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A Cornucopia of Accolades for Venerable Sportswriter Jerry Izenberg

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Ponder this for just a moment: Jerry Izenberg has written about sports for seventy-one years. No, this isn’t a misprint.

Behind a righteous conscience, a clear mind and a cool hand, the 91-year-old New Jersey native and columnist emeritus for the Newark Star-Ledger has pounded out stories from every venue, both near and far, and on every major sport and that includes boxing which he holds near and dear and has been a great story-telling device.

“Most fans like it but don’t understand it. Some writers take  advantage of the fact that because so many fans keep looking and waiting for a knockout. It’s the easiest sport for a writer to fake,” said Izenberg of the sweet science. “But for serious writers, it’s the best…just three people inside the ring and a cut man and a trainer in each corner…when two great fighters meet, they produce at one and the same time the most brutal yet graceful ballet requiring skill, courage and the most determination in all of sports.”

Izenberg, the author of more than a dozen books including “Once There Were Giants: The Golden Age of Heavyweight Boxing,” has come across many interesting souls while traveling the globe dissecting the fight game, but one fighter in particular, a three-time heavyweight champion, caught his fancy.

“Muhammad Ali was someone I knew from the 1960 Olympics. He was my friend but he became my genuine friend the morning after he won the title from Sonny [Liston]. That was shortly after the press conference when as a world champion for just 24 hours, he announced his belief in a form of Islam then associated with Elijah Muhammad named the Lost Found Nation of Islam and colloquially known as the Black Muslims,” he said.

“It was the first time most writers had been exposed to Ali’s (then Cassius Clay) membership in the group. I may have been the first to defend his right to whatever religion he followed and whatever name he chose to be called. He respected the fact that I made it a priority to find out who the hell this guy was and that I would be writing about even after the day he died. We became close friends for about 50 years. Before that he had testified at a New York State Legislature hearing about boxing. A bunch of us were ticketed to return to Manhattan on the midnight train.”

Izenberg explained how the friendship really took off:

“I was in my hotel room writing my column when he walked in at about 2 p.m.”

“Man, I am so tired. Are there any empty rooms in this hotel?”

“Take my bed,” I offered. “I promise to type quietly.”

“After he beat Sonny, [February 1964], he started to tell everybody, ‘This man, this man gave me shelter and his bed when I had no bed.’ And I would say, ‘that was only because I didn’t know who the hell you were.'”

“And then we’d both laugh. It was a great friendship to the point where I still have trouble saying ‘was’ these days instead of ‘is.’ I miss him very much.”

“I always wrote about the human condition which you would be wise to consider whether it is admirable or deplorable. When I was probably the first to defend Ali’s constitutional rights, they broke out my car’s windshield with sledge hammers and mailed me dog feces and alarm clocks disguised as bombs,” he said. “When I explained the reasons behind [Colin] Kaepernick’s Star Spangled Banner kneel we got hundreds of negative emails – none of which noted that I had carefully explained exactly what he said about why he was doing it and it had nothing to do with patriotism. I listened to exactly what he explained about a horrible wave of police brutality and I wrote what he said.”

Izenberg, a graduate of Rutgers University Newark, shot back at the critics. “The trouble with these snap decisions by these knee-jerk detractors was that most of them wrapped their criticism in a tsunami of emotions but offered only a scintilla of facts,” he said.

John Feinstein, a contributor to the Washington Post and Golf Digest and the author of two of the best-selling sports books of all time, added his two cents on Izenberg: “I think Jerry’s done a remarkable job through the years of staying current, of remaining a REPORTER which many columnists – particularly older ones – fail to do,” he said. “He rarely falls back on, ‘back in the day, when I was a young reporter.’ His work always feels as if it’s fresh, not a rehash of material from years gone by.”

The prolific Feinstein spoke about Izenberg’s deft touch: “I always thought of Jerry as, ‘the quiet columnist.’ He never called attention to himself in press conferences or in the media room at big events,” he said. “He’d just sit there, puffing on his pipe, and turn out something which would cause me to say, ‘gee, I wish I’d thought of that,’ when I read it. I’ve always said the guys who are the best at what they do don’t have to tell you they’re the best at what they do. Jerry falls into that category.”

Izenberg reflected on his bar mitzvah at age 13, a rite of passage for Jewish boys. “My bar mitzvah ceremony was supervised nearly eight decades ago by a rabbi named Joachim Prinz. He had escaped Nazi Germany, rode a Freedom Bus during the beginning of the civil rights movement and introduced The Rev. Martin Luther King at the National Mall [in Washington, D.C.],” he said. “He was the one who called my attention to the Hebrew phrase “Tikkun Olam” – Hebrew translation: Repair the world.” The most modern understanding of the phrase is that you fix the world through the individual human action of each person.”

“So, I write what I believe, even if my soapbox is limited to a field of end zones and foul lines and ring posts,” Izenberg added. “My work is the residue of my father, who set the standard, my teacher, Stanley Woodward, who gave me the tools and Dr. Prinz, the rabbi who kind of deputized me.”

Former New York Times sports columnist Harvey Araton who wrote about the odd coupling of Ali-Liston II and Lewiston, Maine, in a story re-visited on these pages, noted that Izenberg, a longtime friend, wasn’t swayed by popular opinion.

“He wrote what he thought. If that went with the wind, fine. If not, too damn bad. On his favorite topics (boxing, football, horse racing, baseball), he knew that he knew more than most and wrote with that level of authority,” he said. “In other subjects, his eyes and ears were focused on what he could learn and report. He was old school all the way, not writing for clicks or retweets or to land a TV deal by manufacturing (fake) anger. Come to think of it, Jerry was one of the first crossover print sports guys when he appeared on Sports Extra on Sunday nights on Channel 5 in New York (if memory serves correct).”

“If you knew Jerry, you could actually hear his (cantankerous) voice in his column. When I was in college and grad school, working on the desk of the Staten Island Advance, a sister paper to Jerry’s Newark Star-Ledger, we’d run his column,” he said. “Much too brash and a  little stupid, I’d ready my editor’s pen to see where I could make some changes and prove my worth. Whatever changes I’d make, my boss would undo. He’d tell me, “You don’t f*** with a voice and style as distinctive as Izenberg, OK?” Jerry had his pet lines he would use, or overuse, like ‘herniated snail’ to describe a slow runner, or’ Gomorrah-by-the-desert,’ meaning Vegas. But you never knew what delightful turns of phrases would turn up in his copy, though seldom, if ever, did they obscure the message.”

Araton noted Izenberg’s affection for the Garden State: “Many may not remember that Jerry was not only a Jersey guy, though his love for the state in general and Newark in particular was indisputable,” he said. “But in the late 70s, his columns were also picked up by the New York Post, in large part because of his friendship with Jerry Lisker, the Post sports editor, who was also a big boxing guy. So, in an era of many mega-bouts, Jerry’s voice was heard in what was considered by many to be the city’s best sports section.”

“One last thing,” said Araton. “About 9-10 years ago, I wrote a piece on the failure of the (now defunct) Newark Bears, or at least a remake of the team as an indie baseball team, to thrive despite a lovely little stadium the city and county had built,” he said. “The story explores whether soccer was the more realistic pursuit. Jerry had championed the baseball cause in his columns. If you read Jerry’s quote, you can see his irascible side but also his honesty; he says that people told him he was living in the past, thereby acknowledging that possibility.”

Here is a link to that story.
https://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/22/sports/baseball/did-newark-bet-on-the-wrong-sport.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share

One of Izenberg’s biggest fans is Japan Forward sports editor Ed Odeven who penned the well-received “Going 15 Rounds With Jerry Izenberg.”

“Jerry’s prose,” said Odeven, “has never been saturated or bogged down with too many statistics or analytics…His stories are always anchored by human drama and a novella-like structure (with a beginning, middle and end).”

“Jerry was a progressive thinker decades ago in telling the plight of African American athletes and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (his visit to Grambling University, where he chronicled football coach Eddie Robinson’s squad, which produced his groundbreaking story in True in 1967). He was far ahead of the curve in recognizing that Black and Latino athletes were rising stars and a significant part of the nation’s sports culture,” continued Odeven.

Ira Berkow, who spent countless hours ringside with Izenberg, echoed that observation.

“The aspect of the significance of race in sports was late in coming for many sportswriters,” noted Berkow, the longtime sports columnist for the New York Times. “Not for Jerry. He was clearly in the forefront of the discussion.”

Boxers are more open and introspective than other athletes according to Izenberg. And when the best of the best step into the ring, it can be magical.

Izenberg recounted two classics at which he sat ringside. One took place in 1975 in the Philippines and the other in 1985 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

“I’m 91 now and I would like to say Cain-Abel but a camel died on the highway that day so I was late getting there,” he said. “The best fight of any weight – Ali-[Joe] Frazier in Manila…15 rounds of hell.

The best way I can sum it up is with the lead I filed 20 minutes after the fight ended: “Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier did not fight for the WBC heavyweight title here last night. Nor did they fight for the heavyweight title of the planet. They could have fought inside a telephone booth on a melting ice flow and had all the room they needed. “They fought, instead, for the championship of each other. And as far as I’m concerned, they could fight forever and the issue would never be settled.”

izenberg

The second classic that stands out in his mind is Hagler-Hearns. “The best first round at any weight,” Izenberg said. “Hearns won the explosive round, drawing blood from Marvin’s forehead but when Hagler didn’t take one step backward, he won the fight then and there.”

For Izenberg, there have been some changes in boxing and not always for the good.

“Now when young boxers are told to hit the heavy bag by their trainers, the response is: ‘Okay, but will I ever play the guitar
again?’ Yes, we have a shortage of gifted fighters but so many of the ones we do have are in desperate need of gifted teachers,” he said.

And with that, it appears the sport has also lost some of its shine. “Yes, because now it features more self-styled entertainers than fighters. The most exciting moment in all of sports used to be when a slight murmur began from the back of the arena and then a crescendo that grew louder and louder as they approached the ring,” said Izenberg of the excitement of a big fight. “It was clear they had come to fight. Now we have smoke and mirrors, fake fog and an army of hangers-on for the walk to the ring large enough to double as extras in a cinematic re-creation of Exodus. The best fighters we have don’t need the theatrics. I wish we had more of them.”

Izenberg, who turns 92 on September 10, has been honored many times. Is there one that stands above the rest?

“I’m in 15 Halls of Fame but that’s not it. I won the Red Smith Award and that’s not it because when I was at the [New York] Herald Tribune my desk was next to his and I learned a lot and that was worth more than any award,” he said.

“I was, for a time, fairly regular on Irish radio and one day the host interviewed me as what he called an important journalist. He said with all the awards, why is it you never won a Pulitzer? Nobody had ever asked me that.

“I told him that when the Star-Ledger was the eighth largest Sunday paper in the country, we had an audience of over one million. On weekdays it was around 600,000. So, if just one of every six readers read Jerry Izenberg during the week I had an extended family of 100,000. If they came back because they liked what I wrote, well, hell, the Pulitzer doesn’t mean much when measured against that.”

Hall of Fame boxing writer Thomas Hauser weighed in: “He should have won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary long ago, but the jury that designates Pulitzer winners is journalism’s answer to boxing’s world sanctioning organizations with the New York Times playing the role of Don King.”

“If we’re lucky,” said Hauser, “Izenberg will write his memoirs someday. But that would be the crib notes version. To fully appreciate his work, one has to have read his columns; day after day, week after week, year after year. Ten thousand columns crafted over the span of more than four decades,” he said.

“Indeed, if the Newark Star-Ledger is interested in performing a true public service,” continued Hauser, “it will assemble those columns in multi-volume sets, put the sets in major libraries across the country, and give Izenberg a set to take home with him.”

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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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