The Pugil List: Top 10 USA debuts
A famous axiom in business, politics, sports, and dating is “You only get one chance to make a first impression!” Multiply the truism by a factor of millions when that first impression is televised to a nation, which can translate to a gain or loss in the millions of dollars, depending on what kind of impression is left on the buying public.
Irishman Carl Frampton has that added pressure making the vaunted American debut this Saturday afternoon on CBS (4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT). Barry McGuigan, who manages Frampton, is the gold standard for an Irish pugilist’s success in America and living blueprint on how to conquer the American boxing landscape. You only have to look back to last weekend to witness the buzz generated by Irish UFC fighter Conor McGregor, who created a place in the sports market by being charismatic and savage.
America is a welcoming host nation when it comes to adopting boxers, given our country’s diverse ethnic and immigrant make-up from the past and present. Living legends who defeated American champions like Roberto Duran, Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., Lennox Lewis, Jeff Fenech, Azumah Nelson, Kostya Tszyu and, of course, Barry McGuigan are welcomed with a handshake and slap on the back in any bar frequented by boxing fans. Foreign legends who have passed away are recalled fondly in boxing conversations between Americans all over the internet or at gatherings like the International Boxing Hall of Fame. OK, I do admit some are still having a hard time getting over Naseem Hamed and Joe Calzaghe.
Note: there are no Mexican, Puerto Rican or Canadian boxers on this list since their competing in America is a bit like fighting in your next-door neighbor’s yard instead of your own. The culture shock and travel component is not as adverse as for those flying in over the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean for an evening’s worth of intense work. Hispanics boxers also receive much more fan support – English fans aside – that aides them and, in many cases, Latino boxers are often he crowd favorite. Other boxers considered for this list but missing the cut were Lennox Lewis, Joe Calzaghe, Eugene Criqui, Marcel Cerdan, Vitali Klitschko, Ken Buchanan, Gerry Penalosa, Hogan Bassey, Kostya Tszyu, Roberto Duran, Flash Elorde, Arthur Abraham, Eder Jofre, Brian Mitchell, Dick Tiger, Carlos Monzon, Roman Gonzalez, Azumah Nelson, Ruslan Provodnikov, Ike Quartey, Georges Carpentier, Michael Katsidis, Pone Kingpetch, Rolando Pascua, Peter Jackson, Gennady Golovkin, Lucas Matthysse and Max Schmeling.
10. Marcos Maidana TKO 6 Victor Ortiz (2009): Beats out Georges Carpentier’s dethroning of Battling Levinsky on the basis of drama over Hall of Fame participants. Those who had never seen Maidana wrote him off since he lost a controversially close fight to Andriy Kotelnik in his previous outing, while simultaneously witnessing the rise of Victor Ortiz through the lens of his Golden Boy Promotions packaging and a big push by HBO. A hectic affair from the opening bell, both fighters visited the canvas in the first round. It came down to mental strength, as Maidana endured, roaring back from two more knockdowns in the second round to win rounds three to six when his pressure convinced a concussed Ortiz to turn his back on the fight. A performance that made Maidana, becoming an entertaining “B”-side on pay-per-view cards, who could be relied on to deliver tough fights for elite competition.
9. Vic Darchinyan TKO 11 Irene Pacheco (2004): A pity this debut was not witnessed by more fans, airing on then-fledgling regional FOX Sports affiliates, as the 21-0 Darchinyan ripped the title from a formidable 30-0 Pacheco in the pomp of a five-year title reign. Darchinyan exposed Pacheco, employing almost feral attacks that allowed him to control long stretches of the fight. The Australia-based Armenian relentlessly hunted Pacheco, smartly cutting off the ring, punishing and ultimately ruining a champion who had defended his title six times. Darchinyan finished the wilting Pacheco with two knockdowns in the 11th (after a brutal knockdown in the 10th) that convinced Pacheco’s corner to throw in the towel. With that, Darchinyan became the first Armenian to win a world title and moved on to more exposure and lucrative fights on the Showtime network.
8. Nino Benvenuti UD 15 Emile Griffith (1967): This was a reminder for why the smooth-boxing Benvenuti was awarded the Val Baker Trophy (given to the best Olympic boxer) over Muhammad Ali. Voted “Fight of the Year” by THE RING magazine, Griffith rallied from a second round knockdown to floor Benvenuti in the fourth, followed by both men making adjustments in a nip-and-tuck affair. The Italian was a 5-2 underdog but came through on points, thanks to a faster jab and feet (a six-pound weight and four-inch height advantage did not hurt either) in the championship rounds. Tex Maul wrote, “Nino Benvenuti, an elongated middleweight who looks a bit like a muscular Beatle, won the middleweight championship of the world by drubbing stubby Emile Griffith in Madison Square Garden last week. He may have achieved the most impressive debut in America for any Italian since 1492. Shrugged off by most experts before the fight as just another effete European boxer, Benvenuti won a stylish, no-nonsense victory with an elegant upright stance, extraordinarily quick hands and command tactics which had Griffith floundering helplessly.”
7. Tomasz Adamek MD 12 Paul Briggs (2005): Before the punching Pole became widely known as an entertaining heavyweight title contender, Adamek was a very good cruiserweight and excellent light heavyweight champion. At 175 pounds, he blended speed, agility and power into a formidable package. However, this fight had little to do with the finer points of pugilism, quickly degenerating into a slugfest with Briggs. In the final tally, the judges favored Adamek’s aggression, though, in a later interview, Adamek said never again to this tactic: “I will never be a kamikaze like I was in my Paul Briggs fights – get hit with 10 punches, hit him with 11.” HBO commentator Jim Lampley (who has witnessed many modern-day classics) said of the duo’s two fights that they were the best 24 combined rounds he had ever seen.
6. Saman Sorjaturong TKO 7 Humberto “Chiquita” Gonzalez (1995): The only thing American audiences knew about the Thai challenger was that Sorjaturong was easily bested by Ricardo “Finito” Lopez in two one-sided rounds. In this fight, Sorjaturong was behind by four, five and six points on the scorecards, which was an accurate reflection of the control Chiquita had over his battered opponent until the fateful seventh round. There were danger signs, with Sorjaturong firing back with wide hooks and, in spurts, giving Gonzalez problems punching straight up the middle using his reach advantage. The aggressive nature of Gonzalez caught up with him and Sorjaturong, with both eyes cut and swelling, landed a counter hook that Gonzalez ran into face-first in his haste to knock Sorjaturong out. The adrenalin-fueled, follow-up flurry by Sorjaturong left referee Lou Filippo no choice but to stop the bout. It is sad that, with all the great wins Chiquita scored, he will most likely be remembered for knockout defeats at the hands of Michael Carbajal and Sorjaturong, both of which deserve to be mentioned in the 10 best fights of the 1990s. Fittingly, both were voted THE RING magazine’s “Fight of the Year.”
5. Alexis Arguello KO 13 Ruben Olivares (1974): An intriguing clash of styles in and out of the ring, matching elegant and gentlemanly Arguello against an Olivares, who partied as hard as he hit and was the pride of Mexico. The legends put on a great fight featuring magnificent boxing one minute, followed by macho brawling the next. Each adjusted and countered the other’s moves in a bloody game of fistic chess. The younger Arguello took the first five rounds, working advantages in reach and speed. Olivares sprang to life in the sixth, putting his chin down and hooking with venom to Arguello’s body. Alexis said he was hurt in the eighth, ninth and 10th as Olivares pressed advantages while Arguello tried in vain to land counters. Olivares was ahead 8-3, 6-4 and 5-5 fighting his fight. In the 13th, Olivares looked to have the fight wrapped up until both men landed simultaneous left hooks. Olivares was hurt more and his aging legs let him down. After Olivares wearily rose to his feet, Arguello followed up perfectly, scoring a second knockdown, which Olivares could not recover from before the 10-count.
4. Ingemar Johansson TKO 3 Floyd Patterson (1959): Does anyone think a referee today would allow a boxer to be knocked down seven times in one round before stopping the fight? Sports Illustrated captured the confusion of American sports fans who just lost the world heavyweight title thusly: “The sports world has a new look today, a fine, delirious look, thanks to the virile right hand of a handsome Viking who scored with it one of the most stunning upsets boxing’s heavyweight division has known. With his stupefying right, hidden assiduously in pre-fight training and, indeed, scorned by many a skeptic as a preposterous Nordic myth, flashed through the bug-swarming mists at Yankee Stadium, crashed straight as a lance into the nose, mouth and chin of Floyd Patterson and shattered boxing’s status quo.” Patterson was adrift in befuddlement after the fight, apologizing to fans such as actor John Wayne, who sat ringside. Patterson said, “This famous American hero had come to watch me fight and I was losing the title to another country. It was the most embarrassing moment of my life.” Heavy rain had postponed the fight a day; still, nearly 22,000 fans attended the event (in which Patterson was a 5-1 favorite) and were rewarded by both men’s courage.
3. Lloyd Honeyghan TKO 6 Donald Curry (1986): People forget how highly Curry was thought of in his prime. Curry was a welterweight champ some boxing experts gave a serious chance of outboxing Marvelous Marvin Hagler for the world middleweight title. Honeyghan’s achievement ranks above those of Arguello or Benvenuti, by virtue of defeating an undefeated champion in his prime. Curry was 25 and had amassed an outstanding amateur and pro record, while Olivares and Griffith (even though they will be evaluated higher than Curry in historical terms), were much nearer to or at the end of their careers. The win made Honeyghan the unified welterweight champion, establishing him as only the third British fighter to win a title in America. Honeyghan walked through Curry’s jab and hooks, banging to Curry’s body with left hooks from the opening minute. The awkward, bulling style of Honeyghan, and most notably his straight right hand, began to visibly wear on Curry from round three onward. Curry’s corner stopped the beating at the end of the sixth and he needed 20 stitches to put his face back together. What set Honeyghan apart from previous challengers was incredible self-confidence, wagering large amounts on himself at the hosting casino.
2. Manny Pacquiao TKO 6 Lehlohonolo Ledwaba (2001): One of sport’s great reveal moments, which left fans in the arena and those watching at home asking, “Who was THAT guy?!” It is not often a Hall of Fame career is first brought to light as a last-minute replacement (on two weeks’ notice and Pacquiao’s first fight with Freddie Roach as his trainer) who was fetched out of the gym to lose respectably. Instead a star was born, with “Pac-Man” using the now revered whirlwind style and precision punching from sharp angles, consummately outclassing Ledwaba. A bewildered Ledwaba, who said he only saw tape of Pacquiao after the weigh-in, was rescued in the sixth round after absorbing a second knockdown. It was a jab contest to start but then Pacquiao found that timing and rhythm, breaking Ledwaba’s nose and scoring his first knockdown in the second. Ledwaba was staggered at the end of the fourth and fifth as well, signaling that the end was just a matter of time. Two knockdowns in the sixth forced referee Joe Cortez to stop the fight. This was the Hall of Fame genesis of Pacquiao.
1. Naseem Hamed KO 4 Kevin Kelley (1997): As the famous song says, if you can make it in New York City (where a giant billboard of Hamed emblazoned with fiery boxing gloves was erected in Times Square), you can make it anywhere. If Frampton can duplicate even half the excitement Naz did in his debut, Frampton will become an instant PPV attraction. Early on, after a self-absorbed 10-minute dance to the ring was completed, it looked like the boastful Hamed was just another British pretender to the throne. Hometown hero Kelley came out of the gate, guns blazing, knocking Hamed down in the first, second and fourth rounds! However, Hamed could take the best Kelley had to offer, while Kelley could not absorb the bombs Hamed detonated on his chin. Hamed scored knockdowns in the second and two more in the fourth to secure a TKO win. It is sad that Hamed was never able to overcome the loss to Marco Antonio Barrera in 2001 (though enshrined in Hall of Fame), remaining a prime example of a fighter’s career taking a nosedive after dumping his original trainer. Larry Merchant called the fight a “miniature Hagler-Hearns” – and so it was. My lasting image of the fight is Hamed walking away from a floored Kelley, down for the final time, smiling as he winked at him. It was as if Hamed said, “Thanks for the millions this fight will earn me in the future!”