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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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Shakur Stevenson’s Star Turn Gets No Media Coverage in Atlanta

Bernard Fernandez

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Shakur Stevenson’s Star Turn Gets No Media Coverage in Atlanta

For that part of the sports world that takes notice of boxing, Shakur Stevenson announced himself as a superstar-in-the-making – well, maybe – in totally dominating and ultimately dethroning WBO junior lightweight champion Jamel Herring Saturday night in Atlanta’s State Farm Arena. Shakur, the 24-year-old southpaw and 2016 Olympic silver medalist from Newark, N.J., seemingly hit Herring, 35, a combat-toughened but outgunned Marine Corps veteran, with everything but the proverbial kitchen sink en route to a 10th-round stoppage that wowed, among others, former junior welterweight and welterweight titlist and ESPN commentator Timothy Bradley Jr., who had chided Stevenson, a sometimes risk-adverse defensive wizard, as a “boring” fighter in his most recent bout on the Worldwide Leader, a 12-round scorecard shutout of Namibia’s Jeremia Nakathila on June 12 in Las Vegas.

After referee Mark Nelson stepped in to save the bleeding and battered Herring 1 minute, 30 seconds into round 10, Stevenson surprised Bradley by thanking him for providing the motivation he needed to ramp up his offensive output.

“Shakur tonight showed a ton of maturity,” Bradley said of the new-look, presumably more fan-friendly version of Stevenson that was on display. “The fact that he thanked me and said that I motivated him is a beautiful thing. That showed even more maturity, because that’s all that I want from these young fighters. I want them to grow.

“This is what I wanted to see from Shakur Stevenson. But I knew he had it in him, and he showed it tonight.”

Not that Bradley has completely bought into the notion of all that Stevenson could be, citing the lack of the only weapon – one-punch power – in his otherwise well-stuffed trick bag. Maybe that will come should Stevenson (17-0, 9 KOs) continue to enhance his man-strength, and maybe what you see now is all that fight fans can ever expect to get. In baseball terminology, Shakur Stevenson was more or less categorized by Bradley as a high-average singles hitter with enough gap power to accumulate a fair share of doubles that can get opponents out of there on accumulated damage. Who could complain if Stevenson, whose avowed goal is to become a superstar and fixture at or near the top of everyone’s pound-for-pound lists, continues to show flashes of such stylistic predecessors as Pernell Whitaker and Floyd Mayweather Jr.?

On this night and in the fight’s host city, however, Stevenson took a worse media-coverage battering from Eddie Rosario than he had administered to Herring (23-3, 11 KOs) with his fists. Rosario, a trade-deadline acquisition of the Atlanta Braves, slugged a three-run homer to lift his new team to a 4-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series at nearby Truist Park, sending the Braves into their first World Series since 1999. For now, Rosario, who went 14-for-25 with three homers in winning the NLCS Most Valuable Player Award, is the toast of the town and the focus of reams of space in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sports section. But it wasn’t only Rosario who siphoned attention in the local paper away from Stevenson; the fight might have gotten a few lines in the print editions, but online it was completely ignored by the AJC, Rosario’s hot bat followed in the pecking order by stories about the NBA’s Hawks losing at Cleveland, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets dropping a high-scoring contest at Virginia and a five-star high school defensive end prospect named Mykel Williams verbally committing to the No. 1-ranked Georgia Bulldogs.

While it had to be frustrating to Stevenson and Atlanta’s fight fans for the event to be ignored by AJC, there were other deserving participants on the card who were similarly overlooked by the press in Georgia’s largest city. Not that anyone in the Internet age still pastes newspaper clippings into scrapbooks, but 19-year-old middleweight prospect Xander Zayas might be at a similar embryonic stage of development once occupied by Stevenson a couple of years ago. He deserved at least some recognition in the paper for his fourth-round stoppage of Dan Karpency, as did two other undercard fighters with celebrity familial ties: middleweight Nico Ali Walsh, grandson of the great Muhammad Ali, who scored a third-round TKO of James Westley II, and junior middleweight Evan Holyfield, son of four-time heavyweight champion and Atlanta-area resident Evander Holyfield – can it be nearly 30 years since “The Real Deal” shook off an early knockdown to stop Bert Cooper in seven rounds on Nov. 23, 1991, in Atlanta’s since-demolished Omni Coliseum? — who bombed out Charles Stanfield in two rounds.

But Atlanta is not the only metropolis that devotes fewer newspaper column inches, if any, to the sport that once made Evander Holyfield as important a local sports figure as any Falcon, Brave or Hawk. It will be up to Stevenson to break through, if he can, to a level where his every ring appearance becomes a must-see because boxing’s viability is and has always been largely tied to the popularity of its larger-than-life figures.

“I wanted a fun fight – show my skills, my boxing, my power,” Stevenson said of the modifications he and trainer/grandfather Wali Moses made from the relative dreariness of the wide points nod over Nakathila to the pulse-quickening pummeling of Herring, who apologized to the Marine Corps in general for his defeat, not that any such admission was necessary. Herring seemed to be contemplating retirement, but there has never been any occasion when he failed to conduct himself honorably inside the ropes.

The question now is, will Stevenson continue to hew to demonstrate the aggressiveness he exhibited against Herring? His comments following the Nakathila bout suggest that it might not always be so. His style is evolving, but what works better on one night might not be advisable on another.

“To be honest, I didn’t really like my performance,” Stevenson said after his paint-by-numbers dismissal of Nakathila. “I felt I could’ve performed a lot better. I was being real careful because he has power. He was real scary. I got the best defense in boxing. But I’ll be better in my next fight.”

Former super middleweight and light heavyweight champion Andre Ward, a 2021 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame who also did commentary for Herring-Stevenson, said Shakur shouldn’t feel pressured to become something he is not in order to meet anyone else’s expectations.

“I think we got to kill some of these misnomers that have been around the sport for far too long, that fighters that go about their craft a certain kind of way, hit and don’t get hit, (means) there’s something not tough about them,” Ward said. “I heard that my whole career. Floyd Mayweather heard that his whole career. Just because a skillful fighter who can think and plays chess when everybody else is playing checkers doesn’t mean he can’t get down and dirty. It only means we’re going to get down and dirty when we have to.

“Fighters who have (high) IQs and skill, keep doing what you’re doing. Some people are going to like it and others won’t. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. If a good fighter has a bad night, he can still win every round. If a guy who takes two to (land) one had a bad night, it’s a pretty ugly night. He’s probably going to get knocked out or take a lot of punishment.

“I wasn’t who they wanted me to be. I just beat all those guys, all the guys they said were going to get me. I just kept winning. And winning covers a lot of problems and issues.”

A lot, for sure, not all. In addition to Whitaker, Mayweather and maybe Ward, there are elements of Stevenson’s makeup that call to mind the technical proficiency of two-time Cuban gold medalist Guillermo Rigondeaux, a former Top Rank fighter. Stevenson has been groomed by Top Rank for a prolonged and successful run at the elite level, but what so far has been a mutually beneficial working relationship could hinge in part to the fighter’s willingness to more regularly perform as he did against Herring than he did against Nakathila and a few other opponents that led to the perception that he was supremely talented, yes, but also a touch boring.

Prior to Rigondeaux’s release by Top Rank, company founder Bob Arum complained that his style leaned more to Masterpiece Theater than Rocky, which made Rigo a poor box-office and television attraction. Arum even said that when he brought the Cuban’s name up to HBO executives, “they throw up.”

There are many ways to win a prizefight, and now Shakur Stevenson has shown that he can win with chamber music or semi-heavy metal playing in the background. How far he advances in his march toward the truly elite status he is convinced is his destiny may be determined by the method he chooses to employ should a much-discussed showdown with Mexican blaster Oscar Valdez (30-0, 23 KOs) take place in 2022. The hard truth is that a lot of fight fans not only like, but require splashes of blood-and-guts mixed in with their favorite sport’s artistic side.

Editor’s Note: Bernard Fernandez, named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the Observer category with the class of 2020, was the recipient of numerous awards for writing excellence during his 28-year career as a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Daily News. Fernandez’s first book, “Championship Rounds,” a compendium of previously published material, was released in May of last year. The sequel, “Championship Rounds, Vol. 2,” with a foreword by Jim Lampley, arrives this fall. The book can be ordered through Amazon.com, in hard or soft cover, and other book-selling websites and outlets.

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Fast Results from Atlanta Where Shakur Stevenson Turned in a Masterful Performance

Arne K. Lang

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Former world featherweight title-holder Shakur Stevenson turned in his career-best performance tonight at the State Farm Arena in Atlanta while wresting the WBO 130-pound world title from the shoulders of Jamel Herring via a 10th-round TKO. At age 24, Stevenson was the younger man by 11 years and it was a case of youth being served.

As a pro, Stevenson (17-0, 9 KOs) has lost precious few rounds. The rap against him was that he is content to outclass an opponent, providing few fireworks. In this vein, the assumption was that tonight’s bout would be a tactical (i.e., tame) affair. But while there were no knockdowns and Shakur fought a measured fight, there was more snap in his punches than had been the norm and he finished the bout on a high note.

Early into the fight, Herring’s left eye began to swell. In round nine, Stevenson opened a nasty cut over Herring’s other eye. In round ten, with the cut bleeding profusely, Stevenson revved up his attack, forcing referee Mark Nelson to waive it off. The official time was 1:30.

After the fight, Stevenson called out his WBC counterpart Oscar Valdez. Herring, an ex-Marine and former U.S. Olympic team captain, falls to 23-3.

Other Bouts

Fast-rising 19-year-old middleweight Xander Zayas shellacked intrepid Dan Karpency whose father and chief cornerman pulled him out after four rounds. A future star, born in Puerto Rico, Zayas is now 11-0 (8). One of the three fighting brothers, Karpency (9-4-1) will return to his day job as a registered nurse at a maximum-security prison in Western Pennsylvania. He hadn’t previously been stopped

In the first bout airing on ESPN’s flagship station, middleweight Nico Ali Walsh, the 21-year-old grandson of Muhammad Ali, scored a third-round stoppage of scrappy but out-gunned James Westley II, a 36-year-old from Toledo, Ohio. Walsh (2-0, 2 KOs) knocked Westley down with a straight right hand in the waning seconds of round two and knocked him to his knees with another short right hand early in the next stanza. Westley wasn’t badly hurt, but his corner saw fit to throw in the towel.

Junior middleweight Evan Holyfield, one of 11 children fathered by the great Evander Holyfield, knocked Charles Stanford flat on his back with a harsh left-right combination in round two, advancing his record to 8-0 (6). The official time was 0:30. Stanford, a 35-year-old Cincinnati man with an MMA background, was 6-3 heading in.

Middleweight Troy Isley, a 23-year-old U.S. Olympian from Alexandria, VA, improved to 3-0 (2) with a first-round stoppage of 37-year-old Nicholi Navarro (2-2), a former Army Ranger from Denver. Isley rocked his overmatched opponent several times before putting him on the canvas with a combination, forcing the ref to intervene. The official time was 2:48.

In an upset, Erik Palmer saddled Atlanta’s Roddricus Livsey with his first defeat, winning a split decision. Palmer, from the Karpency family stable, was 12-14-5 heading in, versus 8-0-1 for Livsey. The scores were 58-56 twice and a curious 59-55 for the hometown fighter.

Haven Brady Jr, a 19-year-old featherweight from Albany, Georgia, improved to 4-0 (3) with a 4-round unanimous decision over Corpus Christi’s Roberto Negrete (3-1).  The scores favoring Brady were 40-36 across the board, but Negrete was no slouch.

Chicago welterweight Antoine Cobb made an impressive pro debut with a brutal one-punch knockout of Jerrion Campbell (2-2). It was all over in 58 seconds. Cobb, 25, is a protégé of former light heavyweight champion Montell Griffin.

In the opening bout on the card, 21-year-old Brooklyn lightweight Harley Maderos, a 2021 USA national champion, improved to 2-0 (1) with a 4-round unanimous decision over Deljerro Revello (0-2). Maderos scored a knockdown in the opening frame and won all four rounds on all four cards but wasn’t particularly impressive.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank via Getty images.

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Results from Tampa: Harold Calderon Survives Bite to Remain Undefeated

David A. Avila

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Undefeated welterweight Harold Calderon remained unbeaten despite strange tactics by late replacement Luis Florez that forced a premature end of the fight due to a disqualification on Saturday.

Calderon (26-0, 17 KOs) endured a change of opponents, and then outrageous tactics by Colombia’s Florez (25-22) including biting that ended the fight at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, Florida.

“That m..f…just bit me,” said Calderon, a southpaw from Miami. “I’m sweet. I’m like sugar.”

For the first three rounds Florez seemed eager to trade blows with Calderon and chided the Florida fighter to attack. But once the lefty welterweight attacked the body, the Colombian fighter suddenly seemed not as eager.

Calderon took the fight inside and battered Florez on the inside. During one attack Florez motioned he was hit behind the head. That’s when the dirty tactics began including a bite on Calderon. After Calderon retaliated with a body shot, Florez took a knee and complained. The referee stopped the fight. It was later revealed that the referee disqualified Florez for biting.

Calderon said he’s anxious to fight any of the top 15 contenders if given an opportunity.

“I need somebody in the top 15,” he said.

Uzbekistan’s Otabek Kholmatov (4-0, 4 KOs) knocked out Colombia’s Juan Medina (12-9, 11 KOs) in the second round of their super bantamweight clash. Kholmatov, a southpaw, scored two knock downs in the first round. The tall Uzbeki fighter blew out Medina with more body blows to end the fight at 1:51 of the second round.

“I’ll be the champ,” Kholmatov said.

A super lightweight match saw Clarence Booth (21-4, 12 KOs) take time to figure out the awkward style of Alejandro Munera (6-4-4) and win by knockout at the seventh round.

Bantamweight contender Rosalinda Rodriguez (13-0, 3 KOs) fought last-minute replacement Elizabeth Tuani (1-4) and won by stoppage at 1:16 of the second round in a fight fought above 126 pounds. There was confusion because Tuani did not look hurt nor in danger of going down when the fight was stopped. Even Rodriguez looked perplexed.

“I was confused,” said Rodriguez. “She was putting up a fight.”

Other Bouts

Jean Guerra Vargas (6-0) survived a knockdown against Rueben Morales (0-2) to win a split decision. It seemed Vargas got lucky with the scoring. Morales was the dominant fighter for the first two rounds and lost gas. He was a last-day replacement.

Poland’s Adrian “Pretty Boy” Pinheiro (4-0, 4 KOs) knocked out Milton Nunez with a focused body attack in the first two rounds and scored two knockdowns with body shots. A couple of body sapping shots floored Nunez at 1:05 of the second round for the knockout in the heavyweight fight.

Bryan Lopez (3-0) knocked down wild swinging William Fauth (0-7) twice before scoring a knockout win at 1:56 of the second round of a super lightweight fight.

Hungarian heavyweight Istvan Bernath (8-0, 6 KOs) knocked out Mexico’s Guillermo Del Rio (3-4-1) with an overhand right at 2:30 of the first round.

A welterweight fight saw Bobby Henry start slowly and then floor Bryant Costello in the second round to turn things around and win by decision after four rounds.

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