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‘Fighting Words’ — The WBA Is The Cause, Don King Was Just The Symptom

Photo by Matt Heasley
03
Feb

The fact that Bermane Stiverne was in a “title fight” in the year of our lord 2021 could best be summed up by his initials.

Yet there he was in the main event, one of two heavyweights headlining the boxing equivalent of a dumpster fire, an ill-fated Don King production held on a Friday night in front of an empty arena for the viewing pleasure of whatever degenerates were willing to fork over nearly $20 to satisfy their morbid curiosity.

What they saw was far from the worst card in boxing history. What they saw was still a far cry from the days when King would stuff a pay-per-view full of title fights. King just doesn’t have the talent for that anymore — in both senses of the term. His stable is unstable. This was never going to be an embarrassment of riches. After several bouts were pulled from the show, it was just an embarrassment.

Stiverne’s fight, an 11th-round technical knockout loss to Trevor Bryan, was serviceable, not thrilling but modestly watchable, definitely better than some of the dreary heavyweight duds of recent vintage. The main event was supported by two undercard bouts: six rounds featuring nondescript cruiserweights, preceded by four rounds of an undefeated bantamweight prospect against a career opponent.

It was like an old “Friday Night Fights” card on ESPN2. Except it cost $19.95.

(It was an event titled “Return to Greatness” — undermining its own tagline by including re-airings of three Don King fights from decades ago in order to beef up the otherwise threadbare undercard.)

It’s easy to lay the blame on King for the mess that this show was expected to be from the outset and continued to be in the weeks leading up to the event.

A few weeks before fight night, the promoter’s website listed five live fights for the broadcast. None of them took place. Only three of the listed fighters made it on.

The original main event, Manuel Charr vs. Bryan, had to be scrapped because Charr never made it to the United States. The promoter said Charr didn’t have the right travel visa in order to work. Charr’s team said they didn’t receive the signed contract they needed from King in order to apply for that visa. King had bid $2 million to promote Charr vs. Bryan. Pay-per-view sales never would’ve approached that figure even had all the fights gone forward. Charr being off likely helped King cut his losses.

A cruiserweight fight was junked when Beibut Shumenov pulled out. Other undercard fights vanished.

None of this was a surprise. It was a disaster that could be spotted from miles away, like a celebrity marriage ending in tabloid drama, the “Cats” movie being terrible, Quibi losing billions of dollars, or a fighter signing with Don King with high hopes and then spending the next few years realizing he made a terrible mistake.

King’s best days were long ago — so long ago that a very new, still-raw boxing writer wrote a column comparing Don King to King Lear nearly 15 years ago. (My editor emailed me afterward with one note: “No more Shakespeare.”) Even back then, fighters were complaining about inactivity and pay and suing for their release. In the time since, King’s been stuck in a vicious cycle. He had fewer and fewer notable fighters, and so the networks provided him with fewer and fewer dates, which made it all the more difficult to sign top-tier talent.

That’s why King had to go his own route last Friday, producing his own pay-per-view — mostly competently run, though not without some hiccups and fuckups.

I don’t root for any promotional company to go out of business. I can’t fault an octogenarian — both King and Top Rank’s Bob Arum are 89 — for living their final years the way they want to. But it’s hard to believe that last week’s show ever would’ve existed if not for the World Boxing Association.

It is the WBA whose greed is like an uncooked slab of meat, creating the conditions for bacteria to live and thrive.

The WBA has long been obsessed with creating unnecessary title belts, going from one world title per weight class to two, then three, and now up to four in some cases. This alone would water down the quality of fighters competing for titles. But then the WBA further watered down its own requirements.

The WBA’s “super” title was originally created to recognize a boxer who had unified at least two belts. Then it allowed for that recognition to be bestowed upon a fighter who had made at least five (or, in some cases, 10) successful defenses.

Now decisions are made because they are convenient, because they allow fighters to be slotted in and out of spots, which helps the WBA earn more from sanctioning fees.

Keith Thurman (right) cracks Danny Garcia. Photo by Ed Diller/DiBella Entertainment

Keith Thurman had once been the WBA’s “super” welterweight titleholder after defeating Danny Garcia and adding the WBC belt to his collection. Thurman vacated the WBC title and remained “super” titleholder, perhaps by virtue of his title defenses, but more likely because there was no other option for him with the WBA. It already had a “regular” titleholder in Manny Pacquiao. Then Pacquiao defeated Thurman to become the new “super” titleholder.

WBA rules state that “if [the sanctioning body members] designate a super champion, the vacant regular title need not be filled.”

I’ll wait for you to stop laughing.

Last September, Yordenis Ugas — a very good welterweight otherwise deserving of an opportunity — defeated Abel Ramos, a career bridesmaid who’d never beaten a notable 147-pounder. For that win, Ugas received the WBA’s newly vacant “regular” belt. Last week, Pacquiao was moved into “champion in recess” and Ugas, who had only just won a vacant belt against a lesser opponent, was made the WBA’s new “super” champion.

Meanwhile, the WBA’s rules call for an “interim” titleholder to be created only “when a world champion is unable to defend his title within the prescribed time periods for justifiable medical, legal, or other reasons reasonably beyond his control.”

I’ll wait for you to stop crying.

The WBA’s “super” titleholder in the heavyweight division is Anthony Joshua. He was active when the WBA sanctioned a fight between Manuel Charr and Alexander Ustinov for the vacant “regular” title in November 2017. Less than nine months after Charr-Ustinov, the WBA decided it also needed an interim titleholder, which Trevor Bryan picked up by beating BJ Flores.

Neither Charr nor Bryan had fought in the years since. Joshua’s had four fights since Bryan-Flores took place.

Sanctioning bodies, by rule and by practice, do not rank the other organizations’ titleholders. That can mean that, say, the WBA’s No. 1 contender is no better than the fifth-best fighter in that division. Often they’re worse. The “regular” and “interim” belts sometimes belong to fighters who’d otherwise be considered rising contenders, but on other occasions are awarded to boxers who should’ve long ago faded into obscurity.

Charr and Ustinov were also-rans but were ranked No. 4 and No. 2 by the WBA before fighting for the “regular” belt. Charr had been knocked out by rising cruiserweight Mairis Briedis two years before and had only beaten a 12-7 opponent and Sefer Seferi, an undefeated cruiserweight who had only ever faced two opponents with winning records. Ustinov had lost to Kubrat Pulev five years before and had picked up seven straight wins against fighters who didn’t matter anymore or had never mattered to begin with.

Bryan and Flores were No. 10 and No. 11 in October 2017, the month before Charr-Ustinov took place. By August 2018, when Bryan and Flores fought for the “interim” belt, they were ranked No. 4 and No. 5. What had they done in that time period? Bryan had defeated a fighter with a record of two wins and 24 losses. Flores hadn’t fought in more than a year. Neither had ever defeated a single ranked heavyweight.

Don King’s lone leverage, his only hope of regaining some foothold in the sport, is by having a fighter with a world title, a secondary (or tertiary) belt, or mandatory challenger status. He promotes Bryan and Shumenov, who until last week was the WBA’s “regular” cruiserweight titleholder despite not having fought since 2018.

King won the purse bid after the WBA mandated Charr vs. Bryan. With Charr no longer on the card, King petitioned the WBA to strip him and make Bryan vs. Stiverne for the “regular” title.

Stiverne hadn’t fought in two years. He hadn’t won a fight in more than five years. For good reason, the WBA didn’t have Stiverne ranked within its Top 15.

On January 29 — the day of King’s pay-per-view — the WBA announced that Bryan vs. Stiverne would be for its “regular” title. Just 17 minutes later, the WBA basically said “my bad” and that its previous email was wrong: “Please disregard this communication,” the email read, according to Scott Shaffer of Boxing Talk. “It is not valid and it was sent by an involuntary mistake. Please accept my apologies.”

Then they took back their takeback.

The WBA uploaded its updated rankings that same day. There, at No. 11 — not No. 15, but somehow at No. 11 — was Stiverne.

Stiverne was obliterated by Deontay Wilder in the first round of their 2017 rematch. Photo by Ryan Hafey/ Premier Boxing Champions

Bryan is not a good fighter. He was still better than a 42-year-old Stiverne who hadn’t fought in forever, had faded incredibly even while he was still active, and was entering this bout with an injury suffered in training camp.

But now Bryan is the WBA’s “regular” titleholder. Now he can someday become mandatory challenger to the “super” title currently held by Anthony Joshua. All because Don King convinced a subpar heavyweight to sign with him, convinced the WBA to let that subpar heavyweight fight for one of its worthless titles, and convinced the WBA to strip Charr and have two subpar heavyweights fight for another unnecessary belt.

King is just doing his job. There are tons of promoters and managers who navigate this shady business, who maneuver their fighters through the rankings, who make mismatches and get fighters world title shots in order to garner more leverage. The WBA isn’t the only sanctioning body with bullshit belts and questionable mandatory challengers. But it has become the lowest of the low.

The WBA’s world title situation is like an untreated case of herpes. It’s bad — and it’s only going to get worse.

Fres Oquendo might be owed a title shot.

If you can’t get excited about Bryan vs. Charr, or Bryan vs. Stiverne, or Bryan vs. Oquendo, can you really call yourself a boxing fan?

Oquendo is nearly 48 years old. He hasn’t fought since July 2014, when he lost to Ruslan Chagaev. The reason he is owed a title shot is convoluted and best explained in this article by Jake Donovan of BoxingScene.com.

The irony of the situation? The WBA at the time was supposedly planning on holding a tournament to consolidate its heavyweight titles.

Five years ago, WBA head Gilberto Mendoza Jr. said he was “working to reduce the titles.” Last year, he walked that back: “They tell me that there should only be one champion, but they don’t give me solid arguments.”

The WBA has continued down this road because it can, because the belts, even the lesser ones, still do matter to the fighters and promoters and networks. This will remain the case no matter how much we decry them, and even if we ignore them. No one writes about the regional belts — baubles like the NABO, intercontinental titles, youth titles — and yet the fighters still prize them and pay for them.

Last weekend’s dumpster fire is the most compelling argument, most tangible example yet of the harm that the WBA’s addiction can cause. No one forced Mendoza and the WBA to put on a secondary heavyweight title fight in 2017 and a tertiary title fight in 2018. No one made the WBA keep those titles on these undeserving champions as they sat on the sidelines for years. No one stopped the WBA from consolidating its belts or just keeping one champion once Joshua was the only one remaining.

Photo by Tom Gray

This mess that took place last week is the WBA’s fault, boxing’s equivalent to people flushing toilet wipes and creating a putrid mass that builds and builds until the system is overwhelmed by a filthy, stinking mess.

Don’t expect this to ever change. As worthless as the titles may seem to us, the WBA will continue to reap the rewards of sanctioning fees, doubling and tripling and quadrupling its potential rake from each division.

They’re pigs in shit, and they’re oinking all the way to the bank.

The 10 Count

1 – Caleb Plant did what he needed to do to land a unification match with Canelo Alvarez, which some believe is a strong possibility for later this year. There are some who say that Plant should’ve done more.

Any such criticism would come from the belief that Plant needed to establish himself as a dominant force at super middleweight en route to a collision with Canelo. It also comes from the perception that Plant’s fight with Caleb Truax was a mismatch, one that Plant should’ve ended early. Instead, the bout went the full 12, with Plant winning a complete shutout on the scorecards.

Plant’s advantages in hand speed, foot speed and boxing ability were evident from the outset. Truax had hoped he could outwork, out-think and pressure Plant. But Plant often beat Truax to the punch or easily moved out of the way, landing 179 of 581 punches while limiting Truax to just 47 of 389, according to CompuBox.

Afterward, Plant revealed that he’d hurt his hand earlier in the fight, which he felt kept him from being able to stop Truax. It’s an issue that’s plagued him before.

“Caleb Plant told us in fighter meetings that the reason earlier in his career he was only getting decisions was because of hand injuries,” tweeted Mark Ortega, a member of the broadcast’s production team. “[He] felt good about his hand coming into the fight and said it was why he had KOs [in his] last two fights.”

2 – Plant is now in a holding pattern. He’ll need to find out how bad his hand injury is, whether it requires surgery and how long it will take for him to recover. But beyond that, his future depends on what Canelo does and whom Canelo chooses.

Canelo will face mandatory challenger Avni Yildirim later this month and then is expected to have a unification bout with fellow 168-pound titleholder Billy Joe Saunders on May 8.

If Canelo wins both, it’s possible that he would then go directly into facing Plant for the undisputed super middleweight championship, with the winner owning all of the major titles in the division.

There’s a lot of upside to that storyline. The downside is that it’s wholly dependent on what one fighter wants to do, which tends to leave everyone else in limbo. As we’ve seen with cash cows in other divisions, fighters tend to sit on the sidelines waiting for the big opportunity rather than removing themselves from the running.

Plant is talented. I’d like to see him in a unification bout with Canelo. But there are fights for both men that I’d prefer to see instead. Each involves the same opponent: David Benavidez.

Benavidez is an undefeated, action-friendly 24-year-old who’s held the WBC super middleweight belt on two occasions. He was stripped of the title once after testing positive for cocaine, despite the drug use occurring outside of competition. Benavidez won the belt again in 2019 with a TKO of Anthony Dirrell but lost his belt on the scales last August after coming in overweight for his first defense.

Benavidez is scheduled to face Ronald Ellis on March 13. We’ll see if he can make 168. That’s in his hands. What happens next depends on everyone else.

3 – I don’t want to make too big a deal of Ryan Garcia’s big deal — becoming the first American boxer to get a national endorsement deal with Gatorade. But let’s not go all the way to the other end of the spectrum either by writing the news off as wholly unimportant.

Big commercial deals aren’t guaranteed to make a fighter into a bigger star or bring a slew of new fans to boxing. That definitely wasn’t the case when light heavyweight Mike Lee started appearing in Subway commercials. (Garcia has already achieved more in the ring than Lee ever did, though the 22-year-old has only recently established himself as a lightweight contender.)

These types of deals aren’t made for the sake of growing boxing. They’re made for the sake of growing business. In this case, Gatorade likely looked at Garcia in the way that companies look at other social media-savvy influencers. Garcia has a tremendous following, a young audience that Gatorade can try to reach.

His team deserves credit. These types of deals are rare in boxing.

“We met with Gatorade years ago. At the time they wanted to see more growth and a ubiquitous presence in the industry,” tweeted boxing manager Roger Ruiz. “Soon after, we lined up Teen Vogue, then Abercrombie and Fitch, then Upper Deck Baseball, and so on.

4 – There was no other big news for Garcia in the past week, an unsurprising lull after the social media frenzy about a potential fight between him and Manny Pacquiao.

Nothing is ever official until it’s official. With that in mind, here are some of the comments and reports:

– January 27: Boxing writer Dan Rafael says the fight, if it becomes reality, wouldn’t take place until “later in the year, more towards the fall time period.”

– January 30: Garcia’s adviser says negotiations are making progress for a fight in May, according to a tweet from Mike Coppinger of The Athletic.

– January 30: Eric Gomez of Golden Boy Promotions says “The fight isn’t going to happen,” according to Salvador Rodriguez of ESPN Deportes.

– January 31: Kevin Iole of Yahoo! Sports reports that the fighters have agreed to fight, “but that financing still needs to be secured to make it a reality.”

5 – Maybe now we can instead spend our time and energy discussing more timely news in boxing.

You know, like the big fight weekend coming up this Saturday featuring… former junior middleweight titleholder Austin Trout taking on some 21-7-2 dude named Juan Armando Garcia.

…or the appearance that ESPN boxing blow-by-blow man Joe Tessitore made on a recent episode of Celebrity Wheel of Fortune, alongside his fellow broadcasters from ABC’s “Holey Moley” wacky mini-golf reality competition.

Because I’m both a boxing fan and an aspiring Wheel of Fortune contestant, I watched it for you. Tessitore struggled at first before winning $57,000 on behalf of charity Wide Horizons For Children.

And because I’m both a boxing fan and a masochist, suddenly all I want in the world is for Teddy Atlas to be a game show contestant.

Now that I’ve implanted that image in your head — complete with sound turned all the way up — let’s move on…

6 – I believe Jim Lampley once said that if he could be reincarnated as one punch, it would be a left hook to the liver. I’m not going to critique the Hall of Fame boxing broadcaster’s taste. I’ll just say that when I die, I want to come back into this world as a picture-perfect uppercut.

We got one of those this past Saturday in the fight between Michael Coffie and Darmani Rock, aired on the televised undercard to Caleb Plant vs. Caleb Truax. Coffie vs. Rock — a pair of undefeated heavyweight prospects, and also the world’s worst kids’ game — ended a minute into the third round after a pair of knockdowns, one from a beautiful left uppercut, the second from a left hook to the temple.

Coffie dropped Rock like a … like a thing that drops hard. There was a latte like about Coffie’s performance. I’m looking forward to what his team has brewing for him next.

(On a side note: That shot of Rock’s spittle flying in slow-motion from the uppercut should end up in PBC on Fox’s intro video for every broadcast from here on out. As Jerry Seinfeld once said, “That’s one magic loogie.”)

Last year was a great year for uppercut knockdowns and knockouts:

Gervonta Davis’ Knockout of the Year against Leo Santa Cruz

Alexander Povetkin taking out Dillian Whyte

Jaron “Boots’ Ennis dropping Juan Carlos Abreu

Joseph George obliterating Marcos Escudero

Adrien Broner. Photo by Chris Farina/ Mayweather Promotions

7 – Adrien Broner has a new opponent for his Feb. 20 main event on Showtime — the undefeated but otherwise unheralded Jovanie Santiago, a 31-year-old junior welterweight from Puerto Rico who is 14-0-1 with 10 KOs.

Santiago turned pro in 2007 and has had just 15 pro fights, including a unanimous decision over the aged DeMarcus “Chop Chop” Corley in 2017. He is part of the same stable as former bantamweight titleholder Emmanuel Rodriguez and junior welterweight contender Subriel Matias, according to boxing matchmaker Ron Katz.

He replaces Broner’s first opponent, Pedro Campa, a junior welterweight with a record of 31-1-1 (21 KOs), one of those victories coming against some dude named Juan Adrian Briones, no relation to the one Adrien Broner. Campa had to pull out after someone in his camp tested positive for COVID-19.

Neither of these is a notable name. It’s far from an ideal main event. However, this is akin to a comeback fight for Broner after two years away from the ring, after losing a significant amount of weight, plus dealing with legal issues and mental health problems. And as ratings have shown in the past, sometimes it only takes one name fighter to draw an audience.

8 –  “I’m only 31. How can I be past my prime?”

That was Adrien Broner’s calm reply on a recent episode of the “Last Stand Podcast” with Showtime broadcaster Brian Custer.

It’s a fair question that we heard from Adrien Broner. It’s countered by what we’ve seen from Adrien Broner. Or, rather, what we haven’t seen.

Broner hasn’t won a fight in four years, dating back to his split decision over Adrian Granados. He hasn’t defeated a notable opponent in more than five years, if that’s what you consider his 2015 fight against Khabib Allakhverdiev for a vacant junior welterweight belt.

“It’s just I’ve done so much in the sport at an early age, that it may seem like I’ve been in the game forever,” Broner said.

He’s been in the pros since 2008 and in the spotlight, on and off, for the past decade. The criticism and concern aren’t due to the amount of time that Broner’s fought, though. Rather, it’s the amount of time since Broner’s put forth a worthy effort for a full 12 rounds. That was especially true the last time he appeared, even when so much was on the line for his career. Broner threw fewer than 300 punches in his 2019 loss to Manny Pacquiao.

“I’m very young,” Broner told Custer. “I haven’t took much punishment. I got too much more fight in me.”

We’ll see if it’s true. There’s clearly some combination of passion and desperation, in the way he’s thrown himself back into training, in the way he’s trying to bounce back after years of treating himself and others in such a poor manner.

The Santiago fight won’t necessarily provide a full accounting of what Broner has left. He’d had an incredibly uneven career. Each of his losses have come against a good fighter — Marcos Maidana, Shawn Porter, Mikey Garcia, Pacquiao. But he’s otherwise been a chronic disappointment. It’s amazing, though not completely surprising, that Broner’s getting another opportunity.

As I wrote two years ago following the Pacquiao loss:

“He was well-managed on his way to winning world titles in four weight classes. That’s a thin accomplishment when you look closer at his record. His best wins to this day were against Paulie Malignaggi, who was never one of the best at 147, and Antonio DeMarco, who was in a shallow division at lightweight.

“That stellar performance against DeMarco in 2012 feels like forever ago. Broner looked fantastic that night. He has been done in by a lack of discipline, growing into heavier divisions where he no longer had size and height advantages. He still can show flashes of the skills that he has. But they’re rarely more than glimpses. He can beat the second and third tier of opponents. He fails to show up when it matters most.”

This is the year that will matter the most.

9 – I’m more interested in the two supporting bouts on the Broner-Santiago broadcast.

Former lightweight titleholder Robert Easter Jr. is expected to face junior welterweight contender Ryan Martin. Easter lost his belt to Mikey Garcia two and a half years ago and needs a victory to reestablish himself. Martin stalled out after losing to Josh Taylor in the World Boxing Super Series in 2018. Taylor went on to win the tournament. Martin tested positive for two banned substances and didn’t fight again until last year, picking up a pair of wins against nondescript opposition.

I’m hoping we get the kind of fun fight Easter was in against Richard Commey and Denis Shafikov, and not the dreary action we saw (and now wish we could unsee) when Easter met Javier Fortuna and Rances Barthelemy.

The show could also include Dominic Breazeale vs. Otto Wallin in what should be a heavyweight slugfest. Not every fight needs to be important. Some of them can just be plain fun.

That’s what Breazeale tends to provide under certain conditions. Give me any evenly matched Dominic Breazeale fight — I’m hearkening back to his battles with Amir Mansour and Izuagbe Ugonoh — and my butt is planted in front of the TV, starting off firmly and then moving to the edge of my seat.

Wallin, who gave Tyson Fury more trouble than anticipated back in 2019, seems like an ideal dance partner. As we saw in Wallin’s last appearance (a fifth-round stoppage of Travis Kauffman), he can throw a lot of punches. Breazeale is willing to take a lot of punches in order to dish out his own.

10 – Adrien Broner has had more arrests in the past 14 years than his next opponent has had fights…

 

YOU MAY HAVE MISSED

FIGHTING WORDS – PONDERING PACQUIAO-RYAN GARCIA (A POLARIZING PROPOSAL)

 

Follow David Greisman on Twitter @FightingWords2. His book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” is available on Amazon.