By Thomas Gerbasi, photo by Chris Cozzone
Fay Wray was nowhere to be found, but King Kong was down.
It wasn’t airplane fire or even beauty that took “King Kong,” Joseph Agbeko, to the deck in April, just days before his bout with Abner Mares, but an attack of sciatica that hit him on his way to Los Angeles from New York. The pain, excruciating, was something even the hardened warrior from Ghana couldn’t bear.
“They said it could really happen to anyone because of the time that the flight was delayed at the airport and the time I spent not moving on the plane for the six hours from New York to LA,” he said on a recent media teleconference. “It doesn’t happen every day, but the people at the hospital knew because they are so close to the airport. It does happen to people sitting on a plane for a long time.”
It wasn’t how he expected his return to the west coast to go, face down in baggage claim at LAX and unable to move. The last time he had traveled out west, Agbeko had regained his IBF bantamweight title with a 12 round unanimous decision win over Yonnhy Perez in December of 2010. Now he was about to be rushed to Marina del Rey Hospital, where he remained in the emergency room until 5am the next morning. It was Tuesday. The fight with Mares was on Saturday, but after another medical evaluation on Wednesday, Agbeko was officially pulled from the fight.
He was crushed.
“When I had the injury the only thing that I was worried about was the fight that I had coming up,” he said. “I knew definitely that it wouldn’t affect my career. My main concern was disappointing every one because I knew I couldn’t fight. I knew everyone was counting on me. All my fans and family in Ghana were depending on me. I didn’t want to let anyone down.”
Mares, who saw his opportunity to fight a second time for a world title and win the Showtime Bantamweight Tournament in the process, was classy throughout the whole ordeal, saying on the day of the postponement, “I think I’ve been through so many things that somehow, someway, that patience is helping me out. 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 that’s just what both 118-pounders did. Agbeko got better and got back to the gym; Mares went after some baby back ribs before hitting the gym himself, maintaining his shape so that when the call came for the bout to be on again, he would be ready.
The call came. The new date, Saturday night, August 13th.
Mares is ready. He’s been ready. So is Agbeko, ahead of schedule on his own recovery, hence he’s raring to get back in the ring.
We’ve got a fight.
“I feel good, actually, great and I'm very happy to be back and fighting,” said Agbeko. “I was never afraid that I would not fight again. I was surprised a thing like this could happen to me, but I knew in my heart that my career was not going to end this way. I have trained for nine weeks and my camp was excellent. At no point did I feel weak and now it is all behind me and I am focusing on Mares.”
If the 12-year career of Accra’s Agbeko would have ended in an airport and not by his own accord years from now, it would have been a travesty that is all too typical in this sport, where the well-marketed and well-promoted get all the breaks, many undeserved, and real fighters like Agbeko are forced into small venues like the Hard Rock in Las Vegas. Such is the sport these days, and while a bout like Mares vs. Agbeko probably would have packed 15,000 into the Olympic Auditorium in Southern California back in the 70’s when guys like Ruben Olivares, Danny Lopez, and Bobby Chacon did their thing, today that’s not the case.
But at least it’s on Showtime, at least it’s getting some media buzz, and at least the diehard fans know how important this fight is. They may be only 118 pounds, but in terms of significance, this is heavyweight big because the winner, if not seen as the top bantamweight in the world, should at least be in the running for the only other fighter with a legitimate claim to that number one spot, WBC / WBO champion Nonito Donaire. You know where Agbeko stands on this subject.
“This is a very big fight,” he said. “Everyone is watching and people will know after you win this fight that you are the best in the world. That’s what I strive to achieve in my career: to be the best in the world at this weight class and then move on to the next one.”
That might not be the wisest move though. Super bantamweight used to have plenty of star power, but not so much anymore. Yet if the various promoters can work together, there’s Agbeko, Mares, Donaire, Fernando Montiel, Vic Darchinyan, Anselmo Moreno, Koki Kameda, and the man Agbeko has already gone 24 rounds with, Yonnhy Perez, currently at 118 pounds. No, they’re not mainstream names that will he headlining Pay-Per-Views, but if the aforementioned group starts punching each other in the face on a regular basis, interest will skyrocket and maybe casual fans will start realizing that you don’t have to be 147 pounds and up to be someone worth spending your hard earned dollar on.
And Agbeko’s countrymen have gotten plenty of United States television exposure over the years, with the notable examples obviously being former world champions Azumah Nelson and Ike Quartey. But Joshua Clottey has gotten his share of TV time over the years, and even Ben Tackie was a staple on high profile cards for a while.
“I am the only champion in boxing now from Ghana and I plan to continue to carry the torch from Azumah Nelson,” said Agbeko. Thankfully, the 31-year old has the style associated with many of the hard-nosed battlers from the West African nation – he’s physically strong, is a rugged aggressor, has a steel chin, and though he usually won’t be able to take you out with one punch, he will punish you as if he’s got a dozen small stones in his gloves. It will just sting at first, but by the middle rounds, the pain will set in on your arms and body, and then the head will follow. Then he’s got you.
That’s the usual scenario. In his rematch with Perez last year, he showed off some underrated boxing skills en route to a 12 round decision win that evened the score with the Colombian, who had taken Agbeko’s IBF title a year earlier.
“Well, in the first fight I don’t think I had a lot of time to prepare for the fight,” said Agbeko. “I came into the ring slow and started out that way. That first fight just did not go well for me due to a few issues. So I came back and was able to do better the next fight.”
Yet while the brawling Agbeko may be at a disadvantage with the faster Mares, the boxing Agbeko may pose some interesting problems for the former Mexican Olympian. He’s not the only fighter coming into Saturday’s bout with some new tricks though, as Mares bounced back from the lone blemish on his record – a 2010 draw with Perez – with a gritty 12 round win over Darchinyan on the Agbeko-Perez II card. It was the type of ‘dig down deep’ performance that showed Mares’ mettle. When I spoke to him in April, he admitted that he even surprised some folks close to him with the victory.
“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,’” Mares recalled. “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.”
Tonight will prove even more for both Agbeko and Mares, and a fight fan needs no more convincing. Let’s just hope the rest of the world tunes in.