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10: Notable flyweight title fights

02
Sep

Sept. 15, 1990 – Dave McAuley W 12 Rodolfo Blanco I, Kings Hall, Belfast, Northern Ireland

Blanco-McAuley

A little less than 15 months after losing the rematch to Bassa, McAuley received a third chance to grab the brass ring when he challenged IBF titlist Duke McKenzie in London. The third time indeed was the charm, for the Irishman lifted the belt via unanimous decision, crowning him as the first Irish flyweight champion since Rinty Monaghan more than four decades earlier. Over the next 15 months, McAuley notched two defenses against Dodie Boy Penalosa (a split decision that should have been unanimous) and 1976 U.S. Olympian Louis Curtis (a near shutout points win at the King’s Hall).



Six months after turning back Curtis, McAuley was back in the ring against mandatory challenger Rodolfo Blanco, a Colombian who rose to the top of the division after suffering one of the most discouraging starts to a professional career. Turning pro three months before his 16th birthday Blanco was a boy among men and as a result he lost four of his first five fights, all by decision (three via points, one by technical decision). Undeterred, Blanco soldiered on and he soon righted the ship in a big way as he went 15-1-1 (8) in his next 17 fights to earn a crack at Myung Woo Yuh’s WBA junior flyweight title. The 21-year-old lost by eighth round knockout but up to that point he had acquitted himself well.

Following the loss Blanco moved up to 112, where he promptly ran off nine consecutive knockouts whose victims included title challengers Eduardo Tunon (KO 2) and Felix Marti (KO 6) as well as a 39-year-old Betulio Gonzalez (who retired after being stopped in eight) in back-to-back-to-back fights. Six months after polishing off Manuel Julio in less than one round, Blanco ventured outside Colombia for only the second time as a pro to challenge McAuley at the King’s Hall, where, when one of their own was involved in a championship fight, the atmosphere was unmatched in terms of partisan passion. If Blanco thought fighting Yuh in South Korea was difficult, battling McAuley in Northern Ireland was even more so.

As McAuley walked toward the ring with his handlers, Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” through the loudspeakers barely held its own over the crowd’s cheers for their champion. As far as they were concerned, this “Boy” was the “Man.”

An uncharacteristically quiet first minute was followed by a noisy second one as a McAuley hook to the chin forced Blanco to totter momentarily. A hook to the body and another to the cheek shook the challenger a bit more seriously but to his credit the circling Colombian quickly reassembled his senses. Though Blanco worked his jab well in the final minute, those three McAuley punches were enough to earn him the opening stanza.

The second round authored a far different story, much to the displeasure of McAuley and his supporters. Late in a stanza that was otherwise controlled by the Irishman, Blanco suddenly lashed out with a right to the jaw that floored the champion heavily. McAuley arose from the eighth knockdown of his career at referee Waldemar Schmidt’s count of four and while he looked OK while looking at Schmidt Blanco revealed him to be much less than that when the fight resumed. A windmill-like right that slammed against the skull had the champion holding on tightly and a follow-up right drove McAuley to a knee to register the second knockdown of the round. Fortunately for McAuley, the bell sounded the moment Schmidt completed his mandatory count.

Chief second Bernardo Checa – who held future WBA featherweight king Antonio Esparragoza to a draw in the first of their two fights six years earlier – grabbed McAuley around the waist and carried him to his stool in order to preserve every bit of energy possible.

The confident Blanco started round three by pinning McAuley to the ropes and eagerly pursuing the knockout. McAuley, as was his wont, exchanged just as eagerly and he managed to land a short hook that forced Blanco to back off for an instant. Moments after Blanco spun himself around from a missed right hand he hit the bull’s eye with another that registered the third knockdown of the bout. The courageous McAuley arose at three but with more than two minutes remaining in the round his prospects of remaining champion appeared very dark indeed. The murmuring crowd reflected its collective doubt, especially after seeing McAuley look toward the wrong corner for advice.

Though McAuley did his best to fight back, those overhand rights continued to slam in with frightening frequency. The champion got in several hurtful-looking hooks but they did little to stop Blanco’s assault. As the round swung into its final minute the amount of energy Blanco expended during his all-out bid to win the title in that very round began to show. While Blanco’s attack slowed, McAuley’s remarkably accelerated. The Irishman’s powers of survival were something to behold and by round’s end a series of lefts actually had Blanco on the retreat. After the bell sounded McAuley strode to his corner with such verve that Checa allowed him to proceed with minimal assistance.

The champion’s surge prompted Blanco to adjust his approach at the start of the fourth, which saw the Colombian circling to catch his breath instead of gunning for a knockout he knew wasn’t ripe for the taking. The breather also worked to McAuley’s benefit as he marched forward, initiated most of the action and threw the harder punches, especially with the hook.

Though well down on the scorecards, the fourth was the first building block for what McAuley hoped would be an incomprehensible comeback. The champion’s momentum continued early in the fifth when he nailed Blanco with a right to the jaw that made the challenger’s legs shudder and a follow-up hook that forced those legs to do an involuntary jitterbug. Blanco might have avoided the canvas, but he had lost his second consecutive round.

A heavy right from McAuley started the sixth on the right track while Blanco responded with several stiff jabs that popped back the champion’s head. The hearty give-and-take enabled each to produce excellent moments for themselves; a wicked right stunned McAuley briefly while the champion’s violent hooks to all available targets provided a more than adequate counterpoint.

The seventh saw plenty of heavy-handed exchanges that made for difficult scoring, though a pair of Blanco rights near round’s end might have shaded it for him. The two men were so into the action that a brief skirmish after the bell was almost as robust as the three minutes of punishment that preceded it.

In the corners ice bags were the tool of choice as one was held on the back of Blanco’s neck while McAuley’s seconds applied two – one to the left jaw line and another atop the head. All knew that even more suffering was in each man’s immediate future.

The eighth saw the fiercest two-way action of the fight to that point as they swapped power shots at a furious rate along the ropes. Blanco, the man pinning McAuley on the strands, appeared to have the better of the action but given where McAuley had been in the first three rounds the fact he was still in action, much less in a position to retain his belt (though probably not by decision), was unfathomable.

The fight’s narrative was turned on its head, quite literally, in the final minute of round nine when McAuley shifted to a southpaw stance and delivered a short left to the point of the chin that sent Blanco sprawling to the canvas. Blanco sat on the floor until the last possible moment and when he arose blood was trickling from his bottom lip. Schmidt’s count drained virtually all of the round’s remaining time but the damage inflicted on Blanco was beyond question. With one thrust of his left fist, McAuley had created a brand new fight – and potentially a brand new result.

The drama continued to build in the 10th as McAuley experienced a new crisis – a cut under a left eye that also was swelling badly. Still, he managed to hang tough behind even tougher hooks to the jaw but Blanco was more than up to the challenge as he connected with his share of full-strength punches.

As good as the 10th was for Blanco, the 11th was even better as a short, pinpoint right not only opened a new cut under McAuley’s right eye but also floored the champion for the fourth time in the contest. The champion took the majority of the count on his knees before rising at nine.

“How this man suffers, and how he survives, I shall never know,” intoned ringside commentator Harry Carpenter, who had witnessed many of McAuley’s amazing feats firsthand. Even so, this development inflicted untold damage to McAuley’s chances to keep his title on points. The good news was that he had one more round at his disposal.

McAuley began the 12th positively with a shotgun jab to the face that merited Blanco’s attention but the challenger, sensing he had the championship in the bag, spent the round either on his toes and keeping his distance or slapping on timely clinches. Whatever action unfolded was entirely McAuley’s doing, and that alone was enough to put the round in his column. As both men awaited the verdict, the question was whether the last round was enough for the Irishman to keep his title.

The scorecards were unanimous – and they were as remarkable as the fight itself. Frank Brunette saw the bout 113-111 while Rocky Castellani (115-110) and Knud Jensen (117-113) saw it a wider margin for the winner, and incredibly still champion, Dave McAuley.

“The judging surprises me,” Carpenter honestly stated upon perceiving the wide margins. “I felt it would go to Blanco on the strength of his early work and his strong finish, but I was wrong and all three judges have given it to Dave McAuley. And I’m lost in admiration for this man’s extraordinary courage, a survivor if ever you’ve seen one. And you won’t see too many comebacks in a fight like this man has made tonight, his third defense of his IBF title.”

That McAuley won was a shock in itself, but the margins ignited such outrage that a rematch was ordered by the IBF and staged in Bilbao, Spain nine months later. In another closely contested encounter, Blanco emerged with a razor-thin, but unanimous decision that McAuley disputes to this day.

“I should have never gone to Bilbao,” McAuley told Padraig Coyle of NorthernIreland.com years later. “I was three or four rounds ahead and lost that fight. It was a very controversial decision. He even got a public warning and the margin should have been wider. Part of being a professional sportsman is to be able to accept legitimate defeat, to know when you are beaten fair and square. But that wasn’t fair and it still rankles with me.”

The sour taste of the rematch shouldn’t take away from the quality of McAuley’s time at the top levels of his chosen sport, for his ability to grit his teeth and access his deepest resources in the face of adversity should allow him to be compared favorably to the inner strength shown by Arturo Gatti, Matthew Saad Muhammad and Kelvin Seabrooks, three of the greatest comeback fighters in boxing history.

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