“Talk to me son,” bellowed referee Russell Mora after Brandon “Bam Bam” Rios had received a third low blow In the space of two minutes. “Let’s go baby!” came the defiant response from a man who seemed almost to be drawing energy from his opponent’s attempts to foul. Although his body would sag with each punch absorbed below the belt, the brawler from Kansas seemed happy to suck it up and go back to applying the pressure once more. In fact, he seemed more than happy: his face a mask of delight as he turned and beamed to his corner after every round, bouncing on the balls of his feet as he made his way back to the stool.
By contrast, Anthony Peterson looked as if there was nowhere he’d less like to be. Rios’s opponent was 30-0 prior to the opening bell and had never been down as an amateur or a pro, yet after a mere five rounds had become so ragged he resorted to throwing repeated low blows in an attempt to stem the tide. Disqualified shortly after, Peterson would enter the ring just twice in the three years following his first defeat, a shell of all that he had once promised to become.
Skip forward a mere five years, and the fighter who dropped to his knees in the 9th round of the HBO main event against Tim Bradley this past Saturday bore little resemblance to Peterson’s conqueror. Rios, who had once been defiantly hyperactive, screeching in the wake of every victory and cracking jokes at a constant pace, slumped untidily to the canvas and could manage only a muffled grunt. In the post-fight interviews he appeared not just physically weary, but mentally drained, as if the fight had truly left him and he had nothing more to give.
It was a poignant moment, and a far cry from the relentless pressure fighter who had burst into the scene with the Peterson victory and captured a lightweight title shortly afterwards. That guy had been a real handful, the type of opponent who never knows when he’s beaten and will continue pouring forward in spite of the odds. Sometimes throwing as many as half a dozen consecutive uppercuts, vintage Brandon Rios was a brawler with an iron chin who seemed able to take whatever you dished out and not merely respond, but actively savour the violence of it all.
Going into the Bradley fight, I felt many were underestimating him, whether distracted by the sideshow of Teddy Atlas, or lulled by inactivity and the low key atmosphere of Robert Garcia’s typically boisterous gym in the build up. Strangely, it now seems Rios himself was equally guilty of underestimation, and had failed to account for the strain placed on his body over the years, both by his come-forward style and the frequent weight fluctuations that had dented his stamina and once-formidable ability to take punishment.
His body was featureless by the end, a blank mass that seemed hopelessly at odds with the physiques of Bradley and Manny Pacquiao in his most high-profile bouts, as if he was merely an insistent fan who’d somehow made it on stage and been allowed to pose shirtless beside his idols. At 135 pounds he had been lean, if not exactly chiseled, but the welterweight division brought more liquid retention and a doughy quality to both his arms and torso. Eventually the flesh began to spill over the sides of his waistband, culminating in the miserable sight of him stripping naked behind a towel prior to the Bradley fight, his cheeks caving inward as he strained to reach a limit 12 pounds above his optimum fighting weight.
He could still take the punches, at least until this final contest, and the sight of his head swollen like a basketball over the course of 12 championship rounds in Macau will forever be a testament to his heart. Yet the dynamism that carried his initial breakthrough was sapped as he rose through the divisions, and the contradiction at the centre of it all cast a lengthening shadow. Here was a guy with an indomitable spirit and boundless desire when in the ring, who cut numerous corners and developed bad habits outside; an iron-jawed gladiator who took bombs from the best offensive fighter of his era, before capitulating when faced with a comparatively feather-fisted opponent; a man who went from lightweight to a light heavyweight in the ring in less than three years.
Ultimately, he will be remembered as a mercurial force as much as an action hero. He had the potential to look devastating, but was also nullified on occasion, not just by elite opponents like Pacquiao and Bradley, but by the likes of Richar Abril in his lightweight heyday, and even Mike Alvarado at times throughout their exciting trilogy. Make no mistake, Rios had the scope to be a great action fighter. But he was never in a truly great fight, despite the fact that this seemed to be his foremost desire, in lieu of world titles, accumulated star power, or even money. He would often talk of emulating the likes of Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward, but for various reasons fights with Yuriorkis Gamboa and Ruslan Provodnikov never happened, while a much talked about grudge match with Victor Ortiz also fell by the wayside.
Despite all this, however, Rios still has a shot to join an exclusive club in boxing. There are not many parallels to be drawn between the tough brawler from Kansas and the former pound-for-pound king, Floyd Mayweather. Yet each holds the tentative honour of extracting more from the sport than has been taken in return. Rios retires with career earnings of over $10 million and a title belt on the wall at home, as well as the health of himself and his young family intact. He has no need to keep fighting, is financially secure, and lucid enough to know that it’s right to walk away. For a guy that came from the middle of nowhere to break Anthony Peterson’s heart all those nights ago, that’s really not so bad.
(Referee Tony Weeks gives a count to Brandon Rios after he was knocked down for the first time by Timothy Bradley during their fight at the Thomas & Mack Center on Nov. 7; Steve Marcus/Getty Images)