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May 18th In The Boxing History Books: Framing The ‘Ring Of Fire’

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In Saudi Arabia, on May 18th, boxing history is to be made. The first undisputed heavyweight champion of the world in the four belt era will be crowned on Saudi soil, the first undisputed champion in boxing’s premier weight class since Lennox Lewis.

With this, it is only right to wonder, will the ‘Ring of Fire’ prove to define May 18th in the long, plentiful and prosperous history of the sport?

Well, there are many stand-out moments for the ‘Ring of Fire’ to contend with, be they historically important or critically undervalued by fans at large.

Delving back into the early echelons of the sport, when the prestige was eschewed in favour of the simple brutality of prizefighting, Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis was one of the most dominant fighters on the planet.

In an age without regulation, in which safety wasn’t even a consideration, ‘The Aldgate Sphinx’ built up a considerable record of 189-32-14 and on May 18th 1916, he would have one of many career defining fights. Having come off a loss to career long rival Jack Britton, the career welterweight would travel to the Big Apple in order to face Mike Gibbons, a claimant of the World Middleweight title.

The 10 round bout took place at Madison Square Garden – the second venue with that name, before it was replaced with the Mecca of New York it is today. After which, the bout was decided by newspaper scoring, with the majority of papers siding with the ‘St Paul Phantom’ Mike Gibbons, with some declaring it a draw.

The loss would not stall ‘Kid’ Lewis, who would go on to draw with his arch rival Britton later in the year; the next year, 1917, would be his last as a professional fighter.

Mike Gibbons, on the other hand, would only go from strength to strength, with wins over Jack Dillon and the legendary Harry Greb in the year following his encounter with the ‘Kid’.

During the 1960’s, boxing had evolved from the time of Lewis and Gibbons, although it was certainly still not as refined as we see today. It is in the shifting tides of the 1960’s that Eder Jofre would become known as The Golden Bantam. The 72-2-4 fighter has since gone down as one of – if not the – greatest bantamweight fighter of all time.

In 1963, the Brazilian fighter was still undefeated in 45 bouts with only three draws on his record; he had yet to encounter his rival, Japanese warrior Fighting Harada.

Jofre, the owner of the newly minted WBC and WBA World Bantamweight titles, would put them on the line against 32-3-2 Johnny Jamito, even travelling to the Filipino’s backyard of Quezon City.

25,000 Filipino spectators would fill into the Araneta Coliseum to watch the bout, which would fuel Jamito in the early rounds, as he would land freely upon the unusually slow Jofre. After the novelty wore off, Jofre would claim the pace of the fight, although Jamito would continue to land punches from afar and in-close.

The ninth round would be eventful, with a left hook eviscerating the challenger. However, Jamito would stay on his feet, despite the devastating blow his body has taken. Further on, in the 11th, a right hand would thrust Jamito against the ropes and a left would catch him on the rebound, sending him onto the canvas as the bell went.

Jamito had given it his all, but was forced to pull out of the bout before the beginning of the 12th.

Jamito would make two attempts at capturing the OPBF belt, before retiring in 1971, holding a record of 47-11-4. Jofre would continue in the sport, losing to Fighting Harada twice, before becoming the WBC champion at featherweight and retiring in the mid 1970’s.

Earlier in the 1970’s, a young man walked out into a gymnasium in small-town America. Soon-to-be ‘Marvellous’ Marvin Hagler would make his debut on May 18th 1973 in the Brockton High School Gymnasium – the most low-key of low-key venues. His opponent was a fellow debutant; a one-time fighter by the name of Terry Ryan.

Headlining the card – if it can be even called that – was Tony Petronelli, a Brockton native who ended his career with a sizable 42-4-1 record, having fought for trinkets at the national level. His brightest day would come at the hands of Wilfred Benitez, who Petronelli would challenge for his WBA World Super Lightweight belt; he would lose by TKO in the third.

Ultimately, the low-key debut simply highlights how even the most grassroots, minor exhibit can become entrenched in global boxing history.

Of course, history is also defined as much by what isn’t known as much as what is.

This is the case for Shoji Oguma, a Japanese flyweight champion. Retiring with a record of 38-10-1, the southpaw from Fukushima experienced many ups-and-downs throughout his career. Although, the 18th of May 1980 would play host to the first of a trilogy of bouts that would go on to define his legacy in the annals of boxing history; against Korean fighter Chan Hee Park (17-4-2).

Oguma sought after a belt he had held once before; he had claimed the WBC World Flyweight against Betulio Gonzalez (76-12-4), before immediately losing it to long-reigning Mexican Miguel Canto (61-9-4).

Chan Hee Park would then take the title from Canto, setting up the potential for Oguma to regain his crown. And, on May 18th in 1980, his opportunity would come.

Park, with his fan-friendly style and athleticism, would push the action, although Oguma would remain toe-to-toe in the middle of the ring, the spot in which he found most comfortable.

Both men would take considerable time to examine one another, respecting the speed and power the other possessed in their limber frames. Oguma displayed superior ringmanship, crafted throughout years of world-level experience, however, Park had the more powerful aggression to counter this.

Every exchange was a thrilling flurry of hand-speed and ring-smarts. Darting movements and a sharp jab would assist in giving Oguma the slight edge in the opening round. Park would carry out more effective work in the following round.

Park’s downfall would be his failure to deal with Oguma’s southpaw stance, as his head-work and dynamic movement would cause the Korean aggressor to slow down. So aggressive was the fight, in fact, that Oguma would wrestle Park away from the ground, although this went neglected by the referee.

Straight back into the conflict, it was a complete back-and-forth without stopping. The ninth round seemed to keep the pace of every previous round, with the movement still clear and sharp. A three punch assault to the body, however, would subdue Park to the canvas, where he would lose.

Oguma would, finally, reclaim his old title – and ignite a new rivalry.

In more recent history, the ignition of a rivalry would generate a much higher viewership.

Canadian brawler Arturo Gatti would engage in his first of three encounters with rival-turned-friend Micky Ward on the 18th of May 2002, in a fight that would be declared as Fight of the Year 2002 by The Ring Magazine.

An iconic bout, ‘Thunder’ Gatti would be disrupted by ‘Irish’ Ward in an extremely close barn-burner, perhaps one of the greatest displays of human willpower ever put to canvas. Both men hit the canvas at different points, Ward was felled by a low-blow from Gatti in the fourth and, in return, Gatti was cut down by a magnificent left hook to the body.

And, in a beautiful display of sportsmanship, the two would embrace at the finishing bell; enemies had become friends through the expression of bodily combat.

From these stories of the past, it is easy to see where the ‘Ring of Fire’ stands; from small-hall debuts to world title defences, from well-known bust-ups to underrated rip-ups, they all share grit, heart and passion.

Each tale exudes the spirit of the boxer as a mythical figure and, on May 18th, in the Kingdom Area in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Oleksandr Usyk and Tyson Fury will cement their place in this wide and varied pantheon; one will be crowned the first undisputed heavyweight champion of the four belt era and leave a legacy in the lingering annals of the archive.

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