By Eric Raskin
When one door closes, another one opens. And then when that one closes, another one opens. Until eventually every door between 154 and 160 pounds has opened and closed several times, and the music stops, and you look around … and you’re left with a more intriguing fight to watch on May 12 than the one you started out with.
Jaime Munguia’s path to occupying the corner opposite Sadam Ali at Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, N.Y., (Saturday, 10 PM on HBO World Championship Boxing) was akin to one of those weird backroads through an industrial complex that Waze leads you down when there’s a traffic jam on the freeway. When the Gennady Golovkin-Canelo Alvarez rematch got scrapped, the little-known Mexican prospect got the call to face Golovkin – only to have the Nevada State Athletic Commission reject the fight. So Munguia stayed in training for a minor fight on May 12 in his hometown of Tijuana. Then, barely two weeks before that date, British veteran Liam Smith, stricken by a skin condition, pulled out of his bout with Ali, also scheduled for May 12, and Munguia stepped in. So here we are, on short notice, and with a fight that seems to have more upset potential than the one we were originally supposed to get. Ali vs. Munguia pairs two fighters in their 20s with a combined record of 54-1, one taking a huge leap up in class, the other trying to stay focused after an opponent change and just five months removed from the biggest win of his career.
On December 2 at Madison Square Garden, Ali gave Miguel Cotto an unfriendly send-off, upsetting the Puerto Rican icon in what was drawn up as a future Hall of Famer’s perfunctory victory lap. Ali had gone from unbeaten hot prospect to afterthought overnight when he got knocked out by Jessie Vargas in March 2016, and the Cotto win turned him back into an A-side just as suddenly. Brooklyn’s Ali, 29, is amped to be back in this position, and he’s come around to feeling grateful for the Vargas loss.
“With Vargas, I just depended on skill, ” Ali tells Inside HBO Boxing. “Success has always come to me, and I took it for granted, and I didn’t put in the work that I really needed to put in. I don’t want to make any excuses. I definitely deserved that loss. He was the better man that night. But I know what I did wrong. And I learned, and it showed with my preparation for the Cotto fight. In life sometimes, you have to learn. Even if you learn it the hard way, sometimes it’s just meant for it to happen.”
Against Cotto, Ali (26-1, 14 KOs) delivered a complete performance on his biggest stage, hurting Cotto early, out-speeding the older man repeatedly, and gutting his way through the veteran warrior’s determined rallies. It was an effective reminder that the same kid who represented the United States in the 2008 Olympics and had the look of a future champion when he schooled and stopped Luis Carlos Abregu in Atlantic City in 2014 didn’t turn into a worthless bum just because one fighter caught him on the chin. Ali has fast hands, a dangerous overhand right, a slick counter left hook, and consistent head movement. He’s in a new weight class – he was a 147-pounder until the Cotto fight – but he now has a belt at junior middle and says he feels comfortable there.
No fighter, however, can be entirely comfortable about fighting a low-profile opponent on two weeks’ notice.
“It kind of sucks,” Ali bluntly admits of the late opponent change. “But at the same time, I’ve been fighting since I was eight. As an amateur you don’t even know how the guy fights. You’re not watching tape on him. You just go in there and, boom, you have to adapt to the style and win your fight. So I’m used to that. And when I get prepared for a fight, I don’t focus on just one style anyway. Somebody can come in there with a reputation as a brawler but then the whole training camp they train to move and jab. So I don’t really focus on one thing. I’m prepared for whatever comes.”
In the case of the 21-year-old Munguia, who sports a shimmering record of 28-0 with 24 KOs, the videos seem to indicate a straightforward assignment for Ali. The Mexican, who is trained by former Oscar De La Hoya cornerman Robert Alcazar, is big and strong for a junior middleweight, and it translates when opponents react to his punches. Munguia has power in both mitts; see the sick right hand he put Juan Macias Montiel to sleep with February 2017 or the left to the body that finished off Juan Carlos Paz a year later. That Mexican left to the liver is Munguia’s money punch. He fits many of the Mexican boxer stereotypes, really: Munguia likes to slug and has an offense-first mindset, and he isn’t the least bit hard to hit.
He insists he was unfairly denied the opportunity to fight Golovkin, and the Ali consolation prize is Munguia’s chance to prove his point.
“Though all the criticisms made about me have motivated me to be where I am,” Munguia says, “I will show that they were all wrong. I will crown myself as world champion on May 12.”
Munguia might prove stylistically made to order for Ali, but he’s also the most dangerous type of opponent. He can bang, he knows more about Ali than Ali knows about him, and, other than the zero at the end of his record, he has nothing to lose. Ali is well aware of all of this.
“I know he has power in both hands, but I don’t know much else,” Ali says. “But I know this is a huge opportunity for him to go out there and be on HBO and possibly win a world title. It gets no bigger than that. So I know he’s going to be pumped. He’s coming at his best. I expect him to be ready for the fight. It should be a great one.”
Before Ali and Munguia step into the ring, Rey Vargas (31-0, 22 KOs) and Azat Hovhannisyan (14-2, 11 KOs) will square off with a junior featherweight belt at stake, and if results against common opponent Ronny Rios are to be trusted, Hovhannisyan is not to be taken lightly. The 29-year-old Armenian stopped Rios in six rounds less than two months ago to earn this opportunity, whereas Vargas went the 12-round distance with Rios on HBO last August. Mexico City’s Vargas, 27, has established himself as one of those undeniably talented prospects who never quite puts it all together over the course of a single fight, and Hovhannisyan is hoping to seize upon whatever openings the taller Vargas gives him.
“Hovhannisyan is explosive and fast,” Vargas acknowledges, “but I will be prepared to win in exciting fashion to show that I’m the best.”
“This is the most important fight of my entire career,” declares Hovhannisyan, who has won his last eight fights in a row. “I’ve prepared for this fight my entire life. Vargas is a great champion and this will be a hard fight, but I will do anything it takes to win.”