Max Kellerman

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Friday, February 21
Mexican fighters taking jab at perceptions

By Max Kellerman
Special to

Tim Austin is one of the most underrated fighters of his generation. In the latest annual Ring Magazine "best fighter" poll of "boxing experts," where 10 ballots are tallied, Austin received one vote.

Tim Austin
Tim Austin, shown in a fight last year, was undefeated until he ran into Rafael Marquez.
That means of all the ballots, only one even had Austin' name on it at all, and that one had him rated dead last on a list of the 10 best pound-for-pound fighters in the world.

The one vote for Austin was cast by me.

And why not? At the time the poll was taken, Austin had been the best bantamweight in the world for 5½ years -- ever since he knocked out the very tough Mbulelo Botile for his 118-pound belt. Botile broke Austin's jaw in the first round, but Austin proved his champion's heart and came back to score an eighth-round knockout to take Botile's title.

The Cincinnati bantamweight went on to make nine successful defenses, against the likes of Arthur Johnson and Adan Vargas, good little fighters who brought modest paydays. Austin remained buried on Don King undercards because King either could not or would not lure marquee names in and around Austin's weight class into a fight. Johnny Tapia, Danny Romero, Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales. It's not like there weren't some potential paydays in the bantamweight neighborhood during Austin's title run.

But the little big man never could make real money. Few in this country care about the bantamweights. And then, too, there is that old Joe Frazier line. When Marvin Hagler was a young, avoided middleweight contender, Frazier told him why his road to the title would be so difficult.

"You have three strikes against you," Frazier said, "You're black, you're a southpaw, and you're good."

Hagler was obviously a black southpaw -- though he could also fight right-handed -- but Marvelous Marvin wasn't just good; he was great. His greatness overcame the perceived obstacles to success. Turns out Austin is not great; he is "only" very good. On his first step to a potential big-money fight with the likes of Barrera, Morales or Tapia, Austin stumbled. He stumbled because Rafael Marquez can really punch.

Maybe he also stumbled because he is now 31 years old. Or maybe it is because Don King house trainer Aaron Snowell told him after the seventh to get after Marquez, to try to take the dangerous challenger out. You will remember Snowell as the guy who was in Tyson's corner in Tokyo (sans Enswell), when Buster Douglas scored his upset.

Austin said after the fight that he felt in the eighth he had Marquez right where he wanted him, but got caught. He said the fight could have ended with Marquez knocked out and that he deserves a rematch. He might be right on both counts. It did appear that right before Marquez hurt him, Austin hurt Marquez, who has thrice been stopped in his career. And certainly a fighter with Austin's track record deserves a rematch after suddenly losing his crown in a fight he was probably winning.

The last fighter to whom Rafael Marquez granted a rematch was Mark "Too Sharp" Johnson. Johnson, like Austin, is a guy well fitted for Joe Frazier's "black, southpaw, good" speech. In fact, along with strawweight and junior flyweight king Ricardo Lopez, Too Sharp is the best tiny fighter to come along in my boxing-watching lifetime, which is now over a quarter century old (I'm 29, but I have no actual memory of living through the great flyweight reign of Miguel Canto). Mark Johnson was scary-good as a 112-pounder, top-notch at 115, and -- going into the Marquez fight in 2001 -- figured to be at least a force at 118.

Marquez squeaked by Johnson with a split decision in an action-packed fight in their first go-round. In the rematch he stopped Too Sharp in eight rounds.

There has long been a feeling among boxing matchmakers and managers -- boxing's "wise guys" -- that if you have a good Mexican prospect who appeals to the large Mexican and Mexican-American boxing audience, you avoid putting him in with good, fast, usually black American southpaws. This philosophy, what I will call the "matchmaker's orthodoxy," is based on the following assumptions:

1. Mexican trainers have traditionally tried to cater to the Mexican fans, who value slugging over boxing.
2. American trainers are more sophisticated and better understand strategic and tactical subtleties.
3. Southpaws, since there are fewer of them, are at an advantage; they are experienced against right-handed fighters, but right-handed fighters are inexperienced against them.
4. Black fighters have no built-in ethnic following; black people do not buy tickets to a black fighter's fights simply because that fighter is black, the way Mexican, Italian, Irish or Jewish people ostensibly support their ethnic, fistic representatives
5. Black fighters are faster than Mexican fighters -- that is, they have some kind of genetic advantage in speed. In today's modern sports terminology, they have more "fast twitch" muscle fibers.

My take on those assumptions:

1. Mexican boxing fans, like all boxing fans, value winning over slugging, but the Mexican boxing culture may in fact value toughness over all things.
2. The United States probably does have more of the very best trainers in the world than any other country.
3. Southpaws actually do enjoy their perceived advantage for the very reason everyone says.
4. The African-American market is the most under-exploited in boxing.
5. For whatever reason (maybe it's selective perception), it does seem to me that until the recent past, most times good, black, American fighters have had advantages in hand speed against good Mexican fighters.

Have any of the assumptions of the matchmaker's orthodoxy been legitimately studied? Not that I am aware. Salvador Sanchez and Miguel Canto were fast and supremely skilled boxers. Oscar De La Hoya is Mexican-American, and his hand speed has always been one of his greatest atttributes. The orthodoxy deals in generalities, as does my take on it. Once we say "Mexican," or "African-American," or "southpaw," we are by definition generalizing.

Nevertheless, it is true that the icons of Mexican boxing have been super-aggressive fighters like Ruben Olivares, Alfonzo Zamora, Carlos Zarate and Julio Cesar Chavez, warriors known for scoring brutal knockouts, not neat decisions. The punch most associated with Mexican fighters has not been the jab to the chest, but the hook to the liver.

The question is not whether things are changing with regard to Mexican fighters -- we do not really know if our perceptions accurately reflect reality. No, the question is: Are our perceptions themselves changing?

Emanuel Steward, the great American trainer, manager, and ringside television analyst, raised the issue of the changing perception of Mexican fighters during the broadcast of Marquez's rematch with Johnson. Steward referred to the emergence of the sweet-boxing Marquez brothers and the transformation that has taken place in Marco Antonio Barrera, from face-first brawler to expert counterpuncher. He pointed out how Rafael Marquez was actually outboxing Too Sharp during the fight.

Rafael's older brother, Juan Manuel, may be the best 126-pounder in the world right now. After beating countless featherweight contenders and then recently destroying top-flight Manuel Medina, he certainly deserves the chance to prove his worth against either Barrera or Morales -- two highly skilled Mexican boxers. Rafael is flying -- or at least punching -- in the face of the orthodoxy, knocking out the two best lighter-weight, black, American southpaws of the last decade. And it is not that he simply out-gutted them. Rafael outboxed Johnson and nearly matched Austin move for move.

The fact that both Marquez brothers hold spurious sanctioning body belts is uninteresting. What is very interesting is that they both have legitimate shots at becoming bona-fide Ring Magazine champions. Two fast, smooth-boxing Mexican brothers, in adjacent old-school eight divisions, who might each be the best in his weight class. They're both fast, and they both hit hard.

And neither one is known for the hook to the liver.

Max Kellerman is a studio analyst for ESPN2's Friday Night Fights and the host of the show Around The Horn.

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