“I Don’t Remember When I Felt This Good”: The Night Roberto Duran Won His Fourth World Title

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“Perhaps my best years are gone …But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.” Beckett

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His last good time in the ring took place over 25 years ago, February 24, 1989, in winter-strewn Atlantic City, whose glitzy neon lights had been dimmed by a snowstorm that nearly shut the Boardwalk down. Two decades after his pro debut, Roberto Durán, “Manos de Piedra,” some gray in his beard, was trying to win his fourth world title. Only Iran Barkley, a sullen brawler with a blunt nickname, “The Blade,” stood in his way. Continue reading ““I Don’t Remember When I Felt This Good”: The Night Roberto Duran Won His Fourth World Title”

Snakebite: Roger Mayweather in the 1980s

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Long before Roger Mayweather became famous for twelve-letter expletives and for discovering A-side Meth, he was a bold case study in hot-and-cold, up-and-down, and what-goes-around-comes-around. With a skull-and-crossbones stitched on his trunks and a right hand that could have doubled as a maul, Mayweather alternated upsides and downsides for the better part of the 1980s because of one simple detail: He owned a chin as fragile as a sparkleball. Continue reading “Snakebite: Roger Mayweather in the 1980s”

A Second Life: The Career of Pat Valentino

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Pat Valentino, former heavyweight contender of the 1940s, was famous both for his savagery in the ring and, almost incongruously, for his chic hairstyle, which he often jokingly compared to that of Samson. He won the California State Heavyweight title in 1948, and, along with Fred Apostoli, was the most popular attraction in the Bay Area for nearly a decade. He died of pneumonia on July 25th, 2008, in Las Vegas.

Valentino, whose real name was Pasquale Guglielmi, was born on January 25, 1920, in the Excelsior District of San Francisco. One of eight children, Valentino was raised dirt poor during the Depression by an abusive father who once made this bleak, near-Dickensian proposal to his son: “You work, I feed you.” Gaetano Guglielmi was so miserly that Valentino was often forced to walk barefoot to school without a bagged lunch or a pencil. “I was the fifth oldest,” Valentino said about his father, “and he just hated me.”

Continue reading “A Second Life: The Career of Pat Valentino”

Neon Nights: Leon Spinks, Richard Pryor & $1.50 of Coke

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A hangover/holdover of the Studio 54 era, Leon Spinks staggered, knock-kneed and disco-biscuits screwy, into the sputtering 1980s. After upsetting Muhammad Ali in 1977 for the heavyweight title, Spinks went on a one-man spree nearly devoid of glee. But chaos? Sure, there was plenty of that. After all, Spinks had the impulse control of Dirty Harry Callahan and worse luck than Seth Brundle. His bodyguard, Mr. T, was a Mohawk blur trying to keep up with “Neon” Leon, and the same could be said of his entourage, urban piranha weighed down by gold chains. Dead presidents were the kiss of death for this confused young man who had grown up in the Pruitt-Igoe housing project. With lottery-sized earnings from two fights against Ali, the 1976 Olympic gold medalist and ex-Marine went AWOL from reality for the rest of the decade. When he returned, in the midst of 1980s excess, he must have been surprised at how little glitz was reserved for him. By 1981, “Neon” Leon was inspiring headlines like “Another Spinks Mishap.” Ironically, Spinks had nary a bad bone in his body, and the first of his last days as a prizefighter—the beatings, the court proceedings, the police blotters, the flesh peddlers nibbling—add up to an uncommonly sad sad. Even, it has to be said, for boxing.

By the late 1970s, Leon Spinks seemed to be a permanent headline, as well as rich material for late night talk shows and comedians. It was only natural, considering some of the absurd adventures “Neon Leon” went through after becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. Even Spinks could laugh along with the rest of the sporting nation. “What’s that man…that tells jokes on The Gong Show…has a bag on his face?” Spinks asked Phil Berger. “Yeah. Unknown Comit. He made a joke on me one night. Said, ‘I’m going to do an image of Leon Spinks.’ Turns around, took the first bag off, put another bag on his face. Had the whole front of the bag black, with two teeth missing …. That gassed me, man. I die laughing. I went in and holler out to my wife. Said, ‘This fool is doing an image of me.” But it was Richard Pryor who turned a notorious Spinks cocaine bust into an uproarious skit. A few years later, though, during the dark days of the 1980s, things would not be nearly as funny for Leon Spinks.

 

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Read about the night “Neon” Leon Spinks defeated Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship of the world.

JAGGED EDGE: When Iran Barkley and Michael Olajide Waged War In NYC

March 6, 1988

He had a scowl that could clear out the D train during morning rush hour. Iran Barkley, once a member of the Black Spades when street gangs roamed the lawless, lightless badlands of the Bronx during the Golden Age of urban blight, was a rawboned powerpuncher fueled by rage. Barkley was all seething ire for much of the “Me, Me, Me” decade. The targets of his anger? The top money ranks, embodied by the trio of Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, and Ray Leonard, who cashed oversized paychecks with both glee and regularity. Despite showing promise as an amateur, Barkley never got a signing bonus. An Olympic medal was as far away from him as the Khyber Pass was, and CBS, NBC, and ABC, alas, had no interest in him when he turned pro. So it was years of toil on the Atlantic City tour, and on one of his hard-labor stops along the way—in just his 9th paid bout—Barkley was overmatched and taken out by Robbie Sims, 18-3-1, in six slashing heats.

 

Continue reading “JAGGED EDGE: When Iran Barkley and Michael Olajide Waged War In NYC”

HARD TIMES: The Mystery of the Jack Dempsey-Jess Willard Fight

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It is, for boxing, as enduring a mystery as the Bermuda Triangle or the identity of the Man in the Iron Mask. On July 4, 1919, in Toledo, Ohio, Jack Dempsey ushered in the Golden Age of Sports with a splatter by massacring defending champion Jess Willard in three of the most bloodcurdling—and one-sided—rounds in boxing history. Incredibly, Dempsey dropped Willard seven times in the first round and left the “Pottawatomie Giant,” who entered the ring as a 6-5 favorite, a gory mess after less than three minutes of action. Dempsey gave up five inches in height to Willard and spotted the defending heavyweight champion nearly 60 pounds, but Big Jess was nothing but an oversized chopping block for the former saloon brawler.

Today such a beating would not have been allowed to take place, but in 1919, when prizefighting was an outlaw pursuit in most of America and social Darwinism was still in the air, boxers fought through spectacular agonies. Ever since that bloodthirsty display took place, however, the question of whether or not Dempsey wore loaded gloves has haunted the legacy of the most popular heavyweight champion of all time. Continue reading “HARD TIMES: The Mystery of the Jack Dempsey-Jess Willard Fight”

SOMETHING WILD: The Night Hector “Macho” Camacho Lost His Mojo

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Emerging from the slashing switchblade streets of 1970s Spanish Harlem—not a neighborhood listed in Baedeker—Hector Camacho was one of the brightest young stars of the 1980s. Breathtakingly fast—like a shot from a Widowmaker—this gifted southpaw was all dashing streetpunk flash. Before mirrorball after mirrorball called his number and the yayo refused to let him go, Camacho was considered a lock for true ring greatness. It never happened. Stalled by party hats, battles with promotional fat cats, and a never-ending case of the continental NYPD blues, Camacho was headline news and earned millions, but he never came close to reaching his limitless potential.
Continue reading “SOMETHING WILD: The Night Hector “Macho” Camacho Lost His Mojo”

Imagine A Day At The End Of Your Life: Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney Revisited

 

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They met thirty-five years ago under the stars in that neon desert of illusion, Las Vegas, drawn together by hate, cynicism, greed. Mere sports seemed like an afterthought that night. On June 11, 1982, hardscrabble Larry Holmes, whose magnificent bitterness had fueled his rise to the heavyweight championship, met affable Gerry Cooney, young, powerful, Irish, unproven, and feverishly revered. With racism looming over the promotion from the day it first kicked off, Holmes-Cooney became a national Rorschach test with ugly interpretations. More than 30,000 spectators gathered to see Holmes and Cooney wage war, with millions more tuning in on closed-circuit, radio, and pay-per-view. It was the biggest fight of its time and, perhaps, a brief glimpse into the dark heart of America. For Cooney, who suggested something out of Clifford Odets—“Like a bullet! All future and no past”— during the Studio 54 heyday, there would be precious few tomorrows in boxing after what happened at Caesars Palace. For Holmes, whose nasty edge never dulled as the years went gray, there were more riches and glories to come…along with enough bleak memories to last a wakeful life. The following is a media collage of the events surrounding one of the most cheerless fights in history.

Continue reading “Imagine A Day At The End Of Your Life: Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney Revisited”

One Shot At Glory: Florentino Fernández and The Middleweights of the 1960s

It was a revolution that forced Florentino Fernández, who died of a heart attack on January 28, 2013, at age 76, to chase his dreams at the grimy Fifth Street Gym in Miami.

With the battle of Sierra Maestra all but decided by August 1958, Fidel Castro sent forces led by Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos to Las Villas, where the guerrillas succeeded in dividing Cuba in two. Fulgencio Batista, facing certain defeat and, perhaps, a firing squad, fled Havana for the Dominican Republic on January 1, 1959, but over the next few months and years he would be followed by thousands of Cubans who sailed to Florida amid the upheavals of the era Che hailed as that of the “New Man.” Elections were suspended, President Urrutia resigned, newspapers were shut down or censored, show trials and summary executions took place, and a mass land expropriation program was announced. To many Cubans—particularly middle-class professionals—the pandemonium was untenable. Continue reading “One Shot At Glory: Florentino Fernández and The Middleweights of the 1960s”

RAW DEAL: The Night Juan Laporte Nearly Defeated Julio Cesar Chavez

December 12, 1986: He was only 27 years old, frazzled young the way only prizefighters and rock stars are frazzled young, and already he was facing Skid Row—a place he had known well after arriving in New York City as a child in the mid-1960s from Guayama, Puerto Rico. Three long years after last being called campeón, Juan Laporte was considered nothing more than a rusted hulk ready to be set on cinderblocks and stripped for parts. But Laporte entered his fight against undefeated Julio Cesar Chavez at Madison Square Garden prepared to hum like a brand new Camero.  Continue reading “RAW DEAL: The Night Juan Laporte Nearly Defeated Julio Cesar Chavez”