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British Boxing 2020 Year in Review

Matt McGrain

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British boxing was as brutally handled as any other footfall industry in the UK in 2020 and remains a disaster for small-halls and amateur clubs. Disgracefully, boxing has been all but abandoned by a government that was somehow able to find millions for horse-racing and the wealthy elite who run it, but nothing for a sport which begins, almost always, in the streets of our local communities.

Nevertheless, elite boxing led the charge back to the ring. By mid-summer, Britain’s two top promoters Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren were back, albeit under a series of agreed controls as wide as they were strange, including the sight of covid-free cleaners cleaning a covid-free ring between contests undertaken by covid-free fighters. Such is the world we live in now.

It is telling, though, that this year’s British Fighter of the Year managed just 1-0 in 2020, while last year’s managed 0-0.  Despite a marked decline in contests, there were more than a few candidates in each category.

Though not the first.

British Fighter of the Year: Tyson Fury

Just another bum with a pair of gloves on. Time to go to work! – Tyson Fury.

It is testimony to the gravitational pull of the heavyweight division and the astonishing arc that is the Tyson Fury story that no other boxer can seriously be considered for the British Fighter of the Year spot. Tyson Fury has it all locked up.

It is two years now since Fury blinked himself tenderly from the canvas after Deontay Wilder detonated that money-maker on his chin in the twelfth found of their first fight. It is worth taking the time to review his gameplan for that fight: box, move, bamboozle, tie up, pop the decision out in rounds. Instead, he was savagely dropped twice and had to make-do with an ill-received draw in what seemed a clear win for the Brit.

Consider then, the change of mindset and manner that saw him box the February rematch with Wilder in the mode of cyborg.

Fury undertook a change of trainer – also ill-received – swapping out sentimental favourite Ben Davison for boxing royalty, “Sugar” Hill Steward, nephew of the late great Emanuel Steward. The expectation was that Sugar would polish a Rolls Royce already bereft of the need of detailed instruction and that Fury would either box his way to victory or fall afoul of the Wilder right hand.  Neither of these things happened.

“The best way to beat a bully,” Fury said of the contest, “is to take the fight right to them, bully the bully.”

Wilder, who had mentioned once more in the build-up to this fight his desire to end a life in the ring, probably qualifies as a bully and what Fury did to him certainly qualified as bullying. Physically much bigger, Fury launched himself across the ring at bell and spent most of the rest of the fight backing his man up, his lead toe discussing only the range at which he could land in response to Wilder’s own movement. It works now as a study guide for boxing’s most difficult tax: physically overmatching a massive punching heavyweight. By the time the towel was thrown, Wilder looked dragged over gravel.

Sadly, contracts and covid kept Fury out of the ring for the remainder of the year making him vulnerable to rust in what looks to be a massive 2021 for the Gypsy King. Nobody comes close to reaching him though, the clear British Fighter of the Year and very possibly the clear British fighter of the coming year.

British Fight of the Year: Sam Eggington Vs Ted Cheeseman

I give my heart and soul to this sport, I come through my problems. – Ted Cheeseman.

It is what it is.  That’s the way it goes. – Sam Eggington.

Some background:

Ted Cheesman, tough, limited, set out in 2019 to prove himself something more. He boxed, slipped and stabbed his way to what appeared a close decision win in a fascinating fight – but the judges favoured opponent Scott Fitzgerald. His heartbreak was clear in post-fight interviews as Cheesman labelled the decision “disgusting” believing himself robbed for a second consecutive fight. His heart seemed broken and his career in ruins as he claimed to have “given up boxing.”

Cheesman’s misery and frank claims of a conspiracy against him received a lot of play, however, and in the midst of the Covid-19 rampage across the United Kingdom, Cheesman became one of the first men to fight in televised boxing in this country. His August opponent was former British, Commonwealth and European welterweight champion Sam Eggington in a fight that drew considerably more attention from a fight-starved public than would otherwise have been the case.

Eggington, out of the West Midlands with a record of 28-6, was a fighter who did his best work in the pocket, facing front, and would have been more interested than most in which Cheeseman was going to materialise in the ring – the clever boxer who emerged from the ruins of the Fitzgerald fight or the more readily found workman. The answer, in the early going, was a blend. Cheeseman boxed well, not shy of the pocket nor the bodywork, engaging in a fascinating exchange of jabs. The first half of the fight was defined by the second round, in which Cheeseman sent Eggington reeling back with hard punches. His quick recovery was followed by his own snapping punches, but the round had gone.

This is what these men offer.  Not for them the four-piece laser-guided combinations of Naoya Inoue; not for them the spiteful physical dominance of Bud Crawford. They have neither the physical attributes nor the technical surety to produce either.  Instead, they offer competence; stoicism; commitment – and a tactical inflexibility that can lead, in combination with these other factors, to ring wars.

“Sam was coming in and rushing me, sometimes I had to hold my feet.”

Cheeseman did hold his feet in the second half of the fight, and it made for a great fight. The two exchanged hard punches, exhausting, stinging punches, not concussive punches, but hurtful misery-makers.

Eggington edged these rounds, building his own momentum, closing the distance between the two on the cards. Cheeseman’s thrilling rally in the tenth and eleventh before he was hurt in a torrid twelfth, saved his night and bought him a unanimous decision.

These men are not millionaires. They will never be millionaires; for all that, they take no fewer chances, and give no less to the sport of boxing.

British Breakthrough Fighter of the Year: Lyndon Arthur

F*** the bookies man, pardon my French. That’s what you get for having me low odds…high odds…whatever you call it. I’m not a gambling man. – Lyndon Arthur

The Transnational Boxing Rankings are updated weekly. If you like to watch them evolve you may have noticed a change to the 175lb rankings in the second week of December: Lyndon Arthur unexpectedly debuting at number 10.

Unexpected because he was matched in the first week of December against one of British boxing’s biggest names, Anthony Yarde. Yarde, who had far from disgraced himself in his 2019 loss to Sergey Kovalev, was regarded as a contender to the world title while Arthur was destined, at best, for Commonwealth honours. Well Arthur scooped up not only that Commonwealth title but also Yarde’s top ten ranking. In what doubled as the British shock of the year, Arthur made himself the only choice for British breakthrough in 2020.

Poised and mobile, Arthur took advantage of Yarde’s sparse pressure to consistently outscore him with the jab in the early going. By the second half of the fight, it was clear that Arthur was labouring with an injury, sustained in the warm up no less, rending him a one-handed fighter for what was the biggest challenge of his career. All his hopes concentrated into just his left-hand, Arthur assumed a jabbing grace few suspected him capable of. Dominated in the tenth, all but hung out to dry in the twelfth, Arthur had to survive desperate moments to make it, but he did make it, winning a split decision to make him a legitimate contender to the world title.

First though, the rematch, and although Yarde may once again be the choice of oddsmakers, they would do well to remember that it will be a two-fisted Arthur defending his Commonwealth title this time around.

British Prospect of the Year: Dennis McCann

I got a baby face, but I punch like a middleweight. – Dennis McCann.

Dennis “The Menace” McCann, now 8-0, bantamweight, seems as though he belongs in another era.  From the period, parochial nickname, to the absence of an amateur career, to the haircut that would look just fine on Billy Conn, McCann has the feel of a throwback.

Turning professional aged just eighteen, McCann spent three months fighting four-rounders then hopped straight up to six; he managed to get out twice in 2020, most recently over eight rounds, a fight in which he was forced to go the distance.

That was a matter of no small notice for those of us invested in his career. There has been some excitement surrounding his power.

“Nobody’s every hit me like that,” Brett Fidoe told McCann after their August fight, “you will be a world champion.”

Dennis

Dennis McCann

Fideo is a professional loser, not in a disparaging sense, but in the sense that the fighter took notice of his limitations early and set out to become a trial-horse for prospects in order that he might pay for new windows, school-clothes for his children, his wife’s anniversary present, earn extra money in excess of his regular income. This has seen the teak-tough Englishman cross path with numerous prospects including Andrew Selby, who got Fideo out of there on a TKO in the sixth.  McCann managed it in just two, by way of ten count.

Furthermore, he predicted that it would be done with a single bodypunch, and this despite the fact that in an extraordinary sixty-four losses Fideo had been stopped just once. McCann though, dipped into a feint and then fired a straight from his southpaw stance into the pit of Fideo’s stomach. This punch had that devastating delayed effect; Fideo took a moment and then sank.

So heralded is his power, McCann has reportedly had some issues getting fights; nevertheless, Frank Warren is beaming. Prince Naseem Hamed, too, has shown a joyful interest. This was the right time to hop on the McCann bandwagon.

Pedro Matos perhaps diminished enthusiasm for him a little bit in some quarters. After a healthy start punctuated by good bodywork, McCann lost his way a little in the middle rounds. Matos never did enough to win a round, but he certainly troubled his young opponent, whose gliding footwork sometimes glided him into trouble. This is where his lack of seasoning matters. McCann, fast and powerful though he is, is learning skills most fighters pick up in their second year as an amateur but against experienced professionals. Two parties must collude to produce a sporting banana skin, and McCann’s lack of amateur background may be of concern.

That depends upon how McCann performs in the gym and in forthcoming contests. Whether or not I have gone too soon in naming him here as the prospect to follow in 2021 will depend upon what this wide decision victory over Matos means to his handlers. He may be slowed down blessed upon the punches he was stung with in the fourth and fifth, or he may be pushed along, his strong finish in that fight confirmation of his engine.

Either way, he remains a fighter worth watching and The Sweet Science will be sure to report on any major moves in the coming year.

Here is to a better 2021 for boxing, and for the rest of us.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 121: Prizefighting in 2021

David A. Avila

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Prizefighting actually dipped underground for the past nine months with professional boxers training illegally in darkened gyms behind shuttered windows and locked doors.

It still remains an underground sport.

The slow death cloud of the coronavirus led to government restrictions forbidding large gatherings especially in enclosed facilities. Boxers still train.

It was a primary reason that prizefighting among the elite was never more bare.

When Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder met at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas for their rematch, a crowd of more than 15,000 fans witnessed the heavyweight spectacle. That took place on February 22, and it was the last hurrah in 2020.

A new year begins but the old ways of doing things are no longer in place. Those large purses are unattainable without fans, but it’s difficult to convince the prizefighters. All they know is they want to get paid with pre-2020 checks.

Very few of the top male prizefighters took to the prize ring.

One leading American matchmaker, who did not wish to go on record, said fighters do not understand that ticket sales are an important aspect of the fight game. Many prizefighters feel they are underpaid and being cheated when offered purses that fall under their pre-2020 monies.

No fans, no money.

Television or streaming app revenue is not enough without the clicking of the turnstile.

Fans are the reason that fighters get paid and without fans prizefighting does not exist.

Reality in 2021

Before the advent of television, prizefighters were paid strictly on the basis of ticket sales. The more fans a fighter could attract, the bigger the purse. When television arrived it drastically changed the landscape.

Television networks who delve into boxing bring their own budgets and cable networks like HBO and Showtime drastically changed the landscape. Instead of thousands, millions were being paid to the stars. Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather were the prizefighters leading the way past $20 and $30 million dollar purses. MMA still hasn’t reached those figures. Not even close, unless they are fighting against a boxer as Conor McGregor did several years ago.

During the past three years new players arrived with streaming apps like ESPN+ and DAZN entering the boxing world. One primary advantage has been its worldwide ability to transmit boxing events. However, because not all of the world has access to high tech, those streaming apps are still in the pioneering phase when it comes to building a fan base. At the moment, television still holds the upper hand but the gap is closing quickly.

Lately, DAZN has taken to inserting sponsors logos into their live programming without skipping a beat. It was only a matter of time before they realized the capabilities of inserting commercials digitally. It’s not a new idea; it was explored decades ago by our own BoxingChannel.tv.

Still, as long as the pandemic exists and fans are unable to attend boxing cards the mega fights that drive prizefighting will not take place. The arrival of various vaccines for the coronavirus are a big plus for the sport emerging out of the underground state of boxing. But the fighters need to fight.

Tyson Fury needs to meet Anthony Joshua in a battle for the heavyweight championship and Errol Spence Jr. must fight Terence Crawford this year. Others like Teofimo Lopez are doing their part to open the eyes of fans to the new breed of prizefighters who can fight, talk and excite with their electrifying skills.

Potential stars like Serhii Bohachuk, Vergil Ortiz Jr. and Charles Conwell are catching the eye of fans and all are basically around the same weight classes. They took advantage of the openings for television and streaming spots.

Prizefighters everywhere need to understand this pandemic may last longer than you think. God forbid, but there could be another looming around the corner. It’s time to go for broke and get back in the prize ring. Time is not on your side.

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Remembering Young Stribling on the Centennial of his First Pro Fight

Arne K. Lang

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This coming Sunday, Jan. 17, marks the 100th anniversary of the pro debut of one of boxing’s most interesting characters. On this date in 1921, Young Stribling, carrying 118 pounds, won a 4-round decision over Kid Dombe in the opening bout of a 4-bout card at the auditorium (it had no name) in Atlanta, Georgia. Stribling would go on to fight for the world heavyweight title and would leave the sport as boxing’s all-time knockout king, a distinction that commands an asterisk.

Stribling’s effort against Dombe, who was billed as Georgia’s newsboy champion, made a strong impression on the ringside reporter for the Atlanta Constitution. “A young gentleman,” he wrote, “is destined to become mighty popular in the squared circle. He is Young Stribling of Macon, and a classier bit of boxing machinery hasn’t been uncovered in these parts in a good many years.” Stribling failed to stop his opponent, but left him “badly mussed-up.”

Young Stribling, born William Lawrence Stribling, bubbled into a great regional attraction. Name a place in Georgia – Albany, Americus, Augustus, Bainbridge, Rome, Savannah, Thomasville, etc. – and Stribling fought there. As the star forward on his high school basketball team, one of the best teams in the country, he never ventured far from home for a boxing match until he was deep into his career.

Many of Stribling’s fights were held in conjunction with fairs and carnivals and some others were staged in vaudeville houses. Stribling was the son of professional acrobats. As a young boy, he and his younger brother Herbert performed alongside their parents in a novelty act, a mock prizefight done up in slapstick.

Stribling attracted national attention in 1923 when he opposed veteran Mike McTigue, the reigning light heavyweight champion. The bout was held in a 20,000-seat wooden arena in Columbus, Georgia.

A New Yorker, but an Irishman by birth, McTigue brought his own referee, which wasn’t uncommon in those days. The arbiter was Harry Ertle, a City Marshal in Jersey City, famed as the third man in the ring for Jack Dempsey’s fight with Georges Carpentier, the first fight with a million-dollar gate.

“The road is a treacherous place,” a wizened old fight manager was overheard saying at New York’s fabled Stillman Gym. And Columbus, Georgia, a town situated on the banks of the Chattahoochee River and purportedly a Ku Klux Klan stronghold, was certainly a treacherous place for Team McTigue on that balmy October afternoon.

After 10 rather pedestrian rounds, Ertle called the fight a draw. But he was in such a hurry to exit the ring that he did not make his verdict clear. Rather than call the combatants to the center of the ring and raise both their arms, he merely pointed at both corners, “spreading his hands as a baseball umpire calling a baserunner safe after a slide.”

Ertle didn’t get far. He was immediately accosted by the head of the local organizing committee who upon confirming that Ertle had scored the bout a draw, ordered the referee back into the ring. “You will never get out of here (if you don’t give the fight to Stribling),” he said. “We have all the railroad stations covered.”

Ertle went back into the ring, awarded the fight to Stribling, and then three hours later in the safety of a private residence, he signed a statement saying that his original decision should stand. The incident made all the papers and made Stribling a household name in houses where folks read the sports pages.

When Stribling fought McTigue, he was only 18 years old. And he was fast growing into his body, tipping the scales for the fight at 165 pounds.

Stribling and McTigue renewed acquaintances five months later in Newark, New Jersey. In a shocker, the “Georgia Schoolboy” dominated the Irishman. Stribling won all 12 rounds in the estimation of one ringside reporter. He had McTigue almost out in the 11th and again in the 12th but reverted to clowning and let him off the hook. “It was a bad habit,” said a reporter, “that the kid picked up working the country fair circuit.”

Because New Jersey was then a “no-decision” state, McTigue was allowed to keep his title. Stribling would get another chance at the belt in June of 1926 when he met McTigue’s conqueror Paul Berlenbach at Yankee Stadium.

Boxing writers fawned over Young Stribling who seldom appeared in public without his parents; his father was his chief cornerman. His parents’ names were “Ma” and “Pa,” or that’s what condescending East Coast writers always called them.

The Stribling-Berlenbach fight, wrote syndicated sportswriter Damon Runyon, “was the most widely advertised and most eagerly anticipated event of some years in New York.” The crowd, reportedly 56,000, “attracted more political bigwigs and social and sporting dignitaries than you could shake a stick at.” And the fight, marred by excessive clinching, was a dud. It went the full 15 rounds and Berlenbach, the Astoria Assassin, won decisively (the scores were not announced).

It was back to the drawing board for Young Stribling, which meant back to the life of a barnstormer. Over the next 33 months, he had 75 (!) documented fights and lost only once, that coming at the hands of clever Tommy Loughran in a 10-round bout at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. That impressive run boosted him into a match with Jack Sharkey, an “eliminator” in which the winner would be one step removed from fighting for the world heavyweight title vacated by Gene Tunney.

Stribling vs. Sharkey was the last important bout arranged by Tex Rickard who died seven weeks before the bout materialized in an arena erected on a polo field in Miami Beach. It was North against South, and the crowd, nearly 35,000, was solidly against Sharkey, the Boston Gob. But Stribling came up short again in a rather disappointing, albeit closely contested 10-round affair. There was little dissension when the New York referee gave the fight to the Bostonian.

Later that year, Max Schmeling defeated Paulino Uzcudun at Yankee Stadium, setting the stage for a Sharkey-Schmeling fight for the vacant title. In the fourth round, Sharkey was disqualified after sending Schmeling to the canvas with a punch that was palpably low.

After his setback to Jack Sharkey, Young Stribling fought his way back into contention with wins over three ranked opponents after splitting a pair of suspicious fights with Primo Carnera in Europe. In fact, in a 1930 poll of 55 sportswriters by the New York Sun, Stribling was named the best heavyweight, out-polling both Sharkey and Schmeling. When the German picked Stribling for his first title defense, he was, in the eyes of many people, choosing his most worthy challenger.

Carnera vs. Stribling was the icebreaker event at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, the new home of the city’s baseball team, the Indians. The bout came to fruition on the eve of the Fourth of July in 1931, two days after the cavernous ballpark was formally dedicated in an elaborate ceremony.

Stribling started fast, but Schmeling ultimately proved too strong for him. In the 15th round, Schmeling knocked him to the canvas and then pummeled him into a helpless condition, forcing the referee to intervene and waive it off. This wasn’t a great fight, but it was a quite a spectacle, notwithstanding the fact that there were a lot of empty seats. The Ring magazine named it the Fight of the Year.

This would be Young Stribling’s last big-money fight. In his final ring appearance, he outpointed light heavyweight title-holder Maxie Rosenbloom in a 10-round non-title fight in Houston. According to BoxRec, he left the sport with a record of 224-13-14 with 129 knockouts, a record eventually broken by Archie Moore who would be credited with 131.

About those knockouts: It came to be understood that many were bogus, not fictional, but rather set-ups on the carnival circuit where he padded his record against someone with whom he was well-acquainted. But there are also some curious knockouts on Archie Moore’s ledger. On Moore’s list of KO victims one finds the names of Professor Roy Shire and Mike DiBiase, popular grunt-and-groan wrestlers.

As to Young Stribling’s fistic legacy, historians are all over the map. The biography of Stribling by Jaclyn Weldon White (Mercer University Press, 2011) is titled “The Greatest Champion that Never Was.” That’s a bit over the top. The reality is that when Stribling was matched against his strongest opponents, his Sunday punch was missing in action.

You won’t find Stribling’s name on Matt McGrain’s 2014 list of the 100 Greatest Heavyweights of All Time. Stribling checks in at #23 on McGrain’s list of the all-time greatest light heavyweights and, with all due respect to McGrain, that also strikes us as a bit off-kilter, not giving Stribling enough credit. In more than 250 documented fights, he was stopped only once, that coming with 14 seconds remaining in the 15th and final round of his bout with Max Schmeling.

Regardless of where you choose to place him, Young Stribling was certainly colorful.

Young Stribling lived his life in the fast lane, and with him that isn’t a cliché. He loved to fly, and when he headed off somewhere in his six-seater, said a reporter, “he would take the plane off the ground in a shivering climb so steep veteran flyers gasped.” On the highways, his preferred mode of travel was a motorcycle.

Stribling married his high school sweetheart and they had three children. On Oct. 1, 1933, he left his home in Macon on his motorcycle and never returned. A head-on crash with an incoming car sent him to the hospital where he died the next day from internal injuries. Ma and Pa were there with him in his final hours, as was his wife who had given birth to a baby boy eight days earlier in this very same hospital.

William Lawrence “Young” Stribling was 28 years old when he drew his final breath. He packed a lot of living into those 28 years, including a whirlwind boxing career that took flight 100 years ago this coming Sunday.

Note: The photo is the cover photo from the October 1924 issue of The Ring magazine

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R.I.P. Boxing Promoter Mike Acri

Arne K. Lang

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Word arrived yesterday, Jan. 12, that boxing promoter Mike Acri died this past Sunday at age 63. The cause of death was pancreatic cancer.

Acri was from Erie, Pennsylvania, which also happens to be the hometown of Hall of Fame promoter Don Elbaum. The two often worked in tandem, most notably when they promoted the fight between Laila Ali and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde.

Acri promoted Ali; Frazier-Lyde was under contract to the venerable Elbaum. The bout between the daughters of the legendary pugilists, billed as Ali-Frazier IV, took place on June 8, 2001 at the Turning Stone Resort in Verona, New York, kicking off Hall of Fame Weekend at the boxing shrine in nearby Canastota.

Mike Acri birthed the tradition of holding pro fights at Turning Stone on the Eve of the Hall of Fame festivities. The first of these shows, in 1998, pitted Hector Camacho against West Virginia journeyman Tommy Small. Camacho TKOed Small in the sixth, recapturing some of the prestige he had lost in his pussycat showing against Oscar De La Hoya.

Acri was especially proud of the Turning Stone series. “At these events, you have memorabilia people, you have past inductees, and most important, boxing fanatics from everywhere… it’s the ultimate thrill to know that my fight cards are the center of attention for the biggest boxing weekend of the year,” he told prominent boxing writer Jake Donovan for a 2005 story that ran on this site.

Acri had his best run with Paul Spadafora, the trouble-plagued “Pittsburgh Kid” who went on to win the IBF lightweight title and left the sport with a record of 49-1-1.

Spadafora fought frequently – 15 fights in all — at the Mountaineer racino in Chester, West Virginia, where Acri was the matchmaker. The little town of Chester sits roughly 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh and 40 miles south of Youngstown, Ohio, cities with rich boxing traditions.

Although Acri was with Spadafora when the “Kid” was just getting started, he was best known as a rejuvenator who latched hold of fighters with name value who were cascading into irrelevancy and restored some of their lost luster while maneuvering them into a few good late-career paydays. Exhibit A was Roberto Duran.

Acri was one of the prime movers of the lucrative rubber match between Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard. In his next outing, Duran was shockingly defeated by Pat Lawlor, a third-rater, and was written off as finished, but Acri extracted more mileage from the Panamanian legend, guiding him into two good-money fights with Vinny Pazienza and two with the aforementioned Camacho, interspersed with stay-busy fights that served to keep his name in the news.

Mike Acri’s last co-promotion, if that is the word, was the acclaimed Showtime documentary “Macho: The Hector Camacho Story,” for which he received an Executive Producer credit. We here at The Sweet Science send our condolences to his family and loved ones.

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