Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Opinions and Observations: Khan, Bradley and Thurman

Amir Khan earned a virtual shutout victory over Devon Alexander on Saturday, winning 120-108, 119-109 and 118-110. That he defeated Alexander didn't surprise me, but how he went about it certainly did. I expected Khan to employ a safety-first style against Alexander, where he would use his jab, hand speed and legs to pile up points and avoid any prolonged skirmishes. Instead, Khan went right at Alexander, bowling through him with three and four-punch combinations. Overall, it was his sharpest performance since his dismantling of Zab Judah in 2011.

For this fight, Khan brought out a new toy: a high-arcing left hook used to punctuate combinations. The shot was thrown widely and was designed to land over Alexander's jab; it seemed to hit its mark all night. Against most fighters, Khan throws a very sharp and short left hook but Saturday's hook was a nice addition to his repertoire. It was the right punch for the right opponent. Credit Khan's trainer Virgil Hunter for incorporating it into the game plan. 

The best of Khan surfaced on Saturday. He was aggressive without being stupid or reckless. He did his business, landed effectively with eye-catching combinations and got out or clinched. He didn't stand around and wait for Alexander to land something.

One other new wrinkle in Khan's performance was his relaxation in the ring. He didn't waste energy bouncing around the ring or running needlessly. He was calm in the pocket. This helped him maintain his conditioning and focus throughout the fight. Khan has always been one of the sport's best in the early rounds but his second halves of fights have sometimes turned into horror shows. On Saturday, he didn't fade like he did against Lamont Peterson and didn't need to hang on for dear life like he needed to against Marcos Maidana and Julio Diaz.

Khan's first fights with Hunter produced only lukewarm results. He dominated Carlos Molina but was still hit with too many left hooks. Diaz's left hook almost ended him. And even though Khan summarily defeated Luis Collazo, he still seemed jittery in the ring and resorted to a lot of fouling.

For the most part, Khan kept it clean against Alexander. He didn't clinch or hold excessively. With one exception, his shots remained above the belt. He also kept his elbows in their holsters. Khan has become very adept a holding-and-hitting (holding the head with one hand while punching with the other) and he did do this throughout the fight. In real time, he performs this act with such speed and precision that it's often difficult to catch; but it is a foul and something that opposing corners need to bring to the ref's attention.

I won't play ring psychologist. I don't know if Khan resorted to so many fouls in his past fights out of fear, fatigue or desperation. All I know is that he is an immensely talented offensive fighter. When he fights cleanly, he can be a pleasure to watch; when he engages in frequent fouling, he is far less than that.

Khan used his gifts to take the fight out of Alexander, beating him both on the outside and in the trenches. This was a confident (but not over-confident) Khan. By trusting his conditioning, preparation and Hunter's advice, Khan took a live opponent and defanged him. 

During the broadcast, Showtime's Al Bernstein mentioned Khan's undefeated record against southpaws. With strong victories over credible guys like Alexander, Collazo and Judah, I don't think that his mark against lefties is a statistical fluke. On defense, Khan has often struggled against an orthodox fighter's left hook. It's the shot that Danny Garcia used to beat him and it almost ended his night against Diaz. Most lefthanders don't throw a left hook and none do so from a similar angle that an orthodox fighter does; Alexander certainly didn't have a left hook. 

To this point, Khan has been able to see shots coming from southpaws and that makes him a much more confident fighter in the ring. Perhaps a lefty with speed and power, like Manny Pacquiao, would change this dynamic – I’d certainly love to find out.

It still remains to be seen how Khan would fare against the truly elite in the sport. I would argue that he's in a better position now to face the best than he's ever been. However, questions about his chin and Ring IQ will remain until he takes on a Mayweather, a Pacquiao or a Bradley. For now, let's give Khan credit for recognizing the need to improve and identifying a trainer who could potentially lead him to the next step. At this point, the results of his reinvention have been promising but let's temper this enthusiasm somewhat until he has defeated an elite guy.

Prior to Saturday, Virgil Hunter hadn't had a good year. With two Alfredo Angulo fiascos, Brandon Gonzales' wipeout loss to James DeGale and Karim Mayfield's lackluster effort against Thomas Dulorme, Hunter had received a lot of criticism for his recent work. (His star pupil, Andre Ward, one of the best in the business, has been on the shelf all year with contractual entanglements.) Khan's performance on Saturday was important for Hunter's reputation in the sport. Khan beating Alexander with such relative ease shows that Hunter can impart his teachings on more than just one world-class fighter. 

As for Devon Alexander, there was a time (all the way back in 2010!) when he was thought to be a potentially elite young fighter. With a picture-perfect left uppercut that destroyed the usually durable Juan Urango, Alexander was building some real buzz. Flash forward four-and-a-half years later and that Urango punch is still the high point of his career. Since that fight, he has gone 6-3 and you could make a serious argument that he lost both the Kotelnik and Matthysse fights, which would make him 4-5. In short, Alexander can compete on the world-level but no one would confuse him with a pound-for-pound talent. In those nine fights, he has scored all of one stoppage (which was a retirement in the corner) and he hasn't even produced another knockdown.

Fighters with speed, either foot or hand, trouble him and he has become a pocket counterpuncher who lacks the power or elite defensive skills to separate himself from other top fighters. He's now just one of the gang at 147. Maybe he picks up another title belt somewhere down the line but it would have to be against the right opponent. He also has to reacquire the mental focus that seems to have left him a few years ago.

Alexander has had a perfectly fine career, winning titles at 140 and 147, but in many corners of the boxing world much more was expected from him. I guess you could say that Khan has failed to live up to expectations as well. But at least Khan is still on an upward trajectory and has produced several great fights. A highlight film of Alexander's best moments in the ring might consist of just the Urango uppercut shown on a loop.

***

Tim Bradley seemed to get the best of Diego Chaves on Saturday but judges Julie Lederman and Craig Metcalfe didn't see it that way. The fight was ruled a split draw with scores of 115-113 (Bradley) 114-114 and 116-112 (Chaves). Watching it at home live, the decision seemed to be well off the mark but after reviewing the fight, I believe that a couple of aspects of the bout are worthy of reconsideration.

On Saturday, I scored the fight for Bradley 117-111, giving Chaves rounds 9, 10 and 12. I certainly felt that 6 and 11 could have been swing rounds but I gave both of them to Bradley. Harold Lederman of HBO (and Julie's father) scored it for Bradley 116-112.

Having watched the fight a number of times, I still feel confident with Bradley winning but there are some intriguing aspects of the bout that are worth reviewing in more detail. Going into the 12th round, Bradley's trainer, Joel Diaz, didn't seem comfortable whatsoever. He implored his fighter to take risks and win the final round decisively. Just as interestingly, not one of the judges – all experienced with decent reputations – gave Bradley more than seven rounds; each believed that it was a competitive fight.

Although I maintain that Julie Lederman's 116-112 Chaves card is still off base, I am certainly willing to concede that the fight could be viewed as closer than either Harold or I had it. The match featured lots of good exchanges with both fighters landing their fair share of power punches. I liked Bradley's cleaner work more often than not but it's certainly possible that Chaves' punches at ringside had a little more steam on them than they appeared to have when watching the fight on television.

In addition, Bradley definitely coasted in the last third of the bout. Lacking the urgency of the earlier rounds, Bradley fought the last four frames mostly on the outside, where Chaves picked him off a couple times a round with good lead right hands. Yes, I didn't like the final scoring of the fight one bit but I bet Bradley won't be too happy when he watches the tape of rounds 9, 10, 11 and 12.

To me, Bradley won the key battle of the fight in the first four rounds; he beat Chaves at his own game, getting the better of him in extended brawls on the inside. Bradley featured a blistering left hook, barrages of shots to the body and a powerful, looping right hand. Just as important, he took Chaves' best shots, specifically his left hook and right hand. 

My concern for Bradley going into the fight (I thought that Chaves would knock him out) was whether he still had the ability to engage in another war. However, his body and conditioning held up very well on Saturday. There was one particular massive Chaves left hook in the fourth round that Bradley took without a problem. Once I saw that Bradley was unfazed by the shot, I didn't think that there was a way for Chaves to win the fight legitimately.

Bradley will never be a true power puncher but he has worked hard at making his shots respectable enough to keep opponents honest. He staggered Marquez, certainly affected Pacquiao early in their rematch and made Freddie Roach contemplate stopping the Provodnikov fight. He also uses his head strategically; it helps to dissuade fighters from rushing in against him.

It should be noted that Chaves was the one on Saturday who backed out of the brawl. He opted to work mostly on the outside in the latter half of the fight. It was a huge strategic victory for Bradley and a very telling sign of how difficult he is to fight on the inside. And although he ultimately allowed the fight to become closer than it should have been, I don't think that Saturday's "draw" diminishes his standing in boxing one bit. He's still a big player at the top levels of the sport and matches up well with the best at 147. 

***

A surreal scene unfolded for Keith Thurman after his dominant points victory over Leonard Bundu: the crowd booed him. And the more he talked in his post-fight interview, the more that the booing intensified. Thurman, practically a cult hero among the sport's hardcore fans, was seen as one of the rising hopes of American boxing. All week leading up to the fight he was looking well beyond Bundu and talked about dismantling Floyd Mayweather. It was the type of moxie that excited boxing fans. I can only gather from the boos that watching him fool around with a virtually unknown European fighter didn't produce the same resounding passion among the sport's cognoscenti.

Yes, I thought that the crowd was unfair with its disapproval. To my eyes, Thurman won every round and he was certainly going for the knockout early in the fight. At a certain point, he realized that Bundu wasn't going anywhere and he went for the decision; there's no shame in not getting a knockout. However, when you have built yourself up as a destroyer and then spend a lot of the fight dancing, you can sense where a disconnect might possibly occur.

After the fight, Thurman was very candid in evaluating his performance. He talked about needing to remain in the pocket more and to press forward with more intensity than he did. I would add that he could also stop bouncing on the balls of his feet so much before he fires – this gives his opponents a timing mechanism to prepare for defense. In addition, he needs to better vary the speed and distance of his shots. Every right hand came from the outside with maximum force. These shots would be concussive, but only if they landed cleanly. To use a baseball analogy, it doesn't matter if you throw 100 mph if you can't find the strike zone. By shortening up his shots and taking the pace off of some of his punches, Thurman will be able to land more effectively and become less predictable. One other effect of shortening up his punches will be the tightening up of his defense. Right now, there is far too much room to slip in a counter shot as Thurman unloads his power. The elites would have a lot of opportunities to pick him off. 

Like past Thurman challenger Jan Zaveck, Bundu was never really in the fight but he knew how to handle himself in the ring. He landed enough quick counters to keep Thurman honest and his style of switching from orthodox to southpaw kept Thurman from finding a consistent offensive rhythm. Bundu actually was the one coming forward throughout most of the fight's second half and although he wasn't winning rounds, his activity and awkwardness transformed Thurman from puncher to boxer.

Thurman did quite a bit of switching early in the fight as well, even scoring a knockdown with a straight left hand out of the southpaw position. The shot was very effective but I also think that it led to a dead end. Thurman didn't have much success throughout the rest of the fight as a southpaw. And his insistence on incorporating all of these facets into his performance on Saturday (the running, dancing and switching) may have been a miscalculation. The parts wound up being greater than the whole.

Thurman toyed too much. He chose to box; he wasn't forced to do so. And it wasn't that he was doing so poorly that he needed to turn southpaw. These were unnecessarily tools brought to fix a simpler job. There's no need to use 15 different screwdrivers when one will do just fine. I guess that he was frustrated because the knockout didn't come quickly; however, it also felt like he was showing off in the ring.

I'm not saying that Thurman would have knocked Bundu out had he stayed in the pocket more but he certainly could have provided fans with a more pleasing performance; it didn't seem as if Bundu's power was really affecting him from being more aggressive.

Thurman is still developing as a fighter. After he reviews his performance from Saturday, if he reemerges with more patience and calm in the ring, then this fight served an important lesson. Thurman now needs to consolidate his considerable skills and determine what kind of fighter he wants to be in the ring. Is he a seek-and-destroy puncher, a heavy-handed counterpuncher or a boxer-puncher? Obviously, his opponents will have some say in this but Thurman and his team need to figure out which way he can win most impressively.

Without a title belt or a built-in ethnic fan base, no big welterweight needs to fight him. He has TV and a powerful manager behind him but he needs to force the top guys to fight him by creating a demand for his services. A Mayweather or a Pacquiao will have to bless Thurman with a big opportunity. Without enthusiastic fan support, Thurman will still find himself on the outside looking in. 

Saturday should be a learning experience for Thurman. He needn't score a knockout every time out but at this point in his career it's imperative that he looks as good as he can to a create a demand for a bigger fight. He has enough God-given power that he should dispense with the games in the ring. Thurman fighting as a slick boxer is a crime against humanity.

***

For the second fight in a row, Andy Lee came back from way behind to score a knockout victory. The weapon in both bouts was his right hook. Saturday's victory over Matt Korobov earned him a middleweight title belt. 

There are two ways to look at Lee's recent success. On one hand, his right hook is one of the truly devastating punches in the sport and if it lands properly he is a threat to anyone at middleweight (he actually moved down to 154 against John Jackson in his previous bout but he will remain at 160 now). On the other hand, he may have lost 9 of the 11 rounds in his last two bouts. Three fights ago, Lee was only able to squeak out a majority decision against Frank Horta, a French journeyman who entered the ring at 34-12-5.

Lee is now a champion but it's a reasonable assumption to make that many of the top middleweights could outbox him. To my eyes, he hasn't improved under trainer Adam Booth. He hasn't been able to set up shots and his last two knockouts occurred during ragged stretches where he was fortunate to catch his opponents out-of-position.

Although Lee has the eraser, what happens when it doesn't land? Having been stopped by Bryan Vera and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and down big against Korobov, Jackson and Craig McEwan before scoring knockouts, Lee could lose to any credible opponent in the division. Notice, none of the names listed above would be confused with an elite talent.

Lee's strengths and weaknesses make him a fun fighter to watch. Unfortunately, he's devolved into a one-trick pony; it's a hell of a trick but there was once a thought that he could have been something more. For now, he's the middleweight Randall Bailey. With his right hook, he could beat anyone but if his opponent can take the shot, he'll most likely lose. Stay tuned.

***

Controversy brewed after the Mauricio Herrera-Jose Benavidez Jr. fight. The HBO crew had Herrera up big but the three official judges had Benavidez winning by four and six points. To my eyes, Herrera took the early part of the fight based on activity and clean punching. Benavidez started to assert himself in the middle rounds with hard and flashy combinations and the final frames went back and forth. I scored the bout a draw. There were a number of swing rounds in the fight – most of which I gave to Benavidez. I think that the acceptable range for the fight was something like 115-113 Benavidez to 116-112 Herrera.

Putting aside the scoring issues for the moment, the match featured excellent action. Herrera attacked with his jab, a right hand over the top in close and tons of body work – jab, right hand and left hook. Whenever Benavidez was passive, Herrera would throw combinations and outwork him. 

However, Herrera's shots can't really hurt a fly. The old John Wooden line, "Never mistake activity for achievement," comes to mind regarding him. Nevertheless, when he's fighting and the other guy isn't, it's easy to score a round in his favor.

Watching Benavidez, he was clearly hesitant in the early rounds. The fight resembled last month's bout between Billy Joe Saunders and Chris Eubank Jr., where Eubank, the young prospect, slowly gained his confidence throughout the match and in the end was fighting on even terms. Now, that fight was scored for Saunders but the overall trajectory of the two bouts were similar. Prior to Saturday, Benavidez had never been past eight rounds; now he was facing a guy who beat Provodnikov and should have gotten a nod against Danny Garcia, the best fighter in the division; it took Benavidez a little while to believe that he could have success.

When Benavidez let his hands go, good things happened. His combinations were crisp and they landed with conviction. When he pressed forward, Herrera didn't have an immediate response. However, Benavidez didn't fully trust his conditioning. He took major portions of rounds off, covering up along the ropes and letting Herrera fire off too many shots. In addition, Benavidez often started out rounds well but tended to fade towards the last minute. Much of this could be chalked up to a lack of experience but surely he knew that he needed to win rounds definitively, and many he didn't.

In the end, he got the nod. He remains undefeated and picked up an interim title belt. At just 22, he seems to have a bright future, but in this sport, potential often becomes potential unfulfilled. There were a number of aspects of his performance to get excited about and also several areas where he needs to improve. Time is still on his side but now he's officially on the clock.

For Herrera, this year has been a blessing and a curse. He got robbed in Puerto Rico against Danny Garcia and lost a close one to Benavidez in Top Rank's home town. However, he is also more well-known now than he ever has been. If Golden Boy continues to support him, he will get another shot at a meaningful fight very soon. He has proven that he can compete with the best in the division. 

With his lack of power, Herrera will always be at the mercy of judges. All he can do is plug along, stay positive (easier said than done), perform to the best of his ability and hope that he has some fair arbiters at ringside. He should be a world champ, which is a real tragedy. But on the bright side, he has looked very good recently on both HBO and Showtime – that can be just as good for a career. 

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

Friday, December 12, 2014

Previews: Khan-Alexander, Bradley-Chaves

The welterweights heat up Las Vegas this weekend as two 147-lb. fights headline separate cards on Showtime and HBO. Originally scheduled for 2013, former champions Amir Khan (29-3, 19 KOs) and Devon Alexander (26-2, 14 KOs) square off in the main event on Showtime at the MGM Grand. A year ago, this fight would have been for a title but big things are still in the picture for Saturday's winner, such as an opportunity for Floyd Mayweather or another big name in the welterweight division.
 
On HBO, pound-for-pound fighter Tim Bradley (31-1, 12 KOs) takes on rugged Argentine Diego Chaves (23-2, 19 KOs) at the Cosmopolitan. Both boxers are coming off of losses, but under much different circumstances. Bradley was on even terms with Manny Pacquiao in the first half of their rematch earlier this year until foot injuries and strategic miscalculations helped lead to his demise. Pacquiao controlled the second half and won a unanimous decision. Chaves was beating Brandon Rios in his last fight but he was also fouling incessantly; he wound up getting disqualified. On Saturday, Bradley will be trying to keep his name in play for bigger opportunities in 2015 while Chaves will be searching for a signature win in his career.
 
Read below for my previews to these fights. My prediction will be at the end of each write-up.
 
Amir Khan vs. Devon Alexander
 
What to look for?
 
Ring geography: Khan's best bet is to fight Alexander on the outside, using his hand speed, accuracy and legs to initiate offense and stay out of trouble. Alexander will look to work on the inside whenever possible, using his physicality, body shots and short counters to control the fight's action.
 
The Khan jab: He'll need to throw it a lot but he can't get discouraged if he doesn't have early success with it against Alexander, a southpaw who can be hard to hit cleanly. At worst, Khan's jab will disrupt Alexander's rhythm and timing. At best, it can be a real offensive weapon in the fight. But as always, Khan needs to return his jab hand quickly to a defensively responsible position after throwing it. If he leaves his jab out (like he sometimes does), he can get himself into trouble.
 
Power counters from Alexander: If he can land them, specifically his straight left and right hook, the fight could be really competitive. If he can't, he will lose a wide decision.
 
The fight's going well for Khan if...
 
It's very boring. Khan hits and runs. He finds occasions to set his feet, land a few shots and get on his bike. Also, the fewer clinches there are in the fight, the better it is for Khan, who is just uncomfortable in those spots and gets physically and mentally worn down in the trenches. Khan wants to make it as clean of a fight as possible – quick shots, get in and get out, rinse and repeat.
 
The fight's going well for Alexander if...
 
They are trading power shots. A problem that has plagued Khan throughout his career has been his overconfidence. After starting out disciplined, he gets greedy in the pocket, trying to fire five-, six- and seven-punch combinations. And while he can dazzle in those situations, he also provides opponents with the ability to time him and score with their own combinations. Under new trainer Virgil Hunter, Khan has worked at keeping his punch sequences much shorter and getting out of the pocket faster and more responsibly (not straight back), but he can still be prone to admiring his work.
 
Alexander needs to be patient for his opportunities. When Khan stands in front of him without being busy, Alexander must pounce, firing with lead left hands and right hooks. Also, his counter left must always be ready to go. Alexander doesn't have one-punch knockout power, but when right, he has the accuracy and boxing skills to disrupt Khan's game plan and put him on the defensive. Once Khan is in retreat, he is prone to making even more mistakes. Alexander may have to sell out for big shots but this approach may be the best one for him to prevail. He won't win a jabbing contest.
 
Key questions to consider:
 
1. Which Devon Alexander will show up? The focused one is a lot better.
2. Will Khan listen to his corner throughout the fight?
3. Can Khan stay disciplined for 12 rounds against a top fighter?
4. Down on the cards, can Alexander get a knockout?
 
How I think it plays out:
 
I think that this fight will be a pedestrian affair with Khan engaging in stretches but not succumbing to a brawl. He will win the punch stat battle and his flashy shots will appeal to the judges. There will be times when Khan needs a break or he'll get sloppy. There, Alexander will have his moments but I don't think that there will be enough of them for him to win the match. We'll see a lot of Alexander failing to pull the trigger. I predict that Khan wins an 8-4 or 9-3 type of fight.
 
Amir Khan defeats Devon Alexander by unanimous decision.
 
Tim Bradley vs. Diego Chaves
 
What to look for?
 
Who will be the more disciplined fighter? For Tim Bradley, the more he boxes the better he will do against Chaves, who loves to engage in brawls. As for Chaves, discipline means staying within the rules and keeping his mental toughness throughout the fight.
 
Bradley's mobility: Bradley has had foot and leg problems in a number of his recent fights but he will need his legs to help him win against Chaves. If he remains stationary on Saturday, he will be courting significant dangers.
 
Can Chaves dent Bradley's chin? Chaves hits very hard – hard enough for Keith Thurman to back off and box, hard enough for Brandon Rios to do his crazy-smile routine after getting nailed with big shots. But can Chaves hit hard enough to knock out Bradley? Bradley's been dropped by Ruslan Provodnikov and Kendall Holt and staggered by Pacquiao. To this point, his chin has just barely held up on a few occasions but how long can that last? And if Chaves hurts Bradley, can he finish the fight off? I don't foresee a Chaves decision victory in the cards.
 
The fight's going well for Bradley if...
 
He's boxing well and Chaves is unable to put combinations together. Bradley will use his Ring IQ (which can come and go) to stay away from prolonged exchanges. If the fight's going Bradley's way, Chaves will spend a lot of time following Bradley around the ring in vain, unable to let his hands go. Bradley's quick jab and lateral movement will force Chaves to constantly reset his feet, making him unable to load up on his power shots.
 
The fight's going well for Chaves if...
 
He can land his bombs. Chaves has a number of offensive weapons, specifically his lead right hand, which can be straight or looping, as well as his uppercuts. He's also a very strong combination puncher and works the body hard. However, his offense is predicated on an obliging opponent. Rios, a come-forward guy who often laughs at defense, was the perfect opponent for Chaves to feature his entire offensive arsenal; however, Bradley will likely be more difficult to corral. If Chaves can land his power shots consistently, he has an excellent chance of hurting Bradley and forcing him into a brawl.
 
Key questions to consider?
 
1. What kind of shape is Bradley in? Rumors abound at how much Bradley has blown up in between recent fights. Eventually, bad training regimens will come back to haunt a fighter, and for Bradley, they already may have – his foot injuries could be a result of poor conditioning.
 
2. Can Chaves think his way through a fight? Thurman's switch from brawling to boxing confounded Chaves. What does he do on Saturday if "Plan A" doesn't work?
 
3. Will Bradley listen to his trainer? He's been out-of-synch with Joel Diaz during a number of his recent fights.
 
4. Could Chaves actually win a decision on the cards? Let's face it; Chaves is the "opponent" here. The fight is being waged in Top Rank land. Chaves can't afford for the fight to be close.
 
How I think it plays out:
 
Deviating from conventional wisdom, I think that the timing is all right for Chaves here. Bradley has had injuries, weight issues, problems listening to his trainer, wanderlust about bigger fights, questions about his ring identity, poor decision making in the ring and all sorts of other issues that may be in play on Saturday. I'm also not sure if Bradley's body can withstand another war.
 
I think that Bradley will win many battles of the fight but lose the war. Chaves' power shots will eventually take over and Bradley will be in survival mode. I believe that Chaves' footwork will not allow a hurt Bradley to escape. Furthermore, if and when Bradley is hurt, clinches will not be a safe place for him against Chaves, who will wear him down on the inside. Timmy will fight on as long as he can and it will be a scintillating bout to watch but Chaves' relentlessness and power will be too much for Bradley to handle.
 
Diego Chaves TKO 10 Tim Bradley.

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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Monday, December 8, 2014

Opinions and Observations: The Lemieux-Rosado Card

Saturday's middleweight fight between French Canadian David Lemieux and Philadelphian Gabe Rosado produced a sublime fourth round that was easily one of the best three minutes of boxing in 2014. Throughout the first three rounds, Lemieux was getting the best of the action, landing thudding right hands and left hooks and consistently backing up Rosado. In the third, Lemieux sent Rosado to the canvas with two vicious left hooks. The fourth started out as more of the same, with Lemieux pressing forward behind power shots. However, Rosado then decided to stand his ground and fire, landing short, clipping counter right hands. These punches made Lemieux reconsider his unfettered offense. Rosado took charge and moved the action back to the center of the ring. As the round progressed, Lemieux again reclaimed dominance with his heavy hands, only to eat a couple of solid rights as the round closed. It was thrilling stuff and confirmed the promise of this matchup when the fight was announced.
The conventional wisdom going into Lemieux-Rosado was that Lemieux, the bigger puncher, would be dangerous early but Rosado, if he could keep his wits about him, could have some success in the later rounds. Lemieux had fallen apart in 2011 against Marco Antonio Rubio after leading early and was ineffectual in dropping a decision to Joachim Alcine later that year. Those were the only two fights against world-class opposition where he was pushed into the second half, and he folded. However, Rosado had his own issues late in fights, mainly the scar tissue above his left eyelid, which seemingly could open up from a strong gust of wind, not to mention from the blows of a strong middleweight puncher.

One part of the pre-fight narrative held up, which is that Rosado's eye didn't. By the third round, his left eye was a mess and started to swell (after the fight it was revealed that in addition to the cut he had suffered a broken orbital bone). With each passing round the eye looked worse and worse. Before the eighth, ninth and tenth, the doctors examined the eye and although Rosado was allowed to continue each time, he was absorbing huge shots in the ring. As the 10th progressed, one of the ring doctors ascended the ring apron and signaled to stop the fight. Similar to his bout with middleweight killer Gennady Golovkin, Rosado ended the fight on his feet but lost as a result of a good stoppage. Eventually, a fighter has to be protected from himself and in my opinion the New York State Athletic Commission acted appropriately in calling off the action.

But the ultimate story of the fight was Lemieux's improvement. Although he certainly was going for the knockout in the early rounds, he did a much better job than he had previously in pacing himself throughout his attack and not punching himself out. When the early stoppage didn't come, he didn't get forlorn. He pressed on with imposing himself in the ring and winning rounds. He survived some adversity in the fourth, kept his composure and continued with the task at hand.

Significant credit for Lemieux's performance must be given to trainer Marc Ramsay, who has had success guiding the career of Jean Pascal, another fighter who can be fragile and/or fade in fights. Lemieux never lost confidence on Saturday despite taking some decent shots. The fighter was prepared physically and mentally to go 12 rounds if needed.

Lemieux is already in the second phase of his boxing career but it's worth remembering that he's only 25, which is still just the early prime for most fighters. As a point of comparison, Golovkin was fighting only eight-rounders in Germany at the same age. I won't tell you that Lemieux will one day become a pound-for-pound talent like Golovkin, but he still has room to grow.

Looking through his early development opponents, there was a real dearth of crafty B- and C-fighters to help him gain the valuable experience needed to box at the championship level. He still has some technical flaws, mainly cocking his right hand back to such an extreme that half of his body is left unprotected. He leaves ample opportunities for jabs or lead left hooks to find their targets on his right side. He is also very susceptible to a counter left uppercut. In addition, Lemieux could further fill out his arsenal by using his jab strategically (not just as a show punch) and incorporating some uppercuts into his attack.

Nevertheless, Lemieux has placed himself back into the middleweight conversation. With his last two showings, he has now made an impressive statement on each U.S. boxing network. His popularity in his home market of Montreal and his promotional arrangement, which is removed from the HBO/Haymon/Top Rank cold war, should leave him with plenty of options. Natural fights against Peter Quillin or Jermain Taylor could occur next year. He still has some things to learn in the gym but there's no reason why he couldn't have a title belt at this time next year.

Rosado's situation reminds me of the career of another Philadelphian, former Olympian and world champion David Reid. Both fighters never reached their full potential in the ring because of an uncooperative eye. Just over a year ago, Rosado was coming on strong in a world title fight against Peter Quillin. That bout was also stopped in the 10th because of his eye (ignore the scores, Rosado was getting the best of the action when the match was halted). If Rosado's eye was 100%, he very well could have been a middleweight titleholder.

However, let's not blame Rosado's losses just on his eye. There were multiple occasions on Saturday where he didn't follow his corner's advice to get off first. He also failed to press Lemieux as actively as trainer Jesse Reid would have liked him to. In the Quillin fight, he decided to engage in a boxing match early in the fight when a ragged affair was what was needed for that opponent. There were also some bad career moves mixed in, such as dropping back down to junior middleweight to get outboxed by Jermell Charlo, an absolutely horrible matchup for him that helped to deflate his stock. 

At his best, Rosado was an excellent TV fighter, one who was tough and won over boxing fans and television executives with his gutsy ring performances. Sure, if things broke better for him, he could have gotten a title belt and the opportunities afforded by such a trinket. However, that story isn't unique in boxing; many have the potential to get to the top only to fall short. At least for Rosado, he made his mark on boxing, just as boxing made its mark on his eye. He had two world title fights and appeared on HBO or Showtime five times (including a PPV undercard bout). Not too many 21-9 fighters can say that. So he certainly had a spark in the ring and connected with audiences. That's an impressive feat in it of itself.

In a perfect world, Rosado will retire. He just doesn't have the physical health needed to compete at the top level of the sport and his eye problems could very well intensify with each passing fight. At 28, it seems awfully young to call it a career but he has a young daughter whom he loves very dearly. Trade-offs can really hurt.

***

The most interesting fight of Saturday's card was the junior welterweight opener between Thomas Dulorme and Hank Lundy. Similar to the main event, this was a crossroads battle between a former hot prospect whose rapid ascent was derailed (Dulorme) and a tough Philadelphian who hadn't been able to get over the hump (Lundy). The final result of a Dulorme split decision win may not have been surprising but round-by-round, this fight was pretty damn compelling.  

From the opening bell, Dulorme used distance and his reach advantage to land his jab and right hand. Lundy, the smaller fighter, also decided to work off his jab. Both had moments in the first but a looping right hand from Dulorme put Lundy on the canvas at the end of the round; the fight's opening salvo was fired.

The next few rounds featured a similar style clash, with Dulorme and Lundy boxing from mid-range. Lundy got in some jabs and right hands while Dulorme featured the more consistent offensive output and eye-catching power shots.

By the fourth round, Lundy switched almost exclusively to southpaw and dispensed with any notion of boxing. Defensively, he was in a better position as a lefty to neutralize Dulorme's looping right hands and jabs. On offense, Lundy started to walk Dulorme down. Firing wide left hands to the body, uppercuts and right hooks, Lundy worked his way into the fight. By the sixth round, Dulorme was visibly uncomfortable in the ring and started to lose his composure. He was throwing shots not necessarily to win exchanges but to keep Lundy off of him; he was in self-protection mode. 

In the seventh, Dulorme switched to southpaw himself. In that stance, he threw meek right jabs and the occasional left cross. Although he wasn't getting the better of the action, he made Lundy recalibrate. Instead of rummaging forward recklessly, Lundy now was more hesitant with his offense. By the eighth round, Lundy reemerged in a conventional stance and the fight reverted to the pattern of the early rounds, where Dulorme, back as a right-hander, won with superior boxing. (Even though the HBO broadcast crew bestowed plaudits on Lundy's trainer, Barry Hunter, throughout the match, it's interesting to note that Hunter didn't implore Lundy to remain as a southpaw in the fight's later rounds, in my opinion a big tactical mistake). 

Only in the 10th and final round did Lundy return to southpaw and he had a big closing frame. Dulorme looked unsteady on his feet and was more concerned with surviving the final round that winning it.

It was a close contest, with scores 97-92 and 96-93 for Dulorme and 96-93 for Lundy (I had it 96-93 Dulorme). In the end, the decision was reasonable.

This fight perfectly illustrated the relative strengths and weaknesses of each boxer. Against an opponent who wanted to box, Dulorme could look quite strong. He has impressive technique and understands distance very well. However, once the match turned into a brawl, panic seemed to overcome him, much as it did in his knockout loss to Luis Carlos Abregu in 2012. He lacked the weapons for inside fighting and when under duress, his answer was to disengage in almost a perpetual state of retreat. Switching to southpaw may have won Dulorme this fight, but it wasn't as if he dominated the action as a lefty, such as Terence Crawford does when he switches. Dulorme was able to survive on Saturday, but again, he survived against Hank Lundy, not a top-five guy at 140 lbs.

Lundy demonstrated that he is tough and has a tremendous amount of pride. He scrapped his unsuccessful "Plan A" and was able to find a style that worked. He had several rounds where he imposed his will on the bigger fighter. However, he also showed that he could be out-thought and is capable of beating himself in the ring. Lundy was flummoxed by Dulorme's move to southpaw. He essentially let Dulorme gain the strategic advantage in rounds eight and nine by abandoning what was working for him. In the 10th, he fought his heart out, but it was too late on the scorecards.

Lundy's losses don't paint a rosy picture of his ring intelligence. He was up big against John Molina, got careless and was knocked out. He let a plodding and methodical Ray Beltran outwork him and now he has been out-thought by Dulorme. (He also did lose a spirited contest to Viktor Postol). Lundy's a high-level gatekeeper who can beat some guys on a good night but he's not disciplined enough in the ring against top fighters. And he certainly doesn't have the type of power that can erase mistakes.

Dulorme barely passed his test this weekend and the fight showed that he most likely won't be a serious player at 140 pounds. The top level of that division (like Danny Garcia and Lucas Matthysse) would pick him apart with clean counters and/or pressure. Even guys like Viktor Postol and Ruslan Provodnikov could have their way with him. Maybe Dulorme could win a jabbing contest against Chris Algieri, but again, we're not talking about a truly elite fighter here. Dulorme will lose badly soon; it's just a question of which top junior welterweight will have the honors of obtaining his scalp.

In another undercard fight, middleweight prospect Hugo Centeno Jr. made a stunning HBO debut, knocking out fringe contender James De la Rosa with a beautiful straight left hand, sending him head first to the canvas. What made the knockout even more impressive is that Centeno is a natural orthodox fighter and scored the knockout out of a southpaw stance, displaying creativity, dexterity and surprising power. Centeno also did good things in the opening round of the fight, where he scored a sweet knockdown with a powerful jab, a rare occurrence in the sport, but always a fun one. 

The crafty De La Rosa had some success with using angles and landing shots in close range during rounds two, three and four. However, Centeno made an adjustment that De la Rosa wasn't prepared for, and that was the fight. Centeno's performance guarantees that he will find his way back on HBO or another premium network very shortly.  


Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
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Saturday, December 6, 2014

Saturday Night Boxing Page Hacked

I'm currently working through some issues with the Saturday Night Boxing Facebook page, which was hacked earlier this weekend. The page is temporarily down. Please check back for updates.