A rip-roaring April of big-time boxing effectively concludes on Saturday with what began the month as the one event you would not have wanted to miss: The final two bouts of Showtime’s bantamweight tourney. Yet, now, after three consecutive weeks of Fight of the Year candidates, unbelievable upsets and more drama than a teenage girl can cram into her junior year of high school, this weekend’s doubleheader is coming in as an underdog.
I suspect it will deliver on its promise, even if it doesn’t top what came before it this month. None of the four men involved – Abner Mares, facing Joseph Agbeko, and Vic Darchinyan, facing Yonnhy Perez – have yet managed to bore us for a single fight in their careers, and there’s no reason for them to start now, given what’s on the line. The winner of the championship bout, be it Mares or Agbeko, can arguably call himself the division’s don. The loser of the consolation bout, be it Darchinyan or Perez, might have trouble making a case for himself as a contender anymore.
ABNER MARES-JOSEPH AGBEKO
These are not easy fights to predict, you know. Mares-Agbeko is maybe the harder of the two. Agbeko evolves from one fight to the next such that you wonder if, against Mares, he will have become a wholly unrecognizable life form. Mares, in his two most recent fights, has balanced moments of extreme difficulty from which he seemingly cannot recover with moments where a special fighter has seemingly and suddenly been birthed.
Several fights back, against William Gonzalez, Agbeko was a no-defense brawler who never met a punching angle he didn’t abuse. He improved in every fight subsequently, including his win over Darchinyan and even his loss to Perez. But by the rematch with Perez in the bantamweight tournament, he was a complete fighter. The undentable chin and physical strength eerily common to African fighters has always been there for Agbeko, but now he can stick and move and defend himself with aplomb. Predicting what else he might have up his sleeve at age 31 is nigh impossible.
Mares always had the look of a complete boxer on his way up. A technically smooth boxer-puncher with a withering body attack, all he needed was experience. When he faced Perez last year, it was a massive leap, one one of two that gave him several fights’ worth of enduring and overcoming. In control early, Mares suffered some in the middle rounds and then regained that control in a fight that ended in a draw but that most saw as a Mares win. In his next fight, Darchinyan knocked him down early and he suffered a point deduction, but Mares roared back over the final two thirds of the fight to win a close one. Both men were a good deal more experienced as pros than Mares.
What we have here are two excellent boxers who have yet to show any signs of having any “give” in them – both have recovered from rough spells in admirable fashion. Both have good speed and good power, but aren’t exceptional in either category. It has the makings of a high-level chess match between two offensive-minded, skilled, determined men.
I might normally go with the more experienced fighter here, that being Agbeko. He’s fought more “names” as well as both the top guys Mares has, and setting aside the initial loss to Perez, has beaten them better. But I’ve always had a high opinion of Mares and just have a hunch that, as he did against Perez and Darchinyan, Mares will dig to the body on Agbeko in a way that leaves him fading down the stretch. Agbeko can take a shot to the noggin if he decides to slug it out, and he can stick and move in a way that could pester the somewhat flat-footed Mares, but eventually those body shots are going to catch up to Agbeko.
I’ll take Mares by a wafer-thin mint of a margin on the scorecards. And unless he looks bad doing it, we could have another pound-for-pound top-20 boxer after this.
VIC DARCHINYAN-YONNHY PEREZ
As consolation bouts go, Darchinyan-Perez is good stuff. Yes, Perez is coming off a loss, and a comprehensive one, but it was only the first of his career. Darchinyan is perceived to be in a years-long decline, but he still went tooth and nail with a terrific young talent in a loss in his last fight. One of the good things about a tournament structure like this is that if you lose once, you get a chance to bounce right back. The winner of Darchinyan-Perez can do just that. The loser, though, has to bounce back from a yet lower point, and Darchinyan, 35, and Perez, 32, don’t have many years left to do that, since lower weight-class fighters have a shorter shelf life.
Following his definitive loss to Nonito Donaire a few years ago, Darchinyan has swerved all over the road from “powerful puncher with surprising skills and a top-20 pound-for-pound resume” to “one-dimensional brawler whose power has faded as he has moved up in weight.” Against Mares, his skills had returned after a long hiatus, and he flashed power with a 1st round knockdown, but Mares stood up to it the rest of the fight in a way that offered yet more proof that his power isn’t what it once was. The first hint came against Agbeko, when Darchinyan wasn’t able to put a crack in him. No shame in that, given Agbeko’s ability to take a punch, but it used to be Darchinyan could crack the uncrackable. At bantam, he’s yet to score a knockout. He’s just a stern puncher now, albeit one whose herky-jerky southpaw style makes it difficult to predict what he’ll do next.
Perez had, until a couple fights ago, looked like he might become the sport’s most fearsome volume/pressure fighter. Faced with a good boxer in Silence Mabuza, he knocked him out. Faced with a fellow volume puncher in Perez, he scored a clear win. His stamina, chin and sheer number of punches far exceeded those of his opponents, and there was nothing they could do about it, because he was a pretty good technician when he wanted to be, too. Then Mares slowed Perez down with that body attack and outmaneuvered him, and then Agbeko just flat outmaneuvered him. Now he’s still a dangerous fighter – as he showed in one exciting round against Agbeko – but one who seemingly can be outboxed by someone with the right kind of feet, speed and timing.
The Darchinyan who fought Mares would seem to be the right kind of someone to outbox Perez. The Darchinyan who fought Agbeko would seem to be the right kind of someone for Perez to steamroll. Guess which one Darchinyan says he’ll be Saturday? Yes, the wrong kind for him to win.
Darchinyan could be playing games designed to throw Perez off in his preparation, but I don’t see the point. Perez might have wrinkles in his game he hasn’t shown us before, a la Agbeko, but I doubt it – he’s going to do what he’s going to do, which is stalk and overwhelm. Given the available evidence, I have to assume that Darchinyan means what he says.
If so, Perez should take this one, probably by a wide decision. Darchinyan might still believe in his power at bantamweight, but he’s only got one knockout since he moved up to the division, and that was in one of the bouts where he moved back down to junior bantamweight for a spell. And Perez isn’t the kind of guy you knock out if you don’t have serious dynamite in the division. In a bout that starts off competitive and ends in a drubbing, I see Perez making a convincing show of it on the scorecards and setting himself up for another big bout in the process.