Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Opinions and Observations: Hurd-Williams

"Jarret Hurd is like a fucking zombie. If you run away from him, he'll keep coming after you...You have to stand your ground and fight him."

– Stephen "Breadman" Edwards

Jarrett Hurd entered Saturday's fight as a prohibitive favorite. Having previously knocked out current champion Tony Harrison and defeated fellow titleholder Erislandy Lara, Hurd was viewed as the cream of the junior middleweight division. In addition, Hurd was facing Julian "J-Rock" Williams, a fighter who had been knocked out in his only title shot. 

The conventional wisdom for Williams's path to victory on Saturday was for J-Rock to use his superior boxing skills and quickness to win on the outside. But Williams and his trainer Stephen "Breadman" Edwards decided to flip convention on its head. Despite Hurd's mammoth size and skill with using his physicality to deplete opponents, Edwards thought that Williams would be safest within close quarters, where Hurd couldn't use his outstretched arms and Williams could thrive with his technical inside fighting skills. It was a dangerous play in that Hurd wears down opponents, leans on them with his fight-day weight of 175 lbs. or so, and crushes the body with thudding hooks.  

Despite the inherent risks, Edwards's strategy paid almost immediate dividends as Williams landed a left hook/right hand combination that dropped Hurd in the second round. J-Rock started the bout aggressively, jumping on Hurd, who had a tendency to give up early rounds. However, instead of piling up points by cute boxing, Williams inflicted damage. J-Rock went hard to the body with left hooks and strafed Hurd with quick right hands and creative uppercut combinations.  


Williams (left) catching Hurd with a short uppercut
Photo Courtesy of Stephanie Trapp


Hurd was able to work his way into the fight in the third round and had some sustained success in the sixth and seventh, but by the back third of the bout, Williams was the one who was fresher, more mentally alert and pulled the trigger with more regularity and menace. 

Throughout the fight, which had fierce exchanges and fantastic displays of power punching, Williams beat Hurd at his own game. During clinches, Williams routinely got the better of the action, using his free hand to wing power shots and inflict damage (referee Bill Clancy did an excellent job of letting the fighters work out of the clinch). When Hurd was able to trap Williams along the ropes, J-Rock often spun out and reversed the positioning; now he was the one battering Hurd in tight quarters. In those occasions where Hurd landed a big punch, more often than not Williams would respond with two or three. 

As the fight progressed, Williams was able to demonstrate his superior ring pedigree. Working one side of the body with uppercuts, he would deftly change positioning to pepper the other side and evade trouble. He used clever foot feints to get Hurd out of position and then moved to areas where he could land free shots. He threw creative combinations in close, such as a double left uppercut/left hook or left hook to the body/left hook to the head/straight right hand. Hurd often couldn't anticipate where and how Williams would attack. 

Throughout the fight Hurd was game. He landed his fair share of power shots, specifically left hooks to the body and straight right hands, but ultimately, he was outgunned and outhustled. Williams won via unanimous decision: 116-111, 115-112 and 115-112 (I scored it 116-111). 

After the match Edwards came ringside to talk to the assembled media. From breaking down tape of Hurd's fights, he believed that opponents burned themselves out trying to evade his pressure. From Edwards's vantage point, attempting to outbox Hurd created a pace that couldn't be sustained, which took a toll on the legs. He saw how Hurd stopped Harrison after Harrison gassed in the second half of the fight from moving around the ring so much. Hurd was also able to score a pivotal 12th-round knockdown against Lara, which sealed the fight in his favor. To prepare for Hurd, Edwards emphasized leg strengthening and also the finer points of inside fighting – using angles, working in the clinch, and turning an opponent along the ropes. 


Williams and Edwards embrace after the victory
Photo Courtesy of Stephanie Trapp


Mixing keen insight along with triumphant jubilation after the victory, Edwards basked in the biggest moment of his career. But his joy was more than the satisfaction of a win. Much more. 

In 2016, Williams, then a fast-rising young prospect, was wiped out by titleholder Jermall Charlo in five rounds. Hitting the canvas three times, including once from "an uppercut from hell" (Breadman's term), Williams went from contender to pretender in the snap of a finger for many people in the fight game. The aftermath of the loss was vicious. Williams was dismissed as a hype job. Edwards, who also manages J-Rock, was criticized for how he had matched Williams in preparation for his title shot.

Instead of rushing towards another belt, Williams and Edwards rebuilt momentum slowly and methodically. After a comeback fight against overmatched Joshua Conley, Williams faced the tricky veteran and former titlist Ishe Smith. Williams was able to outwork Ishe, but it was far from a convincing performance. Smith displayed many tricks of the trade, from holding, to working out of the clinch to countering off the ropes. In many respects, the Smith fight was a finishing school for Williams. 

J-Rock next faced Nathaniel Gallimore, a rugged fighter from Chicago, who had recently stopped prospect Justin DeLoach. In a physical, grueling fight, Williams pulled away in the second half to win by a majority decision (ignore the draw verdict there; the fight wasn't that close). In talking with Edwards in an interview prior to Saturday's fight, he said that he had intentionally picked Gallimore as an opponent because of his size and physicality. Edwards knew that Williams would need to master that style if he had any hopes of beating a fighter like Hurd. After the Gallimore bout, nearly 18 months past the Charlo loss, Edwards knew that Williams was ready to face the best in the division once again. 

I consider Edwards and Williams acquaintances of mine. I've interacted with them several times around Philly over the years and have had opportunities to interview them. And over the years I've realized that Williams and Edwards don't have a traditional fighter/trainer relationship. Edwards at times has functioned as a father-figure, a business adviser, a mouthpiece, a close compatriot, a protector. The two are the definition of a team. J-rock's loss to Charlo stung Edwards just as hard. In many respects, each was the other's way to make a name for himself in boxing; they were inextricably tied. They both harbored dreams, and those were dashed under the bright lights. 

Ultimately, Williams's comeback provides a crucial reminder that the most important attribute for a boxer, far more critical than technical skills, athleticism or physical dimensions, is self-belief. Williams was left for dead, but somehow got off the pavement, dusted himself off and went back to work. It takes a mentally strong man to accomplish what he did against Hurd and no matter what else occurs in his career, he has made a definitive statement about his character and competitive spirit. And on Saturday, it is my belief that no junior middleweight, current champion or contender, could have beaten him. It was the performance of his career. 

***

HBO's unofficial ringside scorer Harold Lederman died on Saturday after a long battle with cancer at the age of 79. For generations of boxing fans, Lederman was their conduit to understanding the finer points of the sport. In his brief spots between rounds, he provided an education that was invaluable. Harold articulated the crucial difference between effective and ineffective aggression. In tackling the black box of "ring generalship," he explained the concept in terms easier for layman to understand. Who consistently got off first? Who controlled the action? Who dictated the pace of the round? Lederman helped to create a more knowledgeable boxing fan. 

Harold's contributions to HBO Boxing were a big reason why the network's presentation of the sport was the best in the industry. Harold's scoring could help be a corrective to the narrative flow of the announcers or gently nudge the broadcast in another direction. As a respected boxing judge before transitioning to HBO, Harold could speak technically about the sport with sophistication and erudition, but he had a common touch and the geniality to accept opposing viewpoints. 

What Harold made look easy was in fact extremely difficult. Not only must his scores continually had to have been precise reflections of the action, but he only had 20-30 seconds to explain his thought process in a clear and decisive manner. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and many other networks now utilize unofficial judges as part of their broadcasts, but Harold's combination of subject matter mastery, cogent communication and humor has been unrivaled.

After Lederman's death, heartfelt tributes came rushing in from around the boxing globe, from fellow broadcasters, rival network executives, promoters, fighters and fans. Seemingly everyone had a Harold vignette where his warmth and decency had made a difference; for as much as Harold loved boxing, and few could rival his enthusiasm for the sport, his geniality and positivity affected so many. 

Even in failing health Harold would travel to club fights up-and-down the Northeast just to watch boxing as a fan. No show was too small, no event beneath him. Fight night always seemed to put a smile on his face.  

He was also quick with a kind word, regardless of a person's stature in the sport. Many years ago when I was a nascent boxing writer, Harold somehow found my work and he would send an occasional note of encouragement or gently provide an alternative point of view. Those interactions were gold to me and never ceased to put a smile on my face. And my scenario wasn't remotely unique. I know a dozen writers who have similar stories about Harold, always encouraging them, always generous with his time. 

Harold of course will live on. Universally admired in the sport, enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, he has left a rich legacy. His daughter, Julie, is a leading boxing judge on the East Coast. His mannerisms and phrases are warmly repeated by legions of boxing fans; you can probably hear his greatest hits ("Jim, let me tell you something," "be that as it may") in the crowd at any live fight. 

But more than all of that, he touched people. He made a difference. His mere presence caused people to smile and feel a little bit better about their day. We should all have such an impact. 

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

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Opinions and Observations: Canelo-Jacobs

Before the days of fancy foreign imports, Cadillacs were the gold standard. A genuine status symbol, Cadillacs indicated wealth and refinement. Although Cadillacs certainly didn't accelerate like muscle cars and it took them a while to go from 0 to 65, they were the smoothest ride on the road. With a powerful engine and superior craftsmanship, 85 miles per hour felt like 40.   

About 10 years ago I was in Southern California and all that was left at the LAX rental lot was one of those Cadillac sedans that could have passed for a small boat. After the initial snickering of driving around posh L.A. in a grandpa mobile, I took that Caddy on the 405 and suddenly I understood. There was a certain majestic feeling of cruising the freeways while barely touching the pedal. Gliding around town, I felt a certain panache. 

Saul "Canelo" Alvarez was the Cadillac in the ring on Saturday. Barely breaking a sweat, overcoming an opponent in Daniel Jacobs who was taller, bigger and more athletic, Canelo gently put his foot on the gas without much of a care in the world. In the final rounds of the fight, with the bout seemingly in balance, Canelo was still cruising, finishing strongly, while Jacobs fought tentatively because his "check engine" light had switched on. 

To extend the car analogy, if Canelo was the Cadillac on Saturday – regal, high-performing, dependable – then Jacobs was an Audi from the '80s – sleek, decent acceleration, cool gadgets and toys, but ultimately lots of time spent stuck in the shop for needed repairs. 



Photo Courtesy of Ed Mullholland


With the fight potentially on the table in the final third, Jacobs was still tinkering. Although he had so many toys to play with, he couldn't settle on a style or an approach that would get the best of Canelo when he needed it most. Furthermore, he didn't really go for it in the championship rounds. Canelo countered beautifully in the 11th, often against the ropes, and the 12th wasn't a definitive round for either boxer. As the "away" fighter and well aware of Canelo's history of favorable scores from the judges, Jacobs needed to do more. 

Overall it was a strange fight, not necessarily a bad one, but a bout that won't soon be remembered. To switch to a baseball analogy for a second, both fighters were hitting singles, a few doubles and quite a few lazy pop ups to right field. Neither fought with much urgency or had success imposing himself consistently. 
  
Canelo was correctly awarded the fight on the scorecards, winning via unanimous decision 115-113, 115-113 and 116-112, but it was not one of his better performances. He didn't bite down and slug it out like he did against Golovkin or track down an elusive target as he had against Lara. There were very few menacing power punches, like the ones that dropped Trout and stopped foes such as Kirkland and Khan. On balance, he was more accurate, sharper and more consistent. 

With all of that said, Jacobs certainly had his moments. He neutralized much of Canelo's offense and didn't let him fire off too many of those million-dollar combinations that get the crowd oohing and aahing. In the ninth he landed a pulverizing hook that was the single best shot in the fight. Jacobs switched from orthodox to southpaw often, changing looks and the style of the fight, never giving Canelo sustained periods of momentum. He also worked the head and body well at times, having some success driving Canelo back to the ropes. 

In a number of ways Jacobs fought his fight. He was never hurt. He was able to move in and out, incorporate lateral movement and keep Canelo's ferocity in check. To my eyes, he had to dig deeper in fights against Golovkin (in which he lost a close decision) and Derevyanchenko (in which he squeaked by with a win). But he ultimately might have been lulled by Canelo's modest approach to the fight. Canelo didn't really push Jacobs and in turn Jacobs didn't push himself harder than second gear. As a result, Jacobs lacked intensity for much of the first half of the fight, choosing to dip his toes into the bout instead of diving right in. 

With all of Canelo's myriad offensive weapons and combinations, what perhaps contributed most to his win were single jabs. At mid-range Canelo surprisingly had the faster hands and his shorter, more direct shots landed with more impact. Canelo's sharp left stick continually snapped Jacobs's head back at points in the fight and while his landed jabs didn't lead to scintillating action, they were the definition of clean, scoring blows. Canelo did sprinkle in left hooks and straight rights to the body, but his jab won him the fight.

However, let's not pretend that Saturday was Canelo at his best. So many of the rounds were close – 1, 3, 5, 10, 12. Canelo won the majority of these rounds, but a Jacobs victory wasn't beyond the realm of possibility. Canelo was in cruise control throughout the fight, and it was enough on the judges’ scorecards to win, but where was his desire to go for the jugular, to confirm his greatness? More often than not, he was happy enough to nick rounds, seemingly assured that it would be enough. It proved to be a winning approach on Saturday, but not a particularly inspiring one. 

As for Jacobs (and head trainer Andre Rozier), at a certain point a fighter has to understand his strengths. Jacobs often switches from orthodox to southpaw during a fight, but I never have a sense of purpose with the move like I do with Terence Crawford. Crawford switches to take away an opponent's straight right, or to remain more defensively responsible. Jacobs will go southpaw for a round or two and then revert back, like he's trying out things in the gym. Crawford understands what he needs to do win and what tactic will take him there. If something is working he sticks with it. I don't get the same feeling from Jacobs and Rozier. Jacobs is a capable and versatile fighter, but he doesn't have a firm understanding of what he needs to do to win. (And it wouldn't hurt if he had more of "Bud" Crawford's killer instinct as well.)



Photo Courtesy of Ed Mullholland


For Canelo the gravy train continues. At 28 he has already defeated many of the top challengers of his era. He is a bona fide star in a sport with few of them. He has every punch in the book, a high ring IQ, and a willingness to improve. Clearly he's among the top fighters of the world, but he sure does give opponents chances. 

As good as Canelo is, many, perhaps the majority of fight fans, believe that Golovkin defeated him twice. Others thought that Lara or Trout did enough to prevail over him. Whether or not Canelo won these fights is not the point I'm trying to make right now. Ultimately, his bouts against top opposition have all been competitive. Several have been coin flips, and his side happened to come up. In a legitimate enterprise, if you toss a coin enough times eventually the other side will land. Perhaps Saturday's fight against Jacobs wasn't exactly a coin flip. On second watch I thought that Canelo won seven rounds, as two of the judges did. But this is a subjective sport, and it's conceivable to cobble together seven rounds for Jacobs, or Trout, or Lara, or Golovkin. Canelo's cruise control was just enough to get the job done on Saturday's scorecards. Certainly he had more to give if needed, but his self-satisfaction in the ring was a bit underwhelming. The scorecard gods won't support him forever.

*** 

In the second round of the DAZN broadcast of the fight, analyst Sergio Mora suggested that Jacobs turning southpaw was a wise tactic. When Mora and Jacobs fought previously, Jacobs had knocked down Mora in the southpaw stance. Again when Jacobs switched in the fifth, Mora asserted that it was a good decision. By the ninth round, Mora stated that one reason that Jacobs was losing the fight was his ineffectiveness in the southpaw stance. In the 10th round, after Jacobs just had his best rounds of the fight, Mora suggested that Jacobs was making a last hurrah stand, a comment made when a fighter makes one final push before getting stopped. To my eyes, Jacobs was never seriously hurt throughout the fight. 

Brian Kenny, DAZN's play-by-play man, stated after each of the first three rounds that the action was close and perhaps could be scored either way. Jacobs performed well in rounds seven, eight and nine, but by then Kenny was already saying that it was a vintage Canelo performance and that Jacobs seemed adrift in the fight. He believed that there was a huge gulf in class between the two fighters. Conceivably, Jacobs could have been down 5-4 after nine rounds (or even, if bending over backwards, slightly ahead). As Chris Mannix's score started to tighten in the back third of the fight, Kenny stated that the fight didn't feel close at all. Kenny, perhaps overcompensating, realizing that the bout may have been closer than he was seeing it, then said that Jacobs had a strong 11th, when that was clearly one of Canelo's best rounds of the fight.   

Needless to say, Mora and Kenny didn't really know what they were watching on Saturday. Kenny was a complete homer for Canelo, the crown jewel of DAZN's boxing program. Shots that were clearly blocked by Jacobs were called emphatically for Canelo. When Canelo was doing very little offensively at certain points in the fight, Kenny compared Canelo's defense to Floyd Mayweather's. Kenny asserted that Canelo was at his peak and few had a chance to beat him while he was in such fine form, but then why was Canelo just edging rounds?  

It was an awful broadcast from DAZN. To be fair, awful broadcasts in boxing are frequent occurrences; 99% of the time they don't affect my scoring of a fight. But Canelo-Jacobs was different. My agitation while watching the broadcast may have led to some bad decision making. To my eyes, the DAZN crew ignored or discredited much of Jacobs's work while every twitch of Canelo's muscle fiber was praised; I grew even angrier. Although I had picked Canelo to win, I knew I wasn't watching an excellent version of him on Saturday. He was adequate, capable, but less than enthralling. I started to overcompensate for Jacobs.

Initially I scored the bout 116-112 for Jacobs, but had it for Canelo on second viewing 115-113. Watching the fight live, I was too eager to give Jacobs the 12th. The 10th was another round for Canelo that flipped for me when I re-watched it. Ultimately, I had an off night, which happens, but I'm certainly not thrilled about it. Canelo was just a little bit sharper and more consistent. He built up several small advantages in the fight that demanded close attention. Jacobs did perform much better than the broadcast indicated. He deserved more respect. But he didn't win. 

And with Kenny and Mora, the fans aren't winning either. DAZN's broadcast needs a major overhaul. Big fights should feel like a legitimate sporting contest not shameless propaganda for the favorite son. Canelo was a deserved winner on Saturday, but he was pushed, challenged and in a competitive fight, and DAZN's broadcast was too enamored with its meal ticket to call it square.  


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

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Punch 2 the Face Podcast

In this week's Punch 2 the Face Podcast, Brandon and I cover the Canelo-Jacobs fights from all the angles. We give our keys to the fight and predictions. Also on the podcast we reviewed the great Sor Rungvisai-Estrada and Roman-Doheny card, trashed the horrid Easter-Barthelemy fight and previewed an intriguing matchup between Beterbiev and Kalajdzic. To listen to the podcast click on the links below: 

Blog Talk Radio link:

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