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By Arne K. Lang

In boxing, one man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity. British light heavyweight Callum Johnson relished the opportunity to fight WBO belt-holder Joe Smith Jr on Jan. 15 at the Turning Stone Resort in Verona, NY. But that opportunity may never come around again for the 36-year-old Englishman after he tested positive for Covid.

Enter Steve Geffrard, the latest no-name seeking to become a real-life Rocky Balboa.

Geffrard, who has won 18 straight since opening his pro career 0-2, was slated to fight this past Saturday in Delray Beach, Florida, in an 8-round contest against an Argentine import with a 7-8 record. Instead, he finds himself thrust against Joe “No Ordinary Joe” Smith (27-3) with a world title at stake.

Smith, who had his Rocky Balboa moment when he defeated Bernard Hopkins, was a 7/2 favorite over Callum Johnson. He is a double-digit favorite over late sub Geffard who is currently in the vicinity of a 6/1 longshot.

On the surface, the radical adjustment in the betting line is warranted. Geffrard’s signature win, if it can be called that, was a sixth-round stoppage of Russia’s Dmitry Sukhotskiy in Shenzhen, China in Dec. 3, 2016. Since then, Geffrard has fought only twice. Only five of his 18 wins have come against opponents with winning records. Nonetheless, we have a sneaking suspicion that Geffrard, whose ancestry is Haitian, will make things warm for Smith who had Covid himself in 2021 and will be making his first start in nine months.

A good overall athlete, Geffrard ran cross country and was a member of the lacrosse team at his prep school in Boca Raton, Florida. Back in 2010, he was rated the top amateur in the country competing in the heavyweight (201 pound) class. In 2012, he almost made the U.S. Olympic team, advancing to the finals of the Olympic Trials where he was outpointed by Michael Hunter.

Over the years, a number of fill-ins have forged big upsets. Current WBA welterweight belt-holder Yordenis Ugas got his opportunity when Errol Spence was forced to withdraw from his match with Manny Pacquiao.

This reporter was ringside at Caesars Palace on June 23, 1986 when Stevie Cruz, an unheralded 22-year-old plumber’s assistant from Fort Worth, Texas, de-throned WBA world featherweight champion Barry McGuigan in a massive upset that would be named The Ring magazine’s Fight of the Year.

This was McGuigan’s first and only U.S. appearance and to acclimate to the desert heat he had a long camp in Palm Springs, California. But nothing could prepare the Irishman for the weather that night in Las Vegas: 110 degrees at ringside.

After 14 rounds, Cruz trailed on two of the scorecards. He needed a 10-7 tally in the final stanza to win the title and rose to the occasion, knocking McGuigan down twice to win a razor-thin but well-earned decision. McGuigan lost the belt, but his gallant effort was nothing short of heroic. He was out on his feet before the final bell sounded and there was a legitimate fear that he would die from heat prostration.

In hindsight, it mattered greatly that Stevie Cruz was in the gym preparing for a different fight (a rematch with Lenny Valdez who had knocked him out in the opening round) when Barry McGuigan’s original opponent, Fernando Sosa, was forced to pull out, leaving promoter Top Rank scrambling for a replacement. It figures that Steve Geffrard will likewise be in good fighting trim when he enters the ring on Saturday night.

Joe Smith Jr vs. Steve Geffrard and the co-feature between featherweights Abraham Nova (20-0, 14 KOs) and William Encarnacion (19-1, 15 KOs) will air on ESPN and ESPN Deportes on Saturday, Jan. 15, at 10 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PT.

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The May 16, 2015 fight at Durban, South Africa, between Ilunga Makabu and Thabiso Mchunu was the sort of fight that begged for a rematch. Makabu was trailing on two of the cards when he rallied to stop Mchunu in the 11th.

Flash forward six-and-a-half years and the do-over is finally here. Makabu and Mchunu are scheduled to lock horns again on the 29th of this month. What’s bizarre, however, is the locale. Makabu, born in the Congo, and Mchunu both reside in South Africa. How weird that the sequel is happening in Warren, Ohio.

If you guess this is Don King’s handiwork, go to the head of the class. Warren is close to Orwell, the Northeastern Ohio hamlet once known as the home of King’s flourishing training camp for boxers under his thumb.

Although Ilunga Makabu has been in the news lately as a potential opponent for Canelo Alvarez, he and Mchunu don’t figure to draw flies in Warren, Ohio. The promotion, billed as “Homecoming At Last” (a reference to King’s Ohio roots), will come off in the city’s 2,500-seat municipal music hall. That’s assuming it doesn't fall apart. It’s no secret that King, who was once rolling in dough, is hurting for investment capital.

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