By Jake Donovan
During his rise in the bantamweight division for Abner Mares, it was all about becoming the first home-grown fighter in the Golden Boy Promotions stable to win a championship.
Mares accomplished that, but had begun to already outgrow the division by the time his first fight with then-champion Joseph King Kong Agbeko rolled around. The four-month delay in their Showtime Bantamweight Tourney finals matchup meant that a win and maybe one defense was all that Mares would squeeze out before moving on.
Now that he has grown into the 122 lb. division, Mares is ready to hit the ground running. His first fight in his new weight class comes with a vacant title at stake, as Mares takes on former flyweight titlist Eric Morel this Saturday evening at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso, Texas.
The bout will mark the fifth straight time that Mares has appeared on Showtime, which begins its broadcast live at 9:30PM ET following the undercard lead-in on Showtime Extreme (7:00PM ET/PT). Mares’ first appearance on the network was a hard-fought 12-round draw with Yonnhy Perez, a bout that preceded the bantamweight tournament.
Mares (23-0-1, 13KO) was the last man standing, taking points wins over Vic Darchinyan and Agbeko to claim the tournament trophy as well as an alphabet belt. A repeat win over Agbeko late last year cemented his claim as a top bantamweight, though his body decided it was already time to move on.
“The decision to move up in weight was made when the year began,” Mares says of the thought process behind vacating his bantamweight title. “We were getting pressure from the IBF to face the mandatory (Vusi Malinga), but none of the networks were interested in that fight. So, we decided to move up to 122 lb. and now get the chance to win our second world title.”
The vacant title fight with Morel (46-2, 23KO) - which will be fought at a 120 lb. catchweight - pits a pair of former champs and past Olympic boxers against one another. Mares – who lives in California - proudly served Mexico in the 2004 Summer Olympics, while Morel – Puerto-Rican proud but raised in Wisconsin – was a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic boxing squad.
It’s been a long and bumpy road for Morel, who at age 37 heads into every fight these days with a win-or-find-a-new-job mentality. An entire generation of fighters separates this weekend’s headlining super bantamweights, though Mares insists he’s able to get inside the mind of his opponent, which in effect helps his own course of attack.
“I’ve been in the same position he has,” Mares believes. “I’ve been there where nobody knew about me. It’s a big step-up fight for him and he’s trying to get his name out there again. He’s basically trying to make a comeback and I get that. I’ve been there.
“When I first fought Yohnny Perez nobody knew about me. I definitely know what he’s thinking; I definitely know what I’m getting myself into. I know it’s going to be a tough fight. I know he’s going to train hard. I know he’s trying to prove to everybody that he’s ready, but, again, I train hard too.”
The fight with Perez kicked off a brutal stretch for Mares, the first of four straight tough fights – including the Showtime bantamweight tourney and the rematch with Agbeko - in the span of 19 months. Even with the stellar level of competition, the journey felt incomplete since it ended just short of the absolute best facing one another.
While Mares and Agbeko were awaiting their tournament finals match, Nonito Donaire was lined up for a showdown with Fernando Montiel. The Fil-Am star came out aces, scoring a sensational knockout to gain notoriety as the best bantamweight in the world.
Donaire moved up to 122 lb. earlier this year, scoring a decision over Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. While no specific reason other than growing into the weight factored into Mares moving up, it’s no stretch to say that the unbeaten Californian sees a familiar face as unfinished business.
“Hopefully we get a chance to fight Donaire down the road. He’s the big name fighter and I can’t wait to fight him. It’s the biggest fight. I have to take care of business first and let the world know that I’m ready. Once I’m a super bantamweight champion, there is no way to go around me.”
Of course, Mares still has a fight and a title to win before he can declare himself an official roadblock. Still, the fight itself leaves him with the feeling that Saturday will mark the start of something special.
“This year started great getting the news that we’re fighting for the WBC super bantamweight title,” Mares states. “Not too many people get that opportunity. I feel like it’s going to be a great year for me. I have to do my part.
“I’m not the type of fighter afraid to lose my undefeated record. It will have to come against a top fighter, but those are the challenges I will continue to seek. I want to keep fighting these great top fighters. It’s going to be a great year.”
If Mares gets his wish, then his time spent at 122 will serve as the best years of his career.
“I’m going to name like five (guys to face) and all of them would be great fights from bottom to top: Victor Terrazas, Fernando Montiel, Rafael Marquez, Wilfredo Vazquez Jr., Jorge Arce and the big name that is up there is, no doubt, Nonito Donaire. If all those fights can be made I’m more than willing to take those fights.”
Including this weekend, Mares’ last five fights will have come against former or current champions. If gets his wish and hits every target on his hit-list, that streak extends even deeper, though there’s no telling how much it can take out of his prime.
Ever the calm in-ring assassin, Mares isn’t too worried about burnout anytime soon.
“I don’t make every fight a brawl,” Mares says of his ability to preserve himself after so many consecutive tough fights. “We boxed in the second fight (versus Agbeko); we fought smart. We don’t want to make every fight a war. You start to take a lot of punches and fade fast. We train hard in the gym, and come out clean and safe.”
As a result, he continues to demand face time. Mares has yet to develop as a local attraction – his last two fights took place in front of virtually empty venues – but remains in the Showtime rotation. Saturday marks his fifth straight appearance on the network, no small coincidence that the streak began as his level of competition increased.
For Mares, there is no looking back. If it means continuing to fight at the sport’s highest level in order to remain on television, it’s what the 26-year old is prepared to do. The past couple of years have helped advanced his public standing from blending in the crowd to standing out.
“No doubt my life has changed tremendously after my first four fights on SHOWTIME,” Mares says of the newfound fame. “I’ll never forget the opportunity they’ve given me to showcase my style, not only inside the ring but outside the ring. It’s been great. It’s changed to the point where now I’m on TV and people recognize me, but I’m still going to stay the same. Going back to Hawaiian Gardens where I grew up, I’m the same guy, but it’s just great that people know me now.”
The plan in the ring is that as of this Saturday night, everyone in the sport will get to know him very well, or even better for those who already know who he is and how great he’s become.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected]