(Originally posted at Skundered!)
I got hit with a double-dose of boxing disappointment last weekend: I missed the Finals of the Chicago Golden Gloves tournament, stood up by my usual partner in fandom — a retired suburban elementary school teacher who is the only other person I know who cares about the sport to any degree. There was also a major pay-per-view match that weekend that promised to be exciting, but was out of my reach financially. So, not for the first time, I turned to ESPN’s Friday Night Fights for my weekly boxing fix.
That night’s featured bout pitted David Lemieux, an exciting young Canadian fighter against Marco Antonio Rubio, a seasoned Mexican veteran, in a World Boxing Council middleweight title eliminator. The central theme of this fight — hot young prospect vs. cagey veteran — may have been a cliché on its face, but that could probably be said about a lot of what happens in boxing. At its best, boxing transcends its clichés, telling familiar stories over again with enough drama and enough action to make them inspiring. And, while maybe this fight didn’t end up rising to the level of pure inspiration, it still provided plenty of drama and a few lessons as well.
David Lemieux is French Canadian by way of some Lebanese ancestry, and the undefeated 22 year-old has become somewhat of a sensation in Montreal – a city that has established itself as one of the world’s boxing meccas in recent years. Since 2007, Lemieux banged out an impressive 25-0 record – 24 of which came by way of knockouts. 21 of these knockouts came in the first or second round, and he had only been past the third round a total of three times when he went into the ring on Friday night.
At 30 years-old, Marco Antonio Rubio came into this fight as the long-in-the-tooth underdog, but he made it clear from the opening round that he wasn’t simply going to be fed to Lemieux like another piece of meat. Rubio patiently built up a 49-5-1 record over two decades (among those losses is his notable 2009 defeat at the hands of Kelly Pavlik). He entered the ring on Friday with years more experience, and having faced fighters of a higher caliber than anyone Lemieux had come across at this point in his career.
True to his reputation, Lemieux only waited for about 90 seconds into the first round before exploding with repeated combinations that drove Rubio back a number of times. And, while the Canadian audience reacted with wild enthusiasm for every move Lemieux made, you could hear over the airwaves that many of these were very hard shots. But the course of the fight was essentially decided in that first round, when Rubio showed that he could effectively block most of Lemieux’s thudding shots and, more importantly, that he could stand up to the ones that Lemieux landed cleanly.
Rubio had made his strategy clear before the fight; rely on his experience and toughness to survive the early rounds, and then take the younger fighter past where he was accustomed to going – and he stuck to this strategy throughout the fight. Lemieux seemed puzzled at first, and then concerned, as the speed and power that have allowed him to roll over past opponents didn’t seem to faze Rubio. Rubio continued to cover up and take Lemieux’s punishment, while gradually beginning to assert himself offensively – beginning with ginger jabs that turned into crisp combinations and hard body shots as the fight went on.
Lemieux came into this fight as a knockout artist who had never gotten into this kind of trouble before, and his confidence began to deteriorate visibly as Rubio managed to connect more and more while his own shots seemed to lack the desired effect. But he wasn’t lacking in toughness any more than Rubio was, and when his trainer finally threw in the towel two and a half minutes into the 7th round following a knock-down by Rubio, the frustrated Lemieux clearly wanted to keep fighting.
While anti-climactic, the stoppage made a lot of sense. As Lemieux’s trainer explained to ESPN afterwards, the young fighter was doing everything right after being knocked down — covering up, trying to weave and duck – but Rubio was still finding him again and again, and it was just a matter of time until Lemieux got hurt. “Even if he would have recovered, I didn’t want Rubio teeing off on him,” he said.
With their careers on such different trajectories, the outcome of this fight would have meant very different things for these two fighters no matter how it ended. Winning effectively delays the end of Rubio’s career, while a loss would clearly have hurt him more than it will the younger fighter..
For his part, Lemieux is still coming out of this fight as a dynamic, exciting fighter, with both his skills and his fan-friendly style intact, who most likely hasn’t even reached his prime yet. There’s every reason to think that, if he’s willing and able to learn from what happened, this loss will end up being the kind of character- and career-building experience that has been critical to the long-term success of a number of much-admired fighters.
This fight reinforced a couple of truisms about boxing:
First, that once you begin to move out into the wider world inhabited by a more elite class of fighters, being young, fast, and strong doesn’t guarantee you anything; willpower takes on a supreme importance. And, as Teddy Atlas put it, Lemieux paid the price in this fight for a record built on soft opposition.
Finally, effective and exciting boxing often resembles asymmetrical warfare: many times it will be those who can take the most punishment, and not those who can inflict it, who will prevail in the end.