Milling around the Tropicana Casino showroom Friday night, waiting for the first bout to begin, I had a hard time accepting I was in Atlantic City to cover a “PPV” card. I double-checked the bout sheet: 42-year-old Virgil Hill versus a Russian even Al Bernstein’s never heard of; Greek prospect Mike Arnaoutis against some opponent from Kansas; Nate Campbell to face an overmatched Mexican with the moniker “He-Man.” Oh, the wonderful but shopworn Stevie Johnston in an ESPN2-level scrap against rugged Steve Quinonez—the best matchup to my mind. Such are the times we boxing enthusiasts live in.
I didn’t mind taking the 2½ hour bus ride from Manhattan with the sad-sack lever-pullers. But $25 to watch this pap on TV? And I suppose fight fans were supposed to be grateful it was half-off, say, HBO’s generally unfulfilling PPVs. If the numbers are weak enough, maybe the 2nd–tier promoters engaging in this lunacy will stop the madness. If you’re equally insulted by this, pen an angry rant of your own, and send it to the cable networks, promoters, and any publication willing to print it. Better yet, just say no. That’ll send the clearest signal.
None of the above is a swipe at the courageous and skilled boxers who fought valiantly Friday night. This isn’t their fault, and it would be wrong to indict them. Cruiserweight Virgil Hill, who faced Valery Brudov in the main event, displayed the heart and discipline that made him the WBA light heavyweight champion for nine years. The St. Petersburg Russian was limited, but he had three things over the 22-year vet: youth, size and the desire to stay undefeated (30-0, 23 KO’s going into the fight). And if Hill had any tape of him, he was one up on the rest of us.
From the first round through the twelfth, Hill exercised his hallmark jab and showed sprightly legs a young Olympian lightweight would envy. Brudov stalked ineffectively, following his man around the ring rather then cutting it off. He ate jab after jab, while never taking a hint to use his own. Sometimes Hill blurred the line between running and putting on a stick-and-move clinic. He threw just enough lead left hooks and the occasional right to keep fans believing it was the latter. Commentator Al Bernstein observed the ring was so big “you could fit St. Petersburg in it.” This was no accident, allowing Hill to work his strategy to a T. All three judges had him winning 118-110.
A surprising amount of people came out to support Hill, who was never a draw outside of his home state of North Dakota. Who these people were, I don’t know? Maybe they’re looking for another George Foreman story to fasten onto? If that’s the case, they ought to look elsewhere—in spite of the fact Hill was awarded the vacant WBA cruiserweight belt. (O’Neil Bell is considered the WBA “Super” Champion, I think?) How a boxer whose last fight was a loss in May 2004, can earn this respected title after a 20-month layoff, is something maybe Merlin can explain.
Hill is still an amazingly well-conditioned and proud athlete. He will likely see his performance Friday night as a second lease on his ring life, and will wrongly believe he can compete with an O’Neil Bell or Steve Cunningham. Had he taken his well-deserved victory and decided to bow out from boxing, call it a day after a Hall of Fame-worthy 50 wins to only 5 losses, it just might have been worth your $24.95. Nah, probably not.
Stevie “Lil’ But Bad” Johnston (38-3-1) is another old warhorse who continues to impress. He won’t beat the top junior welterweights or lightweights anymore (he weighed in at 136 to Steve Quinonez’s 140), but his skills are second to none. The two vets fought inside most of the fight, and while almost all the rounds were close, the judges had Johnston winning a unanimous decision: 118-109, 116-111 twice. All night Johnston stood in front of an aggressive Quinonez. To the untrained eye, he seemed to be getting hit a lot. In fact he slipped, dipped, rolled with, blocked and countered almost everything. He’s like a mini James Toney—only with better legs and a body that belies his 13 years in the game. The bout was never scintillating but well-fought throughout.
“Mighty” Mike Arnaoutis of Atlantic City via Athens, Greece made short work of another fighter who called himself “MIGHTY,” according to the wording on his boxing trunks. However, Marc Thompson of Topeka, Kansas was anything but that last night. His 14-0 (12 KOs) record coming into the fight is either the product of soft Midwestern touches (it is) or the Greek is ready to reclaim his prospect-of-the-year status (he might). The southpaw 140-pounder dropped Thompson with a perfect straight left. The opponent stood at the count of five, only to get flattened by a facsimile soon after. He again got up midway through the count. The third time was the charm: after buckling Thompson with shots upstairs, a right hook to the body forced the shaken man to quit. The TKO stoppage came at 2:41 of the first round.
Watching from ringside and wearing a TEAM GATTI sweat suit in support his pal and former battering partner, was Mickey Ward. He said he was unfamiliar with Arnaoutis, but that didn’t matter. “You know a good fighter when you see one,” he said. Now 16-0-2 (8 KOs), the boxer-puncher is perhaps a year—or less—away from making a run at one of the major belts.
Light heavyweight Prince Badi Ajamu 28-4-1 (24 KOs) dropped Galen Brown five times before the bout was halted at 47 seconds into the 10th round.