It was at the New York City press conference to officially announce the Nov. 4 WBC heavyweight title fight between champion Deontay Wilder (38-0, 37 KOs) and the man many deemed to be his most credible challenger to date, Cuban expatriate Luis “King Kong” Ortiz (27-0, 23 KOs). I cornered promoter Lou DiBella and asked for his thoughts on the stylistic differences between Wilder-Ortiz, which figured to be a slam-bam slugfest, and his thoughts on a bout he is not involved in, which pits WBO super featherweight champion Vasyl Lomachenko (9-1, 7 KOs) against fellow two-time Olympic titlist Guillermo Rigondeaux (17-0, 11 KOs) on Dec. 9, which on paper shapes up as a chess match of grandmasters wearing padded gloves.
Top Rank is the lead promoter for Lomachenko-Rigondeaux, and I mentioned that TR’s founder and CEO, Bob Arum, typically effusive in praising his guy, Lomachenko, was suddenly more publicly complimentary toward Rigondeaux, a former Top Rank fighter now with Roc Nation Sports. Arum once denounced Rigondeaux (pictured) as “boring,” “a pain in the ass” and another Cuban Olympic champ who “can’t sell out the front row of a dance hall in Miami.” Even after Rigondeaux had totally flummoxed fellow Top Rank client Nonito Donaire to win a one-sided unanimous decision on April 13, 2013, Arum trashed the winner by saying “Every time I mention him (to HBO), they throw up.”
“Now that that fight is made,” DiBella said, “you can bet (Arum) won’t be saying anything bad about Rigondeaux.” And never mind that only weeks earlier, Arum had denounced the mere possibility of pairing the more entertaining Lomachenko and supposedly boring Rigondeaux as a “shit fight” that the Cuban and his handlers didn’t really want. “Once you start discussing it for real, he runs like a thief,” Arum said in predicting that a deal never would be finalized. “They don’t want the fight.”
Personally, I think Loma-Rigo, which will be televised via ESPN from the Theater at Madison Square Garden, is a terrifically intriguing technical matchup despite its presumed lack of blood and gore. But, with the revelation that the WBC had withdrawn its sanction of Wilder-Ortiz after Ortiz had again tested positive for a banned substance, it’s also a safe bet that the replacement for Ortiz, former WBC heavyweight ruler and former Wilder victim Bermane Stiverne, will now be showered with the kind of obligatory praise that Arum sent Rigondeaux’s way after he signed a contract to face Lomachenko.
There is a saying that is as applicable in boxing as it is in any other form of marketing: If you can’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle. Previously denounced by DiBella as an unworthy mandatory opponent for Wilder, the 38-year-old Stiverne (25-2-1, 21 KOs) – who had accepted a hefty $675,000 step-aside fee and was to have taken on Dominic Breazeale (18-1, 16 KOs) on the Wilder-Ortiz undercard — now will be commended for being the only man to have gone the distance with the knockout artist from Tuscaloosa, Ala., and so what if he lost virtually every round along the way? As of this writing, it appears that Wilder-Stiverne II has enough appeal to hold onto the Showtime Championship Boxing date at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., that originally had been reserved for Wilder-Ortiz.
Promoters promote. It’s what they do, and some do it more adroitly than others. If a dark and foreboding cloud drifts over a particular promotion in the form of a main-event fighter’s voluntary or forced withdrawal, the best of the breed rummage around until they find some sort of silver lining to pitch to fans. And why shouldn’t they? The alternative is to simply scrap the show, which is never anyone’s preferred option.
Now 85, Arum is a Hall of Famer whose 50-plus-year career in a dog-eat-dog business has, unfairly, been widely encapsulated by a booze-fueled, offhand remark made in March 1981, when he and a group of writers were snowbound in their hotel in Syracuse, N.Y., prior to Sugar Ray Leonard’s WBC welterweight title defense against Larry Bonds in the Carrier Dome. Asked about the now-infamous comment – “Yesterday I was lying. Today I’m telling the truth” — that has since stuck to him like flypaper, Arum said it was taken out of context, as is so often the case during informal barroom bull sessions.
“It was snowing like mad (anyone who has been to Syracuse in the winter can relate) and we were locked in the hotel. It was so bad, you couldn’t go out,” Arum recalled in a 2016 interview with Yahoo! combat sports columnist Kevin Iole. “So a bunch of us were sitting there drinking and talking about sports. We were all (expletive) drunk and out of our minds and it was a fun thing about who was better” (between the two fighters being discussed, the identities of whom Arum no longer remembers).
The following day, after the group had sobered up, the debate resumed and Arum switched from Fighter A to Fighter B. Reminded of his reversal, Arum uttered the words, reported by a media member who often has been at odds with the Top Rank boss man, that he never intended to be printed or taken seriously.
Is there a lesson to be learned from that experience?
“Yeah,” Arum told Iole. “Never drink with the press.”
Back to Wilder and his consolation-prize rematch with Stiverne, who has fought only once (a tight, 10-round unanimous decision over Derric Rossy on Nov. 14, 2015) since getting tuned up in their first fight, on Jan. 17, 2015, at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand. One wonders how Stiverne, given his age, inactivity (one bout in 29 months) and lack of competitiveness in his initial go at Wilder (who won on the official scorecards by margins of 13, 11 and 9 points), could have been installed as the WBC’s mandatory challenger in any case. Then again, the WBC has always had a cozy relationship with Stiverne’s promoter, Don King, so maybe the situation isn’t as perplexing at it might appear at first glance.
Stiverne might not be as far gone as some suspect, but he figures to be a less-than-ideal substitute for Ortiz, who also is 38 but had a fearsome enough reputation to be described by DiBella as the “boogeyman” of the heavyweight division at that New York press conference. Wilder, in choosing Ortiz, was not “hiding behind a fake mandatory” against Stiverne, DiBella said, with the WBC ruler chiming in that “I convincingly beat Stiverne. I whipped him so bad, I beat him within an inch of his life. I told him I was going to do that. Most times when I say I’m going to do something, it always comes around.”
It’ll take a helluva change of script for Stiverne to pose any more of a threat to Wilder than he did 2½ years ago, but Wilder had already put in nearly a full training camp and, well, he has been required to take PEDs-influenced detours twice before. There are only so many times a championship-caliber fighter can work himself into peak condition physically and mentally and then be told it was all for nothing. Wilder was set to jet off to Moscow to fight Russia’s Alexander Povetkin in a much-anticipated May 2016 showdown that was scrapped when Povetkin tested positive a second time for a banned substance. Another scheduled bout, in February of this year against Poland’s Andrzej Wawrzyk, went by the wayside after Wawrzyk flunked a drug test administered by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association as part of the WBC’s Clean Boxing Program.
“He’s had to deal with unclean fighters, guys that were dirty, taking PEDs,” an obviously irritated DiBella said of opponents who sought chemical advantages in scheduled fights with Wilder that never came off. “Fights canceled. About to get on a plane to go fight a supposedly great fighter in PEDvetkin, and having that fight canceled after an entire training camp. Then, getting in the ring on a couple of weeks’ notice and suffering two severe injuries against the hardest, most difficult guy (Chris Arreola) out there at that moment that was willing to fight him. This is a hungry beast that wants to beat this man (Ortiz).”
Just like that, a heavyweight division that seemingly had been gathering momentum has lost a bit of oomph. Longtime ruler Wladimir Klitschko, following his stoppage at the hands of WBA/IBF/IBO champion Anthony Joshua, has joined his older brother, Vitali, in retirement. Defrocked champion Tyson Fury remains fat and ambivalent about returning to the ring, and now Ortiz has been damaged, perhaps irreparably, as a serial drug cheat (he previously had tested positive for an anabolic steroid after his Sept. 11, 2014, victory against Lateef Kayode which later was changed to a no-contest). Wilder vs. Joshua (19-0, 19 KOs) to unify the title remains the dream matchup somewhere off in the hazy future, but if we have learned anything lately it is that the only thing that is certain is uncertainty. That, and the fact that what seemed like the truth yesterday can look suspiciously like a fib the next day.
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