When Jaron Ennis was working his way up the boxing ladder, fighting in Philadelphia venues like the Pennsylvania Sheet Workers Union Hall and the 2300 Arena, the fights followed a familiar pattern, as they tend to when talented prospects are being developed. Ennis, and fighters of his level of talent and acclaim, can more or less do whatever they want during their early career fights. Sometimes, their opponents simply can’t absorb their power whatsoever and crumple quickly. Other times, they’re able to stay on their feet for a little while but little else, and the prospect can try out different approaches, stances and rhythms, knowing they’re in no danger regardless.
Generally speaking, fighters have to choose one, maybe two of those approaches and form a ring identity, so to speak. Most fighters are only exceptional fighting in one particular manner, their chosen style, and as they fight better opponents, naturally choose to lean on their strengths and remain in their comfort zones.
In the case of Ennis, known as “Boots,” he hasn’t had to choose whatsoever. The way that Ennis’ fights looked when he was cutting his teeth against no-hopers in converted bingo halls is exactly the way they have continued to look all the way up to present day against world-ranked, and even top-10 opponents under the bright Showtime lights.
On Saturday night in Atlantic City, Ennis put on another dazzling display, knocking out RING’s No. 9-rated Roiman Villa in the 10th round of a main event aired on Showtime. In the midst of the beatdown, commentator Al Bernstein remarked that Ennis has “a more diverse offense than any fighter (he’d) seen in (his) 42 years of broadcasting.” The list of names whose performances the Hall of Famer Bernstein has helped narrate over the course of his career simply reads as a list of the greatest fighters of the past forty years with very few exceptions. That doesn’t mean, of course, that Bernstein was suggesting Ennis is the greatest fighter he’s ever laid eyes on, but it does illustrate how rare Ennis’ level of talent is, and moreover, how notable his level and style of dominance have been to this point. In fact, until the fifth round of the bout against Villa, Ennis had lost exactly zero documented rounds on any scorecard in his career.
For the first four rounds of the contest, Ennis effectively utilized a different strategy every three minutes. In the opening round, he completely stymied Villa using nothing but a stellar left jab and movement, gliding around the ring and popping his lead hand into his opponent’s face and midsection, allowing very little to come back in his direction. It’s a strategy Ennis could have employed with success if not indefinitely, then at least for a significant period of time while he waited for Villa to be able to adapt.
But one of the things that makes Ennis great is also what makes him so fascinating as an athlete. Despite his rousing, one-sided success to this point in his career, he’s perpetually dissatisfied with his performances. "The only one I have to please in that ring is myself. And I’m never pleased," Ennis told RING's Joe Santoloquito last week. "I never think I look good. I’m always looking to get better." This pathological desire to improve is rooted in the same mindset that makes him an insatiable learner and teacher in the gym. Many have marvelled at Ennis’ involvement with even the most novice of participants in the gym in Philly, offering pointers to anyone willing to listen, but also plucking tactics from the hours and hours of action he sees on a daily basis. In fact, Boots is expected to be in the corner of Cuban amateur sensation Andy Cruz next weekend as he makes his pro debut in Detroit, helping his father/Cruz’s trainer Bozy Ennis.
In round two against Villa, pot-shotting with his left jab with impunity in the opening round, Ennis came out southpaw. Over the next three rounds, he operated mainly as a lefty, but in various different ways. He worked some more on his back foot, boxing in rhythm, but also waded to the inside and pounded Villa’s body in the southpaw stance as well. Then, at the very end of round four, Ennis worked with his back on the ropes slipping a collection of Villa’s punches so smoothly that Villa’s face visibly showed signs of discouragement as he walked back to his corner afterwards. This was more or less affirmed when, upon missing another shot to open up round five, Villa smacked his gloves together in frustration.
That frustration emboldened Villa and enabled him to win the only round the judges gave him in the fight, landing some solid uppercuts on Ennis in particular. Ennis, however, would turn that aggression against Villa in the sixth, meeting him on his own terms of slugging it out in the center of the ring, and hurting his previously undented opponent whose punch resistance had been rightfully lauded. In this sequence that lasted less than 15 seconds, Ennis landed the following: A left hook and overhand right from the conventional stance twice, a left cross as a southpaw and an uppercut, and a leaping right hook.
Plenty of fighters toy around with different styles for short periods of time during fights, but it often feels like the boxing equivalent of trying on an outfit you never intended to buy just to see how it looks. When Ennis switches up his attack, it’s like he’s coming out of the dressing room in outfit after outfit that fits him perfectly.
By the tenth round, Villa’s batteries, both physically and mentally, were drained by Ennis. The punishment had piled up, and the options for how to prevent it had too. Villa had no choice but to double down on going for broke, and the dealer swept his chips away as Ennis jackhammered him to the canvas with a barrage of right uppercuts and left hands, flowing between stances and landing at will as the crowd gasped until Villa hit the floor.
As frustrating as Ennis’ position is, waiting for the winner of Errol Spence Jr. and Terence Crawford to become available, he provides one of the most tantalizing sources of debate and fodder the boxing audience can have. An undeniably gifted talent with a grievance, a curiosity waiting to be put to the ultimate test. The possibility that the best fighter in the division featuring perhaps the sport’s two very best may not even be one of those two.