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Lou Nova vs Max Baer, Boxing’s Seminal TV Fight, Opened a Pandora’s Box

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According to crackerjack publicist Madelyn Flax, the June 1, 1939 fight at Yankee Stadium between Lou Nova and Max Baer has the distinction of being the first fight on television. The bout aired on NBC.

Ms. Flax includes this bit of trivia in her correspondence with the boxing media on behalf of her client Ring City USA. Boxing’s newest promotional entity, Ring City launched a series of twice-monthly shows on Nov. 19. Currently anchored at Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club in Los Angeles, the club-level cards air on Thursdays on the NBC Sports network.

Ms. Flax is correct. The Nova-Baer fight did air on NBC and it was a trailblazing event that ushered in a new era of boxing. However, this information begs for historical context.

The TV signal, short-waved from Yankee Stadium to a transmitter atop the Empire State building, reached a 50-mile radius of midtown Manhattan, give or take a few miles depending on the weather. NBC estimated that 20,000 people watched the fight on 8-by-10 screens, a dubious assertion as the TV hadn’t yet become an object of curiosity in a department store’s picture window. Even allowing for the fact that TV owners invited friends and neighbors over to watch the fight, 20,000 is a number that strains credibility.

Because the signal reached into parts of New Jersey and Connecticut, the telecast was technically illegal. The 1912 federal law prohibiting the interstate transportation of fight films, the “Jack Johnson law” as it was informally known, was still on the books.

Sam Taub, a columnist for The Ring magazine, did the blow-by-blow. Taub, who lived into his nineties, would estimate that he broadcast more than 7,000 fights on radio or television before he turned the reins over to a younger man.

Before the year was out, Taub was promoting a series of televised shows on Saturday nights from the Ridgewood Grove, an intimate 2,500-seat nightclub that sat on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. These were the first indoor televised fights in the United States. Taub’s first show, on Oct. 21, 1939, featured an 8-round contest between journeymen light welterweights Tony Marteliano and Bobby McIntire.

Before the Nova-Baer experiment aired, NBC did several walk-throughs of various kinds, including a three-round exhibition between Lou Nova and one of his sparring partners, Patsy Perroni. The ring was pitched in a room on the third floor of the Radio City building. Invited guests watched the fight on the sixth floor.

When it comes to new technologies, us Yankees like to think that we were in the vanguard, but in point of fact when it came to televised boxing, the Brits beat us to the punch. On Feb. 23, 1939, the British lightweight title fight between Eric Boon and Arthur Danahar at North London’s Harringay Arena was beamed to three cinemas in London, each of which paid $1,000 for the privilege of showing the fight.

The mass production of televisions was stalled by the war. In 1948, RCA’s cheapest model sold for $395. That’s the equivalent of $10,400 today. But the price came down in a hurry and the felt need to own one begat a feverish rush unmatched until the introduction of the cell phone, that handy little gizmo that fits so neatly in our hip pocket. A 1958 survey showed that there were more televisions in American homes than telephones or bathtubs. And by then, boxing was all over the TV dial, not that there was much competition as few folks had access to more than four channels.

The TV honchos loved boxing. It was a sport played on a small “playing field” with only two contestants who were usually at arm’s length. Little furbishing of the staging area was needed other than brighter illumination and tinting the canvas a darker shade to reduce glare, keeping production costs low. The expedient of requiring one boxer to wear white trunks and the other black enabled the viewer to keep them apart. Multi-colored ring apparel awaited the introduction of the color television.

TV brought new money into the sport, but there was a big downside. Neighborhood fight clubs – and there were hundreds of them across the country – folded at an alarming rate as legions of fight fans stayed home to get their boxing fix. There were other factors at work such as suburbanization, but TV was the main culprit. Dan Parker, the syndicated boxing writer for the New York Daily Mirror, was prescient when he predicted in a 1939 story that TV would eventually make the grass-roots boxing promoter almost extinct. Parker cited the example of vaudeville which was clubbed into antiquity by the movies.

Dan Parker would later recommend a one-year moratorium on televised fights “to nourish boxing’s withering roots.”

Sam Taub, by the way, was no fan of television although he was quick to embrace the new medium. Taub once said, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that the TV set was a device invented by the devil. He felt that way because it stifled his creativity; his freedom to improvise.

In boxing lore there is a yarn about an out-of-town fight manager who took ill after coming to New York to see a match at the old Madison Square Garden and thought it prudent to catch the fight on radio in his room at his hotel located a stone’s throw from the arena. The first two rounds, as narrated by Sam Taub, were so full of action that the ailing fight manager was roused to go see it, not wishing to miss the entirety of a fight shaping up as an all-time classic.

When he rushed into Madison Square Garden, the lobby was jammed with fight fans who had left their seats. The bout was such a stinker that they couldn’t bear to watch any more of it.

Taub, by the way, was no fan of Howard Cosell who became nationally prominent covering Muhammad Ali before he became identified with Monday Night Football. He would have numbered Cosell among the noxious effects of television.

Taub didn’t like the man but was too diplomatic to bad-mouth him. Asked if he had ever met the bombastic sportscaster, Taub had a stock reply: “Yes, I have met him,” he would say, “but I never loaned him any money.”

—-

The next Ring City show goes Dec. 17. Undefeated super welterweights Charles Conwell (13-0, 10 KOs) and Madiyar Ashkeyev (14-0, 7 KOs) collide in the 10-round main event. Conwell, 23, represented the U.S. in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Ashkeyev, 32, is a native of Kazakhstan and a stablemate of Vasyl Lomachenko. The show airs at 9 pm ET / 6 pm PT on NBCSN.

Check out more boxing news on video at the Boxing Channel 

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Johnny Famechon was a Hero in Australia Where Willie Pep Had a Bad Night

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Willie Pep was good at boxing. He wasn’t so good at math. Ah, but hold the phone; we are getting ahead of ourselves. This isn’t a story about Willie Pep, but about former world featherweight champion Johnny Famechon who passed away last Thursday, Aug. 4, in Melbourne, Australia, at age 77.

Famechon was five years old when his parents left his birthplace in Paris and settled in Melbourne. He came to the fore in an era when boxing was still a mainstream sport and home-grown champions were national idols. The locals turned out in droves for the parade in Johnny’s honor when he returned to Melbourne after taking the featherweight crown from the Cuban-born Spaniard Jose Legra in a big upset at London’s Prince Albert Hall.

HeraldSun

Famechon’s Welcome Home Parade

Famechon’s first title defense came against Japan’s Fighting Harada. They met in Sydney, Australia, on July 28, 1969.

At age 26, Harada was a battle-tested veteran. He previously held world titles at flyweight and bantamweight and would be remembered as the only man to defeat the great Brazilian boxer Eder Jofre, a feat he accomplished not once, but twice.

Only two boxers in history – Bob Fitzsimmons and Henry Armstrong – had won world titles in three of the eight classic weight divisions. Harada, who entered the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1995, was bidding to become the third.

Team Harada insisted on a neutral referee. The British promoters chose Willie Pep. A legend in the sport, Pep had previously shared a ring with another Famechon, having out-pointed Johnny’s uncle Ray Famechon in a featherweight title defense at Madison Square Garden in 1950.

Some thought that Pep would favor Fighting Harada. American referees put a higher premium on aggression than did their foreign counterparts and Harada was a little buzzsaw who rarely took a backward step. But others thought that Pep’s selection favored Famechon, an elusive counterpuncher with whom the Connecticut “Will-‘o-Wisp” could identify; their styles were similar.

Pep had been the third man in the ring for four previous title fights, three in Jamaica and one in Brazil. But this fight would be different. He would be the sole arbiter. If the fight went the full 15 rounds, Willie Pep would be the judge and jury.

During the bout, Famechon scored one knockdown, sending Harada to the canvas in round five, but Harada scored three, knocking Famechon down in rounds two, 11, and 14. The last of the three knockdowns was the harshest, but Famechon made it to the final bell.

The fight ended in a clinch. Immediately upon separating the fighters, Pep raised both of their hands, a signal that the fight was a draw.

Fighting Harada’s handlers were outraged and demanded to see the scorecard. A policeman at ringside was empowered to give it a look-over (Australia had no boxing commission). What the policeman found was that there was indeed a discrepancy. However, it was the opposite of what Team Harada anticipated!

The fight was scored on the antiquated system whereby the winner of a round was awarded five points and the loser four points or less. In the case of an even round, both fighters got five points.

After 13 rounds, Fighting Harada had amassed 59 points on Pep’s card. He won the 14th round, giving him an aggregate total of 64 points. But when Pep added up the numbers “59” and “5” in the column where he kept the aggregate total, he came up with “65.”

Oops.

When Pep signaled that the fight was a draw, people stormed the ring from all sides. Newspaper reports said the belligerents were about evenly divided. Famechon, the Aussie, was the crowd favorite, but Fighting Harada was well-backed in the betting markets, a very big industry in Australia. Many were even angrier when Famechon was summoned back to the ring to have his hand raised.

The Famechon-Harada fight aired live on Japanese television. In Japan, there was a great outpouring of outrage. Pep had been instructed to score a round 5-4 if the round was narrow and 5-3 if there was a clear-cut winner. Despite the knockdowns, Pep scored every round 5-4 or 5-5. In the revised tally, he had Famechon winning 6-5-4 in rounds.

“Harada loses to referee” was the headline in Japan’s leading sports daily. Willie Pep made no friends in Australia either. There were shouts of “Yankee go home” as he left the ring.

Famechon and Harada met again five months later in Tokyo. One would assume that Fighting Harada proved superior and got a fair shake, winning the third title denied him in Sydney. But don’t assume.

Harada was well ahead after ten rounds but faded. On the deck in round 10, Famachon returned the favor three rounds later, knocking Harada down hard with a perfectly placed left hook. Harada was in dire straights when he came out for round 14 and Famechon put him away.

Harada never fought again and Famechon left the sport six months later after losing his crown to Vicente Saldivar. Johnny was only 25 years old, but had crammed 67 fights into a nine-year pro career and said enough is enough.

Famechon’s post-boxing life took a tragic turn in 1991 when he was hit by a car while out jogging on a Sydney highway. He spent several weeks in a coma and several years in a wheelchair but eventually recovered most of his motor skills and regained his speech to the point where he could serve as a boxing color commentator on television. In 2018, a larger-than- life statue of Famechon was unveiled at a public park in the Melbourne suburb of Frankston where he was a longtime resident.

For the record, Johnny Famechon finished his career with a record of 56-5-6 with 20 KOs. We here at The Sweet Science send our condolences to his loved ones.

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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Fast Results from Fort Worth Where Vergil Ortiz Jr Won His 19th Straight by KO

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In a match pushed back from March 19, Vergil Ortiz Jr moved one step closer to a mega-fight with Terence “Bud” Crawford or Errol Spence Jr or Boots Ennis with a ninth-round stoppage of England’s feather-fisted Michael McKinson. The end came 20 seconds into round nine when McKinson appeared to injure his knee as he fell to the canvas, an apparent residue of the body punch that put him on the deck late in the previous stanza. To that point, Ortiz had seemingly won every round.

It was the 19th win inside the distance in as many opportunities for Ortiz who resides in nearby Grand Prairie and was making his first start with new trainer Manny Robles. McKinson was undefeated heading in, but had scored only two knockouts while building his record to 22-0.

Ortiz, ranked #1 at welterweight by the WBA and the WBO, pulled out of the March 19 bout after being diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a muscle disorder associated with over-training.

Ortiz’s promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, says that Ortiz will fight the winner of Errol Spence vs Terence Crawford next assuming that the fight gets made, and if doesn’t get made, Ortiz’s next fight will be with one or the other. The WBA, which stamped tonight’s fight an eliminator, may push to have Ortiz fight their secondary title-holder, Eimantas Stanionis.

Co-Feature

Houston’s Marlen Esparza (13-1, 1 KO) successfully defended her WBA/WBC world flyweight title with a unanimous decision over plucky 4’11 ½” Venezuelan southpaw Eva Guzman who had won 14 straight coming in, albeit against soft opposition. The judges had it 98-92 and 99-91 twice.

Guzman (19-2-1) was game, but just didn’t have the physical tools to overcome Esparza whose lone defeat came at the hands of talented Seneisa Estrada.

Other Fights of Note

In a 10-round match contested at the catchweight of 150 pounds, Blair “The Flair” Cobbs rebounded from his first defeat with a career-best performance, a wide decision over former WBO 140-pound world titlist Maurice Hooker. It was the second straight loss for Hooker who returned to the ring after a 17-month hiatus and came out flat. Cobbs put him on the canvas in the opening frame with a combination and decked him twice more with straight lefts in round two.

Things got somewhat dicey for Cobbs in round five when he suffered a bad gash on his forehead from an accidental head butt, but Hooker, who had stablemate Bud Crawford in his corner, hesitated to let his hands go and couldn’t reverse the tide. The judges had it 96-91 and 97-90 twice for the flamboyant Cobbs who improved to 16-1-1 (10). Hooker, a consensus 5/2 favorite, lost for the third time in his last five starts and slumped to 27-3-3.

In the opener to the main portion of the DAZN card, Uzbekistan’s Bektimir Melikuziev (10-1, 8 KOs), a super middleweight growing into a light heavyweight, dominated and stopped overmatched Sladan Janjanin. Melikuziev put Janjanin down with a body punch in the opening minute of the fight and scored two more knockdowns before the bout was halted at the 2:18 mark of round three.

This was Melikuziev’s third fight back after his shocking one-punch annihilation by Gabriel Rosado. Janjanin, a well-traveled Bosnian who fought three weeks ago in Massachusetts, declined to 32-12 and was stopped for the eighth time.

Also

Chicago welterweight Alex Martin (18-4, 6 KOs) overcame a first-round knockdown to win a unanimous decision over 38-year-old Philadelphia journeyman Henry Lundy. The judges had it an unexpectedly wide 98-91, 97-92, 97-92.

Martin was coming off a points loss to McKinson and this bout was his reward for taking that fight on short notice. Lundy (31-11-1) has lost five of his last seven.

Floyd “Austin Kid” Schofield, a lightweight who appears to have a big upside, advanced to 11-0 (9 KOs) at the expense of Mexican trial horse Rodrigo Guerrero whose corner wisely pulled him out after five one-sided rounds. It was the ninth straight loss for Guerrero (26-15).

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Conlan Wins His Belfast Homecoming; Breezes Past Lackadaisical Marriaga

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“The Return of the Mick” was the label attached to tonight’s show at the SSE Arena in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The reference was to local fan favorite Michael “Mick” Conlan who returned to his hometown in hopes of jump-starting his career after suffering his first pro loss in a brutal encounter with Leigh Wood.

In that bout, a strong “Fight of the Year contender, Conlan was narrowly ahead on all three cards heading into the 12th and final round when the roof fell in. Wood, who was making the first defense of his WBA world featherweight title on his home turf in Nottingham, knocked the favored Conlan unconscious and clear out of the ring.

This was the sort of fight that can shorten a man’s career. Hence the intrigue in Conlan’s homecoming fight tonight against Miguel Marriaga. On paper, the Colombian, a three-time world title challenger, was a stern test considering the circumstances.

To the contrary, Marriaga had no fire in his belly until the final round when he hit Conlan with a shot that buckled his knees. But, by then Conlan was so far ahead without overly exerting himself that there was virtually no chance of another meltdown.

While Conlan won lopsidedly, the scores – 99-89 and 99-88 twice – were somewhat misleading. True, “Mick” had Marriaga on the deck in rounds 7, 8, and 9, but the punches that put him there did not look particularly hard.

Conlan, 30, improved to 17-1 (8). Marriaga, 35, declined to 30-6.

After the fight, Conlan expressed the hope that Leigh Wood would give him a rematch.

Other Bouts of Note

In an entertaining 10-round welterweight scrap that could have gone either way, Belfast’s Tyrone McKenna (23-3-1, 6 KOs) rebounded from his defeat in Dubai to Regis Prograis (TKO by 6) with a hard-fought unanimous decision over 33-year-old Welshman Chris Jenkins (23-6-3). The judges favored the local fighter by scores of 97-94 and 96-95 twice.

Jenkins, a former British and Commonwealth title-holder, had the best of the early going, working the body effectively while frequently finding a home for his uppercut, but he could not sustain his advantage.

Thirty-four-year-old Belfast super middleweight Padraig McCrory who got a late start in boxing, scored the most important win of his career with a fifth-round stoppage of Marco Antonio Periban, a former world title challenger. McCrory had Periban on the deck three times – once in the second and twice in the fifth – before the bout was halted at the 2:14 mark of round five.

It was the fourth straight win inside the distance for McCrory who improved to 14-0 (8 KOs). Mexico’s Periban, who returned to the sport in April after missing all of 2020 and 2021, fell to 26-6-1.

Highly-touted welterweight Paddy Donovan improved to 9-0 (6) with an 8-round unanimous decision over Yorkshireman Tom Hall (10-3). The referee scored every round for Donovan, an Irish Traveler trained by Tyson Fury’s bosom buddy Andy Lee, the former world middleweight title-holder.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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