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Boxing Odds and Ends: ‘Stitch’ Duran at the Top Rank Gym and More

Arne K. Lang

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Jacob “Stitch” Duran is the most famous cutman in the world. But this past November, when he was working the first of the four Triller shows — the show in Los Angeles anchored by the Mike Tyson vs. Roy Jones Jr exhibition – Duran realized for the first time that his renown wasn’t confined to the insular world of combat sports.

“Snoop Dogg came up to me and said, ‘man you’re a legend, may I take a picture with you?’ I was shocked. I had no idea that anyone knew me in that world. It was a memorable moment.”

Duran, who turned 70 this month and looks years younger, has had many memorable moments. The night that he plied his trade in London’s Wembley Stadium before 90,000 screaming fans is forever embedded in his memory. But that adventure was bittersweet. He worked the corner of Wladimir Klitschko, with whom he had a 12-year relationship, and that see-saw fight between Klitschko and Anthony Joshua ended with Klitschko on the receiving end of a barrage of punches, forcing the referee to step in and call off the contest in the 11th round.

Duran grew up in Planada, CA, an overwhelmingly Hispanic community where a third of the population lives below the poverty line. Planada is in the agriculturally fertile San Joaquin Valley. Most of the working adults are employed by the farms or in a food-related industry. Duran’s memoir, “From the Fields to the Garden” (as in Madison Square), written with Zac Robinson, was released in 2011 and spawned a sequel.

If there is ever a third book, one chapter will likely be titled “Life in the Bubble.” Duran and Mike Bazzel, and eventually Floyd Mayweather’s associate Bob Ware, were tabbed to be the house cutmen for all of Top Rank’s so-called Bubble Fights, 22 in all, a series that ran from June 23, 2020 to Feb. 20 of this year from the sterile MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas.

The cutmen and other essential employees were quarantined on the 12th floor of the hotel, departing only for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and for the weigh-in. Bazzel, who has a home in the San Francisco Bay Area, never left the hotel. Duran, who lived 20 minutes away, was able to go home between assignments but the better part of his week was still spent in his 12th-floor “crib.”

It was boxing’s version of the “Shawshank Redemption,” says Stitch, referencing the 1994 prison movie starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. “We were literally in solitary confinement.” But he is thankful that Top Rank COO Brad Jacobs called him and offered him the gig. Duran was one of the few people in boxing who was able to stay busy when things slowed to a crawl.

Duran, an Air Force veteran, came to Las Vegas in 1995. During his early years in the city, he prowled the boxing and MMA gyms, looking for work. Nowadays, he doesn’t have to look for work, it seeks him out, but Duran is still an insatiable gym rat of sorts.

Earlier this week he was at the Top Rank Gym which was bustling with activity. Tyson Fury was there being put through his paces by trainer SugarHill Steward, as was Scotland’s Josh Taylor, who has a big fight upcoming with Jose Ramirez. The winner will be the undisputed 140-pound champion owning all four meaningful belts.

Duran and the Gypsy King are well-acquainted. When Fury hooked up with Steward, the nephew of the late Emanuel Steward, Stitch Duran came along in what was something of a package deal. Their first fight together was Fury’s rematch with Deontay Wilder. Staged at the MGM Grand Garden on Feb. 22, 2020, it was a tour-de-force for the Gypsy King.

“Working with Fury was a seamless transition because I was so familiar with the Kronk way of doing things,” says Duran. The legendary Emanuel Steward handled Wladimir for 17 fights. When Steward died of colon cancer in 2012, the torch was passed to Emanuel’s longtime assistant Johnathan Banks.

One can number Stitch among those who thought that Emanuel Steward had no peer as a boxing coach: “Emanuel’s work with Wladimir in his first fight with Samuel Peter was the best corner work I ever saw. Emanuel’s instructions got him back in the fight.”

Klitschko looked like a cooked goose after Peter knocked him down twice in the fifth round, but the big Ukrainian went on to win a clear-cut unanimous decision.

There was a camera crew at the Top Rank Gym gathering up the final pieces for a Stitch Duran documentary that commenced filming in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It should prove interesting.

Nat Fleischer Award

The Boxing Writers Association of America has named Joe Maxse the 48th recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award. The award, which recognizes Excellence in Boxing Journalism, is voted on by previous honorees.

A Cleveland native, Maxse, 69, covered boxing for the Cleveland Plain Dealer from 1987 to 2013. Cleveland was an important fight town during most of those years. Don King built his empire there before relocating to New York City and eventually Deerfield Beach, Florida.

The Fleischer Award has been presented every year since 1973. The first recipient was Barney Nagler who went on to helm the BWAA from 1984 to 1989. Nagler was then the sports columnist for the Daily Racing Form. He had begun his journalism career with the Bronx Home News and was the author of two boxing books, most notably “James Norris and the Decline of Boxing,” a book that still appears on many lists of the best boxing books of all time.

Former recipients include two members of the TSS family: Bernard Fernandez (1998) and Thomas Hauser (2004). Last year’s winner was Graham Houston, the longtime North American correspondent and sometimes editor for several British boxing publications including the venerable Boxing News.

Maxse will be honored along with other award winners (a two-year supply) at the 95th BWAA awards dinner, the date and site of which have yet to be determined. Hopefully, when Maxse takes the podium, he won’t conclude his speech without tossing in an impression of the late Harry Carey. Maxse’s spot-on impersonation of the iconic baseball announcer endeared him to his peers.

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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.

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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

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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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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