Heading into February 23 of this year, David Price was a headline-grabbing, 6'8" heavyweight prospect out of the United Kingdom, kicking up some dust in his home country, and starting to get some attention from American fans, too.
At 15-0 with 13 wins coming by way of knockout, the 29-year-old Liverpool native looked the sort of heavyweight prospect you could really get excited about: Big and tall, with a long reach, some good boxing skills, an amateur background worth noting, and serious knockout power. Of his six most recent opponents, only one had made it out of the second round, when Sam Sexton went into the fourth before getting knocked out in May 2012.
Tony Thompson figured to be a stepping stone. Now in his 40s, Thompson came in a two-time world title challenger, both pretty one-sided defeats to Wladimir Klitschko. The first time out in 2008, Thompson did reasonably well all things considered, taking Wladimir into the 11th round before the fight was over, though Klitschko had won the fight somewhat easily up until then, taking at least eight of the first ten rounds. The rematch in 2012 bore no resemblance to the first fight, as an older, more haggard-looking Thompson was totally neutralized and finished off inside of six full rounds, seemingly looking for a way out of a fight he knew he could not win.
Price was supposed to win and do so impressively. That way, promoter Frank Maloney and BoxNation owner Frank Warren could continue to tout him as the next big thing in the heavyweight division, at least on par with countryman Tyson Fury -- a fight between the two seen as the coming mega-fight of British boxing, and both of them considered future potential Klitschko opponents who might actually take over the division from its Ukrainian rulers.
Thompson, though, didn't see himself as a patsy or a stepping stone for a boxer on the rise, though you'd be forgiven for thinking he was just showing up for the paycheck by his appearance. Counted out by pretty much everybody, the aging American showed up at a career-high 262 pounds on the scales, looking flabby and disinterested.
There had been doubts about Price's chin dating back to his amateur days. It was the one worry those more familiar with him than just the pro hype had to temper their excitement about what appeared to be a destructive, exciting new force in a division that desperately needed -- and still needs -- that sort of fighter to join the fray at the higher levels.
Price, walking to the ring as he always does to the Liverpool anthem "You'll Never Walk Alone," was showered in cheers and a mass singalong in front of what is one of boxing's most passionate modern crowds, a city that revels in its hometown heroes and gives them the welcoming of a worldwide superstar every time out. Thompson, having come out prior to the expected round of boos, either wasn't fazed by the reception, or it got under his skin to the degree that it had him ready to swing for the fences when he got the shot. Chances are, it was the former, as the old pro had been on this stage and bigger before.
The staredown at center ring told its own tale. At 6'5", Thompson has rarely had to look up at an opponent as the referee read the instructions, but he was down three inches to Price in this case. Still, he stared daggers into the home fighter. Price blinked first, then dipped his chin to look down at the canvas. He'd find himself there soon.
The first round was won by Price, with little between them. Though he had fat spilling over the top of his trunks, Thompson didn't look intimidated in the least. Round two was going by much as expected, too. Price pressed forward with the big right hand that had been his bread and butter as a professional, looking for the one-punch KO that he had shown could stop just about anyone thus far in his career.
Thompson was able to keep enough distance, though, avoiding the shots and making Price hit the reset button on his attacks. To his own credit, Price guarded well against long left hands from Thompson, which figured to be the best weapon for the American, given the suspected fragility of Price's chin. If he could catch Price napping at distance, it figured to reason he could conceivably score the big upset.
"You can bet your money, Paul, that somewhere the Klitschko brothers will be watching this, and that also, a big fella called Tyson Fury will be watching," said BoxNation's John Rawling.
"Yep, it's exciting times in this heavyweight division," Paul Smith started to respond, before a right hook smashed Price behind the ear, bending him to the canvas seemingly in slow motion. "Oh, goodness me!" Rawling exclaimed. "This is the disaster scenario."
Indeed it was. As Price valiantly fought his way off the floor, only to almost comically have the balance of a cartoon mummy staggering and lurching, referee Steve Gray had no choice but to stop the fight at 2:17 of round two. Maybe you would argue that Price should have been given a chance. You would be arguing for the right to see the cagey Thompson take a discombobulated Price's head off.
It goes without saying, but let's say it anyway. David Price absolutely has to win tomorrow. It's not to say that his career could never recover from back-to-back defeats against a 41-year-old American whose status is that of veteran rather than contender these days. In theory, Price could lose again tomorrow, get back in the gym, find The Secret, and tear it up for years as a pro, and become a dominant heavyweight.
That could happen. But even if it did, we'd be asking a lot mentally of a fighter whose bubble was already burst just four months ago. Surely, Price believes (or is conditioning himself to believe) that Thompson merely landed a lucky punch. In this division, as they say, any one punch can do it. The fighters are so big that one clean, unseen shot can turn out the lights on any given night. A second loss, though, and to a proven non-elite like Thompson? And back-to-back in a four-month span?
Mentally, it could be truly devastating for Price. It would be entirely reasonable to believe that his confidence would be shot. Lennox Lewis has given Price some advice between the fights, which is good for David. Lewis, as you know, was in similar situations, after getting shockingly knocked out by Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman. The difference, though, is that Lewis had already been a world champion when McCall stopped him in two rounds in 1994, and Lennox then got himself back slowly, taking a pair of tune-up fights before facing and beating the more credible Tommy Morrison and Ray Mercer, which led him three years later to his bizarre rematch with McCall.
The game is different than it was then, of course. Television rules the boxing game now, as that's where a good chunk of the money comes into play. Fighters like Price, who turns 30 on Saturday to add more pressure, don't want to fight for peanuts off television, but without TV, peanuts are about all that's available. That means Price needed something at least somewhat credible. The rematch with Thompson, then, made dollars and sense in 2013. No time to rebuild, no time to play it safe. Get the loss back, erase the memory, and get back on track.
Promoter Maloney may play the role of confident overseer in public, but it would hardly be a mark against him if he's as nervous as anyone right now. Price is his only major fighter, and the deal with BoxNation was only made because of David. A second straight Price loss would all but gut Frank Maloney as a promoter for the time being.
Thompson came in at 259 pounds on the scales today, three pounds lighter than his February weight. That's still not ideal for him, but Thompson's career was given a big blast of oxygen into fading lungs when he beat Price. Right now, the 41-year-old DC native is playing with house money. He knows he can knock Price out, and surely is confident he'll do it again. Even more than four months ago, Thompson has nothing to lose -- there should be even less fear now than there was then. Everything is riding on David Price, and for a guy whose career hit a major roadblock in his last fight, the nerves must be overwhelming as bell time rapidly approaches.
Another loss will put Price firmly into the "also-ran" category of the division. Another win will give Thompson the potential to fight for another world title, or at least for another big paycheck. David Price has said this fight is "do or die." Usually that's just something a fighter says. In this case, it's as close to true as it ever can be in the boxing world. Losing could send Price into the dreaded state of mind where he may consider another line of work -- after all, if he can't handle Tony Thompson, why should anyone expect him to reach the mountain top?
If David Price is going to have his time in the heavyweight division, he must beat Tony Thompson tomorrow in Liverpool, and he must bury the memory of that shocking February evening. The pressure is on, and now we find out how the big man responds.