Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Lukie Boxing's Podcast

I joined Lukie Boxing's podcast this week to talk about heavyweight boxing, fighters who impressed/disappointed us this year, our 2016 wish lists and fights that we want to see next year. Click here to listen.

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, SN Boxing on Facebook
Contact Adam at saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Scouting the Heavyweight New Wave

With Tyson Fury's startling victory over Wladimir Klitschko last month, the heavyweight division has been emancipated from the clutches of Dr. Steelhammer. Although Fury is now the lineal heavyweight king, there is no guarantee that he will have a prolonged reign. Over the past 12 months, several fighters have emerged that could become "the man" in the sport's glamour division. At a very minimum, these heavyweights will engage in exciting fights, which would be more than welcome in a division bereft of recent highlights.
The new heavyweight cast of characters is quite the motley crew. Fighters from America, Cuba, England and New Zealand compose this wave, ranging in ages from 23 to 36. Although they have vastly different styles, below the surface, some commonalities manifest within the group: They all have impressive amateur backgrounds. Each one features a variety of offensive weapons, good coordination, athleticism and power. And perhaps most refreshingly, none would be characterized as the type of one-dimensional lumbering sloth that populated much of the heavyweight division over the last 15 years. One other thing worth noting, these guys love to mix it up in the ring. 

What follows are my scouting reports for the top-five of the new wave, ranked by their accomplishments within the division. I'll touch on a few other fighters at the end of the article.

1. Tyson Fury (25-0, 18 KOs, Age 27, England)
Current Status: WBO and WBA Heavyweight Titleholder, lineal champion
Strengths: Jab, adaptability in the ring, high ring IQ
Weaknesses: Chin, limited athleticism
Next Fight: Wladimir Klitschko, date TBA

A few years ago, Fury was viewed as an amusing circus attraction with very raw boxing abilities. His most prominent skill was his mouth. He possessed decent pop and gave great copy but only his most fervent admirers considered him a future heavyweight champion. His footwork was crude and he took silly chances in the ring. Dropped twice and hurt several times in his developmental bouts, Fury was often vulnerable in the ring. Even as he progressed as a fighter, he remained at risk for getting KO'ed. In his emphatic victory over Klitschko last month, he still had to survive a very shaky final round to secure the win. There's no shame in being hurt by Klitschko; however, when knocked down by a former cruiserweight (Steve Cunningham), there is significant cause for concern.

Fury continues to mature as a fighter. He's become a real student of the sweet science. Don't be fooled by his outlandish postures outside of the ring, he's a serious operator inside the squared circle. By switching to southpaw in the Dereck Chisora rematch, he negated Chisora's best punch, his wild, looping right hand. Fury's performance against Klitschko demonstrated that he has an acute understanding of distance and range. He rarely remained in the pocket against Klitschko, which took away Wlad's jab, the catalyst of his offense.

Although not an athletic specimen, Fury utilizes footwork effectively to initiate offense, get out of the pocket and limit return fire. Placing his shots well, he's a very capable combination puncher. He can fight comfortably in or out and uses feints well to keep opponents guessing. On the inside, he knows how to tie up when necessary.

A skillful practitioner of psychological gamesmanship, Fury has intimidated a number of opponents both in and out of the ring. Even though he has self-assurance in spades, he's learned from past mistakes of overconfidence in the ring. He now understands that any capable heavyweight poses a threat. One final note worth mentioning, Fury has an excellent trainer. His uncle, Peter, has displayed a dazzling ability to craft winning game plans.   

2. Deontay Wilder (35-0, 34 KOs, Age 30, USA)
Current Status: WBC Heavyweight Titleholder
Strengths: Power (right hand, left hook), athleticism
Weaknesses: Footwork, inability to relax in the ring, too knockout happy
Next Fight: Artur Szpilka, 1/16/16

Since capturing a heavyweight title earlier this year against Bermane Stiverne, Wilder has embarked on two endeavors: expanding his home fan base in Alabama and getting some needed rounds in the ring. Let's not forget that before he fought Stiverne, he had never gone past four rounds in a fight. Facing Stiverne, Eric Molina and Johann Duhaupas this year, Wilder added 32 rounds to his ledger, and won almost all of them. Yes, there were some rocky moments along the way. He ate a couple of big hooks from Stiverne and some sneaky right hands from Molina. In addition, Duhaupas presented a different style for Wilder – an awkward fighter who had a great beard and could handle himself in the ring. In 2015, Wilder's chin was tested and he had to think his way through fights, valuable lessons for any boxer. 

Despite Wilder's impressive record and knockout percentage, he was deprived of quality development fights. An unexpected bronze medal winner in the 2008 Olympics, his professional team viewed him two ways: raw and a potential cash cow. Unfortunately, too many of his early fights were spent milking his name while not further refining his skills.

Wilder is quite the physical specimen. He has the height, reach, power and athleticism to provide problems for any heavyweight. However, he still lacks confidence in the ring. He can get frustrated when knockouts don't come. He loads up on shots, often missing badly and leaving himself vulnerable. In addition, he'll forget his secondary punches for stretches at a time. His jab can be good but he'll often leave it holstered to focus on power shots. In addition, his uppercut is an underutilized weapon. The more he throws it the better he seems to do. 

Everything with Wilder is hard, perhaps too hard. He has enough natural power where he doesn't have to hit an opponent with his Sunday best to score a knockout. Yet, too often he swings wildly. With such big shots, he could easily get beaten to the punch or countered while he is out of position. In addition, he still jabs from too close, which makes him vulnerable to right hands over-the-top. 

Wilder's package of power and rawness makes for exciting fights. Every opponent can see his flaws but how many can take his best right hand? Yes, he's vulnerable but he's also a destructive force. Most importantly, he's trending in the right direction. He's starting to get a little more patient and mix in his punches better. In addition, he has answered some important questions about his stamina and chin.
3. Luis Ortiz (24-0, 21 KOs, Age 36, USA by way of Cuba)
Current Status: Interim WBA Titleholder
Strengths: Combination punching, left uppercut
Weaknesses: Can be outworked, stamina
Next Fight: TBA

It isn't often that you see a 36-year-old fighter on the list of emerging talents within a division. However, Ortiz doesn't have the typical career path of a professional boxer. A former Cuban national champion, Ortiz would eventually defect but he didn't make his professional debut until the age of 30. After cruising through his developmental fights, a failed drug test in 2014 stalled his ascent in the division. However, he rebounded to notch three victories in 2015. He displayed heavy hands and a well-rounded assortment of skills. With his emphatic stoppage victory over Bryant Jennings last weekend, Ortiz finished the year in the top echelon of heavyweights, a meteoric rise, or perhaps an indictment of the division prior to the current new wave.

Ortiz shares several attributes with the top Cuban boxers from the past 15 years. Like so many of them, he is completely relaxed in the ring, a very fluid puncher and uses his arms and elbows to gain advantages in close. Another similarity is his economical punch output. However, Ortiz has some important distinctions from the recent top Cuban fighters. Perhaps most strikingly, he's almost entirely offensively-oriented. He's not using his legs to dance around the ring or evade shots. He stays in the pocket all fight. Secondarily, Ortiz fancies himself as a true knockout artist. Although power has been an attribute of many top Cubans, Ortiz isn't trying to go rounds; he wants to end fights quickly. 

His left uppercut is one of the scariest punches in professional boxing and he throws it to the head and body. Ortiz also features a sneaky right hook. His jab can be useful but it's not a primary weapon for him.

Ortiz can be outworked and doesn't always put forth a consistent effort from round-to-round. Although surprisingly agile on his feet, he lacks the speed or willingness to track down mobile opponents. Luckily for Ortiz, most of the top fighters in the division are come-forward power punchers but if he takes on a real mover, he could face significant difficulty. It's still unclear if he can be an effective 12-round fighter. 

4. Anthony Joshua (15-0, 15 KOs Age 26, England)
Current Status: British and Commonwealth Champion
Strengths: Multiple knockout weapons, body punching, athleticism, size
Weaknesses: Lack of head movement, pulls straight back, glove positioning
Next Fight: TBA, 4/9/16

With his impressive knockout of former amateur rival Dillian Whyte earlier this month, Joshua, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist, is on the fast-track to heavyweight superstardom. Already a huge draw in England, Joshua still hasn't fought a truly top-caliber heavyweight, although he easily dispatched several C-class notables on the British and European circuits.

In many respects, Joshua already fights like a seasoned veteran. He has an array of offensive weapons, a solid jab and goes to the body. He has a fair amount of poise for a boxer with just 15 pro fights under his belt. Joshua's right hand can be concussive but he wisely sets up his shots; he lets the fight develop. 

Against Whyte, Joshua answered several questions. Finally stretched to the second half of a fight, Joshua demonstrated no problems with stamina and he retained his power as the bout progressed. In addition, he took a couple of big shots and although he was momentarily stung in the second round, he was able to regroup. By the fourth, he was back to asserting his will on the action. 

His areas for improvement are typical for young fighters. When attacking an opponent along the ropes, he drops his hands, especially his left. He also pulls straight back from the pocket with his hands down. This leaves him particularly vulnerable to good counterpunchers. Although a great athlete, in general, he moves in a lot of straight lines, which makes him susceptible to be timed. These are all deficiencies that can be corrected; however, if not fixed, these are the types of mistakes that lead to spending time on the canvas in the heavyweight division. 

5. Joseph Parker (17-0, 15 KOs Age 23, New Zealand)
Current Status: WBO Oriental Titleholder
Strengths: Inside fighting, punch accuracy, aggression
Weaknesses: Recklessness, defensive technique
Next Fight: Jason Bergman, 1/23/16

Perhaps the least familiar name on this list, Parker boxes primarily in New Zealand and most often at silly o'clock, when those in the Western Hemisphere aren't conditioned to watch boxing. Parker fights with a refreshing devil-may-care attitude that's in direct opposition to the past era of cautious heavyweights. Everything he throws on the inside is hard: body shots, hooks and uppercuts. He's very creative at close range. 

As someone who enjoys the back-and-forth of combat, Parker's not afraid to take a shot to land his best. However, when he forces an opponent back to the ropes, he jettisons any pretense of defense. A capable fighter who likes to trade on the inside could give him a lot of problems.

At 23, Parker still has time for additional development. Although he has fought a number of competent C-class guys, he still hasn't faced anyone who could be mistaken for a true prospect or contender. It will be interesting to see if he adjusts his game as his competition increases. Hopefully, he will maintain his aggressive demeanor in the ring while he acquires some additional polish. 

The five fighters I have listed above have brought renewed life to a dormant division, but by no means are they the only hopefuls in this next wave of heavyweights – just the most prominent at this point. Perhaps some others will join them in the next 12 months, such as southpaw gunslinger Charles Martin (who fights for a title belt next month), Australian power puncher Lucas Browne or Hughie Fury, recognized by many as more athletic than cousin Tyson. In addition, there are several established boxers that could make excellent fights with those already mentioned above, such as Alexander Povetkin, David Haye, Dereck Chisora, Bermane Stiverne, Artur Szpilka, Bryant Jennings and Carlos Takam.  

Overall, the division is in great shape. The next few years have the potential to produce some outstanding heavyweight fights, seemingly a rarity in the last decade of the fight game. There is no consensus as to which of these heavyweights will emerge as the top gun in the division and it's also possible that none of the five I mentioned will reign as this era's best. Ultimately, a little chaos among action fighters is just fine. The journey to establish the next heavyweight king should be thrilling.

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, SN Boxing on Facebook
Contact Adam at saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Pound-for-Pound Update 12-3-15

With the results of the last two weekends, there have been significant changes to the Saturday Night Boxing Pound-for-Pound list. Saul Alvarez (previously ranked #13) rises in the Rankings after his unanimous decision victory over Miguel Cotto. Alvarez jumps six spots to #7 and Cotto drops two places from #12 to #14. Also, Tyson Fury enters the Rankings after his decision win over heavyweight king Wladimir Klitschko. Fury debuts at #12 while Klitschko falls from #2 to #13. With Fury's addition to the pound-for-pound list, Leo Santa Cruz (formerly #20) falls out of the Rankings.
One quick note about how I view a pound-for-pound list. I utilize recent victories or losses against a specific caliber of opposition as a primary driver for where a fighter is positioned in the Rankings. A secondary consideration (although not trivial) is a boxer's form in recent outings. I bring this up because I now have Alvarez slotted ahead of Gennady Golovkin on my list. Now, do I think that Alvarez beats Golovkin? No, I don't. However, from my perspective, Alvarez has three victories in recent years against very good fighters in Cotto, Erislandy Lara and Austin Trout. I would rank all of those opponents at the time Alvarez fought them over the quality of Golovkin's best foes, such as David Lemieux or Martin Murray.
Although I believe that Golovkin would beat Alvarez, that isn't enough for me to place him over Alvarez on my pound-for-pound list. From my perspective, it's who you beat and when you beat them. Without an emphasis on what fighters have actually done in the ring, this exercise becomes even more speculative than it currently is and frankly that's a rabbit hole I don't want to go down. Yes, I appreciate that many fighters have avoided Golovkin in the ring. However, I can't give Golovkin credit for theoretical opponents that he hasn't faced or beaten. Even though Golovkin has never sniffed a Top-20 pound-for-pound guy in the ring, I still have him ranked at #8, and that's not too shabby given the quality of his opposition.  
The complete Saturday Night Boxing pound-for-pound list is below: 

1.    Roman Gonzalez
2.    Andre Ward
3.    Manny Pacquiao
4.    Tim Bradley
5.    Sergey Kovalev
6.    Juan Estrada
7.    Saul Alvarez
8.    Gennady Golovkin
9.    Guillermo Rigondeaux
10.  Naoya Inoue
11.  Adonis Stevenson
12.  Tyson Fury
13.  Wladimir Klitschko
14.  Miguel Cotto
15.  Danny Garcia
16.  Takashi Uchiyama
17.  Terence Crawford
18.  Donnie Nietes
19.  Shinsuke Yamanaka
20.  Nicholas Walters
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, SN Boxing on Facebook
Contact Adam at saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com  

Monday, November 30, 2015

Opinions and Observations: Klitschko-Fury, DeGale-Bute

There is a minimum punch volume threshold where if a fighter strays below that line, he can't expect to win a decision on the cards. Yes, there could be outliers. Scenarios have occurred where a fighter refuses to throw punches in the ring. There, the marginally more active boxer (even if he is below the threshold) gets the victory. Or perhaps both guys decide to engage in a staring contest for the duration of a fight, and someone has to win. But by and large, there is a threshold. I've always placed that line at 20 punches per round. If a guy can't meet that lowly number and his opponent is decidedly more active, the busier one will get the decision, regardless of quality or effectiveness. On Saturday, Wladimir Klitschko averaged only 19.25 punches thrown per round and, as follows, he lost.

Before I get accused of not understanding how boxing is scored, let me take a step back before further elaborating on my point. Yes, boxing is scored on the 10-point must system, where the winner gets 10 points and the loser gets 9 (point deductions, knockdowns and even rounds could lead to a different number). After the bout concludes, the points are added up and there is your winner. I get this. I understand all of it. However, what I maintain is that at the low extreme of punch volumes, judges won't award rounds to the inactive guy, unless he happens to score a knockdown or really cause damage. Absent those factors, the busier fighter will win the decision (again, regardless of quality or effectiveness) against a guy who refuses to let his hands go beyond the minimum threshold rate.

I don't think that my point is particularly controversial but it should be axiomatic. If you can't throw 20 punches per round, you can't win a decision, or, to play just a little bit nicer, you shouldn't expect to win a decision. This accounts for outliers, force majeure, etc.    

Tyson Fury averaged 30.9 punches thrown per round against Klitschko. It certainly wasn't a robust number but that's a total more often seen in a heavyweight fight. He was credited with landing 34 more punches in a match where not much happened; that's a significant advantage. I rarely belabor punch stats like I have here but in this particular fight, the totals were revealing.

A variety of factors influenced Klitschko's inactivity and I'll list many of them: Fury's constant feints and head movement didn't allow for a clean target to be hit. Wladimir works off his jab and when he couldn't land that punch, he was reluctant to open up with other shots. Klitschko has also never been a body puncher. Thus, one established avenue of breaking down an opponent with head movement was off-limits because of his predilections. Fury's size was another contributing factor to Klitschko's inactivity; Wlad didn't have a reach advantage. Fury stayed out of the pocket and wasn't in Klitschko's range very often. Fury also switched up from orthodox to southpaw and moved his gloves to unusual positions. These actions confused Klitschko, making him hesitant. Let's also not discount Klitschko's age (39). Furthermore, he was unwilling to take risks and he lacked creativity when "Plan A" didn't work. 

In short, it was a comprehensive loss. Fury beat Klitschko and Klitschko also beat himself. By not throwing punches, Klitschko didn't give himself a chance to win on the scorecards. Even when the fight was slipping away from him, he refused to make adjustments. It was the same story most of the fight (with the exception of a belated charge in the 12th round). Klitschko essentially stared at Fury, who confounded him with movement, angles and his physical attributes. While Klitschko remained foggy in the ring, Fury landed quick jabs, hooks and two-punch combinations. 

The three judges awarded Fury eight rounds, eight rounds and nine rounds, respectively. I gave him 11 rounds on my card, with the acknowledgment that rounds 1 and 8 in particular could've gone for Klitschko. Ultimately, it was an embarrassing way for a proud champion to lose his title. Not until the last round did Klitschko fight with any urgency. That he raised his arms at the end of the match was a sign of self-delusion; an effort such as that will not win a prizefight. 

Klitschko-Fury was also a tale of two corners. Peter Fury concocted a great game plan. Team Fury took away Klitschko's jab, one of the best weapons in the sport. By remaining out of the pocket, Klitschko couldn't find any consistency with the jab, which precluded him from gaining confidence. Tyson must also take credit for remaining disciplined throughout the fight. Even as he was piling up the rounds on the scorecards, he didn't make a lot of mistakes or get greedy with his offense. He put in his work and got out of the pocket. To his credit, he refused to turn the bout into a bomb-throwing contest. He was well prepared and fully bought into Peter's strategy.  

On the other side, Klitschko's trainer, Jonathon Banks, had one of the worst corner performances I've seen in 2015. As the rounds continued to slip away, there was no urgency from him until the 10th round. In the break between the eighth and ninth, he was still telling Wlad to "double up the jab, head and body." Of course, Wlad never jabs to the body. I repeat. HE NEVER JABS TO THE BODY! Even if they had worked on that in the gym, he doesn't do it in fights. And let me add one more point of emphasis: HE WAS WELL BEHIND IN THE FIGHT! The time for being cute with the jab was over. Something dramatic had to change for Klitschko to have a chance of winning and the jab wasn't the answer. Klitschko's former trainer, Emanuel Steward (also, Banks' mentor), exhorted his fighters when it was appropriate. On Saturday, Klitschko needed a forceful kick in the ass but Banks acted in the corner like he did as a fighter: someone just going through the motions. 

Due to contractual factors, a rematch of the fight is expected next. If Klitschko does want to entertain another Fury foray, he'd be well advised to switch trainers. At 39, Wlad's not going to learn new things technically. However, he needs a trainer who can connect with him emotionally and rouse him when needed. Banks is not that person. This decision will tell us a lot about Klitschko. If he maintains the status quo, settling for the comfortable and the familiar, he's signaling self-contentment with a mediocre effort. To me, that's not the formula for a different outcome. 

Let me make a final comment about Fury. Over the last few years, he has refined his technique and made vast improvements with his ring generalship. He used to fight like a goon, where he would swing wildly and not respect his opponent. As he has upped his competition level, a new-found seriousness has made its way into his repertoire and it's a welcome addition. He's no longer jabbing from too close or leaving himself wide open after throwing the right hand. In addition, for such a big man, he can be surprisingly agile in the ring. When he switches to southpaw, he doesn't do it as a gimmick. It's tactical and done with purpose. There were many (myself included) who underestimated Fury. The joke was on us. 


Speaking of searching for a new trainer, former super middleweight champion Lucian Bute hooked up with brothers Howard and Otis Grant this year in an attempt to rejuvenate his career. Marked by losses, injuries and inactivity, the last few years hadn't gone well for Bute. However, he looked like a fresh fighter on Saturday against beltholder James DeGale, putting forth a spirited effort in a competitive loss. 

For the first time since his shutout of Glen Johnson in 2011, Bute fought with confidence against a good opponent. He remained aggressive throughout the night and didn't cower after receiving return fire. On offense, he featured a solid left hand and a blistering right hook to the head and body. His other weapons, such as his jab and uppercut, were less successful. 

Ultimately, the offensive creativity and athleticism of DeGale were enough to swing the fight in his favor. How often do you see lead-hand uppercut/lead-hand hook combinations? In other instances, DeGale would switch to a conventional stance and land the following combination: right uppercut (then switch to southpaw)/right hook/left uppercut. I noted specific instances where DeGale threw seven- and nine-punch combinations – and this was against a guy with good power!  He also doubled up with the uppercut in many exchanges. These are the types of punches and combinations thrown by a supremely confident fighter and one who has a number of athletic gifts.   

There were many exceptional rounds in the fight, including the 8th, 9th, 11th and 12th. Both boxers were fighting for their futures; DeGale wanted to cement his status as a young champion on the rise and Bute needed to reestablish his relevance at the top level of the sport. As good as Bute performed throughout the night, DeGale was consistently better. In the end, DeGale prevailed (scores were 116-112, 117-111 and 117-111; I had it 116-112) but both fighters truly won. 

Bute remains a formidable challenger. Sure, he wasn't perfect on Saturday. His defense is still leaky (way too much room between his gloves) and he isn't the most instinctual fighter out there; it took him half the match to launch an attack when DeGale turned conventional. But he showed moxie and he still has heavy hands. This "loss" was far more impressive than were many of his title defenses. 

As for DeGale, he has now defeated Andre Dirrell and Lucian Bute in 2015, a damn fine showing. Over the last four fights, DeGale has discovered his ring identity. No longer a cute boxer or one beset by problems of consistency and confidence, he has now become one of the best boxer-punchers in the sport. He features a blistering offensive arsenal and doesn't shy away from exchanges. Moreover, his willingness to leave England in search of larger opportunities is refreshing in an age of protected fighters. He's in a division that features a number of enticing matchups, such as Arthur Abraham, George Groves (the lone boxer to defeat him), Badou Jack and Callum Smith. Here's hoping that he builds on 2015 next year. Not only has he emerged as one of the must-see fighters in the sport, he's quickly ascending to the ranks of its supreme practitioners. 

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, SN Boxing on Facebook
Contact Adam at saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com  

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Opinions and Observations: Cotto-Canelo

Miguel Cotto's best opportunity to beat Saul "Canelo" Alvarez on Saturday was stinking out the fight. In a number of rounds that Cotto won (ignore the ludicrous, lopsided scores from the judges), he limited action, used movement and fired quick flurries. During these moments, he was successful at keeping Alvarez from throwing combinations and unleashing his expansive offensive arsenal. However, Cotto (and his trainer, Freddie Roach) isn't really wired to fight technically for 12 rounds. At heart, he has always been a boxer-puncher and his desire to stand and trade with Alvarez became more pronounced as the fight developed. Perhaps, at 35, he didn't have the legs to move for 36 minutes. But more likely, it's a temperament issue. Cotto has never won by being elusive; it's not how he entered the sport and it's not how he perceives himself as a fighter. 

It takes a certain type of boxer, such as Floyd Mayweather or Guillermo Rigondeaux, who appeared on Saturday's undercard, to stink out a fight. He must ignore the will of the crowd and dismiss the disdain of the boxing media. Concerns such as entertainment value are tossed out the window. The fighter who stinks it out doesn't view himself as emanating from some type of mythic warrior tribe. He is calculating. In the ring, clinical rationality lays waste to emotionalism. He doesn't lace up the gloves for love or affection. Let's face it; Miguel Cotto has never been that fighter.  

Like most boxers, Cotto yearns for admiration, approval and glory in the ring. In some instances, these positive characteristics can be a burden. They reduce the available options for victory. Cotto isn't programmed to win with a negative style. He wants to dazzle fight fans with power shots and impose his will on an opponent. Unfortunately, these attributes played right into Canelo's hands.

Although Cotto fell short of victory, he performed ably. He was active. He had success throughout the fight with jabs and left hooks. Repeatedly turning Alvarez, Cotto limited Canelo's punch output, especially early in the bout. Yet despite all of these positives in the ring, Cotto didn't truly commit to a winning game plan. He did box intelligently at many points in the fight but seemingly just as often he decided to stand and trade with a much bigger opponent.  

Ultimately, Alvarez's counterpunches were too powerful and those shots were the difference in the fight. One good Alvarez uppercut seemed to have the impact of three Cotto left hooks. Canelo's punches were thudding, eye-catching and did more damage. He was never bothered by Cotto's power and his size advantage helped minimize the impact of blows received and accentuate his own offensive forays. 

In my estimation, Alvarez has now beaten three very good fighters in Austin Trout, Erislandy Lara and Cotto. In each of those bouts, his opponents had pronounced foot speed advantages. Nevertheless, Alvarez makes up for these shortcomings with excellent punch placement, timing and unconventional attacks. No one else in the sport throws a lead uppercut as often as he does. It's a devastating punch and one that opponents cannot adequately prepare for. In addition, his crosses, hooks and body shots consistently hit their marks even against more athletic opponents (the preternaturally gifted Mayweather is, of course, an exception). 

It's easy to look at Alvarez and point out his deficiencies: clumsy footwork, lack of urgency in the ring, middling ring IQ. However, his considerable strengths are too often overlooked. He has tremendous confidence in his own abilities. He doesn't beat himself in the ring. Canelo has a huge punch arsenal and is wonderful when countering. He's also a sublime combination puncher. 

Over time, the positive aspects of his package continue to manifest in the ring. His intangibles are strong. Not for one moment on Saturday did he seem intimidated by the Hall of Fame opponent in front of him or bothered by a lack of early success. Instead, he persevered and landed enough of his power shots to clinch the victory. 

I had the fight 115-113 for Alvarez and that seemed to be a popular score on social media. The judges saw it much wider for Alvarez, 117-111 (John McKaie), 118-110 (Burt Clements) and 119-109 (Dave Moretti). Those last two tallies failed to reflect the competitiveness of the fight. Let me stop downplaying it; those scorecards were suspicious. Unfortunately, Cotto was fighting far more than just Alvarez. Yes, "that's boxing," and contemptible scoring happens quite often, but it's still abhorrent. In a perfect world, Moretti and Clements would be summoned to the Nevada State Athletic Commission to explain their cards; however, let's not kid ourselves about the realities of professional boxing. Commissions only seem to act when they are embarrassed. Last night, the "right guy" won, so in basketball parlance – no harm, no foul. 

The fight also demonstrated that Cotto's power at middleweight wasn't blessed with magical sorcery. He finally encountered a boxer who could withstand his best shots (in truth, many in the division could). Perhaps Cotto and Roach thought that Canelo would wilt in the later rounds after eating too many sharp left hooks, but not only did that eventuality fail to materialize, it never came close to happening. Throughout his career, Alvarez has displayed a very good chin. He has been bested once by a defensive marvel who had the foresight and willingness not to stand and trade with him. 

Perhaps Gennady Golovkin's power will be too much for Alvarez; GGG certainly would be a sizable favorite in that matchup. But let me say this: Alvarez won't be intimidated by Golovkin's reputation or his past exploits in the ring. They have sparred with each other before and Alvarez knows what he's up against. Golovkin may very well beat Alvarez but he'll have to earn it. 

On the undercard, Japanese junior lightweight titleholder Takashi Miura and Mexican challenger Francisco Vargas engaged in a vicious war, one of the best fights of the year. Vargas almost ended matters in the first round with a huge right hand that buckled Miura's knees. After a shaky start, Miura found his way into the fight with straight left hands and punishing body shots. As the match progressed, Vargas' right eye resembled a crater. The fight featured fierce exchanges with Miura more often getting the better of the action. In the fourth, he sent Vargas down with a sledgehammer left cross. By the eighth, it looked like Vargas was ready to go. However, Vargas changed the fight dynamic early in the next round with a massive right hand that felled Miura, who beat the count but was in terrible shape. Vargas then landed some hard follow up shots, which forced Tony Weeks to wave off the bout. 

Over the last few years, Vargas has been steadily moved by Golden Boy Promotions. Facing an assortment of decent fighters, such as Jerry Belmontes, Will Tomlinson and Abner Cotto (to say nothing of the corpse of Juan Manuel Lopez), Vargas demonstrated that he had the boxing skills and power to beat "B-level" opponents. However, Miura, who had dropped 130-lb. king Takashi Uchiyama and defeated Billy Dib and Sergio Thompson, represented a huge step up in class. It was classic "sink or swim" time for Vargas. And in the middle of the bout, the deep waters were unkind. But Vargas wasn't looking to be rescued by others. After fighting hard to stay afloat, he saved himself with the lifeboat known as his right hand. 

The fight revealed all the character we need to know about Vargas. He walked through hell to win. At various moments he teetered on the precipice of defeat. However, despite hitting the canvas and fighting with a damaged eye, he pulled out a resounding victory. It was a gutty and wonderful display and I can't wait to watch it again.  

Former junior featherweight champion Guillermo Rigondeaux also fought on Saturday's undercard, but "fought" might be too strong of a word for his performance. Against an overmatched Drian Francisco, Rigondeaux danced, feinted and occasionally punched his way to a shutout victory. Landing fewer than ten shots per round, Rigondeaux fought with no urgency or desire to impress. He was getting his work in and minimizing risk. The crowd booed his effort and they should have; the fight resembled an uneventful sparring session. 

It had been an eventful few weeks for Rigondeaux. Stripped of his titles because of inactivity, he fired his manager and signed with promoter Roc Nation. Unfortunately, all of those transactions were far more interesting than his performance on Saturday.

Rigondeaux has won two gold medals, defected from Cuba, secured junior featherweight titles belts and signed a multi-million dollar contract with Roc Nation. In short, he has had quite a life. Unlike most fighters, he seems unimpressed with fan devotion or the usual glories associated with professional boxing. At 35, he now fights primarily for pecuniary reward. 

Rigondeaux is a unique figure in boxing. A defensive master with power, he cares much more about the former than the latter. He's been booted off TV networks, frozen out by promoters, been embroiled in lawsuits and ignored by boxing fans, to say nothing of pricing himself out of big fights. He remains overly self-satisfied in the ring and a diva outside of it. Yet, he continues to soldier on with the formula that has led to his present status.

For as much opprobrium and scorn that he receives, his approach has worked out just fine. Rigondeaux's considerable skills raised him out of poverty and provided him with the opportunity to experience the joys of living in a free society. Unfortunately for boxing enthusiasts, freedom doesn't always lead to our desired outcomes. Like all other top fighters living in a democracy, Rigondeaux has the freedom not to fight, to have unscrupulous people on his payroll to blow off promoters and to be difficult. But by overcoming real hardships, he has earned these rights. So I'm sure that he's aware of the boos and his lack of popularity among boxing stakeholders, but he has made it to the promised land and thrived. In that context, the negative reactions from crowds, TV execs, promoters and writers are ephemeral. He has endured far worse.

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, SN Boxing on Facebook
Contact Adam at saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Cotto-Alvarez: Keys to the Fight

Saturday features one of the best matchups in boxing, four-weight champion Miguel Cotto (40-4, 33 KOs) of Puerto Rico against hard-hitting Mexican matinee star Saul "Canelo" Alvarez (45-1-1, 32 KOs). The fight, at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, promises to add another memorable chapter to the fabled Puerto Rico/Mexico rivalry in boxing. The bout will be contested at a catchweight of 155 lbs. Cotto currently is the lineal middleweight king and there is an additional belt in play should Canelo win the match. 

Both fighters enter the bout in fine form. They recorded scintillating knockouts earlier in the year – Cotto destroyed an overmatched Daniel Geale and Canelo obliterated James Kirkland in a knockout of the year candidate. Each fighter possesses boxing skills and array of power punches; their styles should mesh well to produce a compelling fight. Read below for the keys to the fight. My prediction will be at the end of the article.

1. Freddie Roach's game plan.

Since aligning with trainer Freddie Roach, Cotto has scored an impressive stoppage in each of their three fights together. With Roach, he has displayed a renewed killer instinct and has rediscovered his left hook, a primary weapon during his early championship run that went missing during a mid-career lull.

Roach is one of the best offensive trainers in the sport. He likes his fighters to go right at opponents; he wants knockouts. His boxers are almost always in shape (let's not count Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., who is a handful for anyone) and they don't beat themselves outside of the ring. However, it seems to me that Canelo is the wrong opponent for Roach's typical game plan. Sending Cotto right at Canelo plays right into the slower-footed Alvarez's strengths. In this scenario, Canelo doesn't have to use his legs to track a fighter down and he can rely on his counterpunching to generate offense.

Cotto would best be served by boxing through large portions of the fight. His biggest advantage over Alvarez is his foot speed. Using lateral movement, his jab and quick combinations, Cotto can rely on his ring craft to win rounds. Alvarez can have difficulty in cutting off the ring and Cotto's versatility (a fighter who is comfortable either as a boxer or a puncher) will be a big plus in the bout.

But will Roach concede Alvarez's physical advantages? Does he want his boxer trying to win by being clever or will he insist on Cotto testing Alvarez with left hooks at close range? Alvarez may not have had to withstand a punch as good as Cotto's left hook to this point of his career, but, he has displayed a good chin and seems to recover well from big shots. Does Roach send Cotto into the fire? This is perhaps the most important factor in determining how the fight plays out. 

Personally, I'd want Cotto to box-and-move his way to a victory but that isn't Roach's usual way of doing business. Roach is certainly a master of breaking down tape and it's certainly possible that he's found something in studying Alvarez that would lead to Cotto fighting more offensively than conventional wisdom would suggest. However, I'll play the percentages here. I think the less that Cotto brawls, the better he does.

2. Canelo needs to hit what's available.

Most likely, Cotto will spend large chunks of the fight boxing and moving. He'll use his legs to navigate around the ring, stopping briefly to potshot and unload quick combos. This type of fighter clearly troubles Alvarez, who can be plodding on his feet and doesn't use angles well to initiate offense. However, against tricky, athletic opponents like Austin Trout and Erislandy Lara, Alvarez had enough stretches of success to win close decisions.

The formula in those fights was simple enough: hit whatever was available. It didn't have to be pretty and often Canelo landed just one shot at a time, but it worked. Lara gave up the body so Canelo went downstairs consistently with right hands. Against Trout, he had success with lead right hands.

Cotto won't likely provide an easy target for Canelo, especially early in the fight. Thus, Canelo needs to be satisfied with shots here and there. Some good body work or a few strong right hands could be enough to tilt the action in his favor. If he's looking to land eye-catching combinations, he will be in for a long night.  

3. Lessons from Lara.

Canelo's 2014 split decision win against Lara was a debatable verdict. Many favored Lara's boxing skills and ring generalship. Others rewarded Alvarez's aggression and body shots. Ultimately, two of the judges sided with Alvarez (interestingly, Dave Moretti judged that fight and he will be one of the arbiters on Saturday).

That fight, like Saturday's, will be contested in Las Vegas, which is a jurisdiction that tends to favor the "aggressor." The fighter who comes forward is often awarded close rounds, regardless of how effective he is. If Cotto plans to play "keep away" for portions of the fight, he'll have to take into consideration that many judges will reflexively side with the aggressor when in doubt. Boxing Alvarez can work but he still has to do enough offensively to win rounds on the judges' scorecards.

The three judges for the event are Moretti, Burt Clements and John McKaie. Moretti and Clements are from Nevada while McKaie is from New York, which has essentially been Cotto's home base throughout his professional career. It's probably no coincidence that McKaie was approved by the Cotto camp; he sided with Cotto in the fighter's razor-thin split decision win over Joshua Clottey in 2009.

Ultimately, the crowd will probably favor Canelo to a degree and two of the judges will be from a jurisdiction that particularly rewards offensively-minded fighters. For Cotto, it's not enough just to make Canelo look bad; he also has to impose himself enough offensively to impress the judges. Being evasive isn't good enough.

4. Who does best from long range?

Although I expect Cotto to box from the outside during periods of the fight, it's not a given that he is the better fighter from distance. Canelo fights taller than Cotto does and he may have a slight reach advantage. He has a good lead right hand from the outside and an underrated jab. These are two weapons that can minimize Cotto's effectiveness throughout the fight, especially from range. 

However, Cotto also features a sharp right hand and has found increased success with that punch as his career has progressed. Cotto also has underrated hand speed. He found success with his jab even against a slickster like Floyd Mayweather. Canelo doesn't move his head much and Cotto's jab could be a significant factor in the fight. 

Fans certainly want to see Cotto and Canelo duke it out at close range but it may be in both fighters’ best interests to win the battle from distance. That victor will then force the other to come inside more often, potentially forcing more mistakes. 

5. Can Cotto get in and out fast enough?

I don't think that Cotto wants this fight to turn into a phone booth war. In that scenario, Canelo has an array of punches and combinations that cause significant damage. Still, Cotto needs to go to work offensively. Although, I rate both fighters as having close-to-equal hand speed, I think that Cotto gets his left hook off faster than any power punch that Alvarez can deliver. But staying in the pocket too long is to Cotto's peril. He needs to throw his shots and get out quickly.

Canelo can definitely be hit but fighters get greedy with this knowledge. They often decide to stand in front of him to their detriment. In Alvarez's career, he hasn't lost too many prolonged exchanges. Canelo turns counterpunching opportunities into multi-punch combinations. And he is unconventional with his combinations (when he's really rolling, watch how often he starts combos with his uppercuts). By standing in front of Canelo, Cotto minimizes his advantages in the match.

Cotto has the wisdom to win this fight, but, at 35, does he still have the reflexes? Is his defense sound enough at this stage of his career? Is he able to consistently avoid Canelo's counterpunches? Can he move in and out without getting clipped by something big? If the answers to these questions are affirmative for Cotto, then he will have an excellent chance of securing the victory on Saturday. 


The early rounds of the fight will be far more tactical than action-oriented. Cotto will use his legs and movement to flummox Canelo, who can't find the right distance to land consistently. Cotto will have success with jabs, single hooks and quick two-punch connections. 

I believe that the fight will turn with a big shot by Canelo. Cotto will be caught by either backing straight out from an exchange or misjudging distance and getting hit by a lead right hand from long range. Over the course of the fight, I see Canelo developing more confidence. Body work will eventually force Cotto to become less mobile and Canelo will gradually unleash his combinations. 

Cotto will win many of the early rounds but Canelo will find his way into the fight. He will continue to do better as the bout progresses, eventually dominating the match in the final third. He'll hurt Cotto a couple of times toward the end of the fight but the veteran will be too cagey to be stopped. 

Saul Alvarez defeats Miguel Cotto 116-112.    

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, SN Boxing on Facebook
Contact Adam at saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com