“Craig Baker is an undefeated fighter and I have to take that away from him.”— Edwin “La Bomba” Rodriguez
“Being undefeated makes you a commodity but it's one of those things that can be snatched from you at any time.” — Craig “El Gato Negro” Baker
Like one's youth, once it's taken, it's gone for good and you can't ever get it back.
All professional fighters start out with it intact. Many go to great lengths to protect it. Most lose it by force. Bernard Hopkins lost it when he lost his first pro bout. Of course, I'm talking about an undefeated record, that prized “0” that must inevitably go when defeat can no longer be prevented or avoided. Rare is the world class boxer who never loses a fight.
At 49-0, Rocky Marciano was the exception, not the rule. Boxing's biggest current star, Floyd Mayweather Jr., is now 48-0 after a recent win against Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas. Mayweather's protection of himself, and of his unbeaten record, is legendary. More so than anything but perhaps his economic namesake, that all-important zero in the loss column is what defines “Money May” as a prizefighter.
Nicknamed for an actual black cat that he encountered in 2007 during an amateur boxing tournament in California, light heavyweight Craig “El Gato Negro” Baker was 16-0 going into the biggest fight of his young career last month when he faced power punching Edwin Rodriguez in Boston at the Agganis Arena on NBC.
Renowned talent scout Sampson Lewkowicz saw something special in the amicable Baker when they crossed paths through Baker's trainer Juan Lopez, ultimately signing the prospect to a promotional contract in 2014. Lewkowicz is best known for his “discovery” of boxing icon Manny Pacquiao and former world middleweight champion Sergio Martinez. “Baker happened to be the same age, 30 years old, as when I found Martinez so why can't he be another Sergio?” said Lewkowicz of his latest lucky find.
After turning pro in 2008, the Baytown, Texas native racked up sixteen wins without a loss and found himself on the big stage after upsetting Cuban amateur standout Umberto Savigne on ShoBox in February of 2015. Three months later, on a lazy Saturday afternoon during Memorial Day Weekend, before a television audience of approximately one million people, Baker lost the Rodriguez fight, and his undefeated record, in the third round when one unanswered punch from “La Bomba” turned into two, then five, and then a few more just for good measure. With Rodriguez doing all the pitching and Baker doing all the catching, Boston based referee Bob Benoit stepped in and declared Rodriguez victorious by technical knockout. For the winner, it was his third consecutive victory since giving up his own undefeated record to Andre Ward in 2013. For Baker, in the context of his promoter's comparison of him to the now retired Martinez, it was akin to Sergio's 2000 TKO loss to Antonio Margarito, his first failure as a pro.
The referee's decision to stop the Rodriguez-Baker fight when he did was met with mixed reviews. Baker wore an unmistakable look of disgust and confusion on his face as it happened in the ring.
You have to punch back when you're hurt and show these referees something, right Craig?
“I was rolling with the punches,” claims Baker in his own defense.
Boxing fans around the world who tuned in to the PBC on NBC broadcast saw a game “out of towner” lose his undefeated record to the more experienced “home town” fighter. That's a common dynamic in boxing and this particular result was not terribly unexpected. What fans couldn't have possibly been too sure about, however, is whether or not Baker's first loss was suffered under fair and equitable circumstances inside that squared circle.
“Perspective is everything,” Baker told me of the whole situation. “How people perceive what took place is just that. How I perceived it, was me fighting. I admit I wasn't as active as I could have been at that particular moment to make a more fair case on my part but I was fighting. I had all my wits about me.”
Three weeks after the loss that Baker doesn't think of as a loss, I caught up with the Texan by telephone. Has Baker's stance on the stoppage softened now that he's had a chance to review the tape? Not at all.
“It was a horrible call in my opinion,” he told me after a long day at the gym. “Everyone I know who's a boxing fan felt it was stopped prematurely,” said Baker of Benoit's decision. “It would have been different had I been put on the canvas or beaten into submission,” he told me. “There was nothing like that.”
Reporting live from press row for The Sweet Science, I saw a fighter under fire, one who stopped punching back but also one who was still defending himself intelligently—if not effectively. “How many clean punches really landed?” Baker asks me as if he already knows the answer. Social media exploded in protest with many Tweeting what a terrible stoppage it was and how Baker deserved better in Boston.
The Premier Boxing Champions on NBC TV announcing crew immediately knocked Benoit's call and newly enshrined Hall of Fame referee Steve “Don't Stop It Until He's Dead” Smoger expressed his very public disapproval. There were even some boos from the small but partisan live crowd there to see Rodriguez, a local fan favorite from nearby Worcester, Massachusetts.
What did Baker learn from the experience and where does he go from here? “To the top,” he tells me without any hesitation. “A loss may affect another guy to the point where he might want to fold or question his ability but not me. I'm a fighter. You have to accept it for what it is and move on,” he concludes. “Now that I have a loss, it's just more motivation to work harder and keep it at just that one.”
That same attitude carried Sergio Martinez all the way to the World Middleweight Championship. Craig Baker hopes it will someday carry him to the World Light Heavyweight Championship.
Credentialed boxing writer Jeffrey Freeman grew up in the City of Champions, Brockton, Massachusetts. A member of the RingTV expert prediction panel for three years, the author also serves as Editor-in-Chief of the popular boxing website WWW.KODigest.TV where he is affectionately known as “KO” by his many friends and readers in the boxing community.