The undisputed lightweight fight between Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano arrived with considerable fanfare and hype. A female fight headlined a sold-out Madison Square Garden, a first, and a significant accomplishment. Furthermore, this was a meeting between perhaps the two best female boxers at the moment. In short, this was a huge spectacle for women's boxing, but it was even more than that; Taylor-Serrano planted a flag that the public has now accepted women's boxing on its own terms. There didn't need to be a gimmick for this fight to sell, just two world-class talents whom the public judged as the real deal. This wasn't a novelty act or some concoction from a brilliant promoter: this was a damn compelling fight.
So, yes, the table was set, but Taylor-Serrano did more than just deliver. What followed was an epic clash featuring wild swings in momentum and a fighter on the brink of defeat who somehow found a way to rally down the stretch to snatch a victory. The crowd ate it up. Even watching through TV, the noise was deafening. And whether you agreed with Katie Taylor winning by split decision or not, it was a special fight, and a scenario where both boxers helped elevate the sport.
|Taylor (left) and Serrano exchanging left hands|
Photo courtesy of Ed Mulholland
Taylor's focus, speed and well-roundedness impressed early in the fight. In recent bouts she had fallen into predictable patterns. She had become left-hand dominant, and used her jab, left hook and feet to box her way to some less-than-authoritative decision victories. But on Saturday, she reintroduced herself to her right hand, and she popped that punch with accuracy and spite. Furthermore, Taylor was a fighter who was often much better when throwing first, but against Serrano, she wasn't afraid to stay in the pocket and counter with some fierce right hands. She had the hand speed advantage, but she used that advantage in different ways. It wasn't just getting in and out. She would often draw out a wide left hand from Serrano and counter expertly with her right. Her sharpness was on point.
But one advantage that she didn't have was power and it became increasingly obvious that one of Serrano's left hands caused far more damage than anything Taylor could muster. By the fourth round Serrano was digging in consistently with wicked left hands – some straight, some with a loop to them – and that her shots were starting to force Taylor to retreat.
The most memorable round in the fight was the fifth where Taylor, backed into a corner, decided to go toe-to-toe with power punches against Serrano. And despite landing some good stuff, Taylor was getting worn down by Serrano's thunderous blows. As the round progressed, Taylor was cut up and visibly depleted. It looked as though Serrano only needed another shot or two to end the fight. And here's where only having two-minute rounds really helped Taylor. It's unlikely that Taylor could have survived another minute without hitting the canvas at least once (but don't hate the player; hate the game!).
For as skilled as Taylor is, and she may be the best fighter in women's boxing, she made a series of mistakes in the fifth round, both strategic and tactical. I'm sure that her team didn't want her trading bombs trapped in a corner for a long period. And as she was taking punishment, she didn't try to hold or tie-up whatsoever. She showed a lack of experience and situational awareness in dealing with duress. However high her ring IQ is, and it is high, it went totally out the window in the fifth, and she was seconds away from losing the biggest fight of her career, in part because of significant errors on her part.
By the seventh, Taylor started to reemerge in the fight. With her head clearing, she went back to clean boxing. And despite taking enormous punishment earlier in the match, she seemed to be the fresher fighter.
As the bout went into the final rounds, Serrano succumbed to a couple of traps, some of which were her own doing. She was looking to land big left hands without setting anything up; she became a victim of her own success. It's also likely that she punched herself out to a degree. She exerted a ton of energy trying for the stoppage in the fifth and her energy level, not to mention punch volume, wasn't up to snuff in the final rounds. I don't think that Serrano is going to enjoy rewatching the fight from the seventh round on.
Taylor was awarded a split decision win and it's one of those fights where it's pretty clear that both won three rounds clearly and it's how you judge those four swing rounds (let's say rounds 2,3,7 and 10) that will most likely determine what your final scorecard looked like (I had Taylor winning 96-94). There's no doubt that Serrano had the best moments in the fight as there can be no denying that Taylor made a valiant comeback. And hey, there's nothing like a rematch to settle the score!
Finally, let's credit the promoters of this event. It took a large amount of chutzpah to say that these women would sell out Madison Square Garden. It had never been done before and there was a large downside risk. If the event failed, it would have set women's boxing back considerably in the U.S. in my opinion. In addition, there was also another big fight on the same night between Stevenson and Valdez. Yet, they filled the place and helped to deliver a magical evening. Taylor-Serrano will go down as a historic fight for women's boxing. And it's not just the fighters who delivered the goods, but also the people who believed in them.
I don't think that Shakur Stevenson beating Oscar Valdez by a wide unanimous decision surprised a lot of people, but how he did so was notable for a few reasons. I want to highlight two things that I found special in Stevenson's performance, one on offense and one on defense.
It wasn't long ago that Stevenson could be seen running around the ring. Yes, he was seemingly impossible to hit cleanly, but he was also contact-avoidant. It made some of his fights tedious in that it was clear his legs, hand speed and reflexes were top-notch, but he was leaving food on the table. He could have been doing more offensively; the question was why wasn't he?
|Stevenson (left) with success as the aggressor|
Photo courtesy of Mikey Williams
In his previous fight against Jamel Herring and on Saturday against Valdez, Stevenson has demonstrated that he has turned a corner in his career. Stevenson is now just as comfortable pressing forward or staying in the pocket as he is with using evasive movement. And while this temperament change is admirable, his considerable skillset as the aggressor has been eye-opening. On Saturday he landed seemingly whatever he wanted: jabs, uppercuts, right hooks, body shots, combinations. Going right at an aggressive fighter, he took the play away from Valdez. So often was Valdez getting hit with flush shots that for points of the fight he stood compliantly at mid-range, frozen, unable to comprehend what to do next. And Valdez had previously been in tough fights and faced an array of styles. Yet, he could do little more than stay in the pocket and get tagged.
Stevenson did score a nifty knockdown in the sixth where he played matador to Valdez's charging bull. He turned Valdez away with a right hook that sent him into the ropes (a knockdown could have been called for that) and then when Valdez turned back around, Stevenson met him with another right hook that dropped him to the canvas. It was a perfect, "make him miss and make him pay" moment and it showed Stevenson's considerable athletic and technical gifts. But as fun as that sequence was, I found Stevenson playing the lead dog in the ring far more compelling.
Stevenson has spent considerable time sparring with a "who's who" of boxing. Recently he's been doing a lot of work with Terence Crawford and Keyshawn Davis, two fighters who are both much bigger than him and possess more natural power. I think that those sessions have helped lead to his growth as a fighter. Stevenson no longer appears to be worried about getting hit (more on this at the moment) and seems comfortable exchanging and trading. Yes, he has developed more strength as he has gotten older, but it's clear that his confidence level is much higher as it relates to his ability to excel in back-and-forth combat.
And this became apparent throughout Saturday's fight, where Stevenson didn't let the fact Valdez could connect with certain shots change his overall game plan. Stevenson didn't get spooked or change to a Plan B.
In fact, I think there was one aspect of Stevenson's defensive construct against Valdez that was masterful. He and his team (Kay Koroma and his grandfather) were determined not to let one punch beat them – Oscar Valdez's left hook to the head. If you observed the fight, you'd see that Stevenson was giving Valdez the lead right, which he landed at points in the fight. He was even willing to let Valdez get off a few hooks to the body. But at no point was Stevenson leaving himself open for Valdez's hook to the head, his money punch.
I don't think that Valdez ever landed his best left hook to the head in the fight and I only remember a couple of ones that grazed Stevenson or landed partially. Stevenson and his team were zeroed in on the punch. Even when Valdez was able to connect with a few punishing left hooks to the body late in the fight, Stevenson wouldn't change his defensive shape. He wouldn't fall for that trap.
Despite losing ten, ten and nine rounds on the scorecards, Valdez connected with 28% of his power punches (according to CompuBox). Although that's certainly not a commanding success rate, it isn't negligible either. However, Stevenson showed a smart boxing brain and considerable poise throughout the fight, even when Valdez had success. Stevenson wouldn't let himself get sucked into a war. He refused to make a specific defensive mistake. He understood what Valdez needed to do to win and denied him that opportunity.
That Stevenson won with relative ease is the story, but it didn't have to be that way. Shakur neutralized his opponent's best strength. By peppering Valdez with punches all night, Stevenson kept Valdez mostly away from his preferred range. And by maintaining his specific defensive posture, even when Valdez was close enough to be threatening, Stevenson never had to be worried about being hit by the home run shot.
Valdez did land some thudding hooks to the body in the fight and now we do have some answers about Stevenson's ability to take a shot. He didn't wither from those body blows or decide to run around the ring as a result; he continued with his business.
As good as Stevenson looked on Saturday, I still believe that there is room for further development, another level to ascend to – one that involves more spite and an acknowledgement that there’s fun to be had in the hurt business. Stevenson may already be among the best talents in the sport, but if he can add a little more nastiness in the ring, he could become one of the defining fighters of his era. And to beat some of the big names in the division above him, some nastiness will be required.