It seems like yesterday when former 2004 Mexican Olympian Abner Mares sat down aside a table at Golden Boy Promotions headquarters with a few media reps present and signed a contract with the L.A.-based company.
Outside of the amateur circles few knew anything about the kid Mares.
There he sat with his father and signed the document that made him one of the first amateurs signed by the company. Golden Boy Promotions had signed several veteran pros including Bernard Hopkins and here was a virtual unknown boxer.
It takes talent to discover talent. An amateur boxer can have gaudy numbers but it doesn’t always translate into success as a professional once the head gear is abandoned and lighter gloves replace the amateur mitts.
Mares is just one of numerous prizefighters on the fight card taking place at Staples Center in Los Angeles on Saturday May 22. The fight card is co-promoted by Frank Espinoza Promotions, Golden Boy, Gary Shaw Productions and Zanfer Promotions. Two fights will be televised on Showtime.
Mares fights IBF champ Yonnhy Perez and Israel Vazquez meets Rafael Marquez a fourth time. Others on the card include Ronny Rios against Lupe De Leon and Carlos Molina against Humberto Tapia.
I’ve been privileged to be able to witness the initial fights of not just Mares, but Perez, Vazquez, Rios, Molina and to an extent Marquez too. Through the years each one of these prizefighters has crafted himself into a better boxer. Here we are to see exactly how much each has learned.
Mares has been trained by some of the best boxing teachers on earth. Floyd Mayweather Sr. added defense and quickness to the muscular fighter and it showed immediately. But when the Hawaiian Gardens boxer tired of Las Vegas he returned to California. From there he then moved to Mexico City to train with Nacho Beristain for a couple of years.
Technical precision is a mainstay of Beristain. Every punch has a reason and accuracy is extremely important for a Beristain fighter. Soon, however, Mares tired of living so far from home and back to California he went. Now he’s trained by Joel Diaz whose stable includes Timothy Bradley, Vicente Escobedo, Julio Diaz and Antonio Diaz among others.
“I feel comfortable here,” said Mares who now trains in the desert near Indio.
Many experts call Mares one of the best boxers without a world title. More than a few called Mares a future world champion when he first began fighting professionally.
The bantamweight contender has impeccable defense, sneaky fast hands and feet, perfect combinations and power to go along with it.
“He’s a beautiful boxer,” said Liz Quevedo a former amateur star who watched him rise to the top of the bantamweight charts as an amateur and pro. “He does everything so well and he sees everything inside the ring.”
Perez, who is defending his title against Mares, knows his challenger better than anybody. He fought Mares three times as an amateur winning one of those three international competitions. But that was amateurs. When Perez entered the U.S. he lived and trained with Mares for almost two years.
The first time I saw Perez fight was at the Quiet Cannon boxing show in 2006. It was his third pro fight and he forced his opponent to retire on his stool after one round. Nobody knew the Colombian boxer and nobody knew that it was Mares and his father who more or less sponsored Perez.
Soon Thompson Boxing Promotions got interested in Perez. Alex Camponovo, who directs operations for that group, also serves as the match maker. He spotted Perez and liked what he saw. Perez was put on one of the shows in the Inland Empire and soon after was signed.
It gets tricky trying to predict if a particular boxer has the potential to go all the way or even become a challenger. Perez had speed, but not great speed, he had power, but not great power and he had technique. But he seemed kind of old. He was 27 when I first saw him fight but he looks more like 37. Perhaps all those years as a soldier in Colombia take a toll.
Personally I felt that he could work his way to the top 20 but I didn’t see anything extra special. Against tough Mexican fighters he did well and on occasion was wobbled but rallied to knock those guys out. He was a real fighter and had heart. But could he take a punch from an elite fighter?
The answer came a year ago in South Africa when Perez had to rally from behind and beat Silence Mabuza by knockout in the last round. It shocked many including me that Perez could knock out Mabuza who fought Rafael Marquez very hard twice. That win put Perez in line for the world title.
On Halloween Night the Colombian boxer met champion Joseph “King Kong” Agbeko a very talented boxer puncher and engaged in what many called the Fight of the Year for 2009. These two bantamweights clobbered each other non stop with Perez emerging the surprise winner.
“Yonnhy surprises everybody,” Camponovo says. “He has a lot of heart.”
That’s one key ingredient to becoming a world champion.
Heart is what Vazquez and Marquez both have in heaping barrels.
The first time I saw Vazquez fight I was impressed by his technique and accuracy with his power shots. Facially he reminded me of a popular boxer from the 1940s named Enrique Bolanos a lightweight who brought standing room only crowds to Wrigley Field when he fought the great Ike Williams. I had met Bolanos a few times through the late publicist Luis Magana back in the 1990s and saw tape of one of his fights with Williams. Both he and Vazquez look very similar.
Vazquez always impressed me with the precision of his blows and the finality of his fights. Strength and resolve were his main attributes then and now.
Once, a fellow boxing writer asked me in 2000 who I thought were great prospects and I mentioned Vazquez as one of several. This guy told me that Vazquez was just a club fighter.
I was a little shocked. Was I that wrong or was he?
I didn’t say anything to him because I felt maybe he just hadn’t seen Vazquez fight enough. It was in 2002 when most of America got to see Vazquez’s talent and he and Oscar Larios engaged in a rematch that ended up being one of the best fights of 2002. Vazquez lost when he turned his head to complain to the referee and was cold-cocked by Larios for a 12th round knockout. Vazquez had beaten Larios five years earlier by first round knockout. Both would fight a third time in 2005.
By the way, that writer who called Vazquez a club fighter retracted that statement after watching that fight in person in Sacramento. Despite Vazquez loss by knockout, he finally saw the championship caliber of the Mexico City prizefighter.
The third match between Larios and Vazquez took place in Las Vegas. I remember driving into Nevada and hearing that Vazquez was a 5 to 1 underdog.
I called Vazquez’s manager Frank Espinoza and asked if there was anything wrong with his fighter’s health or if he were injured? He replied: “absolutely not.” It didn’t make sense that Vazquez was that much of an underdog. In fact, I felt he should be favored.
Well, the night they fought the third time Vazquez dominated from the bell. The fight only lasted three rounds and Vazquez won by TKO to win the interim WBC junior featherweight world title.
Well, Larios ended up fighting Manny Pacquiao seven months later and going 12 rounds to lose by decision in a fight held at junior lightweight in the Philippines. Boxing is strange some times isn’t it? Vazquez knocked out Larios, but Pacquiao could only win by decision seven months later.
The first time I saw Rafael Marquez step in the ring was 1997 in the Inglewood Forum. He was Ok and had some pop for his skinny frame but nothing shouted out “great” the three times I saw him. After that year it wasn’t for another four years that I saw him again and only because he was matched against the great Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson.
Too Sharp was a magnificent boxer who was one of the best I had ever seen. You could not hit the guy even if he closed his eyes. He battered everyone he faced at the Inglewood Forum during the 1990s. He was a regular on those shows. So when he was matched against Marquez I told myself this is going to be interesting.
Johnson (40-1) had been in jail and when he got out he was not quite as unhittable as before and especially moving up from flyweight to bantamweight. But he still had skills and speed. That night Marquez fought him the Mexico City fighter used timing to get off on Johnson. It seemed Too Sharp took him lightly and suffered a split-decision defeat. They were matched again.
Marquez proved that even when Johnson prepared well it was not enough. The Mexico City fighter’s precise combinations and perfect timing proved the antidote to Johnson’s speed and skill. The fight ended in eight rounds with Marquez capturing the right to fight for the IBF bantamweight world title against undefeated slugger Tim “Cincinnati Kid” Austin.
The fight between Marquez and Austin took place in a tent at Caesars Palace in 2003. What I remember most is all of the people dressed in red from Cincinnati who were there to back their undefeated fighters Austin and Ricardo Williams. It would be a bad day for the red caps and a good day for Mexican fighters.
Both fighters could really crack and most felt Austin would win because Marquez had been knocked out once before. That chink in the armor seemed to signal another win for Austin who had never lost and was desperate to find an opponent to send him to another level.
Austin, a southpaw, usually had a speed advantage but this time he was matched evenly. What he wasn’t expecting from a Mexican fighter was tactical and technical precision. When Marquez dropped him for the first time with a right hand it immediately changed the tempo of the fight. The fight revved up a couple of notches and Austin tried his best to catch Marquez but instead was caught. It ended in the eighth round and once Marquez grabbed that belt he would never lose the bantamweight title.
Now, after three jaw dropping fights with Vazquez, the younger brother of Juan Manuel Marquez is here to prove himself the better boxer. It’s been 13 years since I first saw him step in the ring and he’s proven to me to be one of the best of the little giants. On Saturday, he gets a chance to prove it against another of the best in Vazquez who has two victories over Marquez
“He’s a very strong fighter,” said Marquez who felt he won the last fight. “I’ve learned a lot from our first three fights.”
I’ve personally learned that the great one’s never believe they lost. They’re not built that way. They always think they are going to win.
On Saturday it could mean the end for one, two or three fighters in the ring and just the beginning for one. For me, just watching all four gather experience and skill to reach this level of expertise has been something special.
Tickets start at $25. That’s incredibly reasonable. If you can make this fight card definitely shoot on down to the Staples Center. It’s going to be a memorable fight card.
Also on the fight card is undefeated lightweight Carlos Molina and featherweight Ronny Rios. Welterweight Freddy Hernandez from Mexico City has also been added to the card among others.
Who will win #HOPKINSKOVALEV