The next generation of great Philly boxers

Philadelphia Boxers from left, Jesse Hart, Mike Jones and Teon Kennedy were at Joe Hand Boxing Gym on N. 3rd St. in Northern Liberities on Tuesday working out for the media May 22, 2012. These three boxers will be fighting in Las Vegas. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )
Philadelphia Boxers from left, Jesse Hart, Mike Jones and Teon Kennedy were at Joe Hand Boxing Gym on N. 3rd St. in Northern Liberities on Tuesday working out for the media May 22, 2012. These three boxers will be fighting in Las Vegas. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )
Posted: June 04, 2012

For Philadelphia boxing fans of a certain age, the 1970s were not just about Watergate, Vietnam, and really ugly leisure suits. The decade was the last golden era of Philly boxing, and arguably the most gilded stretch of sustained excellence for what many still consider to be America’s finest fight town.

At one point in the mid-1970s, four of the world’s 10 highest-rated middleweights — Bennie Briscoe, Eugene "Cyclone" Hart, Bobby "Boogaloo" Watts and Willie "The Worm" Monroe — were based in Philly. J Russell Peltz, the "Boy Wonder" promoter who was the director of Spectrum Boxing from December 1973 to March 1980, recalls the nights those legendary fighters would draw screaming crowds of 10,000-plus spectators, despite the fact there wasn’t an attached casino to entertain them before and after the fisticuffs.

And although the celebrated middleweights (alas, none of whom actually won a world championship) most frequently took center stage here at the time, the most renowned Philly fighter ever, heavyweight champion Joe Frazier, also enjoyed a significant chunk of his title reign in the 1970s. Electrifying light-heavyweight Matthew Saad Muhammad and bantamweight Jeff Chandler also ruled their divisions at various points during the decade, and the long list of contenders included welterweight Stanley "Kitten" Hayward and heavyweight Jimmy Young.

Not that Peltz, still promoting local fighters, though now as a silver-thatched senior citizen, realized he was a witness to history. "That’s just how it was back then," he says. "I’m not sure we thought it was anything special because Philly always had tough fighters."

The demolition of the Spectrum was completed in May 2011. Frazier, Briscoe and Young have passed on to their eternal reward. Even the age-resistant face of Philadelphia boxing, Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins, is, at 47, finally edging toward the exit, having relinquished his WBC and The Ring magazine 175-pound crowns in his most recent ring appearance.

If the Philly boxing scene can’t be quite what it was nearly 40 years ago, it is enjoying a renaissance on a scale not seen since the 24-carat ’70s. Junior welterweight Danny "Swift" Garcia, 24, is Philly’s only current world titlist, but with a high-profile matchup on tap for July 14 in Las Vegas, could be poised for superstardom should he emerge victorious. Meanwhile, welterweight Mike Jones and super bantamweight Teon Kennedy are fighting for world championships on June 9 in Vegas, on the undercard of a huge pay-per-view show headlined by Manny Pacquiao and challenger Timothy Bradley Jr. If successful, Jones and Kennedy would join Garcia to give Philly three title-holders for the first time since 1997, when Hopkins (the IBF middleweight champ), Charles Brewer (IBF super middleweight) and Nate "Mr." Miller (WBA cruiserweight) all ruled their respective divisions.

But those at or closest to the top of the mountain do not constitute the entire sum of Philadelphia fighters perhaps capable of making appreciable ascents. Two-time former IBF champion Steve "USS" Cunningham and Eddie Chambers are still factors at cruiserweight and heavyweight, respectively; "Hammerin’ " Hank Lundy is making his case as a premier lightweight; light-heavyweight Yusaf Mack has been building a laudable resume for some time; and welterweight Gabriel Rosado is demonstrating that five early defeats should not indelibly stain his career.

Then there’s former amateur sensation Jesse Hart, son of Cyclone Hart, who will make his pro debut as a middleweight on the same night that Jones and Kennedy go for world titles. "You’ll never get closer to the 1970s for boxing in Philly than what we’re seeing right now," judged Jimmy Burchfield, the Providence, R.I.-based promoter who has major plans for Lundy. "Guys like Garcia, Jones and Hank are going to lead the way."

Here, then, are the fighters at the forefront of refurbishing Philadelphia’s boxing image to its glory:

DANNY GARCIA: The Prodigy

To be the best you have to beat the best. WBC junior welterweight champion Danny "Swift" Garcia (23-0, 14 KOs) believes that, almost as much as he believes in himself, which is why he’s willing — no, anxious — to test himself against the imposing likes of Amir Khan on July 14 at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.

Khan, a former WBA and IBF 140-pound titlist, is only 25 and has far less professional wear-and-tear on his body than the man against whom Garcia won the vacant WBC title on April 24, 35-year-old Mexican legend Erik Morales. "I feel like this is how it’s supposed to be: the best vs. the best, both of us in our prime and giving the fans a great fight," said Garcia, the Juniata Park resident whose celebrated amateur background includes an Under-19 national championship in 2005 and a USA Boxing national title in 2006. "Khan and me are taking it back to the old days when the best mixed it up against the best."

Because Lamont Peterson, who dethroned Khan via split decision on Dec. 10, recently tested positive for synthetic testosterone, a banned substance, a May 19 rematch was canceled. And the results of their previous bout could be overturned, which would mean that the WBA and IBF belts returned to Khan. "In a perfect world, we hope that the fight will be for all three belts," Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer, whose company promotes both Garcia and Khan, said of what could turn out to be an even more meaningful matchup than it appears to be now.

Garcia, who is trained by his father, former Puerto Rican pro Angel Garcia, has been groomed for greatness since he took up boxing at 10 at the Harrowgate Boxing Club. He sees nothing in Khan, who is hugely popular in England, that he believes he won’t be able to handle. "I feel I have what it takes to beat this guy," Garcia said.

MIKE JONES: The Home-Grown Talent

Unlike Garcia, who under the Golden Boy aegis has fought mostly out West, Jones, the Mount Airy product with the lean, muscular physique reminiscent of such top-tier former champions as Thomas Hearns and Mark Breland, honed his trade mostly in club shows at the New Alhambra (now known as the Asylum Arena) in South Philly, where he fought and won 10 times. Now 29, Jones expanded his area presence with one appearance at the Blue Horizon and four in Atlantic City before graduating to grander stages such as Cowboys Stadium, the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas and New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Jones (26-0, 19 KOs) brings a No. 1 ranking from the IBF into his bout with 37-year-old former WBO junior welterweight champ Randall Bailey (42-7, 36 KOs) for the vacant IBF welterweight title at the MGM Grand. Bailey is the IBF’s No. 2-rated welterweight.

Should Jones win — and he’s favored to do so — he could emerge as a possible opponent for Manny Pacquiao, arguably the world’s best fighter, should a pairing of Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. continue to go unmade. "We envisioned that possibly a year ago, after the second fight with [Jesus] Soto-Karass, when Mike came back and proved to the world how good a boxer he is," says Doc Nowicki, who co-manages Jones along with Jim Williams, of the possibility of a megabucks showdown with Pac-Man.

But first Jones needs to get past Bailey, who might be fading but has retained the one-punch knockout power that has been his trademark. "Being a world champion is a goal I set for myself — not just being a world champion, but being a world champion for a period of years, and being one of the best fighters in the world," Jones says. "So this is just the beginning."

TEON KENNEDY: The Undistracted

Kennedy’s first shot at a world title is more than a little unexpected. He suffered his first professional defeat on Aug. 13, dropping a one-sided, 12-round unanimous decision to Alejandro Lopez. Kennedy (17-1-2, 7 KOs) followed with a 10-round draw against Christopher Martin on Jan. 13.

Thus, the North Philadelphia product isn’t riding a wave of positive momentum into his challenge of Miami-based Cuban defector Guillermo Rigondeaux (9-0, 7 KOs), the WBA super bantamweight titlist and a two-time Olympic gold-medalist. But Kennedy, 25, who is ranked only as high as No. 14 by one world-sanctioning body, isn’t concerned. He has at long last put out-of-the-ring distractions behind him, and that could make him more dangerous than might be anticipated.

Kennedy was the winner of a Nov. 20, 2009, fight at the Blue Horizon in which his opponent, Francisco "Paco" Rodriguez, suffered a brain bleed that led to his slipping into a coma and being taken off life-support 2 days later. Prior to the Lopez bout, Kennedy, from North Philly, faced multiple felony charges for a nonfatal shooting that later was determined to be a case of mistaken identity. "All that other stuff is in the past," Kennedy said of his occasionally clouded sense of purpose. "I’m just focused on this fight. I didn’t think [a title bout] would come this soon, but I’m in the position that I’m in and I’m going to make the most of it."

HANK LUNDY: The Badge of Honor

He never has left his native South Philly except for temporary road trips. But "Hammerin’ " Hank Lundy (22-1-1, 11 KOs), who has been campaigning mostly in New England in recent years, nonetheless is looking forward to a series of fights closer to home — bouts designed to make him more recognizable to local fans and, ultimately, boxing buffs everywhere.

Next up is a July 27 date at Resorts in Atlantic City against an opponent to be named later. "My city has a great boxing legacy, and it’s my duty to keep that going," said Lundy, 28, who is the WBC’s No. 2-ranked lightweight. "Every time I get in the ring that Philly badge of honor is on my shoulder."

Lundy did his duty well on March 30, when he retained his NABF lightweight title on a convincing, 10-round unanimous decision over highly regarded Dannie Williams in Mashantucket, Conn. That bout was televised by ESPN2 and served notice that Lundy is a legitimate threat in the 135-pound weight class. "I showed the world what Hammerin’ Hank is all about," Lundy says.

GABRIEL ROSADO: The Late Bloomer

In a world where people are conditioned to believe that only undefeated fighters can possibly be any good, a guy like Rosado (19-5, 11 KOs) could mistakenly be viewed as just another nice local attraction.

But Rosado, a 26-year-old junior middleweight from North Philly, is widely viewed as being better — much better — than his pedestrian record. Not only is he is coming off a fifth-round stoppage of veteran Jesus Soto-Karass on Jan. 21, which is notable when you consider that Soto-Karass twice went the distance with Mike Jones, but he is ranked No. 5 by the IBF and No. 9 by the WBC. "I only had 11 amateur fights," Rosado noted. "I started boxing at 18, turned pro at 19. The losses that I have, I was learning on the job.

“But I’ve been in five training camps with Bernard Hopkins, who passed on a lot of knowledge. I know my abilities now. I’m confident. I feel like an undefeated fighter. I’m aware of what needs to be done. I’m not facing the unknown, like I did before." Rosado was scheduled to face former world-title challenger Sechew Powell (26-4, 15 KOs) Friday night in Bethlehem, Pa.

EDDIE CHAMBERS: The Healed Heavyweight

It wasn’t so very long ago that undersized Eddie Chambers was considered America’s best hope to break the Eastern European stranglehold on the heavyweight division. But because of injury-related inactivity, "Fast" Eddie has become almost an afterthought. Recurring back spasms forced him to withdraw from an October fight with Tony Thompson, and he pulled out of a January bout with Sergei Liakhovich after he fractured two ribs in training. As a result of the cancellations, Chambers fought only once in 2011 (a points win over Derrick Rossy) and once in 2010 (a 12th-round stoppage defeat to IBF/WBO heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko).

All of which makes the June 16 matchup of Chambers (36-2, 18 KOs) and Tomasz Adamek (45-2, 28 KOs) in the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., pivotal for both men. Yet it may be especially for Chambers, who is now seen in some quarters as at best a health risk, and at worst as damaged goods. "People are wondering whether I have anything left," said Chambers, 30, who moved to Philly from Pittsburgh in 2000 and won all 17 times he fought at the Blue Horizon. "You know what they say: Out of sight, out of mind."

JESSE HART: The Second Generation

A lot of Philadelphia fighters would be thrilled to replicate the success of 1970s icon Eugene "Cyclone" Hart, a devastating puncher whose 30 victories included 28 knockouts. But Cyclone’s son is aiming higher. "I don’t want to just become a world champion, but to put my name in the history books as one of the greatest fighters of all time," said the younger Hart, a middleweight who makes his pro debut on June 9 in Las Vegas in a four-rounder against Manuel Eastman (0-1). "I won’t stop until I’m better than Sugar Ray Robinson."

Hart’s dream of representing the U.S. in this summer’s London Olympics hit a snag with his double-tiebreaker loss to Terrell Gausha, but his style probably is more suited to the pros anyway. "The old-school fighters were hungry," Hart said. "They were hard, they were tough, they were mean. My dad was from that era, and I’m cut from that cloth."

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