Monday, June 27, 2011

June Rankings Movement (Froch, Geale, Chavez)

A lot of new names crack the SNB June rankings.  With some great showings from young fighters, the "Bubbling Under List" swells with three first-time entrants.  Also, a rugged veteran turned in a great performance leading to his debut on the rankings list.

Elevated: Carl Froch  With Carl Froch's solid victory over Glen Johnson, he cements his status as one of the three best super middleweights in the world, along with Andre Ward and Lucian Bute.  He lands on the "Fighters on the Cusp" list.  The winner of Ward-Froch will join the SNB Elite Fighters list.

Elevated: Daniel Geale  Upon further reflection, Geale's title-winning victory in Germany over Sebastian Sylvester deserves special consideration.  As the Sturm-Macklin decision further demonstrates, it's not easy to win a decision on the road in Germany.  Geale brings new life into the middleweight division.  Right now, he is on the "Bubbling Under" list.  With a few more victories like the Sylvester one, he can see his stature in the sport rise dramatically.

Elevated: Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr.  True, Chavez is far from an elite fighter, but his entertaining victory over Sebastian Zbik showed that Junior has a fighter's mentality.   He also has a significant fan base, drawing excellent television ratings and selling tickets both in Mexico and in the western United States.  He debuts on the Bubbling Under list.  

Elevated:  Mikey Garcia  Garcia's destruction of Rafael Guzman informed the boxing world that he is ready to take on all comers at featherweight.  Garcia possesses knockout power, solid defensive technique, a cerebral approach to aggression and exemplary counter punching skills.  He makes the SNB Bubbling Under list.

Demoted:  Denis Boytsov  Heavyweight Boytsov has not fought in seven months and has suffered a serious hand injury that has pushed back his return to the ring.  The momentum of his career has stalled.  He leaves the Bubbling Under list. 

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Friday, June 24, 2011

Alexander Needs Skills AND Will for Matthysse

"Lucas Matthysse is one of the most dangerous fighters out there, a big puncher."
                                                    -     Devon Alexander

"I call him Lucas 'the Beast' Matthysse.  I think he's a beast and he has the highest knockout percentage in the division...This fight is a lot more dangerous than the Tim Bradley fight.  Devon has to be on his game.  He is prepared and he has to be focused."
                                       -      Kevin Cunningham, Alexander’s trainer

Team Alexander has the right frame of mind going into this fight.  They are aware of the problems that Matthysse presents.  However, no one knows how Alexander will react to getting hit by Matthysse's first, clean right hand.  Alexander hasn't been protected any more or any less than other modern, American fighters, but he has never faced a puncher of Matthysse's caliber.  Juan Urango could bang but he had a one-dimensional, plodding attack.  Alexander's athleticism and pure boxing skills easily fended off Urango's challenge.  With Matthysse, Alexander faces a cerebral puncher that can move and set up his power shots. 

Matthysse's style is different from a typical knockout artist.  For instance, unlike fellow junior welterweight and Argentine Marcos Maidana, Matthysse employs footwork and uses angles for his attack.  Whereby Maidana marches straight in and absorbs tremendous punishment to land his right hands and uppercuts, Matthysse fancies himself as a craftier, offensive fighter.  Trained by the Sarmiento brothers, who also work Sergio Martinez's corner, Matthysse understands the importance of defense and strategy.  He applies intelligent pressure, but he's not a face-first brawler.  

Maidana and Matthysse also have strikingly different physiques and modes of attack.  Maidana has a loose upper body; his strength comes from his legs.  Matthysse features a chiseled torso and attacks with tight, angular movements.  Maidana wants to trap his opponents along the ropes and go to town with his power shots.  Matthysse uses the ring to set up his right hand, left hook and uppercut.  Matthysse has a jab (although he doesn't throw it as much as he should), whereas Maidana doesn't even pretend to feature one.

Matthysse earned his opportunity with Alexander with his hard-fought loss against Zab Judah.  Judah banked many of the early rounds in the fight – as he always does – but Matthysse came on strong during the second half.  He delivered a crushing knockdown of Judah in the 10th round, yet somehow Judah made it to his feet and survived the rest of the fight.  Many observers thought that Matthysse won the fight, but he had to settle for a majority decision loss.  Judah, fighting in front of his hometown fans, bettered Matthysse on two scorecards by a single point.  

Alexander finds himself in another high-profile main event because he negotiated a guaranteed return fight from HBO as a reward for agreeing to face Tim Bradley.  

The Bradley-Alexander fight disappointed in almost all aspects.  There was very little sustained action.  Most of the fight was spent in close proximity with both boxers failing to land their big shots.  Instead, the crowd was treated to grappling, mugging, head butting and clinching.  Bradley had the right game plan to fight Alexander, who needs space for his jab and uppercut.  Alexander looked uncomfortable fighting in such close quarters.  Curiously, Alexander did not rely on his footwork to create better angles for his attack; he was content to let Bradley march forward and initiate.  

By the middle rounds, it was clear that Bradley was the more aggressive fighter.  After a series of head butts, two cuts opened up on Alexander.  The cuts did not appear to be overly threatening, but nevertheless, Alexander chose not to continue during the tenth round.  The fight went to the scorecards and Alexander lost a clear decision.

It was not Alexander's loss that bothered many in boxing, but the manner in which he fought.  He didn't seem to display much urgency.  He looked completely flustered by Bradley's unbridled aggression.  For some reason, he neglected his uppercut, his money punch.  Alexander also decided to stop fighting in the 10th instead of letting his corner try to work on the cuts.  In short, he didn't rise to the occasion in a title unification fight.  His team, which includes promoter Don King, said as much after the fight.  

Against Matthysse, Alexander has a number of physical and technical advantages  that, if utilized correctly, can lead to victory.  Borrowing from the Judah blueprint, he can pick up some early rounds by starting with his jab and outworking Matthysse.  Alexander must leave the pocket, where he is most comfortable, and rely on his superior footwork, jab and combination punching.  He needs to turn Matthysse and quickly get out of range.  

In the Judah fight, Matthysse afforded his opponent too much respect.  Judah, a notorious frontrunner, is never better than in the first four rounds of a fight. Matthysse seemed content to pace himself in the early rounds and not immediately go to battle.  Perhaps Matthysse's deliberate start could be explained by the fact that he only had one fight last 10 rounds prior to facing Judah.

Against Alexander, Matthysse needs to land something hard early in the fight.  He must take Alexander out of his rhythm.  When in close, Matthysse should use his superior physicality to wear Alexander down by leaning on him and clinching.  Observing Alexander's struggles in the Andriy Kotelnik fight, Matthysse can get to Alexander with unconventional angles and crafty footwork.  Alexander also doesn't possess the same type of knockout power that Judah featured; it would be advisable for Matthysse to push for a slugfest in the later rounds.

Ultimately, this fight will be determined by two factors.  1. Will Alexander fight with the discipline and mental focus needed to execute his game plan for 12 rounds?  2. Will Alexander be able to recover from Matthysse's right hands?  Alexander has the advantages in foot speed, hand speed, technique and experience.  But does he have the internal fortitude to defeat a tricky, physical and aggressive fighter with knockout power?

Kevin Cunningham, who is often Alexander's public mouthpiece, knows the challenges that Matthysse presents for his fighter.  However, inside the ring, it is only Devon Alexander who can win the battle of wills and achieve victory.  The task won't be easy and the outcome of this match will tell us a lot about whether Alexander has a chance to be something special as a fighter, or just another former amateur star who looked surprisingly ordinary without the headgear.

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Monday, June 20, 2011

SNB Polls

Saturday Night Boxing added two polls to the blog.  The polls ask "Who is going to win the Klitschko-Haye fight" and "Who do you want to win in the Klitschko-Haye fight."  The polls are open until July 2nd, 2 p.m EST.  The polls can be found on the top left portion of the blog, directly under the picture.  SNB will periodically display new polls for its readers in this space.  

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Notes from the Alvarez-Rhodes Card

  • The great ones have it.  They have a certain preternatural creativity.  Think of Roy Jones jumping in from the outside to throw five consecutive left hooks and leave the pocket without getting scratched.  In golf, they call it shot-making.  Guys like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson can find the green from impossible angles, shooting from deep in the trees or thick rough.  In basketball, Michael Jordan and Lebron James seem to invent stuff in mid-air that is virtually indefensible.  In hockey, think of Wayne Gretzky's hands and puck control, creating passing angles that are unimaginable. 

  • No, Saul Alvarez is not on this elite level yet.  But his fluidity and creativity in the ring suggest rare gifts.  His combinations come from some special place, where the great ones can size up an opponent, or an obstacle, and think of unique ways to achieve victory.  They see opportunities where others don't.  Alvarez may lack the athleticism of those mentioned above, but his flawless execution of difficult combinations reveal dimensions that are not taught in gyms; they are ingrained within him.  His combination punching demonstrates a supreme understanding of his talents and the weaknesses of his opponents.  He doesn't throw these combinations out of desperation; they seem as basic to him as the old 1-2.  

  • Here are a series of rare – and wonderful – combinations from Alvarez:  In the fourth round, he threw a blistering double left hook-right uppercut just before the he scored his knockdown.  In the fifth, he landed a perfect jab-left hook-straight right hand.  During the sixth round, he pasted Rhodes with a left hook to the body-right hook to the body, right uppercut.  In the eight, in perhaps his best combination, Alvarez scored with a right uppercut-left uppercut-left hook.  Many of these combinations are untraditional.  A lot of great boxers would never even attempt to practice them, let alone throw them in a match.  Yet to Alvarez, they seemed as natural as tying his shoes.

  • Alvarez's uppercut is a special punch.  A great uppercut is almost a lost art in boxing. I think Alvarez and Lucian Bute now have the two best uppercuts in the sport.  Unlike many other fighters with good uppercuts, like Andre Berto or Devon Alexander, Alvarez doesn't need distance to land his.  Alvarez uses his uppercut in a variety of ways.  He uses it to finish combinations, to counter, and to lead from the outside.  Also, he throws the uppercut with both hands.  Again, these are rare gifts in boxing.

  • Alvarez's ring generalship suggests a fighter well beyond his 20 years of age.  Unlike most young champions who make their first title defense at home, Alvarez was not overeager in looking for the early knockout.  He paced himself and systematically landed his combinations with poise and conviction.  He didn't unnecessarily tire himself out winging punches.  He looked so calm in the ring – like he was born to be there.  Watching him, I thought of cagey veterans like James Toney, Bernard Hopkins and Joel Casamayor, who all had that unique ability to look totally relaxed during vicious combat.  Alvarez has that same attribute. 

  • He also demonstrates a willingness and determination to go to the body.  Most young fighters are infatuated with head shots.  They look great on television and often lead to thrilling knockouts.  Again, like a veteran, Alvarez knows that if you kill the body, the head will follow. His left hook-right hook combinations are not flashy shoeshine punches, but committed power shots.  They cause real damage. 

  • Alvarez has made clear strides with his defense.  Jose Cotto and Matthew Hatton were both able to land numerous shots on Alvarez.  Now fighting a real junior middleweight, Alvarez tightened up his defense, blocking a lot of shots and using subtle footwork to take away opportunities for Rhodes.  With the exception of the 11th round, where Alvarez got a little lazy with his guard, Rhodes couldn't find consistent openings to land shots. 

  • In another area of improvement, Alvarez's counters were very sharp, scoring with counter right hands, left hooks and right uppercuts.  In the Hatton fight, Alvarez often overcommitted to his counters, just missing his shots and leaving himself out of position.  Tonight, he stayed composed and countered with shorter shots that were extremely effective.  Alvarez's countering is the main reason why there was not too much toe-to-toe action.  Rhodes couldn't expose himself to that type punishment. 

  • Ryan Rhodes tried hard the whole night.  However, from the second round on, it was clear that the younger man's power was going to be too much for him.  Rhodes didn't throw a confident jab.  He looked like he was afraid at what might come back at him. 

  • He made a number of other technical mistakes that hurt his chances in the fight.  When trying to counter, he stayed too close to Alvarez.  The idea of countering is to make the man the miss and follow with counter shots.  I'm not sure if Rhodes' blueprint of eating four hard shots to try and land one is often taught in gyms.  It's not as if Rhodes is some pressure fighter whose strategy was to wear down Alvarez.  He just stayed in the pocket and ate punches.  Additionally, Rhodes didn't get out of punching distance after throwing his combinations, remaining right in front of Alvarez, which created easy countering opportunities.    

  • Rhodes also didn't have any luck with switching to southpaw.  Many young fighters can get confused when their opponents change stances.  When Rhodes switched, Alvarez immediately went into southpaw mode, hitting him with straight rights to the head and right hooks to the body.  Even after Rhodes' corner implored him to stay orthodox, he would change to southpaw after Alvarez landed powerful combinations, reflexively thinking that the switch would buy him time.  That was a miscalculation.  However, in Rhodes' defense, that tactic would have worked against many young fighters.  He just happened to be in the ring with an abnormally gifted one.

  • I think Alvarez's ultimate ceiling as a fighter may be somewhere around a prime Miguel Cotto – a  mid top-ten pound-for-pound guy.  Alvarez does some things better than Cotto; he has more creative combinations, a larger offensive arsenal and a better uppercut.  In Cotto's favor, he was a spectacular finisher, had one-punch knockout power with his left hook and, at his best, took a good punch.  They both have average foot speed, often fight flat-footed and land their power shots with excellent accuracy.  We'll know more about Alvarez when we see him matched with top-tier fighters who feature difficult styles, such as big punchers, ultra-slick boxers or first-rate pressure fighters.   

  • Looking at the junior middleweight division, it's pretty much smooth sailing for Alvarez.  There are many interesting and potentially competitive fights for him (e.g. Martirosyan, Trout, Angulo and Bundrage).  If I were Team Alvarez, there is only one fighter I would avoid in the division.  They need to steer clear of Paul Williams.  The combination of his size and high-volume work rate might be a little too much for the kid to handle right now.  However, let's take a step back.  Williams is a three-time titlist and has fought and beaten some of the elite boxers in the sport.  The fact that a 20-year-old is even in the same discussion with someone of Williams' caliber reflects how talented Alvarez really is.  

  • Anybody else in the division should be fair game.  (Of course Golden Boy wouldn't do something stupid like putting Alvarez in a catch-weight fight with Sergio Martinez; that wouldn't be a good fight for Alvarez.  But that won't happen).  After tonight's performance, I don't think Top Rank would dream of putting Chavez Jr. in the same time zone, let alone ring, with Alvarez.  

  • Adrien Broner showed excellent finishing skills with his first-round knockout of Jason Litzau.  Broner landed a great right hand at the end of the round and followed up with hooks, uppercuts and crosses.  Broner quickly realized that he had a wounded animal in front of him.  Instead of backing off, showing mercy and winning the round, he went for the kill.  Those few moments taught us a lot about Broner.  Tonight's performance helped remove the stink from his last showing against Daniel Ponce de Leon.

  • The 130-pound division is fairly non-descript.  Perhaps the best strategy for Broner is to win a title fight, beat a couple of top-ten guys in the division and wait for Juan Manuel Lopez and Yuriorkis Gamboa to come up to junior lightweight.  Lopez should be there by the beginning of 2011; Gamboa may follow shortly after.  Broner as a professional has fought at junior lightweight, lightweight and junior welterweight.  He looks very good at 130.  If he can stay at junior lightweight, potential big fights are there for him by end of 2011.   

  • Litzau, who has always had a leaky defense, just got caught.  The round was essentially even until that final flurry.  In a perfect world, he would have immediately tied up Broner, but that first right hand might have caused so much damage that Litzau couldn't effectively recover.  Litzau, as always, is still a game fighter and can beat many people at 130.  His defensive shortcomings remain his Achilles heel. 

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Is Brandon Rios the Next Gatti?

I'm not sure that U.S. boxing television networks know what they have in Brandon Rios.  Here is a first-class American brawler of Hispanic descent fighting out of Southern California – the hotbed of U.S. boxing activity and fandom.  He is brash, makes good copy and fights with one purpose: the total destruction of his opponent.

Like Arturo Gatti, Rios will walk through fire; it's the only way he knows how to win.  Rios' chin is spectacular and the amount of flush shots that he takes leads to instant drama.  He is not superhuman.  He feels the pain, but he takes it and keeps coming forward. 

Trainer Robert Garcia, who also works with two brilliantly skilled fighters, Nonito Donaire and his brother Mikey Garcia, knows what he has in Rios and wisely has not tried to convert him into something that he's not.  What Garcia has is a face-first pressure fighter with immense power and a steel will.  Yes, Garcia could improve Rios' defense and lateral movement but Garcia has made Rios an expert in cutting off the ring and varying punches to the head and body.  Rios fights in a style that you would never teach.  To Garcia's credit, like all the great trainers, he realizes the unique talents of his fighter and adapts accordingly.

Top Rank moved Rios deliberately, placing him on undercards, club shows and their own pay-per-views.  Rios did not mature in a straight line.  Youthful rambunctiousness and some other out-of-the-ring entanglements led to a lot of frustration from the Top Rank head honchos.  There was concern about a lack of focus.  Still, Top Rank plugged along with Rios, getting him his first shot on HBO at the age of 24.  Like so many Top Rank fighters before him, when Rios received his opportunity to fight on a big premium network, he delivered.

Rios announced his arrival onto the world-class boxing scene with a stunning and brutal beat down of Anthony Peterson on HBO. It was a 50/50 fight (although Peterson was a slight betting favorite).

Against Peterson, Rios continued to back him up, firing vicious right hands and left hooks.  It was clear by the fourth round that Peterson, who had the much stronger amateur pedigree, was not prepared for a war.  Rios knocked him down in the fifth and applied constant pressure.  Peterson looked for a way out of the fight and continued to hit Rios with obvious low blows.  The referee had no choice but to DQ him in the seventh round.

So what did HBO do after they found a young, American fighter who turned in a star-making performance on its network?  They let him walk to Showtime.  HBO wouldn't guarantee a return engagement for Rios.  Curiously, HBO had already invested significantly in the lightweight division, prominently featuring Juan Manuel Marquez, Juan Diaz and Michael Katsidis.

After a stay-busy fight with Omri Lowther, Rios was ready for his title shot, facing Miguel Acosta of Venezuela.  What followed was such a savage war that I still lack the superlatives to describe the fight almost four months later.  Acosta, a slick boxer with power who likes to fling awkward-angled shots fighting off of the ropes, was bludgeoning Rios through four rounds.  He threw the kitchen sink at Rios, peppering him with looping rights, left hooks and uppercuts.  Rios was a human piƱata, getting smashed all over his fice and body.  But, he kept coming forward, taking all of the shots.  These were not insignificant punches from Acosta, but crackling blows.

By the fifth round, Rios effectively closed the distance and his shots started to land with regularity.  Acosta couldn't keep up the furious pace of the first four rounds.  Rios connected with damaging right hands and left hooks to the body and head.  A sixth round knockdown took away Acosta's legs.  The beating continued.  It got so bad for Acosta that he was actually knocked down by a jab.  By the 10th round, Rios' relentlessness was too much for Acosta. His eyes were glazed over and he no longer had any snap on his punches.  Rising to his feet, after yet another knockdown, the ref wouldn't let him continue.

Rios fights Urbano Antillon next on July 9th.  Antillon is also a come-forward brawler who fights out of Southern California.  There is bad blood between them.  Typical of a Rios fight, there has been tons of trash talking and many exchanges of colorful and unpleasant words during the build up to the match.   

Antillon waged a fierce battle against Humberto Soto last year.  Although he lost the fight, he gained many new fans.  Many boxing observers selected Soto-Antillon as the 2010 "Fight of the Year."  Rios-Antillon should be another great war.

Showtime is carrying the fight but they've been a little light on the publicity.  If I were they, I would be furiously purchasing billboards in Times Square, Hollywood and any other sensible location to publicize Brandon Rios fighting on their network.  I would run a full media blitz.  Bob Arum usually doesn't make long-term network deals for his fighters anymore but Showtime is missing a golden opportunity to promote one of boxing's finest gladiators.  I'm sure if they really pulled out all of the stops by publicizing Rios to the level in which he deserves, he would be far more inclined to continue to fight on Showtime in the future.

Top Rank needs to find a home for Rios.  His last ten fights have taken place in four different states as well as Mexico.  His fight against Antillon will be his first in California since 2006 – a stunning mistake for a promotional company that prides itself on developing stars with fan followings. 

Top Rank should keep Rios firmly cemented in the greater Los Angeles area or Las Vegas.  After many years, eventually Main Events found a home for Gatti at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.  Top Rank should follow suit and make Staples Center Rios' home base.  Although Rios is not a huge ticket seller right now, by exposing him to perhaps the most passionate fan base in the country, his crowds will quickly rise. 

Also, like Gatti, Rios needs to be matched carefully.  Future fights with Marcos Maidana, Lucas Matthysse or Tim Bradley could be epic.  However, he will have trouble with classic boxer-punchers like Robert Guerrero and Amir Khan.  Luckily, I don't see Top Rank leading Rios to slaughter the same way that Main Events did with Gatti-Mayweather.  (In Main Events' defense, Gatti pressed them to make the fight.)  Properly matched, Rios should produce a half-dozen legendary battles.  I can practically see the fawning documentaries now. 

"Bam Bam" Rios is the real deal.  He's the type of fighter that makes boxing fans purchase tickets or stay home on Saturday nights to watch him.  He's the definition of appointment television.  With the way that Rios fights and the punishment that he absorbs, the shelf light of his career may be short.  But enjoy the ride.  It's going to be thrilling.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Felix Sturm, Comfortable in his Cocoon

Jermain Taylor.  Arthur Abraham. Kelly Pavlik. Sergio Martinez. 

These are the middleweight champions that Felix Sturm has failed to meet in the ring since he captured the WBA middleweight title in 2006.  Over the last five years, he has defended his title 10 times.  His most notable opponent was the top-ten ranked contender, Sebastian Sylvester.  The rest of his title defense list is composed of a bunch of second or third-tier fighters (including American Randy Griffin, who fought Sturm to a draw but lost in a rematch), a slow, old and blown-up Spaniard with a punch (Javier Castillejo, who knocked Sturm out but lost in a rematch) and two tough but limited fighters (Giovanni Lorenzo and Khoren Gevor).    

Sturm's most notable moment in boxing occurred in 2004 when he lost a tight battle to Oscar de la Hoya.  Brought in as a tune-up for de la Hoya's upcoming fight with Bernard Hopkins, Sturm, a massive underdog, showcased his blistering jab and his high work rate to win his fair share of rounds.  Many observers thought that he did enough to secure the decision.  Sturm, who prior to the fight was an obscure middleweight titlist from Germany, “an opponent,” garnered a lot of good will in the sport with his performance. 

Since the de la Hoya loss, Sturm has received countless offers from American promoters, trying to get him to return to the U.S. to make large fights in the middleweight division.  He has refused all advances.  To this day, the de la Hoya match is the only time as a professional that Sturm has left Germany to fight. 

Lou DiBella has been chasing Sturm for years, offering him generous terms to face Jermain Taylor (who beat Sturm in the Olympics) and current middleweight king Sergio Martinez.  Top Rank made a couple of runs at Sturm during Kelly Pavlik's reign.  Golden Boy also tried to match Sturm with Winky Wright.  All were rebuffed.

Meanwhile, Sturm has fashioned a lucrative career in Germany, becoming  a successful ticket seller and a huge TV attraction. 

He didn't just reject American offers for mega-fights.  He also turned down a highly lucrative unification match in 2008 with fellow German titlist Arthur Abraham, who was promoted by Sauerland Event, the chief rival of Sturm's then-promoter Universum Box-Promotion.

In 2009, Sturm decided to leave Universum.  Ensuing litigation followed and he spent more than a year out of the ring.  He returned with a co-promotional deal with Arena Box.  Eventually they split, leading to more billable hours for attorneys (according to Arena Box, Sturm walked away from a $25M offer; Sturm disputes this).  

Sturm now promotes himself.  Even though he was a promotional novice, he brought many significant assets to the table.  His 2008 fight with Sylvester sold over 20,000 tickets and was watched by 6.6 million people on channel ZDF.  For a little perspective, Bernard Hopkins' last fight against Jean Pascal drew 1.8 million people on HBO, which was the network's highest-rated World Championship Boxing broadcast in two years.  Additionally, Sturm’s 2010 fight against Lorenzo drew 5.71 million viewers and his 2011 fight against Ronald Hearns drew 4.74 million viewers.

Earlier this year, Sturm extended a lucrative deal with German cable station Sat. 1.  By most accounts, he will make at least $3M per fight.  There are only a handful of boxers in the world that can consistently make that amount each fight (the Klitschkos, Mayweather, and Pacquiao). 

Sturm's popularity in Germany is entrenched.  He has matinee-idol looks and can be an engaging interview out of the ring. As a fighter, he features an energetic, if somewhat workmanlike, high-volume style. He has an excellent jab, a high work rate and a good left hook. Although he possesses limited power, his style is appreciated by German boxing fans.  

In 2010, Sturm teamed up with Fritz Sdunek, Germany's most famous trainer.  Sdunek coaches Vitali Klitschko and previously trained Wladimir Klitschko and former long-reigning, light heavyweight champion Dariusz Michalczewski.  The matching of Sturm and Sdunek, who rarely takes on new fighters, further affirmed to many in German boxing circles that Sturm possessed unique gifts.     

Sturm fights English boxer Matthew Macklin later this month.  Macklin is a live body and is a top-ten ranked middleweight.  Even though Sturm will be a significant favorite, Macklin is a serious opponent.  Sturm's flaws as a fighter (his lack of power, lapses of focus within fights, inability to fight well going backward) will be tested by Macklin, the boxer-brawler.  It might be a compelling fight, but Sturm should win.   

Over the years, Sturm has been quoted as saying that he wants to return to America and fight the best boxers in the world.  Most recently he talked about the possibility of a fight with Sergio Martinez.  To this point, his actions have consistently belied his rhetoric.  

It is not uncommon for a fighter to be reluctant to travel because of a bad decision that he received earlier in his career.  Roy Jones is perhaps the most well-known example.  After losing the gold medal in the Seoul Olympics, Jones refused to go to Europe to fight Michalczewski and didn't fight abroad until he started to hit the down slope of his career.  However, unlike Sturm, Jones at least faced some of the top talents in boxing, including Bernard Hopkins, James Toney, Mike McCallum and Antonio Tarver.  He also fought top challengers such as Glen Johnson and Clinton Woods.    

Already 32, Sturm has exactly one high-profile name on his ledger – de la Hoya.  At this point, it is not clear that he wants a second one.  With his cushy contract with Sat. 1 and the affinity of an adoring German boxing public, the reasons for remaining in his protective cocoon are quite well understood.  

However, in that one long-ago night against Oscar de la Hoya in 2004, Sturm demonstrated that he is capable of fighting on the world-class level.  He captivated the boxing world as an anonymous boxer who fought valiantly under the bright lights of Vegas.  Yet since that time, Sturm has deprived the boxing public of the biggest fights at middleweight.  Although he is celebrated in Germany, his refusal to face the best has created a bitter aftertaste.  He seems set in his ways.  Boxing's money and accolades have afforded him a charmed life.  But when he wakes up in ten years, watching the fights from a distance in his swanky mansion, will he be filled with pangs of regret because of missed opportunities or will he feel satisfaction in that he milked the fight game for all it was worth?

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Sunday, June 12, 2011

SNB Nuggets (Hopkins vs. Atlas, Mayweather and HBO, Lampley)

Bernard Hopkins and ESPN commentator Teddy Atlas had a minor spat on the May 27th edition of Friday Night Fights.  Hopkins, a guest of the show during his valedictory week after becoming the oldest fighter to win a championship belt, had a significant difference of opinion regarding the quality of his performance against Pascal than did Atlas, who can often be contrarian.  Atlas credited Hopkins with winning the belt, but asserted that his victory was primarily a function of Jean Pascal's mediocre technique and lack of basic boxing fundamentals.  Hopkins essentially claimed that his expertise was the reason why Pascal looked bad in the ring. 

To these eyes, Both Hopkins and Atlas' perspectives have substantial merit.  Atlas' assertion that Pascal is a technically flawed fighter was easily apparent.  Pascal demonstrated in his two fights with Hopkins that he didn't have the conditioning to fight three minutes a round; he also took rounds off.  He practically refused to utilize his jab.  Pascal was obsessed with shooting for knockouts instead of doing the things necessary to win rounds and points.

Hopkins' victory, however, should not be diminished.  Only Hopkins and Carl Froch have been able to exploit Pascal's flaws.  Hopkins exposed Pascal's subpar conditioning by applying pressure and making the fight physical on the inside.  He neutralized an opponent that had better speed and power.  Hopkins' feat was not easy to accomplish.  It is one thing to see that a fighter has flaws; it is another thing to exploit those flaws and emerge victorious.  

Hopkins and Atlas are two headstrong boxing professionals who have a lot of pride.  Don't expect to see flower baskets or apology cards.  However, there is a reason why Hopkins selected Pascal as an opponent.  His flaws were obvious to the veteran master.  

In response to Atlas, Hopkins didn't beat a mere paper champion, but a strong, tough, difficult titlist in his prime.  Yes, boxing is watered down with too many divisions and titleholders, but 46-year-olds don't beat 28-year old champions without special physical attributes and supreme mental fortitude.  

Floyd Mayweather, Jr., Mayweather Promotions and Golden Boy Promotions find themselves in the ideal negotiating position with HBO for Mayweather's fight against Victor Ortiz.  After the embarrassment of losing Manny Pacquiao to Showtime for his last fight, HBO must keep Mayweather at all costs.  Losing the sport's two most famous fighters in a single calendar year would be unfathomable for the "Network of Champions."  HBO's boxing chief Ross Greenburg (not the best negotiator even in ideal circumstances for the network) will have to extend all sorts of dollars, perks and favorable deal points in order to guarantee that Mayweather remains in the HBO camp.

HBO and Mayweather have an interesting history.  Prior to becoming a pay-per-view star, Mayweather signed several long-term contracts with the network.  He often fought less-than-stellar opposition on its World Championship Boxing broadcasts.  The fighter failed to sell tickets during these earlier periods and although he was acknowledged as a supreme boxing talent, Mayweather was not riveting television.

Mayweather in the past has accused the HBO broadcast team of being racist, and has a prickly relationship with Larry Merchant among others.  Yet, Mayweather has always pledged his loyalty to HBO.  When Pacquiao fought on Showtime, Mayweather made a series of disparaging remarks about his rival fighting on a lesser network.  In all likelihood, Mayweather will fight Ortiz on HBO pay-per-view but, behind closed doors, the negotiations should be quite interesting.

This weekend is the annual International Boxing Hall of Fame induction ceremony.  2011's Hall of Fame class features several notable inductees, including Mike Tyson, Julio Cesar Chavez, Sr. and Kostya Tszyu.  Referee Joe Cortez and Sylvester Stallone will be inducted as non-participants.  These are all fine selections (with the exception of Cortez) but the Hall of Fame electorate (various members of the boxing media) continue to diminish the IBHOF with its failure to enshrine HBO broadcaster Jim Lampley.  

Lampley, now in his third decade of calling fights for HBO, is universally acknowledged as the best American broadcaster in the sport.  His memorable calls of Tyson-Douglas and Foreman-Moorer are two of the most famous in the history of televised boxing.   

His skills extend far beyond memorable boxing calls.  He elevates all who work with him on the HBO broadcasts.  He adroitly refereed the on-air bickering between Larry Merchant and George Foreman and expertly handled Roy Jones' lack of preparation.  He also deserves a lot of credit in the evolution of Max Kellerman, who has morphed from an incessant opiner to an incisive observer.  

Lampley's relationship with Merchant (a past inductee into the IBHOF) is special.  The two of them have a tremendous rapport over-the-air.  Lampley understands that Merchant's unique blend of honesty, irascibility and skepticism provides some wonderful nuggets.  He's content to follow Larry's idiosyncratic musings and obscure country music analogies because he knows that there is wisdom at the end of the tunnel.  His entertaining byplay with Merchant and his ability to elicit insights from his broadcast team illustrate Lampley's skills as a listener, his love of boxing and his knowledge of what makes a good broadcast. 

Lampley has also learned from Merchant the power of silence.  It's funny but if you catch an old HBO broadcast during the middle of a fight, Merchant may not speak for an entire round, if not longer.  As the play-by-pay announcer, Lampley cannot go to those lengths.  But unlike almost every other boxing announcer, Lampley understands television's unique ability to capture an image; a picture can say 1,000 words.  He is not afraid of silence and doesn't reflexively gravitate towards canned conversation or unnecessary banter. 

His status in the sport is unquestioned.  Every fight that Jim Lampley calls immediately gains importance.  If he's behind the microphone, the fight is significant.  He holds company with the best American sports broadcasters, a group that includes Al Michaels, Marv Albert, and Mike Emrick.  If Lampley is deemed unworthy of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, then what good is a Hall of Fame? 

Rob McCracken, Carl Froch's trainer, is not one of the bigger names in boxing.  His only current champion is Froch.  Most of his other fighters are lesser Commonwealth-level boxers that pose no threat to the upper reaches of any organization's divisional rankings.

In his fighting days, McCracken was a solid middleweight, winning a Commonwealth title and losing only to WBC titlist Keith Holmes and future world title contender Howard Eastman.  He retired at the relatively early age of 32.

Despite his low public profile, McCracken's stature in the sport is ascendant.  He has gained notice with Froch's continued growth.  McCracken has polished Froch, refining him into an all-around fighter.  Froch is no longer a face-first brawler who beats his opponents with machismo and a first-rate chin.  Under McCracken's tutelage, Froch has learned better footwork, expert countering and many fine points of ring generalship.

Additionally, in 2009, McCracken was selected as performance director and head coach for the Great Britain national amateur team.  This prestigious honor held extra importance because London was chosen to host of the 2012 Olympics.  Great Britain naturally wanted to find a coach that would guide the team to an excellent performance (i.e. medals) on its home soil.  By all accounts, McCracken performed wonders with the GB squad. 

McCracken was forced to resign this post in 2011 because of arcane International Boxing Association's (AIBA) rules that prohibit professional trainers from working the corners of amateur fights.  However, McCracken's work yielded impressive results in international boxing tournamnets and the Great Britain Olympic boxing team is expected to win a number of medals in 2012. 

McCracken will have his next opportunity to shine when Froch fights Andre Ward later on this year.  If Froch wins, or even has a respectable showing, expect to hear a lot more about "boxing Bob" McCracken in the coming years.

There are rumors that Andy Lee will choose the redemptive route for his next bout by fighting Brian Vera in a rematch on HBO.  Lee was a hyped, 15-0, Emanuel Steward-trained prospect before Vera knocked him out in the seventh round of their fight in 2008.  Lee still hasn't recaptured his past status.  His last win against a fading Craig McEwan did very little to improve his position in the boxing landscape.  Tellingly, Lee, a former Olympian, still has to defeat (and defeat soundly) Vera, a marginal but entertaining five-loss fighter, to get back into boxing's good graces.

If Lee were not trained by Emanuel Steward, he wouldn't get these opportunities to fight on premium cable.  To this point, Lee's career has been a disappointment.  His defense is terrible and his footwork is even worse.  His jab is often ineffectual and he seems uncomfortable fighting on the inside.  Lee throws two good punches: an excellent right hook and a sneaky left cross. 

Already 27, it's unclear if Lee will ever be the fighter that many thought he would become.  In several ways he has regressed.  

Lee has one more opportunity to make the boxing community care about him.  If he cannot gain a resounding victory over Vera, then it's time for him to seek other forms of employment and for premium networks to find new, engaging fighters for its boxing programming.    

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