The left hook that should have knocked out boxer Yaundale Evans that April night in Austin, Texas, caught him so hard on the chin that he was unconscious before his body had a chance to move backwards from the force of the blow.
I say the left hook that should have knocked out Yaundale Evans because somehow the fighter managed to stumble to his feet before the referee had counted all the way to 10. The end, which came only moments later, was inevitable, though; a few more blows to the head and Evans was down again -- less dramatically this time, but to stay. Considering the force of that first punch it’s fair to say that Evans had gotten up on pure boxers’ instinct alone. Because getting up after getting knocked down is what boxers do, regardless of consciousness. And letting boxers fight on is what boxing referees do, regardless of decency.
Fifteen minutes after Evans had been picked off the canvas by his handlers and placed gingerly on his stool, a few reporters were hustled from their seats far from the ring in the low mezzanine section of the Frank Erwin Center to a makeshift locker room for a hastily assembled press conference with Evans' opponent. There Javier Fortuna held court with an air of confidence that can only come from knocking your opponent flat on national television. He was dressed natilly in a black baseball cap, a black doo-rag, and black sunglasses.
My colleagues were all reporters from boxing magazines and Web sites and they asked boxing-aficionado questions. They wanted to know if Fortuna was upset that Evan had criticized him for coming in overweight. They were curious what holes he saw in Evans’ style that allowed him to get such a quick knockout. They wanted to know what weight class he hoped to settle in at and which opponent he hoped to fight next. Would it be 126 pounds or 130? Adrian Broner, Gary Russell Jr., or Orlando Salido? Though just 22 years old, Fortuna had obviously memorized the age-old boxer’s script: He would fight anybody his promoters put in front of him.
Not being a boxing writer myself, but simply curious about the differences between boxing and mixed martial arts, I wanted to know about that first knockdown. MMA has a reputation for brutality (similar to the one boxing had before A.J. Liebling, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, and other “serious” writers convinced the straight world the sport was both sweet and scientific), but the fact is MMA fighters aren’t granted 10 seconds’ grace; if they go out, the referee stops the fight. Once the eyes roll and the shoulders go limp, that’s it; you’re not allowed to recover your wits and start swinging again. This distinction is significant, I think. It lends MMA both an immediacy of aesthetic purpose and the slightest air of moral dignity. It also paints boxing in a nastier light than it might be seen in otherwise, making it appear less concerned with the health and well-being of its fighters than a sport where tattooed men with shaved heads choke one another in cages. So I was curious, was it clear to Fortuna that Evans was out of his feet? And was Fortuna surprised when the referee let the fight go on?
“Si si si si,” he replied. Fortuna is from the Dominican Republic and only speaks Spanish, so fight promoters had scrambled to find someone to translate his words into both English and the third person. “He thinks it was an abuse,” the translator explained. “It should have been stopped on the very first knockdown. He felt like the guy was extremely wobbly and he shouldn’t have continued.” When Fortuna said the Spanish word for “wobbly,” he did a quick jig that was half drunken lurch and half Caribbean dance. The reporters all laughed. Even while imitating a man knocked unconscious Fortuna had a slick air about him.
The specter of MMA looms large over boxing these days. In magazines and lockers rooms, first-time amateurs and longtime world champions are forced to defend their sport against this other, newer, louder, brasher, and growing beast. Some boxers respond by attacking mixed martial arts and mixed martial artists in the press, others by making the argument that there are no real similarities between the two sports so there’s no real use comparing them. Still others resign themselves to the current state of things and dabble in MMA, with generally unhappy results. On that Friday’s card I counted no fewer than five fighters with MMA records.
The promoter behind the ESPN fight card, former pound-for-pound great Roy Jones Jr., has a long, contentious history with MMA. He’s been known to mock the abilities of some of the most successful names in the sport; he even offered to fight a few of them, including UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva and welterweight contender Nick Diaz.
In interviews, Jones described his event as something of a last shot at redemption for his beloved but ailing boxing, and his protestations leading up to fight night were masterpieces of self-importance and paranoia.
“The sport is on the decline, and I’ve got to try to help it survive,” Jones Jr. said. “The commentators are killing our sport. In the UFC, if a guy loses, he can fight again. But in boxing, once a guy loses, he’s pretty much dead meat, because everybody talks about him so bad that you can’t get a network to ever show him again.I’m trying to find a way to get my own TV network where I can hire my own commentators. I will tell my commentators what we’re going to talk about and what we’re not going to talk about. I will tell them, ’If you say something negative about any boxer, than you’re going to be fired.’” This was the first time I’d heard of commentators being blamed for the decline of a sport. I wondered if that was why Jones stuck my fellow writers and me so far from the ring -- at least 40 feet away: as pre-emptive punishment for the things he knew we were going to say.
Jones may have been right to be wary. Boxing writers – like all sports writers, only more so – are notoriously cruel, ready to declare a young fighter’s career over in a flash and for tiny infractions: moving too little, moving too much, lacking a jab, relying on nothing but the jab, having no heart, having nothing but heart. And god help the young prospect who loses an important fight on his way up the ladder. As far as boxing scribes are concerned, he might as well hand over his gloves and go find a factory job somewhere.
The main event of that evening's Friday Night Fights was supposed to be a coming-out party for one of those young prospects, the golden boy, in fact, of Jones’ Square Ring Productions, Ismayl Sillakh. Coming into the fight, Sillakh was considered by many to be a top 10 light-heavyweight, a slickster with fast hands and fast feet who is finally ready for the big time. One ESPN blogger wondered if Sillakh was only one fight from a title shot.
Sillakh’s opponent, a Russian puncher named Denis “The Pirate” Grachev, was supposed to be little more than a tune-up to keep Sillakh in shape, a number to pad his unblemished record. The problem was no one told Grachev that.
As expected, Sillakh’s quick combinations initially confused the Russian and knocked him down early, but by the fourth round it had become clear that Sillakh lacked either the will or the desire to knock Grachev out. He spent the next four rounds dancing, only occasionally throwing a few punches, but only to quiet the crowd, not to cause any real damage. Meanwhile, Grachev put his head down and plodded forward, plugging away, artlessly taking three punches for every one he landed until he eventually wore down both Sillakh’s body and spirit. When Sillakh finally went down with about a minute left in the eighth round, the reporters around me jumped in to finish him off: He has all the skill in the world and no killer instinct, they declared. He’s as good as done. Just like that. Career over. After just one loss. No bloggers would wonder anymore if Sillakh was just one fight from a title shot. I was beginning to see what Jones had been so worried about.
That the Great Ukrainian Hope of Jones’ still-modest Square Ring stable lost to an unheralded brawler like Grachev must have stung the champion-fighter-turned-wary-promoter. That Grachev only turned to boxing after first giving MMA a try must have driven him mad.