You’ll want to take Cermak west, away from the lake, then veer north on to State through the South Loop – you’ll spot Reggie’s on your right. Hang a left on 18th, through East Pilsen and on to 90 West, or keep pushing up to Printer’s Row and go west at Harrison. Just get over the river and find your way to 290 West. But if interstate traffic is a mess, stay on Harrison past the University and into the Medical District. Either way, once you hit Damen, get on headed north. See Malcolm X College? Almost there. You’re in the Near West Side, and once you have Adams and Monroe in your rearview, you’ll know you’ve arrived.
On a good day, the old Chicago Stadium is only a 20-minute drive from the site of Saturday’s semi-ambitious DAZN fight card. But inside Wintrust Arena, a year-old structure dropped in among the gleaming high-rise hotels by the great invisible hand of the market, the ghosts of the Madhouse on Madison – full-time residents like Stan Mikita and Bob Love, but also adjunct legends Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis and Gene Tunney – felt a galaxy away.
Maybe it was the ass-shakers turned up to 11 on the arena sound system between bouts. Or the carnival barker/DJ/lounge singer/hype man exhorting and exhausting the crowd at every moment that threatened to fall short of utter sensory engagement. More likely, it was the fight bill – a solid but star-power-lacking show that would bring out boxing heads but fail to energize the locals with only a passing interest. And of all the horseshit luck, Saturday would also mark the long-anticipated return to the octagon of the Dianabol Leprechaun from Hell, Conor McGregor, splintering the coveted bro demographic for the first American fight card for promoter Eddie Hearn.
So with no Robinson to be found, the only Sugar Ray left in the building was Leonard – and he at ringside, serving as a DAZN analyst. The crowd acknowledged the 62-year-old (apparently-preserved-in-amber) Hall of Famer when he was feted between fights. Michael Buffer was trotted out. Tony Bellew made the puddle-jump from the U.K. for a hot minute on camera. John Cusack even laced the event with a little local celebrity. But it felt a touch … forced. Buzz around town for the card, anecdotally speaking, was thin. And despite a bill with three title fights and a main event featuring former coulda-woulda-shoulda prospects Jessie Vargas and Thomas Dulorme, the night’s big draw was a 41-year-old Pole with three losses in his previous seven fights and more than a decade’s worth of water under the bridge since his light heavyweight prime.
Tomasz Adamek’s level of washedness did nothing to discourage the city’s fiercely proud Polish community from turning out for their guy. The liveliest moments of Saturday’s card, in fact, belonged to Adamek and, to perhaps an even greater degree, his gargantuan foil. Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller (22-0-1, 19 KO), the 30-year-old undefeated heavyweight who may yet talk his way into a world title shot against Anthony Joshua or Deontay Wilder in the near future, walked out to face Adamek (53-6, 31 KO) weighing well above 300 pounds and with his troll game tight. Miller was led to the ring by his entourage – a crew seemingly hailing from somewhere west of Zywiec – holding the Polish flag high. The big man himself stepped through the ropes wearing a crimson-and-silver robe bearing Poland’s national coat of arms and trunks undoubtedly advertising a long lost Spike Lee joint. Inscription: “Black Polska.”
That Miller terrorized the 227-pound Adamek – the lighter fighter by measure of a Victoria’s Secret model – from the opening bell didn’t seem to faze the partisan crowd. When Miller boxed Adamek’s ears moments into Round 2 and dispatched him with a right uppercut unleashed from his toes, the room erupted, briefly, in earnest excitement. Maybe the old ghosts would need to make room.
Jessica McCaskill (6-2, 3 KO), the investment-banker-turned-fighter, who most recently lost a lightweight title bid to Olympic darling Katie Taylor, was the night’s local attraction. At 34, and with only seven professional fights on her resume, McCaskill had no time to lose going into Saturday’s super lightweight title shot against Erica Anabella Farias (26-3, 10 KO). And she fought accordingly, initially anyway, plunging into the pocket and winging manically while Farias picked her spots, boxing by choice and brawling when required. But McCaskill, still a relative noob, seemed to learn on the job, round by round, showing improved timing, balance and punch variety as the fight progressed – all without sacrificing some pretty filthy power. Farias wore down, McCaskill began landing flusher shots – and more of them. After 10 rounds, the judges had decided the regulatory reporting analyst was now super lightweight champ.
Anthony Sims Jr., a good-looking light heavyweight from outside Indianapolis, took apart Mario Aguilar (19-6, 16 KO) to notch his 15th stoppage and move to 16-0. The super bantamweight title fight between ostensibly light-hitting Danny Roman (26-2, 10 KO) and Gavin McDonnell (20-2, 5 KO) simmered for a good, long while before boiling over – when Roman, after gradually softening his man, finally broke through in the 10th with a hard right hand and then a flurry that dropped McDonnell to a knee. Referee Mark Nelson didn’t like what he saw when the challenger rose again, and so he waved off the fight at 2:36 of the round. The fight of the night – a battle between undefeated cavemen Artur Beterbiev and Callum Johnson (17-1, 12 KO), for a light heavyweight strap – saw heavy action and dueling knockdowns before a hooking Beterbiev (13-0, 13 KO) right hand to the temple slumped Johnson in the fourth.
It seemed a setup for a letdown. The Vargas-Dulorme matchup staged in Chicago had seemingly been brought to you by Mad Libs. Neither fighter has local affiliations, and Vargas’ nondescript style and handful of odd results coupled with Dulorme’s too-often-chinny performances, the appeal wasn’t immediately obvious. Combine each of their previous five fights, and they’d gone 5-4-1. With no belt on the line, the closest thing to a hook for the headlining bout was a loosely based Mexico-Puerto Rico rivalry that, truthfully, no one noticed.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to the flotsam: the fighters meshed. From the start, Dulorme (24-3, 16 KO) pumped a lunging jab and made Vargas miss on what felt like every attempt to return fire, even wobbling his opponent with a left hook in the opening round. Cut over his right eye and at risk of being run out of the building, Vargas (28-2-2, 10 KO) began discovering whatever he’d been looking for around the fourth, closing distance ever-so slightly and stinging Dulorme with counter shots to downshift the Puerto Rican’s forward charge a gear or two. The fighters traded blows and high moments through the middle rounds, but Vargas, now in a groove, was landing the cleaner shots – and more of ‘em – when his overhand right dropped Dulorme (though not for good) in the 10th.
With nothing left to lose but the fight, Dulorme pressed forward in the 11th, hooking to the body and head, visibly turning the momentum back to his side. Round 12 was a peach, with a too-close-to-call outcome prompting both men to empty their bags. And it was Dulorme who authored a career highlight, in arguably his best performance to date, with a right hand that staggered Vargas and sent his glove to the canvas with 10 seconds to go. Vargas stayed up, but the damage – to the scorecards, at least – was done. Judges ruled it 115-111 and 113-113 (twice), Dulorme salvaging a majority draw (and his short-term career prospects) from a nearly sealed defeat.
Afterward, Hearn spoke of a return to Chicago – in the abstract, anyway. The Wintrust Arena upper deck had been closed off, and the lower bowl was no better than three-quarters full (and less than that after a portion of the Adamek faithful spirited off into the night after their man’s fight). Hearn emphasized the importance of building a local fight culture, stumping for the area’s McCaskills and smoke-and-mirroring a narrative for other fighters in need of a boost. For a first foray into the States, and for Chicago’s first high-profile show in years, the numbers appeared to be OK. The optics were fine.
But fight fans, with their noses buried deep in gate receipts and stream numbers, tend to forget one important detail: Casual fans don’t give a shit about the boxing business. Casual fans don’t blow off football, basketball and baseball – not to mention concerts, theater, the waterfront and god knows what else is popping – to shell out good money for weak-sauce fights. Christ, have you been on Netflix lately?
Whether it’s Chicago, Boston, Miami or some other bustling U.S. city not named Las Vegas, Los Angeles or New York, the public need a reason to show. And although we won’t know the full ramifications until the next time boxing’s circus blows into the Windy City, in this case it seemed the fights themselves were enough. Matchmakers take note.