Casamayor as an underdog has me biting

Mar 18, 2008 6:00 PM

Pulling No Punches by Michael Katz | Warning: The contents of this article could be hazardous to your wealth.

When I was a young lad, the Keeeed was my favorite fighter. Loved to watch him wind up and throw that bolo punch he said he learned cutting sugar cane in his native Cuba.

I liked him so much I rooted for Kid Gavilan twice against Sugar Ray Robinson (guess what? He lost twice, though going the distance each time).

Then I went gaga over Jose (El Manquetilla) Napoles, a post-Castro Cuban export, whose ability to improvise punching angles, seemingly in mid-air, made me believe he could move up from welterweight and beat the middleweight monster, Carlos Monzon. Of course, he couldn’t.

I don’t know what it is, maybe the black bean soup with lots of diced raw onions, but Cuban fighters have always appealed to me. And, never mind the great amateurs who were unable to fight professionally after the revolution.

Some people might miss real Havana cigars more, but boxing fans should decry the paucity of Cubans into the pro game. They get out, by hook or by boat, defecting in small groups, the way Joel Casamayor, a 1992 Olympic champion, did in 1996. He just up and left the Cuban team billeted in Mexico and, with the talented Ramon Garbay, walked into the American Dream.

Okay, it was more complicated than that.

Joel’s still on this side of the border, though he obviously is on the wrong side of the hill. He is the underdog this Saturday against the undefeated Michael Katsidis. Though the man of Greek descent from Toowoomba, Australia, may have a name that starts out like mine, any time I see a plus sign next to Casamayor’s odds, I have to bite.

Look, El Cepillo (The Brush) has a terrific chance, despite how horrid he looked while being given a split decision last November at Madison Square Garden against Jose Armando Santa Cruz. It was a lousy, dull match, and I was among the majority who thought it was one of the worst decisions in recent memory.

My New York guru, Johnny Bos, was there and thought Casamayor won legitimately. "He was the only one trying to fight," said Bos.

In any case, Joel was making his first start in 13 months. Even a brush can get rusty and lose some zeal when no one in his class wanted to fight him, despite his holding the so-called "real" lightweight title, and getting up in age (he’ll be 37 in July).

In his prime, Casamayor was a wonderfully slick southpaw, although some of the slickness may have won approval more from the Marquis de Sade than Queensberry. He was lightning fast and had great power, winning his first pro title in May 2000 by stopping South Korean Jong-Kwon Baek in the fifth round for the WBA junior lightweight belt.

He was among the top fighters, pound for pound, for years. Joe made my Top 15 until I dropped him after his last start. He was two out of three against the late Diego Corrales, winning the rubber match for the linear lightweight title in 2004. He is 35-3-1, with 21 knockouts, losing split decisions to Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo along with a controversial unanimous verdict to Acelino Freitas, who would never give him a rematch.

Yet, I’ve seen him lately at +145, even +175, against a guy whose biggest victories are over Czar Amonset if the Philippines and Graham Earl of Britain (for the spurious WBO "interim" title) – a tremendous slugfest where, after Earl’s corner threw in the towel in the second round – and the English referee, Mickey Vann, threw it right back out – Katsidis had to take a standing-eight count.

The victory was diminished a bit when Katsidis was stopped in the first round in his only start since then, by Amir Khan. Until going to London for the Earl match, Katsidis built a 23-0 record in his native Australia, answering the question whether there are tin cans and other palookas down under.

What makes Katsidis a bad risk at -175 and especially at -225, is that his exciting in-your-face style should play right into the still-swift hands of Casamayor. I dismiss The Brush’s last performance, chalking it up to rust and an opponent his 36-year-old legs had to chase.

That won’t be the case this time.

But then, I bet a couple of baseball trading cards on Kid Gavilan and real money on Jose Napoles. I just have a hunch it’s time for a cheer of "Cuba, si."