A popular pastime of American boxing writers is giving the business to HBO Boxing. Many argue that the self-proclaimed “Heart & Soul of Boxing” is, in fact, just the opposite: a primary culprit in holding this beleaguered sport back. In 2005, our collective wrath was especially vehement, and rightfully so, in this writer’s opinion. It was the worst line-up of fights I can recall since I began watching religiously over 20 years ago. And the poor matchups were few and far between, because the suits on 6th Ave. greedily reserved a ton of dates for their pay-per-view arm—which, it must be said, were nothing special if you appreciate a deep undercard when shelling out $50.
We—who dare to criticize—have been so hard so hard on HBO because they have the deepest pockets of any network that still broadcasts our beloved sport. Plus, when they’re on top of their game, everything else is a distant second. There are several reasons for why HBO Boxing has slipped; paying for great fighters instead of great fights, for example, but that’s a subject for a different piece.
The execs must’ve heard our cries of outrage. Programming in 2006 appeared improved—more fights, better matchups, and not every single one worth seeing was on PPV. Some of these included James Toney v. Hasim Rahman, Marco Antonio Barrera v. Rocky Juarez, Jermain Taylor v. Winky Wright.
Another announced improvement for this year was an overhaul of Boxing After Dark, affectionately called B.A.D. by the diehards. This series, created in 1996 to showcase rising talent in compelling matchups, gave us such unforgettable barnburners as Tua-Ibeabuchi, Barrera-Morales I, and Gatti-Ward I. Even when a bout didn’t develop into a classic, B.A.D. was so bad—in the good way—you tuned in expecting something special. You rarely went to sleep disappointed.
Times have sure changed.
On August 19, B.A.D. featured welterweights Sharmba Mitchell vs. Paul Williams (sans co-feature). The ancient Mitchell lost whatever luster he had left in 2004, when Kostya Tszyu destroyed him with ease in 3. In 2005, in an HBO fight that should never have been aired, Floyd Mayweather Jr. whipped Sharmba in 6. After that loss, it was unimaginable that the vet would ever appear on HBO again. Yet here he was, woefully overmatched against Williams. The young praying mantis gave Sharmba one of the worst drubbings of his 18-year pro career, ending it in 4. This terrible fight signified the nadir for B.A.D.
So what does HBO rebound with? Jorge “Travieso” Arce against Masibulele “Hawk” Makepula (sans co-feature, again!). Now don’t get me wrong, the Mexican Arce—44-3-1 (34) going in—is one of the most exciting brawlers in the game. But just like Gene Kelly needed a dance partner in Ginger Rodgers, so to does any boxer. A former WBC titlist at light fly and fly, who keeps vacating his belts to fight bigger little men, Arce is incapable of being in a boring fight. Watching him buzzsaw through a hapless opponent, however, doesn’t send me through the roof. Maybe if he were hundred pounds heavier like a young Mike Tyson?
Going into the bout, I knew nothing about Makepula of Johannesburg, South Africa, and had to consult Boxrec.com for the skinny: 28-3-1 (18), his last loss was a TKO 4 in 2003 to his countryman Mzukisi Sikali. Although he’s since strung together eight wins, it wasn’t against elite opposition. 26 of his 31 fights had taken place in his homeland. I’m no wiz when it comes to the jockey-sized gladiators but this fight—and the African combatant—wasn’t deserving of a WBC super fly eliminator. Martin Castillo, Jose Navarro, Luis Perez, Dimitry Kirilov; how about these guys? Were their date books filled?
“Hawk” made his way to the ring at a snail’s pace, to the tune of South African religious music. “Travieso”—which roughly translates as Little Rascal—wanted to come in riding a horse. He had to settle for a hog—a Harley, that is. He wore his customary cowboy hat and had his signature lollipop stuck his mouth. He may be the most charismatic Lilliputian since Prince Naseem was doing the scene. Unlike the Prince, he’s doesn’t polarize fans, playing the role of the man-you-love-to-hate. He invites everybody to sit in his cheering section.
While it doesn’t take Agatha Christie to figure out which Arce will show up on a given night, the first round was as close as he comes to feeling out his man. Surprisingly, it was the counter-punching Hawk who pressed the action. Arce slowed him down with a number of jabs to the body. Makepula responded in kind.
Between rounds, a confident Arce said, “He’s too slow for me.” Maybe this was because Hawk put 15 pounds on between the weigh-in and the fight, or nearly 18% of his body weight. Arce is used to being the bigger man. This night he supposedly gave up five pounds by fight time.
Who the stronger man was became obvious in the second, though. A little over a minute into the round Arce banged his gloves together, drove the opponent back into the ropes, and dug left hooks to the body and wide rights up top. Hawk came back with well-placed left and rights hooks to the body, but they were feathery by comparison.
Again, Arce went to work when he had his man trapped in a corner—his favorite place of business. Though he tends to load up his shots, few get such awesome leverage on punches. Makapula remained calm and countered intelligently, but what does it matter if a tornado crosses your path?
“This is an evenly matched, competitive fight,” Max Kellerman said early in the third. But almost soon as the generally perceptive commentator said the words, Arce bludgeoned Hawk for two minutes straight, throwing everything in the book. The South African showed no quit in him, but his 33-year-old legs (ancient for a fly guy) turned to jelly. Gutsy and proud, he managed to stay on his feet the whole three minutes.
Arce predicted a fourth round KO. He didn’t prognosticate in rhyme, as Muhammad Ali would, but he was spot-on nevertheless. After absorbing another heinous barrage, Hawk finally landed on the canvas. He got up on wobbly legs, wearing a dazed, wide-eyed expression. At this point, one minute into the fourth, referee Vic Drukulich decided to wave off the fight rather than finish his count. He made the right choice. What chance does one man have against a force of nature?
Note to HBO: We like Arce—a lot. Next time, put him in tough, will you? And how about a solid co-feature to get our juices flowing? Just like you used to do in the old days, back in the mid-90s.