Monday, April 30, 2012

Opinions and Observations: Hopkins-Dawson II

From an aesthetic standpoint, Hopkins-Dawson II lived down to expectations. There was wrestling, clinching, grappling, butting, holding and occasionally there were faint remembrances of honest-to-god boxing. However, don't let the ugliness of the proceedings discredit Dawson's victory. If it were up to Dawson, he would have glided around the ring, thrown some slick combinations and remained out of harm's way. But he was facing an old warrior who was determined to win at any cost.

Dawson's greatest strength on Saturday was his ability to keep his composure. That may sound like faint praise, but honestly, Dawson comported himself with such discipline that he was able to stick to his game plan and persevere past the circus inside of the ring. Incessantly, Hopkins butted Dawson. In the rare moments where Hopkins decided to engage in exchanges, he led with his head at almost a 90-degree angle. Evander Holyfield had nothing on Hopkins in this fight. Hopkins also provided his patented low blows on the hip during clinches. He placed Dawson in headlocks, he embellished perceived Dawson fouls and he threw Dawson to the ground. Hopkins tried everything except straight boxing – because he couldn’t win the fight that way.

Yet Dawson was prepared for this type of battle. When Hopkins lunged forward with his head down, Dawson, wisely, was more concerned with the incoming right hand than Hopkins' pate. During clinches, Dawson held his ground and remained focused; he didn't let Hopkins' fouling get the better of him. When Hopkins practically launched himself through the ropes to curry favor with the ref, Dawson gave him a dismissive smile. Dawson didn't yield in the battle of physicality in the ring, but he was more concerned with winning the war, by that I mean the fight at hand. His focus sealed the victory.

Fighters greater than Dawson have fallen victim to Hopkins' traps and gamesmanship. However, in this second fight, Dawson didn't let his anger and disgust distract him from his task at hand. In their first bout, Dawson was clearly perturbed by Hopkins' pressing down on his neck during clinches (Hopkins repeated this maneuver in the second fight). Dawson's frustration got the best of him in that abbreviated match when he threw Hopkins to the canvas. Sure, he sent a message, but he didn't get to keep the belt.

More specifically, Dawson's lack of focus and composure had been a problem throughout his career. He was cruising to an easy victory against Tomasz Adamek before being dropped. Glen Johnson's right hands bothered him so much in their first fight that he disengaged (and ran) in the final rounds to avoid further damage. He failed to grasp his perilous status in the Jean Pascal bout until late in the fight. His lack of urgency led to his loss.

None of those issues manifested on Saturday. Credit must be given to Dawson's trainer, John Scully, for Dawson's performance. A carousel of trainers has worked with Dawson over the fighter's career and yet it seems that Scully has finally been able to connect with Dawson in a psychological or emotional way. Dawson's skills have never been in question; more often, it's been his focus or his heart. On Saturday, Dawson graduated from a young fighter with talent to a seasoned pro. He was fully prepared, confident throughout the match and executed his game plan.

Was he perfect in the fight? No. When Dawson let his hands go, he couldn't be stopped. In exchanges, Hopkins lacked the firepower to match him. Dawson still exerted too much caution and failed to be as aggressive as he could be. However, he won the fight and he won it convincingly. I scored the fight 117-111, the same score as the two judges who had Dawson winning the match.

With the exception of one notable uppercut, Dawson relied on three punches: jab, straight left hand and right hook to the body. He kept his punches short, fast and didn't overcommit looking for knockout punches. Irrespective of his proclamations that he would stop Hopkins, Dawson fought Hopkins the right way by scoring singles and doubles, which limited Hopkins' countering opportunities. Dawson's footwork was also impeccable throughout the night. He made Hopkins miss throughout the match and avoided most of his right hands.

As for Hopkins, he was simply outgunned. He tried to throw one punch and then hold and hit until the referee broke them apart. He was able to land a few of his lead right hands, but because of his advancing age and declining power – as well as Dawson's chin – they weren't big enough shots to change the tenor of the fight. He also fought Dawson virtually one-handed. His jab was non-existent; he fainted with it at times to try and land the right hand. I don't recall one left hook connecting. His only left hands that caused damage were the illegal ones that he used to hit Dawson on the hip and thighs during clinches.

Referee Eddie Cotton did a tremendous job during the fight. He knew exactly what to expect and broke the clinches up as fast as possible. He warned both fighters, but more often Hopkins, about illegal tactics. Cotton realized that Hopkins was going to try any method to win the fight and acted accordingly. I wouldn't have argued if he took a point from Hopkins for head butting, but he had a thankless role.

In the hands of a lesser ref, the fight could have devolved into a disqualification or an even nastier affair. Cotton was attentive throughout the match and tried to limit the nonsense to the best of his ability. He knew what he was in for but he didn't let Hopkins' antics force him to become the story of the fight. In the hands of a laissez-faire referee like Steve Smoger (who is an excellent choice for most fights), there may not have been more than a handful of landed punches in the whole match. With more officious types like Jay Nady, or Vic Drakulich, Hopkins would have been disqualified, which would have been unsatisfying on numerous levels. Cotton played the hand he was dealt and performed admirably.
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What to say about Bernard Hopkins? On a personal level, I have followed his career more closely than that of any other fighter. He's one of the reasons that I love boxing as much as I do. His fights have taught me so much about strategy, footwork, counterpunching and punch placement. His personal story was an impressive saga and will remain in boxing folklore for generations. Until the recent emergence of a new wave of Philadelphia fighters, Hopkins singlehandedly carried the city's proud boxing tradition on his back. He was a model for preparation, conditioning and learning the craft.

Handed nothing, he made the boxing powers come to him. Without being a knockout artist or an aesthetically pleasing fighter to watch, he earned millions and remained relevant in the top echelons of boxing for almost two decades. Hopkins defied predictions and his epic victories over Trinidad, Tarver and Pavlik were forceful reminders that conventional wisdom can be flawed. Too many observers and media outlets succumbed to the folly of underestimating an athlete in supreme condition with an unbreakable will. His streak of 20 middleweight defenses will not be surpassed for a long time. (It's quite the accomplishment, but so few modern boxers even fight enough to have 20 title fights, let alone victories.)

Was he perfect inside or outside of the ring? No. He applied boxing's "dark arts" more than he should have or needed to. He over-relied upon gamesmanship, which hurt him. He used the fouling, butting, and antics as crutches. Did they help him during key moments? I'm sure they did, but they also turned off many boxing fans and members of the media. In short, he was a better fighter than that. His performances against Pavlik and Tarver were clean displays of expert boxing. He could be that good.

Outside of the ring, he created enemies. Needing bogeymen to fuel his motivation, he took on rival fighters, promoters, network executives, judges, referees, writers, lawyers – you name it. These grievances, real or imagined, helped provide Hopkins with his edge. And while he probably viewed many of these feuds as a means to an end, he paid the price with his reputation. His actions were not just mere gamesmanship; they included slanderous assertions, racial, sexual and ethnic epithets and bilious rhetoric.

Hopkins always yearned for respect, recognition and love, but he wanted it both ways. He was not beneath holding petty grudges for years, intimidating the media and hurling vicious insults. However, he would then be surprised when he wasn't treated more warmly. He never realized that his words had real repercussions beyond his needs. Hopkins was a tough guy to root for. Practically everyone in the fight game respected him, although that was never enough to settle Hopkins. He dismantled Oscar de la Hoya in the ring, but he could never approach de la Hoya's status in boxing. Even though he will be remembered as a far better fighter than the Golden Boy, I bet his perceived lack of affection from the boxing public still eats away at him.
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Seth Mitchell scored a stirring third-round TKO over Chazz Witherspoon and further solidified his status as a promising American heavyweight. His performance was not without flaws. Witherspoon tattooed him with right hands in the first round. Mitchell seemed unable to defend himself against those shots. However, he survived Witherspoon's initial flurries and imposed his will in the second and third rounds. Like a pro, Mitchell dug to Witherspoon's soft body in the second round with punishing left hooks. He later went upstairs and finished the fight with straight right hands. Perhaps most importantly, the fight demonstrated that he had the chin to survive big shots, a paramount qualification for any heavyweight prospect.

For Golden Boy Promotions, Saturday's Mitchell-Witherspoon fight was perfect matchmaking. Mitchell survived and thrived against a puncher and looked spectacular in doing so. I'm sure that the Golden Boy honchos observed that Mitchell must refine his defensive techniques and learn to hold on when hurt. Nevertheless, they have a true heavyweight player under their banner.

Mitchell needs two more developmental fights and then I believe he's ready for any non-Klitschko in the heavyweight division. For a boxer who came late to sport, he's demonstrated very solid fight instincts and I think he has tremendous aptitude for improvement. He may never be able to defeat a Klitschko, but let's not spoil a good story at this early date.

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Friday, April 27, 2012

Hopkins-Dawson II: Keys to the Fight

After the first Bernard Hopkins-Chad Dawson fight ended unceremoniously with Dawson body slamming Hopkins into the ground in the second round, some bad blood has built up between the two fighters. Dawson and his assorted team members have claimed that Hopkins quit and exaggerated his shoulder injury (of course that begs the question of why Hopkins would agree to another bout against Dawson if he really wanted to get out of their first fight). Both boxers have assumed uncharacteristic positions in the buildup to the fight. Dawson, usually taciturn, has taken the offensive, predicting a knockout. Hopkins, who has never shied away from a microphone, has remained virtually silent throughout the promotion. 

Hopkins is in a familiar place in his career: he's the underdog and practically every member of the boxing media is picking against him. In similar situations in the past, such as fights against Felix Trinidad, Antonio Tarver and Kelly Pavlik, Hopkins thrived, but at 47, does he have one more rousing performance left? Hopkins always has used negativity for motivation while Dawson knows that this is his chance to cement himself as the top light heavyweight in the world. Read below for the keys to the fight. My prediction will be at the end of the article.

1. Keep those hands moving.
If Dawson can throw 50+ punches per round, he will win the fight. That sounds like a rather simplistic perception of the bout, but that number tells us a lot. In the first fight, Hopkins was successful in reducing Dawson's punch output; it was a Hopkins pace. However, if Dawson is active, that means he is confident. It also demonstrates that he isn't paying too much respect to Hopkins' countering ability. These are good things for Dawson.

Conversely, if Dawson's output is low, that would indicate that he's thinking too much in the ring and that he's tentative. That's a type of fight that Hopkins can win. On paper, Dawson has all of the athletic and physical advantages. Unfortunately, physique and agility don't necessarily win fights.

For Hopkins, he cannot expect to win a decision throwing fewer than 30 punches a round. Even though his connects are often more impressive than his opponents, boxing judges do not reward inactivity. When Hopkins has run into trouble on the scorecards (Jermain Taylor, Joe Calzaghe), he was significantly outworked in terms of punch volume. Hopkins must throw enough to let judges give him rounds. If he spends too much time worrying about defense, he'll come up short.

2. Will Dawson fight with urgency?
Dawson has a bad habit of going on cruise control. Whether taking off a round, getting 30-second rests within rounds or failing to step on the gas, Dawson sometimes seems content to eke out rounds and not press the action. He rarely goes for the jugular. Although he has an excellent record (30-1), this strategy has backfired on occasion. He was cruising along in his first fight against Glen Johnson until he got hit with some enormous right hands. He was winning every round against Tomasz Adamek until he got knocked down late in the fight. He didn't turn on the jets against Pascal until it was too late. If Dawson hurts Hopkins, he must press forward and seize his opportunities. These are risks he has to take and he can't afford to lose focus.    

It's imperative for Dawson to win each round and win them decisively. The longer he lets Hopkins stick around in the fight, the more that could go wrong. This is Dawson's biggest test. Does he have the psychological fortitude to dominate a fighter who might be there for the taking? Will he even attempt to find out? Hopkins will have his moments; it's up to Dawson to minimize them. 

3. Can Hopkins make a dent in the early rounds?
Hopkins has often given away rounds early in fights. He uses this time to size up his opponents, lay traps and figure out openings for later rounds. However, at 47, it's unrealistic to expect him to score a shutout in the second half of the fight. He must win at least two of the first six rounds of the fight to have a shot at the decision. Remember, in Hopkins' last full fight against Jean Pascal, it was Pascal who was the fresher fighter down the stretch. Hopkins must not fall behind too much in the early rounds of the fight.

4. Will Dawson fight his fight?
Even though Dawson had success in their first bout with a few left hands, he fought at Hopkins' tempo. Dawson needs to fight in his style: move in and out, throw quick combinations and look for opportune moments to cause damage. If Dawson gets into a battle of perfect punch placement, he runs the risk of losing the war. He must stay fluid and fight within himself. A staring contest would be the wrong fight for him.

5. What else can Hopkins pull out of his bag of tricks?
Dawson, his trainer John Scully and just about everyone in boxing knows that Hopkins is looking to land his lead or counter right hand. In truth, Hopkins is going to need something in addition to those punches to win. He had some success in the first Pascal fight with his jab. He still features a short left hook on occasion. Ultimately, Hopkins won't be able to feint his way to a victory; he's going to have to land.

6. What will be the referee and judges’ influence on the outcome of the fight?

This fight features top boxing officials. Eddie Cotton (New Jersey) is the referee, and he's excellent. He likes to stay out of the way when he can. However, he won't let the fight devolve into a hugfest. He'll break them up and make sure the amount of clinching does not go overboard.

Three excellent judges were selected for the fight: Dick Flaherty (Massachusetts, although works a lot in Connecticut), Luis Rivera (New York, but judges often in New Jersey) and Steve Weisfeld (New Jersey). All three are experienced in world title fights and do not have strong biases like a Julie Lederman (who reflexively favors the aggressive fighter). That doesn't mean they will turn in perfect cards, but they are competent and neutral arbiters.

Prediction:
This may be an ugly, ugly fight. Hopkins will look to reduce the activity level in the fight and it will be up to Dawson to force the action. Many of the rounds will most likely feature few solid connected punches and it will be a difficult fight to score. Dawson will get out to an early lead because of his higher volume of punches and superior ring generalship. Hopkins will pick spots later in the fight to land his punches and let his hands go. Will Hopkins do enough to earn the victory or will his late-round rally fall just short of getting the decision?

Ultimately, I believe that Dawson's advantages in activity and landed punches, irrespective of whether they are that powerful or damaging, will be enough to carry the day, but I bet one of the judges will be relatively kind to Hopkins' effort.

Chad Dawson wins by majority decision.

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Opinions and Observations: Mares and Moreno

Abner Mares and Anselmo Moreno cruised this weekend to one-sided victories over Eric Morel and David De La Mora, respectively. These wins were lopsided because both victors fought to the best of their abilities. Their opponents were credible guys – De La Mora lost a close championship fight in 2011 to house fighter Koki Kameda and Morel was a former titleholder and U.S. Olympian (granted in a smaller weight class) who came into the fight with a long winning streak.

Neither Mares nor Moreno fell into the traps that have become all too common in modern boxing. They didn't look past their opponents and came into their fights in great condition. Mares and Moreno weren't taking their premium U.S. cable slots lightly; they had reputations to build. These were two hungry boxers looking to impress upon the fight community that they were ready for bigger things.

Moreno, as he did last year against Vic Darchinyan, toyed with De La Mora. He demonstrated his pristine defensive skills and elusiveness. However, Moreno didn't run; he stayed in the pocket and was ready to fight.

He also showed a more offensive mindset this weekend. Instead of looking just to counterpunch, Moreno took the lead several times throughout the fight. In the first round, he established his dominance with his right hook. In a masterful display, the southpaw threw a sharp right hook and quickly stepped to his right, in effect turning De La Mora with just one punch. Moreno wisely observed that his opponent couldn't respond to lateral movement.

Moreno also exhibited more power than he had in his previous fights. He knocked down De La Mora with a blistering right hook in the second round and dropped him with a punishing straight left hand body shot in the sixth. He wasn't content just to touch his opponent and win rounds; he was trying to cause damage. 

Throughout the fight, Moreno's punch variety and movements made De La Mora uncomfortable.  De La Mora didn't know how to defend himself against Moreno's creativity and fluid movements. Moreno's expert punch placement compounded De La Mora's difficulties in the fight.  At various points, De La Mora literally ran around the ring to avoid engaging with Moreno.

In addition, Moreno highlighted his first-class footwork. He made De La Mora miss with pivots and upper body movement, but he never let himself get out of range for counterpunching opportunities.

De La Mora failed to come out for the start of the ninth round, giving Moreno an unexpected stoppage. It was an important performance for Moreno. He showed that he could be offensive-minded and aggressive. Often labeled as a "cutie," or a slick boxer who didn't like to engage, Moreno wanted to make a statement that he could be more TV-friendly and entertaining; he succeeded.

Moreno has ascended to become one of the top defensive boxers in the sport. De La Mora landed well below 20% of his shots.  Physically and psychologically, De La Mora seemed demoralized by Moreno's skills, hand speed and intelligence.

Next for Moreno most likely will be a move up to junior featherweight, where some enormous names loom. He stated after the fight that he wants Nonito Donaire, but I don't see Top Rank risking its star for that type of risky proposition. Mares could be another possibility. The thought of a clash against Japan's Toshiaki Nishioka, which would be a battle of two slick and fast southpaws, has my mind racing.

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Abner Mares emerged from the meat grinder of Showtime's bantamweight tournament as the victor. His fights against Vic Darchinyan and Joseph Agbeko were grueling affairs. A prospect entering the tournament, he was forced to mature against those aggressive opponents. He proved to be the best of the tournament, but he was not yet a finished product. 

The thought process for Team Mares behind this fight was for their boxer to move up in weight against a guy who wasn't a big puncher. Although the bout wasn't exactly a respite or a stay-busy exercise for Mares, it did provide him with a break from the types of aggressive brawlers whom he had been facing. Those fighters shorten careers.   

To Mares' credit, he didn't take Morel lightly. Within the first two rounds, he established his straight right hand and left hook. Mares also brought a new wrinkle to the fight with a looping right hand. Essentially, Morel's high guard was blocking a lot of straight shots, so Mares took a step back and fired some looping rights; they pasted Morel's left side of his head.

Mares dominated the first half of the match. He led wonderfully with his jab and followed up with his impressive array of power shots. He continually went hard to Morel's body with his left hook and showed a nice uppercut in close range. His defense in the first half of the fight looked much tighter than it had in his recent bouts.

As the fight progressed, Mares became more undisciplined, resorting to some of the wildness that had surfaced in the Darchinyan and Agbeko bouts. Though he was never in danger of getting hurt or giving up rounds (I had Mares winning by a shutout), he got tagged a bit over the last few rounds of the fight. Mares' defense got sloppy at points, but clearly his chin held up fine from Morel's shots.  

For better or for worse, Mares sees himself as a brawler. It makes for great TV and pleases fans. However, it wouldn't be too hard to imagine a skillful master like Moreno or a power puncher like Donaire having success against Mares, especially when he squares up to start brawling.

I'm interested to see if Mares' power plays at the new weight. Morel had a sturdy chin and all of the veteran survival tricks. Mares hit him with everything but Morel was never in danger of going down. One more note on this topic: in Mares' five fights at the world-class level, he hasn't knocked anyone out. However, he's faced some very good fighters and is still improving; it's possible that more power (if he's fighting at a more comfortable weight class or tightens his technique) may still come. If Mares' power doesn't carry to 122, he'll need to make some adjustments to remain a top fighter at his new weight.

I would favor Moreno over Mares if they ever fought. I think Moreno's accuracy and elusiveness would be just enough to better Mares' aggressive banging. But all fighters get hit. It would be up to Mares to keep his shots short and capitalize on all of his opportunities. Mares-Moreno is a fight that I really want to see.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Marquez's Boxing Rarity--Universal Respect

Amidst the circus of modern boxing, with its controversies, hype, polarizing figures, gamesmanship, feuds, disappointments, fan neglect and self-inflicted wounds, there are still a few fighters who represent the best of the sport, who transcend the din and chaos, who exude professionalism and class, who earn the admiration of their peers and who inspire boxing fans irrespective of geography or skin color. Juan Manuel Marquez is such a fighter and as his career rolls along toward its third decade, he has garnered something much more unique than title belts or million-dollar paydays: universal respect.   

As many of his chief rivals have fallen by the wayside, Marquez still fights at an elite level. Overcoming disrespect or indifference from his promoters and an initial lukewarm reception from his native Mexican fanbase, Marquez is now more popular than ever. He has persevered through several serious obstacles that would have broken many fighters of lesser constitutions to become one of the flag bearers of the sport. 

His road has not been an easy one. Leaving Mexico to establish his career in the U.S., Marquez made his bones in the competitive Forum Boxing scene in Los Angeles. Even in his early days, Marquez had the reputation as a tough fighter who was even tougher to look good against. An early loss in a title shot to the tricky Freddie Norwood set back his career even further. It took him another 4 years and 12 fights to get an opportunity for a belt – which would never have happened had Marquez had the right kind of promotional backing. (Think of a boxer with Marquez's talent in today's boxing landscape having to fight 12 more times for a title shot).

Marquez pressed forward and eventually won his first championship against Manuel Medina. However, his chief rivals from Mexico, Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera, were getting big fights; Marquez was only thought of as one who should be avoided.  Top Rank, which had Morales and Marquez at that time, had no willingness to place Morales in with Marquez. Barrera also found ways not to include Marquez into his fight plans. 

Early in his career, Marquez was a sphinx to be solved.  Sure, he was a counterpuncher, like he is today, but he used the ring a lot more. He neutralized his opponents' weapons and gradually wore down good fighters with his accuracy, power shots and array of punches. Often, his fights were neither pleasing to the eye nor competitive.

His big break came in 2004 thanks to Manny Pacquiao. In late 2003, Pacquiao blitzed through Barrera in a shocking display of speed and power. Almost instantly, Pacquiao became a star and Top Rank was looking for someone credible to match with its Filipino sensation. 

What followed was the stuff of legend, where Marquez rallied from three knockdowns in the first round to earn a draw against Pacquiao. Marquez demonstrated that for as many technical skills that he possessed, he had the heart and determination of a warrior. In an instant, the second act of his career was born.  

There were immediate calls for a Pacquiao-Marquez rematch but Top Rank/Bob Arum and Marquez couldn't agree on terms for a variety of reasons. Pacquiao was quickly becoming Top Rank's golden egg and Marquez pridefully insisted on a certain dollar figure that his promoter was unwilling to meet. Marquez's professional momentum waned, culminating in an Indonesian abyss, where he lost a disputed 12-round decision against Chris John for short money.

Marquez now aligned himself with Golden Boy, who pledged to treat Marquez like the great fighter that he was. Golden Boy kept Marquez active in big fights; his first big assignment was against a faded Barrera, who was at that point a Golden Boy partner. Marquez, as many expected, won with ease. 

He proved to be a reliable action fighter during his time with Golden Boy. He survived a vicious onslaught from Juan Diaz in their first fight and an early knockdown from Michael Katsidis. Marquez pulled out these victories not with his legs, but with power punches. He also had a stirring stoppage of Joel Casamayor in a close fight. He did suffer a disputed loss to Pacquiao in their second meeting. Once again, he got off of the canvas to rally in the late rounds.  

As his career progressed, his left uppercut became one of the modern wonders of boxing and his counter right hand was laser-like. He was now regarded as a master at making adjustments. He wisely fought off the ropes and used his infighting skills to neutralize Diaz. He used his jab to create the right spacing to keep Katsidis at bay. 

However, Golden Boy didn't always place Marquez in the best positions to succeed. They matched Marquez against Diaz, one of Golden Boy's prized fighters, in his home town of Houston – an egregious example of Marquez having to overcome a stacked deck. Furthermore, while Golden Boy did provide Marquez with a career-high payday against Floyd Mayweather, Marquez had to agree to fight at welterweight, two divisions north of his comfort zone. In truth, he was selected as a Mayweather opponent more as a default; there weren't too many non-Top Rank fighters who could have been even remotely viable opponents.

Only against the bigger and more physical Mayweather did Marquez struggle. His power at welterweight was not enough to generate any sustained offense. He lost that battle resoundingly, but was not penalized by the boxing public or media because of the massive weight difference between the two fighters.   

All along, Marquez desired a third battle with Pacquiao but the promotional wars of American boxing prohibited that fight from taking place for some time. Eventually, Arum convinced Marquez to leave Golden Boy for another crack at Pacquiao. 

By the time the third fight was announced in 2011, Marquez's status in Mexico had changed. Marquez, who had lived in California for the majority of his professional life (although he trained in Mexico), had previously never been the standard bearer for Mexican boxing. During his pro career, he had boxed almost exclusively in the U.S. In addition, atypical of the most popular Mexican boxers, Marquez  had fought in a cerebral style and had been loath to enter into unnecessary blood-and-guts battles. 

However, as he persevered and kept beating good fighters, he earned the respect and admiration of his home fans. By 2011, he was now regarded as the best fighter in the boxing-crazed country and the Mexican public supported him en masse. For the Pacquiao-Marquez press conference in Mexico City, tens of thousands showed their support. Finally, Marquez was Mexico's favorite son.

He was installed as an enormous underdog for the third fight (9-1 at some betting parlors) and conventional wisdom stated that Marquez would be too slow and small to be competitive against Pacquiao. But Marquez confounded expectations and held his own in the center of the ring. Unlike the first two fights, he stayed on his feet.  He neutralized Pacquiao's combination punching and took away his right hook. On offense, he displayed a counterpunching clinic. There were many close rounds in the fight, but Marquez landed the more impressive shots throughout the match. 

In the aggressor-friendly jurisdiction of Las Vegas, Marquez was not awarded the decision, but in the eyes of the majority of boxing observers, Marquez was the victor. The crowd booed the decision; Marquez had never been more popular. Despite losing the decision, he returned to Mexico as a hero.  

Marquez continues to expand his public profile. He has become a popular analyst on the ESPN Deportes show Golpe a Golpe. His training sessions in Mexico City garner national news attention. Last weekend, he fought in the Mexican capital for the first time since 1994. He faced an anonymous European boxer named Sergey Fedchenko; Marquez drew over 20,000 fans – a number few North American fighters could eclipse in any scenario, let alone without the benefit of an attractive "B-side."

At 38 and with 61 professional fights, Marquez is still primed for big fights. He wants a fourth fight with Pacquiao and if that bout doesn't materialize, he could have a bevy of attractive opponents at junior welterweight, including Brandon Rios, Tim Bradley, Lamont Peterson and Mike Alvarado. Regardless of whether Marquez gets his prized fourth shot of Pacquiao, the lines of demarcation are firmly drawn. The boxing public is clearly sympathetic to Marquez's position and status within the sport.  If the fight doesn't happen, any public animosity would be aimed at Pacquiao or Top Rank. 

Marquez's boxing abilities have placed him in the active legends category frequented by Mayweather, Pacquiao and Hopkins. Unlike the others, Marquez has generated no ill will. In the ring, he always puts forth his best effort and he has fought the best possible opponents available.  He never stirs up needless controversy.  Marquez represents qualities like class and dignity, which are not often abundant in modern boxing. Even Floyd Mayweather, one who does not necessarily hand out too many compliments to other prizefighters, has given Marquez repeated praise. 

Ultimately, Marquez has defeated numerous champions and provided many indelible images in the ring. He has outlasted and bettered (either in the ring or by career accomplishments) Barrera and Morales to be regarded as the best Mexican fighter of his era. However, Marquez's appeal stretches far beyond the Rio Grande. His opponents, their fans and the prickly boxing public and media have all graciously accepted Marquez's eminence in the sport. He will leave boxing having enriched and elevated it, perhaps the highest compliment imaginable.

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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Monday, April 9, 2012

Shifting Tides for Freddie Roach

Freddie Roach now makes millions of dollars a year and he is one of the most prominent figures in boxing, but there is one suspicious trend that has emerged in his belated entree to superstardom; his fighters are underperforming. It might be convenient to acquit Roach for Manny Pacquiao's failure to impress during his last two fights. After all, Pacquiao is aging and there are valid concerns about his commitment to the sport. However, a number of Roach's fighters, from Jorge Linares to Amir Khan to Craig McEwan, have recently come up short on the sport's largest stages.

An additional concern is Roach's talent evaluation. Prior to Khan facing Marcos Maidana, Roach didn't believe that Maidana would win a round; Khan won a life-and-death struggle. Roach predicted an early knockout for Pacquiao against foil Juan Manuel Marquez before their third fight in 2011. Pacquiao wound up squeaking by only because of some sympathetic Las Vegas judges. Roach stated that Linares would quickly ascend to the top of the lightweight division – Linares was knocked out in his next two fights and Oscar de la Hoya, his promoter, suggested that the trainer wasn’t devoting enough time to work with the fighter. De la Hoya publicly called for Linares to switch trainers, a highly unusual move for a promoter regarding a Hall of Fame cornerman.

Roach’s displays of hubris and his difficulties in assessing the quality of his own fighters, or their opponents, are troubling. Sure, one of a trainer's jobs is to hype his fighters' matches, but Roach's pronouncements were not examples of mere braggadocio; he sincerely believed in those predictions. He's too smart to provide meaningless bulletin-board material. One must now wonder if he is having trouble getting through to his fighters, if many have been overhyped because of his celebrity, or if his fighters are leaving a lot in the gym. In addition, it's more than appropriate to ask whether Roach's role as a traveling media figure and boxing ambassador may be curtailing his ability or efficacy in getting the most out of his fighters.

Roach's talent as a trainer is considerable. His success in teaching offensive techniques and implementing strategy is among the best in the sport. His career masterwork, the transformation of Pacquiao from a one-dimensional, one-handed pressure fighter to a well-rounded boxing master, is worthy of a museum display. In addition, the strides he made with Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., especially with his defense, have been stunning.

However, there are negatives in his ledger. Pacquiao still looked flummoxed against a counterpuncher, Khan hasn't developed a solid inside game, McEwan's endurance problems never abated and Linares' defensive issues continued to manifest. For a man who was essentially the de facto Trainer of the Year for a half decade, Roach now faces the type of serious questions about his performance that have befallen other former "hot" trainers, such as Buddy McGirt and Ronnie Shields. How he responds to this professional crisis will determine whether he becomes a boxing institution like Angelo Dundee and Emanuel Steward, or something significantly less.

Any successful boxing trainer will have a string of losses or bad showings. Sometimes, he just doesn't have the horses. However, Roach's recent down period has occurred with fights in which his boxers were favored or were at least in 50-50 propositions, the type of scenarios in which a trainer can exert a maximum amount of influence.

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Inarguably, Freddie Roach has helped grow the sport of boxing. His Wild Card Gym might be the most famous training ground for boxers in the entire sport. His personal story, an inspirational one that involves overcoming parental abuse and coping with Parkinson's disease, has been recounted far beyond the reaches of boxing's traditional media footprint. In addition, his journey from a middling professional fighter to a world-class trainer should provide hope for many who wish to have a second career in boxing.

As Pacquiao's star has ascended in the sport, so has Roach's. The trainer would be recognized in any gym in America and the Philippines (thanks to Pacquiao), and likely in any serious boxing center around the world. In short, he has become an ambassador for the sport and he's taken to the role.

Roach also has devoted his time to improving the U.S. amateur program. He has worked with the 2012 Olympic Team to help revive the American amateur program's dreadful international standing. His elevated stature within the sport has enabled him to bypass the bureaucracy and machinations of USA Boxing, an institution that has been plagued by officiousness, incompetence and unchecked ego.

The business of Freddie Roach is also booming. In addition to training champion-level fighters, Roach runs a fully functional boxing gym that bustles all year. The Wild Card features a robust assemblage of professional fighters, amateur aspirants and weekend warriors. The gym's merchandise sells internationally. Media members, movie stars and other celebrities know their way to the Wild Card by heart.

Roach also has become a media personality. He provides color commentary for EPIX and NBC Sports Network. He also approved and starred in the six-part HBO documentary series "On Freddie Roach," which provided an insider's viewpoint of his personal and professional glories and struggles. Roach is highly quotable and he has helped cultivate a warm rapport with many of the national and California-based writers who cover the sport. He seems to really enjoy his place in boxing's limelight.

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Ultimately, Roach has some vital decisions to make. If he is determined to become a permanent media presence, he could reduce the number of fighters he directly works with ├ála Manny Steward. Perhaps once Pacquiao retires, he will be able to devote more time to his other boxers. Maybe his best course of action is to curtail his media appearances. Whatever he decides, he must choose what role best suits him in boxing. His current commitments have led to an overextension; his fighters have been the ones who have suffered.

Roach faces a real crisis point. Will he still dedicate the hard work and time needed to cultivate his current crop of fighters or is he dulled by the self-satisfaction of his stature within the sport? In addition, does his schedule inhibit his ability to land boxing's next big thing? Will young talent flock to someone like Robert Garcia or Joel Diaz instead?

The shelf life of a successful trainer can extend for decades, but make no mistake: coaches go in and out of vogue with regularity. As an established cornerman, Roach now faces perhaps the most serious test of his career. Externally, it's been business as usual for Roach, but warning signs are everywhere. If Roach's 2012 is similar to his 2011, things could get ugly for him, and fast. But maybe he has already mapped out an exit plan from the rigors and grinds of being an everyday trainer.

I'm sure that Roach never fathomed his current success in boxing when he started out as an assistant trainer in Las Vegas. He probably would have been content just to earn a living in the sport he loves. Now that he has surpassed that reality, a different set of decisions has to be made. Roach Inc. is now a seven-figure enterprise. But is he a businessman or a trainer? Can he effectively do both? 

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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Why Chad Dawson Bothers Me

With the exception of a knockout punch, Chad Dawson possesses an array of skills and talents that could make him an elite fighter. He has an excellent defense, an offensive versatility that is tough to prepare for and an abundance of ring intelligence. But it's pretty clear that Dawson hasn't progressed. He won his first title in 2007 at the age of 24 against Tomasz Adamek and to date that's still his best ring performance. His title reign, which lasted until his 2010 loss to Jean Pascal, was marked by safety, caution and listlessness.

When Dawson has been tested in his career, he has not impressed. After getting hurt in the middle rounds against Glen Johnson in their first fight, Dawson ran around the ring to win a disputed decision. In their rematch, Dawson barely engaged; it was a performance unworthy of a champion. Against Pascal, it took Dawson nine rounds to press the action, despite being significantly behind in the match.

Dawson's lesser bouts have featured more of the same. Facing an Antonio Tarver whose feet were stuck in quicksand, he was content to outjab Tarver and land the odd combination here and there. Against Adrian Diaconu, Dawson could have made a real effort to finish him, yet he fought the championship rounds like they were sparring sessions.

Dawson is certainly well-schooled. He has a great jab, he can lead effectively or counter and he has pinpoint punch placement; his hand speed is world-class. He tucks his chin very well on defense and he uses his legs and upper body expertly to avoid incoming fire. He also does an excellent job of using angles to land his shots, often by turning his opponents. Dawson has mastered how to get in and out of range very quickly and he doesn't make too many mistakes.

Throughout his professional career, he has learned from a series of excellent trainers, including his once and current coach John Scully, Floyd Mayweather Sr., Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Dan Birmingham and Emanuel Steward. One can see the influence of Mayweather with Dawson's shoulder rolls or Birmingham with his domination of the pocket by utilizing the jab.

Despite all of his skills, Dawson hasn't caught on with the boxing public. It's not that he's an unknown fighter; he's been a staple of U.S. network boxing for a half-decade. Yet he has not cultivated a fan base or created any type of desire among the boxing public to see his fights. He and his promoter, Gary Shaw, are simpatico in their beliefs in doing the bare minimum needed to promote their fights. Dawson is happy to have his bouts on premium TV and Shaw can deliver that. Anything else they deem unnecessary, or participate in only at the behest of whichever network is televising his fights.

His lack of regard for the boxing public is unfortunate but forgivable. However, there is no counterbalancing effort from Dawson in the ring. It would be one thing if his fights were so memorable that boxing fans felt compelled to watch him ply his trade. They could forgive his antipathy to the rituals of boxing promotion if his performances were scintillating. Sadly, that's not the case. His fights are most often snooze-fests, where Dawson feels no special desire to enthrall. For some reason, HBO and Showtime continue to write him checks even though he's certainly not a ratings darling.

To this point, it's not clear if Dawson has that extra gear that separates elite fighters from good ones. Does he have that desire to be great, that willingness to finish off a wounded opponent or that internal resolve to stand his ground amidst adversity? These are the questions that Dawson faces, but does he care? He's jettisoned a number of excellent trainers. He's also switched managers frequently. Who knows what Dawson hears or what's important to him?

He faces Bernard Hopkins later this month in a rematch of their aborted first bout. Leading up to this fight, Dawson has assumed an uncharacteristic aggressive stance regarding Hopkins. He has talked about knocking out the legend and insists that Hopkins forced his way out of the first fight with a shoulder injury. 

It says here that the only memorable action of Hopkins-Dawson II has already occurred at the kickoff press conference. I think the rematch will be a gruesome technical affair filled with feints, clinches, sporadic action, low punch volume and caution.

The key to victory for Dawson is simple: move his hands more. If he throws more than Hopkins, he'll win the fight; Hopkins can't match a high punch output. He doesn't need to worry about being knocked out. He just has to limit the number of right hands that Hopkins lands. At this point in Hopkins' career, the lead and counter right hands are his only real weapons. If Dawson emphasizes the double jab, his crisp right hook and circling to his right, he should be able to minimize Hopkins' damage. Remembering his left uppercut when Hopkins tries to tie up also wouldn't hurt.   

Ultimately, I'm not sure if Dawson knows how good he could be. He's missing a willingness to take chances that is hardwired into the majority of champions, even the technical ones. Something will most likely give. The days of Dawson effortlessly gliding around the ring with his jab and his legs are numbered. That's not a formula to beat the Pascals, Clouds or Sillakhs of the world. As long as he remains a top light heavyweight, he's going to face fighters who are going to make him work for victories. It will be up to Dawson to adapt, or he will come up short in winnable fights.

I keep hoping for the day when Dawson wallops an opponent. I don't even need to see knockouts. I just want him to assert his domination, with power combinations, superior hand speed and a little bit of attitude. He has all of these things already in his arsenal. Outside of the ring, Dawson, can be quite nasty; in between the ropes, he's often downright docile. His opponents need not worry about getting beat up in the ring; Dawson certainly doesn't instill fear. He'll just tap-tap-tap with the jab, land some quick combinations that score but don't damage and throw a few right hooks to the body and left hands to the head. By the time his power shots land, he'll most likely be on his way out of range.    

There are certain boxers who make their bones in the sport by becoming defensive masters or expert tacticians. They aren't necessarily exciting to watch but they have maximized their abilities. With Dawson's athleticism, knowledge of boxing and fluid style, he could become much more than a crafty technical stylist. To this point, he's remained comfortable in cruise control, falling short of realizing his full potential. Excellence is within his grasp but he doesn't seem motivated to seize his opportunity. I could scream.

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