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Boxing’s Chaotic Weight Divisions: Part Two of a Two-Part Story

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In May of 1987, The Ring magazine, boxing’s premier publication, announced that it would be turning back the clock. In the future, the monthly top-10 ratings would be limited to the eight classic weight divisions. The champions of the “junior” divisions would be rolled into the next highest weight class.

“Our goal,” said The Ring editor Nigel Collins, “is to restore boxing to the way it used to be, when the champ really meant something. The thing is so watered down now that it has become a farce.”

The last straw for the self-styled Bible of boxing was the introduction of the 105-pound weight class earlier that year. The fledgling International Boxing Federation got the ball rolling and the two other relevant organizations, the WBC and WBA, were quick to embrace it. This latest addition to boxing’s taxonomy created a second weight division below the standard flyweight class. Only three measly pounds separated the 105-pound class from the class directly above it.

Making matters more confusing, the three organizations could not agree on what to call the new weight division. The IBF named it mini-flyweight, the WBC called it the strawweight, and the WBA named it the minimumweight division.

The addition of this new weight class was seen as a cash grab, a move to extract more money in sanctioning fees from the sport’s promoters. It was certainly that, but there was more to it. The honchos of the three organizations could see that the Orient was “under-served.” The best fighters in this region of the world, with few exceptions, were “mighty-mites.” When the IBF released its first mini-flyweight top-10 list, only four countries were represented: Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and South Korea.

Cruisers

The cruiserweight division was born before the bottom end of the weight spectrum was cluttered with sub-flyweight divisions. The WBC led the way, setting the limit at 190 pounds.

Marvin Camel, who was born on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana, had the distinction of being the world’s first cruiserweight champion, but it took him two tries. In December of 1979, Camel’s 15-round fight with Mate Parlov in Yugoslavia ended in a draw. The do-over was held three months later in Las Vegas and Camel copped the vacant belt, winning a unanimous decision.

Camel became a two-time cruiserweight champion when he scored a 5th-round stoppage over Roddy McDonald on McDonald’s turf in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Dec. 13, 1983, in the first world cruiserweight title fight sanctioned by the infant IBF.

Prior to this, in February of the previous year, the first WBA cruiserweight title fight was held in South Africa. Ossie Ocasio claimed the vacant belt with a 15-round split decision over Robbie Williams. In point of fact, Ocasio actually won the WBA’s junior heavyweight title, but the name never caught on and the WBA eventually fell in line with its rivals and accepted the handle “cruiserweight.”

Super Middles

The idea for a 168-pound weight class had been kicking around for some time before the International Boxing Federation gave it the stamp of approval, taking it out of the hands of fly-by-night organizations.

The IBF, headquartered in New Jersey, was pressured to create the new weight class by the management of Garden State native Bobby Czyz who had outgrown the middleweight division, but the popular Czyz was a spectator when the IBF held its first super middleweight title fight, a match between Murray Sutherland and Ernie Singletary at Atlantic City on March 28, 1984. Sutherland, who was born in Scotland but fought out of Bay City, Michigan, won the vacant belt with a lopsided decision in a dull 15-round fight.

South Korea’s Chong Pal-Park, who dethroned Sutherland but left the IBF, won the first WBA super middleweight title fight with a second-round stoppage of Tijuana’s Jesus Gallardo on Dec. 6, 1987. In November of the following year, the first-ever WBO and WBC super middleweight title fights were staged three days apart in Las Vegas.

On the 4th, at the Hilton, Thomas Hearns became the first WBO 168-pound title-holder when he got off the deck to win a 12-round majority decision over James Kinchen. On the 7th, at Caesars Palace, Sugar Ray Leonard got off the deck to stop Donny Lalonde in the ninth frame. Leonard won two titles that night as Lalonde entered the ring sporting the WBC light heavyweight title, but Sugar Ray never had any intention of defending this belt.

That set up a unification fight between Hearns and Leonard, a rematch of their scintillating welterweight battle, but almost eight years had passed since that famous fight and Leonard-Hearns II, contested at Caesars Palace on June 12, 1989, was a pale imitation of the original even though it was a very close fight that ended in a draw.

All four governing bodies would eventually bump the cruiserweight class up to 200 pounds. The changeover was made in rapid succession, one of the few instances in which the rival organizations operated more or less in concert.

Olympic Boxing

The lords of professional boxing were too smart to tamper with the traditional eight weight classes. The weights have remained unchanged for more than 100 years. At the amateur level, however, there have been frequent shake-ups.

As noted in PART ONE, the 1920 Summer Games were an important development in putting the seal of approval on the eight traditional classes and standardizing the weight attached to each class. This template remained in place until 1948 when there were changes across the board resulting from the decision to express the weights in kilograms rather than pounds. Every weight class was impacted to some degree. To take just one example, the lightweight division went from 135 pounds to 62 kilograms, the rough equivalent of 136.7 pounds.

Four years later, at the 1952 Olympics, two new weight classes were introduced, boosting the number of divisions from “8” to “10.” The new divisions were called light welterweight and light middleweight and the divisions adjacent to them were adjusted so that they wouldn’t rub too close against them.

Another new weight class was introduced in 1968, the light flyweight class with a ceiling of 105.8 pounds (48 kilograms) and in 1984 the number of Olympic weight classes went from “11” to “12” with a super heavyweight class for boxers weighing more than 91 kilograms (200.6 pounds).

The light middleweight division was eliminated in 2004 and the featherweight division was expunged in 2012, bringing the number of Olympic weight classes back to “10.” As was true when a new weight class was added, the elimination of a weight class brought about some adjustments. And it now became necessary to qualify the number by noting that these were men’s classes. The women had crashed the party.

At the 2012 Games, the first for female boxing, and once again in 2016, the ladies were sorted into three divisions: flyweight, lightweight, and middleweight.

At the forthcoming Tokyo Olympiad — pushed back from 2020 by the pandemic — there will be five weight classes for women. A featherweight (125) and a welterweight (152) class has been added. Concordantly, the lightweight division has been redefined, going from 132 to 138 pounds.

As has happened in the realm of sports at America’s colleges and universities, as more opportunities have been provided for women, there’s been some contraction for men. To accommodate the ladies, AIBA, the international governing body of amateur boxing, is doing away with two men’s classes. The light flyweight and bantamweight divisions are biting the dust.

It seems odd that as amateur boxing is returning to eight weight classes (for males), the pro game is heading in the other direction. The addition of a bridgerweight class will swell the number to 18.

And by the way, The Ring magazine now rates boxers in 12 weight categories. The well-intentioned rollback to the original eight never did take hold.

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Anderson Cruises by Vapid Merhy and Ajagba edges Vianello in Texas

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Jared Anderson returned to the ring tonight on a Top Rank card in Corpus Christi, Texas. Touted as the next big thing in the heavyweight division, Anderson (17-0, 15 KOs) hardly broke a sweat while cruising past Ryad Merhy in a bout with very little action, much to the disgruntlement of the crowd which started booing as early as the second round. The fault was all Merhy as he was reluctant to let his hands go. Somehow, he won a round on the scorecard of judge David Sutherland who likely fell asleep for a round for which he could be forgiven.

Merhy, born in the Ivory Coast but a resident of Brussels, Belgium, was 32-2 (26 KOs) heading in after fighting most of his career as a cruiserweight. He gave up six inches in height to Anderson who was content to peck away when it became obvious to him that little would be coming back his way.

Anderson may face a more daunting adversary on Monday when he has a court date in Romulus, Michigan, to answer charges related to an incident in February where he drove his Dodge Challenger at a high rate speed, baiting the police into a merry chase. (Weirdly, Anderson entered the ring tonight wearing the sort of helmet that one associates with a race car driver.)

Co-Feature

In the co-feature, a battle between six-foot-six former Olympians, Italy’s Guido Vianello started and finished strong, but Efe Ajagba had the best of it in the middle rounds and prevailed on a split decision. Two of the judges favored Ajagba by 96-94 scores with the dissenter favoring the Italian from Rome by the same margin.

Vianello had the best round of the fight. He staggered Ajagba with a combination in round two. At the end of the round, a befuddled Ajagba returned to the wrong corner and it appeared that an upset was brewing. But the Nigerian, who trains in Las Vegas under Kay Koroma, got back into the fight with a more varied offensive attack and better head movement. In winning, he improved his ledger to 20-1 (14). Vianello, who sparred extensively with Daniel Dubois in London in preparation for this fight, declined to 12-2-1 in what was likely his final outing under the Top Rank banner.

Other Bouts of Note

In the opening bout on the main ESPN platform, 35-year-old super featherweight Robson Conceicao, a gold medalist for Brazil in the 2016 Rio Olympics, stepped down in class after fighting Emanuel Navarrete tooth-and-nail to a draw in his previous bout and scored a seventh-round stoppage of Jose Ivan Guardado who was a cooked goose after slumping to the canvas after taking a wicked shot to the liver. Guardado made it to his feet, but the end was imminent and the referee waived it off at the 2:27 mark.

Conceicao improved to 18-1 (9 KOs). It was the U.S. debut for Guardado (15-2-1), a boxer from Ensenada, Mexico who had done most of his fighting up the road in Tijuana.

Ruben Villa, the pride of Salinas, California, improved to 22-1 (7) and moved one step closer to a match with WBC featherweight champion Rey Vargas with a unanimous 10-round decision over Tijuana’s Cristian Cruz (22-7-1). The judges had it 97-93 and 98-92 twice.

Cruz, the son of former IBF world featherweight title-holder Cristobal Cruz, was better than his record. He entered the bout on a 21-1-1 run after losing five of his first seven pro fights.

Cleveland southpaw Abdullah Mason, who turned 20 earlier this month, continued his fast ascent up the lightweight ladder with a fourth-round stoppage of Ronal Ron.

Mason (13-0, 11 KOs) put Ron on the canvas in the opening round with a short left hook. He scored a second knockdown with a shot to the liver. A flurry of punches, a diverse array, forced the stoppage at the 1:02 mark of round four. A 25-year-old SoCal-based Venezuelan, the spunky but out-gunned Ron declined to 14-6.

Charly Suarez, a 35-year-old former Olympian from the Philippines, ranked #5 at junior lightweight by the IBF, advanced to 17-0 (9) with a unanimous 8-round decision over SoCal’s Louie Coria (5-7).

This was a tactical fight. In the final round, Coria, subbing for 19-0 Henry Lebron, caught the Filipino off-balance and knocked him into the ropes which held him up. It was scored a knockdown, but came too little, too late for Coria who lost by scores of 76-75 and 77-74 twice.

Suarez, whose signature win was a 12th-round stoppage of the previously undefeated Aussie Paul Fleming in Sydney, may be headed to a rematch with Robson Conceicao. They fought as amateurs in 2016 in Kazakhstan and Suarez lost a narrow 6-round decision.

Photo credit: Mikey Willams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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Ellie Scotney and Rhiannon Dixon Win World Title Fights in Manchester

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England’s Ellie Scotney started slowly against the long reach of France’s Segolene Lefebvre but used rough tactics and a full-steam ahead approach to unify the super bantamweight division by unanimous decision on Saturday.

“There’s a lot more I didn’t show,” said an excited Scotney (pictured on the left).

IBF titlist Scotney (9-0) added the WBO title by nullifying Lefebvre’s (18-1) reach and dominating the inside with a two-fisted attack in front of an excited crowd in Manchester, England.

For the first two rounds Lefebvre used her long reach and smooth fluid attack to keep Scotney at the end of her punches. Then the fight turned when the British fighter bulled her way inside with body shots and forced the French fighter into the ropes.

Aggressiveness by Scotney turned the fight in her favor. But Lefebvre remained active and countered with overhand rights throughout the match.

Body shots by Scotney continued to pummel the French champion’s abdomen but she remained steadfast in her counter-attacks. Combinations landed for Lefebvre and a counter overhand right scored to keep her in the contest in the fifth round.

Scotney increased the intensity of her attack in the sixth and seventh rounds. In perhaps her best round Scotney was almost perfect in scoring while not getting hit with anything from the French fighter.

Maybe the success of the previous round caused Scotney to pause. It allowed Lefebvre to rally behind some solid shots in a slow round and gave the French fighter an opening. Maybe.

The British fighter opened up more savagely after taking two Lefevbre rights to open the ninth. Scotney attacked with bruising more emphatic blows despite getting hit. Though both fired blows Scotney’s were more powerful.

Both champions opened-up the 10th and final round with punches flying. Once again Scotney’s blows had more power behind them though the French fighter scored too, and though her face looked less bruised than Scotney’s the pure force of Scotney’s attacks was more impressive.

All three judges saw Scotney the winner 97-93, 96-94 and a ridiculous 99-91. The London-based fighter now has the IBF and WBO super bantamweight titles.

Promoter Eddie Hearn said a possible showdown with WBC titlist Erika Cruz looms large possibly in the summer.

“Great performance. Great punch output,” said Hearn of Scotney’s performance.

Dixon Wins WBO Title

British southpaw Rhiannon Dixon (10-0) out-fought Argentina’s Karen Carabajal (22-2) over 10 rounds and won a very competitive unanimous decision to win the vacant WBO lightweight title. It was one of the titles vacated by Katie Taylor who is now the undisputed super lightweight world champion.

An aggressive Dixon dominated the first three rounds including a knockdown in the third round with a perfect left-hand counter that dropped Carabajal. The Argentine got up and rallied in the round.

Carabajal, whose only loss was against Katie Taylor, slowly began figuring out Dixon’s attacks and each round got more competitive. The Argentine fighter used counter rights to find a hole in Dixon’s defense to probably win the round in the sixth.

The final three rounds saw both fighters engage evenly with Carabajal scoring on counters and Dixon attacking the body successfully.

After 10 rounds all three judges saw it in Dixon’s favor 98-91, 97-92, 96-93 who now wields the WBO lightweight world title.

“It’s difficult to find words,” said Dixon after winning the title.

Hometown Fighter Wins

Manchester’s Zelfa Barrett (31-2, 17 KOs) battled back and forth with Jordan Gill (28-3-1, 9 KO-s) and finally ended the super featherweight fight with two knockdowns via lefts to the body in the 10th round of a scheduled 12-round match for a regional title.

The smooth moving Barrett found the busier Gill more complex than expected and for the first nine rounds was fighting a 50/50 fight against the fellow British fighter from the small town of Chatteris north of London.

In the 10th round after multiple shots on the body of Gill, a left hook to the ribs collapsed the Chatteris fighter to the floor. He willed himself up and soon after was floored again but this time by a left to the solar plexus. Again he continued but was belted around until the referee stopped the onslaught by Barrett at 2:44 of the 10th.

“A tough, tough fighter,” said Barrett about Gill. “I had to work hard.”

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O.J. Simpson the Boxer: A Heartwarming Tale for the Whole Family

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O.J. Simpson passed away on Wednesday, April 10, at age 76 in Las Vegas where he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. For millions of Americans, news of his passing unloosed a flood of memories.

The O.J. Simpson double murder trial lasted 37 weeks. CNN and two other fledgling cable networks provided gavel-to-gavel coverage. On Oct. 3, 1995, the day that the jury rendered its verdict, CBS, NBC, ABC, and ESPN suspended regular programming to cover the trial. Worldwide, more than 100 million people were reportedly glued to their TV or radio.

O.J.’s life can be neatly compartmentalized into two halves. The dividing line is June 12, 1994. On that date, Simpson’s estranged wife, the former Nicole Brown, and her friend Ronald Goldman were found stabbed to death in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood at the home that Nicole shared with their two children.

Before then, O.J. was famous. After then, he was infamous.

Simpson first came to the fore on the gridiron. In 1968, his final season at the University of Southern California, he was so dynamic that he won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide, out-distancing Purdue’s Leroy Keyes by 1,750 votes. This was the widest margin to that point between a Heisman winner and runner-up and a milestone that stood for 51 years until surpassed by LSU quarterback Joe Burrows in 2019.

In the NFL, among his many achievements, he became the first and only NFL running back to eclipse 2,000 rushing yards in a 14-game season, a record that will never be broken.

But one can’t appreciate the depth of O.J.s celebrityhood by citing statistics. He transcended his sport like few athletes before or since. Owing in large part to his commercials for the Hertz rental car chain, he became one of America’s most recognizable people.

O.J. Simpson was raised by a single mother in a government housing project in the gritty Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. Unlike many of his boyhood peers, he was never quick to raise his fists. Weirdly, he once said that running away from fights proved useful to him when he took up football. It helped his stamina.

Although he never boxed in real life, O.J. portrayed a boxer in a made-for-TV movie. Titled “Goldie and the Boxer,” it aired on NBC on Sunday, Dec. 29, 1979, two weeks after O.J. played in his last NFL game. Co-produced by Simpson’s own production company, it starred O.J. opposite precocious Melissa Michaelson who played the 10-year-old Goldie.

In promos, the movie was tagged as a heartwarming tale for kids and their parents. Associated Press writer John Egan described it as “a cross between the Shirley Temple classic ‘Little Miss Marker’ and a low-budget ‘Rocky.’”

Here’s a synopsis, compliments of New York Times TV critic John J. O’Connor:

“The year is 1946, and Joe Gallagher is returning to Louisiana as an army veteran. He is quickly ripped off by a succession of thugs and finds himself broke and battered in Pennsylvania where he is befriended by a young Goldie. Her father is a boxer and Joe joins the training camp as a sparring partner. When the father dies, Joe takes his place on the fight circuit and Goldie becomes his manager…”

The consensus of the pundits was that O.J. the actor was very much a work in progress, but that he had great potential. And the movie, despite its hokey plot, attracted so many viewers that NBC wanted to turn it into a series.

O.J. had too much on his plate to commit to doing a regular series. Among other things, he had signed on to become part of NBC’s main stable of reporters at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, a gig that evaporated when the U.S. under President Jimmy Carter joined 64 other nations in boycotting the Games as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, the movie did spawn a sequel, “Goldie and the Boxer Go To Hollywood,” with Simpson and Michaelson reprising their roles.

I never met O.J. Simpson, but have a vivid memory of finding myself walking behind him into the outdoor boxing arena at Caesars Palace. If memory serves, this was the Hagler-Hearns fight of 1985, in which case the lady on his arm would have been Nicole as they were married earlier that year. She was quite a dish in that tight-fitting pantsuit and I remember thinking to myself, “of all the trophies this dude has won, here is the best trophy of them all.” (Forgive me.)

Simpson had cameo roles in several movies before leaving USC. When he finally turned his back on football, the world was his oyster. O.J., wrote Barry Lorge in the Washington Post, was “bright, affable, charming, articulate and credible, a public relation man’s dream-come true.”

No one would have foreseen the swerve his life would take.

When the jury, after only four hours of deliberation, returned a verdict of “not guilty,” there was cheering in some corners of America. The overwhelming consensus of the white population, however, was that the verdict was an abomination, a gross miscarriage of justice.

We’ll leave it at that.

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