Friday, March 30, 2012

March SNB Rankings Update

Three fighters debut in the SNB Rankings in March, including the first time a boxer has entered the Rankings following a loss. In addition, in what is becoming a 2012 trend, a fighter exits the Rankings after a victory. Finally, a flyweight legend, and SNB Elite Fighter, leaves the Rankings after suffering an unexpected knockout defeat.

Elevated: Jorge Arce The Mexican warrior has been on quite a tear over the last 12 months. He defeated Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. last May to pick up a junior featherweight belt. Then, he dropped down to bantamweight later in the year and won another title. Earlier this year, he knocked out Lorenzo Parra, a fighter whom he drew with in 2010. Arce’s unexpected career resurgence has been stunning. He enters the Rankings in the 10 Boxers on the Rise list.

Elevated: Carlos Molina Perhaps no fighter has seen his stock rise as much in the last 12 months as Molina has, where he has distinguished himself against three notable fighters. He drew with Erislandy Lara (a fight in which he really won), he soundly defeated Kermit Cintron and he was on his way to the biggest victory of his career against James Kirkland when he was disqualified because his corner stepped onto the ring apron. Nevertheless, Molina (originally from Mexico, but fights out of Chicago) has illustrated that he’s one of the best junior middleweights in boxing. He joins the Rankings in the Bubbling Under list.

Elevated: Danny Garcia Garcia defeated Erik Morales this month to win his first title belt. One of Golden Boy’s top prospects, Garcia has shown steady improvement over the last two years. Just 24, he still has some room to grow before he takes on elite junior welterweights, but with his ring intelligence and solid boxing foundation, the Philadelphian is certainly one to keep an eye on. He enters the Rankings on the Bubbling Under list.

Demoted: Pongsaklek Wonjongkam Nobody expected the Thai flyweight master to remain a champion ad infinitum, but few believed that an obscure Filipino, Sonny Boy Jaro, would be a major stumbling block. Instead, Jaro scored a shocking knockout. Wonjongkam’s legs didn’t look good throughout the fight and Jaro’s repeated low blows didn’t help. Wonjongkam has returned from losses before but at 34 and with 89 fights, how much does he have left? He exits the SNB Elite Fighters list.

Demoted: Hernan Marquez March was certainly a strange month for flyweights. Beltholder Marquez was set to defend his title in Mexico against Rodel Mayol. However, controversy prevented the fight from taking place. Mayol’s camp contended that Marquez never legitimately made weight and Mayol refused to go through with the fight. Instead, Marquez fought a replacement fighter, Richie Mepranum, a fighter who had beaten him earlier in his career. Marquez avenged the previous loss by scoring a unanimous decision. Irrespective of the victory, the episode with Mayol raises questions about Marquez’s immediate future in the flyweight division. He exits the 10 Boxers on the Rise list.

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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Opinions and Observations: Texas Two-Step, Judah

Controversy marred an intriguing fight between Carlos Molina and James Kirkland. At the end of the 10th round, Molina was knocked down. Referee Jon Schorle started the count immediately. The bell rang. Members from Molina's team came onto the ring apron. Schorle sent them away. Molina rose and was ready to continue. The referee assigned the fighters to their corners and continued the count. Schorle finished the count and then went over to speak to an official, most likely a member of the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (more colloquially, the Texas Boxing Commission). He then disqualified Molina for his team's encroachment into the ring. Kirkland, who had been outboxed almost the entire fight, was declared the victor.

Four specific problems made this result particularly controversial: 1. The timekeeper should not have rung the bell. A round is not finished until a count has been completed from a knockdown. For a round to officially end, the timekeeper must wait until the referee ends the count and signals for action to continue.

2. Schorle should have assigned the fighters not to their own corners, but to neutral corners, as rules dictate when knockdowns occur. When he sent them to their own corners, it was a confusing instruction. Fighters only go to their corners at the end of a round and only during a round when they need a new mouthpiece, tape fixed on their gloves, etc.

3. Representatives from the Commission failed to stop anyone from Molina's team from entering the ring apron. Delegates are assigned from the Commission whose sole purpose is to ensure that no one enters the ring during the live action of a fight. Clearly the representative(s) assigned to Molina's corner failed in their duties.

4. Schorle didn't disqualify Molina immediately, but hesitated. He sent Molina's team out of the ring after the count of "4." He then reset the fighters in their corners and then continued the count. Only after finishing the count did he then decide to disqualify Molina.

These four mistakes from people associated with the Texas Boxing Commission further illustrate a pattern of ineptness (or worse) that occurs in the Lone Star State with alarming frequency. In the past year, the Commission has failed to drug test, delayed collecting urine samples, announced open scoring to the public – violating American boxing policy, assigned inept and under-qualified judges to major title fights and has refused to suspend or discipline boxing personnel who have failed in their official duties. The problems with the Texas Commission aren't new. The head administrator, Dick Cole, is a former boxing judge and a political survivor. He has helped facilitate a culture that lacks integrity, consistency and transparency.

The lingering problem of Gale Van Hoy, a judge who incessantly supports house fighters on his scorecards, further highlights the Commission's ineptitude. A transparent Commission would have fired Van Hoy a long time ago. His penchant for favoring Texas fighters has helped locals like Juan Diaz, Rocky Juarez and now James Kirkland. Van Hoy had Kirkland ahead at the time of the disqualification last night, an inconceivable verdict for a competent or impartial judge. Van Hoy also gets prominent national and international assignments too. The bigger attractions for each fight, such as Jermain Taylor, Dominick Guinn or Vernon Forrest seem to fare disproportionately well on Van Hoy's cards. I don't believe that an upright Commission would retain Van Hoy as an active judge.

Schorle is based out of California but he works in Texas quite often. He also doesn't have a strong reputation within boxing circles. Last night, he let the fight get away from him. He could have taken points away from Molina for excessive holding, an illegal punch behind his back or a flagrant hit during a break; yet, he failed to take any action. His hesitancy in stopping the fight and his inability to properly apply boxing rules throughout the bout illustrate an official who lacks basic boxing competency.

The ref hid behind the Commission after the fight, refusing to address the media. From this point forward, Kirkland-Molina will be known as the "Schorle Fight," as the ref will be indelibly tied to the discussion of the controversial bout. He had an opportunity to let the fight continue. He could have sent Molina's corner out of the ring; it's clear that they were confused because of his instructions to both fighters to go to their respective corners and the inappropriateness of the timekeeper ringing the bell. For Schorle, there was a way out of this self-created mess, and he picked the worst possible result. It was a dreadful performance.

Ultimately, it would behoove the state of Texas to get its house in order. With a vibrant boxing audience, several big cities and international airports, its proximity to Mexico and a number of strong local fighters, Texas has the ability to become one of the major fight capitals of the world. Unfortunately, boxers, promoters and managers will be less inclined to fight in the state as long as such neglect, malfeasance and incompetence continue to occur. Boxing has a long history of tolerating various unseemly elements, but Texas' shoddy administration of the sport will create a chilling effect, with many big fights landing in other jurisdictions because of concerns about the lack of equity and transparency.

The fight itself was a fascinating tactical battle, where Molina fought in the perfect style to neutralize Kirkland's ferocity and aggression. Kirkland, a pressure-fighting knockout artist, blitzes opponents who stand in front of him. Molina used crafty head and upper body movement to confuse Kirkland. Molina never seemed to be in the same place. Additionally, Molina successfully smothered Kirkland almost the whole night. He realized that Kirkland needed space to land his straight left hands. Molina stepped around to land counter right hands and left hooks and then tied Kirkland up. It wasn't beautiful to watch aesthetically, but it was a brilliant game plan which Molina executed with aplomb.

Kirkland was so perplexed by Molina’s style that he resorted to throwing short left hands off of the wrong foot in hopes of just landing. Molina avoided trouble almost the entire fight by turning Kirkland, circling around him or holding him. His unconventional movements and ring intelligence enabled him to land with ease.

The tenth round may have been a harbinger of the rest of the fight, but maybe not. Kirkland, after many rounds of passivity, finally went after Molina full-bore. He landed a few left hands that stunned Molina. At the end of the round, he put Molina on the canvas; it wasn't an especially clean knockdown, but it was legitimate. Molina got right back up and didn't seem all that damaged.

Perhaps the knockdown was a hiccup for Molina. Maybe it signaled the beginning of the end for him. We'll never know. Nevertheless, Kirkland was behind on the cards. (I had him down 96-93 after the tenth). It's possible that Kirkland could have staged a comeback, but it's also conceivable that Molina could have grinded out the win.

For as much hype as Ann Wolfe gets as a trainer, she wasn't on her game last night. She insisted that Kirkland box Molina throughout the first half of the fight when it was clear that he couldn't win in that manner. Kirkland was unable to land his jab, which was crucial for opening up opportunities for his power shots. Kirkland should have attacked Molina from the opening bell and he erred by not making a commitment to Molina's body; Kirkland's headhunting was unsuccessful. He gave away too many rounds early in the fight trying to win a tactical boxing battle.

Molina has now bettered Erislandy Lara and toyed with James Kirkland, two top fighters in the junior middleweight division, yet he doesn't have a win to show for it. He's a crafty guy who has excellent balance, conditioning, movement, heart and punch technique. He lacks real power but his accuracy is so good that he repeatedly lands punches right on the button, which stymies his opponents.

For a guy who has a number of losses and was thought of as nothing more than a spoiler until a year ago, Molina now finds himself among the top junior middleweights in the world. He doesn't have a large promotional backing or any of the requisite hype needed for contemporary star making in boxing, but he's just a solid, tough boxer with a very difficult style. Only an excellent fighter can beat him legitimately. I don't know what's next for him (don't hold your breath for a Kirkland rematch), but I hope that U.S. premium channels keep him in their regular rotation.

Danny Garcia pulled away from Erik Morales in the second half of their fight to win a comfortable decision. I scored the fight 118-109, or ten rounds to two with a knockdown, but many of the first few rounds of the bout were competitive. Garcia had distinct advantages in conditioning, foot speed and power. However, it took him a few rounds to get untracked. His punch output was too low in the first half of the fight, which played into Morales' hands. The older vet excelled with the deliberate pace by using his jab and timing Garcia's power shots.

Once Garcia stepped on the gas, the fight became easier. Garcia had most of his success with left hooks (leading to a beautiful knockdown in the 11th round), straight and looping right hands and occasional jabs. His defense was also solid throughout the night; he did a great job of using his arms and gloves to block shots.

Garcia displayed solid technique, ring intelligence and discipline, but he certainly didn't dominate the proceedings. Garcia's power won't be a significant advantage as his competition increases; he makes his mark more with accuracy and punch placement. He's also a deliberate starter who gets more comfortable as the rounds progress. He may need to fight with more urgency and at different speeds but he does possess the building blocks of a successful career.

Garcia's best moments of the evening were when Morales tried to goad him to the ropes. Instead of stifling his power, Garcia stepped back and fired power shots to the head and body. He didn't fall for Morales' traps and he showed tremendous poise. He confidently executed his game plan and didn't let the fight devolve into a war against a seemingly immobile target. That was a veteran move and it showed me that Garcia has a good understanding of what he wants to accomplish in the ring.

Credit Golden Boy Promotions. I thought that Morales would have been too tough for Garcia at this stage of his career. I expected Garcia to win but I also thought that Morales could potentially ruin the young Philadelphian with a devastating ring war. However, Garcia maintained his poise against a tough opponent.

Garcia still seems tentative in the ring and he needs more rounds against quality opposition before he is ready for an elite junior welterweight. He has good skills and winning intangibles but he's not close to a fully developed fighter at this time.

For Morales, he has provided umpteen memorable moments in the ring. Fighting at least three divisions north of his prime weight, he never gave up and put forth a game effort. At this point in his career, he lacks the reflexes and power to be a top factor at junior welterweight. Whenever he retires (the sooner the better), he will be a sure-fire Hall of Famer and will go down as one of the best fighters in Mexico's history.

Zab Judah performed wonderfully last night, dominating Vernon Paris from the opening bell to the ninth-round stoppage. Judah had all of his punches going. His jab looked crisp. His left hand repeatedly hit its mark. He mixed in his right hook and left uppercut expertly. In addition, he controlled distance and his legs and defense were strong. Perhaps most impressively, Judah displayed none of the tentativeness that surfaced in his last loss against Amir Khan. He led Paris throughout the fight and avoided his customary late-round fade.

When Judah is right, he glides effortlessly to victory. With an intoxicating blend of power, speed and technique, Judah tantalizes boxing fans with his skills. Against an overmatched opponent like Paris, Judah's full array of talents were on display.

The key to Judah is confidence. Against "B-level" fighters, he dazzles; under the bright lights of big events against top fighters, he can beat himself. One cannot read too much into last night's performance. It was a good win and it showed that Judah is still interested in continuing his boxing career. In the past, Judah had publicly questioned whether he wanted to keep fighting.

Certainly, Judah will find himself in one more big fight. He's still a name and the skills remain. He's the classic "what if" boxer. I'm sure there are still a few who believe that he can pull it together and become the elite fighter he was destined to be. Personally, I think that he's the classic "A-minus" fighter. Give him a journeyman or a gate keeper and he'll look sensational; against an elite fighter, he'll find a way to lose.

Tomasz Adamek defeated Nagy Aguilera in a stay-busy fight on the undercard. I had Adamek winning 98-92 but he didn't necessarily impress. To Aguilera's credit, the unheralded heavyweight came into the fight in great shape and was determined to win. He showed a good chin and landed his thudding right hand at various points throughout the bout.

Unlike most of his recent fights, Adamek stayed in the center of the ring and tried to blast Aguilera out of the ring. They had several rounds of heated action. In the end, Adamek's superior technique, conditioning and punch variety were the big separators.

Adamek did get hit more than he should have. It's also clear to me that he can't beat elite heavyweights with his power; he must rely on his agility and boxing skills. Unfortunately, as his wipeout lost to Vitali Klitschko demonstrated, he just doesn't possess the chin, skills or power to ascend to the top of the division. He can still be a factor at heavyweight against the best of the rest, but his legs are going to have to be the difference – and he’s not getting any younger.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sergio Martinez's Dangerous Game

By anyone's measure, Sergio Martinez is one of the elite fighters in boxing. He knocked out a pound-for-pound boxer in Paul Williams and defeated the lineal middleweight king, Kelly Pavlik. Martinez's athleticism, daring, power, willingness to take on all comers, fighting spirit and matinee looks have made him a mainstay of HBO Boxing.  He has additionally earned the respect of the boxing media and his fellow fighters. Although he lacks a natural ethnic or geographical base of support, boxing fans certainly recognize Martinez's ability and talent. 

However, Martinez has failed to win over one crucial constituency in the sport: boxing judges.

On the world-class level, Martinez has won only a single decision on the scorecards – just one. In his nine fights against top competition – I am using his last eight HBO appearances and his earlier defeat against Antonio Margarito – Martinez has stopped five opponents within the distance, won a decision against Kelly Pavlik, lost a tight battle with Paul Williams, drew with Kermit Cintron and was knocked out by Margarito (in 2000). Within this subset of fights, he's just 1-1-1 in bouts that were determined by the judges. 

However, these three fights don't even encapsulate the entire scope of Martinez's troubles on the scorecards. Against Darren Barker, he was, at least according to the judges, in a very competitive fight prior to scoring an 11th round knockout. Last weekend against Matthew Macklin, before the 11th round, he was up by only a single point on two scorecards and he trailed on the third.

In short, Martinez's style has not made him a favorite among boxing judges, and this is a multi-jurisdictional issue for him. He was robbed against Cintron in Florida. The tight scorecards against Barker and Macklin were in New Jersey and New York, respectively. He also lost a close decision to Williams in New Jersey. Ten different judges determined these four fights. Julie Lederman and Lynne Carter both judged two of these bouts. 

Lederman had Williams-Martinez I a draw and had Martinez losing to Macklin prior to the 11th round.  Carter believed that Williams beat Martinez and only had Barker down two points before the 11th round. (If I'm Martinez, I don't accept Carter as a judge anytime soon.) 

To my eyes, Martinez had far less trouble in these fights than were the determinations of the judges. Discounting the fact that Martinez legitimately knocked out Cintron (which was botched by referee Frank Santore Jr.), Martinez boxed rings around Cintron. Tommy Kaczmarek's 116-110 card seemed right to me. The fight against Williams was close, despite the egregiously bad 119-110 card turned in by Pierre Benoist in favor of Williams.  Neither Lederman nor Lynne's scoring was implausible, but two different judges could have selected Martinez as the victor. I scored the fight 115-113 for Martinez.

Against Barker, I had Martinez up eight rounds to two, or 98-92, going into the 11th round, a score which was wider than the tallies of two of the judges.  For the Macklin fight, I had Martinez up 96-93 after 10 rounds (seven rounds to three, with one point off for Macklin's knockdown), which was wider in favor of Martinez than the scorecards of any of the three judges.

Although Martinez has been a victim of bad judging – I strongly disagreed with two of the judges in the Cintron bout, Benoist in the Williams fight and Lederman last weekend (she had an off night) – more often, competent arbiters don't award him close rounds. But why is this the case?    

Clearly, Martinez has been the "A-side" in most of these fights; he is the bigger name. His punches are flashy and they cause damage. He has excellent ring generalship, moving wonderfully, controlling the pace and fighting in his style. You would think that with many of these winning attributes that Martinez would score better with judges. But alas, Martinez commits the cardinal sin of a fighter on American soil: he's a counterpuncher. 

As has been discussed many times on these pages, American judges love the aggressor.  When it doubt, with close rounds, Yankee judges go for the one who leads and throws more punches. Lederman, the daughter of Harold Lederman (HBO's unofficial ringside scorer and a former boxing judge), abides by her father's love of the more aggressive fighter. 

Last weekend, Macklin threw more punches in each of the first five rounds of the fight. In boxing parlance, he was "making the fight." Martinez may have landed the more powerful shots and caused more damage, but to Lederman and the judges of her ilk, the more active fighter is the one who wins the rounds. 

By now, Martinez should be aware of this tendency of American judges, yet his punch output against Macklin was abominable. He threw 31 or fewer punches in 4 of the 11 rounds. This would be an alarmingly low number for a heavyweight, let alone a middleweight; the middleweight average number of punches per round according to CompuBox is 58.6!  As solid as some of his connects may have been in these rounds, following the late-career model of Bernard Hopkins is not a surefire way to win favor with the judges. (Hopkins lost three disputed decisions; his dearth of activity was a significant factor in these defeats.) Some judges just won't award rounds to fighters with such a low punch output.

Personally, I don't agree with that position, but I understand it. When judging close rounds, I almost always side with the fighter who lands the more significant shots. I realize that I tend to prefer counterpunchers more than many American judges do. Prime Bernard Hopkins and Winky Wright never seemed to lose on my scorecards. It's a personal preference and all judges have them. Unfortunately for Martinez, many American judges are disinclined to give counterpunchers the benefit of the doubt in close rounds.   

Martinez's current hot streak can be attributed to his flashy knockouts. He clearly loves his counter left hand and his power is special; three of his recent knockout victims (Williams, Serhiy Dzinziruk and Barker) had never been stopped previously. Martinez has formulated his recent game plans with the expectation of these late knockouts. On one level, his execution has been riveting to watch: He grinds opponents down. He studies them, looking for weaknesses. He feints. He dances. He picks the precise moments to trade and counter. It's high-speed chess in a 20-foot ring.

He's also playing with fire. Against Macklin, he gave away rounds, unable to let his hands go. In the Barker fight, he had periods of sluggishness and uncertainty. Some credit must be given to Macklin and Barker, who had smart game plans that centered on limited engagement and quick combinations.  However, Martinez insisted on being too fine. He was content to wait for perfect opportunities to land power shots. He seemed unwilling or unable to create his own offense.

As Martinez looks for mega-fights or bouts against more difficult opponents, the certainty of knockouts would seem likely to decrease. In addition, at 37, Martinez's power should start to recede soon. It may not happen for his next fight or even in 2012, but that day will be here sooner than later.  

Martinez's ring style is predicated on knockouts. If or when they don't come, he doesn't fight in a style that will necessarily prevail on the judges’ scorecards. Only a few years ago, he seemed very comfortable leading with his jab, his right hook or his straight left hand. Now, he just waits.  

In my estimation, Martinez's current ring identity – a counterpuncher who has fallen in love with his power – is a recipe for future defeats. He's had a great run over the last three years but with his style, his current streak of success will end soon. The knockouts won't always be there and if Martinez continues with low punch outputs and periods of passivity, he can expect future disappointment in the form of the judges' scorecards.

Martinez has already felt the heartache of disputed losses or draws, but he insists on traveling this perilous path, where only a few, well-placed punches will be his saving grace. It's a dangerous game that Martinez is playing and, without making further adaptations, one that I expect him to lose. 

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Victor Ortiz: Boxer, Enigma

Victor Ortiz is scheduled to face Andre Berto on June 23rd. That much I know. But if you ask me who will win the fight or which Victor Ortiz will show up against Berto, I'll have no idea what to tell you. I could lie or pretend, but any answer would just be rank speculation, a mere academic exercise. In truth, no one – least of all, Victor – knows what's going to happen during Ortiz-Berto II. 

It's a Victor Ortiz fight!  What crazy antics will be in store? Will Ortiz sabotage yet another great opportunity for himself, and if so, how? He hasn't tackled a referee yet. Will that be it? Perhaps he will bring out the old Vaseline-on-the-glove trick. Maybe it's time for the low blows!  

Inside the ring, Ortiz is a basket case of bizarre behaviors. Here's a list (by no means definitive) of some of Victor's greatest hits: quitting, head butting, hitting during a break resulting in a disqualification, kissing, hugging and turning passive.

Although Ortiz's actions in the ring suggest a certain psychological fragility or, at the very least, a lack of savvy, what he endured in his youth makes these boxing deficiencies seem like marginalia. Left by his mom and then abandoned by his father, Ortiz was an orphan and he had the responsibility of helping to raise his younger brother. In addition, he dealt with extreme poverty, hunger, relocation and who knows what else. Faced with a number of childhood traumas, he defeated staggering odds to become one of the dozen or so biggest names in American boxing. Whatever else occurs throughout his career, he has overcome larger calamities than the wrath of disgruntled boxing fans. 

Should he ever right his ship in the ring, Ortiz has the power and style to win fans over. Of the 34 fighters that he has faced, he's dropped 33 of them. As a prospect, his ascension up the junior welterweight division might as well have been fueled by nuclear hydraulics. There's a reason why he gets chance after chance; when he's at his best, he's one of the elite offensive fighters in the sport. 

In Ortiz's one moment of clarity on the world-class level, he walked through fire and rose from two knockdowns to beat Berto. That fight demonstrated all the good that first Top Rank and then Golden Boy had seen from the kid with the harrowing personal story. Ortiz fought relentlessly. He unloaded as many power shots as he could throw. Even after receiving punishment, he kept coming forward. There was no quit in him that night. 

With that one performance, Ortiz helped erase many negative memories. Previously, his bizarre remarks about quitting the sport after the loss to Marcos Maidana and his stunning passivity during the second half of the fight against Lamont Peterson turned off many boxing observers and fans. After the Berto fight, the narrative changed; Ortiz was finally "right." Now a new force in boxing was ready to emerge, one with a telegenic fighting style, a healthy Mexican-American fanbase and a great smile.

In short work, Floyd Mayweather annihilated this notion of a more composed Victor Ortiz. In that fight, Ortiz became unglued.  Mayweather consistently beat him to the punch during the first three rounds and landed his power right hands with stunning accuracy. In the fourth, Ortiz started to land his right hook and was successful in backing Mayweather up. With Mayweather against the ropes, Ortiz decided that no mere punch was appropriate for this setting. No, the best course of action was to catapult his head directly into Mayweather's face. This infraction was so egregious that referee Joe Cortez immediately deducted a point. 

Just moments after the intentional head butt, Ortiz's next winning move was to bestow Mayweather with a nice man hug in the center of the ring. A few seconds later, Ortiz found himself on the MGM Grand canvas with his biggest opportunity gone. Similar to Amir Khan's last bout against Peterson, where he pushed his way to defeat, Ortiz demonstrated against Mayweather that he lacked the finer boxing mechanics to "rough up" a fight without losing points or his composure.  

Many fighters watch Bernard Hopkins or Mayweather commit fouls and assume that it must be easy to get away with infractions. In actuality, there's a specific art to using one's body to neutralize a boxer; launching one's head at an opponent from two feet away in plain sight of the referee is not an example of this.

Ortiz is still far from a finished product. After a stellar amateur career and 34 professional fights, his lack of ring generalship can be stunning. He quickly abandons his jab to load up on power shots. If he can't outslug an opponent, he has no viable Plan "B." His disdain of defense has cost him against Maidana, Berto and Mayweather. Unfortunately, these demerits have continued as his career has progressed. 

On June 23rd, anything might happen. Ortiz's power and penchant for mishaps create an abnormally wide array of potential endings. Because of these characteristics, Ortiz has become must-see television. Perhaps Ortiz follows the game plan and provides another 12 rounds of memorable toe-to-toe action. Maybe he fouls his way out of the fight. All of these eventualities are possible. 

Ortiz has now entered the elite Bizarro Boxers Club® (BBC), where the unexpected is the norm. Similar to Kermit Cintron (one of the Club's most prominent members), Ortiz can’t attribute all of his strange ring happenings to bad luck or unfortunate occurrences; he has played major roles in his defeats. 

It's fairly typical to see boxers have self-destructive tendencies outside of the ring. However, Ortiz belongs to a much more exclusive cohort of prizefighters who save their self-immolation for between the ropes. Brave and steady away from the bright lights, Ortiz is an erratic once they shine down on him in the center of the ring.  Anyone who claims to know how Ortiz-Berto II will end shouldn't be trusted. Only one thing's for certain: we'll all be watching.    

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Opinions and Observations: The Lopez and Burns Cards

Boxing needs a good war every now and again. Last night's rematch between Juan Manuel Lopez and Orlando Salido reconfirms why we love the sport, why we put up with its heartbreaks and disappointments. At its best, boxing's beautiful savagery is incomparable.

Both fighters last night gave everything they had. They ate tremendous shots and took significant punishment for glory – to be the best. The fifth, eighth and ninth rounds were special stuff. In the fifth, Salido controlled the first 150 seconds with brutal right hands and left hooks. As he backed Lopez into the ropes, Salido may have only been a few shots away from victory. Yet, just when it looked as grim as possible for Lopez, he connected with a beautiful counter right hook that sent Salido to the canvas. In one instant, the tenor of the fight changed.

The eighth and ninth rounds turned out to be Lopez's last stand. After many rounds of being beaten to the punch, he unloaded all of his power shots onto Salido, who was more than happy to trade. The ninth was a classic war of attrition. Although it looked like Lopez won many of the exchanges, by the tenth, Salido was able to end the night's action rather swiftly. Salido's finishing combination – straight right hand, left uppercut, right uppercut, straight right hand – was highlight-reel worthy.

My card had Salido up 97-92 before the KO. Somehow, two of the judges had Lopez up before the stoppage and the third had the fight a draw. This was an awful display of scoring. Salido connected with the cleaner and harder shots almost all night, not to mention he outlanded Lopez in power shots by a margin of two to one. This ratio is especially significant since neither fighter used his jab the whole night. There were some close rounds throughout the match, but a good scorer could easily see that Salido's punches were more damaging.

After the fight, in an odd display of classlessness, Lopez accused referee Roberto Ramirez Sr. of stopping the fight early because of his personal history of gambling. Irrespective of these unfounded allegations, Ramirez was the hometown referee and Lopez could barely stand on his own accord after the knockdown. Ramirez's stoppage was appropriate.

Credit should be given to Showtime's Jim Gray. After Lopez lobbed the scurrilous accusations at Ramirez, Gray could have easily cut the interview short; he had received the type of controversial sound bites that interviewers dream of. Instead, like a professional, he provided Lopez with the opportunity to correct himself or further modify his comments, but the fighter insisted on plunging deeper into the abyss of personal embarrassment and shame.

Lopez's post-fight conduct was beneath him and unworthy of not just a former champion, but of a man. He lost fairly and definitively. He acquitted himself bravely in defeat and yet he revealed a smallness of character and a nasty streak, which won't sit well with his Puerto Rican fanbase.

Lopez's descent from can't-miss prospect and undefeated champion to broken fighter sure happened pretty rapidly, didn't it? In the past, Lopez controlled action with his piercing right jab and incorporated impeccable footwork to create angles to land his power shots. What became of that fighter?

He has now morphed into a stationary fighter and he dispensed with his jab almost completely last night. From the third round on, I thought his legs looked awful and he was ready to go. Finally, in the seventh round, he started moving better, although, that was mostly for defensive purposes. There were also periods throughout the fight where his hook and straight left hand were just mere arm punches.

On one level, Lopez was in better condition last night than he was for his first encounter against Salido. His chin was exceptional. He took tremendous right hands and left hooks all night. He lasted much longer than the Lopez of the first fight against Salido would have. He was able to exchange fire with a tough pressure fighter. However, without his legs, Lopez was an easy fighter to hit. In addition, Lopez lacked the quickness or defensive technique to avoid Salido's looping power right hands and winging left hooks.

I have said for some time that Lopez is no longer a featherweight. There are many fighters who can make a particular weight, but literally damage themselves so much in the process, sapping them of energy, agility and strength. Lopez still has massive defensive shortcomings but from an offensive perspective, he should be much better at junior lightweight or lightweight. A Lopez who pumps his jab and boxes on the balls of his feet will be much tougher to beat than this current version that can't seem to get out of range. It may not hurt Lopez to consider a corner change as well. It's clear to me that Salido is not just Lopez's personal kryptonite; Lopez has significantly regressed across the board. Many of his current difficulties can be attributed to his problems making featherweight.

For Salido, there is a lot to admire in his performance. As an older fighter who has trolled the professional boxing circuit for 15 years, his belated glory is all the sweeter. He had the perfect mindset for the fight: he needed to win by knockout at all costs. In a hostile environment, with a hometown referee and some questionable judges, Salido didn't let the fight devolve into some type of scoring scandal; he ended it with his own hands.

Keep in mind, he was originally an interim placeholder for Top Rank, as the promotional company tried to build to Lopez-Gamboa. Salido's victory in the first fight against Lopez disrupted the plans of many boxing powerbrokers. Now, he is guaranteed to have at least another fight or two of significance. Perhaps most importantly, he will return to boxing-crazed Mexico as a conquering hero. Whatever else happens throughout the rest of his career, his two fights with Lopez, with his irrepressible will and offensive ferocity, have left an immutable mark on boxing. Salido had two moments that inspired the passions of his countrymen and provided immeasurable personal satisfaction.

Last night, Mikey Garcia showcased his wide-ranging skills in an authoritative dismantling of Bernabe Concepcion. Garcia controlled the fight with his pinpoint jab, ring generalship, tight defense and sharp counterpunching. As the fight progressed, he unleashed more of his power shots, specifically, his left hook and right cross. Concepcion, who can often be a wild offensive slugger, looked confused the whole night. He couldn't penetrate Garcia's defense and seemed to run out of ideas. In classic Garcia fashion, after many rounds of controlled boxing, he exploded with a powerful one-two combination in the seventh round that ended the fight.

Garcia is a very patient and cerebral fighter. While these attributes don't often scream "star," his destruction of "B" fighters demonstrates his class and suggests a very high ceiling. Despite his deliberate nature, only 4 of his 28 fights have gone the distance. He doesn't shoot for the risky one-punch knockouts; he systematically (physically and mentally) breaks down his opponents.

With his rich amateur background, boxing pedigree – his trainer is his brother, Robert Garcia, a former champion who trains Nonito Donaire and Brandon Rios among others – and high ring IQ, Garcia is going to be very tough to beat at featherweight. He may not have the charisma or hype to become one of the centerpieces of boxing, but on pure talent alone, he very well might find himself among the top five spots of a pound-for-pound list in a few years.
On paper, Ricky Burns' lightweight title defense against hard-hitting Paulus Moses of Namibia figured to be difficult. Moses had true knockout power and Burns had exhibited some chin problems earlier in his career at junior lightweight. Well, Burns took that paper, doused it with gasoline and lit a match, blowing up conventional wisdom with it. He thoroughly dominated Paulus, winning a wide decision victory. On my card, I scored it 118-110, or ten rounds to two.

Burns' progression from a regional curiosity in Scotland to a full-fledged lightweight champion has been surprising. Often overlooked because of his lack of knockout power, Burns has superior ring intelligence, defense and punching technique. His trainer, Billy Nelson, has done a wonderful job of teaching him when to engage, how to avoid incoming fire and when to tie-up on the inside. It was this last point that surprised me the most against Moses. I expected Burns to have problems with Moses on the inside and yet he was the more physical fighter in tight quarters. To control the inside exchanges, he dropped some short hooks, uppercuts and counter right hands. He also used his body effectively to wear down Moses.

Burns executed Nelson's game plan perfectly. He knew that he had to be first with his punches, so he pumped out his jab like his life depended on it. He mixed in his other shots well and he skillfully avoided most of Moses' right hands. He used movement effectively and rarely gave Moses the time to set his feet for his big power shots. He did get tagged with a few bombs, but his chin and legs held up fine.

His performance last night far outstripped his previous one against Michael Katsidis. In that fight, Burns had some lulls where he stopped moving and retreated to the ropes. In those instances, Katsidis had some success connecting with his power shots. Last night, Burns' conditioning was superb. When he stopped moving, it was only to engage Moses on the inside or tie-up. It was a masterful performance.

Unlike fellow British champion Nathan Cleverly, Burns knows exactly what his ring identity is. He is a boxer, a mover and a smart tactical fighter. Cleverly fancies himself as a brawler, despite his obvious advantages with his height, reach, boxing skills and conditioning. Burns' supreme confidence in his abilities and knowledge of what makes him a winning fighter give him a leg up over the Cleverlys of the world. Cleverly had the skills to dominate Tony Bellew as definitively as Burns defeated Moses, yet Cleverly insisted on going to war; he was just a round or two away from paying a steep price for that decision. Burns can be beat (by say someone like Brandon Rios) but if he loses, he'll go down giving himself the best opportunity for victory.

Next on the cards for Burns will most likely be a U.K. showdown against Kevin Mitchell. Mitchell, like Moses, has knockout power but he also has had a number of conditioning and out-of-the-ring issues. At this point, I favor Burns over any of the deep crop of British lightweights.

The lightweight division is in flux. Stalwarts like Rios, Juan Manuel Marquez and Robert Guerrero have already left the division or will do so soon. If Burns gets by Mitchell later this year, the division might look a lot different than it does today. Burns is positioned for a nice run at lightweight. His development under Nelson suggests that he shouldn't be overlooked either in the U.K. or internationally for much longer.

Paul Appleby from Scotland was awarded a close decision victory over Stephen Ormond of Ireland in the main support to Burns-Moses. To my eyes, Ormond won the fight 96-93, or 6-3-1 (there was a needless point deduction against Ormond for illegal elbows). It was a tight decision but not a robbery. There were a number of close rounds and perhaps the oohs and aahs of the home crowd were enough to sway the judges during the tight frames.

Ormond dictated the fight, and with only two punches – a left hook and a straight right hand. His shots were shorter and more powerful than the wide punches of Appleby. The fight featured a lot of enjoyable inside banging. Appleby's offense was inconsistent but he did land a few punishing left hooks to the body that damaged Ormond.

Appleby generated a significant amount of buzz last year in a war he fought against Liam Walsh. Although, he came out on the losing end of that match, he displayed his toughness and his natural fighting instincts. Unfortunately, Appleby hasn't been able to harness his natural power and his jab starts to deteriorate during fights. He can make for a lot of fun scraps in the junior lightweight division on the Commonwealth level, but he lacks the refined skills to ascend towards the top of the division. Nevertheless, he's a fun television fighter; a fact that shouldn't be downplayed.

Ormond came into yesterday's fight with an 11-0 record, but not much of a pedigree. He acquitted himself well but needs some further development. His infighting skills, energy and aggression are all noteworthy but he has no jab or uppercut to speak of – these are key weapons that he is missing. In addition, although he connects solidly with his punches, he could turn over his left hook a little better. Appleby was there for the knockout yesterday, but Ormond lacked the creativity and finishing ability needed to execute – thus, his loss. Ormond though has many winning intangibles and it wouldn't surprise me to see him become a staple on the Commonwealth circuit.

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