by Cliff Rold
Sometimes, it’s hard not to just be a fan. Saturday night on Showtime (10 PM EST/PST) will be one of those times. One of boxing’s best divisions is giving the sport one of the highest quality matches available. Two fighters, both in their prime, hardly a blemish between them, with reasons to pick both; it might not end up an action classic, but it’s hard to ask for more on paper.
On one side of the ring, a fighter still becoming familiar to the U.S. audience, one of the trickiest boxers in the game, all subtle reflexes, defensive prowess, and sneaky offense. On the other side, one of the game’s most consistent warriors, fearlessly matched and the better for it, with a fierce body attack and steady aggression. Both men say they want the king of their class, World Jr. Featherweight Champion Nonito Donaire.
The winner will have more than earned that scrap in the ring. It can wait. This week, it might be that too much of the press has featured Donaire. At least the chatter about Donaire has been focused. Abner Mares is the other side of the focus. There are plenty who want to see the two most prominent U.S.-based Jr. Featherweights face off. They should. It would be a hell of a scrap.
The problem is, in making it a centerpiece of attention, it distracts from what Mares has to do first. Anselmo Moreno is arguably the toughest task of his career. Moreno can beat Mares.
The reverse is true as well.
That’s what makes the fight we have in hand better than two promoters acting bush. Let’s embrace the now and go to the report card.
Title: WBC Super Bantamweight (2012-Present, 1st Attempted Defense
Previous Titles: IBF Bantamweight (2011-12, 1 defense)
Height: 5’4 ½
Weight: 121.8 lbs.
Average Weight – Last Five Fights: 117.7 lbs.
Hails from: Montebello, California (Born in Mexico)
Record: 24-0-1, 13 KO
BoxingScene Rank: #3 at Jr. Featherweight
Record in Major Title Fights: 3-0-1
Current/Former World Champions Faced: 5 (Isidro Garcia RTD7; Yonnhy Perez D12; Vic Darchinyan SD12; Joseph Agbeko MD12, UD12; Eric Morel UD12)
Title/Previous Titles: WBA Bantamweight (2008-Present, 10 Defenses)
Height: 5’6 ½
Weight: 120.8 lbs.
Average Weight – Last Five Fights: 117.85 lbs.
Hails from: San Miguelito, Panama
Record: 33-1-1, 12 KO
BoxingScene Rank: #1 at Bantamweight
Record in Major Title Fights: 11-0, 4 KO
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Defeated: 6 (Felix Machado UD10; Tomas Rojas UD10; Wladimir Sidorenko UD12, SD12; Mahyar Monshipour SD12; Lorenzo Parra TKO8; Vic Darchinyan UD12)
Pre-Fight: Speed – Mares B+; Moreno B+
Pre-Fight: Power – Mares B; Moreno C+
Pre-Fight: Defense – Mares B; Moreno A
Pre-Fight: Intangibles – Mares A; Moreno A
The first big question in this fight is how Mares deals with someone whose style is so different than anything else he’s seen in recent form. While Mares has faced a stiff run of competition in Perez, Darchinyan, and Agbeko, all of those fighters are of a more offensive mindset than Moreno. Mares’s last fight, with Eric Morel, gave him a chance to shine against a fighter who can play defense, but Morel is aged and hasn’t dealt well with world-class pressure for years.
Moreno is something different. He’ll have advantages in length and height to go along with a willingness to slide between postures. Moreno draws some comparisons to Pernell Whitaker. He doesn’t produce the same volume of offense Whitaker did in his prime, but he shows some of the same ability to confuse. Moreno presses when foes expect him to be on the back foot. He goes on the back foot often when a foe thinks they’ve got him in an exchange.
Moreno will show Mares a range of tricky offense. The southpaw has an excellent right to the body, varies the tempo of his jab, and can force clinches by giving a shoulder to run into. He also throws educated uppercuts with both hands that can stop combinations. Factor that he’s also making himself hard to hit and making opponents miss, sometimes by inches and sometimes by feet, and the frustration Moreno can cause makes for long nights.
Moreno hasn’t lost since 2002. He avenged the lone loss, a four-round split decision, twice over. He also had a draw early on. He’s as close to undefeated as a fighter can be without the “0.” To get there, he’s had to face adversity.
Moreno is a road warrior of the best kind. Since winning his title in Germany, he has given up home floor six times in ten title defenses, with his last two fights in the U.S. Of those ten defenses, four were split decisions and three of those on the road.
Don’t let those verdicts fool. He didn’t lose any of those fights. His fight with Monshipour (in France), and fights with the awkward Cermeno (in Venezuela), were competitive but clear. The second fight with the man he beat for the title, Sidorenko, wasn’t really close. How good does a mostly pure boxer have to be to go on the road and consistently not get robbed?
Pretty damn good.
American fans got a look at what the underground buzz was about in his fight with Darchinyan. Outside of Donaire, no one has ever handled Darchinyan like Moreno did…and Moreno did it without the power Donaire wields. It was a brilliant display of timing, movement, of the sweet science. Moreno even had Darchinyan visibly rocked in spots, particularly to the body, a rare feat against the Armenian badass.
What makes this fight potentially special are the things Mares does right that can offset Moreno’s game.
Mares has the chops. His willingness to face the best around him rates with Carl Froch and Vic Darchinyan in current vintage. Like both, he started facing the tough outs before an appearance in a prominent divisional tournament and has kept his foot on the gas. He takes risky fights of the low and high reward variety. It’s admirable.
He’s grown as a fighter because of it. It started in the fight with Yonnhy Perez. He fell behind in that fight and then dug deep to come back and force the draw. He won late with Darchinyan in a nasty, rugged affair. Growth was most evident in his two fights with Agbeko.
The first Agbeko fight was marred badly by a widely decried officiating performance from Russell Mora. It was a close fight, but one where Mares struggled and was falling behind. Mora appeared to affect the outcome when he called a knockdown late off of a blatant Mares low blow.
A rematch was in order. There was no doubt the second time. Mares fought through an early cut to steadily break down Agbeko in a fierce fight. He hurt Agbeko late and kept the heat on with a mix of legal body blows and effective combinations to the head. He had the look of a fighter fully coming into his prime.
What makes Mares effective is that he does so many things well. He has good balance, underrated speed, and uses pressure wisely. He is the sort of fundamentally sound fighter who can compete with anyone. Moreno may have beat Darchinyan by a far wider margin than Mares, but Mares is the sort of fighter who fits well within the margins between any fighters. In that way, he is reminiscent of a Fernando Vargas who could give, say, Winky Wright and Tito Trinidad hell even as the style match between Wright and Tito ended up miles apart.
Mares is not a killer puncher but he’s good enough to break men down. Mares has been quoted in the lead up to the fight saying Moreno doesn’t look that fast to him. It’s not a bad observation. Mares has seen athletically quicker fighters. Agbeko was one, and with a stiffer jab. Perez was also probably quicker.
Those experiences could make it easier for Mares to slip the sometimes lobbed jab of Moreno and get inside. In a chess-like fight, sometimes being the aggressor alone counts for a lot. If he can get inside on Moreno and launch, Moreno might not be able to throw back. Even shots that are blocked could favor Mares at that point. If he gets through the defense, Mares could force Moreno to fight his fight or, even better, go to the ropes.
In Cermeno, Moreno was shown to be uncomfortable with physically strong fighters inside. Cermeno lacks the refinement of Mares. Maybe that makes Mares more predictable to defend against. Maybe that means Mares can land where Cermeno couldn’t. We’ll see.
Against Monshipour, Moreno was vulnerable to the left hook along the ropes. Mares carries more pop than Monshipour but the pressure he exerts isn’t as relentless. If he gives Moreno more time to reset and shift than Monshipour did, does he lose opportunities? We’ll see.
An interesting element of this fight is the perceived advantage in body attack for Mares. Moreno is highly underrated there and has had to ward off body punchers before. Sometimes, body punchers aren’t comfortable taking shots back in the ribs. If Moreno starts to land there, how does Mares react?
Also, how does Mares react if Moreno starts to frustrate him or pile up points? Agbeko isn’t the only fighter to complain of low blows against Mares. Darchinyan has also complained vociferously about low shots and elbows. Surely, Mares has seen that Cermeno used low blows to slow Moreno down at times.
In his fights, Mares appeared to get away with a lot while his opponents were getting cautioned for things like holding behind the head. Moreno can lean on the neck too. If one foul is called more than the other, how is the fight affected? And, surely having seen that Cermeno used low blows to slow Moreno down at times, can we expect Mares to flirt with the beltline regardless?
There is also the cut factor evident in many southpaw-orthodox clashes. Could it be a factor here? The way Moreno leans back may mitigate the chance of a head butt issue but both men are sharp enough to land a cut causing punch. Mares has been cut before and been okay but given the angles Moreno can throw from, blood could be a real hindrance here.
These last elements lend themselves to fears in some quarters that this intriguing style clash could devolve into a stop and start mess. Optimism outweighs fear.
In terms of intangibles, both men come up aces. They’ve both shown solid chins and guts in their careers. This is the sort of fight where it is easy to root for both men and where the winner should be on any ‘pound-for-pound’ list worth reading (if any of them are). There’s a pretty solid case both already belong.
Who will belong more by Sunday?
This is one of the toughest picks of the year as there are reasons to like both fighters. Stylistically, there is a feeling Mares has the edge. His aggression could win him rounds even if the purist eye says otherwise. If Moreno wins close, can he really get the decision against the more marketable foe? How good does he have to be to win?
It’s stinks to have to ask but this is boxing. Moreno’s career is full of near losses that shouldn’t have been. It’s also full of fights where he rises to the occasion when the moment most asks for it. He was sublime in his first title win against Sidorenko. He made his U.S. debut count with a near shutout against Darchinyan. And still those fights were closer on the cards then they should have been.
The key here could be how Moreno starts the fight. If he starts out legging it too much, he could give up early rounds and he doesn’t want to play with a deficit. He needs to be on from the start and, if he’s winning rounds, make it clear right away. Slick fighters who dig holes can sometimes start winning only for the judges to take a couple rounds to realize the fight has changed (see, as a possible example, Gabriel Campillo-Tavoris Cloud earlier this year). It’s just easier to score aggression even if it is also sometimes lazy. This fight demands the judges observe its entire nuance for all twelve rounds.
All of those questions assume Moreno can outbox Mares. He may not. Mares’s thudding offense could just walk away with the fight. If he gets inside on Moreno consistently, he is going to land. By night’s end, the possibility is there for Mares to have a career performance. He can, and has to, force Moreno to keep him off. This might be his toughest task to date, but Mares has also seen more than enough tough opposition to be prepared.
Ultimately, with plenty of waffling, the thinking here is the night will be tougher for. While we could see a fight where Moreno wins viewers cards and not the official ones, that’s never a good basis for a pick. One must assume quality verdicts for a quality fight and let the chips fall. One fighter here just looks a little bit better than the other.
Moreno is the choice to rise to the occasion, establish his own offense early, and find the range and timing he needs to outbox Mares. Mares posting a late rally to tighten the cards is possible but the seasoned Panamanian has to know his back is far more to the wall here.
Mares can lose and still maintain an audience. Moreno has a style not everyone loves and one many would avoid unless their choices were limited by his continuing to win. Moreno must win to keep himself in the thick of things and force fights his direction. That edge should keep him sharp enough to leave with a close decision.
Report Card Picks 2012: 57-18
Cliff’s Notes… Mares-Moreno isn’t the only big fight this weekend…On HBO (9:45 EST/6:45 PST), Jr. Middleweights Erislandy Lara (17-1-1, 11 KO) and Vanes Martirosyan (32-0, 20 KO) battle to see which of them will probably have to settle for a WBC belt instead of a fight with Saul Alvarez. Martirosyan is a good solid fighter, and former U.S. Olympian, but Lara is more athletic, hits harder, and is generally more well rounded. Looking for the Cuban to win a commanding decision…Earlier on Saturday, the World Heavyweight Championship is up for grabs in a fight that looks as non-competitive as anything since, well, Wladimir Klitschko-Jean Marc Mormeck. Klitschko (58-3, 50 KO) has the painfully slow and unaccomplished Mariusz Wach (27-0, 15 KO) on tap. He shouldn’t have him long. Klitschko is about two rounds in the choice here.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene and a member of the Transanational Boxing Ratings Board, the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at email@example.com