Sunday, March 13, 2011

Mayorga's Last Stand

Las Vegas: A crowd of young male fight fans stepped into an elevator at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, tired from what had probably been a weekend of gambling, drinking, and sight-seeing, culminating with the Miguel Cotto- Ricardo Mayorga super welterweight title fight.

“Fuckin’ Mayorga,” one of them said.

Beat writers working for a decade have yet to describe Mayorga in such pithy, pointed terms. Was money wagered on the Managua muscle head? “No, it’s just that he sucks,” the surly fan said. His friends agreed.

Once again, Mayorga had somehow weaseled his way into a high profile bout only to be stopped in the bout’s final seconds. How this man with only a modest amount of talent has been able to face most of the elite fighters of the era should be considered one of the great success stories of modern boxing. In Mayorga’s case, style not only trumped substance, it took him to places where very few professional boxers have traveled. He shouldn't be praised, but he should at least be studied.

Some credit must go to veteran promoter Don King, who has stubbornly recycled Mayorga long past the fighter's usefulness. But most of the credit must go to Mayorga, who has been as wily as a feral cat when it comes to staying alive in boxing.

He rivaled Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson as far as turning press conferences into complete circuses. There was no line Mayorga wouldn't cross - he'd call opponents homosexuals, insult their dead mothers, and threaten to take their wives when the fight was over. That his insults were delivered by a Spanish interpreter made him seem all the more arrogant. There was just something about Mayorga standing by in sunglasses while an interpreter told an opponent, "He says you have hands like a woman," that angered even the calmest of fighters.

But the real credit goes to boxing fans, who have repeatedly suspended their disbelief in regards to Mayorga. They bought tickets to his fights, or purchased them on pay-per-view, thinking that this time, maybe, he'd back up his bullying. This belief was akin to hearing the story of David and Goliath a hundred times, and thinking that this time Goliath would finally put his foot down on David’s throat.

Mayorga didn’t succumb to Cotto easily. Granted, Cotto pumped him with jabs all night and was well ahead on points at the time of the stoppage, but Mayorga held his own. Many along press row thought it was the best Mayorga has looked since his brief reign as a welterweight titlist, back when he could blow opponents away with nothing but aggression. At 154, he has never displayed the power or enthusiasm he did at 147. Against Cotto, though, he fought as if he knew this was his last chance.

Mayorga’s first sign of life came at the end of the fourth when he rattled Cotto with a series of flailing blows. Mayorga has never understood the reasoning behind keeping his punches straight and crisp, preferring to beat on opponents as if he’s holding a club in each hand. It was in this manner that he managed to win the seventh and ninth rounds, mauling Cotto with chopping right hands, causing the titlist to cover up.

At times, Mayorga would back into a corner and goad Cotto to come forward, screaming at Cotto to fight him like a man. Cotto was too cool to fall for Mayorga's stunt, but it was good drama, something out of Kurasawa, with Mayorga in the role of an aging samurai bellowing against nature that things cannot end this way.

Cotto, who has been through his own ups and downs, was brilliant at times. Even when Mayorga was effective, Cotto would ride out the storm, and stop Mayorga's momentum with a well-timed hook to the jaw, or a punch to the body. Mayorga was intense, but Cotto was sharper.

The end came in the 12th after one of Cotto’s left hooks sent Mayorga to one knee. Mayorga rose looking confused and exhausted. His right eye was swollen nearly shut, and he complained of an injured hand. After absorbing another stiff left to the chin, the Nicaraguan lolled against the ropes near his corner. He motioned to the referee that it was quitting time. 

It’s difficult to imagine where 38-year-old Mayorga goes from here. For years he has provided a foil for the sport’s elite fighters – Trinidad, De La Hoya, Mosley, and now Cotto – and has reliably played the role of stock villain, all bluster and noise but in the end, vanquished. Truthfully, he’s not even a good alley fighter.

“I’m looking for a job,” Mayorga said. “It’s time to retire. I said before the fight that if I lost I would retire.”

If Mayorga is serious, he will be missed. The 7,100 fans at the MGM were lively all through the bout, thanks mostly to Mayorga’s hubris. It also was touching to see the great reception Mayorga received as he made his ring entrance, stopping more than once to receive hugs from well-wishers. To them, Mayorga wasn’t a stumblebum for the stars.

Even Mayorga’s mother, a rotund, somber woman with hair the color of fireworks, has become a fixture at the fights. She patiently watches her loudmouthed son get beaten time after time. She rarely comments, and seems dispassionate. Then again, she knows her son better than any of us do, and seeing him lose in the ring may not be the worst thing she has had to endure.

Mayorga has had a tumultuous personal life filled with car crashes and courtroom appearances, and he has apparently burned through his money. Mayorga’s reputation took a mighty blow last year during the WikiLeaks scandal – it was alleged that Mayorga’s 2004 rape trial was rigged in his favor when he agreed to back Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega, both financially and as a mouthpiece. Just moments before fighting Cotto, Mayorga said, “My president told me to keep throwing punches, so I do.”

Sketchy politicians have courted boxers since the days when New York’s Tammany Hall hired Irish bare-knuckle champions to intimidate voters and rig ballot boxes. But Mayorga denied any involvement with the dictator. “Absolutely not true,” he said.

Fuckin’ Mayorga.