Yuriorkis Gamboa meets the Torquemada of the ring tonight when he faces destructive Rogers Mtagwa over twelve rounds at the WAMU Theater in New York City as the chief support for the Steven Luevano-Juan Manuel Lopez WKRP title bout.
Mtagwa, a bruising journeyman with a record of 26-13-2, appeared to be seconds away from knocking out Lopez in a spectacular barnburner last October and scoring the upset of the year, but somehow could not manage to land the finisher. A fight with Gamboa on HBO is his reward, so to speak, for the superhuman efforts he has put forth in the ring over the last few years. It is a gift most could do without. Oddsmakers have tabbed Mtagwa as high as an 8-1 underdog, but the boxing equivalent of the uncertainty principle trails after Mtagwa whenever he steps into the ring.
In some ways, this matchup, paradoxically, has the potential to be both easier and harder than his bout with Lopez. On the one hand, Mtagwa, 30, will be fighting at featherweight, his natural weight class; he will not have to deal with the inherent vexations of a southpaw; he will have a fair reach advantage over Gamboa; and he will be fighting an opponent who has been floored four times since turning pro in 2007. Some of the lazier pundits out there (are there any other kind in boxing, where repetition is the sincerest form of flattery?) have decided that Gamboa gets knocked down because he is “off-balance.” Okey-dokey. Five minutes on Youtube is enough to disprove that half-baked theory. Darling Jimenez and Roger Gonzalez, both middling punchers, caught Gamboa with flush shots and sat him down. This is not enough to classify Gamboa as a genuine canvasback, of course, but the fact that Mtagwa hurls punches with the force of a trebuchet might be
something to think about. Gamboa, 16-0 (14), will almost certainly curtail his showboating tendencies–such as dropping his hands–or face the possibility of having his lights put out. With all that said, on the other hand, Mtagwa will be facing a fighter with more natural talent than Lopez. Gamboa is much faster than Lopez and has the kind of athleticism that makes some of his moves look like a blur.
Mtagwa, Philadelphia via Dodoma, Tanzania, is a marginally skilled brawler whose ferocity and determination make up for a lack of finesse. His fight with Tomas Villa has to be seen to be believed. From the opening bell Mtagwa seemed hell-bent on mayhem and Villa obliged with brio. Together, they turned a boxing ring into a battleground for just over half an hour. Only a few fighters can come back from the kind of punishment he endured in his breathtaking struggle against Villa, but now Mtagwa will be coming back from the added trauma of the Lopez brawl. Mtagwa might enter the ring with cracks that can spiderweb into a full-fledge collapse the moment he is hit with a blistering combination. And Gamboa, 28, will be throwing plenty of them. He shoots rapid combinations from surprising angles with accuracy and power. In fact, Gamboa might be a bigger puncher than Lopez, who had Mtagwa reeling drunkenly around the ring a few times last October.
On paper this fight appears to be a bigger mismatch than the Lopez bout. Mtagwa, after all, has lost to fighters not fit to carry spit buckets into Madison Square Garden, woebegone figures like Debind Thapa and Isidro Tejedor, for example. But Mtagwa has to feel that if he can hit Gamboa, he can hurt him. And he will do everything he can to make sure Gamboa stays hurt. With the kind of hunger nothing can satiate, Mtagwa will do his best to wreak havoc whenever possible. Look for him to butt, heel, punch after the bell, and throw low blows in an effort to rattle Gamboa. It will be up to Gamboa to maintain his composure and box purposefully. Unfortunately, Gamboa, Miami via Guantanamo, Cuba, is the kind of cocky fighter who would love to upstage Lopez, his future nemesis according to the best-laid plans of Bob Arum, and knock Mtagwa out, a feat Lopez could not accomplish since he forgot to bring a 2 x 4 into the ring with him last October.
If Gamboa decides to take risks, he will be risking a nasty case of whiplash. It seems likely that the former amateur standout in Cuba will fight with discipline and score a unanimous decision or a late TKO. But Mtagwa has a one-in-a-million chance to land the bomb that will change his life forever. And the number 999,999 will never cross his mind.