Wednesday, November 30, 2011

November 2011 SNB Rankings Update

The most significant fight of November was the third match between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez. The decision ended controversially with Pacquiao winning by majority decision. Despite Pacquiao's status as an overwhelming favorite entering the fight, his contested win does not change his status as an SNB Elite Fighter. For Marquez, his excellent showing (even with the loss) is more than enough to maintain his elite position in the SNB Rankings. In addition, Adrien Broner reappears in the SNB Rankings after strong performances in his last two fights.

 
Sustained: Manny Pacquiao  Pacquiao's performance against Marquez was not one of dominance, but one of competence. He was aggressive and active enough to win a majority of rounds from two judges. Although the decision was controversial, it was not unjust. Credit should be given to Marquez for Pacquiao's frustrations; remember, Marquez entered the fight in many top-5 pound-for-pound lists as well. Pacquiao retains his status as an SNB Elite Fighter.

Sustained: Juan Manuel Marquez All losses are not created equally. Marquez has yet to beat Manny Pacquiao, yet most boxing observers believe he has won at least one, if not two of their three fights. Marquez's game plan, defense and counterpunching were sensational in the third fight. At 38, Marquez is still one of the top boxers in the sport.  He remains an SNB Elite Fighter.

Elevated: Adrien Broner Earlier in the year, Broner was removed from the SNB Rankings because of his lackluster performance against Daniel Ponce de Leon. He won the fight, but many thought he received a gift decision. In hindsight, perhaps the rising prospect was overmatched at that point in his career. Since that fight, Broner has rebounded with two resounding victories over Jason Litzau and Martin Rodriguez, scoring sensational knockouts in each fight. Broner, now a junior lightweight titleholder, moves back into the SNB Rankings on the Bubbling Under list.


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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Notes from Alvarez-Cintron, Broner-Rodriguez

Saul Alvarez demonstrated remarkable poise last night against Kermit Cintron. Cintron wisely started the fight throwing scores of jabs. Perhaps one way to defeat Alvarez is to simply outwork him. By throwing tons of punches in the first two rounds, Cintron was hoping to land enough to rack up points. Through the first two frames, the strategy was working. However, like a seasoned pro, Alvarez didn't let Cintron's high work rate dissuade him from his game plan. He looked for opportunities to land his three and four-punch combinations. He didn't force his shots or try to match Cintron's output; he patiently waited for his openings. Even in the final round when Cintron was winging desperate power shots, Alvarez did not let the fight devolve into a war. He seemed almost relaxed during Cintron's final stand and continued with his methodical approach.

Alvarez countered Cintron's jab beautifully throughout the fight, throwing a perfect right hand over the top of his opponent's jab. The punch landed with pinpoint accuracy. Alvarez scored his knockdown in the fourth with that same counter right. After the knockdown, Cintron dispensed with his jab almost entirely. Alvarez's counter shots may be the most impressive technical aspect of his game.

Facing a taller boxer who preferred to fight at a distance, Alvarez expertly adapted his offensive approach last night. He left his lead uppercuts in his pocket, which was the right decision because Cintron was too far away and too tall for them to land. This may seem like a basic point but Alvarez took what was given to him. This aspect further demonstrates Alvarez's boxing intelligence. Unlike many fighters, he hasn't fallen in love with a particular punch. Some boxers, for instance, love their left hook. They will throw it even when it's not appropriate or would put them at greater risk. They just love their left hook and damn it, they are going to throw it. Alvarez has matured beyond this point. The lead uppercuts weren't there, so he didn't force them. Again, this illustrates high-level decision making.

Cintron was able to land some good shots. He cracked Alvarez with a nasty left hook in the second round and landed some more hooks and right-hand haymakers in the fifth. Alvarez, to his credit, took the punches well and he remained steadfast with his fight plan. Alvarez's defense certainly wasn't impenetrable but he reacted well to getting hit. 

For Cintron, he didn't have the confidence to commit to his right hand until it was too late in the fight to make a difference. He tried to beat Alvarez with just a jab, which isn't enough against high-level boxers. As early as the first round, he seemed acutely aware of Alvarez's skill at counterpunching.  As a result, Cintron was reluctant to throw his power shots. 

Under Ronny Shields, Cintron had made improvements as a technical boxer, but last night he didn't have the fluidity or creativity to outbox Alvarez from the outside. Sure, he could out-land Alvarez with his jab, but Canelo's power punches had a much greater effect on determining the winner of each round and the overall tenor of the fight.

This marks the end of Cintron's career as a viable, top-level boxer. As a prospect and young champion, he tantalized so many in the boxing community with his crushing right hand, size and athleticism. His career is a valid reminder that the intangibles – psychology, self-belief and will, to name three – play a supreme role in separating prospects from elite fighters. In many ways, if you were constructing a boxer from scratch, you would give him Cintron's height, reach, power and body, but certainly not his psychological or emotional attributes. 

Alvarez is ready for anyone at junior middleweight. Golden Boy should have the confidence to match its meal ticket with the best in the division. Alvarez may not win fights against every one of the top junior middleweights, but he's certainly in their class. In 2012, Golden Boy needs to take its shiny new car out of the garage and give it a ride. It may get nicked up or scratched but what good is having a fine automobile if you never take it out on the open road.

Adrien Broner scored a spectacular knockout last night against Martin Rodriguez. He landed a lead right uppercut near the end of the third round that instantly dazed his opponent and pushed him back towards the ropes. Broner followed with a series of shots: overhand rights, left hooks to the body and straight right hands. He ended the sequence and the fight with a perfect left hook on the chin. Rodriguez wasn't even close to beating the ten count.

Broner had a tough match earlier in the year against Daniel Ponce de Leon, where he won a debatable decision (he may have been overmatched at that point in his career). During that fight, he looked tentative and was uncomfortable with Ponce de Leon's aggression. However, in his last two fights against Jason Litzau and Rodriguez, Broner displayed all of the attributes that have excited many boxing observers. His package of power, athleticism and technical skill is an electrifying one.

Perhaps the most important decision that Broner needs to make in the next year is what kind of fighter he wants to be. Last night he had excellent moments in the first round when he led exchanges. His jab and left hook were too fast for Rodriguez. However, Broner seemed more comfortable fighting as a counterpuncher, although he did get hit with several sharp right hands and left hooks while in counterpunching mode.

Hopefully, Broner learns the finer points of leading and countering. There are certain fighters, like Chad Dawson, for instance, who get confused – fight by fight, round by round and minute by minute – with what they want to do in the ring. Skills are wonderful but expert fighters develop the instinctive fluidity and connectedness between the mind and body. At their best, there is no hestitation in the ring. Broner's not there yet, but he's young and he has a lot of time to make strides in this area.   


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Thursday, November 24, 2011

SNB Nuggets (Lara, Trout and Wolak)

When Erislandy Lara faced Paul Williams in July, he was clearly brought in as the "opponent." The fight appeared on a Goossen Tutor Promotions' HBO date, not one of the many TV slots given to Lara's promoter, Golden Boy. In addition, Williams was the HBO fighter, he was managed by boxing powerbroker Al Haymon and he had appeared in Atlantic City recently and memorably against Sergio Martinez. In short, Lara wasn't supposed to win the fight.

A Cuban defector and former amateur star, Lara was also selected to face Williams because of a listless performance in his previous bout against the non-descript Carlos Molina. In that fight, he escaped with a draw and he certainly could have lost. After the Molina bout, Lara's conditioning and focus were called in to question.

Nevertheless, with all of the cards seemingly stacked against him, Lara dominated Williams. He picked Williams apart with his sharp counterpunching, which featured solid, straight left hands and right hooks. Somehow, the judges awarded Williams a majority decision in what was one of the most scandalous verdicts of 2011. Even the boxing observers who were most generous to Williams found only five rounds to give to him; most boxing enthusiasts (including the HBO broadcast team) had Lara cruising to an easy victory.

In the aftermath of the decision, Golden Boy and the boxing community was full of righteous indignation. In an unprecedented move, the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board suspended the three Williams-Lara judges. Lara gained more prominence in the sport with his loss than with any of his previous victories. However, despite the career boost from his strong performance, Lara has remained inactive.

Golden Boy has had numerous opportunities to showcase and further support Lara in the fourth quarter of 2011, but the company has kept him on ice. To Golden Boy, Lara is not as important to the company as many of its other young fighters, such as Amir Khan, Saul Alvarez, Jorge Linares, Danny Garcia, Gary Russell Jr., Adrien Broner and Seth Mitchell. 

According to Lara's trainer, Ronnie Shields, several fighters have turned down the opportunity to face Lara in the second half of 2011 (Alfredo Angulo, James Kirkland and Vanes Martirosyan). Nevertheless, Golden Boy has had many undercard and co-feature slots in the fourth quarter. If the company really wanted Lara to fight again in 2011, it would have ensured it – even if it meant off TV on one of its big fight cards. In addition, if Lara really were important to Golden Boy, why haven't the company's principals (Richard Schaefer or Oscar de la Hoya) taken Lara's case to the media? Why haven't they brought additional attention to their fighter or publicly shamed other boxers for avoiding him?

Golden Boy is heavily invested in Saul Alvarez at junior middleweight but has very few top-level fighters in Lara's surrounding weight classes (the company is wisely keeping Alvarez far away from Lara). If Golden Boy believes in Lara, and it should, then it has to find boxers who are affiliated with other promoters in order to get Lara fights. Golden Boy, like Top Rank, prefers controlling both boxers in a match, which leaves the company with less promotional risk. Nevertheless, Schaefer will have to play nice with others to ensure that Lara remains active.

Lara, like most Cuban boxing defectors, doesn't have a natural, built-in fan base and has had a difficult time attracting mass appeal beyond diehard fans of the sport. He doesn't feature the flamboyant personality or boxing style of a fellow Cuban like Yuriorkis Gamboa and doesn't speak English, which makes it more difficult for him to cross-over to a broader number of American boxing fans.

However, Lara does have real knockout power and first-rate technical boxing skills. In fact, coming into his fight against Molina, he had knocked out four consecutive opponents in the first round.

For Lara, 2012 should be a pivotal year. There are a number of compelling matchups for him at junior middleweight. With a couple of strong performances, he could cement his status as one of the top fighters in the division. If Golden Boy demonstrates the same indifference to his career in 2012 as it has in 2011, Lara should strongly consider buying himself out of his promotional contract. On the open market, his combination of power and technical boxing skills should make him an attractive commodity. Regardless of what happens with his promotional situation, Lara should be a top fighter for several years.

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Austin Trout debuted on U.S. premium cable earlier this month on Shobox, Showtime's series which focuses on prospects and younger fighters. On one hand, it's unusual for a titleholder to appear on Showtime's lesser series, but for Trout, a fairly anonymous New Mexican fighter whose biggest triumphs have occurred outside America, he badly needed an opportunity for U.S. TV exposure.

His night was a resounding success.  He performed excellently against a limited fighter from Australia, Frank LoPorto. He knocked LoPorto down in the first and was moments away from getting a stoppage in the opening round. LoPorto lasted until the sixth round but he was essentially target practice for Trout's pinpoint left hands, uppercuts and right hooks. Trout clearly outclassed LoPorto, demonstrating excellent lateral movement, defensive skills and a varied offensive attack. He certainly helped his career with that performance.

Trout fits in well against any of the top junior middleweights. He was an alternate on the U.S. Olympic team and has the technical skills and athleticism to see his status in the sport rise rapidly over the next year. To date, he hasn't been aligned with a top-tier promoter, but with a few more performances like the one against LoPorto, he will become difficult to ignore.

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Polish-born and New Jersey-based Pawel Wolak has ascended in 2011. He opened many eyes earlier this year with a sixth-round stoppage of former junior middleweight titleholder Yuri Foreman. Wolak swarmed Foreman with his pressure and the former champion didn't have the punching power to keep Wolak at bay. Wolak may have entered that fight as the "B-side," but he created quite a buzz with his performance.

For Wolak's next fight, he headlined an ESPN Friday Night Fights show against Delvin Rodriguez. What followed was an all-out war and fight-of-the-year candidate, where the two combatants waged a fierce and unrelenting battle for ten rounds. Wolak applied relentless pressure and landed with right hands and left hooks. His body work was punishing. Rodriguez was successful counterpunching with left hooks and straight right hands. He opened up a huge welt that closed one of Wolak's eyes. The fight was ruled a draw, which was a just verdict.

Wolak and Rodriguez meet again next month on the Cotto-Margarito undercard. Although Rodriguez has lost on numerous occasions (some of them because of dubious decisions), he is a tough matchup for Wolak in that he's a solid boxer-puncher who prefers ring wars. Wolak tends to do better against more deliberate opponents or ones who are uncomfortable with pressure. For Wolak, whose only loss was to the tricky technical boxer, Ishe Smith, defeating Rodriguez is a must if he wants fights against the top junior middleweights. If Wolak can get the win next month, he should be in line for a championship fight at some point in 2012. Matched correctly, (say against Cornelius Bundrage), he very well could win a belt.

Wolak has quickly established himself as one of the best TV fighters of this era. With his nonstop aggression and strong will, he has enabled himself to have a real career in boxing. Wolak has persevered in the sport without promotional hype, technical polish, one-punch knockout ability or star prospect status.  Despite these disadvantages, he has made a real name for himself. He may not leave the sport with millions in the bank, but there will be food on his table, and he will be remembered.



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Monday, November 21, 2011

Evaluating Margarito's Career

Antonio Margarito's career forever changed on January 24th, 2009, when a foreign substance was found in his hand wraps prior to his fight with Shane Mosley.  Margarito's hands had to be re-wrapped two additional times and he was delayed in making his entrance into the ring.  Perhaps the controversy surrounding the wraps created a psychological disturbance for Margarito and he was defeated before he walked into the ring.  Maybe his one-dimensional pressure style was tailor-made for Shane Mosley, a veteran fighter who had mastered the attacking Mexican style in the Southern California gym wars.  Or maybe, without the foreign substance, Margarito was just an ordinary fighter. 

The California State Athletic Commission ruled that the substance was consistent with plaster and banned Margarito for one year.  Margarito only survived boxing's death penalty because of his high-powered defense team, which was provided by his promoter, Top Rank.  Margarito's advocates were able to create enough doubt in the mind of the commission that the fighter was unaware of the illegal wraps, and had never used them previously.    

In any overall evaluation of Margarito's career, this last argument – that he unknowingly used the illegal wraps – is an irrelevant point.  The action happened, and it is irreversible. 

In the aftermath of the controversy, boxing observers have correctly raised questions about the legitimacy of Margarito's pre-scandal wins.  Were his impressive victories over Miguel Cotto and Kermit Cintron the product of his aggressive fighting style, or were they the direct result of banned substances in his wraps?  In addition, how far back should the cloud of suspicion be extended? 

Before the controversy, Margarito was thought of as a late bloomer.  He was the type of young, Mexican fighter who was thrown to the wolves to start his career, but he improved as he gained experience and received better instruction.  But that narrative now sounds quaint and may have been constructed on an utterly false premise.  

The specialness of Margarito in the ring, the late round rallies and the gradual deterioration of his opponents, could directly be attributed to or helped by loaded gloves.  Margarito's skill set is not unique in it of itself.  There are tons of pressure fighters who are nothing more than human piƱatas in the ring.  Many boxers can take a beating and press forward.     

In examining Margarito's accomplishments, one cannot legitimately demarcate a "clean" period from a "tainted" period.  To question all of Margarito's professional successes, title belts and memorable ring performances is perfectly legitimate and defensible.  In fact, the rational boxing observer must raise these concerns.  Why would a 30-year-old champion suddenly use illegal wraps?  If he were clean in his prior fights, wouldn't he have realized the potential risks associated with plaster in his wraps (both to his professional career and to his opponent's)?  Why would his trainer knowingly place illegal substances in his fighter’s wraps, especially if the boxer was unaware?  The ramifications of that action could lead to a lifetime ban for the trainer. 

Almost three years have passed from that infamous evening and yet these questions have still not been answered satisfactorily.  There are only two things that are known for sure about a clean Margarito: he has a world-class chin and an indomitable fighting spirit.  

He demonstrated a remarkable will against Manny Pacquiao.  He received enormous punishment and yet remained on his feet.  He never went into survival mode or stopped trying to win.  In addition, he hurt Pacquiao, with clean gloves, more than any of his recent opponents did. 

From that fight, it's clear that Margarito could handle himself in the ring at the sport's highest level.  However, not embarrassing oneself and beating elite opponents are two entirely different propositions.  Perhaps Margarito's brawling pressure would have stopped Cotto in any context.  Maybe it was his relentlessness, not loaded gloves, that forced Cintron to crumble psychologically.  Nevertheless, this is all speculative.  No one can accurately assess Margarito's real boxing aptitude – not with 100% certainty. 

Clearly, Margarito is on the downside of his career.  He suffered a detached retina and a broken orbital bone from his fight with Pacquiao.  These are serious injuries which have effectively ended many boxing careers.  Margarito has also been in a ton of ring wars and has taken an enormous amount of punishment throughout his career.  Perhaps his fight with Cotto next month (a fighter who is also on his downside) will shed light on what a 100% clean Margarito could have been.  Nevertheless, the questions about Margarito's career will always outnumber the answers.



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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bus Driver Pascal Stuck in a Ditch

Even though last month's fight between Bernard Hopkins and Chad Dawson was supposed to establish the best light heavyweight in the world, a simple fact remains: Jean Pascal controls the division. How can that be? After all, Pascal lost a decision to Hopkins in June and he no longer has a title belt.

However, boxing's axis does not spin according to hardware or titles. The championship belt is not the alpha and the omega of the contemporary boxing landscape; each division has numerous "champions" and some sanctioning bodies have multiple belt holders in a single weight class. What drives decision making in boxing in 2011 is the same factor that drove it 1981 or 1951: money. In many cases, the titleholder in the division can generate the most lucrative bouts, but as Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather have demonstrated, belts are not needed to deliver the biggest fights. Similarly, for light heavyweights who want top dollar, all roads lead to Quebec, Canada for an appointment with Mr. Pascal.

Pascal is the only fighter in the division that can sell out a major arena. Yes, Nathan Cleverly has built a nice, little following in the U.K. and Hopkins can still sell tickets if matched correctly, but they aren't in Pascal's league. They have TV contracts that can generate decent money (Hopkins used to make much more years ago), but they can't begin to approach Pascal's live gate. The other titleholders in the division – Tavoris Cloud, Dawson (depending on the ruling of the California State Athletic Commission) and Beibut Shumenov – couldn’t even sell out a VFW hall, let alone an arena. When Pascal's name appears on a marquee at the Bell Centre in Montreal or the Pepsi Coliseum in Quebec City, real money follows. He has built a rabid and loyal following in Canada and has helped to transform Quebec into one of the premier boxing destinations in North America. Yet, he has remained idle throughout the second half of 2011.

His promoter, Yvon Michel, tried to make a fight with Cloud, but couldn't come to terms with Don King (Cloud's promoter). Cloud moved on and will now meet Zsolt Erdei on New Year's Eve. The other titlists (with the exception of Shumenov) all fought in October.  Even if Pascal faced a warm body next month, he could earn in the high six-figures. But somehow, the boxer who generates the most money at light heavyweight will fight only once in 2011. This hasn't been Michel's best moment.

Pascal has an exciting TV style, but he has certain flaws that the ageless Hopkins was able to exploit all too easily. Now would have been a perfect time for Pascal to have a stay-busy fight and work on his craft. Instead, he remains out in the proverbial French Canadian cold, with his primary combat consisting of hostilities on Twitter.

The boxer has numerous areas for improvement. He fights only selectively during rounds. His conditioning is not yet world class and he takes rounds off. Pascal seems uncomfortable fighting at close range or backing up. He can also get outpointed by boxers with high work rates.

By staying active, Pascal can refine his technique and make the adjustments needed not just to win another title, but to keep it. He does deserve credit for wanting to fight the best; too many boxers today are more than willing to take a path of lesser resistance as they make their way to the top. However, Michel and Pascal are squandering their competitive advantage. With Pascal's following, he should be fighting three or four times a year, regardless of the caliber of the opponent. This activity level would provide him with the best opportunity to make the necessary improvements needed to become the elite in the division.

Pascal's French Canadian rival, Lucian Bute, has fashioned a lucrative career of fighting "B+" opponents in front of his adoring Quebecois crowd. To date, Bute hasn't faced the tough opposition that Pascal has, but Bute has cemented his status as one of the best draws in North America and has secured a generous TV contract from Showtime. Pascal has faced top-ten opponents such as Carl Froch, Adrian Diaconu, Bernard Hopkins and Chad Dawson. If he were to fight a less competitive opponent, his would still retain his following. Because of his exciting fights and the quality of his opposition, he has built up a generous amount of goodwill with his fans. If Bute can continue to pack houses facing mediocre opposition, than Pascal should be able to follow suit against a "B+" opponent or two.

Michel, unlike his promotional rival in Canada, Interbox, hasn't fully grasped the concept of keeping his star fighter active. Whenever he turns the lights on in Quebec with Pascal, he'll make money. Top Rank, the best promotional company for developing fighters in North America, has mastered the art of keeping its attractions busy. For some reason, Michel has idled his fighter like he's some undercapitalized promoter who is afraid to make a bout without the security of American TV money, but he doesn't need American premium cable to make a profit with Pascal. Michel's actions have been tough to explain and he certainly hasn't conducted himself like he has an asset that can fill 16,000-seat arenas.

Essentially, Michel has two options. He can either go after big game more aggressively or he can keep his fighter busy until the right opportunity manifests. He can throw big money at Cleverly or Shumenov, which would, in all likelihood be their most lucrative opportunities. If that strategy doesn't work, he should set up a fight with a member of the light heavyweight "B" squad. He should contact Chris Henry, Yusaf Mack or Tony Bellew and make them a six-figure offer. Those fights will get made very quickly.

Pascal has only fought three times over the last two calendar years. At 29, he is in his prime earning years and he has already generated the largest events in the division over the last 24 months. The faster that Michel realizes his leverage and favorable negotiating position in the division, the better his fighter will become. Pascal has enough raw ability to be a force in the division for many years, but without a higher activity rate, he most likely won't reach his full potential. Pascal should be staying busy. Why he isn't is anyone's guess. Meanwhile, his career is stuck in neutral, and for no discernible reason.







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Monday, November 14, 2011

Notes from Pacquiao-Marquez III

In my opinion, there are two significant factors worthy of discussion from last night's Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez fight. 1.) To the surprise of many, Pacquiao and Marquez fought on equal footing. 2.) American judges often prefer the aggressive fighter, regardless of whether the aggression happens to be effective.

Pacquiao was as much as a 9-1 favorite in the fight for a good reason. Since he last faced Marquez in 2008, he had barely lost a round, let alone a fight. Meanwhile, Marquez lost to Mayweather and struggled against lesser opponents like Juan Diaz and late-vintage Joel Casamayor. The conventional wisdom for yesterday's fight stated that Pacquiao's size and strength would be too much for Marquez, who had already been knocked down four times by Pacquiao at lesser weights.

Clearly, the conventional wisdom was wrong. Instead, the fight served as a more cautious continuation of their first two meetings. Pacquiao and Marquez traded in the center of the ring. Pacquiao pressed the action, landing straight lefts when he led and counter right hooks in exchanges. Marquez scored with single or two-shot counters throughout most of the night, including his straight right hand to the head and the body and his counter left hook.

To my eyes, Marquez landed the cleaner, more effective punches throughout most of the night. His body shots took a lot of steam out of Pacquiao. His counters dissuaded Pacquiao from engaging in lengthy engages. I scored the fight 116-112, with Pacquiao winning rounds 3, 4, 9 and 11. I believe that this was Marquez's best performance of the trilogy and Pacquiao's worst.

However, almost all of the rounds were tight. While watching the fight with BoxingFriendChris, I remarked more than once, "I don't know how you score that round." After big fights, I often compare my scorecards with a boxing writer in the industry whom I respect. We differed on each of the first four rounds. He gave the first two to Pacquiao; I awarded the first two to Marquez. It's certainly possible that a knowledgeable boxing observer could have given the first four rounds to one fighter or the other and still submit a responsible scorecard. Thus, the potential for wildly divergent, and yet acceptable, scorecards was certainly possible if not probable. Although one judge's 116-112 score for Pacquiao was at the outer edge of acceptability, it was still within the bounds of accurately reflecting what occurred in the fight.

The judges, like all of us, picked what they liked in each round of the fight. U.S. judges, if they have certain biases as a collective entity, tend to place disproportionate emphasis on the fighter who is the aggressor. Of course being an aggressor is not one of the scoring criteria in it of itself, but being an "effective aggressor" is. Too often, judges and boxing observers pick the busier fighter when in doubt.

This bias, or perhaps, a predilection, for aggression is widespread among U.S. judges and disfavors counterpunchers (Harold Lederman, HBO's unofficial ringside scorer, admitted during the broadcast that in close rounds, he picks the aggressor). In recent years, excellent counterpunchers like Bernard Hopkins, Winky Wright, Joel Casamayor and, yes, Juan Manuel Marquez, have lost numerous decisions to the more active and aggressive fighter.

I also believe that the judges misapplied one of the key criteria of judging last night: ring generalship. At the conclusion of many of the tight rounds, I said to myself, "Which fighter would I rather be?" Was that round which featured low activity, few exchanges and just a couple of meaningful connects a Marquez round or a Pacquiao round? In almost all cases, I selected Marquez, who wanted a slower pace to the fight than did Pacquiao. Marquez was happy to land one or two hard shots and then step out of the pocket. If Pacquiao had his way, he would throw whizzing four, five and six-punch combinations. In terms of ring generalship, I favored Marquez decisively.

As for the other judging criteria, defense was essentially a wash. Pacquiao landed a few more shots, but where were the lightning-fast combinations that routinely found their mark in the first two fights? Marquez tightened up his defense for the third fight, which was the only one of the trilogy where he wasn't knocked down or seriously hurt. Again, I also believe that Marquez had a decided advantage in most rounds on clean punching, scoring with his right hands to the head and body and his left hook. For me, Marquez won most of the rounds with his advantages in clean, effective punching and ring generalship.

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Tactically, Pacquiao fought with a lot of caution. There were only a few instances – rounds 6 and 9, for instance – where he really let his hands go with multiple-punch combinations. Pacquiao, even though he was still the aggressor throughout much of last night, threw significantly fewer punches than he had in the earlier fights. In addition, his punches were different. To use a baseball term, last night he was throwing singles and doubles, whereas in the first two fights he was loading up for home run blasts. 

On one hand, Pacquiao has become a much more disciplined fighter, with better balance and footwork. However, in his present iteration, he is less likely to take the risks (i.e. throw four and five-punch combinations) that he did earlier in his career.  He has become more responsible in the ring although less exciting.  It's a tradeoff that every boxing trainer would take.   

In the past, there were two ways to defeat Juan Manuel Marquez. You could overwhelm him with speed, which Pacquiao did in their first two fights, or you could wear him down with physicality, which was Mayweather's modus operandi. Marquez neutralized one of his prior disadvantages by coming into last night's fight in terrific condition. His legs looked stronger than they had in the past. His shoulders and back were much broader and more muscular. Unlike his conditioning for the Mayweather fight, Marquez came up to welterweight the right way last night, with a nutritionist and a strength and conditioning coach.

Essentially, Marquez's improved physique left Pacquiao with one option for victory: speed. However, Pacquiao didn't feel comfortable rushing in last night. In addition, he barely threw his vaunted and improved right hand. He had a couple of good counter right hooks. His jab barely landed at all, which was really surprising. Also, he really didn't initiate any combinations with his right hook, a weapon that had confounded many of his opponents over the last few years.

Of course, there are two boxers in the ring. It's not as if Pacquiao decided that he wasn't going to be dynamic. Marquez dissuaded him from opening up. He was able to reduce Pacquiao's punch volume and keep his combinations down to a trickle. Pacquiao was cautious last night; it was enough to win, but it wasn't an inspiring or electrifying performance.

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Nacho Beristain surely had an interesting night. I'd put his performance last night at two parts excellent and one part foolish. During the 24/7 Countdown Show, Beristain remarked (and I'm paraphrasing) that Pacquiao is easier to fight now because he is more conventional. Pacquiao's blinding speed and odd-angled shots gave Marquez such difficulty in their first two fights, yet, in examining Pacquiao's recent matches, Beristain concluded that Pacquiao had transformed into a more traditional fighter. He was right.

What Beristain did last night was to prepare Marquez for the Pacquiao of 2011, not the 2008 or 2004 version that provided so many unique challenges for his fighter. The Pacquiao of today is a pocket fighter, who starts exchanges as normal fighters would. He still has excellent speed and good power for his weight, but he is now more predictable than he was in previous iterations. What Pacquiao has lost in creativity, he has made up in technique and boxing savvy. However, these new strengths play well for Marquez, who is one of the most fundamentally sound fighters in the sport.

Beristain emphasized punch placement, body shots and single punches to neutralize Pacquiao's offense and protect his fighter from harm's way. It was a masterful game plan. If you would like to quibble, Marquez could have been a tad busier, but Beristain's blueprint was excellent.

Beristain controversially told Marquez in the championship rounds that he was winning. To Beristain, Marquez executed the game plan and was accomplishing exactly what they set out to achieve. However, Beristain, one of the most experienced and successful trainers in the sport, should have known that winning a decision against Pacquiao would be a difficult task. Beristain had Marquez winning comfortably after the 10th round, but it was certainly possible that the judges did not. If Marquez goes all out and secures the 11th and 12th on all of the cards, he would have won a split decision. That being said, Marquez still fought well in the 12th (I and one of the judges gave him the round). Nevertheless, Beristain still gave his fighter awful advice.

Meanwhile, Freddie Roach implored Pacquiao to knock down Marquez after the 10th. He didn't say "we need these rounds" or "the fight is close." He said that Pacquiao had to put him down. This is not the instruction of a corner that is confident; it demonstrates that Roach thought that Pacquiao was significantly behind in the fight.  

For Roach, this is the second fight in a row where Pacquiao didn't meet expectations. The trainer predicted knockouts for both Mosley and Marquez – neither of which occurred. It may be that the Manny Pacquiao of two years ago could have easily disposed of both foes, but that may no longer be the fighter who Roach trains.

It's certainly possible that Pacquiao has already peaked. Even just small deteriorations in his hand or foot speed could take him from the extraordinary to something more traditional. In addition, this is the second consecutive fight where he has had foot problems; his body may be starting to betray him.  It wouldn't surprise me if he makes significant changes in his conditioning program going forward. 

I don't want to be overdramatic and claim that Pacquiao is no longer an elite fighter – of course he is. However, for the last three years he seemingly ranked head-and-shoulders above all of the other top boxers with the exception of Floyd Mayweather. (Again, this follows the conventional wisdom. Marquez had always fought him competitively). At this point, it's tough to say if Pacquiao can dominate the other great fighters at welterweight. I would still favor him to beat Victor Ortiz and Andre Berto at 147, but his days of blitzing through bigger opponents may be over.

When the final bell sounded on Saturday, Marquez hoisted his arms in glory. His team celebrated its perceived triumph. Pacquiao walked solemnly and without emotion back to his corner. For Pacquiao, one of boxing's most dynamic and magnetic personalities, that picture spoke thousands of words.

After the match, Team Marquez spoke disapprovingly about the result, but without passion. They were convinced that they won and felt no urgent need to strenuously argue their case. Meanwhile, as Pacquiao heard the boos cascading from the crowd during his post-fight interview, the discomfort on his face was obvious. Pacquiao had always brought such jubilation and joy to boxing audiences but last night they turned on him. The fans at the MGM arena were angry and Pacquiao was unfamiliar with the wrath of boxing fans. It was a striking image and one not soon forgotten.

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Tim Bradley looked excellent against the ghost of Joel Casamayor last night. He was his aggressive self, landing pinpoint right hands and crisp left hooks. The effects of an 11-month layoff were imperceptible. Bradley, not known for his power, was able to knock Casamayor down three times before their corner stopped the action. The knockdowns, however, may tell us more about Casamayor's legs and reflexes at this stage of his career than they do about Bradley's power.

Bradley, who has won three belts at junior welterweight, has taken a lot of hits recently over his decision to pass up a fight with Amir Khan. As a fighter, he will never wow with his power or speed, but his makeup is exceptional. He is far more than the sum of his parts. His tenacity, dedication and relentlessness will make him difficult to beat at 140 lbs.

Mike Alvarado rallied from a significant deficit to stop Briedis Prescott in the 10th and final round of their fight. Prescott, who knocked out Khan at lightweight, started aggressively. He worked off the jab well and landed punishing uppercuts and straight right hands. By the third round, he opened up a nasty cut over Alvarado's eye. Prescott, a strong frontrunner, was way ahead at the half-way mark of the match. However, as the fight progressed, Alvarado started to assert his dominance, landing crushing lead right hands and uppercuts. In the 10th, Alvarado landed a series of blistering uppercuts that damaged Prescott. He finished the fight with a beautiful left uppercut-right uppercut combination that forced Jay Nady to stop the fight. It was a good stoppage and without it, Alvarado would have lost the bout.

Alvarado has been a well-regarded Top Rank prospect for a number of years. Already 31, his progress has been stymied by personal and legal problems outside of the ring. If Alvarado's ship is right, he can be a force at junior welterweight, winning titles and appearing in major fights fairly quickly. However, with Alvarado, that "if" should not be taken lightly.



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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Pacquiao-Marquez: Four Scenarios

This piece provides the most likely outcomes for the Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez fight. Next to each Scenario will be a percentage, which represents the probability of each particular outcome occurring. My final prediction will be at the end of the article.

Scenario #1. Pacquiao defeats Marquez by late-round stoppage. 40%.

Since he last faced Marquez in 2008, Pacquiao has become a stronger, more physical fighter. Also, with the improvement of his right hook, he has matured into a much more versatile boxer than he was when he fought Marquez in their earlier bouts.

Pacquiao and Marquez were evenly matched at featherweight and junior lightweight, but as the two fighters moved up in weight classes, Pacquiao's strength, power and, perhaps most importantly, chin have translated much better in the higher weights than Marquez's have. Pacquiao dominated big punchers at welterweight and junior middleweight (Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito), while Marquez struggled at lightweight against Juan Diaz and Joel Casamayor. Marquez was also dropped by Michael Katsidis.

In Marquez's one fight above lightweight against Floyd Mayweather, he wasn't able to land anything of significance. In that match, Mayweather carried Marquez during the last few rounds of the fight. Mayweather could have scored a knockout had he been more aggressive; Marquez only made it to the final bell because Mayweather let him.

In this Scenario, Pacquiao's power is too much for Marquez to handle. Marquez's defense has already slipped against lesser fighters (specifically Katsidis); it's tough to imagine that he will suddenly avoid the shots that he has been getting hit with over the last few years. Furthermore, Pacquiao has already proven that he can knock Marquez down, dropping him four times in their first two fights. In this Scenario, Pacquiao bludgeons Marquez throughout the fight, forcing Tony Weeks, the referee, or Nacho Beristain, Marquez's trainer, to stop the fight in the late rounds.

Scenario #2. Pacquiao defeats Marquez by wide decision. 35%.

This outcome would unfold similarly to Scenario #1, except Marquez is able to survive without a stoppage. Pacquiao would build an early lead and keep his foot on the gas pedal, winning almost every round. Similar to the Mayweather fight, Marquez would lack the power or speed to be competitive.

Scenario #3. Pacquiao defeats Marquez by close decision. 10%.

This Scenario would represent a continuation of their first two fights, whereby Pacquiao lands fast combinations but Marquez scores with effective right hand counters and left hooks. If this outcome occurs, it would demonstrate that Marquez has indeed mastered Pacquiao's style. Even though Marquez has size and speed disadvantages, his expertise in countering and punch placement would thwart Pacquiao's aggression and score points.

Similar to their first two fights, the outcome in this Scenario would most likely be determined by any knockdowns that Pacquiao is able to score. If the fight is close, Marquez must stay on his feet to give himself the best chance of winning. However, because Marquez needs the fight to be waged at close range, he most likely will get hit with something that will send him to the canvas, providing Pacquiao with the margin he needs to secure the victory.

Scenario #4. Other. 15%.

1. Pacquiao defeats Marquez by early KO. It's possible that with Pacquiao's increased strength that Marquez won't be able to get up from an early-round knockdown, as he did in their previous two fights. Perhaps his legs won't recover fast enough to survive Pacquiao's opening onslaught. 2. Marquez wins by close decision. Here, Marquez is able to secure enough rounds with his clean punching to pick up the victory. Many of the rounds could be very tight, but the judges are swayed by Marquez's pinpoint shots. 3. Pacquiao defeats Marquez by TKO caused by cuts. Marquez does cut fairly easily and perhaps, with his reflexes slowing down, he will have a difficult time in avoiding Pacquiao's odd-angled shots, leading to the opening of a significant cut that ends the fight. 4. Fight stopped because of a cut due to an accidental head butt. In this case, Marquez's cut occurrs because of a head butt. With Pacquiao a southpaw who features odd movements, and Marquez, a conventional fighter who wants the action at close range, the chance of a serious clash of heads is highly likely. The round in which the fight is halted would determine whether there would be a winner, or if the match would be ruled a no-contest. 5. Pacquiao and Marquez draw. Even though the first fight resulted in a draw, it shouldn't have – a judge didn't score the three knockdowns in the first round correctly. Most likely, there will be a knockdown in the fight, which would make a draw less likely.

Prediction:

Both fighters come out aggressively at the opening bell with Pacquiao trying to land his power shots and Marquez looking to counter. By the third round (if not even earlier), Pacquiao establishes his dominance and lands hard, flush shots, especially with his right hook-straight left hand combination.  As the fight progresses, Pacquiao continues to inflict serious damage with his power punches and fast combinations. Seeing his fighter absorb an inordinate amount of punishment, Beristain stops the bout in the late rounds.

Pacquiao defeats Marquez by 11th-round TKO.






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