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Remembering the late Craig ‘Gator’ Bodzianowski, Boxing’s One-Legged Wonder

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Remembering the late Craig ‘Gator’ Bodzianowski, Boxing’s One-Legged Wonder

It is a really old joke, so much so that you’d have to figure that Henny Youngman and Jack Benny were telling it when they were young comedians on the burlesque circuit nearly a century ago. But there is always an exception to every rule or punchline, the foremost for the purposes of boxing history being its sole contrarian to the oft-repeated proposition that an inept person is “as useless as a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.”

The late cruiserweight contender, Craig “Gator” Bodzianowski, who was a one-legged man, didn’t mind poking a bit of self-deprecating humor at his disability as the occasion warranted. When Bodzianowski was asked why he did not seek financial damages through legal means from the driver of the automobile that slammed into his motorcycle, resulting in the amputation of his mangled lower right leg, the impish former Chicago Golden Gloves champion would wink and say, “I can’t go to court. I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.”

Bada-bing.

Monday, July 19, marks the 21st anniversary of Bodzianowski’s unsuccessful yet indisputably heroic bid to make the seemingly impossible possible. Perhaps he wouldn’t have defeated WBA cruiserweight titlist Robert Daniels had he the benefit of two fully functional legs, but his longshot quest in Seattle’s Kingdome was made more difficult when a Daniels powershot re-fractured a previously broken rib in the second round, hampering Bodzianowski until the final bell. Although it became increasingly evident that Bodzianowski had no chance to win on the scorecards (Daniels was a wide winner on points, by margins of 119-110 and 118-109 (twice), the battered challenger, his left eye completely swollen shut, refused to yield and finished on his feet.

Bodzianowski – his nickname owed in part to his family’s limited finances during his adolescence and in part to his apparent failure to distinguish between large reptiles of similar appearance — was not disposed to crack wise about what he still was able to accomplish in the ring, before, during and after he made what was arguably his sport’s most remarkable comeback while fitted with a prosthesis where a significant portion of the extremity he had been born with had been surgically removed.

The Bodzianowski family, its suburban Chicago-area home notwithstanding, had a backyard that housed a menagerie of baboons, pigeons, chickens, snakes and even an alligator. Craig soon took to calling himself “Gator” not because of that particular reptilian pet, but because of the Lacoste polo shirts so in favor at the time, with the little alligator (actually a crocodile) embroidered on the left side of the chest. Those shirts were too pricey for parents Pat and Gloria Bodzianowski to purchase in multiple colors for their four sons, so Pat, a tattoo artist, inked the iconic symbol on Craig’s chest and Gloria cut out little rectangles of cheaper Ban-Lon shirts, exposing the tat.

That homemade tattoo served as Craig’s most singular mark of identification, at least until he was fitted with his prosthesis.

“I never, ever say, `Darn, if I had my real (leg), I could have been on top a long time ago,” Bodzianowski said of any might-have-beens that less-determined individuals would have considered had they found themselves in his situation. “I may have. But I don’t look back on that, ever. Not one time. Because I kick ass the way I am now.”

Given his steadfast refusal to give up on life or his dream of becoming a world champion, the most shocking part of Craig Bodzianowski’s inspirational journey is that the body part that ultimately failed him was the organ that kept him going when nearly everyone had told him he would never box again, or should not even make the attempt. He was just 52 when, the night of July 28, 2013, he suffered a heart attack and died in his sleep.

Hollywood loves tales of underdogs who beat the odds, but the fight flick that could have been made about Bodzianowski’s one-of-a-kind comeback never gained traction in La-La Land, if indeed such a pitch ever was made. Perhaps some studio bigwig would have green-lighted a script had the scrappy amputee furnished the requisite exclamation-point finish against Daniels, but he didn’t, and so what if Bodzianowski rebounded from that disappointment to win his last seven bouts to retire with a commendable 31-4-1 record with 23 wins inside the distance?

It says much about the impermanence of fringe-level celebrity that ESPN boxing writer/commentator Mark Kriegel, in his blurb review for my 2020 anthology, Championship Rounds, mentions Bodzianowski in passing as a fighter most readers have never heard of, although they would do well to try to find out about him.

Bodzianowski was building a reputation in the Chicago area as a fighter worth following, winning his first 13 professional bouts, 11 by knockout, when, on May 29, 1984, while driving his Kawasaki 440 at a mere 15 mph, the driver of a parked car suddenly pulled ahead of him, attempted a U-turn and smashed into his bike.

In an instant, the 23-year-old of Polish extraction discovered the hard way why bikers are 25 times more likely to suffer death or serious injury than those involved in car crashes. The list of fighters whose lives or careers were ended by motorcycle mishaps is long, both predating and postdating Bodzianowsk: 1996 IBHOF inductee Young Stribling was 28 when he died from injuries he incurred on Oct. 3, 1933; middleweight contender James Shuler, 26, he perished on March 20, 1986, after is cycle collided with a tractor-trailer; former IBF super featherweight and WBC lightweight champ Diego Corrales, 29, took the eternal 10-count when  his bike, traveling at an estimated 100 mph, crashed on May 7, 2009, and two-division world champ Paul “The Punisher” Williams, 26, was paralyzed from the waist down when his bike crashed on May 27, 2012.

“If I could change time, I would,” Williams told Joseph Santoliquito for a 2015 story. “But I can’t, so I have to deal with it. If I wasn’t able to deal with it, I probably would have committed suicide by now or would be angry and depressed all the time. I do feel there are two sides of me: who I was and who I am.”

Somewhat amazingly, Bodzianowski was determined never to look back in regret or self-pity. What happened, happened, and there was no changing it. He would live in the present and look to the future, whatever that might hold. And he was determined it was a future that still included boxing, all predictions to the contrary notwithstanding.

Told that his choices were to have his right leg amputated several inches above his ankle or undergo the possibility of as many as 12 operations over two years, after which he likely would forever walk with a cane and have no more than 70 percent use of the leg, Bodzianowski immediately informed the doctors attending him, “Adios, cut it off.”

That could have and probably should have been the end of Craig Bodzianowski the boxer. But, after a nine-hour surgery and with the benefit of an advancement in prosthesis technology known as the “Seattle Foot,” Bodzianowski showed that his physical limitations were not necessarily as limiting as was widely believed.

“Look, I could have been hurt a lot worse,” Bodzianowski said in 1985. “I could have lost an arm, both legs. I consider myself very, very lucky.”

He slowly began to build upon that semi-good fortune by beginning with a regimen of standing on his artificial leg for hours each day. Once he felt comfortable with that, he’d jog a few steps. Over time, he bumped the distance up to three miles every other day, with a mile run in between.

The next hurdle to be cleared was convincing different groups of physicians that he was, indeed, fit enough to resume his boxing career. There were skeptics, to be sure; Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, Muhammad Ali’s longtime personal physician who later served as a boxing analyst for NBC and Univision, said that, while he admired the “courage and determination of this young man to continue in a dangerous sport, I question and I’m amazed by the lack of judgment and common sense of the boxing commissions and licensors. If this young man should be seriously injured in this sport, where would the commission go hide to avoid the rain of censure falling on its head. The hue and cry, `Ban boxing,’ would be heard throughout the land and I might be the guy to lead it.”

By and by, however, Bodzianowski demonstrated to various state commission-appointed doctors that he was indeed fit enough and mobile enough to be afforded the opportunity to succeed or fail inside the ropes, where it mattered. In his first comeback fight, he knocked out Francis Sargent in two rounds on Dec. 14, 1985. That would be the same opponent he faced in his last pre-accident bout, which he won via 10-round unanimous decision. It was admittedly a tiny sample size, but at first glance it appeared as if the Gator had not only come back, but possibly even a bit better.

“Hey, I was never that graceful when I had two good legs,” Bodzianowski reasoned. “I sort of shuffled side to side.”

In addition to Daniels, Bodzianowski’s other losses came against former WBC cruiserweight champion Alfonzo Ratliff (twice, both by majority decision) and future IBF cruiser ruler James Warring. Given his handicap, the fact that his only four defeats, all on points, came against current, former and future world titlists makes his saga all the more compelling.

“Only in America can a one-legged man fight for the world title!,” mega-promoter Don King harrumphed before Bodzianowski challenged Daniels, the chief undercard bout of a show headlined by two-time former heavyweight champion Tim Witherspoon’s 10-round majority decision over Jose Ribalta.

Ratliff, winner of both of his matchups with Bodzianowski, also came away impressed. “I’ll say one thing about knocking Craig down, he always gets back up,” Ratliff said. “I think the guy’s crazy! He’s such a sneaky fighter that it looks like he’s not throwing hard punches, but the punches are short and they got all his weight in them. He can hurt you. All his punches hurt you. I’ll tell you, that’s the hardest work I’ve had in my life. Craig Bodzianowski, all he knows is to keep coming forward.”

After stepping away as an active fighter, Bodzianowski trained fighters for a while and worked in construction. Always handy in the kitchen, he went on to graduate from Chicago’s Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in 2012.

Enduring fame, however, can be fleeting. The novelty of the one-legged fighter who rose near the top of his profession but didn’t quite reach the pinnacle faded. Guest spots with David Letterman, NBC Sports and Inside Edition, as well as an 18-minute documentary of his life and career, Against the Ropes, came and went. More recent fighters with fresh stories emerged. The news cycle always replenishes, unless you are a Muhammad Ali (who attended the Daniels-Bodzianowski fight), Mike Tyson or someone of that stripe.

But Craig Bodzianowski deserves to be remembered, if simply for the bottomless depth of his resolve if not his skill-set, and for the magical, mystery quality of the human spirit he so exemplified.

A New Orleans native, Bernard Fernandez retired in 2012 after a 43-year career as a newspaper sports writer, the last 28 years with the Philadelphia Daily News. A former five-term president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, Fernandez won the BWAA’s Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism in 1998 and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service in 2015. In December of 2019, Fernandez was accorded the highest honor for a boxing writer when he was named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the Class of 2020. Last year, Fernandez’s anthology, “Championship Rounds,” was released by RKMA Publishing.

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Boxing Odds and Ends: A Travesty of a Heavyweight ‘Title Fight’ and More

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It’s official. On Wednesday, Feb. 22, a formal press conference was held in Sofia, Bulgaria, to announce the forthcoming fight between Mahmoud Charr, formerly known as Manuel Charr, and Kubrat Pulev. They will meet in Bulgaria’s capital city on March 30 at a 12,000-seat arena.

Charr vs Kubrat bears the imprimatur of a world heavyweight title fight (WBA version). Charr is considered the champion, notwithstanding the fact that others have held the title since he first laid claim to it more than six years ago.

The WBA, as we know, recognizes two champions in some weight classes, a “super” champion and a “regular” champion. The “super” designation was created in 2000. It was designed to segregate title-holders into levels of accomplishment. In theory, a “super” champion has made five successful defenses and is recognized as a world title-holder by at least one of the three other major sanctioning bodies. “Super” champions are allowed certain liberties with respect to mandatory title defenses.

The bifurcation was greeted with hoots of derision. The Panama-based WBA trivialized the sport.

Mahmoud Charr

Mahmoud Charr was born in Beirut but has resided in Germany since he was a little boy. He won the vacant title with a 12-round decision over unexceptional Alexander Ustinov in Oberhausen, Germany.  It was a close fight. TSS ringside correspondent Phil Woolever had Ustinov winning 7 rounds to 5, but conceded that the verdict could not be called an injustice.

The title that Charr won was vacated by Ruslan Chagaev who won the belt from Fres Oquendo, lost it to Lucas Browne, and got it back by decree when Browne’s post-fight urine tests showed evidence of banned substances. But Chagaev never fought again. His fight with Browne was his last.

Charr’s first defense was to come against Fres Oquendo. Slated for March 23, 2019 in Cologne after being pushed back from September of the previous year, the match never came to fruition when Charr tested positive for two banned substances. Things get really muddled from here with Charr pushed to the sideline by legal battles complicated by Don King’s shenanigans. King arranged a fight in Florida between Charr and his fighter Trevor Bryan and succeeded in getting Bryan the WBA belt when Charr was unable to get a visa. The belt is vacant again after Bryan was knocked out by Daniel Dubois who, in turn, was knocked out by “super” champion Oleksandr Usyk.

There are more threads to this saga but let’s not go there. Suffice it to say that after defeating Ustinov, Charr was out of action for the next three-and-a-half years. He’s had only three fights since 2017 and to say that his opponents were men of low repute would be giving them the best of it. In his most recent assignment, in December of 2022, he scored a second-round stoppage over 46-year-old Swiss-Albanian slug Nuri Seferi. That brought his record to 34-4 (20). He has been stopped three times, most recently in 2015 when he was halted in five frames by future cruiserweight champion Maris Briedis.

Kubrat Pulev

Kubrat Pulev will have the home field advantage in Sofia. Charr will have youth on his side. He’s 39; Pulev is 42.

Pulev sports a 30-3 record. The losses came at the hands of Wladimir Klitschko (L KO 5), Anthony Joshua (L KO 9), and Derek Chisora (L SD 12). He last fought in December at the OC Hangar in Costa Mesa, CA, where he won a lopsided decision over Polish journeyman Andrzej Wawrzyk.

In a previous engagement here at the Hangar, a concert hall that seats a shade over 3,000, he TKOed Bogdan Dinu. That bout is remembered mostly for what happened after it ended. In an incident that went viral on social media, Pulev surprised Jennifer Ravalo, a self-styled journalist, with a kiss on the lips. That animated women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred and led to an 8-page spread in Playboy (of Ravalo, not Allred). The California State Athletic Commission fined and suspended Pulev and mandated that he undergo sexual harassment training. The suspension lasted 120 days.

The match between Charr and Pulev, says a blurb about it, is an “eagerly anticipated” clash between “two evergreen living legends.” We will let you provide the punchline, The winner is expected to fight Martin Bakole who was knocked out by Michael Hunter.

Jake Paul

Jake Paul, the enfant terrible of prizefighting, returns this Saturday on a card in San Juan, Puerto Rico, that will air on DAZN. Paul, a so-called influencer who brought his big social media following with him when he took up fisticuffing, is coming off a first-round stoppage of Andre August, a no-name fighter from Texas. Saturday’s sacrificial lamb is a fellow from Dickinson, North Dakota (by way of Benicia, California) named Ryan Bourland.

Bourland, who is reportedly 35 years old but looks older, scored his signature win in 2018 when he avenged a previous defeat with a 10-round majority decision over Jose Hernandez. He has fought only one since then, TKOing a fighter with a losing record in a 6-rounder at a lodge on a remote Indian reservation in North Dakota. That improved his ledger to 17-2 (6 KOs).

Regarding Jake Paul, Thomas Hauser once wrote that he’s worked hard to become a better boxer and is “certainly better than a Golden Gloves novice.” There was a time when this reporter, perhaps naively, thought that Jake had the potential to become a legitimate top-15 cruiserweight, but his recent choice of opponents suggests that he is comfortable just spinning his wheels.

His bout with Bourland will play second fiddle to Amanda Serrano’s featherweight title defense against Germany’s Nina Meinke (18-3, 4 KOs). Although Amanda has a lot of mileage on her odometer, she is expected to have little difficulty with Meinke. In another bout of note, Puerto Rican campaigners Jonathan Gonzalez (27-3-1, 14 KOs) and Rene Santiago (12-3, 9 KOs) will meet in a 12-rounder with Gonzalez’s WBO light flyweight title at stake.

—-

Let’s conclude this write-up on an upbeat note. Hall of Fame boxing writer Bernard Fernandez, a frequent TSS contributor, informs us that his fifth and presumably final anthology is nearing completion with a likely release date of April or May. “Championship Rounds, Round 5” includes a foreword by Gerry Cooney and has drawn glowing reviews from the likes of Dave Kindred and Dr. Gordon Marino who both had an early peek at the manuscript. Kindred, a renowned sportswriter and author, was the subject of a 2021 piece on “60 Minutes.” Marino, a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, has written extensively about boxing for the Wall Street Journal.

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Results from Orlando where Berlanga KOed McCrory in a Possible Prelude to Canelo

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Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom organization was at the Caribe Royale tonight, a non-gaming resort near Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Unbeaten super middleweights Edgar Berlanga and Padraig McCrory squared off in the main event.

The fight started slow, but it soon became apparent that McCrory, a 35-year-old father of three from Belfast, Northern Ireland, was a domestic-level fighter, notwithstanding his undefeated (18-0) record. Berlanga, whose last five fights had gone the distance, roughed him up with some dirty tactics before taking him out in the sixth round with a crunching right hand that sent the Irishman face-first to the canvas. As McCrory pulled himself upright on rubbery legs, the towel flew in from his corner. The official time was 2:44.

As well-documented, Berlanga opened his pro career with 16 consecutive first-round knockouts. Nonetheless, he was let go by Top Rank in what purportedly was an amicable divorce. This was his second fight under the Matchroom banner. Eddie Hearn signed him with an eye on scoring a big-money match with Canelo Alvarez. The red-headed Mexican superstar is committed to returning to the ring in May on Cinco de Mayo weekend in Las Vegas, but hasn’t yet locked in an opponent.

If Berlanga gets the nod, he would be a heavy underdog, but the Mexico vs. Puerto Rico angle (coupled with Berlanga’s new-found reputation as a dirty fighter) would make it an easy sell.

Co-Feature

In only his third professional fight, Cuban defector Andy Cruz was bumped into the co-feature. That was in recognition of his amateur pedigree. Among his accomplishments, he was 4-0 vs. Keyshawn Davis with the last win coming in the gold medal round of the Tokyo Olympics.

Cruz, 28, was expected to win as he pleased against his Mexican opponent, Bryan Zamarripa, and he did win all 10 rounds on all three scorecards, but in common with many great Cuban amateurs, he seemed to lack something in the power department. Zamarripa was 14-2 heading in.

Other Bouts of Note

In a 12-round welterweight contest that was devoid of drama, Uzbekistan native Shakhram Giyasov, an Olympic silver medalist who has lost precious few rounds as a pro, won a lopsided technical decision over well-recycled 34-year-old Mexican Pablo Cesar Cano.

Giyasov (15-0, 9 KOs) sent Cano (35-9-1) to the canvas in the third round with a body punch. At the end of round 11, as their feet were tangled, he pushed Cano to the canvas and the Mexican ostensibly suffered a broken ankle when he fell. That sent the bout to the scorecards where the decision (109-99 x3) was a formality. With the victory, Giyasov earned a shot at WBA belt-holder Eimantas Stanionis.

The 12-round bantamweight match between Antonio Vargas and Jonathan Rodriguez, two fighters of Puerto Rican descent, was framed as a WBA bantamweight title eliminator. Rodriguez, the underdog, floored Vargas in the opening stanza. He had scored a stunning first-round knockout of 27-1 Khalid Yafai in his previous start and it appeared that another upset was brewing. But the match quickly turned one-sided in favor of Vargas who put Rodriguez on the canvas in the very next frame (and had two points deducted for hitting him after the bell) and then put him down again at the end of round seven with a sweeping left hook after which Rodriguez’s corner properly pulled him out.

Vargas, a 2016 Olympian who had home field advantage in Florida, improved to 18-1 (10 KOs) and became the mandatory opponent for Takuma Inoue who won earlier today in Tokyo. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Rodriguez declined to 17-2-1.

The opening bout on the TV portion of the card was a 10-round flyweight affair that looked like a runaway for showboating Yankiel Rivera until gritty Andy Dominguez made things interesting.

Rivera, who improved to 5-0 (2), was Puerto Rico’s lone representative in the Tokyo Olympics. In Mexico-born Andy Dominguez, he was fighting a former three-time New York City Golden Gloves champion who was also unbeaten (10-0 heading in). Rivera dominated the match but was caught napping in round nine and Dominguez, although all busted-up, hurt him and almost put him down. That was most lopsided round of the fight, but also the only round that Dominguez won in the eyes of the judges.

Photo credit: Ed Mulholland / Matchroom

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Junto Nakatani Turns in Another Masterclass on Saturday’s Tripleheader in Tokyo

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In a rather odd juxtaposition, several of boxing’s best little men were on display today at Japan’s National Sumo Arena in Tokyo. The best of the lot, Junto Nakatani, improved to 27-0 (20 KOs) while tearing away the WBC world bantamweight title from Tijuana’s Alexandro Santiago (28-4-5) who was making the first defense of the title he won in Las Vegas in May when he upset Nonito Donaire.

It was a one-sided beatdown. Nakatani, who had a 5-inch height advantage, won every round before ending the contest in the sixth. The end came at the 1:12 mark when Nakatani terminated the affair with his second knockdown. The first came earlier in the round, the result of a straight left hand. The finisher was a big right hook.

With the victory, Nakatani became a world title-holder in a third weight class. He’s an outstanding talent, worthy of pound-for-pound consideration, and would be favored in a unification fight with Takuma Inoue.

Inoue, the younger brother of pound-for-pound king Naoya “Monster” Inoue, did his part to bring the match to fruition with a ninth-round stoppage of Filipino veteran Jerwin Ancajas in the main event. Inoue (19-1, 5 KOs) was making the first defense of the WBA diadem he won with a wide decision over Venezuela’s mildewed Liborio Solis. That title was conveniently vacated by Takuma’s renowned brother.

This figured to be the most competitive match on the card and Ancajas (34-4-2) had his moments before Inoue ended the contest at the 0:44 mark of round nine with a four-punch combination climaxed by a shot to the liver. Heading in, Ancajas, who had a long title reign at 115, was 9-2-1 in world title fights and hadn’t previously been stopped.

In the first of the three title fights, 29-year-old Kosei Tanaka became a four-weight belt-holder in record time with a unanimous decision over Mexicali’s stubborn but out-classed Christian Bacasegua “Rocky” Rangel. At stake was the vacant WBO junior bantamweight title.

Tanaka, who previously held belts at 105, 108, and 112, started slow but the outcome was never in doubt after he knocked “Rocky” to the canvas in the eighth frame. The judges had it 119-108, 117-110, and 116-111. With the victory, Tanaka improved to 20-1 (11). In his only defeat, he was stopped by countryman Kazuto Ioka. He hunkers for a rematch but, if it happens, he might wish that it hadn’t. Ioka is long in the tooth – he turns 35 next month – but is very good and shows no signs of slowing down. Rangel (22-5-2) had won nine straight heading in, but against questionable opposition and was making his first start outside Mexico.

The Teiken Promotions card was presented in association with Top Rank and aired in the U.S. on ESPN+.

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