Sunday, August 18, 2013

Opinions and Observations: Barker and Kovalev

In a memorable battle between two middleweights fighting for bigger opportunities at the top of the division, Daniel Geale and Darren Barker waged a spirited war at the Revel Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The defining sequence featured Geale dropping Barker in the sixth round with a left hook to the solar plexus, and Barker rising, almost unfathomably, competing and winning the last portions of the frame. That knockdown blow was placed in a perfect spot; many boxers wouldn't have even attempted to continue, let alone fight six more rounds and win a closely contested match. It was the type of fight where both boxers let it all hang out in the ring. And while there may have been opportunities missed (especially for Geale), there was no lack of effort, heart or willingness to reach for greatness.  

Barker earned a split decision by scores of 114-113, 116-111 and 113-114 in a fight where not a lot separated the two boxers. Barker's punches were harder but Geale's were flashier.  I scored it 115-112 for Geale but there were a number of very close rounds. This was no robbery.
The Barker who showed up in Atlantic City this weekend was vastly improved from the version that was knocked out by Sergio Martinez in the same city almost two years ago.  Against Martinez, Barker seemed tentative at various times in the fight. Although Barker won a few of the early rounds, Martinez's sharp power counterpunches made him reluctant to let his hands go. Barker would score with quick one-two's, and get out of the pocket. He didn't sit down on his shots but he connected. Barker featured a high guard and was successful in neutralizing Martinez's straight left hand; however, once Martinez went to the right hook, Barker couldn't adjust – that ultimately led to his downfall.
This weekend Barker fought much more confidently. He commanded the center of ring. Featuring a much more fluid offensive style than he did against Martinez, Barker sat down on his power shots and he had a lot of success with his left hook to the head, straight right hands and hooks to the body. Barker took what was available to him. If Geale's hands were low, he jabbed. If Geale tried to pressure in close, Barker drilled him to the body or went through the middle with uppercuts. If Geale stayed on the ropes, he pounded him.
Barker showed poise and intelligence throughout the fight. He didn't overcommit with his shots from the outside or smother himself at close range. His ring generalship was really solid. He didn't blindly follow Geale around the ring without throwing punches. He also refused to get frustrated by Geale's fancy footwork and odd-angled shots. Barker knew when to work and when to tie up. In addition, he did a wonderful job of surviving like a pro in the 6th and 12th rounds when he was really hurt.
Geale didn't lose the fight as much as Barker won it. With a different set of judges, perhaps Geale would have been declared the victor. Sure, there were things on the margins he could have done differently. Perhaps he stood and traded a little too much with Barker. Maybe he had a few too many sequences with his back to the ropes. He probably didn't go to the body enough early in the fight. At points, he had a lot of success with his lead right hand, and then he would go away from it.
In his best rounds, which were the 5th, 6th and 12th, Geale showed his championship mettle. He worked angles and used high volumes to get Barker out of position and create openings. Geale featured a huge arsenal of punches and did significant damage, despite having only "average" punching power. Geale hurt Barker in these spots because of his unpredictability and creativity in the ring.
Ultimately, Barker outworked Geale in many of the later rounds of the match. Surviving the knockdown blow and ignoring a cut above his eye, Barker refused to fold. It was his night and if he didn't win decisively, there would be no questioning his heart, skills, resiliency or determination.
In his prime at 31 and in one the sport's best divisions, Barker has tons of attractive career options. He could return to England and engage in some wonderful matchups against Marty Murray or Matthew Macklin (I would love Barker-Murray).  He could also shoot for a unification match against fellow titlists Gennady Golovkin or Peter Quillin. A rematch against Geale in the UK would also be a solid move. If Barker's feeling really enterprising, perhaps he should take a stay-busy fight at home at the end of the year and then attempt to avenge the lone loss of his career against Martinez in 2014.
For Geale, he'll have some more opportunities. He's already won world titles away from home and with so many attractive fighters who are connected to big television networks (Golovkin, Martinez, Quillin, Barker, etc.), another title shot may come within a year. He didn't perform badly at all last night and he has an active, TV-friendly style that will keep him viable in the division. This weekend he just fell a little short. Perhaps another one or two punches in the 6th or 12th would have stopped Barker. Ultimately, it wasn't enough, but he made a stellar U.S. debut and he'll be back in a big fight before you know it.
Leading into Cleverly-Kovalev, in many quarters there was a suggestion that Cleverly was the superior boxer – not who was the better fighter per se, but that this fight was a battle of the boxer vs. the puncher. Perhaps people saw Cleverly's anemic KO percentage or his relatively good hand speed and athleticism and talked themselves into making such grandiose claims. Maybe Kovalev disposed of his opponents so fast and mercilessly that his considerable boxing skills went unnoticed by many of the sport's observers.
Watching Cleverly against Tony Bellew or Aleksy Kuziemski, I saw a fighter who had repeatedly made bad decisions. Instead of using his height, reach and athleticism to win fights on the outside, Cleverly decided to slug it out in the trenches. He made the Bellew fight far closer than it needed to be and despite the "TKO 4" victory against Kuziemski, he got clipped quite a bit by staying in the pocket for too long.
Similar to Amir Khan, a fighter with tremendous physical gifts and boxing skills who often falls short because of bad decision making, Cleverly doesn't have a high ring I.Q. He has yet to understand his strengths and weaknesses. He's failed to realize what will make him a winning fighter against the best light heavyweights. If you want to blame Frank Warren for Cleverly's relatively soft matchmaking, that's fine, but this is really on the fighter and his team. There's been more than enough evidence in the ring to see that Cleverly shouldn't be a guy who stands in the pocket and trades. 
After the second round of Saturday's fight, I tweeted "I don't know what Cleverly's game plan is other than to duck and get hit." To me, standing in mid-range against Kovalev was perhaps the worst strategic move I could think of. Kovalev's power had already spooked Cleverly – he struggled to let his hands go with any conviction. Cleverly was a sitting duck for punishment and he and his corner (his father, Vince, is his trainer) had no plan for even mere self-preservation. The lack of a "Plan B" was stunning.
I would assert that Kovalev is both the better boxer and puncher. Lost amid a surface reading of Kovalev's 90% knockout ratio are his deep amateur background in Russia and the technical expertise he has picked up in America working with trainers Don Turner and John David Jackson. Kovalev isn't crude in the ring. He's not early Marcos Maidana or a one-punch trick pony like Randall Bailey.  Kovalev uses an array of punches, distance, foot positioning and patience to knock out his opponents. Yes, he is incredibly heavy-handed, but he's a very cerebral fighter. He's not taking four shots to land one.
Kovalev did a great job of setting up his shots against Cleverly. In the pivotal third round, his sequence of punches that led to the first knockdown started with a left uppercut/left hook to the head/left hook to the head/left hook to the body. Only after that sequence, did he throw and land the right hand, dropping Cleverly. Again, Kovalev's right hand is one of the most vicious shots in the sport, but he's a thinking fighter. He understands how to deliver his finishing blows.  
Once the power punches flowed with regularity from Kovalev, the fight was shortly over. He scored two knockdowns in the third, a quick one to start the fourth and picked up a nice shiny world championship belt. Not even a friendly hometown ref (Terry O'Connor) could thwart Kovalev's date with stardom. 
Kovalev, Golovkin and the late-model version of Matthysse are tremendous boxing talents because they have a wide array of boxing skills in addition to their top-shelf power. Only the best in the sport will have a chance at beating them.

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