Thursday, April 28, 2011

Chad Dawson: Descent and Uncertainty

On February 3, 2007, Chad Dawson defeated unbeaten light heavyweight titlist Tomasz Adamek.  Dawson gave a rousing performance, dropping Adamek in the seventh round and dominating most of the fight.  Unfortunately, that night remains the high point of Dawson's career. 

The early momentum of Dawson's career has faded.  After numerous lackluster victories, he lost his title to Jean Pascal.  Over the last few years, he has parted ways with two trainers (more on that in a bit).   Out of the ring, he has reportedly had management squabbles and financial difficulties.  In addition, Dawson hasn't gained any type of mass following or public support.  In four years, Dawson has transitioned from rising American boxing prodigy to uninspiring light heavyweight afterthought.  In short, this is a career in descent.

The Pascal fight capped a series of dispassionate performances, including a  couple of uninspiring victories against Antonio Tarver, a gift win against Glen Johnson in their first fight and an ugly victory in their rematch.   

To many, Dawson epitomizes what's wrong in the sport.  Here's a boxer who requires million-dollar guarantees for his purses, yet he doesn't sell any tickets or fight with passion.  Dawson has tremendous talent but does not fight with urgency.  He seems content with ineffectual points victories instead of decisive ring performances.  Dawson is removed from the public and does the bare minimum in terms of promoting his fights. 

A few years ago, it really looked like Dawson would be the next American star.  He quickly ascended the super middleweight and light heavyweight rankings.  He possessed athletic gifts, a full arsenal of punches and a quirky southpaw style that made him very tough to hit.  Floyd Mayweather, Jr. thought that Dawson was one of the best young fighters in boxing (it didn't hurt that Floyd's father was training the light heavyweight).

Things started to unravel for Dawson in the first Glen Johnson fight.  After dismissing Johnson leading up to the match, Dawson fought aggressively in the early rounds by marking his territory and refusing to let Johnson back him up.   Through the first few rounds, the fight was exceptional, with both boxers firing blistering combinations.  Johnson hurt Dawson in the middle rounds with a series of clubbing right hands.  Throughout the rest of the fight, Dawson avoided the pocket and was content to throw a few jabs and one-two's before quickly getting out of range.  Meanwhile, Johnson continued to press the action and make the fight.  Many boxing observers (including this writer) thought Johnson won at least eight rounds.  Somehow, Dawson notched the victory, winning 116-112 on all three scorecards.

Fans wanted an immediate rematch yet Dawson moved on to the faded Antonio Tarver.  After dispatching Tarver twice (the second fight only occurred because Tarver negotiated a rematch clause), the only high-profile fight left for Dawson was a rematch with Johnson. 

Even with these less-than scintillating performances, Dawson's promoter, Gary Shaw, convinced HBO that they needed to be in the Chad Dawson business.  The network demanded that he fight Johnson again; reluctantly, Dawson agreed to the rematch.

In a horrible performance, Dawson ran all night and scored with pitty-pat combinations and ineffectual jabs.  He basically tired out Johnson, who aimlessly followed Dawson around the ring all night.  It was a terrible display by the champion.  How Dawson continued to get premium television dates after that performance is a credit to Shaw.           

In his last fight against Pascal, Dawson looked listless during the first half.  Dawson had no answers in the early rounds against Pascal's ambush-style flurries.  Pascal seemed to toy with Dawson, ducking in and out of range and unloading several punches before Dawson could counter.  Dawson fought with little energy and refused to lead. 

As the fight progressed, Pascal started to fade.  By the ninth round, Dawson was landing some big shots.  He was way behind in the fight and finally started to put punches together.  By the 11th round, Pascal looked vulnerable and a late-round knockout seemed possible.  Dawson had Pascal hurt but unfortunately, a clash of heads led to the fight being called.  Pascal received the unanimous victory.  

Overall, the performance against Pascal continued to raise many doubts about Dawson's career.  He didn't seem overly concerned about the loss, immediately informing the HBO crew that he had a rematch clause.  Whenever he put punches together against Pascal, they landed; he just wouldn't throw them.  Dawson seemed to be a fighter who was questioning himself in the ring.

Even though a case could be made that Dawson had a real chance to defeat Pascal before the stoppage, because of the public antipathy towards Dawson (due to his reluctance to engage with boxing fans and his dispassionate ring performances), there wasn't a demand to see the rematch.  When Hopkins drew with Pascal, the public demanded a second fight.  When Dawson lost his title, there was indifference.   

Dawson hasn't fought since the Pascal match last July.  In the interim, he has rarely surfaced.  Never a fighter who enjoyed the promotional aspects of the sport, Dawson has remained out of the public view.   

Dawson fights next month against Canadian brawler Adrian Diaconu on the undercard of the Hopkins-Pascal rematch.  If he beats Diaconu, he faces the Pascal-Hopkins winner.  The Diaconu fight, like the Pascal bout, will be on hostile turf in Quebec.   

For this fight, Dawson has enlisted Emanuel Steward.  It's a fascinating match in that Dawson does not resemble the type of pupil associated with Steward's more resounding successes.  Steward likes pocket fighters.  He's the best at establishing height and distance.  Steward's fighters master the jab and sit down on their straight crosses.  Steward also rarely works with southpaws.  Dawson fights (when he actually decides to throw punches) in a fluid style based on angles, turning opponents and staying out of punching range.  Surely, Dawson could pick up a few things from Steward (for instance, committing to his power shots), but it would not be shocking if this union didn't produce optimal results.  

Dawson has never fought in the Kronk style promoted by Steward.  He lacks the physical dimensions of height and range that are so important to Steward's successes.  Technically, he doesn't throw his jab as often as Steward's fighters do and Dawson doesn't commit to his straight left hand in the pocket. 

Dawson has certainly not lacked quality instruction.  Through his professional career, he has employed five different top-notch trainers -- John Scully, Dan Birmingham, Floyd Mayweather, Sr., Eddie Mustafa Muhammad and now Steward.  Birmingham emphasizes the pocket.  Mayweather may be the best at coaching defense and angles.  Muhammad does well with fluid fighters. 

Essentially, Dawson needs to decide on a ring identity.  What kind of fighter does he want to be?  For a while, he seemed to be fighting in a Floyd Mayweather, Jr. style of defense and countering.  However, Mayweather stays in the pocket for these opportunities or uses angles to potshot where Dawson often refuses to engage.  At other times, Dawson has been a runner, briefly setting his feet to throw quick combinations before moving out of the pocket.  He's fought as a boxer-puncher, finding opportunities in the pocket to throw combinations and press the action.  He also has fought as a prototypical slick boxer, using angles and turning his opponents.  

Dawson has more than enough boxing acumen to be an elite fighter in the sport.  His talent has never been called into question.  What separates Dawson from the elite is not technique, but desire.  Many elite fighters in the sport (such as Mayweather Jr., Donaire and Hopkins) can fight in various styles: so can Dawson.  However, the difference between those elite fighters and Dawson is that they have displayed an almost a pathological desire to win their fights.  They change their style to give them the best chance to win, not to merely avoid danger.  Angles, distance and flashy combination are great, but winning is paramount.   

So Dawson has received a spectacular boxing foundation.  But does he have a first-class fighting spirit?  At a certain point, the deficiencies with Dawson are not about his trainers.  Any of the five trainers would be suitable for a world champion.  What Dawson really needs is someone to light a fire under his ass: someone like Teddy Atlas.  Dawson isn't the first gifted fighter to become passive or indecisive after reaching the upper levels of the sport.  Example like Hector Camacho and Michael Moorer certainly apply.  Someone like Atlas or Jesse Reid could quickly determine if Dawson is salvageable from a psychological standpoint.  Certainly, Steward will show Dawson how to commit more to his power shots, but if the fighter doesn't want to do what it takes to become great, there isn't much that any trainer can do.

Somehow, Dawson is still only one fight away from a title shot.  Hopefully, he has undergone the requisite soul-searching and rededication needed to reach and then ascend his prior pinnacle.  He has a real fight ahead of him against Diaconu.  If Dawson isn't mentally prepared to fight a war, he will lose.  Judging by talent, he should win.  

But talent isn't enough at the highest levels of any sport.  The gutters of boxing are littered with unfulfilled promise.  Dawson's X-Factor is desire.  Is he willing to do whatever it takes to win?  He should beat Diaconu, Pascal or a 46-year-old Hopkins; but those fighters are ready to engage in battle.  To win these fights, Dawson must establish his power shots to ward off these aggressive opponents.  He will get hit and there will be some rough exchanges.  The fancy trainer, the network backing and the noted promoter are irrelevant if Dawson isn't mentally prepared to win at all costs. He has one more shot next month.  Is he up to the task? 

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