Venezuelan, with a Japanese Godfather.
A bleeder with movie star looks.
A brilliant stylist, great talent, an inscrutable life lived in Tokyo, London, and now Vegas.
If Jorge Linares were selling imported beer, he'd be the most interesting man in the world. As a fighter, however, he remains a more ambiguous proposition: a longtime champion still searching for his signature performance.
And that is why, to his enduring credit, he made this fight with Vasiliy Lomachenko. Yes, there were myriad factors that conspired to overcome the sport's siloed promotional interests. It didn't hurt that Linares' Japanese promoter, Akihiko Honda, is well-respected by both his American promoter, Golden Boy, and Lomachenko's outfit, Top Rank. After a couple calls from CAA, HBO relinquished its objections while ESPN agreed to move the start time of a women's softball game. All sensible conciliations in the name of commerce. But this fight's not happening because of business so much as ambition -- mostly, Linares'. At 32, he's been a pro since 2002. He didn't just want this fight; he felt he needed it.
"When I win this fight, everything in my life, everything in my career, is different."
What's more, to his everlasting credit, Linares managed to use social media not to assign blame, as is usually the case in blood sports like boxing and politics, but to get actual stuff done. When the promotion threatened to go sideways, he didn't call out Lomachenko. Rather, he appealed to what is best and most honorable in both of them, tweeting at him on Feb. 15:
@VasylLomachenko I know you are ready for May 12. Also I am too. I don't want politics to interfere with our bout. I will tell my promoter @GoldenBoyBoxing no matter what will take the fight for the benefit of boxing and the fans. #teamlinares
- #KingJorge �� (@JorgeLinares) February 15, 2018
It's been a curious arc, to both his life and career. Linares was already a three-time national champion in Venezuela when WBA president Gilberto Mendoza brought him to the attention of Mr. Honda, as he's invariably called in boxing circles. Honda was impressed, arrangements were made and Linares moved to Tokyo, where he began apprenticing at Honda's Teiken Boxing gym. He was 16.
"Mr. Honda became like my second father," he said.
Eighteen of his first 23 fights were in Japan. For his 24th, in 2007, he made his American debut while knocking out Oscar Larios for the WBC featherweight title. His path to greatness looked clear and unobstructed. But in the years since, the losses seem more striking than the wins.
In 2009, Linares suffered a first-round KO by Juan Carlos Salgado.
OK. You get caught, it happens.
Then, two years later, what began with Linares outboxing Antonio DeMarco for a vacant lightweight title ended looking like a splatter movie. Linares was still ahead on all cards, but his several cuts (one of them first opened in training camp, he says) were so gruesome that the ref stopped it when DeMarco staggered him in the 11th.
Even more curious, however, was his next fight out, against Sergio Thompson in Cancun. It lasted less than two rounds. Not only was Golden Boy thinking of dropping him, Linares himself was contemplating retirement.
"Go back to Venezuela," he recalls Honda telling him. "Think about your life, your family, your career. Take your time. If you want to come back to Japan, let me know. I will wait."
Some months later, Linares returned to Teiken, where Honda paired him with veteran Cuban trainer Ismael Salas.
That was October 2012. He hasn't lost since.
He's beaten some excellent fighters -- including some Brits on their home turf in London and Manchester. Still, he lacks the kind of win one would have predicted back in 2007 when he beat Larios in Vegas.
"I need a big name, a big fight," he says. "Now."
It's been three years since Linares told Golden Boy's matchmaker, Roberto Diaz, that he wanted Lomachenko, were the Ukranian ever to move up. Then there was Mikey Garcia, to whom Golden Boy extended an offer. When Garcia moved up to a 140-pound belt rather than accept Golden Boy's offer, this fight became imperative for Linares.
For the record, Linares considers this the easier of the two: "Mikey Garcia is more dangerous for me."
"When I win this fight, everything in my life, everything in my career, is different." Jorge Linares
Whatever the case, Lomachenko remains a heavy favorite in his lightweight debut, -2000 at the Westgate. It's worth noting, too, that Salas won't be here this time, having remained with a spent David Haye who was knocked out over the weekend. Linares' chief second will be his kid brother, Carlos. But you get the feeling that the real boss -- even as it pertains to strategy -- is Mr. Honda.
Honda flew in a couple weeks ago to watch Jorge spar nine rounds. Then he worked with him in the ring, seeing to it that Linares threw everything with full force -- including, or especially, the jab.
Linares, who's been studying film of his opponent every day, believes he's detected his opponent's vulnerability.
"I think the jab," he said. "The power jab."
It would, at least in theory, enable Linares to control the distance and use his natural advantages in reach, size and power.
So while Lomachenko works in circles, Linares wants to control the distance and the center line.
It's what he asked for, the Venezuelan Samurai. There will be blood.
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