Crafty veteran Vuyani Bungu provided the trick and power-punching showman Naseem Hamed provided the treat in a Halloween double header this weekend in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Bungu took on Albuquerque's Danny Romero in a contest for the IBF Jr. Featherweight title. Romero, stepping up two weight classes to fight the longtime title-holder, was a prohibitive favorite. Prohibitive because of the way recent opponents have been able to tag Romero at will while Danny loaded up on bombs, and favorite because, frankly, not a lot of Americans have had a chance to see Bungu in action. Those of us who know him, however, were not surprised by what we saw tonight: a crafty veteran who can box all night long, albeit without much power.
The bout opened with Romero throwing hard and often, bringing the fight to the aging champion. At first Romero was having his way, but Bungu found Danny easy to counter, and by the end of two rounds, Romero was breathing hard through his mouth. Romero threw classic one-two's with some body work for good measure while Bungu began trying to figure him out. Vuyani showed a good chin in the early going as he took some stiff offerings from Romero.
In the fifth round, the momentum began to shift, as Romero suddenly became a passive participant. As he stood out at range, Bungu kept snapping the jab, staying more active, and winning points. The television announcers kept piling up points for Romero, giving him rounds on the basis of his power shots. Those punches, however, were few and far between, causing for some very close rounds. The judges gave a fair share of those middle rounds to Bungu, while Harold Lederman used HBO's on-screen graphics to log a different score.
The final two rounds, when the fight was still very close, Bungu showed another of the attributes he's known for: the strong finish. After winning the 11th on the basis of activity, Bungu came our throwing in the 12th. Romero, apparently believing he was far ahead on the cards, didn't offer much resistance. Easy to hit, Bungu popped him for most of the round. They went to the cards.
The first score announced was 114-114, a card that matched my own, and the next two cards 115-114 and 117-112 went to Bungu. Bungu W12, via majority decision. His 12th consecutive title defense raises his record to 36-2
I can hear the calls of "robbery" now. HBO was promoting Romero (33-3) throughout the fight as though he had signed a multi-fight deal with them. Romero, who was very vocal with his displeasure after dropping a L on points to Johnny Tapia, will almost certainly have something to say about the outcome. Indeed, the only score that stood out, 117-112, was the card of Lulani Mtya, from Bungu's home of South Africa.
But a win is a win is a win, and Bungu's long reign continues. Rematch? Why not....
In the main event, Prince Naseem Hamed took on gutsy, iron jawed Wayne McCullough in McCullough's first fight at 126. The boxing community had labeled this fight a mismatch because of Hamed's power. Apparently Hamed did too, coming into the ring looking slightly less chiseled than he did in the full page ads running in most major magazines this week.
Hamed began the fight attacking McCullough from the get go with an assortment of freakish punches from bizarre angles. McCullough fired back, but caught nothing but air as Hamed's defense was exceptional. One part Pernell Whitaker, one part Muhammed Ali, and one part amateur foolishness, Hamed's elusiveness tonight was most impressive. Switching from southpaw to conventional and back, Hamed danced, clowned, and attacked McCullough all with his hands at his waist.
But McCullough kept coming. No matter what Hamed hit him with, the gutsy Irishman never stopped pressing Hamed, his hands guarding his chin from punches that seemed to come from nowhere. Taking some vicious shots, McCullough's pressure allowed him to land some good blows of his own. Almost all of these shots were the result of Hamed's unique defense (or lack thereof), and each time the Prince got tagged, his head snapped.
In the middle rounds, Hamed backed off his attack, opting to frustrate McCullough with defense. Throwing only when he had to, Hamed made McCullough miss repeatedly. His failure to follow up suggested a possible hand injury. Hamed had delayed a June fight with Kennedy McKinney because of hand problems....an excuse most assumed was a story to allow Hamed to attend the birth of his first child. After tonight's performance, his original story might require re-examination.
Hamed showboated in the 7th round especially, with Ali shuffles, taunts to his opponent, punches thrown while looking into the crowd, and a fair amount of scoring thrown in to win the round. Hamed's trainer, Brendan Ingle, was particularly vocal before the 8th round, imploring his champion to stop the games and get to work. Hamed didn't listen. In fact, he didn't listen to much Ingle had to say. Hamed rarely looked at his trainer, openly mocked his advice with a sarcastic tone of voice, and insisted on standing before the final round, pushing Ingle away as the trainer asked him to sit. Ingle and Hamed have been on the outs since Ingle criticized Hamed in a recent book. Despite comments before the fight that hinted at a reunion, there was no lack of tension between them during the bout.
Whether it was because his hands were aching, because he didn't train hard enough, or just because Wayne McCullough's jaw is made of granite, Hamed put the fight into coast, and eased his way to a wide unanimous decision over 12 rounds. McCullough never stopped trying to land the combination that would turn the fight around, pressing Hamed up until the final bell, but it couldn't be done.
The HBO team was expecting a knockout as much as the Hamed fans who tuned in tonight, and they were no less disappointed. They bellyached about Hamed having to go the full 12, all while missing what Hamed had accomplished: a thorough beating of a game opponent. Not only was Hamed's offense impressive, but his defense was simultaneously amazing and improbable. In fact, the only thing that Hamed continues to lack is any semblance of a body attack. Hamed did land two thudding body shots in the 5th round. Both of them came from the same bizarre angles as Hamed's headhunting shots, and both of them made McCullough grunt in pain. If Hamed could have done more of that tonight, he might have gotten the kayo HBO wanted. Hamed W12, by scores of 118-110, 117-111 and 116-112.
-The entrance. Hamed took less time than usual to get to the ring, but on the way put on his most elaborate entrance to date. First appearing in a Grim Reaper's cloak and playing a Halloween tune on an organ, Hamed later danced around a prop-filled stage of skeletons, headstones, and ghosts. As pyrotechnics fired sparks, smoke and flame around him, Hamed came towards the ring as Michael Jackson's "Thriller" pumped through the p.a. Halfway down the path, Hamed quickly ducked under some cables, and ran through the crowd, on a different path than planned, to enter the ring with his customary flip.
-HBO: Make up your mind about the WBO. HBO boxing honcho Lou DiBella has been one of the more vocal critics of the alphabet-groups that have diluted the title picture. But HBO has been promoting WBO title fights as "championship" fights, while turning around and dumping on the WBO in their commentary. Tonight's example made clear the hypocrisy: After announcing that Marco Antonio Barrera had defeated Richie Wenton on the undercard, Larry Merchant snidely added that the fight "was for some type of belt." The belt that Barrera won was the WBO 122 lb. title...the exact same title that Barrera held when HBO had previously promoted him as a champion. Not to mention that Hamed's own belt was a WBO trinket. Make up your mind HBO: the WBO counts or it doesn't.
-Speaking of Barrera, his name was being bandied about by Frank Warren as Hamed's next opponent. Barrera regained the title he lost to Junior Jones (which was vacated by Kennedy McKinney, Jones' conqueror) by dropping Richie Wenton twice with vicious left hooks to the body. While Barrera is smaller than Hamed, it will be interesting to see him land those same shots on Hamed when the Prince leans back.
-Quote of the night:
"Not since before my third marriage!"