Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Naazim Richardson: The Upset-Minded Professor

Naazim Richardson's two highest-profile fighters, Shane Mosley and Bernard Hopkins, fight later this month.  For Richardson, he is in a familiar position, trying to guide underdog veterans to glory.  Over the last few years, Richardson has helped engineer several stunning upsets, including Bernard Hopkins' victories over Antonio Tarver and Kelly Pavlik, and Shane Mosley's knockout of Antonio Margarito. 

Richardson is correctly regarded as boxing's master tactician.  He excels with gym rats – fighters who love to train and dissect film.  Richardson's attention to detail is legendary.  He was the central figure who snuffed out the illegal hand wraps of both Felix Trinidad and Antonio Margarito.  

Making his bones in the Philadelphia gym scene, Richardson was a little-known assistant trainer to Bouie Fisher, Hopkins' longtime boxing guru.  When Hopkins and Fisher parted ways, Richardson was elevated to Hopkins' chief second.  

To the average boxing fan, Richardson was a closely-held secret.  Not a self-promoter, Richardson resisted unwanted attention.  In the corner, Richardson never raised his voice and projected a calm, peaceful manner.  He let his fighters do the talking.  

Hopkins was a massive underdog against Antonio Tarver, who was regarded as the top light heavyweight in boxing.  Hopkins was coming off of two losses to Jermain Taylor and was moving up two divisions to face Tarver.  Hopkins was seen as a "name" opponent for Tarver, a payday.

What followed is the stuff of legend.  Tarver, who often fought in straight lines, needed to plant his feet before throwing power shots.  Richardson and Hopkins hatched a game plan which centered on lateral movement, high work rates and angles.  Hopkins, known for his defensive prowess and fighting only in spurts, immediately came out as the aggressor.  Hopkins was on his toes the whole night, pot-shotting Tarver, moving in and out with quick combinations and turning him with superior angles.  Tarver looked confused the whole night.  Hopkins won 10 rounds on all of the cards and scored a knockdown.  It was a spectacular performance.  

Hopkins' next opponent was Winky Wright.  Again, Hopkins was the underdog.  Wright boxed very well against Jermain Taylor and although he probably won eight rounds, he scored only a draw.  Wright was considered one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport, defeating Shane Mosley twice, shutting out Felix Trinidad and dominating Ike Quartey.  He featured a high-guard defense and dominated opponents with his stiff jab, sneaky left hand and defensive prowess.  Hitting Wright cleanly was an award in it of itself. 

Richardson conceived a completely different strategy for Wright than he did for Tarver.  For this fight, Hopkins would take Wright out of his comfort zone, mugging him on the inside and throwing short, compact shots.  Wright liked to control distance with his jab.  Hopkins came in using angles and kept hitting Wright in close range throughout the fight.  Hopkins stuck to Wright all night like Velcro.  It was an ugly fight to watch.  Hopkins won a unanimous decision but didn't make any new friends with the aesthetics of his ring performance.

Richardson suffered a stroke in 2008 and was unable to act as Hopkins' head trainer for the Joe Calzaghe fight, though he communicated with Hopkins' other trainers for the fight, Freddie Roach and John David Jackson, about strategy.  Calzaghe was difficult to prepare for in that he was one of the few fighters that fought well going both forwards and backwards.  His improvisational movements made him hard to time.  

Hopkins' goal was to disrupt Calzaghe's unorthodox rhythm and flow.  Hopkins executed this by staying in close, grappling and countering with straight right hands.  He immediately dropped Calzaghe in the first round.  The fight was tough to score.  Hopkins dictated the pace and style of the fight but there weren't a lot of clean punches landed.  Hopkins was able to depress Calzaghe's work rate but Hopkins also didn't throw a lot.  Many in press row thought that Hopkins won but the judges awarded Calzaghe with a split decision win. 

After the Calzaghe fight, Hopkins was brought in as another "name" for undefeated rising superstar Kelly Pavlik.  Pavlik's undefeated record, punching power and victories over Jermain Taylor made him an enormous favorite over Hopkins.  It was clear that Pavlik was supposed to win.  Boxing writers were certain of the Pavlik victory; they would only be impressed if he could knock Hopkins out.
For Richardson, the strategy against Pavlik was clear.  If you took away Pavlik's jab, he only had the right hand.  Hopkins had to immediately establish his pinpoint right-hand counter and use angles to hit Pavlik without staying in front of him. 

Hopkins executed beautifully and from the second round on, Pavlik looked tentative, refusing to throw his jab.  Hopkins connected with hard right hands and left hooks.  In the corner during the early rounds of the fight, Richardson was heard saying, "You see, without that jab, he's just ordinary."  Hopkins won at least nine rounds on all three cards.

With Hopkins' string of upsets, Richardson was garnering quite the reputation.   Shane Mosley, through his association with Hopkins as partners in Golden Boy Promotions, observed Richardson's ring acumen first-hand.  As a serious student of boxing, Mosley admired Richardson's strategic approach to boxing.  He selected Richardson to train him for his fight against Antonio Margarito.  

Coming off of a close loss to Miguel Cotto and a lackluster performance in his win over Ricardo Mayorga, Mosley was a significant underdog against Margarito, who administered a severe beating to Cotto.  Boxing observers viewed Margarito as an unstoppable force.  

Richardson and Mosley quickly dispelled that notion.  From the opening round, Mosley held his ground and used his tighter punching to thwart Margarito's advances.  Unlike Cotto, who tried to box Margarito, Mosley planted himself in the middle of the ring and went to war.  He pressed the action and backed Margarito up with devastating right hands and left hooks. Mosley also did a great job of countering Margarito throughout the fight.  Mosley knocked down Margarito in the 8th round and the referee stopped the fight in the 9th, when Margarito could no longer defend himself.  It was a stunning knockout.  

Not all of Richardson's high-profile fights have worked out well.  Against Sergio Mora and Roy Jones, Jr. respectively, Shane Mosley and Bernard Hopkins faced fighters who were unwilling to engage.  The fights were brutal to watch. 

Additionally, it was hard to tell what Richardson's strategy was for Mosley against Floyd Mayweather, Jr.  After hurting Mayweather in the second round, Mosley ignored the pleas of his corner and decided to follow Mayweather around the ring all night, waiting for that one opening to land his right hand again; it never came.  Mosley sometimes falls in love with his power and he is not as disciplined a student as Hopkins is.  

Most recently, Hopkins fought for the light heavyweight title against Jean Pascal.  Pascal had previously looked great in dismantling light heavyweight titlist Chad Dawson.  Hopkins was a significant underdog, so much so that HBO wouldn't even buy the fight.  However, Richardson and Hopkins noticed two important defects in Pascal's style: 1. Pascal didn't fight three minutes of every round.  2.  Pascal faded late.  

For Richardson and Hopkins, it seemed like old times.  In contrast to his recent fights, Hopkins fought aggressively from the opening bell, throwing flurries and combinations instead of his customary one-shot counters.  After surviving two early knockdowns, Hopkins dominated the last nine rounds of the fight.  As the fight progressed, Pascal exhibited that unique look of befuddlement that one gets when facing Hopkins.  His corner kept imploring him to do more, but the old man was the one with the fresh legs.     Although Hopkins only received a draw, his conditioning, work rate and accurate combination punching won him the fight in the court of public opinion.  

Mosley and Hopkins are again respective underdogs in their fights later this month.   Mosley is a more than 6-1 underdog against Manny Pacquiao and Hopkins is a 5-3 dog against Pascal in the rematch.  

Mosley is now 39 and Hopkins is 46; who knows what either fighter has left?  However, this much is certain, if there is a way to win these fights, Richardson will find it.  Will his fighters be able to execute the plan?  Well, who knows what father time has in store?  But heed this warning: those who bet against a Naazim Richardson fighter do so at their own peril.        

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