Sunday, August 23, 2020

Opinions and Observations: Whyte-Povetkin, Alvarez-Smith

A boxing match contains hundreds of sequences where each fighter attempts to assert supremacy over his or her opponent. Whether it's to land a shot, block a punch, counter, leave the pocket unscathed, find a way to rest, clinch, or perform a number of other maneuvers; in each moment, most often, only one fighter will prevail.

The concluding sequence of Alexander Povetkin's unforgettable fifth-round knockout of Dillian Whyte was one such moment, and one of the best knockouts in recent heavyweight boxing. Povetkin initiated the action with a throw-away left jab. Immediately after throwing the punch, he started dipping to his left; he knew what was coming. By the time Whyte had missed his ineffectual counter right hand, Povetkin had already maneuvered his 40-year old body under and to the side of Whyte's right arm, his last line of protection. Povetkin had now put himself in a perfect position to land a free shot. And he unspooled a devastating left uppercut against a defenseless Whyte. That was the fight. Game over. 

Photo Courtesy of Mark Robinson

Ultimately the sequence demonstrated Povetkin's mastery over his opponent. Like a chess master, the entire sequence played out in his mind before he initiated a single move. He knew what to expect and how to position his body to get the free shot. It was a perfect example of Ring IQ. Povetkin understood how to defeat the opponent in front of him. And despite being 40 years old and physically on the slide, he still possessed the agility, reflexes and timing to execute. 

What made the knockout even more stunning was the action in the previous round, where Whyte had dropped Povetkin twice with left hands (a hook and then an uppercut). In truth, those weren't even Whyte's best power shots, but Povetkin's punch resistance had looked poor throughout the fight. He seemed unsteady at a few points earlier in the fight, and especially vulnerable whenever Whyte landed his right hand to the temple.

Until the final sequence in the fifth, Whyte had fought ably. Featuring a contained offensive approach that didn't allow Povetkin to get off too many counters, Whyte was effectively opportunistic with his output: a few jabs here, some nice right hands there, a left hook to remind Povetkin of his power. He was gradually breaking down his opponent in a responsible way. 

The ultimate distinction between the two boxers was that Povetkin had actualized and executed a clever boxing move for which Whyte was unprepared. The final sequence reminded me of Jermall Charlo's win over Julian Williams, where Charlo blocked a punch and then countered with a right uppercut at the perfect moment against an unprotected opponent. It was a superior boxing move, as was Povetkin's. These are the types of moves that cement world-class status. It's the combination of ring intelligence, daring, physical talent, reflexes and execution. It would be unfair to call Whyte's performance poor on Saturday, but there was no doubt that he was bettered in a pivotal exchange, and one exchange can often be all that it takes in boxing. 

Photo Courtesy of Mark Robinson

At his advanced age and a veteran of many wars in the ring, Povetkin most likely won't have too many more nights like Saturday's. He's undersized against the top of the division. His physical dimensions force him to win fights on the inside, which invites oncoming fire from hard-hitting opponents. And he certainly didn't look like he was taking shots well against Whyte. 

But whatever else occurs throughout the rest of Povetkin's career, he has created an indelible moment for himself, and for boxing as a whole. And let's make no mistake; the sport needs these moments. Badly. 

Few modern heavyweights would be able to come back from being dropped twice to win a fight in the next round. And even in a state of physical decline, Povetkin demonstrated an acute boxing brain and an ability to focus under extreme duress. He also reminded the boxing industry that fights are still won in the ring. Underestimate a capable opponent at your own peril. And if you're a boxer in tough looking ahead to future matchups, you very well could find yourself looking up at the rafters, or in this case, the constellations on a clear summer's night. 


When Joe Smith Jr. arrived on the boxing scene in a meaningful way, he was a little-known, 26-year-old club fighter from Long Island who worked construction. He was no one's idea of a prospect. He was brought in to lose against Andrzej Fonfara, who was in the middle of a nice run in the top-ten of the light heavyweight division. Smith was thought to be tough, a possessor of a decent punch, but not much more. By the end of 2016, he had destroyed Fonfara in one round and sent the legend Bernard Hopkins crashing out of the ring through the ropes and into retirement. Hopkins was hit so hard, and shaken up so much that he legitimately thought that some kind of foul must have occurred. 

But in recent years, Smith's technical limitations, especially on defense, were exposed by Sullivan Barrera and Dmitry Bivol. Despite dropping Barrera early in their fight, Sullivan broke Smith's jaw in the second round. Smith demonstrated his toughness by lasting to the final bell, but after the jaw injury, he wasn't a factor throughout the rest of the bout. And with the exception of a flurry late in the fight, Smith had few answers for Bivol's movement and polished boxing skills. 

On Saturday, Smith was facing Eleider Alvarez, a former champion who had excellent boxing skills, sneaky power and a sturdy chin. The conventional wisdom surrounding the fight was that Alvarez had the superior technical boxing skills and was the all-around better talent, but that Smith certainly had the punching power and activity rate to give Alvarez problems. However, the more that Smith came forward, the more opportunities that provided Alvarez to land his blistering counters. 

But after watching Saturday's fight, there wasn't one thing that Alvarez did better than Smith. Not a single thing. In a shocking development, Smith outboxed Alvarez, with new-look moves and sequences that belied his previous reputation as merely a "banger." He hooked off the jab, double jabbed his way into perfect punching range, threw lead left uppercuts in tight quarters, and blocked most of Alvarez's overhand rights. Smith demonstrated a level of polish in the ring on Saturday that he had never exhibited in previous fights. As Alvarez waited for the perfect opening to land a counter, Smith continued to punch at will, but he maintained his balance and rarely found himself out of position. To the surprise of Alvarez, there was little that was crude with Smith's work. 

Counterpunchers often invite volume because it can lead to opportunities and openings. However, when that volume is educated, piercing and unpredictable, the counterpuncher will find himself in a world of shit, and that is what happened to Alvarez in the ninth round when suddenly he found himself through the ropes and unable to continue. A Smith howitzer of a right hand landed fully flush on Alvarez after the start of the round. Smith followed up with a hard left which made Alvarez's legs betray him. And Alvarez was done. 

Photo Courtesy of Mikey Williams

Eleider Alvarez did have a signature victory in his career with his knockout win over Sergey Kovalev to win a light heavyweight title. However, there should have been a lot more highs in his career. Unfortunately, he spent the majority of his peak years as a fighter who was unable to get big opportunities. In the same promotional stable with fellow Montreal fighters Jean Pascal and Adonis Stevenson, he was not the attraction that the other two were, and he also didn't possess their firepower or magnetism in the ring. He was a technical cutie that no one was in a rush to face. He often had to accept step-aside money from well-heeled players in the sport instead of getting a real opportunity to fight the best. (Ill-timed injuries also played a role throughout his career.) 

Alvarez is now 36 and as good as Smith looked last night it's also important to note that Alvarez just can't move like he used to. Eleider was once upon a time a mover in the ring, but watching him on Saturday, his transition to an older, stationary counterpuncher has now been completed. 

As sob stories go in the sport, Alvarez's isn't the worst one. He did get a title shot and made the most of his opportunity by winning that fight. However, his no-show in the Kovalev rematch cost him seven figures. In addition, had he had earlier opportunities, let's say against Stevenson, with whom he matched up well, he could be staring at a much larger bank account at the moment. But Alvarez was still fighting on Top Rank card on Saturday with the chance to get another title shot. A declining Povetkin found a way to perform at 40, a declining Alvarez could not at 36. 

As for Smith, it's exciting to see fighters, even veteran ones, add to their arsenal. Few would have surmised in 2016, or even 2019, that Joe Smith could outbox Eleider Alvarez, but that's precisely what happened. Earlier this year, Tyson Fury demonstrated his unwillingness to accept the label from others that he was best on the outside. He found a sympathetic trainer, perfected his inside fighting craft and bested Deontay Wilder in the trenches. Similarly, Smith refused to believe that all he could be in boxing was a crude banger. It's easy to accept these monikers and limitations, but it's not so simple for 30-year-olds to want to become something different in the ring. 

Smith realized that even the best version of his previous self in the ring, the wild right hands, the pulverizing hooks, was not the way to beat Alvarez. With this belief, he studied his opponent and implemented changes that he knew he needed to make to win. Prior to his fight with Hopkins, a prominent boxing scribe liked Smith's chances in the matchup, writing that Smith was too stupid to be intimidated by Hopkins's psychological tricks. I think that it's now time to throw out this old script for Smith. He's become much more than the boxing industry ever imagined. And he and his very small group of believers alone deserve the credit. Smith and his team have made a career out of being underestimated, but it's more than time for them to receive their just due. Under the guise of ordinary, something quite remarkable has happened: one of the best light heavyweights in the world. 

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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