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Two L.A. gyms stay busy during the summer doldrums

02
Jul

The last time I made the rounds to a number of Southern California boxing clubs in the same week for a feature story I think I covered four gyms in three days.

This time I only visited two on two days (Monday and Wednesday of this week). What can I say? The summer months are a typically slow period in the sport and the lack of high-profile activity is reflected in most of the local gyms.

However, two popular gyms — the Wild Card and Maywood boxing clubs — remain crowded with top contenders, talented prospects and promising amateur fighters.

On Monday, I dropped by the Wild Card Boxing Club at the corner of North Vine Street and Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, Calif.

I was on the phone with an East Coast boxing writer as I walked through the door of trainer Freddie Roach’s famous gym. The writer asked me whether “anyone of note” was currently working out there and I told him I thought Amir Khan was back after taking a week off following the postponement of his title fight against Andreas Kotelnik.

Just as I mentioned the lightweight contender’s name a broad-shouldered young man standing by the front desk with his back to me turned around to see who was talking. It was Khan.

The 2004 Olympic silver medalist was about to have his hands wrapped by Roach. I hung up with my friend and quickly joined the conversation between the British up-and-comer and his coach.

The buzz throughout the gym that day, as can be expected, was Saturday’s shootout between Victor Ortiz and Marcos Maidana; and, of course, Ortiz’s submission and bizarre post-fight comments dominated most of the discussion.

Roach believes Ortiz had — and still has — a ton of potential. He likes the young man. However, he was not surprised that Ortiz was eventually overwhelmed by a strong and relentless fighter like Maidana.

Over the years, Roach had seen Ortiz dropped and wobbled while sparring in his gym, a few times badly enough to have the sessions halted. Ortiz has many gifts but an iron chin isn’t one of them. It doesn’t mean Ortiz can’t come back all the way, but he’ll need to learn how to protect that beard of his the way Khan is under Roach’s tutelage.

Khan, who has rebounded nicely from the first-round KO he suffered just two fights ago, was the one fighter in the gym who wasn’t talking about Ortiz’s in-the-ring comments to Max Kellerman after the fight. His focus was on Maidana’s post-fight interview.

Khan fights Kotelnik for the WBA title in Manchester on July 18. The winner of that bout will have 90 days to negotiate a fight with Maidana, who won the “interim” title Saturday, or risk being stripped by the Panama-based sanctioning organization. When asked who he preferred to fight next, Khan or Kotelnik, Maidana brushed Khan off as “not that big a deal, not that hard” of a potential opponent.

Khan (20-1, 15 knockouts) begs to differ.

“I’m not afraid of Maidana,” said Khan, who was ringside for Saturday’s slugfest. “If we fight, you better believe that I won’t make the same mistake Ortiz did and fight his fight. He won’t catch me with those crazy right hands. Maidana was lucky that Ortiz didn’t stick to boxing and that he was probably caught up in the moment.

“The pressure was on Ortiz. It was his first title fight, his first main event, the first time he was the center of HBO’s attention. Some fighters can cope with that. Some can’t.”

Khan, who is practically a household name in Britain, is used to pressure — outside of the ring. Inside the ring might be a different story. Luckily for him, Kotelnik, who owns a close split-decision over Maidana, is not a pressure fighter. The Ukrainian titleholder is a strong-willed technician and counter-puncher. In many ways, he’s perfect for Khan because he likes to box from a distance and he doesn’t carry a lot of power. However, Kotelnik is experienced and battle tested, to which his 12-round bout with Maidana attests.

Khan and Roach, who will both leave for the fighter’s private gym in his native Bolton, England on Friday, have their work cut out.

But from what I’ve seen of his intense sparring sessions with Rashad Holloway and Abdulai Amidu from previous weeks, and from the mitt work I observed on Monday, Khan is ready.

His speed and reflexes are off the charts, and his technique is constantly improving. Roach is getting him to tuck his chin, teaching him not to over-extend himself when launching his right, and even encouraging the young buck to drop a mean short left hook (a punch we’re not used to seeing from Khan, but a formidable weapon for the 22-year-old speed demon).

One of Khan’s ringside observers was Vanes Martirosyan, an undefeated junior middleweight prospect who is coming off a sixth-round stoppage of Andrey Tsurkan in Atlantic City, N.J., on Saturday.

The knuckles on both of Martirosyan’s hands were swollen from pounding the Russian’s hard head, but he was in good spirits.

“That was probably my best performance as a professional,” said Martirosyan (25-0, 16 KOs). “I was on my toes, jabbing effortlessly. I felt totally comfortable in the ring, but I was doing damage. From the fourth round on the commission wanted to stop the fight. Tsurkan’s corner finally threw in the towel at the end of the sixth.”

Martirosyan says his next fight will be on the undercard of the proposed Nov. 14 Manny Pacquiao-Miguel Cotto showdown (which, by the way, Roach says is close but still not a done deal).

The 23-year-old boxer-puncher believes he’s ready to step up to world-class opposition.

“Hopefully, I can get Cory Spinks for the IBF title,” he said. “If not him, than maybe Paul Williams. I mean it. If nobody else wants to fight him, I’ll fight him.”

After working the mitts with Khan, Roach switched his attention to Bernabe Concepcion. The 21-year-old featherweight contender from the Philippines is scheduled to challenge WBO titleholder Steven Luevano on Aug. 15 in Las Vegas.

Concepcion (29-1-1, 16 KOs) doesn’t have the sharpest technique, but he’s strong and he can punch. I don’t think Concepcion can beat Luevano, who I believe is underrated, but he can make things interesting.

NO MOORER MICHAEL

Roach looked a little worn out after working the mitts with Khan and Concepcion. I’m not alone in the opinion that he’s grossly overworked. Sadly, former heavyweight champ Michael Moorer, who appeared to be the assistant trainer/gym enforcer that Roach needed, has parted ways with the Wild Card.

“It just didn’t work out,” Roach’s personal assistant, Marie Spivey, told me on Monday. “Michael was let go on June 12.”

Some of the gym regulars were sad to see Moorer go. Most were relieved that he was gone. Moorer is an intelligent man, an astute observer of the sport and potentially a very good trainer. However, he’s also extremely guarded, distrustful, sullen and sometimes downright surly.

“Couldn’t you tell that he was gone when you walked in the place?” Roach’s older brother Pepper asked rhetorically. “You can breathe again! You can joke around! It’s OK to smile!”

WEDNESDAY IN MAYWOOD

The morning drive to the city of Maywood, Calif. was overcast and gray, which fit my mood since I’d learned of Alexis Arguello’s death about half an hour before I headed east on Slauson Avenue.

I visited the Maywood Boxing Club, which is just off Slauson at 4747 E. 56th St., to check out young bantamweight prospect Nestor Rocha’s final sparring day before he gets on a plane this weekend to travel to Kobe, Japan, where he will challenge WBC titleholder Hozumi Hasegawa on July 14.

His trainer, Rudy Hernandez, a former fighter himself, already had Rocha in the ring when I arrived at the busy gym.

While he loosened up for his sparring session, I asked Hernandez if he had ever met Arguello. It turns out that the former welterweight contender once sparred with the hall of famer at the famous Main Street Gym.

“We went four rounds. I was only 15 years old,” Hernandez recalled. “Arguello was the junior lightweight champ. He had just beat (Alfredo) Escalera.”

By his own admission, Hernandez began boxing as an unwilling participant. He was often nervous to the point of tears when his father put him in the ring to spar at the long-gone Main Street Gym and other boxing clubs. However, as Hernandez and any fighter will tell you, sometimes that fear can make a body quick, sharp and mobile when it needs to be. And speed and movement were two things that often troubled even the prime version of Arguello.

“I had a move where I would block a jab with my right and come over his extended arm with an overhand left, then I’d step to my right with a quick right before moving out of the way,” Hernandez said. “Believe it or not, I put hands on Arguello for two or three rounds.

“But Arguello was smart. At the start of the fourth round, he faked a jab and timed me with a liver shot. It took the wind out of me and I could barely stand. I was about to quit, but he backed off and said to me, ‘Come on, let’s go’. He wouldn’t let me quit.

“After I finished my workout, he visited me in the dressing room. He asked me how many pro fights I had. I told him I had none. He asked me how many amateur fights I had. I told him I wouldn’t be able to fight amateur until I turn 16. He looked surprised and asked me how old I was. When I told him I was 15, he just started laughing. He called his trainer over to let him know that he just sparred a kid.

“He told me I’d have a good career if I applied myself, and he gave me a piece of advice that I never forgot. He told me to always ask myself before each fight if the guy I’m about to fight is as good as Alexis Arguello. From that day on, I loved boxing. I was no longer nervous about sparring or fighting. That was the beginning for me.”

OVERLOOKED, BUT MAYBE UNDERRATED

As Rocha (21-1, 7 KOs) sparred I was reminded of why the 26-year-old boxer has been under the radar for most of his career.

There’s nothing about him that attracts your attention. He’s quiet and humble outside of the ring. Inside of it he’s relaxed to the point of being almost nonchalant. He’s crafty on the inside, but he doesn’t exactly move with purpose on his way in close. He has average speed, power and reflexes.

Most boxing pundits believe Rocha has no shot of upsetting THE RING’s No. 1-rated bantamweight.

However, Rocha, like all of Hernandez’s fighters, is a tough nut. He hasn’t been pampered in the gym, where’s he’s faced every conceivable style and talent. I’ve witnessed him frustrate and contain seasoned titleholders like Oscar Larios (when the Mexican was still in his prime).

Hasegawa’s southpaw stance and experience will not trouble Rocha, whose counter-punching ability and body attack will make him a threat, but the Japanese titleholder’s hand speed (particularly his blazing straight left) and footwork will.

But Rocha put it best himself when he said, “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be, it’s time to go for it.”

Hernandez’s star pupil, lightweight contender Urbano Antillon (26-0, 19 KOs), is also “going for it” this month, albeit against much lesser opposition. The Maywood resident will fight Miguel Acosta for the WBA’s “interim” title on July 25 in Mexico.

Antillon went a few rounds with lightweight prospect Carlos Molina (7-0, 3 KOs) at the same time featherweight prospect Charles Huerta (11-0, 7 KOs) and bantamweight prospect Leo Santa Cruz (8-0-1, 2 KOs) sparred in the gym’s second ring.

Huerta’s father, Mando, the manager of the gym, told me his son will headline Golden Boy’s second Fight Night Club show at downtown L.A.’s Club Nokia on July 30.

Huerta looked sharp dispatching Noe Lopez Jr. in three rounds in the scheduled six-round co-feature to last month’s Fight Night Club premiere. Mando hopes this month’s main event is scheduled for eight rounds. He thinks his 22-year-old son is already beyond six rounders.

Joining Huerta on the July 30 show will be lightweight prospect Luis Ramos, who looked sensational on last month’s card, Molina, and junior featherweight prospect Ronny Rios, according to Mando.

Watching Huerta and Santa Cruz from ringside were some familiar faces, former 115-pound titleholder Martin Castillo, who looks like he’s training again, Alfredo Angulo and Jose Armando Santa Cruz (Leo’s older brother).

Over in the heavy bag and double-end bag area of the gym were some unfamiliar faces. Sometimes there’s a strong Japanese presence at the Maywood Boxing Club because of Hernandez’s connection to Teiken Boxing, one of Japan’s top promotional companies, and the occasional pop-in from Japanese-American trainer Mack Kurihara, who trains a number of prospects from the Pacific island.

However, on Wednesday the presence wasn’t Japanese, it was Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian. Everyone of the new faces are amateur standouts who are about to turn pro, according to their trainer, Edward Goumachian, except for his Russian lightweight Rustan Nugaev, who will take on fellow fringe contender Miguel Huerta in what should be a darn good fight in Reno, Nev. on July 10.

All of them, from what I saw, have talent.

The most impressive in my not-so-humble opinion was middleweight Dmitry Chudinov, who went five quality rounds with tough Texas pro Roberto Garcia, a seasoned welterweight/junior middleweight who is trained by Clemente Medina. Garcia (26-2, 19 KOs) is one of the toughest sparring partners around, but he had his heavy hands full with Chudinov, who exhibited crisp combinations (especially his hook to the body and head) and fluid in-and-out footwork.

“He has a hurt ankle,” Goumachian said. “He’s better than this.”

He looked good to me. Goumachina said the Russian amateur standout gave current hot prospect and 2008 Olympian Matt Korobov hell in the middleweight finals of the 2007 Russian national amateur championships. The 22-year-old middleweight has a younger brother, Fedor, a 21-year-old super middleweight who is also promising.

The Chudinov brothers have signed promotional contracts with TKO Boxing Promotions and are set to turn pro on the July 10 show in Reno that is co-headlined by Jesse Brinkley-Mike Paschall and Nugaev-Huerta. TKO Boxing is co-promoting the show with Let’s Get It On Promotions, which signed Nugaev.

Goumachian’s fighters are a reminder of how international the sport of boxing truly is.

I met a scary, rugged looking dude (imagine Kid Diamond on HGH) named Khamidzohn Atazmanov from Tajikistan (my geography is horrible, so Goumachina had to tell me that it borders Afghanistan), and a tiny baldheaded, dark-skinned brotha from Sri Lanka named Manju Wannjarachchi.

You read right, I met a boxer from SRI-FREAKIN’-LANKA! How cool is that? He’s a flyweight amateur preparing for the up-coming World Cup and he gave Rocha some good rounds.

(You also read the spelling of these names right. I had the fighters themselves write them down in my notepad.)

Doug Fischer’s column appears every Thursday. He can be reached at [email protected]

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