Bellator 263: AJ McKee submits Pitbull to win $1 million title fight

  • AJ McKee blue gloves, kicks Patricio “Pitbull”Freire, red gloves, during Bellator 263: Pitbull vs. McKee at the Forum in Inglewood, CA., Saturday, July 31, 2021. McKee defeated Freire to win the 145-pound World Grand Prix tournament million dollar prize and the championship belt. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • AJ McKee blue gloves, celebrates after defeating Patricio “Pitbull”Freire, red gloves, during Bellator 263: Pitbull vs. McKee at the Forum in Inglewood, CA., Saturday, July 31, 2021. McKee defeated Freire to win the 145-pound World Grand Prix tournament million dollar prize and the championship belt. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • AJ McKee blue gloves, punches Patricio “Pitbull”Freire, red gloves, during Bellator 263: Pitbull vs. McKee at the Forum in Inglewood, CA., Saturday, July 31, 2021. McKee defeated Freire to win the 145-pound World Grand Prix tournament million dollar prize and the championship belt. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • AJ McKee blue gloves, knees Patricio “Pitbull”Freire, red gloves, during Bellator 263: Pitbull vs. McKee at the Forum in Inglewood, CA., Saturday, July 31, 2021. McKee defeated Freire to win the 145-pound World Grand Prix tournament million dollar prize and the championship belt. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • AJ McKee blue gloves, punches Patricio “Pitbull”Freire, red gloves, during Bellator 263: Pitbull vs. McKee at the Forum in Inglewood, CA., Saturday, July 31, 2021. McKee defeated Freire to win the 145-pound World Grand Prix tournament million dollar prize and the championship belt. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • AJ McKee blue gloves, kicks Patricio “Pitbull”Freire, red gloves, during Bellator 263: Pitbull vs. McKee at the Forum in Inglewood, CA., Saturday, July 31, 2021. McKee defeated Freire to win the 145-pound World Grand Prix tournament million dollar prize and the championship belt. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • AJ McKee blue gloves, celebrates after defeating Patricio “Pitbull”Freire, red gloves, during Bellator 263: Pitbull vs. McKee at the Forum in Inglewood, CA., Saturday, July 31, 2021. McKee defeated Freire to win the 145-pound World Grand Prix tournament million dollar prize and the championship belt. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • AJ McKee blue gloves, has his arm raised after defeating Patricio “Pitbull”Freire, red gloves, during Bellator 263: Pitbull vs. McKee at the Forum in Inglewood, CA., Saturday, July 31, 2021. McKee defeated Freire to win the 145-pound World Grand Prix tournament million dollar prize and the championship belt. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • AJ McKee blue gloves, celebrates after defeating Patricio “Pitbull”Freire, red gloves, during Bellator 263: Pitbull vs. McKee at the Forum in Inglewood, CA., Saturday, July 31, 2021. McKee defeated Freire to win the 145-pound World Grand Prix tournament million dollar prize and the championship belt. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Patricio “Pitbull”Freire, red gloves, is choked-out by AJ McKee blue gloves, in the first round during Bellator 263: Pitbull vs. McKee at the Forum in Inglewood, CA., Saturday, July 31, 2021. McKee defeated Freire to win the 145-pound World Grand Prix tournament million dollar prize and the championship belt. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • AJ McKee blue gloves, celebrates after defeating Patricio “Pitbull”Freire, red gloves, during Bellator 263: Pitbull vs. McKee at the Forum in Inglewood, CA., Saturday, July 31, 2021. McKee defeated Freire to win the 145-pound World Grand Prix tournament million dollar prize and the championship belt. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

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INGLEWOOD — A.J. McKee’s call-out finally came home.

The undefeated Long Beach star’s crusade, which started with his professional MMA and Bellator debut in 2016 when he dared to invoke the name of featherweight champion Patricio Pitbull, has been more than six years in the making.

On Saturday night at The Forum, McKee won the $1 million Bellator World Featherweight Grand Prix with a technical submission via standing guillotine choke of Pitbull in the first round to claim the belt and establish his superstar status in the sport.

After the pair largely squared off with little action to start the fight, McKee stunned the champion with a left head kick and dropped him with punches against the cage.

The 26-year-old phenom began to prematurely celebrate before Pitbull began to rise. McKee then pounced and locked in a standing guillotine choke, torqueing with all his might before Pitbull began to fade. Referee Mike Beltran jumped in at 1:57 to kick off a wild celebration in front of the partisan crowd.

Pitbull (32-5) hadn’t lost in five years, winning all seven title fights before Saturday – twice dethroning a champion and five times successfully defending his featherweight title.

McKee (18-0) kicked off his professional MMA career more than six years ago, having just turned 20 and collecting a victory via submission at Bren Events Center in Irvine and calling out Pitbull, who was seven months into his first featherweight title reign.

Pitbull and McKee both started their journeys in the grand prix at Bellator 228 in September 2019 at The Forum — Pitbull dominating top contender Juan Archuleta in a unanimous decision after McKee recorded a highlight-reel 8-second knockout of Georgi Karakhanyan

Three months later against Derek Campos, McKee grinded out a third-round submission win despite tearing his lateral collateral ligament in his left knee at Bellator 236 in December 2019. And in November, he advanced to the final by forcing a tapout via a neck crank/guillotine choke of former Bellator bantamweight champion and NCAA wrestling champion Darrion Caldwell at Bellator 253 in November.

Pitbull, 34, had been regarded by some as the top 145-pounder in the world. The two-time Bellator featherweight champion also boasts the organization’s lightweight title after his first-round knockout of Michael Chandler at Bellator 221 in May 2019, joining Ryan Bader and Joe Warren as the only double champions in Bellator history.

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Joseph Diaz Jr. beats Javier Fortuna to redeem himself in lightweight debut

LOS ANGELES — Joseph Diaz Jr. vowed that he wasn’t the same fighter from February when he delivered a sluggish performance in a disappointing majority draw.

Diaz admitted that he didn’t train enough in his previous bout, but the training showed Friday night in the championship rounds when he needed another gear to get past Javier Fortuna at Banc of California Stadium.

Diaz redeemed himself after defeating Fortuna via a unanimous decision (117-110, 116-111, 115-112) to claim the WBC interim lightweight title.

“Javier Fortuna is a hell of a warrior and pretty slick,” said Diaz, a 28-year-old South El Monte native. “I couldn’t get body shots in … hats off to Javier Fortuna.”

Diaz, known as “Jo Jo,” started sluggishly and sustained a cut over his left eye after clashing with Fortuna’s head in the third round – a gash in the same area he bled from in his title-winning performance against Tevin Farmer in January 2020. But the 2012 Olympian found his rhythm in the middle rounds and picked up the pace as the fight went into the later rounds.

The crowd chanted “Jo Jo” after the hometown fighter landed a powerful combination toward the end of the 10th round. Diaz picked up the intensity in the final minute of most rounds, something he didn’t do against Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov in February.

Diaz (32-1-1, 15 KOs) pushed his manager and promoter Oscar De La Hoya to allow him to fight Fortuna (36-3-1, 25 KOs) after Ryan Garcia withdrew from the bout for mental health reasons. Diaz, a former junior lightweight champion, had never fought at 135 pounds, but he saw an opportunity to redeem himself against a fighter with plenty of power.

“Jo Jo showed once again a lot of guts and a lot of courage,” De La Hoya said. “I think he did a great job against a guy who’s been avoided for years.”

After the signature victory, Diaz said he wants a fight against Garcia or Devin Haney, the WBC lightweight champion. De La Hoya and Golden Boy Promotions also promote Garcia, the star fighter from Victorville.

“Let’s go,” De La Hoya said after being asked about a potential Diaz-Garcia fight. “Why not? Do the fans want it? Let’s do it.”

RAMIREZ VS. SULLIVAN

In the main event, Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez recorded an impressive fourth-round knockout against Sullivan Barrera.

Ramirez (42-0, 28 KOs) dropped Barrera  (22-4, 14 KOs) twice in the fourth round with a series of body punches. He also recorded a body-shot knockdown in the third round.

The 30-year-old Ramirez’s impressive victory could now put him in line for a title shot in the light heavyweight division. Barrera, 39, now has three losses in his last four fights.

ESTRADA VS. TSUNAMI

East Los Angeles native Seniesa Estrada continued her dominant unbeaten streak and added a new championship during her homecoming bout.

Estrada defeated Japan’s Tenkai Tsunami with a unanimous decision (99-91, 98-92, 98-92) to claim the WBO women’s light flyweight belt. She’s now a two-division champion with a title at 105 pounds.

Estrada (21-0, 8 KOs) smothered Tenkai early with devastating body punches and her aggressive spurts didn’t allow Tenkai to get into a groove.

“I didn’t feel her power, but it was harder to keep her off,” Estrada said about moving up from 105 pounds to 108. “I went to the body because she is a bigger fighter.”

Estrada said she wants to become an undisputed champion at both divisions and is considering a rematch with Marlen Esparza, who was ringside Friday night. Estrada defeated Esparza in 2019.

“I know she wants to come here and witness greatness,” Estrada said. “She can learn something … we can fight in the parking lot right now.”

ZEPEDA VS. TANAJARA

The Golden Boy Promotions card started with an entertaining lightweight brawl between Hector Tanajara and William Zepeda.

Zepeda’s relentless pressure forced Tanajara’s corner to stop the bout after the sixth round. The Mexican fighter’s fast punches punished Tanajara’s body and didn’t allow him to counter for most of the bout.

“I saw from the first exchange that he wouldn’t last with me,” Zepeda said. “I imposed my will and game plan. He tried to get out, but he couldn’t.”

Zepeda improved to 23-0 with 21 knockouts and handed Tanajara the first loss of his career.

Tanajara, a San Antonio native, landed some power punches, but not enough to slow Zepeda, who threw numerous combinations, including uppercuts that snapped Tanajara’s head back in the third and fourth rounds.

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Vasiliy Lomachenko batters Masayoshi Nakatani, scores 9th-round TKO in return

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Vasiliy Lomachenko is back, and in vintage form.

The former three-weight world champion was successful in his return to the ring, stopping Japanese veteran Masayoshi Nakatani in the ninth round Saturday night.

With Nakatani’s left eye closed after eight devastating rounds, Lomachenko (15-2, 11 KOs) used a flurry of battering lefts in front of an announced sellout crowd of 2,072 inside Virgin Hotel’s The Theater, to finish off his much taller opponent in a statement return in his first bout since an upset loss to Teofimo Lopez in October.

“I’ve accomplished my goals and I’m back on track,” Lomachenko said through an interpreter.

Lomachenko landed 59% of his power punches, as he dominated from the opening bell, peppering Nakatani with a steady stream of hard, straight lefts. Lomachenko was only hit by 12% of Nakatani’s power punches.

Lomachenko’s biggest round prior to the ninth was a destructive sixth, during which he landed a number of punches that caused Nakatani’s head to snap backward several times, eventually bloodying the Osaka-native’s eye, nose and mouth.

Lomachenko also knocked down Nakatani in the fifth, using a three-punch combo near the end of the round.

In his last fight, Nakatani was knocked down twice by Felix Verdejo before responding with a ninth-round KO win. This time, Nakatani never stood a chance as he was outclassed by the former pound-for-pound Ukranian great in every round.

It marked the first time Nakatani (19-2) was stopped in a fight, with his only other loss coming by way of decision, at the hands of Lopez in 2019.

“I realized (I was in control) after the third and fourth rounds because I was punching him with straight lefts and punching him with precision,” Lomachenko said. “I’m very happy because of the strategies that had been chosen, and also all the work, all the preparations, the trainings that had been done, all worked just fine and well, so I’m very happy. The result was as we planned.”

With the win, Lomachenko is hoping to land a rematch against Lopez, who was set for his first title defense in Miami on June 19 until he tested positive for COVID-19. His mandatory bout against George Kambosos, and the entire undercard, has been rescheduled for Aug. 14 in Miami, but could be moved to Sept. 11 in Las Vegas.

Lopez’s father, Teofimo Sr., who was in attendance, told ESPN during an interview after the fight his son’s camp is willing to grant the rematch, but with the caveat it must happen immediately after the Kambosos bout.

“After this performance I think the public wants to see this fight,” Lopez Sr. said. “I think I can convince my son to fight him again. After Kambosos it can be made. It’s gonna be the biggest fight in the world. We can make it happen in December. We can make it happen in Madison Square Garden.”

Lomachenko’s loss to Lopez cost the 33-year-old his WBA and WBO lightweight titles and left the former unified champ on the outside looking in on a division that inherited a youth movement of undefeated fighters, including Lopez (16-0), Devin Haney (26-0), Ryan Garcia (21-0) and Gervonta Davis (25-0), who also fought Saturday, defeating Mario Barrios with an 11th-round TKO in Atlanta.

A Lopez rematch could take place later this year or in early 2022, with Top Rank chairman Bob Arum ready to pull the trigger.

“In case there was any doubt, Lomachenko proved he is still one of the very best fighters in the world,” Arum said. “He is healthy and ready to fight any of the lightweights. As the promoter of these two great lightweights, my job and duty is to bring them together for the fight everyone wants to see. I’m fielding offers now from different places in the world.”

In the 10-round middleweight co-feature, 2016 Olympian Janibek Alimkhanuly (10-0, 6 KOs) continued his ascension up the ladder of contenders with an impressive TKO destruction of former world champion Rob Brant (26-3, 18 KOs). The fight was stopped after the eighth round, when Brant’s cornermen requested referee Michael Ortega.

While Alimkhanuly landed 46% of his power punches (65 of 142, including 20 to the body), Brant struggled the entire fight to find confidence to challenge inside, vividly cautious of Alimkhanuly’s counter punches.

“Ever since I turned pro, I wanted a big fight like this,” Alimkhanuly said. “Whenever a title shot comes, I’ll be ready.”

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Gervonta Davis scores 11th-round TKO over Mario Barrios for 3rd world title

ATLANTA — Gervonta Davis stopped Mario Barrios in the 11th round Saturday night to claim the WBA super lightweight title, his third world championship.

Davis (25-0) moved up in weight and won by knockout for the 24th time as a professional. The Baltimore native also holds the WBA lightweight and super featherweight belts.

There was little action through the first half of the fight in front of a sellout crowd of 16,570 at State Farm Arena as Barrios (26-1) and Davis alternated as the aggressor, with the 5-foot-10 Barrios slightly more active.

According to CompuBox, Davis landed just 11 punches over the first four rounds before finding the mark on 85 in the final six-plus rounds.

The 5-5½ Davis made himself hard to hit, with both hands frequently held high.

Barrios threw many more punches (394-296), but Davis connected more frequently (96-93) and effectively, landing 45.1% of his body punches compared to 29.1% for Barrios.

“I’m the type of fighter that wants to catch you with clean shots,” Davis said. “I don’t just want to throw any type of shot. The shots I was throwing were missing, but eventually I caught up with him.”

Davis dropped Barrios twice in the eighth round, first with a right hook about a minute in, and again soon after the restart with a left hook. Blood began coming from a cut under Barrios’ left eye and left ear.

Even with Davis’ domination of that round, judges had scored the fight even through eight.

Barrios rallied in the ninth, twice pinning Davis in corners. While Barrios threw multiple combinations, few of his punches broke through to make solid contact, and the energy expended tired the San Antonio native.

As Davis sat on his stool before the 10th round, his promoter, Floyd Mayweather, yelled to him from outside the ring.

“Floyd came to me and was honest and said I was down. I knew I was down,” Davis said. “So he said show me that you’re great. … I can’t compare myself to all the greats just yet. You know this man set the tone. I’m just following in his footsteps.”

Action slowed in the 10th round when Davis repeatedly ducked to avoid Barrios’ more wild swings and appeared to further slow his opponent with a left uppercut late.

The last punch came when Davis landed a left hook squarely in the middle of Barrios’ face with about 1:10 remaining in the 11th. The fight was soon stopped as Barrios staggered without falling.

“He was the better man tonight, but I’ll definitely be back,” Barrios said after losing his WBA super lightweight title. “Tank’s explosive. He caught me slipping and it’s boxing. At the end of the day, one punch can change the fight. That’s exactly what I felt happened.”

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Josh Taylor’s left hand allows him to lift all four belts after he wins a decision over Jose Ramirez

  • Josh Taylor celebrates while holding his belts after defeating Jose Ramirez by unanimous decision in a junior welterweight title boxing bout Saturday, May 22, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Jose Ramirez hits Josh Taylor during a junior welterweight title boxing bout Saturday, May 22, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Jose Ramirez hits Josh Taylor during a junior welterweight title boxing bout Saturday, May 22, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Josh Taylor hits Jose Ramirez during a junior welterweight title boxing bout Saturday, May 22, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Josh Taylor celebrates while holding his belts after defeating Jose Ramirez by unanimous decision in a junior welterweight title boxing bout Saturday, May 22, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Josh Taylor hits Jose Ramirez, left, during a junior welterweight title boxing bout Saturday, May 22, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Josh Taylor knocks down Jose Ramirez during a junior welterweight title boxing bout Saturday, May 22, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Josh Taylor celebrates after defeating Jose Ramirez by unanimous decision in a junior welterweight title bout Saturday, May 22, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Josh Taylor celebrates after defeating Jose Ramirez by unanimous decision in a junior welterweight title boxing bout Saturday, May 22, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Josh Taylor celebrates after defeating Jose Ramirez by unanimous decision in a junior welterweight title bout Saturday, May 22, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Josh Taylor holds his belts after defeating Jose Ramirez by unanimous decision in a junior welterweight title boxing bout Saturday, May 22, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Jose Ramirez enters the arena before a junior welterweight title boxing bout against Josh Taylor, Saturday, May 22, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Josh Taylor celebrates after defeating Jose Ramirez by unanimous decision in a junior welterweight title boxing bout Saturday, May 22, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

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LAS VEGAS — They put a historically juicy fight in a hotel theatre Saturday night, in front of 750 fans. It was like playing the World Series on Bad News Bears Field.

The music came on and Jose Ramirez and Josh Taylor entered the ring briskly. No frills, no smoke.

As it turned out, no mirrors either.

Taylor was the better of the two undefeated super-lightweights at the Virgin Hotel. He took Ramirez’s two championship belts and added them to his own pair, and he proudly held all four of those heavy accessories at fight’s end.

His unanimous decision was based on two belts, too. One was a left hand on Ramirez’s cheek that floored him in the sixth round. The next, in the seventh round, was a crisp, merciless uppercut on Ramirez’s chin while both fighters were coming out of a clinch.

Those 10-8 rounds provided the margin of victory on all three judges’ cards. Tim Cheatham, Steve Weisfeld and Dave Moretti all gave it to the Scotsman, 114-112. The only reason it was close was Ramirez’ bottomless heart, which propelled him to the end while Taylor was in four-corners mode. He recedes to 26-1 but is hardly diminished as a champion, and maybe he can start belt-hunting again when Taylor, as expected, moves up to the rich soil of the 147-pound division.

“I don’t know what’s next for me,” Taylor said. “But all I do know is that there’s a new warrior king, and he’s from Scotland.”

Such an event belonged in a sold-out Staples Center or T-Mobile Arena, but the rec-room atmosphere didn’t bother either fighter. Taylor, a left-hander, began the night with effective right jabs, but Ramirez turned up the offense in the third round, with right leads and uppercuts.

At that point Taylor and trainer Ben Davison showed their virtuosity. Taylor began nailing Ramirez with left-hand leads. He also held, muscled and leaned upon Ramirez at every chance, and all the strong-arming probably led to what happened next.

After Taylor had a good fifth round, he came out in the sixth and reacted to Ramirez’s wayward right with a hard left hook on the cheekbone. Ramirez got up without a problem and battled to the bell, but it was still a two-point round for Taylor.

The more decisive shot happened in the seventh, when Taylor and Ramirez clenched. As referee Kenny Bayless was moving them apart, Taylor suddenly lashed Ramirez in the chin, and this time Ramirez had major difficulty gathering himself. Had it happened earlier in the round, Taylor might have closed the show.

“He (Bayless) said he was going to break us,” Ramirez said, “and I broke, and Josh threw the uppercut. You saw it. I just have to handle those situations a little differently next time. Maybe be a little dirty.

Ramirez played it to the end, rocking Taylor in the 10th round with right leads, and Taylor courted disaster by running out the clock. Weisfeld and Moretti gave Ramirez three of the final four rounds, and Cheatham gave him all four.

“I wasn’t running, I was trying to keep boxing him,” Taylor said. “He showed he’s a great champion.”

The peaceful coexistence between Taylor and Ramirez was strained on Friday, when Taylor and some of Ramirez’s Fresno-based fans began woofing after the weigh-in. On Saturday, Taylor ended almost every round by raising his fist on the way back to the corner, and he got into Ramirez’s face after the bell rang to end Round 8.

After the decision, the two hugged in the middle of the ring and talked for several minutes.

What really stood up was the illusion of the tale of the tape, the fact that two 140-pounders aren’t necessarily equal. Both men weighed in at 139.6 pounds and Ramirez actually had a reach advantage. Both are 5-foot-10. But Taylor seemed bigger, broader, stronger, with better levers. He physically controlled Ramirez just as he walked down Regis Prograis, in a split-decision win that set up this unification.

Given the fact that Taylor will get no smaller, it’s doubtful that a rematch can really fly. There will be more intrigue in watching Taylor go after welterweight Terence Crawford, who, like Taylor, is promoted by Bob Arum’s Top Rank.

Ramirez, for his part, has entertained the idea of fighting unified lightweight champ Teofimo Lopez.

Crawford has been stranded by the news that Errol Spence, the IBF welterweight champ and the theoretical opponent in the Next Last Great Fight (cq), has instead decided to meet 42-year-old Manny Pacquiao in July. Pacquiao hasn’t been in the ring since 2019 and isn’t likely to walk upright out of the one that matches him with Spence.

Boxing fans all want resolution but they prefer to find it at the end of a stirring rematch or two. Josh Taylor’s verdict was undisputed. Now all he needs is a bigger jury box.

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Brandon Figueroa stops Luis Nery in 7th round to win WBC belt

  • Referee Thomas Taylor raises the hand of Brandon Figueroa who defeated Luis Nery in the WBA & WBC Super Bantamweight World Championship bout at Dignity Health Sports Park on May 15, 2021 in Carson, California. Figueroa won with a Knock Out in the seventh round (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)

  • Brandon Figueroa (R) and Luis Nery in the WBA & WBC Super Bantamweight World Championship bout at Dignity Health Sports Park on May 15, 2021 in Carson, California. Figueroa won with a Knock Out in the seventh round (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)

  • Brandon Figueroa (L) and Luis Nery during the second round in the WBA & WBC Super Bantamweight World Championship bout at Dignity Health Sports Park on May 15, 2021 in Carson, California. Figueroa won with a Knock Out in the seventh round (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)

  • Brandon Figueroa stands on the ringside rope after defeating Luis Nery in the WBA & WBC Super Bantamweight World Championship bout at Dignity Health Sports Park on May 15, 2021 in Carson, California. Figueroa won with a Knock Out in the seventh round (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)

  • Brandon Figueroa (R) lands a right hook on Luis Nery in the WBA & WBC Super Bantamweight World Championship bout at Dignity Health Sports Park on May 15, 2021 in Carson, California. Figueroa won with a Knock Out in the seventh round (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)

  • Brandon Figueroa (R) fights Luis Nery during the third round in the WBA & WBC Super Bantamweight World Championship bout at Dignity Health Sports Park on May 15, 2021 in Carson, California. Figueroa won with a Knock Out in the seventh round (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)

  • Luis Nery goes to the floor after a body shot by Brandon Figueroa in the WBA & WBC Super Bantamweight World Championship bout at Dignity Health Sports Park on May 15, 2021 in Carson, California. Figueroa won with a Knock Out in the seventh round (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)

  • Brandon Figueroa (R) and Luis Nery in the WBA & WBC Super Bantamweight World Championship bout at Dignity Health Sports Park on May 15, 2021 in Carson, California. Figueroa won with a Knock Out in the seventh round (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)

  • Brandon Figueroa (R) is hit by Luis Nery in the WBA & WBC Super Bantamweight World Championship bout at Dignity Health Sports Park on May 15, 2021 in Carson, California. Figueroa won with a Knock Out in the seventh round (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)

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CARSON — Brandon Figueroa was known as a volume puncher who lacked power entering his Saturday unification bout against Luis Nery at Dignity Health Sports Park. That narrative changed for the junior featherweight from Texas.

Nery was supposed to have the power advantage, but he ended the night on the canvas after Figueroa landed a series of body shots in the seventh round. Nery never made it to his feet during referee Thomas Taylor’s 10 count and the bout ended at the 2:18 mark of the seventh round.

Figueroa’s high-volume punching was doubted by many pundits, but his pressure and cardio dominated the fight after a sluggish start. Figueroa took Nery’s WBC junior featherweight title to go along with his WBA secondary belt.

Nery controlled the bout early with his powerful left hooks, and briefly stunned Figueroa with that shot midway through the first round when both fighters tangled to the ground.

But Figueroa picked up the pace in the third round and didn’t allow Nery to unleash his left hooks from a power stance. Figueroa’s phone-booth style did damage in the middle rounds, as Nery dropped his punching rate.

WBO champion Stephen Fulton was ringside to see the slugest and examine his next opponent. Fulton was scheduled to fight the winner of Nery-Figueroa on Sept. 11 for a unification bout on Showtime.

“I envisioned everything,” Figueroa said. “I envisioned beating Nery and fighting Fulton.”

Fulton pushed for a bout with Figueroa before he fought Nery. Fulton and Figueroa have traded verbal jabs on social media.

“I match up best with Figueroa because he’s an action-packed fighter,” Fulton said. “With Nery, I feel like he’s too small. I can keep him out of range with boxing too easy.

“(Figueroa) gets hit a lot. I like his style, don’t get me wrong. His style is tailor-made for me. It’s the perfect style.”

UNDERCARD BOUTS

In the co-main event, Los Angeles native Danny Roman recorded a hometown victory with a unanimous decision over Ricardo Espinoza (97-93, 98-92, 98-92).

Roman, a former junior featherweight champion, used his range to land vicious uppercuts and nearly recorded a stoppage after the eighth round, but the ringside doctor allowed Espinoza to continue. He was gushing blood from his mouth and nose.

“He’s a tough fighter,” Roman (29-3-1, 10 KOs) said. “He hits hard. I had to make adjustments … I started getting my distance, I started fighting my fight, I started controlling. After the eighth round, I thought he was going to go down. … He showed a lot of heart.”

Roman is the mandatory challenger for the WBC champion, but he’ll have to wait his turn until after the Sept. 11 bout between Fulton and Figueroa.

To open the Showtime-televised event, Xavier Martinez outpointed Juan Carlos Burgos in an entertaining 10-round super featherweight slugfest.

Martinez won by unanimous decision with all three judges scoring it 99-91, but the fight fans in the stands viewed the bout much closer and booed the results.

Martinez (17-0, 11 KOs) is known for his patient boxing skills, but Burgos (34-4-2, 21 KOs) pushed him to the center of the ring for an all-out brawl, especially in the later rounds.

“He’s tough as nails,” Martinez said about Burgos.

BENAVIDEZ WANTS CANELO

David Benavidez wants to end Saul “Canelo” Alvarez’s reign at super middleweight.

Benavidez said he’s aiming to fight Alvarez to regain his WBC super middleweight title and earn respect as one of boxing’s best fighters.

“The main reason I want that fight (with Alvarez) is not because of money, it’s not because of all that,” Benavidez told the Southern California News Group while sitting ringside for the Showtime boxing event. “I want my respect from the people. I’ve been a professional (fighter) for almost eight years, so I feel like if I get prepared for that fight, I win that fight, I’ll get my respect from everybody.

“Undoubtedly, you have to give David Benavidez his respect, but (Alvarez) has all the titles.”

Before Alvarez joined the 168-pound division, Benavidez was viewed as the top champion, but he was stripped of the WBC belt for missing weight at his previous fight in August.

Alvarez owns three of the four major belts in the division after victories against Callum Smith and Billy Joe Saunders. All signs point to Alvarez fighting Caleb Plant next because he’s the IBF champion and a victory over him would make Alvarez the undisputed champion at super middleweight.

Benavidez said he wants to fight the winner of Alvarez-Plant if that fight gets scheduled. Benavidez is booked for an Aug. 28 bout versus Jose Uzcategui in a WBC title eliminator.

Benavidez (24-0, 21 knockouts) vouched for Alvarez (56-1-2, 38 KOs) to fight him in the near future because it would do well financially as two fighters with Mexican backgrounds.

“I feel like I have a lot of weapons that could neutralize Canelo, just seeing his past opponents,” Benavidez, 24, said. “ But Canelo is a beast. At the end of the day, he’s a beast. That would be a great fight to be made, not just for me, but for the fans.

“It hurt me a lot losing the title, but I’m right back in there. I got 24 fights, I got 21 knockouts, so I’m just ready for whoever.”

 

 

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Usman tops Masvidal, UFC 261 returns sports world to normal

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — A packed house. A raucous crowd. Celebrity sightings. Stunning upsets. Spectacular finishes. Broken bones. Blood, sweat and tears.

UFC 261 returned a sense of normalcy to the sports world Saturday night with one of its craziest events in years. Billed as the first full-fledged sporting event since the coronavirus pandemic altered the world more than a year ago, it delivered more than even its staunchest promoter imagined.

“I don’t think it gets any better than tonight,” UFC President Dana White said. “You couldn’t have a better night. … It was amazing. The crowd was amazing. The fights were amazing. … There’s just a different energy you get when people are here. It was insane.”

Kamaru Usman ended the event by winning his 18th straight bout and retaining his welterweight belt. Usman knocked out Jorge Masvidal with a right punch to the jaw early in the second round, silencing a pro-Masvidal crowd.

Usman’s knockout victory was his third in his last four fights, further showcasing his impressive versatility and an ability to adjust tactics during bouts. The former NCAA Division II wrestler had only one knockout victory in his first 10 UFC fights before he stopped Colby Covington, Gilbert Burns and Masvidal with punches in the past 18 months.

“Jacksonville, Florida, you said you wanted violence. You’re welcome,” Usman said.

Usman’s 18 consecutive MMA victories include 14 straight wins since joining the UFC in 2015. Only Anderson Silva’s streak of 16 straight UFC wins is longer in the promotion’s history.

“He’s one of the best ever. He’s an absolute stud,” White said. “You’re an idiot if you think this guy is boring.”

Usman (19-1) thanked Masvidal (35-15) for scaring him and pushing him, saying it’s been a long time since he felt nervous before a bout.

This one was a rematch from their short-notice fight in July. The 33-year-old Usman beat Masvidal at Fight Island, winning a unanimous decision at UFC 251. Masvidal stepped in on six days’ notice, flying halfway around the world to fill in for No. 1 title contender Gilbert Burns after Burns tested positive for COVID-19.

Masvidal held his own and went five rounds against the champ, whose strategy including stomping on Masvidal’s feet every time they were locked up.

Some thought Masvidal would have a better chance with a full training session. Not really.

Still, Masvidal had the crowd behind him. They cheered wildly for the 36-year-old Miami native, breaking into “Ole, Ole, Ole” and “Let’s go Jorge” chants, and booed Usman whenever possible.

“He’s got my number, man,” Masvidal said.

It was the last of three title bouts, but hardly the most surprising.

Rose “Thug” Namajunas (11-4) stunned Zhang Weili (21-2) to take the strawweight belt. Namajunas sent Zhang to the canvas with a left foot to the face, and the bout was stopped at the 1:18 mark of the opening round.

Namajunas broke down in tears in the octagon as she became the first woman in UFC history to recapture a championship belt. Three previous champions failed to reclaim belts they had lost, including Ronda Rousey.

Zhang erupted in anger, clearly upset with the referee’s decision to stop the fight. Replays showed how vicious the kick was, but Zhang insisted she never lost consciousness.

Flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko (21-3) totally dominated Jessica Andrade (21-9) to retain her belt, slamming Andrade to the canvas three times in two rounds. She eventually won a TKO after a series of bludgeoning blows to Andrade’s head and ear. Shevchenko danced in the octagon after the grappling victory and exclaimed, “I can do everything.”

The sold-out event drew a star-studded crowd. There was no social distancing inside the 15,000-plus-seat arena and few masks in any direction. It was a clear sign that at least some fans are ready to return to normal after more than a year of dealing with COVID-19 changes to their routines.

“I’ve pictured this moment a million times over, so it was everything I expected it to be,” said Jeff Molina, who beat Qileng Aori in an undercard bout. “Having fans back is awesome. … I stepped in there, I turned and looked at the crowd, raised my hand and definitely caught some good energy, good vibes from the crowd.”

Seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady was sitting cage-side along with Tampa Bay teammates Mike Evans, Blaine Gabbert and Josh Wells.

Florida legend and Jacksonville native Tim Tebow was on hand with his wife. And Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew and linebacker Myles Jack were in the first few rows.

Former Bucs receiver Antonio Brown dipped into a large bucket of popcorn as he sat next to YouTube sensation and celebrity boxer Jake Paul, who got into a nose-to-nose argument with former UFC fighter and current commentator Daniel Cormier before the main card. The packed house taunted Paul several times during breaks and at least twice during fights.

The main card’s first two fights ended with significant leg injuries, the second more gruesome than the first.

Chris “The All-American” Weidman snapped his right leg kicking Uriah Hall in the opening seconds of the bout. Weidman seemingly made it worse when he tried to stand on his broken bone. He crumpled to the canvas in pain and probably shock.

Medical personnel rushed to put his leg in an air cast as Hall struggled to maintain his composure on the other side of the octagon. Weidman, who was fighting UFC legend Anderson Silva when Silva broke his shin with a kick, was eventually carried out of the cage on a stretcher. He is scheduled to have surgery Sunday.

“I’ve got nothing but respect for Weidman,” Hall said. “He’s truly one of the best. … It’s the sucky part of the sport. It’s a hurt business.”

Minutes earlier, Anthony Smith connected with Jim Crute’s left leg and left him struggling to stand. Crute hobbled to his corner between rounds and tried to come back out for the second, but doctors stopped the fight after preliminary diagnosing it as a torn knee ligament.

“I couldn’t feel my leg,” Crute said. “I couldn’t stand on it.”

White brought his mixed martial arts behemoth back to Florida 11 months after the Sunshine State allowed him to host an event following a two-month shutdown.

Jacksonville hosted UFC 249 in May, and White vowed a return trip when the state fully reopened.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis approved a reopening plan last year that allowed large sporting events to resume in late September, although reduced capacity and limited social distancing were recommended. But until UFC’s return trip, no one had allowed full capacity indoors.

UFC hadn’t hosted fans in the United States in more than a year. There was a limited crowd for the last event at Fight Island in January.

“It’s time to get back to normal,” White said while announcing a $3.3 million gate, just a small portion of the total take after pay-per-view sales are tallied.

“If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask. If you don’t want to wear a mask, don’t wear a mask,” White said. “Everybody’s just doing their thing, and you know what, people seem like they’re a lot happier down here in Florida than they are in some of these other (freaking) states. You know what I mean?

“Everybody is doing their thing down here and living their life. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be. It felt good to be here.”

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UFC 260: Francis Ngannou stops Miocic, claims UFC heavyweight title

  • Francis Ngannou of Cameroon punches Stipe Miocic in their UFC heavyweight championship fight during the UFC 260 event at UFC APEX on March 27, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

  • Francis Ngannou of Cameroon reacts after his victory over Stipe Miocic in their UFC heavyweight championship fight during the UFC 260 event at UFC APEX on March 27, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

  • Stipe Miocic punches Francis Ngannou of Cameroon in their UFC heavyweight championship fight during the UFC 260 event at UFC APEX on March 27, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

  • Francis Ngannou of Cameroon kicks Stipe Miocic in their UFC heavyweight championship fight during the UFC 260 event at UFC APEX on March 27, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

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Francis Ngannou has been the next big thing in the UFC heavyweight division for several years. Just about everyone believed greatness was within the powerful Cameroonian challenger’s reach if he could ever put his prodigious talents together.

All that potential was realized in six sensational minutes Saturday night when Ngannou took the belt away from the most accomplished fighter in the division’s history.

Ngannou stopped Stipe Miocic with ferocious punches early in the second round to claim the heavyweight title at UFC 260.

Ngannou (11-2) avenged his blowout loss to Miocic in 2018 by demonstrating everything he has learned in the ensuing three years. The first UFC heavyweight champion from Africa flattened Miocic (21-3) twice early in the second, finally buckling the champ’s knees and ending the bout 52 seconds into the round.

“Man, it’s amazing,” Ngannou said. “The feeling of it is just great. Imagine something you’ve been waiting for your entire life, and struggling to have it. Sometimes I felt like I was drowning and I had to struggle back, but now we’re here.”

Ngannou won a fairly quiet first round with superior striking and ground work, but there was nothing quiet about the finish.

Ngannou knocked down Miocic 22 seconds into the second round with a crisp left hand to Miocic’s face, but the champion ate several punches to get up. Miocic backpedaled away and even landed a right hand that stung Ngannou, but the challenger loaded up a picture-perfect left hook that bent Miocic’s legs at a gruesome angle and put him on the canvas again, where Ngannou landed one finishing hammer fist.

“When the journey is longer, the reward is always more appreciated,” Ngannou said. “I’m sure I would have been happy three years ago, but I think now, I have a different perspective about it, being happy about my improvement.”

The violence was exactly what Ngannou’s fans and coaches expected when the long-anticipated changing of the guard atop the heavyweight division finally happened in this rematch of two highly likable fighters.

Ngannou tried to call his mother in Cameroon immediately after the fight, but said he couldn’t get through to her because everyone was “going crazy” celebrating his win.

“I can’t talk to anybody in Cameroon right now,” he said. “It’s a good craziness, for a good reason.”

The 34-year-old Ngannou is a former aspiring boxer who discovered mixed martial arts after he left Cameroon for France in his mid-20s. He rose rapidly through his new sport with his fearsome power and growing all-around skill, but Miocic interrupted his ascent by winning every round of their first bout in Boston.

The loss staggered the confidence of a once-dynamic fighter. He barely threw a punch in his next bout, an embarrassing loss to Derrick Lewis.

But Ngannou impressively regained his confidence later in 2018 and kicked off a run of four consecutive knockout victories against veteran heavyweights, putting him back in line for Miocic.

“He was a completely different fighter tonight,” UFC President Dana White said of Ngannou. “We saw things from him we never saw before. He took his time, and even ate that big right hand from Stipe. He looked perfect tonight.”

In the Vegas cage, Ngannou was far too much for Miocic, the firefighter from Cleveland who has been on top of the division for four of the last five years. Miocic’s heavyweight reign has been the best in the history of a notoriously tumultuous UFC division, and he most recently won the final two fights of his trilogy with Daniel Cormier to cement his heavyweight supremacy.

In the co-main event of this pay-per-view show at the UFC Apex gym on the promotion’s corporate campus, former welterweight champion Tyron Woodley lost his fourth consecutive fight when Vicente Luque submitted him with a D’Arce choke late in the first round.

Woodley (19-7-1), who reigned over the 170-pound division for nearly three years until Kamaru Usman took his belt in March 2019, looked sharp early and landed some strong shots before he was staggered and finished by Luque (20-7-1), who has won 13 of his last 15 fights.

Earlier, bantamweight Sugar Sean O’Malley overcame an enormous early mental mistake for a vicious third-round finish of Thomas Almeida.

O’Malley, the thrilling fighter with rainbow-dyed hair, floored Almeida in the first round with a head kick and a big punch — but instead of finishing his opponent on the ground, O’Malley anticipated a stoppage and walked away before realizing the fight hadn’t been stopped.

When he floored Almeida again in the third, O’Malley briefly tried to walk away again before pouncing and throwing a final punch that bounced Almeida’s head off the canvas.

The UFC is headed to Jacksonville for its next pay-per-view show next month because Florida officials will allow White to sell every seat in an arena, but the promotion still welcomed a few dozen fans to the Apex.

The crowd included Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, Megan Fox, Kourtney Kardashian, Travis Barker and former UFC owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta.

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Juan Francisco Estrada hangs on to edge Roman Gonzalez in a super-flyweight classic

It took nine years and four months for Juan Francisco Estrada and Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez to find each other in a boxing ring.

It might take at least that long to digest the scope of what happened when they got there Saturday night in Dallas.

Estrada, of Mexico, walked out with his own WBC super-flyweight (115 pounds) belt and Gonzalez’s WBA strap as well, taking a split decision and reversing the outcome of their 2012 match in the L.A. Sports Arena.

But the two champions certainly didn’t separate themselves, and boxing fans will demand a tiebreaker at some point. That third fight will have to be an all-timer to match what happened here.

In 36 minutes of action, the Nicaraguan  fired 1,317 punches and Estrada 1,262, and almost all were thrown menacingly. Gonzalez’ accuracy was a tad better, 30 percent to 26, but Estrada probably won the fight because of an aggressive start and his ability to weather Gonzalez’ hard push in the final rounds.

Amazingly, the 12th round was the busiest. Gonzalez let go of 158 of his punches and Estrada 150.

Jesse Reyes gave Gonzalez a 115-113 edge, the same margin that David Sutherland gave Estrada. The outlier card belonged to Carlos Sucre, who judged that Estrada won 117-111. That meant Sucre thought Estrada won nine rounds and Gonzalez three, which put him in the distinct minority.

There was nothing close to a knockdown, although Estrada’s body shots seemed to immobilize Gonzalez for a time in the sixth round. Neither were there any major cuts or any sense of a pattern or momentum. Estrada would take the offensive for a minute or so and then Gonzalez would return with his unique collection of short, straight right hands and uppercuts. Holding and running were not in the cards. After all, it doesn’t take much fortitude to dance all night.

“He is a great fighter,” Estrada said of Gonzalez. “I thought I did enough to win, but he deserves a trilogy.”

However, Estrada has a mandatory date with Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, the former champion whom Estrada beat in 2019. Until Saturday, Rungisvai was the only man to defeat Gonzalez, and did so twice.

“I’ll take care of that but I want another fight with Chocolatito,” Estrada said.

Asked about snapping the tie, Gonzalez said he thought he had won both fights. “I had a great performance tonight,” he said. “But the decision is what God wanted it to be.’

Estrada goes to 42-3 and Gonzalez settles to 50-3, with 41 knockouts.

Estrada had said all along that he was too weak to finish off the 2012 battle with Gonzalez, since that was at 108 pounds. “I felt much better at the end of this one,” Estrada said. “This is my weight.”

Each man got $1 million, which is a big-buck evening for a super-flyweight. In the end, they seemed underpaid.

Asked about strategy, Estrada smiled and said, “If he threw two or three punches, i had to throw two or three back, as well.”

Add it all up, and the sum of their work might be Fight Of The Year. It’s what happens when two of the best in the business decide they won’t wait until the middle of the night to spring forward.

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Former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks dies at 67

  • In this Feb. 15, 1978, file photo, Leon Spinks celebrates as his entourage holds him aloft after his 15-round split-decision victory over world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas. Former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks Jr. died Friday night after battling prostate and other cancers. He was 67. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi, File)

  • In this July 31, 1976, file photo, the United States’ Leon Spinks lets a right fly at the face of Cuba’s Sixto Soria during light heavyweight boxing action at the Olympics in Montreal. Former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks Jr. died Friday night, Feb. 5, 2021, after battling prostate and other cancers. He was 67. (AP Photo/File)

  • In this Feb. 15, 1978, file photo, the fist of challenger Leon Spinks flattens the nose of heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali during their title fight at Las Vegas. Former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks Jr. died Friday night, Feb. 5, 2021, after battling prostate and other cancers. He was 67. (AP Photo/File)

  • Leon Spinks connects with a right hook to Muhammad Ali during the later rounds of their Feb.16, 1978 championship fight in Las Vegas. The 24-year-old Spinks, who won the bout in a 15-round split decision, died Friday night after battling prostate and other cancers. He was 67. (AP Photo)

  • In this Feb. 15, 1978, file photo, Leon Spinks celebrates as his entourage holds him aloft after his 15-round split decision victory over world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas. Former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks Jr. died Friday night, Feb. 5, 2021, after battling prostate and other cancers. He was 67. (AP Photo/FIle)

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By TIM DAHLBERG

AP Boxing Writer

LAS VEGAS — Leon Spinks, who won Olympic gold and then shocked the boxing world by beating Muhammad Ali to win the heavyweight title in only his eighth pro fight, has died. He was 67.

Spinks, who lived his later years in Las Vegas, died Friday night, according to a release from a public relations firm. He had been battling prostate and other cancers.

His wife, Brenda Glur Spinks, and a few close friends and other family members were by his side when he passed away.

A lovable heavyweight with a drinking problem, Spinks beat Ali by decision in a 15-round fight in 1978 to win the title. He was unranked at the time and picked as an opponent because Ali was looking for an easy fight.

He got anything but that, with an unorthodox Spinks swarming over Ali throughout the fight on his way to a stunning win by split decision. The two met seven months later at the Superdome in New Orleans, with Ali taking the decision this time before a record indoor boxing crowd of 72,000 and a national television audience estimated at 90 million people.

“It was one of the most unbelievable things when Ali agreed to fight him because you look at the fights he had up to then and he was not only not a top contender but shouldn’t have been a contender at all,” promoter Bob Arum said Saturday. “He was just an opponent but somehow he found a way to win that fight.”

Spinks would lose the rematch to Ali in New Orleans and fought for the title only once after that, when he was stopped in the third round in 1981 by Larry Holmes. He continued fighting on and off into the mid-1990s, finishing with a record of 26-17-3.

Spinks, with a big grin that often showed off his missing front teeth, was popular among boxing fans for both his win over Ali and his easygoing personality. But he burned through his earnings quickly, and at one point after retiring was working as a custodian at a YMCA in Nebraska, cleaning locker rooms.

He later was part of a group of ex-fighters who had their brains studied by the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas. Spinks was found to have brain damage caused by a combination of taking punches to the head and heavy drinking, though he functioned well enough to do autograph sessions and other events late in his life.

“He was a good soul,” said Gene Kilroy, who was Ali’s business manager when he fought Spinks and became friends with the fighter.

Spinks won the light heavyweight division at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, beating Sixto Soria of Cuba in an upset to become one of five U.S. fighters to win gold. His brother, Michael, who would later become heavyweight champion himself, won the middleweight gold, and Sugar Ray Leonard took the welterweight title.

Spinks was hardly spectacular after turning pro, winning six of his first seven fights. Just four months before he met Ali, he could manage just a draw with journeyman Scott LeDoux and he wasn’t on anyone’s radar in the heavyweight title picture.

But Ali was coming off a brutal fight with Earnie Shavers and wasn’t looking forward to what would have been a mandatory bout against Ken Norton, whom he had already fought three times and who seemed to have Ali’s number. Instead, he sought an easy mark for a fight that was to be nationally televised on ABC, even knowing he would be stripped of one of his titles for taking another fight.

Enter Spinks, who was such a big underdog most sportsbooks didn’t even take bets on the fight.

“In that fight, everything clicked,” Arum said. “He came in with a game plan and he beat Ali. It wasn’t that Ali wasn’t at his best, but Leon shocked everybody with how good Leon was.”

Suddenly, Spinks was the heavyweight champion of the world at the age of 25.

“I’m not The Greatest,” Spinks said afterward. “Just the latest.”

Arum was in the dressing room with Ali after the fight and said Ali directed him to sign Spinks to a quick rematch. The two fought seven months later in a prime-time fight on CBS that set television viewing records at the time, with nearly half the country tuning in.

Ali took the rematch more seriously than he did the first fight, winning a decision though Spinks was competitive. Spinks might have been better, Arum said, but he enjoyed the life of being heavyweight champion too much and partied much of the time between fights.

“Leon posed in a bathtub with a glass of champagne smoking a cigar. He suddenly had an entourage as big as one that Ali had,” Arum said. “We were all staying at the same hotel in New Orleans for the rematch and one morning I was coming down to breakfast and Leon got in the elevator and collapsed on the floor. Obviously, he had been out drinking and I said, ‘Leon, are you crazy, you’re fighting in just a few days.’ He said ‘What do you mean? I’m just coming in from roadwork.’”

Among the notable people in Spinks’ entourage was Lawrence Tureaud, who would later be known as the actor Mr. T and served as a bodyguard for the champion.

Spinks was born July 11, 1953, in St. Louis, raised in poverty along with his brother Michael. After discovering boxing both brothers became top amateurs, culminating in the 1976 Olympics where Leon won the light heavyweight gold and Michael won the middleweight gold.

Michael Spinks would go on to win the heavyweight title himself in 1985, defending it three times before being knocked out by Mike Tyson in 91 seconds in their 1988 fight in Atlantic City. By then, the best part of Leon’s career was over, though he would fight until losing a December 1995 fight against Fred Houpe in St. Louis.

After moving to Las Vegas, Spinks was married to Brenda Glur Spinks in 2011. The two were often seen at boxing-related activities, including Spinks’ 2017 induction into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame.

“He was happy-go-lucky, the salt of the earth,” Arum said, chuckling at the memories. “Leon was nutty but you couldn’t get angry at the guy. He never meant any harm to anyone. You couldn’t help but love him even though you shook your head at how he acted.”

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