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Nino Benvenuti’s Akron Misadventure: A Don Elbaum Production (Natch)

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Nino Benvenuti and Akron, Ohio, were an awkward fit. Benvenuti was something of a Renaissance man, or at least that is how he was portrayed. He was a connoisseur of fine wines, whereas Akron, which led the world in the production of automobile tires, was a blue-collar city where a fellow with an affinity for fine wines was likely to be put down as a sissy. But Benvenuti was certainly no sissy.

In March of 1968, seven months prior to his appearance in Akron, Benvenuti had recaptured the world middleweight title in his third meeting with Emile Griffith. He was 77-2 as a pro and purportedly 110-1 as an amateur, a career climaxed with a dominant 5-0 run to a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics.

Benvenuti, who reputedly enjoyed visiting art museums and loved the opera, wasn’t hurting for money. Back home in Italy, he owned a factory that produced auto parts and a health club. But his career was winding down and the $20,000 he was guaranteed for touching gloves with a local schlub in a non-title fight was too good to pass up.

The presumptive schlub (and he was hardly that) was Doyle Baird.

Born in a little town in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee, the son of a Pentecostal preacher, Baird had grown up in Akron. As a pro he was 21-2, a nice record but devoid of a signature win. A close but unanimous decision over Detroit veteran Ted Wright looked good on his ledger in that Wright was a recognizable name, but the former world-ranked Wright was on the skids, having won only one of his previous nine fights.

In common with many preacher’s kids, Baird in his younger days was quite the hellraiser. “He spent more time in the back seat of a cop car than a police dog,” wrote Akron Beacon Journal sportswriter Tom Melody. He didn’t turn pro until age 28, but his style never wavered much from his days as teenage street fighter. He was a brawler, a man willing to take two or three punches to land one of his own, the antithesis of the classy Benvenuti whose style was that of a man who didn’t like to get his hair messed up.

Benvenuti vs. Baird was a Don Elbaum production. Back in those days, Elbaum was Mr. Boxing in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. He nourished boxing at its roots, promoting shows in armories, community centers, American Legion halls and high school gymnasiums. On occasion, Elbaum the promoter morphed into Elbaum the boxer, subbing for a no-show. Once he successfully impersonated a doctor when the physician failed to show at a weigh-in. One surmises that he kept a stethoscope in the trunk of his car on the off-chance that it might come in handy someday.

Elbaum went whole-hog for the Benvenuti-Baird fight, parking the Oct. 14, 1968 event at Akron’s municipal football stadium, the Rubber Bowl.

akron

To no great surprise, the fight was a messy affair. “For every good punch there was an elbow, for every jab a butt,” said Beacon Journal reporter Jack Patterson. At times. Benvenuti resorted to a headlock to get Baird off his chest.

The fight went the full 10 and at the final bell the referee raised Baird’s hand. The crowd loved it. The local man had accomplished what only two fighters before him had done. The gifted Korean southpaw Ki Soo Kim won a split decision over Benvenuti in Seoul and Emile Griffith had prevailed in the middle fight of their trilogy. Now Doyle Baird, of all people, had joined that elite group. But hold the phone.

The referee had acted before the scorecards were tallied. One of the judges favored Baird by 96-95, but his colleagues each had it a draw, 96-96 and 97-97.

Akron had its own boxing commission. The head honcho was out of town, vacationing in Florida, and the men that he delegated to supervise the show stood around not knowing what their next move should be.

Lester Bromberg, the fine boxing writer of the New York Post, was there and seized the reins. “Listen up here, boys,” he said, or words to that effect. “A man can’t be declared the winner if only one judge favored him. It takes at least two. Do the math and you will see that this fight should be ruled a draw.”

The Associated Press correspondent didn’t wait for the retraction and for many weeks after the fight the story that Baird had won was still circulating. An item about  Benvenuti’s forthcoming title fight in Italy with Don Fullmer that ran in dozens of U.S. papers included this line: “Benvenuti may have loafed a bit too much in Akron, Ohio, last Oct. 14 when he dropped a 10-round non-title fight to little-known Doyle Baird.”

The attendance at the Benvenuti-Baird fight was the highest in Akron boxing history: 3,412. But the number included 395 freebies and was well below what Elbaum needed to break even. In addition to the $20,000, he was on the hook for Benvenuti’s expenses which included three round-trip tickets from Italy for the fighter and two of his cohorts.

Doyle Baird, for all of his hard work, earned nothing. He was down for a percentage of the net profits. In fact, Baird actually lost money. He took two weeks off without pay from his job at a foundry to prepare for the fight.

There was a heartwarming postscript. Akron was a strong union town and the notion of a man toiling without compensation struck many as inhumane. It was as if Doyle Baird, one of their own, was being ripped off twice.

A fellow in the nearby town of Barberton who had attended the fight wrote a letter to the sports editor of the Beacon Journal and enclosed a $5 bill with instructions that it be passed along to the fighter. “I’m just a working guy with a wife and four growing children,” he wrote. “We need our money like anybody else, but my wife and I both agreed that this was something we wanted to do.”

The sports editor published his letter and then more money poured in, just little drips and drabs, but likely enough for Baird to catch up with the bills that went unpaid while he was chasing his dream. The paper reported that he was embarrassed to accept it but his wife had no such qualms.

More money would come Baird’s way two years later when he ventured to Bari, Italy, for another non-title fight with Nino Benvenuti who stopped him in the 10th round. There was no way that the rematch would transpire in Akron. Before leaving the Ohio city, Benvenuti had bad-mouthed the community with all the English curse words that he knew.

Benvenuti’s victory over Baird in their second encounter would prove to be the final “W” of Nino’s career. He had three more fights, two against the great Carlos Monzon who sheared away his title in the 1970 “Fight of the Year” and then defeated him more decisively in their rematch. In retirement he dabbled as a movie actor and set up a charitable trust for his great rival Emile Griffith who had fallen on hard times. Into his eighties he reportedly still attracted a crowd when he walked the streets of Rome.

The craggy-faced Don Elbaum, who bears a strong resemblance to the movie actor Harvey Keitel, was undaunted by the financial bath that he took at the Rubber Bowl. Fifty-three years have elapsed since he introduced Nino Benvenuti to Akron and the erstwhile “Boy Promoter” is still with us.

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Elbaum would have long runs as the matchmaker at the Tropicana in Atlantic City and at the storied Blue Horizon in Philadelphia, but at heart he was always something of a nomad, the “king of wandering fistic minstrels” in the words of the late Scranton, Pennsylvania, sportswriter Chick Feldman. Elbaum has had his fingers in important fights in important cities around the world but was always most comfortable hustling in the boondocks where a wildcat promoter is less fettered by rules and regulations. And it is here in the boondocks where boxing is often the Theater of the Absurd.

Doyle Baird left the sport with a record of 34-7-1. After leaving his job at the foundry he drove a delivery truck for the Beacon Journal. In his spare time, he trained young boxers. “He was a stand-up guy who didn’t have an ounce of guile,” recollected longtime Top Rank matchmaker Bruce Trampler who was in the audience — Trampler was then a sophomore in college — at the Benvenuti-Baird fight.

Doyle Baird passed away earlier this month at age eighty-three. His wife of 51 years preceded him. He was survived by five children, seven grandchildren, and a great grandson. May he rest in peace.

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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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