On June 1, the Sands Casino Resort opened the doors of its new Events Center to showcase the Sweet Science and their hometown hero on NBC Sports Network. Cruz kicked off the televised portion of the show and out-fought Prenice Brewer en route to a unanimous decision in front of a raucous crowd. The evening was so successful that Main Events and Peltz Boxing used the same formula on Friday night. Unfortunately, Smith did not play his part of the script.
There was no question that Smith would be the best opponent that Cruz had faced to this point of his career. However, many felt that Cruz’s natural body attack would eventually break down Smith. He was also considered the harder puncher when Smith chose to trade. And finally, Cruz had the intangible of never experiencing a loss, whereas, it would have been easy for Smith to slip into the mindset of being an opponent.
On Thursday Night, Ronald Cruz weighed in a lb. under the welterweight limit. Antwone Smith weighed in at 150 lbs., three lbs. over. When this happens, we usually see one of two things on fight night. We either see a dead-man who was unable to recover from draining his body as far as it would allow him to go. Or we see a stronger fighter, one who has the physical advantage over the opponent that lived up to his end of the signed contract. From the opening bell it was clear that Smith would be the latter.
Smith, a natural counter-puncher, scored early and often with a stiff jab that forced Cruz to reset his feet before continuing forward. Smith also had quicker hands, and he was able to counter over top of Cruz’s punches. Cruz landed a few looping shots, but he was clearly frustrated early.
Cries of, “Ronald, Ronald, Ronald” energized Cruz who finally began to find his target. A looping right caught Smith when he tried to escape from the ropes. Cruz followed up with a flurry to close the round and after nine minutes he was finally in the fight.
Smith tried to regain control by doing his own body work, but Cruz walked through his punches. Cruz was also doing a better job of catching Smith’s punches with his gloves and he began countering with left hooks upstairs.
Each fighter had their moments during the middle rounds. Rounds 5 and 7 were tough to score. Cruz was coming forward, but his aggression was not always effective. Smith was a little stingier with his punches, but he was landing at a higher percentage. Smith clearly controlled round 6 behind his jab and reduced Cruz to missing with wild arm punches. Cruz had his best moments during the eighth round when he punished Smith against the ropes and wobbled him with a left hook as the bell ended.
Two rounds remained and it was dead even on my score card.
I’ve had the privilege of sitting in front of Hall of Fame promoter, Russell Peltz during several of his shows. When a fight is even heading to the championship rounds, Peltz always urges his fighters to win the next to last round. Go up a point and put the pressure on the other fighter. Instead, we all too often see fighters take that crucial round off, and eventually come up short. On this night, one fighter stepped up in that next to last round.
Smith jumped on Cruz early, and again used his jab beautifully. A frustrated Cruz seemed unsure if he was going to switch to a southpaw stance when Smith landed his biggest punch of the fight. One overhand right wobbled Cruz, and shook the confidence of his supporters. Cruz took the punch well, but it was clear that he had work to do.
Cruz aggressively started the final stanza, but he was unable to land anything of significance. Smith carried the middle portion of the round, but he gave Cruz an opportunity by choosing to trade with him down the stretch. Both fighters threw wild punches in the center of the ring as the final bell had ended. Cruz did enough to bring his crowd to their feet, but was he able to also convince the three judges with pens in their hands.
The official scores read: “96-94 Smith, 96-94 Cruz, and 96-94 for your winner….from Miami!” With that single word the air exited the arena, and the 0 on Ronald Cruz’s record vanished.
It is not often that the house fighter loses a close decision in his hometown. Unfortunately for those who bought the tickets, this was a time when the judges got it right. Smith clearly won the ninth round on my card, and although I could have seen a draw, I thought Smith edged him in the final round to win the fight.
Following the fight Smith gave credit to his father who was preaching to his son to use his jab more. Smith said he will definitely listen to his Dad more often.
Cruz refused to make any excuses. He said he would take his first loss like a man, and vowed to come back better for this experience.
I’m glad Cruz took the high road, but I will now make an excuse for him. Unless they are in the heavyweight division a fighter signs a contract that clearly states a maximum weight that he/she could weigh when they step on the scales. This is a contract, and a fighter’s responsibility as being a professional is to honor that contract and make weight. Too many times fighters are far too willing to pay a percentage of their purse rather than sacrificing to lose the final few pounds. They know that a victory the next evening will open the door for the opportunities for far bigger paydays down the road, and they could recoup their losses.
I am not saying that Cruz would have won the fight. But, it was clear that Smith was the one with more in the tank during the final two frames. I just think that Cruz, the fans, and Smith himself deserved to leave the arena without any doubt as to who was the better boxer. The history books will reflect that on Friday evening Smith got the win, but it was Cruz who left the ring as the better man.
Jason Pribila is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.
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