By Thomas Gerbasi
With 2012 about to make its exit, it’s time to look back at the year gone by. And while this isn’t necessarily about the best fights, fighters, knockouts, upsets, or prospects, it is about what boxing produces on a consistent basis, in good years and bad: memories.
Here are ten of mine…
When the word came down that Emanuel Steward had become seriously ill and wasn’t likely to make it back, it gave those in the boxing community a chance to reflect and almost begin the mourning process. Of course, that didn’t make his eventual passing in October at the age of 68 any easier to take. Simply put, Steward meant so much to so many, whether he was your trainer, mentor, friend, or just the man who produced champions and added insight and knowledge to HBO broadcasts. For me, he was the encyclopedia that was always just a phone call away, and if you ever got to speak to him at length, you’ll know that no question was ever greeted with a one sentence answer. In fact, by the time a call was over, you probably got so many great stories and anecdotes and so much knowledge that you forgot what you originally called about. And the great part about it all is that Emanuel treated everybody the same way – with respect and an openness that made you feel like a best friend immediately. What a legacy to leave, and what a loss for the boxing world.
RIP JOHNNY TAPIA
No one expected Johnny Tapia to make it to 45, the age he died at in May. That alone was an accomplishment given the life he was born into. Mi Vida Loca didn’t even begin to cover it, and his trials and tribulations were more than well documented over the years. So I’ll choose to remember the Johnny Tapia who I worked with briefly when I designed his website in the late 90’s. That Tapia was someone who received reams of emails from people around the world that didn’t want to talk about his fights, but about how they were suffering or how they made it back from the depths because of him. What they got in return wasn’t a stamped autographed picture or a generic response, but handwritten notes and often phone calls from a superstar fighter who was truly a man of the people. And as much as he suffered internally, he was always quick with a smile or a kind word for those in the same position. There will never be another fighter like Johnny Tapia.
In my column leading up to the fourth bout between Juan Manuel Marquez and Manny Pacquiao, I made no bones about what I wanted from the fight. I wanted the type of mean, violent action that made Pacquiao an international icon that has transcended the sport of boxing. And he delivered. What I didn’t expect was a similar response from the technician – Marquez. So when these two whirlwinds collided on December 8th with similar intentions, what followed was the type of intense and visceral clash that makes you jump off your couch, unknowingly curse in front of your kids, and keeps you wide awake long after the bout is over. And to think that this was done by two of the best fighters of this generation makes what happened that night in Las Vegas even more remarkable. There were no thoughts of playing it safe or protecting future paydays. This was a fight and a beautiful reminder that when two greats get together, this is how it should always be.
PAULIE IN BROOKLYN
Say what you want about Golden Boy Promotions, but they’ll always be on Santa’s good list in my eyes for bringing boxing back to my hometown of Brooklyn and the new Barclays Arena. To be able to see championship fights and local favorites on a regular basis is a treat, not just logistically but aesthetically. Yet nothing made me happier than seeing Paulie Malignaggi complete the 2012 leg of his return to prominence by fighting Pablo Cesar Cano at Barclays in October. Yeah, it was a tough fight for the Bensonhurst product, but after a career many had written off after a series of hand injuries and key losses, Malignaggi went to the Ukraine to win a welterweight title and then successfully defended it at home. That’s a feel good story of the highest order and it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving fighter.
LEO SANTA CRUZ
As we get ready for 2013, I don’t think there’s a fighter I enjoy watching more than IBF bantamweight champion Leo Santa Cruz. Just 24, “Teremoto” is a real throwback fighter, and not just because he fought five times in 2012, four of them in championship bouts. This is a kid who fights as if he’s getting paid by the punch, and it’s a wonderful thing to watch, especially these days. In fact, his style reminds me of something the great Alexis Arguello told me once when we were discussing Oscar De La Hoya (ironically Santa Cruz’ current promoter) back in 1998. “In the case of De La Hoya,” said Arguello, “he's been well promoted, Bob Arum has been doing a great job with him, and it seems like the guy is what he is, a great fighter. But he hasn't developed some of what we used to do. We used to have more combinations. He only connects two or three punches. He never goes four, five, six, seven. He hasn't developed a higher combination rate like we used to do. It's probably for the same reason of getting there too soon. They don't get to master the art of the sport.” Santa Cruz hasn’t mastered the art of the sport yet, but it will sure be fun watching the process over the next several years.
Hope I’m not breaking writing code here, but yeah, I’m a fan of this sport. Have been since I was a kid and my father used to take me to Willoughby’s near Madison Square Garden to buy old boxing films that we would project onto the wall in the living room. So as a fan, it was a personal career highlight to have the opportunity to interview three heavyweight legends in 2012: George Foreman, Lennox Lewis, and Mike Tyson. To talk about the sport with three fighters who have meant so much to it is something you can’t put a price tag on, and the only thing I can say is that 2013 is going to have a tough act to follow.
As mentioned earlier, I was born and bred in Brooklyn, though now I make my home in the next borough over, Staten Island. Without getting into specifics, let’s just say that Staten Island is not Brooklyn. Yet while Mob Wives and the devastation of Hurricane Sandy are the usual two bullet points when talking about the borough, in 2012 we got some positive good news in the form of Marcus Browne. Trained by one of the island’s good guys, Gary Stark Sr., the affable and talented Browne made the 2012 United States Olympic team, then signed with Al Haymon, and in November he made his pro debut under the Golden Boy Promotions banner. Now 2-0 as a pro, Browne has a broad upside in this sport, but even if he walked away tomorrow, he can hold his head high for what he brought to Staten Island in 2012.
With the business over boxing ethic still a prevalent one, it’s always nice to see “real” fighters plying their trade, and if anyone fits that description, it’s Josesito Lopez. An old school practitioner of the sweet science, Lopez finally got his big shot against Victor Ortiz in June and he made the most of it, breaking Ortiz’ jaw and stopping him in the ninth round. That win broke up the proposed Saul Alvarez-Ortiz bout in September and allowed Lopez to step in. The Californian couldn’t pull off a second consecutive upset against the much bigger “Canelo,” but that shouldn’t keep Lopez from getting some more big opportunities in 2013.
It’s a topic that’s been bandied about incessantly ever since the name Arturo Gatti appeared on the International Boxing Hall of Fame ballot, and I’m as guilty as anyone for engaging in discussions about his worthiness for the Hall, but I will stand by my ‘yes’ vote and I applaud Gatti’s induction. Was he one of the greatest boxers ever? No. Was he even the best of his era? No. But what he brought to the sport went beyond numbers and titles, and his impact on the sport when it needed someone to have that sort of impact earned my vote.
Boxing is home to some of sports’ greatest dramas, but for me, nothing could really compare to the drama that took place out of the ring with California prospect Artemio Reyes. After his father got in a car accident in 2008 that put Artemio Sr. in a coma, the younger Reyes took care of his father while also juggling a boxing career, a day job, school, and the parenting of his son. Yet he did it all without complaint. In April, Artemio Sr. passed away. After the funeral, which took place on a Tuesday, Reyes was back in the gym preparing for a Friday fight with Alan Sanchez. “I figured it would be something that my father would want me to do,” Reyes told me. “He would want me to continue my career, and basically that’s already what I’m fighting for. I’m fighting for him, so now there’s just much more emphasis on that, especially now given the circumstances that he’s passed away. There’s more determination on my part, more of a push and drive for me to do it for him.” Reyes would lose to Sanchez in their April bout, but he has since won three straight, doing it, as always “4 Pops.”