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Winky Wright – the fighter they all tried to avoid

Winky Wright
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Winky Wright told Chris Walker about the illustrious career that took him all over the globe

“THERE’S a part of me that has to say a big thank you to Shane Mosley, because he was true to his word and he gave me a massive opportunity.”

It’s spring 2004, and Ronald “Winky” Wright has finally arrived, a masterful schooling of “Sugar” Shane forming his coronation at 154lbs. Four years previously, this had been the division to which wealthy welterweights ascended to fatten their finances, their journey to riches bypassing Wright’s neglected, forbidding territory. Winky, instead, dissected a roster of basic mandatory challengers on American soil, having spent the best part of a decade winning on the road in either breathtaking or boring fashion. Wright’s style was an effective one, but it wasn’t for everyone.

Being unfashionably late to the party did not prevent Wright from enjoying himself among high-profile fellow guests. That said, for extended portions of his early career, Winky belonged to boxing’s notorious ‘Who Needs Them Club’, and it was 14 years after he had made his debut before a showdown with the outstanding Mosley served as the platform he had craved.

“All those years on the road, fighting in those different places, I never once gave up,” Wright insists. “I always knew I was going to come back to America and fight on the big networks and beat the biggest names.”

Ignored by television and leading promoters during the infancy of his career, Wright, from Washington, D.C, but residing in Florida, set out across the Atlantic to bolster his ledger on European shows. Preferring scissors to a chainsaw, Wright was a patient southpaw with a mountainous guard, which parted on occasion when his missile jab was thrown. Fights in a variety of locations, such as France, Luxembourg and Britain, ensured Wright remained active, but dollars and distinction both eluded him.

“It could be a chore at times, but the decision to go overseas was carefully thought out and in hindsight I suppose we got the right deal,” Wright reflects. “There were some good times on the road though, great nights in London and Manchester fighting on massive UK cards. Was I aware of what people thought of my style? Yes, of course, but was I really going to go all out and risk everything in fights that could’ve spelt the end for me? Hell no.

“That safety-first style had those handling Fernando Vargas’ career thinking that I couldn’t fight, and they thought Vargas was going to be too strong and powerful for me. That fight was a massive deal on American TV, because Vargas was the pretty Olympian that everyone wanted to get behind. But this was also the fight where I was going to show everyone that I could fight, as well as do my thing.”

Wright’s battle with Vargas, a tight points defeat, occurred at the back end of 1999 and would serve as another opportunity for boxing’s outcast to obtain world title glory. An unsuccessful attempt five years earlier, partly due to a footwear mishap that saw Wright repeatedly hit the floor against Argentine veteran Julio Cesar Vasquez, was a sore point, but that failure was redeemed in 1996. A split decision win over countryman Bronko McCart brought WBO honours at 154lbs, and the belt enjoyed a dominant lap of Britain as Ensley Bingham, Steve Foster and Adrian Dodson were brutally beaten by a fighter who seemed to be enjoying himself. A loss to the excellent Harry Simon in South Africa relieved Wright of his world belt, but he would soon get another shot courtesy of Vargas, who many insiders were tipping to be a superstar. That failed to wholly materialise, and it was against Wright that the first doubts emerged.

“Looking back now, that’s still one of the lowest points of my career, because there was no way I lost that fight,” laments Wright on the majority points loss to Vargas in a superb contest during which both fighters enjoyed spells of success.

The term ‘robbery’ is often one of boxing’s most vile exaggerations, and I remind Wright that the fight was close, but he’s not to be persuaded. “Everything from the moment Vargas was in the [1996] Olympics up until the day he fought me was designed to make him be a star, and there was no way they were going to let someone like me come in and take that away from him,” Wright rails, building up a head of steam. “So much had been invested into Vargas and he was ready to take that next step, and I was chosen for him because I seemed a safe choice and because I was a defensive fighter who’d been risk-free a lot of the time. This was the fight that I’d been crying out for, for such a long time, and it was like my plan was falling into place. TV was interested in Vargas, promoters were mad about him and he had a big audience too, and all of them people were going to see me get the win over him. The result wasn’t given to me, but I knew I was the better man.”

Despite the disillusionment it caused, the Vargas setback proved to be a catalyst for the exposure and opportunities Wright yearned to receive without summarily reaching for his suitcase and passport. A seven-year winning streak encompassing an IBF title victory confirmed Wright as one of the sport’s leading fighters, and the attention that had been consistently bestowed upon his divisional peers was now directed at the road warrior whose resounding win over Mosley spat Wright out of hardcore fight circles and into the more lucrative mainstream boxing landscape.

“He [Mosley] is a true fighter, and before he fought [Oscar] De La Hoya [for the second time] in 2003, he told the world that he would face me in a unification if he was successful. [After Mosley won a controversial and unpopular decision], he was true to his word and I’m forever grateful for that. De La Hoya would not have given me that shot. He was the fight I wanted so much because he brought plenty to the table in terms of casinos and money and TV. You look at fighters like Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, both of them are extremely wealthy, but compare that to what they were making before they fought Oscar. The way to real money in this game for a long time came through De La Hoya. He was the one fighter I’m absolutely sick that I never fought. He had no interest in me whatsoever, and he even told me that himself. I was saying things to him like, ‘The defeats on your record are by guys who I’ve schooled and put beatings on, so if you beat me then there’s so much satisfaction for you because you beat the guy who beat the guys who beat you.’ He looked me straight in the eye and he said, ‘I have no idea where to even start on trying to beat you.’ Once I heard that then I knew my dream of fighting Oscar was over.”

Despite the omission of boxing’s “Golden Boy” on his ledger, Wright made do with another Mosley victory – albeit in a closer affair than the original meeting – and a wide shutout over Puerto Rican sensation Felix Trinidad. Trinidad began the fight as the favourite, but what went down was a punch-perfect clinic that had purists salivating.

“For me, Trinidad was just a hooker,” Wright opines. “A very good hooker, but you knew what punch you had to watch with him. If that’s all he’s bringing against me then you know he’s going to be in trouble. It was a fight that I knew I’d win, but I had no idea it would be so easy. The first round, I came back to my corner and I said to [trainer] Dan Birmingham, ‘This guy is trying to set me up and pull me into a false sense of security,’ because it was so easy and I expected so much better. At the end of round two, where you pick up a little bit more, I went back to the corner and told my trainer that the fight was over and it was going to be easy. He took some big shots off me that night and he did well to hear the final bell, but that was a special performance and it’s the one I get the most pleasure from.”

Wright’s raging fire burned brightest at this point, and a meeting with Jermain Taylor, fresh off ending Bernard Hopkins’ legendary middleweight reign, was next. A tense battle which frequently threatened to explode without ever actually doing so was scored a draw by the judges. It was a decision that halted Wright’s impressive streak and also a verdict which draws similar venom which was spewed following the Vargas result.

“There I was as the undisputed super-welterweight champion of the world and two years later I get to do the same against Taylor for the middleweight titles,” he recalls bitterly. “They stole that dream from me that night and I’m getting angry even thinking about it. Taylor was in his prime that night and let me tell you that I was past mine, but I still came with enough to get the decision. It annoyed me that I had to be past my prime to fight these guys, because if these chances would’ve come around ‘97-98, then there’s no way a fighter like Taylor could’ve lived with me.”

A win over a severely faded Ike Quartey later that year was the final victory of Wright’s career. A messy loss to Bernard Hopkins in 2007 prompted sustained periods of inactivity, which were only broken to accommodate half-hearted performances against Paul Williams and Peter Quillin, both of which ended in wide points defeats. A depressing ending to a story filled with courage and hope is not the fitting finale to a stay in boxing that eventually brought universal respect, and despite Wright being financially secure, his relationship with the sport that allowed him this fortune is a fractured pact that one senses will never be repaired.

“I can’t be around the sport,” he admits. “There are offers for commentary gigs, but I can’t sit there and keep quiet knowing full well a kid has just been robbed, because I know how much that hurts. I won’t be training anyone for the same reason. I’m not going to watch honest kids get taken for fools by judges. There are so many happy moments, but I should’ve finished my career unbeaten with a lot more belts and a lot more money.

“They want to criticise my style, but look at Mayweather. I remember they gave tickets away for his fights because he was so defensive and they couldn’t promote him. All of a sudden HBO bring out 24/7 and we get the bling character and he’s found his spot. He was given a chance and he ran with it and that’s all I believed I ever deserved: a chance. I’m proud of everything I walked out the sport with because I know it’s all down to me why I’ve got it.”

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