It only takes one punch to end a fight. And it only takes one punch that nearly ends a fight to define a man's character.
British middleweight Darren Barker, who came up achingly short against lineal champion Sergio Martinez in his previous trip to Atlantic City, came through by the slimmest of margins in his return to the Jersey shore, winning a split decision over Daniel Geale by a single point. And halfway to the finish line, in a stirring sixth round, he was less than one second from defeat. Geale capped a mid-ring exchange with a single, crushing left hook to the liver, and Barker collapsed the canvas, his legs kicking in agony. It looked like he wasn't going to get up. But he willed himself to a standing position just barely on the bright side of referee Eddie Cotton's 10-count.
"He caught me right on the solar plexus, took my breath away from me," said Barker (26-1, 16 KOs). "When I was down on the ground, it was all going through my head-my wife, my family, my daughter. And it all made me get up."
After Barker rose from the knockdown, the crowd at Revel Casino-Hotel was whipped into a frenzy by his brave stand and the back-and-forth action that followed in a Round of the Year candidate. When the bell rang, Barker defiantly raised his arms in the air-something you don't often see from a man on the losing end of a 10-8 round.
That round was one of the few in the fight that was easy to score. While this HBO.com writer's scorecard gave Barker four of the five rounds that preceded his near-knockout experience, two of the judges had prefight favorite Geale (29-2, 15 KOs) ahead through five. The action was fast paced from the outset, with hooks and uppercuts flying, but Barker seemed a bit quicker and sharper in the majority of the key moments. His body combinations, in particular, were eye-catching.
It goes without saying, however, that the Australian slugger Geale landed the fight's best body punch. Had Cotton been the quick-counting type, that hook to the midsection would probably have gotten Geale a knockout victory.
Instead, he had to go back to work for six more rounds, and Barker's uppercuts, body shots, and well-timed combinations and movements kept Geale from ever settling into a groove. All three judges gave Barker five of the last six rounds, though they couldn't agree at all on which round to give Geale, and amazingly, only one of them, Barbara Perez, gave the Aussie the 12th, a round he seemed to win fairly convincingly.
In the end, Perez saw it 116-111 for Barker, Alan Rubenstein scored it 114-113 for Geale, and Carlos Ortiz decided the winner with a 114-113 tally for Barker. (HBO.com had the Englishman winning 115-112.)
"If I stuck to my game plan, I would have won easier," Barker said. "But I take my hat off to Geale, he's a very tough man."
"I'm not gonna cry and carry on. It didn't go my way tonight," Geale said of the decision. "I hurt him throughout the fight. He was throwing a lot of punches. Whether they were catching me or not, that's tough to say. It wasn't my best performance, obviously, but Darren's a great fighter, he's a skillful guy. I'm disappointed that I lost. I definitely want a rematch."
A rematch seems a logical possibility, though there might be more significant and lucrative opportunities now for Barker. Middleweight is a fascinating weight class, a division in search of a challenger-but not necessarily for its champion. Martinez, still the lineal kingpin two years after beating Barker, is recovering from assorted injuries, making unbeaten Gennady Golovkin the unofficial man to beat at the moment. Just minutes before Barker and Geale stepped into the ring, rumor spread that Golovkin had signed for a November HBO bout with Curtis Stevens. After that? Barker seems as well positioned as anyone to see if he can be the one to test "GGG."
But that's not something he needs to think about right now. Barker should enjoy this hard-earned victory, and get back home to the wife and daughter who inspired him not to become a one-punch knockout victim.
In the co-featured bout at Revel, veteran Kiko Martinez produced perfect footage for a pressure-fighting instructional video as he upset the previously undefeated Colombian junior featherweight prospect Jonathan Romero via sixth-round TKO. The diminutive Martinez simply wouldn't relent, and try as Romero did to change directions, use the whole ring, and utilize his length, he couldn't hold the Spaniard off. Romero showed copious heart by remaining on his feet throughout, but with 20 seconds to go in round six, ref David Fields did the humane thing and cradled Romero in his arms, handing Martinez his most significant win since a shocking one-round upset of Bernard Dunne in 2007.
Earlier on the HBO telecast, not in Atlantic City and not even on the same side of the Atlantic Ocean, Russian knockout artist Sergey Kovalev dominated in a battle of unbeatens on Welshman Nathan Cleverly's home turf, silencing the fans at the Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff in just four rounds. Both light heavyweights were stepping up to face their theoretical toughest test. It was precisely that for one of them.
The busy, accurate-punching, fearless Kovalev controlled the first two rounds while Cleverly tried to wait him out behind a defensive shell. The only bump in the road for the Russian was when a cut over his right eye opened in round two. In the third, it seemed Cleverly was growing more comfortable-in the sense that he was getting out of the way of some of Kovalev's punches-until a sudden hook hurt the local fighter. Kovalev's follow-up attack combined style, in the form of a taunting pelvic thrust, with substance, in the form of a right hand that dropped Cleverly. A combo to the temple-the last punch landing after Cleverly's knee appeared to be down-produced a second knockdown, and at the bell, ref Terry O'Connor all but carried Cleverly to his corner. Cleverly's legs didn't return during the 60-second break, and the inevitable end came just 21 seconds into round four, as Cleverly's glove was touching the canvas for a third knockdown.
Kovalev, who landed 100 punches to just 37 for Cleverly, would appear to be the most fan-friendly choice to challenge lineal 175-pound champion Adonis Stevenson, should Stevenson prevail against Tavoris Cloud next month. It would be hard to make a match in any division in the sport with more combined pound-for-pound power than that one.