Monday, December 31, 2012

The 2012 Saturday Night Boxing Awards


It's time to hand out the hardware. As an eventful 2012 comes to a close, one crucial piece of business remains before we can comfortably enter the new year: the Saturday Night Boxing Awards! Without further ado, here are your 2012 winners:

Fighter of the Year: Nonito Donaire

Moving up to the junior featherweight division, Donaire defeated a former titlist (Wilfredo Vazquez Jr.), a current beltholder (Jeffrey Mathebula), the number-one guy in the division (Toshiaki Nishioka) and another former 122-lb. champion (Jorge Arce). Of Donaire's 36 rounds this year, I had him winning 32 of them. He scored seven knockdowns and dominated top competition. At the age of 30, Donaire continues to improve and makes a strong case for being considered among the top fighters in the sport (I have him ranked at #3). His finishing left hook of Arce should make any year-end highlights package.

Fight of the Year: Pacquiao-Marquez IV

After a fascinating but rather tactical third installment of their series in 2011, both boxers made some key adjustments going into their fourth fight. Pacquiao decided to return to the more aggressive form that he exhibited in the first two fights while Marquez focused on gaining strength and power; he was going for the knockout. What followed was a scintillating battle fought on an incredibly high level with striking changes in momentum. The fight featured three knockdowns (Pacquiao down twice and Marquez once). The final Marquez right hand was literally a shot hurt around the sporting world. It was an unforgettable conclusion to a wildly entertaining fight.

Knockout of the Year: Juan Manuel Marquez KO6 Manny Pacquiao

After being knocked down in the fifth round and bloodied and badgered through most of the sixth, Marquez unloaded one of the most pulverizing punches in boxing history. At the end of the round, Pacquiao feinted with the jab and then rushed in with another jab. Marquez didn't go for the feint and timed Pacquiao perfectly with a devastating overhand right. Immediately, Pacquiao hit the canvas. Lying on his back, he was out cold. For Marquez, who hadn't been able to beat Pacquiao despite three close fights, his final right hand was career-defining, and one that will be talked about for generations.

Round of the Year: Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. vs. Sergio Martinez 12

The first ten-and-a-half rounds of this fight were completely dominated by Martinez, who put forth a masterful performance, mixing in boxing, ring generalship, pot-shotting and beautiful power punch combinations. Chavez was a bloody mess as the fight progressed. In truth, if he would have called it a night earlier in the match, it would have been completely understandable; he just wasn't competitive.

Finally, towards the end of the 11th round, Chavez connected with a few right hands. In the 12th, Chavez landed a right hand that drove back Martinez to the ropes. Chavez then connected with left and right hooks on the ropes and Martinez went down. With over two minutes left in the round, Martinez was in bad shape. His legs, which had helped him all night, now betrayed him.

Chavez moved in for the kill and unloaded with power punches. Calling to mind his father's first fight against Meldrick Taylor, Chavez tried to erase a sure defeat with a final-round knockout. The crowd was in a frenzy; boxing fans around the world were on the edge of their seats, if they could sit at all. But Martinez found his bearings by the end of the round and fired back. When the final bell sounded, Martinez remained on his feet, if just barely. He had escaped.

This round featured an essential element to secure the award: I was jumping around my living room screaming like a lunatic. What more can be said? It was boxing at its finest.

Upset of the Year: Sonny Boy Jaro TKO6 Pongsaklek Wongjongkam

To call Sonny Boy Jaro a journeyman might be an overstatement. He entered his March fight against longtime flyweight titlist and future Hall of Famer Pongsaklek Wongjongkam with a record of 33-10-5. Prior to the fight, you would have been hard-pressed to find a distinguished win on Jaro's ledger. Anytime the Filipino had faced a good fighter (e.g. Giovani Segura, Edgar Sosa, Pornsawan Porpramook), he lost. In 2011, he had even been defeated by a 4-0 fighter. Conversely, Wongjongkam came into the fight with a sterling record of 83-3-2. The Thai boxing master hadn't lost since 2007 and was in the midst of a twenty-fight unbeaten streak.

Nevertheless, Jaro attacked Wongjongkam from the opening bell with a relentless body assault. He scored repeatedly with hard right hands and left hooks to the body – more than a few of them were low blows – and he earned knockdowns in the first and third rounds. Even though Wongjongkam worked his way back into the fight, Jaro's body shots took a huge toll on his legs. By the sixth round, Wongjongkam couldn't hold up to Jaro's body attack. With Jaro scoring two more knockdowns in the round, the fight was stopped. Instantly, Jaro became the year's most improbable champion. He would go on to lose later in the year in a hard-fought battle against Toshiyuki Igarashi, but for one night, he was a legend killer.

Trainer of the Year: Rob McCracken

The single best corner job of the year was Rob McCracken's work with Carl Froch in his destruction of Lucian Bute. Coming off of a loss to Andre Ward in the finals of the Super Six, Froch was an underdog against super middleweight titlist Bute, who had finished up 2011 beating Glen Johnson far more convincingly than Froch did earlier in the year.

McCracken was a wise study of Bute. He observed that Bute was most successful as a pocket fighter. His shots worked best from medium range and he realized that Froch would probably be safe either completely in tight or on the outside. Secondly, Bute did not have quick counter shots. Instead, all of his counters – left uppercut, right hook and straight left hand – were long. Bute also needed his opponent right in front of him to score. McCracken, in sizing Bute up, determined that Froch shouldn't fight in the pocket whatsoever, a bold decision and it turned out to be a winning one.

Froch's performance in the ring was perfect. On the outside, he patiently waited to initiate offense and used lateral movement to keep Bute at bay. Froch would then rush in with a series of power shots, most often his slinging right hand and left hook. He would batter Bute with heavy punches and would then quickly get out of the pocket. As the fight progressed, he would continue this pattern of rushing in with power shots, eventually deciding to stay in close range, driving a retreating Bute back to the ropes, where Froch would continue to land with hard shots.

Bute couldn't defend himself from Froch's odd-angled punches and wasn't able to counter consistently enough to stop the onslaught. By the fifth round, he went down from an accumulation of power shots and the fight was over. Froch was masterful and McCracken's game plan was a big reason for his success.

In addition, McCracken's work with the British Olympic boxing team yielded five medals for the host country, a wonderfully impressive haul. McCracken wasn't just a mere advisor to the team; he was responsible for nurturing the squad, working with the coaching staff and preparing the fighters, mentally and physically, for the intricacies and pressures of Olympic boxing. The team's performance was a resounding success.

I know that many boxing observers have selected Robert Garcia as Trainer of the Year, and he certainly had a very good year. Ultimately, what convinced me regarding McCracken is that he took and underdog (Froch) and guided him to a truly dominant performance. Garcia's top fighters, from Donaire to Rios to Mikey Garcia, had very successful years, but I do have to take some points off for Rios' listless performance against Richard Abril and Hernan Marquez's knockout loss to Brian Viloria. All of Garcia's boxers did win the fights that they were supposed to win, but Brandon Rios' victory over Mike Alvarado was the only true 50/50 win for Garcia's stable of top fighters. Still, he had a very fine year, as did Nacho Beristain, who came up with some winning adjustments for Juan Manuel Marquez over Manny Pacquiao.

Promoter of the Year: Golden Boy Promotions

I certainly don't think that everything Golden Boy did this year was perfect. There were far too many events that featured embarrassingly tepid ticket sales. The company also has this bad habit of announcing future fights prematurely (Alvarez-Ortiz!). However, Golden Boy has bested all its rivals in expanding the possible for boxing in 2012. From creating an exciting new market in Brooklyn with its series at the Barclays Center to bringing boxing back to U.S. network television, Golden Boy has helped grow the sport in 2012 better than any other entity. Golden Boy also convinced Showtime to broadcast more undercard fights live. In addition, the company has announced a new series to start in South Florida for 2013. Although Golden Boy didn't have the biggest fights of the year, the company made many wonderful advances for the sport in 2012.

Network of the Year: BoxNation

Promoter Frank Warren undertook a big gamble in creating an all-boxing pay network in 2011. By the end of 2012, BoxNation has developed into one of the premier international destinations for boxing fans. Hardly a week goes by without a meaningful fight on the network, from Warren's own stable of British fighters to the station's numerous broadcasts of Sauerland's European fight cards as well as many of the premier American boxing contests. In addition, BoxNation's studio team of Steve Bunce and Steve Lillis should be a model for other networks. Both Bunce and Lillis are excellent conversationalists, well versed in the sport and pithy. They also remember that boxing can be fun. I hope that the network's good run continues in 2013. (Note: a number of the Sauerland cards from 2012 featured only one broadcaster calling the fight. Surely, a decent color analyst can be found.)

Referee of the Year: Eddie Claudio

Claudio played a vital role in one of the most intriguing fights of the year, Peter Quillin's unanimous decision over Hassan N'Dam N'Jikam (henceforth, N'Dam). Quillin scored six knockdowns (6!) but still the fight was competitive, with all three judges giving Quillin only seven rounds in the contest. Quillin notched two knockdowns in each of the 4th, 6th and 12th rounds. After each knockdown, Claudio studied N'Dam and correctly determined that the fighter could continue. Too often, referees reflexively stop a fight after a third knockdown, but Claudio observed that N'Dam still had his legs and remained competitive throughout the match. Claudio ignored the pro-Quillin crowd and didn't succumb to giving an early stoppage to the hometown fighter. It was a wonderful performance from a relatively obscure referee. Here's hoping for more big-time assignments for Claudio in 2013.

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
Contact Adam at saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com
@snboxing on twitter
Follow Saturday Night Boxing on Facebook:

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Opinions and Observations: Adamek-Cunningham II


"This is how I feed my family. I can't just go out there and get another big fight. And he gets to fight Klitschko.”
–Steve Cunningham after his loss to Adamek

After Tomasz Adamek's undeserved victory over Steve Cunningham on Saturday, I lacked the vitriol that many were expressing; for I had seen this fight quite often. Here are a few examples: Pacquiao-Marquez III, Taylor-Wright, Hopkins-Taylor I and II and Williams-Martinez I. In these fights, the judges went with or were overly generous to the "aggressor," who in almost all cases happened to have the advantage in crowd support. Of the various types of bad scoring decisions in boxing, this one – the crowd favorite who is the aggressor– is most common. It doesn't make the final result more palatable for the loser and it still feels unjust, but this scenario is fairly routine.

Saturday's decision is why promoters and boxers demand home-field advantage, knowing that in close rounds many judges side with the fighter who gets the loudest reaction from the crowd. (Main Events promoted both fighters for Saturday's contest but Adamek was the crowd favorite.) It's human nature to be affected by the audience to some degree and many judges lack the experience to block out the extraneous elements of the crowd to focus on the task at hand.

I'm not saying it's easy. I was sitting in a heavily Polish section of the crowd, where people in the neighboring rows legitimately thought that Adamek won nine or ten rounds; he didn't. They stood and cheered during the last 10 seconds of the early rounds as Adamek flurried. They were loud and boisterous throughout the entire fight. Give Adamek's fans credit; their enthusiasm clearly had an effect on the proceedings.

"I did what I wanted to do in the ring. I boxed smart. It was a good fight but I controlled the action"
–Cunningham

In 2008, Adamek and Cunningham waged a thrilling war. Cunningham won a number of rounds on clean punching but he hit the canvas three times. His split decision loss was an accurate reflection of a close and fierce battle. Cunningham landed with jabs, solid straight right hands and left hooks. Adamek had most of his success in exchanges, dropping Cunningham with counter right hands. In a just world, there would have been an immediate rematch, but without adequate network support, both fighters went in different directions.

During Saturday's rematch, Cunningham wisely stuck to boxing. He established his jab from the opening bell and used it expertly to Adamek's head and body. Adamek came forward but in the early rounds, he typified "ineffective aggression." He flung right hands, most of which didn't land or were blocked. He tried to cut off the ring but Cunningham often escaped along the ropes. Adamek at times seemed hesitant letting his hands go.

In the early rounds of the fight, Adamek established a pattern where once the ten-second warning sounded, he flurried with abandon, often catching Cunningham with right hands and left hooks, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. These were the best moments that Adamek had during the first four frames. He was clearly trying to steal rounds, and obviously, it paid off.

"We worked on keeping the right hand up in the gym. He hits hard. But I won the fight. No doubt in my mind."
–Cunningham

The conventional wisdom going into the fight was that if Adamek could knock down Cunningham multiple times at cruiserweight, he should have similar success at heavyweight. Adamek had a sizable weight advantage and an older and perhaps fading Cunningham.

In Cunningham's last two fights at cruiserweight against Yoan Pablo Hernandez in late 2011 and early 2012, he hit the canvas three more times. Cunningham lost both fights, which were very close. His legs didn't look good during the rematch, potentially suggesting an end to his days as a top fighter.

After the second Hernandez bout, Cunningham made a fairly shocking decision: he would move to heavyweight. Because of problems in making weight, the ability to get  meaningful fights on American soil or a last-ditch effort to remain relevant in the sport, Cunningham felt that his best play in boxing was to square off against the big boys. That Cunningham came into Saturday's rematch at a light 203 was extremely telling. Refusing to blow up in weight, Cunningham ignored Adamek's bigger size for a similar cruiserweight physique. (Adamek entered the fight at 223.)   

Once the action started, Cunningham and his trainer, Naazim Richardson, rendered the pre-fight narrative meaningless. Richardson, who is one of the best in boxing at breaking down videotape and establishing a winning game plan, made several key changes from the first Adamek-Cunningham fight. (Anthony Chase trained Cunningham for that match.) Cunningham's right hand was a lot higher on Saturday, which took away Adamek's lead and counter left hook. Cunningham worked off of the jab and didn't lead with power shots. In addition, Cunningham used his advantage in athleticism throughout the fight. He moved well in the ring and picked his spots to engage. He also limited exchanges, which still favored Adamek. Cunningham's legs looked fine throughout the fight. He spoke afterwards about a focus on incline work during training; clearly that proved to be effective.

“It was like a sparring session.”
–Adamek in his post-fight news conference

If I told you prior to the fight that it would be a sparring session, would you say that the match went more Adamek or Cunningham's way? It's clear that Adamek wanted to impose his will and dominate with power shots. Ultimately, the fight wasn't a sparring session; it was quite good actually, but Adamek never could figure out a formula to consistently assert himself. I found his comment to be revealing.

In truth, after facing heavy hitters like Vitali Klitschko and Chris Arreola, Adamek probably felt much more comfortable in the ring against Cunningham. Although Cunningham landed with flush shots throughout the fight, Adamek was never in danger of going down, like he did earlier this year against Travis Walker. Adamek knew that he had the power advantage and he fought accordingly. In the few instances when they traded shots, Adamek's punches were significantly harder. Actually, I expected Cunningham to go down from a counter right hand at various points in the fight.

After a solid tenth round that may have included some of his best moments of the fight, Cunningham stood his ground and traded in the 11th and 12th rounds, in hopes of winning these frames convincingly. Understandably, he was reticent to coast on a presumed lead. However, this decision would greatly benefit Adamek. Letting his power shots go with frequency, Adamek had his most sustained success in the fight. During the final two rounds, he finally imposed his will and connected with several thudding right hands that hurt Cunningham. 

After the final bell, both fighters stood on the ropes, believing that they had won the fight. Initially, the result was announced as a draw, but quickly it was changed to an Adamek split decision victory. Scores were 116-112 (Dave Greer), 115-113 (Debra Barnes) and 113-115 (Tom Miller). The majority of the crowd applauded the decision.

On press row, I couldn't find one person who had Adamek winning the fight, or even earning a draw. I scored it 116-112 for Cunningham and the final tallies among the media ranged from 115-113 to 118-110, all for Cunningham. There was a lot of talk about a "robbery."

“Now what?”
–Cunningham

After the match, I had a chance to see both fighters. Outside the press conference, Adamek waited with his team while Cunningham was speaking at the podium. Adamek looked good for having gone 12 tough rounds. His face was a little marked up but nothing serious. He hugged his wife and took pictures with supporters and fans. In fact, there seemed to be nothing out-of-the-ordinary. He was very relaxed.

By the time I talked to Cunningham, after he had spoken at the post-fight press conference, he was still coming to grips with the decision. This wasn't the first time that he had received a questionable loss in boxing, but this one, with his advanced age and with his family and friends there to support him, really affected him. He was hurt by the decision, and that pain took a far greater toll on him than any of Adamek's right hands. What would he do now? At 36, what was left for him in boxing? As he spoke, there was anguish and some disgust; there was no doubt in his mind who had won the fight.

"It was bullshit."
–B.J. Flores, boxer and NBC commentator, on the decision

My final piece of business from the weekend was to learn more about the offending judges. Here are some interesting findings: Dave Greer has been judging fights consistently for 14 years and yet this bout was the biggest assignment of his career. Greer's professional tenure has mostly consisted of trolling around small-town Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland judging six and eight-round fights. It's telling that in his 14 years he has been mostly deprived of plum fight assignments. Good judges get high-profile fights. It's usually that simple.

Debra Barnes worked often in the '90s and judged some big fights, including bouts with Duran, Camacho, Mercer, Mosley and Vargas. In the last 13 years, she has worked a lot less. There are significant gaps in her record. According to boxrec.com, these are the number of days in which Barnes worked as a fight judge for the following years: 2000-1, 2001-1, 2002-2, 2003-4, 2004-1, 2005-2, 2006-2, 2007-3, 2008-3 2009-1, 2010-3, 2011-6, 2012-4. In short, Barnes is at best a part-time judge and during the last five years, her biggest fights have been Guerrero-Escobedo and Saturday's bout. Her card on Saturday should not be shocking given her inactivity and lack of recent high-profile events.

Ultimately, good people like Steve Cunningham will continue to lose decisions because of bad decisions by state commissions. Appointing multiple weak judges for the same fight is unconscionable. Even well regarded and experienced judges can fall prey to the roar of the crowd and respond Pavlovian-style to the "aggressor."

What happened to Cunningham wasn't just, but to pretend that this type of result is shocking would be disingenuous. Sadly, it occurs far too often in the sport.

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
Contact Adam at saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com
@snboxing on twitter
Follow Saturday Night Boxing on Facebook:

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Opinions and Observations: Khan and Donaire

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

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
Contact Adam at saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com
@snboxing on twitter
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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Opinions and Observations: Pacquiao-Marquez IV


After last year's unsatisfying result in the third fight of the Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez series, where Marquez appeared to have boxed himself to a victory but didn't win on the scorecards, both camps went back to the classroom in preparation for Saturday's fourth edition. For team Pacquiao, Freddie Roach and crew studied their successes in the first two fights, while Nacho Beristain and Marquez conducted a thorough post-mortem on the third installment.

Each side entered the ring on Saturday with its adjustments and variations. Pacquiao's team ditched its attempt to win by boxing and returned to the brawling style of the first two fights. In addition, Roach added some new wrinkles: more feints and head movement. Although Pacquiao weighed in at a career-high 147, his speed looked excellent, and it was clear from his performance that this training camp featured a renewed focus on agility.

For Team Marquez, its strategy in the third fight – single counters instead of trading – had its desired effect inside of the ring, but not with the judges sitting directly outside of it. The one-shot counterpunches reduced Marquez's vulnerability to longer exchanges, which favored Pacquiao with his superior speed and athleticism. Marquez and Beristain realized two additional things from the third fight: 1. They might not ever win a fair decision on the scorecards. 2. They had to go for the knockout.

For the fourth fight, Team Marquez employed a strategy of blunt force trauma. Marquez wasn't going to match Pacquiao's punch output or win every foray, but he needed to end the fight before the final bell. In short, when Pacquiao got hit hard, he needed to go down. That meant Marquez's counters had to be thrown with malicious intent. Thus, instead of straight right hand counters, which Marquez had perfected throughout his career, his emphasis needed to be placed on maximum-leverage punches: overhand rights and looping right hands from the outside.

Leading up to the fight, Marquez undertook an extensive weight training regiment, supervised by strength and conditioning coach Angel Heredia (also known as Angel Hernandez, much more on him later). Using the eye test, Marquez entered the ring more muscular than he had ever been in previous fights. Throughout Marquez's career, his power had emanated not from God-given power or favorable musculature, but from perfect punching technique. Now, with Heredia's assistance, Marquez displayed Hulk-like biceps and shoulder muscles. However, once the fight started, he didn't look stiff or unfluid, like many boxers do when they overcommit to weight training.

The fight started much faster than the last installment did. Pacquiao darted in and out of the pocket and his legs looked very fresh. His feints confounded Marquez at first and he also incorporated his right hook. Marquez lost the first two rounds, but practically every shot of his went to Pacquiao's body. Yet, he had not unloaded any big punches. He was trying to slow Pacquiao down and set him up for later in the fight.

In the third round, this series forever changed; Pacquiao went down. It was the first time he touched the canvas in nine years. Marquez struck with a picture-perfect combination: jab to the head/jab to the body/looping right hand to the head. Pacquiao, who was moving away from the jab to the body, never saw the punch from the outside. There was a simple explanation for the knockdown; Marquez brought a new girl to the dance.

It wouldn't surprise me if Beristain, who is one of the ultimate students of the game, took away something very substantive from Floyd Mayweather's win over Miguel Cotto earlier this year. In that fight, Mayweather debuted a looping right hand from the outside. Cotto had not prepared for that punch and he was hit with it at will.

Marquez had always been one of the best counterpunchers in boxing, using his left hook, uppercut (right or left) and straight right hand. Pacquiao and Roach had seen those punches before and had different degrees of success defending against them. In fact, Marquez's straight right hand had been the only punch that had provided continued success throughout the earlier trilogy.

In essence, Beristain used his knowledge of Pacquiao, the prior success of Marquez and perhaps some borrowing from other fighters to put together a brand new wrinkle. Pacquiao wouldn't expect a looping right hand because Marquez had never thrown it in their previous fights. If you look at Pacquiao's hands prior to the third-round knockdown, they were lowered a little because of the body shot attempt, but they were straight in front of him. Most likely, he would have at least been able to partially block a Marquez counter straight right hand. However, prior to the knockdown, the whole left side of his face was exposed. He was not expecting anything looping.

Marquez' knockdown combination was not the product of some sort of improvisational genius. It was thrown so fluidly. You could tell it was practiced and perfected in the gym prior to the fight. There was no hesitation or pausing to study Pacquiao's reactions. Jab, jab and then bang.

Nevertheless, Pacquiao pulled himself together and by the end of the fourth round, he scored with solid connects. In the fifth, he got his revenge. In a brief trade, his left hand beat Marquez's jab and Marquez staggered back with his glove touching the canvas – a knockdown. In real time, that punch – and I don't say this lightly – was blindingly fast. I've probably played the clip of that knockdown 20 times or so and I still can't see it unfolding without the benefit of slow motion replay. For those who claim that Pacquiao's hand speed had slipped (and I was one of them), that fifth-round round knockdown was certainly evidence to the contrary.

Pacquiao continued to pile on in the fifth after the knockdown. His straight left hand repeatedly snapped back Marquez's head. By the end of the round, Marquez's nose was busted up and he was bleeding profusely.

The sixth round started out with more of the same. Marquez got tagged again and again. He was badly hurt. It looked like he might go down again. As the round came to a close, Pacquiao attempted a crafty little maneuver. While Marquez was stationed along the ropes, Pacquiao feinted with the jab and then rushed in behind his jab....

WHAM!!!!!!!

The next coherent image was Pacquiao face-first on the canvas, motionless underneath the ropes; he was out cold. The fight was over.

What the hell had just happened?

Marquez, the expert of adjustments, didn't go for the feint. As soon as Pacquiao tried to throw his jab, Marquez put all of his force behind an overhand right. The punch connected at short range and Pacquiao collapsed.

What Beristain and Marquez had figured out in their preparation for this fight was that Pacquiao stayed in the pocket long enough to be countered with home run bombs. Again, instead of the straight right hand counter, Marquez opted for a punch thrown with more leverage and power. Team Marquez always knew about Pacquiao’s penchant for running into the pocket. That was how they were so competitive in the first three fights. The change in the fourth fight was the type of counter shot they employed. Pacquiao, ever the risk taker, knew he could withstand Marquez's straight right hand from past fights, but the overhand shot proved to be a different beast entirely.

And that was that. There was pandemonium, euphoria, a palpable sense of awe from the crowd. Everyone knew that they had witnessed an unforgettable moment of boxing history.

It was shocking. I was yelling at the TV, jumping up and down like a little boy, waking the neighbors. What a fight! What a spectacle! It was boxing, no, sport at its finest. It was the highest of highs.

Instantly, I went online and started posting and talking about the fight. My heart was racing. It was the type of exhilarating moment that only boxing could deliver.

*****************************************************

And then a strange thing happened as the euphoria of the knockout started to wear off. My overwhelming sense of joy had transformed into something else: skepticism.

A nagging voice inside my head started to ask the following questions: Do 39-year-olds suddenly develop wipeout power? Was Marquez clean? Was Pacquiao? Was it just the perfect punch?

The pleasure of the night had suddenly vanished, replaced by suspicion. This was an epic moment in boxing and yet I couldn't enjoy it fully. And I hated that.

Ultimately, Marquez's decision to employ Angel Heredia, a confessed steroid dealer and cooperating government witness in the BALCO scandal, affected my comprehension of the fight's conclusion. Although Marquez had always been seen as an upright figure in boxing, why was he consorting with a person with this type of background? Clearly, he knew that this relationship would bring increased scrutiny of his performance. Although Marquez came into the third fight with an improved body under Heredia, his physique on Saturday was something entirely different. He scarcely resembled the lightweight of two years ago.

In the aftermath of the fight, I started to wonder about Marquez's ease in obliterating Pacquiao with just one punch. Remember, Pacquiao hadn't been knocked down in nine years. Now, strange things do happen in boxing. George Foreman wiped out a number of fighters in his 40s, but he always had concussive power. For Marquez, historically he had never been a one-punch knockout artist. He had beaten people up and eventually stopped them. But he had not been one who suddenly turned out the lights of world-class fighters.

But this is boxing – the theater of the unexpected, as the phrase goes. It could have been just an amazing knockout. I hope it was. I want it to be. But I'm also not entirely trusting. Not this year.

Earlier in 2012, Andre Berto, Lamont Peterson, Antonio Tarver and Erik Morales all tested positive for performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Some names on that list had sterling reputations before their failed tests. In all of those cases except Tarver's, the fighters used testing that was far more thorough than those of the state commissions.

For Pacquiao-Marquez IV, the fighters submitted to the basic and flawed drug testing of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, which allows elevated testosterone levels as compared to other states, and doesn't test for synthetic testosterone, HGH (human growth hormone, a synthetic drug which increases muscle mass) or EPO (a PED designed to deliver increased oxygen delivery to muscles).

Because of the number of high-profile drug cheats caught this year, a confessed steroid dealer surrounding Marquez's training camp, the fighter's advanced age and the spectacular result of the match, it was difficult to avoid ruminating about the specter of PEDs.

But I wasn't just thinking about Marquez. In an ironic twist, the initial push for increased drug testing in boxing originated because of Pacquiao's success. Floyd Mayweather was incredulous of Pacquiao's reign of terror, when in a 30-month period he went from beating junior lightweights to destroying junior middleweights, four weight classes higher. Mayweather and others in his camp accused Pacquiao of taking illegal substances. Pacquiao would sue Mayweather for defamation and eventually wound up receiving a settlement.

With that said, Manny didn't help himself on this topic when he initially refused to submit to random blood testing during the first round of negotiations for a potential Mayweather mega-fight. Additionally, once Pacquiao agreed to testing, there were all sorts of skirmishes between camps about the arbitrary end points of the testing prior to the fight. The potential mega-fight never occurred as Pacquiao and promoter Bob Arum were livid about being dictated to by Mayweather. (Drug testing was only one of several issues that prevented the match from being finalized. Both boxers and their teams deserve their fair share of the blame for the failure to make the fight).
 
But Floyd was on the right side of the PED issue; it was not mere gamesmanship. Time has vindicated his stance that there is a serious PED problem in boxing.

Interestingly, since Team Mayweather's accusations first surfaced in 2009, Pacquiao hasn't knocked a fighter out. Before this current streak of six bouts without a knockout, he  had never had more than three consecutive fights without a stoppage, and those were his first three bouts in 1995.

Ultimately, suspicion of Marquez and Pacquiao, as well as other fighters, is not proof of any wrongdoing. However, because of the lack of uniform and comprehensive drug testing, this is boxing's current reality, full of unanswered questions about illegal substances. Dopers and their enablers are much further advanced than the testing protocols that the individual states employ. The absence of a unifying governing body in the sport hinders its ability to address this problem with the speed and decisiveness that it deserves.

Watching it live, I loved Pacquiao-Marquez IV. It was epic and memorable, and all that other great stuff. But a lot of my Sunday was spent wondering if one or both fighters were even clean – and I really resented that.

Yes, I want there to be a fifth fight between Pacquiao and Marquez, but there needs to be Olympic-style testing. Pacquiao and Marquez have an opportunity to help push for a cleaner sport. I hope that they utilize their power and status to mandate stricter testing for all of their future fights. At this point, they have already made vast fortunes in boxing. For them, supporting stricter testing would not be an act of great moral courage, but it would certainly set the right example for the sport and the industry.


Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
Contact Adam at saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com
@snboxing on twitter
Follow Saturday Night Boxing on Facebook:

Monday, December 10, 2012

Boxinghead Battle Update: Dec. 10

I have started a prediction game featuring many of the boxing experts in the United States and a few sprinkled in from around the world. I call it the Boxinghead Battle. Predictions will be tabulated throughout the year for major fights.

The rules are as follows: One point (+1) for correctly picking the winning fighter, minus one point (-1) for selecting the losing fighter and five points (+5) for correctly picking a draw. If someone correctly predicts a no-contest, they win ten points (+10) but no points will be deducted for a fight that is declared a no-contest.

Below you will see the current standings of the Battle. Each expert is identified along with his publication. Some names are prominent boxing figures on Twitter and do not have an official affiliation. There are also other boxing enthusiasts as part of the Battle. Contestants who haven't remained active have been removed. The current leader is Dan Rafael of espn (+10). Matthew Mojica (-5) is the trailer.

Check http://www.saturdaynightboxing.com/ for updates to the Boxinghead Battle. There will be a dedicated page on the upper right hand side of the website.

Update as of December 10th:

Abramowitz, Adam (saturday night boxing) +6
Anjuum, Mohammad 0
Barry, Alex (boxing seed) +7
Boxing 101 -1
Boxing Advocate -1
Boxing Mouth +2
Bivins, Ryan (sweetboxing) +1
Burton, Ryan (boxing lab) -1
Campbell, Brian (espn) +5
Carp, Steve (las vegas review journal) +3
Casillas, J. +1
Christ, Scott (bad left hook) +2
Conner, Patrick (tqbr) +8
Conye, Danny +6
Coppinger, Mike (ring) +4
David, Jose -1
Donovan, Jake (boxing scene) +1
Erdman, Corey (ring) +2
Ferguson, Billy (fighthype) +4
Fischer, Douglass (ring) +8
Fitzsimmons, Lyle (boxing scene) -1
Foley, James (Bad Left Hook) +6
Frauenheim, Norm (15 rounds) +3
Freeburn, Shannon +2
Harrison, Andrew (tqbr) -1
Hernadez, Jorge +1
Hussein, Imran +1
Idec, Keith (boxing scene) +8
Iole, Kevin (yahoo) +1
Jones, Vince Parker +1
Kitchen, Kory (bad left hook) +1
Mannix, Chris (sports illustrated) +1
Maquinana, Ryan (boxing scene) +9
McCarson, Kelsey (the sweet science) -4
Mojica, Matthew -5
Montoya, Gabe (maxboxing) 0
Morilla, Diego +2
Mulcahey, Marty (maxboxing) +7
Mulvaney, Kieran (espn) + 2
Olson, Hans (boxing insider) +5
Ortega, Mark (tqbr) +7
Pawel +5
Poplawski, Ray +2
Punch to the Face +1
Rafael, Dan (espn) +10
Raskin, Eric (grantland) +1
Robinson, Chris (boxing scene) +3
Rodriguez, Alex +2
Rold, Cliff (boxing scene) +7
Rosenthal, Michael (ring) +7
Salazar, Victor (boxing voice Vic) 0
Sandoval, Luis (boxing lab) 0
Santoloquito, Joe (ring) +1
Simon +1
Sledskillz 0
Songalia, Ryan (ring) +4
Starks, Tim (tqbr) +5
Street Fighter 2 -1
Tippy +1
Two Piece Boxing +6
Velin, Bob (USA Today) +6
Warren, Glen +1
Weiler, Matt 0
Wylie, Lee (the sweet science) +5
Zemach, Steve (tqbr) +2


Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
Contact Adam at saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com
@snboxing on twitter
Follow Saturday Night Boxing on Facebook: