Photos: Ed Mulholland
LAS VEGAS — The last time Alberto Machado entered the ring, it was as an underdog. Five rounds later, that label seemed merited: On an October night at the Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, New York, Machado was being beaten to every kind of punch by Jezreel Corrales, whose unorthodox, fast-handed style had already dropped the young Puerto Rican to the canvas once. But then, in that fifth round, Machado rallied.
“OK, I think, ‘It’s time to work,’” he said this week of that fifth frame. “In the sixth round, I land a good hook, in the seventh, I sent him to the canvas but the referee doesn’t count it, and in the eighth round, knockout and I become world champion.”
Machado’s come-from-behind stoppage win elevated him into the upper echelon of a super featherweight division with much talent at the top, including the likes of Miguel Berchelt, Mickey Roman and the evergreen Orlando Salido. But since then he has been out of action, resting at home and toiling in Hollywood’s Wild Card Gym under the tutelage of trainer Freddie Roach.
“We had eight weeks in L.A. with Freddie, who is one of the best boxing trainers of all time, and now I am ready to return to Puerto Rico still as world champion,” said Machado, whose quiet, friendly demeanor belies his steel, in much the same way as his countryman, mentor and promoter Miguel Cotto.
But having arrived at the top level, Machado knows he must work to remain there. That work begins on Saturday night at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, when he takes on undefeated Rafael Mensah (HBO, 10 PM ET/PT). Mensah is the nephew of former Ghanaian great Ike Quartey — and his mention of that fact at Thursday’s prefight press conference sent shudders down the spine of event promoter Oscar De La Hoya, who went life-or-death in an epic struggle with Quartey in this town in 1999. “I can still feel his jab,” said the Golden Boy, and it felt as if he wasn’t entirely kidding. The southpaw Mensah is the number one challenger for Machado’s belt, but has never before fought outside his native land; still, if he carries even a smidgen of Quartey’s skill and ferocity in his genes, Machado could be in for a rough night.
“It’s very special,” he said. “It’s my first title defense, and my time for demonstrating why I’m a world champion.”
Seven months after Machado scored his upset knockout win, Jaime Munguia made an even more dramatic leap from little-known prospect to budding superstar when, at the same Turning Stone venue, he annihilated Sadam Ali inside four rounds to take a junior middleweight title. Just a few weeks earlier, he had been rejected by the Nevada State Athletic Commission as a possible opponent for Gennady Golovkin, and then had been drafted into fight Ali after the New Yorker’s scheduled opponent, Liam Smith, had been forced to pull out. Four knockdowns and a stoppage win later, Munguia was boxing’s new Bright Shiny Object. But Munguia knows that, like Machado, he has to prove that his win against Ali wasn’t a one-off; in particular, he needs to answer the critics who argued that his devastating victory last May was as much a result of his being much the larger man on fight night.
“Yes, I need to prove that I belong in the 154-pound division,” he acknowledged this week, ahead of a showdown with Smith, now recovered from the skin ailment that ruled him out of the Ali fight. But he smiles that Smith, despite being a naturally larger man than Ali, will still be at a physical disadvantage. “The truth is, I don’t think I’m a natural junior middleweight. I’m a natural 160-pounder; I just drop down to junior middleweight.”
It is a sign of how much Munguia, at just 21 years of age, is working hard to improve and consolidate his standing that Saturday’s bout with Smith will be his fourth fight of this calendar year. Like Machado, he knows that in order to turn one upset win into something more sustained and meangful, he cannot afford to rest on his laurels.
“I hope fans see a better Jaime Munguia [on Saturday],” he said. “I’ve been working on my defense, and I’ve been working on other things, and they can expect a great show. I promise people a great show every time I fight.”
Count Smith among those who see Munguia’s pedigree as untested and unproven.
“He might eventually end up a very, very top fighter,” said the Liverpudlian. “But we don’t know. He looks as if he has all the attributes. But he’s 21 years old, I’m 29 years old. I’ve been in with better fighters than Jaime Munguia. He hasn’t been in with a better fighter than Liam Smith. There are still a lot of questions to be asked about him. But I’ll ask those questions on Saturday.”
If Munguia is able to answer them, and particularly if he answers them decisively, then those doubts that remain may begin to be shed, and a new star may be born.
Weights from Las Vegas
Jaime Munguia: 153.8 pounds
Liam Smith: 153.8 pounds
Alberto Machado: 130 pounds
Raphael Mensah: 130 pounds