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Ramirez shows how far he has come with hard-fought win

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Ramirez shows how far he has come with hard-fought win

Opening Bell: Ramirez comes of age

After Jose Ramirez’s 2012 U.S. Olympic appearance, he came into the pros as a heralded 21-year-old prospect with a great left hook who was still in need of a lot of development. I saw most of Ramirez’s early fights and always had questions about whether he would become a top professional, and I wasn’t the only one. But here we are now and Ramirez, 26, of Avenal, California, has become not only a top junior welterweight — perhaps the best in the division — but one of the biggest attractions of any American fighter, in large part because of how he has endeared himself to his hometown fans with his relentless community service.

The son of Mexican immigrants who once picked fruit in the Central California fields, Ramirez showed how good he has become and how popular he is with a spirited and close majority decision over Jose Zepeda — a legitimate challenger — in the main event of the Top Rank Boxing on ESPN card Sunday night at the Save Mart Center in Fresno, California.

Ramirez has fought there many times and always drawn big crowds, but none have been bigger than the 14,034 he drew Sunday for a card that he used to help raise money for his “KO Cancer” effort.

That faithful crowd saw Ramirez (24-0, 16 KOs) on a night that was clearly not his best, but he was still able to bite down and edge Zepeda (30-2, 25 KOs), 29, a southpaw from Long Beach, California, whose only previous loss was due to a dislocated shoulder against then-lightweight titlist Terry Flanagan in 2015.

Ramirez, making his second defense and in his second fight with trainer Robert Garcia, won 116-112 and 115-113, with one judge scoring it 114-114, to outduel a fighter trained by Freddie Roach, who had led Ramirez to the title before being replaced. Ramirez got off to a very slow start but came back strong and asserted himself in the late rounds to pull out a well-deserved win for which Zepeda gave him credit.

It was the kind of hard-fought victory that Ramirez truly earned, showing just how far he has come since turning pro with vast potential but many question marks.

Next for Davis?

Junior lightweight world titlist Gervonta Davis (21-0, 20 KOs) has enormous talent and, at 24, should have a long career ahead of him if he can stay focused and out of trouble, which has been a problem in the past. But he’s saying all the right things now and looked great Saturday in Carson, California, where he smoked late-replacement opponent and former junior featherweight titlist Hugo Ruiz (39-5, 33 KOs), 32, of Mexico, in the first round after injured Abner Mares had withdrawn a week earlier.

Promoter Floyd Mayweather said Davis’ next defense will be in May and there are also plans for a summer Baltimore homecoming fight. But with the way Mayweather spoke, don’t expect to see Davis against an elite foe, unfortunately.

Mayweather made it clear before the fight that though Davis isn’t turning down top names, Mayweather and Mayweather Promotions CEO Leonard Ellerbe are picking Davis’ opponents.

“He don’t pick and choose. So, if y’all wanna criticize anybody, criticize me, criticize Leonard Ellerbe or criticize whoever, but don’t criticize the fighters,” Mayweather said. “The fighter’s job is to go out there and fight and be the best that they could possibly be.”

After the fight, Mayweather was at it again, belittling the prospect (unlikely as it is) of a fight between Davis and unified lightweight champion and pound-for-pound king Vasiliy Lomachenko, which would be a huge fight.

“We’re not going to call any particular fighter out, and it’s not like we’re ducking and dodging anyone,” he said. “Lomachenko has to fight as many fights as possible, extremely quick, because he’s very, very old [30]. ‘Tank’ is like 10 or 11 years younger than Lomachenko [six, actually]. Lomachenko will be 40 before you know it. There is no rush. ‘Tank’ just has to keep doing what he’s doing. He’s making the same money that Lomachenko is making and doing it easier. Lomachenko is a hell of a fighter and I like Lomachenko, but after ‘Tank’ went and beat the champion up [Jose Pedraza for his first belt in 2017], Lomachenko went and beat Tank’s leftovers and he went the distance [with Pedraza in a December lightweight unification].”

Upset of the weekend: Cancio-Machado

This is why they fight the fights, as Andrew Cancio pulled off what may stand up as the upset of the year on Saturday in the main event of Golden Boy’s DAZN card in Indio, California. Alberto Machado, making his third junior lightweight title defense, was a huge favorite to beat Cancio, who retired after a knockout loss to Joseph Diaz in September 2016. But Cancio (20-4-2, 15 KOs), 30, of Blythe, California, returned 19 months later and won a pair of lesser fights before being fed to Machado (21-1, 17 KOs), 28, a southpaw from Puerto Rico, for what was supposed to be an easy defense.

Cancio, who works a day job for a gas company, survived a first-round knockdown from a left uppercut and began to hurt Machado in the second round. He took over in the second half of the fourth round, flooring Machado three times. The first time was with a right hand to the stomach from which Machado never recovered. Machado went down twice more from body shots before referee Raul Caiz Jr. waved it off at 2 minutes, 16 seconds.

The next step: Machado said he’d like a rematch, and he has a contractual option for one, but he also said he felt weak and might go up to lightweight. Cancio, meanwhile, celebrated a massive win but will be back at work at his other job this week and will have a litany of 130-pounders calling him out.

Fight of the weekend: Beltran-Okada

Ray Beltran is rarely in a bad fight and he had another dramatic barnburner with Hiroki Okada, which Beltran won by ninth-round knockout in the Ramirez-Zepeda co-feature.

In his fourth opportunity, Beltran (36-8-1, 22 KOs), 37, of Phoenix, finally claimed a lightweight world title last February, but he lost it by decision to Jose Pedraza in August. Beltran made his return at junior welterweight for a tough fight with Japan’s Okada (19-1, 13 KOs), 29.

It was an absolute slugfest from the start, with the second round an early candidate for round of the year. Beltran dropped Okada with a left hook and survived an assault late in the round as Okada rocked him with a right hand. Beltran eventually floored Okada twice with rights in the ninth round, and referee Jack Reiss stopped it at 2:09 when Okada’s corner threw in the towel. Beltran led 78-74 on one card but the other two had it 76-76 at the time of the stoppage. Just a terrific fight.

The next step: Beltran would like another world title fight. Whomever he fights, one thing is for sure: Fans are in for entertainment. “We are ready for whoever Top Rank wants to bring to the table,” Beltran said. “I’m the type of fighter that doesn’t back down from any challenges. I’m open to any opportunity at 135 or 140 pounds.”

Fights you might have missed

Saturday at Indio, California

Junior featherweight Rey Vargas (33-0, 22 KOs) W12 Franklin Manzanilla (18-5, 17 KOs), scores: 117-108 (three times).

Vargas, 28, of Mexico, retained his title for the fourth time with a no-frills performance against Venezuela native Manzanilla, 30, in the Machado-Cancio co-feature. Vargas survived a second-round knockdown from a left hand but regained control and outboxed Manzanilla, who had referee Raul Caiz Sr. dock him two points for hitting behind the head in the seventh round and hitting on the break in the eighth. Vargas outlanded Manzanilla in 11 of the 12 rounds and finished with a 207-93 edge in punches landed, according to CompuBox.

Saturday at Fresno, California

Junior featherweight Carlos Castro (22-0, 9 KOs) W10 Genesis Servania (32-2, 15 KOs), scores: 100-90, 99-91, 98-92.

Castro, 24, of Phoenix, gave Servania a boxing lesson in a surprisingly one-sided rout on the ESPN+ portion of the Ramirez-Zepeda undercard. Castro’s skills and speed left Servania unable to mount any kind of serious attack as Castro scored by far his biggest win. Servania gave featherweight world titleholder Oscar Valdez all he could handle in a title challenge in September 2017, but lost a decision. Servania won his next three fights, then dropped down to junior featherweight to face Castro.

Junior lightweight Andy Vences (22-0-1, 12 KOs) W8 Dardan Zenunaj (14-6, 11 KOs), scores: 80-72 (three times).

Vences, 27, of San Jose, California, is not far from a shot at a world title and stayed busy with a shutout of Zenunaj, 31, a Los Angeles-based Kosovo native. Vences won his second fight in a row since a draw with fellow unbeaten Erick De Leon in 11 months ago.

Heavyweight Guido Vianello (2-0, 2 KOs) KO1 Andrew Satterfield (4-2, 2 KOs).

Vianello, 24, was a 2016 Italian Olympian and turned pro in December. He’s very raw and a project, but he has charisma and power and there’s no rush. He took out Satterfield easily, dropping him with a combination early in the opening round and finishing him with a follow-up assault of many unanswered shots that forced referee Rudy Barragan to halt the action at 1:54.

Junior welterweight Cristian Coria (29-7-2, 13 KOs) KO3 Joel Diaz Jr. (24-2, 20 KOs).

Coria, 36, of Argentina, scored an upset against once-heralded prospect Diaz, 26, of Palmdale, California. Top Rank put Diaz on the card to look at him with the possibility of signing him, but that’s not happening after Coria dropped him hard in the third round and then for a second time with a brutal left hook. As Diaz stumbled to his feet, referee Rey Danseco waved it off at 1:50. Diaz was considered a top prospect before Regis Prograis drilled him in the second round two fights ago in June 2017.

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Jurgen Klopp needs to rule with his head and focus on the Premier League, not Bayern

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Jurgen Klopp needs to rule with his head and focus on the Premier League, not Bayern

The trick is getting head and heart to coexist in the right proportion, at the right time, and a great manager knows when to turn the dial toward the “heart” end.

It’s how Liverpool came back from 3-0 down in a Champions League final, remember? You loosen the reins, go for it and believe in the improbable. To paraphrase “Risky Business,” it gives you freedom, freedom brings opportunity, opportunity makes your future…

But there are times when you need it turned back toward the “head” end. Knockout European football is jiu-jitsu as much as anything else and Jurgen Klopp, who has won 12 of 15 two-legged knockouts, knows this as well as anyone.

He won’t admit it in so many words — managers are specifically conditioned not to do this — but there’s a bigger picture to consider as Liverpool host Bayern Munich in the first leg of their Round of 16 clash.

As important as the Champions League may be, both financially and in terms of prestige, his club are poised to do something they haven’t managed to do in 29 years: become English champions. As droughts go, this one is particularly stinging because when Liverpool last won it back in 1989-90, no English club had won it more times. Since then, Manchester United have passed their 18 league titles — or, as Sir Alex Ferguson famously said, “knocked them off their f—–g perch” — and no club in a major European league, among those who have won more than 10 league titles, has gone as long between titles.

In that sense, Klopp’s head has a very clear message and one that his heart doesn’t like very much: the Premier League must come first.

You can imagine heart and head duking it out over the past 10 days during the club’s warm-weather training in Marbella. The logic speaks volumes. Next Sunday, Liverpool travel to Old Trafford to face Manchester United. If they can escape unscathed, they will nose in front of Manchester City (who have played one more match) by either a point or three points. Do that and you control your destiny because the fixture list is kind. Every single away game after that is against a side from the bottom half of the table, except for Everton. And every single home game, bar Chelsea and Tottenham, is against a team from outside the top six.

It’s not a dead cert, by any means — Liverpool learned the hard way, when Steven Gerrard slipped in 2013-14, that there is no certainty in football — but at least a chance at controlling your own destiny.

There’s another factor pointing you toward the league: Your starting central defence may well be made up of two guys (Joel Matip and Fabinho) who, between them, have played the position less than a dozen times in the past 12 months. Joe Gomez is injured. Virgil Van Dijk is suspended. Dejan Lovren hasn’t played in six weeks, missed the training camp and is still nursing his injured hamstring. You don’t want to risk his health because you’ll need him down the stretch, as Gomez might not be back until April.

Plus, you know Manchester City are in the opposite boat. They have a League Cup final to play, they’re through to the quarterfinal of the FA Cup and their Champions League opponents aren’t Bayern but Schalke, who sit 14th in the Bundesliga and have won just once in 2019. That’s where your head tells you: Let them deal with the fixture congestion of advancing in Europe and two domestic cups.

You can hear your head loud and clear. But thrumming away inside you is your heart, and its message is different. Your heart reminds you that many thought you were doomed against City last year, when you were so depleted that you had to call on somebody named Conor Masterson to sit on the bench just so you could field an 18-man squad. And you won home and away, 5-1 on aggregate.

Plus, this is Bayern. Not that long ago, you knocked them off their perch and made your name in world football. Like the cool clique in school, they’re the guys who take it for granted that everyone in German football wants to hang with them. Not you; you turned them down before and you may be asked to do it again. It was sweet then and it would be sweeter still now.

And then there’s maybe the greatest pull of all. Tuesday night, you’ll hear them, even from the bowels of Anfield, even before you walk past the “This is Anfield” sign. You’ll see the Kop moving as one, the wall of sound will hit you, the faces will, for a moment, become distinct before melting back into the red. They too are balancing their hearts and their heads but in that moment, the former will rule. And you’ll be swept up in it. You always are.

Klopp knows his team have lost their last five European games away from Anfield, conceding 12 goals in the process. The question isn’t whether to field an under-strength side and save his big hitters for Manchester United — he won’t do that — but how much mental and emotional energy to expend on this clash.

And so, maybe, you treat this a “free hit.” If you get something from it, you can use that momentum and self-belief as fuel against United. If you come up short, it won’t derail your season.

Tomorrow night, Klopp should go with the head, tempered by the right amount of heart. The trick for him is getting the balance right while keeping his eyes on the prize: The one that has been missing since before the vast majority of his squad, and many of the fans, were even born.

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Giants manager Bruce Bochy to retire after 2019 season

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Giants manager Bruce Bochy to retire after 2019 season

San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy has announced he will retire after the 2019 season.

Bochy, 63, has been the Giants’ manager since 2007 and has guided them to three World Series championships, in 2010, ’12 and ’14.

Before that he managed the San Diego Padres from 1995 to 2006. He took them to the World Series in 1998, where they lost to the Yankees. He was named Manager of the Year in 1996.

In 24 years as a manager, he has a record of 1,926-1,944. His victory total ranks 11th on the all-time list.

Bochy played nine seasons in the big leagues as a catcher for the Astros, Mets and Padres.

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French fencing body recognizes lightsaber dueling as a sport

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French fencing body recognizes lightsaber dueling as a sport

BEAUMONT-SUR-OISE, France — Master Yoda, dust off his French, he must.

It’s now easier than ever in France to act out “Star Wars” fantasies, because its fencing federation has borrowed from a galaxy far, far away and officially recognized lightsaber dueling as a competitive sport, granting the iconic weapon from George Lucas’ saga the same status as the foil, epee and sabre, the traditional blades used at the Olympics.

Of course, the LED-lit, rigid polycarbonate lightsaber replicas can’t slice a Sith lord in half. But they look and — with the more expensive sabers equipped with a chip in their hilt that emits a throaty electric rumble — even sound remarkably like the silver screen blades that Yoda and other characters wield in the blockbuster movies.

Plenty realistic, at least, for duelists to work up an impressive sweat slashing, feinting and stabbing in organized three-minute bouts. The physicality of lightsaber combat is part of why the French Fencing Federation threw its support behind the sport and is now equipping fencing clubs with lightsabers and training would-be lightsaber instructors. Like virtuous Jedi knights, the French federation sees itself as combatting a dark side: the sedentary habits of 21st-century life that are sickening ever-growing numbers of adults and kids.

“With young people today, it’s a real public health issue. They don’t do any sport and only exercise with their thumbs,” says Serge Aubailly, the federation secretary general. “It’s becoming difficult to [persuade them to] do a sport that has no connection with getting out of the sofa and playing with one’s thumbs. That is why we are trying to create a bond between our discipline and modern technologies, so participating in a sport feels natural.”

In the past, the likes of Zorro, Robin Hood and the Three Musketeers helped lure new practitioners to fencing. Now, joining and even supplanting them are Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader.

“Cape and sword movies have always had a big impact on our federation and its growth,” Aubailly says. “Lightsaber films have the same impact. Young people want to give it a try.”

And the young at heart.

Police officer Philippe Bondi, 49, practiced fencing for 20 years before switching to lightsaber. When a club started offering classes in Metz, the town in eastern France where he is stationed for the gendarmerie, Bondi says he was immediately drawn by the prospect of living out the love he’s had for the Star Wars universe since he saw the first film at age 7, on its release in 1977.

He fights in the same wire-mesh face mask he used for fencing. He spent about 350 euros ($400) on his protective body armor (sturdy gloves, chest, shoulder and shin pads) and on his federation-approved lightsaber, opting for luminous green “because it’s the Jedi colors, and Yoda is my master.”

“I had to be on the good side, given that my job is upholding the law,” he said.

Bondi awoke well before dawn to make the four-hour drive from Metz to a national lightsaber tournament outside Paris this month that drew 34 competitors. It showcased how far the sport has come in a couple of years but also that it’s still light-years from becoming mainstream.

The crowd was small and a technical glitch prevented the duelers’ photos, combat names and scores from being displayed on a big screen, making bouts tough to follow. But the illuminated swooshes of colored blades looked spectacular in the darkened hall. Fan cosplay as Star Wars characters added levity, authenticity and a tickle of bizarre to the proceedings, especially the incongruous sight of Darth Vader buying a ham sandwich and a bag of potato chips at the cafeteria during a break.

In building their sport from the ground up, French organizers produced competition rules intended to make lightsaber dueling both competitive and easy on the eyes.

“We wanted it to be safe, we wanted it to be umpired and, most of all, we wanted it to produce something visual that looks like the movies, because that is what people expect,” said Michel Ortiz, the tournament organizer.

Combatants fight inside a circle marked in tape on the floor. Strikes to the head or body are worth five points; to the arms or legs, three points; on hands, one point. The first to 15 points — or, if they don’t get there quickly, the high scorer after three minutes — wins. If both fighters reach 10 points, the bout enters “sudden death,” where the first to land a head- or body blow wins, a rule to encourage enterprising fighters.

Blows only count if the fighters first point the tip of their saber behind them. That rule prevents the viper-like, tip-first quick forward strikes seen in fencing. Instead, the rule encourages swishier blows that are easier for audiences to see and enjoy, and which are more evocative of the duels in Star Wars. Of those, the battle between Obi-Wan and Darth Maul in “The Phantom Menace” that ends badly for the Sith despite his double-bladed lightsaber is particularly appreciated by aficionados for its swordplay.

Still nascent, counting its paid-up practitioners in France in the hundreds, not thousands, lightsaber dueling has no hope of a place in the Paris Olympics in 2024.

But to hear the thwack of blades and see them cut shapes through the air is to want to give the sport a try.

Or, as Yoda would say: “Try not. Do! Or do not. There is no try.”

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