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The Hauser Report: A Club Fight Card in Philadelphia

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The Hauser Report: A Club-Fight Card in Philadelphia

Prentiss Byrd worked as a trainer with Emanuel Steward at the Kronk Gym in Detroit from 1978 to 2001. Long ago, Byrd voiced the view, “Boxing has been dead for years. We’re just walking through the graveyard.”

I’ve written at length in this space about the reasons for the decline of boxing in the United States. Phony championship belts, a pay-per-view economic model that separates fans from attractive fights, the failure of the sport’s power brokers to make the fights that the public most wants to see, incompetent and corrupt officiating that mars the viewing experience (to say nothing of undermining the integrity of the sport).

In recent months, I’ve been involved in the making of a documentary that will examine the current state of boxing. On February 26, that project took me to Philadelphia to explore boxing through the prism of club fights.

There was a time when club fights were the lifeblood of professional boxing. Watching a fight live from up close is different from what most fans experience in a big arena. The only way to get close to the ring at a big fight is to be a member of the media or a child of privilege with a thousand-dollar ticket. At a club fight, spectators are close to the action. They hear punches land and see the pain etched on a fighter’s face. It’s a unique experience that can’t be fully understood unless one has been there. Television cosmeticizes the violence and falls short of fully capturing the atmosphere at a fight.

Once upon a time, the Blue Horizon in North Philadelphia was the most famous club fight arena in the United States, The Ring called it “the number-one boxing venue in the world.”

The building was constructed in 1865 as a row of three adjoining homes for the super-rich. In 1914, it was altered and became the Philadelphia home for a national fraternal lodge known as the Loyal Order of Moose. The first fight card contested there was held on March 1, 1938. In 1961, the building was sold to a new owner who named it The Blue Horizon and, after further renovation, began hosting regular boxing shows. Marty Kramer, Herman Taylor, and Russell Peltz are among the promoters who made their name there. The arena closed in 2010 and is now awaiting redevelopment.

Philadelphia gave boxing Joe Frazier, Bernard Hopkins, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Harold Johnson, Stanley “Kitten” Hayward, Meldrick Taylor, Tim Witherspoon, “Gypsy” Joe Harris, Eugene “Cyclone” Hart, Bennie Briscoe, and Jeff Chandler. Also Michael Buffer, Artie Pelullo (seen above with the author last Saturday on the famed Blue Horizon balcony), and (one might say) Rocky Balboa.

On arriving in the City of Brotherly Love on February 26, I went with the film crew to the Blue Horizon. The building is padlocked. A caretaker brought us inside. Prentiss Byrd’s ghosts were in the house. Beyond that, it’s difficult to describe what I saw.

The once-grand building where capacity crowds of 1,346 gathered for fights is now a monument to urban decay. A wreck, a ruin. Parts of it are structurally unsound. Clumps of plaster have fallen from the ceiling and litter the floor. The walls look like they’ve been torn apart by an explosion. Going anywhere inside requires walking through rubble. Twelve years of grime on the windows keep the sunlight out.

Hauser2

From that sad reminder of boxing’s past, we went next to boxing’s present.

The 2300 Arena is located in an industrial area of South Philadelphia beneath an overpass for Interstate 95. Built as a warehouse in 1974, it has been known at various times as Viking Hall, Alhambra Arena, The Arena, Asylum Arena, ECW Arena, and now 2300 Arena (a reference to its location at 2300 South Swanson Street). In recent years, it has been the site for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other events. After winning the Super Bowl in 2018, the Philadelphia Eagles received their rings in a private ceremony there.

The 2300 Arena is also home to club fights promoted by RDR Promotions (named for its founder Rodney Rice).

Rice, age 55, grew up in South Philadelphia. His mother was the rock of the family. His father (in Rodney’s words) was “in and out of the home.” Mostly out.

Rice is open about past mistakes. He fought a lot on the streets when he was young and looks back on that time, saying, “I had a lot of anger issues.” From ages ten through fifteen, he was in a child guidance program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia but was still “getting into bad things.” There was a conviction for burglary. He was “moving toward drug dealing.” Then “my sister, Dionne, pushed me into the Army.”

Rice served in the military from 1988 to 1999, rising to the rank of staff sergeant. After leaving the service, he took a job with Terminex (a pest control company). “But I didn’t know how to act out of the military,” he acknowledges. “I got into drugs to cope. For a year, it was bad. I knew I needed help.”

In 2000, Rice entered a drug rehab program. Then he returned to the pest control business. That was followed by a job in vector control with the City of Philadelphia. Since 2012, he has worked for the United States Environmental Protection Agency in its Inspector General’s office. He balances the requirements of that job with the demands of his promotional company.

Rice’s introduction to formal boxing began with sparring after he left the military (“I got my butt kicked”). Then he began helping trainers work with their fighters. The first pro fight that he remembers being at was Hank Lundy vs. Reggie Sanders at the Blue Horizon in 2007. After that, he says, “the evolution to being a promoter was natural for me.”

RDR Promotions promoted two fight cards in 2020 and ten in 2021. The February 26 show was its first of 2022 with the next two scheduled for March 25 and April 30. Rice has a few fighters under contract but, for the most part, fills out his cards with fighters who are independent or made available to him by other promoters on a fight-by-fight basis.

“I like building and rebuilding fighters,” Rice says. “I love what I’m doing. The worst thing about the job is some of the people you have to deal with and the secrets you have to keep. I don’t know where I’ll go from here. There’s no great plan. If I keep having fun, I’ll keep doing it. If I’m not having fun, I’ll stop.”

Generic boxing doesn’t sell well to the public at large anymore. That’s why TV ratings are low for most bouts and arenas are largely empty during the undercard for big fights. But the sport has a hardcore fan base, and RDR Promotions has tapped into it.

The 2300 Arena is a barebones facility with the feel of a former warehouse. It has a high ceiling, plain walls, and concrete floor painted black. Tickets for the February 26 event were priced at $150, $100, and $75. RDR’s shows are building a following, in part because matchmaker Nick Tiberi makes pretty good fights and in part because each card has a half-dozen or so Philadelphia fighters who are ticket sellers. The shows are also available via pay-per-view stream on BXNG.TV for $19.95.

Greg Sirb (executive director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission) does a hands-on job of overseeing combat sports in Pennsylvania. And for a fraction of what it costs to regulate boxing in nearby states like New York. Four hours before the bell for round one of the opening bout on February 26, Sirb was checking in fighters and their camps in addition to performing chores like carrying chairs into the technical zone at ringside for fighters’ seconds to sit on between rounds during the fights.

Upstairs, sixteen fighters and their teams were crammed into two dressing rooms on the second floor. There was no music, just quiet conversation with each camp respecting the others’ space. The vibe in the “blue” dressing room (which housed the underdog fighters) was far less optimistic than in the red.

At 6:40 PM, the doors to the arena opened and the crowd began filing in. It was a good turnout. Most of the fans were in their seats when the first bout began at 7:20.

The fighters on the card were a mix of prospects, ticket sellers, and opponents. Being an “opponent” in boxing is one of the most painful, thankless jobs imaginable. Why do they do it? Wrigley Brogan answered that question several years ago when he wrote, “A few extra bucks, a chance to be admired for a few minutes, to be something uncommon, to know they have had a real life rather than a safe one.”

The first bout of the evening was a mismatch between local prospect, 22-year-old Jabril Noble (2-0, 2 KOs) from Philadelphia and Joseph Santana (0-4, 3 KOs by) from Providence. Rice is an advisor to Noble. Santana was a last-minute substitute after Darnell Jiles (who’d won once in nine fights dating back to 2008) fell out. Noble KO’d Santana at 2:01 of round one and, in an in-the-ring interview afterward, declared, “He was scared. He didn’t want to fight. I want a better opponent next time than the one I just fought.”

Bout number two was equally predictable. Edwin Cortes (1-0) fought Jerrod Miner, who was introduced to the crowd as “a seventeen-bout veteran.” Miner’s actual record (two wins in those seventeen fights) was left unspoken. Cortes prevailed on each judges’ scorecard by a 40-36 margin.

That was followed by another mismatch. Nineteen-year-old Philadelphian Isaiah Johnson (3-0, 3 KOs), with whom Rice has a promotional contract, showboated before, during, and after his fight against Dieumerci Nzau, who lasted 72 seconds and has now lost twelve fights in a row.

Philadelphia boxing fans are knowledgeable. They understood what they were watching. Then they saw the sort of upset that makes going to club shows worthwhile.

Robert Sabbagh (3-0, 2 KOs) from Brooklyn was matched against North Carolinian Joel Caudle (8-6-2, 5 KOs, 2 KOs by) in a scheduled six-round heavyweight bout. Caudle, age 31, is listed as 5-feet-10-inches tall and weighed in at 283 pounds. “Blubbery” doesn’t begin to describe him. He’d lost his most recent five fights dating back to 2018. Sabbagh was expected to make it six losses in a row. But whatever Sabbagh might bring to the table, high-level boxing skills aren’t on the list. Against Caudle, he seemed intimidated from the opening bell by the massive presence in front of him, took body shot after body shot, and never really fought back. His corner stopped the beating after four rounds.

Next up, 25-year-old Dominique Mayfield (0-1, 1 KO by) from Philadelphia fought 36-year-old Daryl Clark. Mayfield had been knocked out in the first round by a 3-11 fighter in his only other pro fight. Clark, from Houston, had a 1-1 record but that win came against a fighter who hurt his shoulder in the second round and had been unable to continue. Mayfield decisioned Clark by a 40-36, 40-36, 40-36 margin.

Mexican Oscar Barajas, who hadn’t won since 2017 and had been brought to the 2300 Arena in the hope that he would lose to Philadelphian Jerome Conquest, turned the tables with a 58-56, 58-56, 57-57 majority decision triumph.

Then the third prospect on the card, 28-year-old cruiserweight Muhsin Cason (9-0, 6 KOs) from Las Vegas knocked out Louisianian Steven Lyons (winless in six fights dating back to February 2019) in five rounds.

Finally, the main event matched Ray Robinson (24-3-2, 12 KOs, 1 KO by) against Silverio Ortiz (37-28, 18 KOs, 6 KOs by). Robinson, age 36 and from Philadelphia, was once a prospect. But he couldn’t beat the world-class fighters he faced and was winless in three bouts dating back to 2017. Ortiz, age 39, a last-minute substitute, had lost his last seven fights and 14 of 17 dating back to 2015. To be fair, the 14 guys Ortiz lost to during that stretch had a composite ring record of 230-13-5 at the time he fought them. He’s a classic “opponent.” KO 3 Robinson.

And that was boxing in Philadelphia on February 26, 2022.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press this autumn. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

 

 

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R.I.P. Les Bonano (1943-2022), Linchpin of Boxing in New Orleans

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Les Bonano, a fixture on the New Orleans area boxing scene for 50 years, passed away on Saturday night, May 21, at his home in Slidell, Louisiana, surrounded by his wife of 60 years, Mary, his four children and his eight grandchildren. Bonano, who had been in and out of the hospital in recent months with kidney problems, was 79 years old.

Bonano joined the New Orleans Police Department in 1965 and patrolled the French Quarter, one of America’s most harrowing beats. In 1974, while working for the New Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Department, he was charged with starting an intramural sports program to relieve tensions at the parish prison. He began with basketball and then added boxing. Somewhat later, he opened a gym and took to training, managing, and promoting fighters. He retired from law enforcement in 1981 to give boxing his full attention.

Bonano was poised to seize the moment when neighboring Mississippi legalized gambling in 1990. He carved out arrangements with Gulf Coast casino resorts in Biloxi and Bay St. Louis to keep his fighters’ busy. Many of the shows that he facilitated were mid-week shows that aired on the old USA cable network.

Bonano never had the satisfaction of managing a world champion, but he came awful close with Melvin Paul who lost a controversial decision to Charlie “Cho Choo” Brown in the inaugural IBF lightweight title fight. Others in Bonano’s stable who went on to compete for world titles include Jerry Celestine, Anthony Stephens, and John Duplessis. Celestine, a light heavyweight who fought Michael Spinks, was an alumnus of Bonano’s prison program.

More recently, Bonano promoted Jonathan Guidry, the Dulac, LA heavyweight who made a surprisingly strong showing against WBA (secondary) title-holder Trevor Bryan on a Don King promotion in Warren, Ohio.

In July of last year, Les Bonano was formally inducted into the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame with the class of 2021. “He is perhaps the final ruler of what remains of a fraying and depleted boxing kingdom in the formerly great fight city of New Orleans,” wrote Hall of Fame boxing writer Bernard Fernandez, a New Orleans native, in a tribute that ran on these pages.

We here at The Sweet Science send our condolences to the Bonano family. May he rest in peace.

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What’s Next for David Benavidez?

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What’s Next for David Benavidez?

POST-FIGHT REPORT BY TSS SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT NORM FRAUENHEIM —

GLENDALE, AZ – Forget Canelo Alvarez.

That, at least, was the message from David Benavidez and his promoter late Saturday after he demolished David Lemieux in front of a roaring crowd at Gila River Arena in a Showtime-televised rout.

Benavidez (26-0, 23 KOs) has been talking about a super-middleweight showdown with Canelo for the last couple of years. His victory, a third-round stoppage of Lemieux, put him first in line for a shot at the World Boxing Council’s version of the 168-pound title, still held by Canelo

But that talk stopped. Canelo who?

It sounded as if Benavidez, the WBC’s interim champion, was ready to shut that door and move on, possibly to Caleb Plant or Jermall Charlo or David Morrell. He never mentioned Canelo during a post-fight news conference a couple of hours after bulldozing Lemieux, a former middleweight champion who was overmatched in every way.

“Plant, Charlo, Morrell, maybe we can put together a fight against one of those guys later in the year,’’ said Benavidez, who drew an estimated crowd of nearly 10,000 for the second straight time in an Arizona arena near his old neighborhood in Phoenix.

The question is whether Plant, or Charlo, or Morrell would be willing to face Benavidez. Lemieux was smaller and older. Still, it was scary to witness the beatdown delivered by Benavidez, who grew up about seven miles from Gila River, a National Hockey League Arena.

Benavidez, 25 and still a couple years from his prime, seemingly did it all. He started with body punches. At the end of the first round, he landed a lethal upper-cut, the first in what would prove to be an overwhelming storm. In the second, he knocked Lemieux through the ropes, leaving the Canadian bloodied, dazed and defenseless. At 1:31 of the third it was over. Lemieux (43-5. 36 KOs) did not attend the post-fight news conference. He was taken to a nearby hospital in Glendale.

“He’s a good fighter, a courageous fighter,’’ Benavidez said. “He did what those others wouldn’t do. He fought me.’’

Unlike Benavidez, his promoter, Sampson Lewkowicz mentioned Canelo, who is coming off a stunning loss to light-heavyweight Dimitry Bivol.

“Please, you guys need to quit asking about Canelo,’’ Lewkowicz told a room full of reporters. “We’re looking at three guys. We think we can put together a fight with Charlo, or Plant, or Morrell. But Canelo won’t fight David.

“He’ll never fight the world’s best super-middleweight.’’

Photo credit: Esther Lin / SHOWTIME

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The Middleweight Division has a New Star in Janibek Alimkhanuly

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Step aside, GGG. Kazakhstan has a new fistic hero and his name is Janibek Alimkhanuly. Tonight, at Resorts World in Las Vegas, Janibek (he usually goes by his first name) destroyed Britain’s intrepid Danny Dignum inside two rounds, scoring two knockdowns, the second of which, a five-punch combination climaxed by a short uppercut, left Dignum unconscious. Referee Tony Weeks waived the fight off immediately. The official time was 2:11 of round two.

With the victory, Janibek (12-0, 8 KOs) becomes the interim WBO middleweight champion. The belt is currently held by Demetrius Andrade who is expected to move to 168, opening the door for the 29-year-old Kazakh southpaw to become “full-fledged.”

Although he held the WBO European middleweight title and was undefeated (14-0-1) coming in, Dignum wasn’t expected to provide much opposition. Janibek was stepping down in class after stopping former title-holders Rob Brant and Hassan D’Dam D’Jikam in his previous two fights.

Janibek’s trainer Buddy McGirt doesn’t believe that there is a middleweight on the planet who can hold his own with Janibek (no, not even undefeated Jermall Charlo!) and based on tonight’s performance, it would be hard to argue.

Co-Feature

In the co-feature, youth was served as Jamaine Ortiz, the younger man by 10 years, won a unanimous 10-round decision over former WBO super featherweight champion Jamel Herring. The judges had it 96-94 and 97-93 twice.

Ortiz, from Worcester, Massachusetts, did his best work late in the fight as Herring’s workload declined. The bout was marred by several accidental clashes of heads with Herring getting the worst of it on each occasion.

“I could have done a lot better,” said Ortiz (16-0-1, 8 KOs) after winning the most high-profile fight of his career. Herring, who was making his first start with trainer Manny Robles, fell to 23-4 and hinted that he may retire.

Other Bouts of Note

The opener on ESPN’s main platform showcased Cleveland welterweight Delante “Tiger” Johnson, a 2020 Olympian, who advanced to 4-0 (3) with a third-round stoppage of Argentina’s Agustin Kucharski (8-5-1).

Johnson had Kucharski on the canvas twice in the first minute of the third round, both the result of counter right hands. Kucharski, who was making his U.S. debut and hadn’t previously been stopped, twisted around as he fell the second time and the white towel flew out from his corner. The official time was 0:54.

Glendale, CA featherweight Adam Lopez (16-3, 6 KOs) overcame a pair of knockdowns to win a unanimous 8-round decision over William Encarnacion. The judges had it 76-74 and 77-74 twice.

Lopez, 26, is one of two fighting sons of the late Hector “Torero” Lopez, a former two-time world title challenger who developed a big following in LA in the 1990s. Encarnacion who represented the Dominican Republic in the 2012 Olympics, lost for the third time in 22 starts.

Former WBO super bantamweight champion Jessie Magdaleno returned to the ring after an absence of almost two full years and whitewashed Mexico’s Edy Valencia in an 8-round featherweight contest, winning by 80-72 across the board. Las Vegas’ Magdaleno improved to 29-1 (4-0 since losing his belt to Isaac Dogboe). Valencia declined to 19-7-6.

Cincinnati featherweight Duke Ragan, a silver medalist in Tokyo improved to 6-0 with his fifth straight win by decision, a four-round whitewash of South Carolina’s Victorino Gonzalez (5-3).

In the ESPN+ opener, undefeated Chicago lightweight Giovanni Cabrera (20-0, KOs) won a unanimous 8-round decision over 34-year-old Argentine import Elias Araujo (21-5). The judges saw it 79-72, 77-74, and 75-73. There were no knockdowns, but Araujo lost a point for holding.

Cabrera lacks a hard punch which diminishes his upside, but he’s a stylish southpaw who has elevated his game since hooking up with Freddie Roach.

Photo Credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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