Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Opinions and Observations: Marquez-Alvarado

The best counterpunchers walk a fine line. Pinpoint accuracy is needed. They must possess enough power so that opponents can't just walk through their shots. Ultimate confidence in their chin and defense is paramount because they might have to withstand two or three punches to to find their opening. It's a perilous position, as Floyd Mayweather recently found against Marcos Maidana. Occasionally, an opponent just won't be thwarted, incoming fire be damned. 

At 40, and coming off a rather listless performance against Tim Bradley, Juan Manuel Marquez needed to prove that he was still an elite counterpuncher, that his reflexes, timing and legs still permitted him to compete at the top levels of the sport. The loss to Bradley, who had a terrific game plan and didn't overcommit with his punches, was a forgivable sin. A defeat at the hands of Mike Alvarado would indicate that Marquez's reign as a force in boxing was over.

On Saturday, Marquez quickly put any doubt to rest. Throughout the first six rounds of the fight, he forced Alvarado into indecision. Alvarado displayed that confused, hazy look of a fighter who has no answer for a top counterpuncher. A friend of mine calls it the Hopkins Stare. Fighters become paralyzed with the cerebral nature of the bout, forgetting even the most basic rudiments of the sport – such as throwing punches and trying to win rounds. 

Elite counterpunchers like Mayweather, Hopkins and Marquez use a fighter's machismo to their advantage, daring an aggressive opponent to open up so that they can land their money shots. After a couple of pinpoint connects, the opponent shuts down. It is the perfect melding of technical and psychological brinkmanship. That's the type of dominance that Marquez had early in the bout on Saturday.

Alvarado wouldn't let his hands go often in the first half of the fight. When he did throw, the results were dreadful. If Alvarado landed with an odd jab or so, he would miss so wildly with a loaded-up right hand that you would think he was trying to knock out a judge or a timekeeper. Seizing these openings, Marquez would then land three or four hard counterpunches, further disparaging Alvarado. For much of the fight, Alvarado was rendered inoperable. 

Facing the first top-level counterpuncher of his career, Alvarado looked lost. His footwork deteriorated rapidly, taking small shuffle steps as he attempted to get into fighting range. Try to throw a good punch while taking a mini half-step forward – it’s challenging, isn't it? In addition, Alvarado either pawed with his punches or overcommitted to them. Hardly anything was effective. Left hooks hit gloves and elbows. Right hands soared gallantly through the air, way past their target. 

Alvarado engaged in several maneuvers that demonstrated his frustration. He turned southpaw for a few seconds here or there but never to throw a punch, just to buy time. He willingly submitted to clinches even though the fight was at a relatively slow place and that he had been ineffective on the outside. 

Meanwhile, Alvarado was getting tagged. Marquez stayed compact and hit Alvarado at will with right hands, left hooks and uppercuts. In addition, Marquez used these first counterpunches to set up three-and four punch combinations. His flurries were unexpected and devastating. 

Round after round, Alvarado would walk back to his corner dejectedly. His trainer, Shann Vilhauer, kept yelling at him to throw more punches, to take the fight to Marquez, but it mostly fell on deaf ears. Alvarado had seen what an elite talent looked like, and it didn't please him all that much. 

It was clear from Vilhauer's instructions in the corner that the plan was to slug with Marquez. I'm not usually a big fan of Vilhauer, but at least this was a coherent strategy, testing to see if Marquez still had the chin and recovery powers to win a dogfight. However, Alvarado was not a willing participant. 

Through seven rounds, it was a bravura performance from Marquez. In the eighth, he punctuated it with a savage knockdown at the end of the round that sent Alvarado under the ropes. It was the same overhand right that ended Manny Pacquiao’s night in 2012, thrown perhaps from slightly longer range, which may have lessened the impact to a degree. Still, it was a truly devastating shot.

Somehow, Alvarado got up from the blow and beat the count. Between rounds, Vilhauer went to work on his fighter, convincing Alvarado that he could take Marquez's best shot and that he needed to sell out with power shots to win the fight. 

Message received. The ninth was when the action started to open up with both fighters drilling each other at close range with menacing blows. During these exchanges, Marquez would land four or five punches to Alvarado's one or two, but Alvarado was having an impact. As the round continued, Alvarado landed a crushing right hand during an exchange that dropped Marquez onto the canvas. Suddenly there was pandemonium in the crowd. Alvarado was down big on the cards but could he slug his way to a memorable come-from-behind victory?

However, Marquez would not be denied. Demonstrating his otherworldly recuperative powers, Marquez went right at Alvarado throughout the rest of the round and landed some blistering right hands. For as technical as Marquez can be, when hurt he responds with a fury. He has never been intimidated by punchers and Saturday was no exception. 

After having found something in the ninth, did Alvarado go for broke in the championship rounds? Not really. He started the final rounds tactically and found a few opportunities to flurry with his power shots. Again, Marquez was getting the better of the exchanges. (Alvarado missed another knockdown by a few inches in the 11th as a right hand sent Marquez to his knees; however, nothing touched the canvas. Ref Pat Russell, who has had a checkered recent past in big fights, got this one right.) Even in the 12th when Alvarado certainly knew that he needed a knockout to win, he was still switching his stances, pawing at his cuts and slowly working his way into the round. It was clear that he wasn't willing to sell out for the KO victory.  

Once the final bell sounded, Marquez raised his arms with a champion's pride. He won 117-109, 117-109 and 119-108. The fans had gotten their money's worth. They witnessed their favorite son dominate early, overcome some adversity and reassert his elite position in the sport. It was a truly rousing performance.


Marquez famously survived three knockdowns in one round to earn a draw against Manny Pacquiao in their first fight. He's been sent to the canvas almost a dozen times in his career but he has never been knocked out. When behind against Juan Diaz, Michael Katsidis and Pacquiao, he summoned the intestinal fortitude to pull out victories. His powers of recovery are legendary. 

Yet one aspect of Marquez's recuperative abilities remains woefully underreported. Marquez has been the victim of robberies and several close defeats. He was dominated by Floyd Mayweather and ineffectual against Bradley. However, Marquez and trainer Nacho Beristain have always rebounded. They lick their wounds, go back to the gym in Mexico City and reemerge triumphantly as if their past defeats never occurred. 

Losses in this sport can be devastating. One bad night and a fighter can go from making seven figures to five. In addition, the psychological effects can be debilitating (let's also not forget the physical punishment). For many fighters, the anguish of the first three Pacquiao fights would be unbearable, knowing that your effort was good enough to win on each occasion yet glory was denied by unsympathetic judges. I imagine that few boxers would respond to these gut punch moments with as much professionalism as Marquez has. Sure, Marquez complains loudly after these defeats, but he has demonstrated some sort of mythic ability to compartmentalize the suffering, both physical and mental. He returns to his business and vows to recapture his perceived rightful place in the boxing world. He soldiers on, continuing to prosper while ignoring the abyss of doubt and self-recrimination that sucks in so many fighters.

We often see boxers enter tailspins after losses. They stop going to the gym; they lose their love for the sport. A number turn to drink or drugs to dull the pain. Others resort to food. A smaller faction engages in various other forms of criminality. One loss can quickly spiral into two or three. 

Somehow, Marquez has ignored or conquered these demons and temptations. He has never lost consecutive fights, which is an amazing accomplishment when considering the level of his competition and some of the devastating nature of his defeats. He retains his self-belief and confidence despite several occasions where doubt would naturally upend fighters facing similar circumstances. 

To this point in his career, Alvarado doesn't possess these same recuperative powers, and it's possible that he may never gain them. Since his knockout loss to Brandon Rios, he has not demonstrated confidence in his ring performances. Each fight has seen a massive change of his style and various points of indecisiveness. He went from being a straight banger to a boxer-puncher, to a southpaw boxer to...whatever he was on Saturday. He has brought in new assistant trainers, dismissed them and hired new ones. 

He was beaten to a pulp by Rios and Ruslan Provodnikov and in my opinion those losses were still ever-present in the ring against Marquez. Alvarado wasn't willing to fight in the style that gave him the best chance to win. The memory of his two knockout defeats were harsh reminders about what real punishment feels like in boxing. After witnessing Marquez's accuracy and feeling his power, Alvarado was dissuaded from fully selling out. This is a marked change for Alvarado, who prior to Rios exuded confidence and almost gleefully entered into brutal slugfests. 

Alvarado has admitted to getting caught up in drinking and other distractions out of the ring (he was also imprisoned earlier in his career). He's had weight problems, repeated philosophical differences with his team and hasn't always trained appropriately. These are not the actions of an elite fighter and even if his training camp was solid for Marquez, the demons have yet to be conquered.

On Saturday, Alvarado was a fighter who doubted his own abilities and talents. He didn't revel in combat; he often shied away from it. And unfortunately, Alvarado lacks the technical skills and athleticism to win important fights without engaging in big exchanges. 

Make no mistake; Marquez was the more talented fighter on Saturday. But he was also the more confident one. Marquez shook off his loss to Bradley and fought at a high level, seizing the big stage. Alvarado still saw the ghosts of Rios and Provodnikov in the ring to say nothing of Marquez's punishing right hands and left hooks. 

Alvarado is in need of some serious recuperation. I'm not sure if he has the fortitude to stay on the straight and narrow, but the ring is not the place for him right now; he is close to a broken fighter. The old Alvarado would have jumped on a wounded enemy with reckless abandon; this one hoped that his shots were enough for the bully to stay away for a while. Alvarado was spooked. And the ghosts aren't going away any time soon. 

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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