Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Boxing in 2011: Blemishes and Glory

Think about boxing in 2011. How many elite fighters survived the year unscathed? Manny Pacquiao started that year as unbeatable and ended 2011 as a mortal, an excellent mortal, but a mortal nonetheless. Floyd Mayweather returned to the sport briefly to defeat Victor Ortiz. He ended the year making preparations for a brief stay in a Clark County correctional facility.

Amir Khan fouled his way to a loss. Devon Alexander went from one of the emerging fighters in the sport to something much less. A long-time champion, Omar Narvaez, finally got the big fight he had been waiting for his whole career, but instead decided to just collect a payday. After the fight, he hoisted his arms up in victory when he should have left the arena in shame. David Haye failed to show up in the biggest fight of his career. Giovani Segura seemed to be one of the elites in the smaller weights before running into Brian Viloria. Zab Judah found an opportune moment with a borderline shot to get out of a unification bout.

Four of the best boxers in the sport (Nonito Donaire, Tim Bradley, Anselmo Moreno and Nkosinathi Joyi) spent a large portion of the year entangled in promotional problems.

Even fighters who performed well in 2011 ended the year with various sources of pain. Bernard Hopkins separated his shoulder. Robert Guerrero tore his rotator cuff. Wladimir Klitschko had kidney stones. Andre Ward broke his hand. Erik Morales needed gallbladder surgery. There was carnage all around.

A few of the top fighters in boxing survived without major blemishes during the year, but did not find worthy opponents to add to their respective legacies. To many, Yuriorkis Gamboa failed to inspire against Daniel Ponce de Leon. Sergio Martinez and Vitali Klitschko used 2011 to mark time, with their best opponents (Sergiy Dzinziruk and Tomasz Adamek) unable to make competitive showings. Lucian Bute continued his march to irrelevancy by fighting second and third-tier fighters.

The sport's top events in 2011 all involved some form of controversy that lessened their ultimate impact. Shane Mosley didn't deserve a fight against Pacquiao and decided not to engage him. Haye blamed his listless performance on a broken pinky toe. Ortiz was more interested in hugging and butting Mayweather than defending himself. Juan Manuel Marquez was again left as a jilted lover, scorned by the Nevada judges. Perhaps the cleanest mega-event of the year involved a boxer (Antonio Margarito) who was previously banned for using illegal wraps. No, that is even too simple a formulation. The fight was clean, but there were significant questions of whether he should have even been licensed to fight because of a detached retina in his previous bout.

British boxing had a poor year with almost all of its top fighters suffering losses (Haye, Khan, Froch, J. Murray) or receiving dubious verdicts from international judges (Chisora, Macklin and M. Murray). Nathan Cleverly and Ricky Burns were bright spots in a year of British bleakness at the world-class level, but even they have significant questions about whether they can compete at the top levels of the sport.

2011 lacked clarity. Confusion reigned. Who we thought were the best boxers in the sport is far less certain at the end of the year than it was at the beginning.

And it was not just the boxers who suffered blemishes. Referee Russell Mora refused to deduct any points for the dozens of low blows that Abner Mares landed on Joseph Agbeko. Joe Cooper decided to take a point away in the 12th round against Amir Khan for pushing! New Jersey suspended its three judges after the Williams-Lara fight and the three international judges for Helenius-Chisora should receive the same fate.

In 2011, Golden Boy Promotions initiated calls for so many investigations that I half-expected them to insist in reopening the Kennedy assassinations. Even rival Bob Arum, with his vast Justice Department experience, would have remained mum over the Khan-Peterson outcome. Nevertheless, in two of the biggest robberies of the year (Williams-Lara and Alexander-Matthysse), Golden Boy hardly uttered a peep in defense of their wronged fighters.

Top Rank continued to find ways not to make Pacquiao-Mayweather. Instead, Bob Arum decided on two opponents for Pacquiao in 2011 that the promoter denigrated in 2010 for being unworthy of his star fighter. In addition, while Top Rank continued to keep Gamboa and Juan Manuel Lopez away from each other, Lopez got knocked out, ruining any chance of a mega-fight between the two.

Frank Warren lost another promising fighter (Kell Brook) – this time to an English promoter. Gary Shaw decided to stage Bradley-Alexander in an indoor barn and subsequently lost Tim Bradley. Dan Goossen emerged with a bona fide star (Andre Ward) but hasn't figured out how to promote him. Lou DiBella spent most of the year getting outflanked and outwitted by Top Rank in the Sergio Martinez-Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. machinations. Sauerland kept plugging along in Germany but amassed more dubious decisions for its fighters (Hernandez-Cunningham and Helenius-Chisora to name two). Soon, it's going to be a lot tougher to get international opponents on its cards.

Both HBO and Showtime lost their heads of boxing programming. Ross Greenburg "resigned" from the former while Ken Hershman left the latter to become HBO's top guy. Greenburg's legacy of non-competitive fights and favoritism couldn’t overcome the other laudable achievements of his tenure, which occurred outside of the realm of boxing. Hershman leaves Showtime with less baggage than Greenburg did, but the Super Six was Hershman's brainchild. That tournament died a slow death of inertia and small-minded marketing. Even with two years of build-up and tens of millions of dollars of investment, the Super Six finals only drew about 500,000 American TV viewers.

But 2011 was also about another story: glory. Andre Berto suffers his first loss and comes back to win another title. Ortiz enters the year as almost an afterthought and then displays the performance of his career against Berto. Jorge Arce and Erik Morales ignore father time and calls of retirement to string together some of the most memorable years of their respective careers. Hopkins, all 46 years of him, uses all his guile and technical craftsmanship to become the oldest fighter to win a major title. Ward survives a grueling two-year tournament to win the Super Six. Viloria establishes himself as the number-one flyweight after getting stopped last year.

2011 was about Hernan Marquez and Victor Ortiz getting off the canvas to make definitive career statements. It was Akira Yaegashi and Pornsawan Porpramook waging a fierce war in Tokyo. It was Brandon Rios getting his face bashed in for five rounds against Miguel Acosta before turning the tide. It was Ricky Burns expunging the collective nightmares of Michael Katsidis' past British foes. It was Bernard Hopkins doing push-ups while waiting on a tiring Jean Pascal. It was Teddy Atlas cajoling Alexander Povetkin to dig down deep and win his first championship. It was Wladimir Klitschko ignoring the verbal taunts and abuse from David Haye and exposing him as nothing more than a mouth at the heavyweight level. It was Emanuel Steward exclaiming "Oh my Gawd" after Ortiz dropped Berto in the sixth round. It was Tony Bellew putting forth the fight of his career against Nathan Cleverly. It was Nonito Donaire escaping from Manny Pacquiao's shadow by flattening Fernando Montiel. It was Anselmo Moreno asserting his dominance over Vic Darchinyan. It was Miguel Cotto avenging his loss to nemesis Antonio Margarito. It was Orlando Salido refusing to believe he was a journeyman. It was Juan Manuel Marquez confirming his status as an all-time great. It was Rico Ramos and Andy Lee uncorking vicious knockouts in fights they were losing. It was Sergio Martinez and Yuriorkis Gamboa sending Sergiy Dzinziruk and Jorge Solis to the canvas repeatedly. It was George Groves spitting on the Olympic pedigree of his boyhood rival. It was Jorge Arce turning back the clock. It was Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.'s proving that he's a professional. It was Saul Alvarez signaling that he's Mexico's new star. It was James Kirkland persevering after prison, a loss and a knockdown to crush Alfredo Angulo. It was Lamont Peterson digging to the body just enough to hoist a title belt and erase the specter of homelessness that plagued his youth. It was Erik Morales and Marcos Maidana battling mano-e-mano in the center of the ring with power shots. It was beautiful.

Certainly, 2011 was not a clean year for boxing. All boxers and stakeholders were seemingly knee-deep in the muck. But for the most part, the greats fought their way out. The year created some great fights and lasting memories.

Here's what I know: Andre Ward, Nonito Donaire, Yuriorkis Gamboa and Brandon Rios are a foursome of young fighters to be reckoned with. Amir Khan, Devon Alexander and Juan Manuel Lopez are not yet ready for the big time. And maybe by 2015, somebody will retire Bernard Hopkins or beat the Klitschkos. But I wouldn't bet on it.

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