The American poet Edwin Markham once said, “Defeat may serve as well as victory to shake the soul and let the glory out.” Markham, one can only assume, died penniless and jaundiced to the teeth – just as all 19th-century poets were contractually obliged to. But that kind of street cred merely adds heft to his words. In boxing, fierce competition, courage in battle and performative flair are the stock-in-trade that has covered for many a fighter’s limited skill set. There is no shame in falling short of victory in the ring. The sport’s only sin: tediousness.
Think hard: Who is more likely to shake the soul and let the glory out, Floyd Mayweather Jr. at 49-0* (and you know damn well what the asterisk stands for) or horror-movie-bad-guy-durable Jesus Soto Karass at 29-13-4? Looking past the mouth-breathing fanboys more infatuated with Floyd’s watch collection than his finishing instincts, that’s a judgment call within Adelaide Byrd’s capabilities. By all means, show up sloppy-fat (Brandon Rios), talk endless amounts of unintelligible shit (Adrien Broner) or Man of La Mancha-windmill your way through 12 rounds (Deontay Wilder) – hell, go ahead and cheat (how much time do you have?). But for the love of god, do … not … be … boring.
This was the backdrop for both heavyweights in Friday’s main event at Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York on ESPN+. Bryant Jennings (24-2, 6 KO), whose only previous losses had come at the fists of Hall-of-Famer-in-waiting Wladimir Klitschko and Cuba’s most impressive Thing impersonator Luis Ortiz, came into the night perhaps only a fight away from climbing back to legitimate challenger status. He had acquitted himself well enough even in those defeats, but there’s a reason fighters have nicknames like “The Bali Bloodletter” or “The Cuyahoga Coffin Nail” and not “The Admirably Competitive Philadelphian.” Jennings is cagey, but he is neither brilliantly skilled nor an especially fun watch. And at age 34, he is running out of time to change his stripes.
Oscar Rivas (25-0, 17 KO), a Montreal resident by way of Colombia, was plucked from semi-obscurity to challenge Jennings – but arrived with bona fides that suggested something more than B-side filler. As an amateur, Rivas had toppled current top-25 heavyweights Kubrat Pulev and Andy Ruiz on his path to and through the 2008 Olympics. Although still largely untested as a professional at age 31, he had compiled an appreciable stoppage rate, an unbeaten record and, not for nothing, a sufficiently cool moniker: “Kaboom.”
Initially, it seemed Rivas was up to the task. The Colombian may have taken an early lead on the scorecards after simply pushing forward and throwing the occasional combination while Jennings went into clamshell mode, pedaling backwards and side to side, covering up and pawing every so often at Rivas with a jab or a flimsy left hook. As the headliner failed to build enough steam to fog up a mirror thrust under his nose, Rivas was content to stay patient (read: do as little as humanly possible to bag rounds). Seventh-grade square dancing was more riveting by several orders of magnitude than the first 9-12 minutes of this bout, and I absolutely have the emotional scars to prove it.
For a fighter with Holmesian length (oh yeah, girl, that’s an 84-inch reach), Jennings spent an inordinate amount of time in the opening rounds with his back against the ropes, allowing Rivas to control space and suffocating any prospect of his own offense. But little by little, Jennings emerged from behind his guard, sharpening his jab and spotting his hook to good, if not terrifying, effect.
Rivas snuck in a pair of stiff right hands in the 10th to let Jennings know he was, in fact, in a fight. But as the proceedings wound down, long after Jennings had made his adjustments, Rivas had still essentially failed to launch. Between rounds, trainer Marc Ramsay screamed epithets – or perhaps recommendations for fresh baguettes and fine cooking oils (my French is rusty) – at his fighter. Rivas’ inactivity had instilled Jennings with all the confidence he needed to open up and let loose.
Too loose, as it turned out. As the seconds ticked away in Round 12, dozens of legitimate boxing scribes had already filed their stories and I was languidly backstroking in the cesspool of Snarky #Boxing Twitter when, lo and behold, Rivas got a wild hair. With little more than a half a round to the finish, Rivas caught Jennings coasting. The challenger lunged, putting Jennings on the ropes and swarming him with a frenzy of blows – a few stunners, but no widowmakers – that dropped him. Jennings took the full count, smirked and declared himself ready to go. He was not. When referee Gary Rosato gave the fighters the green light, Rivas instantly mad-dogged Jennings, unleashing a hail of shots – including a left hook and three hard rights that landed flush – to floor Jennings again. Rosato called it with just 54 seconds left, and just like that the heavyweight division (theoretically) had a new contender in Rivas.
Side note: Had Jennings somehow avoided that final bludgeoning – and even both knockdowns in the 12th – he would have been in line for no better outcome than a draw. Rivas was up by at least a point on two of the three judges’ scorecards when Rosato waved it off, so he hadn’t done enough to impress even as he clearly changed the tone of the fight to something more favorable. The lesson: boxing isn’t just a cruel mistress; she’s a schizophrenic narcissist who will drive your car through a bank window before stepping into the lobby to empty your accounts (Ed. note- Sup girl?).
Even a capable prizefighter can’t afford to stand on skill alone. If you’re blessed by the gods with an atomic lead hand or an adamantium chin, good on you. If not, you’d better have a schtick that sells.
In a featherweight foregone conclusion, Shakur Stevenson (10-0, 6 KO) overpowered and outclassed Jessie Cris Rosales (22-2-1, 10 KO) on the Jennings-Rivas undercard. Stevenson, the 2016 Olympic silver medalist whose first-round detonation of Viorel Simion just three months back was the highlight of the Terence Crawford-Jose Benavides Jr. show, gifted us another spectacle Friday.
After teleporting around the ring untouched in Round 1, Stevenson buckled down and blowtorched Rosales over the ensuing two-plus rounds. The southpaw from Newark, N.J., upshifted from fighting off the back foot to walking down Rosales, cutting off the ring and, in short order, beating every ounce of will out of the Filipino. In the fourth, with Rosales’ face taking on the shade of a boiled beet, Stevenson landed a jangly, short left that briefly stood up his opponent – backing him into perfect range for a flush follow-up that spun Rosales’ jaw wayward and sent the rest of him to the mat. Rosales staggered to his feet to beat the count, but with a bloodied right eye, decidedly dulled senses and no fight left in him, referee Charlie Fitch mercifully called it.
Stevenson wants featherweight titlist and 2018 breakout darling Josh Warrington next – a seemingly unlikely leap just 10 fights into Stevenson’s pro career. But, hell, he might be ready. And if and when the time comes, it’ll be something else to watch.