The physical dimensions of lightweight titleholder Robert Easter Jr. intimidate. At 5'11" and with a 6'4" wingspan, Easter has height and reach advantages over every other top foe at 135 lbs. He's an exceptional athlete for his size with good hand and foot speed. Although he might look a little lanky if one uses the eye test, don't mistake his long limbs for a lack of punching power. On the contrary, Easter is heavy-handed and his left hook and straight right hand are real weapons.
But at the world-level, Easter's knockouts haven't necessarily followed, which is curious. And perhaps even more concerning, he's had two fights in his last three, against Richard Commey and Denis Shafikov, that he could have conceivably lost (ignore two of the cards in the Shafikov fight, Henry Eugene Grant and Jamie Garayua turned in their scores without feeling compelled to watch the action). Now there's no shame in having competitive dustups with Commey and Shafikov; both are pros who can handle themselves in the ring. But let's say that they are on the B-plus or A-minus level – guys who could win a title here or there but aren't necessarily dominating talents. Does this mean Easter has reached his ceiling at this level?
|Courtesy of Ed Diller/DiBella Entertainment|
After a solid amateur career that included a record of 213-17 and an alternate spot on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, Easter turned pro and quickly positioned himself as a fast-rising prospect. In just his 16th pro fight, he knocked out former champion Argenis Mendez and he was successful in capturing his first title in his next bout against Commey. Easter, however, will be turning 27 next week, an age that puts him squarely in his physical prime. It's certainly possible that he could put a few more pounds on his frame in the coming years but it's unlikely that he will develop additional physical dimensions; physically, what he is now is most likely what he will be in the ring.
However, Easter is not necessarily done improving as a fighter. He has two potential areas of growth that are within his grasp and could lead to his further ascension in the sport:
1. Better utilizing his physical advantages, and
2. Finishing off hurt fighters.
These are the types of high-Ring IQ attributes that can be learned, although mastering them, especially at such an advanced stage of a career, might prove to be exceedingly difficult.
This week Easter acknowledged that he is attempting to address one of these areas of improvement. In an interview with Boxing Scene’s Keith Idec, he said, "I have to use my feet a lot more and use my jab a lot more. I tend to fight like I'm 5'6" or 5'5". Sometimes I forget I'm tall because I want to get in there and bang. But I plan to stick with the game plan and use my length and my height and my reach and my speed."
It's clear that Easter and his father/trainer, Robert Sr., have diagnosed the problem, and that's a significant step in the right direction. Against Shafikov, Easter had advantages of six inches in height and almost eight in reach and yet Shafikov, who hadn't been blessed with significant foot speed, consistently found his way on the inside against Easter. In addition, Shafikov featured a fairly limited offensive arsenal, an awkward, looping left hand and a right hook. On paper, Easter should have beaten that fighter with ease, yet he had significant struggles in the bout. Easter was too content to mix it up on the inside and spent much of the match engaging in the type of close combat that Shafikov preferred. And while Easter certainly had a good case for winning, the bout was a classic example of one fighter not fighting to his strengths. If Easter boxed-and-moved more, Shafikov would have been far less competitive than he was.
However, knowing that a problem exists and correcting it are two different propositions. Easter needs to unlearn several bad habits. As with a number of boxers on their way up, his machismo often overwhelms his desire to fight intelligently. Why jab when he can exchange bombs! And he doesn't yet understand that he's allowed to hit and not get hit in return; he stays in the pocket far too long after engaging.
Easter's other big area of concern is his approach to finishing opponents. Yes, his power will always lead to some one-punch KOs, but in fights against Commey and Luis Cruz, Easter had opponents that were ready to go but he couldn't put punches together to land the finishing blow. Smothering himself against the ropes, loading up with big shots, head-hunting, allowing himself to get tied-up, Easter made a series of mistakes in trying to end those fights. And it almost cost him: Easter won by only a split decision against Commey. With different judges, he certainly could have lost that fight.
There are times where a fighter needs a knockout to win and it's unclear as of now if Easter can depend on his considerable power to save him in such a circumstance. Commey was essentially out on his feet in the 12th round, surviving on muscle memory and toughness, yet he heard the final bell. Cruz was significantly overmatched but he hung in there with guile and veteran delay tactics.
On Saturday, Easter will fight Javier Fortuna, a former secondary junior lightweight titlist who has recently moved up to 135 lbs. Fortuna will present Easter with some interesting dimensions. A short (5'6"), highly athletic southpaw with explosive combinations, Fortuna is a type of fighter that Easter hasn't faced in the top levels of the sport. Fortuna might very well have advantages in both hand and foot speed.
However, Fortuna's limitations, chin and defense, play into Easter's hands. In 2016, Fortuna was stopped by Jason Sosa and was also sent to the canvas by Omar Douglas, (Fortuna was fortunate to win that one). He punches so wildly that an opponent with poise can land between his offerings. Fortuna takes seemingly forever to return his hands to a responsible defensive position. If his chin were unbreakable then his aggressive, daredevil style could suffice; however, that's certainly not the case (think of Fortuna as a southpaw, less-polished version of Yuriorkis Gamboa). Left hooks have been Fortuna's biggest problem and Easter can hit pay dirt with that punch if Fortuna gets too reckless.
Fortuna is essentially a trap opponent for Easter. If Easter is switched on, fighting with poise and focus, then he should win relatively comfortably. However, if Easter is caught between styles and isn't confident with his ring identity then Fortuna could become a threat. Fortuna throws a lot of hard, unconventional shots and combinations. He jumps in and out unpredictably. He's assured in the ring and if Easter exhibits hesitancy or an irresoluteness, he could have some real problems.
Although left hooks have troubled Fortuna, Easter's jab might be his best weapon on Saturday. That punch will disrupt Fortuna's timing and rhythm. In addition, Easter needs to sacrifice some power for accuracy against Fortuna. Easter has enough natural thump in his punches that he doesn't have to land his best to hurt Fortuna, but he does need to connect. Taking a little off his hook and right hand will pay dividends. Fortuna's clumsy footwork, poor balance and dentable chin will help Easter if he's accurate with his punches.
In short, if Easter fights smart, he'll win. To this point in his career, he has been successful without necessarily besting foes in a battle of wits. Against Fortuna, however, Easter should be setting traps, letting his physical dimensions and Fortuna's limitations work in his favor.
Saturday will be an opportunity to see if Easter really is in finishing school. Will he fire his jab 15-20 times a round or unnecessarily slug it out in a wild affair? Will Easter tie up on the inside or allow his opponent to get good work done? Will he place his punches instead of gunning for the knockout? If he can hurt Fortuna, can Easter think his way through to get the stoppage?
Although Fortuna won't be the best opponent that Easter will face in his career, he does represent a bellwether for Easter's progress. If Saturday’s performance showcases the same-old, same-old for Easter, it's unlikely that he will ascend to the next level in the sport, the one beyond "titleholder". However, if Easter can dispatch Fortuna in an impressive fashion, using his brains as much as his brawn, perhaps it's still too soon to write the final book on Easter. Let's hope that finishing school is still in session for Easter. And as part of his matriculation, if one day he learns how to finish, watch out.
Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.com
He's a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
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