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Postponements can make or break a fight, or a fighter

03
Jul

Anyone involved with boxing will tell you that fight postponements are as much a part of the sport as the gloves and the square ring.

Gym injuries happen. Fight postponements are the result.

The past six weeks have reminded fans of this unfortunate part of the fight game with the postponements of high-profile bouts such as Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Juan Manuel Marquez and Andreas Kotelnik-Amir Khan.

Fighters don’t like to admit it, but postponements often have an effect — sometimes a profound one — on their performance in the ring and the outcome of the bout.



“Postponements usually throw a big monkey wrench into a fighter’s camp, whether he’s the one who sustained the injury or not,” said Henry Ramirez, the trainer of heavyweight contender Chris Arreola. “If a fight is postponed early in the camp, it’s not as bad because the fighter hasn’t peaked yet, physically or mentally. But if it’s closer to the fight, when the fighter is almost ready to go, it can really mess with his mind.”

The most famous examples of fight postponements possibly affecting the fighters and bout outcomes involve Muhammad Ali.

Everyone knows the story of young, brash Cassius Clay overwhelming Sonny Liston to the point that the feared 7-to-1 favorite quit on his stool after seven rounds. However, few recall that despite the dominating fashion in which Ali won the first bout, the 22-year-old heavyweight champ was a slight underdog in his immediate rematch with Liston.

That’s because Liston took Ali seriously for the rematch and trained like never before, getting down to a fight-ready 208 pounds weeks before the originally scheduled bout that was to be held in Boston, in November of 1964. However, Ali suffered a hernia that required surgery and the fight had to be postponed. The rematch lost its Boston venue and wound up in Lewiston, Maine with a new date of May 25, 1965 — six months after the original date.

Liston, who was rumored to be anywhere from 32 to 45 years of age, did not respond well to the date extension. He took some time off and wasn’t able to get his aging body back into the peak shape he was in before the postponement. Liston’s mental state also began to unravel in the weeks leading up to the fight, in part due to the controversy and media storm surrounding Ali’s membership with the Nation of Islam. Liston’s performance against Ali was so listless and dismal that many at the time believed his first-round stoppage loss was the result of a fix.

Nine years later, Ali was again the underdog against an undefeated juggernaut who idolized Liston, then-heavyweight champ George Foreman, and once more “The Greatest” may have benefited from a postponement.

However, in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Republic of the Congo), where the classic bout took place, it was Ali’s opponent who sustained the injury that resulted in the bout being postponed six weeks after the original fight date.

Only one week away from the showdown dubbed “The Rumble in the Jungle”, Foreman, who was a heavy favorite, sustained a cut above his right eye during a sparring session with Bill McMurray.

“McMurray, the California heavyweight champ, was a tall lanky guy who threw up an elbow to protect himself against George and wound up slicing his eye,” recalled Bill Caplan, Foreman’s longtime friend and publicist, who was part of the young heavyweight champ’s camp in Zaire. “The cut wasn’t terrible but it wasn’t treated right because of George’s fear of needles.

“George didn’t fear anything in the ring but he was afraid of needles. He wouldn’t allow any needles near his eye, so the cut wasn’t sutured. He only had butterfly tape holding it shut. This meant he couldn’t spar properly leading into the postponed date. George had five really good sparring partners with him — two or three of them were ranked contenders back when that meant something — but his manager and trainer Dick Sadler wouldn’t allow them to punch George in the head for fear of the cut being reopened. So it was half-assed sparring.”

However, Caplan says Foreman’s attitude had as much, if not more, to do with his performance against Ali as his poor sparring.

“George didn’t like Zaire to begin with,” he said. “We were supposed to be there 10 days and we wound up staying for two months.

“Zaire’s dictator (Mobutu Sese) Seko ordered that the fighters stay in the country because he was afraid they might not come back if they did or that the fight would be moved to another location, and in George’s case he was right. George wouldn’t have come back. When the fight was first moved six weeks out, he wanted to go and train in Paris for that time, but they wouldn’t let him.

“The longer he was there the less of himself he was. He withdrew. He wouldn’t talk to anybody. He barely spoke to me. And Ali’s mind games were getting to him. He was so uncomfortable he had armed secret service guards with him at all times. Ali had come up with the “Boombaye” (kill him) chant and George figured that there might be some crazy person out there who took it seriously.

“The postponement definitely hurt George. It hurt him a lot, and probably cost him the fight.”

Like most British fans and fighters, Khan is well versed in boxing history and aware of Foreman’s story in Zaire.

The 22-year-old lightweight contender, who will challenge Kotelnik for a 140-pound title, wants his fans to know that the postponement of their bout has not had a negative effect on him.

Khan-Kotelnik was originally scheduled for June 27 in London but a tooth infection suffered by the WBA beltholder from Ukraine moved the bout to July 18 in Manchester.

Khan and his trainer, Freddie Roach, first learned of the possible postponement the weekend of June 12-13.

“I was in great shape just before I heard that Kotelnik might not be able to fight,” Khan said. “I was at my peak. So when it was postponed, I was upset for about a day, but then I told myself ‘Hey, it’s only three weeks. I just have to keep my focus for another three weeks.'”

Khan took a week off, June 13-19, and spent time with his family in Bolton, England.

“I just relaxed,” he said. “I got away from it all and ate what I wanted. When I returned to L.A., I was ready to get back to work.

“I think it’s the last two weeks of preparation that are crucial. I have three weeks to get back to my peak. I’m young so I think I can do that. In a way, the postponement is good because it gives me more time to prepare for certain things and to work on strategy.”

Clearly, Khan has the right disposition and mental outlook to deal with a fight postponement. However, the British star was fortunate that his bout was quickly rescheduled.

Former 154-pound titleholder Sergio Mora thought he was all set to challenge middleweight champ Kelly Pavlik on June 27, but he began hearing rumors that the bout might be shelved almost two months prior to the fight date. Pavlik pulled out of the fight, citing a hand infection as the reason, and the bout has yet to be rescheduled, a reality that’s driving Mora crazy.

“This is one of the most frustrating periods of my career,” Mora said. “I had everything ready for Pavlik, my conditioning, my strategy, my camp, everything was going as planned, and then I got a text from my promoter (Jeff Wald of the Tournament of the Contenders) just before I was supposed to leave for Las Vegas for a press conference for the fight. Pavlik and I were both supposed to be there the Saturday of the Pacquiao-Hatton fight to take advantage of all the media, but I got this text telling me that Pavlik won’t be there and that the fight is probably off.

“I couldn’t believe it. I was already close to weight and feeling great. I went ahead and left for Vegas just in case it was still on. I sparred a tough guy named Derek Hinkey at Johnny Tocco’s gym on Friday and Saturday and was just feeling like I was going to be ready for Kelly, but then the word came that he was definitely out with that bogus hand injury. I was crushed.”

Mora says the worst thing for his career is inactivity, which is what postponements lead to.

“For my style, I need to stay active because I rely on speed and reflexes,” he said. “If I was a power puncher or a pressure fighter, maybe it wouldn’t matter so much, but with me, the more time I spend out of the ring, the worse I look in my fights when I finally do climb through those ropes. That’s why postponements are so terrible.”

Adding to Mora’s torture is the fact that it has been reported that Pavlik’s hand infection was not the reason he pulled out of the June 27 date, but rather personal problems and a contract dispute with his promoter, Bob Arum (which has since been settled).

Also rubbing salt in the East L.A. native’s wounds are the quotes from Arum on Pavlik’s next opponent. Names like 160-pound beltholder Felix Sturm and 168-pound titleholder Carl Froch have been brought up; not Mora.

“Arum told us the fight could still happen and to be patient,” Mora said, “but it’s hard. I feel like I’ve been too patient. At first we had an April date that was pushed back to June 27. Now Arum says it might happen on September 12 or October 3. I just want the fight. Pavlik is the only fight I want.”

If boxing history has any lessons for Mora, it’s to hold on to his desire to win and not allow his frustrations to throw off his focus.

The ability to keep one’s focus is what separates elite fighters from the rest of the bunch, according to Ramirez.

“Super types like Mayweather and Marquez, who have proved themselves time and time again, don’t get thrown off by a date changing,” the young trainer said. “Their focus is part of what makes them special. I don’t think their fight moving from July to September will affect either fighter.

“Chris (Arreola) had an opponent, Devin Vargas, pull out a week before the fight date, but for that fight he was in such good shape and so ready to go that it didn’t matter as long as he got in the ring as planned. Vargas was replaced by Malcolm Tann, who some thought would be difficult as a late sub, but Chris wound up putting on one of his best performances because he never lost his focus.”

Khan and Caplan agree that the mental aspect of the sport is more important than the physical when a fight date is pushed back.

“A fighter has be able to recompose himself in that situation,” Khan said. “If he can’t do it, the fight is lost before he steps into the ring.”

In terms of the physical matchup, Caplan says the 26-year-old Foreman should not have lost to the 32-year-old Ali on Oct. 30, 1974.

“George was a 3¾-to-1 favorite to beat Ali and the only reason he wasn’t more of a favorite was because of the Ali legend,” Caplan said. “George was 40-0 with 37 knockouts. Two of those knockouts were of Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, both of whom he beat up and stopped in two rounds. Frazier and Norton both beat Ali. Hell, Norton broke Ali’s jaw! They both gave Ali tough fights in their rematches. George destroyed them.

“People were praying that George didn’t kill Ali, seriously. They really thought Ali might get killed. But we all know what happened, and I think the postponement had a lot to do with it.”

Caplan isn’t convinced that Mayweather-Marquez won’t be affected by the postponement. He sees similarities between that fight and Foreman-Ali, with the younger, bigger, stronger favorite going up against an older, more experienced underdog after suffering a gym injury (to his ribs) that might affect the quality of his sparring.

“Is it going to hurt Mayweather?” Caplan asked. “Everyone feels that he should win, but freaky things happen in boxing.”

Doug Fischer can be reached at [email protected]