MASHANTUCKET, Conn. — Woonsocket’s Joe Gardner got exactly what he wanted on Friday night -- a very competitive fight against a former world title challenger in front of a near sellout at Foxwoods Resort Casino’s Fox Theater and a nationally-televised ESPN “Friday Night Fights” audience.
Unfortunately for Gardner, he got something he didn’t want -- a left rib injury in the middle of the third round that hindered him in the fourth round and saw him unable to answer the bell for the fifth of his six-round super middleweight bout against Elvin Ayala of New Haven, Conn.
This fight was a back-and-forth affair that saw both fighters split the first two rounds, but Ayala (22-5-1, 9 KOs) landed a hard body shot that reaggravated a rib injury Gardner (7-2-1, 1 KO) suffered in his last fight back on Nov. 12 at Twin River against West Warwick’s Keith Kozlin.
“I thought I was doing good,” admitted Gardner. “I thought I won the second (round) and the third was going well, but he caught me with a couple of good body shots. I tried to fight it, but I just couldn’t recover. I couldn’t get out of the way and I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move.”
Gardner finished off that round strong, but midway through the fourth, he was victimized by another crushing shot to the rib by Ayala and dropped to the canvas on one knee.
Gardner soon returned to his feet, but 20 seconds later, Ayala landed another shot in the same area, and again, Gardner dropped to one knee, punching the canvas in anger as he grimaced and tried to fight off the pain.
Gardner again got back on his feet and finished the round, but he was unable to leave his stool for the fifth.
“I was telling him, ‘I think (Ayala’s) getting tired. Hit him with a straight right hand,’ ” noted Gardner’s trainer, Bob Moreau.
“But I couldn’t breathe,” Gardner interrupted. “(Assistant trainer) Chuck (Sullivan) asked me if I wanted to continue, and I didn’t answer fast enough, so he told the ref that was it.”
In his last fight with Kozlin, a six-round unanimous-decision victory that gave the Woonsocket Boxing Club standout the EBA (Eastern Boxing Association) New England light heavyweight title, Gardner broke a rib. But he was quick to note that it was healed and good enough to absorb hard punches.
“(The rib) was perfect,” he admitted. “I don’t think it’s rebroken, I think I just bruised a muscle around it. I got hit with so many in a row on the same lung, I just couldn’t breathe any air into it.”
Gardner refused to use his injury as an excuse for the defeat, or the fact that he took the fight a week after Ayala’s original opponent, Samson Onyango of Newark, N.J., pulled out of the bout. Instead, he gave credit to where it was due and praised Ayala for a job well done.
“You cant take anything away from him,” said Gardner. “He was crafty. He’s a great fighter. He definitely had the speed and he was putting his punches together better than me. I couldn’t get any punches together. I’d get in a few jabs and then he’d time me with a fast move away or a quick counter.”
Ayala, who was six weeks removed from an unanimous-decision victory over Mustafah Johnson at the Mohegan Sun Arena, had dropped three of his last five fights before beating Johnson, but those defeats came against some of the top middleweights in the world.
Last summer in Montreal, Ayala fell victim to a first-round stoppage to David Lemieux (22-0, 21 KOs) for the WBC (World Boxing Council) International middleweight title, and prior to that, he suffered a 12th-round TKO to Arthur Abraham (25-0, 22 KOs) for the IBF (International Boxing Federation) belt.
“We dealt with a guy with over 30 fights and a lot of experience,” remarked Sullivan. “He’s fought world class fighters throughout his whole career. Joey took the fight because he got hot; he’s a fighter, he gave it a try, and he’ll be fine. He’ll come along and he’ll develop.”
Gardner, who was fighting Ayala in the swing bout, made his debut on ESPN thanks in part to another Rhode Island fighter, Providence’s Vladine Biosse.
The unbeaten super middleweight (11-0, 6 KOs), who fought in the 9 p.m. co-feature, made quick work of his opponent, Tim Connors (10-3, 7 KOs) of St. Louis by knocking him out 37 seconds into the fifth round.
With the main event, pitting Philadelphia‘s “Hammerin’” Hank Lundy against Londonderry, N.H.’s Patrick Lopez for the vacant NABF lightweight title, not scheduled for another 30-40 minutes, Gardner and Ayala were able to fight in the national spotlight.
“I was excited (to be on ESPN), but disappointed with the way things went,” Gardner noted. “But I can take away a lot from this. I learned a lot of lessons from this fight, and that’s one thing you gain fighting higher opposition.”
After a few days of rest, Gardner plans to return to the gym and get ready for his next test.
He was supposed to defend his title last March 16 against Joey McCreedy of Lowell, Mass. at the Royale in Boston, but the show was suddenly postponed (and soon cancelled) when the venue didn’t turn in their application for their permit in time and McCreedy was unable to fight the following week.
“Hopefully (CES) can get me something right away,” noted Gardner. “(CES president) Jimmy (Burchfield) has taken care of me and he’s keeping me busy and that’s all I can ask for.”