If you’d asked me three or four years ago to list five likely candidates for the top pound-for-pound fighter in the game entering 2016, Yuriorkis Gamboa would surely have been on that list. The former Cuban amateur standout appeared to be a can’t miss fighter. He had cat-like agility and blistering speed, paired with a well-schooled boxing IQ.
He still has those qualities, at least to some degree. Yet, on the last big boxing weekend of 2015, I watched Gamboa fight far down on the card at Turning Stone Casino, facing unheradled Hylon Williams. It was the second fight of the evening, third-billing on the HBO Latino broadcast and completely absent from the main card on HBO’s Boxing After Dark.
It’s a strange tumble for one of the most talented boxers of the past decade.
Gamboa’s stock took a hit when he was knocked out by Terence Crawford in June 2014. But that was a loss to a rising superstar, and a larger man. It shouldn’t have thrown his career into a tailspin.
What has hurt him, instead, is his chronic inactivity. He was out of action for over a year between September 2011 and December 2012 and then for another year between June 2013 and his loss to Crawford.
Since losing to Crawford, he’s fought just once, defeating virtually unknown Joel Montes de Oca. So long as professional boxing is not allowed in their native country, the Cuban boxers are at a disadvantage in the professional game. They lack the built-in fan bases that African-American, Puerto Rican and Mexican boxers enjoy. To build an audience, they need to remain active. To build the kind of promotional connections that they can’t develop while coming up the ranks back in Cuba, they need to build enthusiasm. That requires fighting with regularity.
I’ve interviewed Gamboa twice and spoken to other Cuban fighters and managers. They all concede that they have a tougher path to elbow their way into the competitive, free-lance world of professional prizefighting.
Gamboa was at least able to stay active and notch another win on Saturday night. But he hardly impressed. He toyed with Williams and could have won all ten rounds, taking eight on two of the judges’ cards. He looked rusty, and at times, down right sloppy.
Yuriorkis Gamboa turns 35 this week. That’s elderly for a prizefighter, particularly one who relies so heavily on speed and agility. He’s beginning to look like another “what-if” boxing story.