Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Four of My Favorites

Have you ever been asked a perfectly legitimate question and didn't have a good answer? Let's say if someone asked you what your dream job would be, or what's the first thing you would do if you won the lottery. Those are basic questions that all of us have been asked over the years. But do we always know how to answer them? Personally, I have no idea what I'd do first if I won the lottery. Maybe I need to get working on that one. 

Now let's make it a more specific, boxing-related question. I was giving an interview recently to a British publication and was asked who my favorite active fighters were. And I didn't have an answer at my fingertips. I'm sure that I've been asked this question scores of times over the years, but not recently. And it got me thinking...

Instead of blurting out an immediate answer, I tried to go through a few systematic exercises. I went division by division. I thought about fighters whom I would never miss their bouts. I considered those who were the most exciting, the most skilled and those who showed the most promise. Ultimately, I arrived at four, and I'll give you who they are and my reasons why I respond so passionately to them below. 

This by nature is purely subjective, as is practically everything I write. It's a fun exercise, nothing more. All of the fighters I mention below can certainly be beaten and two of whom wouldn't appear anywhere near my current pound-for-pound list. Ultimately, these are four guys whom I find compelling to watch. When they fight, I clear out my schedule. And with apologies to Keith Thurman and Nonito Donaire, who were past favorites and are still active, my current favorite four are as follows: 

Errol Spence Jr.

Photo courtesy of Amanda Westcott/Showtime

Errol Spence has fought professionally 26 times and by my calculations only twice did his opponents provide him with a bona fide challenge. Prior to going the distance in both of his outings last year, his last fight that made it to the final bell was all the way back in 2014. Yet, Spence isn't a one-punch knockout artist, but the KOs (21 in 26 fights) are there; he is a wrecking ball of combination punching, power, versatility and accuracy.

Perhaps what I love most about Spence is how he never seems to break a sweat. Everything is in his deliberate, slightly languid rhythm. Whether he's boxing, trading in the pocket or initiating his own offense, he seems at peace in the ring, fully confident in his abilities and game plan. I also love that Spence almost always remembers to finish his combinations with his hook. Spence, unlike many fighters of today, realizes the value of three- and four-punch combinations. It's often the third or fourth shot that does the most damage. 

In Spence's signature fight, his title-winning effort against Kell Brook in 2017, he had significant disadvantages in hand speed, foot speed and experience. Brook built an early lead and had several flashes of brilliance. But Spence completely understood the opponent in front of him and what he needed to do to turn the tide. With a hellacious body assault and repeated power shot combinations, Spence would eventually make his opponent yield. It was a special performance that announced the arrival of an elite fighter. 

Spence did in fact have to break a sweat against Shawn Porter in last year's excellent unification bout. It was perhaps the one fight of his career where I believe that he and his trainer, Derrick James, got their tactics wrong to a degree. Porter wanted close combat and Spence was a little too quick to acquiesce. Errol could have used his feet more frequently or found more moments to clinch. Watching the fight, it was as if he was trying to prove a point: Shawn, I will beat you at your own game. That he did, winning a tough 12-round split decision and also scoring a knockdown in the 11th, but it was not a comfortable victory. 

It's been a fun parlor game to predict who might win a matchup between Spence and fellow welterweight titlist Terence Crawford; that's one of the best fights that can be made in the sport. Both boxers have points in their favor and specific warning signs. But this analysis can wait for another day. 

To even be speaking about Spence as a top fighter at the present moment is a stroke of good fortune; he survived a harrowing car wreck at the end of 2019, and appears to have sustained only minor injuries. In recent interviews he has spoken about rededicating himself to the sport, how he let his weight go between fights and didn't train as best as he could. I would also hope that Spence and James use this moment to inject a little bit more humility into their game plans. Top guys will be coming for them every fight. These opponents have skills and ways of beating Spence. Spence and James need to respect their opponents a little more. Everyone can be mortal, not just out of the ring, but in the squared circle as well. 

Naoya Inoue

Photo courtesy of Naoki Fukuda

Inoue first appeared on my radar in a real way in 2014 when he faced long-time 115-lb. titlist Omar Narvaez. Narvaez was a capable fighter who had made 11 defenses of his title. He wasn't necessarily an elite talent, but certainly a quality operator. Meanwhile, Inoue was coming up two divisions from 108 lbs., and had only seven professional fights (among them was a title-winning effort against Adrian Hernandez, who many had as the top guy at light flywieght). Nevertheless, Inoue ran through Narvaez like he was nothing, stopping him in the second round and showing an enormous gulf in class. Even the great Nonito Donaire at the peak of his powers couldn't stop Narvaez in 2011. From that moment, Inoue became one to watch for me. 

Nicknamed the Monster, Inoue has essentially run roughshod over his 19 opponents. Only three have made it to the distance. Only two fights of his were legitimately competitive. And it's not as if he's faced weak opposition; he's defeated several reigning champs, past titlists and solid contenders. 

As Inoue's reign of terror has continued, the Japanese fighter has attracted significant international attention. He destroyed former champion Juan Carlos Payano in the first round of the most recent bantamweight World Boxing Super Series and then blitzed the talented Emmanuel Rodriguez in the second round. In the finals, he faced an excellent, two-handed version of Donaire and won a competitive decision. Inoue not only demonstrated his offensive firepower in that bout, he also displayed considerable intestinal fortitude, coming back from getting hurt multiple times in the fight. That he would go on to sweep the championship rounds illustrated his champion's mentality and elite conditioning. 

Inoue has risen all the way to #1 on some pound-for-pound lists (mine would be one example), but wherever he ranks for you (or perhaps you don't rank him, because you are too cool for rankings), he's must-see TV. He's one of the true killers in the sport, with his straight right and left hook containing significant lethality. Signed to a new deal with Top Rank, he was supposed to fight fellow 118-lb. titlist John Riel Casimero prior to the coronavirus outbreak. Hopefully, we'll see him back on our screens real soon, taking on all comers and applying his special brand of hurt. 

Emanuel Navarrete

Photo courtesy of Mikey Williams

Every generation seems to have a fighter like this, with Ricardo Mayorga and Marcos Maidana being recent examples. Sometimes, a crude, hard-punching fighter comes along who does so many things "wrong" technically that he becomes terrifying in the ring. Do you like guys who throw and land wide hooks from seemingly eight feet away? What about guys who consistently connect with punches off of the wrong foot. How about a fighter whose only defense seems to be more offense? Navarrete isn't just a wildly entertaining fighter to watch; he possesses such unique dimensions that it's going to take a truly skilled ring technician to beat him. 

In 2018 I was doing research for the first Dogboe-Navarrete fight. Navarrete was the mandatory challenger for Dogboe's title. Navarrete featured a glossy record, but had never fought outside of his home country (Mexico). Now we've seen these types of opponents often over the years, and 8/10 times they are exposed as obligatory challengers who pose little risk. However, every now and then the sanctioning bodies get something right and identify an under-the-radar talent who would otherwise toil in obscurity. When watching Navarrete online, I was immediately impressed. I said to myself, Zanfer (his Mexican promoter) might really have something here. Navarrete, a 122 lb.-er, had an enormous reach (72 inches, one less than 154-lb. champ Jermell Charlo) never stopped throwing punches and could crack from the inside or outside. The punches came from all angles and trajectories. In addition to his unusual style, he packed a ton of power into his lanky frame. 

Over two victories against Dogboe, Navarrete proved that he was world-class material. This Saturday will be Navarrete's fifth fight in 13 months, all of them since defeating Dogboe. Unfortunately, his opponents since winning the title haven't been stellar. Although he has remained active, it's very easy to fall into bad habits against poor opposition. At the moment, Top Rank doesn't have a lot for him at 122 lbs., and they are going to have to pay another promoter some decent money for a unification fight. Or maybe Navarrete will move up to 126 lbs., where more makeable big fights can happen. Either way, I'll definitely be watching. 

Devin Haney

Photo courtesy of Ed Mulholland

I'm not much of a prospect person. If anything, I'm one to downplay top young fighters. However, I'm not some heartless keyboard warrior made of stone! Occasionally a young one penetrates my prospect defenses. And in watching Devin Haney's rise from prospect to contender to, I don't know what he is, but something affiliated with the WBC, Haney has checked off all of my boxes. He commands the ring with excellent foot speed and purposeful movement. He has every punch in his arsenal. In addition, his Ring IQ is off the charts for a 21-year-old fighter. He already knows how to set traps, make opponents pay for their mistakes and utilize his entire repertoire fluidly. 

Haney spent a lot of his teenage years at the Mayweather gym, soaking up wisdom from his elders and sparring with some of the best professional and amateur talent in the sport. Not only was he an athletic prodigy, but he was wise beyond his years in terms of how to apply his boxing skills in the ring. 

To this point Haney has not faced particularly tough competition in his professional development, but expect that to change soon. The 135- and 140-lb. divisions are teeming with young talent and to win and defend a belt will necessitate fighting top opponents. 

In the coming years, Haney will face challenges against a wave of young fighters whom he has fought, sparred and competed against for many years, among them are Gervonta Davis, Ryan Garcia and Teofimo Lopez. They are all essentially at the same weight and around the same age. This quartet could make for explosive fights throughout the entire decade, which would be great for the sport, its fans and these fighters' bank accounts.

I don't know if Haney will emerge as the best fighter of this quartet, or even if he will become an elite level talent, but I know that in 2020, as I write this, he is the best American young fighter I have seen in a number of years. I'm expecting big things for him. The talent is certainly there for greatness and I'm looking forward to enjoying the ride.

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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