LAS VEGAS – Joseph Agbeko crumpled over in pain, his dreams shattered, his chance at glory seemingly ended.
Yet, it wasn't the pain from the back injury that hurt as badly as the ache in his heart when he was forced to pull out of the finale of Showtime's bantamweight title fight in April in Los Angeles against Abner Mares.
Agbeko desperately wanted to win the tournament and retain his International Boxing Federation bantamweight title to prove he had come all the way back from a 2009 defeat to Yohnny Perez.
Agbeko successfully navigated Part I, when he put on a brilliant performance in a unanimous decision victory over Perez in a rematch that was the opening round of the Showtime tournament.
The glow of that career-defining win was lost, though, when Agbeko collapsed at the baggage claim at Los Angeles International Airport, writhing in pain from his back. He injured the sciatic nerve in his back after sitting on a plane for more than six hours. It wasn't going to be a long-term issue, like so many back problems are, but it hurt so badly that Agbeko couldn't help but at least think of the worst.
He knew there was at least the possibility that something serious was wrong and that he may not fight again, though he tried his best to suppress that thought.
A guy nicknamed "King Kong" has to be tough, but there is no injury more debilitating to an athlete than one to the back. And try as Agbeko might, there was no way he was going to be able to fight Mares.
"It hurt so badly, but all I could think of was that I wasn't going to get the chance to defend my title and win the tournament," Agbeko said. "That was the difficult part. I didn't know what was going to happen."
Golden Boy Promotions, which promotes Mares, briefly considered another opponent before agreeing to postpone the match. Agbeko was thankful that Mares, Golden Boy and officials at Showtime were understanding of his plight and agreed to reschedule the event.
He'll get the chance he was hoping for in April when he meets Mares for the IBF belt and the Showtime tournament title on Saturday at the Hard Rock Casino.
And though Agbeko, a tall, lithe bantamweight with a piston-like jab and a punishing right hand, has largely been inactive the last two years, he still believes he's one of the elite.
The bout will be his first against someone other than Perez in more than two years, and will be only his third in the last 22 months. It's a lot of inactivity for a guy who dreams of being on the pound-for-pound lists, but Agbeko isn't looking back.
"Fortunately for me, there were great opponents in this tournament, and there are still great opponents out there after this is over," he said. "I am a fighter, and as a fighter, I want to fight, but sometimes things happen which are out of your control. I am healthy now, and I am going to take advantage of that and prove to everyone that I am the best bantamweight in the world."
Agbeko is the third-ranked bantamweight in The Ring ratings and has wins over No. 5 Vic Darchinyan and No. 7 Perez. A win over No. 4 Mares would make a pretty good case that he deserves to be ranked no worse than No. 2 behind Nonito Donaire.
Donaire opted not to take part in the tournament and is clearly perceived to be the world's best bantamweight. He is ranked No. 4 in the Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound ratings and is considered by some to be the best fighter in the world.
Agbeko clearly would relish a bout with Donaire – "I would like to prove why he didn't get into the tournament," he says of Donaire – but he's not allowing himself to think about that much yet.
"I want this even more because of what I have been through," said Agbeko, who said his back is perfect. "I got so close and then it was taken away. It's made me hungrier, and in the long run, it's a good thing."
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- Joseph Agbeko
- Abner Mares