Body shot topples Sonsona's big plans
On a frigid evening in February 2007 I leaned on the apron of a blood-spattered ring at Chris Johnson's Fighting Alliance and stood alongside Johnson as he supervised a sparring session between two of his teenage proteges.
One of the guys in the ring that night, a 19-year-old bantamweight named Francis Pastolero, had Johnson excited. Daytimes he worked loading luggage onto planes at Pearson Airport, and evenings he trekked to central Mississauga to train with Johnson. He had been boxing less than a year and made up for a lack of polish with hunger and raw power.
A few weeks earlier he had won his amateur debut with a spectacular knockout, but tonight he was struggling. Those percussive punches didn't thud quite so heavily against a larger sparring partner, and the shots Pastolero received in return carried more impact than he had felt before.
About three rounds into the session the sparring partner dipped to his left as Pastolero covered up, then ripped a left hook to Pastolero's ribcage. A second later Pastolero's knees buckled and he hit the canvas. Sparring session over.
Johnson lost it, launching into a long soliloquy about winning and losing, courage and cowardice.
He could understand going down from a head shot. Sometimes the other guy hits the button and the lights go out for a second. It happens to just about everyone. No shame in it. Just a lesson about staying alert and keeping your hands up.
But dropping from body shot?
That was treason. A punk's way out.
Johnson's logic dictated that while a head shot could scramble the signal between the brain and the body a punch to the gut simply dealt a jolt of pain, something a true fighter can deal with if he chooses to react like a man. Going down is like calling timeout because the pain is too great, except that there are no timeouts in boxing. Only warriors who overcome pain and cowards who succumb to it.
I spent eight months with Johnson and his camp while working on this opus about amateur boxing, and I honestly think he possesses one of the sharpest boxing minds on the planet. A lot of what I know about the craft I learned in his gym, and picking his brain has changed the way I watched fights.
But after watching Puerto Rico's Wilfredo Vazquez Jr.destroy rising filipino star (and Rumble at Rama regular) Marvin Sonsona in a junior featherweight title fight Saturday night I'm second-guessing Johnson's theory about body shots. Sometimes it's not a simple matter of choice. Sometimes the right body shot at the right spot and at the right time can sever the body-brain connection as quickly and completely as a left hook to the chin can.
If going down or staying up was a simple decision, then Sonsona, who is co-promoted by Brampton-based Orion Sports management, had plenty of reasons to choose to keep fighting Saturday night in Bayamon, Puerto Rico.
There's his nation's pride. Boxing is a big deal in the Phillipines, and Manny Pacquiao heads into the final fights of his career a lot of Pinoy fight fans are looking for the country's next superstar. Sonsona, hard-hitting southpaw and a world champ at just 19, seemed ready to step up.
And there's the franchise the folks at Orion have spent the year trying to build around him. Sonsona won his first world title -- the WBO 115-pound belt -- at Rama in September. A second title for Sonsona would have boosted his profile back home and in Canada, and solidified Orion's plans to keep world championship bouts coming to Ontario.
And then there's his undefeated record. Twice that record has been jeopardized, and twice Sonsona has rallied to salvage it -- first in winning the title against Jose "Carita" Lopez, and then again at Rama against Alejandro Hernandez.
But while all of those factors might have fed into Sonsona's desire to persevere on Saturday night, none of them kept him on his feet.
Midway through round four Vazquez, the son of former 122-pound champ Wilfredo Vazquez Sr., maneuvered Sonsona to the ropes and fired an overhand right that split Sonosona's gloves and crashed into his forehead, snapping his head skyward. Vazquez paused, as if awaiting a response from Sonsona, and when none came he dipped and ripped a hook to Sonsona's ribs.
Sonsona tried to fire back, but instead he crumpled to the canvas, fully conscious but motionless and helpless as referee Luis Pabon counted him out.
As the count reached 10 I thought of the tirade Johnson directed at that teenager three years ago, and how this knockout didn't fit the profile Johnson had laid out. Sonsona clearly wanted to keep fighting. In the split section between the body shot landing and its effects registering Sonsona tried to fire back at Vazquez.
But then his body abandoned him. Didn't appear to me to be a choice he made in the face of pain. More like a reflexive response to massive and unexpected trauma. The brain ready to keep fighting but the body unable to carry out the orders, the connection between them ruptured by a well-placed, well-timed shot.
Is there any shame in that, or just a lesson?
Will his handlers, for example, learn anything about how to match Sonsona in the future?
Specifically, will they build him back up with tuneup bouts or will they send him to war yet again?
Sonsona may be just 19, but he has had three brutal fights in a five month span. Lopez wobbled him in their September bout, while Hernandez applied steady pressure for twelve rounds last November.
Two bouts into his North American career Sonsona looked less like the next Pacquiao and more like a filipino Arturo Gatti. That's great for fans who like action but horrible for Sonsona's long-term health.
Either way both Sonsona and Orion will need to regroup after Saturday's loss.
Orion's plan was for Sonsona to scoop the WBO's 122-pound title, watch Steve Molitor win the IBF title next month, then control the junior featherweight division with two champions under their banner. Now it's up to Molitor, who faces a rematch with Takalani Ndlovu March 27, to give Orion a foothold in a division that remains dynamic, even after the migrations of Juan Manuel Lopez and Celestino Caballero to featherweight.
And it might be time for Sonsona to take a step back.
As we've discussed here before, one loss doesn't have to derail a fighter's career, especially when that fighter is as young and talented as Sonsona is.
But let's remember how he wound up in the ring with Vazquez:
In November he vacated the WBO's 115 pound title when he couldn't make weight for his defence against Hernandez. Unable to make junior bantamweight, he was granted to the opportunity to jump two weight classes and face Vazquez for the vacant 122-pound crown.
An admirable show of courage, but in retrospect a sketchy choice. Nobody knew how well Sonsona's power would transfer to a new weight class, nor how he would respond to blows from a bigger opponent than he had ever faced.
We all found out on Saturday.