Saturday, April 30, 2011

What Happened to Arthur Abraham?

When the Super Six super middleweight tournament was announced in 2009, Arthur Abraham was considered the co-favorite with Mikkel Kessler.  Going into the tournament, Abraham featured a pristine 30-0 record and had previously defended his middleweight title 10 times.  Other elements were also in his favor.  He faced quality opposition during his middleweight reign, including Edison Miranda, Kofi Jantuah, Raul Marquez, Khoren Gevor and others.  Additionally, Abraham had prospered on American soil (where the semifinals and finals of the tournament would be held), knocking out out Edison Miranda in their rematch. 

Technically, Abraham featured an awkward style that was tough to prepare for.  He kept his gloves all the way up shielding his face.  He would explode from his defensive posture with straight right hands and left hooks.  He was tough to hit cleanly, well-conditioned and a good finisher.  He threw almost all power punches and he placed them extremely well.

In the first round of the tournament, Abraham faced Jermain Taylor.  The two were often rumored to meet while they were both middleweight titlists.  However, Taylor, with the support of HBO, and Abraham, with the backing of powerful German-based promoter Sauerland Event, became cash cows in their respective countries.  The matchup in the Super Six was attractive because of the unfinished business during their title reigns.  

After a few back-and forth rounds to start the fight, Abraham dominated Taylor during the second half.   He knocked out Taylor in the 12th round and Abraham was leading comfortably at the time of the stoppage.  The knockout was so vicious that Taylor had to spend several days at a German hospital.  Abraham didn't beat a prime Taylor, but he looked great in victory.  Taylor may have been damaged goods, previously losing by crushing knockouts to Kelly Pavlik and Carl Froch. 

Abraham's next Super Six fight was against Andre Dirrell.  Although Dirrell had a competitive showing against Froch, Abraham was favored for their bout.  Conventional wisdom said that Abraham's superior fighting spirit would overcome Dirrell's evasiveness and occasional unwillingness to engage.  

In a major surprise, Dirrell dominated almost the entire fight.  Dirrell circled Abraham beautifully and stopped to throw powerful combinations seemingly at will.  He knocked down Abraham in the fourth round.  Abraham looked flustered throughout the fight, refusing to throw punches or emerge from his defensive shell. 

Eventually Abraham would come on, hurting Dirrell in the 10th and 11th rounds (there were two potential knockdowns that weren't called) before Abraham was DQ'ed for hitting Dirrell while he was down on the canvas. 

After the fight, the worst of Abraham and Sauerland surfaced.  They claimed that Dirrell was faking injury.  (Dirrell was obviously incoherent in the post-fight interview, thinking that he had lost the fight.)  They threatened to protest the disqualification.  Team Abraham also insisted that Dirrell should be disqualified for not taking the post-fight drug test, even though Dirrell had to be transported to the hospital for observation.  Finally, Team Abraham claimed that they were going to pull out of the tournament.  

Abraham, who was starting to establish a fan base in America, ruined whatever good will he had in the U.S. with his antics.  He was seen as a sore loser and most importantly a bad sportsman.  The disqualification punch on Dirrell was egregious.  If that punch can't disqualify someone, I'm not sure that any could.

Abraham's next match was against Carl Froch.  Before the fight, there were endless delays because neither boxer would agree to fight in the other's home country.  They settled on Finland.  Abraham was still given a very good chance to win.  His straighter punching and tighter defense was seen as a way to defeat Froch, who often throws looping shots and can be easy to hit.  

In a shocking display, Froch outboxed Abraham in every round to win the wide decision.  Froch, not known for his boxing ability, stayed disciplined, kept distance well and constantly hit Abraham with his jabs, right hands and left hooks.  Again, Abraham essentially refused to throw punches or engage his opponent.  By the end of the fight, Abraham had huge red marks on his cheeks, from his gloves repeatedly being knocked into his face by Froch's punches. 

Now, Wilfried Sauerland and Abraham's own trainer, Ulli Wegner, were furious at the boxer for his refusal to fight.  Sauerland considered pulling Abraham from the tournament.  In a surprising move, Abraham insisted on a tune-up fight before entering the semi-finals against Andre Ward.  Abraham dispatched obscure Stjepan Bozic with ease.

Abraham meets Ward later this month.  After some substantial disagreements between Sauerland and Ward's promoter, Dan Goossen, about the location and the selection of the referee and judges, the fight should proceed. 

Andre Ward is a significant favorite against Abraham.  Ward's fluidity in the ring, his various ring styles and his boxing intelligence are major obstacles for Abraham to overcome.  Abraham may have a puncher's chance to beat Ward in that the American has been knocked down earlier in his career.  However, Abraham has refused to let his hands go during his last few fights and doesn't seem comfortable transitioning from defense to offense.  Ward won't be in front of Abraham to hit.  In addition, increasingly it looks like Abraham can only land shots when he remains flat-footed in the center of the ring.  The lateral movement of Ward will present all sorts of challenges for Abraham.

The recent performances of Arthur Abraham are inexplicable.  To those who saw him as a middleweight titleholder, Abraham was a killer and a warrior.  Abraham cultivated a strong following in Germany both at the turnstiles and on television sets.   He had a reign of destruction as a titleholder, where his moniker "King" seemed apt.  He defeated Edison Miranda in their first fight despite a broken draw that was gushing blood and Miranda's repeated low blows.  His guts were not called into question.   Yet somehow, Abraham has morphed into a docile, defensive fighter, scared to let his hands go.  His technique and footwork have deteriorated in his recent fights.  No one expected this transformation.  Without a good showing against Ward, Abraham's career as a relevant fighter is finished.  

I get the feeling that something out of the ring has contributed to Abraham's downfall.  It's not that he merely lost to Dirrell and Froch, it's how he lost.  Abraham refused to engage.  He was champion of the world and suddenly now he won't fight?  The competitive spirit that took him from the amateurs to the top of the middleweight division suddenly disappeared?  

Teddy Atlas likes to say that boxing is 90% mental.   At the top level of the sport, everyone has talent.  On paper, and by evaluating Abraham's past performances prior to the Super Six, Abraham had the talent to defeat every fighter in the tournament.  Clearly, something isn't right with the fighter.  Hopefully, some additional information will come to light about Abraham's state of mind over the last 18 months.  King Abraham's fall from the throne has shocked the boxing world.  To this point, there are few answers.    

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