ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — The classic "cat and mouse" game is all about well-defined roles. Hungry cat, terrified mouse. The pursuer and the pursued. It can end only with a disappointed cat, or a satisfied cat. The best the mouse can hope for is to live one more day, in terror.
Boxing lends itself to the cat-and-mouse metaphor, for obvious reasons. But the metaphor is imperfect. In regular life, you always know who's the cat and who's the mouse; in boxing, you never know when the mouse might grow claws and make a meal out of the cat.
Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall boasts an arena that can seat more than 15,000 people. That's not where the fights were on Saturday night; the fights were in a "ballroom" off to the side of the main arena, with the creaky hardwood floors and claustrophobia of a high school gym. Real rodents would not have been a surprise. In that ballroom, we saw the cat-and-mouse idiom in all its fistic variety.
Cat devolving into mouse: Badou Jack "The Ripper" and Hajro Sujak appeared, at first, to be evenly matched: Both liked to stand in front of one another and punch as hard as they could, back and forth, like Tough Man contestants. "Nyuss!" exclaimed Sujak with every effortful left hook he let off, or, on especially powerful shots, "Huh-nyuss!" In the second round, Jack figured out — like man discovering fire — that if he only stepped back after he punched, his opponent's comeback shot would miss him. He proceeded to do this, giving him quite an advantage. Sujak refused to use his feet to move him to more advantageous spots in the ring, sticking with throwing that hard left hook, full power, over and over. By the third round, he'd tired himself out, and, to make matters worse, Jack had begun keeping his right hand planted on the side of his head to catch all those Sujak hooks. "Represent!" Sujak's cornerman told his flagging fighter before the fourth. "He's tired, too, trust me!"
It was not so. Sujak was much more tired, the grasshopper who failed to store away any energy for the later rounds. Jack's punches increasingly found their target, and Sujak was reduced to simply lying against the ropes, hands up, getting his guard split over and over, body-body-head. In the fifth, the towel came flying in from the same corner, though the ref took 10 long seconds before he noticed it, resulting in that much more damage for Sujak. He ended the match smiling through a bloody face anyhow, his white trunks stained pink. He was so used to knocking people out with that big left hook, he'd never bothered to learn how to move around. Perhaps that will change.
Classic cat and mouse: Ivan Redkach is Ukrainian and looks like a skinny Billy Bob Thornton, but he fights out of L.A. and seemed to be wearing the Mexican flag on his trunks. No idea. Alberto Amaro is shorter and certainly Puerto Rican. Redkach was tall, skinny, and hard at 136 pounds, with the Mr. Burns-style perma-hunch in his neck that boxers acquire from keeping their chins down. He was a southpaw, and a hard puncher. Amaro was not a hard puncher, and he kept switching stance, finding little success either way. Redkach repeatedly landed a straight left-right hook combo before Amaro could even counter the left, and that was pretty much the fight. In the fifth a good body shot stunned Amaro, but the ref called it a low blow, giving the damaged little man free time to compose himself. But Redkach, the cat, had seen his prey wavering; he went right back to Amaro's body with scary, single-minded focus, popping a straight left into his stomach that made Amaro step back in slow motion, with the pained look of a man who just realized he'd gotten food poisoning. He toppled, but was saved by the bell; in the next round, Redkach backed him up and used him for target practice, and the fight was stopped. He stalks, he kills, he eats. "Meow," said Ivan Redkach.
Mouse wearing a cat mask: Lamar Harris, 162-pounder out of St. Louis, entered the ring in a black robe with "The New Prince of Pain" emblazoned on the back. That's pretty fucking bold, when your record is 6-7-3. J'Leon Love, 6-0 from Detroit, came in wearing a considerably peppier silver-and-blue ensemble. Harris was very physically built, but that and the nickname were the extent of his intimidation techniques. Two seconds into the fight he was hit with a quick little hook to the face and nodded up and down vigorously, as if to say, "OK, you're better than me." Love spent the whole round landing right-hand leads to the head followed by left hooks to the body. In the second Harris started punching, and Love, by now fully convinced (accurately) of his own superiority, tended to stand in front of Harris for a beat too long, allowing himself to get hit unnecessarily. Love was the better fighter, but he was incredibly reluctant to lead, preferring to wait and counter, which foolishly gave Harris, a muscular puncher but no kind of boxer, plenty of chances. Still, Love won an easy decision, and the thoroughly emasculated New Prince of Pain ended the fight by giving an uncomfortably long hug to Love, who was raising his own hand in victory and politely trying to pull away the whole time.
This is why you don't let guys pick their own nicknames.
The nice cat: Zsolt Erdei, the pride of Fot, Hungary, is allegedly so popular among Hungarians that he can't walk the streets of the tiny Hungarian community on Manhattan's Upper East Side without being mobbed. He was facing Byron Mitchell, a bald black man from Dothan, Ala., with absolutely no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever. He was simply the man opposite Zsolt Erdei, Hungarian Hero. A good quarter of the crowd in Atlantic City had apparently come strictly for Erdei, which is pretty impressive, because how many Hungarians do you know, really?
Erdei has a square head and jug ears and thick cables of muscle running down his calves, with the square-shouldered heft of a construction worker. He is clearly a strong man. But perhaps because of that, he tends to throw arm punches, rather than really uncoiling and turning his hips and whipping his fist with power that starts in his toes and runs up through his whole body. He liked to fight close and would square up and thrown little flurries of hooks with both hands that looked remarkably unsmooth. He was a twitchy fighter, dipping left and right and poking with those worker arms and always landing, but not inflicting particularly serious devastation. "Meh," I wrote in my notes. Until the sixth round, when Erdei decided to finally rotate those hips and shoulders and hit Mitchell with a proper right hand over the top, which sent him down flat. He got up, ate the same punch over again, stood back up with a "that's enough" look in his eyes, and it was over. Erdie did a big arm-flexing jump in the middle of the ring like a kid in a Kool-Aid commercial. He politely thanked the referee. He politely thanked his opponent (he'd even tapped gloves with Mitchell after knocking him down). Then he made his way over to press row, with a translator, and answered questions for five minutes, sweat dripping all over the hardwood floor. (It's an illustration of the paucity of the boxing press corps that Dan Rafael of ESPN is now treated like the only boxing reporter in America who counts for a damn thing. He gets the best seats at every fight; PR people attend to him assiduously, and fighters and promoters trek over to his seat to answer post-fight questions. Any other reporter who wanted quotes was forced to press in around Rafael and strain an eardrum.) Then he slowly made his way out, posing for pictures with each and every Hungarian fan who wanted one. Zsolt Erdei is a fine man and impossible not to like, although I wish he'd turn his shoulders and throw proper power punches. He's now 33-0, and with any luck he'll soon be getting whupped by Bernard Hopkins, a much, much meaner cat.
Sadistic cat toys with delusional mouse: Edison Miranda is a better boxer than Rayco Saunders. Don't tell that to Rayco Saunders. He came into the ring to a dancehall tune, smiling and relaxed, always a good sign. Edison Miranda — whose robe says "Pantera" because that's his nickname, FYI, heavy metal fans — bears a perpetually bored expression, as if this professional boxing match were keeping him from practicing fighter jet tricks or something, which he would also find boring. He fights like someone who could not be less scared of the man in front of him: left hand dangling down by his front knee, right hand up, tilted forward, totally relaxed, always watchful. Miranda has that gift (which is not really a gift, but rather something that comes with thousands upon thousands of hours of practice, but which is more poetic to think of as a gift) of always making the right move. He wastes no motion. He doesn't bounce or herky-jerk unnecessarily in the face of an assault. If he needs to slip a punch, he moves his head just enough to slip the punch, and no more. At times he does a little shuffling dance, or shimmies his shoulders, or turns his back to his opponent and walks away, all in the service of keeping himself entertained, because the fight itself is, well ... you call this a fight? Edison Miranda calls this light work. He has a way of always being first. Jab body, jab head. Right head. Jab. Hook body. Jab body, jab head. Instead of throwing great flurries of six or eight or 12 punches punctuated by long, circling pauses, Miranda throws one punch every two seconds, ceaselessly. As soon as you've adjusted to the last punch, in comes the next. It's not enough to pummel an opponent into submission, but it's enough to keep an opponent so occupied that before he knows it, the round is over, and all he's done is ward off those goddamn punches that roll in every two seconds, like waves onto the shore. In this way, Miranda controls the fight. You punch only when he chooses to let you, for variety. Then he slips your shots, anyhow. Then he comes back again, being first, again, to the body, always first. By now you've forgotten if you ever even had a "game plan." On top of it all, he looks serene, even bored, as he nicks you up, nonstop. Is boxing really this easy for Edison Miranda, or is his calm face just a ploy? Either way, it works. The fight may not be a bloodbath, but it is pure psychological domination. The pacing and spacing and offense and defense unfold according to Edison Miranda's whims, and nothing else. He knows all the tricks. In the last round Miranda even let his protector ride up so high it nearly scraped his nipples (a nifty trick in itself, since it covered his entire belly from any body shots, not that Saunders had landed many), while he crouched over and bunny hopped backward, waited, then bunny hopped back again, always eyeing. His muscles may have been trembling, his lungs may have been burning — who knows? — but he looked for all the world as if he could fight another hundred rounds just like this, and probably juggle and talk on a cellphone at the same time, until his opponent just hanged himself from the ring rope out of humiliation.
When it came time for the ref to announce the judges' decision, Rayco Saunders raised his arms high, as if he expected to be crowned victorious. When he lost, he looked genuinely disappointed. Things look different from the inside sometimes.
Schrodinger's cat and mouse, who are indistinguishable until observed by judges: Boxing press kits are usually full of laughable hagiographic shit. But this bit, about Glen Johnson, I found quite inspiring:
He didn't begin boxing till age 20.
"I was a fat boy when I started, 195 pounds," he said. "That was my motivation — to lose the weight — and that's what I started doing. It was all new guys. They would throw us in there and let us spar and stuff. I had never been in a gym before, or done anything athletic...one day they said ‘Hey, you want to do some amateur fights?' I said 'You think I'm good enough.' They said ‘Certainly.' I kept going and going, and they told me I had something. I made a career out of it."
That fat boy has won 51 pro fights. Saturday, he fought Carl Froch in the main event for the WBC Super Middleweight Championship of the world. Glen Johnson is 42, and he looks it; dark, bald, and hard-headed, like someone's badass dad. He came to the ring in a hardhat (he used to work construction) and a Miami Heat warmup suit, to Peter Tosh's "Stepping Razor:" "I'm a walking razor, don't you watch my size, I'm dangerousssssssss...."
Johnson was the underdog. Carl Froch is longer, leaner, younger, British, and very dangerous indeed. He entered to "Welcome to the Jungle," surrounded by a crew of British guidos in "Team Froch" shirts. A contingent of hooliganesque Brit fans who'd made the trip roared. Johnson spotted three tiny Jamaican flags in the back of the crowd, and waved.
Glen Johnson is not particularly smooth, but he has a style, and that style has gotten him this far. He holds his gloves very close to each other and very close to his face, as if grasping an invisible shopping bag right under his chin. His hands move constantly, the tips of one glove scraping the opposite wrist, so he looks like a very nearsighted man modeling clay. Perhaps he is eating a tiny piece of corn on the cob during the fight? When he dips to the side to avoid punches, his hands stay locked right in place under his nose, like an elderly woman playing a driving simulation game, hunched close over the wheel and navigating sharp turns. He always comes forward, catching punches on his arms, and throws mostly straight rights to the body and head with a low "bah" sound. Froch, by contrast, bends his tall back and hunches forward, jabbing up from his waist, moving backward and stopping to throw combos before backpedaling once again. For the first few rounds Froch kept waiting and waiting for a hole to open up Johnson's defense, but of course none did. Johnson repeatedly hit the quicker Froch (who's opposed on principle to keeping his lead hand up to block punches) with booming right hands that whistled in over his shoulder and cracked him on the side of the head, drawing loud cheers. Froch began responding to these with flurries of his own, few of which managed to get through Johnson's mask of arms and gloves. The bulk of the fight became a philosophical choice for the judges: Johnson would land only two punches per round, but they were the two best punches, both to Froch's unguarded head; Froch would land maybe 50 punches per round, but 49 of them were blocked.
By the eighth, Froch was looking positively beleaguered, but he rallied to win the final rounds. Johnson was always pressing the action; Froch was always backing up, but also he was throwing far more punches, but most of those punches weren't connecting with sweet flesh. Appearance of activity counts for a lot in boxing, though, and Froch ended up taking the decision, though one judge called it a draw. Johnson, such a likable old man who beat fat boy-ness, never did reveal himself as a mouse. It was a cat fight.
Cat becomes mouse: Now, Carl Froch will fight Andre Ward, who will beat him. Enjoy that saucer of warm milk while you can, Carl. Everything is temporary.