Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Opinions and Observations: The Vegas Double-Down

This weekend featured some scintillating fight action, which included two enormous, competing cards in Las Vegas. If you don't mind, I'll forego the witty introduction and get right to it.

First off, I was wrong. I predicted a nip-and-tuck fight with Martinez pulling ahead as the winner by the slimmest of margins. I based that off of a couple of factors. Primarily, I had thought that Martinez (37) was starting to slow down. His activity level had dropped precipitously in the Barker fight and he had become a pocket fighter during his last few bouts. I foresaw a mano-a-mano war where Martinez's knockout punches would be pitted against Chavez's pulverizing body shots.

Instead, in an athletic tour de force that would make even a sprightly 20-something boxing whippersnapper cry uncle, Martinez used his legs expertly for 11 rounds to dominate Chavez. He circled mostly to his left, which is unusual against an orthodox fighter but correct against Chavez's because of his ferocious left hooks. Martinez danced, feinted, fired off blistering combinations and easily outclassed Chavez throughout the fight. Martinez wouldn't let Chavez set himself and they rarely had sustained exchanges. Chavez was often reduced to following Martinez around the ring and eating a lot of leather.

It was clear that Chavez had no answer for Martinez's movement. Chavez couldn't cut the ring off and when they had exchanges along the ropes, it was because Martinez allowed it. Even in those instances, Martinez turned his body towards his side and bent over so Chavez couldn't use his body to lean on him. Additionally, in that position, Martinez was only giving Chavez his back to throw at and not his body. To say that Chavez was flummoxed by Martinez's tactics and movement would be a massive understatement.

Martinez did things that Chavez had never seen before. He would stand out of reach, square to him and throw two upjabs with his left hand (remember, Martinez is a southpaw and his jab hand is his right hand). He would turn Chavez constantly and duck and twist past Chavez's body.

In addition, he landed hard shots throughout the entire fight, especially with his straight left hand, left uppercut and right hook. Martinez also jabbed very well at points and fought Chavez both off his front and back foot. Martinez's technical mastery was just too much.

Things changed drastically in the 12th. After having some success trading in the 11th round with some straight right hands, Chavez came out in the 12th and let his hands go. He caught Martinez with a slinging right hook which drove him back to the ropes. Martinez either lost focus or believed that he was out of range. Whatever the case may have been, Martinez got hit flush. Chavez then followed Martinez back to the ropes and pummeled him with a series of left hands. A key point in this sequence was that Chavez kept enough distance so that Martinez couldn't tie up. Martinez tried to hold on, but Chavez backed up and Martinez fell to the canvas.

At this point there was a lot of the final round left. Martinez's face was battered and bloody. Chavez pounced on him and connected with a few more shots. Later in the round, Martinez fell flat to the canvas, untouched, from sheer exhaustion. But, he regained his legs and held on at points. By the end of the round, he started to fire back; he had survived, and Chavez's chance at one of the most improbable victories in boxing history fell by the wayside.

Nevertheless, the pro-Chavez crowd roared. They had gotten their money's worth in the 12th round. They knew that the young fighter whom they had placed their allegiances with had what it took to knock out one of the top fighters in the sport.

Perhaps most importantly, Chavez displayed heart worthy of his legendary father. He could have quit at many points in the fight after the beating he was taking, but he pressed forward and gave himself the chance to win. He missed by a few seconds, but the exhilaration he created in the Thomas and Mack Center and with boxing fans across the world was unforgettable. That 12th round was a majestic moment in recent boxing history. Give credit to both fighters – Chavez for never giving up and Martinez for somehow finding the will to survive.

Martinez regained his title belt with a deserved victory. For most of the fight, he painted a masterpiece worthy of Rembrandt. Unfortunately, by the end of the night, his face resembled the random coloring found in abstract expressionism – some red there, some blue, drips and dribbles – he was an inspiring mess. He didn't finish the fight well. Perhaps fatigue set in, or he lost focus, but his performance overall was excellent.

Martinez's cunning and ring intelligence is among the best in the sport. Perhaps most importantly, he consistently delivers excellent fights, often with unforgettable endings. In only a few years, he has amassed quite a boxing resume.

There was much talk after the fight of a rematch. Frankly, I would be fine with that. Chavez, I'm sure, gained a lot of confidence with his performance in the 12th round and if he lets his hands go with abandon in the rematch, good things might happen. His chin and body held up to constant pounding from Martinez. He'll have the self-belief knowing that he could take Martinez out at any time. I wouldn't favor Chavez in a second matchup, but I'm pretty sure it would be a different fight.

Although I have admired Saul "Canelo" Alvarez's intoxicating combination of youth, ring-savvy and combination punching, I haven't yet climbed aboard his bandwagon. With Alvarez having been fed a bevy of faded champions and blown-up fighters, it's been very tough for me to evaluate his true ceiling as a fighter. In contrast, I know now that Chavez has the power to knock out any middleweight and his chin can stand up to the best in the division. That doesn't make Chavez an elite fighter yet, but it certainly leads to a tough day at the office for any of the top guys at middleweight. With Alvarez, I just don't know how good he is and I certainly can't evaluate whether his defensive flaws are minor impediments or massive barriers to achieving greatness.

Against Josesito Lopez, an energetic boxer with an irrepressible fighting spirit, Alvarez landed pretty much at will. His left hook was his most devastating punch of the fight and his combinations were jarring and crisp. One thing that struck me was an improvement in Alvarez's hand speed. From watching Alvarez in a number of his past fights, I had thought that his hand speed was average, but what had made him so successful was the combination of perfect technique, confidence with a variety of punches and stunning accuracy. However, against Lopez, who had decent hand speed, Alvarez consistently beat him to the punch. His jab was quick and bracing and his combinations were compact and accurate.

Here's why it's so tough to judge Alvarez at this point: as the fight progressed, Lopez landed some massive shots on him, including right hands and left hooks. Because Lopez is a smallish welterweight, his punches had no effect on Alvarez. However, these are the moments that beg the following questions: does Alvarez lose focus on defense or does he just not bother when facing small fighters without real power? These are serious questions to consider and ones which won't be answered until Alvarez takes on a higher quality of opposition and more specifically, a real puncher.

For Lopez, despite entering the fight as a massive underdog with physical disadvantages, he fought with a tremendous amount of heart. Even after being dropped three times, he kept firing away, trying to change the fight with one punch. It was sad to see him sacrificed at the altar of Canelo, but hopefully that paycheck with the multiple zeroes will help soothe him. I'd like to see him back at welterweight, where his determination and self-belief have the chance to cause real havoc. Potential bouts against Devon Alexander and Marcos Maidana make sense to me.

By this time next year, we'll know much more about Canelo the Fighter; we already have found out about Canelo the Attraction and Canelo the Matinee Idol. Golden Boy, who in its defense did try to make competitive matchups against James Kirkland and Paul Williams prior to selecting Lopez as an opponent, knows that Alvarez will only reach his true potential as a fighter and ticket seller if he faces real, live opponents. They are going to need some B-sides and some credible ones. It was a great performance from Alvarez, but take it with a generous heaping of salt.

Maidana-Soto Karass
Marcos Maidana stopped Jesus Soto Karass in the eighth round of a slugfest. That result could have been predictable. However, the new wrinkles that Maidana displayed were certainly unexpected. Under the guidance of new trainer Robert Garcia, Maidana, a crude slugger in the past, doubled and tripled-up his jab. In his prior fights, you could count the number of jabs that he threw in each bout on two hands. His best defense was his chin and he walked flat-footed to his opponents. Against Soto Karass, he danced around the ring with side-to-side movement. He even slipped punches and fought off his back foot.

In the fourth round, he eluded eight punches in a row along the ropes; I almost fainted. Was this an imposter? What happened to the all-action warrior? Did he now fancy himself a cutie pie?

After winning many of the early rounds, Maidana got way too caught up with his new toys. He yielded ground to Soto Karass, a garden-variety pressure fighter looking to make a statement. Yes, Maidana slipped a lot of punches and displayed some fancy footwork, but he also got tagged. In these rounds, specifically the fifth and the sixth, he forgot to win them. Dodging punches and turning an opponent is nice, but hitting hard is better.

It was only in the seventh round, when Maidana again decided to hold his ground and press forward, that he had sustained success. A beautiful, four-punch combination (right hand/left jab/left jab/right hand) dropped Soto Karass and really hurt him. By the eighth round, Maidana piled on and referee Kenny Bayless stopped the fight.

Maidana's new dimensions were shocking. Despite having only one full training camp with Garcia, Maidana incorporated many new elements into his package, but he wasn't employing them seamlessly. That will come with more time with Garcia.

Even though Maidana was a top amateur in the boxing-rich country of Argentina, he looked so raw as a professional – this of course was part of his allure. It seemed like he didn't even know how to throw a jab or set up shots. He also lacked the rudiments of defense. Furthermore, while his heart was never in question, his conditioning sure was.

Maidana has gone through trainers frequently in the past few years, which suggests dissatisfaction with the state of his career. Perhaps, he decided that he didn't want to continue with his physically taxing face-first style. Maybe the Devon Alexander result conveyed the necessity of improving his footwork and defense. It's certainly possible that Maidana previously had a belief in his invincibility; maybe he's finally receptive to new ideas. So far, the early returns with Garcia have been intriguing. The amount of progress that Maidana has made with just one fight under Garcia demonstrates his boxing aptitude and teachability. Ultimately, it's a credit to him for trying to expand his dimensions.

Knocking out Soto Karass is a nice result, but it's not going to take him to the top of the welterweight division. With continued improvement in his defense, footwork and conditioning, he'll put himself in a much better position to tackle the elite in the weight class.

It was widely expected that Guillermo Rigondeaux would dispatch Robert Marroquin with ease. By looking at the final scores (118-108 x2 and 118-109), conventional wisdom seemed to carry the day. But the fight was interesting from this perspective: Marroquin hurt Rigondeaux with two left hooks as well as a right hand. Rigondeaux didn't take these punches particularly well and these moments were significant enough to cast doubt upon Rigondeaux's eventual ceiling in the junior featherweight division.

Throughout the rest of the fight, Rigondeaux dominated with his expert ring generalship, defense, movement, feints and devastating counter left hands, either straight shots or uppercuts. Rigondeaux dropped Marroquin twice with picture-perfect left hands and his mastery of distance and movement flummoxed Marroquin throughout most of the fight. Marroquin couldn't find ways to land, and in a number of rounds he didn't throw much at all.

Rigondeaux also mixed in a few functional right hooks. He's still left-hand dominant and he needs to develop a real right-hand weapon to become a complete offensive fighter.

If Rigondeaux has real chin issues, a power puncher like Nonito Donaire, who has devastating left hooks, could be his kryptonite. It's one thing to have great defense, but even the slickest defensive wizard gets hit. If Rigondeaux can't take punches well, no legendary amateur pedigree will save him, he'll be in trouble. To be continued.

Gonzalez-Ponce de Leon
Jhonny Gonzalez wasn't the first fighter to be completely frustrated by Daniel Ponce de Leon's combination of awkwardness and heavy hands and he most likely won't be the last one. Gonzalez, who previously had some trouble with southpaws (Gerry Penalosa and Toshiaki Nishioka, to name two), certainly wasn't prepared for Ponce de Leon's strange variety of shots. How about a lead, looping left hook from distance? (Remember, the right hook is usually the money shot for a southpaw.) How about a head used as a guided missile with lunging straight left hands to the body thrown behind it? Would a slinging right hook followed by a sharp elbow help any?

Ponce de Leon's shots looped and curved from all sorts of improbable angles, but he also mixed in a firm jab and some straight left hands. Gonzalez just didn't look comfortable in the ring. Ponce de Leon's punches and head forced Gonzalez to become hesitant.

Gonzalez has excellent punching power but Ponce de Leon wisely stayed out of distance until he was ready to attack. He kept exchanges short and got out of the pocket quickly. Gonzalez's hand speed looked particularly slow on Saturday, which didn't bode well for him. The fighters who had dominated Ponce de Leon had excellent hand speed and/or sharp, compact punches (JuanMa Lopez, Gamboa and Caballero); Gonzalez had neither. His accuracy was terrible throughout the night and he really needed to land his uppercut to thwart Ponce de Leon's aggression. Of the handful that he threw, I can't remember one connecting.

Although Ponce de Leon is thought of as a crude fighter, his game plan on Saturday demonstrated a firm understanding of his strengths and weaknesses. While most observers expected a brawl, Ponce de Leon used distance wonderfully to control the action. His short flurries racked up the points and protected him from unnecessary return fire. By the sixth round, he was systematically breaking Gonzalez down. He landed a sharp left which put Gonzalez through the ropes.

A nasty head clash in the eighth ended the fight. Ponce de Leon won by scores of 79-72 x2 and 77-74 (I also scored it 79-72). The mark of an intelligent fighter is to try and make fights as easy as possible. Ponce de Leon did that and it's time to reassess his reputation as a mere awkward brawler. On a good night, he gives any of the current crop of top featherweights trouble.

Matthew Macklin received an opportunity on the Chavez-Martinez undercard because of his good showing against Sergio Martinez and his promoter's (Lou DiBella) desire to keep him active. He was in the ring against Joachim Alcine, a former junior middleweight titlist from Canada, who is now in the spoiler phase of his career.

Macklin just didn't let Alcine get started. He tagged Alcine almost immediately with a right hand that led to an unexpected knockdown. Macklin flurried later along the ropes and Alcine took a knee for a second knockdown. He continued with several more unanswered punches and referee Jay Nady stopped the fight. That's all she wrote.

In the last 15 months, Macklin fought on even terms with Felix Sturm and was competitive with Sergio Martinez until a late knockdown. It's clear that he's a top-ten middleweight. The hope is that he will have another opportunity soon against a top middleweight. If he keeps impressing, he'll get his next shot very soon.

Santa Cruz-Morel
Leo Santa Cruz, a bantamweight titlist, unloaded on Eric Morel for five rounds with a vicious, pulverizing body attack. Morel, an aged former flyweight champion, had enough after the fifth round and just ended it. For Morel, he landed some of his best power shots, which led to just more punishment. Santa Cruz had zapped his legs and the beating he was taking could have become life-altering. The decision to end it was understandable.

Santa Cruz has become one of the more impressive pressure fighters in the sport. He often throws over 100 punches a round, mostly power shots and thrown from a good position. His balance has impressed me and although he doesn't have one-punch knockout power, he has heavy hands. Like a good pressure fighter, his chin seems to be very sturdy. He has an array of combinations and punches. One combination in the third round – a right hook to the body/right uppercut to the head/left hook to the head – had me particularly giddy. His future is bright but...

During the Showtime broadcast, the commentators explained that Santa Cruz was preparing to head up the junior featherweight division, a weight class that may be the best in boxing. Facing guys with superior movement and/or punching power may trouble him (such as Anselmo Moreno, Nonito Donaire and Guillermo Rigondeaux). To me, Santa Cruz still needs more seasoning before he is ready for that level of fighter. In a perfect world, he would stay at bantamweight for a few more fights and gain some valuable experience. However, if he must go up to junior featherweight right now, he needs to be matched carefully before facing the beasts atop the division.

The best fight on Saturday was between Roman "Rocky" Martinez and Miguel Beltran Jr. for a vacant junior lightweight title belt. A classic Puerto Rican vs. Mexico matchup, these two boxers were evenly matched. The bout took place in a phone booth as each combatant fought for their careers.

Martinez was a former titlist who lost his belt in 2010 to Ricky Burns in an entertaining scrap. Beltran probably didn't deserve a title shot off of his career accomplishments – this was only his second scheduled 12-round fight. But the WBO and Top Rank/Zanfer matchmakers saw something with this pairing, and it delivered.

Beltran won the early rounds with his superior hand speed and more compact shots. But as the fight continued, Martinez was able to assert himself. The rounds were back and forth and there was a beautiful ebb-and-flow to the match. Probably eight or nine rounds could have gone to either fighter.

Neither of these boxers is a world-beater, but they both fought as hard as they could for their paychecks. They reveled in their opportunity to make a mark in the sport. In fact, they went at it so hard for 11 rounds that they were both gassed by the 12th, leading to an anti-climactic final round. Nevertheless, they electrified the crowd and made names for themselves in front of a huge global boxing audience.

What turned out to be the pivotal moment in the fight was a blatant rabbit punch by Beltran in the 11th round. Beltran had previously been warned twice by referee Russell Mora for hitting behind the head. The shot that finally led to a point deduction wasn't particularly menacing, but it was so blatant that it needed to be called. Mora is one of my least favorite referees in boxing. (His horrible showings in Donaire-Montiel and Mares-Agbeko I should have gotten him banned.) However, his deduction was completely appropriate. Beltran lost his composure at a key point in the fight and instead of settling for a draw, he lost the decision. Scores were 116-111 (Beltran) and 114-113 x2 (Martinez). I also scored it 114-113 for Martinez. Yes, the deduction cost Beltran the match, but in actuality, Beltran caused himself to lose the fight because of a lack of discipline.

The Top Rank/Zanfer team deserves a lot of credit for placing this match as the chief undercard support of Chavez-Martinez. Instead of going with a "name" in this slot, they went with action. They placed their faith in two relatively anonymous fighters. It was a nice risk taken by Top Rank and one that paid off handsomely. Their understanding of matchmaking remains the best in the business.

Earlier on Saturday, cruiserweight Yoan Pablo Hernandez and Troy Ross fought an entertaining slugfest that featured, unfortunately, another poor decision in Germany. The first three rounds were a war with both southpaws trading hard power shots. Hernandez, a Cuban émigré and titlist based out of Germany, had early success landing his straight left hands while Ross, a former title challenger from Canada, scored with his straight left and blistering right hook. Hernandez had a five-inch height advantage and for a while, his shots had an easier time finding their mark.

However, Hernandez's flaws started to show. He threw lazy jabs, leading to easy counter opportunities. He also leaned forward, giving up his height advantage; this provided Ross with an available target.

In the fifth round, Ross dropped Hernandez with a left hand and a brief flurry of follow-up power shots. Hernandez survived the round with some help from referee David Fields, who should have deducted another point when Hernandez turned his back to Ross for an extended period of time. Fields also initiated some rather lengthy and unnecessary pauses during the round.

Shockingly, Ross' trainer, Chris Amos, instructed his fighter to box in the sixth. Even though Hernandez's legs weren't stable, Ross listened to his corner and didn't press his attack. He gave Hernandez ample recovery time. By the ninth round, a round-of-the-year candidate, the two were trading again with furious shots. Hernandez looked to be hurt at the end of the round, but just as he did earlier in the fight, Amos implored his fighter to take his foot off of the gas and box.

Ultimately, Ross lost a decision that he should have won. Scores were 116-112, 115-112 and 114-113, all for Hernandez (I scored it 115-112 for Ross). It was a bad decision but Ross should never have let it get to that point. He had Hernandez wounded on foreign soil, and he didn't take him out. At 37, this was Ross' last shot. I'm sure he had a long plane ride back to Canada to think about what he could've done differently. Perhaps he will realize that Amos' awful corner work helped lead to the defeat.

Hernandez had two victories in the last year against long-time champ Steve Cunningham – one of which was a farce and the other was a close fight that could have gone either way. Trained by master coach Ulli Wegner, the thought was that Sauerland Event had another first-class cruiserweight on its hands. However, Hernandez took a few steps back with this performance. His shots were very wide, his defense was porous and his chin seemed to be problematic. He would get an awful beating from titleholder Marco Huck; Hernandez is far from being an elite fighter.

I'm sure that Sauerland can keep the title in his hands for some time with its skilled matchmaking, but Hernandez's performance was very disappointing. Maybe his relative success against Cunningham was more about an older fighter who was no longer comfortable at the weight instead of anything special that Hernandez was doing. No one's stock fell more over the weekend.

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