Thursday, July 28, 2011

Marcos Maidana--Not Great, But Great TV

June 6, 2009 was supposed to be the day of Victor Ortiz's coronation as a star in boxing.  He had steamrolled his competition and quickly built his reputation as one of the sport's elite prospects. A likable and articulate kid fighting out of Southern California, Ortiz was given a shot at headlining Staples Center in Los Angeles.  

Golden Boy needed to find a suitable opponent for the HBO date, so they found Marcos Maidana, an unknown fighter in North America, whose only claim to fame was that he lost a close decision in Germany to Andriy Kotelnik – who was thought of at the time as a serviceable paper champ, but nothing more.  Sure, Maidana had an impressive knockout streak of 24 KOs in 25 fights leading up to the Kotelnik fight, but South American boxers notoriously built up their records on weak competition.  Plowing through Maidana's victim list provided no evidence to the contrary.  The opponents for his fights in Argentina and Germany were uninspiring to say the least.

Everything seemed to be headed Ortiz's way.  He sold 10,000 tickets, which was the type of fan support usually reserved for established stars.  In its introduction to the fight, HBO provided a heartbreaking profile on Ortiz's rough upbringing: Ortiz survived parental abandonment and poverty, yet somehow he raised his younger brother.  Through all of this turmoil, Ortiz's dogged determination and athletic gifts led him to become one of the best young fighters in the sport.  This was a Hollywood backstory.  All of the elements were in play to make Ortiz the next Big Thing.  

Unfortunately, Maidana did not realize that he was supposed to lose.  Instead, he brought his right hand and left uppercut.

Maidana and Ortiz proceeded to engage in one of the most savage fights of the young century.  Both fighters went down in the first. Ortiz knocked down Maidana in the second and it seemed as if the Argentine was hanging on by a thread.  Somehow, Maidana survived and slowly turned the tide back in his favor.  He landed another thundering blow on Ortiz in the 6th round and Ortiz refused to continue, turning his back to the referee.

Just like that, from essentially thin air, a television star was born.  No one knew much about Maidana.  Subsequent research showed that he was an amateur on the Argentine national team.  However, how does a guy lose to Kotelnik and blitz through Ortiz?  Not only was Maidana re-evaluated after his win over Ortiz, but so too was Kotelnik.  (Kotelnik's close loss to Devon Alexander confirmed that he could really fight).

After a local fight in Argentina, Maidana was brought back to America by Golden Boy (who had an existing option on his next U.S. fight) to face undefeated prospect Victor Cayo of the Dominican Republic.  By now, Maidana was Amir Khan's mandatory challenger and it was believed that he was given step-aside money to delay the Khan fight.  

After a competitive first round, Maidana dropped Cayo in the second.  Maidana dominated his opponent until he finished him with a body shot in the sixth round.  With that knockout, Maidana cemented his status as must-see television.  

Maidana went back to Argentina to fight a past-his-prime Demarcus "Chop Chop" Corley, and, quite frankly, he struggled.  In Corley's best days,  he was a crafty foil who gave good fighters (Floyd Mayweather, Miguel Cotto) tough nights.  Even a diminished Corley was able to hit Maidana with regularity.  Nevertheless, Maidana prevailed and was ready for greater opportunities.  

Finally, the Khan-Maidana match was made in December of 2010.  Khan's trainer, Freddie Roach, was so confident with the matchup that he predicted a knockout and didn't expect his fighter to lose a round.  After all, Khan was a decorated Olympian who easily beat the one fighter (Kotelnik) that defeated Maidana.  

The fight went according to Roach's plan during the first half.  Khan dropped Maidana with a great left hook to the body in the first round.  In the early rounds of the fight, Khan boxed rings around his opponent, making Maidana look like a rank amateur.  By the 8th round, Maidana started to land some of his right hand bombs.  In the 10th, he hurt Khan so badly with a right hand that Khan had to spend a full two minutes in full-on survival mode.  Maidana landed vicious power shots throughout the round, including several more right hands, left hooks and left uppercuts.  Khan looked like he could go at any point.  Khan was able to shake off some of the cobwebs by the end of the 11th but Maidana landed more bombs in the 12th.  If Khan could survive the round on his feet, he would win the fight.  Maidana tried everything he could to finish off his opponent, but somehow Khan saw the final bell.

The Boxing Writers Association of America voted Khan-Maidana as the fight of the year for 2010.  Maidana did not disgrace himself in defeat; his stature rose with his performance.  

Maidana was now an official member of the Golden Boy stable. (In the summer of 2010, a proposed fight with Tim Bradley – a wonderful clash of styles – fell through over some management/promotional issues.)  He was next given the assignment of Erik Morales, the former featherweight warrior who had only recently returned to boxing after a lengthy retirement.  The fight was seen as a mismatch and several prominent boxing figures objected to the matchup on the grounds of Morales' health and safety – truly a sign of respect for Maidana's abilities.  

The Maidana-Morales fight did not play to the script, with the old legend having his best moments in the ring in many years.  Both fighters landed vicious bombs and Morales' granite chin enabled him to absorb shots that would have stopped lesser fighters.  Maidana won a majority decision.  Judge Richard Houck was too kind in scoring the fight a draw.  The other two correctly gave Maidana eight rounds of the fight.  

After the Morales fight, there was full-blown revisionism regarding Maidana, with many calling him "overrated" or "exposed."  What was left unsaid is that Morales hand-picked Maidana as an opponent.  Morales knew that his chin could withstand Maidana's assault and that the Argentine's lack of defense and movement was tailor-made for him.  Nevertheless, elite junior welterweights aren't supposed to struggle with 34-year-old, ex-featherweights who recently come out of retirement.

Maidana next faces Robert Guerrero in a fascinating matchup pitting a supreme brawler (Maidana) against a top-flight boxer-puncher (Guerrero).  Both fighters have clear pathways to win the fight.  Guerrero is the superior technician and has imposing size.  Maidana will have opportunities for victory in that Guerrero sometimes has concentration lapses in the ring and his chin is not regarded as excellent.  

As Maidana continues to fight the elite in the sport, he faces significant technical disadvantages.  He almost exclusively features only three punches (right hand, left hook and left uppercut).  He has no jab and his defense is atrocious.  Furthermore, Maidana only moves in straight lines and can't fight going backwards.  When he pins his opponents against the ropes, he can smother his left uppercut; he'll often throw it essentially parallel to his body, with no angle towards his opponent.  Maidana's hand speed is average at best and he doesn't necessarily place his punches well.  When attacking his opponents along the ropes, he can resort to volume punching with his left uppercut and left hook, instead of throwing his punches with more impact.

Physically, Maidana has other hindrances.  Although his heart cannot be questioned, his conditioning can be.  He will take rounds off, especially after rounds where he expends a lot of energy on offense.  Also, he doesn't have a classic boxing body, with a thin frame and comparably little musculature.

But Maidana does have some unassailable gifts.  Even though many of his hooks and right hands look like arm punches, they affect fighters so devastatingly that it's safe to assume that his natural power is immense.  That so many of his shots aren't thrown with proper technique suggest just how real his power is.  Also, he has a real commitment to body punching.  Morales' body was bright red on his right side from Maidana's body assault; a lesser athlete would have folded with that kind of attack.  Additionally, Maidana has tremendous finishing instincts, jumping on fighters when they are hurt, willing to risk his own peril to get his opponents out of the ring. 

Clearly, Maidana is fearless.  He could have quit at multiple points during the Khan and Ortiz fights, yet he pressed on and imparted his destruction.  His heart, tenacity and will are the types of intangibles that you wished 30 more skilled fighters possessed.  

In total, Maidana is a flawed but exciting package.  Unless he scores a quick knockout, his fights are guaranteed to feature gripping give-and-take battles, power connects and guts.  In this current boxing age, where many multi-millionaire fighters seem to forget that boxing is a contact sport, Maidana's relentless offensive style provides a soothing balm for the irritated fan. 

His appearances on television signal that excitement and indelible moments will follow.  Having only fought in the U.S. four times, three of Maidana's fights have been among the best in the sport's recent past.  Those are some incredible percentages. 

It remains to be seen whether he can ascend to the top of the junior welterweight or welterweight division.  However, win or lose, Maidana will make several good paydays before his career is complete.  For an unknown fighter, who was brought in to lose two years ago, Maidana will make millions – and he will have earned every penny.   

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Monday, July 25, 2011

July Rankings Movement (Khan, Huck, Haye)

July saw a flurry of activity in the SNB rankings.  We now have a new member of the SNB Elite Fighters club.  Additionally, a German cruiserweight makes his SNB rankings debut.  On the negative side of the ledger, a prominent heavyweight falls off the rankings with an uncompetitive loss.  Also, a rising English lightweight loses his position, perhaps one fight before a title shot.  

Elevated:  Amir Khan  With his win over Zab Judah in a junior welterweight unification fight, Khan joins the SNB Elite Fighters list, becoming the 12th member of the club.  On a pound-for-pound basis, he may still rank below the other elites, but Khan, not yet 25, will have numerous opportunities over the next 18 months to make his case that he is among the best in the sport.

Elevated:  Marco Huck  As a precocious 23-year-old, Huck lost a title shot to Steve Cunningham in 2007.  Since that defeat, Huck has rolled off 14 straight wins.  He picked up the WBO cruiserweight belt in 2009 and has made seven title defenses.  Huck's streak includes impressive victories over Hugo Garay, Denis Lebedev and Ola Afolabi.  Huck joins the "10 Boxers on the Rise" list.  

Demoted:  David Haye  Earlier this month, Haye lost a wide decision to Wladimir Klitschko, and didn't acquit himself well in defeat.  With all of his brash talk leading up to the fight, Haye failed to meet expectations with his rather docile performance.  He exits the "10 Boxers on the Rise" list.

Demoted:  John Murray  Instead of pursuing a potential title shot, Murray decided to face a domestic English rival, Kevin Mitchell.  They rewarded boxing fans with a spectacular fight.  Mitchell's power proved to be too much for Murray, who didn't make it to the 9th round.  Murray falls off the "Bubbling Under" list. 

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Notes from Khan-Judah

  • From the first moments of the opening round, I didn't like the game plan of Pernell Whitaker and Zab Judah one bit.  Whitaker had Judah fighting cautiously, looking to counterpunch.  Instead, Judah should have tried to blitz Khan and test his chin.  The Whitaker/Judah strategy was flawed on many levels, but most importantly, their approach played right into the hands of Khan, who had a longer reach, a higher work rate and an improved defense.
  • After the third round, Whitaker ripped into Judah, exhorting him to pick up his pace, use his jab and look for the uppercut.  Only after getting hit by some big right hands and left hooks from Khan, did Judah start to look for his power shots.  Judah was able to land one big uppercut at the end of the fourth round, but he didn't hit Khan enough to change the direction of the fight.
  • Give Khan credit too.  Judah did not seem comfortable on the inside.  Khan's superior size and physicality forced Judah to stay on the outside, whereby Khan could further dominate with his longer reach and compact combinations.  
  • Freddie Roach has really improved Khan's technique.  Khan, following Roach's teachings with precision, got out of the pocket after throwing his combinations and didn't stay in Judah's punching range.  His balance was much better.  He wasn't lunging with his punches and he worked his way in like a seasoned pro.  Furthermore, Khan routinely landed a nice, cleanup left hook to finish his combinations.  
  • One quick point about the knockout: it was a body shot!  Perhaps that's why Judah stayed down for so long.  After reviewing tapes of Khan, he probably never expected to see a body shot.  Khan's uppercut to the body is an exciting new dimension.  This is another sign of the maturity of Khan.  Head shots are flashier but body work often does more damage.  Almost all great veteran boxers go to the body with regularity.   
  • Zab Judah is just not a mentally focused fighter.  He gives away rounds too often.  He is so impressed with his knockout power that he lets his opponents pick up points with their higher work rate.  When things don't go his way in the ring, he is slow to adapt.  Tonight, he exhibited the same stubbornness in refusing to listen to Whitaker that he did when his father used to train him. 
  • For a fighter who was in perhaps his last run toward the top of the sport, Judah didn't really protest the knockout too much.  Throughout his career, Judah has consistently found ways to lose big fights.  The losses to Mayweather, Tszyu, Clottey and Khan all occurred in different manners, yet all featured bizarre behavioral incidents from Judah.  I will never forget that during the brawl between Judah's corner and Mayweather's entourage in the middle of Mayweather-Judah, Mayweather stood quietly in a neutral corner, serenely, amidst the chaos.  Meanwhile, Judah was wasting his energy and focus by inserting himself into the middle of the fracas.  For me, that moment was telling about Judah.  The talent was always there, but when push came to shove, he got caught up in the periphery of the moment, instead of focusing on the task at hand. 
  • Here are some other examples of Judah's losses that can be attributed to lapses of focus, or a lacking of ring awareness: unlike Judah, disciplined fighters should take their mandatory eight count after a knockdown (Tszyu) – but they get up if they aren't hurt (Khan).  They don't let the ref stop a fight on a questionable cut, only to lose on the scorecards (Clottey). 
  • Judah's career is rife with disappointing performances in his biggest opportunities.  He will always be remembered as a boxing prodigy who wilted under the bright lights.  On a talent level, he had "A" stuff, but unfortunately he had "F" makeup. 
  • Khan enters elite status with the win over Judah.  He will now be hunting for big game over the next 18 months, with possible opponents being Tim Bradley, Floyd Mayweather and Victor Ortiz.  I wouldn't rule out seeing a possible rematch against Marcos Maidana or Breidis Prescott in a stay-busy fight.  Both would sell well and have obvious dramatic hooks.  I think Khan now beats both of them handedly.  However, at this point Khan would still be a significant underdog to Mayweather, who would give Khan trouble with his counter shots and pot-shotting.  Khan should continue to add to his offensive arsenal and tighten up his defense before facing Mayweather.  He may only be two fights away from having a real shot at victory. 
  • Both of Khan's fights this year have had anti-climactic stoppages.  Tonight's fight ended with a body punch that Judah claimed was low.  The Paul McCloskey match was stopped short because of a questionable cut.  Nevertheless, Khan has fought 11 rounds against cagey fighters who aren't always easy to hit.  These opponents have forced Khan to remain disciplined and to rely on his corner's game plan.  Although the results of both matches haven't pleased fight fans, for Khan, 2011 may wind up being a crucial developmental year, where he transitioned from an acclaimed, yet erratic boxer, to a seasoned and consistent pro.  These fights will serve him well as he faces the elite of the sport.

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Friday, July 22, 2011

Khan-Judah Preview: 7 Keys

I give up.  Before most big fights, I usually do a "Four Scenarios" preview piece where I project the match's most likely outcomes.  However, the fight between Amir Khan and Zab Judah can conceivably go in dozens of directions.  Both fighters have power and excellent speed.  They both fade down the stretch and have chin problems.  With all of these elements in play, Khan-Judah could end at any time, and in any round.  Trying to figure out the most likely four endings for this fight is a fool's errand.  Instead, I'm going to talk about seven key factors that will likely play a role in determining the final result.  I will make my final prediction at the end of the piece.

1.  Pernell Whitaker 
Pernell Whitaker was one of the best pure boxers of the last 30 years.   Specializing in slick, subtle movement in the pocket, accuracy and ring generalship, Whitaker was probably the most gifted defensive boxer of his time.  Somehow, the southpaw could stand right in front of his opponent and never get hit cleanly.  In many ways, Floyd Mayweather Jr., despite his orthodox stance, is the closest modern-day ring approximation to Whitaker.

Whitaker retired having won belts at lightweight, junior welterweight and welterweight.   He retired in 2001 and was away from boxing for a few years.  He had some drug problems and slowly got back into the sport.  Whitaker briefly trained former junior welterweight titlist Paul Spadafora and had some success with him.      

Earlier this year, Whitaker was brought in to train Zab Judah for his fight against Kaizer Mabuza.  Whitaker was one of Judah's idols when he was growing up.  In their first fight together, Judah scored a 7th-round knockout to capture a title. 

It remains to be seen whether the Whitaker-Judah combination will be a panacea for the inconsistency that has plagued Judah's career.  It's an odd pairing in that Judah is an offensive gunslinger while Whitaker was a cautious ring presence.  I think it will be a mixed bag. 

As a fighter, Whitaker trained for 12, tough rounds because he had no power.  Judah, who hasn't been known for his conditioning, can only be helped by Whitaker's zeal for grueling training camps.  

Judah and his father/former trainer, Yoel, have an interesting dynamic.  Obviously, Yoel taught his son much of the finer points of boxing and molded him into a champion.  However, Judah didn't always respond well to his father between rounds.  Yoel often ran a frenetic corner, boisterously demonstrating between rounds what Zab needed to do, and supplying his son with too much instruction.  The two literally yelled at each other between rounds of tense fights. 

It's questionable if Yoel's exhortations sunk in with his son.  In many of his tougher matches, it didn't seem as if Zab had a Plan B or C.  Whitaker's voice may help Judah become more relaxed and focused in the ring.  

With that said, Zab was a special fighter at his best.  He featured destructive power and a willingness to take chances in the early rounds of a fight, when most boxers are content to feel each other out.  He was one of the best frontrunners in the sport.  Even in many of his losses to better opponents, Judah started out of the gates like the best speed horse on the track.  He pummeled Miguel Cotto, landed bombs on Kostya Tszyu and dominated many of the early rounds against Floyd Mayweather. 

It would be unfortunate if Whitaker completely reins in Judah's unpredictable offensive outbursts.  It's a significant challenge to maintain a veteran boxer's ring identity while emphasizing new technical and strategic aspects of the sport.  How Whitaker will retain Judah's explosiveness while adding some caution and needed discipline will be one of the key factors in the fight.  Hopefully Whitaker will enable Judah to fight a smarter 12 rounds, offering the fighter multiple pathways to victory.  However, it would be a mistake if Whitaker de-emphasizes Judah's early-round aggression, especially in light of what happened to Khan against Breidis Prescott.

Furthermore, there's no guarantee that Whitaker is great trainer, or even a good match for Zab.  A great fighter does not necessarily make a great trainer; in fact, it might be a hindrance.  In baseball, Ted Williams was one of the most talented hitters of all time, yet he couldn't communicate well with players who weren't as skilled as he was.  In basketball, Isaiah Thomas was one of the best team leaders in the sport's history but couldn't coach his players to sustained success.  It's a risky assumption that Whitaker will be able to transfer his considerable ring knowledge and technical mastery to a fighter who can be difficult to coach.  It will be fascinating to observer if Whitaker's teachings will manifest in Zab Judah's performance against Kahn.  

2.  Alex Ariza  
Alex Ariza is Khan's strength and conditioning coach.  After firing Ariza prior to the Paul McCloskey fight, Khan has brought the coach back into the fold.  Khan's conditioning against McCloskey was substandard, as he lacked the explosiveness and sharp punches that he routinely features at his best.  Ariza made his bones in boxing by working as the strength and conditioning coach for Manny Pacquiao, one of the superior athletes in all of sport.  Ariza's ability to keep Khan fresh, past Judah's early explosiveness, will be one of the most important aspects of this fight. 

3.  Can Khan Finish?
As Khan has faced better opposition, it's become clear that he is not a classic knockout artist.  Although he dropped Marcos Maidana with a beautiful left hook to the body and made Paulie Malignaggi's corner stop the fight due to an accumulation of punishment, he doesn't have that one weapon to put fighters away.  Maidana was a wounded puppy in the first two rounds of their fight and Khan couldn't get him out of there; thus Khan had to endure a hellacious 12 rounds.

In short, Khan will be able to hurt Judah during the fight.  But can he finish Judah off?  What makes Judah so dangerous is that, with his power, he can end a fight at any point.  If Khan is unable to put Judah away, then he risks exposing himself to a very real threat.  Khan has not yet learned to be a great finisher at the highest levels of the sport.  Against Judah, not mastering that skill could have dire consequences.

4.  Will Judah Stay Focused 
What frustrates so many about Zab Judah is his ability to completely lose his focus and/or composure in the ring.  He'll dominate for three rounds and then, inexplicably, take three rounds off.  When his opponents make adjustments, he can suddenly look tentative and confused.  Judah has also been known to throw low blows or illegal punches behind the head when frustrated.

Judah will be facing a powerful and skilled opponent who has a high work rate.  He can't afford to give away rounds with lapses in concentration or petty fouls.  Most important for Judah will be the middle rounds of the fight, if he is unable to significantly hurt Khan at the beginning of the match.  Judah will have to dispense with the notion of going for the knockout and focus on scoring points.  How he makes that transition will be telling in whether or not he can pick up the victory.

5.  Will Khan Tie Up? 
Khan has a bad habit of refusing to tie up when he is hurt.  Against Maidana, he just stood in front of his opponent during the 10th and 12th rounds, permitting Maidana to hammer away at him at close range.  Veteran boxers survive by clinching with their opponents when they are hurt.  There will be a Judah left hand or right hook that stuns Khan, but will he have the savvy to reduce his risk by tying-up Judah?  Unlike Khan, Judah knows how to finish.  If Khan stands in front of Judah wounded and diminished, the fight will soon be over.

6.  Victor Conte
The disgraced former head of BALCO is embarking on his second act in sports by becoming a legitimate conditioning coach.  No longer providing performance enhancing drugs for his clients, Conte now works with Judah.  Bantamweight knockout sensation Nonito Donaire credits Conte with helping him with his explosiveness.  With Judah, Conte will have a different objective.  Judah's problems in the ring never revolved around his power; it was his ability to fight hard for 12 rounds that was called into question.  Perhaps Conte's methods will have a marked difference in Judah's performance in the ring.

7.  Will Khan go to the Body?
Next to Wladimir Klitschko, Khan is the most notorious headhunter in the entire sport.  After dropping Maidana with a left hook to the body, Khan practically abandoned that punch throughout the rest of the fight, even though Maidana repeatedly squared up to him in close range.

It's tempting with Judah's chin problems to go right at the head.  It's not a bad strategy to start the fight.  However, the fastest way to break down an older fighter is to attack the body.  If Judah's chin holds up and Khan refuses to do body work, Khan may find himself facing difficult moments in the later rounds.  This fight will be a lot easier for Khan if he remembers to go downstairs and make investments for the later rounds.

I think the combination of Pernell Whitaker and Victor Conte will enable Judah to go the distance in this fight.  Khan's work rate and consistent attack will put a lot of rounds in the bank.  Judah will have a couple of good moments early in the fight and Khan will have to suppress a late Judah attack in the 9th or 10th round.  Khan's volume, consistency and side-to-side defensive movement will be enough to secure the victory in a tense battle.

Khan defeats Judah 116-112, or 8 rounds to 4. 

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Who Should Be An HBO Fighter?

Ross Greenburg, the President of HBO Sports, left the network this week after 33 years as an employee and 11 years as the head of its boxing program.  Although Greenburg achieved many successes during his tenure at HBO Sports, from the award-winning Real Sports to the documentary series Sports of the 20th Century to the 24/7 boxing preview series, the state of the HBO boxing deteriorated under his watch. 

Television ratings eroded.  He was known for playing favorites with manager Al Haymon and promoter Golden Boy.  Too many fights were uncompetitive affairs, even on paper.  He handed promoters blank boxing dates without the necessary quality controls.  Greenburg also paid outrageous sums of money for fighters who failed to sell tickets or establish a buzz within the sport.  Perhaps a final blow to his legacy was the defection of Manny Pacquiao to Showtime for his fight against Shane Mosley, an eventuality that would have been inconceivable just a few years prior.  The Pacquiao incident further illustrated just how fractured the relationship was between HBO and Top Rank, one of the world's leading promotional outfits.

Whoever replaces Greenburg will have to restore HBO's prominence in the sport.  Although the network is still the number-one destination for boxing in America, HBO has never looked so vulnerable.  With an increasingly competitive landscape for boxing on U.S. television, the new head of HBO must better identify those boxers who will form the foundation of its boxing program.

What follows here is a quick primer on who should be HBO fighters and which fighters should be jettisoned from the cushy, long-term, multi-million dollar contracts that plagued so much of Greenburg's tenure.  Some additional taxonomy will identify a second tier of boxers who would make for solid opponents for the core HBO talents.  Additionally, some thoughts about Boxing After Dark will be shared: 

The following 18 fighters should comprise the majority of HBO's World Championship Boxing and/or HBO PPV: 


The Two Elites 
HBO must carry every fight of Floyd Mayweather, Jr. (1.) and Manny Pacquiao (2.).  The two massive superstars have established themselves as boxing's biggest names, gate attractions and pay-pay-view generators.  Quite frankly, even if these two faced complete stiffs, they would still sell 500,000 pay-per-views.  Luckily, both are capitalistic in nature and are competitive with each other in who will draw larger gates and pay-per-view numbers.  In short, they want to make the most money, which means big fights.

The Two, Small Knockout Artists
HBO recently welcomed Nonito Donaire (3.) into its fold. His combination of power and speed should make him one of the featured boxers on HBO for years.  Already in the top-five on most pound-for-pound lists, Donaire has a crowd-pleasing style that will endear him to the boxing public. 

Similarly, Yuriorkis Gamboa (4.) has galvanized boxing fans with his power, athleticism and fighting spirit. Gamboa has already made numerous appearances on the network and HBO has correctly identified him as one of the building blocks of its boxing program

The Legacies
If Bernard Hopkins (5.) and Juan Manuel Marquez (6.) keep winning, sign them up.  HBO and Hopkins have had a fractious relationship over the years, despite the fighter appearing on the network almost 20 times.  After fighting Jean Pascal on Showtime, Hopkins signed a three-fight deal with HBO, starting with the Pascal rematch.  The deal only guarantees appearances on the network if he continues to win.  Although the agreement was widely panned at the time, Hopkins proved with the strong television ratings in both of his fights against Pascal that he has built up a reservoir of good will with many boxing fans.  For HBO and Hopkins, their interests align at this point whereby Hopkins only wants big fights and HBO is only interested in the Executioner against live opponents.

Marquez has been involved in some of the best fights on HBO during the past decade (Pacquiao I and II, Diaz I and Katsidis).  If he beats Pacquiao in their third fight or even makes a memorable fight in a close loss, HBO should remain in the Marquez business.  It helps that there are also a number of great fighters from lightweight to welterweight who could make for intriguing opponents as Marquez winds down his career.

King Khan and the Welterweights
Amir Khan (7) has proven to be one of the most fascinating young talents in all of boxing.  With a significant following on three continents, Khan could become boxing's next mega-star.  He has displayed a willingness to take on big fights and wants to establish a legacy of greatness. 

A number of boxers at junior welterweight and welterweight are also worthy of being "HBO Fighters."  Marcos Maidana (8) cannot be in a bad fight.  His three highest-profile fights in America – Khan, Erik Morales and Victor Ortiz (9) – have all been must-see television.  Any fight that Maidana's in instantly signals to boxing fans that a night of blood and guts will follow.

Ortiz fights on the big stage in the fall when he faces Mayweather.  Win or lose, Ortiz possesses the power and drama to make for a number of great fights.  Should he lose badly to Mayweather, HBO needn't subsidize a slow climb back to the top, but as long as Ortiz is facing game fighters, the network should be interested.

Timothy Bradley (10) may not have endeared himself to the boxing public with the lack of aesthetics and sustained action in his fight with Devon Alexander.  However Bradley, an undefeated American who wants to face the best (he didn't fight Khan this summer because of promotional problems).  He figures to be a major player in the welterweight divisions over the next few years.  Perhaps HBO has overpaid him to this point, but the network would be wise to keep him in the fold.  Bradley could be a vital "B-Side" for some of the biggest fights in the sport (for example, Pacquiao, Mayweather and Khan).

Robert Guerrero (11) has finally put a couple of great performances together,  displaying his intoxicating mixture of imposing physical dimensions, speed, power and ring savvy.  As Guerrero moves up to 140, he has the potential to make several outstanding fights in the next few years. 

Match These Elites Properly
Yes, Wladimir Klitschko (12), Vitali Klitschko (13) and Sergio Martinez (14) are elite fighters.   However, their divisions (heavyweight and middleweight) are notoriously weak.  If the right opponents are there, definitely put them on HBO.  If they can't fight someone worthy of a competitive match, let them fight on their own dimes. 

In their own ways, the three are all fascinating to watch, but unfortunately their talent levels supersede almost all of their potential opponents.  Greenburg had the right strategy with the Klitschkos: if they fight live bodies, or if they fight in the U.S., HBO will be there.  (What if they actually fought live bodies in the U.S.?)  Martinez doesn't have an obvious big name at 160 right now, (Paul Williams has displayed too much slippage for a third fight to be viable).  However, with the right enticements, perhaps Martinez will go fight some of the big names at 168.  There is a small chance he could face Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. (15) next year, but I will believe it when I see it.

The Two Mexican Superstars
Chavez and Saul Alvarez (16) have proven that they can draw enormous ratings, even without facing top-rate opposition.  As their careers progress, they have the ability to become ratings monsters.  Although it is uncertain if either will become elite fighters, they both have clearly captivated millions on both sides of the Rio Grande.  These are no-brainers for HBO.

Poach Two from Showtime
HBO let Brandon Rios (17) slip through its fingertips.  The young American of Mexican descent fights in an all-action style that guarantees memorable fights.  He is brash, relentless and fearless.  HBO needs to make him part of the family.

HBO has never been active players in the Andre Ward (18) market.  Broadcasting a few initial performances after the Olympic champion turned pro, the network let Ward matriculate at Showtime.  Ward may not have the ultimate star potential of Mayweather or Pacquiao, but there's no reason why he couldn't become a compelling A-list fighter like Bernard Hopkins or Shane Mosley.  At this point, Ward's following may not necessitate an exorbitant fee, but HBO should strongly consider his services for the next few years.

These 18 fighters should be the core of HBO's boxing business over the next few years.  While Showtime may sign a few from this list here or there, or, perhaps there are temporary lulls regarding competitive opposition for these fighters, HBO Boxing should focus its mission on this group.   


Obviously, the fighters listed above need suitable dance partners.  HBO needs to identify solid opposition without over-committing to this second tier.  Think of how HBO has periodically engaged Glen Johnson or Daniel Ponce de Leon for the best examples of utilizing fighters in this category.  The boxers at this level may never attain elite status or may not be compelling enough to warrant a franchise-level commitment, but they should be considered for making quality matches.

The Two Canadians
Jean Pascal and Lucian Bute have rabid followings in Quebec.  They have pleasing styles and sell out arenas.  However, I would be reticent to offer them long-term commitments.  As exciting a style as Jean Pascal has, a supposed, elite fighter in his 20s should never lose to a fighter in his 40s.  Pascal may have already reached his ceiling.  He could still be a great opponent for Ward or Bute, but I'm not sure he will get much better.  Bute has incredible skill but seems more than content to face second-tier opposition.  Until Bute decides to fight the best, he should not be afforded special treatment.  Make him earn HBO slots by facing the elite.

The Two Heavyweights
HBO has handled the heavyweight division well.  At heavyweight, there just aren't enough quality fighters who make for compelling television.  Wisely, HBO will show the Vitali Klitschko-Tomasz Adamek fight in the fall.  Adamek may not beat Klitschko, but he will be the best opposition that Vitali has faced in his return to the ring.  Alexander Povetkin is another fighter who may warrant some HBO time should he decide to face a Klitschko, Adamek or David Haye.  Unlike Adamek, Povetkin does not have a loyal following in America, but he is an energetic , well-schooled boxer who could make for entertaining fights. 

Three More Welterweights
Zab Judah, Andre Berto and Lucas Matthysse have exhibited different strengths and weaknesses in their HBO appearances.  Judah possesses a never-ending supply of charisma and knockout power.  He is also erratic and often unmotivated.  His fight against Khan should tell us a lot more about his immediate future on HBO.  Berto has a plethora of skills but has not shown the ability to handle good fighters.  He may yet turn around his career and become the elite-level talent that many foresaw when he was a special prospect.  If he is to appear on HBO, make him the "B-side," and match him tough.   HBO should not be showing Berto's fight against Jan Zaveck; this is the type of mistake that the network must avoid.  Matthysse could have come away with decisions against Judah and Devon Alexander.  He is an exciting fighter but his knockout power hasn't translated well to the higher level of opposition.  Nevertheless, he could still be a great opponent for Rios, Bradley, Guerrero and Maidana.  

Cloud and Cobra
Tavoris Cloud and Carl Froch make for great television.  In a perfect world, Cloud would have a huge following with his all-aggressive style and offensive temperament.  However, Cloud has gone through many periods of inactivity and his career has been mismanaged at various points.  He should be a bigger fighter than he is.  However, he still has the possibility of fighting and beating many elite names over the next several years. 

Carl Froch has proven during the Super Six tournament that he is not a fighter to be underestimated.  Beating Glen Johnson, Arthur Abraham and Andre Dirrell is no small accomplishment.  Once the tournament is over, he could be in the mix for several big fights at super middleweight or light heavyweight.  I'm not sure how many years he has left to fight, but, win or lose against Ward, he should have an eventful 18 months.  


Give These Fighters Their Gold Watches
Miguel Cotto, Antonio Margarito, Paul Williams and Kelly Pavlik have all provided many wonderful moments on HBO.  However, their skills have seriously eroded over the past two years.  Beating second-tier fighters, Cotto can still draw ratings and crowds,  but what's the point?  There is no ultimate upside for him.  He can't beat Mayweather or Pacquiao.  After he settles his grudge match with Margarito, perhaps his last big fight is against Chavez, Jr.  Cotto is now comfortably in his cash cow phase for Top Rank, where he will make good money by facing lesser fighters.  HBO need not subsidize this.

Pavlik's middleweight title reign was a mess, plagued by inferior opposition between the ropes and alcohol-related problems outside the ring. Top Rank is trying to build him back up for an eventual fight with Lucian Bute, but Pavlik will never be as good as the fighter who beat Edison Miranda and Jermain Taylor.  

Margarito now wears the black hat.  Because of his loaded glove scandal, the boxing public at large will never embrace him again.  That may be a moot point since it isn't clear what he has left.  Margarito has been in some hellacious wars and it wouldn't surprise me if he retired (either willingly or due to ring injuries) during the next year. 

This month's fight with Erislandy Lara demonstrated how far Williams' skills have deteriorated.  His defense has become terrible, he doesn't seem to have his legs and his punches don't have any snap.  Perhaps he needs to take an extended break from boxing and come back re-energized (a new team around him wouldn't hurt).  This current version of Paul Williams is not long for the sport.   

Can I Return This?
HBO has seen enough of Chris Arreola, Devon Alexander and Andre Dirrell to know that they do not have what it takes, either physically or in some cases mentally, to make it to the top of the sport.  Arreola went through the James Toney training regimen.  Unfortunately, he forgot to first attain the glory and accomplishments that Toney had achieved.  No fighter has eaten himself out of more opportunities.  Alexander is a solid A-minus boxer who lacks the power and, perhaps, the mental fortitude, to beat the elites.  He very well could have three losses on his ledger by this point.  Dirrell has serious makeup issues that will inhibit his ability to rise to the top of the sport.  Both Dirrell and Alexander have the potential to turn around their careers, but I wouldn't invest in either of them at this point.  In two years, if they have radically changed their fortunes in the ring, then feel to reassess.


HBO should still utilize its Boxing After Dark program as an incubator for developing young talent and showcasing lesser-known, but quality fighters.  There are a ton of superior boxers in the lower weight classes that could fill up these shows, including Abner Mares, Giovani Segura, Ricky Burns, Mikey Garcia and Guillermo Rigondeaux. 

HBO should also be bold.  In years past, they would use Boxing After Dark to highlight emerging fighters in a single division.  Since HBO plans to be in the Saul Alvarez and Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. businesses for the foreseeable future, the junior middleweight division would be a perfect opportunity to highlight some of the intriguing contenders who could become potential opponents for their Mexican stars.  Put a triple-header together with Austin Trout, Vanes Martirosyan, Pawel Wolak, Carlos Molina, Deandre Latimore and Erislandy Lara.  This process will help separate the wheat from the chaff in a division that features many promising boxers with little name recognition.  

Also, the network should take a look at some of Britain's emerging fighters.  Nathan Cleverly might become an opponent for many of the best at light heavyweight.  Kell Brook would be a good match for Mike Jones.  Tyson Fury is creating all sorts of hype, if not yet signature wins.  

HBO should also keep searching for new international talent.  Today's elite boxers come from all around the world.  Perhaps a Gennady Golovkin-Dmitry Pirog unification match would create some buzz in the middleweight division, and a future opponent for Sergio Martinez.  See if Daniel Geale from Australia can fight.  Consider Chris John, Omar Narvaez and Anselmo Moreno if they want to fight elite opponents on American soil.  

Finally, HBO should use this platform to take risks.  Great television fighters can come from anywhere,  Don't be encumbered by the age, geography, promotional affiliation, management contract or amateur pedigree of the fighter.  Hire creative boxing industry talent to find your next stars.  Forgo the endless showcase fights and make competitve ones.  This philosophy will ensure that Boxing After Dark is the HBO boxing pipeline it was intended to be, not a forum to pay off promoters with blank television dates.  The fighters are out there and I see no reason why Boxing After Dark can't see significant  improvement in television ratings and critical reception.

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