Thursday, August 16, 2012

Andre Ward and the Quest for Greatness

Modern boxing orthodoxy maintains that the best fighters carefully choose their opponents in an economic system that maximizes revenue with the least amount of risk. Inherently, this construct makes sense. Why should a boxer place himself at risk for undue harm if he can make millions fighting lesser opponents? The two highest-regarded fighters in the sport (Mayweather and Pacquiao) have played this game and its multi-faceted variations for years, but this conceit did not originate with them – it has been around since the beginning of the sport. Rugged contenders have been avoided. Rematches of tough fights have not been granted. Boxers have exercised legal remedies, hid behind promoters, relinquished belts and jumped weight classes to avoid taking on their stiffest challengers.

However, as a counterpoint to this thesis, each generation has a number of elite fighters who buck orthodoxy and face the best in the sport. Whether it is Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Marvin Hagler, Pernell Whitaker, Oscar de la Hoya or Evander Holyfield, certain boxers derive ultimate glory from fighting their top rivals. Yes, money and fame are still important to them – they don't lace them up for charity – but they want need to fight the best. These special fighters define themselves on accepting difficult challenges and dethroning their fellow elites. Andre Ward is such a fighter.

Heading into the Super Six World Boxing Classic in 2009, Andre Ward was not considered a favorite to win. Mikkel Kessler was the de facto head honcho of the division after Joe Calzaghe retired. Arthur Abraham was an undefeated, tough middleweight champion moving up in weight. Carl Froch entered the tournament as an unbeaten champion and had already bested Jermain Taylor and Jean Pascal. Although Ward was not considered an afterthought in the tournament (Andre Dirrell) or cannon fodder (Taylor), he was viewed as something of a wild card, an unknown entity.

Most of Ward's fights prior to the tournament took place against lightly-regarded opposition away from the sport's biggest stages. He fought in San Jose, the desert Indian casinos of Southern California, Oregon, Saint Lucia and the Cayman Islands. His best opponent was the faded contender Edison Miranda. In addition, the memory of Ward being dropped in his seventh pro fight against Darnell Boone did not inspire confidence that the former U.S. Olympian could survive the gantlet of the tournament, facing punchers such as Abraham and Froch.

Yet Ward, who was just 21-0 prior to the Super Six, established himself as the best fighter in the tournament and demonstrated that he was one of the elite talents in the sport. He lost no more than a handful of rounds throughout the Super Six, physically dominating Kessler, outclassing Abraham and crowding Froch. After Froch's post-Super Six trouncing of Lucian Bute, there was unanimity in boxing circles that Ward was the top fighter in the division.

Throughout the tournament, Ward showcased an array of punches. He shot a solid jab from the outside, a sharp left hook, an accurate right hand and solid uppercuts with both hands. Most impressively, he displayed a range of styles, fighting as a slick boxer who relied on hand and foot speed as well as a bruising infighter.

In fact, he has become one of the best inside boxers in the sport. He uses his physicality and compact punches to grind opponents down. Even in close range, he tucks his chin very well and uses excellent head and upper body movement to avoid return fire. His balance is also exceptional.

He can be economical with his punches and place them well, but he also can swarm opponents with inside flurries. In short, he has many ways to beat opponents and his only real drawback is a lack of top-shelf power. (Since getting dropped by Boone early in his career, Ward has not seen a recurrence of any real chin problems.)

Ward excelled as an amateur fighter, winning a gold medal in 2004. As the 2012 games have just ended, think about how different amateur scoring is than in the pro game. In the amateurs, single, clean blows are rewarded, where a collection of judges need to agree that a punch lands in order to get a point. These incentives steer amateur boxers in the following ways: jabs are key because they are easy to see, body shots aren't often tabulated because of the close proximity between the fighters and uppercuts lose their importance because infighting is not easy to score in the punch counting system.

Ward mastered the amateur scoring system (the punch counting mechanism was a slightly different manifestation in the 2004 Games compared to the 2012 version, but the incentive structure was the same) but also consider how expertly he has adapted to the professional circuit. He understands that the pro game is about imposing one's will and inflicting damage. He has become a rugged, physical fighter – qualities which are not necessarily meaningful in the amateur ranks. He has mastered beating opponents at close range and removing their willingness to engage. His metamorphosis in the pro game has added dimensions to his ring style, creating only foggy scenarios where opponents might be competitive with him, let alone best him.

For his next opponent, he has selected perhaps the most difficult challenge of his professional career. Surveying the super middleweight landscape, Ward didn't see any real threats. Instead, he corralled Chad Dawson, the top light heavyweight in the world, for his next ring appearance. In Dawson, Ward has found a tough, elusive and versatile fighter who presents real matchup challenges. Dawson also doesn't have top power, but he has accuracy, physicality, an array of punches and great footwork.

Ward's choice of Dawson provides ample evidence of his goals in boxing. Given Ward's status in the division and his rough slate of opponents during the Super Six, it would have been completely understandable if he had selected a softer touch for his ring return, especially coming off of a hand injury. Instead, he picked one of the top dozen or so fighters in the sport; he wants to continue to challenge himself against the best.

It's clear from Ward's success in the amateur and professional ranks that he has tremendous boxing aptitude, ring intelligence and athleticism, but he's after something more. Ward has veered away from boxing orthodoxy by refusing to milk his name and fight for easy paydays. He's most interested in taking on the best that the sport has to offer. It's not enough for him to be considered the top super middleweight; he wants to be the best in the entire sport. His ambition is singular, and it's refreshing. He believes in the quaint notion that to become the best, you must beat the best. The concept is very simple and yet remains rare in the modern boxing landscape of umpteen title belts and numerous weight classes.

Ward has refused the path of least resistance and he should be commended for that. He fights Dawson not out of necessity but because of his competitive drive and his understanding of what greatness requires in boxing – not merely exemplary skills, but the desire to accept risk. More Wards please.

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Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Fact-Finding Mission About Kubrat Pulev

1. Who?
Kubrat Pulev (16-0, 8 KOs), the European heavyweight champion (EBU belt) from Bulgaria. As a professional, he fights out of Germany in the Sauerland Event promotional stable.

2. Why should I care?
Because Pulev, 31, may become one of the best heavyweights over the next decade.

3. Why have I never heard of him?
How many Bulgarian-born heavyweights have you been tracking?

4. Who trains him?
Otto Ramin, a house trainer for Sauerland Event.

5. He's already 31. Why does he have only 16 fights and what about that low KO percentage?
Pulev was a decorated amateur, winning notable tournaments like the Strandja Cup, the Chemiepokal and the EU Championships. He represented Bulgaria in the 2008 Olympics and had his first professional fight in September of 2009.

He's been moved very fast as a pro, defeating notable heavyweights such as Alexander Dimitrenko, Dominick Guinn, Derrick Rossy, Travis Walker, Michael Sprott and Matt Skelton. Because of the relatively high level of his opposition, his knockout percentage isn't padded like those of so many other prospects. But make no mistake; he has real power and earned stoppages over Dimitrenko, Rossy, Sprott and Skelton.

6. Describe his ring style.
Pulev is a pocket fighter who will win rounds on account of his solid jab and power shots, specifically his right hand. He features a lot of upper body movement and is very spry on his feet for someone of his build (6'4 1/2" and 240-250 lbs.). He's not a typicial, lumbering European heavyweight. He does use his physicality to impose his will on opponents but he also has good agility and boxing skills. He places his punches very well and gets stronger as fights progress. He doesn't have one-punch knockout power; however, he has very heavy hands.

7. What makes him special?
Pulev has a lot of special attributes: poise, physicality and strong finishing instincts. His right hand can cause real damage. He's patient in the ring and won't force action. Defensively, he has excellent skills and will showcase a variety of moves. He can slip punches or roll with them. He can step back from oncoming aggression; he also ties up very well in the inside. His variety of defensive moves and his lack of predictable patterns make him unique in the division. In short, his entire package of skills makes him more than the sum of his parts.

8. What does he throw?
Pulev most often relies on a compact, stinging jab and a right hand. However, that description may not fully do Pulev justice. He throws four different right hands. He features a straight right hand thrown in between the guard. It's his shortest punch and very effective. He throws an overhand right against taller opponents. In close range, he fires a sharp right hook. But Pulev's signature punch is a sweeping right hand where he extends his arm out about 45 degrees from his body and slings it towards his opponent. He tries to place the punch directly behind his opponent's left ear. The punch comes from such an unusual angle that it's hard to defend; it's his most damaging blow.

Pulev also throws a left hook to the body on occasion, but hardly ever to the head. His uppercut is more of an idea than an actual punch, where he reaches with it and is out of position both offensively and defensively whenever he throws it. During some fights, Pulev won't even attempt an uppercut.

9. What are his weaknesses?
He can be very deliberate. He doesn't throw a lot of punches per round and conceivably could be outworked. He leaves his right hand down a little too low on defense and is susceptible to lead or counter left hooks. Pulev's also not a natural counterpuncher. Opponents who get off first and often could trouble him. He protects himself fairly well (with the caveat about incoming left hooks) but he doesn't always transition from defense to offense as smoothly as he could.

10. Who would trouble him in the division?
Obviously the Klitschkos would, with their high punch output. Wladimir's left hook would certainly cause problems. A fighter like David Haye could be very difficult because of his athleticism and his lead left hook. Slick boxers who don't remain in the pocket could frustrate Pulev, although I'm not sure how well they would land on him – they would certainly stifle his offense. (These fighters don't really exist in today's heavyweight division. This was more of a theoretical point. Think vintage Chris Byrd for a recent example)

11. What does he need to work on?
A real uppercut would be nice. Also, a little more activity, especially in the early rounds of a fight, would benefit him. I wouldn't mind seeing a lead left hook to the head every once in a while as well. As I mentioned earlier, he could improve his glove placement of his right hand although I highly doubt this will be corrected.

12. How far could he go?
I have no doubt that if not for the Klitschkos Pulev could win multiple titles and become one of the premier heavyweights in the world. With that said, Vitali will most likely retire in the next year, which will put a heavyweight belt in play. Pulev is still getting better and his timeline for a world title shot dovetails nicely with Vitali's imminent departure. Many heavyweights still improve throughout their 30s and if Pulev stays in shape and continues to add wrinkles to his game, he has as good as a chance as anyone in the division to become the top dog after the Klitschkos retire. And he won't win that award by default. He's a very good fighter right now.

13. What's next for him?
Pulev fights in September against fellow undefeated European Alexander Ustinov (27-0) in an IBF Eliminator for the sanctioning body's number one-ranked contender position.

14 Will Pulev win that fight?
Yes, by a fairly comfortable decision.

15. If he beats Ustinov, whom should he fight next?
I'd like to see him against Alexander Povetkin or Tomasz Adamek. I think Pulev's size, power punches and aggressive temperament will grind Povetkin down and stop him. He also matches up very well against Adamek, who doesn't have the power or size to win that fight.

Past Fact-Finding Missions:

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Friday, August 3, 2012

Boxinghead Battle Update

I have started a prediction game featuring many of the boxing experts in the United States and a few sprinkled in from around the world. I call it the Boxinghead Battle. Predictions will be tabulated throughout the year for major fights.

The rules are as follows: One point (+1) for correctly picking the winning fighter, minus one point (-1) for selecting the losing fighter and five points (+5) for correctly picking a draw. If someone correctly predicts a no-contest, they win ten points (+10) but no points will be deducted for a fight that is declared a no-contest.

Below you will see the current standings through the first nine fights of the Battle. Each expert is identified along with his publication. Some names are prominent boxing figures on Twitter and do not have an official affiliation. The current leader is Lee Wylie of (+4). Matthew Mojica (-6) is the trailer.

Check for updates to the Boxinghead Battle. There will be a dedicated page on the upper right hand side of the website.

Update as of August 3rd:

Abramowitz, Adam (saturday night boxing) -3
Barry, Alex (boxing seed) -1
Barry, Bart (15 Rounds) 1
Bivins, Ryan (sweetboxing) -2
Black Dynamite -1
Burton, Ryan (boxing lab) 0
Campbell, Brian (espn) -1
Carp, Steve (las vegas review journal) (+1)
Christ, Scott (bad left hook) -2
Conner, Patrick (tqbr) -1
Coppinger, Mike (ring) 1
Donovan, Jake (boxing scene) 0
Fake Larry Merchant 0
Ferguson, Billy (fighthype) 3
Fight Score Collector -1
Fischer, Douglass (ring) 2
Fitzsimmons, Lyle (boxing scene) 1
Foley, James (tqbr) 1
Frauenheim, Norm (15 rounds) -1
Gaibon, Ernest (boxing lab) -1
Groves, Lee (ring) 0
Idec, Keith (boxing scene) 0
Iole, Kevin (yahoo) -1
JE boxing -2
Linus -2
Lito (boxingheads) -1
Kraus, Scott (tqbr) 2
Mannix, Chris (sports illustrated) -1
Maquinana, Ryan (boxing scene) -0
McCarson, Kelsey (the sweet science) -5
Mojica, Matthew -6
Montoya, Gabe (maxboxing) -1
Mulcahey, Marty (maxboxing) 1
Kieran Mulvaney (espn) -1
Nagesh, Gautham (stiff jab) 0
Olson, Hans (boxing insider) 2
Ortega, Mark (tqbr) 3
Poplawski, Ray -3
Pryor, Jeff (tqbr) 0
Rafael, Dan (espn) 2
Raskin, Eric (grantland) -1
Robinson, Chris (boxing scene) 0
Rold, Cliff (boxing scene) 2
Rosenthal, Michael (ring) -1
Sandoval, Luis (boxing lab) 1
Santoloquito, Joe (ring) -2
Sledskillz -3
Songalia, Ryan (ring) -1
Starks, Tim (tqbr) -1
Stern, Joel (sweet science) -1
Two Piece Boxing 2
Velasco, Darren 0
Velin, Bob (USA Today) 0
Wainwright, Anson (maxboxing) 0
Woods, Michael (espn) -1
Wylie, Lee (the sweet science) 4

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SNB Rankings Update

The only addition to the SNB Rankings for July was the reappearance of Robert Guerrero.  After a 15-month hiatus on account of shoulder surgery, Guerrero moved up two division to convincingly defeat rugged welterweight Selcuk Aydin.  Guerrero returns to the Rankings on the Bubbling Under list.