Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The cold harsh reality of boxing

"Do you want to be a fighter?" This now famous phrase attributed to UFC President Dana White is the perfect way to begin this piece. That is because whether it is MMA, or in this case boxing, the truth is, as in any professional sport, only a chosen few ever reach the mountaintop.

In the case of former welterweight contender Ronald Cruz (pictured above), that's what makes this even more difficult. That is because while he never achieved his ultimate dream of becoming a world champion, at one point in his career he was getting close; once being ranked just inside the top 10. He could see the light at the end of the tunnel, but in the cold harsh reality of boxing, now Ronald is lucky he can just see.

11 days removed from his most recent and last fight, an eighth round TKO loss to highly touted and undefeated Dmitry Mikhaylenko, Cruz has been forced into retirement due to a second detached retina injury to his right eye. Yes, I said second detached retina; many people don't realize this, but Cruz had this injury once before. I was privy to this information when it happened back in 2012, but Ronald asked me then not to disclose it to the public.

However, now that his career is over and with his permission, I am disclosing it; this is why he had a nine-month layoff between late 2012 and 2013. This is also the only regret he has in his career. When I asked if he has any regrets about how his career went, he stated, "If I could go back, I would not have taken the Antwone Smith fight." At the time, Cruz was (17-0); he had just won the WBC Continental Americas title and was climbing the rankings.

The day before their fight, Smith weighed in four pounds above the welterweight limit; Cruz meanwhile came in on weight. He could have easily and justifiably not fought. However, not wanting to disappoint anyone, including the hometown crowd who came to support him, he stepped in the ring anyway. The result was a split decision loss. I was at that fight live and Cruz got off to a slow start, clearly depleted from making weight. Meanwhile Smith started out strong; no surprise considering one fighter sacrificed to make weight, while another didn't.

Then again, I've been accused by some of homering for Cruz and making excuses in his losses. Obviously, I don't agree; I just told it like it is. Analyze his five losses properly with facts and this is what you get; he fought a former two-time world champion, two former Olympians, an undefeated top prospect and a fighter outside his weight class. Of the five, one was a split decision, one was a disputed decision, one he was coming off an injury and long layoff and one was stopped due to an injury. The only fight where he was clearly outclassed was in June of this year against 2012 U.S. Olympian Errol Spence. It was that fight, which forced him to face reality.

"My manager and promoter had talked to me and my former trainer about possibly getting some help from a world class trainer. I thought about it, but my loyalty to my trainer 'Indio' Rodriguez made it difficult," Cruz stated. However, after the Spence fight he knew he was outclassed and needed to make a change if he was to compete at that level. He chose Philadelphia trainer Billy Briscoe and although he had hoped he could keep Rodriguez in the mix somehow, deep down he knew it wouldn't work.

Only three months of working with Briscoe he jumped back in the ring against Mikhaylenko; it is important to note that Mikhalyenko wasn't his originally scheduled opponent. In watching the fight unfold, you could see subtle changes in his game. According to Cruz, "The plan was to back him up;" and during the first four rounds he more than held his own. As a matter of fact it was in that fourth round that Cruz may have had his best ever round as a pro, actually hurting the Russian prospect more than once.

That's why so many others and I were perplexed that in the following round he didn't continue. Truth is, it was in the fifth round that he sustained the eye injury. "It happened in the first minute of the fifth round; I remember the punch that did it. I couldn't see, but I just assumed my eye was swollen. However, I just kept fighting and never told my corner."

The result, were multiple left hooks to that eye over the course of four rounds, which prompted his trainer Briscoe to stop the fight. Cruz pleaded with him on national TV, "Please let me fight one more round," but his trainer refused telling him, "We'll get back in the gym and get ready for 2015."

However, it was not meant to be as two days later he was in the hospital receiving the cruel reality that his career was over. When asked what's next, he told me, "I want to stay in the game in some capacity. Billy Briscoe has offered to let me be his apprentice and learn how to be a cut man and trainer." "Also, my manager Jimmy Deoria has told me he wants to help me succeed in any way he can. Jimmy's friendship has been unwavering throughout my career. I want to use my knowledge in boxing to be able to help kids in the future."

Looking back on Cruz's career, I thanked him for reviving boxing in Bethlehem. This steel town has a rich boxing tradition, peeking in the '80's with top contenders Bobby Johnson and Angel Cruz, but it died after that; Ronald Cruz brought it back. It is because of Ronald Cruz that the Sands Event Center in Bethlehem is now home to world class boxing cards. As I told him, "You fought on national television numerous times, fought in the fight capitol of the world Las Vegas and fought in Atlantic City many times. You fought a former world champion, giving him all he could handle; you fought Olympians, won a WBC title and ended your career (20-5)."

You combine that with his amateur record (25-3) and he has a combined record of (45-8); that is nothing to sneeze at. Many talk about it, but Ronald Cruz actually did it. Although he is still depressed about how it has ended, he can now begin to look back fondly on his career.  As he states, "It may have not been the best, but it was a great experience. I got to meet a lot of great people."

Friday, November 7, 2014

Will the old man punch out Father Time one more time?

Saturday night when WBA Super World, IBF and IBA light heavyweight champion Bernard ‘The Alien’ (formerly the Exterminator) Hopkins steps between the ropes against WBO champion Sergey ‘Krusher’ Kovalev, he’ll do so just two months shy of his 50th birthday. On top of that he’ll be doing it against a fighter in Kovalev who is in his fighting prime at just 31 and arguably his most dangerous opponent ever. Think about that statement for a second, most dangerous opponent ever.

That is quite a statement considering the resume the future Hall of Famer Hopkins (55-6, 32 KO’s) has already assembled. However, when you look at Kovalev’s record (25-0, 23 KO’s) you can understand why; this crushin’ Russian has not had a fight go to a decision in nearly four years. On paper, taking into consideration Kovalev’s knockout ratio and Hopkins age, this looks like more than a mismatch; but how many times have we said this about Hopkins in the last few years?

21 years ago in '93 when he fought the great Roy Jones, Jr. for the middleweight championship, he was supposed to be no match. Sure he lost the decision, but it was hardly a whitewash. Then after dominating the division as a champion for five years from ’96 – ’01, he was finally going to get stopped by Felix Trinidad in New York City in the aftermath of 9/11. In the end it was Trinidad who was stopped and lost for the first time in his career.

He knocked out the Golden Boy Oscar De La Hoya with a liver shot and although he lost two close decisions to Jermain Taylor, he bounced back as a light heavyweight at 41 and won the IBO title against the Roy Jones destroyer Antonio Tarver. At 42 he defeated ‘Winky’ Wright and then at 43 he faced a young killer, similar to the one he faces tomorrow, in Kelly Pavlik. At the time Pavlik, like Kovalev, was undefeated and a serious power puncher. Hopkins was finally going to be sent into retirement.

In the end, it was Hopkins who gave Pavlik a boxing lesson and won easily. So what’s so different now? For one is Kovalev’s power is eerily similar to Ivan Drago’s character in ‘Rocky IV’, in that “whatever he hits, he destroys.” I have been lucky enough to witness this power up close as I saw Kovalev fight live three times in my hometown from June 2012 - June 2013. In those three fights he fought a total of less than eight rounds as he ran right through the competition.

Yet, it’s that competition that may be his one downfall in this fight. He has fought no one near the level of Hopkins, while Hopkins has fought a virtual who’s who list of champions and Hall of Fame fighters. Obviously, Hopkins is planning to draw on that experience to offset Kovalev’s freakish power and normally I would say that is enough; but there is always that lingering question. At what point does an athlete get old?

To this point Hopkins has been able to elude the effects of or any signs of old age, but it happens to all the greatest of athletes; at some point they suddenly look their age. As an already nearly two year member of the AARP 50+ club, I am sentimentally pulling for Hopkins to win; but for him to defeat Kovalev, he will have to punch out Father Time one more time.

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