The Gatti Of Oklahoma

Alex Saucedo’s brutal knockout win over rugged brawler Lenny Zappavigna back in June was the type of slugfest that lingers in the memories of boxing fans. It was also the kind of performance that can propel a fighter into the “must-see” category, where the ultimate result of the fight cedes importance to visceral images of gushing blood, thrilling momentum swings, and savage exchanges of power shots. But it can also be a trap, and as Saucedo (28-0) gets set for his first world title shot against WBO light welterweight champion Maurice Hooker, he’s keenly aware of the pitfalls of his career-defining win.

This isn’t to say that Saucedo’s unforgettable seventh round stoppage of Zappavigna is a boxing Catch-22, far from it. The victory led directly to Saucedo challenging for his first world title, and it galvanized a major ESPN audience, positioning Saucedo to become a cornerstone for the Worldwide Leader’s heavy investment in boxing. But for that to happen, Saucedo needs to accomplish two things: beat Maurice Hooker (24-0-3), and do so in a manner less taxing on his ample physical gifts and mental resolve.

Saucedo vs Zappavigna is in the running for 2018’s Fight Of The Year.

“It was a great fight,” Saucedo says of the Zappavigna fight. “It was a great learning experience. I showed a lot in that fight. I can go back and see what I did wrong and what I did right, and I believe, like you said, we gave the fans a hell of a fight. Everyone was excited. And now everyone’s excited for this fight on November 16th.”

The late Arturo Gatti is undoubtedly the archetype of the pure blood-and-guts action fighter, and Saucedo has embraced comparisons to “Thunder,” as compliments poured in after he rallied from nearly getting bludgeoned in round four of the Zappavigna fight to break his seemingly possessed foe down before stopping him. But again, to be compared to Gatti, even in passing, is something that should give any young fighter pause. Although Gatti had longevity, particularly for a fighter of his ilk, he absorbed some hellacious beatings towards the end. And for every Gatti there are several Ruslan Provodnikovs, fighters who appear poised to carry that “warrior” mantle as Gatti did, only to fade after a handful of memorable performances.

How this relates to Saucedo is simple: He’s proven he has the heart, tenacity, and mental fortitude to deliver the uniquely violent performances boxing fans crave, but an expectation to deliver a Gatti-like display every time out could come to haunt him. What Saucedo has to prove now is that he can win at the highest level in a more judicious and responsible manner, which will be essential against the likes of Hooker.

Indeed, responsibility and focus were recurring themes in conversation with Saucedo, and the fact that he’s embedded at The Summit Gym in Big Bear, California and training with Abel Sanchez augers well for Saucedo to be able to use the Zappavigna war more as a learning experience than a blueprint.

“I showed myself and my fans what I can do, and take, in there,” says Saucedo. “But we’re focusing on not getting lazy. That’s what happened in the fourth round. I got a little lazy with my jab because I felt I was controlling the fight, and that’s when that right hand came in. So, we can’t let that happen again with any fighter because everyone is looking for a chance like that.”

Saucedo with Abel Sanchez 

And yet, a young and exuberant pugilist like Saucedo can’t help but embrace some of the Gatti similarities: “It’s great that people can compare it to those types of fights. I mean, who hasn’t seen the Arturo Gatti vs Micky Ward fights? For people to say that it was a fight like that means people will remember it forever.”

Saucedo came across as sincere, and serious, when insisting that he doesn’t feel under pressure to go out and entertain at the expense of his health, but he also understands the value of tapping into the public’s primal desire to witness violent excitement. At 24, the challenge for Saucedo is to walk that tightrope in front of his fanbase in Oklahoma City, where he’ll be performing for the second consecutive bout. Saucedo talked about the magnitude of winning a major title in front of his hometown fans, who are supporting him in a manner that could morph into what Terence Crawford enjoys in Nebraska.

Ward and Gatti rumble in Atlantic City.

Much like Crawford, the supposed drawback of coming from a small market state hardly steeped in boxing lore can suddenly become an advantage. It’s indeed intriguing that Saucedo will get that home field edge against the Texan Hooker as they set to wage their own version of the Red River Shootout. The rangy, elastic-armed Hooker will enter this fight bolstered by the experience of dethroning Terry Flanagan in Manchester, England and being no stranger to hostile crowds. The more pressing question is how Saucedo will handle the excitement, expectation, and nerves of trying to carve out his slice of history at home.

“Maurice Hooker is tough fighter. He has a long reach and knows how to use it, and he has power in both hands,” Saucedo says. “So we just have to be ready. If I’m ready and in shape, I shouldn’t have anything to worry about.”

With the top two 140-pounders in Josh Taylor and Regis Prograis on a collision course in the current season of the World Boxing Super Series, an interesting junior welterweight subplot is unfolding. A handful of potentially elite fighters are battling to emerge from the division’s peloton as the logical challenger to the WBSS winner in a huge showdown that could potential unify all the major belts. Hooker and WBC champ Jose Ramirez are floating around outside the tournament, so a Saucedo victory on Saturday would give him both a belt and a solid bargaining position for future significant matches.

Saucedo is set to face Maurice Hooker.

“It’s a big opportunity to become the second champion from Oklahoma after Sean O’Grady,” Saucedo emphasized. “The response from the people makes me work harder and keeps me motivated. There are a lot of kids, a lot of talent, in Oklahoma, and they need to see somebody come up so they can keep working hard. I came from the baddest, toughest place in Oklahoma City. I want to send the message that the kids who support me can do anything.”

All these possibilities, however, are just that: projections of a promising future that’s on the precipice of unfolding, one way or the other. What does seem abundantly clear is that Alex Saucedo is ready to take that major plunge and bet on himself. He knows that what he did against Lenny Zappavigna was special, but now it’s about securing his future in the sport and proving he belongs with the elite at 140 pounds. He has all of Oklahoma behind him, a world class trainer, and the kind of test from the Zappavigna fight that could serve as his boxing equivalent of a doctoral defence, provided Saucedo is as focused and responsible as he promises to be.

Saucedo with his promoter, Bob Arum.

Although Arturo Gatti and Terence Crawford were invoked when assessing Saucedo’s fighting magnetism and drawing power, respectively, those comparisons remain premature. But the fact that Saucedo’s knockout of Zappavigna conjured the best moments of Gatti for so many, and that his raucous fans in Oklahoma City have the potential to replicate the special atmosphere of Omaha, means that “El Cholo” is a fighter who demands our attention. And creating that demand is at least half the battle.

As boxing hopefully moves away from its ludicrous pay-per-view model, there’s even more of a place for skillful brawlers who can pack arenas like Alex Saucedo. Friday night is his chance to prove that not only is he championship material, but that he truly has the potential to emerge as a fighter with a fully realized identity.

“I don’t want to make every fight like it [the Zappavigna fight],” Saucedo says. “But if it comes down to it, I’m a fighter and that’s what we do. We do anything to win.”

— Zachary Alapi

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