Sunday, July 22, 2018

Opinions and Observations: Usyk and Munguia

Perhaps there's no better moment in boxing than to watch a fighter put it all together. Although Oleksandr Usyk had displayed his considerable talents leading up to Saturday's fight against Murat Gassiev, he had struggled with an inconsistent ring identity. He tried to be a pressure fighter against Michael Hunter. In his previous bout against Mairis Briedis, he fought almost entirely in the pocket. In both of those matches, he took more punches than he probably should have. On Saturday, fighting as a classic boxer, he executed a master class in the ring, pitching a virtual shutout (scores were 120-108, 119-109 and 119-109) to become the winner of the cruiserweight World Boxing Super Series tournament and the undisputed champion in the division. 

Usyk (and his team) understood that he was in the ring against a legit power puncher and applied the strategy to give him the best chance of winning. He controlled large stretches of the fight with just his jab and legs. Constantly on the go, he limited Gassiev's ability to set his feet and get in range. After 12 rounds, the fight resembled one of Mayweather's gems from the latter part of his career: Usyk was truly dominant but it was hard to isolate a single moment that provided genuine risk in the fight. Ultimately, Usyk corralled a hard-hitting boxer with relatively little fuss. No boxer had thoroughly neutralized Gassiev to that extent in his career, and perhaps few even could. 

Photo Courtesy of Olga Ivashchenko


Although the fight was won primarily with his jab, Usyk gradually incorporated other punches into his attack as the fight progressed, and there was lots of good stuff: counter right hooks, uppercuts with both hands, hooking off the jab, lead lefts. Gassiev was so demoralized by the latter stages of the fight that his trainer, Abel Sanchez, was pleading with him (a unified titleholder!) merely to keep trying. 

Gassiev and Sanchez were criticized in some corners for their failure to make adjustments. Gassiev couldn't cut the ring off to save his life and with the exception of a few left hooks to the body, most of his punching was ineffectual. However, it's not as simple as, "He should have moved his left foot to the outside to contain Usyk." Boxing is fought in the ring and it's not an abstraction. Yes, in a perfect world, Gassiev would have had better footwork, but consider that Usyk was by far the superior athlete, he constantly circled, and had a significant reach advantage. Gassiev could try to put his foot down wherever he pleased, but most likely Usyk would already have been gone. 

A more comprehensive plan was required. Gassiev and Sanchez needed to set traps. If Usyk wanted to move to his right then Gassiev should have anticipated those movements, and Sanchez needed to communicate that information in the corner. But this is mostly academic, for Gassiev and Sanchez quickly realized that they had a stylistic nightmare on their hands. Absent a knockout punch, it seemed unlikely that Gassiev could win seven rounds to take the fight, even with perfect strategy. Most likely Eddie Futch or Manny Steward wouldn't have helped either; when the superior talent fights the right fight, there's very little that an opponent can do. 

It's my belief that most fighters would rather be knocked out than be embarrassed. Gassiev throughout most of the bout wasn't willing to risk more because he was getting played with in the ring, and he knew it. So complete was Usyk's domination that Gassiev, one of the best punchers in the division, became too timid to even let his hands go.   

Ultimately, Usyk's win was one of boxing's best performances of 2018 and a clear indicator that he's among the elite fighters in the sport. Usyk traveled to his opponent's home country in each round of the WBSS tournament. He fought in hostile environments and prevailed against three significantly different styles: He's a proper champion.

After the fight, he called out Tony Bellew, offering to face him at cruiserweight or heavyweight. Certainly that would be a good money fight. But I'm sure that most boxing observers would be more interested in seeing Usyk take on the better tests at heavyweight. Wilder, for instance, frequently weighs in at less than 220 lbs., so there wouldn't be a considerable weight disparity in that matchup. Although Usyk might lack a true heavyweight punch, no one in that division can move like him. Whenever he gets to the heavyweight division, he will be a welcome addition and a genuine threat. 


***


In the optimist/pessimist wars that persist throughout boxing, perhaps the front lines of this conflict occur with the evaluation of young talent. The true believers see a future where young fighters perpetually advance, straighten out their flaws, surround themselves with good people and a knowledgeable team, and continue to grow physically and intellectually. The Negative Nancies see every possible weakness or hole, luxuriate on the types of styles that could lead to a prospect's personal Waterloo and patiently wait for the day when the prospect eventually loses, reveling in the moment, telling us how right they were (of course, news flash, practically every fighter loses).  

Jaime Munguia is one of the test cases of this optimist/pessimist conflict in contemporary boxing. Critics observe a porous defense, clumsy footwork, wide shots and a lack of hand speed. Supporters see heavy hands, a variety of power punches, a vicious body attack, knockout power and room for growth.

So where will Munguia wind up? It's anyone's guess. However, Saturday's hard-earned unanimous victory over former junior middleweight titleholder Liam Smith was a significant step in his growth as a fighter. Smith was everything that Munguia hadn't yet faced as a professional: clever, experienced, polished. Smith had a good first third of the fight. Opportunistic in the ring, he landed with short straight right hands, left hooks and body punches. He would use angles and foot feints to get Munguia out of position and then connect. Early on, it looked like a man versus a boy. 

When judging a young fighter's aptitude, it's important to consider how he responds to duress, and to his credit, Munguia wasn't demoralized by Smith's early success. In fact, he did one thing that a fighter should always do against a quicker, older opponent: He went to the body. Unmercifully. Crushing Smith with left hooks downstairs and double left hooks to the body and head, Munguia started to turn the tide in the fourth. A four-punch combination led to a beautiful left hook knockdown of Smith in the sixth. Throughout much of the second half of the bout, Munguia unloaded with impressive power shots. No, his flaws didn't suddenly go away; he swung and missed often and was too left-hand dominant, but he kept banging away on whatever he could hit. 

Photo Courtesy of Ed Mullholland/HBO


Give credit to Smith for hits guts and determination. He never stopped trying to win. Even though he was outgunned as the fight progressed, he continued to mix it up with Munguia, often to his own detriment. 

Smith was precisely the type of developmental fight that Munguia needed. Munguia had yet to face a wily veteran who was good with angles and timing. Munguia needed to stay patient and trust that his physical attributes would eventually take over. In addition, he learned that his chin and conditioning were more than sufficient to last 12 hard rounds. Munguia wound up winning by a wide, unanimous decision, but it wasn't an easy fight and certainly it was one that will provide numerous teachable moments moving forward.

It's clear that Munguia is far from a finished product. Zanfer Promotions will have a challenging job ahead of themselves, continuing to raise Munguia's profile while simultaneously developing him (he's only just 21). For a textbook example of how this can be done, look at the job Golden Boy did with Canelo, but it's not easy to strike the right balance. 

HBO isn't showing nearly the number of fight cards that it did a decade ago, but hopefully the network realizes what it has with Munguia – an exciting, telegenic power puncher who can appeal to Mexican-American fight fans, not to mention hardcore boxing enthusiasts, who never want to miss a good action fight. Almost by accident, the network has found a fighter who can help grow its boxing program (Munguia was a late replacement for Smith in his HBO debut in May)

But let's end with a note of caution. Comparing Munguia to Mike Tyson or Oscar de la Hoya (like HBO's Jim Lampley did) isn't fair to the fighter and it diminishes the overall quality of the broadcast. It used to be just Max Kellerman overreaching with hasty comparisons to all-time greats, but now the whole announce team is involved. In short, these comparisons insult the intelligence of HBO's core boxing fans. They also can harm the fighters, creating unrealistic expectations and backlashes if and when they fail to live up to such unreachable standards.  

Munguia is a relative fledgling in the sport. Let him be. Let him create his own memories. Let him develop in his own time. It's certainly fine to accentuate his positive qualities, but there's no need to tell tales. HBO was once the gold standard of boxing broadcasting. No one called the action better. Somewhere along the line, its mission changed. Cheerleading, homerism and hyperbole, while always present in the past, have now taken a far more dominant position in its broadcast. This transition has harmed the presentation of American boxing. 

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

Monday, July 16, 2018

Kovalev's Third Act

In screenwriting parlance, the Third Act is the denouement, the conclusion, where the story arrives at its resolution. The final confrontation or conflict is resolved and the remaining threads of narrative and character are neatly tied up in a bow. After losing a pair of fights to Andre Ward at the biggest moment of his career, Sergey Kovalev (32-2-1, 28 KOs) is now firmly ensconced in his own Third Act. There is no longer the prospect of physical development. Any additional ring knowledge that he acquires might possibly be counterbalanced by an athletic decline that is common for fighters of his age. He once was one of the sport's great intimidators, now he is seen as a mortal. Although Kovalev has won his two return fights after the Ward debacles, one important question remains: Will he have one last triumphant moment in a big fight? 

On August 4th in Atlantic City (and headlining on HBO), Kovalev defends his 175-lb. title against Eleider Alvarez (23-0, 11 KOs), a Colombian based in Montreal who had seemingly been Adonis Stevenson's mandatory since the Queensberry Rules were established in 1867 (way to go, WBC!). Although Alvarez is only a year younger than Kovalev, he could be much fresher in boxing years. While awaiting a title shot, Alvarez has fought just once in 17 months. In addition, he's been in few tough fights in his career. 



Alvarez comes will little fanfare or hype. He's a well-schooled boxer with a piston-like jab and an array of offensive weapons. Most comfortable from mid-range and farther, Alvarez has good legs and lateral movement. His most serious knocks are that he coasts during fights and he lacks a killer instinct. Sometimes he's content to win rounds with a few flurries instead of causing sustained damage. In addition, he's prone to letting opponents back into fights; he's not necessarily one to step on the gas.

As Kovalev patiently waits for big game in a loaded 175-lb. division, Alvarez will not be the trophy that Sergey seeks, but he represents an excellent barometer on what Kovalev's current level is in the boxing ring. Can Kovalev still pull the trigger like he once did? Can he finish off wounded prey? What happens if he becomes the hunted?  

After the Ward defeats, Kovalev parted ways with trainer John David Jackson. That relationship, which had significantly benefited both, became caustic as both parties slung nasty invective at each other. Kovalev subsequently selected Abror Tursunpulatov as his head trainer. Tursunpulatov has had a lot of success with Uzbek standout Fazliddin Gaibnazarov. Unlike Jackson, he speaks Russian and through two fights the new pairing has worked well enough.

Prior to his last bout, Kovalev acknowledged that he had been less than an ideal pupil under Jackson. Admitting to drinking (perhaps too much) and not staying in shape between fights, Kovalev vowed to take his profession more seriously. 

Still possessing considerable weapons with his jab, straight right hand and committed body attack, Kovalev maintains the offensive repertoire to punish any of the top fighters at 175. What he lacked against Ward, a fighter it should be noted who was one of the truly special talents of his time, was, surprisingly, self-assurance. In the Ward rematch, Kovalev lost his composure during a sustained body assault from Ward. Some of Ward's work was low, while other shots were legit, scoring punches. Kovalev was troubled by Ward's attacks and the confidence he displayed by jabbing his way to a lead suddenly evaporated. 

Kovalev, who was irate after the first Ward fight, believing that he had won (the majority of ringside observers favored his work), took a positive step after the second match to make needed changes in his camp and life. While one could legitimately say that Sergey should have won the first fight and was winning the second match until some illegal shots led to a knockout, Kovalev refreshingly took responsibility for his own career. 

Never known as a particularly humble fighter, Kovalev picked up the pieces, found a trainer he respected and vowed to rededicate his life to boxing. In two fights with Tursunpulatov, he scored stoppages over Vyacheslav Shabranskyy and Igor Mikhalkin. Shabranskyy was a smash job, offering limited resistance, but Mikhalkin wasn't there just as an opponent. He was cagey, dared Kovalev to find him in the ring and landed his fair share of off-angled shots. Although Kovalev won close to every round in the fight before it was stopped, Mikhalkin made Kovalev work for it. 

Alvarez represents a significant step up from the Mikhalkins of the boxing world. He knows how to defend himself in the ring and can put punches together. Kovalev will need to be mentally sharp against Alvarez, who can lull opponents to sleep and successfully bring down their punch volume. This fight will be the first real test of the Kovalev-Tursunpulatov pairing. It's unlikely that Kovalev will be able to win this fight solely on brute force; he's going to have to think his way through the match, gain little advantages, and eventually wear Alvarez down physically and mentally. Like Isaac Chilemba, Alvarez will not make things easy for Kovalev. 

Should Kovalev defeat Alvarez, big things could loom for The Krusher in '19. Dmitry Bivol, a 175-lb. titlist who possesses fantastic power and technique, fights on Kovalev's undercard and could make for a tasty unification bout. Although Bivol is rumored to be signing a deal with Eddie Hearn and DAZN after next month's fight, there's nothing that necessarily precludes a Kovalev-Bivol matchup from happening. 

With new money flooding into the sport via ESPN and DAZN, Kovalev will have opportunities for a big fight should he keep winning. Although he is currently aligned with HBO, we've seen the pieces on the boxing chessboard radically uprooted in the past 12 months. Who's to say what big fights might come his way? 

But for now, winning the next fight is the imperative. Kovalev is one of the few boxers that HBO continues to support. Receiving numerous headlining slots and their corresponding remunerative rewards, Kovalev needs to keep the drums beating and the trumpets sounding. He still carries a good name, a nifty record, a vicious streak and memorable knockouts. 

However, does he still have the goods? Is he mentally at a place where he wants to dominate in the ring, or has boxing transitioned to his vocation? Is he taking instructions in his corner or ignoring them? Is he putting in the roadwork? Does he still have the desire to be the best?

Alvarez will help answer these questions. Although Kovalev-Alvarez might not be the sexiest matchup of 2018, it's an honest one, one that asks much of both fighters, one that is not pre-ordained. 

Should Alvarez get up for the Kovalev fight, it will be his opportunity to make a real name for himself in the sport. No longer will he be the antagonist or foil in someone else's story. This is his chance to break through. Will Kovalev march toward another big event in 2019 or will Alvarez be able to write his own story? At this point, I'm not entirely certain, but I'm intrigued in the matchup and I think that next month's fight holds some compelling answers. 

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.com
He'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.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Punch 2 the Face Podcast

In this week's Punch 2 the Face Podcast, Brandon and I delved into the Washed Battle Royale between Manny Pacquiao and Lucas Matthysse. We also looked at the 140-lb. division, focusing on Jose Ramirez and Regis Prograis, who fights on Saturday. In addition, Brandon and I talked about the World Boxing Super Series, our predictions for the Usyk-Gassiev final, the WBSS's impact on boxing and what to expect in the WBSS's second season of tournaments.


To listen to the podcast, click on the links below:


Blog Talk Radio link:
iTunes link:
Stitcher link: 



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

Monday, July 9, 2018

Pound-for-Pound Update 7-09-18

There have been a number of significant changes to the latest Saturday Night Boxing Pound-for-Pound List. Starting at the top, there's a new #1 as Vasiliy Lomachenko scored perhaps the biggest victory of his career by knocking out Jorge Linares to win a title in a third division. He rises from #3 to #1. At this point there is little to separate Lomachenko from Terence Crawford (who recently stopped Jeff Horn) atop the Rankings. I'll take Lomachenko’s relatively stronger level of opposition by a nose, but it's close. I certainly wouldn't argue against Crawford being on top. 

Also rising in the Top-10 is Japanese sensation Naoya Inoue, who destroyed secondary beltholder Jamie McDonnell in one round. McDonnell has been nothing if not durable throughout his career and for Inoue, moving up to his third division, to blitz through him in one round is quite impressive. Inoue moves up from #8 to #5. 

Anthony Joshua makes his debut in the Rankings. Winning comfortably over titlist Joseph Parker, Joshua has now beaten two of the top-five heavyweights in the world, and while his points victory wasn't as exciting as his unforgettable stoppage win over Wladimir Klitschko, it was still a clear win over one of the better talents in the division. Joshua enters the Rankings at #11. 

Jarrett Hurd has now picked up two belts in the junior middleweight division. In the spring he won a split decision victory in a rousing performance against Erislandy Lara. Hurd is a fighter who is peaking; he debuts in the Rankings at #13. 

Leo Santa Cruz moves up from #18 to #17 after his rematch victory over Abner Mares. Santa Cruz now has two wins over Mares and one against 20th-ranked Carl Frampton. 

Slipping out of the Rankings are Keith Thurman (due to inactivity) and Badou Jack, who had a draw with #16 Adonis Stevenson, but just couldn't get over the top.

Here is the complete Saturday Night Boxing Pound-for-Pound List:
  1. Vasiliy Lomachenko
  2. Terence Crawford
  3. Srisaket Sor Rungvisai
  4. Gennady Golovkin
  5. Naoya Inoue
  6. Mikey Garcia
  7. Saul Alvarez
  8. Sergey Kovalev
  9. Juan Estrada
  10. Errol Spence
  11. Anthony Joshua
  12. Oleksandr Usyk
  13. Jarrett Hurd
  14. Donnie Nietes
  15. Manny Pacquiao
  16. Adonis Stevenson
  17. Leo Santa Cruz
  18. Roman Gonzalez
  19. Guillermo Rigondeaux
  20. Carl Frampton
Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.com
He's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
Email: saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com.
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook.