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The Hauser Report: Remembering Bill Russell (1934-2022)

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Bill Russell, an inspirational figure and one of the most important athletes in the history of sports, died on July 31 at age 88.

Russell revolutionized the game of basketball. Standing 6-feet-9-inches tall and weighing a lithe 220 pounds, he originated a new style of play. Blocking shots and firing pinpoint passes to initiate fast breaks after grabbing rebounds, playing tenacious defense and transforming the center position from a haven for slow lumbering giants to one of fluidity and motion.

On the court, Russell lived by the mantra, “Professional athletes are not paid to play. They’re paid to win.” He was a two-time All-American at the University of San Francisco, where he led the Dons to 55 consecutive victories and two NCAA championships. Next, he spearheaded the United States basketball team’s gold-medal performance at the 1956 Olympics. Then he became the cornerstone of the greatest dynasty in the history of sports.

During a 13-year playing career that began in 1956, Russell led the Boston Celtics to eleven NBA championships. A half-century later, Boston’s eight consecutive titles from 1959 to 1966 remain unmatched in professional sports, surpassing the uninterrupted reigns of the New York Yankees (1949 to 1953) and Montreal Canadians (1956 to 1960).

Russell was a five-time league MVP and 12-time All-Star. He ended his career with 21,620 rebounds (second most in NBA history) and averaged a mind-boggling 22.5 rebounds per game. Once, he pulled down 51 rebounds in a single contest. Statistics for blocked shots weren’t kept when he played. But it’s likely that Russell blocked more shots than anyone else in NBA history. He also averaged 15.1 points and 4.3 assists per game.

His confrontations with Wilt Chamberlain from 1959 through 1969 constituted one of sports’ most storied rivalries.

But as Steve Kerr recently stated, “What Bill Russell did for his country and for society and the African American community dwarfs what he accomplished on the court.”

Harry Edwards (who rose to prominence as the architect of the 1968 Olympic protest movement) called Russell “the heir to Jackie Robinson’s struggle.”

When the Celtics beat the St. Louis Hawks in seven games to win the NBA championship in Russell’s first season, he was the only black player on either team. He was also one of the first athletes to use his celebrity status to confront racism.

Russell was with Martin Luther King Jr at the historic 1963 March on Washington. That same year, he went to Jackson, Mississippi in the aftermath of Medgar Evers’ assassination to carry on Evers’ work. He actively supported. the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar viewed Russell as one of his most important role models and recalled, “Some of the things that scared me and bothered me about race relations in America were things that he addressed. He gave me a way to speak about it that had all of the elements of trying to make something better rather than just being angry.”

Russell was also the first Black man to serve as head coach in a major American professional sports league.

In the early-1920s, running back Fritz Pollard was the head coach of the Akron Pros in the newly-formed National Football League. But Pollard and the league’s other nine Black players were removed from the NFL at the end of the 1926 season as the league began to gain a following. Four decades later, John McLendon coached briefly in the American Basketball League (which folded after one season) and American Basketball Association (which lasted for nine campaigns). But at the time, these leagues were secondary institutions.

Russell stepped into an entirely different situation. In 1966, Red Auerbach retired as coach of the Celtics after eight straight championships. In his role as general manager, he designated Russell as his successor. Russell then won two NBA championships as a player-coach and two more in the three seasons that followed his retirement as a player.

I was privileged to interact with Russell on several occasions.

The first came when I was 15 years old and in high school. In those days, NBA teams played doubleheaders at the old Madison Square Garden on 8th Avenue and 49th Street. And security was light. I’d buy a balcony ticket and a program, walk down a stairway to position myself outside the dressing rooms (which were in close proximity to one another), and ask for autographs as the players came in.

On this occasion, the Knicks were playing the Celtics in the second game of a doubleheader. In addition to my program, I’d brought full-page color photos of Russell and Celtics guard Sam Jones that I’d torn from Sport Magazine in the hope that I could get them signed.

Russell was adamant about not signing autographs. I didn’t know that at the time. Suddenly, he appeared, carrying a large gym bag. The vision of a giant eagle flashed through my mind.

I approached him and held out the photo.

“Mr. Russell. Could you sign this for me.”

“I don’t sign autographs.”

“Please.”

I don’t know why what happened next happened.

Wordlessly, Russell took the pen and photo from my hand . . . And signed.

Decades later, I was talking with him at the screening of an HBO documentary entitled Bill Russell: My Life, My Way. I’d come to know him better by then as a consequence of having interviewed him while researching Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times.

Russell complimented me on the book. Then I told him about the autograph and he cackled his famous cackle.

 “So you were the one,” he said.

My records show that I interviewed Russell for the Ali biography on November 21, 1989. At the start of the interview, he told me, “I don’t like doing interviews. The only reason I’m talking with you is that Muhammad asked me to.”

“I never saw him fight,” Russell said of Ali. “I would never go to a fight. I just wouldn’t. I went to one a long time ago and I told myself I’d never go back. They’re much cleaner on television.”

We talked about the idea (floated in 1971) that Ali and Wilt Chamberlain engage in a prizefight.

“I can’t speak for Wilt,” Russell noted. “I just know that I personally would never challenge a champion in his field of expertise. I would never get in a boxing ring with Ali or on the football field with Jim Brown or on a track with Carl Lewis. I would never impose my thoughts or motivations on someone else. But for me personally, that’s just not the way I am.”

The heart of our interview concerned a meeting that had taken place in Cleveland twenty-two years earlier. On April 28, 1967, Ali had refused induction into the United States Armed Forces. On May 8, he was criminally indicted. In early June (shortly before his trial began), ten of the most prominent black athletes in America met with Muhammad to discuss his options.

Recalling that day, Russell told me, “I got a call from Jim Brown, who said that Ali was out there by himself and that we should support him in whatever he chose to do. So that was it, really. I didn’t go to Cleveland to persuade Muhammad to join or not join the Army. We were just there to help, and I was struck by how confident he was, how totally assured he was that what he was doing was right.

“I never thought of myself as a great man,” Russell continued. “I never aspired to be anything like that. I was just a guy trying to get through life. But in Cleveland, and many other times with Ali, I saw a man accepting special responsibilities, someone who conducted himself in a way that the people he came in contact with were better for the experience. Philosophically, Ali was a free man. Besides being probably the greatest boxer ever, he was free. And he was free at a time when historically it was very difficult to be free no matter who you were or what you were. Ali was one of the first truly free people in America.”

Not long after the Cleveland meeting, Russell spoke publicly about Ali’s draft status for the first time.

“I envy Muhammad Ali,” Russell said. “He faces a possible five years in jail and he has been stripped of his heavyweight championship, but I still envy him. He has something I have never been able to attain and something very few people I know possess. He has an absolute and sincere faith. I’m not worried about Muhammad Ali. He is better equipped than anyone I know to withstand the trials in store for him. What I’m worried about is the rest of us.”

In honoring Bill Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, Barack Obama proclaimed, “Bill was someone who stood up and insisted on dignity. He stood up for the rights and dignity of all men.”

Bill Russell was a great man. And a good one.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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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.

HeraldSun

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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