Tom Sorensen

Sorensen: Failing to make weight can’t spoil a great night at the fights

Former Charlotte Motor Speedway executive Humpy Wheeler was recently honored for his contributions to the local boxing community.
Former Charlotte Motor Speedway executive Humpy Wheeler was recently honored for his contributions to the local boxing community.

I write about boxing because I like the art, the drama, and the underdogs it produces. Boxing is the ultimate underdog sport.

I grew up with it. My dad watched the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports Friday Night Fights, which ran on TV from 1948 to 1960, and when I was old enough I watched with him. When I run into people of a certain age, it seems as if we all watched Friday Night Fights with our fathers.

Also, my grandfather fought professionally. He was studying pharmacy at Minnesota, and was low on cash. A good high school athlete, he decided to fight professionally. You can’t say, “I want to play professional baseball” and run onto the diamond. Can’t now, and couldn’t then. But boxing offers opportunities to become an instant pro and win or get pummeled.

My grandfather fought a farmer from North Dakota. Ladies and gentlemen, The Fighting Pharmacist versus The Fighting Farmer. The Fighting Pharmacist’s professional boxing career lasted less than three minutes; he was cold cocked in the first round. He would, however, become a fine pharmacist.

Christy Martin, the best boxing promoter in the almost 40 years I’ve lived in Charlotte, put on a fight card Saturday at CenterStage@Noda, a building that often hosts weddings and wedding receptions. The evening was intriguing, sometimes in a good way. It was a microcosm of the appeal of the sport.

First, a woman fighting in the main event, a woman I’ve interviewed and like, failed to make weight. Now, this was a big fight, for the North American Boxing Federation 154-pound title. The director of the NABF’s female division had flown up from Texas to confer the belt to the winner. But the woman I’d interviewed came in 4 pounds over the weight limit. She apparently went on an instant diet to make weight, so the fight could go on albeit not for the title, but was too weak to fight.

The Carolina Panthers played the Buffalo Bills the night before the fights at Bank of America Stadium. The Bills showed up. In boxing, which has no magnet schedules you can attach to your refrigerator, you never know.

So, the card went on without its main event. Yet it was entertaining and rollicking, and you never knew what was going to happen. One fan who has attended at least five cards with me said this was the most entertaining boxing she’d seen.

Good things happened. Humpy Wheeler, whom most people knew through his work running Charlotte Motor Speedway, is a former amateur boxer who has long been a boxing proponent and has helped support the sport in the Carolinas. He was honored Saturday, on Humpy Wheeler Appreciation Night, and received huge applause when he slipped between the ropes into the ring.

Other highlights: Charlotte’s Stevie “The Answer” Massey won via a devastating first-round knockout. He is 10-1. The Answer has an interesting style and personality and could become a favorite with Charlotte fans. At 26, he’s moving into position to fight an opponent with talent comparable to his.

On the card were two outstanding boxers from Argentina, light heavyweight Marcos Escudera and welterweight Alberto Palmetta, both of whom were impressive, both of whom fight for Charlotte-based Payne Boxing and Gardner Payne.

A fighter from Louisville come out after the opening bell and appeared not to be interested in his fight against Kyle Harrell of Charlotte. Not everybody who fights is in the mood. Many boxers are paid by the round, so they merely survive. Harrell (6-1-1) is quick and throws lots of punches but is not a big hitter. His opponent took the shots and rarely responded with shots of his own. If Louisville had been in the ring by himself, he would have been behind on points.

Martin was a longtime women’s lightweight champion; she fought for Don King and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. More than anybody, she established women’s boxing. She fought on the undercard of a Mike Tyson fight, and Tyson was so much more impressed with her work than with his that he bought her a James Bond-looking BMW convertible. Martin respects the sport, and does not tolerate boxers who fail to.

Between rounds, she charged to Louisville’s corner and shouted, “If you don’t fight, you don’t get paid!”

Louisville was better after that. But he was not good. Harrell won with ease.

At most of Martin’s boxing cards I probably recognize a quarter of the crowd. But there were new faces, among them Joe Maus, who operates several automobile dealerships and runs a foundation that works to benefit kids. I know Maus though sports talk radio. It was good to see a new guy watching an old sport.

There were nine bouts, and they included sudden knockouts and close decisions. One of the judges scored Palmetta’s fight in a manner that I politely would refer to as somewhere between unfathomable and bizarre. The judge called it a draw. It was not draw. It was not close.

The ring girls apparently were new to the sport, and continually climbed into the ring at the wrong time. Wait, what round is this? Round one? Of course, it’s one. The fight has yet to start.

Yet, nobody booed, and several fans sought their autographs, pictures and time.

One fight, which was very close and very good, featured an accessory that in all the fights I’ve attended, I’d never seen.

A fighter came into the ring wearing an ankle monitor.

Maybe the monitor was simply a prop, and he was attempting to intimidate his opponent. If you wear an ankle monitor, your opponent knows that you don’t play.

The flip side is that the boxer with the ankle monitor gives away his strategy. Obviously, he’s not going to run.

You imagine tracking his movements?

“Man appears to be spending the evening in a 20x20 square. He operates within the square for three minutes, goes to a corner and doesn’t move for 60 seconds, then he moves around again.”

The fight was close enough, but I thought the guy with the ankle monitor won. Alas, the arm of the law is long, and judges at ringside called the fight a draw.

So: there was drama and there was emotion, there were loud fans and an attractive yet untouched and ornate light middleweight NABF title belt.

I’ll be back. I suspect most of us will.

The Panthers’ backup QB quandary

If you read every story written since the Carolina Panthers began training camp, listen to every sports radio talk show and eavesdrop on every Carolina related conversation, who is the Panther most likely to be talked about?

It’s quarterback Cam Newton, whether he plays or doesn’t. When he removes the top of his hat so his hair can run free, it’s a story.

The second most talked about player likely is Luke Kuechly. Every Carolina fan loves Luke and loves to talk about him.

But I would contend the third most talked about player, or at least a contender for the spot, is undrafted backup quarterback Kyle Allen.

Allen, 23, is more than a player. He’s an issue. If Newton injures his twice repaired right shoulder, Allen will replace him. Coach Ron Rivera sounds as if he is comfortable with Allen as Newton’s primary backup. Other than Allen and his family, I’m not sure anybody else is.

Fans loved Allen last season. He didn’t play until Carolina’s final game, and he played well. The opponent was the New Orleans Saints, and because neither a victory nor a loss would affect their playoff seed, they played as if the game was an exhibition. Drew Brees sat, Allen went 16 of 27 and threw for two touchdowns, and the Panthers won 33-14.

Despite the Saints’ apathy, Allen was effective, smart and as good as he had to be.

He has been none of those things in Carolina’s first two exhibitions. Are we overreacting? Of course, we’re overreacting. That’s what exhibitions are for.

But concern about Newton’s back up is legitimate. Is Newton all the way back? He appears to be. And if he again injures his throwing shoulder, are the Panthers comfortable entrusting their offense to Allen?

Will Grier, the quarterback whom the Panthers selected with the 100th pick in the 2019 draft, has been wildly erratic. He has talent; you saw it in college at West Virginia, and you saw it in training camp. But as the first two exhibitions attest, Grier as a pro has so far been overmatched.

Did anybody expect Grier to charge into the season and take over? I’m certain the Panthers expected more than they’ve seen. But they didn’t expect to a player capable of being an instant starter.

Grier has the talent to become a top reserve, and perhaps a starter. But not yet.

I like the pick. To grab Grier at the end of the third round felt like a steal. But the pedestrian defenses the Chicago Bears and Buffalo Bills played in the first two exhibitions have for him been a constant surprise.

A question, and I hope this doesn’t happen, but: Let’s say Newton can’t go in Week 3 at the Arizona Cardinals, Week 4 at the Houston Texans or Week 5 at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

If Newton is healthy, the Panthers likely are favored against Arizona and Jacksonville. But if Newton can’t go, do you expect Allen to command the huddle, make quick reads and find receivers?

Carolina did an outstanding job this offseason signing talent and filling gaps. Yet except for drafting Grier, they left their most important position intact.

There are experienced quarterbacks who are unemployed. They’re the ones holding the WILL THROW FOR FOOD signs. Maybe the Panthers will hire one.

More likely, they’ll stick with what they have.

I have nothing against Allen. Maybe he’ll never have to play, and if he does, maybe he’ll replicate the work he did last season against New Orleans.

Truth is, I have no idea how capable he is. The Panthers do. They have to.

Tom’s Panthers prediction ...

Every season, Charlotte Observer columnist Scott Fowler and I predict the record of the Panthers. I figure I beat him every year, but he resorts to facts and calculates how close we annually come to Carolina’s record. He often beats me.

Last season, I was pretty good. I picked the Panthers to go 8-8. Call me a homer. They went 7-9.

When Carolina began quickly last season, the bandwagon was not big enough to accommodate all the true believers. The Panthers had a new quarterbacks coach and, it seemed, a new quarterback. Throw short, throw quickly, on two.

You get to believe in the home team no matter how old you are. I remember hearing a radio personality criticize the national media for not giving the Panthers more credit for being a Super Bowl contender and for not giving Cam Newton more credit for being a candidate for MVP.

But I never saw the Panthers as world beaters. I didn’t see it when they were 6-2. I didn’t see it even if Newton’s shoulder had not gone bad.

Half the fans I know make preseason predictions. One friend picked the Panthers to go 16-0 last season. He’s still a friend.

If your job is at all public, and your prediction is way off, people other than Scott will remember. When you’re right, or within a game like I was last season? Nobody remembers. Thus, this subtle public service reminder.

The Panthers have had a strong offseason. Winning the Gerald McCoy sweepstakes was tremendous. If there was a perceived hole, they invariably filled it. Bruce Irvin, Tre Boston, Matt Paradis, come on down.

They’re still stuck in the same division as the New Orleans Saints. You can see Saints quarterback Drew Brees incrementally age in a way New England’s Tom Brady hasn’t. Brees is entitled; he turns 41 in January. Yet he continues to run the Saints’ fast break offense as if he’s a point guard, deftly finding receivers and getting rid of the ball so quickly it’s as if it hurts his hands.

I need to see the Panthers against the New England Patriots, and get a better feel for the final roster, before I commit to a prediction. And if I go low, I don’t mind if I’m wrong.

The Charlotte Knights’ smooth centerfielder

The best athletes are bigger than their sport. You see them on a football field, a basketball court or a baseball diamond, and you know who they are. They have presence.

Luis Robert, the centerfielder for the Charlotte Knights, has presence. Everything he does looks so easy. He runs from centerfield at BB&T Ballpark to the Knights dugout, and it’s as if he has to make himself slow down. Lean and fast, he takes mincing steps, small steps. But you can tell he can fly.

Robert can fly. He’s 6-foot-3, 185 pounds and 22-years-old. Going into Thursday’s game against the Durham Bulls, he’s played 36 games for Charlotte. He’s batting .310 with 13 home runs, 32 RBIs and seven steals.

His minor league numbers this season: .336, 29 home runs, 85 RBI and 36 stolen bases.

In the third inning, Robert, who is from Cuba, faces Nick Nelson of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Railriders, which despite their four or five-word name are pretty good. Robert steps into the pitch and swings.

The swing is not overtly powerful. That is, he’s not loading up hoping to send the ball deep. Like his running, the swing seemingly connects without effort. The ball just goes. No matter where you’re sitting, you know upon contact that the ball is gone, and it clears the fence with ease.

Look, we’ve had the opportunity to see some outstanding ballplayers at Class AAA Charlotte. They’re summoned to the Chicago White Sox and, well, they lose. But we can say that we saw them before the Major Leagues did. That’s what you say about Robert. I will.

The Knights play the Durham Bulls in Durham Thursday, and return to Charlotte Friday to play the Norfolk Tides. Charlotte, which has won four straight, is playing exceptional baseball. Playoff tickets went on sale Wednesday, and playoffs began the first week of September.

For more information about playoff tickets and possibilities, go to charlotteknights.com.

Short takes: Cam’s hat works -- for him only

When Cam Newton made the dab famous during the Panthers’ Super Bowl season, Charlotte reacted. The owner of the Panthers did the dab. At least one sportswriter did and became a web-hit star. Thousands of Carolina fans did, as did people who had never watched an NFL game in its entirety.

The dab got old fast. What’s new now, at least to me, is what Newton has done to his caps. Because his hair rises high from the top of his head, he cuts out the top of the hat.

Problem is, Newton has more influence on fashion than any athlete in Charlotte history. Kemba Walker is as good at his job as Newton is at his, and maybe better. But it’s not as if fans of the Charlotte Hornets are suddenly going to wear Boston Celtics’ green, except when Kemba comes to town.

But because of Newton, a lot of people are going to cut out the tops of their caps. One word of advice for adults: Some of you want to be like Cam, and will wear what he does. If you are bald or have a comb-over, do not remove the top of your hat or cap. Society thanks you…

Kemba scored 23 points to lead the U.S. over Australia 102-86 Thursday in front of more than 50,000 fans in Melbourne. Walker was Walker, scoring 21 of those points in the second half. Ah, man. Good luck, Kemba…

How worked up are you about the holdout of Dallas Cowboys’ star running back Ezekiel Elliott? Yeah, me, too. Bad things happen to some teams, and if they continue to happen, it’s not a coincidence.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Observer columnist.
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