Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Opinions and Observations: Knockout Kings/Fists of Gold

This weekend’s Knockout Kings II on Showtime and Fists of Gold II on HBO delivered some spectacular boxing. So let’s get right to it.  
Jesus Soto Karass TKO 12 Andre Berto 
What we learned: Soto Karass has really improved his conditioning. Berto’s skills have diminished, but he fights with a lot of heart.
There is a formula for beating Andre Berto and Jesus Soto Karass followed it throughout the fight: high volumes of power shots. Berto has essentially become a selective counterpuncher as his career has progressed, but he never had the type of power or activity to thwart aggressive opponents like Victor Ortiz or Robert Guerrero from imposing their will. Berto throws shots that land well, and they look impressive, but unlike those from Mayweather or Hopkins, they aren’t devastating enough – either in power, speed or deception – to spook opponents or take them out of their game plans. 
Soto Karass was essentially given up for dead after his January 2012 loss to Gabriel Rosado. At that point, he had a five-fight winless streak and his relationship with Top Rank/Zanfer Promotions had ended. However, Golden Boy resurrected him later in the year to essentially serve as cannon fodder in its effort to rebuild Marcos Maidana after his wipeout loss to Devon Alexander. To the surprise of many, Soto Karass fought valiantly against Maidana and scored very well with his intelligent pressure. He would subsequently get knocked out, but he was certainly competitive. In his next fight, Soto Karass bested welterweight contender Selcuk Aydin, displaying a terrific punch output and a sturdy set of whiskers. 
There are many fighters who claim that they have rededicated themselves to boxing and/or they are in the best shape of their careers. Coming into Saturday's fight, Soto Karass made such a statement, and he certainly proved its veracity. Throwing 117 punches and 71 power shots per round, Soto Karass kept the pressure on and had success landing on Berto with a variety of shots, most notably his jab, straight right hand and right uppercut. Soto Karass got hit with a number of good shots throughout the bout but he mostly kept coming forward, another sign of his solid conditioning. 
Soto Karass hurt Berto in the second round and by the fourth, Berto’s equilibrium was off. It looked like he might be ready to go. Berto’s new trainer, Virgil Hunter, wasn’t in whispering mode. He was chastising his fighter for his shoddy defense and challenging him to rise to the occasion. At this point in the match, the narrative most certainly would have been that Berto might be done in boxing. Having already lost savage fights to Ortiz and Guerrero, Berto didn’t look like he had much left. His reflexes were non-existent in the first few rounds. His foot speed was glacial and his accuracy was a far cry from what it had been at its best. Furthermore, Berto seriously damaged his right shoulder by the end of the fourth round and was down to one good arm – and not his best one.  
But then something strange happened. With only his left hand available to try to win the fight, Berto focused in the ring as he had never done before. He fought instinctively, trying to maneuver himself to best land his left, whether the jab, hook or uppercut. And he actually started to have some success.
The back half of the fight featured a lot of close rounds with Soto Karass scoring well with his volume and Berto landing a number of sizzling left hooks. In my estimation, Berto won a number of these rounds. Ultimately, it came down to the quality of the shots. To me, I believe that Berto landed the more telling punches in many of these rounds. 
On my scorecard, the fight had tightened up. In the 11th, Berto dropped Soto Karass with a borderline low left hook to the body. Soto Karass survived the knockdown fairly well and probably won the rest of the round, but I don't think that he deserved the extra point to make it a 10-9 frame. Going into the last round, I believed that the fight was still on the table (and it was according to the judges – they all had the match within one point either way). 
However, Soto Karass ended things abruptly with a devastating counter left hand. Berto beat the count but he didn’t look coherent, Ref Jon Schorle took a look at him and correctly stopped the fight. 
It was a career-making knockout for Soto Karass, a journeyman/gatekeeper who finally earned a convincing win on the sport’s top level. He’ll be in line for another big fight at the end of the year. Certainly he would make for an excellent matchup against one from the Guerrero/Ortiz/Lopez list. 
For Berto, there is a bitter irony in his defeat. During the ascendency of his career, where he was relentlessly paraded on HBO against mostly undeserving opponents, Berto engendered a lot of ill will. There were question marks about whether his real skill level correlated with his sense of entitlement. He wanted to be treated like a star, despite not beating anyone of note. He hadn't even put forward a memorable effort against a good opponent. 
But in defeat on Saturday, Berto fought valiantly, exhibiting the heart and determination that was so often lacking in his earlier performances. He was outgunned, perhaps a fraction of what he once was, but he showed that he was a true fighter. Many boxers would have found a way out of the match after the fourth, but Berto kept pressing on. 
No, he didn’t do everything that he could have done, even with just one arm. As the 11th round illustrated, the way to hurt Soto Karass is downstairs, but Berto, having never been a committed body puncher, didn't go to the body nearly enough. Berto should have dug his left hook to the body throughout the fight, and especially after the knockdown. It was an opportunity missed, but it doesn’t diminish his performance. 
Clearly Berto’s defense is too problematic at this point for him to defeat the best at welterweight. Never one with a solid defensive underpinning, Berto must carefully evaluate his next steps. He will always struggle against volume punchers and his chin and legs don’t look particularly strong. He needs a few fights to regroup and I think that going the Amir Khan rebuilding route might make sense. Maybe someone like Julio Diaz or Carson Jones would work for his next opponent. Perhaps then a move to Aydin if he wins. 
In the meantime, he has to figure out with Hunter (or whoever will be training him) his identity in the ring. In addition, I think less heavy weight lifting would increase his upper body flexibility, which would help him slip punches and give him the ability to feint more convincingly. Finally, I think that Berto needs to change his conditioning program. He was much more agile a few years ago and his best chance in the ring might involve using more angles and better movement. 
I think that Berto still can win some fights against good (maybe not top) opponents, but not in his present fashion. He should be proud of the way he persevered on Saturday. The next step for him is learning how to minimize adversity against good opposition. I’m not saying that he will ever reach this plateau, but if he doesn't have the urge to become more responsible defensively after Saturday’s bruising defeat, he’ll be out of the sport really quickly. 
Omar Figueroa UD Nihito Arakawa 119-107, 118-108 and 118-108
What we learned: Figueroa has the power shots and temperament to go far in the lightweight division. Arakawa has an almost mythical ability to absorb punishment.
This was one of the most savage boxing fights in recent memory. As I tweeted on Saturday, “This is not a fight of the year. This is one fighter getting his career ended.” Nihito Arakawa absorbed superhuman punishment from Omar Figueroa and kept coming forward. Figueroa unleashed a blistering body assault throughout the fight, but Arakawa couldn’t be stopped. Two knockdowns and hundreds of power shots to the head weren’t enough to dissuade Arakawa, or his corner, from continuing. And all the while, Arakawa kept throwing punches, lots of them – 1170 according to CompuBox. Many of them were arm shots, but he mixed in a variety of solid hooks to the body and straight left hands as well. It was a shocking display of fortitude from Arakawa, one of the bravest efforts you will ever see in boxing, but someone should have stopped it.
In the sixth round, Figueroa scored his second knockdown of the fight. Arakawa was out of position along the ropes from a number of hard blows and couldn’t properly defend himself. Referee Laurence Cole, who is often a subject of scorn in the boxing community for his capricious rulings, homerism and inability to control a fight, correctly ruled a knockdown, indicating that the ropes held the fighter up. This was an excellent decision. Although Figueroa was clearly winning the fight, the rounds were competitive. Had Cole stopped the fight at that point, he could have been justified in that Arakawa had already taken quite the beating. But he correctly let Arakawa continue.  
However, by the end of the ninth round, the facts on the ground had changed; Arakawa was unmercifully getting battered. The majority of my timeline on Twitter wanted the fight to be stopped. The bout had migrated from a special back-and-forth war to a one-sided beating of epic proportions – the type of fight where something bad might happen afterwards to the loser. 
I believe that Cole should have stopped the fight in the later rounds; however, it’s tough to criticize him too much for letting it continue because Arakawa kept throwing. He initiated action and still landed quite a bit. But he was getting hit with such massive shots in return. 
Perhaps the majority of the blame resides with Arakawa’s corner. Yes, their fighter was landing shots, but their first duty is protection, and I fear that they let Arakawa down. True, it was Arakawa’s biggest opportunity of his career, but after Saturday, I’m not sure how much career he’ll have left. He endured a savage and needless beat down over the final four rounds of the fight.
There’s a lot to like about Figueroa. He’s energetic in the ring. He has real punching power. He’s photogenic. He has a competitive drive to be the best at lightweight. Just 23, he’s already connected with the South Texas boxing market. His future is bright, but…there is always a but. 
Paulie Malignaggi made an excellent observation on the Showtime telecast regarding Figueroa (actually Paulie was outstanding all night, further reinforcing my feeling that he is best boxing analyst working on U.S. television). He said that just because Figueroa fights in a face-first aggressive style, doesn’t mean that ignoring defense is necessarily the best choice for him. It’s clear that Figueroa didn’t respect Arakawa’s punching power, but he still he got hit with far too many shots. I’m sure that Figueroa was amazed that Arakawa was still standing after he had landed all of his best punches (I know that I was), but at a certain point, Figueroa showed no interest in making tactical changes in terms of the geography of the fight. Whether he was leading or countering, he insisted on fighting in a phone booth. Yes, he secured the victory, but as Malignaggi pointed out, he probably made it harder on himself than he needed to. His lack of adaptability was concerning.  
The lightweight division is filled with boxers and neutralizers like Ricky Burns, Terence Crawford, Miguel Vazquez and Richar Abril. Yes, there will be certain fighters like Antonio DeMarco and Raymundo Beltran who will engage Figueroa in a toe-to-toe battle, but to beat many of the top guys at 135, Figueroa will need to think his way through fights. At this point, Figueroa has heavy hands and a nice offensive temperament, but the finer points of defense and ring savvy will be needed. He’s still young and he has aligned himself with a good trainer in Joel Diaz, but Figueroa’s future is now. Not every opponent will be as light hitting or as obliging as Arakawa was. 
Keith Thurman TKO 10 Diego Chaves
What we learned: Thurman has the savvy and power for top opponents at 147. Chaves is another name to add to the mix in the great welterweight division. 
This was a fun fight where both heavy hitters went for the early knockout, thought better of it and then tried to adjust accordingly. Through the first four rounds, both fighters tried to end it – Chaves with straight right hands, either over the top of Thurman’s jab or as a counter shot, and Thurman with left hooks and right hands. It was certainly natural that both power punchers went looking for the early kill; they each entered the bout with knockout ratios over 80%. They believed in their power and wanted to see if the other could take their best.
The early rounds featured both fighters throwing their knockout blows in the center of the ring. Through four, Chaves was getting the best of it. His shots were shorter and he capitalized on Thurman’s tendency to overcommit with his punches. In the early going, both fighters answered questions about their chins; they ate some monstrous shots. It was some wild action, but both fighters eventually decided that chins were checked and Plan B’s were in order.
By the fifth round, the pace of the fight became far more deliberate. Thurman used his jab and footwork more to set up shots. He went to the body with single right hands and left hooks. His shots stayed more compact. As the rounds progressed, Chaves had difficulty initiating his own offense as Thurman became more defensibly responsible. After eight, I had the fight even. 
The match turned on a single Thurman left hook to the body in the ninth round that dropped Chaves to the canvas. Thurman wasn’t able to finish Chaves off but there was some real damage. In the 10th, Thurman landed a right hand that stunned Chaves and followed up with a barrage that led to the fight being stopped. 
It was a gutty performance from Thurman, a fighter who had been dismissed by many a year ago as merely another product of Al Haymon hype. Over the last four fights, Thurman has made several advancements. He has shown against Jan Zaveck, and again in Saturday’s fight, that he can make key adjustments when a knockout isn’t imminent. Against Zaveck it was just staying busy and picking up the points. On Saturday, it was reducing his exposure by staying more compact and keeping his opponent at bay with jabs and movement. He will never be a defensive slickster, but he did a much better job of containing damage after the first few rounds.
Thurman is ready for the top of the welterweight division. A match against Marcos Maidana would be ideal (Maidana actually pulled out of a fight against Thurman last year as he was switching trainers). He still has things to work on in the gym, such as remembering to work off of the jab and remaining in better defensive position after firing power shots. In addition, he’s a much better fighter when he incorporates movement. Thurman has the raw tools to be a force in the division. He’s not all the way there yet and I would shield him away from anyone too technical at this time, but he’s on the right path. 
Chaves certainly made a name for himself with his performance on Saturday. With heavy hands and a pleasing offensive style, he likes to slug it out in the center of the ring. At this point, he’s a less exaggerated version of early Maidana. He might not have the same type of one-punch power as his fellow Argentine, but his footwork isn’t as bad either. Chaves still needs to work on how to create opportunities to deliver punches. The power and technique for his straight right hand is there, but his use of angles, mastery of ring generalship and understanding of how to set up shots can be improved. This wasn’t a brutal loss for him and a natural opponent for his next fight could be someone like a Josesito Lopez. The 147 lb. division might be 20 deep in terms of very solid fighters. Add Chaves to the mix. 
Let me give Showtime and Golden Boy credit for putting together one of the best fight cards in years. On the surface, the three bouts didn’t have a “wow” factor. There wasn’t a headliner who was guaranteed to draw eyeballs or headlines. Yet, Saturday’s card was the result of Showtime doing its homework on fighters such as Chaves and Arakawa. This was clearly not one of the network’s more expensive cards of the year, but it delivered the best return of any of its 2013 offerings.
In addition, Golden Boy should be praised for having the confidence in these three fights to approach the network for its approval. Even though Golden Boy has a virtual monopoly on Showtime’s boxing programming, no one wants a repeat of the lifeless Smith-Bundrage card. Golden Boy still needs to deliver excellent value to make this arrangement work. Saturday, the promoter had one of the signature cards of its tenure. Anyone who was watching on Saturday will remember these three fights: the best praise possible for a network and a promoter. 
Juan Estrada UD Milan Melindo 117-109, 118-109 and 118-109
What we learned: Estrada is fast becoming one of the best fighters in the sport. Melindo has the tools to be a future champion. 
This fight was close through the first nine rounds. The previously undefeated Melindo won many of the early frames in my opinion with stiff jabs, quick combinations and a high punch volume. (The official scorecards were a little too wide in my opinion. My card had Estrada winning by 116-111.) At various points in the first half of the fight, Estrada, who defeated unified flyweight champ Brian Viloria earlier in the year, was getting beaten to the punch at close range. 
During the middle rounds, Estrada made a key strategic adjustment by staying on the outside. With a slightly longer reach, Estrada was able to control the fight with his jab and movement. He frustrated Melindo who couldn’t find a consistent way in.
As the bout progressed into the later rounds and with perhaps Melindo sensing that he was behind, he started to take more chances offensively. He lunged in with power shots and paid a big price. Estrada unloaded his arsenal. He scored with counter and lead left hooks, solid right hands and a number of crushing uppercuts. Similar to the Viloria fight, the later it got, the better he was. In the 11th, he landed a spectacular short counter right hand that sent Melindo to the canvas. Even in the 12th, with the fight comfortably in hand, Estrada tried to go for the knockout, pasting Melindo with thunderous power shots. Through sheer will and determination, Melindo heard the final bell. He had huge swelling on the right side of his face and there was no argument about the decision. 
Only 23, Estrada is already one of the best fighters in the sport. He has the technical tools, power, savvy, temperament and conditioning to establish quite a reign at flyweight. Seeing him think his way through the fight was pretty special. He found himself against a good opponent, junked Plan A to go to the outside and then went to Plan C when he noticed that Melindo’s sharpness had started to decline.
Perhaps the biggest fight to make in the smaller weight classes would be a rematch of Estrada-Roman Gonzalez. Estrada lost a competitive decision in their fight last year, but he has continued to improve and 112 lbs. may suit him more than 108 did. That rematch would be a worthy addition to any HBO or Showtime broadcast or PPV. 
Melindo, at 25, still has a bright future ahead of him. He has excellent hand speed, good technique and a strong understanding of how to handle himself in the ring. He would have beaten many flyweights on Saturday, but he just lost to a better fighter. There are a number of attractive fights for him in a deep flyweight division, especially if he is willing to travel. Potential opponents include Edgar Sosa, Moruti Mthalane, Viloria and Akira Yaegashi. I wouldn’t count Melindo out against any of those foes. If he puts together another performance like he did against Estrada, I have no doubt that he will soon raise his hands as a world champion. 
Evgeny Gradovich UD Mauricio Munoz 120-108, 119-109 and 119-109
What we learned: Gradovich is an intelligent boxer-puncher, but one who has a number of potentially serious technical flaws.
Featherweight titlist Evgeny Gradovich boxed his way to a virtual shutout victory over Mauricio Munoz. Early on, Munoz was live, firing off just enough straight right hands and left hooks to stay in the fight. However, as the rounds continued, Munoz was outclassed by Gradovich’s footwork, punch output and boxing skills. From the ninth round on, Gradovich had essentially imposed his will on the fight. Munoz was never seriously in danger of getting knocked out, but he was happy to survive.
Gradovich fights comfortably both in the pocket and on the run. He has herky-jerky upper body movement and really establishes his own rhythm to his offense. He has now won and defended a title in his first 17 bouts, a very special accomplishment. However, there are a number of things he must tighten up to beat the truly best at featherweight, such as Abner Mares or Mikey Garcia. 
Perhaps most importantly, he is very susceptible to an uppercut. During exchanges on the inside, he leans in with his chin extended over his body. Munoz didn’t land with an uppercut all night, but a good technician will see that opportunity and plaster him with shots to the body and head from underneath. In addition, although Gradovich moves a lot during his matches, he does fall into patterns where he admires his work. When he decides to stay in the pocket and trade, he remains there a little too long. Again, Munoz lacked the accuracy and power to really make Gradovich pay for these mistakes but a better fighter would jump at that opportunity. I also still have questions about Gradovich's chin as neither Billy Dib nor Munoz had a lot of punching power. 
Gradovich understands how he needs to win. Lacking real power, he relies on high punch volumes and movement to outbox his opponents. He has a full arsenal of punches, although he rarely throws them with full leverage. He’s a guy who can clearly beat the B+ level at featherweight. But the technical flaws are there to be exploited. I think he’s going to be in some wonderful fights over the next few years. 
I’d like to make one final point about HBO. This was the second card of theirs this year that originated from Macau, China. For this series, Top Rank was responsible for the production of the broadcasts and HBO paid a much smaller license fee than it typically does. HBO has provided a lot of entertainment on these cards by highlighting fighters from smaller weight divisions, like Estrada and Viloria; these are excellent talents who deserve to be on American airwaves. I hope that the positive reception from these shows spurs HBO to broadcast more fights from the lower weights. It’s a nice beginning of a trend, one that should continue.  

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
@snboxing on twitter
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