Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Opinions and Observations: Guerrero-Aydin

Robert Guerrero wasn't interested in merely securing a win against Turkish banger Selcuk Aydin on Saturday; he wanted to make a statement.  With his massive advantages in technical skills and reach, he could have stayed on the outside and boxed his way to a comfortable victory.  Instead, he planted himself in the pocket and mixed it up with Aydin on the inside.  Guerrero's strategy wasn't the most intelligent approach in terms of risk minimization, but he was after bigger game.  Guerrero was letting the boxing world know of his plans to become a player in the welterweight division. 

He answered major questions about his chin, taking several big rights from the heavy-handed Aydin.  Guerrero also showed that he was fully recovered from his shoulder injury, which had knocked him out of boxing for 15 months.   He threw his punches and combinations with ease and fluidity.  And while he never significantly hurt Aydin, his power and volume punching were enough to stifle Aydin's offensive output. 

Guerrero's performance was a solid foray into the 147-lb. division, but he still has several areas in which he can improve.  He didn't listen to his father's advice after the ninth round to box more (his father, Reuben, is his trainer). Although Guerrero should be commended for wanting to impress, his refusal to listen to his trainer could lead to issues in future fights.  In addition, Guerrero had superior foot speed, but he didn't use it; he got hit more than he should have.  His willingness to fight to his opponent's strengths is problematic.

All and all, Guerrero looked comfortable at the weight.  He took Aydin's shots fairly well and his punches had enough impact to keep his opponent honest.  Guerrero's combination punching was solid throughout the fight.  I especially liked his right uppercut-straight left hand combinations, which consistently scored. Guerrero displayed uppercuts with both hands, good right hooks, solid jabs and straight left hands.  He varied his punches very well, which kept Aydin guessing for large stretches of the fight. 

The official scores were all for Guerrero: 116-112 (x2) and 117-111.  I scored the fight 117-111.  But Aydin did have some moments.  I thought that Aydin won rounds 4, 7 and 10.  His punches were crude but they came from odd angles and were hard.  He scored with mostly looping right hands and right hooks from the outside and short right hooks on the inside.  He tried to land a knockout left hook a number of times throughout the fight but Guerrero slipped that punch with ease.

Guerrero showed his mettle by rebounding in the championship rounds to secure the fight.  He looked to be in a great condition; neither his legs nor his chin betrayed him.  After 15 months out of the ring, his performance was definitely something to build off of.  Guerrero's lack of true power and his questionable ring strategy will be real challenges for him to overcome. (He fought Michael Katsidis similarly to how he did Aydin, and got dropped; it was incorrectly ruled a slip.)  However, he's now a player in the division and with his large offensive arsenal and solid technique, he'll be a factor.

For Aydin, he just didn't let his hands go enough.  He had real successes during the fight, but it's tough to win rounds without throwing.  Even in the championship rounds, where he tried to walk Guerrero down, he more often followed him around than landed anything of substance.  Aydin didn't seize the moment. 

He'll still be a credible challenger for others in the division, but his low-output formula is not one to win decisions, especially from American judges who like aggressors.  In addition, Aydin must set up his punches a little better.  When top opponents only need to worry about the right hand, he becomes a much easier fighter to beat.  Finally, although Aydin has a relatively high knockout percentage, he landed several of his best punches on Guerrero (a fighter who had been knocked down at lightweight), and they weren't enough to change the fight.  Aydin may have fallen in love with his power against a more limited set of opponents.  He's needs to add new wrinkles to his game.  

On the undercard, Shawn Porter defeated veteran trial horse Alfonso Gomez, winning a tough, unanimous ten-round decision.  The official scores were 98-92, 97-93 and 96-94 (I scored it 98-92).  The relatively comfortable margins on the scorecards belie the bruising nature of the fight.  It was a bout full of head butts, low blows and other sorts of fouls, the type of fight that makes a young prospect grow up in a hurry.  Porter received a nasty cut in the eighth round but he fought threw it with aplomb.

Porter, like Guerrero, decided to use Showtime's premium cable platform as a way to further his stock in the sport.  Instead of boxing Gomez, he took the fight to the inside.  He scored throughout the match with straight right hands; his counter left hooks landed powerfully all night.  In previous fights, he had odd stretches of passivity.  Against Gomez, who was by far his most accomplished foe, he dismissed those concerns. 

In fact, by the seventh round, Porter was swinging wildly with left hooks, looking to land a knockout blow.  Gomez, who placed Arturo Gatti into retirement, defeated an old Jose Luis Castillo and gave Canelo Alvarez fits, didn't have enough power to make Porter pay for his defensive lapses.  Gomez scored at points in the fight with his short right hand and left hook, but his power wasn't enough to back up Porter. 

This was great matchmaking by Golden Boy Promotions.  Porter had an opportunity to look good in a war.  He also impressed a national boxing audience.  Porter isn't ready yet for the top of the welterweight division but he's on his way up.  I think he needs a more complete understanding of his strengths and weaknesses.  Also, he must remember to use his jab and keep his counter shots more compact.  Nevertheless, it was a very strong performance.

One note about Showtime: in the past, I have been very critical of the network's boxing anchor, Gus Johnson, who can be prone to histrionics.  Johnson has often displayed a lack of perspective in calling fights and a loose command of facts.  However, he was excellent on Saturday.  He called two very compelling matchups and didn't try to become the center of the story.  He let the action dictate the broadcast.  I thought it was his best performance on Showtime.   

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Making of Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.

I remember watching Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. fight Troy Rowland in 2009 on the Manny Pacquiao-Miguel Cotto undercard. It wasn't the first time that I had seen Chavez in action but I had lost track of him to a degree. I was interested in checking out his progress. It was his 42nd professional fight and he wasn't matched particularly tough. Rowland, a 34-year-old club fighter from Michigan, hadn't even participated in a ten-round bout in over four years.

Chavez turned in a listless performance. His punch output was minimal and his footwork was atrocious. Rowland had so little power that Chavez barely concerned himself with defense. Nevertheless, the skill level difference between the two fighters was significant. Chavez dug his punishing left hooks to the body and followed up with a few straight right hands. His superior power shots were enough to win rounds but he showed no inclination to make a statement or win definitively. Rowland took a few rounds based solely on effort but he didn't have any real weapons. Chavez cruised through the fight and made the least of his position on a mega-fight undercard in Las Vegas.

After the fight, Chavez failed a drug test; a diuretic was found in his system.
Diuretics can help fighters lose weight or they can assist in covering up steroids or other performance enhancing drugs. To boxing observers familiar with Chavez, both possibilities for failing a drug test seemed plausible. He loathed training and his weight ballooned during fights. He also had a reputation for living the high life. In short, like many privileged sons, Chavez liked shortcuts.

The Chavez of 2009 was nothing more than a curiosity factor, a sideshow. Here was a boxer who was handed opportunities and advantages in the sport that thousands would kill for and yet he showed so little effort or dedication. Did he even want to be a professional boxer? Did he enjoy it? Was he just boxing to please his father? Did he even care?

Flash forward two-and-a-half years and the change in Chavez has been remarkable. He is now regarded as one of the top half-dozen or so middleweights in the world and he is headlining his first major pay per view card in September against the 160-lb. king, Sergio Martinez. Today's Chavez barely resembles the one who fought Rowland. Over the last 13 months, he has defeated two top-15 middleweights in Sebastian Zbik and Andy Lee. He also bested the rugged Marco Antonio Rubio and sent Peter Manfredo into retirement.

So what contributed to Chavez's transformation? How does a raw, sluggish, bloated and disinterested fighter become one of boxing's hottest commodities in such a relatively short time frame? In my mind, there are four people that deserve the most credit for his ascendency. I'll discuss them below.

Julio Cesar Chavez Sr.
Both nature and nurture helped Junior improve. The elder was arguably the best Mexican fighter of all time. He was a relentless pressure fighter and an owner of one of the most vicious left hooks to the body in the sport's history. Junior always had a very good left hook, but he wasn't literally born with it. He obviously received excellent instruction from his father.

The younger Chavez, like his father, also has shown that he has a first-rate chin. (It hasn't fully been tested against the same caliber of fighters that Senior faced, but to this point, so far so good.) Certainly, there are things that can be done to improve defense, resiliency and endurance, but the ability to take a punch, like power or speed, has a significant genetic component to it. Some, like Junior, just have a gift in this area.

As Chavez has taken his career more seriously, these gifts, particularly his left hook and chin, have helped him tremendously. He's become one of the best body punchers in the sport and his hook is his money punch. His chin enables him to stand and trade with foes. He took the best shots from Zbik, Rubio and Lee, and he kept coming. These attributes have allowed Chavez to find his ring identity and press forward.

Credit also must be given to Senior for sticking with his son throughout his many lackluster bouts and out-of-the-ring distractions (Senior was no saint in the latter category either). He continued to encourage his son and he stood by him. An offspring trying to live up to his father's illustrious legacy can be extremely difficult but Senior has seemingly given the right amount of support and distance for his son to flourish.

Bob Arum
This actually applies to the full Top Rank apparatus as well as Chavez's co-promoter, Fernando Beltran of Zanfer Promotions. (Zanfer and Top Rank have enjoyed a very successful partnership for many of Top Rank's Mexican fighters. Chavez turned pro at 17 without a real amateur background. He quickly became an attraction based off of his lineage. In time, Chavez headlined a number of smaller Top Rank pay per views, often under the "Latin Fury" brand. On these shows, Chavez continued to amass victories against mediocre opposition.

The media, boxing observers and parts of Chavez's own fan base started to question his suspect competition and overall boxing ability (these were quite reasonable complaints, actually); Arum and Co. held firm. They were accused of milking Chavez's name to make steady revenues. The critics claimed that Top Rank didn't care about developing Chavez; the company was merely exploiting his lineage to line its pockets.

However, as Top Rank has demonstrated repeatedly throughout its history, the company is unequaled in its ability to develop fighters from scratch. With ace matchmakers such as Bruce Trampler and Brad Goodman, Top Rank has the best eyes in the business and the company understands patience. To Top Rank, Chavez's first 40 fights were his amateur career. Arum didn't cave into pressure or criticism. As Chavez started to progress, he was matched in fights that gave him experience. The Top Rank matchmakers found guys like Matt Vanda and Luciano Cuello, who were there to win and make competitive fights. Sure, there were a number of turkeys along the way, but there was a method to the madness.

By the time Arum matched Chavez against better competition, the young fighter far exceeded the boxing's community's expectations. Even throughout the last 13 months, when Chavez's victories were against solid opposition, Top Rank continued to use its expert matchmaking abilities to carefully protect and develop him.

Arum steered clear of Sergio Martinez and placed Chavez in a title fight (however bogus in its origins) against light-hitting Sebastian Zbik of Germany. To the Top Rank brass, they knew that Chavez wouldn't get hurt against Zbik and that he had a good shot to overwhelm his opponent with his superior size and strength. They next fed Chavez a faded "name" with Peter Manfredo, who was contemplating retirement even before the fight. For Chavez's second title defense, he faced Marco Antonio Rubio, who was almost a cruder and smaller version of Chavez. Most recently, Chavez defeated Andy Lee, an Olympian with one-punch knockout power and Emanuel Steward as his trainer. Despite eating some hellacious shots, Chavez dispatched Lee in seven rounds. Lee's body just couldn't hold up.

Top Rank waited until Chavez had defeated enough quality opponents and demonstrated significant improvement before placing him in with Martinez. If it were merely about quick money, Top Rank would have cashed Chavez out a year ago against Martinez. Instead, they played the long game. Chavez improved and now the fight is worth millions more than it would have been in mid-2010. The match has also galvanized the boxing public and box office sales have reportedly been very strong. Top Rank played a significant role in creating demand for the fight.

Throughout Chavez's development, Arum also focused on building a cross-border boxing attraction. He kept his fighter in the southwestern United States (which had healthy Latino populations) and in Mexico, often in border towns whereby it would be easy for Mexican and Mexican-American fans to support Chavez live. This emphasis on making Chavez into a regional attraction differs from other U.S. promoters, who, with minimal exceptions, emphasize overall exposure rather than geography for their young fighters.

The locations of Chavez's fights bear out the Top Rank/Zanfer strategy: 12 fights in Texas, 8 in Nevada, 3 in California, 2 in Arizona and 1 in New Mexico. In addition, Chavez fought five times total in the border towns of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. He had three more matches in Mexican cities relatively close to the U.S. border – one each in Hermosillo, Chihuahua and Monterrey.

Essentially, Top Rank employed a coherent strategy for developing its fighter and building a local fan base. By the time Arum got Chavez on HBO against the unknown Zbik, Chavez was able to draw a very healthy television rating. Chavez has continued to expand his base and he has now become one of HBO's signature fighters.

Freddie Roach
A few years ago, Top Rank realized that Chavez still lacked enough technical skills to compete at the highest levels of the sport. Even though Chavez had the stamina and chin to win ten-round bouts and he featured a killer left hook, the fighter's arsenal was limited; his defense was suspect. Arum convinced Chavez to train with Freddie Roach (Senior also publicly supported the move). Roach's previous success in expanding Manny Pacquiao's offensive arsenal had helped elevate Pacquiao to Top Rank's number-one star.

The Roach/Chavez union garnered numerous headlines in boxing circles but it didn't immediately produce memorable results. Chavez skimped on training camps and he didn't lead a Spartan lifestyle outside of the rink. Nevertheless, improvement started to show. From the Zbik fight, where Chavez featured little-to-no head movement and got hit with everything, to the Rubio fight, where Chavez displayed a new ability to slip punches, Chavez's defense improved to the point where it became serviceable. He still would never be confused with a slick defensive whiz, but with his ability to slip, counter and smother opponents, he no longer is the piƱata that he used to be.

On offense, Chavez has shown more confidence in his right hand. He still doesn't throw his right cross as frequently as he does his left hook, but he's using the punch more in each fight; it's very accurate and it catches opponents by surprise. In addition, Roach has refined Chavez's left uppercut and it's become a real weapon.

Roach has also improved Chavez's footwork and strategy. Chavez doesn't walk into opponents as much as he used to and his improved stance allows for better countering opportunities. Chavez has done an excellent job of baiting people to the ropes. He also has an acute understanding that his size and physicality are key attributes that help win him fights.

Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.
A Hall of Fame father, promoter and trainer are meaningless unless the fighter wants to become great. Chavez's maturation and improvement in professionalism are perhaps the most significant changes from where he was a few years ago. As Chavez and Roach further solidify their relationship, the fighter has become a much better pupil. Chavez no longer insists on a shortened six or eight-week training camp. He now puts in the time to learn and execute new punches, techniques and strategies. In fights, his desire to win – and to look impressive – is highly visible for the boxing world to see. He wants it.

Perhaps he doubted himself prior to Roach and he didn't believe that he could be a top fighter. Maybe thoughts of the legendary accomplishments of his father eroded his confidence. It could have been simpler. He was in his early 20s and had money; he wanted to party. Also, it's possible that he grew frustrated with Top Rank's deliberate development program. Maybe all of these factors held Chavez back.

Chavez now faces Sergio Martinez in September in the biggest fight of his career. Most likely, he will fill the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, despite the presence of a competing card on the same night, which features Mexican rival Saul Alvarez just a few miles down the road. Chavez is an underdog against Martinez, but just a slight one. In short, he has put himself in a great position to win.

Martinez may wind up victorious, but the boxing world expects this fight to be a tough, bruising battle, not the walkover of mid-2011 when the match was first proposed. Win or lose, Chavez will remain a viable presence in boxing for some time. He's a needed star in a sport in short supply of them, but most importantly, he's become a real fighter.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Analysing The Jackal -- Guillermo Rigondeaux

By Arran McLachlan

Junior featherweight champion Guillermo Rigondeaux is arguably one of the greatest amateur boxers of all time. In nearly 400 fights, the Cuban lost only 12 times. Some of the highlights from his amateur career include: two Olympic gold medals, two gold medals at the World Amateur Championships and seven Cuban national championships. (Cuba has one of the best amateur boxing programs in the world; it doesn’t allow its citizens to become professional boxers.) After an aborted attempt at defecting in 2007, Rigondeaux successfully left Cuba in 2009.  Now based in the U.S., in just 10 professional fights, he has rocketed up the junior featherweight division. He captured his first title in only his ninth contest!
But what is it exactly that makes Rigondeaux such a great talent? One only has to look at his KO win over Rico Ramos (in which he captured the WBA title) to see that the master Cuban technician is one of the best body punchers in boxing today. He does a spectacular job at feinting and walking his opponents into shots. He’s also very patient, placing his body punches expertly. 
When watching him fight, another special attribute is his subtle footwork, which easily moves him in and out of position to punch. Against Teon Kennedy, his left hand rarely missed the mark; however, this could be attributed as much to his footwork as it could be to his accuracy. He consistently placed his right foot outside of Kennedy’s left, allowing him to land his straight left hand while staying in a balanced position ready to move to safety, if needed.
Rigondeaux’s style isn’t one where he comes forwards and throws a lot of punches. Instead, he likes to stand back and look for the perfect counterpunch, be it the left cross to the head, which dropped Kennedy five times, or the left hook to the body, which KO'd Adolfo Landeros in little over 20 seconds of the first round.
One of Rigondeaux’s more unusual counterpunching techniques is where he slowly throws punches (think half-speed), almost as if he is shadow boxing in the ring, to feint his opponent. These sequences confuse an opponent and create a false sense of security. As soon as an opponent throws back, that same sequence of punches will be fired again, but this time much faster and harder. This unique countering move is truly something special to watch.
There are also specific aspects of Rigondeaux’s defensive game which make him really stand out. One of his most impressive defensive manoeuvres is his front forearm block. You see a lot of fighters hold their front arm out slightly to catch shots as a way of defending themselves. Rigondeaux has evolved this move and taken it to the next level. Instead of using his hand, he uses his right elbow (and sharp reflexes) to catch his opponent’s jab. What this does is keep him perfectly in range to land his own left counter with little movement while staying out of range. Subtle moves like this one make him one of the best defensive fighters in the sport today and create unique counterpunching opportunities.
Rigondeaux has been criticized in the past for being a boring fighter. In 2010, on the undercard of Pacquiao-Margarito, he faced former world champion Ricardo Cordoba for an interim world title. The match was supposed to be his coming out party. Instead, he put on an uninspiring performance in which he got knocked down and escaped the fight with a split-decision victory. That performance was a huge setback for his career momentum. Instead of participating in a big fight in the junior featherweight division, his best opportunity was only a bout in Ireland to face little-known Willie Casey.
With dominant and exciting performances over Rico Ramos and Teon Kennedy, Rigondeaux was finally able to work his way into Top Rank’s good books. I believe that Rigondeaux learned from the Cordoba fight that it wasn’t enough to win; he needed to be fan-friendly if he wished to go further in boxing.
Rigondeaux also receives criticism for not using his right hand as an offensive weapon enough, and rightly so. When he uses it, he has shown a decent jab, but his right hand is mostly used as a defensive tool and for throwing the occasional lead right hook. If there is any room for improvement in Rigondeaux’s game, it is his right hand. If Rigondeaux develops his right hand into a useful offensive weapon (increasing his punch arsenal), it will allow him to become a better finisher and a more fan-friendly fighter.
Despite the fact that Rigondeaux has improved since the Cordoba fight, there are still questions that need to be answered. One of my main concerns about him at the moment is his ability to take a punch. While he is a great technical boxer with blinding speed and sharp power, against Cordoba, he was knocked down by a jab and he was very tentative for the rest of the fight. A lot of people claim that the knockdown was a result of a slip or a balance issue. To me, it was a legit knockdown. For the time being, Guillermo Rigondeaux has a question mark over his chin. Fights against power punchers such as Abner Mares or Nonito Donaire could prove to be excellent tests of how well he takes a punch.
The junior featherweight division (122 lbs.) is stacked. Potential fights for him include Donaire, Mares (whom he bet as an amateur), Wilfredo Vazquez Jr., Jorge Arce and Toshiaki Nishioka. Fights of this calibre would be great to show us just what Rigondeaux is made of. Even if these matches cannot be made at the moment – promotional concerns and boxing politics always play their part – Rigondeaux needs to stay active and fight more, as he is already 31 years old. He’s currently scheduled to face Robert Marroquin (22-1) on the undercard of the Martinez-Chavez Jr. match up on September 15th.
If Rigondeaux’s chin turns out to be solid, he improves on his right hand and his overall skills (and confidence) remain intact against top opposition, I believe that the sky is the limit for the one they call ‘El Chacal’.

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Monday, July 16, 2012

Opinions and Observations: Khan-Garcia, Haye-Chisora

Danny Garcia exhibited a mastery of boxing's version of rock-paper-scissors on Saturday when he landed a vicious counter left hook that dropped Amir Khan. Garcia brought the scissors. The old boxing adage is speed (paper) beats power (rock), but timing (scissors) negates speed. To complete the analogy, it doesn't matter how good a boxer's timing is if he's sprawled out on the canvas from a knockout blow.

For two rounds, Amir Khan dominated Garcia. He threw enormous right hands and left hooks. Garcia couldn't catch up with Khan's speed. Khan was buoyed by his early success. Instead of using movement or his boxing skills, he just unloaded with power shots.

Garcia took some big punches, but he remained calm. Even though Khan dazzled with his light show and received the oohs and aahs from the crowd, Garcia didn't get discouraged. He looked to land his counter left hook and counter right hand. He didn't connect much in the first two rounds, but he was trying to get his timing down.

Many young, talented fighters are not equipped to deal with the type of duress that Garcia endured. Instead of sticking with their game plans, they become unglued. Many don't know how to tie up or buy time. They make panic decisions, which can lead to more mistakes. During sustained trouble, some wilt under the pressure (David Lemieux and Fernando Guerrero are recent examples). Yet Garcia was unruffled. He had fought in the Philly gyms and had a lengthy amateur career. Khan's fireworks were not enough to take Garcia off of his game plan.

Intangibles so often separate the wheat from the chaff in boxing. Many prospects have better skills, superior athleticism and more intimidating power than Garcia has. However, Garcia, with his TKO victory over Khan, has ascended to become one of the top fighters in his division, while so many more impressive talents fail to reach a similar echelon.

For Garcia, his poise makes him special. It's unusual for a young fighter (24) to exhibit this type of calm during a barrage of incoming fire. This attribute doesn't show up in a tale-of-the-tape or a scouting report. No one says, "You better watch out for Danny Garcia. He has patience and poise." It's only once he is in the ring that this dimension is fully appreciated. (I would include Saul Alvarez, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Mikey Garcia – no relation to Danny – as other young fighters who have impressive poise.)   

As usual, Garcia took a few rounds to display his arsenal, but it all came out during a scintillating fourth round where both fighters fired power shots. Garcia featured a crisp straight right hand, a nice left uppercut and an abundance of left hooks. (He has a decent jab but he rarely threw it against Khan).

Here's another intangible for Garcia: he didn't punch himself out. Khan never fully recovered after the first knockdown in the third round. Garcia stunned him early in the fourth with a right hand on the temple. The punch forced Khan to stutter backwards and his knee touched the canvas. From that point until the end of the round, when the final knockdown occurred, Garcia threw power shots with bad intentions. However, he didn't empty his tank in the first minute of the round like so many fighters do (young and old). Garcia did step on the gas but he didn't drive off the cliff. He continued to batter Khan without being reckless. When Khan finally went down for the last time, that particular shot wasn't among Garcia's hardest blows; it was only one of a number of power punches.  

I'll throw out some more intangibles for Garcia: confidence, determination, self-belief, an ability to stick with his game plan, and an understanding of his strengths and weaknesses. Don't forget, Garcia was a late replacement in this fight for Lamont Peterson. He jumped at the opportunity to face Khan, despite knowing that he would be a significant underdog in the fight and that his promotional company was more heavily invested in his opponent. He didn't take the safe route, which is a plague upon modern boxing. He bet on himself and delivered.

I'd like to say a little more about that spectacular left hook that floored Khan in the third round; it wasn't a lucky punch. Garcia had been attempting to throw the counter left hook from the first round forward. He and his camp saw something with Khan and knew that the left hook could be the punch to seize control of the fight. If Garcia didn't land with "that" left hook, another equally devastating one would be on its way soon enough. Team Garcia (his trainer is his father, Angel) was prepared for Khan's attack and they worked on a precise punch to turn the match in their favor. If that punch was lucky, then I don't know what training camp is for.

For Khan, he got caught up in the wrong fight. As I noted in an article about Khan earlier in the month, he thinks that he's a power puncher. In a pattern that has repeated itself throughout the toughest fights of his career, Khan falsely believed that his power was enough to quash his opponent. Even though he landed big shots on Garcia, they weren't enough to carry the fight, or even to dissuade Garcia from engaging.

Khan stayed in the pocket and created a stationary target for Garcia's counterpunches. Instead of moving in and out with quick combinations and flummoxing Garcia with his superior foot speed, Khan allowed Garcia a way into the fight by remaining right in front of him. It's this factor which directly led to his loss.

The problem with Khan is that the fighter whom he wants to be is not the same as the one who he actually is. Khan yearns to electrify crowds with ring wars, but he doesn't have enough defensive skills or the chin to consistently win these types of fights. He wants opponents to submit early on account of his blinding speed and immense power; however, he lacks the heavy hands to stymie the best at junior welterweight. He fancies himself a brawler but he can only consistently win as a boxer.

The gap between who Khan is and what he wants to be is a central problem in his career. I listed the intangibles for Garcia and they are a striking contrast to Khan's. Khan doesn't follow game plans. He can defeat himself in the ring. He makes mistakes when under duress. He can get jumpy and wastes energy. He's not aware of his strengths and weakness and he doesn't understand what will ultimately win him big fights.

Khan deserves much of the blame for his last two losses; however, his trainer, Freddie Roach, also must shoulder some of the load. It's quite clear that Roach wanted Khan to fight more tactically. Roach admitted after the match that Khan engaged in the wrong type of fight. But it's a trainer's job to clearly and decisively communicate a winning game plan to his fighter. If Khan refuses to listen to Roach, then that means that he doesn't have supreme confidence in his coach, a cardinal sin for a fighter-trainer relationship.

Khan has now lost two consecutive fights where he was an overwhelming favorite. The fighter can be blamed for overconfidence and looking past his opponents, but Roach has been guilty of that in the past as well. It was Roach who predicted that Marcos Maidana wouldn't win a round from his fighter and it was Roach who talked about Khan beating Mayweather, well before the business at hand was complete.

I believe that Khan can be salvaged but it's probably time for a fresh perspective in his corner. He needs a trainer who can teach him some better defensive techniques. His coach, whoever it may be, must communicate clearly why Khan needs to fight a certain way and how this approach will directly result in wins. Most importantly, Khan has to buy into this plan 100%. One of the Mayweather brothers might make sense as Khan's next trainer, but there are a number of potential candidates that could work.

Despite the loss, Khan didn't disgrace himself against Garcia. Surviving two knockdowns and fighting on wobbly legs, he threw caution into the wind and tried to take Garcia out in the fourth round, a leading candidate for Round of the Year. Firing right-hand haymakers, left hooks and uppercuts, he put everything he had into those punches. It was wonderful stuff. Even in a losing effort, he gave the boxing public quite a show.  

As shocking as Garcia's knockout of Khan was, I was almost equally surprised by how David Haye dispatched Dereck Chisora. Against Wladimir Klitschko and Nikolay Valuev, Haye's two best opponents at heavyweight, he showed tentativeness and an unwillingness to engage. Furthermore, with his advantages in athleticism, reach and boxing skills, it made perfect sense for Haye to use the ring and box to a decisive victory.

Instead, Haye stayed in range and pasted Chisora with his superior hand speed and accuracy. When Chisora threw punches, Haye did a masterful job at slipping them. Like a seasoned pro, he expertly tied up Chisora on the inside.

On offense, Haye's left hook was his money punch throughout the fight. He threw it hard, but he didn't overcommit with it, keeping himself in solid defensive position. Haye also mixed in a number of solid right hands.

In the fifth, he landed his own left hook for the ages, which wobbled the granite-chinned Chisora. Haye followed up with a short right hand that put his opponent on the canvas. This sequence hadn't occurred in many of Haye's heavyweight fights because he so often wasn't in range to land his best punches. On Saturday, Haye made a decided effort to stake his ground in the middle of the ring and win the fight in exchanges. He understood that Chisora lacked the refinement to land effective counters.

Chisora's relative successes in the heavyweight division occurred when he could initiate offense. He'd jump in with a wide punch that stunned his opponent. He then would follow up with odd-angled power shots. Haye and his trainer, Adam Booth, wisely realized that they had to be first. They sized up their opponent and made a determination that Chisora couldn't win a fight by countering.

This was not Chisora's finest moment. He lacked the willingness to move his hands. His usual aggressive temperament was nowhere to be found. He had turned in questionable performances before (his loss to Tyson Fury, for example) but his problem on Saturday was not his conditioning; he didn't seize the moment. He landed a couple of big punches at the end of the third and a few in the fourth, but he wasn't competing. Certainly, the idea was to take Haye into the second half of the fight and cause damage. However, Chisora didn't invest enough in the first few rounds to actualize his game plan. He barely went to Haye's body and his overall punch volume was paltry.

Chisora will never be a fully polished entity. When he is on, his crudeness can be a big asset (the Robert Helenius bout). Similar to the former American heavyweight Lamon Brewster, Chisora fights in a style where he has to absorb a lot of punishment to win. With no consistent way in against taller fighters, Chisora is susceptible to power shots as he looks for moments to rush forward. It's his willingness to take these punches and still press forward that separates him from other fighters. If Chisora won't engage in this manner, he just doesn't possess enough traditional boxing skills to win fights. Brewster survived hell to defeat Wladimir Klitschko in their first fight. In their second matchup, Brewster engaged far more traditionally and got stopped without the bout being competitive. For Chisora, he has exhibited only one style in which he can be successful as a fighter; I haven't seen evidence of a second.

During his run in the heavyweight division, Haye's confidence has fluctuated based on the opponent in front of him. On Saturday, he was a true heavyweight destroyer against a real opponent. He found himself in the center of the ring, firing devastating power shots against a heavyweight with a great chin. He showed no fear or trepidation; everything he wanted to be, he was.

Haye's final flurry in the fifth – alternating right and left hooks – was riveting stuff. He fired each of those four punches with the sole purpose of ending the fight. He had endured a year of derision in boxing circles for his passive showing against Klitschko. Those final four punches were thrown with the intention of demolishing that criticism. His finish went a long way toward easing the sting of his poor performance against Wladimir. 

After the match, Booth said that Haye would retire unless he fights Vitali Klitschko. I wonder if Haye decides to change his tune. After his knockout, he was treated as a conquering hero by his faithful and earned a new level of respect from the boxing public at large. Glory is the most addictive drug in boxing, far more enticing than money or status. Haye tasted the best that the sport had to offer and I bet he drinks from that cup again.

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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Khan-Garcia: Keys to the Fight

Coming off his controversial fight with Lamont Peterson, Amir Khan (26-2) makes his return to the ring today. His opponent, junior welterweight titlist Danny Garcia (23-0), is a late replacement for Peterson, whom Khan was supposed to fight in a rematch (Peterson tested positive for performance enhancing drugs). While Garcia is looking to establish himself as an elite boxer within the division, Khan will most likely be fighting for the last time at 140 lbs. Read below for the keys to the match. My official prediction will be at the end of the piece. 

1.  Khan vs. Khan.
On paper, Khan has a number of advantages over Garcia. He has better hand speed, more championship experience, a larger offensive arsenal and one of the best trainers in the sport. However, as the Peterson and Marcos Maidana bouts illustrated, Khan doesn't always make fights easy for himself. He sometimes may be too slow to change tactics (for instance, transitioning to boxing instead of seeking a knockout), he can lose focus during rounds and he can fall into bad defensive habits (moving straight back, getting caught along the ropes), which let opponents come back into fights. Khan needs to avoid the lapses in focus or judgment that have caused problems for him in the past. Garcia has demonstrated that he gets better as the rounds progress and he will keep coming forward. Khan can't afford to repeat the technical, strategic and tactical mistakes that he made against Peterson and Maidana.   

2.  Is Garcia continuing to develop?
Although he is only one year younger than Khan (24 vs. 25), Garcia lacks Khan's big-fight experience and he certainly doesn't have his opponent's Olympic pedigree. Garcia has not fought a particularly tough slate of opponents on his way to winning a title belt at junior welterweight. His most notable foes have been former 140-lb champion Kendall Holt and an aged Erik Morales. 

To this point, the Philadelphian has shown excellent punch placement, decent power, a predilection for throwing combinations and poise in the ring. However, there are areas where Garcia needs to improve if he wants to become an elite fighter. He can be inconsistent from the outside. His jab is fine but he doesn't always throw it. He seems uncomfortable from distance; he's a much better fighter the closer he gets to his opponent. Garcia also takes a while to establish himself in fights. Against his better opponents, he hasn't let his hands go in the opening rounds. If he can make improvements in even one of these areas, Khan may be in for a much tougher fight than expected.  

3.  What has Khan learned?
Khan was his own worst enemy in the Peterson fight.  He lost two points for excessive pushing but he committed a host of other fouls for which he was not penalized. In addition, Khan seemed uncomfortable with Peterson's body attack and pressure. Getting caught along the ropes or not letting his hands go as freely as he did earlier in the fight, Khan had a number of tough rounds against Peterson. 

You can bet that Garcia will try to take the fight to the inside. He doesn't have an overly long reach and his weapons like his left hook and straight right hand are far more effective at close range.  

For Khan, will he stand and trade on the inside, which wasn't a great strategy against Maidana and Peterson, or will he try to outbox Garcia for 12 rounds? Has he improved his inside fighting? Sometimes, he doesn't turn over his punches like he should, reducing their power. Has Khan learned to tie up opponents better than he has in previous fights? Has he developed an ability to fight off of the ropes, or has he finally decided to avoid them entirely? These aspects of Khan's game will directly affect his ability to control this fight.

4.  Respect.
The fighters have opposite problems with respecting their opponents. Garcia was way too cautious early in his fight against the elder Mexican legend Morales. Garcia enabled Morales to have early success because he didn't use movement like he should have and his punch output was too low. In addition, Garcia used a few rounds to feel out Holt. Eventually, Garcia works his way into fights, but this strategy most likely won't be successful against Khan, who is one of the best frontrunners in the sport. If Garcia is too hesitant early in the fight, he will suddenly find himself down four rounds. He needs to start his offense from the opening bell. 

Khan's problem is that he believes he will win every moment of ever round, and he exhibits shock when opponents rise up from his knockdowns or continue to fight hard. Overly impressed with his power, Khan falls into traps where he thinks that his dominance in early rounds will lead to easy fights. He also hasn't respected the power and will of his opponents. He can get caught with punches, often because he believed that his foes had diminished power. He also gets frustrated when opponents continue to apply pressure. Although Khan has more skills than Garcia, he has to expect some physical rounds, where Garcia is able to assert himself on the inside. Garcia's power is good enough to hurt Khan, especially if he is being taken for granted. 

5.  The early rounds. 
Quite simply, Khan's a great starter. He dropped Peterson and Maidana in the first round. His hand speed, lateral movement, angles and quick combinations can overwhelm opponents. As mentioned earlier, Garcia can be a bit too deliberate in the beginning of fights. Khan will look to dazzle early in the match, either going for the quick knockout or attempting to take the wind out of Garcia's sails. Garcia must contest the early rounds. If he's down three or four rounds, he can't count on a knockdown or a Khan self-destruction to get back into the fight. For Garcia, he must win two out of the first six rounds of the match to have a chance of winning. 

Khan jumps out to the early lead. Moving beautifully in the center of the ring, he tags Garcia repeatedly with his jab, left hook and straight right hand. Garcia just won't have the foot speed to compete with Khan in the opening few rounds. Khan looks like he is in cruise control as the fight progresses, but Garcia works his way into the fight during the second half with lead straight right hands and left hooks to the body and head. There will be a number of competitive rounds as the fight continues but after the scores are announced, Khan's arm will be raised; he built up too large of a lead for Garcia to overcome.  

Amir Khan defeats Danny Garcia 117-111, or 9 rounds to 3.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

Haye-Chisora: Keys to the Fight

David Haye (25-2) and Dereck Chisora (15-3) clash this weekend in the biggest British heavyweight match in decades (1993's Lewis-Bruno was the last British heavyweight fight of this magnitude).  The two fighters had an impromptu row at a press conference earlier this year in Germany.  From that moment forward, the bad blood between the two hasn't subsided. 

Despite officially losing three of his last four fights, Chisora enters the match riding a wave of momentum.  He was robbed against the heralded prospect Robert Helenius and he provided Vitali Klitschko with his most competitive fight in years.  Haye has been out of the ring for a year after his uncompetitive loss to Wladimir Klitschko.  Having previously announced his retirement, Haye has instead decided to return to the ring for this 10-round matchup for British heavyweight supremacy.  Read below for the keys to the fight.  My official prediction will be at the end of the piece.

1.  Haye can box, but can Chisora?
Both fighters can bang.  Haye was a destroyer at cruiserweight and although his power hasn't fully carried into the heavyweight division, he can still cause damage.  Chisora doesn't get many knockouts but he is heavy-handed.  Part of his difficulty in stopping opponents is his balance.  He wings shots from such irregular angles that he isn't in position to put opponents away.  Nevertheless, he certainly has the physical tools to hurt Haye.

However, Haye also has solid technical boxing skills.  As he demonstrated against Nikolay Valuev, he certainly has the foot speed, discipline and technique to fight from the outside against less-mobile heavyweights.  Chisora will most likely charge forward, trying to compensate for his smallish reach and his lack of refined boxing ability.  If Haye keeps the fight on the outside and uses his legs to control distance, how will Chisora respond?  Can he respond?  Can he win a tactical fight?  Will Haye be able to avoid firefights for 10 rounds, or will his energy wane?

2.  Can Chisora put punches together?
Give Chisora credit.  Against much taller opponents (Helenius and Klitschko), he was able to find a way inside.  Throwing overhand right hands and long left hooks, he closed the gap.  The issue for Chisora has been what follows next.  Because he is often the shorter opponent with the smaller reach (he will have disadvantages of 1 1/2 inches in height and 4 inches in reach against Haye), he has to find unconventional ways to get inside.  His shots come from all over and, miraculously, many of them land.  However, he lacks balance and the ability to quickly get into position to throw follow up punches; this lets his opponents off the hook. 

Once he is on the inside, he can land with left and right uppercuts, left hooks and stinging right hands, but the essential question for Chisora is can he land combinations fluidly?  Haye moves much better than Helenius or Klitschko could.  Even if Chisora lands his big power shots, if he can't throw them in combination, Haye will no longer be in front of him; he'll be half way across the ring. 

3.  The Booth Factor.
Haye's trainer, Adam Booth, fancies himself as a masterful boxing tactician.  From his work with Haye against Valuev to George Groves' close victory against James DeGale, Booth loves strategy and to devise clever game plans.  So, despite the "Hayemaker" moniker, expect Booth's fighter to use some craft to try and secure a victory.  This may make for a less scintillating affair than expected by many boxing fans, but Booth understands opponents’ strengths and weaknesses very well.  Inside, the fight's a toss-up.  On the outside, the conventional wisdom says it's Haye's fight.  You can bet that Booth has imparted this message to Haye repeatedly.

4.  Machismo overload?
Whenever boxers have a notable clash prior to stepping into the ring, it's always interesting to wonder if the pre-fight fireworks will carry into the match.  Will Chisora's taunts take Haye off his game and lead to a war?  Will Chisora spend so much time gunning for a knockout that he neglects to win rounds?  These factors might play a central role in determining who wins this weekend's contest.  The fighter who sticks with his game plan will most likely have the better chance of leaving the ring with a victory.   

5.  10 rounds.
It was only widely circulated this week that the fight would be 10 rounds and not the usual 12, which is more typical for championship matches or high-profile bouts.  It's believed that the Haye camp asked for the shorter length.  In theory, a 10-round fight should benefit Haye in that he can win enough early rounds by boxing.  In addition, if Haye gets hurt, the 10-round length will presumably provide him with less time needed to survive.  The shorter match has the potential to completely change the complexion of the fight.  If Chisora's plan was to take Haye into deep waters and come on later in the match, he'll have to initiate his offense a lot earlier than he would have with a traditional 12-round fight.  Rounds will be at a premium.

Haye spends the majority of the fight boxing from the outside and confusing Chisora with his lateral movement and quick punches.  Expect a lot of short left hooks and quick left hook-straight right hand, two-punch combinations.  Haye will circle left and right, making it difficult for Chisora to plant his feet to throw his power shots.  As the bout progresses, Chisora will be able to win some rounds decisively as he cuts off the ring and scores with power punches.  Chisora will have moments where he dominates the fight, but will he have enough rounds in the bank when the final scores are announced?  I don't think he will.

David Haye defeats Dereck Chisora 97-93, or 7 rounds to 3. 

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