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Filipino Boxing Profile: Ten Names to Know

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In the surge to crown the “New Manny Pacquiao” that did not even await the retirement of the old Manny Pacquiao, many different fighters have been lauded and discarded by the press, both western and Filipino. This rather misses the point. The reason a Mike Tyson or a Muhammad Ali or a Manny Pacquiao are so exciting isn’t that they inspire the next in line: it’s all the fighters that they inspire to try. These are the stories of the new generation of Filipino warriors and they are key to the sport.  Boxing is an unfolding story, history at large, it needs journeyman, gatekeepers, title challengers and caretaker champions every bit as much as it needs all-time great sporting giants. More, even.

The Philippines is perfectly positioned to mesh with boxing behind the inspiration provided by a fistic legend. It has a large population, around a 120 million, it has a sad and bravely fought war with poverty, an estimated fifth of that population living in its clutches; and Filipino fighters from old-time flyweight champion Pancho Villa to the modern day seem both unafraid of hard work and filled with fighting heart.

Here then, we will look at the ten Filipino fighters whose names we should know right now.

Mark Magsayo, Aged 27, Featherweight, 24-2, Tagbilaran City, Bohol

Mark Magsayo is coming off back-to-back losses and it is a testimony to the vibrance of the featherweight division and to the stiff assignments Magsayo has undertaken that he has retained relevancy in a sport that is crueller now than ever before to the recently defeated.

Out-scrapped by cunning Rey Vargas in July of last year, Magsayo kept it close with a sneaky right-handed knockdown that sent the fight to a split decision on the official cards (115-112 Vargas on mine). He was never out of the contest although his chances on the cards were bolstered in the main by a fast start. He showed an even faster start earlier this month against Brandon Figueroa but allowed his opponent’s relentlessness to push him out of the contest, although two harsh points deducted for holding in an all-action fight that continued on the inside despite Magsayo’s grabbing for a spare arm seemed harsh.

I had Magsayo winning five of the first six rounds, and claiming three of the first five against Vargas. Magsayo, it seems, has a stamina issue when his workrate is pitted against that of an elite opponent. He has the guts to remain in the fight regardless of his fatigue but he doesn’t appear to have the type of tide-turning energy that can close a fight late. This is a problem for a fighter who has never knocked out a world class opponent, though his record against more limited opposition proves his dig.

But Magsayo will always be in closely contested, exciting fights. That is a testimony to his character and fortitude. He has probably been cast adrift for the moment from the divisional elite (Mauricio Lara, Brandon Figueroa, Rey Vargas and Luis Alberto Lopez) but he probably remains the best of the rest, at least until Robeisy Ramirez meets Isaac Dogboe at the beginning of April. Expect to see him out in lesser company next time around before making a possible call to his old friends at the WBO in an effort to break up the Lara/Leigh Wood/Josh Warrington lock-up of that strap.

John Riel Casimero, Aged 34, Super Bantamweight, 32-4, Ormoc City, Leyte

Nonito Donaire is the most famous of the post-Pacquiao Filipinos, but John Riel Casimero at one point was probably second. There is no greater enemy to a fighter than inactivity, whether fisticly or financially, and having boxed only two rounds in the last two years, Casimero has arguably made a victim of himself.

With all of that said, there is no reason the final years of Casimero’s career can’t be exciting and profitable, and it should be stressed that the two confusing rounds he boxed in 2022 were not entirely his responsibility. Reintroducing himself to the 122lb division he travelled to South Korea to meet Ryo Akaho. Upon being flashed while off balance by a check hook in the second, Casimero clearly lost his temper, illustrated by the wild, winging shots he launched while chasing Ryo around the ring. Many of these landed, but more than one of them strayed into rabbit-punch territory, and upon a called break used by the referee to remonstrate with Casimero about these clumsy punches, Ryo decided he could no longer continue. What was ruled a No Contest on the night was later changed to a KO2 victory for Casimero when the Korea boxing commission realised just bow bad that look was.

All’s well that ends well but it leaves Casimero rusty, probably past his prime and without a natural home for his 122lb ambitions. His name has been continuously linked with that of Naoya Inoue’s, and that is indeed the big payday at the poundage, but if he should be matched with the winner of Inoue and Stephen Fulton, Casimero wants to be at something approaching his best, not the fighter limited by inactivity we see currently. Luis Nery’s name has also been mentioned in dispatches but it is interesting that the perception would now be that Casimero is no longer a problem that Nery doesn’t need. Casimero has closed the gap on himself, for better or worse.

A schooled veteran with good power and quick feet, Casimero should remain a handful for anyone almost regardless, but speaking as a fan, I would like to see him out before the end of May and against a decent level of opposition.  American Daniel Roman and the other 122lb Inoue brother, Takuma, both make all the sense in the world.

Marlon Tapales, Aged 30, Super Bantamweight, 36-3, Tubod, Lanao del Norte

Another natural fight for Casimero would be against the premier Filipino Super Bantamweight, Marlon Tapales, from the southern island province of Tubod. A damaging loss to Ryosuke Iwasa in 2019 was tempered by an eye injury caused by a clash of heads that clearly made it difficult for him, and when he came blasting back in 2021 with a two-round stoppage of Hiroaki Teshigawara he was right back in contention.

The three-piece that ended that fight was a thing of beauty and underlines just exactly how Tapales has improved this decade. He’s finding the third punch where before there was only two and a coolness under fire has helped him develop a real accuracy on the attack. This makes him a dangerous finisher – nobody has carried him further than two since that loss to Iwasa.

Truthfully though, Tapales remains something of an unknown quantity at thirty years of age. That is all about to change though as he is set to meet the undefeated Murodjon Akhmadaliev on April 8th in San Antonio. A shot at a strap on American soil has been a carefully cultivated strategy for Tapales, who has fought seven of his last eight in Carson, Los Angeles, Brooklyn and elsewhere in order to carve himself out a share of what remains boxing’s biggest pie. Fight fans should circle the date as these two sit bang in the middle of the 122lb rankings, exactly the type of fight that has delivered for fans in the rich first quarter of 2023.

Akhmadaliev will likely start as a favourite, not least because the victory that unlocked the top half of the world rankings to him was over the man who defeated Tapales in 2019, Ryosuke Iwasa. That fifth- round stoppage was controversial though and triangular analysis is among the least reliable in boxing – come April, we will know where Tapales sits, one way or the other.

Reymart Gaballo, Aged 26, Bantamweight, 25-1, Polomolok, Cotabato del Su

Reymart Gaballo got lucky against Emmanuel Rodriguez in December of 2021, handed a split decision victory in what looked like a clear loss (116-112 Rodriguez for me).  I have never seen a card in favour of Gaballo for that fight other than that of judges John McKaie and Don Trella. It is perhaps a form of justice then that Gaballo finds himself hanging onto the top ten by the skin on his fingertips while Rodriguez sits atop the division.

It is perhaps the greatest oddity of this sport that we reward such decisions as Gaballo was rewarded, with a match against his legendary countryman Nonito Donaire. In his fight with Rodriguez, Gaballo’s greatest successes were with a sort of weaving serpentine attack he adopted in the third quarter of the fight – so too did he find his best moments against Donaire with this approach. On the downside it placed Gaballo in a straight shootout with a thirty-nine-year-old fighter he perhaps should have looked to outlast – Donaire dropped him a gorgeous left hook to the body in the fourth and although Gaballo did beat the count, he immediately dipped back to the canvas grimacing in pain.

Gaballo’s next fight is huge – he needs a clean win if he is to find himself back in the mix at the top of the division and a loss consigns him to the oblivion of gatekeeper status. The name he is most often linked with is former Jason Maloney victim Nawaphon Kaikanha, the man with perhaps the most padded record in all of boxing.  Gaballo would be favoured to win such a fight.

Vincent Astrolabio, Aged 25, Bantamweight, 18-3, General Santos City, Cotabato del Sur

Vincent Astrolabio, after a difficult 2017 and 2018, knuckled down at bantamweight and reaped the rewards of this more disciplined approach going 6-0 between 2019 and 2023, including five knockouts.

The man he couldn’t knock out was Guillermo Rigondeaux. He met the veteran out in Dubai in early 2022 and turned in a performance of real quality to take a deserved decision. Rigondeaux did his thing, made Astrolabio miss, sometimes by a lot, but the Filipino also turned in a strategic masterpiece. Patient, he also bought pressure.  Careful never to throw one punch when two were there to be had, he never got greedy. His mix of touch and power was perfect. Rigondeaux kept waiting as though he expected the same old openings to present themselves, but when they did – and they did – he often found himself out of position or landing a single shot. In the eighth, Astrolabio flashed Rigondeaux with a right-handed punch, but only after repeatedly rattling him with right hands to the head throughout that round. The penny finally seemed to drop for Rigondeaux who won the ninth and tenth on my card but by then it was too late – all three judges had the fight for Astrolabio by virtue of the knockdown (I saw it slightly wider).

Astrolabio was a promising prospect before this fight and a highly ranked contender after it. It is a very exciting time in his career. Is he the master on timing that he seemed to be against the ageing Rigondeaux? Or were we a little blinded by seeing a fighter as neat as Rigondeaux out-thought unexpectedly and over-credited Astrolabio? Astrolabio knocked out Nikolai Potapov as expected in Las Vegas last year, but with Jason Maloney and Emmanuel Rodriguez the names most often being linked to his currently, we are set to find out who Vincent Astrolabio really is in 2023.

Nonito Donaire, Aged 40, Bantamweight, 42-7, Talibon, Bohol

The evergreen Nonito Donaire at forty years old remains the pre-eminent daddy of Filipino boxing in the absence of Manny Pacquiao. Replacing Manny is all but impossible; it is this man the new generation must seek to usurp.

Even at an age where most famous fighters are retired and trying to find themselves a lucrative media gig, Donaire will take some usurping. Of the two men who have a chance to try directly, Reymart Gaballo has already failed and Vincent Astrolabio would be a slender underdog at best. As for replacing him as a figurehead, what will it take? Specifically, multiple straps at multiple weights in multiple decades. It is fair to say it will take some doing.

Everyone knows what Donaire does well. He is an organised puncher with power and quickness of thought. Everyone knows what his vulnerabilities are – he can be outmonstered, outsped and outworked but you better be elite in the category you decide to pursue him in because he is capable of defeating all but the very best in each and every one of those categories. As he slips in terms of speed he becomes more vulnerable to the unorthodox attacks that always upset his rhythm but Naoya Inoue himself had to place very close attention to get over the line against him in 2019. That he butchered Donaire in a 2022 rematch is alarming testimony to Donaire’s slippage.

He is not quite done though. The diminutive Mexican bantamweight Alejandro Santiago seems to be next for Donaire, and note that the way the WBC is shaping up, they might be mandating a Donaire-Gaballo rematch at the year’s end.

Regie Suganob, Aged 25, Light Flyweight, 13-0, Dauis, Bohol

Regie Suganob shot to relevancy last month with a technical decision over Mark Vicelles.  Vicelles was heavily favoured to win this fight and Regie was very much in control of the contest at the time of its stoppage for a cut caused by an accidental head clash.Suganob had therefore supplanted his countryman in the 108lb rankings, near the bottom of the ten but potentially on the rise.

A clean-cut look compliments his clean-cut style which is boxed along straight lines.  He punishes mistakes which is a wonderful skill for an inexperienced fighter to have and one he is certainly going to need in his next fight, which is likely to be against the South African Sivenathi Nontshinga. Nontshinga is no more experienced than Suganob in terms of contests, but he’s been fighting for longer at a higher level for his 11-0 than Suganob has. The Filipino has stepped into a ring at the second class just once, and that was against Vicelles; he’s never met true first class opposition.

That does not mean these two will not produce a high-class fight. At the time of writing they are in talks but at 108lbs, most of the time, the participants will take a chance on potential purse bids. Nontshinga, who is handled in part by Matchroom Boxing, will likely have the promotional clout to win that argument although such a result is as likely to see the two boxing as chief support on a UK undercard as it is a main event in Africa. Either way, that fight, should it come off, will be worth catching, and should Suganob win it, it would make him one of the world’s premier light-flyweights.

Rene Mark Cuarto, Aged 26, Minimumweight, 21-3-2, Jose Dalman, Zamboanga del Norte

Rene Mark Cuarto is nearer the bottom of his divisional top ten than the top, in part due to his July 2022 loss to Daniel Valladares. Valladares took a decision after a raucous, fun twelve that saw head-clashes, cuts, wild exchanges and a deduction for Cuarto for tape repeatedly coming lose on the gloves, something I have never even heard of before. The referee was put upon though, and Cuarto was already on a last warning for roughhousing and for ignoring his commands.

Cuarto had a legitimate knockdown incorrectly ruled a slip, however, so was arguably two points to the bad, which might have been enough to rescue the draw dependent upon how Daniel Sandoval scored the eighth round. The closeness of what was a controversial battle meant Cuarto held onto his ranking which he puts on the line once again this April 16th out in Japan against Ginjiro Shigeoka in what is likely to be yet another quality encounter boxed by one of the men on this list.

Shigeoka is only 8-0 but he, too, is ranked near the bottom of the 105lb division and actually matched Daniel Valladares himself last time out. Once again Valladares suffered a cut but this time the fight was called after three rounds and a No-Contest registered – so we still don’t know about Shigeoka just like we still don’t know for sure about Cuarto.

What we do know is that Cuarto will be aggressive in Japan, give up chances to Shigeoka with those wide punches, who will need to take them if he wants to keep this aggressive python of a Filipino in hand.

Melvin Jerusalem, Aged 29, Minimumweight, 20-2, Manolo Fortich, Bukidnon

Melvin Jerusalem is the best minimumweight in the world who is not from Thailand, and if a planned fight comes off against the American Oscar Collazo, he could yet split their control over the top spots. It is possible though that Jerusalem might refuse any opportunity to go to Thailand and make his mark in a match against either Thammanoon Niyomtrong or Panya Pradabsri, the reason being his prior 2017 visit to Thailand to match Chayaphon Moonsri (aka Wanheng Menayothin). Moonsri was then enjoying his superb run of victories that occasionally made the news as a comparison to Floyd Mayweather’s 50-0. He continued it at Jerusalem’s expense, but his victory was an almost indefensible gift, bordering on clear robbery (I saw it 116-111 and was unconvinced by the referee’s removal of a point from Jerusalem’s scorecard for a low blow).

It would be nice to say that Jerusalem picked himself up and dusted himself off and got right back to work but in fact he turned in the single worst performance of his career against the unheralded Joey Canoy just six months later back in the Philippines. He dropped a decision, his career in tatters. Since then, he has gone 9-0 and grabbed a strap with his recent two round destruction of Masataka Taniguchi.

Jerusalem was all light feet and heavy hands in this fight, the straight right hand that ended the fight the knockout punch of the year so far.

Jerusalem is twenty-nine, fun to watch, clever, aggressive, and has summitted. He might just be the best fighter on this list. That match with Collazo in the USA would be most welcome I suspect; look out for this one at the end of May or the beginning of June.

Manny Pacquiao, Aged 44, Welterweight, 62-8-2, Kibawe, Bukidnon

To paraphrase the fabulous movie The Princess Bride, Manny Pacquiao is only mostly retired. Last seen in the ring around twenty months ago, Manny has been busy with the politics but not so busy that he isn’t looking to return to the ring.

“Manny still feels he can box at the highest level,” Pacquiao associate Sean Gibbons, told Max Boxing last week.“Some business things have to be sorted, but when that happens, we are looking at a date for early June. We are looking at Abu Dhabi, and the name that looks like it is a go is Conor Benn.”

Most followers of British boxing are horrified by this revelation. Conor Benn was recently suspended by the British Boxing Board of Control after failing not one but two drug-tests whereafter his much-hyped contest with Chris Eubank Jr was cancelled. Somehow, Conor Benn has been cleared by the WBC (who to my knowledge, didn’t actually suspend him and whose multitude of divisional belts Conor has never fought for), who say he failed these drug tests due to all the eggs he ate. Conor, in turn, has said that that is untrue and that the WBC publicly stating they have cleared him for this reason was not helpful. Given that the WBC cleared him based exclusively upon his own testimony in a document that Conor himself submitted – but equally refused to release to the public or to the BBBC who are the people who have actually charged him with wrongdoing – one wonders how the WBC reached this bizarre conclusion. Perhaps we will know more if Conor Benn follows through on his threat to sue the BBBC, who did nothing but their job in preventing a fighter that tested positive for illegal performance enhancing drugs from fighting. Conor claims that the information that the BBBC was acting upon was faulty.  By his own testimony he seems to be threatening litigation against the wrong people.

As World Boxing News observed this week, “Manny Pacquiao is about to walk into an absolute PR nightmare” but for Pacquiao, this is survivable – and the effects of a Pacquiao return on an already thriving Philippines boxing scene cannot be overstated.

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Anderson Cruises by Vapid Merhy and Ajagba edges Vianello in Texas

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Jared Anderson returned to the ring tonight on a Top Rank card in Corpus Christi, Texas. Touted as the next big thing in the heavyweight division, Anderson (17-0, 15 KOs) hardly broke a sweat while cruising past Ryad Merhy in a bout with very little action, much to the disgruntlement of the crowd which started booing as early as the second round. The fault was all Merhy as he was reluctant to let his hands go. Somehow, he won a round on the scorecard of judge David Sutherland who likely fell asleep for a round for which he could be forgiven.

Merhy, born in the Ivory Coast but a resident of Brussels, Belgium, was 32-2 (26 KOs) heading in after fighting most of his career as a cruiserweight. He gave up six inches in height to Anderson who was content to peck away when it became obvious to him that little would be coming back his way.

Anderson may face a more daunting adversary on Monday when he has a court date in Romulus, Michigan, to answer charges related to an incident in February where he drove his Dodge Challenger at a high rate speed, baiting the police into a merry chase. (Weirdly, Anderson entered the ring tonight wearing the sort of helmet that one associates with a race car driver.)

Co-Feature

In the co-feature, a battle between six-foot-six former Olympians, Italy’s Guido Vianello started and finished strong, but Efe Ajagba had the best of it in the middle rounds and prevailed on a split decision. Two of the judges favored Ajagba by 96-94 scores with the dissenter favoring the Italian from Rome by the same margin.

Vianello had the best round of the fight. He staggered Ajagba with a combination in round two. At the end of the round, a befuddled Ajagba returned to the wrong corner and it appeared that an upset was brewing. But the Nigerian, who trains in Las Vegas under Kay Koroma, got back into the fight with a more varied offensive attack and better head movement. In winning, he improved his ledger to 20-1 (14). Vianello, who sparred extensively with Daniel Dubois in London in preparation for this fight, declined to 12-2-1 in what was likely his final outing under the Top Rank banner.

Other Bouts of Note

In the opening bout on the main ESPN platform, 35-year-old super featherweight Robson Conceicao, a gold medalist for Brazil in the 2016 Rio Olympics, stepped down in class after fighting Emanuel Navarrete tooth-and-nail to a draw in his previous bout and scored a seventh-round stoppage of Jose Ivan Guardado who was a cooked goose after slumping to the canvas after taking a wicked shot to the liver. Guardado made it to his feet, but the end was imminent and the referee waived it off at the 2:27 mark.

Conceicao improved to 18-1 (9 KOs). It was the U.S. debut for Guardado (15-2-1), a boxer from Ensenada, Mexico who had done most of his fighting up the road in Tijuana.

Ruben Villa, the pride of Salinas, California, improved to 22-1 (7) and moved one step closer to a match with WBC featherweight champion Rey Vargas with a unanimous 10-round decision over Tijuana’s Cristian Cruz (22-7-1). The judges had it 97-93 and 98-92 twice.

Cruz, the son of former IBF world featherweight title-holder Cristobal Cruz, was better than his record. He entered the bout on a 21-1-1 run after losing five of his first seven pro fights.

Cleveland southpaw Abdullah Mason, who turned 20 earlier this month, continued his fast ascent up the lightweight ladder with a fourth-round stoppage of Ronal Ron.

Mason (13-0, 11 KOs) put Ron on the canvas in the opening round with a short left hook. He scored a second knockdown with a shot to the liver. A flurry of punches, a diverse array, forced the stoppage at the 1:02 mark of round four. A 25-year-old SoCal-based Venezuelan, the spunky but out-gunned Ron declined to 14-6.

Charly Suarez, a 35-year-old former Olympian from the Philippines, ranked #5 at junior lightweight by the IBF, advanced to 17-0 (9) with a unanimous 8-round decision over SoCal’s Louie Coria (5-7).

This was a tactical fight. In the final round, Coria, subbing for 19-0 Henry Lebron, caught the Filipino off-balance and knocked him into the ropes which held him up. It was scored a knockdown, but came too little, too late for Coria who lost by scores of 76-75 and 77-74 twice.

Suarez, whose signature win was a 12th-round stoppage of the previously undefeated Aussie Paul Fleming in Sydney, may be headed to a rematch with Robson Conceicao. They fought as amateurs in 2016 in Kazakhstan and Suarez lost a narrow 6-round decision.

Photo credit: Mikey Willams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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Ellie Scotney and Rhiannon Dixon Win World Title Fights in Manchester

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England’s Ellie Scotney started slowly against the long reach of France’s Segolene Lefebvre but used rough tactics and a full-steam ahead approach to unify the super bantamweight division by unanimous decision on Saturday.

“There’s a lot more I didn’t show,” said an excited Scotney (pictured on the left).

IBF titlist Scotney (9-0) added the WBO title by nullifying Lefebvre’s (18-1) reach and dominating the inside with a two-fisted attack in front of an excited crowd in Manchester, England.

For the first two rounds Lefebvre used her long reach and smooth fluid attack to keep Scotney at the end of her punches. Then the fight turned when the British fighter bulled her way inside with body shots and forced the French fighter into the ropes.

Aggressiveness by Scotney turned the fight in her favor. But Lefebvre remained active and countered with overhand rights throughout the match.

Body shots by Scotney continued to pummel the French champion’s abdomen but she remained steadfast in her counter-attacks. Combinations landed for Lefebvre and a counter overhand right scored to keep her in the contest in the fifth round.

Scotney increased the intensity of her attack in the sixth and seventh rounds. In perhaps her best round Scotney was almost perfect in scoring while not getting hit with anything from the French fighter.

Maybe the success of the previous round caused Scotney to pause. It allowed Lefebvre to rally behind some solid shots in a slow round and gave the French fighter an opening. Maybe.

The British fighter opened up more savagely after taking two Lefevbre rights to open the ninth. Scotney attacked with bruising more emphatic blows despite getting hit. Though both fired blows Scotney’s were more powerful.

Both champions opened-up the 10th and final round with punches flying. Once again Scotney’s blows had more power behind them though the French fighter scored too, and though her face looked less bruised than Scotney’s the pure force of Scotney’s attacks was more impressive.

All three judges saw Scotney the winner 97-93, 96-94 and a ridiculous 99-91. The London-based fighter now has the IBF and WBO super bantamweight titles.

Promoter Eddie Hearn said a possible showdown with WBC titlist Erika Cruz looms large possibly in the summer.

“Great performance. Great punch output,” said Hearn of Scotney’s performance.

Dixon Wins WBO Title

British southpaw Rhiannon Dixon (10-0) out-fought Argentina’s Karen Carabajal (22-2) over 10 rounds and won a very competitive unanimous decision to win the vacant WBO lightweight title. It was one of the titles vacated by Katie Taylor who is now the undisputed super lightweight world champion.

An aggressive Dixon dominated the first three rounds including a knockdown in the third round with a perfect left-hand counter that dropped Carabajal. The Argentine got up and rallied in the round.

Carabajal, whose only loss was against Katie Taylor, slowly began figuring out Dixon’s attacks and each round got more competitive. The Argentine fighter used counter rights to find a hole in Dixon’s defense to probably win the round in the sixth.

The final three rounds saw both fighters engage evenly with Carabajal scoring on counters and Dixon attacking the body successfully.

After 10 rounds all three judges saw it in Dixon’s favor 98-91, 97-92, 96-93 who now wields the WBO lightweight world title.

“It’s difficult to find words,” said Dixon after winning the title.

Hometown Fighter Wins

Manchester’s Zelfa Barrett (31-2, 17 KOs) battled back and forth with Jordan Gill (28-3-1, 9 KO-s) and finally ended the super featherweight fight with two knockdowns via lefts to the body in the 10th round of a scheduled 12-round match for a regional title.

The smooth moving Barrett found the busier Gill more complex than expected and for the first nine rounds was fighting a 50/50 fight against the fellow British fighter from the small town of Chatteris north of London.

In the 10th round after multiple shots on the body of Gill, a left hook to the ribs collapsed the Chatteris fighter to the floor. He willed himself up and soon after was floored again but this time by a left to the solar plexus. Again he continued but was belted around until the referee stopped the onslaught by Barrett at 2:44 of the 10th.

“A tough, tough fighter,” said Barrett about Gill. “I had to work hard.”

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O.J. Simpson the Boxer: A Heartwarming Tale for the Whole Family

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O.J. Simpson passed away on Wednesday, April 10, at age 76 in Las Vegas where he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. For millions of Americans, news of his passing unloosed a flood of memories.

The O.J. Simpson double murder trial lasted 37 weeks. CNN and two other fledgling cable networks provided gavel-to-gavel coverage. On Oct. 3, 1995, the day that the jury rendered its verdict, CBS, NBC, ABC, and ESPN suspended regular programming to cover the trial. Worldwide, more than 100 million people were reportedly glued to their TV or radio.

O.J.’s life can be neatly compartmentalized into two halves. The dividing line is June 12, 1994. On that date, Simpson’s estranged wife, the former Nicole Brown, and her friend Ronald Goldman were found stabbed to death in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood at the home that Nicole shared with their two children.

Before then, O.J. was famous. After then, he was infamous.

Simpson first came to the fore on the gridiron. In 1968, his final season at the University of Southern California, he was so dynamic that he won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide, out-distancing Purdue’s Leroy Keyes by 1,750 votes. This was the widest margin to that point between a Heisman winner and runner-up and a milestone that stood for 51 years until surpassed by LSU quarterback Joe Burrows in 2019.

In the NFL, among his many achievements, he became the first and only NFL running back to eclipse 2,000 rushing yards in a 14-game season, a record that will never be broken.

But one can’t appreciate the depth of O.J.s celebrityhood by citing statistics. He transcended his sport like few athletes before or since. Owing in large part to his commercials for the Hertz rental car chain, he became one of America’s most recognizable people.

O.J. Simpson was raised by a single mother in a government housing project in the gritty Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. Unlike many of his boyhood peers, he was never quick to raise his fists. Weirdly, he once said that running away from fights proved useful to him when he took up football. It helped his stamina.

Although he never boxed in real life, O.J. portrayed a boxer in a made-for-TV movie. Titled “Goldie and the Boxer,” it aired on NBC on Sunday, Dec. 29, 1979, two weeks after O.J. played in his last NFL game. Co-produced by Simpson’s own production company, it starred O.J. opposite precocious Melissa Michaelson who played the 10-year-old Goldie.

In promos, the movie was tagged as a heartwarming tale for kids and their parents. Associated Press writer John Egan described it as “a cross between the Shirley Temple classic ‘Little Miss Marker’ and a low-budget ‘Rocky.’”

Here’s a synopsis, compliments of New York Times TV critic John J. O’Connor:

“The year is 1946, and Joe Gallagher is returning to Louisiana as an army veteran. He is quickly ripped off by a succession of thugs and finds himself broke and battered in Pennsylvania where he is befriended by a young Goldie. Her father is a boxer and Joe joins the training camp as a sparring partner. When the father dies, Joe takes his place on the fight circuit and Goldie becomes his manager…”

The consensus of the pundits was that O.J. the actor was very much a work in progress, but that he had great potential. And the movie, despite its hokey plot, attracted so many viewers that NBC wanted to turn it into a series.

O.J. had too much on his plate to commit to doing a regular series. Among other things, he had signed on to become part of NBC’s main stable of reporters at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, a gig that evaporated when the U.S. under President Jimmy Carter joined 64 other nations in boycotting the Games as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, the movie did spawn a sequel, “Goldie and the Boxer Go To Hollywood,” with Simpson and Michaelson reprising their roles.

I never met O.J. Simpson, but have a vivid memory of finding myself walking behind him into the outdoor boxing arena at Caesars Palace. If memory serves, this was the Hagler-Hearns fight of 1985, in which case the lady on his arm would have been Nicole as they were married earlier that year. She was quite a dish in that tight-fitting pantsuit and I remember thinking to myself, “of all the trophies this dude has won, here is the best trophy of them all.” (Forgive me.)

Simpson had cameo roles in several movies before leaving USC. When he finally turned his back on football, the world was his oyster. O.J., wrote Barry Lorge in the Washington Post, was “bright, affable, charming, articulate and credible, a public relation man’s dream-come true.”

No one would have foreseen the swerve his life would take.

When the jury, after only four hours of deliberation, returned a verdict of “not guilty,” there was cheering in some corners of America. The overwhelming consensus of the white population, however, was that the verdict was an abomination, a gross miscarriage of justice.

We’ll leave it at that.

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