Sunday, May 24, 2015

Opinions and Observations: Dirrell-DeGale

For as much as boxing fans love knockouts, speed, skills, gladiatorial displays and fearlessness, the element of surprise may be the most important factor in maintaining interest in the sport. How much fun would boxing be if we could accurately predict title bouts 98% of the time? Why bother if we always know how fights will play out? (Eventually, Golovkin knocking out third-tier opponents will get boring, trust me.) Without surprise, there is less drama and fewer reasons to watch boxing, especially when scores of other entertainment possibilities may be just a click or button away.

James DeGale defeating Andre Dirrell is not a notable upset. As title fights go, the matchup was pretty close to 50/50. However, how both boxers went at each other – with power punches, massive counters and little running – was genuinely shocking. The fight was 20 times more entertaining than I thought it would be and these are the types of surprises that keep me emotionally invested in the sport. Usually, the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend is not an anticipated slot for boxing programming but Dirrell-DeGale certainly delivered quality action.  

In viewing the matchup, I saw two fighters who often chose to engage in technical affairs, sometimes, needlessly. As a prospect, Dirrell too frequently had resorted to running, especially in times of duress. He would rely on his speed (foot and hand) and wasn't against trying to stink out a fight to win. In evaluating DeGale, his issues involved ones of effort and confidence. Often, he had fought with little urgency, doing just enough to win rounds. At other moments in his career, he had seemed unwilling to let his hands go consistently.  

In Degale's last two fights, against Brandon Gonzales and Marco Antonio Periban, he deviated from his standard operating procedure; he attacked his opponents relentlessly and went for the kill. The tentativeness of his past performances didn't manifest. After years of sleepwalking, coasting, and bullshitting his way through fights, he finally had arrived as an offensive fighter.

Building off of that momentum, on Saturday he surprised Dirrell (and boxing fans) in the second round, dropping him with a perfectly timed overhand left during an exchange. And, instead of being satisfied with scoring a knockdown, he went right at Dirrell after the count, trying to finish the job. He trapped Dirrell along the ropes and fired off a fusillade of punches, leading to a second knockdown. DeGale was now demonstrating that he could be a killer against top guys, not just the B-team. 

During rounds three, four and five, DeGale continued to pepper Dirrell with big punches and eye-catching combinations. DeGale unleashed his entire offensive arsenal and also took some huge shots in return; but he kept coming. In these moments, DeGale had finally crossed his last barrier to becoming a top super middleweight: the acceptance of risk. In the past, after getting hit with a good shot, DeGale would often resort to moving around the ring and retreating. On Saturday, DeGale didn't let Dirrell's power shots thwart him from being offensive-minded. He pressed the action throughout the majority of the fight. 

Similarly, Dirrell seemed to grow up right before our eyes against DeGale. Instead of disengaging, running or out-cuting his way through a tough bout, Dirrell held his ground and decided to fight his way back into it. Even though he had been dropped twice and bloodied by huge shots, Dirrell remained in the pocket and asserted himself in the second-half of the match, especially with hard counter left hands and right uppercuts. He also stalked DeGale, firing off double jabs to the head and body to set up his power punches. Here, Dirrell was no longer a mere prospect or a talent with skills; he was an actual top contender fighting for a championship belt. Psychologically, he refused to cower or fold; he wanted that title. 

In the final rounds, DeGale regained his offensive temperament and finished strongly, clinching the victory. The scorecards were 114-112, 114-112 and 117-109 (ignore that one). I had it 115-111 and in my estimation it was a fight where neither guy truly lost. Yes, both still have things to work on, as all fighters do, but Dirrell and DeGale demonstrated that they belong at the top level of the super middleweight division. 

As odd as it sounds, Dirrell, at 31, was still somewhat of an unknown commodity coming into Saturday's fight. In 2009, he had lost a close decision to Carl Froch in England (certainly no crime) but in his next fight he was up big against Arthur Abraham before being hit with an illegal punch, which sidetracked his career. During what should have been his athletic peak, he fought only once in 35 months and his subsequent comeback fights provided no further illumination about his true abilities as a fighter; his opponents were all of poor-to-middling quality.

Dirrell was beaten by the better fighter on Saturday but he gave an honest account of himself; there is no shame in that. He displayed several positive qualities, including resiliency, strong recuperative powers, punch accuracy and variety and strong ring generalship. It wasn't his legs or an unpleasing style that led to his undoing but an inability to adjust to DeGale's long left hands. Dirrell had never faced a top southpaw before and it was clear that he was unfamiliar with the types of overhand lefts and rear-hand left hooks that DeGale was throwing. The best defensive fighters (such as Mayweather and Hopkins) can shut down an opponent's best weapon during a fight but that skill is exceedingly rare in modern boxing. Dirrell got hit with something new; it happens. Hopefully, he learns from this experience and can perform better the next time that he faces a top southpaw.

Technically, Dirrell's hand positioning still leaves a lot to be desired. He was tagged so often by DeGale's overhand left because his hands were too low. In addition, Dirrell misjudged range on a number of occasions, throwing long power shots when DeGale was in position to counter with something quicker and shorter. DeGale also exploited a flaw in Dirrell's defense during exchanges. The more punches that DeGale threw in a combination the worse that Dirrell's defense got. By the third or fourth punch of a combo, Dirrell was wide open for a left hand or a right uppercut. DeGale often punctuated these combinations with a clean power shot and then wisely got out of range, which were wonderful displays of boxing at a high level. In these moments, Dirrell was looking for his own perfect counter shot and he was too willing to be hit with three or four punches to land one good one. He needs to be more active during exchanges, tie-up or disengage. This is an area where Dirrell must improve. 

Not all was perfect for DeGale either. He reverted to some of his bad habits in the second half of the fight. Starting from round six, he lost at least four of next five by simply being outworked. He did land big lefts on occasion but he was no longer throwing in combination. It's possible that he was starting to fatigue or maybe he was coasting on a large lead but nevertheless, his lack of urgency in these rounds helped provide openings for Dirrell to come back in the fight. Again, a consistent effort throughout 12 rounds will be imperative in remaining at the top level of the division. I'm sure that he and his team will continue to work on this. 

On a like note, I want to make one final point about DeGale's trainer, Jim McDonnell. Sure, DeGale wasn't flawless against Dirrell, but what I saw on Saturday was a fighter who was truly prepared for the task at hand. Going on the road, in a hostile environment, DeGale acted like a seasoned professional and had a definitive plan on how to win the fight. Facing an opponent who had a tremendous amount of hand and foot speed as well as the ability to switch stances at a whim, DeGale executed his game plan without caution, frustration or hesitancy. It was clear from the opening round that McDonnell and DeGale worked on that overhand left in the gym and that the punch would be a go-to weapon in the fight. That punch enables a boxer to land a shot higher on the head and with more force than a normal straight punch or cross – an ideal offering against an opponent who keeps his hands too low. In addition, whenever Dirrell turned to the orthodox stance, DeGale wisely tied him up, smothering Dirrell's ability to do damage, or disengaged, making Dirrell's switching irrelevant. 

Too often we see fighters and trainers not perform to the best of their abilities in big moments; however, DeGale and McDonnell worked beautifully together on Saturday. McDonnell, who had faced severe criticism after DeGale's loss to George Groves, showed that he could create a fantastic game plan. In addition, DeGale revealed that he can be teachable and is willing to put the time in the gym to fulfill his potential. 

After Saturday's fight, there is no more need to talk about potential regarding DeGale or Dirrell. One is a world champ and the other very well could be. Both had rocky moments in their ascension toward the top of the super middleweight division but as their thrilling fight revealed, the summit is where they belong. 

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
Contact Adam at saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Opinions and Observations: Canelo, PBC and ESPN

Skill versus Will fought to a draw this weekend. The accuracy of Saul "Canelo" Alvarez's power punches flattened James Kirkland's relentlessness while Jamie McDonnell's activity level and perseverance bested Tomoki Kameda's more-polished technique. To reframe this weekend's action using one of the more irrepressible boxing clichés of our time, "skills paid the bills," but only if one let his hands go. It really didn't matter if Alvarez was the more accurate puncher or if he had the more dynamic offensive arsenal; if he didn't throw his shots, he would've eventually gotten eaten alive by Kirkland. Kameda had the better technique, footwork and punch variety but that only mattered on a theoretical level. He let his opponent outwork him in the last half of their fight and coughed up a sure victory.

McDonnell was a big underdog coming into the fight, which was understandable based on his recent performances, where he had looked less-than-sterling against several lower-level fighters. At best, McDonnell is a grinder in the ring. Meaning, he's not particularly flashy, he doesn't have real knockout power but he's well-conditioned and tends to improve during the course of a fight. He's a very basic 1-2-3 type of boxer; however, he uses his height, jab and high volume to trouble his opponents. 

Against Kameda, his positive intangibles manifested throughout the bout, especially in the concluding rounds. Kameda leveled him with a right hand in the third round and hit him with some menacing power shots throughout the first half of the fight. However, McDonnell withstood the early storm and fought through it. He kept his composure when others might have crumbled. He maintained a high activity level as the fight progressed and really went to work in the later rounds.

Kameda's punch volume plummeted in the bout's final third. Fighting as if he was up huge on the cards (and I'm sure at one point, he was), Kameda didn't believe that any urgency was needed in the championship rounds. However, McDonnell kept working and wound up winning 114-113 on all three cards; Kameda was in disbelief after the fight.

If nothing else, Kameda now has learned that his famous name means far less in America than it does in his native Japan. When fighting on home soil, his brother, Koki, had received a number of gifts and blessings from the judges. However, that previous reality is now gone. The Kamedas have been kicked out of fighting in Japan and have chosen to continue their careers in North America. Hopefully, the Kamedas now understand that they can't expect the same type of favorable treatment from judges and referees that they received in Japan, to say nothing of the fan support that could help sway close fights in their favor. On Saturday, Tomoki Kameda ended his match like an entitled fighter, and he paid a large price for his arrogance. At only 23, he still has a bright future in the sport but this loss was unnecessary and a significant indictment of his ring IQ and his team's corner work.

***

After facing slick fighters like Floyd Mayweather, Erislandy Lara and Austin Trout, Canelo Alvarez must have been licking his lips to take on a ring opponent who would come right at him. Sure, James Kirkland would bring pressure but he wouldn't be hard to find. In Alvarez's mind, this matchup would finally be a proper fight!

Yes, Kirkland ran at him like a freight train but by the final moments of the first round, Canelo had already scored a massive knockdown and almost ended things with some blistering combination punches. Kirkland was an ideal opponent for Alvarez's pulverizing lead right uppercut. Canelo scored a beautiful knockdown with that punch in the third round and a few moments later he ended things with a Knockout of the Year-type right hand. He bent at the knees, which brought Kirkland's hands down, and then unloaded an overhand right that settled the matter. 

Saturday's fantastic offensive display reminded the boxing world as to why Alvarez has become such a hot property in the sport. Yes, he only eked out wins against tricky opponents like Trout and Lara but when the right guy is in front of him, he can look truly electrifying.

Canelo's not necessarily a cerebral boxer; however, it was refreshing to see him incorporate some feints and deception into his attack. These new wrinkles will benefit him in his career and it's a positive sign in his development that he continues to add to his repertoire.

Alvarez was rushed to a title shot at the age of 20. Despite winning a championship belt at that precocious age, he was far from a finished product and needed several more fights to improve and prepare himself for top competition. He was protected in his early title defenses but his last five fights – Trout, Mayweather, Angulo, Lara and Kirkland – were all against serious opponents. Canelo went a respectable 4-1 in this stretch (his fights against Lara and Trout were close on the scorecards but I had him winning both of them).

The 154-pound division is full of tricky guys who lack big name recognition. Alvarez has already fought two of them (Lara and Trout) and three more are out there (the Charlo brothers and Demetrius Andrade). Desiring to become a bona fide pay per view star, Alvarez most certainly will look in a different direction as he hopes to add to his star power and bank account. Already big for a junior middleweight, Canelo will soon look to the 160-lb. division to try to accomplish these goals. Miguel Cotto and Gennady Golovkin will provide two opportunities for him to add to his legacy. A Cotto-Canelo fight almost happened earlier this year and may still be on the table for November or December. Golovkin may be further away but that matchup could surely enhance the profile of both boxers. Until those bigger fights are made, expect Alvarez to remain busy against opponents who will make him look good. But make no mistake; he has shown a willingness to face all comers to this point in his career.

***

Ricky Burns was dead.

Over the last two years, Burns was outclassed by Ray Beltran (which somehow turned into a draw) dominated by Terrence Crawford and outhustled by Dejean Zlaticanin. In his last fight, Burns, the former junior lightweight and lightweight champion, could do no more than take an eight-rounder against an overmatched foe.

But things got worse. Burns also owed some serious money to his former promoter, Frank Warren. With his viability as a headliner in Scotland gone and needing to make a decent payday, Burns accepted a fight at 140 against Omar Figueroa, one of the rising stars of the Haymon boxing universe. Just to pile on, the fight was just minutes from Figueroa's hometown. 

Ricky Burns was dead.

And yet...Burns certainly seemed among the living as the fight started. Mixing in jabs, straight right hands, hooks and some crazy-angled overhand rights, Burns suddenly was reanimated. 

However, a death sentence is not easy to overcome. Like a tragic myth, no matter how often Burns tried to crawl out of the gates of hell, he was automatically returned to that destination for the damned. Referee Laurence Cole, a Texas good ol' boy, frequently held one of Burns' arms during clinches, giving Figueroa free shots. Cole would later deduct two points from Burns for holding while refusing to penalize Figueroa for his constant illegal shots behind Burns' head. 

The fight itself was competitive, with both boxers having periods of sustained success in a fierce inside battle. Figueroa landed some beautiful right uppercuts and left hooks to the body while Burns had the flashier combinations. At the end of the fight, even with the two point deductions, it seemed as if the decision could go either way...but

Ricky Burns was dead.

The three judges scored it 116-110, 116-110 and 117-109 for Figueroa (I had it 113-113, but a Burns win without the point deductions). Not one judge gave Burns more than four rounds, which was a laughable verdict in such a close match. As for Burns, he fought valiantly and showed that he still has something left to offer. However, the loss sets him back significantly. Most likely, in his next fight he will get a smaller payday than he would have received had he beaten Figueroa. This will further hinder his ability to repay Warren. He also is one fight further away from reestablishing himself in the divisional rankings of the sanctioning bodies. Burns' climb back continues to face numerous obstacles and he has yet to make it out of purgatory. Unfortunately, his status remains the same:

Ricky Burns is dead.

***

Speaking of boxing and death, on Friday in South Philadelphia, I attended one of the final cards of ESPN's Friday Night Fights. Next month, the long-running series will conclude and will be replaced by monthly PBC cards, which have been time-bought by Al Haymon and his representatives. 

Friday's main event featured a heavyweight clash between two local guys, Amir Mansour and Joey Dawejko. The spirited, sold-out crowd of 1,300 strong was ready for action and the arena (although, arena is really too strong of a word here, shelter is more appropriate) was rocking. The audience was a mixture of races: white, black and Hispanic; it was quite the festive atmosphere.

The bout itself was interesting for five-or-so rounds as both fighters bled profusely from cuts and landed enormous power shots. Eventually, Dawejko's conditioning deserted him and Mansour pulled away for a clear victory. The main event never really caught fire but the crowd got its money's worth. 

As I looked around the arena during the fight, my mind started to drift. I wondered how the absence of smaller televised cards would affect the sport. Would a card like this still exist in a year? What about two years? Instead of five or six bouts a year at this level, would Peltz Boxing now be forced to do only two or three? If so, what effect would that have on local fighters and boxing fans? (As I said, Mansour-Dawejko really wasn't interesting in the last few rounds, giving me quite a few moments to contemplate these matters.)

In my estimation, there will be a serious void in the sport once ESPN concludes Friday Night Fights. For good or for bad, the series brought boxing to fans around the country and also parked itself in areas of the U.S. (and Canada) that have rich boxing traditions and others that are trying to establish ones. As often as Friday Night Fights broadcasted from New York, Las Vegas, Texas or Southern California, the series also went out of its way to air shows from more obscure boxing outposts, like New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Minnesota and an army base from North Carolina, to cite a few examples. 

In addition, the series was an invaluable opportunity for smaller promoters to gain a foothold in the sport and develop their fighters. Ruslan Provodnikov, Mauricio Herrera and Chris Algieri all recently graduated from the Friday Night Fights-level and showed that they could compete with the best junior welterweights in the world. These were not blue-chip prospects but they illustrated their mettle in front of a national boxing audience. Likewise, entities such as Star Boxing, Banner Promotions and Thompson Boxing helped build a portfolio of fighters with the exposure of Friday Night Fights and series of its ilk.

The combination of the PBC ramp-up and the finality of Friday Night Fights has not been a positive development for smaller promoters. Over the last few months, I have talked with representatives from Main Events, Banner Promotions, Peltz Boxing and other entities to gauge the effect of the new boxing landscape on their operations. The answers that I received were mixed, hearing everything from "We'll be fine," "This will kill us," "We're working on it" and "We'll have an announcement shortly." 

Certainly, most promoters are trying to put on a good face and soldier on but I keep thinking about that Philly crowd on Friday night. Most were there to support the local fighter that they knew from their neighborhood, from the gym or through friends and family. The tickets were affordably priced. Fans experienced an enjoyable night of boxing without having to fly somewhere or buy hotel rooms. A show like Friday's helps to build the sport at its most fundamental level. 

Hopefully, some network entity or entities will come along to fill the void. But for as much national attention and exposure as the PBC has generated for the sport, boxing needs local shows to thrive. Live boxing creates new fans. They need to see the blood and sweat flying in the air, feel the buzz in the room after a knockdown and get that rush when their fighter leaves it all in the ring during the final round. They get hooked. 

And finally, not all great boxers originate from well-heeled promoters or managers. Without smaller promoters, there is no Bryant Jennings or Sergey Kovalev or Timothy Bradley or Sergio Mora, all of whom started without a big-time promoter. Overall, the dearth of television revenues at the grass roots level will stunt the development of the sport in the U.S. These revenue streams helped promoters take chances on fighters and develop them properly. Friday Night Fights provided several unheralded boxers with the opportunity to make something of themselves. The absence of TV at this level of the sport will force smaller promoters to retrench, consolidate and possibly leave boxing. 

It's wonderful to see the PBC raise boxing's consciousness in the U.S. sporting landscape. Having boxing on major networks will certainly create a healthier environment for the sport to grow. However, for boxing to remain viable, the grass roots level needs to be strong. Without robust support for smaller fight cards, talent will be lost, local boxing promoters and entrepreneurs will look for opportunities in other parts of the economy and the sport will miss out on chances to create new fans. This loss cannot be overstated. 

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
Contact Adam at saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com    

Monday, May 4, 2015

Opinions and Observations: Mayweather-Pacquiao

Jim Lampley called it right in the first round. He noted that Manny Pacquiao’s deliberate start against Floyd Mayweather resembled Saul Alvarez's effort against the same fighter in 2013. Lampley also wondered if Pacquiao’s tentativeness would lead to a similar type of futility. Roy Jones commented on a related theme throughout the match. He wanted to know why Pacquiao persisted in fighting from a distance in the middle of the ring. He didn't think that Pacquiao could outbox Mayweather from range. Toward the end of the fight, Lampley asked if Pacquiao needed to sell out for a knockout since his performance to that point had put him in a big hole (Pacquiao did not). 

Everyone had seen this type of performance against Floyd before, and Pacquiao wound up suffering the same fate as other like-minded opponents: a comprehensive defeat. 

In following Mayweather's career, I thought that he was in serious danger of losing twice: his first fights against Jose Luis Castillo and Marcos Maidana. Yes, there were other bouts that were competitive in the early rounds (against Zab Judah and Oscar de la Hoya) and fighters who had hit him with big shots (Judah and Shane Mosley) but in my estimation, Floyd had those contests in hand (if not on the scorecards) by the second half of the match. However, Castillo, who might have beaten Floyd with different judges, and Maidana put Floyd in real jeopardy. Both of them fought Mayweather similarly – they, and pardon my French here, didn’t give a fuck. 

Restating it in more proper terms, they didn't let the pressure of facing a boxer with Mayweather's reputation or the enormity of the moment intimidate or change them. They charged after Mayweather with abandon, hitting him with anything and everything they could muster – and they weren't concerned with technique, landing clean blows or getting countered; they made it a firefight. Maidana and Castillo embraced their inner crudeness and didn't fall victim to being in awe of one of the best in the sport. 

Why haven't more boxers fought Mayweather this way? Some may have lacked the temperament (Judah, for instance, was never a swarmer) but for many others, they were unwilling to play the role of "Goon" on the big stage. Robert Guerrero and Victor Ortiz both earned their shots at Mayweather by engaging in epic slugfests against Andre Berto. These were not contests of great skill. Yet, against Mayweather, they fought meekly and rarely pressed him. Cotto had been a seek-and-destroy fighter at his best and yet he couldn't summon a consistent effort in attacking Mayweather. I could go on and on. 

Floyd embarrasses people. He makes great boxers look pedestrian. Mentally, fighters have to overcome the reality of what it means to rush Floyd. They're probably going to get hit on the way in and countered with something that they can't respond to. In addition, they often will run headlong toward a fighter who has already left, vanishing like a magic act. And let's not forget about Floyd's variety of fouling veteran techniques on the inside that can hinder an opponent both physically and mentally. It takes fortitude, conditioning and psychological strength to engage in this type of fight with Mayweather. And few are willing to accept this risk. For many, they make an agreement with themselves: they'd rather lose a decision on the outside than look foolish. Thus, their egos as professionals have already contributed to their defeat. Instead of fighting in a way that gives them the best chance to win, they stay put. 

At the lower weights, Pacquiao possessed whirlwind energy and he was insouciant toward an opponent's return fire; he was a Maidana, but with more power and skill. He believed that his offense could beat his foe's defense. If he had to take some heavy thunder to get the job done, so be it. Watching him on Saturday, that past fighter seemed like a distant figure, a subject of folklore. 

The absence of the old Pacquiao can't solely be attributed to advancing age. As he continued to campaign against bigger fighters in the welterweight division, his punch output dropped. After facing his own ring mortality against Juan Manuel Marquez, he no longer charged in as recklessly as he once did. Although he still possessed quite a bit of offensive firepower, he had abandoned his past mentality of the hunter gleefully stalking his prey. 

By all accounts, Pacquiao has been a reformed man out of the ring. Perhaps his past self-destructive streak and devil-may-care attitude outside of boxing helped forge his prior ring identity, the one that electrified audiences and battered fighters. Now, that claim might be speculative – and if you are offended by such things, I apologize – but it was strikingly clear after watching Saturday's fight that Manny's issues in the ring far exceeded a Father Time problem; at heart, it was a question of temperament. Manny didn't fight Floyd in the swashbuckling style of his past. Instead, he exercised caution and was hesitant with his offense. These characterizations had never been associated with Pacquiao at his most ferocious. 

Everyone knew what Pacquiao’s game plan for Mayweather was supposed to be: start fast, keep a high punch volume, use angles and outwork him, especially along the ropes. Yet Pacquiao couldn't even execute that game plan in the first three rounds – again, this isn't a question of age or fatigue. Pacquiao wasn't willing to "sell out" – to use Lampley's phrase – even in the first round.  

Throughout the fight, Pacquiao had some moments here and there, specifically when he could flurry with Mayweather on the ropes. But ultimately, he couldn't sustain a pace, or even an effort, that could lead to him winning the fight. The final scores were 118-110, 116-112 and 116-112 (I also scored it for Mayweather 116-112).

What I will remember about the fight is how Mayweather made Pacquiao look so ordinary. You could argue that even a limited fighter like Guerrero had just as much success against Mayweather than The Great Pacquiao did. Mayweather never needed to go past second gear. Whenever he would drop a round, he would immediately impose himself on Pacquiao and quash any notion of a rally or comeback. 

Mayweather didn't even utilize his bag of tricks. There was no emergency, no need to break glass to locate his 10th- or 11th-best punch. His offense was rather simple – jab, lead right hands to the body, pull-counter right hands and left hook potshots, mostly from along the ropes. He threw very few big shots and, frankly, he didn't need them. The garden variety version of Mayweather's offensive arsenal was more than enough to defeat Pacquiao comfortably. 

To be clear, this is not a denigration of Mayweather's performance. I'm just noting that Pacquiao didn't push him. He didn't force Mayweather into a late-round shootout like Maidana did. Floyd wasn't holding on for dear life like he did briefly in the second round against Mosley. Floyd didn't need to use his grappling skills to wear down an opponent on the inside. Saturday was Floyd fighting at his comfort level. 

Physically, Mayweather exhibited only a slight decline from his peak. He gave up a few rounds when laying back on the ropes for long stretches. It appeared that he was just tired of moving his 38-year-old legs. He took some shots during these moments but they weren't particularly damaging. However, let's not lose perspective about his rate of decline. Floyd was facing the past Fighter of the Decade, his biggest rival and one of the top-five fighters in the sport, AND he had enough of a working margin to coast at various points. That's how good he was on Saturday. 

I was also particularly impressed with the work of Floyd Mayweather Sr. in the corner. Senior is often blasé between rounds, operating without concern or urgency. However, Senior was fully engaged against Pacquiao and understood the enormity of the moment. Recognizing that Pacquiao had some intermittent success against the ropes and that the crowd was fully against his son, he implored Junior to fight aggressively and not give judges a reason to side against him. His sense of urgency was transferred to his fighter. Whenever Mayweather dropped a round or fought a close one, he immediately seized the initiative in the battle, which quieted the crowd and reestablished his dominance. 

In fact, Team Mayweather's game plan was close to flawless. They tried to minimize Floyd's time on the ropes, keep the fight in the center of the ring and concentrate on lateral movement to nullify Pacquiao's attack. With an exception of the fourth round, where Pacquiao landed a series of hard punches, most of the times where Pacquiao had some success occurred only because Floyd took breathers along the ropes. Essentially, in three of the rounds that I had Pacquiao winning, those victories only occurred in my estimation because Floyd decided to rest. 

After the fight, Team Pacquiao claimed that Manny had suffered a right shoulder injury in camp and that the fighter didn't have his full mobility during the match. Freddie Roach said that the injury affected Pacquiao's right hook but not his jab or uppercut. Ultimately, all of this may be true, but with the way that Pacquiao fought on Saturday, it didn't matter if he had had four hands. [Note, on Monday after the fight, it was announced tha Pacquiao would undergo shoulder surgery for a torn rotator cuff.]

Pacquiao wasn't aggressive enough. He wasn't willing to take the chances needed to put Mayweather in trouble. Whatever physical problems that he might have had in the fight, they significantly paled in relation to his psychological hindrances in the ring. Not throwing punches lost Pacquiao the fight, as opposed to the absence of a handful of additional right hooks. And let's keep it on the level here; it's not as if Pacquiao’s right hook has been a real weapon for him as a welterweight. In most of his fights, he rarely unleashes it. Mayweather was the better fighter by every measure and that might an unpleasant reality for some but the facts are undeniable. 

For boxing fans, the night provided healthy doses of bittersweet. We now have an undisputed top fighter in the sport and no one who could potentially make a claim of superiority. These moments help define boxing history. However, the lack of a true rival for Mayweather deflates the sport, which is never a positive development.

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
Contact Adam at saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com    

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Mayweather-Pacquiao Preview: Five Outcomes

The most significant boxing event of this generation unfolds on Saturday as undefeated pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather (47-0, 26 KOs) takes on rival and offensive dynamo Manny Pacquiao (57-5-2, 38 KOs). For over five years, boxing fans have waited for this matchup; however, the event transcends the sport's traditional audience. This fight will not be contested for mere supremacy in the welterweight division or for top placement on mythical pound-for-pound lists. No, Mayweather-Pacquiao will function as an advertisement for boxing itself, reminding or, in many cases, introducing viewers to what the sport can offer.

For the uninitiated, Mayweather has been boxing's premier defensive fighter. Using athleticism, intelligence and accuracy, he outthinks opponents and exploits their weaknesses as fights progress. Pacquiao isn't the knockout machine that he once was but he still has the rare combination of speed and power that can penetrate even the tightest of defenses. 

Over the last few years, both fighters have shown signs of slippage. Pacquiao's knockout power seems to have deserted him; he hasn't stopped an opponent since 2009. In addition, he was brutally knocked out by Juan Manuel Marquez in 2012. He has recovered from that defeat with three victories but his killer instinct in the ring isn't what it used to be. Mayweather's last two fights against Marcos Maidana were difficult bouts. He got hit cleanly and often. His ability to evade punches from close distance (especially off the ropes) has deteriorated and he has made some surprising strategic errors.

The decline of both boxers (and make no mistake, they are still among the sport's absolute best, just a little bit removed from their respective peaks) has made me reevaluate this fight. When the matchup was first discussed in 2009, I was confident that Mayweather would be victorious, believing that his intelligence and counterpunching would be too much for Pacquiao. I would have predicted Mayweather winning a comfortable decision. However, as both fighters enter the ring in Las Vegas on Saturday, I'm less certain as to the outcome of the match. If Mayweather can't evade shots like he used to then he could be a sitting duck for Pacquiao; if Pacquiao could be knocked out by Marquez, then Mayweather, with his expert timing and punch placement, could certainly have a chance to stop him.

In short, I believe that all options are on the table. It wouldn't surprise me if either fighter wins by a decision or a knockout. Additionally, I wouldn't rule out a draw. Some judges are more impressed by aggression; others like ring generalship, defense and clean punching. There could be disagreement among the judges as to which fighter prevails in close rounds, creating draw (all three judges have it even), majority draw (two see it even) and split draw (one has it even, one for Pacquiao, one for Mayweather) possibilities.

Instead of going over the keys to the fight, my preview will focus on five potential outcomes, with an emphasis on how each one could occur and what the fighters do or don't do in the ring for the given scenario to transpire. By setting up my preview in this manner, I believe that you will get a more complete picture of the strengths and weaknesses for each combatant. Finally, my prediction will be at the end of the article.

1. Mayweather by decision

This outcome represents the conventional wisdom for the fight. One of Mayweather's specialties is pulling away from his opponents in the second half of the fight. Often giving up early rounds, he studies his foes and gradually starts to exploit their weaknesses by the middle of the fight. As bouts progress and he finds more cracks in his opponents' defenses, he unloads more of his arsenal. Mayweather's patience and pinpoint accuracy usually wear down fighters in the latter rounds. In addition, superb conditioning allows for him to turn on the accelerators as other fighters start to fatigue, both physically and mentally. 

It's not hard to imagine Pacquiao winning the first few rounds just on punch volume alone. However, slowly but surely, Mayweather will find things that work – the lead right hand, the counter right, the left hook to the body or the right uppercut, to name a few possibilities. As he lands more and more hard shots, Pacquiao will become flummoxed and his punch volume will start to decrease. In addition, Mayweather's ability to control the action in the ring will reduce the frequency of exchanges, putting more of a premium on accuracy, rather than activity; he will continue to get sharper as Pacquiao tires. If Mayweather is successful with this approach, he will dominate the final rounds to secure a victory.

2. Pacquiao by decision

In this scenario, Pacquiao builds up an early lead and holds on to win it on the cards. Often, Mayweather won't really open up offensively until the third or fourth round. It's certainly possible that Pacquiao could sweep the first third of the fight and then win three of the next eight rounds. That's all he needs for a win. 

Now, this might be easier said than done but Pacquiao has a few distinct advantages over other Mayweather opponents. At his best, Pacquiao featured a very high punch output. If Pacquiao can keep his punch volume up against Mayweather – let’s say 55-60 punches a round – he will provide enough moments to win rounds. Remember, many judges favor aggression, whether it is effective or not. Pacquiao certainly has the offensive profile to steal close rounds based on activity.

The challenge for Pacquiao will be to keep his punch volume at this threshold. Mayweather doesn't make it easy to get off many shots in a round. He uses his legs constantly to reset the action. He's an expert at tying up and, depending on the fight, he can be selective about remaining in the pocket. Pacquiao is going to have to cut off the ring to make Mayweather stay in exchanges. Lateral movement will be a necessity and blocking escape routes, especially to his right side, will be critical for his success. If Pacquiao can do these things and keep throwing punches, then he can pick up enough points to get a decision on the cards. 

3. Pacquiao by knockout

Although Mayweather's chin has been absolutely fantastic throughout his career, it's impossible to ignore how many hard shots he got hit with during his last two fights against Maidana. Mayweather seemed to get crushed whenever he stayed along the ropes and he also showed specific vulnerability from punches at short range. In the past, he would use his head movement, arms and elbows to avoid or deflect many of these blows; now, he seems half a step slower and gets hit more often. 

Pacquiao has a huge left hand. Whether he throws it after a jab feint, as a lead punch or following a jab or double-jab, he may not need many opportunities to land cleanly. If Mayweather can get rocked by Maidana, who lacks Pacquiao’s blazing hand speed, he can certainly get hurt by Manny. Pacquiao's footwork creates additional avenues for landing his best punch. Using in-and-out and lateral movement, he creates unique angles to throw shots. Mayweather has never fought a boxer with similar movement as Pacquiao's and it will take him a few rounds to figure out where and when Pacquiao will let his hands go. 

Mayweather has been hit with big punches in a number of fights, most recently against Shane Mosley and Maidana. The key to hurting Mayweather is the follow-up shot. I have no doubt that Pacquiao can land one big punch against Mayweather but that might not be enough to send him down. He's going to have to land additional power shots to achieve this goal. If Pacquiao hurts Mayweather badly, he needs to go for the kill. However, he can't run in recklessly, like he did against Juan Manuel Marquez in their fourth fight. Should Pacquiao hurt Mayweather, he must follow up responsibly, not giving up his distance or letting his technique get sloppy. If he can put three or four hard punches together after a big blow, that very well could be enough to end the fight. Despite his recent inability to score knockouts, I believe that Pacquiao still has enough offensive skill and firepower to stop any welterweight, even the great Floyd Mayweather.

4. Mayweather by knockout

On the surface, this eventuality seems unlikely. In his last 12 fights, Mayweather has had only two knockouts. In addition, he emphasizes punch placement and accuracy more than he does power. This means that he will often throw shorter, stinging punches instead of knockout-type blows. To use a baseball analogy, he's a singles and doubles hitter. Furthermore, Pacquiao has demonstrated a good chin throughout his career. Although Pacquiao's knockout loss to Marquez is still fresh in the minds of boxing fans, he has been hit by some big punchers throughout his career (such as Erik Morales, Marquez in fights I-III, Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito) and survived just fine. 

But Manny makes mistakes. He jumps in and loses control of distance. His footwork can get sloppy exiting the pocket. He will throw lazy jabs that can be easily countered. He also can ignore proper defensive positioning during exchanges. When he throws a jab-left hand combo, he leaves the right side of his body open for the left hook. 

If Mayweather sees the right opportunity, especially later in the fight as Pacquiao starts to fatigue, a knockout is certainly possible. He has enough power to do damage. He can time Pacquiao's rhythm with a counter right, overhand right or a left hook. What about a liver shot? If Pacquiao gets too close, his body could be wide open for a Mayweather left hook. And as boxing fans have found out repeatedly over the years, the punch to the liver doesn't necessarily need to be hard; it just has to be in the right spot. The combination of Pacquiao's mistakes and Mayweather's accuracy provides a realistic opportunity for this outcome unfolding.

5. A draw

In this scenario, the fight becomes a tale of two halves, with Pacquiao jumping out to the early lead and Mayweather winning most of the later rounds to force a tie on the scorecards. I'll tell you right now that if the fight goes the distance, I'd favor Pacquiao to win three of the first four rounds and Mayweather to take three of the final four. It's the middle four rounds that most likely will determine where this fight is won on the cards. 

How long will it take Mayweather to start up his offense? When will Pacquiao's activity level drop? How fatigued will Pacquiao get in the fight? In close rounds, will the judges favor Mayweather's accuracy or Pacquiao's aggression and punch volume? Looking at all of these variables, it's certainly conceivable that a draw could take place on Saturday. 

Prediction:

I'll go with Mayweather by a competitive decision, something like eight rounds to four or even seven rounds to five. However, as you can gather from this article, no outcome will surprise me. Both fighters have declined enough from their respective peaks that it's now particularly challenging to predict how Saturday will play out. From my perspective, this uncertainly makes the fight far more intriguing than it would have been had it happened in 2010. Hopefully, we get a memorable fight and a great night for boxing. 

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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