Professional excellence tempered with personal disappointment is nothing new for 2004 Olympic Gold Medalist, Yuriorkis Gamboa. After all, Gamboa is the same fighter who, despite national hero status in his native Cuba, had to sell his gold medal in order to pay for his daughter’s first birthday party.
The plan was to leave their hotel in Venezuela (where they were training for the Pan American Games), cross over to neighboring Colombia, and seek entry into the United States via Colombia’s US Embassy. The goal was to make their professional debut in Miami, Florida before flying out to Germany to fight for German promoter, Ahmet Oner.
However, Colombian officials balked at allowing the trio of athletes to leave for the United States despite the U.S. granting them asylum. The delay made their big bang, hero’s welcome debut in Cuban-heavy Miami, an impossibility, forcing the three to go directly to Germany, where they would make their debut on a mid-sized card at the Arena Gym in Hamburg.
After just six months and six fights in Germany, “El Ciclon de Guantánamo” could no longer be kept from a curious, hungry American market and the 6-0 pro would make his American debut, October 30 on the Edison Miranda-Henry Porras undercard in Hollywood, Florida stopping veteran Adailton De Jesus in six rounds.
Fast forward four years and thirteen wins later. The sweet and sour career of Gamboa continues.
Now sporting a record of 20-0 with 16 KOs, the whirlwind boxer-puncher has captured the attention of hardcore fight fans, existing on the fringes of many pound-for-pound lists, and, until recently, sporting two world title belts in the featherweight division.
But boxing politics being what they are, “world champ” status equates to little more than an ability to generate a good payday and a willingness to part with the 3% sanctioning fee.
Gamboa first captured the vacant WBA interim title against Jose Rojas in 2009 and then elevated to full world champ status shortly after. Meanwhile, reigning world titlist, Indonesia’s Chris John (who has held the title since 2004), was “promoted” to “super” champ status, a WBA designation reserved for those titlist who hold multiple belts, or so they say.
Then the IBF, eager to get in on the ground floor of the Yuriorkis business, sanctioned an IBF featherweight title bout between Gamboa and Mexico’s Orlando Salido for their own vacant belt. Gamboa would beat the tough Mexican veteran via unanimous decision to become a two-belt world champion. After the Salido win, Gamboa would be promoted by the WBA to “super” status, paving the way for another “regular” champ to be crowned.
Following the high that came from capturing the IBF title, came the low of being stripped of that same belt just one fight later for skipping the organization’s mandatory reweigh-in prior to his first defense against Jorge Solis.
Three months later, the WBA would also strip him, claiming that since Gamboa was no longer a two-belt champ, he didn’t qualify as a “super” champion under the organization’s rules, despite Chris John, who has never held two title belts at once, still holding on to the designation.
While dealing with the sanctioning body madness, Gamboa just went about his career, scoring impressive wins over Salido and a score of fringe-contending featherweights like Jonathan Victor Barros, Whyber Garcia, and Rogers Mtagwa.
The career-defining fights stayed beyond his reach, though.
Veteran champ, Chris John, was ambivalent about taking on the talented Cuban, but a showdown with Puerto Rican featherweight world titlist, Juan Manuel Lopez, was not only logical, but definitely doable.
Lopez and Gamboa, both 20-something stars making plenty of headlines, were promoted by Top Rank, shared many of the same opponents, and seemed to be on a collision course. It was just a matter of time and fans were already debating on who would come out on top when they would finally meet.
Top Rank CEO, Bob Arum, promised to make the hardcore fans’ dream fight, but only on his own schedule and after he had exhausted all other low-risk money fights that could possibly be made for his two top shelf featherweights.
As luck would have it, things went wrong and a lackadaisical, poorly-conditioned Lopez would get stopped in eight rounds by previous Gamboa victim, Orlando Salido.
Lopez’s fall from grace meant Gamboa would have to do without the one fight that could catapult him from well-regarded hardcore favorite to that next level of mainstream attention.
Without the marquee fight that he needs and sans the belts he could use as leverage to attract the sport’s bigger names, Gamboa is truly on his own. He’s now banking on his elite-level skill-set and the reputation he has already earned to take him to that next level.
Gamboa, whose skills have been compared to everyone from Meldrick Taylor to Shane Mosley, is a fighter with legendary ability, but no opponent big enough or good enough to help him define his greatness.
It’s for this reason that co-promoter, Oner, has floated trial balloons in the media about his 5′ 5½″ fighter moving all the way up to the star-studded junior welterweight division, three full weight classes above featherweight.
For the time being, though, Gamboa is still at 126 lbs., set to take on Mexico’s tough former junior featherweight world titlist, Daniel Ponce de Leon (41-3, 34 KOs) this Saturday at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.
Ponce de Leon is hardly a fresh face and, at 31, is more weathered veteran than elite challenger, but Gamboa won’t likely find a tougher opponent in the division. A crude, heavy-handed brawler by nature, Ponce de Leon has recently added an awkward, but thudding jab and some rudimentary boxing skills to his repertoire.
In March, the Chihuahua native dropped a highly controversial unanimous decision to super featherweight prospect, Adrien Broner, but prior to that, he was on a dominant 7-0 streak following his one round blow-out loss to Juan Manuel Lopez in 2008.
Solid, quality opponents comprise a good portion of Ponce de Leon’s professional resume. Names like Antonio Escalante, Cornelius Lock, Rey Bautista, Gerry Penalosa, and Sod Kokietgym are sprinkled throughout a quality 10-year career with losses to Broner, Lopez, and Celestino Caballero serving as his only set-backs. Ponce de Leon is good enough to clean up most of the Top 20 and tough enough to give the elites something to worry about.
Gamboa will come into Saturday’s fight as a -1250 betting favorite and should be able to handle Ponce de Leon’s heavy hands and blue collar work ethic, but the real questions will pop up after the bout.
Other than another veteran Mexican, Jhonny Gonzalez and a Juan Manuel Lopez yet to begin his career rehabilitation, marketable featherweight fights are nowhere to be found. Move up one division to super featherweight and the outlook is still bleak.
Like Argentina’s Sergio Martinez at middleweight, Yuriorkis Gamboa is a world class talent without a world class arch-rival. In a disturbingly common trend in today’s modern boxing scene, the Cuban dynamo lacks the opposition to become the legend his abilities would suggest. Lack of divisional debt and stifling boxing politics have him floating in limbo– too good to be a prospect, too unproven to be a legend.
Olympic Gold Medalist, undefeated professional, mega-talented phenom– Yuriorkis Gamboa is a king without a real throne to call his own.
A win over Daniel Ponce de Leon this Saturday is a must, but realistically, not even the most impressive of victories will get him where he needs to be.
Professional excellence tempered with personal disappointment…Gamboa is familiar with the concept. But “El Ciclon” has learned that the only thing he can really do is keep on fighting.