Tony Oliva is a big boxing fan. As a result, he left the Minnesota Twins in Cleveland to watch last weekend’s 11-bout fight card in downtown Minneapolis.
“I feel bad about leaving” the team on their first post-All Star road trip, the former Twins great told me last week, “but I had to come here.”
Oliva is especially a fan of local welterweight contender Jamal James. James defeated former champion Antonio DeMarco last Saturday night by unanimous decision in front of a packed crowd at The Armory.
“I know him and his whole family,” Oliva said of the 6’-2” South Minneapolis native. “I know his mama, his grandma. He is a very nice kid.”
“I’m just grateful because Tony Oliva was such a big name, not just in Minnesota but in the sporting world,” James stressed. “I’ve been knowing him since I was a kid. I’m blessed to have that relationship.”
Oliva pointed out that he and many other young men growing up in his native Cuba typically had and still have two choices of a sport to pursue: “It was either boxing or baseball,” he recalled. “I like boxing, but at the same time I’m chicken. I don’t want to get hit.”
So he chose doing the hitting instead — 1,917 career hits in 15 seasons (1962-76), and still waiting for the National Baseball Hall of Fame to call. “I get nervous” for James, Oliva admitted. “I’m pulling for him to win all the time, but I don’t want anybody to get hurt.”
And James mostly didn’t get hurt in his win over DeMarco, the former 2011 WBC lightweight champ, to improve to 26-1. “You get hit, you can’t lose your cool,” he said after his victory when asked about surviving round two when DeMarco teed off on him against the ropes.
“He jumped on me and had me on the ropes, but I was able to shake it off and come right back. I think I got his respect,” James said of his gamy opponent.
I asked the city native after the pre-fight press conference if he saw the DeMarco fight as his toughest to date, and he answered the same question from me after the fight: “It definitely was a tough fight. I put it up there in the top three.”
The James-DeMarco bout was the headline event on a card that also featured two heavyweight matchups. Heavyweights once were boxing’s top class, but since the late 1990s, it has been overshadowed by lower classes.
“We all are ascending to that position to get an opportunity…to put our names on that list” of great heavyweights, said Gerald Washington (20-3-1), who knocked out Robert Helenius in the eighth round of their scheduled 10-rounder. He told me afterwards, “It was a great tough test for me.”
Former world heavyweight champion Charles Martin improved to 27-2-1 with his fourth-round TKO victory over Daniel Martz. Before the fight, Martin told me that he was vying for another title shot, hopefully by the end of the year.
“He [Martz] threw a good flurry on me in the second round, and that woke me up,” Martin said after his win. “I got into my rhythm and took care of business.”
James’ stablemate VeShawn Owens — both fighters train at South Minneapolis’ Circle of Discipline gym — was on last Saturday’s undercard. His sixth-round knockout of Juan Garces came four bouts before James came into the ring. “It felt good,” Owens told us afterwards.
James, who is ranked third in the world, wants his chance to fight for the welterweight title. “I’m down for the challenge,” he said. “I want that title fight.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.