Braithwaite, Mormeck trying to repeat Holyfield's feat
Wayne Braithwaite and Jean-Marc Mormeck are vying to become the first cruiserweight since Evander Holyfield to unify the division's titles.
To those on the receiving end of one of Wayne Braithwaite's thudding punches, it's hard to believe that the WBC cruiserweight champion was once just a little child, running around and playing in the streets of Georgetown, Guyana, far removed from the prize ring, where he gets paid to knock people out.
But Claire Small remembers that little boy. She should, because she's not only the champ's manager, she's his mother. So it goes without saying that there's a tighter bond present between manager and client than in most of these fistic relationships.
"My son and I have this connection," said Small on a recent teleconference to promote Saturday's unification bout between her son and WBA cruiserweight champ Jean-Marc Mormeck (Showtime, 11pm ET/PT). "If he is broken up, I am. It's like when he gets punched I get punched. When he's in the ring, I just want him to finish the fight and get it over with."
She's had little to fret over in her son's pro career so far, one that has seen the "Big Truck" roll over opponents en route to a 21-0 (17 KOs) record that includes three defenses of his world title. It's been an accelerated trip to the top of one of boxing's most maligned divisions, one that started 12 years ago when Braithwaite turned to the sport not for the love of the game, but for some of the hardware that comes with victory.
"Growing up as a kid I played a lot of cricket, a lot of soccer, and I wanted to play basketball," said Briathwaite, who now makes his home in Brooklyn, New York. "I was never really a big boxing fan."
A chance visit to a friend at the age of 17 changed that.
"One day I was at his house and he showed me a trophy," recalled Braithwaite.
That's all it took. The teenager was determined to get his own trophies, and made his way to a local gym.
"The first day in the gym for me was very tiring," he said. "Boxing was so hard, because if you see boxing, you say, 'I can do that,' but when you actually do it yourself, it's hard on you."
Braithwaite got through the rough patches that come with learning the sweet science dealing with the pain through the shoulders as you try to keep your hands up for three minutes, learning how to hit and not be hit, and if you do get hit, learning how to take it, and developing the finer points of the game that don't come naturally, but only with hard work.
He admits that early on, 'I was just playing around; I wasn't taking it seriously' but as the trophies and amateur titles started to pile up, Braithwaite realized that he not only had a skill for the sport with the power to match, but that he was looking at an opportunity to make a living in boxing.
"Okay, I think I can make something out of this," he said, but it was going to be a tough road for him to make his way up the ladder in Guyana, which is far from a hotbed for pro boxing.
Turning pro at 21 in 1997, Braithwaite stopped his first three opponents, and by his fourth fight was fighting eight rounders. In his sixth bout, he stopped Vivian Harris' older brother Wayne in seven rounds for the Guyanese light heavyweight title (don't worry, said Braithwaite, there is no bad blood between he and buddy Viv over this fight "It's boxing"), and in his very next fight, he was fighting Adam Watt for a minor (WBB) cruiserweight title.
That fight, in which he took apart Watt in less than a round, was also a precursor of things to come, as Braithwaite became a fistic world traveler, and hasn't fought in his native Guyana since.
"Most of my fights were overseas," said Braithwaite, 29. "I won my first title in Australia, my second one in Australia, too, and in most of my career I was the underdog. So I didn't have any problem going to Italy to fight for the world title because I was preparing for him for a long while."
Just 17-0 in October of 2002, Braithwaite was seen as talented but too raw for veteran Vincenzo Cantatore when the two clashed in Italy for the vacant WBC crown. Add in the fact that Cantatore was fighting at home, and the odds grew. Braithwaite didn't care about fighting a veteran in his hometown in front of a hostile crowd.
"No crowd ever affects me," he said.
He's not lying, as he stopped Cantatore in 10 rounds to earn his first world title. "The Big Truck" hasn't been an underdog since, stopping Ravea Springs and Luis Pineda, and earning a decision against Louis Azille in defense of his crown. He might even enter Saturday's fight against Mormeck as the slight betting favorite, and though he can deal with the fact that he's the "man to beat," mentally, he always enters as the underdog.
"I'm comfortable in that role (as favorite), but I feel like I'm the underdog because as the underdog you get a lot of weight off your shoulders and have nothing to worry about," said Braithwaite. "So to myself I'm going into this fight as the underdog, and I'm gonna be focused and win."
There's little hesitation from Braithwaite when it comes to answering questions about Mormeck he's going to win, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. It's that type of confidence that eases his mother's mind come fight night.
"If Wayne comes to me and says, 'this guy cannot beat me,' that's what I believe, and that's what we work towards," said Claire Small. "If he says 'I'm gonna fight this guy and he's gonna get a very hard time with me,' that's what I believe. And whatever he tells me is what gives me the confidence in him."
And Braithwaite's confidence isn't wavering at all considering that he's headlining his first premium cable fight on Showtime this Saturday, where the eyes of the entire boxing world will be on him.
"I'm excited, I'm not nervous," he said. "I've been waiting for this fight, and I've fought on a lot of big shows, so I'm ready for this. When people tune in on April 2, they won't be disappointed. They'll see an exciting fight, not a boring fight. I'm not a boring fighter. They will talk about me after this fight."
Talking about cruiserweights around the water cooler on Monday morning? Who woulda thunk it?
But that's just what they might be doing in this intriguing matchup between two aggressive cruiserweights doing something that hasn't been done since 1988 unifying the title. In '88, Evander Holyfield (perhaps the greatest cruiserweight of all time) added the WBC belt to his WBA and IBF crowns by stopping Carlos DeLeon in eight rounds.
Since then, the division has been little more than a stopover point for fighters on their way to the prestige and big paydays held by the heavyweights. Want recent examples?
Just look at James Toney, Vassiliy Jirov, and Juan Carlos Gomez, all of whom abandoned the weight class for the heavyweight division. But now, with top cruisers Braithwaite, Mormeck, Kelvin Davis, and O'Neil Bell occupying the upper echelon of the division, and talented up and comers like Enzo Maccarinelli, David Haye, and Steve Cunningham knocking on the door, the division is suddenly far from the wasteland it has been in years past. So for Braithwaite, unification on Saturday is a must.
"This is really important for me because it will be history in the making," he said. "I'm gonna create history. I have to win this one and I have a lot riding on it. I'm gonna win this fight on April 2 no doubt about it. I'm gonna win it."
To win it, he'll have to come with all his tools, which include a somewhat unorthodox southpaw style and the thudding power that can change the course of a fight with one punch. And if past history holds to form, Mormeck won't be dancing away from combat once the bell rings.
"He's a pressure fighter and I expect him to come straight at me," said Braithwaite of Mormeck. "I'm expecting nothing different, but if he brings anything different I'm going to be prepared for whatever he's got."
If Mormeck comes straight ahead, that will play into your strengths, right, Wayne?
"He will," he said without hesitation. "That's the only way he knows how to fight." Sounds like there will be fireworks on Saturday. And somewhere in Worcester's DCU Center that night, Claire Small will be feeling each blow with her son. But does she ever wish that she didn't need to see her son in combat again?
"No, no, no," she said. "I believe in Wayne."
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