Round 10. For most in Madison Square Garden's Theater on the night of Aug. 6, the fight between Kassim Ouma and Sechew Powell was already over.
Ouma, a former junior middleweight world champion, had set the pace high and never stopped moving, averaging more than 100 punches a round against the prospect from Brooklyn, who was game and competitive, but also about to see his unbeaten record disappear.
Powell still fought though, still kept trying to pull out a win, and despite the disappointment of the previous 27 minutes, in those final three he realized that he was where he belonged. He wasn't in too deep against a fighter like Ouma. He was a contender.
"By Round 10, I had the strategy to beat him, but nine rounds had already passed and you don't get those rounds back," Powell recalled. "But by then, I had an understanding on how to win that fight and I understood where I was at. It was too little too late, but all I can do is look at the positive in it and see that I was competitive against Ouma and I could have won that fight."
When the decision came back, it was unanimous, and in one case, ludicrous, according to judge Dick Flaherty, who saw the bout a shutout in Ouma's favor, but in any event, a loss is a loss and the morning after still stinks, especially the first time.
"It's extremely disappointing," said Powell, now 20-1 (12 KOs). "It feels like you failed your mission in life to a certain extent. But at the same time, as time goes on and I look back at the situation, I see that I was competitive in the fight and I had a chance. He was the more experienced and bigger-named fighter at the time, so I have the confidence to move forward. I'm not deterred from my passion of becoming a world champion; I'm just a bit more fired up about it now. You don't get too many opportunities in this sport, and it's like one strike against me already at the plate. I know I have to be successful on Saturday night."
This Saturday, the 27-year-old southpaw gets a second chance to make a first impression on HBO viewers when he takes on Ishe Smith on the network's "Boxing After Dark" telecast. It's rare for opportunities like this to come up in normal circumstances. To get one right after a loss is almost unheard of these days.
"HBO saw my hustle in the fight with Ouma and they know I have the ability to fight on their network," said Powell. "That's why they're giving me this chance, I appreciate it, and I'm looking to make good on it."
It doesn't hurt that the battle between two 154-pound up-and-comers also has a significant amount of heat behind it. You can thank the always incendiary Smith for that, as he has not been shy about directing derogatory statements toward Powell in the weeks leading up to this bout, something that has been his MO since his time on the first season of the boxing reality series "The Contender." Yet in the ring, his performances haven't equaled his mouth, and with only two fights since his last bout for "The Contender" in May 2005 (and against opposition with a combined record of 19-11-2 no less), "Sugar Shay" may be in for a long night against Powell.
"He hasn't merited this chance off his competition, because he's fought nobody," said Powell of Smith. "He's beaten David Estrada, who's a decent midlevel fighter, and beaten Randall Bailey, who's an ex-world champion, but besides that, he's fought absolutely no one, and when he fought somebody of any stature in Sergio Mora, whose only claim to fame is a win in 'The Contender,' he lost. I don't know how he's ranked so high, but I see this more as a showcase. HBO's giving me an opportunity to showcase and I'm just looking to make good on it and further my career."
As for Smith's attempts to goad him into a trash-talking war, Powell says, "It's hard not to get caught up in all of that, but luckily, I have the experience of boxing for a very long time and I have a lot of good people around me that were able to show me the right way out and not to get involved in it. I think I've done a real good job of that and I'm very focused on fighting and winning, and I'm not caught up in all his pre-fight antics to try and get me out of my game plan."
It has been said that it's the squeaky wheel that gets oiled though, and Smith has parlayed his "bad boy" persona into a stint on a reality television series and a contract with Golden Boy Promotions. Does the soft-spoken Powell ever wonder what life would be like for him if he acted the same way?
"I was always encouraged to be that way early in my career," he admits, "but it's just not my character. I'll do what's comfortable and natural to me, which is just being myself, trying to be the people's champ, and fighting the tough fights."
"I'm not deterred from my passion of becoming a world champion; I'm just a bit more fired up about it now. You don't get too many opportunities in this sport, and it's like one strike against me already at the plate. I know I have to be successful on Saturday night."
Junior middleweight contender Sechew Powell
And Powell hasn't shied away from challenges, first making the step up in 2004 against Grady Brewer, a future "Contender" winner from Season Two. And though Powell was dropped in the fight by Brewer and forced to eke out a close split decision, he learned from the fight and rededicated himself to the game. All of a sudden, staying home in the comfy confines of Brooklyn wasn't enough if he was going to become a serious title contender. Camps in the Poconos and most recently Florida, with new trainer Buddy McGirt, have provided enough seclusion for him to truly focus on what he needs to do in the ring on fight night.
"I think it's a necessity more than anything else to get away from home," Powell said. "When you've got a big fight, you need to forget about everything that's going on in your daily struggle. Being in camp, you know why you're there, and it's for one purpose. I think that any fighter that doesn't do it is handicapping himself."
Following the Brewer fight, the newly disciplined "Iron Horse" really started to gallop away from his fellow prospects as he mixed wins over the usual suspects fed to up-and-comers with legitimate tests against Cornelius "K9" Bundrage (TKO1), Santiago Samaniego (TKO3), Archak TerMeliksetian (W10), and Robert Frazier (W10).
So there was little doubt among Powell and his team that he was ready for Ouma last summer. But between expectation and the final result comes the actual fight.
"I think I underestimated his toughness as far as his ability to take good punches," said Powell. "I thought I would be able to gain his respect early and push him backwards. I know now that that was a bad strategy. I think the strategy I was able to give Jermain Taylor was a more winning strategy. [Powell sparred with Taylor before the middleweight champ's win over Ouma last December.] I learned from the fight though. I would have turned him and boxed and moved a little bit more. Now after the fact, I also think I could have used a bit more seasoning for the fight, I could have fought a bit more A-level fighters, but it's water under the bridge and I learned a lot from it. It was a crash course in top-level boxing, and I appreciate it for that."
And with those lessons tucked away in his bag of tricks, Powell hopes to school Smith in a similar fashion on Saturday.
"I know I am on that level, and this fight coming up is another chance to prove how good I am in this division."