In January of 2010, Yuriorkis Gamboa blew my mind. I saw him fight live for the first time at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, the small lower arena whose ceiling is crisscrossed with strings of lights like a fishing net. He was matched against Rogers Mtagwa, a Tanzanian with a rugged reputation. Gamboa, “El Ciclón de Guantánamo,” a featherweight he-man with the Cuban flag on his trunks and the eyes of a snake, walked through him with such ease that the experience was how I imagine it is viewing an iceberg up close: If the shit I can see is so incredible, imagine what’s under the water.
Gamboa is short and stout and muscular, with flared elbows rather than the narrow defensive profile of a classic boxer, but he combines this physique with uncommon physical flash. He is one of the rare fighters who is so talented that technique doesn’t really matter. His hand speed was ethereal. He threw a left hook like a cat swatting a mouse, two, three, four in a row, which wiped Mtagwa off his feet with the same amount of effort you might display cleaning a bug off your windshield. It was apparent that Gamboa was very, very special. I saw him fight several times in the next couple of years—beating the shit out of Orlando Salido, one of the world’s toughest featherweights, in Las Vegas, then beating the shit out of Daniel Ponce De Leon, one of the world’s angriest featherweights, in Atlantic City. In every Gamboa fight there came a point when he would step back and put his hands down. That was the signal that he had lost all fear of and respect for his opponent. He would then proceed to stick his chest out and walk forward and spend most of the rest of the fight smacking his unfortunate counterpart with zinging right hands that looped in like Sidewinder missiles, and with those tiger paw left hooks, and generally looking disinterested while doing so, a walking demonstration of the impossibility of this other motherfucker ever being mas macho.
On Saturday night, six years after the last of those feats of aggressive mastery, I watched Gamboa fight Jason Sosa back in the Theater at MSG, where he had first branded himself on my brain. Sosa is a rugged Jersey boy, the fine-but-not-excellent-but-real-tough sort of fighter who serves as a doorman to the top of the division. Six years ago, Gamboa would have had his hands down by the third round, battering a come-forward guy like Sosa to death. But six years ago, Gamboa had not yet been sensationally knocked out by Terence Crawford, and he had not yet been made to quit in his corner by the very average Robinson Castellanos, and he had not had six full years of additional punches thudding into his brain. Gamboa is different now. He is lesser. He is 35. Watching him on Saturday was like watching a retired dancer. His moves are still there, but everything is slower.
Boxing does not reward slow. And it does not offer points for sentimentality. There are certain things that someone with the talent of Gamboa in his prime can do that the average boxer cannot. You can stand there with your hands down in front of world class fighters; you can throw lead left hooks over and over, because your hook is as quick as a normal man’s jab; you can loop every single right hand instead of throwing it straight, because your hands are just that fast. Over six years, the punishment increases, and the talent ebbs. This weekend I saw Yuriorkis Gamboa hitting Jason Sosa with right hands that looked—dare I say it?—soft. I saw a left hook that is still fast, but which did no discernible damage. I saw Gamboa repeatedly get caught with head shots that he once would have slipped. Most worryingly, I saw Gamboa fall to the mat four times from slight pushes, or slips, or an off-balance missed punch. That does not happen to men in their prime. That happens when years of concussive impacts have eroded vital brain functions.
Gamboa won the fight. As he should have. But not easily. Not by much. It was a only a majority decision. Some of his sublime talents are still there. A decline from great heights can leave you still above those without greatness. He rolls under any power punch aimed at his head with the automatic ease with which you might open the refrigerator door. He can still, when he wants, show the foot speed that can take him anywhere in a ring in half a second. In the sixth round, he slipped a right hand by Sosa so completely that Sosa careened into the ropes, then pivoted and, suddenly, was standing over an off-balance, bent-over, nearly helpless opponent, without having displayed any apparent effort at all. Gamboa glared down at Sosa for a long moment. Then he tapped him on top of the head once with each hand, just to show that he could.
Life is fleeting, and everything is more fleeting once you’ve absorbed a hundred thousand punches. The back of Gamboa’s red trunks were emblazoned with “2 TIMOTHY 1:7,” a Bible verse which reads, “For the spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline.” No one can accuse Yuriorkis Gamboa, que macho, of being timid. But the power is almost gone, and the love and self-discipline need to be turned inward. The cyclone of Guantanamo is now a tropical storm. Better to step away with grace while you can still step without falling over.