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From Marco Antonio Barrera to Shannon Courtenay: The ‘Baby-Faced Assassins’

Derek Bonnett highlights some boxers who have adopted the ‘Baby-Faced Assasin’ moniker, including, perhaps most famously, Marco Antonio Barrera

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Barrera and Courtenay
Barrera and Courtenay

What’s in a name?

 

Shakespeare’s Juliet pondered just that as she examined moving forward with her pursuit of Romeo whilst smiting her family name in the spirit of love.

 

Boxing asks some big questions of its participants inside of the ring, but one question must be answered before a fighter can even step into one. What is my ring name going to be?

 

From “Manassa Mauler” to “Motor City Cobra”, nicknames can honour a fighter’s hometown and fanbase. They also celebrate their style, attitude or status as ring generals, such as “Lights Out”, “The Road Warrior” and “The Old Mongoose”.

 

Nicknames, if catchy enough, present themselves well on the marquee. Some even become so recognisable they replace the boxer’s birth name. Sports fans all know the name Canelo Alvarez, but it takes a boxing specialist to recall his name is actually Saul.

 

Last week, I focused my attention on the name “Magic Man” to help break up the monotony of the Covid-induced boxing trickle. Thankfully, the fights are once again beginning to roll, but I still have boxing monikers on the brain and “The Baby-Faced Assassin” has my focus this week. In fairly recent boxing history, a handful of highly talented world-class talents have answered to this name and heard it during their ring introductions as world champions.

 

Most recently women’s boxing has seen Shannon Courtenay, 5-1 (2), take up the mantle. Courtenay used the sport of boxing to “save her life” from her bad habits of drinking, smoking and spending time in unhealthy circles. The square ring she now competes in helped this “Baby-Faced Assassin” drop from about 75 to 57 kilos. After gaining five bouts of experience as a professional in 2019, Courtenay stepped up in class after an eight-month layoff due to Covid-19. In August, Courtenay took on Rachel Ball and soon found herself on the canvas. Courtenay rose from that first-round knockdown to lose a narrow decision by a two-point margin, but the hope is she comes out of this a more seasoned fighter and does some justice to the famous nickname.

 

Here are some fighters who held it before her.

 

4. Paul Butler 31-2 (15) – 2010-Present
Although older, but still baby-faced, Butler retains a credible name for himself in the professional game. He began his career all over the lighter weight spectrum, but did his most recognisable work as a super-flyweight and bantamweight. Prior to winning a world championship, Butler posted 12-round victories over Miguel Gonzalez and Ruben Montoya, whom had one defeat between them in 31 bouts. In 2014, Butler captured his world bantamweight championship with a complete performance in outpointing Stuart Hall in Newcastle. Butler vacated the title almost immediately.
Butler looked to be the goods and dropped back down to super-flyweight in an attempt to lift Zolani Tete’s belt roughly nine months later in March 2015. There was an assassin in the ring that night, but it wouldn’t be Butler as Tete thoroughly broke him down for an eighth-round TKO. Butler rebuilt and added dominant victories over Silvio Olteanu and Hall again in a nine-fight run. For his third title bout, Butler missed the bantamweight limit and rose off the canvas twice in round one to drop a decision to Emmanuel Rodriguez.
Butler has won five bouts since and competes this Sunday against Ryan Walker, who tends to fight between super-bantamweight and feather. Should he be successful, Butler needs to settle his weight and seek bouts no higher than 122lbs, but preferably 118. There’s still good work to be done, but he may have to leave the United Kingdom to get it at this point.

3. Danny Roman 28-3-1 (10) – 2010 to Present
Roman turned professional just two months ahead of Butler and still stands well-regarded in the super-bantamweight state of the game. Even as a recently dethroned champion, this “Baby-Face” presents himself with a bit more “Assassin” in the ring.
Roman began his career without much of a spotlight and he endured several setbacks almost out of the gate with two losses and a draw before his 12th bout. The Mexican-American was only setting himself on track when Butler was fighting for world championships. However, his late charge produced more in the long run. Roman began adding the pelts of usable former contenders such as Christopher Martin (not of Coldplay) and Cristian Esquivel, before taking the unbeaten records of Marlon Olea and Adam Lopez between 2015 and 2017.
Roman met Shun Kubo for the Japanese boxer’s 122-pound strap later in 2017. Roman stopped Kubo in nine rounds as he had done Lopez, using relentless pressure and steady combination punching. Roman added decision victories over Ryo Matsumoto and Moises Fuentes to retain his title. A stoppage over Gavin McDonnell in 10 rounds brought Roman fully out of the shadows, but he remained a quiet champion. Roman’s fists did his talking and they spoke loudly in a fantastic showdown with Australia-based Irishman TJ Doheny. In a strong candidate for 2019 Fight of the Year, Roman unified two super-bantamweight belts by dropping Doheny twice to earn a majority decision.
In a front-runner for the same honour this year, Roman lost his belts by split decision to Uzbekistan’s Murodjon Akhmadaliev. It was a seesaw affair boxing fans have come to expect from Roman, but it didn’t slow him down as he recently scored a post-lockdown victory over former world champion Juan Carlos Payano in “The Bubble” created at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. Roman remains on the cusp of another world title shot. He has a whole score of potential opponents in Rey Vargas, Luis Nery, Angelo Leo and, of course, Akhmadaliev. Then again, there’s always another “Baby-Faced Assassin” lurking around 122 pounds.

2. Johnny Tapia 59-5-2 (30) – 1988 to 2011
A lot of folks may have forgotten that Tapia in fact went by the “Baby-Faced Assassin” tag as his rollercoaster life hurled him toward donning “Mi Vida Loca”, which owned him almost as much as “Canelo” in regard to Saul Alvarez. Tapia was synonymous with his hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, but surprisingly it did not factor into his naming.
Tragically, Tapia was found dead on May 27, 2012. I covered his post-humous induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2017 with great honour.
October 12, 1994 was a very special day for me in terms of my time following professional boxing. I was a 17-year-old kid at the time and the only things that got my heart pumping were cheerleaders, Camaros, and, mostly effectively, boxing matches. That night in October, ESPN featured Johnny Tapia’s first try for a world championship against Henry Martinez. It was for a vacant super-flyweight title and Tapia was 5-0 on his comeback trail after a near-four-year hiatus from the ring. Tapia prevailed after 11 intense rounds. He found himself behind early, on even terms midway and on top of the world after knocking Martinez to the canvas with a vicious two-handed assault. Martinez gamely rose to his feet, but his right eye was badly swollen. His heart said yes, but his countenance said no. Referee Dennis Nelson agreed with the fighter’s visage.
It was this electric performance which made Tapia a favourite of mine for as long as he laced up the gloves. Never before or since, have I witnessed a professional athlete feed more from the emotions of a hometown crowd. Tapia fought in his native Albuquerque 21 times in 26 bouts as a professional; he never lost there.
The Albuquerque love Tapia felt carried him not just through that bout, but many more in presence or in spirit, as he struggled with the likes of Ricardo Vargas, Arthur Johnson, Paulie Ayala, Manuel Medina and Marco Antonio Barrera, or when he dominated Willie Salazar, Danny Romero, Nana Konadu, Jorge Elicier Julio, and Cesar Soto.
Tapia’s career was one with ups and downs comparable to his lifestyle. He benefited from debatable decisions against Johnson and Medina, but had to endure two very questionable losses to Ayala at the height of his career. The end of his career was marred by embarrassing defeats to lesser opposition, but Tapia finished on a four-bout win-streak including his finale, an eight-round decision over fellow aged, former world champion, Mauricio Pastrana.
This “Baby-Faced Assassin” finished his career 11-3 (2) against world champions and an impressive 17-1-1 in world title bouts. Tapia will never fight again, but he did share the ring with a contemporary of the same nickname before his days were done.

1. Marco Antonio Barrera 67-7 (44) – 1989 to 2011
Barrera’s career began the year after Tapia’s started and ended just months before Tapia concluded his own. Barrera rates among Mexico’s greatest fighters in boxing history and he wore the “Baby-Faced Assassin” title better than even Rod Stewart could describe. Two specific names from the nineties brought me back to Canastota, New York for the 2017 International Boxing Hall of Fame Induction ceremony: Marco Antonio Barrera and the aforementioned Johnny Tapia.
I’m not exactly sure what number visit this was to the IBHOF for me. It might have been eight or nine, but this 2017 trip was the fourth time I made pilgrimage for Induction Weekend, which typically aligns itself with my birthday on June 12. In more than three decades of love for the sport of boxing, I have never appreciated a boxer more than Barrera. It is my great shame that I never found the opportunity to see him fight live, but his bouts were never missed on television.
Like so many other fighters foreign to the USA, the "Baby-Faced Assassin" was introduced to me via the pages of KO magazine, The Ring, Boxing Monthly, or some other boxing rag of the early 1990s. YouTube, like most other innovations, came along too late for my preferences, but the printed pages did their job to inform me of Barrera’s ring progress, quite often at the Great Western Forum. Barrera turned back the challenges of Carlos Salazar, Eddie Cook, Frankie Toledo (in my native Connecticut!), Agapito Sanchez and Eddie Croft early on in his course to becoming a three division, six-time world champion.
As for many other boxing enthusiasts, it was the February 3, 1996 HBO debut of Boxing After Dark, which featured Barrera taking on Kennedy McKinney, that laid the foundation for the Mexican becoming my all-time favourite fighter. The all-out action which saw McKinney officially down five times and Barrera once still keeps fans on the edge of their seats. Barrera was already a world champion at super-bantamweight with four title defenses under his belt, but the McKinney fight was his coming-out party to the world as Mexico’s latest great fighter.
The stage-side seating at his induction into the Hall of Fame was filled with fans eager to listen to Barrera speak and to ask him questions. Barrera recognised Naseem Hamed as his greatest victory or at least the one that brought him the most pleasure because many experts had picked the British fighter to knock Barrera out. It was a competitive contest, but Barrera’s mastery of power-boxing proved a riddle Hamed’s fists could not solve.
Barrera’s ring résumé would include one of the sport’s great trilogies against Erik Morales, which saw the Hall of Famer go 2-1 against the equally great Morales. It is a shame the two could not have been inducted side by side, but Morales’ career extended beyond Barrera’s by more than a year’s time. The Barrera-Morales trilogy raised much discussion throughout the weekend, particularly at the Friday Night Fiesta, which paid homage to many of the great Mexican fighters, inductees and visitors to the Hall of Fame.
Barrera’s career included a record of 22-4 (12) in world title bouts. His tally against fellow world champions was 18-7 and includes a wide decision over Johnny Tapia, whom you just read about. Along with the big names mentioned earlier, Barrera bested Jesse Benavides, Kevin Kelley, Paulie Ayala, Mzonke Fana and Robbie Peden. His defeats came against Junior Jones (twice), Morales, Manny Pacquiao (twice), Juan Manuel Marquez and Amir Khan.

 

While boxing shakes off the rust from the Covid-19 lockdown, it’s fun to take a jaunt down memory lane and recall excellent practitioners such as “Magic Men” and “Baby-Faced Assassins”, but it’s no substitute for live action exploits in the ring. I’ll continue to punch the bags and scour YouTube for classic fights in anticipation of the remaining schedule for October, which isn’t bad.

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