By Sean Waisglass: In what could shape up to be a wild slug-out at the KO Coral and one of the year's highlights, junior middle contenders Verno Phillips and Julio "The Cuban Lover" Garcia will share the ring for a 12 round IBF eliminator in the Pala Casino, San Diego, California. The fight will be the main event of ESPN's Friday Night Fights.
The winner will be ranked second, a spot that is presently vacant, by New Jersey's International Boxing Federation, which is currently taking heat for allowing Andrew Golata to challenge heavyweight champ Chris Byrd. The present IBF 154 champ is Ronald "Winky" Wright, who is scheduled to battle WBC/WBA champ Shane Mosely in an March 13 unification bout on HBO. The number one ranked challenger for the IBF is Kasim "The Dream" Ouma, who's coming off his impressive dominating win over J.C. Candelo in January for the top ranking. Phillips is currently rated third, Garcia, eighth.
Although the enticement of a No.2 ranking may seem like a hot-ticket reward in one of the sport's marquee divisions, the status of the pants-holders at 154 are in limbo: the IBF belt is tied up in a unification match in Mosley/Wright, and then the unified champ must fight Ouma, and possibly Spaniard Javier Castillejo.
If Mosely wins, he'll most likely be moving up to middleweight to fight a comebacking Felix Trinidad in a match that's already been signed, thus vacating the belts. In that case, a match would probably be arranged for Ouma/Wright for the vacant belt before the Phillips/Garcia winner would get their shot at it. If Wright wins, it's not clear whether he'll stay at 154 and defend against Ouma, or try and move up to take Mosely's place against Tito.
It's also possible tonight's winner might get the call to face Ouma for the vacated belt, although other more hyped names like Vargas, Forrest, or Mayorga might try and jump ahead in line or use the Garcia/Phillips winner as a stepping stone. Regardless, odds are good that tonight's victor could be in for a solid payday and most probably a premium cable appearance as an opponent for a well-known commodity.
Phillips, 36-8-1 (18), of Aurora, CO, is a former WBO belt holder at 154lbs who had an up and down career trajectory before a two year absence from boxing from '98 to 2000. Previous to that layoff, Phillips fought in Argentina 10 times, and lost tight decisions to Paul Jones and current WBA 'regular' light heavy title holder Silvio Branco along the way. His last fight before the layoff in '98 was a ninth round bombing of former junior middle and middleweight titleholder Julian Jackson.
His comeback started with a tune-up in 2000, then swam right into the deep end with the 2001 blistering war with prospect Ouma, an awesome battle that was televised on Friday Night Fights. Phillips and the then 12-1 Ouma swapped leather with 'Bad Intentions' from first bell to last, breaking all kinds of punch stat records in one of the most under-rated televised fights of that year. Phillips would lose the ten round decision to Ouma, but after a stay-busy fight, his gutsy effort earned him four consecutive ESPN appearances in 2002 and 2003. Phillips showed no mercy and took full advantage of his exposure by blasting through Canadian Tony Badea (TKO 4), and dominating three of the best of the second tier at 154 in Shibata Flores, Bronco McKart, and Michael Lerma in 10-rounders.
Phillips is a two-fisted dynamo who never lets up the pressure. He doesn't have one-punch KO power but does have heavy hands. He also has good speed, mixes things up, and takes a good punch. All the better for a barn-burner scrap since the same could be said for Julio Garcia, who took tons of hard shots from a peaking J.C. Candelo before being stopped for the only time in his career last July, also on ESPN.
Garcia, 25-2-2 (11), of Miami - a Cuban defector who sailed across the divide to Florida on a raft - is a Joe Frazier-like stylist who comes forward using cross-arm defence and looks to gore opponents with constant power shots in close and pepper them with an upwards jab. His only other loss is a Feb. 2001 decision to the 6'3 giant Tito Mendoza for the NABF middleweight title; a division he inhabited before trimming down to 154 for an action-packed Feb, 2003 bout on ESPN in which he won a split decision over the skilled Irvin Garcia. He followed that fight with crushing KO's of solid boxers in Johnny Rivera (TKO 5, comparable to Rivera's TKO's to Candelo and Jermain Taylor) and Chantel Stanceil (KO 1) who was coming off a NABF 154 challenge against Golden Johnson in which he was ahead on the cards before being KO'd in the eleventh.
It's a good bet that both boxers will be staying in close and trading shots in a battle of attrition for much of the fight tonight. The one factor that could decide whether Garcia can really make some headway in this scrap or just get his head hit is diversity: usually he's a one-trick pony - he'll get in your face and throw. Garcia's got tons of heart, a solid chin, quick hands and good stamina, but Phillips has a Plan B - two dimensions: Verno likes to go to work, but can do his job at mid-range as well as inside. He'll chase down his prey, but he doesn't always have to be at close quarters to do it, so if he can vary his range, he's likely to wear down Garcia much like Candelo did. Although the much lankier Candelo was able to keep Garcia at the end of his punches all night, something Phillips isn't as likely to do.
Either way, Garica will be in Phillip's personal space, slamming away and keeping busy; which Kasim Ouma did for 10 rounds, staying active enough to outwork Phillips down the stretch. That's what Garcia will need to try to do to keep Phillips' rhythm off, preventing his foe from sitting down on his punches and hurting him, thus allowing the Cuban to land enough to take rounds. The big question is how Garcia will fare physically and psychologically coming off a TKO loss to a fighter who put serious pressure on him at close and mid-range, just as Phillips will do.
Both men come to rumble and aren't accustomed to stepping back, so how ever long it last, it should be good. ESPN's Friday Night Fights is scheduled to start at 9pm Eastern, North American time.
March 5, 2004.