NEW YORK — Bob Arum might be a Harvard-educated lawyer, but he's been in the fight business for more than forty years. Get him within breathing distance of Madison Square Garden and he starts to sound like the spiritual descendent of Tex Rickard.
“Ya always got to have a plan,” is Arum's mantra when he lapses into his second language, Promoterese.
What you see isn't always what you get. On the surface it would appear that the October 10 boxing show the Top Rank founder was in New York to announce Thursday is a modestly pleasing assemblage, but even with two world title fights on the bill it probably belongs right exactly where it is — in the 5,000 seat Wa-Mu Theatre, where it will almost certainly sell out, and, if all goes according to plan, bait the hook for a couple of later incursions into MSG's main arena next year.
And, having recently enticed Juan Manuel Lopez to extend his promotional contract for three more years, Arum was careful in introducing the WBO 122-pound champion he is grooming as his next big drawing card for New York's Puerto Rican audiences not to stablemate Miguel Cotto, who barely rated a mention, but to another Puerto Rican icon, Felix Trinidad, for whom JuanMa has always expressed admiration.
Even more to his credit, Arum didn't even try to pass off Lopez' Oct. 10 opponent, Rogers Mtagwa, as the second coming of King Kong. (Attempting to explain the presence of a 25-12-2 challenger in a world title fight was Mtagwa's promoter, J. Russell Peltz.) Mtagwa and Whyber Garcia, the Panamanian who will challenge WBA featherweight champion Yuriorkis Gamboa in the other half of the bracket, are in truth but momentary impediments to the fight Arum was actually in town to sell. The hope is that Lopez and Gamboa will not only emerge with their unbeaten records intact, but with enhanced constituencies as well by the time they fight one another in the big room sometime in 2010.
The latest installment (this one the 12th) of Top Rank's Latin Fury series has been subtitled “Island Warriors,” presumably in deference to the Caribbean origins of Lopez, Gamboa, and Odlanier Solis, Gamboa's 2004 Cuban Olympic teammate and fellow gold medalist, who will fight unbeaten Kevin Johnson on the show.
A native of yet another island, John Duddy, was added to the mix on Thursday. Duddy, who will be trying to bounce back from his upset loss to Billy Lyell in Newark last April, was back in Ireland getting married this weekend, and, said Arum, “if he survives that experience,” will be matched against Jorge (Michi) Munoz of Topeka in what is viewed as another rite of passage. (Should Duddy get past Munoz, and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. survive his encounter with Jason LeHoullier in Mexico next month, the two would likely be matched on another Top Rank show in the main arena next year.)
This is what is known as skillful matchmaking, for Munoz' 21-3 record is even more illusory than LeHoullier's 21-1-1. Michi has ventured outside the Kansas-Missouri nexus on just three occasions, and has lost all three times. One of those, in Las Vegas last year, was a third-round KO at the hands of Vanes Martirosyan, who did not medal in the 2004 Games in which the two Cubans won their golds but, now 25-0, may turn out to be a better pro than either of them.
(Martirosyan will face a fellow non-island-dweller, Carlos Nascimento, on the Oct. 10 bill. Trust me when I tell you that neither Chavez Jr. and Duddy want any part of him, either sooner or later.)
Curiously, in introducing the Cubans in New York Wednesday, Arum compared Solis to the great Teofilo Stevenson, who won three Olympic golds for Cuba but never got the chance to try his skills against the best pros “because back then we didn't have defections.” There is no evidence that Stevenson ever considered defecting, to this country or any other, but as he waxed poetic about the latest Cuban heavyweight hope, the promoter might have reflected on a more appropriate comparison, that of the unfortunate Jorge Luis Gonzalez, and the man who didn't have a plan, the late Dennis Finfrock.
As new hotels sprung up all over Las Vegas two decades ago, their builders saw themselves not only as instant rivals to the established order — read Caesars Palace — but to the entrenched boxing promoters as well. Confident that he could beat Arum and Don King at their own games, for instance, the Mirage's Steve Wynn, convinced that they represented the future of the heavyweight and middleweight divisions, respectively, paid multimillion dollar bonuses to make house fighters out of Buster Douglas and Michael Nunn. And over at the new MGM Grand, Finfrock, the former wrestling coach at UNLV who had been handed an open-ended checkbook to run the hotel's boxing department, bet the house, and his own future with it, on Jorge Gonzalez.
Three years ago Solis, Gamboa, and Yan Barthelemy, all of whom had won gold at Athens two years earlier, were in Venezuela for the Pan-Am Games when they decided to jump ship. They hopped a bus to the Colombian border, where they placed a phone call to Miami-based Cuban lawyer Tony Gonzalez, who arranged for airfare. (Solis claims that they were nearly stopped from getting on the plane by a Colombian soldier because they lacked visas. Then when the soldier recognized him as a boxer he said, “Get on that plane.” Vaya Con Dios. Next thing anyone knew, the three Cubans were in Germany and under contract to Turkish-born impresario Ahmet Oehner, who spent a year grooming them against European competition before striking a deal with Arum to co-promote them in this country.
Jorge Gonzalez faced no such ordeal. He simply walked out of the Cuban team's hotel in Helsinki back in 1991 and materialized a millionaire in Las Vegas a few weeks later, thanks to Finfrock's largesse. Impressed by the fact that Gonzalez owned amateur wins over both Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe, Finfrock set about developing him a following among the hotel's favored customers, placing him on almost every undercard the MGM ran. In his new capitalist trappings, Gonzalez cultivated a strange image, walking around in a cowboy he periodically removed to reveal a head shaven all but for a large clump on the rear that made him look as if a rat had attached itself to the back of his head. Whenever Bowe was about, which was often in those days, he made an even bigger nuisance of himself. At one press conference he instigated one of those silly fights resulting in no damage to either party, but a lot of broken dishes and wineglasses.
Solis' ride to the top has been quieter. He is now 15-0 as he heads to his October match against Johnson, who will easily be his most formidable foe to date. Solis, by the way, won his gold medal in Athens as a 200-pound heavyweight. (Alexander Povetkin won the super-heavy title at that Olympics.) We don't know what the Germans were feeding him, but when he made his pro debut three years later he weighed 258 pounds.
Finfrock got Gonzalez to 23-0, (as Peltz pointed out in another connection at Thursday's press conference, if you're willing to cut the right corners, it's not terribly difficult to get any fighter to 25-0) and he was finally matched against Bowe in June of 1995. Finfrock, still convinced that he had the real goods, even offered up his trademark handlebar mustache in a bet with Rock Newman. Bowe destroyed Gonzalez in six rounds. The miscalculation cost Dennis Finfrock his mustache that night, and within a year it had cost him his job.
The point being that amateurs are amateurs, and particularly in this day and age, Olympic boxing is hardly an accurate predictor of professional success. So far everything about Gamboa seems persuasive, but Lopez, who sparred with the Cuban in France prior to the '04 games (JuanMa was eliminated by a Beyorussian in the first round), hardly seems intimidated.
The tickets go on sale at noontime Friday, and the PPV has been priced at $39.95. The Oct. 10 Island Warriors card is, well, interesting — but it's watching how the rest of the plan plays out that will be downright intriguing.