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Stevenson-Caraballo is bringing boxing back, but is not a return to normal in a changing world

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Boxing returns to the airwaves tonight, but too much has changed to go back to “normal.”

Top Rank

Calling the Tuesday Top Rank fight card on ESPN “a return to normal” is just not appropriate, because too much has happened in the last three months for us to go back to exactly where we were.

This was made perhaps a bit clearer at the Monday weigh-in. Masks on, mostly, and disinfectant being sprayed around like the damn show is sponsored by Lysol.

At the MGM Grand Ballroom on Monday, Top Rank convened the fighters taking part in the first “big time” boxing event unfolding since COVID-19’s talons dug into the world and shook up the planet.

Shakur Stevenson’s visage in photos betrayed no emotions, no reticence or extra solemnity, at least to my eyes, as he showed boxing fans that he didn’t spend his forced hiatus cheering himself up with pints of ice cream, like so many of us.

Clearly, though, this is not fully business as usual, nothing resembling “normal.”

For some fighters on this promotion, from places where coronavirus hasn’t made the rounds so viciously, they’ll not be holding on to extra tension that came from living under a cloud.

Stevenson has made Virginia his home, after growing up in Newark, New Jersey. Jersey has the second-most deaths from the virus in the US, after New York, so it’s fair to say to most people in that state, the virus is perceived as an evil specter.

I just spent ten days in Virginia — Onancok, to be precise, a town of 1,300 or so folks. That spot, on the eastern shore of the state, didn’t seem to be gripped by the specter. Virginia’s death toll from COVID-19 is 17th in the US, and when I was there, a property manager, a TV installer, and an AC repair guy all came to the house, and none wore masks. Your point of view quite often depends on where you are standing.

A reporter asked Stevenson, trying his hand at 130 pounds for this fight, about his mental state, what with the pandemic rolling into the George Floyd murder, and resultant unrest and protests and support marches playing out.

“Honestly, I’ve been more focused on my fight,” the 13-0 fighter said on a Monday call. “I understand everything that’s going on and I’m with my people in everything that’s going on, but I got a fight coming up so I’ve been in the gym every day, and then going home. When I go home, I’m watching boxing. I’ve been in camp so I’m not really too focused on anything that’s going on outside. I’m more locked in on what’s going on the inside as far as boxing.”

Fair enough, but you will note he has an homage to George Floyd on his Instagram page, so we’re thinking he’s maybe pondered the ways of the world a bit more than “normal” in recent weeks.

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Rest in power ✊

A post shared by Shakur Stevenson (@shakurstevenson) on

And his foe, the Puerto Rican Caraballo, his home island has seen “just” 142 deaths, but the U.S. territory got rocked by hurricanes in 2017. Hurricane Maria killed some 4,600 citizens, and did a number of infrastructure, water supplies, and the psyche of the populace. Point being, it’s not so easy to find fighters on any card that are able to say that the fights Tuesday are just a continuation, simply a re-start.

We’re guessing heavyweight Jared Anderson (age 20; from Ohio) stays mentally on message at the MGM, and gets to 4-0 against 8-2 Johnnie Langston from Florida. But he’s been thinking about matters outside the boxing sphere. Check out his IG post, paying homage to George Floyd.

Anderson will almost certainly feel at home in the ring, comfortable, like he’s where he belongs, but it is different. Progress will come from the pain, from the lives lost to the virus, and the lives lost and the persons scarred by a nation’s indifference to racial profiling and oppression and marginalizing.

And I will ponder as I tune in tonight, how the last three months have affected a guy who was born in Italy, like heavyweight Guido Vianello, who now makes Las Vegas his home base. He wants to get to 7-0, against 16-3-1 Don Haynesworth, from New Rochelle, New York.

People in the region likely know that New Rochelle was the first “hot spot” for coronavirus in New York state, back in mid-March, which seems a lifetime ago. So you have Vianello’s native Italy, a nation mourning 34,000 deaths from the virus, fourth-most of all countries on Earth; and New Rochelle, that town which from now on will be labeled in many peoples’ heads as geographic marker of the inflection point in New York. Two places now linked by a devastating pandemic.

I won’t assume anything, because one just never should. But I wonder how much this nation’s racial climate has been on the minds of some of the guys fighting. And if the world weren’t like it is right now, I would have done a better job figuring that out.

Late in the game, around midnight on Monday, I messaged Haynesworth. I’d done that before, he was going to be on an edition of Facebook Fight Night Live in Pennslyvania, another card which got scratched because of virus concerns. One of my questions was going to be, “Hey, has the George Floyd situation/fallout/movement influenced your preparation, or focus, or mindset?”

But these are not normal times — on Sunday, my wife and oldest daughter took part in a support march in Brooklyn, walking and chanting and sending a message to any and all that we are all past the point of disgust. That we demand deep systemic change, and are repulsed by the continued mistreatment and brutalization of people stemming from the color of their skin. On Sunday, I came home from the march tired, proud of my family, and a bit worried, because thousands of people were kind of close to each other, and even masked, I understand there is risk. So I didn’t feel like doing boxing writing, and put it off until Monday.

But guess what? Haynesworth came through.

Bill Tompkins boxing Archive Photo by Bill Tompkins/Getty Images

I asked him, “Are you having to block out ‘distractions’ now, stuff like the pandemic and the death of George Floyd, or do those things affect you now, too?”

“Those things are on my mind, as well,” Haynesworth replied. “But business still has to be taken care of, and I will actually use it as motivation for me going into this fight. I know how to block them out while using them as motivation at the same time.”

And Haynesworth confirmed for me that, like so many pugilists, he feels so at home in the ring. It is a comfort zone for fighters.

“As crazy as this may sound, I’m actually extremely comfortable in the ring,” he said. “I feel safe and have tunnel vision from the first bell to the last bell.”

Bless this guy, I’m sure he wanted to sleep, but he answered a last question about what the whole experience has been like, with the strict rules in place to try and keep virus-free.

“I flew in last Thursday, and staying here at the MGM Grand has been first class except for being quarantined on my floor until after the fights,” he said with a laugh. “But I get it, safety-first and we’re all in a bubble here on our floor and clean!”

Things will eventually get more placid. Protests will fall off, and after who knows how long, you will be able to see peoples’ faces. Time will pass, and will you hold on to the gratitude you feel for being alive — or will you take it for granted, and go back to your “old normal?” Will it be back to stewing in self-pity over not having the right car, the big enough bank account, or being at the same fighting weight you were in high school? Will the powers that be continue to be blessed by a populace that suffers a failure of imagination? One that can’t conceive of the possibility that things could be better, should be better, and things like school shootings do not have to be the norm?

Or will you continue to be galvanized by the energy summoned by the death of a 47-year-old black man who declared he couldn’t breathe as a cold and cruel white man wearing a uniform signifying his duty to “serve and protect” choked the life out of him?

Will a movement of building empathy flourish, because citizens finally understand the pursuit of “success” that uses money as the main metric works to build the market cap of big banks, but deadens souls?

No, right now is a time unlike any other in our nation’s history, so might I suggest you let that sit and simmer in your head. The times, they have a changed, to what degree we cannot yet know.

Forgive me, I know many of you were expecting and hoping for more of a straight-up analysis of the weigh-in and matchups. But these times are different, and I pray we do not return, ever, to the old normal.

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