Wednesday, October 19, 2022

The Makings of the Juggernaut

It feels great to be wrong about Joe Joyce. He serves as an important reminder that first impressions aren't the be all and end all in the sport. Early in his professional career, his slow hand speed, ponderous feet and advanced age were significant knocks against his ability to be a legitimate contender in the heavyweight division. Yet Joyce has been able to stop one of the top heavyweight prospects in boxing (Daniel Dubois), a solid gatekeeper (Carlos Takam) and a top-ten fighter and former champion in the division (Joseph Parker). 

Many of his Joyce's best attributes are intangibles that provide him with significant advantages over supposedly more talented fighters. The first thing that jumps out to me in the ring is his calm. Whether pushing forward in attack or eating a hellacious uppercut, Joyce doesn't get rattled. He sticks with his plan and has an ability to moderate the enormity of a big moment. He doesn't punch himself out despite a high volume and he also doesn't go into a shell after absorbing a big blow. He plows forward regardless of circumstance. 

Joyce also strikes me as highly intelligent. In his bravura performance against Dubois, Joyce essentially won the fight with his left jab. And while that might sound simple, I believe that he did two different things than most fighters would have done in that match. He stuck with what was working instead of taking the opportunity to unload his holster with other weapons. Joyce understood that keeping it simple was getting the best of his opponent where many others would have overcomplicated the fight. In addition, Joyce ate some tremendous right hands from Dubois in that bout, the types of shots that would make many fighters reluctant to stay the course. Yet Joyce persevered and understood that to execute his game plan he needed to be in the line of fire. 

Photo courtesy of Queensbury Promotions

The Dubois and Parker victories also highlighted his self-confidence. The straight rights from Dubois and the right uppercuts from Parker were the types of shots that could have discouraged many fighters, but Joyce was convinced that his approach would lead him to victory. Despite enough evidence to switch tactics, Joyce ultimately believed that his game plan was the right one, and he was proven correct. 

Actually, the whole Joe Joyce story could fall under the self-confidence blanket. Fighters who turn pro at 32 aren't expected to have successful careers. I'm sure he was told by many that he was too slow, that he would never have enough seasoning and that he lacked the athleticism required to take on the top of the division. But he believed in himself when so much of boxing history was tilting in a direction away from his success. He refused to succumb to rules of thumb or the opinions of so-called experts.

A final intangible that has led to his success has been his coachability. Looking at his game plans against Dubois and Parker, he resembled two completely different fighters in the ring. Against Dubois, he kept the fight on the outside and used his jab to establish dominance. Parker presented different issues but the key that Joyce and trainer Ismael Salas discovered was that Parker only liked to fight in spurts. Whenever Parker connected with a serious punch or combination, Joyce would immediately return fire with hard power punches. When Parker would try to get out of the pocket Joyce would follow him with pressure and more punches. He wouldn't let Parker rest and did a magnificent job of depleting him before the conclusive left hook in the 11th round.

Joyce's intangibles elevate him beyond his skill set, but it would also be wrong to dismiss his skills, many of which are subtle. He can go to the head or body with all of his shots. He can apply pressure without smothering himself. He has a ramrod jab. He can throw his hook tight or wide. 

Joyce is also an underrated athlete. There aren't too many 260-pound fighters who can do flips in the ring after a victory. His work rate and motor are outstanding for a heavyweight. Although there is a crudeness to aspects of his game, he used several foot and shoulder feints to throw off Parker's rhythm. He also has the coordination and strength to avoid being clinched, which is vital in the heavyweight division for fighters who want to win with volume. 

In just 15 professional fights Joyce has improved in several significant aspects. He now understands distance, spacing and range very well. He's not jabbing from too close and he's also not smothering himself on the inside. Joyce knows which punches to throw at a particular range. He's also become adept at cutting off the ring. Parker was supposed to have advantages in foot speed over him, yet Joyce was able to keep the fight at his tempo and usually right in front of him. He knew where Parker wanted to be, but didn't just follow him without letting his hands go. He applied intelligent pressure, whether he needed to move laterally, diagonally or straight ahead.  

The Juggernaut continues to roll on, leaving a trail of heavyweight hopefuls in his wake. Does he have the attributes to get to the mountaintop in the heavyweight division? Let's wait and see, but he has put himself in the conversation, and to me that was an unthinkable proposition just a short time ago. 

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. 

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Boxing at the PED Crossroads

The big story in boxing this week was Conor Benn's positive drug test for Clomiphene, a women's fertility drug that is banned by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA), an organization that was contracted to provide testing for the Oct. 8 Conor Benn-Chris Eubank Jr. fight. Yet the drug in question was not proscribed by UKAD, the British anti-doping association, which also conducted drug tests for the two participants. With daylight between the two testing agencies in what constituted a permissible substance, the promoters of the event tried to push forward with the fight. 

Ultimately the bout was cancelled once the British Boxing Board of Control decided that it would no longer sanction the event, but this being boxing, nothing is ever that clear. Benn and the relevant parties for the fight were informed of the failed drug test on September 23rd, yet only when the incident was reported by Riath Al-Samarrai of the Daily Mail on Oct. 5th did the wheels start turning regarding the cancellation of the fight. 

So, to sum up, boxing wound up doing the right thing by cancelling the event for a fighter failing a PED test, but only after the public was informed. Absent Riath's scoop, it's possible that the fight would have proceeded. 

This is some dirty business, but the chutzpah demonstrated by the promoters for the event, Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Boxing and Kalle Sauerland of Wasserman Boxing, is not unprecedented. Just last year, Top Rank succeeded in staging an Oscar Valdez world title fight despite a failed VADA test. In the recent past, Erik Morales was allowed to fight on a Golden Boy card after failing a drug test during training camp. And it even gets worse. Dillian Whyte had failed a drug test in the lead up to his fight with Oscar Rivas, yet Rivas wasn't even informed of the positive test until after the fight.  

None of these stories paint boxing in a positive light, but the sport has made significant progress with drug testing. Not long ago the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight was derailed after Mayweather requested additional drug testing. His request was interpreted by Top Rank as so offensive that it was considered a deal-breaker – they would of course subsequently fight years later. Now, comprehensive drug testing is part of many top fights in boxing (if not the majority of them).

That VADA has become a part of world-class boxing demonstrates that the industry has started to take drug testing more seriously. The WBC now requires its champions and contenders to enroll in its Clean Boxing Program (which includes VADA testing) in order to be ranked by the organization. Now I'm not going to pretend that the testing is frequent enough or catches everyone that it can, but it is a positive step in the right direction. (In full disclosure, the WBC was the sanctioning body for that Oscar Valdez fight, and they did not strip him of his title.) 

While boxing has indeed made progress in incorporating stricter drug testing, key stakeholders haven't always played a constructive role in pushing toward a cleaner sport. For one, boxing's top promoters have to stop their double talk regarding doping. When their own fighters aren't involved or when an opponent fails a test, promoters will talk tough regarding drugs in the sport, but when their own fighters are involved, especially ones that bring in money, they often resort to legalese and mumbo-jumbo and will try to find an avenue to salvage a fight, despite a failed test. Sometimes they are shot down in their efforts, as this week showed, but as in Valdez-Conceicao, they "succeeded" in staging the fight despite a failed test. 

I also fail to understand why the key television networks and platforms don't have a firm policy on PED testing. If something were to happen in a fight where one boxer entered dirty, and they knew about it, couldn't they be a party to potential lawsuits as it relates to negligence? Wouldn't there at least be significant reputational risk? Yet the networks continue to absolve themselves of culpability, as if they don't play a meaningful role in the sport. 

And of course, the commissions themselves could play a much tougher role than they do. Why don't the major commissions uniformly adopt the most stringent drug testing? Why in the United States, for example, do most boxing commissions only suspend a first-time drug cheat for six months as a default punishment. At the top levels of boxing fighters only get in the ring twice a year at best; a six-month suspension is a laughable deterrent. Wouldn't 18 months exhibit some real teeth? Why can't the Association of Boxing Commissions (the ABC) adopt tougher uniform standards for testing and disciplinary measures for drug cheats?

The boxing industry needs to put additional actions behind its (inconsistent) tough rhetoric. If the industry wants a clean sport (and in an enterprise that features person-to-person violence as its calling card, it really should), then more must be done. Boxing has taken some solid steps forward, but at this point, so many have been half measures. 

I hope in ten years from now boxing is on a firmer footing as it relates to its drug testing and disciplinary measures for those who dope. Unfortunately, many of the current stakeholders in boxing, the ones with the power, still try to finesse legal angles to skirt rules or bury their collective heads in the sand instead of looking out for the greater good of the sport. And until Bob Arum or Eddie Hearn or Frank Warren or Stephen Espinoza or Adam Smith take a stand, we will continue to see a slapdash trajectory toward advancing to a cleaner sport.  

And listen, I'm not naive. I understand that those in boxing aren't in the sport for altruistic purposes. They are there to make money. And that's fine. But the taint from this week and similar episodes in the past hurt everyone involved with boxing. It turns off existing fans, potential new ones, the media, sponsors, and benefactors.   

This week's episode with Benn was a fiasco for all who were involved in trying to usurp VADA's authority. But this incident was just one prong in a multi-faceted problem. Boxing needs to move past its "clean sport" window dressing rhetoric to an era where those who cheat face significant repercussions. It's time for the adults in the room to start acting like them instead of pointing fingers in other directions. More need to take responsibility and have to understand that by assuming leadership on the issue, they will actually be helping themselves down the line. Now those in boxing aren't often into long-term planning, but if we can get a man on the moon, we can get a promoter or a TV executive to think about five years from now. That's the only way this is going to work. 

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.