Superstars, and the men who dream of fighting them
Of all the fighters in action this Saturday undefeated lightweight KO artist Edwin Valero has the most potential to advance to “superstar” status, or at least earn a shot at one, but he has look good beating tough Antonio Pitalua first. Photo / Chris Farina-Top Rank
At the world-class level in the sport of boxing, there are two kinds of fighters: those who can cut any line and command a direct escort to the VIP section, and those who spend all night hugging the velvet rope.
We know who the VIPs are between the lightweight and welterweight divisions: Manny Pacquiao, Ricky Hatton, Floyd Mayweather, Miguel Cotto, Shane Mosley and, after quite a few years spent stomping around angrily in line while staring at his watch, Juan Manuel Marquez. They don’t fight all that oftenÔÇömaybe twice a yearÔÇöand when they do, they typically fight each other.
This coming weekend in boxing is a velvet-rope special, featuring an abundance of quality fights between quality fighters who could slip a bouncer a hundred bucks and only get a half-hearted “Let me see what I can do” in return.
On Showtime, Timothy Bradley and Kendall Holt will battle to unify a couple of junior welterweight alphabet belts.
And on pay-per-view, eight lightweights in varying degrees of contention will square off in four seemingly competitive fights. The matches are Edwin Valero vs. Antonio Pitalua, Michael Katsidis vs. Jesus Chavez, Carlos Hernandez vs. Vicente Escobedo and Julio Diaz vs. Rolando Reyes, and one thing uniting all eight fighters is that none of them can command major dollars at the moment.
Whereas junior lightweight and lightweight were glamour divisions in the very recent past, all of the glamour has slid up the scale to junior welterweight and welterweight, and Marquez, the last superstar at 135 pounds, would gladly pack on another five or 10 pounds for a VIP showdown. You might think that’s good news for the Bradley-Holt winner, and bad news for the winners on the “Lightweight Lightning” PPV card. But in reality, the outlook is the same for all 10 fighters: Even if they establish themselves this Saturday night as the cream of the second tier, they’ll still be staring at a sizable leap before they can sniff the first tier.
“The superstars in boxing are looking to make big money, or they’re looking for an easy fight,” said veteran promoter and manager Lester Bedford, who straddled the line between Tier A and Tier B for about a dozen years with former 130-pound titlist Jesse James Leija. “The champions really want to either take a big money fight against an A-level guy, or they’ll occasionally fight a B-level guy if they don’t believe they’re taking a serious risk of losing their titles.”
Leija spent much of his career beating the Tier B fighters (except Juan Lazcano, to whom he lost a horrendous decision in 2000) and losing to the Tier A fighters (except Azumah Nelson, against whom he went 2-1-1). He got quite a few shots at the elite, including Oscar De La Hoya, Shane Mosley and Kostya Tszyu, in part because he kept earning those shots by defeating quality fighters, and in part because those pound-for-pounders were confident they could beat him.
“Against Azumah the first time, he moved up in weight and was a 5-1 underdog,” Bedford said, “and believe me, the Tier A guys, they’re not going to give you an opportunity unless they think they’re going to win. Obviously, Azumah Nelson thought he was going to win that fight. In general, if you’re on that B tier, you’ve got to fight the tough fights, keep plugging away and keep winning to get a shot. If you’re on that B level, sometimes you have to take a lot of risk to get onto those HBO shows.”
That’s precisely what the combatants in this weekend’s bouts are doing: taking a chance, hoping to advance. There won’t necessarily be an instant payoff, however. Lightweight Lightning was originally conceived as the start of an eight-man tournament, though with Jorge Barrios and Joel Casamayor falling off the card due to injury, it’s decidedly unclear whether it will play out that way. Either way, the winners on the PPV show from Austin, Texas, will probably need at least one more meaningful victory before they catch the eye of the A-listers.
“The fact is, there is a lot riding on these fights for these guys on Lightweight Lightning to really shine,” said Richard Schaefer, CEO of Golden Boy Promotions, the company putting on the show. “It’s not necessarily enough just to win a fight, win a decision. They need to make a case. Convince the fans. Convince the media that you should get a shot.
“I would like to see these four winners go on and hopefully fight each other, and eventually one or two of that group will emerge as a challenger to a Marquez or a Pacquiao. But if one of them looks absolutely spectacular and steals the show, I could definitely see that such a fighter would go straight to a fight with Juan Manuel Marquez for example, and get a chance at the linear lightweight title. I mean, if one guy looks absolutely spectacular, I wouldn’t mind putting him in on September 12 against Juan Manuel Marquez.”
It’s widely believed that the fighter with the best chance at looking spectacular and the best chance at attracting an opportunity against the elite is Valero. He’s 24-0 with 24 knockouts, including a ridiculous 19 in the first round, and he’s received plenty of buzz in the hardcore fight community. His American promoter, Bob Arum, has been talking about trying to make a fight with Amir Khan, and those who believe in Valero have been dreaming about a fight with Pacquiao for several years now.
However, a win over the little-known Pitalua on a pay-per-view card with limited exposure won’t necessarily earn him opportunities like that.
“To me, a guy like Valero, he looks like a considerable risk to a superstar. That means there had better be some reward in it, and there isn’t yet. So a guy like that could get ducked,” reasoned Bedford. “I would say the winner of Katsidis-Chavez has a better chance at a big fight because they’re both made-for-TV fighters, and they’ve been on HBO. Valero doesn’t have the exposure yet. He needs something along the lines of an impressive win on HBO Boxing After Dark to get some exposure. For now, he presents too much risk. He means nothing to a superstar.”
Like the rest of this weekend’s fighters, he presents risk, and that means he has to face risk. The winner of Holt-Bradley, in particular, may be extremely deserving of a shot at the Hatton-Pacquiao winner and the lineal junior welterweight championship, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to get it.
It would be nice to believe Saturday’s fights have profound meaning from a reward perspective. But they don’t. March Madness basketball games have added excitement because you know a win gets a team into the next round and a loss ends their season. The upshot of a boxing match is never that clear-cut, and it’s particularly so for this weekend’s matches.
So we just have to take these fights for what they are: Quality pairings of non-superstars. They’re not the kind of fights that you’ll stand in a long line waiting to see. But they’re often the kind of fights that deliver the VIP treatment from an entertainment perspective.
┬À During the Eddie Chambers-Sam Peter fight on Friday night, we got the line of the weekend, and maybe the line of Teddy Atlas’ color commentary career: “No wonder I don’t train fighters anymore!” Chambers is a talented heavyweight, but I have a bad feeling his career will provide more frustration than satisfaction. His trainer, Rob Murray, would do well to show Chambers a Dominick Guinn film festival as a cautionary tale of what happens to talented heavyweights who don’t let their hands go.
┬À If Atlas gets credit for the line of the weekend, then Showtime’s Nick Charles gets the award for the perplexing understatement of the weekend, declaring heading into round eight of Harry Joe Yorgey vs. Ronald Hearns, “Hearns is arguably behind.” If you could make an argument for Hearns being anything other than behind, after he’d been dropped twice and hadn’t decisively won a round yet, then you’ve probably spent too much time hanging out with Eugenia Williams and Doug Tucker.
┬À I should probably note here that my scorecard might have been a tad biased in favor of Yorgey. With his knockout win over Hearns, fighters from my alma mater, Upper Merion High School, are now 1-0 against sons of legends. And no, I won’t be looking to extend the streak by calling out Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. Or even three-year-old Oscar Gabriel De La Hoya.
┬À Speaking of Chavez Jr., I get why the soul-less, money-grubbing WBC has bent over backward to rank him absurdly high. But can someone explain to me why the IBF is so madly in love with Giovanni Lorenzo? Or, more alarmingly, why the WBA never tires of overrating John Ruiz? If you’re going to be morally bankrupt, at least follow Jose Sulaiman’s lead and be that way for a reason.
┬À If Showtime agrees to air Vernon Forrest vs. Jason LeHoullier, it will become official: Al Haymon is the most powerful man in boxing.
┬À I get why Don King is protesting the result in the Amir Khan-Marco Antonio Barrera fight. He’s absolutely right that the timing of the stoppage was suspiciously favorable to the hometown kid. But does poor Barrera really need King petitioning for an immediate rematch?