Sunday, October 30, 2011

Storm Warning for Saul Alvarez

On the surface, 2011 has been an exceptional year for Saul Alvarez.  He won his first title in March, easily outpointing Matthew Hatton.  He made a successful defense against Ryan Rhodes, a top-15 junior middleweight from the U.K., where he drew an enormous crowd in Mexico, further emphasizing his star power.  Most recently, he knocked out fringe contender Alfonso Gomez.  Although this year featured plenty of smooth sailing for Alvarez, looking closer, however, he had to navigate through some choppy waters against Gomez and there could be numerous storm warnings on the horizon.

Gomez, nobody's idea of an elite opponent, was able to score fairly frequently on Alvarez, with his jab and sneaky left hook.  Gomez continued to land punches while Alvarez waited for perfect opportunities to throw his combinations.  Alvarez's combinations were beautiful and they landed, as always, at a high connect percentage, but he wasn't busy enough.  Although the judges in the contest only awarded Gomez a total of two rounds (one round each on two scorecards), there were a number of boxing observers who gave Gomez at least two rounds of the five that could be scored.  In addition, Gomez was doing well in the sixth until Alvarez exploded in a final flurry that led to the knockout (referee Wayne Hedgpeth was nice enough to provide an early stoppage).

It's clear from the Gomez bout that very active fighters could give Alvarez some trouble.  Even at Alvarez's youthful age of 21, he is very selective with his punches.  He only throws about 50 per round, not a particularly robust figure for the junior middleweight division.  Once he faces a higher class of fighter who features a better offensive skill set, work rate and defense, Alvarez's economical approach, reliant on power shots, will be tested. 

Alvarez's defense isn't exceptional; he can be hit.  Both Gomez and Jose Cotto landed some significant shots on him.  Furthermore, Alvarez has yet to face a real puncher at junior middleweight.  To this point, his chin hasn't really been tested.  He does counter very well, which reduces his opponents' output, but he also hasn't fought a boxer with the type of foot speed, defense or athleticism that can neutralize the accuracy of his counter shots.

Alvarez could face a number of stern tests at junior middleweight.  The pressure and high work rates of Pawel Wolak and Alfredo Angulo would be tough matchups for such an economical puncher.  Also, the classic, slick boxing of Austin Trout wouldn't provide Alvarez with the ability to dictate the action in the center of the ring.  For Alvarez to beat Trout, he would have to cut the ring off better and keep his activity level higher than he has in previous bouts.  Alvarez might be favored to win all three of these hypothetical matchups, but his position as the favorite would mostly be attributed to his higher name recognition in the boxing community and his ability to generate betting interest, instead of an honest assessment of his skills relative to these three opponents.

In just his brief time as a professional, Alvarez has created enormous buzz in the sport with his rabid following among Mexicans and Mexican-American fans.  In addition, he has already become a headliner on HBO, garnering impressive television ratings.  His youth, power, unconventional combinations and advanced ring intelligence have compelled more than a few experts to anoint him as a boxing prodigy.  He quickly has become one of the best ticket sellers in North America.   

He fights in an atypical manner compared to most Mexican boxers; instead of chin-first aggression, he uses a large offensive arsenal, cunning and textbook punching technique to overwhelm his opponents.  They don't know which shots to defend.  Alvarez seemingly lands his power shots at will.  In many ways (power punching, high ring I.Q. and limited foot speed), he resembles a young Miguel Cotto, but with more, well rounded offensive skills.    

Already, he has become the most important young fighter in Golden Boy's stable (Amir Khan is a close second).  Alvarez has brought HBO to Mexico at a time when most U.S.-based broadcasters are loath to venture south of the border because of security concerns.  In addition, Alvarez will end 2011 as the only fighter who received four HBO appearances (counting an HBO PPV slot as the chief support to Mayweather-Ortiz).  

Alvarez's ascension has been stunning and unforeseen.  He has already amassed a lot of power within the industry, convincing HBO to broadcast his fight against Gomez from a second site – instead of appearing beneath Mayweather in Vegas – and setting up his own promotional company with his fighters appearing on his cards.   

Alvarez will next fight in November against former welterweight titlist Kermit Cintron.  With Cintron, he will face the ultimate wild card.  Cintron, who once featured a blistering power attack, has morphed into a more conventional boxer under trainer Ronnie Shields.  In recent years, his performances have ranged from a listless effort in a loss against spoiler Carlos Molina to a sublime night in the ring against pressure fighter Alfredo Angulo.  It's virtually impossible to predict which Cintron will show up to face Alvarez, but if Cintron is on, he will be the best opponent that the young champion has faced in his career.

Certainly, Alvarez is a unique and impressive talent.  His power, combination punching and offensive technique may already be world class, but it's not yet clear if he has the conditioning, defense or dedication to ascend to the top of the junior middleweight division, let alone boxing as a whole.  The next year will reveal a lot about Alvarez.  Golden Boy and HBO won't have the ability to feed him "B+" opponents forever. 

It's also uncertain whether Alvarez is a finished product in the ring, or if he will still further develop.  While most raw talents of his age have yet to see their boxing skills catch up to their athletic ability, Alvarez looks as though he has already fully harnessed his boxing ability.  His average athleticism suggests a more limited physical upside.   

Although no one at junior middleweight would be confused with an elite talent, there are several candidates that could provide Alvarez with his first pratfall.  More than a few young champions have been defeated by self-satisfaction, money and inertia.  For Alvarez, he needs to realize that to beat the elite of the sport, he must get better.  If he doesn't improve his conditioning and work rate, his first loss will come much sooner than he (or most in the boxing community) expected.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Juan Manuel Lopez at the Crossroads

At the end of 2010, Juan Manuel Lopez was on the short list of emerging superstars in boxing, alongside such luminaries as Amir Khan and Yuriorkis Gamboa.  Lopez had all of the credentials.  He was an amateur star, sporting an impressive 126-24 record, and represented Puerto Rico in many major tournaments, including the Pan Am Games and the Olympics.  As a young professional, he garnered immediate attention with his superb offensive technique and highlight reel knockouts.  It was not a question of "if" he would become a champion; the question was "how soon."

Lopez's professional coming out party occurred on June 7th, 2008, when he met rugged, featherweight champion Daniel Ponce de Leon.  Prior to the fight, there were many whispers that Top Rank, Lopez's promoter, was moving too soon by matching him against Ponce de Leon, who was not just a knockout artist, but also crafty and awkward.  Within seconds of the opening bell, Lopez blitzed Ponce de Leon and knocked him out in the first round, destroying his most formidable opponent to date.  With that performance, Lopez demonstrated that he was ready to take on all comers.

He quickly became a cash cow for Top Rank, establishing a rabid following amongst his Puerto Rican countrymen.  Although Puerto Rican boxing fans respected Miguel Cotto, Lopez's offensive ring style, gregarious nature and charisma engendered the type of rapt infatuation that was reserved for the island's superheroes, like Felix Trinidad.  In addition, the U.S. boxing networks showed similar affection, traveling to Puerto Rico for many of Lopez's ring appearances.   

After Ponce de Leon, Lopez continued to rack up impressive performances, stopping his next two opponents in the first round and dispatching former champion Gerry Penalosa with ease. 

Lopez's career was sailing along until late 2009, when he faced Rogers Mtagwa, a rough club fighter familiar with the gym wars of Philadelphia.  Mtagwa was expected to provide rounds, but he wasn't supposed to represent any real threat of winning Lopez's title.  The bout featured plenty of action and Lopez built a sizable lead on the scorecards.  Suddenly, towards the end of the 11th round, Lopez ran out of gas and he spent the remainder of the fight hanging on and just trying to remain on his feet.  Lopez pulled out the victory but Mtagwa was the fresher fighter down the stretch.  Additionally, it was the first time that Lopez was seriously hurt as a professional.  There were further concerns expressed about his conditioning. 


In the featherweight division, Cuban defector and former Olympian Yuriorkis Gamboa, who was also promoted by Top Rank, had emerged as Lopez's chief rival.  After Lopez's fight with Mtagwa, Top Rank next placed Gamboa against the gritty club fighter, to provide boxing fans (and perhaps their own decision makers) with a comparison between their two featherweight stars.  Gamboa proceeded to destroy Mtagwa in two rounds, completely overshadowing Lopez's stoppage of Steven Luevano on the same card.  Lopez's victory was solid, but unspectacular.  

Top Rank was spooked.  Its President, Bob Arum, refused to acquiesce to the public's demand to see Gamboa-Lopez.  The company shifted gears and decided to match Lopez against recent losers, which included Bernabe Concepcion, Rafael Marquez and Orlando Salido.  Suddenly, every Lopez fight was turning into a war, with powerful counter right hands landing frequently on his chin.  Concepcion knocked down Lopez and Marquez connected with some hellacious bombs.  On one hand, Lopez was becoming a sensational TV fighter, but technically, he was regressing. 

Prior to the Salido fight, the talk in boxing circles was about how bad Lopez's body looked.  Reportedly, he was walking around in the 170s between fights (the featherweight limit is 126).  Additionally, he was going through a much-publicized divorce.  He also had acquired a reputation for significant deficiencies in his training and conditioning.  By the time he entered the ring against Salido, Lopez was a weight-drained shell of himself.  After a few early rounds of promise, the fight turned in the fourth, with Salido landing a number of lead rights.  In the fifth, Salido bludgeoned Lopez with overhand rights and scored a knockdown.  It was surprising that Lopez survived the round. 

However, Lopez pressed on, fighting on sheer muscle memory.  He attempted to ward off Salido with his right hooks and straight lefts.  The end came in the 8th, whereby referee Roberto Ramirez, Jr. called off the fight after Lopez took some additional hard shots.  It was perhaps an early stoppage and Lopez still had a chance to win the fight had he been able to survive the round, but nevertheless, he certainly received a lot of punishment throughout the match.  Lopez never showed any quit and offered a gutty performance after he was hurt, but he lost the fight outside of the ropes more than anything that Salido did during the bout itself.


Lopez now faces a series of questions about his future.  What is his best weight?  Does he have the commitment to become an elite fighter?  Does he need to change his management and support team?  Will he ever improve his defense?  Would he benefit from getting off the island to train?

He fought Mike Oliver a few weeks ago and scored a knockout against an opponent who was overmatched.  Still, Oliver was able to land a number of significant shots.  The fight didn't necessarily alleviate any of the concerns about Lopez's future prospects.

It's clear that Lopez is no longer a featherweight.  His best move may be to jump two divisions to lightweight; the additional four pounds from featherweight to junior lightweight may not be enough for Lopez to reach his optimal fighting weight.  Maybe at lightweight, he can establish his own beachhead in a division that lacks firepower (with the notable exception of Brandon Rios).  Additionally, it's more than evident that Lopez lacks the defensive technique at this point of his career to get in the ring with Yuriorkis Gamboa.

Top Rank has a lot invested in Lopez.  He's a huge star and ticket seller in Puerto Rico and has demonstrated his worth as an exemplary television fighter.  The next year of Lopez's career will be critical.  He should be matched carefully, needing time to work on his defense and restore his confidence. 

On offense, Lopez has room for improvement as well.  Perhaps of most import, he has become stationary, offering little of the lateral movement or foot speed that he demonstrated as he moved up the professional ranks.  Additionally, he features little head movement and, at times, a lazy right jab; he can be countered fairly easily.  He plants himself in the pocket like Winky Wright used to do, but he lacks Wright's sterling defensive technique.  Unlike Wright, Lopez often overcommits with his punches and doesn't return quickly enough to a defensive position.

Lopez can still be salvaged.  The question is whether he is willing to put in the work to regain his top form.  He wouldn't be the first fighter to be defeated by the trappings of stardom.  He has flaws, but he has such a solid base of offensive skills (balance, punching technique, punch variety, power and ring intelligence) that he could return to the top with the right type of commitment.  However, does he have the desire to make the needed sacrifices?  Ultimately, without a willingness to improve, he could become just another in the long line of talented Olympians that failed to reach their full potential.

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

SNB Nuggets (Narvaez, Lebedev, Martirosyan)

Omar Narvaez makes his North American debut on Saturday against Nonito Donaire.  Narvaez represents a credible opponent for Donaire and HBO, but make no mistake, he is there to lose.  Unfortunately, most boxing fans have had little exposure to Narvaez, a current junior bantamweight titlist and former flyweight champion who has made 19 title defenses.  Narvaez, already 36, hasn't lost in 37 professional fights.  He is one of the most popular boxers in his native country of Argentina and has fought there 31 times.

Win or lose against Donaire, Narvaez has had a significant career in boxing.  As an amateur, he beat such notables as Joan Guzman, Steve Molitor and Jose Navarro and represented Argentina in the Olympics in 1996 and 2000.  

As a professional, his ledger has been filled with several good victories, but he doesn't have the signature wins that garner larger international fanfare.  His best victories have come against Cesar Seda, Rayonta Whitfield, Brahim Asloum and Luis Lazarte.  None of these fighters is or was a household name, but in totality, Narvaez has built a solid body of work by beating a number of "A-" and "B+" fighters.

However, Narvaez's resume is missing several of the best names in his surrounding weight classes, such as Vic Darchinyan, Pongsaklek Wonjongkam, Hugo Cazares, Koki and Daiki Kameda and Cristian Mijares.  Many of these fighters are cash cows in their respective countries (the Kamedas in Japan, Wonjongkam in Thailand and Narvaez in Argentina) and it made more sense for their handlers to keep them in their native territories; the failure to make many of these matches should get spread around to the various boxers and their teams.

Belatedly, Narvaez faces his toughest match of his career against Donaire.  He has a four-inch height disadvantage and can't come close to matching Donaire's power.  Additionally, for the first time in his career, he is moving up to bantamweight, where Donaire is enormous at that weight class.  Narvaez has a solid chin and excellent boxing ability but it seems difficult to envision him having a clear path to victory over Donaire.  Nevertheless, Narvaez will make a solid payday.  Even with a bad loss, he can return to junior bantamweight and defend his title.   

Fortunately, American boxing networks have become more receptive to broadcasting fights in the lower weight classes.  Both Showtime (the bantamweight tournament featuring Mares, Agbeko, Darchinyan and Perez) and HBO (Donaire-Montiel and Donaire-Narvaez) have aired bouts with fighters in the smaller weights, from countries as diverse as the U.S., Australia, Colombia, Mexico, Ghana and Argentina.

Most boxing enthusiasts haven't been able to watch Narvaez's fights with any type of regularity, missing the opportunity to follow a significant talent.  However, perhaps boxing networks will help find and broadcast the next Omar Narvaez.  That the networks have realized, however belatedly, that quality fights can come from all weight divisions is a net positive for the sport.

Denis Lebedev is a legitimate cruiserweight contender from Russia who lost a split decision to longtime titleholder Marco Huck in 2010.  The fight was close and opinions were split on who deserved the victory.  Perhaps if the fight took place in Russia, Lebedev would now be a champion.

Lebedev has spent 2011 licking his wounds and making defenses against washed up American legends.  In May, he knocked Roy Jones, Jr. unconscious.  Next month, he takes on 43-year-old James Toney, who hasn't made cruiserweight in eight years.  Toney last fought in February of this year and weighed in at 257 lbs.  The fact that he has to drop at least 57 lbs. to face Lebedev doesn't bode well for his competitiveness in the fight.

It's an odd career choice for Lebedev, a fighter who is in the prime of his career.  Sure, the money he gets from beating the "names" is nice, but he risks marginalizing himself by following the Danny Green career path.

The cruiserweight division has a lot of interesting boxers right now but, for whatever reason, Lebedev (and his team) have chosen to go after the easy money.  Instead of fighting Ola Afolabi, Troy Ross or Lateef Kayode (fighters who might pose a threat), Lebedev has decided to follow a path that offers far less resistance.

The main money man in the division right now is Huck, whom both Steve Cunningham and Lebedev would love to fight in respective rematches (Cunningham for the financial rewards and Lebedev to avenge his lone loss).  Even though a Huck fight is not on the immediate horizon for Lebedev,  there are still numerous quality opponents that he could be fighting; instead, he has opted to face another member of boxing's geriatric club. 

It's certainly disappointing that Lebedev has agreed to fight such a mediocre level of opposition at this point in his career.  2011 will be viewed as a wasted year for him.

Vanes Martirosyan spent the last 18 months of his career calling out any and every fighter around 154 pounds.  Using Twitter, media interviews and official press releases, Martirosyan blasted those who refused to get in the ring with him. In a rich bit of irony, Martirosyan was recently offered a career-high payday and an HBO Main Event slot to fight Alfredo Angulo in Mexico; he turned it down.

The fallout was swift.  Martirosyan had a management shakeup.  His promoter, Top Rank, was upset with his rejection of the fight.  Martirosyan became the butt of jokes in boxing chat rooms and on various social media platforms.  Whatever widespread support he was starting to gain was jeopardized by his decision to turn down the fight.

It was left to Martirosyan's new management team to pick up the pieces. Essentially, Team Martirosyan claimed that its fighter wouldn't be able to win a decision in Mexico.  They offered to fight Angulo in America, knowing full well that Angulo's immigration problems prohibited him from entering the U.S. at this time.

Instead, Martirosyan will fight cannon-fodder Richard Gutierrez next week at a small Indian casino in Oklahoma (on a much smaller TV card).  Gutierrez has lost six of his last nine fights and is far removed from his days as a competitive gatekeeper at welterweight and junior middleweight.  For Martirosyan, this fight is nothing more than marking time.

Even with Top Rank as his promoter, Freddie Roach as his trainer and a spot on the U.S. Olympic team as his pedigree, American premium cable wasn't knocking down Martirosyan's door to get him on their networks.  To this point, he appeared on HBO once on the undercard of the Miguel Cotto-Yuri Foreman fight, notching a rather pedestrian win over Joe Greene.  Needless to say, HBO didn't rush to get Martirosyan on its airwaves for a return performance.

On one level, Martirosyan was correct: it would have been difficult to win a decision in Mexico.  However, even if he looked good in a loss, opportunities would have opened up for him.  Instead, by standing on ceremony, he declined the opportunity for additional visibility and momentum for his career, hurt his reputation for fighting all comers and gave up significant remuneration.  At a certain point, fighters have to fight.  Martirosyan was unwilling to take a necessary risk, and, as a result, various parties are punishing him accordingly.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cleverly's Challenges

Light heavyweight titlist Nathan Cleverly earned the best win of his career last weekend by defeating unbeaten British prospect Tony Bellew.  His victory confirmed that he is now one of the Britain's top active fighters.  In addition, he is now safely ensconced in all of the world top-10 light heavyweight lists, or at least all those that matter.

Cleverly and his handlers have some interesting decisions to make regarding his immediate future. Just 24, he has shown significant growth in the ring over the past 12 months, but the Bellew and Aleksy Kuziemski fights have demonstrated that he still has a lot of room for improvement.  (Cleverly made his first title defense against Kuziemski earlier in 2011) 

Most observers predicted that Cleverly would have beaten Bellew with more ease than he did.  The consensus seemed to be a win by either a late-round technical knockout or a wide decision.  Instead, Cleverly squeaked by with a majority decision.  Give Bellew credit for his conditioning and fighting spirit, but Cleverly must be assessed some demerits as well.

Cleverly's most glaring limitation is his inability to understand his own strengths and weaknesses.  Against Bellew, Cleverly had significant advantages with his jab, conditioning, work rate and lateral movement.  He should have remained on the outside, only coming forward judiciously and opportunistically.  After throwing combinations, he needed to get out of firing range.  Instead, Cleverly remained firmly entrenched in close quarters playing the macho game, providing action not necessarily securing the round at hand.  In the trenches, he exchanged power shots with Bellew and received more punishment than someone with his talent level should.  Whenever Cleverly fought at distance, most notably the 11th and 12th rounds, he scored with ease. 

In addition, although he delivered an exciting performance against Kuziemski, earning a fourth round stoppage,  he endured a rough, and, quite frankly, unnecessary third-round pasting, eating dozens of flush shots. 

Cleverly fancies himself a brawler, which may work on the Commonwealth level, but he most likely wouldn't win a toe-to-toe battle with Tavoris Cloud or Bernard Hopkins.  In addition, his knockout rate is less than 50% (although improving somewhat in recent years), but that percentage doesn't tell the whole story; he has only faced a few opponents on the world-class level.  Conventional wisdom says that as a fighter faces better competition, his knockout percentage tends to drop.  Perhaps Cleverly is an exception to the rule, but it's unlikely.

The upshot of Cleverly's approach leads to a lot of TV-friendly brawls, which is not a bad thing for boxing enthusiasts.  His desire to entertain his fans is a refreshing trait that is often lacking among many of the sport's high-echelon fighters.  But does a boxer with his athletic and technical gifts need to make every fight a brawl?  In essence, he's giving lesser opponents an easier opportunity to beat him. 

Cleverly is not exploiting his advantages.  He holds massive conditioning edges against anyone in the division, with the possible exceptions of Cloud or Chad Dawson.  He throws his punches (jab, hook, uppercut, straight right hand) with excellent technique and can score with all of them.  What he doesn't have is real power, or the type of physicality that can break down elite opponents.  In addition, his defense tends to get sloppy during tight exchanges, where he is very susceptible to counters.

Perhaps most worrisome is how hook-happy Cleverly has become.  It's a good punch and it's admirable the way that he goes to the body with almost reckless abandon, but again, it's not like he's knocking everyone out with that punch.  Meanwhile, when he goes through his hook infatuation periods, he practically forgets his straight right hand and uppercut.  Defensively, his hook reliance is dangerous in that he consistently gives up his height and reach and leaves himself open for all sorts of counter shots, especially right hands.

Cleverly's promoter, Frank Warren, has a real conundrum regarding his fighter's career.  On one hand, Cleverly has developed into a crowd-pleasing attraction, giving fans their money's worth.  He's good business.  However, he wants to fight the best in the division.  This might be a significant problem for Cleverly in that the finer points of ring generalship seemingly elude him at this point in his career.  To beat the best, he must realize that his current ring style does not give him the best chance of winning.   

For Warren, he should use the next 12 months to further develop Cleverly.  If his fighter wants to make a unification bout, make a match with Beibut Shumenov, the tough Kazakh now fighting out of Las Vegas, who can be outworked over 12 rounds, instead of a ruthless banger like Cloud or a master technician like Dawson.  If Cleverly insists on getting frisky, see if a fight can be made with Jean Pascal, who has imposing physical dimensions and a unique offensive attack, but doesn't fight for three minutes a round.  Additionally, there are probably other quality opponents on the European circuit that could provide needed rounds for Cleverly.

Warren is one of the savviest promoters in the business and won't risk exposing his guy too quickly for a payday.  He's one of the few remaining promoters who understand how to build fighters.  If it were up to him, I'm sure he would feed Cleverly solid B+ fighters from the Continent and fill arenas in Britain (specifically, Wales, Cleverly's home base), while his boxer continues to develop.

However, fighters can be impetuous and are not known as a class for their patience.  Warren must master a difficult dance with Cleverly.  His young titlist needs to get better but will soon itch for the sport's largest stages.  Additionally, Warren must have lurking in the back of his mind the notion of losing Cleverly, like he did Hatton, Calzaghe, Khan and Brook. Those fighters felt that Warren was too protective of their careers; they wanted the big fights.  If Warren doesn't deliver soon, will Cleverly be the next one to leave the fold?

For Cleverly, he will instill a lot more confidence in Warren if he understands what will make him elite.  By using a two-handed approach, keeping his height, mastering the outside and capitalizing on his superior conditioning, he has a real opportunity to reach the top of the division.  However, if he falls for the roar of the crowd, his name in the lights and the irrepressibility of his machismo, his goal of becoming the best light heavyweight in the world will remain unrealized. 

These are Cleverly's challenges and hopefully he realizes that the hardest part of his career lies ahead.

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Hopkins-Dawson: Five Scenarios

This "Scenarios" preview piece will look at the most likely outcomes for the Bernard Hopkins-Chad Dawson fight.  Next to each scenario will be a percentage, which indicates the likelihood of that specific outcome happening.  Interestingly, for this fight, Hopkins winning by decision may be the most probably outcome, but Dawson might have more ways to win the match.  Ultimately, this fight, where Dawson is a slight favorite according to odds makers, is a virtual toss-up, with both boxers having legitimate chances to win.

Scenario #1.  Hopkins defeats Dawson by close decision.  35%
This outcome is based on Hopkins' mental toughness and his ability to pull out tough fights.  The magic number for Hopkins, who often fights in spurts, is seven; he needs to establish seven rounds where the judges prefer his work in the ring over Dawson's.  For Hopkins to achieve this goal, he must reduce Dawson's punch output. When comfortable, Dawson has a high work rate, featuring mostly his southpaw jab and some crisp and fluid combinations. Dawson is also a rhythm fighter, working in and out of the pocket, most often refusing to engage in lengthy exchanges.

In this Scenario, Hopkins fights Dawson in the trenches, using all of his inside fighting moves and tricks – holding, grappling, short uppercuts, and kidney punches – to wear down his opponent.  Hopkins mauls Dawson on the inside, taking the younger fighter out of his comfort zone. This match won't be aesthetically pleasing but it will be Hopkins' best way of slowing down the fight.

On the outside, Hopkins' lead right and counter right hands will be his key punches.  Dawson will go through some periodic funks in the ring, where he lets his activity level drop. During these pauses, Hopkins will capitalize with his pinpoint lead right.  Additionally, Dawson will extend some lazy jabs, which Hopkins counters with piercing right hands.

Many of these rounds could be tough to score but Hopkins pulls out the decision with his clean punches and aggressiveness.

Scenario #2.  Dawson defeats Hopkins by close decision.  25%
Here, Dawson establishes more separation from Hopkins because of his high work rate and fluid combinations.  As the Jermain Taylor and Joe Calzaghe fights demonstrated, Hopkins can become too defensive when facing opponents with high activity levels.  He exerts too much effort in avoiding punches instead of establishing his own offense.  If Dawson can keep his punch volume up and use the ring to his advantage, he can put rounds in the bank with his clean punching and ring generalship.  There might be many rounds in this Scenario where Hopkins only throws 20-30 punches per frame.

In the first few rounds of the match, both boxers will try to impose their stylistic imprint on the fight.  If Dawson can maintain his high output and keep Hopkins on the end of his jab, there will be many rounds where Hopkins just won't put together enough offense to win.  Additionally, by establishing his rhythm, moving in and out of the pocket with fluidity, Dawson will frustrate Hopkins, who will ineffectually follow him around the ring without landing anything of substance.

Scenario #3.  Dawson defeats Hopkins by wide decision.  15%
This is the "Hopkins grows old" Scenario. It is certainly possible that Dawson, who is in his physical prime at 29, puts together a performance that precludes Hopkins from establishing any offense.  Dawson has the athletic and technical capabilities to dominate any fighter at light heavyweight.  The questions concerning Dawson have always centered on his mental makeup.  Does he have the will to dominate?  Is there that killer instinct?

Throughout his career, Dawson, when facing top competition, has performed erratically, and often without passion.  He has gone through several trainers and has not demonstrated the psychological consistency or emotional will to ascend to the elite rungs of the sport.  To this point, his focus and determination have not yet caught up to his physical skills.  Nevertheless, the talent has always been there.  It's certainly possible that Dawson puts everything together and delivers the type of performance that boxing observers have been expecting from him for years.

If this outcome happens, Dawson would land at will and his speed and athleticism would be too much for Hopkins to handle.  This Scenario would also illustrate further deterioration in Hopkins' defense, reflexes and stamina – all of which showed some signs of decline during his fights with Jean Pascal.  Here, Dawson coasts to a victory, facilitating Hopkins' retirement.

Scenario #4.  Hopkins and Dawson draw.  15%
Over the last decade, Hopkins has fought a number of matches that could have been draws, including both Taylor fights, the first Pascal bout and his meeting with Joe Calzaghe.  Because of his judicious punch output and lower activity level, Hopkins often finds himself in close fights.  Against Dawson, he faces similar circumstances that led to the tight decisions in these earlier fights.  He meets a younger, more athletic opponent who features a high work rate.  In almost all of his close fights, Hopkins falls behind early on the scorecards before turning the fight in his favor during its second half.

For a draw to occur in this fight, it's most likely that the script from Hopkins' earlier, close fights will remain the same.  Dawson will build up an early lead based on his work from the outside and clean connects.  Hopkins will gradually wear Dawson down on the inside, and his counterpunching will dissuade his opponent from throwing too many shots.  The final rounds will be up-for-grabs, where both fighters will have their opportunities to impress the judges: Dawson with his combinations and Hopkins with his potent, single-shot right hands.  Ultimately, in this Scenario, the fight will be a tale of two halves; Dawson establishes the early lead and Hopkins closes the show, leading to a draw.

Scenario #5.  Other.  10%
1. Fight stopped on cuts. When a conventional and a southpaw boxer meet in close quarters, there is a definite possibility of a fight stopping because of cuts. Although Dawson and Hopkins themselves have not had a history of cutting, their opponents certainly have.  Strategically, Hopkins wants this fight to be an inside war of attrition.  In addition, he has been known to use his head to lead exchanges.  Most likely the cut(s) in question for this fight will occur because of an accidental or "accidental" head butt, and not a punch.  Thus, when the match is stopped (before or after the fourth round) will determine if the fight will have a winner, or if it will be ruled a no-contest.  2. Hopkins wins a wide decision. This is the Pavlik or Tarver Scenario, whereby Hopkins is able to completely fluster his opponent and make Dawson too gun shy to throw punches.  Here, Hopkins would hurt Dawson early with a right hand and beat him up on the inside.  Dawson would then go into escape or survival mode, unwilling to launch enough offense to be competitive.  3. Dawson wins by disqualification. Hopkins is a proud man and he may not want to hang around if he is getting thoroughly outclassed.  If the match is going badly for him, in this Scenario, he decides to end it with an assortment of fouls – most likely low blows or head butts – that forces the referee to disqualify him.  4. Dawson wins by knockout. Although not a puncher by any means, in this Scenario, Dawson lands a nice counter left hand or right hook that drops Hopkins and the older man can't beat the count; his legs have gone.  5. Hopkins wins by knockout. Not having scored a stoppage victory since 2004, Hopkins winning by knockout would seem like an unlikely outcome.  However, Dawson has tasted the canvas before against Tomasz Adamek and he was certainly stunned in his first fight against Glen Johnson.  In this Scenario, Hopkins hurts Dawson with a lead right hand and immediately rushes in with power shots to the body and head, forcing the ref to wave off the fight when Dawson is no longer able to defend himself.

Dawson immediately establishes his game plan out of the gate.  He features jabs, lateral movement and quick combinations that score points.  Hopkins, not respecting Dawson's power, tries to set traps, luring Dawson into range for his counter right hands.  However, the younger boxer is able to dictate the fight with his rhythm, ring generalship and high punch output.  Dawson boxes beautifully through the first few rounds, engaging Hopkins only in spots, but landing enough flush combinations to score points with the judges.  Dawson's foot speed keeps him out of trouble.  Hopkins, although active, grows increasingly frustrated and follows Dawson around the ring, without landing much of substance.

In the fourth or fifth round, Hopkins changes the complexion of the fight with a few, menacing lead right hands.  Immediately, Dawson fights more defensively while Hopkins starts to close the distance.  The middle-to-late rounds of the fight are almost all Hopkins' rounds, where he lands clean, single shots (right hands and left hooks) and imposes his physicality upon Dawson.

In the 11th round, after being berated by his corner, Dawson makes a late charge and the championship rounds are competitive with Dawson picking up his punch volume just enough to call the rounds into question.  However, his final rally won't be enough to win the decision.

Hopkins defeats Dawson 115-113, or 7 rounds to 5.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bradley's Bet

"I wanted to be with a real promoter. I just wanted to be promoted. That is what it boiled down to...I've captured three world championships, and you walk outside and ask people and nobody knows me...I was supposed to become a star after I beat Alexander, and it didn't happen. If I beat Amir Khan, it wouldn't have done anything for my career."

                                                     -Tim Bradley, as told to

Last spring, Tim Bradley turned down a guaranteed $1.4 Million to face Amir Khan. His refusal to accept the fight led to opprobrium from many boxing writers and the usual, and often, tired calls of "ducking" or "cowardice" by the boxing public. In addition, by not taking the fight, Bradley was sued by his promoters, Gary Shaw Promotions and Thompson Boxing, for breach of contract. Essentially then, just to extricate himself from his promotional agreement, Bradley was willing to forgo the opportunity to be recognized as the number one junior welterweight in the world, an almost $1.5 million purse and any professional momentum in his career. Instead, he put himself on ice, waiting for the lawyers to give him the go-ahead to sign with another promotional company.

Without context, many of these moves would seem ridiculous. Boxing is not necessarily flush with cash these days and what boxer wouldn't want the opportunity to be recognized as the best in his division? However, Bradley is not a stupid man. Since claiming his first junior welterweight title in 2008, Bradley has fought three times in a small local Indian casino in Palm Springs, California, once in a casino on the Gulf Coast in Mississippi, once in an arena in Montreal and once in an abandoned football stadium in Detroit. Excepting the wonderful atmosphere of the Bell Centre in Montreal, do any of these other locations indicate Bradley' imminent superstardom?

Bradley realized that, at 28, he was entering the prime of his career, and he didn't like his current status in boxing: a virtual anonymous champion. To him, he had done his part – winning titles, exhibiting professionalism and being available for and gregarious during media appearances. But he didn't see any vision for his career. Why was he still a well-kept secret outside of hardcore boxing fans?

His promoters were able to deliver dates on network television, but where was the creativity in his marketing? Were there any credible efforts to engage the broader sporting press outside of boxing? Was there any geographically coherent plan for creating a buzz for his career? Why wasn't he brought into the Los Angeles market? Where were the fights in Las Vegas, New York or Atlantic City? Why were there no endorsements?

Bradley passed up the short money, however enticing it was, for a shot at a more fulfilling boxing career and legacy. And although there has been a long tradition of boxers misreading their economic value (think Winky Wright passing on a $5M rematch with Jermain Taylor or Hasim Rahman turning down a 10-fight HBO contract), Bradley's calculus was entirely defensible.

He figured on the following: 1. There were many opponents besides Khan who could generate significant revenue for future fights. 2. If he lost to Khan in July, his market value would have been diminished and the stigma of his loss would hurt him in garnering the most lucrative promotional option. 3. If he backed out of fight against Khan, other promotional companies would bid to sign him. 4. Although $1.4 million is a nice payday, that's not exactly his ceiling in boxing, especially when there could be fights looming against Manny Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather in the future. 5. Any damage with his relationship with HBO could be repaired by a stronger promoter.

All five of Bradley's assertions intuitively made sense. If Khan (who previously backed out of a fight with Bradley when he was trying to extricate himself from Frank Warren) would be unwilling to fight him in the future, then there would still be a number of enticing opponents in his surrounding weight classes who could generate hefty purses, including Victor Ortiz, Marcos Maidana, Andre Berto, Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather. Additionally, if Bradley lost to Khan in July, he would have been in a far worse negotiating position with prospective suitors. Who knew how that fight would have turned out? Maybe he doesn't put together a good performance. Perhaps he hurts himself.

Bradley also bet on himself and his record. As an undefeated American fighter who had won three championship belts, he realized that he was a marketable commodity, even if his current promoters were unsuccessful or unwilling in their efforts to build him properly. Bradley knew that both Top Rank and Golden Boy would bid on his services. In fact, both companies expressed their desire to contact Bradley once his legal case ended. Also, both companies had deep pockets, kept their fighters busy and had vast experience in creating big events and building fighters. Bradley probably understood that he might not make millions immediately in his first fight with a new promoter, but either Top Rank or Golden Boy had more reliable track records in presenting lucrative fights and generating publicity than did the Gary Shaw/Thompson arrangement.

Furthermore, the two companies have enough juice with HBO to smooth over any residual bad blood between the network and Bradley (Golden Boy has an exclusive output deal with HBO while Top Rank played a significant role in the ouster of former HBO Boxing head Ross Greenburg).

Last week, it was announced that Top Rank signed Tim Bradley and that the fighter will appear next against Joel Casamayor as the chief undercard of the Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez mega-bout. Surely, Bradley will not make $1.4M for this fight, but it's a great platform for him to gain exposure to the boxing community (fans and media alike), especially after a significant layoff.

Earlier in his career, Bradley had the reputation of fighting anyone that was put in front of him. He traveled to England to face Junior Witter. He won a unification fight against Kendall Holt. He dominated undefeated prospect Lamont Peterson and he even had a fight in place to meet Marcos Maidana, before the Argentine pulled out because of management issues.  In his highest profile fight, Bradley defeated unbeaten American titleholder Devon Alexander, even though the timing and location of the match may have dampened the fight's potential earning power. Assuming that Bradley gets by Casamayor (and he certainly should, given the Cuban's advanced age and diminished athleticism), expect Bradley to continue to meet the best in the ring. 

Bradley's actions this summer may have been sensible, but they did create negative repercussions for him both in and out of the ring. He has damaged his reputation in the sport by pulling out of the Khan fight, and he certainly didn't please fight fans. In addition, he still faces a lawsuit by his former promoters, which sucks up energy, time and financial resources.

Eventually the legal skirmishes will subside and if he continues to fight with the professionalism and skill that he did earlier in his career, he will certainly help mollify much of the current negative sentiment directed towards him. Leaving Gary Shaw and Thompson Boxing solves one of his two problems; now Bradley needs some solid performances in the ring. With Top Rank, he will have the platforms and opponents to make the most of his career.

Bradley has emerged from his extended, self-imposed vacation, but from here on in, he will have a short leash regarding any out-of-the-ring theatrics. Burn HBO once, you might get away with it. Burn the network twice, and you'll become Joan Guzman – and will never appear on its airwaves again.

Bradley bet big on himself this year. Unlike other fighters who wager on themselves through some offshore sports book, Bradley took the long view of his career in order to solidify his financial and professional well-being.  Why cash out in a tough fight against Khan this year when, if you keep winning, you can have four or five bigger opportunities in the next few years? 

This summer's episode illustrated that, for Bradley, it wasn't necessarily about the money. His displeasure rested with another factor that can be just as important for any fighter: glory. Boxers don't just get into the sport for money; there are other considerations like belts, public recognition and approval, marquees, tee shirts, newspaper articles, Larry Merchant interviews, the MGM Grand, press conferences and endorsements. To Bradley, he was already the number-one junior welterweight in the world. He was receiving perfectly acceptable purses, but his anonymity was a deal breaker. Bradley had set his sights on becoming one of the biggest boxers in the world, and he couldn't accomplish that goal fighting in Palm Springs and Biloxi.

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