Weekend at the Last Chance Saloon
The world of sports has few things to offer as sad as a fighter in the final stages of his career. At least in team competitions, there are external factors such as coaches, general managers or doctors who can save the athlete from himself. The only sustenance a fading career imparts on boxers is a sense of desperation because the only certainty they have is that a loss means a substantial decrease in the size of future paychecks. This weekend’s television fare is filled with such boxers, who will find themselves removed from any world title consideration or larger stage TV appearances with a defeat. So I decided to take a look at the six boxers (all were pretty easy to spot, given their age or lack of fanfare) and the level of anxiety they are likely to feel as they enter the Last Chance Saloon.
Barstool No. 1: Miguel Marriaga (ESPN) – No one expects Marriaga to defeat the pound-for-pound beast from Ukraine but a spunky showing against WBO junior lightweight titlist Vasyl Lomachenko tomorrow may put Marriaga in line for one or two gatekeeper paydays against fighters like Joseph Diaz Jr. on American TV. Or he can do the same by heading over the Atlantic to face upstarts Kid Galahad and Josh Warrington in England for similar paydays as the B-side. In his two losses (both world title fights), the Colombian went the distance with power-punchers then-WBA featherweight beltholder Nicholas Walters and WBO featherweight titleholder Oscar Valdez, so he should give prospects quality rounds. A power-puncher himself, stopping 21 of 25 foes, Marriaga would remain a viable chin test against anyone at a still viable age of 30. Marriaga was comprehensively outboxed in his title appearances, winning maybe four of the 24 rounds, and his feet are not getting any quicker, making him an ideal foe for young boxers two or three bouts away from a title shot. Unless Marriaga scores an upset, after his probable loss to Lomachenko tomorrow night, this will be his third – and final – strike at a title.
Barstool No. 2: Vyacheslav Shabranskyy (ESPN) – The former Ukrainian amateur standout began his career choosing a perilous path having turned pro late at age 26, which meant Shabranskyy had to speed up his rise and take on tough opposition early, not allowing time for ring maturation. This caught up with Shabranskyy two fights ago, when he was shocked by hard punching Sullivan Barrera, who stopped him over seven hard rounds. Considering Shabranskyy’s amateur credentials, he is not likely to be accepted as a steppingstone, still able to make young guns look bad in victory and, because the light heavyweight division is stocked with exciting talent, Shabranskyy has already been leapfrogged by Dmitry Bivol and Oleksandr Gvozdyk. There is zero margin for error with Shabranskyy anymore. He must not only win but look fantastic doing it, in order to make the Barrera setback look like a fluke instead of a referendum on a title challenge. Faces little known and untested Philadelphia native Todd Unthank May tomorrow, and anything less than a mid-round stoppage should be considered failure for Shabranskyy’s future prospects.
Barstool No. 3: Mauricio Herrera (ESPN) – The plucky Californian faces a guy on the barstool next to him, Mexican war horse Jesus Soto Karass, and if Herrera loses, he is not likely to get another TV date, moving one spot lower on boxing card line-ups. Herrera has been fighting elite boxers like Danny Garcia and Ruslan Provodnikov, or the semi-elite in Jose Benavidez and Henry Lundy, since 2011 with mostly positive results. Even in losses, Herrera held his own. Many think he was jobbed against then-junior welterweight champion Danny Garcia, with a combination of effective awkwardness and tenacity. Never sported elite handspeed or power, just a blue-collar guy who knows the angles and tricks of the game. At 37, Herrera can still confuse youngsters for a quarter of the fight but not with much consistency, as opponents are able to outquick and correct mistakes in time, since Herrera has slowed markedly. Is 3-4 in his last seven outings but has taken more punishment and has seen the gap widen on successive scorecards, when losing. If he cannot defeat an equally slow and more plodding Soto Karass, Herrera should be convinced by someone into hanging up the gloves.
Barstool No. 4: Jesus Soto Karass (ESPN) – Barroom brawlers like Soto Karass will always be asked back to dance on TV but the paychecks get smaller and smaller while the damage Soto Karass absorbs has ratcheted up more and more. Whoever wins between Mauricio Herrera and Soto Karass remains a TV entity because the winner will have just defeated a pretty recognizable name to promoters and fans. Even if Soto Karass loses, he will get future TV dates as an opponent for a television opener, since he wings punches with abandon and tests the chin, defense and determination of whomever he is in the ring against. Has drawn once and lost three times in his last four outings and has lost the majority of his fights against Top 10-to-15-type opponents. Then again, Soto Karass has only fought very good foes since 2010, either refusing or ignoring the possibility of getting some easy wins against C or D-level guys. So, it is hard to tell whether Soto Karass is shot or just overmatched, given the excellent level of opposition. At 34, Soto Karass is at an age where he will either become a steppingstone or gatekeeper and, as of now, the signs point toward steppingstone.
Barstool No. 5: Raymundo Beltran (ESPN) – Others think more highly of Beltran than I do; most may even think he does not belong on this list and should be considered for a title shot instead of the scrap heap. I do not think Beltran is a steppingstone but he is becoming a hurdle that is easier and easier to clear, at age 36, failing to make weight and a steroid suspension in his recent past. Beltran faces the guy on the last barstool, two-time title challenger Bryan Vasquez, in the most intriguing crossroads match-up of the weekend. Will continue to be a dangerous foe, no matter the result tomorrow night, but, if Beltran loses, it hurts him more, as he falls into a hard-to-define category. Beltran would remain too tough for a promoter to risk an up-and-coming prospect against but is also not the type of foe a world-rated and title-tracked challenger wants to face because he is still a danger. So Beltran would be frozen out of both higher-paying categories: fighting average foes or guys with built-up records not on his level, as the opener for ESPN or FOX cards. Basically caught in an undefined boxing purgatory between Heaven and Hell.
Barstool No. 6: Bryan Vasquez (ESPN) – While the Costa Rican probably has the longest shelf life of the boxers on this list, it hinges on Vasquez beating Beltran and thus taking on Beltran’s aura (like the classic 1980s movie “Highlander,” in which whomever cuts off the other’s head takes on his powers) for future fights billed as a boxer who defeated Top 10-ranked Beltran. That win would surely secure him a couple of decent TV dates; a loss puts Vasquez in a much tougher sell position but he still has some clout as a two-time title challenger. However, there is no large Costa Rican enclave in America to lend Vasquez any positive bias, when it comes to TV networks, or a local promoter to bring him in as an ethnic product to boost ticket sales. Vasquez only ever lost to elite opponents, so this is a referendum on Beltran as well, if Vasquez were to win. Has solid power, good ring smarts and a little above-average handspeed but he does nothing exceptionally well that puts Vasquez over the top against Top 10 foes like Takashi Uchiyama and Javier Fortuna, who both bested Vasquez comfortably.
If I were to go totally in on this fantasy saloon scenario and pick a winner, if there were to be a Hollywood-type barroom brawl, ala WWE battle royals, I think either Beltran or Soto Karass would walk out of the swinging doors in the end. I would give the edge to Beltran, even though Soto Karass is more of a barroom fight type, as I think Beltran pulls a knife in the end to win, since he has broken the boxing etiquette of late.