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Ten Heavyweight Prospects: 2021 Catchup

Matt McGrain

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I started this series in 2018, selecting ten fascinating heavyweight prospects and committing to follow them until such time as they were eliminated or entered the Transnational Boxing Rankings and this time, we have a few.

The series was updated in the summer of 2019 and this entry was delayed due to the most severe of circumstances, the COVID-19 pandemic that prevented not just boxing but so many other aspects of life. It’s nice to be able to catch up with these men once again in what was a twenty months as incident-filled as the preceding twelve.

THE COLOSSUS: ARSLANBEK MAKHMUDOV

FROM: Russia HEIGHT: 6’5.5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 250lbs AGE: 31 RECORD: 11-0 with 11 KOs

The enormous Arslanbek Makhmudov has been out just three times since the summer of 2019, slow going in more ways than one. Yes, inactivity is a consequence of a global pandemic that has hampered more than the prospects of exciting boxing prospects, but the selection of Makhmudov’s opposition has remained stubbornly unambitious.

That looked momentarily set to change in September of 2019 when Julian Fernandez, then 14-1, stepped into Makhmudov’s ring. While Fernandez has certainly never beaten meaningful opposition, he had been in with meaningful opposition, stopped in two by Tom Schwartz the year before. Makhmudov, who was a clean clear winner in his usual impressive style, nevertheless for the first time came off worse in the meaningless comparisons so often thrust upon heavyweight prospects, in that he took three rounds to do what it had taken the much more experienced Schwartz just two rounds to do.

More than this, the response of collective fighting news was disinterest. The fight was neither widely reported upon nor remarked upon and nothing is more discouraging to a promotions team than that. Perhaps in an attempt to increase coverage of their prospect, promoter Camille Estephan took the well-trodden path of digging up the bones of a once notorious contender and lobbing them at his charge. Samuel Peter was the victim and Makhmudov (pictured) disposed of him in seconds. Though the fight succeeded in generating column inches, it also did nothing for Makhmudov’s learning curve.

Doubly disappointing then was his first pandemic-opponent, Dillon Carman. Having boxed even fewer rounds than Makhmudov in 2019, Carman was also coming off two quick stoppage losses. Of course, he was butchered in the first. Since, Makhmudov’s team have been calling for Joe Joyce, Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury.  That is exciting and in the case of Joyce might even be serious, though Joyce’s people will have little problem sidestepping Makhmudov, who is a massive-punching problem nobody needs. Hopefully Estephan and his team will take note of the wide open space between a fighter like Carman and a fighter like Joyce and act upon it, fast.

SIX NINE: IVAN DYCHKO

FROM: Kazakhstan HEIGHT: 6’9 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 245lbs AGE: 30 RECORD: 9-0 with 9 KOs

Ivan Dychko is in danger of becoming a cautionary tale.

Last time we discussed the towering Kazak he had failed in a seemingly serious campaign to replace the disgraced Jarrell Miller against Anthony Joshua based upon their amateur rivalry. Having missed the boat on that chance, grabbed so forcefully by Andy Ruiz, Dychko consoled himself by fighting someone named Nate Heaven.

Heaven, who retired in 2015 and has not won a meaningful fight since April of 2014, inexplicably unretired to absorb this beating, which he did, showing bravery all the while. Dychko looked organised and quick, heavy-handed and well-organised.

Since then: nothing.

Dychko has sparred with Wladimir Klitschko and Deontay Wilder, apparently without upset. He now seems to be hocking those wares to Tyson Fury. Meanwhile, he avoids the ring entirely. Dychko looks fabulous in training footage and is still spoken of highly by those who have worked with him, but that makes his inexplicable inactivity more, not less, frustrating. It should be remembered that Dychko spent eight months doing nothing before the pandemic hit and fought six rounds in twelve months before that. Dychko is a potentially splendid fighter going very much to waste.

THE QUIET ONE: DANIEL DUBOIS

FROM: Great Britain HEIGHT: 6’5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 239lbs AGE: 23 RECORD: 15-1 with 14 KOs

Great Britain continues to deliver on meaningful clashes between heavyweight prospects and the past eighteen months has delivered something of a blockbuster in the shape of Daniel Dubois versus Joe Joyce.

The reason the world is more likely to contain Dychko or Makhumudov than Joyce or Dubois could not be illustrated more keenly than it is by the fallout from this fight. Dubois has been routed by both social media and boxing reporters, very much along the lines of “did he quit?” and “was he exposed?”

But when two prospects meet, of course, some shortcomings and some failings are to be revealed.  By very definition, a prospect is not a finished article. It is true, also, that there was something depressing about Daniel’s apparent inability to defend a wounded eye that came to define his fight as he was jabbed into literal submission by a tougher, technically superior, much more experienced, older boxer. Worse was that he seemed so under-prepared for a potential change in the manner in which he might defend himself. His failings were not entirely his own.

Still, aged just twenty-three and with his heavy hands confirmed by fourteen knockouts, Dubois has plenty to rebuild with, most of all keeping in mind that his hands are just tools and his plans in the ring are mostly there to be disrupted. Watching him explain openly and honestly his decision to “take the knee” despite a clear understanding of the unfortunate cultural associations with our sport that has developed around any notion of surrender has been heartening and frankly impressed me.

Perhaps this a young man who actually will “learn from a defeat” rather than merely paying it lip service. It is that opportunity and where it might lead him that convinced me to leave him on this list, and we will drop in on him next February to see what has occurred.

THE BRUTE: SERGEY KUZMIN

FROM: Russia HEIGHT: 6’3.5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 245lbs AGE: 33 RECORD: 15-2 with 11 KOs

Last time we spoke of Sergey Kuzmin he was 15-0; this time he is 15-2. I’ll avoid platitudes such as “it’s a long road back for the thirty-three-year-old” on this occasion and just state Kuzmin will never be champion.

The scene for his downfall straddled the continents and boxing history as he was found wanting first in the immortal Madison Square Gardens, New York, and then Wembley, London. Tough to the last, Kuzmin was stopped by neither Michael Hunter, who he met in America, nor Martin Bakole, who he met in Great Britain. On each occasion though, he was thoroughly beaten.

His Waterloo came in the fifth against Hunter. Hunter, who had been making all the running, flashed Kuzmin in the fifth with an unexpected cannonball left. Generous onlookers may have found two rounds for the Russian but it was clear he did not belong in the ring with a fighter as good as Hunter. As if to prove it, he took a step down in his next contest against Bakole. Looking fleshy and tentative, Kuzmin dropped a clear and drab decision.

Boxing isn’t kind and it was possible to feel the world’s interest wane during the Bakole fight, or at least that part of the world that remained interested up until that point. Kuzmin tried to take control in the second round, got hit and seemed cowed. He has proved a disappointment; I predicted he would get as far as a legitimate heavyweight ranking. He did not get there, and it seems unlikely now he ever will. Either way, he passes from the realm of prospect to that of gatekeeper and will not figure on our prospect list this time next year.

THE AMERICAN: DARMANI ROCK

FROM: USA HEIGHT: 6’5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 240lbs AGE: 24 RECORD: 17-1 with 12 KOs

If I hoped for a ranking for Kuzmin, I was less convinced by Darmani Rock, whose promotional team seemed either to be very smart or very dumb in the glacial way they moved the youngster along.  Still just twenty-four they could even have continued to make him wait – instead, they took the plunge and the result was a disaster.

Michael Polite Coffie, a fascinating 6’5 southpaw, prides himself on his ability to learn and his military record both, although his time in service prevented him applying learning to boxing until he was rather late in life. Arguably though, he had already achieved more in his eleven professional fights than Rock had in his seventeen. It showed. Coffie, ripped where Rock was flabby, showed the supposedly more experienced man more looks in the first than Rock mustered in the three short rounds the fight lasted. In the third, Rock rattled out of the corner and fired with real aggression having been out-hit through the first two rounds. It was an exciting moment for our prospect-watch, one where we were to learn about a man we were interested in. Instead, Rock revealed a jaw that was anything but as Coffie cleaned him out before a minute of the round had elapsed.

Rock’s moment of truth came and went; Coffie is interesting. If he continues to fight and goes unbeaten, perhaps we will even sneak him in here this time next year. At 34 I think the former Marine will be a little too late to the game though.

MY FAVOURITE: FILIP HRGOVIC

FROM: Croatia HEIGHT: 6’6 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 230lbs AGE: 26 RECORD: 12-0 with 10 KOs

“Technically proficient, quick of hand and thought, physically imposing and clearly in great shape,” I wrote of Filip Hrgovic in 2019, “[he] is confirmed as having everything he needs to be a champion in the heavyweight division except the important ones: chin and stamina. These still remain unconfirmed, although his adventures in the WSB suggest he owns a sturdy mandible at the very least.”

And that, pretty much, is where we still stand today. Hrgovic has been busy though, managing four outings, well above average for this list, it’s just that none of them really told us anything we don’t already know. He thrashed a molasses-like Mexican named Mario Heredia in August 2019, and turned in an impressive display. Using the left hand to open up opportunities for the right, Hrgovic scored with straights, bodyshots, narrowed it up to throw a short overhand on the inside, and most of all landed brutal uppercuts. Heredia was fearless but wilted under this attention. The brutally of those right hands escalated in the third and final round.

From here, Hrgovic went on to dispatch a wobbly Eric Molina in December, and also in three, before waiting out much of the pandemic and returning to the ring in September of 2020 against an ageing Greek with ten fights named Alexandre Kartozia, who offered even less resistance. In November he met the forty-year-old Rydell Booker and beat him up for an eye-watering five founds.

It’s not so much that his opposition is truly awful, more that you can’t shake the feeling that Arslanbek Makhmudov would have knocked them all over too – and in double quick time, too.  Either way, there is still an awful lot that is not known about Hrgovic that I would like to know before he fights for a title, which, to hear the fighter tell it, is imminent. Maybe Martin Bakole will tell us more. He has been chasing Hrgovic for a year now and seems convinced he can trouble him.

Either way, we won’t be hearing any more from Hrgovic in our prospect-watch; he breached the TBRB rankings in December of 2019.  He is a contender now, a prospect no more.

HAYMAKING: JOE JOYCE

FROM: Great Britain HEIGHT: 6’6 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 255lbs AGE: 35 RECORD: 12-0 with 11 KOs

“From the supposed pick of the crop in Hrgovic to the man who beat him.”

Yes indeed; but Joe Joyce needn’t rest on the laurels in earned back in his World Boxing Series any more. He arguably owns the best win of any of the fighters on this list.

Nor was he the betting favourite when he met Daniel Dubois late last year in a match that for the boxing-loyal, fight-starved British public was something of an event. Joyce, a rarity in that he feels even bigger in the ring than his listed stats, spent ten rounds doing essentially the same thing, pushing out hard straight punches to allow metronomic scoring while occasionally getting hit with harder punches, as in the second, where Dubois seemed ready to clean him out. But Joyce is hard; the science to that remark, such as it is, is only in that it is an observable fact. While Dubois lashed him, Joyce calmly continued to deploy himself and by the eighth, although Dubois was in touch on the cards, there was a sense of inevitability about the Joyce victory, which came via TKO in the tenth round.

Joyce is probably a little better than I credited him for, though I always figured him the fighter on this list most in a hurry; that urgency will continue as David Haye’s prodigy has now turned thirty-five.  Britain is stuffed with heavyweights currently. Joyce is now third among them, an enviable spot, one that is now seeing him hunted by names.

He is also wonderfully positioned for a shot at a strap, and if he can keep it right, he might even be positioned for the many millions a fight with the emergent victor from any Tyson Fury-Anthony Joshua series.

Either way, Joyce will no longer be labelled a prospect the next time we come around. He will be replaced by a new man next year.

THE PUB BOUNCER: NATHAN GORMAN

FROM: Great Britain HEIGHT: 6’3 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 250lbs AGE: 24 RECORD: 17-1 with 11 KOs

After the hurt that Joe Joyce put on him, it is forgotten that Daniel Dubois had previously won his own battle of the prospects, beating up Nathan Gorman in July of 2019.

“The Dubois fight is everything to Gorman,” I wrote in 2019. “There will be no unearned second coming should he lose, just a long and difficult slog back to where he is now followed by the real work…Gorman’s status next time we check in with him will be more dramatically affected by his next fight than every other man on this list.”

And so it was. Gorman was brave and he had certain but slight advantages that did nothing like enough to cover the distance in talent that lay between them. Cut in the second round, dropped in the third before being stopped in the fifth, he was clearly outmatched. Gorman will never be a legitimate contender to the world’s heavyweight champion.

That does not mean there isn’t money to be made and fights to be won. Gorman was back and winning late last year after a prolonged rest and goes again in March. Likeable and brave, Gorman remains on my watch list, for all that we won’t see him again on this list.

THE LITTLE GUY: OLEKSANDR USYK

FROM: Ukraine HEIGHT: 6’3 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 220lbs AGE: 34 RECORD: 18-0 with 13 KOs

Oleksander Usyk is another fighter to be removed from our heavyweight prospect list, but for different reasons; Usyk made the TBRB top ten and as such is no longer eligible. Usyk is stalking belts, not status.

I’ve followed Usyk since before the beginning of his professional career and written about him for years. During all those years I’ve been clear about one thing: he will grab himself a heavyweight strap. In truth, everything truly meaningful is tied up with Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua so while I continue to stand by my ancient prediction, it is likely to come now only in the most unsatisfactory of fashions, perhaps upgraded from some ridiculous interim alphabet belt to “full champion” when Joshua or Fury refuses to match him but rather rematches the other for tens of millions.

My other prediction – that Usyk is serious trouble for Joshua and all but chanceless against Fury – may be undone on all fronts by the passage of time. Usyk is thirty-four and like the rest of us, is getting no younger.

During the time between lists, Usyk has beaten up journeyman Chazz Witherspoon for a seventh- round stoppage and out-pointed gatekeeper Dereck Chisora in an interesting fight seen by many as his first true test at the poundage. In many ways, Usyk did it the old-fashioned way, for all that he served his “apprenticeship” as an all-time great cruiserweight. The next eighteen months will tell us whether or not he can achieve major status at heavyweight.

AT THE SCHOOL OF MANNY STEWARD: VLAD SIRENKO

FROM: Ukraine HEIGHT: 6’3.5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 243lbs AGE: 26 RECORD: 15-0 with 13 KOs

Vlad Sirenko’s most recent opponent was a 7-8-1 Ukranian named Kostiantyn Dovbyshchenko who has now lost five of the last six but who nevertheless rattled Sirenko in Kiev last December.

On the face of it, this seems a disaster, but of all the fighters on this list, Sirenko is the one most deserving of time. Aged just twenty-six and with little to speak of in terms of an amateur career, Sirenko’s 15-0 is real; as are the numbers, so is his experience.

Despite this, when Dovbyshchenko opened an irritating cut on his right brow in the fifth round, Sirenko did not panic. He stuck to a tidy-handed, neat boxing style that got him across the line over ten and gifted him something the likes of Makhmudov and Hrgovic have yet to receive: a genuine test of his temperament.

Still, the scores were not wide and although Dovbyshchenko was a little better than his paper record allows – neat, tidy and mobile, and never stopped – Sirenko’s limitations were underlined. He can hit, but his power isn’t darkening; he is organised, but he often waits his turn – he is busy but cannot counter or punch well enough to truly discourage his opponent. In short, well-schooled quality on technical punching is what won him this fight. That is honourable, but it is not what should be separating him from journeymen. If he is unable to overwhelm or at least control such limited opposition with physical advantages, heavyweight waters will likely be too deep.

Still, he speaks so well about boxing that I want to believe he can learn about boxing. Sirenko, who is not shy at sharing his opinions, predicted Joyce’s victory over Dubois with calm certainty having previously sparred with both. It is only one example, but every time I hear him speak in excellent English, I am impressed with what he has to say. Connections to Manny Steward disciple James Ali Bashir and therefore to the Oleksandr Usyk camp are other reasons to be hopeful.

As is Sirenko’s abandonment of his South African base and relocation to Germany, under the auspices of Maxim Michailew who has so far preferred him to box in his native Ukraine. He has also made Sirenko one of the busier prospects on this list and that, too, bodes well for the future.

Sirenko though remains the most interesting prospect here listed, which is another way of saying he has the most to prove.

THIS TIME NEXT YEAR

It was strange re-reading former entries in this series before writing this one. That I would be writing another a year later seemed a given and if 2020/21 has taught us anything it is that nothing should be taken for granted. None of us could imagine an event so overwhelming as to make an absence of boxing seem meaningless, but it happened.

It hurt the prospect more than any other kind of fighter; even the true journeyman will tend to have other sources of income. For an elite prospect who has devoted himself to boxing, the end of the fight game was a disaster. That said, the fight fan may prosper; it could be that a sudden and unplanned break might press some reluctant promoters, managers and boxers into action.

Hopefully we will be back in around a year to find out why.

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Reconfiguring the Championship Rounds: What if There’d Been 3 More or 3 Less?

Jeffrey Freeman

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The true championship distance is 15 rounds insisted Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. “I have a problem with guys who only had to go 12 and got into the Boxing Hall of Fame before guys who went 15. I lost against Alexis Arguello and Livingstone Bramble,” he said, “(but) I was winning after 12. So if it’s only 12 rounds, I’m undefeated! What would they say now if I beat those legends?”

Good question Good Son.

They’d say that Arguello folded you to a knee with a perfectly timed right cross at the very end of the 12th round and that had it been correctly ruled a knockdown, you’d have lost a 12-round decision to the defending WBC champion. They’d also say that Bramble got you in the rematch.

Still, the former lightweight champion from Youngstown, Ohio makes a fan friendly point that goes to the hypothetical heart of the ‘12 versus 15 rounds’ debate. How would boxing history be viewed differently if certain 15-round fights had been scheduled for 12 rounds and vice-versa?

Let’s look at 10 such fights and ask, what if?

Joe Louis KO 13 Billy Conn, 1941: Famously, the undersized underdog title challenger was ahead on two judges’ scorecards after 12 rounds and even on the third. If title bouts in the 40’s were 12-round affairs, the “Pittsburg Kid” might have danced off with Joe’s heavyweight championship of the world but no, he found out that you can run—but you cannot hide. Louis knocked Conn out in the 13th round and then again in the 8th round of their 1946 rematch.

Would three more rounds have made any difference for Anthony Joshua against Olesander Usyk last Saturday in Tottenham, U.K.? Far behind on two of three scorecards after 12, the real question is would AJ have had the stamina to go 15 and/or would Usyk have stopped him?

Rocky Marciano KO 13 Jersey Joe Walcott, 1952: Arguably the most important of all “come from behind” knockouts, the determined challenger from Brockton, Mass was down on all three judges’ scorecards after 12 rounds were complete in Philadelphia but unfortunately for Walcott, this was still the era of 15-round world title fights. What if Marciano-Walcott was only scheduled for 12 rounds? Rocky either loses a unanimous decision and never becomes world heavyweight champion or he adjusts to the shorter distance and gets Walcott out of there sooner like he did in the rematch, blowing Walcott away in just 2 minutes and 25 seconds.

Mike Weaver KO 15 John Tate, 1980: As WBA heavyweight champion, John Tate knew nothing of 12- round title fights. He beat Gerrie Coetzee via 15-round decision to claim the vacant title and his first defense against Mike Weaver was scheduled for 15. Knowing he was behind on the cards and that he stood no chance of winning the title by decision, “Hercules” Weaver flattened Tate in the 15th and final round for a memorable come from behind KO. What if this particular bout was scheduled for 12 rounds? Tate would have probably retained his title by decision and possibly gone on to defend against Muhammad Ali. It might’ve been Tate who put the final touches on Ali and retired him for good. Instead it was Trevor Berbick who did the job.

Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Thomas Hearns I & II, 1981—1989: When these welterweight champions first faced off in 1981, 15-round world title fights were still very much the norm in boxing. Ahead on points after 12 rounds, Hearns gave up the lead (and the superfight) by collapsing in the “true” championship rounds. Score it a TKO 14 for Sugar Ray Leonard. In the sequel eight years later, 12-round title fights were the new normal. Sugar Ray sure needed those three rounds back! If he’d had them, he might have chased a badly tiring Hearns out of the ring again for another “championship rounds” stoppage, instead he was saved by a Vegas draw while Hearns was arguably saved by the bell to end their rematch’s 12th and final round. The what if’s abound! In an alternate boxing universe, Hearns beat Leonard by decision in 1981 then gets knocked out in the 14th round of their 1989 rematch. What would they say now Ray?

Ray Mancini KO 14 Deuk Koo Kim, 1982: Widely credited with being the catalyst for the abolition of 15 round fights in boxing, Mancini-Kim was a “ring death” played out on national television. What if this WBA lightweight title fight was instead a 12-rounder? Mancini would still have kept his championship but perhaps Kim would still be alive. The worst of the abuse Kim absorbed from “Boom Boom” came in the 13th and 14th rounds of their “kill or be killed” war.

What if nobody had to die that day?

Marvin Hagler UD 15 Roberto Duran, 1983: After 12 close rounds in Vegas, the late great “Marvelous One” was down by enough points on the judges’ scorecards that had it gone to their totals after 12 rather than 15, Duran would have been declared new world middleweight champion, a feat he pulled off six years later in 1989 when he decisioned Iran Barkley over 12 to win the WBC middleweight title. Hagler got busy in the championship rounds to hold off the attempted coup and earn a ‘much closer than it should’ve been’ 15-round unanimous decision.

What if they’d robbed Hagler in a 12-rounder against Duran? My guess is that Hagler would’ve retired in 1984 and left Sugar Ray to wonder what might have happened if they’d ever fought.

Sugar Ray Leonard SD 12 Marvin Hagler, 1987: Of the many concessions made by Hagler to make the Superfight with Sugar Ray happen was an agreement to go 12 not 15 rounds. Both were experienced 15- round fighters but as the active, defending champion, it was Hagler who was more “tuned-in” for 15 rounders than his comebacking challenger. Could a tiring Leonard have gone three more rounds? He won the 10th and 11th but then gave away the 12th. Could Hagler have rallied in the “championship rounds” as he did against Duran four years prior? The thought of three more rounds excites me in a way the prospect of the fight itself once did.

But unfortunately, it’ll never happen.

Julio Cesar Chavez TKO 12 Meldrick Taylor, 1990: There was so much at stake when these two undefeated junior welterweight champions clashed that it should have been scheduled for 15. This was the best fighting the best. We all know what happened. Chavez was being given a boxing lesson by a brave Philly fighter but it hardly mattered because the beating he was laying on Taylor could no longer be ignored, even by the HBO crew who tried their gosh darndest. With 2 seconds left in a 12-round fight in which Taylor was way ahead (!) on two of three scorecards, referee Richard Steele cut through the ‘what if’s’ by stopping the fight with a badly busted up Taylor out on his feet after getting up from a dramatic knockdown in the bout’s final ten seconds.

What if Steele had let Meldrick go on knowing there were three more rounds scheduled and this was an elite unification match? Could Taylor hold on to his “lead” and finish the fight? I doubt it.

Sergio Martinez UD 12 Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., 2012: For ten rounds, the defending world middleweight champion was toying with the son of a legend. It was fun to watch. Then as if animated by performance enhancing DNA, Chavez Jr. almost duplicated the famous feat of his father. Hurting Martinez in the 11th and dropping him hard in the 12th, Chavez Jr. attacked like a manchild possessed. Martinez got up, punched back, and the final bell rang. What if there were three more rounds to go? Would Martinez have still survived the bigger man? We’ll never know. For Chavez the father and Chavez the son, the mas importante championship round was the 12th.

What’s the hook that connects Martinez-Chavez Jr. to Marciano-Walcott? It’s the late WBC President José Sulaimán. The familial godfather of Chavez Jr., Sulaimán came to Brockton in 2012 in the wake of the Martinez-Chavez fight to christen the new Rocky Marciano statue and to comment on the WBC middleweight title bout, telling me he believed it was well scored.

Now let me shock you.

After being mugged at Madison Square Garden in 2014 by Miguel Cotto, “Maravilla” Martinez retired to the land of misfit toys. You know that part. But did you also know that he fought twice last year and once last weekend against Brian Rose, winning all three? He looks good for 46!

What if Golovkin-Martinez finally happens?

And what does Boxing Hall of Famer “Good Son” Ray Mancini really think about the change from his era’s 15-rounders to today’s 12-round title fights? Was it all because he “killed” Kim?

“That was a TV decision not a medical decision. They wanted 12-round fights so they had an opening and a closing if the fight went the distance so it wouldn’t go over into the local newscast. Once people understand that, then they’ll understand why it’s 12 rounds now. I’ve talked to neurologists and brain surgeons. I’ve found out there is no proof that more damage is done in the last three rounds as opposed to the first 12. There have been fatalities in 12 round fights too.”

Will 10-round title fights be next?

Chavez Jr / Martinez photo credit: Naoki Fukuda

Boxing Writer Jeffrey Freeman grew up in the City of Champions, Brockton, Massachusetts from 1973 to 1987, during the Marvelous career of Marvin Hagler. JFree then lived in Lowell, Mass during the best years of Irish Micky Ward’s illustrious career. A former member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and a Bernie Award Winner in the Category of Feature Story Under 1500 Words. Freeman covers boxing for The Sweet Science in New England.

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The Hauser Report: Oleksandr Usyk Upsets the Applecart

Thomas Hauser

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On Saturday night, Oleksandr Usyk won a unanimous decision over Anthony Joshua at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London to claim the WBA, IBF, and WBO heavyweight titles. With that victory, Usyk follows in the footsteps of Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko to become the third heavyweight beltholder from Ukraine.

Joshua has an elegance about him. Unlike some heavyweights at the top of today’s class, he seems rational and sincere when he speaks. “The world is cruel,” he told Sky Sports a year ago. “You’ve got to have a thick skin. One minute you’re on top of the world, and the next minute you’re not. That’s the name of the game we’re in.”

“AJ” has accomplished a lot in the past ten years. He won a gold medal in the super-heavyweight division at the 2012 London Olympics, became enormously popular in his homeland, and has earned tens of millions of dollars fighting. What he hasn’t done is prove himself to be a great fighter. The promise that seemed to be there after he climbed off the canvas to beat Wladimir Klitschko in an enthralling spectacle before 90,000 screaming fans at Wembley Stadium in 2017 never fully blossomed.

The Klitschko fight changed Joshua. Instead of gaining confidence from walking through fire and prevailing, he seemed to be a more tentative and vulnerable fighter afterward. Less-than-scintillating victories over Carlos Takam, Joseph Parker, and Alexander Povetkin followed. Then promoter Eddie Hearn brought Joshua to America to showcase him at Madison Square Garden against the corpulent Andy Ruiz. Shockingly, Ruiz knocked AJ down four times and stopped him in seven rounds.

Six months later in Saudi Arabia, Joshua gained a measure of revenge when he outboxed a grossly-out-of-shape Ruiz to reclaim his belts. But AJ hardly looked like a conqueror. A good jab doesn’t just score points and keep an opponent at bay. It cuts; it hurts; it shakes up the opponent. Against Ruiz the second time around, Joshua threw a stay-away-from-me jab all night. As Jimmy Tobin wrote, it was as though he’d been transformed “from wild boar to truffle pig.”

A cautiously-fought victory over Kubrat Pulev followed. “It’s easy to watch on YouTube and be confident,” Joshua said afterward. “Easy to watch from the outside. But when you’re in front of someone, actually in the ring, it’s a completely different ballgame.”

Usyk, like Joshua, won a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics (Oleksandr’s was in the heavyweight division). He’d distinguished himself in the professional ranks by unifying the cruiserweight titles and had become the mandatory challenger for AJ’s IBF belt by virtue of lackluster victories over Chazz Witherspoon and Dereck Chisora.

Joshua was a 5-to-2 betting favorite. Usyk is a tricky southpaw with a 18-0 (13 KOs) professional record. But AJ has heavy hands and a devastating uppercut. Twenty-two of his 24 victories had come by knockout. His chin is suspect but Oleksandr was deemed ill-equipped to exploit that vulnerability. All one had to do was watch Usyk struggle against Witherspoon and Chisora to conclude that AJ was too big a mountain for him to climb. There’s a reason that there are weight classes in boxing.

At the weigh-in, Joshua was twenty pounds heavier than Usyk. It was, one observer opined, “a fight between a heavyweight and a wanna-be heavyweight.” The greatest threat to Joshua seemed to be Joshua.

One day before the bout, AJ was asked what would be next on his schedule after fighting Usyk. The assumption was that his next opponent would be the winner of Tyson Fury vs. Deontay Wilder (who are scheduled to fight on October 9).

“I’ve got a rematch clause if the worst happens,” Joshua answered. “So, if I lose, I’m fighting Usyk again; the undisputed gets put on hold. If I win, I’ll fight either one of them. If Fury wins, I’ll fight Fury. If Wilder wins, I’ll fight Wilder.”

That answer was remarkable. Fighters often hype their opponent to build a promotion. But the phrase “if I lose” rarely escapes their lips.

On fight night, the atmosphere was electric. The 65,000-seat Tottenham Hotspur Stadium had been sold out within twenty-four hours of tickets going on sale.

On DAZN’s televised undercard, Florian Marku won a split decision over Maxim Prodan. Then Callum Smith scored a scary one-punch knockout of Lenin Castillo. Next up, Sonni Martinez (a 2-and-4 fighter whose victories had come against fighters with 4 wins in 20 fights) exposed Campbell Hatton’s deficiencies as a fighter and also Marcus McDonnell’s deficiencies as a referee and judge. McDonnell’s 58-57 scorecard (he was the sole arbiter) in Hatton’s favor was disgusting. After that, Lawrence Okolie predictably knocked out an overmatched Dilan Prasovic in three rounds.

Joshua seemed to enjoy the fireworks and blaring music that accompanied his ring walk. It had been a long time since he’d fought before a large roaring crowd in England. The stage was set. Then the fight started.

For Joshua loyalists, the contest was akin to opening a beautifully-wrapped present on Christmas morning and finding bath towels inside instead of a much-desired stylish coat.

Usyk began cautiously, moving around the ring, throwing jabs like a pesky fly. AJ looked clumsy and a bit befuddled. Oleksandr’s southpaw style was giving him trouble. The proceedings brought to mind the advice that trainer Emanuel Steward gave to Lennox Lewis on the night that Lewis fought Ray Mercer. The plan that night had been for Lennox to outbox Mercer. Except the plan wasn’t working. In the middle rounds, sensing that the fight was slipping away, Steward told Lewis, “Just f***ing fight him.” Lennox did as instructed and won a narrow decision.

Rob McCracken (Joshua’s trainer) should have given AJ the same advice. When AJ went to Usyk’s body (which was hittable), he seemed to hurt him. But he didn’t do it often enough. Instead of trading with Usyk, for most of the night Joshua seemed reluctant to let his hands go and looked less interested in hitting than concerned about getting hit.

Joshua came on a bit in the middle rounds but then relinquished control again. He needed to impose his size and strength on Usyk but didn’t. He didn’t fight like a heavyweight champion is supposed to fight.

As the bout progressed, Usyk suffered cuts above and below his right eye. AJ’s nose was bloodied and there was a pronounced swelling beneath his right eye.

Usyk fought the final two rounds as though he needed them to win. Joshua fought the final two rounds like a beaten fighter and was in trouble at the final bell.

Give the judges credit for honest scoring. Their 117-112, 116-112, 115-113 scorecards were on the mark.

“This was the biggest fight in my career, but it wasn’t the hardest,” Usyk said afterward. “There were a couple of moments where Anthony pushed me hard but nothing special.”

So much for the megafight between Joshua and the winner of Tyson Fury vs. Deontay Wilder. If the scenario that unfolded in Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Saturday night seemed similar to Joshua-Ruiz I upending the planned megafight between Joshua and Wilder two years ago, that’s because it was.

The loss to Ruiz raised questions about Joshua. Joshua-Usyk answered them. AJ is a good heavyweight, not a great one.

Photo credit: Mark Robinson / Matchroom

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His next book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – will be published in October by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Check out more boxing news on video at the Boxing Channel

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Featured Articles

Adelaida Ruiz Grabs WBC Silver Title in Pico Rivera and More

David A. Avila

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Adelaida-Ruiz-Grabs-WBC-Silver-Title-in-Pico-Rivera-and-More

Adelaida Ruiz Grabs WBC Silver Title in Pico Rivera and More

Finally.

Adelaida “La Cobra” Ruiz grabbed the WBC Silver super flyweight title with an emphatic beating of veteran Mexican fighter Nancy Franco by late stoppage on Saturday night.

After waiting for most of her adult life to win a title, Ruiz (10-0-1, 5 KOs) showed off her superiority with a nonstop barrage of blows to power pass Franco (19-15-2) in front of more than 1,400 fans at the Pico Rivera Sports Arena in Pico Rivera.

Six months ago, Ruiz thought she had an opportunity to win a title against Sonia Osorio, but a clash of heads early in the fight forced a stoppage due to an ugly cut. That fight ended in the second round in a technical draw according to WBC rules.

No cuts this time.

Ruiz flashed those quick three-punch combinations and whenever Franco returned fire it was never enough. Round after round the Los Angeles fighter who could not fight for 10 years due to parenting duties caring for three children, would batter Franco to show off the ability to slip or move just out of range.

In the eighth round Ruiz did not stop after her regular three-punch combinations and delivered an intense six-punch blast of fire that had Franco reeling. It looked like the end was coming soon but the Mexican fighter survived.

Franco was not so lucky in the ninth round. Ruiz continued the assault with a nonstop barrage and Franco tried to reciprocate, but it was not an even exchange. The pure savagery of the attack by the L.A. fighter forced referee Raul Caiz Jr. to inch closer and when a blow connected flush the experienced referee stepped in and stopped the assault at 1:20 of the ninth round.

Ruiz finally could claim a title.

It was a good stoppage especially after the boxing world lost a young fighter several weeks ago named Jeanette Zacarias Zarate. She was only 18 and was unable to succumb to injuries in the prize ring. During intermission a moment of silence was given in honor of the Mexican fighter.

Maricela Wins

Maricela Cornejo (14-5, 5 KOs) returned to action with a six-round decision win over Florida’s gritty Miranda Barber (2-3) who recently fought and won by first round knockout in New York three weeks ago. Not this time.

Cornejo continues to add new elements to her game. In front of a supportive audience the Mexican-American fighter was rarely in trouble against Barber who never slowed down her attack. Though Cornejo connected often, Barber only increased her attack whenever hit with a big blow. But it was never enough against the seasoned Cornejo.

The middleweight contender looked calm and professional throughout the six round fight that pleased the loud audience that included boxing great Claressa Shields sitting a few rows away from the ring. A match between the two has been talked about ever since Shields entered the professional scene in 2016 after her second Olympic gold medal win. This could be a future battle soon. Cornejo has shown that she can drop down to 154 where Shields currently dominates.

Other Bouts

Rudy Garcia (12-0) had little trouble against Mexico’s Ronaldo Solis (4-2-1) in a winning a decision after six one-sided rounds of a featherweight clash.

Ernesto Mercado (2-0) won by stoppage in the first round after Osmel Mayorga (2-2) was floored and unable to continue after the first round of a super lightweight fight.

Tenichtitlan Nava (8-2-1) and Adrian Leyva (2-2-1) were evenly matched featherweights and it ended in a split draw.

Tyrell Washington (4-0) continued his undefeated streak with a win by unanimous decision over Rodrigo Solis (4-8-1) after six rounds in a welterweight bout.

Japhethlee Llamido (5-0) defeated Victor Saravia (1-2) by unanimous decision in a fight that was competitive in each round. Llamido was a former sparring partner for Japan’s Naoya “Monster” Inoue.

Other winners were Carlos Rodriguez (1-0) and Alejandro Reyes (4-0).

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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