Hurricane Vernon reached Augusta's mainland, and the jaw of Santiago Samaniego, with sudden ferocity Friday night.
Vernon Forrest's prodigal return to his roots proved a huge success in the ring, thrilling the intimate but loud Bell Auditorium crowd and ESPN2 Friday Night Fights television audience by stopping Samaniego midway through the seventh round to headline the seven-fight card.
By improving to 30-0 with his 25th knockout, the welterweight considered boxing's most avoided fighter proved why many in his division have been refusing fights with him. Forrest packs a wallop, and he scored early and often with overhand rights, dropping a considerable number of combinations on Samaniego's cheek.
"I was surprised he stood in there that long, but I've got to give him credit for it," Forrest said. "I was catching him with some good shots and he kept taking them."
His favorite spot seemed to be Samaniego's right temple. Sporting a 27-5-1 record, it seemed that Samaniego's only credible boxing claim is being the nephew of Roberto Duran. He should have stole his uncle's favorite line, and said "No Mas!" after the opening bell.
After one Forrest punch, it seemed that Samaniego's head would land in Evander Holyfield's front-row lap. A Forrest right-hand counter, combined with a head butt, opened a nasty cut over Samaniego's left eye midway through the fourth. Like a shark smelling blood, Forrest kept trolling.
The diet of Forrest punches finally forced Samaniego to succumb. Getting the Panamanian trapped against the ropes, Forrest delivered a left-right-left combination 1:21 in the seventh to end it.
"I was so excited early with the crowd that my adrenaline was overflowing," Forrest said of the estimated 1,200 in attendance. "My corner wanted me to settle down and pick my spots better. Once I did, everything seemed to flow."
Augustan Brandon Mitchem, though, didn't leave the ring as triumphantly. His progression up the crowded junior-middleweight ladder suffered with his unanimous decision loss to Larry Marks.
Now 18-3-1, the 22-year-old product of the Augusta Boxing Club, never could stem Marks' straight right jab, the most damaging punch of the 10-round fight. While every round proved competitive, Marks delivered the majority of the scoring blows.
The 27-year-old from Selma, Ala., won 98-93 on one scorecard, and 98-92 on the other two.
"I thought I lost," Mitchem said afterward, his two eyes swelled . "I'm the first one to admit when I lose, and tonight I thought he fought a better fight than me.
"I had to be the aggressor, and I wasn't. I didn't fight the fight I needed to."
Mitchem had hoped to use Friday's bout as a stepping stone to a title fight. He'd hoped to impress on ESPN2, enough to warrant the attention of Main Events Inc. and possibly join its powerful stable of fighters.
But with a heavy pro-Mitchem crowd, he appeared defensive in the fight's first four rounds, never really putting Marks in danger.
Mitchem and Marks had fought before, with the Augustan scoring a decision over Marks during the 1996 Olympic trials preliminaries.
Mitchem's problem Friday proved to be a lack of power, a consistent knock on the technical fighter's career. Mitchem's jab lacked the snap that Marks' did. And the plan to work the body, then move to the head, never truly materialized.
"He had pretty decent power, but just not enough," said Marks, who improved to 19-2. "He fought hard. He kept coming after me, and he proved he can take a punch."
Friday, Marks landed all the damaging blows, hurting Mitchem in the fourth with a staggering right hook, then wobbling the Augustan with a straight right in the seventh.
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