Some observations on the St. Patrick’s Day fight card promoted by Top Rank.
Irish Olympian Michael Conlan (the only Irishman on the card) was the big ticket seller. Super-lightweight Jose Ramirez (pictured on the left) was the big winner. And everything unfolded in the shadow of the announcement that ESPN will stream twelve Top Rank fight cards (including Terence Crawford vs. Jeff Horn) on ESPN+, a subscription app that will launch this spring. ESPN+ will be a direct-to-consumer subscription streaming service priced at $4.99 a month that includes live sports events, original programming, and on-demand content. More on that in a later column.
There were four fights of consequence in The Theater at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. The first of these highlighted the fall from grace of Felix Verdejo.
Top Rank signed Verdejo out of the 2012 Olympics and at one time was touting him as Puerto Rico’s next ring icon. Felix has charisma (which helps outside the ring) and fast hands (which help in it). He’d compiled a 23-0 (15 KOs) record but failed too often to close the show against pedestrian opposition.
Antonio Lozada Jr. (37-2, 31 KOs) was chosen as Verdejo’s opponent on the theory that he was a beatable measuring stick. In other words, Verdejo-Lozada was made for Verdejo to win. And Felix couldn’t do it.
Rather than engage, Verdejo prefers to move, potshot, and move some more, which usually succeeds against slow plodding opponents like Lozada. But after nine rounds of frustration, Lozada caught up to Felix in round ten, staggered him with left hook up top, battered him around the ring, and dropped him with another hook. Verdejo rose and was struggling to survive when, with 23 seconds left in the bout, New York State Athletic Commission chief medical officer Nitin Sethi mounted the ring apron and instructed referee Eddie Claudio to stop the fight.
Verdejo was leading on the judges’ scorecards 87-84, 86-85, 85-86 at the time of the stoppage. But had the fight gone the distance with the final round scored 10-8 in Lozada’s favorite, Antonio would have emerged victorious on a split-decision.
Light-heavyweight Oleksandr Gvozdyk (14-0, 12 KOs) also disappointed. Gvozdyk had looked good in previous outings and was regarded by some as on the same level as Sergey Kovalev, Dmitry Bivol, Artur Beterbiev, and Adonis Stevenson. He might be, but he didn’t show it on Saturday night. Facing Mehdi Amar (34-5-2, 16 KOs) of France in a sloppily-contested World Boxing Council “interim” title bout, Oleksandr plodded to a winning 118-110, 117-111, 116-112 verdict.
The fight of greatest interest was Jose Ramirez (21-0, 16 KOs) vs Amir Imam (21-1, 18 KOs). Normally, that would have been the main event. But Top Rank saved Michael Conlan for last on the theory that it wouldn’t look good if eighty percent of the 4,672 fans in attendance walked out of the arena before the main event.
The World Boxing Council trumpeted the fact that Ramirez-Imam was its 2,000th world championship fight. More specifically, Ramirez-Imam was for the vacant WBC world 140-pound title. Regis Prograis vs. Julius Indongo (which was contested on March 9) was for the vacant WBC “interim” world 140-pound title. And Adrien Broner was supposed to fight Omar Figueroa on April 21 to determine the “mandatory” challenger for the WBC world 140-pound champion (whoever that might be). All of this left open the question of what would happen to the “interim” WBC world champion when a “real” WBC 140-pound champion was crowned. Then Figueroa fell out of the Broner fight, Jessie Vargas was subsituted as Broner’s opponent at a catchweight of 144 pounds, and the issue got slightly less convoluted.
The WBC is celebrating its fifty-fifth anniversary this year. Perhaps it could adopt the motto: “Fifty-Five Years of Sanctioning Fees.”
Ramirez has become a symbol of immigration rights and farmers’ water rights in California’s Central Valley. Against Imam, he fought at a brisk pace, and forced the action for every minute of every round.
Imam had faster hands and was reasonably effective when he jabbed but was less interested in jabbing than in staying away.
Ramirez committed to the body early and often. There were some good exchanges when Imam stood his ground and fired back out of necessity. But over time, Jose broke Amir down. Ramirez might not have wanted it more, but he fought like he did en route to winning a 120-108, 117-111, 115-113 decision.
That set the stage for the super-featherweight bout between Michael Conlan and David Berna.
Berna has fought virtually his entire career in Hungary and cobbled together a manufactured 15-and-2 record. He fought seven times last year, winning five and losing twice. The losses were by knockout in the first and second round. The five wins were against fighters with a composite ring record of 6 wins in 35 fights. He was a safe opponent.
Conlan knocked Berna down with a straight left to the pit of the stomach in round one and a blow of questionable provenance in round two. Berna rose from the second “knockdown” showing no interest in further hostilities, and referee Eddie Claudio stopped the fight. ESPN replayed the first knockdown but not the second, perhaps because there was no punch of consequence to see.
Signing with Top Rank was the right move for Conlan (now 6-0, 5 KOs). His ring skills are more suited to the amateur than professional ranks. But Top Rank will give him exposure on ESPN and a diet of opponents he can beat while maneuvering him to a title opportunity against weak opposition.
And a closing note . . .
Amir Imam is the best of what’s left in Don King’s inventory of fighters. He was 18-and-0 and on a fast track until being knocked out in 2015 by Adrian Granados. Since then, Imam has had three wins in three fights, but the opponents had a total of 47 losses between them.
Ramirez-Imam was styled as a “co-promotion” between King and Top Rank, the first time that King and Bob Arum had co-promoted a fight since Miguel Cotto vs. Ricardo Mayorga in 2011. But on St. Patrick’s Day, King was more of an appendage to the promotion than an integral part of it. He made some pre-fight promotional appearances with Arum. Just prior to the bout, he was in the ring wearing a faded “Only in America” jacket accessorized by a huge Donald Trump tribute button. But that was all.
It’s about power. King no longer has it. He has gone from being the greatest ringmaster that the boxing circus ever had to just one of the clowns.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book – There Will Always Be Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.
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