Sunday, September 18, 2011

Notes from the Mayweather-Ortiz Card

  • The one essential truism of boxing is "Protect yourself at all times."  For whatever Floyd Mayweather did or didn't do last night, Victor Ortiz failed in his primary responsibility as a fighter.  The two had already touched gloves after the delay in the action.  Time was running.  The punches were legal.  Whatever one may make of the propriety of Floyd Mayweather's two final shots, they were within the parameters of the rules of the sport.
  • Yes, the ending of the fight was controversial, but Victor Ortiz's blatant head butt leading up to the stoppage was also egregious.  Ortiz literally left his feet to use his head as a weapon, demonstrating a flagrant disregard for the rules of boxing.  To portray Ortiz as a victim after the fight is rich.  His infraction offered no gray area, no room for interpretation; it was a clear violation.  If anything, Ortiz demonstrated a stunning naiveté.  Within a minute of intentionally head butting his opponent, he dropped his gloves and extended a hug.  Unfortunately, he thought Mayweather was tied to some quaint notion of excess civility.  
  • The ending of this bout bothered me far less than the Abner Mares-Joseph Agbeko fight, whereby Mares won the fight primarily due to an inordinate amount of low blows, for which the referee refused to deduct points.  Those were blatant fouls.  Mayweather's final left hook and right cross were not the best examples of sportsmanship, but they were legal punches.
  • What separates the masters of the craft of boxing from mere mortals is an innate understanding of the intricacies of the sport, of gamesmanship, and the will to use this knowledge to win by any means necessary.  Whether it is Floyd Mayweather waiting patiently in a neutral corner while a melee ensues in the ring, Wladimir Klitschko expertly tying up his opponents in close quarters, Joel Casamayor fouling in small ways that are beyond the view of the ref, Bernard Hopkins taking a full five-minute rest after a borderline low blow, or Evander Holyfield leading with his head, these little, almost intangible, edges manifest themselves throughout a career.    
  • In short, a master boxer exploits every potential advantage he can find in order to win a fight.  Mayweather uses his elbows and forearms aggressively, but he is never called for infractions.  Hopkins hits his opponents off of breaks often, but it's not just a series of coincidences that he gets away with these shots.  He must understand referee positioning, angles, the tenor of the fight, the speed of his shots and the reaction of his opponent.  Many veteran boxers deploy strategic uses of the "dark arts" of boxing, but this is nothing new; these stealth techniques and tactics have been utilized since the dawn of the sport.
  • Ortiz was unprepared for Mayweather's final punches.  He underestimated his opponent.  These are serious mistakes for a young champion trying to ascend to the top of the sport.  You can win fights in many ways --  hand speed, power, work rate, and defense -- but you can also win with cunning.  Ortiz has yet to prevail in this manner and it doesn't seem likely that he will be outsmarting his opponents any time soon.
  • The fight was shaping up to be very interesting.  Mayweather had a great first three rounds, starting more aggressively than usual.  His right hands were strong and they landed with textbook precision.  There didn't seem to be any ill effects of his 16-month layoff.  Instead of his usual strategy of countering, Mayweather continually backed Ortiz up with solid rights and left hooks.  Ortiz seems surprised by Mayweather's early offense.
  • The fourth round was the best round of the fight, with Mayweather landing power lead rights early and Ortiz connecting with a few solid right hooks and straight left hands.  Before his head butt, Ortiz had successfully pinned Mayweather against the ropes and landed several significant power shots.  It's impossible to tell how the fight would have progressed, but at the time of the stoppage, Ortiz was certainly in the fight.  Yes, he was behind in the scorecards, but he was able to land some hard shots in the fourth that could have opened up opportunities to exploit later on in the fight.
  • It must be said that Ortiz came out with an absolutely terrible strategy.  Instead of pressuring Mayweather and testing his potential ring rust, Ortiz tried to outbox Mayweather in the center of the ring.  Obviously, he lost those exchanges.  Additionally, in round two, there were a couple of occasions where he had Mayweather along the ropes, but voluntarily backed away, as if he was spooked by his opponent's reputation for superhuman counter shots. 
  • This theme of Ortiz granting Mayweather too much respect surfaced throughout the fight and definitely manifested during its conclusion.  If Ortiz was the 34 year-old and fighting some ambitious young buck, would he back off his opponent along the ropes?  Would he try to hug and kiss his opponent?  
  • The controversial ending of the fight will lead to even more publicity for Mayweather's next ring encounter.  Yes, many boxing fans are outraged by the result of last night's fight, but the excitement and notoriety of the ending sure beats a passionless, 12-round, wide decision.  Mayweather's supporters will circle their wagons with even more resolve while his detractors will immediately gravitate to his next opponent, hoping that Mayweather will finally be dethroned.  Essentially, this outcome is a net-win for boxing.  Mayweather has again ensured that when he fights, boxing will separate itself from the multitude of other sports and entertainment options.  Sports fans and media will be there whenever and wherever his next fight takes place.  Guaranteed.
  • Referee Joe Cortez correctly penalized Ortiz for his head butt in round four.  That was an obvious call, but many refs are often reticent to take away points in mega-bouts.  Credit Cortez for that.  However, at the conclusion of the fight, he was out-of-position for Mayweather's final two shots.  Yes, the shots were legal.  But what if they weren't?  What if Mayweather threw two rabbit punches or low blows?  Cortez was in no position to stop the action.  A referee's job is not always an easy one.  Cortez was most likely confirming with the timekeepers that the clock had resumed running.  Nevertheless, his attention was diverted during the final shots.  Overall, it was not a strong performance by the veteran referee.
  • HBO's Larry Merchant had perhaps the line of the night.  Mayweather started insulting the veteran broadcaster during the post-fight interview and Merchant, mike in hand, yelled, "I wish I was 50 years younger.  I would have kicked your ass."  Somehow, that moment perfectly captured Merchant's unique place in boxing.  In almost any other context, an 80 year-old broadcaster who threatens a sport's participant would be seen as nutty or kooky.  Yet, for Merchant, it works.  He has built his reputation on not allowing fighters to grandstand or equivocate during interviews.  Merchant has never backed down from the big moneymakers of the sport, having memorable confrontations with Mike Tyson, Bernard Hopkins and Mayweather, among others. His personality has not always endeared him to boxers, but he calls it like he sees it. 
  • Fittingly, only moments after last night's confrontation with Mayweather, Merchant resumed his position next to his pal Jim Lampley and gave his post-fight remarks with clarity and unflappability.  Even at 80, he remains cool as a cucumber.  
  • In the past, HBO has steadfastly backed up Merchant. (The network refused Mike Tyson's request to remove Merchant from his fights; along with other reasons, Tyson would eventually leave HBO for Showtime).  However, it will be interesting to see if the network, under interim leadership and already reducing Merchant's appearances, still demonstrates the same level of support for its Hall of Fame broadcaster.    
  • Saul Alvarez was awarded a generous sixth-round stoppage over Alfonso Gomez last night.  He landed a powerful combination starting with a right uppercut and a straight right hand.  He backed Gomez up along the ropes and unloaded with several additional power shots, many of which failed to land.  Referee Wayne Hedgpeth decided to intervene and stopped the fight.  Certainly, Gomez was in a rough spot, and he was knocked down earlier in first round.  But he's a veteran fighter and was competitive with Alvarez throughout the fight; he deserved an opportunity to continue.  Had Gomez merely taken a knee, Hedgepeth would have counted to 10, and Gomez would have had the ability to regroup.  
  • Gomez, a solid "B" or "B+" fighter, provided future Alvarez opponents with a blueprint for success.  Gomez won at least two, if not three, of the first five rounds of the fight.  He simply outworked Alvarez, establishing a solid jab and following with crisp two and three-punch combinations.  Gomez landed consistently with his left hook, straight right and even a right uppercut.  
  • Alvarez, meanwhile, waited for perfect opportunities to throw his power punches.  He didn't use his jab often and decided to counter most of the fight.  He had some magnificent combinations, many of which started, unconventionally, with his right uppercut, but his low punch volume was worrisome. 
  • Last night demonstrated that against an accurate volume puncher with a decent chin, Alvarez could fall behind on points fairly easily.  He's just not busy enough and he won't always enjoy the local referee's beneficence.  At this point, it seems as if Alvarez has fallen in love with his power shots.  His five-punch combinations work well against opponents with little lateral movement.  However, as he meets better fighters, these opportunities will occur less frequently. 
  • In my opinion, I think that Alvarez's trainer, Eddy Reynoso, must work with his fighter to focus on winning rounds.  In addition, more jabs will help Alvarez find spots for his combinations.  There were many good things to take from Alvarez's performance: his combinations were sharp and his creativity on offense was exceptional.  However, his defense must improve and his work rate is subpar.  An elite fighter doesn't lose rounds to Alfonso Gomez.  
  • In one respect, Pablo Cesar Cano, an unknown Mexican fighter in his first title shot, far surpassed expectations.  Featuring a built-up record against mostly anonymous mediocrities, Cano found himself in the ring against one of Mexico's greatest legends, Erik Morales.  Cano scored very well throughout the first part of the fight, landing jabs, a crisp right hand a short left hook.  He boxed aggressively, maintaining his poise; he didn't afford Morales any unnecessary level of respect.
  • However, perhaps in this case, some additional respect was warranted.  Cano became the quintessential victim of his own success.  Cano decided to engage with Morales in a slugfest, ignoring the fact that Morales had been dominant in ring wars since Cano was still in diapers.  Sure, Cano hit Morales.  Who doesn't?  Yes, his hand speed was better than Morales' was early in the fight.  What else is new?  Cano realized that he didn't have to use angles to land on Morales; he could just stand right in front of him to score.  He dispensed with any lateral movement, which troubles the veteran.  To say that Cano played into Morales' strategy is a massive, massive understatement.  For Morales, it was just a matter of time. 
  • To beat Erik Morales, you must possess at least one of these three attributes: overwhelming hand speed, lateral movement, or the ability to absorb unhealthy amounts of punishment.  Cano's speed was good, but not so impressive that Morales couldn't time him in exchanges.  Cano gave up whatever advantages he had in foot speed or movement by standing in front of Morales.  All that was left as the fight progressed was Cano's ability to take power punches. 
  • Morales knows that in almost all cases he will win a war of attrition.  He wants that type of fight.  In fact, at this point, he needs it to win.  He no longer can track down slicksters or cuties; he wants to gut out wars. 
  • As for Cano, he got caught up in a battle for which he was unprepared.  Sure, he displayed some ability, but as a boxer-puncher, voluntarily going to war with Erik Morales highlights some glaring deficiencies in his understanding of his own strengths and weakness and his overall knowledge of crucial fundamental aspects of boxing.

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