Sunday, June 19, 2011

Notes from the Alvarez-Rhodes Card

  • The great ones have it.  They have a certain preternatural creativity.  Think of Roy Jones jumping in from the outside to throw five consecutive left hooks and leave the pocket without getting scratched.  In golf, they call it shot-making.  Guys like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson can find the green from impossible angles, shooting from deep in the trees or thick rough.  In basketball, Michael Jordan and Lebron James seem to invent stuff in mid-air that is virtually indefensible.  In hockey, think of Wayne Gretzky's hands and puck control, creating passing angles that are unimaginable. 

  • No, Saul Alvarez is not on this elite level yet.  But his fluidity and creativity in the ring suggest rare gifts.  His combinations come from some special place, where the great ones can size up an opponent, or an obstacle, and think of unique ways to achieve victory.  They see opportunities where others don't.  Alvarez may lack the athleticism of those mentioned above, but his flawless execution of difficult combinations reveal dimensions that are not taught in gyms; they are ingrained within him.  His combination punching demonstrates a supreme understanding of his talents and the weaknesses of his opponents.  He doesn't throw these combinations out of desperation; they seem as basic to him as the old 1-2.  

  • Here are a series of rare – and wonderful – combinations from Alvarez:  In the fourth round, he threw a blistering double left hook-right uppercut just before the he scored his knockdown.  In the fifth, he landed a perfect jab-left hook-straight right hand.  During the sixth round, he pasted Rhodes with a left hook to the body-right hook to the body, right uppercut.  In the eight, in perhaps his best combination, Alvarez scored with a right uppercut-left uppercut-left hook.  Many of these combinations are untraditional.  A lot of great boxers would never even attempt to practice them, let alone throw them in a match.  Yet to Alvarez, they seemed as natural as tying his shoes.

  • Alvarez's uppercut is a special punch.  A great uppercut is almost a lost art in boxing. I think Alvarez and Lucian Bute now have the two best uppercuts in the sport.  Unlike many other fighters with good uppercuts, like Andre Berto or Devon Alexander, Alvarez doesn't need distance to land his.  Alvarez uses his uppercut in a variety of ways.  He uses it to finish combinations, to counter, and to lead from the outside.  Also, he throws the uppercut with both hands.  Again, these are rare gifts in boxing.

  • Alvarez's ring generalship suggests a fighter well beyond his 20 years of age.  Unlike most young champions who make their first title defense at home, Alvarez was not overeager in looking for the early knockout.  He paced himself and systematically landed his combinations with poise and conviction.  He didn't unnecessarily tire himself out winging punches.  He looked so calm in the ring – like he was born to be there.  Watching him, I thought of cagey veterans like James Toney, Bernard Hopkins and Joel Casamayor, who all had that unique ability to look totally relaxed during vicious combat.  Alvarez has that same attribute. 

  • He also demonstrates a willingness and determination to go to the body.  Most young fighters are infatuated with head shots.  They look great on television and often lead to thrilling knockouts.  Again, like a veteran, Alvarez knows that if you kill the body, the head will follow. His left hook-right hook combinations are not flashy shoeshine punches, but committed power shots.  They cause real damage. 

  • Alvarez has made clear strides with his defense.  Jose Cotto and Matthew Hatton were both able to land numerous shots on Alvarez.  Now fighting a real junior middleweight, Alvarez tightened up his defense, blocking a lot of shots and using subtle footwork to take away opportunities for Rhodes.  With the exception of the 11th round, where Alvarez got a little lazy with his guard, Rhodes couldn't find consistent openings to land shots. 

  • In another area of improvement, Alvarez's counters were very sharp, scoring with counter right hands, left hooks and right uppercuts.  In the Hatton fight, Alvarez often overcommitted to his counters, just missing his shots and leaving himself out of position.  Tonight, he stayed composed and countered with shorter shots that were extremely effective.  Alvarez's countering is the main reason why there was not too much toe-to-toe action.  Rhodes couldn't expose himself to that type punishment. 

  • Ryan Rhodes tried hard the whole night.  However, from the second round on, it was clear that the younger man's power was going to be too much for him.  Rhodes didn't throw a confident jab.  He looked like he was afraid at what might come back at him. 

  • He made a number of other technical mistakes that hurt his chances in the fight.  When trying to counter, he stayed too close to Alvarez.  The idea of countering is to make the man the miss and follow with counter shots.  I'm not sure if Rhodes' blueprint of eating four hard shots to try and land one is often taught in gyms.  It's not as if Rhodes is some pressure fighter whose strategy was to wear down Alvarez.  He just stayed in the pocket and ate punches.  Additionally, Rhodes didn't get out of punching distance after throwing his combinations, remaining right in front of Alvarez, which created easy countering opportunities.    

  • Rhodes also didn't have any luck with switching to southpaw.  Many young fighters can get confused when their opponents change stances.  When Rhodes switched, Alvarez immediately went into southpaw mode, hitting him with straight rights to the head and right hooks to the body.  Even after Rhodes' corner implored him to stay orthodox, he would change to southpaw after Alvarez landed powerful combinations, reflexively thinking that the switch would buy him time.  That was a miscalculation.  However, in Rhodes' defense, that tactic would have worked against many young fighters.  He just happened to be in the ring with an abnormally gifted one.

  • I think Alvarez's ultimate ceiling as a fighter may be somewhere around a prime Miguel Cotto – a  mid top-ten pound-for-pound guy.  Alvarez does some things better than Cotto; he has more creative combinations, a larger offensive arsenal and a better uppercut.  In Cotto's favor, he was a spectacular finisher, had one-punch knockout power with his left hook and, at his best, took a good punch.  They both have average foot speed, often fight flat-footed and land their power shots with excellent accuracy.  We'll know more about Alvarez when we see him matched with top-tier fighters who feature difficult styles, such as big punchers, ultra-slick boxers or first-rate pressure fighters.   

  • Looking at the junior middleweight division, it's pretty much smooth sailing for Alvarez.  There are many interesting and potentially competitive fights for him (e.g. Martirosyan, Trout, Angulo and Bundrage).  If I were Team Alvarez, there is only one fighter I would avoid in the division.  They need to steer clear of Paul Williams.  The combination of his size and high-volume work rate might be a little too much for the kid to handle right now.  However, let's take a step back.  Williams is a three-time titlist and has fought and beaten some of the elite boxers in the sport.  The fact that a 20-year-old is even in the same discussion with someone of Williams' caliber reflects how talented Alvarez really is.  

  • Anybody else in the division should be fair game.  (Of course Golden Boy wouldn't do something stupid like putting Alvarez in a catch-weight fight with Sergio Martinez; that wouldn't be a good fight for Alvarez.  But that won't happen).  After tonight's performance, I don't think Top Rank would dream of putting Chavez Jr. in the same time zone, let alone ring, with Alvarez.  

  • Adrien Broner showed excellent finishing skills with his first-round knockout of Jason Litzau.  Broner landed a great right hand at the end of the round and followed up with hooks, uppercuts and crosses.  Broner quickly realized that he had a wounded animal in front of him.  Instead of backing off, showing mercy and winning the round, he went for the kill.  Those few moments taught us a lot about Broner.  Tonight's performance helped remove the stink from his last showing against Daniel Ponce de Leon.

  • The 130-pound division is fairly non-descript.  Perhaps the best strategy for Broner is to win a title fight, beat a couple of top-ten guys in the division and wait for Juan Manuel Lopez and Yuriorkis Gamboa to come up to junior lightweight.  Lopez should be there by the beginning of 2011; Gamboa may follow shortly after.  Broner as a professional has fought at junior lightweight, lightweight and junior welterweight.  He looks very good at 130.  If he can stay at junior lightweight, potential big fights are there for him by end of 2011.   

  • Litzau, who has always had a leaky defense, just got caught.  The round was essentially even until that final flurry.  In a perfect world, he would have immediately tied up Broner, but that first right hand might have caused so much damage that Litzau couldn't effectively recover.  Litzau, as always, is still a game fighter and can beat many people at 130.  His defensive shortcomings remain his Achilles heel. 

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