The New Natural: Adrien Broner
Adrien Broner’s body language spells intensity. Hard-eyed, hard-mouthed, he leans forward, ready to spring, his gaze a dangerous warning…
ATLANTIC CITY, New Jersey—Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City looks less like a fight venue and more like an old-school train station. Rectangular instead of square or round, the hall’s semi-circle roof and heavy concrete walls scream “All aboard,” not “Let’s get ready to rumble,” but perhaps this was appropriate for last night’s fight. Adrien Broner, flashy and brash and supremely gifted, is hoping to pick up boxing’s waning fan base and take them full steam ahead into the future.
On the car ride south, passing snow banks left over from last weekend’s blizzard, my brother and I made a list of great fighters we’d seen live. At the top of our list was Pernell Whitaker, the man who ruled the lightweight and welterweight divisions through most of the ‘90s. Whitaker was a beautiful boxer, incredibly fast and incredibly agile. To say he danced in the ring is not hyperbole—he moved that gracefully. Live, I saw Pernell Whitaker knock out a tough journeyman named Jake Rodriguez, and after the fight, which was also in Atlantic City, I went over to Pernell’s mom, who’d just seen her son win yet again, and asked what Pernell had been like as a kid. She told me he loved sports, that he’d played everything and had been good at everything. I wasn’t surprised. Sweet Pea was a special athlete; it was a blessing to boxing that Pernell had been born too small for most sports.
No matter that he’s still in the fledgling stage of his championship career, Adrien Broner can be hailed as the newest blessing to boxing, a natural-born fighter destined to reign as the best pound-for-pound king. Nicknamed The Problem, and rightly so, Broner has already won featherweight and lightweight titles. And he wins in style. Some call him a second-coming of Floyd Mayweather, and the two are friends, but where Mayweather often plays cautious, Broner comes to inflict pain. Watch him between rounds and you’ll forget about his clownish pre-and post-fight antics, the fake marriage proposal, the self-aggrandizing patter, the ridiculous shtick where his father brushes his hair. As with all artists, we should judge Broner on his work, and when he’s working, he’s the opposite of frivolity. Sitting on his stool, waiting for the bell to ring, Adrien Broner’s body language spells intensity. Hard-eyed, hard-mouthed, Broner leans forward, ready to spring, his gaze a dangerous warning: I’m your problem and I won’t stop being your problem until you fall. Only one out of the last fifteen men he’s faced made it to the final bell. Broner’s most impressive win was his last, a beat-down of Antonio DeMarco. DeMarco is a relentless banger, strong and strong-willed, but Broner, who’s as quick and fleet-footed as Mayweather, easily bested DeMarco at his own game, standing in the pocket and delivering jaw-cracking uppercuts until the Mexican couldn’t take it anymore.
Tonight, Adrien Broner was facing fifteen-year veteran Gavin Rees, who comes from Wales and sported an impressive 37 and 1 record against mostly unimpressive opponents. On paper, this was going to be an easy fight for Broner, something to pass the time and keep the machine fine-tuned before bigger, more lucrative bouts. But just as I’d been excited to see Pernell Whitaker fight live, even against a journeyman, I was excited to see Broner. There is a rare breed of men born to box, who are so in control inside the ring, so at home in harm’s way, they seem un-hurtable. Whitaker, at his best, appeared forever safe. To watch him (and when watching Pernell all you saw was Pernell—he was that great) was to watch the art of boxing. Broner is also art in motion. And at his best (and I believe his true best is yet to come) Broner appears equally safe, inflicting the kind of damage that makes opponents hesitate with their own attacks, and, when he wishes, moving so fluidly that chasing him is a futile waste of energy. Broner has it all; he’s a boxer and a puncher, he can fight outside and inside, he’s a master of ring geography, he’s acutely aware of his opponent’s condition, sensing fear and fatigue and hurt, and he possesses the kind of cold killer instinct that’s far more effective than its hotter-tempered versions. Stronger, faster, and with a seven-inch reach advantage over Rees, the twenty-three-year old-kid from Cincinnati promised to pose painful problems for the thirty-two-year-old Welsh visitor.
By fight time, Boardwalk Hall, which had already cordoned off half its seats, wasn’t near full. I’d been to the Broner/Rees press conference in New York City’s B.B. King’s on Wednesday and the turnout had been less than stellar. With the odds at 30 to 1 for Broner, the prediction of a non-competitive fight was keeping both writers and fans away
The sound of air raid sirens with a guitar riff underneath welcomed Gavin Rees to the ring. Rees wore red and blue trunks, and after surveying the canvas he took his place in the red corner. Under the bright lights, Rees looked diminutive, so I looked at his legs and found where his weight resided—in strong, stocky calves. There was no crowd reaction to his entrance and when the soundtrack ended, the arena was strangely silent. Then Michael Buffer’s overly-dramatic voice introduced Adrien Broner’s entrance and the atmosphere changed. Hip-hop filled the space, people standing along the path to the ring pushed closer, and The Problem walked forward surrounded by his large entourage, belts held high in the air. Broner was wearing the same sunglasses he’d worn at the press conference and no wonder; as soon as he stepped into the ring, his red, silver and blue robe caught the light and glittered. Records were announced, boos delivered to Rees, cheers delivered to Broner, then the fighters moved center ring for final instructions. Broner does not look at his opponents before he fights; his eyes were affixed somewhere off to the side, perhaps surveying the horizon he envisions, a place of unlimited opportunity. Rees stood steady, ready.
Round 1 was a surprise. Gavin Rees dug in and dug hooks to Broner’s body, all the while making himself elusive by using his height disadvantage to defensive advantage—he ducked below Broner’s jabs, swung his right hand over the top, hitting Broner cleanly a number of times, then went back to the body. For his part, Broner played the part of the unscathed man. He kept shaking his head, No, No, No, to every punch he took. Broner won the gesture count, but Rees took the round.
Broner fired a jab to start Round 2, but Rees came back with a three-punch combo. The Welshman meant business. Broner landed more jabs, but Rees, with his low center of gravity, didn’t budge and stayed with his game plan, hitting the body, then throwing the right hand up top. Toward the end of the round, Broner landed a heavy three-punch combination that impressed the crowd and, hearing their approval, he swung his arm round and round, bolo-style. Broner’s dramatic flourish made this a close round.
Round 3 brought more back and forth with Broner shaking his head whenever Rees landed. Fighters usually shake their heads to feign no pain, but Broner’s shakes suggested a certain incredulity that the Welshman was still around. Rees himself got caught up in the game of dramatic gestures and waved the champion forward. Broner obliged. He landed a brutal five-punch combination that had Rees’s head bouncing around uncontrollably, the final shot wobbling Rees’s legs. When the bell rang and Rees walked back to his corner, the steel resolve in his face had melted.
The thrill of seeing a live fight is all about atmosphere. As with every sport, the power of the visceral experience depends on how good your seat is, but with boxing, because there are only two men center stage, the difference between sitting close and sitting far away is extreme. From afar, live fights seem like a hazy film, two small men throwing punches way down there, the rising and falling sounds of the crowd as dramatic as the action. But up close, it’s better than TV. You may not be able to see all the nuances you can on screen—the register of pain as pupils thin, the victorious flare of nostrils—but you’ll hear the sounds of a fight, the snap of crisp jabs, the thud of body shots, the shuffle of feet against canvas, and you’ll see the damage of a fight in a different way, blood in living color, bodies made too heavy from fatigue, or too light from a punch that separates a man from his consciousness. My seats for this Golden Boy event were good, and they were better when I snuck down four rows. The only blood shed was from Gavin Rees’s mouth, but the fight, the live fight, was in my blood.
In Round 4 Broner had seen enough. He’d figured out Rees, adjusted his measurements like a man with a rocket launcher zeroing in degree by deadly degree. As he’d done with Antonio DeMarco, The Problem stepped right into the pocket of danger with complete confidence. And this is part of Adrien Broner’s enigma. Most overly-brash men are transparent—talking big, extolling self, strutting instead of walking, these are usually clear signs of deeper insecurities. You don’t need to be Freud to peg narcissism based on over-compensation. But boxing is a place where the deepest truths are revealed. Stripped down, vulnerable, literally naked except for a pair of shorts and shoes, the man in the ring is what the man is. And in the ring, Adrien Broner is confidence supreme. He may not have been a master of pre-fight psychology at his pre-fight press conference, his insults against his opponent (about Rees’s small stature, about his flat head, about his name, which Broner claimed he couldn’t remember) may have been the stuff of stupid juveniles, not master manipulators, but in the ring, breaking the Welshman down physically and mentally, Adrien Broner was masterful. In his sure eyes (which he’d shielded with sunglasses at the press conference and during his ring entrance) and in his firm mouth (which was an annoying smirk at the press conference and during the first two rounds) there was not a trace of self-doubt in Round 4. And in boxing, when narcissism is based on action, when strutting comes from carrying a big stick, fame and fortune follow. Adrien Broner’s public persona makes sense—why should a fighter walk softly in a world where soft walkers don’t get paid? I wish they did, I wish fighters could speak with their fists alone, but they can’t because marketing demands personality, bravado, talk; Broner understands that in a boxer’s short shelf life, the getting must be got while the getting is good. Muhammad Ali understood this—he talked loudly, backed up his words, and he’s the man we remember, not a quieter Joe Frazier, not a quieter Larry Holmes. Floyd Mayweather understands this—he talks loudly, backs up his words, and he’s the man making money; in fact, his persona is so large that he was able to dictate the financial power struggles against a quieter, more modest Manny Pacquiao (even before PacMan lost to Bradley, then Marquez). And Adrien Broner understands this—people who hate The Problem will pay to see him lose, people who love The Problem will admire his panache, and anyone who knows boxing will have to respect The Problem’s talent and, even if begrudgingly, admire his ability to stir things up, to make his name known. Adrien Broner may not have filled Boardwalk Hall tonight, but his charisma will eventually win out and as soon as the media machine attaches itself to Adrien Broner (and it will), The Problem’s problems will be glorious ones—what to do with all those mega-millions, how to enjoy all that fame?
So Round 4—Broner, all confidence, landed a straight right and another, hard punches, one at a time, and then an even harder right that dropped Gavin Rees for the first time in his life. Rees showed his mettle, stood, literally shrugged off the new experience, and moved forward. But Adrien Broner was now in work mode. He’d leaned forward on his stool between rounds. He’d assessed his opponent. He was no longer shaking his head, no longer smirking. Broner threw eight vicious shots, bloodied Rees’s mouth, punctuated the round with an uppercut and two thudding shots to Rees’s body. 10-8 for Broner.
What happened in Round 5 seemed so inevitable it felt more like past tense than present. And Rees was so eager to be done, to accept his fate, that he stood from his stool prematurely, not taking advantage of the full minute’s rest between rounds. His cornerman sat him back down, rubbed his face. Again Rees stood, and he walked to the center of the ring before the bell rang. When the bell did ring, the game Welshman readied himself for one final charge, but the fight’s pattern had been established. Broner started the round with hard right hands, potshot-ing Rees. Rees dug his thick legs into the canvas and punched at Broner’s body, threw an arcing right to Broner’s head. And then Broner went to work in earnest. A brutal right hand to the body dropped Rees for the second time in his career. He could have stayed down, the punch was that hard, but Rees stood. The referee polished off Rees’s gloves, then stepped away, and with a clear line of fire The Problem, who had solved the problem named Gavin Rees, finished his night’s work. He landed ten straight, sharp, blistering punches that snapped Rees’s head. By the eighth shot Rees’s corner was waving the towel. By the tenth shot the referee was waving his hands.
The official time of the TKO was 2:59 of Round 5. Broner took more punches than I expected. Rees was tougher than everyone expected. But the outcome was expected. Once again, Adrien Broner showed his pedigree and finished the show the way he had to finish the show—like a showman, spectacularly.
The two fighters hugged, any animosity, real or fabricated, gone. Max Kellerman talked to Broner in the ring, and Broner’s answers were amplified across the arena, but I’d heard enough of Broner’s words at the press conference, so instead I focused on Gavin Rees, outside the ring, sitting down, seeming very much alone. His mouth was bloody. His face was bruised. He’d done his day’s work without much talk and with no complaints. He’d never be the star. He’d never be the man in glittering trunks, proclaiming his greatness.
My brother and I left cavernous Boardwalk Hall, found our car, and drove back to the city. It was 3 a.m. when we hit Manhattan and the city that never sleeps looked tired. But underground, life was moving. The globes of the subway stations glowed green. Express trains rumbled below, shaking empty sidewalks. For a moment I flashed to Gavin Rees, the blows he’d taken to head and body shaking his core. He’d run into the B Express, hurtling uptown to boxing’s pinnacle.
These days, if you’re on the subway, the entertainment is less about men in sombreros playing guitars, more about kids break dancing for change. In the space of three square feet, bordered by passengers’ legs and subway poles (instead of ring posts), these kids do handstands, upside down push-ups, flips and twirls and contortions all to a hip-hop beat. They’re limber, graceful, finely muscular, navigating small spaces with some sort of built-in radar, risking sprained muscles and broken bones fearlessly. And these days, if my mind’s on boxing and I see one of these explosive performances that last as long as it takes to get from one station to the next, I think of Adrien Broner. Not all fighters are this agile. Not all fighters are this athletic—a hard right or a perfectly-timed hook can nullify disadvantages in coordination and grace and movement. But when knockout power is coupled with the kind of acrobatic skills that allow a fighter to navigate space and create insane angles to deliver punishment, then that fighter is blessed. Adrien Broner could dance on any subway and wow the crowd. Adrien Broner can fight in any arena and impress, completely. The problems he administers are a brutal beauty to behold.