By Thomas Hauser
The term "world champion" has a different meaning today than in the past. Boxing now has seventeen weight divisions and four primary world sanctioning organizations. That makes for a lot of belt-holders with relatively few television dates to go around. Don King promotes many of these belt-holders. And with no place to televise their fights as stand-alone bouts, he bundled them together into one pay-per-view extravaganza.
King's December 13th showcase in Atlantic City was entitled "Back-To-Back-To-Back." That was shorthand for "Back-To-Back-To-Back-to-Back-To-Back-To-Back-To-Back-To-Back." There was no "must-see fight" on the card. But DK offered the world eight championship bouts including two super-championship fights, one unification championship fight, two mandatory championship fights, one interim championship fight, and two plain old ordinary regular championship fights. Despite the onset of Christmas, there was no partridge in a pear tree.
The key to the event was the blending of personalities involved. Bernard Hopkins, Ricardo Mayorga, Hasim Rahman, and Zab Judah are among the most quotable practitioners of the sweet science. And boxing's most cosmic personality hovered above it all.
On the night of December 11th, King was in Washington DC at Dick Cheney's annual Christmas party, hobnobbing with the vice president and Donald Rumsfeld. Then he stormed Atlantic City, as much a force of nature as the angry windswept waves that crashed down beneath an overcast sky.
"This is the greatest card I've ever put together," King told the media. "It's a night in December that fans will remember. It's a card with no undercard. Every fight is a main event. Every fighter is a star." That was followed by a touch of humility. "This card came together in a spiritual manner," King explained. "I needed God's blessing to make it happen."
And there was patriotic fervor as well. "Hasim Rahman comes from Baltimore," King reminded his listeners. "Baltimore is where Frederick Douglass came from. William Joppy is from Washington DC, the home of our great national government. Bernard Hopkins is from Philadelphia, the cradle of American democracy. Zab Judah is from New York, where George Washington was inaugurated. This fight card is about America. My country tis of thee. If you love America, buy these fights. Don't be standing on shore when the ship goes out to sea. Order 'Back-To-Back-To-Back' now."
Listening to King talk, one got the impression that he might single-handedly extricate the United States military from Iraq by inviting all of the troops home to attend his fight card and then simply not send them back overseas.
Meanwhile, it was left to Bob Goodman (director of boxing for Don King Productions) and on-site coordinator Peyton Sher to iron out the details of eight championship fights. "My headaches have headaches," Goodman was quoted as saying. That's because there were four different sanctioning organizations. The unification bouts required a different supervisor and a different set of officials from each organization. All totalled, there would be twenty-four judges and eight referees.
DKP did its job well. On December 13th, Boardwalk Hall was sold out. In the opening bout, Rosendo Alvarez and Victor Burgos fought to a draw in a WBA-IBF light-flyweight unification contest. Then Wayne Braithwaite stopped Luis Pineda in the first round to successfully defend his WBC cruiserweight crown. That was followed by Luis Perez winning a unaminous decision over Felix Machado to successfully defend the IBF junior-bantamweight title. And Travis Simms cold-cocked Alejandro Garcia in the fifth round to capture the WBA super-welterweight championship just after referee Sammy Viruet did (or didn't) shout "break". But the night was dominated by bouts featuring four of boxing's biggest talkers.
First up on the short list was Zab Judah versus Jaime Rangel for the WBO junior-welterweight crown.
Zab is only 26, but he has been boxing for twenty years under the tutelage of his father. "My father is the lifeline in my body," Zab says. "My father is the spine that holds me up. If he ever stops training me, I'm gone from boxing."
Judah was a much-honored amateur. At age 22, he won the IBF 140-pound title by knocking out Jan Bergman in the fourth round. Five defenses against undistinguished foes followed. Then, on November 3, 2001, he fought Kosta Tszyu in a title-unification bout. In the second round, Zab was knocked down, rose quickly, staggered, and fell. Referee Jay Nady stopped the fight. And Judah, who felt that he should have been given ten seconds from the time he first hit the canvas to compose himself, went berserk. Many people think that Nady stopped the fight prematurely; that the round had come to an end and the ring physician should have been allowed to examine Zab to determine whether he was fit to continue. But Judah went beyond the acceptable in his response, shoving Nady and throwing a corner stool at him.
"I know the way I acted was wrong," Zab acknowledges. "But what the referee did was wrong too. It was like everything I worked for my entire life was gone because Jay Nady took it away from me."
After his loss to Tszyu, Judah won a ten-round decision against Omar Weis. Then, in July of this year, he captured the WBO junior-welterweight title with a split-decision victory over DeMarcus Corley. Zab has phenomenal physical gifts. He's quick and fast with a lot of charisma. Don King calls him "the hottest little super-hero out there." But the often-heard knock against him is that he's just not tough enough.
It should also be noted that Zab has thirteen diamonds totalling eight carats permanently attached to his front teeth. "My mouthpiece fits right over it," he explains. "And it fits my personality."
How does his smile compare with Don King's jewelry?
"No comparison," Zab answers. "My diamonds are better."
Judah approached his bout against Jaime Rangel with confidence. "It's going to be like a bank robbery," he advised. "I'm getting in quick and getting out quick." On fight night, he lived up to his words, whacking out Rangel with a straight left to the temple at the 72-second mark of round one. Still, putting Zab's victory in perspective, while Rangel came into the bout with a 29-4-1 record, only ten of his wins came against opponents who had ever won a fight.
Next up was Hasim Rahman versus John Ruiz for the "interim" WBA heavyweight crown. This was a bout that pitted two former champions, one real and the other alphabet, against one another. Before the fight, it was decreed that if Roy Jones (the current WBA champ) refuses to fight the winner, the "interim" would be removed from the victor's title.
Rahman was one of the more voluble personalities on the Atlantic City card. The former WBC champ has more than a little con in him, but he's inherently likeable. He's also easy to talk with and accepts the fact that the media's role isn't simply to write nice things about him. "I'm not into correcting the media," he said two nights before the fight. "If they get it, they get it. If they don't, they don't."
Rahman has three children; two sons (ages twelve and seven) and a five-year-old daughter. Prior to the Ruiz bout, he brought his family with him to training camp. And his concern for his children appears genuine.
"My household is strict," Rahman acknowledged. "I'm very much in touch with what goes on in my kids' lives. When I was four years old, I walked further on my own than my wife and I allow our son who's twelve to walk on his own now. I watch the company my kids keep. I want to know the parents of their friends. The question I'm teaching the kids to ask before they do something isn't, 'Will Daddy find out?' It's, 'What's right and what's wrong?' When I was a kid, I was very good at getting over on my parents so I know how it's done. No kid is perfect, but I think mine are pretty good. I expect them to be college graduates and successful in life. But as long as they're good people and happy, I'll be satisfied."
John Ruiz is a big strong guy who fights like his public persona; dull, plodding, and straight ahead. Rahman is a big strong guy with some skills. That was expected to give the edge to Rahman, but the fight didn't unfold that way.
In round two, Ruiz wobbled Rahman with a big right hand but failed to effectively follow up. That was as good as it got. The rest of the bout was a long display of grabbing, grappling, clutching, and holding. Ruiz's game plan seemed to consist of using his armpit to maneuver Rahman into a headlock. Hasim's primary offensive weapon was utilizing his forearm in clinches as an Adam's Apple compressor. Rahman also fought as though there were a clause in his contract that stipulated he couldn't throw more than two jabs a round.
Poor Randy Newman was the referee. His job was akin to separating two crabs that were fornicating on the beach. Meanwhile, for much of the night, the crowd exercised its constitutional right to boo.
The judges's scoring varied considerably (118-110, 116-112, and 115-114); all in favor of Ruiz. This discrepancy might have been due to the fact that they were too bored to watch the fight. This observer gave it to Ruiz 115-113.
"It was an ugly fight," Rahman admitted afterward. "It was an ugly fight," Ruiz opined.
Great minds think alike. Meanwhile, Hasim hasn't won in 32 months. He is 0-3-1 since defeating Lennox Lewis in April 2001.
Then came the most intriguing fight of the night; Ricardo Mayorga versus Cory Spinks for the unified welterweight crown.
Mayorga, who hails from Nicaragua, was virtually unknown at the start of 2003. But the WBC-WBA champion came to Atlantic City as a hot property by virtue of two wins over Vernon Forrest. Meanwhile, Spinks became the IBF 147-pound titleholder after a victory over Michele Piccirillo of Italy in March.
Spinks has good bloodlines. Father Leon beat Muhammad Ali, and Uncle Michael beat Larry Holmes. But Cory is a light puncher with only ten knockouts in 33 fights, and Don King had made Mayorga-Spinks with a Mayorga victory in mind. Indeed, preliminary contracts for a March 13, 2004, bout between Mayorga and Shane Mosley had already been signed.
Thus, King decreed a state of "Mayorga mania" in Atlantic City and declared, "Ricardo Mayorga has captivated the world with his explosive style and indominitable courage. He's upsetting the entire boxing establishment. Ricardo is a true revolutionary peoples' champion."
And Mayorga, who is known for chain-smoking, beer-drinking, and trash-talking, lived up to his reputation by proclaiming, "Cory Spinks is a nothing, a nobody. He doesn't know what he let himself in for when he took this fight, but he'll find out when I rip his head off. This will be the biggest purse and the biggest beating that Spinks ever gets. I'm going to lay him flat on the canvas and dump his championship belt on top of him. When I rip his head off, he'll realize what a mistake he made. Instead of lifting weights, he should be doing push-ups because that's what he'll be doing all night. As soon as I hit him, he'll go down."
Then, for good measure, Mayorga added, "He'll be crying for his mama." That comment was particularly offensive to Spinks, who still feels the loss of his mother Zadie May Spinks, who died in 1999. Apprised of that fact, Mayorga sneered, "He says his family is pretty much all gone and he doesn't have much else to live for. So I'm going to reunite him with his whole family, who happen to be upstairs with our Lord, Jesus Christ. I'll stay here with my family that's alive and well."
In other sports, Mayorga's trash-talking would have earned a summons to the commissioner's office. In boxing, it was treated like a breath of fresh air. Meanwhile, Spinks said simply, "This will be my coming-out party. Skills will be the difference. I can sit down and bang, or I can be smart and box. I'm prepared to deal with anything he brings. Mayorga is in for a rude awakening. He's just a tough rugged fighter. I think they overrate him. He hasn't gotten any better. His head has gotten bigger; that's all. They call boxing an art. Come December 13th, I'm going to paint me a beautiful picture."
And legendary ring great Roberto Duran sounded a further note of caution. "I've only seen Mayorga fight once," Duran offered shortly before the weigh-in. "He didn't seem as good as people say he is. He doesn't know how to box."
The Spinks plan was to outwork and outbox Mayorga. His lack of power allowed the Nicaraguan to fight with abandon, and Ricardo was the aggressor throughout. But Mayorga often fights on the edge of the rules and it cost him. In round five, referee Tony Orlando deducted a point for hitting after the bell. In round eleven, he took away another point for holding and hitting Spinks on the back of the head.
Meanwhile, Spinks fought within himself; jabbing, circling, staying in the center of the ring, and countering. He also received a big break; two of them actually. In round eleven, Spinks went to the canvas twice; and the second time, he appeared to have gone down intentionally to extricate himself from a disadvantageous position. That's the equivalent of taking a knee and should have been ruled a knockdown, but Orlando decreed that the incident was a slip. Then, in round twelve, Spinks visited the canvas again, apparently from a punch. But again, Orlando declined to call a knockdown. The earlier-referenced point deductions were appropriate. The missed knockdown in the twelfth round wasn't. Had that knockdown been called, it would have changed the outcome of the fight.
Arthur Ellison scored the bout a draw at 114-114. Eugene Grant leaned toward Spinks 114-112. John Keane had it 117-110 for Spinks. This writer scored it narrowly for Mayorga. Regardless, at the close of the fight, the "Spinks Jinks" was alive and well again and Cory's daddy was smiling.
Leon Spinks might be the saddest of all former heavyweight champions. He walksaround looking as though he has been punched in the head by life. But December 13th was a good night for Leon. And it's worth noting that, whatever else happens, the record book will always show that Leon beat Muhammad Ali in 1978 to become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
Mayorga-Spinks drained much of the energy from the crowd. The first bout had begun shortly after 5:00 pm and it was now approaching midnight. Still, one fight remained; Bernard Hopkins versus William Joppy for the unified middleweight championship.
Hopkins is one of the boxing's great warriors but has little drawing power. This was a "mandatory" title defense that had gone to a purse bid. Thus, Bernard was fighting for $375,000 while Joppy received $125,000.
Perhaps the most interesting sub-plot surrounding the fight involved Hopkins's relationship with Bouie Fisher. Fisher trained Bernard from his second pro fight through his February 2002 victory over Carl Daniels. Then there was a falling out, and Bouie sued The Executioner for his rightful share of back purses.
"At one time, Bernard was like family to me," Fisher said at the time. "But my family has been raised and taught to be respectful and kind to other people; and Bernard just isn't that way. I always had it in the back of my mind that Bernard could be like this, but I didn't know it would be this bad. Bernard thinks money is everything. And money is good to have. You need it, but it's not everything. Right and wrong matter. Right is right, and wrong is wrong. And when you do wrong to other people and then try to justify what you've done, you wind up lying because the truth won't help you."
Meanwhile, Hopkins declared on an ESPN2 Friday Night Fights telecast that one of Bouie's sons, James Fisher, was "a bum who has never worked and has never wanted to work."
In response, Bouie observed, "I've had my glory. I've seen my children grow to be good men and women. I raised eight children in the middle of the ghetto and didn't have two hours of trouble with any of them. All my children finished high school and have good jobs. Four of them graduated from college. One of my daughters has been voted 'outstanding teacher of the year' two times at her high school. Another works with retarded children. James went to college and served in the United States Air Force. He has worked in our family's transmission shop and as a construction worker and salesman. Now I'm sending my grandchildren to college. So Bernard has his place in history, and I have a place in my family history."
Then, last month, Hopkins and Fisher reunited, although the litigation between them remains unresolved. "Every now and then, people can settle their differences," Bernard told the media.
"I always said Bernard was another son to me," Fisher added. "We were separated a little over a year ago and for one of his fights. But we're back together again, and it feels like I've reunited with a member of my own family."
Meanwhile, bad blood was brewing between Hopkins and Joppy. After fireworks between their supporters at a pre-fight kick-off press conference in New York, there was a pushing match between the fighters themselves at a press conference in Washington DC. Joppy was at the podium; Hopkins tried to take the microphone from him; and William gave Bernard a hard two-handed shove. That led Don King, who was hearing cash registers ring from enhanced pay-per-view buys, to declare, "It was a scintillatingly beautiful sight. There was hostility by geometric proportions."
Hopkins was more succinct in his comments. "This is a very simple fight to analyze," he prophesied. "Come Monday, December 15th, Joppy will have a squeegee in his hand and be on the twenty-eighth floor of some building doing windows."
Joppy was more optimistic about his fate. "I've been watching Bernard Hopkins press conferences for a while," he noted. "Bernard Hopkins is a coward who talks tough. He likes to dictate things; but as soon as you bring it back to him, he doesn't know how to act. He's a bully. I wasn't a bully growing up, but I like to bully bullies. Hopkins is a basic fighter, just a brawler," Joppy continued. "He doesn't have the boxing skills to touch me. With my natural ability I'm going to make him look like he doesn't belong in the ring with me. You're going to be able to count on one hand how many times he hits me."
At the final pre-fight press conference, Joppy revised his estimate upward, saying, "On two hands, you'll be able to count the number of times he hits me." Then, on Saturday night, William entered the ring to face reality.
Hopkins versus Joppy reduced boxing to its brutal essence. The bell for round one rang sixty seconds after midnight. And from that moment on, Hopkins and Joppy were predator and prey. Bernard methodically broke his opponent down and administered a merciless brutal beating. Joppy's corner should have stopped the fight after the tenth round, and so should referee Earl Morton. It was an extraordinary tribute to William's courage that he never went down. The judges scored it 119-108, 119-109, and 118-109. After the fight, Joppy's face was hideous. No part of his features looked right. Everything was lumpy, bruised, discolored, and swollen. And he took a horrible beating to the body too. Fighting Bernard Hopkins for $125,000 is a hard way to earn a living.
It was an exhausting night; almost eight hours of boxing. And when it was done, the victors planned for the future.
Zab Judah wants to fight KostaTszyu again. "There are still a lot of unanswered questions between us," Zab says. "It's two years old now, but what happened still bothers me. The fans were cheated. They weren't given a chance to see the real Kostya Tszyu against Zab Judah fight."
But in the next breath, Zab acknowledges, "I don't think he'll fight me. He's thirty-four; I'm twenty-six. He's slowing down; I'm getting better. Kosta Tszyu has everything to lose and nothing to gain if we fight again. For him to fight Zab Judah now would be a dumb move on his part."
"The big fight I'd like to make next is Arturo Gatti or Ricky Hatton," Judah continues. "They're talking about Floyd Mayweather coming up in weight to fight me, but the friendship between us is too strong to make that deal unless the money is really really big."
A Zab Judah title-unification bout against Vivian Harris is more likely. Or he could go up in weight to face Cory Spinks.
John Ruiz will become the WBA heavyweight belt-holder again if Roy Jones vacates the crown as expected. Ruiz might (or might not) be obligated to make an immediate mandatory title defense. If so, the WBA could massage its rules and rankings to require a bout against Vitali Klitschko, Wladimir Klitschko, Corrie Sanders, Joe Mesi, or David Tua. Don King could mastermind Ruiz against Fres Oquendo in Puerto Rico or Ruiz against Chris Byrd in an arena the size of a small cocktail lounge. James Toney appears to be out of the picture. Ruiz versus Lennox Lewis is a perverse longshot. And of course, there's always the Mike Tyson wild card.
Suffice it to say for the moment that people now have a bit more respect for Roy Jones's performance against Ruiz.
Cory Spinks upset boxing's apple-cart when he upset Mayorga. The sweet science keeps looking for the next marketable mega-star between 147 and 154 pounds, but things can't get settled. Shane Mosley devalued Oscar De La Hoya twice. Vernon Forrest devalued Mosley twice. Ricardo Mayorga devalued Forrest twice. Now Spinks has devalued Mayorga.
There will be a lot of pressure on Spinks to fight an immediate rematch against Mayorga. Vernon Forrest and Antonio Margarito could also wind up in the mix. Zab Judah, Shane Mosley, and Winky Wright are longshots.
And last, but certainly not least, there's Bernard Hopkins. "I won't deny running my mouth," Bernard acknowledges. "But one thing nobody can deny is that I can fight my ass off. Love me or hate me; you've got to admit, I do my job."
Love him or hate him, one also has to admit Hopkins is building an impressive legacy. He has now had seventeen successful title defenses. His last loss was to Roy Jones more than ten years ago. He will be 39 years old in January. And nobody on the scene today who's his own size will beat him except Father Time.
"If I ain't loved, that's fine," Hopkins rages. "I don't need nobody in the media to kiss my ass or tell me they love me. And I don't need no television people giving me their phony line of shit. Just pay me and respect what I've done."
But Bernard has a problem. He can't make big money without a big-name opponent. He stirs passions within the boxing community, but the public-at-large doesn't know or care about him.
Also, for all his talk about going in tough, Hopkins has avoided the best available competition since beating Felix Trinidad and has settled for bouts against Carl Daniels, Morrade Hakkar, and William Joppy. He keeps talking about fighting smaller guys. Roy Jones and Antonio Tarver aren't on his radar screen.
Hopkins isn't a good opponent for De La Hoya or Mosley. Oscar can make huge money against much less dangerous foes. And having endured one beating at the hands of Vernon Forrest, Shane doesn't need to risk another. That leaves Hopkins with Winky Wright (a fight that virtually no one cares about) and Fernando Vargas (which would be an embarrassment). After all, it was Bernard himself who denigrated the proposed De La Hoya-Vargas rematch with the critique, "De La Hoya should be ashamed of himself. What's the promotion going to be? 'Now that I'm off the juice, I can do it.'"
Hopkins versus Joe Calzaghe is also a possibility. But in all likelihood, Bernard's next big fight will be against Don King.
Three years ago, Hopkins signed a contract with Don King Productions to get into King's middleweight championship tournament. "I slept with the devil to get to where I am today," he explained after beating Trinidad. "It was the right choice."
But since then, Bernard has been an unhappy camper. "It's not like you go in and tell Don what you want and that's what you have when you leave," he complained recently. "Don's idea of being reasonable is, 'Yes, sir, boss . . . No, sir, boss . . . Thank you, boss.'"
Hopkins says that he's planning to establish his own promotional company, EX Promotions. "It cost me a lot of money to learn how to play this game," he explains. "Now I'm going to start making some of it back. All I've ever needed for big fights to happen for me is the leverage that comes with independence; the leverage not to have to pay a middleman before I get paid. I’m a free agent come January 24th, and that’s no secret. My time is up. It's over; I'm paroled. As of next month, I'm gonna do it the Old Blue Eyes way; my way."
King, in turn, has proclaimed his loyalty to Hopkins with the pledge, "I'm sticking with Bernard irrespective of what anyone might say or do."
Translation: When Hopkins tries to opt out of his contract with King next month, look for a lawsuit.
Meanwhile, it should be said in closing that the second week of December 2003 was a bad week for Don King. On Tuesday, December 9th, he settled a six-year-old lawsuit brought against him by Terry Norris for the staggering sum of $7,500,000. Then, four nights later, he lost big with Hasim Rahman (who had more money-making potential than John Ruiz) and bigger with Ricardo Mayorga. Those two decisions were both surprises. In the old days, fighters favored by Don King usually won the close ones.
Award winning author Thomas Hauser can be reached at