Monday, April 30, 2012

Opinions and Observations: Hopkins-Dawson II

From an aesthetic standpoint, Hopkins-Dawson II lived down to expectations. There was wrestling, clinching, grappling, butting, holding and occasionally there were faint remembrances of honest-to-god boxing. However, don't let the ugliness of the proceedings discredit Dawson's victory. If it were up to Dawson, he would have glided around the ring, thrown some slick combinations and remained out of harm's way. But he was facing an old warrior who was determined to win at any cost.

Dawson's greatest strength on Saturday was his ability to keep his composure. That may sound like faint praise, but honestly, Dawson comported himself with such discipline that he was able to stick to his game plan and persevere past the circus inside of the ring. Incessantly, Hopkins butted Dawson. In the rare moments where Hopkins decided to engage in exchanges, he led with his head at almost a 90-degree angle. Evander Holyfield had nothing on Hopkins in this fight. Hopkins also provided his patented low blows on the hip during clinches. He placed Dawson in headlocks, he embellished perceived Dawson fouls and he threw Dawson to the ground. Hopkins tried everything except straight boxing – because he couldn’t win the fight that way.

Yet Dawson was prepared for this type of battle. When Hopkins lunged forward with his head down, Dawson, wisely, was more concerned with the incoming right hand than Hopkins' pate. During clinches, Dawson held his ground and remained focused; he didn't let Hopkins' fouling get the better of him. When Hopkins practically launched himself through the ropes to curry favor with the ref, Dawson gave him a dismissive smile. Dawson didn't yield in the battle of physicality in the ring, but he was more concerned with winning the war, by that I mean the fight at hand. His focus sealed the victory.

Fighters greater than Dawson have fallen victim to Hopkins' traps and gamesmanship. However, in this second fight, Dawson didn't let his anger and disgust distract him from his task at hand. In their first bout, Dawson was clearly perturbed by Hopkins' pressing down on his neck during clinches (Hopkins repeated this maneuver in the second fight). Dawson's frustration got the best of him in that abbreviated match when he threw Hopkins to the canvas. Sure, he sent a message, but he didn't get to keep the belt.

More specifically, Dawson's lack of focus and composure had been a problem throughout his career. He was cruising to an easy victory against Tomasz Adamek before being dropped. Glen Johnson's right hands bothered him so much in their first fight that he disengaged (and ran) in the final rounds to avoid further damage. He failed to grasp his perilous status in the Jean Pascal bout until late in the fight. His lack of urgency led to his loss.

None of those issues manifested on Saturday. Credit must be given to Dawson's trainer, John Scully, for Dawson's performance. A carousel of trainers has worked with Dawson over the fighter's career and yet it seems that Scully has finally been able to connect with Dawson in a psychological or emotional way. Dawson's skills have never been in question; more often, it's been his focus or his heart. On Saturday, Dawson graduated from a young fighter with talent to a seasoned pro. He was fully prepared, confident throughout the match and executed his game plan.

Was he perfect in the fight? No. When Dawson let his hands go, he couldn't be stopped. In exchanges, Hopkins lacked the firepower to match him. Dawson still exerted too much caution and failed to be as aggressive as he could be. However, he won the fight and he won it convincingly. I scored the fight 117-111, the same score as the two judges who had Dawson winning the match.

With the exception of one notable uppercut, Dawson relied on three punches: jab, straight left hand and right hook to the body. He kept his punches short, fast and didn't overcommit looking for knockout punches. Irrespective of his proclamations that he would stop Hopkins, Dawson fought Hopkins the right way by scoring singles and doubles, which limited Hopkins' countering opportunities. Dawson's footwork was also impeccable throughout the night. He made Hopkins miss throughout the match and avoided most of his right hands.

As for Hopkins, he was simply outgunned. He tried to throw one punch and then hold and hit until the referee broke them apart. He was able to land a few of his lead right hands, but because of his advancing age and declining power – as well as Dawson's chin – they weren't big enough shots to change the tenor of the fight. He also fought Dawson virtually one-handed. His jab was non-existent; he fainted with it at times to try and land the right hand. I don't recall one left hook connecting. His only left hands that caused damage were the illegal ones that he used to hit Dawson on the hip and thighs during clinches.

Referee Eddie Cotton did a tremendous job during the fight. He knew exactly what to expect and broke the clinches up as fast as possible. He warned both fighters, but more often Hopkins, about illegal tactics. Cotton realized that Hopkins was going to try any method to win the fight and acted accordingly. I wouldn't have argued if he took a point from Hopkins for head butting, but he had a thankless role.

In the hands of a lesser ref, the fight could have devolved into a disqualification or an even nastier affair. Cotton was attentive throughout the match and tried to limit the nonsense to the best of his ability. He knew what he was in for but he didn't let Hopkins' antics force him to become the story of the fight. In the hands of a laissez-faire referee like Steve Smoger (who is an excellent choice for most fights), there may not have been more than a handful of landed punches in the whole match. With more officious types like Jay Nady, or Vic Drakulich, Hopkins would have been disqualified, which would have been unsatisfying on numerous levels. Cotton played the hand he was dealt and performed admirably.

What to say about Bernard Hopkins? On a personal level, I have followed his career more closely than that of any other fighter. He's one of the reasons that I love boxing as much as I do. His fights have taught me so much about strategy, footwork, counterpunching and punch placement. His personal story was an impressive saga and will remain in boxing folklore for generations. Until the recent emergence of a new wave of Philadelphia fighters, Hopkins singlehandedly carried the city's proud boxing tradition on his back. He was a model for preparation, conditioning and learning the craft.

Handed nothing, he made the boxing powers come to him. Without being a knockout artist or an aesthetically pleasing fighter to watch, he earned millions and remained relevant in the top echelons of boxing for almost two decades. Hopkins defied predictions and his epic victories over Trinidad, Tarver and Pavlik were forceful reminders that conventional wisdom can be flawed. Too many observers and media outlets succumbed to the folly of underestimating an athlete in supreme condition with an unbreakable will. His streak of 20 middleweight defenses will not be surpassed for a long time. (It's quite the accomplishment, but so few modern boxers even fight enough to have 20 title fights, let alone victories.)

Was he perfect inside or outside of the ring? No. He applied boxing's "dark arts" more than he should have or needed to. He over-relied upon gamesmanship, which hurt him. He used the fouling, butting, and antics as crutches. Did they help him during key moments? I'm sure they did, but they also turned off many boxing fans and members of the media. In short, he was a better fighter than that. His performances against Pavlik and Tarver were clean displays of expert boxing. He could be that good.

Outside of the ring, he created enemies. Needing bogeymen to fuel his motivation, he took on rival fighters, promoters, network executives, judges, referees, writers, lawyers – you name it. These grievances, real or imagined, helped provide Hopkins with his edge. And while he probably viewed many of these feuds as a means to an end, he paid the price with his reputation. His actions were not just mere gamesmanship; they included slanderous assertions, racial, sexual and ethnic epithets and bilious rhetoric.

Hopkins always yearned for respect, recognition and love, but he wanted it both ways. He was not beneath holding petty grudges for years, intimidating the media and hurling vicious insults. However, he would then be surprised when he wasn't treated more warmly. He never realized that his words had real repercussions beyond his needs. Hopkins was a tough guy to root for. Practically everyone in the fight game respected him, although that was never enough to settle Hopkins. He dismantled Oscar de la Hoya in the ring, but he could never approach de la Hoya's status in boxing. Even though he will be remembered as a far better fighter than the Golden Boy, I bet his perceived lack of affection from the boxing public still eats away at him.

Seth Mitchell scored a stirring third-round TKO over Chazz Witherspoon and further solidified his status as a promising American heavyweight. His performance was not without flaws. Witherspoon tattooed him with right hands in the first round. Mitchell seemed unable to defend himself against those shots. However, he survived Witherspoon's initial flurries and imposed his will in the second and third rounds. Like a pro, Mitchell dug to Witherspoon's soft body in the second round with punishing left hooks. He later went upstairs and finished the fight with straight right hands. Perhaps most importantly, the fight demonstrated that he had the chin to survive big shots, a paramount qualification for any heavyweight prospect.

For Golden Boy Promotions, Saturday's Mitchell-Witherspoon fight was perfect matchmaking. Mitchell survived and thrived against a puncher and looked spectacular in doing so. I'm sure that the Golden Boy honchos observed that Mitchell must refine his defensive techniques and learn to hold on when hurt. Nevertheless, they have a true heavyweight player under their banner.

Mitchell needs two more developmental fights and then I believe he's ready for any non-Klitschko in the heavyweight division. For a boxer who came late to sport, he's demonstrated very solid fight instincts and I think he has tremendous aptitude for improvement. He may never be able to defeat a Klitschko, but let's not spoil a good story at this early date.

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