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Boxing Notes and Nuggets from Thomas Hauser

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Boxing Notes and Nuggets from Thomas Hauser

There was a time when Madison Square Garden on the eve of the Puerto Rican Day Parade belonged to Miguel Cotto.

Cotto fought from 2001 through 2017, going in tough more often than most elite fighters of his era en route to compiling a 41-6 (33 KOs) ring record. He was a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee who personified dignity and grace, both in and out of the ring.

Top Rank did a brilliant job of building Cotto as a fighter and gate attraction. Part of that process was creating the tradition of Miguel fighting in the main arena at Madison Square Garden on the eve of the Puerto Rican Day Parade. He did it four times in five years, beating Muhammadqodir Abdullaev (2005 – KO 9), Paulie Malignaggi (2006 – W 12), Zab Judah (2007 – KO 11), and Joshua Clottey (2009 – W 12). For an encore, he knocked out Sergio Martinez in 2014.

That history was a distant memory when Top Rank hosted a fight card in the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night – the eve of this year’s Puerto Rican Day Parade. There were eight fights on the card. Each fight featured a local ticket-seller or a fighter who Top Rank is trying to build in a “learning experience. Only one of the fights was competitive. The A-side fighter won all eight bouts.

Some impressions:

Nisa Rodriguez (now 2-0) looked like a professional fighter until the fight started. Her opponent, Jordanne Garcia (4-4-3), didn’t look like a fighter at all. Garcia is winless in five outings dating back to 2019. And the four women she beat before that have a grand total of zero wins among them. Garcia didn’t know how to throw punches, so she didn’t. She simply bulldozed forward, grunting, and held. Rodriguez (a New York City police officer) sold some tickets, won every round, and her fans seemed happy.

Lemir Isom-Riley (now 4-3, 2 KOs, 2 KOs by) fought like the losing combatant in a toughman contest. But this was boxing. Ali Feliz (2-0, 2 KOs) knocked him out in the first round.

Ofacio Falcon (11-0, 6 KOs) won every round in a dreary match-up against Antonio Dunton El Jr (5-3-2, 2 KOs).

Jahi Tucker (11-1-1, 5 KOs) vs. Quincy LaVallais (17-5-1, 12 KOs) was troubling. Tucker had stepped up the level of competition in his last two fights and suffered a loss and a draw. So he went back to fighting softer opposition. Tucker hurt LaVallais (who seemed out on his feet and was saved by the bell) at the end of round one. Quincy never recovered. He took head shot after head shot from round two on. Tucker loaded up again and again but couldn’t put him away. Eric Dali might be the best referee in New York. He should have stopped the bout but didn’t. The fight went the distance with Tucker winning all eight rounds on each judge’s scorecard. What made it particularly ugly was that Jahi showboated in a way that was particularly demeaning to his opponent. At one point, with LaVallais backed into a corner, Jahi put one hand behind his back and pounded away with the other. With ten seconds left at the end of round six, he retreated to his own corner and stood disdainfully with his arms draped on the ring ropes. Let’s see how much showboating Jahi does if and when Top Rank matches him competitively again.

Andy Dominguez (11-1, 6 KOs) vs. Cristopher Rios (10-2, 7 KOs) was a good spirited action fight. Dominguez emerged with a majority decision victory but the scorecards could have gone either way.

Tiger Johnson (13-0, 6 KOs) won a snoozer over Tarik Zaina (13-2-1, 8 KOs).

Bruce “Shu Shu”Carrington (12-0, 8 KOs) looked good in stopping Brayan De Gracia (29-4-1, 25 KOs, 2 KOs by) in eight rounds. With the caveat that De Gracia had been in only one fight since 2022 and lost it. Carrington has the most upside of any fighter who was on the card. He brings a healthy dose of mean into the ring and isn’t content to coast to a decision. He wants to hurt his opponent and knock him out.

 The main event matched Xander Zayas (19-0, 12 KOs) against Patrick Teixeira (34-5, 25 KOs, 1 KO by). Teixeira looked like a shot fighter from the opening bell. His timing and balance were off. His punches were arm punches. And Zayas couldn’t put him away, which suggests a ceiling on Xander’s future.

Miguel Cotto elevated Madison Square Garden. And Madison Square Garden elevated Cotto. Those times are gone.

***

On April 5, 2024, a 27-year-old professional boxer named Ardi Ndembo was knocked unconscious in a Team Combat League fight contested in Coral Gables, Florida, and placed in an induced coma by doctors who were trying to save his life. He died three weeks later.

Ndembo had been knocked unconscious twice in sparring sessions in Las Vegas gyms during the month immediately preceding the fatal fight. He was medically unfit to fight in Florida.

In early-May, the Association of Boxing Commissions issued a statement urging that the Florida State Athletic Commission “conduct a full and transparent regulatory investigation into the circumstances surrounding Ardi Ndembo’s death.”

On May 21, Florida State Athletic Commission executive director Tim Shipman declared, “We’re not investigating the case. And as far as our procedures are concerned, there’s nothing we’re going to change.”

I did investigate the case. My report was published on June 4 in The Guardian and can be read in full here:https://www.theguardian.com/sport/article/2024/jun/05/the-death-of-ardi-ndembo-was-a-fatal-boxing-fight-preventable

Ndembo was killed in a fight conducted under the auspices of an organization called Team Combat League. A video of the fatal fight can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVxxgSPVV7A

A video of Ndembo being knocked unconscious by Efe Ajagba in the Bones Adams Gym in Las Vegas can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3l34zH2n50

A video of Nbembo being knocked unconscious by Patrick Mailata at the Split-T Management Gym in Las Vegas can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRmhMmxPwlM

The video of Ndembo being knocked unconscious by Mailata was posted on RealFightStories.com (a site founded by combat sports journalist Mike Russell). The video has an arrow on the screen pointing to a spectator standing by the ring ropes as Ndembo is knocked out and identifies the spectator as Dewey Cooper.

Dewey Cooper is president of Team Combat League.

Mike Russell is light years ahead of everyone else in investigating Ardi Ndembo’s death. Look for his follow-up work on the issue at RealFightStories.com

ABC president Mike Mazzulli oversees combat sports for Mohegan Sun. The New York franchise of Team Combat League hosts its fights at Mohegan Sun. That gives Mazzulli the authority to investigate what the Florida State Athletic Commission won’t.

Meanwhile, the Florida State Athletic Commission has forfeited the right to tell anyone that the health and safety of fighters is its primary concern. Clearly, it isn’t.

Ardi Ndembo

Ardi Ndembo

***

Does anyone remember Marselles Brown?

Brown was a seven-foot club fighter who compiled a 33-18-1 (25 KOs, 13 KOs by) ring record between 1989 and 2016. Along the way, he was knocked out by Trevor Berbick, Lamon Brewster, and Tommy Morrison.

Why am I mentioning this now?

Brown has a son named Jaylen. Yes, that Jaylen Brown. The Jaylen Brown who’s an NBA superstar and is on the verge of leading the Boston Celtics to the NBA Championship.

***

It’s often said that the older we get, the more we think about long-ago times. In Jerry Izenberg’s case, that’s good. Izenberg is 93 years old. And his latest book – Larry Doby in Black and White (Sports Publishing) – is one of his best. So let’s step outside the insular world of boxing and take a look at a man who helped reshape America more than seven decades ago.

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson shattered baseball’s color barrier. Eleven weeks later – on July 5, 1947 – wearing a Cleveland Indians uniform, Larry Doby followed suit

Robinson was on a team that welcomed him with open arms. Doby entered a mostly cold locker room that included teammates who refused to shake his hand. Robinson was in Brooklyn – a borough of New York City that thrived on diversity. Doby was in Cleveland, a city with public schools that were still segregated, restaurants that often refused to serve black patrons, and movie theaters that confined people of color to the balcony.

Except for the World Series, the American and National Leagues were separate institutions with separate administrative structures. There was no interleague play.

When New York Yankees general manager George Weiss was asked after Robinson’s debut whether the Yankees were interested in signing a Negro (the accepted term in those days), he responded, “Our fans are different. Do you think a Wall Street stockbroker would buy season box-seat tickets to see a colored boy play for us?”

Thirteen years later, when Calvin Griffith moved his team from Washington to Minnesota where they became the Minnesota Twins , Griffith declared, “I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota. It was when we found out you only have fifteen thousand colored people here. We came here because you’ve got good, hardworking white people here.”

“Jackie got all the credit for putting up with the racists’ crap and abuse,” Doby later told Jet magazine. “He was the first. But the crap I took was just as bad. Nobody said, ‘We’re going to be nice to the second Negro.'”

Izenberg chronicles Doby’s journey from his birth in South Carolina through his formative years in Paterson, New Jersey (where he was a multisport high school star) to his longtime marriage to high school sweetheart, Helyn Curvy. There was time spent in the United States Army during World War II and four seasons in the old Negro Leagues.

Then Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck – a decent man with a strong sense of social justice – signed Doby to a contract, and the next stage of Larry’s journey began.

Jackie Robinson was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1962. The culmination of Izenberg’s book is Doby’s long overdue induction in 1998.

“When it looked as though I’d never get here,’ Doby told Izenberg after they toured the Hall of Fame Museum together on the night before his induction ceremony, “I used to tell myself it didn’t matter. But tonight I realize how much it means to me.”

Doby and Robinson had comparable major league career statistics. Robinson had a higher batting average (.313 to .283). Doby had the edge in home runs (253 to 141) and RBIs (970 to 761). But as Izenberg notes, “At the end of their careers, a peculiar form of perception widened the gap between Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby on their way to the history books. Each endured the same humiliations. Each emerged as a superstar. But the nation’s memory of Doby began to shrink. The perceived divide between the two grew even wider. It morphed into a conviction that the breaking of the National League’s color line by Robinson dwarfed the breaking of the American League’s color line by Doby. After all, once Jackie did it, it was done. No problem. No story. Right?”

Larry Doby is worth learning about. And Jerry Izenberg is an ideal teacher.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – MY MOTHER and me – is an intensely personal memoir available at Amazon.com. https://www.amazon.com/My-Mother-Me-Thomas-Hauser/dp/1955836191/ref=sr_1_1?crid=5C0TEN4M9ZAH&keywords=thomas+hauser&qid=1707662513&sprefix=thomas+hauser%2Caps%2C80&sr=8-1

In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

To comment on this story in the Fight Forum CLICK HERE

Thomas Hauser is the author of 52 books. In 2005, he was honored by the Boxing Writers Association of America, which bestowed the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism upon him. He was the first Internet writer ever to receive that award. In 2019, Hauser was chosen for boxing's highest honor: induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Lennox Lewis has observed, “A hundred years from now, if people want to learn about boxing in this era, they’ll read Thomas Hauser.”

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Will Eumir Marcial be the First Filipino Boxer to Win an Olympic Gold Medal?

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Will Eumir Marcial be the First Filipino Boxer to Win an Olympic Gold Medal?

Over the years, some of the world’s best boxers have been Filipino. Long before Manny Pacquiao there was Pancho Villa (Francisco Villaruel Guilledo) who became a national hero at the age of twenty-one when he captured the world flyweight title with a one-sided beat-down of Jimmy Wilde in 1923, knocking the legendary Welshman into retirement. But one thing is missing from the Pinoy boxing catalog, an Olympic gold medal. There have been eight medalists in all, four silver and four bronze, but the coveted gold has proved elusive.

Eumir Marcial came close in Tokyo. He advanced to the semi-finals in the middleweight competition where he lost a razor-thin decision to his Ukrainian opponent. Two of the judges favored him, but that was one short of what was needed.

“It took a long time for me to get over it, but I came to accept that God had a different plan for me,” says Marcial who gets another crack at it next month. He survived the qualifying tournaments and is headed to Paris where he will carry the flag of the Philippines into the Games of the XXXIII Olympiad.

Eumir (you-meer) Marcial grew up in Zamboanga City in the southern region of the archipelago, a two-day trip to Manila by ferry. He was introduced to boxing by his father Eulalio Marcial who besides being a farmer and a jitney driver is also the head coach of the Zamboanga City (amateur) boxing team.

Eulalio’s son is a big wheel in his native habitat, one of the more urbanized areas of the Philippines. This past October, when Eumir returned to Zamboanga City with his silver medal from the Asian Games in China, a motorcade awaited him at the airport and he was whisked to City Hall where he was feted in a ceremony organized by civic leaders.

In Las Vegas, where he was been training for the Olympics, he’s anonymous. No one genuflects when he walks into the DLX Gym in the company of his attractive wife Princess. He’s just another face in the crowd and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Marcial had one pro fight under his belt before the Tokyo Games. In December of 2020, he won a 4-round decision over a 3-1 opponent from Idaho on a card in Los Angeles. Not quite two months before that fight, while training at Freddie Roach’s gym, Marcial, who has two sisters, received the devastating news that his only brother Eliver had died in the Philippines of a sudden heart attack at age 39. Despite the age difference, the two were extremely close.

Marcial has had four more pro fights since then, advancing his record to 5-0 (3 KOs). In two of those fights, he had anxious moments.

In his second pro fight, he was knocked down three times in the first two frames, but gathered his wits about him and stopped his opponent in round four. In his next outing, a 6-rounder on the undercard of a Showtime PPV, he fought through a bad gash over his right eye, the result of an accidental head butt.

“I learned a lot from those fights,” says Marcial, “and they will make me a better Olympian than I was in 2021.”

Marcial spent nearly 10 years in the Philippines Air Force, but as somewhat of a civilian employee, spending little time around aircraft. He attracted a lot of attention after winning the AIBA world junior championship as a 15-year-old bantamweight in Kazakhstan in 2011. The Air Force seized on his growing fame to make him a recruiting specialist.

The word icon is over-used, but not when applied to Manny Pacquiao who overcame abject poverty to become an international superstar. “He was an inspiration to me,” says Marcial who references “PacMan” as Sir Manny or Senator Manny when he speaks about him.

The two would become well-acquainted. Pacquiao co-promoted Marcial’s last pro fight in Manila which was nationally televised in the Philippines and billed as a homecoming for Eumir who hadn’t fought in a Manila ring in five years. (He knocked out his Thai opponent in the fourth round.)

Marcial recalls some advice that Pacquiao gave him: “He said to me, ‘the higher you get, the more humble you should be.’”

Humbleness comes natural to the affable Marcial who is unstinting in his praise of those who have helped him along on his journey. “I would not have gotten through the qualifying tournament for the Paris games if not for my coach Kay Koroma,” he says.

Nowadays, whenever a Filipino boxer appears for a photo-op, Sean Gibbons is certain to be standing close by. Gibbons, who has homes in Las Vegas and the Philippines, has had an amazing ride since the days when he plied the Oklahoma and Midwest circuits, driving hundreds of miles each month to small shows in the sticks, transporting carloads of journeymen boxers with him. “[Sean Gibbons] helps us with accommodations, rental cars, whatever we need, and I am so grateful to him,” says Marcial of the man (pictured above on the left) who wears many hats but is perhaps best described as a facilitator.

Making matters more daunting for Marcial going forward, his weight class was eliminated when the governing body of the Olympics added a new weight category for women, subtracting one from the men. A middleweight (165-pound ceiling) in Tokyo, he will perform as a light heavyweight (176-pound ceiling) in Paris.

Eumir Marcial will return to the pro ranks regardless of what happens in France, but lassoing that elusive Olympic gold medal would likely bring him more joy than anything he may accomplish at the next level.

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A Pearl from the Boxing Vault: Fritzie Zivic Will See You Now 

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“He was a great teacher,” said Billy Conn. “[Fighting Zivic] was like going to college for five years, just boxing him ten rounds…”

Fritzie Zivic never asked why. He never asked if his opponent hit hard, if his opponent deserved the shot, if the opponent would be tough. He just said “yes” and signed the contract. While [Jake] LaMotta, who somehow gained the reputation for fearlessness of which Zivic was more deserving, was asked about Charley Burley, he is supposed to have muttered “Why do I need Burley when I have Zivic?” Zivic, of course, stepped out of his weight class to lose an under-celebrated series with LaMotta, and was one of the few top white contenders to ever meet the avoided Burley.

Perhaps this fearlessness is the reason why Zivic may have fought a better array of boxers than any fighter in history. In addition to the multiple contests with LaMotta and Burley, he met Kid Azteca, Bob Montgomery, Beau Jack, Henry Armstrong, Freddie Cochrane, Lew Jenkins, Izzy Jannazzo, Phil Furr, Bummy Davis, Sammy Angott, Lou Ambers and Jimmy Leto, something very close to a “who’s who” of boxing’s golden age, and he met most of them more than once. He didn’t always win, but he always gave his all and for this the people and the promoters of his hometown of Pittsburgh and beyond loved him. Other fighters? Not so much.

“He’s the dirtiest fighter I ever met,” claimed Charley Burley after his disputed points loss in their first fight. “He thumbed me over and over again.”

“When you fight for a living,” Zivic would explain years later, “if you’re smart you fight with every trick you know. If I hadn’t known nine zillion of them I never could have won the welterweight title from Henry Armstrong.”

In the modern era, fighters can come to a title without even matching a top contender. Forty fights is a career. But in the 1940s, it was unusual to see a champion with so few fights, even a young one. Like other trades, to reach the top of the heap a fighter had to become a master craftsman, the tools at his disposal needed to be of the highest quality. To this end, fighters needed to be matched often or tough or both. But there were and are some fighters who can provide a special lesson to that prospect or contender, a boxing lesson that, win or lose, crystallizes the nature of the sport for the man in the opposite corner.

Fritzie Zivic was such a fighter. Unquestionably world class in his own right, Zivic was a quick learner who took his “zillion tricks” and applied them to roughhouse boxing that tested every corner of his opponent, technical, physical and mental. Anybody that beat him looked destined for the top, anyone that lost could still pick up more than a thing or two. Unquestionably teak-tough, a stinging if not prohibitive puncher, he could box inside or out and a tight defense and iron chin kept him to two legitimate stoppage losses in a 232-fight career. But unquestionably, Zivic’s greatest strength were his smarts, the tricks, traps and roughhouse tactics he absorbed like a sponge during his eighteen years in the ring.

In December of 1936, Zivic would teach some of these tricks to a wonder-kid tearing his way up the middleweight division, one Billy Conn. Zivic was not yet in his own absolute prime but he was twenty-three and listed as a veteran of some sixty-eight fights. Still a teenager, Conn would at least have had bulk to fall back on as a substitute for experience, weighing some seven pounds heavier on fight night at just under 157lbs.

Zivic started fast, attacking with both hands and Conn allowed him his way, trying to outbox and outpunch the smaller man in the pocket. This had become Billy’s habit, fighting, as he did, in a fan-friendly manner that had made him Pittsburgh’s favorite prospect. He had been in a desperately close series with resident local tough and brutal infighter “Honey Boy” Jones. According to some, Conn had been lucky to emerge from their third fight with a decision, his inability to adapt costing him dear in points and punches. Now Zivic fought in a style intent on taking advantage of the same flaws Jones had partially exposed, and Billy was paying for it in blood.

“Through two torrid rounds,” wrote Regis Welsh for The Pittsburgh Press, “Fritzie belted Conn to a fare-thee-well, but never quite touched the vital spot. At the end of the second…[Conn] was smeared with blood from a cut on his left cheek and a badly battered mouth.”

The press hadn’t yet been enlightened to Conn’s iron chin and it’s quite possible that Fritzie had found the “vital spot” over and again throughout the fight. As time would tell, even history’s mightiest puncher would struggle to get over on the near invulnerable Conn. However, at the beginning of the third Billy looked “tired, weary and worn out” and “in the fourth and fifth, Zivic, in a rushing charge, bore Conn to neutral ropes and belted him about the head and body until it seemed that the anticipated kayo was inevitable.”

It needs to be said though, that in spite of his fighting the wrong fight, Conn was doing his own good work, mainly to the body. Some reports credit Conn with turning the fight with a body punch as early as the third, but whilst the supposed fight of two halves (Zivic winning the first five, Conn coming back in the second half of the fight) did not occur, it’s unlikely that Conn’s hooks had the supposed affect this early. Only two judges scored the third for Conn, and all three gave Zivic the fourth. Conn wouldn’t win a round on all three judges’ scorecards until the sixth.

It was in the sixth round that Conn cracked, and went outside. In the seventh and eighth Conn “boxed beautifully…he danced, feinted, pranced and punched.”  Zivic, now out of his element as a bullying counterpuncher and destructive infighter struggled to get past Billy’s “piston-like” jab. Conn had been trained for this by defensive specialist Johnny Ray from the very beginning, but he had been unable to make the transition in the ring until Fritzie had forced it. As one would expect, Zivic now changed tactics too, gunning almost exclusively for the body, only hunting Conn with power punches, bringing him the eighth round on one card. In the tenth, they went at it toe-to-toe again. “The boys used everything but knives,” stated the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “A wild-eyed crowd looked on.” The final round was shared on the three official cards resulting in a split decision win for Conn (6-3-1, 5-4-1, 4-5-1).

“From a mile in the rear to a nose in front takes heart in a man or a horse,” wrote Welsh in The Press. “Particularly in a novice of Conn’s immature ring experience against a seasoned veteran of Zivic’s type.”

Zivic’s type indeed! Fritzie was hell on wheels for a young fighter, one that hadn’t seen a top class cutie, never mind a back-alley wizard. But Conn knew what that fight had been worth, and he knew he was the better for it.

“He was a great teacher. [Fighting Zivic] was like going to college for five years, just boxing him ten rounds…I learned a lot in that fight. He’s a tough fighter, but I believe I’m just as tough.”

It’s a double lesson for a relative novice like Conn. First, he remembers every foul, every slither out of sight of the referee, every feint that cost him a round, every dig inside on the break. But it also teaches him that he can take it, that he can get in there with world-class fighters who know more than him and beat them. The first lesson is priceless, but the second can be the key to a career. Over the next twelve months the young Conn, who had struggled so desperately with Honey Boy Jones only three months earlier, would defeat great champions and ring legends such as Teddy Yarosz, Young Corbett III and Vince Dundee before adding Fred Apostoli and Solly Krieger and annexing the world’s light heavyweight title in 1939.

In 1941 he would be matched with the great Joe Louis. It would be unfair to Conn’s great trainer Ray, and to Conn himself, to lay too much credit for Conn’s legendary performance at Zivic’s door, but Conn’s tactics against Louis—mixing careful, punch-picking infighting with beautiful movement and judge of distance on the outside—were basically a more perfect version of the tactics he used in rounds six, seven, eight and nine against Zivic.

As for the teacher, he was naturally disappointed and was keen on a rematch, but fate was to intervene. Zivic would contract pneumonia the following summer whilst training for a match with Vince Dundee.

Chet Smith, then editor of The Pittsburgh Press: “There didn’t seem to be a chance for him…so we collected all we knew about him, wrote it into a story and sent it to the composing room…There were two weeks when it was touch and go with Fritzie, and the hospital folk refused to give out a single cheerful bulletin. We knew of course when he finally came out of the hospital that his boxing days were ended.”

I guess Zivic would have snorted at that. However they build them out in Zivic’s ancestral Croatia, they build them tough because Zivic was not only far from ended as a boxer, he would get better. There were more lessons to give out. The greatest fighter that would ever draw breath, he needed a lesson.

“I learned more in these two fights with Zivic than in all my other fights put together!”

So said Ray Robinson after pulling off the extraordinary feat of stopping Zivic in January of 1942. But this was the second time Zivic, a rarity in that he never discriminated against opposition on the grounds of colour or quality, had met Robinson. The first had occurred when Zivic had already slipped past his absolute prime, in October of 1941.

“It might have been a draw. It was close,” wrote the correspondent for The Telegraph Herald, but Zivic, the heavier man for a change, looked unsurprised at the unanimous decision against him. In the middle rounds he had, to a degree, had his way with Robinson but Sugar’s explosive domination of the ninth had left him struggling and at no time had he solved the Robinson jab. He knew he was beaten. “[Robinson] took a unanimous decision with such a convincing demonstration of speed and power,” wrote United Press ringside reporter Jack Cuddy, “that he will be favored to win the title.”

Robinson was learning from Zivic the same thing Conn had, that he could master a man at the next level, a veteran, a bigger one at that. But he learned more specific and unpleasant lessons in this fight, too.

“He was about the smartest I ever fought,” Robinson would later say in conversation with writer WC Heinz.  “…he showed me how you can make a man butt open his own eye…he’d slip my lead, then he’d put his hand behind my neck and he’d bring my eye down on his head. Fritzie was smart.”

He also taught Ray that he could coast a little in those middle rounds, that at the highest level he didn’t need to put forth every ounce in every moment, that he could let the occasional round go as long as he was paying attention. The same pattern that Sugar used in his first fight with Zivic he would use in his sixth fight with LaMotta, for the middleweight title, contesting the early rounds, easing off in the middle, and finishing so strongly as to stop the unstoppable, lifting the title on a late TKO. He sharpened that tool for the first time against Zivic.

By now Zivic was almost past the stage of teaching fighters of Robinson’s calibre lessons, but he had one more to give in their second fight just three months later.

Firstly, Robinson showed the importance of a lesson learned, nullifying Zivic’s darker arts, like Conn he was a better fighter for his 10 rounds in the ring with Fritzie. He worked hard to the body in clinches he couldn’t contest with craft or strength (something else he would repeat against LaMotta in their title meeting) and he was careful to break clinches at any cost when Zivic looked to utilize those lethal butts. When his opponent tried holding and hitting on the referee’s blindside, instead of trading he would dance away. Robinson had learned that the man who owned the real estate would win the negotiation and Zivic was being outclassed as a result. Of the first six rounds he won perhaps the first. In the seventh though, Robinson momentarily forgot himself and Fritzie delivered his last lesson. As Robinson came in Zivic stepped back and cracked Robinson with a left hook. “It really hurt. I was coming in and it met me on the chin!” Robinson would say afterwards that it was the hardest punch he had ever been hit with, according to The Afro American.

In the middle of the ninth, Robinson dropped Zivic with a perfect mirror image of the punch he had been shown in the seventh, using the right hand to ditch the heavier man as he was on the way in. Up at nine, Zivic never recovered, and although he was likely stopped prematurely in the tenth, he had nothing left to teach, at least not to Sugar. At 28-0, Ray, like Billy before him, saw his 20 rounds with Zivic as nothing less than finishing school for one of the most storied careers in boxing. They are only two of the dozens of fighters that Fritzie took to school, but perhaps they are the gifts he helped in giving that we can be most grateful for.

For the purposes of this article we’ve taken a look at three Zivic losses. I hoped, by looking at his fights with Billy Conn and Sugar Ray, we might see the benefit of letting a top prospect meet a dangerous genius-thug like Fritzie, the self-proclaimed “second dirtiest fighter in history” (he reserved top spot for Harry Greb). But Zivic did lose those fights. Let it not be forgotten then that between losing to Conn and Robinson, Zivic lifted the world’s welterweight title, destroying with a mixture of aggression, uppercuts and that dirty bag of tricks for which he remains famous, one Henry Armstrong. Zivic finished Armstrong as title material, beating him for the championship of the world not once but twice.

A 4-1 underdog, Zivic had been magnanimous about his own chances going in to their opener.

“If I lose it won’t be the first fight I lost, and if I win it, it won’t be the first fight I won.”

But Zivic had learned his own brutal lessons across the years and would be merciless in bringing them to bear. Also, across the years, between his title win and these more enlightened times, Zivic’s achievement in beating Armstrong has been undermined. Armstrong was old. He was past his best. Zivic had to get dirty to do it. All of that may be true, but it needs to be remembered that Armstrong had gone undefeated in thirteen bouts prior to meeting Zivic and that all of these fights were in defence of his welterweight crown, outside of one, his celebrated tilt at a world middleweight title. It needs to be remembered that in the previous three months, Armstrong had knocked out world-class contenders Phil Furr and Lew Jenkins. It needs to be remembered that Armstrong had his own bag of tricks, and that referee Arthur Donovan’s famous refrain, “if you guys wanna fight like that it‘s okay with me” was prompted by an Armstrong foul and not a Zivic one.

Most of all it needs to be remembered that Zivic never asked why, he just signed the contract. Whichever way you want to look at it, they just don’t make them like that anymore.

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Abraham Nova and his Mascot are Back in Action on Friday Night

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With his black beard dyed gold, junior lightweight Abraham Nova is one of boxing’s most recognizable practitioners. Sometimes there’s two of him which makes him stand out even more. His twin is an inflatable mascot painted to look just like him. On fight nights they are inseparable. The mascot shadows Nova on his ringwalk, bouncing up and down and dancing to animate the crowd.

Some gimmicks are just plain hokey. Some are annoying. But there’s something whimsical about Nova’s invention that brings a smile to boxing fans of all ages. “Abraham Nova having his own mascot is one of the coolest things in boxing,” says fight writer Ryan Songalia.

“I played all sports in high school, football, baseball, track, and got the idea of it from other sports,” says Nova of his twin who he unveiled in January of 2020 at the Turning Stone Casino and Resort in Verona, New York, where he upped his record to 18-0 with a fourth-round stoppage of Mexican journeyman Pedro Navarrete.

He’s 5-2 since then, the smudges coming against future world featherweight champion Robeisy Ramirez (KO by 5) and defending super featherweight world champion O’Shaquie Foster where he came out on the short end of a split decision. This coming Friday, in his first assignment since failing to de-throne Foster, he opposes 21-0 Andres Cortes at the Fontainebleu in Las Vegas on a Top Rank card airing on ESPN+.

“I was the one who asked for this fight,” says Nova. “Top Rank offered me a match on their June 8th Puerto Rican Parade Weekend show at Madison Square Garden against an opponent who was 17-2, but I turned it down and asked for a better opponent and they accommodated me.” Las Vegas native Andres Cortes, who has been profiled in these pages, is ranked #2 at 130 pounds by the WBO.

In common with boxing’s historical pattern, Abraham Nova had a hardscrabble upbringing.

Born in Puerto Rico to parents from the Dominican Republic, the second-youngest of 10 children, he came to the U.S. at the age of 1 where the entire family was initially shoe-horned into a two-bedroom apartment in Albany, New York.

His father, Aquiles, had a friend here who was the pastor of a church and in need of an assistant pastor to help with his growing congregation. Aquiles eventually founded his own church in Albany, The Pentecostal Church of Unity & Prayer where services are held in both Spanish and English.

As a toddler, Nova lived briefly in Guatemala and Mexico where his parents were called to “spread the word” and to assist in redevelopment projects. The family traveled 5,500 miles in a rickety old school bus from Albany to Guatemala during the end days of the Guatemalan Civil War.

Each of Nova’s four brothers boxed, but he was the only one to turn pro. As an amateur, he won the 2015 Olympic Trials Qualifying Tournament in Memphis, defeating Frank Martin and Richardson Hitchins in back-to-back fights, but failed to make the U.S. team for the Rio Games when he lost a split decision to Gary Antuanne Russell at the Olympic Trials in Reno. Those bouts were contested at 141 pounds.

A 30-year-old bachelor, Nova had his final amateur fights in Lowell, Massachusetts, a pillar of amateur boxing in New England, and has remained in the Boston area without losing his Albany identity. He is trained by ex-U.S. Marine Mark DeLuca, a boxer of some renown who sports a 30-4 record and may not be done with fighting quite yet at age 36.

Nova’s opponent, Andres Cortes, has won five of his last seven inside the distance beginning with a smashing first-round knockout of 34-2 Genesis Servania. On paper, it’s a 50-50 match-up. (The pricemakers are flummoxed; as of this writing, they have yet to establish a betting line.)

Abraham Nova’s mascot may never become as well-known as some of the costumed human mascots in college sports (e.g., West Virginia’s Mountaineer or Michigan State’s Sparty), let alone as beloved as the University of Georgia’s flesh-and-blood bulldog mascot Uga, but give the boxer credit for originality and for bringing a little levity to a sport too often besotted with incivility.

Note: Abraham Nova vs. Andres Cortes is the co-feature. In the main go, new Top Rank signee Rafael Espinoza makes the first defense of his WBO world featherweight title against Mexican countryman Sergio Chirino. Espinoza forged the 2023 TSS Upset of the Year when he got off the deck to defeat Robeisy Ramirez on Dec. 9 in Pembroke Pines, Florida, winning legions of fans with his unrelenting buzzsaw attack. Action from the Fontaineblue begins at 4:00 pm PST on ESPN+.

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