By Kieran Mulvaney
Seven years ago, Kofi Jantuah and Marco Antonio Rubio were both once-beaten junior middleweights looking to earn a shot at a world title. But when they met in an eliminator at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in September 2004, only one of them looked on track to become a world-beater. And it wasn’t Rubio.
Within 30 seconds of the opening round, Jantuah flattened his Mexican opponent with a left hook that sent him crashing to the canvas. Rubio managed to roll on to his hands and knees, but in attempting to reach verticality, he toppled over again. Just like that, the fight was over.
The next time Rubio laced up for a major television audience was five years later, when he was offered as a sacrificial lamb to then-middleweight-champion Kelly Pavlik. After a dispiriting defeat to light heavyweight kingpin Bernard Hopkins in October 2008, Pavlik needed a confidence-rebuilding win. And in front of Pavlik’s hometown Youngstown crowd, everything unfolded according to script: Rubio offered minimal resistance, and Pavlik battered him for nine rounds en route to a TKO victory.
With that, Rubio might have been consigned forever to a role as a professional opponent, but the Pavlik defeat marked a turning point in his career, the point at which he determined to rededicate himself and improve his craft. “A lot of things came together for me after that fight,” he said.
Those things include a 10-bout unbeaten run, highlighted by a career-reinvigorating performance against then-undefeated David Lemieux last April. Lemieux was considered a fast-rising star in the making, and for the first several rounds against Rubio, he looked like one, dominating the early going and landing one hellacious combination after another. But Rubio had been there before, and as a result, he kept his poise and began reeling the tiring youngster in. In round 5, the fight began to turn; by the sixth, Rubio was completely on the rise. In the seventh, it was all over, and Rubio had secured the most famous victory of his career.
HIs reward is another shot at the middleweight title belt he failed to lift from Pavlik, which now sits around the waist of Rubio’s compatriot, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. It is a testament to Rubio’s career renaissance that the vastly more confident-looking fighter is widely expected to provide the stiffest challenge yet to his charismatic young countryman.
And as for Jantuah, the man who poleaxed Rubio in 30 seconds on the Las Vegas Strip seven years ago? He lost the title shot he earned with that win, lost twice more thereafter and hasn’t fought in the last two years.