by Fox Doucette
Tonight’s show features two of the more polarizing Hall of Fame figures in boxing, guys who have their fans who think they’re all-time greats and their detractors who think they’re massively overrated. In the main event, Joe Calzaghe, who was accused more than once of never fighting the best fighters (since apparently Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones Jr. are nobodies) en route to an unblemished 46-0 record by the time he retired in 2008, takes on Nigel Benn in a super middleweight tilt, and for thematic reasons, the commission has decided to send the time machine back to get the two guys from fights where there was plenty of questionable refereeing to go around, then put them in a ring with Vic Drakulich as the third man.
But first, we’ve got Prince Naseem Hamed, brought in from an absolute war, one of the best fights of 1997, against Kevin Kelley, a fight Hamed won in four rounds despite hitting the canvas three times himself. He takes on Danny Lopez, who is brought in from one of his most relentless battles, a 15-round test of the limits of human endurance against Mike Ayala, the 1979 Fight of the Year. Will the unrelenting endurance of Lopez be too much for the speed and unorthodox style of the Prince, or will Hamed be a puzzle that Lopez is unable to solve?
From the Historical Fight Night Arena Presented By This Space For Rent, in San Dimas, California, these fights are scheduled for 12 rounds using the Unified Rules of the Association of Boxing Commissions. Scoring is on the 10-point must system, there is no three knockdown rule, no standing eight count, only the referee can stop the fight, and a fighter cannot be saved by the bell in any round including the twelfth and final round.
Now, for the thousands in attendance and the millions watching from around the world…
Let’s Make History.
Danny Lopez (6/17/1979, 41-3, 38 KOs) vs. Prince Naseem Hamed (12/19/1997, 29-0, 27 KOs)
Naseem Hamed was one of the great enigmas in the history of boxing. On the one hand, as Jim Lampley said of the Prince, “not only has he not read the book on how to box, he hasn’t even read the table of contents.” Hamed pulled straight back with his chin exposed, he lunged in, he routinely left his feet like he was Little Mac jumping up to punch Soda Popinski, but somehow, right up until Marco Antonio Barrera handed him his only professional loss in his 36th pro fight, it not only always worked, but served to set up a level of power so great that he knocked out 83 percent of his opponents over the course of his career, including Kevin Kelley, from which fight Hamed has been put in the time machine for transport to 2015.
Meanwhile, Danny Lopez was an old-school orthodox fighter, a guy who set his feet, had excellent balance when he threw, and put so much leverage on his shots that he was able to overpower guys the old-fashioned way. His fight with Mike Ayala, which is his time machine moment tonight, was a case of Lopez getting the kitchen sink, the refrigerator, the stove, and the cabinets thrown at him and standing up to all of it as he broke down the man in front of him, dropping Ayala three times in the course of a knockout at 1:09 of the 15th and ultimate round.
Lopez had a simple fight plan. Rather than try to headhunt the fast-moving Hamed, he was going to neutralize the jab by using his superior physicality on his 5’8” frame, along with his seven-inch reach advantage, 71 inches to 64, to force Naz to fall backward and remain perpetually out of position to punch. There would be roughhousing, there would be body punches, there would be flat out throwing the guy around if necessary, but Hamed simply would not be allowed to establish anything.
Of course, this is easier said than done, and over the course of the opening stanza, Hamed flummoxed Lopez; continuing the video game example from the intro, Hamed executed that style wonderfully, acting the matador whenever Lopez tried to bull rush him and then, once he had Lopez leaning the wrong way, putting a straight left hand right on the bean. Lopez’s aggression was ineffective in that first round, and the speed and surprising accuracy of the punches left the Englishman in clear possession of the early lead.
Lopez, however, was no dummy, and forty seconds into round 2, he used a feint to beautiful effect, and when Hamed dodged, Lopez was waiting for him with a left hook as Hamed snapped back into his normal stance. The hook crashed home right onto the temple of Hamed, throwing off his equilibrium, and Hamed stumbled forward into his opponent, trying to grab on but getting turned around facing the wrong way.
When Hamed came back to punching position, he found another left hook, this one coupled with a right uppercut, both of which caught him flush; referee Steve Smoger went straight into his count.
Hamed rose, a bit dazed but not seriously hurt, at the count of five; Smoger finished the eight-count and set the fighters back to their business. Hamed spent the rest of the round on his bicycle, and even though tonight’s action is in a relatively small 18-foot ring, Lopez, who was never the fastest fighter, was unable to sufficiently cut the ring down to the point where he could land the telling blow that would end the fight early.
Hamed continued to show respect for his opponent’s power, trying to re-establish his game plan, but becoming ever so slightly hesitant after he had been so brilliantly countered in the previous frame. He danced a little less, engaged a little more, tried to give Lopez a taste of his own power, but again, Lopez had a bigger target to work with purely by virtue of choosing the rib cage as his mark.
It is a maxim of the sport that the best way to slow down a guy with speed and to neutralize head movement is to go to the body, and Lopez pounded the body of Hamed like Stallone beating up a side of beef on the silver screen. He would eat two shots to land one, and the judges no doubt took note of Hamed’s superior punch output, but this was in service of a purpose. Giving away a couple of rounds, especially with a knockdown already in the bank, would be of no consequence if the end result was solid.
This continued through the fourth; Hamed was up 38-37 on the press row scorecard, three rounds to one with the knockdown, but he was taking a lot of shots calculated to wear him out.
Hamed decided that he was going to change the game a bit. To this point, he had been fighting southpaw, ducking to his right from incoming shots. He switched up to orthodox and began to duck to his left, counting on his superior hand speed to hook with the hooker if Lopez tried to catch him on the snapback.
And oh, what havoc that shift in perspective made. Lopez took a tremendous left right on the chin…but didn’t go down. He shook the punch off, gave Hamed a vicious shove—indeed, he practically body-slammed him—and when Hamed got back into position, he found a barrage of punches, a four-punch combination of jab-cross-hook-uppercut, and that last found its mark right on Hamed’s chin right as Naseem pulled straight back but not quite fast enough. It was a flash knockdown, sure, not quite catching him flush, but instead using the backward momentum to force Hamed off balance and land him right on his duff.
Hamed screamed at Smoger that it was a slip, not a knockdown, pleading his case as Double S went through the Jerry Nelson act en route to the number eight, but there has perhaps only been one case in the history of the sport of boxing where an argument with a count held any sway, and that, oddly enough, was when the timekeeper overruled the referee in the eleventh round of the very fight from which Danny Lopez had been pulled for time travel.
With his lead erased, Hamed’s frustration, on such display in the Barrera fight, began to show. Lopez was winning the mind game.
Lopez went right back to the body, repeating the pattern from rounds 3 and 4, and Hamed spent more time mugging, smiling, trying to laugh off the shots than actually devising an effective reply. He tried Lopez’s own tactic of pushing and shoving, but Lopez executed such a sound and balanced boxing stance that Hamed’s efforts were far less effective. It’s a lot easier to push a guy who’s already off-balance; a man with his feet set and his momentum carrying him forward in a controlled fashion will not react nearly so badly to attempts to move him.
As the body punches continued to come in, Lopez began to widen his advantage, and the next three rounds were all Danny, all the time.
Hamed started resorting to cheap shots. In the space of forty seconds, Hamed hit Lopez low, hit him on the break, drawing a stern warning from Smoger, then finally threw a complete cheap shot of an elbow that opened up a cut over the right eye of Lopez. That last was a double whammy for Hamed; not only did the method by which the cut opened ensure that if the fight were stopped on account of that cut, it would go to the scorecards—cards on which Lopez was way ahead—but Steve Smoger decided he’d seen quite enough and took a point away from the Prince.
The point deduction disadvantage was short-lived, however. Lopez, infuriated by the gall of his opponent, lost his cool, and when Hamed lunged in, Lopez grabbed him, used his momentum to throw Hamed into the corner with a classic move right out of professional wrestling, then, taking a page from Marco Antonio Barrera’s book, slammed Hamed’s face into the ring post.
Smoger deducted a point, because of course he did. But perhaps more interesting is the effect that face-mashing had on the Prince. Meeting the ring post in such a fashion threw Hamed for one hell of a loop, and right after the clap to signal 10 seconds left in the round, a still-sluggish Hamed walked into a straight right hand that dropped him for a count of nine.
Thus was born one of boxing’s rarest sights; a 9-7 round. You don’t see that one very often.
Lopez wasted no time seizing his advantage that he had gained toward the end of that wild ninth round, and he went in looking for the kill. The accumulation of body shots coupled with the concussive force of the brutal foul committed at the close of the preceding stanza had Hamed vulnerable, and Lopez, after setting up the angle with a hard shove that forced Hamed back, caught the Prince coming back into range, using that seven-inch reach advantage to uncork a right cross that was in no danger of itself being countered.
Right at the end of a punch on which a fighter with incredible knockout power got full extension came the Newtonian Third Law equal and opposite reaction, which is to say that Naseem Hamed went down like he’d been shot. He hit his head so violently on the canvas as he fell backward that it served effectively as a rabbit punch from the ring apparatus, and if he had any designs on getting up from the actual leather sandwich he’d eaten, those hopes were dashed as Hamed’s eyes rolled back in his head and he spent the next five minutes dreaming of magic carpets and of fights where getting knocked down three times just meant he had Kevin Kelley where he wanted him.
In the here and now and among the sentient, however, Danny Lopez raised his arms in victory. Throwing it to the ring announcer:
“Ladies and gentlemen, referee Steve Smoger calls a halt to the contest at one minute, 22 seconds of the tenth round. Your winner, by technical knockout…
RESULT: LOPEZ TKO10 HAMED.
Joe Calzaghe (8/12/2000, 29-0, 24 KOs) vs. Nigel Benn (10/3/1992, 34-2, 30 KOs)
No, those dates aren’t misprints. Calzaghe comes in from his fight with Omar Sheika, back when Sheika was still considered a major player among the contenders at super middleweight. Calzaghe stopped him in five rounds and demonstrated crushing power with the southpaw right hook, and it is that display of power that presents the best version of him to take on a challenger who can also throw one hell of a punch.
Benn comes in from the controversial stoppage win over Mauro Galvano that won Benn the super middleweight championship. Galvano quit on the stool from a cut, and his promoters tried desperately to prevail upon the WBC to call the fight a no-contest due to the cut. They completely snookered referee Joe Cortez (not that this is exceedingly difficult) and it took Benn’s promoters arguing furiously with the WBC supervisor at ringside to get the result changed from a no-contest to a technical knockout and to establish for the historical record that the fight was stopped due to the cut coming from a punch and the Italian quitting on the stool rather than the cut coming from an accidental foul, which under WBC rules in effect in 1992, would have been a no-contest had the fight been stopped when it was, at the end of the third round—note that under today’s Unified Rules, we go to the scorecards after four rounds have been completed.
Benn was apoplectic when he thought he was going to have his win—which he had dedicated to his brother, who had passed away—and his seizing of the 168-pound title vacated by such chicanery at the arena in Italy. It is that rage that we’re going to tap into for this fight. Benn, mistrustful of referees and commissions, against a guy who had a knack in his career for turning frustrated opponents into knockout victims? Sounds like a recipe for one hell of a fight.
One thing Calzaghe did a lot of in the Sheika fight was holding and hitting. He’d secure his opponent with the right hand out of view of referee Benjy Esteves, then he’d go to town with the left hook, which Sheika was powerless to counter on account of being immobilized by the grapple.
Tonight’s referee is Vic Drakulich. Good ol’ Count Drakulich has a deserved reputation for taking points away if he’s tryin’ to catch you fightin’ dirty, and word from the pre-fight instructions was that the referee warned both fighters that he wanted a good, clean fight, no rough stuff, no fouls, no crap, just clean punching.
Of course, Nigel Benn’s style never made for much in the way of good, clean punching. Benn’s bob and weave was of the duck-and-dodge variety, and in this fight, Benn came in so low that if you’d stuck a chair under his butt as he weaved in looking to land the left hook, he could comfortably sit in it. With the orthodox Benn coming in at odd angles against the southpaw Calzaghe, that meant a lot of wrestling on the inside.
The first round looked to set up a snoozer, as the crowd quickly grew restless with the frequent breaks and slow pace that the awkward style matchup created.
Calzaghe, annoyed, went with the grab-and-smash style he’d used to good effect against Sheika. Trouble was, Drakulich had positioned himself differently than had Esteves. He was looking for that clutching, all the more so since he’d had to break the fighters seemingly every ten seconds during the first round, and when Calzaghe not only grabbed and immobilized Benn but hit him with a rabbit punch, Drakulich stepped right in and took a point away from the Welshman.
Boos rained down from the crowd. As the second round continued, Calzaghe, cognizant of the warning he had received and the point he had perhaps unjustly lost to a trigger-happy referee, seemed to have nothing in his arsenal that would allow him to simultaneously blunt the advance of his opponent and yet still have the opportunity to work with his own hands. Again, the cuddle-fest continued, and again, the crowd began to grumble, wound up and angry in a way that the normally polite gathering at an American sporting event (in contrast to soccer hooligans at least, or the crowds at underground Thai martial arts tournaments in movies) does not often reach.
For Benn, though, this was better than he could have imagined. He had a little better timing on his lunges at this point in the fight, doing a much better job of working his way toward a lead left hook as he came in against an opponent rendered gun-shy by the machinations of the referee. He got the better work in over the course of the third round, and with the help of the point deduction, he had seized the edge on the cards.
On one of those inward lunges, Benn found himself on the receiving end of more dirty business. Calzaghe, putting his arms in position to protect himself and possibly catch Benn like a football to where he could grab on, had his right elbow accidentally smack Benn right above his left eye.
The elbow opened up a nasty cut right along the eyebrow, and the blood was in position to obscure the vision of Benn. What’s more, referee Drakulich decided that the elbow was deliberate and took another point. Calzaghe, in absolute awe at the injustice that had been committed against him, looked toward the crowd for sympathy.
The crowd responded. Whether the guy with the cup of Pepsi in his hands was a semipro quarterback or just threw like one, the offending soda landed in the ring. Drakulich called for order, but the Cup Heard Round The World seemed to embolden the rest of the assembled mass, which lost all sense of decorum and began to make impromptu missile weapons out of soda, beer, and even a hamburger, still wrapped in foil from the vendor’s portable hot box.
While Drakulich and the commission and the arena staff called a temporary halt to the bout in order that perhaps the ring could be cleaned and action could be allowed to continue, Nigel Benn, ever with a keen eye for the absurd, picked up the offending sandwich, unwrapped it, and took a bite. If this was going to be awhile before things could get going again, he might as well refresh himself with a snack.
Perhaps more importantly, two things happened in the meantime. One, Benn’s cut, assisted by his cutman, closed up and healed, and two, the timekeeper, in the confusion, allowed the bell to ring to end the fourth round.
Finally, it was decided that the ring was in no condition to be used in the continuation of the fight, and with four rounds complete, it went to the judges’ scorecards. By scores of 40-34 (twice), 40-35, your winner, by technical decision…
RESULT: BENN W-TD4 CALZAGHE.
Thankfully, by this point, the San Dimas Police Department, along with some riot cops that got sent over from Los Angeles, prevented things from truly getting out of hand. Calls for a rematch were immediate; this could not possibly be allowed to stand. Yes, Benn had his win, but under such dishonorable circumstance that the fighters would surely have to meet a second time to decide things.
Historical Fight Night moves to the middleweight division, where Roberto Duran, in his later incarnation from the latter half of the 1980s, takes on Carlos Monzon in the main event. Your co-feature, a light heavyweight contest, brings us Matthew Saad Muhammad taking on Willie Pastrano in a battle between the colorful disco-demolition era of the late 1970s and the black-and-white 13-inch-TV days of 1963. That will be on July 31 at 6 PM Eastern/3 PM Pacific.
And one more treat, for our special fans…
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