Forgotten Legends: Ricardo Lopez

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By: Steve Gallegos

In the sport of boxing, it is very difficult to be dominant and remain dominant. To retire unbeaten is a great accomplishment in itself. Former heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano retired with an unbeaten record of 49-0 and Floyd Mayweather is very close to matching or breaking that record. There was however another fighter who has already accomplished that feat that many have forgotten about. That fighter was Ricardo Lopez. Nicknamed “El Finito” which means “The Finisher“.

Lopez truly lived up to his moniker as he was probably the most dominant champion during the 1990’s as he dominated the smallest weight class in boxing; the Strawweight division. He was a devastating power puncher with a finesse left uppercut. Lopez was born in Cuernavaca, MX and he had an outstanding amateur career in which he did not lose a bout, going 39-0. He would turn pro in 1985 at the age of 20 and would go on a hot streak, going 26-0 with 19 KO’s over the next five years.

He would get his first crack at a world title when he met Hideyuki Ohashi of Japan. They met on 10/05/90 at Korakuen Hall in Tokyo, Japan and it was for the WBC Strawweight Championship. Lopez dominated from the opening bell and would win the title via fifth round TKO. He was now a world champion and it was the start of one of the most dominant reigns in boxing history.

He would successfully defend his title nine times over then next three years, seven by KO. Hungry for national exposure, Lopez would sign with promoter Don King in 1994 and he began fighting on major cards in the U.S. 1996 would be a big year for Lopez as he began to appear regularly on Showtime televised cards, scoring 4 big knockout wins. Two of those knockouts made Showtime Championship Boxing’s top 10 knockouts of 1996.

Talks began for a major fight with Light Flyweight champion Michael Carbajal, however the fight never came to fruition. Instead Lopez decided to unify the 105 lb division and would score an impressive fifth round TKO over Alex Sanchez at Madison Square Garden to claim the WBO Minimumweight Title in August of 1997. It would be in his 48th bout that Lopez would experience the only blemish on his record when he met WBA Minimumweight champion Rosendo Alvarez of Nicaragua.

They met on 03/07/98 in front of a huge crowd at the Plaza De Toros in Mexico City, Mexico and it was the co-feature for the huge Super Lightweight clash between the legendary Julio Cesar Chavez vs fellow forgotten legend Miguel Angel Gonzalez. Alvarez came in with an unbeaten record of 24-0 and would prove to be a tough challenge for Lopez. In the second, Alvarez would land a hard straight right hand that put Lopez down for the first time in his career. Lopez would get up off the canvas and weather Alvarez’s relentless pressure to make it out of the round.

The fight would turn into an exciting back and forth war over the next five rounds. Showtime commentator Bobby Czyz said that the fight was a 105 lb version of Leonard vs Hearns. In round seven, both men collided heads, causing a huge cut over Lopez’s right eye. Due to the WBC rule, the uncut fighter gets deducted a point when a headbutt occurs, therefore Alvarez would lose a point.

In between rounds, the fight would be stopped by the ringside doctor, causing the fight to go to the scorecards. One judge had the fight scored 67-64 for Lopez. Another judge had it scored 68-63 for Alvarez and the final judge had it scored 66-66, making the fight a technical draw. The difference maker in this bout was the point deduction in the seventh round for Alvarez. It was an unpopular decision and the fans began throwing debris into the ring. It was a disappointing end to a great fight and it was the toughest test of Ricardo Lopez’s career. A rematch was inevitable and Lopez and Alvarez would meet again eight months later in Las Vegas.

Alvarez was not able to make the contracted weight of 105 lbs and would lose his title on the scales in what was one of the first times that a title was lost on the scales. The fight would still take place and Lopez would exact revenge on Alvarez, winning a 12 round split decision, claiming his third world title. With nothing more to prove in the Strawweight division, Lopez would move up to the Light Flyweight division and 11 months later would claim the IBF title with a 12 round unanimous decision over Will Grigsby.

He would successfully defend his title twice over the next two years and would then call it a career. His record as a professional stands at 51-0-1 with 38 KO’s, having never been defeated as an amateur or professional. He remains tied with Joe Louis for the most successful title defenses without a loss at 26. Lopez would be inducted into the International Boxing Hall Of Fame in Canastota, NY in 2007.

What would it have been like had he fought some of the elite in the smaller weight classes such as Michael Carbajal, Johnny Tapia or Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson and did his loyalty to promoter Don King prevent these bouts from happening? Did the fact that he fought in the smallest weight class prevent him from getting the notoriety that he deserved. In the end it was the most dominant career in boxing that the world has forgotten about.

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Forgotten Legends: Mitch Halpern

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By: Steve Gallegos

In this segment of Forgotten Legends, we’re gonna switch gears and focus not on a fighter, but on a referee. The life of a boxing referee can be a difficult one. The “3rd Man” inside the ring is criticized regularly for his actions in a very brutal sport. The sole purpose of the referee is to protect the fighters and most times, the lives of the combatants rests solely in the hands of the referee.

The state of Nevada has been known to produce the best boxing referees in the world, most notably Mills Lane, Richard Steele and Joe Cortez. In the mid-late 90’s there was another referee that was on his way to joining that elite class. His name was Mitch Halpern.

Halpern was a hard nosed, no nonsense referee who refereed some of the biggest bouts in Nevada during the end of the 20th Century. He was known to maintain order while letting the boxers fight their fights. Mitch Halpern began refereeing bouts in 1991. He was mentored by the legendary Nevada referee Richard Steele, who taught Halpern everything there was to know about being a boxing referee.

On 05/06/95, Halpern would referee a bout between Gabriel Ruelas and Jimmy Garcia. It was the co-feature on a big Pay Per View card held at the outdoor arena at Ceasar’s Palace in Las Vegas. It was a fight in which Garcia absorbed alot of punishment over the course of 11 rounds, before Halpern stopped the fight. Moments later, Garcia collapsed in his corner and was taken to the hospital, where he would later die due to injuries sustained in the bout.

It was a tragic event on a big stage and many in the boxing media criticized Mitch Halpern for Garcia’s death. This didn’t stop Mitch from refereeing and he continued on with his career.

On 11/09/97, Halpern would referee the biggest fight of his career, which was the first bout between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. It was a tough, physical fight which included a lot of clinching, holding and hitting on the breaks. Halpern had to call time several times to warn the fighters and he did so in a very authoritive way.

Near the end of the 10th, Holyfield caught Tyson flush and put a pounding on him. Halpern almost stepped in to stop the fight, however he let the round come to a close. He would then stop the fight in the 11th after Holyfield again battered Tyson.
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Halpern was chosen to work the Holyfield Tyson rematch seven months later, however the Tyson camp hotly contested Mitch Halpern being the referee; therefore Halpern stepped down and was replaced by Mills Lane.

Tyson would be disqualified in the third round after he bit Holyfield twice on his ears. Had Mitch Halpern been the referee, Tyson wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to bite Holyfield a second time. Halpern would have disqualified Tyson immediately.

Halpern would close out 1997 by refereeing the next two mega bouts in Las Vegas when he worked the highly anticipated showdown between Johnny Tapia and Danny Romero as well as the Heavyweight Championship unificiation bout between Evander Holyfield and Michael Moorer. Halpern would close out the millenium by working the last two mega bouts of the 1990’s when he refereed Oscar De La Hoya vs Felix Trinidad as well as the second bout between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis, which crowned the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the world. Halpern would start the new millenium by working another highly anticipated bout when he refereed the first bout between Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera which was an all out war.

Mitch Halpern was at the top of his game and was considered the best referee in Nevada; however it was all about to come to a tragic end. On 08/20/00, Mitch Halpern was found dead from to a gunshot wound to the head, that was ruled a suicide. It was a huge loss and many within the boxing community that were close to Halpern were shocked as he appeared to be very cool and collect.

On 08/26/00, an HBO Boxing After Dark card was held at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. All the referee’s working, wore a patch on there sleeve in honor of Mitch Halpern. The main event was a heated battle between Fernando Vargas and Ross Thompson, which was refereed by Joe Cortez. During the pre fight instructions, Cortez said “This one’s for Mitch. Mitch, we love you, we miss you”.

Mitch Halpern was a special referee, who didn’t put up with any nonsense from any fighter, regardless of who they were. As I stated earlier, the life of a boxing referee can be a diffictult one. Did the pressures of being a boxing referee get to Mitch Halpern? In the end he was a very good referee who was on his way to greatness, only to have his life ended too soon.

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Forgotten Legends: Kennedy McKinney

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By: Steve Gallegos

Throughout the 1980’s into the 90’s, the Heavyweight division in boxing still hailed at the top; however in the early 1990’s a string of fresh new talent began to emerge in the lower weight divisions. Some of that talent included fighters like Johnny Tapia, Michael Carbajal, Kevin Kelley, Junior Jones and Orlando Canizales. They were little big men as they were smaller guys who packed a heavyweight punch. There was another member of that elite group that has long since been forgotten. He was former two-time super bantamweight champion, Kennedy KingMcKinney.

A very exiciting, hard hitting fighter with a iron will and chin, McKinney put the super bantamweight division on notice in the 1990’s. McKinney was a very good amateur who competed in many national tournaments. He represented the United States at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea in which he brought back the Gold medal in the bantamweight division. He turned professional in February of 1989 and would go 21-0-1 with 13 KO’s over the next 3 1/2 years. He would get his first crack at a world title when he faced South African Welome Ncita.

They met on 12/02/92 in a very small arena in Tortoli, Sardegna, Italy for the IBF Jr. featherweight championship. The early rounds were a back and forth war waged on the inside. In the middle portion of the fight, McKinney began to find his range with his right hand. He was setting up the right hand with his left jab and hurt Ncita many times in the sixth, seventh and eighth rounds. The pace picked back up in the ninth as both fighters had they’re moments.

In the 10th, Ncita would have his best round as he rocked McKinney and almost had him on the canvas. The 11th round was the best round of the fight as Ncita rocked McKinney with a combination. McKinney was hurt, turned his back and went down. It appeared McKinney had quit; however he got up and took the count. Ncita went in for the kill, landing hard shots to the body and head; however he punched himself out and McKinney once again found his range. Towards the end of the round while against the ropes, McKinney landed a flush right hand that put Ncita down and out. It was a tremendous ending to a great fight and McKinney was now a world champion. He would successfully defend his title five times over the next 15 months, two by KO including a majority decison win over Ncita in a rematch.

On 08/20/94, McKinney traveled to South Africa to defend his title against then unknown South African challenger Vuyani Bungu. It wasn’t McKinney’s night as Bungu controlled the bout with his crisp boxing en route to a convincing 12 round decision in Ring Magazine’s upset of the year. McKinney would take a year off from boxing and returned the in August of 1995 with an eighth round TKO over unbeaten John Lowey to claim the WBU super bantamweight title. This setup a showdown with future Mexican legend Marco Antonio Barrera.

Barrera came into the bout with an outstanding record of 39-0  with 27 KO’s and he successfully defended his super bantamweight title four times. They met on 02/03/96 at the legendary Great Western Forum in Englewood, CA for the WBO super bantamweight title. It would be the first main event on HBO’s legendary Boxing After Dark series. Earlier in the week at a press conference to promote the fight, McKinney got under Barrera’s skin by telling him that he couldn’t beat him and how dare he try to come in and beat him while calling him “Boy”. Barerra got upset and stood up and clocked McKinney with a right hand; therefore it was a very intense atmosphere going into the bout.

It was a pro-Barrera crowd that night and the Forum crowd booed when McKinney was introduced. The first round was all action as both men had their moments. McKinney was successful with his jab and was able to get in a couple of hard right hands. Barrera however was unphased as he landed hard shots of his own to the body and head while taking the round. The second round was more of the same as McKinney was able to weather Barrera’s vicious attack and stuck to his game plan by throwing his jab to set up his terrific right hand and had better success than the previous round.

The third and fourth rounds were much of the same as McKinney controlled the pace with his jab and right hands. He used his longer reach to his advantage by not allowing Barrera to get on the inside and his punch output began to increase. As the bout neared the midway point, McKinney elected to abandon his jab and go toe to toe with Barrera. Both men landed hard shots to the body and head and it was nonstop as the bell sounded to end the sixth. In the eighth, the tide turned in favor of Barerra as he landed a hard combination that put McKinney on the canvas. Barerra, known as being a great finisher went in for the kill landing hard shots and put McKinney on the canvas again. McKinney was able to get up and survive Barrera’s onslaught to make it out of the round.

Barrera continued to pressure McKinney in the ninth and would put Kennedy down again with an accumulation of punches. McKinney showed amazing heart by getting up off the canvas again and make it out of the round. McKinney regained the momentum in the 10th as he was able to land his right hand at will, stunning Barerra and causing him to back up. In the 11th, McKinney re-established his jab and he was able to land a hard flush right hand that buckled Barrera, causing his glove to touch the canvas; therefore it was scored as a knockdown. McKinney had the momentum going into the final round; however McKinney’s corner told him he needed a knockout.

In the early stages of the 12th, Barrera put McKinney down with another quick combination; however McKinney appeared to slip and didn’t feel it was a true knockdown. In either case, it was scored a knockdown. McKinney elected to stand and trade with Barrera, giving it his all. Barrera would put McKinney down with a hard body shot, however referee Pat Russell unusually ruled it a slip. McKinney was hurt and Barrera went in for the kill to put McKinney down with a straight right hand as referee Pat Russel stopped the bout.

Larry Merchant said it best, “A fitting end to a great, great prizefight“. It was a great way for boxing to start off 1996 and it was 1996’s “Fight of the Year”. Despite taking the brutal punishment, McKinney was back in the ring only three months later and won his next two bouts by decision, however the performances were subpar. 14 months after the sensational war with Barerra, McKinney was back in line for another title shot as he went back to South Africa to challenge Vuyani Bungu in a rematch, however he would once again come up short by losing a close 12 round decision. McKinney once again wasted no time and he was back in the ring only a month later as he won a unanimous decison over former world champion Hector Acero-Sanchez. He would win his next fight by TKO to set up another title shot. This time against super bantamweight champion “Poison” Junior Jones.

Jones was on a high as he was coming off of two big wins over Marco Antonio Barrera. He was in the top 10 pound for pound and was confident he was unbeatable at 122 lbs. They met on 12/19/97 at Madison Square Garden, New York City. It was the co-feature on a huge night headlined by “Prince” Naseem Hamed, who was making his American debut against Kevin Kelley. Jones was hoping to land that big money fight against Hamed and was very confident he would overpower McKinney. McKinney appeared to show Jones no respect by turning his back during the referee’s instructions. McKinney also said that Jones had a glass jaw and the fight wouldn’t go eight rounds.

Jones, an excellent boxer with a great jab and controlled the pace of the first two rounds. In the third round, Jones picked up the pace and put McKinney on the canvas with a good combination to the body and head. McKinney got up off the canvas and Jones went in for the kill, hoping to take his man out. In the middle of Jones’ onslaught, McKinney was able to land a hard right hand that buckled Jones towards the end of the round. Jones came out in the fourth, still dazed and winded from punching himself out. McKinney patiently began to stalk Jones, landing right hands at will. Within the last half minute of the round, both men threw right hands, however McKinney’s landed first and it landed hard, putting Jones on the canvas. Junior was able to get up, however he had nothing left and when the referee said fight, Jones then stumbled and fell forward, causing referee Wayne Kelly to stop the fight.

It was a great comeback win for McKinney and he was back on top as he was once again a world champion. “Prince” Naseem Hamed would score an impressive fourth round knockout of his own in the main event. McKinney came into the ring after the fight with his new title belt to congratulate “Naz”, hoping he could get that big money fight. Negotiations began for a mega fight between Hamed and McKinney and it was close to being scheduled for “Halloween” night, 1998 in Atlantic City, however Hamed elected to fight Wayne McCullough instead.

McKinney then decided to move up to featherweight to challenge WBC champion Luisito Espinosa. They met on 11/28/98 in Indio, CA and the winner of this fight was promised to get a shot at “Prince” Hamed. McKinney was coming off an 11 month layoff and the ring rust showed in the ring as he was destroyed in two rounds. It would be the end of Kennedy McKinney’s career near the top. He would go 3-2 from 1999-2003 before retiring with a record of 36-6-1 with 19 KO’s. Today he runs a boxing gym in Olive Branch, MS. He was a hard nose, blood and guts warrior who was right there in front of his opponent for every second of every round. Probably the most successful American super bantamweight of all time and he put the division on the map in the 1990’s. We hope to see him in Canastota someday.

Barrera vs McKinney

 

 

 

 

 

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