Thursday, September 1, 2011

Legacy Building for Ricky Burns

Like most champions, Ricky Burns has a choice: he can make comfortable defenses or he can fight the best.  Each option has its allures.  Stringing together a relatively non-threatening run of defenses solidifies the bank account and increases a fighter's longevity in the sport.  Fighting the best leads to more acclaim, the potential for wider appeal and a significant amount of downside risk.  However, on a more primal level, fighting and, perhaps, defeating the highest caliber of opposition is a point of personal pride.  Although there have always been protected champions in the history of boxing, no fighter enters the ring and says "I want to be among the best in my division."  He wants to be the top dog.

Of course, these are the things that fighters tell themselves.  There are numerous counterexamples.  Felix Sturm had the opportunity to face Sergio Martinez, Kelly Pavlik or Arthur Abraham and decided to fight none of them.  Lucian Bute has made nine super middleweight defenses and somehow has not faced a top-five opponent in his division.  At a certain point, boxers have the ability to dictate to their management and promoters whom they would like fight.  When scanning the records of current titlists in boxing, realize that those who have not faced notable fighters are complicit in their lack of quality opposition.  Yes, managers and promoters can be reticent to put their fighters at risk, but ultimately, a boxer's team works for him.  

Ricky Burns could follow the path that many fighters have chosen, looking to cash in on their title belt.  He could make a series of domestic defenses against the bottom level of the permissible opponents of his sanctioning organization.  Every 12 months he would make a mandatory defense, but even mandatories often aren't among the best in the division; they are just the ones who happen to pay sanctioning fees.  In this scenario, Burns would please his local fans and make good money both at the gate and through Sky TV's licensing fees.  

But Burns has decided to forgo this easier route.  Instead of filling arenas in Glasgow, Scotland against "opponents," his next fight will be in America, meeting one of its best young boxers, Adrien Broner.  In addition, the bout will take place in Broner's home town of Cincinnati.  This will be the most difficult assignment of Burns' career. 

Broner, already a top-five junior featherweight, will have plenty of advantages in this fight.  He will have the support of the local crowd.  He fights under Golden Boy, one of the largest promotional outfits in the world.  Also, it is because of him that HBO will be televising the fight on Thanksgiving weekend, a rarity for American boxing networks.

Burns' promoter, Frank Warren, is no upstart, having been elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame; Warren is universally acknowledged as the most successful British promoter in modern boxing.  As a seasoned pro, Warren fully understands the inherent difficulty of winning decisions on foreign soil. 

The Burns-Broner matchup rejects Warren's typical modus operandi.  When Warren had Ricky Hatton and Joe Calzaghe, he made them into such significant British boxing attractions that overseas titlists had to come to the U.K. to make their biggest purses.  Kostya Tszyu was the unified junior welterweight champion who had made eight defenses against names like Julio Cesar Chavez and Zab Judah, but Tszyu had to face Ricky Hatton in Hatton's home city of Manchester.  Jeff Lacy was a dynamic, American titlist who had the backing of Showtime, yet Lacy had to go to the U.K. to meet Joe Calzaghe.  Warren is intimately familiar with the advantages that boxers have fighting in their home markets.   

At first, Warren attempted to guide Burns' career down a similar path, staging Burns' first two defenses in Scotland.  The opposition was mediocre but Burns did his part by selling tickets and coasting to easy victories.  However, Burns wanted more; he wasn't content with uncompetitive title defenses.  He implored Warren to set up a unification fight with South African titleholder Mzonke Fana.  The two sides couldn't agree on money or a location and the fight was never realized.  Warren next fed former titlist Nicky Cook (who also fights under his promotional banner) to Burns.  Cook had a bum back and failed to make it out of the first round.  By now, Burns was hearing claims that he was a protected fighter but he was determined to show his mettle and face the best at junior lightweight. 

The suggestion that Burns should fight Broner had been tossed around in media circles for several months.  For a variety of reasons, there was a strong possibility that the fight would not come to fruition.  In terms of a basic professional relationship, Warren and Golden Boy have had their difficulties in the past, with Hatton, Calzaghe and Amir Khan having left Warren for Golden Boy. 

Additionally, because of the five-hour time difference, U.K. television most likely would pay significantly less for a Burns fight in U.S. primetime than it would if it took place in the traditional time slots for British audiences.   The time zone difference would suppress Burns' viewership in his home market, hurting his ability to retain and grow his domestic fan base.  But Burns insisted on the fight.  Without his desire to face the best, and make the aforementioned promotional/financial sacrifices, the fight most likely would not have been made.  

Burns-Broner should be an interesting stylistic matchup.  Broner will have advantages in power and athleticism but Burns can win rounds based on activity level and consistency.  When Burns won his title against previously undefeated Roman Martinez, Martinez featured substantially more power, yet Burns continually bested him with his solid jab, straight right hand and sneaky right uppercut.  Martinez did show that Burns' could have a vulnerable chin, knocking him down in the first and staggering him on a few other occasions.  Broner, who possesses legitimate power, will have the opportunity to test Burns' chin.  If Broner gets off first and fights aggressively, he could have a real chance to score a knockout.  However, if he waits for perfect opportunities to counter, the steady punch output of Burns will put him in the hole.  

For Burns, a victory over Broner would provide more cache within the sport.  An underdog against Martinez, Burns is seen by many as an overachiever.  He has already lost twice (although both were several years ago), with one defeat coming against the limited Carl Johanneson.  By defeating Broner, he would change the trajectory of his career, giving Warren and his management team the confidence to put him in larger fights.  If Burns wins, he no longer is the local underdog who won a title; he now becomes a much bigger attraction in the sport, commanding larger purses and greater opportunities.
Fundamentally, the win would be the ultimate validation for Burns' belief in himself as a fighter.  It would have been easy for him to live off his title for a few more years, challenging himself only when a mandatory was necessary.  However, by facing Broner, Burns' approach allows the possibility of something more.  Even if Burns loses in a competitive match, he will show the world over that he is not a Sturm, facing overmatched opposition with the deck stacked in his favor.  No, the boxing community will simply know Burns as one thing, a boxer who seeks out the best in the world – in short, a real fighter.

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