I have been here before, intentionally, if not by design. It is a strange place, particularly for one who has lived for so long looking down, not haughtily, not arrogantly, but by necessity, for my world, and very likely yours, conducts its business beneath me. This place is not without its comforts, its allure of mercy; indeed, some have sought it for such reasons—and I have sent them there. Others have resisted it with a vehemence that only we understand. They failed—and I sent them there. The former I can understand, relate to, empathize with. The latter, they are my brothers; we know the struggle against futility. Yes, yes, I see, your exaggerated fingers, that urgent complement to your measured pronunciation. If I could accept less of myself, I might spare you that tally, cut it short with some gesture that spurred you from ritual to rescue. If there was more I could do, rest assured I would be looking down on you again. Alas, I offer only a weak smile, and what sort of protest is that?
According to more than a few, this was always in the offing: Sebastian Fundora, that six-foot-six, 154-pound impossibility, would one day lay stretched like a late-day shadow across the canvas. With only enough exceptions to firmly establish the rule, this is the fate of every fighter, in case you were unsure of how to esteem such predictions. And yet there was at least the expectation that Fundora would meet his reckoning when the stakes were higher, the caliber of opponent calibrated to them. For Fundora, there was this fight, and then the next, and if need be, the next after that: whatever was required to secure him a territory changing hands even under the lion’s lengthy rule.
There could be no higher stakes for Brian Mendoza, however, who faced Fundora at the Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California, on Saturday. “La Bala” fought accordingly. In the seventh round, his nose bloodied and face swelling, Mendoza rewrote his future and that of the junior middleweight division with a left hook that folded Fundora up like a pocketknife.
Upsets are nothing new to Mendoza, who retired Jeison Rosario with a fifth-round knockout in November. Once the unified champion of the division, Rosario was a fighter on the slide, one seemingly being refurbished after knockout losses to Jermell Charlo and Erickson Lubin. Fundora was different: a flawed but captivating oddity distinguished less by his size than by the mayhem he produced in abandoning the safer advantages that size afforded him.
One might argue that with his freakish dimensions, Fundora has no business fighting on the inside. It is this very incongruency that encouraged his skeptics. But Fundora didn’t lose to Mendoza because he squandered his advantages: “The Towering Inferno” lost because he was fooled into taking them for granted, throwing a jab he never brought back to his chin to set up an uppercut launched from (so Fundora thought) beyond Mendoza’s reach. Mendoza baited him into that supreme error with a jab to the body that fell intentionally short but caught Fundora’s attention long enough to leave him open to the left hook that followed. That punch crashed concussively into Fundora’s chin. Rather than drop, Fundora lingered woozily on his feet like a parachutist in the powerlines, allowing Mendoza to step in with a right hand and left hook of unbridled savagery. As if siding with the inspired underdog, the canvas welcomed the toppling Fundora’s head with a sickening bounce.
It was the finish the moment called for. Mendoza accepted Fundora’s fight, but he was losing it. Even Fundora’s trainer and father, Freddy Sr. dismissed Mendoza’s chances before the fateful seventh round. Freddy Sr. was correct insomuch as no one had completely solved the riddle of a fighter who prefers the phone booth even if he has to duck to enter it. Fundora is unusual in that he appears to concede his natural advantages. But because he employs those advantages in service of his disposition, they are not so much abandoned as put to use in a counterintuitive but effective way. An analogy perhaps lies in Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, the two-time MVP who, for years, was encouraged to improve his three-point shooting but has instead doubled down on the slashing style that reflects his wiring. Though he is sure to consider the potential benefits of an added six pounds, Fundora is unlikely to change much. And really, that is for the best. For a fighter like Fundora, there is more money—and greater glory—in being entertaining than undefeated.
“A big fellow, now felled,” to borrow from John Banville, Fundora indeed suffered a brutal setback against Mendoza. But he should look to his conqueror to understand that a loss or two need not end the journey so much as elongate it. Because however much Fundora was the story, the night belonged to Mendoza, who, little more than a year removed from dropping two of three fights, has twice now invigorated the junior-middleweight division with a jaw-dropping knockout. He will continue to play the opponent, the underdog, without resigning himself to the expectations of the role. And hopefully, sometime soon, he will do so in the kind of fight he dreams of.
I have been here before, intentionally, if not by design. It is a strange place, particularly for one who has lived for so long looking in, not dejectedly, not bitterly, but with a solemn resolve: for my world conducts its business at my expense. If I could accept less for myself, I would not be here, perched on these ropes, screaming, pounding my chest in a spasm of catharsis and joy. I am overwhelmed by the violent confirmation of my unwavering self-belief. That much I have in common with the broken figure behind me. What protocols unfold about him, the earnest diagnostics, the soothe-saying—they too are my doing. I am the author of all that unfolds in this little square. If there were more I could do…But then, I have done enough tonight, haven’t I?