When you ask Isaac Dogboe to reflect on his December loss to Emanuel Navarrete, the former junior featherweight world titleholder has an unusual response: He's sorry.
"I'd like to apologize to all the fans who were disappointed in my performance," said Dogboe, who until his unanimous decision loss to Navarrete was having a banner 2018, with impressive stoppage victories over Cesar Juarez, Jessie Magdaleno (to win the WBO title) and Hidenori Otake.
What was supposed to be a rather routine title defense at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York instead became the most disappointing night of his career. Midnight struck unexpectedly on this Cinderella story. After talk of unifying the 122-pound class heading into that fight, Dogboe suddenly finds himself trying to reclaim his belt.
Dogboe will have the opportunity on Saturday, when he faces Navarrete in the rematch at the Tucson Convention Center in Tucson, Arizona, but some things will have to change.
Dogboe, who at 5-foot-7 conceded a 5-inch height advantage to Navarrete, couldn't get it going against the awkward and lanky Mexican challenger, who was able to keep him at bay and then muffle Dogboe as he got inside. Although the scores read 115-113, 116-112, and 116-112, the fight felt more lopsided.
"You have to give credit to Navarrete. He won fair and square," Dogboe said. "But on my part, that's something that we have to rectify, and this trip is to set the record straight."
Did Dogboe overlook or underestimate Navarrete? Dogboe said there were other issues, such as dealing with injuries before the fight.
"Well, before the Navarrete fight, I had to go through a lot of things," he said. "I was ill during camp. I had to be traveling a lot of times, dealing with a lot of injuries also. I mean, things that were not in my control. When you're fighting, things happen, and you have to find ways to go about it.
"So coming into the fight I was hopeful. I wasn't in the best physical shape, but I was hopeful. I believed that I would rely on my other attributes. I could just go out there and blow Emanuel Navarrete out. But that wasn't the case. He came prepared, and he won that night."
Image: Isaac Dogboe, left, lost the WBO junior featherweight world title to Emanuel Navarrete in December.Al Bello/Getty Images
Instead of executing his game plan, Dogboe was hoping for a big shot that could end the night. Unfortunately for him, Navarrete was as tough as he was tall. Dogboe said that even when he was able to maneuver inside, he simply couldn't pull the trigger.
"It just wasn't my night," he said.
Dogboe's adviser, Mike Altaruma, believes the blowout of Otake might have given Dogboe a false sense of confidence.
"Maybe Isaac wasn't quite prepared for that kind of challenge, and it reflected in his conditioning," Altaruma said, adding that Dogboe put on more than 30 pounds after the Otake fight in August.
"I tried to reiterate a few times in the lead-up that [Navarrete] was a very, very tough challenger," Altaruma said. "In fact, Navarrete was installed by the WBO as the mandatory challenger, and he had awkward dimensions."
After the loss to Navarrete, Altamura had a frank discussion with Isaac's father and trainer, Paul Dogboe.
"It was a very brutal and very raw chat," he said. "It's tough because when I work with fighters, I'm not a hired cheerleader."
It's a fine line between supporting a boxer and being a supplicant.
"It's a blessing to work with talent," Altamura said. "But part of your responsibility is to always be honest, and sometimes in being honest, you have to enlighten them and tell them the harshest of truths."
The first step in regaining his belt was to make sure that Dogboe didn't put on so much weight that he'd be considered a middleweight.
"Isaac has a propensity for his weight to go up in between camps. So it's essential we monitor that and get on top of that early," Altamura said.
There was another component that was different this time around. Dogboe's father wasn't with him the entire time before the Navarrete fight.
"The first fight, I wasn't with Isaac in the first phase of the training camp. I was in Ghana. He was in England," the elder Dogboe said. "And then when he came and I tested his fitness level, I saw he wasn't in optimal shape. When I questioned him, he said everything was going to be all right."
Image: Isaac Dogboe's training camp for his rematch against Emanuel Navarrete has been better according to Dogboe's father.Mickey Williams/Top Rank
Despite all this, there was a belief (or maybe misguided hope) that Dogboe would defeat Navarrete, who instead outfought him over 12 rounds. But to the father, this fight wasn't lost on the night of Dec. 8. It was lost in the months preceding it.
"So this trip we've put all that behind us. Isaac was in training camp for almost three-and-a-half months since the beginning in Ghana, until we came to Arizona," the trainer said.
There's a chance that Dogboe will be better prepared, both physically and mentally, for the rematch. But there is one reality that hasn't changed: Dogboe hasn't gotten any taller, and Navarrete hasn't shrunk.
How do they deal with this size deficit? Navarrete will always pose stylistic and physical problems for Dogboe.
"You see, Isaac was supposed to be going forward, closing that gap and then taking [away] that jab from Navarrete," Paul Dogboe said. "Then going to the body from the first round. Then the head comes in the middle rounds. Then we take him out.
"But then Isaac's legs were gone. He wasn't fit. So he couldn't put that pressure on Navarrete like we had planned. I believe this fight you will see a different Isaac Dogboe, going forward to Navarrete's body and taking him out. He's totally fit."
Dogboe seemed to have crossed the fine line between confidence and arrogance in the first fight. Saturday will likely show whether that has changed since his first defeat.
"Yes, he's humbled," his father said. "But sometimes these things need to happen for the kid to know that there's somebody training even harder out there. He thought that nobody could beat him in that position because we had cleared the top guys in the division. So we just thought, 'Oh, we're just going to walk through Navarrete.'
"Everybody was a little bit surprised, and we paid a price. So now we know at this level you cannot underestimate anybody. That's a lesson that we all learned. So it's going to be different this time."
After going from an unknown commodity at the beginning of 2018 to the latest champion from Accra, Ghana -- which has a proud fighting tradition, having produced world champions such as Azumah Nelson and Ike Quartey -- Dogboe was signed to a co-promotional deal by Top Rank, which gave him a huge platform with which to ply his trade. How he comes back from a major disappointment could define his career, and the ball is now in his court.