Brandon Rios Wins Lightweight Shooutout

Rios' Enthusiastic Celebrations are as Much a Show as his Fights
Much like the prefight buildup between David Haye and Wladimir Klitschko, Brandon Rios and Urbano Antillon showed genuine animosity for one another, with Antillon going so far as to insult Rios' wife. Unlike that heavyweight letdown, Rios and Antillon delivered on their promises to go to war. In a memorable lightweight fight that saw action from the first bell, Rios knocked out Antillon with a pair of vicious right hands in the third round. Though short, the fight delivered some really great combat while it lasted.

The first round was one of the best I have ever seen. After sizing each other up for a few seconds, both fighters got cooking, trading hard combinations. It seemed almost like they were taking turns dolling out the punishment. One fighter would throw a series of hard shots, almost stagger his opponent, only for the other man to come back and return the favor. Both fighters showed considerable offensive skill, especially on the inside and astonishing ability to soak up punches.

Rios' power was the deciding factor, however. Early in the third round, he landed a picture perfect straight right on the inside that dropped the granite-chinned Antillon. He rose, but it was clear that he was in trouble. He managed to stay alive in the round until late in the third minute, when Rios caught him with another right hand that sent him sprawling face first to the canvas. It was obvious from the way he fell that the fight was close to over and, sure enough, Rios finished the fight as soon as Antillon rose again. The obvious comparison to this fight is Hagler-Hearns. While not fought on as high a level or with as much at stake, the action was eerily similar, with incredible power shots being delivered by both fighters. Rios simply outclassed Antillon and showed why he is one of the top prospects in the lower weight classes right now. 

Rios is a big lightweight and will probably be moving up to 140 in the near future. There are myriad fights at junior welterweight for him, but two that really jump out are bouts with hard-hitting Argentine Marcos Maidana and electric British talent Amir Khan. Maidana would stand in front of Rios much like Antillon, but his power and chin are more on a level with Rios'. Both fighters also have the mentality that they want to out-man their opponents more than simply beating them, so we could see some extraordinary exchanges if they ever met up. Rios is faster and more of a technician, however, so his skills could carry him past the brawling Maidana. Khan is exactly the opposite. His speed has to be seen to be believed, but it covers up a lot of flaws in his game, most noticeably his weak chin. Khan could probably outpoint Rios, but his tendency to lunge into his combinations with his hands down coupled with his weak chin and Rios' power leads me to favor the young Mexican-American. 

On the undercard, Carlos Molina thoroughly dominated Kermit Cintron. It's worth pointing out that Cintron was coming off a long layoff, but I have never seen it with him. I swear, he has to be the nephew of someone at a network or something. He has power, but only in his right hand and he refuses to set it up with a jab. With his lack of fighting spirit and sometimes bizarre ring-antics, seeing him fight leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Losing to a perennial opponent in Carlos Molina will hopefully remove him from the TV scene, at least for a while. 

I did not watch the fight between Paul Williams and Erislandy Lara, but from everything I can gather, Lara thoroughly dominated the action, only for Williams to get the decision. This is par for the course for an Al Haymon fighter like Williams, who from all reports is hardly even a shadow of his former exciting self. I saw his fight with Cintron in which he looked simply awful, so if he looked like that twice in a row, I can say that it's probably time for him to retire. After a stretch of brutal fights with Antonio Margarito and Sergio Martinez, he suffered on one of the most devastating one-punch knockouts ever seen at the hands of Martinez last November. If his punch-resistance is gone, his career is probably over, considering he has never had the defense and always relied on his chin. 

-Ling Bon, 7/10/2011

Derek Jeter Makes History With Magical Game

Ever Gracious, Jeter Salutes his Fans
It was a great day to be a Yankee fan. 

I've been having a hard time in my life lately, the reason I haven't been updating this site as much as I would like to. But today, Derek Jeter proved once again how therapeutic baseball can be. I ignored everything that happened in the last two weeks and just got to focus on baseball for three hours. Last night, the game was rained out and the Rays put up a staunch resistance to playing a double header today. Even with two games left in the series, this removed some of the certainty of Jeter getting his milestone 3,000th hit at home.

He put all those fears to rest. In the first inning, he ripped a single to left field, sending the hometown crowd into a frenzy. It seemed to be a pretty safe bet that he could get at least one hit in the next two games. Even with his slipping performance (for which he can hardly be blamed, we all get older), everybody knew that of all people, Derek Jeter would be able to get it done. But who could have expected that in the third inning, in his very next at bat and after fouling off pitch after pitch on a full count, that he would pull a long home run into left for the big hit? That tied the game at 1-1. He was only the second man ever to hit a home run for number 3,000, following Wade Boggs who did it for the Rays in 1999. He was mobbed at the plate by a mob of his teammates and was almost joined by longtime friend Johnny Damon, who had to be restrained from rushing out onto the field. 

But Jeter was far from done. In his next at-bat in the fifth, he launched a double and scored on a single by Granderson. Then, in the sixth, he hit another single and advanced on a double steal. Now he was 4-4, already an incredible day for the fading legend. But Jeter himself would argue that the best was yet to come. After David Robertson surrendered the 4-3 lead in the top of the eighth (a rare occurrence in and of itself), Jeter knocked in Eduardo Nunez for the go-ahead run in the bottom of the inning with a single. Mariano came into the inning and shut it down like always in the bottom of the inning for his twenty-second save. Classically, Jeter said that he wouldn't even be doing the on-field interview if they had lost. That's what makes Derek so great. The numbers are obviously very special but they mean nothing to him if they're not accompanied by success. He's a true legend and it was a day that very few who lived it will ever forget. 

AJ Burnett was acceptable, surrendering 3 runs on two home runs over 5.2 IP. He really had his stuff going, though, racking up 9 K's. Robertson was the winning pitcher with the blown save, and he advanced to 2-0. Joel Peralta picked up the loss, falling to 2-4. 
-Ling Bon, 7/9/2011

Klitschko-Haye ready for Heavyweight Title Showdown on July 2nd


A lot of times, a network will play up a rivalry to attract fans attention, but in the case of Wladimir Klitschko (55-3, 49 KO's) and David Haye (25-1, 23 KO's), I get the feeling it's genuine. These two really cannot stand each other. Because of that, this is the kind of fight where there are so many out of the ring issues that I almost feel like the actual fight is being overlooked. But the fight itself is very interesting. Since Lennox Lewis retired, the Wlad and his brother Vitali have so thoroughly dominated the pathetically weak heavyweight division that all illusion of competition has been removed. David Haye and his supporters think that that time is about to end. There have been many who have called out the Klitschkos, but none who did so as viciously or persistently. Haye's campaign of psychological warfare against the Ukranian duo has been well documented, most famously when he made a youtube video while wearing a shirt portraying him standing victorious over the decapitated corpses of the two brothers, heads held aloft in triumph. While it may have been ugly and in poor taste, it aroused a firestorm of publicity. 

But more important than his trash-talking abilities, Haye has talent. Watch him for two seconds in a ring and his natural athletic ability pops out of you. His hands are blindingly fast and the sound his punches make has to be heard to be believed. When he lands clean, his overhand right sound like a cannonade. And his reflexes, flexibility and head movement make landing solidly on his chin a tricky proposition. It's easy to look at Haye and say "this guy should destroy everyone." But he has a multitude of flaws. He has admitted he has a suspect chin, but the more alarming issue is his stamina. It's not bad, it's alarming. It's pathetic. It's putrid. In his fight with John Ruiz last year, he came out and absolutely gave Ruiz the business. He had every physical advantage and was showing it off. But by the fifth round, he was breathing heavily and retreating more and more. Ruiz's jab started to find a home. Haye eventually stopped "The Quiet Man" in the 9th round, but the performance wasn't exactly what we were looking for. Ruiz doesn't exactly fight at a breakneck pace, either. Haye just managed to punch himself out. 

This is one reason why I think that after the dust clears next Saturday, Wlad is still going to be the champ. Klitschko's stamina isn't fantastic - his first loss was to Ross Purrity after he gassed out in the 10th - but he can make 12 rounds at his own pace. Haye has only gone to decision twice. He went 12 with Valuev and Ismail Abdoul. I've never seen the Abdoul fight, but Haye was extremely restrained in his fight with the Russian giant Valuev. Maybe this was because of the immense size discrepancy - Valuev stood 7'0" to Haye's 6'3" - but it also doesn't prove any evidence that Haye can fight at anything other than the slowest pace for 12 rounds. 

That might not even be an issue, though. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure it won't be. Haye, for all his athleticism and talent, only really has one mode. Much like Manny Pacquiao, he's an explosive mid-range slugger without much of an inside game or a game-changing jab to work from outside with. Wlad likes to work at long and mid-range, first finding and creating openings with his jab from a distance, then stepping in and ripping his freight train straight right and left hook. If an opponent gets too close, he holds on until the ref separates them. This is really the story of the fight. Historically, Haye wants to fight off the back foot and launch a counter-right hand if he sees an opening. He could try that over the jab, but he's going to punch up and over those long arms against a skilled opponent who is expecting it. Basically, he has to get lucky and land a bomb. On top of that, he has to jump in to counter Wlad's reach advantage. Klitschko will stand his ground, work the jab until he either frustrates or breaks down Haye and then unleash a bomb. Lather, rinse, repeat. It's a strategy he's used to destroy the heavyweight division. Haye's head movement will be frustrating at first, but a technically-sound fighter can make adjustments. In all but the most extreme examples, skill is a good counter to natural athleticism. Eventually, Haye is going to slip up. His style of defense makes that basically inevitable. When everything is reflexes and contortion, you're going to take a shot you don't see coming. Wlad's defense isn't fantastic, relying a lot on height and parrying shots with his gloves, but any holes in it are more of a focus issue than an actual flaw in his defensive strategy. He has never been more focused. I can see Haye's defense failing a lot sooner than Klitschko's and a strong right hand from the latter crashing home to end the fight very abruptly. 

The fact of the matter is that Wladimir Klitschko is just a better fighter than David Haye. On top of that, he has a style advantage. They're each the best fighter the other has ever fought, but when it comes down to it, I predict that Klitschko will win by knockout, probably sometime around the seventh round when Haye starts to slow down. Regardless of the outcome, this is the first legit title fight we've seen in the division since big brother Vitali fought Lennox Lewis in 2003. It might be the last one we see for a while unless Haye wins and then fights Vitali himself. So make sure to tune in and enjoy what's likely to be a great knockout, even if it proves to be a more tactical fight.
-Ling Bon, 6/23/2011

UPDATE: After downloading and rewatching the Ruiz fight, I think I overstated his stamina problems. He fought exclusively at his own pace and slowed down and looked tired the few times Ruiz managed to force the fight but for the most part looked pretty good. I maintain that Klitschko is the superior fighter and will knock him out, however.
-Ling Bon, 6/24/2011

The Week to Come

Devon Alexander

·         I’ll be honest, I don’t watch much Reds baseball. I know their record, I know Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips and I know they got waxed in the playoffs last year. The Yankees are going really strong coming into this series, winning eight of their last ten since the disastrous sweep to the Sox. Based on the way this team has been hitting and hitting, averaging 8.5 runs a game over that stretch, you have to expect a series win. The Reds could be a good, solid team. But they’re 38-35 and third in the NL Central. The Reds are the Reds, the Yankees are the Yankees, and the Yankees are rolling right now.

·         Devon Alexander vs.  Lucas Matthysse is an interesting fight. Talent-wise, the advantage is squarely with Alexander, but the St. Louis fighter has faced harsh criticism after his ugly “superfight” with Timothy Bradley in January. I’ll be honest, I thought Alexander was the truth as recently as a year ago. When he fought bull-like Juan Urango, I swear to God, Pernell Whitaker jumped off my screen at me. Alexander showed poise, a chin, speed, power and beautiful technical skills. His uppercut was like a laser-guided missile on Urango’s face, eventually leading to the astounding 9th round KO. The punch literally lifted the giant Columbian off of his feet and sent him sprawling to the canvas in a heap. But his next two fights showed that that might have been a product of his opponent. He was unimpressive against Andreiy Kotelnik in a step-up fight that I scored a draw but he earned the nod for by an appalling margin. I have no doubt that there was Don King trickery afoot. Incidentally, that was the same night that Anderson Silva had the greatest comeback I have ever seen in choking out Chael Sonnen. So he was given his promised fight with Timothy Bradley, who was widely regarded as the best Junior Welterweight in the world. I knew going in that expecting a Barrera-Morales war of attrition was asking too much, but it was an awful lot of clinching and not really that much hitting. What caused all the ruckus, though, was the incident in the 9th round that stopped the fight. In the middle of an exchange, Bradley clearly shot his head forward into Alexander’s eyebrow. This is an awful habit of Bradley’s, he has done it before. Then, Alexander complained of a cut over his eye. While ring doctor inspected the cut, which seemed like a bad start but was still pretty small, Alexander howled and complained. Understandably, the doctor called for the fight to be stopped. It was slightly puzzling until you considered that Alexander was forcing a decision right now. Maybe he was running out of gas and didn’t think he could keep up the physical, wrestling  fight up the rest of the night. Maybe he legitimately thought that he had enough rounds in the bank to steal the win. For the record, I had it even. Unfortunately for him, the judges saw it differently and awarded Bradley the fight. Lucas Matthysse is a good fighter that most people have never heard of. Just going off of his record, he TKO’d Chop-Chop Corley in eight and lost a razor-sharp split decision to Zab Judah – all three cards were 114-113, but two went to Judah. Matthysse  dropped Zab in the 10th, creating a bit of controversy in the decision. At this point, I regard Judah and Alexander to be about equal in terms of stock. Alexander is younger with a little more speed and upside but Zab still has a name and a killer uppercut that he used to stop Kaizer Mabuza in his last outing. While I couldn’t find any odds on the fight, I would have to imagine that Matthysse would be considered an underdog by most, just on value of name recognition and the way he obliterated Urango. Matthysse is more similar to Urango than he is to Kotelnik or Bradley and maybe Alexander just has the style to beat that. But Lucas Matthysse is no joke and he is a very live underdog. 
- Ling Bon, 6/20/2011

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Yankees Sweep the Rangers to Reignite Hot Stretch

Teixeira homered twice in the middle game of the series
By any definition, the Texas Rangers are a good baseball team. They have solid starting pitching and an excellent offense, propelled by Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz, although Cruz has been slumping lately. 
This series was marked mainly by the influence of young and minor league players. Eduardo Nunez and Ramiro Pena both homered in relief of injured Derek Jeter and 33 year old minor league veteran made the start today.
The first game was over by the second inning as the Yankees scored six runs in a barrage of offense, eliminating league ERA leader Alexei Ogando after only 1.2. CC Sabathia got the win 12-4, giving up 4 runs in 7 innings pitched. The next game was deja vu all over again, as the Yankees again won 12-4, overcoming early struggles by young Ivan Nova. In that game, both Ramiro Pena and Eduardo Nunez both hit home runs. That was especially sweet for Nunez as it was his birthday and a nice way to address those who thought he wouldn't hit enough to overcome his weak glove (yeah, that was me.) Then, today, the Yankees once again threw away scoring chances early, leaving 13 runners on and hitting only 2-11 (.180) with runners in scoring position. It was enough, though, as 33 year old minor leaguer Brian Gordon got the start and went 5.1, giving up two earned. Hector Noesi is quickly developing into a dependable option, carrying the team 1.2 IP into the seventh and giving up no runs on only one hit. The Yankees trailed into the eighth until Jorge Posada doubled home Robinson Cano to tie it at 2. Then, they loaded the bases with one out and a 3-1 count on Granderson, arguably their best hitter who then proceeded to strike out on a low curveball two pitches later. They finally broke in the 12th as Brett Gardner - who was a defensive sub for Andruw Jones - singled home Granderson, earning his first victory pie of the year.  
What does this mean for the Yanks? Well, coming off the sweep at the hands of the Red Sox, this is a good sign. They hammered the Indians, who started above their means but still are no joke. Then, they obliterated the Rangers. Even though Josh Hamilton has been hurt and Nelson Cruz slumping, they are still a good, quality team right now. The Yankees just showed that even as badly diminished as they are right now, they are still head and shoulders over most teams not from Boston. Every year, the Yankees problems are exaggerated because of the intense scrutiny from the media. There is always the genius who decides that they're too old to make the playoffs. Believe me when I say that this team is good enough to make the playoffs. At full strength, their only weakness is that they hit too many home runs. Yes, somehow, that was turned into a negative. Right now, their bullpen is severely lacking depth but the top is still strong. Their defense has been shakier than usual and their ofense is inconsistent. But these are problems that every team has. Even battered by injury, the Yankees are still 11 games over .500 at 39-28 and only one game out of the playoffs. 
Cashman probably has to make some moves to strengthen the bullpen and possibly the rotation if Hughes can't return to form. But times are nowhere near as dire as some would have you believe. The American League is fairly weak and the Bombers are a near lock for at least a wild card. Without reinforcements, they likely don't have enough to advance deep in the playoffs. But they'll be there. 
- Ling Bon, 6/16/2011

Jeter Leaves Early as Yankees Blow  the Sweep 1-0

AJ Burnett was spectacular, giving up only one run and not walking a batter until the last man he faced with two out in the eighth. For the first time in a longtime, AJ got a standing ovation as he walked off the mound. I have to admit, after selling his stock so hard after his last start, I felt happy for AJ. When David Robertson walked onto the field out of the bullpen, I had no doubt that he would get out of the inning. He promptly did, grounding out Asdrubal Cabrera on a two-two curveball. Unfortunately, Carlos Carasco was that much better, surrendering no runs in seven innings pitched. He was the winning pitcher and Burnett picked up the hard luck loss. 

These losses are more frustrating because the Yankees are so inconsistent. Yesterday, they decimated the Indians pitching staff, scoring 9 runs on 18 hits. But today, they did not score on five hits, most of which came in a tantalizing stretch at the beginning of the game. They left seven runners on in the first three innings, including loading up the bases with nobody out in the first and failing to score even a single run. It was a frustrating night.

More important, though, than the result of this game was a play in the bottom of the fifth. Derek Jeter blooped a patented low line drive to Shin-Shoo Choo and came up lame before first base. This is this second such routine injury in three days. Remember, Bartolo Colon strained his hamstring running over to cover first just on Saturday. Say what you will about Derek Jeter's performance this year. No, he hasn't been the Jeter of old. But give me Derek Jeter over Edwardo Nunez every day of the week. Decent hitter at best with a glove that's not average. It's horrific. He throws the ball around the field with reckless abandon. Jeter doesn't get over to his left like he used to, but his hands are as soft as they come. A lasting injury to Jeter would leave the Yankees defense pretty weakened, compounding their lack of bullpen depth. This team cannot afford another injury.
-Ling Bon, 6/13/2011

UPDATE: 10:22 PM - According to Suzyn Waldman, Jeter is getting an MRI right now and it is unlikely that he will play for the next few days even in a best case scenario. 

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LeBron Melts Down in Press Conference, Rips NBA Fans

Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven...none
He had to know what was coming if he couldn't come through. Nobody could have expected sympathy or even understanding from a nation of fans who had been passionately rooting for him to lose. And yet LeBron has put his foot squarely in his mouth yet again. When asked what he thought about the people who were celebrating his loss, he replied with this: "All the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I'm going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that. So they can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal. But they got to get back to the real world at some point."

This is stupid on several levels, not the least of them being that it paints him as a bad guy yet again. There was little he would be able to do to make himself a good guy per se, but he would be better served not vilifying himself with this moronic statement. I am not offended by these comments. What he said was technically true. When I woke up today, I still had the same problems as when I woke up yesterday. I was, however, a little happier with the world because the Heat and particularly LeBron did not win that title. Deos that make me small and petty? After all, I don't know the man personally. But in sports, you root for someone and inevitably, you have to root against someone. Sure, we pour more of that negativity on LeBron but he is the one who upped the ante with that asinine The Decision special. He threw his talent in everyone's face and made himself as big a deal as he possibly could. So yes, LeBron, we root against you but only because you asked us to. You were the one talking about accepting your role as a villain in that commercial. So if you play it up and play it up and play it up, only to find that you maybe can't deliver in crunch time quite like you thought, don't blame us for being happy for it. He was so ready to throw it on our faces, but he was unprepared to have it thrown back in his own. So stop complaining about your haters. As a matter of fact, stop talking. You had your summer. Now, you're just another good player without a ring. So until you start winning, you can shut your mouth. Everyone will be happier for it.
-Ling Bon, 6/13/2011

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The Dallas Mavericks Control Game 6, Win 1st NBA Championship in Franchise History 

Dirk Nowitzki won the first title of his illustrious career, all spent with the Mavericks
I feel like I have to show some restraint here. I am a proud and self-admitted LeBron-hater, but I don't want to spend this article just bashing him. I would much rather congratulate the Dallas Mavericks, for playing a spectacular series and proving themselves to be the convincingly better team when nobody believed that they would. Everyone was so high on the Heat after their dismantling of the Celtics and Bulls. Dallas had handled Oklahoma City and obliterated the Lakers, but they were still a pick made in spite of the Heat more often than not. But after game 4, people started to really believe. For some reason, the Heat's vaunted defense seemed to be crumbling in the face of Dallas' high-paced offensive attack and the pressure inexplicably started to affect LeBron again.  But it didn't seem to matter if LeBron scored 8 points or racked up a triple double, the Heat's aura had disappeared almost entirely by this morning.

But nobody could have expected that Mavericks were on such a higher plane than the Heat that Dirk Nowitzki could play his worst game in the Finals and still win in convincing fashion. Dirk shot 9-27 from the field including 1-7 from three. And the Mavericks still shot 50% as a team and 43% from three! This was simply a team that was not going to lose. Entering the playoffs, they had a "Dirk and everyone else" reputation,. And to a certain extent, that was true. But only because Dirk is a better player than most people, including myself, gave him credit for. The rest of those players have some game, particularly Barea and Terry. Jason Terry really turned himself around in these Finals and could have made a convincing case for Finals MVP, though nobody could argue with Nowitzki receiving the award. JJ Barea has guaranteed himself a much bigger contract than he probably could have dreamed of entering the year. 

But the Heat seemed off. Maybe it was the fact that they were playing a stronger team than they had before. The Celtics and Bulls both had noticeable flaws, and while the Mavericks certainly aren't a perfect team, they do not have that one weakness that another team can attack. The Heat do. Their poor execution in a halfcourt offense cost them over and over ans they simply couldn't score fast enough while the Mavericks were capable of both chipping away and having the rally. The Heat scored in furious bursts, with fastbreaks and fadeaway threes. That style of basketball is impressive to watch, with Dwyane Wade and LeBron James doing everything that their prodigious talents allowed. But against a consistent and free-flowing offense predicated on teamwork over iso plays, they could not keep up. So maybe it was that. But you got the sensation that the Heat's two and a half players weren't quite as unstoppable as they had initially appeared. That could be a real issue for the Heat going forward. They will be able to add player or two, but this model of three on five failed in this Finals. Obviously, this was not a wipeout, but the Mavericks played much better as the series progressed. The Heat trailed off, LeBron especially. If he scores 21 points and turns the ball over 6 times, that just isn't good enough in a game that turned out to be their last of the year. And, most damning, they quit. They completely gave up as the clock hit about two minutes and it became evident that the Mavs were not going to give up their lead. I kept waiting for a foul, even a hard press defense, anything to make the Mavericks feel uncomfortable, give up the ball or stop the clock. And they just let them dribble around undeterred. Jason Kidd dribbled in on Chris Bosh, who is younger and 8 inches taller, drew a foul and sunk a layup. The heart, or lack there of, that the Heat showed should be extremely disconcerting going forward.

Just this morning, I said that I did not believe in grading a player based solely on one night. And I still think that is ridiculous. But I have to question if LeBron is tough enough to win a title. He stepped so far down to the occasion that it starts to validate the criticism that has floated around in the ether around him. In one short series, he completely wiped out all of the legacy building that he had done throughout the playoffs. It will be very interesting to see how well the Heat bounce from this. They were all but being crowned champions halfway through game 2, only to have it snatched away from them. If starting are going to make a commitment to toughness and determination, starting strong next year will be a good place to start. As for the Mavericks chances next year, that will be easier to determine when the fates of JJ Barea, DeShawn Stevenson, Tyson Chandler and Caron Butler are decided. Sure, they did just win a title without Butler, but he certainly would help their chances to repeat. The other three each performed a specific role to perfection, making them each a valuable sign. The Mavs will have an interesting off-season for sure. I just want to close with congratulations again to the Dallas Mavericks, from Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd to Brian Cardinal and Peja Stojakovich. 
-Ling Bon, 6/13/2011

LeBron Must Step Up for Game 6 or the Heat are Done

LeBron has to perform to his full capability
For some reason, LeBron James can't seem to figure out quite who he wants to be. His ability to finish as a deadly closer fluctuates from week-to-week and sometimes even day-to-day. And, predictably enough, everyone is quick to forget what happened last week. When he squashed the 76ers, he went from media punching bag to ok. Then, he roughly handled the Boston Celtics and he turned into a titan whose arrogance was going to cost him against a younger team. Then, he suffocated Derrick Rose and all of a sudden, Scottie Pippen is shoving his head up his backside saying that LeBron is the greatest player ever because I guess Michael Jordan didn't play defense. Now, he has turned in one stinker and one quiet triple double and all of a sudden, he's a coward again. At the risk of sounding like a Heat-apologist, LeBron is under a tremendous amount of pressure. That being said, someone needs to slap him like Don Corleone and tell him to act like a man and deal with it. He placed this pressure on himself by turning himself into a sideshow. 
If LeBron James and Dwyane Wade put it together on the same night, there is simply nothing that the Mavericks can do to stop them. Shawn Marion can guard one of them, maybe, but nobody can handle the other one. For the Mavericks to win, they need Jason Terry and JJ Barea to play well, and that leaves them with a fairly weakened defensive lineup. The same, however, is also true of Dirk Nowitzki. He has justly earned his reputation as "unguardable." If Dirk is feeling it, nothing you do is going to change his shot enough to make him miss without drawing a foul. He could go off for 35 points and hope to counteract an explosion from either Miami scorer.
 Again, it all comes down to the pieces around the two dominant forces. If, say, Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem go off and Miami shuts down Barea and Terry, the Heat are likely to win. But if Barea and Terry can get off, they make the Mavericks' offense much more efficient than the Heat's.
The Mavs have shown that they can outscore the Heat in a shootout. And they have shown that they can close out the Heat if given a window of opportunity in the fourth quarter. The Heat have to thoroughly crush the Mavericks if they are going to win. And for that to happen, LeBron needs to perform like he is capable of. And the pressure might just be too much. Mavericks win it in 6.
-Ling Bon, 6/11/11

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Colon Leaves Dominant Start with Hamstring Injury, Yankees win 4-0

How big a problem is Colon's weight?
Bartolo Colon has been nothing short of amazing this year. Sports journalism is a hyperbolic world, where everything is incredible, amazing and unbelievable, and the best player this week is the best player we've ever seen. But Bartolo Colon truly qualifies. After being considered a washed-up has-been last year and not even playing in the majors, he reported to spring training looking like he'd been locked in a McDonald's for the winter. He didn't lose any weight. Nobody expected him to make the team. Then, early in the season, he came in in relief of one of Phil Hughes' disastrous outings. He got a tough luck loss, giving up one run in four innings pitched. When Hughes was relieved from the rotation, Colon took his spot and his feet have barely touched the ground. With the win today, his record improved to 5-3 and his ERA dropped to 3.10. But even those respectable numbers don't really reflect exactly how dominant Colon has been this year. He has had two poor outings, but other than that, it seems like every night he takes the ball, he throws eight shutout innings with seven strikeouts. So nobody was surprised when he manhandled the struggling Cleveland Indians lineup - for 6.2 innings. When running over to cover first on a ground ball, Colon came up lame and had to come out of the game. Initially, he was assisted off, but completed the long journey off the field by his own steam. That was promising. But then news came that he had strained his hamstring. 
I am nobody to judge a dude because of his weight. We could all stand to lose a few pounds and I am no exception. But Bartolo Colon's weight has gone from a punchline while he's dominating to a serious problem in the blink of an eye - or, more accurately, the pulling of a hamstring. While it clearly doesn't impede his pitching, an athlete in representable condition likely wouldn't have injured himself on such a routine play. All that extra weight is going to come back and get you eventually. Hopefully, Colon can make a speedy recovery, because they Yankees really cannot afford to lose any pieces right now, let alone a starter that you pencil in for seven strong.
The rest of the game was typical Yankees-fare: home runs. They hit three today, solo blasts from Granderson, Rodriguez and Teixeira, who have all been swinging hot against the Indians. Also of note, David Robertson continues to brutally strikeout everyone in his path. Every out he recorded today was a strikeout, 4 in 1.1 innings. D-rob doesn't get much publicity, overshadowed by the bigger names in the bullpen - Joba, Soriano and especially Mariano. But now, Robertson has found himself in the eighth inning role and has shown the remarkable ability to not only record outs efficiently, but to strike out nearly everyone he faces. He has quickly become the second-most reliable pitcher in that bullpen, and could easily close were in not for a certain number 42.
-Ling Bon, 6/11/11

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Yankees Show Zeal, Hammer Indians 11-7

Texeira had to be restrained after being beaned
It seems like the Yankees are more and more acquiring the soft label that the Mavericks worked so hard to shed. This past week was something of a nightmare as the Red Sox came right into town and slapped the Yankees on their own turn - again. Bats were flipped, Yankees were hit and it seemed like the Yankees were comfortable to lie there and take it. While I am not as on board with the idea that hitting David Ortiz was the answer as it seems the entire media was, something needed to be done.
Well unfortunately for the Indians, they showed up in the middle of a slump, with their ace on the mound having an off-year and right in the path of the shamed Yankees' offense. They scored early and often on Carmona, who has struggled mightily this year. He walked three of the first four batters, who were each knocked in one at a time by the next three. Carmona simply couldn't get anyone out. And Ivan Nova looked stellar in his best outing of the season, going 7 strong innings and only allowing 2 runs on 3 walks and 4 hits. From a kid who is effectively the fifth starter, that is as good a performance as can be hoped for. But the biggest story of the day came in the second inning, when Carmona, embarrassed after surrendering a mammoth home run to Curtis Granderson, intentionally threw at Mark Teixeira's head. 
While I am unsure about the effectiveness of hitting batters to send a message, I am sure beyond any shadow of a doubt that intentionally drilling a batter in the head should result in an immediate ejection, suspension and possible legal activity. There is simply no room for such a vicious act in the middle of a baseball game. Teixeira was visibly upset, shouting and pointing at Carmona, who continued to look like a clown and wave at him in a "come on" gesture. The benches cleared and managers Joe Girardi and Manny Acta wound up in each other's faces but the issue passed with a warning to both benches in a display of surprising calm by an umpire. In a time when a batter shaking his head as he walks away,  Dale Scott showed considerable restraint in not pulling the trigger too quickly. The warning prevented the Yankees from retaliating the normal way, so they did it in the most humiliating, awesome way possible: ran the living hell out of Indians catcher Carlos Santana. It seemed like every other pitch, someone was taking off and eventually it paid dividends as Santana threw the ball into center field on a double steal, allowing the lead runner Granderson to score. And then there is the more traditional way of showing up a pitcher: Alex Rodriguez hit a home run that has just now touched down in my backyard. It was a satisfying night for the Yankees offense and for Nova. 
Unfortunately, this game also showed some of the crippling lack of bullpen depth now that Phill Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Rafael Soriano and Pedro Feliciano are all hurt. Hughes was starting, but  dead arm has landed him on the DL - in one of the first times I can ever remember a pitcher being so bad that an organization automatically assumes that he's injured. That brought Nova out of the bullpen in what has definitely been a step up. But then Soriano, who had been struggling but has shown electric, dominating stuff in the past hurt his shoulder and there has been little word on his improvement. The worst blow, however, has clearly been Joba Chamberlain. Joba has bounced back from a shaky start to be a fairly reliable middle-inning guy, showing signs that perhaps he was returning to his rookie form when he was all but breathing fire on the mound. But those names have been replaced by Lance Pendleton and his ilk. Hector Noesi is a nice pitcher and has shown pluck and stuff in his memorable debut in relief in the 15 inning marathon game in Baltimore. Boone Logan has utterly lost it. When lefties hit above .300 against your lefty specialist, it's time to find a new guy to get them out. Luis Ayala has nice numbers (1-1/1.47 ERA/1.26 WHIP) but I can't remember the last time he pitched in a meaningful situation and he doesn't look as good as his numbers. David Robertson and Mariano have been dominant, but two bullpen arms aren't enough. The Yankees can't afford to take a year off. Their team is rapidly aging and the decline is imminently noticeable and can be painful to watch already. There is no reason to expect it should get better next year barring a big move. GM Brian Cashman has his work cut out for him if he's to salvage this season from the injury bug.
-Ling Bon, 6/11/11

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Dallas Takes 3-2 Series Advantage with Dramatic 112-103 Game 5 Win

JJ Barea played the game of his life
In a series that has been dominated by strong defensive play, both teams came out ready to score last night. Dallas came out red hot, obviously amped up by their rabid home crowd and they never cooled off. They shot an astounding 66% from the field in the first half, which dropped to a measly 56.5% after halftime. But what really put the Mavericks on top was strong shooting from beyond the arc. They started strong and kept it up, culminating in a third quarter where it seemed like their threes were guided in by lasers and bomb after bomb kept landing, including a rainbow fadeaway three from Dirk Nowitzki over Chris Bosh that literally cleared the shot clock. Incredibly, not a single Maverick shot under 50% from deep. 
Dirk was the centerpiece to the Mavericks once again, he went for 29 points on 9-18 shooting, including 1-1 from 3 and a perfect (of course) 10-10 from the free throw line. A lights out free throw shooter rarely gets the credit he deserves because free throws aren't sexy, but it is time to recognize Dirk as maybe the greatest clutch free throw shooter of all time. Would you believe that now, in 20 playoff games, Dirk has missed only 11 free throws? And he isn't a perimeter shooting softy any more; he fights and scraps his way to the line as much as anyone in the series. He had a truly spectacular game, highlighted by the second quarter where he scored 10 and really embarrassed multiple defenders with his sweet finishes near the basket, including several lefty scoops. But I commented yesterday how he couldn't do it himself and there were two other players nearly as instrumental in the win: little Puerto Rican ball of energy JJ Barea, and boisterous bench-scorer Jason Terry. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle elected to start Barea, who had only started two games in the regular season, over DeShawn Stevenson starting in game three and hasn't looked back since.
Barea shot 6-11 from the field but what is really staggering about his performance was the 4-5 from three-point-land. He shot 80% from deep! Most of his points came in a spectacular third quarter, when he just could not miss from three and was creating havoc left and right with his speedy dribble penetration and acrobatic reverse finishes by the basket. It was inspiring to see someone so average sized going against the suffocating, athletic, huge Miami defense and make absolute mincemeat of their entire crew. He ended up with 17 points. Then, Jason Terry had a stretch where HE took over the game, scoring a very loud and flash 21 points on unbelievable 8-12 shooting with 3-5 three point shooting and he chipped in 2 points from the line. Terry, who boasted that he would get his pre-season tattoo of the Larry O'Brien Trophy removed if the Mavericks lost the series, took some criticism for his inability to score on lockdown defender LeBron James. He took that criticism to heart and it seemed like every time the Mavericks needed a bucket, he was there to score.
Speaking of LeBron, he finds himself suffering slings and arrows for the second game in a row. He had perhaps the quietest triple-double ever seen in the playoffs, with 10 rebounds and assists and 17 points - but only two points in the fourth quarter on 1-3 shooting. Dwyane Wade led the team in scoring with 23 points (6-12, 1-2 3pt, 10-12 ft), shocking when you consider that he almost didn't play after the first quarter when he suffered a hip bruise that left him in obvious agony and brought him back to the locker room. But he came back and gave a gutsy performance, showing why he might just have a gene in him that LeBron does not. Dwyane Wade is at this point the Heat's 4th quarter go-to-guy as he had 9 in the quarter, even in a losing effort. 
But this story is really about the Mavs and their seemingly greater desire. There was a four minute stretch where the Mavericks held Miami without a field goal and never really looked back from there. This was after Miami had fought back and taken a 4 point lead and 4th quarter close-outs were almost their signature this postseason. But their regular season bete-noire - the fourth-quarter collapse - reared its ugly head again last night and now Miami has to win their two last home games of the year if King James is to live up to his title and justify having taken his talents to South Beach.
- Ling Bon, 6/10/11

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Game 5 Showdown in Dallas

Tonight is the night. Somehow, the Mavericks are going into game five on even footing with the Heat, even after they've been seemingly controlled this entire series. Few people question that the Heat are the better team in this series. Or rather, they have the better players. Two players, in particular. Dwyane Wade (playoff stats: 25 ppg/7.4 rpg/.490% shooting) and LeBron James (24.2 ppg/8.5 rpg/5.6 apg) were supposed to be their Superman and Batman and, for the most part, they've delivered. Even Chris Bosh (18.5 ppg/8.4 rpg/.464% shooting) has come through in these playoffs as the Heat's resident Aquaman. But no matter how much the Heat seem to be the superior team on the court, the Mavericks refuse to let go. They refuse to cave in. Dirk Nowtizki (28 ppg/8.1 rpg/.496% shooting) has shed his "soft" label with gritty play, especially in this last Finals game 4 where he was greatly impaired by the flu. 

And now, after a game in which LeBron was a complete non-factor, Dallas seems to have the momentum - for the time being. Tonight's game is in Dallas, but then the series returns to Miami. Dallas all but needs to win tonight or face being down 3-2 in unfriendly territory. And though I have often mocked the Heat's homecourt advantage, the fact remains that they have lost only once in these playoffs while in South Beach. Whether it's a real boost playing at home or it's just a lack of the other team's fans, Miami has been deadly at American Airlines Arena. That puts all the pressure on Dallas tonight. Jason Terry has shown an ability to score in spurts, but he will have to be more consistent if the Mavs are going to pull out this series. Right now, there is too much burden on Nowitzki to score. He's a great player, maybe one of the top 20 ever, but he can't beat a star-studded lineup like the Heat by himself. If Terry and Barrea can make their contributions, the Mavs can pull it out. However, should LeBron and Wade go off, there is little Dallas can do to stop them. If that happens, it will only be a matter of time until they lift the trophy. Tonight, however, I expect a win for the Mavericks, needing one as they go back to Miami. If that happens, I favor them in seven games. If Miami wins tonight, then I believe they will win again when they go back home and end this series in six.

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Marquez-Pacquiao III Set for November 12th

Marquez maintains that he won both fights
Juan Manuel Marquez has his wish: another shot at Manny Pacquiao. The fight is set for November 12th in Las Vegas. The two have already fought twice, resulting in two scintillating, back and forth wars. They seem to be made for each other. Marquez, the patient counterpunching craftsman is 0-1-1 against Pacquiao, the dynamic mega-athlete southpaw, but an observer could have seen each fight go for either fighter. In their first confrontation in early 2004, Marquez was dropped three times in the first round, caught almost unawares by Pacquiao’s speed and (at the time) crushing power. But after losing the second round, Marquez took control of the fight and came back dramatically for a draw. He felt he deserved a decision, as did many ringside observers.

Then, after a series of career mismanagements that led to him losing a title in an ugly fight (that he once again probably deserved the win in) with Chris John for the measly sum of 25,000 dollars, Marquez battled back to the top of the rankings with a feather-in-his-cap win over fellow Mexican legend Marco Antonio Barrera. He fought Pacquiao again in early 2008, again suffering an early knockdown but winning the majority of the rounds. This time, Pacquiao was awarded the decision in extremely close majority fashion. 

                Pacquiao has gone onto dominate weight classes above and beyond super-featherweight (130 pounds), where their last fight took place, embarking on a meteoric rise to superstardom. Marquez enjoyed had similar success, taking on all comers at lightweight (135 pounds) and destroying most of them. The only blemish on his record since then was a twelve round unanimous decision at the hands of Floyd Mayweather, where he was outweighed by 20 pounds and just generally outclassed by an all-time great fighter. And with Marquez’s incessant chattering in Pacquiao and promoter Bob Arum’s ears and public criticism of increasingly sketchy matchmaking for the Filipino star rising, the fight is finally on. 

Sun Tzu, Chinese general and philosopher and author of the celebrated text The Art of War outlines a way of predicting the victor of a battle or war. By applying these principals to a fight, one can get a rough blueprint of the outcome. These are not perfect calculations, but serve as a starting ground.

1.       “Which of the sovereigns is imbued with the Moral law (i.e. is in harmony with his subjects)?” Sun Tzu’s concept of the moral law is one of familiarity and harmony in the camps. This is easily translated to boxing: what is the environment like in training camp and what is the relationship between trainer and fighter? Well both fighters have long, close and even familial relationships with their trainers, Nacho Beristain for Marquez and Freddie Roach for Pacquiao. Advantage: Draw

2.       “Which of the two generals has the most ability?” This could be interpreted in several ways, but I read it as their tactical acumen of the fighters, or in Pacquiao’s case, Freddie Roach. Roach has a reputation as a premiere strategist and is intimately familiar with Pacquiao’s capabilities. But Juan Manuel Marquez has been repeatedly and correctly referred to as the smartest fighter in boxing and has proved his ability to make adjustments on the fly again and again and again. In a fight with Juan Diaz where he was being outworked and outhustled by the younger, more energetic fighter, Marquez found the way to slow down Diaz’s left hook (something of a bette noire for Marquez) and land his uppercut until he found the KO in the ninth round. And then he has another premiere strategist in his corner and this is a clear win for Marquez. Advantage: Marquez

3.       “With whom lie the advantages derived from  heaven and earth?” This is a much more abstract category than the others. Sun Tzu means weather and seasons by heaven and indoor arenas have eliminated that factor.  But Earth, “distances great and small, danger and security, open ground and narrow passes,” could easily be interpreted as the ability to control the ring. And the mobility advantage goes clearly to Pacquiao. One of his most overlooked strengths is his ability to keep the fight at the exact range he wants. His infighting is mediocre at best, often clinching and waiting for the referee to break the two up and his jab is not consistent enough to be used as a tactical weapon on the outside. But such is Pacquiao’s footspeed that he stays right in between the two ranges and it is there that he can best utilize his speed, power and aggression. Marquez is an able mover, but allows himself to be pressured and can be made to look unsettled, if not uncomfortable. Advantage: Pacquiao

4.       “On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced?” This is a straight forward conversion. Simply put, which side has the better training camp? In any other case, this one be an easy win for Marquez. Historically, fighters from Mexico City have had some of the best conditioning in the world. For a view of the sadistic training which Beristain puts his fighters through, including wind sprints and marathons in the huge mountains where the air is so thin, one only needs to watch the episode of Discovery Channel’s Fight Quest in which Beristain is featured and Marquez makes a guest appearance. But I know the name of Pacquiao’s conditioning trainer. That never happens. Alex Ariza is one of the best in the world and his training routine is so efficient that fighters who train with him are inevitably faced with unbased steroid concerns. Between Mexico’s mountains and Alex Ariza, both sides have it even here.  Advantage: Draw

5.       “Which army is stronger?” Simply put, which fighter has more natural ability? If Marquez and Pacquiao went punch for punch until one of them droped, Marquez wouldn’t make it out of the first round. He has proven this, almost not making it out of the first round of the first fight. Pacquiao is a special kind of talent, with explosive speed and power and an iron chin. Marquez, for all of his skills and combination punching, doesn’t have eye-catching speed or power, and has a tendency to be knocked down. Pacquiao has the clear edge in the exchanges. The trick is to avoid them. Advantage: Pacquiao

6.       “On which side are officers and men more highly trained?” The other half of the fighter, this is the technical ability of both fighters. Let me tell you something: the reports of Pacquiao’s technical improvements are vastly exaggerated.  Yes, he has added some defensive wrinkles and a new array of punches, including his patented “Manila Ice,” a deadly right hook that sneaks in over the orthodox fighter’s guard. But Pacquiao showed me something in the Mosley fight. He is still the fighter that Marquez and Erik Morales gave trouble at heart. When Mosley wasn’t available to be hit, Pacquiao grew more and more frustrated, even regressing to the point of throwing a running double-straight left that I haven’t seen in years. It’s visually impressive but leaves his defense completely full of holes. And if there is a fighter to take advantage, it is Juan Manuel Marquez. He is the most skilled offensive fighter in the world, throwing combinations that bring the boxing purist (i.e. me) to tears of joy. He throws graceful, accurate and shocking combinations. While he isn’t naturally strong or quick, the accuracy and timing with which he throws his shots almost simulate those abilities. There are “buttons” on the face where a fighter can land and just put the lights out and Marquez could land a counter-uppercut on the chin in his sleep. And when faced with a superior speedster, the way to counteract that is by throwing at just the right moment to land when there are holes in the defense, then get back and defend yourself. Marquez has shown complete mastery of both skills. Advantage: Marquez

This pre-fight report couldn’t be more even. It came up with two advantages for Pacquiao, two for Marquez and two even. And it makes sense. Both fights have been deadlocked affairs with much controversy about scoring. There are a few external factors, though, that tip the scales ever so slightly in Pacquiao’s favor. I make absolutely nothing of the weight, although some Pacquiao-detractors have pointed out that Pacquiao has been in a higher weight division for years and that he is bringing Marquez up to a weight where he looked poor in his only other fight. But if one looks at the actual numbers, they would see that Pacquiao has remained the same size while climbing weight classes. The day-before weigh in allowed him to cut from his natural weight of about 150 pounds all the way down to 130. In every instance since the second Marquez fight, he has weighed between 145 and 148 pounds in the ring. He isn’t any bigger. But Marquez is 37, and while he has shown resistance to age, nobody can avoid it forever and smaller fighters like him tend to fade long before he has. Because of the 4 year age advantage for Pacquiao, I have to give him a slight nod, but this is by all-means a pick ‘em fight. Hopefully, it lives up to their first two fights, which were torrid affairs, and we can all put the Mosley fight behind us. 

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AJ Burnett Burns Out in Yet Another Red Sox Loss

AJ Burnett's struggles have beel well-documented
You can only count on AJ Burnett for one thing: you never know what you're going to get from him. Since breaking in with the Marlins, he has always been on the brink of dominance, held back only by his seemingly tissue-paper tough sense of confidence and complete lack of control. I remember sitting in the stands at what was then Pacific Bell Park and hearing about his no-hitter against the Padres over the radio. At first, I was impressed - then I heard about the nine walks. Even as a ten year old, my ears perked up at that. And that has been AJ Burnett. "Almost there." 

Now that he's 35, maybe it is time to accept that he will just never get "there." Baseball is not a game where one can make a snap judgement based on one game. Even Babe Ruth had his 0-4 games and even Greg Maddux gave up runs at some point. It happens. And what is so frustrating about Burnett is that he will show flashes of unbelievable brilliance. In the 2009 World Series, down 1-0 to the Phillies, he went seven innings, giving up one run and striking out nine. But then last year, he literally had the worst season by a starting pitcher in the Yankees 108 year history. He went 10-15 with a 5.26 ERA, and that was buoyed by an excellent April. In the second half of the year, his ERA was a staggeringly poor 5.99. No Yankees starter had ever had both a 5+ ERA and 15+ losses. And now, after an acceptable April, Burnett has showed signs of tanking another season, with several poor starts in his last tries. But last night could have been his worst effort yet: Five and a third innings pitched, eight runs allowed - seven of them earned - and they were down from the word go, with three runs in the first inning. The Yankees ended up losing the game 11-6, pulling close at times but unable to overcome the deficit. 
And he has shown the same trend  that he did last year, with a solid April (4-1/3.93 ERA/1.28 WHIP). Those are very respectable numbers for a number three starter, which is where Burnett was slated. But last year, in April, he was even better (3-0/2.43 ERA/1.20 WHIP). Those aren't respectable, that is a dominant statline. And then he lost it. It is not certain that AJ Burnett will melt down again. He could get a handle on his season and turn it around, although he has never shown any talent for putting out the flames. Eventually, we have to come to grips with the fact that, for all his talent, AJ Burnett just isn't very good. 
-Ling Bon, 6/9/2011

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