Heading into the summer, former champion “Cool” Vince Phillips had sugarplum dreams of a return to the mountaintop. After getting by Jesse Feliciano by majority decision in March, Phillips envisioned slugging his way back up to another pugilistic peak to take on the likes of Cory Spinks, Roman Karmazin, or another big attraction at 147 pounds.
Instead, the old lion got pounded toward a welterweight winter of discontent, a star-crossed Sysiphus crushed beneath the boulder of time passed and skills faded.
Nobody who follows the Sweet Science needs a reminder of how unforgiving a sport it can be at all levels. When Phillips got slapped around by rugged upstart Jesus Soto-Karass, it was a graphic illustration of how much abundant pain is often involved.
Forty-two-year-old Phillips showed heroic mettle in dealing with said pain, but that's about all. After being stopped following nine rounds of a one-sided contest, the despondent Phillips said he'd abandon the quest for good now, and wanted to make it official.
“I wanted to announce my retirement,” said Phillips. “This is it.”
In the heat of the moment, a battered Phillips found that even trying to call it a day sometimes offers no relief.
Publicly hanging up the gloves turned out to be a tough as Soto-Karass. A sobbing Phillips turned from his trainer's embrace and requested to speak on camera to the Solo Boxeo audience. Without even looking in his direction, production staff gathering up their equipment informed Phillips he was already of the air.
The Top Rank promotion took place in a parking lot behind Club Envy, a classy nightclub more accustomed to glamorous babes than gloved-up bashers.
Phillips showed up with an entourage that looked almost as large as the crowd, no more than a couple hundred. Almost as many people watched from outside the fences, on rooftops or the adjoining Mexican restaurant.
Still, customers paid for a first-rate performance, and former IBF titlist Phillips entered as a worthy headliner.
Warming up, Phillips looked long in the tooth. In terms of power punching, he ended up toothless.
Soto-Karass, 147, looked trim and confident in the compact ring. Phillips looked a bit flabby at the same weight.
When Phillips opened with flicking jabs, Soto-Karass whipped in uppercuts and moved Phillips around rather easily. Big exchanges in the second session found Soto-Karass far more accurate.
Phillips was soon on the bad end of receiving leather, with a bloody nose. Soto-Karass's left continued to bother Phillips, who was no longer able to slip out of harm's way.
Phillips tried to lean in and initiate action, but his hands held no snap. He staggered, in a lot of early trouble. It was not vintage Cool at all. By the fourth frame, Soto-Karass caught him at more than a three-to-one ratio.
Phillips ducked or picked off plenty of punches but Soto-Karass kept the pressure on. Phillips ate more and more thuds, forced to give crucial ground until his back was on the strands. As the frames progressed he fell further and further behind on a reddening trail.
Soto-Karass came out strong in the seventh. Now Phillips bled from the mouth too, looking ancient. He stumbled backward and got caught by just about everything Soto-Karass threw. The fury was like a riptide.
Even then, Phillips tried to respond, but he was a bloody mess, with his left eye puffing. Phillips looked to ref Bobby Ferrara like he'd never quit himself, but could sure use a little mercy.
Phillips still had the resources to slip shots in the eighth, but it got even uglier. His eye swelled almost shut, and he had nothing left on offense. His lumpy face looked like an abandoned puppet.
The pummeled Phillips never rolled over. Even on this terrible night, he had enough to keep from going easy. With a marked right eye and numerous welts, Soto-Karass looked like he'd been in a real fight, however unequal it was.
Soto-Karass opened the ninth with a big barrage and cut Phillips over the right eye. His corner might have thought more than twice before calling it off before the tenth started.
For Soto-Karass, now 14-3-2 (11), the official TKO 9 means a featured spot on a big show like Hasim Rahman-Oleg Maskiev in August. For Phillips, it may or may not mean the end.
“This guy was tough,” said Phillips, “He reminded me of Antonio Margarito. I tried to land my left hand or go to the body but I just couldn't do it.”
“Vince's hand was hurt going into the fight today,” said cornerman Morgan Phillips. “We looked at the wrong tape (watching Soto-Karass's brother instead). Vince was in no shape for this, he did a little training in Fresno.”
With realistic reflection, Phillips, now 48-11-1 (34), could likely see this loss with less despair. In all probability he'll try and exit on a higher note before too long.
Phillips should be able to look back without anger or regret.
His title winning surprise against Kotsya Tszyu in '97 remains in the record book as one of the game's biggest upsets. His unflinching resolve against Soto-Karass when faced with certain defeat may have demonstrated even more championship heart.
That's a pretty cool legacy.