Sunday, November 6, 2011

Weekend Notes (Burns, Bute, Kirkland)

Ricky Burns entered the ring yesterday as a decided underdog against Michael Katsidis. Katsidis' history included stoppages of fellow Brits Graham Earl and Kevin Mitchell. His world-class opposition and Burns' lack of power cemented the odds in favor of the banger from Australia. Additionally, many had seen Burns hurt by Roman Martinez, when he was still at junior lightweight.

However, many boxing observers may have taken the wrong lessons from the two combatant's past history. Yes, Katsidis had faced impressive talents such as Juan Manual Marquez, Joel Casamayor, Juan Diaz and Robert Guerrero, and hurt each of them at points, but his fighting excursions into North America's treacherous lightweight landscape all resulted in losses to these elite opponents. It's true; Burns was hurt in the first few minutes against Martinez and was in survival mode to reach the end of the round. However, he boxed beautifully as the fight progressed and bested a fighter who had a significant power advantage.

What people most underestimate about Burns is his excellent conditioning. They see a fighter who is technically sound, but couldn't hurt a flyweight, let alone a lightweight. But Burns can handle himself in the ring. He has the discipline, chin and psychological fortitude to compete against top pressure fighters and stalkers. This is a significant skill. Katsidis has heavy hands and he had previously dropped several future Boxing Hall of Famers, yet Burns was never seriously hurt by Katsidis' power.

Burns and his trainer, Billy Nelson, had a spectacular game plan in beating Katsidis. Burns had to maintain a high work rate, lead with his jab, mix in combinations and stay off the ropes. For the most part, Burns executed the plan very well, peppering Katsidis with his left hand, either the jab or his left hook. He also mixed in body shots and straight right hands to stymie Katsidis' forward momentum. Burns' lateral movement was also impressive. He kept Katsidis at bay for long stretches by utilizing controlled, side-to-side movement along the ropes; he realized that Katsidis needed to be flat-footed in order to land punches.

Nelson has really perfected Burns' defensive technique. Burns literally blocked and parried hundreds of shots. Using his gloves, arms and elbows, Burns ensured that the overwhelming majority of Katsidis' punches missed their mark. In addition, Burns tucked his chin very well when throwing his quick two or three-punch combinations. He also did a great job of getting in and out of range.

The fight didn't go all Burns' way. I scored it 115-113. Burns' energy level seemed to flag in the middle rounds. By the fifth round, Katsidis was able to trap Burns along the ropes and made a subtle adjustment by digging to the body with left hooks. In the early rounds, which were dominated by Burns, Katsidis tried in vain to start combinations with his straight right hand. The left hand was able to land a little better and it reduced Burns' movement somewhat. However, Katsidis jab was nonexistent and he didn't land enough punches to win the decision.

Accolades should be awarded to the judges (Terry O'Connor, John Stewart and Andre Van Grootenbruel). Too often, judges blindly award points to the fighter who marches forward, regardless of the effectiveness of the aggression. Katsidis was unable to land most of the fight. His punches didn't connect cleanly. His performance epitomized "ineffective aggression." Perhaps Burns didn't win nine rounds, but the judges applied the proper standards when scoring the fight.

At this point in Katsidis' career, if he can't knock someone out, he has a real problem. It's tough for him to accumulate enough points to win fights. Plainly, he's just not an accurate puncher. Katsidis swarms opponents and throws at anything, which is a good strategy to wear fighters down and knock them out, but less so when forced to win via the scorecards. His punches are quite long. His right hand takes forever to find its target. The only short shot he has is his left hook. He also doesn't throw his uppercut or jab too much. In short, Katsidis is a crude brawler, lacking the work rate and infighting skill of someone like Ricky Hatton or the chin of another pressure fighter like a prime Antonio Margarito. Boxers with excellent technical skill can maneuver around Katsidis, and can also hurt him.

I would like to see Burns do two additional things in the ring. He needs to learn to fight off the ropes a little better, or avoid them entirely. He doesn't throw his uppercut regularly and turns into a one-handed fighter in close distance, ignoring his right hand. Along the same lines, Burns doesn't commit as much with his straight right hand as he could. It's an accurate and quick punch, but he throws it just to land, and not to hurt his opponent. Burns will never have menacing power, but he doesn't fully believe in his right hand as a weapon. This will be a problem as he faces better competition.

Credit Burns' promoter, Frank Warren, with matching him against Katsidis. Warren had previously seen two of his prospects, Graham Earl and Kevin Mitchell, stopped by Katsidis. However, Warren has always been an astute boxing observer. He realized that Katsidis could be defeated by a good technical boxer. Most importantly, he gave Burns the opportunity, believing in him, appreciating his skills and talent. Warren had been criticized in the past, perhaps appropriately, for being too protective of his fighters. Here, he let Burns swim in the deep waters and he was rewarded handsomely.

The lightweight landscape features some interesting names that most likely won't be available for Burns. I would be surprised if Robert Guerrero and, to a lesser extent, Juan Manual Marquez ever fight at lightweight again. Another titlist, Brandon Rios, is not the type of war that the Burns' people should pursue. Three interesting names are Urbano Antillon, Vincente Escobedo and Miguel Acosta. All three of them bring different dimensions into the ring and would be interesting fights for Burns as he waits for bigger opportunities. Eventually, domestic battles against Mitchell or John Murray could be fun fights.

George Groves landed a spectacular right hook in the second round against Paul Smith that discombobulated him, leading to the first of two knockdowns. Smith beat the count but Groves finished him off shortly after with a right hand to the temple. For Groves, he is having quite the year. After defeating his nemesis, James DeGale, by the slimmest of margins, he destroyed Smith, a solid professional on the British circuit. After the technical battle with DeGale, it was nice to see Groves unleash some firepower.

That right hook is a sign that Groves could turn into something special. That punch is not often taught to orthodox fighters; it takes longer to land than any other punch in an offensive arsenal. In addition, the right hook can be countered fairly easily if not thrown correctly. Nevertheless, Groves instinctively saw an opportunity to land the punch and placed it perfectly past Smith's out-of-position glove. Groves created his own opportunity. Many could have seen the opening, but how many would have thrown a right hook, and one with such precision and power?

Groves still has some defensive lapses. He sometimes drops his hands when his opponent is in range. He got hit with a couple of big shots at the end of the first round, but he took them well. Groves still needs to gain additional experience, especially against rugged fighters who can give him 12 hard rounds. With an accelerated timetable, he could contend for a title shot by the beginning of 2013. However, his next few fights will dictate how fast Warren decides to move him.

In a wide, ten-round decision, Billy Joe Saunders impressed against Gary Boulden. Facing an opponent with clever defensive technique and solid ring generalship, Saunders did an excellent job in taking what was in front of him and not forcing a knockout. Saunders, a 2008 British Olympian, carried himself well in the ring, especially considering that the fight was just his 11th as a professional. A southpaw, Saunders featured a stiff jab, a sharp left hand and an excellent right hook. He disarmed Boulden at points throughout the fight with his varied combinations. Saunders needs to work on his conditioning and footwork (he can be a little too flat-footed), but the raw elements are there for him to progress quickly in the middleweight division.

Lucian Bute coasted to an easy victory over former light heavyweight titlist (and now super middleweight) Glen Johnson. On paper, it was Bute's toughest fight to date.  Johnson had acquitting himself well in the Super Six tournament. In addition, Johnson had notched victories earlier in his career against big names like Roy Jones, Antonio Tarver and Clinton Woods.

Matchups on paper are great, but in the ring, there were signs of slippage from Johnson. In his previous fight against Carl Froch, he threw only jabs and straight right hands. He had no plan B. He did hit Froch with a few excellent right hands, but he threw only one punch at a time. In addition, Johnson, now 42, wouldn't punch unless his feet were firmly planted. He also was unable to counter Froch's tricky movement and selective engagement.

Bute and his team studied the Froch fight intently. Against Johnson, Bute used subtle footwork and shoulder feints to disrupt Johnson's rhythm. Having sparred many rounds with Johnson in the past, Bute was intimately familiar with his opponent and understood the limited nature of Johnson's offense. Bute was also aware of Johnson's rock-solid chin.

It was a masterful performance by Bute. He featured his right hook as a lead weapon. He scored repeatedly with a right hook-straight left combination. Bute also mixed in his pulverizing uppercuts and punishing body shots. Johnson absorbed all the punches like a pro, but with the exception of his jab, he wasn't able to land anything significant throughout the fight.

Bute does something very interesting with his straight left hand. He throws it solidly, but doesn't overcommit with the punch, landing it at about 75% of its full power. He almost uses the first left hand as a range finder. Bute then will pull it back quickly and throw a few more in rapid succession. There were numerous occasions where he peppered Johnson with three or more left hands in a row.

He still squares up a little bit too much during exchanges. I could envision the sharp, crisp counter right hands of Carl Froch and Andre Ward landing with some regularity.

Bute probably carried Johnson the last few rounds of the fight. There were a few occasions, most notably at the end of the 9th and 10th rounds, where it looked like he had Johnson hurt, but he took his foot off of the gas. Perhaps he didn't want to walk into a shot, but he could have gone after Johnson a little more aggressively in those rounds. However, it was great to see Bute try to close the show in the 12th round. Winning handidly, he could have easily stayed away from Johnson, but Bute decided to give the hometown crowd something to cheer about by throwing hard combinations until the final bell.

At 31, Bute is in his physical prime. He has matured as a fighter significantly, understanding when to take risks and when an opponent needs to be respected. He has developed a full offensive arsenal and can stop fighters in numerous ways. On defense, his footwork, feints and shoulder rolls have reduced the offensive opportunities for his opponents, however limited in skill most of them have been.

It would be a shame if he didn't take on the best in the division after the conclusion of the Super Six. He has the financial clout and local popular support to virtually ensure that any big fight will take place in Montreal or Quebec City. The question is whether his team really wants to face the best, or if they are satisfied making millions against the B+ super middleweights of the world.

For Glen Johnson, if you listened very carefully during the broadcast, you could hear the trumpets solemnly playing "Taps." OK. I kid, but Johnson's career as a top opponent is over. He accomplished far more than his technical skills would indicate. With professionalism, likability, grit and determination, he fashioned a career for himself with only decent, but not exceptional, talent. At his best, he had a great right hand and gave opponents hell with his pressure. His chin was legendary.

Because of Johnson's affability and ring professionalism, networks gave him second and third chances, writers crafted sympathetic stories and fans latched onto one of the unsung heroes of the sport. Without being a highly touted prospect, or having the services of a big-time promoter throughout most of his career, Johnson made a few million dollars, won a title and was a Fighter of the Year.  Not a bad legacy.

I wish Glen Johnson the best and if this is the end, he has provided boxing fans with many wonderful memories. I hope he calls it a day and has a fruitful and fulfilling life outside the ring.

The difference between James Kirkland and Alfredo Angulo last night was preparation. Kirkland, having recently reenlisted with modern warrior/trainer Ann Wolfe was ready to endure the fiercest combat imaginable. Angulo, riding a wave of early-round KOs, believed that Kirkland, who was knocked out in the first round earlier in the year against unheralded Nobuhiro Ishida, would be an easy out.

In the first few moments of round one, it looked like Angulo was correct. He landed a blistering right hand from against the ropes that knocked Kirkland straight back onto the canvas. Angulo followed up aggressively, landing dozens of hard, punishing power shots. At one point, it looked like the referee was about to stop the fight. Unfortunately for Angulo, he completely emptied his tank, throwing well over 100 punches in the round, almost all of them power shots. By the end of the round, Kirkland landed a quick combination of his own against the ropes and pasted Angulo across the ring with straight lefts, uppercuts, and right hooks. Angulo eventually would go down from all of the punishment and, frankly, right there the fight was over.

Kirkland continued to land hard shots throughout the next rounds. The referee finally waved the fight off in the sixth. Angulo absorbed superhuman levels of punishment, but his noted aggression was gone after the first round.

Kirkland had become a myth-like figure as he rose up the prospect ranks. He was a destroyer, a killer. In one respect, he was probably one of the most intimidating fighters since Mike Tyson. Like Tyson, he wound up in jail. He lost two years and upon leaving prison, he left Ann Wolfe (a legendary female boxer) and Austin, Texas for Kenny Adams and Las Vegas. The union between Kirkland and Adams didn't take. Kirkland believed he wasn't being trained hard enough and Adams objected to Kirkland's out-of-the-ring habits and lack of discipline.

Wolfe is a similar trainer to Jesse Reid, who coached numerous champions from Roger Mayweather to Johnny Tapia to Lamon Brewster.  Reid was an expert in motivation. He believed that his fighters had to walk through fire (not literally, although it wouldn't be surprising if that story surfaced somewhere) and endure astounding levels of duress to reach their ultimate potential. It wasn't a training style that worked for all fighters, but with a willing pupil, it was absolutely thrilling to watch. (Brewster's knockout of Wladimir Klitschko would be exhibit A).

Wolfe is the most prominent female coach in the sport and she has perhaps the toughest training methods of anyone in professional boxing. There are many fighters who claim that they train hard, and on some levels they do, but they couldn't survive an Ann Wolfe training camp.

Kirkland and Wolfe have a tight bond that far surpasses a typical trainer-fighter relationship. They have an intensely spiritual connection and when that bond was torn asunder through prison and communication squabbles, Kirkland fell apart in the ring. Wolfe seems to be one of the few people who can get through to Kirkland. With their union now rechristened, perhaps they can finally ascend towards the top rungs of the boxing ladder.

I said towards the top for a reason. Kirkland's defense is non-existent. After throwing combinations, his hands take forever to return to a defensive position, which leaves his entire face exposed. With a suspect chin, he is target practice for an accurate puncher like Sergio Martinez. His offensive assault is impressive but his defensive technique is horrendous.

Nevertheless, it wouldn't be hard to imagine a career like that of Arturo Gatti's for Kirkland. With his brand of offense, he will put butts in the seats and drive television ratings. Pair him against game "B" fighters and he will create sensational knockouts. Step him up against higher competition and he will most likely be stopped, but he will go down swinging. Someone (HBO or Showtime) needs to sign Kirkland to a long-term contract, and fast.    

For Angulo, what else can be said? How about this: when you get outsmarted in the ring by Kermit Cintron and James Kirkland, you are just not an intelligent fighter. Last night, Angulo exhibited no discipline. He saw a wounded animal and went for the kill. And went. And went. And went. When the knockout didn't come, there was no Plan B, just more of the same. He belatedly switched to southpaw later in the fight to try and protect himself, but it was too little too late.  He was already in survival mode by the end of the first round and never recovered.

Even having a legend as his trainer (Nacho Beristain) has not raised his boxing I.Q. Despite last night's outcome, Angulo's stock will not drop too far.  He can still beat a number of quality opponents and his brand of pressure and power will ensure that his name is considered for big fights. Angulo can soldier on in the sport and create a nice niche for himself as a tough guy for hire, but as I see it, he hasn't taken his career seriously enough to ascend to the top levels of the sport. I could be wrong.

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