Sunday, March 3, 2024

Opinions and Observations: Kholmatov-Ford

By the fifth round in Saturday's fight, Raymond Ford and his coach Anthony Rodriguez decided to scrap their initial game plan. Although Ford had climbed the ranks in his pro career as an outside fighter, flashing hand speed and athleticism from range, that wasn't working against Otabek Kholmatov. Kholmatov had the longer reach, but perhaps more importantly, he landed his best power shots when he extended his arms, especially a looping left hand. And for whatever reason, Ford had trouble defensing those long-range, odd-angled bombs. 

So, Ford and Rodriguez made the bold play to try to beat Kholmatov on the inside. And there were moments and rounds in the fight where Ford unloaded blistering combinations and body shots from up close, getting the better of the action. Ford was able to stem the tide of a runaway Kholmatov victory, but he didn't completely turn it. Many of the rounds were close. Even with Ford on the inside, Kholmatov won his share of rounds in the second half with volume and quick combinations to the body. Going into the final round of the fight, Ford was down by three points on two scorecards and up by one on the third.

Kholmatov (right) started the fight well from range
Photo courtesy of Mikey Williams/Top Rank

Rodriguez provided Ford with perfect instructions throughout the fight. Combining motivational exhortations with specific technical and strategic points, Rodriguez helped Ford understand the task at hand and didn't sugarcoat his fighter's performance. He beseeched Ford to let his hands go more and not fight in spurts. Going into the last round, he implored Ford to win the round big. 

The first half of the 12th was strange in that neither fighter displayed the urgency needed to secure the victory. Kholmatov danced around the ring as if he had already had the fight locked up, which was an odd decision in that so many of the rounds were competitive. He fired off ineffectual combinations that had little steam on them. Although Ford was looking to land power shots, he mostly stalked and pressured without letting let his hands go with any type of abandon. 

However, in the final minute of the round, Ford connected with a blistering combination with Kholmatov against the ropes. The shots hurt Kholmatov who fell slightly forward. Ford gently pulled Kholmatov down to the canvas and referee Charlie Fitch determined that a knockdown shouldn't be awarded, that Ford's pull was the reason why Kholmatov went down. It was a coin-flip judgment: the kind that referees could call either way and be justified in their decision making. 

But once the action resumed, Kholmatov was still badly hurt. He went into full disengagement mode. As he tried to evade Ford along the perimeter of the ring, Ford shot a pulsating right hand that rattled him. Kholmatov stumbled along the ropes and banged into the corner post. He was completely turned around. Ford seized the opportunity and followed up with a blistering left hand with Kholmatov unable to defend himself. Fitch had seen enough and stopped the fight with seven seconds left. 


Kholmatov-Ford was unusual in that the fight was contested for a vacant title (in this case featherweight). So often vacant title fights pit a heavily favored fighter against an opponent far less deserving. This was one of the rare occasions where the boxers were evenly matched; they were both worthy of being a champion. Yes, Kholmatov certainly lost the bout, but the little-seen fighter from Uzbekistan (who entered the fight at just 12-0) showed that he had championship-level ability. Furthermore, although Ford was himself only 14-0-1 entering the fight, he demonstrated a multiplicity of dimensions that befit a world champ. 

And perhaps that's the biggest takeaway from Ford's performance. Not a pressure fighter by trade, he remained in the match by staying close to Kholmatov's chest, by being more coordinated on the inside. Not known for his power (just seven knockouts in his 15 prior fights), Ford put together the punches to get a needed stoppage. 

Kholmatov on the canvas seconds before the fight ends
Photo courtesy of Mikey Williams/Top Rank

It had not been a straight line to the top for Ford. He had very tough fights during his development against Edward Vazquez (who subsequently gave Joe Cordina a rough time in a title fight) and Aaron Perez. Ford didn't scream out as "future champ" in those fights, but to be fair to him and his trainer, they went back to the gym and put in the work to improve. 

The reason why Ford was able to win Saturday's fight was that he had enough in his toolkit to make adjustments. Although he had never been known as a pressure fighter, he clearly had worked with Rodriguez in the gym for such a circumstance. When it was time to make the change, Ford didn't look lost in this style. He knew how to pressure, stalk, and get off combinations in close while limiting damage. 

Furthermore, when Ford needed a decisive ending to the fight, he didn't let the big moment get to him. He wasn't a deer in the headlights. He didn't smother himself or fight crudely, trying to accomplish something that was beyond his capability. He was clear-minded. He landed authoritative shots and when the moment was finally there in the fight's dying seconds, he didn't freeze. He seized it and forced the stoppage. 

It's this well-roundedness that speaks to Ford's future potential. Yes, he didn't fight perfectly. His pressure was inconsistent. He didn't display the volume needed to win enough rounds. It's also worth noting how porous his defense was from the outside. But he adjusted. He found something that worked and was able to win a title far removed from his preferred style. That's championship mettle. 

All parties need to be congratulated for Kholmatov-Ford. I will hold my nose here and congratulate the WBA for ordering the fight and for having these two as its top contenders. That is probably the best vacant title fight we'll see for some time. I also want to congratulate the promoters. Top Rank decided to feature this fight as a headline attraction and not bury it deeper on an undercard. They certainly could have. They had just signed Kholmatov and had no promotional piece of Ford. It's not like they had sunk a lot of time or money into either guy, but they believed in the fight and it delivered. 

Ford's promoter, Eddie Hearn, deserves a lot of credit as well. Ford was matched tough on his way up and didn't always look convincing, but Hearn stuck with him when perhaps others would have made a different choice. Ford has now become Matchroom's first U.S. world champion developed from scratch. 

And finally, let's congratulate Ford and Kholmatov. On another night Kholmatov certainly could have and would have been victorious. He displayed a terrific work rate, creative and unusual punches, and a surprising amount of athleticism and hand speed. I'm sure that he will have another opportunity for a title in the near future. But the ultimate victor was Ford, who just had a little more in his locker and all the intangibles one would want in a champion. He would not be denied. His determination and resolve led to an unforgettable night of boxing. When the chips were down and he was on his way to losing, he dug down deep and said, not tonight. It was example of boxing at its finest.    

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of
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. 
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