Monday, December 12, 2011

Notes from Khan-Peterson

Let's begin at the end.  Referee Joe Cooper's point deduction in the 12th round was unnecessary and essentially determined the outcome of the fight.  Yes,  Amir Khan was pushing all night and participated in all sorts of illegal tactics.  I had no issues with Khan's point deduction in the 7th round.  However, Cooper needlessly imparted himself into the action of the fight in the last round, like he was itching to deduct a point.  Khan's shoving did not damage or cause harm to Lamont Peterson.  Furthermore, Cooper had to know that the fight was close. A referee should have only deducted a point in that instance to protect the integrity of the fight, but Cooper's unnecessary deduction wound up swinging the fight from a draw to a Peterson victory.  

The best boxing refs are unobtrusive; they do not make themselves the story of a fight.  Points should be deducted only when it is absolutely essential to provide proper punishment for flagrant rules violations.  Cooper's performance will not be exhibited in any referee instructional DVD anytime soon. 

I had Khan winning the fight 114-111, or 8-4, with the two point deductions for Khan and Peterson losing a point for the first-round knockdown.  However, many of the rounds, especially 2, 4, 10, 11 and 12, were close.  To my eyes, Khan won the last four rounds of the fight by landing more and frustrating Peterson with his movement.  But I fully admit that seeing the fight live in Washington, D.C. could have led to a different verdict on my scorecard.  Peterson was throwing and landing the harder shots.  Obviously, two of the judges felt that Peterson's power punches were more worthy of winning some of the close rounds than Khan's flashy flurries.  Ultimately, I had no problem with the three scorecards: 113-112 (x2) for Peterson and 115-110 for Khan; they were all respectable verdicts.  With no point deductions, Khan would have won the fight by a tight, unanimous decision, but I suspect that most referees would have deducted at least one point from him throughout the match.

At first, Khan tried to win the fight following the template he used against Zab Judah.  He fought in the pocket and tried to overwhelm Peterson with fast combinations and power shots.  He dominated the first round, but by the 3rd, the fight had devolved into the type of war with which he was uncomfortable.  By the 5th, Khan changed tactics: he fought Peterson mostly as a stick-and-move guy.  He used selective engagement, quick combinations, his legs and the ring to his advantage.  When Peterson was able to catch Khan, there were furious exchanges; when he couldn't trap him, Khan won rounds based on his ring generalship.

For Peterson, he acted as a destroyer – a role which was unusual for him.  Peterson usually beats opponents in the center of the ring and uses his superior boxing skills and solid power.  He is not an overly aggressive fighter by nature.  However, Peterson's trainer, Barry Hunter, went to the whip between rounds and used a number of motivational tactics to convince Peterson to apply pressure and up his work rate.       

Peterson kept his attack downstairs almost the entire night, pasting Khan with left and right hooks to the body whenever he could cut off the ring.  Along the ropes, he followed with lead right hands over the top.  He threw those right hands with maximum force and landed them often on Khan's chin.  Peterson's not an enormous puncher, but his power was enough to make Khan use his bicycle most of the fight.

For Khan, this is a major setback.  Again, he didn't fight badly and with a neutral ref, he most likely wouldn't have lost the match.  However, Khan fancies himself as an elite fighter and elite fighters are supposed to dominate Peterson the way that Tim Bradley did. 

Prior to Peterson, Khan was having a solid year with victories over Paul McCloskey and Zab Judah.  If he beat Peterson, he was certainly a candidate to face Floyd Mayweather or the other elite welterweights in 2012.  But unfortunately, Peterson exposed some issues that Khan must address; the fights with boxing's elite will have to wait.

I see three major areas in which Khan needs to improve: 1. He backs straight up into the ropes, but he doesn't know how to fight there. 2. He must settle on a ring identity that gives him the best chance to win.  3. He must improve in employing boxing's "dark arts."  

Since the Maidana fight, Khan has displayed a bizarre tendency where he will retreat to the ropes without throwing shots.  At first, it was thought that this was a conditioning problem.  However, against Peterson, Khan didn't seem to have any particular conditioning issues.  For some reason, he voluntarily encouraged Peterson to fight him along the ropes.  It was like Khan did a "self rope-a-dope," where he was both the Rope and the Dope. 

Khan doesn't throw a lot of shots in these circumstances but takes enormous punishment.  It's a very strange and altogether unsuccessful, bad habit.  There have been boxers who have fought wonderfully off the ropes; Muhammad Ali, Roy Jones and James Toney are three examples – but Khan is just awful in this area.

Khan's best, recent performance was against Zab Judah where he stayed in the pocket and sat down on his shots.  Against Peterson, Khan was so determined to stick and move that he didn't land anything of substance in the second half of the fight.  Yes, he connected with a few lead left hooks and straight right hands, but the majority of his punches were amateur-style shots, which connected but didn't do much damage.  If the computers were scoring clean, landed punches, he would have won those rounds easily, but alas, he is still at the mercy of professional boxing rules and human judges.  

If Khan doesn't want to trade in the pocket, he will have to adapt his style.  Many fighters have tailored successful careers by using pure boxing skills like superior punch placement and technique, ring generalship, movement and tight defense.  Unfortunately for Khan, those types of boxers don't summon their opponents into the corner.  Ultimately, Khan and Freddie Roach have to determine what kind of fighter he wants to be.  As macho as Khan may think he is, his actions in the ring suggests that he is much more of a pure boxer instead of the classic, American-style boxer-puncher.  

Throughout the fight, Khan fouled in numerous ways.  From kidney punches, to using his forearm, to shoving, to headlocks, to low blows to hitting off the break, Khan left no stone unturned except for head butts.  A meddlesome ref, like Jay Nady of Las Vegas, would have penalized him all night.  As I stated earlier, I had no qualms with Cooper's point deduction in the 7th; it was essentially an accumulation of fouls from the prior rounds. 

The best practitioners of the "dark arts" of boxing, like Bernard Hopkins, Joel Casamayor and Floyd Mayweather, don't often get penalized for their infractions.  They know when to cross the line and how to cover up their fouls.  Their maneuvers are often subtle and utilize the ref’s positioning to gain an unfair advantage.  With Khan's performance against Peterson, perhaps only a blind ref would have refused to have deducted points.  Listen, any tough guy can throw an elbow or shove someone away, but only the masters of the craft can consistently get away with these infractions.

For Peterson, he dug down deep in the last few rounds and applied the pressure needed to keep the fight close.  In addition, he displayed resiliency by getting off the canvas and fighting hard.  However, I still think of him as a tweener.  He's good enough to beat the "B-level" fighters and will struggle against the elites.  He does a lot of things well but nothing great.  He has solid boxing technique; however, he doesn't have great hand speed.  Also, he lacks a knockout punch.  He has good defensive skills but he can be hit.  Perhaps, most distressingly, he has not always demonstrated the mental toughness or focus needed against top opponents.

Peterson might turn out to be a classic spoiler, like Orlando Salido, Carlos Molina or Carlos Quintana – he can beat good fighters on their off-nights and take care of the second-rate guys.  However, as his subpar performances against Tim Bradley and Victor Ortiz demonstrate, I still see him struggling against the elite.

Nevertheless, because of his shiny new title belt, engrossing personal story and professionalism, Peterson will eventually retire from boxing having made millions of dollars.  For a man who grew up homeless at times, his dedication and perseverance exemplify the best of the sport.

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