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Is Taylor vs. Serrano Really the Biggest Women’s Fight Ever?

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Is Taylor vs. Serrano Really the Biggest Women’s Fight Ever?

Some of the highest-grossing boxing matches ever were artistic duds, but that is not to diminish the importance of revenues generated in establishing some sort of pecking order. Financial gender equity with elite male fighters remains a goal far, far away from being achieved by women, if it ever is to be, but that is not to say history won’t be made Saturday night when arguably the top two current female practitioners of the pugilistic arts square off in the first card in the 140-year existence of Madison Square Garden headlined by fighters born with two X chromosomes.

Money is just another way of keeping score, and regardless of what transpires during the 10 scheduled rounds (or less) pitting undisputed women’s lightweight champion Katie Taylor (20-0, 6 KOs) and seven-division titlist Amanda Serrano (42-1-1, 30 KOs), a landmark scrap that will be streamed via DAZN, a milestone will be achieved. Taylor, from Bray, Ireland, and Serrano, the Brooklyn, N.Y., southpaw of Puerto Rican descent, are each down for purses of $1 million, making them the only fighters of their sex to join the seven-figure club that previously had been an all-male preserve.

It remains to be seen whether Taylor and Serrano justify their record-breaking paydays with the sort of exhilarating, two-way action that will come to be viewed as the distaff equivalent of the best work some of the legendary guys have had to offer. Becoming an instant millionaire for one night’s work, however, does and should come with certain perks. Don’t think that Taylor, a gold medalist at the 2012 London Olympics and the Boxing Writers Association of America’s 2019 and 2020 Female Fighter of the Year, and Serrano, the 2021 BWAA Female Fighter of the Year who comes in on a 10-year, 28-bout winning streak, aren’t aware of how much responsibility they are shouldering not only for the enhancement of their own professional futures and legacies, but for women hopeful of following in their footsteps.

“This is just a special occasion for me, to headline a huge fight like this at Madison Square Garden,” said Taylor, 35, whose WBC, IBF, and WBO 135-pound titles will be on the line. “It’s being billed as the biggest fight in female boxing history. This is just incredible and a real privilege for me.

“Amanda Serrano is a fantastic fighter. She deserves this opportunity as well. She’s been pioneering her own way and that’s why this fight is the best in female boxing history. We have champion vs. champion, the best vs. the best, and this is why this fight is so special. I think years and years from now people are still going to be talking about Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano.”

Said the 33-year-old Serrano: “I don’t need to talk bad about my opponents. I do all (my) talking inside the ring. I respect Katie Taylor and what she’s done. We’re changing the sport. I am excited to be opening doors. We have to prove who the pound-for-pound best is, because everybody has been asking for it.”

How open the doors are to which Serrano has referred is still a matter of some discussion. Yes, the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., has gotten around to granting admittance to female fighters, beginning with the 2020 recognition of Moderns Christy Martin and Lucia Rijker, along with Barbara Buttrick in the Trailblazer category. They will be officially welcomed during the IBHOF’s four-day induction festivities from June 9-12, the past two ceremonies having been postponed by COVID-19. The 2021 Class includes Moderns Laila Ali and Ann Wolfe and Trailblazer Marian Trimiar, with the Class of 2022 adding Moderns Holly Holm and Regina Halmich and Trailblazer Jackie Tonawanda.

Regardless of whoever emerges victorious Saturday night in the Garden, it is a safe bet both Taylor and Serrano will someday join the aforementioned women with plaques hung on the hallowed walls of the IBHOF. Taylor and Serrano currently are rated Nos. 1 and 2 on the women’s pound-for-pound lists of the BWAA, ESPN and DAZN, with Taylor and Serrano first and third as cited by The Ring and Sports Illustrated, sandwiched around two-time Olympic gold medalist and self-proclaimed “greatest woman of all time” Claressa Shields. But the talent pool of women of comparable achievement is still relatively shallow, and the fact that both Taylor and Serrano are in their 30s suggests that their exemplary careers likely have as much or more past than future. The incursions of Father Time and Mother Nature further ratchet up the necessity of Saturday night’s main-eventers to put on a show capable of inspiring a new generation of girls and women to tug on padded gloves and climb inside the ropes.

Jake Paul, the YouTube sensation whose ballyhooed entrance into the fight game has met with both praise from new devotees to the sport and criticism from stodgy traditionalists, is outspoken in his support of women’s boxing, and most specifically Serrano, whom he signed to a contract with his Most Valuable Promotions and featured on his own highly profitable cards. When the prospect of a superfight pairing of Taylor (who is promoted by Eddie Hearn) and Serrano was initially raised, the dollar amount pitched to Team Serrano was an almost-unheard-of $300,000, which Serrano’s trainer/manager, Jordan Maldonado, rejected as being insufficient for his fighter.

“You have to know your worth at times,” Serrano said of her determination to ascend to a monetary summit never previously scaled by a female fighter, but will now have those figurative flags planted by herself and Taylor. Still, the dream fight did not only face contractual hurdles; the originally proposed date of May 2, 2020, was postponed, as were numerous other bouts, by the lingering effects of COVID-19. As more and more time slipped away, representatives of both fighters feared the matchup desired by many would never advance beyond the theoretical.

But now it’s here, and its possible ramifications for women’s sports history have yet to be fully determined. The crusading Billie Jean King years ago won her fight for pay parity with men in big-time tennis, and Title IX nudged many women’s college sports out of the shadows into a spotlight, albeit a somewhat less brightly lit one than the men in basketball. Another victory was achieved recently when the United States’ National Women’s Soccer Team received a new contract that paid its members the same as the men’s team.

How much is a million dollars for a single fight to Taylor and Serrano? It is an imagined fantasy come true, with the possibility of more such bouts shimmering ahead like so many oases. But the pay gap between top-tier men and women remains Grand Canyonesque. The combined purses of Taylor and Serrano are mere chump change when compared to the reported $240 million Floyd Mayweather Jr. received for his May 2, 2015, fight with Manny Pacquiao, who had to “settle” for $120 million or so. As is the case with American professional basketball, where WNBA superstars are virtual paupers in comparison even with NBA bench-warmers, boxing will never represent a level playing field for women who can only hope for more and tastier scraps falling off the men’s banquet table.

“Equity is really how we redistribute power,” Temple University Sports Psychology professor Leeja Carter said after the U.S. women’s soccer team finally got the major pay hike its players figured they had earned on the pitch. Soccer, however, is not boxing; the redistribution of power in the ring is not likely to ever resemble anything even remotely equitable for women whose acceptance in a sport mostly populated and dominated by men is, at best, a work in progress.

It is incumbent upon Taylor and Serrano to give fans and non-fans of women’s boxing reason to believe that their brand of the sweet science is deserving of a longer look. For every undeniably entertaining fight, such as Christy Martin’s bloody stoppage of Deirdre Gogarty and Taylor’s first meeting with Delfine Persoon, there are other potential breakthrough bouts that don’t rise to that level. When Claressa Shields turned pro after her two Olympic golds, some predicted that she would establish herself as the female Mike Tyson, a skilled boxer with the sort of power that would surely make her a make-see attraction. But while Shields has a key to the throne room, the fact remains that, undefeated and dominant in her 12 bouts, she has scored only two victories inside the distance and no longer is being referred to as the same sort of power source as was Tyson. Even her most significant victory, a one-sided unanimous decision over Germany-based Christina Hammer, was not competitive enough to live up to the hype.

My first exposure to the “biggest female bout of all time” was the June 8, 2001, matchup of celebrity daughters Laila Ali and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde at the Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, N.Y. It was a global media event, but more so given the identity of the fighters’ even more celebrated fathers, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, a major factor in the reported $250,000 which went to each woman. The 23-year-old Laila scored an eight-round majority decision over Jacqui, 39 and a mother of two, and drew some positive comments.

“Both women showed grit and determination,” said Al Bernstein, who did the post-fight interviews. “They are in the embryonic stages of their boxing careers, but they gave it everything they had and you can’t ask for anything more than that. Are there better women boxers? Yes. Would I just as soon see Christy Martin and Lucia Rijker fight? Yes. But this was fun, it was competitive and it was hardly a travesty.”

Interestingly, Martin and Rijker were to have swapped punches on July 30, 2005, at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay in what was being touted as the first women’s million-dollar fight. But that description was only partially correct; in a matchup of 37-year-olds, Martin (45-3-2, 31 KOs) and Rijker (17-0, 14 KOs) were guaranteed $250,000 each, with promoter Bob Arum providing an additional $750,000 to the winner. The fight was canceled and never rescheduled after Rijker ruptured her Achilles tendon in training on July 20.

“I would not be telling the truth if I didn’t say that, without the movie (2004’s Academy Award-winning Million Dollar Baby, in which Rijker played the role of a female villain who fought Hilary Swank’s character trained by the veteran cornerman played by Clint Eastwood), we wouldn’t be doing this,” Arum admitted. “The movie highlighted women’s boxing and made it seem very exciting. Clearly, it was the impetus for me to put on this event. Without Million Dollar Baby, I didn’t think there was much future in women’s boxing. After seeing that film, I had second thoughts.”

Frazier-Lyde, after hearing Arum’s thoughts on the matter, railed against the notion that women’s boxing needed a Hollywood tie-in to make women’s boxing interesting enough to merit much public interest. “I would like all fighters to make the money they deserve, but it all boils down – or should – to making great fights,” she said. “Whether its women or men, you shouldn’t need a movie to sell a great fight. Genuine boxing matches sell themselves. Lucia and Christy have made great contributions to the game. They don’t need something fictitious to get the recognition they already should have had.”

Nearly 17 years after Martin-Rijker went by the boards, Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano – real million dollar babies — will attempt to verify Frazier-Lyde’s heartfelt contention that truly meritorious matchups, including those involving women, don’t need fake bells and whistles.

Bernard Fernandez, named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the Observer category with the  Class of 2020, was the recipient of numerous awards for writing excellence during his 28-year career as a sports writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. Fernandez’s first book, “Championship Rounds,” a compendium of previously published material, was released in May of 2020. The sequel, “Championship Rounds, Round 2,” with a foreword by Jim Lampley, is currently out. The anthology can be ordered through Amazon.com and other book-selling websites and outlets.

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Harvey Araton Reflects on the Odd Coupling of Ali-Liston II and Lewiston, Maine

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Harvey Araton Reflects on the Odd Coupling of Ali-Liston II and Lewiston, Maine

It’s rarely the case, but in a few instances a heavyweight championship fight has been staged in a small town like Shelby, Montana, or Lewiston, Maine.

The latter was the case 57 years ago this week — May 25 to be exact — when Muhammad Ali faced Sonny Liston for the second time in 15 months.

In the initial meeting, Ali, then Cassius Clay, stunned the world by stopping and taking away the Big Bear’s title with a sixth-round technical knockout in Miami Beach.

In the rematch, Ali’s short right hand proved to be the knockout punch, but many called it the “Phantom Punch,” because few in the throng of 2,434 inside Lewiston’s St. Dominic’s Arena actually saw the blow land.

Looking back, just how did a town of around 40,000 inhabitants and 142 miles north of Boston, actually host the second meeting?

Longtime New York City sportswriter Harvey Araton penned a feature that ran on May, 19, 2015 in the New York Times on just how that unlikely hamlet of Lewiston, at least for one night, became the boxing capital of the world.

“For the old timers in Lewiston, that fight is the equivalent of hosting an Olympics, an event that for decades has defined its identity, even more so after the city fell into disrepair following the decline of its textile industry and the closing of its mills,” said Araton, who worked at the Staten Island Advance, the New York Post, and the New York Daily News preceding a 25-year stint at the New York Times including a decade and a half writing the “Sports of the Times” column.

“The filmmaker I met who talked about what Ali yelled at Liston as he lay on his back – “Get up and fight!” – and how it enhanced the fight’s legacy in Lewiston as it struggled to revive itself was just perfect for my story. I’d like to think it has also come to reflect the rise of the Somali immigrant community, what it has had to go through in order to find a home and to overcome the standard fear and loathing of immigrants to share its restorative efforts in the city.”

When Araton visited Lewiston on the fight’s 50th anniversary, the townsfolk were proud.

“There certainly was a nostalgic quality to the city of Lewiston with the retention of its old, industrial feel, but especially in the arena where the fight took place. Beyond the facelift it was given several years ago, more to its facade than anything else, it still resembles what I described in the story as a cross between an old barn and an airplane hangar,” he said. “And while I wouldn’t say time is frozen inside, you didn’t have to stretch your imagination too far to feel what fight night must have been like, all of it enhanced by the folks I found who actually attended. And who, 50 years after the fact, were surprisingly vivid in their recall.”

While Ali was famous before this matchup, he became even more recognizable after it.

“To a degree, yes, this fight, more than the first one with Liston, arguably made the new champ more of a household name, for several reasons (though I would go easy on the global aspect of it, given the technological disconnectedness of the time). First and foremost, the chaotic and controversial nature of the fight was unavoidable,” said Araton, the author, co-author or editor of nine books including “When The Garden Was Eden: Clyde, The Captain, Dollar Bill And the Glory Days Of The New York Knicks” and “Driving Mr. Yogi: Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry And Baseball’s Greatest Gift.”

“Two, with the name “Muhammad Ali” stitched onto his white robe, that was unquestionably more of an attention-grabber than Clay (even if much of the media refused to call him Ali). Finally, for those (including my dad Gilbert) who were turned off by Ali’s brashness and preferred to think of the Miami bout as a fluke or even a setup to have Liston put him to sleep in the rematch, the quick work Ali made of Liston essentially suggested to fans everywhere (of what was then a far more popular sport than today) that they might want to get used to this mouthy showman. He was going to be around for a while.”

Araton, who received the prestigious Curt Gowdy Award in 2017 (given annually to print/digital and broadcasting members of the media), said he had to talk his editors into letting him write the piece.

“This one was self-generated all the way. I even had to do a bit of a sales pitch for my editors, who weren’t in love with retrospective pieces. By 2015, I knew I wasn’t going to be a full-time sports journalist for much longer. I had tired of the traveling, the late-nights at live events, the calls for a deadline column that uprooted a dinner plan or a day with my family,” he said. “There
wasn’t for me a great sense of unfinished business, events I hadn’t had the good fortune of covering. But I had always wondered about that fight – how the hell did it wind up in Lewiston, of all places? I mean, there were obvious details about the Boston situation, but I wanted to know the full story. More than that, I was dying to find out if I could interview anyone who actually attended the fight. I really thought I’d be lucky to locate one or two. But lo and behold, there were several – including the former Bates students – who were either at the fight or connected to it, one way or another. And, of course, the story ultimately evolved to being about Lewiston as much as it was about the fight. That’s what I always loved about journalism: the idea is what merely gets you moving in the pursuit of a story.”

Like so many at that time, Araton listened to the fight on the radio. “I mentioned my father earlier – he wasn’t much of a sports fan but he grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, had a cousin who was a boxer and loved a good boxing match. And as I also mentioned, he didn’t care much for Ali, while I, like so many other kids, found him compelling, especially compared to the dour, menacing Liston,” he noted. “So that night, he set up the radio on the kitchen table in our Staten Island housing projects apartment, as he typically did for a big fight that wasn’t on TV. I had just turned 13, apparently old enough to be teased: “Liston’s gonna give it to him good.

“Just as the start of the fight approached, I had to hit the bathroom, and after taking care of business in there, I emerged to see him pulling the plug from the socket and returning the radio to the shelf where he kept it. “Go to bed, it’s over,” he said. I was confused – “whaddaya mean, it’s over?” He huffed, “Clay knocked him out.” I went off to my room happily.”

The fight lasted one round and some thought it was fixed. Jimmy Cannon, the legendary sportswriter sitting ringside said of the knockout punch: “It couldn’t have squashed a grape.”

“I asked that question to all I interviewed who’d attended the fight. Most told me they managed to miss the moment of the punch – looked away, or sipped a beer, or whatever,” said Araton, “But one guy, a former IRS agent named Bob Pacios, insisted he’d had a clear and elevated line of vision from behind Ali and saw Liston step into the blow to the side of his face. He even diagrammed what he saw on a napkin. So, I’ll go with what he testified, while also factoring in that Liston did get up and the fight sort of continued as the ref, Jersey Joe Walcott, went over to consult the timekeeper. Which, I suppose, could obfuscate the hardcore belief that he took a dive. Also, while Ali was no knockout artist, he certainly was a very large man with lightning-fast hands. In other words, the one-punch takeout was plausible.”

Araton never covered any of Ali’s fights, but he did see him up close on one occasion.

“I met him once at the baggage claim at one of the New York-area airports, can’t remember which one, or the year, but it was well after he’d been afflicted by Parkinson’s,” he said. “I was waiting for my bag, minding my business, when I noticed him standing with his wife, Lonnie, at the carousel right next door – of course with people gawking all around him. I just had to go over and say something, anything. I introduced myself as a New York Times sports columnist, and a fan, and mentioned one of my mentors in the newspaper business – Vic Ziegel, who’d covered prime Ali for the New York Post. He smiled, made a fist and said something to the extent of, ‘You tell him I’m looking for him!’”

Araton said he did see the three-time heavyweight champion from a distance.

“Having covered the Atlanta Summer Olympics in 1996, I was also in the stadium when he appeared with the torch, in what had to be the greatest ceremonial sports moment of our times,” he said. “It takes no special insight to call Ali a great historical figure, incredibly courageous, transcendent of his sport, all sports and pretty much everything else. But also a man with some troubling contradictions – tough to stomach, for instance, how he demeaned Joe Frazier, even when rationalized for the purpose of selling the fights. And shame on the press for laughing along, or even portraying Frazier as a tool of the white establishment.”

Araton went on: “When Ali died, I was wrapping up my 25 years at the Times (as I’d anticipated before doing the Lewiston piece the previous year) and was covering the NBA finals in the California Bay Area. My older son, Alex, was quite upset by the news. He was, after all, the son of a sports columnist who happened to be fascinated with the Ali legend. He kept texting me, encouraging me to write something, while I reminded him that the Times tributes had all been prepared well in advance of Ali’s death, as almost all are for the truly great ones. But when he insisted, I finally relented, and stayed up into the wee hours to finish a piece that I posted on a blog site I had created but seldom used.

“Strangely enough, once posted to the blog site, it appeared on my Twitter feed and a media critic for Sports Illustrated included it on a list of Ali tributes he liked. That provided it with far more readers than I’d imagined it would get. Which gets back to my earlier point of how Ali as a phenomenon was much easier to propagate globally by 2016 than he was in 1965.”

Harvey Araton’s blog piece bore the title “Ali, Connector of Generations.” Here’s a link to it.
http://www.harveyaraton.com/the-araton-blog/ali-connector-of-generations

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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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