by David P. Greisman
Nearly a year and a half ago, after failing to win a fight for nearly four years, and after getting knocked out for the fifth time in that period, Vivian Harris retired.
“I realize that I do not have the desire and hunger anymore because I am no longer performing in the ring to the best of my abilities that I have been blessed with,” the former 140-pound titleholder was quoted as posting on Facebook in October 2012, according to Fightnews.
He hasn’t lost since.
That last line isn’t a joke regarding his retirement. Harris didn’t actually hang up his gloves for long, returning to the ring in March 2013. And this past year for Vivian Harris has been quite different than those that preceded it. Over the course of 372 days, he has gone 3-0, his latest victory coming Saturday in a majority decision over Jorge Paez Jr.
Paez Jr. is the namesake son of a former featherweight titleholder and lightweight title challenger. The elder Paez fought for nearly two decades, but in March 2003, before he was to face future titleholder Jesus Chavez, Paez’s pre-fight MRI showed that he had brain damage, according to Chavez’s biography. Chavez ended up facing another opponent, and Paez Sr. wound up winning three more times in 2003 and then retiring.
All of which brings us full circle: Harris was supposed to fight a welterweight prospect named Bradley Skeete in the United Kingdom last month. The British Boxing Board of Control was concerned with Harris’ brain scan, though. Skeete fought someone else, and Harris was left looking for another opportunity.
He found one in Paez Jr., who initially was scheduled to face faded future Hall of Fame inductee Erik Morales. When Morales hurt his hand in training camp, Colombian slugger Breidis Prescott stepped in. And then Prescott, too, was replaced by Harris barely a week before fight night. Somehow, Harris, who is 35 years old now, received a license to fight from the Monterrey (Mexico) boxing commission.
The 26-year-old Paez Jr. was 37-4-1 with 22 knockouts going into this fight, but as with many offspring of famous athletes, he hasn’t been able to match his father’s accomplishments. Nevertheless, he has been good enough to beat another past-his-prime fighter, Jose Luis Castillo, and also twice topped Omar Chavez, a son of Julio Cesar Chavez Sr.
Figurative alarm bells went off for many boxing observers.
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Long ago, Harris was considered a dark horse in the junior welterweight division. Though he’d suffered his first pro loss in 2000 against Ray Oliveira, he’d gone on to win a world title and successfully defended it three times. His trainer at the time, Emanuel Steward, felt Harris belonged in the ring with the likes of Miguel Cotto and Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Those expectations were soon dashed.
Harris was fighting on the undercard to Arturo Gatti vs. Floyd Mayweather, a June 2005 show that was Mayweather’s first pay-per-view main event. An awkward slugger named Carlos Maussa was giving Harris trouble, though, and then, in the seventh round, Maussa floored Harris with a single left hook. The fight was over.
Harris came back and scored a few wins, including a decision over Juan Lazcano that earned him a world title against Junior Witter. Once again, a left hook from Witter in the seventh round was Harris’ undoing.
In retrospect, it was the beginning of what we would later consider to be his end.
Harris would win his next fight, and that would be his only victory for years. And even that win wasn’t without controversy. This bout against 7-4-1 journeyman Octavio Narvaez came more than a year after the loss to Witter. It didn’t take long for Harris to return to the canvas.
A big right hand in the first round sent Harris onto his back. Referee Lindsey Page pointed Narvaez toward the furthest neutral corner, but Narvaez, for some reason, began to jog toward the one nearest Harris. Harris began to rise while Page brought Narvaez where he belonged. Harris was on his feet some eight to nine seconds after his rear end hit the canvas. Harris backed up into a neutral corner and Page wiped the fighter's gloves on his shirt, but Page continued to stand in front of Harris.
By the time Page finally let the action begin again, 21 seconds had passed since the knockdown. Narvaez scored another knockdown and then pegged Harris with two more punches while he was down, but Harris got back up and the bell rang to end the round. Harris would come back to get a sixth-round stoppage victory, though the manner in which it happened was reminiscent of Joe Calzaghe's win against Peter Manfredo Jr. Harris unleashed a furious flurry that pummeled a lot of air. Narvaez apparently wasn't doing enough of a job defending himself intelligently against missed punches, so Page stopped the bout.
That was October 2008. In August 2009, Harris fought Noe Bolanos on ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights,” and this time it was a clash of heads in the second round that put Harris down and left him in such bad shape that the bout was stopped and ruled a no contest. His run of bad luck continued in February 2010, when Harris met Lucas Matthysse back before the Argentine slugger was as well-known as he is today. Matthysse rocked Harris in the fourth round, and the referee stopped the bout prematurely.
Two more quick losses followed. On the September 2010 undercard to the Shane Mosley-Sergio Mora pay-per-view, Harris went down four times en route to a third-round loss to Victor Ortiz. And in April 2011, he called it a night after one round against prospect Jessie Vargas.
Yet he kept fighting on. There was a July 2011 decision loss to Lanardo Tyner and then a March 2012 bout against a fighter named David Barnes that ended as a technical draw due to a clash of heads. In July 2012, Ed Paredes dropped Harris hard in the final round with a right hand, and then continued to hammer away at him until Harris’ corner stopped the bout. Just two and a half months later, in October 2012, Harris was up at junior middleweight and in the United Kingdom, where he lost in the third round against prospect Brian Rose.
That brought Harris’ retirement message. Before 2012 was over, he posted a quote attributed to former football coach Lou Holtz:
“You're never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you're never as bad as they say when you lose.”
Many of Harris’ losses had come against good fighters: Matthysse and Ortiz went on to bigger things. Vargas has continued to develop as a prospect. Rose, for his deficits, was the larger man. But Harris wasn’t doing himself any favors. He was there to be hit, and when he got hit, he got hurt. A winless streak, particularly one where the defeats are so violent, raises questions about whether a fighter should retire.
He did, and then he didn’t.
The first in his run of wins came as an eight-round decision against Shakha Moore, an opponent whose record was 11-18-3. The second win came as a controversial split decision over Danny O’Connor, a relatively light-hitting opponent who looked to these eyes more deserving of the victory.
For fighters in Harris’ position, every win gets you one more fight of note, one more shot at someone who’s willing to capitalize on your name and what they perceived as your diminished ability.
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I’ve written about Harris’ decline for some time. Dan Rafael of ESPN.com wrote in the days before the Paez fight that Harris should not be fighting, describing him as “a badly shot fighter” and “damaged goods.” Alex McClintock, writing for The Queensberry Rules, opined that “Harris should not have a license to box in Mexico or anywhere else.” Several others were among the chorus.
In the days before Harris fought Paez Jr., I reached out to Dr. Margaret Goodman, a neurologist and former chief ringside physician who now heads up the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association.
“People can all too easily get a license when a license is a privilege,” Goodman said. “One of the biggest jobs of a commission, irrespective of where they are … is their responsibility to determine fitness.”
But the standards to determine whether a boxer should be allowed to fight are not at all uniform. One look at the medical requirements on the Association of Boxing Commissions website shows the differences just in the United States, where some but not all commissions mandate radiological and neurological exams. In some places those exams are only required if the boxer is of a certain age, and even that age can vary from state to state.
Obviously, a fighter who fails such an exam shouldn’t be allowed in the ring. But there are also those who pass these tests and still might not be fit to fight, Goodman said.
“It doesn’t take someone with an ‘M.D.’ behind their names to determine when someone isn’t fit,” she said. “Probably the best test we can utilize in determining in whether someone shouldn’t be licensed or allowed to continue their career is looking at the degradation in the fight films. That will tell you more than an MRI 90 percent of the time.”
Visually speaking, Harris hasn’t looked as bad as, say, former middleweight title challenger Antwun Echols, whose balance has looked off for several years and who went 1-15-3 between 2005 and 2013 (and that one victory came against an opponent who had never won a single pro bout). Harris didn’t look great against Danny O’Connor, but he didn’t look horrible either. Harris’ win over Paez Jr. was broadcast in Mexico, though not where I am in the United States. Portions of rounds 1, 3 and 10 — the footage taken with a camera pointed at a television screen — have been posted on YouTube. Harris’ reflexes looked decent.
That doesn’t mean our concerns were unwarranted. There are the results we’ve seen over the years. And then there’s the matter of that failed exam in the United Kingdom.
“Just because a fighter wins a fight doesn’t mean he’s fit to fight for the next fight, or that he was fit to fight for that fight,” Goodman said last week. She followed up with an email after Harris beat Paez: “Even a fighter who has long seen their best days can be carefully matched and win. Does that mean they should be continuing to fight — and spar? This complicates the debate of retirement, but commissions need to not have blinders on. A fighter's record is just one small part of determining fitness.”
It is a strange position for us boxing observers. We know what we believe when it comes to Vivian Harris, but we don’t want to be proven right through a ring tragedy or by the fighter suffering unnecessary punishment. Yet we also recognize that the fighter winning means he will be back in danger again.
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And it can be a touchy subject when those of us who are not fighters conclude that someone should not be allowed to box anymore. After all, this is how these men make a living, and they do so with knowledge of the risks to which they are subjecting themselves.
But fighting legally is a privilege, one that comes with the condition that you are licensed by an athletic commission, which in turn is supposed to look out for fighters’ safety.
The commissions don’t do enough, though, Goodman argues.
Fighters can be shopped around to states with weaker regulations. And even if a boxer were to be denied in one jurisdiction, he may end up being licensed in another.
The case of Frankie Leal is different from Harris in that Leal left on a stretcher and was hospitalized for weeks after losing to Evgeny Gradovich in March 2012. The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation suspended Leal until he received a neurological clearance, though the state dropped the suspension eight months later, according to an ESPN investigation.
Leal went to Mexico for his final five fights, winning three times and losing twice, dying days after Raul Hirales knocked him out in October 2013.
“He was obviously predisposed to injury again,” Goodman said. “Sadly he had to show that by getting back in the ring.”
Other fighters continue to accumulate damage, whether it’s from multiple concussions or just from taking thousands upon thousands of punches in fights and in sparring. And we need to look for the visible consequences of this, to see whether a boxer’s balance is going, if his reflexes aren’t there, if he’s more susceptible to getting hit.
It’s easier for us to notice such things in name fighters, the ones who we watched progress and we later see decline. They are the ones who earn money based on their past accomplishments, even if those paydays come with a physical cost.
They are not the only fighters in danger.
“What about the thousands of fighters who don’t have a name or name recognition?” Goodman said. “The commissions don’t recognize that these guys are showing evidence of chronic brain injury and are getting a license because no one’s really looking — and they’re just being used as meat to fill a card.”
The 10 Count
1. Speaking of old names being brought back for a payday — or sticking around in hopes of getting one — in no division is that more common than heavyweight. There is still an attraction to seeing the biggest boxers slug it out. Over-the-hill talents also tend to see themselves as still able to compete.
Look through the heavyweight rankings on BoxRec and you’ll see:
- Former titleholder Ruslan Chagaev, still relatively young at 35, last seen in the ring in October. His last title shot came in August 2011, when he lost to Alexander Povetkin.
- Fres Oquendo, turning 41 next week, last seen in the ring in June 2013. He is a decade removed from his title losses to Chris Byrd and John Ruiz.
- Audley Harrison, now 42, last seen in the ring a year ago, losing a first-round knockout to Deontay Wilder.
- Former light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver, now 45, recently in legal trouble due to past debt, and seeking a shot at heavyweight. He was last seen in November beating a designated opponent.
- Maurice Harris, just 38 years old but more than a decade removed from his last truly notable win in the division. He was last seen in August, losing a decision to Amir Mansour.
- Michael Grant, now 41, a good 14 years removed from his loss to Lennox Lewis. He came back in May 2013 for a stoppage loss to Carlos Takam.
- Oliver McCall, soon to turn 49, recent winner of a February split decision in Poland over previously unbeaten Marcin Rekowski.
- Oleg Maskaev, now 45, winner of a November decision over shopworn Danny Williams.
2. And so it should be no surprise that Monte Barrett is being brought back nearly 19 months after his knockout loss to Shane Cameron. Barrett, who turns 43 this spring, will face heavyweight prospect Luis Ortiz on a “Fox Sports 1” broadcast in April.
3. Heck, even Evander Holyfield might finally be getting in on the action again.
Holyfield, who is 51 years old and who hasn’t fought since his May 2011 win over Brian Nielsen, is being considered for a bout this summer against a 17-0 prospect from Scotland named Gary Cornish.
4. In Turkey this past weekend, we got Tony Thompson vs. Odlanier Solis in a battle of guys who lost to the Klitschko brothers.
Thompson had two bouts with Wladimir. The first came in 2008, when Thompson put forth a good effort but was ultimately knocked out late in the bout. The rematch came in 2012, and Klitschko was able to finish the job much easier and much earlier. Thompson saved his career with a pair of wins over British prospect David Price and then lost a decision to Bulgarian contender Kubrat Pulev.
Solis was once an acclaimed amateur who won Olympic gold in 2004, but long since has been a perpetually disappointing pro. Solis’ Klitschko loss came three years ago, nearly to the day, a first-round loss to Vitali. Solis was boxing decently when he got caught with a hook and suffered a torn ligament and cartilage damage in his right leg. That was the only loss on his record; he’d fought three times since then and was 20-1 with 13 knockouts going into the Thompson fight.
He is 33 years old now, nearly 34, and about seven years into his pro career, so you’d think he’d finally realize that he needs to commit himself and live up to his potential. Yet a guy who fought at the 200-pound weight limit in the Olympics came in at 257 pounds against Thompson, which is not his heaviest but also not a good look for a man who stands less than 6-foot-2.
Thompson is 42 now and came in at 266.5 pounds, a good 22 pounds more than he was for the Wladimir Klitschko rematch. Nevertheless, he was the one working harder in a bout that never truly kicked into a higher gear. He left with a split decision victory and earned himself one more fight of note against a sub-Klitschko opponent.
5. It concerned me to read Steve Cunningham’s comments ahead of his April 4 bout against Amir Mansour.
“This isn't about a belt or about winning. This time I need this for my family,” Cunningham was quoted as saying in a press release. “I need to make money. I have to get a new house for my daughter's condition [she has congenital heart disease]. I am fighting for another payday and to keep going.”
On the one hand, a fighter who is desperate is a fighter who is dangerous. On the other hand, a fighter who is stepping into the ring less out of passion and more because he needs money is someone who has one foot out the door and has disadvantaged himself.
We’ll see which one Cunningham is. Though his opponent, Amir Mansour, is 41 years old, Mansour is a brawler who is 20-0 with 15 knockouts.
Cunningham is 37 years old now, but the former cruiserweight titleholder still appears to be in excellent shape. Part of that comes from not putting too much additional weight on his body while competing at heavyweight; he’s ranged from 203 pounds to 210 pounds in his four bouts there.
He outpointed journeyman Jason Gavern in September 2012, then lost a controversial split decision in his rematch with Tomasz Adamek in December 2012. He put Tyson Fury on the floor before losing via knockout in April 2013, and he rebounded with a points win over Manuel Quezada this past December.
It hasn’t been a great run at heavyweight, though it hasn’t been embarrassing either. Nevertheless, nobody’s beating down his door to put him on major broadcasts or against top opponents. There’s a limited number of opportunities available for a guy like him, and a limited amount of time left.
6. Old heavyweights are a commodity. They carry name recognition and nostalgia, and they come at a lower price than they did when they still mattered.
We saw that with a recent Prizefighter tournament in the United Kingdom, a one-night competition involving three-round bouts that included 45-year-old James Toney as one of eight contestants. Michael Sprott, who was 38 years old at the time and had lost six of his last seven bouts, ended up winning the tournament.
Sprott, now 39, will also apparently be involved in something called the “Super 8” tournament, which will take place in New Zealand and will be along the lines of what we saw with Prizefighter, according to an article on BoxRec.com.
Only four of the eight competitors have been named. The other three are:
- Kali Meehan, perhaps best remembered in the United States for his split decision title loss to Lamon Brewster and his subsequent stoppage loss to Hasim Rahman. He also dropped a decision to Ruslan Chagaev in 2010 and lost a technical knockout to Travis Walker in 2012. That was the last time Meehan fought, and he’s now 44 years old.
- Martin Rogan, who is turning 43 this May, and who was last seen getting knocked out in the first round by Erkan Teper in November. He lost in a “Prizefighter” bout last year to Audley Harrison, and he was stopped by Tyson Fury two years ago.
- Samuel Peter, the former heavyweight titleholder who is listed at 33 years old and who hasn’t fought in three years. He was knocked out by Wladimir Klitschko in their 2010 rematch, and he was knocked out by Robert Helenius in April 2011.
7. Boxers Behaving Badly update, part one: Junior middleweight titleholder Carlos Molina remains in the Clark County Detention Center in Nevada with an extradition hearing scheduled for April 8, according to the detention center’s online records and the Associated Press.
Wisconsin online court records note that Molina allegedly failed to register as a sex offender, a felony that dates back to July 2006, with the warrant filed in January 2007. A misdemeanor disorderly conduct accusation dates back to May 2005, with the warrant issued in September 2005. In 2002, Molina pleaded no contest to a charge of second-degree sexual assault of a child. When Molina was 18, he had sex with a 13-year-old girl, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
More from that Review-Journal article:
“The girl told police she was at her home with a friend when her friend invited her boyfriend, a man identified in the [police] report as Jaime, to the victim’s home. Molina, who didn’t know either of the girls, accompanied Jaime, the report said. Molina later began kissing the victim, who told police she initially wanted nothing to do with Molina. But the victim’s friend ‘wanted her to go along with kissing Carlos so that Carlos would not leave,’ the report said. The victim and Molina later had sex.”
Molina lost his status as a permanent resident and was deported in 2006, the article said. He returned to the United States illegally. Every single one of his boxing matches since then has taken place in America. The 30-year-old, who won the International Boxing Federation’s junior middleweight title in September with a split decision over Ishe Smith, was supposed to defend it against Jermall Charlo on the March 8 undercard to Canelo Alvarez vs. Alfredo Angulo. He was arrested five days before the bout and has been in police custody since.
The IBF ratings say Molina’s mandatory defense of the title is due by June 14. Cornelius Bundrage is currently the No. 1 ranked challenger. Molina is 22-5-2 with 6 knockouts.
8. Boxers Behaving Badly update, part two: Kelly Pavlik’s trial on a charge of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated has been scheduled for May 14, according to online court records. The Youngstown (Ohio) Vindicator says that Pavlik turned down a plea deal at a pre-trial hearing last week, though the report did not indicate what the deal entailed.
In December, police responded early one morning to a report of a potentially impaired driver on the Ohio Turnpike. “A trooper spotted Pavlik’s car at the gate trying to exit the turnpike, but Pavlik did not have a pass or ticket on him to exit the toll road,” said the Vindicator’s newspaper report at the time, citing police. “As the trooper questioned Pavlik, he showed signs that he was impaired.”
Pavlik refused a breath test but “was still cited because the trooper had probable cause to believe Pavlik was drunk,” the newspaper reported.
The 31-year-old retired last year after a planned fight with Andre Ward was postponed due to Ward suffering an injury in training camp. His last bout was in July 2012, a decision win over Will Rosinsky. That brought his record to 40-2 with 34 knockouts.
9. Boxers Behaving Badly update, part three: Former junior welterweight/welterweight Eamonn Magee, convicted of assault for kicking his ex-wife, will not be spending time behind bars. He was sentenced last week to four months in jail, but had that sentence suspended, according to Northern Ireland newspaper The Belfast Telegraph.
The judge also dismissed a charge of theft; Magee had been accused of taking some cash and a key to his ex-wife’s house.
This isn’t the first time Magee has been in trouble for attacking a former flame. A past case saw him sentenced to a year for grabbing a woman by her hair and attempting to throw her down a set of stairs, the Telegraph reported at the time.
Magee, 42, left the sport in 2007 with a record of 27-6 (18 KOs). He lost a decision to Ricky Hatton in 2002.
10. Oft-rotund heavyweight Chris Arreola, who dropped by the “Friday Night Fights” broadcast desk on last week’s episode, told Bernardo Osuna and Teddy Atlas that he’s finally started running and is up to two and a half miles per day.
Of course, that’s the distance between the food truck and the bar…
“Fighting Words” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. Pick up a copy of David’s new book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsamazon or internationally at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsworldwide . Send questions/comments via email at [email protected]