Rematch promises plenty of fireworks

Kevin Iole

When you plop down your $10 to buy a seat in the movie theater, you can be reasonably certain of what you're getting: A quality picture, impeccable sound, comfortable seating and first-rate actors.

The same can't be said of going to a professional boxing match. The standards of what is acceptable vary widely. And even when one tunes into HBO or Showtime, which broadcast the sport at, theoretically, the highest level in the U.S., quality varies significantly.

Last week, three elite young fighters appeared on HBO: Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, Adrien Broner and Gary Russell Jr. All three are highly talented and have the ability to become big-time stars.

The broadcast, though, was dreadful, because all three men were woefully mismatched. Alvarez fought veteran Kermit Cintron, a one-time quality fighter who had clearly reached the end of the line. Cintron, though, was a vastly superior opponent to the men that Broner and Russell faced.

Broner blew out Argentinian Vicente Martin Rodriguez in fewer than three rounds. Rodriguez had a good record, but had never fought out of his native Argentina and he'd met questionable opposition. In his last seven fights prior to meeting Broner, he'd faced guys with records of 0-7, 24-3, 9-5-2, 20-24-5, 14-3-1, 14-7-1, 9-10-2, 11-20-4 and 16-7-1. It was like pairing the Celtics against the Albany Patroons and the Lakers against the Rapid City Thrillers.

"I'll tell you the truth: I think I'd have had a very difficult time getting him on an ESPN show," said promoter Joe DeGuardia of Star Boxing, who does a lot of business with ESPN.

Russell fought long-since shot Heriberto Ruiz, who not only hadn't beaten anyone of note in years, but who had done all of his best work at bantamweight, two classes below where he faced Russell.

Those type of one-sided matches find their way onto the major premium cable networks all too often while bouts like the 10-round super welterweight brawl on July 15 at the Roseland Ballroom in New York between Pawel Wolak and Delvin Rodriguez are routinely ignored.

There are fighters in the game more talented than either Wolak or Rodriguez, and Alvarez, Broner and Russell are unquestionably in that group.

But the kind of fight that Wolak and Rodriguez put on that night is the kind of fight that boxing needs more of: A hard-nosed, toe-to-toe slugfest between two evenly matched men who desperately wanted to win and who gave everything of themselves in order to get it.

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Neither of them did – their Fight of the Year candidate bout was a majority draw – which, in an odd sort of way, is fortunate.

Had one of them won, they may not be rematching on Saturday on the HBO Pay-Per-View card at Madison Square Garden that will be headlined by Antonio Margarito and Miguel Cotto.

The bout was a throwback to fights from years gone by, when guys fought every other weekend, at worst, and attempted to deliver mayhem with every shot. The crowd was into it and the atmosphere, Star Boxing's veteran matchmaker Ron Katz said, made the hair on his arms stand up.

"It was so electric in there, so exciting," Katz said. "It had you on the edge of your seat. It's one of those fights where, when you're in the audience, you become part of the fight. You're moving and squirming with every punch, and when the fight is over, you are physically exhausted."

Wolak is a 30-year-old Pole who grew up in the U.S. and didn't box until he was almost 20. He'd wrestled and played soccer in high school, but became captivated by the sport in 1996 while he was in high school and Polish star Andrew Golota fought ex-heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe.

"I probably might have boxed before that, but I was in the suburbs and there were no gyms around me," Wolak said. "Seeing Golota fight, that probably got me on the path to start to box."

He got a car when he was 17 and he could finally drive to a boxing gym. He fell in love. Before long, he turned professional, with but a handful of amateur bouts to his credit. He was raw, without much technique, but there were few who were tougher or more determined.

He won his first 21 bouts before he dropped a decision to veteran Ishe Smith, a smart, fast and quick boxer who knew how to fend off Wolak's relentless assaults.

Wolak regrouped from that loss to win nine more before he fought Rodriguez, a native of the Dominican Republic whose career had always been just a bit off. He was talented, but not quite talented enough, and he entered the bout with Wolak having lost three of four.

"Delvin's been one of those guys who has been considered not quite elite," Katz said. "He was one of those guys who was always seen as a notch-and-a-half, maybe two notches below the elite guys."

Part of Rodriguez's problem, though, was that he was trying to make 147 pounds when it would mean eating nothing and drinking little for three days.

"I had to dry myself out completely and by the fourth or fifth round in a fight, I could feel it in my legs," Rodriguez said.

He moved up a class to super welterweight to face Wolak. Not only did he have a new division, he had hired ex-heavyweight contender Fernely Feliz as his trainer. He also brought on a new conditioning coach, a new manager and, he says, a new attitude.

It showed, as he pummeled Wolak with powerful shots, raising a welt alongside Wolak's right eye the size of a tennis ball. He was bashing Wolak with crisp, clean shots and looked all the world like he had covered those final two notches to become elite. Yet, Wolak wouldn't stop coming.

"He's the kind of guy who, with his style, he has to get inside and smother you, and he takes a lot of punches to do that," Rodriguez said. "I knew he had a good chin, and that he was a warrior. That was obvious just by watching him fight. But I will admit, I was a little surprised that he took some of those shots."

By the seventh round, Wolak's eye was swollen so badly that he couldn't see out of it. He didn't want to quit, so he opted to get even closer to Rodriguez. By getting so close that they were almost touching chests, he could sense when Rodriguez was going to throw the left hook and try to block it.

"Fighting through those kinds of situations is part of the business," Wolak said, matter of factly.

By the final round, nearly everyone in the arena was standing as Wolak and Rodriguez were flailing away at each other. When the bell rang, both pranced around the ring in triumph, knowing they'd been a part of something that would link them in the history books forever.

"You don't see those kinds of fights too often," said DeGuardia, who in his decades-long career didn't think he was ever involved in a better fight. "People want to talk about all that is bad about boxing, but I'll tell you this: You put kids like that on TV, on HBO or Showtime, and you're going to get real fights and you'll get everybody and his brother racing to get home so they're by the TV to see it. Those are the kinds of fights that we need to see more regularly in boxing."

They made it onto one of the biggest cards of the year, and both Wolak and Rodriguez believe they might be able to upstage Cotto-Margarito II.

Everyone who saw the fight in person had the impression they'd had a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Now, just a short distance away but on a much bigger stage, it may just happen all over again. Just as the late legendary ex-champion Arturo Gatti put on three captivating brawls with Micky Ward, the probability of an encore from Wolak and Rodriguez is high.

"Gatti-Ward was the torch bearer for what this could become," Katz said. "Just like Arturo and Micky, they're blue-collar, hard-working guys who come to fight and who give you whatever they have each night. Those are the kinds of fights that we ought to be pushing because they'll make you fall in love with boxing again."

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