by Hamilton Nolan
Daniel Geale (29-1) and Darren Barker (25-1) are, superficially, exactly the same fighter. Both are middleweights in their early 30s who've made their names overseas -- Geale in Australia, and Barker in the UK. Both have a single loss on their records -- Geale a close decision loss to the veteran Anthony Mundine in 2009, and Barker a somewhat more defensible 11th round knockout loss to pound-for-pound contender Sergio Martinez after what had been a remarkably close fight. Neither are enormous punchers. Both are seeking to step up to a big money fight at the top of the middleweight division. Their fight this Saturday night would seem to be a meeting of clones. But it will be their slight differences that will matter much more than all of their similarities.
Geale, in a way has the better pedigree: he's avenged his loss to Mundine, cleaned out the ranks of Australia, and last year notched a win over the solid (but fading) Felix Sturm in Germany, cementing himself as a contender on the world stage. He holds the promise that always comes with those who have dominated their own far-flung corner of the world -- the vague hope that the talent that proved so overwhelming in one place may translate to The Big Time. It is the crackle of possibility that makes boxing's nature as a global sport so fun. As men like Daniel Geale conquer their home countries, they all must step into greater arenas in America to see if they can conquer the very best of the best.
Unfortunately, there is a very hard edge of reality that comes with boxing's hope of glory. And the reality would seem to indicate that Daniel Geale is a very good, but not top-level middleweight talent. In the past few years, what had been a dreary division has accumulated some of the most explosive talent in the sport. Suddenly, becoming middleweight champion appears to be a much more grueling task. Geale does not have Sergio Martinez's speed, nor the devastating power of Gennady Golovkin or Peter Quillin, nor the sheer monstrous strength of Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. Geale is a boxer, a technician with moderate power, a hard-nosed and tough fighter with an active jab, a decent right hand, and a good aggression streak tempered with intelligence. He may not match up favorably with the best of the best. But he matches up just fine with Darren Barker.
Barker, it must be said, deserves more respect than he has gotten. Though pundits scoffed when he was matched against Sergio Martinez in 2011, Barker did more than hold his own; he exposed the holes that were developing in Martinez's game as he entered his late 30s. Barker, in fact, gave Martinez a tougher fight than some fighters with much higher profiles did. His reward for that solid showing? Two easy fights against unspectacular opponents back home in England. Barker earned himself another big fight back in 2011. Now, he is finally getting it. And this time, he won't be such a severe underdog. That means that the expectations for him are much, much higher.
Barker is a decent fighter. He looks fine. He is workmanlike. He keeps his hands up, comes forward, and punches with fair power. He is not especially fast. In all this he resembles fellow middling middleweights Matthew Macklin and Martin Murray. And, by the way, Daniel Geale. But Geale possesses a certain slickness that Barker does not; he plays angles a bit more, and fights off his jab a bit more, and in general seems to have more of a cerebral edge than Barker. Of course, what seems slick against a lesser opponent can be nothing but a fatal mistake against a better opponent. Both men are, to a large extent, out to prove that they belong among the best. Only one of them will. The loser of this fight can expect a long flight home, and no return ticket. That fact alone should translate to fire inside the ring.
For real violence potential, though, a more likely candidate Saturday night is the Sergey Kovalev (21-0) vs. Nathan Cleverly (26-0) bout. Cleverly, a Welshman with dreams of becoming the next Joe Calzaghe, comes in with the higher profile and more hype. But Kovalev is a more dangerous man. Though he still has a faint whiff of rawness about him, Kovalev is perhaps the biggest puncher in the light heavyweight division. He's torn a path of early knockouts through the ranks of journeymen, and did the same to legitimate contender Gabriel Campillo. Cleverly is long-armed and lean, with a good jab, a high work rate, and fair power. He has the skills and the build to keep Kovalev away from him -- but he also has a tendency to want to rumble, which comes with a very strong possibility of a short night for one man or the other.
On the undercard, Jonathan Romero (23-0), a 26-year-old undefeated 122-pounder, takes on Kiko Martinez (28-4), only a year older but a far more grizzled veteran. Martinez, with 20 knockouts to his credit, is too dangerous to be considered a stepping stone. But this should be a showcase opportunity for Romero, who seeks to hang on to the same belt once held by Nonito Donaire and Manny Pacquiao.