Lucas Matthysse had been denied winning world titles in two previous opportunities in upset losses. In his third chance, he got the job done on Saturday night.
His fight with Tewa Kiram had been an advertisement for an insomnia cure for the first seven-plus rounds, but Matthysse finally came alive in the eighth round, when he scored two knockdowns and knocked Kiram out to win a vacant secondary welterweight title before 6,143 at the Forum in Inglewood, California, in the main event of HBO's first boxing card of 2018.
"He felt my power. He didn't feel it at full strength, but he felt that my hands are very heavy," Matthysse said through an interpreter.
Matthysse previously claimed an interim junior welterweight title, but a world title had eluded him. He was upset in a decision loss to Danny Garcia in 2013 and stunningly knocked out in the 10th round of another big upset loss, this one to Viktor Postol in 2015.
Postol broke Matthysse's orbital bone and scratched his cornea, leading to a 19-month layoff. But Matthysse returned in May under the guidance of new trainer Joel Diaz and looked good knocking out Emmanuel Taylor in the fifth round in his first fight as a welterweight on the Canelo Alvarez-Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. undercard last May.
That win positioned him for a vacant title fight against Kiram, though it was for a secondary belt to unified titleholder Keith Thurman's so-called "super title."
The fight with Kiram began as a feeling out process and never picked up.
Kiram displayed a solid jab, but it had little impact on Matthysse (39-4, 36 KOs), who was the bigger puncher but appeared much smaller.
Matthysse said he was prepared for Kiram's jab. He said Diaz's game plan called for him "to shorten the distance and look for the body. I noticed his punches were not hurting me, so I started pressuring him a bit more."
Kiram (38-1, 28 KOs), who was facing the first notable opponent of his career, caught Matthysse with a decent shot that raised a little bit of swelling over his left eye in the fourth round, but there were very few clean punches.
Kiram, 25, who was fighting outside his native Thailand for the first time, spent a lot of time backing up, and while Matthysse came forward, he was not the aggressive stalker he typically has been.
In the sixth round, referee Raul Caiz Sr. warned Kiram for holding, which he tried to do whenever Matthysse, 35, of Argentina, got in close.
Finally, in the eighth round, Matthysse broke through and landed a hard right hand to Kiram's head to knock him down. He appeared alert and rose at the count of eight, but moments later Matthysse dropped him again with a left jab that did not seem to be all that powerful of a punch. But Kiram was motionless under the bottom ring rope, and Caiz waved off the fight at 1 minute, 21 seconds. Kiram was taken to the hospital after the fight as a precaution, according to a Golden Boy spokesperson.
"I just couldn't catch him. He was moving very well, but I was finally able to connect," Matthysse said. "Eventually everything worked out the way we planned. I think maybe he was looking for a way out at the end."
It was a merciful ending to a fight that had virtually no action. The CompuBox statistics were desultory for both fighters. Matthysse landed only 59 of 246 punches (24 percent), and Kiram landed 55 of 277 (20 percent).
At the time of the knockout, Matthysse led 69-64 and 68-65 on two scorecards, but Kiram surprisingly was ahead 68-65 on judge Pat Russell's scorecard.
By claiming the secondary 147-pound belt, Matthysse will be one of Thurman's mandatory challengers. But even if that fight happens, it's a long way off. Matthysse has other ideas about whom he would like to fight.
"The best. I want the rematch with Danny Garcia or [a fight with] Manny Pacquiao, the best," he said. "I know I am here for the biggest things."
Linares cruises past Gesta
In the co-feature, lightweight world champion Jorge Linares retained his title for the third time and won his 13th fight in a row with a dominant, unanimous decision against Mercito "No Mercy" Gesta.
Linares won by scores of 118-110, 118-110 and 117-111. ESPN.com also had Linares winning 119-109.
They swapped a lot of clean punches, but it was Linares who was landing the harder shots. He connected with several clean right hands, body shots and flashy combinations against Gesta, who was sloppier with his punches and not nearly as hard of a puncher.
In the sixth round, Linares, a Venezuela native living in Las Vegas, landed a big right hand, and Gesta responded by smiling, the boxing sign that he sure felt it.
Gesta, a Philippines native fighting out of San Diego, opened a small cut over Linares' right eye in the eighth round. He has had problems with cuts, but his corner kept this one under control, so it did not cause Linares any major problems.
"I didn't really feel his power, though I hurt my hand in the fourth or fifth round," Linares said. "I threw my right hand without really putting too much power into it. There wasn't a knockout because he was well-prepared."
Linares (44-3, 27 KOs), 32, also dominated the CompuBox statistics. He landed 171 of 585 punches (29 percent), and Gesta connected with 120 of 515 shots (23 percent).
"I fought against a world champion, and that was a great privilege," Gesta said. "He adjusted well to my style after the first couple of rounds. Overall, I am proud of myself for taking this tough fight, and I know me and coach Freddie Roach came in with the best game plan. We just fell a little short."
The win was Linares' second in a row at The Forum, where he won a split decision against mandatory challenger Luke Campbell in September.
Gesta (31-2-2, 17 KOs), 30, dropped to 0-2 in world title fights. In 2012, he lost a one-sided decision to then-titleholder Miguel Vazquez and had not lost since until facing Linares, who has designs on bigger fights against either fellow lightweight titleholder Mikey Garcia or junior lightweight titlist Vasiliy Lomachenko, who is on the verge of moving up in weight. But Linares declined to call anyone out after the fight.
"Like I said to [Golden Boy Promotions CEO] Oscar De La Hoya, I don't want to mention names for my next opponent," Linares said. "You know what's nice? That people mention my name. That's fine that they mention my name, but let's get them in the ring. Let them get in the ring with me."