Perched on a stool in the kitchen of my parents’ ranch home, I was back in the middle of farm country for a family gathering — and therefore mainlining Bacardi Black — when my mother spoke up. Trusted arbiter of music culture that she is, mom couldn’t contain her excitement describing a new artist that she swore lived up to the dusty outlaws of my youth. “You have to listen to him,” she said. In truth, I did not. Even way back when, my tastes leaned closer to Halen than Haggard, so indulging a pop star in a trucker hat passing himself off as a beer-drankin’, truck-drivin’, Skoal-spittin’ good ol’ boy would be, without a doubt, a bridge too far.
And yet mom persisted. “His name is Chris Stapleton,” she said. “He’s really good. I just know you’ll love him.” And because my dear, sweet mother’s son can be one hell of an obstinate asshole, I now wanted nothing more than to dislike this character — this charlatan! — whom I was certain was a 23-year-old douche-bruh from Anaheim who’d grown out his whiskers and picked up a pair of shitkickers somewhere on Broadway en route to the studio to cut his first single.
None of this fazed mom. She hopped up, grabbed her iPhone and tapped a tune to life: “Parachute,” a soulful, up-tempo string-picker. Then another: “Tennessee Whiskey,” a swaying booze-and-blues insta-classic. And another: “Traveller,” a wistful, twangy gem — equal parts George Jones, Jim Croce and Ray Charles.
I adored them all.
Worst of all, this scruffy genius appeared to have walked directly off the set of “Sons of Anarchy,” had paid his dues for years writing hit songs for established musicians and, if Google is to believed, hails from Lexington. That’s right: goddamn Kentucky!
Needless to say, for introducing me to this authentic generational talent and transcendent artist capable of delivering on-demand, four-minute pulses of beauty into my daily existence, mom is still on my shit list. All of which is my painstaking way of asking to be added to your shit list, and here’s why:
You have to watch Sho Kimura-Kosei Tanaka.
Now, hear me out: I am not, nor have I ever been, a boxing hipster who scours the dark corners of the internet for some fight staged in Bangladesh and recorded on a local’s Razer phone so that I might use it as ammunition in a Reddit thread thumbing my nose at the best “big” fights. Quality counts for something, both in the moment and as part of a deeper historical context. It’s why Gennady Golovkin-Canelo Alvarez 2, a technically brilliant but somewhat antiseptic scrap, made The Queensberry Rules’ list of this year’s best fights. And it’s why Deontay Wilder-Luis Ortiz, with its staggering sloppiness, made the cut. It’s also why, say, a blood-soaked bacchanal like Alex Saucedo-Lenny Zappavigna was left off. Import matters.
So let it be known that Kimura-Tanaka, staged on Sept. 24 at Takeda Teva Ocean Arena in Tanaka’s native Nagoya, Japan, featured two of the world’s top five flyweights. That it didn’t happen in Vegas or Cowboy Stadium or feature a couple of monstrosities twice the size of Kimura (17-2-2, 10 KOs) and Tanaka (12-0, 7 KOs) was hardly consequential. Fought for a flyweight alphabet belt and before a boisterous hometown crowd – an audience with a special affinity for boxing’s Lollipop Guild — the bout was significant. More than that, it was a big ol’ beautiful boxing turducken of breathless, skillful, back-and-forth action. Incidentally, Kimura-Tanaka — 100 percent Grade-A Prime, zero parts fabrication or hype — is TQBR’s 2018 Fight of the Year.
Both men entered the fight riding the crest of compelling backstories: Kimura, 29, had recently completed a rags-to-riches journey with a title-winning knockout of Chinese Olympic hero Zou Shiming and would be making his third defense; Tanaka, already a winner of straps in two weight divisions at age 23, hoped to tie Vasyl Lomachenko for the shortest route (12 fights) in getting to three. But for this phenomenon, Scully, you didn’t need belts to believe.
Kimura and Tanaka attacked immediately, both working upstairs and to the body at elevated levels of proficiency: Liver-wilting left hooks. Guard-splitting uppercuts. Straight right-hand counters delivered with all the utilitarian violence of a posthole digger. Defense wasn’t ignored, but not for a moment was it regarded as anything but secondary to the greater goal of setting up a potentially fight-changing counter shot. For a full 12 rounds, the pocket was treated like a masochistic Thunderdome: Two men entered; neither would leave.
Tanaka had the makings of a mouse under his left eye as early as Round 1, but he seemed to control the action early — at least in so much as, say, a bull rider “controls” a 1,500-pound steer. Kimura was pressing forward, landing his share of clean shots and arguably was winning Round 2 when, with about 30 seconds left to the bell, Tanaka landed a flush left hook that briefly buckled Kimura. It was a rare moment of tangible vulnerability for either fighter.
That hardly means the fight lacked drama. The momentum shifts, especially in the middle rounds, were exquisite and frequent. If you’d parachuted in, Fan Man-style, at almost any random point of the fight, you’d have had no clue who might have the upper hand. By the 6th round Kimura’s face was puffy, and by the eighth his right eye was all but swollen shut. But in between, late in Round 7, Kimura crunched a looping right hand to the chin that buzzed Tanaka, who stumbled and may have tapped a glove to the canvas. Referee Mark Nelson, whose services were scarcely needed in this one, waved off the possibility of a knockdown (perhaps Kimura had stepped on Tanaka’s foot?), but the sequence underscored the constant threat each fighter posed the other.
Just as the bounce and footwork of Tanaka, the younger fighter, seemed to show signs of siphoning Kimura’s remaining will, the champion landed jab-jab-straight right — one of countless gorgeous combinations from both fighters on the night — to blow Tanaka’s head back and set up a crushing right hand that briefly prompted Tanaka to cover up.
It could be argued, in fact, that Kimura won the final three rounds — although one sequence in the 12th illustrated just how thankless a job scoring this fight must have been. Both gassed but impressively game, the fighters simultaneously paused to gather, lunged and delivered hellfire right hands — not once or twice, but on three consecutive occasions. It was as if Kimura and Tanaka had caught the end of Rocky III together, turned to each other and said, “Fuck that. We can do better.”
When it was over, the Japanese countrymen embraced, all smiles, and Tanaka dropped to a knee in utter exhaustion. When the scores were announced — 116-112, 115-113, 114-114 in favor of Tanaka – Kimura pitched forward in agony. But only for a moment. There was no spilled milk, no bullshit. For those of us lucky enough to tune in — or to pay attention when turned on to it — the fight was one of the finest distillations of two combat competitors taking measure of one another, exploring the outermost limits of their abilities, and allowing that to be enough. In the end, it inarguably was.
(Image: Kosei Tanaka, left, Sho Kimura, right; via)