The development trap is one of the true conundrums in the sport. Take the quick money, the early title shot, or pull back the reins and let talent develop. The right answer often isn’t obvious. This decision keeps matchmakers, managers and trainers up at night, and it’s one of beguiling and enduring mysteries in the sport. When is a fighter truly ready? It's impossible to know with 100% certainly. Sure, everyone will get it wrong at some point, but the question is how often, and what can be done to reduce a faulty process so that better decisions are made in the future?
The impetus behind this article is my belief that too many fighters are falling short of their potential due to a bad combination of not enough seasoning for top prospects and overly aggressive teams. There are not enough A-fighters in boxing right now, which is a concern. And the development trap issue isn't just a Top Rank problem or a PBC problem, it's categorical within the sport.
In a weekend that featured Erickson Lubin, Jaron "Boots" Ennis and Tugstsogt "King Tug" Nyambayar, I started thinking about the development trap. On Saturday, Lubin was fighting Terrell Gausha, with the winner getting another shot at a world title. Three years ago, after just turning 22, Lubin had his first title opportunity against Jermell Charlo. Lubin had been a hyped prospect and his team had been pushing for him to be moved very quickly. Unfortunately for him, he didn't make it to the second round of that fight as Charlo destroyed him with a three-punch combination. Lubin's defense fell apart completely because of a double jab. This resulted in Lubin leaving his left side completely unguarded for Charlo's right hand. There was nothing fancy in Charlo's combination, but it was concerning to see Lubin react so poorly to a basic boxing move.
It's not that a 22-year old can't become a boxing champ. Certainly many have and many more will achieve the feat. But the proposition becomes far more difficult when the 22-year-old has faced such a weak slate of development opponents. In Lubin's 18 fights prior to Charlo, there was no former champ or tough contender on his resume. Although he fought numerous lower-level gatekeepers and trial horses, no opponent in his development would have been a threat at the top of the junior middleweight division.
After the Charlo loss, Lubin regrouped and fought among others a faded champ in Ishe Smith and a rugged contender in Nathaniel Gallimore, precisely the type of opponents that Lubin should have fought before his title shot (And those were the exact two opponents that Julian Williams faced after also getting knocked out in his first title shot. Williams was another boxer who fought a relatively weak collection of developmental opponents.)
|Lubin (left) curls his left around Gausha|
Photo Courtesy of Amanda Westcott
On Saturday, Lubin scarcely resembled the young gun who entered the ring full of confidence a few years back. He boxed cautiously. He pumped out his right jab and opened up sporadically. He would box his way to unanimous decision and he was able to hurt Gausha in the 12th round with a sharp right hook. But Lubin was hurt badly in the 10th round by an overhand right by Gausha, who is not a big puncher or an adept finisher. Lubin's leg gave out after absorbing the shot and if Gausha had more power or guile in putting his shots together, he certainly could have ended the fight. Lubin deserves credit for eventually recovering, but he had to survive some rocky moments.
Lubin is still young and can improve, but his defensive shortcomings are still present. His left glove positioning is a mess. He will put it in all sorts of places during a fight. At points he tucked his left glove under his chin, which would make it impossible to protect himself from a temple shot or a shot high on the head (and would you believe that's the punch that Gausha hurt him with?) But let's say Jermell Charlo wins his fight this weekend (which isn't a given) and faces Lubin for a second time. Who would be confident that Lubin wins the rematch?
And all of this leads back to Lubin's development. Shouldn't his management and backers have been aware of these issues before throwing him in his initial title fight? If he was stepped up more gradually, wouldn't Lubin have been in a better position to learn from his mistakes and correct them in future bouts? It turns out that Gausha was a great opponent for Lubin. He landed a couple of hard shots, but didn't really possess the next-level talent to beat him. And Saturday's experience would have been even better had it happened before the title shot. Maybe his team would have then realized that Lubin still needed a few more fights to correct some defensive issues, to learn how to deal with duress better.
King Tug Nyambayar won a split decision against late replacement Cobia Breedy in the co-feature to Lubin-Gausha. Earlier in the year Tug lost a spirited fight to featherweight champion Gary Russell. That fight, like Saturday's one against Breedy, featured a concerning performance from Tug. During the first-half of the Russell bout, Tug seemed completely overwhelmed in the ring. He had no answers for Russell’s hand or foot speed, and didn't have the confidence to put punches together. Eventually he came on and won some rounds in the back half of the fight. But still, he wasn't fully prepared for the Russell bout. But why would he have been? It was only his 12th professional fight. Defeating slow-handed fighters like Claudio Marrero and Oscar Escandon wouldn't have prepared Tug for Russell's speed. But Tug's team was more interested in positioning its fighter for a title shot than actually preparing him for one.
|Tugstsogt "King Tug" Nyambayar (left) with a left hook|
Photo Courtesy of Amanda Westcott
On Saturday, despite dropping Breedy twice (once in the first, once in the second), Tug had to sweat it out on the cards. You know why? Because he still isn't a 12-round fighter. Despite having a significant power advantage and an opponent who could be hurt, Nyambayar just didn't want to work a whole fight. Again, these are the types of traits that should be known about a fighter before he reaches the top.
Lubin and Tug still have significant flaws, even after their title losses, which begs the question of why their teams were throwing them into title shots far before they were ready. It's one thing to roll the dice with a limited fighter and put him in a title shot. It's another thing to shortchange a legit prospect's development. I mean, it's sad to see Lubin fighting gun shy at 24. Here was one of America's top amateurs and in just a few short years he doesn't feel comfortable opening up against a non-puncher. Clearly that wasn't the plan.
Of course, another part of the development trap is rushing a guy into a title shot, and he wins. Consider Shakur Stevenson for a moment. He's a young kid with all the promise in the world. After just 12 pro fights he was sent into a title shot and he won, convincingly might I add, against Joet Gonzalez. But here's the rub: Stevenson is only 23 and because he makes good money, he will now only be fighting most likely twice a year. He's still at a crucial development time in his career and it would be an absolute sin for his talent to be sitting on the shelf for six months at a time. Think about how much he could improve with more camps and legit opponents. To date he's only faced two fighters, Christopher Diaz and Gonzalez, whom I would refer to as even "B-level." And it's a strange, messed up sport when Stevenson's last opponent, Felix Caraballo, who lost every second of his fight against Shakur, gets brought back to fight this past weekend by the same promotional company while there's not even a peep about Stevenson's next bout.
On one hand Stevenson is now in a position where he is making mid-six figures a fight. That's very good money. However, what if he doesn't become as great as he could have been? Even after winning a belt he still doesn't have a ton of professional seasoning. What if he never develops the fan base that he should because he's not in the ring often enough? Although I'm sure Stevenson and his team may be quite happy with many of their choices, an argument can be made that their current path may reduce their chances of seeing the big money down the road. Stevenson should be back in the ring as soon as possible. He was barely touched in his last fight. Yet...crickets. This scenario is another manifestation of the development trap.
Let's take a look at three uber-talented young American fighters: Vergil Ortiz (22 years old, 16-0), Devin Haney (21 years old, 24-0) and Boots Ennis (23 years old, 26-0). All three of these fighters could be on the short list of the top fighters in the sport in five years. However, only one of them currently is a "champion," which is Haney, who has a version of the WBC lightweight belt. Haney and his team initially wanted a shot as Lomachenko, which is their right (even though Haney hadn't fought anyone of note on his way up). However, Lomachenko's team and the WBC concocted a scheme whereby Haney would not get a Lomachenko fight but would receive some piece of silverware from the organization. Meanwhile, Ennis and Ortiz have both fought twice since Haney last laced them up (to be fair, Haney did have a minor shoulder surgery).
Needless to say, a 21-year-old should not be out of the ring for a year. And perhaps if Haney wasn't a "champion" right now, he could have already made his way back on a smaller card. Ennis and Ortiz are continuing to develop while Haney has done all of his fighting in 2020 through press releases and interviews.
On the flip side, it's easy to see the talent of Ennis and Ortiz and say that they're ready for a title shot now. I mean, we don't see a lot of five-star prospects these days. And maybe these two fighters, not fully polished yet, could win a title. But to this point their respective teams aren't forcing that direction. Perhaps we must give credit to Errol Spence and Terence Crawford for that as well. Ennis and Ortiz are both welterweights, and there isn't a path to grab a belt against a less-than-elite fighter. Maybe if the Carlos Baldomirs of the world still held a welterweight title, the teams of Ortiz and Ennis would be friskier.
|Jaron "Boots" Ennis (right) splits the guard of Abreu|
Photo Courtesy of Amanda Westcott
For now, they are playing it smart. The repetitions of additional training camps and pro fights, and the steady raising of opposition quality still have a role to play. Ennis, despite an abundance of talent, has yet to face even a B-fighter, and although Ortiz has, you won't find a true contender on his resume. Both also still have things to work on. Ennis didn't look particularly comfortable in the clinch against Luis Carlos Abreu on Saturday, constantly looking to the ref for help and exhibiting bad body language. You can bet that other fighters and trainers saw that as well. If I'm Ennis's team, I put him in with a mauler or a grappler next to have him more comfortable with that style. As for Ortiz, he has made steady strides with his defense, especially with seeing opposing right hands. But he still leaves himself a little too open during exchanges. Both fighters need to make additional refinements before fully reaching their best in the ring.
Yet Haney, because he is "champion," because at 21 he insists he is in the big-money phase of his career, will play around hoping that Gary Russell will fight him. If the Russell fight doesn't materialize next, Haney will then fight the ghost of Yuriorkis Gamboa, who when last we saw him had only one Achilles tendon and the ability to take hard shots. Isn't this version of Gamboa the guy Haney should have been fighting three, four fights ago? How is a past-it Gamboa going to make Haney a better fighter? Haney fighting a "name" is more important to his team right now then actually having him improve as a fighter, which is a classic development trap.
Let's end this on a positive note. Matching and developing fighters is more of an art than a science. A team can do everything right and a fighter can still come up short. A boxer can have poor development bouts and yet still have a Hall of Fame career (take a look at Andre Ward's poor development slate). But what upsets me the most is when teams make poor decisions because they didn't have the right information, because they ignored it, or because they weren't interested in finding out about their fighter. Far too many in the sport pride themselves on maneuvering or positioning their fighters into title opportunities instead of developing top talents. Of course, once you have the connections, it's far easier to maneuver than to develop.
This brings us to Jermell Charlo, who fights Jeison Rosario on Saturday for a chance to unify three belts in the 154-lb. division. Jermell Charlo was once thought of as the lesser talent to his brother Jermall. Big brother Jermall was the puncher and little brother Jermell was the jabber. If you look at Jermell's slate of development fights, you can tell that nothing was gift wrapped for him. Prior to fighting for a belt, he faced Vanes Martirosyan, a U.S. Olympian who could box, had power and liked it rough on the inside. He fought Gabe Rosado, perhaps one of the sport's pre-eminent B-fighters, a guy who keeps coming despite whatever return fire comes his way. Charlo defeated Joachim Alcine, a former champ and tricky mover. In addition, he fought Demetrius Hopkins, a rugged and skilled B-fighter. He also took on tough gatekeepers such as Dashon Johnson, Denis Douglin and Francisco Santana.
In short, Charlo was as ready as he was going to be for his first title shot, which he won in a challenging fight against John Jackson. Jermell's team didn't fall for the development trap. He was given the appropriate opponents and time to develop. Perhaps because he was never among the absolute best prospects coming up, he was afforded more patience. And that patience has been rewarded. Should he win on Saturday, he will have three belts and a seat at the table with the other elite fighters in boxing. Jermell Charlo is proof that sometimes matchmakers, managers, advisors, promoters and the fighters themselves get it right, allowing a talent to flourish to his full potential. I wish that would happen more. When it works, the results can be magical.