Thursday, December 8, 2022

Punch 2 the Face Radio

In this week's Punch 2 the Face Radio, which will be the last one for Brandon and me for the immediate future, we discussed the big fights and happenings from last weekend, including Estrada-Gonzalez 3, Fury-Chisora 3 and Dubois-Lerena. We previewed this week's action: Warrington-Lopez, Lopez-Martin and Crawford-Avanesyan. Brandon and I also looked back at some of our favorite moments during the six years of our podcast. To listen to the show, click on the links below: 

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Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook. 

Monday, December 5, 2022

Home Cooking: A Boxing Story

Local officials favoring a home fighter over a foreign opponent isn't a new phenomenon in boxing, or one that is particularly rare. In fact, it's often baked into the calculus of who will win a given fight. We all know that the home fighter often gets preferential treatment on the judges' scorecards. We've frequently witnessed the "opponent" denied an opportunity to continue to fight after getting hurt, even when the home fighter has been given a chance to keep going under similar circumstances. 

However, just because the sport tolerates an acceptable level of bias for the home fighter, that doesn't make it just. And when an egregious example of railroading an "away" opponent occurs, the institutional forces that help govern and control the sport are far too eager to ignore it. 

After years and years of watching home officials deprive or attempt to deprive these opponents of a fair fight, it's easy to become numb to this conduct, throw up our hands and say "that's boxing." But we should remember that fighters' careers are at stake. Moreover, this conduct hurts boxing as a whole, poking additional holes in its veneer of legitimacy. 

In Saturday's heavyweight fight between Daniel Dubois (England) and Kevin Lerena (South Africa), which took place in London, Lerena was denied a fair shake by both a house timekeeper and a homer referee. In the first round of the fight, Lerena dropped the popular Dubois three times. The initial blow was from a short hook that landed on the top of Dubois' head. Dubois appeared to injure his ankle or knee as a result of the punch. He went down shortly after. The subsequent two knockdowns were of Dubois' own accord. He took a knee both times without absorbing further punishment. He clearly couldn't put his weight on his injured leg. 

Referee Howard Foster after Dubois is dropped in the 1st
Photo Courtesy of Mikey Williams

In many fights if a boxer is knocked down three times in a round, the bout is stopped. There used to be a universal Three Knockdown Rule, where a fight would be automatically stopped if that happened. Although most jurisdictions no longer have that rule in effect, unofficially it is still practiced often. (Interesting, the WBA, which sanctioned the Dubois-Lerena fight, does have a Three Knockdown Rule in its prescribed rules on its website; however, the British Boxing Board of Control's [BBBofC] rules were in effect for the fight, and the BBBofC doesn't mandate the Three Knockdown Rule.)

Irrespective of whether English referee Howard Foster should have stopped the fight in the first round, Dubois was in bad shape. And lo and behold, the friendly British timekeeper decided to stop the round nine seconds early, allowing Dubois to return to his corner without facing any additional adversity. 

While Foster's conduct in the first round was acceptable, the timekeeper's certainly wasn't. Far too often we've seen games like this play out in the sport, where an official tries to play with time, either by shortening or elongating a round to help the home fighter – and this incident wasn't even the worst example of manipulating time during Saturday's fight. 

After the shortened first round, Dubois returned to his corner and the minute between rounds helped him recover. By the third round he was on the offensive. A big puncher, Dubois dropped Lerena during the round with a hard power punch. Lerena beat the count, but he was legitimately hurt. Towards the end of the round, Dubois cornered Lerena along the ropes and unloaded stinging power punches. The bell rang to end of the round, but Dubois kept throwing. He then connected with a huge shot that made Lerena collapse into the ropes for a brief moment. Keep in mind: this was an illegal punch because it was after the bell. 

Now, even though Lerena is staggered from an illegal punch, referee Foster treats this as a legitimate knockdown. Lerena is hurt, but he makes it back to his feet without any issue. However, Foster decides that he has seen enough and calls the fight off. This was a railroading job of the first degree. 

Was Lerena given the same chance to recover that Dubois was? Of course he wasn't. Did it matter to Foster that the concluding blow was thrown after the bell, and thus shouldn't have been deemed a legitimate punch? Of course it didn't. Did the representatives on site from the BBBofC intervene immediately after the third round because its rules were not applied properly (counting an illegal punch as legitimate)? Of course they didn't. After the fight was there an official statement by the BBBofC in reference to the conduct of their officials? Of course there wasn't.  

Perhaps Lerena's team will file an appeal with the BBBofC or the WBA to overturn the official verdict, which is a maneuver that hardly ever succeeds. At best, a rematch will be ordered, but I wouldn't bet on the likelihood of that either. And even if a rematch is ordered, it doesn't erase the shit sandwich unjust treatment that Lerena just experienced. Not only did he lose by an illegal shot, but it was a damaging blow by a huge puncher. In addition, there's no guarantee that he gets another crack at Dubois or a meaningful heavyweight opponent any time soon. It could potentially be several fights (years even!) before he is back in a similar position as to where he was on Saturday. 

Lerena lost the fight because a home country referee played fast and loose with the rules. If Foster rightly concluded that the final Dubois punch landed after the bell and Lerena was allowed to continue, he would have entered the fourth still with a lead in the fight. After all, he had a 10-6 round in the first and only would have lost the third by a 10-8 round. Lerena's either up 28-25 or 27-26 going into the fourth. And that's important, especially since Dubois was trying to overcome an injury.  

But he was not allowed to continue. He was offered an early night back to Johannesburg. He was not supposed to win the fight and the officials (ref and timekeeper) helped turn that conventional wisdom into reality. And even if Lerena is granted a rematch, there's no guarantee that he will ever be able to duplicate his early success against Dubois. Saturday was his moment, his opportunity, and he was denied by biased officials. 

Dubois after his victory
Photo courtesy of Mikey Williams

The story of Dubois-Lerena is not necessarily a unique one, but it was a high-profile example of a common occurrence in boxing. An opponent often has to fight not just the guy in the ring, but the judges, a referee, and even the commission. On Friday during the ProBox card from Florida, I watched an "opponent," Luis Sanchez, get disqualified in the second round by referee Dennis DeBon for holding. There was absolutely nothing in Sanchez's performance that was out of the ordinary, except a referee determined to railroad him out of the ring. It was gross misconduct from DeBon, but few will be crying tears for Sanchez; it was a small club fight that lacked wider scrutiny. 

Perhaps Lerena will get more consideration and/or sympathy from the institutional powers that be (sanctioning bodies, commissions, etc.), but I wouldn't count on it. Although Lerena was a victim and was perpetrated against, he's also "Kevin Lerena." This didn't happen to Deontay Wilder or Wladimir Klitschko in England; this happened to Kevin Lerena. Maybe the WBA won't drop him too far in their rankings as a "goodwill" gesture to Lerena's promoter, longtime South African fight figure Rodney Berman. That might be the best Lerena gets. 

Ultimately, the show will go on. Not a regulatory eyebrow will be raised. There will be no disciplinary proceedings initiated against Foster or the timekeeper. This is what home cooking tastes like in boxing. And if you're coming from another part of the world, it tastes rotten.  

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Bivol A Problem Now Worth Solving

In the waning days of HBO Boxing, Dmitrii Bivol was promoted by the network as an emerging star, a knockout machine and a fighter ready to take on the best in boxing. Yet over time, the light heavyweight's luster dimmed. Prior to his upset victory earlier this year over Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, Bivol had squandered much of his earlier fanfare. While his manifold skills remained, the knockouts didn't, and without them his brand of technical mastery didn't appeal to certain corners of boxing fandom. Bivol was often criticized for being robotic, doing just enough to nick rounds, and not keeping his foot on the gas. 

To those who doubted his prospects against elite competition, he provided a couple of data points to support that belief. In 2019, he was cracked late in a fight against Joe Smith and it took him well over a round to recover. In addition, after a long layoff due to the COVID pandemic, Bivol put forth a listless performance against Craig Richards, where Bivol almost squandered a sizable lead. Perhaps ring rust was to blame, or maybe his heart wasn't into the sport as it once was...or maybe, these are just some of the things that happen in boxing – fighters will get cracked from time to time and almost everyone has an off-night of some form. 

But there's no denying that something has clicked for Bivol in 2022. Facing an elite talent in Canelo and a legitimate contender in Gilberto Ramirez, he's lost no more than a handful of rounds (ignore the official Canelo cards; they were absurd). Bivol was able to neutralize both opponents even though they possessed wildly divergent skill sets and strategies in the ring. 

Photo Courtesy of Mark Robinson

Canelo tried to KO Bivol with single left hooks and right hands. He probably saw the Joe Smith fight and believed that he had the delivery system to land his best punches and take Bivol out. And even though Canelo was able to connect with a couple of those menacing power punches (a right uppercut in the fourth and a left hook in the 12th were two memorable shots), Bivol was able to take his power. Furthermore, Bivol dominated almost all of the rest of the action in the fight. As Canelo waited to throw, Bivol peppered him with shots – leads and counters, lefts and rights, it didn't matter. 

When Canelo changed tactics, moving to the ropes to try to pick Bivol off when he was coming in, Bivol exhibited the same type of mastery. His hand speed was superior. He kept enough distance to remain defensively responsible, and his feet were almost always moving to reset the action. Canelo did have a Plan B, but it turned out to be just as feckless as Plan A; Bivol was that brilliant.  

Ramirez's in-ring attributes differed significantly from Canelo's. Long, rangy, a southpaw, a fighter who liked to throw volume to the head or body, Ramirez could win in a variety of ways. Yet, Bivol confounded him. Bivol immediately targeted the wide gap between Ramirez's gloves, shooting quick counters down the middle. Bivol's output and accuracy forced Ramirez into indecision. By the end of the first third of the fight, Ramirez lacked confidence in throwing his best punches and no longer believed that he could have success as the aggressor. As a result, most of the fight was essentially a high-level technical boxing match from the outside, where Ramirez stood no chance against the better boxer with faster hands and superior accuracy.  

And similar to the Canelo fight, Bivol didn't throw pitty-pat punches. He connected with hard hooks and right hands. In perhaps one of his best maneuvers, which was completely missed by the DAZN commentary team, Bivol would counter in the southpaw position with a straight left hand. Ramirez couldn't adjust to that move all fight. Ultimately, Bivol won nine or ten rounds of the fight and once again displayed his mastery in the ring. 

Bivol has a very large toolkit, but he doesn't necessarily feature all of it against every opponent. For instance, there were occasions where he demonstrated his brilliance on the inside against Canelo, but against Ramirez he was rarely closer than mid-range. Yes, he sometimes doesn't sit down on his shots, but when he needed to against Canelo and Ramirez, he threw plenty of punches with spite. Bivol can do lots of things in the ring, but he has a belief in a certain type of domination that strips opponents of their hope. He wants to disparage and dissuade, and not do anything that could embolden them. Thus, some of his weapons will stay holstered given a particular matchup.  

At the start of 2022, Bivol wasn't necessarily in anyone's plans to become one of the sport's dominant figures. He was seen as an inconvenient, tricky titleholder who could fail to inspire. But Bivol had his own designs for his future. Now he has demonstrated that he can shut down great fighters, but he's also far more than just a defensive wizard. That he was once considered a KO machine is now a quaint memory, but he has reminded us that he packs a punch. Don't let his smoothness in the ring or his mild temper out of it fool you; his fire burns. He wants the best and has proven that he isn't afraid of a modern-day legend or a popular fighter with an undefeated record. 

Bivol's 2022 has changed the trajectory of his career. His bank accounts are much flusher, but seemingly more important to him, he is accomplishing his goals. He wants to measure up to the best of his era and build a legacy. 

And to the boxing industry, Bivol once again matters. He is a problem, and because of his fantastic showing this year, it's now worth it to see if anyone can solve him. He is a great fighter, but he's also become important. Bivol has made the stars align. 

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

The Makings of the Juggernaut

It feels great to be wrong about Joe Joyce. He serves as an important reminder that first impressions aren't the be all and end all in the sport. Early in his professional career, his slow hand speed, ponderous feet and advanced age were significant knocks against his ability to be a legitimate contender in the heavyweight division. Yet Joyce has been able to stop one of the top heavyweight prospects in boxing (Daniel Dubois), a solid gatekeeper (Carlos Takam) and a top-ten fighter and former champion in the division (Joseph Parker). 

Many of his Joyce's best attributes are intangibles that provide him with significant advantages over supposedly more talented fighters. The first thing that jumps out to me in the ring is his calm. Whether pushing forward in attack or eating a hellacious uppercut, Joyce doesn't get rattled. He sticks with his plan and has an ability to moderate the enormity of a big moment. He doesn't punch himself out despite a high volume and he also doesn't go into a shell after absorbing a big blow. He plows forward regardless of circumstance. 

Joyce also strikes me as highly intelligent. In his bravura performance against Dubois, Joyce essentially won the fight with his left jab. And while that might sound simple, I believe that he did two different things than most fighters would have done in that match. He stuck with what was working instead of taking the opportunity to unload his holster with other weapons. Joyce understood that keeping it simple was getting the best of his opponent where many others would have overcomplicated the fight. In addition, Joyce ate some tremendous right hands from Dubois in that bout, the types of shots that would make many fighters reluctant to stay the course. Yet Joyce persevered and understood that to execute his game plan he needed to be in the line of fire. 

Photo courtesy of Queensbury Promotions

The Dubois and Parker victories also highlighted his self-confidence. The straight rights from Dubois and the right uppercuts from Parker were the types of shots that could have discouraged many fighters, but Joyce was convinced that his approach would lead him to victory. Despite enough evidence to switch tactics, Joyce ultimately believed that his game plan was the right one, and he was proven correct. 

Actually, the whole Joe Joyce story could fall under the self-confidence blanket. Fighters who turn pro at 32 aren't expected to have successful careers. I'm sure he was told by many that he was too slow, that he would never have enough seasoning and that he lacked the athleticism required to take on the top of the division. But he believed in himself when so much of boxing history was tilting in a direction away from his success. He refused to succumb to rules of thumb or the opinions of so-called experts.

A final intangible that has led to his success has been his coachability. Looking at his game plans against Dubois and Parker, he resembled two completely different fighters in the ring. Against Dubois, he kept the fight on the outside and used his jab to establish dominance. Parker presented different issues but the key that Joyce and trainer Ismael Salas discovered was that Parker only liked to fight in spurts. Whenever Parker connected with a serious punch or combination, Joyce would immediately return fire with hard power punches. When Parker would try to get out of the pocket Joyce would follow him with pressure and more punches. He wouldn't let Parker rest and did a magnificent job of depleting him before the conclusive left hook in the 11th round.

Joyce's intangibles elevate him beyond his skill set, but it would also be wrong to dismiss his skills, many of which are subtle. He can go to the head or body with all of his shots. He can apply pressure without smothering himself. He has a ramrod jab. He can throw his hook tight or wide. 

Joyce is also an underrated athlete. There aren't too many 260-pound fighters who can do flips in the ring after a victory. His work rate and motor are outstanding for a heavyweight. Although there is a crudeness to aspects of his game, he used several foot and shoulder feints to throw off Parker's rhythm. He also has the coordination and strength to avoid being clinched, which is vital in the heavyweight division for fighters who want to win with volume. 

In just 15 professional fights Joyce has improved in several significant aspects. He now understands distance, spacing and range very well. He's not jabbing from too close and he's also not smothering himself on the inside. Joyce knows which punches to throw at a particular range. He's also become adept at cutting off the ring. Parker was supposed to have advantages in foot speed over him, yet Joyce was able to keep the fight at his tempo and usually right in front of him. He knew where Parker wanted to be, but didn't just follow him without letting his hands go. He applied intelligent pressure, whether he needed to move laterally, diagonally or straight ahead.  

The Juggernaut continues to roll on, leaving a trail of heavyweight hopefuls in his wake. Does he have the attributes to get to the mountaintop in the heavyweight division? Let's wait and see, but he has put himself in the conversation, and to me that was an unthinkable proposition just a short time ago. 

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook. 

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Boxing at the PED Crossroads

The big story in boxing this week was Conor Benn's positive drug test for Clomiphene, a women's fertility drug that is banned by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA), an organization that was contracted to provide testing for the Oct. 8 Conor Benn-Chris Eubank Jr. fight. Yet the drug in question was not proscribed by UKAD, the British anti-doping association, which also conducted drug tests for the two participants. With daylight between the two testing agencies in what constituted a permissible substance, the promoters of the event tried to push forward with the fight. 

Ultimately the bout was cancelled once the British Boxing Board of Control decided that it would no longer sanction the event, but this being boxing, nothing is ever that clear. Benn and the relevant parties for the fight were informed of the failed drug test on September 23rd, yet only when the incident was reported by Riath Al-Samarrai of the Daily Mail on Oct. 5th did the wheels start turning regarding the cancellation of the fight. 

So, to sum up, boxing wound up doing the right thing by cancelling the event for a fighter failing a PED test, but only after the public was informed. Absent Riath's scoop, it's possible that the fight would have proceeded. 

This is some dirty business, but the chutzpah demonstrated by the promoters for the event, Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Boxing and Kalle Sauerland of Wasserman Boxing, is not unprecedented. Just last year, Top Rank succeeded in staging an Oscar Valdez world title fight despite a failed VADA test. In the recent past, Erik Morales was allowed to fight on a Golden Boy card after failing a drug test during training camp. And it even gets worse. Dillian Whyte had failed a drug test in the lead up to his fight with Oscar Rivas, yet Rivas wasn't even informed of the positive test until after the fight.  

None of these stories paint boxing in a positive light, but the sport has made significant progress with drug testing. Not long ago the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight was derailed after Mayweather requested additional drug testing. His request was interpreted by Top Rank as so offensive that it was considered a deal-breaker – they would of course subsequently fight years later. Now, comprehensive drug testing is part of many top fights in boxing (if not the majority of them).

That VADA has become a part of world-class boxing demonstrates that the industry has started to take drug testing more seriously. The WBC now requires its champions and contenders to enroll in its Clean Boxing Program (which includes VADA testing) in order to be ranked by the organization. Now I'm not going to pretend that the testing is frequent enough or catches everyone that it can, but it is a positive step in the right direction. (In full disclosure, the WBC was the sanctioning body for that Oscar Valdez fight, and they did not strip him of his title.) 

While boxing has indeed made progress in incorporating stricter drug testing, key stakeholders haven't always played a constructive role in pushing toward a cleaner sport. For one, boxing's top promoters have to stop their double talk regarding doping. When their own fighters aren't involved or when an opponent fails a test, promoters will talk tough regarding drugs in the sport, but when their own fighters are involved, especially ones that bring in money, they often resort to legalese and mumbo-jumbo and will try to find an avenue to salvage a fight, despite a failed test. Sometimes they are shot down in their efforts, as this week showed, but as in Valdez-Conceicao, they "succeeded" in staging the fight despite a failed test. 

I also fail to understand why the key television networks and platforms don't have a firm policy on PED testing. If something were to happen in a fight where one boxer entered dirty, and they knew about it, couldn't they be a party to potential lawsuits as it relates to negligence? Wouldn't there at least be significant reputational risk? Yet the networks continue to absolve themselves of culpability, as if they don't play a meaningful role in the sport. 

And of course, the commissions themselves could play a much tougher role than they do. Why don't the major commissions uniformly adopt the most stringent drug testing? Why in the United States, for example, do most boxing commissions only suspend a first-time drug cheat for six months as a default punishment. At the top levels of boxing fighters only get in the ring twice a year at best; a six-month suspension is a laughable deterrent. Wouldn't 18 months exhibit some real teeth? Why can't the Association of Boxing Commissions (the ABC) adopt tougher uniform standards for testing and disciplinary measures for drug cheats?

The boxing industry needs to put additional actions behind its (inconsistent) tough rhetoric. If the industry wants a clean sport (and in an enterprise that features person-to-person violence as its calling card, it really should), then more must be done. Boxing has taken some solid steps forward, but at this point, so many have been half measures. 

I hope in ten years from now boxing is on a firmer footing as it relates to its drug testing and disciplinary measures for those who dope. Unfortunately, many of the current stakeholders in boxing, the ones with the power, still try to finesse legal angles to skirt rules or bury their collective heads in the sand instead of looking out for the greater good of the sport. And until Bob Arum or Eddie Hearn or Frank Warren or Stephen Espinoza or Adam Smith take a stand, we will continue to see a slapdash trajectory toward advancing to a cleaner sport.  

And listen, I'm not naive. I understand that those in boxing aren't in the sport for altruistic purposes. They are there to make money. And that's fine. But the taint from this week and similar episodes in the past hurt everyone involved with boxing. It turns off existing fans, potential new ones, the media, sponsors, and benefactors.   

This week's episode with Benn was a fiasco for all who were involved in trying to usurp VADA's authority. But this incident was just one prong in a multi-faceted problem. Boxing needs to move past its "clean sport" window dressing rhetoric to an era where those who cheat face significant repercussions. It's time for the adults in the room to start acting like them instead of pointing fingers in other directions. More need to take responsibility and have to understand that by assuming leadership on the issue, they will actually be helping themselves down the line. Now those in boxing aren't often into long-term planning, but if we can get a man on the moon, we can get a promoter or a TV executive to think about five years from now. That's the only way this is going to work. 

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook.