Monday, February 27, 2012

Opinions and Observations: Alexander, Broner, Povetkin, Cleverly

The majority of American boxing pundits viewed the Alexander Povetkin-Marco-Huck fight as a gross mismatch. Their beliefs could most likely have been attributed to the following factors: 

  1. Huck was moving up from cruiserweight.
  2. Huck was once knocked out at cruiserweight.
  3. Huck had some close fights.
  4. Povetkin was a top-five heavyweight.
  5. Povetkin had a significant weight advantage.
  6. Boxing writers can be lazy.
I believed that Povetkin-Huck would be a competitive fight for the following reasons:

  1. Povetkin had conditioning issues throughout his career.
  2. Povetkin also had motivational issues in the ring during fights.
  3. Povetkin recently left one trainer for another.
  4. Huck had really improved as a cruiserweight over the last few years.
  5. Huck was coached by an excellent trainer.
  6. Povetkin lacked one-punch knockout ability against top heavyweights.
With the exception of his win over a faded Ruslan Chagaev, Povetkin's recent activity had been against subpar opposition. Because of the whims of his prior trainer, Teddy Atlas, Povetkin faced many C-level heavyweights for the purposes of building him up to become a more consistent power puncher. Though there were a lot of KOs on his recent ledger, these results in it of themselves shouldn't have been predictive of Povetkin's power against Huck; 2007 was the last time Povetkin knocked out a good opponent – and that was against an old Chris Byrd.

Huck had progressed significantly over the last few years. After fading in a knockout loss to Steve Cunningham in 2007, Huck steadily improved. He had a close bout against Denis Lebedev (no shame in that) and prevailed against some solid opposition at cruiserweight, including Ola Afolabi, Matt Godfrey, Ran Nakash and Hugo Garay. Although Huck avoided rematches with Cunningham and Lebedev (this may be due as much to the wishes of his promoter, Sauerland Event, as his own desires), he continued to improve on his conditioning, poise and punching power. 

Saturday's fight validated my perspective on this matchup. (I'll only temporarily pat myself on the back. Avid readers of this page know that I have missed on some fights as well.) What emerged between Povetkin and Huck was one of the best heavyweight fights in the last decade. It was a battle between Povetkin's sharp combinations and Huck's vicious right hands.

I scored the fight a draw, 114-114, but I was perfectly fine with the majority-decision victory for Povetkin. To my eyes, the bout was a see-saw battle where neither boxer was able to establish a significant lead. In broad strokes, Povetkin had more success earlier in the fight while Huck had his best moments in the match's second half, but this characterization doesn't fully describe the competitive nature of the bout. The fight featured five or six swing rounds that could have been awarded to either boxer.

Watching the fight on the EPIX live stream, I realized that there were a few hindrances in scoring this particular bout from a remote feed. The best punch by either boxer throughout the fight was Huck's lead or counter right hand. In an attempt to avoid the punch, Povetkin ducked forward and to his right. Huck, and his trainer, Ulli Wegner, picked up on this tendency and the fighter followed through with his punch, tracking Povetkin's downward movement. A number of these punches connected flushly. Others landed as illegal rabbit punches, or blows to the back of the head. In addition, several more of these right hands failed to land at all, and led to tangles between the fighters.

Viewing remotely, it was tough to tell with Povetkin's ducking where and when these punches connected and whether or not these were legal blows. For this fight, I will to defer to the veteran crew of judges, who were in better position to determine the legal, landed punches than I was. (As a general rule, there is no correlation in boxing between the proximity of judges to the action and fair scorecards.)

Povetkin had success with several short and effective combinations that landed during periods of infighting. He also countered well at points with his left hook, straight right hand and left uppercut. It's certainly possible that the judges responded well to these shots.

The punch stat numbers were very similar for the two fighters. Huck had the cleaner, landed shots and the more dynamic individual moments. However, there were a number of rounds were Huck came on during the last 60-90 seconds. These forays may not have been enough to swing rounds in his favor.

Wegner prepared an excellent game plan for Huck. Instead of trying to win the fight with raw aggression and power, Wegner stressed punch placement, accuracy and power shots. Huck did jab effectively, but he didn't really use the jab as a catalyst to set up his power shots. Huck jabbed to keep Povetkin at bay and then unloaded with his right hand when he saw opportunities to land the punch. Once he landed the right hand, he would follow up with his left hook, uppercut and additional right hands. In short, it was a very physical fight, but Wegner and Huck kept it one step away from being a war. This note of caution most likely saved Huck from walking into a big shot.

Nevertheless, Huck lost the bout on the judges' scorecards. In my opinion, he didn't let his hands go enough in the first few rounds of the fight. As it was, he still may have done enough to win the fight with a different set of judges.  However one may have judged the fight, Huck acquitted himself very well in his heavyweight debut.

Huck also added to his reputation as one of the sport's dirtiest fighters. He threw numerous rabbit punches and repeatedly placed his forearm on the back of Povetkin's neck to pull him down, trying to make him defenseless. A better referee (I'll get into Luis Pabon's performance in a minute) would have deducted points from Huck. Pabon officiated Huck's fight in 2011 against Hugo Garay. In that match, he had no problem deducting a point from Huck; Saturday was a different story. I don't know why he was so passive in this instance. He was quite meddlesome in almost every other aspect of the fight.

Kalle Sauerland indicated after the match that he thought Huck belonged back at cruiserweight. This is utter nonsense. Huck was competitive with a top-five talent in the division. A rematch against Povetkin would be a great fight and there are a number of attractive options for Huck in the sport's glamour division. Perhaps Sauerland sees that there is more risk for his fighter at heavyweight and he can't maneuver Huck as well as he did at cruiserweight (Sauerland Event has promotional contracts with numerous top cruiserweights), but Huck illustrated that he belongs at heavyweight.

Povetkin's new trainer for Saturday's fight was Alexander Zimin, an accomplished coach who had had significant success with the Russian national team and many professional prizefighters. However, Povetkin didn't have a full training camp with his new coach. It's possible that the Povetkin/Zimin combination works moving forward, but on Saturday, Povetkin was gassed by the fifth round.

When Povetkin moved his hands with combinations, he controlled the action. However, as with the case against Chagaev, his body just wouldn't let him throw enough punches. He was breathing heavily out of his mouth and his legs didn't react well to some of Huck's punches. He practically handed the fight to Huck because of his lack of conditioning.

Povetkin, if he is motivated and in shape, still has a number of good attributes that can help him defeat any non-Klitschko heavyweight. His time with Teddy Atlas transformed him into a solid combination puncher. His left hook has become a real weapon. He also has become an excellent counterpuncher. However, if he continues to skimp on his training camps, he will have more close calls and perhaps unexpected losses in the coming months. I'm still not sure of what exactly he will become.

Luis Pabon had a terrible night. He was determined to reduce infighting at almost all costs. There were numerous occasions where the fighters weren't even in a clinch, yet he broke them up. Additionally, even when they were clinching, he didn't provide them with the opportunity to fight their way out. Furthermore, the boxers often had at least one hand free to continue fighting, yet Pabon's insisted on separating them. At various points in time, his behavior hurt both fighters. In the early parts of the match, Pabon limited Povetkin's ability for short counters. As the fight progressed, Huck couldn't follow up on his infighting combinations. It was an awful performance and it's quite possible that the result of the fight could have been different with a less intrusive referee.

Devon Alexander displayed his best performance in years with his systematic domination of Marcos Maidana. Fighting for the first time at welterweight, Alexander showed a renewed confidence in his abilities and seemed much stronger and more fluid at the new weight than he had been during his last three fights at junior welterweight. He beat Maidana in a way that no opponent had done previously. 

Make no mistake: Alexander got hit with some vicious right hands from Maidana. However, as opposed to recent fights, Alexander's chin, confidence and legs enabled him to take those shots very well. In his last fight, Alexander seemed tentative after getting hit by Lucas Matthysse's power shots. On Saturday, he continued on with his game plan, unfazed.

In addition, Alexander demonstrated maturity in the ring. Against Tim Bradley, Alexander was ill-equipped to deal with his cuts. He let his blood get the best of him and he lost focus and turned passive. On Saturday, Alexander dealt with a cut almost the whole fight and while he did paw at it at times with his glove, he continued to march forward and impose his will on Maidana.

Alexander put forth a master class in how to defeat a one-dimensional brawler like Maidana. He used his feet to step to the side after landing combinations. His counters were crisp and effectively nullified much of Maidana's aggression. He mixed in his punches very well, using his jab, right hook and straight left hand to stymie Maidana's forward movement. He didn't move straight back against Maidana and wisely avoided the ropes.

Maidana always looks easy to beat on tape. He's slow, features no jab and telegraphs his punches. Yet, he seems to get to all of his opponents in time. He made Victor Ortiz quit, he was seconds away from knocking Amir Khan out and he turned Erik Morales' face into a bloody mess.

Alexander was never in serious danger and he controlled the entire fight. Sure, he got hit, but he took the shots well and didn't lose his poise. He maneuvered around the ring beautifully, capitalizing on Maidana's crude footwork. His right hook (either as a lead or a counter) was a tremendous weapon. He stayed aggressive, yet he didn't remain in close quarters long enough for Maidana to get the best of him.

Alexander's trainer, Kevin Cunningham, exhorted him throughout the fight to relax in the ring and focus on boxing. Cunningham, who has coached Alexander during the fighter's entire amateur and professional career, provided sound advice. Alexander can sometimes defeat himself in the ring by getting away from his strengths and resorting to passivity. He is still not naturally comfortable in the ring and there are questions about how he would respond to the type of pressure of someone like Victor Ortiz. Nevertheless, Alexander looked a lot fresher and self-assured at the new weight. I would be very interested in seeing him face the winner of Amir Khan-Lamont Peterson II.

Maidana is who he is at this point in his career. He's a threat to almost anyone at junior welterweight but it's clear that his power didn't have the same effect at the higher weight. He certainly can be viable at junior welterweight but he will always struggle against disciplined fighters with good hand speed. I hope Golden Boy keeps him active, for when he is at his best, he is one of the most exciting TV fighters of his generation. Maidana gambled by accepting the fight against Alexander at welterweight. He lost, but it wasn't a tragic performance; he can be revived.

Adrien Broner knocked out Eloy Perez on Saturday in a star-making performance. As early as the first round, it was clear that Broner had a significant power advantage. He landed a lead left hook towards the end of the round which drove Perez back to the ropes and clearly hurt him.  Broner's lead right hand in the fourth instantly wobbled Perez, a top-ten junior lightweight. Broner followed with another right hand as Perez started to fall. Perez tried to get up on two separate occasions, but he couldn't beat the count.

Broner's combination of power, hand speed and braggadocio could lead to something special. I am not one on hype and I was very critical of Broner's performance last year against Daniel Ponce de Leon, but Broner has continued to improve. The final test for Broner will be his chin. He has yet to face a serious puncher at junior lightweight. Ponce de Leon certainly has power, but his best division is featherweight.  Perez has many admirable qualities in the ring; a knockout punch isn't one of them.

Takashi Uchiyama, a fellow junior lightweight titlist, is a knockout beast and would be the best matchup for Broner in the division.  However, because of logistics, geography and other considerations/concerns, I don't think we'll see that fight anytime soon. Broner's best bet is to pile up the victories and let the big names come to him. Golden Boy doesn't have too many fighters at or around junior lightweight, so they are going to have to play nice with others. In a weak division, Broner needs to stay active and in front of people. Having influential manager Al Haymon and Golden Boy on his side, Broner is well positioned to become a breakout star over the next year.

For Perez, he engaged in the wrong type of fight. He needed to be as close to Broner as possible, which would have somewhat negated Broner's size and reach advantage. However, Perez likes fighting from medium range and he paid the price for it on Saturday. In addition, his straight-line movements made it too easy for Broner to find him. Perez may still have a rosy future in boxing, but without top-shelf power, his other attributes need to get better. He must incorporate more side-to-side footwork. He also needs to shed his reluctance to infighting. Without these changes, he won't be able to beat top junior lightweights.

Nathan Cleverly looked good in his sparring session title fight against Tommy Karpency, a no-name fighter who was somehow ranked in the top-15 by the WBO. Cleverly exhibited the same strengths and weaknesses that he always does. He's a very game fighter who likes to mix it up on the inside. He displayed excellent hand speed and conditioning. He punished Karpency with left hooks throughout the match. However, Cleverly insisted on infighting and not working off of his jab. In addition, he lacked the power to knockout an opponent who was essentially target practice.

I believe that Cleverly's recent victories have been fool's gold against lesser competition. He has learned the wrong lessons by winning fights on the inside against only moderate punchers.  As Cleverly faces better competition, his predilection for infighting will create numerous problems for him. He lacks real power at light heavyweight. He doesn't have a knockout punch. He gets hit too easily on the inside (however, his defense did look better on Saturday).

Cleverly runs away from his natural advantages of his size, conditioning, jab and hand and foot speed. If he decides to use the ring and his legs more, he would be a much tougher fighter to beat.

Frank Warren is orchestrating a delicate number with Cleverly's career progression. On one hand, Cleverly still has room for improvement; however, with this level of competition, it's possible that the fighter is picking up bad habits.

I expect to see a rematch with Tony Bellew next for Cleverly. The first one was a competitive bout (although Cleverly made it a much harder fight for himself than it should have been) and it will be a good measuring stick for Cleverly's improvement. By the end of the year, he should be ready for bigger names. I think fights against Jean Pascal, Beibut Shumenov and even Tavoris Cloud could be winnable, but that's only if Cleverly realizes who he needs to be in the ring. If he insists on going to war against Pascal and Cloud, that would be a mistake. If he decides to box and use his athletic advantages, he has real opportunities in those fights.

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Fact Finding Mission About Eloy Perez

1. Who?
Eloy Perez (23-0-2) (7 KOs), a junior lightweight who fights out of California.

2. Why Should I care?
He makes his HBO debut this weekend in a title shot against Adrien Broner.

3. Why Have I Never Heard of Him?
Good question. Even though he is signed to Golden Boy Promotions (one of the big boys), Perez has not been promoted that aggressively by the company. In the early part of his career, he fought out of Washington State, which is neither an area known for producing high-quality fighters, nor a robust boxing media market. In recent bouts, he has appeared on smaller televised cards in the Greater San Francisco Bay area.

4. Who trains the kid?
Max Garcia, based out of Salinas, California (that's John Steinbeck country for you literary types). Garcia's son, Sam, also assists in training Perez.

5. What does he throw?
Perez, a fighter with a conventional stance, throws four punches: a left jab, a straight right, a left hook and a hybrid left hook/left uppercut.

6. Describe his ring style.
Perez likes to start out at mid-range. He explodes with quick two or three-punch combinations. After his flurries, he immediately retreats back to mid-range. He almost always starts with his left hand, which could be a jab, a double jab, a left hook or his hybrid punch. Perez has "plus" hand speed, as well as very good accuracy and punch placement. He keeps his punches very compact and doesn't overcommit with them. Perez does go to the body with his straight right hand and, occasionally, with his left hook. He is most comfortable leading. Perez is well conditioned and has already gone the distance in six ten-round fights. On defense, he is hard to hit cleanly, as he eludes punches by stepping back when his opponent presses forward.

7. What was his amateur background?
He was 53-5 as an amateur. He won two California Golden Gloves tournaments and was the 2004 Ringside World Champion at lightweight. Perez turned pro at 18 and didn't compete in/qualify for some of the larger international amateur tournaments.

8. Wasn't Perez a sparring partner of Shane Mosley?
Perez has been a fixture in the California gym circuit, appearing often at the Wild Card Gym in Los Angeles as well as other well-known gyms in the state. He has been a sparring partner for the likes of Mosley, Robert Guerrero, Urbano Antillon and many others.

9. I don't recognize too many names on his record. Who have been his best opponents?
The biggest "names" he has fought have been Daniel Jimenez and Roger Gonzalez. Jimenez had previously faced former champion Jesus Chavez and future titlist Roman Martinez, as well as one-time prospect Vicente Escobedo. Gonzalez had been a past opponent of Yuriorkis Gamboa and Jhonny Gonzalez. Dannie Williams has been the best prospect that Perez has fought. Williams dropped Perez twice but Perez, who also scored a knockdown, prevailed in a close decision.

10. I noticed that he has only seven knockouts. Does he have any power?
Although Perez knocked out his last two opponents (Ira Terry and Jimenez), KOs are not a big part of his game. He's not feather-fisted, but, to use baseball parlance, he hits a lot of doubles and rarely goes for the home run. He has enough sizzle on his punches to take opponents out of their game plans and dissuade them from attacking, but he lacks true one-punch knockout power.

11. Perez has draws with fighters who were 7-4-2 and 7-7-1, how good can he be if he can't beat boxers with such pedestrian records?
In the early part of his career, one knock on Perez was that he could be outhustled. Those draws, which were in 2006 and 2007, tempered Perez's prospect status. In fairness to Perez, he has become more aggressive as he has matured. There has not been any recent discussion that he has fought down to the level of his competition.

12. So what makes the kid special?
In many ways, Perez is similar to a fighter like Tim Bradley, where the total package is more than the sum of its parts. He's short (5'6''), he doesn't hit hard, he has good, not great, hand speed, but he keeps winning. He has a lot of intangibles that work in his favor:
  1. He knows what he wants to do in the ring.
  2. He is well trained and conditioned.
  3. He is very accurate with his punches.
  4. He understands his strengths and limitations.
  5. He's gotten better as he has progressed. 
13. What are his weaknesses?
Perez often faces significant height and reach disadvantages. However, he has been able to overcome these shortcomings fairly well with his controlled bursts into fighting range. Perez does not like to counterpunch. Often, he will literally wait until his opponent stops throwing to start his offense. He'll make his opponent miss and then follow up with punches, but he doesn't counter in a traditional way. Perez will sometimes trade, banking that with his superior hand speed his punches will hit the target first. However, if Perez's opponent is first, he will then focus almost exclusively on defense. The concern here is that if Perez faces an active fighter with a high work rate, he won't let his hands go enough.

In addition, he could do more work inside. He is content to throw his punches and quickly get out of the trenches. Sometimes, he would be better served to stay inside and inflict more damage. At times, he could land five or six shots, but he sticks with two or three. These are opportunities missed. Also, if he is down on the scorecards, he can't count on power to erase deficits or get back into a fight.

14. So how will he do against Broner?
It depends on which Broner shows up. If Broner is aggressive and active, Perez will spend too much time and energy on defense. It will be difficult for Perez to win enough rounds in this scenario. If Broner decides to be a counterpuncher, Perez will be competitive. Perez's punches are short and fast; he's not an easy guy to be countered.

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Opinions and Observations: Klitschko, Cloud and Williams

The bar has been set so low in modern heavyweight boxing that whenever a challenger actually engages a Klitschko, it's a shocking event. On that level, Dereck Chisora exceeded expectations against Vitali Klitschko. For a fighter whose biggest claim to fame was losing a horrid decision to prospect Robert Helenius, Chisora acquitted himself far better against a Klitschko than so many of the brothers' other opponents, even though these challengers had superior professional pedigrees to that of Chisora.

With that said, it's not as if Chisora was actually close to winning the fight. On my card, I scored it for Klitschko 117-111, or 9 rounds to 3; the judges were even less generous to Chisora. For most of the fight, Chisora was the aggressor, but it was mostly ineffective aggression. Quite frankly, he didn't throw or land enough punches. In rounds 6 and 8, he connected with enough looping overhand rights and left hooks to take those rounds, but mostly, he followed Klitschko around and didn't land too much.

Although it was shocking to see Vitali back up and counterpunch, he performed quite well in that role. He landed some vicious right crosses and right uppercuts to the body. He also skirted around trouble and punished Chisora with right hands when Chisora lunged in with wide shots.

Vitali won the fight with one hand. After the first few rounds, where he landed jabs and left hooks, he practically dispensed with his left altogether. Throughout the rest of the fight, he used his left hand to cuff Chisora behind the head, keeping him in place so he could land his power right hand shots. (It was announced after the fight that he tore a ligament in his left shoulder. That explains why Klitschko barely threw his left.)  

Klitschko's athleticism impressed me. Vitali is thought of as the more awkward or lumbering of the two brothers, but last night, he used his legs, agility and coordination spectacularly. He did an excellent job of creating throwing angles to counteract Chisora's unconventional attack. He also eluded Chisora's aggression for most of the night. Klitschko's performance was all the more impressive when you consider that he is past 40 and has had a history of knee and back problems. Last night, he looked downright sprightly.

I'm sure there are those who say that Vitali is starting to slip. How could a fighter with such a limited amateur or professional background like Chisora have moments of success against the Big Bad Wolf? To my eyes, Klitschko looked excellent, beating a determined fighter with just one hand. Although Klitschko may not be long for the sport, last night was not a sign to exit. More likely, his body will tell him when it's time to retire.

Boy, that Del Boy Chisora has a lot of energy! After going 12 hard rounds with Klitschko, he decided to mix it up with top-5 heavyweight David Haye during the post-fight press conference. What a fighting spirit!

Chisora has some admirable traits in the ring: self-belief, determination and an unconventional attack. However, he needs to learn how to throw meaningful combinations. Although his looping shots can be hard to defend, they just come one at a time. Ultimately, his balance prohibits him from throwing flurries. He overcommits so much to land one shot that he's out of position to throw anything else. Part of this is due to his height disadvantage; however, this problem can also be attributed to his lack of technique. At this point, he is a fun fighter to watch who can mix it up with some of the best heavyweights in the world, but without improvement in balance and defense, he runs no risk of ever being considered elite.

It's very strange for a fighter to lose three consecutive high-profile fights and yet see his marketability in the sport continue to ascend. This is now the case with Chisora. He has more options than ever in the division. After the press conference imbroglio with Haye, that fight would be a huge event in the U.K. He would also be a natural opponent for any of the American heavyweights such as Chris Arreola, Tomasz Adamek or Eddie Chambers. A rematch against Fury or Helenius would be welcome as well. If Chisora stays in the gym, keeps his weight down and develops his technique, he could have a nice two-to-three year run ahead of him.
The most controversial fight of the weekend was the light heavyweight matchup between titlist Tavoris Cloud and challenger/former beltholder Gabriel Campillo. Cloud shot out of the gate in the first round, dropping Campillo with a perfect right hand on the chin. Immediately after the knockdown, Cloud wisely went to the body and then delivered another flurry of shots that forced Campillo to fall into the ropes for a second knockdown. It looked like Campillo wouldn't survive the round, but he hung in there, using enough movement and clinching to buy time until the bell sounded.

Cloud may have punched himself out for a while after the first round, for it was strange to see the pressure fighter suddenly back up in the second round. That allowed Campillo the opportunity to get into the fight. Campillo responded over the next few rounds with picture-perfect combinations, angles and movement that thwarted Cloud's aggression. Campillo started to land at will.

A clever southpaw, Campillo clearly confounded Cloud, who has been most comfortable in his career with straight ahead brawls. Campillo moved around the ring, picked a spot and then unleashed a quick combination – usually starting with a jab, double jab or right hook, followed by a straight left or a left uppercut. He also remained in the pocket at times to counter the charging Cloud with his left uppercut and right hook. Campillo's advantages in foot speed and ring generalship were considerable as the fight progressed.

One problem of Campillo's that manifested in the fight was his lack of punching power. He landed so many perfect power shots on Cloud but they didn't dissuade him from coming forward. I'm not suggesting that those shots didn't faze Cloud; however, they weren't enough to fully establish dominance in the fight. Cloud's aggression wasn't always effective, but he kept coming.

It was clear that Campillo thought that he had the match won by the 11th round. He fought very conservatively over the last two rounds and didn't take many opportunities to land his power shots. Cloud was far more active in the final two rounds, pressing the action and making the fight. My scorecard had the bout a draw at 113-113, with Campillo winning seven rounds but losing two points because of the knockdowns. To my eyes, Campillo had the fight won, yet lost it in the last two rounds because of overconfidence.

In a similar replay of Pacquiao-Marquez III, the aggressor (Cloud) ultimately was rewarded and the counterpuncher (Campillo) was left with disappointment. Cloud won a spilt decision, being the beneficiary of two fairly inexperienced judges. Clearly, David Robertson's 116-110 decision in favor of Cloud was a travesty. By his scorecard, Campillo only won four rounds – that’s a far different fight than anyone else saw. If I squint hard enough, perhaps I could see Joel Elizondo's 114-112 verdict for Cloud. I gave Cloud rounds 1, 4, 6, 11 and 12. However, rounds 4 and 11 were swing rounds that could have gone either way; in those two frames, I responded to the quality of Cloud's power punches. Maybe Elizondo gave Cloud the second as well. All the others were clear Campillo rounds.

The frustration that many had watching this fight reminded me of the first bout between Roy Jones and Antonio Tarver, where Tarver won a number of obvious rounds and did a lot of damage. The rounds that were given to Jones were close frames that could have gone either way. Jones' rounds didn't involve nearly the amount of fireworks that were found in the big rounds that Tarver clearly won. Looking at the two fighters at the end of last night's match, Campillo's face and body surely looked the fresher of the two fighters, but scoring round by round, I don't feel that the overall verdict was an egregious robbery. Yes, David Robertson's scorecard was atrocious, but I scored the fight a draw and concede that a two-point Cloud victory was possible.

Nevertheless, the invincible sheen of Tavoris Cloud as some kind of terrorizing pressure fighter has been wiped away with his performance against Campillo. Facing a crafty southpaw, Cloud, at times, looked dumbfounded. He even switched to southpaw once, a signal of his frustration. He had real problems cutting off the ring against a mover. In addition, he repeated earlier patterns of his career by taking rounds or portions of rounds off.

Cloud doesn't really throw combinations. He loads up on one punch at a time. He may decide to throw three right hands in a row and then later in the round rip his opponent’s body with a series of left hooks, but combinations do not flow fluidly from him. Yes, he is an aggressive tough, fighter, but there are holes in his game right now.

One final note about Cloud, he was essentially in training camp for four months coming into his fight against Campillo. Initially, he was scheduled to fight Zsolt Erdei on December 31st, before Erdei pulled out with a hand injury. Cloud remained in camp to face Campillo. It's quite possible that Cloud left some in the gym. Maybe, if he was a little fresher, he would have finished Campillo in the first. Perhaps he would have had more in the tank in the middle rounds of the fight.

Campillo now has two losses by split decision and another by majority decision. In addition, he has a split draw, two wins by majority decision and another razor-thin decision. That's 7 questionable verdicts in 27 fights, a staggering number. Perhaps his lack of power and counterpunching style have been significant demerits on the judges' scorecards. He has yet to win in the United States and has also had controversial verdicts in Germany, Kazakhstan, Argentina and Denmark. Without knockout power, he will be subject to the vagaries and whims of boxing judges throughout the world.

Maybe like Anselmo Moreno, it takes a while for judges to definitively figure out how good he actually is in the ring. (So many boxing judges are disinclined to reward counterpunchers.) Perhaps he fights up and down to the level of his competition. Nevertheless, with his style, Campillo must dominate ever round to win decisions in hostile territory. He cannot afford to take rounds off or coast to victories. It's not like he's a familiar face to many of the boxing judges in which he performs in front of; they may take a few rounds to acclimatize themselves to his style. Without this realization, he may continue to face rough sledding on the judges' scorecards.

Cloud came moments away from winning the fight in the first round while Campillo could have claimed victory with a more energetic final few minutes or a more competent judge. Naturally, a rematch would be in order. With the real possibility that Cloud over-trained for the fight and the subsequent realization by Campillo that he needs to fight all 12 rounds, the range of potential outcomes for a rematch is staggering. I hope it happens sooner or later. Despite last night's verdict, Campillo demonstrated that he is a world-class light heavyweight. If a rematch with Cloud doesn't materialize, he would be a viable opponent for Hopkins, Dawson, Pascal or Cleverly.
Paul Williams cruised to an easy victory against Nobuhiro Ishida. In many ways, Williams reminded fight audiences of his former self; he pasted Ishida with volume punching and fluid combinations. Unfortunately, many of Williams' drawbacks manifested as well. He got hit with some vicious left hooks and right hands. However, Ishida didn't land enough of them to win rounds or change the momentum of the fight. Against a stronger puncher, those shots would have given Williams all kinds of trouble.

Throughout his career, Williams' best defense has been his chin. It's a great chin. It stood up to Antonio Margarito and Sergio Martinez in their first fight. However, as he has aged and moved up in weight, his chin isn't what it was. Williams still doesn't move his head and he is lazy with his jab. He seems only comfortable brawling. Williams' performance last night was reassuring in that it demonstrated that he hasn't completely lost it inside the ring, but his deficiencies remain.

Williams still has the ability to make several exciting fights in the junior middleweight and middleweight divisions but his overall ceiling has fallen significantly. I think now he can be viewed as an exciting action fighter whereas a few years ago there was the thought that he could be an elite talent in the sport. He can still make a comfortable living boxing at his current level but he had a chance to be so much more.

Ishida demonstrated that he was a one-trick pony. Last year's knockout of James Kirkland was shocking, but that may have been more of a product of Kirkland's defensive shortcomings and problems in training camp than any new-found rise in Ishida's abilities. Ishida has a future as a mid-level spoiler or gatekeeper on the Friday Night Fights level. With only feather-fisted power and moderate hand speed, I don't see him being a factor on the world-class level. Nevertheless, his knockout of Kirkland was an indelible image for boxing fans and Ishida will always know that for one night he made his mark on the sport.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

How Hopkins Makes It Ugly

Bernard Hopkins can engage in ugly fights.  That’s not a secret.  But how does he get opponents to fight in his style?  What makes a volume puncher like Joe Calzaghe unable to throw his customary number of shots?  Why does Jermain Taylor refuse to utilize his jab, which is one of his best weapons?  Why does Winky Wright refrain from throwing very many punches at all?  Clearly, Hopkins has established a formula for dictating the pace of his fights and neutralizing the weapons of his opponents.  This article will examine Bernard Hopkins’ fight with Joe Calzaghe to illustrate how the veteran Philadelphian boxer imposes his style and creates "Bernard Hopkins fights." 

Hopkins and Calzaghe entered the 2008 fight as top-five pound-for-pound fighters.  The contest was contracted as a light heavyweight fight; both boxers came in to the fight at 173 pounds.  Interestingly, Calzaghe was installed as the favorite. 
Hopkins had shocked the boxing world in 2006 by dethroning Antonio Tarver in a one-sided drubbing to become the number-one light heavyweight in the world.  In his fight directly preceding the Calzaghe bout, Hopkins defeated Winky Wright in yet another instance where he overcame the odds to pull out a victory over a top fighter. 

After a long career defending his WBO title against second and third-rate fighters in the U.K., Calzaghe garnered substantial international acclaim with his domination of the favored Jeff Lacy.  In 2007, Calzaghe became the undisputed super middleweight champion by decisively beating Mikkel Kessler. 

                                         “You’re being a bit too cautious.”
                                              – Enzo Calzaghe after the third round
                                     (Joe’s dad and trainer)
Joe Calzaghe typically threw 70-80 punches per round.  A southpaw and a volume puncher, Calzaghe defeated opponents with unconventional punches, angles and movement.  He was often referred to as a “rhythm fighter,” and that moniker was valid.  Calzaghe was one of the rare fighters who could beat opponents going forward and backward.  He moved in for quick flurries and ducked out before trouble came his way.  His best punch was a straight left hand, although he also threw a solid right jab and a good left uppercut.  He also shoeshined his opponents with chopping left and right hooks in close quarters.  His best defensive attribute was his elusiveness, never staying in one place for too long. 

However, Hopkins was immediately able to stymie Calzaghe's speed, rhythm and timing in the opening rounds of their fight.  Calzaghe started the fight extremely tentative and seemed frustrated by Hopkins’ feints and disengagement.  Additionally, Calzaghe showed Hopkins too much respect in the early rounds, unwilling to take too many risks.  Hopkins dropped Calzaghe in the first round with a counter right hand that was more the product of perfect punch placement than a menacing power shot.  According to CompuBox, Calzaghe threw only 35 punches in the first round and landed only 7.  Not that Hopkins set the world on fire himself; he only connecting with 4 out of 16 shots.  However, Hopkins’ path to victory relied far less on the volume of shots than the quality of them.  Even with just a few landed blows in the first round, he had accomplished his mission. 

Nevertheless, the relative punch outputs of the two fighters would be a key theme throughout the match.  Rounds two and three were swing rounds that established the tenor of the fight.  Hopkins landed the shots of better quality,
most often with his lead or counter right hand.  Even though Calzaghe's punches didn't seem to carry much steam behind them, he was the busier fighter, throwing and landing more than Hopkins.

                                            “What happened to the speed?”
                                                  – Enzo Calzaghe after the fourth round

To slow Calzaghe down, Hopkins went into his veteran bag of tricks.  In the first part of the fight, he employed three tactics in particular which created confusion for Calzaghe.  An avid watcher of videotape, Hopkins realized that Calzaghe’s mastery relied on his in-and-out movements.  It was never clear when or where, for that matter, Calzaghe would engage his opponents.  He would move in and land three of four punches in a quick exchange and then would continue to hit his opponents as he moved away.  Back-and-forth, side-to-side, Calzaghe was about timing and surprise.

Thwarting Calzaghe’s movement, Hopkins locked Calzaghe with his left arm, hooking Calzaghe so that the fighter couldn’t get out after an exchange.  Hopkins then would counter with straight right hands and right uppercuts with his free arm. 

Additionally, Hopkins would lead exchanges with his head down, trying to connect with either his straight right hand or his head.  This tactic made Calzaghe react with caution, for he had already been dropped once and was aware of Hopkins’ history of cutting his opponents.

Hopkins also showed his craft with his movement along the ropes.  He circled to his left and right – and never in predictable patterns.  Usually, an orthodox fighter circles to his left against a southpaw to avoid the left hand, but Hopkins would go left and right, further disrupting Calzaghe’s timing.

Calzaghe worked his way into the fight after his own tactical changes.  Realizing that his typical style of rhythm and movement was not going to carry the day against Hopkins, Calzaghe resorted to a much more basic strategy – simply outworking Hopkins.  Instead of four and five-punch flurries, Calzaghe was content to land two, and he gradually was able to increase his punch output.  At no point did he ever hurt Hopkins, but he was content to use his superior hand speed and willingness to let his hands go to start winning rounds. 

                                             “You need to win these final four rounds big.”
                                                  – Enzo Calzaghe after the eighth round

Many of the middle rounds of the fight were Calzaghe’s, but Hopkins almost dropped him again at the end of the seventh round.  Calzaghe squared up a little too much during an exchange and Hopkins caught him with another counter right hand. 

Calzaghe aimed almost exclusively at the head throughout the entire fight and didn’t throw his uppercut at all.  He kept his punches short and threw them from closer range than he typically did in his previous fights.  His best punch against Hopkins was his straight left hand.  He also scored at times with left and right hooks during his flurries.  He used his jab, which had been a weapon for him in past fights, only intermittently and without great success. 

Hopkins was reduced to one punch at a time, almost always his straight right hand, either as a lead or a counter.  In the moments where he would let his hands go, he did mix in an occasional left hook and a right uppercut.  

                                                “You must stop him.”
                                                     – Enzo Calzaghe after the eleventh round

The pace of the fight was getting away from Hopkins, but the bout was still very close.  A low blow by Calzaghe in the tenth round dropped Hopkins to the ground.  Referee Joe Cortez gave Hopkins the customary five minutes to recover, and Hopkins, unlike most fighters, took advantage of this permitted break.  The low blow didn’t seem particularly damaging but Hopkins milked his allotted time. 

When action resumed, Hopkins was the fresher fighter.  He let his hands go in combinations.  Instead of waiting off of the ropes to counter Calzaghe, he brought the fight to him at the center of the ring.  Hopkins’ punches were crisp and he stemmed the tide of Calzaghe’s momentum.

The last two rounds of the fight featured more low blows that gave Hopkins some additional seconds of recovery time.  The 11th was a pretty decisive round for Calzaghe, who was more aggressive and landed consistently throughout the frame.  The final round saw Hopkins flurry in spots.  Calzaghe let his hands go during the first half of the 12th, yet he remained oddly passive during the last 90 seconds of the match. 

By the end of the bout, Hopkins was using every tactic imaginable to try and slow the fight down.  In the 12th, he even pushed Cortez between him and Calzaghe to buy some valuable seconds.  In addition to his recovery from the low blows, there was his clinching and grappling.  Cortez repeatedly warned both fighters for excessive holding and illegal tactics on the inside. 

The fight went to the scorecards, and as Emanuel Steward pointed out during the HBO broadcast, American judges, and Las Vegas judges in particular, like to award rounds to the more aggressive boxer.  This Las Vegas predilection for the aggressor had previously harmed Hopkins; he had lost two close fights to Jermain Taylor in the jurisdiction.  In both Taylor fights, like the Calzaghe bout, Hopkins threw and landed fewer punches, but he connected with the more memorable shots.

Ultimately, Hopkins lost a split decision against Calzaghe, with veteran Las Vegas judge Chuck Giampa giving Calzaghe a seemingly wide 116-111 victory.  (Giampa was also one of the judges who scored in favor of Taylor against Hopkins.)  Similar to the recent third fight between Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez, the aggressor was rewarded while the counterpuncher was not given proper kudos for his ring generalship and clean, effective punching.

In 2008, when I watched Hopkins-Calzaghe live, I scored it 115-112 for Hopkins.  Having watched the fight many times over the years, I have often changed my scoring.  Prior to this article, I gave Hopkins the win by just one point, 114-113. 

By and large, Hopkins-Calzaghe was a Hopkins-style fight.  Despite being busier, Calzaghe didn't consistently establish his tempo or his mixture of flash and unconventionality.  In terms of real estate, the action occurred in tight quarters, which is where Hopkins wanted the fight.  

Hopkins-Calzaghe was a very “ugly” fight, and one which was difficult to score.  Ultimately, Hopkins’ game plan was to slow the fight down enough, reduce Calzaghe's punch output and movement and land a few solid punches per round.  On many fronts Hopkins succeeded.  Nevertheless, Calzaghe was able to win rounds by landing and throwing more punches.

It was not one tactic that Hopkins employed to slow the fight down, but literally 20 or 30 different maneuvers.  I’ll name some: clinching, hooking, scoring with his lead and counter right hands, feinting, circling in both directions, hitting low during clinches, hitting behind the head, taking excessive time to recover after low blows, faking getting hit low, moving between the referee and Calzaghe, pushing Cortez between him and Calzaghe, hitting during the break and leading with his head.

It should be added that Hopkins was not penalized for any of these infractions (as he so rarely is).  It’s not the mere deployment of these tactics which differentiates him from other fighters; it’s his ability to engage in boxing’s “dark arts” without it counting against him.  He is the master of hitting a fighter low or behind the head while the ref is on the opposite side.  These sly maneuvers are often imperceptible in real time, yet cause damage to his opponents or shift momentum in his favor during his fights. 

Calzaghe will always be able to hold his head up high with the knowledge that he defeated one of the masters of boxing; nevertheless, Hopkins made it a “Hopkins fight,” with his clever use of legal and illegal machinations.  Hopkins’ performance, however, was not flawless.  In a 2011 interview with ESPN’s Brian Campbell, Hopkins regretted his inability to let his hands go more frequently against Calzaghe.  Much of that credit should go to Calzaghe, who forced Hopkins to worry so much about conditioning and defense that he couldn’t properly mount a more sustained offense.   

Ultimately, Hopkins was never outclassed against Calzaghe and put himself in position to win the fight.  He banked on winning ugly; he thought it was his best chance for the victory.  From an aesthetic point of view, Hopkins was triumphant – that was one ugly fight.  However, with the understanding of Hopkins’ game plan and his execution of it during the match, the fight was beautiful in its own way.  Prior to the last round of the fight, Hopkins' corner was relatively serene and satisfied, while Enzo Calzaghe, screaming and shouting, thought his son needed a knockout to win.    

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