The Gamboa gamble: Seeking thrills without spills
Fundamentally, sports are about competition. The athlete’s primary goal, in theory, is to win. But a sport that ceases to entertain ceases to be.
That’s why the NHL modified its rules to eradicate the 1990s New Jersey Devils’ neutral-zone trap, why you can’t breathe too hard on an NBA superstar without getting whistled for a foul and why the NFL has gone to great lengths in the past several years to protect quarterbacks and handcuff defensive backs. More offense plus less defense equals increased entertainment.
In boxing, the rules haven’t changed to encourage excitement (though you could argue that the judging has to some degree). Rather, in boxing, more than almost any other sport, it’s the individual athlete who determines whether the fans keep coming back. At some point in their careers, most boxers face a complex and difficult decision: Do I fight in the style that’s most conducive to adding wins to my record, or do I fight in a style that’s more fan-friendly?
For Cuban featherweight sensation Yuriorkis Gamboa, who faces Orlando Salido on HBO this Saturday, it’s an omnipresent question. He hopes never to have to make a choice. But as he prepares to start tangling with elite opponents, it might be time to call up Jim Gray, reserve the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich and make “The Decision.”
Gamboa is one of the most-physically gifted fighters in the world. He’s also one of the most-thrilling fighters in the world (ranked sixth in that department earlier this year by THE RING). Maybe he’ll be able to continue to win without sacrificing any of the risk-taking that makes him so much fun. But it’s also quite possible that his I’ll-get-you-before-you-get-me attitude will cost him his unbeaten record, or that his desire to remain unbeaten will require him to fight in a more safety-conscious style that costs him part of his fan base.
Which would be worse? Everybody has their own answer to that one.
Among boxing broadcasters, HBO’s Larry Merchant is the dean of denigrating stinkers. Nobody is quicker than Merchant to point out when a fighter is doing something that will keep butts out of seats. So he’s spent plenty of time thinking about the balance between entertainment and effectiveness that a boxer should seek to strike.
“There’s a line between being relentless and reckless,” Merchant told RingTV.com. “Usually, the best fighters who are also the most-entertaining fighters have a relentless style, one in which they practice defense while they’re offensive-minded. It’s a very rare completely reckless fighter who rises to the top.
“Gamboa has an athleticism that enables him usually to get away with those times when he’s reckless. He’s had a lot of success doing what he’s doing, and one argument is, why fix it if it ain’t broke? But the other argument is, maybe you should try to tinker with it before it breaks.”
Gamboa’s co-promoter and manager, Ahmet Oner, already did some serious tinkering. When Gamboa suffered a flash knockdown against Darling Jimenez in May 2008, Oner fired trainer Osmiri Fernandez in the dressing room immediately afterward and soon brought in Ismael Salas to work a little more defense into the fighter’s repertoire.
Two fights later, against Marcos Ramirez, Gamboa hit the deck again. Hey, you can’t solve every problem overnight.
In his last five fights, however, Gamboa’s technique has looked tighter. Only the soles of his feet have touched the canvas. So from an effectiveness perspective, improvements –however subtle – have been made.
Nazim Richardson, best known as the trainer of Bernard Hopkins and Shane Mosley, views Gamboa as a “special athlete” and told RingTV.com that subtle changes are the only ones a trainer should attempt to make with a force of nature like “El Ciclon de Guantanamo.”
“You can tighten up his defense, but he’s going to take those chances anyway because that’s his nature,” Richardson said. “If you restrict him from that, then you change him. If you change him, you don’t know what you’re bringing to the table. He turns into a different athlete. Sometimes a trainer tries to inject too much of himself into the athlete, when it’s not really necessary. Gamboa takes chances, but so far he hasn’t been on the brink of destruction. We’ve seen him go down, we’ve seen him get up. Remember, Felix Trinidad was down early in his career. Oscar De La Hoya used to go down early in his career.
“Common sense tells you that the guy’s going to have to clean up his defense and make some adjustments in order to move forward against greater competition, as all these young athletes do. Who doesn’t have to make some adjustments? Who have we seen come out the gate that fundamentally sound from Day One? Fighters grow as they go, and those that don’t get knocked out.”
The implication there is that Gamboa can’t continue to fight in exactly the same style and with exactly the same mentality that resulted in him getting dropped four times early in his career against sub-standard opposition. If he does, he’ll pay the price for it eventually.
All successful fighters make adjustments – and it goes in both directions. Juan Manuel Marquez went from underappreciated pure boxer to exciting boxer-puncher. Wladimir Klitschko went from aggressive knockout artist to tentative boxer-puncher. Both significantly extended their relevance as a result.
On the flip side, there’s a fighter like Ivan Calderon, who provided minimal action en route to going undefeated in his first 35 fights and then picking the wrong night to cater to the fans, when he had the wicked-punching Giovanni Segura in front of him. Maybe Calderon was slowing down anyway and Segura would have imposed his will one way or another, but it seemed counterintuitive for Calderon to so willfully accommodate his opponent’s desire for a slugfest.
What Gamboa possesses that Calderon doesn’t is power. Gamboa can stand and trade and reasonably expect to be the last man standing. He has options. At least, it appears that he does – as long as you believe in some degree or nurture over nature.
“I don’t think that it’s a choice that fighters make,” Merchant countered. “I think it’s almost like the choice is made for them by the nature of their skills and their mental and emotional makeup. There are some fighters with the mentality that, ‘I’m going to have a long career and not a blazing career.’ In general, the take-no-prisoners, warrior-mentality guys live fast and die young as fighters. And they may make a whole lot of money in that time.”
Arturo Gatti was the ultimate recent example of that. You could argue that, if Gatti boxed more and slugged less, he might have won a couple more fights. But he wouldn’t have retired a legend if he’d been wired to box and move in response to getting rocked.
On the flip side, there’s a fighter like Bernard Hopkins, who never takes entertainment into consideration when he steps into the ring. That’s not Gamboa at all. He clearly gets a rush out of thrilling the crowds while he’s racking up the wins.
But as his competition improves, he might find it more difficult to keep doing both. Salido, despite probably representing Gamboa’s stiffest challenge yet, is no world-beater, so Gamboa can probably take all the risks he wants this Saturday.
But can he do that against Juan Manuel Lopez, the name that’s constantly mentioned as his supreme test somewhere down the road? If that fight happens, Gamboa will likely have to determine what his priorities are.
When Gamboa makes his “Decision,” he doesn’t have the option of taking his talents to South Beach. But he does have plenty of talents and two highly compelling options regarding what to do with them.
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Eric Raskin can be reached at [email protected] You can read his articles each month in THE RING magazine and follow him on Twitter @EricRaskin.