Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Opinions and Observations: Khan and Donaire

In the spirit of holiday giving, HBO and Showtime bestowed holiday gifts upon Nonito Donaire and Amir Khan this weekend. The networks committed large dollars to their respective headliners, but their beneficence didn't end there. They even provided woefully overmatched opponents. It's great work if you can get it and between the two fighters, they didn't lose one round.
For Khan, following his knockout loss to Danny Garcia earlier this year, his fight against undersized Carlos Molina was an opportunity to rebuild and retool. Having left Freddie Roach and enlisted Virgil Hunter, Khan promised a smarter performance in the ring, with more emphasis on defense.
From the opening moments of the first round, the gap in hand speed between Khan and Molina was apparent. Khan unleashed his arsenal of punches while Molina looked to land that same counter left hook that helped win the fight for Garcia. In fact, Molina connected with about a half-dozen of them throughout the match, but his shots didn't have enough power to affect Khan. That essentially was the fight.
Khan did some nice things on Saturday. He stayed poised and didn't overcommit to knockout punches. His shots were short and sharp. He got in and out of the pocket with relative ease. His conditioning looked terrific. In addition, Khan didn't spend elongated stretches along the ropes, an area of the ring that had troubled him in past fights.
With his shots landing at will, Khan busted up Molina's face. As the fight wore on, Molina couldn't defend himself adequately or mount a consistent offense. His corner stopped the fight after the 10th round, and it was a merciful stoppage.
On a troubling note, Khan did eat a number of picture-perfect left hooks. Yes, Khan remained unfazed by the shots, but still, this is a defensive flaw that remains. When Khan flurries, he doesn't return his hands to a responsible position defensively. He can be countered by the left hook or the straight right hand over the top. Molina lacked that strength to change the outcome of the fight, but he followed the right blueprint. For Khan, this wasn't a step back but I will hold off on waxing about a metamorphosis in the ring until I see him against a live opponent.
Ultimately, it's tough for me to get that excited about Khan's performance. He was in against an undersized guy who couldn't threaten him. Khan will always win big against an opponent with limited punching power. Molina lacked the punch to test Khan – and he lost handily.
On the Khan-Molina undercard, heavyweight prospect Deontay Wilder knocked out Kelvin Price with an impressive right hand in the third round. Shockingly, in Wilder's 26 professional fights, this was only the sixth to make it to the third round. Price did enter the fight undefeated, but the 37-year-old had faced only marginal opposition (not that Wilder's was any better) and displayed minimal power.
Wilder's right hand is potent. He has God-given power in that hand. If Wilder had a free shot at any heavyweight in the world, I'm fairly confident that he could put almost all of them down. However, that's not how boxing works. It's about setting up shots. Wilder still telegraphs his right hand and does the bow-and-arrow (he extends his left hand) when he's ready to throw his right. In addition, he's almost exclusively a headhunter.
At this point, he has a jab and a concussive straight right hand. It's a start but he's not ready to headline under the bright lights just yet. Still, at just 27 and with a limited amateur background – despite his Olympic medal – he has some more room to grow. 2013 will be a vital year for his development as he faces more experienced heavyweights who can take shots as well as test his chin in return. Wilder's an exciting American prospect, and that's not to be minimized, but he's still very raw.
Deep on the undercard, Shawn Porter (whose two claims to fame have been aligning with advisor Al Haymon and serving as a sparring partner for anyone facing Shane Mosley) fought to a split draw with former lightweight champion Julio Diaz. The scores were 96-94 in both directions and 95-95.
I actually scored the fight for 98-92 for Porter although I thought almost every round was competitive. To me, there were a lot of 60/40 rounds where Porter seemed to accomplish a bit more with his ring generalship, fast combinations and defense. Nevertheless, Diaz put forth a spirited effort and landed a number of sharp left hooks and straight right hands. If Diaz had real power at the welterweight division, Porter might have been in serious trouble.
For Porter, this is a step backwards. His main problem in the ring is his lack of a real ring identity. It seemed that round-by-round, minute-by-minute, he couldn't decide whether he wanted to be a boxer, a mover or a brawler. On paper it was his fight to lose, and lo and behold, he almost lost it. Similar to the problem that Khan has, once Porter figures out what kind of fighter he really should be – and for him I would suggest a boxer/mover – he'll have a lot more success. Right now, he is far less than the sum of his parts.
Nonito Donaire capped off the best year of his professional career by icing Mexican brawler Jorge Arce in the third round with a picture-perfect left hook. For Donaire, he must have been in shock. He hadn't faced an opponent who tried to engage him since early 2011. His previous four foes spent much of their time in survival mode.
Arce started to come forward in the second frame; he was soon dropped. In the third round, he was flattened again for his trouble. Later in the third, Donaire pressed the action and scored with a lead left hook that spun Arce around and sent him down for good.
Donaire was expected to dominate Arce, and he did. One thing I liked about Donaire's performance was his patience. He wasn't too caught up in looking – or waiting – for the spectacular. On Saturday, he displayed his jab, right hand, left hook and left uppercut. The knockout came from solid punching and poise, not from daredevil risk taking.
Donaire has become excellent at leading and countering, as well as setting traps. As considerable as these skills are, earlier in Donaire's career, they were often hindered by his impatience.
His last two outings (against Toshiaki Nishioka and Arce) suggest that he is finally starting to let the fight come to him, without resorting to toying with opponents or strangely contorting his body to score knockouts. I believe that Donaire has matured in the ring. He has always believed in his gifts, but now he knows that he doesn't need to force them in order to win impressively.
Already a top-five fighter in the sport, Donaire possesses the power, boxing skills and athleticism to reach greatness. What had been lacking in his overall repertoire was discipline and focus. In 2013 he'll most likely face Abner Mares and/or Guillermo Rigondeaux. Both fighters will challenge him in vastly disparate ways – Mares, physically and Rigondeaux, cerebrally. Donaire has all the tools to win these fights, as long as he doesn't outsmart himself. A disciplined and focused Donaire won't be defeated by anyone with a "featherweight" in front of his name. 
Saturday's HBO broadcast was also noteworthy for being the final time that Larry Merchant provided color commentary for the network. From his sharp one-liners, to his welcomed skepticism to his run-ins with boxers, promoters and other on-air broadcasters, Merchant provided an invaluable role in the presentation of American boxing.
In the days since his exit was announced, Merchant has been showered with well-deserved hosannas from HBO and many of his friends and colleagues, but these tributes have only scratched the surface of how many Merchant actually touched within the boxing community. His insight gave fans a window into boxing that was vital and lacking from other outlets. His doggedness and fearlessness provided a great example for budding and aspiring journalists.
Merchant believed that a broader perspective of the sport was essential to enriching the action at hand. To him, purses, boxing politics and betting odds were necessary in painting a more complete picture of the boxing scene. The personal stories of the fighters supplied a poignant backdrop to the action, but he was too consummate a professional to be held captive to pre-fight narratives. A good yarn was just that, compared to the action in the ring.
He'll best be remembered as a straight shooter. If a match was poor, he'd say so. If a boxer appeared on HBO because of a cozy managerial or promotional relationship, instead of on merit, he believed that fans were entitled to know how the sausage got made. He didn't pull his punches with boxers, promoters or his own network.
Merchant was a seeker of truth in a sport propped up by spectacle, spin and promotion. His musings, asides and pointed questions provided a corrective to the often party-line positions of other broadcasters and media members.
However, he did have his quirks and occasional flaws. I thought that he could be needlessly argumentative with Hopkins, Tyson and Mayweather, not to mention his occasional petty gripes with fellow broadcasters George Foreman and Roy Jones. In these instances, he could come off as small or churlish. At times, his default setting was one of boredom, as if he had made up his mind that a particular fight couldn't possibly entertain him or the viewing audience. There were nights where he would take practically whole rounds off, and while in totality this sense of moderation should be applauded, sometimes he didn't seem fully engaged.
Perhaps I will miss his longtime partnership with Jim Lampley the most. The two were just a great team, and the best assemblage of broadcasting talent in the sport. Lampley's natural passion and enthusiasm blended perfectly with Merchant's world-weary and often reserved disposition. They understood when to let the fight speak for itself. Sure, they could be wonderfully amusing when watching a stinker, but the action of the fight was primary to any jovial asides.
Their natural affinity for each other led to an easy chemistry on-air, ultimately elevating the broadcast beyond a mere accounting of the business at hand. The combination made for great television. In the last few years when Merchant was given fewer shows to broadcast, it seemed that Lampley had an extra gleam in his eye whenever he could say, "With me tonight, is Larry Merchant."
The show will go on. Lampley, at his best, still towers over other American boxing play-by-play announcers, while Merchant may have a more tertiary role at the network in 2013. The International Boxing Hall of Famer leaves active duty as one of the sport's most respected broadcasters and journalists. He is a true iconoclast.
English super middleweight George Groves faced the unretired Glen Johnson on Saturday. Johnson's body was physically there. He looked similar. He still grunted. But Johnson was present only in the corporeal sense. His boxing spirit had already left him.
As if on auto-pilot, Johnson pressed forward, establishing range to throw shots, but he just wouldn't let his hands go. Groves essentially had target practice, flinging right hands and left hooks with impunity. Groves moved well, but there were other times where he stood right in front of Johnson, ready to trade. He kept hitting Johnson waiting for return fire; Groves often left the pocket out of boredom!
However, there was one key sequence in the fight. In the seventh round, Groves fell for the rope-a-dope. For about sixty seconds in the early part of the round, Groves unloaded on Johnson against the ropes. Johnson took Groves’ best shots and did his best to cover up. Perhaps a number of refs would have stopped the fight because of Johnson's lack of activity while in a seemingly perilous position. Suddenly, in the last minute of the round, Johnson charged forward and landed a few blistering right hands. Groves, tired from spending himself so thoroughly earlier in the round, was unprepared for Johnson's counterattack. Groves took the shots well enough, but he got tagged, and the old lion thoroughly outsmarted him.
That was pretty much the height of the bout's drama. There was a questionable late knockdown called on Johnson, but it was essentially immaterial. Groves cruised to a wide decision victory.
I can't say that I was overly inspired by Groves' performance; it was merely workmanlike. I didn't expect Groves to knock out his iron-chinned opponent, but I thought that he would have a more of intelligent plan of attack. To my eyes, there were far too many occasions were Groves backed himself into the corner, waiting to counter or trade with Johnson. This was the only opportunity for the slow-footed Johnson to score. In addition, Groves landed scores of his best shots against Johnson, who barely budged. Again, I wasn't anticipating that Johnson would get knocked out, but I thought that Groves’ punches would have more of an effect than they did.
Groves seems like a tweener to me. I think he is well trained and can box very intelligently when he wants to. His straight right hand is short and accurate. His left hook hits its mark and he has good punch placement with the offering. But I don't see any can't-miss offensive weapons. Although still young (24) and relatively inexperienced for his division, just 16 professional fights, I don't think that he has the athleticism, dynamic boxing skills or power to beat the best fighters at super middleweight.
Ultimately, I see him winning as a mover, but he lacks the top-shelf athleticism to escape past Andre Ward or Andre Dirrell, or the savvy to outwit Carl Froch. Perhaps Groves could maneuver himself around the ring to eke out a decision against Arthur Abraham; it’s certainly a possibility. However, Abraham has shown that he is clearly a step down from the best in the division. Groves still has time to develop more but I don't foresee an elite talent.
I think Groves will settle into a B+ fighter, and that's OK. B+ fighters can go very far in the sport. Take a look at Glen Johnson, an actual Fighter of the Year who was around that range for most of his career.
Boxing returned to CBS for the first time in 15 years on Saturday with bantamweight titlist and action fighter Leo Santa Cruz taking on Alberto Guevara. With the network only committing to this one boxing broadcast, it was important to the sport's constituencies that the fight deliver – and it certainly did.
Guevara started off well, confounding the pressure fighter with his movement, boxing skills and accuracy. Santa Cruz, who often throws 100 punches a round, couldn't close the distance and resorted to throwing lead right hands from the outside. Meanwhile, Guevara glided around the ring and caught Santa Cruz with a steady diet of jabs and short combinations, most often with the jab/straight right hand.
It should be noted that Santa Cruz was coming off of a pretty grueling fight just five weeks earlier against Victor Zaleta. From the early moments of the match on Saturday, Santa Cruz just didn't have his characteristic perpetual energy.
However, as the fight progressed, his power punches started to turn the tide. In the middle rounds, both fighters landed several of their best shots but the difference in punching power strongly favored Santa Cruz. In time, his uppercuts, left hooks and straight right hands forced Guevara into retreat. As the rounds continued, Guevara's punches seemed obligatory, thrown with the intention of trying to buy time, survive and keep Santa Cruz at bay. The final scores were 116-112, 118-110 and 119-109, all for Santa Cruz (I had it 117-111).
Guevara did show some boxing skills and solid ring generalship, but ultimately he didn't have enough steam in his shots or the willingness to engage enough to win the fight. Santa Cruz was also pretty good at cutting the ring off; one could only run for so long.
Let's be frank. It wasn't the finest performance of Santa Cruz's career. Facing a non-compliant opponent who thought better of standing and trading, Santa Cruz needed several rounds to adapt (I thought that he lost the first three frames). In addition, his accuracy wasn't that sharp against a boxer with good head movement and athleticism.
I'm not ready to say that Santa Cruz was "exposed." Ultimately, Guevara showed how to survive against Santa Cruz, which is a far different proposition than actually providing a blueprint on how to beat him.
Santa Cruz, having difficulty making the 118-lb. limit, has spoken about moving up in weight. If he does go to 122, he'll face a variety of cerebral boxers, stellar athletes and excellent technicians; thus, Guevara was an excellent opponent for him. While the best at 122 (Donaire, Mares and Rigondeaux) are not runners, they all possess advanced boxing skills and superior ring generalship. Saturday's fight was vital for Santa Cruz. He had to track down an athletic boxer and persevere when he wasn't at his physical best. These lessons will greatly assist him as he meets more seasoned opponents.
Ultimately, everyone was a winner with Santa Cruz-Guevara. Santa Cruz put on an entertaining performance and beat a tricky challenger. Guevara, just 22 and in his first 12-round fight, gave a credible performance and should be back as solid opponent for top talents in the bantamweight division. Golden Boy did a double-duty of good matchmaking. They gave CBS a fan-friendly fight in its first foray back into boxing plus they provided Santa Cruz with a crucial developmental challenge. Finally, for CBS, dipping its toe back into boxing after a long hiatus, it was rewarded with a solid boxing match without any undue controversy. Hopefully Saturday was the start of something more permanent.

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
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