The champion on the comeback trail knows this much: he was a champion. His return to glory culminates in the familiar; it confirms expectations and estimations alike. But what of the fighter who fell short of a title, he who knows painfully well how it feels to be proven wanting? The comeback trail for him isn’t about winning a title so much as earning another chance at the beckoning glory he is yet―despite what his galvanized ego assures him―to prove worthy of. He must determine whether the dream is still a reality or whether it must be altered, even abandoned altogether.
Erickson Lubin still believed. Undefeated in the six fights that followed a shocking first-round knockout loss to Jermell Charlo in 2017, Lubin found himself again on the cusp of not a title, but the chance to earn one. He needed only hang a first defeat on fellow junior middleweight Sebastion Fundora. And what would that require? More than Lubin could offer? Fundora, all six and a half feet of him, presented a unique challenge. But he also had yet to prove himself at the highest level. Was he a novelty or something more permanent?
Lubin and Fundora met at the Virgin Hotels Las Vegas this past Saturday. After nine vicious rounds, Fundora has a little more to prove, though much less than before. Meanwhile, Lubin, mercifully rescued by trainer, Kevin Cunningham, may have proved too much.
There were charitable explanations for Lubin’s loss to Charlo. He was too young, too inexperienced, rushed to a title shot against an established champion. He was caught early, before his body, his eyes, his mind warmed to combat―and the first-round knockout, stopping a fight before it gets started, can be misleading. But the way Lubin collapsed, that sudden anatomical origami, portended something more damning.
In the second round, Fundora found Lubin with a right uppercut that, had it come even thirty seconds earlier in the round, might have ended the fight. As “The Hammer” struggled to rewire his circuitry, it became clear that this much was confined by the Charlo knockout: when a puncher hits Lubin clean, he goes.
Fundora isn’t a puncher, evidenced by Lubin’s survival in the second and the gross punishment he absorbed before Cunningham did as compassion and duty demanded. But he “The Towering Inferno” is a conundrum. Cunningham begged Lubin to hit and turn Fundora, to box the much taller man, imposing a geometry that would deny Fundora his strengths. Because despite advantages seemingly guaranteed by his dimensions, Fundora isn’t a boxer. Indeed, he is vulnerable where you might expect him safest. No, Fundora is a grinder. This King of Limbs closes behind his endless reach but works best on the inside, hiding his chin behind a thicket of arms, behind the punches that by his height alone are practically tucked into you.
And he is tucking those punches in. While you negotiate reach, calculate distance, even retreat, Fundora churns away. You can find him, body and head, as Lubin did enough to preserve the hope of victory in the arithmetic if not the action. But any vulnerability in Fundora’s style can thus far be justified as the necessary outlay of a confounding style.
Did Lubin abandon a potentially winning strategy? Perhaps, though turning a fighter of Fundora’s size and activity hardly seems easy. He is forever on top of you, forever punching, such that you are drawn into his fight even when successfully fighting yours. He is an inviting target too: with that elongated torso, head perched atop those spindly vertebrae. But beware that seeming vulnerability. Lubin, an offensive fighter at heart, seemed unable to resist it, as though unloading brought him a familiar comfort. But setting his feet to tear into Fundora’s body made a stationary target of Lubin, and much of the leverage he gained on his shots by holding his ground was lost once Fundora closed on him.
And yet, in the seventh round, when he’d been defeatured by Fortuna’s leather deluge, Lubin’s gamble almost won him the fight. A right hook took Fundora’s legs, and with the last bit of fight left in him, Lubin chased his tottering opponent across the ring, finally sending him to a knee. But an uneventful eighth betrayed the price of that final assault, and when Fundora upped his activity in the ninth, there was little left for Lubin to do but further confirm the kind of toughness a first-round knockout renders moot.
There is a maudlin line of thinking that suggests that consolations of a noble defeat ensure there is no real loser in a fight like Lubin–Fundora. This talk of a fighter preserving or elevating his status in the court of public appeal serves primarily as a palliative to the public that finds him so appealing. Yes, Lubin should be celebrated for his role in so violent a spectacle. But he lost, and perhaps more than an opportunity to fight for a title. The consequences of a noble defeat belong primarily to the fighter; they are his to reap and his to suffer. A similarly maudlin line of thinking suggests a fighter brutalized like Lubin would be wise to retire. His chin will betray him again; his face might well too. But that decision to retire is Lubin’s alone―he has earned the right to choose, to alter or abandon his dreams, and to choose poorly if he so wishes.
As for Fundora? The fighter who relishes unmaking men who better look the part? The men who can turn his dreams into nightmares won’t sleep on him now.