2018 was a weird year for boxing. After we all declared 2017 to be the best for the sport in decades, a few of us were wondering if 2018 could compete. It did, mostly, producing some big fights and new prospects and many other storylines that more competent (and actual) reporters can tell you about. I have never been one for indulgently extolling the talents of an obviously talented prospect like a Teofimo Lopez. I could recount, as I often do here, the fights I watched as I saw them, but there are better blow-by-blow men and women for that.
All month I have been thinking about the destructive nature of boxing. How so many fighters are used and abused and then cast aside by powerful people that need them only for thirty minutes or so at a time. How the money so often dictates who is going to be a champion and for how long he can remain a champion. About the difficulties that go with a life spent in boxing. There is so much heartache in this sport. So much death and so many lives ruined.
Maybe I am the downer of the group. The black sheep that will always be screaming in a corner about the injustice of it all. I should probably stop trying to be the sober arbiter of morality, because no one is listening and I am much too preoccupied to personally berate the powers that be in this sport. In a conversation with a writer and mentor, I was told that boxing is the way it is because too many influential writers are themselves too eager to maintain that influence by parroting the words of promoters and managers who are at the reigns. I think about that everyday.
The Adonis Stevenson situation understandably put a damper on my year. Being Canadian as he is, his reign as light heavyweight champion was a point of quiet pride for me, a fellow Canadian (sorry). We take our champions seriously, just as the British take their heavyweights seriously. Stevenson's past was of course troubling, but I am never going to be the person who tells someone who has done their time that they cannot now have an opportunity to do better. Stevenson was a criminal and then he was a boxer and a father and a world champion. I could not ask anyone who cannot see past his history of violence toward women to love him, but I did like having a Canadian champion. His loss of the title and near loss of his life was first a bummer and now a sobering reminder that this sport takes broken people and allows them to recover and put a few dollars in their pocket and then breaks them again.
The ensuing mismatches on ESPN and DAZN did little to lift my spirits. Somehow, watching a genuinely talented fighter Canelo Alvarez club a happy-to-be-there Rocky Fielding around for a few rounds did not restore my faith in the transformative powers of boxing.
The one story that has continued to lift my spirits in the face of all this is that of Mexico's Emanuel Navarrete.
Navarrete came into his fight with Isaac Dogboe as the clear B-side. A big underdog with pedigree and money and business all against him. He was supposed to be an impressive looking kid brought in so Dogboe could have good looking defense of his newly acquired title, so that Dogboe could solidify his status as a potential pound-for-pound fighter.
I was having a discussion with a friend a week or so before the fight about Dogboe potentially fighting Guillermo Rigondeaux at 122 pounds. We were wondering if, outside Luis Nery, Dogboe was the only potential roadblock to Naoya Inoue below 126 pounds. We did not talk about the anonymous Emanuel Navarrete, because we did not even know who he was.
Generally, we see a guy like Navarrete come out of Mexico with an impressive looking record and he ends up getting flayed on American TV to the benefit of American promoters. A great many things are possible in the markets on the periphery of the United States (Canada sends its share of unknown entities off to be massacred as well) and I assumed Navarrete was being served up to Dogboe. Maybe that was the plan. He certainly wasn't going along with it.
Navarrete schooled Dogboe…
Pic by Mikey Williams for Top Rank
.. and his corner in the virtues of preparing for each fight as though you had never won anything. As though you might die if you do not prepare adequately. As though your very livelihood depend son your preparedness. Dogboe and his father were criminally underprepared for the fight, and Navarrete showed that, with talent and hard work, you can even overcome the business side of boxing.
Dogboe was entirely unable to get away from Navarrete's punches, coming as they were from long-range, odd angles. The fight could have been stopped after the tenth and I don't think anyone would have batted an eye, especially not the miserably and grotesquely swollen Dogboe. His father and trainer gave little in the way of actionable instruction, and reportedly did not even have an enswell in the corner. Navarrete was exposing, round by round, that true heart does not come in the form of catchphrases and promotional propaganda. True heart develops when you have to turn pro at seventeen because you need the money. It comes from getting jobbed by opponents who skip the weigh in and hand you your only professional loss. It comes from being declared the 8/1 underdog before anyone even knows who the hell you are. There should be nothing but bewilderment at the news of a champion boxer like Dogboe sparring his uncles to prepare for a title defense, though ESPN brought it up like the quaintness of it was holy and somehow helpful. The sentimental narrative was with Dogboe before the fight and Navarrete bathed that narrative in blood and sweat before discarding it and snatching the title for himself.
It doesn't hurt that Navarrete is the rare tall fighter who can fight on the inside as well as he does on the outside. It meant that the shorter Dogboe, normally adept at slipping inside and going to work, was always going to be in range to be hit and never in a place where he had a geographical advantage.
The whole affair leaves my heart swelling with an odd sense of pride whenever I think about it. I am often so cynical about the sport that I make my bets without ever watching the fighters beforehand (I am doing quite well with that model) and I can usually pick winners based solely on who's promoting them. Fights like this one reaffirm the one thing that keeps me coming back to boxing; for all my knowledge about the sport, I don't know a fucking thing about it.
Emanuel Navarrete is my story of the year.