Boxing’s end-of-year award season came and went without Jean Pascal receiving his due. No surprise there. Pascal isn’t one of the world’s best fighters, nor did he beat one in 2019. He also lacks the profile and popularity to win an award in what is both a popularity and a quest-for-popularity competition. But Pascal won something greater in 2019—a future.
It’s been four years since Pascal suffered his second slaughter against Sergey Kovalev. He looked finished then, a preternaturally tough fighter whose body was failing him, however well it might still shed and striate. Eleider Alvarez soon hung another defeat on Pascal, as did Dmitry Bivol. Retirement beckoned for the pride of Laval, Quebec, and the scrapheap offered to host him along the way.
Pascal wasn’t done, however. In August, the then thirty-six-year-old, +1200 underdog, derailed Marcus Browne in the Staten Island native’s backyard. Two titles—one fringe, one a step or so in from the outskirts of legitimacy—were draped over Pascal’s shoulders that night. He still has them after a successful title defense in December. The underdog that night too, Pascal dropped Badou Jack early and survived a late knockdown himself to win a narrow decision. Pascal was supposed to be finished. And yet, incredibly, his fighting future may be no darker than Kovalev’s.
The lights went dark on Nonito Donaire nearly six years ago. How many watched Nicholas Walters chop down Nonito Donaire that night and imagined the “Filipino Flash” would again be world-class? What followed was a journey of reclamation, one that ultimately led Donaire down to bantamweight. Like Pascal, Donaire suffered a pair of losses along the way and, like Pascal, those losses were to the two best fighters he faced during his interregnum (Jessie Magdaleno and Carl Frampton). So when Donaire entered the WBSS bantamweight tournament in 2018 he was expected to meet his end sometime before the final.
Perhaps he would have, had a back injury not forced Ryan Burnett from the ring on a stretcher. Perhaps Zolani Tete would’ve crushed Donaire’s bantamweight dreams, but a shoulder injury forced Tete out of the WBSS. His replacement opponent dealt a signature cleaving, Donaire entered the tournament final against generational talent, Naoya Inoue. Donaire lost, but not before breaking Inoue’s orbital bone in a violent baptism that returned Donaire to glory and confirmed Inoue as the genuine article. If 2019 offered a better fight than Inoue–Donaire it did so according to faulty criteria.
Pascal and Donaire are proof we are eager undertakers, too quick to label as finished a fighter only a few fights away from surprising us. Why? Perhaps because witnessing the end of something appeals in the same way that witnessing a beginning does. The desire to share in history, even as a spectator, is a strong one—one underlying our preoccupations with lists, rankings, intergenerational comparisons. These activities are done to exalt the past, true, but just as frequently they serve the present and, by extension, those living in it. We want to participate in a special time, whether because it marked the birth of something historic or the end is of secondary importance.
The power of the spectacle is at work too. No event—no handful of seconds—in sport has so striking an effect on viewers. Igniting the imagination as only violence can, the knockout is arresting, beautiful, and often frighteningly so. There is an awfulness about it too, and it takes little effort to appreciate why seeing a man bludgeoned senseless and in the hurried care of a doctor repulses some.
There is even a word for the knockout blow: recumbentibus. No one uses it. It’s too pretentious, too long to take the place of an expletive or gasp. But when an iconic or beloved figure suffers such a blow? When a reevaluation of him is impressed upon us with the force of that punch, the weight of all those unconscious pounds hitting the canvas? Then even the extreme can be exaggerated.
Perhaps the element of uncertainty in a boxer’s future compounds the effect of the knockout. Until the next fight, there is only the last one, and there is no next fight until a license is procured, an opponent found, a contract signed. That takes months, during which time the loss is revisited, history revised. More and more the events in a fighter’s career, his moments of weakness, imperfection, struggle, and in some cases his ambition and daring, foreshadow the disaster that prompts this post-factum analysis.
On February 29, Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez faces WBA super-flyweight champion, Khalid Yafai, at The Ford Center at the Star in Frisco, Texas. The last time Gonzalez, one of the finest fighters of the decade, fought for a title Srisaket Sor Rungvisai marched belligerently through him. Cut down in four rounds, Gonzalez looked finished. That was the message to take from the fight, a message that was reiterated: Gonzalez recovered from a knockdown only to get blasted to the canvas for good seconds later.
And like that, his reign was over. “Chocolatito” had shown some vulnerability in the first fight against Sor Rungvisai, a bruising and unconventional slugger, who took unconvincingly Gonzalez’s undefeated record. Even before then, Gonzalez had been troubled by Brian Viloria and Carlos Cuadras. The realities of a blood sport were conspiring against Gonzalez. Already thirty and with nearly fifty professional fights, a conqueror of four weight divisions, but one now without the guidance of longtime trainer, Arnulfo Obando, who died in November 2016, Gonzalez seemed to have met the threshold of his ability.
Two stoppage wins since the Sor Rungvisai knockout haven’t put that night far enough in the past. But Pascal is proof that just as the opposition can push a fighter over the brink, so too can it preserve him. Gonzalez may never again be equal to the challenge of the class of the flyweight division, Juan Francisco Estrada, and even a third fight with Sor Rungvisai seems foolish at this point. But Gonzalez is the only great fighter in the division. Here Donaire’s remarkable year is instructive. Donaire too was finished at the championship level until given the opportunity to prove otherwise. He has been better than he was against Inoue, but he was never greater. Greatness is rare. And it dies hard.