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For Whom the Bell Tolled: 2021 Boxing Obituaries PART ONE (Jan.-June)

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In our annual year-end necrology, we say goodbye to those that left their mark on the noble but too-often unforgiving sport of boxing. Many of the decedents left a great legacy, none more so than Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

January

4 – William Lathan – A Philadelphia product, “Doc” Lathan served as a ringside physician for more than 500 pro fights and made many contributions to boxing medicine as a member of various advisory committees. His wife Melvina Lathan was a boxing judge who went on to helm the New York State Athletic commission. At age 84 in Ardsley, New York.

9 – Mike Acri – A promoter and matchmaker, Acri was adept at reviving the careers of faded luminaries such as Roberto Duran and Hector Camacho. He originated the annual series of boxing shows at the Turning Stone Casino Resort that are run in conjunction with the Hall of Fame Weekend activities in nearby Canastota.  At age 63 in his hometown of Erie, PA, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.

15 – Tyrone “Butterfly” Crawley – A cagey southpaw known for his ambidexterity, Cawley was 22-2 in a nine-year career that began in 1980 and included a failed stab at Livingstone Bramble’s world lightweight title. He quit boxing for a career in law enforcement and was the Director of the North Philadelphia Police Athletic League at the time of his death at age 62, likely from Covid.

22 – Harry Perry – He never turned pro, but was a legend in Irish amateur boxing, representing his country in two Olympiads. At age 86 in his native Dublin after a long illness.

22 – Hughroy Currie – Currie had an undistinguished pro career, finishing 17-11-1, but he was good enough to win the British heavyweight title, albeit he didn’t keep it very long. His best wins came against previously undefeated Proud Kilimanjaro (W PTS 10) and future IBF world cruiserweight champion Glenn McCrory (KO 2). At age 61 in London of Covid-19.

February

2 – Reggie Ford – Born Reginald Forde in Guyana, Ford was 10-15-1 as a pro and was stopped eight times – a career not worth remembering save that he fought six former or future world title-holders including Marvin Hagler, then the top-rated middleweight contender in what was Forde’s second pro bout. In his signature win, he knocked Davey “Boy” Green (37-3) into retirement with a 5th-round stoppage in London. At age 67 in a New York nursing home.

5 – Leon Spinks – A gold medalist at the 1976 Montreal Games, Spinks had only eight pro fights under his belt when he won a 15-round decision over Muhammad Ali in one of the most celebrated upsets in boxing history. He lost the rematch and it was all downhill from there. Neon Leon was 19-17-2 in his last 38 starts and was stopped nine times. At age 67 in Las Vegas after a long illness.

7 – Jean Josselin – A 1960 Olympian, Josselin, a welterweight, won 66 of his 89 pro fights and was a two-time world title challenger. He was a big star in France during his professional heyday; they named a champagne after him. He was suffering from Alzheimer’s when he died at age 81 at a hospital in Gray, France, not far from his birthplace at Sesancon.

7 – Stan Hoffman – One of boxing’s foremost wheeler-dealers, the pony-tailed Hoffman, born into a mob family in Brooklyn, left the music business to follow his muse and managed, advised or promoted 38 world champions during his five decades in boxing. He guided upset-makers Hasim Rahman and Iran Barkley to world titles and had a long association with James Toney. At age 89 in Bordentown, New Jersey.

8 – Davey Armstrong – A two-time Olympian who spent his best days as a boxer chasing Olympic gold, Armstrong turned pro under Emanuel Steward after the U.S. pulled out of the Moscow Games and finished 24-3. The third member of the national powerhouse Tacoma Boys Club boxing team to pass away in the last three years following the deaths of Rocky Lockridge and Johnny Bumphus, Armstrong was suffering from dementia when he drew his last breath in Puyallup, Washington at age 64.

9 – Roy King Jr – King was 42 years old when he succumbed to injuries suffered in a fight 13 months earlier in Nashville on a show he co-promoted. Knocked down in the waning seconds of the eighth round, he fell into a coma and never regained consciousness. The Brooklyn native, a popular figure in Johnson City, Tennessee, where he owned a fitness studio, finished his career with a record of 12-5-1.

13 – Mzimasi Mnguni – A former postal worker, Mnguni turned out a steady stream of world class fighters from his spartan gym in East London, South Africa. He developed title-holders Welcome Ncita, Vuyani Bungu, and Mbulelo Botile, among others.  Incapacitated by a 2014 stroke, he lived to age 79.

17 – Oscar “Shotgun” Albarado – A fan favorite at LA’s Olympic Auditorium as he was climbing the ladder, Albarado made one successful defense of the WBC 154-pound title he won in 1974 with a come-from-behind 15th-round stoppage of Koichi Wajima in Tokyo. An ill-advised comeback after a nearly six-year retirement reduced his final record to 57-13-1. At age 72 at a nursing home in his hometown of Uvalde, Texas, from complications of dementia.

28 – Danny Valdez – A fixture at the Olympic Auditorium where he fought 24 times, Valdez was only 20 years old when he challenged Davey Moore for the world featherweight title in 1961. That didn’t go well – he was stopped in the opening round – but Valdez was a solid pro who spent months ranked in the top 10 by The Ring magazine. He finished 31-12. At age 81 in Los Angeles.

March

8 – Danny McAlinden – The first native of Northern Ireland to win British and Commonwealth heavyweight titles, McAlinden (a cruiserweight by today’s standards) finished 31-12-2 in a 13-year career that began in 1969. He had one fight on U.S. soil, winning a 6-round decision over Muhammad Ali’s brother Rahman Ali on the undercard of Ali-Frazier I and died on the 50th anniversary of that iconic event. At age 73 in Coventry, England, after a long battle with cancer.

13 – Marvelous Marvin Hagler – One of the all-time greats, Marvelous Marvin won the world middleweight title in 1980 and made 12 successful defenses before losing the title on a controversial decision to Sugar Ray Leonard in what proved to be his final fight. Turning pro in Brockton, MA, where he spent his teen years, Hagler finished 62-3-2 with 52 KOs and was never knocked off his feet. His sudden death at age 66 in New Hampshire was attributed to natural causes.

21 – Jimmy Abbott – Nicknamed Jumbo, the rotund South African heavyweight was 19-5-2 in a five-year career that began in 1978. His signature win was a first-round blast-out of countryman Kallie Knoetze. In retirement he became an evangelist. At age 61 of heart failure eight years after suffering a stroke.

21 – Lee Noble – The British super middleweight finished 20-24-3, but was better than his record. He fought a slew of opponents with unblemished records, but was stopped only twice. He left the sport at age 26 after being diagnosed with leukemia and was only 33 when he passed away from terminal brain cancer at his home in Sheffield.

28 – Jemal Hinton – One of the few boxers to retire undefeated, Hinton, who reached the finals of the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials, was 22-0 in the paid ranks. A second- generation prizefighter, he quit the sport because he simply grew tired of it. A Tai Chi instructor in retirement, Hinton passed away at age 51 at a DC hospital from injuries suffered in a car accident.

April

5 – Vladimir Gendlin – Considered the patriarch of professional boxing in Russia, Gendlin, a former amateur boxer, was a fight facilitator, TV commentator, and producer of documentaries about Russian boxers. At age 84 in Moscow from complications of Covid-19.

May

6 – Felix “Tutu” Zabala Sr. – Born in Cuba, Zabala founded All Star Boxing, the leading promotional firm in South Florida, and was instrumental in launching the long-running series Boxeo Telemundo. He promoted seven champions, notably Colombian bantamweight Miguel “Happy” Lora who developed a big following in Miami. At age 83 from respiratory failure.

29 – Keith Mullings – Judged strictly by his record, 16-8-1, Mullings was mediocre, but to the contrary the Jamaica-born Brooklynite was a solid pro who scored one of the biggest upsets of the 1990s when he unseated super middleweight champion Terry Norris during a string of five consecutive title fights. A Desert Storm veteran who was diagnosed with PTSD, no cause of death was given when he passed away at age 53.

June

9 – Kirkland Laing – Born in Jamaica and raised in Nottingham, England, Laing was more talented than his 43-12-1 record suggests. His signature win was a 10-round decision over Roberto Duran, The Ring magazine Upset of the Year for 1982. Known for his eccentricities and his improvident ways, Laing squandered his ring earnings and was suffering from dementia when he died in a Yorkshire nursing home at age 66.

11 – Bernardo Mercado – Arguably the hardest puncher to come out of Colombia, Mercado was at his best in 1979/80 when he knocked out Trevor Berbick in the opening round on Berbick’s turf in Halifax and then clawed out of a deep hole to stop Earnie Shavers in seven. He finished 33-5 with 28 KOs. At age 69 in Cartagena of an apparent heart attack.

23 – Brian London – The son of a prominent British heavyweight, London, born Brian Sydney Harper, fought all of the top heavyweights of his era including defending champions Floyd Patterson (KO by 11 in 1959) and Muhammad Ali (KO by 3 in 1966). He opened a series of successful nightclubs in his hometown of Blackpool after leaving the sport with a 37-20-1 record and was thought to be in good health when his heart suddenly stopped ticking at age 87.

To be continued…..

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 A Conversation With Acclaimed Journalist and Boxing Analyst Mark Kriegel

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If you’re a storyteller, and Mark Kriegel is certainly that, then boxing is the perfect passport.

A multi-skilled journalist who works for ESPN on several platforms, Kriegel’s video essays for Top Rank promotions, which are fewer than 200 words, are popular, and sets the New York City native apart from the crowd.

“I do think when those essays work, I’m able to boil down the theme of the fight into something that’s really small,” he said. “I’ve learned more about writing in the last two years because of those essays than I had in the previous decade.”

Kriegel added: “It’s because of those essays and because they really force you to make choices and they force you to cut out whatever is extraneous,” he said. “If it doesn’t matter in the story line, it goes. I’ve never been able to be that ruthless with my own words until I started writing these essays. Learning how to write for television has given me more discipline than I’ve ever had before in terms of the word and selecting the right word.”

Because boxers are willing to speak with the media, their stories are often worth telling.

“Boxing is the most organic form of storytelling, even more than the theater. Boxers are more honest than most other athletes, even when they’re lying. Boxers generally remain accessible,” said Kriegel, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College and a master’s degree from Columbia University. “Fighters need the storytellers because there is no league. The fighter’s story is more important than his or her record or even his or her belts. The story is really what we’re tuning in for.”

The sweet science can be a sideshow, but it’s still usually compelling.

“There’s a lot not to like about boxing, but that’s also why it makes for great storytelling,” said Kriegel, a two-time New York Times bestselling author. “Some days I think it’s a sport. Some days I’m convinced it’s not a sport. Boxing is better for the storytellers than it is for the fighters. That’s a guilty confession.”

By the nature of boxing, there are two combatants in the ring and because of this, there is conflict.

While fans watch and journalists cover the sport, everyone wants to see who prevails, but it’s often the back story that seems to bring out the fans’ rapture.

Who doesn’t want to see a young man or woman battle his or her way out of a hardscrabble life and reach heights reserved for a chosen few?

“What makes for a good story is conflict. Boxing is formalized, ritualized conflict. It’s a staged, managed conflict. It’s elemental. It’s two guys basically naked in the ring going at each other,” said Kriegel, who began his career as a general assignment reporter for the Miami Herald and the New York Daily News where he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the Feature Writing category. “Because of the way it’s physically constructed, you’re going to see the nature of each character exposed. If you’re a storyteller, boxing does all the work for you.”

There is something pure and fundamental about boxing. “The other sports are metaphors for what boxing actually is and that’s combat. The difference between MMA and boxing, apart from the modes of combat, is that unlike MMA, boxing has a past,” Kriegel said. “It has a history. It’s a corrupt history, but it’s a very romantic one.”

It’s likely Kriegel came to be a writer because of his father, Leonard Kriegel, who is 88 and still lives in the same apartment on Eighth Avenue, two blocks from Madison Square Garden.

The elder Kriegel’s story is a remarkable one. Born in 1933, he was a polio victim at a young age, but this didn’t stop him from becoming an accomplished writer and teacher.

“My father is from the Bronx. He lost the use of his legs when he was 11 because of polio,” Kriegel said. “He’s a professor at City College. Most of his work and his teaching is American Literature. Which meant American male Literature. He was a very charismatic, crippled man writing about the nature of masculinity and it informed almost everything I’ve ever written.”

Kriegel is the author of four books including a novel, “Bless Me, Father,” which was based on a front-page column he wrote for the New York Post.

Esteemed writer Nick Tosches, who penned numerous books, had a hand in Kriegel’s development as an author.

“He wrote these fantastically stylized biographies,” Kriegel said of Tosches, who wrote about Jerry Lee Lewis, Dean Martin and Sonny Liston, to name but a few of his subjects.

Kriegel’s initial biography was published in 2004 and titled, “Namath: A Biography,” followed three years later by “Pistol: The Life Of Pete Maravich,” and five years later by “The Good Son: The Life Of Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini.”

“I’d done a newspaper piece on Mancini in the [New York] Daily News. I owed the publisher a book on Michael Jordan, which I wasn’t too excited about doing, and this idea of Mancini kept coming back to me,” Kriegel said. “It wouldn’t leave me alone and I wouldn’t leave Ray alone.”

The book’s genesis took shape at an Italian restaurant in Santa Monica, California, with Kriegel, Mancini and the actor Ed O’Neill, eating and drinking until the small hours.

“Ray’s relationship with his father was more straightforward. He was out to redeem his father and that was beautiful,” Kriegel said. “There aren’t that many happy stories in boxing.”

Mancini promised his father, Lenny, a lightweight contender who was injured in World War II that he would win the championship he never did.

After scooping up the World Boxing Association lightweight belt in May 1982 from Arturo Frias, Mancini gave the belt to his father.

In a nationally televised title fight six months later at the outdoor ring at Caesars Palace, Mancini stopped Duk Koo Kim in the 14th round. The 27-year-old South Korean suffered a severe head injury and died five days later.

There are ups and downs in every person’s life, but it was extremely difficult for Mancini to accept what happened to Kim.

Though he retained his title and was pleased with that, Mancini said there was nothing good about that fight.

Three months after the November bout, Kim’s mother committed suicide because of what happened to her son and because family members were bickering over the money he earned.

Since time heals all wounds, Kim’s son, Kim Chi-Wan, eventually forgave Mancini, but it took nearly three decades.

It’s been said the 1980s was a Golden Era for boxing, and it was, but where does the current crop stand for Kriegel?

“There aren’t enough good fights. You can make an argument and it’s perfectly reasonable that the 1980s was [the Golden Era] because you had the Four Kings [Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran and Marvin Hagler] and they fought each other,” he said. “[Muhammad] Ali and [Joe] Frazier fought their trilogy in far less time than it took [Manny] Pacquiao and [Floyd] Mayweather Jr. to get together for one. By the time they did, neither was in their prime.”

While there are outstanding boxers plying their trade right now, there are also problems.

“I really admire Mayweather a lot. One of the unfortunate byproducts of his era is the emphasis on the perfect record,” Kriegel noted. “To me a fighter’s career doesn’t become a truly dramatic proposition until he or she loses. The great plague on boxing right now is all these undefeated champions. I see a bunch of perfect records, but I don’t see many perfect fighters. The loss is what makes it dramatic.”

Kriegel said in an earlier time, Terence Crawford and Errol Spence Jr., both undefeated, would have fought each other multiple times and taken on all comers the way Oscar De La Hoya and the recently retired Shawn Porter did.

Pete Hamill, a national treasure, was Kriegel’s dear friend and mentor.

What does Kriegel take away from his time with Hamill, who passed away in August 2020?

“He made the idea of New York so romantic,” said Kriegel of Hamill, who was a journalist, writer, novelist and editor. “He made the idea of boxing romantic. He was a great and generous teacher. A really wonderful teacher. He was the kind of writer I wanted to become.”

Kriegel became a sportswriter by circumstance. “The [New York] Post turned me into a sports columnist out of desperation,” he said. “I never really took to becoming a sportswriter. I always felt ambivalent except when it was covering boxing. Boxing was the only sport I really loved covering and still do.”

It’s the elements in and around boxing that spark Kriegel’s imagination.

“The same stuff I loved about covering cops and criminals and courts, I found in boxing,” he pointed out. “I mean that you could actually find great moments of humanity. Boxing had all the stuff that I had been looking for. Thematically and in terms of content: fame and masculinity, good and evil. They’re all great dramas.”

Luckily, Kriegel found boxing and boxing found Kriegel. It’s a perfect match.

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Vonda Ward: Much More Than a Highlight Reel

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Anyone who can beat 235-pound Martha Salazar three times is someone who can flat out fight. An ex-basketball player named Vonda Ward defeated her three times (all by decision).

Salazar was an immensely popular and talented female fighter out of San Francisco, CA by way of Jalisco, Mexico. On November 8, 2014, she won the WBC world heavyweight title against Tanzee Daniel by unanimous decision. She lost the title in March 2016 to Alejandra Jimenez in Mexico and retired the following year.

Bottom line: Martha Salazar was a pioneer in legitimizing the heavyweight division in Female Boxing.

“Some girls like to play soccer. Some like to play tennis. Some play volleyball. But we don’t play – we box. So, it’s a very big difference between other sports knowing that someone else is going to hit you. So we want everybody to feel secure, safe, and know that this is what we do, this is what we are and no one can change us.”  — Martha Salazar

Vonda Ward

The 6’6” Ward played basketball at Trinity HS in Garfield Heights, Ohio, and was twice named Ohio’s “Ms. Basketball. She made the prestigious Parade All American team twice and was named an All American by USA Today. In 1991, she joined the University of Tennessee basketball team coached by the legendary Pat Summit.

During her four years at UT, Ward started 49 of 125 games, averaging 6.7 points and 5.6 rebounds while blocking 98 shots – still the 10th most by a Tennessee player. During her time there, the Lady Vols put together a 122-11 record and won three Southeastern Conference championships. Ward was a member of the 1995 squad that played in the NCAA championship game, losing to perennial powerhouse Connecticut. Ward then competed with USA Basketball as a member of the 1993 Jones Cup Team that won the Bronze in Taipei.

vonda

After college, Vonda played for a professional basketball club in Aschaffenburg, Germany and then the ABL’s bootstrap Colorado Xplosion. Injuries cut short her pro basketball career, so given her muscularity, size and athleticism, she was attracted to boxing.

In 2000, her first year of competition, Ward, nicknamed the “All American Girl,” was 10-0 including eight first-round knockouts. None of her opponents lasted beyond the second round. While her fluidity was not especially smooth, she compensated by leveraging her size and a deceptive mean streak (inside the ring) to beat down her opposition. She simply was physically superior to her competition. She was no female Ivan Drago but her defined-sculpted body made her very intimidating.

Ward was 18-0 when she fought the ever-dangerous 5’9” Ann Wolfe on May 8, 2004. In the opening round, Wolf scored the most astounding KO in female boxing history and one of the most spectacular of all time, male or female. Ward had jumped forward into the impact of Ann’s overhand punch, and the result left her unresponsive for several minutes. She was then immobilized and stretchered out of the ring.

Most would have retired at this point, but Vonda wasn’t “most.” Seven months later, she returned to the ring and knocked out Marsha Valley in four rounds in Cleveland.

She went on to win four more bouts, finishing her career with a record of 23-1 with 17 KOs. In her next-to-last fight, in February of 2007, Ward won the inaugural WBC female heavyweight title, defeating Salazar for the third and final time by unanimous decision.

This is the part that is always overlooked. Unfortunately, Vonda’s career continues to be defined by her spectacular and scary KO and not her 23-1 record with 17 KO’s. It’s always about the highlight reel.

Vonda Ward announced her retirement in 2010. She is now a personal trainer working out of King’s Gym in Bedford Heights, Ohio. Known for giving back to her community, she often reminisces about the late Pat Summit and what could have been at Tennessee. She was inducted into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.

For most, Vonda will be remembered for the Wolf knockout. For this writer, however, she will be noted as a rare female athlete who was able to compete at the top level of two different professional sports.

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com and welcomes comments and posts.

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Don King Keeps On Truckin’ and That Portends More Junk

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There are two ways of looking at Don King. There was a day when the former Cleveland street hustler was the pre-eminent boxing promoter in the world. That he is still swinging away at the age of 90 is a wonderful thing, a tribute to his perspicacity. But it’s worth remembering that although King was the driving force behind some of the most storied fights in history, he also foisted a lot of junk on the boxing public. And nowadays, now that his bankroll has atrophied, pretty much all that’s left is the junk.

As a purveyor of junk, King appears to have outdone himself with his forthcoming show in Warren, Ohio. Granted, the main event of the Jan. 29 card, a rematch between cruiserweight title-holder Ilunga Makabu and his South African countryman Thabiso Mchunu, is a good match between fighters with seemingly comparable skill sets. And the supporting bouts might well be entertaining. But that’s entertaining in the way that a train wreck is entertaining.

The co-feature between Trevor Bryan (pictured) and Jonathan Guidry is a travesty, or at least a travesty from the standpoint of how it’s being packaged.

Bryan, who hails from Schenectady, New York, is undefeated (21-0, 15 KOs) and owns a share of the WBA world heavyweight title (the other piece is owned by Oleksandr Usyk). However, he has yet to fight a top-10 opponent and no one really knows how good he is. What we do know is that he is prone to slothfulness. He carried 267 ½ pounds for his last bout against ancient Bermane Stiverne which was 31 pounds more than he had carried in his previous engagement.

In defense of Bryan, this was his first fight in 29 months and many gyms were closed during the pandemic. Moreover, the suet around his waist was entirely in character with King-controlled heavyweights of yesteryear. During the mid-1980s when there was a revolving door of heavyweight title-holders and the term “alphabet soup” was born, love handles were standard. Jack Newfield postulated that King’s heavyweights became so demoralized by his chicanery that they lost all incentive to stay in shape.

That brings us to Jonathan Guidry whose 17-0-2 record was forged against opponents with a combined record of 108-118 at the time that he fought them. The 32-year-old Guidry, who has carried as much as 270 pounds on his 5’11” frame, hails from Dulac, Louisiana, deep in Cajun country, where his regular job is harvesting shellfish from the waterways of his parish.  He is trained by his 45-year-old brother, Martin Verdin, an active boxer with a 23-20-2 record, but for this fight he moved his tack to Houston to train under Bobby Benton who has also trained Regis Prograis.

Trevor Bryan’s original opponent was Mahmoud Charr, the perpetual WBA “Champion in Recess” who purportedly could not get a visa to travel from Germany. Jonathan Guidry was already on the card, penciled in to fight beefy, 42-year-old Alonzo Butler.

The WBA has a rule that a boxer must be ranked in the top-15 to compete for a world title. When Charr, who last fought in November of 2017, was lopped off the bill of fare, the incorrigibly shameless Panama-based sanctioning body boosted Guidry to #13 in its ratings. The folks at boxrec, where King has no influence, are not as sanguine. At boxrec, Guidry clocks in at 256.

The undercard, we are informed, will feature “boxers knocking on the door of stardom.” Presumably that includes the grizzled Butler whose new opponent is 13-1 Ahmed Hefny, an obscure 37-year-old fighter from Queens, New York, whose nickname is “Prince of Egypt.” Butler vs. Hefny is one of four scheduled 10-round NABA title fights. As currently constituted (there will inevitably be last-minute changes), these match-ups include only one competitor under the age of 30, that being 27-year-old welterweight Cody Wilson, a product of the West Virginia Toughman circuit.

A press release concocted by Don King is always full of goo. “The world’s greatest promoter, Don King, has come through with another spectacular championship night of boxing,” says the release for the Jan. 29 card. The receipts, we are informed, will benefit “homeless, poor, and downtrodden people.” Canelo Alvarez, it’s said, will be there to scout Ilunga Makubu who is on his short list of future opponents. (If Canelo turns up in Warren, Ohio, I will eat my hat.)

There are times that I think that a Don King press release is calculated to create a backlash on the theory that all publicity is good publicity. A movie universally panned as among the worst ever is almost certain to develop a cult following.

If King’s show is replete with memorable moments and you miss it, don’t blame me; I said the show was potentially entertaining. But if you enjoy boxing because of the artistry displayed by the top performers, then you would be better served by averting your eyes.

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