|PHILLY BOXING HISTORY November 12, 2012||
West Philly's Yusaf Mack has been at the boxing game for a long time. He started out like so many others, as kid in the amateurs dreaming of one day fighting for a professional world championship. He had his first pro bout on November 17, 2000. He was 20 years old. This Saturday, November 17, 2012, 12 years to the day after his first fight, the now 32-year old boxer will step into the biggest fight of his career, a world title fight against international star Carl Froch.
Mack is a heavy underdog in the fight (various on-line betting sites list him as a 9-1 underdog), but he has prepared for this opportunity like never before, and says he is ready to finally achieve the goal he set as a 12 year old dreamer.
"I always wanted to be here," Mack said before his workout at the Shuler Memorial Boxing Gym in West Philadelphia. "I've been here before, but I failed the test... but I'm supposed to be here."
Mack did get a crack at the title about a year and a half ago. On June 25, 2011, Mack travelled to Missouri to challenge IBF light-heavyweight champion Tavoris Cloud in the champ's backyard. After displaying his boxing skills and winning the early part of the fight, Yusaf was drawn into the trenches by the heavy-handed Cloud and stopped in round eight.
For much of the boxing world, the loss confirmed their opinion that Mack, 31-4-2 (17 KOs), although experienced and talented, is not of championship caliber. It's a reputation that has dogged him. They say he's just one level below top-notch because more than once, he's lost a fight against world-class competition. Tavoris Cloud, Glen Johnson, Librado Andrade, and Alejandro Berrio all beat Mack. All four stopped him.
On Saturday, Mack faces Carl Froch, 29-2 (21 KOs), for the IBF super middleweight championship. The fight is a tall order. Froch is one of the sport's best, and the fight will be held in the hostile territory of Froch's hometown, Nottingham, UK. But this is the life of a working class boxer like Mack. As he said, he's been here before. The fight with Froch is the test of his career. It is an opportunity to prove himself, and Mack is ready to take another shot.
"I've let my kids down too many times by telling them I'm going to win a fight, and then coming up short," Mack said. "But I came up short those other times because of ME. This time, my whole thing is to win. I failed those other tests, but this time I'm going to get myself a 100. It's past due. My time is past due."
To achieve that perfect grade, Mack needed to work harder and try harder than he has ever done before.
"I feel like I'm in the best shape I've ever been in," he said. "I'm running more for this fight. I'm doing longer runs. I feel more confident for this fight than the Cloud fight."
Those nagging memories of the blown opportunity against Cloud permeate Mack's training camp. Everyone is looking to reverse that disappointing night, and to prove that Yusaf Mack is better than the fighter that failed against a guy he was beating.
"Something happened, because we had everything together," said Mack's trainer Buster Custus about the bout with Cloud. "But on the day of that fight, it wasn't there no more. He didn't have no punch. He didn't have no snap. The gas tank wasn't there. None of that."
Since the Cloud fight, Yusaf has won two fights and looked good doing it. He grabbed the USBA light-heavyweight title in April with an outstanding performance against warhorse Omar Sheika, and stayed busy with another verdict over Sabou Ballogou in July. And then Mack got the call to fight Froch. It was a surprise, and the only catch was that he'd have to come down to the 168-pound weight limit, a division he left about five years ago.
"Yeah, he's gonna make it, but it ain't like gravy," trainer Buster Custus said.
"I think I'm doing it right this time," Mack said about again getting to 168 pounds. "Last time I was killing myself. Now I'm just doing it right. It's just coming off by eating right. I'm doing everything I'm supposed to do."
Mack will make the biggest payday of his career against Froch, somewhere around $100,000, but it is this final chance to prove himself that drives him more than anything else this time.
"I'm going to show all the doubters," Mack said. "They're going to eat their words. There's always going to be haters everywhere, but they just fuel my fire. They make me want to do it even more because I know if I lose, they going to talk about me. But if I win they all going to say 'Oh my God! He finally did it.'"
When Mack talks like this, it doesn't come off harsh or cocky. He's a warm, smiling guy, who says these things to bring you into his camp. He's a team kind of a guy and you get the feeling that he's going to fight not only for himself, but for you too. He's taking on Froch for everyone who wants to be part of it.
"I want to do it for my family," Mack said, "all the people I love, my lady in my life, my Mom, everybody. My brother that's not here anymore, my Dad who's not here anymore. I promised them a world title and that's what I want to give them."
But to pull off this win, Mack needs a plan. He has skill, but can he bring enough to the fight to beat a guy like Froch? It's the question that he's been trying to answer his entire life.
"There's nothing fancy about him," Mack said about Froch. "It's the awkwardness. He's real awkward. Maybe I'll take a couple of pages out of the (Andre) Ward book and use it on him. I really think (Andre) Dirrell had a lot of success with him too. Dirrell hit him with a lot of shots and was buzzing him a lot. More than Ward. I just have to stick with my game plan, and don't let nothing bother me."
"He's just got to be himself," Custus said. "That's all. Don't let Froch get a lot of jabs and right hands in. He lives off them. All we got to do is nullify those two things and we're good."
Dhafir Smith, another West Philly fighter, Mack's long-time friend and chief sparring partner, thinks his teammate is up for the challenge.
"He's looking good," Smith said. "He's looking real good. He's finally using his jab. He's got a real good jab when he use it. Froch don't really have a defense. His offense is his defense. He can't get past the jab. Andre Ward was busting him up with the jab. Busting him up. So I see it as an advantage for Yusaf Mack. How he's feeling right now, I can really see him bringing the title home. They already looking past Yusaf Mack."
"Stay up on him," Mack said was his plan. "When he throws one, (I'll) throw two. When he throws two, throw three. Just always stay one level up on him. When I feel as though I can punch (with) him, I'll punch. When I feel as though I need to box him, I'll box. I'm just going to mix it all up. I'm just going to go in there and be me."
In addition to Froch, Mack will have to deal with an arena full of ravenous Carl Froch fans as well.
"There's more pressure on him than me," Mack said. "He's got more on his plate because it's in his backyard. It's just another fight for me. They can't bother me because I'm not from over there. I don't have to prove anything to them."
"I've never seen anything like it," Custus said about the usual showy entrance routines in the UK. "When they come out with all those lights and fanfare, I can't see that bothering Yusaf. He like that kind of shit. He loves the lights and all that. So it might not work to Froch's advantage. It might work better (for Mack). He likes that glitter and all that showmanship. That's his thing."
Froch has been on a tough schedule in recent years. There is little doubt that the champion sees the fight with Mack as his reward for all the tough fights he's taken since even before the start of the Super Six Tournament, and that fighting Yusaf is just a stay busy bout for his hometown fans before he rematches with Lucian Bute.
Perhaps this is Mack's best chance for the fight. It's the old sleeping dog theory. Maybe Mack can bring more to the fight that is expected of him, and maybe Froch will bring less, and if this happens there will be a surprise.
"If he don't respect me, I'm going to make him respect me," Mack said. "I feel I'm the bigger guy. When I go into this fight, I'm throwing everything away. Whatever I got to do to beat him, I'm going to do. I'm willing to die in that ring."
If Mack can pull off the upset, he'll join the resurgence world class Philly fighters on the boxing scene. Junior welterweight champion Danny Garcia leads the class, but Gabriel Rosado, Garrett Wilson, Bryant Jennings, Steve Cunningham, Eddie Chambers and a few others are all near the top of the heap too. Yusaf Mack is hungry to be part of this club.
"I feel like I'm supposed to be right there (with them)," Mack said about his fellow Philadelphians. "I was there at this door before all these guys. It's just that I failed the test. As I said, hopefully I get a 100 on this one. I just want to win. Just win. If a knockout comes, it comes. I'm not looking for a knockout, but everybody can be knocked out."
And if he can do that?
"To the moon we go," Mack said with a huge smile. "To the moon we go, baby. I would feel like I accomplished my whole dream - to be a world champion. If I win this fight, my Mom won't want for nothing anymore. My kids won't want for nothing no more. We going to start doing big things, you know, once I win."