Sunday, February 18, 2024

Michigan's Next Boxing Wave

Michigan has produced several fighters who rank among the best in the sport's history, including Joe Louis, Tommy Hearns, James Toney, and Floyd Mayweather Jr. And while the cupboard has never fully emptied, with recent notables such as the Dirrell brothers, Tony Harrison, Claressa Shields and Ra'eese Aleem proudly carrying on the state's boxing tradition, Michigan right now doesn't have the number of elite boxing talents that it once did. 

Dmitriy Salita is placing much of his promotional company's future in the hands of Michigan's next crop of fighters. Salita, who resides in Michigan and has promoted several cards in the Detroit area, has become a believer in this next wave. With his new boxing series, Big Time Boxing USA, set to debut on DAZN on Tuesday, Salita intends to showcase Michigan's boxing talent to a global audience. His first event in the series will take place at the Wayne State Fieldhouse in Detroit.

Salita will have six of his fighters appearing on the broadcast (although one of them has his fight still up in the air at publication time). I spoke with Salita about each fighter and what his expectations are for them on Tuesday and the next 12-18 months. His excitement level about his crop was palpable.  

Photo courtesy of Salita Promotions

Ardreal Holmes (14-0, 5 KOs) vs. Marlon Harrington (10-1, 9 KOs): Junior Middleweights

Tuesday's main event features an all-Michigan matchup between Holmes (Flint) and Harrington (Detroit). It's a sink-or-swim fight for both in that Salita promotes Harrington and co-promotes Holmes with DiBella Entertainment. These two fighters are intimately familiar with each other, having sparred against each other throughout their careers, and there's also bad blood between them. 

Harrington is the puncher in the matchup while Holmes is a fighter who relies much more on timing and movement. Harrington's one loss was to the trickster Marquis Taylor, who we've subsequently found out to be is an excellent fighter. Holmes had a troubling performance in his last fight against Wendy Toussaint, where he was fortunate to win by a split decision in a fight that was stopped early because of a cut. In that fight, Holmes had issues handling Toussaint's aggression and physicality. 

Salita has liked how Harrington responded from his loss, stopping the undefeated Gheith Karim in the first round. Salita knows that Holmes can be tricky, but he can also be hit. Salita is very satisfied that both agreed to take the fight; they both could have gone in different directions. This fight will very much be for pride and bragging rights. 

Ali Izmailov (11-0, 7 KOs): Light Heavyweight

Izmailov is a Russian light heavyweight based in Detroit who has already established himself on the national scene with an impressive win over Charles Foster on ShoBox last year. Trained by John David Jackson, Izmailov is physically imposing, hits hard, but also has a solid boxing foundation. 

He fights Britton Norwood (13-4-1) on Tuesday and the bout is expected to be of the showcase variety. Izmailov is already 30 so his future is now. Salita has had difficulty finding opponents who will fight him. He's hoping that Izmailov's performance on Tuesday can lead to bigger opportunities in the light heavyweight division, but he understands that Izmailov might need to go the sanctioning body route to get a notable name to face him. 

Joseph Hicks (9-0, 6 KOs): Junior Middleweight

Hicks qualified for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team, but like a few others didn't wind up representing the country in 2021 due to the pandemic-related politics associated with the 2021 Games. Despite Hicks' amateur pedigree, he didn't start his professional career until early 2022. Hicks is already 30 and Salita is trying to move him quickly; he fought five times in 2023. 

Although he lives in Lansing (and is originally from Grand Rapids), Hicks trains with Kay Koroma out of Las Vegas. Interestingly, although middleweight is a relatively barren division in terms of top-flight prospects in the U.S., Hicks and his team have made the decision to drop down to junior middleweight for Tuesday's fight. He faces Argentina's Ricardo Ruben Villalba (20-10-1), who isn't supposed to win, but this fight will be an opportunity to determine how Hicks does at the new weight class. 

Salita likes Hicks' strong work ethic and amateur pedigree. He regards Hicks as a high-character person (Hicks was due to captain the 2020 U.S. Olympic team). Salita believes that Hicks' desire and willingness to do whatever it takes will help separate him from other fellow prospects as he moves up the ranks. 

Joshua James Pagan (9-0, 4 KOs): Lightweight

Although Pagan's power isn't a major facet of his game, he possesses a strong amateur pedigree, where he won the 2021 USA Nationals. Salita has become more of a believer in Pagan in every fight. Pagan has already beaten three undefeated fighters. Trained by his father, Pagan has a very strong boxing foundation. He has recently spent time in Miami working with Herman Caicedo, trainer of Luis Ortiz, Michel Rivera, and others, and earned rave reviews. 

Pagan, from Grand Rapids, was supposed to face undefeated Detroiter Dwane Taylor (7-0, 7 KOs) on Tuesday. However, Taylor had a late sparring injury. As of publication, Salita is still looking for a replacement opponent. Pagan may or may not appear on the card. Either way, Pagan will be a featured fighter on Salita's shows. 

Da'Velle Smith (7-0, 6 KOs): Middleweight

Dearborn's Smith has quickly established himself as one of the hardest hitters in the Detroit area. And Salita doesn't mince words regarding Smith's power potential, proudly relaying that several old-timers on the Detroit boxing scene told him that Smith might be the biggest puncher from the city since Tommy Hearns. 

Smith, 23, didn't have a notable amateur background and still possesses a rawness in the ring. In addition to his power, he's a surprisingly good athlete. He still rushes his work a little bit. 

Salita calls Smith his "blue-chipper," and thinks that he could rise fast in the middleweight division. He fights Argentina's Rolando Mansilla (19-13-1, 9 KOs). Smith is expected to win without too much trouble, but the hope is that he creates a highlight-reel type of statement. Like Pagan, Smith also went to Miami recently to work with Caicedo. Smith trains out of the Kronk gym and Salita believes that he could beat several top middleweight prospects right now.  

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.com
He's a contributing writer for Ring Magazine, 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.

Friday, January 19, 2024

Ring Magazine -- Fight and Trainer of the Year

I wrote two articles for Ring Magazine's 2023 awards edition. For the Fight of the Year article, which featured Luis Nery against Azat Hovhannisyan, click here. To ready my article on Brian McIntyre, the Trainer of the Year, click here.

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.com
He's a contributing writer for Ring Magazine, 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.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

On Beterbiev

A boxing friend of mine, Arran McLachlan, reached out in early 2014 to tell me how excited he was about this emerging Montreal-based Russian prospect, Artur Beterbiev. I think at that point Beterbiev was 4-0 and fighting six-rounders. Arran insisted that Beterbiev, who was an Olympian, had a style that would play spectacularly in the pros and expected him to become a world champion at light heavyweight. Now all of this sounded a little outlandish or fanciful to me, but Arran, like myself, wasn't someone who often fell in love with boxing prospects. He saw something special in Beterbiev and I noted that. So, I studied up on Beterbiev. 

And then I made a classic mistake in fighter evaluation: focusing too much on what a fighter couldn't do, instead of what could make him special. I immediately noticed Beterbiev's slow hands, ponderous footwork and lack of athleticism. Those were big red flags to me, as they would be if I had been evaluating any prospect. Although I observed his heavy hands, his ability to fire off damaging punches at close range and how ordinary-looking blows wound up brutalizing an opponent, those factors weren't enough to sway me regarding Beterbiev's future. 

I relayed my scouting report to Arran, the good and the bad, and although Arran is significantly younger than me, he treated ME with kid gloves. He was essentially saying to me, just you wait...I understand all your concerns and he will address them in due time. Arran again reminded me that Beterbiev was an excellent amateur in the punch-counting system, where a person’s power didn't carry any additional favor from the judges. Ultimately, he believed that Beterbiev had significant craft to go along with his substantial power. I remained unmoved. 

Later in 2014, Beterbiev was dropped in a flash knockdown by Jeff Page, a club fighter from Kansas. In truth, it was more of a slip/foot entanglement issue than a legit punch, but I used that opportunity to mock Arran. I can still remember the glee in those messages that I had sent to him. I questioned Arran's judgment. I was convinced by my own eyes. That Beterbiev stopped Page in two rounds was immaterial to me. 

And yet here we are, ten years later. Beterbiev is now among the best fighters in the sport, with three title belts at 175 lbs. and eight championship defenses. Arran and I were still exchanging messages about Beterbiev on Saturday as Artur was on his way to knocking out Callum Smith. But this time there was no pushback from me. I was reveling in the quality of Beterbiev's performance, just like Arran was. 

Beterbiev's jab was a key weapon against Smith
Photo courtesy of Mikey Williams

Now, it must be said that much has changed with Beterbiev in the previous ten years. He has continued to add to his game. He out-jabbed Smith on Saturday, which was quite an accomplishment considering that he was shorter and had a significant reach disadvantage. However, he was the one controlling the action with the stick, pumping it to the head and body, and using it as a clever counter. 

The first knockdown of the fight started with a vicious counter right hand by Beterbiev, where he slipped the jab and came over the top with the short right to the side of Smith's head. It was a similar maneuver to how he had initially hurt Joe Smith. And it's now obvious watching Beterbiev that he has become far more than just a brute slugger with heavy hands.

Beterbiev's lead trainer, Marc Ramsay, has played a huge role in Beterbiev's technical development. Having interviewed Ramsay twice over the years about Beterbiev, the trainer has always praised Beterbiev's boxing skills. Here's Ramsay in 2022: 

"You know what’s fun about being the trainer of Artur is that he’s a very good boxer and he can do a little bit of everything. He can box. He can put pressure. He can slug. We’ve done all of that already." (For the complete article with Ramsay, click here.) 

Ultimately what has made Beterbiev into an elite fighter, as opposed to just a guy with heavy hands, is a combination of winning intangibles: 

1.     Physical and Intellectual Aptitude

2.     Coachability

3.     Humility

Ramsay has been working with Beterbiev on various techniques to improve his boxing ability. But all of that would be meaningless unless Beterbiev agreed that he needed to further refine himself in the ring. And this is quite extraordinary. Ramsay is training perhaps the biggest puncher in the sport and says to him: you know what, it's not enough. And Beterbiev agrees! And more than that, Beterbiev has incorporated these teachings into the ring. 

Whether it's changing the eye level with power punches, controlling opponents with the jab, or how and when to throw the proper counter, Beterbiev now utilizes these facets as if they were second nature. 

Unlike so many fighters with high knockout percentages, Beterbiev didn't fall in love with his power. He realized that there was still work to do. This speaks highly of his intellect, as well as his relentless desire to improve. 

At 38 Beterbiev is now a complete fighter. He has delivered on the promise that Arran saw a decade ago. But he has also steadily improved. He wasn't utilizing foot feints and cute lateral movement in 2014. I can assure you of that!

Beterbiev after Saturday's victory
Photo courtesy of Mikey Williams

I have picked against Beterbiev in the past and been wrong. I've watched him twice live and have marveled at aspects of his performances. I saw him stop an excellent version of Gvozdyk and destroy a fellow champion in Joe Smith. I still don't know what happens if he ever fights Dmitry Bivol, but I do understand one thing: Beterbiev is one of the best fighters in the entire sport. But I was a little late to the party on him.  

In one sense I was correct about Beterbiev; the fighter of 2014 was incomplete, but what I didn't know and what Arran and Ramsay did, is that he had much more to offer than what he had displayed on his fight nights. It pays to do your homework, to ask around, and not be so settled in a first evaluation. There are fighters who have a tremendous aptitude for improvement. They may have significant skills or intangibles that won't manifest against lesser opponents in short fights.   

We all like to remember the occasions where we got it right, a spectacular fight pick, an identification of a special talent well before the general public latches on. But it's important to remember when and how we get things wrong too. As someone who has immersed himself in boxing over the last three decades, I whiffed here. Even before getting into questions about aptitude, I should have recognized that his combination of uncommon power and success in the point-counting amateur system was a winning formula in the professional ranks.  

But Beterbiev has become even so much more than that 2014 version. He has put in the work. He has ignored his own headlines. His only goal is to become the best. He is now 20-0 with 20 knockouts, but his resume somehow still undersells him: he's the complete package. And I hope that we all know that now, even if it took some of us longer than needed. 

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.com
He's a contributing writer for Ring Magazine, 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.