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Cordina Outfights Rakhimov in Fight of the Year Contender

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Tonight, in a sold-out Cardiff International Arena, Wales, a partisan crowd roared hometown boy Joe Cordina (now 16-0) to a well-deserved split decision against the brutal Tajikistani southpaw Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov (drops to 17-1-1).

In previewing the fight, I predicted three distinct phases: an early third that would see Cordina’s quality bring him a fast start on the cards, and I was correct in this; a middle third where Rakhimov’s brutal tactics would bring him right back into the fight and I was correct, too, in this; and a third and final phase where Rakhimov would fade and Cordina would take over to close the show – in this last instance I was wrong. Rakhimov fought to the last moment and finished the fight as he started it, throwing punches.

He was impressive, too, in his ring entrance, walking calmly through a hostile crowd that reigned abuse upon him. It contrasted with an overblown ringwalk on the part of Cordina who seemed to be consuming more nervous energy that necessary. Meeting ring centre though, these two banished the peripheral and set to war, Cordina pumping the jab and circling, making angles, while Rakhimov sought right hands to the body. They finished the round head-to-head, swapping uppercuts and bursts of punches and although they roamed across the entirety of the ring, tactically, they remained where they finished that first round, locked together in a battle of wills.

The detail of that battle was more complex though. Cordina was measuring his superior skill and swiftness against Rakhimov’s toughness. The question that was asked was whether Cordina’s superior work would take a toll upon Rakhimov before Rakhimov’s more violent, less precise pressure would tell upon Cordina. The answer was that both men were equal to each other’s best work, a fact that could only result in a spectacle.

Both men were warned for heads in the second, both looked for very hard punches, which remained compact. Cordina cracked Rakhimov with a hard jab ring centre and the Tajikistani dipped to slip the follow-up but Cordina had a third punch for him, a hook that he drove straight through Rakhimov’s jaw and dropped him straight back down into his crouch like a retreating-jack-in-the-box. Cordina’s knockdown punctuated his fast start, and straight rights punctuated the third as he proved the health of his key punch, in question due to an October 2022 operation on that hand.

Cordina swept the first three rounds on my card but looked uncomfortable with the close battle in the fourth, using his superior mobility to move out of close range in a strategy that looked more sensible but actually saw him second-best over the three minutes. In the fifth, he was made to look uncomfortable again, trying to feint his way out of a corner as Rakhimov tried to make his pressure count; a southpaw hook brought the first moment of crisis for Cordina but he remained cool.  The fifth through eighth, though, is Rakhimov Country and in what was becoming a dirty fight – both men were warned for heads, Cordina was warned repeatedly for pushing – he brought his best work, calmer than he had been in the opening rounds, more compact. A straight right though, caused a nasty cut to Rakhimov’s left eye, Cordina’s money punch putting him back in control of the fight at a crucial moment.

Hurt repeatedly in the seventh, it seemed that the fight might be about to turn completely against Rakhimov but he battled back in the ninth with a savagery and pride that threatened to derail Cordina’s momentum. Swollen about both eyes, his left optic a bloody mess, Rakhimov seemed exhausted at the end of the ninth and I felt I had seen the final push from a fighter who would now crumble, or at least slow. Instead, he tore out for the bell for the tenth and harried Cordina throughout what may have been his best round. Cordina kept his guard up, moved well, but was driven along the ropes as the round came to an end, a straight 1-2-3 driving him back and away from his tormentor.

Like any fight of the year candidate, this had one final swing of momentum as Cordina came out for the eleventh counterpunching and seeking uppercuts, a theme he continued in the twelfth, using a desperate Rakhimov’s momentum and aggression against him in a cool strategic sidestep.

This was what really impressed me about Cordina, the coolness of thought, the quickness of mind, even under terrible pressure. In receipt of a high-level gut-check and a final confirmation of his fighting tank he is now the best or second-best fighter at 130lbs, only Oscar Valdez arguably to be ranked above him.

“The first round, he was sinking straight hands to the body and I thought “he can punch.” He caught me with a good shot in the middle rounds, too,” Cordina said post-fight. “But I’m fit. There was no way he was beating me tonight, no chance.”

Perhaps a matter of will over skill in the end, but Cordina’s consistency married his clinical excellence to hurt. Rakhimov has a chin, and such was his performance that he will remain a viable contender for any beltholder or prospect with the courage to step into the ring with him. So good was Rakhimov tonight that even in defeat he may just have punched his way into the “who needs him?” club.

For Cordina, the 130lbs division is his oyster. He can do anything he likes, and all the talk in the ring after the fight was of unifications with other beltholders – in reality, I suspect promoter Eddie Hearn will steer Cordina towards a softer touch in Zelfa Barrett (now 29-2), who was very impressive in out-pointing the limited but game Jason Sanchez (now 16-4) on the undercard.

The official scorecards saw it 115-112 and 114-113 Cordina and the rather outlandish 116-111 from Alex Levin. I saw it 116-111 for Cordina but really, I was just glad I saw it. I may have predicted that Rakhimov-Cordina would outshine Davis-Garcia this Saturday night but actually a potential Fight of the Year unfolded and that was a real treat.  Let us hope that Davis and Garcia nevertheless outdo them in just a few hours on the other side of the Atlantic.

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Gay Talese, an Icon of the ‘New Journalism,’ Wrote Extensively About Boxing

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Rejected by every college and university he applied to except one, Gay Talese is one of the most celebrated and decorated American writers over the last seven decades.

Beginning at Ocean City High in New Jersey where he wrote for the student newspaper and later the Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger, Talese, 92, went to the University of Alabama where he worked on the student newspaper, the Crimson White, and after a stint in the Army, wrote for The New York Times, Esquire, The New Yorker and numerous magazines.

Not wasting time, Talese has published more than a dozen books, including “The Kingdom And The Power” (1969), “Honor Thy Father,” (1971), “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” (1980), “Unto The Sons,” (1992) and “A Writer’s Life,” (2006).

Talese, who earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism, wrote what many consider the finest magazine profile ever published, his magnum opus for the April 1966 issue of Esquire, titled “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold,” which the magazine proclaimed its greatest feature during the magazine’s 70th anniversary.

In July 1966 and for the same publication, Talese wrote another classic, “The Silent Season Of A Hero,” about New York Yankees outfielder Joe DiMaggio in retirement.

Talese’s interests are many and so are his subjects, including profiles of three boxing luminaries, Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson.

To say Talese writes with a light touch and a careful eye to detail is an understatement and his penchant for listening and simply hanging around have served him well and brought his subjects to life in what became known as New Journalism. (Practitioners of the New Journalism adapted the writing techniques of the novel to non-fiction storytelling, often immersing themselves in the narrative. Famous writers identified with the genre include Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, and Talese.)

In one of Talese’s most enduring boxing features, he shined the light on Ali. It ran in the September 1996 issue of Esquire, slightly less than two decades before Ali’s passing in June 2016 at age 74.

The title is “Ali In Havana,” and it captured the essence and luminosity of the three-time heavyweight champion after the lights dimmed.

This section by Talese comes early in the piece: “Although Muhammad Ali is now fifty-four and has been retired from boxing for more than fifteen years, he is still one of the most famous men in the world, being identifiable throughout five continents. As he walks through the lobby of the Hotel Nacional toward the bus, wearing a gray sharkskin suit and a white cotton shirt buttoned at the neck without a tie, several guests approach him and request his autograph. It takes him about thirty seconds to write ‘Muhammad Ali,’ so shaky are his hands from the effects of Parkinson’s syndrome; and though he walks without support, his movements are quite slow, and Howard Bingham and Ali’s fourth wife, Yolanda, are following nearby.”

Talese adds a short while later: “On the bus, as always, Ali is sitting alone, spread out across the two front seats in the left aisle directly behind the Cuban driver. Yolanda sits a few feet ahead of him to the right; she is adjacent to the driver and within inches of the windshield. The seats behind her are occupied by Teofilo Stevenson, Fraymari [Stevenson’s wife], and the photographer Bingham. Seated behind Ali, and also occupying two seats, is an American screenwriter named Greg Howard, who weighs more than 300 pounds. Although he has traveled with Ali for only a few months while researching a film on the fighter’s life, Greg Howard has firmly established himself as an intimate sidekick, and as such is among the very few on the trip who have heard Ali’s voice. Ali speaks so softly that it is impossible to hear him in a crowd, and as a result whatever public comments or sentiments he is expected to, or chooses to, express are verbalized by Yolanda, or Bingham, or Teofilo Stevenson, or even at times by this stout young screenwriter.”

Talese slides this nugget into the feature:

“Stevenson did not actually explain that it had been merely another photo opportunity, one in which they sparred open-handed in the ring, wearing their street clothes and barely touching each other’s bodies and faces; but then Stevenson had climbed out of the ring, leaving Ali to the more taxing test of withstanding two abbreviated rounds against one and then another young bully of grade-school age who clearly had not come to participate in a kiddie show. They had come to floor the champ. Their bellicose little bodies and hot-gloved hands and helmeted hell-bent heads were consumed with fury and ambition; and as they charged ahead, swinging wildly and swaggering to the roars of their teenaged friends and relatives at ringside, one could imagine their future boastings to their grandchildren: On one fine day back in the winter of ’96, I whacked Muhammad Ali. Except, in truth, on this particular day, Ali was still too fast for them. He backpedaled and shifted and swayed, stood on the toes of his black woven-leather pointed shoes, and showed that his body was made for motion – his Parkinson’s problems were lost in his shuffle, in the thrusts of his butterfly sting what whistled two feet above the heads of his aspiring assailants, in the dazzling dips of his rope-a-dope that had confounded George Foreman in Zaire, in his ever-memorable style, which in this Cuban gym moistened the eyes of his ever-observant photographer friend and provided the overweight screenwriter to cry out in a voice that few in this noisy Spanish crowd could understand, ‘Ali’s on a high! Ali’s on a high!’ ”

Talese penned a touching and poignant portrait of Louis, the “Brown Bomber” in the June 1962 issue of Esquire. The title is “Joe Louis: The King As A Middle-Aged Man.”

Early in the profile, Talese wrote this of the beloved former champion: “Though his tax difficulties have eradicated all his assets – including two trust funds he had set up for his children – Joe Louis is still a man of great pride. He refused the money that hundreds of citizens sent him to help with his government debt, although he still owes the government thousands and could have used the cash. Last year Joe Louis earned less than $10,000, most of it from refereeing wrestling matches (he earns between $750 to $1,000 a night), and from endorsements or appearances. The last big money he made was the $100,000-a-year guarantee he got in 1956 for wrestling. He won all his matches – except those in which he was disqualified for using his fists – but his career ended not long afterward when the 300-pound cowboy Rocky Lee accidentally stepped on Louis’s chest one night, cracked one of his ribs, and damaged some of his heart muscles.”

A little later in the feature, Talese penned this: “And on and on it went, as Louis walked down Broadway: Cab drivers waved at him, bus drivers honked at him, and dozens of men stopped him and recalled how they once traveled 130 miles to get to one of his fights, and how they’d put their heads down to light a cigarette in the first round, then before they could look up, Louis had flattened his opponent and they had missed everything: or how they’d had guests at the house that night to hear the fight, and while they were struggling in the kitchen to get the ice out, somebody came in from the living room and said, ‘It’s all over! Louis knocked ‘im out with the first punch.’ “

In the March 1964 issue of Esquire, Talese, who wrote thirty-seven stories on Patterson, the onetime youngest heavyweight king, authored a gem titled, “The Loser.”

Midway through the feature, Talese wrote, “One hour later Floyd Patterson was jogging his way back down the dirt path toward the white house, the towel over his head absorbing the sweat from his brow. He lives alone in a two-room apartment in the rear of the house and has remained there in almost complete seclusion since getting knocked out a second time by Sonny Liston.

In the smaller room is a large bed he makes up himself, several record albums he rarely plays, a telephone that seldom rings. The larger room has a kitchen on one side and, on the other, adjacent to a sofa, is a fireplace from which are hung boxing trunks and T-shirts to dry, and a photograph of him when he was the champion, and also a television set. The set is usually on except when Patterson is sleeping, or when he is sparring across the road inside the clubhouse (the ring is rigged over what was once the dance floor), or when, in a rare moment of painful honesty, he reveals to a visitor what it is like to be a loser.”

A short while later, Talese adds: “Now, walking slowly around the room, his black silk robe over his sweat clothes, Patterson said, ‘You must wonder what makes a man do things like this. Well, I wonder too. And the answer is, I don’t know … but I think that within me, within every human being, there is a certain weakness. It is a weakness that exposes itself more when you’re alone. And I have figured out that part of the reason I do the things I do, and cannot seem to conquer that one word – myself – is because … is because … I am a coward.’ He stopped. He stood very still in the middle of the room, thinking about what he had just said, probably wondering whether he should have said it.”

In all three features, Talese steers clear of mythologizing and allows the reader to decide the merit and quality of each man.

They were all supremely gifted in the ring, but each had their foibles and flaws outside the squared circle. That is, they, like everyone, were merely human.

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Zhilei Zhang and Deontay Wilder Meet at the Final Crossroads

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Six feet six inches and 290lbs are our favourite statistics when it comes to Big Bang Zhang, out of Zhoukou, China. Here are two more: he’s forty-one years old and he has lost two of his last four, including a woeful shortfall against a rejuvenated Joseph Parker in the Kingdom Arena, Riyadh, in March.

Kingdom Arena, Riyadh is the site too of his next fight this weekend against Deontay Wilder as a major part of the Five vs Five card Matchroom and Queensberry promotions have developed. Our favourite Wilder stat: forty-three wins, forty-two knockouts. More pertinent though are his record for the 2020s, which stands at 1-3, and his thirty-eight years of age.

This is not just a crossroads fight; it is the place where someone finds out they’re no longer on the list to receive the riches of Riyadh – when someone finds out their time on the island of relevancy is over. It is impossible to imagine Wilder remaining a part of the title picture after posting his fourth loss in five matches in his thirty-eighth year; it is impossible, too, to imagine Zhang remaining a problem anyone on the world scene needs if he loses his third fight in five with his forty-second birthday in sight. For someone, the dance will be over this Saturday night – but who?

In trying to determine what Deontay Wilder has left, the most important statistic of all is 12-0. That was what my scorecard read after the twelve humiliating rounds Wilder posted against Joseph Parker last December. Wilder entered the ring dry and tight, and I expected him to move into the contest as he warmed up and loosened up, but the pattern of the fight did not change. A word here for Parker, a gentleman despite the questionable friendships he keeps: his boxing was excellent. Asked about Wilder’s performance afterwards he said that he felt that “inactivity has played a part” but that “sticking to the plan Andy Lee laid out” got him there. All of this sounds right to me. Parker was extremely disciplined and it was exactly what was required. He feinted Wilder with his left and sought the right hand, arraying himself against his foe’s greatest weakness, his balance. An ill-balanced fighter, Wilder was kept under disorganised control by a sparse but disciplined offence.

With that important point out of the way, we need to return to Wilder’s absolute inability to change the pattern of the fight. I do not think he won a single minute of a single round, he was as conclusively beaten by Parker as it is possible for a fighter to be on points, although it should be noted that two judges were generous enough to find two rounds for him (the third saw it as I did). Competence was the word that most expresses what undid him – competence in footwork, diligence in offence.  Wilder looked, at times, a novice before Parker’s double-jab, travelling all the way to the ropes to escape a much shorter punch. His own jab, of course, was compromised by his gunslinger’s stance. Wilder often throws the punch from low down, lengthening the time the punch is in the air, shortening the required reaction time of the opponent. Parker was unamused by this punch, parrying it off his gloves or slipping outside the range – Wilder found himself falling over his front foot when what he wanted was to be on his back foot and the panic a miss could induce in him was apparent by the fourth, impeding his organisation still further. Wilder spent so much time leaning away, shuffling back, his offence was banished.

Allowing that the best answer is “a little of both” we must ask whether this was something that Parker did to Wilder or something that Wilder did to himself – or worse, is this who Wilder is now?

Wilder’s excuses for his awful performance against Parker were varied; some days it was the long flight to Riyadh; sometimes it was the improper use of a cryo-chamber. These are far from the strangest excuses that Wilder has produced for a loss, as Sweet Science readers well know. His more recent public musings have seemed even more cryptic, including an apparent obsession with his own death, not always entirely negative in the sense that he is curious about the afterlife, but still an interesting train of thought for an elite athlete. Through the gaps in the stream of consciousness though comes the things we want to hear. “The flame, the fire, has been relit inside of me. I fell out of love with boxing but I’m in love with it again…I went back to being a student of the game.”

More, Wilder always lost rounds – against the last southpaw opponent he met, Luis Ortiz, he lost almost every round he did not score a knockdown in, but this lack of ring generalship is counterbalanced by his overwhelming power. He never landed that shot on Parker because Parker, with the help of coach Andy Lee, decoded him.  Wilder has clearly slipped, but it may be his general lack of form and balance, though savagely exposed on this occasion, means he is still a good chunk of what he used to be – and just because Parker decoded him, doesn’t mean Zhang can.

Zhang looked lethal decoding his own Waterloo in smashing Joe Joyce to pieces twice. Slow-moving, big punching, and apparently lacking all survival instincts against a big-hitting southpaw, Joyce was perfect for Zhang, but the Chinese looked wonderful getting the big Brit out of there. Zhang, too, was badly exposed against Joseph Parker, but their fight was not nearly so one-sided. In fact, Zhang swept Parker in the early rounds, culminating in a third-round knockdown that put him firmly in charge of the fight. Zhang’s enormity was a part of the equation. He forced Parker out of ring centre (which Parker dominated against Wilder) simply by existing. Zhang two-stepped to the outside to land single shots while Parker struggled a bit with his backfoot range. Andy Lee noticed this and his advice to Parker after round two, felt, at the time, inadequate but he was quite correct: “He’s gonna slow, and slow, and slow.”

A Scene from Zhang vs Parker

A Scene-from-Zhang-vs-Parker

What Lee recognised was Zhang’s stamina issue would be the definitive factor in the fight, in combination, of course, with Parker’s own excellent engine. The later the fight goes, the more Zhang feels those 270-290lbs. The disaster that was the second half of his fight against Jermaine Franklin victim Jerry Forrest is most illustrative of this. I thought Zhang was lucky to get away with a draw in that fight and he dropped every one of the final five rounds for me. Stories abound that Zhang’s kidneys went into failure in that fight, some claim, and one that has never been verified. Big Bang now apparently consumes two gallons of water every day. How then, to explain his second half collapse against Filip Hrgovic?  Zhang did well through the early part of that fight but dropped a razor-thin decision after losing five of the final six on my card. Parker, though, seems the final proof of Zhang’s greatest weakness – dropped in the third, Parker came over his front foot in the fourth, showed head movement, and suddenly had a tiring Zhang circling. Brave, committed, Parker is all of that and Zhang did not like it in the late parts of the fight. He won eighth with another bomb, but apart from that he won not a single round on my card post the third. Zhang is a molasses in elite terms in the championship rounds. He seems to have no strategy to win rounds late against world-class opposition; rather he plods, and waits for the 180 seconds to pass, relying upon his size and chin to keep him out of serious trouble.

What a wonderful mesh this produces for the massive confrontation between Zhang and Wilder this Saturday night. Early, Zhang’s naturalised pressure will make a reluctant Wilder uncertain about throwing as Zhang does his best work. As the rounds grind by, Zhang will start to blow and the opportunity for Wilder to take over will present itself. Here, we will really find out what it is that Wilder has left. A handful of punches is enough to win rounds against Zhang in the second half of the fight, and I mean that literally. But Wilder threw fewer than fifteen punches per round in five of the twelve rounds he boxed against Parker, an incredible absence of activity – and he lands a low percentage anyway much of the time. He was essentially in hiding against Parker – Zhang hits harder and is more menacing generally. Does Wilder really have “the fire” back in his belly, and has he really fallen in love with boxing once again? If so, still the division’s best puncher, he will have no problems landing late on ranked heavyweight boxing’s juiciest target. If not, we could witness some of the dullest rounds boxing can deliver, a gun-shy former predator doing his best to avoid contact with a blown forty-one year old.

In boxing though, the round is always scored to someone. The prediction here is difficult because it is about how the two fighter’s malfunctions will intertwine, not their strengths. The bookies, rarely wrong, have made Zhang the favourite and that makes the most sense – his performance against Parker was less abhorrent than Wilder’s. But were Zhang’s struggles perhaps more fundamental? I think that even the Wilder we saw against Parker would have got moving against the iceberg that is late-fight Zhang and he still carries bazookas. It is not lost on me that Wilder’s busiest rounds against Parker were late in the fight when he came alive to the disaster that was unfolding. Wilder still has enough pride to be desperate whereas Zhang will find himself too exhausted for his desperation to matter.

Untidy, ugly, wildly entertaining rounds may be the fight fan’s reward for sticking with the turgid middle part of this crossroads combat.

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Christian Mbilli has the Wow Factor: Dismisses Mark Heffron in 40 Seconds

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Christian Mbilli has the Wow Factor: Dismisses Mark Heffron in 40 Seconds

The Gervais Auto Center in Shawinigan, Quebec, Canada, roughly 100 miles south of Montreal, hosted tonight’s card on ESPN+, a co-promotion of Camille Estephan’s Eye of the Tiger Promotions and Bob Arum’s Top Rank. Arum wasn’t there; he was in Leeds, England, but the outcome would have mitigated his aggravation at seeing his fighter Josh Taylor fall short earlier in the day.

Super middleweight Christian Mbilli, of whom Arum owns a piece, needed only 40 seconds to conquer British import Mark Heffron who, on paper, was a very credible opponent. Mbilli backed Heffron into the ropes and collapsed him with a left hook that landed under his rib cage. Heffron, 30-3-1 heading in with 24 KOs, went down on all fours and was counted out. The contest was over almost before it began.

The Cameroon-born Mbilli, a 2016 Olympian for France who turned pro in Montreal, is ranked #2 by the WBC and WBA; #3 by the IBF and WBO. With the victory, he advanced his record to 27-0 (23 KOs). His next fight will reportedly come in August with rugged but battle-blistered Sergiy Derevyanchenko in the opposite corner. Mbilli has been chasing a fight with Canelo Alvarez, but has scant chance of landing it. At this juncture of his career, the red-headed Mexican undoubtedly wants less daunting assignments.

Co-Feature

Arslanbek Makhmudov, the Russian Lion, rebounded from his poor performance against Agit Kabayel with a second-round stoppage of sacrificial lamb Milan Rovcanin. Makhmudov (19-1, 18 KOs) knocked Rovcanin to the canvas with an overhand right in the opening round. The punch knocked Rovcanin sideways, his head resting on the ring apron. To Rovcanin’s credit, he beat the count and launched a futile offensive after he arose. A similar punch ended the brief bout at the 2:32 mark of the next frame.

Makhmudov is certainly heavy-handed, but he moves at a glacial pace and would be up-against-it against a world-class opponent with faster hands and better footwork. Rovcanin, who had  been feasting on fourth-raters in his native Serbia, declined to 27-4.

Other Bouts of Note

In a bout contested at the catch-weight of 178 pounds, Montreal-based Mehmet Unal, a 31-year-old former Olympian for Turkey, scored the best win of his career with a fourth-round stoppage of 34-year-old Laredo, Texas campaigner Rodolfo Gomez.

Gomez, routinely matched tough and better than his record (14-7-3 heading in), protested loudly when the referee waived it off, but his corner stood poised to throw in the towel. He hadn’t previously been stopped, let alone knocked off his feet. Unal improved to 10-0 (8 KOs).

Super middleweight Mereno Fendero, a 24-year old French Army veteran, improved to 6-0 (4) with a six-round decision over 38-year-old Argentine journeyman Rolando Mansilla (19-15-1). Fendero won every round on all three cards including a 10-8 round on one of the cards although there were no knockdowns. Although badly out-classed, the teak-tough Mansilla, a glutton for punishment, earned his pay.

Local prospect Alexandre Gaumont, a middleweight, improved to 11-0 (7) with an unpopular 8-round split decision over Argentina’s Santiago Fernandez (8-1-1). Two of the judges gave Gaumont six rounds, ridiculed as home town bias, with the other awarding five rounds to the Argentine who received a loud ovation as he left the ring.

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