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McGuigan Loses Title; Hearns Stops Medal : Irishman Is Knocked Down Three Times in Loss to Cruz

Times Staff Writer

Barry McGuigan, a nation’s pride, gave way to a plumber’s helper from Fort Worth Monday night, losing a decision and his World Boxing Assn. featherweight title to Stevie Cruz after being knocked down once in the 10th round and twice in the 15th.

No disgrace to McGuigan, though his responsibilities were greater. McGuigan, who had only known the cool pluck of the Irish, finally wilted in the desert heat. Yet he gave as valiant a battle as boxing has known, staggering through a 15th round that he probably shouldn’t have been in.

This was some large surprise to the sweating fans at Caesars Palace, who had figured his opponent, Cruz, to be in a fight he shouldn’t have been in. McGuigan, whose storybook career had galvanized and served to unite his divided Ireland, was penciled in for a walk-through on a card that seemed to offer the fans more celebrity than competition. If he could unite a nation, he could do something for an equally troubled sport.

Yet Cruz, who makes $6.50 an hour for Rivera Plumbing, survived the Clones Cyclone and he extended him into a final round before taking his title. It was a fight Cruz couldn’t win, McGuigan was so far ahead on the score cards, even with a one-point deduction in the 12th round for a low blow.

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And then Cruz, 126 pounds, floored McGuigan, 126. It was a left-right-left combination that seemed simply to push a fully depleted McGuigan to the baked canvas. It appeared he was heading there anyway; the punches were nearly unnecessary.

McGuigan, whose legs had been operating independently of his nervous system for nearly four rounds--manager Barney Eastwood said, “They were never the same after the 10th"--staggered around the ring, his eyes seemingly rolled back into his head. Whether by Cruz’s blow or by the heat, which was 110 degrees at the start of the fight, he was absolutely helpless. It was his unconscious resolve alone that kept him upright; no man would rationally move into another man’s punches with so little physical resource.

McGuigan did last the round, which turned out to be the real upset of the evening, and Cruz, who had been tabbed a 9-1 underdog when he was named to replace an earlier opponent a month ago, won by unanimous decision.

Though it can be argued that McGuigan would have saved his title without the point deduction--it would have been a draw by majority decision--it can just as easily be argued that the fight shouldn’t have been in contention by the 15th round. Had he not lost the final round by 10-7 scores on two cards, and 10-8 on a third, he would still have retained the championship.

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Judge Guy Jutras of Canada scored it 142-141, Angel Tovar of Venezuela, 143-142, and Medrado Villalobos of Colombia, 143-139, all for Cruz.

For Ireland, and for every promoter who hoped to capture the buck of the Irish with the charismatic McGuigan, this was as big a blow as any Barry, 25, suffered. Some 2,200 fans, as appreciative of his position as good will ambassador in troubled Ireland as champion, were in the scorched stands, chanting, “Ho, Barry.”

The 70 or so fans of Cruz, 22, many of them from the plumbing company, were not quite as important a force. But then, the fight had to be won in the ring, which the late afternoon sun had turned into a kiln.

At first the heat seemed to affect Cruz (26-1) the more. “In the early rounds,” he said, “I faded away. The heat on my feet, on my back, and even when I was in my corner, the sun was in my face.”

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It was earlier in the fight, mostly in the third and fourth rounds, that McGuigan seemed to be taking the fight away. His jab was bigger and he froze Cruz with a pair of right hands in the third. Cruz was a kind of sophisticated punching bag in that round.

Yet McGuigan could not hurt him, which seemed to embolden the challenger. “When I took those shots pretty well,” Cruz said, “I knew I could gamble, and could take his best shot.”

In fact, Cruz did take a lot of shots, but in the sixth and seventh rounds gave out some of his own. He succeeded in backing McGuigan up. McGuigan can’t fight backing up and he suffered for it. Cruz even knocked McGuigan down in the 10th round, catching him in a corner and lightly whirling him to the canvas with a left hook.

But McGuigan (29-2), who has suffered tough 15 round fights before, notably when he took the title from Eusebio Pedroza, regained control of the fight in the 12th round. He was all over Cruz, like up and down. It was then that Richard Steele, finally acting to curb McGuigan’s insistent low blows, deducted a point. But McGuigan was scoring plenty to spare, it seemed. He was bearing in, and if he couldn’t hurt Cruz, he was certainly winning the rounds.

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But then came the 15th round. Cruz, who had only knocked out 13 opponents, as opposed to McGuigan’s 24, turned puncher. Though in truth, it no longer required a puncher to floor McGuigan. He seemed devastated by the heat, suddenly unable to move his feet. His body, tilting all over the ring, seemed to dictate the action, dragging him one way or another. How did he stay upright?

Well, twice he didn’t. But the fact that Cruz couldn’t finish him was a tribute to McGuigan.

Later, it was learned just how desperate McGuigan’s condition was. Unable to make a post-fight press conference, he was wheeled away to Valley Hospital, an IV in his arm, ice on his chest and head. McGuigan had complained of headaches and, though entirely conscious and not in any apparent danger, was hospitalized overnight for tests. Doctors later said he had suffered a mild concussion.

Little Stevie Cruz, whose bearing of confidence in the ring might have shaken lesser fighters, was calm afterward, as if this were just another fight. Of course, it was. He was a late replacement when top-ranked Fernando Sosa dropped out, but had been in training at the time so gladly accepted the fight. He was fitting pipe when he learned that somebody wanted to fight for a world title.

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“I’m going to take a vacation for a couple weeks,” he said, “but I’ll be back on the job. I’ll want a raise, though.”

Asked about McGuigan, Cruz said: “He was very, very tough, a great champion. I’d like to say to the Irish people, they should be very proud of Barry.”

Trainer Joe Berrientes said he had to exhort Cruz to finish the job. “He has a habit of hurting somebody and then backing off. I slapped him a couple of times and he was fine.”

Cruz admitted he might have needed it. “I have a bad habit when I get a fighter in trouble--I don’t go for a knockout.”

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Cruz earned $70,000 for the fight, while McGuigan received a reported $940,000.

Asked about a possible rematch, Cruz’s manager, Dave Gorman, said: “It would not be the next defense, but there will be a rematch. If they got enough money over in Ireland, we’ll go there.”

For McGuigan, the future is not so clear. He was being groomed for superstar status. His talent for brawling and making exciting fights, along with his very marketable story of salving wounds in terror-torn Ireland, made him a natural for the big closed-circuit cards. But what happened Monday night is a different story, and probably few other than Cruz and his buddies at Rivera Plumbing like it any.


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