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It’s Time to Weed Out Unfair Penalties in Combat Sports

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BY SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS RYAN SAKACS and RICHARD WASHINGTON — The UFC recently announced the end of its longstanding prohibition against recreational use of marijuana.   Under the new protocol, fighters will be penalized only if USADA (the promotion’s anti-doping partner) finds evidence that the substance was used to gain a competitive advantage. The policy shift could signal that widespread changes to drug testing and discipline in combat sports are inevitable.

Over the last year, most major American sports leagues effectively eliminated cannabis as a banned substance in response to increasing pressure from players’ unions. However, without the same power of collective bargaining, professional boxers and mixed martial artists remain subject to unreasonable fines, suspensions, and other sanctions.

Some industry leaders are calling for significant reforms to Draconian regulations imposed by some state athletic commissions. Since his retirement in 2017, UFC Hall of Famer and former middleweight champion Rashad Evans has advocated for the therapeutic value of CBD and cannabis.

“For athletes at the highest level, it’s rinse and repeat. We compete, then work hard to get our minds and bodies back to the same elite condition for the next fight. There’s scientific evidence that cannabis and CBD aids in recuperation and serves as a much safer substitute for pain management than dangerously addictive painkillers. Sometimes it feels like it’s the athlete versus the commission. Misguided restrictions can lead to unnecessary struggles with physical and mental recovery.”

But former boxing light heavyweight contender Seanie Monaghan is more skeptical about the advantages of cannabis for active fighters. “I don’t see the benefit for a professional athlete smoking anything that can harm the lungs and weaken cardio. I tried to avoid bad habits and stay disciplined throughout my career because I knew my sacrifices would pay off in the ring.  Commissions should continue test for marijuana because it can be a masking agent for PEDs, but it’s time for society to take a softer approach.”

Joe DeGuardia, CEO and President of Star Boxing Promotions, also urges regulators to proceed carefully before modifying current practices. “By relaxing standards, the other major sports leagues have enacted polices that take the athlete off the hook for what they put in their bodies. Commissions should at least treat marijuana like NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin), which can alter the tolerance for pain. We need to know much more from a medical standpoint before we implement such radical changes to testing.”

In the leadup to their blockbuster return to the ring, Mike Tyson and Roy Jones, Jr. agreed to forego testing for cannabis altogether. Tyson has a precarious history with weed. In 2001, the Michigan Board of Athletic Control suspended the former heavyweight champ and reversed his victory over Andrew Golota following a post-bout marijuana finding. Tyson has since grown into combat sport’s most recognizable cannabineur. His newly launched brand includes a 420-acre resort called Tyson Ranch in Southern California.

Tyson’s longtime trainer, Billy White, welcomes society’s long overdue acceptance of marijuana. “It’s taken so long to get to where we are now. The harsh penalties in sports and in the criminal justice system should’ve ended years ago. We’ll look back and laugh at how unfairly we treated this drug. It’s not a performance enhancer in the traditional sense … but then again, I could shoot the ball like Pistol Pete after smoking when I was younger.”

Fortunately, some influential regulators, including the New York State Athletic Commission, have already reduced or repealed severe punishments. As additional states pass legislation approving adult recreational and medical use of cannabis – currently, 36 states and U.S. territories oversee such programs – slow-to-move commissions must adopt standards that better reflect our culture’s evolving understanding of marijuana.

RYAN SAKACS is the Senior Legal Counsel to Arcview Management Consulting, a leading cannabis professional service firm. Sakacs previously served as Counsel to the New York State Athletic Commission, Special Counsel with Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP, and was the founding Chief of New York City’s Prescription Drug Investigation Unit.

RICHARD WASHINGTON is the principal attorney for the Law Offices of Richard J. Washington, P.C., where his practice focuses primarily on Labor, Employment and Administrative Law.  Before entering private practice, Richard served as an Assistant District Attorney in New York County, and worked as counsel to the New York City Department of Education and the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation.

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A Big Upset in London as Oleksandr Usyk Outclasses Anthony Joshua

Arne K. Lang

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Oleksandr Usyk gathered up all four meaningful cruiserweight belts before leaving the division. Tonight, on a special night at London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, he acquired three of the four meaningful heavyweight belts to add to his rich collection. In a battle between former Olympic gold medalists, the 34-year-old Ukrainian cashed his ticket to the Hall of Fame (and on the first ballot) with a unanimous decision over Anthony Joshua. There were some strange scorecards turned in earlier in the evening so it was no sure thing that the judges would get it right, but they did. Usyk won by tallies of 117-112, 116-112, and 115-113.

There were no knockdowns but this was an entertaining fight with momentum shifts and the goosebumps that come whenever an underdog is acquitting himself well against a bigger man more capable of turning the tide with one punch.

Usyk, who improved to 19-0 (13) started strong. With his superior hand and foot speed, he actually looked a level above Joshua. But Usyk’s pace slowed in the fifth and Joshua started closing the gap. Usyk had a strong seventh round, but Joshua came back strong in the next stanza and it seemed as if he had more fuel in his tank and was capable of a Garrison finish. But no, Usyk closed strong and ended the match with a flourish.

Joshua, whose ledger declined to 24-2 (22), was expected to land the more damaging punches but it was Usyk, who suffered a cut around his right eye, whose punches were more damaging. At the end, Joshua’s right eye was swollen nearly shut.

Joshua’s defeat spoiled a lucrative match with his countryman Tyson Fury (assuming Fury gets past Deontay Wilder). That match will likely come to fruition someday, but it won’t be quite the mega-fight that it would have been under “normal” circumstances.

Co-Main

Lawrence Okolie drew a softie for the first defense of his WBO world cruiserweight title that he won with a smashing performance over Krzysztof Glowacki. In the opposite corner was Montenegro’s Dilan Prasovic who came in undefeated (15-0) but against suspect opposition and was out of his element. Okolie stopped him in the third round, improving his ledger to 17-0 (14 KOs).

A former McDonald’s burger-flipper who is co-managed by Anthony Joshua and trained by Shane McGuigan, Okolie decked Prasovic with a right hand in the second round and terminated the fight in the next frame with a body punch that didn’t appear to land especially hard. The official time was 1:57.

Standing 6’5 ½” with an 82 ½-inch reach, the ever-improving Okolie hopes to unify the division before moving up to heavyweight. He may out-grow the cruiserweight class before a unification fight presents itself.

Other Bouts

Liverpool’s Callum Smith, in his first fight as a light heavyweight and his first fight with Buddy McGirt in his corner, rolled back the clock to the days when he was running up a string of fast knockouts and sent Lenin Castillo to dreamland with a booming right hand in the second round. This was a scary knockout. Castillo’s leg twitched as he lay on the canvas. He was removed from the ring on a stretcher and taken to a hospital where, according to promoter Eddie Hearn, he was fully responsive.

Smith (28-1, 20 KOs) was making his first start since losing to Canelo Alvarez in a match in which he was reluctant to let his hands go. Castillo, from the Dominican Republic, had previously taken Dmitry Bivol the distance (albeit while losing virtually every round) in a bid for Bivol’s WBA 175-pound crown. He was 21-3-1 heading in and hadn’t previously been stopped.

Chicago middleweight Christopher Ousley (13-0, 9 KOs) stepped up in class and won a 10-round majority decision over former world title challenger Khasan Baysangurov (21-2). Baysangurov, a Ukrainian, did well in the late rounds but it was too little, too late. The judges had it 95-95 and 97-94 twice.

While Ousley, 30, didn’t look especially sharp, this was good win for him. He had been working with trainer Manny Robles and Anthony Joshua is one of his sponsors. Baysangurov had won four straight since suffering an 11th-round stoppage at the hands of Rob Brant.

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Boxing Odds and Ends: The Russian Lion, an Exemplary Judge and More

Arne K. Lang

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Boxing Odds and Ends: The Russian Lion, an Exemplary Judge and More

Arslanbek Makhmudov, says his promoter Camille Estephan, is the most feared heavyweight in the world. Makhmudov did nothing to discount that opinion last night (Friday, Sept. 23) in Quebec City where he needed only one round to dismiss Erkan Teper. That was his 13th knockout in as many pro starts. He’s answered the bell for only 22 rounds.

Makhmudov is ponderous as is to be expected for a boxer who stands 6’5 ½” and weighs 260, but what he lacks in foot speed he makes up in hand speed and he carries power in both of his hands. Teper came out intent on pressing the action, but Makhmudov quickly had him fighting off his back foot. Teper was on the canvas three times in all — the second knockdown could have been ruled a slip – and his corner threw in the towel as soon as the first round ended.

The outcome wasn’t totally unexpected although Teper, a 39-year-old German of Turkish descent, brought a 21-3 record and had gone 12 rounds on several occasions. In his previous match which was held at a Holiday Inn in Mexico, Makhmudov stopped Czechoslovakian slug Pavel Sour in 37 seconds.

Makhmudov’s nickname is “Lion.” He’s hardly the first Russian to be cloaked with this cognomen. The most celebrated of the Russian lions was George Hackenschmidt, a wrestler who rose to prominence in the first decade of the twentieth century. In those days, pro wrestling was legitimate, or at least quasi-legitimate, and the biggest matches attracted heavy betting.

At age 32, it’s past time for Makhmudov to ramp up his level of competition. He and his management say he’s ready to tackle any heavyweight in the world.

In the co-feature on the Quebec City show, Christian Mbilli stopped Ronny Landaeta in the third frame of a 10-round super middleweight match. Mbilli, born in Cameroon, represented France in the 2016 Olympics. Akin to Makhmudov, he came to Canada to launch his pro career.

Mbilli improved to 19-0 (18). He won a one-sided, 8-round decision over sturdy Mexican veteran Humberto Ochoa on the lone occasion when he was forced to go the distance. Landaeta, a 38-year-old Spaniard, brought an 18-3 record and hadn’t previously been stopped.

We would love to see Arslanbek Makhmudov fight the winner of the forthcoming battle between Efe Ajagba and Frank Sanchez and we would love to see Christian Mbilli in the ring with Edgar Berlanga. Of course, at the moment those are just fantasy fights not likely to happen anytime soon, if ever.

It’s old news now, but a boxing judge took to social media to apologize for a bad scorecard. Who ever heard of such a thing?

The fight in question was the WBC 130-pound title fight between Oscar Valdez and Robson Conceicao staged in Tucson on Sept. 10.

A common opinion expressed by those tuning in on TV was that Conceicao was entitled to a draw, notwithstanding the fact that he had a point deducted for hitting behind the head, a questionable call. But the judges disagreed. Two had it 115-112 for Valdez and the other favored Valdez by a 117-110 score.

The outlier was Stephen Blea, a veteran arbiter from Denver. After reviewing a tape of the fight, Blea decided that his unpopular 117-110 tally was too generous to the defending champion and felt compelled to offer an apology. “I have decided to reach out to my NABF/WBC ring officials committee to undergo a thorough training and review program and will not accept any championship assignments until I complete the process,” he wrote. “I am an honorable man with profound, love, knowledge and respect to the sport. I am sorry for having brought unnecessary controversy to such a sensational fight.”

Blea noted that he had judged over 200 fights and refereed over 500 with no controversy and that his assignments had taken him around the world. A theology major in college, Blea has been a long-time supporter of amateur boxing in Colorado and had served as the head boxing coach of the Denver Police Department.

Boxing writer Patrick L. Stumberg had this reaction to Blea’s letter of contrition: “We’ve seen tons of judges turn in inexplicably bad scorecards and just keep on trucking like nothing happened, so this is very refreshing.”

Indeed. The Boxing Writers Association of America has intermittently handed out an award for “Honesty and Integrity” at their annual banquet. Stephen Blea would seem to be a worthy nominee.

Heavyweight boxers just keep getting bigger. Top Rank’s newest signee, Antonio Mireles, stands six-foot-nine and weighs 265 pounds.

Mireles, 24, upset top-seeded Jeremiah Milton at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials (held in December of 2019 in St. Charles, Louisiana) but didn’t get the chance to compete in Tokyo. The super heavyweight slot went to Team USA veteran Richard Torrez Jr who went on to win a silver medal.

Mireles hails from Des Moines, Iowa, a state that has produced a slew of outstanding wrestlers over the years but very few professional boxers. Only one Iowa man has fought for the world heavyweight title and he didn’t fare very well. Ron Stander, the “Bluffs Butcher” from Council Bluffs was butchered by Smokin’ Joe Frazier in 1972. Stander was a bloody mess when the ring doctor waived the fight off after four rounds.

Antonio Mireles has been training at Robert Garcia’s boxing academy in Oxnard, CA. He is penciled in to make his pro debut on the Oct. 15 Top Rank show in San Diego anchored by Emanuel Navarette’s WBO world featherweight title defense against Joet Gonzalez.

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The Hauser Report: Ken Burns Explores Muhammad Ali

Thomas Hauser

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“I wanted to write about Muhammad Ali,” Wilfrid Sheed told me years ago when we were discussing the text that Sheed had written for an elaborate coffee-table book. “He’s one of those madonnas you want to paint at least once in your life.”

Ali is also a subject that filmmakers want to make documentaries about. More documentaries have been fashioned about Ali than any other athlete ever.

There was a time when Ali was the most famous, most recognizable, most loved person on the planet. He was an important social and political figure in addition to being a great fighter. One day after Cassius Clay (as he was then known) beat Sonny Liston to claim the heavyweight crown, he met with reporters and told them, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want to be and think what I want to think.”

At a time when the heavyweight championship of the world was the most coveted title in sports, that lit a spark that grew into a raging fire. Commenting on the impact of Ali’s refusal to accept induction into the United States Army at the height of the war in Vietnam, Islamic scholar Sherman Jackson observed, “You can’t teach that kind of thing in lectures and books. That kind of thing has to be modeled.”

Now Ken Burns – one of America’s most honored filmmakers – has thrown his hat into the ring. Burns rose to prominence in 1990 when PBS aired his critically-acclaimed eleven-hour documentary on the Civil War. Since then, he has tackled subjects ranging from baseball, Mark Twain, and jazz to World War II, the war in Vietnam, and the Brooklyn Bridge. In 2005, he explored the life and times of Jack Johnson in a 3-1/2-hour documentary entitled Unforgivable Blackness. Now Burns has returned to the sweet science with Muhammad Ali – an eight-hour opus co-directed and written with Sarah Burns (his daughter), and David McMahon (her husband).

Muhammad Ali unfolds chronologically and is divided into four parts designated as “rounds” – a questionable designation since Ali was hardly a four-round fighter.

Round One: The Greatest (1942-1964) details Cassius Clay’s upbringing in Louisville through his first fight against Sonny Liston with considerable exposition of the Nation of Islam and the allure that it had for Clay.

Round Two: What’s My Name (1964-1970) covers Ali at his peak as a fighter [Liston II through Ali-Folley with Ali-Quarry I tacked on]. Also, Ali and the draft.

Round Three: The Rivalry (1970-1974) takes viewers from Ali-Bonavena, through Ali-Frazier I and II up to an introduction of Don King and the stirrings of Ali-Foreman.

Round Four: The Spell Remains (1974-2016) begins with “The Rumble in the Jungle” and lays out the remaining forty-two years of Ali’s life.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I was one of several people asked by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 2018 to review Burns’s proposal for the documentary and answer a series of questions keyed to whether or not CPB should fund it. Given the excellence of Burns’s work, I began my response with the thought, “It feels presumptuous to be critiquing a proposal by Ken Burns,” and added, “I have no doubt that Ken Burns will do a masterful job in the areas that he covers. His track record speaks for itself. Muhammad Ali is important. And Mr. Burns’s proposal, coupled with his reputation for excellence as a filmmaker, promise a comprehensive entertaining look at his subject.”

The finished documentary bears out that promise. It’s thorough and nicely put together. Burns lays out both the positive aspects and also the ugly underside of the Nation of Islam without sugarcoating the principles that Ali espoused at a time in his life when he adhered to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. The glorious and ultimately tragic arc of Ali’s ring career is well told. The cruelties that he visited on Joe Frazier outside the ring and Ali’s profligate womanizing are honestly addressed. The archival footage and still photos are excellent.

Keith David’s narration is smooth. Some of the talking heads are exceptionally good.

Former WBO heavyweight beltholder Michael Bentt is particularly insightful in describing Ali’s ring technique.

Professor and media commentator Todd Boyd is a welcome voice. Speaking about Ali’s taunting of Joe Frazier, Boyd declares, “Ali is making the sort of jokes that racist white people would make. I feel like, in that instance, he used his powers for evil as opposed to using them for good.”

Khalilah Ali (Muhammad’s second wife) and two of his daughters, Rasheda and Hana, provide valuable personal insights. Veronica Porche (Muhammad’s third wife) is a particularly welcome inclusion.

Journalist Salim Muwakkil makes a solid contribution. And Burns gives ample time to three wise men who covered Ali for much of his journey – journalists Robert Lipsyte, Jerry Izenberg, and Dave Kindred.

Kindred is the most lyrical of the three. Recalling Ali-Frazier III, he states, “They turned each other into monsters. That’s boxing at its cruelest. That’s what the game is. And they were at their best cruelest that night.” Later, commenting on Ali’s horribly debilitated physical condition, Kindred observes, “The game that we asked him to play to entertain us has left him looking like this.”

On the minus side, the documentary is too long. Its eight hours drag in places. Some of the material (e.g., the extensive film footage from Ali’s amateur career and some of his professional fights) could have been shortened with no loss in quality.

More significantly, Burns offers no new interpretations of Ali.

In responding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting questionnaire, I advanced the thought, “There has been an endless stream of Ali documentaries over the past half century. More are currently in production. For maximum impact and to make a maximum contribution to history, it’s not enough for Mr. Burns to do what has been done before better than it has been previously done. He has to break new ground.”

How could he break new ground?

“I hope,” my response continued, “that Mr. Burns devotes some time to the final twenty years of Ali’s life in a more than superficial way. These decades cry out for interpretation. What did Ali mean to the world over these years? Was his legacy corrupted by the calculated filing away of rough edges from his persona and the ‘sanitization’ of his image by CKX, ABG [two companies that owned commercial rights to Ali’s name, likeness, and image], and others for economic gain? Is there still an Ali message that resonates? In memory, can Ali be a force for positive change? Is there a way to harness the extraordinary outpouring of love that was seen around the world when Ali died?”

“Round Four” of the documentary could have addressed these issues. But it didn’t. The last thirty-five years of Ali’s life (everything after the end of his ring career) are compressed into twenty-five minutes. And much of this time is devoted to Ali lighting the cauldron at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

The 1996 Olympics were an important marker in the public’s embrace of Ali. But they were also the point at which corporate America rediscovered Muhammad and the sanitization of his image for economic gain began. This was evident in everything from subsequent superficial advertising campaigns to the 2001 feature film starring Will Smith. Burns’s documentary doesn’t sanitize Ali. But it doesn’t talk about the sanitization either. And that sanitization was a corrosive force.

Decades ago, Alex Haley (who fashioned The Autobiography of Malcolm X with its subject) told me, “I think it’s important for future generations to know who Muhammad Ali was. So, if I were to talk to a young boy about Ali today – a young boy who wasn’t alive in the 1960s, who didn’t live through Vietnam, someone for whom Ali is history – I’d talk to that boy about principles and pride. I’d say, ‘If you really want to know about people and history in the times before you were born, you owe it to yourself to go back, not read books so much, but to go to a library where you’ll have access to daily papers and read about this man, every single day for years. That might give you some understanding of who Muhammad Ali was and what he meant to his people.'”

Every single day. Day after day. For years.

Muhammad Ali’s spirit is inside all of us. At its best, Ken Burns’s film reminds us of how charismatic, charming, electrifying, wise, foolish, generous, loving, cruel, kind, complex, simple, and great Ali could be.

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, he was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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