LAS VEGAS – In most sports, defense is necessary to win championships. In boxing, it is necessary simply to keep one's brain from being scrambled.
By that measure, Yuriorkis Gamboa, the World Boxing Association featherweight champion, is at least competent defensively, because he remains a bright and outgoing young man. But Gamboa, who will meet Orlando Salido on Saturday in a featherweight championship unification bout in the main event of an HBO-televised card at the Palms Casino, is one of the two or three most exciting boxers in the world precisely because he isn't so great defensively.
A Gamboa fight is, well, a fight. The Cuban, who is 18-0 with 15 knockouts, frequently takes unnecessary risks. He gets hit with shots that even average defensive fighters usually avoid. He seems more than willing to take three to give one, because he believes so thoroughly in the damage he can do with his one. He creates so much torque when he punches that you swear he's liable to corkscrew himself through the mat.
The next punch Gamboa slips may be the first in his career. Clearly, he's not fighting to win by decision.
Salido is not in Gamboa's class athletically and will be sorely outmatched in terms of speed and power. But Salido has won 20 of his last 22 bouts, his only defeats coming to the great Juan Manuel Marquez and Cristobal Cruz. Salido, 29, began his career when he was 15 and went 14-8-2 in his first 24 fights. He's subsequently developed into a solid professional who was good enough to defeat Robert Guerrero in 2006, though that win was overturned when Salido tested positive for an anabolic steroid.
But he beat Cruz in a rematch in May to win the International Boxing Federation featherweight belt and feels his career has been rejuvenated since hiring Hall of Famer Daniel Zaragoza as his trainer. And while Salido respects Gamboa, he also insists he's not intimidated.
"I see things he does that I can take advantage of," Salido said of Gamboa.
One doesn't need to have the highly trained eye of a Freddie Roach to see that. Gamboa's defensive flaws are evident for all to see. He's so powerful and so good offensively, though, that taking advantage of those flaws is about as simple as eating soup with a fork.
And without question, Gamboa has gotten better defensively, though he still doesn't remind anyone of Willie Pep and probably never will
"I work on everything I need to do to become the best, and that includes [defense]," Gamboa said.
Here's hoping, though, that he doesn't become too efficient defensively. Boxing will be a lot less exciting if he does.
A potential match with World Boxing Organization featherweight kingpin Juan Manuel Lopez, could be held in the spring at New Meadowlands Stadium. That would match men with a combined record of 47-0 and 41 knockouts and is the most viewer-friendly fight in boxing that could be made. Top Rank had hoped to have matched the two by now, but opted to let the fight build before pairing them.
Lopez, who will be ringside on Saturday, will face a difficult match on Nov. 6 when he meets veteran Rafael Marquez at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. If Gamboa gets past Salido and Lopez survives Marquez, it's likely, though no sure thing, that they'll meet next year.
"I would love to fight him," Lopez said of Gamboa.
Gamboa conceded he feels likewise, though he took a none-too-subtle dig at Lopez when he noted that the fight will occur "When Top Rank feels he's ready to fight me."
Top Rank president Todd duBoef said one of the attractions of a potential Gamboa-Lopez bout is each man's vulnerability. Each has been knocked down in his career and each has the power to finish the other. Plus, they fight with a fury that makes a short night almost inevitable.
Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis will love a Gamboa-Lopez match. You almost know for sure that one of them is going to go down and is going to go down hard. It's likely that it would be both of them.
"You never want to guarantee something, but this is one of those fights where you almost feel you're understating what it would be like when you say it has to be sensational," duBoef said. "To me, that fight would kind of be like [Marco Antonio] Barrera-[Erik] Morales."
Barrera-Morales put on one of the greatest, if not the best, series of matches in boxing history. If Gamboa-Lopez can come remotely close to matching the ferocity of their three fights, it would quickly become one for the ages.
There is a lot of work ahead of each man before that fight becomes a reality. And it is their styles that will make every fan of a knockdown, drag-out brawl hold his or her breath until it is made.
"I think it's going to be a great fight [between Gamboa and Salido]," Lopez said. "It's not going to be an easy fight for [Gamboa]. Salido is very experienced and he knows what he's doing in there."
If Gamboa were defensively proficient, it would be simple to predict that he'll cut Salido to shreds. As it is, he probably will do that, though he's liable to get caught and scuttle the best laid plans to make the fight that no real boxing fan would want to miss.
Gamboa's powerful punches and questionable defense always leave you on the edge of your seat. Every Gamboa fight is sudden death in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
It's why he's not to be missed.