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Figueroa stops Guerrero

Like most anyone born and raised on Long Island, I can only imagine, many memorable evenings throughout my youth were spent (or misspent) at the Nassau Coliseum. Mom took me and my brothers there to see the Ringling Bros. Circus, Harlem Globetrotters, and Andre the Giant wrestle the Iron Sheik. And I’m not sure whatever happened to my collection of ticket stubs from Ozzy Osbourne, Rush, Metallica, U2, The Cure, Bruce Springsteen, Guns n’ Roses, Tom Petty and dozens of other concerts but the memories are still there, along with an annoying case of tinnitus as an unwelcome souvenir.

At the not so tender age of 46, I was back at my beloved Coliseum once again on Saturday evening, sitting in Press Row at ringside to cover the prizefights promoted by Long Island’s own Lou DiBella and broadcast live by Premier Boxing Champions. Gone are the championship banners of the New York Islanders and New York Nets of the ABA, replaced by a single one commemorating Billy Joel’s 33 sold out shows performed at the venue over the last 40 years. I wasn’t at any of them.

37 year-old welterweight Tommy ‘The Razor’ Rainone, born in Rockville Centre and a graduate of Plainview-Old Bethpage JFK High School where my ex-wife and her siblings also earned their diplomas, was the first of several local boxers featured on the card. Coming into the Coliseum with a 26-7-1 record, the stiffest competition of Rainone’s career had come against still undefeated Dusty Hernandez Harrison and short-term IBF Super-Welterweight World Champion Ishe Smith, both losses. Tommy had dropped a six-round unanimous decision to the unremarkable Terry Butterbaugh on the first boxing event held at the new Yankee Stadium headlined by Miguel Cotto’s WBA Super-Welterweight Title defense against Yuri Foreman in 2010. Rainone and Mexico’s Fidel Monterrosa fought a lackluster and poorly officiated curtain opener at the Coliseum. Fighting off the back foot and holding his right hand low, Tommy got popped consistently by Monterrosa’s left hook, not to mention a handful of headbutts and shots below the waistband. Fidel also timed his right hand well, landing accurately on Rainone’s left eye whenever ‘The Razor’ would come up from a crouch. The displeasure of the fans was made known when the judges ruled unanimously in favor of the foul-happy Mexican journeyman who improved to 38-13-1.

Eric Walker’s story is an interesting and redemptive, if not a totally unique one in boxing. Convicted of armed robbery when he was only sixteen, the Baton Rouge native spent the next thirteen years behind bars in the Dixon Correctional Institution of Jackson, Louisiana. Two years into his incarceration, Walker entered into the prison’s boxing program and would compile a staggering 61 victories against only one defeat before re-entering society as a free man at the age of 29. He has since racked up 15 wins as a professional prizefighter and put his undefeated record and WBC Continental Americas Super-Welterweight Title on the line against 13-2-1 Patrick Day of Freeport, Long Island. Looking to intimidate his younger adversary, Walker started strong but Day held his guard high and weathered the storm then stepped back to nail the titleholder with a left hook. Walker responded with a left/right combination and a right lead followed by two left hooks that left Day blinking his vision back into some semblance of clarity.

The narrative shifted for the better part of the fight in the second round as Day buckled Walker’s knees with a straight right and proceeded to knock his mouthpiece out with a left and a right in the third. Walker was dropped early in the fourth by an overhand right and stumbled his way to an upright position, bouncing in his corner to regain his composure. Late in the fight, Day at first easily sidestepped Walker’s desperation haymakers but, fatigued and punched out, absorbed some heavy punishment as the Cajun ‘Baby Faced Assassin’ landed two nice left hooks, a three punch combo, and some of the same right hands that he had been missing with in the previous few rounds. It was too little, too late for Walker, however, as Patrick Day handed him the first defeat of his pro career, winning the unanimous decision and the WBC green and gold belt by margins ranging from one to three points.

The paid attendance for the first boxing card in more than three decades at Nassau Coliseum, which holds just over 17,000 spectators, was later announced as a pitiful 7,492. When the PBC on Fox broadcast kicked off at 8:00, seemingly one-third of those attendees were dressed in red t-shirts with a white Polish eagle hovering over the words BABY FACE to let there be no doubt about their support of local fan favorite Adam Kownacki, the 6-foot-3 two-time New York Golden Gloves Heavyweight Champion facing off against fellow countryman Artur Szpilka in the first bout of the nationally televised triple-header. Szpilka, appearing in a prize ring for the first time since his highlight-reel knockout at the hands of Deontay Wilder at the Barclays Center in January 2016, comes from the salt-mining town of Wieliczka closest to Krakow, while Kownacki fights out of Brooklyn by way of Lomza, which is about 90 miles outside Poland’s capital city of Warsaw.

The partisan Polish contingency sang, cheered, and chanted each time Kownacki landed a punch which happened with surprising frequency given Szpilka’s typically unorthodox style which frustrated the hell out of Deontay Wilder until that ninth-round right hook. Szpilka curiously ignored the opportunity to invest in body work, aiming very few shots at Kownacki’s soft midsection. He did connect with a pair of right hooks which Kownacki carelessly walked into, lunging forward with right hands of his own to the body and chest. Fortunately for Kownacki, Szpilka was wide of the mark on subsequent occasions, allowing ‘Babyface’ a perfect opening for two left hooks. Backed against the ropes, Szpilka grinned, shrugged his shoulders, and hit Kownacki with a right hand. Artur would have little reason to smile from then on. A Kownacki flurry late in the third round rocked Szpilka and had the cornermen of ‘Babyface’ as well as his fans in the stands equally ecstatic. Rightfully admonished by his trainer for his lack of head movement during the ensuing sixty seconds, Szpilka was summarily dropped by Kownacki and rose only to sustain a right/left/right combination that spelled the end as Arthur Mercante Jr. stepped between the two combatants at the midway point of round four. In a show of good sportsmanship, Szpilka congratulated and hugged his conqueror at center ring before the announcement of the official time of Kownacki’s stoppage. Now 16-0 with 13 knockouts and a recognizable name on his resume, ‘Babyface’ Adam Kownacki just may be on the verge of getting to mix it up with the big boys of the heavyweight division.

Every Monday and Wednesday, Seanie Monaghan runs the track at Hofstra University which is just across Earle Ovington Blvd. from Nassau Coliseum. So, you can imagine what a big deal being involved in the co-main event at the recently reopened arena was for the resident of Long Beach. Even if it wasn’t against WBC Light-Heavyweight Champion Adonis Stevenson as originally planned back in April or fellow Long Islander Joe Smith Jr. (who Team Monaghan had reached out to for this date but opted instead to head out to the West Coast to square off against Sullivan Barrera on HBO that same night), but opposite his longtime sparring partner and good friend Marcus Browne. A 2012 Olympian in the light-heavyweight division, Browne lost in the opening round to Damien Hooper of Australia and joined the paid ranks shortly thereafter.

Nearly drowned out by the chants of “Seanie! Seanie!” was the Irish bagpipe soundtrack playing over the Coliseum’s PA system as Monaghan made his way to the ring wearing a green sweatshirt emblazoned with the logo of the Long Beach Polar Bear Club, the members of which plunge into the frigid Atlantic Ocean every Super Bowl Sunday. Browne, overshadowing his controversial split decision victory over Radivoje Kalajdzic at the Barclays Center last April with a trouncing of Thomas Williams Jr. this past February, wasted precious little time in establishing himself as the quicker, heavier puncher. The 19-0 Staten Island southpaw sent Monaghan to the canvas with an overhand left in the opening minute of the fight. After the mandatory eight count and the resuming of hostilities, Seanie was battered between the ropes before being caught by an inadvertent low blow, wisely taking advantage of the permissible recuperative period as an opportunity to catch a much needed breather.

Landing his powerful right jab at will, Browne ducked beneath a Monaghan right and shot back up with a left uppercut which had a right hook coming in right behind it. Seanie’s left eye was well on its way to being swollen shut before he sat on his stool between rounds one and two and a straight right from Marcus homed in on it mere moments into the second and last stanza. A barrage of unanswered blows caused referee Steve Willis to halt the bout just 40 seconds into the round. Simultaneously celebrating his 20th career win without a loss, Browne shared a lengthy and conciliatory embrace with the 35 year-old Monaghan who may well have been battling two additional foes this evening: Father Time and Mother Nature, the most unforgiving of progenitors.

The rapid departure of Kownacki, Browne, and Monaghan supporters left considerable gaps in the already sparsely populated upper seating areas. You could practically count the occupants of the seats in the 200 sections using only fingers and toes while taking the time to ponder which version of Omar Figueroa Jr. would emerge from a year and a half long fistic exile due to contractual squabbles and physical injuries: the one who kept his foot pressed to the accelerator for the duration of a demolition derby with Nihito Arakawa or the one who coasted on fumes across the finish line to outlast Antonio DeMarco. And, furthermore, one had to wonder what Robert Guerrero had left in the tank seeing as though it’s been five years since he has posted consecutive victories even if the four losses in his last six fights occurred against the likes of Mayweather, Garcia, and Thurman while ‘The Ghost’ was still haunting the upper echelon of the welterweight division.

Granted Omar sometimes requires his motor to idle a bit before he throws it into gear and maybe it was just me but, from my vantage point, Figueroa initially appeared not just especially overcautious but almost detached from himself and his surroundings. Body blows and crisp combinations from a very aggressive Guerrero early on backed Figueroa up and subsequent shots to the ribcage twice folded him in half. Though he might have been sleepwalking through the first three minutes, the Omar Figueroa we know and love suddenly came to life in the second round and made up for lost time by dropping Guerrero with back-to-back left uppercuts thrown from close quarters. ‘The Ghost’ took a nine count from both knees and then mounted a retaliatory offensive, two left hooks driving Figueroa into the corner where he appeared to be in momentary trouble himself before another one of those left uppercuts swung the momentum back in his direction. A right cross floored Guerrero for the second time and, for all intents and purposes, brought about the end of his evening.

Referee Ron Lipton seemed satisfied with Guerrero’s capacity to fight on despite his equilibrium being that of a stumblebum drunk and allowed him to wobble forward into a pair of body shots and a left behind the ear that put him down yet again. With no three knockdown rule in effect, a lumped up Guerrero was given a temporary reprieve in addition to the approval of the ringside doctor to continue and pounced on Figueroa with a straight left that drove Omar back to the nearest corner where a shoulder to shoulder exchange ended with a short right hook that produced a flash knockdown. ‘The Ghost’ got up from off of one knee and acknowledged Ron Lipton’s eight count with an obligatory nod of the head and a few uneven steps forward, relying now purely on heart, instinct, and muscle memory which is not a sound strategy for marching into war with Omar Figueroa whose right glove bounced off his temple, setting up the coup de grace in the form of a left-handed body shot. Now that he has put Robert Guerrero’s days as a title contender or main eventer in the collective rearview mirror, Omar Figueroa Jr. officially dove into the deep end of the 147-pound talent pool wherein the possibilities and potential top-notch matchups are seemingly limitless and extremely intriguing.

While Fox transitioned between broadcasts from their flagship station to their exclusive sports network, I got to meet and express my regret to Alicia “The Empress’ Napoleon whose scheduled IBF world title fight was canceled when her opponent, Mary McGee, failed the vision portion of her medical examination on Friday morning. She told me that she hopes to fight on a bill at the Manhattan Center next month and plans on appearing on the next Coliseum card in the fall. I also stopped by to say hello to Randy Gordon who was seated two rows in front of me and bumped into Sonya Lamonakis, a Brooklyn public school teacher, four-time New York Golden Gloves Champion (who is now enshrined in their Hall of Fame), and IBO heavyweight titleholder who had just gotten off a plane from Florida where she was training the Women’s National Golden Gloves squad. After a frustrating draw in her attempt to win the UBF World Heavyweight Title against Laura Ramsey in Worcester, MA last month, Sonya is looking forward to contesting a rematch in November even if it means traveling all the way to Wisconsin to do so. Want Title, Will Travel is often enough the name of the game in women’s boxing.

The handful of remaining spectators were treated to a hell of a super-bantamweight slugfest. Befitting his nickname, Omar Figueroa’s younger brother Brandon (12-0, 8 KOs) made his ring walk to “Heartbreaker” by Pat Benatar. Don’t let the boyish good looks and lean frame fool you. Brandon exhibits the same smash mouth infighting tendencies as his sibling, although that walk-forward gun slinging style brings with it the inevitability of taking a good deal of return fire in the process. This is something that their father and trainer Omar Sr. has grudgingly learned to live with on both a personal and professional level.

Brandon’s opponent was Fatiou Fassinou, an unknown 28-6-3 (15 KOs) southpaw from the West African nation of Benin who was fighting for the fifth time this year and had lost two of his last three. Arthur Mercante Jr. kept a relatively low profile during the entire bout owing to almost non-existent clinching or questionable tactics. Eight rounds of give-and-take hand-to-hand combat fought at claustrophobic proximity saw Figueroa emerge with a slight edge over Fassinou who refused to go down and earned an ovation from the few of us left to witness his courageous effort.

It was only appropriate that Minneapolis-based welterweight Jamal ‘Shango’ James entered the ring to a Prince mashup and decked out in glittery purple, having come a long way to Long Island from Paisley Park to make his television debut opposite JoJo Dan, the pugilist formerly known as Ionut Dan Ion. The 35 year-old Romanian, currently a Canadian citizen, had only four previous losses in 40 professional fights, one of which was a 2015 challenge to then-IBF Welterweight Champion Kell Brook who deposited Dan onto the canvas four times and would have surely added to his tally had his challenger not elected to remain on his stool rather than answer the bell for the fifth round. More recently, Dan’s corner threw in the towel against Jarrett Hurd this past November.

There was no quit in JoJo Dan this night, however. Deploying a stiff right hand behind a double and triple left jab, Jamal James snapped off rapid-fire combinations and put in some impressive body work. Not that he was averse to working eyeball-to-eyeball but, if things got too close for comfort, James would take a step back and to the side and rip a hook upstairs or down, sometimes both. Dan’s left eye, swollen and circled by abrasions, was a testament to the fact that defense was a mere afterthought and, after getting tagged by a straight left late in the tenth round, he could only nod his head towards James as if to say, “Yeah, you got me.” The points win for Jamal James was his 21st, washing away the foul aftertaste left behind by his first professional defeat, a unanimous decision loss to Yordenis Ugas at the Turning Stone Casino in upstate Vernon, New York eleven months ago.

Joe Smith Jr., I learned later, knocked down Sullivan Barrera in the first round but lost a lopsided decision nonetheless. This afternoon, he revealed that he sustained a fractured jaw in the second round but fought through the pain the rest of the way, an identical occurrence in 2010 accounting for his only other career defeat. Being known as a tough sonofabitch may not open the same doors as the recognition of a world champion but it’s still something to be damned proud of. I’m sure his Long Island brothers in arms Tommy Rainone and Seanie Monaghan can sympathize.