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For Whom the Bell Tolled: 2021 Boxing Obituaries PART TWO (July-Dec.)

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Here is the second and final installment of our annual year-end report in which we pay homage to those for whom the final bell tolled.

July

2 – Lehlo Ledwaba – He won the IBF 122-pound title in 1999 and made five successful defenses before losing the belt on a sixth-round stoppage to Manny Pacquiao in what was Pacquiao’s U.S. debut. He trained and managed several fighters after leaving the sport with a record of 36-6-1. At age 49 of Covid complications at a medical clinic in his home province of Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa.

12 – Conroy Nelson – According to various sources, Nelson spent the last 20 years of his life living in a bamboo hut with no electricity on a family farm in his homeland of Jamaica. Fighting out of Canada, he compiled a 21-24-2 record during a 20-year career during which he was fodder for the likes of Mike Tyson, Herbie Hyde, and Riddick Bowe. He was battling pancreatic cancer when he died of a heart attack at age 62.

22 – Andre Thysse – From the Gauteng province of South Africa, Thysse answered the bell for 221 rounds during a 10-year career that began in 1999. He finished 20-8, but was stopped only twice and reportedly never knocked down. In retirement, he owned several businesses and promoted a few fights in Johannesburg. At age 52 of Covid-19.

August

10 – Stanley “Kitten” Hayward – He was right in the thick of things when Philadelphia was a hornets nest of rugged welterweights and middleweights and had one crack at the 154-pound world title, losing a 15-round decision to underrated Freddie Little in Little’s adopted hometown of Las Vegas. After leaving the sport with a 32-12-4 record, he spent 33 years as a Court Crier in Philadelphia where he died from complications of a stroke.

21 – Jarvis Astaire – A Hall of Fame boxing promoter with a wide range of business interests, he was the man most responsible for bringing U.K. boxing into the closed circuit and pay-per-view age. The Astaire Alliance, which included matchmaker Mickey Duff, ruled British boxing with an iron thumb for decades beginning in the late 1960s. At age 97 in London.

23 – Giovanni Pretorius – A former OIympian, the heavy-handed Johannesburg bomber challenged Robin Reid for the WBC super middleweight title in 1997, succumbing in seven rounds. He finished 28-2-1 (24). At age 49 in a hospital in Alberton, S.A., a victim of Covid.

September

1 – Jeanette Zacarias – Only the second known female ring fatality following South Africa’s Phindile Muelas (2014), Zacarias collapsed after the fourth round of an Aug. 28 bout in Montreal and died four days later without regaining consciousness. It was her sixth pro fight. A native of Aguascalientes, Mexico, she was only 18 years old.

2 – Doyle Baird – A brawler from Akron, Ohio who turned pro at age 28, Baird turned heads in 1968 when he held middleweight champion Nino Benvenuti to a draw in a non-title fight. Benvenuti stopped him in 10 rounds in the rematch. He went on to challenge Vincente Rondon for the light heavyweight title (L TKO 6) and retired with a record of 34-7-1. At age 83 in Akron.

10 – Manuel Calvo – Fighting almost exclusively in Spain, Calvo compiled a 54-18-6 record in a 12-year career that began in 1963. Both he and his son of the same name won European featherweight titles. At age 79 in Madrid where he was battling a heart condition.

October

9 – Keitaro Hoshino – Active from 1988 to 2003, Hoshino engaged in six world title fights in the smallest (105 pound) weight class and was a two-time world title-holder. He finished 23-10, somewhat misleading as he was on the wrong end of several razor-thin decisions. At age 52 in his native Yokohama after a long but unspecified illness.

11 – Tony DeMarco – Born Leonardo Liotta, DeMarco won the world welterweight title in 1955 with a 14th-round stoppage of Johnny Saxton, but lost it 10 weeks later in the first of his two sizzling matches with Carmen Basilio. Ushered into the IBHOF in 2019, he finished 58-12-1. An impressive bronze statue of him sits near his boyhood home in Boston where he died at age 89.

31 – Tommy Thomas – Born and raised in Clarksburg, West Virginia, Thomas compiled a 34-8 record during a 10-year career that began in 1977. He tangled with the likes of Michael Dokes, Leon Spinks, and Pierre Coetzer. In retirement, he worked as a police officer in Clarksburg and ran a boxing gym. At age 67 after a long battle with Parkinson’s and dementia.

November

4 – Jerry Martin – Born and raised in Antigua, Martin, nicknamed “The Bull,” turned pro in Philadelphia in 1976 without the benefit of any amateur experience and compiled a record of 25-7. He went inside Rahway prison walls to upend inmate James Scott in a big upset on NBC, but failed in three cracks at the world light heavyweight title, losing to Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Matthew Saad Muhammad, and Dwight Muhammad Qawi. At age 67 in Philadelphia of an undisclosed illness.

6 – Steve Lott — A protégé of the noted boxing historian and memorabilia collector Jim Jacobs, Lott was swept into the world of boxing when Jacobs and his business partner Bill Cayton took to managing prizefighters. Closely allied with the young Mike Tyson, he handled the daily affairs of several other world champions and went on to curate a vast library of boxing ephemera at the popular website Boxing Hall of Fame Las Vegas. At age 71 in a Las Vegas hospital after suffering a head injury in a fall at his home.

9 – Loucif Hamani – Hamani turned pro in Paris after representing Algeria in the 1972 Munich Olympics and compiled a record of 24-3. He out-pointed a faded Emile Griffith, but was no match for Marvin Hagler who wacked him out in the second round in his lone U.S. engagement. At age 71 in Paris after a long illness.

13 – Jeff Wald – A powerful Hollywood talent agent whose clients included Sylvester Stallone, Wald was the co-creator and co-executive producer of “The Contender” series and had a financial stake in George Foreman’s last two fights. At age 77 in Los Angeles.

17 – Johnny Gant – A welterweight contender in the 1970s who finished 45-15-3, Gant battled such notables as Esteban De Jesus, Hedgemon Lewis, Hector Thompson and Sugar Ray Leonard and went 15 rounds with Angel Espada in Puerto Rico in a failed bid for Espada’s world title. In retirement, the Washington DC native founded a boxing academy in Atlanta for at-risk youth. At age 70 of an undisclosed illness.

17 – Johnny Sarduy – The Cuban featherweight, who finished 33-7-4, closed out his career with two fights in Miami Beach, the second of which included Cassius Clay on the undercard. Sarduy left boxing to join the anti-Castro, CIA-sponsored “Bay of Pigs” invasion and in retirement became a wealthy drywall contractor. At age 85 in Miami.

23 – Paul Cardoza – A two-time New England Golden Gloves champion who served in the Navy and the Marines, Cardoza, a light heavyweight, was 23-9 as a pro in a seven-year career that began in 1969. He split two fights with two-time world title challenger Richie Kates and hung up his gloves after getting stopped by future belt-holder Marvin Johnson. At age 78 in New Bedford, MA, where he was a lifelong resident.

December

13 – Gaspar Ortega – A staple on the small screen during the golden age of TV boxing, the colorful, iron-chinned Ortega, part Zapotec Indian, had 176 documented fights, finishing 131-39-6, and remarkably was stopped only twice, the first coming in 1961 in a failed bid for Emile Griffith’s world welterweight title. The father of world class referee Mike Ortega, “El Indio,” a longtime Connecticut resident, passed away at age 86 at the home of his daughter in Naples, Florida.

14 – Tony Perez – He refereed dozens of world title fights beginning with Joe Frazier vs. Jimmy Ellis on Feb. 16, 1970, and including Muhammad Ali’s first post-exile fight against Jerry Quarry later that year. At age 90 in Barnegat Township, New Jersey. His survivors include his wife Barbara, a former boxing judge who likewise worked many championship fights.

24 – Danny Kelly Jr – A 30-year-old heavyweight with a 10-3-1 record, Kelly was fatally shot in an apparent road rage incident while driving with his girlfriend and three young children on a busy roadway in Saint George County, Maryland, late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. None of the other occupants of the vehicle were injured. His assailant remains at-large.

28 – Harry Reid – A five-term U.S. Senator from Nevada and the Senate Majority Leader from 2007 to 2015, Reid was an amateur boxer who officiated at approximately 100 pro fights as a ringside judge. He introduced legislation to strengthen the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act and was named to the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame for his contributions to the sport. At age 82 in Henderson, NV, after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer.

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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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