By Kieran Mulvaney
Sometimes it's important simply to win, to take the victory by whatever means necessary, go home and tend to the bruises, and look for a spectacular win another day. Sometimes a fighter has to suck up the adversity and the obstacles and gut it out.
On Saturday night in San Antonio, both Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Nonito Donaire emerged victorious after battles that were perhaps more grueling than either might have wished or expected, but which were nonetheless clear enough that the trajectories of their professional careers will continue upward.
For Donaire, the former flyweight and bantamweight champion taking his bow at 122 pounds, one obstacle came in the form of a left hand that was bloodied, badly hurt and possibly broken somewhere between the second and fourth rounds of his title clash with Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. Prior to that point, the Filipino Flash had been dominant, opening up with fast punches from a multitude of angles as Vazquez stood resolutely behind a tight, high guard. It appeared, for the first third of the contest, as if Vazquez was reluctant even to engage, perhaps dazzled by Donaire's speed, even as Donaire at times struggled to find a way through his opponent's defense.
But it wasn't all one-way traffic, as evidenced by the swelling under Donaire's right eye, and after the fourth, Vazquez began to open up with punches of his own. For a brief period, it appeared as if the Puerto Rican might be turning the contest around, until Donaire found another gear, culminating in a left hook that dropped Vazquez to the seat of his pants in the ninth. It was that punch, said Donaire afterward, that hurt his hand more than any other, and for the rest of the fight he was content to circle and jab, confident he had secured his win.
"I can only move it a little," he said after the judges confirmed his victory - although, bizarrely, one of them managed to score the contest for Vazquez - but he also gave credit to his foe. "Vazquez was tougher than I expected," he conceded. "I couldn't find my rhythm."
It appeared to take a while, too, for Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. to catch his stride. Roared on by a supportive crowd that included his Hall-of-Fame fighter father, Chavez was thwarted for much of the early going by an opponent who had been expected to be by some distance his toughest yet. There were murmurings, too, of conditioning problems, that training camp had perhaps been a bit less focused than it might have been, evidenced by the concern etched on the faces of fighter and entourage at the weigh-in, prior to Chavez tipping the scales a half pound within the 160 lb middleweight limit.
From the early going, Marco Antonio Rubio was as advertised: tough and determined, refusing to back down, even if he was somewhat limited in his own ability to truly impose himself. Instead, he did just enough to make Chavez work, without taking advantage in the early rounds when perhaps he was best placed to take advantage of any possible conditioning problems Chavez may have been experiencing.
Instead, by the fourth round, Chavez had settled into the pattern he would follow for the rest of the fight: Put his head down, barrel forward and look to rip hard punches to Rubio's body. At times, that strategy appeared to be on the verge of breaking his opponent down, but Rubio was resolute, firing back with counter punches that landed with greater frequency than did Chavez's blows, but to less effect.
Entering the championship rounds, Chavez seemed, absent a knockdown, to be in the clear, but both he and Rubio laid it all on the line in six pulsating minutes of toe-to-toe action. Neither man gave any quarter, Chavez backing Rubio to the ropes and Rubio responding with counters every time Chavez pivoted his feet and unloaded another combination.
There was no dispute among the judges this time, except by a matter of degree, all three anointing Chavez the winner by between two and eight points. For Chavez, there will be the disappointment of not dispatching a relatively limited foe. But there will also be the satisfaction of providing an exciting finish to a hard-fought bout, and of emerging victorious against an opponent who was brought in specifically to gauge his readiness for the big time.
For now, that will have to do. The exciting, dominating performance can always wait. On Saturday night, the important thing was the win.