The middleweight Ian Gardner is a very friendly person, and yet most people in boxing refer to him as “nasty,” “ugly,” and “a real stinker.” 

Is this anyway to talk about a dedicated 24-year-old, who has compiled a 19-2 record against opposition few others have been willing to face? A case in point being the monster he’ll battle tonight in New Haven, CT (broadcast on ShoBox), “Bad” Chad Dawson.

Actually, it is.

Folks aren’t disparaging Gardner’s personal character, just his style inside the ropes.  He’s a graceless, herky-jerky, slapping southpaw. He clowns around, too, even though he lacks Jorge Paez’s showmanship—and his Ali shuffle stinks. When awkwardly circling the ring, his long oval-shaped head resembles a bobble doll; it’s difficult to watch for 39 minutes and, as his opponents learn, even harder to hit. His nickname, “The Cobra,” doesn’t fit. Any self-respecting snake would have more than seven KOs after this many fights.

“A lot of people say I have an awkward style, but no one handles my style,” Gardner said, opting not to use unflattering adjectives to describe himself. He finds words like “unconventional” and “unorthodox” more palatable.

“The critics can say whatever,” Gardner continued, “but I’m not gonna change for nobody. I’ve been doing well. If I was doing something wrong, if I was losing, I’d probably change my style up. But you know what, I’m invisible in there. So I’m gonna keep it that way.”

A Canadian who moved to Brockton, MA in 2001 to train under the sage Goody Petronelli, Gardner has earned decisions against respected pugilists Tokunbo Olajide, Kuyanych Toygonbayev, Troy Rowland, and Gilberto Reyes. His losses occurred in his third fight, a disputed split decision to then 8-0 “The Contender” star Peter Manfredo Jr, and last February, when he fought the undefeated KO artist Arthur Abraham in his adopted Germany. Gardner lost by unanimous decision, but it’s said the fight was closer than the scorecards indicated.

ShoBox’s expert analyst Steve Farhood made a perceptive comment at the end of Gardner’s unsightly scrap with Toygonbayev. “Earlier I was talking about the mental discipline needed by Toygonbayev to fight a guy like this,” Farhood said. “This sounds funny, almost, but the judges need discipline too, because you really have to focus on a fight like this to score it properly. Farhood’s partner, Nick Charles, countered, “How about the announcers?” To which the two busted a gut. A bell then sounded the end of the fight, and the scattered applause was rivaled by boos.

 If the late Rodney Dangerfield boxed, he’d be Ian Gardner.

In keeping with his can’t-get-no-respect ways, Gardner took tonight’s fight on short notice against a sterling prospect performing in his hometown. The southpaw Dawson (19-0, 13 KOs) can box or punch and possesses freakish size. Dawson will boast a four-inch height advantage, and had to whittle down his broad muscular frame to make the 166 catchweight. After tonight, he will campaign at light heavyweight, and there is talk he will someday make a substantial heavyweight. Gardner, on the other hand, weighed in three pounds under the proposed weight limit, and this time last year was a svelte 153 when he fought Olajide.

“I’ve seen some tape of Dawson,” Gardner said. “He has skills, he has strategies.  But I know I can overwhelm him with my own skills. It’s going to be a good win for me.”

Gardner had about a hundred amateur fights in New Brunswick, Canada. He missed making their 2000 Olympic team, but believed he was ready to turn pro. His father researched the available pro trainers and decided upon a good one in Goody Petronelli.  He is famous for being “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler’s trainer for his entire career; in a business not known for fidelity, they were a gratifying exception. 

In 1987, When Hagler retired and then vanished from the sport after his bitter loss to “Sugar” Ray Leonard, so too did Petronelli—at least from the public consciousness. But Petronelli has also worked with “Celtic Warrior” Steve Collins and engineered notable upsets such as Drake Thadzi’s victory over James Toney (1997), or Kevin McBride’s impressive drubbing of Mike Tyson last June.

“When I came down [to Brockton] Goody loved my style, my attitude, my intuition about the whole thing,” Gardner explained. “He told me I was world champion material—that I had the potential to be one.”

Gardner said the confidence Petronelli showed in him forged a bond between them, and gave him the vision to “think big.” Without Goody’s stamp of approval, he might have felt besieged by the ghosts of “The Brockton Blockbuster” Rocky Marciano and Hagler, who remains close with his old trainer.

Win or lose tonight, come Monday Gardner will take non-boxing work as a shipping clerk. He does side jobs “just to have money in my pocket.” He’ll work for a month or maybe six weeks, enough to cover the rent. When a fight comes up, he’ll be back “living in the gym” fulltime.

“I’ve made somewhat good money in boxing,” he said, “but not as much as I wanted. That’s gonna come.”

Gardner prophesized his bounty as if it had already happened. He spoke with the self-assurance of a man who does nothing but defy the odds, upset pristine records, and will undoubtedly walk into the New Haven Athletic Center tonight believing Victory is his.

In trying to find an opponent for Dawson, Chris Middendorf, the matchmaker for tonight’s card, went through the top 200 fighters listed on at middleweight, super middleweight, and light heavyweight.

“People were fighting, the weight wasn’t right, the money wasn’t right,” Middendorf said. “I went all through South America, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Europe, everywhere. I went through everybody!”

Ian Gardner took the fight. No questions asked, just tell him when and where.

Maybe the matchmaker wasn’t thrilled about using him and risking a stinker? Maybe the fans and media are leery of tuning in tonight? Maybe Dawson saw tape of The Nasty One and dismissed him as easy work.

Yes, Gardner’s style is hard to take, as a fan or a foe. But everything else about him is remarkable. Let’s give the man a little respect.