On Prospects And Underdogs

There’s a difference between an underdog and a human sacrifice. Underdogs go up against the odds but with enough of a shot to get the bookies nervous and the fans talking of “what ifs?” It’s not the same as when a fighter who everyone knows is hopelessly mismatched takes a hammering. Ask Rod Salka.

Too many promoters treat prospects not as sportsmen who need to develop but as investments that must be protected. In turn, too many prospects are happy to wallow in the comfort of endless mismatches and easily won praise. Dangerous underdogs can get in the way of building up big shiny records. The desperation to “protect the 0” is depriving too many fighters of the boxing education they need. When their promoter smells the money and throws them in against a big name fighter, they can find themselves ruthlessly exposed. BBC journalist Ben Dirs put it brilliantly when reflecting on Chris Eubank, Jr.’s humbling defeat to Billy Joe Saunders:

“An unbeaten professional record built of journeymen is like a castle built of sand. A pro should spend his early years constructing high walls, ramparts and moats, so that he feels secure when a dangerous foe is at the drawbridge.”

Even those dangerous underdogs who do get the chance and take it are too often denied by the judges. It’s one thing for the next big thing to sneak a narrow decision after a tight fight. It is quite another when Jose Benavidez receives a 12-round schooling from Mauricio Herrera, only to then get a comfy unanimous decision Prospects should be allowed to lose not only because it’s fair but because it’s good for them. The obsession with remaining unbeaten leads prospects to see a single defeat as a tragedy. This unbalanced mindset leads to the sort of meltdown that Adrien Broner lapsed into after his first defeat against Marcos Maidana. Great fighters treat defeats not as setbacks but not disasters. While the Joe Calzaghes and Rocky Marcianos never had to learn to deal with losing, the rest need to master the art of bouncing back. Defeats are often catalysts for improvement, forcing fighters to scrutinize their technique and eradicate long-standing weaknesses.

Herrera was given the chance to ignite two cracking fights last year not because promoters wanted entertainment for the fans but because they underrated him. If either Danny Garcia or Benavidez had been allowed to lose, neither of their careers would have disintegrated; they’d have both learnt a lot and probably would have come back stronger. Instead, Herrera is left as the Neo to boxing’s insane Matrix, trying to break out of a cruel fantasy in which judges see fights that never happened and he has a record with losses that he never suffered. He’s had to live on sympathy when he should be holding belts. Boxing’s injustice has created a new type of hero, who is loved for the victories he doesn’t get and for exposing the sport’s corrupt core.