The Protected Fighter: Boxing's Modern Day Matchmaking and Avoiding the Best Fights

Abner Mares could face Anselmo Moreno in a bout of two top fighters, but the two will likely just fight on the same card. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

James Foley is back this evening at Bad Left Hook with his latest piece.

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Five years into Sugar Ray Leonard's career, he had already beaten Wilfredo Benitez, Roberto Duran and Tommy Hearns and was universally regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport and the legitimate champion at welterweight. Pernell Whitaker needed about five years to become the unified lightweight champion of the world with dominant performances against the likes of Azumah Nelson, Greg Haugen, Jose Luis Ramirez and Roger Mayweather. And fellow Olympian Evander Holyfield, with less than four years as a pro, was the unified cruiserweight champ with resounding wins over two of the best of all time in that division, Dwight Muhammad Qawi (twice) and Carlos DeLeon. Andre Ward, in December, easily outclassed Carl Froch and was awarded the legitimate championship at 168 lbs. almost seven years to the day of his professional debut. What took him so long?

At a certain point in boxing's often ignoble history, the philosophy seemed to change. Real superstars were always afforded a certain protection in terms of avoiding potentially difficult fights through inventive matchmaking. That's nothing new. But the guys who became stars generally had to beat the best to become the best. They actually earned the luxury of choice by taking on and beating the toughest opponent possible at some point. Angelo Dundee, Leonard's trainer/advisor, famously held off on the Hearns meeting for a year or two, to raise their profiles and give his fighter more time to develop. Leonard and Hearns ended up meeting in their absolute primes and the result was an all-time classic fight. When they staged a rematch eight years later, they were still both younger than Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather will be, should they ever deign to meet.

These days, the path to the top isn't about taking on all comers. It's about taking the fights with the lowest risk until you absolutely have no other choice. And I'm not calling out either of the two gentlemen who could be involved in a mega-fight for the ages. I don't think Mayweather took an easy path when he challenged then-undefeated top contender Diego Corrales at 130 lbs. and moved up to fight the legitimate champ, Jose Luis Castillo, at 135. And I hope Pacquiao's record speaks for itself; if not, let's just say the fights with Marco Antonio Barrera, Eric Morales and Juan Manuel Marquez are a good place to start if anyone doubts his credentials. Mayweather and Pacquiao are rightfully at the top of the sport and the only guys they're truly guilty of not fighting are each other. Painful as that is, I'm not going to attempt to be the millionth guy to throw my two cents in on it. Ultimately, I'm just another disappointed fan who wants to see the best two fighters of the era vie for supremacy.

What actually got my blood boiling on the subject of match-making was reading the news of a proposed Golden Boy double-header featuring Abner Mares and Anselmo Moreno, but of course not against each other, certain to air on a premium cable network. The reason for this is laughably transparent. Moreno hails from Panama, has virtually no fan-base and no name recognition, and fights in a tricky defensive style that would be difficult for anyone in the division to crack. Mares doesn't have a significant following either but he's the type of fighter you can imagine Golden Boy having grander designs for: aggressive and athletic, good-looking and well-spoken, bilingual and undefeated. If ever there was a spoiler, Moreno is that guy. The problem is Moreno deserves the fight. Mares is a very good fighter and I'm not in the least bit ruling him out should that contest take place. He too deserves the chance, as a young fighter aspiring to be great, to take on his best competition, because that's how you become "a star" in this sport, at least it always has been. But this is boxing, what the hell did ‘deserve' ever have to do with anything?

With the supremely talented Nonito Donaire leaving the bantamweight division, Mares vs. Moreno is a legitimate #1 vs. #2 match-up. Instead, we'll probably end up with Mares against Eric Morel, a 36 year old blown-up former flyweight titlist whose disadvantages will include height, reach, speed, power and every other imaginable category. Who Moreno ends up fighting is anyone's guess. Afterwards, we'll undoubtedly hear that Mares vs. Moreno will be the ‘next' fight. It's always the next fight these days.

In all fairness, both of these guys are coming off of big wins against top-ranked bantamweight contenders. I don't have a huge objection to taking a softie before meeting the most difficult tests of their careers, each other. But tune-up fights shouldn't be on premium cable networks. The cable networks and promoters have created a monster where a good of deal of fighters simply will not fight without a network platform and, more importantly, payday. Reversing that trend starts with companies like HBO, more powerful than all the Top Ranks and Golden Boys put together, refusing to fork over cash and valuable time slots for glorified mismatches. Showtime recently was reported to have turned down Lucian Bute vs. Carl Froch, a perfectly good fight (better than that, in my opinion), yet they purchased Paul Williams vs. Nobuhiro Ishida as a main event for February 18. While the Bute-Froch fight likely would have come at a higher cost, I have a hard time believing Paul Williams, accustomed to million-dollar paydays on HBO, isn't being handsomely compensated for that fight. Bute-Froch pits the bona-fide #1 and #2 challengers to Andre Ward's crown in the 168 lb. division, one you may be familiar with since this same network just aired a mega-tournament over the last two years that yielded Ward as the super-middleweight champion. Williams-Ishida features a guy almost everyone thinks is over the hill against a guy no one ever thought was any good.

In encouraging news, it sounds like Top Rank is sincere in matching up featherweight sensation Yuriorkis Gamboa with certified action star, lightweight Brandon Rios. Two undefeated fighters with complementary styles destined to push themselves to places they've never been. These kinds of fights create superstars out of the winner and more often boost both men's stock than not. Perhaps Top Rank realized it's not worth protecting a guy with 500 fans in the hopes that in five years he'll have 5000 fans. Throw him into the fire and let him reveal himself. If he succeeds, maybe one day he'll have 5 million fans. The luxury of Gamboa-Rios is no matter the outcome, Top Rank has the winner.

Promoters have to stop being so short-sighted with the careers of their young fighters. And networks need to stop buying whatever garbage the promoters feed them. The former president of HBO would have served himself better if he had the mettle to simply look a few people in the eye when he needed to, and simply say "No."

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