Friday, June 17, 2011

Is Brandon Rios the Next Gatti?

I'm not sure that U.S. boxing television networks know what they have in Brandon Rios.  Here is a first-class American brawler of Hispanic descent fighting out of Southern California – the hotbed of U.S. boxing activity and fandom.  He is brash, makes good copy and fights with one purpose: the total destruction of his opponent.

Like Arturo Gatti, Rios will walk through fire; it's the only way he knows how to win.  Rios' chin is spectacular and the amount of flush shots that he takes leads to instant drama.  He is not superhuman.  He feels the pain, but he takes it and keeps coming forward. 

Trainer Robert Garcia, who also works with two brilliantly skilled fighters, Nonito Donaire and his brother Mikey Garcia, knows what he has in Rios and wisely has not tried to convert him into something that he's not.  What Garcia has is a face-first pressure fighter with immense power and a steel will.  Yes, Garcia could improve Rios' defense and lateral movement but Garcia has made Rios an expert in cutting off the ring and varying punches to the head and body.  Rios fights in a style that you would never teach.  To Garcia's credit, like all the great trainers, he realizes the unique talents of his fighter and adapts accordingly.

Top Rank moved Rios deliberately, placing him on undercards, club shows and their own pay-per-views.  Rios did not mature in a straight line.  Youthful rambunctiousness and some other out-of-the-ring entanglements led to a lot of frustration from the Top Rank head honchos.  There was concern about a lack of focus.  Still, Top Rank plugged along with Rios, getting him his first shot on HBO at the age of 24.  Like so many Top Rank fighters before him, when Rios received his opportunity to fight on a big premium network, he delivered.

Rios announced his arrival onto the world-class boxing scene with a stunning and brutal beat down of Anthony Peterson on HBO. It was a 50/50 fight (although Peterson was a slight betting favorite).

Against Peterson, Rios continued to back him up, firing vicious right hands and left hooks.  It was clear by the fourth round that Peterson, who had the much stronger amateur pedigree, was not prepared for a war.  Rios knocked him down in the fifth and applied constant pressure.  Peterson looked for a way out of the fight and continued to hit Rios with obvious low blows.  The referee had no choice but to DQ him in the seventh round.

So what did HBO do after they found a young, American fighter who turned in a star-making performance on its network?  They let him walk to Showtime.  HBO wouldn't guarantee a return engagement for Rios.  Curiously, HBO had already invested significantly in the lightweight division, prominently featuring Juan Manuel Marquez, Juan Diaz and Michael Katsidis.

After a stay-busy fight with Omri Lowther, Rios was ready for his title shot, facing Miguel Acosta of Venezuela.  What followed was such a savage war that I still lack the superlatives to describe the fight almost four months later.  Acosta, a slick boxer with power who likes to fling awkward-angled shots fighting off of the ropes, was bludgeoning Rios through four rounds.  He threw the kitchen sink at Rios, peppering him with looping rights, left hooks and uppercuts.  Rios was a human piƱata, getting smashed all over his fice and body.  But, he kept coming forward, taking all of the shots.  These were not insignificant punches from Acosta, but crackling blows.

By the fifth round, Rios effectively closed the distance and his shots started to land with regularity.  Acosta couldn't keep up the furious pace of the first four rounds.  Rios connected with damaging right hands and left hooks to the body and head.  A sixth round knockdown took away Acosta's legs.  The beating continued.  It got so bad for Acosta that he was actually knocked down by a jab.  By the 10th round, Rios' relentlessness was too much for Acosta. His eyes were glazed over and he no longer had any snap on his punches.  Rising to his feet, after yet another knockdown, the ref wouldn't let him continue.

Rios fights Urbano Antillon next on July 9th.  Antillon is also a come-forward brawler who fights out of Southern California.  There is bad blood between them.  Typical of a Rios fight, there has been tons of trash talking and many exchanges of colorful and unpleasant words during the build up to the match.   

Antillon waged a fierce battle against Humberto Soto last year.  Although he lost the fight, he gained many new fans.  Many boxing observers selected Soto-Antillon as the 2010 "Fight of the Year."  Rios-Antillon should be another great war.

Showtime is carrying the fight but they've been a little light on the publicity.  If I were they, I would be furiously purchasing billboards in Times Square, Hollywood and any other sensible location to publicize Brandon Rios fighting on their network.  I would run a full media blitz.  Bob Arum usually doesn't make long-term network deals for his fighters anymore but Showtime is missing a golden opportunity to promote one of boxing's finest gladiators.  I'm sure if they really pulled out all of the stops by publicizing Rios to the level in which he deserves, he would be far more inclined to continue to fight on Showtime in the future.

Top Rank needs to find a home for Rios.  His last ten fights have taken place in four different states as well as Mexico.  His fight against Antillon will be his first in California since 2006 – a stunning mistake for a promotional company that prides itself on developing stars with fan followings. 

Top Rank should keep Rios firmly cemented in the greater Los Angeles area or Las Vegas.  After many years, eventually Main Events found a home for Gatti at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.  Top Rank should follow suit and make Staples Center Rios' home base.  Although Rios is not a huge ticket seller right now, by exposing him to perhaps the most passionate fan base in the country, his crowds will quickly rise. 

Also, like Gatti, Rios needs to be matched carefully.  Future fights with Marcos Maidana, Lucas Matthysse or Tim Bradley could be epic.  However, he will have trouble with classic boxer-punchers like Robert Guerrero and Amir Khan.  Luckily, I don't see Top Rank leading Rios to slaughter the same way that Main Events did with Gatti-Mayweather.  (In Main Events' defense, Gatti pressed them to make the fight.)  Properly matched, Rios should produce a half-dozen legendary battles.  I can practically see the fawning documentaries now. 

"Bam Bam" Rios is the real deal.  He's the type of fighter that makes boxing fans purchase tickets or stay home on Saturday nights to watch him.  He's the definition of appointment television.  With the way that Rios fights and the punishment that he absorbs, the shelf light of his career may be short.  But enjoy the ride.  It's going to be thrilling.

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