Sunday, July 18, 2021

Opinions and Observations: Charlo-Castano

The air of illegitimacy has plagued professional boxing since its inception. Corrupt or incompetent officials, fighters frozen out of opportunities, bribery, money laundering, thrown fights, unscrupulous promoters and managers, biases toward popular fighters or champions, there's been a litany of reasons for well over a century as to why boxing has been referred to as sport's "red-light district."

So, after Saturday's 154-lb. undisputed title fight between Jermell Charlo and Brian Castano, where Nelson Vazquez turned in a ludicrous 117-111 scorecard in favor of Charlo (the fight was ruled a draw), boxing again faces a consistent and familiar thorn in its side. Too many boxing judges fail the smell test, and their unprofessionalism (let's use that euphemism) ruins the legitimacy of the contest. Instead of celebrating the combatants and their performances, Vazquez and his ilk offer reminders that the sport's unseemly side is alive and kicking. And we have watched this movie too many times. 

Rarely do these officials face consequences. Commissions and sanctioning bodies are reluctant to take out the garbage, partly because then they would have to take themselves out as well. The powers that be in the sport would prefer for these controversies to flame themselves out. Hey, the next big fight is only a week or two away. The regulators in the sport, and I use "regulator" loosely, count on the short memory of boxing fans and the industry as a whole. They don't want to interfere with their respective patronage systems within the sport unless they absolutely have to. And let's face it, robbing Floyd Mayweather is a problem; robbing Brian Castano is a regular Saturday night. 

Charlo (left) landing his counter left hook
Photo courtesy of Amanda Westcott/Showtime

Castano entered Saturday's fight as a titlist, but he owned only one of the four belts compared to Charlo's three. He's from Argentina, doesn't have a huge fanbase and even though he is represented by the PBC, it isn't like they have invested much sweat equity in him. They let him win his title on another promoter's show with few eyeballs watching and have never minded if he wanted to fight in Europe, even though the company doesn't have a footprint there. Charlo was fighting in his home state of Texas. The crowd was there for him. He had been one of the emerging faces of boxing over the last few years. Charlo was the money side of the fight. It certainly was better for "boxing" if Charlo won. As I said, we have all seen this movie before. 

At worst Castano won five rounds of the fight and it's more likely that he won eight of them than five. Except for the clear Charlo rounds, in my opinion 2, 10, 11, and 12, Castano was consistently out-throwing and out-landing Charlo. And he wasn't scoring with pitty-pat jabs. Almost all his shots were power punches. But it goes well beyond punch counting. Let's take ring generalship and effective aggression. Castano was the one coming forward, cornering Charlo along the ropes and fighting in his preferred style. He was the one dictating the terms of the fight throughout the majority of the action. He was clearly the better fighter in the majority of rounds using those two scoring criteria (in addition to clean, effective punching). 

Castano should have won via a competitive decision, but I wouldn't characterize his performance as dominant. He got hurt badly in the second and tenth rounds, both from counter left hooks. In the tenth round especially, he spent much of it in survival mode. To his credit, he showed a veteran's ability to buy time, but he wasn't trying to steal the round back. He needed all of his energy to stay on his feet. 

Overall, it was a disappointing performance from Charlo. His trainer, Derrick James, implored him throughout the bout to take the fight to the center of the ring, but Charlo would only intermittently listen to that advice. Instead, he hoped that the magic of the Tony Harrison rematch and the Jeison Rosario fight would return. In both of those matches, his power punching at close range led to knockdowns and eventual stoppages. After hurting Castano with a counter left hook against the ropes in second round, he kept looking for that shot, even as he gave up many rounds to Castano's pressure, volume and refined inside fighting skills. 

Charlo fought Saturday's match like a gunfighter who only had two bullets in his six-shooter. He seemed only comfortable throwing jabs and counter left hooks to the head. Where was his uppercut (left or right), where was the body punching, where were his lead right hands and where were the hooks downstairs? After Charlo had Castano hurt, he unfurled several right hands, but except for those moments, he was left-hand dominant. 

Castano deserves credit for Charlo's holstered weapons. By not falling into repeated attacking patterns, Charlo couldn't consistently land the types of hard counters he wanted. And Castano kept Charlo thinking all night. He'd come in behind wide left hooks, tighter hooks, looping right hands, throwaway jabs, straight rights, and from all sorts of punching angles. Despite working in close quarters, he didn't smother his work or lean over his front foot too much, which would have given Charlo easier countering opportunities. He knew how to operate in tight spaces and he was clearly superior when the fight was in that geography. 

Castano getting some work done inside
Photo courtesy of Amanda Westcott/Showtime

Let's remember that Jermell Charlo started his career as one of the best jabbers in the sport. Many of his early victories under then-trainer Ronnie Shields were won with his jab and legs. He was more comfortable leading than countering and he dominated the center of the ring. 

Under Derrick James, Charlo has morphed into a counterpunching knockout artist. He's gifted at it, but some of his old skills under Shields would have come in handy against Castano. Charlo didn't have to go to the ropes as much as he did, but he was convinced that his power would rule the day. Even after being told to go back to the center, he would make only half-hearted attempts to do so. It's almost as if he had lost confidence in his ability to box his way to a victory. 

I enjoyed Saturday's fight. Both fighters showed why they have been successful professionals. But there are two issues that disturb me upon reflection. Most obviously, Vazquez's scorecard prohibited Castano from getting a fair hearing in the fight. And that's an awful feeling in watching a sport that's supposedly on the up-and-up. In addition, I don't think that was Jermell Charlo at his best. Yes, Castano deserves his share of credit for this, but Charlo helped beat himself to a degree. His trainer was giving him the right advice. He had the tools to make it an easier fight than it was, but he just wanted to do it his way. 

I hope that Saturday's fight will spur Charlo to do some reflection. Fighters pay their cornermen to guide them through rough moments. James' advice was sound and within Charlo's capabilities. But Charlo decided to freelance. Yes, he came back into the fight, but it didn't have to get to that point. 

Jermell needs to remember that he can't knock out everyone in the sport and that he has far more weapons than he showed on Saturday. If he can look at himself in the mirror honestly, he will know that he has much more to offer. He was once a boxer, a damn good one too, and while knockouts are sexy and fun, they are only part of what is required at the highest level of the sport. His coach knew that, but it's not a lesson that Charlo was ready to accept, at least not yet. 

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. 
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