Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Opinions and Observations: Pacquiao and Froch

After being knocked unconscious in his last fight, many in Manny Pacquiao's team and family wanted him to retire. After some reflection and a clean bill of health, Pacquiao decided to give boxing another shot. Although inactive since December, he claimed that he felt like a rejuvenated fighter. However, many questions surrounded his comeback: Would he still have the chin to compete at the top level? Did he still have the will to win a war? Were his outside distractions too much for him to perform at his best? 
Under these circumstances, it would be natural to assume that Brandon Rios (Pacquiao's comeback opponent), a tough pressure fighter, would want to jump on Pacquiao immediately, testing his resolve from the outset of the fight. This strategy wouldn't give Pacquiao time to build confidence and establish a rhythm. However, Robert Garcia, the hot trainer du jour of American boxing, had Rios come out at mid-range, providing Pacquiao with the ability to set the tempo and fire his best punches. From my perspective, this was an epic failure from Garcia.
Instead, the trainer wanted Rios to establish the jab and work on his straight right hand. But Rios was far too slow to accomplish these goals. And at no point in the fight did Rios make a concerted effort to sell-out for an inside brawl. When Rios did his best work, it was because Pacquiao stopped engaging and allowed himself to get tied up. There, Rios did an excellent job of hitting Pacquiao with his free hand in clinches, specifically with his straight right hand and right hook to the body. If Pacquiao were less cooperative, then Rios wouldn't have even had those good moments.
What most irks me about Rios' performance is that he wasn't put in the best position to win. I'm not saying that Rios had a good shot, but he had a shot, and that was to make the fight as uncomfortable for Pacquiao as possible. This meant battering Pacquiao on the inside and applying lots of pressure.
It's quite possible that Garcia applied some wrong lessons from Pacquiao's last Marquez fight. Yes, Marquez ended things with one shot, but Marquez is and has been one of the best counterpunchers of his generation, not to mention a supremely intelligent fighter. Even with these skills, it took Marquez four fights to put Pacquiao on the canvas. Maybe Garcia thought that Pacquiao was damaged goods – that Rios’ best chance was to wait for a Pacquiao mistake and get him with a clean shot. But I believe that this was a miscalculation by Garcia, a mistake of KYP – know your personnel. Rios certainly didn't possess the same one-punch power that Marquez did. He also lacked the technical ability, accuracy and hand speed of the Mexican master.
I'm sure that Garcia saw some things to employ from Marquez's knockout performance. Maybe if he had a welterweight version of Nonito Donaire, who can counter with the best of them, then Garcia's plan could have been put to action. But in the ring this weekend, Garcia had Rios – a limited and crude slugger who is only at his best when coming forward. In Rios' most memorable performances, he went after his prey like a rabid dog. He walked through fire to land shots and kept coming. Against Pacquiao, that dog remained on its leash.
Garcia's strategy had additional blowback for Rios in that fighting Pacquiao at mid-range zapped him of his confidence. Very quickly Rios realized that he couldn't match Manny's speed or creativity in the pocket. As the fight progressed, Rios never stopped trying to land, but he didn't display that dogged pursuit of victory-at-all-costs that he did in his best professional moments. Ultimately, this weekend's fight was where Brandon Rios finally became acquainted with the concept of boxing mortality, which took the form of a lightning-fast southpaw with power from the Philippines.
Although I had Pacquiao winning via shutout, I don't think that his performance was perfect by any means. On the positive side of the ledger, Pacquiao did an excellent job of using his entire arsenal. His right hook was sharper than it had been in a long time. His right uppercut was also brought out of mothballs and was very effective. These punches were key in forcing Rios to concern himself much more with defense than applying pressure. Rios just didn't know where the shots were coming from.
Pacquiao's footwork was also very good. Often darting around Rios after a quick flurry, Pacquiao proved to be very tough to time and counter. In addition, Pacquiao made sure to get no closer than mid-range while the action was in the center of the ring, which further minimized the countering opportunities for the short-armed Rios. Pacquiao was still very offensive but he was also smart (for the most part). If this lack of recklessness made him less scintillating than he was during his prime, it still enables him to have a career at a high level. Trainer Freddie Roach did a nice job of instilling in Pacquiao how important the concept of range was for this fight.
However, there were two significant points of concern regarding Pacquiao's performance: occasional defensive lapses and curious decision making. Rios was still able to land some hard shots along the ropes and in clinches. At times, Pacquiao forgot that Rios needed a stationary target in order to score. I have no idea why Pacquiao gave Rios so many free shots during clinches, many of them of the head-snapping variety.
This is a major problem for Pacquiao as he heads towards the back part of his career. He'll most likely never be the firebrand who could throw 90 punches a round for 36 minutes. As he ages, he will need moments off during rounds, and he looked like a complete novice during the clinches against Rios. This area will have to be tightened up. Pacquiao also seemed completely disinclined to work in the trenches. If Rios had a free hand, most likely Pacquiao had one as well, yet where was his inside game? 
But in the aggregate, Pacquiao put himself back on the big-time prizefighting map with his performance. He'll have a number of options for a major fight next year. However, let's not read too much into his victory. Rios failed to implement the one strategy that could have won him the fight. Absent that, he really didn't have much of a chance. Credit Top Rank for its matchmaking but a defanged Brandon Rios is not a pure barometer of assessing Pacquiao’s current skill level.
Overall, I found the fight quite dull. After the first few rounds where Rios felt no urgency to press the action, the bout devolved into a ritual slaughter of an overmatched and underprepared fighter. The second half of the contest had the inevitability of an Alabama-Army college football game or a Brazil-Iceland soccer match.
Howard Foster ruined a great fight. Let's not couch this in euphemisms or soft-pedal it. He ruined it. George Groves, a sizable underdog, pasted Carl Froch around the ring for many of the early portions of the fight, including dropping him with a beautiful counter right hand in the first round. This was Groves' moment of glory, his professional coming-out party. No longer was he an inexperienced fighter; he was beating the best fighter in Britain in the center of the ring, and at his own game.
Slowly, Froch started to come back in the fight, doing good work to the body and landing some quality counter left hooks in exchanges. In the ninth, he broke through and hurt Groves with a right hand that pushed him back to the ropes. He followed shortly after with another right hand and a left hook. Groves tried to counter but got tagged by a couple more clean shots as he moved towards the center of the ring.
At this moment, Foster decided to stop the fight. Although hurt, Groves was still throwing back. He was aware of his surroundings. And while his body language was bad and his legs were wobbling, his condition was no different than thousands of fighters who are routinely allowed to continue in a similar state. It was an awful stoppage.
Foster made losers out of everyone on Saturday. Groves saw his moment of glory go up in smoke because of a scared ref who lacked that fortitude to let a fight continue. Froch was deprived of a potentially epic comeback, one that would be viewed as legitimate. And fight fans were prohibited from seeing a definitive conclusion to some absolutely stirring action.
Quick stoppages in Britain have become an almost laughable problem in the jurisdiction. Whether it was this year's rematch between Kell Brook and Carson Jones or the Dereck Chisora-Malik Scott phantom "10-count," bad stoppages have plagued recent British boxing. Saturday's decision was the culmination of a bad pattern of cutting action short, most often to help the house fighter. And make no mistake; even though both Froch and Groves are Matchroom fighters, Froch was the international meal ticket.
I often appear on the Boxing Asylum podcast, where erudite British boxing observers like Kurt Ward, Andy Paterson and Alex Morris frequently bemoan the state of officiating in the U.K. And it's not just one official. It's Foster or Ian John-Lewis or Phil Edwards or Terry O'Connor. Quick British stoppages have continued to intensify over the last few years and the (valid) concerns of the Boxing Asylum group is that these decisions will stigmatize British boxing, resulting in fewer international fights on home soil.
The British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC) needs to realize that these types of stoppages are bad for business. And although developing British fighters are stuck with these local officials, international fighters have no such compulsion to ply their trade under the same conditions. As an example, why would a fighter like Andre Ward want to square off in a rematch with Froch in England if he knows that the fight will be stopped at the first sign of trouble? Meanwhile, a quality American referee like Tony Weeks, Kenny Bayless or Steve Smoger would be more inclined to let the fight last to its definitive conclusion. This is an issue that needs to be addressed by the BBBofC, or the jurisdiction does risk the loss of attractive and lucrative fights. Hometown stoppages happen everywhere, but this problem is pervasive in British boxing. 
With that said, a couple of more points about Froch-Groves:
I didn't give Groves much of a chance to beat Froch. So let me start by giving him major props for his effort. Groves' past trainer was Adam Booth, a talented coach, but one who is impressed by his own cleverness and cunning. Booth often opts for conservative and technical game plans. With only a short time to work with a new trainer, I expected Groves to continue down the Booth path. I thought that Groves would utilize his legs and boxing ability to take advantage of his foot and hand speed advantages.
But Groves' new trainer, Paddy Fitzpatrick, had a startling game plan. He realized that Groves would have ample opportunity to land his lead right hand over Froch's low left or counter with the right when Froch shot lazy jabs. And he wanted Groves to capitalize on this advantage from the outset, and in the center of the ring. He believed that Froch would present his flaws early and Groves' speed advantage could quickly establish the tone of the fight. Fitzgerald was 100% right. 
What was most surprising was not Groves' hand speed but his power. Froch, known for having a granite chin, was rocked throughout much of the fight by Groves' right. During the opening frames, Groves wasn't just quicker, but stronger. The SKY TV commentators were wondering if Froch had gotten old overnight, or if Groves was just successful in making Froch look old.
And while some on social media were wondering why Groves continued to go for the jugular as the fight progressed instead of boxing more conservatively, two of the judges only had Groves up by one point in the ninth. Fitzpatrick knew that Groves was the underdog and not the crowd favorite. He was instructing Groves to stay on the gas because he knew that the judges could be inclined to favor the champion in close rounds. (For the record, I had Groves up by three points prior to the stoppage.) 
Ultimately, one knock on Groves was how he handled himself in the ninth round. By this point of the fight, he couldn't tie up effectively when hurt (he was much better at this earlier in the bout). In the final moments, Groves gave Foster an excuse to stop the match. Instead of swinging back wildly, Groves should have used his energy to tie up, or use the ring to evade more trouble. Yes, he showed a fighter's heart and instinct by firing back, but his actions also helped lead to his loss. With a more just ref, he would have been able to continue, but he was in bad shape and didn't look like he was handling himself well in the ring.
Froch has faced perhaps the most daunting slate of any professional boxer of this era and has been in a lot of wars. At 36, it's tempting to say that he's on the decline. But I'm not ready to subscribe to this viewpoint yet. Froch looked just as bad in the first half of his title defense in 2009 against Jermain Taylor as he did on Saturday. Froch just struggles with quicker boxers. In the first part of the Taylor fight, Froch looked like he didn't belong in the same ring as the American. But, as he did on Saturday, he found a way back into the fight with body shots and hard power punches.
Froch was in bad shape early against Groves, but by the third round he was whipping right hooks to the body. He may not have won many of the early rounds, but he was investing to the body for later in the fight. In the final moments before the stoppage, it was clear how hurt Groves was. His faculties were lessened, his movements lacked fluidity and his resistance was weakened. Carl Froch was the one who was responsible for that – after being knocked down, after being battered relentlessly. His comeback demonstrated the resolve of a true champion. 
I hope that the rematch happens. Both fighters will clearly learn from Saturday. Perhaps Froch underestimated Groves' strength and he will have to use a tighter jab and engage more purposefully. Maybe Groves will fight more in stretches and not enter into a wall-to-wall slugfest. Froch has proven himself in wars and perhaps Groves' path to ultimate glory will be more of a technical variety. Let them settle it definitively in the ring. And give Tony Weeks the referee assignment.

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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1 comment:

  1. Judicious, perceptive, erudite ... writing like this reminds me why I continue to love boxing. We have to love the Pac-Man, too, for his humanity. His comments about holding back against a defenseless opponent has special point when two fighters languish in intensive care with critical brain injuries.