Sunday, September 29, 2013

Opinions and Observations: Chavez and Stevenson

Nothing like a good robbery to get the juices flowing, and make no mistake, Brian Vera got a rusty shaft against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. on Saturday. The official scores were 96-94 (Carla Caiz), 97-93 (Marty Denkin) and 98-92 (Gwen Adair). I had it 97-93 for Vera and Steve Weisfeld, HBO's excellent unofficial judge, saw Vera winning by two points. If you squint hard enough, you perhaps could give Chavez the fight 96-94. He landed the harder shots when he decided to throw them. However, Caiz had a very bizarre card, with Vera winning the first four rounds and Chavez taking the last six. Rounds eight and nine in particular were such clear Vera frames that one has to question the competence and/or propriety of Caiz. Despite her reasonable score on the surface, Caiz's card reeks of ineptitude, at best, or underhandedness.
The panel of judges for this fight wasn't representative of California's finest. Adair has been judging in the state for decades, but over the last five years, her biggest assignments have been Salgado-Mendez II and Quillin-Wright. If you think about how many significant fights have been in California during that period of time, it's clear that Adair isn't a judge who is often placed on the state's "A" Squad.
Denkin is one who judges tons of big fights. While I wouldn't necessarily call him particularly special at his craft, he's usually reliable. This fight was a huge black mark against his judging career and I haven't found anything in his recent record as egregious as his score from this weekend.
Caiz is an up-and-coming judge who works a lot but has not had a lot of high-profile experience. Saturday's fight was the biggest assignment in her career, and she blew that to smithereens.
Even if all the judges for Chavez-Vera were on the up-and-up last night (perhaps a leap of faith), the California State Athletic Commission didn't do Denkin and Caiz any favors. Denkin had to score 34 rounds before the main event and Caiz was given 23 frames. Getting on my soapbox for a moment, the best way to ensure quality scores for a main event is not to overwork judges on the undercard. Having been ringside on many occasions for large fight cards, I know how taxing scoring multiple fights can be. I only like to score three or four fights at most because I know that my energy level and concentration starts to wane. Judging at the top level involves a tremendous amount of focus and I don't think that assigning judges to do five and six fights a night is the best way to get optimal scores for an important match. The famous Paul Williams-Erislandy Lara judging debacle was another example of the three judges scoring a half-dozen fights prior to the main event. It's a practice that shouldn't be permitted for top main events.
From running major deficits to having a shaky lineup of judges and referees, the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) has been in turmoil over the last half-decade. The Commission installed Andy Foster as its new Executive Officer in late 2012. Foster, who had a significant presence in attracting MMA fights while in Georgia, was charged with cleaning up the operations of the Commission, bringing more events to the state and minimizing controversy.
It's safe to say that Foster failed at implementing the mission of the CSAC this week. On Saturday, Foster presided over a contest of dubious origins where one combatant (Chavez) had no intention of making the contracted weight and the upper bounds of the weight limit jumped up five pounds less than 72-hours before the fight. If one of the Commission's jobs is to ensure fighter safety, then Foster failed without any qualification necessary. True, no one gets paid if the fight is cancelled, but at a certain point, ethics or principles must come into play. In my opinion, this was the worst performance by a commission since the drug testing fiasco by New York prior to Garcia-Morales II.
Lost amid the judging controversy and Chavez's indifference to professionalism was a fighter who put forward an excellent performance and took a needless loss. Vera brought the fight to Chavez on Saturday, featuring an excellent work rate and a consistent output. There was nothing overly special about his performance technically, but he was fighting for his life and deserved the decision.
Coming into the bout, Vera was on a nice win streak that included victories over Sergio Mora and Serhiy Dzinziruk. Originally contracted to fight Chavez at 162 lbs. this summer, Vera saw the weight limit march up to 168 and then 173. To say that the elements were against Vera is a big understatement. The network, commission, promoters and sport all want to remain in the lucrative Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. business. Chavez delivers ratings, (usually) puts butts in the seats, supplies ample drama for boxing fans and, of course, has the built-in boxing royalty name.
Yet Vera fought undaunted. Following a risky but brilliant game plan from trainer Ronnie Shields, Vera carved up Chavez on the inside, throwing quick combinations with his jab, straight right hand and left hook. And while Chavez was never badly hurt during the fight (he has a great chin) Vera connected with solid shots throughout the night.
I have often been critical of Shields. Specifically, I never liked how he handled his corners. Instead of a top trainer like Emanuel Steward who provided his fighters with one or two salient points between rounds, Shields often overloaded his boxers with 16 different instructions. His lack of calm in the corner cannot help his charges. He still did that with Vera on Saturday, but his overall plusses in the preparation for this fight outweighed this one drawback.
Shields definitely had Vera in wonderful condition on Saturday. Vera, a fighter who had been down more than a half-dozen times in his career, took many thunderous shots from a near-heavyweight and stayed on his feet.
In addition, Shields suggested that Vera win the fight in the lion's den, up close where Chavez usually does his best work. Shields correctly figured that Chavez wouldn't have the energy or conditioning to want to fight at a fast pace. It was clear that Shields and Vera worked on how to best Chavez on the inside. Ultimately, Vera had to keep his hands moving and not let Chavez use his body to lean on him. In addition, Vera prohibited Chavez from tying up almost the whole fight, which is another area where Chavez gradually grinds down opponents. Vera looked just as sharp in the tenth round as he did in the first.
Sadly, Vera lost in the biggest opportunity of his career. In a perfect world, HBO would give him a shot at a rematch or another decent name at 160 or 168 lbs. And to be fair, Jim Lampley was quite clear in his disdain of the judges' scorecards. However, there are no guarantees in boxing. Yes, Vera made an extra six-figures once the weight kept going up, but he was denied an opportunity for far bigger things in the sport by the powers that be.
As for Chavez, it was genuinely shocking to see him beaten on the inside. Usually, he's one of the best in-fighters in the sport, relying on his body and left hook to cause damage. On Saturday, it seemed that he lacked the energy or desire to mix it up in the trenches. He was content to go for the knockout, throwing one shot at a time. His work rate was awful, barely throwing 30 punches a round and hardly featuring any combinations. Surprisingly, he had the most success with his straight right hand – a punch that had previously trailed his left hook and left uppercut as an effective offensive weapon.
In addition, Chavez spent much of the fight complaining to referee Lou Moret about fouls, specifically head butts and low blows. Although Vera strayed low a few times, these instances weren't particularly egregious. Yet Chavez would literally stop action after one of these fouls and talk to the ref. It was a clear sign of a fighter who lacked focus.
There was a time from early 2011 to mid-2012 where I felt that Chavez was really improving as a fighter. He knocked out a quality opponent in Andy Lee and impressively dominated Peter Manfredo. In those contests, he exhibited traits of an actual fighter – someone who gave a shit about his career and tried to maximize his own potential. But the training debacle prior to the Sergio Martinez fight was a huge step back. After that match, he failed a second drug test in Nevada and received a lengthy suspension. His downward spiral continued with this match.  
Chavez still did some good things in the ring against Vera. He showed excellent accuracy with his right hand and good pop, but he was a fraction of what he could be. His stamina was abominable and he fought with little urgency. Ultimately, he embarrassed himself and boxing with the lead up to the fight, and his performance in the ring did nothing to counteract that narrative.
In one of the more impressive performance of the year, light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson dominated former champion Tavoris Cloud over seven one-sided rounds – Cloud’s corner stopped the fight prior to the eighth.  In his ascension up the ranks, Stevenson featured some of the most devastating power that the sport had to offer. However, on Saturday, Stevenson showcased a multi-dimensional attack that included boxing, defense, punch placement and power that led to an easy victory.
Having clearly studied Cloud's most recent fights against Gabriel Campillo and Bernard Hopkins, Stevenson and his trainer, Javan "Sugar" Hill, realized how much movement could thwart Cloud's success. Stevenson implemented the game plan wonderfully and featured lateral and up-and-back movement; Cloud was never able to get untracked. Through the seven rounds of the fight, Cloud averaged just over five landed punches a round, just an awful percentage. Instead of the intended shootout between two heavy hitters in the light heavyweight division, the fight was essentially no more than a turkey shoot for Stevenson. Cloud lacked the technical skills, defense or intelligence to stop Stevenson from unleashing his arsenal.
Stevenson was far more than his straight left hand too. His right jab was punishing and his sneaky left uppercut caused damage throughout the fight. As the match progressed, Cloud was bleeding from both eyes from clean Stevenson punches. Adonis also went to the body very well with jabs and straight lefts. It was a wonderfully well-rounded performance.
Remember, Stevenson was a super middleweight prior to this year. Jumping at an opportunity to face light heavyweight champ Chad Dawson, Stevenson carried his power into the new division. And now with Saturday's performance, he established himself as something much more than a one-trick pony.
Stevenson next has a mandatory against Tony Bellew, a limited fighter from England who doesn't have a whole lot going for him except being tough. Unless Stevenson gets caught, Bellew is an opponent who will make Stevenson look spectacular. In 2014, the real fun will continue. Stevenson has two very worthy opponents, with fellow destroyer Sergey Kovalev (whom Stevenson didn't seem eager to face during his post-fight interview) and the immortal Bernard Hopkins (with Hopkins on Showtime, perhaps a difficult proposition, but not impossible). 
Already 36, Stevenson seems to have a lot in common with Sergio Martinez. Both southpaws had relatively late starts to their professional careers and were overlooked on the boxing scene by the sport's biggest promoters and media. However, they both possessed significant power and had the athleticism and ring intelligence to suggest that they could become top talents in the sport. Martinez already reached that pinnacle; the next 12-18 months will show us just how good Stevenson can really be. He's certainly on my shortlist for 2013 Fighter of the Year.
As for Cloud, his inactivity and difficult slate of opponents finally caught up with him. After defeating a still-serviceable Glen Johnson and knocking out Yusaf Mack, I had high hopes for him. He was an energetic, young fighter with heavy hands. However, his career stalled. Working with Don King, Cloud most often found himself on the shelf.
Watching Cloud on Saturday, he reminded me of Jermain Taylor, another good, young fighter who may never have recovered from fighting too many difficult opponents too early in his career. Campillo and Hopkins were both slicksters that gave Cloud fits (he survived with a disputed win against Campillo). Against Stevenson, Cloud's confidence looked shot. He had no plan of attack and it was if he had forgotten everything that once made him a champion. Cloud was too out-of-position to let his hands go and he had no idea of how to close the distance. Even on the inside, Stevenson consistently beat him to the punch.
Perhaps Cloud looked really good coming up the ranks against come-forward, straight-line fighters, but facing the division's top talents, a champion must conquer an array of styles; on Saturday, Cloud couldn't even muster a single round in his column. With so much time spent switching promoters, managers and trainers, it can only be estimated how much crucial preparation and development time that Cloud lost over the years.
Chalk Cloud up to another fighter who fell short of reaching his true potential, but don't just blame the external politics of boxing. Cloud made decisions that hindered his career. He dropped out of big fights, switched trainers with frequency and was often reticent to promote himself. But he won his belt and made some decent money. As tragedies go in boxing, this one ranks very low on the list, but it's still worth mentioning.

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