Matchmakers' nightmares, replacements' dreams

What happens when one fighter drops out of a scheduled bout, sometimes within hours of the start? The replacement step in, and crazy things can happen.

Originally Published: September 14, 2005
By Michael Rosenthal | Special to ESPN.com

As the story goes, Charlie "Devil" Green was eating a hotdog at a Madison Square Garden concession stand as he waited for the start of a fight card in the summer of 1969.

Then fate intervened to make him part of boxing lore.

Hall of Fame light heavyweight Jose "Chegui" Torres was scheduled to fight Jimmy Ralston before a throng of Torres' rabid Puerto Rican fans. However, only hours before the main event, Ralston bolted the arena for unexplained reasons and Torres was left without an opponent.

Collazo/Rivera
Luis Collazo (left) took this fight on two weeks' notice and won Jose Rivera's title.

Enter Green, a hard-punching journeyman from New York. Luckily, the assistant matchmaker who helped put together the card noticed Green and wondered if he had found his fighter.

"Hey, Charlie, Ralston pulled out of the main. You wanna fight Torres," the matchmaker supposedly said.

"How much?" Green says.

The matchmaker gives him a figure, which reportedly ranged anywhere from $3,500 to more than $6,000.

"And you'll pay for the hotdog?" Green adds.

The deal is done.

Replacement fighter Tim Tomashek resorts to "stooge" tactic vs. Tommy Morrison.
• Nyuk, nyuk ESPN Motion

Green didn't last long, but he gave Torres a serious scare in what turned out to be Torres' last fight. It was also the most-memorable moment in the career of Green, who years later would be convicted of triple murder for which he is now serving 45 years to life in prison.

The substitute, still digesting the hot dog, knocked Torres down and almost out near the end of the first round. In fact, some observers say Torres' handlers illegally lifted their fighter to his feet and carried him to the corner.

Torres, now an ESPNdeportes.com columnist, disputes that contention and has a much different recollection of how Green came to be his foe.

What everyone agrees on is that Torres knocked Green out in the next round. But perhaps the most-talked about replacement fighter ever was born that night -- although Green certainly isn't alone in the pantheon of last-minute substitutes.

In roughly the past year alone, big-name fighters such as Rocky Juarez, J.C. Candelo and Jose Rivera were stunned by lesser-known replacements.

This past April, Rivera lost his WBA welterweight title to Luis Collazo -- a replacement hired on two weeks' notice.

Last year Candelo, a top-10 contending junior middleweight, lost by unanimous decision to Eddie Sanchez -- who reportedly took the fight on seven hours' notice.

And this past August, former U.S. Olympian Juarez suffered the first defeat of his pro career at the hands of Humberto Soto, who took the fight on three weeks' notice.

Indeed, whether it's two weeks before a fight or two hours, boxers drop off cards all the time -- "I'd say an average of once a card," matchmaker Tom Brown said -- for a litany of reasons. It's a matchmaker's worst nightmare. It's an added challenge for the remaining fighter, who now must face an unknown commodity. It's a sometimes golden opportunity for the replacement.

And, like Torres vs. Green, a fight featuring a replacement promises to be an adventure.

You get contracts signed 30, 60 days in advance and then the week of the show everything happens -- injuries, illness, a death in the family, you name it, I've heard every excuse on the planet.
Matchmaker Tom Brown

Last-minute dropouts might be toughest on matchmakers, who often must scramble to find a replacement.

Sometimes you're lucky; you can pluck a fighter from the undercard and move him to the semi or main event. Sometimes you can turn to a large stable of contracted fighters to replace a dropout, as Don King matchmaker Bobby Goodman does. Most often, you take out your long list of contacts in the tight-knit community of matchmakers and start making calls, hoping someone who is in shape and licensed will be ready to go.

"One matchmaker once told me, 'There's no sense in putting together a card until the week of the show because it's just going to fall apart anyway,'" said Brown, who works for Goossen-Tutor Promotions.

"You get contracts signed 30, 60 days in advance and then the week of the show everything happens -- injuries, illness, a death in the family, you name it, I've heard every excuse on the planet.

"… Luckily, all the matchmakers get along, they've all been in that position. We just start calling each other and the news spreads like a wildfire. Usually, you get bites because it generally is a pretty decent booking, a good payday, especially if it's a semi or main event."

The challenge is finding just the right guy.

Consider:

•  He must be able to make the weight limit, unless heavyweights are involved or a side agreement is reached.

•  He must be licensed in the state in which he'll fight, which includes satisfying all medical requirements.

•  He must be good enough to be approved by that state's commission or another governing body.

•  He must be acceptable to his opponent.

•  He must be approved by the network airing the fight in those instances when television is involved.

Miraculously, frazzled matchmakers usually get it done -- but age quickly in the process.

"And it's particularly hard these days," Brown said. "I'm not sure why. The gyms just aren't what they used to be. Even 10, 15 years ago, they were so much more full, full of kids training and ready to go. It just not like it used to be."

Carl Moretti of Main Events said, "It's painful, it really is."

When they do find a replacement, there's no telling what might happen.

Some don't have much to offer other than the courage to step into the ring at the last moment against a fighter typically more talented and in better shape.

Don Chargin, who promoted at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles from the mid-'60s to the mid-'80s, said he had to find last-second replacements for almost every card. He remembers fondly one fighter he called at the last minute more than once.

"There was a kid in San Diego, Eric Bonilla, a high school kid," said Chargin, who still promotes cards.

"One night a fight fell out and I remember calling his principal to get ahold of him. And he took the fight. I put the poor kid in with a hot Cuban fighter named Cubanito Perez and he was knocked out in the first round.

***** Short Order Hooks *****
Date Substitute Foe Notice Drop Out Result
09/05/05 Ray Austin Owen Beck Two weeks Sergei Liakhovich Austin wins split decision, becomes heavyweight contender
08/20/05 Humberto Soto Rocky Juarez Three weeks Injin Chi Featherweight king Chi's injury allows Soto shot to upset Juarez
04/02/05 Luis Collazo Jose Rivera Two weeks Thomas Damgaard Collazo takes home crowd favorite Rivera's welterweight crown
08/13/04 Eduardo Sanchez J.C. Candelo Seven hours Joachim Alcine Alcine failed the physical; Eddie on the spot shocked former jr. middleweight contender
06/21/03 Vitali Klitschko Lennox Lewis Two weeks Kirk Johnson Klitschko outpointed Lewis, but lost because of severe facial cuts
12/18/99 Isidro Garcia Jose Lopez A few hours Alejandro Montiel "Spectator" Garcia won a flyweight title with borrowed trunks, cup and mouthpiece

"Weeks later, I called the school again and again he took the fight without asking who his opponent would be. He just said, 'I'll be there, Chief.' Well, in the dressing room, he asks me who he's fighting and I just smile. He says, 'Don't tell me .…' and he gets knocked out again by Perez. Good kid. He ended up working for me after that."

Chargin also told the story of two L.A.-based fighters, whose deeds he'll never forget. It's just too bad he can't remember their names.

"These two kids used to save every show it seemed," he said. "When I was stuck for a fight, they would fight each other and sometimes other fighters. They fought each other something like 14, 16 times and every fight was good. And they were always around, so they weren't hard to find.

"They'd go out and try to kill each other and then were friendly after the fight. Except one night. I was with my wife and someone else at a hotel near the Olympic when we saw a commotion in the parking lot. It was the two guys fighting only a few hours after they fought in the ring.

"Tough, tough kids."

One example of a replacement fighter who wishes he'd never taken the fight was George Chip, middleweight champion for a short time in 1914. Chip was a title holder when his brother Joe, also a fighter, pulled out of a fight with unheralded Al McCoy because of illness. McCoy's manager convinced George's manager to allow George to fill in, in part because McCoy ostensibly wasn't in George's class.

What happened? McCoy knocked out George in the first round with a vicious left to the stomach. George had to wait seven years for another shot at the title.

Other replacement fighters are more fortunate, sometimes much more fortunate. Some even win championships.

Like Green, Isidro Garcia was plucked from the audience -- reportedly while eating a donut -- to fight Jose Lopez for the vacant WBO flyweight title in 1999 after Alejandro Montiel pulled out. Garcia won a unanimous decision and the title having borrowed trunks, a protective cup and a mouthpiece.

Take DeMarcus Corley.

DeMarcus Corley/Zab Judah
In 2001, Corley (left) won a light welterweight title despite fighting on five days' notice. He lost it in this bout with Zab Judah.

Ener Julio was scheduled to defend his WBO light welterweight title against Felix Flores in June of 2001 in Las Vegas. Five days before the fight, it was discovered in a routine eye exam that Julio has cataracts and he was forced to give up the title.

In steps Corley, only two pounds overweight, as his replacement -- Corley's first shot at a world title.

"I was just training for a fight, oh, three, four months down the road," said Corley, still excited about that night.

"Then I get a phone call from my manager … I'm going to fight next Friday. Five days notice. It's like a shock; it takes a toll on your body and mind trying to get ready for a big fight in that short of time. There's no way you can actually prepare yourself completely.

"You can only say you'll do the best you can and try to win."

And win Corley did -- by a first-round knockout.

"It's funny how things work out," said Corley, who lost his title to Zab Judah three fights later. "If that fight never took place, I'd probably still be in line fighting my way to the top."

And for the fighter on the other end of a last-minute change, the guy who prepared for one fighter but now must face another, the proposition can be tricky.

Some end up in the ring with proverbial tomato cans, fighters who have enough guts to step through the ropes but are interested more in surviving and collecting their paycheck than putting up a fight.

Others face significant challenges. An example is Rocky Juarez.

Last month, the then-undefeated 2000 U.S. Olympian was scheduled to fight for his first world title against WBC featherweight champion Injin Chi, a relentlessly aggressive brawler from Korea, who gave Erik Morales a difficult fight.

Humberto Soto/Rocky Juarez
Soto, left, became previously undefeated Rocky Juarez's foe on just two weeks' notice. Soto made the most of his opportunity.

When Chi pulled out two weeks before the fight because of an injury, he was replaced by a very capable, but more methodical Humberto Soto in what became a fight for the interim WBC title -- which merely positions the winner for an actual title shot.

So, not only did Juarez have to prepare for a completely different style, he was also emotionally deflated because he lost his chance to fight for a world championship. The result, a close victory by Soto, wasn't terribly surprising.

"It was tough," Juarez said. "You only have two, two-and-a-half weeks to work on a particular style. You just have to adjust in the ring. And, yes, it was a big letdown. I think that had a lot to do with it, too.

"You prepare yourself both physically and mentally, knowing this is your shot at a world title. You still feel you need to win but it's not the same. You imagine your hand raised after the fight, a belt around your waist, and then everything changes.

"You just try to stay positive. Now, I'm just anxious to get back into the ring."

Again, the vast majority of fights that involve substitutes end the way they're supposed to: with the original, more-prepared fighter as the winner. Most aren't memorable; others certainly are.

Finally, we get it done and Tomashek gets knocked out in [four] rounds. [Tomashek] also ends up ESPN's highlight reel because in the middle of the fight he holds Morrison's head and gives him a noogie. The whole thing was crazy.
Matchmaker Bruce Trampler recalling last-minute replacement fighter Tim Tomashek's tactics vs. Tommy Morrison in 1993

Finally, consider Tim Tomashek of Whiting, Ind.

WBO heavyweight champ Tommy Morrison, who had recently outpointed George Foreman to win the vacant title, was scheduled to fight Mike Williams on ESPN in August 1993 in Kansas City. On the night of the fight, however, Top Rank Boxing matchmaker Bruce Trampler had a feeling the flaky Williams might disappear at the last moment.

Trampler noticed that Tomashek, fairly well-known in the Midwest, is at the fight and asked whether he'd be interested in facing Morrison if Williams dropped out.

"I'm talking to Tomashek in one place and, meanwhile, [promoter Bob] Arum is still trying to convince Williams not to leave," Trampler said. "So I tell Morrison what's going on and he says, 'I don't want to fight Tim. He's a nice guy and he has that awkward style.'

"Then, no surprise, Williams leaves and Tomashek and Morrison give their OK. Now, Arum is trying to convince the WBO supervisor to let Tomashek fight and get ESPN to go along with it. Finally, we get it done and Tomashek gets knocked out in [four] rounds. [Tomashek] also ends up ESPN's highlight reel because in the middle of the fight he holds Morrison's head and gives him a noogie.

"The whole thing was crazy."

That's what you get sometimes when substitute fighters are involved.

Michael Rosenthal covers boxing for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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