Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Opinions and Observations: Kovalev and Berto

As boxing fans, we crave for the fights to give us that rush of excitement that will carry us through the slog of the work week. To us, boxing provides that high, that fix we need. And this weekend's fights, starting with an impressive three-fight card on Spike TV and carrying over to HBO's main event, delivered thrilling action. So for a little while, we boxing junkies felt a startling sensation, the euphoria of being completely satiated. 

On Saturday, the pulse quickened and the heart started to beat more rapidly during the fifth round of the Sergey Kovalev-Jean Pascal fight. Through the first four, Kovalev dominated Pascal with enormous right hands, some crafty left hooks and a constant barrage of hard jabs to the body. A right hand sent Pascal through the ropes at the end of the third and Pascal looked completely finished. By some miracle, he survived the shot and continued to fight on. By the fifth, he had recovered well enough and started to impose himself on Kovalev. He connected with a number of sweeping right hands that landed flush. In subsequent bursts, he scored with wide left hooks. Suddenly, the fight was in the balance and the crowd roared with its approval. Now it was Kovalev whose sweat was flying after absorbing big shots. In the sixth, Pascal continued his rally and landed a pulverizing right hand body shot that halted Kovalev's aggression. Kovalev, usually looking unstoppable, was finally revealed to be a mortal. 

Ultimately, Kovalev showed his mettle. After eating some big punches, he went back to basics in the seventh, working behind his jab and being more patient with his power shots. Hurting Pascal at the end of the round, he teed off on him to begin the eighth and the fight was shortly stopped thereafter (it could have been an early stoppage but Pascal was in bad shape). Kovalev had withstood Pascal's rally and changed the tenor of the fight with not just his brawn but also his brains. It was one of his best performances as a professional and a further demonstration that he is far more than just a power puncher. 

We learned quite a bit about Kovalev in the fight. First, his chin is pretty damn good. Pascal landed some huge power shots and although they affected Kovalev, they didn't derail him physically or psychologically. He exhibited fairly good recuperative powers and the back-and-forth didn't materially change his demeanor in the ring. Second, we saw Kovalev make some key adjustments during the fight. In the seventh, he went back to the jab to the body, hammering Pascal with multiple sequences of jabs. This once again opened up his power shots and led to his victory. During the broadcast, Bernard Hopkins (guest commentator for the night) pointed out why Kovalev started to get hit – he was walking in without throwing punches. By reestablishing his jab, Kovalev was able to tighten up his defense and find better angles to throw.

Pascal's success in the fifth and sixth rounds shouldn't be read as an indictment of Kovalev's ultimate ceiling. Pascal is a damn good opponent and very tricky. He lands on everyone, even defensively sound fighters such as Hopkins and Chad Dawson. It's tough to find sparring partners that can mimic Pascal's idiosyncratic movements and punch angles. He has a very unique style, which gives him inherent advantages over a new opponent. What's important to take from Kovalev's performance is that he made the adjustments. He took Pascal's best, recalibrated and then dominated. Kovalev showed on Saturday that he is not an automaton; he is a thinking, breathing fighter – and a fantastic one too. 

Already a top talent in the sport, Kovalev can still develop further. Over the last two years, he has improved his footwork, spacing, jab and Ring IQ. To my eyes, there is an opportunity for him to expand his offensive arsenal. Right now, he is a three-punch fighter with his jab, straight right hand and the occasional left hook. Now, he does a lot of different things with his jab and right hand but still, an opponent only has to look for a few types of shots; there is no uppercut and he doesn't always commit to throw his hook to the body. Imagine what he could do if he closed a combination with a right uppercut or two or a left hook downstairs. Kovalev has already had tremendous success at the top levels of the sport but with a more well-rounded arsenal, he could beat opponents with even more ease than he's been doing – a truly scary thought.

As for Pascal, his comeback spoke highly of his mental fortitude and fighting spirit. Most opponents would've crumbled after that shot in the third, but not Pascal. He wasn't just there to survive or extend Kovalev through evasive tactics; he had designs on winning the fight. After absorbing savage punishment in the early rounds, during the fifth and sixth he was the one getting the better of the action. 

His memorable effort on Saturday guarantees that he will be back in big fights soon. I'm sure that HBO was impressed with his effort. Yes, there aren't many moral victories in boxing and certainly Pascal wasn't happy with how the fight was stopped, but he has cemented his status as a must-see boxer in the division. He's now a more attractive figure to the networks than he was before the fight. In that way, Pascal had a definitive victory. 


The second Al Haymon Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) card was held on Friday with far less fanfare than the series debut had. On a secondary cable network (Spike) with fewer stars in the ring and in the announcing crew, the card nevertheless far surpassed the initial PBC outing on NBC. With an announce team of Scott Hanson, Jimmy Smith and Antonio Tarver, the broadcast featured the right mix of enthusiasm, comfort and expertise. Smith, whose usual gig is calling MMA fights, displayed enough familiarity with boxing to make cogent points. His insights about fighter mentality and strategy were consistent benefits to the broadcast. Hanson, who normally covers football for NFL Network, found the right tone throughout the telecast and called the action with excitement and professionalism. Tarver, who was replaced two years ago on Showtime by Paulie Malignaggi, returned to the broadcast booth like he hadn't missed a beat. 

Haymon has designs on expanding the sport well beyond premium cable in the U.S. market. Obviously, exposing a larger pool of viewers to quality fights is the first step to achieving sustainable growth and Haymon has achieved the first part of this objective by putting the sport in front of a lot of new eyeballs. In addition, having announcers who can enhance the viewing experience will be key to enlarging the sport's audience. On Friday, Spike's three broadcasters helped to do their part. They didn't view their boxing assignment as just another gig and they seemed genuinely happy to be there. That enthusiasm manifested throughout the broadcast, augmenting the quality of the fight card. 

As boxing continues to expand on multiple channels, the lack of quality broadcasting talent and broadcast continuity issues have become serious problems. Fox Sports 1 has relied on a patchwork collection of announcers with mixed results. ESPN has rotated its longtime play-by-play announcer Joe Tessitore with Todd Grisham (both have their proponents and detractors) and its main analyst (Teddy Atlas) remains a controversial figure. The NBC crew with Marv Albert and Sugar Ray Leonard wasn't well received in its initial broadcast. Showtime went through a series of announcers before settling on Mauro Ranallo as its lead play-by-play voice. Even HBO's crew has slipped from its top days of Lampley, Merchant and Steward.  

Exceptional announcers and announce teams will help create a new generation of fans while mediocre ones can kill the momentum of a boxing series and also fail to accurately capture the sublime moments in the sport. Right now, there isn't enough quality broadcast talent in boxing, making it more difficult to attract and retain new viewers. The best broadcasters help to build relationships with viewers and their calls are essential to how audiences perceive the sport. A poor broadcast creates a wedge between the viewer and positive associations with the sport. 

It's clear from the first two PBC shows that Haymon felt that changes were needed regarding how boxing was being presented on television. Yes, he invested a lot in the music, ring walks and the in-arena experience but he also brought in new announce teams (certainly he had input with the respective networks). He wasn't interested in recycling boxing's usual suspects of broadcasters. 

On first blush, it appears that he and Spike have found a winning broadcast crew. Featuring a mix of MMA and other combat sports, Spike could be a very valuable platform to increase boxing's reach in the U.S and if a first-rate announce crew can appeal to the station's desirable demographics, the sport could make inroads among a subset of viewers who had previously considered boxing their father or grandfather's sport; this would be a considerable advance.


As for the PBC fights themselves, the most memorable battle on Friday was the truly epic eight-round heavyweight battle between the overweight Chris Arreola and the journeyman Curtis Harper (not particularly svelte himself). I'm sure that you could surmise from that description that the fight didn't win any awards for aesthetics or skill, but the two combatants certainly left it all in the ring. 

Arreola almost ended the thing in the first round with a right-left combination that sent Harper across the ring. Perhaps a more in-shape Arreola, who weighed in at 263, could have finished the job at that moment, but Harper was able to survive. In the early rounds, the fight seemed like a formality, with an out-of-shape Arreola getting his work in and going through the motions in a stay-busy fight (the match was a swing bout and most likely wouldn't have aired on TV had the Shawn Porter fight gone the distance). Arreola had previously fought for titles and eliminators and here he was against a 12-3 guy not giving a shit. He was doing enough early to hurt Harper and I'm sure that Arreola expected Friday to be a short night's work. 

But by the third, Harper started to have success with some right hands from against the ropes. Mixing in a few left hooks and uppercuts, he was landing squarely on Arreola and the tide of the fight started to turn. The fourth featured more impressive work for Harper and the lumbering "no-hoper" somehow was getting the best of a two-time title challenger. 

Arreola was laboring. Harper hit him with some huge shots and his face quickly got marked up. Arreola looked like he had hurt his right arm and wasn't throwing it fluidly in the middle rounds.

But whatever criticism that Arreola deserves for his conditioning and habits outside of the ring, between the ropes, he has always acted like a real fighter. Refusing to let his arm injury deter him, he continued to throw it, even though he would wince in pain on more than a few occasions after connecting. He also went back to work by the fifth round and hurt Harper several times in the closing frames. He wound go on to win a unanimous decision. On one hand, Arreola looked like shit – he was struggling against a mediocre fighter and looked to be a far removed from his former perch as a top-ranked heavyweight. However, he also responded in the ring as 100% fighter. He overcame adversity and dug down to get a win. 

Yes, the fight resembled a bar room brawl but it was an absolutely thrilling one. The crowd was on its feet throughout much of the fight, an important fact that shouldn't be diminished. 

Arreola's days as a genuine threat to the heavyweight division may now be long gone but he has tremendous value as a television fighter. Match him correctly and fans and viewers will get their money's worth. Not every fighter can be elite but not every fighter can entertain either. Arreola could have a nice second career as the A-side on TV undercards. If he can somehow keep himself in at least decent shape, he could have a nice four- or five-year run ahead of him.


Welterweight Shawn Porter scored a fifth-round KO over late replacement Erick Bone, who took the fight on one day's notice. Despite Bone fighting mostly at 140-lbs. throughout his career and being unprepared for Porter, he was a surprisingly game opponent. The tall, lanky fighter slipped in some nice counter right hands and showed impressive fluidity and ring generalship. Ultimately, he couldn't overcome Porter's power and aggression.

Porter attacked Bone unrelentingly throughout the bout. Bouncing around his opponent to find angles for attack, Porter practically dispensed with defense throughout the duration of the fight. He didn't respect Bone's power and was more than willing to trade whenever possible. Going to the body unmercifully, Porter landed a thudding right hand to the body in the fifth that ultimately spelled the beginning of the end for Bone. A few moments later, he landed a devastating two-punch combination that sent Bone to the canvas for a second time in the round; Bone couldn't beat the count. 

In evaluating Porter's performance, there were a number of positive takeaways. Many fighters have struggled with late replacements, especially when the substitute presents a style that is markedly different from that of the original opponent. Porter was supposed to face Roberto Garcia, a straight-line banger with a fairly basic style, whereas Bone was a tall, counterpunching cutie who could really use his legs to navigate around the ring. However, Porter seemed unaffected by the opponent switch, which speaks very highly of his psychological makeup. In addition, Porter fought like he had a bug up his ass, and I mean that in the most positive way possible. He clearly wanted to make a massive statement with the fight, showing that he still belongs at the top level of the welterweight division. His exciting knockout guarantees that he will remain a player at 147 and one who is friendly to TV networks. 

On the negative side, Porter's defense has deteriorated since he has switched to his most recent style in the ring. Throughout his last four fights, he has evinced a pressure-fighting approach to his opponents that is far removed from the boxer-puncher style that he displayed in his ascension up the prospect ranks. Now, he fights like a less-controlled version of early Tim Bradley. Like Bradley did, he makes opponents feel uncomfortable with frequent periods of grappling and wrestling mixed in with his boxing. But unlike vintage Bradley, Porter's hands are often out-of-position and he remains fairly easy to pick off with accurate counters – that’s how Kell Brook took his title.

With his small arms, lack of height, muscular frame and fast feet, a pressure style makes a lot of sense for Porter. However, forsaking basic defensive principles will continue to leave him exposed against top fighters. I submit that if he toned down his aggression maybe 10% or so and remained a little more disciplined about coming in behind shots (instead of marching in without throwing), he could reap substantial rewards. 

Nevertheless, Porter has become a very entertaining fighter in the ring, something rarely said about him during his development. To beat him, an opponent must be very accurate and keep ultimate concentration for 12 rounds. In short, he remains a handful for anyone out there, win or lose.


The main event of the Spike broadcast featured a rousing comeback by Andre Berto. After losing the first four rounds of the fight, he wound up knocking out Josesito Lopez in the sixth. Early in the bout, Lopez outhustled Berto, beating him to the punch and letting his hands go more frequently. In the opening rounds, Berto's timing and accuracy were way off. He was more than a step slow with his counters and he landed far more frequently on Lopez's gloves than he did on the fighter himself. It seemed that Berto wasn't really committing to his shots early. He threw his counters, like he was supposed to, but they weren't punches designed to do damage; they were formalities.

Slowly Berto worked his way into the fight and he seemed to get more comfortable as the rounds progressed. (It should be noted that this was only Berto's second fight in 18 months. He was recovering from shoulder surgery through a lot of his time off.) During an exchange in the sixth, Berto found Lopez out-of-position and crushed him with a short right hand. Lopez beat the count but Berto immediately sent him down with the next punch he threw, a lead right from distance.

At this point, Raul Caiz Jr. waved off the fight without even administering a count; it was a controversial stoppage. On one hand, Lopez was certainly lucid after the second knockdown and he had demonstrated significant recuperative powers throughout his career. However, Lopez had also been involved in a number of wars and his punch resistance didn't look very good on Friday. As he attempted to get up, he did appear very shaky. Ultimately, I think that Caiz's decision could be validly debated either way. (In the opening fight of the card, Jack Reiss gave Bone an opportunity to rise from a second knockdown from a shot that was far worse than the one that Berto landed on Lopez.) If it were up to me, I would've given Lopez the ten seconds to see if he could clear his head but as bad stoppages go, that one didn't even register – just settle in for one of those lengthy British cards; you'll see one or two truly awful ones, guaranteed. 


The Kremlinology of Al Haymon and his associates is a fun parlor game, one in which I have certainly participated. Is Haymon good for the sport? Will his new ventures on network TV benefit boxing? In five years, will he dominate the sport or will he be an outcast? Among many boxing fans, he has been the subject of florid antipathy, vitriol and epithets that wouldn't be used in front of mom. But one thing's for certain, his fighters sure do like him. 

A defining characteristic of Haymon's tenure in boxing is the two-way loyalty between him and his fighters. Not only has he gotten many of them paid well but he has stood with his boxers through thick and thin. His fighters feel properly supported and they repay him with their continued consent of his representation. Friday's Spike card was a prime example why Haymon engenders such loyalty

When Shawn Porter was left without a dance partner for his fight on 24-hours’ notice, many promoters would have scrapped the fight or kicked it off the televised portion of the card with a much lesser opponent. (I know that Haymon is technically an advisor or manager but we know that he is the de facto promoter for the PBC series, title or not.) But Haymon didn't just fly in one capable fighter as a replacement; he brought in a second just in case. If Erick Bone didn't make weight, Karim Mayfield was there to step in.

Not only did Haymon wind up making a good bout with one day to work with but he helped multiple fighters. He saved a fight and a training camp for Porter. In addition, Haymon kept him on TV in a featured slot. Furthermore, Haymon was able to use this opportunity to showcase Bone's skills (another one of his fighters) and now Bone should get attractive opportunities at 140 lbs. Mayfield didn't get to fight but I'm sure that he got paid to take a plane down to Southern California and appreciated the consideration.

The main event featured another instance of why Haymon's fighters are devoutly loyal to him. Many promoters/managers would have left Andre Berto for dead by now. Coming into the fight, he had lost three of his last five, one of which by a crushing knockout to Jesus Soto Karass. In addition, it wasn't as if Berto had the boxing public behind him or much support at the TV networks. Nevertheless, Haymon put Berto on as his headliner for the first PBC card on Spike, clearly a signifier of how important Berto is to him. Nevermind that Porter remains a more relevant fighter in the welterweight division, Berto had been a long-standing fighter of Haymon's and he was rewarded for that. Berto will now get a bigger opportunity because of Haymon's continued belief in him. You can bet that he won't be switching managers anytime soon. 

Friday night was an excellent one for Haymon. It's easy to be suspicious or critical of his undertakings in the sport and as one who wields so much power, he warrants a high level of scrutiny. However, let's give the man his due. He has made significant inroads in the sport for a reason and Friday perfectly encapsulated why this has occurred.

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

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