Sunday, April 3, 2011

Gamboa, Breaking the Cuban Mold

I'm still thinking about Yuriorkis Gamboa's crushing victory over Jorge Solis.  Facing a solid opponent, Gamboa demonstrated his staggering athletic ability and dynamic power.  Solis, an interim junior lightweight titlist, just didn't belong in the same ring as the Cuban.  Gamboa dropped Solis five times in four rounds, with a full arsenal of offensive firepower.  

Gamboa's combination of power, speed and improved defensive technique signals the arrival of a potentially elite fighter.  Until, the Solis fight, it was unclear whether Gamboa would develop past the "exciting but flawed titleholder" stage.  Now a path towards greatness is clearer.   

To me, what is so fascinating about Gamboa is his unorthodox style.  Even though Gamboa was a decorated amateur, winning the Olympic gold medal in 2004, he barely resembles the traditional Cuban style of boxing. 

The Cuban amateur program, which was led by former national coach Alcides Sagarra, emphasized angles, ring generalship, counter-punching and clean shots that scored well with judges.  Even after Sagarra stepped down in 1991, the principles of his teachings remained foundational in the Cuban amateur system.  

Computerized scoring, introduced in the Olympics in 1992, further favored the Cuban style.  The new system only accounted for clean, landed shots.  Notions of power punching, aggression and physicality were left out of the new system.   The Cubans' crisp shots, accurate counterpunching, and ring generalship (controlling distance and dictating the pace of the fight) scored well with the Olympic punch counting system. 

Two excellent, modern representatives of the Cuban boxing program are former junior lightweight and lightweight titleholder Joel Casamayor and current junior featherweight champion Guillermo Rigondeaux.  Both fighters (with Casamayor I am referring to his prime years) display a wide variety of skills.  They have significant ring intelligence, counterpunching ability, veteran savvy (among Casamayor's contemporaries, perhaps only Hopkins understood the dark arts of boxing better) and the willingness to stink out a fight in order to win.  Neither Rigondeaux nor Casamayor seems to worry much about looking good on TV.  Both fighters have real power, but that is only one tool in their toolbox.   

Gamboa fights in an antipodal style to the traditional Cuban school.  Where defense is emphasized in the Cuban amateur program, Gamboa has been dropped on numerous occasions on account of his poor footwork after throwing power shots.  He keeps his chin exposed and doesn't get out of punching range fast enough. 

While the Cubans use angles and jabs to cut the distance, Gamboa marches forward, straight in, behind power shots.  The Cubans excel at controlling distance and getting in and getting out of range, Gamboa often smothers his shots on the inside and admires his work while still in the pocket, leading to successful counters by his opponents.

However, what Gamboa has, and many of the other Cuban boxers do not possess, is explosive speed and power.  Many of the Cubans are fluid; they move well and are difficult to hit cleanly.  Gamboa rushes towards his opponents like a category-5 hurricane.  Often, we equate speed in boxing with runners or slick defensive specialists.  Gamboa, like someone such as Roy Jones Jr., has an offensive temperament. 

His combination of power shots and speed is uniquely difficult to simulate for opponents trying to crack his style.  There aren't many sparring partners who resemble Gamboa.  He waits on the outside and rushes in at full gusto behind a barrage of right hands and devastating left hooks.  During his combinations he'll throw unconventional shots like a combined left jab/hook, which is very powerful, and overhand rights which loop almost like hooks.  The blitz happens so fast that he'll often unload three or four shots before he can be countered.  

All this equates to one entertaining TV fighter.  He provides blistering combinations and knockouts yet his defensive flaws make him vulnerable.  Gamboa has been knocked down on a number of occasions (though not necessarily been hurt badly). 

The Solis fight showed a more mature Gamboa.  Gamboa used distance better and remained patient, waiting for his offensive opportunities.  When close to Solis, he was still able to land power shots.  This version of Gamboa will be tough to beat.

There are more than a dozen top-tier Cuban amateurs who have defected over the last five years, all with less than 20 or fewer professional fights.  Some like Yudel Jhonson, Yunier Dorticos and Luis Garcia have shown significant promise.  Others like Yan Barthelemy, Yordanis Despaigne and Odlanier Solis have fallen short of initial expectations.  Projecting where they all may wind up over the next decade seems premature, yet it is apparent that as of 2011, Rigondeaux and Gamboa are the two most accomplished of the new crop of Cuban professionals.

Rigondeaux may yet become one of the elite boxers in the sport.  He has a hardware store of boxing tools and will be a difficult out for anyone.  But to this point, Rigondeaux does not look like a fighter who will take the necessary risks in order to become a crowd pleasing attraction.  He may wind up having a great pro career; he may even eclipse Casamayor.  However, the networks will pick Gamboa over Rigondeaux every time.   

The principles of the Cuban boxing program lead to medals for its amateurs but not necessarily passionate followings for its professionals.  Gamboa follows a different set of beliefs.  For him, he wants to destroy not dance; he wants to be feared not cagey.  Gamboa fights in a style that captivates the public, which in turn leads to the potential for greater fame and heftier paychecks.   It is not merely his athletic gifts and punching power which separate him from his Cuban contemporaries, but his aggressive attitude and his acknowledgement that boxing, most of all, is a spectator sport. 

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