The wait in the dressing room before a boxing match — that last hour — would be enough to strip a man that never boxed before of whatever pride, desire and heart he THOUGHT he had.”‘Iceman’ John Scully, Boxer, 1967-
The period before a fight always strikes me as the most fascinating human experience. Not one I would wish to submit myself too. As someone averse to rollercoasters or any other pursuit in which there is no side door, no coward’s exit, the notion of spending the hours of fight day contemplating the impending confrontation strikes me as the most haunting examination of a man’s psyche.
And your preparation. The truth of whether you’re ready. Not the ready of the press conference answer, the ready that only you, the one who must climb the steps and perhaps the man beside you, really knows.
Tonight, 22 year old Ryan Garcia will make that walk, spend that day, as will Englishman Luke Campbell, both have doubters, both will surely have doubt whispering to them too.
Self-doubt is not a welcome visitor in a battle of whit and will. The run not done, the corner cut surely lingers in those moments before the bell rings. Gasping for air beneath the flood of adrenaline the body seeks to drown them in. But for some bouts, the aerobic can be complete but that deeper understanding, the solutions to the problems as yet unseen can remain unlearned by an unwitting student.
Throughout the build up Garcia has enjoyed the platitudes of his promoter, Oscar DeLaHoya, a man who knew about pressure and expectation and fighting fistic giants too. The once Golden Boy, he of the Mad Men smile and promoter’s goliardery, has implored writers and observers to recognise his protege as the next great Mexican. In short, to join the bandwagon in foresight, and not in the hindsight of tomorrow.
It is a tempting spiel. Garcia is handsome, fast, an aggressive counterpuncher and unbeaten. He knocks opponents out. He can look fabulous doing it. As a lightweight he is tall and combined with his youth has the potential to climb through the divisions as Oscar did. There is richness to the yarn being spun on his behalf.
Doubt remains. Woven quietly in the records of those Garcia has felled. All smaller, weaker, unremarkable. The doubt exists most conspicuously in those pondering from afar. Within the confines of Garcia’s coterie such notions are unlikely to be entertained. Dismissed. Surely though, they exist? For the betterment of the fighter they are at least acknowledged? For they are founded on the truth of the gaps in his experience and the weaknesses in his boxing.
Garcia has never travelled twelve rounds, never prepared for a full championship fight. Among the mediocre and the abject of his recent resume there are no southpaws. He will have faced them as an amateur. A fast and furious career that included wins and losses with Devin Haney and Vergil Ortiz Jnr., for whatever outcomes as a teenager can truly mean to the grown man they shape, and a clamour for Garcia’s signature when he left the unpaid code.
He may discover answers to Campbell’s stance harder to find than the questions posed by orthodox circuit fighters with pretty records. Campbell is not Pernell Whittaker or Manny Pacquiao, but he has a little pop, good fundamentals, experience and confidence. At 33, with two failed world title bids behind him, he has precious little to lose. He will know that the opening rounds are the most dangerous, where Garcia will feel most familiar. Campbell’s objective is to earn the youngster’s respect with his own shots but nurture any self-doubt Garcia carries into the ring and test his self-belief more definitively in the later rounds where the air feels thinner and the precipice of defeat much closer..
In his only significant distance fight, with Carlos Morales, a fight that reached the judges after ten rounds, Garcia showed much of his attacking repertoire. Fast left hook the pick of the arsenal. His defence relies on reflex, the luxury of youth, for he remains upright, his head is still and his fast counters often bely a slow return to defence, a low left exaggerates the opportunity for those bold and quick enough to try. Much of Garcia’s defensive success depends on simply getting his chin out of the way, it can make him appear skittish under pressure, not that his career to date has brought much and should offer hope to those picking Campbell for the upset.
Doubt isn’t a monogamous mistress. For all Garcia’s worries about distance and his handlers about his propensity to leave his chin exposed while in range, Campbell himself has to wonder if he retains the edge of his twenties. Whether two defeats to Linares and Lomachenko will steal his resolve if the pressure mounts. He cannot be certain his customary fluidity will be there when he needs it most. More than a year inactive for a fighter who needs a rhythm, to be smooth, to utilise his excellent footwork and combination punching is far from ideal. Sparring is, as the cliche insists, sparring. No behind close doors encounter with fighters you are paying to be there can mimic the reality and truth that the spotlights will duly reveal. He is also 33. Ancient were this fight taking place in 1920 or the summer of 69.
Do I still have it? Am I ready?
Sobering questions. Doubt is a human trait fighters work hard to condition themselves not to feel. The answers to those most telling of questions can only be found in the ring, where it hurts, where the pain is, and there is no side door.
No coward’s exit. Which is why they are there and this coward is not.