Wednesday, December 7, 2011

8-Fight, Mega-Blowout Weekend Notes

1. Miguel Cotto did much more on Saturday than exorcise his personal demons regarding Antonio Margarito; he rejuvenated his career. He silenced whispers that his days as a top-flight boxer and attraction were numbered. Sure, it must have been personally gratifying for him to dominate the man who handed him his first loss, which perhaps occurred under dubious circumstances. But more importantly, the victory and the huge attendance figure demonstrated that Cotto is still a major factor in the sport.

The most glaring difference in Cotto last weekend was his confidence. After shuffling through three trainers, Cotto finally found a comfort level with new coach Pedro Luis Diaz. Diaz's task was not easy: he had to provide Cotto with the emotional support needed to tackle his nemesis, the physical game plan to win and the conditioning to ensure that his fighter would stay strong throughout the fight.

Like a young fighter, Cotto darted around the ring with sprightly legs. He used lateral movement brilliantly, circling in both directions and refusing to provide a pattern for Margarito, who needed to be flat-footed in order to throw his shots. When retreating, Cotto didn't move straight back. He also stayed off the ropes and moved intelligently, looking for the opportunities to land his quick combinations – most often a left hook followed by a straight right hand. His punches were sharp and purposeful.

He fought with such ease and poise that an outsider would never have guessed that his opponent had made him surrender in their previous meeting. There was no second-half fade; in fact, as the fight progressed, Cotto looked for more opportunities to exchange and trade.

Strategically, Cotto went after Margarito's surgically repaired right eye and by the third round, he opened up an enormous cut. From that point forward, it was target practice. Margarito, never one for defense, was essentially powerless to stop Cotto from aggravating the cut.

Margarito, as usual, gave a valiant effort. He pressed Cotto and flung his looping shots with as much force as he could muster. He couldn't hit the target enough and when he did, it was usually just one shot. I had him winning three of the nine completed rounds, but Cotto was the fighter gathering momentum when the fight was stopped, not Margarito, the boxer who had been known for his second-half comebacks.

For Cotto, this victory opens up a plethora of possibilities. Top Rank had moved him judiciously since his loss to Pacquiao (with very easy wins against Yuri Foreman and Ricardo Mayorga). With Cotto's win on Saturday, perhaps he inspires Bob Arum to make a run at a big gun like Sergio Martinez or Andre Berto. Whomever Cotto faces next, he proved that he is still viable as a big-time fighter. Additionally, the 20,000+ faithful who filled the rafters in Madison Square Garden will give him an enormous home-field advantage for his next big fight.

2. Brandon Rios demonstrated why he is one of the toughest fighters in boxing with his 11th-round knockout over John Murray. By all accounts, Rios was weight-drawn the day before the fight; he failed to make the lightweight limit and looked gaunt and lifeless at the weigh-in. In order for Murray to continue on with Saturday's fight, Rios had to kick in some money and agree to rehydrate only to 145 for a Saturday morning weigh-in.

Murray met Rios in the center of the ring and the two traded vicious power shots. Murray got the better of many of the early exchanges. Perhaps because of the weight problems, Murray thought that he could steamroll Rios. However, his early success was a trap into which many of Rios' opponents have been previously lured. Yes, you can hit Rios with ease, but can you withstand the return fire?

By the 8th round, Murray's face was a disaster; he was not some zealous St. Louis Cardinals fan or an Apache war chief, just another fighter who devolved into a bloody mess from Rios' raw aggression and power. Like Miguel Acosta, Rios' opponent earlier in the year, Murray collapsed liked an accordion in his final moment in the fight. He had fought bravely but without intelligence. He failed to make any adjustments to Rios' pressure or power.

Rios looks beatable on tape. He gets hit at will and makes only token defensive effort. However, his chin, will and self-belief are enormous intangibles that swing fights in his favor. No opponent has successfully neutralized these advantages. Perhaps at junior welterweight the awesome power of Marcos Maidana or Mike Alvarado stymies Rios. These would be dream matchups for fight fans but I feel that Rios would handle himself well in these pressurized crucibles. I think Rios' Waterloo would come against a slick boxer, a cutie.

If I'm Bob Arum, the only boxer at 140 whom I don't put him near is Amir Khan, but I don't think that Golden Boy would place Khan in that type of a fight either, especially with Khan having the possibility of facing Mayweather in the next year. Rios has had an excellent year. He defeated Miguel Acosta, Urbano Antillon and John Murray – three tough guys, but not elite fighters. 2012 will tell us how good Brandon Rios really is.

3. Delvin Rodriguez learned quite a few things from his first fight with Pawel Wolak earlier in the year. He realized that his jab is not good enough to keep Wolak at a distance. Subtle lateral movement would not dissuade him. Finally, the only thing that gets Wolak's attention is hard, menacing power shots thrown with maximum effort.

Rodriguez and Wolak fought to a draw when they faced each other in July. Many observers thought that Rodriguez had done enough to earn a close victory but few argued the verdict. Leading into the rematch, the predominant thought amongst boxing observers was that the second fight would be a mere continuation of the first one – that the two were perfectly matched.

However, in last weekend's fight, Rodriguez demonstrated that he was a class above Wolak. Rodriguez's game plan was exceptional, unloading with uppercuts and lead right hands on the one-dimensional Wolak, who kept coming forward without any attempt at defense. As Wolak worked Rodriguez's body with arm punches and smothered shots, Rodriguez landed picture-perfect combinations. A fighter with a lesser chin than Wolak's would have been knocked into Pennsylvania by the 6th round.

To my eyes, the fight was an easy one to score. Rodriguez landed the cleaner shots and the ones that did more damage. Wolak moved his hands but most of his punches were ineffectual. I scored it 99-91, or nine rounds to one.

We often berate judges for rewarding boxers for ineffective aggression. Let us congratulate John McKaie, Robin Brooks and John Signorile, who scored the fight correctly. For Rodriguez, who has received his fair share of questionable losses throughout his career, it was nice to see him win the well-deserved decision.

4. Mike Jones picked up a workmanlike decision over the tough, but limited, Sebastian Lujan. Jones responded well to Lujan's pressure. He engaged intelligently and didn't let the fight devolve into a phone booth war, which was perhaps the only way that Lujan could have won. Jones displayed a nice set of skills – good balance, a varied offensive arsenal, defensive technique and hand speed. He worked well off the jab and didn't get reckless in order to force a knockout. The 12 rounds were excellent for his development.

The HBO crew remarked that Mike Jones reminded them of Vernon Forrest and the similarities between the two fighters are uncanny. Both boxers are tall, initiate action with their jab, block shots well and have only moderate power. Ultimately, Jones, like Forrest, may lack the spectacular one-punch knockout or singular defining characteristic (e.g. speed, slickness) that endears him to a larger audience. His biggest challenges will be to stay within himself as he faces larger platforms within the sport and to find that one punch or a series of punches that forces his opponents to respect him.

In a division filled with giants like Andre Berto and Victor Ortiz (to speak nothing of the elites like Manny Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather), does Jones have enough firepower to keep the top welterweights at bay? Jones' next fight might be against Randall Bailey for a vacant title; that will be an excellent opportunity to pick up a belt and for his handlers to evaluate his power and chin.

5. Abner Mares won a decisive victory in a rematch over Joseph Agbeko. Their first fight featured an inordinate amount of low blows by Mares and a competent referee should have disqualified him or, at least, penalized him heavily. Mares won their first match, but his victory was seen as illegitimate because of all of his fouls.

Make no mistake, Mares fights dirty. The rematch still featured its share of Mares' fouls. In a display that would have made Bernard Hopkins proud, Mares landed a four-punch combination of illegal kidney punches in the fourth round. Although Mares eased up on the low blows, he still threw enough of them to affect Agbeko's reproductive future.

Agbeko engaged in the wrong fight. Caught up in the machismo of the first battle, Agbeko tried to beat Mares at his own game, winging hooks and power shots in the pocket. Unfortunately for Agbeko, Mares is just better in those areas: Mares' hooks are tighter and harder, he is a much better infighter and he throws short combinations with much more fluidity. It was a rough fight but it was an easy one to score. Mares landed more frequently and with much harder and cleaner shots than did Agbeko.

For Agbeko, this was probably his last real opportunity at the top of the bantamweight division. He defeated Yonnhy Perez in the semifinals of Showtime's bantamweight tournament with a mixture of guile and intelligent pressure. In that fight, he boxed more than brawled and won a deserved decision. Against Mares in their second fight, he was sloppy and demonstrated none of the intelligence with which he employed in their first bout and in his victory against Perez.

Mares is a tough fighter, but he can be hit. He gets reckless when he goes to the body. He leaves his chin exposed and is vulnerable to short uppercuts and hooks. Although he is not a plodder, he clearly prefers fighting in close quarters. He will struggle against disciplined fighters such as Nonito Donaire and Anselmo Moreno.

6. To my eyes, Anselmo Moreno stole the Showtime card. Left out of the network's bantamweight tournament, Moreno destroyed one of Showtime's mainstays, easily outboxing Vic Darchinyan. Moreno displayed a master boxer's craft. He demonstrated tremendous defensive skills but didn't run from the pocket. His upper body feints confused Darchinyan all night. His reflexes were superb; he easily navigated past Darchinyan's unfocused aggression.

Moreno also showcased an exciting offensive arsenal. He butchered Darchinyan with lead right uppercuts and pasted him with right hooks and straight left hands. However, Moreno's best weapon might be his tight, snapping jab, which stymied Darchinyan's attack most of the night. Moreno may not have knockout power, but he has everything else. During the fight, the Showtime crew compared Moreno's defensive ability and slickness to Pernell Whitaker. Usually, when someone likens a current fighter to an all-time master, the comparison sounds silly, yet in this case, it seemed apt.

Golden Boy recently signed Moreno to a promotional contract. However, don't expect a match with stablemate Mares anytime soon. Mares will be kept away from Moreno matched carefully for his next few fights. In fact, I don't think Mares will ever get in the ring with Moreno.

Moreno's record is filled with split-decision victories against fighters with limited name recognition. Don't let the ledger fool you. The Panamanian has won fights in five countries and title fights in four of them, including Germany, where foreign fighters hardly ever keep their belts. In addition, it may take a few rounds for judges to realize how outstanding Moreno's defensive skills really are. Judges are oriented to reward offense, even though defense is one of the four judging criteria. Moreno dominates rounds by making opponents miss and tagging them with an array of punches. He won't knock opponents out but he embarrasses them; for many opponents that's far worse than a trip to the canvas.

7. Alexander Povetkin displayed significant improvement in his 8th-round knockout over untested Cedric Boswell. Povetkin, who previously passed up opportunities to fight Wladimir Klitschko, has undergone a stunning transformation. Before hiring Teddy Atlas as his trainer, Povetkin was a heavyweight who won fights based on his work rate and his active jab. His power was average at best and he committed all sorts of defensive errors, like moving back in straight lines and staying in the pocket without throwing punches.

The union with Atlas has been frustrating at times. Atlas insisted on fighting "C" opponents while Povetkin seemed confused in the ring. Povetkin was thinking too much and was not fighting fluidly. He looked like a student who had crammed all night before a test, hoping that he could apply all of the useful information that was floating around in his head, but not too confident about that proposition.

Against Boswell, it all came together. Instead of throwing harmless punches in volumes, Povetkin reduced his output and looked for opportunities to cause damage. His featured punch was a blistering left hook, not an ineffectual jab. His combinations were fluid, throwing the right hand and a right uppercut after the hook. On defense, he was responsible, avoiding most of Boswell's hooks, which were his only consistent power punches.

Povetkin may never have Klitschko-type power and he certainly doesn't have their size, but he would probably be favored against any other fighter in the division. Atlas clearly doesn't want him to face one of the Klitschkos but there are many other fun fights for him in the division, including Tomasz Adamek, Chris Arreola and Tyson Fury.

8. Robert Helenius was awarded a gift decision against Dereck Chisora in a fight where Helenius won at most four rounds (it was a 12-round fight). Sauerland matched Chisora with Helenius after Chisora had lost a fight with Tyson Fury earlier in the year. In that bout, Chisora was beaten to the punch and outworked. It seemed like a safe-play for Sauerland.

However, Chisora came into the fight against Helenius 15 pounds lighter than he did against Fury. Also, Chisora and his trainer, Don Charles, had the perfect game plan for Helenius. From watching tape, they realized that Helenius can throw a lazy jab and doesn't use his uppercut that much. Additionally, Helenius can be a slow starter, who feels out opponents before gradually unleashing his power shots. Charles had Chisora jump on Helenius. He landed frequently with looping right hands to the head and left hooks to the body.

Chisora demonstrated excellent infighting skills. He found opportunities to land his uppercut and went to the body whenever possible. He wouldn't allow Helenius to extend his arms and have the space to throw his power shots. Helenius seemed confused as the fight progressed and was clearly uncomfortable with all of Chisora's body shots.

After the fight, Helenius claimed that he had hurt his right hand in the second round. That may be true but if so, why was his jab so ineffective? Where was his left hook? Injuries are a part of boxing and Helenius did not show the mental toughness of an elite fighter. Sure, he won the decision, but it was a joke.

Sauerland was moving Helenius as fast as possible prior to the Chisora fight. With only 17 professional fights, Helenius had already knocked out three former titleholders. However, with Chisora, he was facing a young fighter looking for more than just a paycheck. Most likely, Sauerland will have to take a step back with Helenius (unless a rematch with Chisora is ordered). The fighter needs to firm up his jab and increase his work rate. In addition, he now has to figure out how to beat a pressure fighter. Luckily for him, there aren't too many pressure fighters in the heavyweight division.

Finally, it is not easy to beat a Sauerland fighter or fighters with German-based promoters in Continental Europe. Perhaps, the quality of judges has not caught up to the burgeoning European fight scene. Maybe, the judges and refs are a little too comfortable with their perks from the fight weekend. Adrio Zannoni refereed the Helenius fight horribly, finding every opportunity to scold Chisora or separate the fighters for no apparent reason. Chisora probably thought that he was fighting two men in the ring. With the dubious verdict of the judges, he was actually up against five.

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