-- Imagine a boxing match in ultra-slow motion, where the knockout punch takes minutes to connect before crashing down with devastating force.
It could give you nightmares, but there you have match racing in the America's Cup. The Muhammad Ali of the moment is challenger Russell Coutts and his slo-mo victim is the man whom Coutts taught, defender Dean Barker.
Coutts, on the Swiss boat Alinghi, took apart Barker and Team New Zealand on the race course Sunday, shredded their defenses in a long and tortuous game of cat-and-mouse before delivering the killer blow in view of thousands at the finish line and millions more on global TV.
No wonder Barker wore a haunted look at a news conference two hours later. What further misery awaits?
Coutts and his mates hold a 2-0 lead in the best-of-nine Cup match after a crushing victory Saturday in wild winds and another Sunday in gentle ones. Which hurts worse is hard to say, but Sunday's seven-second loss in the tightest Cup match in a decade will be fresher in Barker's mind and hard to erase.
His Team New Zealand seemed sure to even the score at 1-1 to the satisfaction of thousands of onlookers on a sun-splashed Hauraki Gulf, but the win was cruelly plucked away.
Coutts trailed most of the day but would not go away, pecking at the lead and finally rumbling up to challenge after rounding the last turning mark 26 seconds astern. Attacking from behind, he ushered TNZ out to one corner of the course, then back to the middle and out to the other side like a beagle hounding a rabbit.
There's a chilling sound every racing skipper fears -- the bow wave of an oncoming boat growing nearer and louder. Onboard cameras caught Barker nervously peeking over a shoulder as Alinghi rolled inexorably forward and finally up and over TNZ with the finish line in sight, stealing the defender's wind and leaving Barker nowhere to run or hide.
"Nobody said anything on the boat because we've practiced the move a lot and we all knew what to do," said Josh Belsky, one of the two Americans on Alinghi. "We had to come out hot after we rolled them and hold them off for about four minutes."
The Swiss crew executed the move perfectly and as the gun sounded to signal victory by the closest margin in a Cup race since 1992, when Il Moro di Venezia beat America3 by three seconds, there was stunned silence.
New Zealanders wear their hearts on their sleeves. On a sloop full of Kiwi partisans, someone raised aloft a sign that said, "Bugger!" the local equivalent of "Nuts!"
Nuts indeed. With an off day scheduled today, Barker and his young crew have time to digest what's befallen them, and it won't be pleasant.
Saturday, TNZ came apart in strong winds, breaking down 20 minutes into the race after preparing three years for it. The Kiwis were towed home, marking the first time a boat had retired from the first race of a Cup match since Resolute did so in 1920.
The breakdown meant the Kiwis had no chance to measure speed against the swift challenger until Sunday, when winds were light, and they will take comfort from the fact the boats seem comparable in those conditions.
Alinghi eked out a slim, 12-second lead on the first leg, but Barker passed the Swiss boat downwind with help from a wind shift and clung to the lead till the shocking reversal at the finish.
"We know we're competitive," said Barker, 29, Coutts's understudy at the helm when the 41-year-old Alinghi skipper headed up Team New Zealand three years ago. "We think we can beat these guys. We just have to make sure we don't make mistakes."
"There's not much in it," agreed Belsky. "The boats are pretty even." The Alinghi crewman, veteran of two previous Cup campaigns and a Cup winner in 1992, said Alinghi's principal advantages may be the experience of Coutts and the hard racing he's been through to get this far.
While Alinghi compiled a 26-4 record in challenger trials, Team New Zealand was off on its own, training and in-house racing against a sister boat. It's the difference between sparring and boxing.
"No matter how hard you practice in-house, it doesn't hit you full-strength until you do it for real against another team," Belsky said. "With in-house racing you don't smash into each other, you don't tangle rigs, you back off."
In competing for four months against eight other challengers, "We got battle-hardened," he said, "and good at figuring out quickly the other guy's weaknesses."