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Leon Spinks, Dead at 67, Fell Far and Fast After Shocking Muhammad Ali

Bernard Fernandez

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No one could ever confuse former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks, who on Friday night finally succumbed to the multiple cancers that for several years had been slowly devouring his internal organs, with handsome film star Robert Redford. But achieving a seemingly impossible goal, in real life for “Neon Leon” and on the silver screen for Redford, does suggest a possible link.

It is one thing to fulfill a dream few thought possible. It is quite another, once the dream becomes reality, to enjoy the tsunami of attention that can make a sudden and unprepared star a sort of Cinderella in reverse. In 1972’s The Candidate, Redford portrayed a young and ambitious senatorial nominee who, against all odds, wins election. In the final scene, he slips out of the victory party to be alone with his thoughts. Upon being joined by his campaign adviser who tells him he has to come back to meet with a throng of journalists, the stunned new senator-elect asks, “What do we do now?”

Leon Spinks, who someday would shock the world by upsetting the great Muhammad Ali, launched his longest-of-long-shots plan to become heavyweight champion when, at age 13 and constantly picked on by older boys in St. Louis’ notorious Pruitt-Igoe housing project, he heeded the advice of a Teamster official named Mitt Barnes to take up boxing as a means of better defending himself on the street. The oldest of seven kids (six sons and a daughter) raised by his mother Kay after the father had left home, Leon proved a quick study in the pugilistic arts, if not academically. A dropout midway through his junior year of high school, he became a father at 17, enlisted in the Marine Corps at 19, and by the time his service hitch ended had won 178 of 185 amateur bouts and was fast-tracked for eventual success as a pro.  He was a bronze medalist at the inaugural 1974 World Championships, a silver medalist at the 1975 Pan American Games and then a light heavyweight gold medalist at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, at which his younger brother Michael also took gold as a middleweight.

In 1994, Michael, who would go on to win both light heavyweight and heavyweight titles as a pro, recalled how he frequently got the worst of it in sparring sessions with his older brother, until the day when he proved to himself that he at least had significantly narrowed the gap between them.

“It was back in St. Louis, in the early ’70s,” Michael said. “Me and Leon were passing by this gym, somewhere we’d never been in before. Leon said, `Hey, let’s check this place out.’ There was a ring in there, and Leon found a couple of pairs of gloves. We pulled them on and went at it for three rounds.

“I couldn’t believe I was actually winning. You have to understand, Leon had always beaten the dog out of me. He always beat the dog out of everybody. Leon was the man in those days. There wasn’t anybody who could beat Leon. There wasn’t even anybody who could last three rounds with him. He used to beat me up so bad, I’d cry. He beat me like we weren’t even brothers. But he was trying to help me, in his own way. He’d say, `Mike, I know I take it hard on you, but if I took it any easier, you wouldn’t learn anything.’

“I threw off the gloves and said, `Hey, man, I beat your ass. I got you.’ And that was it. We never sparred again. Looking back, that might have been my proudest moment in boxing. I figured if I could do that well against Leon, I could hold my own against anybody. From that point on, I was a completely different fighter. I had confidence in myself.”

Maybe Michael was even as confident in his ring abilities as was Leon, who wangled a lucrative contract with Top Rank after the Montreal Olympiad while Michael went back to his old job as a janitor at a St. Louis chemical plant, where his duties included, as one co-worker later observed, “scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets.”

For Michael, who later joined Leon in the Top Rank fold, his star turn as a pro would come later. It arrived startingly soon for Leon, who, with just seven pro fights (6-0-1, 5 KOs), was tapped to challenge WBC/WBA champ Ali on Sept. 15, 1978, at the Las Vegas Hilton. Virtually no one gave Leon much chance to even be competitive, much less win, but the 24-year-old underdog believed he had a fight plan to get the job done, one previously authored against Ali by Joe Frazier.

“I watched him fight Joe Frazier, and I knew then I had to give him pressure like he’d never seen before,” Leon said of the punches-in-bunches he intended to throw at Ali, then 36 and as overconfident as Spinks was hopeful. “By the time I got to Ali, I knew how to beat him before I ever fought him. Then I learned the pressure of being champion.”

The shocking split decision for Spinks, accomplished before just 5,298 paying spectators, did not appreciably diminish the star power of Ali, but it made the victor an instant sensation. It also changed his life and career in ways he could not have anticipated, both good and, even more obviously as it turned out, bad. Being the new heavyweight champion and conqueror of arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time had the same effect on Leon, even more so, in fact, than winning an election he never thought he could, had on Redford’s fictional character six years earlier.

In quick order, the WBC stripped Spinks of its version of the title for declining to fulfill a mandatory defense against Ken Norton in favor of a much-better-paying, much-higher-visibility rematch with Ali, who was determined not to make the same mistakes he had made the first time around. Guys from Leon’s St. Louis neighborhood and hordes of other aspiring hangers-on sought to gain the champ’s ear, and in many instances did.

The do-over was scheduled for Sept. 15, 1978, in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, the lead-up to which was a spectacle of excess to rival Mardi Gras. Some 63,350 fight fans packed the arena, among them such celebrities as Sylvester Stallone, John Travolta, Jackie Onassis, Liza Minnelli, Jerry Lewis, Telly Savalas, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge and Lily Tomlin.

It was hoopla to an extent that Ali, as much as any boxer ever, could handle in stride. Not so for Spinks, who even before arriving at the fight site had demonstrated that he was crumbling under the demands of his newfound notoriety.

The late Butch Lewis, who promoted both Spinks brothers, recalled how Leon disappeared for days at a time when he should have been in the gym and focusing on the task at hand. Rumors flew that he was pub-crawling not in the comparative safety of the French Quarter, but in dives in crime-infested neighborhoods that even the local police were hesitant to go into.

“He was drunk every night he was there,” disgusted Top Rank founder Bob Arum said of Leon’s hard-partying ways. “Leon went to places our people didn’t dare go to. I’m surprised he didn’t wind up with a knife stuck in him.”

The shenanigans weren’t so amusing to highly regarded Philadelphia trainer Georgie Benton, who had been brought in to plot Leon’s strategy for the first fight and stayed on for the second, ostensibly in conjunction with lead trainer Sam Solomon. But Benton and Solomon seldom agreed on anything, and then there was the matter of Leon’s 70-member entourage, all of whom figured they merited a spot in his corner on fight night.

Shortly before the fight, Solomon told Benton that Spinks’ small army of would-be advisers would take turns working in his corner. “Sam said, `You go up one round and work and then Leon’s brother (Michael) can go up one round,’” Benton said of a mob scene unlike any seen for a fight of that magnitude. Benton’s frustration increased until, after the sixth round, he simply walked away, out of the Superdome and into the night.

“It was a zoo,” he would say later. “It was like watching your baby drown. There was nothing you could do about it. I had no more control of the guy. I was useless. All I could do was get the hell out of there.”

The unanimous decision for Ali – by margins of 11-4 and 10-4-1 (twice) in rounds – was a foregone conclusion, and pretty much evident to everyone early on. Ali was back on top, a king re-crowned, and Leon Spinks was generally dismissed as a one-hit wonder that never should have enjoyed even a temporary stay in his sport’s throne room.

“I don’t think Leon Spinks will ever fight again,” a miffed Arum said after the fight. “It’s only my opinion, but I don’t think so. He doesn’t like to fight, he doesn’t like to train. He was drunk about every night down here. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to get him back into a gym.

“He has money and he doesn’t have to go back (to boxing). To tell you the truth, I think down deep he’s glad that he lost that title. He is a simple guy. He doesn’t need the lifestyle of Muhammad Ali. Leon Spinks’ money will last a long time. He doesn’t live like Muhammad Ali.”

Well, Spinks’ career ring earnings – pegged at $5 million, with $3.75 million for the second Ali fight – didn’t last as long as Arum had predicted. Nor did Leon slip away from the fight game, never to be seen or heard from again; he did get another shot at the heavyweight title, losing on a third-round TKO to Larry Holmes on June 12, 1981, and then on a sixth-round stoppage to WBA cruiserweight ruler Dwight Muhammad Qawi on March 22, 1986. His final bout, an eight-round points loss to Fred Houpe on Dec. 4, 1995, left him with a record of 26-17-3, with 14 KO victories and nine defeats inside the distance. The only boxing Hall of Fame in which he is enshrined is Nevada’s. Michael, on the other hand, was 31-1 (21) as a pro, along the way becoming a multimillionaire and first-ballot inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1994.

“I know I could have made Leon upwards of $50 million if he had disciplined himself doing the right thing for four or five years,” said Butch Lewis, who died in 2011.

After his boxing career ended, Leon lingered on the fringes of combat sports. For someone who had outhustled and defeated a legend like Ali, it had to hurt his fans to see him go into a ring with a wrestler named the Mighty Wojo who lifted him up and threw him onto a cold concrete floor. He capitalized on what remained of his celebrity status here and there, including a gig as a greeter at Mike Ditka’s restaurant in Chicago.

“I have no regrets,” Spinks, his voice a bit slurred, said during his time at Ditka’s restaurant. “I had my good times. I won a gold medal. I won the heavyweight title. I reached as high a point in sports as I could.”

And if he had to do it all over again, what changes would he make?

“People pull you here, they pull you there,” he said of his hectic seven-month title reign. “I was not the type who trusted people right away. I was trying to take care of my business and box, too. You can’t do two things at one time. It was my downfall. When I did start to trust people, they took advantage of me. I found myself with a bunch of people around me I didn’t even know. They had me running in the fast lane.”

Leon was able to find some domestic happiness with wife Brenda Glur Spinks, whom he married in Las Vegas on Oct. 9, 2011. She was by his side when he passed away, but because of COVID-19 restrictions only a few close friends and family members – including his son Cory, who won versions of the welterweight and junior middleweight title — were present.

He remained upbeat even as his medical issues worsened. In 2014 he suffered intestinal damage and was hospitalized after swallowing a piece of chicken bone, which led to multiple surgeries. Then, in mid-December of last year, the TMZ gossip site reported he was in a Las Vegas hospital and “reportedly fighting for his life.” The prostate cancer he had been diagnosed with had spread to his bladder, assuring an outcome as certainly negative as his defense against Ali had been. But he fought as he could, for as long as he could, and that is in and of itself a testament to what had once made him special.

Rest in peace, Leon. So many fighters, good ones, have never known the exhilaration of being an Olympic gold medalist, or a heavyweight champion of the world.

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. In December of 2019, 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. Last year, Fernandez’s anthology, “Championship Rounds,” was released by RKMA Publishing.

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From the Desert, Jack Dempsey

Matt McGrain

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Jack Dempsey, who has been matched by Jack Goodfriend to fight at the Hippodrome Monday, May 31 is expected to arrive from Reno within a day or two.  The match will be a ten round contest and preceded by a couple of good preliminaries. (The Goldfield News, May 22nd, 1915.)

In May of 1915 Jack Dempsey found himself trapped in Nevada and between purses. Fifty miles from his payday with no rail to ride, he walked out of the desert and into Goldfield, stuck the bewildered promoter for an advance and hired a sparring partner, knocked the sparring partner out and hired another.

Walking in ninety-five-degree weather can be dangerous for even an experienced athlete, but it seemed to agree with Jack. He had marched into Goldfield to meet a light-heavyweight named Johnny Sudenberg, a game but limited battler who had for the first time strung a decent run of wins together, all of them fought in the desert Dempsey travailed on foot. Dempsey had scored a series of knockout wins in Salt Lake City, enough that his name was known and interest in his proposed match with the local man stoked.

“Jack Dempsey, the husky Pueblo middleweight, who will meet Johnny Sudenberg at the Hippodrome next Monday night in a ten round bout arrived in camp this morning,” reported regional press. “Several local men have seen Dempsey in action…and all [are] united in the prediction that Johnny had better be ‘right’ when he crawls through the ropes.”

It speaks of boxing’s burgeoning’s status in the United States that there were two gymnasiums in Goldfield capable of staging training. Dempsey worked out at the Unity Club, little more than a middleweight, perhaps not least because of his fifty-mile travail through the desert earlier that week. He boxed a local footnote named Dick Trounce and he may also have boxed some rounds with the world class bantamweight Roy Moore.

Sudenberg, stung by assertions that it was Dempsey, not he, who was the puncher in the fight, bristled and demanded of himself a knockout while training down the street in the Northern Gymnasium.

There is a divergence now between Dempsey’s recollection of the fight and the newspaper reporting of the day. Before the fight, although he may have shared a ring with Jack Dempsey, not known for his tender attentions of even much smaller sparring partners, Roy Moore advised his sparring partner to steer clear. “Don’t slug with Sudenberg.  He’s awful strong. Stay away from him.”

Dempsey claims to have dismissed this advice, telling Roger Kahn, author of A Flame of Pure Fire, that the match was a brutal slugfest from the first. Local press though reported on a fight that was marked by cautious sparring early, and that after “feeling each other out” for two rounds that Dempsey dominated, it was Sudenberg who changed the pattern and “owing to the greater height and reach” Dempsey possessed, brought the fight to the inside. A fine battle resulted and one that saw Dempsey descend into total chaos for the first time, a feeling that would become as familiar to him as slipping on a pair of old shoes.

“I just kept swinging. Sometimes I think I saw a face in front of me, sometimes I didn’t. I kept swinging.”

Dempsey claimed he could remember nothing after the fifth.

A rematch was not immediately slated, but the failure of a potential Sudenberg opponent to deliver on a sidebet let Dempsey back in just days later. Dempsey moved a bit further north with the purses, his second battle with Sudenberg staged in Tonopah. Still years from the three-ringed circus his career would become, there was interest surrounding the young scrapper who trained for the fight in the town’s casino. Tonopah was a young but bustling setting, festooned with banks and lawyers and saloons as money poured in from Nevada’s second largest silver strike. By 1920 they had pulled $121m out of the ground and Dempsey was there to pull out his own piece.

“A great many were dissatisfied with the decision last Monday,” wrote the Tonopah Daily upon the fight’s announcement. “Dempsey gave Sudenberg the best fight he has had in this part of the country.”

Sudenberg, who seems to have been a prickly character, held the power in his relationship with Dempsey and so clearly backed himself to win a rematch. A fascinating aspect of the fight is their respective sizes. Dempsey was referred to as a middleweight in the earliest dispatches surrounding the fight, but in the ring made an impression upon ringsiders as the bigger man. Taller, rangier, it is possible he was already the heavier of the two or it may be that his trek through the surrounding desert left an early impression of litheness which slipped away as Dempsey, holding cash, boxed and ate his way to a size advantage during the build-up. The Goldfield News described him upon entering the ring for the rematch as looking “more like an overgrown schoolboy than a fighter” as he stepped on the canvas before noting wryly that he “proved otherwise.”

The fight quite literally drew from miles around, with “Goldfield well represented at ringside” and “eight to ten auto loads” appearing from nearby mines. Dempsey grabbed their attention early, a man you will recognise, coming out of his corner like a rocket and deploying what the Tonopah Daily Bonanza named “Dempsey’s mass attack,” presumably an early incarnation of the terrible beating he would inflict upon Jess Willard in Toledo with the world’s title at stake. Indeed, Sudenberg does appear to have visited the canvas in that first round, but Dempsey, over-eager, under-seasoned, missed with key punches following up his advantage and the canny Sudenberg survived a round of murderous intent.

Papers also report the use of straight punches by Dempsey, that he preferred range and looked to that superior range to dominate. Early Dempsey contests fascinate me in that they repeatedly throw up this story, of a fighter who at just 6’1 was able to dominate most of the desert’s pugs with height and reach. Here he plays the role that would later be played by Willard, Carl Morris and Fred Fulton, longer men trying to control the range while Dempsey tormented them with slips and punches.  Here it was Sudenberg who in the third and fourth seemed to do something of a job, getting inside and hitting to the belly while the two accused each other of low blows.

Dempsey is a victim of some criticism over his own use of low blows, alleged or otherwise, in huge fights with Tommy Gibbons and Jack Sharkey. It should be remembered always that he learned his trade in spots like Tonopah and Goldfield where local referees were not sympathetic to pleas for justice to be dispensed. Dempsey fought like a fistic savage because he was raised as one.

After just four rounds in Tonopah, he was tired, feeling the effects of a difficult month and a fast fight. “Dempsey takes punishment well and ducks cleverly,” noted The Bonanza, while The News saw Dempsey holding on a good deal more in the second half of the fight.

By round eight, Sudenberg began to show the effects of Dempsey’s right hand which he worked “like a sledgehammer” while Sudenberg “lands heavily on Dempsey’s digestive apparatus.” At the final bell the two worked one another mercilessly in search of the decision, but they were greeted by a draw.

Under a more modern ruleset I suspect that Dempsey would have received the nod. He crushed Sudenberg in the early part of the fight and more than matched him late, but with the referee acting as a single judge, draws in fights where a winner was not inarguably apparent were common.  Fighters expected it and pressmen expected it, which is perhaps why some of those in attendance saw the result as eminently reasonable. Dempsey clearly landed the better shots, but Sudenberg was rewarded for his gameness in “carrying the fight” a tenet of the era.

Dempsey had impressed though. “In Dempsey, who gives the promise of developing into a heavyweight,” stated The News, “there is room for a world of improvement, and with the experience he will gain during the next few years he should make a formidable opponent for any scrapper.”

Portentous words.

When Dempsey left Tonopah – history does not record whether he walked out – he was mere days from his twentieth birthday, an overgrown schoolboy appearing on the good end of draws against older, more experienced men, already determined to become heavyweight champion, already of the belief he would become one. History tells of a third fight between he and Sudenberg the following February, a more mature Dempsey thrashing a cowed Sudenberg in two rounds.

I spoke to Dempsey scholar and author of the outstanding In The Ring series, Adam Pollack. “Didn’t happen,” was his verdict.  “I am certain it didn’t take place.”

It is nice to have this one cleared up. Dempsey did not need to defeat Sudenberg to leave him behind. Dempsey, like any heavyweight champion has his obsessed fans – among them the men who developed a single thin thread concerning a third Sudenberg match and turned it into a truth that was reported in A Flame of Pure Fire and elsewhere – and obsessed haters, but there is no denying what he did. Irresistible and eternal, people will generate and propagate myths about Jack Dempsey for as long as there is fighting.

This story is about his beginnings – see the single-minded determination that saw him walk fifty miles through a desert? See the legendary fast start in the second fight? The mid-round sag that would lead Jack Johnson to label him a three-round fighter? His bending of the rules? Then again, what of his seeming determination to box against a smaller opponent? This was something he abandoned in time to avoid disaster against geniuses like Tommy Gibbons although it would not be enough to save his weary legs from Gene Tunney’s escape.

Dempsey’s matches with Sudenberg were his emergence from the desert in more ways than one.  They were where his pursuit in earnest of the world’s heavyweight title began. These were his first major steps outside of Salt Lake City where his ambitions were as penned as Sudenberg’s were in the desert; the defining series of an emergent Jack Dempsey.

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Jerry Forrest: When Heart Counts

Ted Sares

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While many Canelo fights end up in some fan’s memory bank, that probably won’t be the case given what occurred this past Saturday night in Miami. However, the show was salvaged by the entertaining heavyweight draw between China’s Zhilei “Big Bang” Zhang (22-0-1) and Jerry “Slugger” Forrest (26-4-1) on the undercard. This one had the fans up and roaring but for different reasons.

The 6’6” Zhang (with excellent amateur credentials) floored the American once in each of the first three rounds and the crowd sensed a stunning KO was on the way. But lo and behold, it didn’t come.

Then things began to change, subtle at first, as a determined Forrest survived the onslaught and began to fight back working well inside and landing shots both upstairs and to the body.

A Shift in Momentum

The momentum clearly changed in the fifth as Zhang used his body to lean on “Slugger” to tire him out, but in the process he didn’t mix and thereby lost rounds. Soon this strategy (albeit illegal) backfired and served to tire “Big Bang” more than Forrest and making matters worse for Zhang, he was deducted a point in the ninth by referee Frank Gentile for holding. (Given that he had been holding since the fifth round, the deduction was spot-on and could well have come earlier.)

Going into the last round, the fight seemed to be up for grabs and the fresher Forrest obliged as he landed crunching shots that had the fickle fans (are there any others?) now in is corner. He was actually chasing the gassed Chinese monster at the end and had the fight gone another minute, “Slugger” likely would have lived up to his moniker.

“For Jerry Forrest, this is a momentous result after a terrible start, and keeps him in the mix as a high-level gatekeeper, someone who will take on basically anyone and give it the effort. He’s a danger to prospects and mid-tier veterans alike,” wrote prominent boxing writer Scott Christ.

The scores were 95-93 Forrest and 93-93 twice for a majority draw. Zhang was lucky to keep his undefeated record intact.

Jerry Forrest showed a tremendous amount of heart. Hopefully, when folks look back at this card, Canelo’s blowout of Avni Yildirim won’t completely overshadow this entertaining heavyweight match.

(Note: Zhang was taken to a hospital for observation when his handlers noticed some concerning symptoms in the locker room after the fight. According to a published statement from Terry Lane of Lane Brothers Management, Zhang was found to be “suffering from anemia, high enzyme levels, and low-level renal failure, which may have been caused by severe dehydration. The good news is that all of his neurological signs are clear…Credit and respect to a game Jerry Forrest who battled back for a ten-round draw…Zhilei will be back.”)

Photo credit: Ed Mulholland / Matchroom

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com

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The Canelo-Yildirim Travesty was Another Smudge on ‘Mandatory’ Title Defenses

Arne K. Lang

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Canelo Alvarez’s rout of grossly overmatched Avni Yildirim has once again cast a harsh light on the “mandatory challenger” gambit employed by the sport’s world sanctioning bodies. Canelo successfully defended his WBC 168-pound belt this past Saturday in Miami when Yildirim’s corner pulled him out after only three rounds.

During the nine minutes of actual fighting, Yildirim was credited with landing only 11 punches, none of which appeared to have been launched with bad intentions. A person posting on a rival web site likened Yildirim’s woeful performance to that of Nate Robinson’s showing against Jake Paul. Another snarky poster said that faint-hearted Adrien Broner, by comparison, had the heart of a lion. True, the 29-year-old Turk was sent in against a beast, but one yet has a right to expect more from a contest packaged as a world title fight.

Yildirim was coming off a loss. In his previous fight, he lost a split decision to Anthony Dirrell in a bout that was stopped in the 10th round by the ringside physician because of a bad cut over Dirrell’s left eye that resulted from an accidental head butt. He hadn’t won a fight in three-and-a-half years, not since out-pointing 46-year-old Lolenga Mock who predictably faded late in the 12-round fight, enabling Yildirim to win a narrow decision. Earlier in his career, he was stopped in the third round by Chris Eubank Jr in a fight that was one-sided from the get-go.

So, how exactly did Avni Yildirim build himself into position to become the mandatory opponent for the sport’s top pound-for-pound fighter? Did he “earn” this opportunity and the rich payday that came with it by submitting the winning bid in an auction? Is that a rhetorical question?

In an ESPN Q & A, the award-winning writer Mark Kriegel said that Canelo-Yildirim was payback for certain favors that were granted to Canelo by the WBC, citing the organization’s new “Franchise Champion” category and to their decision to countenance Canelo’s fight with Callum Smith for their vacant 168-pound title. But this doesn’t answer the question as to how Yildirim ascended to the role of a mandatory challenger; it merely informs us why Canelo agreed to take the fight.

This was the second great mismatch in 10 weeks involving a mandatory challenger. On Dec. 18, Gennadiy Golovkin opposed Poland’s Kamil Szeremeta in the first defense of the IBF middleweight title that he won with a hard-earned decision over Sergiy Derevyanchenko. The feather-fisted Szeremeta was undefeated (21-0, 5 KOs) but hadn’t defeated an opponent with a recognizable name.

This was a stroll in the park for GGG. Szeremeta was a glutton for punishment – he lasted into the seventh round — but at no point in the fight did he pose a threat to the 38-year-old Kazakh. Golovkin knocked him down four times before the plug was pulled.

In theory, the “mandatory challenger” ruling forestalls the very abuses with which it has become identified. It prevents a champion from fighting a series of hapless opponents while a more worthy challenger is left out in the cold. One could say that it stands as an example of the law of unforeseen consequences, save that it would be naïve to think that the heads of the sanctioning bodies didn’t foresee this versatility and venally embrace it.

Historians will likely lump Avni Yildirim with such fighters of the past as Patrick Charpentier and Morrade Hakker who were accorded mandatory contender status by the WBC so that they could be fodder for a title-holder in a stay-busy fight. Charpentier was rucked into retirement by Oscar De La Hoya who dismissed the overmatched Frenchman in three one-sided rounds at El Paso in 1998. Hakker was thrown in against Bernard Hopkins at Philadelphia in 2003. He brought his bicycle with him, so to speak, and thus lasted into the eighth.

In common with Yildirim and a slew of other mandatory challengers (Vaughn Bean comes quickly to mind), Charpentier and Hakker had misleading records. Steve Kim, in an article for this publication, said that Hakker’s record was more inflated than the Goodyear blimp.

A mandatory title defense isn’t always a rip-off. One wonders where Tyson Fury would be career-wise today if the WBO hadn’t established the Gypsy King as the mandatory challenger to Wladimir Klitschko, setting the wheels in motion for a changing of the guard. That worked out well for the good of the sport as Fury, after some disconcerting speed bumps, would prove to be a breath of fresh air.

But a mandatory title defense between evenly-matched opponents remains a rarity and there’s no end in sight to the charade.

Photo credit: Ed Mulholland / Matchroom

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