I was slow to become a boxing fan. When I was younger, I expected all fights to be like the ones I saw in the Rocky movies and Raging Bull — bloody, visceral battles, with nothing resembling defensive strategy. Yeah, Rocky got smart in the third movie when Apollo taught him how to be a technical boxer, moving and slipping punches…but when it came time for the next sequel, he forgot everything he ever learned about footwork and counter-punching and reverted to blocking punches with his face.
Of course, if people really fought that way, few fights would go past the second or third round, and most fighters would die or suffer serious brain damage before they succeeded in building much of a career. In real life, Rocky would have been decapitated by the force of Ivan Drago’s superhuman punching power in Rocky IV.
But try explaining that to a ten-year-old who just wants to watch two guys beat the shit out of each other.
Though it took me a while, over the past few years I’ve grown to appreciate the way boxing at its best balances strategy and brutality. It’s a barbaric sport, but there’s something strangely compelling about watching two skilled athletes try to wear each another down. A kind of violent poetry. I’ve enjoyed fights as diametrically opposed as the Gatti-Ward trilogy — three exercises in “how the hell are they still standing after what just happened?”, where technique is thrown out the window for the most part in favour of a toe-to-toe slugfest — and the three fights between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez, which have been chess matches in which you can almost see the fighters thinking in real-time, each of them making adjustments to try and nullify what the other is doing and then reacting to the shifts in momentum created by those adjustments.
I used to find Floyd Mayweather’s fights boring beyond belief. At some point something clicked, and now I think there’s something fascinating about what a violent contradiction of a human being he is. Outside of the ring he’s an arrogant loudmouth who does deplorable things and gets away with them because of his celebrity status. It’s difficult to view him with anything other than contempt. When he steps inside of that squared circle, though, all of that goes away and he becomes someone else. It’s as if boxing is the one thing that purifies and focuses him.
Mayweather is most interesting when he’s fighting someone who’s able to bully him or otherwise throw him off his game for a while. You get to see him think on his feet, work out what he needs to change, and then rudely rip his opponent out of their comfort zone. He disrupts your rhythm and makes you beat yourself. Then he spits vinegar in the psychic wound he’s opened and toys with you, defeating you twice in the same fight.
As much as I’d like to see this fabled, doomed Mayweather-Pacquiao fight happen while they’ve both still got some gas left in the tank, I don’t think there’s any way Floyd would lose unless he got old in the ring. He’s too smart, and too good.
The thing I’ve been wondering lately is this: is there a single honest fighter out there? Someone who will tell the truth when a fight is over, even if it doesn’t flatter them? Imagine Manny Pacquiao, after his third and maybe last fight with Marquez, saying in the post-fight interview, “I didn’t win this fight. Marquez out-boxed me almost every round and landed the cleaner, more effective punches. This is a gift decision handed to me in case hell freezes over and the Mayweather fight happens. Marquez got robbed.”
Imagine how much respect he would have earned in an instant for having the audacity to confirm what almost everyone who watched that fight was thinking. Instead, he said, “Marquez is a great fighter, but I clearly won. Just forget about how you heard my trainer telling me I needed a knockout late in the fight because I was probably behind on the cards, and forget about how deflated and discouraged I looked once the fight was over, before the decision was announced, because I was pretty sure I lost.”
Nobody tells the truth in the heat of the moment. I mean nobody. Months or years later, maybe.
Oscar De La Hoya admitted Shane Mosley deserved to win their first fight years after the fact. And it’s true. That was a great, competitive fight, but Shane edged it. I doubt Shane would ever tell you he had no business winning the rematch. He got a boxing lesson that night, with Oscar jabbing him into oblivion and picking him apart. The judges were either on another planet or sleeping soundly in someone’s back pocket.
Antonio Margarito will never admit he might never have built up a reputation as a terrifying human wrecking ball if he wasn’t fighting with loaded gloves through his prime years. Notice how he hasn’t won a single meaningful fight since he was caught trying to cheat before facing Shane Mosley, who handed Margarito’s ass to him after chewing it up and spitting it out in six different pieces.
Paul Williams, as great a fighter as he was, will never admit Erislandy Lara made him look washed up in their fight. You’ll never hear him say he had no right getting that decision after having the pants beat off of him (literally — the ref had to pull Paul’s shorts up in the final round because of how low they were hanging).
It would be refreshing to experience the absurdity of a post-fight interviews with a candid fighter who doesn’t even attempt self-flattery or excuse-making. Aside from Chris Arreola, who deserves to achieve immortality just for having the courage to call Don King a “racist fucking asshole” on live television, I can’t think of anyone active in boxing who fits the bill.
Two fighters and the state of Texas had a chance to surprise me last night. They all came up short.
James Kirkland fought Carlos Molina on the undercard of the Erik Morales-Danny Garcia fight. It was an important night and a pivotal fight for both men.
Kirkland got his career off to a promising start, racking up an impressive undefeated record with Ann Wolfe taking him to hell in training camp so whatever hell he faced in the ring would seem like a beautiful dream. Then he ditched Wolfe and got blown out in one round by the pillow-fisted Nobuhiro Ishida. That’s like Mike Tyson getting knocked out by Big Bird. No disrespect to Ishida, who’s a fine fighter and has made the most of the tools he was given. That’s just the kind of absurd upset it was. I don’t think Kirkland’s mind even entered the ring with him that night. He was somewhere else.
Since then he’s realigned himself with Ann Wolfe and regained his momentum. But that surprise loss raised some questions about whether or not he was capable of competing as an elite-level fighter.
Molina, meanwhile, is a much better fighter than his spotty record suggests. He’s been robbed in close fights because he has a habit of making things ugly to take the other fighter out of their rhythm. For him, this was a chance to show what he was capable of with a decisive win.
Both these guys are aggressive, they throw a lot of punches, and they come to win. On paper it threatened to upstage the main event.
It didn’t. Molina fought a hideous, barely-legal fight. It proved to be a smart tactical decision, because it threw Kirkland off something fierce, but it wasn’t pretty to watch. Molina would nail him with combinations. As soon as Kirkland would open up and try to get something going, Molina would swarm him, tie him up, and fire off a few more shots.
Kirkland couldn’t get his punches off. After a while he stopped trying. He looked tentative, spending too much time looking for one big shot that wasn’t there. Molina just kept on switching it up between holding and using Kirkland as a human heavy bag.
Between rounds, Ann Wolfe was telling him to let his punches go, use his jab, and hammer Molina when he came in to discourage him from closing the distance. “He’s fighting dirty,” she said, “but he’s winning. You need to get more aggressive.”
Solid advice. But Kirkland couldn’t or wouldn’t adjust, and coming into the tenth round Molina was running away with the fight. At worst, he’d lost one round of the first nine.
Before the tenth round Wolfe found some of her own aggression and said, “Act like this motherfucker got your kids and you’re gonna kill him.”
That flipped the switch. Kirkland came out of his corner looking like a different fighter. He dominated the round and caught Molina with a punch that sent him to the canvas at the bell. Molina was on his feet almost right away. He looked like he still had his legs. Because the round was over, one of his corner men started climbing into the ring as referee Jon Schorle was giving the eight count.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Schorle said, and pushed the guy back out of the ring before he even got the lower half of his body through the ropes. He told both fighters to go to their corners. Then he waved off the fight, disqualifying Molina because a member of his team entered the ring before the round was through. Even though the bell signifying the end of the round had already sounded. Even though Schorle pushed the over-eager corner man out of the ring before he properly set foot in it.
The booing started right away. Kirkland was coming on after looking lost all fight long. He might have gone on to get the knockout or a late stoppage. Or maybe Molina would have countered the aggression and continued to outwork him. The last two rounds could have been as exciting as the rest of the fight was supposed to be.
We’ll never know now. Both fighters were robbed of a clean win by a referee who beat a hasty retreat before any questions could be asked of him.
When he was asked after the fight why he looked so unimpressive until the tenth round, Kirkland said his game plan was to pace himself and wear his opponent down, and claimed he was executing that and winning the fight. When your trainer is telling you between rounds you’re blowing it, giving you good advice, you keep going out there and not throwing punches, and she has to plant the image of your children’s lives being threatened in your head in just to get you to do something, somehow I don’t think you’re following any game plan, real or imagined. You’re sure as hell not winning the fight.
Two of the three Texas judges still had Molina up on points after the knockdown. He would have been leading even if he lost a point or two for excessive holding, which wouldn’t have been out of line. When the judges in Texas are making good sense, well…that’s a little scary.
That would have been enough weirdness for one night of boxing. But there was more on the way. We still had Morales and Garcia.
Again, this looked like it could be an entertaining scrap, but it also carried the threat of turning into a one-sided beating. Morales, as tough and determined as he is (he was the last fighter to officially beat a prime Manny Pacquiao) has had a pretty spotty record lately. After countless wars in the ring — three transcendent, soul-destroying fights with Marco Antonio Barrera among them — it isn’t clear how much he has left in him.
Garcia is a cocky dude who rubs me the wrong way in a number of places. His father and trainer Angel is ten times worse. But Garcia’s young, fast, and undefeated. As much as I wanted to see Morales put him on his ass and wipe the smirk off his face, it looked like it would take a miracle for that to happen. More than anything, I really didn’t want to see the declining veteran get smacked around the ring the way De La Hoya got embarrassed when he fought Pacquiao.
Right from the opening bell this was a much more interesting fight than the undercard. There was almost no holding at all. The boxing skill on display was in a different league from what Kirkland and Molina offered. Garcia, who promised to come out fast and embarrass Morales, found himself being timed and outsmarted by the older man. They both took some good shots, but Morales was blocking, slipping punches, and working effectively behind his jab. While not as fast or explosive as he was in his prime, he had a few brilliant moments when he let Garcia get him on the ropes and seemed to be in trouble, only to duck and weave out of the way of Garcia’s punches before smacking him in the face with jabs and uppercuts.
Going into the ninth round, Morales was winning the fight. Anyone with working eyes and a hunk of functioning brain tissue resting inside their skull could see it. I say this with the caveat that, again, the fight was taking place in Texas, where a whole lot of shady shit has gone down.
Open scoring gave each corner access to the score cards after the fourth round, and then again after the eighth, when it became clear the judges had Garcia winning by a mile. Morales’s father yelled at him, called him a bastard, said he wasn’t his son, and told him he needed a knockout.
Ann Wolfe would like this guy.
Morales responded by coming out and throwing more punches. The ninth round was close. It could have gone to Garcia. Morales won the tenth round almost going away.
And then he just kind of went away. He stopped throwing so many punches. He abandoned his jab, which had been a great weapon and one of the best punches throughout the fight. People who write about boxing and consider themselves students of the sport will probably tell you Garcia was too fast and he was hurting Morales. I didn’t see it. I won’t buy that argument no matter how you try to slice it or sell it to me.
Morales, for being older, slower, and probably not carrying all of his power with him above his natural fighting weight, opened a nasty cut above Garcia’s left eye and broke the younger man’s nose with that stiff jab of his. By the end of the night, the towel in Garcia’s corner was almost soaked through with blood. Morales barely looked like he’d been in a fight.
But he did give those last few rounds away by not doing enough. Garcia caught him with a left hook in the eleventh for a questionable knockdown. Morales was off-balance, but he didn’t go down until Garcia gave him a shove with his right hand. I thought it was interesting how HBO cut off the slow-motion replay of the camera angle that would have shown the push right before the knockdown. Gotta protect that young money fighter you’re hyping.
Garcia didn’t go in for the kill or do much to capitalize on the damage he’d done. He didn’t knock Morales down again. He wasn’t able to stop him. I figured Morales just got tired after being pretty cagey and effective for the first three quarters of the fight, and he ran out of gas down the stretch. At most, he lost by two or three points. I didn’t see Garcia winning too many rounds before the eighth.
As expected, the scores were wide in Garcia’s favour.
He may have added another win to his record, but Garcia didn’t look impressive against a man twelve years older than him — maybe more, in terms of punishment absorbed and dished out in the ring — and an opponent many expected him to dominate. He didn’t dominate at all. I think it speaks both to Garcia’s lack of top-level quality and Erik Morales still being a smart, tough fighter, even with all the wear and tear he’s accumulated. He didn’t embarrass himself by any means, even in defeat.
Later, I started thinking Morales might have gone out of his way to give those last few rounds away. He knew he was too far behind on points to ever win a decision. He needed a knockout. He knew he didn’t have a knockout punch to take Garcia out. For all his lack of anything spectacular, the guy seems to have a solid chin.
Morales decided there was no point in laying it all on the line in the championship rounds and taking a beating for his trouble when he was never going to get the win no matter how well he fought. The judges saw the fight they wanted to see, or the fight they were paid to pretend they saw. In the final rounds, Morales let them have the fight they were scoring all along, and he walked away in one piece when it was over, still on his feet, still clear-headed.
I could be wrong. But that’s what my gut says happened here. He saw the futility of it all and chose to stop trying.
Part of me respects and understand that. There’s another part of me that wishes he’d gone out on his shield, knowing he couldn’t win, extending his middle fingers through his gloves as he lost just to show everyone one last time what he’s really made of.
There’s a great expression I never heard until I got into boxing. Going out on your shield. It derives from the latin e tan, e epi tan, which loosely translates to: “Either bring this back, or be brought back dead upon it.”
This was said in Roman times by a Spartan mother to her son as she handed him his shield before he left for battle, or so the story goes. The sentiment was, “If you come home alive but without your shield, you threw it away so you could run faster and save your own ass. That makes you a coward. If you’re carried off the battlefield on your shield as a casualty of war, at least you fought and died like a warrior.”
In boxing it means fighting your heart out and going down hard even when you know you can’t win. And it might gnaw at Morales a little, knowing he didn’t do that this time, even if what he did was the smarter way to end a fight he knew he was going to lose.
Easy to say when you’re not the one eating punches.
Garcia cried when the fight was over. Sometimes that seems like a genuine expression of joy, surprise, and exhaustion. With Buster Douglas, who broke down after he knocked out Mike Tyson in one of the most stunning upsets in boxing history, it was something deeper and more meaningful. He was able to feel the full weight of the loss of his mother, who died during training camp, while experiencing the joy of achieving something no one believed he could.
This time, coming from a guy who mimed cutting his throat as a show of disrespect toward Morales at the weigh-in, and whose father is a racist asshole who should be shot for some of the things he says about his son’s opponents, it rang hollow. Garcia offered no real comment on the fight itself or his performance, only babbling some vague drivel about dreams coming true.
Again, here was an opportunity to give his opponent his due and say, “Morales was tougher than I expected. He made me really work hard to win.”
There was none of that.
There were two moments, one in each fight, that made watching the whole debacle worthwhile.
In the main event, before accepting he was never going to win the fight no matter how much he jabbed Garcia’s face off while making him miss a lot of his big shots, Morales did something kind of beautiful. A lot of Garcia’s punches were sloppy, looping shots, not very accurate or powerful even when they did connect, in stark contrast to the precision punches he kept getting hit with from Morales. After slipping a few of these loopers, Morales stopped, stared at Garcia, and did an exaggerated little impression of the punches that just missed him with a deadpan expression on his face, looking like he was trying to swat at a fly with broken arms.
I cracked up laughing. It was a pretty good fight most of the way through, but that taunt put it over the top for me. It felt like a nice little moment of moral victory for Morales, and a welcome bit of unexpected levity.
The other moment came after the bullshit disqualification killed the first fight. Carlos Molina, to his credit, didn’t pull a Zab Judah. He didn’t throw a tantrum. He didn’t even seem to get angry. He just looked shocked, and disappointed.
Ann Wolfe hugged him and said, loud enough for everyone in the ring to hear, “You were winning the fight.”
The most honest person in boxing’s boys club just might be a woman. That seems fitting somehow.