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“Cassius X: The Transformation of Muhammad Ali”

Thomas Hauser

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BOOK REVIEW by THOMAS HAUSER — Music was the lifeblood of cultural change in the 1950s and 1960s. Cassius X: The Transformation of Muhammad Ali by Stuart Cosgrove (published by Lawrence Hill Books, an imprint of Chicago Review Press) focuses on Cassius Clay’s involvement with the Nation of Islam in the years leading up to his 1964 triumph over Sonny Liston and the expanding reach of what Cosgrove calls “Black music” during that time.

Cassius X is divided into six chapters with a coda entitled “Requiem.” Each chapter is set in a particular city – Miami, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, London, and Miami again – that was the site for one or more pivotal events in Clay’s life. In each instance, Cosgrove describes Clay’s life and the music scene in that city in depth.

For example, the first chapter (“Miami”) includes a graphic portrayal of racial injustice in the segregated American south as well as Clay’s early involvement with the Nation of Islam and the origins of his friendship with Sam Cooke (a pioneering singer and songwriter of that era). The second chapter (“Detroit”) contains an interesting recounting of a 1962 journey that Cassius, his brother, and Sam Saxon (who introduced Clay to the Nation of Islam) took to Detroit to attend a Nation of Islam rally overseen by Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. In “Philadelphia,” the racist underpinnings of Dick Clark’s enormously influential “American Bandstand” television show are explored.

Cosgrove is a Scottish author, journalist, television executive, and TV host with a scholarly interest in music. He’s passionate about his subject and puts words together well. His writing is infused with interesting nuggets of information such as the fact that three records recorded by Sonji Roi (Ali’s first wife) were released after their marriage fell apart. But there are problems with his work.

The biggest problem is that Cassius X is riddled with factual inaccuracies. The red flags begin to appear in the first chapter when Cosgrove writes that Tony Esperti (Clay’s third professional opponent) was “assassinated in a mob hit” in 1967 by a member of the Gambino crime family and adds, “The coroner described it as the perfect execution – a single lethal bullet to the brain.”

“That’s interesting,” I said to myself. I made a note to praise Cosgrove in this review for that bit of information. Then something in the back of my mind cautioned, “Wait a minute!”

Muhammad Ali fought fifty different opponents in his 61 professional fights. I keep a list of which opponents are still alive and the date of death for those who are no longer with us. Tony Esperti died in 2002. I have photographs of him that were taken in 1979. Yet Cassius X dramatically recounts his 1967 “execution” in a Miami steakhouse. In reality, Esperti was the perpetrator of the crime in question.

Unfortunately, there’s more.

Cosgrove writes that “more myths have congregated around Sonny Liston than any boxer before or since.”

I take issue with that. Let’s start with Joe Louis who (among other myths) inspired the allegorical tale of a black prisoner in the moments before his execution crying out “Save me, Joe Louis!” No one is said to have cried out, “Save me, Sonny Liston!”

Cosgrove also writes, “Liston won twenty-six consecutive bouts over five years, and his title-winning victory on September 25, 1962 [over Floyd Patterson] broke the record for consecutive heavyweight victories.”

But Rocky Marciano won 49 fights in a row and retired from boxing with an unblemished record. Joe Louis won 34 fights in a row after his 1936 loss to Max Schmeling. The last time I looked, 49 and 34 were more than 26.

Cosgrove writes that Angelo Dundee “panicked” after Henry Cooper dropped Cassius Clay with a left hook in round four of their 1963 fight. That’s not true. To the contrary, Dundee saw Clay through the crisis.

Similarly, the fatal 1962 encounter between Emile Griffith and Benny Paret is mis-told. After writing that Griffith was “the reigning welterweight champion” at the time (he wasn’t), Cosgrove states that Grffith “lost control” during the final sequence of punches and informs readers, “Referee Ruby Goldstein was tugging at Griffith from behind, pulling him off. As Emile, berserk, struggling passionately in Goldstein’s embrace, was dragged away, Paret, now obviously senseless, crumpled slowly and collapsed.”

That’s inaccurate. All Cosgrove had to do was go to YouTube and watch a video of the fatal round. If he had, he would have seen that Griffith stopped throwing punches and stepped back the moment that Goldstein intervened. Is simple fact-checking too much to ask of a seasoned professional like Cosgrove?

Errors like these make it difficult to know how much of Cosgrove’s factual recitation in other areas (such as music) can be trusted.

Here I might add that Cosgrove writes of a week that the writer Tom Wolfe spent with Clay in 1963 and states, “Wolfe sensed that his simplistic poetry and superficial boasting disguised a deep understanding of business and finance.”

I don’t know what Wolfe “sensed.” I do know that it’s ludicrous to suggest that Clay (or Muhammad Ali) had “a deep understanding of business and finance.”

That brings us to Cassius Clay and the world of music.

Cosgrove equates Muhammad Ali’s ultimate success with the rise of rhythm and blues and (ultimately) hip-hop to become “the preeminent form of popular music in the world.”

Reinterpretations of history are always welcome when solidly grounded. And there’s a lot of interesting information in Cassius X about Clay’s transformation to Muhammad Ali, the Nation of Islam, and the music of that era. But there are times when Cosgrove’s methodology of viewing Clay through the prism of music comes across as forced.

I’m not a scholar with regard to popular music from the 1950s and 1960s. But I know it pretty well, having lived through that time. Lloyd Price and Chubby Checker (acknowledged by Cosgrove to have been important figures during that era) have been guests for dinner in my home. My first real bond with Ali when I began spending time with him while researching Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (published in 1991) was music.

Muhammad was four years older than I was, but we’d grown up with many of the same songs. We’d drive from the airport to his home in Berrien Springs or be in his car on the way to a restaurant. We’d pop a tape of songs sung by black recording artists into the cassette player and sing along.

“I can’t believe you know all the words,” Muhammad said to me one evening. “I never would have thought it.”

Cosgrove has an impressive resume. Among his many credits, he’s the author of a three-book study of soul music. That said; there are places where he falls victim to hyperbole in advancing his thesis. Twist and Shout, first recorded by the Top Notes and made famous by the Isley Brothers (two black vocal groups) was not “the song the Beatles had become synonymous with” when they came to the United States in 1964. A Christmas Gift for You featuring Darlene Love and the Ronettes was not “one of the greatest pop albums of the era.” It was a celebration of a certain style of music but a repetitive and formulaic compilation. Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 is an excellent recording but not “universally acclaimed as one of the greatest live albums of all time.”

Cosgrove writes that sports columnist Jimmy Cannon “erupted when he learned about the Beatles meeting Cassius in Miami” in 1964 and that Cannon wrote, “Clay is part of the Beatle movement. He fits in with the famous singers no one can hear and the punks riding motorcycles with iron crosses pinned to their leather jackets and Batman and the boys with their long dirty hair and the girls with the unwashed look and the college kids dancing naked at secret proms held in apartments and the revolt of students who get a check from dad every first of the month and the painters who copy the labels off soup cans and the surf bums who refuse to work and the whole pampered style-making cult of the bored young.”

That’s a dramatic quote. But Cosgrove puts it in a misleading context. Cannon wrote those words in 1966 after Ali was reclassified 1-A by his draft board and uttered the words, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” That was more than two years after Clay met the Beatles.

And Cosgrove writes about Clay’s dalliance with singer Dee Dee Sharp as a serious relationship before characterizing it more accurately as a “brief affair” and then exaggerating its gravitas again.

There’s also some sloppy copy-editing. By way of example, Cassius X states that Sonny Liston refused to allow Liston-Clay I to be shown on closed circuit in theaters in New Orleans “if the seating in New Orleans was not segregated.” I assume that Cosgrove meant “integrated.”

These flaws are disappointing because Cosgrove has a lot to say that’s of interest. At its best, Cassius X contains some very good – even enlightening – material on the evolution of music in the 1950s and 1960s and Cassius Clay’s sojourn through that time.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His next book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – will be published by the University of Arkansas Press this autumn. 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 induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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Avila Perspective, Chap 130: Jaron ‘Boots’ Ennis, Super Fly and More

David A. Avila

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A stacked weekend of marquee fights is led by top American welterweight prospect Jaron “Boots” Ennis tasked with meeting the challenge of Russia’s Sergey Lipinets in Connecticut.

The undefeated Ennis (26-0, 24 KOs) faces former super lightweight world titlist Lipinets (16-1-1, 12 KOs) on Saturday April 10, at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville. Showtime will televise the loaded PBC card.

Philadelphia’s Ennis walks into the boxing ring with all of the physical advantages including height, reach, speed and even more pro fights. But Lipinets does indeed know what it’s like to fight against a world champion.

“I think the opposition that I’ve faced is definitely better than what Ennis has faced. I went 12 rounds with Mikey Garcia and I faced a two-time champion in Lamont Peterson,” said Lipinets. “Those guys have pushed me to the edge before. Ennis has more pro fights than I do, he just hasn’t been pushed in the same way in his fights.”

This will be an opportunity for the athletically gifted Ennis to discover if he cracks the elite level.

“I’ve been trying to get these types of guys in the ring for about two-and-a-half years. I’ve been trying to get former world champions and top ten guys. It just didn’t happen. I finally got my chance and you guys are going to see a whole different animal. A whole different beast. It’s time for me to do my thing,” said Ennis, 23.

Lipinets, 32, realizes that time is running out and needs a win against an avoided prospect like Ennis to re-introduce himself to the fickle boxing world.

“Ennis is a young and up-and-coming fighter. All we want is a shot at the title and everything that comes with it. A win in this fight will give us all of that. I want to get my crack at the big dogs in the division,” said Lipinets who trains in Southern California.

Both fighters are explosive types with extreme confidence in their abilities.

Superfly

Also on the same fight card, long-reigning IBF super flyweight world titlist Jerwin Ancajas (32-1-2, 22 KOs) yearns to be part of the super flyweight wars that have emerged with fighters Juan Francisco Estrada, Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, Kazuto Ioka and Srisaket Sor Rungvisai.

The super flyweight division has become one of the hottest in boxing.

“I want to fight whoever is left after the four-man tournament between Rungvisai, Chocolatito, Estrada and (Carlos) Cuadras. I’m always calling the name of any titleholder in my division, so I would fight Ioka too,” said Ancajas, a Filipino southpaw who has held the IBF super fly title since September 2016. “I want a signature fight because I’m tired of people criticizing me for not fighting anybody.”

Ancajas, 29, meets Mexico’s Jonathan Rodriguez (22-1, 16 KOs) another one of those little-known Mexican sluggers that can upset any fighter looking too far ahead.

“Ancajas is a great champion, but he’s never faced someone like me. I’m going to put the pressure on him from the very beginning Saturday night and show him that he has a great Mexican fighter standing in his way,” said Rodriguez.

Early Fights

A welterweight battle between Conor Benn (17-0) and Samuel Vargas (31-6-2) takes place on Saturday April 10, from London. The Matchroom Boxing card will be streamed on DAZN at 11 a.m. Pacific Time.

British-born Benn is the son of the great Nigel Benn and was slated for a showdown with another British prospect Josh Kelly. But that fighter was upended by David Avanesyan this past February who knocked out Kelly. Matchroom Boxing had to re-arrange somethings and now it’s Benn versus Vargas.

Vargas is tough.

The last time we saw Vargas he was getting clobbered by knockout artist Vergil Ortiz Jr. but never touched the floor. Whoever fights Vargas learns quickly that he’s a dangerous fighter with a head made of steel.

Does Benn have enough boxing skills to switch to plan B when a knockout win isn’t possible?

We shall see.

On the same card two female world title fights take place with the vacant WBA bantamweight title up for grabs between England’s Shannon Courtenay and Australia’s Ebanie Bridges. Also, WBO middleweight titlist Savannah Marshall defends against Maria Lindberg.

Light Heavyweight Title

A fight for the vacant WBO light heavyweight title will try and take place again when Joe Smith Jr. (26-3, 21 KOs) the hard-hitting blue-collar worker from Long Island takes his hammer fists to Tulsa, Oklahoma to face Max Vlasov (45-3, 26 KOs) on Saturday April 10. ESPN will show the Top Rank fight card.

They tried fighting each other before but the coronavirus epidemic knocked the first attempt out of the water. Here they go again.

Smith, 31, has tried before and been defeated before. But every time someone thinks its all over for the construction worker, he knocks somebody out to regain a footing. He knocked out former champion Eleider Alvarez and defeated Jesse Hart to get to this spot.

Vlasov, 34, has been around for many years and displays an aptitude for doing what’s necessary to survive. Can he find that same ingredient to fend off Smith?

It should be a worthy world title fight.

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Jaron ‘Boots’ Ennis Advancing to Heights Beyond What His Brothers Achieved

Bernard Fernandez

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Is fast-rising welterweight contender Jaron “Boots” Ennis the Next Big Thing in boxing’s deepest and arguably best division? To hear veteran Showtime analyst Steve Farhood tell it, the 23-year-old Philadelphian just might be, with his already blue-chip stock apt to increase in value should he take care of business Saturday night against Sergey Lipinets in the Showtime Championship Boxing main event at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.

“I think so much of him, I believe he will not only win his stiffest test, but win impressively,” Farhood said of the youngest and best of the three Ennis brothers to box professionally. “And when he does, that’ll show he belongs with the very best of the welterweights.”

Asked what the immediate future might hold for Ennis (26-0, 24 KOs) should the young knockout artist do unto the 32-year-old Lipinets (16-1-1, 12 KOs) what he did to 16 of his 17 most recent opponents, which is to win inside the distance, Farhood opined that the door to indisputably elite status could swing open sooner rather than later.

“Now that fighters are fighting again (as COVID-19 concerns begin to lift), I would say within a year,” Farhood predicted. “After Lipinets, is there really a point in moving backward? I think Boots and Danny Garcia obviously would be a very special fight in Philadelphia. A Garcia, a Shawn Porter or a Keith Thurman, fighters on that level, are all within reach over the next 12 months, if he looks dominant against Lipinets, which I believe he will.”

Should Boots meet or exceed Farhood’s most optimistic projections, a vision shared by his father-trainer, Derrick “Bozy” Ennis, a down-the-road showdown with either or both of the 147-pound weight division’s superstars, Terence Crawford and Errol Spence Jr., could await. But the family patriarch expects some of the bigger names to be unavailable to his son, for one reason or another.

“Danny don’t want to fight my son,” Bozy said. “Danny wouldn’t even spar with my son. And Shawn Porter already said, `I ain’t fighting Boots Ennis. I know his father, I know his brothers. The only way I’d take that fight is if he keeps calling me out. But otherwise I’m not fighting that young killer if I don’t have to. He’s too fast, too slick.’

“Some of the top guys are talking about moving up (to junior middleweight), so we’d still have a shot at one of those titles if they open up. Spence is talking about going to 154 if he doesn’t get certain fights. Now, he did say he might fight Boots down the line. I’ll give him credit for that. Crawford? He’s not interested in fighting Boots. His people already said that. All I can say is that some of these guys, they either got to s— or get off the pot and move on. If need be, we’ll go after (Yordenis) Ugas and Jamal James. They’re top guys.”

Big talk, of course, is cheap and means nothing if not backed up by in the ring. The suggestions Bozy Ennis is tossing around like confetti that some of the premier welterweights are avoiding Boots as if he were a communicable disease might or might not be accurate. One thing, though, is certain: the highest aspirations that members of the Ennis family are now reserving for its brightly shining baby boy were also once held for Boots’ older brothers Derek “Pooh” Ennis and Farah Ennis, both of whom made it part of the way up the ladder to the big time before their careers stalled.

Pooh, the eldest brother whose last pro bout was in 2014, compiled a 24-5-1 record with 13 KO victories competing in the super welterweight and middleweight classifications, along the way holding the Pennsylvania and USBA 154-pound championships. Farah, who briefly was the NABF 168-pound titlist, was 22-2 with 12 KOs and hasn’t fought since 2015.

In a 2018 interview, Bozy said the gap separating Boots and his brothers mostly owes to little brother taking care not to make some of the mistakes his siblings made.

“Derek and Farah talk to Jaron all the time, which helps,” Bozy said then. “They say, `Don’t do what I did when I was younger, when I had a chance to be better than I was.’ My older boys had talent, but they weren’t always as focused as they should have been. They let the women get to them. Hey, it happens.”

Familial genetics, however, is not always a true indicator of outcome. Henry and Tommie Aaron hold Major League Baseball’s record for combined home runs by brothers with 768, but Hammerin’ Hank had 755 of them to Tommie’s 13. Jose and Ozzie are identical twins, but Jose blasted 462 homers over 17 MLB seasons while Ozzie, two inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter, failed to go deep even once in his three seasons in The Show. Focus and dedication are factors in any athlete’s success, sure, but talent is not always evenly distributed among blood relatives.

“The two older brothers both got beat on ShoBox, interestingly,” recalled Farhood. “I think the difference between Boots and them is just natural talent.

“You often see in basketball that the son of a coach is a point guard. Kids like that have a comfort level and feel for the game. I get that same impression with Boots. Growing up around Bozy, being around in the gym literally from the time he was a baby, his upbringing shows. But it’s not only that. He has a lot of natural ability to go with that lifetime of familiarity with boxing. You put all that together and you get what looks like the perfect package.”

Predictions of future stardom were made early on for Boots Ennis, who was widely considered to be the best young fighter to come out of Philly since Meldrick Taylor was a 17-year-old gold medalist at the 1984 Olympics and went on to win world titles at both junior welterweight and welterweight. Some prodigies can sag under such heavy expectations, but to date Boots seems to have embraced his role as the emerging face of Philadelphia boxing.

“Being in the main event on Showtime brings more attention, but I like it,” he said in the lead-up to his important 12-round matchup with the capable Lipinets, which some knowledgeable insiders view as an almost pick ’em fight. “I like being in the spotlight. I like to shine, so it’s nothing new. Now it’s fight time. I am locked in and ready to rock and roll.”

Boots Ennis comes in either on a 16-fight knockout streak, or not. In his most recent ring appearance, against veteran South African southpaw Chris van Heerden, a clash of heads in the first round caused a severe cut to van Heerden’s forehead and the bout being declared a no-contest. Whether that NC ended the impressive run of early endings or not is a matter of opinion, not that it matters to Boots in any case.

“Some people might look at a knockout on April 10 as the 17th consecutive knockout. Some might view it as the start of a new knockout streak,” he said. “For me, I don’t really care as long as I come out victorious. That’s all that matters to me. I’m not looking for a knockout, but I’m going to take it if it comes.”

Despite his burgeoning reputation as a power puncher, Boots believes his best days as a lights-out finisher are still ahead.

“I don’t feel I have my man strength yet,” he offered. “I feel it will be one or two more years until I fully have my man strength. The crazy part is, I feel like in a fight, I still haven’t thrown a real power shot and really sat down on a punch yet. Everything I’ve been knocking guys out with has been all-natural strength.”

Again, Saturday night’s outcome is hardly a fait accompli. Although Boots is ranked No. 7 by the WBO, No. 9 by the IBF and No. 12 by the WBC, the Kazakhstan-born, California-based Lipinets matches or exceeds those ratings, currently as the IBF’s No. 3 contender, and No. 9 by both the WBO and The Ring magazine. But, with advantages of three inches in height and a whopping seven inches in reach for Boots, the fight could be a virtual replay of the taller, longer-armed Jamel Herring’s almost casual dismissal of Carl Frampton last week.

“He’s very confident, sure, but that’s all right if he can back it up,” Farhood said of Ennis. “To me, the ultimate test of a really hot prospect is when he moves up in class. Does he just win, or does he win more impressively than what a lot of people anticipated? So far, for each step along the way, for Boots the answer has been yes. I think it will be again Saturday night.”

Photo credit: Amanda Westcott / SHOWTIME

A New Orleans native, Bernard Fernandez retired in 2012 after a 43-year career as a newspaper sports writer, the last 28 years with the Philadelphia Daily News. A former five-term president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, Fernandez won the BWAA’s Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism in 1998 and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service in 2015. In December of 2019, Fernandez was accorded the highest honor for a boxing writer when he was named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the Class of 2020. Last year, Fernandez’s anthology, “Championship Rounds,” was released by RKMA Publishing.

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Jesse James Leija vs. Micky Ward: A Dry-gulch in San Antonio

Ted Sares

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Late in his career, Jesse James Leija was involved in two fights that ended in controversy under eerily similar circumstances. The first came in July of 2001 when Leija, a former world title-holder, was paired against Hector Camacho Jr at Brooklyn’s new minor league baseball stadium. Camacho Jr was 32-0 at the time; Leija 42-5-2.

In the fifth round, a cut was opened across Camacho’s right eyelid. At the end of the round, ringside physician Dr. Robert Polofsky examined the cut, which did not appear to be all that bad to television or ringside viewers.

Camacho could be heard (at least by this listener) saying ‘I can’t see.” Polofsky agreed with him, as he ordered the fight stopped, and under the rules it went to the scorecards. After much confusion, arguing, consultation, and stalling, the cards were read and unbelievably all three favored Camacho. He was ahead 49-46 on two of the cards and 48-47 on the third. The technical decision was roundly booed by an announced crowd of 6,012, even though Camacho, from Spanish Harlem, was effectively fighting in his hometown.

The doctor, referee Steve Smoger, and the judges did not to talk to the media. Whether they were ordered to stay silent by the New York State Athletic Commission is open to debate.

Hector Camacho Jr. remained unbeaten, but his tainted victory tarnished his image as the WBA’s number-one-ranked super lightweight. Leija and his manager, Lester Bedford, called Camacho a quitter, an accurate description to most of the viewers. Leija had badly hurt Camacho in the fight, and it was clear that junior wanted no more of what the veteran brought to the table.

Thankfully, the decision was later ruled a no-contest. The commission ruled that the bell should not have rung to begin the sixth round. Since the bell rang incorrectly, the official cards should not have been consulted under a New York boxing rule, and there could not be a decision, the panel said.

But this fight has haunted “Machito” ever since, and his legacy as a warrior was impacted by it. The backlash was vicious.

Leija-Ward

Less than seven months later, Leija met “Irish” Micky Ward at the Freeman Coliseum in San Antonio, Texas. Akin to Leija-Camacho Jr, the bout aired on HBO’s “Boxing After Dark” series. And the very same thing that happened to Leija in Brooklyn happened to Ward in Leija’s hometown.

The Lowell, Massachusetts warrior opened a cut over Leija’s right eye with what replays clearly showed to be a short left hook, but referee Laurence Cole inexplicably called it a butt. When the referee went to Leija’s corner, Leija, despite his legitimate warrior reputation, said he couldn’t see, and the fight was stopped. Ward’s corner was shocked and pleaded with Leija to continue. They appealed to his reputation.

They might have appealed to the Texas Commission but the head of it was the colorful and beloved Dickie Cole, Laurence’s father, so they passed.

The outcome was fortunate for Leija. Ward, often a slow starter, was rapidly getting into his rhythm and beginning to land his signature body shots. It would only be a matter of time before he caught up with the fading Leija. But Ward would be ambushed, dry-gulched in San Antonio.

For some strange reason, this one escaped notoriety and has remained under the radar, but it was every bit as bad as the Camacho fiasco, maybe worse, particularly since Leija was a guy who came to fight. At the very least, it should have been called a no-contest. Ward, for his part, never blamed Leija for what happened.

Camacho received a brutal backlash; Leija received virtually none, even though this was terribly wrong. Oddly, Leija would retire in his corner once again in his very next fight when his corner pulled him out with a busted eardrum after six rounds against Kostya Tszyu.

Sometimes things happen for the best. Ward went on to fight and beat Arturo Gatti at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut instead of engaging in a rematch with Jesse James Leija. The rest is rich history.

After losing to the great Tszyu, Leija won four in a row before losing his final fight to, of all people, Arturo Gatti. Leija was knocked down twice and stopped in the fifth round of their bout at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. He announced his retirement a week after this fight but would remain in boxing as a trainer.

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com

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