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Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Mares-Agbeko II not just 'other' fight

By Dan Rafael
ESPN.com

Maybe you've heard about the big fight at Madison Square Garden in New York taking place on Saturday night? You know, the massively anticipated grudge rematch between junior middleweight titlist Miguel Cotto and nemesis Antonio Margarito?

The HBO PPV fight has, for obvious reasons, dominated boxing headlines: Their first meeting, in 2008, was a classic later tainted by the suspicions of many that Margarito cheated his way to an 11th-round knockout by wearing loaded hand wraps. And the rematch was touch-and-go until just a week ago because of Margarito's issues getting licensed in New York.

But there's another very good fight card being held on the other side of the country this weekend, one that would be getting a lot more attention if it wasn't being run over by the Cotto-Margarito freight train. If you're watching the Cotto-Margarito II pay-per-view card, I hope you have a DVR to record Showtime's card Saturday night (9 ET/PT).

The show at Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., features two top-notch bantamweight title bouts. The headliner is Abner Mares (22-0-1, 13 KOs) of Hawaiian Gardens, Calif., defending his belt in a rematch of his own against former two-time titleholder Joseph "King Kong" Agbeko (28-3, 22 KOs) of Ghana.

The opening fight will match titlist Anselmo Moreno (31-1-1, 11 KOs) of Panama against always-entertaining brawler Vic Darchinyan (37-3-1, 27 KOs), an Australia-based Armenian and former junior bantamweight and flyweight titleholder.

A future unification fight that matches the winners of the two bouts is a distinct possibility, adding another layer of intrigue to the card.

Mares-Agbeko II has one central storyline: Can Mares keep his punches up and refrain from nailing Agbeko repeatedly below the belt? Charged with keeping order this time is one of boxing's best referees, Lou Moret.

When Mares and Agbeko met Aug. 13 in Las Vegas in the final of Showtime's four-man bantamweight tournament, Mares won a majority decision to claim the 118-pound belt from Agbeko in one of the most controversial fights of the year, thanks to the woeful officiating of referee Russell Mora.

Not only did Mora call a questionable knockdown against Agbeko in the first round (it should have been ruled a slip), he let Mares get away with repeated low blows. Mora warned Mares multiple times, but he never docked him a point (when he should have taken at least two!) and then quit warning him entirely.

As glaring as Mora's inaction was, it was ridiculous and blatant in the 11th round when Mares cracked Agbeko with a left hand far south of the border, directly in the groin, and Agbeko went down. Instead of taking a point from Mares and giving Agbeko time to recover, Mora ruled it a knockdown in one of the most glaring referee errors I have ever seen. It changed what likely would have been a 10-9 round in Agbeko's favor into a 10-8 round for Mares, who fought well overall but had his title victory marred by the resounding controversy.

Mora's officiating was so weak that the IBF, which sanctioned the bout, ordered an immediate rematch.

In the Showtime tournament semifinals, Mares won a split decision against Darchinyan in a bout in which he also got away with several low blows, which Darchinyan complained about to no avail.

So here we are, all set for Mares-Agbeko II, and low blows are the talk of the promotion. The Agbeko camp has laid it on thick.

Joseph Agbeko
Joseph Agbeko might have been robbed of a bantamweight title, but he has been gracious about the controversial outcome of his first fight with Abner Mares.

"It wasn't Mares' fault that there was a bad referee in the last fight," said Don King, Agbeko's loquacious promoter. "Everyone in the world condemned the poor performance he put in, which really changed the outcome of the fight. I truly don't count the last fight and the loss [Agbeko] had because of the faults of Mr. Mora and his poor officiating. However, now it's up to Agbeko to stand up and be accounted for [so] that he can redeem himself. He knows that he's the one that has to do this."

"Abner Mares has a problem. He won the two biggest fights of his career with the use of low blows," Alan Hopper, one of King's chief lieutenants, told Mares at a press conference promoting the fight. "The entire world and a new referee will be watching you closely. So keep your punches up and fight fair."

Agbeko, a soft-spoken guy, didn't retaliate against Mares for the low blows but believes the debilitating shots cost him the fight.

"There will be no more low blows this time because the world is watching," he said. "I will prove to the world that I deserved to win the last fight. Do I still have respect for Abner Mares? Yes. At the end of the day, we are both warriors and we do our job. I didn't want to retaliate with low blows."

Mares and his team have taken the criticism in stride and remained classy, so give them credit. And they didn't try to weasel out of the rematch. They embraced it.

"What I tell everyone is that if I would have been penalized or had a point taken away in the early rounds, I would have definitely stopped going to the body," Mares said. "I thought most of my punches were right at the belt line. It was not my intention to hit him low like that and I didn't mean to hit him there. I fought my best and he fought his best and the fans were excited about the fight.

"But, most definitely, I do see where all the controversy comes from. There were some low punches, but I tried to correct them. There were times when he pulled my head down and the ref told him not to. I thought at one point I was going to get penalized, but I just went to a neutral corner and just saw the ref started counting. It's not my fault. I can't tell the ref to stop counting, so you can't blame me for that. That's why I have no problem fighting him again and I can't wait to fight and beat him again. All eyes are going to be on me and waiting for me to make the mistakes, but I'm determined to go to the body like I always do."

Said Golden Boy's Richard Schaefer, Mares' promoter: "We are looking forward to setting the record straight to erase any doubts that people may have. We thought the right thing to do was a rematch. The pressure was, everyone was crying for a rematch and Abner had no problem with it. He's young, he's strong, he's exciting -- he's exactly the kind of fighter fans like.

"Abner didn't have to do the rematch. Just because the IBF ordered it doesn't mean he had to do it. He took it because he wants to prove he's the best in the division."

Mares could have given up the title to avoid the rematch. He didn't.

"It's time to clear the controversy," said Frank Espinoza, Mares' manager. "This fight means everything to Abner. He plans to show the world that he truly deserves to be called the top bantamweight in the world."

Just keep 'em up.

Moreno-Darchinyan doesn't have the heat of Mares-Agbeko II, but the fighters have utterly contrasting styles, which could make it interesting. Moreno, who will be fighting for the first time in the United States and since signing with Golden Boy over the summer, is a very skillful fighter. OK, some would say boring. But at least we know Darchinyan will press the action and apply constant pressure.

"My style fascinates me," Moreno, who is making his ninth title defense, said through a translator. "When they are right in front of me, I can make them miss. They miss and I counter them. That's the art of boxing. Hit and not be hit. I'm going to go in there and do my job. I'm going to punch him and attack him and make him miss."

As always, Darchinyan doesn't have much nice to say about his opponent and is brash with his prediction.

"I think Moreno is an OK fighter," he said. "I don't think he's a very effective fighter because he just goes round by round. I'm just going to be too strong for him. He's bigger than me maybe, body-wise, but I'm going to be too strong for him. I'm going to show the entire world that I'm a strong fighter and that I'm going to knock him out."

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.