Boxing: Antonio Tarver

Looking back on 10 years at ringside

September, 18, 2013

Time flies, and last week’s festivities at the MGM Grand brought home a sudden realization that Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s master class on Saturday night came 10 years and one day after my first credentialed fight.

There were a fair few differences between that first fight and my latest: In 2003, my credential was red (signifying I rated only a bleacher seat) instead of ringside green, my affiliation was merely "freelance," and in the identifying photo my mouth was smiling and my hair wasn’t gray. But there were similarities, too: Both bouts were at the MGM, both involved the most popular boxer in the world at the time and both were the culmination of weeks of hype and publicity.

My memories of that first fight are as fresh as though it had been fought 10 months, rather than 10 years, ago, and the passage of time has spawned reflections on the numerous notable memories from a decade of being paid to watch fights.

So here’s a list of my top 10 (12, actually, because I kind of cheated) ringside recollections -- not necessarily the best fights (although some of them were terrific) but what, for me personally, have been my most memorable ringside experiences so far.

Shane Mosley W12 Oscar De La Hoya -- MGM Grand, Las Vegas, Sept. 13, 2003

Shane Mosley, Oscar De La Hoya
Chris Polk/Getty ImagesShane Mosley edged Oscar De La Hoya for a decision win in 12 rounds in 2003.
Not exactly a ringside recollection, as I watched proceedings from the auxiliary section, but this was the first of what -- although I had no way of knowing it at the time -- would turn out to be more than a decade of professional prizefights for which I was credentialed.

From my seat in the bleachers, I thought the Golden Boy had eked out a decision in a good fight; most of those ringside, where the power of Mosley’s blows were more telling, seemed to agree with the official verdict. Personally, I most remember the thrill of experiencing my inaugural big-fight atmosphere, and the strange feeling of anticlimax on Sunday morning when it was all over.

Antonio Tarver TKO2 Roy Jones Jr. -- Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas, May 15, 2004
The defining moment of postfight shock and awe. Jones had looked mortal in the first encounter between the two men, but that had widely been attributed to his struggles returning to 175 pounds after his brief and successful excursion to heavyweight. But Tarver had his number, and when he landed the big punch that marked the end of Jones’ era of dominance, the crowd responded with an initial roar, followed by a stunned silence, culminating in 12,000 people reaching simultaneously for their cellphones to tell friends, “Holy ****, Roy Jones just got knocked out!”

Diego Corrales TK10 Jose Luis Castillo -- Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas, May 7, 2005

Jose Castillo and Diego
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesEverybody in boxing remembers the incredible fight between Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo fight in Las Vegas in 2005.
Even if this fight had been a dud, it would for me have been memorable: The previous night, the Boxing Writers Association of America's annual dinner had concluded with one of the finest gatherings of past and present champions to stand on one stage; and Gordon Absher, then the Mandalay Bay’s PR guru, had indulged my literary bent by seating me next to the great Budd Schulberg on fight night. Seriously, how could it possibly get any better? Then Corrales and Castillo started throwing punches, and the 4,000 or so souls in the arena became bound together in witnessing one of the very greatest professional prizefights ever -- a fight that effectively ruined both the combatants while leaving an indelible memory on everyone fortunate enough to be there.

Manny Pacquiao TK10 Erik Morales -- Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas, Jan. 21, 2006
Manny Pacquiao KO3 Erik Morales -- Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas, Nov. 18, 2006

For reasons I can’t quite remember, but presumably related to a lack of money, I watched the first tilt between these two on TV in my cabin in Alaska. The indelible memory of their second contest, apart from Pacquiao turning around a fight he was losing and storming to a stoppage win, was the unrelenting volume inside the arena, as rival Mexican and Filipino fight fans shouted themselves hoarse. I imagined it was like sticking your head next to a jet engine. The third was much the same, and at the end of that contest the feeling was of one man reaching the end of his career and another about to launch his into the stratosphere.

Floyd Mayweather TKO10 Ricky Hatton -- MGM Grand, Las Vegas, Dec. 8, 2007

Ah, the Brits. My people. So very many of them, so very drunk, and singing so very loudly. For a week, Las Vegas became Manchester with better weather and colder beer, as Hatton’s fans sang constantly to remind themselves how many Ricky Hattons there are; and even when that one Ricky Hatton was stopped in the 10th round, they sang and drank some more.

Antonio Margarito TKO11 Miguel Cotto -- MGM Grand, Las Vegas, July 26, 2008
Miguel Cotto TKO10 Antonio Margarito -- Madison Square Garden, New York, Dec. 3, 2011

Miguel Cotto
AP Photo/ Ronda ChurchillAntonio Margarito demolished Miguel Cotto in their first fight, but then was suspended for alleged handwrap tampering.
During the buildup to the first fight, I was convinced that Cotto was on the verge of breaking through to the next level, to the very top echelons of pound-for-pound lists. And for much of the early going, the Puerto Rican appeared vastly superior to his opponent in every way, until Margarito ground him down and stopped him in what became a truly violent brawl. The suspicions that emerged afterward, following Margarito’s suspension for alleged handwrap tampering, led to a febrile atmosphere in New York three years later. The fact that Margarito was essentially a one-eyed man being served up for punishment concerned the Puerto Ricans in the arena not one bit, and the guttural roar when Cotto glared at his beaten foe segued into dancing on Seventh Avenue afterward.

Manny Pacquiao W12 Joshua Clottey -- Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas, March 13, 2010

The fight itself was kinda meh. Clottey spent most of his time impersonating a turtle as Pacquiao bang-bang-banged away. But there was a real sense of occasion about it all: Jerry Jones, Cowboys Stadium, that scoreboard … One can only wonder how immense it all would have been had the man across the ring been, as originally intended, not Joshua Clottey but Floyd Mayweather.

Lamont Peterson W12 Amir Khan -- Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, D.C., Dec. 10, 2011.

For all but seven of the nearly 20 years I’ve been in the United States, I’ve lived in the District of Columbia or its northern Virginia suburbs, so to have an HBO fight in what is effectively my hometown, and with a hometown fighter -- a hometown fighter who had grown up sleeping on the streets near the arena where he was now fighting, even –- scoring an upset win over a big star, with a fevered crowd screaming “D.C., D.C., D.C.” … it was all very cool, even if a pair of point deductions by an over-officious referee (to say nothing of the later revelations of Peterson’s synthetic testosterone intake) fouled the punch bowl.

Juan Manuel Marquez KO6 Manny Pacquiao -- MGM Grand, Las Vegas, Dec. 8, 2012

Manny Pacquiao
Zumapress/Icon SMIIn his fourth attempt, Juan Manuel Marquez finally beat Manny Pacquiao.
If much of the world greeted the buildup to their fourth encounter with a comparative shrug, the predominantly Mexican crowd viewed it with eager anticipation, desperate for Marquez to finally secure the official victory they felt he had three times been unjustly denied. It did not matter to them that Marquez entered the ring looking like the Incredible Hulk; they wanted a win, and when it came -– with Pacquiao dropping face-first like a stone -- the tide of emotion that crashed through the arena was a mixture of delirious joy and inconsolable grief, with the fevered wailing of a distraught Jinkee Pacquiao a powerful reminder of the realities of what is at stake when two men enter the ring.

Floyd Mayweather W12 Canelo Alvarez -- MGM Grand, Las Vegas, Sept. 14, 2013

From the massive throng that spilled out of the MGM Grand lobby to watch the fighters’ arrivals on Tuesday, to the crowd that stood three-deep to catch a glimpse of even the undercard fighters working out the next day, to the incomparable weigh-in experience in front of 12,200 fans -- and, of course, the enthusiastic but ultimately futile cries of “si se puede” and “Ca-ne-lo” during the main event -- this was, from beginning to end, almost certainly the most intense big fight week I’ve yet experienced.

Note to the “this was boxing’s last big fight” crowd: At the time of my first fight, nobody would have predicted that in 10 years’ time, Mayweather Jr. would be the man carrying the sport on his back, as De La Hoya did before him, as Mike Tyson did before him. Someone out there is boxing’s next big superstar. He may already be on HBO, he may be fighting undercard six-rounders, he may not yet have turned pro. But when he hits the highest heights, his biggest fights will be true events, just as much as Mayweather’s are now. And if I’m fortunate, I’ll be there covering them.

Boxing's PEDs issue impossible to ignore

October, 24, 2012
What's more tainted: the beef they serve at Erik Morales' training camp, or the sport that made Morales famous?

Whether or not you buy Morales' excuses, whether or not clenbuterol fits your definition of "performance enhancing," whether or not you believe someone should have pulled the plug on the main event of last Saturday's Showtime-televised card at Barclays Center in Brooklyn -- these are all small-picture questions.

The larger-picture view is that boxing, like almost every other sport these days, has a very real PEDs problem. You can take each individual case and find some sort of justification to sweep it under the rug. But at a certain point, the collective evidence becomes too troubling to ignore. If boxing hadn't already reached that point before Morales' "B sample" grabbing headlines, it certainly has now.

For most of the past decade, it was one name here, another name there, some testing positive, some implicated without ever testing positive. Fernando Vargas. Shane Mosley. Orlando Salido. Evander Holyfield. James Toney. Roy Jones Jr. and Richard Hall, both, after fighting each other. There would be a noteworthy incident every year or two, but it never threatened to change the way we viewed the sport.

Six months ago, if you had told me 75 percent of the boxers in the world were juicing, I'd have called you a nut-job conspiracy theorist.

Now, I can't help wondering whether 75 percent is too conservative an estimate.

Between May and October, Lamont Peterson, Andre Berto, Antonio Tarver and Morales -- all current or former major belt holders -- failed drug tests. (And if you really want to get your pink underwear in a bunch, you can lump Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. into that group as well, for spending more time with lowercase roach than uppercase Roach in training camp.)

There's no logical reason to believe that more boxers are using banned substances now than there were in the past. If anything, you'd think fewer would be using, on account of increased testing and their peers getting caught. So whatever PEDs problem boxing has now is probably a problem it has had for decades.

It's just that in 2012, for the first time, those of us who would like to pretend this problem doesn't exist have no choice but to acknowledge that it does. For all we know, boxing is no cleaner than baseball was in the "magical" summer of McGwire and Sosa, no cleaner than cycling or track and field or pro wrestling.

Boxing is not clean. Therefore, by definition, it is dirty. And that makes everything messy. For many of us as fans, that's the worst part of all of this. It's not necessarily that we demand a drug-free sport. It's that we're selfish and we want a sport in which we can appreciate the athleticism, skill, power and heart displayed by our favorite warriors without having to think about the asterisk loaded into every glove.

There are some who believe the sport is headed in the right direction, that you have to bust fighters and cancel bouts to eventually get to a better place. There are others who view all of the needles and urine containers as a waste of time because they believe all PEDs should be legal.

I don't have all the answers. In fact, I don't have any of the answers. There are no solutions out there that will satisfy everyone. The only thing uniting all boxing fans is a desire to see quality fights, and at the moment, the reality of fighters turning up with drugs in their systems is at odds with that desire. Peterson-Amir Khan II and Berto-Victor Ortiz II -- two very attractive fights -- were canceled. And every fight that doesn't get canceled takes place underneath overcast skies.

For those of us who tried hard for many years to convince ourselves that boxing didn't have a PEDs problem, this has all become, for lack of a harder-edged word, uncomfortable.

And that's without even dipping a toe in the waters of how this might affect Hall of Fame voting in the years to come. Can you imagine an International Boxing Hall of Fame without Holyfield?

Go ahead and imagine it. We live in a world where a boxer tests positive and still fights on Showtime but another boxer tests positive and can't commentate on Showtime. We live in a world where phrases like "testosterone pellets," "B sample" and "contaminated meat" are all part of the vernacular. We live in a world where some things we once believed to be true we now believe to be highly uncertain.

It was so much simpler to be a boxing fan when we could all just look the other way. But the events of 2012 have made that impossible. Especially when we all suspect that the only thing that makes 2012 different from every year that came before it is that more boxers are getting caught.
LAS VEGAS -- Under the cover of a rare rainfall, light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson slips into a nondescript boxing gym for his afternoon workout.

No one will ever confuse a Dawson workout with that of a Floyd Mayweather Jr., who does his training in Las Vegas about 15 minutes northwest of where Dawson has set up shop.

[+] EnlargeTBD
Jeff Fusco/Hoganphotos/Golden Boy PromotionsChad Dawson, right, has already been through the media circus with Bernard Hopkins, among others. He's happy to let his Sept. 8 fight with Andre Ward sell itself.
There is no entourage with Dawson, let alone a celebrity best friend. No camera crews. The gym itself you would have trouble finding even when looking for it -- a small room with a ring and two treadmills, attached to a dance studio of all things.

This is how Dawson (31-1) prepares for (and promotes) his Sept. 8 fight against super middleweight champ Andre Ward. The fight will take place at Ward's weight class of 168 pounds and in his hometown of Oakland, Calif.

Dawson produces no sound bites proclaiming he's the greatest ever, and there are no by-the-round knockout predictions from his trainer, John Scully. But in Dawson's eyes, he has done the biggest thing necessary to promote this fight: He made it.

"Me taking this fight and being willing to go down to 168 and to his backyard, I'm testing myself," Dawson said. "That's what champions need to do. Regardless of what you know you can do in the ring, at the end of the day, you have to test yourself."

Immediately after defeating Bernard Hopkins by majority decision in April, Dawson started his campaign for a fight with Ward (25-0) -- a man he said he has wanted to fight for two years.

To potentially speed up the process, Dawson declared he would easily make 168 pounds -- which the Ward camp ultimately held him to.

Pushing for an opponent is one thing, but immediately accepting terms that favor him is something not often seen in today's boxing model. Dawson shrugs at this.

"It's a fight I know I can win," Dawson said. "I have every advantage in that fight. He makes a lot of mistakes, and it's my job to make him pay for those mistakes.

"This doesn't happen enough in boxing. It just so happens that me and Andre Ward are fighting each other, then the week after that you've got [Sergio] Martinez and [Julio Cesar] Chavez Jr. So I think us four fighters are making a statement for boxing. That's two big fights back-to-back."

Dawson, who opened interviews with, "As you can see, I'm looking real slim," said he's on track for an easy cut to 168. He weighed 176 pounds on Wednesday.

It has been a different type of buildup for the Ward fight than some of the others Dawson is accustomed to. He just wrapped up back-to-back fights with one of the more colorful boxers ever in Hopkins, and not too long before that there were the consecutive meetings with the similarly outspoken Antonio Tarver.

Those fights perhaps needed the sideline commentary, with the now-30-year-old Dawson taking on older opponents at the tail end of their careers.

Dawson hopes, and believes, the challenges he has accepted in this fight and the fact that two of the sport's best were interested in seeking, instead of sidestepping, each another will be storyline enough.

"Andre Ward is a class act," Dawson said. "There haven't been any controversies. This is how champions are supposed to behave.

"This fight does speak for itself. You've got two guys who didn't have to take this fight. We both agreed to it and the fight's happening. Hopefully, fans in the boxing world will open their eyes and see this is a big fight."

CHICAGO -- It was bound to end here.

No, Glen Johnson wasn't destined to call it a career in Chicago, and it's not that 24-year-old hometown fighter Andrzej Fonfara was precisely the fighter meant to send the former light heavyweight champ into retirement. But the cramped, sparsely appointed locker room that Johnson occupied as he reflected on his brilliantly workmanlike (and occasionally just brilliant) career after Friday's unanimous decision loss was strangely fitting.

In boxing, endings are almost never awash in glory. They're ugly or bloody. Sometimes embarrassing or shameful. A fighter's swan song isn't a battle cry, but a whimper.

Yet it was none of those things for Johnson (51-17-2, 35 KOs), who gave a solid account of himself against a determined opponent who had a height advantage, throaty crowd support and the energy of a kid 20 years Johnson's junior. But the UIC Pavilion isn't the Garden, and Fonfara (22-2, 12 KOs) isn't a prime Roy Jones Jr. or Antonio Tarver. For "The Road Warrior," it seemed right that he finished propped on a folding chair tucked in the corner of a glorified walk-in closet in some other guy's hometown arena, with Johnson's sullen, silent crew assembled a few paces away while the fighter matter-of-factly critiqued his final ring performance.

Now, this seems an appropriate time to mention some personal feelings. In this line of work, you're taught that athletes should be treated like your kids: You don't play favorites. But you'd have to be made of stone not to have a soft spot for Johnson. He fought anyone, anywhere. He took bouts on short notice. He's been up, down, up again, down again and then up. And now down again. None of it fazes him. Johnson's honesty and thoughtfulness are often expressed through a toothy smile. In a business where B.S. is the business and self-delusion is a job skill, Johnson offered the smooth candor of a Magic 8-Ball.

"I'm fine with the decision," Johnson said when asked about the 99-91, 97-93 (twice) scores in favor of Fonfara. "I think I fought pretty good, but I can't argue with it. I think he won."

Johnson wasn't necessarily outboxed. And at no point over 10 rounds did he seem to start rehearsing that retirement speech in his mind. In fact, after appearing a little sluggish and perhaps puzzled about how to get around Fonfara's jab in the first few rounds, Johnson started to turn the fight. He began timing that long left in Round 4, ducking and then hammering Fonfara's midsection.

Johnson never had his opponent in trouble -- Fonfara acknowledged two of Johnson's biggest shots with a smile and a retaliatory flurry of his own -- but after seven rounds, the fight seemed to be a toss-up. By then, though, Johnson was breathing through his mouth, and in the eighth he threw an off-balance punch that seemed to carry him halfway across the ring and required two beats too long to recover his footing. To hear him tell it, Johnson, 43, just ran out of time.

"I decided to get a little more aggressive," he said of his approach in the middle rounds, "but I just couldn't keep it up. I know how to win that fight. It's just that I wasn't able to be consistent. Every time I would go at it in a particular way, to do what I needed to win, I would need a break. And then when I would take a break, he would come on again. I needed to maintain it and be consistent, like I did when I was younger. But Father Time caught up. I still know what to do, but I just don't have what it takes to maintain it."

Fonfara was respectful enough in victory, calling Johnson "a warrior" and giving props to his opponent for game efforts in recent battles with Carl Froch and Lucian Bute. But when pressed, he was as candid about Johnson's performance as Johnson was himself.

"He's an easy boxer," Fonfara said. "He was like, jab, jab, right hand and left body. That's it, you know? And I prepared for that. And I know he doesn't have [other] combinations or have something else."

Fonfara might have held on to that last thought if he had considered Johnson's elbow injuries -- torn ligaments in both joints -- that were discovered after the Bute fight. Or if he were aware of the number of oily decisions that had gone against Johnson over the years, including an April 2000 defeat against Silvio Branco in Padua, Italy. ("I thought I fought and won clearly," Johnson said. "Ray Charles could see it.")

And one wonders whether Fonfara knew that Johnson -- who arrived in Miami from his native Jamaica at age 15 -- was a late starter in boxing, learned on the job as a pro, worked construction jobs deep into his fighting career to pay the bills or that he practically willed himself to three separate acts as a contender.

The 2004 fighter of the year challenged for world titles at middleweight (losing to Bernard Hopkins in 1997), super middleweight (falling to Sven Ottke in 1999), light heavyweight (stunning Jones by KO and beating Tarver by split decision in his career year) and again at 168 pounds (getting outgunned by Froch in the Super Six last June).

But Fonfara, born in Warsaw and fighting out of Chicago (whose Polish community had his back Friday), was clearly more excited for his win than deliberately indelicate when discussing a man whom earlier in the week he had called "a legend."

And what about Johnson's take on Fonfara?

"It's hard for me to judge," he said. "I think he's a good fighter, solid, he's got a good chin, he's strong. But me not being what I was, I don't know if that's a good measuring stick. I can say he's better than what I had to be, so that should count for something."

The better man won. No excuses. Hats off. On to the next challenge. That's Johnson.

But what exactly will Johnson's next challenge be? He mentioned some of the usual paths for ex-pugs: trainer, TV analyst and, less typical, concert promoter.

"I have a few options," he said. "I'm not for sure 100 percent which way I'll go. But there are some things out there I'd like to do."

As fight fans, let's just be glad Johnson liked doing boxing's dirty work -- going on the road, standing in the pocket and slugging away -- for as long as he did, all while carrying himself as one of the sport's few true gentlemen.

FNF: Bad blood for Tarver-Kayode

May, 29, 2012

"Friday Night Fights" contributor Nigel Collins says the jawing going on between cruiserweights Antonio Tarver and Lateef Kayode in advance of Saturday's card in Los Angeles could make for a better main event fight. For more on Collins' thoughts, watch the video above.