The Lost Art Of The Undercard

In many ways, the last few weeks have been somewhat of a throwback: a bombastic homage to a time when, somewhat apocryphally perhaps, top fighters were matched with their fiercest rivals and fans could expect to see the best facing off against the best with brutal regularity. Floyd Mayweather’s decision to take on arguably his toughest feasible test in Canelo Alvarez on September 14 may be the exception rather than the rule in modern times, but it has gone some way to warming the hearts of even the most cynical fights fans. Those who have grown increasingly disillusioned with the sport in the wake of mounting pay-per-view prices, ongoing promotional cold wars, and even the nefarious presence of swarthy figures behind the scenes who are always appearing to prevent the biggest fights from being made, have been largely unable to suppress a grin at what’s unfolded.

If taking on Canelo is worthy of praise in itself — and for the record, although I concede he has potential, I don’t think Canelo has done enough in his career to justify being party to a megafight in the vein of The One — then Golden Boy deserve praise for orchestrating the match-up. As much as people may grow tired of Oscar De La Hoya’s million dollar grin, the fact remains that he and partner Richard Schaefer have delivered (more or less) since parting ways with HBO and severing all diplomatic relations with Bob Arum’s Top Rank. The pessimist in me wants to think it’s too good to last, but I must admit even I was beaming from ear to ear upon hearing the recent news that the September undercard is to feature Danny Garcia taking on Lucas Matthysse for bragging rights and dominant status in the junior welterweight division.

Now this may not be a superfight to those outside boxing’s modest scene, but the fact remains it promises nothing short of fireworks and is currently the fans’ number one must-see fight. That it is to feature on the same card as the biggest main event since Floyd last fought a taller dude with a Mexican name is as astonishing as it is welcome. In fact, the announcement has thrown up a lot of questions in terms of the decline of the undercard over recent years, and I for one have been struggling to remember a time when fans were so excited by the strength of “the fights before the fight.” After some digging, I’ve come up with the following five glowing examples. As with much in boxing, they only seem to get better with age:

Floyd Mayweather Jr vs. Robert Guerrero, May 2013

Ironically, this is the fight that got the whole ball rolling. If you believe the rumours swirling around, it was this event (or lack of one) that inspired executives at Showtime to sit down with Floyd and co to tell them that they simply must do better when they return in September. In other words, it was the lacklustre one-sidedness of the contest with Guerrero that forced Floyd’s hand in terms of taking on Canelo. Yet despite the absence of drama in the nigh-on shutout performance by Mayweather Jr, the undercard was pretty great, especially by recent standards.

Firstly, we had Gabriel Rosado losing a controversial split decision to the house fighter, J’Leon Love (a fully paid up member of Mayweather’s Money Team stable). It wasn’t the worst decision I’ve ever seen, but it got enough sets of teeth gnashing for the event to quickly bubble into life. Leo Santa Cruz quickly followed and quite simply did what Leo Santa Cruz does. Namely, refuse to take a backwards step and viciously beat down his opponent to the delight of the predominantly hispanic crowd.

By the time Daniel Ponce De Leon stepped up to challenge Abner Mares I found myself surprisingly hyped up, despite the fact that I’d never really been sold on the main event. I happily watched my favourite little guy (De Leon) take it to Mares for a few rounds, before getting caught viciously in the 9th and being stopped by his outstanding Mexican opponent. The bout wasn’t a classic, but it did offer the truly wonderful sight of repeat rule breaker Mares getting heavily low blowed, and ultimately served to get us giddy enough to lap up the drudging masterclass that called itself the headline act.

Still, good as this was it had nothing on the rest…

Sergio Martinez vs. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr, September 2012

While we all remember the dramatic final round of the main event from this night, the undercard was also something to write home about amidst the torrent of increasingly uninspired warm up matchmaking in recent years. Yes, I know Guillermo Rigondeaux isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoy watching any master craftsmen ply their trade and was very impressed with his opponent on this occasion: the young, and extremely game, Roberto Marroquin.

Elsewhere, we had middleweight title challenger Matthew Macklin taking on former titlist Joachim Alcine, Rocky Martinez defending his junior lightweight title for what seemed like the millionth time against the feisty Miguel Beltran, as well as a throwback to the golden era of undercards in the shape of John Jackson — son of the legendary puncher Julian — getting in against HBO prospect Willie Nelson. Not a bad night of action by any means.

Bernard Hopkins vs. William Joppy, December 2003

An excellent example of a stacked Don King card, from the tail end of an era in which he seemed hell bent on trotting out half his roster of fighters on any given night. The main event may not have set the world ablaze, but this night was notable both for the number of certified star names on its bill, as well as the fact that it featured not one but two undisputed championships on the line (welterweight and middleweight). That’s not something that happens too often in boxing, not even dating back in the halcyon days of the 70s.

Quite simply, it’s the numbers that tell the tale here. Zab Judah, John Ruiz, Hasim Rahman, Travis Simms, Cory Spinks, and Ricardo Mayorga all fought below the main event. Between them, they contested six title belts. All in all, 13 world titles were on the line across eight fights — truly a night to remember, although no one ever seems to. Nowadays you’re lucky if you see this many titlists in a single month, let alone a single night. Even B-Hop at his most negative couldn’t spoil it!

Lennox Lewis vs. Mike Tyson, June 2002

History may not have been kind to this fight, and for good reason considering the absurd build up and even crazier ticket prices, but it’s worth mentioning for the fact that a minuscule, relatively unknown — at least outside of boxing circles — Filipino fighter named Manny Pacquiao fought immediately prior to the main event.

Just think about that one for a moment. Pacquiao, Tyson and Lewis all on the same card. That’s three bona fide Hall of Famers for the price of one ticket, however exorbitantly expensive. That’s something to tell your grandkids about right there. Oh, I almost forgot… Joel Casamayor, Malik Scott, Cornelius Bundrage, and Jeff Lacy all fought that night as well.

Julio Cesar Chavez vs. Frankie Randall II, May 1994

The daddy of them all. This was the pinnacle of an era in which genuinely outstanding fight cards were served up by Don King Promotions on a regular basis while his chief cash cow Mike Tyson was behind bars in the early 90s. With his biggest name out of action, King had decided to place his stock in building up the name of a pugnacious Mexican brawler known as Chavez. The result was a golden era of stacked cards as King attempted to expose his Mexico folk hero as widely as possible.

Felix Trinidad and Hector Camacho were just a couple of the superstar names to regularly feature under King’s promotional banner at the time, but it all came to a head the night Chavez challenged Frankie Randall to a rematch in an attempt to regain the junior welterweight title taken from him by the American four months earlier.

When looked back on with jaded 2013 goggles, the card is obscene. Hall of famer Azumah Nelson taking on Jesse James Leija in a rematch for the junior lightweight title. Meldrick Taylor continuing on the comeback trail. Terry Norris regaining his junior middleweight belt. Gerald McLellan brutally sending Julian Jackson to sleep in their rematch. Nowadays you’d pay top dollar to see any of those guys fight. Let alone to see any of them fight each other. Let alone to see all of them fight each other on the same card!