- George Kimball
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DUBLIN -- The boxing landscape can be an ever-shifting kaleidoscope, and what appeared to be a jumbled logjam atop the junior featherweight division a year ago has been somewhat sorted out by events of the past 10 months.
Israel Vasquez beat Rafael Marquez in a pair of stirring rematches, Daniel Ponce de Leon lost his title, and Mike Oliver and Bernard Dunne (highly-rated contenders at the time) were knocked out in stunning upsets.
But in a drastically rearranged division, no one fell harder -- or further -- than Dunne.
Ten months ago, Dunne was exactly where he wanted to be. Undefeated in 23 professional fights, not only did a world title shot seem imminent for the 27-year-old Dubliner, but the trajectory of his career appeared to have vindicated his decision to campaign in Europe following a three-year American apprenticeship in which he had won his first 14 fights under trainer Freddie Roach.
The evening of Aug. 25, 2007 was to have served as Dunne's ultimate confirmation. He had become such an attraction in his homeland that promoter Brian Peters had moved his European title defense against Kiko Martinez from the cozy confines of Dublin's boxing-specific National Stadium across the Liffey to The Point Depot, one of Ireland's largest indoor concert arenas, where Dunne shattered former heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis' previous attendance record for the venue.
It all came crashing down, however, in the space of 86 seconds.
Martinez, a then-undefeated but largely unheralded 21-year-old from Spain, ran over Dunne like a runaway truck seconds into the bout, knocking him down twice more before English referee Terry O'Connor intervened.
Stunned patrons were shuffled silently toward the exits, barely able to bring themselves to look at the fallen boxer on their way out the door.
"It was like somebody had died," said middleweight Andy Lee, who on the same card had stopped Ciaran Healy in his first pro fight on Irish soil less than an hour earlier.
At that moment Bernard Dunne realized that his life had been changed immutably. He might recover from the defeat, but whatever else he accomplished in the ring or outside of it, he would never again be an undefeated boxer.
It took Dunne eight months to get back into the ring. In April, he outpointed former junior bantamweight titleholder Felix Machado. The comeback continues on Saturday when Dunne returns to the scene of his earlier triumphs to face Argentina's Damian David Marciano (15-4-1) in the main event of Brian Peters' card at the National Stadium.
Dunne was 21 years old when Peters packed him off to Hollywood, entrusting his training to Roach. A paid-for apartment and a living allowance ensured that he could devote all of his energies to boxing.
In short order, Dunne also signed a promotional deal with Sugar Ray Leonard boxing, ensuring that most of his early fights would take place on ESPN cards.
When a homesick Dunne returned to Ireland three years later, many on both sides of the Atlantic questioned the move. Not only would be denying himself the counsel of Roach, then the reigning trainer of the year, but nowhere in Ireland -- or, indeed, in all of Europe -- would he find the quality of sparring he had enjoyed at Roach's Wild Card Gym, where it wasn't unusual for him to box with the likes junior featherweight champion Israel Vasquez and Manny Pacquiao -- sometimes on the same day.
"I've never seen tape [of Martinez's knockout of Dunne], but when I heard Dunne had been knocked out so quickly it didn't entirely surprise me," Roach said last week. "Ben always was a little chinny in the early going, but once a fight got going and he warmed up, he never had that problem.
"There were a couple of fights where he seemed to struggle for a round or two, but it was even more evident in training. I saw him get knocked out in the gym by [former IBF 130-pound champion] Carlos 'Famosito' Hernandez -- and when that happened, it was in the first round of a sparring session."
Something of an unknown quantity, Marciano has never fought in Europe, and has appeared just once in the United States.
According to Argentine authority Roberto Rodriguez (the author of The Regulation of Boxing as well as an upcoming book on Latin American fighters), "Marciano is definitely slipping into the 'opponent' category. A couple of years ago he was blasted out in one round by a guy (Jose Ferreira) who was 17-6 at the time, and he lost his only real tests against significant opposition -- Abner Mares and Silence Mabuza. He was also suspended by the Argentine Boxing Federation on May 31."
Rodriguez predicts a knockout victory for Dunne.
For the record, Dunne has been saying all the right things and has been properly respectful to his opponent.
"I've watched a DVD of him and he's a very aggressive fighter, Dunne said of Marciano. "He likes to press the action and is constantly on the front foot. He likes to drag the other guy into his kind of fight. He's been in with some pretty good company, and there's no shame in losing to the guys he has lost to. Mares is an up-and-coming star in the States, and for my money, Mabuza might be the best punching bantamweight in the world right now."
Dunne went into the Martinez fight arguably the most popular boxer in Ireland, but his image was further tarnished when it was revealed that he had already filed an application to become a Dublin fireman before the Martinez fight. Many of his fans apparently interpreted this as a betrayal of their emotional investment, in that preparing a fallback position suggested Dunne's commitment to a world title quest may not have matched their own unwavering faith.
The more recent news that Dunne has completed his rigorous preparations and is fully qualified to join the Dublin Fire Brigade speaks well for his preparation for a post-boxing life, but it hasn't done much for ticket sales. The last time Dunne fought in Dublin, over 8,000 Irishmen packed the Point. Barring a last-minute rush on the box office, it appears that Dunne will struggle to fill the 2,000-seat National Stadium on Saturday.
If Marciano isn't expected to greatly trouble Dunne (but, hey, Martinez wasn't supposed to, either), the bigger question remains whether he can erase the residual damage to his psyche when he returns to stiffer opposition.
His former U.S. promoter Sugar Ray Leonard, who bounced back from his own first loss (to Roberto Duran in 1980) to go undefeated for the next 11 years, is convinced that Dunne's mental outlook holds the key.
Does he aspire to be Fighter of the Year or Fireman of the Year?
"From the very first time I met and worked with Bernard Dunne, I saw incredible potential," Leonard told ESPN.com. "But I've always felt what I knew back then -- that he has the potential. Bernard has to do what is quite difficult for all fighters, including yours truly, to do: He needs to ask himself: 'Is this [my boxing career] a priority?'"
"I honestly don't know if it was psychological or a matter of conditioning," mused Roach of the loss that continues to haunt Dunne. "If you could figure out exactly why it happened, you might know how to address it, but other than getting him to warm up better -- or maybe sending him out into the alley to box a couple of rounds before he goes into the ring ? I'm not sure what you'd do, because otherwise 'Ben' is a very talented fighter with a lot of tools."
"It depends on his health, mind-set, and desire -- which nobody knows but Bernard himself," said Leonard. "What he needs to do now is answer that tough, but honest, question himself 'Do I still have what it takes to succeed?'"
George Kimball, who writes for the Irish Times and Boxing Digest as well as ESPN.com, won the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism in 1985. His new book, "Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran and the Last Great Era of Boxing" will be published in July.
One year ago, Bernard Dunne was on the cusp of a world title. Things didn't exactly pan out the way Dunne had planned since then, but the Irishman takes another step on the comeback trail when he faces Damian David Marchiano on Saturday.