By Thomas Hauser
My uncle died in early-October. As per his request, he was cremated and the family converged in New York at the end of the month for the interment of his remains. Reece Chapman (my 13-year-old great-nephew) lives in Montana and was here for the ceremony.
There was a time when boxing was a bonding force between generations. Fathers and sons sat down in front of a television set and watched Gillette Friday Night Fights together. The first fight I went to was the 1965 bout between Floyd Patterson and George Chuvalo at the "old" Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue and 49th Street. Patterson was on the comeback trail after consecutive first-round knockout losses to Sonny Liston and beat Chuvalo on an 8-4, 7-5, 6-5-1 decision.
My uncle took me to that fight.
Reece's three favorite sports to watch on television are football, basketball, boxing. The closest he'd been to a live professional fight was when I brought him to Gleason's Gym before the pandemic and he saw two fighters sparring.
Not much of what Top Rank has accomplished over the decades is on Reece's radar screen. He watches their shows regularly on ESPN. But the fact that Bob Arum has promoted more than two thousand fight cards in more than three hundred cities around the globe (including 675 world title fights) is ancient history to him.
On October 30, Top Rank promoted an eight-bout card at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden. Reece had never been to a fight. I decided to bring him.
Not many people who go to a fight sit close enough to the ring that they can see the anger, fear, hurt, and other emotions that cross fighters' eyes. Television cosmeticizes the violence. Sitting in the press section, there's no filter. Either a person is drawn to the spectacle or repulsed by it.
Reece is a people-person with empathy for others. I wondered how he'd process the reality of boxing. I asked Top Rank media relations director Evan Korn if Reece could be credentialed for the October 30 fight card. Evan said yes, and event access manager Katie Neff helped implement the plan.
Reece and I arrived at Madison Square Garden on fight night at 6:40 PM. Our seats were second row center in the ringside press section. The arena was virtually empty. Most of the eight bouts had a clear favorite. Top Rank has two matchmakers - Bruce Trampler and Brad Goodman - who are on the short list of best matchmakers ever. I explained to Reece that a big part of their job is to select opponents for fighters that Top Rank is trying to build. Each fight should be a learning experience for the favorite and end with a "W" on his record. Some fighters are handled with more care than others. Some need less protection than others.
Reece took his status as a credentialed member of the media seriously. Over the next four-and-a-half hours, he would fill an old spiral-bound HBO Boxing notebook I'd given him with eleven pages of notes.
The lights went on and rap music played as the first boxers made their way to the ring. Viewed from our vantage point, the ring ropes seemed suddenly evocative to me of horizontal prison bars.
At 7:10 PM, the bell for round one sounded. Kasir Goldston (3-0, 1 KO) vs. Marc Misiura (2-1, 1 KO). Misiura's two wins had come against opponents with 1 win in 13 fights. Against Goldston, he was aggressive until he got hit, at which point he opted for a less confrontational strategy. Later in the fight, he got chippy and lost a point for an intentional head butt. The judges' scores were 40-35, 40-35, 40-35 in Goldston's favor.
Fight #2 - Ray Cuadrado (1-0, 1 KO) vs. Michael Land (1-3-1, 1 KO). Land was game but didn't have the skills to compete. Cuadrado won a 40-36, 39-37, 39-37 decision.
Fight #3 - Jahi Tucker (4-0, 2 KOs) vs. Jorge Rodrigo Sosa (3-2, 3 KOs). Sosa was tough. But tough is different from good. In round two, Tucker started putting a beating on him. Sosa was taking too many clean punches and getting hurt. At 2;18 of the stanza, referee Shawn Clark stopped it.
Reece's first knockout. Three fights down, each one ending as expected.
Now the arena was filling up. The crowd was becoming part of the drama.
Fight #4 - Pablo Valdez (4-0, 4 KOs) vs. Alejandro Martinez (2-1-1, 2 KOs). How did Martinez get to 2-1-1? His previous opponents had compiled a composite ring record of 6 wins, 70 losses, and 1 draw. That's how.
Valdez was a heavy favorite. But as Lennox Lewis once observed, "A punch in the face; that changes everything. All the things you practiced can suddenly stop working."
In round two, Martinez staggered Valdez and had him holding on. Thereafter, Martinez was the hunter and Valdez was the hunted. At the end of round four, the ropes kept Valdez from going down, but referee Eddie Claudio failed to call a knockdown. Claudio also warned Valdez about holding multiple times but failed to take a point away long after a deduction seemed warranted. If Claudio's work left something to be desired, the scoring of the judges was even more dubious - a 59-55, 59-55, 57-57 majority decision in Valdez's favor.
"What?" Reece said in disbelief. "That's crazy."
In other words, a thirteen-year-old attending his first fight card ever saw Valdez-Martinez more clearly than the judges.
Now Reece was into the scene.
"It's really cool," he told me. "The lights; how fast the fighters' hands are; how focused they are; the way they move around the ring."
Fight #5 - Mathew Gonzalez (12-0, 8 KOs) vs. Dakota Linger (12-5-2, 8 KOs). All of Linger's wins had come in West Virginia or North Carolina. In the previous three years, he'd won twice and suffered five losses. The wins came against DeWayne Wisdom (1 win in his last 38 fights) and Darel Harris (2 wins in his last 23 outings).
12-0 from New York City vs. 12-5-2 from Buckhannon, West Virginia. Guess who won?
Linger came out throwing punches with the sophistication of a toughman contestant and kept throwing. Everyone in the arena could see the punches coming except Gonzalez.
When a young fighter is pressured, either he forgets what he has learned about boxing or he uses it. Gonzalez forgot. The result was a totally entertaining, all-action brawl between a boxer and a toughman in what devolved into the equivalent of a toughman contest. The crowd cheered loudly for much of the bout and was on its feet at the end. The judges ruled it a majority draw - a reasonable verdict although the nod could have gone to Linger.
Once in a while, boxing fans get lucky.
"I've never seen anything like this," Reece said. "This is really really cool."
Fight #6 - Jonathan Guzman (24-1, 23 KOs) vs. Carlos Jackson (17-1, 11 KOs) brought the fans back to earth. Eight technically-fought rounds. Guzman was the more passive of the two. Jackson tried periodically to pick up the pace, but Guzman had the skills to blunt his attack. When it was over, Jackson was on the long end of a 78-74, 77-75, 75-77 decision.
Then came the co-feature bout - Carlos Caraballo (14-0, 14 KOs) vs. Jonas Sultan (17-5, 11 KOs). Things got interesting in a hurry when Sultan (a decided underdog) knocked Caraballo down with a right uppercut in round two (Reece's first official knockdown). He did it again in round three but was badly hurt himself in round four.
The action got even better from there. It was a sensational, brutal, back-and-forth fight. By round eight, Caraballo was unloading, landing shot after shot to Sultan's head. The carnage continued in round nine with cries of "stop the fight" reverberating through the air. Then, out of nowhere, Sultan dropped Caraballo again with a left hook.
All told, Caraballo was knocked down four times and Sultan once. Each man suffered more damage than a fighter should. It was a legitimate fight of the year candidate with all three judges scoring the bout 94-93 in Sultan's favor.
"WOW!" Reece said. "WOW! WOW! WOW!"
The last fight of the evening - Jose Zepeda (34-2, 26 KOs) vs. Josue Vargas (19-1, 9 KOs) - was memorable in its own way. Zepeda has come up short in two previous title opportunities and is best known for a fifth-round knockout of Ivan Baranchyk in an exciting slugfest that was the Boxing Writers Association of America's 2020 "fight of the year." Vargas was stepping up his own level of competition to take the bout. At the Friday weigh-in, the fighters' camps had gotten into one of those stupid shoving matches with punches thrown at the close of the staredown. Now it was time to fight for real.
Midway through round one, Zepeda smashed Vargas to the canvas with a perfectly-timed overhand left that landed flush. Vargas rose on wobbly legs, and Zepeda finished him off at the 1:45 mark of the stanza.
Maybe someday, years from now, Reece will remember that I took him to his first pro fight.
When Shakespeare wrote, "The first thing we do, let us kill all the lawyers," he wasn't thinking about Mike Heitner.
Mike represented Top Rank for decades and was as good as any contract lawyer in the business. Hundreds of championship fights bore his imprint. He was also one of the nicest people in boxing.
One of pleasures that came with going to a Top Rank press conference or a Top Rank fight was the opportunity to sit and chat with Mike. He died suddenly in his sleep on October 19 at age 82. A lot of people who were at Madison Square Garden this week missed him. I was one of them.
Thomas Hauser's email address is email@example.com. His most recent book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for boxing's highest honor - induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
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