HBO's Boxing After Dark series returned tonight with a pair of fights that quickly devolved into wars, while they lasted.
First up was Russian turned Australian Kostya Tszyu in a fight for the WBC "Interim" 140 lb. title. "Interim" because Tszyu's original opponent, #1 ranked Miguel Angel Gonzalez, dropped out two weeks ago with a reported rib injury. Stepping in on short notice was tough Diobelys Hurtado, a Cuban defector best known for having his way with Sweat Pea Whitaker for 11 rounds before eating 20 consecutive Whitaker left hands and going to sleep. Hurtado had since rehabilitated his career with 8 consecutive victories, including one that was held only 14 days ago.
Hurtado only needed 10 seconds of the first round to learn that his usual moving style was not going to work. Stuck in a tiny 18' ring, Hurtado's first attempt to circle Tszyu put his back to the ropes. So, he switched to Plan B: Fight.
The book on Tszyu is simple: you can hit him all night with your right hand...if you can withstand his tremendous power. After tonight, the book on Tszyu remains unchanged. Hurtado launched the first significant punch of the night, a blistering right that couldn't miss the wide open chin of Tszyu. Kostya's head snapped back with surprising force. Tszyu took a breath, and then launched a right of his own. Hurtado absorbed the punch flush on the side of his head and was on his way south when a short Tszyu left hook made sure that Hurtado's pain would result in an official knockdown.
Dazed and bleeding from the mouth, Hurtado raised himself, beat the count, and then steadied himself for the ensuing Tszyu onslaught. Tszyu rushed forward and IMMEDIATELY ate a perfectly timed Hurtado right hand that shook Kostya, and dropped him to his knees. Not a minute into the fight and both men had been stunned and down.
Tszyu rose quickly and resumed his attack. And again he was hit with a soaring right hand and dropped, this time forward onto his gloves. Tszyu again easily beat the count, and again the fight resumed.
On the ropes, because there was nowhere else to go, the fighters exchanged punches at a furious pace. Through Tszyu's assault Hurtado was still able to land counter right hands, although he was paying a heavy price for the opportunity. Tszyu seized the momentum again in the final seconds, rocking Hurtado with two giant right hands that backed his opponent across the ring. Returning to his corner, Tszyu sported a mouse under his right eye that would have made Arturo Gatti jealous.
Rounds 2 and 3 were punctuated by similar exchanges, albeit by two fighters less enthusiastic about going toe to toe. Tszyu kept firing his bombs, with power on punches from both hands, while eating counter rights and even a few left hooks in the process. His corner must have liked what they saw, because in between rounds, they barely attended to the growing lump of fluid that was camping out on Tszyu's right cheek.
As the pace slowed in the 4th, Tszyu made a decision that won him the fight: go to the body. As he ripped left hooks and winging rights to Hurtado's slim torso, Tszyu-the-infamous-headhunter showed a new and devastating facet to his game. Hurtado wilted noticeably in the fourth round, losing any semblance of snap in his punches by the time the bell rang. Sensing his opponent's pain, Tszyu again focused downstairs as the 5th began, and Hurtado couldn't take it. A combination to the body dropped Hurtado once, and after rising, a similar onslaught collapsed him like an old accordion. The referee stopped the fight without counting, and Tszyu wins TKO5.
Tszyu (22-1) now has 90 days to meet a rehabilitated Miguel Angel Gonzalez for the "official" WBC 140 lb. strap. Gonzalez's delay gave him one more opportunity to see Tszyu in action, but he couldn't have learned anything new. Tszyu still stands straight up, and can still be nailed with right hands. But MAGO will have to take some punishment if he hopes to fare better than Hurtado.
In the main event, Kennedy McKinney returned to HBO after nearly a year's absence. His last fight was a come-off-the-canvas victory over Junior Jones on the Hamed-Kelley undercard in 1997. That victory should have propelled the Olympic Gold Medalist into a fight with Featherweight Rainmaker Naseem Hamed. Hamed had, in fact, signed to fight McKinney in June of '98, but the fight was delayed, and later scrapped, when Hamed suffered recurring hand problems in training. As a result, the words "Naseem Hamed" have been coming out of McKinney's mouth every time a microphone comes within a meter of his face.
And it's too bad. Because while McKinney was focusing his attention on Hamed, there was a world-class competitor, and WBC belt wearing, opponent standing right in front of him. Making the 7th defense of his featherweight crown, little-seen Luisito Espinosa of the Philippines had no intention of being a stepping stone for anyone. That fact became obvious before the opening bell, as McKinney appeared bone dry, and a bit soft, contrasting Espinosa, who gleamed from a thorough warmup and whose physique was cut with barely an ounce of fat to spare.
McKinney intended to lay his bread and butter big right paw on Espinosa. He never got the chance. Espinosa instead swarmed on McKinney, whipping off a ferocious series of left hooks that backed McKinney up repeatedly. Upstairs and down, Espinosa sometimes fired 6 and 7 punch combinations with only his left arm. Particularly effective was a double left hook combo he threw first to the body, and then, from down low, coming up with a short, speedy, and devastating follow-up to the head.
It took McKinney most of the first round to adapt to that quick left hand. Too late. No sooner did McKinney look for the left, Espinosa threw the right, and stumbled McKinney backwards. A left hook follow-up was just for good measure as Kennedy went down. He rose and beat the count, and somehow survived the round.
Espinosa wasted no time, however, in the second round, employing virtually the same tactic: get his attention with the blinding left and then drop the bomb with the right hand. The right hand that Espinosa landed on McKinney's head was the very epitome of the word "flush". McKinney stood defenseless and unaware as two more thudding punches finished him off for good. He slumped into the ropes and was saved by referee Marty Denkin, who called a halt at 47 seconds. Espinosa TKO2.
Espinosa (45-7) celebrated as though he had been the challenger, and in terms of name-value he was. Unknown to many American fans, Espinosa turned in a spectacular performance on HBO and now officially enters the Hamed sweepstakes. What's more, he reversed all talk that his career was on the downside, and picked up a much needed payday, as a previous purse of $130,000 had still not been paid to him by a bankrupt Philippine government.
For his part, McKinney (33-4-1) may be done. Although he complained that he was not a full fledged featherweight, he weighed in on HBO's scales heavier than Espinosa did. Always the game opponent, McKinney has now lost twice to Bungu, who recently won on HBO, once to Barrera, who is rumored to be next in line for Hamed, and was losing to Junior Jones, a man most consider to be shot, before snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. This brutal knockout may not stop him from fighting, but it most assuredly puts him at the back of a long line of featherweights hoping to appear on HBO.
-Kudos to the HBO broadcast team. Despite featuring two wars that exemplify the style of fighting they depend on with the B.A.D. series, not once did Jim Lampley interrupt the action to remind us that we were watching some "BOXING AFTER DARK ACTION!!!" Lampley did, however, continue his tradition of making excruciating puns about the ringcard girls during the show's opening segment.
-The WBC 140 lb. title has not been held by anyone since Oscar DelaHoya vacated the belt by fighting Pernell Whitaker on April 12, 1997. Since that time, a fight between Miguel Angel Gonzalez and Julio Cesar Chavez was delayed twice, then eventually held and fought to a draw. Before a rematch could determine a champion, Chavez signed with Top Rank to take big money vs. 147 lb. poster boy DelaHoya, while Gonzalez moved to America Presents and was set to fight Tszyu for the belt. A desire for tune-ups delayed an immediate matchup, and now Gonzalez's own injury has delayed filling the title again. Tszyu's victory tonight means that he is the "interim" champion. Basically, that means that he still gets to pay his sanctioning fee to Jose Suliaman, but he also gets to wear the WBC belt until a match with Gonzalez can be finalized.
© 2001 Chris Bushnell. All rights reserved.