by Cliff Rold
Even with all the hoopla that has come with the Showtime-sponsored tournament, one could look at Saturday night as the culmination of one of boxing’s most quiet multi-man rivalries in recent memory.
That look should also regard it as one of the best the sport has offered. That it has happened in a division as consistently excellent as Bantamweight has been in recent years is a cherry on the sundae. Beginning with Joseph Agbeko’s July 2009 IBF belt defense against Vic Darchinyan, those two along with Abner Mares and Yonnhy Perez have given fans six quality fights in just two years.
Each of the four men has faced off at least once. Three of the contests took place before the tournament even got started.
And there is no reason to believe we’ve hit the end of their combined tale.
We do know that Saturday will close at least a chapter.
Why has it been so quiet? In part, it is attributable to the feeling that none of the four has ever really been the top dog in the division. Hozumi Hasegawa, Fernando Montiel, and now Nonito Donaire, all have sat on that perch in terms of consensus opinion. They’ve also made their own memorable fights along the way.
This Saturday, in a logical world, would bring that situation to a head. The winner of the Showtime tournament SHOULD be headed towards Donaire. That they might not be is, well, boxing. If the best we can hope for is more of the round robin, and maybe the mixing in of slickster Anselmo Moreno by next year, well, that’s boxing too.
Let’s go to the report cards.
Title: IBF Bantamweight (2010-Present, 1st Attempted Defense)
Previous Titles: IBF Bantamweight (2007-09, 2 Defenses)
Height: 5’5 ½
Weight: 118.2 lbs.
Average Weight – Last Five Fights: 117.35 lbs.
Hails from: Accra, Ghana
Record: 28-2, 22 KO
BoxingScene Rank: #3 at Bantamweight
Record in Major Title Fights: 4-2, 1 KO
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Defeated: 3 (Luis Perez, Vic Darchinyan, Yonnhy Perez)
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Faced in Defeat: 2 (Wladimir Sidorenko, Yonnhy Perez)
Title/Previous Titles: None
Weight: 117.5 lbs.
Average Weight – Last Five Fights: 118.2 lbs.
Hails from: Montebello, California (Born in Mexico)
Record: 21-0-1, 13 KO
BoxingScene Rank: #4 at Bantamweight
Record in Major Title Fights: 0-0-1
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Defeated: 2 (Isidro Garcia, Vic Darchinyan)
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Defeated/Drawn: 1 (Yonnhy Perez)
Pre-Fight: Speed – Agbeko A-; Mares B+
Pre-Fight: Power – Agbeko B; Mares B-
Pre-Fight: Defense – Agbeko B+; Mares B
Pre-Fight: Intangibles – Agbeko A; Mares A
One of the most promising elements of this contest is the evidence provided in recent encounters. That evidence? Both of these men get in scraps. They are not defensive gems, but they are not inept either. Agbeko showed in his rematch with Perez, the only man to outright defeat him in his career, that he could adapt to an opponent and control how often he’s getting touched with his jab.
Mares, conversely, is good at taking away the power of foe’s in close and picks off better than it looks like. He too has an educated jab and a smart pressure style that should mesh well with Agbeko. Like Agbeko, he also showed the ability to adjust versus Perez but he didn’t need an extra fight to do it. Mares struggled early with Perez but made a powerful stand late against Perez, relaxing into his first crack at a belt and coming up just short.
In his next fight, his to date career best win versus Darchinyan, Mares showed off a little more. Darchinyan, at any weight, is a powerful puncher and while the Mares tower was buzzed, he withstood. Agbeko doesn’t have that sort of pop.
What he does have is speed, at the least more of it than Mares. Where Mares will need to look to break down Agbeko over a long night, beating him with a timed, accurate volume attack, Agbeko can keep pace with lots of quick punches. The chance of a night where both men are arm weary after twelve rounds is high.
What of the x-factors regarding Agbeko? The fight was originally scheduled for May but Agbeko collapsed with a freakish sciatic nerve problem. Friday afternoon he missed weight on his first two attempts (though not by much and, it is expected by the time this goes to print, he will have shed those excess ounces). Is the older Ghanaian no longer truly a Bantamweight? If so, can the younger man with the better body attack be held off in a likely war of attrition?
For now, the assumption is the answer is yes. Agbeko showed an extra dimension against Perez and has fewer margins for error than the younger and more U.S.-marketable Mares. The weigh-in photos didn’t exhibit either man looking dry. They appear poised and in peak physical form. These men are closely matched in skill and, while Agbeko may be more so, both hold the sort of stellar professional experiences that mark a fight like this as special. That leaves narrow margins to find a winner and so Agbeko, with the slight edge in experience and athleticism, gets the nod to outhustle the younger man in fitting end to a fantastic little tournament at Bantamweight.
It will be no surprise if by night’s end, the call for a rematch is in the air.
Heck, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them run this whole tournament cycle around one more time. Seven fights can become eight, nine, or ten, and keep going as long as they continue to deliver.
Report Card Picks 2010: 25-9
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]