Thursday, April 24, 2014

Reflections on the Fifteen-Year Anniversary of 'Triple Jeopardy!'

Today is an historic day in the annals of Beltway Boxing -- especially for Washington, DC proper.

Today is the 15th anniversary of one of the most interesting boxing cards DC has hosted in the last 30 years.  I call it interesting because while it was a showcase card for local talent in a brand new area location, it was also intended to be a showcase for something else that didn't quite work.

April 24, 1999 was the night for the "Triple Jeopardy" boxing card promoted by Don King Promotions.  It was the first night of pro boxing in the new MCI (now Verizon) Center in downtown DC.  The card featured three world title bouts -- all with local significance.  The main event was an all-Maryland affair as WBA Junior Welterweight champion "Little Big Man" Sharmba Mitchell of Takoma Park defended his title against Clinton, MD's Reggie "Showtime" Green.  The co-feature saw Keith Holmes get back the WBC Middleweight title from Hasine Cherifi.  Also, future International Boxing Hall of Famer Mark "Too Sharp" Johnson win his second world title, capturing the vacant IBF Junior Bantamweight championship with a win over Ratanachai Sor Vorapin.

Other locals on the card were Jerry "The Technician" Ballard, Antonio "Starchild" Reese and Sammy Retta.   Also, legendary women's champion Christy Martin participated on this card.

At the time of this card, DC was willingly being used as a guinea pig for the "something else" that ended up not working -- the concept of "open scoring."  If you remember, the boxing world was still gnashing its collective teeth over the horrible scoring shown in the world heavyweight title bout between Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield on March 13, 1999 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.  That bout went to a highly disputed draw in large part because judge Eugenia Williams saw the bout for Holyfield 115-113, a score that gave Williams the same treatment that current judges CJ Ross and, to a lesser extent, Gustavo Padilla are receiving today.    

Don King made a big deal in looking to rid the improprieties of judging in the sport by deciding to make the scores known to the fans in the arena and to those watching the three title bouts on Showtime TV.  However, three of the four major governing bodies were represented and boxing, being what it was (and is), saw that the WBA, WBC and IBF could not agree on one version of open scoring.  The Mitchell-Green (WBA) bout had the scores announced after every round, Holmes-Cherifi (WBC) had the scores related at the sixth round and the Johnson -Vorapin (IBF) contest, had the scores announced after the fourth, eighth and 12th rounds.

I probably did more interviews in that one night than ever before because the open scoring was a major topic of debate.  Talking to folks like Shannon Briggs, Henry Akinwande and our own local legend Simon Brown produced some great opinions.

Since Holmes stopped Cherifi in the seventh round, the open scoring wasn't a big issue in their bout. However, in the Johnson-Vorapin contest, Johnson told reporters afterwards that he coasted in the final round because he knew he was well ahead on points.  Mitchell won by a majority decision over Green which would have normally caused the type of suspense we ended up having in the main event last Saturday at the DC Armory.  However, since the fans knew what the score was, most simply left the arena immediately after the final bell.

Open scoring was seen as a dismal failure that night, but the concept and DC's willingness to at least try it, put the spotlight on the Nation's Capitol in an overall positive light.

A couple of personal postscripts on this evening.  I went to the locker room to interview Mark Johnson after he won his title.  There were other reporters there waiting to talk with the now two-division champion.  However, once Johnson and his father Ham saw me, they allowed me to get the first interview alone.  I am still very grateful for that.

The second postscript was an interview I missed out on and never had a chance to get back. In fact, I missed everything about Jerry Ballard that evening.  I got to the card a little late and just missed Ballard's second round demolition of Garing Lane.  In fact, when I arrived at the venue, the paramedics were getting ready to cart Lane out of the arena on a stretcher.  

I've told this part of the story before.  At the post-fight press conference at the end of the evening, I was getting ready to interview Ballard about his win when King started the conference.  It would be the last time I would see Ballard alive -- less than four months later, he would be murdered.

Like this past Saturday, the Triple Jeopardy card was a landmark card for Washington, DC and would lead to more title cards in the city.  Exactly five months after this card -- September 24, 1999 -- DC would host another Don King card featuring Keith Holmes defending his title against Andrew Council and William Joppy defending his WBA Middleweight title in the third bout against Julio Cesar Green.  There was hope that Holmes would try and unify against Joppy but we know that didn't happen.

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