Last-Ditch Hero: Ray Ford says he is only getting stronger

By Nigel Collins

IS THERE anything in boxing more dramatic than a fighter hopelessly behind on the scorecards stopping his rival in the closing seconds of a fight? It’s a mind flip, what’s up is suddenly down. Expectations are scrambled and unless you have wagered a dollar or two on the loser, it’s an exhilarating experience, the delight of the unexpected.

Since September 13, 1950, the gold standard for such desperate marvels belonged to middleweight champion Jake LaMotta who knocked out French challenger Laurent Dauthuillle with just 13 seconds remaining in the final round. It’s rare but there have been other last-ditch victories. Mike Weaver’s 15th round knockout of John Tate to win the WBA heavyweight title, for example.

Raymond Ford was even closer to defeat than both Dauthuillle and Tate. There were only seven ticks of the timekeeper’s watch when Ford stopped Otabek Kholmatov to win the vacant WBA featherweight title. It had been a terrific back-and-forth battle that had the crowd at the Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, New York roaring encouragement throughout the fight.

In the second round Kholmatov, 25, landed a series of lefts to the side of Ford’s head. The American stood his ground and threw two quick right hands. Suddenly, he lost his balance and staggered backward across the ring and into the ropes. When asked what happened, he said, “I tripped.” It seemed like an excuse at first but repeated examination of a video showed his right foot inside of Kholmatov’s left when Ray stumbled over it.

The beginning of the end came when Ford hurt Kholmatov with a right uppercut in the final round which seemed to take all the fight out of the Uzbek. Ford went after him, landed a left hook and a straight right that sent his opponent into the ropes. Kholmatov bounced off the boundaries like a ball in a pinball game and when he attempted to clinch, Ford flipped him over his hip and onto the canvas. Referee Charlie Fitch correctly ruled no knockdown and as soon as he wiped off Kholmatov’s gloves Ford attacked.

Kholmatov retreated on unsteady legs and Ford connected with two rights to the head before his adversary turned his back and lurched into the ropes with his face over the top rope. Ford reached around and landed a left before the referee could get between them and stop the fight. Kholmatov was taken to the hospital for observation.

“I can’t take anything away from Kholmatov,” said the 25-year-old Ford as we sat in the back of the TKO Fitness Gym in Cherry Hill, a township next to Camden. “He’s a good fighter and did a lot of things in there. I didn’t know I was losing on two cards. I just thought I had to win the last round, make it known I won easily in enemy territory. I was fighting a Top Rank fighter on a Top Rank card.”

Ford celebrates (Ed Mulholland/Matchroom)

Ford is not interested in a rematch or unifying the featherweight title. “A lot of people want me to do that, but I’ve got to listen to my body. I’ve been fighting at this weight since I was an amateur, so I can’t fight at this weight much longer. I wasn’t at my best against Kholmatov because making weight drained me.”

We now know there will be at least one more defence – he has since agreed to defend his title against Nick Ball in Saudi Arabia on June 1.

In the dressing room after winning the title, Ford’s mother, Pamela, hugged her son in an emotional embrace, tears rolling down her cheeks. “I’m so proud of you,” she said. If it wasn’t for her his life would most likely have been vastly different.

“I used to fight on the streets and in school and I got into a lot of trouble. My mom, she didn’t want me to box, but eventually she put me in boxing when I was 10 years old,” said Ford who has three sisters and two brothers.

After winning the U.S. National Golden Gloves Championship in 2018, Ford considered going to the Olympic Trials but was unhappy with the politics involved in the amateur side of the sport. Besides, he had an intriguing alternative.

“Eddie Hearn contacted me after I won the Golden Gloves,” said Ford. “He told me he had been watching me and he was hearing good things, so he wanted to sign me. I’ve been with Eddie from the beginning. Me being me, I want to fight the best. I took everything they offered me. Whatever gets me the most money is what I’m going to take. At my best I believe I can beat all of them.”

“This is going to change your life,” said an excited Hearn. “I really believed you would win the fight. I wouldn’t have flown all this way if I didn’t.”

“Did you see how I was stepping to him,” Ford replied. “You knew I had the dog in me. All my hard work paid off. It was like a dream come true. I really couldn’t believe it.”

“Let’s have a homecoming [fight in Camden],” said Hearn.

At this stage in Ford’s career, particularly if he beats Ball, a homecoming probably wouldn’t be financially feasible. The last time Camden was a popular boxing city was during World War II, when Joey Maxim upset Jersey Joe Walcott over 10 rounds at the Public City Ballpark, August 28, 1946. There were 7,709 fans on hand, the most ever for an outdoor fight in the city’s history. Since then, nothing has come remotely close to that number.

Then there’s Camden’s reputation. Journalist Chris Hedges called Camden “the physical refuse of post-industrial America,” and there’s a lot of truth to that opinion. Located on the other side of the Delaware River from Philadelphia, Camden has in the past been on the top-10 list of the most dangerous cities in the United States. There has, however, been a noticeable decline in crime since the municipal police department was disbanded and replaced by a county police department. Even so, it is not exactly a holiday destination.

Except for the short reign of Jason Sosa, who held the WBA super-featherweight title from June 2016 until he was stopped by Vasy Lomachanko the following April, Camden hasn’t had a champ since the days of Dwight Muhmmad Qawi, the “Camden Buzzsaw” who held light-heavyweight and cruiserweight titles in the 1980s. That changed when southpaw Ford, born and raised in Camden, stopped Kholmatov. It was an excellent fight but it was the extraordinary finish that made it special and a candidate for fight of the year.

“I was exhausted and relieved that the fight was over,” said Ford. “I had been away from my three-year-old daughter Malani for a month and a half. She’s my world now. When she was born I was crying. I couldn’t control my tears. Just to have someone who looks up to me. She points to the TV and says ‘da-da.’ When she grows up she will understand it. My last fight she was more into it. I don’t know what I’d do without her. I love her to death.”

When asked if he would consider allowing his daughter to box, Ray said, “I would teach her a few things but wouldn’t want her to be in a competition. It’s a dangerous sport.”

Going into the fight Ford only had seven inside the distance victories in 15 pro fights, but his punches appeared to be harder than those of Kholmatov, particularly when he dug to the body; one could hear a resounding whacking noise when they landed. Ball should take note.

“I’m definitely feeling stronger. Even when I’m sparring, I’m hurting people. My man strength is coming in, but that’s not what I value,” said Ford. “I rely on my boxing IQ, my speed and skills. I don’t want to be one of those fighters who falls in love with his power. It takes away from my IQ and I will get hit with dumb shots. I don’t want to think of myself as a power puncher.”

“He’s a hell of a fighter, a special fighter,” said Shakur Stevenson, one of the most special talents active today. “I’ve be training alongside of him.”

Ford has three trainers, Reginald Lloyd, Anthony Rodriquez and Tarao Stevenson. “They all have different roles in different positions,” said Floyd. His manager is Brian Peters, the Irishman who manages Katie Taylor and other prominent boxers.

It’s inevitable that Ford will move up to super-featherweight and, when he does, he already knows who he wants in the opposite corner. “I would like to fight [WBC super-featherweight title-holder] O’Shaquie Foster.”

A statue of Walcott was erected in October 2023 at Wiggins Waterfront Park and part of the unveiling celebration included a parade. “I was supposed to be in that parade,” said Ford. “But I overslept.”

There has been talk of a parade in Ford’s honour. If it happens, he better set his alarm clock.

Source link