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Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Seven Boxers Who Have Been Inactive Too Long

Arne K. Lang

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Professional boxers need to stay active for two reasons: (1) They have a short window to achieve their goals and leave the sport well-off financially, and (2) rest makes rust as my old friend Herb Lambeck, a prominent boxing oddsmaker, was wont to say. (MMA superstar Conor McGregor cited inactivity as a factor in his poor showing in his most recent fight. Prior to meeting Dustin Poirier, who knocked him out in the second round, McGregor had fought only two fights inside an octagon in the previous four years and one of those fights lasted only 30 seconds.)

Staying active during the COVID-19 era is a major challenge for many boxers. Listed below are seven who missed all of 2020 and who currently have nothing firmed-up for the immediate future. The seven are listed in descending order of inactivity.

Andrew Tabiti

Cruiserweight…Current Record: 17-1 (13 KOs), age 31

We last saw Tabiti on June 15, 2019. Yunier Dorticos was in the opposite corner. At stake was the IBF world cruiserweight title and a berth in the finals of the World Boxing Super Series cruiserweight tournament.

Dorticos, the Cuban “KO Doctor,” lived up to his nickname, knocking Tabiti from the ranks of the unbeaten in the 10th round with a smashing, one-punch knockout. The punch left Tabiti flat on his back, unconscious.

By now, Tabiti should have had at least one fight designed as a confidence-restorer, if not another high-risk assignment. Has he been sidelined by the coronavirus? Indirectly, yes. He trains at the Mayweather Gym in Las Vegas which has been closed for the better part of the last two months as a proactive measure to keep the virus away.

Rey Vargas

Featherweight…Current Record: 34-0, (22 KOs)…age 30

Vargas has been out of action since July 13, 2019, sidelined not by the coronavirus, but by an injury. Did he break his leg or his foot? And when did it happen? Reports are unclear, but it didn’t happen during the course of his most recent fight, a unanimous but yet unpopular decision over Tomoki Kameda in the fifth defense of his WBC 122-pound title. The organization would subsequently declare him “Champion in Recess” and then, more recently, make him the mandatory challenger for their featherweight title-holder Gary Russell Jr. Tall for his weight class, nearly 5’11”, it was inevitable that Vargas would eventually move up a notch.

Vargas left Golden Boy in January of last year and signed with PBC. There’s been no indication of when his fight with Russell may occur. The Russell brothers (it’s hard to tell them apart because they have the same first name) are never in a hurry to get back in the ring. Gary Russell Jr. has averaged one fight a year since 2015.

Keith Thurman

Welterweight…Current Record: 29-1 (22 KOs)…age 32

Thurman (pictured against PacMan) hasn’t fought since losing a split decision to the Filipino legend in July of 2019. Since that bout, he had surgery to correct an old hand injury. Hand and elbow injuries kept him out of the ring for 22 months following his victory over Danny Garcia in March of 2017 and prior to that he missed time with a neck injury suffered in a car accident.

Thurman hasn’t fallen completely off the radar. He has a following on social media and has served as a desk analyst for PBC boxing shows on FOX.

Keith Thurman “is one of the most beloved fighters in the world,” says a hammy FOX/PBC blurb promoting his TV work. “The welterweight division goes through Keith Thurman,” says Thurman.

Actually, it doesn’t. All the talk is about Errol Spence and Terence Crawford and when that megafight will finally get made. Thurman isn’t in that conversation. He called out Spence after Spence defeated Danny Garcia, but that “defi” created little buzz and Spence apparently has no inclination to fight him. Thurman would be wise to get back in the ring against any warm body just to remind people that he is still one of the top dogs in the welterweight division.

Marcus Browne

Light heavyweight…Current Record: 23-1 (16 KOs)…age 30

There are reports that there’s a fight in the works between Browne and 41-0 Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez, the former 168-pound world title-holder who is now campaigning as a light heavyweight. We will believe it when we see it.

We last saw the Staten Island southpaw in action on Aug. 3, 2019, when he suffered his first pro loss in a quirky bout with veteran Jean Pascal. Browne out-landed Pascal by a 2-to-1 margin, but suffered three knockdowns and the decision went against him by a 75-74 margin on all three cards after the bout was halted in the eighth frame following an unintentional head butt. With the upset, Pascal became a three-time light heavyweight title-holder.

Browne desperately wanted a rematch and thought it would happen early in 2020, but Pascal had other ideas. Meanwhile, Browne made news for all the wrong reasons. In March of 2020, he pleaded guilty in New Jersey to violating a protective order against an ex-girlfriend, the mother of one of his children. It was his fourth domestic violence incident.

Browne has some good wins on his ledger including a one-sided triumph over Badou Jack, but the former Olympian has yet to fulfill his promise and the sand is running out of the hourglass.

Kanat Islam

Middleweight…Current record: 27-0 (21 KOs)…age 36

Islam is an interesting specimen. An ethnic Kazakh, born in China, the two-time Olympian turned pro in the Dominican Republic and had several of his early bouts in Ecuador. He last fought on Oct. 26, 2019 in Kazakhstan.

It appeared that Islam was poised to become an important name in boxing when his contract was purchased by Egis Klimas in February of 2018 and he joined the camp of Vasyl Lomachenko in Oxnard, California. But a leg injury kept Islam out of action until July of the following year.

According to various reports, Islam was slated to return to the ring next month, but was forced to cancel the engagement because of unspecified health reasons. In Kazakhstan, he is getting his feet wet as a boxing promoter. We may have seen the last of him.

Diego De La Hoya

Super bantamweight…Current record: 22-1 (10 KOs)…age 26

Oscar De La Hoya’s cousin, Diego was ranked #3 in his weight class by the WBA heading into his contest with Ronny Rios in July of 2019. Rios stopped him in the sixth round. He returned to the ring five months later in his hometown of Mexicali and got back on the winning track with a 10-round unanimous decision over Venezuelan journeyman Renson Robles.

De La Hoya was having trouble making weight when he fought Rios and one suspects that he put on a lot of superfluous flesh in 2020. Mexicali, Mexico, has been especially hard hit by the pandemic. All of the boxing gyms were shut down in the spring and although they would reopen, they were shut down again and remain shuttered as we go to press. In fact, the mayor of Mexicali recently mandated a 6 p.m. curfew.

A former Mexican National Amateur champion, De La Hoya launched his pro career at age 19 at the MGM Grand. It figured that he would have roped in at least one secondary title by now, but that hasn’t happened and now he finds himself on the outside looking in.

Moruti Mthalane

Flyweight…Current Record: 39-2 (26 KOs)…age 38

The reigning IBF world flyweight champion, Mthalane has won 16 straight since getting stopped by Nonito Donaire way back in 2008. Ten of those 16 wins came in IBF title fights including stoppages of future champions Zolani Tete and John Riel Casimero.

Mthalane isn’t afraid to leave the comfort of his South African homeland. His last four fights were in Asia with the most recent coming in December of 2019. With a few more wins, he just may punch his ticket to the Boxing Hall of Fame, but at age 38, he’s running out of time and it doesn’t bode well that he missed all of 2020.

Mthalane, by all appearances, is marooned. South Africa is dealing with a second wave of COVID-19 infections. Gauteng Province, where Mthalane hangs his hat, is one of the hot spots. Travel in and out of the country is difficult. The Centers for Disease Control advises all Americans to avoid all travel to South Africa.

Photo credit: Ryan Hafey / PBC

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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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