Sunday, July 22, 2018

Opinions and Observations: Usyk and Munguia

Perhaps there's no better moment in boxing than to watch a fighter put it all together. Although Oleksandr Usyk had displayed his considerable talents leading up to Saturday's fight against Murat Gassiev, he had struggled with an inconsistent ring identity. He tried to be a pressure fighter against Michael Hunter. In his previous bout against Mairis Briedis, he fought almost entirely in the pocket. In both of those matches, he took more punches than he probably should have. On Saturday, fighting as a classic boxer, he executed a master class in the ring, pitching a virtual shutout (scores were 120-108, 119-109 and 119-109) to become the winner of the cruiserweight World Boxing Super Series tournament and the undisputed champion in the division. 

Usyk (and his team) understood that he was in the ring against a legit power puncher and applied the strategy to give him the best chance of winning. He controlled large stretches of the fight with just his jab and legs. Constantly on the go, he limited Gassiev's ability to set his feet and get in range. After 12 rounds, the fight resembled one of Mayweather's gems from the latter part of his career: Usyk was truly dominant but it was hard to isolate a single moment that provided genuine risk in the fight. Ultimately, Usyk corralled a hard-hitting boxer with relatively little fuss. No boxer had thoroughly neutralized Gassiev to that extent in his career, and perhaps few even could. 

Photo Courtesy of Olga Ivashchenko


Although the fight was won primarily with his jab, Usyk gradually incorporated other punches into his attack as the fight progressed, and there was lots of good stuff: counter right hooks, uppercuts with both hands, hooking off the jab, lead lefts. Gassiev was so demoralized by the latter stages of the fight that his trainer, Abel Sanchez, was pleading with him (a unified titleholder!) merely to keep trying. 

Gassiev and Sanchez were criticized in some corners for their failure to make adjustments. Gassiev couldn't cut the ring off to save his life and with the exception of a few left hooks to the body, most of his punching was ineffectual. However, it's not as simple as, "He should have moved his left foot to the outside to contain Usyk." Boxing is fought in the ring and it's not an abstraction. Yes, in a perfect world, Gassiev would have had better footwork, but consider that Usyk was by far the superior athlete, he constantly circled, and had a significant reach advantage. Gassiev could try to put his foot down wherever he pleased, but most likely Usyk would already have been gone. 

A more comprehensive plan was required. Gassiev and Sanchez needed to set traps. If Usyk wanted to move to his right then Gassiev should have anticipated those movements, and Sanchez needed to communicate that information in the corner. But this is mostly academic, for Gassiev and Sanchez quickly realized that they had a stylistic nightmare on their hands. Absent a knockout punch, it seemed unlikely that Gassiev could win seven rounds to take the fight, even with perfect strategy. Most likely Eddie Futch or Manny Steward wouldn't have helped either; when the superior talent fights the right fight, there's very little that an opponent can do. 

It's my belief that most fighters would rather be knocked out than be embarrassed. Gassiev throughout most of the bout wasn't willing to risk more because he was getting played with in the ring, and he knew it. So complete was Usyk's domination that Gassiev, one of the best punchers in the division, became too timid to even let his hands go.   

Ultimately, Usyk's win was one of boxing's best performances of 2018 and a clear indicator that he's among the elite fighters in the sport. Usyk traveled to his opponent's home country in each round of the WBSS tournament. He fought in hostile environments and prevailed against three significantly different styles: He's a proper champion.

After the fight, he called out Tony Bellew, offering to face him at cruiserweight or heavyweight. Certainly that would be a good money fight. But I'm sure that most boxing observers would be more interested in seeing Usyk take on the better tests at heavyweight. Wilder, for instance, frequently weighs in at less than 220 lbs., so there wouldn't be a considerable weight disparity in that matchup. Although Usyk might lack a true heavyweight punch, no one in that division can move like him. Whenever he gets to the heavyweight division, he will be a welcome addition and a genuine threat. 


***


In the optimist/pessimist wars that persist throughout boxing, perhaps the front lines of this conflict occur with the evaluation of young talent. The true believers see a future where young fighters perpetually advance, straighten out their flaws, surround themselves with good people and a knowledgeable team, and continue to grow physically and intellectually. The Negative Nancies see every possible weakness or hole, luxuriate on the types of styles that could lead to a prospect's personal Waterloo and patiently wait for the day when the prospect eventually loses, reveling in the moment, telling us how right they were (of course, news flash, practically every fighter loses).  

Jaime Munguia is one of the test cases of this optimist/pessimist conflict in contemporary boxing. Critics observe a porous defense, clumsy footwork, wide shots and a lack of hand speed. Supporters see heavy hands, a variety of power punches, a vicious body attack, knockout power and room for growth.

So where will Munguia wind up? It's anyone's guess. However, Saturday's hard-earned unanimous victory over former junior middleweight titleholder Liam Smith was a significant step in his growth as a fighter. Smith was everything that Munguia hadn't yet faced as a professional: clever, experienced, polished. Smith had a good first third of the fight. Opportunistic in the ring, he landed with short straight right hands, left hooks and body punches. He would use angles and foot feints to get Munguia out of position and then connect. Early on, it looked like a man versus a boy. 

When judging a young fighter's aptitude, it's important to consider how he responds to duress, and to his credit, Munguia wasn't demoralized by Smith's early success. In fact, he did one thing that a fighter should always do against a quicker, older opponent: He went to the body. Unmercifully. Crushing Smith with left hooks downstairs and double left hooks to the body and head, Munguia started to turn the tide in the fourth. A four-punch combination led to a beautiful left hook knockdown of Smith in the sixth. Throughout much of the second half of the bout, Munguia unloaded with impressive power shots. No, his flaws didn't suddenly go away; he swung and missed often and was too left-hand dominant, but he kept banging away on whatever he could hit. 

Photo Courtesy of Ed Mullholland/HBO


Give credit to Smith for hits guts and determination. He never stopped trying to win. Even though he was outgunned as the fight progressed, he continued to mix it up with Munguia, often to his own detriment. 

Smith was precisely the type of developmental fight that Munguia needed. Munguia had yet to face a wily veteran who was good with angles and timing. Munguia needed to stay patient and trust that his physical attributes would eventually take over. In addition, he learned that his chin and conditioning were more than sufficient to last 12 hard rounds. Munguia wound up winning by a wide, unanimous decision, but it wasn't an easy fight and certainly it was one that will provide numerous teachable moments moving forward.

It's clear that Munguia is far from a finished product. Zanfer Promotions will have a challenging job ahead of themselves, continuing to raise Munguia's profile while simultaneously developing him (he's only just 21). For a textbook example of how this can be done, look at the job Golden Boy did with Canelo, but it's not easy to strike the right balance. 

HBO isn't showing nearly the number of fight cards that it did a decade ago, but hopefully the network realizes what it has with Munguia – an exciting, telegenic power puncher who can appeal to Mexican-American fight fans, not to mention hardcore boxing enthusiasts, who never want to miss a good action fight. Almost by accident, the network has found a fighter who can help grow its boxing program (Munguia was a late replacement for Smith in his HBO debut in May)

But let's end with a note of caution. Comparing Munguia to Mike Tyson or Oscar de la Hoya (like HBO's Jim Lampley did) isn't fair to the fighter and it diminishes the overall quality of the broadcast. It used to be just Max Kellerman overreaching with hasty comparisons to all-time greats, but now the whole announce team is involved. In short, these comparisons insult the intelligence of HBO's core boxing fans. They also can harm the fighters, creating unrealistic expectations and backlashes if and when they fail to live up to such unreachable standards.  

Munguia is a relative fledgling in the sport. Let him be. Let him create his own memories. Let him develop in his own time. It's certainly fine to accentuate his positive qualities, but there's no need to tell tales. HBO was once the gold standard of boxing broadcasting. No one called the action better. Somewhere along the line, its mission changed. Cheerleading, homerism and hyperbole, while always present in the past, have now taken a far more dominant position in its broadcast. This transition has harmed the presentation of American boxing. 

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.com
He's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook. 

2 comments:

  1. A fine, thoughtful, and well balanced read. Thanks Adam.

    ReplyDelete