Monday, April 28, 2014

Opinions and Observations: Matthysse, Thurman and Figueroa

Although it wasn't the main event of Saturday's fight card, the battle between Lucas Matthysse and John Molina captivated boxing audiences and will surely be in the discussion for year-end awards. Molina, who was a heavy underdog, got off to a blazing start, scoring a knockdown in the second, stunning Matthysse a few other times and getting credit for a second knockdown in the fifth. But Matthysse rallied and took control in the second half of the fight, dropping Molina in the 8th, 10th and ending it in the 11th after referee Pat Russell waved the bout off after a third knockdown. 

The last six rounds of the fight were what was expected going into this matchup, with Matthysse having too much power and boxing ability for the cruder Molina, who can be one-dimensional winging power shots. What was unanticipated was Matthysse's difficulty in taking Molina's punches. Prior to Matthysse's fight with Danny Garcia, he was thought of as having an iron chin, a knockout artist who had full confidence in his beard. In the Garcia fight, Matthysse went down in the 11th, more from being out of position than hurt by a huge shot; however, Saturday was something different. I don't think that Molina even landed his best right hand in the second, yet Matthysse dropped to the canvas. Sure, Molina has good power, but he's not Randall Bailey or Julian Jackson in the ring.

What I found most distressing about Saturday was 157 – Matthysse’s unofficial weight going into the fight. Rehydrating 17 pounds after the weigh-in is a sure sign that he had trouble making weight and/or he spent much of training camp losing pounds instead of keeping in shape while he was out of the ring. His legs didn't look good in the early rounds. Couple Matthysse's conditioning issues with his pattern of slow starts (which had gotten better recently) and Molina's early success can be even better understood. 

Ultimately, I don't think that Matthysse is long for the junior welterweight division. His power will still play up at 147 and he could be a factor in the division – very similar to the success that his countryman Marcos Maidana has had at welterweight. Sure, Matthysse might continue at 140, but it's possible that physically he is taking too much out of himself to make weight. 

However, what won't play up for Matthysse at 147 is his bad decision making. Matthysse started the fight trying to end it with every shot, unloading huge right hands and left hooks. With those wide punches, Molina could successfully land in between them. Once Matthysse decided to use his jab to initiate offense, the fight became easy. Matthysse has developed bad habits over the years. Now he immediately expects to knock out opponents. He can be a very competent pressure-style boxer/puncher when he wants to be, but when he is in pure knockout mode he leaves himself way too open. Matthysse has enough pure power that knockouts will come without having to load up on shots, but he hasn't fully bought into that approach, which is to his detriment.  

It was a thrilling fight, but much of the reason why it was so memorable can be attributed to Matthysse's strategic mistakes and conditioning issues. He can be an undisciplined fighter and he takes a number of rounds to make adjustments. Yes, he rallied with heroic conviction and he is as entertaining as anyone in boxing, but the more I see him, the less I think that he can be an elite guy. In my estimation, his ceiling has been lowered. He is certainly capable of winning a title or two before his career is over but he can be outthought, outboxed and now we know that his chin can be dented. These are not wonderful trend lines. 

Let's give Molina credit for giving himself the opportunity to win the fight. Moving up from 135 to 140, he was brought in to lose. However, Molina didn't succumb to intimidation. He had the right game plan and was in excellent condition. His right hands were pulverizing and put the whole division on notice. Molina's defense is entirely too leaky to be a well-rounded guy but he's become a hell of a one-trick pony. If he learns to put a few punches behind his right hand he could be even more successful. I'm not a huge believer in good losses in boxing but if there is such a thing, Molina had one on Saturday. He'll have lots of options for a meaningful fight in the near future.

Finally, I'm tired of Pat Russell blowing fights. In my opinion, he called two bullshit knockdowns in the match (Matthysse going to the canvas in the fifth, which was a shot behind the head, and Molina dropping in the eighth, which was a flagrant push by Matthysse). In the last few years, Russell, 65, has made poor calls in Bradley-Provodnikov and Hopkins-Dawson I that are frankly inexplicable. It's as if the sport is moving too fast for him and he resorts to making it up as he goes along. Friends of mine in California tell me that Russell was once the best ref in the state; well, those days are long gone. Give that man his gold watch; it's time. 

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My lasting image of Keith Thurman's fight with Julio Diaz was the final one: the look of sheer disgust on Thurman's face when Diaz didn't come out for the fourth round. Most fighters would be content with the victory and the short night's work but Thurman is cut from a different cloth. He wanted to cause more damage; he wanted to impart a more thorough beating. 

Due to a rib injury, Diaz chose not to continue after the third round, which was actually the most competitive one of the fight. Diaz, 34 and a survivor of many wars, knew what he was up against. He had already been dropped in the second round from a left hook and understood that Thurman wasn't the type of fighter to mess around with when functioning at far less than 100%. Diaz made a calculated decision for his future after boxing and subsequently retired after the fight. The young gun had too much for him. 

Thurman now features five punches that range from above average to devastating (in no order: jab, left hook, right hand, left and right uppercut). He is athletic, goes to the body with force and has a fighting temperament that demands carnage. In short, he very well may be the goods. Yes, I didn't like how he got caught with a few overhand rights from Diaz and he can still get too wide with his shots on occasion, but he continues to improve. 

It will be fascinating to see what Golden Boy does with Thurman. Already Robert Guerrero and Marcos Maidana have turned down fights with him. He holds the interim WBA title and Maidana is the regular champion. Maidana's title will be put in play on Saturday against Floyd Mayweather. In the most likely scenario, Mayweather defeats Maidana, which should bode well for Thurman. Although Mayweather fights whomever and whenever he wants, if he decides to face Thurman in September or next year, then that is a great opportunity for the kid. If Mayweather decides to drop the belt, Thurman may pick up a title by default, which will also lead to bigger fights.  

Thurman, at 25, is 23-0 with 21 knockouts. He is bright, personable and would be a welcome addition to the sport's grandest stages. Although he has yet to defeat a top fighter, his power and temperament would be a challenge for almost anyone in the division. If he got the Mayweather shot, he'd be a healthy underdog – and deservedly so – but he would promote the shit out of that fight and make legions of new fans along the way. As choices go for Mayweather, he would be high up on my list. 

The concern with Thurman is that he could develop bad habits if his level of competition is not increased. Similar to Matthysse, who has truly fallen in love with his power, Thurman could start to slide if he's not appropriately challenged. Through caution or neglect, Thurman has had a lot longer time to develop than many other fighters in Golden Boy's stable; however, the company's job is not complete. It must push the fighter or his star wattage could dim. I would put Thurman in the ring with anyone at 147 and I hope that Golden Boy feels the same way about him. His time is now. 

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One year ago, Omar Figueroa destroyed Abner Cotto in the first round. After that fight, Figueroa was thought of as a rare kind of young talent, a volume pressure fighter with incredibly heavy hands. Three months after that fight, Figueroa administered an epic beating to Nihito Arakawa, a game but outgunned challenger who refused to go down. After that fight, Figueroa had serious hand problems. He finally reentered the ring on Saturday against Jerry Belmontes, a fellow Texan who had lost three of his last five fights.

Belmontes did have one ace in the hole for Saturday's fight; he had beaten Figueroa five times in the amateurs. As early as the first round it was clear that Belmontes had a strong understanding of how to trouble Figueroa. Using spacing, movement and well-timed combinations and right hands, Belmontes immediately established his presence in the fight. 

The first four rounds of the match were actually quite special. Belmontes decided to mix up periods of boxing with prolonged stretches of slugging it out in close quarters. During these exchanges, both fighters landed and ate a ton of shots. It wasn't enough for Belmontes merely to outbox Figueroa; he wanted to impose his will on him physically. However, I believe that Belmontes' willingness to trade was a mistake. He fought Figueroa's fight, giving his slower opponent a chance to tag him with big shots. 

The back part of the fight was fairly pedestrian. Belmontes would move around the ring, land a few shots and give Figueroa a chance to flurry with multi-punch combinations at short range. To my eyes, Figueroa's shots in the later rounds were mostly arm punches and lacked any real power, but he was busier at points. 

I had Belmontes winning five of the last six rounds to squeak by with a 115-113 victory. The final scores were 115-113 (Belmontes) 116-112 (Figueroa) and 118-110 (Figueroa). Most members of the media who were at ringside or on Twitter had Belmontes winning or at minimum earning a draw. David Mendoza's 118-110 card was truly awful. (His score reflects either incompetence or corruption. He should never be judging professional boxing again. Period.) 

Both fighters could have done more. Belmontes was too sparse with his punch output in the later rounds. Although I thought that his ring generalship, defense and clean punching won him more than enough rounds, he certainly surrendered the aggression (effective or not) to Figueroa. In addition, Belmontes' 12th round was a pitiful display from a challenger with a fight on the line. He did just enough to nick the round in my opinion, but he exhibited no sense of urgency. It's a real mark against him. 

Figueroa's deficiencies in the fight were even more problematic. He spent large portions of the bout following Belmontes around the ring without throwing punches. His footwork wasn't good enough to consistently trap Belmontes or cut off the ring. In addition, Figueroa's vaunted power had vanished. His left hook had hardly any snap to it and he resorted to arm punches for much of the fight. 

There was a thought that Figueroa was almost a second coming of Brandon Rios but Rios, at least until Pacquiao, was willing to sell out to win. On Saturday, Figueroa didn't show the same type of determination that he had against Arakawa, and that is troublesome. 

Figueroa most likely will get beaten by the top fighters at lightweight. His punching power seems a fraction of what it once was and his footwork is limited. Perhaps he will recover his power, but did Arakawa take something else out of him – the willingness to engage in a war? Without that, Figueroa doesn't offer the boxing public much else. Although only 24, we may have already seen the best of Omar Figueroa.

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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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Pound-for-Pound Update 4-17-14

Highlighted by Manny Pacquiao's unanimous decision win over Tim Bradley, there were a number of changes to the Saturday Night Boxing pound-for-pound list. A sluggish performance from Danny Garcia drops him a few spots while Anselmo Moreno rises with another dominant decision win. The specific changes are below with the new ranking listed first and the previous one in parenthesis. 

Manny Pacquiao 5 (7): With a big second half, Pacquiao won a unanimous decision over Tim Bradley. Although not the fastest or hardest-hitting version of Pacquiao, he may have turned in the smartest performance of his career. He made some key changes in shortening up his shots and taking fewer risks; he was also the better conditioned fighter. 

Tim Bradley 6 (5): Through the first six rounds against Pacquiao, it was anyone's fight. However, Pacquiao made adjustments while Bradley continued to load up on big shots. Ultimately, Pacquiao outworked and outhustled Bradley over the last half of the fight to win. It was a competitive outing for Bradley, just not enough to prevail. 

Danny Garcia 13 (10): Garcia squeaked by with a majority decision win over Mauricio Herrera in a fight where most observers had him losing. Garcia had a difficult time counteracting Herrera's jab, movement and short shots. Although the decision wasn't a classic robbery, Garcia's performance was clearly his worst as a world-level fighter. He drops three spots. 

Anselmo Moreno 14 (15): Moreno put together his second strong performance in a row after his loss to Abner Mares by cruising past Javier Chacon. Moreno also scored two knockdowns in the fight. With Nonito Donaire's recent shaky performance against Vic Darchinyan, Moreno moves ahead of him in the Rankings. 

Here is the complete SNB Top-20 Fighters list:
  1. Floyd Mayweather
  2. Andre Ward
  3. Sergio Martinez
  4. Wladimir Klitschko
  5. Manny Pacquiao
  6. Tim Bradley
  7. Juan Manuel Marquez
  8. Guillermo Rigondeaux
  9. Carl Froch
  10. Roman Gonzalez
  11. Bernard Hopkins
  12. Adonis Stevenson
  13. Danny Garcia
  14. Anselmo Moreno
  15. Nonito Donaire
  16. Juan Estrada
  17. Takashi Uchiyama
  18. Mikey Garcia
  19. Gennady Golovkin
  20. Shinsuke Yamanaka
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
Follow Saturday Night Boxing on Facebook:

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Opinions and Observations: Pacquiao-Bradley II

There's a fascinating comparison to make regarding the relative confidence levels of Manny Pacquiao and Tim Bradley in their two fights. Twenty-two months ago, Pacquiao got off to a rousing start, banging Bradley around the ring with hard left hands and superior hand speed. Bradley got spooked and went into a four-corner defensive style in the last third of the fight. Perhaps out of overconfidence, Pacquiao didn't feel the need to pursue Bradley in the closing moments with his typical fury. Bradley did enough to survive the fight, win a few rounds and gain an unjust unpopular split decision victory. 

In Saturday's rematch, Bradley was the one who opened the fight brimming with confidence. Landing a series of right hands from rounds three to six, Bradley showed that he could get to Pacquiao with his power shots and match him in the hand speed department. In many of these rounds, Bradley was the one successfully pushing forward and forcing Pacquiao into an unfamiliar role of the retreater. 

But adjustments were made and soon Pacquiao shortened his shots and stopped flurrying recklessly. Using essentially just his jab and straight left hand, Pacquiao consistently beat Bradley's home run bombs with shorter, well-placed shots. In the seventh and ninth rounds, Bradley tried to fight off of the ropes, hoping to force Manny into making a mistake. Here Pacquiao performed like a seasoned pro, landing two or three hard punches before stepping out to reset. He would then come in with a few more shots and exit again. It was a wonderful example of spacing, distance, effective pressure and composure. It reminded me of Mayweather's surgical work against Alvarez when he had him backed up against the ropes. 

By the 11th round, Bradley returned to the four-corner defense, where he would retreat around the ring and pot-shot Pacquiao with a punch or two before going on the run again. For the record, this was still an effective play for Bradley, but it was clear that this wasn't the statement that he wanted to make. In his mind, Bradley was there to impose himself and assert his dominance, not to craft his way to a decision. 

The final round essentially told the story of the last half of the fight where Pacquiao dug down to throw more shots while remaining defensively responsible. Bradley spent too much time waiting for the fight-ending shot that never materialized. 

It was a very competitive bout with great swings of action. Two of the scores (116-112) were just and the third was a little wide for my liking (118-110), but all three judges had Pacquiao winning, and deservedly so. (I scored it 115-113 Pacquiao.) 

Athletically, Pacquiao's performance was far less than what it was against Bradley in their first fight or Marquez in late 2012. Gone are the days of the swashbuckling, fearless aggressor who batters opponents with 75 punches a round, blinding hand speed, crushing power and wonderful angles. Pacquiao now fights with a lot of breaks. His volume is no longer troublesome. He feels comfortable with two-and-a-half punches (sometimes he will show a few right hooks). 

Although Pacquiao isn't the fearless gunslinger of the past, his new-found appreciation of ring mortality may have won him Saturday's fight. Where Pacquiao really distinguished himself in the rematch was his understanding of the realities of aging and the capricious nature of boxing judges. Pacquiao learned in 2012 that he could be stopped by either punches or rogue judges. After trading big shots through the early rounds against Bradley on Saturday, Manny realized that he couldn't afford to participate in that kind of war, not at 35, not with his mileage. For his career to continue at the highest levels of the sport something had to give, and to Pacquiao's credit he realized that jumping in recklessly, even though it delighted his fans, was not the way to win Saturday's match. He had to think his way through the fight, and he was ultimately successful. 

To my eyes, Pacquiao’s performance on Saturday wasn't one of his best from an aesthetic performance. It didn't resemble the "happy destructor" of his peak years. But Pacquiao showed a maturity and cerebral acuity that haven’t always been apparent throughout his career. In the past, when he was tagged with hard shots, his answer would always be to do more, fight harder; Saturday was an example of fighting smarter. That he prevailed with this strategy speaks to his ring IQ and his acknowledgement that Father Time may not be so far away – perhaps in the driveway, not yet knocking on the door.

Bradley received a lot of criticism for his game plan on Saturday, and in some cases deservedly so. Not a knockout puncher, Bradley loaded up on big shots but seemed to have emptied his tank by the later rounds. It was the first time that I had ever questioned Bradley's conditioning. 

But take a step back and his approach makes sense. He saw Pacquiao fade markedly in the first fight. I'm sure that the plan for the rematch was to hurt him early and weaken him significantly for the later rounds, where he could inflict more damage or even get a stoppage. Through six rounds, the strategy was working. Ultimately, the fight changed on Manny making an adjustment to go shorter with his shots and smarter with his approach. For Bradley, there wasn't a real Plan B, and that's where he deserves criticism. Through much of the back half of the fight, it seemed that Bradley had run out of ideas, deciding to double down on his plan to land power shots through hell or high water. Waving in Pacquiao to the corner was a desperate maneuver, an example where he was outthought and outcoached. 

However, let's not bury Bradley. He was far better on Saturday than he was in the first match. He did all sorts of clever things with his right hand through the first six rounds. He opened up Pacquiao by throwing hard rights to the body and then followed through with overhand rights as Pacquiao was backing up or trying to get out of the pocket. In addition, he clearly had studied Pacquiao's movement and was successful with throwing his overhand right to a spot, anticipating where Pacquiao would be. He landed several impressive blows. 

Perhaps Bradley outsmarted himself. Maybe he thought that there was no way that he could win a decision by boxing (the 118-110 card helps support his viewpoint). However, he didn't give himself the best chance to win the fight in the later rounds. I wish Joel Diaz, his trainer, would have said, "The fight's close. Just box him and keep throwing punches. You're right there." Instead, it slipped away.

Going forward, Bradley has to learn how to fight more intelligently when he is hurt. Winging wild, looping amateurish punches that hit mostly air is not a successful move against a patient power puncher. Although Bradley's fighting instinct is admirable, he would do much better by tying up and conserving energy. He was barely able to survive against Ruslan Provodnikov with this approach; it didn't work against Pacquiao. Bradley was running close to empty as the fight ended.

Bradley won't enjoy watching the tape from Saturday's fight. There were opportunities missed and places where he could have done more. Pacquiao was there for the taking, but at the final bell, Bradley lost the battles of resiliency and adjustments. 

After both fights, Bradley complained about foot and leg injuries. Watching Saturday's fight live, I could understand how Bradley might have hurt himself. Trying to gain angles, Bradley contorted his body in irregular ways and then unloaded unconventional punches with maximum torque. These aren't the types of movements that are regularly practiced at the gym and they looked uncomfortable just to execute. 

Although Bradley continues to demonstrate that he can compete with the best fighters at 147, he still needs to understand that being macho won't solve all of his problems in the ring. With only moderate power and a chin that can be dented, he will one day learn that fighting smarter, like he did against Marquez, will be his ticket to the top. He possesses the talent and versatility to get there but until he fully makes peace with who his best self is in the ring, he remains vulnerable to a variety of fighters. The numbers don't lie; the 12 KOs speak for themself.

As for Pacquiao, he guaranteed himself at least one more big fight. And although he might not be the whizzing specter flashing across the ring of yesteryear, in a diminished capacity he still beat a damn good fighter, legitimately and without controversy. In hindsight, the manner in which Pacquiao won on Saturday truly speaks to his greatness. Should this be the last truly significant victory of his career, it was one hell of a capper.

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
Follow Saturday Night Boxing on Facebook:

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Pacquiao-Bradley II: Keys to the Fight

The highly anticipated rematch between Manny Pacquiao (55-5-2, 38 KOs) and Tim Bradley (31-0, 12 KOs) takes place on Saturday at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas. Two years ago, Bradley was awarded a split decision victory; however, most boxing observers had Pacquiao winning comfortably. Since their first fight, Pacquiao was knocked out by his nemesis Juan Manuel Marquez. After a long time off, he came back to beat Brandon Rios decisively. Bradley had a triumphant 2013, squeaking by Ruslan Provodnikov in a tremendous fight and winning a split decision over Marquez. 

But what is the conventional wisdom for Saturday's rematch? Pacquiao is still seen as a favorite by the bookies (though a slight one) and Bradley doesn't seem to possess the power to knock out Pacquiao (he's had only one KO since 2007). How much has Bradley improved since their first fight and to what degree has Pacquiao declined from his peak? Does Pacquiao still have his finishing instincts? Are the intangibles all on Bradley's side? Read below for the keys to the fight. My prediction will be at the end of the article. 

1. What have they learned from their first fight?

In 2012, Bradley started off trying to outbox Pacquiao in the pocket and he got beaten up pretty badly through the first six rounds. With that strategy unsuccessful, he made some significant adjustments. In the last third of the fight, he started to box off of the back foot and had some moments of success by potshotting and throwing quick two-punch combinations. 

However, was that success a mirage? Did Pacquiao think that he was so far ahead that he took his foot off the gas, or was he genuinely flummoxed by Bradley's technical ability away from the pocket? This answer is pivotal to understanding how the rematch will play out. Although almost everyone in boxing circles thinks of Pacquiao as a fantastic aggressive fighter, most of his greatest triumphs have been against straight-line or older fighters. Bradley's combination of athleticism and movement may have significantly thwarted Pacquiao’s preferred way of attacking. Or maybe not. Perhaps Pacquiao just played it too safe closing out the fight. 

Has Pacquiao learned not to let up? He did face cramping issues in the first match and he certainly didn't attack Bradley in the last three rounds with the same type of zeal that he had earlier in the fight. Was it a conditioning problem? Bradley's style? A lack of killer instinct? Pacquiao knows that he has to fight three minutes a round for 12 rounds to win the rematch. There were too many gaps in the first bout and numerous times where he took breaks. Although I believe that he won fairly comfortably two years ago, he could have done more. 

2. Vulnerabilities since their last fight.

Both Pacquiao and Bradley have experienced rough moments since their match in 2012. Pacquiao was practically knocked back to the Philippines by Marquez while Bradley was only seconds away from getting KO'ed by Provodnikov. But what if anything can be learned from those fights for Saturday's rematch?

Personally, I think that Bradley could take a lot more from Pacquiao's fight with Rios than he could from the Pacquiao-Marquez IV result. I know that may sound strange but hear me out. Bradley isn't Marquez. He doesn't possess one-punch knockout power. He won't be gunning for the single-shot KO like Marquez was. With the exception of those two knockdowns by Marquez, Pacquiao was fighting at a very high level. There isn't a whole lot Bradley can incorporate from that fight other than if he possessed significantly greater power, he would have a chance to knock out Pacquiao.

However, I believe that there are certain takeaways from Pacquiao's (lack of) work during the Rios fight that can be exploited by Bradley. Most importantly, when tied up or at very close range, Pacquiao didn't want to work on the inside. Bradley can be very good fighting in close quarters, having success beating Devon Alexander and Lamont Peterson in that matter. If Bradley can successfully tie-up Pacquiao or half-clinch, where he would have a free hand, he could do some real damage. In addition, Pacquiao rarely throws his uppercut during inside scrums. Bradley could use his physicality to gain real edges. Rios also had some good moments when he backed up Pacquiao to the ropes. Bradley certainly has that skill set too. But, like Rios, he will have to take a lot of punishment to get there. 

Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, was in Provodnikov’s corner against Bradley and surely saw a number of things that helped his fighter throughout the match – Bradley made some strategic mistakes. One in particular was Bradley's willingness to be dragged into a brawl. But that wasn't just a one-time folly. Bradley also decided to stand right in front of Pacquiao during their first fight, perhaps the worst place to be in the ring. Although Bradley engaged in a disciplined fight against Juan Manuel Marquez, he can still be susceptible to admiring his work (not getting out fast enough after exchanges), especially when having success. 

Pacquiao isn't usually cagey and doesn't set a lot of traps, but I wonder if Roach has worked with him in this area for the rematch. I think that Bradley can be walked into a shot. Here are two examples: 

1. Bradley starts to get overconfident pushing Pacquiao back to the ropes. Pacquiao counters a lazy jab (which Bradley sometimes throws) with a right hook/straight left hand combination. 

2. Pacquiao counters a right "arm punch" from close range with two pulverizing straight left hands, putting Bradley immediately on the defensive. 

As good as Bradley can technically be, he will make these mistakes from time to time and Pacquiao needs to capitalize on them. 

3. For Bradley, anywhere but the pocket. 

Bradley had a rude awakening in the first fight when he realized that he couldn't match Pacquiao's hand speed in the pocket. Standing at mid-range, Pacquiao battered him. But as the fight progressed, he had success making Pacquiao stalk him. 

Taking the lessons from Pacquiao-Rios and his own fight with Marquez, where he used his boxing ability and movement to win, Bradley may have a number of ways to win rounds. I'd like to see him mug Pacquiao at close range or use the ring to pick spots and test Pacquiao's legs and stamina. Either of these tactics could conceivably work (and hopefully he mixes it up throughout the fight) but he must not stay in the pocket for any prolonged period of time. If Bradley has fully internalized this lesson, he is in a far better position than he was going into their first fight. 

4. Power. 

By all measures, Pacquiao has a decided power advantage over Bradley. However, Pacquiao hit Bradley with so many of his best shots in their first fight yet Bradley never went down. And although Bradley might not possess knockout power, his shots had enough on them to make Roach contemplate stopping the Provodnikov fight; in addition, he certainly staggered Marquez in their fight. Bradley can be a very accurate puncher and throws an array of shots. His punch placement and variety help make up for a lack of raw power. 

Pacquiao will do much better on Saturday if it's a dogfight. He needs to sell out with power shots early and make Bradley fight ragged, where he can be more susceptible to making mistakes. When Bradley is hurt, his impulse is to fire back wildly. Here Pacquiao needs to use his power and punch volume to get Bradley on the canvas. It may not be easy to knock Bradley out, but he can certainly be sent down to the ground. Pacquiao needs to press his advantages to shoot for 10-8 rounds whenever possible. 

Bradley has to land enough power shots to avoid getting steamrolled. He has every punch in the book and it will be important for him to mix in his left hook, right uppercut and looping right to keep Pacquiao honest and more tentative. Pacquiao is not necessarily a thinking’s man fighter, and when he doesn't know where the shots are coming from, he becomes far less aggressive. 

Bradley is also very good at cutting his opponents (it may not be a legitimate "skill," but let's not pretend it doesn't exist either). Pacquiao can be cut and if this scenario happens, Bradley will need to work on the cut like a seasoned veteran. This again may be more of a question of punch placement rather than sheer power. Bradley will have to set up shots to exploit this opportunity if it arises. 

5. The championship rounds.

We know one thing: Bradley won't fade. His conditioning is superb and his will, desire and self-belief give him the intangibles to pull out victories. Pacquiao has more of a mixed record in closing out fights. Marquez bested him in many of the late rounds in their first two fights but Pacquiao had a wonderful 12th in their third match. Pacquiao has also struggled to close against Clottey, Margarito and Bradley, although he was excellent finishing against Cotto, Morales in their second match and Barrera in their first battle. 

If the fight is close, which Pacquiao will show up on Saturday, the one who is the finisher or the one who lets up? If Bradley is down in the fight, he will put himself on the line to try and get the win. Will this make him more susceptible to knockdowns? Can he responsibly win rounds late in a close fight? He did so against Marquez. He was less successful against Provodnikov. His will is certainly unequaled but that doesn't mean he always makes the right decisions. Will his desire affect his better judgment?

Prediction:

I look at this fight the following way: Pacquiao throws the harder, flashier punches and he most likely will throw more of them. Bradley will have to win with savvy, guile and his ability to neutralize his opponent. Again, I wouldn't be surprised if Bradley decided to bring it to Pacquiao on the inside, rough him up a little and take him out of his comfort zone. But I'm not sure if that will be enough. Bradley will have to switch up tactics throughout the fight and stay clearheaded and purposeful with his approach in the ring. I think that he will have moments of the fight where he clearly gets the better of Pacquiao but ultimately, I'll take the guy whose punches are more impactful and galvanize the crowd. It will be a competitive fight, but Pacquiao's work rate and superior power shots will take the day. 

Manny Pacquiao defeats Tim Bradley 116-112, or 8 rounds to 4. 

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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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Opinions and Observations: Cunningham and Stevens

We never really know. We subject ourselves weekend after weekend to mismatches, showcases, stay-busy fights, undeserving mandatories, overhyped prospects, mediocre belt holders and all sorts of other atrocities for the hope of seeing something transformative. We stay in on weekends, miss social opportunities and put strain on relationships. All because we do know this one fact: when boxing is at its best, there is nothing better. 

So on Friday night we cleared our schedules for a rather unheralded NBC Sports Network card featuring two fights that looked nothing more than "interesting" on paper. But maybe this would turn out to be something, and we wouldn't forgive ourselves if we missed it. 

Steve Cunningham, the aged former cruiserweight champion who had struggled in his forays in the heavyweight division, was taking on Amir Mansour, a 41-year-old untested knockout artist who had spent much of his prime earning years not in the ring, but in a prison yard. The undercard featured Curtis Stevens against an unproven and very much unknown Tureano Johnson. Cunningham-Mansour figured to be an interesting fight in that it was a fairly classic clash between a chinny boxer and a raw slugger; those are often good matchups. For the undercard, perhaps Stevens would add to his highlight reel; he often has looked tremendous against boxers below the elite level. 

It was a random Friday in early April. Nothing much was expected other than maybe a diverting way to pass a few hours, a little something to give us fight fans our weekly fix. But it turned out to be something much more. For those fortunate enough to be watching, we were treated to easily the best U.S. boxing card of the year. Cunningham-Mansour featured three knockdowns, tremendous swings of action and one of the finest displays of heart you will see in a boxing ring. Stevens-Johnson was a savage phone-booth war. Moments away from a significant upset, the fight turned in the final round and featured a truly controversial stoppage. I was one of the lucky ones; I was there live. It was truly an unforgettable night at the fights in Philadelphia. 

The results from Friday imparted no new significance upon the greater boxing world. We still know that Stevens has a great left hook, that Cunningham is a fighter of great intestinal fortitude but chinny, that ref Steve Smoger has a particular brand of genius for knowing when to let fights go on even when most of his peers would stop them, that ref Gary Rosato is not Smoger and that Mansour has power and is raw (we did learn that Tureano Johnson is someone to keep an eye on). So there was no real new ground broken, but so what, we got wonderful entertainment, riveting action, boxers rising to the best of their abilities and fantastic matchmaking. 

Let's start at an inflection point for Cunningham-Mansour – the fifth round. Cunningham got knocked down in the second half of the round by a right hook that he never saw. Cunningham beat the count, but Mansour pounced on him immediately and he dropped to the canvas again. There's no reason to sugarcoat it; Cunningham was in bad shape. To those in the arena, the fight was as good as over. Some fans left their seats and headed to the exits feeling no need to stick around for the inevitable official announcement. Yet ref Steve Smoger, as he does with fighters, especially with those with whom he is familiar, gave Cunningham every chance to continue. He inspected Cunningham after the second knockdown and somehow let the match go on. Within seconds, the bell sounded and Cunningham was out of the round. 

I have no doubt that 80%-90% of the refs in professional boxing would have stopped the fight after that second knockdown. Hell, Gary Rosato waved off the opening match of the broadcast with the loser still on his feet and yet to go down. But Smoger has a different philosophy from most refs. From an interview I conducted with him in 2013:
  
 "[Y]ou know there are a lot of clich├ęs. 'Better a second too early than late,' for example. And everyone can hide behind safety, and no one is more concerned about safety than myself. But, you’ve got to let the fighters fight. I call it allowing the fight to come to its natural conclusion. Let the fighters decide the fight." 

What gives Smoger confidence in his judgment is his preparation for fights. While some refs choose not to learn too much about the boxers they are assigned to for fear of bias creeping into their decision making, Smoger believes that this information is imperative for making an informed judgment. From the same interview:

    ..."[I] want to know everything about the fighters that I’m assigned to. Do they have a tendency to get cut? Are they bleeders? Can they take a shot? What are their recuperative powers? I want to know more about their losses than their victories. I want to see, if they are not undefeated, who beat them and how."

Prior to Friday, Cunningham had been down five times in the last four years. In a fight against Troy Ross and two against Yoan Pablo Hernandez, Cunningham rallied after being down on the canvas (this also happened earlier in his career in his first bout against Tomasz Adamek). In his second match against Hernandez, Cunningham was down twice in the fourth round and yet was coming on strong by the end of the fight. This was the context that Smoger was working with on Friday. He had known about Cunningham's ring history and made his decisions accordingly. 

While many view Smoger's ability to extend fights that turn out to be compelling as almost a singular gift, he has continually produced these results only because of the sublime marriage of his philosophy with his preparation.  

What followed in the sixth round immediately rendered Smoger's decision prescient; Cunningham may have had the most impressive three minutes of his career. On wobbly legs, he delivered a master class on survival. Using the ring to his advantage, circling left and right, holding when appropriate, ducking shots and firing off a few right hands, Cunningham was the brilliant matador to Mansour's relentless bull. Fighting off of muscle memory, guile and sheer guts, Cunningham bought himself the time he needed to clear his head and he avoided further damage. It was a stunning display of craft of ring IQ. 

Within a few short minutes, Cunningham started to win rounds again. Showing spectacular defense and scoring with short right hands to the head and body, Cunningham's superior conditioning started to manifest. Mansour had only gone 10 rounds twice in his career and both of those contests were uncompetitive in later rounds. By the final round on Friday, Mansour was sucking on air and almost looked like he would go down on account of sheer exhaustion. And Cunningham was having a good final frame. In the latter stages of the round, he connected with a short right hand that stunned Mansour. After a few follow up punches, it was Mansour's turn to taste the canvas. It was an improbable turn of events in a wild fight; the crowd erupted for its hometown fighter.

When the final scores were announced, Cunningham raised his hands in exaltation. The 37-year-old won a hard-fought decision in front of his home crowd and a nationally televised audience. Although the victory may not have been the biggest of his career, it would certainly rank among his most satisfying, for Cunningham had often been a man without a home throughout his career, spending his salad days in Europe fighting in a division that was viewed as an afterthought in the U.S. Now he finally had the experience of enjoying pure, unadulterated euphoria in front of his own fans.  

As for Mansour, he was gracious in defeat. He showed throughout the fight that his power, however crude, was real. His wild left hands and right hooks gave Cunningham fits at points, especially in the first two rounds and in the fifth. On my card, he was in the fight until the very end. (The official scores were 95-92, 95-92 and 97-90, all for Cunningham – the 97-90 was far too wide. I had it 94-93 for Cunningham.) Mansour may only have a little time left to make a mark on the sport but his performance earned him another TV fight. After the bout, his level of respect for his opponent and his compassion for Cunningham's daughter – who suffers from a congenital heart defect – was touching. It was a wonderful display of sportsmanship in a sport often dreadfully lacking in that department. 

For Cunningham, he demonstrated how far conditioning, craft and intelligence can take you in the sport. As a heavyweight, he really doesn't have the punch or the chin to beat the very best; but don't tell him that. He's a proud man, a deeply religious one, and one who has often defied expectations. He will take on all comers until the ring retires him. For now, he lives to fight another day, and most likely as a headliner on another Main Events broadcast in the near future. 

As the Liacouras Center started to empty out in North Philly, I made my way down towards the ring. Cunningham walked out into the stands and received hugs and well-wishes from his supporters. The elation on his face was unforgettable. 

A couple of boxing writers and fans crowded around Smoger. I reintroduced myself to him and all who were there complimented him on his performance. He said to us, "Cunningham was lucid both times after he was knocked down. A referee should always use his powers of observation. I told Steve he had one more knockdown and then it was good night, and look how he responded." Smoger had to run to talk with some officials but said that he would come back shortly. 

Before his return to the group, a boxing acquaintance of mine approached Smoger. The acquaintance was distraught because he believed that Smoger had administered a long count during Cunningham's second knockdown, and he told him this, which essentially impugned Smoger's professionalism. In an instant, Smoger's sense of satisfaction from the evening turned to anger. "You know what," he said to the acquaintance. "Get the fuck out of here. Questioning my integrity. Go fuck yourself." It was a moment of pure New Jersey from Smoger. 

Smoger took a moment to settle down and I later had an opportunity to talk with him about the fight for a few minutes. I told him, "You know this fight will be one of those that add to your legacy."

"I know." He flashed a smile and walked away. His work for the night was finished.  

****************************************************

I'm pretty sure that Curtis Stevens wasn't expecting the assault he received from Tureano Johnson on Friday. Johnson, had made his reputation as an aggressive sparring partner, but prior to Friday, not much was known about him in the ring. He had beaten a middling prospect, Willie Fortune, over a year ago and only had one other victory against a fighter with a winning record. He had fought in one eight-rounder in his career and that was it.

Although Johnson was an unknown, that didn't stop Stevens' camp from taking the fight. After all, Stevens had recently gone eight rounds with Gennady Golovkin, one of the most lethal talents in boxing, surely their fighter would overcome a novice like Johnson. 

However, as early as the opening rounds of the fight, it was clear that Stevens didn't have his best conditioning. He could barely move his legs. On the rare occasions where he did, his foot speed was painfully slow. Although Stevens had always been a straight-line fighter, he could move when he had to. On Friday, he needed to use his legs, and he could scarcely budge an inch. 

And make no mistake; this fight was a savage display of inside fighting. The bout was almost all power shots from close range. I doubt that there were a dozen landed jabs in the whole fight. It was power vs. power. Johnson felt best pressuring Stevens and smothering his opponent's opportunities to land big shots. Stevens was waiting for openings along the ropes where he could end the greenhorn's night.

Although Stevens expected Johnson to go down from his money punch, his crushing left hook, it didn't happen. And in the first few rounds, Stevens had several sequences where he landed a number of his best hooks. But Johnson continued – undeterred, pressing and relentless. 

Johnson unloaded all of his power punches throughout the fight, punishing Stevens along the ropes with the kitchen stink, from the southpaw stance, orthodox or squared up right to him. His work rate was tremendous. Although he didn't have the same power that Stevens' did, his shots weren't insignificant. He rattled Stevens throughout the fight. I was most impressed with his right uppercut out of the southpaw stance. Johnson also went to Stevens' body throughout the match. 

As the fight reached the later rounds, Johnson started to pull ahead. Stevens was good for a few sustained flurries a round, but he couldn't match Johnson's output. Going into the last round, Stevens was down big on all the cards; I had him behind 87-84, or six rounds to three. 

In the 10th, Stevens found his opportunity to change the fight. With a minute left in the round, Stevens landed a right hook and then a left hook to the body. Johnson disengaged for a brief moment and pulled back with his chin up and his gloves down. Stevens unloaded a short and powerful left hook to the head which sent Johnson stumbling clear across the ring to the ropes on the other side. Stevens followed up with a barrage of shots (most of them missed) and ref Gary Rosato waved the fight off. It took only five-and-a-half seconds from the left hook to the end of the fight; that's one significant reversal of fortune. 

The crowd hated the stoppage. Although Stevens fired off a number of unanswered shots, Johnson remained on his feet. I've seen the stoppage over a dozen times and I think that Rosato was a little too hasty. The ref needed to give it a few more seconds. Johnson could have held, dropped to the canvas for a 10-count, fired back or took more punishment. All throughout Stevens' barrage, Johnson, was using his left shoulder and dropping his legs to avoid taking the full power of Stevens' follow-on shots. There was too much doubt left by the stoppage and a more definitive resolution could have only been a few brief moments away. 

Nevertheless, Stevens picked up a come-from-behind victory. He remains an intriguing fighter to watch. He has enough power to hurt anyone, but he can be outthought in the ring. He never really adjusted to Johnson, and when he had opportunities to take a step back in the ring and create distance for his power shots, he too often smothered his own work. Stevens may not be consistent from fight to fight, but that left hook is a special weapon. He remains in play for something bigger in the middleweight division. He's a threat to lose to different levels of fighters at 160, just as he has a real opportunity to win a title with his hook. He continues to retain his status as a wildly entertaining TV fighter. 

As for Johnson, he impressed a lot of people with his performance and I'm sure that additional good fights will come his way soon. He has some things that he needs to work on, as all young fighters do. It would help him to learn not to hook with a hooker. Although he showed a strong beard throughout the fight and stood up to all of Stevens' best punches until the final round, maybe if he hadn't taken as many hooks as he had earlier in the fight then that left hook in the 10th wouldn't have impacted him as significantly as it did. He also squares himself up way too often in close quarters, providing an enormous target for his opposition. If Stevens moved his hands more in the fight, Johnson may have been in real trouble a lot sooner. 

Finally, it was a great night for Main Events. Now in its third year of its output deal with NBC Sports Network, the promoter finally produced a truly memorable fight card for the network. There had been other moments of note during its tenure, like the discovery of Sergey Kovalev and Bryant Jennings, and good scraps featuring Gabriel Rosado, Tomasz Adamek and others, but this was the first time on NBC Sports Network that the boxing world was truly abuzz. Hall of Fame promoter and matchmaker Russell Peltz (who helped put the card together) deserves a ton of credit, convincing the powers that be to approve a 41-year old heavyweight with a limited pedigree and an unknown middleweight who had never even gone 10 rounds as a professional. On this night everyone shined – Main Events, Peltz, Cunningham, Mansour, Smoger Stevens, Johnson – everyone but Rosato. 


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 
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