Monday, February 27, 2012

Opinions and Observations: Alexander, Broner, Povetkin, Cleverly

The majority of American boxing pundits viewed the Alexander Povetkin-Marco-Huck fight as a gross mismatch. Their beliefs could most likely have been attributed to the following factors: 

  1. Huck was moving up from cruiserweight.
  2. Huck was once knocked out at cruiserweight.
  3. Huck had some close fights.
  4. Povetkin was a top-five heavyweight.
  5. Povetkin had a significant weight advantage.
  6. Boxing writers can be lazy.
I believed that Povetkin-Huck would be a competitive fight for the following reasons:

  1. Povetkin had conditioning issues throughout his career.
  2. Povetkin also had motivational issues in the ring during fights.
  3. Povetkin recently left one trainer for another.
  4. Huck had really improved as a cruiserweight over the last few years.
  5. Huck was coached by an excellent trainer.
  6. Povetkin lacked one-punch knockout ability against top heavyweights.
With the exception of his win over a faded Ruslan Chagaev, Povetkin's recent activity had been against subpar opposition. Because of the whims of his prior trainer, Teddy Atlas, Povetkin faced many C-level heavyweights for the purposes of building him up to become a more consistent power puncher. Though there were a lot of KOs on his recent ledger, these results in it of themselves shouldn't have been predictive of Povetkin's power against Huck; 2007 was the last time Povetkin knocked out a good opponent – and that was against an old Chris Byrd.

Huck had progressed significantly over the last few years. After fading in a knockout loss to Steve Cunningham in 2007, Huck steadily improved. He had a close bout against Denis Lebedev (no shame in that) and prevailed against some solid opposition at cruiserweight, including Ola Afolabi, Matt Godfrey, Ran Nakash and Hugo Garay. Although Huck avoided rematches with Cunningham and Lebedev (this may be due as much to the wishes of his promoter, Sauerland Event, as his own desires), he continued to improve on his conditioning, poise and punching power. 

Saturday's fight validated my perspective on this matchup. (I'll only temporarily pat myself on the back. Avid readers of this page know that I have missed on some fights as well.) What emerged between Povetkin and Huck was one of the best heavyweight fights in the last decade. It was a battle between Povetkin's sharp combinations and Huck's vicious right hands.

I scored the fight a draw, 114-114, but I was perfectly fine with the majority-decision victory for Povetkin. To my eyes, the bout was a see-saw battle where neither boxer was able to establish a significant lead. In broad strokes, Povetkin had more success earlier in the fight while Huck had his best moments in the match's second half, but this characterization doesn't fully describe the competitive nature of the bout. The fight featured five or six swing rounds that could have been awarded to either boxer.

Watching the fight on the EPIX live stream, I realized that there were a few hindrances in scoring this particular bout from a remote feed. The best punch by either boxer throughout the fight was Huck's lead or counter right hand. In an attempt to avoid the punch, Povetkin ducked forward and to his right. Huck, and his trainer, Ulli Wegner, picked up on this tendency and the fighter followed through with his punch, tracking Povetkin's downward movement. A number of these punches connected flushly. Others landed as illegal rabbit punches, or blows to the back of the head. In addition, several more of these right hands failed to land at all, and led to tangles between the fighters.

Viewing remotely, it was tough to tell with Povetkin's ducking where and when these punches connected and whether or not these were legal blows. For this fight, I will to defer to the veteran crew of judges, who were in better position to determine the legal, landed punches than I was. (As a general rule, there is no correlation in boxing between the proximity of judges to the action and fair scorecards.)

Povetkin had success with several short and effective combinations that landed during periods of infighting. He also countered well at points with his left hook, straight right hand and left uppercut. It's certainly possible that the judges responded well to these shots.

The punch stat numbers were very similar for the two fighters. Huck had the cleaner, landed shots and the more dynamic individual moments. However, there were a number of rounds were Huck came on during the last 60-90 seconds. These forays may not have been enough to swing rounds in his favor.

Wegner prepared an excellent game plan for Huck. Instead of trying to win the fight with raw aggression and power, Wegner stressed punch placement, accuracy and power shots. Huck did jab effectively, but he didn't really use the jab as a catalyst to set up his power shots. Huck jabbed to keep Povetkin at bay and then unloaded with his right hand when he saw opportunities to land the punch. Once he landed the right hand, he would follow up with his left hook, uppercut and additional right hands. In short, it was a very physical fight, but Wegner and Huck kept it one step away from being a war. This note of caution most likely saved Huck from walking into a big shot.

Nevertheless, Huck lost the bout on the judges' scorecards. In my opinion, he didn't let his hands go enough in the first few rounds of the fight. As it was, he still may have done enough to win the fight with a different set of judges.  However one may have judged the fight, Huck acquitted himself very well in his heavyweight debut.

Huck also added to his reputation as one of the sport's dirtiest fighters. He threw numerous rabbit punches and repeatedly placed his forearm on the back of Povetkin's neck to pull him down, trying to make him defenseless. A better referee (I'll get into Luis Pabon's performance in a minute) would have deducted points from Huck. Pabon officiated Huck's fight in 2011 against Hugo Garay. In that match, he had no problem deducting a point from Huck; Saturday was a different story. I don't know why he was so passive in this instance. He was quite meddlesome in almost every other aspect of the fight.

Kalle Sauerland indicated after the match that he thought Huck belonged back at cruiserweight. This is utter nonsense. Huck was competitive with a top-five talent in the division. A rematch against Povetkin would be a great fight and there are a number of attractive options for Huck in the sport's glamour division. Perhaps Sauerland sees that there is more risk for his fighter at heavyweight and he can't maneuver Huck as well as he did at cruiserweight (Sauerland Event has promotional contracts with numerous top cruiserweights), but Huck illustrated that he belongs at heavyweight.

Povetkin's new trainer for Saturday's fight was Alexander Zimin, an accomplished coach who had had significant success with the Russian national team and many professional prizefighters. However, Povetkin didn't have a full training camp with his new coach. It's possible that the Povetkin/Zimin combination works moving forward, but on Saturday, Povetkin was gassed by the fifth round.

When Povetkin moved his hands with combinations, he controlled the action. However, as with the case against Chagaev, his body just wouldn't let him throw enough punches. He was breathing heavily out of his mouth and his legs didn't react well to some of Huck's punches. He practically handed the fight to Huck because of his lack of conditioning.

Povetkin, if he is motivated and in shape, still has a number of good attributes that can help him defeat any non-Klitschko heavyweight. His time with Teddy Atlas transformed him into a solid combination puncher. His left hook has become a real weapon. He also has become an excellent counterpuncher. However, if he continues to skimp on his training camps, he will have more close calls and perhaps unexpected losses in the coming months. I'm still not sure of what exactly he will become.

Luis Pabon had a terrible night. He was determined to reduce infighting at almost all costs. There were numerous occasions where the fighters weren't even in a clinch, yet he broke them up. Additionally, even when they were clinching, he didn't provide them with the opportunity to fight their way out. Furthermore, the boxers often had at least one hand free to continue fighting, yet Pabon's insisted on separating them. At various points in time, his behavior hurt both fighters. In the early parts of the match, Pabon limited Povetkin's ability for short counters. As the fight progressed, Huck couldn't follow up on his infighting combinations. It was an awful performance and it's quite possible that the result of the fight could have been different with a less intrusive referee.

Devon Alexander displayed his best performance in years with his systematic domination of Marcos Maidana. Fighting for the first time at welterweight, Alexander showed a renewed confidence in his abilities and seemed much stronger and more fluid at the new weight than he had been during his last three fights at junior welterweight. He beat Maidana in a way that no opponent had done previously. 

Make no mistake: Alexander got hit with some vicious right hands from Maidana. However, as opposed to recent fights, Alexander's chin, confidence and legs enabled him to take those shots very well. In his last fight, Alexander seemed tentative after getting hit by Lucas Matthysse's power shots. On Saturday, he continued on with his game plan, unfazed.

In addition, Alexander demonstrated maturity in the ring. Against Tim Bradley, Alexander was ill-equipped to deal with his cuts. He let his blood get the best of him and he lost focus and turned passive. On Saturday, Alexander dealt with a cut almost the whole fight and while he did paw at it at times with his glove, he continued to march forward and impose his will on Maidana.

Alexander put forth a master class in how to defeat a one-dimensional brawler like Maidana. He used his feet to step to the side after landing combinations. His counters were crisp and effectively nullified much of Maidana's aggression. He mixed in his punches very well, using his jab, right hook and straight left hand to stymie Maidana's forward movement. He didn't move straight back against Maidana and wisely avoided the ropes.

Maidana always looks easy to beat on tape. He's slow, features no jab and telegraphs his punches. Yet, he seems to get to all of his opponents in time. He made Victor Ortiz quit, he was seconds away from knocking Amir Khan out and he turned Erik Morales' face into a bloody mess.

Alexander was never in serious danger and he controlled the entire fight. Sure, he got hit, but he took the shots well and didn't lose his poise. He maneuvered around the ring beautifully, capitalizing on Maidana's crude footwork. His right hook (either as a lead or a counter) was a tremendous weapon. He stayed aggressive, yet he didn't remain in close quarters long enough for Maidana to get the best of him.

Alexander's trainer, Kevin Cunningham, exhorted him throughout the fight to relax in the ring and focus on boxing. Cunningham, who has coached Alexander during the fighter's entire amateur and professional career, provided sound advice. Alexander can sometimes defeat himself in the ring by getting away from his strengths and resorting to passivity. He is still not naturally comfortable in the ring and there are questions about how he would respond to the type of pressure of someone like Victor Ortiz. Nevertheless, Alexander looked a lot fresher and self-assured at the new weight. I would be very interested in seeing him face the winner of Amir Khan-Lamont Peterson II.

Maidana is who he is at this point in his career. He's a threat to almost anyone at junior welterweight but it's clear that his power didn't have the same effect at the higher weight. He certainly can be viable at junior welterweight but he will always struggle against disciplined fighters with good hand speed. I hope Golden Boy keeps him active, for when he is at his best, he is one of the most exciting TV fighters of his generation. Maidana gambled by accepting the fight against Alexander at welterweight. He lost, but it wasn't a tragic performance; he can be revived.

Adrien Broner knocked out Eloy Perez on Saturday in a star-making performance. As early as the first round, it was clear that Broner had a significant power advantage. He landed a lead left hook towards the end of the round which drove Perez back to the ropes and clearly hurt him.  Broner's lead right hand in the fourth instantly wobbled Perez, a top-ten junior lightweight. Broner followed with another right hand as Perez started to fall. Perez tried to get up on two separate occasions, but he couldn't beat the count.

Broner's combination of power, hand speed and braggadocio could lead to something special. I am not one on hype and I was very critical of Broner's performance last year against Daniel Ponce de Leon, but Broner has continued to improve. The final test for Broner will be his chin. He has yet to face a serious puncher at junior lightweight. Ponce de Leon certainly has power, but his best division is featherweight.  Perez has many admirable qualities in the ring; a knockout punch isn't one of them.

Takashi Uchiyama, a fellow junior lightweight titlist, is a knockout beast and would be the best matchup for Broner in the division.  However, because of logistics, geography and other considerations/concerns, I don't think we'll see that fight anytime soon. Broner's best bet is to pile up the victories and let the big names come to him. Golden Boy doesn't have too many fighters at or around junior lightweight, so they are going to have to play nice with others. In a weak division, Broner needs to stay active and in front of people. Having influential manager Al Haymon and Golden Boy on his side, Broner is well positioned to become a breakout star over the next year.

For Perez, he engaged in the wrong type of fight. He needed to be as close to Broner as possible, which would have somewhat negated Broner's size and reach advantage. However, Perez likes fighting from medium range and he paid the price for it on Saturday. In addition, his straight-line movements made it too easy for Broner to find him. Perez may still have a rosy future in boxing, but without top-shelf power, his other attributes need to get better. He must incorporate more side-to-side footwork. He also needs to shed his reluctance to infighting. Without these changes, he won't be able to beat top junior lightweights.

Nathan Cleverly looked good in his sparring session title fight against Tommy Karpency, a no-name fighter who was somehow ranked in the top-15 by the WBO. Cleverly exhibited the same strengths and weaknesses that he always does. He's a very game fighter who likes to mix it up on the inside. He displayed excellent hand speed and conditioning. He punished Karpency with left hooks throughout the match. However, Cleverly insisted on infighting and not working off of his jab. In addition, he lacked the power to knockout an opponent who was essentially target practice.

I believe that Cleverly's recent victories have been fool's gold against lesser competition. He has learned the wrong lessons by winning fights on the inside against only moderate punchers.  As Cleverly faces better competition, his predilection for infighting will create numerous problems for him. He lacks real power at light heavyweight. He doesn't have a knockout punch. He gets hit too easily on the inside (however, his defense did look better on Saturday).

Cleverly runs away from his natural advantages of his size, conditioning, jab and hand and foot speed. If he decides to use the ring and his legs more, he would be a much tougher fighter to beat.

Frank Warren is orchestrating a delicate number with Cleverly's career progression. On one hand, Cleverly still has room for improvement; however, with this level of competition, it's possible that the fighter is picking up bad habits.

I expect to see a rematch with Tony Bellew next for Cleverly. The first one was a competitive bout (although Cleverly made it a much harder fight for himself than it should have been) and it will be a good measuring stick for Cleverly's improvement. By the end of the year, he should be ready for bigger names. I think fights against Jean Pascal, Beibut Shumenov and even Tavoris Cloud could be winnable, but that's only if Cleverly realizes who he needs to be in the ring. If he insists on going to war against Pascal and Cloud, that would be a mistake. If he decides to box and use his athletic advantages, he has real opportunities in those fights.

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