LAS VEGAS -- The morning after losing his junior middleweight championship to underdog Paul Vaden, Vincent Pettway searched for words to express the disappointment.
Saturday night's fight ended with the referee throwing a protective arm around Pettway with 27 seconds left in the final round.
"It was a disaster, terrible, and any other words you can find like that," said Pettway, his right eye swollen shut. "I just didn't have any energy. I can't explain it. I've never had trouble with my conditioning before."
Cornerman Eddie Mafuz, who has been involved in boxing for more than 60 years, said, "I don't know what was wrong with the kid. After only two rounds, he was already gasping. He just wasn't the same fighter who knocked out Simon Brown. There was no fire in his bones."
Conversely, Vaden, with the wiry frame of a long-distance runner, gathered strength as the fight progressed. Known mostly for his boxing ability, the San Diego native turned aggressive in VTC the closing rounds and finished Pettway with a heavy barrage of unanswered blows in the 12th round.
Ringsiders were surprised to find out that, entering the final round, Vaden needed either a knockdown or knockout to win. He was trailing by a point on all three judges' cards.
But Mack Lewis, Pettway's trainer-manager, like most of the crowd of 4,962 at the MGM Grand, believed the champion was behind.
"I thought he'd have to take Vaden out to win it," said Lewis.
In boxing, the official scoring is not known until the fight ends.
"If I had known I was ahead, I would have made him chase me the last round," said Pettway. "Even if he won the last round, 10-9, it would have been a draw and I'd have kept my title."
But Pettway and his handlers acknowledged he had done little in the ring to deserve such good fortune.
"We had a bad night," Lewis said in the fight manager's vernacular. "Vincent just didn't seem as strong as usual. Conditioning is the biggest thing in any sport. There's no 'going back to the drawing board.' He just has to work harder.
"He hurt Vaden a couple of times, but didn't follow with a hook. And he stood straight in front of Vaden and gave him a chance to counter."
For all his problems, Pettway still won five of the first six rounds on the strength of his body attack. But if he expected his slender rival to wilt, he was badly mistaken.
"I wasn't worried about body shots, because I do 800 sit-ups a day and get up at four every morning to run," said Vaden, who improved his record to 24-0.
"Actually, his body punching opened things up for me and allowed me to catch him with uppercuts. But I sensed from the sixth round on that I was going to take it. I just wanted to get into the late rounds."
Despite his undefeated record, Vaden was relatively unknown to boxing fans outside Southern California, and his list of obscure victims prompted debate as to whether he deserved his No. 1 ranking.
But Vaden proved he was more than deserving, and also displayed decent punching power.
"Since I've been working with him the past two years, he's been willing to sit down and trade punches," said trainer David Love. "He's gained confidence and it's made him an all-around fighter capable of beating anyone."
But the question was raised: Does Vaden pack a punch, or is Pettway's chin vulnerable? All five of Pettway's losses in 44 fights have resulted from knockouts, although his loss to Victor Davis was because of a badly cut eye. Also, the previous rivals who stopped him -- George Leach, Javier Suazo and Stephan Johnson -- were not regarded as knockout artists.
Still, Pettway had been unbeaten over the past four years and got off the floor to knock out former champion Simon Brown in his first title defense last April.
Against Vaden, however, he was repeatedly rocked by punches that did not appear particularly hard.
"Flat" was a word heard over and over again from members of Pettway's entourage who tried to explain the stunning loss. But no one argued with Steele's actions in stopping the fight with 27 seconds remaining.
"How could I argue when the kid is getting hit with all those shots and not fighting back?" said Lewis.
Pettway has one option remaining with promoter Don King, who talked of a possible rematch with Vaden after the new champion makes his first defense.
But Pettway, always confident, must now harbor some self-doubts. He also faces the unenviable task of explaining things to his son, Terrell, 9, who watched the fight at home.
"Terrell just can't understand how his daddy could lose," said the