By Jake Donovan
Three months ago, Abner Mares was a win away from picking up his first major title as a professional, and also becoming Golden Boy Promotions’ first home-grown champion.
With an untimely injury suffered by his opponent and defending titlist Joseph Agbeko, the dream was put on hold for another three months.
The statement still remains true heading into this weekend’s headliner at The Joint at Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, which serves as the finals for Showtime’s bantamweight tournament. Time was lost, as was the logistics of training camp – new sparring partners brought in, a break in camp along with a temporary change in locations.
What hasn’t changed is the hunger and desire to realize his dream and do his bosses proudly.
“We are getting close to this fight that I’ve been waiting for quite some time,” notes Mares (21-0-1, 13KO) who has been idle since his off-the-floor split decision win over Vic Darchinyan in the opening round of the Showtime Bantamweight Tournament last December. “The fight got cancelled back in April and now... I’m ready to do this.”
The three-month delay – caused by Agbeko suffering a severe case of sciatica during fight week - is merely another chapter in a career already filled with setbacks and obstacles. The path that has led Mares to his second crack at a major title shot is hardly the template followed by most potential rising stars.
Mares appeared to be well on his way towards a rapid rise to the top, including an HBO Boxing After Dark showcase appearance in November 2007, just three years and 15 fights into his young career. Four months later, he served as the opening act for a pay-per-view event headlined by the rematch between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez.
Both appearances featured a common denominator – Mares shining brightly to where fans wanted more. Alas, the momentum was stalled later that year when a detached retina forced him to sit out for nearly a year.
Those who truly view the industry as merely a business would’ve cut their losses and wished Mares well the moment the words were uttered that the injury sustained would cut short his career.
Instead, Mares was reminded that he’s not in this alone and that he has friends and family around to support him – fighter or not.
“I remember when the injury came up, we were shocked that it happened so young,” recalls Roberto Diaz, matchmaker for Golden Boy Promotions. “At that moment, the main thing was what’s next in his life, not just his career. I remember telling him that it’s not the end of the world. If it’s over, then we’ll find something else to do, but that he should seek a second opinion to determine the severity of the issue.
“Sure enough, he saw a specialist, and was able to continue on with his career. We were prepared to stand by him regardless of the outcome, but glad that it turned out this way for him.”
The return to the ring in May 2009 resulted in the first major change in Mares’ young career – continuing on without the guidance of Hall of Fame trainer Ignacio “Nacho” Beristain, who decided to jump ship after the bantamweight signed with Espinoza Boxing Club closer to his California home.
Losing someone as brilliant as Beristain isn’t exactly the best way to head into the prime of your career, but Mares has hardly missed a beat. Less than six years after representing his native Mexico in the 2004 Olympic Games, he found himself standing opposite close friend Yonnhy Perez for his first major title shot, in a bout that served to the lead-in as – and stole the show from – the fourth battle between fierce in-ring rivals Rafael Marquez and Israel Vazquez.
Mares performed brilliantly and closed the show like a true champion in the waiting, but was forced to settle for a hotly-contested 12-round draw. A rematch was discussed, but the Mexican boxer-puncher instead accepted an invitation to Showtime’s bantamweight tournament, one that included Perez along with Agbeko and Vic Darchinyan.
While most in the industry agreed that any mixing of the quartet would result in fantastic fights, there existed the strong likelihood that a Perez-Mares rematch would serve as the tournament finale.
Mares held up his end of the bargain, though was forced to walk through hell in order to get there. The young rising star suffered a cut, a knockdown and a point deduction all within the first four rounds of his bout with Darchinyan before coming on strong to rally back and take a split decision win over the former two-division champion.
Alas, avenging the lone blemish on his otherwise pristine pro record wasn’t meant to be. The stretch of tough fights caught up to Perez, who dropped a surprisingly wide unanimous decision against Agbeko in a rematch to their terrific war more than 13 months prior.
Still, a showdown with Agbeko represented a formidable challenge for Mares’ second crack at a major title, along with confirmation as one of the best bantamweights in the world.
Then came the waiting game, though unknown to all involved until the final press conference during fight week. Agbeko decided to go for a run prior to a six-hour flight from New York to Los Angeles. By the time he arrived at LAX, the transplanted African could barely walk, his body having stiffened up and ultimately requiring the assistance of a cane just to walk around.
The news of the fight being canceled was a devastating blow to Mares, but nowhere nearly as hard hitting as seeing the state of his opponent.
“I just felt bad. My parents always taught me not to feel sorry for the guy on the boxing side but I generally felt bad on the human side. He just looked like an old guy limping with the cane. I thought, man, this could be the end of his career. It was like me with my detached retina and when they told me my career could possibly be over. Plus, I have some family members who have had the same injury and they told me it was really painful so I just felt bad for Agbeko.
“That’s why we gave him a second chance and we thank God he’s better and that he can continue what he loves doing and that’s boxing.”
Mares was given the choice of accepting an optional fight just for the sake of staying busy and not losing time spent in training camp. He instead decided that waiting a few more months wasn’t such a bad thing.
“At the moment I heard that the fight might be cancelled and that there might be another opponent I was happy, but I was not mentally happy. I was getting ready for a world title fight and whoever stepped in it would not be for a world title. Just another 12-round fight.
“I had more to lose than to win so saying that, the whole camp just decided to wait for Agbeko. He made it to the finals and it’s only right to fight him for the SHOWTIME Bantamweight title.”
It also puts him in position to put to rest the belief that his promoter – Golden Boy Promotions – is incapable of bringing along a fighter from pro debut to the world title level.
“It means a whole lot to me,” Mares says of the possibility of becoming Golden Boy’s first home-grown champion. “I’ve said this before: Golden Boy is not just my promoter but also my family. I get along with everyone so well. So winning this fight I’ll be the first Golden Boy fighter to start from scratch and become world champion so that would mean a whole lot for me. And I know it would mean a whole lot to Golden Boy Promotions. We’re a big happy family and we would all win that night.”
His extended family wholeheartedly agrees.
“It’s a little extra motivation that it’s Abner in this position,” Diaz admits. “You’ve seen him go from an amateur to a pro, making the transition along a tougher road than most of today’s amatuers experience. It gives it that little extra. He came from poverty in Mexico and had to adjust to a new lifestyle. He’s come a long way and deserves this success.”
Of course, Mares still has to go out there and actually win the fight, one that a grand total of nobody in his camp expects to be an easy night’s work.
“I expect a very good fight, a tough 12-round fight,” Diaz admits, although with a twist. “But on Saturday night, Abner Mares will not be denied.”
Along with the championship comes the belief that the winner of this tournament deserves recognition as the best bantamweight in the world.
Pound-for-pound entrant Nonito Donaire might have something to say about that, particularly on the strength of his tremendous second-round knockout of Fernando Montiel earlier this year.
Absent of a head-on collision – Donaire is committed to HBO for the time being while Showtime has at least one option of the winner of this weekend’s clash – discussion of who is truly the best in the world is limited to debate and hypothetical situations.
None of that is of any concern to Mares. All he can focus on are those against whom he can meet in the ring and attempt to make a statement.
“A lot of fighters had the opportunity to get in it and some chose not to for whatever reasons. We definitely deserve to be called the best bantamweight out there. There are a lot of great and top pound-for-pound bantamweights out there. After this fight we should be called the best then after this, other fights can be made. Let’s do it.
“But I think myself and Agbeko have proven that we are here and we will fight anyone and we should be recognized as the best.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to JakeNDaBox@gmail.com .