Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The dark cloud that hangs over boxing

The recent passing of former Lightweight Champion of the World Edwin Valero was shocking news in itself, but the horrific circumstances surrounding his death along with the brutal murder of his wife was even worse. Sadly, this is just the latest in a long infamous line of tragedies that have befallen some of boxing's greatest champions and brightest stars. I've often wondered if boxing had an ominous cloud hanging over it because of such a shallow past of events; if there was an underlying curse that surrounded it. This most recent occurrence made me start to believe that it is more than just a thought. Let's take a look back at just some of the most notable and you decide for yourself.

In the storied history of Mexican fighters and champions, none may be greater than former featherweight champion Salvador Sanchez (pictured above). With a career record that stands at 44-1-1, one would assume he had a long and prosperous career. Unfortunately, he only began to scratch the surface of his incredible talent when tragedy struck this great champion. In 1980, at only 19 years of age, he won the featherweight title by defeating another great Mexican fighter Danny 'Little Red' Lopez. Over the next year and a half, he would go on to defend the title against some of the most legendary names of the sport and best fighters of the era, such as Juan Laporte, Azumah Nelson and an all-time classic battle against former Jr. Featherweight Champion Wilfredo 'Bazooka' Gomez. Being 18 at the time and extremely proud of my Puerto Rican heritage, I cried on August 21, 1981 when Sanchez stopped Gomez. Little did I know that a year later, almost to the day, I would cry again; only this time it was for Sanchez. On August 12, 1982, Sanchez died instantly when he crashed his Porsche sports car along a federal highway in Mexico. He was only 23 years of age.

Deaths in the ring are an unfortunate reality of the sport. When one enters the squared circle, they do so knowing that one punch alone, let alone an accumulation could be fatal. This is nothing new as back in March, 1962 Benny 'Kid' Paret, former Welterweight Champion, died after a devastating onslaught from Emile Griffith. Exactly one year later, Featherweight Champion Davey Moore, after a title bout against Sugar Ramos, collapsed in his dressing room after the fight and died several hours later. In 1982, the whole world witnessed on national television the brutal back and forth battle between former Lightweight Champion Ray 'Boom Boom' Mancini and Korean contender Duk Koo Kim, which would ultimately cost Kim his life at the end. However, no one could have anticipated what would happen on February 25, 1995 when then Middleweight Champion Gerald McClellan stepped up in weight to challenge Super Middleweight Champion Nigel Benn. After an exciting, yet punishing fight, McClellan dropped to his knee twice in the tenth round, eventually being counted out. After walking back to his corner, he collapsed into consciousness a short time later, never to be the same person, let alone fighter, ever again. While he did not ultimately die of his injuries, the person known as Gerald McClellan died. He suffered extensive brain damage that left him blind, deaf and unable to fend for himself without the care of his family.

In 1983, after compiling a record of 22-0 and with a title fight looming against Jr. Middleweight Champion Davey Moore, no relation to the aforementioned namesake above, Tony 'The Baby Bull' Ayala, threw it all away at the age of 19 when he broke into his neighbor's home and sexually assaulted her. Because he had two prior incidents for similar type behavior, he was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Miraculously, after 16 years he was given parole and resumed his boxing career. However, after winning six high profile fights, all by knockout, he injured his hand in his next fight, ending his comeback bid and eventually his freedom. After more run-ins with the law, including a charge in 2003 of having sex with a 13 year old girl, he was finally busted for good in 2004 for speeding and having drugs in his possession. He was sentenced to ten years in prison. Oddly enough, the Davey Moore he never got to fight would also meet a strange and tragic ending. In 1988 upon leaving his home one morning, Moore would step out of his car to open the garage door and the car rolled backwards, pinning Moore against the garage door. He died at the scene.

Regarding troubles with the law, there are many, here are but a few of the more serious. After winning a world title in 1988, Michael 'Second to' Nunn was sentenced to 24 years behind bars at the beginning of the millennium for cocaine possession with intent to deliver. In 2001, former heavyweight contender Ike Ibeabuchi pleaded guilty to battery with intent to commit a crime and attempted sexual assault against a lap dancer regarding an incident in his hotel room. In 2004, former USBA Super Middleweight Champion James 'The Harlem Hammer' Butler was convicted of murder after beating to death his friend Sam Kellerman, younger brother of noted boxing analyst Max Kellerman, with a hammer, then setting the body and his apartment on fire in an attempted cover-up. In 2006, former heavyweight champion, Trevor Berbick was beaten to death with a two-inch thick steel pipe by two assailants at a church in his native Jamaica. One of the two murderers just happened to be Berbick's 20 year old nephew.

Finally, last summer in a span of only one month, former champions Alexis Arguello, Arturo Gatti and Vernon Forrest all suffered mysterious and violent deaths. Forrest was still active in his career and had recently regained his Jr. Middleweight title, which he had lost the summer before. Their deaths along with the latest incident concerning Valero and the various tragedies mentioned above are sadly, but only a few of the many that surround the sport of boxing and its participants. This sport, for all its glory, is dangerous enough without one having to worry if there is a dark cloud with an underlying curse that hangs over it.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The 'little' guys deliver in a 'BIG' way

It has been said, "If you want something done right. often you must do it yourself". That must've been the motto that the 'World Extreme Cagefighting' organization, better known as WEC adopted for its first ever pay-per-view event as WEC 48: Aldo vs. Faber not only did it, but they did it right. There are so many topics to discuss surrounding this fight card besides the fights themselves; there were numerous questions answered, while some other questions have now been raised. The biggest question of them all heading into this event was, should WEC be charging $44.95, if anything at all? Let me preface my response by saying, I was not one of those asking that question. Considering the five fights that were being offered on the main card, including the two co-main events, I felt it easily stacked up with any UFC PPV that has ever been put together to date. However, nine, action packed, fights later, I believe that question has more than been answered.

Why nine fights in all? That is because there were numerous submissions, knockouts and entertaining fights throughout. What has been sorely lacking for the past two weeks from both the UFC and Strikeforce was given to us in abundance by the fight organization that is solely dedicated to the lighter weight classes. Run by the same group that owns the UFC, Zuffa, the WEC focuses specifically on three weight classes, lightweight (155lbs.), featherweight (145 lbs.) and bantamweight (135lbs.). However, don't let that fool you as they have many of the best fighters in the world at these weight classes, especially in the feather and bantam classes. The fighters in the main event, Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo, Jr. and challenger Urijah 'The California Kid' Faber are ranked #'s 1&2 respectively; and the two fighters in the co-main event. Lightweight Champion Ben 'Smooth' Henderson and Donald 'Cowboy' Cerrone are top ten lightweights in the world.

There's so much to discuss regarding last night's card, that I will focus my attention to just three fights; the two mentioned above and a fight on the under card that ended up stealing the show. Although it wasn't originally part of the PPV main card, the featherweight tilt between Leonard 'Bad Boy' Garcia and WEC newcomer Chan Sung Jung ended up making the most noise. Chosen as one of two preliminary fights to be shown for free on Spike TV as a lead in to the PPV, Garcia and Jung put on a performance that ended up being fight of the night. There were so many 15th round Rocky Balboa/Apollo Creed type haymakers being thrown from the opening bell till the end of the fight, you wondered if the PPV could live up to the hype, let alone this fight. While there was some technique featured in the bout, for the most part there were a lot of sloppy, but very entertaining punches and kicks thrown throughout. This was quite simply a backyard brawl with Garcia pulling out a narrow split decision. For the record, I had Jung winning the fight.

The two featured contests ended up being one sided affairs that clearly showed why Ben Henderson and Jose Aldo are not just the champions, but the clear dominant fighters in their weight classes as well. In a rematch of a 2009 'Fight of the Year' candidate, Henderson proved to be too strong, quick and slick for Cerrone as he tapped him out with a vicious Guillotine Choke within the first two minutes of the fight. While Henderson has clearly set himself apart from the pack in the WEC lightweight division, Cerrone is now 0-3 in title fights and one must wonder as good as he is, does he have what it takes to win the big one? While Greg Jackson, his trainer, is considered a guru, a change of camps may be in order for The Cowboy.

As for the main event, what was a highly anticipated match-up between the two greatest featherweights in the world, ended up showing who truly is #1 as Aldo, completely dominated Faber both standing and on the ground. The premise for both was set by Aldo's decimation of Faber's left leg, which he destroyed with his lethal Muay Thai round kicks. By the end of the fight, Faber had to be held up by his cornermen because his leg could not bear any weight. To his credit, Faber showed tremendous heart in defeat as he could have easily stayed on his stool after the third and fourth rounds and no one would have questioned why, but he got up and limped out each time; heart of a champion! "Never send a boy to do a man's job", that is what the WEC had to be saying to both the UFC and Strikeforce this month as the 'little' guys delivered in a 'big' way.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Strikeforce strikes out on national television

Even before last week's lackluster fight card put on by the UFC in Abu Dhabi, there were a couple of reasons I was intently looking forward to this past Saturday's Strikeforce event that was televised live from Nashville, Tennessee on CBS. First was an opportunity to see the UFC's chief rival promotion finally put on another show. Another was the card itself, which included three World Championship fights featuring six intriguing, highly ranked fighters with very contrasting styles.

Besides that, I was hoping after last week Strikeforce could capitalize on the let down of UFC 112 and really hit a home run with this show. Alas, hope continues to spring eternal as the optimism that preceded this potentially dynamite card ended up being a dud. 'Murphy's Law' is typically defined as "anything that can go wrong will go wrong."

I'm not going to say that was totally the case here as there were some positives to be drawn, however all three fights going the distance in one-sided performances and a melee on national television far outweighs any of those. Strangely, one could not have expected things to play out as they did considering the potential for fireworks in all three fights; but this is the risk that is taken when the match-ups feature a classic striker versus grappler scenario.

In the main card's opening bout we had rising star Muhammad 'King Mo' Lawal versus the Strikeforce Light Heavyweight (205 lbs.) Champion Gegard Mousasi. A few weeks back I interviewed King Mo, did a feature on him and in it I stated "MMA's Majesty is ready to reign." I am glad to say I was right as King Mo won, however on the other hand, the guy I said had fast hands and was multi-talented appeared to be one-dimensional.

The world class wrestler did only that as he repeatedly took down Mousasi and just controlled him on the ground. His 'ground and pound' attack wasn't even 'lean and mean'. While he clearly won the fight in the end, he was the one who looked beaten and battered with a closed left eye from Mousasi's constant hammer fist punches off his back; strike one.

In the second fight of the night, the lightweight (155 lbs.) championship featured defending Strikeforce Champion Gilbert Melendez against Shinya Aoki, who is the lightweight champion from the 'Dream' promotion in Japan. Aoki, a renowned submission wizard with a bad boy reputation, went the distance but was pummeled and dominated by Melendez, who I credit with executing a perfect game plan for his opponent.

In my opinion, Melendez supplied the only real action of the night, but unfortunately it was far and few in between as Aoki would constantly fall to his back in the hopes of drawing Melendez in, which he never really did. Melendez won on all judges scorecards 50-45, which explains how one sided this fight really was; strike two.

Finally, the main event of the evening pitted the Strikeforce Middleweight (185 lbs.) Champion Jake Shields against the living, but aging, legend Dan Henderson who recently came over from the UFC. After a potential disaster for Shields in the first round where he got dropped twice by Henderson right hands, he survived and turned the tide as he imposed his ground game on Henderson the rest of the way and literally controlled him for the next four rounds.

Even though he was dominant in his positioning, his striking from the top position left a lot to be desired. Although he peppered Henderson with punches, he never seriously had him hurt. Strike three, you're out!

If that weren't bad enough, after the fight when Shields was being interviewed live in the cage, Jason 'Mayhem' Miller, host of MTV's 'Bully Beatdown', who had fought earlier on the card, unexpectedly comes in the cage. He then does a 'Kanye West on Taylor Swift type move' and interrupts the interview by asking Shields about a rematch.

Looked at as disrespectful by Shields and his camp, all hell breaks loose inside the cage as bodies are flying everywhere. Granted, compared to the infamous Andrew Golota/Riddick Bowe melee in Madison Square Garden, this was nothing, but for a growing sport trying to sell itself to the casual fan, this was not good look.

Add to this that HBO had a boxing doubleheader featuring some rising stars of their own that put on two action packed fights and overall, this was not a good night for MMA; especially in front of a national television audience where Strikeforce struck out.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Pound for pound is not just about results

Its 1:35AM, I just finished watching UFC 112 and am listening to the post fight press conference as I type. Originally, I had every intention of making this week's column related to tonight's UFC; but, only as part of an exciting nine days of MMA where it was sandwiched between the exciting second season debut of the upstart 'Bellator Fighting Championships' this past Thursday and the potentially explosive 'Strikeforce' card next Saturday on CBS.

However, after tonight's main event my emotions are so passionate right now, there is no question I have to write about UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva. The reason being what I feel was a performance not worthy of a champion. Let me say that my sentiments did not just come about after the fight, but rather immediately after the first round.

As I watched the fight unfold, I turned to the two friends I was watching the fight with and said, "For all the shaking and baking Anderson Silva does in the cage, he really does nothing." Sure he hit Demian Maia, whenever he decided to attack, but it seemed he was more content to try and mock him for some reason. Problem is he made himself look like a fool in the process and that was even before round two where he took it to another level.

Sadly, I'm not talking about his fighting, but rather I'm talking about his gestures, taunting and overall lack of respect for his opponent. Usually an extremely respectful and humble fighter, Silva decided to question Maia's strategy and overall manhood as a fighter during the second round. He repeatedly stopped to do things such as throw his hands up in supposed disgust, pound the mat with his hands, hit his own body with his fists and verbally chastise his opponent.

All the while though, I noticed while he is doing all this, it is he who is making no attempt to go in after his opponent who was clearly overmatched on their feet. To Maia's credit, he never responded to any of Silva's antics during the round; he maintained his course of action, which unfortunately wasn't much. However, in my eyes it wasn't his fault.

Maia's game plan was simple, get the fight to the ground where his dominant jiu-jitsu skills could come into play. He was unable to do that though as he could never get close enough to Silva to clinch and wasn't quick enough whenever he attempted to shoot in on the champion. The obvious disparity in skills standing up is the reason for my disgust in Silva's performance. He could have easily ended the fight, had he decided to be a finisher or maybe even a fighter; instead he decided to be neither.

During round three and for the remainder of the fight, it was he who was doing the back pedaling and avoiding confrontation. Maia, whose nose was probably broken and whose left eye was swollen shut, was the one stalking his opponent trying to get Silva to engage. For all the talk Anderson Silva was doing with his antics earlier, he did nothing to back it up.

Apparently, I wasn't the only one that felt this way as boos began to rain down on the champion while chants for Maia could be heard in the crowd. Even the referee called for time in the last round to let Silva know about his effort or lack thereof; remember, this is the champion.

During the post fight press conference, Dana White's disgust was evident, which made me feel justified in writing this column, but what sealed it was Silva's response. Instead of owning up to his woeful performance, he actually blamed Maia for disrespecting him before and during the fight. He said, Maia'a comment before the fight about getting an arm or his neck was personal.

I heard the comment he referenced during UFC's 'Countdown' show and there was nothing disrespectful about it. The bottom line is Silva, who is continuously mentioned in the discussion of "best pound for pound fighter," fails to realize that you can have all the skills in the world, but if you don't perform, nobody cares about the end result.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

When you really want something it comes to you

After boxing's latest debacle, this past weekend's snooze fest between future Hall of Famers who are way past their prime, Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones, Jr., casual fans are probably thinking its demise is slowly but surely on its way. You can't blame them really; as long as shameless promoters continue to put together bouts featuring over the hill fighters and claiming "this is what the fans are asking for", then that is what is inevitably bound to happen.

However, hope springs eternal for the sweet science as there is a new generation of stars on the horizon and luckily for me, one is right here from my hometown Bethlehem, PA. Ronald Cruz is a 23 year old welterweight prospect, sporting an 8-0 record as a professional with 5 KO's.

Currently ranked 189 out of 1472 welterweights in the world, according to Boxrec.com, Cruz seems to have everything going for him, but it was not always that way for this young rising star. Originally born in Manati, Puerto Rico, it was there as a child that the legacy of the sport and the island's great lineage of fighters were first instilled in him. He lived there till he was 11 years old and while he never trained there, the seed was planted after watching 'Rocky' movies as a kid and there it lied dormant waiting to be born.

His mom moved him and his brothers Jay and Rey to Bethlehem, PA, South Bethlehem to be exact, for the prospects of a better life and opportunity for her sons. Unfortunately, for awhile it looked as though opportunity for Cruz lied in the streets and for those who are familiar with certain parts of Bethlehem's Southside, it is easy to understand how. Ironically, thirty plus years earlier I moved there with my mom from Brooklyn, NY when I was only 13, so I totally relate to Ronald's path.

It was on that path that he started hanging with the wrong crowd and engaging in the wrong activity, all along though he professes that he always had that burning desire to learn and train in boxing. He's not sure why, but he says it was always on the back of his mind. Yet, it still wasn't enough to keep him or his brothers from the lure of the streets and eventually the streets called when nearly 10 years ago his older brother Jay died of an overdose of drugs.

Not sure what the future held for him after this tragedy he remained out there, however something kept pulling at him. Strangely enough, he says, "when you really want something it comes to you" and in this case someone from up above must have been listening because four years ago it did.

At only 19 years of age and headed nowhere, a light came into Ronald's life in the form of a little girl as he became a father. Although he is no longer in a relationship with his daughter's mother, 4 year old Jayshalis, lovingly named after his deceased brother, remains the focal point of his life and turnaround. Soon after, he became involved in another relationship with his current girlfriend Daisy Vega and he says that it was she, along with his daughter that slowly started to pull him off the streets and give him the structure he needed in his life.

It was then that he finally tried to fulfill the calling of boxing he's always had. Not knowing where to turn, he looked to a friend named Kalif, who used to look out for him when he was running the streets. It was Kalif who suggested he try training at Larry Holmes Gym in Easton, PA.

To make sure he had every chance of making his dreams come true, Kalif would not only take Ronald to the gym, but he would train with him as well. However, after just a few weeks, he knew it wasn't for him, the gym that is. He knew he wanted to pursue boxing, but there was no place, especially in Bethlehem, to do it. Alas, once again his prophetic words would come to fruition, "when you really want something it comes to you."

A young boxing trainer Alec Morales had a dream of opening a boxing gym in South Bethlehem. He already had a makeshift gym in his home's garage and when funding and the basement of a donated building became available courtesy of 'The Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations', 'The Bethlehem Boxing Club' was born.

In 2007, I was writing a column for a local newspaper and decided to do a story on the gym. At the time the focus of the club was, and still remains, on providing an outlet for young people to get off the streets, train in the art of boxing and if they so desired, compete in U.S.A. Boxing sanctioned amateur competition. Ronald Cruz fit the mold for all three of those categories.

As he says, he picked it up quick and Morales soon picked up on how sincere this kid was about his training. He told Morales he was serious and his trainer replied, "If you are serious, then I'll see it and if so, I'll help you eventually turn this into a professional career."

In just 15 months of amateur competition, Cruz had 28 fights, going 25-3, and earned five amateur titles all in regional tournaments up and down the Mid-Atlantic region. His commitment unwavering and his desire burning, it was time to turn pro.

He signed with Jimmy Deorio Management and on January 16, 2009 he had his professional debut in Philadelphia, PA. The outcome was a four round unanimous decision and his career was finally on its way. Not wasting any time he was brought back three weeks later, this time at the legendary 'Blue Horizon' in Philly. Any serious boxing fan will tell you, you either make it or break it at The Blue as those fans, who sit right on top of you, especially in the balcony seating, will let you know.

Ronald says he actually felt the pressure at The Blue, but he handled it perfectly as he knocked out his opponent within three rounds and more importantly, he got the approval of the 'Blue Horizon' crowd. Since then he's had six more fights, two more at The Blue Horizon where he has quickly become a fan favorite and two at Bally's in Atlantic City. His whole game has elevated to another level as well as his training.

He has sparred with the likes of highly ranked seasoned professionals such as Demetrius Hopkins, Mike Jones, Henry 'Hank' Lundy and Danny 'Swift' Garcia; all up and coming fighters out of Philadelphia with a combined record of 82-1. It is paying dividends, as every time he steps up in competition, his performances are becoming more and more dominating, so much so he needs to pull himself back to reality. To hear him tell it, "In my mind, I'm ready for the top ten."

However, he also knows this is a marathon, not a sprint, thus he trusts in what his trainer and management has laid out for him. When I asked him if there is any concern regarding the shady side of boxing and if he would ever consider leaving his trainer or gym, his response was simple, "the streets taught me loyalty; therefore as long as they stay loyal to me, I will do the same."

Understanding there is a long and storied tradition of Puerto Rican fighters that have come before him, Cruz states he hopes to someday be as great as his idol Felix Trinidad. Yet, while he admires and respects him, he wants to carve his own niche. He respectfully says, "I'm trying to let the world know who I am."

Considering that everything he's wanted thus far he has attained, I see no reason why this won't happen as well, because you see, when you really want something it comes to you.

I want to thank Ronald Cruz for granting me this interview, along with his trainer Alec Morales for his cooperation in setting it up. Right after this interview, it was announced his next fight would be on May 22nd @ Bally's in Atlantic City against Juan Ramon Cruz.

Ronald Cruz would like to first and foremost thank God for bringing him to where he's always wanted to be. He also would like to thank his mother, his brother Rey and his girlfriend for their unwavering support. He wants to acknowledge his trainer along with his manager and last, but not least, everybody that has supported him on this journey.

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