April 28, 2000
The Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City played host to the latest installment of Cedric Kushner's "Heavyweight Explosion" series on Thursday, April 27. Usually, the bouts on these cards can only charitably be called "explosions." Generally, the series features either extremely raw prospects trying to get some rounds in with out-of-shape no-hopers, or fighters in the lower half of the top twenty trying to keep active while waiting for bigger fights. Last night's program looked as though it would be relatively similar on paper, with Shannon Briggs matched against a .500 fighter and former cruiserweight king Al Cole taking on perennial also-ran Frankie Swindell. The surprise was that both fights, as well as several other bouts on the card, proved to be intriguing, and even occasionally entertaining.
The first bout, however, pitting Ray Austin, 12-1 (9) against Tim Noble, 7-11-1 (2), set a fairly depressing tone. Austin may or may not be a decent prospect, it was hard to tell. Noble, who weighed in at over 300 pounds, looked generally confused through the first round, and got dropped twice in the second. The first knockdown came from a big overhand right that left him on wobbly legs. Moments later, after a few more-or-less accurate shots to the head and body, he took a knee and refused to even try to make it up for the ten count. With any justice, that kind of display will get Noble bounced from future shows.
Taurus Sykes, 10-0 (5) did little to raise the general tenor of the evening in his six-round fight against transplanted Cuban Lazaro Almanza, 4-8 (0). While Almanza was at least in reasonable shape, he offered virtually no offense and really only made an attempt to win in the second and fifth rounds, which still went to Sykes. Sykes, for his part, was at least active and pressed the action throughout, winning every round on every judge's card. But he didn't take the opportunity to showcase a great deal of skill; an inordinate number of his punches were wide, winging roundhouse shots that seemed to come all the way from the balconies. Against better opposition, Sykes would have been extremely vulnerable to counter right hands. Unless he starts stepping up the level of his competition soon, Sykes may find that out the hard way.
The third bout featured female heavyweights. It's not easy for a woman in decent shape to get above 180 pounds, the division limit for women. That's not the case for undefeated Vonda Ward, 4-0 (4), who looked trim and imposing at 6' 6", 184 pounds. Her opponent, Jeneva Buckhalter, 1-4-1 (1), was somewhat more typical -- she was at least eight inches shorter, but only ten pounds lighter. The crowd came alive in the first round, as the wild-swinging Buckhalter actually managed to get in close and drop Ward. It was a flash knockdown, and it served to remind Ward to use her height and reach advantage for the remainder of the bout. Ward displayed all the faults of a "big" heavyweight (think the Klitschko brothers, or "Mount" Whitaker) -- she was slow, awkward and stiff. But she also displayed the one redeeming grace of that type of fighter -- a huge punch. Ward began finding her range at the end of the first, and continued in the second, backing the brave Buckhalter against the ropes for an extended beating. Two standing eight counts later, and Ward had her fifth knockout victory in as many fights. Ward's still learning, but her size will give her an advantage in any fight. The real issue with her career may be finding adequate opposition, although both Laila Ali and Jacqueline Frazier-Lyde are close to her size.
The co-feature pitted Brooklyn favorite Shannon Briggs, 32-2-1 (26), the former "linear" heavyweight champion, against unheralded Sedreck Fields, who sported a modest 9-9 (8) record. Briggs came out in the first at his usual fast pace, trying to overwhelm Fields with big punches and pressure. Fields took a few shots, but weathered the early storm, and generally held his own throughout the first. The second round, however, set the general tone of the fight. Briggs seemed tentative and lethargic, only occasionally letting his hands go to the body and head. Fields seemed to walk through Briggs' shots, and countered effectively to the head with left hooks. Fields grew bolder as the fight wore on and Briggs seemed to weary, occasionally dancing a little boogaloo in front of Briggs and waving to the crowd. Between the second and third rounds, he was actually shimmying on his stool to the dance music that was pumped out by a DJ in the balcony. The fight was reasonably close, but Briggs had only really one dominant round, the fifth, when he appeared to knock Fields down in what was ruled as a slip. The rest of the time, Briggs seemed content to jab, hit the body occasionally, and take hook after hook to the head from Fields. By the eighth, Briggs was clearly tired, and was content to merely paw and jab and try to keep Fields away from him. I had scored the fight 77-75 for Fields. Surprisingly, given Briggs' hometown advantage, that was how two of the judges saw it as well (the third scored a 76-76 draw), awarding Fields a majority decision win.
Ever since his knockout loss to Darrol Wilson, the rap on Briggs has been his chin and his heart. Briggs proved his heart by continuing to get up after taking a beating by Lennox Lewis in 1998, when they fought for the WBC title. He appears to be attempting to prove his chin by taking punch after punch to the head. Briggs' almost shocking lack of defense was exposed in his recent draw match against Francois Botha, who, like Fields, landed hooks seemingly at whim. Clearly, this loss drops Briggs from the ranks of true contenders for the heavyweight title. Perhaps not surprisingly, it may simultaneously inch him closer to a fight with Mike Tyson, who's always looking for marketable names with little prospect of beating him. But Briggs needs to either learn how to hold his hands up or retire to the modeling circuit that he's already involved with. It would be a shame to see such a pretty face get beaten beyond recognition.
The main event saw Al Cole, 31-5-1 (16) take on Frankie Swindell, 37-19-2 (28). Cole was the IBF Cruiserweight champion through five successful defenses, but his move up to heavyweight has proven less successful. He's suffered losses to Michael Grant, Tim Witherspoon, Kirk Johnson (twice, although the first match was ruled a draw due to the points deducted from Johnson for low-blows) and, most recently, Corrie Sanders, who destroyed him in two rounds. Swindell's record is studded with an equally impressive number of losses against top-caliber competition; his chief advantage as an opponent has been his durability and willingness to go the full distance. However, in the last year or so he has also managed to play the role of spoiler, posting wins against prospects Josh Imyardi, Darrol Wilson and James Stanton. The two had met before in 1991, when Cole stopped Swindell in the tenth round of a regional cruiserweight championship fight.
The bout was close, but not exactly action-packed. The much taller Cole played right into Swindell's hands by getting in close and engaging in a grab-and-clutch fest on the ropes. This allowed Swindell to cut the distance, keeping away from Cole's power (what there was of it) and to counter effectively. Particularly in the third, eighth and ninth rounds, Swindell clearly staggered Cole, managing to back him up against the ropes. Cole, on the other hand, never really seemed able to find the right punching distance with Swindell, winning his rounds more through application of pressure than by connecting with punches. At the final bell, all three judges had ruled it a 95-95 draw.
Swindell won't lose anything from getting a draw -- if anything, he simply proves again that he can't be taken for granted and can steal fights from anyone who comes in unprepared. Cole, on the other hand, may want to give his career a bit of thought. He took a lot of punishment from Swindell, who's become a sort of gatekeeper to the top twenty in the division. Given that Cole couldn't get past Swindell, his own future in the division seems to point towards becoming a testing ground for rising young fighters -- in other words, a version of Swindell himself, but with a better resume. There are better fates for an ex-champion than that.
Finally, in the walkout bouts, Eric Kirkland, 5-0 (2), pulled off something of an upset, and showed surprising power, in stopping Charles Hatcher, 11-1 (8) in the first round. Kirkland landed an enormous right hand that put Hatcher flat on his back. Hatcher barely beat the count, but was very wobbly, and almost got knocked through the ropes during the second knockdown. In the last bout, Andre Kopilov, 2-0 (1), knocked down Ron Brown, 3-2 (0) en route to earning a split-decision victory.
In all, the show succeeded in spite of itself, and for the best of reasons. Kushner tends to focus on the entertainment aspects of the heavyweight division, with dancing girls, DJs, and even an MC in between fights. Doing so, he risks turning the entire event into what one fairly grumpy older South African gentleman referred to as "a bloody circus." But good, competitive, or surprising fights like Briggs-Fields, Cole-Swindell or Kirkland-Hatcher reclaim the shows for boxing, and redeem them in the eyes of the fans who can see past the dancing girls.