Under what circumstances can we speak cynically of a fighter who has dominated his opponent?
Adrien Broner trounced an enervated John Molina on Saturday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Despite the fervent attempts of the broadcast team to instill the fight with a veneer of competitiveness, it was a thoroughly one-sided affair. The Cincinnati-based junior welterweight won almost every instant of the fight, keeping his opponent off balance with a stiff upstairs-downstairs jab, pot-shotting from the outside, and mixing in the occasional fast combination for good measure. Broner landed 219 punches to Molina's 54, more than a 4-1 margin. What has Broner to show for his efforts? A cool $1.25 million purse, for starters, which is nothing to scoff at. As far as prestige and reputation are concerned, he has once more proved himself the cream of the b-list.
Were Adrien Broner new to the spotlight or making his way up the ranks, one would be inclined to say, "this kid is headed for big things." Indeed, it's a sentiment that I, for one, am not completely ready to abandon. But neither can I banish the sense of impatience with Broner, because we've been here before.
During his emergence in the super featherweight and lightweight divisions, Broner attracted attention for his athleticism, his power, his Mayweather-inspired defensive stance, and his outrageous persona. The latter manifested itself on the clock (in-ring clowning, his recurring can-man and brush-my-hair routines) and off (strip club misadventures, sex tapes, the money-in-the-toilet affair, to rattle off a few). As a character, Broner stood out among the bunch, but his early career path was par for the course. He fought his first twenty or so fights against journeymen, against won he looked spectacular; he then stepped up his competition and faced some contenders and a few solid but unextraordinary vets, earning himself a couple of belts in the process, all the while declaring himself the heir-apparent to Floyd Mayweather Jr. (with whom he had struck up a friendship), a narrative the media was quick to latch onto.
In June 2013, Broner made the ballsy jump from lightweight directly to welterweight to face the crafty and experienced Paulie Malignaggi, then WBA champion at 147 pounds. With the new challenge, he stepped up his antics as well, drawing Malignaggi into an extended verbal crossfire focused on an ex-girlfriend/fling/whatever who had since taken up with Broner— an episode sure to embarrass anyone trying to make the case for boxing as a noble sport. On fight night, he squeaked by Malignaggi, winning by split decision, declaring in the post-fight interview, "I beat Paulie. I left with his belt and his girl."
Then, the reckoning. Six months later, Broner stepped into the ring with Argentina's Marcos Maidana, he of the mauling hands and those the-abyss-stares-back eyes, then widely perceived as a one-dimensional slugger. Broner, who had exuberantly danced his way into the arena and rapped his way into the ring, encountered a less-than-festive situation inside the ropes. During the course of the next forty-seven minutes, Broner was battered about, twice splashed across the canvas, tried and failed to flop his way out of the fight after a headbutt, and humped from behind by his opponent (a return of Broner's own gesture in the first round), Broner fled from the ring without giving a post-fight interview to a chorus of boos and a barrage of plastic beer cups. It was about as ignominious a defeat as they come, and the incident unleashed a tidal surge of schadenfreude, remarkable in its ardor even in a sport not at all timid about that sort of thing. The image of a hobbled Broner retreating down a suddenly lonely corridor was repurposed for meme after meme ("WHERE FLOYD THEY JUMPED ME" "TELL EM IT WAS SHARKEISHA" "PROBLEM SOLVED").
Since the Maidana fight, Broner has been less ambitious. His return (on the Mayweather-Maidana I undercard) was a tune-up fight through and through, a ten-rounder at 140 pounds against Carlos Molina, a fighter obscure enough that Jim Lampley confused him with a junior middleweight of the same name. In his next fight, he faced Emanuel Taylor, who was coming off a victory of Karim Mayfield, winning by unanimous decision.
John Molina won some attention last year for his blood-and-guts turn with Argentine brawler Lucas Matthysse; like Taylor, Molina is a solid fighter but not a serious contender (neither is a marquee name, for whatever that is worth). He had lost four of his last seven fights going into the Broner match, which he entered an 8.5-1 underdog.
If it's unfair to call the Taylor and Molina bouts pure tune-ups, it's equally unfair to call them legitimate challenges. One way or another, Broner doesn't seem to feel much urgency in reclaiming a title belt or, for that matter, his stature. A loss, even a bad one, does not ruin a fighter. Sometimes it is even good for them, in terms of both craft and, in the long run, career. We know a champion, the adage goes, by how they come back from a loss. But in those scenarios, we look for a fighter to be forging ahead, not settling into a comfortable groove in a lower gear. Earlier in his career, one could make the case that Broner was being matched conservatively in the name of building him up. Now, three fights after his bad evening with Maidana, he just looks protected.
Broner describes himself as "an entertainer." He has one side-gig as an uninspired but enthusiastic rapper, another as a life-of-the-party for hire. He seems eminently unconcerned with projecting the with-your-shield-or-on-your-shield intensity of so many young fighters. For Broner, it is all about celebration. He sees himself, I would guess, as boxing's class clown, the equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters playing at championship level.
But having scaled down his competition (at least for the time being), with his air of invulnerability punctured and all the "future of boxing" talk dissipated, Broner's act has lost its luster. Without the momentum of a hard-driving championship campaign behind him, his theatrical villain act seems plain grating, and it's hard (for me at least) to find reasons to put up with the shtick other than the tease of another fistic comeuppance a la Maidana— a cheap thrill the second time around. He was booed from beginning to end of Saturday night. It was not so much a pro-Molina audience (since when does John Molina have enough of a following to fill the MGM Grand?) as an anti-Broner crowd. There is some irony in this— Broner has spoken of cleaning up his act in order to make a positive impression on new boxing fans tuning in on NBC, but he isn't presenting much else to latch onto.
I don't want to pick on Broner too much. Boorish as his bearing can be, the guy is out-of-the-mold. He's never going to play it straight, never going to tow a line (for all his talk about toning down his hijinks, he was unable to restrain himself from breaking into the old can man routine in the post-fight interview). I appreciate his individuality, and I'm glad he's in the mix. If you keep your eyes peeled, you can detect a kind of sweetness beneath the surface. He's been involved in various charity endeavors, and, incredibly, made a get-well-soon call to Paulie Malignaggi in the hospital after the latter's bruising loss to Shawn Porter, apparently one of only two boxers to do so. The kid certainly has skills too— great reflexes, fast hands, creative combinations, and he's young enough to improve on his areas of difficulty (movement trouble, bouts of inactivity, defensive gaps).
Anyway, he has a great reason to keep doing exactly what he's doing— he's getting paid. Like I said, $1.25 million for an easy fight isn't a bad deal. I think he deserves it too. Prizefighters have a hard job, and if they can make some money while mitigating blunt force trauma to their person, more power to them. But I suspect that Broner wants more than money. He makes constant reference to the fans— their perceptions of him, their attitude toward him, and vice versa. I suspect that he wants what all showoffs want. He wants to be embraced by his audience. And it just isn't going to happen taking fight after fight against modest competition, not while there are other fighters out there (Keith Thurman or Canelo Alvarez, for example, both of whom are about Broner's age) taking on all comers.
There's been some banter between Broner and Amir Khan this week about a future clash, a fight that would be a major challenge for Broner. Let's see if he pushes for it. Put up or shut up, they say.