After four rounds, it was a mismatch. What was supposed to be an entertaining back-and-forth affair between WBA lightweight titlist Miguel Acosta and challenger Brandon Rios was a one-sided drubbing. Using deft movement and his long arcing punches, Acosta had not only outboxed Rios but stunned him with a series of right hands and a particular body punch that paralyzed him for a spell. The boxing insiders were correct; Acosta was simply too seasoned and too skilled for the rugged brawler, who hails originally from Garden City, Kansas.
But for “Bam Bam” and his trainer, Robert Garcia, this was only the beginning.
"We’re in a real fight; we’re in a tough fight", were the thoughts of Garcia, after the first third of the fight was completed. "I told Brandon, ’Y’ know what? We’re in a tough fight so stay smart; close the fight; get a little closer. You’re giving him his distance and when you do that, that’s when you’re getting hit. He’s hitting you with body shots. Stay close to him; let him hold; let the ref break it up; just stay on him.’ And he followed instructions."
Rios would have to be the wool blanket in smothering the fire that was Acosta but that would come at a heavy price.
"He got me with a body shot and that sh*t hurt," admitted Rios, afterward. "I felt a body shot before early in my career; I got dropped twice with a body shot and it hurt. But y’ know what? I had to ball up; go out there; suck it up. Let him hurt me, I guess."
Starting from the fifth frame, Rios, who had sporadic success going downstairs in the early rounds, started to close the gap and back up Acosta along the ropes. Where early in the fight he missed a multitude of shots aiming for Acosta’s head, frustrating his trainer ("I was telling him every break, ’Don’t throw one wild punch at a time. Close the fight; go to the body,’" explained Garcia, "but he was excited. He wanted to get that knockout. It took a little bit; he made some mistakes. We’re going to go back to the video and study them.”), by the middle of the bout, Rios was starting to grind away consistently to the midsection of the tall, well-built Venezuelan. Like a lumberjack cutting down a redwood, he just kept chopping away, little by little, breaking up Acosta’s foundation. Slowly but surely, Acosta’s lateral movement, which was so effective early on, morphed into a retreat where Rios started to come in more and more unfettered. While Acosta kept throwing, he had lost his fastball and Rios’ two-fisted attack started to visibly wear him down. It was a fight that reminds one a little of that 2008 match-up between Antonio Margarito and Miguel Cotto, where will overcame skill.
And that old adage about killing the body and the head will follow certainly applied here.
The bout’s momentum swung in the sixth round when Rios floored Acosta with a left jab. It wasn’t so much that this particular punch sent down the defending champion more than the accumulation of heat that was only growing at that point. "After I went back to the corner, Robert kept telling me to do what I was doing, ‘Put the pressure; put the pressure; keep him close. Don’t let him get his distance because if you do, he’ll box your eyes off.’ So I kept putting the pressure, putting the pressure." Rios added later. "When I dropped him, that’s when I started feeling him weaken. And when I dropped him I was like, ’Man, I hurt this guy.’ I seen it in his eyes, that fear. I seen that every time I got closer, he’d take off running."
As his legs were starting to get cut off from the thudding body shots of Rios, Acosta found more and more difficulty in keeping Rios off him.
Acosta was sent to the canvas again in the eighth round again, not necessarily from any one blow but a mounting array of leather that was coming in his direction from all angles. As Rios kept swinging his ax, Acosta had the look of a man suffocating under the volume. He was still game but outgunned and he had to muster all his championship mettle to stay with Rios in what is an early candidate for “Round of the Year” in the ninth inning. He fought valiantly for much of the stanza off the ropes, doing everything he could to keep Rios at bay.
"When I got him in the ropes and we were trading, I figured, ’Yes, I got him where I want him. He’s fighting my fight now. Sooner or later, I’m going to take him out.’"
Then in the tenth, with a series of right hands that were as vicious as they were accurate, Rios stopped Acosta, who was out on his feet in his own corner. It was a scene that reminded one of the fateful night between Emile Griffith and Benny “Kid” Paret. Before the fight was waved off by referee Joe Cortez, who didn’t even start the count, his cornerman had already ran up the steps of the ring apron with the full intention on halting the bout. A crumpled-up Acosta, whose legs buckled underneath him, was quickly in the arms of his handler who came to rescue him. Just like that, it was over; a stunning conclusion to what was a scintillating battle. But while Rios went through Acosta at the end like a buzzsaw, it was his previous rounds’ work where he eroded the face of Acosta that paved the way for this ending.
While Rios captured the WBA title, his victory is much more significant than that. There are lots of guys out there with belts; however, this game has a dearth of stars who are as charismatic and telegenic as Rios. He didn’t just become a champion; he might have become a bona fide star.
His promoter Bob Arum said excitedly, just a few minutes after the bout, "Absolutely, absolutely, he was spectacular. He’s a real fighter. He’s not a big Fancy Dan but he can really fight and he’s so crowd-pleasing."
This fight had you thinking that you were watching the evolution of another Arturo Gatti, the kind of fighter who, win or lose, leaves you with lasting memories.
"I was talking to Carl Moretti about that; it appears so" said Ken Hershman, who runs Showtime’s boxing division, "This kid’s relentless; he’s tough as nails; he comes round after round after round and it’s going to look the same. He’s going to be in your face, throwing big bombs." Before Moretti joined the Top Rank organization, he was matchmaker of Main Events and played a large role in shaping the career of the late Gatti. When asked if this comeback performance by Rios was reminiscent of Gatti’s come-from-hopelessly-behind outing against Wilson Rodriguez in 1996, Moretti said, "Oh, no question. All we needed was the eye shut a little more and we had it."
In describing Rios, Moretti added, "This is what he does. He had the ability to endure pain in order to inflict it."
Rios will most likely not make any pound-for-pound lists. His identity will never be tied to some mythical ranking or a protected undefeated record by taking the path of least resistance and taking no risks. That’s a good thing. That whole concept is a fictional one. What’s real and lasting are the indelible moments created by men like Gatti and Rios but there is a heavy price to pay for such a sacrifice. These guys aren’t built for the long haul. Their warranties are very short and when it comes apart, it comes apart rapidly.
"We’ve had many champions fight like that," said Garcia, himself a former world champion, when asked about Rios’ potential longevity in the sport. "Arturo Gatti was one of them. Yeah, I’ve told him that but hey, that’s his style. Other fighters have reflexes; he’s got a big heart and he’s got tremendous conditioning and tremendous balls to come after his opponent and finish him off. So that’s the way he’s gotta fight."
It may be a short ride with Rios but it will be fun. Gimme two or three years of Rios over a decade of Chad Dawson.
"I still got a lot to learn; I still gotta go back to the gym, work on some mistakes," said Rios, to a group of scribes who were led into his dressing room. "I did a lot of mistakes. I gotta go back and I’m still learning; I’m still young and Robert’s teaching me very well."
He might be a shooting star, one that flames out quickly, but a star nonetheless.
"I think so," said his manager, Cameron Dunkin, who’s been on quite the run. "That’s gotta be up for ’Fight of the Year’, right? And ’Round of the Year’ [the ninth]. Just a terrific night."
Rios-Acosta was a fight that ended up on Showtime in large part because HBO told Top Rank that they really didn’t have room for it (I guess that’s what happens when you start guaranteeing return engagements to boxers who lose and hand out dates to fighters who don’t even have opponents set). Hershman told Maxboxing, "My thought was, I watched Brandon; I love that style of fighter. It’s fun TV and Acosta’s a real pro. He had never fought anyone at this level and Acosta showed unbelievable toughness, amazing skill and he almost had Rios out of there."
When I asked Arum if this was another fight that HBO had rejected, at first, he just shook his head, chuckled and walked away from me. But then, Bob being Bob, unable to help himself and itching to take a swing at the softball I just lobbed him, tapped my elbow and said, "Hey, what can I say? I’m not Al Haymon."
Since there are kids who read this, I won’t go into full detail as to the full exchange between Rios and me, as I asked him how he would celebrate his victory on Saturday night. It involved taking a shower, some lotion and...well, let’s just leave it at that. But this is part of what makes Rios so entertaining; the guy isn’t concerned necessarily about being politically correct (which isn’t always a good thing as he found out last November when he mocked Freddie Roach and his physical condition) or keeping up some pristine image. He is who he is, for better or worse. And in an age where a lot of athletes put on fronts and are so protective of their images, I find Rios’s lack of filter to be refreshing. Although there are some who will never forgive Rios for past transgressions, which is certainly their prerogative, I can almost guarantee you those same folks will never ever miss a fight of his.
No, he’s not always going to be perfect but, to his credit, Rios will never be a phony.
Speaking of Cotto-Margarito, I was told this past weekend that the rematch will take place on July 16th...As for Kermit Cintron, who is now co-promoted by Top Rank, alongside DiBella Entertainment, the plan right now is for him to face either Joshua Clottey or the winner of Yuri Foreman-Pawel Wolak...A few more notes on Rios: his return to the ring might be delayed as it turns out. He broke his right hand during his pitched battle with Acosta. Also, Arum mentioned to me that a fight with the aged Marco Antonio Barrera could be next...OK, do we start to take the Lakers seriously again?...Condolences to Dan and Joe Goossen on the death of their brother, Greg, a former major league baseball catcher. Greg was a very nice man and had some great stories of his time in the “Big Show” and being managed by the likes of Casey Stengel, watching Robert Clemente throw a baseball from the outfield, his time in the Mexican league and his thoughts on Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four.” He will be missed...RIP to Duke Snider....