Nordine Oubaali-Rau’shee Warren rematch evokes look at Tua-Izon rivalry
On August 3, 2012, American Olympian Rau’shee Warren met French representative Nordine Oubaali in the second round of the flyweight tournament. As they stepped inside the ring at London’s ExCeL Exhibition Centre, each man was painfully familiar with the cruel plot twists that often come with Olympic boxing and Chinese amateur legend Zou Shiming played a role in their mutual stumbles.
In the 2008 Beijing Games, Oubaali tied Zou 3-3 in their second round match, only to be denied victory via the “count-back” tie-breaker. Zou went on to win the gold medal while Oubaali regrouped and earned a berth on the 2012 team. But as bad as Oubaali’s Olympic experience had been, Warren’s was far more wrenching; in his first fight of the 2004 Games in Athens, the 17-year-old Ohioan lost a 22-9 decision to Zou, who ended up winning bronze. Four years later in Beijing, Warren, now a team captain and one of the nation’s brightest medal hopes, met South Korea’s Lee Ok Sung in the opening round of the flyweight tournament. As the bout neared its end, Warren glanced at the scoreboard and saw a 9-8 score. Thinking he was ahead, he shifted into shutdown mode and danced away the closing moments. Unfortunately for Warren, he was the fighter who was trailing and by the time Warren understood what his corner was screaming about, it was too late to rectify his egregious error. Therefore both men had much to prove to their nations and to themselves as they stood across the ring from one another. For Oubaali, the Warren match was his second fight of the Games, as he defeated Afghanistan’s Faisal Ajmal 22-9, while Warren received a first-round bye.
Although Oubaali appeared to win the first round with his effective aggression and heavier punches, Warren was credited with a 9-6 lead in the computerized scoring, thanks to his occasionally effective counters. Oubaali’s surge in the final moments of round two enabled him to win the stanza 7-5 and cut Warren’s lead to one point entering the final round. With the result still in doubt, Warren reverted to his 2008 form by boxing cautiously, while Oubaali stepped on the gas. The result: A 6-4 lead for Oubaali in round three and a 19-18 decision victory. Oubaali lost his next fight – a 22-18 decision to Northern Ireland’s Michael Conlan in the quarterfinal – while Warren was left to ponder his future.
For both men, that future was the professional game and, on Saturday in Las Vegas, nearly six-and-a-half years after their Olympic encounter, they will meet for even higher stakes – the vacant WBC bantamweight title. Warren, a former WBA beltholder at 118 (he lost in his first defense to Zhanat Zhakiyamov in February 2017) has a record of 16-2 (with 4 knockouts), while Oubaali, a fellow southpaw, is 14-0 (with 11 KOs). Their fight marks only the third time since 1988 that two Olympic foes have met as professionals with a major title on the line and each can draw inspiration from the other two results. For Oubaali, he can look back at Henry Maske’s double triumph against Egerton Marcus, the first by a 5-0 decision in the 1988 gold medal match and the second a 12-round decision in February 1995 to retain his IBF light heavyweight title. For Warren, he can be encouraged by Miguel Cotto’s bounce-back ability against Muhammad Abdullaev; the Uzbek defeated Cotto 17-7 in the 2000 preliminary round en route to the gold medal, while Cotto exacted brutal revenge nearly five years later with a ninth round TKO to retain his WBO junior welterweight title.
However if one wants to look back at the most exciting Olympic/professional series since 1988, there is only one choice: David Tua vs. David Izon. While their December 1996 pro contest wasn’t the “Fight of the Year” (Evander Holyfield KO 11 MikeTyson I, though Tua played the role of Tyson for “The Real Deal” during sparring) or the knockout of the year (Wilfredo Vazquez TKO 11 Eloy Rojas won that honor), Tua-Izon was a contender for each prize. One could surmise that the seeds for the furious pro meeting were planted more than four years earlier and 3,725 miles east of Uncasville, Connecticut.
On August 6, 1992, Tua, born in Samoa but fighting for New Zealand, and Nigeria’s Izon (whose surname “Izonritei” merged his Izon tribe membership with his family name of “Ritei”) met in the heavyweight semifinal at the Olympic tournament staged in Barcelona, Spain. Tua (whose full name was Mafaufau Tavita Lio Mafaufau Sanerivi Talimatasi) earned his spot in the bronze medal match by stopping Spain’s Jose Ortega in round two on July 31 and Czech Vojtech Ruckschloss in the third on August 3, while Izon halted Iran’s Morteza Shiri Ghesiagh in round three on July 31 and out-pointed Canada’s Kirk Johnson 9-5 on August 3. As they awaited the opening bell, one could see that the 19-year-old Tua’s physique, while sturdy, hadn’t yet acquired its “man strength,” while the 26-year-old Izon’s was trim and chiseled.
The opening round saw Tua working his way inside Izon’s longer arms with right-lefts to the body, while Izon used his jab to control distance and his right to catch Tua coming in. The action was rather mild and, at round’s end, Izon was viewed a 2-1 winner by the newly-instituted computerized scoring system that required three of the five judges to hit their “connect” button within a second of one another. The system was supposed to neutralize the nationalistic bias that plagued previous games but it actually created new problems, one of which was absurdly low scores following action-packed rounds. The second round of Izon vs. Tua was one such example, for despite Tua’s superior energy and blistering combinations that bloodied Izon’s nose and raised a lump around the Nigerian’s left eye, his advantage in connects was a measly 5-3. Still, Tua entered the final round with a 6-5 advantage, which meant this was still anyone’s match to win.
Izon’s corner tried to revive its charge with ice but the subsequent mess they made prompted a time-out that delayed the round’s start by 58 seconds. The extra rest did Izon a world of good, for he began landing long rights to the chin while Tua couldn’t duplicate his second-round surge. Just after the round’s halfway point, Izon landed the bout’s most decisive blow: A hook to the body that caused Tua to double over, which, in turn, prompted a standing eight-count. After Tua was deemed fit to continue, Izon spent the remainder of the round slamming the New Zealand-based Samoan’s flanks. The momentum was clearly his, and, after the final bell sounded, the expected result was written on each man’s face: An ear-to-ear smile from Izon and a sense of doom from Tua.
Even the computer system, as operated by the judges, couldn’t deny the strength of Izon’s final-round performance. By out-landing Tua 7-1 by the system’s stringent standard, Izon captured a 12-7 decision and moved on to the gold medal match against Cuba’s Felix Savon, who beat Izon 14-1 to win the first of his three consecutive gold medals.
While Savon would spend the entirety of his boxing career proving his superiority in the amateurs, Tua and Izon moved on to the professional game. Both enjoyed instant and sustained success.
Tua turned pro under the Main Events banner and, starting with a 37-second starching of Ron Humes in December 1992, rolled to a 25-0 record that included 22 knockouts, of which 17 came within the first three rounds. Also Tua’s maturing body thickened substantially; he turned pro scaling 201 pounds. By fight three he scaled 214 1/2; he reached 220 by fight 12 and, in the four fights before signing to fight Izon, had weighed between 225 and 236. The latter number triggered questions about his conditioning and prompted HBO analyst Larry Merchant to say Tua “was built like a redwood stump.” But no matter what he weighed, no one could deny the reality of Tua’s terrifying power, especially with his signature left hook. In his HBO debut in March 1996 – on a fight card dubbed “Night of the Young Heavyweights” – Tua created the night’s biggest imprint thanks to a series of hooks that obliterated future titleholder John Ruiz in just 19 seconds.
Izon took a little longer to turn pro than Tua (his debut was in March 1993) but once he got started, it was hard to stop him. Fighting mostly in France, Izon won his first six fights by KO and rolled to an 18-0 mark that included 16 KOs and nine stoppages inside three rounds. That success also earned him a spot on the “Night of the Young Heavyweights” show but while Tua wowed observers, Izon stumbled badly against Maurice Harris, who entered the ring inside Atlantic City’s Convention Center with a 5-6-2 record, as well as a bag of tricks that helped him win a narrow but unanimous eight-round decision (78-75, 76-75 twice). He too had packed on the pounds, as he scaled 200 in his pro debut and had weighed as much as 222 against Cleveland Woods in November 1995 but, unlike Tua to his critics, the added weight made Izon look even more imposing.
The surging Tua added a pair of first round knockouts over Anthony Cooks and Darroll Wilson (the latter on the HBO-televised Pernell Whitaker-Wilfredo Rivera card), while Izon remained on the shelf. Still, at 6-foot-3 and owning a 80-inch reach that was 11 inches longer than Tua’s, Team Tua and HBO saw him as an attractive test, so the Olympic rematch was scheduled to take place four days before Christmas 1996. The pair weighed within one pound of each other (223 for Tua, 224 for Izon), and in retrospect, the weights foreshadowed the closeness of the fight that followed.
The first round of Tua-Izon II looked much like the first round of Tua-Izon I: Izon working better at long range with his jab and counter rights, while Tua connected with several body shots and a few mid-strength hooks. The only discernible difference was Tua’s improved head movement, which may have been fostered by his rounds of impersonating Tyson for Holyfield’s benefit.
Round two saw Tua closing the gap, maneuvering Izon toward the ropes and forcing the Nigerian to exchange, which he did eagerly and effectively. Izon found the mark with the left uppercut and straight right while Tua drilled in head hooks and body shots. Izon’s brain trust wanted its charge to keep his right glove pinned to his cheek to protect against Tua’s killer hook and, though Izon did a decent job of doing so, Tua still connected with it more than he should have.
The first two minutes of round three produced a trench war in which both threw short, crisp blows that landed with impressive frequency. Izon more than held his own at close range but when he created space for himself in the final minute, the Nigerian was even better with his jabs and crosses. As the round closed, Tua ripped a solid four-punch combination capped by a hard hook to the jaw. Many of Tua’s previous opponents would have crumpled from such a volley but Izon proved he was made of much sterner stuff, as he took the blows unflinchingly.
According to CompuBox, the typical heavyweight averages 44.6 punches per round but, through three rounds, Tua and Izon had set a torrid pace, as the former averaged 71.3 and the latter 87.3. In round three alone, the pair exchanged 166 total punches (85 for Izon, 81 for Tua) and, through the first nine minutes, Tua forged a narrow 96-93 edge in overall connects.
The intense action continued in round four as they again fired 166 punches and the momentum shifted from one man to the other and back. At times, Izon produced enough room to fully extend his jabs and crosses, while, at others, Tua worked him over with body shots and short hooks to the chin. Here Tua introduced a new weapon to his arsenal: The uppercut. One momentarily stunned Izon but, seconds later, the Nigerian buzzed Tua with an overhand right that ignited a rally in the round’s final moments. After the bell sounded, the Convention Center crowd made it loud and clear that they relished the action they’d seen so far. And because this contest was for the “WBC International title,” the bout was scheduled for 12 rounds instead of the usual 10.
Round five featured more of the same but the sixth saw a subtle shift in the narrative. Tua appeared less energetic and, because he allowed Izon to have the space and time he needed to succeed, the Nigerian enjoyed his best round yet, as he landed 39 of his 83 punches (47%), while Tua was 18 of 53 (34%). Worse yet for Tua: A flush hook to the jaw with less than a minute remaining got little more than a brief stare from Izon.
Izon continued his effective boxing through the first minute of round seven but the tide turned again in the second minute after Tua landed several hooks that finally registered with Izon. One hook to the side of the jaw line just before the bell knocked the African off balance and caused him to totter toward the ropes. After the bell sounded, Izon playfully bounced off the strands, smiled sheepishly and waved his right glove as if to say, “That was nothing.”
At this point, the fight boiled down to Tua’s single-shot bombs against Izon’s jabs and pinpoint rights. Izon was also the more active fighter because, through seven rounds, the CompuBox stats had him ahead 578-465 in terms of attempted punches and 226-198 in total connects.
The eighth was another Izon round, as he boxed effectively in the first minute, fared well when Tua closed the gap in the second minute and earned leads in punches thrown (63-47) and punches landed (24-19).
While Izon was dishing out his share of punishment, he bore the most visible signs of combat. Tua’s hooks raised a welt under Izon’s right eye, and the pain was such that he couldn’t remain still as his corner attempted to treat it.
Tua appeared to catch his second wind in the 10th, as he picked up his work rate and increased the intensity of his pursuit. He also scored more heavily with his hook and one that connected with 38 seconds remaining propelled Izon to the ropes. Not only did Izon absorb it with aplomb, he appeared to stun Tua briefly with a right that caught him in the middle of a combination. Despite the wobbly moment, it still was an excellent round for Tua as he landed 59% of his total punches (29 of 49), while Izon connected with 41% of his (28 of 69).
Before the fight, both men had to answer questions about themselves. Tua’s detractors questioned his stamina and his ability to compete vigorously beyond the first few rounds, while Izon’s own team said its man might be too nice to produce the competitive fury neecessary to pull out a tough fight. The same could be said of Tua, who, outside the ring, was a mild-tempered, soft-spoken Christian. However as the pair continued to trade in the 11th, it was obvious to all that they had the necessary ingredients to succeed in their chosen profession.
Although HBO’s “unofficial official” Harold Lederman had Tua ahead 107-102 and analyst Larry Merchant had the Samoan up 106-104, the result remained in doubt with the three officials as two had Tua up narrowly (106-103, 105-104), while the third saw Izon ahead 105-104. The fighters and trainers sensed the closeness of the contest and, as the final round began, Tua and Izon acted on their urgency by trading bombs at ring center. But as the second minute began, it was evident that one man had to separate himself from the other in order to secure victory. That man was Tua and his sprint toward the finish line was something to behold.
With 1:51 remaining in the round, Tua landed a hook that moved Izon back a few inches but the hook that connected 21 seconds later shook the Nigerian to his foundations. A follow up right uppercut-left hook caused Izon’s upper body to sag, which prompted Tua to gun for the big finish.
And what a finish it was.
With 81 seconds left, Tua landed a howitzer hook that wrenched Izon’s neck and caused the rest of his body to react as if he were a marionette whose strings were suddenly cut. Only the ropes kept Izon upright, which prompted referee Richard Flaherty to correctly begin a mandatory eight-count. With a wry smile on his face, Izon, who was sitting on the ropes, regained his feet by Flaherty’s count of seven. But as he tried to reset his balance, Izon’s legs gave way just enough to make him wobble, which was all Flaherty needed to justify waving off the fight at the 1:54 mark of round 12.
It was a sensational and revealing win for Tua, who gutted out a hard-earned victory against a man who had previously defeated him on the biggest stage of the amateur boxing world, the Olympic Games. For Izon, it was his second consecutive defeat but, unlike the loss to Harris, this result didn’t have the feel of a significant setback in terms of his long-range future.
The final CompuBox statistics further illustrated how competitive this fight had been. By landing 27 of his 39 punches in round 12 – and because Izon was just 11 of 35 – Tua pulled ahead 326-324 in terms of total connects and both were impressively accurate as Tua landed 46% of his total punches, while Izon landed 38%.
Will Saturday’s Rau’shee Warren-Nordine Oubaali rematch live up to the bar set by Tua-Izon? We can only hope.
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, West Virginia. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 16 writing awards, including two first-place awards, since 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales from the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics” (available on Amazon) and the co-author of the newly released book “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” (also available on Amazon). To contact Groves about a personalized autographed copy, use the email [email protected] or send him a message via Facebook.
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