Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Weekend Recap: Whose Stock Went Up?

After a huge boxing weekend that featured pay per views in both America and the U.K., it's time to assess how the principals performed and what may be next for them. For the fighters listed, I'll recap how they fared and how their respective statuses in the sport have changed after their performances.
 
Manny Pacquiao: Rising
 
Pacquiao scored six knockdowns over Chris Algieri (although not all of them were legitimate) and dominated from start to finish. Winning by 16 points on two cards and 18 (yes, 18!!!!) on the other one, Pacquiao still looked like a dominant fighter in the sport. Although he faced some criticism for not putting Algieri away, Pacquiao showed excellent power and if the bout featured a competent ref or opposing corner, the fight surely would have been stopped. It was also nice to see him feature his right hook and some body punches; it was an overall well-rounded performance. After the fight, the obligatory Floyd Mayweather trumpet was sounded. Who knows were Manny goes next but he's certainly still in business as a world-class fighter and top box office attraction.
 
Chris Algieri: Falling
 
Not lacking confidence outside of the ring, Algieri transformed into an altogether different, timid creature once the opening bell sounded. Spending most of the fight on his bike, Algieri didn't perform like a boxer who was there to win. Refusing to plant his feet or engage for prolonged stretches, Algieri's offense consisted of flicking jabs and the occasional right hand. He was never in the fight for one second and he looked overmatched throughout the bout's entirety. Although he does have a lot of options in the 140-lb. division, he's going to have make some real changes to his approach. Algieri's current form doesn't allow for enough offense to beat the elite in the sport and he needs to expand his punch arsenal. I'd also suggest getting a real trainer.
 
Tony Bellew: Slightly Rising
 
Bellew beat his archrival Nathan Cleverly via a split decision. The bout was a rematch of a close fight that Bellew dropped in 2011. With Saturday's win, I'm sure that Bellew gained immense personal satisfaction from finally taking down his nemesis. However, for boxing fans, the bout was torture. Bellew wound up winning on account of his superior effort, not necessarily because he was all that effective. Bellew did have the heavier hands throughout the fight but only when he landed, which wasn't nearly often enough. He was able to break through during the last four rounds, where he teed off on a gassed Cleverly, who parked himself on the ropes. Bellew is now in line to face cruiserweight champion Marco Huck. There was nothing in Bellew's performance on Saturday that would cause even a moment's pause among the current cruiserweight titlists.
 
Nathan Cleverly: Falling
 
Alarmingly, if Cleverly decided to muster his reserves and go all out in the 12th round, he could've earned a draw, which in my opinion wouldn't have been a just verdict. Cleverly did so little in the last half of the fight, and even in the early rounds he didn't seem right to me. Sure, he won some rounds with his jab and defensive technique but his legs weren't there at all. He looked to be fighting at half-speed. Throughout most of the bout, he refused to throw his right hand and it was clear that he wasn't fighting to the best of his abilities. His performance could have a number of explanations: he was hiding an injury from training camp, he over-trained, he was scared to throw his right because of a counter, he lacked confidence, or any combination of the four. Ultimately, it was a listless performance, devoid of the passion and energy of his best efforts. Cleverly needs to evaluate whether he wants to continue boxing because he will soon turn into roadkill if he doesn't reconnect with his love of the sport.
 
Roman Gonzalez: Rising
 
Gonzalez continued his path of destruction by stopping Rocky Fuentes in the sixth round (he has a ridiculous 85% knockout rate). Gonzalez featured his entire arsenal in the fight and his relentless pressure and savage body attack wore down the usually durable Fuentes. The top dog at flyweight, Gonzalez has several attractive options for 2015, perhaps the best one being a rematch against titleholder Juan Estrada, whom Gonzalez beat in a thrilling match in 2012 at junior flyweight. Estrada has improved significantly since that bout while Gonzalez has continued to beat down all comers. Here's hoping that fight happens next year.
 
Vasyl Lomachenko: Rising
 
Featherweight titlist Lomachenko dominated mandatory contender Chonlatarn Piriyapinyo, winning by 13 points and scoring a knockdown in the fourth round. But that recap doesn't even begin to tell the story. Lomachenko's breathless footwork, punch variety, athleticism and combination punching were absolutely thrilling to watch and his fourth round was the best three minutes that I've seen from a boxer all year. Lomachenko hurt his left wrist in the beginning of the seventh round but he still won the remaining frames with a stunning display of intelligence, angles and creativity. Watching Lomachenko maneuver himself around his opponent and land lead uppercuts and hooks, I felt like I was observing the epitome of the sweet science. In only four professional fights, Lomachenko already possesses pound-for-pound level skills. He wants a fight against fellow titlist Nicholas Walters in 2015, one of the best matchups that can be made in boxing. If Lomachenko can defeat Walters, he will quickly ascend to the upper reaches of the sport.
 
Anthony Joshua: Rising
 
Joshua blew through British trial horse Michael Sprott in one round, pulverizing him with vicious right hands. As usual, Joshua mixed in patience with his ferocity. His knockouts continue to come during the flow of action, not on account of wildness or being out of control. Now 10-0 with 10 knockouts, Joshua will next fight American Kevin Johnson, a boxer who should be able to give him some needed rounds.
 
James DeGale: Rising
 
Facing former title challenger Marco Antonio Periban, DeGale unleashed a sweet combination in the third round that ended the fight. (Perhaps it was stopped early, but hey, it's Britain. These things happen.) He started the damage with a lightning-quick left hand, followed up with a few more shots and concluded matters with another hard left. No fighter had ever dominated Periban to that degree. DeGale has really turned a corner in his career and his improvement can be attributed to his belief in his own offense. As he has become more comfortable in the pocket, his right hook and straight left hand have become powerful weapons. DeGale is currently in a holding pattern until Carl Froch decides on whom he will next fight (DeGale is Froch's mandatory challenger for one of his title belts). Irrespective of Froch's decision, DeGale looks to be on target for his first world title shot in 2015.
 
Marco Antonio Periban: Falling
 
Periban is going backwards in his career. Last year he had a hard-fought draw against then-titlist Sakio Bika. Now, he has lost to J'Leon Love and DeGale in consecutive fights. Periban missed weight badly for Saturday's fight and didn't seem to be in good shape for the match. Periban looks more and more like a gatekeeper than an actual contender in the super middleweight division.
 
George Groves: Unchanged
 
After an uncomfortable first three rounds against Denis Douglin, a southpaw who had spent most of his career at 154 and 160 pounds, Groves went back to basics and eventually bested him, scoring a stoppage in the seventh round. Groves fought recklessly early in the bout, reaching with knockout-type shots that mostly hit air or shoulder. Once he realized that he had a fight on his hands, he started putting punches together, stopped overcommitting with his shots and did an excellent job of hammering the body. Quickly, Douglin lost his friskiness. Groves possesses a lot of quality attributes in the ring – athleticism, fast hands and good offensive technique. However, it takes him a while to make adjustments and he makes his fair share of strategic and tactical mistakes. Next, he could be in line to face titlist Anthony Dirrell, which would set up a fascinating contest between two flawed but explosive super middleweights.
 
Jessie Vargas: Rising
 
Vargas turned in one of the best performances of his career by defeating Antonio DeMarco by a unanimous decision (116-112 x 3). Working with Roy Jones as his trainer for the first time, DeMarco did a much better job of sitting down on his shots than he has in recent fights. In addition, he showed a very solid beard. Vargas may never have the power or elite athleticism to be the top guy at 140 or 147 but he's certainly able to defeat B-fighters and perhaps pick off an elite talent who's having an off night. His name has been floated as a Pacquiao opponent for 2015 but I don't think that he has the profile for such a high-powered event. (However, nobody last year would've picked Algieri as a future Pacquiao opponent – strange things happen in this sport.) It's more likely that we see Vargas next against a tough guy like Postol or Provodnikov. Either of those fights could be fantastic.
 
Antonio DeMarco: Unchanged
 
DeMarco is a heavy-handed guy who can look extremely vulnerable against athletic boxers. Even though he dropped Saturday's decision to Vargas, he still had several moments in the fight and showed that his power can play up at 140. And make no mistake; Vargas had to be very good to beat him. DeMarco still doesn't have much of a right hand but his left cross and uppercut remain serious weapons. He'll always be a live underdog because of his power but I wouldn't favor him over anyone in the top-15 of the division. With that being said, guys with power are only one punch away.
 
Scott Quigg: Unchanged
 
Junior featherweight titlist Quigg easily dispatched Hidenori Otake, winning at least 10 rounds on each scorecard. It was a very workmanlike performance, with Quigg going hard to the body and showcasing his inside fighting skills. A lot of British fans enjoy ragging on Quigg because his title reign has been littered with weak opposition and he lacks the flash and sizzle of fellow titlist Carl Frampton. And although those criticisms may be correct to a degree, Quigg has turned himself into an excellent technician in the ring and a fighter who truly enjoys mixing it up in close quarters. All that he needs now are suitable opponents. Paging Eddie Hearn. Paging Eddie Hearn.
 
Jamie McDonnell: Unchanged
 
Bantamweight titlist McDonnell struggled early against late-replacement Javier Chacon and the fight was very close through six rounds. As the match progressed, McDonnell started to have more success, landing his jab and power shots with increased frequency and authority. In the 10th, Chacon stopped the fight after injuring his shoulder, giving McDonnell a TKO win. Ultimately, McDonnell wasn't particularly sharp and he'll need to be a lot better in his next outing, a unification match against fellow titlist Tomoki Kameda.
 
Zou Shiming: Rising
 
In just six professional fights, Zou has already shed many of the amateur habits that don't translate well into pro success. Under trainer Freddie Roach, the decorated amateur has become much better at harnessing his power and sitting down on his shots. He also seems much more comfortable fighting in the pocket. On Saturday, Zou showed a menacing right hand and in another encouraging sign, he took several hard punches yet he maintained his aggressiveness throughout the bout. He dropped Kwanpichit OnesongchaiGym four times, picking up a wide decision win in his first 12-round fight. Already 33, Zou will be looking for a title shot in 2015. I wouldn't make him a favorite against any of the current flyweight titlists but he's certainly progressing into a viable challenger.
 
Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
@snboxing on twitter
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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Previews: Pacquiao-Algieri, Cleverly-Bellew II

Saturday offers fight fans two significant boxing cards, headlined by Manny Pacquiao (56-5-2, 38 KOs) defending his welterweight title against Chris Algieri (20-0, 8 KOs) in Macau, China and Nathan Cleverly (28-1, 14 KOs) rematching Tony Bellew (22-2-1, 14 KOs) in Liverpool, England. Both bouts feature compelling style matchups. For Pacquiao, one of the sport's true superstars, he faces a unique challenge with junior welterweight titlist Algieri: a youthful, intelligent and rangy jabber with excellent movement. Throughout Pacquiao's illustrious career, he has yet to take on a fighter with Algieri's dimensions. The bout will take place at a catch weight of 144 lbs.

Cleverly-Bellew II is a return to one of boxing's most spirited grudge matches; Cleverly won the first battle by majority decision in 2011. Cleverly and Bellew mesh together in the ring exceedingly well – Cleverly has the boxing skills and foot speed while Bellew has the heavier hands. An added dimension to the rematch is that the fight will be contested at cruiserweight (the first one was at light heavyweight). 

Both bouts should produce their share of fireworks. Read below to for my previews and predictions for the fights.  

PACQUIAO-ALGIERI

What's at stake?

For Pacquiao, he must confirm that Father Time isn't knocking on his door. After picking up an excellent win over Tim Bradley earlier in the year, Pacquiao reestablished himself as a top prizefighter. However, Bradley's poor game plan, remaining stationary and trying to win with his only moderate power, played into Pacquiao's hands. At 35, Pacquiao is much closer to the end of his career than he is the beginning. His foot speed isn't what it once was and Algieri's footwork and reliance on his reach could produce some significant difficulties for Pacquiao if he can't effectively cut off the ring. A loss for Pacquiao would severely hinder his bargaining position for a 2015 mega-fight, against guys like for Juan Manuel Marquez or Floyd Mayweather. 

Algieri wants to establish that his split decision win over Ruslan Provodnikov wasn't a fluke, a product of two kind judges. The fight had wildly divergent scores (I thought that Algieri lost handily) and with that result Algieri enters Saturday's contest as one of Pacquiao's weaker challengers on paper. Nevertheless, Algieri gets his big shot on Saturday and he does possess the types of tools that could provide for an intriguing fight. If he beats Pacquiao, he will become a huge player in the sport. 

The major question for each fighter: 

Does Algieri have enough of an offensive arsenal to win seven rounds?

Manny Pacquiao’s punches are eye-catching. Constantly coming forward, throwing fast and accurate combinations, Pacquiao connects with judges. Algieri's style is more of a negative one, boxing off of his back foot, moving along the ropes to evade prolonged exchanges and popping his jab as if his life depended on it. Against Provodnikov, who had bad footwork and problems cutting off the ring, Algieri used spacing and athleticism to stick and move. He also did feature a right hand and a left hook. They're accurate punches but shots without power; he rarely sits down on them. Algieri is going to have to do enough offensively to convince two judges to give him seven rounds. Facing a fighter as friendly to judges as Pacquiao is will be a tall order.

Can Pacquiao consistently cut off the ring?

If he can, it's an easy fight. If he can't, Algieri could have some real success. As a corollary to this question, Pacquiao will have to fight close to three minutes a round. During dead spaces, Algieri will fire off his jab and if Manny takes too much time off during rounds...well, you can see a scenario where Algieri could start to pile up points. What may be more troubling than the decline of Pacquiao’s foot speed is his diminished work rate. Often, he's now down to 40-45 punches a round, which is a big drop from his peak. If Pacquiao’s not active enough, Algieri could jab him to death. So, it's not just if Pacquiao can cut off the ring, but, does he have the desire to keep doing it for 36 minutes? 

Any X-Factors worth considering?

Freddie Roach was in Provodnikov's corner for the Algieri bout. I'm sure that Roach feels that his fighter didn't lose the match but that result is now in the past. More importantly for Pacquiao is that Roach has had a first-hand look at Algieri's strengths and weaknesses in the ring and Roach is one of the better trainers in the sport at preparing a game plan (specifically an offensive one). If Manny still has his athleticism, Roach will provide him with an excellent blueprint for success. 

Another factor worth considering is how Algieri will respond to the bright lights. Let's face it: a year ago he was a Long Island club fighter who was happy to sell 1,000 tickets to a show. Now, after months of promotion, media scrutiny and buildup, it's unknown how he will react to such an imposing atmosphere. The big fights can sometimes make Pacquiao's opponents do weird things (Bradley and Clottey are recent examples). Will Algieri have the mental toughness and discipline to execute when all of boxing's eyes are watching him?

The verdict:

Pacquiao defeats Algieri by unanimous decision – something like 117-111, nine rounds to three.

CLEVERLY-BELLEW II

What's at stake?

Bragging rights. This fight has all the makings of a classic British drama – entitlement, envy, revenge, retribution. It could be a Merchant-Ivory production for the pugilist class. Cleverly was one of Frank Warren's prized prospects. He's the fighter who did just enough to eke out a win three years ago and  has won a world title belt. Bellew probably believes that Cleverly's belt should have been his. Plus, these two just don't like each other whatsoever. Yes, the victor of this contest could go on to fight for a cruiserweight title but for these two fighters, the real glory comes on Saturday. 

The major question for each fighter:

Can Cleverly fight intelligently?

Cleverly has a maddening flaw throughout his career: he voluntarily relinquishes his advantages. In the Bellew bout, Cleverly dominated whenever the action was on the outside yet he insisted on taking the fight right to Bellew, giving his opponent opportunities that he otherwise wouldn't have had. If Cleverly boxed and moved, he would have won that fight far more easily than he did; however, intelligence isn't his calling card in the ring. Similarly, against Sergey Kovalev, Cleverly failed to respect Kovalev's power and stood directly in front of him, leading to a massive beatdown. Although it's quite possible that he couldn't have beaten Kovalev under any circumstances, he picked perhaps the worst possible strategy to try to win the fight. Cleverly still has speed, reach and technical advantages over Bellew but will he use them?

Will Bellew's power at cruiserweight swing the fight in his favor?

Bellew has knocked out both of his opponents at cruiserweight, albeit against lesser opposition. He believes that he's much more powerful at the higher weight class. During the Cleverly fight, Bellew landed a number of his best right crosses, but they weren't enough to lead him to victory. However, at the new weight, it's certainly possible that his power will be an even more significant factor in the fight. Furthermore, Cleverly's chin hasn't been adequately tested since his loss to Kovalev. Perhaps Cleverly can't take Bellew's best punch at cruiserweight. If Bellew can get to Cleverly's chin, the fight could very well be his. 

Any X-Factors worth considering? 

Bellew will be fighting at home, so that certainly could be an advantage with the crowd and judges. However, their first fight was also in Liverpool and Cleverly was successful in winning a decision. The big-fight atmosphere could help or hurt either fighter and it will be fascinating to see which one does a better job at following his game plan, placing himself in the best position to win. 

The verdict: 

Cleverly defeats Bellew by unanimous decision, along the lines of 116-112, 8 rounds to 4. 

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
@snboxing on twitter
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Saturday, November 15, 2014

My Hopkins-Kovalev Weekend Part II

Click here for Part I

The sun sets in Atlantic City and fight night is here. There's a massive undercard leading up to the televised fights, with something like 48 bouts on it (slight exaggeration) and none of them promises to be all that interesting. Poor David Greisman has to get to the arena by 5:15 to catch the first fight. The HBO broadcast doesn't start until 10:45; that's going to be a long night for him. 

Before heading to the fight, a festive meal is needed. And there are of course more people to meet. The guy's name is James Bagg Jr. (@jamesbaggjr), although that's a pseudonym. Over the last few years he has carved up Twitter with his hilarious boxing memes and ridiculous captions to pictures in the boxing world. To this point, very few had met the man, who is actually a literacy teacher in New York City. His arrival for fight weekend was a mini-event among many of the boxing guys in our circle. Bagg drove down from Staten Island with two of his friends and we meet at the lobby of the Claridge. 

Also joining us for dinner is James Foley, the co-host of the weekly TOBR boxing podcast who flew in from Chicago, and Tim Starks. This is one funny group. After patrolling the chilly Boardwalk for acceptable places to eat (it took a while – this one's a vegetarian, this one doesn't eat seafood, etc.), we settle on Buddakan at the Caesars Pier, one of the nicer restaurants in Atlantic City. Now, I wouldn't say that as a group we were badly dressed, but upon entering the restaurant there was a collection of young ladies wearing their best dresses and done up to the 9's. We may have looked a little scruffy by comparison. 

Dinner rolls on and it's a rapid-fire exchange of jokes and good-natured ribbing. I keep checking my phone for updates to the Felix Sturm-Robert Stieglitz fight in Germany, getting the latest from Arran McLachlan, a boxing sharpie I know who lives in Scotland. As we are paying our check, Brian Campbell, Eric Raskin (who writes for Grantland and does the HBO boxing podcasts) and Brin Jonathan Butler (another boxing writer) meet up with us. Campbell and Raskin will be on camera after the fights and look sharp.  

After dinner, we take some group pictures and I head back to the hotel room to charge my phone and kill some time. Personally, I get worn down by watching 10-fight cards. I like to show up for a preliminary bout or two and then stay for the televised fights. Following the early bouts via Twitter, it doesn't seem as if I'm missing much. 

***

Making my way into Boardwalk Hall always excites me. Seeing many wonderful fights there, like the Williams-Martinez series and Taylor-Pavlik I, the place oozes history. It held the 1964 Democratic Convention. The Miss America Pageant has almost always called it home. The Beatles played there! Built in 1926 and declared a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1987, the arena is the perfect venue for boxing. With not a luxury box in site and very few advertisements in the main bowl of the arena, every seat is on top of the action. The views on the second level might be better than those on the bottom tier.  

I make my way to my section where I sit next to Chris Lukach and his father, Pete, or, as we call him, Big Pete. Chris (a former co-worker of mine) and I share a lot of the same tastes, such '70s funk music, rodeos and of course boxing. He was also with me for my first live fight, the double bill at Boardwalk Hall featuring Cotto-Quintana and Margarito-Clottey. Over the years, Chris, his father and I have gone to see a number of fights together and Big Pete often hosts us for the big PPV cards. Big Pete loves any fighter from Eastern Europe but as I take my seat, he assures me that his Eastern European predilection is not why he's going with Kovalev by knockout. He likes Krusher tonight because he thinks that Kovalev is too strong and hungry at this point of his career for Hopkins.

Ninety minutes or so until the HBO telecast starts, there's a lot of time to kill. The final undercard fight is a non-competitive bout between undefeated prospect Vyacheslav Shabranskyy (who was one of Hopkins' chief sparring partners for Kovalev) and "the opponent," Emil Gonzalez. After two rounds, Gonzalez's corner stops it. Chris and I walk around the arena a few times and catch up on what's going on in our lives. The arena is pretty much filled up. 

The first fight of the HBO broadcast features Sadam Ali, an undefeated 2008 U.S. Olympian, against hard-hitting Luis Carlos Abregu of Argentina. This is an important symbolic matchup because it's the first non-purse bid Golden Boy-Top Rank fight in several years. It's also an odd pairing of fighters because Ali hasn't been thought of as a particularly elite prospect and Abregu has run hot-and-cold in his U.S. television appearances; it seemed strange for HBO to invest in this fight. Leading up to the bout, not a single person whom I talked with thought that Ali, who struggled in his last outing against Jeremy Bryan, would defeat Abregu, who has beaten quality fighters like Thomas Dulorme and Antonin Decarie. 

As expected, Ali dances around the ring as the fight starts. He uses his jab and speed to keep Abregu away. If you squint hard enough, Ali looks like the recent version of Amir Khan, who under trainer Virgil Hunter has emphasized his natural athleticism and boxing technique to avoid prolonged exchanges. This style can be effective but it's certainly not crowd-pleasing. In these early rounds, Ali makes Abregu look like a helpless plodder. 

What I appreciate most about East Coast boxing crowds is that you can't bullshit them. Ali is stinking the joint out and the crowd is booing by end of the first round. Abregu looks slow and tentative. He can't cut off the ring effectively and in instances where Ali takes a break from running, Abregu pays him far too much respect. Abregu almost refuses to press the action. 

As the fight progresses, Ali starts to sit down on his power shots. Buoyed by his early success, he puts two and three-punch combinations together and, surprisingly, his power is getting to Abregu. In the sixth round he drops Abregu and the crowd starts to get energized. Feeling more confident in the pocket, Ali continues to take more risks, giving Abregu some openings to land his right hand. Abregu in particular has a very good eighth round. And although Ali is comfortably ahead at this point, Abregu still seems dangerous. 

But Ali puts an end to any conceivable Abregu comeback in the ninth round. Mixing in a blistering right uppercut with his straight right hand and left hook, Ali tags Abregu at will. He scores a knockdown with some savage power shots and later sends Abregu almost through the ropes. Ref Harvey Dock stops the fight at this point and the crowd applauds Ali's performance. It was a strange bout, where a stinker turned into to a thriller in just a few moments. Ali will now look to become a player in the deep welterweight division and I'm sure that he will find his way back to HBO very soon. 

***

The energy in the building picks up between fights – perhaps a little too much because a huge brawl breaks out right above the floor seats. This one gets contained fairly quickly (there will be another one) and everyone gears up for the main event. Unfortunately, the sound system for the night pales in comparison to what your Walkman could produce in the '80s. It's impossible to hear clearly anything that Michael Buffer says in the ring. 

On the arena monitor, Hopkins is shown in his green Alien mask and the crowd goes wild. The fighters make their way to the ring and I'm guessing that the support is split 70/30 in favor of Hopkins. After getting into the ring, Hopkins, still in full Alien regalia, goes to each corner of the ring and stares down the audience. Chris and I crack up. Whatever you might want to say about Hopkins, he really tries hard to sell himself. 

From the opening bell, Kovalev works the jab and the right hand, mixing shots to the head and body. Hopkins uses the ring to find angles but barely lets his hands go. Near the end of the round, Kovalev, catching Hopkins transitioning from defense to offense, connects with a short right hand that sends Hopkins to the canvas. It's not a thunderous blow but Hopkins' chin has been so good over the years; whenever he goes down, it's a big deal. 

In the second round, Hopkins tries to set a trap. Covering himself up in the corner, Hopkins invites Kovalev to come closer. Kovalev throws right hands to the body and jabs as Hopkins remains in his shell. Hopkins then explodes with a right hand and Kovalev responds immediately with an even bigger right hand, sending Hopkins right back to the corner. At this point, I know that Kovalev is fully prepared for the fight. 

I'm sure that Hopkins and his team studied Kovalev's fight against Cedric Agnew, where Agnew would blast out of the corner with one or two quick punches, catching Kovalev off guard. In those situations, Kovalev was unprepared to counterpunch. But in watching round two against Hopkins, Kovalev, and his trainer, John David Jackson, have clearly worked on improving in this scenario. When Hopkins fires, Kovalev is always prepared with the counter. Advantage: Kovalev.

As the rounds play out, I'm amazed by Kovalev's discipline and intelligence. He doesn't let Hopkins clinch or work inside, geographies that clearly favor the grizzled veteran. Even when Hopkins stays in place on the ropes, Kovalev doesn't take the bait. He's not rushing in trying to end it. Instead, he peppers Hopkins with thudding jabs and right hands, using his range and reach to limit Hopkins' opportunities. Kovalev doesn't get caught up in being macho; he's just trying to pick up points. 

Watching Kovalev's performance, it's a pleasure to see him execute such a sublime game plan. Jackson (a former Hopkins opponent and co-trainer) knew the exact formula to beat Hopkins: punch volume, distance and not overcommitting on shots. Following the formula, Kovalev cruises through the rounds. Hopkins lands a couple of decent right hands in the fifth and a few in the eighth and ninth but that's about it. Tonight he's outgunned by a younger and stronger fighter and he knows it. 

The 12th round is some special stuff. Hopkins, refusing to finish meekly, lands his best shot of the fight to start the round. Kovalev is affected by the right hand and Hopkins goes for the kill. After taking a moment to regroup, Kovalev returns fire with punishing right hands and left hooks. He follows the old man around the ring Krushing him with power shots from all angles. This is why Hopkins didn't open up throughout the fight; when he finally did, he's met with type of hellfire that permanently changes a man. By the end of the round, Hopkins is teetering. Referee David Fields would be well within his rights to stop the bout but he's letting Hopkins make it to the final bell if he can – Fields probably ends it if it's not someone of Hopkins' stature in there. After Hopkins' catches hellacious bomb after hellacious bomb, the bell rings and the crowd roars with approval. 

With this performance, Kovalev cements his status as one of the top fighters in boxing and Hopkins deserves credit for having the intestinal fortitude to last 12 rounds against that type of vicious assault. To Hopkins' credit, he didn't resort to any of his dirty tactics in the fight. He took his beating like a pro and really went for it in last round. 

Max Kellerman interviews Kovalev and there's a mixture of elation and relief on the fighter's face. He knows that this is his moment and I'm sure that he feels a tremendous source of pride in how he performed on the biggest stage of his career. He pays his respect to Hopkins, credits his team and looks forward to his next opportunities. 

In defeat, Hopkins is surprisingly gracious. He knows that he has been beaten by a better man and there is no excuse making or attempts to diminish Kovalev's accomplishment. Hopkins wishes Kovalev a continued run of success as a light heavyweight champ. 

By now, most of the crowd has filed out but there are I'd say still 1,000 or so fans still in the arena. Many inch their way closer to the ring as Hopkins talks. After his interview with Kellerman ends, Hopkins is cheered by the remainder of the crowd; clearly his career ring achievements and his grace in defeat resonate with them.

***

Chris and Big Pete leave the arena and a few minutes later I make my way to Caesars. The post-fight euphoria is in full effect at the casino with the craps tables bustling, the aisles full with people coming back from the fights and the high-dollar blackjack tables filled. A rush of energy permeates the air.

I head over to Toga Bar but I'm not in a celebratory mood. My worst feeling in boxing this year was the night that Sergio Martinez took a hellacious beating from Miguel Cotto. Watching Martinez limp around on one leg, a shadow of what he once was, seemed like the cruelest of punishments to me. In fact, I didn't travel to Madison Square Garden to see Cotto-Martinez in case that exact scenario occurred. I hate seeing an older master take a sustained beating. 

Although I respected Hopkins' dignity in his losing effort tonight, I didn't enjoy watching him get pulverized. I had seen Hopkins bested before. Chad Dawson clearly outclassed him, but tonight was different. Tonight Kovalev manhandled him; I don't have the post-fight glow as I make my way into Toga. 

I scan the room and the boxing crowd has already started to gather. I say hello to those I know. There's Chris and Liza from Virginia, Ramiro from Texas, Mark from North Jersey, a whole crew from Philadelphia, @smelodies, from wherever @smelodies is from. After a few minutes I walk away from the boxing folks and head over to the bar. 

I'm sipping a Johnny Walker Black and sit quietly for a few moments. I start laughing when two 30-something hookers next to me mock a couple of younger pros working the other side of the bar. "Look at those girls with their asses hanging out. That's not sexy. Learn how to dress!" 

In time, more boxing people funnel in. I start talking with Aris Pina and Bob Canobbio of CompuBox. A few minutes later Foley and Bagg come over. I shoot Foley a derisive look when he attempts to order a Malbec at Toga. We start talking about the fights and are all impressed with Ali's performance. None of us saw that coming. And we pay the highest compliments to Kovalev. We knew that he could punch but none of us realized how smart of a fighter he is. 

Little by little, our section fills up. Campbell and Raskin make their way over. Some HBO guys, including Kieran Mulvaney and Mike Gluckstadt, an editor for HBO.com, do as well. Talking about the fights, my spirits are lifted. What's next for Kovalev? There's no way Stevenson will fight him. That was a great crowd tonight. 

Soon Nicole and Lisa Duva make their way over and Bagg spends some quality time talking to Nicole. Starks and Greisman arrive after the press conference ends as well as Greg Domino, who works at the communications department for HBO Sports. 

We're all having a good time, downing some drinks, cracking jokes and talking about the fights. At 4 a.m. Toga closes and we make our way over to Bally's where the Kovalev afterparty is in full effect. 

***

Even though it's well into Sunday morning, the L Bar at Bally's teems with excitement. Members of Kovalev's team and many of his supporters are there, celebrating the victory and going through some serious amounts of vodka. Greisman fills me in on the post-fight press conference and I congratulate Kathy Duva (Kovalev's promoter) on her victory. 

Greisman and I spot Egis Klimas, Kovalev's manager, and we make our way over to him. We reintroduce ourselves to Klimas (I had previously met him last year in Denver) and Greisman tells him that he was nominated earlier today by the East Coast division of the Boxing Writers Association of America as manager of the year. Klimas is gracious regarding the honor and then makes a joke about not winning last year. Greisman then asks Klimas where tonight ranks in his career in boxing. Klimas gives an interesting answer, which I'll lightly paraphrase.

"If Lomachenko [another Klimas fighter] beat Salido in just his second pro fight, that would have been number one. But he didn't so tonight is clearly my best moment in boxing." 

"I'm surprised you said Lomachenko would have been number one since Hopkins is a legend." Greisman says.

Klimas looks at us for a moment and says, "Well Salido is a legend too. He's a great fighter." 

I think about what Klimas had just said and it stars to resonate. Now, most wouldn't claim a 12-loss fighter like Orlando Salido as a legend or an all-time great, but what Klimas revealed is very much how Salido is perceived in the sport, which is, pardon my French, that he's one tough motherfucker. Klimas saw how vicious Salido was that night, how much pride he had and the hell he put Lomachenko through, especially early in the fight. We talk about that bout for a few minutes and then the topic turns toward tonight's action. 

I ask Klimas about his confidence level going into the fight. He responds that when he heard that the Hopkins camp was using Shabranskyy as a sparring partner, he felt very confident. We then talk about Klimas' immediate plans for Kovalev and he tells us that he wants Kovalev to fight often on HBO to broaden his audience. If a big fight comes, it comes. 

Klimas, although clearly reveling in the huge victory, has many interesting insights regarding how to build Kovalev. He notes how the Russian fan base needs to be built and that it would take a number of fights to make Kovalev a real box office draw. 

The conversation remains very interesting until Lem Satterfield of Ring TV.com decides to hijack it with a stupid question. He asks Klimas if he envisions a Kovalev-Golovkin fight happening soon. Klimas shoots him a dismissive look and says, "GGG is at 160 and Kovalev's at 175. I don't see that fight happening." Lem pursues this line of questioning and Klimas starts to get annoyed. I leave and go over to the other side of the bar. 

It's now five in the morning and Kathy Duva is still beaming with pride in her elegant purple dress. Well-wishers come over and she talks with everyone about Kovalev's magnificent performance. I take a seat right by her and soon Lisa Duva, who refers to herself as "the black sheep of the family" since she isn't in the boxing business, comes over to sit next to me. Although not officially with Main Events, she knows how important Kovalev's win is for her family and the company. We talk about Lisa's work in New York City's film office and her neighborhood back home. 

I stand up to talk to Kathy. She's kicked off her Jimmy Choo shoes and she's enjoying a drink. I ask her if she was worried coming into the fight. She said that at first she had some concerns but then after talking to John David Jackson, he told her, "we got this," and then she felt much better. She sings Jackson's praises for quite a while. I then ask her about Kovalev's future and she says that she just wants him to stay active and in front of people. She isn't expecting Stevenson to fight him and she doesn't seem to be all that concerned about Kovalev's next opponent.  

She tells me a great story of how Kovalev came to her attention. After other promoters passed on him, Klimas negotiated to get him on one of her undercards. As Duva relays it, Klimas said, name whatever fighter you want and Kovalev will fight him. Duva picked Darnell Boone because Kovalev had struggled with Boone in their previous fight plus Boone was a known commodity. Once Kovalev destroyed Boone in their rematch, Duva was sold on him. She signed him up immediately after that fight. From that night on, she knew he was something special.  

We start to talk about what is next for her company. The output deal she had with NBC Sports Network has concluded and as of now she doesn't have a lot of dates for her fighters. She told me that she's been busy talking with ESPN and other potential partners and that they'll (Main Events) figure out a way to keep their fighters in action.

When talking to Kathy Duva, one thing really stands out: her competitiveness. Even though her promotional company is relatively small, she stands by Main Events' record in developing fighters, identifying new talent and creating stars. We spend probably 10 minutes talking about how hard it has been for her to get Steve Cunningham bigger fights. 

Going back and forth on Cunningham, another thing occurs to me; she really gives a shit. Just hours after one of the biggest recent victories for her company, she's still laser-focused on getting one her other fighters another big opportunity. This isn't for show. She's really bothered by Cunningham's plight. We talk for a few more minutes about her fighters who had won on the NBC Sports card earlier tonight and then I thank her for her time.  

I check out the crowd, which is still going strong. Bagg and Foley are like two peas in a pod – taking pictures, cracking jokes, one-upping each other on funny responses. Campbell and Nicole Duva are having laughs all around. I start talking with Gluckstadt, Greisman and Starks about the night that was. We all realize that we witnessed a special performance and we were happy to be there for it. 

At 6:15, I say my goodbyes to everyone at the bar and head upstairs to my room. Another fantastic boxing weekend has unfolded and I couldn't be happier. 

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
@snboxing on twitter
Follow Saturday Night Boxing on Facebook:

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

My Hopkins-Kovalev Weekend Part I

I leave Philadelphia for Atlantic City around 1:45 on Friday afternoon to catch the Hopkins-Kovalev weigh-in. I usually don't care much for weigh-ins and rarely attend them. Yes, they can be amusing displays of regalia and pomp, but ultimately, the crowd gathers, the fighters get on the scale, there's a forced staredown for marketing purposes and it ends. Weigh-ins are more often than not the definition of anticlimax. 

However, Bernard Hopkins isn't any ordinary fighter; one never knows what to expect from him. Plus, he has meant a ton to me over the years and really helped me appreciate boxing on a more cerebral level. Also, I'm a fan of his shtick. What can I say?

Walking into the weigh-in at Caesars, I'm surprised by how many people are there, not to mention the rows and rows of chairs filled up by media members. Atlantic City has had very few fights of real significance over the last decade but this one has piqued the curiosity of fans and media alike. People are actually excited to be there for a Bernard Hopkins fight, a rarity indeed!

Tattoo is on the microphone doing his thing, trying to amp up the crowd. For some reason, Golden Boy keeps trotting him out to their events; I wonder if he has dirty pictures of someone.

Besides Tattoo, the stage is empty. There's a large crowd of Russians in the audience. And while they have their native flags and Team Kovalev gear, they aren't as boisterous as say, the Polish fans are for Adamek or even Wladimir Klitschko's supporters. Overall, the crowd is lively but not necessarily rabid. Hopkins has his cheering section but he doesn't engender the passionate frenzy that other superstars do in the sport. People root for him, support him, respect him, but how many really live or die with him?

As 3 p.m. approaches, Michael Buffer makes his way to the stage. He's there to announce the weights for the HBO fights; Tattoo will handle the preliminary bouts. The lights go down and the Corona girls file in behind Buffer. The promoters (Oscar de la Hoya and Kathy Duva) and the state athletic officials come on stage. I'm glad to see that Larry Hazzard Sr. is back leading the state athletic commission. He was forced out years ago because of a silly political issue. For my money, Hazzard was the best boxing commissioner in the U.S.

Within moments, Hopkins and Kovalev are ready to weigh in – Hopkins, 173.5; Kovalev, 174.5.  Both fighters stand next to each other for the staredown, which for Hopkins seems to be his default setting. Will there be pushing? Punches thrown? Inappropriate gestures? Drama?

Not today. Everything is benign. And with that, pictures are taken and the fighters and their teams exit, not to be seen or heard from until tomorrow night. Like a graduation procession, the boxers from the various undercard bouts are announced to the stage. They undress, make weight and then leave so that the next two contestants can partake in the ritual. It's all very orderly.

The crowd starts to file out. ESPN is doing a live recap of the weigh-in and it's good to see that the network has deployed a number of reporters for the weekend. For their stand-up TV spot, Dan Rafael, Brian Campbell and Kieran Mulvaney are giving their thoughts on the fight and a number of fans are watching them. 

Harold Lederman, HBO's unofficial ringside judge, is in the back of the room watching the weigh-ins for the undercard fights. Not required to be there, Harold observes the action closely. Having met him a couple of times before, I go over to exchange pleasantries. In every conversation I've had with Harold, I come away with the same feeling: the man thoroughly and completely loves the sport. 

By now the room has emptied out and only a few stray media members and fans remain. I walk out to the hotel lobby where Abel Sanchez, Gennady Golovkin's trainer who's in town to work the corner for an undercard bout, is giving some interviews about Golovkin's next fight against Martin Murray. I also spot Joe Antonacci, a local ring announcer, in jeans and a jacket. I've probably seen Antonacci dozens of times over the years but always in a tux. It had never occurred to me that he actually wears anything else.

I then run into Mark Sarmiento, a friendly acquaintance whom I have known through Twitter. I met him for the first time last year at the Alvarado-Provodnikov fight weekend in Denver. Mark and his mom have flown in from Houston. It's her birthday and he wanted to take her to a big fight. Her first choice was to see Pacquiao but with Manny plying his trade in Macau these days, that wasn't a realistic possibility. I talk with her briefly and she's a charming lady. Mark and I make plans to connect after the fights on Saturday. 
  
Milling around waiting to meet up with my friends David Greisman and Tim Starks (who both happen to be excellent boxing writers – David for BoxingScene.com and Tim for his site The Queensberry Rules), I spot Kieran Mulvaney and go over to introduce myself to him. We've chatted many times over the years through Twitter but had never actually met in person. He's just as great as I expected him to be. 

***

Social media in boxing is a strange thing. I've been active on it since 2011 and to my surprise I've wound up liking probably 95% of everyone whom I've met in person. And I'm not one who necessarily likes a lot of people right off the bat (it's a character flaw; I'm working on it).

But thinking about it further, my warm feelings towards those in the boxing community shouldn't be so surprising. In America, boxing has turned out to be something like an irrepressible cult, a niche sport with absolutely fervent followers who won't let it die. And as a member of this group, I wind up sharing many characteristics with those whom I encounter. 

Members of the boxing community ostracize themselves from society at large. Fighters train for months at a time, often leaving home. The best in the sport are fanatical about their nutrition, what they put into their bodies, workout habits and fight preparation. For months of the year, the top boxers aren't interacting socially or living their lives like normal people; they are in semi-seclusion or a controlled environment (there are of course some colorful counterexamples). 

With the exception of the very top tier, boxers are far removed from mainstream appeal in America. Those who are even known by the general public are often looked at as curiosities, mere personalities and/or well-sculpted performers who pop up for a week here or there a couple times of year. The sixth-best welterweight in the world could very easily cruise down any street in America and be scarcely recognized. Even though boxers are among the best athletes of any sport, very few break out of the sport's ghetto and gain recognition from casual sports fan. 

In America, members of the boxing media are often looked down upon by other sportswriters. Whether the sport is viewed as irrelevant in today's media landscape, one that is promoted, executed and adored by savages, or considered a cesspool of corruption, major media outlets find many reasons not to cover boxing. Being a boxing writer isn't seen as some fast track to media stardom or riches. Those who wind up on the boxing beat for more than a few years stay there because they really love it. I'm sure that their colleagues look at them like strange zoo animals. "Look, touch the boxing writer. This guy actually loves covering such a sorry sport. Give him some peanuts." 

While others socialize on weekend nights, boxing fans stay at home. They constantly have to negotiate with loved ones or friends to carve out time to see the fights. They miss events or leave them early. Their social bonds have been weakened by spending too many Fridays and Saturdays on their couch. 

And they have to put up with so much political bullshit in the sport just for the mere possibility of entertainment. They turn on their TVs week after week hoping for a few moments of excellence and action. Just as often as not, their nights end in disappointment. But true boxing fans are a resilient bunch and they will be back next weekend. 

All of those involved with boxing continually have to defend their beloved sport. (Isn't it barbaric? How do you watch that? How can you still be a fan? Isn't boxing so corrupt? I stopped being a fan when such and such happened.) This defensiveness helps bind the boxing community together together. When in town for a boxing weekend, I don't care all that much what state a fan, a writer or a trainer is from or what his politics or religion are. We start off with a love of the sport and move on from there. Everyone gets a little bit of good will. 

Those in the boxing community share a little secret. We put up with the bullshit and lunacy because this secret is profound: we all know that when boxing is at its best, it's unbeatable. Those thrilling, unforgettable moments create a high stronger than any drug. The anticipation leading up to a big fight, the thrill of the crowd, the excitement and tension, is unmatched in professional sports. A big fight makes the Super Bowl seem like the opening round of a golf tournament. 

***

I meet up with Greisman and Starks and head over to The Claridge. In some combination, we have gone to fights together in Jersey, New York, Texas, Colorado, Pennsylvania and other spots. We catch up about what's new in our lives – I had last seen them during the Golovkin-Geale weekend in July – as well as our thoughts on the fight. We are all predicting Hopkins to win, but none of us really knows for sure. After a few minutes, Greisman starts to work on his articles from the weigh-in for BoxingScene; he’s constantly working during fight weekends. 

For dinner, we meet up with Brian Campbell from ESPN, another person whom I've interacted with for years online but am just meeting in person for the first time. As ESPN's boxing editor, he has quickly and quietly raised espn.com's presence in the sport. He has done a great job of introducing the Making the Rounds feature and has helped to expand ESPN's coverage of international fights. In person, he's enthusiastic, quick with a joke and has an endearingly goofball sensibility. Almost from the jump, he's trying to set up some karaoke for the night.

At dinner, we shoot the shit, gently josh each other, opine about the state of the sport and partake in some boxing gossip – what’s next for this fighter, this promoter or this network. A commonality that those in the boxing community share is the combination of angst/anticipation/gallows humor when talking about the sport. On record, Campbell is going with the Kovalev knockout. 

I step out from dinner for a moment and run into the biggest Hopkins fan that I know. His name is Dave but he goes by @Buflo_dolla on Twitter. As he nurses a beer, he's nervous about the fight tomorrow but feels that Hopkins will pull it out. He understands that it's a very dangerous matchup for Hopkins. He can deal with a loss but he just can't bear to see Legend, as he calls Hopkins, get knocked out. 

After dinner, Starks, Campbell and I walk down the windy boardwalk to the Tropicana where we meet up with Mulvaney for a drink. Slowly but surely, others from the boxing community start to trickle in for the weekend. Vic Salazar, from Tha Boxing Voice, is there enjoying a meal with his family. Peter Clarke, another writer from that website, is also around with his ever-present smile. We shake hands and hug, talk about the fights and head to the bar. Opinion seems equally split on Hopkins and Kovalev. Absolutely nobody thinks that Sadam Ali has a shot on the undercard. We ask Mulvaney's about his varied and unique writing career; very few are experts on both whaling and boxing. We then transition to the favorite parlor games of boxing fans/writers: what was the best live fight you've ever seen? What fight made you a fan of the sport, etc.

Another commonality you will see among boxing people is that they can't stop talking about boxing. Where does this fighter go next? Why did he sign with this guy? Do you think that this writer is any good? This particular fight needs to happen! 

I think that there is a simple explanation for this non-stop boxing talk: boxing fans don't have that many people to talk to in person about the sport. It isn't like going to the grocery store or the corner tavern where everyone has an opinion on the Cowboys or the Yankees. Some of us might have a friend or two who likes the sport and watches from time to time, but how often can we have live, engrossing boxing conversations? We have to take advantage of these opportunities.

***

In my opinion, Atlantic City is the best location in America for a fight weekend. In the large cities, people ride in for the fight or stay in any number of hotels. Afterwards, maybe some groups of people get together, but most find their way home or go back to where they are staying. In Vegas, there are tons of entertainment options during a fight weekend and also the hotels are so big. Even if everyone congregates at the MGM Grand (which doesn't happen), there are so many nooks and crannies in that vast hotelopolis.

But in Atlantic City, everyone's trapped. Coming from the large cities of New York, D.C. or Philadelphia, it's too far or too late to make it home after the fights. And there are only so many places to stay. With four casinos closing this year, the beleaguered shore town has faced tough times, but it's still an ideal place for a boxing gathering. Yes, there is gambling, and perhaps some dance clubs here and there, but there aren't nearly the distractions you find in other cities. Everything is close to each other and self-contained. The result is a strong sense of a boxing community, like boxing is taking over the town for a few days.  

During this fight weekend, Atlantic City doesn't resemble a town on life support. Caesars, the host hotel, is filled and rocking all weekend. The boardwalk is crowded. The restaurants, while not bustling, are pretty busy and there are even many well-dressed patrons among the diners (to put it mildly, A.C. is not necessarily known for its beautiful people).

Later on Friday night, Starks and I check out the Toga Bar at Caesars, easily the best gathering spot for fight fans. Here's how I described the Toga Bar in an article from last year:

Let me set the stage. Toga Bar is a bar/lounge at Caesars right off the casino floor. It has a big oval bar and to the left there is a dance floor and an area with couches. The following different groups congregate here during fight weekends: boxing personnel (fans/fighters/trainers/promoters/writers), local riff-raff, bachelorette parties, groups of middle-aged men, a few normal couples, prostitutes and old timers. On Saturday Nights, scantily clad women dance on elevated platforms by the bar as the DJ spins the dance hits du jour
I've seen some strange things at this place: projectile vomit that would make fans of The Exorcist squeamish, the best couch dance ever – by a woman who was waiting for her husband to get released from prison (no clothes were removed), Eddie Hearn owning the room dancing with a half-dozen ladies at a time, a 60-something guy wearing all black with Blues Brothers sunglasses dancing by himself for hours at a time, a girl being thrown out of the bar for exposing her breast…I could go on and on. With this eclectic mix of different ages, races, socioeconomic backgrounds and walks of life, I've never had the same night at the Toga Bar twice.

The boxing crew (Campbell, Starks, Greisman and others) stands at a table talking to Nicole Duva, the Vice President of Marketing for Main Events and the daughter of Kathy, who is the company's president. The 60-year-old Blues Brothers dancer is there as are the dancers on top of the bar. The vibes are good.

We joke around and talk about the #NicoleDuvaHeads hashtag on social media. Nicole, being a very attractive women, has amassed a number of admirers over the years. She's a very good sport about it; she's also whip smart. 

Everyone's talking about the big fight tomorrow night and I'll say this: we don't get cheated on our liquor. By now it's 2:30 a.m. on Saturday morning and it's time for me to turn in; there's a big day ahead of me for tomorrow. 

Click here for Part II

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
@snboxing on twitter
Follow Saturday Night Boxing on Facebook:

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