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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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Jake Paul vs Tommy Fury on Feb. 26 in a Potential Pay-Per-View Blockbuster

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It’s now official. The twice-postponed “grudge match” between Jake Paul and Tommy Fury will come to fruition on Sunday, Feb. 26, at Riyadh in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. An 8-rounder contested at a catch-weight of 185 pounds, the match and several supporting bouts will air in the U.S. on ESPN+ PPV at a cost of $49.99.

The hook for this promotion – a come-hither that will be hammered home incessantly in the coming weeks – is that Jake Paul will finally touch gloves with a legitimate professional boxer. Paul’s previous opponents were a fellow YouTube influencer (AnEsonGib), a retired NBA player (Nate Robinson), and three former MMA champions: Ben Askren, Tyron Woodley, and Anderson Silva. He fought Woodley twice.

Tommy Fury, the half-brother of reigning WBC world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, made his pro debut in December of 2018 in a four-round bout in his hometown of Manchester. He was two fights into his pro career when he became a contestant on the TV reality show “Love Island.” An enormously popular show in Great Britain, especially among the coveted 18-34 demographic, “Love Island” was in its fifth season.

Fury was paired with supermodel Molly-Mae Hague with whom he finished second. They developed a great chemistry, on and off the set, became engaged, and purportedly welcomed a baby girl this week.

What about Tommy Fury the boxer? How legitimate is he?

Fury’s record currently stands at 8-0 (4 KOs). His first opponent was a professional loser from Latvia whose current ledger reads 10-113-3. His next six opponents were a combined 4-73-2. Finally, in his last fight, which occurred in April of last year, he met an opponent with a good record, Poland’s Daniel Bocianski, who was 10-1. But look closer and one discovers that all but one of Bocianski’s 10 triumphs came against opponents with losing records. The exception was a 6-round decision over a fellow Pole whose record currently stands at 18-16-1 and who has been stopped 13 times.

Fury bloodied Bocianski and won a wide 6-round decision, but his performance was underwhelming. “Fury had the Hollywood teeth, tan, and diamante-colored shorts,” wrote Chasinga Malata of the London Sun, “leaving only his performance without sheen and sparkle.”

There is nothing in Tommy Fury’s background, aside from his biological pedigree, to suggest that he has the tools to become a world-class boxer. If he were a member of the Three Stooges, he would be Shemp.

Jake Paul, by contrast, may actually be legit. Those in the know that have watched him train have come away impressed. It says here that Paul isn’t moving up in class on Feb. 26; it’s the other way around.

In the co-feature, Ilunga Makabu (29-2, 25 KOs) will make the third defense of his WBC world cruiserweight title against Badou Jack (27-3-3, 16 KOs). A Congolese-South African, Makabu is the older brother of heavyweight contender Martin Bakole. Jack, four years older than Makabu at age 39, formerly held world titles at 168 and 175 pounds.

Although Badou Jack was born in Sweden and keeps a home in Las Vegas where he has long been affiliated with the Mayweather Boxing Club, he will have the home field advantage in Saudi Arabia where he has cultivated a loyal following. A devout Muslim, Jack will be making his fourth straight start in the Persian Gulf Region. In his last outing, he outpointed Richard “Popeye” Rivera at Jeddah, winning a 10-round split decision.

Badou Jack

Badou Jack

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 223: A Lively Weekend in SoCal with Three Fight Cards in Two Days

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 223: A Lively Weekend in SoCal with Three Fight Cards in Two Days

Big money prizefighting returns to the Los Angeles area with back-to-back shows. First, Serhii Bohachuk heads a 360 Promotions card on Friday and then Alexis Rocha is featured on Saturday in a Golden Boy Promotions production. And on the same day Riverside’s Saul Rodriguez fights in his hometown.

Bohachuk, Rocha, and Rodriguez are aggressive big hitters.

Ukraine’s Bohachuk seeks to regain footing in the super welterweight division. He was rapidly climbing up the ratings ladder when first he was defeated by Brandon Adams two years ago. And then the invasion of his home country Ukraine stalled him even more.

On Friday Jan. 27, at the Quiet Cannon in Montebello, Calif. Bohachuk (21-1, 21 KOs) meets Nathaniel Gallimore (22-6-1, 17 KOs) in the main event. UFC Fight Pass will stream the 360 Boxing Promotions card.

Few fighters are as well-liked outside of the prize ring as Bohachuk. Always amiable, he’s one of the handful of fighters that always smiles. Inside the ring, he’s a killer. No one leaves without someone getting knocked out.

Gallimore, 34, is no slouch. He has a knockout win over former world titlist Jeison Rosario and has battled almost all of the top super welterweights. He is a veteran and very crafty.

The Quiet Cannon venue is not very large, but it does have a patio and good food and drink. Most of the crowd ventures from all over Southern California to attend the fights at that venue. It gets packed.

Golden Boy in Inglewood

Welterweight contender Alexis Rocha headlines the Golden Boy Promotions card on Saturday, Jan. 28, at the brand new YouTube Theater in Inglewood, Calif. DAZN will stream the fight card.

Rocha (21-1, 13 KOs) faces George Ashie (33-5-1) in the main event set for 12 rounds. Finally, there is an opponent for the left-handed fighter from Santa Ana. It didn’t look like he was going to fight after opponent after opponent fell out for one reason or another.

“You have to be ready for anybody they put in front of you. If it’s you or George Ashie, I have to prepare for it. I have to focus on what I can do,” said Rocha.

Others on the card include super middleweight Bektemir Melikuziev (10-1) vs Ulises Sierra (17-2-2) set for 10 rounds. Also, good looking lightweight prospect Floyd Schofield (12-0, 10 KOs) meets Alberto Mercado (17-4-1).

Schofield fights out of Austin, Texas and looks like someone to watch.

Doors open at 3 p.m.

Neno Returns in San Bernardino        

Garcia Promotions stages a boxing card on Saturday Jan. 28, at the Club Event Center in San Bernardino. Garcia Promotions is associated with trainer Robert Garcia and family whose training compound is located in nearby Riverside.

A primarily local fight card featuring all fighters from Garcia’s gym will be performing.

Headlining is Saul “Neno” Rodriguez out of Riverside, California.

It’s been nearly three years since Rodriguez (24-1-1, 18 KOs) last fought and he faces Mexico’s Juan Meza Angulo (6-1, 3 KOs) in the co-main event.

At one time Rodriguez was a big fan favorite because of his fast work and knockout ability. Once he got to the top plateau he ran into another knockout puncher in Miguel Angel Gonzalez and lost by stoppage.

Prizefighting is a tricky road. One loss can mean difficulty in finding a big-time promoter or it can mean discovering what you need to do to re-establish your skills. A fighter can go the road of Kermit “The Killer” Cintron and find out other ways to win without a kill-or be-killed style. Or they can travel the road of Marco Antonio Barrera who was knocked out by Junior Jones but adapted a more boxer-puncher style that allowed him to defeat Erik Morales twice and Prince Naseem Hamed.

Rodriguez, 29, still has time to make a good run for a title bid. It all starts on Saturday.

Others on the Garcia Promotions card are fighters who are part of trainer Garcia’s stable including Gabriel Muratalla, Leonardo Ruiz, Jose Rodriguez and others.

Doors open at 4 p.m. with amateurs opening the boxing program.

Fights to Watch

Fri. UFC Fight Pass 7 p.m. Serhii Bohachuk (21-1) vs Nathaniel Gallimore (22-6-1).

Sat. ESPN+ 11:30 a.m. Artur Beterbiev (18-0) vs Anthony Yarde (23-2).

Sat. DAZN  5 p.m. Alexis Rocha (21-1) vs George Ashie (33-5-1).

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Artur Beterbiev: “I’d prefer to fight Bivol because he has the one thing I need”

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Russian Artur Beterbiev, triple champion of the 175-pound division, is the only current world champion who, thanks to the enormous power he wields in his fists, has won all his fights inside the distance.

Beterbiev has 18 victories by way of chloroform since he debuted as a professional fighter in June 2013 when he anesthetized retired American, Christian Cruz, in the tenth round at the Bell Center in Montreal where Beterbiev currently resides.

Beterbiev, who turned thirty-eight last Saturday, will defend his WBC, IBF, and WBO titles against Brit Anthony “The Beast from the East” Yarde (23-2, 22 KOs) on Saturday, January 28th at the OVO Arena in London.

Beterbiev obtained the WBO belt on June 18th this past year when he defeated American Joe Smith (28-4, 22 KOs) in the second round at Madison Square Garden. This was Smith’s second defense of the belt.

Earlier, in November 2017, Beterbiev won the vacant IBF belt after defeating German Enrico Koelling (28-5, 9 KOs) by knockout in the twelfth round in Fresno, California.

Two years later, Beterbiev seized the WBC belt from Ukrainian Oleksandr Gvozdyk (17-1, 14 KOs) in Philadelphia. Three knockdowns in the tenth round forced referee Gary Rosato to stop the lopsided bout with 11 seconds remaining in the round.  Beterbiev maintains that although his intention is to win each fight, in no way does he want to harm his rival and that his greatest wish is for both of them to leave the ring healthy.

Referring to his upcoming matchup, Beterbiev told BoxingScene that “after the fight, I just hope he (Yarde) is okay.”

He acknowledged that he does not know much about the British boxer, although he has watched several of his fights: “He’s a good fighter, has good experience as a professional and he’s a boxer. He’s dangerous so I have to prepare for this fight like I always do.”

Beterbiev said that his main motivation is to successfully defend the three belts he owns and that is why he will try to be one hundred percent ready and then it will be evident who is the better fighter.

Regarding his knockout streak, Beterbiev emphatically denied that he enjoys knocking out his opponents: “No. There’s no pleasure in it. I just hope everything is OK with them. I just want to do good boxing, not hit people.”

Beterbiev smiles enigmatically and stares at the horizon when they ask him to what he attributes the strength of his fists to. “I know for sure, 1000 percent, that the secret to my power is somewhere in my boxing gym but I don’t know exactly where,” he adds. “I don’t know which exercise or bag gave me this secret. I don’t know where it comes from. I wasn’t always like this either, it has come from working every day. But really my dream is to be a good boxer one day.”

Aside from the upcoming fight with Yarde, Beterbiev acknowledges in each interview that his goal is to be the undisputed champion of the division, which means facing (and defeating) the undefeated Russian Dmitry Bivol (21-0, 11 KOs), who holds the WBA light heavyweight super championship belt.

“I need Bivol,” Beterbiev admits. “I’d prefer to fight Bivol because he has the one thing I need. I hope I fight him in 2023 but the hold-up is not from my side, it’s from their side. In the last three years he always says he will fight me next but in this time we’ve done unification fights against Oleksandr Gvozdyk and Joe Smith. We’ve done that whereas he has just been talking about it.

Beterbiev recalled that he was with Bivol on the Russian national team where they were amateurs. “I knew him then, but he is younger than me. We haven’t talked for 10 years now. He was 75kg back then, too small for me. We were never friends.”

Article submitted by Jorge Juan Alvarez in Spanish.

 Please note any adjustments made were for clarification purposes and any errors in translation were unintentional.

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