By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Though Robert Guerrero’s return to the welterweight ranks Saturday night was expected to be a chance for the long-absent “Ghost” to reestablish his brand in one-sided fashion, it turned out to be a comeback defined more by breathtaking violence than dominant destruction.
In fact, for nearly every second of the 2,160 seconds they spent in the ring together, Guerrero and comparatively unknown Japanese import Yoshihiro Kamegai set about jabbing, hooking and upper-cutting each other into a reddened-faced, swollen-eyed 147-pound oblivion.
It was brutal. It was punishing.
And for those who like nothing more than two fighters in a perpetual real-time car crash – regardless of their world standing or the stakes involved – it was bliss.
But for those whose instant classic criteria veers a bit differently, it was something else.
And by the time it finally ended, frankly kind of boring.
There, I said it.
But before the comments section and my inbox explode with a mass indictment of my manhood and/or my qualifications, let me insist alongside that my assessment of the fight’s entertainment value has nothing at all to do with my level of admiration for the principals involved.
I’ve seen thousands of fights, interviewed hundreds of fighters and even stepped in with a couple over the years, so I’ve got as much awareness as anyone of what it takes to perform on a high level – and an even higher awareness that I haven’t the got a fraction of the mettle of the fringiest fringe contenders.
Clearly Guerrero and Kamegai have hearts the size of watermelons, courage that goes on for days and the sort of “you hit me/I hit you” warrior capacity that I tended to lose after the first few repetitions.
But while I don’t know what it’s like to be as good and tough as they are, I do know what entertains me as a fan. And after about six or seven rounds on Saturday, Guerrero-Kamegai simply wasn’t it.
So the more I watched Twitter buckle under the weight of breathless 140-character missives both during and shortly after the fight, the more I got to thinking of the litmus tests that a match must pass in order for me to change the label from “titillating opening act” to “can’t-miss headliner.”
And in much the same manner as Harold Lederman instructs us on HBO Saturdays that rounds are judged on clean punching, effective aggressiveness, ring generalship and defense, I soon decided my four measures for comparing great fights are current/historical significance, departure from pre-fight expectation, in-fight momentum shifts and level of sustained action.
I applied those criteria to my all-time favorite fight – Diego Corrales vs. Jose Luis Castillo I – and scored the 2005 showdown a perfect 40. Same score goes to the generational classic between Marvin Hagler and my favorite fighter, Thomas Hearns, though the more recent slugfest nudges ahead simply because it lasted a shade more than 29 minutes as opposed to slightly less than eight.
The 14-rounder that matched Aaron Pryor and Alexis Arguello for the first time in 1982 gets a 40 as well, while the fourth go-round between Juan Manuel Marquez and Manny Pacquiao in 2012 also warrants the perfect number thanks to 18 minutes of back and forth that culminated in a shocking conclusion on the sport’s biggest pay-per-view stage.
What all those fights had – in addition to more violence than any 10 “typical” fights – was a compelling angle that involved a championship, a pound-for-pound standing or a legacy, something that drew the viewer’s eye long before it became apparent that the fight itself was pretty good. And it’s having that extra something that allows a match to bypass stimulating and proceed straight to unforgettable.
Corrales-Castillo was a showdown of two of the best lightweights in the world. Hagler-Hearns and Pryor-Arguello involved heavier legends defending turfs against ladder-climbing superstars. Marquez-Pacquiao was the latest in a series of meetings between men whose rivalry has defined their 21st century era.
Guerrero-Kamegai, for all its Gatti-Ward testosterone bursts, was a high-profile 147-pound contender finding far more resistance from a hand-picked foil than he’d ever anticipated. And while it surely converted the masses who’d labeled it a main-event disaster as the night began, it probably did more damage than good when it comes to demonstrating its winner is again ready for P4P prime time.
He won nine of 12 rounds on two scorecards, but once the frenetic-paced blueprint was established early on, the fight never really veered off of the one-dimensional path. Neither man ever appeared in danger of a stoppage loss. And as soon as everyone got used to the idea that Guerrero was getting hit more than we’d all expected, the rounds began resembling one another very quickly.
Even a recent thriller like Matthysse-Molina surpasses it on the great fight scale because not only was its level of action comparable, but the intrigue factor skyrocketed thanks to Molina’s two knockdowns. No matter how much “The Machine” began to control the pace, fans were always locked in to see if the smaller man could catch lightning in a bottle to turn the concussive tide once more.
That was never a real possibility last weekend, and it’s one reason why – when the time comes for BWAA members to critique 2014’s best – “The Ghost” will be no more than a footnote on my ballot.
Sure, it made for a fun and entertaining hour on a Saturday.
But when compared to ones whose images stay with you for life, it was just another one-night stand.
* * * * * * * * * *
This week’s title-fight schedule:
WBC strawweight title – Epazoyucan, Mexico
Oswaldo Novoa (champion/No. 3 IWBR) vs. Alcides Martinez (No. 13 contender/No. 50 IWBR)
Novoa (13-4-1, 8 KO): First title defense; Unbeaten since 2010 (6-0, 4 KO)
Martinez (12-2-8, 6 KO): First title fight; Second fight outside Nicaragua (0-1)
Fitzbitz says: Novoa has been surging and improving since a 1-4 skid in 2011-12, and he should have more than enough to handle a foe who’s still not produced on a world level. Novoa in 9
WBO lightweight title – Omaha, Neb.
Terence Crawford (champion/No. 3 IWBR) vs. Yuriorkis Gamboa (No. 6 contender/No. 2 IWBR)
Crawford (23-0, 16 KO): First title defense; Second fight in Nebraska (1-0, 1 KO)
Gamboa (23-0, 16 KO): Sixth title fight (5-0, 3 KO); Held IBF/WBA titles at 126 pounds (2009-11)
Fitzbitz says: Gamboa doesn’t have the lightweight street cred that Crawford possesses, but his skill set at 126 and 130 suggests that he’ll be a tough out no matter the weight or venue. Gamboa by decision
Last week's picks: 2-0
2014 picks record: 46-11 (80.7 percent)
Overall picks record: 593-205 (74.3 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.