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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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Johnny Famechon was a Hero in Australia Where Willie Pep Had a Bad Night

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Willie Pep was good at boxing. He wasn’t so good at math. Ah, but hold the phone; we are getting ahead of ourselves. This isn’t a story about Willie Pep, but about former world featherweight champion Johnny Famechon who passed away last Thursday, Aug. 4, in Melbourne, Australia, at age 77.

Famechon was five years old when his parents left his birthplace in Paris and settled in Melbourne. He came to the fore in an era when boxing was still a mainstream sport and home-grown champions were national idols. The locals turned out in droves for the parade in Johnny’s honor when he returned to Melbourne after taking the featherweight crown from the Cuban-born Spaniard Jose Legra in a big upset at London’s Prince Albert Hall.

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Famechon’s Welcome Home Parade

Famechon’s first title defense came against Japan’s Fighting Harada. They met in Sydney, Australia, on July 28, 1969.

At age 26, Harada was a battle-tested veteran. He previously held world titles at flyweight and bantamweight and would be remembered as the only man to defeat the great Brazilian boxer Eder Jofre, a feat he accomplished not once, but twice.

Only two boxers in history – Bob Fitzsimmons and Henry Armstrong – had won world titles in three of the eight classic weight divisions. Harada, who entered the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1995, was bidding to become the third.

Team Harada insisted on a neutral referee. The British promoters chose Willie Pep. A legend in the sport, Pep had previously shared a ring with another Famechon, having out-pointed Johnny’s uncle Ray Famechon in a featherweight title defense at Madison Square Garden in 1950.

Some thought that Pep would favor Fighting Harada. American referees put a higher premium on aggression than did their foreign counterparts and Harada was a little buzzsaw who rarely took a backward step. But others thought that Pep’s selection favored Famechon, an elusive counterpuncher with whom the Connecticut “Will-‘o-Wisp” could identify; their styles were similar.

Pep had been the third man in the ring for four previous title fights, three in Jamaica and one in Brazil. But this fight would be different. He would be the sole arbiter. If the fight went the full 15 rounds, Willie Pep would be the judge and jury.

During the bout, Famechon scored one knockdown, sending Harada to the canvas in round five, but Harada scored three, knocking Famechon down in rounds two, 11, and 14. The last of the three knockdowns was the harshest, but Famechon made it to the final bell.

The fight ended in a clinch. Immediately upon separating the fighters, Pep raised both of their hands, a signal that the fight was a draw.

Fighting Harada’s handlers were outraged and demanded to see the scorecard. A policeman at ringside was empowered to give it a look-over (Australia had no boxing commission). What the policeman found was that there was indeed a discrepancy. However, it was the opposite of what Team Harada anticipated!

The fight was scored on the antiquated system whereby the winner of a round was awarded five points and the loser four points or less. In the case of an even round, both fighters got five points.

After 13 rounds, Fighting Harada had amassed 59 points on Pep’s card. He won the 14th round, giving him an aggregate total of 64 points. But when Pep added up the numbers “59” and “5” in the column where he kept the aggregate total, he came up with “65.”

Oops.

When Pep signaled that the fight was a draw, people stormed the ring from all sides. Newspaper reports said the belligerents were about evenly divided. Famechon, the Aussie, was the crowd favorite, but Fighting Harada was well-backed in the betting markets, a very big industry in Australia. Many were even angrier when Famechon was summoned back to the ring to have his hand raised.

The Famechon-Harada fight aired live on Japanese television. In Japan, there was a great outpouring of outrage. Pep had been instructed to score a round 5-4 if the round was narrow and 5-3 if there was a clear-cut winner. Despite the knockdowns, Pep scored every round 5-4 or 5-5. In the revised tally, he had Famechon winning 6-5-4 in rounds.

“Harada loses to referee” was the headline in Japan’s leading sports daily. Willie Pep made no friends in Australia either. There were shouts of “Yankee go home” as he left the ring.

Famechon and Harada met again five months later in Tokyo. One would assume that Fighting Harada proved superior and got a fair shake, winning the third title denied him in Sydney. But don’t assume.

Harada was well ahead after ten rounds but faded. On the deck in round 10, Famachon returned the favor three rounds later, knocking Harada down hard with a perfectly placed left hook. Harada was in dire straights when he came out for round 14 and Famechon put him away.

Harada never fought again and Famechon left the sport six months later after losing his crown to Vicente Saldivar. Johnny was only 25 years old, but had crammed 67 fights into a nine-year pro career and said enough is enough.

Famechon’s post-boxing life took a tragic turn in 1991 when he was hit by a car while out jogging on a Sydney highway. He spent several weeks in a coma and several years in a wheelchair but eventually recovered most of his motor skills and regained his speech to the point where he could serve as a boxing color commentator on television. In 2018, a larger-than- life statue of Famechon was unveiled at a public park in the Melbourne suburb of Frankston where he was a longtime resident.

For the record, Johnny Famechon finished his career with a record of 56-5-6 with 20 KOs. We here at The Sweet Science send our condolences to his loved ones.

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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Fast Results from Fort Worth Where Vergil Ortiz Jr Won His 19th Straight by KO

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In a match pushed back from March 19, Vergil Ortiz Jr moved one step closer to a mega-fight with Terence “Bud” Crawford or Errol Spence Jr or Boots Ennis with a ninth-round stoppage of England’s feather-fisted Michael McKinson. The end came 20 seconds into round nine when McKinson appeared to injure his knee as he fell to the canvas, an apparent residue of the body punch that put him on the deck late in the previous stanza. To that point, Ortiz had seemingly won every round.

It was the 19th win inside the distance in as many opportunities for Ortiz who resides in nearby Grand Prairie and was making his first start with new trainer Manny Robles. McKinson was undefeated heading in, but had scored only two knockouts while building his record to 22-0.

Ortiz, ranked #1 at welterweight by the WBA and the WBO, pulled out of the March 19 bout after being diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a muscle disorder associated with over-training.

Ortiz’s promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, says that Ortiz will fight the winner of Errol Spence vs Terence Crawford next assuming that the fight gets made, and if doesn’t get made, Ortiz’s next fight will be with one or the other. The WBA, which stamped tonight’s fight an eliminator, may push to have Ortiz fight their secondary title-holder, Eimantas Stanionis.

Co-Feature

Houston’s Marlen Esparza (13-1, 1 KO) successfully defended her WBA/WBC world flyweight title with a unanimous decision over plucky 4’11 ½” Venezuelan southpaw Eva Guzman who had won 14 straight coming in, albeit against soft opposition. The judges had it 98-92 and 99-91 twice.

Guzman (19-2-1) was game, but just didn’t have the physical tools to overcome Esparza whose lone defeat came at the hands of talented Seneisa Estrada.

Other Fights of Note

In a 10-round match contested at the catchweight of 150 pounds, Blair “The Flair” Cobbs rebounded from his first defeat with a career-best performance, a wide decision over former WBO 140-pound world titlist Maurice Hooker. It was the second straight loss for Hooker who returned to the ring after a 17-month hiatus and came out flat. Cobbs put him on the canvas in the opening frame with a combination and decked him twice more with straight lefts in round two.

Things got somewhat dicey for Cobbs in round five when he suffered a bad gash on his forehead from an accidental head butt, but Hooker, who had stablemate Bud Crawford in his corner, hesitated to let his hands go and couldn’t reverse the tide. The judges had it 96-91 and 97-90 twice for the flamboyant Cobbs who improved to 16-1-1 (10). Hooker, a consensus 5/2 favorite, lost for the third time in his last five starts and slumped to 27-3-3.

In the opener to the main portion of the DAZN card, Uzbekistan’s Bektimir Melikuziev (10-1, 8 KOs), a super middleweight growing into a light heavyweight, dominated and stopped overmatched Sladan Janjanin. Melikuziev put Janjanin down with a body punch in the opening minute of the fight and scored two more knockdowns before the bout was halted at the 2:18 mark of round three.

This was Melikuziev’s third fight back after his shocking one-punch annihilation by Gabriel Rosado. Janjanin, a well-traveled Bosnian who fought three weeks ago in Massachusetts, declined to 32-12 and was stopped for the eighth time.

Also

Chicago welterweight Alex Martin (18-4, 6 KOs) overcame a first-round knockdown to win a unanimous decision over 38-year-old Philadelphia journeyman Henry Lundy. The judges had it an unexpectedly wide 98-91, 97-92, 97-92.

Martin was coming off a points loss to McKinson and this bout was his reward for taking that fight on short notice. Lundy (31-11-1) has lost five of his last seven.

Floyd “Austin Kid” Schofield, a lightweight who appears to have a big upside, advanced to 11-0 (9 KOs) at the expense of Mexican trial horse Rodrigo Guerrero whose corner wisely pulled him out after five one-sided rounds. It was the ninth straight loss for Guerrero (26-15).

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Conlan Wins His Belfast Homecoming; Breezes Past Lackadaisical Marriaga

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“The Return of the Mick” was the label attached to tonight’s show at the SSE Arena in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The reference was to local fan favorite Michael “Mick” Conlan who returned to his hometown in hopes of jump-starting his career after suffering his first pro loss in a brutal encounter with Leigh Wood.

In that bout, a strong “Fight of the Year contender, Conlan was narrowly ahead on all three cards heading into the 12th and final round when the roof fell in. Wood, who was making the first defense of his WBA world featherweight title on his home turf in Nottingham, knocked the favored Conlan unconscious and clear out of the ring.

This was the sort of fight that can shorten a man’s career. Hence the intrigue in Conlan’s homecoming fight tonight against Miguel Marriaga. On paper, the Colombian, a three-time world title challenger, was a stern test considering the circumstances.

To the contrary, Marriaga had no fire in his belly until the final round when he hit Conlan with a shot that buckled his knees. But, by then Conlan was so far ahead without overly exerting himself that there was virtually no chance of another meltdown.

While Conlan won lopsidedly, the scores – 99-89 and 99-88 twice – were somewhat misleading. True, “Mick” had Marriaga on the deck in rounds 7, 8, and 9, but the punches that put him there did not look particularly hard.

Conlan, 30, improved to 17-1 (8). Marriaga, 35, declined to 30-6.

After the fight, Conlan expressed the hope that Leigh Wood would give him a rematch.

Other Bouts of Note

In an entertaining 10-round welterweight scrap that could have gone either way, Belfast’s Tyrone McKenna (23-3-1, 6 KOs) rebounded from his defeat in Dubai to Regis Prograis (TKO by 6) with a hard-fought unanimous decision over 33-year-old Welshman Chris Jenkins (23-6-3). The judges favored the local fighter by scores of 97-94 and 96-95 twice.

Jenkins, a former British and Commonwealth title-holder, had the best of the early going, working the body effectively while frequently finding a home for his uppercut, but he could not sustain his advantage.

Thirty-four-year-old Belfast super middleweight Padraig McCrory who got a late start in boxing, scored the most important win of his career with a fifth-round stoppage of Marco Antonio Periban, a former world title challenger. McCrory had Periban on the deck three times – once in the second and twice in the fifth – before the bout was halted at the 2:14 mark of round five.

It was the fourth straight win inside the distance for McCrory who improved to 14-0 (8 KOs). Mexico’s Periban, who returned to the sport in April after missing all of 2020 and 2021, fell to 26-6-1.

Highly-touted welterweight Paddy Donovan improved to 9-0 (6) with an 8-round unanimous decision over Yorkshireman Tom Hall (10-3). The referee scored every round for Donovan, an Irish Traveler trained by Tyson Fury’s bosom buddy Andy Lee, the former world middleweight title-holder.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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