Saturday, November 28, 2009


When WBC world lightweight champ Edwin Valero makes his first world title defense back home in Venezuela on December 19, it will mark the first time in just over 9 years that any Venezuelan fighter has defended a world boxing title in his home country. That is by far the longest period the nation has gone without hosting a world title defense by a Venezuelan world champion since Carlos Hernandez became the first from his country to hold a world boxing championship in January 1965.

More significantly, since 2001, when the country had 37 live pro boxing shows, the number of fight cards has declined steadily by over 600% to just 6 professional shows in 2008, the lowest number since 1952. Valero's world title defense this month at the once-legendary Nuevo Circo bullring (capacity 12,000) will headline just the 7th pro fight card the country has seen in 2009. That marks the first time in nearly 60 years that the nation has had 2 consecutive years with less than 10 live boxing shows a year.

How has the pro boxing landscape become so barren in one of the traditional Latin American powerhouse nations in such a short amount of time? Over 30 Venezuelan fighters have held world titles since Hernandez won his in 1965 and 9 have claimed world championships in the new century alone. Alexander Munoz has had 2 separate reigns and 10 world title bouts as WBA super flyweight champion (7 of them title defenses) and not a single one was held back home in Venezuela. After dethroning previously unbeaten Eric Morel in Puerto Rico in December 2003, Lorenzo Parra held the WBA flyweight for over 3 years, but none of his 6 title defenses were held in Venezuela. Parra's only world title bout on home turf came in June 2008, when he moved up 3 weight classes to unsuccessfully challenge visiting WBA champ Celestino Caballero from Panama. Out of 72 world title bouts that Venezuelan fighters have competed in since the turn of the century, only 3 have been held in Venezuela; of the 36 that were world title defenses, only 2 were held in the country---the most recent being Felix Machado's successful December 2000 defense of his IBF super flyweight title (which he defended 3 more times outside the country).

Even the 28-year-old Valero (a personal friend of Venezuelan president-for-life Hugo Chavez) came by his homecoming title defense in back-door fashion. After winning the WBA super featherweight crown in Panama in August 2006, Edwin's 4 successful world title defenses were held in Japan or Mexico. The hard-hitting southpaw then moved up to 135 pounds and after having a long-standing U.S. medical suspension lifted, won the vacant WBC lightweight title in April 2009 on a Golden Boy Promotions show in Austin, Texas. Valero had hoped to make the first defense ofthat title in the U.S. in November, but when his work visa was denied by U.S. officials, a high-profile title defense at the recently restored Nuevo Circo bullring in Caracas became the fallback plan. Valero and his handlers claim the visa denial was politically motivated, because of Edwin's friendship with the controversial Chavez, whose image is tattooed on the fighter's chest, embedded in the Venezuelan national flag. U.S. officials have declined to comment on the matter, but Valero was quoted shortly thereafter as saying "I want to live in Venezuela and be part of the recovery of national boxing"...implicitly acknowledging the sport's drastic decline back home.

The venue for Valero's much-anticipated homecoming fight, El Nuevo Circo ("new circus'), was once a legendary bullring that was first used in 1919. It became a popular boxing venue from the 1950s until the early 1980s, and hosted such national boxing legends as Betulio Gonzalez, Luis Estaba and Rafael Orono, but was gradually displaced as a major sports venue after the construction of the Polyhedron in 1974 and was closed down completely in 1997. Restoration of Nuevo Circo began in early 2009 and it was reopened in October with a high-profile free concert and much fanfare. Many wonder if Edwin Valero's first world title defense in Venezuela, held with great fanfare in a legendary venue can revive the country's faded pro boxing scene, but there is no easy answer.

The massive economic problems the country now faces developed over the past decade and the systemic damage that has been done to the national economy cannot be turned around overnight. According to the internationally respected magazine The Economist, "the underlying cause is the government's failure to plan, maintain and invest in necessary infrastructure...after 10 years of neglect, there is no simple fix for crumbling infrastructure". Since the boisterous Chavez nationalized the private power industry in 2007, there have been a half-dozen nationwide electrical blackouts, all this despite being one of the most oil-rich nations in the entire world. The debilitating chill which the collapsing economy has created in the national business climate has essentially turned the country into an economic "basket case".

For 2010, The Economist has projected for Venezuela a national inflation rate of 31.4% and a minus-3.4% decline in GDP (gross domestic product). The World Bank recently released its annual World Development Indicators, which ranked the country #7 among the world's "riskiest economies", along with impoverished nations tragically lacking Venezuela's rich petroleum reserves or other abundant natural resources. Just months ago, the World Economic Forum released its 2009-10 Global Competitiveness Report, which rates nations based on a wide range of economic factors. Of the 133 nations analyzed, Venezuela consistently ranked in the bottom 1-3% for almost every factor relating to a healthy business climate: (page 338)

Professional boxing is, among other things, a business and although a series of high-profile world title defenses on home turf by Edwin Valero or other Venezuelan world champs can definitely boost the sagging morale of the pro boxing community there, it will most probably take a substantial amount of time and a significant amount of economic investment to help Valero fulfill his lofty goal of bringing about "the recovery of national boxing". There is always the possibility that the Chavez regime could provide significant government subsidies to restore the vitality of the once-thriving pro boxing scene, similar to what the Soviet Union and Cuba used to do with their amateur boxing programs in days gone by.

Based on a widely publicized incident that transpired in Venezuela earlier this year, some hold out a ray of hope that the Chavez regime could actually back up its bold words with some positive government intervention on behalf of the fight game. When he moved this past summer to close two of the country's world-class golf courses, he denounced the sport of golf as "a sport of the bourgeoisie" and not a "true people's sport". Perhaps someone will point out to the mercurial Venezuelan leader that professional boxing IS a true people's sport, complete with a rich tradition of lifting impoverished masses of neglected youth into opportunities to make something of their lives, both athletically and economically. Where would wayward street kids like Roberto Duran be today if not for the phenomenal opportunities they have received from the fight game?

Only time will tell, but by subsidizing a national sports infrastructure built on a foundation of boxing gyms, complete with trainers and instructors, and high-profile spokesmen like Edwin Valero, President Chavez has a unique opportunity to lift impoverished youth AND elevate pro boxing from the grass-roots level on up...if he somehow finds it within himself to put his money where his mouth is.

Friday, November 16, 2007


Twenty-five years ago it looked like the Las Vegas boxing scene was on the ropes and in deep trouble, with Atlantic City apparently starting to leave the Vegas boxing scene in the dust. Gambling in A.C. had just been legalized in 1978 and although the seaside New Jersey resort town had gradually grown into a rival of Las Vegas, by 1982 it had surpassed the Nevada desert oasis in both the number of boxing shows and the number of world championship fights. That was the year that Atlantic City logged a phenomenal 165 separate fight cards, more than double the 75 shows which Vegas hosted in 1982. During the next 3 years, Atlantic City dwarfed the Las Vegas scene by even greater margins---121 to 40 shows in 1983, 121 to 34 in 1984, and 142 to a mere 25 in Vegas in 1985 (the smallest number of live shows there since 1963)---nearly 6 times as many fight cards! Things started to taper off in A.C. in 1986, when it had 80 cards to Vegas' 34 and the margin of difference between the two gradually shrunk until 1993, when Las Vegas logged a mere 28 fight shows, compared to only 26 in the Jersey seaside resort.

The rise of the Indian gambling casinos in the early 1990s certainly contributed to that shift in numbers, after Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988. Like the Atlantic City phenomenon, it took about 4 years for a formidable fight scene to be established at Indian casinos throughout the United States. The early trend-setters were Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut, Casino Magic in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi and Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio, California became common venues for nationally televised fight cards shown regularly on ESPN and USA networks. Ironically, few of the early frontrunners remain major players in the ongoing competition between casinos both on and off the Indian reservations, Foxwoods being the exception with boxing serving as a major attraction for 16 years. Fantasy Springs has had only one show in the last 6 years and Casino Magic hasnt had a fight card since 2002, while newer casinos have become major players in a relatively short time. Both Morongo Casino in Cabazon, California and Emerald Queen in Tacoma, Washington have each hosted more boxing cards in 2007 than all Atlantic City venues combined, which have hosted just 6 shows this year, the smallest number in the three decades since A.C. gambling was legalized.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

1970s: Golden Age of Boxing in Europe

The foundation for the "Golden Age" of professional boxing in Europe was essentially laid during the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Italy---an Olympics better known for the gold medalist at light-heavyweight, an American named Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali. A 22-year-old Italian named Giovanni "Nino" Benvenuti won the gold medal at welterweight and received the Val Barker trophy as the Games best boxer. Concluding his amateur career with a phenomenal record of 120-0, Nino began his pro boxing career in January 1961 and won his first 65 bouts, the longest consecutive win streak by any former Olympic boxer in the pro ranks, a record that stands until this day. That 65-bout win streak included a 6th-round KO over highly regarded countryman Sandro Mazzinghi, who had held the undisputed world junior middleweight crown for nearly 2 years before losing it to Benvenuti in June 1965. After successfully defending the crown in December 1965 with a 15-round unanimous decision over Mazzinghi, Nino's win streak came to a controversial finish when he travelled to South Korea and lost a disputed 15-round decision to local Korean hero Ki Soo Kim in June 1966.

The disputed loss caused Benvenuti to return to middleweight, where he had spent most of his pro career before dropping down to face Mazzinghi. After logging another 6 wins in Italy, Nino has a sensational U.S. debut at Madison Square Garden in April 1967, winning a unanimous 15-round decision over undisputed world middleweight champion Emile Griffith in a bout that was selected "Fight of the Year" by Ring magazine. Benvenuti lost the rematch to Griffith in Yankee Stadium by 15-round majority decision 5 months later but in March 1968, Nino regained the undisputed title in the rubber match with another 15-round unanimous decision over Griffith at Madison Square Garden. Clearly the best of a long line of durable Italian fistic warriors, Benvenuti is still widely considered the best European boxer in history. After he had successfully defended the undisputed crown 4 more times and with an 82-4-1 record, Benvenuti was already a certainty for the Hall of Fame.

Ironically, the "Golden Age" of European boxing was ushered in by Nino's defeat in November 1970 at the hands of fast-rising Argentine star Carlos Monzon. Although the 28-year-old Monzon had an unbeaten streak of 60 consecutive bouts, stretching all the way back to October 1964, he had never fought outside his home country, was virtually unknown in Europe and had never faced anyone even close to the caliber of Benvenuti. Carlos brought an impressive record of 67-3-9 into the undisputed title match in Nino's home country, having avenged all 3 losses and most of the draws. Monzon applied pressure from the start, finally landing a picture-perfect right hand to the jaw for a 12th-round TKO. The action-packed, undisputed world middleweight championship bout between future Hall-of-Famers Monzon and Benvenuti was judged "Fight of the Year" for 1970 by Ring magazine and a world boxing legend was born.

After 3 non-title fights back in Argentina, Monzon returned to Europe for the rematch, this time held in the tiny nation of Monaco. The Monte Carlo section of that country was an internationally renowned Riviera resort that had legalized gambling over a century earlier and had hosted professional boxing matches as far back as 1912. Future world light-heavyweight champion Georges Carpentier of France was European champ when he appeared there in 1920. A European featherweight championship bout was held in Monte Carlo in 1931 when history records that the audience included legendary French actor Maurice Chevalier, New York City mayor James Walker (a prime mover in the American boxing scene) and "many of the social leaders of the Riviera". Walker was a guest of the new Monte Carlo Casino management, presumably to scout the potential of future boxing there, but although occasional fights of local significance were held there over the next few decades, nothing materialized in the way of major boxing matches.

That is until May 1971, when Stade Louis II played host to the first world championship boxing match in Monte Carlo's history, with the inaugural title bout being the Monzon-Benvenuti undisputed world title rematch. (Benvenuti retired after losing by 3rd-round TKO, but his role in launching Europe's "Golden Age" of boxing should not be underestimated.) Although gambling hotbed Las Vegas, Nevada had entered into the world championship boxing business nearly 10 years earlier, it looked for awhile that Monte Carlo might rival its American counterpart as a major epicenter of the fight game. The Riviera resort had a 2-year hiatus from the sweet science until Monzon returned to Monte Carlo again in June 1973 to defend against former undisputed champ Emile Griffith, whom he defeated by 15-round decision. But even before returning to Monte Carlo, Monzon had already made Europe his primary base of operations, winning world title defenses in Rome, Paris and Copenhagen, Denmark in 1972. After defeating legendary Cuban champ Jose Angel Napoles in February 1974 on a 7th-round TKO in Paris, Monzon was stripped of the WBC portion of his world title for not defending against mandatory contender Rodrigo Valdez of Colombia. The 27-year-old Valdez then claimed the WBC belt 3 months later with a 7th-round TKO of previous Monzon challenger Bennie Briscoe---a seasoned, world-class warrior from the boxing hotbed of Philadelphia. The Valdez-Briscoe epic took place in (where else?) Stade Louis II in Monte Carlo, and that storied venue also played host to the eagerly awaited world title unification bout between Monzon and Valdez. Their June 1976 megafight, won by Monzon on a 15-round decision also featured an undercard bout between previous challengers Griffith and Briscoe, who also fought numerous bouts throughout Europe. After defeating Valdez in Monte Carlo again in a much more exciting and competitive 15-round decision in July 1977, Monzon retired as undisputed world middleweight champ at age 35. Having fought 12 times throughout the Continent---11 being world title defenses and 10 of those for the undisputed title---the troubled Argentine succumbed to a troubled life that makes Mike Tyson's look mild by comparison and died in a car wreck while on furlough from prison in 1995. But add to his already impressive ring credentials the fact that he played the key role in helping to launch the most competitive, exciting era in European boxing history.

Throughout the 1970s, Monte Carlo hosted numerous fights of international significance, often featuring bouts where both combatants were world-class Western hemisphere fighters. The ripple effect energized the entire European fight scene, with Italy, France and Great Britain hosting major international fights on through the 1980s and even into the early 1990s with many bouts featuring at least one world-class fighter from the Americas. The long-range impact helped the European fighters to raise their game to new, unprecedented levels since an environment where the best are regularly fighting the best benefits fans and fighters alike. The Monte Carlo scene faded somewhat in the 1980s, but still bore witness to compelling battles like Patrizio Oliva-Ubaldo Sacco and Julio Cesar Chavez-Rocky Lockridge. The biggest superfight in Monte Carlo in the 1990s was Mike McCallum-Sambu Kalambay, where the future Hall of Famer from Jamaica avenged his only loss at the time with an epic 12-round split decision over the durable African warrior who had taken his WBA junior crown 3 years earlier in Kalambay's adopted homeland of Italy. The last world title fight in Monte Carlo was July 1994, when Anaclet Wamba of France retained his WBC cruiser title with a 12-round draw against American challenger Adolpho Washington.

After an 11-year hiatus in Monte Carlo, there have been several half-hearted attempts to restore the glory with substandard fight cards in 2005-06, leading some to believe that boxing's popularity has faded among the Riviera glitterati that frequent the luxurious haunts of the Riviera resort on the Mediterranean coast. But in its heyday it drew an abundance of world-class fighters from throughout the Western hemisphere, many of whom returned frequently to fight in other European venues. Boxing legends like Monzon, Griffith, Valdez, McCallum and Chavez in compelling matchups that energized the sport across an entire continent and whose footsteps will hopefully be followed in the future by Europe's current wave of boxing immigrants from the former Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc satellites. As it stands now, there seems to be a general reluctance on the part of European promoters to match the best against the best, but perhaps the much-awaited Joe Calzaghe-Mikkel Kessler megafight will be successful enough fistically and financially to energize the sweet science on the Continent.

WORLD-CLASS BOXERS (Non-European) WHO HAVE CAMPAIGNED IN EUROPE SINCE 1970 (Minimum 2 Bouts in Europe)

MUHAMMAD ALI (1971-76)
JOSE NAPOLES (1972-74)
MANDO RAMOS (1971-74)
MUHAMMAD ALI (1971-76)
ELISHA OBED (1975-78)
HUGO CORRO (1977-79)
TONY MUNDINE (1973-79)
TONY LICATA (1976-78)
YAQUI LOPEZ (1976-78)
LOTTE MWALE (1978-88)
JOHN MUGABI (1980-91)
DONALD CURRY (1983-90)
MIKE McCALLUM (1984-96)
UBALDO SACCO (1985-86)
VIRGIL HILL (1987-2007)
REGILIO TUUR (1989-2002)
TERRY NORRIS (1990-98)
MICHAEL NUNN (1990-98)
JEFF HARDING (1991-92)
NANA KONADU (1991-94)
THOMAS TATE (1991-2002)
FRANK LILES (1995-96)
HARRY SIMON (1996-2002)
CHARLES BREWER (1998-2005)
GLEN JOHNSON (1999-2006)
CHRIS BYRD (2000-07)
MIKE TYSON (2001-02)
CORY SPINKS (2002-03)
JEFF LACY (2002-06)
OMAR NARVAEZ (2002-07)