LAS VEGAS – Fighting Jhonny Gonzalez is akin to a stunt man walking a tight rope between a pair of skyscrapers with no safety net below.
It can be done, in some cases easily, but one mistake spells disaster.
And that's the situation that Abner Mares found himself confronting after Gonzalez stopped him in the first round of their Aug. 24, 2013, match in Carson, Calif.
Mares was a heavy favorite and could have easily out-boxed Gonzalez, who is extraordinarily hittable and vulnerable to lateral movement.
But one of the reasons that Mares became one of the more popular young fighters in the world is his fighting spirit. Mares was always so focused on putting on a show and bringing the crowd out of its seats – which is important in getting noticed in a very crowded landscape – that he often lost sight of what was important.
The one thing Gonzalez can do better than just about any featherweight in the world is punch. And when Mares tried to impress the StubHub Center crowd, which likes nothing more than a shootout, he paid the ultimate price.
He was stopped in the first round and lost his featherweight title. No one was talking about him as a potential member of the mythical pound-for-pound list. He was, in some quarters, dismissed as an overrated fluke.
That, though, is not the case. Mares won titles in three divisions and could have kept his title had he not been so determined to put on a show. But he tried to walk that tightrope and failed.
So, he's starting over and has left trainer Clemente Medina in favor of the more defensive-minded Virgil Hunter. He'll face Jonathan Oquendo on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden on the pay-per-view undercard of the Canelo Alvarez-Erislandy Lara fight.
Mares only began working with Hunter, best known for his brilliant work with super middleweight champion Andre Ward, earlier this year, but he said he's convinced Hunter is already making a difference.
"He's improving things, he's making me see things I didn't know, and we're working with each other," Mares said. "We're working with what I have and he's working with what he's going to give me. So, I've seen a lot of progress already with him, the sparring sessions already, so believe me, when fight night comes all that will be shown."
Hunter's mindset is to preach defense first, which hasn't always been Mares' way of looking at things. Mares loved toe-to-toe slugfests and he got better as the crowd would get louder.
After getting knocked down twice and being stopped, Mares initially wanted an immediate rematch. The rematch with Gonzalez was scheduled for February, but when Mares was injured, he had to pull out.
When he steps into the ring on Saturday, he'll have been away for 11 months and will return with a vastly different team and with a different landscape in the division.
He's left Medina for Hunter and he's in the process of parting ways with Frank Espinoza, his longtime manager.
On Aug. 24, 2013, Vasyl Lomachenko had yet to turn pro, but now the two-time Olympian holds the WBO featherweight crown and is now regarded by many as the best 126-pounder in the world.
Mares, though, is happy he didn't come back sooner. Not only did the delay allow him to connect with Hunter, he correctly pointed out it allowed him time to recover fully from the damage he took.
There's something to be said for getting back on the horse after falling, but in boxing, it's wise to take time after a particularly brutal fight or violent knockout.
"Well, you know what, it's funny," Mares said. "I didn't even say this, but I was blessed that the fight was stopped [quickly]. I was going to get up that second time, but the ref did make the great call and did not let me continue, or else I think I would have taken even more damage. Who knows? I would have fought back [and taken] a lot of punches.
"At the end of the day, I did take this fight because I know I'm ready mentally. … I always had that in my mind when I first signed a contract to be a professional fighter that there was going to be a loss. No matter what, this is a contact sport. It's a risky sport. Anything can happen, but I'm ready for anything."
The loss ultimately can turn out to be beneficial for Mares, if he melds with Hunter and is able to incorporate Hunter's defensive philosophies while retaining the talents that made him a three-time champion in the first place.
It was a devastating night for Mares, but there may come a time when he looks back on that first-round knockout loss to Gonzalez as one of the best things that ever happened to him as a pro.
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