by Hamilton Nolan
Yuriorkis Gamboa may be the most talented boxer in the world. Not the most polished boxer; he throws punches in a blur of curvature in which jabs, hooks, and crosses become misnomers. Not the craftiest boxer either; he tends to spend the greater part of most fights with his hands down, goading his opponent out of sheer boredom. But for pure, otherworldly talent -- unapproachable speed, knockout power, overwhelming combination punching, sublime footwork -- there is no one on earth more blessed than Gamboa. Now if he could only figure out how to turn that talent into a decent career.
Let us very briefly get the pedigree of "El Ciclon de Guantanmo" out of the way: a 2004 Olympic gold medal. Multiple Cuban national championships. A defection to America, followed by a 22-0 pro record with 16 knockouts. Gamboa has been knocked down plenty of times, but it almost seems as though he's so good that he takes stupid risks in the ring just to challenge himself. But he has never truly been challenged. And there lies the problem.
Gamboa is not a "prospect." He is 31 years old. He spent what would have been the prime early years of his pro career as an amateur in Cuba, and did not get his first official pro fight until he was 25. His talent, however, has been plain to see from the beginning. To his credit, he wasted no time making up for his late start, winning an astounding nine fights in ten months starting in 2007. He was doing what the boxing business irrationally requires of even the best fighters: padding his undefeated record with mismatches in anticipation of finally landing a "real" bout.
It was not until October of 2009 that Gamboa made his way to Madison Square Garden and a larger stage, dispatching Whyber Garcia in four rounds. A bigger statement to the world came the following January, when Gamboa -- co-headlining a card at MSG this time -- overpowered and destroyed Rogers Mtagwa, knocking him down several times and finishing him in two rounds. Notable about this was the fact that Mtagwa had just come off a loss in which he took Juan Manuel Lopez the distance. And Juan Manuel Lopez, a fellow undefeated featherweight puncher, was the man being groomed ever so carefully for a "mega-fight" with Gamboa. Lopez, the other co-headliner on the card that night, was the one man who purportedly would give Gamboa a tough battle. The ease with which Gamboa brushed aside their common opponent painted a scary picture for the entire featherweight division.
Instead of making the Gamboa-Lopez fight happen, though, promoters kept stringing it along, hoping its value would grow and grow. That was a miscalculation. Gamboa kept up his part of the bargain, grinding through B+ level competition, defeating Jonathan Victor Barros and Orlando Salido in 2010. But Salido ruined the script by TKOing Lopez in April of 2011, muddying the prospect of an untainted superfight between two undefeated kings. The promoters had gotten greedy, gambled, and lost. Lopez was knocked out again by Salido last year. The Gamboa-Lopez fight never came to fruition. And Gamboa found himself somewhat adrift.
That's not to say he was any less spectacular. After Lopez lost, Gamboa went ahead and knocked out Jorge Solis (a legitimate contender and veteran) in four rounds in a wildly one-sided fight in 2011. Later that year, he absolutely toyed with Daniel Ponce de Leon, the division's most rugged character, in another lopsided affair. Gamboa often comes out in a normal boxing stance for half a round or so, before satisfying himself that his talent is far beyond that of his opponent. Then he drops his hands and sticks his chest out and stares, and still somehow manages to smack opponents around, like a pit bull chewing up a rag doll. When the spirit moves him -- most often when he himself eats a hard shot -- he will advance and back up and batter anyone in front of him with barrages of rapid-fire hooks in order to re-assert his dominance. His arms seem to swing in their sockets with little accompanying effort from the rest of his body. He has yet to find an opponent who can truly match the ferocity of these moments. After more than 100 professional rounds, Gamboa has never looked like a man who feels that he could conceivably lose.
After the Ponce de Leon fight in September of 2011, Gamboa took 15 months off. There were reasons, of course -- he had disputes with his management at Top Rank, withdrew from a planned (stellar) matchup with Brandon Rios, and then signed on with 50 Cent's new boxing promotion venture -- but the net effect was that one of the sport's brightest stars completely disappeared for more than a year. That was rather crippling to the upward trajectory of his career. Gamboa returned last December and earned a somewhat rusty-looking decision win over Michael Farenas. And soon he will face the undefeated Darleys Perez in Montreal. A quality undercard match, yes, but hardly the sort of mega-superfight that one might have imagined Gamboa would be getting during his prime fighting years.
The mention of Gamboa's name will still bring a gleam to the eye of anyone who has seen him fight. He still possesses speed and power and skill unmatched by any but a tiny handful of boxers on planet Earth. But Gamboa owes it to his sport, his fans, and his own wallet to fight a true A-level opponent very, very soon. Public enthusiasm does not last forever. If and when he defeats Perez, Gamboa's management must get him a fight with one of the world-class fighters in the general vicinity of his weight class -- Mikey Garcia, Abner Mares, Adrien Broner, Nonito Donaire, or even good old Juan Manuel Lopez. There is nothing for Yuriorkis Gamboa to wait for. It would be a shame for his career's toughest opponent to end up being Father Time.