Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The 2011 Saturday Night Boxing Awards

Here are the 2011 Saturday Night Boxing awards, which will be given to fighter, fight, round, knockout, trainer and promoter of the year. Without further ado, cue the sweeping music and pan the camera across the virtual black-tie audience, which waits with rapt attention.

Fighter of the Year: Andre Ward

With his breeze through Showtime's Super Six World Boxing Classic, Andre Ward established himself in 2011 as one of the elite fighters in the sport. This year he dispatched Arthur Abraham and Carl Froch with ease, making Ward no worse than top-two at super middleweight (giving all the kindness I possibly can to Canada's Lucian Bute). Ward, the Oakland, California native, was not a favorite to win the tournament, but with his versatility, aggression and ring intelligence, he demonstrated that he was the class of the Super Six.

The U.S.A.'s last Olympic gold medal winner, Ward, still only 27, displayed veteran poise and adaptability in the ring that belie his age. Criticized by many for the cautious start to his professional career, Ward finally emerged in 2011 as one of boxing's best fighters.

He ended the year with a broken hand but potentially faces a huge bout in 2012 against Bute. Trained by Virgil Hunter, Ward has the offensive arsenal, conditioning, punch technique and defensive skills to remain one of boxing's top fighters for many years to come.

Fight of the Year: Brandon Rios TKO 10 Miguel Acosta

The action on February 26th was savage, as Miguel Acosta, a lightweight titlist from Venezuela, came to America to defend his title against Brandon Rios, a hard-charging pressure fighter from California. The early rounds of the fight were all Acosta's. Here's how I described Acosta's style and the reason for his early success in my wrap-up of the fight:

     "No sparring partner resembles Miguel Acosta. Acosta's style is very unique. He's a mover who also likes to fight off the ropes. He throws lead uppercuts from the outside. Even though Acosta can box, he prefers power shots, especially a hesitation-style left hook that looks like it's going to be a jab. His right hand is almost a right hook. He throws unconventional combinations like right uppercut-left hook-looping right hand."

During the first few rounds of his fight, Rios was a sitting duck for Acosta's power shots.  Luckily, Rios' chin is special. Even though he was hit with alarming regularity throughout the early rounds, he kept coming forward. He eventually landed several body shots, left hooks and straight right hands which started to stem the tide.

With a left hook to the body followed by two left hooks to the head, Rios knocked down Acosta in the 6th round. He scored additional knockdowns in the 8th and 10th rounds, ending the fight with a barrage of punches, started by a left hook and straight right to the head.
The ebb and flow of this fight was spectacular and the action never let up. Here's how I summarized both fighters respective strategies and the night's action:

     "Perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of the match was that both boxers fought the fight that they wanted. Acosta liked fighting off the ropes because his uppercuts could do the most damage. That position also was the right range for his looping right hand. Rios wanted the fight in close quarters where he could throw his hooks and body shots. If Acosta moved all night, I don't think that Rios could have caught him. However, Acosta's money punch was his short uppercut (either left or right hand), which for some fighters can be tough to throw in the center of the ring."

What this fight demonstrated more than anything was not Brandon Rios' chin, but his ability to outlast a skillful and unconventional top lightweight. This performance cemented Rios' status as one of boxing's best action fighters.

Round of the Year: Round 1 Hernan Marquez-Luis Concepcion I

Hernan Marquez (Mexico) and Luis Concepcion (Panama) were two fairly obscure boxers who met for the first time on April 2nd to fight for a vacant flyweight title. Marquez was destroyed by Nonito Donaire in July of 2010 at junior bantamweight while Concepcion built up his record by fighting mostly mediocre opposition in his native Panama. For this fight, Marquez travelled south to Panama City and faced a raucous, pro-Concepcion crowd.

Both fighters charged out of the gate. Concepcion, the conventional fighter, displayed the quicker hand speed.  He featured a blinding straight right hand and a punishing right uppercut. Marquez, the southpaw, had power as well, but his punches weren't as straight as Concepcion's were. His best punches were a looping right hook and a left cross.

At the 1:36 mark of round one, Concepcion landed a lightning-quick one-two and Marquez immediately landed on his can. Talk about hand speed! I watched that knockdown 20 times and finally determined that it was the right hand that dropped Marquez.  Concepcion moved in for the kill, throwing and landing vicious right hands as well as an uppercut. Marquez was having trouble defending himself.

As the round progressed, Marquez was able to land some crafty right hooks and a straight left hand to temporarily halt Concepcion's onslaught, but Concepcion continued to press forward with power shot combinations. At the :04 mark of the round, Concepcion attempted another flurry, but Marquez avoided the right hand and landed a perfectly-timed counter left hook that dropped Concepcion instantly. Concepcion immediately got up but looked disoriented.  Marquez would subsequently knock down Concepcion in the 3rd and the 10th rounds before the fight was stopped in the 11th.

The two combatants faced each other again in November, except this time the fight was in  Mexico City. Marquez wasted no time in further establishing his dominance. He knocked down Concepcion three times in the first round on his way to winning a TKO 1 victory.

Knockout of the Year: Takashi Uchiyama TKO 11 Jorge Solis

After witnessing Takashi Uchiyama's pulverizing knockout of Jorge Solis on the last day of 2011, those boxing outlets that were a bit hasty in publishing their year-end awards probably regretted their lack of patience.  It's a 365-day year, folks! 

Through 10 rounds, Takashi Uchiyama, a junior lightweight champion from Japan,  was handily beating Jorge Solis, a former Pacquiao opponent from Mexico, who also lost decisively earlier in 2011 to Yuriorkis Gamboa.  Uchiyama dominated the fight with his jab, right hand and left hook. His speed and power constantly bettered that of Solis. Uchiyama had an enormous 10th round; he opened up a cut over Solis' eye and scored with numerous right hands.

The first few moments of the 11th round offered little action. Suddenly, at the 2:40 mark of the round, Uchiyama moved in with a lead left hook that Solis never saw. The punch sprawled Solis out on the canvas, directly under the ropes, with blood gushing down his face from the earlier cut. Referee Roberto Ramirez, Sr. took a look at Solis and immediately waved off the contest. The punch was a striking shot. Solis was so fixated on Uchiyama's right hand that he never saw the left hook coming. It was an absolutely devastating knockout, which assuredly will be given the prominent place it deserves in Uchiyama's career highlight reel.

Trainer of the Year: Robert Garcia

It is not my prerogative to award trainers with only one high-profile fighter as Trainer of the Year. Trainers such as Ann Wolfe (James Kirkland) and Virgil Hunter (Andre Ward) had fine years, but in many cases it is difficult to separate the ability of just the one fighter from the quality of the trainer. Wolfe is an exception to this rule in that Kirkland performed far better for her in 2011 than he did for Kenny Adams. Nevertheless, all of us have our lines in the sand and this is one of mine. 

Robert Garcia, a former junior lightweight titlist from Oxnard, California, currently trains three of the hottest fighters in boxing: pound-for-pound entrant Nonito Donaire, lightweight titlist Brandon Rios and emerging featherweight contender Mikey Garcia, who is also his younger brother.

All three fighters significantly raised their respective statuses within the sport in 2011. Donaire knocked out Fernando Montiel with spectacular precision to become the consensus number-one fighter in the lower weights. Rios won his first title in 2011 and had three stunning KO victories. Mikey Garcia established himself as one of the top talents in the featherweight division with his pinpoint counterpunching.

Here's what I wrote about Robert Garcia in July:

     "What may be most impressive about Garcia as a trainer is his adaptability to the talent at hand. Unlike many famous cornermen, he does not have a signature calling card (for instance Emanuel Steward's ability to work with tall fighters or Floyd Mayweather Sr.'s expertise in defensive positioning). Garcia's top-three fighters all have different skill sets: Donaire, the offensive explosiveness with one-punch knockout power; Brandon Rios, the superior pressure fighter; and Mikey Garcia, the heavy-handed counterpuncher. These fighters look markedly different in the ring, yet they are all very effective with their respective ring styles. To Garcia's credit, he is not trying to create assembly-line fighters."

Garcia's year was not filled with 100% success. He did train Antonio Margarito for Miguel Cotto. Additionally, Rios failed to make weight against John Murray. These are blemishes and the Rios scenario perhaps shows Garcia's lack of oversight over his fighter; however, Rios is a very tough fighter to control. Nevertheless, Garcia has done a great job of crafting a ring style and strategy for Rios that capitalizes on the fighter's fearlessness.

Ultimately, Garcia amassed an outstanding body of work in 2011. His stature in the sport is growing and he (and his father and trainer, Eduardo, before him) is one of the primary reasons that Oxnard maintains its status as one of the American capitals of boxing.

Promoter of the Year: Top Rank

No major boxing promotional outfit can go a whole year without missteps, hard luck and unfortunate occurrences. All promoters deserve the riches that come with successful boxing events and the blame when those events fail to please boxing consumers. Additionally, promoters should receive the wrath of the boxing community when the sport's best fights are not made.

Top Rank finds itself in trouble with this latter category, its crimes of omission: the fights that don't get made. For no particular reason, Bob Arum, chief honcho of Top Rank, refused to make a fight between Yuriorkis Gamboa and Juan Manuel Lopez, who at the beginning of 2011 were the two best fighters in the featherweight division and undefeated. Top Rank co-promoted both boxers, TV networks wanted the fight and the fighters would have made their largest paydays to face each other. Yet, Arum insisted on keeping the fighters apart. Eventually, Lopez would be knocked out by Orlando Salido, ruining the enticing hook of the Gamboa-Lopez match.

The promotional company should also receive blame for the failure to make Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao. It is impossible to know how much Arum has worked to make or destroy the prospect of this fight (perhaps, at times, he has performed both duties), but boxing is a results-based business. Top Rank has failed to deliver a fight that boxing fans around the world want: a fight that would be the sport's biggest event since Hagler-Hearns.

Top Rank also had some bad luck in 2011. The company didn't know that Shane Mosley and Omar Narvaez would refuse to engage their respective opponents (Pacquiao and Donaire). Top Rank also didn't force Donaire to sign a bogus contract with Golden Boy, which would shelve him for a good portion of the year.

However, Top Rank did a lot of things right in 2011. By my count, Top Rank staged three of the five biggest events in boxing during the year, with Pacquiao-Mosley, Pacquiao-Marquez III and Cotto-Margarito II (the other two were Klitschko-Haye and Mayweather-Ortiz). None of those mega-fights was necessarily an easy sell. Mosley looked terrible against Mayweather and Sergio Mora in 2010. Marquez was demolished in his one welterweight fight against Mayweather. Cotto's skills seemed to erode and Margarito carried stifling personal and professional baggage. Who wanted to buy a pay-per-view between two declining fighters?

But all three mega-fights were box office successes. Pacquiao broke the million-buy mark for both his fights. Cotto-Margarito II filled Madison Square Garden to the rafters and reminded the boxing world that New York City was still a glorious fight town.

In addition, Top Rank also developed several of its younger fighters into much better positions within the sport. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. emerged as a television and box office draw. Mikey Garcia announced his presence as a featherweight contender. Brandon Rios and Yuriorkis Gamboa solidified their statuses as two of boxing's best television fighters. Donaire situated himself in the top-four of the pound-for-pound rankings. Ultimately, it was a solid year for the promotional company but, quite frankly, Top Rank didn't really face too much competition for this award.

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