Monday, October 15, 2012

Opinions and Observations: Rios and Donaire

On Saturday at the Home Depot Center, a venue designed for tennis, Rios-Alvarado was Federer-Nadal, but with concussive blows instead of blistering groundstrokes. Just substitute Brandon Rios' overhand right for a Federer overhead smash, Mike Alvarado's winging right hand for a Nadal winner down the line or sharp uppercuts from close distance for fast-paced angled volleys.  Like a thrilling tiebreaker that whips a tennis crowd into a frenzy, Rios-Alvarado achieved this type of euphoria, but for almost 20 minutes of action, not a dozen or so points.  

The "oohs" and "aahs" from the fans will always stay with me.  The crowd responded to the fighter's power shots practically every 15 seconds.  First it was a punishing right hand from Alvarado that snapped back Rios' head, sending sweat flying out of the ring.  Next, the crowd exclaimed with wonderment from a sinister Rios left hook to the head, temporarily stopping Alvarado in his tracks.  This went back and forth several times a round, with the crowd on its feet at many points during the action.  This was the ultimate battle of will. 

Coming into the fight, I knew that Rios could thrive in a war of attrition.  I saw him gradually break down lightweight titlist Miguel Acosta and force Anthony Peterson to throw incessant low blows, hoping to stem Rios' aggression or find a way out of the fight.  I was less certain about Alvarado.  Previously, Alvarado had prevailed in battles against Breidis Prescott and Mauricio Herrera, but these were spirited contests against lesser opponents.  I was curious to see how Alvarado would fare against a more committed inside fighter and one who wouldn't fade down the stretch.

The first three rounds of Rios-Alvarado were riveting.  Alvarado started off the rounds forcefully, scoring with right hands and right and left uppercuts.  Alvarado's hand speed looked excellent and he kept his punches compact.  Rios was getting outlanded but he would make his mark.  He came on as the rounds ended and landed the more telling blows, specifically with left hooks to the head and body and left and right uppercuts.  I scored all three rounds for Rios but I thought that the first two could've gone to either fighter.

To me, it seemed like Alvarado wasn't taking Rios' punches as well as Rios was absorbing Alvarado's blows.  Rios also invested more capital to the body while Alvarado stayed almost exclusively with head shots. 

Rounds four and five were Alvarado's most successful moments in the fight.  He worked well behind the jab and used some angles and movement to initiate offense.  In these rounds, Alvarado didn't square up as much to Rios as he had in the earlier frames.  This limited the available target for Rios and reduced his ability to land combinations.  Rios still connected, but not with the frequency or force that he had in earlier rounds.  You have to wonder how the fight would have transpired had Alvarado started out the match in this style. 

The fight was moving Alvarado's way until the end of the sixth when Rios landed a few overhand rights that drove Alvarado back to the ropes.  The shots stunned Alvarado and he was not prepared for this new wrinkle from Rios.  On my card, I had it tied at 57 after the sixth round, but the scoring would soon be academic.

In the seventh, Rios landed some crushing overhand rights that rendered Alvarado defenseless along the ropes.  Pat Russell stepped in and called off the fight.  Despite Max Kellerman's insistence that the match was stopped prematurely, no one in the crowd whom I spoke to (admittedly, there were more Rios fans than Alvarado supporters there) believed that the stoppage was unjust. Along those lines, there was no feeling that Russell's call deprived fans of some sort of legendary finish.  The fight was already an epic and it provided the paying customers with one of the most memorable matches they'll ever see in person; everyone got their money's worth. 

Russell did a spectacular job throughout the match.  Although almost all of the fight took place in tight quarters, Russell didn't feel the need to unnecessarily break the fighters apart.  He allowed the infighting and physicality to coalesce into a spectacular event.  At the end, when it was time to earn his money, Russell made the right call.  Although Alvarado never went down, who knows what would have happened with one or two more clean blows?  He couldn't defend himself and Russell instinctively understood the right time to end the fight.  As a referee, he remained unobtrusive until he had to be decisive; he performed perfectly all night.  It was a great job. 

Brandon Rios might be the best pressure fighter in boxing.  He understands what a pressure fighter has to do to win fights.  The pressure fighter gradually breaks the body and the will of the boxer in front of him.  That occurs with a constant assortment of power shots and an unwillingness to back off from an opponent.  The pressure fighter can't take rounds off and has to have an excellent chin.  He must withstand hard shots and keep coming forward.

What makes Rios special is his acute understanding of what he needs to do in the ring to win as a pressure fighter.  His short punches are devastating and he's a true believer in the critical importance of body punching.  Sure, Rios is a brute, but he's a self-actualized one.  

Matched against the right kind of fighter, Rios is a force of nature.  He's not unbeatable but it will take a great fighter who can best even a good version of Rios.  As I suspected going into the fight, his poor showing against Richard Abril could be attributed to his inability to comfortably make lightweight and an awkward, grappling opponent fighting at a high level. Luckily in the 140-lb. division, there aren't too many fighters who have the veteran savvy or style to stink it out against him to get a victory. 

Rios' other potential kryptonite could be a boxer with blazing hand speed who can move.  With the exception of Joan Guzman, I can't think of another fighter at junior welterweight who possesses that assortment of skills.  Perhaps a perfectly disciplined Amir Khan could give him trouble, but that fighter is a hypothetical construction and hasn't actually appeared in the ring against top opponents. 

His best matchups at 140 would be against pocket fighters like Danny Garcia, Lucas Matthysse and Juan Manuel Marquez.  It will be interesting to see where he goes next.  Bob Arum has talked about Rios facing the Pacquiao-Marquez winner.  Two years ago, the thought of Rios against Pacquiao would be some sort of cruel joke.  But Pacquiao has slowed down some and resides mostly in the pocket himself these days.  I wouldn't favor Rios, but the match would intrigue me.  And I'm on record as saying that Marquez will never get in the ring with Rios.   

Make no mistake; this was an excellent Mike Alvarado who showed up on Saturday.  He threw over a hundred punches a round. He landed his power shots consistently and impressively.  He kept his shots compact.  That version of Alvarado could beat a lot of fighters at 140.  Unfortunately, he voluntarily fought a land war against Genghis Khan. Fault Alvarado for his tactics or succumbing to his machismo, but not his effort or his willingness to make a great fight.  It was a starmaking performance for Alvarado in a loss and his next fight will be the biggest one of his career.  Alvarado now knows that he'll have to fight just a little bit smarter and use his athletic gifts more to his advantage.  If he can learn from this fight and take the appropriate amount of time to heal, he'll come back better and become a real force at junior welterweight.  


Watching Nonito Donaire's ninth-round TKO of Toshiaki Nishioka, I kept thinking of Admiral Ackbar.  Ackbar, of course, was the military commander of the Rebel Alliance in "Return of the Jedi."  His famous warning, "It's a trap," could have been given to Nishioka in the ninth round.  With the exception of the sixth round, when Nishioka rallied with power shots after he was knocked down from a left uppercut, he was very tentative letting his hands go.  In the ninth, Donaire moved back along the ropes and Nishioka started opening up.  Within seconds, Donaire dropped Nishioka with a beautifully-timed counter right hand.  Nishioka fell to the canvas and within seconds his corner stopped the fight.  It was a classic trap set by Donaire and Nishioka walked right into it. 

You see, Donaire needs to set traps like this because his opponents don't want to trade with him.  Donaire possesses a blinding combination of power, speed and punch variety.  Perhaps his opponents were spooked by his crushing knockout of Fernando Montiel.  Since that fight, Donaire’s foes – Omar Narvaez, Wilfred Vazquez Jr. and Jeffrey Mathebula – haven’t been too eager to exchange.  Narvaez and Vazquez seemed pleased with surviving while Mathebula shut down once Donaire started punching in combinations. 

On paper, Nishioka seemed like a different type of opponent.  Undefeated in eight years, with six junior featherweight title defenses on his ledger, Nishioka had thrived in a war against Jhonny Gonzalez and had bettered aggressive fighters like Rendall Munroe and Rafael Marquez during his title reign.  

Nevertheless, when the opening bell rang, Nishioka couldn't even muster to throw a dozen punches in the first round.  From the start, Donaire worked off the jab and peppered Nishioka in the early part of the fight with a double jab followed by a right hand.  Not all of his punches landed and in fact, Nishioka blocked quite a few of them, but it became apparent to the Japanese fighter just how dangerous the Donaire juggernaut was; Nishioka spent the majority of the fight on defense.  

In my estimation, there were two clear ways for Donaire to better Nishioka.  He could be first and beat Nishioka to the punch with combinations.  The second way was for Donaire to catch Nishioka lunging and out of position with hard counter shots. Donaire started the fight using the first strategy and gradually worked his way towards the second one.  

Watching live, I believe that Donaire could have blitzed Nishioka from the beginning of the fight.  Nishioka hardly countered and didn't seem comfortable fighting at close range.  When Donaire flurried, Nishioka put his ear muffs up and tried to contain damage; there was no return fire. 

However, it's difficult to stay aggressive when an experienced opponent offers such limited available targets.  This does not excuse Donaire, for one problem of his is the occasional deviation from his game plan.  But this does explain why Donaire often resorts to setting traps and counterpunching.  In this mode, he caught Nishioka lunging in the sixth round and giving up his distance in the ninth.  His knockdowns were pulverizing punches executed with remarkable precision. 

True, Donaire's overall performance didn't scintillate the crowd, but he got the job done against his best opponent at junior featherweight.  As Brandon Rios' career demonstrates, when you have a compatible opponent, you can make great fights, when you have a Richard Abril in front of you, the match can be a stinker.  Donaire again faced an unwilling opponent.  That's a credit to his awesome package of skills but still, everyone – Donaire, Top Rank, HBO, boxing fans, etc. – would like to see some of his fights have a little more sustained action.  

Donaire annoys some boxing observers because he experiments in the ring and sometimes toys with opponents.  Yes, he can be a showboat and gets knockout-happy.  However, many of his tactics are used to convince his opponents to engage.  Like Sergio Martinez, he'll give up a round here or there to encourage his opponents to open up.  It's a strategy that smacks of gamesmanship but it's not necessarily a bad one.   Ultimately, Donaire wants to entertain fans and make a name for himself in the sport.  The knockouts are important to him.  It's an excellent impulse but sometimes he loses perspective and feels like he somehow has failed himself and the boxing public if his fights go the distance. 

What I liked from Donaire on Saturday was his working within his game plan to achieve the victory.  The knockout came, but he didn't waste half the fight looking for it; he put rounds in the bank.   He stayed within himself and used his physical gifts and boxing intelligence to starch a world-class opponent.  Perhaps most impressively, he forced a longtime titlist and the top fighter at 122 to assume the position of an "opponent."  Donaire's performance didn't wow the crowd like Rios-Alvarado did earlier, but it was very impressive in its own right. 

For Nishioka, there was immediate talk after the fight about the possibility of retirement.  This makes sense in that junior featherweights don't suddenly get better in their mid 30s.  Nishioka had a wonderful career and defeated a number of very good opponents.  It's a shame that American audiences never had an opportunity to see him at his peak.  His last two fights against Rafael Marquez and Donaire displayed only a fraction of his mobility and footwork.  In his prime, Nishioka danced around the ring with a free-flowing style reminiscent of Sergio Martinez's fancy footwork.  On Saturday, he was hesitant to take even baby steps, let alone feature crafty moves.

After injuring his left hand in the fight, Donaire will be out the rest of the year.  When he returns to the ring, he'll have three natural opponents: Guillermo Rigondeaux and the winners of Mares-Moreno and the rescheduled Salido-Garcia.  Unlike Andre Ward, a top fighter who now faces no legitimate threat in his division, Donaire has a clear path to ascend even higher in the boxing world.  

Donaire has been pretty damn impressive in 2012.  In one calendar year, he's taken out a former titlist, a current beltholder and the number-one guy in the division. He's on the shortlist of Fighter of the Year candidates.

One final note: trainer Robert Garcia won both fights on Saturday, working the corners for both Rios and Donaire.  These two fighters are remarkably different athletes and yet Garcia has them thriving with their disparate styles.  It says something for Garcia that he doesn't try to create cookie-cutter fighters.  Robert Garcia boxers don't all do this or that.  He takes what he has and helps shape his fighters into using their particular strengths and styles.  To me, that's the mark of a truly excellent trainer.   

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