A nightmarish occurrence for Joseph Agbeko put Abner Mares’ dream, as well as their anticipated showdown, on hold.
The two 118-pound standouts were supposed to meet in the final of Showtime’s bantamweight tournament on Saturday in Los Angeles, however Agbeko suffered what doctors are calling the sudden onset of sciatica upon his arrival at Los Angeles International Airport late Monday evening.
After multiple delays at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport and nearly six hours in flight, Agbeko, who earned his finals spot with a brilliant semifinal decision victory over Yonnhy Perez in December, was ready to get to his hotel and grab a good night’s sleep before partaking in a scheduled media workout on Tuesday morning.
However, before entering the car driven by Alan Hopper, publicist for Agbeko’s promoter Don King, the 31-year-old veteran suddenly collapsed in the roadway outside of the baggage claim area.
“He was down on all fours, face to the pavement, screaming ‘This can’t be happening, I have to fight on Saturday!’” Hopper recalled at Thursday’s final press conference, which formally announced the postponement of Agbeko-Mares.
Agbeko had no idea what was happening to his body, but the pain was so severe he knew the fight with Mares was in jeopardy.
“I was helpless, it was like being paralyzed,” Agbeko told RingTV.com. “I couldn’t move and when I did, the pain in my back was incredible. It was too much.”
The bantamweight titleholder remained face down until police and an ambulance arrived to transport him to nearby Marina del Rey Hospital.
“I wasn’t able to walk at all on Tuesday or Wednesday,” Agbeko said. “Even now, the pain is very sharp in the right side of my back and then it feels like something is always pulling on my right leg.”
Mares, who boldly battled Vic Darchinyan to a split-decision victory in their semifinal bout, experienced a different kind of pain early Wednesday evening, when he was informed that Agbeko couldn’t fight on Saturday.
“My first reaction to the news was devastation,” Mares told RingTV.com. “I wasn’t mad. I was just very sad. I was upset with life, you know. Life has thrown me some hard curves in the past. I know things like this happen in boxing, but I’m human. All I could think was ‘Why me? Why now?
“I just had the best training camp of my career. You can see it in my body. You can go to the Maywood Boxing Club and ask anyone who trains there, and they’ll tell you that I’ve never looked better. I was ready to win my first world title. I was ready for my dream to finally come true.”
The next few hours of the 25-year-old contender’s life were a blur. Mares knew he wouldn’t face Agbeko, but there was still a chance that he might fight on Saturday. His promoter, Golden Boy Promotions, tried to find a suitable late replacement.
“I was just hearing rumors of who might replace Agbeko Wednesday night,” he said. “This morning they called me and said I could fight Darchinyan, Perez or (bantamweight prospect) Chris Avalos on Saturday. I thought about it, but after getting my team’s opinion, I decided that I worked too hard to get where I am.
“Fighting someone else on Saturday wouldn’t be fair to Joseph, who earned the right to be in the finals. Fighting Yonnhy or Vic wouldn't be fair to either of them. Why should one get the opportunity over the other? Avalos is a good young fighter, but he hasn’t paid his dues to be in a main event like Saturday was supposed to be.
“As much as it hurt to not fight on Saturday, it made sense to try to postpone my fight with Agbeko.”
The show that was scheduled at Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles will go on with the Darchinyan-Perez fight upgraded to the Showtime-televised main event, which will start at 7:30 p.m. PT/ 10:30 p.m. ET. The non-televised five-bout undercard begins at 5:00 p.m. PT.
Mares and Agbeko, who will stay in Los Angeles through the weekend, will watch the action from ringside.
When they finally meet in the ring will be determined by how soon Agbeko can recover and begin training again.
The Bronx-based Ghanaian is keeping a positive outlook on the situation.
“I have high hopes that I will get back to training very soon,” said Agbeko, who added that he suffered a mild version of his current injury when he was training for his bout with Darchinyan, which took place in July of 2009.
“I remember I felt a little bit of pain in similar places to where the pain is now, in my back and my leg. It wasn’t nearly as bad as it is now. I got a special acupressure massage and took a week off and I was fine.”
One hopes that Agbeko, who beat Darchinyan in one of his finest performances, can recover from his current injury in a timely fashion. However, if he doesn’t, Golden Boy Promotions and Mares’ manager, Frank Espinoza, want to move forward with a different opponent.
Mares is OK with that idea provided his opponent has a world title or is worthy of replacing Agbeko in Showtime’s tournament final.
“I don’t want to fight just anyone,” Mares said. “It would have to be someone like [WBA beltholder] Anselmo Moreno or Eric Morel.”
Nonito Donaire, who holds the WBC and WBO titles, would be a perfect candidate, but the Filipino star is still contractually tied to Top Rank, which refuses to do business with Golden Boy.
However, another worthy replacement for Agbeko will be produced by Saturday’s main event. Both Darchinyan and Perez have unfinished business with Mares.
Darchinyan believes dirty tactics from Mares and an unfair officiating enabled the younger fighter to barely outpoint him in their entertaining scrap last December. The 35-year-old veteran would love another crack at Mares.
So would Perez, who battled his good friend to a rousing 12-round draw last September.
Gary Shaw, who promotes Darchinyan and co-promotes Perez with Thompson Boxing, said he will lobby the IBF to put their title on the line should the winner of Saturday’s bout face Mares.
Mares is happy to hear that his title shot will still probably happen this year, but he’s hoping that it comes against Agbeko.
“I was feeling sorry for myself, but seeing Agbeko hunched over and limping at today’s press conference put everything in perspective for me,” he said. “I’m really pulling for him to get better. I want to win a world title but I want to win it from a real champion. I know Agbeko is for real, he beat two guys (Darchiyan and Perez) that I went to war with.
“I think he’s worth waiting for. It’s hard being patient but these experiences help me grow. When the time comes, believe me, I’ll be ready.”