Wednesday, June 12, 2024

The BWAA Annual Awards Dinner

What struck me about last week's BWAA Annual Awards Dinner was how much it mattered to the honorees. It was significant enough for Naoya Inoue to take the around-the-world flight to accept the Fighter of the Year award, becoming the first Japanese fighter in the history of the BWAA to win the honor. It was enough for Bill Haney to fly in from Las Vegas to receive the Manager of the Year award, for Brian McIntyre to leave a training camp to come to New York to accept the Trainer of the Year award. 

That it was so meaningful to the honorees surprised me. Listen, every media outlet hands out awards of one kind or another (including this one) and does receiving an award from a group of writers still move the needle? In that this was my first BWAA Awards dinner (having recently been admitted into the association), I didn't exactly know what to expect. But the answer to the above question was an emphatic yes. There was little jadedness from the stars and dignitaries in the room. They were very excited to be there. And the ceremony itself packed an emotional wallop far deeper than I anticipated. The night wasn't one of going through the motions for each honoree; it was the culmination of a life's work. 

Inoue giving his acceptance speech
Photo by Adam Abramowitz

The great boxing photographer Ed Mulholland was honored for his fight against cancer. Also honored was Lisa McClellan, the sister of Gerald McClellan, the former middleweight champion who was severely injured in a fight against Nigel Benn in 1995. Lisa has been Gerald's primary caretaker for almost three decades. 

And there was Gordon Hall, the executive producer from the great ShoBox series, who was honored for his service to the sport. As grateful as Hall was for the recognition, his acknowledgment of the end of Showtime Boxing cast a brief pall over the room. One of the bright lights of American boxing had now gone dark. 

McIntyre choked up when talking about his journey to the top of the sport as a trainer. With his wife in the audience, he acknowledged the sacrifices needed to become the best. "I never stopped working on my craft," he said. And that had led to days, weeks, and months at a time of not being home. There was much joy and humor in his speech too, but his remarks were a reminder that boxing does not involve too many ordinary professions. 

Bill Haney spoke about overcoming the criticism that he received during his son Devin's developmental fights. The Haneys were determined to do it their own way. They were promoting shows in out-of-the-way places in front of few fans, but they believed in their mission. They wanted to be able to call their shots when the time was right. And they did, with Devin becoming an undisputed champion at lightweight and making millions upon millions in the sport. But it wasn't easy. It rarely is. 

One of the key players in the evening was Bob Arum, who sat at the table nearest the stage. Although he was not technically an honoree, his name was mentioned throughout the evening. McIntyre thanked him for taking a chance on Terence Crawford and him (this is despite an ongoing lawsuit between Crawford and Top Rank). Tim Bradley, who was honored for his achievement in broadcasting, thanked Arum for promoting him when he was a fighter and giving him a chance as a broadcaster. Bradley felt that he wasn't particularly good when he started behind the mic, but he credits his work ethic for success in both phases of his career. 

And sitting directly next to Arum during the dinner was Inoue. Arum raved about Inoue to me earlier in the evening, calling him a great kid. He loved his fighting ability. He loved his desire to be great. He loved his manners. 

Inoue was clearly the star of the show. With a group of 30 or so people traveling with him from Japan, (many were journalists and media members), whenever Inoue moved around the room, a crowd followed him. Other top fighters at the dinner, like Teofimo Lopez and Amanda Serrano (who was honored as Female Fighter of the Year), all wanted to have their picture taken with him. Jorge Linares and Inoue exchanged pleasantries in Japanese (Linares spent several years in Japan). 

During his speech, Inoue spoke about his gratitude for winning the award, and admitted how challenging his fights against Stephen Fulton and Marlon Tapales were. But he believed that those opponents helped push him to even greater heights. 

Inoue fought in America in 2017, 2020 and 2021 and while he won all three fights by stoppage, he returned to Japan for bigger opportunities. Although Inoue was certainly appreciated during his time in America, he has now become a much bigger deal. There was an excitement whenever he circulated around the room. An entourage followed his every step. At least in boxing circles, there is no doubt that he has become a genuine star, not just a great fighter. 

The evening also contained elements of the expected. There was a good steak. The booze was hit and miss. Lots of lawyers and fighters and girlfriends and sanctioning body henchmen filled the tables. There were those looking for opportunities and those whose opportunities in the sport had passed. There were dreamers, opportunists, functionaries, and old-timers. But among all the attendees, the boxing people who make up this crazy and ridiculous and beautiful sport, there was joy. There was warmth. It surprised me. And I loved it.  

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.com
He's a contributing writer for Ring Magazine, a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Panel, the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and the Boxing Writers Association of America.
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook 

Monday, June 3, 2024

Notes from the 5x5 Card

Daniel Dubois faced significant adversity in Saturday's fight against Filip Hrgovic. In the early rounds of the match, he repeatedly was rocked by Hrgovic's right hand. And these were not love taps; Hrgovic was launching missiles at Dubois' head. But unlike his performance against Oleksandr Usyk, Dubois refused to yield on Saturday. He kept firing. As the fight progressed, it was Dubois' right hand that caused the real damage. He opened cuts over both of Hrgovic's eyes. And the fight was eventually stopped due to the cuts in the eighth round, giving Dubois an impressive come-from-behind stoppage.  

Perhaps no fighter elevated his stock in the Riyadh Season cards more than Dubois. He scored stoppage wins against the durable Jarrell Miller in a firefight and now against Hrgovic. Not long ago Dubois was thought to be pretty close to a never-was. Although he had always possessed heavyweight power and had an ideal physical build for the division, he was missing self-belief and the ability to handle adversity. 

Dubois (right) taking the fight to Hrgovic
Photo courtesy of Mark Robinson/Matchroom Sport

Dubois now knows that he has the tools and power to turn around a fight. This self-belief has been a welcome development in his career. His defense is still so poor that one wonders how long his chin will hold up, but as long as it does, he will be a legitimate threat in the heavyweight division, and a possible titleholder depending on future matchups.  

As for Hrgovic, he turned in a poor performance on multiple levels. In his 2022 shootout with Zhilei Zhang, Hrgovic moved all around the ring to stave off Zhang's threat. But against Dubois, Hrgovic felt no need to use his legs. He was hitting Dubois so easily and with such thunder that he fought like he expected Dubois to drop at any minute. As a result, Hrgovic stayed in range and saw no reason to use any evasive tactics against Dubois. Consequently, he took several huge bombs that led to the cuts.  

Furthermore, Hrgovic was so content to land the right hand that he felt little need to incorporate other aspects of his offensive arsenal. He didn't realize that Dubois was taking the shots without too many problems and had adjusted to their power. Hrgovic threw few combinations and there were scant left hooks or uppercuts at any time. There is a school of thought that says don't change if something is working, but Dubois was increasingly gaining confidence and having his own success. By the time the seventh round had ended, Hrgovic looked like a truck had hit him. He fought like he didn't respect Dubois' abilities in the ring, but the last laugh was on him.  

*** 

Years from now, it's possible that Hamzah Sheeraz's 11th-round TKO victory over Austin Williams will be a mere footnote in an illustrious career. Sheeraz certainly looks like he has the ability to do great things in the sport. But make no mistake; Sheeraz faced a lot of challenges in this fight, and he overcame them with aplomb. Williams tried to bomb Sheeraz from distance early in the fight and landed a terrific straight left hand in the first round that shook Sheeraz. Later in the fight, Williams tried to rough up Sheeraz on the inside and had periods of success with this approach.   

Despite Williams having several good moments in the fight, Sheeraz ultimately picked him apart at every range. Using his sledgehammer jab and his massive reach, Sheeraz controlled Williams from the outside. On the inside, Sheeraz landed blistering uppercuts that made Williams reconsider his decision to come forward. On numerous occasions, Sheeraz tagged Williams with hard right-hand counters as Williams was trying to get out of the pocket. Sheeraz also displayed a nasty straight right hand that had pinpoint accuracy.  

Sheeraz looks to be a good bet to win a title at middleweight. And with his 6'3" frame, he might have success in multiple weight classes before his career is done. I still think that there are some holes in his defense, especially in tracking shots from long range, but if he uses his height and reach well, he can minimize that issue as he progresses in the sport. I think that a fighter like Wladimir Klitschko had a similar issue. But Wlad would also become one of the longest-reigning champions in the division's history. Sheeraz is an offensive juggernaut. And if he sticks to his strengths and continues to master fighting tall, he could have a wonderful future in the sport. But be aware of long-range bombers. There aren't many out there, but they lurk.   

*** 

In a fight where little happened in the first four rounds, the fifth round between Deontay Wilder and Zhilei Zhang was certainly consequential. Wilder started to unleash menacing right hands, the types of punches that have knocked out dozens of opponents.  

But in a matter of seconds all of that ended. As Wilder threw a right, Zhang countered with a lightning-quick right hook that spun Wilder around. Seizing the moment, Zhang delivered a Howitzer of a right hook as Wilder was defenseless, sending him down for a hard knockdown. Although Wilder beat the count, referee Kieran McCann saw how damaged Wilder was and waved off the fight. 

Zhang dropping Wilder with his right hook
Photo courtesy of Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing

As Riyadh Season has been great for Dubois, it's been terrible for Wilder, who in his previous fight lost a wide decision against Joseph Parker. His performance was so poor in that fight that many boxing observers (and Wilder himself!) questioned if he still had the fire and drive needed to compete at the highest levels of the sport. Saturday showed further signs of aging for Wilder. There were so many moments where he pawed Zhang with his jab and had him perfectly lined up for a right hand, but he wouldn't pull the trigger. When he finally did in the fifth round, he was beaten to the punch by a 41-year-old opponent.  

Riyadh Season was a mixed bag for Zhang. Although he knocked down Parker in his last fight twice, he threw few punches throughout large stretches of the bout. He wouldn't let his hands go with regularity and was simply outworked. Against Wilder, he was marginally busier. And when he did have his moment, he pounced on it, which hasn't always been the case in his career. 

Zhang remains a huge threat to any heavyweight who wants to stand in front of him. However, the blueprint to beating him is out there. He lacks the foot speed and stamina to go hard for 12 rounds. But if a fighter wants to slug it out, he'd like his chances against anyone. 

*** 

Coming off a memorable 12th-round stoppage victory over Otabek Kholmatov in a Fight of the Year contender, featherweight champion Raymond Ford started Saturday's fight with little of the fire he displayed in his previous bout. He was repeatedly beaten to the punch by Nick Ball early in the fight. And although Ford seemingly possessed an advantage in athleticism, he declined to use it. Instead, he decided to trade with Ball in the pocket.  

Now there are two possible explanations for Ford's sluggish start. He had previously talked about moving up to 130 lbs., yet he stayed at 126 for this fight because of the opportunity. And he certainly fought like a guy who didn't have a great training camp. But I also believe that there is another explanation for his early-round performance: he fell in love with his power. Ford didn't jab much early in the fight. Instead, he tried to bomb Ball out of the fight with left hands. Now Ford is many things in the ring, but he's not really a knockout puncher (just 8 knockouts in 16 fights). Unfortunately for Ford, Ball has a terrific chin AND he wanted to work much more than Ford did. With Ford tethered to the pocket, Ball landed all sorts of eye-catching power shots. 

Ball's (left) aggression gave Ford problems
Photo courtesy of Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing


In the second half of the fight, Ford found a perfect synthesis for success. Using his legs more to create angles but continuing to focus on power shots, he pasted Ball frequently with crushing single shots and combinations. Ford demonstrated how advanced he is with his left hand, pulverizing Ball with straight lefts to the head and body and lighting him up with several breathtaking uppercuts.  

The 12th round was one to savor as both went at it with full fire. Although Ball had dropped most of the latter rounds of the fight, he gave everything he had in the final frame and scored with some terrific sequences of power punches. And yet Ford had his own spectacular moments in the round, landing crushing uppercuts and straight lefts. 

Ultimately, Ball won a split decision with two of the judges giving him seven rounds while Ford won seven rounds on the other card. It was a tale of two halves, with a couple of swing rounds that made the judges' scorecards defensible. Ball is now a world champion and although Ford left a lot to be desired in the first half of the fight, he demonstrated his world-class ability in the latter rounds. He has a real chance to win a title at 130 lbs.  

*** 

It's unusual to see a 33-year-old undefeated champion add a lot to his repertoire at such a late stage of his career. Yet Dmitry Bivol took the opportunity of a tune-up fight with Malik Zinad to feature several new additions in his toolbox. We are so used to seeing Bivol use lateral movement and quick feet to be evasive, but Bivol fought Zinad as a walk-down pressure fighter. 

Bivol almost never stopped coming forward. When Zinad unloaded with power punches, Bivol didn't take a quick step back as has usually been his custom throughout his career. No, he held his ground and took most of the punches off his arms or gloves. This was not Bivol's traditional defense, and yet he was having a lot of success with it. At one point, Zinad had landed only 14% of his punches, a very low percentage, and in line with most of Bivol's opponents.  

I kept thinking when watching Bivol fight on Saturday that he had been studying an opponent whom he had recently beaten: Canelo, who may be among the best in the sport in taking shots on his arms while refusing to give up ground on his way in. I wouldn't put it past Bivol. He's a student of the sport. What's even more interesting is that it's unlikely that Bivol would want to fight in this style against his next opponent, unified light heavyweight champion Artur Beterbiev, who is one of the best come-forward fighters in the sport. So, let's just chalk up Saturday's performance to Bivol working on new things, and somehow also showing a mastery of them. Oh, by the way, he won by sixth round stoppage (also not a traditional Bivol thing!).  

*** 

Saturday's card began with an English light heavyweight showdown between Willy Hutchinson and Craig Richards, who performed well in a loss to Bivol in 2021. Hutchinson didn't have Richards' resume, but he had self-belief, youth, and an aggressive style. Throughout the first half of the fight, Hutchinson dominated with power and craft. Switching stances frequently, Hutchinson hit Richards with everything in his arsenal.  

It wasn't truly a fight until the last half. Hutchinson started to tire and Richards, as often his custom, belatedly let his hands go. Although Richards wound up not winning many rounds in the fight, he did land several bombs in the late rounds. Hutchinson, who had never been past seven as a pro prior to Saturday, had to deal with fatigue, an opponent who could take his punches, and navigating through some scary moments in the ring.  

But he did. By the 12th Hutchinson had steadied the ship and he wound up winning a wide unanimous decision. Hutchinson doesn't yet look like a 12-round fighter to me, but he's still just 25 and this experience should do him a world of good. Like many power punchers, he never really had to learn to pace himself because he was blowing opponents out in the early rounds. But if he wants to complete his matriculation in boxing, that will be his crucial final step in being a serious contender at light heavyweight. Despite his gas tank issue, it was a solid performance. He took advantage of the global stage and announced that he's a player in the division. He has fire in both hands and he's ready to go!  

And now we are as well.  

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.com
He's a contributing writer for Ring Magazine, a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Panel, the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and the Boxing Writers Association of America.
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook