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23 JULY 2014

 

Jessica Goes to the Fights


Muhammad Ali & Jessica Hauser (1993)
Muhammad Ali & Jessica Hauser (1993)

By Thomas Hauser

Jessica won my heart completely, totally, and without reservation when she was three years old.

I was forty-two at the time. My brother, Jim, had come east from Oregon, where he lived with his wife and daughters (Cathy and Jessica). They were visiting my parents, who lived in the suburbs of New York. Cathy was seven and too sophisticated for the game that Jessica and I were playing.

At Jessica’s urging, I was carrying her around the house on my shoulders. We went into the living room, where the family was gathered, and I asked, “Does anyone know where Jessica is?”

That was met by a chorus of, “Oh, no. We have no idea where Jessica is.”

Then, from above my head, a little voice instructed, “Look in the kitchen.”

So I announced, “I think I’ll look in the kitchen and see if Jessica is there.”

That was followed by a trip to the kitchen.

“No. Jessica isn’t here in the kitchen.”

“Look in the bathroom,” the voice from on high ordered.

Which was followed by “Look in the bedroom . . . Look in the closet . . . Look in the basement . . .” Although by this time, Jessica was sufficiently excited that she was flailing her arms around and whacking me on the head with each command.

Finally, I wearied of getting hit in the head. And the bundle of joy on my shoulders was getting a bit heavy. So I stopped in front of a mirror, stared at the image, and said, “Wait a minute! Wait a minute!”

At which point, Jessica put her hands over her eyes on the theory that, if she couldn’t see me, then I couldn’t see her either.

Jessica is now twenty-two. The little girl who once advised me that “four plus four equals two” graduated from the University of Washington in June. During the first trimester of her senior year, in addition to carrying a full course-load, she worked fifty hours a week for the Obama campaign in Seattle.

On election day, Jessica’s picture was on Barack Obama’s national website. She was wearing an Obama sweatshirt, holding a clipboard, ordering people around (which she likes to do). That night, after the polls closed and the results were in, she telephoned and joyously told me, “This is the best night of my life.”

Jessica also practices what she preaches. Later this month, she’ll enter the Peace Corps for a 27-month tour of duty in Cambodia.

Jessica has met her share of boxing personalities. In November 1992, Riddick Bowe was training in Sun River, Oregon, preparatory to challenging Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight championship. Eddie Futch (who was Bowe’s trainer) invited my brother and his daughters to camp for a day. Jessica wasn’t overly excited about meeting Riddick. She was five years old at the time. But she often talked about how much she liked “Mr. Futch.”

Then, in 1993, Jessica met Muhammad Ali. The Smithsonian Institution was honoring “five great American athletes” at a weekend extravaganza that included a White House reception, an elaborate dinner, and a televised entertainment special. Muhammad was among the five. I had four invitations, which I shared with my brother, Cathy, and Jessica.

It was quite a weekend. Friday evening, Jim, Cathy, Jessica, and I had dinner with Muhammad and Lonnie Ali. Muhammad performed a series of magic tricks that left the girls transfixed. Lonnie gave each of them a shopping bag filled with presents. On Saturday, she took the girls sightseeing in a limousine provided by the event organizers.

ESPN was tracking Ali that weekend. Jessica and Cathy are the proud possessors of ESPN footage showing them sitting on Muhammad’s knee. They’re singing “the Barney song” together.

After the weekend, I asked the girls what they’d liked most about the trip. Seeing Bill Clinton? Meeting Muhammad Ali?

They’d enjoyed all that and also thought that Arnold Palmer (another of the honorees) was cool. But none of those things topped their list.

Cathy was impressed by the fact that there was a television in the hotel bathroom. Jessica liked the TV in the back of the limousine.

Fast-forward to September 2006. Jessica was in New York, and I took her to Gallagher’s Steak House for the kick-off press conference for Evander Holyfield vs. Fres Oquendo. Afterward, I suggested that she earn the lunch she’d just eaten by writing about the day’s events. She did so in an article for SecondsOut that quoted Lou DiBella (Oquendo’s promoter) as saying, "Boxing is a horrendous miserable vile business full of miserable thieving motherfuckers. But with this miserable shitty pathetic crop of heavyweights, anyone can become heavyweight champion."

All of which brings us to July 11, 2009, at the Prudential Center in Newark. Jessica had seen many fights on television, but she’d never been to a fight. We decided to remedy that situation, while she was visiting in New York.

During the past year, Main Events has carved out a niche for itself at the Prudential Center. The surrounding environs have a large Polish-American population. Tomasz Adamek (born in Poland and now living in Jersey City) is Main Events’ flagship fighter.

On December 11, 2008, Adamek won the IBF cruiserweight championship with a 12-round split decision victory over Steve Cunningham. On February 27, 2009, he successfully defended his crown with an eighth-round knockout of Johnathon Banks. Both of those fights were at the Prudential Center, as was an April 24th card promoted by Main Events that saw Irish fan-favorite John Duddy upset by Billy Lyell.

Main Events had hoped that July 11th would witness Adamek defending his title against Bernard Hopkins. That would have been a big fight. But Golden Boy (which promotes Hopkins) refused to put more than US$500,000 on the table for Adamek’s services. Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer later said that he would have been willing to pay up to $1,200,000 (a number that was more in line with the economic potential of the fight). But that information wasn’t transmitted to Main Events until Hopkins-Adamek was dead.

The aforementioned events gave rise to a school of thought that Schaefer didn’t really want Hopkins-Adamek because it would have taken some of the air out of Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Juan Manuel Marquez (a Golden Boy promotion which, at the time, was slated for July 19th). Also, had Adamek beaten Hopkins, it would have created a new attraction and hence competition with Golden Boy fighters for HBO dates.

Whatever the reason, Hopkins-Adamek became Adamek vs. Bobby Gunn. On paper, that wasn’t much of a fight.

Gunn began fighting professionally in Arizona at age fifteen and is now thirty-five years old. The most notable thing about his 18-3-1 record was an eleven-year absence from the ring between 1993 and 2004. More ominously, he’d never lasted past the first round against a world-class fighter.

Don’t blame Adamek for the level of competition. After Hopkins-Adamek fell through, Tomasz was willing to fight Glen Johnson or Matt Godfrey. But those fights were turned down by HBO and Showtime. Hence the absence of dollars to pay for a quality opponent.

At the final pre-fight press conference, Gunn optimistically told the media. “This is a modern-day Cinderella story. No one expects great things of me. A lot of the media has ripped me. Beware of a dangerous man.”

That earned a riposte from Andrew Gmitruk (Adamek’s trainer), who advised, “It’s really nice to hear fairy tales, but those stories are for children. We are going to teach reality on Saturday.”

When Saturday arrived, Jessica and I took the PATH train to Newark. After picking up our media credentials, we walked inside the arena and the first person we saw was Don Elbaum.

For those not in the know; Elbaum is a quintessential boxing guy. The sweet science is in his soul. As far as he’s concerned, nothing transcends boxing because boxing is everything.

Elbaum came over to say hello (which, I explained to Jessica, is like walking into the Sistine Chapel and being greeted by the Pope). Don was at the fights because he’s an advisor to an Israeli cruiserweight named Ran Nakash, who would be in the third bout of the evening.

“Nakash is amazing,” Elbaum told us. “He’s taught martial arts to every paramilitary organization in Israel. He’s tough as nails; a great, great fighter. I don’t think anyone under two hundred pounds can beat him.”

[Note to readers: Elbaum is the man who once proclaimed, “I got a kid who might be the next heavyweight champion of the world. The only problem is, he weighs 145 pounds and can’t punch.”]

Either one “gets” Don Elbaum or one doesn’t. Jessica liked him immediately. They bonded in about thirty seconds, after which he took her to Nakash’s dressing room, so she could watch Ran’s hands being wrapped.

They returned to the press section just before the start of the first fight. “Remember,” Elbaum said in parting, “there’s nothing like boxing. I’ve been to the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Kentucky Derby, and none of them come close. A good fight is the greatest entertainment on earth.”

The first bout of the evening saw Delen Parsley, a junior-middleweight from Brooklyn, making his pro debut against Tyrone Miles, who’d won his only previous pro bout. Parsley broke him down with body shots and stopped him in round four.

That was followed by a quick trip to the press room for penne and Caesar salad. “The first rule of boxing,” I explained to Jessica, “is, if there’s free food, grab it.”

Then, having missed the second bout, we returned to ringside, where Parsley joined us. He’s a likeable young man and was in a good mood, having just won his first pro fight.

“They don’t expect a fighter as tall as me to go to the body like I do,” Delen told us. “But I was digging to the body and saw him cringe, so I kept doing it. I’m building my career and this is a good start. Now I can say I’ve made my pro debut right.”

Did he have any insights into the sweet science to share with Jessica?

“No fighter is one hundred percent sane,” Delen counseled. “I’m not saying I’m crazy, but you have to be a little off to do this.”

Then Ron Nakash entered the ring to face William Bailey. Nakash was more flawed than a 12-and-0 fighter should be. But Bailey (who had ten victories in 28 fights) wasn’t there to test him. He’d come from Virginia to pick up a paycheck. One more loss on his record wouldn’t matter. The Virginian quit in round four.

Meanwhile, Jessica liked the music that was booming over the public address system. To me, it sounded like noise, but she explained that it was “top-ten iTunes download.” And she loved the fights. “It’s not boring,” she said. “That’s for sure. I’m really into it.”

Then we got bored; both of us. Welterweights Henry Crawford and Kaseem Wilson, two cautious counter-punchers, engaged in a stultifying boring non-fight. How bad was it? After a while, the crowd wasn’t paying enough attention to boo. Crawford won a unanimous decision.

That was followed by the most interesting match-up of the evening. Piotr Wilczewski (22-0, 7 KOs, the first of three Polish fighters on the card) vs. Curtis Stevens (20-2, 14 KOs, from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn). Super-middleweights.

It was a good action fight. Stevens knocked Wilczewski down with a left hook in round one and smacked him around the ring until the bell brought a temporary halt to the proceedings. Piotr recovered sufficiently to land the more numerous (if not harder) blows in round two. Then, in round three, Wilczewski was decked by another left hook, rose, and was being battered against the ropes when referee Earl Morton intervened to save him from the inevitable.

The crowd jeered and Wilczewski protested, but it was the right call. Stevens then celebrated a little more boisterously than Piotr’s fans thought appropriate. The jeers turned more hostile and it was suggested that Curtis leave the ring expeditiously to avoid further provocation.

Polish pride was restored somewhat in fight number six, when cruiserweight Mateusz Masternak (13-0, 8 KOs) stopped Naser Mohamed Aly (4-3, 2 KOs) in five rounds. Like Wilczewski, Masternak had a padded record. But he wasn’t fighting Curtis Stevens.

Now it was time for the main event. Tomasz Adamek (37-1, 25 KOs, the best cruiserweight in the world) against a club fighter.

“First time I saw this place,” Adamek has said of the Prudential Center, “I thought it is beautiful. There is nothing like this in Poland. Many Polish people live near Prudential Center. I feel very at home here. It is very exciting to look up and see all the Polish people.”

Now Adamek was surrounded by a sea of red and white, the colors of the Polish flag being the dominant sartorial theme among the 5,590 fans in attendance.

As for Gunn; he looked like a guy who had no chance; he fought like a guy who had no chance; and he had no chance.

Adamek, a habitually slow starter, easily dominated round one. From that point on, he beat Gunn up. Give Bobby credit for courage and heart. Each round that he survived was a small victory. But being game is different from being good.

In round four, the beating turned ugly. Gunn takes a pretty good punch, but he was taking too many of them without landing anything in return. Before the bell for round five, the ring doctor stopped it.

“I feel sorry for him,” Jessica said of Gunn. “But it is boxing.”

After the fights, Harold Lederman, who was at the Prudential Center with his wife, Eileen, and eldest daughter, Julie, drove us home. That’s some pair of bookends for an evening of boxing: Don Elbaum and Harold Lederman.

Eighteen hours later, Jessica flew back to Oregon. In a matter of days, she’ll leave for Cambodia to embark upon the next chapter in her life. I’ll miss her and I’ll be concerned about her welfare in a faraway land. But she assures me that she’s “adventurous, not reckless.”

She has become a wonderful young woman. I wish her Godspeed on the journey ahead.

* * *

The past few weeks have seen a stream of tributes to Alexis Arguello, who died of what appears to have been a self-inflicted gunshot wound on July 1st.

Arguello was one of the great fighters of his era. He began boxing professionally in his native Nicaragua at age sixteen and won world championships in three weight divisions. “Bring me the best,” he said, “and I will knock them out.”

Arguello won 82 fights and defeated the likes of Ruben Olivares, Alfredo Escalera, Ruben Castillo, Ray Mancini, Cornelius Boza-Edwards, and Jose Luis Ramirez.

One man he could not beat was Aaron Pryor. Their 1982 encounter is widely regarded as one of the greatest fights ever. Pryor, at the time, had 31 wins in 31 fights with 29 knockouts. For thirteen rounds, they engaged in brutal, brilliant, stunningly violent combat as Arguello sought to wrest the 140-pound title from the champion’s grasp. Then, midway through round fourteen, Pryor landed a blow that shattered Arguello’s nose and brought a look of devastation to his eyes. Two dozen unanswered blows followed, sending Arguello unconscious to the canvas.

Ten months later, they fought again. And again, Pryor, indestructible, took everything that Arguello threw at him. In round ten, Alexis had reached his limit. A barrage of punches pinned him against the ropes and he went down.

This time, Arguello was in full command of his senses. He lifted his body to a sitting position and sat on the canvas, elbows resting on upraised knees, gloves crossed in front of him. He made no effort to rise and looked at referee Richard Steele with clear eyes. At the count of ten, he nodded as if to say, “That’s right. In the ring, Pryor is the better man.”

But what has stayed with me in the twenty-five years since then was the look of abject grief on Arguello’s face. There was nothing casual about his surrender.

Even when Alexis Arguello said no mas, he did it with dignity and grace.

* * *

Showtime made news last week with the announcement of a super-middleweight tournament called the World Boxing Classic.

Arthur Abraham, Mikkel Kessler, Carl Froch, Jermain Taylor, Andre Ward, and Andre Dirrell will engage in twelve fights. There will be three preliminary rounds, during which each fighter will face three of the other five combatants. Three points will be awarded for each victory by knockout; two points for each victory by decision; and one point for a draw. After the preliminary rounds, the top four qualifiers will battle for supremacy in an elimination tournament.

The first fights (Taylor-Abraham, Froch-Dirrell, and Kessler-Ward) are slated to be held later this year. The finals are expected to take place in early 2011.

Abraham and Kessler are the tournament co-favorites. Each of them has one hole in his resume; the absence of a win over another elite fighter. The World Boxing Classic can rectify that.

Froch is a big strong guy who can punch. Whether that will be enough against slick boxers (Ward and Dirrell) or other big strong guys who can punch is an open issue.

Taylor has two victories over Bernard Hopkins, but lifestyle and training issues have caused his career to slide downhill since then. The issue is whether he can get his act together in the short time before he faces Abraham.

Ward (who won a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens) is largely untested in the pros, as is Dirrell.

IBF 168-pound champion Lucian Bute was not invited to participate in the tournament. Many observers think that he would have been a better sixth man than Dirrell. But Andre is promoted by Gary Shaw (who seems to occupy a special place in the heart of Showtime boxing tsar Ken Hershman).

The composite record of the six tournament fighters is 161-4-1. Take Taylor out of the equation and it’s 133-1 (the only loss being Kessler’s defeat by decision at the hands of Joe Calzaghe).

A lot can go wrong in twenty months, and that’s particularly true in boxing. Fighters get hurt; they retire. It’s possible that the tournament will fall apart or not live up to expectations. But Showtime deserves credit for creating a scenario that’s expected to bring twelve competitive fights to the boxing public. There are no “soft” fights in the World Boxing Classic. Each bout stands on its own merits.

Right now, HBO has a bit of egg on its face. While Showtime brought five promoters together to facilitate the World Boxing Classic, HBO (with a much larger budget) has locked itself into a summer-fall season with some good fights and too many dates that were given to one promoter with no fights attached.

But in reality, the Showtime tournament represents yet another opportunity for HBO. Showtime’s commitment to the 168-pound division means that, for the next eighteen months, HBO will go largely unchallenged in bidding for fights in other weight divisions.

If Showtime can match the best super-middleweights in the world against each other, there’s no reason why HBO can’t match the best against the best in other weight divisions on World Championship Boxing and the best young prospects against the best young prospects on Boxing After Dark. It doesn’t need a tournament. One good fight at a time will do.

One thing HBO should not do, though, is try to undermine Showtime by claiming that the upcoming rematch between Lucian Bute and Librado Andrade and Bute’s absence from the World Boxing Classic somehow undermines the credibility of the tournament. After all, the most notable win on Bute’s record is a narrow escape against Andrade late last year. And Andrade lost every round on all three judges’ scorecards when he fought Kessler two years ago.

A word on the place of the world sanctioning bodies in the tournament is also in order.

Carl Froch is the WBC super-middleweight beltholder. The WBC (which is hungry for sanctioning fees) has said that it will suspend its rules regarding mandatory defenses for the duration of the tournament. The WBA is expected to follow suit with regard to its beltholder, Mikkel Kessler, after Kessler makes a pre-tournament mandatory defense against Gusmyl Perdomo. Of course, as the tournament proceeds, each sanctioning body can be expected to dilute its title by introducing “interim champions,” “super champions,” and the like in exchange for sanctioning fees from other promotions.

Boxing fans should forget about the alphabet-soup titles that are at stake in the tournament. The winner of the World Boxing Classic will be “King of the Hill, A-number-one” in boxing’s super-middleweight division. Indeed, if Ring Magazine wants its belts to have credibility, it will state now that the winner of the tournament will be its new super-middleweight champion.

Meanwhile, the most important thing about the World Boxing Classic is that Showtime will be televising twelve competitive fights between world-class fighters. Win or lose, each combatant is guaranteed a minimum of three fights. But he’ll have to go in tough in each of them. And a real champion will be crowned at the end.

That’s the way things should be in boxing. As Allan Scotto wrote recently, “Stop the silly practice of coddling fighters when they lose. You need to build your confidence? Build it in the gym. Stop wasting the precious little airtime boxing gets these days. [The soft-opponent comeback fight] does more to hurt this sport than just about anything else. It’s like pitching underhand to Derek Jeter because he struck out and feels bad.”

Everyone in boxing should be rooting for the success of the “World Boxing Classic.” A rising tide lifts all boats.

* * *

Journeyman fighter Michael Murray once observed, “Centuries ago, someone forced men to fight and called it sport.”

Arturo Gatti embodied that endeavor in its purest form.

Gatti’s career was notable for his refusal to accept the physical constraints that limit other fighters. He gave everything he had in every battle. His face rarely looked the same after combat as it had before. There was no quit in him; no give-up; no fold. He was pure fighter at his core.

Sooner or later, with few exceptions, even the bravest of fighters have the hope and optimism beaten out of them. For Arturo, that time came in 2007 after a knockout loss at the hands of Alfonso Gomez. “Hasta la vista, baby,” he said in his dressing room following that fight. “I can’t be taking this abuse anymore.”

Happy endings are rare in boxing, and Arturo’s was particularly sad. He lived his life outside the ring like he fought inside it; fast, dangerously, and hard. As of this writing, it appears as though his untimely death came at his own wife’s hand.

So let it be said that Arturo got a fair shake from boxing, and boxing got a fair shake from Arturo. People often talked of the manner in which he fought as comprising a “human highlight reel.” But he was more than that. He was loyal to the people who helped build his career. He always had a kind word for young fighters who looked up to him. Now he’s gone.

People in boxing understand the loss.


Thomas Hauser can be reached by e-mail at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book (“The Boxing Scene”) was published earlier this year by Temple University Press.


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