There is something about Erislandy Lara that causes one to think, even after all this time, that he is still on the cusp of a career-defining moment. With every fight he gives the impression he is inching towards something bigger and grander, a breakthrough that would seal his stature as one of the best boxers of our time.
But then you remember that Lara is 34-years-old, a veteran, and that he has held on to his WBA super welterweight belt for four years, and his IBO super welterweight title for two. He has defended the former six times, scoring a decisive fourth round knockout over Yuri Foreman this past January. But he has not fought since and indeed, has a grand total of eight matches over the past four years and this is when you realize that, Lara’s hunger and confidence notwithstanding, his career has likely already reached its nadir, that from now on he will spend more time fending off young challengers than fighting the superstars of his generation and getting the wider attention he arguably deserves.
Born in Guantanamo, Cuba, Lara’s professional journey began in 2008 after a harrowing 14-hour journey through the Yucatan Channel to defect to the United States. His pro career was preceded by success on the Cuban national boxing team and indeed, Lara exhibits the hallmarks of the vaunted Cuban style: excellent defense, superb footwork, and quick, accurate hands.
Yet these are also the skills that have cursed Cuban fighters in America. Footwork is mistaken by some for “running” and a strategic, thoughtful style is branded as boring. Who can forget Top Rank’s Bob Arum calling another Cuban prodigy, Guillermo Rigondeaux, “boring” after “The Jackal” defeated Nonito Donaire, then one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the game? It seems tactical boxers and clever counter-punchers are destined to be the challengers to the champions, the boxer’s boxers, but never the stars. Case in point: on Saturday Lara will defend his title against Terrell Gausha, an undefeated former Olympian, and few outside of the hardcore boxing set either know or care.
Certainly, Pernell Whitaker and Floyd Mayweather bucked that trend, and Mayweather went on to command massive paydays, even for fights that were his for the taking. But while prospective opponents couldn’t wait to face Floyd and collect their own career-high paycheck, Lara must struggle to secure meaningful bouts. In recent months he has called out Miguel Cotto, Gennady Golovkin and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, a reflection of his belief that he has been denied the mega-fight opportunities that his talent merits. But there’s no escaping the simple fact which defines Lara’s career: he is the perfect example of a high-risk, low-reward opponent. Barring something unforeseen, it will be very difficult for Lara to change that simple truth anytime soon.
If there is one fight in Lara’s past that could, and perhaps should, have been a major breakthrough, it was his showdown with Alvarez in July 2014, when he lost to the rising Mexican star by split decision. Understandably, it is the fight that bothers Lara the most. It was a highly competitive match and, arguably, a battle decided by whose style impressed the judges and fans more. As it turned out, the younger boxer with the more fan-friendly style and movie-star qualities received the close decision win.
Lara and his camp may regard the Alvarez decision as highly unjust but, unlike his points loss to Paul Williams in 2011, it is not viewed as a flagrant robbery. The bewildering scorecards from the Williams bout led to suspensions of judges and calls for a rematch which unfortunately never happened. The decision for Alvarez, on the other hand, was relatively fair, yet Lara also exposed the rising star’s flaws, making a rematch a high-risk proposition for the Mexican. Needless to say, Lara would have given Alvarez a much tougher and more meaningful challenge than Amir Khan or Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., but clearly Lara is the last man Canelo wants to see in the opposite corner anytime soon.
Miguel Cotto is the second-ranked super welterweight fighter, according to BoxRec, and holds the WBO belt. If Lara holds on to his WBA and IBO titles on October 14, Cotto would make for a highly intriguing opponent, especially after his performance against Japanese challenger Yoshihiro Kamagai this past August. However, Cotto has also clearly signaled his preference for low-risk challenges as he has decided to face Sadam Ali on December 2nd.
The most likely scenarios if Lara wins on Saturday at the Barclays Center are bouts with the other elite fighters in action that night. Thus, possible next opponents include Lara’s former sparring partner, Jermell Charlo, who has the WBC belt and is facing Erickson Lubin, and Jarrett Hurd, the current IBF super welterweight titleholder who defends against Austin Trout, who, it should be noted, lost to Lara in 2013. That win still stands as Lara’s most significant and impressive career victory.
In his recent promotional interview with PBC, Lara says he is willing to move up in weight “if the right fight presents itself” and, theoretically at least, going up to the middleweight division could mean matches with Gennady Golovkin, or once more against Alvarez. But Golovkin and Alvarez have unfinished business to settle, so an opportunity to face either is certainly unlikely. Thus one hopes a resounding statement win on Saturday could perhaps lead to matches against the likes of Daniel Jacobs, David Lemieux, Billy Joe Saunders, or Jermall Charlo, Jermell’s brother, but all of these prospects must be deemed unlikely given the threat Lara’s talent represents.
With just 28 professional bouts to his credit, Lara believes he can go on fighting for another ten years, and he probably can. He has never been knocked out and by all accounts leads a highly disciplined lifestyle. But more and more the question is not whether Lara can keep boxing, or whether he deserves to be considered among the elite in the sport, but where is he going and what is the point? Sure, he can keep fighting, but who wants to watch? As long as he remains a low-profile champion whose signature win took place almost four years ago, an air of futility and lost promise will continue to hang over Lara’s career.
Those of us who admire the skills and talent of “The American Dream” can only hope that his bout against Terrell Gausha marks a turning point, a new beginning, that it will lead to Erislandy Lara having the kind of opportunities and challenges his talent merits. But at this stage of his career, nothing less than a dominant, thrilling, highlight-reel performance is required on Saturday. Here’s hoping, for the sake of both Lara and boxing fans, he delivers just that. — Sheila Oviedo