The Oddest Couple

Chuck Wepner
Chuck Wepner
By Thomas Hauser

Barney Frank has been in Congress since 1981 and is chairman of the House of Representatives Financial Services Committee. That makes him one of the most powerful people in government. His career is also notable because, in 1987, he was only the second member of Congress to openly acknowledge being gay.

What does Barney Frank have to do with boxing?

Not much. But earlier this year, in a profile for The New Yorker, he was quoted as reminiscing, “My first day of high school, I was sent to the vice principal for discipline because I got in trouble for talking too much. When I got to her office, Chuck Wepner was already there. He’d gotten into a fight with the toughest kid in the school.”

Actually, Wepner was probably the toughest kid in the school. In later years, he compiled a professional record of 35 wins, 14 losses, and 2 draws against opponents like George Foreman, Sonny Liston, and Ernie Terrell. But the most notable encounter of “The Bayonne Bleeder’s” career was a fifteenth-round knockout loss at the hands of Muhammad Ali. Chuck’s courage that night inspired an unemployed actor named Sylvester Stallone to write a screenplay entitled Rocky.

As for Barney Frank and their time together at Bayonne High School, Wepner recalls, “I was two years ahead of Barney. I would have graduated in 1956, but I was two credits short and went into the Marines. I got my GED later on. Barney and I didn’t have much to do with each other. He was active in the different political forums they ran, but politics wasn’t my thing. I came from a pretty rough background. My mother and father split up when I was a year old. We lived in a converted coal shed until I was thirteen. Then we moved to the projects, so I had other things on my mind.”

And the fight in school that Frank remembers?

“It was with a guy named Cuno Canella. I didn’t push guys around, but I didn’t like guys pushing me around either. We got into it in the school cafeteria. I was beating him up pretty good when they stopped it. I lost sometimes in the pros, but I was undefeated in the cafeteria.”

And last; what does Wepner think of Barney Frank today?

“I’m very proud that I knew Barney. He seems like a nice guy. He’s a good politician. And it took courage to come out of the closet when he did. I give him credit for that. You know; I’ve been a Democrat my whole life. I like Barack Obama. He’s a good man with a tough job, and I’m glad that Barney is there to help him.”

* * *

The June 13th match-up between Miguel Cotto and Joshua Clottey was the sixth time that Cotto had headlined in the main arena at Madison Square Garden and his fourth appearance there on the eve of New York’s Puerto Rican Day Parade.

Miguel is one of boxing’s elite fighters. His only loss was an eleventh-round stoppage at the hands of Antonio Margarito in July 2008. That defeat is now suspect and Margarito is serving a minimum-one-year suspension from boxing because Antonio’s hands were found to have been illegally wrapped prior to his January 2009 fight against Shane Mosley.

Clottey (born and raised in Ghana, now living in New York) won the IBF welterweight title last August with a decision over Zab Judah. Then he gave it up for a big payday against Cotto rather than fight a meaningless defense for minimal compensation against a mandatory challenger.

Prior to facing Cotto, Clottey had suffered two losses. The first came against Carlos Baldomir in 1999, when he was disqualified in the eleventh round for repeated head butts. The second was a decision setback at the hands of Antonio Margarito in 2006; a fight in which Clottey says he suffered a broken hand in the fourth round.

Cotto was a 3-to-1 favorite over Clottey. But everyone understood going in that Joshua was a live underdog. Adding fuel to the fire, Clottey opined at the final pre-fight press conference that Cotto had lost the will to fight through pain and do the other things that a fighter must to do in combat to win.

Also, Cotto-Clottey was the first time in eighteen years that Miguel had trained for a fight with someone other than his uncle Evangelista. That happenstance was the result of long-simmering differences between the two men that boiled over in early April, when they came to blows twice in the same day and Evangelista threw a brick through the window of Miguel’s 2009 Jaguar.

When fight night came, Cotto vs. Clottey lacked the Jerry Springer histrionics of Cotto vs. Cotto. But it did feature an exciting ebb and flow with action throughout.

The first dramatic highlight came when a sharp jab put Clottey on the canvas just before the bell ending round one.

In round three, an accidental clash of heads opened an ugly gash along Cotto’s right eyebrow.

In the final minute of round five, referee Arthur Mercante Jr stumbled over a photographer’s camera (boo on the photographer), and Cotto took advantage of the moment to throw his opponent to the canvas. That left Clottey writhing in pain for the better part of a minute and favoring his right knee when the action resumed.

After nine rounds, Cotto appeared to be outboxing Clottey, while Clottey was outfighting Cotto. At that point, judges Tom Miller and John McKaie had the fight even, while Miguel was ahead by two points on Don Trella’s scorecard.

Then Clottey tired and Cotto hung tough, albeit largely in retreat. When it was over, the judges agreed that Miguel had won rounds one, six, and eleven, while five, seven, and eight belonged to Joshua. Beyond that, things got a bit dicey. Miller scored the fight 114-113 for Clottey, while McKaie (115-112) and Trella (116-111) gave the nod to Cotto. This writer scored it even at 114-114.

It wasn’t the worst decision ever. But given the margin on Trella’s scorecard, it was far from the best; especially since Clottey had a 222-to-179 advantage in punches landed with a 168-to-124 margin in power punches.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of Cotto-Clottey, several things are clear:

(1) A frenzied pro-Cotto crowd of 17,734 made it fun to be at Madison Square Garden and also enhanced the television-viewing experience. A packed arena with a cheering crowd makes for good television. It reinforces the message to viewers that they’re watching something exciting.

(2) Give Cotto credit for fighting someone his own size. And contrast that with Floyd Mayweather Jr (who, after besting Ricky Hatton, has contracted to fight Juan Manuel Marquez) and Andre Berto (last seen in title defenses against Stevie Forbes and Juan Urango with Luis Collazo sandwiched in between). How about Berto-Clottey next?

(3) True world championships rarely exist in boxing today. Winning a belt is akin to winning a conference title in college football. If you’ve won the SEC, you’re entitled to bragging rights. If you finished on top in Conference USA, you’re little more than a big fish in a small pond. Cotto-Clottey was for a WBO belt, but very few people in attendance at Madison Square Garden seemed to care. The important thing is that it was a competitive fight between two very good fighters.

* * *

“The notion of a universal heavyweight championship doesn’t come across as legitimate any longer,” writes Patrick Kehoe. “The heavyweight championship today is a statement of political expediency and marketing-speak. Courts and committees and cable executives and the ubiquity of promotional influence have seen to the extinction of the championship as won via merit and the lineage of ritual combat.”

Wladimir Klitschko’s June 20th match-up in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, against Ruslan Chagaev was the latest exhibit in support of Kehoe’s thesis.

Klitschko-Chagaev began as Klitschko against David Haye.

Haye got the fight in large measure because he sounds like a foul-mouthed version of Naseem Hamed. During the pre-fight build-up, he went out of his way to offend Wladimir, calling him “Bitchko” and demeaning his skills as a fighter.

Among the thoughts that Haye offered were:

* “The heavyweight division has been shit for the last four or five years. It’s a joke. It really sucks.”

* “Wladimir doesn’t engage in battle the way people want to see. I’m different. I don’t go out to jab and move and try to steal the fight. I come out from the first round and throw bombs. I smash my opponents to bits.”

* “I’ve got a PhD in trash-talking and kicking ass. We’ll see whose PhD matters on June 20th.”

Klitschko (who has a doctorate in Sports Science) was particularly offended by a T-shirt that Haye wore during the kick-off press tour. The T-shirt depicted David standing in a boxing ring, holding the severed heads of Wladimir and his brother Vitali in his upraised hands with their decapitated bodies lying on the canvas beneath his feet.

“The T-shirt bothers me,” Klitschko acknowledged. “The way he does it with my brother’s body; he is doing it in an ugly, not acceptable way. It’s not funny. It has nothing to do with sport. He talks a lot, but actions speak louder than words. He is immature as a person and as a fighter. I will not underestimate him, but I know my strong side and his weak side. He has fast hands and a lot of nothing. David Haye is going to eat his words after the fight, and I would like him to eat his T-shirt too.”

Klitschko and Haye have bodies that baseball players who hit seventy home runs in a season would admire. But Klitschko is the naturally bigger man. Much bigger. David was a good cruiserweight, but there were questions as to whether he could take (as opposed to talk) a heavyweight punch. Or even had one. He had been stopped in five rounds by Carl Thompson and never fought a quality heavyweight. Wladimir figured to be a much tougher opponent than Giacobbe Fragomeni, Ismail Abdoul, or Lasse Johansen.

Then, on June 3rd, it was announced that Haye had suffered a back injury in training and was withdrawing from the fight. Adam Booth (his business representative) described the news as “the most disappointing and devastating that David has ever had to deliver.”

In response, Klitschko noted, “If something like that happened to me, he would talk dirty, which I’m not going to do. I will not throw garbage at a person who is down on the floor. I won’t kick a man when he is down, but he would to me.”
Meanwhile, there were reports that Setanta (the television network slated to carry Klitschko-Haye in the UK) was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. And given the way Haye’s fight contract had been structured, he was to receive most of his purse from Setanta.

Thus, when Floyd Mayweather Jr announced shortly thereafter that a rib injury had forced the postponement of his July 18th fight against Juan Manuel Marquez (which was doing poorly at the box office with a cloud hanging over pay-per-view buys), Steve Kim of was moved to ask, “What’s more credible? David Haye’s back injury or Floyd Mayweather’s ailing rib?”

Adding to boxing’s medical report, Ruslan Chagaev (the WBA “world heavyweight champion in recess”) had been scheduled to fight Nikolai Valuev (the WBA “world heavyweight champion”) in Finland on May 30th.

Chagaev (for those who care) had won the WBA title with an April 14, 2007, majority decision over Valuev. But after Ruslan pulled out of one fight too many (including a rematch against Nikolai, the WBA ruled that Valuev was once again its champion on the basis of a split-decision victory over John Ruiz and declared Ruslan its “champion in recess.”

One day before Valuev-Chagaev was to take place, Finnish officials announced that the fight could not proceed because Ruslan had tested positive for hepatitis B.

That wasn’t a problem for German officials (who had okayed Klitschko versus Lamon Brewster in 2007, even though Lamon was on medical suspension in the United States and suffering from impaired vision in one eye).

Hence, Klitschko-Chagaev.

Wladimir is a safety-first fighter. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does take some of the drama out of a fight. Klitschko-Chagaev was nine rounds of tedium that could be summed up as “Klitschko jab, Klitschko jab, Klitschko straight right hand.”

Chagaev kept trying to work his way inside, but couldn’t get past the jab. Part of his problem was that, to get inside, a fighter has to work behind something (like a jab of his own). And Ruslan rarely did. The only blow of consequence he landed during the entire fight was a left hand after the bell ending round seven.

Give Chagaev points for determination. It takes a special person to get hit in the head again and again, land nothing in return, and not vary from his fight plan. But those were the only points that Ruslan got. He was knocked down once and bleeding from a gash on his left eyelid as well as an ugly cut inside his mouth (remember the hepatitis B) when the ring doctor called a halt to the proceedings after nine rounds.

Prior to the fight, Ring Magazine had announced that Klitschko-Chagaev would be for its own vacant heavyweight title. Klitschko also wears the IBF, WBO, and IBO crowns. Perhaps he is now also the WBA “champion in recess.”

* * *

Ricky Hatton has long been known for binge-eating and heavy drinking between fights. His fondness for beer gives new meaning to the phrase “six-pack abs.” Then he goes to training camp and works his way into shape.

“But the last few pounds are murder,” Ricky says of making weight. “And temptation is always there.”

That temptation was never more difficult to resist than the Sunday before Hatton fought Luis Collazo in Boston three years ago.

“The promoters arranged for us to go to a baseball game at Fenway Park,” Ricky recalls. “We had great seats behind home plate, but I was miserable. I couldn’t understand the game. And the vendors going through the crowd with hot dogs, pizza, and beer drove me absolutely nuts.”

* * *

Jerry Izenberg is America’s best sports writer.

Izenberg has been writing about sports for 58 years, 46 of them as a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger. His most recent work is among his most memorable.

Through My Eyes: A Sports Writer’s 58-year Journey (St. Johann Press) is a personal look at the people, places, and events that have shaped Izenberg’s life. The opening chapter is as good as any father-son-baseball-bonding writing in print.

Read this book.

* * *

State senator Kevin S. Parker is one of the co-sponsors of a bill currently before the New York State legislature that would legalize mixed martial arts.

On May 8, 2009, Parker was arrested by New York City police officers and charged with assault.

Parker was also arrested in 2005 after police said that he punched a traffic agent in the face. Those charges were dismissed after Parker agreed to enroll in an anger management course.

In 2006, Parker was accused of choking a staff member and smashing her glasses during an altercation in his office. No criminal charges were filed in that incident.

Some people think that Parker should be in jail. Others think that he should be in a UFC Octagon. One place where it appears he should not be is in the New York State legislature. But if he runs for reelection, it wouldn’t be surprising if the people who control UFC make a significant financial contribution to his campaign.

* * *

And a final thought from the interaction of boxing and politics; this one from Wladimir Klitschko, who opines, “It is important to have a leader like Barack Obama, who lifts people up and leads them in a positive way. Times have changed. You can no longer think only about yourself, and he thinks globally. He has courage. He understands what he’s doing. He sees the light at the end of the tunnel. The way he speaks, the way he walks, his body language; people around the world are feeling it and get hope and motivation from him. It will be difficult to accomplish everything he wants, but he will open peoples’ minds on all sides.”


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