From the moment he entered the ring, it was clear that Stevie Johnston meant business. Gleaming from a vigorous pre fight warmup and bouncing wildly in the ring, Johnston sharply contrasted the brewing calmness of his opponent, Angel Manfredy. Stevie Johnston had something to prove.
Although he is a long time lightweight champion (his reign interrupted only briefly by Cesar Bazan), Johnston has often been one of the more underrated, if not overlooked, stars of the game. His southpaw style, his dramaless victories, and his penchant for 12 round decisions have done little to boost his profile. Coming off a 12 round snoozefest with Aldo Rios that was one of the most boring fights in recent memory, Johnston found himself a surprising 2-1 underdog to the flashy "El Diablo". The odds were wrong.
At the opening bell, Johnston quickly demonstrated the dividends of having moved his training camp from Denver to Las Vegas. In top shape, Johnston began throwing punches at Manfredy and circling on his toes. Manfredy found himself waiting for an opening to counter that never came. Johnston began each combination on the heels of the previous one, with a fair amount of heavy jabbing thrown in for flavor. Angel simply could not get started. Aside from the first hooks in a long line of Manfredy bodywork, the man who outhustled Ivan Robinson found himself shut down and still.
Manfredy's arms moved only a little more in the second round. When he did throw, he dug short crisp punches upstairs and down on the champion. But the gaps between these assaults were filled with increasingly effective work from Johnston. Although Manfredy's tight defense caught many of Johnston's jabs on the arms and gloves, Stevie's sneak right hook was landing clean and setting up some big straight lefts....most notably the one that wobbled Manfredy at the bell.
In the third, Johnston won his third straight decisive round by again being busier and landing the cleaner punches. Manfredy was not completely inactive by this point. His crunching body shots and forward aggression occasionally backed Johnston to the ropes. But the well-conditioned Johnston was able to fight his way off the ropes, pounding Manfredy back to center ring instead of slipping out with his feet. Perhaps the biggest surprises were in these moments, when Johnston dispensed his slickness and out pounded the pounding Manfredy.
Visibly frustrated, Manfredy's best option was to continue digging downstairs. Once he took Johnston off his toes and removed some of the starch from his punches, Manfredy would be able to fight his fight. And so he did.
In the fourth and especially the fifth, Angel Manfredy slammed his fists into Little But Bad's midsection. As Johnston began to slow, Manfredy finally showed some combinations of his own. A left hook, usually following two to the body, swelled Johnston's right eye and combined with a powerful right to begin to turn things around. Make no mistake about it, Manfredy's jab was merely a rumor.
By the sixth, Manfredy's body work had taken Johnston off his toes. With a more stationary target in front of him, Angel did his best work in this stanza. Tired and slowing, Johnston no longer had the fortitude to fight off the ropes, allowing Angel to score in some heated exchanges.
Midway through the bout, and evened up on points, the two warriors used rounds seven and eight to test each other's will. The result was boxing bliss: Two men locked in toe to toe action, fighting in a phone booth, giving and taking with nearly identical scoring. Manfredy digs to the body, then Johnston digs to the body and adds an uppercut. Manfredy answers the uppercut with one of his own and comes over the top with a flush hook. Johnston mimics the hook and adds a three punch combination....and on and on, back and forth, at a breakneck pace that was thrilling.
At the end of the eighth, with both men locked in the most vicious exchange of the night, Johnston regained his second wind. Beneath the ammunition being heaved up top, Stevie Johnston's legs again came alive. He resumed bouncing, bobbing, and weaving...winning the exchange and the round.
Coming out at the beginning of the ninth, Johnston was floating across the ring. Boxing beautifully, his jab again slowed Manfredy, and his lateral movement made Angel miss. Having weathered the storm of Manfredy's offense, Johnston was just now getting into a groove. He won the ninth on ring generalship, and when he needed to remind Angel who was in control, as he did at the end of the tenth, he battered Manfredy across the ring with a series of stinging punches from all angles.
Desperate to regain control, Manfredy fought most of the eleventh round from the southpaw stance. While he pawed with a lame right jab and threw a slow straight left, Manfredy's real plan from this stance was to land a crushing right hook to the body and then knock out Johnston with a left hook while changing back to righty. It was a move he tried several times, even landing the trick combo with power, but it was not near enough to stop Johnston. Peaking in the eleventh, Johnston was now on fire, avoiding Manfredy's wildest shots and punishing him back with dazzling combinations. It was as prime as Johnston has ever been, and proof that his snoozer with Rios was a fluke.
Trailing in the last round, Manfredy did his best to score the last minute knockout, putting everything into his punches and letting it all hang out. Early in the round, some of his haymakers found their target, and hope that a miracle would happen lingered. But Johnston was not going to blow his most high-profile victory, and was able to keep away from Manfredy enough to hear the final bell.
The unanimous decision said it all: 118-111, and 116-112 (twice) for the defending champion Stevie Johnston, now 28-1/14. (Boxing Chronicle.com scored it 116-113 for Johnston).
While Johnston established himself as the premier fighter at 135 lbs., Manfredy doesn't lose much stature, either. His aggressive style and willingness to fight any opponent continues to make him one of HBO's biggest draws. Although he remains a fighter without any claim to a legitimate title, Manfredy (28-4-1/22) will no doubt return for more big paydays.
Perhaps the most natural opponent for Manfredy now is Arturo Gatti. Returning to the ring for the first time this year, Gatti was looking to end a three fight losing streak by facing ham and egger Reyes Munoz.
Gatti came out of his corner on his toes and throwing a strong jab. While Munoz offered nothing in return, Gatti was allowed the opportunity to display some of the re-found boxing skills he's honed with Ronnie Shields. Firing his jab in threes and fours, Gatti sparked hope that his career could regain some of the lost luster.
But while Gatti looked good in the ring, the real story was outside of the ring. After scaling in at 139 pounds, Gatti came through the ropes at a staggering 160 pounds. Looking every bit like a full middleweight, one could only imagine the sheer torture Gatti's body must have endured to make the contract weight. Rehydrating over 20 pounds in 24 hours, Gatti's eyes looked swollen as he left the dressing room...bringing to life the snide jokes about Gatti's early swelling.
Luckily for Arturo, he was not in with a fighter who could exploit this potentially lethal weight experiment. Munoz, whose previous high purse of $800 was eclipsed by the $35,000 he made this evening, was ill equipped to deal with Gatti. When Gatti, weighing 15 pounds more his opponent, dropped a clubbing right onto a ducking Munoz and followed it up with a glancing left, the opponent-formerly-known-as-TBA flopped to the canvas in a heap. When he arose to take the count, he initially looked merely shaken. But after a moment of standing up straight, Munoz's legs buckled and he fell back into the ropes. Completely unaware of his surroundings, Munoz began walking around the ring in a stupor that suggested serious internal injury. Gatti KO1.
After the bout, Munoz was inspected by doctors, who did not like what they saw. Munoz was laid on a stretcher, where his neck was braced and his head was strapped down. As paramedics slowly removed Munoz from the ring, a morose mood could be felt...it was a mood that lasted into the main event, where the crowd was often less-than-boisterous during some of the exchanges. Equally subdued, a shaken Gatti (30-4/25) was quiet and distant in his post fight interview. A late update informed that Munoz's catscan revealed only a concussion, but for awhile the scene was very tense.
And so the lightweight division was sorted out: with Johnston atop the rankings, with Manfredy not far behind, and with Gatti probably unable to make 135.....a great night of boxing action.