Michael McCarthy is here with the latest from the world of boxing.
In the entertainment industry, a sleeper-hit is a film that, despite low expectations and little promotion turns out to be major hit with the public. On Saturday night boxing served up another sleeper-hit of its own.
When 2004 Olympic gold medallist, Yuriorkis Gamboa, defected from Cuba and turned professional in 2007, he carried a lot of expectation. Despite winning world titles at two weight classes, Gamboa had failed to fully live up to the lofty expectations. He has continued to win fights but more often than not, he has laboured to decision victories in uninspiring performances. These performances, accompanied by long periods away from the ring, have damaged his standing with boxing fans.
Terence Crawford too has been labelled a future star for a few years now. He captured the WBO lightweight title in March by going to Scotland and comfortably out boxing Ricky Burns. Like Gamboa, Crawford is considered a technically strong and tactically astute fighter.
There was little doubting the quality of both fighters heading into Saturday’s showdown but as the old saying goes, “styles make fights” and the general consensus was that these two would serve up more of a psychological thriller rather than an action adventure. Nevertheless, the arena in Crawford’s hometown of Omaha, Nebraska was packed with 10,943 noisy Cornhuskers. The crowd certainly got their money’s worth. This was expected to be a bit of a chess match but instead we got something more like chess directed by Michael Bay.
Crawford enjoyed a significant height and reach advantage over the smaller Gamboa, who had fought most of his career at featherweight and super featherweight. The long reach and jab of Crawford would prove crucial to the outcome of this fight.
The first two rounds were relatively quiet with both fighters probing for weaknesses and assessing the opponent’s strengths. By the third round however, the reconnaissance period had ended. Gamboa began to unleash a number of impressively quick punches from awkward angles that troubled Crawford.
Gamboa would pay the price for the toe-to-toe action in the 5th. Crawford caught Gamboa coming forward with a beautiful right hand. Gamboa’s legs immediately turned to jelly. Two lefts from Crawford sent the Cuban crashing to the canvas, face first. Gamboa had previously tasted the canvas six times as a pro and once again beat the count. He was badly hurt though, and the final 40 seconds of the round saw Crawford pushing for a finish while Gamboa, despite wobbly legs, tried to fight fire with fire. The bell sounded with the crowd on their feet while Gamboa was out on his.
It took the best part of two rounds for Gamboa to recover. He did extremely well to keep Crawford at bay with aggression, despite the fact that it was ineffective aggression. By the 8th round it seemed Gamboa had recovered from the knockdown and was getting back to a more controlled style. In the final thirty seconds of the round, Gamboa looked to put the exclamation point on his recovery by coming forward with a flurry of power punches. Unfortunately for Gamboa, his reckless aggression allowed Crawford to time him and the hometown hero landed a lovely right-left-right three punch combination that sent Gamboa down for the second time.
Just like in round 5, Gamboa would ship more punishment before being saved by the bell to end the round. Behind on the scorecards, and with just 4 rounds remaining, Gamboa knew he could not afford to take any more rounds off to recover. In the 9th round Gamboa continued his wild aggression, desperate for a knockdown of his own.
Once again, Gamboa’s aggression would allow openings for Crawford’s surgical counter-punching. A left from Crawford and Gamboa went down again. For a third time, Gamboa beat the count but was in desperation-mode, knowing the fight was rapidly slipping away. Instead of trying to survive the round, Gamboa stood toe-to-toe and was punished for it as Crawford caught him with an uppercut that sent him down for the 4th and final time with just 9 seconds remaining in the 9th round.
For Crawford this was the fight that truly marked his emergence as a star. Going to Scotland and taking the title from Ricky Burns was impressive but failed to turn him into a star. This performance was both impressive and, almost more importantly, exciting.
For Gamboa the first defeat of his career is a setback and he will have to work hard to get back the reputation he had built. But there are positives he can take from the performance. He gave an exciting performance and was undone only by an outstanding opponent who had significant size and reach advantages. Fans will want to more of this version of Gamboa and will want to see him fight more frequently, which means there will still be a lot of opportunities for him.
On Friday night, another Crawford victim tried to get his career back on track. Ricky Burns has had a difficult last 13 months. In May 2013, a seemingly routine title defence against unheralded Puerto Rican Jose Gonzalez saw Burns get a boxing lesson before getting a lucky break. Gonzalez, despite being in control of the fight, suffered a broken bone in his hand and quit at the end of the 9th round.
If the Gods were kind to Burns in that fight, the judges were very kind to him in his next outing. Raymundo Beltran came to Glasgow, floored Burns and broke his jaw but left with a draw instead of the title, courtesy of some home-cooking from the judges. Burns would not escape for a third time when Terrence Crawford came to town in March and took the title in emphatic fashion.
This was Burns’ first return to action and his first non-world title fight in over 4 years. His opponent, Dejan Zlaticanin was unbeaten but had never fought outside of Serbia or his native Montenegro. Burns was the strong pre-fight favourite at 1/6.
The confidence in Ricky Burns was echoed by Sky Sports’ Jim Watt at the opening bell. He voiced the opinion that you could put your house on Burns to win. Literally as the words were leaving Watts’ mouth, Zlaticanin landed a huge left hand that dropped Burns to the canvas inside the first 20 seconds of round one. If Ricky Burns had believed the odds and entered the ring thinking it would be an easy night’s work, he found out immediately that he was mistaken.
This was Burns’ first fight with new trainer Tony Simms and Simms had his work cut out from round one. Burns had no answer to the body punching of Zlaticanin and allowed himself to be pushed backwards by the smaller man far too often.
When Burns was able to take the centre of the ring, he used his long jab to set up some nice combinations. But Ricky lacked the power and strength to keep Zlaticanin at bay. Time and time again, Zlaticanin was able to step forward and throw looping left hooks that backed the Scot onto the ropes.
Burns had some nice moments, particularly in the 10th round but neither fighter could finish the fight early and so it went to the judges. Although Zlaticanin narrowly deserved to win, I had some concerns that he might suffer a similar fate to Ray Beltran. Thankfully two of the three judges scored the close fight in favour of Zlaticanin who just edged it (115-113). The third judge had it for Ricky Burns by the same score.
Unfortunately for Ricky Burns that could signal the end of his time at world level. Burns is 31 now and it is difficult to see him rebuilding his career to get back in a world title picture at this stage. His promoter Eddie Hearn plans to bring him back with a British title level opponent, which will tell us much more about his future in the sport.
Michael McCarthy, Pundit Arena.