Sergio Mora: Reality Distortion

(Sergo Mora, right, battles two-time rival Brian Vera)

Perception is reality.

Whether something is actually happening or not, if people think it’s happening, then that becomes the reality.

Few fighters have dealt with this notion as much as, or been more maligned in the last several years than, Sergio Mora.

“It’s affecting me in a major way.” Mora has an edge of bitterness in his voice.

“That’s the reason I don’t have Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, because I have so much hate out there, people just want to spit this nasty shit at me, and they don’t know me,” he says.

The proud kid from East L.A., now a veteran at age 30, clearly takes the criticism to heart. “I don’t want to read that, I don’t want other people to read that,” he says. “I mean, why would I want negativity in my life?”

Dubbed by hardcore fans a “reality show construct” after his tournament win in NBC’s “The Contender,” Mora has seen his career take tumultuous turn after turn.  He has spent long stretches out of the ring and criticism from just about all sides.

A fight with then-undisputed middleweight champion Jermain Taylor fell apart over its hometown location. A bout with Kassim Ouma went up in smoke because Juan Manuel Marquez’s thumb injury cancelled the card. Middleweight Champ Kelly Pavlik’s substance issues x’d out another contract. Finally came an upset victory against Vernon Forrest for a belt. But he lost a quick rematch when living like a champ got the best of training. Then came a fight-long HBO tongue-lashing during his draw with Shane Mosley. And now he’s dealing with two disputed decision losses against tough but unheralded Brian Vera, the last of them a weekend ago.

There’s a lot to like about Sergio Mora’s career, from its mass network exposure to a victory over a likely Hall of Famer, but there’s an equal amount to lament. It mirrors his personality, in fact.

The same psychological intelligence and ego that can make moments in his fights light up like a neon sign saying “Watch ME” can also cause him to out-think his own strengths, appreciate his defensive skills too much and lack the ferocity to snatch close fights from the grip of defeat.

“Brian Vera not for nothing, he may be brawler, but he’s a big, tough, strong, fucking Texan and I’m fighting him in Texas with his home crowd, and I’m fighting him in a ridiculously small ring,” Mora says.

There’s an earnest honesty to Mora as he speaks (during an interview with TQBR last week), and an underlying bitterness that seems to seep in around the edges of the words he chooses to describe his career right now.

“I mean these are big things against me, and I’m willing to put myself in that environment because I’m confident in my abilities, but all those factors get taken out and they just want to criticize what I do wrong,” he says. “‘You stay against the ropes too long… didn’t throw enough punches… stayed inactive…’ but the judges are RIGHT there and they can see that these punches are not landing. They should be professional and judge it that way.”

For all the criticism, there is no questioning Mora’s defensive skills. He is as elusive as any fighter in the game, with upper body movement and a slippery style that has proven virtually impossible to solve for every opponent he’s faced. Even in losing, Mora has never taken anything close to heavy punishment.

When the subject of his skills come up, Mora turns to examine the preeminent defender in the sport — maybe in its entire history.

“Take a fighter like (Floyd) Mayweather…” Mora stops, always analyzing how his words will affect the listener, he takes a moment to assure me…

“I’m not Mayweather…” before continuing.

”…they hit him on the arms, hips, shoulders back… but they don’t hit his face. He makes it look easy, effortless. Where me, I bend down, I dip I dodge, they say I’m struggling… but that’s just my style, I have that head movement.”

The effort Mora puts into his defense is impressive to be sure, with his awkward head movements along the ropes, jerky footwork, while switch hitting southpaw and orthodox routinely. But most of us wish he would devote all that effort to offering up more return fire.

You see, the dichotomy is that Mora can be a very exciting fighter. He has an honest warrior mentality in him that peaks out and fires off salvos for stretches at a time.

He is a fighter who likes to draw a line with his foot on the ring mat and invite his foe to come attack him along the ropes, to talk to his opponent mid-fight, or play to the crowd, or the announcers, or his opponent’s cornermen. But those moments of bravado have been fewer and farther between in the last years.

“The Contender” was not a respected avenue of success, and many have always bristled at the “The Latin Snake” part of Mora’s personality. Now, even the folks who liked that conceited element, have found Mora’s recent efforts grating, because they lacked the show-off excitement and ego that sometimes sparked great exchanges in a Mora fight.

“As a fighter I’m more into the veteran stage,” he says. “Keep it simple but effective, that’s what Bernard Hopkins does, when you think about it, he only throws a limited amount of punches, but he knows how to win rounds. And the more you age, you realize that’s all that’s needed to win a round in fights.”

Except Mora isn’t winning rounds. Not enough.

I point out that his last seven fights include two majority decisions, a split decision and a draw — just one of those four a win. Age has made him see the advantage in economy. But I still ask whether there is anything else he’s adjusted in his style that could account for the sudden change in his performances.

“You know… that’s an excellent point. I didn’t even realize that, but I can tell you it did,” he says. “Around 2008, when I fought Vernon Forrest. If you look at my ‘Contender’ tapes, when I throw my right hand I bring my right foot over… I would fall off balance a lot with my shots purposefully… I would bring that right foot over and turn into a southpaw.”

This was a part of the unpredictable style he and long time trainer Dean Campos developed, in lieu of big power. It was a tactically unusual style that took Mora far in his career.

“I don’t do that anymore. I keep my left foot in front of me at all times, with my jab in front of me, with a more orthodox style of fighting,” he says. “And the reason I did that is when I fought Vernon Forrest, he would’ve capitalized on all those mistakes. He would have countered me with right uppercuts and he would have just taken advantage of my off-balance position.”

Perhaps Mora, while less likely to be caught by a savvy boxer, is now ensnared in a Catch-22.

His uniquely shifty, off-balance style was good enough to defeat and befuddle mid-level opposition, but may have been exploitable by elite skill level. However, when he decided to shore up the holes in his off kilter attack, he put a scalpel to the very thing that made him dynamic.

The openings his opponents saw in his style were really his way of opening up his opponents.

He wasn’t reacting to opponents, he was proactively creating opportunities. Now, he waits for his spots.

“In the Mosley fight he would miss and I would counter inside and they were hard to see,” he says. “For this fight we made it a point to let them see the misses and thats why my counters were a little farther apart.”

There is truth there, a wisdom, too… but also maybe just a hint of crippling self-deception.

The lack of respect Mora has received over the years has informed his own perception, which now is his own reality.

“They don’t appreciate the finer skills in a lot of boxers… I’m just gonna say fighters, period, because I have some friends in mixed martial arts and they say they don’t get enough credit for ‘my wrestling, for my takedowns, or the locks, the chokes, the holds’… I think fans have gotten spoiled,” he says.

He offers an interesting theory on why fans may not appreciate skills at this moment in the sport, as much as they have in the past.

“I think it started in 2008 when the recession hit,” he says. “Network’s budgets shrunk and they needed to put on the most action-packed fights… with starving fighters, because only a certain amount of dates are available. So fighters are taking bigger risks, and having to take bigger beatings and shorter careers.”

Whether you agree with that hypothesis or not, it’s an insightful observation.

“Think of all the HBO commercials with these young prospects who are going to be ‘the future of boxing’: Daniel Jacobs, Chris Arreola, James Kirkland, (Alfredo) Angulo… none of these guys won a championship!… and all of these guys got knocked out. Where are they now? How come they aren’t the future anymore?” he asks.

The sport has always taken from young men. Given them opportunity and not cared for them much after they’re sheen has worn off, but Mora has clearly thought about this on a grander scale.

“Look at Amir Khan… look at the beatings he’s been taking and the knockouts he’s been taking and he’s only a 25-year-old kid,” he says. “Victor Ortiz, 25-year-old kid, I mean taking brutal beatings, but they still criticize him.”

In other words, boxing wants you to give all of yourself. It asks almost more than anything should to make a living. And it’s not very fair in its judgements, both by fans and the established power brokers.

“…and these guys are superstars,” he continues. “There’s just no winning in this game. There’s always gonna be critics and you just have to be comfortable with yourself, maintain your sanity and health.”

There certainly is a finickiness to fans that make us hard to please much of the time. We demand a fighter take risks and put themselves and their careers on the line, yet bandy about phrases like “exposed” and “overrated” as soon as they falter.

In the sport of boxing a man like Mora can only think, you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

“Why not give me credit for defense like they do Mayweather?” Mora asks. “In two rounds (HBO commentator) Jim Lampley is praising his defensive genius and then after eight rounds Larry Merchant is criticizing him for being too defensive.

“You know I’ve been in the game going on 12 years already and I’ve never gotten hurt in the ring. I have a lot of critics… but this is my career,” he says. “This is what I do. I mean, how can you knock someone for making a living, honestly training hard and going out there, in the line of fire?”

He looks at his contemporaries… that HBO list of the “future of boxing” that he rattled off earlier and appraises the class.

“They didn’t think of longevity and their promoters and managers didn’t care to manage them to longer careers and more paydays… that’s two years of being on HBO, that’s not a career,” Mora says. “”Where’s a decade of not getting hurt and not being embarrassed and being able to walk with your head high? That’s what I care about.”

When we turn to the future, Mora understands his position. “I’ll definitely take shorter money. I’m not in the position to demand anything. I can’t be out of the ring another 10 months.”

After this stretch of disappointing performances and his ill-chosen style change, he seems to understand that he needs to retool.

“Will I change my style?” he asks resignedly. “I’m gonna have too. I’m gonna have to stay in the center more and, I guess, get hit more, because if I’m not gonna be dipping and dodging these punches then I’m gonna have to be exchanging with fighters, which is more dangerous.”

Maybe the bitterness, the negativity, the criticism really has affected the often-cerebral boxer’s mentality.

“If you look at the punches I landed on Vera, mind you I don’t have the big power, but I’m not a fucking weakling either, I can hurt an opponent,” he says. “I hit him with massive shots. I did stun him, he just kept coming.”

Knowing the perception needs changing, he throws out the first salvo in the war to change how people feel about his style.

“I will be going for knockouts.”

Some will scoff or laugh at the “Latin Snake,” a seven-knockout fighter promising to deliver punishment.

The truth is, you don’t even have to get them, those knockouts. You just have to go for them. Show you are willing to fight, consistently hard and with fire.

If you do that, you’ll win over the minds of those watching you.

For as intelligent, cagey and self-aware a fighter as Mora is, there is seemingly one realization that it took this second, close, disappointing loss to Vera to illuminate:

Perception is reality.