By Thomas Gerbasi
Abner Mares laughed, probably for one of the few times since he was notified that his bantamweight championship bout against Joseph Agbeko this Saturday was going to be postponed due to a sciatica attack suffered by “King Kong” earlier this week.
The reason for this sudden outburst? A question about the menu for Thursday night’s dinner now that he didn’t have to make the 118-pound weight limit a day later.
“A big plate of baby back ribs,” beamed Mares, who was then quick to point out that he wasn’t going to go crazy because he wanted to maintain the shape he was in as he awaits the next call to the ring.
It’s the type of approach we’ve come to expect from the 25 year old, who seems so much older because of that maturity and for the fact that he’s been tabbed for great things in this game ever since he entered the pro game after representing Mexico in the 2004 Olympics.
That’s nearly seven long years, years made longer by a career-threatening detached retina suffered in 2008, a reluctance of some big names at bantamweight to fight him, and a 2010 draw with Yonnhy Perez in his first world title bout. So when he found out Thursday that Agbeko was withdrawing from their bout for the IBF belt, it was almost par for the course for the Montebello, California resident.
“I think I’ve been through so many things that somehow, someway, that patience is helping me out,” he said. “It’s difficult at this time knowing that I had the fight of my life in front of me, but things happen for a reason. I wish Agbeko the best, I hope he’s in the best of health, and we’ll just move on.”
And while fight fans and Agbeko are disappointed that the fight won’t be taking place this weekend, there’s probably no one with more to lose here than Mares, who had momentum on his side in a big way heading into the bout thanks to his stirring 12 round split decision win over Vic Darchinyan last December.
But oddly enough, you can’t look at that bout without recalling the draw with Perez, a pitched 12 round battle from last May where you could find just as many people who think Mares won as you can find those who believe Perez deserved the nod. Given that, a draw verdict was probably the most just one, but what the fight did beyond the final result was elevate Mares’ game to the next level. Sure, he beat some solid fighters on the way up the ladder like Angel Priolo, Isidro Garcia, Damian Marchiano, Diosdado Gabi, and Jonathan Arias, but this was the type of fight that proved to the world – and maybe to himself – that he could hang with the elite of the division.
Without that fight, maybe Mares doesn’t beat perennial powerhouse Darchinyan.
“We all know that a loss, or even a draw, gets you back to that drawing board and makes you see your mistakes, and I think it might have had something to do with it,” said Mares. My hunger not to lose (against Darchinyan) was so strong that I never gave up, but I think that draw against Yonnhy helped me come back even more determined.”
He needed every ounce of that determination, as he survived a cut, a point deduction for a low blow, and a second round knockdown to roar back and take the decision.
“When I got knocked down, the first thing that came into my head was the (first Juan Manuel) Marquez - (Manny) Pacquiao fight, and I knew I was still in this. Marquez got knocked down three times and he still got a draw. This was my first knockdown and I was not fazed at all. I just said ‘let’s do this.’ My determination and my mentality was what got me through that fight.”
It was the defining win of his career, the type of victory that even the curmudgeons of the fight game can look at and grudgingly nod as they say ‘the kid’s got heart.’ And when you’ve got that type of grit, it just enhances all the talent you already have and gives you even more confidence. But the funny thing is, while Mares knew what he could do in the ring if pushed to the breaking point, others – including some in his own gym – weren’t so sure.
“I’m gonna be honest, at my regular gym that I work at, I had people come up to me, people that I know who train there, and they were saying things like ‘Hey Abner, you fought a great fight. I didn’t know you had that in you.’ Or they’d say ‘I didn’t know you had that heart,’ or ‘I was one of the guys who thought you had no chance with Darchinyan.’ (Laughs) I don’t know what they saw – it was like young Abner going in there with this monster, this knockout artist. They gave me no chance and I think I answered a lot of questions and proved a lot.”
Maybe it was the Olympic pedigree, which many assume gives you carte blanche through the first 20 fights of your career, but that’s really not the case anymore. Or maybe there were those that figured since Mares was with a high-powered promoter (Golden Boy Promotions), he was getting spoon-fed to the title. That wasn’t the case either. But whatever it was that made people doubt Mares, you’re not hearing much – if anything – about it now. And after back-to-back bouts against Perez and Darchinyan, there’s no turning back now, which is just the way he likes it.
“I get excited when I fight great fighters because I know I’m gonna improve in that ring so much and learn so much,” he said. “The best fighters bring the best out of me.”
A win over Agbeko would have earned him the world title and even more prestige in a division that also houses Nonito Donaire and Anselmo Moreno, but for now, it’s a waiting game. That’s something he’s become accustomed to, but he also believes that everything has a way of working itself out.
“I think I’m at the best time of my life right now,” said Mares. “I’m more mature, I’m settled, and I’ve got a great family. I’m older, I’m stronger, and who knows, maybe back then I could have won (a title) or maybe wouldn’t have won. But now I don’t want to just win it and defend it just once and that’s it. I want to be champion for a long time.”
The way things are looking, that could be a pretty safe bet. Mares knows it too, and with so many intriguing matchups at 118 pounds, he won’t have to ask for a double order of those ribs in order to get the big fights his heavier peers routinely run into.
“I think I’m blessed right now at this time in my life because there’s so much talent at my weight, so there’s no need for that.”