Thursday, October 11, 2018

Punch 2 the Face Podcast

This week's Punch 2 the Face podcast looks back at a big fight weekend, including Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, Naoya Inoue and Eddie Hearn's first U.S. DAZN card, which featured a number of entertaining fights. Brandon and I previewed Saturday's matchup between Terence Crawford and Jose Benavidez Jr. We also gave our opinions on the cancellation of Saunders-Andrade and Billy Joe Saunders' failed drug test. In addition, Lou DiBella joined us to talk about Jacobs-Derevyanchenko, Prograis-Flanagan and Farmer-Tennyson. Lou also shared some recollections from his time at HBO Boxing and what the network leaving the sport means to him.

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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.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

HBO Boxing: A Recollection

For me it was Jim, Larry and George, elegantly clad in tuxedos, broadcasting from a glamorous location and arena: Madison Square Garden, Caesars in Las Vegas, the Forum, which was home to the Showtime-era Lakers. When HBO Boxing was there, it was an event. And the fighters were the biggest names of the era – Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Julio Cesar Chavez (when not fighting on rival Showtime), Oscar de la Hoya and Roy Jones. But it wasn't just the superstars. If a boxer headlined on HBO, he was somebody. So I took notice of Pernell Whitaker, Michael Nunn, Terry Norris, James Toney and dozens of others.

That era represented a magical time. At 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, the TV was turned to HBO. The promos in the week leading up to the fight had me counting down the days. The HBO theme music at the start of the broadcast created a Pavlovian sense of excitement and anticipation. 

Boxing wasn't part of my household growing up, but over time the sport grabbed a hold on me and never let go. The HBO Boxing commentators were my earliest teachers. From Jim Lampley I understood the magnitude of the event taking place. George Foreman provided meaningful perspectives on fighter psychology and what went on in the trenches. Harold Lederman taught me how to score the action. 

But the broadcast crew didn't necessarily fawn over the action or the fighters; they maintained an important critical distance. If a fight turned out to be a dog, or if a mismatch was about to be shown, Larry Merchant would let me know it. Often speaking for the fan, his cynicism cut through fighter braggadocio and cynical matchmaking. When a boxer had the goods, such as Chavez or Shane Mosley, for example, Jim and Larry would sing his praises, but if one failed to perform or refused to challenge himself, it was made abundantly clear on the broadcast.

Lampley's perfect elocution and statesman-like demeanor lent an official air to the proceedings. Whole rounds would sometimes go by without a comment from Merchant, and then suddenly he would offer a piercing quip that spectacularly captured the action (or often inaction) of the fight. Foreman was lovable but could turn deadly serious when he sensed an impending dramatic moment. Larry and George always seemed to get into some sort of argument on-air, often revealing, sometimes frivolous, but it made for good television. HBO's commentators were not just there for a gig; HBO Boxing was where they wanted to be. Overall, there was a sense of pride that imbued each and every broadcast.  

HBO Boxing's production values were far superior to their competitors, and in many instances have yet to be surpassed. Their camera angles, lighting and sound quality were top-rate and remained the best in the business until the end. They took you into the corners to understand what was happening between rounds. If the fighters or trainers spoke a language other than English, they had an interpreter to communicate what was occurring. The network's ability to conjure up the right replay in the seconds between rounds was wizardly. They incorporated punch stats in a way that provided an additional perspective on the fight. 

Many of these innovations have now become the standard for every network, but HBO's broadcast was always trying to find another way to educate the viewer and further enhance the drama. I could probably list a dozen significant innovations that HBO brought to the presentation of boxing; I would struggle to name more than one or two for their rivals.

But the Golden Era didn't last. As early as 2005 or 2006, I remember cornering Ross Greenburg, then the head of HBO Sports, at a conference in Washington D.C. I had taken the train down from Philadelphia and wanted to voice my displeasure about the slippage of HBO Boxing. The overall quality control of their boxing content was not what it once was. Mismatches were becoming more and more common. Their Boxing After Dark series, so promising when it started, had devolved into a weigh station for "name" fighters taking on sub-standard opponents. Promoters were given output deals and other "make good" network slots as part of back room negotiations, which would have been less of a problem had HBO Boxing not relinquished its understanding of strong matchmaking.  

To my eyes, HBO Boxing was deteriorating, and I was unhappy. This was the New York Yankees becoming the Chicago White Sox. I talked with Greenburg after his speech and he nodded politely to my points of discontent. After listing a few things that I felt could be improved, he begrudgingly admitted that the HBO Boxing website could use some sprucing up. No other point was entertained. And he thanked me for my time. 

HBO Boxing's decline was long, slow and steady. Budgets went from $90 million in the late '90s to less than $30 million in recent years. As a network, HBO was making money hand over fist, but their boxing program was being starved. Perhaps the sport had successfully marginalized itself. Maybe HBO had better options for its capital. For whatever the litany of reasons that caused this disinvestment, the downward trajectory of HBO Boxing was easy to see. Fights that were once routinely shown on the network were forced to go to pay per view. Ratings dropped. Influential boxing people were banned from the network. The loss of Larry Merchant hurt the quality of the broadcast. Rival networks were becoming more competitive. And more than any one of these factors, there seemed to be no coherent plan to restore HBO Boxing's glory. 

Last week's announcement that HBO was exiting boxing was a sad day. It felt like losing a family member. For over a generation, the network was the primary conduit between boxing fans and the sport that they love. Sure, we can all highlight mistakes that were made, bad hiring decisions, the ridiculous politics of the sport and all sorts of other factors. But today won't be a time of accusation and finger-pointing. 

I wish I didn't have to write this article. I wish that HBO Boxing was still puffing out its chest. We have lost a loved one. And there's a gnawing feeling that the loss was avoidable.  

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.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

In This Corner

I appeared on the latest In This Corner on the ESPN+ app with Chris Mannix of Yahoo Sports, Keith Idec of BoxingScene and George Willis of the New York Post to talk about this weekend's Joshua-Povetkin fight and the heavyweight division. Does Povetkin have a real shot? Is just winning good enough for Joshua or does he need to do more? Also, what might be next for boxing's glamour division? An ESPN+ subscription is required.

Click here to watch the show.

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, September 16, 2018

Opinions and Observations: Canelo-Golovkin 2

Bear with me here, because I might go off the reservation a little bit. 

There were two moments in the 12th round of the Saul "Canelo" Alvarez-Gennady Golovkin rematch that illustrated how Golovkin could have made Saturday's fight much easier for himself. During the tense, final round, twice Golovkin backed off and started to circle away from Canelo. Both times Canelo raised his arms up and signaled to Golovkin, as if to say, "No, stay here and fight me." And like a docile pet responding to his master, Golovkin obliged, and the fight's ferocious combat continued. 

That Golovkin was compliant to Canelo's wishes reinforced a major strategic error made by both Golovkin and his trainer, Abel Sanchez. The reasons why Alvarez demanded that Golovkin fight him in the center of the ring were simple: he couldn't move laterally or push off with his back foot. 

Canelo, who had arthroscopic knee surgery prior to the fight, entered the bout wearing a sleeve on his right knee, the one used for planting and pushing off. It was clear from watching the fight, although unremarked by the HBO announce team (which generally had an awful night), that Canelo was dragging his right leg. Almost all of Canelo's weight was on his front foot. This is not his traditional boxing stance; he usually has perfect balance in the ring.

Photo Courtesy of Ed Mullholland/HBO

Much was said about how Canelo changed his approach from the first fight, and he certainly did. Instead of countering off the ropes for large portions of a round, Canelo inched forward in the center of the ring and let combinations go. Gone were the big shots from the outside; the longer punches require more shifting in weight from the back to the front foot. Canelo fought entirely in the pocket and in close range. I'm sure that these changes in part could be attributed to a strategic decision – to be viewed as more of the aggressor in the fight. But I think mostly he fought in that style out of necessity. 

Let's examine fighting off the ropes for a moment. When a boxer has his back to the ropes, he uses his back leg to push off, steer and counter. The back leg bears almost all of the weight. Canelo spent no time in Saturday's fight doing this, again, partially because the optics of fighting off the ropes are bad for judges; it makes the other boxer look like the one initiating the action, irrespective of his success. But most importantly, one can't fight off the ropes if the back leg doesn't provide adequate stability. And to me, it was clear that that was the case. 

It wasn't just me who noticed Canelo's knee issue. I received a number of tweets throughout and after the fight about Canelo's knee (partly because I highlighted this factor in my preview article). I watched the fight with my brother-in-law who said without any prompting from me in the third round, "Look, he's dragging his leg." 

Between rounds when HBO's cameras focused on Golovkin's corner, Sanchez kept telling Golovkin to hold his ground and go for the knockout. Unfortunately for Sanchez, he got too caught up in the battle of machismo and didn't consider other options for winning the match. Ultimately, Sanchez (and by extension, Golovkin) was goaded into Canelo's fight. Sure, they may have wanted an all-out brawl in their first match last September. They might have thought that a slugfest favored them, but on Saturday, a different, clearer and perhaps less punishing avenue was available for the win. 

More than anyone else, Sanchez was constricted by the notion of "Mexican Style." He should have adapted, perhaps even planned for a less mobile version of Canelo, and instructed his charge to fight in a way that could have provided a much easier road for victory. Although it's not Golovkin's preferred style, it's not as if Golovkin can't box and move; he did so beautifully against David Lemieux, using his jab and moving around the ring to win rounds easily before scoring a decisive stoppage.  

What Golovkin needed on Saturday was more of an "American Style” – that of the boxer-puncher. Once it became clear that Canelo couldn't move laterally, Golovkin should have circled Canelo with his jab and used angles to force Canelo to reset, which would have been exceedingly difficult for him because of his knee. 

The problem with any fighter who places too much weight on his front foot is that he can only move in straight lines. Try standing up and shuffling side-to-side with your weight equally distributed among both feet. Now shift you weight to the front foot and the movement becomes much more ponderous and far less fluid. 

Had Golovkin incorporated more elements of traditional boxing into Saturday's fight, in all likelihood the event would have turned out to be far less enjoyable than it was. But you know what, a boxer's first duty is to win. If the crowd boos, then so be it. Truly versatile fighters and trainers pick the style that affords them the best chance to win. Talents such as Mayweather, Crawford and Lomachenko could beat an opponent any which way. Unfortunately for Golovkin, he and his team suffered from a lack of imagination and remained captive to their notion of machismo and "Mexican Style".

As a reminder, Golovkin was an Olympic silver medalist and possesses one of the best jabs in the sport. He illustrated on Saturday that he could certainly be successful boxing off the back foot. What was missing was the right instruction from his corner and the recognition that something different might be better. 

Nevertheless, I still thought that Golovkin won, even fighting Canelo's fight. I had him winning seven rounds to five, or 115-113, but certainly there were enough swing rounds in the bout that the official scores (114-114, 115-113 Canelo and 115-113 Canelo) were defensible. Overall, it was an excellent, close, and well-contested fight. Perhaps the right man didn't win, but it's hard to argue that the judges' cards weren't within an acceptable range of conceivable scores.

Photo Courtesy of Ed Mullholland/HBO

None of the above is meant to diminish Canelo's accomplishments on Saturday. Fighting with what I believed was a real handicap, he won the battle of ring generalship. In terms of geography, the action was right where he wanted it. Often controlling the center of the ring, he threw blistering left hooks, punishing right uppercuts, a number of dazzling combinations and some nifty counter jabs. 

Despite the surgery and the resulting post-operative physical therapy, his conditioning was far improved in the second fight. Perhaps by the ninth round his gas tank started to deplete ever so slightly, but he was having problems as early as the fourth in the first bout. In addition, Saturday's fight was contested in a far more grueling manner than their match last year. His conditioning was very impressive on Saturday. 

Credit also needs to be given to Canelo's head trainer, Eddy Reynoso. Years ago, Reynoso took a boatload of criticism, and justifiably so, for Alvarez's listless performance against Mayweather, where it was clear that the trainer had no "Plan B". However, as Canelo has developed as a fighter and Reynoso has gained additional experience against top opposition, Eddy's improvement has been vast. Canelo is now a fighter who can win a fight in close range or on the outside, with short single punches or free-flowing combinations, along the ropes or in the center of the ring, by cutting off the ring or by moving to evade pressure, leading or countering. In short, Reynoso has helped create one of the sport's more versatile fighters. 

In my final estimation of Saturday's fight, Golovkin and Sanchez helped to beat themselves. Against a slightly diminished fighter, they played into his hands. Perhaps they still should have won. Maybe three different judges could very well have given them the verdict. However, the type of fight that they chose to engage in left reasonable doubt as to which boxer was the rightful victor. As great as Sanchez has been throughout his career, Saturday's performance was a major failing and highlights his limitations. What was needed on Saturday was an out-of-the box thinker, a cornerman comfortable with making significant changes on the fly. 

As for Golovkin, he fought valiantly, if not necessarily intelligently. Saturday might have been his last big stage to shine. He proved his mettle and beat back those pesky whispers that he was somehow an old fighter. But what missing was some cunning, some cleverness, some craft. Golovkin will be remembered as one of true shining stars from his era, but he was so close to being something even more. 

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.