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Teofimo Lopez is the TSS 2020 Fighter of the Year

Bernard Fernandez

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If it is really true that turnabout is fair play, then whoever the winner is of the Heisman Trophy as college football’s most outstanding player of 2020, to be announced Jan. 5 during a virtual presentation at ESPN’s studios in Bristol, Conn., should be prepared to celebrate the moment by donning a Teofimo Lopez -themed robe.

Lopez, The Sweet Science’s 2020 Fighter of the Year by virtue of his electrifying, unanimous decision over pound-for-pound king Vasiliy Lomachenko on Oct. 17 in Las Vegas, understands the value of showmanship and attention-grabbing moments as much as anyone.  Twice, after impressive knockout victories in Madison Square Garden that took place the same weekend that the Heisman winner was announced nearby at the Downtown Athletic Club, the savvy kid wore the respective jerseys of Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray in 2018 and LSU quarterback Joe Burrow in 2019. It may or may not be true that Murray was aware of Lopez’s one-round knockout of veteran Mason Menard or Burrow of his two-round dethronement of IBF lightweight champion Richard Commey, but the time has clearly passed when the 23-year-old Honduran-American might need to siphon some glory from a standout in another sport.

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., who now resides in the bucolic setting of Jonesboro, Ark., Lopez and his father-trainer, Teofilo Sr., had been telling anybody who would listen that his ascendance to the ring’s highest tier not only was probable, but almost predestined.  After Teo Jr. had demolished the highly regarded Commey on Dec. 14, 2019, the list of dedicated followers of his career increased with Commey’s promoter, Lou DiBella, joining the fan club.

“He’s got dynamite in his fists,” DiBella said of Lopez. “That kid is a very athletic offensive force. And he has charisma coming out of the ying-yang. When you have that kind of arsenal, you have a chance against anybody, including Loma.”

There were those, of course, who said the Lopezes’ expressed desire to proceed directly to a showdown with Lomachenko for a truckload of 135-pound title belts was a case of wanting too much, too soon. Better to wait until Teo further refined his skill set, the cognoscenti opined, while the 32-year-old Lomachenko – who in 2016 and 2017 likely set an unofficial record by making four straight quality opponents quit on their stool rather than absorb additional punishment – possibly regressed a bit.

But Teo Sr. had predicted that his son was already a better fighter than Loma, regardless of what the oddsmakers might think (the Ukrainian went off as a -400 favorite, with Lopez at +300), and, besides, the father had boldly predicted that he would conclusively prove it in “The Takeover’s” 16th pro bout, an absurdly accelerated timetable for someone on the wrong end of such a vast experience gap. Lomachenko not only was a two-time Olympic gold medalist, but had posted a 396-1 amateur record that still looks like a typographical error.

So convinced was Team Loma that the boxing master would teach the young upstart a lesson that there was no rematch clause in the contract, which Teofimo the younger took to be another sign of disrespect from a man he saw as an overconfident diva. Lopez reveled in taking digs at Loma whenever possible, which some saw as a strategy to irritate the favorite and possibly throw him off his game. But Lopez insisted no mind games were necessary to elevate the matchup, or his own motivation, to loftier heights.

“I’m not trying to get under his skin,” Lopez said. “I’m just being outspoken. Come that night, if he wants to take it out on me, great. I’m trying to take it out on him, too. That’s what makes a good fight.”

And it was a good fight, but decidedly more so for Lopez, who went from being an alphabet champion with a single belt and loads of potential to instant celebrity. In the course of winning a unanimous decision, Lopez won the numbers game to an extent few, even those who believed he could win, could have imagined. Punch statistics compiled by CompuBox also showed Lopez connecting on 183 of 659 (27.8%) to 141 of 321 (43.9%) for the far less-busy Loma, a brilliant counterpuncher who found limited opportunities to do so. The gap was most prevalent in power shots, with 148 landed by Lopez to 78 for Loma.

In addition to the retention of his IBF strap, Lopez also came away with Loma’s WBO and WBA lightweight championships, as well that from The Ring and the WBC’s “Franchise” designation.

“He was pretty basic,” Lopez said of Loma. “Facing someone like him and doing what I did, you haven’t seen anything yet. I don’t fear no man. I’m in there to fight. He thought he could take me to the later rounds. He failed. I noticed him starting to huff and puff. I was two steps ahead of him. The moment I stood my ground and started pressing him back, he gave up. He literally gave up. I saw it in his eyes.

“I’m the king now. I’ve always been the king. I was just the underground king. Now, I’ve been crowned.”

For his part, Lomachenko has hardly been gracious in accepting the outcome, even going so far as to say judges Julie Lederman (119-109), Steve Weisfeld (117-111)  and Tim Cheatham (116-112) had been “bribed” in their tabulations for Lopez. He says he wants “revenge” in a rematch, although Lopez apparently is in no hurry to grant him one. “Out with the old, in with the new,” he said.

Thus has it always been so. Bob Arum, founder and CEO of Top Rank, which promotes Lopez and Lomachenko, said now that Teo is on top of the world, expect him to stay there a while. “We look at him for the next decade to be one of the big superstars, if not the biggest superstars in boxing,” Arum predicted.

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

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Late Sub Jonnie Rice Bursts Michael Coffie’s Bubble on a PBC Card in Newark

Arne K. Lang

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Every thing that could go wrong went wrong as promoter Al Haymon and his associates were patching together tonight’s card at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. But it couldn’t have worked out better for journeyman heavyweight Jonnie Rice who turned his career around with a smashing TKO of heavily favored and previously undefeated Michael Coffie.

Positive Covid tests scuttled two 10-round fights on the undercard. The main event had already been disheveled when Coffie’s original opponent Gerald Washington flunked his Covid test. Enter Rice (pictured on the right) who was on standby and seized the moment.

Rice, a Columbia, South Carolina native who has been living and training in Las Vegas, came in sporting a 13-6-1 record but five of his wins had come against no-hopers in Tijuana and he had yet to defeat an opponent in a match where he was the “B” side. But these facts were misleading as five of his six losses had come against hot prospects with undefeated records and he had honed his craft sparring against the likes of Tyson Fury, Filip Hrgovic, and Michael Hunter.

Based on “strength of schedule,” Rice, 34, had the edge over Coffie, the 35-year-old ex-Marine who brought a 12-0 record but was relatively untested. And Rice, who started fast, took the fight to Coffie and out-landed him. Coffie’s left eye was swelling and he wasn’t firing back when the referee waived it off in the fifth round.

Dirrell-Brooker

Tonight’s PBC fare came in two helpings with appetizers and the main event on FOX preceding a club-level show on FOX’s affiliate FS1. The main event of the nightcap was a 10-round light heavyweight bout between Andre Dirrell and Christopher Brooker.

Dirrell, who previously held an interim version of the IBF 168-pound world title, looked very sharp coming off a 19-month layoff, scoring three knockdowns before the fight was waived off in the third round. The Flint, Michigan native improved to 28-3 (18). Philadelphia’s Brooker fell to 16-8.

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Junior middleweight Joey Spencer (13-0, 9 KOs) scored an 8-round unanimous decision over James Martin (7-3). Spencer won comfortably on the scorecards – 80-72 and 79-73 twice – but was unimpressive.

Local fan favorite Vito “White Magic” Mielnicki Jr (9-1, 5 KOs) rebounded from his first pro loss with an impressive second-round stoppage of Noah Kidd (6-4-2).

Philadelphia welterweight Karl Dargan (20-1, 9 KOs), a former two-time national amateur champion, returned to the ring after a long absence and  stopped LA’s Ivan Delgado (13-4-2) in the third round.

New Jersey heavyweight Norman Neely advanced to 9-0 (7) with a unanimous decision over rugged Texas brawler Juan Torres (6-4-1). Neely won all six rounds on all three cards.

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Leigh Wood’s Big Upset Spangles the Rebirth of Eddie Hearn’s Garden Party

Arne K. Lang

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Last summer, hamstrung by the pandemic, Eddie Hearn hit upon the idea of holding boxing events outdoors in the expansive backyard of the family estate on the outskirts of London (now Matchroom Sport headquarters) where he grew up. Four shows were staged there.

The series has been revived. Today was “episode 1” of Season Two of Matchroom Fight Camp, otherwise known as Eddie Hearn’s Garden Party. Two more shows are penciled in over the next two weekends.

The match-up getting the most buzz was the welterweight contest between fast-rising Conor Benn and battle-tested Adrian Granados. Unfortunately, Benn tested positive for Covid-19. But the main event, a WBA world featherweight title defense by Can Xu (aka Xu Can) against Nottingham’s Leigh Wood stayed intact and produced a memorable upset.

Xu, who is co-promoted by Oscar De La Hoya, was installed a 4/1 favorite. Although he wasn’t a big puncher with only three knockouts to his credit in 20 starts, he rode into Hearn’s backyard riding a 15-fight winning streak for the third defense of his WBA “regular” title. But he started slow, perhaps the result of ring rust — it was his first fight of 2021 after missing all of 2020 – and he never did crank up the volume that had carried him to victory in his three title fights.

Wood, a stablemate of Josh Taylor who has made great gains since hooking up with Ben Davison and Lee Wylie, landed the heavier punches and was ahead on the cards when he took the fight out of the judges’ hands in the final minute of the final round. He decked Xu with a hard right hand and then trapped him on the ropes, forcing the stoppage that came with only 17 seconds remaining.

The 32-year-old Wood improved to 25-2 (15). Xu falls to 18-3. The deposed champion has a rematch clause so we may have a sequel.

Other Bouts

Chris Billam-Smith, trained by Shane McGuigan, won a hard-fought 12-round split decision over Belfast’s Tommy McCarthy in a cruiserweight scrap with three domestic titles at stake. The judges had it 116-112 and 115-114 for Billam-Smith, now 13-1, with the dissenter favoring McCarthy (18-3) by a 115-114 tally.

McCarthy wobbled Billam-Smith late in the first round with on overhand right, but could never land his Sunday punch on the Bournemouth fighter in a see-saw struggle with many close rounds. There were no knockdowns but McCarthy suffered a cut over his right eye near the end of round six from an apparent head butt.

McCarthy had Carl Frampton helping out in his corner which infused the contest with the aura of a grudge match. Frampton was the best man at Shane McGuigan’s wedding, but their friendship dissolved in a bitter court fight. At the end of the grueling fight, Billam-Smith and McCarthy embraced in a show of mutual respect.

Liverpool super-welterweight Anthony Fowler whose lone setback came at the hands of Scott Fitzgerald (a split decision) won his sixth straight with an eighth-round stoppage of Germany’s Rico Mueller whose cornerman was on the ring apron when the slow-acting referee waived it off at the 2:12 mark. Fowler, who is also trained by Shane McGuigan, improved to 15-1 (11). His next bout is expected to come against fellow Scouser Liam Smith in October. This was the second fight this month for the game but out-gunned 33-year-old Mueller (28-4-1) who was subbing for veteran Tex-Mex campaigner Roberto Garcia who pulled out with a back injury.

Also, Jack Cullen (20-2-1, 9 KOs) scored a 10-round unanimous decision over Avni Yildirim (21-4) in a 10-round super middleweight contest. Yildirim, from Turkey, was looking to atone for his hollow performance against Canelo Alvarez this past February. While he had his moments, he was out-worked by the lanky Lancashire man who won by scores of 100-90, 08-92, and 97-93.

Photo credit: Alan Walton / Matchroom Boxing

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Avila Perspective, Chap 146: De La Hoya Returns Plus Other Boxing Notes

David A. Avila

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Sitting in front of several dozen reporters, the favorite son of Los Angeles area boxing, Oscar De La Hoya, and former MMA champion Vitor Belfort spoke about their mutual return to prizefighting.

“I can’t lie. I miss getting hit,” said De La Hoya.

It was a statement also shared by Belfort.

After years away from the prize ring, both return to exchange hits as boxing’s De La Hoya (39-6, 30 KOs) meets MMA’s Belfort (26-14, 18 KOs) on Sept. 11, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The Triller Fight Club card will be shown on pay-per-view via FITE.tv and other modes.

De La Hoya, 48, last absorbed hits from a fighter when Manny Pacquiao battered him almost 13 years ago back in December 2008. It was a shock to the senses to see the great East L.A. fighter take blow after blow while unable to hit back.

He was only 35.

Many attribute that loss to a ridiculous agreement to weigh under 145 pounds before facing Pacquiao. At the time De La Hoya was the real gate attraction and pay-per-view king. He held all the cards but agreed to the demands acutely devised by Freddie Roach. It proved to leave De La Hoya too weak to fight back and after eight rounds the one-sided beating was stopped.

De La Hoya retired after that fight. Ironically, he called for a press conference and it was held right where he recently announced this upcoming fight against Belfort. It’s also near a statue built in his honor.

Sitting nearby, Belfort patiently waited his turn to speak. For the Brazilian MMA fighter, it’s only been a mere three years since he exchanged blows in a prize fight. It was a knockout loss to Lyoto Machida at UFC 224 in Brazil.

When Belfort spoke to the media, he expressed a desire to get hit too.

“Its fun. I’m going to have joy when I get hit. You cannot get better than that,” said Belfort.

It’s a common sentiment held by former greats. I’ve heard the same comments from James “Lights Out” Toney who ridiculously was not voted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame this past year.

Getting hit becomes as common as breathing for most professional fighters, especially those that began boxing at a young age such as De La Hoya.

“The truth is I miss it. I miss it very much,” said De La Hoya who began lacing up gloves as an amateur at five years old.

According to oddsmakers, Belfort is the favorite to win. Probably for a number of reasons including he fought a mere three years ago. Belfort is the heavier fighter and has fought foes in the 205 pound-division called light heavyweight in MMA. Plus, he is simply bigger than his foe.

“I hope I don’t end up killing him, but everything is on the table,” said Belfort. “If he doesn’t have joy in what he does he could come back in a coffin.”

Prizefighters are masochists. All truly good fighters have a streak of masochism inside. They know they’ll be pummeled with blows that truly hurt and they look forward to it. But the bitter truth is taking hits in your 30s and taking hits near your 50s are two vastly different scenarios.

It’s an extremely dangerous fight for both.

As someone who spent nearly a month in a hospital after experiencing a cerebral hemorrhage, otherwise known as a “brain bleed,” I’m stunned by the fact that more boxers are not damaged from brutal blows. I pray nothing like this occurs to De La Hoya, Belfort, or any retired boxer who returns to the prize ring for a possible payday.

They are prizefighters and like any former high-performance athlete, they miss competition.

“When you love it, no matter what happens, I’m ok with it,” said De La Hoya.

Fans will attend Staples Center by the thousands simply to see “the Golden Boy” once again and pay tribute to one of the greats. Many of those attending will be praying silently for the fighter’s safety.

I know I will.

England Fights

WBA featherweight titlist Xu Can (18-2, 3 KOs) defends against Leigh Wood (24-2, 14 KOs) on Saturday July 31, at Brentwood, England. DAZN will stream the world title fight.

This is the third defense for Can who has not fought in almost two years. The last defense was at Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio, California when he soundly defeated Manny Robles III.

Can took the title from Puerto Rico’s Jesus Rojas, a rough and tumble fighter who takes a pound of flesh from everyone he faces. Against Can he was unable to deal out the usual punishment.

Wood is a former super bantamweight contender who has never really faced international competition. He did face former world champion Gavin McDonnell but was stopped. Perhaps the move up in weight will help.

Fights to Watch

Fri. Estrella TV 7 p.m. Erick Leon (14-1) vs Juan Marcos Rodriguez (10-3).

Sat. DAZN 11 a.m. Xu Can (18-2) vs Leigh Wood (24-2).

Sat. FOX 5 p.m. Michael Coffie (12-0) vs. Jonnie Rice (13-6-1)

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