I'm excited to announce that I will be contributing to the Ring City newsletter on a regular basis. My first piece is out today and it looks at nine emerging prospects in the 154-lb. weight class. To subscribe to the newsletter, click here:
Tuesday, February 23, 2021
Monday, February 22, 2021
I joined this week's "The Weekend That Was" podcast with Alden Chodash of the Fight City to recap a great fight weekend, including Berchelt-Valdez, Flores-Velez and Kelly-Avanesyan. We also looked ahead to the Roman Gonzalez-Juan Estrada rematch. To listen to the podcast, click on this link:
Sunday, February 21, 2021
In observing Oscar Valdez's recent outings against Adam Lopez and Jayson Velez, it's safe to say that he was a fighter caught between styles. As a young pro, he had risen as a brawling pugilist with a nasty left hook. But a switch to trainer Eddy Reynoso led to Valdez incorporating additional elements of a purer boxing style into his attack – boxing off his back foot, switching stances, and using his legs more. Until Saturday's fight against junior lightweight titlist Miguel Berchelt, these disparate styles had yet to coalesce. What Reynoso was requiring of Valdez did not necessarily seem natural for the fighter and furthermore, it seemed that Valdez's natural aggression and offensive talents were being marginalized.
Yet on Saturday, it all cohered seamlessly, as if everything the pair had been working on for the last two years had been building to this one, singular performance. Valdez's stunning tenth-round knockout of Berchelt was a product of these years of hard work. And what had seemed like a series of strange career decisions and ring tactics now revealed themselves to be profound calculations by a young fighter taking control of his career and a trainer who has emerged as one of the best strategists in the sport.
|Oscar Valdez (left) lands a left hook|
Photo courtesy of Mikey Williams/Top Rank
Valdez's performance on Saturday illustrated a complete mastery of a tough opponent. And for everything great that Valdez did in the fight, I believe that two specific attributes were chiefly responsible for his win: the application of a speed advantage, and sowing confusion.
Although Berchelt held massive physical advantages over Valdez, Reynoso believed that his fighter had superior speed that, if applied correctly, could provide the open window needed for winning the fight. And it's this specific application of Valdez's speed that highlights Reynoso's strategic brilliance and Valdez's overall skills as a fighter. To Reynoso, many of the traditional measures of speed in the ring would not be effective against Berchelt. He didn't emphasize being first during exchanges or want Valdez necessarily running around the ring hoping to tire Berchelt out; how he envisioned Valdez’s speed advantage was far more subtle. He wanted everything to be quick: incisive jabs, sharp lead left hooks, in-and-out movement, turning and spinning off the ropes, and fast changes to the southpaw stance. In the early rounds, everything was one shot and out.
Reynoso believed that it was imperative to minimize Berchelt's comfort in the ring. He didn't want Berchelt to be able to plant his feet or establish a consistent offensive rhythm. A large part of accomplishing this goal was for his fighter to avoid slugging it out in the center of the ring, where Berchelt could unfurl his numerous offensive weapons.
With Reynoso's plan, Valdez could also marginalize Berchelt's physicality. In particular, Valdez avoided two tactics as best as he could: inside fighting and clinches. Throughout the fight, Valdez did almost all of his work from mid-range and distance. Rarely did he try to grapple with Berchelt or assert himself in the trenches. Even when Berchelt was able to corner Valdez along the ropes, Valdez did not initiate a clinch or hold, where he could be worn down by Berchelt's more muscular frame. Instead, he expertly used his hands and body to maneuver himself away from Berchelt, often by spinning Berchelt or manipulating him away from the action. These moves were quick and subtle, but they were highly effective.
The early-round success for Valdez culminated in a knockdown in the fourth. Because he was able to establish a punishing jab from the outset of the fight, Valdez forced Berchelt into making a mistake. In the beginning of the fourth, Valdez cocked his left hand and Berchelt extended his arms expecting to block a jab. However, Valdez followed with a sharp left hook that bypassed Berchelt's outstretched arms and landed with maximum authority. Immediately, Berchelt's legs turned to jelly. Valdez would land another half-dozen pulsating left hooks in the round and eventually would get a knockdown. But all of this started with his hard jabs earlier in the fight and Berchelt being wary of them.
After Valdez failed to get the stoppage in the fourth, he increasingly decided to fight in the southpaw stance, which seemed like a strange choice at the time. After all, he had just had his best moments of the fight in the orthodox stance. By the sixth and seventh rounds, Berchelt was able to work his way back into the fight by landing a number of hard straight right hands to the head and left hooks to the body. It appeared that the tide of the fight was turning. Despite being on wobbly legs and seriously hurt, Berchelt continued to press forward and his confidence grew.
However, the final three rounds of the fight illustrated the mastery of Valdez and Reynoso's plan. It was a clinic on how to confuse a technically limited opponent. Valdez would hit Berchelt with almost every shot imaginable, and from unpredictable angles: lead hooks and jabs in the orthodox stance, overhand rights, right hooks out of the southpaw stance and perhaps most notably, rear hooks out of the southpaw position. This final punch set up the second knockdown of the fight in the ninth round, where Valdez detonated a rear left hook from southpaw then switched to a right uppercut in the orthodox stance; Berchelt had no idea where the shots would be coming from or how to defend them.
In the final moment of the fight, Valdez landed the signature punch of his career, a short, rear left hook out of the southpaw position. The shot was so fierce that Valdez didn't even bother to look at Berchelt once the punch connected. He sprinted around the perimeter of the ring and then jumped into the clutches of his team. He knew that this was the moment of his career.
It should be noted that Berchelt was a sizable favorite coming into the fight. He entered the contest having defended his junior lightweight title six times, which included five stoppages, many of which were brutally impressive. More than a few, myself included, thought that Valdez was nuts for pursuing a Berchelt fight in that he would be severely undersized and outgunned.
However, one needs to understand that there is a certain arrogance that can be a blessing (or a curse) at the top levels of boxing. There is a belief by fighters and trainers that they can overcome any challenge or opponent. Now of course every team thinks that they have a strategy to beat the favorite, but it's not often where one witnesses a game plan executed to such perfection. All of what Reynoso had been building over the last few years – the back-foot boxing, the switching, the limiting of opportunities by opponents – led to Saturday's victory.
And as brilliant as Reynoso was on Saturday, he wasn't the guy in the ring. Valdez was the one who had the capacity to execute such a specific game plan. He had the physical ability and intellectual aptitude to add things to his craft. Not only could he switch stances, but he could initiate fight-ending sequences with them, a rare gift. He had the tools AND fully comprehended when, where and how to use them.
When Valdez left trainer Manny Robles for Reynoso, he had decided to undertake a radical transformation of his fight style, with no guarantee that it would be effective. His move was risky and had a chance of backfiring, but he maintained a belief in his chosen path, even despite spotty initial results. Not only does Valdez deserve credit for envisioning a more well-rounded style for himself in the ring, but he had the perseverance to stick with it even after getting dropped by an undersized Adam Lopez and looking less than menacing against Jayson Velez.
Valdez scored a knockout for the ages on Saturday; that left hook will always be the first clip of his career retrospective highlight reel. But what should not be forgotten about Saturday's performance is the culmination of an unusual journey, the transition from a front-foot slugger to a slick boxer-puncher. Valdez had bet on himself and won, validating one of the biggest decisions of his career. He saw something different in himself and, with Reynoso, a way to get there. And together they slayed a giant.
Thursday, February 11, 2021
In this week's Punch 2 the Face podcast, Brandon and I previewed a busy boxing schedule for the upcoming weekend, including Diaz-Rakhimov, Teixeira-Castano, Smith-Vlasov, Commey-Marinez and more. We tried to make sense of the Josh Warrington situation. We also looked at the rancor between Top Rank and Teofimo Lopez.
To listen to the podcast, click on the links below:
Wednesday, February 10, 2021
I was enrolled in a UCLA screenwriting program many years ago. In the second week of the semester, the class attended a guest lecture from a bigshot in the industry. He said to us: "Would you do screenwriting for free? Is it something you must do? Do you feel compelled to do it? Because, if you don't, you won't be successful in this industry."
And with that, I felt a sudden need to light a few thousand dollars on fire. Because, I didn't have that undying passion for screenwriting. I was using the class as a mechanism to force me to write. In my heart I knew that the bigshot was right. I now understood that screenwriting would never be an avenue I would pursue in earnest.
Yet at the same time, I was starting my nascent blog, Saturday Night Boxing, and for whatever reason, writing about fights and the key figures in the sport kept me up until the wee hours of the morning. And I loved it.
When I began Saturday Night Boxing, I had no expectations for success. I didn't know if anyone would read it or if my perspective would resonate. My first posts would generate no more than dozens of readers. I remember a piece I wrote on Sergio Martinez and Lou DiBella in early 2011, and it had 49 readers; I was over the moon. But pretty quickly, some pieces in the first few years of Saturday Night Boxing gained significant traction.
By 2012 I had already had conversations with some networks about my pieces. By 2013, I had lined up my first interview with a world champ, Tim Bradley. Soon I would be asked to join the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board and later the Ring Magazine Ratings Panel to help rank fighters in the sport.
But now would be a good time to take a pause, because I don't want this to sound like just some careerist manifesto. First and foremost, I watch a ton of boxing. It brings me a lot of joy. I have always watched fights out of an undying love for the sport, not because it's a requirement or it's some type of gig. I follow the sport and write about it because, as that screenwriting guru said, I'm compelled to do so. I must.
I've also never stopped trying to learn about the sport. As much as I might know about boxing in 2021, I bet it will only be a fraction of what it will be ten years from now. At least I certainly hope that's the case. In my years of covering the sport, I've realized that there is wisdom to be gained from all over. This could be from a sparring session, a trainer sitting alone at a hotel bar, a fighter interview, a boxing book, a colleague, or shooting the shit on Facebook or Twitter with boxing fans. I can't tell you how many times I've heard profound nuggets from those in the sport (or even fans) that made me gain a better understanding of boxing and/or reconsider a previous conception that I held. The learning never stops.
Over the years of covering the sport, boxing has brought me lots of joy and some unforgettable memories: Rios-Alvarado I in Carson, Broner-Maidana in San Antonio, Brook-Spence in Sheffield. But live fights themselves are only a small part of what the last ten years have meant to me. I've treasured the conversations I've had with boxing people at fight hotels, in the bowels of an arena, or in late-night phone calls. Of course, not every interaction has been rainbows and waterfalls. I'm an opinion writer and have taken some shots at those in the sport from time to time. Not everyone has always been pleased with me, nor should they be. But honestly, 95% of the people I've met and or interacted with in boxing have been great, even when there's disagreement.
If we're being honest here, and let's be honest, I certainly have envisioned potential careers for myself in the sport. A number of years ago, I had some serious conversations with a network about ways to improve its boxing programming. The talks were productive and I thought at one point it might lead to something, but the timing wasn't right for them, and I was probably a little too green back then.
And over the years I've been approached by numerous websites and other ventures about writing for them (some names you've probably heard of). I've turned down those opportunities because I didn't like the fit, but I always have listened. I'm excited that I'll have an announcement about a new writing gig in the next couple of weeks. I'll be continuing with Saturday Night Boxing and contributing to this new outlet as well. I really like a number of the guys behind this venture and I think that they have an interesting vision.
One of my personal boxing highlights in the last decade has been broadcasting a couple of fight cards in Philadelphia. I'd like to thank Michelle Rosado for that opportunity. I thought the shows went pretty well and I'd be very interested in doing more of that should the opportunity arise.
I plan to continue to be involved in boxing. Maybe that will be in writing. Perhaps that will be in a network or broadcast capacity. But I know that my passion for the sport will keep me tuned in every weekend.
In wrapping up I could probably thank dozens and dozens of people for their help or guidance, or humor. Many know who they are; they have become trusted confidants, advisers or friends. Others may not fully know their influence on me or how much I value their insight, but they are very important to me.
I would like to thank my podcast co-host, Brandon Stubbs, for providing me with a great platform and allowing me to do the show on a consistently irregular basis. We make a great team and we've had a ton of fun over the years. I can't wait for more to come.
I'd also like to thank my readers. Your feedback has been vital over the years and I've loved the interaction. As much as I am compelled to write about boxing, I feel compelled to share my work. I love the lively debates, the jokes, the different perspectives and the attempts at arriving at some greater understanding of the sport.
Boxing's a wonderful sport, of course. It's also awful (but we already knew that). If it's become a niche sport over the years, so be it. It's a niche I want to be in. I've enjoyed this journey over the past decade. I've been happy to share it with you. And I hope for great things for the sport in the coming years. Boxing, as always, faces myriad challenges, but those who are reading this all know one thing: when boxing's at its best, there's no better sport in the world. I hope to continue to grow in boxing over the next decade, and I'd like to play a role in helping the sport thrive; I have lots of ideas.
Friday, January 29, 2021
There's a stubborn streak that runs through Ra'eese Aleem. It's what makes a frustrated fighter from a small town in Michigan leave behind his family and boxing support system to head to Las Vegas, a city where he knew no one and didn't even have a single connection.
Enduring multiple layoffs of more than 18 months in his career, Aleem refused to let inactivity be an excuse; he continued to train without anything on the horizon, just a belief that things were going to break his way. And when they didn't, he followed his own path, making his own luck. Throughout his career he had been rejected by big promoters and shut out of opportunities given to many fighters of lesser stature, but he always believed that he would become a world champion.
Despite a city full of boxing trainers, Aleem insisted on training himself for almost a year and a half when first arriving in Vegas. Now a junior featherweight contender, Aleem (18-0, 12 KOs) has retained his stubborn side. Even with a settled team around him now, Aleem still calls many of his own shots when it comes to training and fight preparation.
|Ra'eese Aleem (left) lands a left hook on Vic Pasillas|
Photo courtesy of Amanda Westcott
Often working out up to three times a day, Aleem's competitiveness is foundational to his story. He earned a black belt in karate by the time he was 14. He next transitioned to boxing and quickly took to the sport. By 17 he was already competing in National Golden Gloves tournaments.
Last Saturday Aleem had the breakout performance of his career. Facing a fellow unbeaten fighter in Vic Pasillas in a Showtime co-feature, Aleem scored four knockdowns and won by an 11th round TKO. Aleem displayed a combination of ferocity, punching power and versatility that made for exciting television. Surely, main event slots and a title opportunity will now be coming his way in the near future. After spending years in the boxing wilderness, he has finally arrived.
This week I spoke with Aleem and got to know more about his backstory, the genesis of his fighting style and perhaps a little bit of what makes him tick. Aleem knows that he's on the precipice of achieving great things in the sport. At 30, an age where many 122-lb. fighters have already begun to decline, Aleem believes that he's hitting his peak.
He wants it all. He can feel it. And he knows that he has gotten this far not by necessarily listening to others, but by marching to the beat of his own drum. Call it stubbornness. Call it self-belief. Call it perseverance. But call it as it is: Ra'eese Aleem has made his own way to the big time.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Ra'eese, congratulations on your victory and an excellent performance.
Thank you very much.
I wanted to begin with how you started out in boxing. I know that before boxing you were involved in karate. How did you find your way to boxing initially?
I got my black belt in karate. After that, it came down to what are we going to do next. My dad wound up taking me to the boxing gym one day. I must have been 14. I was naturally kind of good because I already knew how to fight. And I stuck with it.
In what ways has karate helped you with boxing?
Probably my footwork, being good on my feet. Being able to go in-and-out. Step-and-pivot. Or switch to the southpaw position naturally without getting caught, or without making it look like I’m actually switching. That, and also being humble, both inside and outside the ring – not taking anybody for granted.
You seem to have significant power in your left hand. Are you a converted southpaw who fights in the orthodox stance?
I’m naturally left-handed, but I’ve always been an orthodox fighter. I’m more fluid in the orthodox stance, but I’m definitely stronger as a southpaw.
One aspect of your style that I think differentiates you from many fighters is your ability to switch from orthodox to southpaw in the middle of a combination. You did this very well against Pasillas. Have you always had this ability or is it something you've developed over time?
It’s always come natural to me, but it is something I continue to work on. It could be in the gym, during sparring. Maybe I see the angle and I create it. I just do it.
How would you describe your amateur background?
I went to the Golden Gloves five or six times. I made it to the national semifinals two years in a row. I lost by split decisions. I fought some good guys as an amateur: Kevin Rivers, Shemuel Pagan. I fought Ernie Garza, Ronny Rios, Erick De Leon. I fought a tough guy out of Philly, Damon Allen. Some good guys.
What was the process like for you turning pro?
My original boxing coach, Terry Markowski, who is still a part of Team Aleem, said to me one day, you have x number of fights, it’s time to go pro. And I said OK. It was like that.
Turning pro, being a successful professional fighter, winning a world title, that has always been my goal. It was never going to the Olympics and going for the gold medal. That wasn’t the goal of mine. Mine was to turn pro and win a world title. When Terry said it was time, it was time.
When you started as a pro, you fought off the radar in many small towns and cities in the Midwest that aren't known for being boxing hotbeds. What was the Midwest boxing circuit like?
Sometimes you have to fight in a hole-in-the-wall. And there’s not a lot of fans. But just because you start there, doesn’t mean you have to finish there. You just have to pay your dues. It sucks, actually. My fourth fight I was on a card that was on HBO. It was the first fight of the night. It wasn't on TV or anything, but still.
And then going from that to fighting in Green Bay or Dodge City...it’s kind of like, “damn.” But it’s part of the game if you want to eventually get to that bigger platform. You have to earn it. And eventually I did.
|One of four knockdowns for Aleem against Pasillas|
Photo Courtesy of Amanda Westcott
It was hard because I was still in the gym training. I was also working at a grocery store called Meijer's and they allowed me to get the time off I needed for sparring. But eventually I just couldn’t get fights. I was 4-0. I fought on an Adrien Broner undercard in Cincinnati. I beat an undefeated fighter [DeVonte Allen] and after that, nobody would fight me. I signed with Cameron Dunkin thinking that I would be all set, that I’d just have to train to get ready for a fight. But I went from having a few fights and then, boom! Everything went stagnant.
Because of that, I said to myself if I was going to continue to box, I had to do something different. I was tired of listening to trainers, coaches, managers and promoters. I decided to do what Ra’eese Aleem wanted to do. I was still working. I was saving up money. I made a plan. And eventually I made it happen.
Hoping to kickstart your career, you left Muskegon for Las Vegas. Did you know anyone in Vegas? Did you have any boxing contacts there?
I didn’t have any contacts. I didn’t know anybody. No family. No friends. No support system. I just went for me.
Once I got here, now I’m like, what do I do? I have to find a gym. I google the closest boxing gyms near me. I find Barry's Boxing Gym. So, I go there. Now I have to find a coach. It was a little bit of a process.
Augie Sanchez was there. We started to work together, but he worked with the USA team, and I wasn’t really feeling that because I needed someone who could be focused on me.
So I just decided to train myself. I was grinding and training myself for a while, almost a year and a half. And then I had an opportunity to fight an undefeated fighter. I dominated that fight [his first bout with Marcus Bates] and that started the domino effect where I am today.
How did you link up with your current trainer, Bobby McCoy?
He’s actually from Barry's Boxing Gym, the first boxing gym I went to. That's where we met. For some reason, the coaches there didn’t want me and him to hit the mitts or anything like that at first. I’m not sure why. But eventually we hit the mitts and we became cool. You know, he’s not 20 years older than me. We’re around the same age. We’re kind of just boys. We hung out a little bit. But I was still doing my thing.
After I won my fight [the first Bates fight], I wound up being trained by Bones Adams. Bones trained me for a little bit, but we decided to go our separate ways. Then I was thinking about some things and I decided to hit up Bobby. If I ever needed someone to work my corner if Bones couldn’t make it, or if something was going on, Bobby would be there. If I needed someone to hit the mitts, I would hit the mitts with Bobby. That’s how we really started to work with each other. Then we had a conversation. We talked business. And then we were like, let’s make it happen.
How did you wind up being promoted by Marshall Kauffman and King's Promotions?
We were trying to fight undefeated fighters, guys with winning records, and even good guys that had losing records. We were just trying to get a fight. And nobody would want to fight me. We were in talks with Top Rank. We were in talks with Golden Boy. Victory Boxing in Florida. Roy Jones Boxing. But it seemed like everyone was kind of dragging their feet.
Marshall, he does a lot of shows. He’s very active. Terry Markowski talked with him. We had an opportunity to fight an undefeated fighter, Marcus Bates, and that was Marshall’s fighter.
This is the kind of fighter that I am. I’m coming off an almost two-year layoff, move to a new city and train myself for a year and a half. I have an opportunity to fight an active, undefeated fighter with seven or eight knockouts in his nine wins, and I jump at the opportunity.
And that's how we got hooked up with Marshall. And I’m very grateful for Marshall for giving me the opportunity to make that fight and to sign me and to believe in me.
In your opinion, why weren't some of the big promoters interested in signing you?
I think it’s because I’m from a small town. I’m from a town that nobody’s heard of in Michigan. Yeah, maybe he’s 10-0 but he’s never fought anybody. Maybe he’s fought all bums.
But had I been born in Vegas or born in New York or Florida or Cali, it would be completely different. Nobody could convince me otherwise. It’s just because I’m from Muskegon, Michigan. They had never produced a world champion.
|Aleem victorious over Pasillas|
Photo courtesy of Amanda Westcott
Growing up, who were some fighters that influenced you?
I liked Mike Tyson. I liked how ferocious he was inside the ring and outside the ring. Whether he was talking shit or knocking somebody out, I always liked that about him.
How much tape do you study on an opponent? How much did you study Pasillas before your fight last Saturday?
If there’s tape, I try to watch. I want to get an idea of what he has. For Pasillas, I watched his last fight. That’s the only fight that I saw. First, I watched the highlights and then I saw the full fight, but I only watched it once all the way through. The difference between the last guy Pasillas fought [Ranfis Encarnacion] and me is that I'm a completely different animal. The guy he fought last was a tree. No foot movement. No head movement. Nothing. Yeah, he was undefeated, but he wasn't anything like me. Vic Pasillas is an outstanding fighter and made that guy look like a bum. I wanted to make sure I brought my A-game against Pasillas. And I did.
You work out sometimes three times a day. At 30 years old, an age that isn't young for your weight class, how do you draw the line between staying fresh versus burning yourself out?
It’s really just listening to your body. Training for Pasillas, there was a day where we were supposed to spar 10 rounds. But I listened to my body. I know how hard I work. And instead of ten rounds, I said we’re going to go five, and then we’re also going to do this and that. You have to be able to adapt and adjust. I know what it takes to perform at an elite level. I know the type of shape I have to get my body in. I have to be able to listen to my body.
I’ve listened to coaches before. “You should do this. You should do that.” And I’ve done it. And I’ve had injuries, or something doesn’t go the way it should. So, I don’t listen to anybody else anymore. I do what Ra’eese Aleem wants to do. If I want to do three-a-days, I’m going to do three-a-days. And I’m going to listen to my body and I’m going to act accordingly.
I know that you're an avid practitioner of yoga. How has yoga helped you in your boxing career?
I think it’s helped tremendously. You know all the things that fighters may be scared to do for whatever reason or they refuse to do; those are the things that I want to do. Working those little muscles, you know, muscles you don’t usually work. Controlling your breathing. It’s all good stuff. It’s nothing but beneficial. I feel like it helps me. And I display that in my performances.
You had a commanding performance against Pasillas and made a big statement in the junior featherweight division. What's next for you in the boxing ring?
It should be a world title fight. Anything other than a world title fight I’m going to be livid. I’m going to mad, disappointed, whatever the word is, I will be that. I’m ready for the opportunity. I won a world title eliminator last fight. After this fight, I’m now in the mandatory position. You know, these fighters can’t duck and dodge me forever. I’m ready to fight any current world champion. I want to fight for the world title in let’s say May/June. Win it, and then defend it before the end of the year. That's what I want to achieve.
Thursday, January 7, 2021
This week's Punch 2 the Face Podcast featured our 2020 Awards. Brandon and I highlighted the good and the bad from the year. We brought out our crystal balls to make predictions for boxing in 2021. We also recapped the Ryan Garcia-Luke Campbell fight. There was a lot to like about Garcia's performance, but several important questions still remain. To listen to the podcast, click on the links below: