Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Opinions and Observations: Canelo, PBC and ESPN

Skill versus Will fought to a draw this weekend. The accuracy of Saul "Canelo" Alvarez's power punches flattened James Kirkland's relentlessness while Jamie McDonnell's activity level and perseverance bested Tomoki Kameda's more-polished technique. To reframe this weekend's action using one of the more irrepressible boxing clich├ęs of our time, "skills paid the bills," but only if one let his hands go. It really didn't matter if Alvarez was the more accurate puncher or if he had the more dynamic offensive arsenal; if he didn't throw his shots, he would've eventually gotten eaten alive by Kirkland. Kameda had the better technique, footwork and punch variety but that only mattered on a theoretical level. He let his opponent outwork him in the last half of their fight and coughed up a sure victory.

McDonnell was a big underdog coming into the fight, which was understandable based on his recent performances, where he had looked less-than-sterling against several lower-level fighters. At best, McDonnell is a grinder in the ring. Meaning, he's not particularly flashy, he doesn't have real knockout power but he's well-conditioned and tends to improve during the course of a fight. He's a very basic 1-2-3 type of boxer; however, he uses his height, jab and high volume to trouble his opponents. 

Against Kameda, his positive intangibles manifested throughout the bout, especially in the concluding rounds. Kameda leveled him with a right hand in the third round and hit him with some menacing power shots throughout the first half of the fight. However, McDonnell withstood the early storm and fought through it. He kept his composure when others might have crumbled. He maintained a high activity level as the fight progressed and really went to work in the later rounds.

Kameda's punch volume plummeted in the bout's final third. Fighting as if he was up huge on the cards (and I'm sure at one point, he was), Kameda didn't believe that any urgency was needed in the championship rounds. However, McDonnell kept working and wound up winning 114-113 on all three cards; Kameda was in disbelief after the fight.

If nothing else, Kameda now has learned that his famous name means far less in America than it does in his native Japan. When fighting on home soil, his brother, Koki, had received a number of gifts and blessings from the judges. However, that previous reality is now gone. The Kamedas have been kicked out of fighting in Japan and have chosen to continue their careers in North America. Hopefully, the Kamedas now understand that they can't expect the same type of favorable treatment from judges and referees that they received in Japan, to say nothing of the fan support that could help sway close fights in their favor. On Saturday, Tomoki Kameda ended his match like an entitled fighter, and he paid a large price for his arrogance. At only 23, he still has a bright future in the sport but this loss was unnecessary and a significant indictment of his ring IQ and his team's corner work.

***

After facing slick fighters like Floyd Mayweather, Erislandy Lara and Austin Trout, Canelo Alvarez must have been licking his lips to take on a ring opponent who would come right at him. Sure, James Kirkland would bring pressure but he wouldn't be hard to find. In Alvarez's mind, this matchup would finally be a proper fight!

Yes, Kirkland ran at him like a freight train but by the final moments of the first round, Canelo had already scored a massive knockdown and almost ended things with some blistering combination punches. Kirkland was an ideal opponent for Alvarez's pulverizing lead right uppercut. Canelo scored a beautiful knockdown with that punch in the third round and a few moments later he ended things with a Knockout of the Year-type right hand. He bent at the knees, which brought Kirkland's hands down, and then unloaded an overhand right that settled the matter. 

Saturday's fantastic offensive display reminded the boxing world as to why Alvarez has become such a hot property in the sport. Yes, he only eked out wins against tricky opponents like Trout and Lara but when the right guy is in front of him, he can look truly electrifying.

Canelo's not necessarily a cerebral boxer; however, it was refreshing to see him incorporate some feints and deception into his attack. These new wrinkles will benefit him in his career and it's a positive sign in his development that he continues to add to his repertoire.

Alvarez was rushed to a title shot at the age of 20. Despite winning a championship belt at that precocious age, he was far from a finished product and needed several more fights to improve and prepare himself for top competition. He was protected in his early title defenses but his last five fights – Trout, Mayweather, Angulo, Lara and Kirkland – were all against serious opponents. Canelo went a respectable 4-1 in this stretch (his fights against Lara and Trout were close on the scorecards but I had him winning both of them).

The 154-pound division is full of tricky guys who lack big name recognition. Alvarez has already fought two of them (Lara and Trout) and three more are out there (the Charlo brothers and Demetrius Andrade). Desiring to become a bona fide pay per view star, Alvarez most certainly will look in a different direction as he hopes to add to his star power and bank account. Already big for a junior middleweight, Canelo will soon look to the 160-lb. division to try to accomplish these goals. Miguel Cotto and Gennady Golovkin will provide two opportunities for him to add to his legacy. A Cotto-Canelo fight almost happened earlier this year and may still be on the table for November or December. Golovkin may be further away but that matchup could surely enhance the profile of both boxers. Until those bigger fights are made, expect Alvarez to remain busy against opponents who will make him look good. But make no mistake; he has shown a willingness to face all comers to this point in his career.

***

Ricky Burns was dead.

Over the last two years, Burns was outclassed by Ray Beltran (which somehow turned into a draw) dominated by Terrence Crawford and outhustled by Dejean Zlaticanin. In his last fight, Burns, the former junior lightweight and lightweight champion, could do no more than take an eight-rounder against an overmatched foe.

But things got worse. Burns also owed some serious money to his former promoter, Frank Warren. With his viability as a headliner in Scotland gone and needing to make a decent payday, Burns accepted a fight at 140 against Omar Figueroa, one of the rising stars of the Haymon boxing universe. Just to pile on, the fight was just minutes from Figueroa's hometown. 

Ricky Burns was dead.

And yet...Burns certainly seemed among the living as the fight started. Mixing in jabs, straight right hands, hooks and some crazy-angled overhand rights, Burns suddenly was reanimated. 

However, a death sentence is not easy to overcome. Like a tragic myth, no matter how often Burns tried to crawl out of the gates of hell, he was automatically returned to that destination for the damned. Referee Laurence Cole, a Texas good ol' boy, frequently held one of Burns' arms during clinches, giving Figueroa free shots. Cole would later deduct two points from Burns for holding while refusing to penalize Figueroa for his constant illegal shots behind Burns' head. 

The fight itself was competitive, with both boxers having periods of sustained success in a fierce inside battle. Figueroa landed some beautiful right uppercuts and left hooks to the body while Burns had the flashier combinations. At the end of the fight, even with the two point deductions, it seemed as if the decision could go either way...but

Ricky Burns was dead.

The three judges scored it 116-110, 116-110 and 117-109 for Figueroa (I had it 113-113, but a Burns win without the point deductions). Not one judge gave Burns more than four rounds, which was a laughable verdict in such a close match. As for Burns, he fought valiantly and showed that he still has something left to offer. However, the loss sets him back significantly. Most likely, in his next fight he will get a smaller payday than he would have received had he beaten Figueroa. This will further hinder his ability to repay Warren. He also is one fight further away from reestablishing himself in the divisional rankings of the sanctioning bodies. Burns' climb back continues to face numerous obstacles and he has yet to make it out of purgatory. Unfortunately, his status remains the same:

Ricky Burns is dead.

***

Speaking of boxing and death, on Friday in South Philadelphia, I attended one of the final cards of ESPN's Friday Night Fights. Next month, the long-running series will conclude and will be replaced by monthly PBC cards, which have been time-bought by Al Haymon and his representatives. 

Friday's main event featured a heavyweight clash between two local guys, Amir Mansour and Joey Dawejko. The spirited, sold-out crowd of 1,300 strong was ready for action and the arena (although, arena is really too strong of a word here, shelter is more appropriate) was rocking. The audience was a mixture of races: white, black and Hispanic; it was quite the festive atmosphere.

The bout itself was interesting for five-or-so rounds as both fighters bled profusely from cuts and landed enormous power shots. Eventually, Dawejko's conditioning deserted him and Mansour pulled away for a clear victory. The main event never really caught fire but the crowd got its money's worth. 

As I looked around the arena during the fight, my mind started to drift. I wondered how the absence of smaller televised cards would affect the sport. Would a card like this still exist in a year? What about two years? Instead of five or six bouts a year at this level, would Peltz Boxing now be forced to do only two or three? If so, what effect would that have on local fighters and boxing fans? (As I said, Mansour-Dawejko really wasn't interesting in the last few rounds, giving me quite a few moments to contemplate these matters.)

In my estimation, there will be a serious void in the sport once ESPN concludes Friday Night Fights. For good or for bad, the series brought boxing to fans around the country and also parked itself in areas of the U.S. (and Canada) that have rich boxing traditions and others that are trying to establish ones. As often as Friday Night Fights broadcasted from New York, Las Vegas, Texas or Southern California, the series also went out of its way to air shows from more obscure boxing outposts, like New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Minnesota and an army base from North Carolina, to cite a few examples. 

In addition, the series was an invaluable opportunity for smaller promoters to gain a foothold in the sport and develop their fighters. Ruslan Provodnikov, Mauricio Herrera and Chris Algieri all recently graduated from the Friday Night Fights-level and showed that they could compete with the best junior welterweights in the world. These were not blue-chip prospects but they illustrated their mettle in front of a national boxing audience. Likewise, entities such as Star Boxing, Banner Promotions and Thompson Boxing helped build a portfolio of fighters with the exposure of Friday Night Fights and series of its ilk.

The combination of the PBC ramp-up and the finality of Friday Night Fights has not been a positive development for smaller promoters. Over the last few months, I have talked with representatives from Main Events, Banner Promotions, Peltz Boxing and other entities to gauge the effect of the new boxing landscape on their operations. The answers that I received were mixed, hearing everything from "We'll be fine," "This will kill us," "We're working on it" and "We'll have an announcement shortly." 

Certainly, most promoters are trying to put on a good face and soldier on but I keep thinking about that Philly crowd on Friday night. Most were there to support the local fighter that they knew from their neighborhood, from the gym or through friends and family. The tickets were affordably priced. Fans experienced an enjoyable night of boxing without having to fly somewhere or buy hotel rooms. A show like Friday's helps to build the sport at its most fundamental level. 

Hopefully, some network entity or entities will come along to fill the void. But for as much national attention and exposure as the PBC has generated for the sport, boxing needs local shows to thrive. Live boxing creates new fans. They need to see the blood and sweat flying in the air, feel the buzz in the room after a knockdown and get that rush when their fighter leaves it all in the ring during the final round. They get hooked. 
 
And finally, not all great boxers originate from well-heeled promoters or managers. Without smaller promoters, there is no Bryant Jennings or Sergey Kovalev or Timothy Bradley or Sergio Mora, all of whom started without a big-time promoter. Overall, the dearth of television revenues at the grass roots level will stunt the development of the sport in the U.S. These revenue streams helped promoters take chances on fighters and develop them properly. Friday Night Fights provided several unheralded boxers with the opportunity to make something of themselves. The absence of TV at this level of the sport will force smaller promoters to retrench, consolidate and possibly leave boxing.  

It's wonderful to see the PBC raise boxing's consciousness in the U.S. sporting landscape. Having boxing on major networks will certainly create a healthier environment for the sport to grow. However, for boxing to remain viable, the grass roots level needs to be strong. Without robust support for smaller fight cards, talent will be lost, local boxing promoters and entrepreneurs will look for opportunities in other parts of the economy and the sport will miss out on chances to create new fans. This loss cannot be overstated. 

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    

1 comment:

  1. I think it will be interesting to see how other promoters react to the ending of Friday Night Fights. There is that show on truTV but I think that is for Top Rank fighters to be showcased. If other networks see how the popularity of boxing is growing this year, then it would be something for these networks to try and invest in some of the promotional companies that are still out there. 50 Cent is trying to "reinvent the wheel" and Jay-Z (although I don't like him) has signed Ward and Cotto and looks to get some other fighters on the TV himself.

    This has definitely been an interesting year so far, and it isn't halfway through...

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