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Canastota Chronicles: Coffee and Donuts With Smokin’ Bert Cooper

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Canastota Chronicles: Coffee and Donuts With Smokin’ Bert Cooper

Boxing fans often flock to Canastota for Hall of Fame weekend in hopes of meeting a few stars. I am no different than most fans in that I yearn for that once in a lifetime encounter with a boxing superstar whenever I am in Canastota. As a matter of fact, the very first fighter I ever met there was Felix Trinidad and still proudly display the glove he signed for me in a prominent place in my mancave.

But its not all about just meeting the “stars” of the sport when attending Hall of Fame weekend. You just never know who you will bump into and maybe even spark a friendship. For me that random encounter took place at the Dunkin Donuts across the street from the Hall of Fame and gave me two years’ worth of unforgettable memories.

Anyone who has ever been to Canastota knows that things can sometimes get a little congested Hall of Fame weekend in that small town. Saturday is usually a busy day on the Hall of Fame grounds with all sorts of events that tend to draw large crowds. I was on the grounds as usual with my wife Kelly on Saturday June 10th, 2017 and as the day ended, we decided to head across the street to Dunkin Donuts instead of battle an ensuing traffic jam.

As I sat there watching out the window sipping my coffee, I noticed an individual enter who looked like someone I should know. Well, he must have noticed me staring and came right over to sit down next to me. Definitely not what I was expecting but he soon stuck his hand out and introduced himself as Bert. That’s when I knew who was sitting next to me.

I was frozen for a second and in my head was trying to quickly recount as many of Bert’s past fights as possible. Shortly after he sat down next to me another individual walked in and came over to the table. He asked if I could watch over Bert for a minute and make sure he didn’t leave. This person told me he’d be back in ten minutes.

My wife shot me the look of let’s just get out of here. But I couldn’t. And I wanted to make sure Bert stayed put. I am not sure to this day why this is the first thing I thought of but I wanted to get some conversation going with Bert to make sure he didn’t suddenly split. So, knowing he was from Philadelphia, I asked he ever fought at the Blue Horizon.

He did. It apparently wasn’t a particularly fond memory of Bert’s.

With that awkward start out of the way, Bert went right into telling me about his fight with George Foreman. I am guessing he figured I’d recognize the name and well it was quite the sensational story. I will steer away from the X rated version but essentially Bert claimed Foreman sent hookers and drugs to his hotel room the night before the fight. He went into details. My wife looked petrified and clearly wanted to leave.

So, I swerved quickly and got Bert talking about other fights as well as moments from his career. And he could talk. Eventually that person showed back up and joined us along with Junior Jones. It was quite the experience and at the end as we parted ways Bert asked me if we could have lunch next year. I said sure thinking it’d never happen.

But it did. The person who I referenced earlier who asked me to make sure Bert didn’t leave Dunkin Donuts was named Sam Bearman. He was an attorney who had a passion for boxing and was assisting some former fighters with various matters. One was Bert along with Junior Jones and Riddick Bowe. Sam contacted me during Hall of Fame weekend in 2018 and asked if we were still on for lunch with Bert. Of course, my answer was yes.

When I first saw Bert in 2018 he sure acted like he remembered me (not sure if he really did or if Sam helped juggle his memory). Bert whipped out a black and white photo right away and asked if I wanted an autograph. So, I said sure and knowing he probably wanted a few bucks I began to pull out my wallet. Bert saw this and said that while he usually charges fans, he never charges friends. I offered anyway and he refused to take any money.

We headed off the Hall of Fame grounds for lunch to this little restaurant in the heart of Canastota called Three Pines. Bert made sure to introduce himself to the few patrons who were seated as well as all the staff. Possibly wanting to avoid a scene the hostess took us to the back dining area that was unoccupied.

Generally, when I go to Canastota I watch several past fights of the many fighters who I know will be in attendance that week. That way just in case I come into contact with someone I am prepared to spark a conversation about their career. Knowing there was a better than outside chance I’d bump into Bert again I watched many of his old fights just in case we’d head out to lunch.

Anyway, I probably recounted a dozen or so fights with Bert that day. Since we had plenty of room in the area that we were stashed back in at the restaurant he even gave me a demonstration of how he knocked out Richie Melito. In doing so I thought for a second that I was going to be on the receiving end of his patented left hook.

Eventually the owner came over and asked me if Bert was really a famous boxer. I said yes. She asked him for an autographed picture and he gleefully ran out to the car where he left the photos to get one to sign for her. She told us next year when we come the photo would be in a frame on the wall with the other signed pictures.

My wife and I would soon have to part ways to head to Turning Stone for the boxing card that evening. Before we parted Bert told me that we’d have to get together next year as he had more stories that he wanted to share from his career.

But that was the last time I saw Bert. About a month before the 2019 Hall of Fame weekend Bert suddenly passed away.

I decided not to go back to Three Pines restaurant in 2019. It was just too soon as just a year earlier Bert was in his happy place there talking about his career with a diehard fan who soaked up every second of his stories. I figured in 2020 I’d stop by and hopefully see that photo displayed on the wall. But that did not happen.

The plan is this year for me to make it back to Three Pines for the first time since I had that lunch with Bert and Sam Bearman. Unfortunately, it will be just my wife and I. Sam also passed away sometimes shortly after Bert’s death.

The stories Bert told me I will never forget. And that’s why I head out to Canastota whenever there is an induction weekend. You just never know who you will meet and with whom you will develop lifelong friendships through the shared passion of the sport of boxing.

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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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