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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