Quarantine Classics: Scott Pemberton Vs Omar Sheika

There is no boxing thanks to COVID-19 and we might have roving gangs of warboys before pro pugilism returns. So we TQBRers are looking back at the beforetimes.

As I write this, I am age 44. Seventeen years ago, then, doesn’t seem so far back.

Yet 2003 seems like a distinctly different time, when viewed on TV. You can’t say it was a more innocent time,  despite our current troubles; the wounds of 9/11 were still fresh, and the Iraq War was newly upon us.

But on the July night when Scott Pemberton and Omar Sheika first met at Foxwoods in Mashantucket, Conn., there were some time capsule indicators.

For instance, Pemberton had somewhat hilariously proposed to his girlfriend, Margaret, before the bout, and she just straight was SMOKING A CIGARETTE INSIDE A BUILDING during the battle. And ESPN’s Joe Tessitore was an excessively excitable play-by-play guy, rather than the excited-to-suck-Top-Rank’s-dick cheerleader he is today.

Anyway, about the fight itself.

Ideally, at least for me, most every fight is like some version of Canelo Alvarez vs Gennady Golovkin or (with one in exception in their four battles) Manny Pacquiao vs Juan Manuel Marquez: exquisite skill mixed with offensive aggressiveness mixed with style contrasts mixed with sustained action where little differentiates the others.

There are pleasures to be had in fights that are pure skill, at least for some of us. For almost all of us, there is plenty of pleasure to be found in a bout like Pemberton vs Sheika 1.

Neither of these men were true super middleweight contenders. When they’d fought men on the level of contenders, they typically got crushed; both, for example, are connected by later losses to Jeff Lacy, although Sheika fared far better than Pemberton. Lacy wasn’t quite a pretender, but his limits certainly were exposed when he came up against a special fighter in Joe Calzaghe.

So you’re getting a sense of the levels, here. This was kind of a poor man’s Arturo Gatti vs Micky Ward, not necessarily because of the quality of the battle (comparing just about anything to Gatti-Ward’s fireworks has always been stupid) but because of the skill exhibited — Gatti and Ward weren’t world-class technicians, and Pemberton and Sheika were another grade down from them.

What added some spice to it, beyond the obvious style appeal of guys who didn’t exactly defend themselves with a word akin to “aplomb,” is that both were a bit desperate. Pemberton had, as mentioned, just proposed to his wife. He was 36. He wanted to get another big fight and get out of the game. Sheika, the more physically talented fighter, had his chances and came up lacking, and couldn’t afford to again.

Teddy Atlas, for all the anger he induces, likewise feels at this time like a throwback to an era where a boxing analyst might actually not just fellate the company fighter. Sure, he won’t shut up, but he called the fight dynamic pretty quickly, not that it took a genius to do so: Sheika would fight in spurts, Pemberton would keep his effort level high. (It’s been suggested that I have a more pro-Atlas stance than some given his endorsement of a project I co-founded. That was seven years ago.)

For how much of a sizzling fajita it was by the end of the 12th, the affair started cooly enough. The 1st round had too much clinching as Pemberton tried to work from the outside with his greater height, and Sheika tried to get a little closer.

That said, it didn’t take long for things to get dramatic. Max Kellerman wrote later that “the fight was ordinary until the last couple rounds.” Not exactly! Sheika caught the wide-punching Pemberton with a set-up right and then a really serious, shorter right in the 2nd, dropping him decently hard. Later, Sheika would say he regretted not attacking. This is the curse of the spurt fighter.

Entertainingly, Sheika overheard Vinny Paz jabbering as a guest commentator in the 5th, whereupon he paused to look at him and say, “You’re next.”

But the action was constant after the 2nd; it was somewhere north of ordinary and somewhere south of a brawl, with Sheika taking off rounds then surging to life to force Pemberton into exchanges if he hoped to win the round. Mostly, it worked; from the 3rd to the 10th, I scored every round but the 4th but Pemberton, although Atlas gave Sheika the 6th, too.

The 11th might’ve been Pemberton’s, also, if not for the last few seconds. That’s when Sheika landed a searing combination, with a left hook and two right uppercuts all looking like KO blows individually. So, yeah, in that moment, it came alive in a different, big-time way than it had.

Pemberton staggered around after the bell. One of his cornermen came and recovered him like he was a drugged-up patient in a mental hospital. That may or may not have made up for Pemberton being told before the 11th that he needed to press the action — in a fight he was otherwise winning.

The 12th, then, was just wild in every fashion. Sheika gunned for the KO, but his spurtiness wouldn’t allow him to get it, even though he connected on some head-swiveling shots. Pemberton tried to slug Sheika away when he had said head about him. Neither guy threw a straight punch, really. Sheika at one point tossed out a leaping left hook, and I literally laughed out loud.

But both made it out of the last stanza, and on came the scorecards.

Atlas had it a draw. I had in 114-113 for Pemberton, same as two of the real judges. One — Fred Ucci, not to be confused with Tucci Gang — had it 116-111. Bwah-ha-ha-ha, more lulz.

It was a very good fight! Naturally, they did it again. And it started almost identically, with Sheika again scoring a 2nd round knockdown (at 1:16, compared to 1:17 the first time). But this time, Pemberton got the knockout in the 10th after a fight that was a bit more downhill once he suffered a second, 7th round round knockdown. Was that a better fight? Maybe!

But Scott Pemberton vs Omar Sheika 1 did it first.

(Photo: Scott Pemberton, right, connects against Omar Sheika in their rematch; via)

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.