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Pugilism in the Cataract City

Jarrell "Big Baby" Miller holds his young son while celebrating his first-round knockout of Excell Holmes.
Pugilism in the Cataract City
'Opponents' Get Job Done at Falls Fight Night

There are two opponents in every boxing match. No fighter, however, sets out to be called one.

An “opponent,” as defined in the parlance of the sport, comes in two basic varieties.

One is meant to pad a prospect’s record, a warm body who doesn’t go down immediately or intentionally, but inevitably. Such a participant is also known as a tomato can (easy to knock over), or a stiff (you really should not need an explanation).

Then there is the more advanced edition, intended to give a rising boxer or comebacking veteran a workout, but not necessarily a scare, before succumbing. Television announcers often refer to these guys as veterans. In contrast, Floyd Mayweather is 38 years old and has been fighting professionally for 19 years, yet I don’t remember anyone ever calling him a veteran.

Both types were on display last Friday at Seneca Niagara Casino’s Events Center, during a six-fight card telecast nationally on the CBS Sports Network, but barely noticed locally. The daily newspapers in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Rochester—hometown of two fighters on the bill—ran previews on the day of the promotion that amounted to rewritten press releases and decided against sending reporters or photographers to cover the action live, as did the local television stations.

At 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, Excell Holmes of Buffalo doesn’t look like a professional victim. Taking up the sport in his early 20s, Holmes put together a solid amateur career, winning the Western New York Golden Gloves title in 2007. When he turned professional at age 30 two years later, he looked like a decent prospect, particularly given the scarcity of American heavyweights on a landscape dominated by the Ukrainian Klitschko brothers, Wladimir and Vitali, and the all-but-forgotten Russian 7-footer, Nikolai Valuev.

Holmes started out well enough, winning two and drawing one his first three times out, all in the Buffalo area. The descent to opponent status was swift, though, starting with a decision loss to Vladimir Goncharov in Moscow in 2012. That defeat started a skid of five losses and a no-decision, the last two by early knockout, heading into Friday’s fight against unbeaten Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller.

Miller’s nickname was well-earned, as he carried 268 less-than-chiseled pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame. He fought like a fully grown man in the opening bout of the evening’s televised portion, however, hurting Holmes early and pounding him with both hands to the head and body, including a left hook to the midsection that caused the Buffalo native to seemingly cry out in pain, before the referee took mercy and ended things 2:44 into the first of a scheduled six rounds.

Unbeaten Dennis Hogan consistently threw, and landed, more punches to earn a 10-round unanimous decision over Kenny Abril.

The stoppage ran Miller’s record to 14-0-1, with 12 of the wins by way of knockout, and the Brooklyn native appears ready to step up to the other, more competitive brand of opponent. Holmes, who fell to 2-6-1—a less-than-promising mark in any sport—would be well-served to seek a calling outside the ring, having been bludgeoned in two rounds or less in his last four outings over the past 15 months.

Kenny Abril of Rochester served as the evening’s most high-profile opponent, with a 14-7-1 record and a loyal contingent of fans earning him a spot as the foil for Dennis Hogan, an undefeated Irishman fighting out of Australia, in the main event.

Abril had not fought in 20 months, and lost his last two fights before that. His regional following and solid chin (only one stoppage loss as a pro) were enough to earn him a shot at something called the World Boxing Association-North American Boxing Association Junior Middleweight (154-pound) title.

The proliferation of such aptly nicknamed alphabet belts like the WBA-NABA has—along with corruption stemming from the lack of any credible organizational oversight—fueled boxing’s plunge from one of America’s most popular sports through the 1950s to a largely niche affair, with super-fights like Mayweather’s win over Manny Pacquiao in May serving as a highly profitable exception. The WBA-NABA title is to a true world championship what the Class-A Batavia Muckdogs are to the New York Yankees. And that’s probably unfair to the Muckdogs.

Through boxing’s Golden Age, there were eight weight classes with one world champion in each. But sanctioning organizations and junior and weight classes multiplied over the past half-century to satisfy the desires of television, as programmers believe having a belt, any belt, at stake raises the level of drama, even if at the cost of relevance.

Before the opening bell sounded for Hogan and Abril, the ring announcer followed the tradition of introducing notable attendees at ringside, including Seneca Nation President Maurice John and Joe Mesi, whose rise through the heavyweight ranks and in the local sporting consciousness was short-circuited by a brain injury suffered during a win over Vassiliy Jirov in Las Vegas on HBO. At 42 and appearing none the worse for the wear of 36 professional fights, all victories, Mesi now makes his living selling medical equipment.

Wearing trunks that presented a shiny, vinyl-looking version of the Puerto Rican flag, Abril proved an ideal opponent for Hogan. Abril’s left-handed stance kept the unbeaten favorite off-balance in the early going, and he threw enough punches to keep at least one fan yelling “KEN-NY” roughly every 17 seconds, but generally took more than he landed.

In the third, a left hook snapped Hogan’s head back, drawing a roar from Abril’s boosters. The support was not enough to spur Abril to follow up, though, and by the end of the round, Hogan was back in control.

Hogan opened the fourth with a steady stream of hard, straight rights to the head, while Abril did little but get hit and occasionally feint a punch, but threw very few until the late going. In the final minute, Abril got the crowd into it again by pinning Hogan in a corner, but he emphatically punched his way out of danger.

Kenny Abril of Rochester, right, gave unbeaten Dennis Hogan all he could handle in their 10-round bout at Seneca Niagara Casino on June 26, but came up short on the judges' scorecards.

Shifting his aim to Abril’s body, Hogan kept scoring with the right in the fifth. At one point, Abril answered a right to the face with a wide left that Hogan blocked with his glove, but it was enough to rouse the loyalists again.

The rest of the bout followed a similar pattern, with Hogan landing more and harder punches, while Abril occasionally went on the offensive doing enough to keep the crowd on his side, but not enough to clearly win many rounds. Again in the sixth, Abril hurt Hogan with a left to the head, but failed to capitalize on the moment.

For his part, Hogan steadily moved forward, methodically scoring to the head and body, but never getting Abril into serious trouble. While a promoter or manager gave him the nickname “Hurricane” somewhere along the line, it clearly has more to do with a fondness for alliteration than fighting style, as he generally threw, at most, two punches in succession. More often, Hogan—who has just seven knockouts among his 22 career wins, was content to launch singular rights.

In most rounds, Abril (14-8-1, seven knockouts) would land punches flush with enough power to send sweat spraying and activate brief “KEN-NY” chants, adding to the fight’s aesthetics, but too little to truly alter the course of the fight.

Nor did the underdog launch a desperate bid for a knockout in the 10th round, instead remaining content to win the favor of the crowd, if not the judges.

After the final bell, Abril held his daughter, who wore a red ballerina’s skirt, as “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones played on the public-address system, and blew a kiss in the direction of his family and friends seated near ringside.

The scoring provided no surprises, with two judges favoring Hogan by 97-93 (or seven rounds to three) and one by 96-94 (six to four).

Hogan-Abril was not a great fight, but it made for an entertaining 45 minutes of second-tier basic cable programming. Along with the semifinal, Tony Luis’ eight-round decision win over Edward “Tyson” Valdez (who bore little resemblance to Iron Mike beyond having his last name printed along his beltline, further evidence that boxing nicknames are more about marketing than reality) and Miller’s demolition of Holmes, the televised portion of the card provided a little something for just about every boxing fan. Except any real doubt about who was going to win each fight.

But when fully half the fighters qualify as opponents of one stripe or another, as is the case with most promotions of the level staged at Seneca Niagara, that’s not really the point.

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