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Forged by Longtime Coach Al Mitchell, Mikaela Mayer Seems Destined for Stardom

Arne K. Lang

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Mikaela Mayer makes the first defense of her WBO 130-pound world title on Saturday at the Virgin Hotels in Las Vegas against her toughest opponent yet in Argentine veteran Erica Anabella Farias. A win by Mayer would be another feather in the cap of her 77-year-old trainer Al Mitchell who is one of boxing’s most interesting personalities.

One of the bedrocks of amateur boxing in America, Al Mitchell grew up in Philadelphia in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. “Most of the kids on my block would eventually go to prison,” says Mitchell.

Some of them spent time in prison with Mitchell who got caught up in the street life as a teenager and was remanded to the city’s Holmesburg Prison whose alumni would come to include Bernard Hopkins. When he got out, he went back to the recreation center where he had learned to box but rather than resuming his amateur career, he found coaching more to his liking.

In 1988, Mitchell took a team of boxers to a Junior Olympics tournament at the Olympic Education Center in Marquette, Michigan. Founded in 1985, the center was designed for the purpose of allowing elite athletes to continue their education while providing them with the resources to maximize their athletic potential. Athletes of college age attend classes tuition-free at Northern Michigan University and reside with their younger cohorts in the school’s dorms. For many years, NMU was home to the National Junior Olympics Tournament.

In an oft-told story, when Mitchell was returning with his team to Philadelphia, he came across a 15-year-old boxer from Georgia who was stranded at the airport. Mitchell called the kid’s mother and promised her that he would see that her son got home safely and let his Philadelphia team go on ahead without him.

The 15-year-old boxer was Vernon Forrest who would turn pro under Mitchell’s tutelage and go on to win world titles in two weight classes.

The honchos at the training center were impressed with Mitchell’s compassion and with the tools displayed by the young boxers he brought there. The coaching position was vacant and they induced Mitchell to take the job. He arrived in Marquette in the summer of 1989. He reckoned that he would only be there for a few months.

From a ‘hood in Philadelphia to a sleepy college town in Michigan’s Northern Peninsula is quite a transition. Marquette is white; not predominantly white, just white. And then there’s the weather. Arriving in the summer, Mitchell didn’t appreciate how cold it would get when winter set in. In December, January, and February, the average daily HIGH temperature in Marquette is below freezing.

Mitchell acknowledges that he almost left several times. His boxers, notably Vernon Forrest and Ricky Ray Taylor, a Golden Gloves champion from the Mississippi Gulf Coast who never turned pro and currently trains boxers in New York, talked him out of it. In time, however, Mitchell settled in. When the weather is nice, he says, Marquette is the most beautiful town in the world. And the locals were more than welcoming.

After three years in the NIU dorm where he lived on the same floor as his boxers, Mitchell, who is divorced, purchased a home. It’s four blocks from the shoreline of Lake Superior and one-and-a-half blocks from the college. When he is gone for any length of time, he can count on his neighbors to mow his lawn.

“My neighbors all have the keys to my house,” he says. “In Philadelphia that would never happen. Around here, if I hear bang, bang, bang, I know that it’s just a car backfiring.”

Mitchell was never shot, but he was brutally attacked by robbers during the time that he owned a North Philadelphia bodega, a place where most walk-ins came to turn in their numbers, i.e., their selections in the daily lottery-type game that was once a staple of community life in America’s ghettos.

The assailants got him when he was closing up for the day and left him in such bad shape that he spent five days in a coma during a lengthy hospital stay. He bears a souvenir of the incident, a plate in his head.

Mitchell was named the head coach of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team that included Floyd Mayweather, David Reid, Fernando Vargas, and Antonio Tarver, and was a consultant to the 2004 and 2012 squads, the latter of which was the first to include women.

The greatest U.S. Olympic team was the 1976 edition that won seven medals (five gold) in Montreal. They set the benchmark against which future squads would be unfairly compared.

There were 11 weight divisions in 1976, a number that would grow to 12 and currently sits at eight for boxers with male chromosomes. A boxer faces more hurdles today as there are more boxing federations which has given rise to more international qualification tournaments. Back in the days of Sugar Ray Leonard and the Spinks brothers, notes Mitchell, a U.S. Olympic boxer who made it all the way to the finals wouldn’t have faced more than one Russian. “Today he may face three.”

By that he means that in the old days, fighters from such countries as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan would have been classified as Russians. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, those countries became separate entities. And they have mirrored the Russians and Cubans by investing heavily in their amateur athletes with stipends and other perks that encourage their boxers to delay or forego their entrance into the professional ranks.

Mitchell has proposed moving the Olympic boxing competition from the summer to the winter. With a less cluttered cast of athletes, dispersed over fewer sports, there would theoretically be room for the International Olympic Committee to reinstate the discarded weight divisions. In the United States, this would inevitably translate into more ink for the boxing team, raising the profile of a sport that many no longer consider mainstream.

Mitchell’s proposal fell on deaf ears.

As for the U.S. delegation in Tokyo — five male and four female – Mitchell says it’s a solid team with the women likely to out-perform the men because they have stayed in the program longer. Two of the four women – Ginny Fuchs and Naomi Graham – are in their thirties. On the men’s side, Duke Ragan is the granddaddy at age 24.

The last American to win a gold medal was Andre Ward who accomplished the feat at the 2004 Games in Athens. Ward has morphed into a color commentator for ESPN Boxing where he has impressed knowledgeable fans with his insightfulness.

Al Mitchell, who worked extensively with Ward before he turned pro, isn’t surprised. “Ward and Floyd Mayweather, who was on my 1976 team, had the highest ring IQs of all the boxers that I have coached. When I first worked with Andre, I thought this kid doesn’t punch hard enough to go very far. But he had great anticipation and no one was better at processing what his opponent had and making the right adjustments. I had no doubt that he would perform better against Kovalev in their second meeting than he did in their first.”

Mitchell notes that Andre Ward’s sidekick Tim Bradley is also one of his former students. “He also does a great job and I couldn’t be happier for him.”

Mitchell’s style of coaching has been likened to that of a drill sergeant. He would roust his boxers out of bed at 5 am to go running and it made no difference what the weather was like outside. His gruff demeanor when putting his boxers through their paces may have been inherited from his father, a staff sergeant during the Korean War who returned home with PTSD symptoms and died when Al was 16.

Needless to say, many of the boxers who come to Marquette don’t have the fortitude to stay there very long and who can blame them? It’s no picnic, to put it mildly. When Mikaela Mayer first turned up, Mitchell assumed that she would hang around for a few weeks, at most. She fooled him. Asked to identify her chief asset, Mitchell cited her work ethic. The two have been together now for 11 years.

Mitchell had no interest in teaching women how to be better boxers – “My father would turn over in his grave,” he told ESPN’s Mark Kriegel – but with women now eligible to fight in the Olympics, he felt he had little choice. And Mayer owes her success to more than just a good work ethic. Mitchell and his top assistant Kay Koroma have crafted her into a very formidable fighter who, at age 30, perhaps has yet to reach her peak. (And by the way, she’s a lot more attractive than the photo of her that appears in boxrec, whoever that may be; it certainly doesn’t look like her.)

Back in Philadelphia before boxing became all-consuming, Mitchell concedes that he was a hustler. In addition to having his fingers in the illegal numbers game, he ran a speakeasy. He must have been a hard-boiled guy in those days but one wouldn’t know it if meeting him for the first time today. He comes across as a gentle soul although one suspects it wouldn’t be a smart idea to give him any lip.

For her fight with Erica Farias, Mikaela Mayer spent four weeks at Mitchell’s gym in Marquette (which is no longer formally attached to the university which currently supports athletes in only two Olympic summer sports; Greco-Roman wrestling and weightlifting), then three weeks at the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, finishing up with a week at the Top Rank Gym in Las Vegas.

Her bout with Farias will be the co-feature of a show headlined by the WBA/IBF bantamweight title fight between Japan’s baby-faced assassin Naoya Inoue and Filipino challenger Michael Dasmarinas. The bouts, and a third fight between Adam Lopez and Isaac Dogboe, air free on ESPN with a start time of 7 pm ET. Undercard action commences at 5 pm ET on ESPN+.

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Fast Results from London: Massive Heavyweight Joe Joyce Keeps on Rolling

Arne K. Lang

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Ponderous but formidable Joe Joyce moved one step closer to a title fight tonight at the Wembley Arena with a sixth-round stoppage of Carlos Takam. Carrying 264 pounds on a six-foot-six frame, the 2014 Olympic silver medalist was simply too big for his 40-year-old French-Cameroonian adversary.

In his previous bout, Joyce methodically dismantled favored Daniel Dubois with a steady dose of his thudding right jab. Dubois quit in the 10th round with a busted eye socket. Tonight’s fight followed a somewhat similar pattern.

Takam landed some good shots in the first two rounds as Joyce was slow to find his rhythm, but Joyce stuck to his game plan which was to wear him down and Takam’s punches gradually lost steam in the face of Joyce’s constant pressure.

Early in round six, Joyce rocked Takam with a big right hand and didn’t let him off the hook. Takam protested when the referee indicated that he had seen enough and the stoppage did strike many as premature, but the handwriting was on the wall for the veteran who declined to 39-6-1. The official time was 0:49.

Joyce is of Scotch-Irish and Nigerian descent. College educated with a degree in fine arts, he acknowledges that he has no great passion for the sport of boxing and is in it for the financial rewards, not the glory. At age 35, he isn’t going to get any better, but he appears to have a rock-solid chin and his nickname, Juggernaut, is quite fitting.

Joyce entered the bout ranked #2 by the WBO, a notch below Oleksandr Usyk who challenges title-holder Anthony Joshua on Sept. 25.

Other Bouts of Note

Ekow Essuman, a 32-year-old Nottingham man, born in Botswana, unseated British and Commonwealth welterweight champion Chris Jenkins, winning on an eighth-round stoppage. A hard right hook followed by a flurry of punches forced the referee to waive it off. The official time was 0:53.

Essuman, who was favored in the 3/1 range, improved to 15-0 with his sixth win inside the distance. A Welshman, Jenkins (22-4-3) was making the fourth defense of his domestic title.

London super welterweight Hamzah Sheeraz, who has been training at the Ten Goose Gym in Van Nuys, California, improved to 13-0 (9 KOs) with a fifth-round stoppage of Spain’s Ezequiel Gurria (15-2). Gurria was down twice in the fifth round before the bout was halted at the 2:23 mark.

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Steen, Bocachica, and Martino Jules Stay Unbeaten in Cornhuskerland

Arne K. Lang

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The long-running Showtime series ShoBox:The New Generation was at the Heartland Events Center in Grand Island, Nebraska last night. Super middleweight Isaiah Steen and welterweight Janelson Figueroa Bocachica, both of whom are managed by 2020 BWAA Manager of the Year David McWater, were featured in the main bouts.

Cleveland’s Steen, the half-brother of 2016 U.S. Olympian Charles Conwell, improved to 16-0 (12) with a 10-round unanimous decision over previously undefeated Kalvin Henderson (14-1-1). Steen started slow and slowed down again in the final two rounds, but dominated the middle rounds and won by scores of 96-94 and 97-93 twice. Henderson, a part-time schoolteacher in Fayetteville, Arkansas who earned a degree in music from the University of Arkansas, was hampered by a pulled muscle in his right shoulder which he believes happened in the fourth round.

Steen hopes to land a spot on the big show coming up in Cleveland in five weeks. Charles Conwell is already booked. He will oppose Massachusetts veteran Mark DeLuca in a supporting bout to the freak fight between Jake Paul and Tyrone Woodley.

Janelson Figueroa Bocachica, a Detroit native of Puerto Rican ancestry, kept his undefeated record intact, but just barely. He was held to a draw by Shinard Bunch who appeared to have done enough to edge it.

Bunch, whose middle name is Showtime (no fooling) fights out of Trenton, New Jersey and is trained by Chino Reyes who guided Jason Sosa and Tevin Farmer to world titles. He entered the bout with a 15-1 (13) record but was moving up in class in his first scheduled 10-rounder. Only six of his wins had come against opponents with winning records.

Bocachica (17-0-1) performed below expectations for the second straight fight, having been hard-pressed to turn away Mark Reyes Jr. in his previous go. One of the judges scored it for him (96-94) but the others had it 97-93 Bunch and 95-95.

The TV opener was an 8-round featherweight contest between Martino Jules, a 24-year-old southpaw from Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Aram Avagyan, a 30-year-old Armenian who began his pro career in Russia and is currently domiciled in California.

Although neither were big punchers, the Armenian had the odds in his favor. A 2016 Olympian, he had fought the tougher schedule and was the bigger man, coming in two pounds over the featherweight limit (which reportedly cost him $2000). But his performance was sloppy – he was repeatedly warned for leading with his head – and the decision was a foregone conclusion when Jules was credited with scoring a knockdown late in the final round.

In his biggest win to date, Martino Jules improved to 11-0. It was the first pro loss for the 30-year-old Avagyan who declined to 10-1-2.

Photo credit: Esther Lin / SHOWTIME

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Les Bonano, Mr. Boxing in New Orleans, Enters the NOLA Sports Hall of Fame

Bernard Fernandez

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He is perhaps the final ruler of what remains of a fraying and depleted boxing kingdom in the formerly great fight town of New Orleans. For 50-plus years Les Bonano has fought the good fight, both when things were going well or not so much in a unique American city familiar with pronounced pendulum swings not necessarily linked to his favorite sport.

Now, at 78, the boxing lifer who accepted the baton in a relay race of sorts whose previous carriers included such similarly distinctive local legends as Whitey Esneault, Allen “Black Cat” Lacombe and “Leapin’” Louie Messina, all of whom have taken their earthly 10-count, gets the championship turn none of his fighters were quite able to present him when he is inducted Saturday night into the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame at the Hilton Riverside.

Bonano thus will become the 13th person affiliated with boxing to be enshrined in the GNOSHOF – hey, 13 is a number “Black Cat” Lacombe (who, like Messina, is not an inductee) would surely love, were he still around – but it might be a long time before No. 14, if there ever is one, gets the next call to the hall. All 12 of the previous pugilistic honorees are deceased, and those potential candidates who might have a case for being recognized have to date drawn scant support from a selection committee whose members are not seemingly disposed to acknowledge their places in the city’s once-rich boxing history. Before it was the “Big Easy,” New Orleans was known as “the city that care forgot.”  In terms of boxing in the here and now, 21st century NOLA might be more aptly described as “the city that forgot to care.”

But any woulda, coulda, shoulda arguments that have been waged or will continue to be on that front can’t detract from Les Bonano’s five-decade march to a level of recognition in his hometown that few boxing figures have attained. In boxing parlance, he will have gone the distance, arguably a longer trek and arguably a more improbable one than any of his predecessors.

“There is such a tremendous honor. I’ve won some awards, but this will be the greatest in my life,” he said when informed that he had finally gained entry into the exclusive boxing wing of the GNOSHOF. “It means so much to me, it’s hard for me to explain. I can’t put it into words.”

It is the fickle finger of fate that touches boxing’s peripheral presences – promoters, trainers, cut men, etc. – to either bask in the glow of their involvement with elite fighters, or be shrouded in the shadows along with their charges who never quite make it all the way to the top of the mountain. Angelo Dundee is a global legend, an inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, in no small part because he trained, among others, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Carmen Basilio. The same can be said of Emanuel Steward, Eddie Futch, Freddie Roach and any number of other chief seconds who were fortunate to bring their knowledge and expertise to the corners of fighters who were world-class talents and commanded the spotlight. Instantly identifiable promoters such as Don King, Bob Arum, Tex Rickard and others have plaques hanging in Canastota, N.Y., because they handled the big acts.

Bonano began his boxing journey, as so many do, as a jack of all trades. He is primarily known as a promoter of fight cards in New Orleans and its environs these days, but he also has served as a trainer, cut man and doer of all things that are necessary in a trade where general handiness can be rewarding.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of good people in boxing,” he recalled. “And I was a sponge. I wanted to know everything. I learned from everyone that I could. Vincent Arnona (also not a GNOSHOF inductee) was a great New Orleans trainer and a legendary cut man who taught me everything he knew. I think I had success because I incorporated methods from all the different people that I met and worked with.”

Among Bonano’s guides along the way were Lacombe, a boxing and thoroughbred racing handicapper whose N’Awlins accent was as thick as Bonano’s, and Messina, a promoter who staged shows involving world-rated welterweights Percy Pugh and Jerry Pellegrini. Home-grown main-eventers, Pugh (black) and Pellegrini (white) regularly drew full houses before loud, enthusiastic audiences in Municipal Auditorium in the 1960s and early ‘70s. And when they squared off for the Southern 147-pound championship on March 3, 1968, the joint was filled to overflowing. The slick-boxing Pugh won a 15-round unanimous decision over the harder-hitting Pellegrini, a virtual replay of the 10-round UD Pugh scored in their first meeting on Sept. 21, 1967.

“So many people were there, or wanted to be there and couldn’t get in,” Bonano, who later employed Pugh as a trainer of some of his fighters, said of those standing-room-only turnouts promoted by Messina in the 5,000-seat arena. “It’s something I’ll never forget. The place was packed, man.”

Neither Pugh nor Pellegrini ever got the chance to fight for a world title, however, which is a distinction several of the more prominent members of Bonano’s promotional stable were able to accomplish. Light heavyweight Jerry Celestine, an ex-con who came out of the Orleans Parish Prison boxing program instituted by Bonano when Les served in the OPP sheriff’s department, upset third-ranked Vonzell Johnson and later challenged WBA champ Michael Spinks, losing on an eighth-round stoppage. Melvin Paul floored Charlie “Choo Choo” Brown in the 15th round when they squared off for the vacant IBF lightweight title, but Brown beat the count and won a close and controversial (in Bonano’s opinion) split decision. And John “Super D” Duplessis got a shot at WBC/IBF super lightweight kingpin Julio Cesar Chavez, but, predictably, he had no chance against an all-time great and was whacked out in four rounds.

It is Paul’s narrow loss on points to Brown, a Philadelphian fighting in nearby Atlantic City, N.J., that has been most irksome to Bonano, who referred to the outcome as a “hometown” decision.

“Melvin thought he had the fight won,” Bonano said. “He ran to the side of the ring and was calling out to his wife and celebrating on the ropes. The (pro-Brown) crowd was going crazy, but Brown somehow was standing up. I was screaming at Melvin to knock him out, but he couldn’t hear me. Brown wobbled on his feet for about 30 seconds and was saved by the bell. Melvin was robbed.”

Although denied his own world titlist, Bonano had ample opportunity to be involved with indisputably great fighters – Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones Jr., Roberto Duran and Larry Holmes, among others — when he worked in conjunction with bigger-name promoters Bob Arum and Lou DiBella to bring fights to Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis, Miss., within easy driving distance of New Orleans.

When Esneault, the legendary New Orleans trainer whose own list of fighters included world champions Willie Pastrano, Ralph Dupas and Freddie Little, as well as title challengers Bernard Docusen and Tony Licata, was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2016 (I served as his presenter), it reminded me of what New Orleans fight writer Waddell Summers wrote about “Mr. Whitey” when he passed away on Jan. 20, 1968, at the age of 76.

“When Whitey Esneault died, the Golden Age of boxing in New Orleans was laid to rest in St. Rich No. 2 cemetery,” Summers predicted. But that gloomy pronouncement might not have been absolutely accurate, even if Esneault was a World War I veteran whose life experiences dated back to the 19th century. New Orleans was once one of boxing’s hottest of hotbeds, the site of the Sept. 7, 1892, megafight, fought under the still-new Marquess of Queensberry Rules, in which “Gentleman” Jim Corbett dethroned John L. Sullivan, the “Boston Strongboy,” on a 21st-round knockout. The city’s deep roots in boxing date back further than that, to the 1870 pairing of Jem Mace and Tom Allen in what was considered the first legitimate heavyweight prizefight.

In later and more flush times, the Louisiana Superdome was the site of Muhammad Ali’s reclaiming of the heavyweight championship (for a record third time) on a 15-round UD over Leon Spinks on Sept. 15, 1978, a Mardi Gras-level event witnessed by an announced crowd of 63,350, and Roberto Duran’s “No Mas” surrender to Sugar Ray Leonard on Nov. 25, 1980, which drew a turnout of about 30,000. On a somewhat smaller scale, Roy Jones Jr. defended his WBA, WBC and The Ring light heavyweight belts on a 10th-round RTD over 30-1 underdog Eric Harding on Sept. 9, 2000, in the New Orleans Arena (now Smoothie King Center), now the home of the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans.

Bonano doesn’t want to be New Orleans’ last inclusion in the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame; he is a staunch proponent of Pugh getting the recognition he believes is long overdue, and he also figures the committee that approved him might want to take a look at Licata and Messina. But of perhaps greater importance is the need to rebuild upon traditions that are on the verge of going permanently fallow, unless a new face in an old place steps forward to accept the baton from Bonano.

Can New Orleans boxing be revived to a reasonable facsimile of what it once was?

“First of all, you gotta have somebody local that can develop into a world-class fighter, to draw attention to the game,” Bonano said. “Once that happens, you’d see a lot of young guys get involved in boxing, a lot of spectators coming back to see fights. But there has to be a lead person to draw that attention.”

And is there a possible successor to himself that might be ready to embark onto his own long journey toward the GNOSHOF?

“I got a good friend of mind named Toby Wattigney, who loves boxing,” Bonano offered. “He’s a trainer. I think that Toby will wind up taking over as a promoter. He’s great and I really believe he will carry on the tradition I’m leaving behind.”

Here’s hoping Wattigney can fill the large footsteps of New Orleans’ last (for now) link to what was. But, hey, miracles can and sometimes do happen. After all, the New Orleans Saints did win Super Bowl XLIV on Feb. 7, 2010.

In addition to Bonano, other inductees into the GNOSHOF (*for those now deceased, **for those also enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame), listed alphabetically with the year in which they are enshrined, are:

*Referee Elmo Adolph (2000)

**Former lightweight champion Joe “Old Bones” Brown (1970)

*Fighter and promoter Marty Burke (1978)

**Three-division former world champion Tony Canzoneri (1984)

*Former welterweight contender Bernard Docusen (1976)

*Former WBA/WBC super welterweight champion Ralph Dupas (1978)

**Trainer Ernest “Whitey” Esneault (2016)

*Dr. Eddie Flynn, a gold medalist at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics (1981)

*Harry Gamble, a multiple-sport athlete, including boxing, at Tulane University (1983)

**Former bantamweight champion Pete Herman (1971)

**Former unified light heavyweight champion Willie Pastrano (1973)

*Former world-rated featherweight Jimmy Perrin (1979)

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