Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Adamek, on-track; Povetkin, off-course

Tomasz Adamek and Alexander Povetkin both face the specter of Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko atop the heavyweight division.  Adamek and Povetkin are two fighters who figure to provide the Klitschkos with their stiffest challenges as titleholders, yet they both have remained in the shallow waters of the heavyweight division, instead of negotiating the treacherous tides of the Klitschko gravitational pull.  While Adamek, diving into the rough surf, has agreed to face Vitali later this year, Povetkin is still working on his strokes and treading water; he abdicated his mandatory challenger position, which would have led to a fight with Wladimir. 

Both fighters have had ample opportunities to face the Klitschkos over the last few years.  Povetkin actually had a fight lined up for Wladimir in December of 2008, but withdrew due to injury.  Adamek and his team have patiently waited for the right opportunity to agree to terms.  Their fight will now be shown on premium cable in the U.S. and Adamek will not be making an "opponent purse," but a significant payday.

The two teams behind Adamek and Povetkin have dealt with the prospect of facing the Klitschkos in strikingly different fashions.  Even though Povetkin won the heavyweight Olympic gold medal in 2004 and beat a game Eddie Chambers in 2008 to establish his mandatory status, Povetkin and his team, which includes German-based mega-promoter Sauerland Event, convinced ESPN commentator and noted trainer Teddy Atlas to come out of semi-retirement to prepare for Wladimir. 

Atlas saw what he had in Povetkin and didn't believe his fighter was ready for the challenge.  Instead, Atlas arranged a series of fights for Povetkin against low-ranked heavyweights, attempting to equip the former amateur star with additional defensive boxing fundamentals.

Watching the Chambers fight, it was clear that Povetkin needed refinement.  In the first half of the fight, Chambers landed his right hand consistently and was able to throw jarring combinations at will.  In one of the odder spectacles seen at a prizefight, Chambers basically stopped fighting during the second half of the fight.  Whether it was nerves, overtraining or conditioning issues, the Philadelphian went into a defensive shell the rest of the night.  Povetkin secured the victory by outworking Chambers.

Povetkin fights like a smaller fighter.  He has a high work rate.  He looks to establish the jab before throwing combinations.  He doesn't have a lot of power but he throws a good left hook.  He'll mix in straight right hands and uppercuts but neither is a real knockout punch.  Povetkin moves quite a bit for a heavyweight and likes to control distance.  

The Chambers fight showed that Povetkin had significant defensive shortcomings.  In that fight, he featured little head movement; Chambers peppered him throughout the early rounds with jabs, straight rights and combinations.  Povetkin also stayed in range after throwing punches, which led to numerous successful counters.  

In 2009, Povetkin opted to work with Atlas and has since shifted his training to America.  There were high hopes that Povetkin would improve by learning additional defensive techniques and focusing on conditioning.  By September of 2010, Sauerland was pressuring Atlas and Povetkin to take the fight against Wladimir.  Atlas refused to cooperate and Povetkin sided with his trainer.

Povetkin didn't look good in his last fight in December of 2010 against non-descript Nicolai Firtha of the United States.  Povetkin won a wide decision but failed to inspire.  After the fight, it was revealed that Povetkin suffered a serious hand injury during the early rounds.  Povetkin is still recuperating and there has been no timetable set for his return.  As of now, Atlas is still Povetkin's trainer, but the tension between Atlas and Sauerland might make a split forthcoming.  

To Atlas, I'm sure he thinks that Povetkin learned a great lesson by winning a fight with one hand.  To him, those are the types of experiences that fighters need to endure in order to succeed on the highest level.  Perhaps no trainer in the business stresses the psychological dimensions of boxing to the extent that Atlas does.  He saw that in order to beat Wladimir, you either had to land bombs (Corrie Sanders) or walk through the gates of hell (Lamon Brewster).  Povetkin doesn't have bombs in his hands, so his only option will be #2.  

Atlas has been highly critical of the Klitschkos over the years, especially Wladimir.  Although appreciating their gifts and ring knowledge, Atlas often called them out on their intestinal fortitude, their refusal to take risks in the ring and that their respective title reigns were predicated on a historically weak class of heavyweights.  Vitali quit in his fight against Chris Byrd because of a rotator cuff injury; Wladimir fights in a safety-first style, perhaps protecting his chin issues of the past.  

However, Atlas knows that the Wladimir presents a terrible matchup for his fighter.  Wladimir can throw that left jab at will.  He can dominate the fight with just that one punch.  Klitschko also hooks magnificently off his jab.  Povetkin's only way to win the fight is on the inside, yet Povetkin's defense is porous and he doesn't have a punch that can hurt Klitschko.  With these strategic limitations, it's understandable that Atlas is so reticent to bless the Klitschko fight.  Povetkin could beat a lot of heavyweights to win a title (a fight against David Haye would be terrific), but probably not Wladimir.  

Sauerland wants to make real money with Povetkin.  While initially being patient with the Povetkin/Atlas union, Sauerland realizes that their fighter is already 31, and may be as good as he is going to get.  Sauerland has great network deals with German television and needs good content.  The company has invested a lot of money and time into Povetkin.  How this plays out between Sauerland and Atlas will be fascinating.    

Tomasz Adamek and his team (Kathy Duva, President of Main Events, and trainer Roger Bloodworth) have been steadily building to a Klitschko fight.  Adamek, formerly a champion at both light heavyweight and cruiserweight, realized that his ultimate financial reward would come at heavyweight. 

After defeating prized prospect and network darling Chris Arreola in only his third heavyweight fight, Adamek and his team sought additional network guarantees for his heavyweight campaign.  Met with odd indifference by HBO, Duva wisely capitalized on Adamek's strong local following in the Newark area by matching her fighter with a series of challenges to prepare for fighting one of the Klitschkos.  These fights were not shown on network television but because of Adamek's passionate following, he was still able to make decent purses. 

Bloodworth, a notable trainer of past heavyweights such as Andrew Golota and David Tua, emphasized the importance of conquering the physical challenges that the Klitschkos present.  Adamek needed to feel the punch of an enormous heavyweight and he had to learn to win fights against significantly taller and bigger opposition.  Duva brought in giants like Michael Grant and Kevin McBride (weighing in at 261 and 285 lbs. respectively – Adamek weighing only around 215) as opponents.  They both had significant height advantages as well (Grant at 6'7" and McBride at 6'6" – Adamek is only 6'1 1/2"). 

Although neither Grant nor McBride were world-class fighters, Duva and Bloodworth realized that Adamek had to master boxing against fighters where he faced significant physical disadvantages.  Adamek had some rough moments against Grant.  He was rocked by some of Grant's right hands and was gasping for air in the later rounds.  The fight against McBride went more smoothly. 

Bloodworth also made significant changes to McBride's fighting style.  Known as a puncher and brawler in the lower weights, Adamek has bought into the strategy that boxing would be his key to victory against the Klitschkos.  Adamek has now become a mover.  He throws a good jab and quick combinations, and then he gets out of fighting range.  He uses the ring to his advantage.  Bloodworth has incorporated more angles into Adamek's attack.  Adamek will never be confused with a slick boxer but his new dimensions will at least give him an effective strategy against Vitali, who likes to fight in the pocket and does not have the mobility that his younger brother possesses. 

Adamek will be an underdog against Vitali, but he may have some good moments.  Since Vitali came out of retirement, he has obliterated his opposition, perhaps not even losing a single round.  The Adamek-Vitali Klitschko fight figures to be a cerebral affair, with the fighters also mixing in quick, decisive combinations.  It remains to be seen whether Adamek can take Vitali's right hand but now he has a much better chance of competing with Vitali than he did two years ago.

Adamek and Povetkin both train in northern New Jersey, only a few miles from each other.  Yet, the focus of their respective training contrasts strikingly.  Atlas has Povetkin learning remedial boxing techniques while Bloodworth is honing in on specific strategies to possibly unseat Vitali. 

Atlas has stated that if he believed that his fighter had no chance of winning against Wladimir, he would merely cash Povetkin out, collect the payday and let the chips fall where they may.  Povetkin and Atlas turned down a $2 Million purse to face Wladimir (that's $200,000 for Atlas).  So Atlas is clearly walking the walk and following the strength of his convictions.  Who knows if he will actually have his fighter take the Wladimir match? 

Atlas can be a difficult man, but he certainly has a defensible point of view.  To Atlas, the point of boxing is to become the best fighter possible.  Only with that, comes the money and the glory.  That notion sounds quaint in today's world of boxing, which is plagued by over-hyped prospects and money-first fighters.  This current landscape may explain why Atlas doesn't train fighters too often anymore. 

Adamek's team has also foregone big purses against fighting one of the Klitschkos until his team was sure that their fighter was sufficiently prepared.  They have given their charge the green light; Atlas has not.  With all of Team Adamek's preparation, Vitali will still be heavily favored.  Atlas, if he can survive the politics within the Povetkin camp, may still be proven right.  Maybe Povetkin's defense improves enough that he can escape Wladimir's jab and get inside.  

What's clear is that Adamek has a definitive shot to establish his greatness, but Povetkin's immediate future does not involve heavyweight glory, instead uncertainty, and perhaps, doubt.

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