In the eighth round of Saturday's Wladimir Klitschko-Mariusz Wach fight, we saw something very strange; Klitschko was taking risks! After years of tentative performances from the Ukrainian slugger and the obligatory admonishments from Emanuel Steward to let his hands go, Klitschko gunned for the knockout. He peppered Wach with a barrage of power shots, landing at will with his jab/right hand combo and mixing in some crunching left hooks. Klitschko didn't let up after he connected with a few shots or shirk from the action at the first sign of Wach's return fire. He continued to press forward. He wasn't fighting for the win; no, it was for pride.
This was the type of performance that had been lacking throughout much of Klitschko's title reign. He wasn't content to methodically pick apart an opponent at mid-range or paw with his jab waiting for the opportunity to land his right cross. Actually, he was downright frisky in there on Saturday, using movement and agility to fire off combinations and press the action. He also was willing to exchange some. Wach tagged Klitschko at the end of the fifth round with a big right hand and a subsequent flurry. It appeared that Klitschko was hurt by the barrage, but he didn't come out in the sixth round timidly. He continued to shoot his power shots and cause damage. He wasn't spooked. In fact, he seemed fired up.
Perhaps the recent death of Steward motivated Klitschko offensively. Maybe it was Wach's relative immobility. Perhaps Wach's ability to take Klitschko's punches forced Klitschko to dig deeper. Maybe Klitschko finally decided to just have a little fun in the ring. It could be any or all of these things. Ultimately, the result was satisfying – an enjoyable Wlad Klitschko fight, imagine that.
Wach wasn't Klitschko's best opponent of his career but he was game and he kept trying throughout the fight (that immediately disqualifies 75% of Wlad's opponents). It was enjoyable to watch Klitschko in a role other than the Reluctant Knockout Artist. This fight wasn't about Klitschko wearing down an opponent with his jab, holding and grappling; it was two big behemoths mixing it up.
Wach will certainly get more opportunities against some of the bigger names in the heavyweight division. He showed a superhuman chin and a steely determination. He easily lost 11 rounds, but his self-belief was a revelation. He wasn't there to be a patsy or a walkover. He had his moment in the fifth and he tried to finish off Klitschko with all of his might. It didn't happen, but it wasn't for Wach's lack of effort. In terms of technique, he had a decent jab and a sneaky right hand. It's not an arsenal which suggests future greatness, but with his size, poise and determination, he could present problems for a number of top-ten heavyweights. Keep in mind that Wach had such a weak slate of opponents coming into the fight. Unlike so many others, he jumped at the chance to fight Klitschko. He didn't embarrass himself and he came out of the match further ahead in the fight game than he was six months ago. Give kudos to him for making the most of his opportunity.
I don't know where Klitschko goes from here. His dominance has created a landscape barren of any real threats. In time, Price, Pulev or Mitchell could emerge, but that doesn't mean that any of them will fight him. So he'll take the next one on the list, whoever that may be. And if we learned anything from his fight over the weekend, it's that Klitschko might actually be capable of enjoying himself in the ring.
On another note, Jonathon Banks was in the unenviable position of replacing his mentor, Emanuel Steward. Banks was calm in the corner and did a nice job of settling things down immediately after Klitschko was hurt. He did tell Wlad between one of the rounds that he needed to jab to the head and to the body. I laughed out loud when I heard that. The next jab to the body by Wlad will be his first. It was good "corner speak" by Banks but if Steward couldn't get Wlad to go to the body, it would be hard to believe that Banks would have success in turning Klitschko into a body puncher.
The most thrilling fight of the weekend matched junior featherweight titlist Abner Mares against the bantamweight top dog, Anselmo Moreno. The fight featured brutality, power punching, crafty adjustments and cheap shots. Mares pulled out a wide decision, winning 116-110 (x 2) and 120-106 (more on that atrocious scorecard in a bit), but the match was actually very close.
Before I dissect some of the more displeasuring aspects of the fight, let me start off by saying that I was wrong. Although I scored the fight a draw, 113-113, and would have had Moreno winning if not for Raul Caiz Jr.'s horrid point deduction in the 11th, I expected Moreno to win a lot of rounds against Mares. How many? Nine. Maybe ten.
Mares did a lot of things very well in the fight. He applied relentless pressure throughout the first half. He cut the ring off expertly by using power shots, lateral movement and angles to keep Moreno from getting away. As Moreno tried to escape to his right, away from Mares' right hand, Mares routinely popped him with solid left hooks. In addition, Mares has the right idea about geography. He needed to keep the fight at close range and he hit whatever was available (he might have followed Clemente Medina's game plan a little too literally).
All of this helped Mares. Moreno lacked the quickness and agility to consistently escape and run. In addition, Mares' game plan helped to nullify Moreno's advantages in the center of the ring and at mid-range, where he could have pot-shotted and maneuvered his body for counter opportunities.
With that said, Moreno still had good moments in the early parts of the fight, but they were often just moments – stretches of 30-45 seconds here and there. He landed some excellent shots, specifically his counter left hand, but he looked uncomfortable the whole night. When he went down in the fifth round, it was an utterly shocking moment. Here was this tremendous athlete, with all the foot speed, intelligence and ring savvy, but his legs were reduced to jelly. It was amazing that he survived.
As the fight progressed, Moreno started to have more sustained success. Mares' energy level started to flag after the first half of the fight. Instead of bumrushing Moreno for 2:30 of every round, Mares was now down to 1:15 or 1:30. In addition, Moreno knocked Mares back to the ropes in the 7th and 11th rounds with short left hands. Both times it appeared that he had Mares hurt.
Yet Mares displayed a new wrinkle. He countered extremely well under duress. He did eat some shots but he also landed some savage right hands, uppercuts and left hooks. In those moments, Mares exhibited dimensions which suggest that he is much more than just an excellent pressure fighter. He showed that he could recuperate well after being hurt (he also demonstrated this in the Darchinyan fight). He wisely saved his legs and used his energy to counter, hold and buy time. Although Mares was a less effective fighter when backing up, these adjustments perhaps saved him the match.
Now to the down-and-dirty stuff: It brings me no pleasure to watch the version of Abner Mares who routinely fouls with vicious savagery. Similar to the Agbeko fight, Mares landed dozens of low blows against Moreno. There was also a particularly heinous sequence in the 7th round, where Moreno got turned around with his back facing Mares. Abner paused, looked at Moreno's unprotected back and fired a power shot right at it. Gutless Raul Caiz Jr. warned Mares for the shot, like he did for a number of Mares' low blows, but he failed to take a point. Instead, he deducted a point from Moreno in the 11th for pulling Mares' head down. Moreno did do this, but it was very rich of Caiz Jr. to have taken a point off for this infraction instead of Mares' 30 or so low blows throughout the fight (I actually lost count at 28 at some point during the later rounds).
Mares may be a fine fellow outside of the ring. All indications are that he is. But under the lights, he's a nasty cheap shot artist. With a real referee, he could have lost two fights by now, assuming impartial judging. And don't buy the talk that he's a body puncher and that these things just happen. Yes, punches occasionally and accidentally stray below the belt line, but not dozens of times a fight. Nobody goes to the body more than Leo Santa Cruz, who fought on the undercard of this bout (I'll have more about his performance later). Santa Cruz's punches are savage and crushing, but they are legal. He throws hundreds of body punches a fight, but he's not a dirty fighter; Mares is. I'm sure that these illegal shots were strategic attempts to slow down Joseph Agbeko and Anselmo Moreno. They were damaging blows and swung both fights in my estimation.
Furthermore, it was the height of irony and very revealing when Mares signaled to Caiz Jr. every time Moreno landed a punch close to his belt line. Mares wanted it both ways. He implored Moreno to act like a sportsman, while at the same time he tried to pummel him with practically every tactic imaginable – legal or not. It will take a real referee to keep Mares' fights clean; a task that was beyond Caiz Jr. and Russell Mora (he reffed the Agbeko fight).
In the post-fight interview, Moreno looked like a beaten man, not just physically, but psychologically – make that spiritually. He had never faced a threat like that in his entire career. The fun-loving boxer was reduced to a dour figure. Although it was a close fight (most boxing observers had it anywhere from a 114-112 Moreno win to a 115-111 victory for Mares, more had Mares winning), Moreno did not protest the verdict. For even if he had won the battle, he clearly lost the war.
He fought bravely and showed his true colors in the last quarter of the fight, where I thought he won each round (the 11th was 9-9 because of the point deduction). After enduring rounds of constant pressure and power shots, he continued to let his hands go and fight hard until the final bell. Despite the pounding that he had received, he kept trying to best Mares. In some eyes, he did. To my eyes, Mares only won five rounds of the fight, but those five rounds told the story.
In Dr. James Jen-Kin's eyes, he was seeing marmalade skies, white rooms with black curtains and sugar magnolias. He surely didn't witness the fight in front of him. His 120-106 card was an abomination and if the California State Athletic Commission had any teeth, he'd never work fights in the state again. Although I thought that Marty Denkin and David Sutherland's 116-110 scorecards were a little wide, I certainly think you could've made a case that Mares won eight rounds of the fight. Jen-Kin's card was inexplicable.
Jen-Kin is 76 and has been judging fights long enough to have scored a Salvador Sanchez match. There is no competent explanation for his scorecard. Either suspend him or give him his gold watch, but please, members of the California State Athletic Commission, make sure he's removed from the rotation of able-bodied judges, and do it pronto!
Speaking of gold watches, it's time for Jerry Roth's. The longtime Vegas judge turned in a poor and deciding 86-85 card in favor of Vanes Martirosyan over Erislandy Lara. The fight was a technical draw, with a cut having opened up on Martirosyan early in the ninth round. Richard Ocasio scored the fight a sensible 87-84 in favor of Lara while Dave Moretti thought the fight was a draw. (I scored the fight 88-84 for Lara).
Roth, at 71, is one of the deans of the Nevada judging pool. However, there is a fine line between wise and sagacious and just being past it. Roth has been on the large stage three times this year with his decisions. He failed in the Lara-Martirosyan fight where Martirosyan had an embarrassingly low amount of actual landed punches after the first three rounds. Roth's most egregious card of the year was his 116-112 score in favor of Brandon Rios over Richard Abril. Roth's 115-113 score for Manny Pacquiao-Tim Bradley in favor of Pacquiao reflected who should have been the correct winner in the fight, but the card was too close for my liking. His scorecard may have been an overcorrection to the justifiable outrage of his Rios-Abril score. Perhaps if the Pacquiao card was in a vacuum, it wouldn't have been a big deal.
Roth's scorecards have been spotty for many years. He reflexively favors the "aggressor" in close rounds of fights, irrespective of landed punches or other scoring criteria. He typifies some of the worst attributes of the "Vegas School" of judging, which often rewards come-forward fighters over ring generalship, clean punching or defense. There are four criteria that should be used to score fights but Roth and his ilk place way too much emphasis misapplying one criterion at the expense of more legitimate ways to award rounds.
The fight itself was ugly. Martirosyan started energetically and popped Lara with some good straight right hands. His activity level was fine and Lara, as he can, was not overly concerned with actually throwing punches.
In my eyes, the fight changed in the third round, when Lara started to land his straight left hand. As the rounds continued, that punch hit its mark with more frequency. In addition, Lara was doing some fun things on defense, using his legs, head movement and elbows to thwart Martirosyan's offense.
Martirosyan tried hard, but he just wasn't very effective. He's been on HBO twice now and I see no reason why he needs to strike out on the network for a third time (he appeared on HBO in 2010 against Joe Greene). He's a "B" fighter who lacks the power, craft or polish that would make him a compelling figure to watch or follow.
Despite my feeling that Lara comfortably won the fight, he didn't help himself by being so damn inactive throughout long stretches of rounds. He does just enough in his estimation to win rounds and he has clearly overestimated American judges' desires to reward defense or ring generalship. Even though he had been a victim of an egregious robbery against Paul Williams, that experience didn't catalyze him to fight with any additional urgency on Saturday.
Lara's an interesting fighter in that he has the skills to be an elite talent but he lacks the will or focus to dominate opponents. If he had the inclination, he could have wiped Martirosyan out; instead he'll have to settle for the draw on his ledger.
There are many who feel that Lara could beat Saul Alvarez, Golden Boy's ultimate cash cow. Lara has wanted the fight and feels that Golden Boy (who is also his promoter) has steered Alvarez away from him. That may be true but it's hard for Lara to amass a popular outcry on his behalf when he fails to look his best when he has the opportunity to shine. Lara is the ultimate high risk-low reward opponent and if he doesn't perform spectacularly in the ring, there aren't other avenues for him to get a shot at the big names in the sport. Yes, Lara was shafted against Martirosyan, but the bad decision could've been prevented.
Mikey Garcia scored a spectacular eighth-round knockout against Jonathan Barros with a pulverizing left hook. It was a highlight-reel knockout and it almost erased what was otherwise a listless performance. Garcia is regarded as a surgical and deliberate counterpuncher, but against Barros, he was just deliberate. According to CompuBox, he landed only 21% of his punches and 25% of his power shots. These are terrible percentages for a fighter who throws so few punches. True, Barros percentages were even worse than Garcia's were, but Garcia was the one who entered the ring with the big, shiny, anointed star on his head.
I had the fight scored 77-76 for Garcia coming into the eighth and I had Barros winning rounds five, six and seven. Barros, a former featherweight titleholder from Argentina, didn't have Garcia's hand speed or power, but he had a spectacular game plan and executed it very well. In almost a textbook case of how to beat an economical counterpuncher, he kept his punches compact and fired only two-punch combinations at most. In addition, he kept his left glove up high, just in front of his ear, to neutralize Garcia's straight right hand. Barros used tons of head movement and slight angles to reduce Garcia's clean counterpunching opportunities. Yes, he lost the fight, and lost it spectacularly, but he provided a blueprint for how a certain type of fighter could beat Garcia. Barros was not worn down by Garcia's power or pressure. He just got caught with a shot.
Garcia was originally supposed to face featherweight titlist Orlando Salido but Salido had to pull out with an injury. Perhaps Garcia wasn't able to get up for the replacement fighter (that certainly has happened often in boxing). Fortunately for him, Salido presents a far different style than Barros did. Although Salido has more power, he throws wide shots and opens up frequently on offense. Garcia should have tons of counterpunching opportunities. Although Salido is a superior fighter than Barros, Garcia might fare much better against Salido than he did against the Argentine. Ultimately, the important question is whether Saturday's performance was a warning sign about Garcia's limited ceiling or an example of a fighter failing to get up for a fight.
Leo Santa Cruz is an uncommon pressure fighter. He has very heavy hands, exceptional balance, superior technique and chilling accuracy. Merely looking at Santa Cruz's knockout percentage (56.5%) does not tell the whole story. In Santa Cruz's last 12 fights, only one has gone the distance. Keep in mind, this run has been accomplished against much better competition than he faced in the formative stages of his career. My eyes and the stats tell me that Santa Cruz is a fighter who continues to improve.
Are there things to still work on? Sure. Santa Cruz still smothers himself on occasion and can fall into stretches where he throws too many arm punches, especially with his straight right hand. Also, like many pressure fighters, he too frequently lets his sturdy chin substitute for solid defensive technique. He gets hit, and often.
Nevertheless, he applied a savage beating on Victor Zaleta over the weekend, dropping him three times, including two knockdowns from body punches. His left hook to the body was punishing and his left and right uppercuts were formidable weapons.
Zaleta lost every round in the fight, but he had his moments, with a number of head-popping straight right hands and uppercuts. Unfortunately, he fought Santa Cruz's fight and wasn't able to withstand that type of close combat.
The bantamweight division features a motley crew of tough, international fighters. Leading the fray is Anselmo Moreno (Panama), who most certainly will come back down to 118. Other contenders are Joseph Agbeko (Ghana), Hugo Ruiz (Mexico), Koki Kameda (Japan), Shinsuke Yamanaka (Japan) and Suriyan Sor Rungvisai (Thailand). Moreno, Agbeko or the winner of Kameda-Ruiz (they fight on Dec. 4) seem like natural plays for Santa Cruz's next step. Among that list, if I were Golden Boy, I would target Agbeko.
Santa Cruz is a wonderful, telegenic pressure fighter who continues to improve. If he can sit down on his punches just a bit more and tighten up his defense, he could be an elite talent. If not, he'll still be one of television's staples for the next decade. Get used to him. He'll be around for a while.
Robert Helenius returned to the ring on Saturday for the first time in 11 months. When we last saw him, he was getting outworked by Dereck Chisora, but he won a dubious decision. Helenius hurt his right arm during that fight and subsequently had surgery.
In his return, he faced Sherman Williams, a late replacement who had little shot at winning. Helenius easily won 11 rounds but he was unimpressive. His work rate was low, his jab was ineffectual and he fought with little energy or passion. Helenius, from Finland, was a highly-touted heavyweight a year ago, after he had stopped former titlists Siarhei Liakhovich, Sam Peter and Lamon Brewster. These performances were not mere hype, as Helenius defeated these former champions with bracing power shots.
However, there is real worry here. Chisora exposed some real flaws. For starters, Helenius can't deal with pressure fighters. His jab is lazy and he likes to fight at his own measured pace. Perhaps he was able to look so good against those older champions because they were fighting rather deliberately. Liakhovich did go at him fairly hard at the beginning, but he predictably faded. Helenius will have real trouble with heavyweights who have decent work rates and he isn't accurate enough with his shots to be a true counterpuncher. He needs to be first, but he only seems to thrive at a measured pace.
His pop is still real and his physical dimensions – 6'6" and 240 lbs. – are imposing, but he's no sure thing. Yes, there was some ring rust on Saturday and he probably exercised some understandable caution coming back from surgery, but at this point, I think that Helenius has regressed. His confidence isn't there right now and his deliberate pace and inadequate defensive skills do not portend a glorious future. I could be wrong.
Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
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He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
Contact Adam Abramowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org
@snboxing on twitter
Follow Saturday Night Boxing on Facebook: