TACOMA — His beet-red right ear still ringing and his swollen right eye shrouded by a sleek pair of post-fight sunglasses, Martin O’Malley wracked his brain for answers.
All the Edmonds boxer found was remorse.
“It hasn’t even sunk in yet,” O’Malley said following his lackluster unanimous decision loss to Luis Villalta in the main event of a seven-bout card July 19 at the Emerald Queen Casino.
What was billed as a surefire stepping stone to big-name fights and big-time paydays for O’Malley quickly deteriorated into a frustratingly flat outing for the previously once-beaten 135-pounder.
Villalta had O’Malley backpedaling from the opening bell, inflicting enough damage to win almost every round on all three scorecards and assume ownership of the vacant North American Boxing Association lightweight belt.
Each of the ringside judges scored the 10-round title fight 97-91 in Villalta’s favor.
“He’s a good fighter,” O’Malley said. “But right now, I have everything it takes to beat this guy. That’s what’s so hard.
“I can do drills from now until the end of time, but if I’m not going to execute them in the fight, it doesn’t matter.”
Suffering his first professional defeat since falling to current World Boxing Association lightweight champion Leo Dorin two summers ago, O’Malley (21-2, 14 knockouts) came out cautious and uncharacteristically out of sync.
Even in the later rounds he never managed to find a rhythm or find an opening to catch Villalta (30-4-1, 25 knockouts) with an effective combination.
“I was stuck in the mud,” O’Malley said. “I just didn’t get going. I wasn’t fluid.”
O’Malley’s timing appeared to be off and he was tentative at times to trade punches with the hard-throwing Peruvian, who dictated most of the action but never landed a solid, knockout blow.
While O’Malley, 28, managed to duck most of Villalta’s power shots, Villalta, 33, stayed out of trouble by avoiding O’Malley’s stiff left jab.
“When I was jabbing, when I was doing the right things it was working,” O’Malley said. “It just wasn’t consistent. I don’t know why. I had this happen as an amateur but this is the first time as a pro. I just couldn’t let my punches go.”
That wasn’t a problem for Villalta, who floored O’Malley twice in the fourth round – first with a sharp left hook less than a minute in and later from what O’Malley contended was a “blatant shove.”
An incidental headbutt produced a slight cut above O’Malley’s right eye in the first round, but a looping hook Villalta planted on his right ear not long after proved to be much more bothersome.
“I got caught with a shot early and it kind of took me out of my game plan,” O’Malley said. “My eardrum busted. It was ringing bad.”
Blood flowed from O’Malley’s nose in the sixth round and again at the close of the ninth after the fighters exchanged vicious shots to the face.
Villalta iced his victory with a spirited start to the 10th round, then began to celebrate after the final bell sounded by leaping onto the ropes and raising his gloves high above his head.
It was the second win in three months for Villalta, who had never seen O’Malley in action but came out of the bout thoroughly impressed.
“He’s a very skillful boxer, a very good warrior,” Villalta said through an interpreter. “He’s got a lot of experience. He’s got 16 years of boxing. He was brave, (he put up) a lot of resistance.”
Undeterred by the partisan hometown crowd, Villalta seemed to be enjoying himself. He teased O’Malley throughout the fight, at one point playfully staring him down then pointing to the canvas as if to coax O’Malley to scrap the cat-and-mouse game and meet him in the center of the ring.
“He was running a lot,” Villalta said. “I wanted him to fight because people were booing a lot and they wanted action. I wanted to give people a very good fight.”
Many were calling the matchup a crossroads fight for O’Malley. A victory would have made it easier for him to set up higher profile bouts down the road.
But with Villalta swiping the belt and the WBA top 10 ranking that goes with it, the outlook for O’Malley becomes less clear.
“These are the (fights) you need to learn from. It’s an unforced error to lose to a guy like this,” O’Malley said. “I’m going to be really hard on myself. This is not acceptable, to lose to a guy I’m so capable of beating.”Enterprise sports editor David Pan contributed to this story.