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 
He's a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
@snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook.

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