Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Opinions and Observations: Froch-Groves II

Oh to land that perfect punch! We've practiced it in the mirror. We visualize knocking someone down, rendering an opponent incapacitated with just one shot. What it must feel like! It's the transcendent melding of technique, timing, power and torque. I'll admit, I've never landed it. I know the feeling of crushing a baseball or hitting a golf ball 275 yards dead center down the fairway (happens infrequently) but I've never experienced the sensation that Carl Froch felt on Saturday against George Groves in the eighth round. And I probably never will. After the fight, Froch admitted that it was the best punch he had ever thrown or landed. It must have felt like a million bucks. But to be honest, that would be minimizing things. That punch was worth far more than $1M to Froch. 

Until that point, the rematch between the grizzled veteran Froch and the upstart Groves was neck-and-neck. The opening rounds were oddly tentative, with both fighters seeming tight to me, as if they were chastened by their initial encounter in November when Froch was knocked down in the first round but rallied to score a stoppage in the ninth. On Saturday, Groves tried to conserve energy while Froch didn't want to expose himself to Groves' right hand. 

When he let his hands go, Groves still beat Froch to the punch; however, it was only one shot at a time – just a jab or a right hand. Froch stuck with his jab and waited for opportunities to flurry and roughhouse Groves against the ropes. Many of the rounds were close, Groves' clean, single shots vs. Froch's intermittent combinations where a number of shots were blocked. 

In Froch's corner, there was one piece of crucial information that I picked up from his trainer, Rob McCracken. He kept saying, "Close the gap." And when the final sequence of the bout is replayed, it's easy now to see how Froch won the battle of geography. With Groves' back to the ropes, Froch feinted the right hand, then followed through with a rather pedestrian left hook and finished with the smashing right hand. The left hook was thrown only with the intention of landing the right hand behind it. 

This begs the question: why was Groves spending so much time along the ropes in the rematch? With the faster hands and feet, Groves had advantages in the center of the ring and yet there he was letting Froch tee off on him from close range. 

The slow motion replay of the knockout told the story. Although Groves picked off Froch's left hook, his face was 100% exposed to the follow up right hand. His left hand was down by his waist and he belatedly tried to counter the shot but it was too late. 

The sequence also illustrated Groves' physical state at that moment of the fight. There were two reasons why Groves' left hand was so low, and neither was a good one: 1. His technique started to fall apart because he had stamina issues. 2. He was protecting against another flurry to the body. 

Regardless of which reason explained the low left hand, Groves' bad hand placement highlighted Froch's success in the fight. Throughout the bout, Groves reacted very poorly to Froch's body work. (This also occurred in their first match.) During his flurries, Froch unloaded with left and right hooks to the body unmercifully. As the fight progressed, Groves used his legs much more sparingly and the bout became a stationary battle. Again, Groves won a number of rounds, but, like the first match, he resorted to fighting Froch's fight. Groves' stamina was a real issue in both bouts, and he lacked the wherewithal or conditioning to stick with his game plan. By the time the final blow was struck on Saturday, Froch's body work had done its job. Groves was either gassed or forced under duress into a technical mistake. And that was the fight. 

In the lead-up to the rematch, I switched my prediction a number of times. In the end, I believed that Froch would find a way to win. Essentially, I was siding with who I felt was the smarter fighter. In my experience following boxing, when the talent spread is fairly equal between the combatants, the smarter one usually prevails (there are some notable exceptions). I hadn't liked the way that Groves had conducted himself during the final few rounds of the first fight and I felt like his Ring IQ was not quite up to Froch's level. 

Ultimately, Froch was willing to give up a few rounds to make the fight go his way (prior to the knockout he was up one round on two cards and down one on the other). In his estimation (and I agree with him), once the fight was a battle at close range, it was only a matter of time until he was victorious. Groves did a lot of things well on Saturday, but ring generalship wasn't one of them. 

Finally, one must remark on the character and heart of Groves. After getting blown to smithereens by the final shot, Groves still tried like hell to get up. Even with his left leg bent completely under his body, he somehow found a way to make it to his feet. It was an admirable showing of guts and determination. Thankfully, ref Charlie Fitch saved Groves, who was in terrible shape, from sustaining further damage. Nevertheless, that moment illustrates Groves' desire to be a champion. Now, he must learn how to condition his body and mind to make it so. 

Groves needs some easier fights, perhaps a sagacious assistant trainer and a lot of film study, but the tools are there for him to be a major factor in the super middleweight division. Hopefully he understands that at age 26, time is on his side. If he takes three fights to build himself back up, that world title crown could be his. However, if he insists on immediately going after big game, his development could be forever stunted. There are a lot of experienced, tough cats at 168 (Ward, Abraham, Kessler, Stieglitz and Bika). Groves needs to gain some more experience in the ring before he is ready for those challenges. 

As for Froch, there probably won't be a better moment in his career than Saturday's finale. With the roar of the London crowd after the knockout, Froch finally received universal praise and respect from English fight fans. Having come of age at the tail end of Calzaghe's reign with little fanfare and a lesser promoter, Froch was deemed an unworthy heir to a British-dominated division with legendary names like Eubank, Benn and Calzaghe. He was dismissed as crude and slow, however unfairly. 

At the world-level, Froch has revealed himself to be much more than a barroom brawler, but old stereotypes often die hard. On Saturday, those demons were put to rest for good. That final sequence demonstrated how clever he can be in the ring. Sure, he likes to mix it up, but his willingness to trade often masks his substantial ring intelligence.  

Quieting his detractors and quashing the surrounding negativity (some of which was his own doing), Froch experienced only glory on Saturday. He will always have that perfect punch in front of 80,000 screaming fight fans. May 31, 2014 will forever be his night in British boxing lore. 

Wrapping up some other action throughout the weekend, there were some shady, shady happenings during the featherweight title bout between Nonito Donaire and Simpiwe Vetyeka in Macau, China. Donaire won a fifth-round technical decision, as the fight was stopped on cuts. However, the match was full of controversy, incompetence and questionable decision making. 

Donaire was the challenger, but he was clearly the Top Rank house fighter and crowd favorite. He sustained a nasty cut over his left eyelid early in the fight (it was unclear if ref Luis Pabon ruled the cut as a result of a punch or a clash of heads, more on him in a bit). Donaire proceeded to paw at the cut throughout the third and fourth round, even ceasing to fight at points resulting in Pabon compliantly leading him to the ringside physician for an examination. In boxing protocol, only the ref or the doctor can decide when to suspend action for a physician examination, yet Pabon responded to Donaire's unwillingness to fight with several trips to the neutral corner.  

In the fourth round, Donaire scored a knockdown with a left hook. After the bell ended in the fourth, the fight was technically official. Pabon then proceeded to call off the match immediately after the start of the fifth – Donaire was awarded the decision victory on the judges' scorecards. 

Now, Pabon could have stopped the fight in the fourth, leading to a no-contest. He chose a moment to end it where the house fighter would almost certainly be given the win. Pabon also displayed indecisiveness about ending the fight and a farcical amount of favoritism to Donaire by allowing him to take breaks from the oncoming pressure fighter. At least Donaire was gracious enough to offer Vetyeka a rematch after the fight, which was very competitive. It was a dreadful way for Donaire to win another title belt and his performance did not scream "champion."

Luis Pabon has caused havoc on the international boxing scene for many years. I refer to him as the Puerto Rican Laurence Cole, for wherever he goes, bad decision making follows. Who could forget his failure to police Klitschko-Povetkin, his arbitrary point deductions in Allakhverdiev-M'Baye and his refusal to let Marco Huck work on the inside against Povetkin? Mark Ortega, of Behind the Gloves, brilliantly referred to Saturday's action as Vetyeka getting "Paboned." And there's a lot of truth there. Perhaps there isn't a more incompetent big-time referee in the sport. 

As for Donaire, for this fight he reenlisted his father as head trainer and promised a better performance than his last two outings against Guillermo Rigondeaux and Vic Darchinyan. On Saturday, I saw many of the same signs of the sluggish, late-period Donaire, the one who waits for one-punch knockouts and loads up with left hooks. He put a nice combination together in the fourth which led to the knockdown, but he was also beaten to the punch by Vetyeka throughout the fight and was hit pretty cleanly. 

At one point in time, Donaire was considered a top-five fighter in the sport. But his years of dominance have led to several bad habits in the ring. In addition, his insistence in looking for a way out of Saturday's fight speaks to a lack of mental toughness, which was also in evidence against Rigondeaux.

There are some real talents at featherweight. I wouldn't necessarily count Donaire out against any of them, but I also don't feel particularly confident in that statement. He rarely puts punches together these days and if his desire isn't there, more bad fortune might befall him in the ring, and soon. 

On the Donaire-Vetyeka undercard, one of the rising stars of the featherweight division, Nicholas Walters of Jamaica, made his second title defense against Vic Darchinyan, scoring a brutal knockout in the fifth round with a vicious, compact left hook. Unknown to most in the boxing world a year ago, Walters in now 24-0 with 20 knockouts, and the power is real – not merely a function of weak opposition. Against Darchinyan, he scored three knockdowns, one with his right uppercut and two with his left hook. He didn't even land his best punch that cleanly in the fight, his straight right hand. 

With three knockout weapons, a 73-inch reach and a lot of athleticism, Walters may soon become the class of the featherweight division (however, there are a number of intriguing candidates for that position). He still can be a little raw when delivering his punches and I have yet to see him think his way through a tough fight, but he is certainly one to watch. Top Rank has found a real diamond in the rough here. Expect to see him on HBO soon. 

And on the Froch-Groves II undercard, James DeGale finally put together a great performance, dispatching Brandon Gonzales in four rounds. Although DeGale always had excellent hand and foot speed, an awkward style and a solid jab, he frequently displayed two glaring deficiencies in his pro career: he could become passive and he didn't often sit down on his shots. 

Fighting with something to prove on Saturday, DeGale stormed out of the gates in the first round with power shots. Switch-hitting and using his athletic advantages, he flummoxed Gonzales in the opening frame. After a close second, DeGale took over in the third, crushing Gonzales with hard left hands and fast combinations. He eventually sent Gonzales down twice before the match was stopped in the fourth (too early probably, but hey, it was a British ref, it happens).

If things had broken differently for DeGale, the former Olympic gold medalist, it could have been him fighting in the main event. He lost a razor-thin decision to Groves in 2011. Since that defeat, he had numerous promotional issues, injuries and uneven performances. Now aligned with promotional powerhouse Matchroom Sport, DeGale has spoken about his renewed commitment to the sport. 

After the knockout, he called out Froch. Quite honestly, I don't think that DeGale is ready for that type of battle yet. Gonzales was certainly a capable challenger but he is still a few levels below Froch. If DeGale is gung-ho in shooting for a title, I think that Sakio Bika is his best bet. Although Bika can be rough and packs a punch, he's essentially a straight-line fighter. DeGale would have a good chance to box and outmaneuver him. But let's leave matchmaking for another day. At least DeGale has made the boxing world care about him again; that's an excellent start.

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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