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Larry Holmes Challenged Me to a Fight (I Declined)

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Larry Holmes Challenged Me to a Fight (I Declined)

“Mama always said, life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get,” said the Tom Hanks character Forrest Gump in the movie of the same name. I always think of that famous line when I pop into a local boxing gym and chance upon an interesting person I had never formally met and never expected to find there. It actually happens quite frequently. For a boxing writer, it’s one of the nice little perks about living in Las Vegas.

The Bones Adams gym is the closest gym to my house. I could walk there, if need be, but prefer to detour there on one of my daily bicycle rides. The gym sits deep behind an iron gate that is almost always locked, but for those that are privy to the entrance code it is the most welcoming gym in the city.

I popped in yesterday afternoon and who should I find there but none other than Larry Holmes. He was there at the behest of Don King and King’s chief lieutenant Stacey McKinley to size up Trevor Bryan who defends his WBA secondary heavyweight title against Daniel Dubois on June 11.

“No cheering in the press box” is the admonition that is writ large in the canon of sports journalism. In other words, don’t get emotionally attached to the athletes that you cover. But that’s easier said than done and my favorite boxer of all time is Larry Holmes.

Larry Holmes turned pro in 1973 at age twenty-three and captured the world heavyweight title five years later with a razor-thin decision over Ken Norton. He needed a big 15th round to pull that fight out of the fire and the expectation was that his reign would be brief, but he fooled us; he just kept winning and winning. Holmes’ final record, 69-6, included a 21-6 mark in bouts sanctioned as world title fights. The first two of those six setbacks, coming at the hands of Michael Spinks after Larry had advanced his record to 49-0, were controversial.

Larry Holmes wasn’t flashy in the ring; he was methodical. To say he was my favorite boxer misses the point. He was my favorite ring personality; the person that I most admired among those that happened to box and do it well.

When I first started covering boxing, I was very conscious of the fact that I wasn’t in the same league as the reporters from the major metropolitan dailies. I was deemed worthy of a press badge only because the PR people at the hotels took care of the local guys and I was a local guy with a small footprint in radio and in one of the weekly rags.

The fighters at the top of the food chain had their own PR people who culled the herd, so to speak, giving a small cadre of “A list” writers access to their clients in settings more intimate than a formal press conference. The fighters themselves came to know which members of the media were most useful to them and acted accordingly.

And that is why I became a big fan of Larry Holmes. He didn’t compartmentalize; he treated everyone the same. He wanted to vent after his first fight with Spinks and invited everyone crowding around him up to his suite in the Riviera Hotel. In that cramped space we were all “A list” guys.

As is common with folks in other lines of work, boxers tend to change when the money starts rolling in and they become increasingly more well-known. In the vernacular of old friends left behind, they start to put on airs.

Larry Holmes never changed. He could have purchased a mansion in Beverly Hills and hobnobbed with the Hollywood elite, but after each fight he returned to Easton, an old industrial town in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley where the workforce is still primarily blue-collar. Throughout his long career there was never a whiff of scandal.

Larry Holmes didn’t have his clothes customized by a tailor on Rodeo Drive. The duds he wore yesterday – well-worn blue jeans, a short-sleeved shirt, a ball cap – were of the sort a man would wear on a tractor. There were two fancy rings on his fingers but otherwise no bling.

Inside Bones Adams’ gym, Holmes moved at a slow gait; almost, but not quite, shuffling. Every boxing gym has a full-length mirror where preening boxers shadow-box, and there was a precious moment when Holmes stood before it, peppering an invisible opponent with his inerrant jab, his signature punch.

It had been many years since I last talked with Larry Holmes. It was a call-in interview arranged by the producer of our radio talk show. Larry was in a happy mood that night. The Easton Police Department had just leased one of the buildings that he owned. “I believe I’m the only black guy in the country that owns a police station,” he said.

Holmes was in a convivial mood again yesterday and I’m happy to report that although his gait was slow, his mind was clear. There was nothing in the words that came out of his mouth that betrayed a hint of incipient dementia. He could re-visit old fights with vivid recall, a marvel considering that he answered the bell for 579 rounds during the course of those 75 pro fights while trading blows with some of the biggest punchers of his era.

“I must be older than you,” he said after we made eye contact. I corrected him: “No, I’m older than you.”

“Well,” he said, “one of us has to be right and I know how we can settle it.” He gestured toward the door, a mischievous look in his eye.

One of the quotes ascribed to Larry Holmes was a line about Don King: “I knew he was ripping me off, but I also knew I wouldn’t have made more money with any other promoter.” Holmes says he never said it; a reporter was taking liberties. “Sure, Don and I had our differences, but I have my differences with her too,” he said, playfully nudging his wife Diane, the pleasant woman seated on his left scrolling through her iPad. “If I could have made more money with someone else, why didn’t they come and see me?”

Holmes was pleased when I reminded him that his 1982 bout with Gerry Cooney – we’re approaching the fortieth anniversary – still holds the record for the largest attendance at a boxing event in Nevada. A crowd of 30,000-plus (29,214 paid) that included an international press contingent of eight hundred, squeezed into the makeshift outdoor arena at Caesars Palace to witness the conflagration.

“What I remember is that everyone there was rooting for Cooney,” he said, which wasn’t that far from the truth. When I told him that I wasn’t one of those cheering for Cooney because I had bet against the lantern-jawed Irishman, he said, “Where’s my cut?” while extending his open palm.

The fight, which lasted into the thirteenth round, ended when Cooney’s trainer Victor Valle bounded into the ring to save his man from taking any more punishment. The bout was tight on the scorecards through the completed rounds notwithstanding the fact that Cooney had three points deducted from his score for low blows. After the bout, Holmes said, “Gerry was in my pants so often tonight that I thought he wanted to marry me.”

The fight was fought against a sinister shadow. In their pre-fight screeds, some pundits contorted the match into the reincarnation of the 1910 bout between Jack Johnson and James J. Jeffries that stoked the flames of racial discord, America’s first Fight of the Century. The Cooney camp took pains to downplay the racial subplot which only made it louder.

It’s common knowledge that Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney have become fast friends. “I see Gerry a lot,” he says, noting that they will be getting together again early next month at a public appearance in Miami. “Gerry had nothing to do with all that rubbish. He’s a nice guy. But,” he continued impishly, “if he gets out of line, I may have to whip his ass (he paused for dramatic effect)…again!”

As for Trevor Bryan, Holmes, who has five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, avers that he likes what he sees. “He needs to get more extension on his jab,” he says, “but he’s almost there.”

When Trevor Bryan had finished his workout, Stacey McKinley, his face dripping with sweat, joined our conversation and the talk turned to old fights, old fighters, and old trainers which is what old salts talk about when the subject turns to boxing. McKinley, born in the same year as Larry Holmes, has a bone to pick with Gervonta “Tank” Davis who fights this Saturday in Brooklyn. Davis, who represents Baltimore, has apparently never heard of the immortal Joe Gans, the greatest Baltimore fighter of them all. Young boxers today, laments McKinley, are ignorant of their forefathers. It is a lamentation that has redounded through the generations.

And so, I happened to duck into Bones Adams’ gym on a Wednesday afternoon and found myself shooting the breeze with none other than Larry Holmes. It was as if we were sitting in a barbershop, two guys from the neighborhood chatting about this and that as we awaited our turn in the chair.

Yes, Holmes is still my all-time favorite fighter, but please keep that under your hat. There is to be no cheering in the press box.

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Arne K. Lang’s latest book, titled “George Dixon, Terry McGovern and the Culture of Boxing in America, 1890-1910,” will shortly roll off the press. The book, published by McFarland, can be pre-ordered directly from the publisher (https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/clashof-the-little-giants) or via Amazon.

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In a One-Sided Beatdown, Batyr Jukembayev TKOs Shopworn Ivan Redkach

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In a One-Sided Beatdown, Batyr Jukembayev TKOs Shopworn Ivan Redkach

The noted trainer Brian “BoMac” McIntyre had two fighters on tonight’s ProBox card in Plant City, Florida, and brought along the ace of his stable, Terence Crawford, to provide moral support.

The main event, contested at 140 pounds, had an Eastern European flavor pitting Kazakhstan’s Batyr Jukembayev against LA-based Ukrainian Ivan Redkach. Jukembayev, Crawford’s stablemate, needed no moral support as Redkach fought a survivor’s fight for as long as it lasted. A 33-year-old southpaw, the Kazkh won every second of the fight until the mismatch was halted at the 2:18 mark of round five.

It was the fifth straight win for Jukembayev (23-1, 17 KOs) whose only defeat was inflicted by Subriel Matias, the current holder of the IBF world title at 140. Redkach (24-7-1) was stopped for the fourth time including a fight with Regis Prograis where he succumbed to a phantom low blow. Now 38 years old, he should not be allowed to fight again. His showing tonight bore stark evidence that he is completely shot.

Co-Feature

In the co-feature, a 10-round junior lightweight affair, Jonhatan Cardoso, a 25-year-old Brazilian, advanced to 17-1 (15) with a split decision over LA’s Adam “Bluenose” Lopez. This figured to be a fan-friendly fight and didn’t disappoint. Both fighters threw punches in bunches although Lopez’s workrate declined in the late rounds.

Lopez, now 17-6-1, is better than his record. His first five losses came against opponents who were collectively 109-6 at the time that he fought them. The son of the late Hector Lopez, an Olympic silver medalist for Mexico and a three-time world title challenger, “Bluenose” doesn’t have a signature win, but has a signature moment. He knocked Oscar Valdez down hard in their first of two meetings, a fight he took on 1-day notice when Valdez’s original opponent was scratched after coming in 11 pounds overweight. As a pro he has limitations, but is a high-octane fighter who rarely has a bad fight.

Two of the judges favored Cardoso. Their tallies were 99-91 and 96-94. The dissenter favored Lopez 97-93. The scores were all over the map, but the right guy wn.

Also

In the TV opener, Omaha-bred junior welterweight Charles Harris Jr scored a unanimous 6-round decision over Oceanside, California’s Kyle Erwin. The judges had it 58-56 and 59-55 twice.

A protégé of “BoMac,” Harris Jr., who began his pro career in Mexico at age 16, improved to 9-1 (7). It was the second pro loss for Erwin (7-2) whose lone prior defeat was the result of a cut.

In an unrelated matter, today (May 22) was the day that Ryan Garcia’s B-sample would be opened and analyzed. So we were all led to believe.

Confoundingly, it appears that opening the urine specimen and testing the contents aren’t performed on the same day. Dan Rafael enlightened us. “Will take a few days for results but certainly possible it could stretch into early next week due to weekend and holiday,” Rafael tweeted today on his Fight Freaks Unite platform.

Why wasn’t this made known beforehand so that fight journalists could plan their day accordingly? I place the blame on the New York State Athletic Commission.

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Oleksandr Usyk from a Historical Perspective 

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Oleksandr Usyk flipped the heavyweight division onto its head this past Saturday night in the Kingdom Arena, Riyadh, travelling a long way from home to seal his greatest victory. Usyk, small by modern heavyweight standards, towers over most men at 6’3″ and 220lbs and sporting a reach that lineal champions Ezzard Charles or Joe Walcott would have killed for. Things have changed though, and in the middle rounds of his war with Tyson Fury, Usyk suddenly appeared tiny. Fury, a giant at around 6’8” and over 260lbs seems a heavyweight for this century. Usyk, a journeyman in the most ancient sense of the word, feels like a throwback to a more savage time. His greatest achievements have taken place on foreign soil. The last time he boxed at home was almost a decade ago and given the situation in Ukraine and given Usyk’s 37 years, it is unlikely he will ever box there again.

Usyk took chances in the seventh and especially the eighth to take charge of a fight that seemed to be slipping away from him. In the vertigo inducing ninth, it was he, not Fury who appeared the giant. Usyk draped the Englishman over the ropes like so much fresh meat and tenderised him to within an inch of unconsciousness, the sheer hugeness of Fury perhaps preventing a referee’s intervention on behalf of his opponent, and not for the first time. Against both Deontay Wilder (the first fight) and Otto Wallin, a more squeamish official would have stepped in and stopped the fight, and here, too, there was a case. If Usyk seems a throwback, then Fury has been refereed like one, spared stoppages likely to be inflicted upon his peers, he was allowed once again to continue boxing, as Joe Louis was against Max Schmeling, or Jack Dempsey was against Luis Pirpo. But with Fury buckled at the knees, Usyk seemed the true heavy man in the ring.

In historical terms, Usyk is not a small heavyweight. He would have dwarfed “The Galveston Giant” Jack Johnson in the ring and loomed large over “Big” George Foreman. Usyk has every attribute necessary to make an unpleasant evening for Joe Louis, but it should be noted that while his footwork and speed and technical excellence would be the source of the discomfort, his excess of height and reach are the wildcards. Usyk would seem two to three weight classes bigger than Rocky Marciano, mainly because he is, and the towering Sonny Liston would look up. Circus strongman Jess Willard and the mob-sponsored Primo Carnera would both look down on Usyk – but not by that much. Usyk would stand eye to eye with Muhammad Ali but prime-for-prime he would outweigh him by ten pounds, as he would Larry Holmes. We must skip Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield and reach all the way into the Lennox Lewis era before we find men from history that truly out-size Usyk on a consistent basis.

Size, as Usyk has proven, is far from everything. Big by historical standards, he is small by modern standards. What else is now true in the wake of the seismic fistic events of Saturday night? Firstly, Usyk is unquestionably ranked the #1 heavyweight in the world. Of this, there can be no dispute. Accounting for his two wonderful defeats of another “super” heavyweight, Anthony Joshua, he is 3-0 against the rest of the top five and sitting unassailably at the head of the heavyweight table. More, and I have been surprised to see it disputed in some corners, Usyk is now almost as equally unassailably the pound-for-pound number one. The only fighter breathing the same air as Usyk right now is Naoya Inoue. Inoue has been operating at or near the highest level for longer, but the level of his opposition has not been as rarefied. Comparing the first phase opposition defeated by Naoya to the murderer’s row of cruiserweights that Usyk ran into during the Super Six series can lead to only one conclusion. Although Naoya’s busy, weight-class-bursting style has topped him out for most of the past two to three years, only one of these men has consistently been beating bigger, taller, longer opposition at the highest level, and that is Usyk. It is not a matter of opinion – he is the smallest man in my heavyweight top ten.

01 – Oleksandr Usyk

02 – Anthony Joshua

03 – Joseph Parker

04 – Tyson Fury

05 – Filip Hrgovic

06 – Zhilei Zhang

07 – Agit Kabayel

08 – Daneil Dubois

09 – Martin Bakole

10 – Joe Joyce

Usyk lives among giants now and where there is parity of height (Kabayel) he is the lighter man by 15 pounds. This is not true of Naoya, who despite his weight-hopping, still manages to run into fighters of the same height and of shorter reach. The opposition argument is narrow, but the relative size opposition is not and there is no pound-for-pound credential more significant than that of consistently out-fighting bigger men. Usyk has done so and will continue to do so for as long as he fights. There is simply no smaller man in his class.

Not since the heyday of Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield has a lineal heavyweight champion consistently fought bigger men and not since Mike’s hype-infused prime has a heavyweight menaced the number one pound-for-pound spot. Usyk has not enjoyed anything like the same machine support as Mike did; indeed, he has laboured in the shadow of more prominent men until such time as he thrashed them. He is a true manifestation of pound-for-pound glory in the unlimited class. Where does this leave him in terms of all-time standing?

I am reluctant to rate active fighters for reasons that are obvious enough; Usyk could be pole-axed in three by an irate Fury in a December rematch and all this ink is for naught. But what I am willing to do is play let’s pretend and imagine Usyk as retired and consider his place in heavyweight history now.

Usyk’s raw numbers are low-grade at just 22-0 with 14 knockouts. Worse, most of this was built in the cruiserweight division and not the heavyweight division. Against men weighing in as heavyweights, Uysk is essentially 7-0, and only 3-0 against ranked opposition. On the other hand, one of these victories came against Daniel Dubois, now ranked, and the 3-0 was posted against Tyson Fury, generally held to be the best or second-best heavyweight in the world, and Anthony Joshua, ranked behind only Fury at the time of his first fight with Usyk. So, when he stepped up, he stepped up to tackle the best in the world and has become lineal as a result. It’s a hard ledger to wrestle with, but fortunately we have a career that is comparable in the shape of Gene Tunney.

Tunney, a career light-heavyweight, earned a heavyweight legacy built of essentially one man: Jack Dempsey. Past-prime and inactive, Dempsey was ripped apart by Tunney in their legendary first fight and did better in a losing effort against the genius “Fighting Marine” in a rematch, much like Joshua did against Usyk. Tunney then boxed the limited but game Tom Heeney and retired. The rest of his heavyweight career was spent beating great middleweights like Harry Greb and limited losing-streak gatekeepers like Charley Weinert and Martin Burke. One thing that must be noted is that Tunney is matching men who are smaller than Usyk’s cruiserweight opposition to his heavyweight credit. Men like Mairis Briedis and Murat Gassiev would have been big men in Tunney’s era, but they aren’t counted towards heavyweight legacy for the Ukrainian – either would constitute Tunney’s second-best heavyweight scalp, I think. Tunney’s wider resume does not necessarily include fighters who compare that favourably even to Dereck Chisora or Chaz Witherspoon, the men who make up Usyk’s second layer of opposition.

The point is, Tunney was made a legend for defeating a champion. Both Fury and Joshua were active, physically enormous fighters that Usyk simply unmanned with a type of genius Gene Tunney would have stood to applaud. Tunney appended to his light-heavyweight career the important part of a heavyweight career – the part where you fight and beat the champion, and it has made him a stalwart of heavyweight history. This, Usyk too has achieved, but I have been more impressed with Usyk’s summit than Tunney’s. To be direct: Usyk should rate higher at heavyweight than Tunney.

What that means is that the top twenty at heavyweight is the minimum Usyk can expect from history’s eye should he retire undefeated. In such a case, I would place Usyk in this sort of company:

18 – Ezzard Charles

19 – Oleksandr Usyk

20 – Jersey Joe Walcott

21 – James J Corbett

22 – Peter Jackson

23 – Ken Norton

24 – Max Schmeling

25 – Vitali Klitschko

26 – Riddick Bowe

27 – Gene Tunney

Also illustrative of a point is Tunney’s career pre-heavyweight. Tunney, every bit as brilliant as Usyk in the ring (although notably smaller, and successful against notably smaller opposition), laced up his gloves on close to ninety occasions and his level of competition dwarfs that of Usyk. That is no indictment. All it really means is that Usyk isn’t among the thirty greatest fighters ever to have drawn breath, like Tunney is. He can join an enormous and star-studded cast that includes Mike Tyson, Bernard Hopkins and Carlos Monzon in that. I do think, though, that Oleksandr Usyk’s career, were it to end tomorrow, could be readily compared to that of Evander Holyfield and that means that an unbeaten Usyk, lineal cruiserweight and heavyweight champion of the world, current pound-for-pound king, is within spitting distance of a list that captures the fifty greatest fighters in history.

56 – Ruben Olivares

57 – Wilfredo Gomez

58 – Vicente Saldivar

59 – Oleksandr Usyk

60 – Evander Holyfield

61 – Ted Kid Lewis

62 – Lou Ambers

63 – Rocky Marciano

64 – Abe Attell

65 – Manuel Ortiz

A retired Naoya Inoue would join him in the top seventy, I think, and a retired Bud Crawford the top ninety.

Boxing is dead, haven’t you heard?

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank

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Another Victory for Ukraine as Berinchyk Upsets Navarrete in San Diego

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Whether it was inspiration or perspiration, Ukraine’s Denys Berinchyk motored past Mexico’s Emanuel Navarrete by split decision to become the WBO lightweight world titlist on Saturday.

Just hours after his fellow countryman Oleksandr Usyk became undisputed heavyweight world champion, Berinchyk joined the club.

“This is a great night for all people of Ukraine,” Berinchyk said.

The undefeated Ukrainian Berinchyk (19-0, 9 KOs) gutted out a win over Navarrete (38-2-1, 31 KOs) who was attempting to join Mexico’s four-division world champion club in San Diego. The lanky fighter known as “Vaquero” fell a little short.

Through all 12 rounds neither fighter was able to dominate and neither was able to score a knockdown. Just when it seemed one fighter gathered enough momentum, the other fighter would rally.

A butt caused a slight cut on Navarrete in the 10th round. That seemed to ignite anger from the Mexican fighter and he powered through the Ukrainian fighter the next two rounds.

In the final round Berinchyk bore down and slugged it out with the Mexican fighter as both relied on their weapons of choice. For most of the night Navarrete scored with long-range uppercuts and Berinchyk scored with overhand rights.

After 12 rounds two judges scored it 115-113, 116-112 for Berinchyk and one 116-112 for Navarrete. Ukraine gained its third world titlist in one a week. Berinchyk joins Usyk and Vasyl Lomachenko as world titlists.

“He’s a very tough guy,” said Berinchyk of Navarrete.

Welterweights

A battle between undefeated welterweights saw Brian Norman (26-0, 20 KOs) knock out Giovany Santillan (32-1, 17 KOs) in the 10th round to become the interim WBO titlist.

For nine rounds both welterweights engaged in brutal inside warfare as each tried to beat the sense out of each other.

Norman worked the body early as Santillan targeted the head. Neither fought more than two inches from each other.

The younger Norman, 23, connected with a right cross during an exchange that wobbled Santillan in the eighth round. From that point on the Georgia fighter began setting up for his power shots. Finally, in the 10th round, uppercuts dropped Santillan twice. In the second knockdown Santillan went down hard as referee Ray Corona stopped the fight immediately at 1:33 of the 10th round.

Other Bouts

Heavyweight Richard Torrez (10-0, 10 KOs) knocked out Brandon Moore (14-1) in the fifth round for a regional title.

Lightweight Alan Garcia (10-0) defeated Wilfredo Flores (10-3-1) by decision after eight.

Photo credit: German Villasenor

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