MANUEL MEDINA: THE GAMBLER’S NIGHTMARE

By Dean Berks – In most sports betting a gambler will assess several things before parting with their well-earned money: Form, placing and activity are key in this process. But in boxing, things become a little cloudier. Styles, for example, tend to make predicting things more difficult. The rule of A beats B and B beats C so A must beat C, goes right out of the window. Throw in unforeseen, split-second knockouts and you can see the dilemma. But one major headache is an unpredictable fighter. The type that wins and loses when the exact opposite is expected. The type who just keeps producing surprises. For the featherweights of the late nineties and early noughties, Mexico’s Manuel Medina was that such fighter.

Born Juan Manuel Rubio Medina on 30 March 1971, his early years were spent in the small town of Tecuala, in Nayarit before moving to Tijuana. A tough childhood saw him working by age 12. It was here he started boxing when the other boys tried to steal the money he had grafted for. As is common in those parts, he turned professional early, at age 14, making his debut on 9 October 1985, outpointing one Daniel Flores over four. However, he suffered back to back losses in fights three and four, being outpointed and then suffering a cut eye defeat against the more experienced Alex Madrid. For a young fighter, this is all part of the learning curve. Just a month later he was back in the ring, pounding out a points win over debutant Victor Mendoza. Fighting almost monthly, Medina started improving his fistic education, running up twenty seven victories over the next three years, mostly over inexperienced foes, as he physically and mentally matured, until he ran in to the more seasoned Juan Carlos Salazar and was stopped. Just three fights later though, he picked up his first piece of silverware, winning the WBA Inter-continental super featherweight title with a seventh round disqualification over Edgar Castro. He made two defences before outpointing his best opponent to date, former world title challenger Tyrone Jackson. He followed that with a points win over former WBA featherweight champion Steve Cruz before scoring four more wins to set him up for his first shot at world honours, against IBF featherweight champion Troy Dorsey. Dorsey had won the vacant title by knocking out Alfred Rangel in the first round. A former three-time world kickboxing champion, he had lost and drawn with then champion Jorge Paez before it became third time lucky. With his constant pressure and durability, he was favoured to retain his title at the first time of asking.

The First Title

On 12 August 1991 at the Forum in Inglewood, California, Medina realised his dream. But he certainly had to earn it. Dropped cleanly by right hands in both the second and third rounds, it appeared Dorsey would prove to strong. But Medina dug deep down, his high volume punching style on display. He took control from the half way point, badly cutting Dorsey around the eye, although still being made to work every minute of each round. After twelve action packed rounds, Medina was awarded a unanimous decision and was crowned the new IBF featherweight champion. He made four defences of his title, the first being against American Tom Johnson with whom he would share a trilogy. Medina took victory in this one with a ninth round technical decision. But fifteen months after their initial meeting, Johnson gained his revenge, taking Medina’s title with a twelve round split decision. Medina stepped up to super featherweight and after a warm up, challenged IBF champion John John Molina, coming out on the wrong end of a unanimous decision. He returned to featherweight and picked up the NABF title. This lead to a shot at his old title, once again against Johnson who finished their trilogy 2 – 1 up courtesy of a unanimous decision. It appeared that Medina had reached his ceiling.

Title Two

“A safe defence against a former champion” is a phrase that should be uttered with some slight trepidation. This was something Medina’s fellow countryman WBC champion Alejandro Gonzalez overlooked. Gonzalez had won the title by upsetting the heavily favoured Kevin Kelley, halting the unbeaten soon-to-be ex-champion in ten and had gone on to make two successful defences. That was about to change. On 23 September 1995 in Sacramento, California, Medina once again became champion by earning a close, split-decision over Gonzalez. He was back on top. But not for long. He travelled to Japan for his first defence against former WBA bantamweight champion Luisito Espinosa, but came home empty handed when he lost a unanimous decision. A chance to fight for the WBO title was offered two fights later against the young and charismatic, hard hitting champion ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed. Hamed was making the third defence, having knocked out Steve Robinson to become champion, and then having knocked out his first two challengers in one and two rounds respectively. He was looking for an experienced campaigner to provide rounds. Medina did a bit more than that. Despite suffering three knockdown’s, Medina gave Hamed all he could handle, hitting him more cleanly than all of previous opponents put together. But by the end of the eleventh, Medina’s eyes were swollen and he had taken a lot of punishment. The ringside doctor ended matters before the start of the last round. His stock had risen in defeat and anyone who faced him was aware that they were in for a hard nights work.

Title Three

But inconsistency raised its ugly head again. A comeback win was followed by back to back defeats. The first was losing a technical decision to Luisito Espinosa in a rematch for his old WBC title. However, the second was more conclusive, suffering a ninth round knockout to Derrick Grainger. Written off once more, it appeared that Medina was now at gatekeeper status. Or so countryman Hector Lizarraga must have assumed when he opted to make his maiden defence of the IBF belt against him. Lizarraga had stopped former super bantamweight champion Welcome Ncita to become champion and was no doubt looking for an opportunity to make a name for himself. But on 24 April 1998, that moment was taken from him when Medina pounded out a unanimous decision to become champion for the third time. Predicting what would happen next was anyone’s guess.

He made one successful defence before returning to England meet Scarborough’s Paul Ingle. Ingle was fresh off of a challenge for Hamed’s WBO title, where he put on a gutsy display before being stopped in round eleven. That effort was rewarded with this opportunity, and it was one that was seized with both hands. In one of the fights of the year, Medina rallied from three knockdown’s to almost sensationally turn things around in the final round, flooring a badly cut and tired Ingle with just 30 seconds remaining. It was a little too late though as Ingle took the title by unanimous decision.

Title Four

Medina returned with a unanimous ten round decision over Frankie Toledo. That was followed up with two more wins before he went in again with Toledo, this time with the IBF title on the line. In a way that makes sense only in boxing, Toledo was given a break against then champion Mbulelo Botile, ripping the title away with a wide unanimous decision before choosing to put the record straight against his one-time conqueror. But Medina proved to have his number. On 16 November 2001, Medina confirmed his superiority, overwhelming Toledo for a fifth round corner retirement. For the fourth time Medina was wearing championship gold.

He put his title on the line against Johnny Tapia next. Tapia was bidding to become a three-weight champion, having previously reigned at super flyweight and bantamweight, and was regarded as one of the best fighters in the lower divisions. Their meeting 27 April 2002 was a close-nit affair, with Tapia earning a disputed majority decision to leave Medina an ex-champion once again. However, Tapia vacated the title in pursuit of a big money showdown with Marco Antonio Barrera. That put Medina back in line for a shot at his old title.

Title Five

Unfortunately for Medina, standing in the opposite corner was modern legend in the making Juan Manuel Marquez. And Marquez collected his first ‘world’ title, scoring a conclusive seventh round stoppage of the veteran. The end was looking near for Medina. Unperturbed, he soldiered on. Incredibly, just two fights later, he found himself once again challenging for major honours when he was selected as the next opponent for WBO titleist Scott Harrison. Harrison was making the third defence of belt and would have the raucous backing of his loyal supporters. In Glasgow, on 12 July 2003, Medina put himself in the record books as only the second man in boxing history to become champion five times in the same division, outhustling Harrison to earn a split decision. The other man to share this honour? None other than the finest pound for pound fighter ever to step inside the squared circle, ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson. It was a dream come true for Medina.

It would also be his last time as champion. Harrison stopped him in round eleven to rip back the title, although he would receive one more opportunity for the IBF super featherweight title, being stopped in the eleventh by Cassius Baloyi. The final three fights of his career read won, draw, and loss. Peculiarly, all three were eliminators for the IBF title. He finally hung up the gloves with a record of 67-16-1, with 32 KO’s. He had taken part in 21 world title fights.

In retirement he has taken to training a few fighters, passing on his expansive knowledge. In an interview with Ring Magazine, he cited Marquez as the best fighter he had faced. A high compliment indeed.

Whilst Medina never etched his name in to the all-time great category, there is no denying that his achievements deserve their recognition. Standing 5 feet 8 inches, his long limbed, high workrate style was a nightmare for certain fighters, and whilst he never excelled in one particular area, he was a solid all rounder. Although one area that he did stand out was in his attitude. No matter how many losses he suffered, he carried on with a dogged determination that he would eventually prevail. And even in those losses, each opponent knew that to come out on top, they would have to earn it. Just as Medina did, earning his place next to the great Sugar Ray. Now who would have bet on that?