Thursday, November 24, 2011

SNB Nuggets (Lara, Trout and Wolak)

When Erislandy Lara faced Paul Williams in July, he was clearly brought in as the "opponent." The fight appeared on a Goossen Tutor Promotions' HBO date, not one of the many TV slots given to Lara's promoter, Golden Boy. In addition, Williams was the HBO fighter, he was managed by boxing powerbroker Al Haymon and he had appeared in Atlantic City recently and memorably against Sergio Martinez. In short, Lara wasn't supposed to win the fight.

A Cuban defector and former amateur star, Lara was also selected to face Williams because of a listless performance in his previous bout against the non-descript Carlos Molina. In that fight, he escaped with a draw and he certainly could have lost. After the Molina bout, Lara's conditioning and focus were called in to question.

Nevertheless, with all of the cards seemingly stacked against him, Lara dominated Williams. He picked Williams apart with his sharp counterpunching, which featured solid, straight left hands and right hooks. Somehow, the judges awarded Williams a majority decision in what was one of the most scandalous verdicts of 2011. Even the boxing observers who were most generous to Williams found only five rounds to give to him; most boxing enthusiasts (including the HBO broadcast team) had Lara cruising to an easy victory.

In the aftermath of the decision, Golden Boy and the boxing community was full of righteous indignation. In an unprecedented move, the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board suspended the three Williams-Lara judges. Lara gained more prominence in the sport with his loss than with any of his previous victories. However, despite the career boost from his strong performance, Lara has remained inactive.

Golden Boy has had numerous opportunities to showcase and further support Lara in the fourth quarter of 2011, but the company has kept him on ice. To Golden Boy, Lara is not as important to the company as many of its other young fighters, such as Amir Khan, Saul Alvarez, Jorge Linares, Danny Garcia, Gary Russell Jr., Adrien Broner and Seth Mitchell. 

According to Lara's trainer, Ronnie Shields, several fighters have turned down the opportunity to face Lara in the second half of 2011 (Alfredo Angulo, James Kirkland and Vanes Martirosyan). Nevertheless, Golden Boy has had many undercard and co-feature slots in the fourth quarter. If the company really wanted Lara to fight again in 2011, it would have ensured it – even if it meant off TV on one of its big fight cards. In addition, if Lara really were important to Golden Boy, why haven't the company's principals (Richard Schaefer or Oscar de la Hoya) taken Lara's case to the media? Why haven't they brought additional attention to their fighter or publicly shamed other boxers for avoiding him?

Golden Boy is heavily invested in Saul Alvarez at junior middleweight but has very few top-level fighters in Lara's surrounding weight classes (the company is wisely keeping Alvarez far away from Lara). If Golden Boy believes in Lara, and it should, then it has to find boxers who are affiliated with other promoters in order to get Lara fights. Golden Boy, like Top Rank, prefers controlling both boxers in a match, which leaves the company with less promotional risk. Nevertheless, Schaefer will have to play nice with others to ensure that Lara remains active.

Lara, like most Cuban boxing defectors, doesn't have a natural, built-in fan base and has had a difficult time attracting mass appeal beyond diehard fans of the sport. He doesn't feature the flamboyant personality or boxing style of a fellow Cuban like Yuriorkis Gamboa and doesn't speak English, which makes it more difficult for him to cross-over to a broader number of American boxing fans.

However, Lara does have real knockout power and first-rate technical boxing skills. In fact, coming into his fight against Molina, he had knocked out four consecutive opponents in the first round.

For Lara, 2012 should be a pivotal year. There are a number of compelling matchups for him at junior middleweight. With a couple of strong performances, he could cement his status as one of the top fighters in the division. If Golden Boy demonstrates the same indifference to his career in 2012 as it has in 2011, Lara should strongly consider buying himself out of his promotional contract. On the open market, his combination of power and technical boxing skills should make him an attractive commodity. Regardless of what happens with his promotional situation, Lara should be a top fighter for several years.

Austin Trout debuted on U.S. premium cable earlier this month on Shobox, Showtime's series which focuses on prospects and younger fighters. On one hand, it's unusual for a titleholder to appear on Showtime's lesser series, but for Trout, a fairly anonymous New Mexican fighter whose biggest triumphs have occurred outside America, he badly needed an opportunity for U.S. TV exposure.

His night was a resounding success.  He performed excellently against a limited fighter from Australia, Frank LoPorto. He knocked LoPorto down in the first and was moments away from getting a stoppage in the opening round. LoPorto lasted until the sixth round but he was essentially target practice for Trout's pinpoint left hands, uppercuts and right hooks. Trout clearly outclassed LoPorto, demonstrating excellent lateral movement, defensive skills and a varied offensive attack. He certainly helped his career with that performance.

Trout fits in well against any of the top junior middleweights. He was an alternate on the U.S. Olympic team and has the technical skills and athleticism to see his status in the sport rise rapidly over the next year. To date, he hasn't been aligned with a top-tier promoter, but with a few more performances like the one against LoPorto, he will become difficult to ignore.

Polish-born and New Jersey-based Pawel Wolak has ascended in 2011. He opened many eyes earlier this year with a sixth-round stoppage of former junior middleweight titleholder Yuri Foreman. Wolak swarmed Foreman with his pressure and the former champion didn't have the punching power to keep Wolak at bay. Wolak may have entered that fight as the "B-side," but he created quite a buzz with his performance.

For Wolak's next fight, he headlined an ESPN Friday Night Fights show against Delvin Rodriguez. What followed was an all-out war and fight-of-the-year candidate, where the two combatants waged a fierce and unrelenting battle for ten rounds. Wolak applied relentless pressure and landed with right hands and left hooks. His body work was punishing. Rodriguez was successful counterpunching with left hooks and straight right hands. He opened up a huge welt that closed one of Wolak's eyes. The fight was ruled a draw, which was a just verdict.

Wolak and Rodriguez meet again next month on the Cotto-Margarito undercard. Although Rodriguez has lost on numerous occasions (some of them because of dubious decisions), he is a tough matchup for Wolak in that he's a solid boxer-puncher who prefers ring wars. Wolak tends to do better against more deliberate opponents or ones who are uncomfortable with pressure. For Wolak, whose only loss was to the tricky technical boxer, Ishe Smith, defeating Rodriguez is a must if he wants fights against the top junior middleweights. If Wolak can get the win next month, he should be in line for a championship fight at some point in 2012. Matched correctly, (say against Cornelius Bundrage), he very well could win a belt.

Wolak has quickly established himself as one of the best TV fighters of this era. With his nonstop aggression and strong will, he has enabled himself to have a real career in boxing. Wolak has persevered in the sport without promotional hype, technical polish, one-punch knockout ability or star prospect status.  Despite these disadvantages, he has made a real name for himself. He may not leave the sport with millions in the bank, but there will be food on his table, and he will be remembered.

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