Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Opinions and Observations: Chavez, Salido, Burns and Abraham

Attempting to right the wrongs of his last outing against Bryan Vera, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. came into the Vera rematch a half-pound under the super middleweight limit (in the first fight, an indifferent and out-of-shape Chavez was gifted a decision). That Chavez making weight was cause for a minor celebration in boxing circles is a fine example of how significantly the expectations for his career have diminished. 

This was a make-or-break fight for Chavez. Having burned the good will of many of his fans by giving lackluster efforts, embarrassed his promoters by being out-of-shape and failing drug tests and clashed with trainers who had the fortitude to ask him to get out of bed on a consistent basis, Chavez needed to beat Vera convincingly, or his role as a major figure in boxing was over. In a striking example of dwindling enthusiasm for Chavez, Saturday's attendance at the Alamodome in San Antonio was well off of what the famous Mexican scion drew for his fight at the same location against Marco Antonio Rubio in 2012. 

It was clear from the outset of Saturday's rematch that Chavez had heeded the warnings about his perilous future in big-time boxing. In a major contrast to the first fight, he started out the match by pumping his jab, using his legs and letting his power shots go. Vera, armed with confidence and pluck, stuck with the same formula that had worked so effectively first fight – strafing Chavez with short right hands and attempting to keep Chavez from using his size to his advantage by continually working on the inside. 

But with as many clean blows as Vera landed in the opening half of the rematch, his power shots couldn't compare to those landed by Chavez. One eye-catching right hand by Chavez equaled three or four clean connects by Vera. But the fight wasn't about volume vs. quality. Chavez held his own with Vera throughout the bout in terms of the number of landed punches. With that near equivalence, it was easy to shade the rounds to Chavez's side. 

The second half of the bout featured the type of punishing body work that Chavez had displayed at his best. Digging left and right hooks to the body and mixing in right hands upstairs, Chavez's blows made audible thuds as they landed. Throughout the latter part of the fight, Vera kept working, having success with some solid uppercuts and multi-punch flurries, especially after a hard Chavez shot. But the more effective punches were landed by Chavez, who also had the edge in ring generalship by fighting the battle on his terms. It wasn't a hard bout to score. The final tallies were 117-110 (x 2) and 114-113, which was certainly a curious card, all for Chavez (I had it 116-111 Chavez). 

Although Chavez will always be a flawed fighter – his chin is so good that he often doesn't bother to evade shots, his footwork can get clumsy and he is susceptible to movers – he showed on Saturday why he can be a fun attraction. His power is impressive, he has a true fighter's temperament and he goes to the body unmercifully. In addition, he creates enough antipathy among many segments of boxing fans that they tune in to see if he will receive his proper comeuppance. In short, he can be a damn good heel. With his incessant whining to referees, a healthy sense of entitlement and the degradation of the famous Chavez warrior code, it's easy to see why he's not everyone's favorite fighter.

Irrespective of his various dramas outside the ring, it's clear that Chavez has developed quite a bit over the last few years. Remember that as young fighter Chavez was often nothing more than a great left hook. Watching him pulverize Vera with straight right hands, it occurred to me how far he has come with the punch. In addition, although he takes a ton of shots, he is also quite capable of blocking and parrying blows. And he's not a blob in the ring when in shape; he can move a little. 

In the 12th round, Chavez received criticism for running around the ring and doing some clowning. Yes, he didn't go for the jugular. But looking at it another way, was anyone else impressed with Chavez using movement, head feints and misdirection to evade Vera's constant aggression? I certainly was. Did anyone think that Chavez had the defensive or athletic skill set to actually be a runner if he had to? I gave Chavez the 12th for he had a clear knockdown at the end of the fight with a short right hand. Referee Rafael Ramos missed it so you can't give Chavez a 10-8 round without the knockdown being called, but the punch and result happened, and it was the most significant moment of the round. To sum up, Chavez successfully clowned Vera and knocked him down in the same round. I say he won that. 

Chavez's constant barking to the referee about infractions real or perceived can be grating, but notice how he was able to work the ref to deduct a point from Vera. Before our eyes, Chavez has developed a bevy of veteran tricks.  And it's not as if Chavez is a particularly clean fighter. He certainly leans in with his head, pulls down opponents with his hands on their necks and strays below the belt from time to time. 

Throughout the HBO telecast, the announcing crew bemoaned Vera's lack of a body attack against Chavez. The thought process was that good work downstairs would slow Chavez down in the later rounds. Respectfully, let me disagree with that brand of conventional wisdom and substitute a more pressing one in its place. Here's an important boxing adage: "Don't hook with a hooker." And Chavez certainly has one of the best left hooks in the sport.  If Vera stood in the pocket and traded hooks with Chavez downstairs, he wouldn't have made it out of the fight, and he knew that. Saturday's version of Chavez was in shape and letting his hands go. It would have been a supreme folly for Vera to put himself in position to receive dozens of additional pulverizing body shots. Actually, Vera's game plan on Saturday was the correct one; it's just that Chavez is the better fighter. 

Let's remember who Bryan Vera is. He's a natural middleweight who was brought in originally to make Chavez look good after a long layoff. Vera is a spoiler. Given a fighter who is having an off-night, like Chavez or Andy Lee, Vera is certainly capable of springing an upset. But when better talents are near their best, Vera will lose. This isn't a knock on Vera, who has made a career for himself by being television-friendly and ready to fight. It's just that Saturday was a true reflection of the fighters’ respective talent levels. 

Chavez had size, reach and power advantages, to say nothing of a famous last name that judges seem to like. That Vera should have won their first fight is a wonderful testament to his conditioning, fighting spirit and the guidance of trainer Ronnie Shields. However, at their best, Chavez is a superior talent. Vera was good on Saturday. He fought energetically and wasn't there to lose or collect a paycheck. He landed many of his best punches and he showed an almost superhuman chin (I still have no idea how he remained standing after receiving that hellacious right hand from Chavez in the 11th round), but he was outclassed. 

Vera will be back probably at the ESPN-level for a fight or two, but you can bet that there will soon be a young veteran who needs to be tested, and Vera might be just the guy to add another unexpected upset to a solid career. 

As for Chavez, he has some interesting potential opponents for later in the year, such as Andre Ward, Gennady Golovkin or Carl Froch. Ward may be the biggest money fight of the bunch but I think that Froch is the way to go. Froch certainly has some boxing skills although he can be hit. In addition, he has a fighting spirit that would give Chavez no quarter. That fight could be a bloody, bloody affair. I'm less interested in a possible Golovkin matchup in that I would like to see GGG beat some top middleweights before moving up to 168. 

With his performance on Saturday, Chavez put himself right back in the big-fight picture. Boxing is more enjoyable with an engaged Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in the ring. I want to see more of that fighter in the coming years. 


The Chavez-Vera II undercard featured a fascinating bout between Orlando Salido, a tough veteran featherweight who had just regained a title belt, and Vasyl Lomachenko, a supremely decorated amateur fighter who was attempting to win a world title in just his second pro bout. 

(Lomachenko's number of professional bouts is a point of contention in that he fought in the World Series of Boxing prior to turning pro. His fights under this aegis featured no headgear, professional scoring and payment for his services. However, the gloves used in that series are bigger than professional ones and the World Series of Boxing fights are sanctioned by the international amateur boxing entity that runs Olympic boxing. This issue remains unresolved but for this article I will refer to Saturday's fight as Lomachenko's second pro bout.)

Lomachenko's desire to fight for a belt in his second pro outing seemed to split boxing fans down the middle. On one hand were those who were dismayed by Lomachenko's sense of entitlement without properly paying his dues in the pro ranks. That he was fighting a hard-nosed veteran like Salido, who had to earn everything in his career the hard way, made the contrast more striking. Salido didn't even sniff a title shot until his 34th fight and didn't officially win his first belt until his 47th bout, 14 years into his boxing career! (He did have an earlier title bout win against Robert Guerrero changed to a "no-contest" after he failed a drug test.) To these boxing fans, Lomachenko had done nothing to earn a title shot. (Here's where I say that having to "earn" something in modern boxing is a wonderfully archaic and precious worldview. Scores of fighters have won title belts without "earning" or "deserving" it. But I digress.) 

On the other side of the fence were a large portion of boxing fans who wanted to witness history. Lomachenko, with an amateur record of 396-1, might have been one of the best amateurs in boxing history. The thinking was that after almost 400 amateur fights and an impeccably sterling record, Lomachenko was certainly capable of competing against the best. If Lomachenko were to win, that victory would be of historical import in the sport, an indelible demarcation of greatness in the boxing ring. 

After 12 rounds, I'm not sure that either camp was satisfied. Salido won a split decision, by scores of 116-112, 115-113 and 113-115 (I also had it 115-113 for Salido). After the fight, many media members (especially Chris Mannix from Sports illustrated) seemed to delight in Lomachenko's loss. To them, it demonstrated their belief in the development rituals for young fighters. "This is the way it's supposed to be," and wonderful heuristic comments expressing opinions of that variety. 

To their point, Lomachenko seemed unprepared for Salido's rugged style and committed body attack. In the amateur ranks, which featured the punch-counting system that incentivizes clean, scoring blows, body shots were not rewarded the same way that they can be in the pros. Even in professional fights, body shots are often missed by judges, but there can be no argument about their effectiveness against inflicting damage upon opponents. Furthermore, Salido mixed in numerous extra-legal body punches, going low with dozens of hooks to hip, leg and groin. Welcome to the pros, kid.

Lomachenko didn't deal with Salido's pressure well. He failed to indicate the illegal blows to the ref. He didn't return unfriendly fire below the belt. For the first six rounds, Lomachenko wouldn't let his hands go with enough consistency to win rounds. He also held incessantly. (All around, ref Laurence Cole did an awful job by not taking points away from either fighter. His dreadful performance is certainly not a new phenomenon.)

However, Lomachenko's detractors certainly wouldn't have expected that the one to tire in the second half of the fight would be the more seasoned professional fighter. From the eighth round on, Lomachenko really stepped on the gas. He showed an excellent jab, a stinging straight left hand and the ability to string together very effective combinations. By the 12th round, Salido looked like he was ready to go down. Lomachenko tried everything he could to get Salido to the canvas, but the veteran stayed up on his feet. If the fight had gone on any longer, Lomachenko would have been poised for a knockout, but alas it didn't happen. 

Thus, from my perspective, Lomachenko clearly exhibited that he belonged in the ring with a top guy in the division, but his lack of refinement in the pro ranks probably cost him the fight. His inability to finish Salido, or, at least, put him down on the canvas, clearly hurt him. How to stop an opponent is one of the aspects of boxing that is learned as a fighter develops in the professional ranks. Amateur boxing incentivizes clean connects, not administering hurt. When Lomachenko had Salido ready to go, he lacked the technical ability and experience needed to finish the fight. 

In addition, Lomachenko's team showed that they were not yet ready for prime time. Salido came in two-and-a-half pounds overweight for the fight. Instead of mandating a Saturday morning weigh-in for Salido, Lomachenko's team issued no further conditions on his opponent. Thus Salido came into the fight at a monstrous 147 pounds while Lomachenko only rehydrated to 136; this was an opportunity missed. I think that Team Lomachenko's hubris got the best of them. 

On a similar note, there's a very good chance that had Salido rehydrated to a lower weight that his body shots could have had less sting than they did early in the fight. Perhaps Lomachenko would have let his hands go more freely in the first few rounds if Salido's shots were less forceful. 

From a technical perspective, I was disappointed by Lomachenko's lack of lateral movement. He had a fighter coming right at him and he rarely stepped around, employed angles to initiate offense or used the ring to his advantage. He essentially fought Salido's fight. Lomachenko can clearly move in the ring but his inadequacy in this area was the result of poor guidance from his trainer (who also is his father) or bad preparation coming into the fight. Salido is a meat-and-potatoes type of fighter. Lateral movement certainly should have been part of Lomachenko’s fight plan. 

Nevertheless, Lomachenko's loss wasn't a grand tragedy for his career. He clearly has the skills and endurance to compete at the sport's highest levels. He lost by two points; that's it. Sure, he perhaps lacked the professional polish and experience to close out the fight, but let me reiterate, he was the one with the chance to close out the fight, not the rugged bogeyman Salido, who was holding on for dear life while waiting for the final bell to sound. 

I wouldn't be surprised if Saturday may have been Salido's last stand as a top fighter. Unlikely to make featherweight in the future, Salido will move up to 130 lbs. He has been knocked down in four of his last eight fights and was almost stopped by Lomachenko. I'm not sure his body can still withstand the rigors of a 12-round fight the way it used to. Salido has been a pro for 18 years and has been in a number of wars. It's possible that he can make hay in a fairly weak 130-lb division, but it wouldn't shock me if we start to see a fast deterioration. Salido has provided many entertaining fights in his career, but he's also used some shortcuts outside of the ring. At 33, I'd be surprised if he's still a factor on the world-level at 35; I hope I'm wrong. 


Let's start at the end with the Ricky Burns-Terence Crawford fight. Crawford won a unanimous decision, with scores 116-112 (x2) and 117-111. (I also had it 117-111, and many other boxing observers had Crawford winning by even wider margins.) That result wasn't surprising to me. In my estimation, Crawford had superior athleticism, hand speed and power. Burns' two advantages were experience and the home Scotland crowd. As long as Crawford didn't become intimidated by the hostile environment, I believed that he would win convincingly. 

Crawford certainly showed that he was the better fighter on Saturday, yet I felt like he could have done a lot more. A natural orthodox fighter who often switches to the southpaw stance, Crawford spent probably 60%-70% of the fight as a left-hander. From the southpaw stance, he did an excellent job of neutralizing Burns' offense; it's just that he didn't have much success of his own offensively as a southpaw, minus the right jab and a few straight left hands. When he was orthodox, Crawford let his hands go more freely (a point that Jim Watt also made on the Sky broadcast) and had significant success with a wide array of punches, specifically his left hook to the body. It's true that Crawford ate a few more shots as an orthodox fighter, but Burns' power hardly affected him; Crawford left some opportunities on the table. 

In rounds five, six, seven and eleven, I believe that Crawford had Burns hurt. Burns has been a durable fighter throughout his career, but he hasn't looked to be a top fighter since his victory over Kevin Mitchell in September of 2012. He escaped with a victory over Jose Gonzalez after the younger fighter fell apart and he earned a dubious draw against Ray Beltran, a decision that even his own promoter thought was unwarranted. No, Burns was on borrowed time as a champion. I think that Burns could have been taken out by Crawford, but Crawford let him off the hook.

If I'm critical of Crawford's performance it's because I see a much higher ceiling for him than he has exhibited in the ring to this point. He is a defensively responsible boxer who understands distance extremely well for a young fighter. He has significant athletic gifts, a good amateur pedigree and a high ring IQ. But I do have real questions about his temperament in the ring. 

Let's face facts. Crawford was on the road against a promoter who has pulled out many favorable decisions in recent years. Crawford needed to leave no doubt in the judges’ minds that he was the clear victor in the fight. Instead, Crawford was content to do just enough to pull out many of the rounds. Again, I thought that Crawford won fairly comfortably, but I have seen far worse robberies in boxing. 

In addition, if Crawford hopes to have a lucrative career in the sport, he needs to provide more excitement during his fights (he clearly won't win fans over with his taciturn interviews outside the ring). I'm not asking him to be a Brandon Rios-like hell-or-high-water pressure fighter who makes every fight a war. But I would like to see Crawford use his significant offensive gifts to make more of an impression. There are neutralizes at lightweight such as Richar Abril or Miguel Vazquez (both titlists by the way) who fight in their displeasing styles (grappler and runner, respectively) because they have to, but Crawford has more options. He has enough offensive talent to win with a more crowd-pleasing style. 

I don't know if Crawford is worried about his chin or if he lacks the desire to lay it out during a fight, but he can be more than he is. He possesses the tools to dominate, not just look good enough to win. 

In his current incarnation, Crawford will be a tough man to beat, but you could see a Miguel Vazquez outworking him or a Mikey Garcia having success with counter right hands when Crawford is a southpaw. Crawford is very good, but this version isn't unbeatable by any stretch. 

I'd like to see Crawford commit to a couple of fights purely as an orthodox fighter. I want to see him sit down on his shots and finish a capable fighter. In short, I'm hoping to see some attitude. 

As for Burns, he just isn't what he once was. Earlier in his career, he relied much more on his boxing skills and his ability to navigate the ring to gain an advantage. Now, he is fairly content to be a straight-line fighter – one who possesses good-but-not-great hand speed and only adequate power. I'm not sure he ever would have beaten Crawford, but he certainly could have given a better account of himself than he did on Saturday. The fighter who beat Mitchell, Moses and Katsidis was much more dynamic in the ring than the current version is.

In addition, he and his team seemed woefully unprepared to attack Crawford when the fighter turned southpaw. Burns essentially fired half-hearted jabs to Crawford's gloves and arms; occasionally he'd throw a right hand. It really wasn't an inspired effort. 

Burns is only 30, but he's had 40 fights and has been on the world level for eight years. At this point in his career, I think it will be up to him to decide if he really has the desire and will to continue to fight at the top level. I'm not sure whether he fell in love with his power as a result of the Mitchell knockout or if his athleticism has significantly declined, but if he really wants to make another run at the top of the division, he would benefit from watching the savvy fighter who outmaneuvered Katsidis in the ring, not the one who was there for the taking by Beltran or Crawford. It may be a long road for Burns to regain a world title, but it's attainable. First, he must realize that his current ring style just isn't going to cut it. 


Arthur Abraham's performance in his third fight against Robert Stieglitz on Saturday is why I can't quite count out guys like Burns and Salido from remaining in the top reaches of their respective divisions. At 34 and with 42 professional fights, Abraham, a past beltholder at super middleweight and middleweight, looked close to shot in his recent fights. Last year, he was thoroughly dismantled by Stieglitz in their rematch, getting stopped in four rounds to lose his title. Abraham's most recent two fights were against lesser opposition (Willbeforce Shihepo and Giovanni De Carolis) and he fought without much energy or purpose.  

Yet, despite his recent substandard performances, Abraham won a spirited split decision over Stieglitz in their rubber match on Saturday. Stieglitz used the same strategy that he employed in the second fight, bullrushing Abraham with aggression, but Abraham was ready for him – nimbly stepping aside and around Stieglitz's advances, tying up or unleashing stiff jabs and lead left hooks. 

In recent fights, Abraham basically camped out on the ropes. Covering up when an opponent advanced, he was happy to flash a couple of forays a round, hoping something hard landed that would benefit him later in the fight. His punch volume could be downright awful and his legs just didn't seem all that great anymore. But Abraham showed up in spectacular condition on Saturday; perhaps more importantly, he used that conditioning to win the fight. His jab was a real weapon and his punch volume was high enough to take rounds. His maneuvering around the ring was fantastic, not a skill that has often been associated with him in the past. 

The fight had a terrific ebb and flow where on my card Abraham won the first three rounds with some clever boxing. Stieglitz came charging back in the fourth through six rounds by actually taking the time to land shots instead of merely mauling Abraham. I thought that Abraham started to unleash his power in rounds seven through nine. He had some lovely, textbook lead left hooks and uppercuts to turn back the recklessly charging Stieglitz. But Stieglitz had a good 10 and first half of round 11. However, Abraham landed some bombs in the last half of the round that swung it in his favor. In the 12th, Abraham connected with a punishing right hand that dropped Stieglitz in the center of the ring. There were only a few seconds left on the clock when Stieglitz beat the count, and he was very lucky to make it to the final bell. 

(One quick note on the state of boxing officials in Germany: I think it says something rather telling that in a match in Germany between German-based fighters that the promoters still decided to use international officials. The ref and two judges were from America and the third judge was from England. That one camp didn't feel comfortable enough with German officials in his home country speaks volumes about the legacy of horrible verdicts that have been decided in that jurisdiction.)

The final scores were 114-111, 115-110 and 112-113 (both fighters were docked a point for fouls). I think that the two judges who had Abraham winning got it right – I scored it 115-110 for him. Ultimately, Abraham landed the better punches throughout more rounds of the fight and much of Stieglitz's work was of the ineffectively aggressive variety. Still, I'd love to see a fourth fight, but these two combatants don't particularly like each other and they also have different promoters; I don't think that a fourth fight will happen absent a mandatory situation. 

I expect Arthur Abraham only to fight in Germany throughout the rest of his career. Saturday's match drew five million viewers on German TV and he still can make seven-figure purses holding a title. (Stieglitz made $2.35M. Consider that for a minute. I bet there aren't a dozen fighters in the U.S. who make that per fight.)

In the U.S., nobody will write oversized coffee table books about the Abraham-Stieglitz trilogy, but it has provided excellent value over the three fights, with two hotly contested distance fights and a surprising stoppage. And while neither man will be a threat to defeat the Andre Wards of the world (Abraham had his chance and was soundly beaten), these two fighters demonstrate that at their best they can provide very entertaining prizefighting on a high level. Frankly, that's the name of the game.  

Ultimately, Abraham's performance on Saturday is another fine example of why the cliché "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" is often hogwash in boxing. Ask Bernard Hopkins, Floyd Mayweather, Wladimir Klitschko, Miguel Cotto or Juan Manuel Marquez about that silly piece of language. Top boxers know that they can always improve. In fact, many of them know that they have to get better to remain ahead of the competition. Ricky Burns will now have to discover what Abraham has recently learned, to stay on top demands significant and constant adaptations. 

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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