ATLANTIC CITY, N.J.—Moments before each of Daniel Ponce De Leon's fights, as his final warmup, he will extend both of his arms upward and then spin them violently, in tandem, from one side to the other, like Carlton Banks dancing to "It's Not Unusual," if Carlton Banks were a rat-tailed tattooed Mexican with the angry face of a sadist.
Yuriorkis Gamboa, on the other hand—who the hell knows what he does right before a fight? He shakes, he shimmies, he raises his gloves like any other boxer, but it's impossible to track it all because his face, hypnotic, remains stone. He is perhaps the world's most impassive man. His body can do almost anything, but his face does nothing, ever. It is—and this is not meant to be taken as a statement on Yuriorkis's trustworthiness— the face of a snake. It is attached to the dangerous parts, but it does not waver. It watches. It calculates. And it always seems to end up swallowing its opponent, with no evidence that an adversary was ever there but for the final strands of a rat tail disappearing into Gamboa's lips.
How do you fight someone you cannot beat? You simply do your best. That's all that can be done. You cannot win, but you can try your very best. Some people are more suited to this task than others. Some people prefer not trying at all, or giving up as soon as it becomes evident that victory is not possible. And how can we criticize them? It is the rational thing to do, the decision that we, as humans, have evolved to make, in order to survive. On the undercard Saturday night in Atlantic City, Angel "The White Tiger" Rios seemed to realize right around the third round that he could not beat Terrance Crawford, an undefeated Nebraskan with dark skin and short braids who moved like a boxer, whereas Rios just moved like a guy who happened to be boxing at the moment. Rios's body was soft, and he'd seemingly expended all of his energy selecting a remarkably ugly American flag-themed outfit. He spent the first seven rounds not punching due to Crawford's jab, which refused to leave his face. In the seventh, after being staggered by a right hook, Rios decided to have his Rocky moment, boldly moving forward and telling Crawford to "come on," as if he hadn't been for the entire fight. This delighted the dozens of fans who'd come all the way from the Bronx to watch Rios get thoroughly outclassed, so it served its purpose. I saw Crawford walking the Atlantic City boardwalk with his friends later that night, looking for girls. I hope he found someone. Otherwise, why win?
Christian Cruz was trying just fine against 119-pound fastie Miguel Cartagena, until he caught a thumping left hook right to the belly that, judging by his facial expression, made him want to vomit and poop at the same time. Observing this development, Cartagena jumped on him and kept pounding his belly in the same spot again and again, just as a good boxer should, until Cartagena spit out his mouthpiece and eventually fell over. He got back to his feet by the count of eight; but his eyes (or perhaps his lips) told the referee that he and his queasy innards had no desire to feel another left hook or 12, and the ref stopped the fight. The look of burning disgust on the face of Cruz's trainer would fit well on a motivational poster. "TRY HARDER," it would read.
Antonio Davis is 38 years old with a respectable 28-6 record, which would seem to indicate that at one time he possessed the balance necessary to move around a boxing ring without careening through the ropes at the slightest touch. No longer. It's one thing to have an awkward style; it's another thing to have a serious neurological impairment. I thought Davis was simply the gawky type, at first. Like a man playing a frenetic game of Charades, he fights with both hands plastered to the side of his head in a comical exaggeration the the "putting on your earmuffs" move that boxers employ defensively. He must seriously value protecting his damaged inner ear canals, because his pose left his face wide open for Luis Cruz, his strong if not overwhelming opponent. Davis moved like a newborn deer. He would poke a jab out, knock-kneed, and then go staggering several steps off to the side after missing a swinging right hand. "This guy is drunk!" I joked to the reporters sitting behind me. "Yeah, punch drunk," they replied. Then it wasn't so funny.
Antonio Davis was doing his best when he never should have been asked to do anything but go and see a neurologist. He would fly backward from a punch of only moderate power, stunt man-style; on a couple of occasions he lunged forward, missed, and went staggering across the ring and through the top rope on the other side. It was awful. He kept trying, though. In the fifth, he leaned in and Cruz caught him with a short, tight right uppercut, causing Davis's face to shake and stopping all of his forward momentum before he tumbled back on his butt. This would have been an opportune time to stop the fight. Instead, it continued, with Davis doing his best all along. In the next round he walked forward, shaking his head in the way that hurt fighters do to indicate that they're not hurt at all. Drool was dripping from his mouth. Without a punch being thrown, he fell down to his knees, grabbing Cruz's legs to prevent himself from toppling all the way to the canvas. He was still shaking his head. The ref let the fight continue. Davis got up and, shortly after, was knocked out in an extremely scary fashion by a hard right uppercut. It took a full five minutes for his cornermen and doctors to raise him into a sitting position. Antonio Davis kept fighting. He has nothing to be ashamed of. But everyone who let him take that fight should be in jail.
There was an extended almost-fight out in the lobby—"7 Gang, nigger!" said one almost-combatant; "That's my favorite, when they say where they're from!" said an idle onlooker—followed by Calvin Odom, a tall Californian whose head stood up, unprotected, like a water balloon waiting to be popped, taking on undefeated Nigerian Wale Omotoso. Odom, to everyone's surprise, knocked Omotoso right the fuck down about two minutes into the first round, simply by having the bright idea of hitting him with a left hook when the two were engaged in an extended staring contest. Odom didn't try hard enough to finish him, though. Omotoso survived the round and went on to clobber Odom with a humongous one-two in the fourth, which effectively ended the fight. Underdogs who never bother to raise their hands above their jawline should always, always, always finish off the favorite when the opportunity presents itself.
The announcer asked for a moment of silence to honor the "brave men and women who so selfishly sacrificed their lives" on 9/11. A chant of "U-S-A!" proceeded throughout the moment of silence. Then they played the national anthem, which was recorded. The referee who'd failed to stop Antonio Davis from getting bazonked sat down in the front row in street clothes, eating french fries. It was a cheap American scene.
Yuriorkis Gamboa is a surpassing boxer. No man alive in his weight class is capable of beating him. His fights, therefore, become a bit of a philosophical exercise: his opponents want to merely prove that they can hang, that they can challenge him, that they can, for a moment at least, hurt him. Gamboa is out to prove that it's not so.
Earlier in his career he tended to come straight out and start smashing. Now he's refined his style. Like a house cat completely confident in his ability to kill the mouse whenever he's ready, he likes to bat his opponent around, showing only flashes of his full murderous abilities. He shows himself off. His fights are an extended demonstration of the Downright Beautiful Fist-Murdering Skills of Yuriorkis Gamboa. He is the bully on the block. His opponent is the victim of choice, and we are all meant to take note of the brutal lesson.
In order to maintain this dynamic, it is very important that Gamboa never look hurt, or scared, or appear to be losing control of the fight. Quien es mas macho? Gamboa, always. There comes a moment somewhere in the first round of all of his fights when he steps back and, at least for a brief moment, drops his hands. It is the moment when he has come to the conclusion that the man he's fighting is unable to hurt him. Then the show begins.
Daniel Ponce De Leon is no bitch. He's a southpaw slugger, a bit more awkward than the average lightweight, and he likes to come straight forward, hands pasted to his head, and shoot huge straight lefts that have knocked out dozens of men. He looks like an angry, uptight man who plans to make you pay in blood for his uptightness. He's also somewhat flat-footed, and he throws himself out of position every time he misses that big left, allowing his momentum to square him up. Gamboa, by contrast, is always on his toes and always very loose, his arms permanently crooked out to the side due to a preponderance of coiled fast-twitch muscle fibers. His left shoulder is perhaps the world's most perfect socket for throwing hooks; he can repeat left hooks over and over again unto infinity, each hard and fast and potentially devastating. Most of the time he looks relaxed, as if he were just engaged in some light sparring, with bricks sewn into his gloves. He is here to intimidate you. The physical ass-whupping can come later.
Gamboa was hit with many hard shots from Ponce De Leon—shooting lefts to the body and, several times, straight to the face. None of them had any discernible effect on his well-being. Each time, just after the punch landed, Gamboa would step back, drop his hands to his side, puff his chest out, and, for an instant, just stare at Ponce De Leon with a look of ennui. That's it? This, in fact, more than any killer left hook or magic footwork, is Gamboa's signature move. In the third round, he ducked in incoming left and popped up on the outside of Ponce De Leon's shoulder. His opponent was out of position. This is a stomach-dropping moment for any fighter, as it's usually a prelude to a cracking right hand to the temple. Instead, Gamboa just dropped his hands and eyed Ponce De Leon impassively. The punch was implied. Why waste energy punching when he can eat your heart with a mere look? Mas macho.
Gamboa would force Ponce De Leon back towards the ropes, then torture him with anticipation, bouncing in, then back, and finally in with a powerful right hand, followed by a flurry of hooks. Just as soon as his dominance had been established he would step back, hands down, chest out, staring. Ponce De Leon, to his credit, never stopped attacking, and landed enough punches that Gamboa eventually smiled at him and tightened up his stance, which is as close to mutual respect as he offers. Ponce De Leon is not the type to be cowed by testosterone; by the seventh round, both men would step back and stare at the other after each hard punch. He could not win, but he could certainly show that he wasn't scared. And for that, the bully on the block would respect him.
In the eighth, alas, the two fighters banged heads, opening a dripping gash right at Ponce De Leon's hairline, and the fight was stopped. Gamboa won the unanimous decision, and Ponce De Leon won a modicum of dignity for facing the snake and emerging alive. After the fight, Gamboa came over to address press row's nitpicky questions about tactics. "I did whatever I wanted to do," he said. That's all that matters.