Connecticut may not have equal status with New York City or Las Vegas in terms of being a fight capital, but the Nutmeg State has produced five Hall-of-Famers with Foxwoods Resort Casino, located in Mashantucket, CT, hosting many of the sport’s greatest fighters and fights over the past two decades.
Connecticut’s all-time greatest boxer is the late Willie “Will ‘o the Wisp” Pep (229-11-1, 65 KOs), who was born in Middletown and lived in Rocky Hill. Pep, who fought professionally between 1940 and 1966, was a two-time world featherweight champion who had an epic rivalry with Sandy Saddler.
Other Hall-of-Famers from Connecticut are world heavyweight champion (1926-28) Gene “The Fighting Marine” Tunney (65-1-1, 48 KOs), of Greenwich, who defeated the legendary Jack Dempsey twice; Ukrainian-born world featherweight (1925) titlist Louis “Kid” Kaplan (108-22-12, 72 KOs), from Meriden; world light heavyweight champion (1933) “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom (222-42-31, 2 NC, 19 KOs), of Leonard Bridge; world light heavyweight titleholder (1926-27) Jack “Bright Eyes” Delaney (73-11-2, 43 KOs), who was born in Canada but lived in Bridgeport.
Over the year, many other Connecticut fighters have made an impact on the sport including Hartford’s NBA featherweight champion Battling Battalino (57-26-3, 26 KOs), who was the first world champion to lose his title on the scale, Hartford’s two-time world welterweight titlist Marlon “Magic Man” Starling (45-6-12, 27 KOs), Norwalk’s WBA junior middleweight champion “Tremendous” Travis Simms (28-1, 21 KOs), New Haven’s three-time world light heavyweight champion “Bad” Chad Dawson (33-4, 18 KOs) and world welterweight contender Gaspar “El Indio” Ortega (131-29-6, 69 KOs), Stamford’s world No. 1-ranked welterweight Chico Vejar (92-20-4, 43 KOs), and Bloomfield’s 1996 Olympic Team USA captain Lawrence Clay-Bey (21-3-1, 16 KOs).
The No. 1 Foxwoods fight of all-time, held on April 16, 2011, was also promoted by DiBella Entertainment, and was selected as the 2011 Ring Magazine and BWAA Fight of the Year. Defending champion Andre Berto (27-0) and challenger Victor Ortiz (28-2-2) battled for 12 rounds, each getting dropped twice, with Ortiz winning a hard-fought decision (114-111, 114-112, 115-110) for the WBC welterweight title.
A close second place is the 2003 BWAA Fight of the Year, in which future Hall-of-Famer James Toney (65-4-2) won a 12-round decision over reigning IBF cruiserweight champion Vassiliy Jirov. The action started days earlier at the pre-fight press conference when a skirmish erupted as tables were overturned and glasses thrown. The animosity continued between the two fighters and their respective camps right up to the final bell. Previously undefeated, Jirov (31-0) started fast but faded, getting decked in the final round.
In 2004, New England favorite Scott “The Sandman” Pemberton, hailing from nearby New Bedford, MA, was involved in a great 12th round, come-from-behind knockout of always-tough Omar Sheika in a rematch of a previous draw, for a regional super middleweight title.
Two other N.E. fan favorites who fought regularly at Foxwoods were multiple-time world champion Vinny Paz (Pazienza during his boxing career), fighting out of Cranston, RI, and New Bedford’s all-action “Sucra” Ray Oliveira. Paz had a 13-3 record at Foxwoods, highlighted by his 1998 decision over Glenwood Brown and his 50th career win in his retirement fight against Tocker Pudwill in 2004. Oliveira was only 6-7-1 fighting at Foxwoods, but he faced nothing but iron and he did defeat a world champion, Vince Phillips, in their 2000 non-title fight that produced the second-most total punches (2,989) recorded at that time.
Brazilian boxing fans always turned out in force when countryman Acelino “Popo” Freitas fought at Foxwoods, primarily because of the large Brazilian community in Connecticut. Freitas fought there four times, all in lightweight world title fights, defeating Zahir Raheem and Artur Grigorian and losing to Juan Diaz and Diego Corrales.
Other great fights at Foxwoods include future world middleweight champion Andy Lee coming back from the brink of possibly getting knocked out to stop Craig McEwan in the 10th round of their 2011 fight, Carl Froch’s dramatic late surge in 2009 to knock out Jermain Taylor (who was well ahead on the scorecards) in the 12th round for the WBC super middleweight championship, Pernell Whitaker taking a close decision from Andrey Pestryaev (115-113, 115-112, and 114-113) in their 1997 WBA eliminator (later ruled a No Decision due to Whitaker’s failed drug test), and Ike Quartey overcoming two knockdowns to successfully defend his WBA welterweight title versus Jose Luis Lopez in 1997 (Quartey was originally awarded a win by majority decision, but a scoring error was discovered and the fight was ruled a majority draw).
Two of the greatest boxers in modern boxing history, Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Roy Jones, Jr., both fought at Foxwoods in 1998. In his 15th pro fight, Mayweather registered a third-round technical knockout of Miguel Melo, while Jones successfully defended his WBC/WBA light heavyweight titles with a 10th-round TKO of Otis Grant. In the Jones-Grant co-feature, IBF lightweight champion Shane Mosley successfully defended his title against Jesse James Leija, who was unable to answer the bell for the 10th round.
The tradition continues on Thursday, July 21, as rising middleweight contender Sergiy “The Technician” Derevyanchenko (8-0, 6 KOs) faces Sam “King” Soliman (44-13, 18 KOs) in the 10-round main event of Premier Boxing Champions on ESPN. Televised coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET and features a 10-round middleweight clash between powerful Ievgen Khytrov (13-0, 11 KOs) and California’s Paul Mendez (19-2-2, 9 KOs).