Monday, January 27, 2020

Ruben Villa: On the Cusp

Most of the elite young American fighters are already known by just one name: Teofimo, Devin, Gervonta, Vergil, Shakur. These five in particular have galvanized boxing fans. They provide hope that boxing, and American boxing specifically, will remain vibrant. And if undefeated featherweight Ruben Villa continues his upward trajectory, boxing fans may soon need to add a sixth name to this illustrious class. 

Although Villa (17-0, 5 KOs) has yet to receive the same fanfare as some of his peers, his credentials speak for themselves. He was a two-time National Golden Gloves winner at 123 lbs. (2014, 2015). He was also the Junior National Olympic Champion in 2012 and 2013. He beat Shakur twice in the amateurs and also has an amateur win over Devin. 

Photo Courtesy of Showtime

On Friday, Villa, 22, from Salinas, California, will headline a ShoBox card against Cuba's Alexei Collado (26-2, 23 KOs). Villa is a classic boxer and his fast feet are just as impressive as his considerable hand speed. He commands the ring with his footwork. In and out, side-to-side, southpaw or conventional, it's hard for an opponent to land a clean shot on him. But Villa doesn't use his feet just for defense, he moves to create angles for his offense, leading to opportunities where he can connect on his opponent without receiving incoming fire. 

Friday's fight will be a matchup of the boxer (Villa) against the puncher (Collado). And to Villa, who started boxing at five years old, he's seen Collado's style many times. 

"I’ve seen all styles in the ring," he said. "Most of my recent opponents have been aggressive guys. We know I can beat aggressive. Eventually I also want to fight some guys that can box and have some real [technical] skills."

As an amateur, Villa, a natural right-hander who fights more often out of the southpaw stance, looked up to cerebral boxers such as Floyd Mayweather, Juan Manuel Marquez and Vasiliy Lomachenko. Villa describes his ring style this way: "I’m a pure boxer. I’m pretty good at adjusting and making my opponents frustrated and uncomfortable. Whatever I see and whatever I can capitalize on in terms of my opponents’ mistakes, I do it...I fight inside or outside the pocket. It’s just whatever I see and what I’m comfortable with, whoever I'm up against."

In his last fight against Jose Vivas, Villa sat down on his shots more than he had in recent bouts and scored a second-round knockdown. If not for a bizarre incident with the ropes breaking in the fight, it's very possible that he could have won by an early stoppage. However, Vivas had over ten minutes of recovery time after being hurt and was able to make it to the final bell. 

Villa's hometown of Salinas, a city in Monterey County a little more than 100 miles south of San Francisco, isn't exactly known as a hotbed for boxing. Its most famous resident was the author John Steinbeck, who set his novel "East of Eden" there. To get good sparring, Villa will often conduct part of his training camps at the Robert Garcia Boxing Academy in Riverside, five hours away in Southern California (although he remained in Salinas for this camp). Villa appreciates the gym's challenging and competitive environment. Villa's head trainer is Max Garcia (no relation to Robert), who is also from Salinas and has worked with Ruben since early in his professional career. Villa has learned a lot about professionalism from his time training in Riverside.

"I look at the other guys at that gym [the Robert Garcia Boxing Academy]," he said, "and see how much hustle they put into it. You know, we’re all chasing the same dream, so seeing other guys work hard really motivates me to do a little more, whether it’s an extra round or an extra mile. We all want a world title. You have to be ready to work, because if not, you're going to be outworked."

For Villa his life is essentially boxing. After losing to Shakur Stevenson at the 2016 Olympic qualifying finals (they have split their four amateur fights), he wanted to turn pro instead of waiting for another Olympic cycle. That loss and a number of other tough amateur fights helped him realize how seriously boxing meant to him. He now knew that he wanted to make the sport his career. After aligning with manager Danny Zamora, he fielded offers to turn pro from several interested parties. Ultimately they selected a joint co-promotional bid from Thompson Boxing and Banner Promotions. The promoters have helped build Villa in California with 13 of his 17 fights in the state, including multiple appearances in Salinas and Sacramento. 

Villa is a man at home in Salinas. It's a diverse community of more than 150,000 people, comprised of Anglos, Mexican-Americans, Filipinos, migrant workers and many others. The surrounding area is home to numerous farms, agribusinesses and packing plants. It's agricultural output is so bountiful that it led to Salinas's moniker as "America's Salad Bowl." The city also features a strong education sector and perhaps that's why many of the leading agricultural technology conferences find their way to Salinas annually. It's a city on the rebound with new investment streaming in; however, significant pockets of poverty remain. 

As Villa's status has continued to rise in Salinas, he feels a calling to give back to the city. He volunteers for food drives. He speaks to young offenders at the city's juvenile hall. He wants to be viewed as a positive role model. But even more importantly than that, he wants to help. 

"I didn’t have anyone to help me out as a young athlete," he said. "Knowing that Salinas needs help, why not be a guy to lend a hand and help motivate others? It doesn’t necessarily cost much to help out, but it’s more about your time, about talking with people in the community. Let them know if you work hard and do your best that they can achieve whatever they want…It definitely helps me sleep better at night knowing that I’m helping my community."

Should Villa continue his winning ways he believes that he will have the opportunity to fight for a title eliminator by the end of the year. He speaks optimistically about where he is in the sport, and life in general. He's happy with his team, his management, his family and where he lives. He's not a man with a chip on his shoulder. 

But make no mistake; he wants to fight the best. He knows that his time will come soon and he's trying to expand his skill set as much as possible for that day. He has already faced a number of the young shining stars in the sport as an amateur, and he's preparing for those opportunities as a pro in the near future. And in time, similar to Shakur and Gervonta, perhaps he will need only one name in the boxing community. He will be "Ruben." Just "Ruben."

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. 

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Opinions and Observations: Williams-Rosario

You could hear the thud. 

Jeison Rosario's shots echoed through the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia on Saturday. His opponent, Julian "J-Rock" Williams, had the pedigree, the shiny belts and a great performance in his last fight against champ Jarrett Hurd, but all of that proved to be inconsequential when the two fighters stepped into the ring. By the end of the second round, Rosario had established with a number of counter right hands that he had the power advantage in the fight. As the bout continued, Rosario unleashed more of his arsenal, and was able to hurt Williams in the fourth round. 

Rosario (left) commanding the center of the ring
Photo Courtesy of Stephanie Trapp

By the fifth, Williams, the hometown fighter and proud champion, was in bad shape. Rosario peppered the champ with power punches and with Williams badly hurt against the ropes, ref Benjy Esteves stopped the fight. In one night Rosario went from a relatively anonymous fighter from the Dominican Republic to the unified champ at 154 lbs. Overall it was a stunning upset, but it was one that was well deserved.  

J-Rock had a solid first round, where he quickly showed the timing and punch variety that led to his championship effort against Hurd. He landed a number of eye-catching counter right hands and used his jab to good effect. Rosario announced his presence in the fight with those menacing counter rights at the end of the second round. Those shots helped open up a cut, which would trouble the champ at periods of the fight. Rosario also featured an impressive arsenal of punches. He had success with jabs, right crosses (both lead and counter), right uppercuts and left hooks. 

In speaking with Williams prior to the fight, he wasn't taking Rosario lightly. He knew that Rosario had impressive victories as the B-side against Justin DeLoach and Jamontay Clark. He had watched tape on Rosario and knew that he had legitimate pop in his punches. Saturday's fight wasn't the case of the champ failing to take a challenger seriously; sometimes it's the challenger's day.  

Rosario didn't necessarily dazzle with hand speed or athleticism. But what he did well illustrated a central truth about boxing successfully at the highest levels: he threw the right punch at the right time. He countered Williams's jab with the straight right hand. When Williams missed with two lead uppercuts from distance, Rosario made him pay with two crushing right hands. Sensing his power advantage as the fight progressed, Rosario hooked when Williams hooked, and Rosario got the better of those exchanges. After Williams was hurt in the fifth round, he started to lean forward, and Rosario pulverized him with a right uppercut. And it was that punch that truly was the beginning of the end for Williams.

Having the perfect combination of preparation, technical ability and self-belief to pull off the victory, Rosario's win was well-earned. Many fighters would be over-awed coming into a champ's hometown. However, Rosario outwardly displayed few nerves or signs of hesitancy. He fought as if he had a right to be in that ring. In addition, he didn't let the high-profile opportunity take him out of his game plan. He didn't try to force the action or make daring forays that could lead to mistakes. He stayed within himself and stuck to his strengths. And furthermore, he understood where he would have chances to land his best shots. Williams likes to sit in the pocket and he's not one to necessarily get in and get out, which does allow an opponent to return fire. 

The trajectory of Saturday's fight changed quickly. Williams was up either 3-0 or 2-1 after three rounds. He was able to land some excellent straight right hands. But when Rosario connected, the challenger's punches seemed to have more of an effect. There were few opportunities for Williams to change course. By the end of the fourth, he had already eaten several big shots. 

Maybe at that moment, entering the fifth, Williams and trainer Stephen "Breadman" Edwards had their one chance to make an adjustment. By that point it had become clear that in the pocket Rosario was the more successful fighter. Perhaps Williams needed to be told to stay out of mid-range – either be in or out. Or even in a more drastic measure, he should take a round off, regroup. 

But I also don't want to come off as sounding too harsh; by the end of the fourth Rosario had assumed a foothold in the fight. It would have been a strong admission to concede the pocket to Rosario. Certainly Edwards and Williams didn't plan on that happening. And maybe a delaying tactic would only have worked for a round or two; plus, there was still a ton of fight left. Let's just chalk these potential adjustments to "Who knows?" 

The new champ after winning the title
Photo courtesy of Stephanie Trapp

After the fight Williams was gracious in defeat, admitting, and with no excuses, that Rosario was the better fighter on the night. Williams also announced that he had a rematch clause and was interested in executing it. And despite Rosario's success on Saturday, there is no guarantee that a second fight would play out similarly to the first one. Edwards is a masterful strategist and he will have all the tape he needs to implement changes. 

This is now Williams's second knockout loss in his career, but I don't believe that Saturday's result was necessarily similar to his defeat to Jermall Charlo. Against Charlo I don't think that Williams's legs looked right. Everyone remembers the massive right uppercut that Charlo landed in the fight, but few recall that Williams was hurt from a jab even earlier in the bout. He wasn't responding well to shots even before the big thunder arrived. On Saturday, Williams seemed to be in fine shape and had good moments. The only "mistake" he made per se was an unwillingness to go to a "Plan B" a little sooner. I think that Saturday had less to do with his chin and more to do with a slight stubbornness about changing tactics. And those types of things can be corrected moving forward.

Ultimately Rosario displayed a perfect performance by an "away" fighter. He seized his opportunity and ensured that the judges played no role in the match. In addition, he announced that there was a new player in the hypercompetitive junior middleweight division. He has power in two hands, is well-schooled and has copious amounts of self-belief. There's no telling in a division where the top guys could win or lose on any given night if Rosario will emerge as the best, but he's now earned his seat at the big boys' table. 

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. 

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Punch 2 the Face Radio

This week's Punch 2 the Face Radio was our annual crystal ball edition, where Brandon and I look ahead to 2020 and predict what we think will be the major trends and storylines in the sport. We also gave our picks for fighters to rise and fall over the next 12 months. In addition, we handed out our awards for an eventful 2019 of boxing. To listen to the podcast, click on the links below:

Blog Talk Radio link:
iTunes link:

Stitcher link:
Also, find us on Spotify: Punch 2 the Face Radio, Award and 2020 Preview Show

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.