Saturday night’s rematch between Joseph Agbeko and Abner Mares for the IBF bantamweight title at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California comes with a storm of questions that can only be brewed from controversy. If we’re fortunate to see a fairly officiated fight, will Mares be the same fighter when he doesn’t have immunity from hard warnings and point deductions? And how capable is Agbeko against an aggressive, fluid puncher when he isn’t distracted by dozens of blows to his testicles?
Referee Russell Mora’s surreal bias towards Mares three and a half months ago makes speculation on what would have taken place on an even playing field a fruitless exercise. We don’t know how much more energy Agbeko would have had without a pounding to the crotch, if Mares would have removed body punching from his strategy, or if Mares would have even been able to stave off disqualification. Unfortunately, the power an incompetent or compromised referee wields over a contest can’t be quantified, since so many variables are altered by his malfeasance.
But hidden beyond Mora’s putrescence was a fun scrap with an intriguing clash of styles. Agbeko, 25-3 with 22 knockouts, struggled against Mares’ combination punching throughout the first half of the fight. A handful of staggering counter punches kept him in the bout, however, and a deep reservoir of stamina allowed him to change the tide in the last five rounds. Of course, that momentum was abducted by a hard left hook to the cup and a disgraceful knockdown call in the 10th.
The onus, then, is on Mares, 22-0-1 with 13 kos, to show he’s capable of staying well within the rules while defeating a quality opponent. The 26-year-old Montebello, California, resident is a determined combination puncher, and his willingness to go to the body is generally a positive trait that can turn negative if he remains undisciplined. Every punch directed towards the body will be as scrutinized as a Ndamukong Suh blow to a quarterback. Any goodwill gathered from being an agreeable young man evaporated a bit with each low blow in the first bout, and we can only hope that tomorrow night’s referee, Dr. Lou Moret, is up to the task.
In Joseph Agbeko’s last rematch, the 31-year-old showed off impressive adjustments while easily outboxing Yonnhy Perez to avenge a 2009 loss. Like Mares, Perez was fluid and active but one-dimensional, and Agbeko was able to take advantage of his limitations with herky-jerky movement, a hard jab, and a well-timed right hand. Mares, armed with an effective jab as well, will likely be a more difficult puzzle to conquer than Perez was, but Agbeko, Accra, Ghana, has a deep bag of tricks he can reach into for the necessary tools to counter Mares’ early aggression.
Mares has a fairly tight guard early that loosens late, while Agbeko’s head movement is reliably annoying for his opponent to pinpoint shots throughout a 36-minute bout. With that elusive head combined with lively feet, Agbeko has the decided advantage defensively. But Mares wields a stiffer jab and tends to land crisper, more memorable punches. How much the fluidity of his combinations is compromised without carte blanche to throw low blows will be key, and a telling moment in Mares’ career. Perhaps expecting a titlist to win a major fight while avoiding his opponent’s balls is setting a low bar, but that’s where we are.
As muddled as Mora made the first fight, this seems to be a fairly even matchup. Perhaps even enough to where a definitive conclusion will remain elusive. We can only hope that the drama inside the ring is contained between two men, and not three.
Read about the turbulent life and strange career of 1950s welterweight champion Don Jordan, who ran with street gangs as a kid, partied with mobsters, and carried a bow and arrow with him through the streets of Los Angeles. The Catastrophist: The Troubled World of Don Jordan.