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The “Could Have Beens”

There is no more famous dialog in a boxing movie than the emotional “I coulda been a contender” speech by Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront”; it brings to my mind an eternal question that haunts boxing fans: “Why didn’t that kid become a champion?” Every fight fan can look back on his or her years following the sport and recall a boxer who did not achieve the lofty goals we put upon him. Reasons for a fighter’s lack of success can be nebulous but in every case, a key ingredient that could have been the ticket for that boxer to rise from mediocrity was either unused or overlooked. Let’s face it; sometimes our hearts overwhelm the brain (seeing a common trait of nationality, hometown, style of boxing, personality, ethnicity, and yes - even race) and we subconsciously choose to overlook the obvious flaws that limit the boxers we support.

In no sport is it as difficult to pinpoint what went wrong with an athlete as in boxing, mostly because our sport is so dependent on the mental aspect for success. Conversely, in sports like baseball, football, basketball, and even hockey, you can point to reasons supported by numbers. One cannot argue against solid, factual statistics that put careers on the skids. A low batting average, no mid-range jumper, too many dumb penalties or could not post a 40-yard dash under 4.5. “Mendoza Line,” anyone? Boxing will never be defined by numbers, no matter how great a job the good people at CompuBox do. Boxing is driven by immeasurable factors where politics and choices outside the ring are often as vital as a solid jab. Thus, fans are left to wonder what invisible torpedo sank an otherwise talented fighter.

I have my list of boxers that I thought were headed toward stardom, as I am sure you do, but limited myself to pugilists who had a bout within the last two decades. Otherwise, given two centuries of pugilistic head cases, I could go on forever. The fighters listed have achieved varying degrees of fame, success, with some even gaining recognition as beltholders with the alphabet groups, an achievement devalued with each succeeding, interim, regular, or non-super champion crowned by what amounts to little more than leeches of the sport. Still, there is little doubt (in my mind) that each individual who made this dubious list fell short of his potential.

Considered but missing the cut were Edwin Valero, Vivian Harris, Leo Dorin, Gabula Vabaza, Scott Harrison, Hector Camacho Sr., Welcome Ncita, Torsten May, Lonnie Bradley, Jan Bergman, Silvio Branco, Joan Guzman, Brahim Asloum, Duncan Dokiwari, Saen Sor Ploenchit, Tim Austin, Danny Romero, In-Joo Cho, Chatchai Sasakul, Istvan Kovacs, Marcelo Dominguez, Alex Garcia (Mexican–American heavyweight), Oba Carr, David Guerault, Hector Lopez, Alejandro “Cobrita” Gonzalez, Orzubek Nazarov, Shannan Taylor, Clarence “Bones” Adams, Anthony Hembrick, Paul Spadafora, Octavio Lara, David Kamau, and Ike Ibeabuchi. The others are presented in alphabetical order.

Case study number one – Francisco Bojado: With his aggressive style, killer instinct, swarthy good looks and cold, virtually black eyes, this former Olympian drew comparisons by some to the legendary Roberto Duran. Yes, everyone got that carried away but “Panchito” entered the ring with that kind of charisma and the amateur background (168-15 with 85 stoppages) to assume there was a payoff at the end. He was matched tough but stopped his first nine opponents in two rounds or less, including 34-8-1 former title challenger Mauro Lucero. Bojado lost his tenth fight to good but not outstanding Juan Rubio and it might be the only time a 9-0 fighter ever loses what The Ring magazine calls its “Upset of the Year.” Because of Bojado’s bravado, he was quickly forgiven and pushed back on TV, scoring seven wins and avenging his only loss. Lost a split decision to Jesse James Leija after that run and after an almost three-year break and two fights, failed to defeat Steve Forbes (after signing with Golden Boy). It was the final straw, pushing Bojado into retirement in 2007 from which he has yet to emerge. This looks like a case of pressure burnout where expectations weighed on Bojado as much as reported laxness in training and making weight. Is still only 28 years old, so the possibility of a comeback exists, if Bojado can get past his legal issues stemming from a recent police chase culminating in his arrest.

Case study number two - Nestor Garza: Mexican power puncher was hyped by manager Ricardo Maldonado (The Mexican Shelly Finkel) as a better version of Marco Antonio Barrera, while Maldonado was still in charge of Barrera’s career. Indeed, early in his career, that looked like a possibility with Garza knocking out 19 of his first 20 foes. A shock stoppage to trial-horse Angel Rosario was dismissed when Garza won a tough 12-round war over future champion Cruz Carbajal. Garza looked back on track, winning the WBA junior featherweight title and defending it on the road in Japan. Was rated number three by The Ring at the weight and talks were underway for Garza to get a shot at Erik Morales on HBO. Those hopes were dashed when Garza was knocked down twice and outboxed by Clarence “Bones” Adams in a 12-round loss. Just like that Garza was ruined, knocked out by sub-.500 Hector Mancina in subsequent bouts. Final analysis, Garza could not take as good a punch as he delivered.

Case study number three - Andrew Golota: A boxing axiom states that there is one opportunity for each man to win a big fight in its course; Golota did the reverse, managing to find the one opportunity to lose a big fight. Golota did not just have mental hurdles to overcome; he had mental blocks the size of the Pyramid of Giza. Everyone saw this Polish amateur standout (111 wins and a bronze in the 1988 Olympics) had the skills, size, and even work ethic needed to not only win but retain the heavyweight championship for a considerable time. He attracted top trainer Lou Duva, winning his first 28 fights yet instead of rolling into big fights, they rolled over him. Under the bright lights, Golota locked up and sabotaged himself, losing scandalously to Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis, Mike Tyson, and Michael Grant. Something in Golota’s mental makeup prevented him from overcoming adversity when it struck, making him fold quicker than a first-week Boy Scout’s tent in a hurricane. An example of matter over mind.

Case study number four - Jorge Luis Gonzalez: Another talented heavyweight who came to the professional ranks after an elite amateur career where he defeated legendary Teofilo Stevenson. Gonzalez matriculated through the famed Cuban amateur boxing system, establishing a record of 220-13 in the packed Cuban gyms, winning two Pan-American Games gold medals. At 6’7”, weighing 235 pounds with an 82-inch reach, Gonzalez had the size to deal with Lennox Lewis or Riddick Bowe. In fact, Gonzalez defeated both Lewis and Bowe in the unpaid ranks. Toyed with his first 23 foes, knocking all but one out and signed an exclusive deal to fight at the MGM Grand casino in Las Vegas. It was too easy, with Gonzalez deriding his pro trainers and generally believing his own hype before a title fight against Riddick Bowe. Gonzalez acted like a bore during the whole promotion, repeatedly saying he would kill Bowe inside the ring. No one shed a tear when Gonzalez was viciously kayoed, reportedly unconscious for three minutes, and Gonzalez suffered similarly humiliating defeats to Tim Witherspoon, Michael Grant, and quit against Ross Puritty. Gonzalez refused to believe he could be taught anything about boxing, his ego preventing him from cashing the kinds of checks his talent seemed to warrant.

Case study number five - Paul Hodkinson: In the 1990s, a power-punching featherweight blasted out of England, a breathtaking blur of fists that captivated fans. He was a terror among the 126-pounders, knocking out all his victims in prodigious fashion. Simply put, he was one of the most exciting fighters of his time. All the boxing experts and magazines rated him the best featherweight in the world. He was at the top of his game when his mercurial star burst against a smart-hooking Mexican underdog, a loss that this featherweight never really overcame. No, his name was not Naseem Hamed. Paul Hodkinson was a better boxer and rebounded from his loss to Marcos Villasana to win an alphabet title. After a couple title defenses, successive stoppage losses to Goyo Vargas and Steve Robinson convinced the smart Hodkinson to call it a day. With Hodkinson, it was simple; if he got inside and was able to deliver his punch-a-second hooks, he won. If Hodkinson was kept on the outside, his tender skin (which swelled and bled easily) and short reach caused him to go down in a blaze of glory.

Case study number six - Sergey Kobozev: A leading member of the first wave of Russian boxers to escape formerly communist Russia, Kobozev made a name for himself in America. An intelligent fighter and a former captain in the Russian army with a chemical engineering degree, Kobozov worked with Teddy Atlas and Tommy Gallagher, earning a title shot in five years. A boxer-puncher, Kobozov could outmaneuver sluggers or go straight at physically weaker opposition, equally comfortable moving forward or counterpunching. Won a decision over future heavyweight champion John Ruiz but suffered a close split decision to Marcelo Dominguez for the WBO interim cruiserweight title in France. Tragically, never got a second chance, disappearing a couple days after kicking a Russian mafia member out of a club he was working security in. Five years after Kobozev’s disappearance, his bones were unearthed in the backyard of mobster Alexander Nosov, his neck broken. Kobozev was only 31.

Case study number seven - Jose Luis Lopez: This case is not as hard to figure out as others. Lopez was simply not dedicated to the sport, pursuing outside interests (a fashion line of clothing, for instance) that left Lopez more satisfied than boxing. It explains how Lopez lost to boxers who were plainly inferior, aimlessly sulking around the ring only throwing punches when he felt like it. Maybe if Lopez had been as dedicated to boxing as he was to partying, we would be talking about Lopez’s paydays against Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad, or Fernando Vargas. Lopez’s skill level emerged when pressed by his ring equals; otherwise, Lopez became bored and cruised to wins at his leisure. In classic Lopez fashion, he knocked down iron-willed Ike Quartey twice but did little work in other rounds, drawing with the champion. Crushed Yori Boy Campas and twice knocked down champion James Page but again, only punched enough to lose a split decision. Motivation and focus was lacking to complement the ability (he had natural power and a granite chin) that lay within Lopez. Maybe if “Maestrito” got some kind of attention deficit disorder medicine like Ritalin instead of his preferred marijuana, the course of welterweight history would have been different.

Case study number eight - Lamar Parks: Tommy Morrison was famously prevented from continuing his boxing career because of contracting the HIV virus; Parks is a lesser known casualty of the same circumstance. “Kidfire” Parks was a star on the rebound (rated number seven by The Ring magazine) when rumors emerged that he had tested positive, later proven true by Parks’ absence from the ring since. The South Carolinian was regularly featured on USA’s “Tuesday Night Fights,” winning his first 22 fights out of the gate with a mix of flair and attitude. Had the power and physicality but needed just a touch more speed to mix with the elite. Though favored, Parks lost a decision to veteran slickster Reggie Johnson but scored five wins the following year to climb back up the ladder. Reportedly signed a $150,000 contract to fight Gerald McClellan before news broke of his illness. Out of boxing at age 23, there were rumors of Parks selling drugs or working in a garage to sustain himself. Otherwise, can’t say I am aware of what happened with Parks after 1995.

Case study number nine - Harry Simon: Namibian phenom was a naturally intuitive boxer who was good enough to defeat Winky Wright in only his 17th pro bout. A prodigious amateur, Simon reportedly had a 273-2 record that I assume to be inflated and the product of an overeager publicist. However, Simon’s skills were undeniable inside the ring and The Ring magazine rated Simon number one behind Bernard Hopkins in 2002. Turned pro in South Africa, under the tutelage of Hall-of-Famer Brian Mitchell, and like his road warrior trainer, did well on the road, winning fights in England, Canada, Puerto Rico, Ireland, Kenya, and Denmark. In fact, Simon is still undefeated sporting a 26-0 record. The problem? Simon was jailed in 2002 for five years after killing three people (two adults and a baby) in an alcohol (blood samples taken from Simon vanished from Namibian Police vaults) and speed-induced car accident of his doing. Is scheduled to fight in September and has fought twice since his release from prison. Simon has not drawn interest from European or American promoters because of his notorious past. I read but could not confirm that Simon had reportedly been involved in a car crash before the one in 2002, which killed two other people. At age 38, Simon’s prime is long gone but he still trains in London and has yet to fight outside of Africa after his jail stint. Lack of maturity never hurt Simon in the ring but was lethal to others outside of it.

Case study number ten - David Tua: The root cause for Tua’s lack of progression as a boxer does not seem that hard to evaluate. The “Tuaman” fell in love with his power, no longer training to throw three-punch combinations, which elevated him to an exalted status in the early 1990s. Comparisons to Rocky Marciano, because of his stature and brute power, abounded. Instead, Tua followed a formula which did not work against opponents of higher skill levels. Take two steps, hook, take two steps, hook, take two steps, hook; repeat for nine rounds until a punch lands. When the big punch eventually landed, Tua did use the still-present finishing skills to eke out a fortunate victory. The plan worked against the Fres Oquendos, Hasim Rahmans (once), Oleg Maskaevs and faded Michael Moorers of the world but proved folly against the best. The prime example being Lennox Lewis, who easily sidestepped the Samoan’s crude charges and used Tua’s head for target practice for his jab and right hand. Chris Byrd also outboxed Tua and most recently, Monte Barrett did the same to the now-38-year-old plodder. I must admit my surprise that for all his fanfare, Tua never got a second chance to fight for a world title. Tua is a case of power leading to laziness.
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