Sunday, December 22, 2019

Opinions and Observations: Harrison-Charlo 2

When Tony Harrison and Jermell Charlo fought last December, they essentially battled to a stalemate. Harrison won the bout on the cards taking Charlo's junior middleweight title, but it was one of those occasions where neither man was fully successful in asserting his game plan. Charlo threw more punches and landed many of the better shots; however, Harrison, with his slick boxing and movement, had the superior ring generalship, and he clearly had the better defense. The scoring of that fight depended on what happened to impress the judges. Three competent judges could certainly have watched Charlo-Harrison I and arrived at Charlo as the legitimate winner. 

They were supposed to have fought the rematch this June, but Harrison tore ligaments in his ankle and the bout was postponed. Saturday was Harrison's first fight since his meeting with Charlo last year while Charlo knocked out Jorge Cota in the interim.

Photo Courtesy of Stephanie Trapp/Fox Sports

In a number of ways the two Harrison-Charlo fights resembled the bouts between Gennadiy Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez. In Canelo-GGG I, Golovkin was the busier fighter and the aggressor while Canelo did some solid work with his back to the ropes and countered well. Although most observers thought that Golovkin won that fight, the match (with a fishy scorecard) was declared a draw. 

Prior to their second fight, Canelo had surgery on his knee. For the rematch Canelo employed a radically different strategy, perhaps out of necessity due to his physical recovery from surgery. He didn't take a step back and slugged it out with Golovkin in the center of the ring. It was a close fight and Canelo was awarded the victory; in my opinion the manner in which Canelo fought the rematch was instructive to how Harrison-Charlo 2 unfolded. 

Tony Harrison, along with Erislandy Lara, has the best pure boxing ability at 154 lbs. When he's physically right, he confounds opponents with his movement, accuracy and jab. He's almost a textbook pure boxer in an era where there aren't many of those fighters still around. 

Yet in Saturday's rematch, Harrison featured none of the movement that gave Charlo fits in their first bout. Instead, he inched forward and tried to walk Charlo down the whole fight, engaging in a battle of power shots. His lateral movement was sparse. He spent little if any time on his back foot. With his time away from boxing and questions about his fitness after his ankle injury, perhaps he fought that style against Charlo on Saturday, similar to how Canelo did in the GGG rematch, out of necessity.  

But maybe his health wasn't the only factor. Fighting in California in front of a judging pool that may not have been as sympathetic to his pure boxing style as the New York judges in their first fight, it's possible that Harrison didn't think his cute boxing would be enough to win it on the scorecards. Furthermore, Harrison may have believed that he had the element of surprise in his favor. Surely Charlo didn't think that Harrison would try to outslug him. 

Despite having been knocked out in his two losses (both in the second half of those fights), Harrison was determined to go to war with Charlo. Harrison and his team correctly noted that Charlo didn't like to fight going backwards and he was much more successful at mid-range with a comfortable pocket. They thought there could be safe ground on the inside.

The early results were encouraging. And despite being dropped from a solid left hook in the second round, Harrison kept pressing forward and peppering Charlo with power. His quicker shots on the inside often got the better of the exchanges. Although his power punches weren't of the lights-out variety, he certainly got Charlo's attention with clever combination punching and a number of solid right hands. 

Charlo did compete throughout the fight though and a number of rounds were close. His most successful punch was a left hook, either a lead or counter, but many of his straight shots were getting picked off. 

Through ten rounds it was an excellent match, but one ingredient was missing: a sense of urgency. Both fighters were landing big shots and there were a number of thrilling exchanges, but neither was really pressing the pace. The action, while compelling, was measured, and it wouldn't have surprised me if both fighters thought that they were ahead. The judges’ scores reflected that as well. Two judges had Charlo up by three points; the third had Harrison up by one (I also had Harrison up by a point). 

Photo Courtesy of Stephanie Trapp/Fox Sports

In the 11th round Charlo started with more intensity. He blistered Harrison with power shots and they were serious blows. Harrison mocked Charlo after the early foray, trying to play it off, but Charlo became emboldened. 

A few seconds later they both traded left hooks. Harrison's actually got there first and he landed a peach of a shot, but then Charlo's detonated and the fight forever changed. Charlo's hook sent Harrison sprawling toward the ropes. Charlo went on the attack and within seconds Harrison was on the canvas. He beat the count, but was severely damaged. Charlo kept pressing with power punches. He hurt Harrison with another huge left hook and then followed up with three fantastic left uppercuts and a straight right hand. Harrison’s fall to the canvas and ref Jack Reiss's immediate entrance into the action gave off the impression that the fight was over. It wasn't, but that became a timekeeping formality. When action resumed Charlo jumped on Harrison and Reiss stopped the fight. With the win Charlo regained his junior middleweight title and had the signature victory of his career. 

After the fight Harrison gave Charlo credit for the victory and admonished himself for being too lax in the ring during the 11th round. All of that is notable, but it's not the complete story. 

Harrison walked a tightrope the entire fight and he wasn't able to make it across to safety. Yes, the end was in sight, but being close to the finish line isn't the same as making it there. As far as strategy and tactics go, he made a bold play in the ring, but ultimately the slugger had too many opportunities to land his thunder. 

Photo Courtesy of Stephanie Trapp/Fox Sports

Jermell Charlo can box and bang, but some flaws in his game have been exposed during his time at the world-level. He can be out-jabbed, movement can confound him, and he clearly doesn't like to be backed up. In addition, he can let his emotions get the better of him in the ring. In the past when things haven't gone right for him, he has tried to double down on knocking out opponents, forgetting to put points on the board. During these periods of frustration, he has let fighters like Austin Trout and Harrison outwork him and assert their authority on the fight. 

However, Charlo's performance on Saturday exorcised many of these demons. No, it wasn't a clean sweep on the cards, but he had to overcome his previous flaws to win the fight, which is no insubstantial feat. Unlike the first Harrison bout, Charlo wasn't going for the knockout with every shot. Even after scoring the early knockdown, he didn't run in recklessly trying to close the show. In addition, he avoided the trap that many fighters do after they have early success. He wasn't waiting to land the same punch that led to the knockdown, in this case the left hook; instead, he used his entire offensive arsenal throughout the match. And as the fight progressed, with many rounds going to Harrison, Charlo didn't run out of ideas or appear frustrated in the ring. He continued to put punches together trying to scrape out a win. 

Overall, Charlo exhibited maturity and discipline, two attributes that had been lacking in his performances against top competition. Jermell, similar to his brother, Jermall (a current middleweight champ), has so much natural talent and power that he doesn't need to force things to get the stoppage. It's a lesson that he seemed to learn on Saturday. Once he hurt Harrison he finished in style, but there was nothing reckless or irresponsible about it. His ultimate success came from the natural flow of the fight. The left hook that was the beginning of the end for Harrison wasn't even Charlo's hardest shot, but it didn't need to be – it was the perfect punch at the perfect opportunity, and that's really what boxing is about at the world-class level. As the golf teacher advises that less is more regarding the swing, by taking a little mustard off his shots, Charlo was able to achieve better results. I'm not sure that he would have made the same choice two years ago.

Top opponents will always have opportunities to win rounds against Charlo. He's by no means a perfect fighter and he seems less than his best when he's not controlling the pocket. However, what Saturday highlighted is that he can and will compete even if the fight doesn't play out in his favor. He should now have confidence that if he stays within himself, he has more than enough natural ability to turn a fight around. If he remembers the lessons from this fight, he will become much tougher to defeat. And if he stays within himself and simply boxes to his ability, few fighters will enjoy 12 rounds of the Jermell Charlo experience. It's possible that on Saturday he finally put it all together. 

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. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook. 

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