flyweight. This cost him later in his career when he had slowed down a bit and in truth, despite his lingering in the rankings until 2018, his last truly meaningful win came in late 2012 over the excellent Hernan Marquez. This was a painful memory for me as Hernan was one of my favourites and Viloria soundly thrashed him around the ring, dropping him in the first and fifth before stopping him in the tenth. Viloria was a fighter of real talent on offence, but a certain vulnerability meant he was always to come up short against the division’s true elite.

03 – Moruti Mthalane

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 14-0 Ranked For: 95% of the decade

South African Moruti Mthalane cracked the Ring Magazine rankings back in 2008 behind his defeat of the formerly ranked Australian Hussein Hussein. Today, TBRB ranks him at number two and although he was removed for six months for inactivity in 2013, he has spent 95% of the decade past operating as a ranked flyweight. This is astonishing.

And yet, rather like Omar Narvaez at 115lbs, although the overall career-arc is impressive, the detail feels underwhelming. In thirteen years hunting straps Mthalane has met so few Ring/TBRB ranked contenders it can be painted a deliberate strategy. In fact, Mthalane never met a fighter ranked higher than nine, which is a travesty.

Almost despite himself though, Mthalane built a solid resume in taking on lowly or unranked fighters who would reach the top of this division or who had previously made their mark. Such victories bookend his decade.

In September 2010 Mthalane posted a knockout over the budding (but ranked) flyweight Zolani Tete. Tete was unbeaten at 13-0, but Mthalane just rounded him up with an insidious pressure that must be awful for an inexperienced fighter to face, before dispatching him in the fifth. Six months later he pulled an almost identical trick against none other than John Riel Casimero.  Nearly ten years later Mthalane stopped former champion Akira Yaegashi in nine. Three different seek-and-destroy missions played out against three different opponents with ten years separating the first and the last; it is impressive stuff.

Mthalane’s legacy problem is that in between, he did so little of note, Muhammad Waseem and Masayuki Kuroda his best performances in the interim, but his longevity and his undefeated status for the decade impresses so much he is rendered at #3. That he made a victim of Yaegashi last year gets him over that line.

02 – Juan Francsico Estrada

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 28-3 Ranked For: 31% of the decade

Juan Francisco Estrada emerged from 108lbs with the brakes off, matching the world’s number one contender Brian Viloria in June of 2013 in an immediate and violent assault on the division.

Clearly unintimidated, Estrada stepped into Viloria’s wheel-house and out-fought him there, matching his armaments, and out-hitting him. It was the seventh when the divisional number one finally broke before him and the fight was a foregone conclusion from that point. Estrada did not drop another round on my scorecard.

Variety was the key for Estrada in this fight. He eschewed the jab in favour of leading with right hands, left hooks, and especially uppercuts, sometimes stepping in with the front foot and bringing up an “L” while face to face with his prestigious foe. It was a risky strategy and Estrada suffered for it in the sixth, but as he continued to mix leads at speed regardless of cost, Viloria found himself more and more on the end of punches he was not prepared to counter. Once the pre-counter was beaten out of him he fought on without real hope.

Rocketed to the very top of the division, Estrada certainly did no hiding meeting ranked contenders Milan Melindo and Giovani Segura (by then an established flyweight) and the sliding Hernan Marquez. Of these, his performance against the unbeaten Melindo most impressed me. His left, as always, weaved magic, a combination of push jabs, uppercuts, hooks, especially to the body and of course feints; but it seemed that the right spoke more forcefully than it had until this match, too. A slingy, overhand punch was perhaps the most damaging and persistent he threw, and a menacing right uppercut, though less frequent, partnered it.

A preference for the brutal, heart-rending knockout he scored against Marquez is valid but either way, it’s a resume and execution worthy of the number one spot. Sadly, he once again has to make do with number two, which is the same position he landed at 115lbs. An old adversary edged him out.

01 – Roman Gonzalez

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 25-2 Ranked For: 29% of the decade

Juan Francisco Estrada may have had the best uppercut/power-punch combination of the flyweight decade, but there were no other two-pieces, combinations or flurries of any designation where any flyweight could rival Roman Gonzalez. He is a superb puncher and perhaps the best composite puncher in the division’s entire history. His coming to flyweight was a sure reckoning.

Gonzalez had probed the division for years but arrived in earnest in 2013 against no-less a figure than Francisco Rodriguez, a component rather than a great fighter, but one who is always in great fights. Rodriguez’s Mexican approach could not stand Gonzalez though, who turned him away in seven. One year later he stood in the ring with Akira Yaegashi, the flyweight world champion.  Yaegashi had until this day demonstrated a heart of oak and elite punch-resistance but he never recovered from what Gonzalez fed him.

No fighter is more comfortable at all distances than Gonzalez and he gave a masterclass in seek and destroy when Yaegashi tried to move. Yaegashi tried to check his man’s momentum with brave forays but over and again he was out-hit, out-thought. Never was the right hand better; Gonzalez threw it in all shapes and at all ranges and at many different carefully selected targets. The glove eventually became a living feint, something that made Yaegashi flinch away in uncertainty, even as Gonzalez began to wind up the left. The referee eventually intervened after the second knockdown of the fight in the ninth round, and a new champion was birthed.

Gonzalez did good business in the top five as king, without making his claim as one of the great ones.  He staged four defences, chief among them Edgar Sosa and Brian Viloria ranked four, and McWilliams Arroyo ranked seven. He brooked no resistance, rolling over Sosa in two, outfighting a brave Brian Viloria who managed to survive for nine rounds, before finally going the distance with Arroyo. This last is the most fascinating fight of these three in that Arroyo found a way to survive.  Gonzalez ceded the opening rounds, as he often did against bigger men, but, like Joe Louis, like Ray Robinson, once he had found you, he had found you for all time. Gonzalez decoding how a man below 112lbs moves is the same as his winning the fight, going on all available evidence.

Arroyo covered up, staged resistances but he was outhit for the third through to the twelfth by four and five punch combinations, narrow, webbed punches within which net Gonzalez responded to movement with the same sensitivity as a spider detecting prey. He took the closest range against Arroyo, a good fighter, and beat him up. This is Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez distilled.

It is also the last of him as a great fighter. He remains, to this day, a good one but his final fight at 112lbs was his last where he was able to work with fighters who did not hold over him a prohibitive size advantage. When he departed the division for the richer purses at 115lbs he also broke the lineage of the longest lineal title in the world, dating back to Miguel Canto and the 1970s. It was a prestigious crown to abandon.

You sense it would have come about either way though. Roman Gonzalez could be fighting at the weight still and it is unlikely they would have found a man to defeat him – whenever he departed the division he would have taken the title with him.

The uncontested number one decadal flyweight.

The other lists:

Heavyweight

Cruiserweight

Light-Heavyweight

Super-Middleweight

Middleweight

Light-Middleweight

Welterweight

Light-Welterweight

Lightweight

Super-Featherweight

Featherweight

Super-Bantamweight

Bantamweight

Super-Flyweight

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Boxing Odds and Ends: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

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Boxing fans in Australia are still buzzing over Jai Opetaia’s gritty, title-winning effort on Saturday, July 2. Opetaia overcome significant adversity to wrest the IBF and lineal world cruiserweight title from Mairis Briedis in a pulsating and bloody battle in Broadbeach, Queensland.

A two-time finalist in the World Boxing Super Series, Mairis Briedis was widely regarded as the sport’s best cruiserweight. His lone defeat prior to Saturday was a narrow setback at the hands of Oleksandr Usyk.

It was plain at the end of the fight that Opetaia had suffered a broken jaw. The words coming out of his mouth during the short, post-fight interview were unintelligible. However, it was worse than assumed. An x-ray showed that the jaw was actually broken in two places and that the fractures were on both sides of the mandible. The first break occurred in round two and the second in round 11.

“Opetaia would have to be considered the toughest fighter on the planet after continuing on from round two with one side of his jaw broken, then the other side broken late in the fight and still winning rounds against a vicious puncher in Briedis,” Opetaia’s promoter Dean Lonergan told Sky Sports.

Opetaia turned 27 two days before the fight. The match transpired exactly five years to the day from Jeff Horn’s massive upset of Manny Pacquiao in Brisbane.

Briedis was a consensus 11/5 favorite, but there was plenty of money on the undefeated (21-0, 17 KOs) Opetaia who represented Australia in the 2012 Olympics at the age of 16, making him the youngest Aussie boxer to ever compete in an Olympiad.

Opetaia will reportedly need at least three months to recover before he can resume sparring. As for what is next for him, speculation has centered on a pair of undefeated Brits – Richard Riakporhe and Lawrence Okolie. Riakporhe is the highest-rated contender in the IBF rankings; Okolie owns the WBO cruiserweight belt.

Opetaia would be favored over Riakporhe, but not over Okolie. However, at six-foot-five and with an 82 ½-inch reach, Okolie is poised to join the heavyweight ranks and may not be willing to wait around for a unification fight.

A rematch with Briedis is also a possibility. The decision in Opetaia’s favor, although unanimous (115-113, 116-112 x2), was far from clear-cut. Had the fight been held on Briedis’s turf in Latvia, the decision would have likely gone the other way.

To Briedis’s credit, he offered not a whimper of protest when the decision was read and went to Opetaia’s dressing room to congratulate him before leaving the arena.

Zolani Tete

He’s back

On Nov. 18, 2017, Zolani Tete stopped Siboniso Gonya with a KO that went viral. If you choose to check it out — it’s still up there on youtube — don’t blink. The entire fight, which ended with Gonya flat on his back, unconscious, lasted all of 11 seconds. A world bantamweight title was at stake and the one-punch knockout stands as the fastest stoppage in world championship boxing history.

Three fights later, on Nov. 20, 2019, Tete was stopped in three rounds by John Riel Casimero. Prior to this fight, he had been forced to pull out of his scheduled match with Nonito Donaire in the semifinals of the World Boxing Super Series because of a shoulder injury.

Tete was out of action for 25 months after the Casimero defeat. He returned to the ring in December of last year in Johannesburg in his homeland of South Africa for a tune-up fight in which he blasted out his overmatched opponent in the opening round. This past Saturday, he resurfaced in London and resurrected his flagging career in a super bantamweight contest for the British Commonwealth title.

Tete was pit against Jason Cunningham, a Doncaster man riding a seven-fight winning streak. On paper it was a competitive match, but Cunningham was out of his element. Tete controlled the first three rounds with his jab and then brought the heavy artillery. It was all over at the 0:34 mark of round four.

At age 34, it would appear that Tete still has a lot of mileage left in him. There was a time when people were salivating over the thought of a match between him and Naoya Inoue. That match may well come to fruition, but not likely anytime soon. A match between Tete and WBO 122-pound title-holder Stephen Fulton is no less intriguing and may well happen within the next 12 months.

Looking Ahead

The boxing slate over the Fourth of July weekend was rather soft – there was nothing of consequence on American soil – and this coming weekend is also skimpy.

Saturday’s heavyweight match In London between 41-year-old Kubrat Pulev (29-2, 14 KOs) and 38-year-old Derek Chisora (32-12, 23 KOs) doesn’t get the juices flowing. They fought six years ago in Hamburg, Germany, and although the decision favoring Pulev was split, that was only because of a head-scratching scorecard. The Bulgarian controlled the fight which wasn’t particularly entertaining.

The co-feature between super welterweights Israil Madrimov (8-0, 6 KOs) and Michel Soro (35-3-1, 24 KOs) is also a rematch. The talented Madrimov, who has never fought a pro fight scheduled for less than 10 rounds, won the first meeting on a controversial stoppage. The Spanish referee did not hear the bell ending the ninth frame and stopped the bout well after the bell had sounded. The match was held on Madrimov’s turf in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

The WBA, which sanctioned the bout as a final eliminator for Jermell Charlo’s 154-pound title, let the result stand but ordered an immediate rematch.

Looking further down the road, the Sept. 10 card at London’s O2 Arena shapes up as a lively affair. The women take center stage with a pair of title unification bouts. WBC/WBA/IBF world middleweight champion Claressa Shields (12-0, 2 KOs) meets WBO title-holder Savannah Marshall (12-0, 10 KOs) in the featured bout. Marshall, who hails from the English port city of Hartlepool and had her first pro fight in Las Vegas under the Mayweather Promotions banner, is the only person to defeat Claressa Shields in a boxing ring, accomplishing the feat in 2012 at an amateur tournament in China.

Shields has out-classed all of her professional opponents — has she even lost a round? – and it’s odd to find her in the role of an underdog, but Marshall, who packs a bigger punch, is currently a small favorite. No odds have yet been posted on the co-feature, a 130-pound title unification fight between Americans Mikaela Mayer (17-0, 5 KOs) and Alycia Baumgardner (12-1, 7 KOs), but on paper this will be Mayer’s toughest fight.

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When Boxing Was Big on the Fourth of July: A TSS Classic

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We’re going way back, but there was a time when the Fourth of July was a big day for boxing in the U.S. The high-water mark, according to BoxRec, was set in 1922 when there were 67 shows spread across 27 states. In that year, the holiday fell on a Tuesday.

Two of the most historically significant fights were staged on the Fourth of July. In 1910, in a fight that “marinated” for almost five years, Jack Johnson successfully defended his world heavyweight title at the expense of former champion James J. Jeffries. Measured by the amount of newsprint expended on this story as it developed, Johnson vs. Jeffries was the biggest single-day sporting event in the history of man. In 1919, Jack Dempsey dethroned Johnson’s conqueror Jess Willard, the first big bang in the Golden Era of Sports. And although it didn’t move the needle, how appropriate in hindsight that Joe Louis began his pro career on the Fourth of July.

During the early years of the 20th century, promoters often hitched their events to other events – county fairs, carnivals, race meets, national conventions of fraternal organizations, and so forth. One might call these festival fights. The 1931 show in Reno featuring Max Baer and Paulino Uzcudun was an example. It was, in many ways, the quintessential Fourth of July boxing show, a window into western Americana.

In 1931, Reno (the “Biggest Little City in the World”) was home to about 20,000 people. Twice that number swarmed into Reno on that year’s Fourth of July. “Special trains by the score, automobiles by the hundreds and airplanes by the dozen poured into the famous divorce metropolis from the Pacific Coast. From the sandy wastes of Nevada came prospectors on burros, cowboys on horseback and ranchers in buckboard wagons,” said the correspondent for the United Press.

The race meet was in progress and there were sundry other activities arranged to make the day special, but the big shebang was the prizefight.

The spearheads of the promotion, Bill Graham and James McKay, owned the Bank Club, Reno’s biggest casino. Business was booming now that Nevada had legalized gambling, not that it made much difference in Reno where gambling was wide-open before the new law took effect.

Graham and McKay had made their fortunes running gambling saloons in Nevada mining towns and could afford to commit big dollars to the promotion. They brought in the great ring announcer Dan Tobey from Los Angeles (520 miles away) to serve as the master of ceremonies — Tobey was the Michael Buffer of his day — but their big coup was getting Jack Dempsey involved. Dempsey was retired, having last fought in 1927, but the Manassa Mauler was still a towering personality and his involvement ensured good national newspaper coverage. For advertising purposes, he was named the actual promoter, the makeshift wooden stadium erected in the infield of the thoroughbred track was named for him, and he would serve as the bout’s referee.

At this stage of their respective careers, Max Baer and Paulino Uzcudun were borderline journeymen. Baer’s best days were ahead of him, but he had lost three of his last five. Uzcudun had lost four of his last seven beginning with a 15-round setback to Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium. But Baer was still recognized as a man with a pulverizing punch and the pairing was smart from a geographical perspective. Baer had cultivated a strong following in northern California, Reno’s primary tourist market. Uzcudun, who had his early fights in Paris, hailed from the Basque region of Spain.

The Reno area was home to many people of Basque descent, and Uzcudun, nicknamed the Basque Woodchopper, had a ready-made fan base. It was 11 pm on June 4 when Uzcudun arrived in Reno on the Southern Pacific to set up his training quarters, but despite the late hour, thousands were reportedly at the rail terminal waiting to greet him.

Baer arrived a few days later. It was customary in those days for the headliners in a big show outside a major metropolis to arrive in the host city several weeks before the event. They held public workouts and were squired around town to press the flesh to goose the gate.

With the city about to be inundated by a great throng, the Chamber of Commerce undertook a campaign to discourage price-gouging. The District Attorney cautioned homeowners renting beds to visitors to exercise caution when accepting checks, “particularly checks drawn on banks in other cities.” Those that came by rail and could afford a berth in a Pullman car brought their own hotel rooms. The Pullmans were diverted to a side track where they sat until the excursionists were ready to leave.

There was never a dull moment in Reno, a place where gambling houses operated around the clock. Reporters had plenty to write about besides the big fight. The cantankerous mayor, E.E. Roberts, was quite a character. To boost tourism, he “advocated placing a barrel of corn whiskey on every corner of the city with a dipper attached and a sign directing all favorably inclined to drink as much as they pleased.” Prohibition was still in effect and this didn’t sit well with federal prohibition agents. On June 30, the day prior to the start of the racing meet and four days before the big fight, agents from the San Francisco office descended on the city, raiding 19 saloons and arresting 37 people for violating the Volstead Act. By most accounts, this barely dented the city’s saloon industry.

The Fight

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Although no title was at stake, the bout — billed as the “Battle of the Sagebrush” — was scheduled for 20 rounds. It was a messy affair fought on a sweltering day where the temperature at ringside climbed into the mid-90s. “On occasion they butted like goats,” said a ringside reporter.

The match, which lasted the full distance, struck some reporters as vicious and others as rather tame – there were no knockdowns — but on two matters everyone agreed: it was a closely contested contest and both Baer and Uzcudun exhibited great stamina. By and large, Baer landed the cleaner punches but Uzcudun, who had a famously awkward style, a peek-a-boo defense grafted to a low crouch, stubbornly pressed the action and was commended for his tenacity.

At the end of the 19th round, referee Dempsey, the sole arbiter, leaned over to a group of reporters and told them that he would award the fight to the man that had the best of it in the final round. That proved to be the Basque Woodchopper, who had attracted most of the bets in the betting shed built adjacent to the arena.

The attendance was listed at 18,000, but it would be reported that only 9,260 paid. Looking back 10 years later, an attendee recalled that “gatecrashers by the hundreds swarmed over the racetrack fences and infiltrated from all angles. There just weren’t enough cops, ushers, and guards to handle them.”

The promoters reportedly lost money, but the visitors must have been good spenders because Dempsey was back in Reno with another Fourth of July prizefight the following year. The 1932 promotion, pitting Max Baer against King Levinsky in the main event, was a big disappointment, playing out in a half-empty stadium, but at least those in attendance could say that they got to see a future heavyweight champion in action. Not quite two years later, Baer massacred Primo Carnera at an outdoor arena in Queens, igniting a short- lived title reign. (Rising heavyweight contender Joe Louis would subsequently defeat all three of the Reno headliners, knocking out Levinsky, Baer, and Uzcudun, in that order, in consecutive bouts.)

Reno’s second “Battle of the Sagebrush” was a would-be extravaganza that fell flat, the fate of most holiday festival fights, a development that the late, great sportswriter John Lardner attributed to “chuckleheaded boosterism.”

That’s a story for another day. In the meantime, here’s wishing everyone a Happy Fourth of July.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a reprint of a story that ran on these pages on July 2, 2018.

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Arne K. Lang’s latest book, titled “George Dixon, Terry McGovern and the Culture of Boxing in America, 1890-1910,” will shortly roll off the press. The book, published by McFarland, can be pre-ordered directly from the publisher (https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/clashof-the-little-giants) or via Amazon.

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The Hauser Report: The ESPY Awards and Boxing

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The annual ESPY Awards are a celebration of sports and the role that they play in American society. Jim Valvano, who was dying of cancer, energized the first ESPYs telecast in 1993 with his powerful message, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” The ESPYs have gotten bigger since then. They’re now a mainstream cultural happening. But for knowledgeable boxing fans, their credibility just took a hit.

The ESPYs are (in ESPN’s words) about “celebrating major sports achievements, remembering unforgettable moments, and honoring the leading performers and performances” of the preceding twelve months. On June 28, ESPN announced the nominees for the 2022 ESPY awards. The winners will be revealed during a July 20 telecast. Most of the nominees were well-chosen. But the nominees for “best boxer” appear to have been chosen with an eye toward promoting fighters aligned with ESPN rather than “celebrating major sports achievements, remembering unforgettable moments, and honoring the leading performers and performances” of the past twelve months.

The ESPY nominees for “best boxer” are Tyson Fury, Katie Taylor, Shakur Stevenson, and Mikaela Mayer. In other sports (such as soccer, basketball, golf, and tennis), the ESPYs have separate categories for male and female athletes. Rafael Nadal doesn’t compete against Emma Raducanu at Wimbledon or in the ESPY balloting. So, it’s unclear why Tyson Fury should compete against Katie Taylor.

The ESPY’s tilt toward boxers who are aligned with ESPN is more troubling. Fury and Taylor belong on the ballot. During the preceding year, Fury knocked out Deontay Wilder and Dillian Whyte, while Taylor decisioned Jennifer Han, Firuza Sharipova, and Amanda Serrano. The historic nature of Taylor-Serrano validates Katie’s inclusion.

But Stevenson and Mayer are a stretch. Both of them have promotional contracts with Top Rank which has an exclusive licensing agreement with ESPN. During the preceding year, Stevenson beat Jamel Herring and Oscar Valdez. Those were nice wins but hardly remarkable. Mayer’s ESPY credentials are limited to decisions over Maiva Hamadouche and Jennifer Han.

Why isn’t Oleksandr Usyk (who dethroned Anthony Joshua) on the ballot? What about Terence Crawford (KO 10 over Shawn Porter) and Dmitry Bivol (whose victories included a unanimous-decision triumph over Canelo Alvarez)?

Hint: Usyk and Bivol are currently aligned with DAZN. And Crawford has signaled his intention to leave Top-Rank-slash-ESPN to pursue a unification bout against Errol Spence on Showtime-PPV or Fox-PPV.

If Netflix hosted the Oscars and stacked the ballot with Netflix programming, it would be comparable to the ESPY’s handling of this year’s “best boxer” award.

When the ESPY nominations were announced, I reached out to ESPN for comment. Initially, I asked, “What is the process by which the four nominees for ‘best boxer’ were chosen?”

Speaking on background, an ESPN publicist responded, “Nominees are chosen by a mix of ESPN editors, executives and show producers.”

“On background” means that a reporter may quote the source directly and may describe the source by his or her position but may not attribute the statements to the source by name.

I followed up by asking, “How many people choose the nominees and what are the criteria for choosing them?” There was no response.

I’m also curious to know the identity of the “editors, executives and show producers” who selected the ESPY nominees. Did knowledgeable ESPN boxing people like Tim Bradley and Mark Kriegel have a significant voice? I think not. Here, I should note that ESPN analyst Andre Ward is also knowledgeable about boxing. I omitted his name from this paragraph because, given Ward’s ties to Shakur Stevenson, he probably shouldn’t participate in the nominating process.

In recent years, boxing fans have grown accustomed to boxing telecasts on all networks being as much about hype as honest commentary. The 2022 ESPY nominations for “best boxer” are about ESPN hyping its own fighters and advancing its own economic interests.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

To comment on this story in the Fight Forum CLICK HERE

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