Chris John was a constant.
He may not have been the most well-known name in boxing, certainly outside his native Indonesia or the surrounding countries, and it may only have been dedicated boxing fans in the UK or US who watched his bouts… and even then, rarely live… but the fact is that for going on a decade if you looked at who the top guys at 126lbs were, you’d see Chris John holding some version of the WBA title. He first became champion in the era of Erik Morales, Juan Manuel Marquez, Marco Antonio Barrera and Manny Pacquiao scrapping out their rivalry, he defended it through the never-quite-happened rivalry of Yuriorkis Gamboa, Juan Manuel Lopez and Celestino Caballero and he held it right up to last Friday when it was sensationally ripped away from him by Simpiwe Vetyeka.
For most western fans, Chris John’s only real moment of notoriety comes for the minor role he played in the Pacuqio/Marquez feud. In the wake of their draw in 2004 Marquez turned down a rematch from Pacquiao over the purse he was offered ($750,000 when he wanted $1,500,000) and a match with Morales (offered $1,500,000, wanted $3,500,000) and instead, following being stripped of his sanctioning body titles following some boxing politics, he took a small purse (just over $30,000) to travel to Indonesia to face John, the idea being that by beating this little known and lightly regarded title holder, even for little money, he’d win a title belt and thus get more money for bouts with Pacquiao or Marquez. In some ways it was sound logic. After all, Chris John may have been a title holder, but he had only really faced one recognisable name (Derrick Gainer) and otherwise had been facing pretty limited competition and had no real amateur background, having instead having done the Chinese martia art Wushu. Marquez, fresh from his come from behind draw with Pacquiao and regarded as one of the best boxers at the lower weights, would surely be able to handily beat him?
But that’s not what happened.
It’s worth watching the bout because boxing lore (helped by Marquez and his team) put it down as a robbery, with Chris John aided by biased judges and a biased referee. I just don’t see it. Instead I see John force Marquez to box on the front foot (something the Mexican great has never been particularly comfortable doing), picking off many of Marquez’s shots, landing a clean jab and some good body work while Marquez became so frustrated that by the later rounds he landed multiple deliberate low blows. I had it close and John’s win does have a lot to do with the point deductions but it was not a robbery… merely a close bout that went one way, not the other. I also note that the only member of the western press in attendance, Scott Mallon of Ring Magazine and The Sweet Science, scored the bout 116-110 in favor of John.
A frequent accusation against John was that he “hid” in Indonesia, relying on notable opponents refusing to travel and friendly officials helping him. Once again, I can’t agree. Purely factually, John’s boxed outside Indonesia multiple times since winning the title; notably in Singapore, Australia and Japan. Beyond that he made more money in Indonesia (and the surrounding area) then he would have coming to the US… and isn’t it a principle of boxing that the challengers go to the champion, not the other way round? Sanctioning body politics may have meant that John never held the IBF title Marquez once had, but he beat Marquez when he hadn’t lost the belt in the ring and didn’t lose since. In a division without an established champion (in the RING or Transnational Boxing Rankings Board sense), John was the closest the division had.
And let’s remember as well, John did come to the US in an attempt to get notable names in the ring with him. And anyone complaining about him receiving friendly judging should look to his first bout with Rocky Juarez and the way the always controversial Texas officials mystifyingly called that bout a draw. John won a rematch, this time in Vegas, but I can certainly understand why in the wake of that bout he was reluctant to come to the US again… and it’s not like the big names were desperate to face him. It was notable how despite being happy to call each other out, none of the then top names in the division, Lopez, Gamboa and Caballero, ever really mentioned John’s name.
So John went back to his normal stomping grounds and continued to do what he did, handily beating challengers. The biggest bout in that period was an Indonesian domestic superfight with their “next big thing”, Daud Cino Yordan, which John, as seemingly always, won fairly handily. And on John went, a constant in the division, a guy who would seemingly hold his title forever… or at least until he got his record to 50 wins and he could then ride off into the sunset.
Until last Friday.
Anyone can lose a boxing match. They can have an off-night, they can lose a narrow decision, an opponent can land a perfect punch. Chris John losing isn’t the reason I think his career may be over.
The way he lost is.
At his peak John was a slick boxer with speed and technique. Most regarded him as a stylist, a man who worked behind a good jab and a strong defence on the outside, picking opponents apart, but he was also a competent inside fighter, lacking real power but with sharp combinations and his defence as strong as ever. At his best John would frustrate opponents from the outside and then, just as they started to close the distance and feel like they’d found some success, step forward, hit the body, force them onto the defence and then start again.
We saw none of that.
We saw a wild John. We saw a John who was slow and sloppy, who lacked any of the sharpness or nuance that once characterised his work. We barely saw a jab, barely saw any defence. And we saw him get hit. A lot. We saw him go down multiple times, even if some of them were strangely ruled slips (one of the few times in his career a clear bias for him can be seen). And we saw him quit on his stool.
And we’ve seen this before.
Recent years have had two other little known but fairly highly regarded long term title holders lose their belts in bouts where they looked awful… and old. Puerto Rican minimum and light flyweight title holder Ivan Calderon was beaten up by Giovani Segura twice and while he boxed on for a few bouts he was never the same. Likewise, Thai title holder Pongsaklek Wonjongkam was stopped by journeyman Sonny Boy Jaro and he was never the same.
Vetyeka is not a bad boxer by any means. He was coming off a stoppage win over the previously mentioned Yordan himself (and with those two wins the South African has likely put Indonesian boxing back by about a decade) and is a solid enough opponent for anyone at featherweight. Losing to him isn’t the issue. Losing to him the way John did is.
John’s 34 now, which isn’t ancient in boxing terms but is certainly up there for the lower weightclasses. He’s past his best and while in the bouts leading up to this point that had only shown through a slight reduction in speed, in this bout he looked slow, old and tired… mentally and physically. He may well box on, but much like Calderon and Wonjongjam before him, I expect him to struggle against anyone but the most overmatched. This bout was, in reality if not technically, the end of Chris John, the end of a constant.
And that leaves me with a certain pang of regret. I never loved, nor even particularly liked John, but he was a small and significant part of my boxing life. I feel sad that he won’t get the recognition on this side of the world that he probably deserves and I feel sad that Vetyeka won’t get the recongition he deserves for beating him… even a faded version. I feel sad that I never got to see bouts with Gamboa or Lopez or Caballero.
So here’s to Chris John. And to Vetyeka. And all that might have been.