As Abner Mares leaves his corner during a recent sparring session his sparring partners, much like his opponents, have no idea if he’s coming to box or brawl. They just know they’ll have their hands full with the three-division titleholder.
SANTA FE SPRINGS, Calif. – Abner Mares’ fight plan for Jhonny Gonzalez gradually unfolded before my eyes during 12 hard rounds of sparring exactly two weeks out from his WBC featherweight title defense against the seasoned two-division titleholder this Saturday.
Four parts to the plan – four separate strategies and styles put into play over the course of the 12-round session – became evident as the 27-year-old ring chameleon sparred with Luis Martinez (the first four rounds and the final four) and Jesus Luna (the middle four rounds):
1) Early rounds: Box carefully. Work the jab from a high guard and counter punch from a distance.
2) Early middle rounds: Gradually negate Gonzalez’s long jab with feints and upper body movement while closing the distance. Introduce combinations when in close or mid-range, including body shots.
3) Middle rounds: Increase pressure and punch output, adding aggressive infighting and body-punch combinations to more frequent attacks.
4) Late rounds: Step up pressure and infighting even more – smothering and getting rough on the inside if need be.
If Gonzalez isn’t overwhelmed before the 10th round of the Showtime Championship Boxing main event at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., Mares is prepared to return to his boxing tactics and outpoint the dangerous veteran over the distance without taking too many risks.
In other words, Mares (26-0-1, 14 knockouts) will do what he usually does in the ring – a little bit of everything.
Before knocking out Daniel Ponce de Leon in the ninth round to claim the WBC’s 126-pound belt in May, Mares joked that he invented “Mexican Judo” for their show-stealer on the Floyd Mayweather-Robert Guerrero undercard.
“Ju-don’t know if I’m going to box, ju-don’t know if I’m going to brawl,” he told the media in the days before the fight.
Mares was telling the truth. He likes to keep his opponents and his sparring partners guessing. He might reverse the order of that four-part fight plan against Gonzalez if it feels right on fight night. He might go with parts two and three first and then come up with something completely different in the late rounds of the bout if the Mexico City veteran survives that long.
Box, brawl, pressure, maul, counter punch, foul (if the referee allows him to get away with it) – whatever it takes to break his opponent down physically and mentally – Mares will do it.
It’s more of a mentality than a style, which doesn’t always sit well with boxing purists.
Mares’ roughhouse tactics in his August 2011 fight with Joseph Agbeko, which included numerous borderline and some blatant low blows, turned a lot of hardcore fans off. The free pass he got from referee Russell Mora, who seemingly ignored the low blows and also made some bad calls that benefitted Mares, who took Agbeko’s IBF bantamweight belt with a controversial majority decision, made many vow to root against him for the rest of his career.
Those Mares detractors were disappointed when he kept the IBF title with a unanimous decision against Agbeko in an immediate rematch later in 2011. Mares was just as rough the second time around, but less blatant with the borderline stuff. A lot of hardcore fans still hated him, but some gave him grudging respect when he defended the WBC 122-pound belt he won by outclassing Eric Morel against bantamweight boxing master Anselmo Moreno last November.
Mares boxed, pressed and mauled Moreno, widely considered the sport’s best bantamweight, to a competitive unanimous decision in Los Angeles but more biased officiating (lots of leniency to Mares and an unnecessary point deduction to Moreno by referee Raul Caiz Jr. and an awful shutout card from Dr. James Jen-Kin) kept the hate on him.
However, even Mares’ most ardent critics gave him his props after the Ponce de Leon fight. Mares exhibited more athleticism, craft and clean power punching than roughhouse tactics, dominating his friend and promotional/managerial stablemate.
For the first time in his 8½-year career his critics recognized his talent.
Will Mares be able to capitalize on his newfound respect? Based on what I saw two weeks ago, I think so.
I believe that Mares – who I’ve watched train and fight since before his pro debut in January of 2005 – is currently at his physical, technical and tactical peak. I would not favor any 126 pounder in the sport to beat him.
The reasons for that lofty opinion were on display against his two tough sparring partners the day I dropped by Elite MMA Academy.
Martinez, a part-time club fighter and master’s degree holder who heads up USC’s intramural boxing program, provided the proper stance, stature and style for Mares to ready himself for Gonzalez’s classic stand-up approach to power boxing.
Martinez, who hasn’t fought since 2011, has a modest 2-5-1 record, but I remembered him from two Fight Night Club appearances. I knew he could box and fight.
Luna is a feisty young former amateur standout looking to turn pro soon. His job was to force the pace in the middle rounds and get Mares to engage and switch gears at the appropriate time, according to trainer Clemente Medina’s fight plan.
Mares was careful in the first round. He was on his toes, gloves up and head moving to avoid Martinez’s jab. Mares fired quick counter hooks over Martinez’s arrow-straight right hand, but he didn’t try to press his advantage when he landed.
In the second round, Mares jabbed, bobbed and weaved his way inside and quickly worked the body. Both boxers landed uppercuts before Mares stepped back out of range. I was impressed with the accuracy of Mares’ jab and combinations, as well as his ability to block punches from a distance. However, I noticed that he was “hittable” whenever he made the decision to go on the attack. (“Hittable” but also a handful once he was in close.)
In the third round, Mares stalked Martinez, occasionally dropping his hands in a macho gesture to get his sparring partner to open up on him. Martinez took the bait and the two mixed it up. Mares got the better of the exchanges thanks to his punishing body attack.
The more Mares worked inside, the more his physical strength factored into his success. Mares’ work with strength and conditioning coach Luis Garcia has definitely paid off for the former bantamweight. He’s not just fighting effectively with the extra weight – he’s quicker, stronger and a heavier hitter than he was when he was four and eight pounds lighter.
I expect Mares to maul and manhandle Gonzalez, who gets more leverage on his shots with room to operate, whenever he can on Saturday.
Mares gradually increased his pressure with each round. By the fifth round, when Martinez was replaced with Luna, he was ready to go to war. And Luna, a squat-but-strong volume puncher, willingly matched Mares’ aggression.
The two traded fierce combinations while head to head, increasing their punch output round by round. Mares occasionally gave ground while nailing the pint-sized terror without creating too much space between them.
I think we can expect rounds five through eight to be a lot of fun on Saturday.
Martinez got back in the ring for the ninth round, and Mares automatically adjusted to the taller boxer’s feints and jabs. Mares resumed the head movement he had in the early rounds to get inside and mug Martinez. He was rough but also accurate with body head combination once he was head to head with Martinez.
In the 11th, Mares backed up and invited Martinez to get off from middle range – as he did with Moreno late in their fight – only to get his own jab and counter punches off.
In the 12th, Mares marched directly to Martinez’s chest and let his hands go. Martinez went to the body with winging hooks just as Gonzalez does. In the final minute of the round, Mares took a few steps back and nailed Martinez with big right hand.
“He’s strong,” Martinez said after the session. “I think the pressure is what’s going to get to Gonzalez.”
Martinez paused before adding, “It has to be smart pressure.” He knows like other astute boxing observers than Gonzalez’s power is real. The 46 knockouts he’s scored in 54 victories did not come against chumps. Gonzalez, who is trained by Nacho Beristain, has knockouts over first-ballot hall of famer Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson, Thai legend Ratanachi Sor Vorapin, respected Japanese champ Hozumi Hasegawa and once-beaten Colombian veteran Irene Pacheco.
Martinez says Mares know how to press smart.
“At the beginning, he stayed on the outside and just covered up to block my jabs,” he said. “It takes time for fighters to get their timing and rhythm down in camp, but once Abner did, he was very hard to hit and he was able to get inside when he needed to.”
Mares was satisfied with his work that day (the second 12-round sparring session of his camp at that time).
“It’s difficult preparing for an experienced fighter like Jhonny,” he said. “You got to be smart, you have to pace yourself and win round by round. Today I did that but I also threw a lot and I closed hard.
“There was a round or two that I took off to recuperate but even in those rounds I was working my jab, moving my head, and moving around the ring.”
He admits there’s been a gradual evolution to his game since he turned pro.
“In the amateurs, I was just about aggression and pressure,” said Mares, who represented Mexico in the 2004 Olympics. “I think the coaches I’ve had since turning pro have had a positive effect on how I fight.
“I had three fights, close to a year with Floyd Mayweather Sr. I worked with Joe Hernandez when I turned pro. I was trained by Nacho (Beristain) in Mexico City for close to three years. I had one fight with Rudy Perez and with Oscar Suarez, may they both rest in peace. I also worked a little bit with my amateur coach Joey Olivo.”
The result of all that experience, plus the strength and conditioning work with Garcis, is an absolutely hellish experience for his opponents.
Most expected Mares to beat Ponce de Leon, who had troubled supposedly elite talents Adrien Broner and Yuriorkis Gamboa, but few expected him to dominate.
“We expected it,” Mares said. “I thought it was time to move up in weight. During camps for my 122-pound fights I was doing good in sparring when I weighed 135, 130 pounds. But once I got down under 130 pounds, even to 127 pounds, I was feeling sluggish, fatigued.”
Fighting at featherweight basically enables Mares to train hard and strong as a lightweight and junior lightweight. He drops the final four pounds the week of the fight.
“We knew Ponce would test us,” Mares said. “I didn’t want to fight an easy guy for my first featherweight fight. I wanted somebody who was strong and could punch and would come to win, just like Jhonny will. I wanted somebody to let me know.”
Now we know. We don’t know if Mares will box, brawl or maul with Gonzalez – or what combination of styles he’ll mix – but we know he’ll deliver on fight night.
Photos / Doug “I am not a photographer” Fischer, Jeff Gross-Getty Image, Jed Jacobsohn-Golden Boy