Thursday, August 31, 2017

On Top Rank, ESPN and HBO

I.

Last Saturday, boxing played a featured role for three of the largest North American media companies. Showtime (owned by CBS) presented the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor pay per view (PPV), which will wind up being one of the top-two PPVs of all time. ESPN (Disney) made a significant announcement, entering into a four-year agreement with Top Rank to broadcast a minimum of 16 fights per year. HBO (for now owned by Time Warner) televised a live boxing card headlined by Miguel Cotto, who was once one of the biggest stars in boxing.

The day presented an interesting juxtaposition. From my perspective it seemed that one of the companies was busy dominating boxing's present; another announced a bold foray into the future, while the third remained stuck in the glories of the past. Clearly, HBO didn't win the "wow factor" of the day. Now, of course, one can always cherry pick dates and times to present facts in a certain way, and it should be noted that HBO stands to televise a very successful PPV on Sept. 16 between Saul Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin. The network also has an impressive junior bantamweight card on Sept. 9. 

Still, one can't avoid the current trajectories of the boxing business. For decades, HBO was the gold standard of the sport. Featuring the biggest names and many of the best fights of the past 30 years, HBO was the dominant force in American boxing. Its overwhelming success in building and promoting boxing stars essentially forced its competitors out of the PPV business. In short, HBO was the boxing glamour network. 

Recently, change has been afoot in boxing. Floyd Mayweather's migration to Showtime created an important beachhead for that network. And although HBO still averages higher boxing ratings than Showtime does, by many measures Showtime's performance and, perhaps more importantly, its commitment to boxing have made it a significant player in the sport. It's not that Showtime is a newbie in the fight game, but now the network has the relationships (specifically with influential boxing manager Al Haymon) and the corporate commitment from CBS to provide a truly compelling boxing product.

II.

Top Rank's decision to partner with ESPN wasn't made in vacuum. Over the years HBO has routinely slashed its boxing budget. According to multiple sources, HBO's boxing budget in the 1990s was routinely north of $60M. One former executive at HBO said that one year it surpassed $80M. Today, rumors in the industry place that number closer to $30M. On the surface, that's a quite a drop, but it's even worse than it appears at first glance. 

Let's assume that HBO's budget in 1997, 20 years ago, was $60M, a nice easy number to play with. Sixty million 1997 dollars would equate to $91M 2017 dollars using an average inflation rate of 2.17% (which was the average inflation rate in that 20-year period). So in essence, HBO's $30M commitment today is a third of what it was in the late '90s. That's quite a steep decline. 

I must state that the purpose of this piece isn't an anti-HBO screed. HBO runs a business. A very profitable one. According to Time Warner's 2016 annual report, HBO made $5.89B (yes, billion) for that year including a profit of over $1.9B. HBO now makes up 20% of revenue for Time Warner. 

So it isn't that HBO is some sort of failing enterprise. On the contrary, it has become one of modern media's true success stories. One must remember that 25 years ago, there wasn't The Sopranos, Sex in the City or Game of Thrones. Back then, HBO essentially was a movie channel that also had live sports, specifically boxing. Without the existence of much original programming, boxing was a major draw for the network. 

In time, HBO achieved such staggering success with its original programming that boxing played more of a subsidiary role. It should also be noted that boxing ratings aren't what they were two decades ago (however, hardly any programming matches its ratings from past generations, when there were far fewer media and entertainment choices). 

Over the last two decades, a gradual downward spiral has occurred regarding HBO's boxing ratings and its corresponding budget. HBO World Championship Boxing once routinely topped two and three million viewers per telecast; now the series doesn't consistently crack one million. It's a chicken-and-egg scenario. Was the drop in ratings a rejection of the sport by HBO subscribers or did HBO's reduction in its boxing commitment erode the quality of its product, leading to poorer ratings? The answers to these questions are challenging and complex but the realities of HBO Boxing's ratings and budgets are clear.

In addition to the gradual whittling away of its boxing budget, other economic headwinds are hurting HBO's commitment to the sport. In October, 2016, AT&T made a successful offer to buy Time Warner. The deal, valued at the time of the announcement to be over $85B (source: Wall Street Journal Oct. 22, 2016), is still under regulatory review by various government agencies. Although both parties hope that the deal can be formally approved by the end of 2017, there are still some significant hurdles before the acquisition is finalized. 

So what does the acquisition mean for HBO Boxing? Here's more from Time Warner's 2016 Annual Report in a heading that describes the business risks of the AT&T-Time Warner acquisition on page 23:

"[P]arties with which the company has business relationships may delay or defer certain business decisions, seek alternative relationships with third parties or seek to alter their present relationships with the Company."

In short, Time Warner realizes that business-as-usual may be interrupted during the acquisition. Certain business units may not see their budgets grow as the company waits in limbo. Other important aspects of the company's operations, such as content acquisition, partnerships, capital expenditures, marketing and hiring, could also be curtailed during this period.

Thus, as Top Rank needs television dates for its stable of fighters, HBO, for a variety of reasons, might not be its ideal partner at the present time. Who knows what will happen to HBO Sports if AT&T assumes control of the company? Do the new owners retain the existing executives at HBO or do they install new people? Will AT&T believe that boxing helps HBO's position in the marketplace? Will boxing even be a part of HBO's programming? In this current climate, Top Rank's search for a safe haven makes perfect sense. 

III.

ESPN has had a mercurial presence in boxing over the decades. In the '80s and '90s, the network partnered with Top Rank on a successful weekly series. At one point in the '00s, ESPN broadcasted live boxing twice weekly. It has long been said in the boxing industry that if ESPN wanted to dominate the sport, it could. But for some reason, the network never wanted to. Over the years, ESPN faced a similar downward spiral with its Friday Night Fights series, devoting fewer resources to programming and seeing a precipitous decline in its ratings. 

Despite various ebbs and flows, the network has always kept a toehold in boxing. However, in the latter years of Friday Night Fights, ESPN essentially quarantined boxing to its Friday night ghetto. The network didn't do much to publicize the series. Start times were often juggled and significantly delayed. Rarely was boxing integrated with SportsCenter or other ESPN programming. In conversations with former ESPN executives, boxing was seen as difficult to attract advertisers even though its ratings had been more than respectable. 

Over the last few years, ESPN has shown a renewed interest in the sport. Al Haymon's PBC series flipped the business model of boxing. In the past, ESPN had to acquire content; now Haymon & Co. were paying ESPN to broadcast fights. However, that marriage was short-lived. The quality of PBC cards on ESPN lacked consistency. Eventually Golden Boy Promotions approached ESPN with a new deal that featured a series of club level fights and access to its bigger fighters for promotional appearances on the network. Through the first year of their new agreement, the ESPN/Golden Boy deal seems to be satisfying both parties. 

The Top Rank/ESPN pact further grows the network's boxing programming. Top Rank insists that the deal will include its biggest fighters, such as Pacquiao, Lomachenko and Crawford. In addition, Top Rank will be sharing its valuable fight library with ESPN, which will certainly become a nice plum for ESPN Classic and the new ESPN stand-alone streaming service that begins in 2018.

The network and its related properties have access to the general sports fan that is unsurpassed in the current media landscape. Highlight and debate shows provide a constant reinforcement of the top sports stories of the day. After ESPN's successful broadcast of the controversial Pacquiao-Horn fight, the network spent dozens of hours in the subsequent days debating the Horn victory. That type of publicity is hard to duplicate in any other media setting.  

ESPN is clearly the North American sports leader but recent media trends have shattered its bulletproof position in the Disney empire. More consumers continue to "cord-cut," giving up their cable packages. Acquisition costs for sports leagues have become astronomical, cutting into ESPN's margins. The network executed a significant round of layoffs early in 2017. 

IV. 

Watching HBO's broadcast of Cotto-Kamegai, it struck me that an end of an era has occurred in boxing. This isn't to say that HBO Boxing is on its deathbed or that the network will no longer be a factor in the sport. However, there exists the very real possibility that HBO will televise fewer and fewer big fights in the coming years. This is our loss. 

No network has a better broadcast than HBO. The network has always treated boxing, on-air, like a valuable property. Its commentators are well researched and prepared. HBO broadcasters never thought of boxing as a moonlighting or secondary gig, a sport to call in the downtime between other higher-profile endeavors. No, Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, George Foreman, Emanuel Steward, Max Kellerman and Roy Jones were always right where they wanted to be – in the thick of boxing, calling big fights for passionate fans. 

And it's not just the on-air talent. HBO Boxing was such an innovative enterprise. Its advances in the presentation of boxing are too numerous to list fully, but here are some: the incorporation of punch stats; the use of translators to describe the conversation in the corners; the integration of an unofficial scorer – not just to announce the score itself but why a fight should be scored the way it is; the graphics that demonstrate where punches are thrown among the head and body. Honestly, there are a dozen of these innovations that now have become a basic vocabulary for fight fans. HBO Boxing didn't just televise the sport, it also educated generations of their viewers. On Saturday's broadcast, HBO incorporated a new statistic – how often a fighter was advancing vs. retreating. What a fascinating concept, one that has many implications in how we view fights and their scoring. 

In addition, HBO Boxing has the best production values. Its deep focus and high definition cameras are unmatched to my eyes. Its lighting makes the presentation look truly cinematic. Camera angles and cuts are expert. 

But there are also simpler pleasures in the HBO broadcast: the way that Jim Lampley will cut out for 30 seconds here or there just to take in the fight, the encouragement of differing opinions from its commentators, the real brotherhood between the HBO announce team. One can tell how deeply all of the players admire each other. These aspects of boxing will surely be missed if HBO plays a reduced role in the sport. The other networks may have compelling fights or boxers, but they don't come close to surpassing HBO's mastery of the boxing broadcast. 

V.

With 16 shows a year from Top Rank and more than a dozen annual dates from Golden Boy, it might be time for ESPN to make some strategic investments in boxing. The quality of its production pales in comparison to HBO's and Showtime's. ESPN Boxing's cameras and lighting don't necessarily do the sport justice. ESPN's producers and directors make some bizarre camera angle choices during fights, often showing an overhead view which serves little purpose. 

In addition, the broadcast seems far too casual. ESPN's lead play-by-play man, Joe Tessitore, only seems emotionally invested in boxing intermittently. His main gig is calling college football games on Saturday nights. He doesn't always exhibit enthusiasm for the fights. Perhaps a better quality product will keep his attention, but maybe it won't. 

Teddy Atlas is an institution, and that has both good and bad ramifications. Atlas has a tremendous perspective on the psychology of fighters. He's great at communicating strategy and analyzing game plans. Occasionally, he'll catch something absolutely brilliant when breaking down video of a fighter, such as a flaw or tendency. In these moments, he is truly unsurpassed. But he also has been over-indulged for far too long by the ESPN production crew. He talks incessantly, often over the action. He can be slow to notice when the tenor of a fight has changed. He falls back on analogies and clich├ęs. Sometimes they are prescient; at other points they can be trite. He also doesn't do well with disagreement or countervailing opinions. These are major shortcomings. 

In two of the three broadcasts of the Top Rank/ESPN series, the network has featured a studio portion of the telecast that involves Stephen A. Smith. Smith is ratings catnip for ESPN. For good or for bad, he draws viewers in. However, to this point of the Top Rank series, he's been woefully underprepared. He didn't recognize the names of any of Jeff Horn's opponents – including former champions and title challengers. He admitted that he had never seen Miguel Marriaga fight before. This is unacceptable. Yes, Smith certainly brings positives to a boxing program but his lack of preparation undermines his opinions and disservices boxing fans. In no other major sport would a supposed expert gleefully claim that he hadn't watched an opponent. 

For ESPN to succeed in broadcasting boxing, it has to improve. Its on-air talent must display the enthusiasm and expertise needed for the job. Hire a researcher for Stephen A. Smith. Bring in an unofficial scorer that can provide a different opinion from that of Atlas, who often misses action during fights. Invest in better technical equipment. The sound quality needs to be better. The production of the show needs to be freshened up. Work with Top Rank to get better results in these areas; they've been on the front lines of world-level boxing for 40 years. Ask for help.  

More boxing on ESPN is certainly a welcome development. However, there is no guarantee that the Top Rank deal will succeed. Top Rank must continually provide top, competitive matches. ESPN executives must have enough expertise in the sport to provide appropriate quality control. The network needs to find the best avenues to publicize its boxing content among its myriad platforms. Perhaps most importantly, the ESPN/Top Rank partnership must become successful visually, on TV, and not just economically. These are real challenges for both parties.

ESPN has the resources to broadcast a top boxing product. But is the will there? Is this a money grab for the network or the beginning of a successful and sustained foray into the top levels of the sport? Color me intrigued.

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.com 
He's a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
Email: saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com 
@snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook.   

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Punch 2 the Face Podcast

This week's Punch 2 the Face podcast featured all sorts of good stuff. Brandon and I talked about Terence Crawford's masterpiece on Saturday and my experiences in Nebraska for fight week. We looked ahead to this weekend's fights, including Mayweather-McGregor, Cotto-Kamegai and Derevyanchenko-Johnson. We also interviewed author Donovan Craig, a former sparring partner for Roy Jones Jr., Steve Cunningham and O'Neil Bell. Craig contributed a great piece to "The Bittersweet Science," an anthology of boxing writing.

Click on the links below to listen:


Blog Talk Radio link:
You Tube link:


Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.com 
He's a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.

Email: saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com
@snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook. 

Monday, August 21, 2017

Crawford-Indongo: Before and After

A conversation between Debbie Crawford, Terence's mother, and Julius Indongo's brother at the hotel lobby the night before the big fight:

DC  (strutting over to Team Indongo with a cigarette in hand): You're getting knocked out tomorrow. It's either going to be the 5th or the 7th. I haven't made up my mind yet. 
IB  (amused): Come here, Momma. After we win tomorrow night we will all be good friends. 
DC  (pointing the cigarette in his face): No you're getting knocked out.
IB:  No, we knock you out. 
DC: We're sending you back to Africa with an ass whooping. 
IB:  We win Africa style. 
DC: What is that? Some voodoo shit? 
[Team Indongo laughs]
DC (leaving):  The fifth round!

It was like that all weekend. Sequestered in the same fight hotel, the members of Crawford's team and extended family crossed paths with Team Indongo constantly. They were a table away from each other at the bar, waiting for transportation, walking through the hotel lobby. The good-natured jowling featured some hilarious exchanges. 

Team Indongo, wearing royal blue track suits throughout the week, were confident, prideful and joyous. Indongo's assistant trainer assured me that the best version of Indongo would come out for Saturday. The team was making the most of its time in America, truly cognizant of how special and wild their ride had been over the past 12 months. Prior to December, Indongo had never fought outside of Namibia as a professional. But in the last whirlwind year the team had ventured far away to Russia, Scotland and now the U.S. Should Indongo beat Crawford, he'd go from an anonymous African fighter to one of three undisputed champs in the four-belt era in less than a year.  

Each night a few of the team members relaxed on a bench outside of the hotel, soaking up the Omaha humidity and smiling upon their good fortune. There, a number of Crawford's friends and supporters would wander over and stand near them. They'd exchange boasts but often they were just enjoying each other's company. The Indongo camp was all smiles; it was tough even for Crawford's fans to remain hostile towards them.  

Former lightweight champion Paulus Moses, a fellow Namibian and chief sparring partner for Indongo during this camp, was far more measured in his prediction for the fight. Talking after the weigh-in on Friday, he smiled, as all of his countrymen did during fight week, but moments of realism crept in. 

"It's going to be a tough fight," he said to me. "We had a great camp. Julius looks very good...But Crawford is a challenge. The way he switches up. He's very smart in the ring. He's tricky."   

*** 

Photo courtesy of Mikey Williams/Top Rank

"That shit was easy! That shit was so damn easy!" Brian McIntyre, Crawford's co-trainer, screamed at the top of his lungs as he was shaking up a beer in the arena parking lot after the fight. Moments earlier, Crawford scored the signature moment of his career, a lethal two-punch combination to the body that ended the fight in the third round. Crawford now had all four major belts at junior welterweight, the only current undisputed champion in boxing.  

"He had no legs." McIntyre exclaimed as he imitated a punch-drunk fighter doing the chicken dance after being hit. The small crowd around his truck started to laugh. "He can't fight going backwards. As soon as we hit the body, it was done."

McIntyre yelled every statement with a mixture of elation and a sense of pride from a job well done. But McIntyre's exuberance shouldn't be confused with over-confidence. Team Crawford had painstakingly prepared for Indongo. Crawford's stunning knockout wasn't due to luck or chance: it was a surgical strike that was able to manifest after countless hours in the gym.

Here's Crawford during his post-fight press conference:

"We worked on body shots all throughout camp. It's something that we knew we would be able to catch him with in that he swings so wild. We were going to punch in-between his punches and that is what got us to the victory tonight."

***

Back at the hotel in Omaha, a raucous celebration was underway in the lobby. Members from all of the fight camps on the card reveled (or, depending on the night's outcome for them, commiserated) in their beers. Team Indongo (although not Julius) held court at one of the tables at the bar, their heads held up high. Dozens of fight fans and personnel came to them with well-wishes and asked about Julius' condition. Team Indongo displayed the same grace and good-natured attitude that they had all fight week. Their smiles were still emblazoned on their faces. They knew that they had lost to an elite fighter; they understood that they were part of a special moment in boxing. 

Early Sunday morning on the top floor of the hotel, members of Team Indongo were grabbing a few cans of soda from the Sheraton lounge, preparing for their departure. Julius walked through the corridor. His eyes were a little bloodshot. Perhaps he was a little downtrodden but otherwise he was perfectly functional. He talked with some members of his team. There was no anger on negativity expressed by Julius or any members of his camp. 

Around 10:30, Crawford was ready to depart with his family. Parents, siblings, children and friends were walking through the parking lot. Terence looked sharp with a button-down shirt and jeans. He didn't appear to be marked up at all. He smiled as he directed family logistics in the parking lot. Despite living in Omaha, Terence insisted that his team and his family stay at the fight hotel during the weekend. He loaded up his shiny Chevy Silverado and the three-car caravan was off.

Bob Arum sat down at the table next to me for breakfast. The restaurant was nearly empty and he was talking quietly with a colleague. I went over to him and congratulated him on Terence's victory. "Let me tell you about that performance. That's what a superstar does. It was a superstar performance."

After almost all of the fight personnel had left, I had some time to kill in the hotel lobby. What had been a rollicking scene throughout the fight weekend had returned to its normal, non-descript corporate state. I spotted Red Spikes, one of Crawford's assistant trainers, on the couch watching TV. We exchanged pleasantries and started talking about the fight. 

"To be honest, I wasn't concerned about Indongo," he said. "I was a little bit concerned about Postol, Gamboa and even Dulorme, but I wasn't worried about Indongo at all. He was too wide with his shots. We knew that Terence couldn't pull straight back and he had to attack in angles. But other than that, we knew we were going to win." 

The conversation turned to what's next for Crawford. I asked Red whether Crawford was going to move up to 147 and Red acknowledged that Terence will be moving up sooner rather than later. They had had a tough camp and the weight didn't come off easily for Terence. Spikes also talked about their preparation for the fight. 

Even though Team Crawford has become excellent at breaking down their opponents and getting their fighter ready for battle, they're not too proud to admit that there are some aspects of training that they need to outsource. They now have a nutritionist who prepares all of Crawford's meals as fights get closer. After trial-and-error, they've found Colorado Springs to be the ideal training environment for them. 

Yes, Team Crawford likes to have fun but boxing to them is a serious business. They've been enjoying the ride and the bigger checks but they know that distractions are what bring fighters down. Terence and his team aren't saints; they know that. But this recently anonymous and low-profile group of guys from Nebraska has instilled a professionalism that defines their efforts. Only as a team, with everyone pulling his or her weight, will they accomplish their goals. 

Terence Crawford is in the middle of a run of greatness. His team knows that they have one of the best fighters in the sport. Spikes told me that he thought Crawford was special as far back as 2003 or 2004 in the amateurs. 

However, there are tougher challenges ahead. Big fights await at 147. Hopefully in the next 12-18 months, Crawford can face titlists such as Keith Thurman or Errol Spence. Team Crawford has studied the potential opponents at 147. They respect these fighters, but they certainly like their chances, and they're itching for the opportunities to prove themselves on even grander stages.     

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

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Q&A: Oleksandr Gvozdyk

At the age of 30, Oleksandr "The Nail" Gvozdyk finds himself on the brink of boxing stardom. A former bronze medal winner in the 2012 Olympics, Gvozdyk has rocketed up the light heavyweight rankings in just 13 fights, 11 of which he has won by stoppage. In his last two bouts, Gvozdyk has turned heads by forcing longtime contender Isaac Chilemba to retire on his stool and knocking out rugged Yunieski Gonzalez in just three rounds. 

On Saturday, Gvozdyk fights Craig Baker in the co-feature bout of the Crawford-Indongo card. It's supposed to be a showcase bout for the Ukrainian fighter (who now lives and trains in Oxnard, California), as Baker was stopped in three rounds in his last step-up fight against Edwin Rodriguez. Nevertheless, Gvozdyk isn't taking Baker, or any opponent for that matter, for granted. 

Gvozdyk's placement on Saturday's card indicates how highly Top Rank, his promoter, believes in his ability. Gvozdyk doesn't have a local fan base in Nebraska and isn't yet a reliable TV ratings draw but Top Rank wants Gvozdyk in front of a national ESPN audience; they are giving him the push. Top Rank believes that they have a future star in the making. 

Throughout the fight week, Gvozdyk has impressed all who have spoken with him. Intelligent and cerebral, Gvozdyk often gives unexpected and surprising answers to even the most rote questions. I had a chance to catch up with him yesterday while he was enjoying a meal after the weigh-in. Below is the interview:

First of all, where did the nickname "Nail" come from?

That's actually a translation of my last name from Russian. 

Did you always know that you wanted to get into boxing?

No, the first time I came to a boxing gym at 10 years old I just wanted to get stronger, feel more confident on the streets and with my classmates at school.

At what point in time did you think, “I can really succeed at this?”

Maybe after a couple of months. My old trainer – I don’t know why he said this – but he said I could be champion of Europe. So it motivated me. After a couple of more years, I started dreaming about the Olympic Games. Honestly, after the Olympics, I was thinking about retiring and working somewhere at a regular job. But all of the sudden, [Vasyl] Lomachenko signed a contract with Top Rank and introduced me to Egis [Klimas, who is now Gvozdyk's manager] and I turned pro.

You had a really competitive amateur environment in the Ukraine. Can you describe that era, when you were competing with so many young, hungry fighters who were trying to get to the top?

It was really a great Olympic team in 2012. Unofficially, we were in first place with the most medals. The credit for it should go to Lomachenko’s father [Anatoly]. He built the team. He made the team. He was a mentor for us. Officially, we had a head coach for the team. But in reality, everyone understands that Lomachenko’s father [was behind the success]. Maybe it was him and maybe it just happened that a lot of top boxers gathered at one time in the same place.

You often hear discussions about the Cuban boxing school. With the success of Ukraine in the amateurs, is there such a thing as the Ukrainian boxing school? Is there something unique to Ukrainian amateur boxing?

It’s not really the Ukrainian school. It’s really still the Soviet school. All the post-Soviet countries kind of have a similar school. Everyone knows that the Soviet Union school was really good, really tough. What we have right now is the heritage of the Soviet Union school.

Your last fight against Yunieski Gonzalez was thought to be a measuring stick for where you were in your career. It turned out to be a much easier fight for you than many thought it would be. What were your expectations for that match heading into the ring?

I think my opinion was the same as other people’s opinion. I was expecting a really big challenge in that fight. I was counting on it going the distance and it being a difficult fight. All of the sudden, I got him with a good left hook. I realized that it was a very good opportunity to finish the fight so why go the full distance when I can finish him off.

What are your predictions for your fight this weekend against Craig Baker?

I never like to do predictions for my fights or before anybody else fights. Boxing is an unpredictable sport because everyone can hit and everyone can get hit. I hope I can give a good performance on Saturday. I think my opponent is a really decent fighter and I disagree with the opinion that he should be a big underdog. He’s hungry. He can surprise you in unexpected moments. So I’m ready 100%. I’m ready to go the whole distance. If I could finish him before, that would be a bonus for me but I’m ready to go the distance.

If you go on to beat Baker, who are some fighters at 175 lbs. that you’d like to fight over the next six-to-twelve months?

My goal is to be a world champion. We know who the world champions are. I don’t want to look past my opponent. Let’s wait to see what happens and then we’ll discuss it.

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

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Marquez, Klitschko and Bradley: Three Warriors

In the last ten days, three perennial members of boxing's elite announced their respective retirements. Juan Manuel Marquez, Wladimir Klitschko and Tim Bradley won numerous title belts and participated in myriad big fights during their careers. Each was among the defining combatants of their era of boxing. And although there were numerous differences between the three, including amateur career, country of origin, level of fan support and ring characteristics, each embodied the warrior spirit that we ask of our best.
 
Before going any further, let's address the elephant in the room: how can someone consider Wladimir Klitschko a warrior? To many fight fans, especially those who love heavyweight boxing, Klitschko, and his brother and fellow champion Vitali, personified all that was wrong with the most recent heavyweight era. Criticisms of the Klitschkos have been leveled at them for seemingly a generation. They were too robotic. They didn't take enough risks in the ring. Their successes were a product of their immense size instead of skill. They lost to lesser fighters. The era in which they fought was particularly poor.
 
It's not worth rebutting these critiques one-by-one. Some hold water while others fail after examining them with rigor and scrutiny. Nevertheless, Wladimir Klitschko was not the most popular of heavyweights, especially in America. (Though, he established a tremendous fan following in Germany and Eastern Europe, becoming one of the biggest ticket sellers of his time.)
 
However one may view Klitschko's career, his determination cannot be questioned. How many other fighters could regroup from devastating knockouts, like he suffered against Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster, to reign atop a division for nearly a decade? What type of character must a fighter have to see his professional dreams shattered so conclusively and still make it back to number-one? Those two fights (and an earlier loss to Ross Puritty) weren't a simple matter of losing a controversial decision or getting out-pointed; they were utter annihilations.
 
Klitschko, the former gold medalist who was supposed to be the heir to the heavyweight throne, found himself mid-career without a belt or a chin. Yet somehow, throughout all that devastation, he had steely self-belief. With the help of trainer Emanuel Steward, he slowly rebuilt himself as a fighter. He learned how to use his height to limit his opponents' opportunities. He stuck to what he was good at: three punches – his jab, right cross and left hook.
 
And while his era wasn't populated with many great heavyweights (with the exception of his brother), he notched some impressive wins; scoring two victories over Samuel Peter, who was a hard-punching menace on his way up the boxing latter; dominating another super heavyweight Olympian in Alexander Povetkin; nullifying former cruiserweight champ David Haye and avenging his loss to Brewster. There were many other victories over contenders and pretenders, and he wound up making over 20 successful heavyweight defenses during his various title reigns. 
 
Even in his losses, Klitschko's warrior spirit shone. He got up three times from Corrie Sanders' bone-throttling left hands. Earlier this year, he survived three knockdowns against Anthony Joshua to lose while still on his feet.
 
The Joshua fight provided many boxing fans with a new appreciation or, perhaps, a reminder of Klitschko's gallantry and courage. After getting sent to the canvas in the fifth round, Klitschko immediately went on the offensive. Instead of folding, like many expected him to do, he blitzed Joshua with power shots, even throwing uppercuts, a punch that he so rarely felt comfortable in deploying throughout his career. There, Klitschko put it all on the line. Even though Joshua scored the 10-8 round, Klitschko closed the frame with the momentum.
 
Early in the next round, Klitschko landed his patented one-two, knocking Joshua down for the first time in his career. It was a stunning turn of events. Although Klitschko went for the knockout, he was unable to get it. Eventually, Joshua caught his second wind and would go on to finish Klitschko off in the 11th round. Even though Klitschko was the loser of the match, he received a fantastic ovation from the Wembley crowd. For they, and boxing fans around the world, saw a great example of the Klitschko's fighting spirit.
 
During Klitschko-Sanders, HBO commentator Larry Merchant said at the end of the first round, "It looks like the next big thing is going to become the last big bust." And yet there Klitschko was, over a decade a later, still ruling over the heavyweight division. Through intestinal fortitude, an ability to learn from mistakes, humility, perseverance and the desire for greatness, Klitschko rebuilt himself to become a Hall of Fame heavyweight. It's one of the most unusual career paths in modern boxing. While the boxing world believed that Klitschko was a hype job, a pretender, Wlad would wind up having the last laugh. Ever the sportsman, Klitschko is too much of a gentleman to admit such truths. But in his heart he knows that his self-belief propelled him farther than anyone in boxing would've believed. That must be some delicious satisfaction.
 
***
 
After receiving an undeserved decision victory over Manny Pacquiao in 2012, Tim Bradley's boxing career forever changed. He received death threats. His own promoter asked the state commission to open an investigation. He was deemed an unworthy dethroner of boxing royalty. 
 
It wasn't as if Bradley embarrassed himself in the first Pacquiao fight. He probably won three or four rounds, which was far better than most of Pacquiao's opponents were doing in those days. However, Bradley was now seen as an interloper and became an enemy of many boxing fans. 
 
Prior to the first Pacquiao fight, Bradley had amassed several accomplishments. He bested undefeated talents such as Lamont Peterson and Devon Alexander. He won his first title on the road in England against Junior Witter. Bradley came off the canvas twice to beat Kendall Holt. He was regarded as a blue-collar fighter who did what he needed to do to win. Although Bradley's style (which featured a lot of head-butting and grappling) wasn't everyone's cup of tea, he had never been a villain in professional boxing. But after the Pacquiao fight, many boxing fans considered him public enemy number-one, all because two lousy officials (who wouldn't be judging boxing 18 months after that fight) were incompetent.
 
Nine months after that fateful night against Pacquiao, Bradley returned to the ring with a chip on his shoulder. He wanted to let boxing fans know that he wasn't the product of a gift decision; he was one of the best fighters in the world. However, in facing the hard-punching Ruslan Provodnikov, Bradley let his new-found sense of machismo get the better of him. In the first two rounds, he decided to stand and trade, which was a dreadful decision. By the second round, Bradley was essentially out on his feet, winging desperate punches while trying to fend off Provodnikov's onslaught. It looked as though just one more Provodnikov punch would end the fight, but Bradley never went down. 
 
Somehow, Bradley collected himself and started coming back. In fact, he was doing so well that Provodnikov's trainer, Freddie Roach, almost stopped the fight in the latter rounds. Bradley was putting on a boxing clinic and hurting Provodnikov in the process.
 
Understanding that he probably needed a knockout to win, Provodnikov attacked Bradley with a renewed sense of purpose in the 12th round. With a minute left, he detonated a left hook that sent Bradley to the other side of the ring. Immediately, Bradley's legs were jelly, his faculties seemingly not there. With time ticking down and Provodnikov's rally becoming all the more furious, Bradley made one of the best decisions of his career: he took a knee. With 12 seconds left, he kneeled on the canvas, buying time to survive the final round. Somehow, amidst all of the chaos and punishment in the bout's, frenetic and final moments, Bradley had the presence of mind to save himself and his chance of winning the fight. 
 
A few short minutes later, Bradley's final decision was rewarded as he wound up winning a razor-thin unanimous decision. Bradley's performance against Provodnikov almost strains credulity. He might've been out on his feet at numerous times in the match. Concussed during the bout, to this day he admits that he doesn't remember all of the events from that night. Despite absorbing superhuman punishment, he found a way to win. It will forever be his defining fight.
 
Of course, there were other highlights in Bradley's career. He was masterful in out-boxing the great Juan Manuel Marquez. He traded wild leather in a shootout against Diego Chaves. He somehow withstood an absolutely enormous bomb from Jessie Vargas in the closing seconds of their fight to secure a victory. He knocked out the irrepressible Brandon Rios with body shots. 
 
However, he was never able to solve the Pacquiao riddle. With two more opportunities to beat one of the masters of the era, Bradley came up short. In his last ring appearance, Bradley was sent down twice by Pacquiao. He had switched trainers and strategic approaches but he just couldn't get over the top against Manny.
 
Bradley ends his career at 33, but in his case, it's an old 33. He engaged in some blistering wars and absorbed a lot of punishment. Without size, power or blinding athleticism, he willed himself to become one of the best fighters in the sport. He did very well financially and from all accounts he has invested his money wisely. Bradley was also one of the more likable and honest figures in boxing. 
 
On a personal level, I'll always have a soft spot for Bradley. He was my first interview, back in December of 2011. This was before he fought Pacquiao or Marquez. At that moment, Bradley was a former junior welterweight champion without much of a fan following. A high-profile matchup against Devon Alexander was a dud at the box office and in the ring. Upset with his promotional situation, he moved to Top Rank in hopes of landing big fights and better paychecks. 
 
During that interview, I realized how improbable Bradley's journey truly was. After a good-but-not-great amateur career, he had very few attractive professional prospects. None of the big promoters expressed an interest in him. He started to make his bones under Thompson Boxing, fighting in half-filled hotel ballrooms in Ontario, California. When it was time for his first title fight against Junior Witter, he had never fought more than 90 miles from his home as a professional. And he certainly wasn't expected to beat Witter. After winning the title, he immediately became the most obscure American champion in the sport. Few had even heard of Bradley, let alone seen him in the ring.
 
Yet now he retires as one of the defining fighters of his era. In a few short years, he went from an unknown fighter from the California desert to a staple of HBO's boxing programming. He leaves the sport as a significant success story. Nothing was expected of him. Everything (with the exception of one decision) he earned. He came close to losing a number of fights but he somehow willed himself to outlast better boxers and bigger punchers. 
 
In the end, he leaves the sport making a wise decision, just like he did in the 12th round of the Provodnikov fight. There, in one moment of clarity, he provided himself with the best chance to win a fight. Now, with his retirement, he has the opportunity for a much better quality of life.
 
***
 
Juan Manuel Marquez will forever be linked with Manny Pacquiao. Through four intense battles, which were displays of boxing at its highest level, Marquez only recorded one official win. Marquez and many of his supporters still believe that he should've won all four fights, and with different judges perhaps that would be the case. 
  
However, on an even more fundamental level, think about what Marquez had to endure to even have an opportunity to win those fights. He survived five knockdowns in the series, including three in the first round of their initial bout. How many fighters can even remain standing or passably effective after three knockdowns? But Marquez didn't just merely survive that fight; he pressed on and won a lot of rounds. He stood toe-to-toe with one of the best offensive dynamos in modern boxing and fought him on essentially even terms for 42 rounds. Pacquiao had faster hands and feet and better one-punch power yet Marquez, with expert intelligence, technique and punch placement, was his equal. 
 
Before the Pacquiao fights, Marquez was regarded as the least popular member of the great Mexican featherweight triumvirate, which included Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales. And although Marquez was considered a talented counterpuncher during that time, he didn't thrill the rabid Mexican and Mexican-American fan bases like his rivals did. Respected more than beloved, he was essentially on the outside looking in. 
 
But that first Pacquiao fight forever changed his reputation. After that battle, he was no longer dismissed as a "technician." He displayed a warrior's heart in coming back against Pacquiao. 
 
Manny would go on to stop Barrera and Morales but he could never finish off Marquez. Pacquiao seemingly tried every tactic in the book to vanquish his rival, from sheer offensive force in the first two bouts to relying on a more measured, technical effort in the third one. Yet Marquez remained in front of him, undeterred. 
 
The boxing community was split on the third Pacquiao-Marquez fight. The judges and HBO liked Pacquiao's work while many fans and a number of ringside reporters thought that Marquez had finally solved Pacquiao's puzzle. 
 
Marquez approached the fourth fight in a much different fashion. Although he knew that he could beat Pacquiao in a given round or even, by his estimation, throughout the course of a fight, judges responded more to Pacquiao's blazing style than his own measured output. Thus, he was determined to get the knockout. Enlisting strength-and-conditioning trainer Memo Heredia (and it should be pointed out that Heredia in the past had been involved in the illegal performance enhancing drugs racket), Marquez added muscle and entered the ring with a bigger physique than he had in his previous ring incarnations. 
 
What followed was simply one of the best fights of this, or any, era. Both boxers attacked each other with a ferocity that belied their advancing age. Marquez was able to drop Pacquiao in the third round, which was a genuinely shocking event. For now, the narrative of the series had forever changed. In the past, Pacquiao was the one who could truly hurt Marquez and Marquez was the fighter who came back valiantly. Now, Marquez was finally on the front foot. 
 
But Pacquiao regrouped and attacked Marquez mercilessly in the fourth and fifth rounds, scoring a knockout of his own in the fifth. By the sixth round, Marquez was the fighter who was in deep trouble. With blood streaming down his face and his legs zapped of their energy, Marquez looked like a spent bullet. Yet, within a few short moments, all of that changed. Pacquiao moved in with a double jab and lost all sense of distance. Marquez responded with a menacing overhand right at point-blank range. Pacquiao was knocked out cold. And Marquez finally had his moment of glory on the sport's grandest stage.  
 
Marquez's finishing blow will forever be part of boxing lore. That one right hand epitomized Marquez's greatness. Give him enough time, and he'll make the proper adjustments; he'll find the opening. And while Marquez seemingly was on the brink of defeat, he can never be counted out. One could possibly win a decision over the Great Marquez, but he can't be stopped. 
 
Marquez established a Hall of Fame career despite having chin problems and a lack of speed. Yes, he could use the ring well and employ angles but athletic types, whether they were Pacquiao, Mayweather, Norwood or Bradley, always troubled him. 
 
In addition, Marquez made some tremendously strange business decisions, such as turning down an earlier rematch with Pacquiao, negotiating himself out of a fight with Morales and going to Indonesia for next-to-nothing to face Chris John, a bout that Marquez lost, controversially.  
 
Marquez had tremendous pride, which served him well in the ring but often hurt him in business decisions. When aligned with Top Rank (often through its Mexican partner Zanfer Promotions), he often felt that he didn't receive the same type of attention and dollars that some of their other stars did. During his period with Golden Boy, he scoffed at not getting big fights. 
 
In his mind, he was always one of the best fighters in the sport. Eventually, the boxing world came to agree with his perspective. And as a fighter who had once been deemed as too technical or boring, he sure made for some unforgettable fights. His first battle against Juan Diaz was another spectacular affair. The younger Diaz battered him through the first four rounds but eventually Marquez found his bearings and used Diaz's aggression against him. That was yet another Fight of the Year for Marquez. He also had thrilling wins against Michael Katsidis and Joel Casamayor.
 
Marquez was almost too proud to admit defeat. After the third Pacquiao fight, he refused to consider the possibility that he was second best. He cried robbery when Tim Bradley was rightfully declared the winner of their match. Only against Mayweather did Marquez acknowledge that he'd been soundly beaten.
 
However, this stubbornness helped to make him the great fighter that he was. Marquez refused to succumb to Pacquiao even after he had hit the deck three times in a round. Despite losing debatable fights to Manny, he pressed on with his career and performed at an elite level. He refused to yield to Diaz, even after being battered and fighting in his opponent's home town. Marquez never thought that he was out of a fight and boxing is in a better place because of his unceasing reservoirs of self-belief.

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.com 
He's a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
Email: saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com
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