The First Time: Fistic Travels
Welcome to RingTV.com’s newest monthly feature, The First Time. Each month, Mark E. Ortega will take a different topic and ask members of the boxing industry about their firsts in regard to said topic. For instance, this month, different fighters, promoters, trainers, and writers were asked about the first time they traveled overseas in the name of the Sweet Science. The best experiences were chosen and are shared below with RingTV.com’s readers.
In future editions, expect to hear about other boxing firsts from winning a world title to fighting on television to getting knocked down and many other interesting topics.
Most of the comments below are what were given in full to RingTV.com. However, some statements were edited to keep things more concise. The quotes that were excerpted will be noted as such, with the full transcriptions available in full at another link that will be provided.
Donald McRae, award-winning journalist and writer of the all-time classic boxing book, Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing, on his trip 20 years ago from London to Tulsa to hang out with James Toney. Below is just an excerpt of McRae’s incredible account, which can be read in its entirety here.
Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the company of James ‘Lights Out’ Toney, was the exotic destination for my first proper boxing trip to America. It would be a journey, for me, like no other either before or since then.
I had interviewed many fighters, and met them in locations as different as New York and Soweto, London and Las Vegas, but they were always encounters tacked on to other assignments. In October 1993, I flew from London with just the merest chill of trepidation. I had heard all kinds of stories about Toney, from his crack-dealing and gun-toting past to his scalding temper, but I loved watching him fight. He was the canniest defensive fighter I had seen in years. I was also intrigued by Toney because he was managed by a middle-aged Jewish woman called Jackie Kallen.
Jackie told me that she would set it up so that I hung out with Lights Out as much as I liked in steamy old Tulsa. I wondered if the then unbeaten ‘Lights Out,’ in the simmering flesh, would be quite so accommodating as he prepared to defend his IBF super-middleweight world title against Tony Thornton.
Afterwards, once Toney had won comfortably, he came over to the corner where I stood, sinking a beer that I really needed. “See, man, I’m not so bad,” he crooned as the sweat flew from him. He knew he was on his way to becoming, briefly, the world’s number-one fighter in the pound-for-pound ratings. “We gonna do this again?”
I nodded, not quite believing everything that had happened. “OK,” Toney said. “We got a deal. And now, baby, it’s time to eat cheeseburgers, lotsa cheeseburgers, ‘cos I’m James Toney – champion of the world.”
Glen Johnson, former light heavyweight champion and 2004 RING magazine Fighter of the Year, on traveling to Germany to face Sven Ottke in 1999:
For me, I don’t think I made too much of a big deal of traveling. It’s something you had to do if you were a professional. I don’t really try and put too much into things and make it a big thing.
When you’re away from America you’re more suspicious. When you go to a restaurant you don’t know if people are against you, makes you not want to eat the food. You don’t know what people will do. You’ll always have those kind of things that you are faced with.
It was always my thoughts when I was away from America, I always liked to make my own food. Outside of that, I get robbed in America just like I get robbed overseas. I don’t take a different approach because I get the same outcome everywhere.
Austin Trout, undefeated junior middleweight contender who will face Saul Alvarez for THE RING’s vacant 154-pound title on April 20, on his first excursion to Mexico in 2009:
It was right at the start of the whole cartel drug thing, so I was hell of worried about that. I used to go to Juarez and train a bit, being from New Mexico. I’ve always heard stories, but I forgot why I was scared in the first place; they made me feel at home. During the fight they did their boos and heckling but nothing too serious. That fight was very level and professional.
The first time I went down there, I remember they were sparring five minute rounds and wrapping their hands in bed sheets. They’re just rough and tough. Their sparring, they went all out, this one guy got his nose broken and didn’t want the (sparring) to stop until the round was over.
Terry Lane, the son of Hall of Fame referee Mills Lane as well as one-half of the brotherly promotional duo Let’s Get It On Promotions, on traveling to Montreal with their fighter Jesse Brinkley for the tough task of fighting a prime Lucian Bute in the then-IBF super middleweight titleholder’s hometown. (This is just an excerpt from a fantastic write up that Lane produced, a recommend read if you want to gain insight into what it is like being in a promoter’s shoes. The full story can be read here.)
We arrived in Montreal six days before the fight. What a beautiful city. The people were great, and the food was fantastic. Unfortunately, I was unable to put my two years of high school French to use. Our itineraries were full of meetings, workouts, press obligations – the works. There were posters promoting the fight everywhere.
Unlike many fighters today, Lucian Bute can draw a crowd in his hometown. Where many American promoters are out to hustle casinos (for a site fee), and high-profile fights take place in front of crowds numbering in the hundreds, Bute fills hockey arenas. He puts thousands of asses in seats, and his career has been instrumental in the burgeoning popularity of Canadian boxing. It was a big fight in a big city, and we were right in the thick of it.
Reggie Johnson, former WBA middleweight and IBF light heavyweight titlist, on his trip to South Africa during Apartheid to fight Charles Oosthuizen (father to current 168-pound contender Thomas) in 1988, which resulted in Johnson being suspended by the sanctioning bodies that ranked him. According to Johnson, a documentary is currently in the works detailing this fight:
The fight took place during apartheid and Nelson Mandela was incarcerated when I fought and beat their champion in a seven-round knockout. I was just a young, hungry fighter who was inspired by my hero Muhammad Ali, and was bold like Ali. My manager was green as well and somehow he booked this fight through a matchmaker who reached out to him. I had no idea what I had been booked into until I returned home and was later suspended by the sanctioning bodies.
I noticed all the people that looked like me were calling me “sir” and I was much younger than most of them, being 20 or 21 at the time. I used to play with the guys who worked at my hotel and act like I was going to beat them up for calling me sir. By the whites, I was treated with much respectÔÇöuntil I knocked out their champion.
Otis Griffin, former light heavyweight fringe contender and winner of the Fox-televised boxing reality show The Next Great Champ, on going to Australia to fight Danny Green in 2007:
The only thing that alarmed me was how evil the Australians treated the Aborigine people. I remember going to a restaurant and there was an Aborigine that was white skinned. They call you a half-calf if you are one. They said “Get out of here, half calf, get your black ass out of here, you know you’re not welcome here.” Then they turn to us and say “Hello mate, how many of you will be dining?” “Hey what the hell was that about, we’re black too…” “You guys aren’t black, you’re American.”
This is when I realized I’m not African American, I’m American. I don’t know anything about Africa, I’ve never been there. The white Australians didn’t look at me like I was Aborigine, the Aborigines didn’t look at me like I was their brother. They looked at me like I was George Bush. Other countries look at us for the flag we represent and not the color we are. As I traveled to other countries, it was a realization to me; other countries don’t see you as your color but the flag you represent.
Aaron Snowell, a boxing trainer most known for being Mike Tyson’s coach from 1989-1991, on going to the UK with Tim Witherspoon for a fight in 1985:
We were bringing Tim Witherspoon back after he got beat by Pinklon Thomas. He fought Sammy Scaff on an Azumah Nelson undercard in Birmingham. The funny thing is it was on NBC Sports at the time and Tim had knocked Sammy out, and him and Sammy after the fight were sitting in the audience ringside. And they were talking, and a guy named Corky, who was a trainer/manager for Sammy, some guy had come and started picking on Sammy and a big riot broke out. And Tim Witherspoon was defending Sammy and Corky ringside in all of this. So it became like an America against the Brits in the audience. So when Azumah Nelson knocked out his opponent, we had to run him from the ring into the dressing room.
Rich Marotta, a jack-of-all-trades commentator who has done many boxing broadcasts over his career, on his one and only trip overseas to call a fight, Wayne McCullough’s 122-pound title defense against Jose Luis Bueno in Dublin, Ireland back in 1996:
I’ve actually only done one fight overseas, it was a Wayne McCullough bantamweight championship fight against Jose Luis Bueno. It was in Dublin, and it was one of those great Irish crowds which I’ve never experienced. I’ve always wanted to be part of one of those British crowds where there is all of that passion from the fans with the singing, etc.
I went and did that fight solo with Fox. I was actually supposed to do the fight with Joe Goossen and the people at Fox had a late dispute with his contract so I ended up going over by myself. So I called the fight by myself and it was a big thrill for me because I got to experience what it was like to do an Irish fight with an Irish fighter. They were singing and chanting the whole time, and it turned out to be a heated contest between McCullough and Bueno. And what happened is early in the fight, McCullough had his eardrum punctured and it threw his balance off. So instead of it being a fight where he was supposed to dominate, it turned out to be a heated battle. It’s the only time I’ve had an opportunity to do a fight overseas and it was great. I also had the thrill of having my first Guinness in the pub over there. I was told “That’s not Guinness, THIS is the Guinness.”
Tim Starks, editor-in-chief and publisher at prominent boxing blog Queensberry-Rules.com, on his trip to Montreal to cover Chad Dawson-Jean Pascal in 2010:
A lot of the hijinks will stand out from my trip to Montreal for Jean Pascal-Chad Dawson, like bonding for life with some Canadian boxing-writing counterparts, hitting up a cougar bar with a rotating dance floor, witnessing some full-grown men (drunken acquaintances of ours) running and leaping into a pile of McDonald’s trash bags, and the strange intersection of fight week with gay pride week. It’s true what they say: Montreal is a helluva town, the kind of place where 99 percent of the women are beautiful and the kind of place where merely by wandering the streets you might happen upon, say, a graffiti/skateboarding/live punk rock festival.
It’s true, another thing they say about Montreal: It’s a helluva FIGHT town. You couldn’t walk a block without seeing a poster for Pascal-Dawson. The crowd was by far the loudest of any I’ve ever encountered covering boxing live, especially when they showed images of Lucian Bute on the big screen — he’s a god there — or when Pascal entered to a three-song ring walk. More promoters really should consider having boxing matches up north. Sure, they embrace their hometown heroes the most. But that phenomenon you saw where Mexican-American Librado Andrade became popular after the first Bute fight was no isolated incident. On the undercard of Pascal-Dawson, the fans heckled a jiggly heavyweight named Ruben Rivera, with one fan yelling in French to Canadian boxer Wayne John, “Go for the breast!” But when it turned out fattie could fight — he beat John by split decision — those same fans made Rivera a popular fellow, repeatedly asking to be photographed with him. If Montreal can embrace a 2-4-1 fighter who beats one of their guys, can’t they embrace anyone? And if so, why can’t boxing promoters outside of Canada embrace them back?
Wolfgang Schiffbauer, the German correspondent for Fightnews.com, on traveling to the United States for the rubber match between Antonio Tarver and Roy Jones Jr. in 2005:
I had been to many boxing events in Europe over the years but since my childhood days, it has been a dream for me to be ringside at one of the big U.S. boxing events. Better late, than never, it finally happened when I travelled to Tampa, Florida, in 2005. The atmosphere in town was electric, as a huge amount of fans came out to the weigh-in cheering for Roy Jones Jr. before his rubber match with Antonio Tarver. Roy looked in great shape. I ran into his father at dinner and we had a nice talk, he seemed very confident about his son’s chances and predicted a win.
The crowd was going crazy when Michael Buffer did his thing the next night; I had never before seen such an audience in Europe. Every time Roy connected, the guys around me went wild. At last, though, he couldn’t pull it off and Tarver got a deserving decision. Nevertheless, the fight and the spectacle around it were well worth a trip halfway around the world. And it got me hooked, as I’ve been traveling to see fights in the States ever since.
Photo / Mark Morrison-Getty Images (Toney-Thornton)
Mark E. Ortega is the boxing columnist for the Martinez News-Gazette and is a member of the Boxing Writers Assoc. of America and the RING Ratings Advisory Panel. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]as well as followed on Twitter @MarkEOrtega.