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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