By Ryan Maquiñana
Abner Mares has plenty of family stories to tell.
The setting of this one, however, is not Anaheim’s Honda Center—the site of his IBF bantamweight title defense against Joseph Agbeko on Saturday —but rather, a Ralph’s supermarket near his adopted hometown of Hawaiian Gardens, Calif.
“We came from Guadalajara, Mexico, when I was seven, and we didn’t have much money, so we’d go to Ralph’s,” said the 26-year-old Mares, the fourth of 11 siblings. “Every Friday at the end of the month, we’d go to the dumpster behind the store. Any big name store will empty their merchandise that’s about to expire or have expired that day, and they throw it out.
“And here we were, a big family that was hungry. My mom wasn’t working, and my brothers and I found ourselves digging through trash cans to stock up on food. You name it, anything that was partly expired or was about to expire. We did it for a couple years. Coming where I’ve come from, I definitely appreciate what I have. I don’t want to give it up so easy because I’ve worked so hard for it.”
Then there was the time his mother sent him back to Mexico at the age of 15 to represent his native country as an amateur to further his boxing career, as well as to avoid the pressures that afflict most inner-city teenagers.
“When I was in high school, I got into a rumble,” Mares recollected. “A cop arrested me, and instead of sending me to jail, he sent me home and told my mom that I was falling in with the wrong people. That’s when she said, ‘Either Abner does something for his life, or gets in trouble here,’ so they sent me to Mexico City on my own, where I didn’t have any relatives.”
Getting that second chance possibly saved Mares. With two of his own brothers incarcerated and several other acquaintances in his neighborhood succumbing to the influence of crime and gang life, he understands how easily things could have taken a permanent turn for the worse.
“Maybe I would have been looking at jail or juvie (juvenile hall) because of my age,” he estimated. “Once you’re in there in any type of detention hall, like juvie or prison, you get worse. I don’t believe that you get better because you’re hanging around with criminals and people who are in the system doing bad stuff, and hearing stories of what you did what and what you’re going to do when you get out.
“So definitely, that changed my life from that point on, not going to jail and not falling in the same routine. All these people are doing life, doing 40 years, and here I am doing good for myself. I’m just glad I got out of there in time. I’m grateful.”
As an amateur, Mares came of age, defeating both Anthony Dirrell (at 100 pounds!) and Juan Manuel Lopez en route to a berth in the 2004 Olympics. Nonetheless, if you ask him what he treasures most about Mexico, it’s marrying Nathalie (his wife of seven years) and having two daughters (Emily, 5; and Amber, 2 months), with whom he celebrated his 26th birthday on Monday.
“My family cooked a special meal for me for my birthday—salmon,” he said, laughing. “I wish I could eat though. My favorite dish is Mexican-style enchiladas with spicy green sauce and a little bit of cheese. I’ve already given my wife the menu for when the fight is over.
“With Nathalie, we got married when I was 19, and I had to grow up real fast with two young daughters,” he said. “I’m not that type of guy who wishes he had a boy. I like my two girls; they’re more loving. My five-year-old doesn’t even watch boxing. She’s into gymnastics. She’s such a girly-girl.”
As the public, we crave these types of feelgood tales, because they remind us of the human element that is often forgotten when discussing elite fighters who have become affluent enough to not have to worry about where their next meal is coming from.
But as of late, this isn’t the brush with which the public has selected to paint Abner Mares (22-0-1, 13 KOs). Rather, the family man persona and rags-to-riches angle have taken a backseat lately, and the masses have opted to go all Jackson Pollock on Mares and splash him with vitriol.
Rather than praise, it is the uncommon, most unwelcome label of “cheater” that has been the word of choice to describe him recently as a result of his—to put it mildly—controversial majority decision win over Joseph Agbeko (28-3, 22 KOs) almost four months ago that netted Mares the red belt around his waist, the first world title of his six-year pro career.
After the scrap, everyone from fans to ringside reporter Jim Gray blasted Mares and referee Russell Mora—the fighter being accused for throwing repeated low blows and the referee for not calling them. An especially inexplicable instance occurred in the 11th round when Mora ruled what seemed to be a low blow from Mares as a knockdown instead, turning the tide away from Agbeko on the final scorecards.
“I was super happy with my family and my team because I had won my first title,” Mares remembered. “We did it. We became champions. But when we came to the real world, everyone started calling me dirty all of a sudden, how I managed to throw all those punches low. Then they bring in this video [from Fox Sports] I did a couple years ago, and somehow I’ve always been a pro at throwing low blows. It’s funny and sad.”
In the video, Mares ironically demonstrates the measurable impact a shot below the belt can have on an unsuspecting—uh, groin.
But is the criticism fair? When Mora decided that Agbeko’s equator for legal punches was a point somewhere midway down the Ghanaian’s femurs, Mares slugged to the body relentlessly, with several punches connecting with a target that most observers would deem to be illicitly low.
However, like that lenient substitute teacher you had in second grade whose classroom management techniques left much to be desired, Mora—based on what he viewed to be legal—did absolutely nothing to inform Mares that his volleys strayed too far south of the border, much less deter such action.
One of the first lessons we learn in any type of competition is that it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. We are encouraged to play from snap to whistle. And in the heat of the battle, where one is constantly fighting for survival, if the ref’s lips have gone mum, then he’s certainly nonverbally communicating that one’s borderline shots are within the rules. This is the argument that Mares makes.
“He wasn’t calling the punches low,” he said. “If the referee Mora had just taken a point away from me earlier in the rounds, I would have definitely changed my plan and done something else. [Trainer] Clemente [Medina] would have said, ‘Kid, you can’t risk getting anymore points taken away or even getting disqualified,’ so we definitely would have changed the gameplan.”
But unlike many of the stories Mares has told us so far, this one isn’t over. While many fighters (and face it, fighters’ handlers) in today’s era would have been content to have dodged a bullet with the favorable decision and moved on with their careers, Mares and his manager Frank Espinoza informed promoter Golden Boy that they would accept the rematch with Agbeko.
According to them, their decision hinged less on what the IBF had demanded moreso than what amounted to upholding Mares’ legacy and integrity.
“We want to set the record straight, and Abner wants to prove that he’s the best bantamweight champion in the world,” Espinoza stated. “We never said no, because it was the right call for Abner, it was the right call for Agbeko, who put up a great fight, and the right call for boxing. We’re looking forward to it.”
“At the end of the day, I’m glad we’re doing this rematch,” Mares declared. “I just want to prove to the people that I deserve my title by beating Agbeko again.”
Fully cognizant of how the aftermath of the first fight unfolded, it begs the question if Mares will now carry a feeling of apprehension with him into the ring on Saturday. One must wonder if just the thought of potentially throwing any shot close to the beltline will creep into his conscious enough to make him gunshy and affect his overall gameplan.
“I’m ready mentally for what the ref does, if he might not want to be caught up in the mix like the other ref was,” Mares opined. “If the ref will corner me to the point where I can’t throw any more body shots, I’m ready for that. I’m the type of the fighter who works the body good. That’s my game. But if I can’t throw any more body shots and have to show them a different Abner, I’m excited about that. I always want to show a different type of Abner in every fight. I think I did that in these last three fights.”
Mares has shown signs of reinventing himself each time out in what has essentially been a grueling gauntlet most fighters would rather steer clear of if possible. After drawing with Yonnhy Perez in May of last year in a bid for the IBF 118-pound title, he defeated 115-pound kingpin Vic Darchinyan by split decision seven months later in the semifinal of Showtime’s bantamweight tournament, followed by the majority nod over Agbeko in August.
“With Yonnhy, I showed one type of fighter,” Mares said. “People thought I was just a brawler who fought on the inside, but against Darchinyan, I stayed on the outside and came back from a knockdown to show my heart. With Agbeko, I think I boxed good on the outside, too, so I want to show I can do a little of everything.”
“Doing what he’s done in tough circumstances shows me that he has the caliber to be up there with the best,” Espinoza said. “To me, the sky’s the limit after that. He’s got good looks. He’s got great boxing ability. He can punch. Every fight he’s showed me something.”
Mares then went into further detail describing each fight’s significance in terms of its contribution to his progression.
“They all have different styles,” Mares said. “Yonnhy is a straight up fighter who throws and throws and throws. And that’s what you saw in the first fight of the tournament. It was a battle. He might have won the first half of the fight, but I caught my second wind and took the second half. I definitely thought I had that fight by a round or two, but it was a draw.
“With Darchinyan, we all know the style he brings. He’s awkward, really uncomfortable. He carries a punch and he’s just difficult, but with him, it’s really mental. He tries to get in your head, he tries to call you names, he tries to put you down, but if you show you’re not afraid of him, he’s going to back down, too. It was a hell of a fight. I love the way I fought him, coming back from being knocked down in the first round, having a point deducted, and still beating him.”
Mares especially singled out the Darchinyan triumph as establishing his place in the upper echelon of fighters in the lower weight classes.
“In that fight, I wasn’t hurt by the knockdown, so I definitely wasn’t going to show him I was hurt,” he recalled. “I winked at my corner and said I was good. The first thing that came to my head and this is not a lie, was [Juan Manuel] Marquez-[Manny] Pacquiao [I], how Marquez was knocked down three times and still got a draw.
“So I still felt I could get this guy. I was careful not to show any body language about giving up or I was hurt. And Darchinyan felt it. At one point I was the one pressuring him, and I think I got to him because he realized he wasn’t going to knock him out. Watching it on TV now, seeing how tired he was walking to his corner, if I saw that, I would have jumped on him right away.”
Moreover, the victory lent him some self-belief that he would need heading into the tournament final with Agbeko.
“That was definitely the fight that did it for me. I had a feeling that my promotional team, and my management team thought I might not want to be part of the tournament because of the matchup, because this was the guy everyone ran away from, that they were afraid of. But I wanted to beat him in his prime to show I wasn’t afraid. And when I did, it gave me the energy, that boost, that ‘extra,’ and here we were heading into Agbeko.”
Low blows aside, Mares reflected on their first clash, acknowledging the stylistic issues Agbeko presented him, namely the Ghanaian’s effective left jab.
“I showed him how confident I was in the first round when I knocked him down, and then it got tough, so there are definitely things that I’m going to do differently about that fight,” Mares said. “For one, the good thing we were doing in the first fight was distance. I would hit him and step back and make him miss when he would try to counter.
“Also, I’m going to keep using my speed. I want to work on the outside and keep him frustrated trying to let him get to me. We got to stick to the gameplan, but we don’t know what’s going to happen that night.”
The obvious question is if those plans include a heavy dosage of medicine to the body, and if he’s taken any precautions in training to prevent any recurring threat of debate about the legality of his punches.
“I am trying to go for that body again, but we just know that the ref might be hard on us this time,” he replied. “If he says we’re punching too low, we’re just going to stop doing that and go to a different gameplan, so we have Plan A, B, and C.”
This multitude of ringside roadmaps for Saturday meant hiring several sparring partners to fit each one.
“I’ve sparred maybe six different guys,” Mares said. “Efrain Esquivias is a good, tough fighter. We sparred with Jose Roman because he’s a good power-puncher. There were three or four other guys who were there, and they did different things. They came forward or boxed or did other things. So we’ll be prepared whether Agbeko wants to box or brawl.”
With the rematch scheduled to take place only a 20-minute drive away from home in Anaheim, Mares’ training atmosphere has been a lot different than his mindset during the last fight week in Las Vegas.
“We’re already at the fight venue and at the fight hotel since it’s so close to home,” he shared. “I’m here in Anaheim, relaxed. I know I’m going to have a lot of people on my side, and him, too, people will be going for Agbeko, but that’s normal. I’m just ready.”
Motivation is in abundance, as Mares has an opportunity here to both answer his critics and reshape perceptions about him. The way he addresses this idea, one would think a favorable outcome would bring about a feeling of catharsis rather than vindication.
“I told Frank’s son, Frankie, that I was already tired of Agbeko because this whole year I’ve been training for him,” Mares joked. “In April, the fight got cancelled, then August we had the first fight, and now I fight him again. I could have had three different opponents by the end of the year, but that’s not how it played out.
“I just want to cross this T, just close this chapter, and just win. I think I’ll do that, not easily, but I think convincingly. Adios Agbeko, it was nice knowing you, and move on.”
His manager agreed while outlining the repercussions of this fight on his future.
“Me personally, I want to leave no questions,” Espinoza said. “I know there was controversy in the first fight. I’m just certain that Abner will take care of business and keep his legacy going.
“We’re not looking past Agbeko, but I’d like to see Abner fight [Jorge] Arce down the line. We’d like to see a fight with Nonito Donaire if it makes sense. It’s only going to be tougher from here, and I know he’s up for the challenge this Saturday and beyond.”
After everything Mares has endured during his lifetime, perhaps he’ll have one more story to tell his daughters if he can come away victorious Saturday night.
“When I was with my brothers in the back of the supermarket, it never crossed my mind that I’d be here all these years later,” he reflected. “You live for the moment. Looking back, I even tell my kids sometimes what I went through. Now they ask for stuff, and because they want it, they have to get it. But I tell them, you have to earn it because you’ll appreciate it more.”
Ryan Maquiñana is the boxing correspondent at Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America, and Ring Magazine’s Ratings Advisory Panel. E-mail him at [email protected] , check out his blog at www.maqdown.com or follow him on Twitter: @RMaq28.