If boxing is the "theatre of the unexpected", then you can call July 18, 1998 just another day in boxing. Tonight, HBO presented a Madison Square Garden doubleheader with two fights that promised to be an oasis for thirsty boxing fans. Maybe it was the heat wave that's sweeping America, or maybe it was the highly raised expectations....but this oasis proved to be only a mirage.
In the first fight, Kevin Kelley and Derrick Gainer were rematching their close 1996 bout, which saw both fighters down and a blinded Kelley turn in an improbable comeback kayo victory. But one of 1996's fights of the year turned into one of 1998's most boring contests.
Young Derrick Gainer was expected to be tentative at first. After all, it was only one left hand from Kevin Kelley that put the lights out the first time they met. So when the first round became a battle of feints, there was little surprise. The otherwise uneventful opening stanza suddenly became interesting when a short punch caught an off balance Kelley coming in, and he dropped to the canvas. Kelley was up quickly and the round ended.
The fight resumed with both fighters continuing their inactivity. Kelley was loaded up and looking for the one-punch knockout and Gainer seemed content to circle the ring, popping Kelley occasionally and immediately backing off. Gainer won a few rounds with this uninteresting game plan, and Kelley won a few rounds when he would occasionally catch Gainer on the ropes.
But something was not right with either fighter. Gainer was clearly tense the entire fight. He was unwilling to trade with Kelley at all. Even when his combinations were fluid, and he seemed to be able to hurt Kelley with every punch, he opted to spend a good deal of time running.
Kevin Kelley looked completely unwilling to fight Gainer. Much had been made in the HBO broadcast of the extensive time Gainer and Kelley had spent on the phone in an impromtu friendship that evolved out of Gainer begging for a rematch two years ago. On a few occasions when Kelley did stop Gainer on the ropes, his combinations looked to be thrown at a sparring session pace. Maybe Kelley was tired, maybe his 52 pro fights have caught up with him, or maybe he just didn't want to hurt his friend.
In the 7th round, Gainer connected with a good uppercut that dropped Kelley back onto the canvas. Laying there, Kelley looked like he didn't want to get up. When he did get up, dangerously close to the number 10, he turned his back to the referee and walked away. It was unclear as to whether he was hurt or quitting, but a distraught looking Kelley finally faced the referee and was shaking his head. After giving him too much time, Arthur Mercante Jr. waved the fighters to continue. They did so, but barely.
The fight continued without any drama or action. Gainer, again, was hardly to blame. Ahead on points in the first fight, it was his unwillingness to "run out the clock" that cost him an important victory. Again ahead on all the cards, he followed his corner's instructions to box and move. Kelley, however, seemed to have no desire, or ability, to win. He was apathetic in the 8th, threw no punches for the first two minutes of the 9th, and after his corner assured him he needed a knockout to win, took off the 10th round in a passive display that represented none of the courage and determination that has characterized Kevin Kelley's 10 year career.
At the final bell, the two men embraced immediately. Derrick Gainer looked relieved that he had finally closed the book on a haunting loss. Kevin Kelley seemed pleased that he ended the fight unhurt and well paid.
Pressed for time, HBO barely spoke to each man. Kelley evaded any talk of retirement...although the big payday of a Hamed rematch now seems lost. Gainer, who had not fought at 126 since his loss to Kelley, will almost certainly return to the 130 lb. division and seek a high profile matchup. I pulled out a tape of Kelley-Gainer I yesterday and noted that Jim Lampley kept mentioning pairing Gainer with Angel Manfredy (talk that evaporated when Gainer was knocked cold). Perhaps it's time to revisit that matchup.
Next up was Pound for Pound claimant Roy Jones Jr. Roy has undergone a personality transplant lately. Prior to this fight, Roy was particularly active in the fight's promotion, was said to be friendly (and available) to writers, and again seemed eager to enter the ring. Perhaps the advice of new promoter Murad Muhammed has changed Jones' outlook, or perhaps he's regained interest in his sport on his own. Either way, he's back where he belongs: in the ring.
Again expectations were shattered, when Roy refused to attack Del Valle in the opening round. Jones and Del Valle's verbal sparring at press conferences had intensified in the weeks leading up to this bout. A cocky Del Valle seemed to raise Jones' ire on more than one occasion, perhaps hoping to lure him into a mistake that would give his counterpunching style a chance. Once in the ring, Roy would have none of it.
The first round was marked with a lot of looking. Unlike the first bout, when the inactivity came from tentativeness, this staredown was all intensity. Both fighters were cocked and ready to fire. Occasionally they did, although only a sharp Jones right to the mouth of Del Valle to close the first caught the attention of the crowd. As in the Hill fight, Jones was able to establish his superior speed almost immediately. His power never wobbled Del Valle this night, but clean shots caused Honey Boy Lou to shake his head 'no' no less than 50 times over the full 12 rounds.
Del Valle's game plan was simple: force Jones to lead, and try and land the counter that will win it. It's a game plan that doesn't win many rounds, especially when low output allows your opponent to do as he pleases. And Roy Jones certainly did that. Fancy footwork, bolo punches, and outrageous head fakes were the garnish on an entree of lead right hands and a devastating body attack that Roy Jones served all-you-can-eat style. At the end of the second round, and then for the entire third round, Roy Jones fought Lou Del Valle left handed. And this was no gimmick, as it was when DelaHoya turned lefty against Whitaker. Roy Jones was amazingly effective from the southpaw stance. In the third, he landed so many looping left hands flush that Del Valle seemed demoralized. Himself a southpaw, Del Valle was completely baffled by Jones' move...a discombobulation that carried over when Jones eventually returned to his "conventional" stance.
Jones patiently out boxed, out landed, out sped, and out powered Del Valle through all of the middle rounds. Particularly effective was the aforementioned body attack. Jones has such wicked handspeed that he is able to throw huge body punches without leaving himself open long enough for a counter. The result was a series of blows that all seemed to match the rib breaking body shot that crumpled Virgil Hill. Del Valle showed great fortitude by absorbing the body attack and fighting on.
Good thing he did...because he made history in the 8th round. After an accidental headbutt opened a nasty gash over Del Valle's left eye in the 7th, Lou finally landed a nice counter punch to Roy Jones' head.....and Roy went down. Although it looked like a slip finally dropped a reeling Jones, the knockdown clearly came at the end of a punch. Roy, who had been sprawled after falling over on his side, was up quick, frustrated with himself, and clearly showing signs that the punch that caught him had caught him good. Jones held on for the remaining seconds of the round and returned to his corner. After the fight, Roy gave Del Valle full credit for a legit knockdown. Calling the punch "a real good shot", Jones made no excuses, even though an argument could be made that a slippery canvas aided his fall.
After the knockdown, the fight continued as if nothing had happened at all....and Jones coasted to a decision that saw him winning every single round except the round in which he was down. Jones improves to 37-1 (31) and adds the WBA 175 lb. title to the WBC belt he already holds. Del Valle was not interviewed by HBO, which was a letdown. Del Valle had acquitted himself nicely in front of a hometown crowd, and deserved a little air time.
-Naseem Hamed has started a cottage industry: the souped-up ring-entrance. Kevin Kelley entered the ring not to music, but to sound clips of Al Pacino (from the film "Devil's Advocate") extolling the virtue of the small fighter. Not to be outdone, Roy Jones entered the ring to a rap tour-de-force. Smoke and lights surrounded a DJ, who was kicking it old school on two turntables. The p.a. system blared with a rap song written and performed by Jones while Roy entered the ring surrounded by four scantily clad dancers. Occasionally stopping the procession to dance, Roy's ring entrance was interrupted by a fight in the stands. Jim Lampley was quick to note that, fearing the tension created by Roy's rap number, the MSG staff had added extra security. I guess we can chalk this up to the East Coast-Gulf Coast rap wars.
-Several months ago, the WBA and WBC announced a 'merger', in which both sanctioning bodies would combine their rules for title fights. Since that announcement, several WBA and WBC title fights have taken place without all of the agreed upon rules in effect...and tonight was no exception. The long standing WBC rule that an accidental headbutt which cuts a fighter results in a one point deduction from the uncut fighter (a rule the WBA specifically announced they would adopt) was not in effect tonight. Despite the referee ruling Del Valle's cut was caused by a headbutt (which replays showed was the correct call), no point was deducted from Jones' score. Two referee's gave Jones 118 points (11 ten-point rounds, plus an 8 point round when he was knocked down) while the third gave him 119. So much for the merger....
-If you want to get a fighter's autograph, perhaps you should start hanging around the Madison Square Garden steam room. Kelley and Gainer, who weighed in at 126 on Friday, entered the ring at 140 and 142 pounds, respectively. Roy Jones came through the ropes only 9 pounds over the 175 he weighed in at while Lou Del Valle weighed over the cruiserweight limit, having gained 17 pounds in 24 hours, weighing in at 192 on fight night. Arturo Gatti would be proud...
© 2001 Chris Bushnell. All rights reserved.