By Jake Donovan
On the one hand, a lesson that could’ve been learned by Yuriorkis Gamboa in watching his countryman try and fail at the sport’s top level last weekend, it’s that patience is a virtue.
On the other hand, perhaps the lesson to have been learned by Odlanier Solis heading into his bout with Vitali Klitschko is that he’s no Yuriorks Gamboa.
The pair of Olympic Gold medalists and Cuban defectors has been matched at a brisk pace from the moment they turned pro nearly four years ago. Neither fighter has ever faced an opponent with a losing record. Nor have they ever been matched against anyone with less pro experience.
But when it came time to produce at the title level, one has delivered while the other has yet to make it out of the first round.
In fairness, Gamboa has yet to face the featherweight equivalent of Vitali Klitschko.
Then again, Solis managed to make it to the title level without even having to face the heavyweight equivalent of anyone Gamboa has faced in his past several fights.
Time will tell if Solis can rebound from last weekend’s debacle. His conditioning suggested that he took the fight seriously, weighing in at a near career low 246.9 lb. He appeared to give a good account of himself before being buzzed by a head shot towards the end of the round. The attempt to regain his balance was a failed effort, as he landed the wrong way on his leg and collapsed to the canvas in pain, which provided an anticlimactic ending to a fight that never had a chance to get going.
What remains in question is just how well Solis can perform at the contender level while waiting to get back in line. While matched aggressively early on, his competition leveled off once he was moved in position to fight for the title.
His toughest opponent prior to last weekend was Ray Austin, a fight in which Solis was in poor condition and struggled mightily before coming on late and eventually winning by disqualification.
Needless to say, he has quite a bit to prove before anyone gives him a chance of succeeding at the top level.
Gamboa (19-0, 15KO) has yet to secure a fight against that can be classified as the best of his division or even close to it. However, he is enough at the contender level that when he is finally matched against a fighter a good as fellow unbeaten featherweight titlist Juan Manuel Lopez, his chances of victory can be properly assessed.
A fair amount of detractors remain, though there are just as many – if not more – who love the Cuban’s chances in such a fight. The moral of the story being, that there’s value to be found in continuing to escalate the level of your opposition while awaiting bigger and better fights.
So while one Solis sits back and watches his countryman do his thing, another Solis gets an up close and personal view this weekend.
It can be argued that Jorge Solis (40-2-2, 29KO) represents Gamboa’s stiffest test to date when the two collide at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City this weekend (Saturday, HBO, 9:45PM ET/PT). The crowd-pleasing Mexican is a proven commodity, having served as a contender at featherweight and junior lightweight for the better part of the past five years.
Solis was unbeaten until April 2007, when he ran into current pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao. An interesting note about that collision was that it served as a time-marking bout of sorts for Pacquiao while Top Rank and Golden Boy fought a legal battle over who claimed rights to the Filipino phenom.
The role in which Solis plays this weekend is quite similar, save for all of the legal drama.
Gamboa is playing the good soldier at the request of promoter Bob Arum, who a year or so ago declared that he will match his pair of featherweight thoroughbreds once they have collectively cleaned out the division.
In theory, two things will come of such an occurrence: that each will have established themselves as the very best featherweights on the planet; and that by proving their dominance, the demand for a head-on collision will extend well beyond the sport’s hardcore fan base.
However, there are holes in each of those storylines.
While Gamboa and Lopez can eventually gravitate towards the top, neither will have an outright claim to the best featherweight in the world as long as Chris John can continue to make weight. The longest current reigning alphabet titlist is actually in line to defend his portion of the belt against Gamboa, since both share ownership of the same sanctioning body’s title (Gamboa also possesses hardware with another alphabet organization).
But in order for such a fight to happen, Top Rank and Golden Boy (John’s stateside promoter) will put aside their differences and play nice with one another, if only for one fight.
Don’t count on that happening any time soon, and certainly not for a fight like this, which is a good TV matchup but hardly lucrative enough to convince bitter rivals to sensibly negotiate and agree to terms.
That leads to Plan B, which is the continued marketing of Gamboa and Lopez, until public demand is so great that no other featherweight fight will matter.
So far… not so good.
Lopez continues to enjoy celebrity status in his native Puerto Rico, where he returns next month against Orlando Salido. The evening will serve as a comparative fight, as Salido is coming off of a 12-round loss to Gamboa in their alphabet unification bout last September.
But given the reaction to his fights anywhere else in the world (or at least in the States), Puerto Rico might prove to be the only location in which there is a significant amount of money to be made for such a matchup.
Fights in New York and New Jersey have been met with respectable but not overwhelming reaction, not enough to where Lopez can make fans forget anytime soon about countryman Miguel Cotto. Attempts to build an audience in Las Vegas have fared about as well as anyone else not named Pacquiao or Mayweather in recent years, which is to say not very well at all.
All that said, Lopez remains far ahead of his in-division rival in regards to putting asses in the seats.
By Arum’s own admission, it’s likely that Gamboa never becomes a live draw. Fighters of his ilk have a greater chance of becoming cult favorites than gate attractions.
That hasn’t quite yet happened for the Cuban export, largely due to his inconsistent in-ring showings.
A world beater on some nights and going through the motions on others, it has become virtually impossible to handicap the level of entertainment Gamboa will provide on any given night.
Several optimists believed that his unification bout with Salido would be well worth the price of admission. What instead transpired was an uneven affair, with Gamboa’s lack of focus leading to yet another knockdown in his young career. He still put enough rounds in the bank to take a decision win, though many will argue that it should never come to that for such a prodigious talent.
Lopez will have a chance to one-up Gamboa in his own fight with Salido next month, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the Puerto Rican is in the lead. Few have forgotten his mightily struggling with Rogers Mtagwa in his final bout as a junior featherweight nearly 18 months ago.
Gamboa did himself a world of favors by tearing through that very same fighter in two rounds just three months later, a short enough span to where Lopez’ struggles were still fresh in mind.
It’s that Gamboa who needs to show up every time out if he wants to claim any chance of becoming a star in the sport. Fighters who don’t draw well, damn sure better fight well – and entertain in the process.
That Solis is rarely in a bad fight should bode well for boxing fans fearful that another stinker is in place. Gamboa will be best served to bring his A-game for a number of reasons. Fighting with the belief that being that good is good enough will only carry you so far.
It also delays the demand for bigger and better opportunities, such as the looming showdown with Lopez if and whenever it occurs.
The thing about Gamboa is that when at his best, there are very few in the world who can claim to be better. When he’s at that level, there’s no challenge in and around his weight class that’s too big or too soon, as talent never needs a time table.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com and an award-winning member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Contact Jake at [email protected] .