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Escalante presents a tough act to follow

13
Sep

Antonio Escalante has recently grown accustomed to the role of main-event fighter. His last four fights were at the Don Haskins Center in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, where he’s drawn – and delighted – ever-expanding crowds.

This Saturday night, however, he opens the Shane Mosley-Sergio Mora pay-per-view card from the Staples Center in Los Angeles, meaning he isn’t in the main event ÔǪ or the co-feature ÔǪ or even the third fight listed on the bill.

That means he’ll just have to settle for being the main attraction for hardcore fight fans and, if all goes according to plan, the main topic of discussion afterward.

Some two hours and change before Mosley and Mora start making their way to the ring, Escalante will face Daniel Ponce De Leon in a matchup of two of the world’s most reliably exciting fighters.

Sometimes you know a fight will deliver. It’s like when the first Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward fight was signed. You had the Nos. 1 and 2 action fighters in the sport, in whichever order you liked, sharing a ring; that they would produce legendary brawls was as predictable as the next Gus Johnson overstatement.

Escalante and Ponce De Leon aren’t necessarily Nos. 1 and 2 among today’s most exciting pugilists, but they’re both in the discussion. Every punch thrown at either guy is a can’t-miss; doesn’t it automatically follow that the fight is a can’t-miss as well?

Looking at the PPV card from theoretical top to bottom, Mosley vs. Mora is one of those reasonable but not exactly salivation-worthy fights that makes you scratch your head when you hear it’s headlining a pay-per-view. Saul Alvarez vs. Carlos Baldomir is little more than the latest addition to the longstanding tradition of padding young fighters’ records by pitting them against used-up ex-champs. “Vicious” Victor Ortiz vs. “Vicious” Vivian Harris has an obvious hook but might turn out to be a mismatch in Ortiz’s favor. If this was the entirety of the PPV, you’d have a hard time convincing your average boxing fan to open up his wallet.

But featherweights Escalante and Ponce De Leon are on the card. Together. Throwing punches at one another. You’re perfectly welcome to hold on to your money and find an alternative way to pass the time on Saturday evening, but to do so is to risk missing one of those fights you’d end up telling your co-workers about on Monday and your grandkids about in a couple thousand Mondays.

“Ponce’s style and my style, that’s going to be the secret for stealing the show,” Escalante told RingTV.com, his voice bubbling with near giddiness. “He’s an aggressive fighter. I’m an aggressive fighter. We’re going to have a lot of fireworks.”

Ponce De Leon is one of the purest punchers in the sport (who could ever forget his first-round knockout of Sod Looknongyangtoy in ’06?) and Escalante is emerging as one of the biggest-hearted boxer-brawlers around (his February punchout with Miguel “Mickey” Roman was probably the Fight of the Year until a few weeks ago). This is a fight fan’s fight.

But, of course, the boxers themselves rarely do it specifically for the fans. Escalante and manager Lester Bedford jumped at this opportunity because it made perfect sense for them.

“It’s all about risk vs. reward,” Bedford said. “In some cases, the reward is a world championship fight, in some cases it’s a lot of money, and in some cases, it’s progression toward one of those two rewards. This is a career-high purse for Antonio, but it’s not one of those fights where it’s for such big money that the money is the reward. This is one of those fights where you win it and you get to more significant purses. And it’s the right style matchup. Ponce is a puncher and he’s left-handed. I’m normally not out there looking for left-handed punchers to fight. But what makes it worthwhile is that Ponce can be hit himself. If he couldn’t be hit himself, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

“Like every manager, I’m looking for the most winnable fight for my guy that means the most or pays the most. I’m not out there looking for the toughest fight for the least amount of money. I was already offered that fight – against Celestino Caballero! This was the fight that made sense, and if I didn’t think my guy was going to win it, we wouldn’t have taken it.”

Is Bedford’s confidence well placed? Both fighters have suffered two losses, but 30-year-old veteran Ponce De Leon has taken on a much higher grade of opposition. He held alphabet belts on two occasions and has tangled with the likes of Caballero, Gerry Penalosa and Juan Manuel Lopez. Escalante hasn’t faced anyone of that caliber yet. This is the biggest and toughest fight of the 25-year-old’s career.

And the Mexican-born, Texas-based fighter is coming into it with potentially some new wrinkles in his game, as this is his second fight with veteran New Mexico cornerman Louie Burke as his lead trainer. Burke was a fringe-contending lightweight in the early ’80s who, like one of the men he twice defeated in the pro ranks, Freddie Roach, is hoping to go farther as a trainer than he did as a fighter. Burke has been tweaking Escalante’s defense, trying to improve his head movement and footwork.

If there’s a fight for which you want to be a little bit better at making the other guy miss, it’s when you’re in there with Ponce De Leon.

“We’ve been training for a southpaw, but really, Ponce is a rare, weird southpaw,” Escalante said in assessing the X’s and O’s. “He throws punches from different angles, weird angles. The plan is to hit and not to get hit, because we know he’s a powerful fighter. He’s got a hard punch. So we’ve just got to be careful with his punches and a lot of head movement. That’s what I’ve been focusing on. And trying to stay away from that left hand that he shoots super hard.”

Uh-oh. Escalante is talking about making punches miss. Not to mention that Ponce De Leon has been tinkering in some recent fights with the notion of boxing behind the jab. Does this put the action guarantee in jeopardy?

Hardly. All you have to hear is Escalante talking about the fight that made him start taking his boxing career seriously to know that, deep in the heart of this Texan, the roar of the crowd is what he lives for.

“It was the Jose Hernandez fight in ’06,” Escalante said, referring to the wild 10-round brawl he won by unanimous decision that ended up a top contender for Fight of the Year. “That was the toughest fight of my career, but I beat him up and I won the fight, and I said, ‘Man, I can do something off of this. I have to stick to it because there’s something here.’ I wasn’t fully committed to boxing before that fight. I mean, I love training, I love boxing, but I don’t know if it was the crowd that fight, or what, but it just made me feel good to win that way.”

The yang to that yin came a year later, almost to the day, when Escalante had a comfortable lead over aging ex-titlist Mauricio Pastrana through seven rounds, got sloppy (or, some might say, remained sloppy) and walked into a lights-out right hand.

“I was devastated, but it was a good experience,” Escalante said. “It’s good that it happened earlier in my career. Now I’m better off for it, I feel I learned a lot from that fight, even though I was beating him up the whole fight and then, boom! He throws one shot and he wins the fight, it’s like, Oh man! But we learn from our mistakes.”

Whatever Escalante has learned, it’s propelled him to 10 straight wins since. He has finished the bounce-back stage of his career and the prospect stage of his career. Now it’s time for the test that will show us whether he can reach that next level, and whether he’s as good as he is exciting.

His promoters at Golden Boy Promotions will be watching; Escalante is less than six months from the end of his five-year deal with them. You can’t exactly call this a “contract fight.” Escalante and Golden Boy appear perfectly likely to re-up whether he beats Ponce De Leon or not. But it does have a make-or-break feel to it.

If Escalante wins, it’s on to a title shot (he’d be Juan Manuel Lopez’ mandatory), some HBO or Showtime money and maybe stardom if he prevails over Ponce De Leon in what turns out to be the Fight of the Year.

If he loses, then it’s back to El Paso as a local attraction and a fun fighter whose ceiling has essentially been established.

Which will it be? That’s hard to predict. What’s easy to predict is that you won’t see is a boring fight.

And you won’t want to tune into this pay-per-view late, because another thing you won’t see is a better fight over the remainder of the show.

RASKIN’S RANTS

ÔÇó Samuel Peter came into last Saturday’s heavyweight championship fight against Wladimir Klitschko in peak condition and, other than perhaps being mentally more willing to lose, was roughly the same fighter he was five years ago. That tells you everything you need to know about how far Klitschko has come in those five years. If I was slow to give Klitschko credit, it was because it takes time and evidence to show that you’re not the same guy who got demolished by Corrie Sanders, melted down against Lamon Brewster and struggled against Peter and even DaVarryl Williamson. With each win by Wladimir, it becomes clearer that fighter doesn’t exist anymore. This reclamation project might just go down as the most impressive achievement of Emanuel Steward’s Hall of Fame career.

ÔÇó Let’s play thumbs up/thumbs down with the finish to the Yuriorkis Gamboa-Orlando Salido fight: Thumbs down to Gamboa for throwing that inexcusable, blatant punch when Salido was down, screwing himself out of a possible knockout victory had he followed up 10 seconds later in accordance with the rules; thumbs up to Salido for not faking an injury and trying to win the fight on the canvas, which was well within the realm of possibility given referee Joe Cortez’s history (you’ll recall he screwed the bejesus out of Humberto Soto on a much more innocent late punch against Francisco Lorenzo); thumbs down to Cortez for failing to call a knockdown in Gamboa’s favor; thumbs up to Cortez for taking two points from Gamboa for the infraction, rather than taking the lazy route some refs take by letting inconvenient fouls like that slide.

ÔÇó There’s a grossly overused clich├® in boxing that goes something to the effect of, “with what he’s survived outside the ring, nothing that happens in boxing can intimidate him.” We hear that about fighters like the Peterson brothers, for example. Unfortunately, it’s not true at all. It’s quite possible to persevere through tough times in life but cave in mentally when you’re getting punched in the head over and over. Anthony Peterson had never had to deal with someone who could flat-out outfight him the way Brandon Rios did, and that’s why, either consciously or subconsciously, Peterson made sure to get himself disqualified. Something tells me this is going to be a tough loss to bounce back from.

ÔÇó Meanwhile, it was a fantastic win for Rios – almost fantastic enough to justify him making sounds afterward that approximated a tuberculosis-stricken ostrich giving birth to a three-headed manatee.

ÔÇó I know I should be happy to see that Fernando Vargas is significantly less overweight than the last time I saw him, but if it indicates what I think it indicates, I’m anything but happy.

ÔÇó Remember how some people made a big deal of Shane Mosley suddenly getting a massive tattoo at age 38? Should we be similarly weirded out by the fact that Bob Papa has suddenly started frosting his tips?

ÔÇó So, Roman Gonzalez is moving up to 108 pounds. Giovanni Segura vs. Gonzalez, anyone?

ÔÇó What’s that old saying? “Wear a ridiculous-looking Captain Hook outfit once, shame on you. Wear a ridiculous-looking Captain Hook outfit twice, please just retire already.” I think that’s how it goes.

ÔÇó You can still check out last week’s episode of Ring Theory if you missed it, plus here’s a bonus link, as one of our listeners posted to YouTube the clip of fat heavyweight Jorge Ramos getting knocked out by a missed bodyshot. And you don’t have to know Spanish to love the commentators speaking the international language of uproarious disbelief.

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.

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