There’s a little de facto tournament going on among Top Rank’s stable of lightweights, and it isn’t like all the other promotional xenophobia coming out of Bob Arum’s shop of late. That’s because there’s nothing at all bad about it. It’s given us the TQBR Fight of the Year for 2010 with Humberto Soto-Urbano Antillon, and Saturday on Showtime, it will give us what is widely expected to be a highly competitive affair between two men — Brandon Rios and Miguel Acosta — with polar opposite styles, except for the part where both of them are good at knocking out fools.
Rios very much has the feel of being one of the next big action stars in the sport, the heir to Antonio Margarito’s mantle. Like his fellow Robert Garcia-trained boxer and sparring buddy, Rios comes forward, and comes forward, and comes forward some more and when you punch him he smiles; but unlike a lot of boxers who pull that trick to hide how bad it hurts, he genuinely seems to like it. Also like Margarito, he’s acquired a villainous cloak, even earning it alongside Margs when the pair famously mocked trainer Freddie Roach for having Parkinson’s disease in a much-discussed video last year (and Rios, for good measure, has thrown in homophobic epithets toward Victor Ortiz).
Acosta (photographed above by Tom Casino of Showtime) is a subtler fellow. He has snuck up on people with a couple upset wins, but he has earned his #1 ranking at 135 via Ring Magazine with them. He has power, like Rios, but he deploys it differently, relying on defense, footwork, counterpunching and a good jab as opposed to pure pressure.
And that, really, is the crux of why this match-up is fairly well anticipated. Soto-Antillon II this summer is a better pure brawl, but Rios-Acosta has a strategic dynamic that leave the outcome in great doubt. Can Rios catch Acosta and beat him down with his “Hulk smash” act, or will Acosta judo his ass and use all that brawn against him?
I don’t mean to sell Rios short by focusing entirely on his brawn, by the way. I think he has very good offensive boxing skills. He’s very, very accurate and puts his punches together really well, plus there’s a lot of variety in his mix. He also is about as good as it gets these days at cutting off the ring rather than just chasing his opponent. He himself is ranked #5 at lightweight after knocking out fellow prospect Jorge Teron, then getting a disqualification win over Anthony Peterson, whom we all pretty much agree kept hitting below the belt because Rios was beating the crap out of him and he wanted it to stop. In his last fight, a plump Rios stopped gatekeeper Omri Lowther in a short-notice bout at junior welterweight.
But let’s face it, what really stands out about the guy is that he’s a power puncher who could give a good goddam about whether you hit him back or not. There have been fights where I thought he proved he could be a respectable defensive fighter, but Peterson hit him at will, as did Lowther. What I wonder is whether his earlier defensive acumen was the result of poor competition, whereas Peterson and Lowther had enough boxing skill and speed to reveal that it was much ado about nothing. Ultimately, though, he pays it no never mind if you hit him. He knows he will hit you more and harder.
What if he fought a guy for whom such a strategy was like manna from heaven? Acosta likes receiving pressure, because it it gives him clay to sculpt with. He’s already proven that against another pure pressure fighter with his knockout win against Antillon, where he took advantage of Antillon coming forward with counter uppercuts and left hooks that ultimately robbed his man of his undefeated record. I haven’t seen what he did against the even more highly-regarded but just as undefeated Paulus Moses, but he knocked him out, too, and those two wins form the basis of his #1 lightweight ranking. Since then, he took a tune-up and scored a 1st round knockout.
Peterson had one round of clear success against Rios by keeping his jab on him and disrupting his rhythm. Acosta has a good jab. I believe Rios is a harder puncher and better offensive fighter than Antillon, but at least to some extent, the stuff Acosta did against Antillon will work against Rios.
That’s why I’m going with Acosta in this fight. My guess is that Arum wants Rios, a Mexican whose style is marketable (and whose villainy could be, too) to win. Rios has sparred with some of the right men, like Victor Cayo, to prepare himself for Acosta. But until he proves otherwise, I believe that he’s going to have trouble with someone exactly like Acosta because of the style contrast. I’m not sure Acosta can knock out Rios, despite his power, because I’m not sure I’ll believe that Rios can be knocked out until someone proves otherwise. But I expect Acosta will have what it takes to outbox Rios and survive any rough stretches — which could come in the middle to late rounds — and retake control for a close decision win.