Monday, July 9, 2012

Opinions and Observations: Donaire, Pavlik and Brook

Nonito Donaire tried to present a fireworks show worthy of the 4th of July on Saturday against titlist Jeffrey Mathebula, but his performance lacked an adequate grand finale. He tried everything: he landed crushing left hooks, left uppercuts, straight right hands – all thrown with the intention of knocking Mathebula out, not just out of the fight, but all the way back to the South Africa. As the rounds progressed and the 5'11'' Mathebula remained upright, Donaire was incensed. This was supposed to be his party. Why wouldn't his foe comply and just go down?

Mathebula started the fight on wobbly legs, but he kept his punch output up over 80 punches a round throughout most of the bout. Almost all of his shots were left jabs and straight right hands. I'm not sure if I saw a hook from him the whole night. As Donaire grew increasingly frustrated with his inability to score a knockout, Mathebula got to work in the second half of the fight and was able to secure some rounds. It wasn't that he was landing particularly hard shots, but Donaire stopped punching, waiting to end the fight with a knockout blow.

Prior to the 11th round, Donaire's trainer, Robert Garcia, implored his fighter to set things up with the jab; the message was received. Donaire, fighting off of the jab, unloaded a cracking right hand which broke/chipped a tooth of Mathebula, causing a stream of blood to flow out of his mouth. It was a big 11th round for Donaire and Mathebula stayed in survival mode until the end of the fight.

I scored the fight 118-109, or 10 rounds to 2, with an extra point difference for Donaire's fourth-round knockdown, a picture-perfect left hook. The judges' scores were 117-110, 118-109 and 119-108. Many boxing writers had the fight closer. To me, Donaire was the one causing damage throughout the fight. His power shots were the significant punches in almost all of the rounds. Mathebula outlanded Donaire with his pitty-pat punches, mixing in a few solid right hands, but the punishing blows were almost all Donaire's. I thought he put forward a very good performance, but not a flawless one.

Donaire is cut from a different cloth from most fighters. He's not there to win fights. He wants to look spectacular every time out. He searches for additions to his personal highlight reel. On one hand, his knockout instincts should be applauded. He understands that boxing is entertainment; he's there to put on a show. He wants to give his fans their money's worth. Donaire is more than willing to engage opponents and eat leather so he can land his knockout blow.

But on the other hand, Donaire, as he guns for a knockout, can lose focus during fights. Within the next year, he will most likely face some of the top junior featherweights; he will need to realize that knockouts may not come. He has to put rounds in the bank, like a seasoned veteran would. He can't get caught up in some type of perfect-punch sideshow. It's this combination of his awesome power, fighting instincts and lack of focus (which can lead to recklessness) that makes him one of the more intriguing figures in the sport.

A number of boxing observers have started to grow frustrated with Donaire. In his last three fights, he hasn't put together a performance that rivals his awesome destruction of Vic Darchinyan and Fernando Montiel. In addition, he has failed to KO opponents who had previously been stopped in earlier fights. Does his power actually translate to junior featherweight? At 29, has Donaire already hit his physical peak?

Much of this criticism can be attributed to Donaire being a victim of his own success. He has produced some of the most thrilling knockouts in boxing over the last half-decade. His talent and physical dimensions can be so impressive. Shouldn't he be able to just steamroll through "A-minus" level fighters?

I don't share the consternation with Donaire that many others do. He may not be a perfect fighter (who is?), but he is one of the more thrilling fighters in the sport. His almost maniacal search for knockouts and seven-run home runs sometimes leaves me breathless. Of course he can be frustrating. But his flaws help make him appointment television, and how many top-level fighters consistently entertain like Donaire does? 

His power is still there at 122; he hurt Mathebula throughout the match. In Donaire's previous fight, his opponent, Wilfredo Vazquez Jr., was  petrified with the notion of actually trading punches with him. Yes, there are things that Donaire could work on. By setting up shots, he will have better opportunities to land knockout blows. In addition, he needs to reorient his thinking to realize that it is not a high crime for a fight to go to the scorecards. Pacquiao and Mayweather go the distance routinely. Fans still support them en masse.

If Donaire does fight talented boxers such as Guillermo Rigondeaux or Toshiaki Nishioka, he won't be able to give up rounds looking for knockouts or swing wildly with power shots. They are precise surgeons and expert counterpunchers. I think, instinctively, Donaire knows this. He has relied upon his chin (which is another excellent, if unremarked, aspect of his game) in recent fights to provide him additional time to land his power punches. The big transition will be for Donaire to tighten up his shots and exercise the discipline to win rounds against great fighters. He'll have to dispense with hunting for scalps to place over his mantelpiece. These will be competitive fights and if Donaire doesn't make some philosophical adjustments, he may find himself in real trouble.

In my opinion, the negativity surrounding Donaire, as well as much of the criticism lobbed at many of the elite fighters of the sport, is very much a function of the general nastiness of the boxing public, where blemishes in a fighter's repertoire suddenly become fatal flaws and where if a fighter loses a few rounds, he can seemingly no longer be considered an elite talent. Sergio Martinez felt a similar wrath from many boxing fans and observers when Matthew Macklin and Darren Barker won some rounds off him before they were knocked out. Pacquiao's recent run received a bevy of criticism (some of which I do believe is valid). Mayweather wasn't able to stop Cotto even though Pacquiao did. Andre Ward has been criticized for making boring fights. Don't get me started on the charges leveled at the Klitschkos. The common thread here is the incessant griping.

The constant criticism grows tiresome. These are our best boxers in the sport. None is a flawless fighter – but apparently, their skills and accomplishments aren't enough to stem the fusillade of rancorous missiles shot their way after practically every performance. I am not saying that I always rise above this fray, but at a certain point, excellence needs to be recognized. For those who claim that these boxers are not elite talents, it's an indefensible position. Again, every fighter can improve on some things, but the waves of negativity, after very solid performances, are not a good reflection of boxing fandom or the opinions of many of the sport's "experts."

Everyone likes a new toy. It's fun to play with. For those hours/days/weeks when it's still new, we play with the new toy and neglect all of the other ones. Kelly Pavlik has a new toy – his left hook – and he spent practically his entire fight with Will Rosinsky seeing what it could do. He could use it as a lead to contain Rosinsky's movement. He could counter Rosinsky's right hand with it. He even could dig it ferociously to the body. Ahh, the new toy – so much fun to play with. So shiny, it practically sparkles.

But Pavlik barely found time to take his other toys out of the box. With the exception of a short right hand which knocked Rosinsky down in the second round, Pavlik's previous awesome playthings – his jab and his right cross – remained in the toy chest. On one level, Pavlik's performance was captivating; all of the sudden, the former middleweight champion of the world has now added a real third punch. However, Pavlik has yet to seamlessly incorporate his hook into his regular arsenal. He didn't fight fluidly last night. He beat Rosinsky with single power shots and he didn't throw his combinations freely.

Pavlik won a wide decision (97-92, 98-91 and 98-91) but he had to earn it. (I also scored it 97-92.) Rosinsky wisely used lateral movement and controlled distance fairly well on the outside. However, his power shots just couldn't cause enough damage to change the tenor of the fight. Rosinsky landed some good combinations with his jab, right hand and left hook, but he minimized his time in close quarters; he avoided the pocket throughout most of the match. He fought gamely and showed an understanding of ring generalship and strategy, although he didn't really lay it out there to win the fight. Rosinsky proved he could last against a good opponent but he didn't take the risks necessary to be something more.

For Pavlik, his future will depend on three aspects: 1) how well he melds Robert Garcia's teachings with his past boxing foundation; 2) how well he is matched by Top Rank; 3) can he stay out of trouble outside the ring?

Peak Pavlik won fights with his pulverizing jab and his straight right hand. He was a straight-line fighter and only had the two punches, but they were enough to defeat tough hombres like Edison Miranda and Jermain Taylor. Under Jack Loew, his previous trainer, he threw an off-balanced left hook where his feet were not set appropriately and he would essentially lunge in with the shot. All of his weight was on his front foot and it was a mere arm punch.

Throwing perfect hooks on Saturday, Pavlik now has a chance to cause real damage, but only if he can mix it in appropriately with his jab and his right hand. Pavlik has never been a noted strategist or tactician in the ring. It will be up to him to master when to throw each punch on an instinctual basis. It's one thing to throw a great left hook. It's another thing to feint the jab, shoot a right hand and then finish up with the hook. In short, does he have the ability to finish opponents off with the hook? Will he be able to figure out the situations where it will have its maximum impact? These are not necessarily easy questions to answer for a veteran fighter who is literally learning a new trick.

However much Pavlik continues to improve during his comeback, he will only be as good as the types of opponents whom he faces. He can't handle movement very well and slick boxers will trouble him. Carl Froch, with his tricky movements from the outside and his odd-angles, might be too tough for him, but maybe Pavlik could fare well against pocket bangers like Mikkel Kessler and Lucian Bute. He may not yet be ready for those opponents, but they are illustrative of the types of fighters who Pavlik could conceivably beat. Top Rank should keep him far away from the Andres (Ward and Dirrell) and must use its excellent matchmaking chops to keep Pavlik viable. Pavlik could rise again, but only against the right opponents. I think Top Rank and Pavlik know this.

In addition, for Pavlik to make something of his second run to the top, he has to keep himself in reasonable condition, both physically and mentally. Having struggled with alcohol problems and other negative influences in Youngstown, Ohio, Pavlik has an opportunity for a fresh start in Oxnard, California. He has excellent boxers to spar with and a solid trainer to help him get back to prominence. Ultimately, it will be up to Pavlik to determine if he wants to invest the blood, sweat and tears necessary to make another run.

A final note about judging: so often we like to criticize bad judging and questionable decisions. On Saturday, two sets of judges were excellent. For the undercard fight, Barry Druxman, Jack Reiss and Fritz Werner had to disregard Rosinsky's movement and wasted energy to focus on the telling blows. For the main event, Deon Dwarte (a judge from Mathebula's native South Africa), Jonathan Davis and Steve Morrow had to discern whether Donaire's power or Mathebula's volume was more meaningful. To my eyes, they made the right decisions and all six judges should be commended.

Kell Brook learned a couple of vital lessons in his bruising majority-decision win over Carson Jones:

--The importance of putting rounds in the bank.
--That not all fighters will go down or disengage when you hit them with your best punches.
--How to survive when hurt.
--How to fight through a broken nose.

Brook, from England, has been regarded as one of the up-and-comers in the welterweight division, but he had yet to have been tested by a tough, rugged banger. Jones, an American with punching power and steely determination, was there to win. When Brook landed his blistering combinations in the 4th and 5th rounds, Jones didn't fold like an accordion; he would come on stronger.

Through the first six rounds of the fight, I had Brook winning a shutout. A few of the frames were close but Brook's excellent combinations, movement and savvy ring generalship were enough in my book for him to win the rounds. The last half of the fight featured a beautiful ebb and flow where Brook would land his combinations early in the rounds (featuring his jab, left hook, left uppercut, straight right hand and a right hook) and Jones would come on toward the end with his left hooks to the body and straight right hands over the top.

In my estimation, Brook's legs won him the fight. After absorbing significant punishment in the second half of the fight – especially in the 12th round – Brook seemed ready to go. Through resolve and excellent conditioning, he was able to stay on his feet and win the decision. (The official scores were 114-114, 115-113 and 116-113. I scored it 117-111 for Brook.)

For Brook, this was a crucial victory in his development. He fought a tough, physical opponent and was able to persevere through all sorts of physical and mental hardships. After a flurry in the 5th round, where he landed a bruising left hook and some menacing right hooks (a new weapon, which looked great), he was probably very surprised that Jones continued to fight. So many of Brook's past opponents would have been knocked out by that combination or would have resorted to survival mode. Brook realized that his best was not enough to finish Jones. Although he didn't dominate the latter part of the fight, he won enough rounds to take the decision. 

David Lampin (@Ramp1N on Twitter) remarked that Brook-Jones resembled the Amir Khan-Marcos Maidana fight, whereby the British boxer, who had the early lead, had to survive a tough onslaught late from a determined, physical fighter. I think that the analogy is apt. For Khan, the Maidana fight answered questions about his chin, which had dogged him earlier in his career. For Brook, perhaps his first real ring war will provide him with the experience of how to better effectively box rough, inside fighters. 

Brook does have some things to work on. He didn't fight three minutes a round, especially in the match's second half. He could have boxed more to make the fight a little easier for himself. In addition, he didn't tie up as much as he should have when he was in trouble.

Nevertheless, I saw a number of attributes that lead me to believe that Brook could win a title at 147. Under duress, he showed that he was a true fighter. He wasn't looking to get out of the fight. He continued to throw combinations and didn't try to merely run out the clock. He took Jones' challenge head on. In addition, Brook's left-handed punches (jab, hook, and uppercut) used to be so far advanced in comparison to his right-handed shots. Against Jones, Brook threw a solid straight right hand and his right hook in tight exchanges was devastating. It's a wonderful new addition to his arsenal. He also reacted well to his broken nose. Many fighters mentally or physically check out when they see their own blood or face a significant injury. Brook didn't let this hardship overtake his desire to win the fight. These intangibles will help him as he squares off against better fighters.

The welterweight division is a scattershot assemblage of excellent fighters (Mayweather, Pacquiao and Bradley) and flawed beltholders (for example, Randall Bailey and Paulie Malignaggi). Eddie Hearn, Brook's promoter, should clearly focus on the second group. Bailey and Malignaggi would be stern tests, but they are potentially winnable fights. I think Brook's development time is over; he's ready to face better quality opponents.

For Jones, he will get another opportunity for a real payday. His record features a number of losses to "B" fighters, but it doesn't encapsulate his improvement over the last few years. By staying active (he has fought 13 times from the beginning of 2010) and understanding his strengths and weaknesses as a fighter, he has become a player in the welterweight division. Still only 25, Jones is hitting his stride as a professional. He takes a great punch, invests in the body and fights with several winning intangibles, like determination, perseverance and will.

Jones lost Saturday's fight because he wasn't active enough in the first few rounds. He couldn't find a reliable way to attack Brook until he was significantly down on the scorecards. He will continue to have trouble with fighters with good hand speed, but there are a number of "names" he could pick off in the division. It was an excellent showing for him. He'll be back.

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