Atlantic City is not a town that does “slick.” Its charm is in a nostalgia for the 1950s, the Rat Pack era, wise guys and dance crazes, big cars and soda fountains. So for me, the new and very modern Hard Rock Casino, in which Saturday night’s boxing gala took place, feels like an outsider, even an imposter, on the Jersey shore. But in a way that just made it the perfect setting for finding out which of the aspiring contenders on Saturday night’s fight card fit in and can look forward to legitimacy and maybe even a title shot, and which, like the venue, don’t quite belong.
The night began with Top Rank’s new and youngest-ever contract prospect, Xander Zayas. The touted Puerto Rican took on Corey Champion, who turned out to be more game than I bet Zayas’s camp expected. Even though Zayas rightfully won every round on his way to a unanimous decision win, he couldn’t knock Champion down, let alone stop him. Not to read too much into a four-rounder and a prospect’s third pro fight, but for all the technical nous Zayas showed, I didn’t see a lot of power, something he’ll need at 147. Or maybe Corey Champion is just tough as old leather.
Either way, Zayas is clearly a talent to follow, and banking rounds is great for his development. After the fight he told me he felt like he was “waiting a little too long.” I take this to mean he’s still learning to close things out, an acquired skill. Zayas also said, “We learn, we grow, and we continue coming forward.” One can’t ask for much more in terms of attitude for a young prospect.
Next was one of those fights that make you realize there’s always something strange boxing hasn’t given us yet. Shinard Bunch, a prospect from Philly who stays admirably busy—this was his eighth fight in less than a year—took on Dennis Okoth, and nothing went to plan. I thought Bunch was winning the first few rounds, though they were close, and then he started lagging, badly. As promoter Michelle Rosado put it later, “he was under water” from about round three, and Okoth looked to have pulled ahead. Then, with about twenty seconds left in the sixth and final round, the Kenyan went to his corner and quit, handing Bunch a TKO win.
A clearly distressed Okoth was then given medical treatment, including an oxygen mask, and taken from the ring on a stretcher. He apparently broke his jaw, which some press row grumbling about the perhaps apocryphal story of how Muhammad Ali fought ten rounds against Ken Norton with a broken jaw, and why couldn’t this kid just get on his bicycle for a half-minute? But none of us are in the ring, are we? We’re holding drinks and typing on MacBooks, so forgive me if I can’t find fault in Okoth having to bow out.
Next up came highly-touted lightweight prospect Joseph Adorno, who took on journeyman Hector Garcia. Like Zayas, Adorno got more than he bargained for, but unlike Zayas he didn’t rise to the challenge. While the fight started well for Adorno, by the fourth he looked gassed and was taking punishment, often with his back against the ropes. Garcia had given Devin Haney a tough fight back in 2017, so Adorno should have known to expect a real scrap but he was losing badly enough to inspire his mother to turn away from the ring and start praying. The judges returned a split-draw, which was harsh on Garcia, but it did save Adorno’s ‘0,’ so in the boxing world of today his career was not derailed. But keen observers will be looking for more stamina and toughness from the young man, not to mention a rematch with Garcia.
Next, we got two knockouts of the unimpressive kind. First, super middleweight prospect and New Jersey native Chris Thomas got to show off nothing to his hometown fans as Samir Barbosa succumbed via TKO in the first round. Thomas was in full control for the duration, but the stoppage was quick, and ringside spectators voiced their displeasure with referee Sparkle Lee. While I do think Lee stepped in too early, I’m more inclined to ask the matchmakers for opponents who aren’t going to wilt so easily, as opposed to criticizing the referee.
The second knockout came at the hands of heavyweight prospect Sonny Conto. Curtis Head gave so little effort that I’m hesitant to even call him an opponent as Conto connected at will and this match too did not get past the first round. More interesting than this barely-fight is Conto’s immediate future. The young prospect will be sparring with Tyson Fury as “The Gypsy King” prepares for his rematch with Deontay Wilder. Conto, talking while on his way to the gym just two days after his latest win, told me that Fury is “the best in the world.” The two had also worked together before Fury vs Wilder I, and Conto was effusive about the help Fury gave him during training. “He made it seem so simple,” says Conto. “I felt that energy.” Sonny doesn’t yet know if he’ll again be on the undercard of a heavyweight championship bout, but this big man keeps giving fans reason to believe the hype he’s gotten in his young career is legit.
The finale of the undercard featured lightweight prospect Jeremy Adorno securing a solid points win over Fernando Ibarra. Adorno, the younger brother of Joseph, controlled the bout from the opening bell, scored a knock down in round two, and even hot-dogged a little in round three, putting his gloves behind his back like Roy Jones Jr. and talking to the ringside announcers, a la Floyd Mayweather. He actually ate some shots at the start of the final round, after which he returned to his dominating form before the decision was announced.
When I later asked him what he took from this fight, he commented that he was “playing around too much. I had the guy hurt and I know I should have finished him off.” It’s positive to see that kind of self-awareness in a prospect after just four fights. Adorno’s career got off to a difficult start in 2019 because of injuries, but now he’s healthy and hoping to compete five times in 2020; he already has his next match scheduled for March 14th at Madison Square Garden.
During the break before the ESPN telecast began, some of boxing’s best fighters showed their gracious sides. Claressa Shields, the day after her own fight in AC, gave interview after interview, and managed to look as intense as she does in the ring while also being attentive to every fan and reporter who asked for her time. Bud Crawford was in attendance as well, taking selfies with a stream of fight fans. It was two of the baddest pugs in the world being as cool as you could imagine and for all the flaws of the fight game, moments like that make boxing special.
Jimmy Lennon Jr. entered the ring to introduce the main events of the night as by this point, just over three thousand fans were in the Hard Rock, and the co-feature offered them plenty of action. Super middleweights Steven “So Cold” Nelson and Cem Kilic fought hard over seven rounds, and despite Nelson’s Grinch-themed trunks being some of the ugliest I’ve ever seen, he was getting the better of Kilic, whose corner threw in the towel in round eight. While I wouldn’t say the Turkish fighter was completely dominated by Nelson, the fight was only leaning in that direction and Buddy McGirt, Kilic’s trainer, made the right decision to let his fighter live to fight another day.
The main event saw New York light heavyweight Joe Smith Jr. take on Philly rival Jesse Hart in a contest to determine who could claim to be a legit top contender in the stacked 175 pound division. Hart came in looking for revenge as Smith Jr. had famously ended the career of Bernard Hopkins, Hart’s mentor. But despite walking in wearing an executioner mask in homage to Hopkins, Hart would only resemble his hero in the sense of being thoroughly beaten by Smith Jr. The Philadelphia fighter came in looking to avoid Smith Jr.’s power, but ended up doing little more than shuffling along the ropes before being cornered and taking punishment. Despite the judges turning in a split decision, it was Joe Smith Jr.’s night, with everyone in attendance deriding the one judge who, inexplicably, gave the fight to Hart.
Afterward, we found out that the Philly fighter had hurt his right hand in training the previous week, which explains why he hardly used his cross, arguably his best punch, and played defense from the start. There is no denying Hart’s toughness, but he started at a disadvantage and couldn’t overcome it. In a somewhat ironic twist, Long Islander Joe Smith Jr. was the one who resembled a Philadelphia legend, reminding this writer of Joe Frazier in the way he stalked and bobbed and weaved, always grinding forward and looking to land big shots.
While all credit goes to Smith for dominating the fight, I’m not sure there’s a lot to take from it in terms of whether he remains a legit title threat at 175. He looked good, but against an injured man, and personally I can’t see him troubling the belt holders in the division. Hart, meanwhile, shouldn’t necessarily be judged too harshly given that he fought one-handed, nonetheless he doesn’t look as fearsome as he did as a super middleweight, where he was in the running for a belt, and I continue to question his decision to move up. I suspect he is chasing his white whale, Gilberto Ramirez, to whom he lost twice, but that does not look like a great move for his career at this point.
As the crowd began shuffling out of the arena and into all the lights and bells of the Hard Rock casino, a fight broke out among the fans. And while a pathetic occurrence, it was also a reminder to me that you can make the new Hard Rock casino as slick and glossy as you want, but it’s still in Atlantic City. Similarly, fighters can dress themselves up and talk a big talk, but there’s no hiding who’s the real thing and who’s the imposter inside the squared circle. — Joshua Isard