(Underdog, playing the role of undercard, saves the main event, played here by Sweet Polly Purebred. [Try not to think too much about the full ramifications of this visual metaphor.])
For a long time, the conventional wisdom among boxing promoters was that fans only paid for the main events of pay-per-view cards, and that spending cash on the undercard fights was a money pit. As such, hardcore fans grumbling about poor undercards has been one of the more serial grumbles of their beleaguered fandom. I quote them directly: “Rabble, rabble.”
But in 2011, it’s the main events that are leaving fans uttering “Rabble, rabble.” And it’s the undercards that are reminding them why they love the sport, whether by the design of promoters or lucky accident.
All three main events of 2011’s big pay-per-views have let fans down: Manny Pacquiao vs. Shane Mosley in May was an uncompetitive non-fight featuring Mosley hiding from Pacquiao for 12 rounds; Floyd Mayweather vs. Victor Ortiz in September ended with the now-infamous “legal sucker punch”; and this past weekend, Chad Dawson vs. Bernard Hopkins ended as perhaps the worst big-fight PPV main event ever.
But look what happened beneath each of them: On the Pacquiao-Mosley undercard, Jorge Arce and Wilfredo Vazquez, Jr. delivered a thrilling war and a come-from-behind victory by the underdog; on the Mayweather-Ortiz undercard, Erik Morales and Pablo Cesar Cano provided unexpected and bloody fireworks (nor was Jessie Vargas vs. Josesito Lopez boring); and on the Dawson-Hopkins undercard, Antonio DeMarco and Jorge Linares collaborated on their own minor masterpiece, with yet another come-from-behind victory by the underdog (nor was the Dewey Bozella pro debut that got attention from The New York Times and President Obama a bummer).
Because the main events are often going to get most of the attention — they are called the “main event,” after all — and a dose of controversy is likely to set the Interwebs ablaze in debate that shoves everything else aside, I come now to celebrate the men who have shed their blood for us in heroic fashion this year, and who have been unjustly overshadowed by awfulness that transpired afterward.
MANNY PACQUIAO VS. SHANE MOSLEY UNDERCARD
On paper, this undercard looked atrocious. And a couple of the fights ended up being that way. But the one that defied our expectations was one of the best fights of 2011.
For his entire career, Jorge Arce might be the reigning king of action-to-size ratio. And in fights leading up to his showdown with young Wilfredo Vazquez, Jr., he looked as though he’d paid the price for such sacrifices. The little man always gives maximum effort with minimal defense. From late 1999 to early 2007, he only won. From there to late 2010, he lost three fights and had a draw in one of them. One of the losses was to a fighter everyone expected him to beat, and the draw came against a similar opponent. He was continuing to give maximum effort with minimal defense, but he looked sluggish and no longer like a world-class fighter. Take into account that he was fighting a prime talent (Vazquez) in a weight class where he was largely unproven (junior featherweight), and it had the makings of a mismatch.
That Arce was so competitive when he stepped between the ropes is what lended the fight some of its drama. Arce was defying expectations. His legs were revived, and he wouldn’t leave the more fleet-footed Vazquez alone because of it, even when Vazquez decked him with a counter in the 4th. Behind in the fight, Arce continued to charge forward and it paid off in the 11th when he caught and hurt Vazquez toward the end of the round. Finally, in the 12th, Arce’s unrelenting assault caught up to Vazquez, who only needed to make it to the final bell to win a decision. He couldn’t, and Arce pulled off the stunning upset.
Despite the loss, Vazquez earned the respect of fans that night: We knew he was pretty good, but we weren’t sure what kind of fighter he was. He hasn’t gotten the rematch with which Top Rank Promotions has teased us endlessly, and we might not because Arce seemingly has other plans. But ask anyone who watched the Vazquez fight whether they want to see him again, and I bet you they’ll answer a resounding “yes.” And since he’s only 27, he has plenty of time to correct his mistakes and grow from that fight.
Arce took off into another stratosphere after the win. He’s avenged one of his crappy losses, against Simphiwe Nongqayi, and now is likely to face Nonito Donaire next. He will probably get creamed, but didn’t we all think that’s what would happen against Vazquez? Whatever happens next for Arce, his career up to now has supplied us with enough drama and action to warrant its own DVD box set.
FLOYD MAYWEATHER VS. VICTOR ORTIZ UNDERCARD
Erik Morales vs. Pablo Cesar Cano was another one that was ridiculed beforehand. Morales was fighting for a dubious title that would make him (dubiously) the only Mexican to win a belt in four weight classes, a claim Arce tried to stake even more dubiously. Cano was a replacement of a replacement of a replacement, and a nobody who had struggled with boxers far less living legend-y than Morales, however bloated a living legend Morales is at his age and at junior welterweight.
Morales, it turned out, was just worn down enough from his own action hero career that these days he can hardly help himself from being dragged into bloody wars. And Cano proved young enough, long enough, competent enough and gritty enough to give Morales just that.
Granted, most of the blood was Cano’s. But in the early rounds, Cano was giving Morales the business. He was better than most anyone thought, and it took Morales digging deep into his own reservoir of old-school knowledge and summoning reaches of his battle-hardened soul to turn the tide. By the 10th round, Morales had made a mess of Cano’s face, and the fight was stopped.
Like Vazquez, Cano was elevated in loss. Against a significantly better opponent than any he’d ever fought, he held his own more often than not. As the damage accumulated, he never gave up. As with Vazquez, the 22-year-old has time to grow from a fight like that if it didn’t take too much out of him, and most everyone will want to see him in his next bout. Morales just kept doing what he does, beyond the years when anyone thought he should still be doing it: slugging it out with anyone he meets in the ring, and getting the better of it more often that he has any right to.
Morales-Cano wasn’t as good as Arce-Vazquez, probably, but another junior welterweight fight between Jessie Vargas and Josesito Lopez helped Morales-Cano do the “watch the undercard, not the main event” thing by committee. Sadly, that one ended with what everyone thought was the wrong man’s hand raised — most had Lopez winning a close fight, but Vargas got the decision — but as with all the men here, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t want to see more of both the winner and the loser. (On a part of the card that aired before the official PPV began, the tremendous Carson Jones-Said Ouali scrap sure didn’t hurt, either.)
CHAD DAWSON VS. BERNARD HOPKINS UNDERCARD
Antonio DeMarco has the kind of passion for combat that makes it hard to root against him. And Jorge Linares has the kind of phenom-level talent that makes boxing purists salivate. DeMarco had tried his damnedest against the last phenom he faced, Edwin Valero, but simply got his ass handed to him. Linares’ phenom status was badly damaged by an unexpected 1st round knockout to little-known Juan Carlos Salgado, and he was rebuilding with new trainer Freddie Roach. In other words, both men had encountered big career setbacks and had a lot to prove.
Both of them fought like it. You could say that Linares fought too much like that, in fact. For the first four or five rounds, he was making a top-10 lightweight look decidedly average. But things turned definitively in the 6th when Linares suffered a gash on his nose that ranks up there with as bloody a cut as you’re likely to see in a boxing match. When DeMarco moved to capitalize, he opened another cut on Linares’ eye, too, and in each subsequent round, it was harder to see what Linares’ face looked like under a thick coating of blood.
But Linares wouldn’t back down. Instead of sticking to the game plan, he swapped punches with DeMarco, who took some extremely flush shots from the Venezualan magician. DeMarco himself couldn’t be dissuaded; in fact, trading with him is exactly what he wanted Linares to do. While there were a couple more rounds after that where Linares went back to the right strategy, in the scintillating 11th, Linares once more traded leather toe-to-toe with the more powerful and larger Mexican, who was Terminator-like in his determination throughout the fight. The assault continued for long enough that the referee stepped in to stop it, prematurely in the view of some — although Linares didn’t complain until days later.
Linares fought with tremendous honor, even if it was a stupid way for him to fight. Had he survived to the final bell, he would have won a decision. There are a lot of questions now about Linares, after twice losing fights he wasn’t supposed to lose. There are questions about his chin (which I thought held up remarkably well, despite the stoppage). There are questions about his power (which, at 135 as opposed to the big power he showed at 126, are legitimate, although DeMarco’s chin is excellent enough that this is still an open question). But we know he is a fighter, inside. I’m guessing the purists and blood-hungry alike can agree that we’d like to see Linares try to answer the questions he didn’t answer too well Saturday night.
DeMarco emerges a victor, both in his win-loss column and with the fans. Lovable even before, he exhibited major willpower against a more naturally gifted opponent, and fans adore that kind of thing. If, as I wrote of the main event, “Chad Dawson Defeats Bernard Hopkins Via Travesty,” then the headline for DeMarco-Linares would be “Antonio DeMarco Defeats Jorge Linares Via Warrior Spirit.”
The Dewey Bozella victory was a bonus, although all that mouthpiece-spitting Larry Hopkins inexplicably did undermined his win a touch — HBO’s Manny Steward thought Hopkins was looking for a way out of the fight, but other than some hurtful shots to start the 4th, it’s not like Bozella did much damage. The point deduction Hopkins suffered in that 4th was the difference on my scorecard, as I had it even at two rounds apiece.
(P.S. Perhaps you consider Marcos Maidana-Morales one of the “big PPV main events of 2011,” but that main event was considered a “big” fight in any way only after the fact. But if you want to be generous to 2011’s PPV main events, then yes, Maidana-Morales was the only non-letdown of the year in the main event category.)
Maybe you doubt it, and maybe you’re right, but I’m worried that the main events for the two big remaining PPV cards of 2011 will disappoint. Pacquiao and Marquez have delivered two classics, but their third fight in November is at a higher weight class than is ideal for Marquez and I fear it could be a one-sided slaughter. In December, Antonio Margarito and Miguel Cotto are fighting a do-over of their own classic (however tainted it is by the subsequent discovery of Margarito’s illegal handwraps for the Mosley fight), but Margarito is recovering from a bad beating by Pacquiao that damaged him so badly it left his career in jeopardy and many believe Cotto is over the hill. The possibility exists of a letdown not unlike Rafael Marquez-Israel Vazquez IV, where Vazquez was so physically gone that he provided very little competition to even a faded Marquez.
Good news, everyone. There are a pair of moderately promising fights on the Pacquiao-Marquez III undercard, Mike Alvarado-Breidis Prescott and Luis Cruz-Juan Carlos Burgos. And Margarito-Cotto II is ridiculously stacked, with a rematch of leading Fight of the Year candidate Delvin Rodriguez-Pawel Wolak being the crown jewel among them. Maybe those fights won’t stick together; a lot of undercard fights so far in 2011 have fallen apart. But maybe we’ll get some unexpected jim-dandies. After all, we’ve had a little luck to get some undercard bouts that exceeded expectations.
And how we’ve needed it: These terrific undercard battles have eased the pain of some unfortunate main events that have distracted from what’s amazing about boxing. As friend of the site WillFrank said this weekend: “Only boxing can have a fight whose conclusion gave you goosebumps (Linares/DeMarco) completely forgotten five minutes later by usual bullshit.”