By Cliff Rold
Talented fighters don’t, sometimes can’t, always go for it when it’s their chance. It’s not always hard to understand why. Every talent doesn’t sell. Every champion doesn’t draw. Given the tight economics, and the politics, most fighters who get their hands on a belt hold on tight until they lose it because it’s their one assurance of better than average. It’s a guaranteed check for as long as the belt is yours.
It would be nice to have a sport where every fighter is tested to the fullest extent of their ability, able to walk away with every question answered about who they were and what they could have been.
Boxing doesn’t always go like that.
It is particularly true in the lower weight classes.
Unification bouts below Jr. Featherweight have been rare since the initial splits between the WBA and WBC. Some of the most celebrated little men, names like Miguel Canto, Jeff Chandler, Khaosai Galaxy, and Mark Johnson, never had a chance to unify titles in their time. It didn’t detract much from their places in history, but it pointed to some of the limits of the game.
It was a sign of the scale. On the current landscape, there have been many who think Strawweight and Jr. Flyweight titlist Roman Gonzalez could prove great if given the chances. He’s been easy to avoid, even with belts in tow, because of what’s been on display so far for the Nicaraguan knockout artist.
Of course, unification isn’t everything. It doesn’t always mean the two best in a class are facing off, or even two of the three or four best. Often, it stands as at best a sort of good housekeeping seal guaranteeing just that two top ten fighters are facing off.
Unification always comes with risk. A fighter willing to unify is risking an extra piece of their purse in sanctioning fees. In the lower weights, they are risking the chance at expanding their profile against sliding into the shadows.
Cristian Mijares (46-6-2, 21 KO) went for it in a big way when he had the chance.
Moving from interim to full WBC titlist at 115 lbs. from 2005-07, during a rich decade at Jr. Bantamweight, the slick Mexican rode an unbeaten streak from 2002 to late 2008.
A 2007 win over Jorge Arce exploded his profile among hardcore fans and some, including this scribe, began to mention him as one of the sports best ‘pound for pound.’ He added the WBA strap with a masterful performance against big punching Alexander Munoz and looked on his way to greater things.
For the first time, three titles were to be on the line at 115 when he faced IBF titlist Vic Darchinyan on November 1, 2008. Mijares was favored. Surely, this could be the win that catapulted him towards a place as one of the new standard bearers for Mexican boxing.
Darchinyan detonated those hopes, and the reputation of Mijares. Dropping Mijares in the first, Darchinyan never looked back. Mijares did his best to battle back, but he could never get ahead. Finally, in the ninth, he was dropped for the finish.
Cristian Mijares, pound-for-pound player, was dead on arrival.
It was a reminder of how silly pound-for-pound debates can sometimes be. The only rating of merit is the one affixed at the end of a career. Middleweight Michael Nunn was “#3” in Ring Magazine before he faced James Toney in 1991.
Few need to. It didn’t end up meaning anything more than the ink on a piece of paper. At least Nunn rebounded into the title picture at Super Middleweight shortly after. Mijares didn’t follow up defeat as well. After Darchinyan, he lost two more in a row to then-undefeated former Venezuelan Olympian Nehomar Cermeno. The first was a debatable split decision. The second was a wide unanimous decision without dispute.
For many outside his native Mexico, where he retains a following, Mijares might as well have vanished.
The thing is, Mijares didn’t vanish. He kept fighting. Winning ten in a row since the second Cermeno loss, including a brief stint as WBC beltholder again at 115, Mijares has built a comeback, moving to 122 lbs. in his last four fights. He was briefly considered for a shot at Nonito Donaire but that didn’t come together.
Still only 31, if a pro since the age of fifteen, he’s reached a different point of greater opportunity instead.
Ten wins in a row are irrelevant once the bell rings. For Mijares, eleven is the only number that counts.
This Saturday, he gets former Bantamweight titlist and World Jr. Featherweight champion Rafael Marquez (41-7, 37 KO). It’s a fascinating crossroads fight between men perceived to be on the other side of their personal hills. Marquez is 37 now and has lost his last two big fights, a Featherweight title shot against Juan Manuel Lopez and a Jr. Featherweight crack at Toshiaki Nishioka.
Marquez, like some of the other names mentioned earlier, never got to be in a unification fight. He went for it in another way. He dominated his field of foes at Bantamweight and then engaged in a thrilling series with Israel Vazquez that likely assured both men a place in the Hall of Fame one day. It iced a cake that also featured knockout wins over Mark Johnson and Tim Austin.
Rated #2 by the WBC, Marquez is conceivably in place to move into a mandatory crack at the winner of Abner Mares-Anselmo Moreno on November 10th. Mijares is just as conceivably in position to steal that slot and ride it towards a title shot in his second weight class. It could also increase his viability for a shot at Donaire if the Filipino-American sticks around at 122 past his showdown with Jorge Arce in December.
Neither Marquez nor Mijares would likely be favored over the Mares-Moreno winner. No one fights to be an odds favorite. Fighters fight to win, move ahead, and try to win again. Marquez still wants more. Mijares wants more and surely the chance to replace the Darchinyan loss as the epitaph on his career.
A loss to Marquez would confirm for most that he was never really at the elite level he appeared to reach in the mid-2000s. A win doesn’t change that, Marquez being much older and fairly seen as the more spent of the two, but it keeps Mijares alive for tomorrows.
No one can say Mijares hasn’t had a great career, the sort of career that most fighters would love to have had. But, once the bar is raised, missing it comes with a price. Mijares has paid it and kept going.
Mijares went for it. He fell short.
There’s no shame there.
Indeed there is drama in watching to see if he can get all the way back before he inevitably, as most do, falls again.
It all rides on the quest for eleven.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene and a member of the Transanational Boxing Ratings Board, the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]