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Looking back at the last RING Magazine Championship tripleheader

William Joppy (R) gets hits by Bernard Hopkins (L) during the undisputed Middleweight Championship in 2003. The bout headlined the last card to feature three Ring Magazine championship bouts. Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images
09
Mar

One of the year’s most anticipated cards will take place Saturday at the American Airlines Center in Dallas as Juan Francisco Estrada meets Roman Gonzalez for the second time, Jessica McCaskill renews her rivalry with Cecilia Braekhus and Hiroto Kyoguchi makes his American debut against Axel Vega.

The story lines attached to this show are legion: Will Estrada exact his long-sought vengeance ignited by Gonzalez’s pulsating unanimous decision over him in November 2012 or will Gonzalez, who once topped the pound-for-pound rankings, add another chapter to his incredible return to form by notching a second victory over the Mexican boxer-puncher? Will McCaskill stamp her superiority beyond doubt by going 2-0 against the legendary “First Lady” or will Braekhus avenge the only blemish of her 14-year career? And will the 14-0 (9) Kyoguchi continue his uninterrupted string of successes against a 4-foot-9 1/2-inch challenger who seeks to supplant Jake Matlala (4 feet 10 1/2 inches) as the sport’s shortest world champion while also becoming the first boxer born in the 2000s to capture a widely recognized belt? 

With the overabundance of “world” titles, it isn’t unusual that these three fights will feature a combined seven alphabet straps (WBC and WBA “super” super flyweight, WBA/WBC/IBF/WBO  welterweight and WBA light flyweight). What is unusual is that three RING Magazine championships will also be on the line on the same show: Estrada and Kyoguchi will risk the RING belts they won from Srisaket Sor Rungvisai and Hekkie Budler respectively for the third time while McCaskill will defend hers for the first time in an immediate rematch against the woman from whom she won it last August. 

Given the strictures regarding the awarding of RING belts and the rarity of unification matches occurring on a single show, Saturday’s event is worthy of special attention. To illustrate how unusual it is, one must go back to another card in which three RING belts were contested on the same night.



On December 13, 2003 at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, Don King put forth a show whose dynamics may never be seen again. Seven of the eight fights involved widely recognized alphabet belts, and three of them — Rosendo Alvarez-Victor Burgos, Cory Spinks-Ricardo Mayorga and Bernard Hopkins-William Joppy — boasted the extra gravitas provided by THE RING championship. 

The magazine had awarded championship belts since its founding in 1922 until its near-bankruptcy in 1989, and upon their reintroduction in 2001 the intent was “to reward fighters who, by satisfying rigid criteria, can justify a claim as the true and only world champion in a given weight class.” In 2003, a vacant RING championship was awarded only to the winner of a fight between the magazine’s number one and number two contenders, or, under special circumstances, the first and third-rated fighters. 

Alvarez was crowned THE RING’s inaugural champion at light flyweight following his majority decision over Beibis Mendoza in March 2003, a victory that allowed him to take a 2-1 lead in their eventual tetralogy and to notch his second successful defense as WBA light flyweight champion. Meanwhile, Mayorga captured his RING championship by flattening previous titleholder Vernon Forrest in January 2003, then successfully defending it (and his WBC and WBA welterweight titles) with a majority decision over Forrest in July. Hopkins was the longest-reigning RING champion of the group; his 12th round TKO over Felix Trinidad in September 2001 not only added Trinidad’s WBA strap to his WBC and IBF baubles, but he also became the first RING champion at middleweight since Sumbu Kalambay’s tenure was ended in July 1988 by the magazine’s shutdown, a shutdown that concluded after rival publisher Stanley Weston purchased the publication and saved it from financial ruin. That said, the new owners did not resume awarding RING belts until 2001, more than a decade after Weston’s group published its first issue in January 1990. By fighting Joppy, Hopkins was defending his RING belt for the third time after successful outings against Carl Daniels (KO 10) on Groundhog Day 2002 and mandatory challenger Morrade Hakkar 13 months later (KO 8). 

Cory Spinks hits Ricardo Mayorga during the Undisputed Welterweight Championship bout at the Boardwalk Hall on December 13, 2003 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

The marathon card began with three title bouts that took place before the pay-per-view portion even began (each were shown via tape delay on Fox Sports Net). The first saw Luis Perez retain his IBF super flyweight title by unanimous decision against Felix Machado, the man from whom Perez won his title by split verdict the previous January. That was followed by WBC cruiserweight champion Wayne Braithwaite’s 87-second destruction of Luis Pineda, a Panamanian whose most previous fight was a 56-second blowout of 0-7 Libardo Hernandez. The final bout of that telecast was the first involving a RING belt, Alvarez versus Burgos.

Alvarez had been considered among the very best in the lowest weight classes for nearly a decade. In December 1995 he dethroned long-reigning WBA minimumweight champion Chana Porpaoin, then 35-0, by split decision in Thailand and after notching four successful defenses he inflicted the only blemish of Ricardo Lopez’s career with an eight-round cut-shortened technical draw in March 1998 best remembered for Alvarez’s shocking second-round knockdown of Lopez. The pair met again eight months later, but the fight was in danger of being canceled after Alvarez missed weight by three-and-a-quarter pounds. Though shorn of his WBA belt, the fight went on after the parties agreed to a new 115-pound rehydration limit. Lopez, whose WBC belt was no longer at risk, captured the WBA strap after winning a Fight-of-the-Year quality split decision. 

“El Bufalo” won his second divisional title at 108 with a split decision over Mendoza in March 2001, avenging a seventh-round DQ loss caused by excessive low blows nearly seven months earlier. After a non-title win over David Torres (KO 3) and a pair of successful defenses against Sompoch Harnvichachai (KO 12) and Mendoza (majority W 12) — the latter of which won him the RING belt — the 32-2-1 (20) Nicaraguan sought to consolidate his command over the division by meeting IBF counterpart Burgos, a Mexican who, at 29, was four years Alvarez’s junior and whose 35-13-2 (20) record confirmed his status as a late bloomer. In fact, Burgos overcame a horrible start to his pro career — 0-4 with two KO losses — to become a titleholder; he stopped the favored Alex “Nene” Sanchez in round 12 to win the IBF light flyweight belt that had been vacated by the retiring Lopez. The Alvarez bout marked Burgos’ first title defense. 

The conventional wisdom was that the naturally larger and bigger hitting Alvarez would fare best in the early rounds while Burgos would perform better in the fight’s second half due to his work rate and stamina. Instead, it was a fast-paced, nip-and-tuck affair that saw Burgos win his rounds with quicker hands, nimbler feet and shaper hitting while Alvarez captured his with consistent aggression and superior power. Although Burgos appeared to have done enough to become the new RING champion — he out-landed Alvarez in nine of the 12 rounds in terms of total punches and led 276-226 overall, 50-48 jabs and 226-178 power as well as 32%-24% overall, 19%-18% jabs and 37%-275 power — the three judges came up with three different results. Philippe Verbeke had Alvarez a 116-112 winner while Al Bennett favored Burgos 116-113, but both were superseded by Al DeVito’s 114-114 card that allowed both fighters to retain their alphabet belts and for Alvarez to retain his RING championship.

Zab Judah kicked off the show’s pay-per-view portion with a 72-second pasting of Jaime Rangel to keep his WBO super lightweight belt, then was followed by Travis Simms lifting himself from mandatory challenger to WBA super welterweight titlist at the expense of Alejandro Garcia, who Simms stopped in round five. The night’s lone match for a secondary title saw John Ruiz seize the WBA’s “interim” heavyweight title by unanimously out-pointing former champion Hasim Rahman. 

The co-main event pitted Mayorga and Spinks, and while the stakes were high for Spinks — the possibility of owning three alphabet belts and the RING championship as well as pulling off a major upset — they were even more so for Mayorga, for had he won, he would have nailed down a guaranteed showdown with another RING king in 154-pound monarch Shane Mosley, who was three months removed from his second triumph against Oscar de la Hoya. 

The battle lines were clearly drawn: Spinks, a southpaw slickster known for speed, angles, intelligence, mobility and strategic command, and Mayorga, the right-handed beer swilling cigarette smoker renowned for power, charisma, confidence, and writing steep verbal checks. At one public event before this fight, Mayorga crossed a major line when he boasted he would knock Spinks into heaven to join his mother, who died of a stroke in 1999.

Mayorga’s intent was to rattle Spinks’ cage, but all he did was steel Spinks’ resolve. Born five days after father Leon shook the world by dethroning Muhammad Ali, Spinks controlled most of the match by circling in both directions, then countering Mayorga’s misdirected swings with diamond-cutting counters. The Nicaraguan attempted to break Spinks’ focus by taunting him in rounds three and five, but the St. Louis native largely heeded the advice of chief second Kevin Cunningham: “Stay smart and keep him turning.” 

Mayorga’s frustration increased with every passing minute, and on two occasions his actions prompted referee Tony Orlando to subtract a point. The first was for striking Spinks after the fifth round bell and the second was for holding and hitting in round 11. Although Spinks appeared the clear victor, Mayorga would have escaped with a split draw, for while John Keane saw Spinks ahead 117-110, Eugene Grant (114-112) and Artur Ellensohn (114-114) perceived an entirely different contest.  For the record, the CompuBox stats indicated a commanding victory for Spinks as he led 226-157 in overall connects, 86-25 in landed jabs and 140-132 in power connects as well as the victor in terms of accuracy (41%-30% overall, 38%-13% jabs and 43%-39% power). 

Moments after complaining about Orlando’s point deductions, Mayorga interrupted Spinks’ post-fight interview to put forth a surprising yet beautiful display of sportsmanship: He placed the two alphabet belts Spinks had just won over his conqueror’s shoulders, kissed Spinks’ hand, raised Spinks’ arm into the air and, through an interpreter, apologized for his disrespectful pre-fight rhetoric.

Other fighters had beaten Mayorga before — and more would defeat him in future years — but the fact that Spinks’ performance was able to extract this level of concession from the proud Nicaraguan is proof that his victory over Mayorga was the most complete of all. 

Total victory also was Hopkins’ objective against Joppy in the night’s main event. The 38-year-old Philadelphian prided himself on his old-school sensibilities that demanded that a champion should be undisputed, that he should continue to rule until all qualified challengers had been beaten and that he do so with a fusion of technique, intelligence and power. Hopkins, the IBF titlist since April 1995, believed he had achieved his ultimate goal when he stopped Trinidad in September 2001 — the WBO, whose title was owned by Felix Sturm, had not yet earned worldwide recognition as a “major” organization (that would come the following year when megastar De La Hoya challenged Sturm). But the World Boxing Association, eager to generate more money for itself, arbitrarily named Hopkins its inaugural “super champion” and ordered Joppy and Howard Eastman to fight for its “world” title less than two months after Hopkins’ career-defining triumph over Trinidad. Joppy won a majority decision, and, all of a sudden, Hopkins had unwelcome company on Champions Mountain. 

It was acts such as the ones taken by the WBA that prompted THE RING to create its championship policy, and Hopkins, motivated by that same spirit, wanted to settle matters the old-fashioned way — inside the ring. The 33-year-old Joppy, now a three-time WBA titlist with a 34-2-1 (25) record, felt the same and agreed to have the fight made.

The WBA’s jurisdictional shenanigans only heightened the tensions between the two. Joppy’s hometown of Washington, D.C. already boasted an intense sporting rivalry with Hopkins’ Philadelphia, and he didn’t take kindly to “B-Hop’s” pre-fight trash talk, so much so that he engaged in a shoving match with Hopkins during a news conference. As if the stakes already weren’t high enough, they agreed to sweeten the pot with a side bet. 

“If I just go the distance, he gives me $50,000,” Joppy said. “If he stops me, I give him $25,000.” 

But Joppy wanted to add a caveat: If he stopped Hopkins, he wanted to be paid $100,000. Hopkins countered that a deal was a deal and that he would not permit any alterations. 

For Hopkins (42-2-1, 31), the Joppy fight marked the 17th defense of his IBF title — which, if successful, would extend his own middleweight record for consecutive defenses in a single reign — the fourth of the WBC belt he won from Joppy’s D.C. colleague Keith Holmes, and the third of the WBA and RING belts he won in the Trinidad bout. For Joppy, this would be his 13th title engagement, and, to date, his only losses were to Julio Cesar Green in the first of their three meetings (L 12) and to Trinidad (KO by 5) three fights before meeting Hopkins.

Hopkins had drawn criticism for his overly scientific approach in recent fights. As he aged, the meaning behind “The Executioner” nickname evolved from a search-and-destroy mindset to one in which the goal was to “execute” a game plan to perfection. But with so much on the line, Hopkins decided to turn back the clock and inflict as much pain and punishment as humanly possible. From the start, Hopkins induced an inside fight where his short, clubbing blows — legal and otherwise — enabled him to seize instant strategic command. 

Joppy’s own determination to compete never waned, and in round three he sent an unmistakable message that he would not tolerate any illegal liberties. While fighting along the ropes, Hopkins pivoted away from referee Earl Morton’s view and connected with a sneaky left to Joppy’s protective cup — a demonstration of Hopkins’ admitted mastery of the sport’s darker arts. Joppy responded moments later with his own right to Hopkins’ protector, and, unlike Hopkins, he didn’t care whether Morton saw it or not. The low blow caused Hopkins to double over and for Morton to call a time-out. 

Hopkins’ longtime chief second English “Bouie” Fisher repeatedly assured his charge that “everything you need is in ‘the computer,’ ” meaning the champion’s vast reservoir of experience. Hopkins proceeded to prove him correct as he initiated and concluded virtually every exchange, dictated the terms of each skirmish, and made certain to inflict more damage during those skirmishes. 

Hopkins’ already brisk pace accelerated starting in round eight, and the action proved beyond doubt that Joppy versus Hopkins pitted a very good fighter against an all-time great. Hopkins’ blows created an ugly swelling on the right side of Joppy’s head late in round 10 and it was joined by a somewhat lesser, but still prominent, hematoma on the other side in the 11th. But because Joppy was still on his feet — and because he didn’t want to lose his $50,000 bet — Hopkins set out to finish the job in the 12th.

In those three minutes, Hopkins summoned a titanic final drive. Hopkins unleashed 96 total punches and 89 power punches, and landed 59 and 56 respectively — all of which were fight-highs. But Joppy, who landed 12 of 30 total punches and 8 of 15 power shots, refused to yield, and while it was obvious he had lost the war, the sounding of the final bell allowed him to claim a small victory. 

The scorecards favoring Hopkins were appropriately lopsided (119-109, 119-108, 118-109) and the stat sheets offered further confirmation of Hopkins’ dominance. He was much more active (68.7 punches per round to Joppy’s 49.2), far more accurate in terms of total punches (51%-33%) and power shots (56%-39%), produced 12-0 sweeps in total connects and landed power punches, and racked up connect leads of 419-195 overall and 375-99 power. His 375 landed power punches established a new CompuBox middleweight record, a mark that would stand until Tureano Johnson broke it nearly 12 years later with 396 power connects against Eamonn O’Kane. Joppy’s only statistical consolation was that he was the better jabber (96-44 in connects and a 29%-27% edge in accuracy), but in surviving 12 rounds of Hopkins Hell he earned a much bigger prize — Hopkins’ respect.

“Joppy’s a true warrior,” he told post-fight interviewer Wally Matthews. “That 50 (thousand dollars) was well earned by Joppy. Don (King), right here, is going to pay him that and I am a man of my word. He stood up and he didn’t quit. He could have quit, and you know he could have quit. He took some punishment, and he gave some back.”

More than 17 years after that historic card, six more fighters will seek to either consolidate their claims to the RING championship (Estrada, McCaskill and Kyoguchi), to regain a status that had once been theirs (Braekhus, Gonzalez) or to establish history on several levels (Vega). While it is true that money is a mighty motivator, boxers, especially those at the highest levels, are also driven by forces that can’t be seen but only felt. THE RING championship belt represents an ideal that merges the best of all worlds, for while it can be seen, it also radiates a deeper meaning and relevance that the other belts can’t match. 

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 19 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  “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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