On April 14th, featherweight Yuriorkis Gamboa is scheduled to face lightweight rancor Brandon Rios. At first glance this is a delectable dialectic of speed, power, size, and strength that promises drama and excitement. While the foregone conclusion becomes increasingly normative in big fights, Gamboa – Rios doesn’t lend itself particularly well to prognostication. The difficulty in predicting an outcome hinges primarily on how both fighters will respond to being lightweights. The influence of the scale betrays the fact that at 135lbs neither fighter may be operating at his optimum weight.
Gamboa will be moving up two divisions to challenge for the title Rios lost on the scales. If he chooses to bulk up to increase his strength and durability, this added mass could prove problematic. The Cuban is a dense and muscular featherweight; the question of whether he can add enough functional size to be an effective lightweight is a legitimate one. Even if he adds the weight properly, his superlative speed stands to be encumbered by the added bulk. His hands will remain blindingly fast regardless of the increase in size, he could hold ten pound dumbbells and still throw faster than Rios. But for a fighter whose defence is predicated on movement both the decrease in speed and the tax of maneuvering a heavier body about the canvas could prove his undoing. This threat is exacerbated both by Gamboa’s tendency to become increasingly skittish later in fights—when he holsters his most spectacular weapons—and Rios’ traditionally strong finish. To be stationary against Rios is suicide. If Gamboa’s intrepid first venture north is accompanied by an inability to evade a hard charging Rios, what transpired in the early rounds will probably be rendered moot by Rios’ inexorable artillery.
Of course, Gamboa may transition seamlessly into the lightweight division. Rather than focus on crafting a lightweight’s body, he may simply allow his frame to expand naturally. Instead of whittling down to 135lbs, he could approach the fight with the intention of barely surpassing the lightweight limit by the time he starts his ring walk. The threat here is that he will then be facing a fighter who is two weight divisions larger. Gamboa will retain all of his dynamism, but concede every possible size advantage to his opponent—an opponent whose style is predicated on capitalizing on those very same advantages.
Rios faces his own challenges with the lightweight division. He has profited from essentially fighting as a welterweight: his durability and power stem from his massive size and the fact that he exchanges blows with fighters he dwarfs. Rios’ body however, seems increasingly less willing to cooperate. In his last fight, when he was stripped of his title for failing to make weight, Rios looked like an achromatic adumbration of himself. He has obstinately remained at lightweight to exploit his natural advantages, but the demands of a maturing body are even more refractory. Perhaps Rios’ struggles with the scale speak more to his preparation and commitment than they do his physiology. Ultimately, determining why Rios finds making weight so challenging is a secondary matter to this enterprise. What is relevant is the fact that, regardless of the explanation, making 135lbs could have a detrimental impact on Rios’ performance.
It may be that Rios’ last fight—where he was stripped of his title for failing to make weight—was an aberration, and that the circumstances that produced his first fight of that weekend have been rectified. However, it is just as possible that those struggles were the death knell of his term at lightweight. On that weekend in April, the battle with the scale may be the only one he can fight.
The questions posed by the lightweight limit present a number of outcomes. Rios, if he makes weight without exhausting himself, seems durable enough to absorb the speed and power of a recent featherweight. However, if Rios again endures attrition on the scale the argument for a Gamboa victory becomes increasingly more plausible. If both men struggle at lightweight an even fight may break out, but the counterbalance will be negative: neither fighter will be at his best, robbing the contest of some of its appeal. Regardless of what transpires between the ropes, the scale will probably factor heavily in the outcome. (Especially if Rios fails to make weight and Gamboa walks—which is exactly what he should do under those circumstances.)
With the scale come excuses.
If Rios wins many will attribute his victory to an insurmountable size discrepancy. And how much credit does he deserve for beating a featherweight moving up two divisions to fight him? If Gamboa wins, Rios apologists will say he outgrew the division and Gamboa merely finished what the scale started. None of these narratives may prove true, but the fact that they can so easily be appropriated by the overarching storyline of the fight speaks to the complexity of the contest.
Given this myriad of questions, Gamboa – Rios is undeniably intriguing. That Gamboa has the audacity to challenge a masquerading welterweight without first acclimatizing to the lightweight division should be applauded. This is not Jones – Ruiz: Rios is arguably the best lightweight in the world if Juan Manuel Marquez campaigns at junior-welterweight. He is certainly the biggest bruiser on the block. Perhaps Gamboa sensed that his development as a draw has stagnated in its infancy and he thought it best to seize the boxing world’s imagination. It could be that he thinks Rios plays to his strengths stylistically. It’s a perilous move regardless, and his bravery should be celebrated. This is prize fighting—and Gamboa is big game hunting.