Every fighter worth their salt will inevitably face an acid test or navigate their way through a tricky, character-defining crossroads…
It isn’t always when it should be. In fact, in boxing, it’s often too late or deemed insignificant. It also isn’t always a fight or an opponent; it can be a career-threatening injury or the seemingly insurmountable return from a punishing, unexpected defeat.
Perhaps it’s the prospect of rebuilding a reputation or fighting for justice from anti-doping authorities or athletic commissions. Regardless, to leave a clear, inky stamp on the sport of boxing, you must show up and tackle that isolated form of adversity head-on, leaving no doubt.
Fickle fans, fighters and those lingering in between judge legacy on such events. ‘Is he really who we thought he was? Will he thrive or fold when caught at that very juncture?’
This weekend, at the Mohegan Sun Casino, Philadelphia’s Jaron Ennis (26-0, 24 KOs) could find himself staring that very moment dead in the eyes, as he squares off with former IBF super-lightweight world champion Sergey Lipinets, beaten only once as a professional by the celebrated Mikey Garcia, live on Showtime in the US.
Ennis, known as ‘Boots’, is almost universally regarded as a potential great amongst boxing’s online fraternity. He is currently ranked 12th, 9th, and 7th in the world (by the WBC, IBF and WBO respectively).
But, despite clearly passing the eye test, who has the 23-year-old American faced? And how will he stand up to the troublesome Kazakh-born Russian? “He’s a good fighter,” Ennis said of Lipinets during a recent media scrum. “But that doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s just another day in the office. He’s a regular person, just like everybody else.”
A quick review of Ennis’s CV shows an impressive sweep of victories, with all but two falling within the scheduled distance.
His most recent outing (an unfortunate No Decision after opponent Chris van Heerden suffered a horrendous cut) should have signalled a step up in class. But van Heerden himself has been notoriously inactive and struggled to recapture his past form that saw him beat Matthew Hatton and Aslanbek Kozaev. It should have been a decent test for ‘Boots,’ but not sturdy enough to confidently claim he beats the reigning welterweight champions, right?
Before that, it was Juan Carlos Abreu, Bakhtiyar Eyubov and Demian Daniel Fernandez. You could argue that the best win from either of the four men above came when Abreu toppled Jesus Soto Karass way back in 2017. The world was a very different place then.
Ennis did start young, however, fighting professionally for the first time at age 18. He began tearing his way through his first 10 opponents in less than a year, racking up eight stoppages. He’s stopped every fighter since March 2017 – an impressive feat regardless of the men in the opposite corner. And he’s fought regularly, avoiding inactivity once settling management/promotional disputes, and improving at every showing.
It seems clear that the Philly-resident has struggled to find appropriate measuring sticks, fighting Lionel Jimenez in his 15th outing (Record: 3-18-1) and Ayi Bruce in his 16th fight (who had lost five of his previous six contests). Even his 19th and 20thprofessional appearances were against men who had only won three from their last six, respectively.
But that’s not his fault, is it? Not necessarily.
The art of avoidance is prevalent within boxing, especially the further up the rankings we glance. Lipinets presents an intriguing challenge for Ennis because we know he’s legitimately talented and has he has shown bundles of heart and proven championship ability. If the favourite blows away the ‘Samurai,’ then fans can truly fly his flag without the ‘Yes, but…’ caveat regarding the quality of his fallen foes.
Despite playing Devil’s Advocate in the paragraph above, it’s tough to claim ‘Boots’ looks anything but sensational. His slippery defensive movement, vicious jack-in-the-box counters and devastating power make him a potential problem for the top names in the welterweight division (Terence Crawford, Errol Spence, Manny Pacquiao et al).
What ‘Boots’ (originally nicknamed ‘Boops’ by his mother, which was misheard and later adapted) offers is fluid, constant motion, sneaking in and out of range and punishing with a variety of almost perfectly ranged punches. He hasn’t fought anybody of note. Well, who’d fight him. His fitness – although recently untested – is extremely impressive. He told reporters that he always trains four-minute rounds and has done since childhood. Those three-minute rounds come around quick, he remarked. Probably not quick enough for the men crumbling under his sharp, slicing barrage.
His beautiful right uppercut-left hook stoppage of Demian Fernandez demonstrated his composure, as he flicked both shots out like calm, searching jabs. Under marauding pressure from Bakhtiyar Eyubov, he remained cool on the ropes in the opening round, throwing smiles out to an adoring audience and doing just enough to stay safe. He threw machine gun hooks to the body but mixed it up comfortably on the back foot. Eyubov was one-paced and outclassed – but he did land a couple of shots towards the end of the first round, showing ‘Boots’ has the slightest tendency of dropping his hands when comfortable.
In September of last year, Ennis became the only man to stop Juan Carlos Abreu, with the Dominican staggering around the ring like Emmanuel Augustus in his drunken master prime. It was this performance, the stunning uppercut to unravel Abreu and the relentless, calculated finish, that caused the few remaining doubters to take notice. But still, despite his 360-degree swivelling around the opposition and his gliding, flowing repertoire, he hasn’t faced his reckoning. Abreu missed the weight and was way past his physical prime; he was durable enough, but he was never good enough to beat Ennis.
Time to make the walk
Ennis, trained by his father Bozy, told media ahead of his showdown with Lipinets: “I don’t feel like I’ve got my man strength yet. The crazy part is, I feel like in a fight, I still haven’t thrown a real power shot or really sat down on a punch yet.” It’s a worrying thought for prospective opponents, but Lipinets presents a different challenge altogether; he is a man who still believes he will regain a portion of the world title.
Since suffering his only loss to Mikey Garcia in March 2018, he’s stopped Lamont Peterson and the overmatched Filipino, Jayar Inson. Yes, he could only draw with Custio Clayton last October, but at 32 and campaigning up a weight, he should have plenty left in the tank. It is time for Ennis to face into his future though, and to make the right decision when standing, pondering which direction to take on Saturday evening.
Fighters are faced with acid tests at specific points in their careers and the great ones pass with flying colours. While some may struggle, they can come again. To all intents and purposes, ‘Boots’ isn’t just some fighter. He could be set to embark on a campaign which sees him dominate world boxing for the next decade; he is that talented. Whether the stars align and boxing deals one of its fairer hands remains to be seen, but you’re right to be excited.
On Saturday evening in Uncasville, you should be witnessing greatness.
Main image and all photos: Amanda Westcott/Showtime.