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Remembering Lightweight Contender Frankie Narvaez, Boxing’s Peerless Riot-Maker

Arne K. Lang

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Remembering Lightweight Contender Frankie Narvaez, Boxing’s Peerless Riot-Maker

The death earlier this month of Marvin Hagler evoked memories of his bout in London with Alan Minter. Hagler launched his middleweight title reign that night, a reign that would last through 12 successful defenses.

Minter was a bloody mess when his corner pulled the plug in the third frame, but the fight would be overshadowed by the aftermath. Alan Minter’s ardent following was pocked with hooligans. They showered the ring with plastic bottles and beer cans, many with their contents undisturbed. A cordon of police kept Marvin from being assaulted by the mob as he made his way back to his dressing room. Veteran British scribe Harry Carpenter called it the darkest day in British boxing history. Former heavyweight contender Henry Cooper, one of England’s most admired sportsmen, said, “I feel degraded to admit I am British.”

British boxing fans are (how should I put it?) notoriously un-phlegmatic. But the Brits certainly don’t have a monopoly on post-fight riots. Over on this side of the pond, the partisans of Frankie Narvaez were every bit as volatile as the partisans of Alan Minter, arguably more so as they were more persistent.

Frankie Narvaez was born in Puerto Rico. In common with many of his countrymen, he had one foot in New York City as he was growing up, often shuttling between the Big Apple and the island of his birth. He took up boxing in New York and made his pro debut in February of 1961 in a four-round bout at Madison Square Garden. He made great headway although he could not give the sport his full attention. His day job was that of a porter at the New York State Workman’s Compensation Bureau.

Narvaez didn’t pack a hard punch, but he was a high-pressure fighter who constantly bore in on his opponent. Standing only 5’3 ½”, he really had no alternative. His opponents were invariably taller and longer-limbed and he had to penetrate their guard to be successful.

In a story that appeared in the Syracuse Post-Standard, Jerry Izenberg said, “(Narvaez) is a straight-ahead type of fighter with very little deception and a vicious left hand.” Izenberg further alleged that there had been an “incident” at one of Narvaez’s amateur bouts when Frankie was on the wrong end of a rank decision. He did not elaborate.

Narvaez developed a nice rivalry with Johnny Bizzarro, the pride of Erie, Pennsylvania. He won their rubber match, elevating his record to 24-2-1, and that earned him a date with the great Filipino boxer Gabriel “Flash” Elorde. “Flash” was the reigning world super featherweight champion, but his title wasn’t at stake when he crossed swords with Narvaez in a 10-rounder at Madison Square Garden on Aug. 4, 1965.

The bookmakers actually installed Narvaez the favorite, but that didn’t dissuade people from betting on him, even after the odds were steamed up from 7/5 to 11/5. The lopsided betting wasn’t entirely a reflection of regional bias. The Filipino was only 30 years old, but he had a lot of mileage on him.

The fight was a bruising and bloody affair. In the late rounds, Narvaez appeared to be the fresher man. He had a style that played well in the cheap seats, but ringside reporters, in the main, also thought the decision should have gone his way. In a post-fight poll, the tally was 13-9-4 for Narvaez.

One of the judges scored the fight 7-2-1 for Narvaez but he was overruled by identical scores of 5-4-1 for Gabriel Elorde. When the scores were read, all hell broke loose. Narvaez’s partisans left the famous arena in shambles. The house organ was among the furnishings that were damaged. It was toppled from its perch in an alcove five feet above the floor. (This marked the first time, said the wags, that an arena needed an organ transplant.)

Riot police were called in to quell the disturbance. The last of the miscreants bolted for the exits after being doused with a fire hose.

There was another convulsion when Narvaez fought Panama’s Ismael Laguna at Madison Square Garden on March 10, 1987. The flashy Laguna, who had won and lost the lightweight title in bouts with Carlos Ortiz, was too slick for Narvaez, winning the 12-round bout by scores of 9-1-2, 8-3-1, and 7-5. But to Narvaez’s credit, he never took a backward step.

One would have thought that the clear-cut decision would have quieted Narvaez’s supporters, but not so. As Jim Murray phrased it, they were not incensed by the verdict, but by the arithmetic.

Unlike the first riot, the building wasn’t mutilated, but folks seated near the ring were in greater jeopardy. Many in the pro-Narvaez contingent, who streamed into the Garden from Spanish Harlem and the Bronx, smuggled bottles of liquor into the arena. The bottles crashed down from the balcony, littering the floor with shards of glass. Eleven people were cut by the shrapnel, five of whom, including a UPI reporter, were treated for minor lacerations at a hospital. TV announcer Don Dunphy, among other members of the media, stayed out of harm’s way by taking shelter under the ring.

Not quite 10 weeks later, there would be another wild scene at Madison Square Garden when Dick Tiger, in a mild upset, successfully defended his world light heavyweight title with a razor-thin decision over Jose Torres. A Puerto Rico-born New Yorker, Torres did his best work in the late rounds but it was too little, too late, in the eyes of two of the judges.

The situation had become intolerable. In words that would not have passed muster with his editor today, New York Times sportswriter Dave Anderson, a future Pulitzer Prize winner, identified the root of the problem as “the flammable nature of the Hispanic temperament.” There was talk of barring Puerto Ricans from future boxing events at Madison Square Garden. Harry Markson, the arena’s director of boxing, said this wasn’t feasible. Roughly 800,000 first- and second-generation Puerto Ricans then resided in New York, 10 percent of the city’s population. The Garden could not afford to lose this demographic, but Markson agreed to a cooling-off period.

An interesting offshoot of the brouhaha was the August 16, 1967 world lightweight title fight between Laguna and Carlos Ortiz, the latter of whom, like Jose Torres, was a New Yorker born in Puerto Rico. This was the third and final meeting between the two great lightweights.

As a precaution, Madison Square Garden planted the fight at Shea Stadium in Queens, the home of New York’s newest professional teams, the Mets and the Jets. Two hundred special policemen were hired from private companies to assist the regular police detail. They were not needed. Ortiz regained his title before a peaceful gathering of 19,480. (This was likely the first fight in boxing history where the combatants embraced before the first bell. This was by pre-arrangement and meant as an encouragement to good sportsmanship.)

Believe it or not, Madison Square Garden invited Frankie Narvaez back again. On the surface this was insane, a prescription for more trouble, but when Narvaez fought Laguna’s protégé Antonio Amaya on August 20, 1968, the circumstances were far different. For one thing, this fight went early in the program, preceding bouts featuring Laguna and Benny Briscoe. That gave the hooligan element within Narvaez’s fan base less time to cast off their inhibitions.

Of greater importance, this was a new Madison Square Garden. The six-month-old building, which was erected atop Penn Station, had a different configuration than its predecessor. The folks in the cheap seats were farther away from the action. If some fool threw a bottle off the balcony, said Dave Anderson, it had scant chance of landing near the ring unless the fellow had an arm like Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Roberto Clemente.

Narvaez’s fight with Amaya was a ho-hum affair. Frankie looked slow and lost a wide decision. He would have eight more fights before quitting the sport, finishing 39-11-1.

There would be more unseemly incidents at Madison Square Garden, incidents where one couldn’t point the finger of blame at Puerto Ricans. The first fight between Andrew Golota and Riddick Bowe, staged on July 11, 1996, engendered a riot that was among the worst of the worst in the annals of prizefighting in New York. But that’s a story for another day.

Frankie Narvaez was 64 years old when he passed away in 2004. He left this world quietly; there was no mention of it in English-language newspapers. That was quite a departure from his heyday as a main event fighter at the old Madison Garden where he was a lightning rod for noise that would shake the rafters.

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Shakur Stevenson’s Star Turn Gets No Media Coverage in Atlanta

Bernard Fernandez

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Shakur Stevenson’s Star Turn Gets No Media Coverage in Atlanta

For that part of the sports world that takes notice of boxing, Shakur Stevenson announced himself as a superstar-in-the-making – well, maybe – in totally dominating and ultimately dethroning WBO junior lightweight champion Jamel Herring Saturday night in Atlanta’s State Farm Arena. Shakur, the 24-year-old southpaw and 2016 Olympic silver medalist from Newark, N.J., seemingly hit Herring, 35, a combat-toughened but outgunned Marine Corps veteran, with everything but the proverbial kitchen sink en route to a 10th-round stoppage that wowed, among others, former junior welterweight and welterweight titlist and ESPN commentator Timothy Bradley Jr., who had chided Stevenson, a sometimes risk-adverse defensive wizard, as a “boring” fighter in his most recent bout on the Worldwide Leader, a 12-round scorecard shutout of Namibia’s Jeremia Nakathila on June 12 in Las Vegas.

After referee Mark Nelson stepped in to save the bleeding and battered Herring 1 minute, 30 seconds into round 10, Stevenson surprised Bradley by thanking him for providing the motivation he needed to ramp up his offensive output.

“Shakur tonight showed a ton of maturity,” Bradley said of the new-look, presumably more fan-friendly version of Stevenson that was on display. “The fact that he thanked me and said that I motivated him is a beautiful thing. That showed even more maturity, because that’s all that I want from these young fighters. I want them to grow.

“This is what I wanted to see from Shakur Stevenson. But I knew he had it in him, and he showed it tonight.”

Not that Bradley has completely bought into the notion of all that Stevenson could be, citing the lack of the only weapon – one-punch power – in his otherwise well-stuffed trick bag. Maybe that will come should Stevenson (17-0, 9 KOs) continue to enhance his man-strength, and maybe what you see now is all that fight fans can ever expect to get. In baseball terminology, Shakur Stevenson was more or less categorized by Bradley as a high-average singles hitter with enough gap power to accumulate a fair share of doubles that can get opponents out of there on accumulated damage. Who could complain if Stevenson, whose avowed goal is to become a superstar and fixture at or near the top of everyone’s pound-for-pound lists, continues to show flashes of such stylistic predecessors as Pernell Whitaker and Floyd Mayweather Jr.?

On this night and in the fight’s host city, however, Stevenson took a worse media-coverage battering from Eddie Rosario than he had administered to Herring (23-3, 11 KOs) with his fists. Rosario, a trade-deadline acquisition of the Atlanta Braves, slugged a three-run homer to lift his new team to a 4-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series at nearby Truist Park, sending the Braves into their first World Series since 1999. For now, Rosario, who went 14-for-25 with three homers in winning the NLCS Most Valuable Player Award, is the toast of the town and the focus of reams of space in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sports section. But it wasn’t only Rosario who siphoned attention in the local paper away from Stevenson; the fight might have gotten a few lines in the print editions, but online it was completely ignored by the AJC, Rosario’s hot bat followed in the pecking order by stories about the NBA’s Hawks losing at Cleveland, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets dropping a high-scoring contest at Virginia and a five-star high school defensive end prospect named Mykel Williams verbally committing to the No. 1-ranked Georgia Bulldogs.

While it had to be frustrating to Stevenson and Atlanta’s fight fans for the event to be ignored by AJC, there were other deserving participants on the card who were similarly overlooked by the press in Georgia’s largest city. Not that anyone in the Internet age still pastes newspaper clippings into scrapbooks, but 19-year-old middleweight prospect Xander Zayas might be at a similar embryonic stage of development once occupied by Stevenson a couple of years ago. He deserved at least some recognition in the paper for his fourth-round stoppage of Dan Karpency, as did two other undercard fighters with celebrity familial ties: middleweight Nico Ali Walsh, grandson of the great Muhammad Ali, who scored a third-round TKO of James Westley II, and junior middleweight Evan Holyfield, son of four-time heavyweight champion and Atlanta-area resident Evander Holyfield – can it be nearly 30 years since “The Real Deal” shook off an early knockdown to stop Bert Cooper in seven rounds on Nov. 23, 1991, in Atlanta’s since-demolished Omni Coliseum? — who bombed out Charles Stanfield in two rounds.

But Atlanta is not the only metropolis that devotes fewer newspaper column inches, if any, to the sport that once made Evander Holyfield as important a local sports figure as any Falcon, Brave or Hawk. It will be up to Stevenson to break through, if he can, to a level where his every ring appearance becomes a must-see because boxing’s viability is and has always been largely tied to the popularity of its larger-than-life figures.

“I wanted a fun fight – show my skills, my boxing, my power,” Stevenson said of the modifications he and trainer/grandfather Wali Moses made from the relative dreariness of the wide points nod over Nakathila to the pulse-quickening pummeling of Herring, who apologized to the Marine Corps in general for his defeat, not that any such admission was necessary. Herring seemed to be contemplating retirement, but there has never been any occasion when he failed to conduct himself honorably inside the ropes.

The question now is, will Stevenson continue to hew to demonstrate the aggressiveness he exhibited against Herring? His comments following the Nakathila bout suggest that it might not always be so. His style is evolving, but what works better on one night might not be advisable on another.

“To be honest, I didn’t really like my performance,” Stevenson said after his paint-by-numbers dismissal of Nakathila. “I felt I could’ve performed a lot better. I was being real careful because he has power. He was real scary. I got the best defense in boxing. But I’ll be better in my next fight.”

Former super middleweight and light heavyweight champion Andre Ward, a 2021 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame who also did commentary for Herring-Stevenson, said Shakur shouldn’t feel pressured to become something he is not in order to meet anyone else’s expectations.

“I think we got to kill some of these misnomers that have been around the sport for far too long, that fighters that go about their craft a certain kind of way, hit and don’t get hit, (means) there’s something not tough about them,” Ward said. “I heard that my whole career. Floyd Mayweather heard that his whole career. Just because a skillful fighter who can think and plays chess when everybody else is playing checkers doesn’t mean he can’t get down and dirty. It only means we’re going to get down and dirty when we have to.

“Fighters who have (high) IQs and skill, keep doing what you’re doing. Some people are going to like it and others won’t. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. If a good fighter has a bad night, he can still win every round. If a guy who takes two to (land) one had a bad night, it’s a pretty ugly night. He’s probably going to get knocked out or take a lot of punishment.

“I wasn’t who they wanted me to be. I just beat all those guys, all the guys they said were going to get me. I just kept winning. And winning covers a lot of problems and issues.”

A lot, for sure, not all. In addition to Whitaker, Mayweather and maybe Ward, there are elements of Stevenson’s makeup that call to mind the technical proficiency of two-time Cuban gold medalist Guillermo Rigondeaux, a former Top Rank fighter. Stevenson has been groomed by Top Rank for a prolonged and successful run at the elite level, but what so far has been a mutually beneficial working relationship could hinge in part to the fighter’s willingness to more regularly perform as he did against Herring than he did against Nakathila and a few other opponents that led to the perception that he was supremely talented, yes, but also a touch boring.

Prior to Rigondeaux’s release by Top Rank, company founder Bob Arum complained that his style leaned more to Masterpiece Theater than Rocky, which made Rigo a poor box-office and television attraction. Arum even said that when he brought the Cuban’s name up to HBO executives, “they throw up.”

There are many ways to win a prizefight, and now Shakur Stevenson has shown that he can win with chamber music or semi-heavy metal playing in the background. How far he advances in his march toward the truly elite status he is convinced is his destiny may be determined by the method he chooses to employ should a much-discussed showdown with Mexican blaster Oscar Valdez (30-0, 23 KOs) take place in 2022. The hard truth is that a lot of fight fans not only like, but require splashes of blood-and-guts mixed in with their favorite sport’s artistic side.

Editor’s Note: Bernard Fernandez, named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the Observer category with the class of 2020, was the recipient of numerous awards for writing excellence during his 28-year career as a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Daily News. Fernandez’s first book, “Championship Rounds,” a compendium of previously published material, was released in May of last year. The sequel, “Championship Rounds, Vol. 2,” with a foreword by Jim Lampley, arrives this fall. The book can be ordered through Amazon.com, in hard or soft cover, and other book-selling websites and outlets.

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Fast Results from Atlanta Where Shakur Stevenson Turned in a Masterful Performance

Arne K. Lang

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Former world featherweight title-holder Shakur Stevenson turned in his career-best performance tonight at the State Farm Arena in Atlanta while wresting the WBO 130-pound world title from the shoulders of Jamel Herring via a 10th-round TKO. At age 24, Stevenson was the younger man by 11 years and it was a case of youth being served.

As a pro, Stevenson (17-0, 9 KOs) has lost precious few rounds. The rap against him was that he is content to outclass an opponent, providing few fireworks. In this vein, the assumption was that tonight’s bout would be a tactical (i.e., tame) affair. But while there were no knockdowns and Shakur fought a measured fight, there was more snap in his punches than had been the norm and he finished the bout on a high note.

Early into the fight, Herring’s left eye began to swell. In round nine, Stevenson opened a nasty cut over Herring’s other eye. In round ten, with the cut bleeding profusely, Stevenson revved up his attack, forcing referee Mark Nelson to waive it off. The official time was 1:30.

After the fight, Stevenson called out his WBC counterpart Oscar Valdez. Herring, an ex-Marine and former U.S. Olympic team captain, falls to 23-3.

Other Bouts

Fast-rising 19-year-old middleweight Xander Zayas shellacked intrepid Dan Karpency whose father and chief cornerman pulled him out after four rounds. A future star, born in Puerto Rico, Zayas is now 11-0 (8). One of the three fighting brothers, Karpency (9-4-1) will return to his day job as a registered nurse at a maximum-security prison in Western Pennsylvania. He hadn’t previously been stopped

In the first bout airing on ESPN’s flagship station, middleweight Nico Ali Walsh, the 21-year-old grandson of Muhammad Ali, scored a third-round stoppage of scrappy but out-gunned James Westley II, a 36-year-old from Toledo, Ohio. Walsh (2-0, 2 KOs) knocked Westley down with a straight right hand in the waning seconds of round two and knocked him to his knees with another short right hand early in the next stanza. Westley wasn’t badly hurt, but his corner saw fit to throw in the towel.

Junior middleweight Evan Holyfield, one of 11 children fathered by the great Evander Holyfield, knocked Charles Stanford flat on his back with a harsh left-right combination in round two, advancing his record to 8-0 (6). The official time was 0:30. Stanford, a 35-year-old Cincinnati man with an MMA background, was 6-3 heading in.

Middleweight Troy Isley, a 23-year-old U.S. Olympian from Alexandria, VA, improved to 3-0 (2) with a first-round stoppage of 37-year-old Nicholi Navarro (2-2), a former Army Ranger from Denver. Isley rocked his overmatched opponent several times before putting him on the canvas with a combination, forcing the ref to intervene. The official time was 2:48.

In an upset, Erik Palmer saddled Atlanta’s Roddricus Livsey with his first defeat, winning a split decision. Palmer, from the Karpency family stable, was 12-14-5 heading in, versus 8-0-1 for Livsey. The scores were 58-56 twice and a curious 59-55 for the hometown fighter.

Haven Brady Jr, a 19-year-old featherweight from Albany, Georgia, improved to 4-0 (3) with a 4-round unanimous decision over Corpus Christi’s Roberto Negrete (3-1).  The scores favoring Brady were 40-36 across the board, but Negrete was no slouch.

Chicago welterweight Antoine Cobb made an impressive pro debut with a brutal one-punch knockout of Jerrion Campbell (2-2). It was all over in 58 seconds. Cobb, 25, is a protégé of former light heavyweight champion Montell Griffin.

In the opening bout on the card, 21-year-old Brooklyn lightweight Harley Maderos, a 2021 USA national champion, improved to 2-0 (1) with a 4-round unanimous decision over Deljerro Revello (0-2). Maderos scored a knockdown in the opening frame and won all four rounds on all four cards but wasn’t particularly impressive.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank via Getty images.

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Results from Tampa: Harold Calderon Survives Bite to Remain Undefeated

David A. Avila

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Undefeated welterweight Harold Calderon remained unbeaten despite strange tactics by late replacement Luis Florez that forced a premature end of the fight due to a disqualification on Saturday.

Calderon (26-0, 17 KOs) endured a change of opponents, and then outrageous tactics by Colombia’s Florez (25-22) including biting that ended the fight at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, Florida.

“That m..f…just bit me,” said Calderon, a southpaw from Miami. “I’m sweet. I’m like sugar.”

For the first three rounds Florez seemed eager to trade blows with Calderon and chided the Florida fighter to attack. But once the lefty welterweight attacked the body, the Colombian fighter suddenly seemed not as eager.

Calderon took the fight inside and battered Florez on the inside. During one attack Florez motioned he was hit behind the head. That’s when the dirty tactics began including a bite on Calderon. After Calderon retaliated with a body shot, Florez took a knee and complained. The referee stopped the fight. It was later revealed that the referee disqualified Florez for biting.

Calderon said he’s anxious to fight any of the top 15 contenders if given an opportunity.

“I need somebody in the top 15,” he said.

Uzbekistan’s Otabek Kholmatov (4-0, 4 KOs) knocked out Colombia’s Juan Medina (12-9, 11 KOs) in the second round of their super bantamweight clash. Kholmatov, a southpaw, scored two knock downs in the first round. The tall Uzbeki fighter blew out Medina with more body blows to end the fight at 1:51 of the second round.

“I’ll be the champ,” Kholmatov said.

A super lightweight match saw Clarence Booth (21-4, 12 KOs) take time to figure out the awkward style of Alejandro Munera (6-4-4) and win by knockout at the seventh round.

Bantamweight contender Rosalinda Rodriguez (13-0, 3 KOs) fought last-minute replacement Elizabeth Tuani (1-4) and won by stoppage at 1:16 of the second round in a fight fought above 126 pounds. There was confusion because Tuani did not look hurt nor in danger of going down when the fight was stopped. Even Rodriguez looked perplexed.

“I was confused,” said Rodriguez. “She was putting up a fight.”

Other Bouts

Jean Guerra Vargas (6-0) survived a knockdown against Rueben Morales (0-2) to win a split decision. It seemed Vargas got lucky with the scoring. Morales was the dominant fighter for the first two rounds and lost gas. He was a last-day replacement.

Poland’s Adrian “Pretty Boy” Pinheiro (4-0, 4 KOs) knocked out Milton Nunez with a focused body attack in the first two rounds and scored two knockdowns with body shots. A couple of body sapping shots floored Nunez at 1:05 of the second round for the knockout in the heavyweight fight.

Bryan Lopez (3-0) knocked down wild swinging William Fauth (0-7) twice before scoring a knockout win at 1:56 of the second round of a super lightweight fight.

Hungarian heavyweight Istvan Bernath (8-0, 6 KOs) knocked out Mexico’s Guillermo Del Rio (3-4-1) with an overhand right at 2:30 of the first round.

A welterweight fight saw Bobby Henry start slowly and then floor Bryant Costello in the second round to turn things around and win by decision after four rounds.

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