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R.I.P. Jerry Pellegrini, Last Vestige of a Golden Era of Boxing in New Orleans

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R.I.P. Jerry Pellegrini, Last Vestige of a Golden Era of Boxing in New Orleans

The showdown that the boxing world is most anxious to see, Errol Spence Jr. vs. Terence “Bud” Crawford for the fully unified dominion over the 147-pound weight class, remains stuck in bickering hell, with no signed contracts. That dream bout is an updated version of the better-late-than-never (maybe) pairing of superstar welterweights Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao in 2015, which most now can agree would have been more competitive and consequential had it occurred five years earlier.

In boxing, as in life, timing is everything.

But sometimes what the far-flung global masses want, or think they want, is best illustrated when restricted to a particular city and a particular moment, with little more than neighborhood bragging rights at stake. As author Thomas Hauser once said of the rubber match pitting Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila,” so much more was at stake for the heavyweight legends than the championship of the whole wide world. Ali and Frazier, he noted, were fighting for an even grander prize — the championship of each other.

One of the most important time-and-place fighters of my adolescence and young adulthood, former welterweight contender Jerry “The Boxing Barber” Pellegrini, was 78 when he passed away on July 12 in the New Orleans suburb of Chalmette, La. Although his wife of nearly 60 years, Helen, told me she had not seen a death certificate listing her husband’s cause of death, she believes it was from complications of pulmonary fibrosis, which for several years had slowly been draining Jerry of his former vitality.

Millions of fight fans mourned when Ali, 74, finally was outpointed on June 3, 2016, by the opponent against whom we all are destined to lose. It was much the same when Smokin’ Joe, 67, threw a last left hook at that unconquerable foe and he, too, took his eternal 10-count on Nov. 7, 2011. But while it can be presumed that far fewer followers of the sweet science will take note of the earthly exit of a fighter of more modest accomplishment, Jerry Pellegrini leaves behind not only Helen, but four children, eight grandchildren, three great grandchildren (with another one coming) and a diminishing number of devotees who still fondly remember what he had been as a must-see attraction on New Orleans’ semi-bustling fight scene of the mid-to-late 1960s. I was one of those fans of the “Boxing Barber,” whose big overhand right always seemed more potent than his modest 28-12-1 record, with 12 knockouts, might now suggest.

As a native New Orleanian and the son of a onetime welterweight who once appeared in the main lead-in bout of a card headlined by the great Archie Moore, I was drawn to boxing as a child, watching the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports Friday night fights with my father. And when flickering, black-and-white images on our old Philco TV set proved insufficient to satisfy my boxing jones, Dad took me to amateur shows at St. Mary’s Italian Gym in the French Quarter, where the venerable Whitey Esneault tutored, among others, future world champions Willie Pastrano and Ralph Dupas before turning them over to  Angelo Dundee. Other building blocks in my boxing education came at the Municipal Auditorium, where I could study the starkly contrasting styles of welterweight main-eventers Pellegrini. who would rise to a No. 3 world ranking, and Percy Pugh, a shifty technician who made it all the way to No. 1, only to be denied a shot at then-champion Curtis Cokes.

New Orleans, which once had been a hotbed of boxing, had lost at least some of its allure as a pugilistic destination in the ‘60s, so much so that Waddell Summers, then the boxing writer for The Times-Picayune, wrote that “When Whitey Esneault died (at the age of 76, on Jan. 20, 1968), the Golden Age of boxing in New Orleans was laid to rest in St. Roch No. 2 Cemetery.”

But Mr. Summers was a bit premature in shoveling dirt on the fight game’s grave in the Crescent City. New Orleans fighters who would go on to fight for world titles included light heavyweight Jerry Celestine, lightweight Melvin Paul and super lightweight John “Super D” Duplessis, and another native, Regis “Rougarou” Duplessis, would win the WBA and IBF super lightweight belts, along with the WBC Diamond 140-pound crown, although he and his family had relocated to Houston in escaping Hurricane Katrina, so perhaps the city of his birth can only partially claim dibs on his accomplishments.

It was Pellegrini and Pugh, however, who regularly filled the 5,000-seat Municipal Auditorium in those unenlightened times, with black fans sitting on one side of the ring and white fans on the other. It was inevitable that the two would square off, which they did twice, Pugh winning a close 10-round unanimous decision on Sept. 21, 1967 (my 20th birthday) and then lifting Pellegrini’s Southern welterweight title on a 15-round UD on March 3, 1968.

“The first fight should have been called a draw, but the second one he outscored me after 15 rounds,” Pellegrini told me for a story I authored in 2014. “Percy was a good fighter. He was No. 1 in the world.

“But you know, Percy had white supporters and I had black supporters. I think people rooted for me because I got a lot of knockouts and they rooted for Percy because of the way he could move. But we both filled up the auditorium.”

Pellegrini (pictured below in a recent photo with his wife Helen) was paid a career-high $8,700 for the Pugh rematch, which wouldn’t even qualify as pocket money to someone like Mayweather, and even that got thinned by what went to his trainer and manager, not to mention the tax man.

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“That was a lot of money back then,” said local promoter Les Bonano. “But imagine if those guys were fighting today. A fight like that might have wound up in the Superdome or New Orleans Arena (now Smoothie King Center) and televised by HBO or Showtime.”

Unfortunately for both Pellegrini and Pugh, neither the Superdome nor the Smoothie King Center existed then. Neither, for that matter, did HBO or Showtime. And the window of opportunity for both fighters – who had come to respect one another professionally and like one another personally – would soon close.

Pellegrini would go just 9-7 after the Pugh rematch. He might have soldiered on, but his power hand, his right, was worsened to a point where an operation might soon have been necessary, a prospect that the barber side of him was disinclined to risk.

“I stopped fighting in 1971 because I had busted my hand all up,” he told me in 2014. “The doctor wanted to operate on it, but I was a barber by trade and I didn’t want nobody cutting on my hand. I might not be able to use my shears or a straight razor. So I retired.

“But 10 years in that ring … I thank God I came out in pretty good shape. Not everybody does. They stay too long because they can’t let it go.”

Pugh – whom I once described as “maybe the best pure boxer to come out of New Orleans” – couldn’t let it go. His blinding hand and foot speed incrementally diminished, he lost his last 10 bouts and 13 of his last 16 to finish with a 47-30 record and just five wins inside the distance. My arguments to get him elected to the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame unfortunately have fallen on deaf ears, members of the selection committee who never saw him box looking only at that less-than-impressive record, paucity of knockouts and concluding that his numbers just didn’t qualify for a plaque to be hung in the Caesars Superdome.

“Tat-tat-tat, that’s how fast I was,” Pugh, a product of New Orleans’ impoverished Lower Ninth Ward, told John Reid of the Times-Picayune for a story that appeared in 2000. “I could bounce, move and stick my punches. A lot of people didn’t see them coming.”

They say bad things come in threes, and maybe they do.  Percy Pugh was 81 when he passed away on Jan. 20 of this year, and Les Bonano, who did make the GNOSHOF cut in 2021 after swimming against the current for a half-century, was 79 when he took his departure from this this mortal coil on May 22, also this year. Now Jerry Pellegrini, whose own boxing journey so notably intersected with those of Pugh and Bonano, also is gone.

Perhaps Waddell Summers’ pronouncement of 54 years ago, premature then, applies now: “When Jerry Pellegrini died, at 78, on July 12, 2022, following Percy Pugh and Les Bonano, the Golden Age of boxing in New Orleans was laid to rest.”

One of the best things about going onto the boxing beat at the Philadelphia Daily News was to become immersed in the city’s rich boxing history and heritage.  How could one city have four of the world’s top 10 middleweights at the same time? That I wasn’t there for the glorious primes of Bennie Briscoe, Eugene “Cyclone” Hart, Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts and Willie “The Worm” Monroe is something I will always regret. If I had a time machine to transport me back to that golden – no, diamond – era, I’d visit it often.

Not being so fortunate, I had to satisfy myself for being there when Jerry Pellegrini and Percy Pugh did their down-home replication of such welterweight extravaganzas as Leonard-Hearns I, Trinidad-De La Hoya and Mayweather-Pacquiao. History might not long remember Pugh-Pellegrini, but I was there and it was enough to make an indelible mark in that part of my mind that has been cordoned off for favorite boxing memories.

RIP, Jerry. Thank you for being my friend, and for providing me with some of the incentive to go the distance.

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 last year. 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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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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