Tuesday, October 03, 2023  |

By Brian Harty | 

Fight of the Year


five-round fight with eight evenly divided knockdowns is either an embarrassment or a classic. It’s the competence and the will of the fighters that decide which distinction is earned.

California native Jose Zepeda came into The Bubble at the MGM Grand on October 3 with two blemishes on his record – one (a majority decision in favor of Jose Ramirez) was the rare example of a losing performance good enough to get a fighter into The Ring’s junior welterweight top 10, and the other was a two-round corner stoppage that was the result of Zepeda dislocating his shoulder. He’d also won 32 fights, 25 of them by knockout.

The man Zepeda faced on that Saturday night in Las Vegas was Ivan Baranchyk, a Belarusian marauder whose only defeat was against current 140-pound champion Josh Taylor in May 2019. It was a loss with implications, for here again was Baranchyk, the straight-ahead pressure specialist, against a boxer-puncher who could counter and initiate attacks from various angles – the kind of ruler vs. protractor matchup in which Baranchyk had proven vulnerable.

Baranchyk doesn’t seem like somebody who spends much time worrying about comparisons, though. Less than 10 seconds into Round 1, he launched a left-handed skyhook that caught Zepeda on the cheek and sent him backward into the ropes. We’d see the same punch many times in the coming rounds, but this was only a taste. There was no follow-up. Instead, there was the coiling tension of this volatile mix of styles, with Zepeda inching in reverse, watching intently for opportunities, and Baranchyk shadowing him like a starving vulture, head lowered between his gloves.

The first knockdown came at 1:15 of the first round when Zepeda threw a straight left and Baranchyk countered with a well-timed, sweeping right. The second came when the muscular Belarusian smacked his opponent in the chest with a right hook and followed with a left that didn’t land too cleanly, but it was enough to do the job. Such is the power of even Baranchyk’s glancing blows.

At this point, it was looking like Baranchyk might have his way, and he started the second round the same as the first, with a giant, looping left. But Zepeda had picked up on a flaw and took a judo-like approach to exploit it: Baranchyk throws punches that are so completely committed that if they don’t actually hit something, his momentum carries him forward like a train that has jumped the tracks on a curve. Zepeda simply leaned back, let the punch whiff by his face and then hit the unbalanced Baranchyk as he spun past. The result wasn’t ruled a knockdown, but it was another sign of things to come.

At 2:15 of the round, Baranchyk again overextended himself and lost his balance, and this time Zepeda landed a short, chopping right that put him down on all fours. Baranchyk quickly got up, but there was something a bit exaggerated in his attempt to appear unconcerned. He’d been hurt. Zepeda noticed, and he rushed in when the fight resumed. Suddenly Baranchyk’s head was bouncing in every direction as his foe cut loose, and then he was falling into what looked like a possible pre-knockout retreat. But when they got to the ropes, Zepeda unwisely paid tribute to his opponent’s technique with a high, looping punch, which Baranchyk avoided and then put Zepeda on his ass with a short right. 

And so it went, one violent reversal after another, but Zepeda was learning how to read the signals in Baranchyk’s game, both for timing counters while falling back and for getting inside to score with short left hooks at all levels. He landed one to the body after ducking another sweeping right hand, decking Baranchyk in the third round for knockdown number five.

Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank via Getty Images

Perhaps triggered by the canvas’ caress, Baranchyk pressed harder in the fourth. At one point, he absolutely nailed Zepeda with an uppercut that put the Californian’s chin over his own shoulder, and it seemed like if any punch thus far could’ve ended the fight, it would’ve been that one. But Zepeda took it, and very soon after that, Baranchyk whiffed another wide right and paid for it again as Zepeda dribbled his head between a pair of hooks and then caught him flush with another one, fully loaded. Hello canvas, my old friend.

This time, Baranchyk stayed on his back for a very brief moment, probably as his body said “enough” before his heart replied, “Never.” He started the fifth round in rampage mode again, but the tread had clearly slipped off the tank’s wheels a bit. His punches – each one still a full-bodied investment – had the lurching quality of somebody on the verge of collapse. Zepeda, in turn, was putting something extra on his counterpunches and landing some thudding one-two leads. 

But this was, after all, the Fight of the Year, and it wasn’t over yet.

With only 45 seconds left in the round, Baranchyk decided to use something neither fighter had shown much interest in: the jab. He stepped forward with a quick double poke while preparing a right cross that would land hard and send Zepeda crashing into the corner pad. That backstop being the only thing that kept Zepeda upright, referee Kenny Bayless delivered the seventh count of the fight.

When the action resumed, it was one of the calmest moments of the contest. The exhausted combatants didn’t move much, Baranchyk just taking baby steps forward, Zepeda waiting for the next move. When Baranchyk finally lunged with a jab, Zepeda countered over the punch and then followed with a left that had enough leverage to cause a quarter pirouette on his front foot. The knockout was so sudden and so complete that Baranchyk’s feet remained planted and his head would’ve fallen as straight as a dropped bowling ball had it not been for his body, which crumpled and, his right foot pinned underneath, folded back in a way that would make any knee surgeon wince. It would be a full four minutes before he was able to sit up.

In his post-fight interview, Zepeda summed it up as “two guys in there giving their all, and at the end of the day I think it’s whoever wants it more.” It’s difficult to grasp how two people could want something so much as to push each other so far. He was also asked what he told Baranchyk after the fight, and he said: “Thank you.” It’s a sentiment we’d all co-sign. A classic deserves gratitude.