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Boxing in the Mid-South: Not your Grandfather’s Boxing Scene

BY Jake Donovan ON July 08, 2005
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“The moment people hear that a fighter is from Tennessee, they automatically think he is some dumb, tough, unskilled hillbilly. It’s a bad stereotype surrounding fighters down here.”

So believes undefeated welterweight contender Tim “Spider” Webb, of Columbia, Tennessee. Webb did his part to help dispel that myth in scoring an upset stoppage win over highly touted welterweight Jose Celaya this past May. Fighting in Celaya’s hometown on national television (ESPN2 Friday Night Fights), Webb’s relentless pressure and superior work rate prevailed on a night where talent alone would not get the job done.

Celaya danced as hard as he could in what was believed to be a showcase bout for the Bay Area prospect. He found himself on the deck three times before fight’s end, and helped Webb put Tennessee on the boxing map – for all of the right reasons.

Webb is one of several fighters from the Mid-South who managed to work his way to the bright lights in the early part of 2005.

In the past, the only way for a fighter from this region to receive such accolades was in the role of handpicked opponent. Middleweight contender Jonathan Reid was forced to travel that road five years ago, when Don King offered him a last minute opportunity at a world title. Given only four days to train and travel to Vegas, Reid found himself on a pay-per-view card headlined by Felix Trinidad and Fernando Vargas in December 2000. He wound up on the business end of a four round shellacking at the hands of then WBA champion William Joppy.

Prior to 2005, it was the only moment most hardcore fans would instantly remember in dropping Reid’s name. Shortly after the loss, Reid believed the promises of his promoter, only to find himself dispatched back to the anonymous Southeast and Midwestern fight circuit.

Thanks to NBC’s “The Contender,” even casual fans now recognize Reid. Despite his early exit from the show (Reid lost a decision to Jesse Brinkley in Episode 2), fight fans were able to get a glimpse of his life outside the ropes. Removed are the images of an unskilled bumpkin; instead, we were able to see a proud family man, a husband and a father of five, who fights to provide for his family. We learned that Jonathan overcame a rough start in life (jailed for armed robbery attempt as a teenager), and through boxing and his belief in Christ has found salvation.

Two other fighters from Reid’s gym (Fitness One, located in Cummins Station in the heart of Nashville) also made their way to many a living room earlier this year. Brent Cooper joined Jonathan on “The Contender.” Though viewed as the weakest link among the cast of sixteen, Cooper’s career now reaps the benefit of guaranteed fights against quality opposition. As part of “The Contender” tour, Cooper will be seen toward summer’s end. His ability to fight his way into the cast has attracted a new fan base in a city that otherwise celebrates music, football and car racing.

Heavyweight contender Owen Beck traveled a separate path than did his stable mates. One of many heavyweights under the Don King banner, Beck earned a lofty position among the alphabet ratings. When he was summoned to fight Monte Barrett in a title eliminator this past February, many expected the more experienced Barrett to tear through Beck. Some cited Beck’s resume; others merely referred to geography, insisting that his undefeated record was due to “feasting on Midwestern farmers.”

Beck was stopped in nine against Barrett, but showed boatloads of heart. He twice climbed off the canvas, and was ahead on one scorecard, and within one and three points on the other two cards at the time of the stoppage. Valiant in defeat, Showtime informed Beck and his handlers that they would love to have him back on the network. Their PPV arm, SET PPV, will showcase his next fight, an IBF elimination bout against Sergei Lhyakovich on an August 13 pay per view card headlined by Barrett’s interim title fight with Hasim Rahman.

His career isn’t where he wants it to be, but Owen is now in the position to where opportunities are within reach. A win over Lhyakovich will eventually lead to a world title. It could also lead to a homecoming of sorts, as Beck would love to help bring big time boxing to Nashville.

“It’s been my dream to win a world title, and defend here in my adopted hometown,” says Beck, originally from Jamaica before relocating to Music City in 2000. “I want to do all I can to help bring some legitimacy to Tennessee boxing.”

Commissioner Dan Kelly, who serves as boxing administrator for the Tennessee Boxing and Racing Commission, has helped the moment he assumed control. Mismatches still serve as a problem in the state, as local promoters are forced to scrape the bottom of the barrel in stretching a buck. But the same can be said in any state. The areas in which Kelly has been a stickler for the rules are uniformity among all officials and stricter testing for fighters, particularly those of the “club circuit” variety.

Gone are the days of “anything goes.” Once upon a time, club shows were comprised of “fighters” literally dragged off the street and licensed on the spot. The prerequisite for officials was simply to provide the yearly membership fee.

Such nonsense ceased the moment Kelly assumed control. Now, all judges and referees are required to attend training seminars conducted by the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC). Political favors and under-the-table dealings no longer exist. Officials need to earn their way to premium assignments.

Such was proven this past June in Memphis, which played host to the rematch between Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson. As big of an event as the fight card was, which also featured the return of former welterweight champion Ike Quartey, many cited the commission’s nearly flawless night. In both the main event and co-feature, officials were all within a round of each other in the official scoring. A borderline blown call late in the ninth round of the Quartey-Verno Phillips fight was the only blemish on what was a standout night for the Tennessee Boxing Commission.

“All we can do is try our hardest,” said a modest Kelly days after the event in absorbing the overwhelming amount of positive feedback. “When I took this job, my mission was to turn this place into a respectable boxing commission. I’m well aware of what people think of the boxing scene down here. What my staff and I attempt to do is make it a little more credible each day. We want to give people something to talk about, not something to laugh at.”

Plenty were talking about the comeback of Riddick Bowe. Fight manager Jimmy Adams, who now resides in Williamson County (TN), announced in late 2003 plans of bringing “Big Daddy” to the Volunteer State once he was released from prison in Maryland. What he didn’t count on was resistance from a commission who had previously allowed anything to go forward.

Well before Bowe once again set foot in a boxing gym, the Tennessee Commission demanded the former heavyweight champion undergo a series of tests to prove he is still fit to fight. Concerns stemmed from Bowe’s trial, in which his lawyers argued that their client suffered from brain damage, in hopes of receiving a lighter sentence for the kidnapping of his ex-wife and children back in 1998.

Though Bowe himself never took the stand and said he had brain damage, enough evidence – or persuasion? – was offered for him to receive a light sentence. The Commission wanted to review the transcript to see what exactly led to the reduced sentence. The stance led to a back and forth debate between Team Bowe and the commission, featuring far more fighting in Davidson County courtrooms than in the ring.

When all was said and done, Bowe was granted the right to apply for a license in the state of Tennessee – the condition being that the Commission would be permitted to assign the physicians to perform the evaluations.

Bowe is likely to receive his license in the near future, though his handlers are unsure if he will bother fighting in the state of Tennessee. “It’s been an exhausting task just getting him to this point,” admitted manager Jimmy Adams. “Even if he gets his license, is it worth it to go through this much trouble just to secure a few comeback fights? He has to work harder outside the ropes than he does in the gym just to prove to people that he can fight.”

Get used to it. Such is the way in the new era of boxing in the Mid-South. Things may not be where they need to be, but they’re a lot closer than they’ve ever been in this neck of the woods. For the first time in a long time, “progress” can be associated with the Mid-South boxing scene.

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