Daniel Ponce De Leon understands what his fight with Juan Manuel Lopez on HBO Championship Boxing is all about Saturday night. It either opens a door for him or it does to him what he has so often done to his opponents. It slams him in the face.
The WBO super bantamweight champion is one of the heaviest punchers in the 122-pound division but his technical flaws defensively are obvious and at times troubling. In the gym he often seems to be one fighter but when the lights come on and the fists begin to fly in earnest he too often becomes more warrior than boxer, a trait that has made him a crowd pleaser to his fans but a baffling contradiction to his long-time chief handler.
"We got a lot of holes,'' concedes Joe Hernandez, the man who has been handling Ponce De Leon throughout his seven year professional career. ""Daniel Ponce De Leon is not liked because he's Sugar Ray Leonard. He's liked because he comes out like a whirlwind. He's like a rainstorm. You can't get away from all those raindrops.
"He's exciting to watch but it would be the happiest moment of my life if I can see some improved technique, some calmness, some control of the pace of the fight with his jab and with counter punching against Lopez. Our last fight in December (a disappointing victory by decision on the Hatton-Mayweather undercard in which all his technical flaws were exposed by Eduardo Escobedo) we took a beating from this kid who was not at Daniel's level.
"That's why this fight is so important. I honestly believe this is it. This fight will make or break him. If he looks good there are a lot of big fights for him in the division. If he doesn't, it becomes a lot more difficult to get back on HBO.''
That might seem an odd sentiment coming from the chief handler of a world champion who is 34-1 with 30 knockouts and who has made seven consecutive successful defenses of the super bantamweight title he initially won by out pointing Sod Looknongyangtoy 2 1/2 years ago. That was the first loss of the Thai's career and when Ponce De Leon followed it up two fights later with a stunning first round knockout of Looknongyangtoy in a rematch that lasted all of 52 seconds, the super bantamweight world was agog.
Yet despite that and other such highpoints, like his first round stoppage of previously undefeated Rey Bautista last year, matchmaker Eric Gomez of Golden Boy Promotions, who promote Ponce De Leon, emphatically agreed that Ponce De Leon needs to do more than simply win a fight in the semi-main event underneath middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik's first title defense if he is to lift himself to the elite level presently held by Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez. He has to prove he not only can punch but can also set up punches without setting himself up to be countered again and again.
"Whenever you get an opportunity on HBO Championship boxing you have to perform,'' Gomez said. "Your future depends on it. We've done all we can do for Ponce. Now it's up to him. There will be a few million fans watching him. He has to show them what he's capable of.
"We signed him after four fights so I've made every match for him and every time he fights I'm on pins and needles. Because of his punching power he can beat any fighter in that weight class but he's not technically sound so he can also be beaten by anyone.
"His performances have been peaks and valleys. They really have. He's knocked out some guys with one punch but sometimes he just seems to lose his focus and that gets him in trouble.''
That flaw, when combined with his crushing one-punch power, has made Ponce De Leon the type of flawed fighter fans find fascinating. Because he's an all-action puncher who likes to come forward and has been blessed with the kind of chin you need if you are going to succeed despite the defensive mistakes he still makes, Ponce De Leon is viewed as someone who is always dangerous, often to his opponents and too often to himself.
Which guy will be in the ring with the undefeated Lopez (21-0, 19 KO) in Atlantic City? That is the mystery that surrounds Ponce De Leon him and worries everyone, it seems, but the man most at risk.
"I've got a lot of heart,'' Ponce De Leon said before beginning a workout at his Los Angeles training camp a week before his showdown with Lopez. "I have a lot of power in my fists. I'm well conditioned. I've prepared myself well for this fight.
"I know I'm lacking in technique. I know I'm a little short on defense. I've got a style where people think they can beat me. But when we're in front of each other they see the monster who is in front of them and things change.''
That has been the case on 34 nights, the only exception coming three years ago when he lost a unanimous decision to Celestino Caballero in an IBF title eliminator. It appeared Ponce De Leon might get the opportunity to avenge that loss on this card but that rematch remains an illusion. The question he has to answer now is whether he is an illusion himself.
"I've seen him in the gym slipping punches, moving his head, countering off his jab and catching punches and hooking off that,'' Gomez said. "It's true! I've seen him in sparring do everything a technical boxer is supposed to do. Then he gets tagged and I have no idea what he's thinking. The warrior just comes out in him.''
"I've got a lot of heart,'' Ponce De Leon said before beginning a workout at his Los Angeles training camp a week before his showdown with Lopez. "I have a lot of power in my fists. I'm well conditioned. I've prepared myself well for this fight."
That transformation from boxer to warrior begins in his locker room, where Ponce De Leon's Indian heritage takes over. It is there that he goes through an ancient ritual which he insists allows the spirit of his great, great grandfather, a tribal warrior in one of only two North American Indian tribes never conquered by Spanish or American soldiers, enters his body. Gomez said Ponce De Leon has told him there are times he has no recollection of what went on during a fight, believing it is his ancestors who are directing his actions. If so, they too seem obsessed with going in only one direction - straight into battle.
"This fight I have to win dramatically,'' Ponce De Leon conceded. "I got a lot to show the people. I have to win convincingly to draw people's attention.
"I got all the confidence in myself that I can unify all the titles. It could be that I'm underrated but I'm a champion. That's the only thing that matters. Technique is important but what counts is who wins the fight.
"I've been practicing keeping my hands high for the past four months. What will happen if I get hit? I really don't know. I'm a warrior. I'm always going to go in there and try to destroy the enemy. That's why I have 30 knockouts in 35 fights. I think I'll control myself and think, but who knows?''
Not Joe Hernandez, or Eric Gomez or the fans that will be waiting to see if his explosive power gets to Lopez before Ponce De Leon's defensive flaws create openings for the challenger. Most important of all, to be honest, Daniel Ponce De Leon doesn't know either. But he does know one thing.
He knows what he has to do to create the kind of buzz that could end up putting him in the ring with Vazquez or Marquez in the next year or so. He has to buzz Juan Manuel Lopez without becoming so lost in his work, as he seemed to against Escobedo, Caballero and Gerry Penalosa, that he looks amateurish while doing so.
"The money is there,'' Hernandez said. "Ponce just has to show he belongs with the top fighters. He has power, he's a training freak, and his discipline is great. He has courage. All he's lacking is control (after getting hit). Show that and he'll hit the jackpot.
"We've all told him how important this night is for him on Championship Boxing. A fighter doesn't get a lot of these kinds of opportunities (for exposure on non-pay-per-view premium cable). He has to use them when they come along. "I told him, 'Daniel, you don't put on a good performance I'll quit and go open a taco stand.'''
Ponce De Leon doesn't feel that's likely and Gomez understands as well as anyone what the future could hold for the 27-year-old former Mexican Olympian if he can win in dynamic fashion with so many eyes watching. He could create a demand for himself that not even the division's best fighters would long be able to ignore because, Gomez said, "The thing that made Ponce De Leon a world champion is he has what 90 per cent of the fighters don't have. He's got a hell of a chin and he can bang. That's a lethal combination. That's what got him on this big show.
"You try to come forward and bang with him and I'll put my money on Ponce De Leon. I see this fight like the Al Seeger fight (an eighth round knockout in Ponce De Leon's third title defense). He was a good prospect and Ponce destroyed him. If he does that again this time, Ponce can put himself in position.
"Vasquez and Marquez (who have fought three straight bloody battles in which Vasquez has won the last two) have taken the spotlight in this weight class but if he fights to his capabilities Ponce could create a new opponent for one or both of them in this division.
"Ponce has wanted to fight Vasquez for the longest time. We've been trying to make that fight for four years. I've talked to Frank Espinoza about it and he says, 'I'm no dummy. He's the wrong style.' He knows Israel would try to go toe-to-toe and Ponce takes it better. Israel Vasquez is the right style for Ponce. He'd knock him out.'' If Daniel Ponce De Leon wants a chance to prove that he must first prove he can handle the pressure of a night in which most of the boxing world will be watching - and waiting - to see if he answers the bell when opportunity rings in his ears.
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