When Teddy Atlas correctly referred to Chicago as an “old fight town,” he probably didn’t mean shuffleboard with gloves on. Guys like Tony Canzoneri, Mushy Callahan and Fidel LaBarba fought at Wrigley field in the 1920s, and the Coliseum was for a time a famed boxing venue.
But mummies and cobwebs looked to be the inhabitants of this week’s edition of ESPN2’s Friday Night Fights, with two faded former champions competing against younger foes looking to make names for themselves.
Well, score one for immortality, at least. Jose Luis Castillo actually looked — wait for it — somewhat decent in notching a stoppage win over Ivan Popoca. But the other one goes to the hourglass, as Glen Johnson showed glimpses of youthfulness in early and mid rounds, but ultimately succumbed to the physicality and pace of the younger Andrzej Fonfara.
Thankfully, it was much more watchable than not, and at times even pretty good action-wise.
In the main event, 43-year-old former light heavyweight champion Glen Johnson took on Polish hopeful Fonfara — 19 years Johnson’s junior. Going in, Johnson speculated that he had been tabbed to win the bout, and declared he would retire if he lost.
As fate would have it, the younger light heavyweight Fonfara stepped up quite a bit in class and wound up using his laundry list of physical advantages to take a commanding unanimous decision over the usually hard luck vet.
Good hand speed and straight, miles-long shots aided Fonfara in his quest to control distance, pace and edge his way forward in round 1. Johnson broke through with a couple, but Fonfara’s 1-2 was occupying Johnson’s guard and mug more often than not. The 2nd round got serious, though, and “The Road Warrior” Johnson timed a series of left hooks and sweeping rights upstairs and down that prompted a salvo from Fonfara just to save face. Fonfara dealt straight from a distance some more, but Johnson’s timing with left hooks was spot-on when he threw them.
Looking almost insulted that Johnson hadn’t gone anywhere yet, Fonfara put a little more oomph on his shots in the early moments of the 3rd, moving Johnson though not yet able to make a dent. The Jamaican transplant lashed out with body work and some chin checkers, but right hands around Johnson’s guard put him on the defensive for the rest of the stanza.
Out of almost nowhere, Johnson began out-jabbing Fonfara and taking over offensively in round 4. The bigger man came alive in the final minute of the round but was noticeably less active than before. Movement was added to Fonfara’s strategy in the 5th and he was backed up significantly for the first time in the fight as Johnson tossed hooks and wide rights in close, taking a few whacks in return.
Johnson’s defensive twitches were effective in terms of lessening damage, as usual, but his arms looked as though they were feeling heavy to him in round 6, and he let Fonfara give him openings rather than press consistently. A hard left to the body and right hand up top for Fonfara temporarily stopped the former light heavyweight champion’s sneakiness, but Johnson timed a very nice right hand near the close of the round.
The pace was again quickened by Johnson in the 7th, who held a jab-a-thon once more and dug inside behind hooks and right hands that had Fonfara tentative. A volley from Johnson was greeted with a grin from Fonfara, but the younger, taller man couldn’t quite even matters before the bell. And not quite content with his work, Johnson kept up pressure early in the 8th before settling in, slowing down and breathing with an open mouth. Fonfara’s confidence got a much needed boost here, and he began to potshot from his comfortable range.
Fonfara’s jab glued itself to Johnson’s face and gloves in the 9th, but Johnson got wily and got work done in spurts as he looked exhausted. And then Fonfara closed strong, keeping Johnson at the end of his shots until the bell. Round 10 saw Fonfara steam forward behind hard jabs and rights, driving Johnson back to the ropes until the old man fought his way off. But Glen was too tired to capitalize on much aside from some desperation right hands, and he could barely hold his arms up to claim victory when the bout came to a close.
One kind of questionable 99-91 scorecard and two with 97-93 confirmed the win for Andrzej Fonfara, who probably retired Johnson with a 51-17-2 (35 KO) record.
Not exactly known for bluster nor braggadocio, Johnson tends to be a man of his word, and he looked to be a beaten, resigned man when the decision was announced. A post-fight interview was cut off, presumably due to time constraints on ESPN2’s part, but his retirement wouldn’t be argued with at this point. So much of his career was thankless, and in an already thankless sport, that takes its toll. But Johnson outlasted the criticism and presumed mediocrity to climb to the top of a storied weight class — and remained a really nice guy throughout.
If it’s his time, his in-ring honesty will be missed.
Andrzej Fonfara may have just adjusted his career trajectory in a big way with the win, despite Johnson’s 40+ years. While 175 lbs. isn’t exactly packed to the gills with top flight guys, it has enough potential to make for some interesting match ups. His height and range should prove challenging for most opponents, but it should be noted that Johnson found his chin and midsection often. Glen may still be tricky, but he’s also slowed in a few ways.
The Polish kid’s efforts are appreciated, but another upper class opponent or so should be required to not only make a proper assessment, but to wipe the image of Fonfara, now 22-2 (12 KO) and 1 No Contest, falling all over himself from the same shots over and over in 2 rounds at the hands of Derrick Findley a few years ago.
In what was supposed to have been an embarrassing co-feature, a no longer relevant Jose Luis Castillo fighting at welterweight bashed Ivan Popoca, who was coming off a year-plus layoff on the heels of his first loss to Ruslan Provodnikov.
Castillo clocked in at 38-year-old, though that may as well have been given the old “in dog years” treatment considering Castillo’s apparent decline and his numerous difficult, bruising fights. That’s not what it looked like, though, as Castillo scored a TKO win in 8.
Short and surprisingly crisp shots from both fighters lasted through the early pieces of the 1st round, with Popoca punching a bit more, not giving much ground. A hard left hook-ish type of shot from old man Castillo wobbled Popoca around the one minute mark, and he battered Popoca on the ropes for the remainder of the round. Popoca gamely fought back when he didn’t have leather facepaint all over him and fists buried in his gut, turning southpaw to alter angles and stem the tide, but he lost the round big.
In round 2, Castillo pressured on, again catching Popoca with a left hand that clubbed him to the canvas. Up with little delay, Popoca backpedaled and turned southpaw once more, which succeeded in this case as he managed to rally some and close the round well. And the southpaw tactic carried over into the 3rd, as Popoca bit down and chucked what he could — most of it with sincere effort. Castillo’s left hook still connected, and hard, but Popoca turned the round into a sizzler with tenacity, despite bleeding badly from his left eye.
Following a ruling that Popoca’s wound was caused by an accidental clash of heads, Popoca brought heat in the 4th, landing solid straight lefts upstairs and taking Castillo’s left hooks much better, but still taking a number of them. Punches were plentiful, and it was fun stuff to behold. Awful swelling under Popoca’s right eye became apparent at the end of the round, and not long into the 5th, his right eye began spewing blood. Castillo brought his body assault back and worked well during the round, though both men slowed considerably.
For whatever reason, Castillo backtracked in Round 6, likely taking a break, but he was outworked in many exchanges. The swelling under Popoca’s right eye worsened, prompting a look from the ringside physician, who ruled the fight could continue. Commentary in round 7 revealed Castillo had injured his left hand, accounting for his sudden change in direction, which continued throughout the 7th. But even as Castillo pitched and weaved backwards, he was able to roll with most of Popoca’s shots and began working in a right hand.
Castillo maintained control with one hand in the 8th as Popoca’s cheek swelled to some level between “bearable” and “grotesque,” and he pawed at the blood covering his face consistently. Following a few ineffective rounds in a row for Popoca and the state of his face badly deteriorating, the bout was stopped in favor of Castillo between rounds — a well-timed and just cessation.
Rising (or zombie-ing) to 64-11-1 (55 KO), Castillo wasn’t pegged to win by many, and he certainly wasn’t expected to dominate a somewhat recognizable guy however inexperienced the younger gun was in comparison. It wasn’t exactly keeping pace with Floyd Mayweather, Jr. like a decade past, but much of it was honest action and Castillo showed more adjustment ability and in-ring cognition than he had in a while. It was surprising at a few points.
Talk from Popoca’s team before the bout was in regards to Castillo’s overall shot-ness, which appears to be at best a miscalculation. At worst, Popoca’s just not very good, with his 15-2-1 (10 KO) ledger and all that. In both of his steps up in competition, he’s lost by stoppage. But in eating his second technical knokcout loss in row, Ivan Popoca can’t be accused of not aiming relatively high, even if only in retrospect. He fought hard and did about all he could given his bag of tricks, and it looked as if he rocked Castillo once or twice, but some confidence builders would likely be advised.
Somewhat shockingly, Friday Night Fights managed to make what on paper was an excruciating fight card into an entertaining few hours of boxing. It’s not clear whether that was an accident or not, and while solid matchmaking would probably be a better strategy in terms of entertainment value, we’ll take it.
[UPDATE: In an interview with BoxingScene, Glen Johnson confirmed that he has indeed retired, stating, “If I can’t do it the right way and the way I should be able to I’m not going to do it anymore.”
Hearty thanks and well wishes to Glen Johnson from TQBR.]