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Evander Holyfield’s Las Vegas Episodes (Part Two)

Arne K. Lang

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Seven weeks after announcing his retirement, Evander Holyfield had an about-face. The impetus was a two-day rally he attended in Philadelphia led by controversial televangelist Benny Hinn. During the services, Hinn “touched” Holyfield and pronounced him healed.

The reaction in the boxing community was overwhelmingly sarcastic. “I have a bum knee,” said New York State Athletic Commission chairman Randy Gordon, “that I would like (the faith healer) to look at.” But the wisecracks ceased when Holyfield went to the Mayo Clinic and the doctors there found no evidence of the heart defect. Evander had been misdiagnosed, or the problem had corrected itself organically, or – as Evander chose to believe – he had received a gift from God.

Evander began his comeback in Atlantic City in a 10-round contest with rugged Ray Mercer. Holyfield dominated Mercer in the late rounds, assuaging concerns about his stamina, and won a unanimous decision. Holyfield was too cheap to pay for a cut man (his trainer Don Turner assumed the responsibility), and it almost cost him when he suffered a bad cut over his right eye, but his triumph thrust him back in the heavyweight picture and set the wheels in motion for a rubber match with Riddick Bowe.

Bowe had never been knocked down until Holyfield knocked him to the canvas with a left hook in round six of the rubber match. But by then, Holyfield, out-weighed by 27 pounds, was “bone-tired.” Bowe stopped him two rounds later, reducing Evander’s record to 31-3. Interestingly, this was a non-title fight. Following his loss to Evander in their middle fight, Bowe had gone on to win the lightly-regarded WBO belt, but the promoter refused to pony up a sanctioning fee so no title was at stake.

Holyfield got back on the winning track in his next start, a match with Bobby Czyz at Madison Square Garden, Evander’s first appearance in the Big Apple since his pro debut 11-and-a-half years earlier. This was nothing more than a stay-busy fight. Czyz, 34, had won titles at 175 and 190, but he had begun his pro career as a middleweight and at 5’10” would be the shorter man by four-and-a-half inches.

Czyz retired on his stool after five rounds complaining of a foreign substance in his eyes. Holyfield was comfortably ahead when the bout ended, but he wasn’t impressive.

When it became known that Holyfield had landed a bout with Mike Tyson, it was immediately decried as a mismatch. Evander’s best years were behind him, or so it seemed, whereas Iron Mike had looked like his old self after returning from prison, scoring four fast knockouts while picking up the IBF and WBA belts along the way. In a poll of sportswriters by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, 47 of 48 respondents picked Tyson. (The apostate was Ron Borges of the Boston Globe who reversed course after originally picking Tyson by KO in a Boxing Illustrated survey.)

The Nevada Commission would not approve the fight until Holyfield underwent a more extensive battery of medical tests than he had received at the Mayo Clinic. Their qualms factored into the odds. The Las Vegas bookmakers opened Tyson a 25/1 favorite and suffered a bloodbath when Holyfield was victorious, stopping Iron Mike in the 11th round before a sell-out crowd at the MGM Grand Garden in a fight that had turned sharply in his favor. With the victory, Evander joined Muhammad Ali as a three-time heavyweight champion.

The rematch, also at the MGM Grand, was the infamous “bite fight,” a fight that has been hashed-over at length and won’t be re-hashed again here. Holyfield’s ears were an expensive comestible for Tyson who was fined three million dollars by the commission for his rampage.

Before the year was out, Holyfield renewed acquaintances with Michael Moorer. They met at the Thomas and Mack Center on the UNLV campus on Nov. 8, 1997.

Moorer, who no longer had Teddy Atlas in his corner, came in at a puffy 223 pounds, nine pounds more than in their first meeting. His recent efforts, although victorious, were lackadaisical and Evander, the would-be avenger, was installed the favorite.

Moorer looked good in the early-going and was winning the fifth until Evander knocked him down in the waning seconds of the round. Holyfield would knock him down twice more in the seventh and twice more in the eighth before the bout was halted on the advice of the ringside physician. This redemptive victory, coupled with his earlier triumph over Tyson, earned Evander The Ring’s Fighter of the Year Award, his third, a number surpassed by only Joe Louis (4) and Muhammad Ali (6).

All three significant belts were at stake when Holyfield squared off with Lennox Lewis at Madison Square Garden on March 13, 1999. This was the first “true” (unified) heavyweight title fight in a New York ring since the 1971 Fight of the Century between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Making the match more irresistible, the odds were “pick-‘em.”

The fight went the full 12 and Lewis would be credited with out-landing Evander in every round. There was a great snit when the bout was ruled a draw. The brunt of the vitriol was directed at  IBF arbiter Eugenia Williams who had Holyfield winning seven rounds. She was accused of being a puppet of Holyfield’s promoter Don King.

The do-over at the Thomas and Mack was an immense attraction. The fight broke the existing Nevada record for gate receipts and the existing record for pay-per-view buys.

Holyfield did better in the rematch than in the first fight, not that one would have gleaned that from a glance at the scorecards: 117-111, 116-112, and 115-113, all for Lennox Lewis. If this had been the first fight between them instead of the second, and if this bout had been scored a draw, hardly anyone would have complained. Regardless, an injustice was rectified.

Holyfield’s next three fights were against John Ruiz, the first two in Las Vegas. Evander went 1-1-1 against Ruiz who fought out of Chelsea, Massachusetts, but yet their trilogy wasn’t a big story outside New England. Ruiz had a bland personality, manifested in his nickname, “The Quiet Man,” and an awkward style that made for dull fights.

Constantly boring ahead, Ruiz did a good job smothering Holyfield’s punches and exhibited just enough offense to warrant the decision in the minds of many people. But the judges favored Holyfield, two of whom gave him the nod by a single point.

The bout was contested at the Paris Hotel. At stake was the vacant WBA title that Lennox Lewis had forfeited. With the victory, Evander became the first four-time heavyweight champion, not that the fourth title was considered  a significant achievement in the alphabet-fractured environment. The prevailing sentiment, articulated by Kevin Iole, was that Holyfield would have carved Ruiz to pieces if the bout had been held five years earlier.

Holyfield conceded that his showing wasn’t up to his standards. He blamed it on a broken eardrum which he said affected his balance and his timing. When the WBA ordered a rematch, Evander was all for it.

Typical of all great champions (with Joe Louis the classic example), Holyfield tended to perform at his best in rematches. But not this time. Despite severe swelling over both eyes and a bloody nose, Ruiz pulled away in the late rounds. He knocked Holyfield down in the 11th with a right to the temple and Holyfield, who had difficulty putting his punches together, barely survived the round. Many in the crowd left before the scorecards were read; the verdict was a foregone conclusion.

Holyfield was two weeks shy of his 41st birthday when he locked horns with James Toney on Oct. 4, 2003 at Mandalay Bay.

The 35-year-old Toney, who brought a 66-4-2 record, had won the IBF 190-pound title in his most recent outing, a fierce fight with Vassiliy Jirov. He came in at 217 for Evander, 60 pounds more than he carried when he upset Michael Nunn back in 1991. But Toney was a handful at any weight and he gave Evander the worst beating of his career. The bout was stopped midway through the ninth frame when Holyfield’s trainer  Don Turner entered the ring on a mission of mercy.

Evander Holyfield’s last fight in Las Vegas came six-and-half years after his defeat by James Toney and it almost didn’t happen. The Nevada commission debated long and hard before approving his match with 41-year-old Frans Botha, the so-called “White Buffalo.”

The fight was up for grabs after seven rounds with Holyfield trailing on two of the cards. In the eighth, Evander broke through, decking Botha with a big right hand and following up with a barrage of punches after Botha made it to his feet, leading the referee to call it off. It was a messy fight with a lot of clinching and a comical moment when Botha hit both of Evander’s ears simultaneously, a maneuver, said ringside reporter Steve Carp, that the “White Buffalo” borrowed from The Three Stooges playbook.

The fight was at the Thomas and Mack. In his previous fight in this building, Holyfield fought Lennox Lewis before an animated crowd of 17,916 swelled by a large delegation of singing and chanting British fight fans. His purse was $15 million guaranteed but he stood to make even more based on the pay-per-view numbers. His fight with Frans Botha played out before a subdued crowd announced at 3,127. Evander, who was coming off back-to-back losses, reportedly fought for a purse of $150,000.

To his credit, Evander ended his 17-fight Las Vegas run on a winning note. He would fight twice more before calling it quits, leaving the sport with a 44-10-2 record.

The word most often used to describe Evander Holyfield is the word warrior, a word that invariably comes prefaced by the verb “great” or a synonym of it.

Former Review-Journal sports editor Jim Fossum authored a nice tribute: “Holyfield displayed heart and conditioning virtually unparalleled in boxing…(He) securely established his place in every boxing book they will print from here to eternity.”

Fossum wrote those words in April of 1994, long before Evander’s two fights with Mike Tyson and 17 years before Holyfield’s final fight!

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 135: Danny Roman and Super Bantamweights Perform in L.A.

David A. Avila

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 135: Danny Roman and Super Bantamweights Perform in L.A.

The super bantamweight division was virtually unknown by most fans of prizefighting for the last decade.

Then Danny Roman arrived and re-booted the 122-pound division virtually by himself by challenging and defeating world champions from Japan and the United Kingdom.

Roman (28-3-1, 10 KOs) no longer holds the world titles but itches to regain his footing when he fights Ricardo Espinoza (25-3, 21 KOs) at Dignity Health Sports Park on Saturday May 15. Showtime will televise the battle on the Premier Boxing Champions card.

“Everything I do in boxing from here on out is to regain my status as a world champion,” said the normally ultra-reserved Roman, 31.

Ironically, both Roman and Espinoza turned their careers around with numerous battles at boxing shows in Ontario, California. They entered as boys and emerged as battle-tested men.

For the last 20 years Thompson Boxing Promotions has been pumping out world champions and contenders at a furious rate despite their small size in Southern California. They do not pamper or cajole their prospects.

Both Roman and Espinoza suffered their first losses as professionals at Thompson Boxing’s bloody battles at the Doubletree Hotel in Ontario. But despite losing, they continued to learn and evolve. Now they meet in Los Angeles on the big stage.

When Roman lost to Japan’s Takashi Okada in 2011 and Juan Reyes in 2013, that could have derailed the Los Angeles-based fighter for good. Instead, he re-grouped and reloaded to become a unified world champion. Roman traveled to Japan and won the WBA super bantamweight world title by stoppage of Shun Kubo in 2017. A couple of years later after several defenses, he clashed with WBO super bantamweight titlist TJ Doheny to win an incredible battle by decision in Los Angeles. It was perhaps the Fight of the Year in 2019 and gained Roman the WBO belt.

Though Roman lost both the WBA and WBO titles to Murodjon Akhmadaliev, it was a disputed split decision. Many felt Roman was the true winner. So now he must battle back toward the top.

Espinoza also fought many bloody affairs at the Doubletree Hotel in Ontario including his first two losses. He lost to Sam Rodriguez in 2016 and Christian Nieto in 2017. Then the power-punching fighter from Tijuana, Mexico knocked out 12 of 13 of his opponents to gain a world title fight that he lost in April 2019. Since then, he has returned to his winning ways and upset undefeated Brandon Valdes last year.

“Danny Roman has fought some really quality opponents that are high in the rankings, but this is my time. This is when I show that I can step up in competition and prove that I belong with the best,” said Espinoza who is very familiar with Roman.

The Tijuana fighter is a punching machine.

“This is not going to be an easy fight because I know my opponent is a tough fighter from Tijuana who is coming with everything he’s got. He’s got a lot of power, so I must be smart on how I throw my combinations,” said Roman who lives within 10 miles of the event. “I believe my experience in big fights is going to be the difference on May 15. I’m expecting a rough fight and I’m ready for an intense battle.”

Now the two veterans of the Ontario, California wars finally meet each other to see who advances toward a world title fight. They won’t have to look far. The main event pits two titleholders against each other.

Unification Battle for Super Bantam Belts

Mexico’s Luis Nery holds the WBC super bantamweight world title and faces Texan Brandon Figueroa who holds a version of the WBA super bantamweight title in the main event on the Dignity Health Sports Park card on Saturday. Showtime will televise.

Nery formerly held the bantamweight title too. But the Tijuana-based fighter had problems making weight and wisely moved up a weight division. So far, the extra pounds hasn’t been a problem.

The problem facing Nery is Figueroa has a solid chin.

Figueroa may look like a pretty boy but he fights like he’s ugly. The Weslaco, Texas native has firepower and a rock chin but does he have the skills to match Nery?

“I come forward. I bring the pressure and I’m definitely going to bring the power, the size and all the advantages I have to make sure that we give the fans a great show. I do respect him as a fighter but we’re just going to have to find out Saturday,” said Figueroa whose brother Omar Figueroa fought in the same venue two weeks ago.

Nery has quickness and agility to supplement his power. He also has experience in world class opposition and that’s something Figueroa lacks.

“Brandon’s style really fits with what I want to do in the ring,” said Nery, a boxer-slugger. “This is going to be an all-out war from the first round on. People are going to be talking about it for a long time after.”

The winner of this clash will hopefully meet the winner of Roman and Espinoza. That would really heat up the super bantamweight division to blue hot levels.

Some of my favorite fighters of the past occupied the super bantamweight division like Wilfredo “Bazooka” Gomez, Marco Antonio Barrera and Israel “Magnifico” Vazquez who twice fought in this same venue. His third fight with Rafael Marquez on March 1, 2008 was voted Fight of the Year for its brutal but spectacular display of super bantamweight power.

The winners of this quasi-super bantamweight tournament can equally achieve the same kind of greatness those former stars achieved. This is a good start.

Fights to Watch (All times are Pacific Coast)

Friday UFC Fight Pass 5:30 p.m. Heather Hardy (22-1) vs Jessica Camara (7-2); Melissa St. Vil (13-4-4) vs Olivia Gerula (18-18-4).

Friday Telemundo 11:30 p.m. Denilson Valtierra (14-0) vs Emanuel Lopez (30-12-1).

Sat. DAZN 10 a.m. Lerrone Richards (14-0) vs Giovanni De Carolis (28-9-1).

Sat. Showtime 7 p.m. Luis Nery (31-0) vs Brandon Figueroa (21-0-1); Danny Roman (28-3-1) vs Ricardo Espinoza (25-3).

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Charr vs Lovejoy: Better Late Than Never, or Not

Phil Woolever

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COLOGNE – There are many questions to be answered regarding Mahmoud Charr’s scheduled fight against Christopher Lovejoy this Saturday night at a training facility along the Rhine. The most primary point to be determined is whether the contest actually occurs.

Charr has been idle since capturing a WBA title belt against Aleksandr Ustinov way back in November 2017. Since then numerous delays and cancellations, many of them out of Charr’s control, have kept the erstwhile ranked heavyweight out of the championship picture and far from the international public eye.

The most recent of such situations found Charr unable to obtain a travel visa for a defense against Trevor Bryan in Florida last January. Machinations by Don King and the WBA in relegating Charr to “in recess” status further tarnished both the promoter and the organization’s already disgraceful reputations.

King has also had a hand in keeping Lovejoy off the rumbling radar, after the boxer previously claimed retirement as a way out of King’s contractual clutches. When Lovejoy attempted to face Dave Allen in London on the undercard of Usyk-Chisora, King contacted Matchroom’s Eddie Hearn with enough of a claim that Lovejoy’s appearance was cancelled.

According to Lovejoy, King has also attempted to block Saturday’s fight, so uncertainty remains until the first bell rings this weekend. That said, everything else about the relatively low key card seems to be well in place, and there is plenty to look forward to, questions and all. A subscriber-based live stream on German news outlet Bild.de will broadcast the bout.

How the long layoff, which began way before the coronavirus pandemic, has affected Charr is probably the most crucial factor, but what the rarely seen Lovejoy brings to the table is as compelling as it is curiously noteworthy. His record of 19-0 with 19 quick knockouts, compiled completely off-grid in frequent madhouse Tijuana could mean damn near anything.

Charr, 31-4 (17), has been stopped three times and in two of those KOs (by Maris Briedis and Alexander Povetkin) he was blasted into one-shot oblivion. Under Saturday’s scenario one of the few possible surprises might be if Lovejoy doesn’t try to get Charr out of there immediately.

Lovejoy, listed at 6’4”, looks substantially larger than 6’3” Charr, but not any taller. An uneducated guess indicates a strong possibility that the more proven Charr is capable of wearing Lovejoy down, especially considering how he did it against a respectable version of Ustinov.

When Lovejoy refused to shake Charr’s hand and insulted his courage during their press conference photo op, there was a slight but very significant twitch in Charr’s almost constantly upbeat countenance. If Lovejoy doesn’t indeed carry huge power in his punches, he may have inspired a painful night.

To put Charr’s simmering anger in perspective, it must be remembered that he still looked like he was calmly waiting for his food while being carried out on a stretcher after getting shot four times in the lower abdomen during a 2015 ambush in nearby Essen. When his assailant, a former boxing protégé, confessed by saying he only meant to shoot him in the leg, Charr told an emotion packed courtroom bygones were bygones, saying “I am a man who forgives.”

A refugee at five years old whose father was killed in the Lebanese civil war, Charr seems to clearly envision a bigger picture than just his boxing career, and he consistently posts positive motivational copy on social media, including an end of Ramadan message stressing nonpartisan hope for the current Gaza conflict.

The 10-round fight carries no title designation but whatever they may or may not step into the ring with, one thing Charr and Lovejoy share is the potential for a make-or-break performance.

If Charr wins, people will dismiss Lovejoy’s merit in the first place but it still keeps a bit of shine on his championship claims, increasing his leverage regarding Bryan or even bigger game. If Lovejoy wins, especially by dramatic KO, he has definitely upped his recognition factor marketability.

The only safe bet is that the winner will probably hear from somebody representing Don King.

And maybe even Fres Oquendo.

Questions, questions.

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The Tartan Tornado Invades Las Vegas, Harkening Back to Sugar Ray Robinson

Arne K. Lang

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On Sunday, Feb. 26, 1961, Sugar Ray Robinson arrived in Las Vegas for his match six days later with Gene Fullmer at the two-year-old Las Vegas Convention Center. Reporters on hand to greet Robinson at the airport were taken aback by his large entourage. With him were his manager George Gainford, his trainer and his trainer’s assistant, his mother, his traveling secretary, his personal physician, his dietician, his bodyguard, his personal barber and a sparring partner – eleven bodies in all including Robinson.

Flash forward 60 years. When WBA/IBF world super lightweight champion Josh Taylor arrived in Las Vegas on April 24, his party also numbered eleven. Arriving with him from Edinburgh were his trainer Ben Davison, his former amateur coach Terry McCormack (pictured on the right) and assorted others including a videoanalyst, a physiotherapist, and several longtime friends and gym mates including undefeated (10-0) European bantamweight title-holder Lee McGregor and sparring partner Chris Kongo.

Once he was settled in, Sugar Ray had less than a full week to finish off his preparation for his title fight with arch-rival Fullmer. By contrast, Josh Taylor and his team arrived in Las Vegas a full month before Taylor was set to square off against WBC/WBO counterpart Jose Ramirez in the biggest fight in Las Vegas since Fury-Wilder II, a lapse of 14 months.

There are other differences between Team Robinson and Team Taylor which touch on the way that boxing has changed from a promotional standpoint. Sugar Ray and his party stayed at the Dunes Casino Resort on the Strip where Robinson picked up some loose change holding afternoon pre-fight workouts in the hotel’s showroom at $1 a head. Team Taylor is staying as a group in a large, luxury home in the “burbs” where there are fewer distractions and when he is ready to spar at the Top Rank Gym, “foreigners” are shooed away. Which isn’t to say that Josh Taylor isn’t friendly. Quite the opposite; the Tartan Tornado has been very approachable and unstinting of his time with the few local reporters that have been hep to his whereabouts.

Taylor hails from Prestonpans, a town eight miles east of Edinburgh, Scotland’s second-largest city. His dad works as a landscape gardener and his mother as a receptionist. He has one sibling, a younger sister. This past December he became engaged to hairdresser Danielle Murphy, his longtime girlfriend. They have known each other for 10 years.

On Wikipedia, Prestonpans is portrayed as a small fishing village, but that is highly misleading. For a better reference, think of towns in the American rust belt that have been bruised by the loss of manufacturing jobs. Taylor and his neighbors will tell you that the policies of Margaret Thatcher, British PM from 1979 to 1990, compounded the damage.

At age 17, Taylor, now 30, found his way to McCormack’s Lochend Boxing Club in Edinburgh. At this humble gym — a little shack situated smack against a public housing project — he honed the skills that made him an elite amateur, a globetrotter who culminated his tenure with a gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Taylor turned pro for Barry McGuigan’s Cyclone Promotions. McGuigan entrusts his fighters to his trainer/son Shane McGuigan. The McGuigans already had Carl Frampton in the fold. Under the McGuigans stewardship, Frampton became a champion in two weight classes.

Taylor’s fight with Jose Ramirez will be his fourth in the United States. Josh made his pro debut in El Paso and also fought at Barclays Center in Brooklyn and at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The common thread in all three fights is Frampton who also appeared on those cards, the last two as the headliner with Leo Santa Cruz in the opposite corner.

As a pro, Taylor is undefeated (17-0, 13 KOs). Ramirez, the pride of Central California’s vast San Joaquin Valley, home to more than 4 million people, is also undefeated (26-0, 17 KOs), but the Scotsman is considered to have fought the stronger schedule. Taylor’s last five opponents were collectively 110-1 at the time that he fought them with the lone blemish inflicted by Terence Crawford.

Taylor’s signature win was his Oct. 26, 2019 conquest of Regis Prograis at London’s O2 Arena. Both came in undefeated, both owned a share of the world super lightweight title, and the match had the added allure of being the final round of a World Boxing Super Series tournament with the coveted Muhammad Ali Trophy, an impressive piece of hardware, bestowed on the winner.

The fight was expected to be highly entertaining and it overachieved. The noted historian Matt McGrain called it “the inarguable 140lb fight of the decade.” At the end both fighters were marked-up, especially the victorious Taylor who sported a beauty of a shiner over his right eye. “I have never been prouder of an injury,” Taylor told this reporter.

pontrepans

His relationship with the McGuigans unraveled after this fight. Shane McGuigan took it hard. “I’ve invested four-and-a-half years of my time and energy in someone who just doesn’t deserve it,” he said. “If you want loyalty in boxing, buy a dog (a saying previously credited to the late British boxing promoter Mickey Duff).”

“Don’t buy a dog and then put it in the kennel,” replied Taylor, noting that he had been left alone for long periods by Shane McGuigan when training in England and that he wasn’t provided a key to the gym when his trainer was out of town.

Veteran British boxing scribe Colin Hart took the McGuigans’ side in a story that ran in the Sun, faulting Josh for his disloyalty. What Hart failed to note is that in every deal that Taylor has signed, he has insisted that his amateur coach be included. McCormack assisted McGuigan in the corner and continues in that role under Davison, the young trainer who reinvigorated Tyson Fury before their amicable split.

“I have never been so happy as I am now,” says Taylor. “I am content and relaxed.” And he insists that he harbors no hard feelings toward the McGuigans. “I’m grateful for what they did for me.”

This olive branch, of sorts, stands in stark contrast to his pal Carl Frampton whose break from the McGuigans was scarred with unbending acrimony. (Shane McGuigan’s latest protégé is Lawrence Okolie who turned in a sensational performance while blasting out Krzyzstof Glowacki to win the WBO world cruiserweight title on March 20. There’s no question that Shane is one of the sharpest young trainers in the sport, but if he were a physician, one might say that he needs to work on improving his bedside manner.)

The Taylor-Ramirez fight will be held at the Virgin Hotel (formerly the Hard Rock which was closed for 13 months while the new owners of the property, in their words, “reimagined” it). The winner will be the undisputed 140-pound champion, holding all four meaningful belts. If that be Taylor, who is a small favorite, that would put him on the same pedestal as Ken Buchanan who became a national hero when he won the world lightweight title from Ismael Laguna in 1970, a diadem he lost on a controversial punch to Roberto Duran who refused to give him a rematch.

Now 75 years old and residing in an assisted living facility in Edinburgh, the city of his birth, Buchanan was among the first to predict that Taylor would become a world champion. The two are well-acquainted. Buchanan pops in occasionally at McCormack’s gym. He has visited Taylor at his family home where, Josh notes, his mother welcomed him as she would any honored guest, meaning she put on a spot of tea.

Taylor vs Ramirez is a sellout. The bout will be televised free in the United States on ESPN. It’s a very compelling attraction.

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