Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Fall And Winter Bumper Crop Of Fights -- Best In A Decade? -- Ranked

Having danced around the subject of this fall and winter's stellar lineup of fights -- the aforementioned lineup so good it's slated to make 2007 the best year in boxing in perhaps a decade, according to veteran boxing commentators -- it's long overdue that I go right to the heart of the matter.

If you're not a regular fan of the sport, what fights are the ones you most need to see, and why? And if you are a regular fan of the sport, how about we start a discussion about what fights YOU most want to see, and why?

Here are mine, using a subjective formula mixing potential fireworks with importance. (Full disclosure: This post is partially inspired by a similar list posted here, but the author didn't rank them as explicitly as I have.) Clearly, I'm most excited about the first fight, which I think has the chance to be truly special, but several of them have similar potential to rise above "really great" to "instant classic."

BEST OF THE BEST

#1 Shane Mosley v. Miguel Cotto
Cotto and Mosley are two of the very best in boxing's finest division, the welterweights (147 lbs.), and most think they are two of the 10 best fighters in any division regardless of weight. Style-wise, there isn't a more compelling match-up on the planet.
"Sugar" Shane Mosley is one of the handful of active fighters that the general public might have heard of, and with good reason. Mosley is not only an all-around gifted athlete -- possessing of a lethal mix of speed and power -- but he has relished every opportunity to fight the most feared guys around. He made his name toppling Oscar De La Hoya twice, both times about 20 lbs. north of the 135-pound weight class at which Mosley had become a favorite of hardcore fans. But Mosley's four losses said just as much about what he was made of as his wins. He took on Vernon Forrest, who had troubled him as an amateur, and when the style difficulties proved just as tough to surmount in the pros and Forrest penetrated Mosley's air of invincibility, he didn't hesitate to take a rematch. Not long after, Mosley opted to fight Winky Wright, not yet a superstar but notorious at this point for being avoided by everyone due to his well-named "tortoise-shell" defense that made him all but impossible to hit cleanly and almost certain to damage his opponent's marketability. He lost, but went after the rematch yet again. In both rematches, Mosley lost, but fought better. Four losses in six fights usually seals a fighter's doom in the public eye, and Mosley's career took a hit for his bravery. Since, he has climbed back into boxing's upper ranks with back-to-back knockouts of the much larger Fernando Vargas, and in a return to the welterweight division that is far more suited to his frame, he challenged and defeated a crafty southpaw named Luis Collazo. Collazo was exactly the kind of guy Mosley maybe should have avoided from a career standpoint, and yet he looked sensational in that win and in the two wins over Vargas.
Most may not have heard of Miguel Cotto, but he is on the brink of breakthrough superstardom. His last fight, against Zab Judah this summer, sold out Madison Square Garden, and beforehand, he threw out the first pitch at a Yankees game. Each maneuver suggested crossover mainstream appeal looms. Like Mosley, his popularity is deserved. His battle with Judah was a pure slugfest, with a major helping of skill, and was one of the 2007's best. Judah, once on the brink of superstardom himself before a series of misadventures inside and outside the ring, fought the best fight of his life, creating some difficult moments for Cotto. Cotto, in turn, never stopped grinding and attacking, and by the end of the battle, he had battered the faster, perhaps more powerful Judah into submission, securing Cotto an 11th round technical knockout victory. In his biggest win to date, Cotto yet again burnished his reputation as having earned one of boxing fandom's highest compliments: "Never in a bad fight." No matter how hard Cotto gets hit, no matter how many times Cotto appears on the verge of being knocked out, no matter how much they run away from him, Cotto hunts down his man and nails him with those punishing left hooks to the body.
Mosley hits fast and hard, with a decent defense and great footwork but a zeal for combat. Cotto hits harder but not as fast, with his own zeal for combat written into his strategy to thump his opponent into a pulp -- no matter his own very real risk of getting knocked out. Bouts between guys like Mosley who are boxer-punchers and guys like Cotto who are punchers with skill almost never fail to deliver excitement and strategic intrigue. Cotto is a young gun encountering his most difficult challenge for the shot at a legacy-making win; Mosley is a veteran with nothing left to prove but would like a couple more career-defining victories before retirement. For the winner? Potentially even bigger fights. (See #5.)
When and where: Nov. 10, HBO pay-per-view. I'll be buying.

#2 Joe Calzaghe v. Mikkel Kessler
Unless you live in Europe or follow boxing closely, the names "Calzaghe" and "Kessler" mean nothing to you. But they are the two best super-middleweights (168 lbs.) by a wide stretch, with Calzaghe on the verge of a history-making title defense reign. Standing in his way is Kessler, ranked lower on the subjective, so-called "pound for pound" lists of the best active fighters, but still knocking on the door of greatness. ESPN's magazine has dubbed him a potential crossover star.
Joe Calzaghe, of Wales, has a bewildering offense; he throws combinations of punches from odd angles that look like they're delivered improperly, almost similar to slaps. His 20 straight title defenses amount to the best current streak, but it was not until his 2006 meeting with Jeff Lacy, touted as a smaller heir to Mike Tyson for his fabled knockout power, that Calzaghe proved his streak was legitimate. Prone to looking vulnerable in fights against so-so competition, Calzaghe rose to the occasion against the highly-regarded Lacy, pummeling him so thoroughly that spectators feared Lacy would never be the same again.
Like Calzaghe, Mikkel Kessler had, until recently, had the aura of "protected champion" -- a fighter who has a belt but defended it against nobodies. But the Dane unified that title with a convincing knockout win over fellow belt-holder Markus Beyer, then won a brilliant, near-shutout victory over highly-ranked contender Librado Andrade. Kessler looked, in that performance, like a perfect fighting machine. He showed great offensive versatility, good defense, hard punches and everything else you could want.
Again, styles make fights, and this is a beautiful style match-up. Both men are fast, both are strong, both throw tons of combinations. It's hard to imagine this one not producing loads of action. And it is always a cause for celebration when the two best fighters in a division meet; this is regarded as the most important fight between super-middleweights since 1994. And, again, the winner here could go on to another major fight (see #3).
When and where: Nov. 3, HBO.

#3 Jermain Taylor v. Kelly Pavlik
I covered this one in my last post, so I will scrimp here, but to summarize: Jermain Taylor is the undisputed middleweight (160 lbs.) king, a major athlete and Olympian who has heart in spades to compensate for his worrisome lapses in technique and who emerged with his unbeaten record unscathed in three meetings against two all-time greats, Bernard Hopkins and Winky Wright. Kelly Pavlik is an offensive force who rolls forward without much regard to whether he gets clobbered, all in the name of landing his plentiful and hurtful blows, which worked to spectacular effect recently against fellow offensive-minded, power-punching contender Edison Miranda. Yes, I predicted Pavlik will blow out Taylor, but I'm in the minority. No matter if it is or isn't competitive, this is a fight pitting two young, talented fighters against one another -- the two best in their division -- and must be watched because of its significance and potential. Both are leaving the division after this fight, so the winner could get big names like Felix Trinidad, Bernard Hopkins, or Roy Jones, Jr. next, or perhaps the winner of Calzaghe-Kessler, unless the winner of that fight snaps up the big names for themselves.
When and where: Sept. 29, HBO.

#4 Manny Pacquiao v. Marco Antonio Barrera II
This is a rematch of Pacquiao's 2003 star-making turn against Barrera -- one of the best Mexican fighters ever in a country that has a rich boxing history -- in which Barrera suffered his most crushing defeat. There are two schools of thought here. One is that Pacquiao, having already conquered Barrera when Pacquiao wasn't as good as he is now, will steamroll Barrera, who is getting long in the tooth. Another school of thought is that Pacquiao is more distracted than ever by his dramatic life in the Philippines, where he is a transcendent figure prone to numerous business, entertainment and even political side projects, while Barrera in 2003 was going through personal strife and opted foolishly to stand toe-to-toe with a fighter stepping up in weight and who was a lesser-known betting underdog. At any rate, these are two of the best 130-pounders (junior lightweights) around, both destined for the hall-of-fame and among the best, if not the best, their respective boxing-mad countries have to offer.
Pacquiao is like a little tornado. He swarms his opponents with punches that come hard and fast, and while he was once limited to a jab-straight left combination that looked indefensible, his draw with Juan Manuel Marquez and defeat at the hands of Erik Morales demonstrated that smart boxers who knew what to expect would eventually outmaneuver a guy who has only one idea, even if it's a really great idea. Having worked to develop a greater variety of punches, Pacquiao now brings the science. Just ask Morales, who in their rematch suffered his only real knockdowns -- and two straight knockouts -- courtesy of a much-improved Pacquiao. Bar-none, Pacquiao is the most exciting fighter there is today.
Barrera once opted only to brawl, but he, too turned into an in-ring scientist. His trilogy with Morales was a brutal ballet, one of the best three-fight series in boxing history. Now a classic boxer-puncher, Barrera can win either grueling slugfests (as he did last year against dangerous youngster Rocky Juarez) or employ his tremendous boxing skills en route to victory (as he did in a rematch against Juarez). He is the premier reigning warrior of boxing now that similarly-aged fighters have retired or moved on, a guy who is ready for war every time the bell rings. If Barrera can find the right concoction of savagery and technique, he can pull the upset. Did I mention that this fight also pits two of the so-called "pound for pound" best regardless of division against one another? Pacquiao is the consensus second-best around, with Barrera a little lower on the list these days.
When and where: Oct. 6, HBO pay-per-view.

#5 Floyd Mayweather, Jr. v. Ricky Hatton
If Pacquiao is boxing's most exciting fighter, then Mayweather is its best. No one has his combination of intelligence, defense, speed, technique and reflexes, and when he decides to put on an offensive show instead of coasting to victory, it is awe-inspiring. He flaunts the diamonds he's purchased with his fight purses in a symbolic flashiness to match his boxing prowess. Hatton is another top 10 pound for pound guy, but he's on the opposite end of the scale. Hatton is a rock and roll drummer to Mayweather's virtuoso pianist. He is a man of the people in Great Britain, favoring its pubs when not training and when he's at his best in the ring, he wears people down with his energy, body punches and blue-collar work ethic.
Mayweather, who comes from a family of boxers, began his career at 130 lbs., where he won his first title at a prodigious 21 years of age. Since, he has hardly faced a moment of difficulty in the ring, usually winning every single round of every fight he's been in despite chronic hand injuries, often drawing ooos and ahhhhs from the crowd for his unique talents. (The title of this very blog comes from a remark once made about Mayweather by a boxing scribe -- "as easy as a Floyd Mayweather seven punch combo" -- referring to a repeated series of unanswered of blows Mayweather landed against Arturo Gatti that had to be seen in slow motion to appreciate the brilliance of it all. Trying to defend against the assault, Gatti was split seconds behind every punch Mayweather landed -- straight rights, left hooks, body punches, head punches, everything.) His biggest career win came this year against De La Hoya, and De La Hoya posed a rare challenge to him, perhaps in part because Mayweather was fighting at a less-than-ideal 154 lbs. (junior middleweight). Now he's back at a more comfortable 147 lbs (welterweight).
Hatton is the 140-pound (junior welterweight) king, where he made his name conquering one of the division's legends, Kostya Tszyu. Near the end of the fight, after being mauled and wrestled and crowded and shoved around by Hatton -- and also getting hit by him a whole lot -- Tszyu quit between rounds, and hasn't returned to the ring since. Hatton went on to become 2005 fighter of the year, according to Ring magazine and most everyone else, after defeating a second fellow-titleholder to secure the unofficial trophy. He has frequently looked very shaky beyond those glory days, though, with a step up to welterweight going poorly when Luis Collazo nearly defeated him. He stepped back down to 140 lbs. following that close call and finally delivered a nice performance earlier this year, knocking out a shopworn Jose Luis Castillo with a vicious body punch. Now he's about to return to welterweight for a big money battle with Mayweather.
Some expect a Mayweather blowout of Hatton, since Mayweather is prone to blanking crude guys like Hatton. I still expect Mayweather to win, but believe Hatton could give Mayweather all he can handle. After all, next to the De La Hoya fight, Mayweather's stiffest challenge came against a younger version of the Castillo that Hatton defeated, as Castillo crowded Mayweather and stayed busy against him, especially with punches to the body. That's exactly the kind of fighter Hatton is, if a somewhat less technically sound kind than Castillo was then. The winner could, or should, meet up with the winner of Mosley-Cotto. That would be a big, big fight no matter which fighter meets, given Mosley's well-known name, Cotto's ever-growing fan base, Mayweather's status as the best around and Hatton's rabid Great Britain following.
When and where: Dec. 8, HBO pay-per-view.

BEST OF THE REST

#6 Ricardo Mayorga v. Fernando Vargas
Two over-the-hill sluggers with nothing left to lose -- this is the ultra-popular Vargas' farewell bout, and Mayorga is boxing's premier villain -- are already indulging in fisticuffs and a profane-even-by-boxing standards war of words at news conferences in advance of their fight. It should be spirited when they finally get into the ring at the strange, agreed upon "catchweight" of 162 lbs. Sept. 8, Showtime pay-per-view.

#7 Juan Diaz v. Julio Diaz
Two of the 135-pound division's three belt-holding Diazes rumble in a hardcore fight fan delight to answer at least part of the question about who the best lightweight Diaz is. Young Juan is an all-action, all-the-time fighter who moonlights as a college student; Julio might be a little more of a boxer than a brawler but tends to get into brawls anyway. Oct. 13, HBO.

#8 Roy Jones, Jr. v. Felix Trinidad
Over the last decade or so, Jones and Trinidad have been two of the biggest names in boxing, and the fight that was supposed to happen about five or six years ago has finally arrived. Trinidad's coming out of retirement to meet Jones, on the comeback trail himself after a couple knockout defeats, at another "catchweight" fight at 170 lbs. Jan. 26, pay-per-view, likely Showtime.

#9 Jean-Marc Mormeck v. David Haye
Mormeck is the acknowledged cruiserweight (200 lbs.) champion, while Haye is a young contender. Both men have little to no interest in defense; both spend almost all their time trying to bludgeon their opponents. That usually makes for very entertaining fights, as long as they last. Nov. 10, MSG Network.

#10 Humberto Soto v. Joan Guzman
Soto and Guzman are both on the verge of moving into the upper echelon of the deep junior lightweight division (130 lbs.) inhabited by big names like Pacquiao, Barrera and others. Since they already are the kind of guys who like to stand in front of their man and trade blows, that incentive should add a little more sizzle. Nov. 13, HBO.

6 comments:

dammrod said...

I think Holyfield-Ibragimov can squeak in to the "Best of the Rest" category at #11. It isn't top fighter vs. top fighter, but if Holyfield wins, and I think he has a legitimate chance, it would make his bid to become Undisputed Heavyweight Champion look not so much like a pipe dream. And as Holyfield proved against Lou Savarese, he still has a punch and he can be exciting in spurts.

dammrod said...

Oh, and here are my quick predictions for the fights you've listed. I haven't really thought about them much, so these predictions are based more on "gut instincts" then anything else.

1) Mosley-Cotto

I'm going with Cotto. The man's a beast, and is poised to become a boxing superstar, and deservedly so. Not only is Cotto young and hungry, but the guy is improving, and he always finds a way to keep coming and winning.

2) Calzaghe-Kessler

Truth be told, I want Kessler to win. He's charming and as Emmanuel Steward once said, Kessler has a "rock star" vibe about him that could make him a huge cross-over star. I'm still picking Calzaghe to win. Sometimes I have a hard time really liking Calzaghe. There's an interview on YouTube I saw where Calzaghe flat out says, "I only fight for money." I'm not too thrilled about that, but the man has the skills of an All Time Great, if not the record of one yet.

3) Taylor-Pavlik

I'm going with Pavlik. I have a lot of respect for Taylor, but his skills keep diminishing with each fight, and he hasn't given any indication of improving.

4) Pacquiao-Barrera

Pacquiao by KO. Barrera is still one of the best fighters in the world, but Pacquiao looks like a fighter about to peak and he is awesome to behold.

5) Mayweather-Hatton

I'm picking Mayweather. Mayweather is so talented and so good, and like the author mentioned, Hatton hasn't looked quite as stellar in his past couple of bouts.

6) Vargas-Mayorga

Vargas wins this. This is Vargas' last fight, and he'll want to go out with a bang. Mayorga is always a tough prospect, but his stellar chin hasn't looked so stellar lately. Frankly, I was a little surprised how easily De La Hoya cracked it. Wasn't this the man who took bomb after bomb from Trinidad for 8 rounds?

7) Diaz-Diaz

This is kinda hard to pick. So I'm going with Diaz to beat Diaz.

8) Jones-Trinidad

I pick Trinidad to win. Jones didn't wow me with his last performance against Anthony Hanshaw, and he doesn't have his speed, while Trinidad still packs a punch.

9) Mormeck-Haye

The current Cruiserweight division is underrated in my opinion, and it doesn't get the attention it deserves. Mormeck vs. Haye will be a bombs-away fight, and I highly doubt it will go the distance. Haye looked explosive against Bonin in his last fight, but that was a well-hydrated heavyweight Haye, and even Haye himself said he couldn't perform nearly as well at Cruiserweight because of the amount of weight he has to drain. Mormeck, on the other hand, weighs in at a muscle-bound 200 lbs. and doesn't seem to have a problem coming in at the Cruiserweight limit. I'm going with Mormeck by KO. He has a better record, has a body suited for his division, and I think his pressure and power will eventually overwhelm Haye, who has been knocked out before and was wobbled by the light-hitting Giacobbe Fragomeni.

10) Soto-Guzman

I'm picking Guzman. If it erupts into a brawl, I don't think Soto will be able to withstand Guzman's onslaught.

Tim -- tstarks2@gmail.com said...

My 11-15: Ibragimov-Holyfield; Marquez-Juarez; Maskaev-Peter; Klitscko-McCline; and Dawson-Diaconu.

On board with all your smart observations about winners of the fights. I'm most up in the air about Mosley-Cotto and Calzaghe-Kessler; my gut says Cotto and Kessler, but the track record suggests Calazaghe and I'm about 50-50 on Mosley.

dammrod said...

Who do you think will win the Diaz vs. Diaz fight? I certainly can't come to a solid conclusion, partially because I haven't seen these guys fight that much.

Tim -- tstarks2@gmail.com said...

Sorry for the late reply -- I've been able to post while on vacation but strangely unable to respond to comments.

I've seen Juan a few times; Julio, just once or twice. My skipping over that one was because I opted for something like your clever approach: "I like Diaz." But style-wise, I might lean toward Juan.

dammrod said...

Good. Now I know who to lay my money on.

You better be right Mr. Starks, because those who give Dammrod bad advice get the CORNFIELD!