By Eric Raskin
You can’t afford an off night in boxing. When a baseball pitcher gives up six runs in two-thirds of an inning and gets the hook, he gets a chance to erase the memory five days later. When a boxer gets the hook — or the cross, or the uppercut, or whatever punch puts him down and keeps him down — his sport isn’t so forgiving.
The very best fighters keep those off nights to a minimum. Consistency is key when pursuing boxing immortality. And consistency is precisely what has eluded Lucas Matthysse and Jorge Linares, rendering their careers very good but not quite great, with their worst results still threatening to define them. Their styles are different — Matthysse is a puncher first, Linares a boxer first — but both rode those strengths to the fringes of pound-for-pound consideration. Linares fell hard with a couple of upset losses and re-established himself; later, Matthysse suffered two upset losses of his own and is now in the process of re-establishing himself.
As co-headliners on a Boxing After Dark doubleheader on Jan. 27 (HBO, 10:30 PM ET/PT), the two must-see South Americans both find themselves at a place in their careers where they simply can’t afford another off night. In the opposite corners will be Tewa Kiram and Mercito Gesta, respectively, looking to benefit from an off night out of their favored opponents — or, even better, looking to force one.
The Matthysse-Kiram welterweight bout is loaded with unknowns and X-factors. Is Matthysse (38-4, 35 KOs) past the point of no return at age 35 or is he rejuvenated under new trainer Joel Diaz? Is it a good thing or a bad thing that he’s only fought once in the last 28 months? Does it matter that Kiram is a naturally bigger man, one who’s spent his entire pro career at 147 pounds, whereas Matthysse was a junior welterweight until his last fight? And how much of the perfect 38-0 (with 28 KOs) record of Thailand’s Kiram means anything?
“I understand not many people know me in the U.S.,” Kiram said recently, “but they’re in for a big surprise. I’ve never been defeated, and I am fully confident that I will return to Thailand with the [belt] around my waist.”
Despite that confidence, Kiram’s credentials and his available fight videos are not entirely convincing. His roll call of opponents isn’t a who’s who; it’s a “who’s that?” In fact, just two fights ago, in Kiram’s 37th pro bout, he took on a fighter from India, Vijender Kumar, who was making his pro debut. Mickey Rourke looks at this guy’s opposition and scoffs.
That said, nobody gets to 38-0 without skills, and Kiram undoubtedly has some — including certain attributes that could give Matthysse headaches. Boxing behind a high guard held over from his days as a Muay Thai fighter, the 25-year-old Kiram boasts one of boxing’s busiest jabs. According to CompuBox, he averages 43.2 lead lefts thrown per round and connects on 11.1. (The welterweight average is 4.9 landed out of 23.7 thrown.) Kiram will jab you while you’re standing still, he’ll jab you while you’re stepping forward, he’ll jab you while you’re trying to throw your own jab. And when he’s done hypnotizing you with that jab, he’ll uncork a sneaky right hand that can do damage.
On the flip side, Kiram isn’t especially fast-handed, he might have chin issues (a clean southpaw right hook dropped him in his most recent fight, against journeyman Ramadhani Shauri), and he’s extremely vulnerable on the inside, where he stands still with his hands high, open to uppercuts. Shortcomings like that could play right into Matthysse’s capable fists. The Argentine has always been a beast of a puncher, and he looked like his old self last May against Emanuel Taylor, scoring knockdowns in the third and fifth rounds en route to a stoppage late in Round 5 in his first fight under Diaz.
“We’ve had one camp together, and everything went well against Emanuel Taylor,” Diaz said at the press conference announcing the Kiram fight. “And now I see him coming into another camp with a lot of motivation. He’s a happy fighter, and I always say a happy fighter always performs better. … You’re going to see an explosive Lucas Matthysse.”
Kiram’s goal is to expose a different Matthysse, the one who couldn’t get anything done against Viktor Postol and suffered an upset knockout, the one who struggled unexpectedly with John Molina, as opposed to the one who walked through Lamont Peterson in three rounds or outmaneuvered Ruslan Provodnikov over 12. Those results speak to the inconsistency of Matthysse. Everything from an early knockout win to a devastating defeat to an unknown opponent is in play against Kiram.
Despite riding a 12-fight winning streak, lightweight Jorge Linares (43-3, 27 KOs) still finds himself in his own constant battle with inconsistency. All three of his losses have come by knockout, and after the last of those, against Sergio Thompson in 2012, the Venezuelan was almost universally written off. But he righted the ship … sort of. Even when Linares wins, he rarely seems to fully deliver on his magnificent talent. His most recent victory, a split decision win over British southpaw Luke Campbell, is a perfect case in point. The 32-year-old Linares was dominant at times and scored a critical knockdown in the second round, but he was too relaxed and comfortable at other moments and let Campbell outwork him.
Some of those same criticisms and concerns have surrounded the career of Linares’ opponent Gesta. He teases you at times with his talent — which is not Linares-level talent, but is appreciable just the same — but can’t seem to display it round after round. He cruises in spots against inferior opposition. The 30-year-old Gesta has built a record of 31-1-2 with 17 KOs, the lone loss coming in a title challenge against tricky Miguel Vazquez in 2012. His best wins? Maybe Ty Barnett. Maybe Gilberto Gonzalez. In other words, he hasn’t faced anyone within sniffing distance of Linares’ caliber.
“I know it’s going to be a tough fight, I’m the challenger and the underdog in this fight, but I love the feeling,” Gesta said. “I love when people say, ‘He has little chance of winning this fight.’ That makes me more hungry. That makes me want to train hard.”
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before, but Gesta is a Filipino southpaw trained by Freddie Roach. Interestingly, Roach has worked with Linares in the distant past (before his current winning streak, which has been achieved under the guidance of highly regarded Cuban coach Ismael Salas), and perhaps it’s telling that when Gesta was offered this fight, his people are said to have asked for a contract within minutes. Maybe they saw how Linares had problems with the southpaw style of Campbell. Despite being left-handed, however, Gesta has a much more compact build than Campbell and a completely different skill set.
And the Filipino, who has been dropped in two of his last three fights, has a bad habit of fighting with his hands down. Against as quick and accurate a puncher as Linares, that could turn him from an underdog into a no-hoper.
Unless, that is, Linares provides him with a free helping of hope. On Dec. 12, Linares tweeted, “After M. Gesta, I Can See You @VasylLomachenko.” A Linares who is looking ahead to his ultimate challenge is a Linares who is setting himself up for a potential letdown.
If the wrong versions of either Linares or Matthysse show up at the Forum, the result could be a defeat that they can’t recover from.