Sunday, October 27, 2019

Opinions and Observations: Prograis-Taylor

Regis Prograis entered Saturday's junior welterweight unification fight with a plan. He wanted to beat Josh Taylor at Taylor's own game, breaking him down on the inside, and Taylor was more than happy to oblige; this was his preferred style after all. Taylor must have been smiling at his good fortune when he realized that he didn't need to exert energy trying to find and track down Prograis in the ring. Instead he could focus on winning a type of fight in which he had excelled.  

The first seven rounds of Saturday's match were mostly contested in close quarters with lots of leather traded. And at that moment it was clear that Taylor was ahead, having won anywhere from four to six of the frames. Even more importantly, he was imposing himself on the smaller Prograis. He was more adept at the craft of inside fighting. He better understood its secrets and opportunities. Taylor expertly utilized his forearms and wrists to create space to land his shots and move away from danger. Every shot was short and purposeful. Subtle sidesteps created angles where he could land and Prograis could not. There is an art to inside fighting and throughout Saturday's fight Taylor demonstrated that he was one of its masters while Prograis was a precocious student – highly talented, but still a student.  

Photo Courtesy of Mark Robinson

In the eighth round Prograis changed his tactics and tried to win from the outside. He scored with some strafing lead left hands and jabbed effectively. After two rounds where Taylor was able to close the distance and land some thunderous right hooks and straight left hands, Prograis had perhaps his best moments of the fight in the 11th, where he was able to box effectively and mix in some punishing power shots. Prograis also competed well in the closing 12th frame. 

Ultimately Taylor won by a majority decision, 117-112, 115-113 and 114-114 (I had it for Taylor 116-112). It was certainly a competitive fight, but from my vantage point Taylor was more consistent throughout the match and was able to outwork Prograis in several close rounds, especially those in close quarters during the first half of the bout. 

After 12 tough rounds I don't believe that there was much difference in skill or talent between Prograis and Taylor. However, one fighter knew exactly who he was in the ring and how he needed to win the fight, while the other seemed less certain. In my estimation Prograis-Taylor was decided by strategy, tactics and Ring IQ, not always the sexiest factors, but they can certainly be the difference between winning and losing. 

Photo Courtesy of Mark Robinson

In handicapping Prograis-Taylor, I was concerned with Prograis's lack of competitive bouts throughout his development. Now Prograis and his team are not all to blame for this. A major reason why Prograis had rarely been tested was his supreme talent; he was blowing through reasonable opponents. 

Prior to Saturday Taylor had already been through wars with Ivan Baranchyk and Viktor Postol. He had been rocked with big shots, he had faced duress and he had demonstrated strong powers of recuperation. Perhaps one could look at those factors and determine that Taylor was potentially more vulnerable, but I viewed his history as a positive. Taylor, and importantly lead trainer Shane McGuigan, knew exactly what they needed to do and how they had to fight in order to beat good opponents. 

Prograis and lead trainer Bobby Benton just hadn't had the reps against top competition. That's certainly not a disqualifying factor in winning a big fight, but it was something worth noting. Perhaps if Prograis and Benton had just a little bit more big-fight experience maybe they would have made adjustments faster on Saturday. Taking it a step further, with more tough rounds prior to Taylor they might have learned more about what Prograis needed to do to beat top competition. 

A problem with fighters that have such broad skill sets is knowing when and where to use certain tactics. This has been a recurring criticism that I've had with Daniel Jacobs throughout his career. Jacobs has all the skill in the world and can seemingly fight in any style; yet there doesn't seem to be a coherent strategy throughout a fight and he doesn't realize fast enough what's working and what should be scrapped. 

Now Prograis did come into Saturday's match with a plan, but there needed to be a quicker adjustment to taking the fight to the outside. And maybe, just maybe, Prograis and Benton got their tactics wrong from the jump. To me they seemed to underestimate Taylor's effectiveness on the inside. I certainly think that they were surprised by his power.  

Photo Courtesy of Mark Robinson

Prograis had rarely struggled coming into Saturday's fight. He had won fights on the inside and from distance. He had success leading and countering. He could use the ring or slug it out in the pocket. Perhaps Prograis and Benton thought that they were a little bulletproof in the ring, that the opponent didn't necessarily matter, that Regis was just on another level. He had never really been vulnerable prior to Saturday; why would Taylor be any different?   

Ultimately Saturday's fight will be a great learning experience for Prograis and Benton. They certainly didn't embarrass themselves and gave boxing fans a hell of a show. However, the margin between winning and losing can be so thin. Getting the fight plan wrong can make all the difference. Prograis had better hand and foot speed. I'm not exactly sure why they didn't utilize their natural advantages in this fight. 

However, all is not lost. They will have additional opportunities. Prograis will make for a great fight against any of the top guys at 140, and he could certainly compete one division north at welterweight. He has a wonderful skill set and presents a series of problems for opponents. At 30, in the absolute prime of his career, and not tied to a particular network or boxing platform, he could have several big fights in the next few years. Here's hoping that he will learn from Saturday's bout and realize that the other guy gets paid too. 

Photo Courtesy of Mark Robinson

As for Josh Taylor, he has long been a favorite of mine in the ring. Far more than the sum of his parts, Taylor has off-the-chart intangibles that make up his for pedestrian hand speed, foot speed and athleticism. For starters he has a fantastic Ring IQ. Unlike so many fighters, he has an innate understanding of which punches work at a given distance, and he can execute on that knowledge. Sure, Prograis might throw a prettier hook, and it might even be a harder punch in a vacuum, but Taylor can get his there first because it is perfectly thrown and placed. He has every punch in his arsenal and uses them properly. He's not trying to throw lead uppercuts from five feet away or jabbing from too close. In addition, Taylor is one of the few fighters who can cut off the ring effectively. His footwork is fluid, purposeful and he is always in position to throw.  

All of the above is important, but Taylor also has that intestinal fortitude to persevere. I've seen him get absolutely rocked by huge shots against Baranchyk and Prograis. His right eye by the end of the fight on Saturday made him look like an alien – there was just a hole where it was supposed to be. But Taylor kept pressing forward, refusing to let his physical deterioration become a hindrance in the fight. Perhaps most importantly Taylor doesn't beat himself. He's smart, both intellectually and in the ring. He doesn't make many mistakes. Sure, he's not the fastest guy in the sport and he can be hit, but he forces his opponents to earn everything. 

One area of concern for Taylor is his lack of true knockout power. As he continues to face tough competition he's not going to have many easy fights. His opponents are often going to have speed and/or power advantages and he will need to grind out victories by being smarter, sharper and better prepared. That's a tough way to earn a living at the highest level of the sport. Only 28 and with just 16 professional fights, it's likely that he will have a relatively short run. The body just can't sustain itself through that many wars. But that's in the future, and for now let's just enjoy yesterday and today. 

Josh Taylor possesses a wealth of information about the sport that most fighters, even excellent ones, will never acquire. Right now he's in the perfect sweet spot where his mind and body are in sync. He can see the openings and can physically exploit them. While his time at the summit could be short, for now it's certainly a beautiful view at the top of the mountain. He's earned his position at this impressive, elevated peak. 

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. 
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