Mares goes low, but he’s not dirty

Showtime’s World Championship Boxing returns Saturday night as Abner Mares, the winner of Showtime’s Bantamweight tournament, moves up in weight to take on Eric Morel.

The winner will claim the vacant WBC junior featherweight title. The fight is part of a doubleheader at El Paso, Texas, that also features Anselmo Moreno’s WBA bantamweight title defense against David De La Mora.

The Mares-Morel winner grabs a title in an increasingly hot junior featherweight division. Should Bob Arum be willing to cross promote, that champion would make an attractive opponent for Nonito Donaire or Guillermo Rigondeaux, the WBO and WBA junior featherweight champions, respectively. Should Donaire or Rigondeaux become unavailable, the winner might be forced eventually to take on Toshiaki Nishioka, the man who was stripped of the WBC title and made “champion emeritus” and who should have first rights to the next champion.

Mares is only beginning to mature as a fighter, yet he has already captured a world title. That came only a few years after his career was derailed by a detached retina.

Lacking in world-class experience, Mares got his first title shot against longtime friend and then-IBF bantamweight champion Yonnhy Perez in May 2010. Some thought Mares had bitten off more than he could chew, but he held his own and fought to a majority draw. He had the edge on one judge’s card.

His willingness to slug it out in close quarters mixed with his natural athletic ability to box from the outside gave Perez all he could handle. Since then, Mares has won three straight against top-level opposition, but not without controversy and showing the strains of learning on the job.

In his December 2010 slugfest with former flyweight and super flyweight champion, Vic Darchinyan, Mares fought Darchinyan’s fight and brawled with the Armenian. Cut and down on the canvas and scorecards early, Mares began to wear Darchinyan down with an aggressive body attack and had Darchinyan fighting off his back foot for most of the fight. Mares squeezed out a split decision victory and a place in the finals of the tournament, against Joseph Agbeko.

The first fight between Mares and Agbeko highlighted some of Mares’ technical flaws. While under the tutelage of Nacho Beristain, Mares was called “The Techno-fighter” because of his robotlike adherence to technical fighting.

Against Agbeko, Mares found himself floundering in deep water while his vaunted body attack often landed below Agbeko’s belt line. In a back-and-forth fight that saw Mares warned several times, yet never docked a point for low blows, Mares came out muddied and tarnished despite the majority decision win.

Mares then was dogged by criticism of his fighting style; his image as the clean-cut, soft-spoken good guy was torn to shreds. All eyes were on the trunks of Agbeko in their rematch four months later.

Mares kept his punches off the trunks of Agbeko, and save for two clear shots that were slightly below the legal line, Mares effectively mixed his body attack with an effective attack on the head of Agbeko to remove any doubt en route to a clear victory.

Morel, a 16-year veteran, had his best days as a flyweight. He won the WBA title in 2000, and his title reign lasted a little more than three years until he was dethroned by Lorenzo Parra at home in Puerto Rico.

In the current decade, however, Morel has gotten by on soft touches fought in the comfort of Puerto Rico. The one worthy name on Morel’s resume in the past two years is Gerry Penalosa, whom Morel beat via split decision to win an interim WBO bantamweight belt and status as the mandatory to Fernando Montiel.

Before signing to fight Montiel, Morel turned down a solid offer to face Donaire. Then he turned around and withdrew from the Montiel fight, citing an undisclosed injury one week before the fight.

In his prime, Morel (46-2, 23 knockouts) fought with a varying style. He was quick on his feet and was comfortable fighting from the outside, as well as in close quarters. From the outside, Morel has a decent jab, which he sometimes goes away from, and has been quick enough to lead with a short right hand. On the inside, Morel will often employ the use of a good uppercut behind a couple shots to the body.

Morel still works well on the inside, but as he has aged, he has lost some of his foot speed and hand speed, so he’ll be at a disadvantage against Mares. Despite fighting as low as flyweight earlier in his career, Morel is the naturally bigger man at this stage of his career, so he’ll need to impose his size on the inside. Morel often employs the “ear muffs” style of defense, and that could work against him should Mares choose to shoot his punches straight down the middle.

Mares (23-0-1, 13 KOs) will have the edge in speed and power against Morel. If he sticks to boxing from the outside, he’ll have to remember to use his jab consistently and not as sporadically as we’ve seen in recent fights. His jab is equally effective to the head and midsection, and his combination punching is most effective when he employs the jab early on.

Given his speed advantage Mares should have little problems working into close range and do what he does best, which is to bang away to the body of Morel. While on the inside, Mares should look to shoot an uppercut between Morel’s gloves.

What Mares does best has also come to be his weakness. In his fights with Darchinyan and Agbeko, Mares was criticized for landing below the belt line too often. His tendency to throw to the body from too great a distance has been a contributing factor in many of the low blows. In Mares’ rematch with Agbeko, he was more consistent with his jab and started his body shots from closer range, allowing them to land without his arm fully extended and dropping below its intended target.

Mares has the edge where it matters: the speed and power departments. Unless Morel is able to turn back the clock, Mares should make easy work of him en route to a comfortable decision victory and a second world title.