No sport has to work harder on its image than boxing. Abolitionists regularly squawk that the sport is a throwback to a less enlightened time, and say that its brutality cannot be rationalized.
But there is a flip side to that argument. Rarely do people ponder the possibility that the sport serves as a halfway house for some tortured souls who otherwise would be unleashed on the streets, and would wreak havoc on society without the outlet for their aggression. A poster boy for the latter scenario is 26-year-old WBO super bantamweight (122 pounds and under) champion Daniel Ponce De Leon, who defends his title on Saturday evening against Al Seeger in El Paso, Texas.
Ponce De Leon (29-1, 27 KOs) is making his third defense of the strap, and is looking to break through into the echelon of reverence enjoyed by his Mexican-born peers like Juan Manuel Marquez, who headlines the Saturday card, and icons Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barerra and Ricardo "Finito" Lopez.
The card, a pay-per-view offering promoted by Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions, is being billed as "Mexican Glory." Marquez tops the slate against Filipino Jimrex Jaca, and another solid Mexican-born banger, Juan Lazcano, takes on countryman Manuel Garnica. The night will be an opportunity for Ponce De Leon to step up his visibility and exhibit what his boss De La Hoya calls his "reckless fury."
That fury, the fighter will tell you, is thankfully contained to the ring. He was born in Chihuahua, Mexico and was raised in the mountains, but was brought to the city as a toddler. A neighbor introduced him to boxing, as a means of self-defense, at age 7, and the fighter is grateful to this day.
"Thanks to God, I'm glad I'm in this sport," he told ESPN.com through translator Raul Jaimes, a VP at Golden Boy. "Otherwise, I don't know what I'd do to release my aggression. I look forward to getting into the ring to put all my anger, pain and frustration on to my opponent."
Pity Seeger, a 26-year-old Georgia-based boxer, with a 27-1 (21 KOs) mark.
Ponce De Leon began his professional career in 2001, and built his ring skills in Mexico to start, but his prospects were recognized early on, and the boxer quickly was imported to the U.S. to hasten his development. Things were progressing flawlessly, until he met a fellow southpaw, Panamanian Celestino Caballero, in February 2005. Ponce De Leon sat pretty at 24-0, with a steadily building buzz lifting his public persona. But Caballero pricked a hole in the publicity balloon, taking a unanimous-decision win.
Ponce De Leon looks back on the defeat as a character-building experience.
"The loss made me a better man," he said. "Some nights you have it, some nights you don't." One lesson he learned, besides being able to shrug off a misstep, was in training. He'd been lifting too many weights, he said, and it showed in the bout. His arms felt sore and grew heavy immediately versus Caballero. A year later, Caballero gained the WBA super bantamweight title, which Ponce noted. "I lost to a champion," he said, "and maybe there will be a rematch with me."
Ponce De Leon righted his ship with two wins, and then stepped up against a touted Thai fighter, 25-0 Sod Looknongyongtoy, on Oct. 29, 2005. They vied for the vacant WBO super bantam strap, and Ponce emerged with the win. He showed his "reckless fury" against Gerson Guerrero (KO2) on May 27, 2006 in his first defense. Then, he gave the Thai another crack. On July 15, Ponce De Leon took it to him, scoring a first-round knockout.
"The first fight against the Thai fighter I was nervous, emotional," Ponce De Leon recalls. "In the second fight, the win gave me confidence, I prepared better, and I got the knockout."
Ponce De Leon's mind-set, the mentality of the Mexican warrior, is a state of mind that he acknowledges, and cultivates.
"The Mexican warrior is a thing embedded in me," he said. "It goes to Indian tribes, going back, and there's a warrior in every Mexican. If I wasn't in boxing, I'd be in karate or wrestling."
Ponce De Leon works hard on perfecting his technical skills, but in that warrior spirit, relishes throwing technique out the window when a slugfest is called for.
"I'm a very aggressive fighter," he said. "I'm learning boxing all the time, but if I'm not doing enough to win a fight, I will go toe-to-toe. Like [the strawweight legend] Lopez, I'm not too technical, I'm like a warrior, going in to war. I will do anything to defend the title."
Seeger is 5-foot-8, so he enjoys a three-inch advantage over his foe. Ponce De Leon has scouted the Georgian and shares his perception, and his attack plan.
"He's tall and he boxes nice," Ponce De Leon said. "He uses his jab and has a nice right hand. My goal is to press him, work the body and the head. I'm not looking for a KO, but if it's there, it will be a KO, whether it be in the first or 12th round."
Beyond Seeger, if that match goes to plan, Ponce is eyeing another countryman, the slightly more heralded Israel Vazquez, the WBC super bantamweight titlist. Also, the WBO's top-ranked super bantamweight, Filipino Rey Bautista, is in his crosshairs. "I live day-to-day, and my target is Seeger, but Bautista has tried to run from me, three times," Ponce said.
To close, Ponce De Leon gives a shout-out to the sport, which so often absorbs PR slams, and needs proponents to counter its ragged image.
"Boxing keeps me straight," Ponce De Leon said, "and doing the right thing."
Michael Woods, the news editor for TheSweetScience.com, has written for ESPN The Magazine, GQ and the New York Observer.