Atlantic City – Welcome to town. Just past the toll pavilion on the Atlantic City Expressway, a huge billboard announces the Wladimir Klitschko-Samuel Peter and Miguel Cotto-Ricardo Torres fights.
While the anticipation of a great show usually generates a buzz, it is hard for me to escape thinking of former IBF lightweight champion Leavander Johnson, who died September 22 after losing his title to Jesus Chavez five days earlier. Atlantic City was Johnson’s hometown. The specter of his death remained a constant throughout the weekend.
Undercard weigh-in. Far less fanfare than the Klitschko-Peter weigh-in, which occurs 2 days before the fight. Cotto makes the 140-pound weight limit, does the perfunctory pose with Torres and then ascends the stage and guzzles pedialyte and some sort of orange sports drink. It is approximately 27 hours before they will step into the ring. Remember the days when fighters weighed in the morning of the bout?
Entourage. No, not the great HBO series that stars New Yorkers Kevin Connolly, Jerry Ferrara, Adrian Grenier and Kevin Dillon. I'm talking boxing entourages. You can't miss them. The Cotto crew travels en masse at Caesars. Where else besides a boxing card can you find a dozen guys in matching sweatsuits swarming a buffet?
A.C. vs. Vegas. The buffets. If you find the right restaurant, the food is good in either town. However, they are usually cheaper in Vegas.
Convention. The American Association of Ringside Physicians held their annual convention during the weekend. I asked Dr. Ralph Bohm, of the New York State Athletic Commission, what was said about the death of Leavander Johnson. “Sometimes there is no one to blame,” he said. “It appears that the officials in Nevada responded quickly. He was taken to the hospital right away. Surgery was performed right away. It was just a terrible tragedy.”
Play Ball. The Friday night before a major fight card is usually reserved for a smaller card somewhere in A.C. No such card this time. Instead, I venture to “The Sandcastle,” a minor league ballpark on the west side of town to see the Atlantic City Surf play the Bridgeport Bluefish. Tom Goodwin, a 14-year major-league veteran, plays outfield for the Surf and is hoping to find his way back to the Bigs. The Surf helped send current New York Yankee Ruben Sierra back to The Show after his stint with the club in 1999. There is a nice ceremony honoring the Negro Leagues prior to the game and both teams where Negro League throwback uniforms. Atlantic City was once the home of the Bacharach Giants, who played in the Negro League World Series in 1926 and 1927.
A.C. vs. Vegas, part 2: The sticky humidity of a seaside city or the blistering dry heat of a desert city. I'll pass on both.
Calling all media. The afternoon of the fight is spent attending press conferences for a pair of upcoming bouts. The first is Vitali Klitschko’s November 12, WBC title defense against Hasim Rahman.
When asked about his brother’s chances later that evening, Vitali said, “To be honest, for me, it’s much easier to be in the ring than to be in the corner watching my brother. Many people try to make predictions. But nobody knows. I know that my brother is in very good shape. I have a good feeling.”
He was asked about Rahman as an opponent.
“Every fight of my career, I have to prove myself,” said Klitschko. “Before I fought Lennox Lewis, everyone said I had no chance. After that fight, everyone said if Lennox was in shape he would beat me. But it’s not just the Lewis fight, it’s every fight. Someone will always say, the opponent was not so strong. Can they say that about Rahman? After this fight, let’s see.”
No Class. Bob Arum opened the press conference by asking all to stand for a moment of silence for Leavander Johnson. Nice touch. Then, when it was Rahman’s turn to speak, he took the podium and said, “I know boxing is a tragic sport. They only way I’m going to lose this fight is if Vitali Klitschko kills me.”
To say that in Johnson’s hometown, just two days after the fighter’s death, was tasteless.
The presser ended with the standard photo op of both fighters squaring off. After striking poses they finally came nose-to-nose for the traditional stare down. This was a combustible situation because the fighters have already traded verbally jabs through the press. In what some in the room were calling the “best stare down ever,” Rahman and Klitschko remained inches apart long after the photographers got their pictures. After several minutes passed, publicist Kelly Swanson, perhaps the bravest individual in the room, stepped between the fighters and separated them.
Calling all media, part 2. The scene then shifted down the hall at Caesars to yet another ballroom where Cedric Kushner and Warriors Boxing announced another heavyweight-laden card. The pay-per-view show will take place October 21 at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Florida.
The top of the card features comebacking David Tua against Cisse Salif and Jameel McCline against Zuri Lawrence. Tua, who has wins over Rahman, John Ruiz, Michael Moorer and Fres Oquendo, may be the best heavyweight of this era to never win a title.
The undercard has junior middleweight Yuri Foreman and middleweight Edison Miranda in separate bouts. Miranda, who is from Colombia, does not speak English. He is managed by two Floridians who do not speak Spanish. Yet, Miranda had a lot to say. Mike Borao, McCline’s attorney, was enlisted to translate. The unbeaten Miranda said he was upset with both Jermain Taylor and Bernard Hopkins because he traveled all the way to Vegas and paid for a hotel room only to watch a dull fight.
Miranda then went on another long rant and as the English-speaking press awaited the translation, Borao said, “He essentially said he will beat Jermain Taylor.” Much laughter followed.
Nice Touch. Shannon Briggs and trainer James Ali Bashir visited the family of Leavander Johnson when they arrived in town. Bashir, who assists Emanuel Steward in training Wladimir Klitschko, is one of the best quotes in boxing. He was talking about the evening’s main event, which featured a pair of big punchers. “Hard punchers plant the seeds of doubt,” he said.
Indeed. When a fighter feels an opponents’ power, the game plan often changes. “They start second-guessing themselves,” said Bashir. “Maybe I’ll try this, maybe I’ll try that. Maybe I’ll box over here.”
A.C. vs. Vegas, part 3: On the boardwalk in A.C., pedestrians are entertained by mimes and magicians. On the Vegas strip, pedestrians often dodge people handing out coupons for all-you-can-eat buffets or strip clubs. I’ll take the entertainment.
Undercard. It's not often that a major heavyweight bout between foreign fighters (Klitschko, Ukraine and Peter, Nigeria) takes place in America. The last time was Lennox Lewis' 1997 title defense against Huggin' Henry Akinwande, who was DQ'd for holding. Ironically, Akinwande, also from Nigeria, was on this card in a scheduled six-rounder. He stopped Tipton Walker in the second round. Young heavyweights J.D. Chapman (with Michael Moorer in the corner) and Michael Massone (with Lou Duva in the corner) both remained unbeaten. Leavander Johnson is given the 10-bell salute.
Cotto vs. Torres. All seven of the rounds either had a knockdown or a fighter staggered. They entered the fight with a combined record of 52-0 with 46 knockouts. It seemed Torres had a chance to achieve the upset, but he let it all hang out trying to finish the fight in the second round. Who could blame him? It’s what punchers do when they smell blood. Cotto, however, paced himself just a bit more and had enough left to finish the job in the seventh round. A great fight.
Klitschko vs. Peter. Another puncher’s delight. This one could have been as explosive as Cotto-Torres. It wasn’t. Some wondered why Team Klitschko would take a fight against a puncher. We found out why. The new Klitschko jabbed, bounced on his toes and held. There was a lot of criticism over Klitschko clutching (say that 3-times fast), but tying an opponent up has been part of boxing strategy for decades. Ali did it often. The problem in this fight is that Klitschko looked awkward doing it. But the old boxing adage says, “Win tonight, look good next time.”
Klitschko opened the fight tight, but landed enough of left-right combos right down the middle to carry the day. Klitschko could have thrown more punches. Double that for Peter. He fought with little urgency. Klitschko is now the mandatory for IBF champion Chris Byrd, whom he has defeated, and WBO champion Lamon Brewster, who has knocked him out. I’d still steer him away from punchers and go after Byrd.
Klitschko still doesn’t look like the man we all thought was the next star of the heavyweight division. He lost something in after those knockouts and still hasn’t gotten it back. Perhaps some of the confidence will come back when this win settles in.
A.C. vs. Vegas, part 4. A six-hour plane ride home (usually the red eye) or a three-hour drive home. I'll take the drive and my EZ-pass.