Reputations are hard to earn. And they're hard to keep. They come with benefits. But they can also hang on a fighter like a chain, an extra burden in a sport that's hard enough as it is. Reputations can't be carried throughout a fight. They must be shed like a robe and donned again when the fight is over. During the fight, there is only hard work.
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St. Patrick's Day is traditionally the day when New Yorkers wearing green and drinking beer stumble into Madison Square Garden en masse to see some Irish boxers beat up handpicked non-Irish opponents. On the day of the Puerto Rican day parade, a Puerto Rican fighter headlines a fight at the Garden, and wins; on St. Patrick's Day, an Irish fighter does the same. This is an important part of the care and feeding and nurturing of the tribal partisanship that sustains a slowly dying sport. The twist this year was that the Irish headliner, Matthew Macklin, was goddamn near guaranteed to lose. His prize was just getting the fight against Sergio Martinez, one of the world's best fighters, an Argentine with flashy head movement and movie star looks. Both of which are extremely non-Irish.
Because nobody gave Macklin much of a chance to win, the Irish pride element of the St. Patrick's Day fights had to be bolstered by some Irish wins on the undercard. And that, I guess, is how Kevin "Kid" Rooney, with the Irish flag on his trunks, came to be fighting Anthony Shuff, a guy with an 0-1 record who quite literally did not know how to throw a punch, preferring instead to flail in classic "girl slap" style until Rooney pushed him into the corner and hit him in the face a few times, causing Shuff to just drop his hands and look about with a "Hey, will somebody please tell this guy to stop hitting me?" expression on his face until the ref waved off the farce halfway into the first round. Ireland, forever!
Though it was still early in the evening, the crowd was enthusiastic. "Fuck that nigga up!" screamed one distinctly non-black audience member, cheering the Irish fighter on. In the men's room, a drunk fan at the urinal kept declaring loudly to the whole room: "Martinez in the fifth, yo! I guarantee it. Martinez gonna knock that motherfucker out in the fifth, just watch. I guarantee it. Fifth round, yo!" His ability to piss and narrate simultaneously was remarkable. "Mad problems," muttered the unfortunate bathroom attendant by the door, who, in a nod to St. Patrick's Day, was equipped with a walkie-talkie direct line to stadium security.
Charlie Ota, a slick, standard-issue 150-pounder from Harlem (though fighting out of Tokyo), had a surprisingly slow start against Gundrick King, a standard-issue import from Tuscaloosa, Ala., heavily muscled but raw and unskilled, the kind of fighter brought in to make the New York boys look good. Ota started out fighting traditionally, but as the rounds wore on he turned further and further into the Mayweather style—left arm low, across the front of the belly, right hand perched high up by the ear, forming an almost perpendicular angle between left fist and right elbow, with incoming punches warded off either by catching them with the right hand or by rolling the front shoulder up to protect oneself. Mayweather himself employs the style defensively, but Ota demonstrated its offensive bonus: the straight right, a power punch, can be shot straight out as a lead with a quick turn of the hip, obviating the need for a jab to set it up. The jab and the left hook both come from very low, out of the opponent's direct sight line. It's almost impossible to keep an eye on both threats at once. It's like fighting a scorpion who strikes with his tail and his claws in equal measure. Ota spent a few rounds feeding King a steady diet of straight right-left hook- underhand right to the belly combos from this position before earning a TKO in the seventh.
The crowd, which was by now about 25 percent green-tinted, was fairly quiet for that fight, between two black guys. That changed to a roar when Long Beach, Long Island's ("The Irish Riviera") Seanie Monaghan, the only successful Irish slugger left in New York today, entered the ring. He's an admirably no-frills fighter: head shaved, businesslike expression, only the mandatory bagpipes and green trunks and five dozen screaming Long Islanders in green t-shirts to give away the fact that he's Irish, and this is St. Patrick's Day, and Long Island exists, baby. He was up against West Virginia's Eric Watkins, whose announced nickname was "The One-Armed Bandit." I question the intimidation potential of that nickname.
Pure inside fighters prefer to fight with their forehead glued to their opponent's body. Seanie Monaghan is more of a close fighter. He likes to maintain a short distance. He fights like a man wielding a short club. Strike kidney, strike liver, strike temple, strike chin, strike anything that happens to be open at the time, then push his opponent a half step backwards, while deliberately advancing, pounding all the time. Watkins tried to rush out at the bell and throw everything at him (not a bad strategy, might as well take a shot), but Monaghan is far too level-headed to be overwhelmed. He also hits hard as fuck. He stopped Watkins's forward rush with a straight right to the chin so hard I felt my own jaw crack in the balcony. Watkins somehow managed to stand up to the punishment for six rounds and walk away with a unanimous decision loss, rather than getting scraped off the canvas by the ring doctor. Which is a kind of victory. As Monaghan was engulfed in the middle of the ring and standing on the ropes to wave to his roaring well-wishers, Watkins wandered back to his own corner, where his lone cornerman was clapping for him. Though he had one of the hardest jobs of anyone that St. Patrick's Day, that was all the glory he got.
The green quotient of the crowd was steadily rising, but the Irish did not have a monopoly on the atmosphere. A surprising number of Argentines were milling about, young men in light blue Lionel Messi jerseys and old men in newsboy caps and scarves loudly speaking Spanish. Both factions seemed equally boisterous, though I hadn't seen a single crowd fight yet. Formal violence seemed to have a calming effect on everyone, so far.
There is nothing more thrilling than a good heavyweight fight. That's why good heavyweight fights are worth a lot of money. If you are watching a heavyweight fight in which the combatants will not be paid millions of dollars, the chances are that you are in for a shitty fight, for the same reason that you don't find Tiffany jewelry at K-Mart. There is no logical reason why a man who weighs 220 pounds cannot learn the rudiments of boxing just as well as a man who weighs 120 pounds; still, overwhelming real-world data show that two men who weigh 220 pounds will usually, except under very rare circumstances, combine for a display of chest-heaving, squared-up brawling unworthy of the name "boxing." It's a mystery of our world.
Magomed Abdusalamov was 13-0 with 13 knockouts. Jason Pettaway was 11-0 with eight knockouts. Between them, they were 450 pounds of undefeated shitty boxer. Pettaway, despite possessing fearsome size and physique, punched as if he were playing patty-cake with a young child. He poked his jab forward, tentatively, as if touching a young kitten for the first time, and followed it with a feathery right-handed tap. His flashy white gloves only served to emphasize his slappy little punching style. At least he kept his hands up in an imitation of a boxing stance, which is more than one can say for Abdusalamov, who preferred instead to simply walk straight forward with his hands down. One could hardly blame him, considering Pettaway's punching power. Abdusalamov could not box, but he could punch. In the fourth round, he sent enough right hands straight up the middle to bloody Pettaway's nose, knock him down, and then knock his mouthpiece flying in a dramatic high arc through the lights, earning himself a TKO. No need to watch the replay. Just go watch the nearest bar fight.
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The anthems were played. Argentina's is spectacular. No idea what it's about, but its stirring vibrance makes Ireland's mournful bog song sound all the more depressing. Matthew Macklin entered to the strains of "Mack the Knife." Cinematic, indeed, but Macklin himself—though he got all the requisite pro-Irish cheers—is not the type of fighter who inspires awed devotion. Competent, sure, but completely workmanlike, with little to no defining element of style to set him apart. Sergio "Maravilla" Martinez, though, is quite the opposite. He entered sporting a shiny crimson spangled robe and a sparkling white towel snug around his neck like a cravat, looking like Gorgeous George. Que estrella. Martinez is almost disturbingly handsome, sporting an unmarked face that, in boxing, is a type of taunt, a visible sign reading, "You can't scar me." This is especially remarkable given his style, which consists of dropping his hands and leaning his face forward, over his front toe, daring his opponent to take a shot. Contrary to the belief of many overconfident amateurs, it takes an extraordinary amount of skill to fight with one's hands down, because defense relies completely on head movement, fast feet, and the ability to be quicker than any incoming punches. Martinez is all the more extraordinary because he drops his hands even when he steps inside, inches away, continuing to bob under hooks like a duck under waves. This style can be confounding. Not only is Martinez hard to hit, but he hits back from all types of bizarre angles. And he hits hard.
Macklin decided to counter Martinez's crouch by fighting out of a crouch of his own, giving the first two rounds the appearance of a "who can make themselves smaller" contest. (During the first round, the first crowd fight of the night broke out. It would have been weird if it hadn't.) The early part of the fight consisted mostly of Martinez confirming and reconfirming that he had the foot speed to leap in and out and around Macklin at will. He threw few punches, though the few he landed produced visible pained reactions from Macklin; one of them sent him reeling backward into the ropes.
Sergio Martinez did not need to punch to keep his opponent off him. His reputation was doing the work for him. He's widely considered the No. 3 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, and that halo of invincibility played the role usually occupied by a jab, keeping Macklin watchful and cautious. The Irish crowd gave tremendous cheers every time Macklin ventured to throw a punch, even though most of his punches missed. They understood the risks involved in such a bold undertaking. Martinez, a natural counterpuncher, preferred not to lead; Macklin preferred not to punch; the result was a lot of feinting and jousting and not a lot of real punching.
In the seventh round, having gathered his courage, Macklin managed to cuff Martinez with a hard left hook that knocked him off balance and made him touch the canvas with his glove, which counts as a knockdown. There's a story for the grandkids. It was becoming clear that, although everyone in the building knew that Martinez's skill level was far above Macklin's, the fight could not be won on reputation alone. You actually have to hit the guy, at some point. Martinez was theoretically in danger of losing now, due to the fact that flashing superior head and foot movement and generally embracing one's own reputation for athleticism does not score actual points, in a professional boxing match.
Sergio Martinez is used to knocking men out with one punch. He does not follow the traditional pattern of wearing down a fighter's body, causing his hands to drop, faking him out, setting him up with certain combinations round after round, throwing several punches in a row to position his opponent in just the right way to deliver the hard shot. He knocks people out with one punch, because he is fast, and he hits hard, and his style is extremely unpredictable. But here, as the eighth, ninth, and 10th rounds passed, the downside of this spectacular orientation became more and more apparent: If he doesn't knock the guy out, he could actually lose to a lesser fighter, because he spends his time looking for big shots rather than engaging in the drudgery of piling up points with ordinary punches. Matthew Macklin, the hardworking but average Irishman, was in position for a St. Patrick's Day miracle.
In the 11th round Sergio Martinez knocked him out. Just as I was mentally composing my scolding diatribe against Martinez's folly of coasting on his reputation, he unleashed a straight left hand from down around his thigh that smashed Macklin backward into the ropes and onto the floor like a stuntman taking a fake shotgun blast. With 10 seconds left in the round, Macklin managed to get up—rather reluctantly, it must be said—only to be blasted again with the same punch, down again. The ref stopped the fight between rounds. Maravilla. Reputations exist for a reason.