Thursday, May 5, 2016

On Second Chances

So often the negative becomes the default setting for boxing. The sport is dying. This boxer is over-hyped. This promoter is lying. This fighter did something outrageously awful outside of the ring. These judges are incompetent. This network is letting down its subscribers. This fight disappointed. And so on. 

To be fair, boxing often brings this cycle of negativity on itself. The lack of transparency in the sport and the general opacity in how and why key decisions are made allow for a natural cynicism to develop and fester among boxing fans. Why is this fighter getting a title shot after he lost? Why is this boxer headlining a card when he continually disgraces himself and the sport? Why do broadcasters often ignore the work of "the opponent" in the fight? Why do networks and promoters favor certain lesser boxers over better talents? Why do so many in the boxing media shill for their favorite promoters and managers? In short, it's virtually impossible for a serious enthusiast of the sport to enjoy boxing and not be burdened with some degree of skepticism. 

However, boxing still has plenty of good to offer. Take last weekend, for instance. In my mind, it was one of the more gratifying two days I've experienced in boxing since I began writing about the sport in 2011. Well, what happened? In the big picture, perhaps nothing huge: Andre Berto avenged a previous loss to Victor Ortiz in a great fight. Thomas Williams Jr. won a brilliant two-round war over Edwin Rodriguez. There was a questionable draw in the Badou Jack-Lucian Bute fight. James DeGale won a closer-than-expected bout against Rogelio Medina. Oh, and the Dirrell brothers won fights in which they were expected to do so.  

Well, what in particular was so gratifying then? Fighters exceeded expectations. They performed ably. They revealed positive depth of character. They responded well to adversity. They entertained. Perhaps these are the expectations that we place on every fighter. But week after week, how often are these goals met? On Saturday, practically every major fight delivered. Again, how often does that happen? 

By now, everyone has moved on. It's a big Canelo-Khan fight week and there are new controversies and headlines to talk about. Will Canelo fight Golovkin after Khan? Will the WBC actually strip Canelo if he doesn’t? Will Mayweather return? All of these are worthy topics for consideration but let me focus on the good from last weekend for a little while longer. 

What impressed me most about the efforts of Andre Dirrell, Jack, Williams and Berto was how they took advantage of additional opportunities in their careers and performed to the best of their abilities. All of these fighters in the past had been pilloried by the boxing community: Jack was seen as a propped-up Mayweather Promotions flunky after getting knocked out by unheralded Derek Edwards. Dirrell fought once in three years after dropping out of the Super Six tournament. He became an irrelevancy in the sport, embroiled in promotional and management entanglements and he had serious health issues. Williams committed the supposed cardinal sin of remaining on his stool after facing adversity. Berto was viewed as nothing more than an Al Haymon creation after being built up like a star but taking several losses. And he had just been embarrassed against Mayweather in his last fight. 

All four of these fighters have been aware of these negative perceptions. In talking with Williams last year, he told me how painful the loss to Gabriel Campillo was and how much he was affected by it. After knocking out Ortiz on Saturday, Berto said that his defeat to Ortiz literally haunted him. Dirrell showed so much emotion after his victory on Friday that it was almost unsettling. His display was at odds with his previous ring comportment, which was so dispassionate at points of his career that he had problems connecting with fans. 

This isn't to say that a particular turning point occurred for these four fighters over the weekend. In fact, their performances were a validation of how they've made the most of their second chances. Jack continues to improve every fight with trainer Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. He's become defensively responsible and has mastered the nuts and bolts of boxing fundamentals. His jab (both to the head and body) is a real weapon. He's a very solid body puncher. Jack also has a much better understanding of distance and how to utilize his height. 

Williams has rebounded from his loss with two of the best TV fights in the last year (his previous bout against Umberto Savigne was an absolute war). He's become quite the gunslinger. And perhaps there's no better way to prove toughness to the boxing community than to stand in the center of the ring and trade bombs. Williams has come off the canvas to win multiple fights in his career and he's displayed tremendous heart in recovering from big shots. On Saturday, he was rocked at various points in the second round but he landed a crushing two-punch combination to end things in an emphatic fashion. He's now built up significant momentum in his career and is on his way to a deserved title shot. 

Berto's validation was many years in the making. He left Tony Morgan, his amateur coach and the one who brought him to a title, and sought out one of the most cerebral minds in the sport to be his next trainer, Virgil Hunter. In many ways, Hunter had to rebuild Berto from scratch, working on the fundamentals of footwork, glove positioning, and throwing in combination. Hunter also completely retooled Berto's strength and conditioning program. The Berto-Hunter pairing has not been a straight line to success. They experienced a vicious knockout loss to Jesus Soto Karass in their first fight together and a non-showing against Floyd Mayweather. However, they did have a solid knockout win over Josesito Lopez.  

In Saturday's Ortiz rematch, Berto recovered from a knockdown in the second round and threw a picture-perfect right uppercut in the fourth to drop Ortiz. He scored a second knockdown seconds later that ended the fight. What impressed me about Berto's performance wasn't his defense or his offensive versatility – it was his psychological mindset, his composure. Unlike the first Ortiz fight, he respected Ortiz's power. After Ortiz had early success, Berto stayed within himself and stuck to the game plan. In the first fight, once Ortiz scored an early knockdown, Berto abandoned all of his fundamentals and went to war. He tried to beat Ortiz with machismo – and he was unsuccessful.   

A funny thing happened on Berto's descent from stardom. Yes, he took vicious beatings. However, he gained more respect from boxing fans in his losses than he ever did in his victories against the overmatched foes he so often faced while a mainstay on HBO. Even going back to the Robert Guerrero and Soto Karass fights, Berto received enormous punishment but he kept coming. (He fought most of the Soto Karass bout with one good arm). So in defeat, he found strength. He took the best aspects from those losses and helped build on that for his future. 

Berto now knows that when he gets dropped early he can still win a fight and he has the confidence in himself and his corner to right the ship. No longer are there 20 voices barking disparate instructions in the corner or panic when the initial plan doesn't go his way. In short, he's become a veteran. He's developed poise and it's propelled him to another big opportunity in the welterweight division.  

In his big fights before his first hiatus from the sport, Andre Dirrell ran. He seemed petrified against Curtis Stevens, using his jab and all four corners of the ring to stink out a victory. That display made him persona non grata on HBO. His fight against Carl Froch was close but there was so much jab-and-grab from Dirrell. In many rounds, he simply refused to engage. As soon as the going got tough against Arthur Abraham, things didn't look good for Dirrell. Yes, he won that fight because of an Abraham disqualification but the trajectory of the bout wasn't in his favor prior to the stoppage. 

Since returning to the big stage in May of 2015, Dirrell has reemerged as a different type of fighter. He now stays in the pocket. He uses his body and physicality to grapple on the inside. He, like Berto, has also shown that he's a real fighter. After getting dropped twice in the second round by James DeGale, Dirrell responded favorably and won many of the rounds in the latter portion of the bout. He didn't try to be evasive and wasn't afraid to take a shot to land his. Things didn't suddenly fall apart for him in the ring. He lost the match but made a very good showing for himself. On Friday, he again was dropped in the second round – this time by Blake Caparello. Dirrell rebounded from that moment and proceeded to win the rest of the fight with relative ease. Again, he stayed at mid-range or closer. He wanted to put his stamp on the match and consistently landed his best power shots. He didn't try to out-cute his opponent for the victory. 

In closing, I won't claim that Jack, Williams, Berto and Dirrell are flawless or among the truly elite in the sport. However, all of them have overcome adversity. I'm sure that they had many soul-searching moments out of the ring, with umpteen nights spent on the couch wondering what went wrong in their careers. But all of them exemplify the spirit of what's best in the sport: they overcame hardship, persevered and improved. The four have rewritten their narratives by taking advantage of second chances. Jack and Berto are no longer seen as hype jobs. Williams has displayed a tremendous heart. Dirrell has relinquished the "despised runner" tag. They've become real fighters, pros. And that is one of the best compliments that can be given in the sport.

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

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