Sunday, June 12, 2011

SNB Nuggets (Hopkins vs. Atlas, Mayweather and HBO, Lampley)

Bernard Hopkins and ESPN commentator Teddy Atlas had a minor spat on the May 27th edition of Friday Night Fights.  Hopkins, a guest of the show during his valedictory week after becoming the oldest fighter to win a championship belt, had a significant difference of opinion regarding the quality of his performance against Pascal than did Atlas, who can often be contrarian.  Atlas credited Hopkins with winning the belt, but asserted that his victory was primarily a function of Jean Pascal's mediocre technique and lack of basic boxing fundamentals.  Hopkins essentially claimed that his expertise was the reason why Pascal looked bad in the ring. 

To these eyes, Both Hopkins and Atlas' perspectives have substantial merit.  Atlas' assertion that Pascal is a technically flawed fighter was easily apparent.  Pascal demonstrated in his two fights with Hopkins that he didn't have the conditioning to fight three minutes a round; he also took rounds off.  He practically refused to utilize his jab.  Pascal was obsessed with shooting for knockouts instead of doing the things necessary to win rounds and points.

Hopkins' victory, however, should not be diminished.  Only Hopkins and Carl Froch have been able to exploit Pascal's flaws.  Hopkins exposed Pascal's subpar conditioning by applying pressure and making the fight physical on the inside.  He neutralized an opponent that had better speed and power.  Hopkins' feat was not easy to accomplish.  It is one thing to see that a fighter has flaws; it is another thing to exploit those flaws and emerge victorious.  

Hopkins and Atlas are two headstrong boxing professionals who have a lot of pride.  Don't expect to see flower baskets or apology cards.  However, there is a reason why Hopkins selected Pascal as an opponent.  His flaws were obvious to the veteran master.  

In response to Atlas, Hopkins didn't beat a mere paper champion, but a strong, tough, difficult titlist in his prime.  Yes, boxing is watered down with too many divisions and titleholders, but 46-year-olds don't beat 28-year old champions without special physical attributes and supreme mental fortitude.  

Floyd Mayweather, Jr., Mayweather Promotions and Golden Boy Promotions find themselves in the ideal negotiating position with HBO for Mayweather's fight against Victor Ortiz.  After the embarrassment of losing Manny Pacquiao to Showtime for his last fight, HBO must keep Mayweather at all costs.  Losing the sport's two most famous fighters in a single calendar year would be unfathomable for the "Network of Champions."  HBO's boxing chief Ross Greenburg (not the best negotiator even in ideal circumstances for the network) will have to extend all sorts of dollars, perks and favorable deal points in order to guarantee that Mayweather remains in the HBO camp.

HBO and Mayweather have an interesting history.  Prior to becoming a pay-per-view star, Mayweather signed several long-term contracts with the network.  He often fought less-than-stellar opposition on its World Championship Boxing broadcasts.  The fighter failed to sell tickets during these earlier periods and although he was acknowledged as a supreme boxing talent, Mayweather was not riveting television.

Mayweather in the past has accused the HBO broadcast team of being racist, and has a prickly relationship with Larry Merchant among others.  Yet, Mayweather has always pledged his loyalty to HBO.  When Pacquiao fought on Showtime, Mayweather made a series of disparaging remarks about his rival fighting on a lesser network.  In all likelihood, Mayweather will fight Ortiz on HBO pay-per-view but, behind closed doors, the negotiations should be quite interesting.

This weekend is the annual International Boxing Hall of Fame induction ceremony.  2011's Hall of Fame class features several notable inductees, including Mike Tyson, Julio Cesar Chavez, Sr. and Kostya Tszyu.  Referee Joe Cortez and Sylvester Stallone will be inducted as non-participants.  These are all fine selections (with the exception of Cortez) but the Hall of Fame electorate (various members of the boxing media) continue to diminish the IBHOF with its failure to enshrine HBO broadcaster Jim Lampley.  

Lampley, now in his third decade of calling fights for HBO, is universally acknowledged as the best American broadcaster in the sport.  His memorable calls of Tyson-Douglas and Foreman-Moorer are two of the most famous in the history of televised boxing.   

His skills extend far beyond memorable boxing calls.  He elevates all who work with him on the HBO broadcasts.  He adroitly refereed the on-air bickering between Larry Merchant and George Foreman and expertly handled Roy Jones' lack of preparation.  He also deserves a lot of credit in the evolution of Max Kellerman, who has morphed from an incessant opiner to an incisive observer.  

Lampley's relationship with Merchant (a past inductee into the IBHOF) is special.  The two of them have a tremendous rapport over-the-air.  Lampley understands that Merchant's unique blend of honesty, irascibility and skepticism provides some wonderful nuggets.  He's content to follow Larry's idiosyncratic musings and obscure country music analogies because he knows that there is wisdom at the end of the tunnel.  His entertaining byplay with Merchant and his ability to elicit insights from his broadcast team illustrate Lampley's skills as a listener, his love of boxing and his knowledge of what makes a good broadcast. 

Lampley has also learned from Merchant the power of silence.  It's funny but if you catch an old HBO broadcast during the middle of a fight, Merchant may not speak for an entire round, if not longer.  As the play-by-pay announcer, Lampley cannot go to those lengths.  But unlike almost every other boxing announcer, Lampley understands television's unique ability to capture an image; a picture can say 1,000 words.  He is not afraid of silence and doesn't reflexively gravitate towards canned conversation or unnecessary banter. 

His status in the sport is unquestioned.  Every fight that Jim Lampley calls immediately gains importance.  If he's behind the microphone, the fight is significant.  He holds company with the best American sports broadcasters, a group that includes Al Michaels, Marv Albert, and Mike Emrick.  If Lampley is deemed unworthy of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, then what good is a Hall of Fame? 

Rob McCracken, Carl Froch's trainer, is not one of the bigger names in boxing.  His only current champion is Froch.  Most of his other fighters are lesser Commonwealth-level boxers that pose no threat to the upper reaches of any organization's divisional rankings.

In his fighting days, McCracken was a solid middleweight, winning a Commonwealth title and losing only to WBC titlist Keith Holmes and future world title contender Howard Eastman.  He retired at the relatively early age of 32.

Despite his low public profile, McCracken's stature in the sport is ascendant.  He has gained notice with Froch's continued growth.  McCracken has polished Froch, refining him into an all-around fighter.  Froch is no longer a face-first brawler who beats his opponents with machismo and a first-rate chin.  Under McCracken's tutelage, Froch has learned better footwork, expert countering and many fine points of ring generalship.

Additionally, in 2009, McCracken was selected as performance director and head coach for the Great Britain national amateur team.  This prestigious honor held extra importance because London was chosen to host of the 2012 Olympics.  Great Britain naturally wanted to find a coach that would guide the team to an excellent performance (i.e. medals) on its home soil.  By all accounts, McCracken performed wonders with the GB squad. 

McCracken was forced to resign this post in 2011 because of arcane International Boxing Association's (AIBA) rules that prohibit professional trainers from working the corners of amateur fights.  However, McCracken's work yielded impressive results in international boxing tournamnets and the Great Britain Olympic boxing team is expected to win a number of medals in 2012. 

McCracken will have his next opportunity to shine when Froch fights Andre Ward later on this year.  If Froch wins, or even has a respectable showing, expect to hear a lot more about "boxing Bob" McCracken in the coming years.

There are rumors that Andy Lee will choose the redemptive route for his next bout by fighting Brian Vera in a rematch on HBO.  Lee was a hyped, 15-0, Emanuel Steward-trained prospect before Vera knocked him out in the seventh round of their fight in 2008.  Lee still hasn't recaptured his past status.  His last win against a fading Craig McEwan did very little to improve his position in the boxing landscape.  Tellingly, Lee, a former Olympian, still has to defeat (and defeat soundly) Vera, a marginal but entertaining five-loss fighter, to get back into boxing's good graces.

If Lee were not trained by Emanuel Steward, he wouldn't get these opportunities to fight on premium cable.  To this point, Lee's career has been a disappointment.  His defense is terrible and his footwork is even worse.  His jab is often ineffectual and he seems uncomfortable fighting on the inside.  Lee throws two good punches: an excellent right hook and a sneaky left cross. 

Already 27, it's unclear if Lee will ever be the fighter that many thought he would become.  In several ways he has regressed.  

Lee has one more opportunity to make the boxing community care about him.  If he cannot gain a resounding victory over Vera, then it's time for him to seek other forms of employment and for premium networks to find new, engaging fighters for its boxing programming.    

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