Double-headers intended to hype a future bout between the two featured fighters are usually as risk-free as boxing matches come. The headliners are never in very tough, because they’re showcase fights meant to whet the appetite for the idea of the headliners meeting up, and the chance of a loss could spoil it all.
That is absolutely not the eye-rolling path Saturday’s double-header on HBO is taking. Top Rank Promotions says it wants to get its featherweights Juan Manuel Lopez and Yuriorkis Gamboa in the ring against each other at some point in 2010 (although apparently not this summer, as we’d been led to believe). They are two of the finest young boxers in the land today, and their eventual meeting is one of the most anticipated bouts of the new year. But while they are both favored to win this weekend, their opponents, Steven Luevano and Rogers Mtagwa, respectively, amount to the toughest fights of their young careers.
Luevano is very good. He’s ranked #2 in the division by Ring magazine, a division where Lopez hasn’t fought yet. Mtagwa is crude, but he nearly knocked out Lopez in a 2009 classic, and Gamboa’s ability to take a punch is dubious.
It’s the first big fight card of 2010, and I could hardly be looking forward to it more.
JUAN MANUEL LOPEZ-STEVEN LUEVANO
What to make of Lopez’ life-and-death struggle with Mtagwa? On paper, it was a total mismatch, the blue-chipper and rising young star with pound-for-pound top-10 love in some places versus the gutsy but underskilled brawler. My take is thus: 1. Putting Lopez in the pound-for-pound top 10, when his best win was over Daniel freaking Ponce De Leon, was extremely premature. 2. Lopez fought an unbelievably dumb fight, falling in love with his power and matching Mtagwa sloppy punch for sloppy punch. 3. Mtagwa was the physically biggest opponent Lopez had fought, as Mtagwa was moving down to junior featherweight, where Lopez was much stronger than anybody he’d ever met in the ring until he met up with Rogers.
He says he has corrected #2. He knows he got away from the game plan. Lopez is a heavy hitter, for sure. But he’s much better off in the boxer-puncher mode, using his sharp technique, savvy defense, accuracy and compact punching to score knockouts. He didn’t rearrange De Leon’s world with wide-arcing shots slung from behind his back. He did it with a crisp right counter hook — the right hook being this southpaw’s best weapon — and followed up with short hooks from both hands. When Lopez is fighting the right way, he does for all the world look like he’s pound-for-pound top-10 material. And if he beats Luevano, he may have overcome #1, which is to say a top-10 ranking would no longer be premature.
It’s #3 — size — that has Luevano confident, among other factors. Lopez said he’d been having trouble making 122 pounds, and that he’s more comfortable at 126. But we don’t know yet whether his power will carry up to the new weight. And Luevano thinks he’ll have a size advantage. The two men have identical physical dimensions, standing 5’7″ with 69″ reaches. But Luevano is the proven featherweight. I myself question whether Luevano, with his lack of punching power, is the man who can exploit a size advantage over Lopez. But he says he intends to pressure Lopez and find out, noting that Lopez doesn’t fight well under pressure — something that’s arguable, although Mtagwa’s pressure eventually got to Lopez, who had to survive a difficult 12th round to push the fight to the scorecards.
Luevano is a bit inconsistent, in my eyes, but he’s fared well against a long list of quality, top-10 caliber featherweights, sometimes doing it the easy way and sometimes the hard way. A review, in reverse chronological order: Bernabe Concepcion (at first the easy way, before it turned into the hard way, as Concepcion turned on the gas and was putting hurtful punches together only to be DQ’d when he landed his most hurtful shot well after the bell ended the 7th); Billy Dib (easy way, however awkward the decision win was); Mario Santiago (hard way, scoring a draw in a fight where Luevano unexpectedly slugged it out); Nicky Cook (easy way, 11th round KO); Cristobal Cruz (easy way, wide decision); Martin Honorio (hard way, his only loss in 39 fights, one that came in 2005). Luevano is a skilled jabber and counter-puncher, but he is prone to defensive lapses and while he’s tough, I think his chin is about average. He’s also coming in with a distraction, as a cousin who is like a brother to him was recently convicted of attempted murder and other crimes.
I think Luevano’s best chance of winning lies in circling a lot and countering effectively, and hoping he can handle Lopez’ punches at his new weight. Lopez had trouble chasing down the much less accomplished Olivier Lontchi, in part because Lopez is a little flat-footed. Of the two fights Saturday, this is the more evenly-matched. Luevano’s an established commodity who’s beaten high-level opposition. Lopez is the recognized talent, but not at this weight. All told, though, I think Lopez’ high work rate will be the key. I don’t think Luevano can hurt Lopez, so I think Lopez is going to be willing to take shots in order to land more. The crowd in New York will be shouting for the Puerto Rican youngster, and we know judges can be influenced by that. Luevano, the unassuming Mexican, isn’t going to be the aggressor, no matter what he thinks, and that is going to hurt him on the scorecards.
I don’t think it’ll be a classic installment in the Mexican-Puerto Rico boxing wars, because of Luevano’s style. But I do think it’ll be a closely fought battle, perhaps with a controversial scorecard or two — scorecards I expect will go the Puerto Rican favorite’s way.
YURIORKIS GAMBOA-ROGERS MTAGWA
My affection for YURIORKIS GAMBOA! is well-known. He’s as explosive a talent as there is in boxing right now, which has both its good side and its bad side. Among current boxers with both exceptional speed and exceptional power, he’s way up there, with the likes of Manny Pacquiao and Nonito Donaire. I’m not saying he’s as good as them, I’m just saying that his ratio of quicksilver to dynamite is comparable. On the bad side, he has at times become enamored with that cocktail of speed and power to a fault, because he has suffered knockdowns while arrogantly stalking forward to serve up said cocktail. He can knock someone out with one punch, but he also tends to get carried away trying.
In his last two fights, however, he has dialed down the arrogant stalking from 11 to about 6. Wyber Garcia, a moderately skilled journeyman, barely laid a mitt on him before succumbing in four. Jose Rojas, who was a full notch above Garcia, also never was in the fight against Gamboa and never had Gamboa in any trouble before succumbing in 10. Gamboa is keeping his gloves up these days and not attacking as wildly. He still has his flaws, mind you. For someone with such decorated amateur experience on behalf of Cuba in the Olympics, his balance is oddly out of whack. His lack of height (5’5″) and reach (65″) means he has to do a lot of hopping in, and that’s dangerous. And he’s always shown toughness to get up from those knockdowns, but he’s also never faced a really good puncher.
Enter Mtagwa. As matchmaking goes, Gamboa’s choice of Mtagwa is admirably arrogant. The point is to upstage Lopez by making mincemeat of the boxer who almost made mincemeat of Lopez. But given Mtagwa’s power and Gamboa’s shaky whiskers, it’s a daring adventure. And Gamboa says he will be going for the knockout, which will mean more opportunities for Mtagwa. Mtagwa isn’t easy to KO, despite losing 13 fights. Orlando Salido took him out (in my hometown of Evansville, Ind., strangely) back in 2006, but Lopez never hurt him.
Now, I must remind you that Mtagwa is crude. There is no boxer with any success at a high level who swings as wildly Mtagwa. Mtagwa swings more wildly than Charles Barkley on the golf course. He swings more wildly than Two Wild and Crazy Guys. It looks like sub-Toughman Contest stuff at times. But he isn’t totally unskilled. He’s no defensive master, but he’s not bad when he concentrates on it. He jabs his way in. His speed isn’t bad. And if you try to land a series of punches on him, he’ll explode into a flurry of power shots. His power is not top-grade, but it’s pretty good. He’s got that power many of the fighters who come out of Africa seem to have, like Joshua Clottey or Sakio Bika — heavy hands, but heavy hands that more wear you down than take you out with one shot. And he’s got a 7″ reach advantage over Gamboa.
Mtagwa very well could take out Gamboa. We haven’t seen Gamboa fight someone who hits this hard. The longer Mtagwa hangs around, the more dangerous he gets. Gamboa could get stupid again, and his tendency to stand and fire after landing one punch plays right into one of the things Mtagwa does well. I’m inclined to think that if Dib toyed with Mtagwa, though, that Gamboa should, too. Mtagwa’s exciting and tough and deserves to be a fan favorite at this point in his career for giving us Fight of the Year-worthy bouts in 2008 and 2009, but he’s never beaten anyone very good, and while he’s given some hell to those very good fighters he’s battled, he can’t get over the hump. I predict Gamboa will stop Mtagwa late by doing it smartly, realizing that Mtagwa is not the kind of fighter you get too cocky with and taking his time to find one of those laser-guided chin-checkers.
Did I say YURIORKIS GAMBOA? Yes, YURIORKIS GAMBOA! is what I said.