WHEN Jorge Linares relocated to London in the summer of 2017 it felt a bit like the day in 1996 when Arsene Wenger arrived to teach both Arsenal and everybody else how to keep a football on the ground and pass it. He was, in a sense, an elocutionist sent to clean up bad grammar. He was Mr. Miyagi showing Daniel how to bring down Cobra Kai; wax on, wax off, wax on, wax off.
Brought here to educate, and both lead by example and lead the way, if you were to speak to any British fight fan – or, indeed, any British boxer – they would tell you they were blessed by the Venezuelan’s mere presence.
Jorge Linares, you see, is that good; that revered. Three big victories on British soil gave fans a taste of what the WBA world lightweight champion was all about, yet the prospect of his return – this time to train, with no intention of bashing up Brits – was viewed as a gift from the boxing gods. (Or perhaps an apology for the misery he’d previously caused.)
“I really enjoyed training in England,” Linares told Boxing News. “I like going over there because the people know me. They really welcomed me. It surprised me to learn that a lot of people on the street knew me and knew the work I had done. If I get the opportunity to go back, either to train or fight, I definitely would.”
The people of England are aware of Jorge Linares for a few reasons. They know him because he defeated Kevin Mitchell in 2015. They know him because he defeated Anthony Crolla twice; once in 2016 and again in 2017. They know him, also, because he defeated Luke Campbell six months after Crolla in Inglewood, California.
Those who have really studied Jorge Linares, meanwhile, have been discussing his brilliance since around 2002, the year he turned professional, and have delighted in watching him win four world titles in three weight divisions.
It’s still the opponents, though, who know Linares best, for they have to do more than just watch him slack-jawed in admiration. It is they who must somehow try and solve the riddle; that is, stifle Linares’ hand speed, which has at times been blinding, and also slow feet that wouldn’t look out of place on a ballroom.
Kevin Mitchell, to his credit, did what many are unable to do against Linares: he hit him, often. He unsettled the champion, dropped him in round five, and hurt him on other occasions. Alas, it still wasn’t enough. Linares, in that one, showed he was more than just a pretty box-puncher with an ability to glide like a figure skater. He showed as well that he was ballsy and was now, in what was his thirteenth year as a pro, better-equipped to dig deep and grind out a result. He got it, too, in the penultimate round.
As for Anthony Crolla, he got a bit of everything. He got some of the warrior, the Linares prepared to stand and trade and ensure he exits the exchange having landed more punches, and then, in the rematch, had to endure the matador who is economical, versatile, and full of tricks; who lands shots from angles nonexistent to most.
Finally, there was then Luke Campbell, who pushed Linares close, losing a split decision, but was forever playing catch up and forever wearing the rueful look of a man who only realised he was capable of beating the master after a lesson had been taught and he was many rounds down.
“They were all different,” Linares says of Mitchell, Crolla and Campbell. “The first one with Mitchell was very different from the others. He was very agile and strong. He was a good boxer and it was a tough fight.
“Crolla was different because instead of it being in London it was in Manchester. That was a shock. The Manchester fans were noisy and were really behind their man. By the second fight, I was a little more used to it, used to fighting in front of the British fans, and that helped me put on a better performance. I had been there before. I knew what to expect. Over there in England the fans are great. They are very passionate and loud. You have to learn how to deal with that.”
In retrospect, it was never likely to faze Linares. Not when you consider the fact he has fought in Japan, Korea, Panama, Argentina, Mexico, the United States and his native Venezuela. A well-travelled man, Linares has never been the type to require home comforts in order to click into gear and perform. On the contrary, his style, as cool as his appearance, is one that seems to be enhanced by the relaxed nature of a road trip. On the road, after all, there is often less pressure. He can therefore be indulgent. Take his time. Please himself. He is, on these trips, not the larger-than-life front man but instead a session musician more gifted than those for whom he plays music. As such, he is afforded time and space to concentrate on what comes naturally to him: the foundations, the skills, the science he makes appear sweeter than anyone else.
Perfection for a fighter, however, is sometimes counterproductive. It can help win fights, of course, but too much of a good thing – that is, too much perfection – can inadvertently turn fans away and make fights seem more like exhibitions than a source of Saturday night entertainment. Roy Jones Jr can tell you that. So too can Floyd Mayweather. The appeal with someone like Linares, mind you, is this: while his technique is near-enough perfect, and his combinations always sing, he is also balanced out by a vulnerability which ensures each of his fights teeter on the brink of disaster. It’s the thing that will likely prevent him being remembered as one of the all-time greats. Yet it is also the very thing that endears him to fans.
His first loss, back in 2009, was applied to his 27-fight unbeaten record in just 73 seconds by the fists of Juan Carlos Salgado, who, in the process, claimed Linares’ WBA world super-featherweight title. Both shocking and humiliating in equal measure, it wasn’t how Linares’ hero, Oscar De La Hoya, would have lost, that’s for sure. In fact, it seemed, back then, almost out of character for Linares. A blip, an aberration, a disaster. But it stuck nonetheless, both to Linares’ record and to his mind, and, worse, it was soon supported by further evidence in the form of back-to-back stoppage defeats against Antonio DeMarco in 2011 and Sergio Thompson in 2012. In the first of those, DeMarco managed to outlast Linares down the stretch and force an 11th round TKO, while Thompson, an unheralded Mexican, floored Linares in round two and cut him open.
Linares, they said, was damaged goods. Vulnerable. Finished.
“I have learned a lot in my career from victories and defeats,” Linares admitted. “No boxer ever wants to lose a fight but it usually happens to all boxers and you have to learn from it and become a better fighter. That’s what I did. Now I feel I am at my best as a fighter and that is because of the wins I have had and also the defeats. I am more intelligent and more dangerous.
“I started boxing at five and have been boxing ever since. That is a very long time. I know I might not have too long left in the sport. But, honestly, at this moment I feel better than ever. You’re always tired in camp, that is normal, but I’m still learning every day and enjoying the process of getting ready for a fight. That is important.”
Almost six years later, Jorge Linares is still fighting; still aware he doesn’t have long left in the sport and still as technically proficient and vulnerable as ever. He is also back. Back in the UK. Back fighting a British boxer. Back, he hopes, to some kind of form.
Yet the truth is that since telling us he “might not have long left in the sport”, Linares, now 38, has lost five of nine professional fights (albeit against decent opposition). He may therefore be in need of more than just the magic of a return to the UK, this land he has so often ruled, to reignite in him something that seems gone for good. Otherwise, tonight (October 21) against Jack Catterall, the lesson may be Linares’ to learn.