Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Opinions and Observations: Khan, Bradley and Thurman

Amir Khan earned a virtual shutout victory over Devon Alexander on Saturday, winning 120-108, 119-109 and 118-110. That he defeated Alexander didn't surprise me, but how he went about it certainly did. I expected Khan to employ a safety-first style against Alexander, where he would use his jab, hand speed and legs to pile up points and avoid any prolonged skirmishes. Instead, Khan went right at Alexander, bowling through him with three and four-punch combinations. Overall, it was his sharpest performance since his dismantling of Zab Judah in 2011.

For this fight, Khan brought out a new toy: a high-arcing left hook used to punctuate combinations. The shot was thrown widely and was designed to land over Alexander's jab; it seemed to hit its mark all night. Against most fighters, Khan throws a very sharp and short left hook but Saturday's hook was a nice addition to his repertoire. It was the right punch for the right opponent. Credit Khan's trainer Virgil Hunter for incorporating it into the game plan. 

The best of Khan surfaced on Saturday. He was aggressive without being stupid or reckless. He did his business, landed effectively with eye-catching combinations and got out or clinched. He didn't stand around and wait for Alexander to land something.

One other new wrinkle in Khan's performance was his relaxation in the ring. He didn't waste energy bouncing around the ring or running needlessly. He was calm in the pocket. This helped him maintain his conditioning and focus throughout the fight. Khan has always been one of the sport's best in the early rounds but his second halves of fights have sometimes turned into horror shows. On Saturday, he didn't fade like he did against Lamont Peterson and didn't need to hang on for dear life like he needed to against Marcos Maidana and Julio Diaz.

Khan's first fights with Hunter produced only lukewarm results. He dominated Carlos Molina but was still hit with too many left hooks. Diaz's left hook almost ended him. And even though Khan summarily defeated Luis Collazo, he still seemed jittery in the ring and resorted to a lot of fouling.

For the most part, Khan kept it clean against Alexander. He didn't clinch or hold excessively. With one exception, his shots remained above the belt. He also kept his elbows in their holsters. Khan has become very adept a holding-and-hitting (holding the head with one hand while punching with the other) and he did do this throughout the fight. In real time, he performs this act with such speed and precision that it's often difficult to catch; but it is a foul and something that opposing corners need to bring to the ref's attention.

I won't play ring psychologist. I don't know if Khan resorted to so many fouls in his past fights out of fear, fatigue or desperation. All I know is that he is an immensely talented offensive fighter. When he fights cleanly, he can be a pleasure to watch; when he engages in frequent fouling, he is far less than that.

Khan used his gifts to take the fight out of Alexander, beating him both on the outside and in the trenches. This was a confident (but not over-confident) Khan. By trusting his conditioning, preparation and Hunter's advice, Khan took a live opponent and defanged him. 

During the broadcast, Showtime's Al Bernstein mentioned Khan's undefeated record against southpaws. With strong victories over credible guys like Alexander, Collazo and Judah, I don't think that his mark against lefties is a statistical fluke. On defense, Khan has often struggled against an orthodox fighter's left hook. It's the shot that Danny Garcia used to beat him and it almost ended his night against Diaz. Most lefthanders don't throw a left hook and none do so from a similar angle that an orthodox fighter does; Alexander certainly didn't have a left hook. 

To this point, Khan has been able to see shots coming from southpaws and that makes him a much more confident fighter in the ring. Perhaps a lefty with speed and power, like Manny Pacquiao, would change this dynamic – I’d certainly love to find out.

It still remains to be seen how Khan would fare against the truly elite in the sport. I would argue that he's in a better position now to face the best than he's ever been. However, questions about his chin and Ring IQ will remain until he takes on a Mayweather, a Pacquiao or a Bradley. For now, let's give Khan credit for recognizing the need to improve and identifying a trainer who could potentially lead him to the next step. At this point, the results of his reinvention have been promising but let's temper this enthusiasm somewhat until he has defeated an elite guy.

Prior to Saturday, Virgil Hunter hadn't had a good year. With two Alfredo Angulo fiascos, Brandon Gonzales' wipeout loss to James DeGale and Karim Mayfield's lackluster effort against Thomas Dulorme, Hunter had received a lot of criticism for his recent work. (His star pupil, Andre Ward, one of the best in the business, has been on the shelf all year with contractual entanglements.) Khan's performance on Saturday was important for Hunter's reputation in the sport. Khan beating Alexander with such relative ease shows that Hunter can impart his teachings on more than just one world-class fighter. 

As for Devon Alexander, there was a time (all the way back in 2010!) when he was thought to be a potentially elite young fighter. With a picture-perfect left uppercut that destroyed the usually durable Juan Urango, Alexander was building some real buzz. Flash forward four-and-a-half years later and that Urango punch is still the high point of his career. Since that fight, he has gone 6-3 and you could make a serious argument that he lost both the Kotelnik and Matthysse fights, which would make him 4-5. In short, Alexander can compete on the world-level but no one would confuse him with a pound-for-pound talent. In those nine fights, he has scored all of one stoppage (which was a retirement in the corner) and he hasn't even produced another knockdown.

Fighters with speed, either foot or hand, trouble him and he has become a pocket counterpuncher who lacks the power or elite defensive skills to separate himself from other top fighters. He's now just one of the gang at 147. Maybe he picks up another title belt somewhere down the line but it would have to be against the right opponent. He also has to reacquire the mental focus that seems to have left him a few years ago.

Alexander has had a perfectly fine career, winning titles at 140 and 147, but in many corners of the boxing world much more was expected from him. I guess you could say that Khan has failed to live up to expectations as well. But at least Khan is still on an upward trajectory and has produced several great fights. A highlight film of Alexander's best moments in the ring might consist of just the Urango uppercut shown on a loop.

***

Tim Bradley seemed to get the best of Diego Chaves on Saturday but judges Julie Lederman and Craig Metcalfe didn't see it that way. The fight was ruled a split draw with scores of 115-113 (Bradley) 114-114 and 116-112 (Chaves). Watching it at home live, the decision seemed to be well off the mark but after reviewing the fight, I believe that a couple of aspects of the bout are worthy of reconsideration.

On Saturday, I scored the fight for Bradley 117-111, giving Chaves rounds 9, 10 and 12. I certainly felt that 6 and 11 could have been swing rounds but I gave both of them to Bradley. Harold Lederman of HBO (and Julie's father) scored it for Bradley 116-112.

Having watched the fight a number of times, I still feel confident with Bradley winning but there are some intriguing aspects of the bout that are worth reviewing in more detail. Going into the 12th round, Bradley's trainer, Joel Diaz, didn't seem comfortable whatsoever. He implored his fighter to take risks and win the final round decisively. Just as interestingly, not one of the judges – all experienced with decent reputations – gave Bradley more than seven rounds; each believed that it was a competitive fight.

Although I maintain that Julie Lederman's 116-112 Chaves card is still off base, I am certainly willing to concede that the fight could be viewed as closer than either Harold or I had it. The match featured lots of good exchanges with both fighters landing their fair share of power punches. I liked Bradley's cleaner work more often than not but it's certainly possible that Chaves' punches at ringside had a little more steam on them than they appeared to have when watching the fight on television.

In addition, Bradley definitely coasted in the last third of the bout. Lacking the urgency of the earlier rounds, Bradley fought the last four frames mostly on the outside, where Chaves picked him off a couple times a round with good lead right hands. Yes, I didn't like the final scoring of the fight one bit but I bet Bradley won't be too happy when he watches the tape of rounds 9, 10, 11 and 12.

To me, Bradley won the key battle of the fight in the first four rounds; he beat Chaves at his own game, getting the better of him in extended brawls on the inside. Bradley featured a blistering left hook, barrages of shots to the body and a powerful, looping right hand. Just as important, he took Chaves' best shots, specifically his left hook and right hand. 

My concern for Bradley going into the fight (I thought that Chaves would knock him out) was whether he still had the ability to engage in another war. However, his body and conditioning held up very well on Saturday. There was one particular massive Chaves left hook in the fourth round that Bradley took without a problem. Once I saw that Bradley was unfazed by the shot, I didn't think that there was a way for Chaves to win the fight legitimately.

Bradley will never be a true power puncher but he has worked hard at making his shots respectable enough to keep opponents honest. He staggered Marquez, certainly affected Pacquiao early in their rematch and made Freddie Roach contemplate stopping the Provodnikov fight. He also uses his head strategically; it helps to dissuade fighters from rushing in against him.

It should be noted that Chaves was the one on Saturday who backed out of the brawl. He opted to work mostly on the outside in the latter half of the fight. It was a huge strategic victory for Bradley and a very telling sign of how difficult he is to fight on the inside. And although he ultimately allowed the fight to become closer than it should have been, I don't think that Saturday's "draw" diminishes his standing in boxing one bit. He's still a big player at the top levels of the sport and matches up well with the best at 147. 

***

A surreal scene unfolded for Keith Thurman after his dominant points victory over Leonard Bundu: the crowd booed him. And the more he talked in his post-fight interview, the more that the booing intensified. Thurman, practically a cult hero among the sport's hardcore fans, was seen as one of the rising hopes of American boxing. All week leading up to the fight he was looking well beyond Bundu and talked about dismantling Floyd Mayweather. It was the type of moxie that excited boxing fans. I can only gather from the boos that watching him fool around with a virtually unknown European fighter didn't produce the same resounding passion among the sport's cognoscenti.

Yes, I thought that the crowd was unfair with its disapproval. To my eyes, Thurman won every round and he was certainly going for the knockout early in the fight. At a certain point, he realized that Bundu wasn't going anywhere and he went for the decision; there's no shame in not getting a knockout. However, when you have built yourself up as a destroyer and then spend a lot of the fight dancing, you can sense where a disconnect might possibly occur.

After the fight, Thurman was very candid in evaluating his performance. He talked about needing to remain in the pocket more and to press forward with more intensity than he did. I would add that he could also stop bouncing on the balls of his feet so much before he fires – this gives his opponents a timing mechanism to prepare for defense. In addition, he needs to better vary the speed and distance of his shots. Every right hand came from the outside with maximum force. These shots would be concussive, but only if they landed cleanly. To use a baseball analogy, it doesn't matter if you throw 100 mph if you can't find the strike zone. By shortening up his shots and taking the pace off of some of his punches, Thurman will be able to land more effectively and become less predictable. One other effect of shortening up his punches will be the tightening up of his defense. Right now, there is far too much room to slip in a counter shot as Thurman unloads his power. The elites would have a lot of opportunities to pick him off. 

Like past Thurman challenger Jan Zaveck, Bundu was never really in the fight but he knew how to handle himself in the ring. He landed enough quick counters to keep Thurman honest and his style of switching from orthodox to southpaw kept Thurman from finding a consistent offensive rhythm. Bundu actually was the one coming forward throughout most of the fight's second half and although he wasn't winning rounds, his activity and awkwardness transformed Thurman from puncher to boxer.

Thurman did quite a bit of switching early in the fight as well, even scoring a knockdown with a straight left hand out of the southpaw position. The shot was very effective but I also think that it led to a dead end. Thurman didn't have much success throughout the rest of the fight as a southpaw. And his insistence on incorporating all of these facets into his performance on Saturday (the running, dancing and switching) may have been a miscalculation. The parts wound up being greater than the whole.

Thurman toyed too much. He chose to box; he wasn't forced to do so. And it wasn't that he was doing so poorly that he needed to turn southpaw. These were unnecessarily tools brought to fix a simpler job. There's no need to use 15 different screwdrivers when one will do just fine. I guess that he was frustrated because the knockout didn't come quickly; however, it also felt like he was showing off in the ring.

I'm not saying that Thurman would have knocked Bundu out had he stayed in the pocket more but he certainly could have provided fans with a more pleasing performance; it didn't seem as if Bundu's power was really affecting him from being more aggressive.

Thurman is still developing as a fighter. After he reviews his performance from Saturday, if he reemerges with more patience and calm in the ring, then this fight served an important lesson. Thurman now needs to consolidate his considerable skills and determine what kind of fighter he wants to be in the ring. Is he a seek-and-destroy puncher, a heavy-handed counterpuncher or a boxer-puncher? Obviously, his opponents will have some say in this but Thurman and his team need to figure out which way he can win most impressively.

Without a title belt or a built-in ethnic fan base, no big welterweight needs to fight him. He has TV and a powerful manager behind him but he needs to force the top guys to fight him by creating a demand for his services. A Mayweather or a Pacquiao will have to bless Thurman with a big opportunity. Without enthusiastic fan support, Thurman will still find himself on the outside looking in. 

Saturday should be a learning experience for Thurman. He needn't score a knockout every time out but at this point in his career it's imperative that he looks as good as he can to a create a demand for a bigger fight. He has enough God-given power that he should dispense with the games in the ring. Thurman fighting as a slick boxer is a crime against humanity.

***

For the second fight in a row, Andy Lee came back from way behind to score a knockout victory. The weapon in both bouts was his right hook. Saturday's victory over Matt Korobov earned him a middleweight title belt. 

There are two ways to look at Lee's recent success. On one hand, his right hook is one of the truly devastating punches in the sport and if it lands properly he is a threat to anyone at middleweight (he actually moved down to 154 against John Jackson in his previous bout but he will remain at 160 now). On the other hand, he may have lost 9 of the 11 rounds in his last two bouts. Three fights ago, Lee was only able to squeak out a majority decision against Frank Horta, a French journeyman who entered the ring at 34-12-5.

Lee is now a champion but it's a reasonable assumption to make that many of the top middleweights could outbox him. To my eyes, he hasn't improved under trainer Adam Booth. He hasn't been able to set up shots and his last two knockouts occurred during ragged stretches where he was fortunate to catch his opponents out-of-position.

Although Lee has the eraser, what happens when it doesn't land? Having been stopped by Bryan Vera and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and down big against Korobov, Jackson and Craig McEwan before scoring knockouts, Lee could lose to any credible opponent in the division. Notice, none of the names listed above would be confused with an elite talent.

Lee's strengths and weaknesses make him a fun fighter to watch. Unfortunately, he's devolved into a one-trick pony; it's a hell of a trick but there was once a thought that he could have been something more. For now, he's the middleweight Randall Bailey. With his right hook, he could beat anyone but if his opponent can take the shot, he'll most likely lose. Stay tuned.

***

Controversy brewed after the Mauricio Herrera-Jose Benavidez Jr. fight. The HBO crew had Herrera up big but the three official judges had Benavidez winning by four and six points. To my eyes, Herrera took the early part of the fight based on activity and clean punching. Benavidez started to assert himself in the middle rounds with hard and flashy combinations and the final frames went back and forth. I scored the bout a draw. There were a number of swing rounds in the fight – most of which I gave to Benavidez. I think that the acceptable range for the fight was something like 115-113 Benavidez to 116-112 Herrera.

Putting aside the scoring issues for the moment, the match featured excellent action. Herrera attacked with his jab, a right hand over the top in close and tons of body work – jab, right hand and left hook. Whenever Benavidez was passive, Herrera would throw combinations and outwork him. 

However, Herrera's shots can't really hurt a fly. The old John Wooden line, "Never mistake activity for achievement," comes to mind regarding him. Nevertheless, when he's fighting and the other guy isn't, it's easy to score a round in his favor.

Watching Benavidez, he was clearly hesitant in the early rounds. The fight resembled last month's bout between Billy Joe Saunders and Chris Eubank Jr., where Eubank, the young prospect, slowly gained his confidence throughout the match and in the end was fighting on even terms. Now, that fight was scored for Saunders but the overall trajectory of the two bouts were similar. Prior to Saturday, Benavidez had never been past eight rounds; now he was facing a guy who beat Provodnikov and should have gotten a nod against Danny Garcia, the best fighter in the division; it took Benavidez a little while to believe that he could have success.

When Benavidez let his hands go, good things happened. His combinations were crisp and they landed with conviction. When he pressed forward, Herrera didn't have an immediate response. However, Benavidez didn't fully trust his conditioning. He took major portions of rounds off, covering up along the ropes and letting Herrera fire off too many shots. In addition, Benavidez often started out rounds well but tended to fade towards the last minute. Much of this could be chalked up to a lack of experience but surely he knew that he needed to win rounds definitively, and many he didn't.

In the end, he got the nod. He remains undefeated and picked up an interim title belt. At just 22, he seems to have a bright future, but in this sport, potential often becomes potential unfulfilled. There were a number of aspects of his performance to get excited about and also several areas where he needs to improve. Time is still on his side but now he's officially on the clock.

For Herrera, this year has been a blessing and a curse. He got robbed in Puerto Rico against Danny Garcia and lost a close one to Benavidez in Top Rank's home town. However, he is also more well-known now than he ever has been. If Golden Boy continues to support him, he will get another shot at a meaningful fight very soon. He has proven that he can compete with the best in the division. 

With his lack of power, Herrera will always be at the mercy of judges. All he can do is plug along, stay positive (easier said than done), perform to the best of his ability and hope that he has some fair arbiters at ringside. He should be a world champ, which is a real tragedy. But on the bright side, he has looked very good recently on both HBO and Showtime – that can be just as good for a career. 

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
@snboxing on twitter

1 comment: