There are little pockets of the boxing schedule that offer dark horse opportunities for one of the best fights of any given year to emerge, and Saturday on Showtime brings the latest. You can’t say the bantamweight bout between Joseph Agbeko and Yonnhy Perez is a well-kept secret, or that people think Perez can’t win, or anything like that, because the cognoscenti are hip. But the fight does fall on Halloween, which may have contributed to it being overlooked more than it deserves, and as much as hardcore fans know about Agbeko and Perez, I’m not sure they have what you might call a U.S. fan base. Therefore: Dark horse.
Agbeko has not been in a boring fight that I’ve witnessed. He’s offensive-minded and hard-hitting. Perez’ most recent fight, a last-round knockout of Silence Mabuza in what had been a slugfest to that point that Perez was losing on the judges’ scorecards, certainly showed that he knows from drama. Perez is a subtler pleasure than Agbeko — although Agbeko’s sharpened things up in the craft department recently — but he’s offensive-minded and hard-hitting himself. They match-up in such a way that if Perez plays counterpuncher to Agbeko’s aggressor, it should produces sparks, and if Perez plays aggressor too, we may be talking about a forrest fire. Therefore: Really good fight, probably.
I recommend putting on your Halloween costume (I’m going as all the dead celebrities of 2009, all at once, like a Frankenstein’s monster of them), taking out the candy you got from trick or treating, sitting in front of your television and settling down for an All Hallow’s Eve battle that I totally expect to top Dracula vs. Wolfman.
Agbeko, he’s a bold cat. He insists he’ll be the pound-for-pound king of boxing someday, and boxers who have that goal, they tend to be devoted to the sport in a way few others are. Obviously, he has huge self-belief, and that can help, too, assuming one doesn’t get so full of himself that he stops working hard. Agbeko is a real trash-talker, calling Hozumi Hasegawa a “little coward” recently, for instance. Some of that may be tactical. His trash talk really got in the head of his last opponent, Vic Darchinyan, who unwisely was lured into a macho contest that he couldn’t win because Agbeko was naturally bigger; Darchinyan would have been better off fighting a more controlled fight and he lost a decision. It was a real breakthrough for Agbeko. Certainly, he’d made his mark on the scene by really smacking around and knocking out a different Perez, Luis, in 2007. He got a parade in Ghana after that, I recall. Like most Don King fighters, he hasn’t fought much since, although some of that had to do with some injuries and even a case of malaria. He fought just once in 2008, a corker of a fight with William Gonzalez that he pulled out on the cards. And when he got the chance to beat his biggest-name and most acclaimed opponent, Darchinyan (then in most people’s pound-for-pound top 10), he definitely made the most of it, and now he’s held in pretty high esteem.
Perez’ story is much shorter. He’s just a four-year pro at age 30, two years older than Agbeko, after an extensive amateur career related to him serving in the military and being unable to turn professional. He went 18-0 with 13 knockouts (Agbeko’s 27-1 with 22 KOs) against very few live bodies before getting an alphabet sanctioning organization title eliminator with Mabuza. He traveled to South Africa and showed real grit in scoring that 12th round KO. Mabuza may be most remembered for his pair of knockout losses to Rafael Marquez, but don’t forget that he gave Marquez some hell, and Marquez was at the time regarded as a top-10 pound-for-pound caliber guy. That was his breakthrough along the lines of Agbeko’s win over Luis Perez, the win that turned him from “boxer with a rep for being the goods” to “boxer who proved he had the goods.” Yonnhy says it gave him confidence, made him a better fighter. The eliminator also set him up for a shot at Agbeko’s title.
Agbeko comes with the undentable chin that Ghanaians seem to inherit upon birth. It’s a good place to start. Darchinyan, as big a puncher as there is in the sport, never rattled him, although he might have had less power because he’d moved up from junior bantamweight. Still, Agbeko hasn’t been hurt that I know of. Another big asset is his speed. For a fighter I’d describe as primarily a brawler, he’s very quick. I’m guessing the Gonzalez fight convinced him that, despite his cast-iron jaw, he couldn’t risk getting hit so much, because he was worlds better on defense against Darchinyan, moving his head and never staying put in one place. His defense might have looked better than it was because of Darchinyan’s one-dimensional attack; Agbeko is prone to lunging in with wide shots and leaving himself open. He doesn’t have unbelievable power, but he will stun you and/or wear you out. His favorite weapon is his right hand, usually an overhand shot, but sometimes straight. His jab is improved and so is his left hook. He’s evolved into a kind of puncher-boxer, if you will.
Perez is comfortable fighting backward or forward. He can counterpunch or he can lead. He has power in both fists, and it was a jab, in fact, that scored the first knockdown against Mabuza. That he even could hurt someone with a jab speaks to what power he has. He doesn’t look particularly fast or slow to me, getting by on timing more than anything. One advantage he has is size. He’s a 5’8″ bantamweight, which gives him two and a half inches over Agbeko. Defensively, he likes to take a step back or cover up with his gloves, but Mabuza hit him plenty despite a size differential, especially to Perez’ body, which either speaks to the kind of fighter Mabuza is or raises questions about the quality of his defense. Although it wasn’t in the highlight clip I saw, Mabuza apparently at one point had Perez in trouble, but Perez recovered well. I’ve seen it said of some of Perez’ earlier fights that he didn’t fight with any urgency, and I suppose that it took him until the final round to stop Mabuza despite being down on the cards — and I seem to recall him saying he wasn’t going for the knockout — would back that up. It might just be a level of relaxation that looks like a lack of urgency, too.
For what Agbeko presents to Perez, I like that he should be faster and more aggressive, probably won’t get knocked out and probably has the power to buzz Perez. For what Perez presents to Agbeko, I like that he’s a straighter puncher, that he will have a size advantage, that he’ll be able to counter Agbeko’s lunges and won’t have to worry about much of a body attack from Agbeko, at least based on the Darchinyan fight. Perez, then, could win this fight by keeping his distance and timing Agbeko’s charges and holding up to whatever Agbeko hits him with.
But I think Agbeko’s going to outwork Perez. Perez should do enough in the exchanges to make it close. In the end, it’ll be the man whose birth name is King Kong (God I love that) beating Perez on the cards in a fight that’s stirring but a bit short of Fight of the Year candidacy.