By Jake Donovan
From the moment Top Rank signed on two years ago as his co-promoter, Yuriorkis Gamboa was their ideal candidate for the other side of a hoped-for featherweight superfight with Juan Manuel Lopez.
From the moment he topped Jose Rojas for whatever alphabet hardware was made available at the time, Yuriorkis Gamboa sought to take on any featherweight with the belt in hopes of cleaning out the division before moving up and conquering his next weight class.
Fast forward two years later. Lopez suffered a shocking knockout loss earlier this year at the hands of Orlando Salido, thus derailing any plans (rumored or otherwise) for an eventual superfight with the exceptionally talented Cuban export. The sanctioning bodies declared that Gamboa didn’t do his part to follow their rules, thus deciding to remove their belts from around his waist.
As it turned out, Gamboa doesn’t need either to define his greatness. All he needs to do is keep winning, and continue to prove his worth against the best that the sport has to offer – or at least the best among whomever is willing to get in ring with him.
For this weekend, the best available opposition comes in the form of Daniel Ponce de Leon. The pair of former titlists collide at Boardwalk Hall’s Adrian Phillips Ballroom in Atlantic City (Saturday, HBO, 10:30PM ET/PT).
Thanks to the politics of the sport, not much beyond bragging rights is at stake. Of significance beyond the ring, the bout represents the first co-promotion between Top Rank and Golden Boy Promotions since the two promotional powerhouses decided earlier this summer to cease their latest rift.
Even with not much physically on the line, Top Rank still hopes that with a victory – especially one of the emphatic variety – comes proper recognition of their fighter as one of the very best in the sport today.
“We’re hoping that after this Saturday’s performance he begins to appear on everyone’s pound-for-pound lists,” states Carl Moretti, Vice President of Top Rank. “In terms of natural talent, he’s right up there among the best I’ve worked with. The question is how that talent translates against Top 10 opposition. There’s pressure on him to perform like he did against Solis. If so, he gains even more recognition as one of the best in the sport.”
Gamboa (20-0, 16KO) turned several heads with his four-round destruction of former titlist Jorge Solis earlier this year, also in Atlantic City and on HBO’s airwaves. Solis had only been dropped and stopped in one other fight – four years ago against current pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao. However, he was simply overwhelmed by Gamboa, who floored the Mexican five times to make it an even 20 wins in just four years as a pro.
It was a huge improvement from his uneven performance over Salido six months prior, where Gamboa looked sluggish though fought well enough to win comfortably. The win looks better in retrospect – if only on paper - considering Salido’s recent stoppage of Lopez, but Gamboa and his handlers know that looking good in the ring is the only place that matters if he is to build a fan base.
The hope is that a repeat of his performance against Solis surfaces when he faces the dangerous though defensively flawed Ponce de Leon (41-3, 34KO). An impressive enough showing will at least guarantee future HBO dates, which at the moment might be the only amount of leverage that he’s afforded.
“A lot of times, you’re careful with talented fighters in your stable, not wanting to expose them to a particular style,” Moretti explains. “With Gamboa, it’s the complete opposite, where guys are staying away from him.”
Having alphabet hardware stripped and lacking a committed fan base come isn’t always the best way to entice credible opposition to sign on against a fighter as gifted as Gamboa. Yet somehow, he’s always managed to remain ahead of the curve in terms of facing competition that exceeds the normal progression level.
Much of the credit for his being fast tracked to the top belongs to Ahmet Oner, who signed Gamboa nearly five years ago after the 2004 Olympic Gold medalist defected to Colombia along with former amateur teammates Odlanier Solis and Yan Barthelemy.
The plan was to build up the trio in the heavily Cuban-populated South Florida region before moving to Germany, a move that even came with the blessing of US Homeland and Security. Colombian officials decided otherwise, forcing the defectors to remain put until they were able to obtain visas for Germany.
Gamboa instead made his pro debut in Germany in April 2007, not fighting in the United States until six months later. By that time, Oner had already managed to transform the former amateur standout into an instant cult hero, matching him far more aggressively than even most established contenders could claim to be the case.
To date, Gamboa has never faced an opponent with a losing record or with fewer pro fights. With just under two years of pro experience to his name, he was already fighting for an alphabet title, even if one of the manufactured variety (as if there’s any other kind).
The next logical question was just how soon it would be before he was facing elite-level competition, and if it was too much too soon as for a fighter of his talent.
That’s when Top Rank entered the picture – and immediately slammed on the brakes.
“They are well-developed because they are mature and well-seasoned as amateurs and now we have to work on the marketing side of it,” Top Rank president Todd deBuof explained at the time. “Good doesn’t mean everything. You have to be marketable and amenable to the fans so that the fans want to see you.”
Gamboa was never quite introduced to the marketing side when he began fighting in the states. Television slots came regularly, but so too did trips to desert casinos in areas where fans just couldn’t relate.
Since signing with Top Rank, Gamboa will have appeared on the far more Cuban-friendly East Coast four times in his last six fights once this weekend’s bout is in the books. Twice he has played the small room in Madison Square Garden and Saturday will mark his second straight trip to Atlantic City.
Top Rank is pleased with the results thus far, and more importantly the growing buzz.
“The way Caesars and the others market a fight, people in Atlantic City look to see terrific fighters and they have now seen Gamboa and I know tickets are going very, very well,” insists Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum, who envisions the casino strip as the potential headquarters for Gamboa in the coming years.
Early returns suggest a near sellout for the ballroom venue, and far more commotion than was the case prior to his bout with Solis. That said, it doesn’t mean that plans will be limited towards turning him into a one-man Boardwalk Empire.
“Generally, we want to concentrate on how exceptional of a talent he is,” Moretti reveals. “I see him faring well on the East Coast, but it doesn’t mean the West Coast is out of the question. With the number of top Puerto Rican and Mexican fighters for him to face, he can go back and forth. The East Coast has a larger population but I don’t want to label him an East Coast fighter just yet.”
The only immediate label that Gamboa and his handlers are looking to apply is that of among the sport’s best fighters today – and with the right fights down the road, perhaps the sport’s very best.
“As far as I am concerned, big fights for Gamboa down the road – the winner of Juan Manuel Lopez and Orlando Salido – I’d like to make that fight next year,” claims Arum. “Then probably the biggest fight in the featherweight division would be against Nonito Donaire, who will be going up to featherweight next year. That should be a big, big match.”
Such a fight will not happen overnight, especially since Donaire is presently two divisions south, even with the declaration that his October fight with Omar Narvaez will be his last at bantamweight.
There’s also the chance the fight doesn’t happen at all, given Gamboa’s desire to move up in weight. While he always clamored for a showdown with Lopez, the undefeated Cuban has always maintained that he would achieve enough to where he wouldn’t need that one fight to define his career.
Not when there are so many other options – and that he’s willing to take on anyone brave enough to step to him.
“I just want the big fights. They have sent me three Mexican boxers and you have seen the results. I have always come out on top. That is what I have wanted in my career, to box with the best and do the big fights. Whatever they bring to me, that’s what I am going to do.”
With or without belts, rivalries or anything other than his God-given talent, which continues to be more than enough.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected] .