BRIGGS VS OQUENDO — In 1989, at age 40, George Foreman appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The accompanying caption read “A Blast From The Past.” That would be an apt title for the forthcoming match between 45-year-old Shannon Briggs and 44-year-old Fres Oquendo as both men have seemingly been around forever. Their 12-round contest at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida, on June 3 is sanctioned for a vacant WBA World Heavyweight Title.
Briggs is in his twenty-fifth year as a professional boxer. Oquendo has been around since 1997. Briggs hails from Brooklyn, Oquendo from Chicago, but both maintain homes in the Hollywood/Fort Lauderdale area. That explains why the promoters are calling their show “The Backyard Brawl,” having purloined that catchphrase from the annual football game between the University of Pittsburgh and the University of West Virginia.
The WBA imprimatur is confounding. We’ll try to explain it, but with no promise that we can capture every nuance.
To begin, Wladimir Klitschko, contrary to the conventional wisdom, never held the WBA world heavyweight title. He held the WBA “Super World” heavyweight title. When a WBA regular champion becomes recognized as a champion by a rival organization, then he is elevated to “Super” champion but the WBA made an exception for Wladimir who was accorded this blessing without passing “go.”(The WBA also recognizes interim champions, but let’s not go there.)
The WBA “Super World” heavyweight title passed from Wladimir Klitschko to Tyson Fury and currently resides with Anthony Joshua.
As for the diadem up for grabs on June 3 — the WBA regular world heavyweight title – it has a muddled pedigree.
We can go back further, but let’s start in 2007 when Ruslan Chagaev unseated Russian giant Nikolay Valuev. Chagaev, who was called the White Tyson but more closely resembled the White Buffalo (Frans Botha), defended the belt in 2008 and 2009 but in between these two successful title defenses the WBA re-instated Valuev as their regular champion for defeating John Ruiz. By our calculation, that gave the WBA two concurrent regular heavyweight champions, but then again math was never our strong suit.
Chagaev was summarily stripped of the title for fighting Wladimir Klitschko, as would be true of the second man to beat Valuev, David Haye. In 2011, with the title vacant once again, Chagaev was afforded the opportunity to regain it when he was matched against Alexander Povetkin. Chagaev lost, but he wasn’t done competing for the belt. When Povetkin challenged Klitschko, the title became vacant yet again.
On July 6, 2014, in Grozny, Russia, Ruslan Chagaev, the perennial contender when he wasn’t the incumbent, belched out of the revolving door and won the vacant WBA “regular” world heavyweight title with a majority decision over Fres Oquendo. Then things really got messy.
Oquendo’s handlers succeeded in having a rematch clause appended to the original contract. The rematch was scuttled when Oquendo suffered a shoulder injury in training. Chagaev thereupon went forward with a match against Australia’s Lucas Browne who knocked him out in the 11th round.
It appeared that the pesky Chagaev was now out of the loop, at least for a little while, but hold the phone. When Browne tested positive for the banned substance clenbuterol, the WBA declared the bout “no contest” and reinstated him with the provisos that he pony up his delinquent sanctioning fee and honor the rematch clause with Fres Oquendo. Chagaev did neither. He retired. Now we’re all caught up.
Fres Oquendo (37-8, 24 KOs) has been idle since his encounter with Chagaev, a period of thirty-five months. He has a lot of rust to shed and, needless to say, he isn’t getting any younger. Shannon Briggs (60-6-1, 53 KOs) has won nine straight, eight by knockout, against grungy opponents since returning to the ring in 2014 after a three-and-a-half year absence. The respite followed a bout in Germany with Vitali Klitschko in which he went the distance but was so badly mauled that he spent more than a week in the hospital.
Oquendo and Briggs haven’t previously fought, but have crossed paths on many occasions. Way back in 2001, they appeared on the same card at the Jacob Javits Center in New York. Oquendo stopped David Izon in the third round in one of the co-features. Briggs dismissed his low-level opponent, one Reynaldo Minus, in the opening frame of a bout scheduled for eight rounds.
Another common denominator is Chris Byrd. In 2003, Byrd scored a unanimous decision over Oquendo in the first defense of his IBF world heavyweight title. Byrd is now Shannon Briggs’ chief trainer. Veteran cornerman Stacy McKinley assists him.
Chris Byrd is one of the nicest and most well-respected people in boxing, but he didn’t earn any points with credible fight writers or knowledgeable fans at the kick-off press conference on May 9 when he said “I think Shannon is the best heavyweight in the world right now.” Co-promoter Henry Rivalta added more kindle. “Shannon has been the people’s champ for a long time,” he said.
Shannon Briggs was never the best heavyweight in the world, not even during his brief reign as the lineal heavyweight champion, a badge he acquired by virtue of his controversial decision over George Foreman. However, Briggs has been one of the sport’s most interesting characters.
One of the first boxers to sport dreadlocks, Briggs now shaves his head bald. His bushy goatee, which turned grey a long time ago, is inconsistent with his bodybuilder’s physique. From the neck down the man looks twenty years younger and from the neck up he looks twenty years older. Wherever he turns up, he announces his presence with his mantra: “Let’s Go Champ.” As he repeats it, others invariably join in, creating a chorus. In the hype department, he has few peers.
Fres Oquendo, something of a cutie, has no charisma whatsoever, but it’s hard not to root for him because throughout his long career he’s been something more than an honest workman. Six of his eight defeats were razor-thin. When the decision went against him in his bout with Chris Byrd, the crowd booed. More than a few people thought that he deserved the nod when he fought Evander Holyfield in 2006. He lost by only one point on two of the scorecards. His nickname, ostensibly “The Big O,” ought to be “Close But No Cigar.”
On paper Oquendo, who is effectively the de facto champion (the WBA owed him this fight when a U.S. District Court judge upheld his claim that Ruslan Chagaev owed him a rematch), will prevail if he can take the harder punching Briggs into the late rounds. But fighters his age are prone to grow old overnight and fighters his age coming off a three-year layoff would seem to be especially vulnerable. Moreover, Oquendo has more mileage on his odometer. He’s had 22 fewer fights than Briggs, but has fought 93 more rounds.
So what we have here is a fight with intrigue, but yet a fight between middle aged men who have no business taking more punches. The winner, notes the promoter, will make history as the oldest man to win the heavyweight title, but that’s a hollow hook considering what’s at stake. Over the years, a number of unexceptional fighters have been deemed worthy of fighting for this belt and – how appropriate! – WBA “regular” heavyweight title fights, more often than not, have been snooze-fests.
Briggs vs. Oquendo is being staged in a 5,500-seat indoor arena. Tickets are priced at $80, $105, $155, $255, and $505. Additional fees may apply, says the news release.
See you at the fight. Not.
Photo credit: Ralph Notaro / Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
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