The Super Lightweight/Junior Welterweight division is one of, if not, boxing’s deepest divisions. Eddie Hearn bringing Cleveland, Ohio’s Montana Love aboard Matchroom Boxing was somewhat of a no-brainer. Even adding former Mayweather Promotions undefeated prospect Richardson Hitchins was a sound strategic move.
Hearn revealed his potential plans for the 140-pound max division when he organized a Love headlined card in the Rock and Roll Capital of the World that took place on November 12. The 27-year old southpaw – then undefeated at 17-0-1 with 9 KOs – was matched against relatively unknown Aussie Steve Spark. Fellow countryman, and Super Welterweight contender, Tim Tszyu stopped Spark last July in three rounds, handing the 26-year old his second loss.
Hearn’s investment in Love looked like a sound play, but rarely does boxing allow many future plans to go ‘too pretty.’
Love got his show rolling at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse – home of the NBA’s “Believeland” Cleveland Cavaliers. Embracing the role of a good host, Love had a Cleveland-area marching band and dance team welcome him as he made his first appearance onto the stage where all of the evening’s fighters started their ring walks. A nice touch for a football crazed state, and a local fan base that’s staunchly supported the NFL’s Cleveland Browns for decades.
Things took a sharp turn south for the ‘love’ fest early. Spark surprisingly dropped Love in the second round. The crowd favorite beat the count, and seemingly reestablished himself over the next couple of rounds. A clash of heads resulted in a bad cut above Love’s left eye in Round 6. Referee David Fields halted the action for Love’s injury to be evaluated by the ringside physician.
Initially, Love made some complaints to the doctor that he couldn’t see. The doctor wiped off the cut’s blood with gauze, and with additional time to think the situation through, Love said that he could still bump. The exchange seemed uncertain briefly. However, the fight eventually resumed, but the action immediately grew from intense to full on rough-housing. Love shoved the oncoming Spark away, the two came together again, and then Love walked Spark back against the ropes. As the referee came in to separate the two, Love forced the Aussie over the top rope and down onto the floor.
Remarkably Spark landed on his feet. After quickly realizing everything was intact, Spark raised his arms to the crowd as if to signal his amazement with the reckless foul, but that his intention was to continue on – or possibly complete what appeared to be growing into an upset. Fields disagreed. Despite Spark’s quick return to the ring, the referee called the main event to an end, informing all parties of his decision to disqualify Love.
Heart is Just Different in Boxing
Honestly, there’s no need to kick the now one-loss Love while he’s down after suffering his first loss. He explained his reasoning for his actions live on DAZN during the post-fight interview. Furthermore, there are various Love clips on YouTube with other outlets where he’s offered additional explanations. Everyone, including Lightweight contender Gervonta Davis, can make up their own minds on Love, and what his future in boxing may or may not hold.
This writer’s opinion is that regardless of the severity of the cut he sustained, due to the nature of the business of boxing, Love’s behavior squandered a rare opportunity for a fighter of his caliber. The sport, and its fan base, can be unforgiving for such lapses in judgment. And, in the DQ’s aftermath Matchroom’s Hearn seems to have once again paid steeply for being audacious in his pursuit of a fighter with some legitimate staying power in the United States.
I mean, the charismatic promoter booked an NBA arena for a flashy boxer who mainly garnered some attention after stopping former IBF Super Lightweight champion Ivan Baranchyk in August 2021.
Losses live on forever in today’s game. Even knockdowns during a prospect’s proving phase are rarely out-lived. But, any scenarios that remotely hint of a fighter quitting typically stamp a scarlet letter on a fighter’s gloves. In my opinion Love’s future is in limbo until there’s a final word on the proposed rematch, and it’s because he lacked a crucially important skill on November 12: Problem-solving.
We don’t regularly see problem-solving listed on the TV graphics when analysts do the segments on random fighters’ keys to victories. Attributes such as grit, will or heart are often mentioned during broadcasts. But, problem-solving is the specific tactics a fighter actually employs during a potentially career-changing moment.
I don’t know if this ability is, or can be, taught in the gym. Or, if it’s instinctive like a survival mechanism. Is it part of a fighter’s creativity, or something driven by a fighter’s competitive spirit? Is it literally a matter of a fighter sensing food is about to be removed from his family’s table?
Two key examples, Love should know about, immediately came to mind watching the 27-year old’s future unravel on the DAZN streaming app.
Back in September 2019 Tyson Fury sustained an early cut above his right eye from Otto Wallin that later required 47 stitches. Wallin seemingly caught Fury cold, and with blood suddenly streaming down the then lineal champion’s face the fight could’ve been stopped. The bout probably should’ve been stopped.
Realizing that a lucrative rematch with then WBC champion Deontay Wilder was slipping away, Fury picked up his activity and closed the distance to work inside for his best shot at salvaging a victory. Fortunately for Fury, the bout was a Top Rank promoted fight in Las Vegas, and his visible sense of urgency earned him a chance to regroup, plus to go on to win by a wide unanimous decision. We all know how the rematch and trilogy bout solidified Fury’s all-time status as one of boxing’s greatest Heavyweights.
Had Fury given the slightest indication that he couldn’t continue that could’ve opened the door for referee Tony Weeks, or the fight’s doctor, to alter the course of recent history.
That same year, under three months later in Saitama, Japan, Naoya Inoue clashed with Nonito Donaire in November to cap off the World Boxing Super Series’ Bantamweight tournament. Inoue showed this writer a tactic for the first time after his eye socket was fractured in the early rounds. The then 26-year old top Pound-for-Pound performer saved The Ring Fight of the Year by covering the injured eye with an open glove in order to see Donaire clearly with his good eye.
Inoue was the hometown fighter in this instance. And the WBSS obviously needed its tournament to end with the preferred optics of its Ali Trophy being awarded to, and raised into the air by, the finale’s victor. Donaire advanced past the first round when then undefeated Ryan Burnett retired at the end of Round 4 due to a back injury. Subsequently, shoulder tendinitis forced champion Zolani Tete out of a highly anticipated semifinal showdown. On just three days notice, lesser accomplished Stephon Young was promoted from the undercard. Young barely hindered Donaire’s advancement to the showdown against Inoue.
Inoue-Donaire was an absolute thriller – and a FOTY helped bolster DAZN’s content. The coronavirus pandemic ultimately upended the WBSS’ momentum, but Inoue’s problem-solving delivered an awesome fight to the champion’s Japanese fans. His liver shot that dropped Donaire secured a unanimous victory. All of the fight’s drama, underscored by Inoue’s resilience, garnered the attention of Top Rank. And nearly a year later Inoue made his main event debut on ESPN with a stellar seventh round KO of Jason Maloney.
More on Heart in Boxing vs the Other Sports
Provided that the rematch with Spark gets made, Love will get the opportunity to show everyone what he’s told the world he was going to do in the first fight’s second half. Spark appeared to be rallying, and it’s difficult to assess the credit a fighter should receive for an advantage partially gained by an accidental head butt.
Moreover, this piece isn’t intended to be an indictment on Love’s heart. This writer’s belief is that heart in boxing, and combat sports, is unique in contrast to most of the other professional sports. Only a few sports examples rival the adversity faced inside the ropes or a cage. In other words, the following require a similar level of heart.
A batter inside the batter’s box, digging in to swing at a 100-plus MPH fastball from three-time Cy Young winner Justin Verlander. We can go back to Randy Johnson’s formidable heater, or any of today’s countless pitchers who frequently hit 3-digits on the gun.
On the gridiron, any defensive back that has to square up and tackle Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry in the open field. You’ve seen the stiff arm victims on the Gram!
And lastly, while LeBron James has ascended to the NBA’s No. 2 all-time scoring spot in part because of his penchant to rely on bully ball for crucial buckets; four-time NBA champion Shaquille O’Neal brazenly snatched the hearts of hopeless opposing Bigs in the early 90s through the aughts.
For now the tape from November 12 has the final say on Love and his future. This is boxing, and the 27-year old may never get a second chance. Not against Spark, and possibly not against any of the long list of talented pugilists currently campaigning at Super Lightweight. Love could be forced to take another option, run into his own Wallin, and suddenly be faced with some major adversity. Or, Hearn could decide to pair up Love with the aforementioned Hitchins to see if the Brooklynite should’ve always been his guy in that division.
You just never know.
Few people ever recognize the efforts of promoters when a prospect or emerging fighter suffers a setback or stunning upset. This is boxing, folks hit the Gram and comment about the demise of the latest hype job. Many yearn to see a random promoter’s next big thing go belly up. But Hearn bet on Love by setting him up to headline Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse! That took a big heart… likely driven by big eyes for the chances at big, or bigger, money.
Maybe it’s understandable that Love couldn’t take a moment to breathe after being cut by the clash of heads with Spark. He figuratively lost sight of the fact he’d just had a marching band of Cleveland youngsters help announce his presence to a crowd of Clevelanders. The night was all about him much like past nights in Baltimore and Newark were all about Gervonta Davis and Shakur Stevenson, respectively.
These nights aren’t all that easy to come by in boxing.
Before Claressa Shields’ Super Welterweight championship bout versus Ivana Habazin in January 2020 that took place in Atlantic City, the two were initially scheduled to fight in Shields’ hometown Flint, Michigan. An assault on Habazin’s trainer by Shields’ brother at the weigh-ins left Salita Promotions and Showtime shuffling around the fights to fill the void left behind by scrapped main event.
The major takeaway for this writer isn’t to declare whether Love is or isn’t worthy of future opportunities. My hope is that the next young fighter recognizes that if their promoter gives them a homecoming fight as an opportunity, that opportunity is worthy of every effort to get the job done. At all costs.
A loss, especially a close one, isn’t necessarily a bad ending. But an undeniably bad ending in boxing typically prompts one result in both promoters and fans: A change of heart. And usually ain’t much love can do about that.
All images courtesy of Ed Mulholland/Matchroom Boxing