Judged solely on its ability to make yours truly mutter aloud in repeated, involuntary, expletive-filled disbelief, tonight’s meeting between Texan dive bomber Omar Figueroa, Jr. and the frankly indestructible Nihito Arakawa is clearly the fight of 2013, and one of a handful I’ve ever seen deliver such sustained action at such an exhausting, harrowing pace. I’ve watched a lot of boxing in the last five years. Perhaps too much. I’ve seen far higher skilled combatants achieve their slices of rare air for an immortal moment. I’ve seen displays of will and perseverance so incredible or improbable that they practically shame me. That’s the nature of boxing. Its ability to produce the shocking and transcendent at the least expected moment is a big part of why its fans are so committed, and why we endure the slings of business as usual and the arrows of media/general public opinion and always come back for more.
For thirty-six minutes tonight, Figueroa threw everything in his considerable arsenal at a possibly bionic opponent, landing over and over, cleanly to the head, devastatingly to the body, rocking him, dropping him, though never definitively, and never slowing him. If Nihito Arakawa – unknown to me before tonight – had half the punching power of his on the rise opponent, he might have bisected him like the buzz saw his attack resembles. But he doesn’t, and so his will, and his opponent’s skill, each in sinister perfect proportion to the other, would have to suffice. For thirty-six minutes, these two young men beat the living hell out of each other, rarely stopping to acknowledge a mutually assured deluge of landed blows that would knock me or you out immediately, barely even stopping to take a breath. After each round, they’d smile and nod and touch gloves before heading to their corners. It was exhilarating, and confounding.
The two didn’t even noticeably slow down until the tenth round. By then, I’d wanted it to be over. The sheer wash of numbers (2000+ total punches, Figueroa’s 60% connect rate, more body shots than I thought a human could absorb) had given way to the weight of mortal thoughts, and the only thing it seemed that was left for them to prove was the one thing no respectful fight fan truly wants to see settled, that unspoken warrior willingness to go out on his shield. On they battled, into the championship rounds, jackhammering the body, trading turns on the offensive, a half dozen times or more per round. The announcers were speechless. The crowd was a sustained roar. I sat on my couch, clutching a beer bottle now empty for at least ten minutes, riveted. I had gone from ecstasy to disbelief and back, a couple of times at least.
Mercifully, the final bell rang. The two had sped toward it like skiers approaching a cliff, but then, happily, it was over. Figueroa raised his probably broken hand, not in jubilation but in affirmation, and the two embraced, as fighters do. Arakawa, unbowed, looked like he was wearing an Alfred E. Neuman Halloween mask. Figueroa looked like a workman had taken time out from painting a barn to gift him a wide red swath down the middle of his face. The crowd in San Antonio, in full throated upheaval all night, was now fidgety on its feet, a mixture of admiration, appreciation and relief starting to settle in. The wide decision victory for the hometown boy was entirely correct and also beside the point. This was a page for the history books – a mid-card fight, a sleeper with potential, now one of the greats, truly transcendent for what it was.
It takes a heckuva lot of drama, after all, for a technically one-sided decision to so convincingly steal the thunder of both a potential star turn (prospect Keith Thurman being sorely tested for the first time in his pro career and rising to the occasion with a 10th-round KO of rugged Diego Chaves) and the classic boxing storylines of the pug on the rise intersecting with the villain running out of time. When the aforementioned pug, Jesus Soto Karass, now rededicated to the sport and his young family, knocked out the aforementioned black hat, busted PED cheat and frustratingly talented underachiever Andre Berto, a minute into the 12th round, it sealed “Knockout Kings II” as one of the great boxing cards of recent years. By then I imagine Omar Figueroa and Nihito Arakawa were probably lying in their respective beds, quite possibly hospital beds, hopefully asleep in some measure of comfort and contentment. I hope so. I hope they are as satisfied at their performances as I am amazed by them.
I try not to sidestep or run from the contradictions inherent in being a boxing fan. I know they’re there. I endeavor to always respect these courageous athletes, and the “fight game” to which they dedicate themselves with a commitment most others don’t approach and can’t touch. Its rich, surpassing history is honestly what first drew me to boxing. Now I get to watch fresh chapters being written every weekend. Some nights, to be honest, it’s boring. Some nights, it’s oh so sublime. There were moments during “Knockout Kings II” so sublime that they threatened to cross over into ridiculousness. It was definitely never boring. At the end of a week when we lost IBHOF’er Emile Griffith, a master ring technician and gentleman who is sadly best known for having killed a man from injuries sustained in the ring, I’ll admit I vacillated watching tonight’s co-feature, which was almost certainly the 2013 fight of the year. It’s the sweet science, but it’s also brutal business. You have to accept this fact, and your complicity in it, as the price of admission. I’ve watched a lot of boxing in the last five years. Perhaps too much. I keep coming back. Tonight, for ten or so minutes, it really was almost too much for me.