Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Tribute To The Gatekeeper

Boxing, sometimes called "the hardest game," is filled from top to bottom with unfathomably difficult jobs in the ring. I don't mean the cutmen and trainers and other folk whose work sometimes goes unheralded. I mean the unofficial "jobs" of various boxers. From the bottom -- the guys who make their money as cannon fodder to help better boxers build their records -- to the top -- the guys who win a championship and only fight the very best -- there isn't really an easy one in the lot.

Fulgencio Zuniga's defeat of Victor Oganov in a super-middleweight (168 lbs.) battle on Showtime Sept. 2, which I only recently witnessed in replay via On-Demand, has me brimming with admiration for the boxing job known as "gatekeeper." These are the guys who make their living being a particularly stern test for up-and-coming young fighters, often just before they get a big title shot. Gatekeepers are usually ranked in the top 10 of some of the organizations that hand out belts, but not always. Zuniga, like other gatekeepers, shares a number of characteristics with his gatekeeping peers. He is tough as nails. He has a quirky, difficult style. He is not amazingly gifted, but he has enough talent and savvy to give anyone a rough night (as he did most notably against a personal favorite of mine, Kelly Pavlik).

Lost in Zuniga's defeat of Oganov was just how much of Oganov's loss had to do with Zuniga. The broadcast team acknowledged it throughout, but most of the press on the fight focused on how bad Oganov looked. Justly, sure. The Russian had been heralded as a potentially major sensation, with a 26-0 record that was composed entirely on knockouts. In the fight, though, he looked amateurish. He demonstrated some power, but just as many of his blows were delivered like slaps and would threaten no one. Oganov mostly stood around in front of Zuniga doing nothing while Zuniga hit him without fear of getting hit back. It's understandable that the story of the fight was the puncturing of Oganov's balloon. But Zuniga worked his ass off for that win. Even after a first round knockdown, Zuniga never stopped pressuring Oganov, kept moving at odd angles to prevent Oganov from attacking him, and by the ninth, Zuniga knocked him out for a win that took guts, intelligence and plenty of effort.

That gatekeepers routinely fight the best up-and-comers despite their lack of world-class ability, knowing going in that they are there to lose, shows a kind of bravery that is rarely recognized. Of course, some of them may not have a choice. They're not good enough to fight for a title, usually, and that means their biggest purses are going to come against some phenom. More often than not, they do lose. And they take a terrible beating in the process.

The ones who at least do well will find themselves on TV again, soon to test another young, strong guy on his way to stardom. But sometimes they win, like Zuniga did. And when they do it frequently enough, they do sometimes graduate to the job of "contender." I'll be rooting for Zuniga to do just that.

Fulgencio's win had to do other Zunigas, such as Daphne, proud. I know it did me, and I think it did boxing.


Dammrod said...

Good post. I like articles that highlight the lesser known figures in boxing, and gatekeepers often make for exciting fights.

In other news: have you heard of De La Hoya's Gold Boy Promotions acquiring Ring and KO magazine? Amazing, how much of a powerhouse this promotional company has become in only a span of a few years.

Tim -- said...

Thanks man.

I had not heard that until you spoke up. Good God. "Powerhouse" is exactly the word. I have to say, as a journalist by day, that this is a worrisome development. Sure, Golden Boy hasn't been up to too terribly much shady business by historical boxing promoter standards. But even if Ring is in an "editorial trust," at first blush it's a bad idea for such a major player in the sport of boxing owning the major player in boxing journalism. It'd be like if Lockheed Martin owned Defense News, or if Sallie Mae owned the Chronicle of Higher Education. I might have to blog on this one after some thought. Thanks for calling it to my attention.

dammrod said...

No problem. I think a lot of people were totally caught off guard by this move by Golden Boy Promotions. Oscar De La Hoya has promised that GBP will in no way try to alter the magazine, but it still arises some strong suspicions. In the 70s the totally unscrupulous Don King bought off Ring Magazine to rate fighters of his choosing so he could arrange a massive tournament featuring boxers in his stable. It was a huge scandal and it tainted the reputation of Ring magazine. GBP isn't as corrupt as the Don, but only time will tell.

It seems that GBP also bought World Boxing. Ring, KO Boxing, and World Boxing are the three biggest boxing magazines in the country. Wow.