Monday, May 28, 2012

Opinions and Observations: Bute-Froch

Carl Froch and trainer Rob McCracken solved the Lucian Bute puzzle on Saturday. The key piece was distance. Froch stayed on the outside, moving beautifully along the ropes; Bute was unable to corral him into range. Froch then launched aggressive attacks featuring his patented odd-angled shots and herky-jerky movements. Froch landed at will with his slinging right hand, left hook and, perhaps most impressive of all, his short right uppercut. In the early rounds, after a three or four-punch flurry, he would retreat out of range.

In my fight preview, I noted that Bute was a pocket fighter, but I wondered what would happen if there wasn't a pocket. Essentially, Froch and McCracken answered that question, demonstrating how vulnerable Bute could be if the Canadian couldn't control distance. Bute couldn't find Froch with his long counters because he didn't know from where Froch would be attacking. Bute's patented uppercut would leave him too exposed and he barely threw the punch. In just a few rounds, Froch neutralized one of the best weapons in boxing. Similarly, Bute couldn't find range to throw or connect with his right hook. The only thing Bute landed of note were some of his short lead and counter left hands (and he actually connected with some good ones). But there weren't enough of them to thwart Froch's attack.

Froch isn't merely a cruel brawler; he executed a brilliant fight plan. He fought in brief bursts or rushes and avoided Bute's weapons as best he could, remaining out of harm's way when he wasn't throwing punches. In the third and fourth rounds, there were a series of moments that illustrated Froch's high ring IQ. As he started to have success with Bute along the ropes, he backed away and made sure he didn't smother himself. He then unloaded with perfectly-placed right hands to the head and short uppercuts. He didn't overreact to having his opponent hurt; his dispatching of Bute was almost clinical. In addition, he didn't stay along the ropes for too long. He did his damage and again backed away, respecting Bute's power.

For Bute, it was just an awful night. After the fight, he remained classy and dismissed his training camp toe injury as an excuse for his lackluster performance. Maybe his toe was fine, but he certainly didn't move well at all. He was afraid to chase Froch on the outside – perhaps his mobility was too limited, or maybe he was worrying about catching something on the way in. Also, he couldn't evade Froch when he was stuck along the ropes. I've seen Bute exhibit excellent footwork before; on Saturday, he looked like a different fighter to me.

Bute made the strategic mistake of allowing Froch to dictate the pace and style of the fight. Bute planned to beat Froch by counterpunching. However, this strategy enabled Froch to launch his unconventional attacks under minimal duress. Bute's refusal to apply pressure was a bad miscalculation. As Andre Ward and Mikkel Kessler demonstrated, you can beat Froch with pressure and/or volume. But Bute remained in the center of the ring, content for Froch to initiate at his own pace. His countering ability was not precise enough to thwart Froch's aggression.

There are certain boxers who don't respond well to unconventional fighters. They are well schooled from their amateur days and can easily defeat standard punchers who throw from regular angles. However, when you think about how fighters like Vernon Forrest struggled with the wild shots of Ricardo Mayorga or  Chad Dawson was flummoxed by the rushes of Jean Pascal or Juan Manuel Lopez couldn't evade the looping right hands of Orlando Salido, these unconventional sluggers have a massive advantage over certain types of fighters. Bute had never seen anyone like Froch before. He brought in 11 sparring partners during training camp but who can really resemble the slinging punches of Froch at super middleweight? Bute seemed to run out of ideas and he lacked the creativity to make adjustments as the fight progressed.

Bute had massive weapons but predictable punch patterns. Froch and McCracken did a brilliant job of taking away two of his best punches by making sure there was never conventional distance. It was up to Bute and his trainer Stephan Larouche to make the necessary adjustments, and they never did. Froch's performance was thrilling but it wasn't a fluke. Both fighter and trainer demonstrated that they were world-class talents.

I wouldn't count Bute out in the future. He had some punishing losses in the amateurs (one in particular was a knockout by Gennady Golovkin) and was practically brain fried, barely surviving, in his first fight against Librado Andrade. He has come back from those showings. He never got into the fight on Saturday but if he does decide to take his rematch against Froch, he could certainly have success with some strategic adjustments. The main question revolves around his psychological mindset. Does he want to keep fighting? Is he still committed to being a top boxer? If he can answer yes to those questions, I expect him to remain a factor in the super middleweight division.

Additionally, don't discount the travel and time differences associated with the fight. Froch looked lifeless in the Super Six finals against Andre Ward, where he was lucky to win three rounds. Bute had fought in Romania before, but against a weak fighter. Jet lag, different cultural customs and the hostile environment have contributed to bettering many-a-fighter before, and will do so again in the future. If the rematch does occur, don't automatically assume that the same result of first fight happens in the second. The Bell Centre, in Montreal, is one of the toughest buildings in the world for an opponent to pick up a win. Bute's rabid following and the Eastern Time Zone’s disadvantageous time difference for Froch could produce an entirely different result.

Credit should be given to Bute for traveling to Nottingham to make a voluntary defense of his title. Results like this weekend's are a big reason why more fighters don't make the same choice that he did. In short, he was outgunned and out-thought, but only a real fighter goes into hostile territory for a voluntary title defense.

Finally, the best image of the night – and, for me, the defining image of boxing to this point in 2012 – was Eddie Hearn racing into the ring to embrace Froch. The promoter joyfully wrapped his arms around Froch while the fighter stood on the ropes receiving the rapturous applause of his fans. The joy on both of their faces is what makes boxing so compelling. In one moment, a mid-30s underdog and boxing nomad gets the belated professional validation from his hometown fans. At the same time, a promoter who was accused of being an interloper in the sport, a trust-fund brat, a mere rich man's son, realized that he played a pivotal role in an unforgettable chapter in British boxing history. It was Hearn who bet big on Froch, a fighter who had been decried as average and dismissed by the British boxing powers many years ago. In that moment, all prior invectives had been erased; their legacies had forever changed. What remained was pure bliss.  

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Friday, May 25, 2012

Keys to the Fight: Bute-Froch

In a break from tradition, Lucian Bute leaves the familiar confines of Quebec to make his 10th title defense in Carl Froch's hometown of Nottingham, England. For Froch, a past participant of the Super Six World Boxing Classic, this home engagement marks his first fight in England in 31 months. Read below for the keys to the fight. My official prediction will be at the end of the piece.

1. How's the foot, Lucian?
Training camp injuries are nothing new in boxing. However, what appears strange in the buildup to this fight was the decision from Bute's camp to inform the media that their fighter had a foot infection. Bute had to stop training while he waited for the infection to heal. This information leads me to believe that the injury was serious enough for Bute (or his team) to strongly consider calling off the fight. To me, there is no other plausible reason why Bute's condition was released to the press. In normal circumstances, a training camp injury would be kept under wraps as much as possible – so there would be no advantage given to an opponent. The public disclosure of this injury strikes me as bizarre. 

Bute is not a big mover in the ring but he does use a lot of subtle lateral movement to set up his power shots. In addition, he likes to create angles to land his uppercut and his right hook. If his mobility is affected in any way, he will become a less threatening fighter for Froch.

In addition, with the interruption of his training camp because of this injury, Bute may not be in top shape. It's possible that the remainder of training camp focused on shedding pounds, instead of using the time to make crucial adjustments and tweaks. Even a few days of lost training can make a significant difference in getting a fighter in prime condition – physically and psychologically.

2. What's the fight plan, Carl?
Froch has two legitimate ways to try and beat Bute. He could crowd Bute with pressure or he could use the ring to box. In the past, Froch has been successful with both styles. Against Jermain Taylor and Andre Dirrell, he pressed the action and eventually won (KO and split decision, respectively). Facing Glen Johnson and Arthur Abraham, he boxed beautifully from the outside. He picked his spots, threw quick combinations and got out of the pocket.

Froch's trainer, Rob McCracken, has an interesting choice to make. On one hand, it's tempting to crowd Bute, who likes room to operate to land his uppercut and right hook. Bute is most effective with his uppercut when he throws it from the outside. In addition, his right hook, although much improved, can get a little wide. Perhaps Froch can neutralize these weapons in close quarters.

McCracken could also test Bute's mobility by having Froch move around the ring. If Bute's not 100% healthy, Froch's lateral and awkward movements would be difficult for Bute to contain. Also, Bute likes to set up in the pocket. If there isn't a pocket, how will he be able to adjust?

I personally think that McCracken/Froch will utilize movement as much as they can. This strategy will challenge Bute and allow Froch the opportunity to create more space to land his wide right hand and left hook.

3. The Eraser.
All the fancy planning and strategy in the world won't matter if Bute can land his left uppercut, one of the most devastating weapons in boxing. The punch, thrown as a lead or as the final punch in combinations, is just pulverizing. Bute uses it to both the head and body. If he can land enough of his uppercuts, or even the right one, Froch won't make it to the final bell.

In actuality, Bute has developed three weapons which can end fights. In addition to his uppercut, his straight left hand and right hook should concern Froch. Bute's straight left sometimes doesn't look like much. He doesn't seem to throw it with full effort, but it has pinpoint accuracy and surprising power. His right hook has been his biggest area of improvement. As he has become more confident with the punch, he has increasingly featured it in his arsenal; he will often lead exchanges with it.

Froch doesn't have pure knockout power. His right hand (I won't call anything that Froch throws straight) ended the Taylor bout, but that's really the only high-profile fighter that Froch has been able to knock out. He has sneaky power, often the result of landing shots from odd angles, but it's not enough to end fights. If this match becomes a shootout, he loses.

4. Location, Location, Location.
Bute has never had a title fight outside of his home province of Quebec or his birth country of Romania, while Froch has had championship bouts in four countries – the U.S., England, Finland and Denmark. Home in Nottingham, Froch will have a raucous, supportive crowd and Bute has never been on enemy turf in his career. In addition, the noise and energy of the crowd could help with the scoring of the contest. It wouldn't be the first time that judges have given close rounds to the home fighter. That's practically a governing rule in the sport, however misguided it may be.

5. Who are the judges?
A solid cadre of experienced and accurate judges has been selected for this title fight. Benoit Roussel has been one of the most active judges in Quebec. This will be his seventh time scoring a Bute fight; however, Roussel is not necessarily a homer. He accurately scored Dawson-Diaconu, giving the visiting American the wide decision over the Canadian-based fighter. Roussel isn't well known on the international scene but his cards have been excellent.

Steve Weisfeld, from New Jersey, is one of the busiest boxing officials on the east coast. In addition, he has travelled throughout the world for championship fights. He may be the best boxing judge out of New Jersey. He is regarded as fair and neutral.

Howard Foster is a familiar judge in the U.K., where he is seemingly in action every other week. He also has been selected for many of Sauerland's cards in Germany. I didn't like his recent card in the Hope-Proksa fight, where he scored the bout for the aggressive, British-born fighter, instead of rewarding the one who landed the more damaging power shots. Nevertheless, he has turned in a number of excellent cards over the years and I haven't been able to detect a specific bias or predilection in his decisions.

Until I heard about the foot injury, I was ready to select Bute to win the fight. Having once had an infection in my foot, I know that the condition can be very serious and recovery often necessitates restrictions on weight-bearing and athletic activity. I'm concerned that Bute won't be coming into the fight in top condition. He also may not be fully confident in his movements or his training.

I might be making too big of a deal out of the infection; I realize this. Perhaps Bute's injury was just a relatively minor setback and InterBox (Bute's promoter) decided to release the information about Bute's condition out of the kindness of their hearts. However, my gut tells me otherwise.

I think that the fight will feature a lot of close rounds, with Bute having success landing his straight left hand and right hook. Froch will have his moments as well, where he frustrates Bute with his herky-jerky movements and timely right hands. I don't see this as a fight with vast momentum swings; more likely, there will be many rounds that could be awarded to either fighter. Overall, there may not be a ton of cleanly landed shots by either combatant.

Ultimately, I think that the crowd and perhaps a small late-round rally will be enough to give Froch the edge in the eyes of two judges. He may win on the scorecards, but not definitively or authoritatively. I expect that we'll see a rematch in Canada later this year.

Carl Froch wins via split decision.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

On Boxing and Performance Enhancing Drugs

First, some stipulations:

1. Steroids and other performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) have infiltrated a host of major sports. Boxing is just one of them.

2. Unlike other sports such as cycling, track and field and baseball, boxing has not universally addressed its PED problem. 

3. PEDs have been involved in boxing for a generation, if not longer.

4. Professional athletes have always looked to gain edges. If steroids were commonly available in the 1950s, you can bet that a number of boxers would have used them.

5. It is the responsibility of governing bodies to restrict and regulate PEDs and other practices that can create an unnatural advantage for a participant/team.  Should these bodies fail to enforce the strictest standards of fair play, they are negligent in their duties of ensuring safe and legitimate professional contests.

6. Cheaters will always be ahead of testing entities.

It is this fifth point that is the most troubling. Boxing lacks a central regulating authority. Although there are universal standards for weight classes, the applicable rules of titles fights, the criteria for judging rounds and the banning of certain liquids and foreign substances, the enforcement of these rules is left to the various international boxing boards and commissions, and in the United States, the myriad state commissions.

Obviously, not all commissions enforce rules similarly, if at all. (The Texas Board of Licensing and Regulation failed to administer a post-fight drug test for Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in his last fight even though he had failed a drug test earlier in his career.) In addition, fights can be shopped around for weak commissions. (Tyson-Lewis famously wound up in Tennessee because that state was one of the few that would license Tyson.) Furthermore, as Gabriel Montoya (of and others have cited in their recent work, the standards of the various boxing jurisdictions can vary significantly, such as in the case of a permissible level of testosterone. In short, there isn't a level playing field among boxing commissions.

Nevertheless, it's clear that the tide is turning in favor of more stringent PED testing in boxing – and this is a wonderful development. In addition to negating the legitimate results of a boxing match, PEDs can cause serious damage to fighters, both the ones who use them and the boxers who face dopers in the ring.

In the upcoming months, as more fighters and promoters insist on stricter drug testing standards, expect more boxers to fail tests. In the short term, fans of the sport will suffer – as they already have with the cancellations of Khan-Peterson II and Ortiz-Berto II (Lamont Peterson and Andre Berto failed drug tests). However, the good of protecting fighters' safety and the legitimacy of boxing matches far outweighs temporary fan dissatisfaction from cancelled events.  

If a few eggs need to be broken to yield a cleaner sport, so be it. In five years, when stricter drug testing protocols will be followed for all title fights and major boxing matches, we will look back at this time in the sport as a seminal moment.  Boxers, like other professional athletes, will now have to accept complete responsibility for what they put in their bodies; the alternatives will be too harrowing for those who aren’t compliant: Million-dollar paydays will be lost, title opportunities will fall by the wayside and network and promoters will stop dealing with serial PED offenders.

Again, it is not that steroids and PEDs are new. Fighters such as Roy Jones and James Toney failed drug tests years ago. Vitali Klitschko tested positive as an amateur. What is different is the change in boxing stakeholders’ attitudes towards PEDs. A fighter using a PED no longer gets a mere shoulder shrug. The realization and acceptance that these drugs can cause significant harm to the sport's participants have been the real turning point.

As baseball writer Bill James has often pointed out, scandals, most often, involve a society's intolerance of past wrongs and a search for better ethical standards. In short, the stakeholders in boxing – the fighters, promoters, writers, fans, commissions and networks – are starting to take more ownership of the sport; this is a significant development and will help ensure boxing’s future health and ultimate viability. The permissiveness of the past regarding PEDs will become a reminder of another era. Those who object to the new testing protocols will be on the wrong side of history.

One of the unique features of boxing has always been its rugged individualism. Unlike the majority of other professional sports, with their reliance on leagues, teamwork, salary caps and collective bargaining, boxing is still the Wild Wild West. The sport's a hustle. Fighters can go as far as their talent and notoriety take them. The best in the sport need only to get paid two or three nights a year to earn as much as the top athletes around the world.

However, the majority of boxers desire an even playing field.  They want to know that they have a chance to ascend to the highest echelons of boxing without the additional threats of doping opponents, or the need to succumb to the lure of PEDs just to remain viable within the sport. They love the individuality of boxing but they also want reasonable protection from the external threats of PEDs.

Stricter drug testing has added some necessary, additional regulation of the sport. There's still no global boxing commission or authority (this may be a good thing), or in America, a national commission (this is most certainly a bad thing). But the ultimate goal of all boxing regulating entities is the protection and safety of fighters in a sport that results in so much long-term physical damage to its participants even under the best of circumstances. The West might now be less wild, but today the sport is in a better place than it was just 12 months ago.

Although the engine for stricter drug testing in the sport may have been powered by a fighter who was in no rush to meet his number-one rival (Floyd Mayweather) and a convicted felon who had previously been instrumental in creating numerous PEDs (Victor Conte), whatever motives these individuals had in calling for more rigorous testing protocols are now far less important than the end result of their actions: a cleaner and more just sport.

There will be some ugly days ahead. Big events will be cancelled. A new series of outcasts will be created. Role models will be destroyed; bad actors exposed. Boxers and promoters will rail about fights falling through and missed revenue. Fans will be deprived of compelling matchups and the opportunity to enjoy watching their favorite fighters ply their trade. No one will enjoy "dark" Saturday nights on television when there should have been a big fight.

However, the sport will be in a better place with stricter PED testing.  As boxing fans, we should feel good that these new protocols will help protect more fighters and ensure the legitimacy of future matches. This is a big win for boxing.

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Friday, May 18, 2012

Tarver's Time To Make Up For Lost Time

At 43, Antonio Tarver still remains relevant in boxing. That in it of itself is something of a feat. 43 is an age for trainers or commentators (Tarver's more regular gig, on Showtime), not for active fighters. But activity and Antonio Tarver do not necessarily mix. Verbally, Tarver has been one of the most loquacious and omnipresent fighters in the sport, crashing press conferences, making accusations of others, goading potential opponents and ruling the new social media, such as Twitter. However, Tarver's activity often falls short of actually appearing in the ring. In the nine years since Tarver won his first title, he has fought only 13 times – a paltry number even in modern boxing.

Tarver has never officially retired throughout his career but he has taken several long hiatuses away from the ring. At various points over the last five years, the accepted wisdom was that he was finished as a world-class fighter, and, quite frankly, that may be still be the case.

Last year's win over an aging Danny Green was unexpected, but perhaps not all that meaningful. Green had captured and defended a minor belt against ancient fighters and those who were unfit to appear on the world-class level. Tarver was supposed to be next on the list, but he bucked the odds and knocked Green out. The win was convincing, although his opponent was much closer to his way out of boxing than he was to the prime of his career.

Tarver arrived late to boxing (he had previous personal and substance abuse problems prior to his full-time commitment to the sport). He became one of America's top amateur talents in the mid '90s, but he was already in his late 20s by the time he won the bronze medal in the 1996 Olympics.

He ascended the prospect ladder very quickly as a professional. In just his 16th pro fight, he faced Eric Harding in a title eliminator. In a pattern that would establish itself throughout his career, he lost to a fighter who was a large step up in class. He would subsequently defeat him five fights later.

Once Tarver reached the world-class level, his record became spotty. He lost five times to top fighters, (Roy Jones, Bernard Hopkins, Glen Johnson and twice to Chad Dawson). Most famously, he was able to avenge his loss to Jones with a second-round TKO, where he landed one of the perfect counter left hands in the history of the sport.

Tarver has often faced problems with motivation. He lost fights against Hopkins and Johnson in which he was heavily favored. (Again, he would defeat Johnson in a rematch.) He went to Hollywood after his second win against Jones to play Rocky Balboa's nemesis in the franchise's last installment. Ballooning well into heavyweight territory, he looked lifeless and listless when he finally returned to active boxing against Hopkins.

Instead of accepting his wipeout defeat to Hopkins, he blamed his loss on external forces, claiming he was poisoned; the two fighters still have a running feud to this day. Steamed that he never got a rematch with Hopkins, Tarver ironically refused to offer Johnson a third fight, which would have determined the ultimate victor in that series.

Tarver was one of the first big fighters to align himself with Al Haymon, one of boxing's most powerful managers or advisors (his official role can sometimes vary based on the fighter). For Haymon's prized, veteran boxers, he has stressed a strict adherence to never fighting "dark" – refusing to fight without being on premium TV. In Haymon's mind, if a boxer fights dark, he dilutes his value. Instead of staying active, Haymon's boxers patiently wait for the opportunity for a premium slot on U.S. cable. If a fighter is not a top priority for the American boxing networks, those waits can become quite lengthy. Tarver waited a year to get back on TV after the Hopkins defeat. After his second loss to Dawson, he waited 17 months. You can bet that Tarver wasn't training religiously in the gym during these absences.

In 2010, Tarver fought once at heavyweight and then waited nine more months to take on Green at cruiserweight (a rare foray without U.S. television backing). He faces Lateef Kayode at cruiserweight next month – this time with a wait of almost 11 months. As usual, the fight will be on a U.S. premium cable outlet (Showtime), and he is expected to win against the crude but heavy-handed banger.

In evaluating Tarver's career, it's impossible to separate the results from paths not taken by the fighter. Tarver has only fought 35 times in his 15-year career (Jones appeared 52 times in his first 15 years, Hopkins – 46 times). When Tarver did get into the ring, he sometimes lacked the professionalism to come into fights in top shape. In addition, his reputation for performing well in rematches represents a tacit admission that he was underprepared or inadequately motivated for these first bouts against top opponents. 

Unfortunately, Tarver's inactivity led to a dulling of his skills and a loss of his natural athleticism. Today, he is a stationary fighter and he rarely features the incisive lateral movement and angles which were hallmarks of his earlier career. Some of this can be attributed to the natural aging process; but even as far back as the Hopkins fight six years ago, he looked like he was trying to move in quicksand.

Similar to a long line of Haymon-advised fighters, Tarver reached the mountaintop, but he was unable to maintain his lofty position in boxing. Due to ring rust and his own often cavalier attitude to the sport, he never was a dominant champion, despite having significant power, boxing skills and athletic talent.

Tarver is known for being a brash, boastful fighter but there are moments where he can be very introspective about the path of his career. Tarver realizes that this run is his last opportunity to make his mark in the sport. His grudge about being an underappreciated fighter, especially when compared to Jones and Hopkins, still permeates his essence; his repeated flare-ups with these legends are less about their successes than his own shortcomings, professionally or psychologically.   

In quieter moments, I wonder if he regrets some of the decisions in his career: the contentment of waiting around for big paydays, the time spent out of the gym and the underestimation of some of his opponents. In Tarver's mind, he is a Hall of Fame fighter, but his record is full of missteps and losses to the elites.

His recent opponents have been second-rate fighters, father time and the memories of opportunities missed. What would he have become if he had been a more dedicated fighter? Could he have taken down Jones or Johnson in his first battles with them had he been more active in the gym. And what explains his perfunctory efforts against Dawson?

Tarver's legacy is not yet complete and perhaps in his final run he can do something spectacular to make boxing observers remember his unique blend of talents. However, if his career ended right now, he would certainly be recorded in the annals of boxing as one of the many with potential unfulfilled, rather than a fighter who got the best out of his abilities.  

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Friday, May 11, 2012

Musings on Canelo and Huck

Saul "Canelo" Alvarez has boxed on the international scene for two years. He has fought eight times since his American debut against Jose Cotto and he has received coveted slots headlining HBO broadcasts and serving as the chief support to two of Floyd Mayweather's pay-per-view events.

A look at the list of his recently vanquished foes reveals some impressive names, but ones that did not necessarily represent tough challenges. Most of these opponents were fighters on the downsides of good careers and/or ones who had distinguished themselves in other weight classes. His highest-profile win was last weekend's victory against an ancient Shane Mosley. That fight reinforced a pattern of Alvarez defeating former champions from smaller weight classes, including Kermit Cintron, Lovemore Ndou and Carlos Baldomir. His other victories were against B-listers such as Ryan Rhodes, Alfonso Gomez and Matthew Hatton.

To date, his competition has not been all that stiff and he has not yet fought some of the more interesting names at junior middleweight (Erislandy Lara, James Kirkland, and Austin Trout). Golden Boy has wisely ignored Alvarez's championship belt and has  used these early title fights for his further development. In essence, they have treated Alvarez more like a regular 21-year-old prospect, and not as an established titleholder. HBO has been a steady underwriter of Alvarez's ascent in the sport (and because Canelo draws fine TV ratings, they should be), but at a certain point, all parties involved want the training wheels to come off and see what the kid really has.

To project Alvarez's future in the sport, it's important to affirm what we have learned about him over the last two years.  He clearly is a great combination puncher. His use of uppercuts from the outside to start combinations is a rarity in the sport. He relies far more on power punches than his jab. He has excellent punch technique and accuracy. His ring generalship is superb. It's amazing to see a 21-year-old control the action and pacing of a fight the way in which he does. So far, he has not let big crowds, the limelight or his opponents dictate the way in which he fights.

Canelo does have some areas for improvement. He doesn't fight three minutes a round and conceivably can be outworked by a good jabber (Gomez had some success in this area). His defense is merely adequate. He doesn't feature a lot of head movement and Cotto, Gomez and Cintron were able to land some hard shots on him. Alvarez's power is good, but it's not exceptional. He's less of a one-punch knockout artist than a boxer who gets stoppages because of an accumulation of punishment from his accurate shots.

The rumored plan floated by Golden Boy is to match Canelo next with Kirkland. That fight should be a shootout and at the very least it will tell us about Alvarez's chin and his ability to survive a pressure fighter. I favor Alvarez's clean punching in that fight. If feather-fisted Carlos Molina was able to damage Kirkland, Alvarez should be able to do the same. However, Alvarez doesn't feature the lateral movement of someone like Molina. It will be fascinating to see if Alvarez can best Kirkland without leaving the pocket.

Ultimately, Canelo Alvarez is no normal 21-year old. His ring maturity and technique belie his age. However, I get the sneaking suspicion that his road to boxing's elite will be bumpy. His shortcomings (especially his work rate) are real and he's yet to face a true puncher at junior middleweight.

Nevertheless, as boxing observers, we should be in for a fun ride. Canelo has a rare gift of composure and maturity during big moments in the ring. He also has a natural affinity for the spotlight. Even with a loss or two, he will remain in demand as one of the true attractions in boxing.

Marco Huck finds himself in a truly unique situation. Earlier in the year, the longtime cruiserweight champion moved up to heavyweight and fought on virtually even terms against Alexander Povetkin, a top-10 boxer in the sport's glamor division. Throughout the fight, Huck landed the harder shots and proved he had the ability and chin to stay at heavyweight. He lost a very close fight and in an interesting twist, his promoter and manager, Sauerland Event (in Germany, one entity can wear both hats), convinced him to drop back to cruiserweight to defend his title.

Huck initially wanted to stay at heavyweight but Sauerland's financial guarantee was enough for the fighter to return to his old division. Needless to say, Huck, who had previously defended his title five times, only earned a draw against Ola Afolabi last weekend. The fight was a rematch of a thin decision victory for Huck in 2009. Huck-Afolabi II was an outright war, with Afolabi outworking Huck in the opening rounds and Huck coming on strong with massive power shots in the fight's second half. The 12th round featured unbelievable action from both fighters and was easily a round-of-the-year candidate.

Now the most interesting question is where Huck goes from here. One important facet of the Afolabi fight, which was not reported heavily, was that Huck had to drop 30 pounds to make the cruiserweight limit. Often, fighters who move down significantly in weight lose their power and energy (e.g. Roy Jones, Oscar de la Hoya). Through that prism, it's remarkable how effective Huck was against Afolabi. He was the fresher fighter and the one who imposed his will as the bout progressed.

Despite Huck's crowd-pleasing effort on Saturday, I still think that the proper move for him is to return to heavyweight. Afolabi illustrated how Huck could be particularly vulnerable in that division. Huck does not have a high punch output and it often takes him a few rounds to find his way into a fight (this also happened against Povetkin). Huck will fare much better against fighters who throw 40 punches a round, instead of those who throw 60 or more. In short, the slower pace of heavyweight action suits Huck's style better.

In addition, Huck was a real heavyweight against Povetkin, not a cruiserweight masquerading as one. Against Povetkin, he landed the harder shots and his chin held up fine. Also, his body at 229 wasn't soft and he moved well at the higher weight.  Huck won't beat a Klitschko, but he will be able to handle himself against the rest of the division.

It will be interesting to see how supportive Sauerland is of Huck's desire to go back to heavyweight. They control most of the top cruiserweights in the division and have built up Huck into one of the big attractions in Germany. At heavyweight, the best fighters are from all over the world and Huck will not be the house fighter in those contests.

Understandably, Sauerland is reluctant to lose one of its guaranteed cash cows who fills arenas and generates excellent TV ratings. That risk is most likely one that they are not keen on taking. However, what they might not realize is that there is significant risk for Huck should he stay at cruiserweight. He very well might physically be too big for the division and Afolabi already demonstrated Huck's vulnerabilities against athletic boxers who feature high punch outputs.  

Ultimately, I think the play is for Huck to go to heavyweight. His power punches and fighting spirit will be a welcome addition to the division. He may not win all his fights but he will earn good money. Also, his style is extremely TV friendly and he has the real possibility of expanding his existing fanbase beyond central Europe. It will be interesting to see what Huck's next moves will be, but either way, he has quickly become one of the better crowd-pleasing fighters in the sport.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Opinions and Observations: Mayweather-Cotto

The great ones know that they can always improve. Whether it's Michael Jordan adding a turnaround jumper or Cal Ripken changing his swing, the best are not satisfied on their exalted pedestals. They have an almost pathological desire to stay on top. As elite athletes age and their bodies become less forgiving, the mind, pride and desire play more prominent roles in achieving and maintaining excellence.

Miguel Cotto somehow took away Floyd Mayweather's best two punches this weekend – the jab and the straight right hand – yet he still lost the fight. Cotto was competitive throughout the bout, but couldn't find a way to turn the fight in his favor. Mayweather was just a few small steps ahead. This was like second-dynasty Michael Jordan, where Mayweather had just enough skill and guile to get by Cotto, who played the role of the Utah Jazz. It was a clear victory, but it wasn't easy. The great ones find a way.

Mayweather won the early rounds in the judges' eyes (and on my card), but he was barely topping his opponent, the one who was supposed to have a leaky defense and slow hand speed. It was shocking to see Mayweather unable to land his jab or right hand with his typical pinpoint accuracy.

Suddenly, in the fourth round, Mayweather started connecting with looping right-hand shots which landed on Cotto's left ear. It was a punch which I had never seen Mayweather throw previously. Philosophically, this punch seemed counter to everything that Mayweather was about – it was wide, instead of compact, and it left him open to be countered. When Mayweather threw this right hand, his whole right side was exposed for Cotto's punishing left hook. Yet he threw it; and it landed.

After the fight, Mayweather was asked about the looping right hand. He said that he was watching Cotto's bout against Shane Mosley, where Mosley landed that same punch throughout the fight – so Mayweather decided to incorporate it into his arsenal.

I think that this moment revealed a lot about Mayweather as a fighter. As good as he has been throughout his career, he's still looking for ways to get better. Essentially, it wasn't beneath him to crib a punch from a fighter whom he had previously dominated; it was a way to help him win.

Cotto's technique has improved substantially under Pedro Diaz. Conventional wisdom said that Mayweather would win a jabbing war, counter Cotto's right hand with the left hook and land his straight right between Cotto's high guard. But Cotto was picking off or avoiding those punches almost the whole night. He kept his left glove up high to ward off Mayweather's right hand. He used his reach advantage to stay out of the way of Mayweather's jab. His own jab was tight and he quickly returned it to a defensive position after throwing it. His right hands were short and he didn't reach with his left hook. His balance was excellent.

After a competitive first few rounds, Cotto started to land his jab frequently in the center of the ring. This in it of itself was a shocking development. Cotto, known as having a solid – but not spectacular – jab, was never supposed to land that punch on such a defensive wizard. But there he was, hitting Mayweather with the stick and busting him up.

For whatever reason, Cotto abandoned that plan after the sixth round. Perhaps he, or his corner, realized his success was fool's gold. Maybe it was. Maybe the game plan was to win the fight along the ropes. Perhaps Cotto was unwilling to make the same type of adjustments during the fight that Mayweather was.

Throughout most of the match, Cotto attacked Mayweather along the ropes. This led to a lot of "ooh aah" moments for the crowd, but most of his forays were examples of ineffective aggression. Of the five or six punches he would throw along the ropes, perhaps one squeaked by cleanly.

Cotto's one unadulterated round of success along the ropes was the 8th, where he teed off on Mayweather's body with right and left hooks. This was the Cotto that his supporters expected to see. It's not that Cotto didn't try throughout the fight, but Mayweather's defensive skills stymied most of his efforts along the ropes.

Having landed a few earlier in the fight, Mayweather featured his uppercuts in the later rounds. These punches cemented his victory. He countered with a single shot or started combinations with them, like left uppercut-straight right hand-left hook or right uppercut-left hook-straight right hand. His uppercuts were short and powerful, landing consistently on Cotto's chin. In the 12th round, he connected with a right uppercut that almost knocked Cotto out cold.

Don't let the wide (but accurate) decision obfuscate the reality of the fight; this was not the bout that Mayweather had signed up for. Sure, many thought that Mayweather would win a comfortable decision. 117-111 or 118-110 sounded very likely before the fight started, but this was not the typical Mayweather match whatsoever.

Mayweather often starts deliberately, dissecting his opponents and taking away their best weapons. As the rounds progress, he scores with single power shots and gradually incorporates his entire arsenal. He eventually lands at will. The last few rounds of his fights are usually mere academic exercises.

That is certainly not what happened on Saturday. Mayweather won the fight only because he edged out Cotto in a lot of close rounds. Mayweather didn't land with his customary precision and only in the 12th could it be said that he dominated the fight. He kept his jab safely by his side as the match progressed and his straight right hand only landed sporadically. Yes, he exhibited defensive mastery throughout the fight and displayed the intelligence, athleticism and skills that make him a great boxer, but it wasn't enough to truly outclass Cotto until the final few moments.

In short, Mayweather was unable to take away Cotto's will. Cotto thought he was in the fight throughout the entire 12 rounds. Mayweather is supposed to dissuade opponents from that kind of ambitious thinking.

Similar to one of the judges, I scored the fight 118-110, but it was not a wipeout victory like those against Mosley or Juan Manuel Marquez. To my eyes, there were small edges here and there which swung rounds in Mayweather's favor. He had to work hard for this victory.

True, Mayweather isn't as mobile as he used to be, but credit for the competitive nature of this fight belongs to Cotto. His conditioning was excellent. He demonstrated new defensive prowess. He fought within himself and was determined to pull out a victory. This Cotto was far superior to the weight-drained, self-trained fighter who faced Manny Pacquiao.

Ultimately, the great ones adapt. In addition, through skills, intelligence and working at their craft, they have more ways of winning than their opponents. Mayweather was able to secure a victory with his left and right uppercut – perhaps his 4th and 5th best punches – and a looping right hand, which wasn't even in his arsenal until this fight. (Think about how many recent champions don't even have three good punches.)

Cotto fought with spirit and determination but Mayweather made the crucial adjustments. Cotto was able to neutralize Mayweather's speed and take away some of his best weapons; however, he still came up short. For Mayweather, it wasn't his prettiest effort. He may not have been at his sharpest but Saturday's fight showed him at his most intelligent and versatile. This is one tough fighter to beat.

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