“THIS IS BOXING” in neon lights pulsed behind the ring in the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, a backdrop to the impending attrition. That arrangement was reminiscent of a zoo exhibit, where an introduction to the rarity within greets the faces soon pressed against the terrarium glass. The label doesn’t describe everything in the enclosure: rather, it tells you what you should look for, what you should expect to behold.
“THIS IS BOXING”
Did anyone expect what transpired in the ESPN main event Saturday night? The answer, of course, is No. No one expected Ivan Baranchyk and Jose Zepeda to trade eight knockdowns in five rounds—even half that gaudy number typically brings a definitive end. Did you expect to see Baranchyk so grotesquely stiffened it took minutes to dislodge his mouthguard? No, no you didn’t.
Certainly not a mere 75 seconds into the fight, when Zepeda, 32-2 (26), took his first of four trips to the canvas. Down again with fifteen seconds remaining in the round, Zepeda’s response was telling: waved back into the action, he took a recalibrating step, absent of retreat, void of panic. He’d already identified opportunity, even if he’d yet to find the nerve and geometry to exploit it. What was most striking about the first round wasn’t the two knockdowns so much as how little they bothered Zepeda, as though they impacted the scorecards more than his brain.
That can’t be said about the next knockdown though. Baranchyk was spilled this time, a southpaw left hook in the second round catching him mid-volley. Something in that short shot lingered, evident in the way Baranchyk tried to will his rubbery legs to obedience. Baranchyk never recovered the sturdiness implied by his physique. But when Zepeda squared his feet in an overzealous assault, Baranchyk fed him a right hand that evened the round at one knockdown a piece. Again Zepeda rose calmly, looking to his corner for instructions, engaging referee Kenny Bayless, lest Bayless misinterpret Zepeda’s calm as senselessness.
The third round saw Baranchyk on the canvas too, sent there by another Zepeda left hook. In the fourth, caught lingering at the end of Zepeda’s punches, Baranchyk was decked again. He finally paid Zepeda back in the fifth, hammering him into the ropes with a right hand. But Zepeda shook that knockdown off too, and with his next two punches delivered Baranchyk to the doctors.
“THIS IS BOXING”
Again the matchmaker’s calculus rang true, power (augmented by precision, nerve) unmade volume, and a fight that gave the impression it might turn at any moment concluded inevitably. The swings in momentum that mark an exceptional fight, Baranchyk–Zepeda had them, but between those swings Baranchyk was broken down. Zepeda landed cleaner punches, he took a better shot, and if that sounds odd to say about a fight that featured eight knockdowns evenly distributed, well, it’s a fight worth rewatching. Baranchyk’s vaunted fitness became less an advantage that might bring him victory than one that simply kept him upright. Because once Zepeda learned how perfectly suited he was to disarm his opponent, once he learned the impression of Baranchyk’s punches exceeded their injury, he turned from confident to predatory.
And that’s not all he learned. “I know I’m tough. I didn’t know how tough I was. Tonight I showed it, and I showed myself, too. It was the first time I was in a fight like this,” said Zepeda. That too is boxing. A prizefight should reveal something about its participants; if not something new then at least something genuine, even if that thing is cheapened by the torrent of hyperbole, histrionics, and half-truths mashed shamelessly together to sell a product that at its best sells itself.
“I’m going for the title,” said Zepeda, now the number-one contender to WBC/WBO champion, Jose Ramirez, “that’s why we’re here.” Exactly right, championships matter when the champions and their challengers ratify them. Between Josh Taylor and Ramirez (who defeated Zepeda by majority decision in 2019) there are no fraudulent champions at junior welterweight, and Zepeda is as legitimate a threat as any. He will be better because what he takes from The Bubble outweighs what he left in it.
What Baranchyk, 20-2 (13), left there isn’t coming back, but to watch him decline each extended hand, arm, shoulder of support as he made his way to an awaiting stretcher was a sign he will harvest all that remains. He is a volume fighter probably because his fitness (an extension of his volition) distinguished him when his power did not, but that is a reckless style for a fighter with a middling chin. Given his showings in losses to Taylor and Zepeda, Baranchyk, despite looking the part and having the (now depreciated) Eastern Bloc reputation, is a cut below championship level. And so what? He’ll always have Saturday night.
“THIS IS BOXING”
Was it the fight of the year? Was it the knockout of the year? Does that matter in a year that laid bare sports’ insignificance? Such distinctions are hollow most years, and, in 2020, mere pick-of-the-litter accolades, distributed as always to the glory of those who bestow rather than receive them. Still, Baranchyk–Zepeda is as likely to be shared with the uninitiated as it is rewatched by aficionados, the type of violent spectacle that in years of greater leisure makes abolitionists (another “look at me” constituency) rattle a pitchfork or two. But this is boxing, and boxing, as Bart Barry once wrote, “buries its undertakers.” Fights like Baranchyk-Zepeda add extra hands and shovels to that undertaking.