The Title That Binds: Lee vs Quillin

Rarely does a fighter seek to regain a title he willingly vacated, but this will be Peter “Kid Chocolate” Quillin’s task when he faces “Irish” Andy Lee Saturday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. His old belt, the WBO middleweight championship, now hugs the spindly waistline of the Limerick, Ireland native. Quillin gave it up amidst strange circumstances and Lee won it in typically wild circumstances. Fighting in his adopted hometown, “Kid Chocolate” will only get it back if he can elude Lee’s right hook.

Last fall, rather than face mandatory challenger Matt Korobov, Quillin (31-0) vacated his title, presumably on the advice of his manager, Al Haymon. Publicly, Quillin has cited the birth of his son and his uncle’s cancer ordeal as prohibitive reasons for not fighting. Into the void stepped Andy Lee (34-2), just half a year removed from his spectacular, career-altering knockout of John Jackson. Behind again in the fight against Korobov, Lee summoned the same black magic he used to defeat Jackson when a brutal right hook caught the Russian’s chin, signaling the end. The victory made Lee one of the first Irish travelers to win a world title.

Lee smashed Korobov to win Quillin’s vacated middleweight title.

Quillin’s decision to vacate seemed to confirm the criticisms of Al Haymon fighters as being entitled, risk averse and indifferent to the wishes of fans. Such criticism, which has naturally been drummed up again this week, doesn’t seem to bother Quillin, who cited his own equanimity, rather than the fans’ frustrations, as the driving force behind his life and career choices. This week he told Britain’s Daily Mail that watching his uncle fight cancer matured his perspectives: “I learned a lot of patience through that, so I couldn’t care less what people’ s opinions are or what they’re about. Nobody gets paid to care!” Fighters aren’t paid to care, only to fight, but Quillin hasn’t done that in a full year.

The words ‘former champion’ don’t usually append the name of a fighter who’s never lost, but Quillin is just that. Even during his reign he was never lauded as one of boxing’s most exciting fighters, this despite an impressive knockout rate and his obvious athleticism. His competition was fair but never arduous, and “Kid Chocolate” remained mired in the cluster of names jostling fruitlessly to challenge the division’s king—Gennady Golovkin—for popularity and esteem. Quillin’s greatest opponent was Winky Wright, who he unanimously decisioned in 2012. It was Winky’s last bout, and by that point the veteran hadn’t won in five-and-a-half years.

Winky Wright vs Peter Quillin
One of Quillin’s most notable wins came against faded great Winky Wright.

Andy Lee’s path has been more circuitous. He is a southpaw who’s shown terrific gifts, gaping weaknesses, a relentless spirit, and correlatively, a knack for landing heavenly shots at opportune times. He was twice decapitated, against Brian Vera and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., only to reemerge and assume the role of the executioner. Lee improbably knocked out John Jackson last June and followed it with his similarly shocking stoppage of Matt Korobov. Lee simply won’t quit unless you take his consciousness from him.

This fight figures to be entertaining, if only because Lee has spoken of his willingness to engage early, a tactic that might doom him against the potent Quillin. Lee isn’t the only man in this fight with a formidable hook. “Kid Chocolate” throws his left with force and precision, and has become a noticeably sharper fighter as his career has progressed. Will ring rust nullify this? During Quillin’s time off Lee experienced two career-defining wins and enters this fight with the confidence of someone who’s twice proven an ability to punch through an onslaught. Conversely, Quillin has never experienced trouble nor had his chin tested. This might gesture to his superiority, or perhaps to a level of competition softened by Haymon’s gentle hand.

If Quillin gets ahead, can he avoid the same fate as John Jackson?

Andy Lee is not impregnable, which accounts for much of his charm. He can and will be hit. If the punch is sufficiently hard, he’ll hit the deck. He’s not the sort of fighter to get cocky with, even if he appears to be weakening. One unseen punch and he’ll turn a man’s world into unknowable darkness. Ask John Jackson, who was comfortably beating Lee until a defensive lapse removed him from reality. Equally, if Lee cannot restrain himself and decides to stand and trade with the sharper, technically superior Quillin, his night might end early. As his trainer, Adam Booth, has likely counseled him, fight plans should never be predicated on landing one big shot, as recklessness usually leads to ruin.

Lee vs Quillin is fine matchmaking for Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions series, and will hopefully upstage the decent but somewhat overblown ‘war’ between Keith Thurman and Robert Guerrero on the inaugural broadcast. It is an appropriate stage for Lee–the lovable, take-two-to-give-one, cement-fisted Irish archetype–to grow his profile, because he’s too entertaining to remain known only to the hardcores. For Quillin, it’s an opportunity to prove he’s still an eminent middleweight and regain the title he handed off. It’s a true pick ‘em fight, even if Quillin’s the betting favourite. In a nod to the “Kid Chocolate” moniker, all boxing fans can hope for is a sweet fight that leaves us starved for another taste.

– Eliott McCormick

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