Teon Kennedy: Don’t Call It A Comeback

(Guillermo Rigondeaux, left; Teon Kennedy, right)

Teon Kennedy’s not a household name. Not by any means. In fact, he’s not even a particularly well-known figure amongst boxing fans and most of you reading this probably won’t bother to tune in and watch his return to the ring this Saturday.

It’s not that he’s without merit (he won the NABA junior featherweight belt back in 2011), but he’s probably best remembered for the drubbing he received last September at the hands of Guillermo Rigondeaux. He got schooled that night; beaten all ends up by the guy I consider to have the second best pound-for-pound skill-set in the sport, behind Floyd Mayweather and just ahead of Andre Ward, who operates in a division which places greater emphasis on physical strength and therefore grants him less scope to display his pure boxing ability. Like the rest of us mere mortals, Kennedy is not in possession of such gifts. But that’s not to say he’s in any way a bad fighter. After all, as the late Emmanuel Steward observed so aptly that night against Rigondeaux, even in crushing defeat he wasn’t making any serious mistakes. He simply found himself in against a guy several levels above him. Or, to put it more tangibly, he found himself knocked down within 90 seconds of the opening bell, and quickly realised that he had no way of stopping his opponent from landing his signature left hand.

There was a telling moment late in the second round that night, when Rigondeaux set his feet in the centre of the ring and began measuring the straight left. I mean really measuring it, almost as if he were at a dress rehearsal for the fight rather than the event itself.  HBO described it as a “full body feint,” but that adds a dynamism to the movement that was absent at the time. He slowly extended his arm on two occasions, like a child who has just begun their first karate lesson, then exploded it a few seconds later. There was no hint of a jab to set up the shot, yet it still sent Kennedy flying across the ring. It was the sort of moment that makes you feel profoundly sorry for a fighter, when they find themselves in a situation where they are so patently outclassed, so obviously beaten all ends up that not even the most enterprising ringside strategist could devise a method for them to claw their way back into the contest. You can usually see it in their faces, too. It’s a scenario the forces the features to contort uniquely, gradually becoming a bizarrely amalgamated vision of fear, confusion, disbelieve, and deep felt embarrassment.

The fight with Rigondeaux was eventually stopped in the 5th round, after Kennedy had been knocked down five times in all, but it was always unlikely that the defeat was going to signal the end for him.  He was only 26 then — he’ll turn 27 next month — so it would have been absurd to hang up his gloves, even after being so thoroughly dominated. I don’t believe he will let the defeat ruin him, despite what has happened to so many young prospects in the past. Rather, I believe he’s been forced to come to terms with the fact that he can’t compete with the top guys in his division. He’s had to accept his limitations and move on to lesser challenges. For a sport that prides itself on the mantra that its participants should be prepared to die in the ring, this is a curious third way: an odd, winding route between the glory of beating all comers and the grudging respect afforded to those who are willing to lay their lives on the line in defeat.

A quick look at Kennedy’s Twitter page reveals a man who has embraced this tertiary route. Still clearly immersed in the sport, he runs five miles every day before driving his kids to school and getting down to business in the gym.  That he operates below the uppermost skill levels does not diminish this. If anything, it makes him that much more relatable. It’s very easy to let athletes such as Kennedy slip between the cracks, a fact that becomes suddenly obvious when you consider that we don’t even really have a name for fighters in his situation. It would be a stretch to label him a serious contender, but losing to a pound-for-pound opponent does not a journeyman make. And while he’s no world level or elite fighter, he’s certainly not a bum, either. There really isn’t an adequate way to term guys like him: those who are young enough to be actively dedicating the best years of their lives to the sport, and are fortunate enough to appear on TV every so often and make enough money not to have to work a second job. They’re not gatekeepers yet -0 that’s a label that comes with far more experience — but to call them “average” or “regular” fighters does them a disservice. There’s nothing ordinary about the time and effort they dedicate to their craft.

That Kennedy is making his return the weekend after Carl Froch found vindication in his decision win over Mikkel Kessler in London is — in that deliciously crooked way seemingly monopolised by boxing — strangely apt. After all, Froch is a guy who has suffered a comprehensive defeat of his own in the past, to the aforementioned Andre Ward in 2011. The scorecards might have been relatively close that night, but they didn’t reflect the reality of the bout. Froch was beaten every way by a guy who was simply too fast, too slippery, too smart, and too strong. Since then, however, he has waged war on his division with renewed vigour, reasserting himself as the second best super middleweight fighter in the process and proving to be a man with almost superhuman levels of resolve. As a result, he can now make a good case for having fought his way back to the position of being able to legitimately challenge his conqueror once more, which I guess is really all he could ever have hoped for.

If he were to triumph in the rematch, and it’s a big if, it would arguably be the most significant victory for a British fighter since Joe Calzaghe blew Jeff Lacy out of the water back in 2006. Lacy went downhill rapidly after that, on a trajectory all too familiar to fight fans. He’s talked about as a hype job now, someone who was created by the marketing men at Showtime in order to fool American audiences into subscribing. It’s typical revisionist dishonesty, and testament to boxing’s need to pigeon hole its personnel into diametrically opposed camps. Make no mistake, Lacy was a good fighter, albeit one who bought into his own mythology a little too much. What happened was simply a case of his being outclassed by a much better opponent, letting the defeat get to him, then subsequently losing the not insignificant talent he had in the first place.

When put like that, it’s no wonder tales like Lacy’s are the ones that resonate most vividly in our consciousness as fans. After all, they contain every ingredient necessary to form the perfect boxing cocktail.  Natural talent is blended with the more macabre elements of exploitation, self-doubt and destruction, with just a pinch of fair-weather friendships and media sycophancy thrown in for good measure.  They are tales of tragedy in the classical style, and have their manifestations across all generations and weight classes. Yet they are not the sole route for beaten fighters, and it’s important for us fans to maintain some perspective.  For while there will always be the occasional Jeff Lacy — guys who fall so hard and so spectacularly — the vast majority of fighters who find themselves outclassed in the ring simply step back down to their level and continue to operate. They might not be as much fun to read about, but they’re there. And they deserve our respect for not falling apart.

To this end, I present Teon Kennedy: Not a bum, but not a hype job either.  Rather, someone who operates in that interstitial space that bears no pugilistic title. Most likely he’ll become a gatekeeper as he ages and his resume deepens, but for now he operates in the vast, diaphanous cavern between journeyman and contender, heady enough to put him well above the majority of fighters around the world, but not sufficiently high as to launch him into the rarified “elite” camp: the hallowed ground we picture when we daydream, upon which all fighters wish they could ultimately stand.