Kermit Cintron knows he's been blessed with a concussive gift.
The International Boxing Federation welterweight champion, who is set to defend that title July 14 against an equally potent puncher named Walter Matthysse on HBO underneath the Arturo Gatti vs. Alfonso Gomez main event, fortunately has found the one arena where such a rare talent is valued. He sought it out relatively late by the average boxer's calendar but once there it didn't take long for him to realize his gloved knuckles contained something special - the fistic form of Sominex.
"Take one of these tonight and sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep," they seemed to say, right from the start.
Cintron has sent 25 opponents to an early siesta along the way to building a 27-1 record and winning a portion of the 147-pound title, but it was not long after he gave up collegiate wrestling in favor of amateur boxing that he first began to notice when he struck a man right everything soon went wrong for the poor fellow.
"You can develop strength lifting weights but a big punch is a gift," Cintron admitted recently. "My first two amateur fights I won by knockout. They say it's hard to knockout anyone in the amateurs because of the headgear and the standing eight counts. I didn't find it too difficult."
That would be an understatement, as is most everything about Cintron. Soft spoken to a fault and not given to making the kind of menacing threats so often associated with big punchers, Cintron has almost snuck up on the welterweight division despite having once been compared to heavy-handed predecessors like Thomas Hearns and Felix Trinidad early in his career. The reason why is that two years ago he did what many young fighters do. He took his first title shot before he was ready and learned that night what it is like to be on the wrong end of the concussive gift.
On April 23, 2005, Cintron entered the ring undefeated and the betting favorite over WBO champion Antonio Margarito. He was 23-0 with 21 knockouts, a 25-year-old power puncher who didn't know what he didn't know. It took less than three rounds for Margarito (who will appear on the same HBO show from Los Angeles to defend his title against another hard hitter, Paul Williams, in an unusual welterweight triple header on World Championship Boxing) to administer a harsh tutorial.
Although Cintron nailed Margarito early, the more experienced champion not only knew how to weather an early storm but also how to combat it. He repeatedly landed nasty body shots for which young Cintron had no answer and they took a toll that became evident by the fourth round. By the end of that round, Cintron's right eye was badly cut and he had twice visited the canvas, a place he previously thought reserved for his opponents.
Two more knockdowns in the fifth round from what many ringside observers felt at the time were less than compelling punches convinced both his corner and referee Kenny Bayless that enough was enough and the fight was stopped. So, it seemed, was Cintron's career. His promoters, Main Events, released him from his contract because its terms had been based on a win over Margarito and his future was bleak even though at the time he made a familiar promise.
"I don't know what to say," the somewhat bewildered Cintron said after that loss. "Five years and look how far I got. I'll be back."
Many beaten fighters have made such a statement while looking through eyes providing them a view similar to the one a driver gets looking through a matted windshield as the wipers try to drive away a snow storm. The difference was that Cintron knew what many others did not. He knew he was ill-prepared that night to challenge the likes of Antonio Margarito not simply because he lacked the skill and experience to overcome him but for the kind of reasons that could be corrected.
He was not only coming off a nine-month layoff during which he'd undergone surgery to repair an injured hand he no longer fully trusted but he was also adrift in a sea of personal problems that had him so unsettled he now says, "Mentally, I wasn't there at all. I was just not in the fight."
Once it was over however, Cintron reassessed his past and his future and 19 months later did just exactly as he'd promised, winning his second shot at a world title by stopping Mark Suarez in six one-sided rounds to lay claim to the IBF title vacated by Floyd Mayweather. Jr. Now he has spent months preparing to make his first title defense, traveling to farflung training camps in Austria and Detroit to ready himself to be on the same card where his old nemesis will defend his quarter of the championship with an eye toward a rematch to settle an old score.
"I didn't start boxing until I was 19,' said Cintron, who came to the sport after abandoning what had become a successful collegiate wrestling career because he realized if he was going to make a living between four sets of ropes it would most likely have to be with gloves on. "I started doing it just for fun at first. My grandparents and my uncle raised me. He was a professional fighter so I used to go to the gym to watch him. Then I decided to try it."
As with most boxers, it was not quite that simple however. Cintron lost his mother to cancer when he was eight and was sent from his native Puerto Rico to live with relatives, including his uncle Benjamin Serrano, who was a former middleweight contender. While in junior high school outside Reading, Pa., Cintron came home one day to learn his father had died of a heart attack back in Puerto Rico. At 13, he was an orphan. Where does a young boy go from there? Up or down? Forward or trapped in one's own pain? Where to turn?
Sports became Cintron's escape and he starred in nearly everything he tried but wrestling seemed his true calling. He was offered scholarships to Wisconsin and Ohio State but opted for junior college first. Although nationally ranked as a freshman, Cintron began to feel it was time to enter the family business. The business of his uncle, who had once fought world rated Frank "the Animal" Fletcher. To the boxing trade.
"My thing wasn't boxing," Cintron recalled. "I was 10th in the nation in wrestling. But I knew wrestling wasn't really going to take me any where. My uncle raised me so I'd spent a lot of time around boxing. I decided to try it."
Nineteen is a late start by boxing's normal standards but the people around Cintron realized two things quickly. His style was better suited to professional boxing than the more controlled amateur atmosphere and he was blessed with the gift of concussion-producing hands. As starts go, the latter was a good place to begin.
"People kept telling me I'd be a better pro than an amateur," said Cintron, who was 24-3 before turning professional after failing to make the 2000 United State Olympic team. "A lot of trainers told me I had a professional style but I was just boxing to do it back then."
He did it well enough to earn a title shot after just five years as a professional but after the loss to Margarito many of those who had supported him turned away. One minute he was a hot prospect with dynamite in his fists. Next he was just another overrated guy who had proven unworthy of the hype.
Cintron listened to none of that however. Instead he quietly began a three-fight comeback that started with an expected easy knockout and then a more impressive one of the previously resilient David Estrada, who he beat down at 1:13 of the 10th round in an IBF title eliminator that earned him his chance with Mark Suarez last October. This time, Cintron knew, would be different not simply because he was different but because everything around him was different.
Now handled by Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward, Cintron had begun to learn there was more to boxing than knockouts. There was movement, and avoidance as well as attack. There was parrying as well as punching. The Gift was still there but when it arrived now it came with different wrappings.
"After Emanuel began to train me I knew I could take boxing somewhere," Cintron says of his trainer, who has now worked with him for two fights. "I'm getting now what I should have gotten when I first started. I'm picking up the sport. Emanuel has helped me a lot and the progress is showing. It's amazing how much I've learned.
"I believe I'm a lot better fighter now than I was the night I fought Margarito. More experience and having Emanuel training me the last year are making a difference. I never used to watch tape of my opponents before. I didn't care. I only worried about what I was going to do. Now Emanuel and I sit down and watch my opponent and then we take it to the gym. I still concentrate on myself, but I'm in there training to do things that will beat the guy I'll be in with."
One day soon, Cintron hopes that guy will be Antonio Margarito and if all goes well for both of them on July 14, that day might come sooner than either of them know. But Cintron is different at 27 then he was at 25. He's more patient, more accepting of the fact that boxing is not just a fight. It's a business. A hard-edged business.
"I'd love another chance at him but I want to defend this title a few more times first," Cintron said. "I want to get more experience so the next time I know I'm ready. Then I'd like to start to unify the title."
Despite his special "interest" in Antonio Margarito, Cintron has other things on his mind besides revenge. There are even things on his mind other than boxing because he sees another challenge out there waiting for him as well. A challenge leveled not only at him but also at his sport.
"I accept Dana White's challenge," Cintron said recently when the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championships challenged Mayweather to square off in a mixed martial arts match with UFC lightweight champion Sean Sherk after Mayweather made some disparaging remarks about how MMA's fighters would fare against a boxer.
Mayweather quickly demurred but the former collegiate wrestler seized the moment when he said, "I want the fight. I can wrestle. I can box. I can beat those UFC fighters at their own game. Tell Mr. White to make me an offer and I'll take on his guy after I fight Matthysse on July 14."
When recently asked to revisit those remarks, Cintron remained cautiously adamant, citing only one required change for such a match to be to his liking. "I love one-on-one competition," Cintron said. "I can wrestle and I can box. Can they box? MMA interests me. I know I'd have to learn some different moves but I was really, really serious when I said that until I learned they don't test for HIV. That scares me. That's the only thing that would hold me back. I'd love to do it." Of course he's got a few other things to take care of first, starting with Walter Matthysse, an Argentinian boxer whose belief in The Gifts packed inside his hands is as strong as Cintron's faith in his own.
"I watched tapes of Walter," Steward says of Matthysse (26-1, 25 KO), whose only loss came last year when Williams stopped him in 10 rounds. "He comes to fight every round. He's another Arturo Gatti. With Kermit's knockout power and Matthysse's style this should be an exciting fight. It can't be anything but an explosive fight."
The kind of fight Kermit Cintron has become known for. One that ends ahead of schedule.
"After Emanuel began to train me I knew I could take boxing somewhere," Cintron says of his trainer, who has now worked with him for two fights. "I'm getting now what I should have gotten when I first started. I'm picking up the sport. Emanuel has helped me a lot and the progress is showing. It's amazing how much I've learned."
HBO WCB - Jul. 14, 2007
Gatti vs Gomez
Cintron vs Matthysse