Travel: Transit Visa in Ghana (one afternoon in Accra)

The Finger Post Travel (September 24, 2017)

(Accra, Ghana, July 29, 2017)

I was coming back to Ghana for ten hours…and I didn’t want to spend it in the airport. This proved to be a problem since my visa was only a “single entry” visa and I had already used my one entry into Ghana on that visa. This left few options.

The first was the ever dependable clueless American tourist routine where I just act confused and hope that gets me into the country. I know it’s sort of depressing that an American can stumble into a country, act like he doesn’t understand how borders work, and somehow get in whereas a Syrian can be a physicist or brain surgeon and have to live in a UNICEF tent on the Turkish border. But that seems to be the current state of affairs. Nonetheless this option had some problems. First, it involved everyone who I interacted with at immigration going along. One border guard, coming or going, could lead to a nightmare scenario where I ended up living in the Kokota International Airport like Tom Hanks character from the movie “The Terminal”.

Trust me, it would have not have been nearly as good as the Tom Hanks version.

I did have a picture of myself with former president Jerry Rawlings the week before, so I did understand there was a possibility of showing that photo to the immigration officer and smiling and seeing if that got me anywhere.

But then I pictured what would happen if I flew into Houston with no visa and a photo of me with Bill Clinton and decided that was probably a bad plan as well.

So there was the second option: the 48-hour transit visa. Ghana is a country that doesn’t make it’s visa process particularly easy (although the consulate in Houston was awesome and I really was impressed with their professionalism). But there is an easy second option: the transit visa. Although there was almost no information online about the transit visa, I was able to ascertain from a most reputable source (a user comment on Travelocity) that I could in fact obtain a transit visa at the airport when I arrived. However, there seemed to be some dispute as to how much the transit visa cost. I just assumed high and hoped that this would not turn into a travel nightmare. I had already had a full day in Rwanda and a full night of travel from Kigali to Accra. I also had another ridiculously long layover in London (10 hours) coming up and I really wanted to sleep in a bed for a couple hours and get a warm shower.

Arriving in Kokota International Airport I immediately stepped into the “Visa On Arrival” office, where I noticed the prices posted on the window for Transit Visas: $50 USD. It was slightly higher then I was expecting but still in the ballpark. Athough the price were quoted in dollar I decided to pay in Ghanaian Cedis since I was pretty sure I would never be able to get rid of them when I got back to the States. The price went up to GHS 240. Interestingly enough, the service charge for paying in the local currency was about $4 USD. But at this point I wasn’t worried about that. I just wanted to get our of the airport and into my hotel: the Grand Star Hotel in Haatso Bohye, about five miles out of Accra. I booked the room on Hotels.com and at $28 a night the price was right and the photos looked promising. But first I had to get there. Even the seasoned traveler can be overwhelmed by Accra. As soon as you step out of the baggage claim area you are approached by dozens of taxi drivers, hustlers, and helpers all aggressively offering their services. I was under the impression that the hotel would pick me up, but due to a miscommunication, they were not there. Instead I had a taxi driver insist on helping me get to my hotel, much to my chagrin. He eventually called the hotel and they agreed to let him drive me to the hotel and they would pay him, a hefty chunk out of the already inexpensive room rate. I really appreciated it, as I knew that this was already a very inexpensive room and since I already paid for it they could have gone another route and said it was my problem.

Nonetheless, en route the cab driver voiced his displeasure with the hotel. Not because he knew anything about it (he didn’t) but because it was so far out of town. I was once again familiarized with a concept that was alien to Americans: five miles in Africa isn’t the same thing as five miles in America. The journey was somewhat longer than expected, perhaps thirty minutes (although to be honest I wasn’t really paying that much attention). But despite the long journey, by the time I reached the hotel I was certain this was going to be just was the doctor ordered. It was huge, luxurious, and in the middle of BFE. A quiet village with a beautiful hotel dropped in the middle of it.

Upon stepping in I was assisted by Fred, and let me just say, I was blown away by this place. Yes, it was mostly empty, but I could tell it was nonetheless a successful hotel. And its success was based entirely on service. Despite it’s out of the way location they more then made up for the inconvenience in getting there by offering five star service for $30.

I had a room on the third floor, and although there was no elevation I couldn’t complain. Fred carried my rather heavy bags up (hey, what can I say, souvenirs are cheap in Africa). I was already tired and could have fallen asleep right there, but there was one last Ghanaian adventure I had to undertake: fufu. I went down to the restaurant and asked if they could prepare some fufu, the one classic Ghanaian dish I had not tried while in Ghana the previous week. They told me they could. While I waited for my food I walked around the pool area and to the second floor of what looked to be either a bar or a guard tower at one time.

I could see a neighboring primary school with some sort of event going on, and I sat back to listen to a school full of local kids singing away as I soaked in my last day in Africa.

Soon my fufu arrived and I discovered that fufu is best eaten with goat soup. I took a pinch of the fufu to try it and I was quickly won over. This was awesome. Somewhat sweet, somewhat starchy, and delicious; even by itself. With the soup it was even better, and I realized this might go on to be the high water mark of my African cuisine adventure.

Nonetheless the meal was the final tap into my rapidly depleting energon cubes. I headed up to the room and was out before my head hit the pillow. By the time I woke up about four hours later I had a bone crushing headache and a recognition that I needed to head back to the airport. I quickly showered up, changed, and checked out. I asked Fred if I could change $20 so I could give him a tip but he declined. I then got into my cab and headed back to the airport. I arrived with over three hours to spare before my flight. I figured it was plenty of time to get to my gate. Except this was Ghana. The immigration line was a jumbled mess and I finally had to beg a border guard to let me cut in line because I was running out of time. He let me through and I made my gate with about ten minutes to spare before boarding. It was a very African end to my African trip, but even though I ended up spending close to $100 for what amounted to a four hour nap and a bowl of fufu, I didn’t regret it (although this post would have a much different tone in I had in fact missed my flight). In the end, the staff at the Grand Star Hotel and the chance to experience just one more day in Ghana made it worth every penny.

 

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Boxing: Remembering Jake LaMotta

It’s a sad day for boxing. Multiple news sources have reported that the “Raging Bill” Jake LaMotta passed away at the age of 95.

There will be a lot of obituaries for LaMotta by writers and pundits who knew him better than I, but I did want to share one story I had of LaMotta. I met him once, back in July of 2001, at a ESPN televised show I was covering for Fightnews. LaMotta was brought in to do some standup comedy, and, well let’s just say he was a better fighter than a comedian. After a series of jokes of the “take my wife, please!” varient, LaMotta returned to his seat where another writer decided to grab a quick interview with the former champ. LaMotta was personable and engaging…until the writer decided to try his hand at comedy at Jake’s expense. Quoting a line from the film “Raging Bull” (the famous scene where DeNiro confronts Joe Pesci about having an affair with his wife), LaMotta glared at the writer with a look that probably was identical to the scowl he bestowed on Sugar Ray Robinson. The writer joked afterwards that he was going to “leave the comedy to the professionals” and even wrote about the experience.

RIP champ.

 

 

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Boxing: Remembering David Bey

“(Y)ou only learn that when you start losing stuff.  You find out that life is just a game of inches.” – Any Given Sunday

I always loved this quote, and I always felt it applied to boxing as well as football. Boxing is, in the end, a game of inches. So many fighters come so close to glory, so close to that championship belt, that they can almost feel that cold metal faceplate on the front of the belt.

David Bey was one of those guys.

Now make no mistake, this is not a knock on Bey. I have tremendous respect for the hard punching bomber who came ever so close to removing Larry Holmes from his senses back in 1985.  Bey did something that few fighters ever did: fight for a title. He also did something only a fraction of those fighters can say they accomplished: he hurt the champ.  And it wasn’t a lucky shot that rocked Homes. When all is said and done, I think boxing history was wrong about David Bey. He wasn’t some tough kid who caught Greg Page on the right night and scored an upset over the most experienced contender, paving the way for a title fight nobody in boxing was expecting him to get. He wasn’t a lucky pug who stumbled into a title fight en route to  his inevitable fade into journeyman status. He was almost the real deal.

Almost.

Prior to his fight with Holmes he scored two wins over future word champions and against Holmes he rattled the undefeated Hall of Fame champion in the second round. Most fans felt that was where the story ended. He got his title fight and he would spend the rest of his career as an opponent for young up and comers. But he wasn’t done almost upending the heavyweight division just yet. In his next fight he almost upset Trevor Berbick before Bey’s notoriously bad endurance caught up to him. Berbick rallied from a deficit to close the gap and stop Bey in round eleven. But had the fight between Bey and Berbick not been for the USBA title, had Bey v. Berbick been a ten round fight, then things may have gone differently that night. Perhaps Bey would have been the one who caught a poorly trained Pinklon Thomas off guard on 1986. Perhaps Bey would have been the man who Mike Tyson had to get past in order to win his first world title.

Bey was a tough brawler, yes. But he was also an awkward fighter with bone crushing power who ultimately  suffered from the “punchers curse”: poor endurance coupled with a subpar chin. But so many other fighters became world champions despite suffering from the punchers curse (Mike Weaver, Tommy Morrison, Gerrie Coetzee, and Frank Bruno all come to mind). I also can’t help but wonder “what if Bey decided to fight Coetzee in South Africa?”  He certainly could have beaten Coetzee…all he had to do was sell out.

But from what I can tell reading about David Bey from people who knew him, he wasn’t the kind of guy who would sell out what he believed in. Instead he took on the much more dangerous Larry Holmes and came up short, although he came oh so close. .

I wanted to post a clip of David against Greg Page or Buster Douglas, but unfortunalty nobody posted those fights on YouTube. It’s a shame, but the only fights I could find of Bey were the fights he lost. But after watching the Bruce Seldom fight I couldn’t help but think about that quote once again.  Bey was trailing in the fight, but for the better part of ten rounds he gave as good as he got. It would ultimately be the last time he ever gave a contender a run for his money (Bey would be stopped by Joe Hipp in his next fight in a lopsided affair) but there was no denying that he gave Seldon all he could handle when the two fought in 1990. Seldon, boxing fans would discover, was a fighter with a less than stellar chin. But that wasn’t yet established in 1990. Nonetheless from rounds four to nine Bey would catch Seldon with the occasional left hook that would land just an inch from the sweet spot on Seldon’s chin. Seldon would stumble on occasion, but he would never go down.

After ten rounds Bey would again come up just an inch short, this time against a fighter who would go on to win the WBA heavyweight title five years later.

Boxing is, after all, a game of inches.

David Bey is survived by his daughter Leah Bey-Batie and step daughter Kyrstin Ellison as well as nine brothers and sisters.  David’s Life Celebration will take place on  Saturday, September 23rd, beginning at 9:00 a.m. at Pilgrim Baptist Church, 5930 Rising Sun Ave in Philadelphia, followed by his Funeral Service at 11:00 a.m.

In lieu of flowers, a donation in David’s memory to Pilgrim Baptist Church would be appreciated.

Boxing: Former heavyweight contender David Bey passes

I’m sad to report the passing of former heavyweight contender David Bey. According to WPVI, an ABC affiliate in Philadelphia, Bey was working as a Pyle driver with Local Carpenters’ 179 in Camden, New Jersey. He was killed on Wednesday, September 13th, in an industrial accident at the Camden Towers when he was reportedly hit by a steel sheet Pyle.

Bey is perhaps best remembered by boxing fans for his 1985 IBF world title fight against Larry Holmes. Holmes defeated the then undefeated Bey by way of tenth round TKO. But many boxing fans nonetheless remembered the gritty performance from Bey, who rocked Holmes in the second round. Holmes was later quoted by Sports Illustrated as saying Bey “got my attention” in the second round of the fight.

But Bey’s legacy in boxing went beyond the fight with Holmes. Bey’s career would ultimately mimic another famous, albeit fictional, Philadelphia boxer. Having been brought in as the sacrificial lamb in his professional debut in 1981 Bey stunned the boxing world when he knocked out an undefeated prospect with a 5-0 record from Columbus, Ohio in the second round. That fighter’s name was James “Buster” Douglas. After stopping Douglas, Bey would go on to string together another twelve wins before he was again brought in as an “opponent”, this time against another future world champion named Greg Page in August of 1984. Bey would score a stunning upset over Page, winning the USBA heavyweight title by way of twelve round decision. Bey also earned the admiration of boxing fans the world over when he declined a $750,000 offer to fight then WBA champion Gerrie Coetzee in 1985. The offer came with an important caveat: Bey would have to fight Coetzee in the champion’s home country of South Africa. At the time South Africa was ruled by a pro-apartheid regime and Bey, worried that fighting Coetzee in South Africa would give the apartheid regime legitimacy, refused the offer.

Bey would ultimately fight six heavyweight champions in his career as well as an undefeated Olympic gold medalist named Tyrell Biggs. His final fight was a TKO over Dave Jaco in 1994, which brought his professional career to a close with a record of 18-11-1, 14 KOs. He was 60-years old.

Travel: Three Days in Rwanda (Part Four)

The Finger Post Travel (September 13, 2017)

(Kigali, Rwanda, July 25-27, 2017)

There is a funny thing about flying into (and out of) Kigali, Rwanda with Ethiopian Airlines. The flights are all in the middle of the night, which gives a traveler an extra day to enjoy their time in Kigali. Three days earlier my flight into Kigali from Addis Ababa arrived at 12:45 AM (after a 10:45 PM departure from Ethiopia), and I was about to fly out of the country at 1:45 AM on Saturday morning, which gave me all of Friday to explore Kigali.

But although this was the sort of excursion I thrived on when I was a young college student, sleeping on trains and busses only to find myself reenergized in the morning, I also recognized that I wasn’t a young man anymore. This would be a long flight, and if the flight into Rwanda told me anything it was to expect a packed airplane.

I elected to hire Alex for one more day. I liked his energy and he proved to be an engaging host. But I also knew I needed to sleep in, and asked him to pick me up at 10AM from my hotel. As was often the case in Rwanda, he was early.

Our first stop would be the Rwandan Parliament, a functioning legislative building that still carried the scars of the Civil War and that housed its own genocide museum: The Campaign Against Genocide Museum. Arriving at Parliament we went through security where we left our IDs and then spent a full twenty minutes trying to find the entrance to the museum. The building was still trying to find that perfect balance between tourist site and functioning government building, but once we found the museum we were ready to start the tour…with one caveat. No photos inside. I wasn’t sure why since the displays were not particularly noteworthy or historic (nothing was original, most were just photos and text on a museum display along with some mannequins dressed up like soldiers) but I complied.

The only picture I was able to take inside the museum, before they told me “no mas.”

I couldn’t help but note the political nature of the display. The Rwandan Patriotic Front was the ruling party, but this museum made no attempt to hide its political bent in promoting the RPF party line. With that being said, the Green Party didn’t really have a role in stopping the genocide so I guess the museum could be forgiven to a degree. Still, I tried to picture the U.S. Capitol turned into a Civil War Museum with numerous displays talking about how awesome the Republican Party was and I realized that dog wouldn’t hunt out here. I realized the historic separation that we have in the USA between government and political party just wasn’t present in Rwanda. It just wasn’t. Everywhere were reminders that the RPF and Rwanda were, for all intents and purposes, interconnected in a way that Americans would be uncomfortable with. In Rwanda the Party and the State were joined at the hip.

I started to notice that the museum was just as much a celebration of the RPF as it was a memorial to the victims of genocide. And any question I had about the political nature of the museum was answered towards the end of the tour when I saw the display honoring those who stood up in the face of unimaginable horror and fought against the perpetrators. There was a display honoring an old Hutu woman who many locals regarded as a “witch.” She hid Tutsis on her property and scared away the genocidaires by claiming that they would be “cursed” if they searched her land. There was a display of some locals who fought against the Interahamwe armed with little more than the tools from their farms. There was a display of foreigners who helped protect innocent Tutsis from slaughter.

And yet nothing on the most famous hero to emerge from the Rwandan Genocide: Paul Rusesabagina. Rusesabagina was perhaps best known to Westerners due in large part to the film Hotel Rwanda, which was based on his life. Naturally Hollywood took some liberties, and in the years that followed there have been some of the survivors who claim that Rusesabagina was actually sort of a dirtbag during the siege, charging the refugees for food and soft drinks and even giving the room numbers of guest to the Interahamwe. But for others the story of his heroism and courage were an inspiration. Whatever the case, it seems clear that he risked his life to save the lives of 1,268 innocent Tutsis, giving them shelter at the Hotel Des Mile Collines in Kigali. It was no small act: all across Rwanda so called “moderate Hutus” were being massacred by the Interahamwe. The simple act of giving shelter to the Tutsis, and doing so in such an open way, was an act of unmistakable courage…even if he was price gouging the Diet Cokes.

Welcome to Best Buy Kigali circa 1994

And yet nowhere in Kigali could you find even a mention of Rusesabagina. Not even a display that questioned what role he played. In fact, nothing about the man from Hotel Rwanda.

No explanation was given as to why but the reason seemed obvious: in the years following the genocide he emerged as a vocal critic of President Paul Kagame. With the falling out between Kagame and Rusesabagina, Rusesabagina would soon emerge as a Rwandan Nikolai Yezhov: a ghost, erased from the nation’s history.

 

Once outside I was able to start taking pictures again. The parliament building was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in 1994, a small island of RPF controlled territory surrounded by hostile enemy forces hell bent on their annihilation. It made me think of Sarajevo during the Bosnian Civil War, a Muslim city surrounded by hostile Serb forces determined to eject them from the city by any means necessary. The Parliament in Kigali was in just as desperate a place in 1994. They were they surrounded by the Interahamwe, who were not only determined to remove them but to exterminate them. And on top of that they also had to deal with the refugees who were fleeing the carnage. For those who could reach the Parliament, it was an island of safety in a sea of horror. But for the 600 RPF soldiers fighting for their lives, it couldn’t have been easy, fighting for their lives while also having to deal with an untenable refugee crisis. The first display I was able to see outside was a somewhat unusual display featuring mannequins dressed like RPF soldiers treating injured civilians in a medical bay.

From there we were taken to a statute honoring the soldiers who perished during the rescue operations.

We then went upstairs to the roof, where we saw an incredible view of the city as well as a statute of two soldiers operating an anti-aircraft gun We were told was an exact replica of the gun used to fight off the much larger Interahamwe force looking to seize the building. As is often the case with places of pure horror and carnage, the rooftop was now peaceful and quiet. The faint sounds of the city below seemed to tell a story of a city that was now at peace and devoid of the chaos and confusion that you found in most cities in Africa.

 

But once we were back on the ground floor there was no question that it had not always been the case with the building. The side of the building still wore the scars of the shelling from the war, an unmistakable reminder that Rwanda was not going to forget what had happened in 1994. The final statute was one of a “woman who has just been killed” and soldiers carrying her rescued child.

By now it was already early afternoon and I realized my plan of visiting the Ntarama Genocide Memorial Centre was in danger. Alex was unsure if we could make it before they closed but we would try. As we drove down the highway outside of Kigali I noticed Alex flashing his headlights into incoming traffic, a warning that they were approaching a speed trap. It was something I had to smile about as he explained why he was doing it. In America it was one of the oldest tricks in the book, but in Africa is was a rare thing. For one thing that the police actually enforced speed limits in a way entirely unconnected to collecting bribes. We arrived at Ntarama at just past five and walked in. It was visibly closed by I wandered around for a few minutes taking pictures before we were approached by a security guard who told us they were closed and we had to leave. Alex asked if we could stay just a little longer but the security guard advised that the tour guide had already left.

“Can we see if he would be our guide?” I asked Alex. (Translation: Can a little baksheesh solve this problem?)

Alex laughed uncomfortably. (Translation: no it can’t and I’m not going to ask.)

By now the sun was going down and Alex had one more stop for me, the central marketplace. In Africa, as in much of the world, the marketplace is a unique place for the obvious tourist. The smells, the sounds, the high pressure salesmen…they all were common in the market. And after Kigali challenged every preconceived notion I had about Africa I was curious if the marketplace would also be different.

It wasn’t.

The vendors saw a mark as soon as I walked in and the classic third world marketplace catch phrase soon filled my ear: “hello my friend!”

I had a few items I was looking for, in particular an elephant for a friend of mine. But I was also curious about the clothing situation. Rwanda was planning a total ban on used clothes from the West, seeing it as a threat to the local textile industry. I was curious as to how feasible this ban would be: after all, everywhere in Africa I found used Western clothes that had been donated to a local Goodwill…only to be shipped en masse to Africa where it was distributed to the poor. I could see how hard it would be to fight back against such a market if you were a local manufacturer. How do you compete in a market where your competitor paid nothing (or close to nothing) for their product? How could you sell your domestically produced clothes when the guy next to you was selling a Lady Gaga 2009 World Tour t-shirt for pennies?

The marketplace seemed to have no shortage of local clothing, as I saw dozens of vendors with old sewing machines making clothing. I saw the same thing in Ghana and was fascinated by the frequent sight of women using old 1940s Singer sewing machines to make clothing. Rwanda was no different.

The imported clothing market was already on life support in Rwanda…and soon there would be nowhere in the country where a man or woman could purchase a “Deez Nuts” t-shirt.

I spent the last of my Rwandan money and Alex took me back to my hotel to pick up my bags. It was time to go to the airport and as much as I hated to leave, my time in Rwanda was up. I knew I would be back; there were still so many sites I hadn’t seen. Maybe I could even take a trip down to Burundi next time.  But until then, I would take with me the memories of my three days in Rwanda and smile at the little country in Africa that challenged everything I though I knew about Africa.

 

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Boxing: Tatsuya Fukuhara ranked 10 by WBC

If you haven’t already guessed by now, I’m a big fan of boxing’ smallest weight division.  And I won’t lie; I’m a fan of Kumamoto’s Tatsuya Fukuhara (19-5-6, 7 KOs).

He’s a throwback: a fighter who wasn’t handed anything on the way up and clawed his way to a WBO world title thanks to grit, determination, and perseverance. He’s an exciting fighter whose fight with Moises Calleros was arguably one of the best 105-pound championship fights of all time.  He may not have a flashy record, but in a way that only adds to his appeal.  How many 18-4-6 fighters can you name who not only earned a title fight but then capitalized on it?

For Fukuhara, his loss to Ryuya Yamanaka last month ended his brief title reign, but there is already signs that the gritty former champion may have another shot at a world title before long. The latest WBC rankings have just been released and Fukuhara is currently ranked #10 in the world. This sets up an intriguing matchup that I for one would love to see: a clash between the former WBO champion and the reigning WBC minimumweight champion Chayaphon Moonsri, aka  Wanheng Menayothin. Moonsri has an impressive record of 48-0, 17 KOs, but as it stands now he isn’t even ranked as the top fighter in the division. According to Boxrec.com that distinction goes to his countryman, WBA 105-pound champion Knockout CP Freshmart.

Nonetheless Moonsri is closing in on tying Rocky Marciano’s mark of 49-0 and may surpass Floyd Mayweather’s 50-0 by early 2018. He does show a fondness for non-title fights to pad his record (his last fight was a six rounder against journeyman Jack Amisa back on August 25th. But for fight 49 and 50 he would be better served fighting a higher profile fight and as it stands now Fukuhara fits the bill better than anyone else in the top ten. A former champion with a reputation for fireworks is just the kind of fight that could have the world paying attention as the undefeated Thai champion attempts to tie one of boxing’s most prestigious records.  Here’s hoping for one more title fight for the Kumamoto native. In the end the biggest winner of a Moonsri-Fukuhara fight will be the sport of boxing.

Boxing: Yamanaka edges Fukuhara for WBO mini-flyweight belt

The Finger Post Boxing (September 8, 2017)

(Kumamoto, Japan.  August 27, 2017)

If there is one piece of advice I would give to an aspiring boxing writer it’s this: go to as many locations to see fights. Every country has a it’s own special relationship with the Sweet Science, and you often learn more about a place by watching their fight fans then you often can by visiting their tourist sites.

And nobody does boxing quite like the Japanese. There is a natural politeness and organization in Japan that surprises the Westerner. But for fight fans it’s not just the politeness…it’s the special appreciation Japanese boxing fans seem to have towards the fighter. It’s a unique form of admiration: not as a warrior but as a master of his craft. They cheer when the fight turns into a crowd pleasing brawl, as boxing fans in Kumamoto did when Tatsuya Fukuhara and Moises Calleros engaged in one of the best mini-flyweight fights in recent memory back in February. But they also seem to appreciate the boxer who treats the ring not as a battlefield but as a chessboard. He is an artist and the ring is his canvas, and whereas the American fight fan might grow impatient with his mastery, the Japanese fight fan will often sit back and simply…appreciate.

And on August 27, 2017 boxing fans in Kumamoto were treated to a true artist of the ring: Kobe Japan’s Ryuya Yamanaka (15-2, 4 KOs). Yamanaka, the WBO #1 ranked contender at 105-pounds took on local boy Tatsuya Fukuhara (19-5-6, 7 KOs) the recently crowned WBO mini-flyweight champion and fellow chess master of the squared circle. It was a fight that promised to be less exciting that the one that preceded it, where Fukuhara brawled with Mexican contender Moises Calleros to win the vacant interim title. But in the end, it was intriguing in a different way. As the aggressive Fukuhara chased the fleet footed Yamanaka around the ring one thing was becoming clear: this was a chess match where neither man would be saying “checkmate.” This was a fight where a single jab here or a lone pawn there would be the deciding factor. This was a fight where every punch was going to count, even if it wasn’t as jarring as the heavy punches of the Mexican brawler from Monterrey who fought Fukuhara in February.

And in the end, it was the flashy Yamanaka who edged a close unanimous decision against the aggressive Fukuhara.  All three judges had the fight for Yamanaka, by scores of 115-113 (Surat Soikrachang and Carlos Ortiz) and 116-112 (Salven Lagumbay). For the record TFP scored the fight 114-114, but with that being said I have no complaint about the official score.  It was undoubtedly a fair decision on a close and competitive tactical fight.  And in the end, the close rounds made the fight a difficult one to score.  All three official judges were in agreement for only three rounds: round one (which all three gave to Fukuhara), round seven (which they all scored for Yamanaka) and round ten (which they also scored unanimously for Yamanaka).

Nonetheless, there was no question that Yamanaka boxed brilliantly and although majority of the rounds were won by the slimmest of margins, it was also clear that Yamanaka did frustrate the champion with his hand speed and defense.

The opening round immediately set the stage for the night as Yamanaka used his superior footwork to keep away from Fukuhara. Although Yamanaka caught Fukuhara upstairs with a picture perfect counter as Fukuhara came in, it looked like the dogged aggression of Fukuhara might carry the night as the opening round came to a close. But by round two Yamanaka started to better gauge his distance from Fukuhara, staying just outside of the punching range of Fukuhara while catching the local boy with a pair of overhand rights. Yamanaka continued to give Fukuhara angles in the second before a straight right landed for Fukuhara late in the round, seemingly putting the second round back into play. Nonetheless Yamanaka boxed well in round three and four, although Fukuhara did seem to rattle Yamanaka with a solid combination upstairs in the closing minute of round four. Fukuhara seemed to find his range again in round five, closing the gap ever so slightly. But the tricky Yamanaka revealed another weapon in his arsenal, as he landed a counter uppercut as Fukuhara tried to bull rush his way inside. Fukuhara seemed enraged and fired back with gusto, pounding away at the body of Yamanaka with some effectiveness. But the effective body attack was not utilized enough in round six, as Fukuhara seemed determine to try and sneak in overhand rights instead. Although Fukuhara seemed to bother Yamanaka on several occasions in the sixth with the body attack Yamanaka, he soon began to resemble to bull against Yamanaka’s matador: chasing the sick boxing Kobe boxer but never quite reaching him. Round seven would go on to be Yamanaka’s best, landing right hands against a bull rushing Fukuhara while using superior footwork to frustrate the champion. But although Yamanaka continued to box well in round eight Fukuhara seemed to goad him into a brawl of sorts by the end of the round. It was enough to prompt some ringsiders from asking if Fukuhara had finally worn down his slick opponent. But in round nine it was Fukuhara who showed early signs of fatigue as Yamanaka outworked and outboxed him. Although Fukuhara rallied in the closing seconds of the ninth round, it appeared to be too little, too late. Yamanaka continued his brilliance in round ten, catching Fukuhara on several occasions with solid shots as the aggressive Fukuhara marched in. Although Fukuhara seemed to rattle Yamanaka in the closing minute of the round, there was no question that Yamanaka was boxing well and that he had edged the last two rounds going into the championship round.

But the warrior who brawled with Calleros back in February began to emerge in the corner after round ten, as Fukuhara yelled in the corner and came out in round eleven with more aggression. Fukuhara still walked into some counter punches, but his aggression seemed to steal the eleventh. It seemed like anyone’s fight going into round twelve, and both fighters fought accordingly. Yamanaka boxed brilliantly and energetically, which Fukuhara stalked relentlessly. A solid right from the champion seemed to rattle Yamanaka midway through the round, and Fukuhara literally ran after Yamanaka to determine if he was hurt, but Yamanaka was able to step aside from danger. Fukuhara then returned to the strategy that could have turned the fight…had he employed it from the early rounds on: the body attack. Several hard body shots seemed to briefly rattle Yamanaka, and although the body attack did open up Fukuhara to hooks upstairs, there was little question that when Yamanaka was hit to the body it had an impact. Yamanaka threw a left hook upstairs but Fukuhara, looking to make a statement as the fight came to a close, threw caution to the wind. Both fighters threw punches with gusto as the bell sounded ending the fight with Fukuhara seemingly stealing the round.

In the end, the judges went with the slick boxing Yamanaka, who clearly fought the fight of his life against the champion. The baby faced 22-year old from Kobe now becomes the third consecutive Japanese boxer to hold the WBO mini-flyweight title. At 15-2, with only four knockouts it is clear that he isn’t a knockout puncher. But he is one of the more impressive boxers in the division and does possess impressive hand speed and ring generalship. But as Fukuhara can attest, winning the title is often not as hard as holding onto the title. Yamanaka impressed boxing fans back in November of 2016 when he defeated veteran Merlito Sabillo for the OPBF minimumweight title by unanimous decision. But he also was upset by lightly regarded Roque Lauro (13-22-5, 3 KOs) of the Philippines just three months before he won the OPBF belt. He also suffered a stunning loss to Kenta Shimizu (8-5-1, 4 KOs) by way of first round KO back in 2013, although in his defense, he was only 18 years old at the time. The #2 contender in the WBO is undefeated Panya Pradabsri (18-0, 10 KOs) of Thailand. Pradabsri has already won the PABA title and the WBC Asia Boxing Council belt and would have to be seen as a very tough opponent for the young champion’s first title defense. At #3 is another undefeated prospect in Robert Paradero (14-0, 9 KOs) of the Philippines. The 21-year old Filipino won the WBO Asia Pacific Youth title back in October of 2016 against Ronie Tanallon with an impressive decision, but unlike with Pradabsri it is a little tougher to gauge how tough of a contender he is as the rest of his resume is a little thinner. Although the WBO has him ranked at #3, Boxrec.com lists seven other fighters from the Philippines higher, and has Paradero ranked at 33 in the world at 105-pounds. Nonetheless he would be a dangerous opponent for Yamanaka’s first title defense. Just because he hasn’t fought as many solid guys as Yamanaka doesn’t mean he isn’t a dangerous opponent.

At #4 is another Filipino in Vic Saludar (15-3, 9 KOs). Saludar already was stopped in 2015 in his first title fight against Kosei Tanaka, and has recently lost to Toto Landero (8-1-2) back in June. Saludar looks to be Yamanaka’s safest option for his first title defene, at least on paper. Below Saludar is Puero Rican Janiel Rivera (16-2-3, 10 KOs) who was stopped in three rounds in his only other world title fight back in 2014 agaisnt Adrian Hernandez of Mexico. Rivera wouldn’t be a bad option for Yamanaka either, although it is doubtful that Yamanaka would be able to test the chin of Rivera like Hernandez did. At #7 is Moises Calleros, a fighter that is arguably the most dangerous man in the division. Although Calleros could theoretically be David Tua to Yamanaka’s Chris Byrd, it is just as likely that the hard punching Mexican could test the chin of Yamanaka just like Kenta Shimizu did back in 2013. In the end it would also be an inadvisable fight for Yamanaka. At #7 is fellow Kobe native Reiya Konishi (14-0, 5 KOs).  Although the all Kobe battle would seem intriguing, it almost certainly wouldn’t happen as Konishi is a stablemate of Yamanaka.

At #8 is Namibian Japhet Uutoni (12-2, 5 KOs), who was knocked out in his last fight back in February by undefeated Angel Acosta.

But there is one other option for Yamanaka for his first title defense: the former champion himself. Tatsuya Fukuhara will most likely enter the rankings now that he is no longer a world champion and another all-Japan battle (this time in Kobe) could be the perfect optional title defense for Yamanaka. He already knows he can beat Fukuhara, but the fight was close enough to warrant a rematch. An option defense may be the best step for Yamanaka, who will most likely be looking at a mandatory defense against the Thai contender in early 2018.

 

 

Boxing: Kanat Islam (24-0) vs. Brandon Cook (18-0) this weekend is Khazakstan

It’s a safe assumption to say the biggest fight this month featuring a fighter from Kazakhstan will take place on September 16th in Las Vegas when Gennady Golovkin takes on Saul Alvarez in a middleweight title fight.

But there is another intriguing match up featuring a popular Kazak titlist set this weekend at the Saryarka Velodrome in Astana, Kazakhstan on Saturday, September 9th. Undefeated NABO junior middleweight champion Islam “Qazaq” Kanat (24-0, 19 KOs), the #7 ranked fighter in the WBO, will take on the undefeated Canadian prospect Brandon “Bad Boy” Cook (18-0, 11 KOs), who is currently ranked #13 by the WBO at 154-pounds.

The popular Islam has already earned a solid fan base back in Khazakstan, with the 12,000 seat Saryarka Velodrome in Astana reportedly already sold out for this weekend’s event.

The 32-year old Islam, who fought for China under the name Hanati Silamu at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics (but is of Kazak descent) is hoping to land a world title fight before the end of the year, but needs a solid win over the undefeated Canadian to position himself for a fight with Miguel Cotto. But his opponent is seen as the most dangerous foe he has faced to date and could derail the Kazak’s plans of a title fight before the end of the year. Cook is coming into the fight off the heels of an impressive knockout over fellow Canadian Steven Butler back in June in a fight for the NABA title.

The fight card is highlighted by a stacked undercard featuring eight undefeated Kazak prospects including Ali Akhmedov (8-0, 6 KOs) as he takes on American Justin Thomas (18-2, 7 KOs). Also on the card is welterweight prospect Zhankosh Turarov (21-0, 15 KOs) as he faces Bruno Romay (21-4, 18 KOs) of Argentina.

Travel: A Long Layover in Hanoi, Vietnam

The Finger Post Travel (September 7, 2017)

(Hanoi, Vietnam, August 29-30, 2017)

Hanoi has a way of sneaking up on you.

Having flown into the Vietnamese capital at 7:40 PM after a full day of traveling, I was quietly dreading the obligatory sensory overload that tends to hit you when you first step out of the airport terminal in an unfamiliar third world country. I had woken up that morning in Kumamoto, Japan and then took a bullet train into Fukuoka. From there it was a comically overpriced cab ride from the train station to the airport where I caught a flight to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. Then the flight to Hanoi, a city I would spend less then one day in. I initially had Hanoi as a layover on my way to Yangon in Myanmar, but I decided to tweak my reservation a bit so I could spend a little bit of time in Vietnam. I realized I didn’t have enough time to say I really saw the country, or even the city, but spending a morning in Vietnam seemed better then sleeping in the airport.

But by the time I had stepped off the plane in Hanoi I was tired…and to be honest, I had grown a little soft. Rwanda, London, and Japan had all spoiled me when it came to traveling. I normally enjoy “winging it” in a slightly off the beaten path place like Vietnam, but right now all I wanted was a “no drama” ride to the hotel and a full night of sleep.  I just wanted the guy holding a sign with my name on it at the airport.

My first warning sign was the website where I obtained my Vietnamese eVisa. It looked like an old GeoCities website from the 1990s and was full of grammatical errors. I had read that China had started cracking down on “Chinglish” signs in the country, but it seemed that Vietnam was behind the 8-ball on that.

After my “confirmation of reading carefully of instructions” I submitted my $25 e-payment and received my eVisa shortly thereafter. But I still had my…concerns. This seemed somewhat haphazard and I was worried that upon my arrival I would find the immigration officer who didn’t know or didn’t care about the eVisa.

But as soon as I stepped off the plane I started to feel a lot better. The airport was modern, spotless, and had free wifi (sure it was not very reliable wifi, but it was still better then what I had available in a lot of airports back in the States).

I zipped through immigration, exchanged $100 USD into Dong, and was standing outside the airport when I finally got my first taste of the sensory overload that always hits you when you walk out of the airport in an unfamiliar country.

I was immediately hounded by a cab driver, who offered to take me to my hotel for $20 USD. I had been advised by the hotel’s webpage that the cab fare shouldn’t cost more than 250,000 Vietnamese Dong, which was about $11. I figured $15 was a fair amount, although I really didn’t care. I just wanted to get to the hotel and call it a night. Nonetheless I waved off the woman who promised to take me there for $20 and she dropped the price to $19. I still wasn’t interested, which caused he to really make an offer I couldn’t refuse: $17. Yeah, I was now stuck in some sort of negotiation over $3. I asked for a price in Dong and she typed her response on my phone: 350,000 Vietnamese Dong, or about $15. I agreed and then found out that this lady wasn’t a cab driver at all. She was just some lady whose English was good enough to deflect people from the taxi stand. We started walking towards the parking lot when I started to regret my decision. I was sure the cab driver would have agreed to $15, and even if he didn’t, it wouldn’t have involved a walk to the parking lot.

Then she showed me the (first) driver. He was driving what appeared to be a golf cart and it was clear this guy’s job was to shuttle people from one terminal to another.

“I’m not riding into Hanoi on a golf cart,” I said firmly to the lady who clearly heard the phrase before but either didn’t know what it meant or purposely chose to pretend she didn’t.

“Come, come.” The driver said as he waved me in.

Long story short, I got in. I was tired and I didn’t want to walk back to the terminal. We left the parking lot and then took the overpass onto the highway, where I really started to regret my life choices at that moment.

Eventually we made a turn into a residential district near the airport where I suddenly took comfort in the fact that I was in a golf cart. I wasn’t sure, but to the best of my knowledge there were no active criminal gangs preying on unsuspecting tourist by kidnapping them with golf carts. I was taken to a side street where a taxi was parked and I was introduced to my second driver, who would take me back into town. As we left I realized I had no idea how far the Noi Bai Airport was from Hanoi. After what felt like an hour in the car and no sign of a city near by I was starting to miss the security of the golf cart, but I then saw the Nhat Tan Bridge into Hanoi. It was a modern bridge, well illuminated with red lights. I would soon discover that the Nhat Tan Bridge, opened in 2015, was another example of the at times bizarre clash between modern and historic that you found across the city of Hanoi.

By the time I reached the Helios Legend Hotel in Hanoi the cab driver was attempting to renegotiate the deal. He claimed the cost was 460,000 Dong: or $20 USD. I had attempted to explain to him that I had agreed to 350,000 and that he could take it up with the dude in the golf cart if he had a problem with it. I always regret it afterwards, but I sometimes end up trippin’ about pocket change when traveling. It’s just my American aversion to being obviously ripped off. I mean, I know getting hustled is part of traveling, but a deal is a deal.

I eventually settled on 400,000 Dong, which was what I was going to  pay him anyways (that would have included the tip), and made my way to the hotel. I started to regret arguing with the guy over what amounted to less than $3. I realized the lady probably screwed him over as well. She told me one price, got her commission, and never told him what was up. Even if it wasn’t the case, it seemed petty arguing over a few dollars afterwards.

By the time I got into my room at the Helios Legend Hotel I was ready to crash. But I still had time to appreciate the hotel itself. I booked it for $30 on Hotels.com and went in with fairly low expectations. But to my surprise the room was large, the bed was comfortable, and the continental breakfast was actually really good. I had to admit, that was probably the best $30 hotel room I ever booked.

My original plan was to get up at 7 AM and start my day early. I had an afternoon flight to Yangon at 4:45 and I was already thrown a curveball by the fact that the airport was an hour away. I would need to leave at 1:30 at the latest (I was as of yet unsure how quick it would be to get through customs, but if Ghana taught me anything it was that two hours is not a magic number to guarantee you’ll make your flight).

But after a long night in Kumamoto and a full day of traveling, I was beat. I slept late, until almost 8 AM, and didn’t get out the door until 9 AM. I decided to hit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. I had less than half a day in town so I had to pick one thing to see. And seeing Ho Chi Minh’s body seemed as good a way to spend the morning as any. For an American tourist, nothing says “communist nation” more than when they have a deceased former leader on display for all to see. And I had to admit, there was a part of me that wanted to experience the whole communist effect. You could easily forget you were in a communist country in Vietnam. Like China and to a lesser extent Cuba, Vietnam seemed to have a bizarre love/hate relationship with capitalism. Across the country were communist banners, sickles and hammers, and other reminders that Vietnam is totally down with Karl Marx.  But they also seemed to grudgingly accept that even an anti-imperialist communist country needs a Popeyes Chicken.

As I arrived at the mausoleum I noticed a large crowd of Western tourist. This was a more popular destination then I expected. After we passed through a gift shop and checked in our cameras we then made our way into the mausoleum in single file. After walking up a flight of stairs we entered the central hall where we saw him: Ho Chi Minh himself. He was on display in a large glass sarcophagus, and I immediately couldn’t help but notice that his body didn’t look to be in the best of shape. I can’t say how he compared to Lenin or Kim Il Sung, but “Uncle Ho” looked waxy and his fingernails were slightly off color. There is a conspiracy theory floating around that the poor job of embalming done when Ho Chi Minh initially died meant that they were unable to continue to display his body. The government had to replace his body with a model and try and pass it off as the real thing. I guess we’ll never know, at least until the zombie apocalypse happens and we see if Ho Chi Minh is clawing at the glass.

After leaving the mausoleum I decided to check out the Ho Chi Minh Vestige in the Presidential Palace Area. The Vestige was where he lived and worked from 1954-1969, and although in hindsight it wasn’t anything extraordinary, it is still worth a stop. The ticket was 40,000 Dong (about $2) and the area was interesting, although nothing that really blew me away. I saw Ho Chi Minh’s old cars, a table in the Politburo Meeting Room where he did some communism, and a pond surrounded by finger shaped Cyprus trees. The Presidential Palace was off limits, but I was able to see the “Stilt House”, which in hindsight wasn’t much of a consolation.

From there I made my way to the Ho Chi Minh Museum, a quiet walk off the beaten path where I came across a statue of Ho Chi Minh’s former criminal defense attorney: Francis Henry Loseby.

In 1931 Minh was arrested in Hong Kong after he was convicted in abstentia to death by the French government in Vietnam. Loseby unsuccessfully defended Ho by arguing he was not Vietnamese but rather a Chinese national named Sung Man Cho. Interestingly the argument didn’t work, possibly due to the fact that this was Hong Kong and it probably wasn’t that hard for the Crown to find someone who could say (based on their training and experience) that Ho Chi Minh was not Chinese. But what led to Loseby being so honored with a statue at the site of the Ho Chi Minh museum was what transpired after Ho lost his appeal. In 1933 Loseby again tried the “trust me, he’s Chinese” approach and had Minh dress up as a wealthy Chinese merchant before putting him on a boat out of Hong Kong. The ruse worked and Minh made his way to the Soviet Union and the rest, as they say, is history.

Coming soon, to a People’s Republic near you…

As I made my way to the Ho Chi Minh Museum I decided to stop at the gift shop and pick up some souvenirs. Like everywhere I saw in Hanoi, there was no shortage of Ho Chi Minh memorabilia: from posters to busts to trinkets with his face on it. But the seduction of capitalism was strong, even in the Ho Chi Minh Museum. On a table of Ho Chi Minh trinkets was a book of Fight Club movie posters. I was going to ask why they were selling Fight Club memorabilia at the Ho Chi Minh museum, but I realized they weren’t going to tell me anything. You know the first rule of Fight Club…

His name is Nyguyen Sinh Cung. His name is Nyguyen Sinh Cung. His name is Nyguyen Sinh Cung,

I toured the first floor, with a forgettable display on the friendship between Vietnam and Laos, and a more powerful one on military veterans and their struggles. But the main part of the museum was found upstairs and unbeknownst to me, the museum was closing at noon. As I made it upstairs I had little more than 20-minute before I was told that the museum was closing. I was unable to see the Guernica 1937 display, which I was intrigued with, or get an explanation why there was a giant table with oversized fruit in the middle of the museum.

Your guess is as good as mine.

As I made my way out I saw another stand selling souvenirs, as well as books about Steve Jobs and Barak Obama.

Because what says souvenir from Ho Chi Minh’s Museum like a book about the founder of Apple?

By the time I made it outside I realized it was probably for the best that they kicked me out. I did need to head back to the airport. But I still didn’t get any souvenirs, other than a postcard of Vietnamese propaganda that actually said it was propaganda.

 

But right outside the museum was a small stand where sandals were being made from old tires. It seemed like the perfect gift from Vietnam and although the sandals were a little pricy (about $10) it was a very unique gift.

I headed out and grabbed a cab to the Statue of Lenin in Lenin Park across from the Vietnam Military History Museum.

The cab driver ripped me off with a fast meter, charging me 120,000 Dong for the trip that shouldn’t have cost more than 30,000. It was enough to sour me on cabs in Hanoi from that point on and after taking a few pictures of the Statute, which after recent events in Ukraine makes it one of the last ones you can find in the world outside of Seattle, I made my way back to the hotel on the back of a scooter. The hotel arranged for my ride back to the airport and my time in Vietnam had run. Someday I would have to go back and try my luck backpacking in Vietnam, but that was an adventure for another trip. I still had Myanmar waiting for me tonight.

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