By Lyle Fitzsimmons
It was shortly after 1 a.m. ET on Sunday.
I’d just finished filing the last of my pieces on the Santa Cruz-Mares rematch in Los Angeles when I decided to skim the Twitter feed to get a feel for prevailing post-fight vibes from elsewhere.
Make no mistake, I like both men as fighters and people and I enjoyed the 12-rounder at Staples Center, but I didn’t think it was as good as their first go-round there three years ago – and certainly didn’t figure it’d warrant more than a fleeting memory come awards time this December.
Clearly, though, there was some significant disagreement in cyberspace.
Not only were words like “fantastic” and “incredible” being thrown around like breathless Frisbees, but there was far more push for a trilogy fight than I would have expected from a series in which just two of six judges have suggested Mares deserved more than four rounds either time.
Of course, there are a few titillating points I’ll concede.
For nearly each of the 2,160 seconds they spent in the ring, Santa Cruz and Mares once again did their best to jab, hook and uppercut each other into red-faced, swollen-eyed featherweight oblivion.
It was brutal. It was punishing.
And for those who ask 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 mass indictments of my manhood or my qualifications, let me insist alongside that my assessment of the entertainment value has nothing at all to do with the qualities possessed by its principals.
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 recognition that I haven’t got a fraction of the mettle of the fringiest fringe contenders.
Clearly Santa Cruz and Mares have hearts the size of watermelons, courage that goes for days and the sort of “you hit me/I hit you” warrior capacity that I tend 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, Santa Cruz-Mares II simply wasn’t it.
So the more I watched Twitter buckle from the weight of panting missives, the more I thought of litmus tests a match must pass for me to change the label from “titillating opener” to “can’t-miss headliner.”
In much the same manner Harold Lederman instructs that rounds are judged on clean punching, effective aggressiveness, ring generalship and defense, I’ve determined 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 all-time favorite fighter, Thomas Hearns, though the more recent slugfest nudges ahead simply because it lasted 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 combat 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 involving a championship, a pound-for-pound standing or a legacy, something that drew the viewer’s eye long before it became apparent that the actual fight was pretty good. It’s an extra something that allows a match to bypass stimulating and proceed straight toward unforgettable.
Corrales-Castillo was a showdown of two of the world’s best lightweights. 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.
Santa Cruz-Mares II, for all its Gatti-Ward testosterone, was a high-profile 126-pound champion finding predictable resistance from a geographic foe with significant physical disadvantages. And while it surely rescued the masses who’d suffered through a narcotic co-feature, it didn’t provide much to suggest Santa Cruz was anything other than what they’d already seen in 36 fights.
He won at least eight of 12 rounds on two scorecards, but once the frenetic blueprint was established early on, the fight never really veered off of a one-dimensional path. Neither man ever appeared in danger of a stoppage loss. And as soon as everyone got used to the idea that Santa Cruz was staying more disciplined than we might’ve expected, the rounds began resembling one another quickly.
Even a recent bout like Lomachenko-Linares surpasses it on the great fight scale because not only was its level of action respectable by comparison, but the intrigue factor skyrocketed thanks to Linares’ knockdown in round six. So no matter how much “Hi-Tech” controlled the pace, fans remained locked in to see if the bigger man could catch lightning in a bottle to turn the concussive tide once more.
That was never a real possibility on Saturday, and it’s one reason why – when the time comes for BWAA members to critique 2018’s best – “El Terremoto” will be no more than a footnote on my ballot.
Sure, it made for a fun and entertaining Saturday.
But when compared to images that stay with you for life, it was just another one-night stand.
* * * * * * * * * *
This week’s title-fight schedule:
IBF welterweight title – Frisco, Texas
Errol Spence Jr. (champion/No. 2 IWBR) vs. Carlos Ocampo (No. 3 IBF/No. 35 IWBR)
Spence (23-0, 20 KO): Second title defense; Ten straight wins by KO/TKO (56 total rounds)
Ocampo (22-0, 13 KO): First title fight; First fight scheduled for 12 rounds
Fitzbitz says: It’d be nice to suggest the Mexican kid has a chance to give Spence a difficult night. But let’s face it, he just doesn’t. This is a star turn on a home field and it’ll look that way. Spence in 5 (100/0)
WBA super bantamweight title – Frisco, Texas
Daniel Roman (champion/No. 9 IWBR) vs. Moises Flores (No. 1 WBA/No. 11 IWBR)
Roman (24-2-1, 9 KO): Second title fight; Unbeaten in 16 fights since 2013 (16-0, 6 KO)
Flores (25-0, 17 KO): Third title fight (1-0, 1 NC); Held IBO title at 122 pounds (2016-17, zero defenses)
Fitzbitz says: Independent rankings indicate it’s a reed-thin margin between the two fighters, but I’m feeling like Flores will have something Roman is unable to overcome. Flores by decision (65/35)
WBO light flyweight title – Hato Rey, Puerto Rico
Angel Acosta (champion/No. 13 IWBR) vs. Carlos Buitrago (No. 10 WBO/Unranked IWBR)
Acosta (17-1, 17 KO): First title defense; Never fought past 10th round in a victory (0-1, 0 KO)
Buitrago (30-3-1, 17 KO): Third title fight (0-1-1); Eighth fight outside Nicaragua (3-3-1, 0 KO)
Fitzbitz says: Acosta is by no means infallible, as a wide decision loss just last year proves. But he’s up against a guy who’s not traveled well and not exactly thrived on the highest level. Acosta in 9 (80/20)
Last week's picks: 3-1 (WIN: Santa Cruz, Charlo, Crawford; LOSS: Flanagan)
2018 picks record: 40-19 (67.7 percent)
Overall picks record: 961-323 (74.8 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 [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.