It’s been three years since Ghana’s Joseph “King Kong” Agbeko, 27-2 (22), burst onto the big-time boxing scene and gave the bantamweight division a jolt, upsetting Luis Perez in September of 2007 to take the IBF bantamweight title in an upset. That fight, a co-feature to Chad Dawson vs. Epifanio Mendoza, in Sacramento, CA’s Arco Arena, was the first night anyone had heard of or even seen Agbeko, unless you were really into the bantamweights before that. I was present that night and what I remember most about Agbeko was his aggression, his hunger, and the sense that he was a man who traveled all the way from Africa to get this title and here, he was making his dream come true. When the doctor advised Perez’s corner to stop the bout after the seventh round, I remember having not seen some one celebrate like Agbeko did before. This was akin to watching a person win the lottery or seeing a man find out “It’s a boy!” The whole room cheered for Agbeko, who they did not know but had grown to love over the course of his seven hard rounds of work.
Afterward, I was treated to about an hour of Don King filibustering to the few media who were present (across the country, the rest of the media was covering Kelly Pavlik vs. Jermain Taylor I), as we all waited for Agbeko to come out and give his victory speech. It never came. Instead, we got great stories from Don King about Salvador Sanchez and his history in boxing while his assistant came in with reports from outside the door to Agbeko’s dressing room.
“All I can hear is cheering and loud talking and the occasional cry of ‘GHANA!’, the assistant said while Don laughed jubilantly “Only in America. ‘King Kong’ Agbeko, the little man with the big name has come to America to find his kingdom” or something equally eloquent and Don Kingesque. Don also reminded us that “King Kong” is Agbeko’s real middle name.
For a brief moment in time, Joseph Agbeko was atop the world at 118 pounds. After several postponements due to injury and contracting malaria when he returned home to Ghana to heal up, Agbeko only fought once in 2008, at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ, taking a majority decision over William Gonzalez. However, whatever momentum off the title win that was lost in 2008 was regained in July of 2009 when Agbeko squared off against hard-hitting 115-pound champion Vic Darchinyan. No one expected Agbeko to win and once again; he proved the world wrong by beating Darchinyan to the punch with his high-volume, odd-angled attack. It was a dominant win against a top-level foe that legitimized Agbeko as a threat in the lower weight classes.
Then, the air came out of the balloon when little known Colombian fighter Yonnhy Perez, 20-0-1 (14), met up with Agbeko on Halloween of last year. As expected, the match, pitting two hungry high-volume, aggressive fighters against each other, was an all-action affair with both men giving as well as they got. Perez suffered a cut over his left eye in round six due to an accidental head clash and a match that was already a phone booth war with a blistering pace, went up a couple notches. In the tenth round, a head clash between the two fighters seemed to hurt Agbeko and he turned away from the action. Referee Robert Byrd had not stopped the action and seemed to have missed the headbutt. In the ensuing confusion, Perez did as any fighter would do and advanced on Agbeko, landing a hard left to the body that dropped the titleholder. In the end, it was Perez who landed cleaner crisper shots and whose attack varied enough throughout that he seemed in control. The judges agreed and Perez, with scores of 116-111 and 117-110 twice, took the victory and Agbeko’s coveted belt via unanimous decision.
Perez would go on to have a high-profile draw against fellow 118-pounder Abner Mares in May of 2010. Agbeko, however, toiled on the bench, fightless for a year.
Now with Showtime’s single-elimination, bantamweight tournament, which features Vic Darchinyan vs. Abner Mares and Yonnhy Perez vs. Abgeko II in the first round, the little man with the big name gets a chance at redemption and a whole lot more, should he win, this Saturday at the Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma, Washington.
“I am really excited for this fight and I am so happy to come back and fight,” Agbeko said recently on a conference call to promote the bout. “I was a champion for some time and now, I am going into the ring not as the champion and I think it is less pressure for me."
Regardless if the pressure of defending a title is less than capturing one, this is something of a must-win for the 30-year-old Agbeko. Should he win, a lucrative fight with the winner of Mares-Darchinyan looms but more importantly, the winner of this tournament is a natural for the winner of Fernando Montiel and Nonito Donaire, who will square off in February in a WBO/WBC title unification match. Pressure or not, the time is now. Still, Agbeko says he is not competing with the other fighters for who is best. But rather, he is seeing how far he can push himself.
"I am in a competition with myself,” he said. “I was the champion and I lost it to Yonnhy Perez and I have really been working hard for this fight. It is the fight of my life, the fight of my career. I have to win this fight to become a champion again. I believe I am going to win this fight. Everything was going well in the last fight but because of the headbutt, I lost. I wasn't embarrassed. In the last year, I was supposed to fight a guy but the fight the fight didn't happen."
He also has a score to settle with that knockdown off the headbutt as well as his actions during that moment.
"Looking at the old fight,” Agbeko explained, ”which I watched a couple of times. The only thing I shouldn't have done when it happened is me stopping; I should have continued after the headbutt."
With two fighters approaching their prime or at it, the thought is that they are who they are. Agbeko is a busy guy who throws a lot of punches and so is Perez. Why should anything change the second time around? In Agbeko’s mind, it doesn’t matter that he is fighting a rematch; this is a whole different fight altogether and the outcome will be different as well.
"Yonnhy is a good fighter, very tough and good conditioning,” complimented Agbeko. “This time, it is going to be a different fight all together. He throws a lot of punches; he is a very good fighter and this time, it is going to be a different fight altogether. Physically, I am very prepared for this fight. Yonnhy is a very busy fighter and this is going to be a war because I am coming ready for war. I know he is tough and can punch and that is what I am coming with as well."
Even with a loss to Perez, Agbeko says he is not intimidated by the previous outcome. Just because he gave his all, only to come up short last time, doesn’t mean the same thing will happen again. There is a single focus for him in this bout and that’s hearing the words “once again” when the winner is announced.
"When we get into the ring, we are going to know who the best fighter is,” said Agbeko. “He has had my belt for a year and I am going to get my belt back."
If it’s anything like the first battle, boxing fans are in for yet another unforgettable war.
As for that other fight on the card, Agbeko acknowledged it would be very good but did not pick a winner. He doesn’t seem to care. The only thing that matters in the short term is beating Yonnhy Perez.
"I think [Darchinyan-Mares] is going to be a very strong and beautiful fight,” said Agbeko. “I have a fight in front of me on the same night. May the best fighter win and face me in the finals."