Words can come back to haunt you, and seldom in the annals of boxing has that been more the case than in the lead-up to the Feb. 20, 1993, bout between WBC super lightweight champion Julio Cesar Chavez and challenger Greg Haugen, which drew a record on-site crowd of 132,247 to Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. Much to his later regret, Haugen had said that Chavez’s 82-0 record had mostly been crafted “against Tijuana taxi drivers that my mom could whip.”
The slur infuriated Chavez, who vowed to punish Haugen, and did, stopping him in five rounds. Bruised and chastened, Haugen was obliged to concede that “They must have been tough taxi drivers.”
Decide for yourself how a boxing tournament pitting Tijuana taxi drivers against feisty grandmothers might turn out. And while it is possible than an occasional granny could hold her own against a south-of-the-border cabbie in the ring, this much is abundantly clear: Tyrone Brunson should never be confused with Julio Cesar Chavez.
On paper, at least, Friday night’s 10-round main event on the CBS Sports Network appears to be somewhat interesting, with super welterweights Tyrone “Young Gun” Brunson (22-4-1, 21 KOs) squaring off against Australia’s Dennis Hogan (20-0-1, 7 KOs) in Hinckley, Minn. Hogan’s WBA Oceania title, whatever that is, will be on the line, as will the vacant WBA-NABA 154-pound belt.
But this debut event – the first in a multi-fight deal for Greg Cohen Promotions with CBS Sports Network – is curious, if only for the presence at the top of Brunson, 30, a Philadelphian who began his professional boxing career with a record 19 consecutive first-round knockouts. Since then, however, Brunson is 3-4-1, with six of those losses coming inside the distance.
There are those – principally Carlos Llinas, who promoted Brunson when he was putting away opponents faster than Kobayashi used to gulp down wieners at those 4th of July Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contests on Coney Island – who insist that Brunson was, and maybe still can be, a legitimate factor in a harsh sport in which frauds are always eventually exposed. But in the quest for artificial notoriety, whatever chance Brunson had to hone and refine his skills in the traditional manner got lost in the mist.
After Brunson won his 19th straight quickie knockout, he moved up in class, if not drastically so, to take on Antonio Soriano on Aug. 15, 2008, in Edmonton, Alberta. Soriano came in with a so-so 12-9-1 mark that included wins by KO.
“Even if you fought 19 grandmothers in a row, it’s still kind of notable to get all of them out of there in the first round,” Llinas told me. “Look, I know Tyrone has been moved slow. There have been bumps along the way. But we’re on the way now. I’ve seen him spar with guys like Kassim Ouma, Ronald Hearns, Kermit Cintron and Andy Lee, and more often than not he walks through them. I saw him flatten Hearns in the gym.
“I truly believe Tyrone has what it takes to be special. He’s got everything. He’s got the heart, he’s got the chin and, obviously, he has the power.”
In that first matchup with an opponent with a discernible pulse, Brunson was obliged to settle for a six-round majority draw. Since then, the road has been much more treacherous for the would-be knockout king, and it doesn’t figure to get any easier against Hogan, who, as a member of Cohen’s promotional stable, is the “house” fighter on Friday night.
I was unable to get in touch with Brunson, but I did speak to Llinas, who is not involved in this particular fight and now concedes that his plan, bought into by Brunson, to gain notoriety with the first-round KO streak probably was an unwise decision on their part.
“In retrospect, maybe it was a mistake to bring Tyrone along so slow,” Llinas said. “I’d never done that before. “Sometimes it bothers me that I might not have done the right thing. Now that he’s got these harder fights …
“I tried to do what’s best. It (the first-round KO streak) was kind of an angle that we all came up with and tried to achieve. We believed in Tyrone’s talent, and still do, but perhaps we should have groomed him better along the way. I guess we were trying to reinvent the wheel. It didn’t work out. As he stepped up in competition, things got a little tough.”
It would have been nearly impossible for Brunson not to have stepped up in competition, given the rock-bottom level of opposition he blitzed through en route to that 19-0 mark. At the time that they faced Brunson, his 19 victims were a cumulative 59-108-8 with 27 wins by KO and 71 KO defeats. Three bouts ended in no-contests. Four of his opponents were making their pro debuts and never fought again; three more never fought again after losing to him, and only one, James Morrow, had a winning record. He was 8-1-2 when he squared off against Brunson, but thereafter went 4-16-1 with 10 losses by KO or stoppage.
In that whole bunch, only one fighter could be described as having a recognizable “name.” That would be Kirk Douglas, but not the actor who played Spartacus in 1961.
There are, of course, quite a few fighters who begin their pro careers with long knockout streaks. Thomas Hearns won his first 17 fights in such a manner, and Michael Moorer opened with 26 straight putaways. But while some of the guys they were starching early on were gimmes, Hearns and Moorer gradually faced opponents who helped them elevate their game and develop their skills until they became what they became. No one should expect the cleanup man on a beer-league, slo-pitch softball team to suddenly make the jump to the majors just because he’s thumped a few homers on the local municipal field.
A closer parallel to the journey taken by Brunson might be journeyman heavyweight Faruq Saleem, whom Butch Lewis had dared to dream might become the second coming of his biggest star, Michael Spinks. Matched against fall-down guys comparable to those Brunson was mowing down, he won his first 38 fights, 32 inside the distance, which prompted Butch to declare he could see him possibly wangling a shot at the heavyweight championship, if only everything fell just right.
Saleem then was stopped in four rounds by Shawn McLean, who had come in with a 4-4 record, all four of his losses coming by knockout. Even he had to see the handwriting on the wall then, and he retired, never to fight again.
There is a part of me that wants to believe that Tyrone Brunson, who was so poorly served by imprudent matchmaking and false hope, still might find within himself some spark of whatever it was that once made him a distant outrider on the imagination of fight fans. But the lineup of grannies has been replaced by, if not top-tier opponents, at least tough taxi drivers who have demonstrated that they are more than capable of fighting back.