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The Top Ten Flyweights of the Decade: 2010-2019

Matt McGrain

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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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Ramirez vs. Taylor Adds Luster to an Already Strong Boxing Slate in May

Arne K. Lang

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Boxing will heat up big-time in May. Canelo Alvarez will defend his WBC 168-pound title on May 8 against Billy Joe Saunders. Two weeks later, WBC/WBO 140-pound champion Jose Ramirez (26-0, 17 KOs) meets his IBF/WBA counterpart Josh Taylor (17-0, 13 KOs). Teofimo Lopez’s title defense against George Kambosos may transpire in May and now there’s talk that Manny Pacquiao will also return in May with Mikey Garcia in the opposite corner.

The Ramirez-Taylor fight was announced today (March 2). The match between the undefeated belt-holders, both former Olympians, will produce the fifth unified champion of the four-belt error. Middleweights Bernard Hopkins and Jermain Taylor, junior welterweight Terence Crawford, and cruiserweight Oleksandr Usyk are the only boxers to have held this distinction.

Ramirez vs. Taylor will be on ESPN. The fight appears headed to an MGM Grand property in Las Vegas. The T-Mobile Arena, the city’s largest indoor sports arena, is likely in the running. The arena houses the city’s professional hockey team, the Golden Knights, which played their first game in many moons with fans in attendance on Monday. Attendance was capped at 15 percent of capacity and the game was a “sellout” with all 2,605 available seats attracting occupants.

Josh Taylor, who made his pro debut in El Paso, of all places, will be making his second appearance in Las Vegas, assuming the fight transpires there. The Tartan Tornado appeared at the MGM Grand Garden on Jan. 28, 2017, on a card topped by the WBA featherweight title rematch between Carl Frampton and Leo Santa Cruz. Taylor and Frampton then shared the same trainer, Shane McGuigan.

In the words of Bob Arum, “Ramirez vs. Taylor is the best boxing has to offer, two elite fighters in the prime of their careers colliding in a legacy-defining matchup for the undisputed championship of the world. It’s a true 50-50 fight….”

In boxing, unlike other sports, anything under 2-to-1 is basically a “pick-’em” fight, so Arum isn’t far off the mark. For the record, however, the first betting lines to appear show the Scotsman the favorite in the 7-to-4 range, a price obviously based on the assumption that the fight will be held in Nevada, or at least anywhere other than Glasgow or Fresno.

Ramirez didn’t look sharp in his last outing when he scored a majority decision over Victor Postol at the MGM Bubble. Ramirez said he was burned-out after a long training camp – the fight was postponed twice – and said he thought the sterile atmosphere affected him; he was used to feeding off the energy of a crowd. Josh Taylor also had a tough time with Postol when they met in a 12-round bout at Glasgow on June 23, 2018 (the gritty Ukrainian is a tough nut to crack), but one would not have gleaned that from the scorecards which were soaked with hometown bias.

Josh Taylor’s last fight was at fan-less York Hall in London. The Scotch southpaw was entitled to a breather after his epic encounter with Regis Prograis and the IBF had just the ticket in mandatory challenger Apinun Khonsong. Taylor dismissed the overmatched Thai in the opening round with a body punch. This was Taylor’s first fight with new trainer Ben Davison.

The last time that Arum called an upcoming match a 50-50 fight, he was hyping the all-Mexican showdown between Miguel Berchelt and Oscar Valdez. That was no 50-50 fight, Berchelt was a solid favorite, but as it turned out, the pricemakers had underestimated the underdog who delivered the goods in a wildly entertaining skirmish.

On paper, Ramirez vs. Taylor will also be a very entertaining affair.

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From the Desert, Jack Dempsey

Matt McGrain

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Jack Dempsey, who has been matched by Jack Goodfriend to fight at the Hippodrome Monday, May 31 is expected to arrive from Reno within a day or two.  The match will be a ten round contest and preceded by a couple of good preliminaries. (The Goldfield News, May 22nd, 1915.)

In May of 1915 Jack Dempsey found himself trapped in Nevada and between purses. Fifty miles from his payday with no rail to ride, he walked out of the desert and into Goldfield, stuck the bewildered promoter for an advance and hired a sparring partner, knocked the sparring partner out and hired another.

Walking in ninety-five-degree weather can be dangerous for even an experienced athlete, but it seemed to agree with Jack. He had marched into Goldfield to meet a light-heavyweight named Johnny Sudenberg, a game but limited battler who had for the first time strung a decent run of wins together, all of them fought in the desert Dempsey travailed on foot. Dempsey had scored a series of knockout wins in Salt Lake City, enough that his name was known and interest in his proposed match with the local man stoked.

“Jack Dempsey, the husky Pueblo middleweight, who will meet Johnny Sudenberg at the Hippodrome next Monday night in a ten round bout arrived in camp this morning,” reported regional press. “Several local men have seen Dempsey in action…and all [are] united in the prediction that Johnny had better be ‘right’ when he crawls through the ropes.”

It speaks of boxing’s burgeoning’s status in the United States that there were two gymnasiums in Goldfield capable of staging training. Dempsey worked out at the Unity Club, little more than a middleweight, perhaps not least because of his fifty-mile travail through the desert earlier that week. He boxed a local footnote named Dick Trounce and he may also have boxed some rounds with the world class bantamweight Roy Moore.

Sudenberg, stung by assertions that it was Dempsey, not he, who was the puncher in the fight, bristled and demanded of himself a knockout while training down the street in the Northern Gymnasium.

There is a divergence now between Dempsey’s recollection of the fight and the newspaper reporting of the day. Before the fight, although he may have shared a ring with Jack Dempsey, not known for his tender attentions of even much smaller sparring partners, Roy Moore advised his sparring partner to steer clear. “Don’t slug with Sudenberg.  He’s awful strong. Stay away from him.”

Dempsey claims to have dismissed this advice, telling Roger Kahn, author of A Flame of Pure Fire, that the match was a brutal slugfest from the first. Local press though reported on a fight that was marked by cautious sparring early, and that after “feeling each other out” for two rounds that Dempsey dominated, it was Sudenberg who changed the pattern and “owing to the greater height and reach” Dempsey possessed, brought the fight to the inside. A fine battle resulted and one that saw Dempsey descend into total chaos for the first time, a feeling that would become as familiar to him as slipping on a pair of old shoes.

“I just kept swinging. Sometimes I think I saw a face in front of me, sometimes I didn’t. I kept swinging.”

Dempsey claimed he could remember nothing after the fifth.

A rematch was not immediately slated, but the failure of a potential Sudenberg opponent to deliver on a sidebet let Dempsey back in just days later. Dempsey moved a bit further north with the purses, his second battle with Sudenberg staged in Tonopah. Still years from the three-ringed circus his career would become, there was interest surrounding the young scrapper who trained for the fight in the town’s casino. Tonopah was a young but bustling setting, festooned with banks and lawyers and saloons as money poured in from Nevada’s second largest silver strike. By 1920 they had pulled $121m out of the ground and Dempsey was there to pull out his own piece.

“A great many were dissatisfied with the decision last Monday,” wrote the Tonopah Daily upon the fight’s announcement. “Dempsey gave Sudenberg the best fight he has had in this part of the country.”

Sudenberg, who seems to have been a prickly character, held the power in his relationship with Dempsey and so clearly backed himself to win a rematch. A fascinating aspect of the fight is their respective sizes. Dempsey was referred to as a middleweight in the earliest dispatches surrounding the fight, but in the ring made an impression upon ringsiders as the bigger man. Taller, rangier, it is possible he was already the heavier of the two or it may be that his trek through the surrounding desert left an early impression of litheness which slipped away as Dempsey, holding cash, boxed and ate his way to a size advantage during the build-up. The Goldfield News described him upon entering the ring for the rematch as looking “more like an overgrown schoolboy than a fighter” as he stepped on the canvas before noting wryly that he “proved otherwise.”

The fight quite literally drew from miles around, with “Goldfield well represented at ringside” and “eight to ten auto loads” appearing from nearby mines. Dempsey grabbed their attention early, a man you will recognise, coming out of his corner like a rocket and deploying what the Tonopah Daily Bonanza named “Dempsey’s mass attack,” presumably an early incarnation of the terrible beating he would inflict upon Jess Willard in Toledo with the world’s title at stake. Indeed, Sudenberg does appear to have visited the canvas in that first round, but Dempsey, over-eager, under-seasoned, missed with key punches following up his advantage and the canny Sudenberg survived a round of murderous intent.

Papers also report the use of straight punches by Dempsey, that he preferred range and looked to that superior range to dominate. Early Dempsey contests fascinate me in that they repeatedly throw up this story, of a fighter who at just 6’1 was able to dominate most of the desert’s pugs with height and reach. Here he plays the role that would later be played by Willard, Carl Morris and Fred Fulton, longer men trying to control the range while Dempsey tormented them with slips and punches.  Here it was Sudenberg who in the third and fourth seemed to do something of a job, getting inside and hitting to the belly while the two accused each other of low blows.

Dempsey is a victim of some criticism over his own use of low blows, alleged or otherwise, in huge fights with Tommy Gibbons and Jack Sharkey. It should be remembered always that he learned his trade in spots like Tonopah and Goldfield where local referees were not sympathetic to pleas for justice to be dispensed. Dempsey fought like a fistic savage because he was raised as one.

After just four rounds in Tonopah, he was tired, feeling the effects of a difficult month and a fast fight. “Dempsey takes punishment well and ducks cleverly,” noted The Bonanza, while The News saw Dempsey holding on a good deal more in the second half of the fight.

By round eight, Sudenberg began to show the effects of Dempsey’s right hand which he worked “like a sledgehammer” while Sudenberg “lands heavily on Dempsey’s digestive apparatus.” At the final bell the two worked one another mercilessly in search of the decision, but they were greeted by a draw.

Under a more modern ruleset I suspect that Dempsey would have received the nod. He crushed Sudenberg in the early part of the fight and more than matched him late, but with the referee acting as a single judge, draws in fights where a winner was not inarguably apparent were common.  Fighters expected it and pressmen expected it, which is perhaps why some of those in attendance saw the result as eminently reasonable. Dempsey clearly landed the better shots, but Sudenberg was rewarded for his gameness in “carrying the fight” a tenet of the era.

Dempsey had impressed though. “In Dempsey, who gives the promise of developing into a heavyweight,” stated The News, “there is room for a world of improvement, and with the experience he will gain during the next few years he should make a formidable opponent for any scrapper.”

Portentous words.

When Dempsey left Tonopah – history does not record whether he walked out – he was mere days from his twentieth birthday, an overgrown schoolboy appearing on the good end of draws against older, more experienced men, already determined to become heavyweight champion, already of the belief he would become one. History tells of a third fight between he and Sudenberg the following February, a more mature Dempsey thrashing a cowed Sudenberg in two rounds.

I spoke to Dempsey scholar and author of the outstanding In The Ring series, Adam Pollack. “Didn’t happen,” was his verdict.  “I am certain it didn’t take place.”

It is nice to have this one cleared up. Dempsey did not need to defeat Sudenberg to leave him behind. Dempsey, like any heavyweight champion has his obsessed fans – among them the men who developed a single thin thread concerning a third Sudenberg match and turned it into a truth that was reported in A Flame of Pure Fire and elsewhere – and obsessed haters, but there is no denying what he did. Irresistible and eternal, people will generate and propagate myths about Jack Dempsey for as long as there is fighting.

This story is about his beginnings – see the single-minded determination that saw him walk fifty miles through a desert? See the legendary fast start in the second fight? The mid-round sag that would lead Jack Johnson to label him a three-round fighter? His bending of the rules? Then again, what of his seeming determination to box against a smaller opponent? This was something he abandoned in time to avoid disaster against geniuses like Tommy Gibbons although it would not be enough to save his weary legs from Gene Tunney’s escape.

Dempsey’s matches with Sudenberg were his emergence from the desert in more ways than one.  They were where his pursuit in earnest of the world’s heavyweight title began. These were his first major steps outside of Salt Lake City where his ambitions were as penned as Sudenberg’s were in the desert; the defining series of an emergent Jack Dempsey.

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Jerry Forrest: When Heart Counts

Ted Sares

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Jerry-Forrest-When-Heart-Counts

While many Canelo fights end up in some fan’s memory bank, that probably won’t be the case given what occurred this past Saturday night in Miami. However, the show was salvaged by the entertaining heavyweight draw between China’s Zhilei “Big Bang” Zhang (22-0-1) and Jerry “Slugger” Forrest (26-4-1) on the undercard. This one had the fans up and roaring but for different reasons.

The 6’6” Zhang (with excellent amateur credentials) floored the American once in each of the first three rounds and the crowd sensed a stunning KO was on the way. But lo and behold, it didn’t come.

Then things began to change, subtle at first, as a determined Forrest survived the onslaught and began to fight back working well inside and landing shots both upstairs and to the body.

A Shift in Momentum

The momentum clearly changed in the fifth as Zhang used his body to lean on “Slugger” to tire him out, but in the process he didn’t mix and thereby lost rounds. Soon this strategy (albeit illegal) backfired and served to tire “Big Bang” more than Forrest and making matters worse for Zhang, he was deducted a point in the ninth by referee Frank Gentile for holding. (Given that he had been holding since the fifth round, the deduction was spot-on and could well have come earlier.)

Going into the last round, the fight seemed to be up for grabs and the fresher Forrest obliged as he landed crunching shots that had the fickle fans (are there any others?) now in is corner. He was actually chasing the gassed Chinese monster at the end and had the fight gone another minute, “Slugger” likely would have lived up to his moniker.

“For Jerry Forrest, this is a momentous result after a terrible start, and keeps him in the mix as a high-level gatekeeper, someone who will take on basically anyone and give it the effort. He’s a danger to prospects and mid-tier veterans alike,” wrote prominent boxing writer Scott Christ.

The scores were 95-93 Forrest and 93-93 twice for a majority draw. Zhang was lucky to keep his undefeated record intact.

Jerry Forrest showed a tremendous amount of heart. Hopefully, when folks look back at this card, Canelo’s blowout of Avni Yildirim won’t completely overshadow this entertaining heavyweight match.

(Note: Zhang was taken to a hospital for observation when his handlers noticed some concerning symptoms in the locker room after the fight. According to a published statement from Terry Lane of Lane Brothers Management, Zhang was found to be “suffering from anemia, high enzyme levels, and low-level renal failure, which may have been caused by severe dehydration. The good news is that all of his neurological signs are clear…Credit and respect to a game Jerry Forrest who battled back for a ten-round draw…Zhilei will be back.”)

Photo credit: Ed Mulholland / Matchroom

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com

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