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The Ups and Downs of Hall of Fame Boxing Writer Jack Fiske

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Hall of Fame boxing writer Jack Fiske passed away 15 years ago this coming Sunday, Jan. 24, 2006. Fiske was 88 years old.

Fiske was one of the last of the breed, a full-time boxing writer for a major metropolitan daily. They don’t make them like that anymore.

In his final years as a journalist, however, Fiske no longer worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, his longtime employer. To read his stuff required a subscription to a newsletter. And the newsletter, in common with Fiske, had become a dinosaur in a world where the only constant is change. It went belly-up several weeks before Fiske passed away.

Born in New York City in 1917, Jack Fiske attended the University of Alabama where he covered the school’s boxing team for the school newspaper. The star of the team, Fiske was fond of recollecting, was a fiery bantamweight, George Wallace. America would come to know Wallace as the fiery segregationist who served four terms as Governor of Alabama and was a failed U.S. presidential candidate.

After graduation, Fiske worked for a paper in Virginia and two small papers in the Bay Area before latching on with the Chronicle. In addition to covering the fights as a ringside reporter, Fiske authored a twice-weekly feature called “Punching The Bag” that circulated widely among hard-core fans and industry insiders.

Fiske had to be on his toes because for much of his tenure at the paper the arch-rival San Francisco Examiner had a fine full-time boxing man of their own, Eddie Muller, whose son of the same name hosts “Noir Alley” on Turner Classic Movies.

“Punching The Bag” was jam-packed with information and editorial content. Fiske had little tolerance for inept ring officials and regulators who owed their cushy jobs to political connections. First-time promoters, the lifeblood of the sport, were assured of positive ink. But once a promoter became established, he had to earn his props by making competitive matches.

During Fiske’s early days with the Chronicle, the top sports in terms of newspaper coverage were baseball, horseracing, and boxing, and the Bay Area was a beehive of boxing activity. In 1955, there were 73 boxing shows in San Francisco, Oakland, and nearby Richmond. The biggest shows were usually held at the Cow Palace. Ten title fights were staged here beginning with Ezzard Charles’ 1949 world heavyweight title defense against local fan favorite Pat Valentino.

One can guess where this is heading. Bit by bit, the Bay Area boxing scene became fallow. In the eyes of the Chronicle higher-ups, Fiske came to be seen as superfluous. In 1992, the paper let him go. “Punching The Bag” died after an amazing 43-year run.

Fiske hastened his demise as a newspaperman by his disinclination to become more versatile. He never wanted to cover any sport other than boxing. His attraction to the sweet science was manifested in his vast collection of boxing memorabilia which dominated every room of his home.

In 1994, Fiske was persuaded to resurrect his column for “Professional Boxing Update” and its sister publication, “Flash.” These were 12-page newsletters cranked out by a fellow from Capitola, CA, named Virgil Thrasher, a big boxing buff with a second sideline as a blues harmonica player.

At their peak, Thrasher’s newsletters had 6000 subscribers, 10 percent overseas. Circulation-wise, this was a big comedown for Fiske, but he was too professional to approach his assignments half-heartedly. Although he held a grudge against his former employer, his bitterness surfaced only once.

When the Chronicle made no mention of the passing of World War II era lightweight champion Ike Williams, Fiske carped that the sports department was run by clowns more attuned to women’s volleyball than to matters of significance.

“Professional Boxing Update” and “Flash” were modest endeavors, but the contributors were first-rate, most especially during the mid-1990s. Jack Fiske was then in good form, as was acerbic Las Vegas oddsmaker Herb Lambeck, a peerless boxing pricemaker. In those days, no one was better at dissecting a forthcoming fight than lead writer Graham Houston, himself a Future Hall of Famer. Houston, who was the North American correspondent for several British publications, stayed on with Thrasher’s newsletters until the very end.

For some subscribers, these publications functioned mostly as tip sheets. When the opinions of Houston and Lambeck dovetailed, one could wager with a high degree of confidence.

Within four years of joining PBU/Flash, Jack Fiske’s health began to fail and he was unable to meet his deadlines. To ease Fiske’s slide to infirmity, Thrasher took to reprinting some of his old Chronicle columns.

When Virgil Thrasher launched his newsletters in 1985, he stole readers from established magazines by delivering information in a timelier fashion. Ironically, he became a victim of the same force. A new generation of fight fans, weaned on the internet, demanded updates quicker than the mailman could bring.

It would have been nice if Thrasher had continued on for a few more weeks, thereby affording readers a tribute to Jack Fiske on the occasion of his passing. But at least Fiske wasn’t entirely forgotten.

In 2003, at age 85, Fiske was ushered into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. As is the custom when an inductee passes away, the flag atop the Canastota shrine was lowered to half-staff when news arrived of his passing.

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Oleksandr Usyk from a Historical Perspective 

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Oleksandr Usyk flipped the heavyweight division onto its head this past Saturday night in the Kingdom Arena, Riyadh, travelling a long way from home to seal his greatest victory. Usyk, small by modern heavyweight standards, towers over most men at 6’3″ and 220lbs and sporting a reach that lineal champions Ezzard Charles or Joe Walcott would have killed for. Things have changed though, and in the middle rounds of his war with Tyson Fury, Usyk suddenly appeared tiny. Fury, a giant at around 6’8” and over 260lbs seems a heavyweight for this century. Usyk, a journeyman in the most ancient sense of the word, feels like a throwback to a more savage time. His greatest achievements have taken place on foreign soil. The last time he boxed at home was almost a decade ago and given the situation in Ukraine and given Usyk’s 37 years, it is unlikely he will ever box there again.

Usyk took chances in the seventh and especially the eighth to take charge of a fight that seemed to be slipping away from him. In the vertigo inducing ninth, it was he, not Fury who appeared the giant. Usyk draped the Englishman over the ropes like so much fresh meat and tenderised him to within an inch of unconsciousness, the sheer hugeness of Fury perhaps preventing a referee’s intervention on behalf of his opponent, and not for the first time. Against both Deontay Wilder (the first fight) and Otto Wallin, a more squeamish official would have stepped in and stopped the fight, and here, too, there was a case. If Usyk seems a throwback, then Fury has been refereed like one, spared stoppages likely to be inflicted upon his peers, he was allowed once again to continue boxing, as Joe Louis was against Max Schmeling, or Jack Dempsey was against Luis Pirpo. But with Fury buckled at the knees, Usyk seemed the true heavy man in the ring.

In historical terms, Usyk is not a small heavyweight. He would have dwarfed “The Galveston Giant” Jack Johnson in the ring and loomed large over “Big” George Foreman. Usyk has every attribute necessary to make an unpleasant evening for Joe Louis, but it should be noted that while his footwork and speed and technical excellence would be the source of the discomfort, his excess of height and reach are the wildcards. Usyk would seem two to three weight classes bigger than Rocky Marciano, mainly because he is, and the towering Sonny Liston would look up. Circus strongman Jess Willard and the mob-sponsored Primo Carnera would both look down on Usyk – but not by that much. Usyk would stand eye to eye with Muhammad Ali but prime-for-prime he would outweigh him by ten pounds, as he would Larry Holmes. We must skip Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield and reach all the way into the Lennox Lewis era before we find men from history that truly out-size Usyk on a consistent basis.

Size, as Usyk has proven, is far from everything. Big by historical standards, he is small by modern standards. What else is now true in the wake of the seismic fistic events of Saturday night? Firstly, Usyk is unquestionably ranked the #1 heavyweight in the world. Of this, there can be no dispute. Accounting for his two wonderful defeats of another “super” heavyweight, Anthony Joshua, he is 3-0 against the rest of the top five and sitting unassailably at the head of the heavyweight table. More, and I have been surprised to see it disputed in some corners, Usyk is now almost as equally unassailably the pound-for-pound number one. The only fighter breathing the same air as Usyk right now is Naoya Inoue. Inoue has been operating at or near the highest level for longer, but the level of his opposition has not been as rarefied. Comparing the first phase opposition defeated by Naoya to the murderer’s row of cruiserweights that Usyk ran into during the Super Six series can lead to only one conclusion. Although Naoya’s busy, weight-class-bursting style has topped him out for most of the past two to three years, only one of these men has consistently been beating bigger, taller, longer opposition at the highest level, and that is Usyk. It is not a matter of opinion – he is the smallest man in my heavyweight top ten.

01 – Oleksandr Usyk

02 – Anthony Joshua

03 – Joseph Parker

04 – Tyson Fury

05 – Filip Hrgovic

06 – Zhilei Zhang

07 – Agit Kabayel

08 – Daneil Dubois

09 – Martin Bakole

10 – Joe Joyce

Usyk lives among giants now and where there is parity of height (Kabayel) he is the lighter man by 15 pounds. This is not true of Naoya, who despite his weight-hopping, still manages to run into fighters of the same height and of shorter reach. The opposition argument is narrow, but the relative size opposition is not and there is no pound-for-pound credential more significant than that of consistently out-fighting bigger men. Usyk has done so and will continue to do so for as long as he fights. There is simply no smaller man in his class.

Not since the heyday of Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield has a lineal heavyweight champion consistently fought bigger men and not since Mike’s hype-infused prime has a heavyweight menaced the number one pound-for-pound spot. Usyk has not enjoyed anything like the same machine support as Mike did; indeed, he has laboured in the shadow of more prominent men until such time as he thrashed them. He is a true manifestation of pound-for-pound glory in the unlimited class. Where does this leave him in terms of all-time standing?

I am reluctant to rate active fighters for reasons that are obvious enough; Usyk could be pole-axed in three by an irate Fury in a December rematch and all this ink is for naught. But what I am willing to do is play let’s pretend and imagine Usyk as retired and consider his place in heavyweight history now.

Usyk’s raw numbers are low-grade at just 22-0 with 14 knockouts. Worse, most of this was built in the cruiserweight division and not the heavyweight division. Against men weighing in as heavyweights, Uysk is essentially 7-0, and only 3-0 against ranked opposition. On the other hand, one of these victories came against Daniel Dubois, now ranked, and the 3-0 was posted against Tyson Fury, generally held to be the best or second-best heavyweight in the world, and Anthony Joshua, ranked behind only Fury at the time of his first fight with Usyk. So, when he stepped up, he stepped up to tackle the best in the world and has become lineal as a result. It’s a hard ledger to wrestle with, but fortunately we have a career that is comparable in the shape of Gene Tunney.

Tunney, a career light-heavyweight, earned a heavyweight legacy built of essentially one man: Jack Dempsey. Past-prime and inactive, Dempsey was ripped apart by Tunney in their legendary first fight and did better in a losing effort against the genius “Fighting Marine” in a rematch, much like Joshua did against Usyk. Tunney then boxed the limited but game Tom Heeney and retired. The rest of his heavyweight career was spent beating great middleweights like Harry Greb and limited losing-streak gatekeepers like Charley Weinert and Martin Burke. One thing that must be noted is that Tunney is matching men who are smaller than Usyk’s cruiserweight opposition to his heavyweight credit. Men like Mairis Briedis and Murat Gassiev would have been big men in Tunney’s era, but they aren’t counted towards heavyweight legacy for the Ukrainian – either would constitute Tunney’s second-best heavyweight scalp, I think. Tunney’s wider resume does not necessarily include fighters who compare that favourably even to Dereck Chisora or Chaz Witherspoon, the men who make up Usyk’s second layer of opposition.

The point is, Tunney was made a legend for defeating a champion. Both Fury and Joshua were active, physically enormous fighters that Usyk simply unmanned with a type of genius Gene Tunney would have stood to applaud. Tunney appended to his light-heavyweight career the important part of a heavyweight career – the part where you fight and beat the champion, and it has made him a stalwart of heavyweight history. This, Usyk too has achieved, but I have been more impressed with Usyk’s summit than Tunney’s. To be direct: Usyk should rate higher at heavyweight than Tunney.

What that means is that the top twenty at heavyweight is the minimum Usyk can expect from history’s eye should he retire undefeated. In such a case, I would place Usyk in this sort of company:

18 – Ezzard Charles

19 – Oleksandr Usyk

20 – Jersey Joe Walcott

21 – James J Corbett

22 – Peter Jackson

23 – Ken Norton

24 – Max Schmeling

25 – Vitali Klitschko

26 – Riddick Bowe

27 – Gene Tunney

Also illustrative of a point is Tunney’s career pre-heavyweight. Tunney, every bit as brilliant as Usyk in the ring (although notably smaller, and successful against notably smaller opposition), laced up his gloves on close to ninety occasions and his level of competition dwarfs that of Usyk. That is no indictment. All it really means is that Usyk isn’t among the thirty greatest fighters ever to have drawn breath, like Tunney is. He can join an enormous and star-studded cast that includes Mike Tyson, Bernard Hopkins and Carlos Monzon in that. I do think, though, that Oleksandr Usyk’s career, were it to end tomorrow, could be readily compared to that of Evander Holyfield and that means that an unbeaten Usyk, lineal cruiserweight and heavyweight champion of the world, current pound-for-pound king, is within spitting distance of a list that captures the fifty greatest fighters in history.

56 – Ruben Olivares

57 – Wilfredo Gomez

58 – Vicente Saldivar

59 – Oleksandr Usyk

60 – Evander Holyfield

61 – Ted Kid Lewis

62 – Lou Ambers

63 – Rocky Marciano

64 – Abe Attell

65 – Manuel Ortiz

A retired Naoya Inoue would join him in the top seventy, I think, and a retired Bud Crawford the top ninety.

Boxing is dead, haven’t you heard?

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank

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Another Victory for Ukraine as Berinchyk Upsets Navarrete in San Diego

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Whether it was inspiration or perspiration, Ukraine’s Denys Berinchyk motored past Mexico’s Emanuel Navarrete by split decision to become the WBO lightweight world titlist on Saturday.

Just hours after his fellow countryman Oleksandr Usyk became undisputed heavyweight world champion, Berinchyk joined the club.

“This is a great night for all people of Ukraine,” Berinchyk said.

The undefeated Ukrainian Berinchyk (19-0, 9 KOs) gutted out a win over Navarrete (38-2-1, 31 KOs) who was attempting to join Mexico’s four-division world champion club in San Diego. The lanky fighter known as “Vaquero” fell a little short.

Through all 12 rounds neither fighter was able to dominate and neither was able to score a knockdown. Just when it seemed one fighter gathered enough momentum, the other fighter would rally.

A butt caused a slight cut on Navarrete in the 10th round. That seemed to ignite anger from the Mexican fighter and he powered through the Ukrainian fighter the next two rounds.

In the final round Berinchyk bore down and slugged it out with the Mexican fighter as both relied on their weapons of choice. For most of the night Navarrete scored with long-range uppercuts and Berinchyk scored with overhand rights.

After 12 rounds two judges scored it 115-113, 116-112 for Berinchyk and one 116-112 for Navarrete. Ukraine gained its third world titlist in one a week. Berinchyk joins Usyk and Vasyl Lomachenko as world titlists.

“He’s a very tough guy,” said Berinchyk of Navarrete.

Welterweights

A battle between undefeated welterweights saw Brian Norman (26-0, 20 KOs) knock out Giovany Santillan (32-1, 17 KOs) in the 10th round to become the interim WBO titlist.

For nine rounds both welterweights engaged in brutal inside warfare as each tried to beat the sense out of each other.

Norman worked the body early as Santillan targeted the head. Neither fought more than two inches from each other.

The younger Norman, 23, connected with a right cross during an exchange that wobbled Santillan in the eighth round. From that point on the Georgia fighter began setting up for his power shots. Finally, in the 10th round, uppercuts dropped Santillan twice. In the second knockdown Santillan went down hard as referee Ray Corona stopped the fight immediately at 1:33 of the 10th round.

Other Bouts

Heavyweight Richard Torrez (10-0, 10 KOs) knocked out Brandon Moore (14-1) in the fifth round for a regional title.

Lightweight Alan Garcia (10-0) defeated Wilfredo Flores (10-3-1) by decision after eight.

Photo credit: German Villasenor

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UNDISPUTED ! – Usyk Defeats Fury ! – Plus Undercard Results from Riyadh

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The most ballyhooed fight of the young century played out today at Riyadh Arena in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where Ukraine’s amazing Oleksandr Usyk became an undisputed world champion in a second weight class with a split decision over WBC and lineal heavyweight champion Tyson Fury.

This was a memorable fight with twists and turns. Usyk had some good moments early, but the middle rounds belonged to the Gypsy King. Heading into the second half of the bout, the old saying that a good big man will always beat a good little man, appeared to be holding up once again. Fury was having good success working the body as his trainer SugarHill Steward exhorted him to do, and when he went upstairs, he rattled Usyk, notably in round five when a big uppercut appeared to lift the Ukrainian off his feet. But Usyk finished round seven strong, a prelude of what was to come.

Usyk plainly won round eight and in round nine, he came within a whisper of ending it. A flurry of punches sent Fury reeling. He crashed into the ring ropes which dictated a standing-8 count from referee Mark Nelson. If Nelson had waited a few more seconds, he would have likely waved the fight off as Fury was on queer street. But this dramatic turnaround came late in the round and the Gypsy King was saved by the bell.

Among other things, Tyson Fury is known for his amazing powers of recuperation. He not only stayed the course, but appeared to win the final round. But in the end, Oleksandr Usyk, now 22-0 (14) saddled Fury (34-1-1) with his first defeat. Two of the judges favored him (115-112, 114-113) with the dissenter scoring it for Fury 114-113.

A draw wouldn’t have caused much of a stink and now they will do it again. The sequel is tentatively scheduled for October. Both are getting a little long in the tooth – Usyk is 37 and Fury is 35 – so we will be surprised if the rematch lives up to the hype.

Semi-wind-up

The first encounter between Jai Opetaia and Mairis Briedis was a grueling fight. Opetaia, an Australian Olympian at age 16, won the battle (a fair decision) but yet took the worst of it. Early in that bout, he had his jaw fractured in two places and for the next two months was forced to eat out of a straw.

The rematch tonight in Riyadh was a monotonous fight through the first nine rounds. Briedis, now 39 years old and inactive since their first meeting, looked old and rusty. But the fight heated up in round 10 and the championship rounds belonged to the Latvian.

It came too little, too late, however, as Briedis needed a knockout to win. At the conclusion, the judges favored the Aussie by scores of 117-111 and 116-112 twice.

Opetaia, 28, improved to 25-0 (19).  Briedis, who has defeated everyone that he has fought with the exceptions of Opetaia and Oleksandr Usyk (and the Usyk fight was close) falls to 28-3.

The first fight between Opetaia and Briedis was for the IBF cruiserweight title. Tonight’s match is for the vacant IBF cruiserweight title (don’t ask).

Cordina-Cacace

In a major upset, Belfast’s Anthony Cacace, a 12-year pro, captured the IBF 130-pound world title with a seventh-round stoppage of previously undefeated Joe Cordina who went to post a consensus 7/1 favorite. The end came 39 seconds into round seven with Cacace pummeling Cordina against the ropes.

The Irishman was the busier fighter and landed the harder punches, but the bout was not without controversy. In the third frame, Cacace stunned Cordina with a punch that landed after the referee ordered the fighters to break. That put Cordina on the defensive and before the round was over, Cacace put him on the canvas with a wicked uppercut and Cordina, badly hurt, barely survived the round. Cacace (22-1, 8 KOs) had a big sixth round and closed the show in the next stanza.

Cordina, a 2016 Olympian who was undefeated in 17 pro fights heading in, is a close friend and frequent workout partner of Lauren Price who captured the WBC female welterweight title last week. She now stands alone as the only current world champion from Wales.

Kabayel-Sanchez

In a mild upset, Agit Kabayel continued his late career surge with a seventh-round KO of previously undefeated Frank Sanchez. As was the case in his last fight when he upset Arslanbek Makhmudov, Kabayel (25-0, 17 KOs) finished his opponent with body punches. A left-right combination knocked Sanchez to his knees and then, after Sanchez got to his feet, a straight right to the belly sent him down again and he wasn’t able to beat the count.

Sanchez, who was 24-0 heading in, entered the bout with a brace over his right knee that compromised his mobility. Kabayel, the aggressor throughout, was comfortably ahead at the time of the stoppage. The official time was 2:23 of round seven.

Kovalev-Safar

In a dull 10-rounder, unsung Robin Safar, a Swedish-born fighter of Kurdish descent, may have written the finish for the career of Sergey Kovalev. At age 41 in his second fight as a cruiserweight and coming off a two-year layoff, the “Krusher” was a pale imitation of the fighter that won nine straight light heavyweight title fights before losing a controversial decision to Andre Ward in their first encounter.

Safar, who improved to 17-0 (12) punctuated his triumph by knocking down Kovalev (35-5-1) with a big right hand inside the final 10 seconds of the final round. The judges had it 99-90, 97-92, and 95-94.

Two early fights ended in early knockouts.

Moses Itauma, a 19-year-old, six-foot-six southpaw who was raised in London by a Nigerian father and a Slovakian mother, stopped Ilya Mezercev at the 50-second mark of the second round. Mezercev made it to his feet after being decked with a big right hook, but his legs were jelly and the fight was waved off.

Trained by Ben Davison, Itauma (9-0, 7 KOs) has been hailed as the next Anthony Joshua. As an amateur, he was reportedly 24-0. Mezercev, a Germany-based Kazkh, declined to 25-9.

British lightweight Mark “Thunder” Chamberlain (16-0, 12 KOs) looked sensational while blasting out Joshua Oluwaseun Wahab in the opening stanza. Chamberlain had Wahab (23-2) on the deck twice before the bout was waived off at the 2:42 mark.

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