December 31, 2016

R.I.P. Ali, Pryor, & Obermayer: For Whom The 2016 Ten-Count Bells Tolled

Lost Greatness
By Jeffrey Freeman

The year that wasn’t started off slowly last January, gaining little momentum as the months passed by, terminating in December with 51-year-old Bernard Hopkins being knocked out of the ring in his "farewell bout" by an obscure Long Island laborer named Joe Smith Jr. The "Executioner" of boxing was nearly executed.

Along the way, the unthinkable, the event of this year or any other.

The death of The Greatest, Muhammad Ali.

It’s been more than six months since the passing of the GOAT and our dwindling boxing community is still deeply mourning the loss of Ali; a once-in-a-lifetime boxer, American, and man. If it’s true what some fans and media are saying about the decline of boxing in 2016, Ali’s network televised funeral procession in Louisville, Kentucky served as a tragically apt metaphor for that very morbid notion.

Are things really that bad today? Ali’s funeral was seen by some keen insiders as boxing’s funeral.

Care to argue with them after this past year?

We now ring a final, memorial ten-count for those in the world of boxing lost in 2016:

Ali & Bingham
Muhammad Ali: On June 3 in Scottsdale, Arizona, in these United States of America, the first born son of Cassius and Odessa Clay passed away at the age of 74. Afflicted with Parkinson’s cruel Syndrome, Ali’s silent suffering is now finally over. We shall remember him not just as the greatest heavyweight champion of all-time but as one of the greatest human beings to ever share his vision of life with humanity. Ultimately, Ali’s greatest fights were fought and won outside of the ring in a struggle for equality and human dignity. Ali defeated not only Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman, but the U.S. Federal Government itself. As memories fade and the sound of Ali’s voice grows ever more faint, we will recall his faith, courage, and compassion for all he came in contact with. As a postscript to Ali’s passing, his friend and photographer Howard Bingham departed on December 15 in Los Angeles.

Bingham was 77.

Aaron Pryor: "Hawk Time" ended on October 9 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The former junior welterweight champion was 60-years-old when he left the neon world he once set ablaze with a windmill boxing style reminiscent of the great Henry Armstrong. Best remembered for a pair of knockout victories over Alexis Arguello, Pryor will almost certainly also be remembered for drinking from a "special" bottle, one "mixed" by his infamous cornerman and trainer Panama Lewis in 1982. Born into a life of pain, that wasn’t the only dark bottle Pryor drank from. At the time of his death though, Pryor was living a sober life and working with troubled youth, teaching them to box. In the end, Pryor’s turbulent high life was one of recovery and redemption.

The "Hawk" soared, crashed, and rose again before sailing home.

KOJO in action
Jack Obermayer: Known affectionately as "KOJO" to readers, Jack Obermayer was a very special boxing writer. A Vietnam War Veteran, father, grandfather, and good friend to many, Jack, 72, succumbed to liver cancer last June in New Jersey, approximately six years after receiving a much needed liver transplant that extended his life. As a new fight scribe on the beat in 2011, I was lucky enough to have a press row seat right next to Jack in New Hampshire for a "Fight To Educate" charity boxing card. As a long time reader of Obermayer in "The Ring" and in Bert Sugar’s "Boxing Illustrated,” I was working right next him, learning from the best, and making a new friend. What I didn’t know then was that I was witnessing the first leg of Jack’s post-transplant comeback to fight writing. Known for his relentless travel and attention to detail, Obermayer covered 3,514 shows in over 400 cities and towns in 49 states. One of those small towns was Skowhegan, Maine. Jack had never been but he’d heard good things about the old diners up there. On May 11, 2013, it was my great honor to carpool with and work alongside "KOJO" for the successful pro debut of Mainer Brandon "The Cannon" Berry.

Chacon was loved by all, even "Boom Boom"
Bobby Chacon: Before there was Arturo "Thunder" Gatti to electrify fight fans with inhuman resolve, there was Bobby Chacon. A human highlight reel of featherweight fisticuffs, "Schoolboy" Chacon engaged in some of boxing’s most memorable title bouts in the 1970s and early 80s. Singer Warren Zevon thought so highly of Chacon (and Ray Mancini) that he sang of both by name in his 1987 hit song “Boom Boom Mancini” written about Chacon’s ill-fated challenge of "Boom Boom" for the lightweight championship three years prior in 1984.

Hurry home early, hurry on home
Boom Boom Mancini’s fighting Bobby Chacon...

In his Hall of Fame career, Chacon, 59-7-1 (47) also battled warriors Ruben Olivares, Danny "Little Red" Lopez, Alexis Arguello, "Bazooka" Limon, and Cornelius Boza-Edwards. Sadly, Chacon lost his money and his health before passing on last September 7 at the age of 64.

RIP Iron Mike
Mike Towell: Boxing is a brutal sport. Every year it produces the same grim reminder when a brave fighter is killed or badly injured in the ring. Iron Mike Towell was a 25-year-old Scottish welterweight up-and-comer with a professional record of 11-0 with 8 knockouts. His young life and boxing career were just beginning to blossom. On September 29 in Glasgow, Scotland, Towell was beaten into submission in five rounds by a Welshman named Dale Evans. Towell was taken from the ring on a stretcher and he died the following day at a hospital after being removed from life support machines. Towell suffered a brain bleed during the fatal Evans bout after complaining of headaches in the lead-up to the match. Towell leaves behind his life partner Chloe Ross and their young son Rocco.

Tony Burton: As the actor who played Rocky movie trainer Tony "Duke" Evers, Tony Burton was well known to boxing fans for his reoccurring role on the big screen in the 1976 Rocky film, all the sequels, and in 2006’s Rocky Balboa where Evers trains Rocky one more time, imploring the Italian Stallion to "start buildin’ some hurtin’ bombs" while cracking his neck in a dusty gym. What you might not know about Burton is that he was once a fighter himself in real life. In the late 1950s, Burton went 4-3-1 as a heavyweight boxer hailing from California. Knocked out in his final two bouts, Burton chose the "reel life" instead, becoming a successful Hollywood actor. Burton was 78 when he died of pneumonia on February 25.

In addition to Rocky films, Burton also appeared in The Shining and The Toy.

Alex Stewart: This London-born heavyweight "Destroyer" was only 52 when he died on November 16 from a blood clot in his lung. Seen as shy with puppy dog eyes, Stewart began his boxing career in 1986 and quickly amassed an impressive 24-0 (24) record before stepping up to challenge Evander Holyfield in 1989. Stewart was beaten by "The Real Deal" in a brutally bloody encounter in Atlantic City. The technical knockout loss turned out to be the highlight of Stewart’s career. Losses to Mike Tyson, George Foreman, and Michael Moorer further defined Stewart as being a step behind the elites but almost always right there in the mix with them on fight night.

Harlib working with The Truth Spence Jr.
Todd Harlib: In boxing, it is the cutman who stops the bleeding but sometimes keeps the information flowing. I first met the late Todd Harlib in 2015 at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. Harlib was working the corner of Jermall Charlo as his charge challenged "K9" Bundrage for the junior middleweight championship. Before the bout, Harlib shared with me how Jermall and twin brother Jermell continued to push each other to greatness through the bitter competition of sibling rivalry. As my brief time in contact with Harlib continued, there were other tidbits he provided which helped me to gain content and context. I was shocked to learn Harlib passed on November 8. He was only 48. What I learned from Harlib is that when nobody else in boxing will tell you a thing because they have complicated interests to protect, it’s often the cutman, a free agent of sorts, who will share his knowledge with an eager reporter.

Kimbo Slice: Revered more for his backyard brawls and UFC cage fights than for any displays of pugilistic technique, Slice (real name Kevin Ferguson) was undefeated as a heavyweight boxer, going 7-0 from 2011 to 2013. After dropping the gloves, Ferguson found his calling as Kimbo. Slice was just 42 when his overtaxed heart failed on June 6 in Margate, Florida. During his troubled times, Ferguson somehow managed to grab a slice of the good life through his participation in combat sports. Ferguson is survived by his six children.

RIP Brown KIA in Chiraq, USA
Ed Brown: Amateur standout, 25, shot to death in a Chicago drive-by on December 4. According to reports, Brown had been shot on three other occasions before his murder. Manager Cameron Dunkin said afterwards that his prospect was a future world champion.

Jose Becerra: Mexican world bantamweight champion was 80 when he passed on August 6 in his hometown of Guadalajara. Becerra defeated Alphonse Halimi in 1959 to grab the title After being knocked out by the unheralded Eloy Sanchez in a non-title bout, Becerra retired as world champion.

Sean Curtin: Best remembered as the longtime overseer of amateur boxing in Chicago, Curtin was an Irish Jack of many trades in both amateur and professional boxing, a ring historian, and an author. Curtin died on August 11. The Army Veteran was 74.

Written by Jeffrey Freeman, KO Digest 

Originally Published on The Sweet Science

December 1, 2016

Dancing With The Stars In Boston — Laila Ali Floats Into The Tradition

Legends Laila Ali and Shaquille O'Neal
By Jeffrey Freeman

BOSTON — Laila Ali doesn't box anymore.

Her final professional fight was won nearly a decade ago, in 2007.

The youngest of eight children born to the late great Muhammad Ali, Laila did something in the fight game that her famous father could not do. She retired undefeated with all of her faculties intact, on top of an unforgiving sport that she dominated as its flamboyant super middleweight and light heavyweight champion of the world for the majority of her nine year professional career. And of course, even today at 38, she's still very pretty. Like father like daughter.

Father Daughter Love
The second generation Ali's greatest triumphs in the prize ring included wins over female fighting pioneer Christy Martin as well as a "grudge match" victory over Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, the daughter of her father's toughest rival, the late Smokin' Joe Frazier. Long retired with a permanent unbeaten record of 24-0 and 21 knockouts, Laila now makes hers a life of family first. With her athlete husband, former NFL wide receiver Curtis Conway, they have two children; a five year-old daughter and an eight year-old son.

I asked Laila if an Ali comeback was possible.

Don't count on it folks. Muhammad's baby girl seems content.

But is there a future boxing champ or NFL wide receiver in her house?

"My son hasn't shown an interest in boxing or in football yet so I'm glad for that. My daughter is very athletic but she's still a Mamma's girl," Ali told me. "But they are both definitely going to participate in sports," she said proudly of her kids. But not boxing right Mom?

"Hopefully not. I'm not encouraging that."

As the years have passed and her involvement in the sweet science has reduced to spectator and TV commentator, Laila now watches from the sidelines as a new female boxing revolution attempts to get itself off the ground led by two-time American gold medalist Claressa Shields and Irish Olympic sensation Katie Taylor. Ali is "very impressed!" with both girls but understands that opportunities for females are depressingly limited. If women's boxing is to return to its former glory such that it was when promoted by Don King on big time pay-per-view undercards in the 90s, it is young pros like Shields and Taylor who must pick up where Ali and Frazier left off.

"I love Claressa," said Ali of her American countrywoman. "I think she's amazing. Knowing her personally, I hope she takes her career wherever her heart desires." I asked Ali how far she thinks Shields and Taylor can go in professional boxing. "Opportunities have to be created," stressed Ali. "If a promoter gets behind them the same way they did in the UFC with Ronda Rousey, anything is possible," she said. "There's a lot of talent out there in women's boxing but there is nobody behind them to promote them and that's what it takes."

The Greatest Dad
Last year, Laila lost her father Muhammad. 

While she and her family mourned the loss privately, the world was mourning in a very public way on television and on the internet. Much was written and said about the passing of Muhammad Ali on June 3, 2016 in Scottsdale, AZ. His was a network televised funeral fit for a departing King. Having lost my own mother last year to cancer, I can relate to mourning with close family, but surely not with the whole world on such a public stage. In a very real way, I felt like I too lost a father figure when Ali died. I'm sure others felt this way also. What an unfathomable experience that must've been for Ali's daughter to have shared her father with the world in life -- and in death.

"I don't really know any other way," she sighed as my personal inquiry trailed off. "The world mourns my father probably close to the same amount that I do because he was so loved by that many people. And I really mean that when I say that," Ali assured me.

I believe her.

And so on the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving, six months removed from the death of her father, Laila was in Boston, Massachusetts for the very first time in her life at the new Garden with elder sister Maryum Ali by her side. The close-knit pair was in town for the 15th Annual Tradition, a sort of regional sports Hall of Fame museum for beloved New England athletes and media members like Bob Lobel.

Planned and presented by Boston Sports Museum Director Rusty Sullivan, the annual Tradition raises money and awareness for good causes like the One Fund. Attendance this year set a new record and it was noted by host Tom Caron that the Tradition is now a Boston staple with "staying power." Five years ago in 2011 at the 10th annual Tradition, Lowell, Mass boxer "Irish" Micky Ward was honored along with Celtics legend Larry Bird. The only other boxer to have been honored in the Tradition's fifteen years of existence is Boston's own Tony DeMarco. Rusty told me that his efforts to lure Marvelous Marvin Hagler back home from Italy for the Tradition have, as of yet, been unsuccessful. Sullivan is also author of the book Rocky Marciano: The Rock Of His Times, a definitive telling of Rocky's story. 

The Tradition has staying power
This year's Tradition inductees included Ali (presented on stage by sister Maryum), former Celtics center Shaquille O'Neal, former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe, former Red Sox pitcher "Spaceman" Bill Lee, and former Big Bad Boston Bruin, left winger Wayne Cashman. 

I asked Shaq about his fellow Tradition inductee.

"A beautiful lady. The best female boxer to ever grace it," is how the 2016 NBA Hall of Famer gracefully described Laila to me. O'Neal also told me it was boxing and MMA training that helped him win his basketball championships and play ball "at a crazy high level." So what connection does Laila have to Beantown you ask?

Ali's daughter never fought in New England and she does not live here.

In fact, Laila calls Los Angeles, California home. 

Her father's only professional fight in the New England area was his infamous 1965 sequel with Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine. The controversial heavyweight title bout produced arguably the most iconic sports photo of all time; Ali standing defiantly over Liston, shouting at him to get up and fight. Interestingly, Ali had his appendectomy performed at the old Boston City Hospital. This ill-timed medical delay actually led to the Liston rematch being contested in Maine and not in Boston at the old Garden as originally scheduled.

Then in 1977 during the twilight of his illustrious career, Ali fought six exhibition bouts in one day at the Hynes Auditorium in Boston. The once-in-a-lifetime event was appropriately billed "Muhammad Ali Day in Boston" and it caused quite a stir when Ali was reportedly late for the inaugural press conference. Tipping the scales far in excess of his ideal boxing weight, Ali confessed to the Boston Globe, "I wouldn't fight a real fight at this weight." Luckily, Ali's six-pack exhibition opposition included a bartender and a used car salesman.

Ali in Boston

The Greatest ultimately went 6-0 in Boston against those wannabe Balboas.

"My daughter could whup these suckers," Ali shouted in-between rounds.

 Safe at home with mother Veronica Porché, Laila was but a baby.

The rest is boxing history. The Ali family tradition lives on.

 Originally Published on The Prizefighters