From Ford’s Late KO To Serrano’s Self KO, There’s Nothing Quite Like Boxing

Boxing Scene

To have a relationship with boxing is to have a love-hate relationship with boxing. Those are the rules.

Boxing is many things. Violent. Inspiring. Unjust. Beautiful. Exasperating. Exhilarating.

And above all, unpredictable.

All of these many things boxing is — the best of it; the worst of it; the weirdest of it — were on display across two overlapping televised/streamed cards on Saturday night.

In a span of a few hours, we saw possibly the Fight of the Year in one main event; we saw the other main event canceled on zero notice; we saw a former Disney Channel star who has rapidly established himself as one of the most bankable attractions in the sport score his second straight KO 1 over a pro boxer; we saw a 17-year-old HBO star box to a draw we saw a no-contest due to multiple head clashes and multiple cuts, and we saw a massive hematoma from an inadvertent thumb to the eye. Oh, and that Fight of the Year candidate featured a boxer who needed a knockout to win entering Round 12 get that knockout with just seven seconds left against an opponent who may have fought the last 10 rounds with a torn ACL.

This sport, man.

LeBron James scoring his 40,000th point got all the mainstream headlines on Saturday night, but compared to what boxing delivered (or in the case of Amanda Serrano’s Puerto Rican homecoming, didn’t deliver)? Yawn.

Let’s start with the development that checked both the “worst” and “weirdest” boxes. Serrano was the chief draw bringing almost 18,000 fans to Coliseo Jose Miguel Agrelot in San Juan – her first fight on her home island in three years. She was set to take on Nina Meinke in a scheduled 12-rounder, which was by all appearances going to be a mismatch/showcase fight, but at least it was going to be a fight.

The co-main, Jake Paul-Ryan Bourland, ended, and as far as any paying customers knew, it was all systems go for Serrano-Meinke. Then word started making its way around. Serrano has some sort of eye issue. The fight may not be happening. The fight will not be happening.

This could have been determined and announced much earlier, arguably the day before. Instead Serrano was left was to come to the ring under the cover of sunglasses and a hoodie to deliver the bad news verbally at the very time she was supposed to be entering the ring gloved up.

It was a heartbreaking scene as Serrano, amid boos and tears, tried to explain, “A couple days ago, I had my hair done”. That was all she could offer in the moment.

It was the ultimate unintentional yada yada. “A couple days ago, I had my hair done … yada yada … the fight is off.”

Staring down a PR disaster in P.R., Most Valuable Promotions promised a full refund to any ticket holder who wanted one and assured Meinke she’d be paid her entire purse. It’s nice to have the financial flexibility (Paul’s reportedly worth about $80 million) to absorb that blow. But what an awful situation for Serrano. And what a blunder to stall so long on making a decision under the hope she might get medically cleared.

And if you wrote in a script that a main event boxer would suffer fight-canceling vision impairment due to a hair product getting into her eye, your producer would tell you it’s too far-fetched; go back to the writers’ room.

Just prior to that, Paul won for the ninth time in 10 pro boxing matches and continued to discover that you can find guys with boxing experience and credible-looking records who are less threatening and less sturdy than washed MMA fighters without boxing experience. It took Olivia Rodrigo’s former Bizaardvark co-star (I can’t believe these are words I’m typing in a boxing article) all of two minutes, 37 seconds to change Bourland’s record from 17-2 to 17-3.

Meanwhile, Javon “Wanna” Walton got a full four rounds of work in on the undercard against Joshua Torres and saw his record go from 1-0 to 1-0-1. This wouldn’t typically be worth noting, but Walton plays the beloved character “Ashtray” on the hit HBO series Euphoria. He was not quite a teenager when the pilot was filmed; now he’s 17 and a 130lbs southpaw, and Saturday night’s result suggests he may want to continue pursuing acting opportunities.

For the moment, Walton is only the second-best boxer among stars of major HBO drama series, but he’s young and may improve.

Oh, and somewhere along the way Paul found time to crack jokes about Ryan Garciadoing some cocaine”.

While all this was going in San Juan, there was also an undercard streaming on ESPN+ from Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, New York.

Crammed into three rounds of action between the welterweight Brian Norman Jr and Janelson Figueroa Bocachica were a knockdown suffered by Norman, a cut suffered by Bocachica, a cut suffered by Norman, and another cut suffered by Bocachica, resulting in a no-contest.

Both of them got off easier physically than Reiya Abe, who not only had to deal with the flummoxing unorthodoxy of featherweight titleholder Luis Alberto Lopez, but also made whatever eye problems Serrano encountered this week seem decidedly mild. A second-round Lopez left hook happened to feature some thumb-to-eyeball contact, and the swelling was immediate and consequential.

Before long, Abe’s face was so lopsided he was just about ready to don a pirate hat and yell: “Hey, you guys!”

This is boxing. Appealing and appalling in equal measure, ready to flip from the purest sport to the poorest excuse for a sport at any moment.

And at no point on Saturday night was it possible for a true fan to look away.

But all of this just served as setup for the sport at its very best, when Raymond Ford and Otabek Kholmatov met for a vacant featherweight strap in the main event at the Turning Stone.

If you haven’t seen the fight … stop reading this and watch the fight. Or at least read David Greisman’s recap.

It’s hard to say if Ford-Kholmatov will hold up as the Fight of the Year on December 31, but as of March 4, it’s lapping the field. And it wasn’t just a great action fight. It was also a drama with numerous layers and subplots worthy of examination.

After Kholmatov got out to a fast start — he swept the first four rounds on one card and was up 3-1 on the other two — Ford’s trainer, Anthony Rodriguez, got him to make one of the most impressive mid-fight strategic adjustments I’ve ever seen. Ford, a slick southpaw boxer by nature who’s happy to do his thing off the back foot, started plowing forward because it was imperative that Kholmatov no longer be allowed to come forward himself.

Trailing through four rounds, he needed to stop letting Kholmatov feel comfortable. And that’s exactly what he did. He wasn’t winning all the rounds. But he was winning about half of them from the fifth onward, and he was slowly sapping Kholmatov’s strength.

Entering the 12th, though, the fight was out of reach on the scorecards barring multiple knockdowns — as it should have been. John McKaie and Eric Marlinski’s cards of 106-103 Kholmatov aligned perfectly with mine, and Don Ackerman’s 105-104 for Ford served as the hard-to-figure outlier. It had been a tremendous fight, but it was over unless Ford, his face now a mess after a bloody 11th round that Kholmatov swept on the cards, could do something dramatic in the final three minutes.

Ford kept coming, and Kholmatov gradually stopped producing offense and shifted his focus to running out the clock. With 32 seconds left, for the first time all fight, Ford clearly hurt Kholmatov. The Uzbek stumbled into the ropes (could have been called a knockdown), then Ford tossed him to the canvas (referee Charlie Fitch correctly didn’t call it a knockdown, though plenty of refs get such calls wrong).

Kholmatov only got about a four-second break as he picked himself up. There were 18 ticks on the clock as Ford ran across the ring toward his wounded opponent. Several big shots landed, Kholmatov was soon in a defenseless position – half-turned away along the ropes – and Fitch stopped it at 2:53 of the round.

If Fitch had called a knockdown earlier, there’s almost no chance there would have been enough time left for Ford to get his KO. Kholmatov would have escaped with a 114-113, 114-113, 112-115 split decision.

The cliché “game of inches” doesn’t quite apply, but it’s a game of seconds; of good luck; of bad luck; of randomness. In any number of alternate run-outs of this fight, Kholmatov takes the alphabet belt home. In the only run-out that became reality, Ford got a win that conjured talk of Julio Cesar Chavez-Meldrick Taylor, Mike Weaver-John Tate, and Jake La Motta-Laurent Dauthuille.

But there are no losers in a fight like this. Especially if it turns out Kholmatov fought most of the way with a torn ACL — that was reported to be the reason he was taken to the hospital afterward (though at time of publish, no such injury has been publicly confirmed). But set that possibility aside, he still gained more fans in his first defeat than he did in any of his 12 professional wins.

Fights like Ford KO 12 Kholmatov elevate all involved. And they elevate the sport of boxing.

I’ve been covering this circus for more than a quarter-century. And somehow it still finds ways to show me things I’ve never seen before.

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