Monday, May 23, 2016

Pound-for-Pound Update 5-23-16

Rarely should events occurring outside of the ring contribute to ranking the best fighters in the world. The core function of any boxing best-of list should concern itself with the results in the squared circle, shunning the vagaries of innuendo and boxing politics that can so often cloud judgment. However, there are specific occasions when factors extraneous from in-ring performance must be considered in properly ranking fighters. Two of them are inactivity and ducking – one boxer refusing or avoiding a fight with a natural rival. Fighter inactivity is essentially self-explanatory: a fighter must stay active in order to keep his high ranking. The second (ducking) is even more prejudicial to the concept of greatness. A boxer shouldn't remain highly ranked if he's unwilling to fight other suitable top talents in the sport. The recent exploits of Saul "Canelo" Alvarez fall into this latter category.

Per the WBC, a condition for Cotto-Alvarez to take place in the fall of 2015 was that the winner had to fight Gennady Golovkin for his next bout. After defeating Cotto, Canelo then successfully negotiated with all parties for interim bouts before he and Golovkin had to face each other. The interim fights were completed earlier this month and instead of agreeing to the WBC's mandatory timeline for a Golovkin bout, Alvarez relinquished the organization's belt. 

Although Canelo is the lineal 160-lb. champion, Golovkin has been considered the best fighter in the division for a number of years. From a pound-for-pound perspective, ranking them had been a coin flip for me: Canelo had the better competition, Golovkin the dominance. I previously had Canelo one spot above Golovkin due to his strong performances against better names (Cotto, Lara and Trout) – Golovkin has struggled throughout his career to get top fighters in the ring with him, a theme that continues.

With the events of the last few weeks, I no longer believe that the placement of the two fighters could be interchangeable. Let's be honest: if Alvarez was truly confident in defeating Golovkin, he would've already signed to fight him. And this isn't the story of a champion throwing away a belt to avoid a useless fight against an underserving mandatory challenger. Golovkin, a unified titleholder, has quickly become one of the most popular fighters in the sport. A win over Golovkin would do a lot for Canelo's popularity, marketability and legacy in the sport.  

Some will defend Alvarez for dropping his belt – that his stance is a negotiating tactic to guarantee more money and advantages in the potential matchup. Maybe that's true. But Canelo's actions aren't reflective of a fighter who wants to get in the ring with Golovkin. And because of this, he shouldn't be ranked ahead of his rival. In the latest Rankings, I have flipped Golovkin and Canelo. Golovkin is now six while Alvarez drops to seven.

There is one additional change in the Saturday Night Boxing Rankings this month: longtime 130-lb. titleholder Takashi Uchiyama (formerly ranked #16) exits after he was demolished in two rounds by Jezreel Corrales, a relatively unheralded boxer from Panama. All other fighters who ranked below Uchiyama move up a spot and Leo Santa Cruz reenters the list at #20. The complete Saturday Night Boxing Pound-for Pound list is below:

1.    Roman Gonzalez
2.    Manny Pacquiao
3.    Andre Ward
4.    Sergey Kovalev
5.    Juan Estrada
6.    Gennady Golovkin
7.    Saul Alvarez
8.    Tim Bradley
9.    Guillermo Rigondeaux
10.  Naoya Inoue
11.  Adonis Stevenson
12.  Tyson Fury
13.  Wladimir Klitschko
14.  Miguel Cotto
15.  Danny Garcia
16.  Terence Crawford
17.  Donnie Nietes
18.  Shinsuke Yamanaka
19.  Nicholas Walters
20.  Leo Santa Cruz

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, SN Boxing on Facebook

Monday, May 9, 2016

Canelo-Golovkin: For the Good of the Sport

Something quite extraordinary happened on Saturday night during the Saul "Canelo" Alvarez-Amir Khan broadcast. Despite Alvarez's scintillating knockout, a shot which will surely be considered as a knockout-of-the-year candidate, the mesmerizing overhand right was a mere footnote to a much larger narrative: When will Alvarez fight Gennady Golovkin? Again, one of the true stars of the sport notched a highlight-reel knockout on a pay per view and by the end of the night the result seemed almost irrelevant. Alvarez got his expected win but more important things needed to be discussed. In the post-fight chatter, HBO's broadcast team didn't gush over Alvarez's myriad boxing skills or trumpet his prowess as a fighter – the standard plays from the network when the house fighter looks good. No, everything surrounding Canelo's performance against Khan was a mere prelude to Golovkin. 

Breaking from recent tradition, HBO didn't function as the cheerleader for the A-side during the event. In fact, there was a palpable hostility toward Canelo and his previous public stances about fighting Golovkin. Before the main event, a fawning Jim Lampley interviewed Golovkin and gave the fighter the opportunity to state his case without any critical interference. Immediately after Canelo's victory, Max Kellerman quickly pivoted to the Alvarez-Golovkin matchup and that subject dominated Canelo's interview. Not since the days of Floyd Mayweather and Larry Merchant had HBO decided to hold one of its stars' feet to the fire. 

With its middling place in the contemporary American sports landscape, boxing depends on big fights for its survival. There's too much competition from other sports and the overall entertainment dollar for boxing to thrive without marquee events. It needs its one or two times a year where the larger sporting world can focus attention on it. There's no Super Bowl in boxing. No finals. No World Series. Big fights are critical to the industry – networks, fighters, promoters, managers, hoteliers, cable operators, corporate sponsors, Wall Street conglomerates and others. It needs ESPN's SportsCenter to have live, on-site reports during a big fight week. Boxing has to capture the imagination of large media outlets, like the New York Times and Sports Illustrated, and have them cover its events, creating additional exposure for its stars, boxing's crucial currency. 

And without stars, there isn't a viable U.S. boxing industry. In the U.S., the sport is undergoing a painful transition from the post-Mayweather and post-Pacquiao world. Stars make the turnstiles hum, force the media to take notice and create the sport's cultural relevance. With very few bona fide boxing attractions in North America, the sport runs the risk of losing even more cache among casual fans and its place in the crushingly competitive sports environment. 

Although Canelo has become quite the attraction in his burgeoning career, at this moment, boxing requires more of him than the status quo. To become the centerpiece of the sport's marketing apparatus, the one who brings attention to boxing, he's going to have to take on Golovkin.

For Canelo, this era of the sport's history is both a blessing and a curse. With few fighters having the potential to cross over into the mainstream, a burden is being placed on him to represent the sport at its highest level; there just aren't too many other candidates. Should he somehow beat Golovkin, and, let's face it, he would be a sizable underdog in that fight, the spoils of the sport would all be his. He would be the undisputed number-one boxing figure in North America and would have tremendous leverage to dictate terms to his subsequent opponents. His future salaries would skyrocket. And most importantly, his notoriety beyond boxing would increase exponentially. If he loses, he will then create an additional star in the sport and Golovkin has already demonstrated the ability to captivate fans beyond his regional/ethnic origin. With the right push, he could become a popular figure in the greater sporting landscape.

Canelo perceives the risk that Golovkin presents and has already made bones about a 155-lb. catchweight for the matchup, which seems ridiculous to many boxing observers in that both fighters ply their trade in the same division (all of Canelo's middleweight bouts have occurred at the 155-lb. threshold). Like Mayweather and Pacquiao before him, Alvarez and his team are looking to exploit his position in the sport and garner all potential advantages for the matchup. However, the public isn't supporting Alvarez's gamesmanship in this instance; he hasn't earned that position in the sport yet – not against a fighter of the caliber of Golovkin, a fan-favorite, a middleweight killer, and one of the few boxers who has sold out arenas on both coasts. 

For years, Golovkin has been searching for a big fight. Former lineal middleweight titleholders Sergio Martinez and Miguel Cotto wanted nothing to do with him. Daniel Jacobs, who holds a lesser version of a 160-lb. belt, has been in no rush to meet Golovkin. Titleholder Billy Joe Saunders passed up a fight by making ridiculous financial demands. Former titleholder Peter Quillin didn't take the Golovkin bout either. Since becoming an HBO mainstay in 2012, Golovkin has had to take on lower-level middleweights while the best in the division went in other directions. He's been able to accumulate two middleweight titles but the lineal belt, the one that descends from the former undisputed champion in the division, Bernard Hopkins, still eludes him. And at 34, the clock is ticking on his prime. 

HBO also needs Canelo-Golovkin to happen post-haste. Amid budget cuts at corporate parent Time Warner, the network has relegated the tantalizing matchup of Terence Crawford-Viktor Postol to pay per view, a decision that will ensure a much smaller viewership and impact in the sport than it would've if it were televised on HBO's flagship World Championship Boxing program. And unlike most large pay per views, that fight won't bring more eyeballs to the sport. Both fighters aren't well known outside of boxing's core fans. Bob Arum, the promoter of the fight, hopes that the pay per view will generate the buy rate of 75,000, a paltry figure but one that might even be a struggle to meet. 

In addition, the HBO Boxing brand has taken some hits. The network has failed to broadcast competitive main events in 2016, continuing a trend from the previous year. Although its ratings have remained stable to this point, with the general trends of cord-cutting in the industry and disappointment from its boxing fans in particular, how long can the status quo remain? Yes, the network has excellent talents like Alvarez, Kovalev, Golovkin, Ward and Crawford – all fighters who would rank in the top-20 for best in the sport, but the right matchups haven't been made for them. Due to the aforementioned budget cuts, estrangement with other promotional and managerial entities within the sport, and its fighters not being compelled to take more difficult assignments, HBO hasn't given its best the challenges needed to fully test them, leading to an inability to create buzz for its talented roster and grow its television ratings (its ratings still far surpass those of its chief rival, Showtime). 

As long as HBO remains resolute in its desire to broadcast Canelo-Golovkin, Canelo might be out of other options. He left Showtime in 2014 and his promoter, Golden Boy, hasn't headlined a card on that network since the dissolution of its relationship with boxing magnate Al Haymon. And Haymon's own Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) brand is suffering under the largess of its inaugural season. Fighter purses have been cut. Television dates have been inconsistent and networks like CBS and ESPN have yet to air a PBC fight in 2016. Haymon has been embroiled in lawsuits with Top Rank and Golden Boy and its hedge fund bankroller, Waddell & Reed, has also been sued by investors unhappy with the firm's commitment to the PBC. The trend lines aren't looking too strong there.

For Canelo, it seems like HBO-or-bust for the time being. Yes, boxing can make for strange bedfellows and perhaps Golden Boy can initiate a new broadcast platform for its star fighter but as for the immediate future, it appears as if all parties will continue its present broadcast relationship. 

In the next few months, expect fierce negotiations between the Canelo and Golovkin camps. I don't expect it to be easy. Purse splits, site venues, weights and officials will all be bargaining chips. But for those doomsayers out there, consider that boxing has successfully produced the mega-fight far more than not over its recent track record. When the public demands a big fight and a network is motivated to comply, the stakes become too high for these events not to get made (and yes, of course there have been a few exceptions). 

At 25, Alvarez doesn't have to take the Golovkin fight. He'll still draw his faithful following and a big network will broadcast his matches. But he'll lose a lot of respect and pecuniary rewards by passing up this opportunity. Short of an unnecessary rematch with Mayweather (who might yet come out of retirement), there are no other realistic big fights for him besides the Golovkin bout. If Canelo wants to be considered the preeminent star in the sport, which he surely does, he'll have to take the risks needed to ensure that lofty status. 

Facing a knockout machine is no one's idea of a good time but all Alvarez has to do is follow the example of his promoters, Oscar de la Hoya and Bernard Hopkins, who took on the toughest guys in the sport during their careers. De la Hoya and Hopkins didn't win all their big fights but the public responded to their desire to take on the greatest challenges available. Even after their losses, they still made great purses and remained at the top level of the sport. And Canelo himself could look to his own experience in the Mayweather fight. He lost a non-competitive bout but the public didn't turn on him. He challenged himself and was rewarded by the public; despite his lopsided defeat, he retained his following. Golovkin might not be the bout that Alvarez wants but for the good of the sport, and the overall health of his career, I expect him to take the fight. 

The powers that be need this matchup to happen. Boxing must remain in the limelight. There are jobs on the line here, network investments to consider, promotional companies to maintain and a fickle sporting public to engage. Boxing is not in a strong enough position to see big fights fail to materialize. With so few marketable stars in North America, the stakeholders will apply tremendous pressure for this fight to get finalized.  

The moment is now. 

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, SN Boxing on Facebook

Thursday, May 5, 2016

On Second Chances

So often the negative becomes the default setting for boxing. The sport is dying. This boxer is over-hyped. This promoter is lying. This fighter did something outrageously awful outside of the ring. These judges are incompetent. This network is letting down its subscribers. This fight disappointed. And so on. 

To be fair, boxing often brings this cycle of negativity on itself. The lack of transparency in the sport and the general opacity in how and why key decisions are made allow for a natural cynicism to develop and fester among boxing fans. Why is this fighter getting a title shot after he lost? Why is this boxer headlining a card when he continually disgraces himself and the sport? Why do broadcasters often ignore the work of "the opponent" in the fight? Why do networks and promoters favor certain lesser boxers over better talents? Why do so many in the boxing media shill for their favorite promoters and managers? In short, it's virtually impossible for a serious enthusiast of the sport to enjoy boxing and not be burdened with some degree of skepticism. 

However, boxing still has plenty of good to offer. Take last weekend, for instance. In my mind, it was one of the more gratifying two days I've experienced in boxing since I began writing about the sport in 2011. Well, what happened? In the big picture, perhaps nothing huge: Andre Berto avenged a previous loss to Victor Ortiz in a great fight. Thomas Williams Jr. won a brilliant two-round war over Edwin Rodriguez. There was a questionable draw in the Badou Jack-Lucian Bute fight. James DeGale won a closer-than-expected bout against Rogelio Medina. Oh, and the Dirrell brothers won fights in which they were expected to do so.  

Well, what in particular was so gratifying then? Fighters exceeded expectations. They performed ably. They revealed positive depth of character. They responded well to adversity. They entertained. Perhaps these are the expectations that we place on every fighter. But week after week, how often are these goals met? On Saturday, practically every major fight delivered. Again, how often does that happen? 

By now, everyone has moved on. It's a big Canelo-Khan fight week and there are new controversies and headlines to talk about. Will Canelo fight Golovkin after Khan? Will the WBC actually strip Canelo if he doesn’t? Will Mayweather return? All of these are worthy topics for consideration but let me focus on the good from last weekend for a little while longer. 

What impressed me most about the efforts of Andre Dirrell, Jack, Williams and Berto was how they took advantage of additional opportunities in their careers and performed to the best of their abilities. All of these fighters in the past had been pilloried by the boxing community: Jack was seen as a propped-up Mayweather Promotions flunky after getting knocked out by unheralded Derek Edwards. Dirrell fought once in three years after dropping out of the Super Six tournament. He became an irrelevancy in the sport, embroiled in promotional and management entanglements and he had serious health issues. Williams committed the supposed cardinal sin of remaining on his stool after facing adversity. Berto was viewed as nothing more than an Al Haymon creation after being built up like a star but taking several losses. And he had just been embarrassed against Mayweather in his last fight. 

All four of these fighters have been aware of these negative perceptions. In talking with Williams last year, he told me how painful the loss to Gabriel Campillo was and how much he was affected by it. After knocking out Ortiz on Saturday, Berto said that his defeat to Ortiz literally haunted him. Dirrell showed so much emotion after his victory on Friday that it was almost unsettling. His display was at odds with his previous ring comportment, which was so dispassionate at points of his career that he had problems connecting with fans. 

This isn't to say that a particular turning point occurred for these four fighters over the weekend. In fact, their performances were a validation of how they've made the most of their second chances. Jack continues to improve every fight with trainer Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. He's become defensively responsible and has mastered the nuts and bolts of boxing fundamentals. His jab (both to the head and body) is a real weapon. He's a very solid body puncher. Jack also has a much better understanding of distance and how to utilize his height. 

Williams has rebounded from his loss with two of the best TV fights in the last year (his previous bout against Umberto Savigne was an absolute war). He's become quite the gunslinger. And perhaps there's no better way to prove toughness to the boxing community than to stand in the center of the ring and trade bombs. Williams has come off the canvas to win multiple fights in his career and he's displayed tremendous heart in recovering from big shots. On Saturday, he was rocked at various points in the second round but he landed a crushing two-punch combination to end things in an emphatic fashion. He's now built up significant momentum in his career and is on his way to a deserved title shot. 

Berto's validation was many years in the making. He left Tony Morgan, his amateur coach and the one who brought him to a title, and sought out one of the most cerebral minds in the sport to be his next trainer, Virgil Hunter. In many ways, Hunter had to rebuild Berto from scratch, working on the fundamentals of footwork, glove positioning, and throwing in combination. Hunter also completely retooled Berto's strength and conditioning program. The Berto-Hunter pairing has not been a straight line to success. They experienced a vicious knockout loss to Jesus Soto Karass in their first fight together and a non-showing against Floyd Mayweather. However, they did have a solid knockout win over Josesito Lopez.  

In Saturday's Ortiz rematch, Berto recovered from a knockdown in the second round and threw a picture-perfect right uppercut in the fourth to drop Ortiz. He scored a second knockdown seconds later that ended the fight. What impressed me about Berto's performance wasn't his defense or his offensive versatility – it was his psychological mindset, his composure. Unlike the first Ortiz fight, he respected Ortiz's power. After Ortiz had early success, Berto stayed within himself and stuck to the game plan. In the first fight, once Ortiz scored an early knockdown, Berto abandoned all of his fundamentals and went to war. He tried to beat Ortiz with machismo – and he was unsuccessful.   

A funny thing happened on Berto's descent from stardom. Yes, he took vicious beatings. However, he gained more respect from boxing fans in his losses than he ever did in his victories against the overmatched foes he so often faced while a mainstay on HBO. Even going back to the Robert Guerrero and Soto Karass fights, Berto received enormous punishment but he kept coming. (He fought most of the Soto Karass bout with one good arm). So in defeat, he found strength. He took the best aspects from those losses and helped build on that for his future. 

Berto now knows that when he gets dropped early he can still win a fight and he has the confidence in himself and his corner to right the ship. No longer are there 20 voices barking disparate instructions in the corner or panic when the initial plan doesn't go his way. In short, he's become a veteran. He's developed poise and it's propelled him to another big opportunity in the welterweight division.  

In his big fights before his first hiatus from the sport, Andre Dirrell ran. He seemed petrified against Curtis Stevens, using his jab and all four corners of the ring to stink out a victory. That display made him persona non grata on HBO. His fight against Carl Froch was close but there was so much jab-and-grab from Dirrell. In many rounds, he simply refused to engage. As soon as the going got tough against Arthur Abraham, things didn't look good for Dirrell. Yes, he won that fight because of an Abraham disqualification but the trajectory of the bout wasn't in his favor prior to the stoppage. 

Since returning to the big stage in May of 2015, Dirrell has reemerged as a different type of fighter. He now stays in the pocket. He uses his body and physicality to grapple on the inside. He, like Berto, has also shown that he's a real fighter. After getting dropped twice in the second round by James DeGale, Dirrell responded favorably and won many of the rounds in the latter portion of the bout. He didn't try to be evasive and wasn't afraid to take a shot to land his. Things didn't suddenly fall apart for him in the ring. He lost the match but made a very good showing for himself. On Friday, he again was dropped in the second round – this time by Blake Caparello. Dirrell rebounded from that moment and proceeded to win the rest of the fight with relative ease. Again, he stayed at mid-range or closer. He wanted to put his stamp on the match and consistently landed his best power shots. He didn't try to out-cute his opponent for the victory. 

In closing, I won't claim that Jack, Williams, Berto and Dirrell are flawless or among the truly elite in the sport. However, all of them have overcome adversity. I'm sure that they had many soul-searching moments out of the ring, with umpteen nights spent on the couch wondering what went wrong in their careers. But all of them exemplify the spirit of what's best in the sport: they overcame hardship, persevered and improved. The four have rewritten their narratives by taking advantage of second chances. Jack and Berto are no longer seen as hype jobs. Williams has displayed a tremendous heart. Dirrell has relinquished the "despised runner" tag. They've become real fighters, pros. And that is one of the best compliments that can be given in the sport.

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, SN Boxing on Facebook

Monday, April 25, 2016

Pound-for-Pound Update 4-25-16

Since the last Saturday Night Boxing pound-for-pound update in December, a number of top-20 fighters have been in action. Most significant in the Rankings was Manny Pacquiao's unanimous decision victory over Tim Bradley in their third meeting. Pacquiao scored two knockdowns in the bout and looked impressive in the win. After the match, Pacquiao was non-committal about his future in boxing, stating that he might be retiring but then hinting that he could still fight on. For now, I'm going to keep him in the Rankings until his future plans are more definitive. With his victory, I've moved him up to the number-two spot. 

I've dropped Bradley all the way down to number-eight. Although he had his moments against Pacquiao, I must also consider his other recent performances. He had competitive fights against Jessie Vargas and Diego Chaves, boxers who are certainly on the same level as Gennady Golovkin's recent opponents such as David Lemieux and Martin Murray. Whereas Bradley had some rough moments in those outings, Golovkin destroyed that class of competition. For now, it's my belief that Golovkin is in better form. 

Here is the current Saturday Night Boxing Pound-for-Pound list:
  1. Roman Gonzalez
  2. Manny Pacquiao
  3. Andre Ward
  4. Sergey Kovalev
  5. Juan Estrada
  6. Saul Alvarez
  7. Gennady Golovkin
  8. Tim Bradley
  9. Guillermo Rigondeaux
  10. Naoya Inoue
  11. Adonis Stevenson
  12. Tyson Fury 
  13. Wladimir Klitschko
  14. Miguel Cotto
  15. Danny Garcia
  16. Takashi Uchiyama
  17. Terence Crawford
  18. Donnie Nietes
  19. Shinsuke Yamanaka
  20. Nicholas Walters
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, SN Boxing on Facebook