Although Showtime’s bantamweight tournament has advanced on a heavily truncated schedule compared to the network’s super middleweight tournament, it sure is hard to remember how it all started off on such rocky footing not so long ago. Nonito Donaire and Fernando Montiel, the two biggest names in the division, refused to enter, causing some to gripe that it wouldn’t be much of a tournament without them. There was debate about whether it should be an eight- or four-man single elimination tournament or whether it should have the Super Six’s round robin schedule. In other words, it was your run-of-the-mill boxing c.f.
Any complaints now about the fight we’re getting Saturday to determine the tourney victor, Joseph Agbeko vs. Abner Mares? Didn’t think so.
Great scraps have a way of cleansing the bad away from boxing. Mares vs. Vic Darchinyan was a terrific, dramatic battle with a narrow victory at the end. Agbeko-Yonnhy Perez II was a revelation of classy boxing by Agbeko with a Round of the Year candidate thrown in for good measure. The consolation fight heralded the apparent return to form of Darchinyan. When Agbeko-Mares had to be rescheduled from April to August because of an Agbeko injury, it didn’t detract from the tournament but maybe an iota or two.
If all goes well, maybe we end up with a de facto ideal tournament with the winner of Agbeko-Mares facing Donaire, who earlier this year defeated Montiel. But Agbeko-Mares stands on its own. Both men are excellent boxer-punchers who mix the sweet science in with aggressive attacks, raw determination and tactical versatility. The winner might not be able to call himself the best bantamweight in the world; there will be a debate over whether to rank Donaire higher. But he will have made a case that he deserves to be in the pound-for-pound top 20 list, and there’s a 99 percent chance he and the loser will have given us another excellent fight to boot.
Mares is the narrow betting favorite, which surprises me slightly because Agbeko is ranked higher and some are picking him based on his edges in speed and experience. But it’s basically an even-money fight.
Agbeko is 31 to Mares’ 25. He’s fought Perez twice as many times as Mares. (Agbeko outcome: a loss and a win. Mares outcome: draw.) He beat Darchinyan before Mares did. Besides that, he’s been in there with William Gonzalez, Luis Perez and Volodymyr Sydorenko. Over the course of his career, he’s evolved from crude brawler to skilled boxer, with most of the improvements coming late in his career.
Waitaminnit. Because I already previewed this fight in April, I’m gonna crib some of my notes from that earlier preview. Like so (while noting that, if anything has changed since then, it has been to Mares’ advantage because A. Agbeko is the one recovering from sciatica, even if he says he’s fully healthy and B. Agbeko has fought only once in each of the last three calendar years and rust could be a factor):
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 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 Yonnhy 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 Yonnhy Perez last year, it was a massive leap, 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 Yonnhy 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 I dunno if it’ll top the other hot match-up of August, Marcos Maidana vs. Robert Guerrero at junior welterweight. But I’d bet it’ll be awfully good — a welcome import of April showers to a dry summer month.