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Everyone Is Their Truest Self At The Fights

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 30: Danny Garcia lands a punch on Jose Benavidez Jr. (teal shorts) during their super welterweight boxing match at Barclays Center on July 30, 2022 in in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)
Adam Hunger/Getty Images

BROOKLYN, N.Y. I don’t know why he was shot. What we do know for sure, though, is that late on the night of Aug. 22, 2016 in Phoenix, Ariz., Jose Benavidez Jr. was out walking his pet dog and exotic cat when some guy walked up and shot him in the right leg. This was unfortunate, because violence is a poor way to settle disputes, and also because Jose Benavidez Jr. was at that moment a very legitimate 25-0 welterweight boxer, moving apace from “prospect” to “contender” status. It was a serious wound. There were questions as to whether he would ever fight again. Within two years, he was back. Almost six years later, on Saturday night, Benavidez, his head carefully shaved on the sides to show off his skull tattoos, entered Barclays Center in Brooklyn to the haunting tones of “Ave Maria.” I never heard that used as a walk-in song before. It was effective. Extremely disconcerting. The whole place got quiet as hell. That was a savvy move. It was all downhill from there. 

It was a beautiful summer night in Brooklyn. Even riding the swaying bus up Flatbush Avenue filled me with an overflowing sense of love for the city, a post-pandemic love for a hot summer night at the fights, a love that will eventually fade and curdle into frustration with the many aggravations brought on by the constant crush of my fellow Brooklynites, but which has not gotten there yet. There were a lot of fights at Barclays before COVID, but there haven’t been too many since. The arena, at the confluence of Atlantic and Flatbush, was a magnet for testosterone—pulsing testosterone, injected testosterone, frustrated testosterone guiding men to the fights, to worship and scream and leave their testosterone on the sticky floors. “So what if my kids don’t talk to me? They’re 16 and 18. They’re teenagers. They want to go out and get lit. So what,” said a 40ish man to another man, waiting at the stoplight to cross the street. “When I was a teenager I didn’t care either. You can’t make them do anything. Who has time for dad? It doesn’t matter. So what.” He was going to the fights. 

Adam Hunger/Getty Images
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 30: Gary Antuanne Russell (L) punches Rances Barthelemy during their super lightweight boxing match at Barclays Center on July 30, 2022 in in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)

When the lights went down for SHOWTIME, you could become hypnotized by standing behind the press section and watching an entire long row of monitors simultaneously tuned to the same image of a boxer hopping from foot to foot, which was being shown live on Showtime. Vertigo-inducing. There were three fights on the card. The first was Rances Barthelemy, who had a pile of braids atop his already tall head that caused him to tower cartoonishly over his opponent, Gary Antuanne Russell, the up-and-coming light welterweight not to be confused with Gary Russell Jr., his older brother, who was a world class lightweight, nor should he be confused with his three (3) other brothers, all of whom were named “Gary Russell” by their father, Gary Russell Sr., who recently passed away. I am in no position to judge what anyone names their five sons, but I can tell you that Gary Russell Jr. had faster hands and more polish than his younger brother, though both of them fight in a fast hands/flat feet style that is very dependent on being able to beat an opponent to the punch. Barthelemy and Gary A. Russell are both southpaws, and for much of the fight they would stand directly in front of one another, and Barthelemy, who was punching downward at the shorter man, would rotate his entire body and fire an absolutely vicious straight left, which would miss, and Russell would then pop up and throw back a hard right hook, which would also miss. Then they would reset and do it again. Eventually Russell thought to leap in a little bit and clipped Barthelemy across the face with that hook and knocked him down, forwards. He was dazed but he got up again, ready to fight, but the ref stopped the fight, for reasons that neither I nor Barthelemy nor Barthelemy’s coach nor anyone else in the arena could figure out. There was a lot of booing. Russell probably would have won anyhow, but he seems not quite ready for prime time in that tough division. Too much time sparring with other Gary Russells, perhaps. 

If you ask me who had the most fans there I would have to be honest and tell you it was Adam Kownacki, the babyfaced Polish heavyweight from Brooklyn whose nickname is “Babyface” and who looks very much like a big bald baby with a beard. There is a strong Polish boxing fan contingent in New York City, and they reliably flood every appearance of whoever is the New York City Polish Fighter Of The Moment, meaning, at this moment, Adam Kownacki. The Polish fans all wear red t-shirts and white-and-red scarves and the young women sometimes paint Polish flags on their cheeks and knots of middle-aged Polish men around the arena guzzle beer and stagger and chant KOW-NAS-SKEEE! Babyface is a very legit heavyweight who has been around for years and who beat several top-10-level heavyweights before losing his last two fights to Robert Helenius, who is, to be fair, a hulking sort of black-metal witch monster. Kownacki has a good chin and pretty fair power and throws a good number of punches for a heavyweight and is generally a steady come-forward grinder who somehow manages to fight at a good pace for 10 or 12 rounds straight despite having the physique of a guy who drinks a lot of beer and probably doesn’t run very much. But on this night, Kownacki seemed to lose steam down the stretch and lost a decision to Ali Eren Demirezen, an also fat Turkish heavyweight who fought in a similar style but had a bit more stamina. It was a deflating moment for the hundreds of Polish fans in their red shirts, but there have been many doomed Polish fighters in history, so this was nothing new. Kownacki is 33 and has been in a lot of brutal wars with big men. His brow is so swollen with scar tissue that it seems to be swallowing his eyes, which have receded into small black dots. After the fight he smiled with blood dripping from his left eye and said he’d like to retire with a win, but he has to speak to his wife about it. He’ll be beloved in Brooklyn for the next 50 years. 

Adam Hunger/Getty Images
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 30: Ali Eren Demirezen (L) punches Adam Kownacki during their heavyweight boxing match at Barclays Center on July 30, 2022 in in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)

The main event was Benavidez, the once-shot man with one more shot, against Danny Garcia, an extremely reliable top-tier welterweight for the past decade, who delivers in every fight a consistent product, like a fast casual dining chain. He has a dark goatee and slightly pointy eyebrows and a crazy dad who trains him and has, I’m sure, instilled a number of undiagnosed and devastating emotional malignancies in his psyche. Garcia has power in both hands, a cracker left hook that has pirouetted some lesser opponents around 180 degrees when they’ve caught it on the jaw, and a careful, well-schooled approach. He wants you to come to him, and then he wants to knock you out with a counterpunch. The flaw in this approach is that it allows the opponent to dictate the pace of the fight. You can beat Danny Garcia, but you have to put it on him. He doesn’t make small mistakes, but when he’s gotten behind in fights due to not throwing enough punches, he can’t make that ground up; counterpunching is his nature, his temperament, not just a choice. Asking him to suddenly move forward and throw hundreds of punches is like asking an alligator to transform into a porpoise. It’s not the sort of change that can be pulled off. 

Jose Benavidez Jr. has a brother, David, who is a little bigger than him and whose career is on a much more promising trajectory, partly because he has never been shot in the leg. Both show a sort of arms-up, palms-out hand play style, standing up straight and picking off incoming shots and then retaliating with spectacular flurries. Jose, though, always had more of an affinity for ripping your guts out with hard body shots. He’s a long-armed, athletic body puncher, or was. He still looks wolfish now, but the soul of the wolf is gone. He stood in front of Garcia, and taunted, and shrugged whenever he was hit, and ostentatiously put his hands down, and stuck out his tongue. But what he didn’t do is throw many punches. The spring is gone from his shattered leg. He would often counter with a long, lurching jab that he stretched by leaning out over his front foot, a telltale sign that his legs are too sluggish for him to move his feet along with the rest of his body. Garcia would slip these, always, and dance back, and throw a few punches in return, just enough to win the exchanges, to stay ahead in every round. Benavidez was like the retired fighters in gyms who posture and pose and project pure machismo as a substitute for the physical gifts that time has taken away from them, who try to drown opponents in bravura when agility has left them behind. Danny Garcia is not the sort of fighter who falls for this shit. He would slip, and throw his few little punches, and circle and reset, and that was all it took. There were moments when Benavidez would start to get his hands going and show flashes of the fighter he once was, but he could never keep the distance of the fight where he wanted it, since he can’t explode off his back leg. Garcia never had to risk much. He has learned how to win fights on points. He’s a grown-up boxer. In the last round he danced around backward and pumped his fist and bounced on his toes as if to show Benavidez what healthy legs look like. Garcia is wolfish, too. But he knows how to be satisfied with an adequate meal.

The lesson, I guess, is don’t get shot. If you are a fighter you should cultivate a peaceful life. 

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