Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Fitting Kickoff To Boxing's New Glory Days

And so began a four-month stretch of the sweet science so good that it's gone from "best in 10 years" to "best in 25 years" to "one of the best in history."

This was, without a doubt, a wholly satisfying night of boxing.


Anytime your heart is beating fast watching a fight, you know you're seeing a good one.

The first round had plenty of back-and-forth, dramatic action. The second saw Taylor come one effective combination or flush blow more from checking Pavlik out for the night, with Pavlik enduring one knockdown and miraculously avoiding another. As Pavlik was sticking his tongue out at Taylor after delivered his first beautiful combo, Taylor was getting serious and made his man pay. In the third, Pavlik, somehow rejuvenated, began to establish what I've thought of him all along -- while he's primarily a puncher, and one of the sport's hardest hitters, he also knows a little about the finer art of boxing. For the rest of the show, I thought Pavlik more or less out-boxed Taylor, keeping him on the end of his jab. Taylor, clearly the faster of the pair, won several of the ensuing rounds, and in many of them landed the more serious shots, but I had Pavlik ahead by two going into the decisive seventh, more like HBO's Harold Lederman than all three judges who had Taylor in the lead.

And then Pavlik made the judges irrelevant with a straight right hand from hell, his signature punch, followed up by a flurry of blows that featured a duo of consciousness-erasing uppercuts. I wanted referee Steve Smoger to give Taylor the count, just to see if he could muster continuing -- for all my disdain for Taylor's performances of late, he fought this one with ferocity and almost won. But everyone around me insisted Taylor was slumped over in a heap that made it clear he wasn't going to rise, and Smoger, with his reputation for letting fights continue well past when they should, looked at Taylor and knew it was over. I concede my wrongness here, but it came from a place of wanting to give an admirable champ every chance he could to defend his title.

Two things decided this fight, I think. First, Pavlik proved decisively that he was more than some average plodder, as Taylor's team had derided him. After Taylor proved in the second round that his own lack of knockouts lately was a fluke, Pavlik got smart, working cautiously off his jab until the moment arrived for his true calling, the destructive KO. Second, Taylor didn't look as horrendous technically as he has lately, but he still made his share of mistakes. As he said in the interview afterwards -- correctly, I think -- his team was screaming for the uppercut in the second round as Pavlik stumbled into him repeatedly, and he should have given them a few. He managed to gamely fight his way off the ropes several times, but the time he didn't, hurt in the seventh, he didn't have the senses to hold on, and when he didn't it was too late. Pavlik's defense wasn't as leaky late as it was early, but a busier Taylor might have taken advantage of a few more opportunities.

Next for the winner and loser: Taylor wants a rematch, and is entitled to one by contract. Pavlik wants to give it to him. I'd watch again, and despite Pavlik's conclusive KO, I wouldn't be so certain of a blowout this time. These two are, if not the "perfect matchup" as hyped, a pretty damn good one. I don't care much whether a rematch happens at middleweight (160 lbs.) or a move up in weight to somewhere below super middleweight (168 lbs.) -- the matchup remains unchanged.


Young Berto conquered his biggest mountain yet, knocking out the very tough Estrada in the 11th.

I thought this very entertaining bout could have been stopped around the ninth. After an explosive eighth round that nearly matched the round-of-the-year candidate in the third, it was obvious to me that Estrada had mounted his last hurrah. Make no mistake, Estrada made a fight of this one. Berto was trying to outclass the crude brawler by working off his jab, but Estrada's effective lunges gave Berto no choice but to stand and trade in spots. Only after getting the better of Estrada in those trades was Berto able to play it a little safer, since he'd made Estrada understand that standing toe-to-toe might get him a one-way ticket to the canvas.

Berto looked good, I say. Yes, he got hit plenty early on, but most of Estrada's opponents do. And Estrada got his face rearranged plenty along the way.

Next for the winner: Here comes the big question. As well as Berto performed, which of the jam-packed welterweight (147 lbs.) division's elite could he beat? I would bet against Berto vs. Floyd Mayweather, Jr., Miguel Cotto, Shane Mosley, Paul Williams, Antonio Margarito and Kermit Cintron. I think he'd have serious trouble beating Oscar De La Hoya, Joshua Clottey, Luis Collazo and others. Maybe he should continue to accumulate seasoning against borderline top-10 guys, wait for some of the year's big welterweight fights to settle the pecking order, then launch a challenge against one of the best late next year. He'll find out what he's made of, and even if he loses, he's a fun action fighter whom I would still admire in defeat and he would still just be 25 -- plenty of time to rebound from a loss.
Next for the loser: I really like Estrada. I want him to win a championship, the dream of every fighter, even with the belts having been diluted by the proliferation of sanctioning organizations. Problem is, it just isn't going to happen at welterweight. He has trouble getting down to 147, as his problems on the scale Friday demonstrated. His most recent fights came at junior middleweight (154 lbs.), and he scored KOs there, so he might even be more powerful in a division where he's not weight-drained. Good news: the junior middleweight division might be the most putrid. The likes of Cory Spinks and Vernon Forrest may be a bridge too far, but I bet he could maybe knock off one of the other two. Go north, Estrada. Win a belt, make a bit more money, then retire while you still have your health. Careers like yours don't always end happily, and you still have a chance at it.

Friday, September 28, 2007


The great thing about coming into boxing fandom late is that I have few illusions about its shady side. It's nothing like my early love of baseball being ruined, in succession, by the revelation of my Mets' rampant drug use at a time when Nancy Reagan was telling me "Just Say No!," then by the 1994 strike. Both shattered my impression of baseball, America's pastime, as a pure, true thing. I turned to basketball with a more jaded eye, but I never imagined that a referee would get caught up in a mob gambling scandal, an event that was akin to the first blow to my love for baseball being struck by Dwight Gooden snorting cocaine. You're on probation, NBA.

I know boxing is corrupt, although I believe it's less corrupt than it has been. I knew this before I saw my first fight, and I know it now.

That takes some of the emotional sting out of the headlines about Sugar Shane Mosley having allegedly indulged in a doping regimen. That's not to say I'm any less convinced of doping being wrong -- not at all. From a distance, I watch the unfolding tale of fashion designer Marc Ecko branding Barry Bonds' record-breaking 756th home run ball with an asterisk and I nod approvingly.

Mosley, for those who don't remember, has been affiliated with the BALCO scandal for quite some time. That isn't new. What's new is the specifics of the evidence revealed in the Sports Illustrated piece. They aren't very encouraging, really -- although I would note that Oscar De La Hoya getting gassed in the 12th round of his 2003 fight with Mosley isn't anything that passes much as evidence, since De La Hoya regularly pants his way to the finish line for lack of stamina -- to people who might be inclined to give Mosley the benefit of the doubt. I count myself as something of a fan of Mosley. He's everything I could ever want in a prizefighter. He's fast. He's very skilled. He's got enough power, even at higher weights than his original 135, to make that combination of speed and skill very potent. He's afraid of no one, seeking out time and again tremendously difficult opponents that everyone else had preferred to avoid. And in interviews, he comes across as a pretty good dude.

But here's where I have an advantage: If Mosley did what he is alleged to have done, I'm disappointed, yes. My potential Mosley fandom -- already diminished by the BALCO allegations anyway -- will fade away. And I fear that his welterweight (147 lbs.) title bout against Miguel Cotto, the best fight on paper in a shining constellation of fall and winter showdowns unlike any seen in boxing for a very long time, will now be diminished or tainted. I'd say the more this is sinking in, mere hours since the news broke, all of those things have begun happening for me. But I'm not surprised or caught off-guard.

Illusions or no, boxing doesn't need this right now. It's on the verge, with a few nice chess moves, of reestablishing itself somewhat with the broader public, having produced its biggest money-making event ever this summer and capitalizing on it by putting up some intensely needed big-time fights for the rest of the year. To all those boxers out there thinking about steroids and other illicit means of getting ahead, heed my advice: "Just Say No." Nothing can be done about 2003, but, you know, going forward. I may continue to follow your exploits, but I'm pre-jaded. Nobody's looking to give your sport the benefit of the doubt now, at this sensitive time in boxing's history. This is exactly the kind of thing someone thinking about watching more boxing is going to look at and say, "Nah. Now I remember why I stopped tuning in." And won't your purses be all the bigger if more people care than not?

Or, rather, D.A.R.E. to resist drugs before violence.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

While You're At It, Please Do Slap A Fantastic Undercard Fight On There

As if the aforementioned can't-miss showdown between the two best middleweights (160 lbs.) around -- Jermain Taylor and Kelly Pavlik -- wasn't good enough for one Saturday night, HBO put a crackerjack fight on the undercard. In one corner we have Andre Berto, the ESPN 2006 prospect of the year and a crowd-pleasing knockout artist, and in the other we have David Estrada, the tough, brawling borderline contender who was one half of last year's early 2006 fight of the year nominee with Kermit Cintron.

This one has drama written all over it.

Both men are severely allergic to putting it in reverse, preferring to shift their offense into overdrive. Both think a victory in this title eliminator gets them to where they desperately want to go next -- in Berto's case, on the precipice of a title challenge, and in Estrada's case, in line for a rematch with beltholder Cintron and a chance to avenge his last loss. Each inhabit boxing's glamor division, the jam-packed welterweight (147 lbs.) class.

Berto is coming off his near-disastrous win over Cosme Rivera, his first fight against anyone you couldn't call a stiff. Pretty much everyone else before Rivera, Berto had sledgehammered into unconsciousness with his complete array of weaponry. Instead, losing decisively, the crafty Rivera laid out Berto in the sixth with a left uppercut. Berto stumbled back to his corner, slowly recovered -- perhaps aided by some conveniently loose tape on his glove between rounds that caused a delay and gave him time to swat away the tweety birds circling his head -- and opened a nasty cut over Rivera's eye, then pulled out a decision win. From the looks of things, to me, Berto got caught by a beauty of a punch from a more experienced foe as he got impatient and careless in his compulsion to take out Rivera. Yet for some, the knockdown dented Berto's aura of super-prospect. Indeed, the fight did expose him, to me, as having short arms that could be a liability against taller welterweights, like, say, Cintron, who could keep him on the end of a jab. Something to worry about later, maybe.

That shouldn't be an issue with Estrada. His inner boxing computer is programmed to get him inside on his man and slug away. He's got two straight knockouts over borderline opponents since his first KO loss, to Cintron. In a fight where momentum swayed back and forth from round to round and even minute to minute, Estrada gave Cintron, still rebuilding his confidence at the time after his debilitating KO loss to Antonio Margarito, everything he could handle. For most of the fight, no matter what Cintron hit him with, Estrada kept charging. But Cintron's power, and a technique honed by new trainer Emmanuel Steward, eventually shattered the iron chin of Estrada. Either way, Estrada is ferocious, if not a little crude, and it wouldn't be smart to underestimate someone who fights like a wolverine until he can no more.

This is as good an archetypal battle as you're likely to find between fresh young challenger -- Berto's only 24 -- and dangerous gatekeeper.

MY PREDICTION: Berto, by late round KO or decision. I don't think Berto hits as hard as Cintron, but he's not far behind in the league of elite power-punchers. Before the Cintron fight, and even during it, it looked very much like it would take an anvil dropped from a cliff, Wile E. Coyote-style, to put Estrada on the deck. On the other hand, once an unknockoutable fighter is knocked out once, it's usually easier the second time. Even if Estrada lasts to the bell, he's not as technically sound as Berto, I don't think, which should give the young talent the edge he needs to win a decision.
CONFIDENCE: 65%. Not only is Estrada tough, but he's got the edge in experience, having lost to Shane Mosley, Ishe Smith and of course Cintron. That may point to an inability to rise to the occasion, but because Estrada fought so well in some of his losses, I think it can't hurt him to have been in against the better competition. He's also gone the distance more than Berto, so conditioning could work to his favor. One scenario in my mind has Estrada surviving Berto's onslaught then wearing down the younger, greener fighter en route to a decision or even a knockout. A KO is less feasible, though, because I think Berto's knockdown was unique, not an indicator that he can't take a punch. And I expect Berto's going to fight Estrada much smarter than he did in his moments of overeagerness against Rivera. It should be enough.
MY ALLEGIANCE: Like Pavlik, Berto's on my blog's side rail (to the right) of favorite fighters. But I've also got a soft spot for the kind of fighter called a "gatekeeper," as I've mentioned before. I'll be in Berto's corner, but secretly thrilled if Estrada climbs the ropes of his in celebration.

Berto may need the services of Mr. Coyote to hurt Estrada, but either way I expect him to win.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Can't Get Much Better Than The Best Fighting The Best

It sounds so obvious, doesn't it?: The two best boxers in a weight class ought to fight each other. Maybe, in the old days, it wasn't celebrated, because it was expected, demanded, regularly consummated. It's rarer today. It's happening this weekend, in fact, in the middleweight division (160 lbs.) once prowled by everyone from Sugar Ray Robinson to Marvin Hagler. And that, to me, is cause for rejoicing. It doesn't matter whether anyone outside boxing fandom knows who the two best guys are anymore. The names matter less than the circumstances. When the best of the best meet, you're wise to watch.

Saturday night's match between the man everyone considers the real middleweight champion, Jermain Taylor, and the man everyone considers to be the best challenger, Kelly Pavlik, is your chance. It is viewed as the unofficial beginning of one a tremendous fall and winter season for the sport that will push 2007 over the edge as the best year for boxing in perhaps a decade. Both Taylor and Pavlik are undefeated. Both are young, hungry fighters. You need to know that, per one of boxing's oldest maxims, "styles make fights," that their contrasting skills and methods offer the potential for a very intriguing bout. But what else do you need to know about them?

Taylor is the gifted Olympian, the athletic specimen whose humble demeanor has cloaked the inner, tough country boy from Arkansas. Too soon in his career, in 2005 after just barely 20 pro fights, he was thrown to the division's all-time longest-reigning champ, Bernard Hopkins. In what was thought to be one of the savvy vet's last bouts, Taylor was intended to pose just enough of a threat to be credible but too green to threaten perhaps the sport's most cerebral warrior. What everyone underestimated was Taylor's heart. He chased Hopkins all over the place, barely winning over the judges by the end of a fight in which even Taylor, despite his grit and energy, was surprised to emerge victorious. In the rematch, his victory was less disputed, but at best, just a hair's breadth separated him from Hopkins. Hopkins makes everyone he fights look horrid and clumsy, because Hopkins doesn't get hit much, and little is as aesthetically displeasing to a boxing fan as one guy ducking and dodging while the other guy swings hopelessly for 12 rounds. So what did the new champ do? Taylor went right on to the next defensive maestro, and maybe the only guy who makes his opponents look worse than Hopkins: Winky Wright, considered then about the second best fighter in the sport, in any weight class. About the only thing you can hit on Wright is his forearms, because he is a deft punch-blocker who has historically employed the minimum amount of offense required to win each round. They fought to a draw, but it is here, in this fight, where Taylor's star began to plummet, even though the fight was one of the best of the year. No longer was Taylor pumping out what HBO commentator Jim Lampley called his "shotgun jab." He spent a lot of time backing up -- a curiously bad habit for the combatant thought to be bigger and faster and therefore with the apparent offensive edge. And this was all happening even with Emmanuel Steward, arguably the best trainer in the business, trying to hone his rough edges. Those edges only got rougher when he failed to knock out, or even dominate, two fighters moving up from 154 lbs. to challenge him. Forget that both southpaw challengers -- 1,000-punch-per-fight-busybody Kassim Ouma and defensive specialist Cory Spinks of the famous fighting Spinks family -- posed difficult style problems. Taylor has nearly erased entirely in the minds of boxing fans his hard-won victories, moral and otherwise. Parades in Arkansas have given way to Taylor getting ragged on in his home state. And that's why he needs to beat Kelly Pavlik.

Pavlik isn't a mystery, not like Hopkins and Wright, much less Ouma and Spinks. Pavlik comes straight at his man, dropping bombs prolifically. No one around today has Pavlik's combination of power and volume. His nickname may be "The Ghost," but he largely dispenses with defense because he knows that hardly anyone can stand up to his arsenal and it's worth the risk of getting hit if he can improve his chances of dishing his out. Only three of his 31 victims have survived to the final bell, and his knockouts are frequently of a Halloween-like quality. At 25, he is four years younger than Taylor, but has stayed busier. At the same time Taylor was fighting a living legend, though, Pavlik was just beginning to fight anyone but cannon fodder in 2005. His opponent was the sturdy Fulgencio Zuniga, who knocked Pavlik down in the first round. Pavlik got back up and knocked out Zuniga in the ninth. There were valuable lessons about overcoming adversity against a credible opponent, but Zuniga's no Hopkins. A couple more fights against lower-caliber but worthy competition passed before Pavlik took on his first truly serious challenge, against Edison Miranda, hailed by many as the hardest-hitting man in boxing. In a scintillating brawl, Pavlik never showed a moment of fear, opting instead to amp up his punch count for every crunching blow Miranda landed. To the surprise of HBO's boxing commentators, who had been heavily hyping Miranda -- but not to me, and not to a great many hardcore fans -- it was Pavlik who left Miranda crumpled in a heap on the end of a sensational power explosion. And it was Pavlik who answered any lingering questions about his ability to take a punch, and about his own grit. He's just as likable, by the way, as Taylor, hailing from the friendly Midwest.

It must be said that there is a chance that this fight won't live up to the hype. Some fights are can't-miss because the two combatants have a history of throwing caution to the wind and deciding either to win by knockout or lose by knockout. Only one of the men here -- Pavlik -- has demonstrated such a history. That's not to say Taylor's a coward; he is precisely the opposite. Agreeing to fight Pavlik took serious cojones. But some, including myself, think Taylor will choose his spots, preferring to win a decision with a jab-and-grab strategy rather than mount a direct assault on a slower opponent who in his last fight took the best punches a big puncher had to offer. That's especially likely considering Taylor hasn't knocked anyone out, not even littler guys, since before he fought Hopkins. So why would Taylor think he would be the one to crack Pavlik's sterling jaw? That could lead to an entertaining chess match, but it could lead to a boring stalemate. I also think the fight could be a blowout in Pavlik's favor, and even if that outcome would be more exciting than a boring chess stalemate, closely-contested battles make for better viewing than one-sided affairs.

Still, this fight a can't-miss instead for all the reasons I mentioned above. Two young, undefeated fighters. A potentially intriguing style clash. The best fighting the best. For me, that's plenty.

(And there's always the stellar undercard fight, to be covered in this space soon, pitting ESPN's 2006 prospect of the year, Andre Berto, against David Estrada, a very dangerous gatekeeper Berto would have to beat before he can challenge for a title...)

MY PREDICTION: Pavlik by KO, around the 9th. I don't see how Taylor suddenly corrects his quizzical technical deficiencies in time for Pavlik not to exploit them. Backing up with your hands down, defenseless, as Taylor has done in three consecutive fights even with his trainer Steward screaming at him between rounds to cease and desist, is a recipe for getting clocked by Pavlik. Ouma, another volume puncher like Pavlik, landed fewer blows against Taylor than he had against others, but he still landed plenty. Ouma hardly knocked anyone out is his more natural junior middleweight division. Hopkins hadn't knocked out a real middleweight for two years prior to his battles with Taylor, and yet Hopkins had Taylor on the verge of a knockdown several times. If Pavlik lands the same blows Ouma or Hopkins did, it's only a matter of time before Taylor hits the deck for a long count.
CONFIDENCE: 75%. If Taylor's never fought anyone as powerful as Pavlik, neither has Pavlik fought anyone with hands this fast. Should Taylor dodge most of Pavlik's punches, and land enough quick ones between Pavlik's to once again please the judges, he can walk away with the decision. When I predicted a blowout for Pavlik, however, the betting public had Taylor and Pavlik neck and neck. Now, the smart money's increasingly on Pavlik.
MY ALLEGIANCE: Pavlik. I like Taylor's personality, and before he fought Wright, I liked how he performed in the ring. Nowadays, he's maddening. Still, I won't be rooting against him. I will instead be cheering for Pavlik, about as crowd-pleasing a fighter as there is in the sport. And isn't it that, more than anything, that boxing needs more of right now?

I'm usually too cynical to post official promotional material, but I'm enthused about this one. Also the poster is sooooo cool. And I'm going to stop now before my Cynicism Card is revoked.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

My First Freelance Boxing Piece

Eastside Boxing, one of the more popular boxing-exclusive websites out there -- by my math, it's in the top five -- has graciously agreed to publish one of my items. It should look familiar, since they ran this post as-is. The headline, I guess, still made sense to them. At any rate, here it is:

I'm Flattered, Really, But Word Is,They're Fakes

A number of people I've managed to lure into reading my meager boxing musings have approached me for my thoughts on the photos circulating on the web that depict a cross-dressing Oscar De La Hoya. On one level, I didn't quite know what to say to them, or anyone, really. I didn't want to get into the politics of cross-dressing. I had no evidence the pictures were authentic. And even if I could've overcome those obstacles, what unique insights might I have into boxing's sole remaining superstar enjoying the fishnets? That it was a bad strategic move, given that rabid Mexican boxing fans already frowned at De La Hoya for his perceived deficit of machismo? That it was somehow related to, or practice for, his bet with Sugar Ray Leonard, which I wrote about here? I'd opted merely to send a couple people the link to what I'd written about De La Hoya wearing a dress for his bet. That post, in and of itself, contained a link to a previous post discussing the issue of De La Hoya wearing a dress.

(It occurs to me I've devoted a strange amount of space on my blog so far to De La Hoya dressing as a woman. As I write, this phenomenon is only becoming more pronounced.)

It turns out I was wise not to post until now. De La Hoya's agent tells Radar the pictures are phony. I believe him. Until I see definitive proof otherwise. But, really, when I look at them -- and I only looked at one or two before I felt like I'd gotten the gist -- the angles on his head and other potential indicators of fakeness suggest to me, a purely amateur judge of fake photos, that they are, indeed, lies.

So: I trust that sates everyone's curiosity. For now. In the meantime, thanks for thinking of me. I swear to do you justice when next you throw me a promising lead.

And I won't post a suspected fake picture of De La Hoya in drag after this sentence.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Due to High Expectations, Seven Punch Combo Is Providing Needles for Your Balloons

Robbed of the ability to make predictions on a handful of big fights that were recently postponed, and feeling the anxiety all boxing fans are feeling these days that more postponements could tarnish the outstanding fall and winter lineup of exciting matches, I decided to turn my predictive powers (such as they are) to possible future postponements.

This is not intended to be some totally flippant exercise. Partially flippant, maybe, but there's reason for partial seriousness about this, too. In August, the season ahead raised expectations of fight fans, including myself, to unrealistic heights. Those expectations have been punctured by the delay of three major, or at least meaningful, bouts: Vargas-Mayorga, Klitschko-McCline and Marquez-Juarez. Two have been moved to other dates, with Marquez-Juarez landing on free Showtime, a blessing in disguise since I wasn't planning on buying it for $44.95 on HBO PPV as originally scheduled. Klitschko-McCline is gone for good, with Vitali and Jameel, respectively, heading their separate ways.

But perhaps they need a little extra puncturing, these expectations. I've always found myself better off with low expectations exceeded, rather than high expectations diminished. After they graduated from cult favorites to one-hit wonders in the 1990s, my favorite music group, the Flaming Lips, churned out a quick EP entitled "Due to High Expectations, the Flaming Lips are Providing Needles for Your Balloons." A few years later, they delivered an all-time great album, "The Soft Bulletin." I'm rooting for things to go the way of the Flaming Lips -- expectations exceeded -- but since a number of these stellar fights ahead stand a decent (or greater) chance of postponement, I hereby provide needles for your balloons.

Joe Calzaghe-Mikkel Kessler
Nov. 3
Super middleweight (168 lbs.)
Risk factors: There may not be a more brittle fighter than Calzaghe. It's amazing that someone who can take such blows in the ring, and deliver them with hands that are serially broken, is so prone to match-canceling injuries.
Chances of postponement: Slightly worse than even. To the point that one writer -- I can't remember whom -- was recently pining for Calzaghe to be hermetically sealed until November. But Joe has been more stable of late, so maybe hermetic sealing is a step too far.

Jermain Taylor-Kelly Pavlik
Sept. 29
Middleweight (160 lbs.)
Risk factors: Both men are tall middleweights -- Taylor stands at 6'1" and Pavlik tops 6'2" -- who have complained they suffer tremendously trying to chop themselves down to 160. The weight problem is such that they almost had this one at super-middleweight. If this fight is postponed, it would be disenchanting, since it's the first truly big fight of the season.
Chances of postponement: Minor, but significant. Reports out of the camps that both guys on track to make weight by next Saturday are positive. But Fernando Vargas was bragging about how good he felt trying to get down to his proper weight just days before he postponed his battle with Ricardo Mayorga.

Fernando Vargas-Ricardo Mayorga
Nov. 23
Between middleweight and super middleweight (162 lbs.)
Risk factors: That it's already been postponed once ain't good. Vargas turned up anemic along the way to losing about 100 lbs. Mayorga isn't a model of reliability himself, since he almost bailed out of his fight with Oscar De La Hoya at the last minute last year.
Chances of postponement: Awfully likely, although a second postponement would probably equal cancellation. Is anyone making sure Fernando isn't blimping out right now? I wouldn't be surprised if he still looks like Eddie Murphy in a fat suit come late October.

Roy Jones, Jr.-Felix Trinidad
Jan. 26
Between super middleweight and light heavyweight (175 lbs.)
Risk factors: Jones is erratic as hell. He's constantly pulling out of proposed fights, even eschewing big paydays.
Chances of postponement: Meh. Jones needs this payday more than any other, since he's on the downside of his career. I doubt he'll risk it, but I don't count out the possibility.

Humberto Soto-Joan Guzman
Nov. 13
Junior lightweight (130 lbs.)
Risk factors: Soto decided, against the advice of everyone, to take a tune-up fight this past weekend, jeopardizing this bout if he lost or even if he endured a deep cut that wouldn't heal in time.
Chances of postponement: Soto-Guzman looks safe. Humberto won his weekend tune-up easily, and reports are that he was hardly scratched. Joan, don't get any bright ideas for your own tune-up.

Juan Manuel Marquez-Rocky Juarez
Nov. 3
Junior lightweight (130 lbs.)
Risk factors: This fight appears cursed. First, Jorge Barrios dropped out with injuries, promoting Juarez to his replacement. Then, Marquez developed an infection on his fist. Seriously, how does that happen? Hasn't anyone in Marquez' camp heard of Neosporin?
Chances of postponement: Depends on your level of superstition. I'm going to say I think this one's had enough misfortune and is going to happen.

Sultan Ibragimov-Evander Holyfield
Oct. 13
Heavyweight (200 lbs. +)
Risk factors: Holyfield's already a replacement for the fishily-injured-then-training-a-couple-weeks-later Ruslan Chagaev, so it, too, has a track record. Holyfield has worked through his endless health problems, from heart conditions to damaged shoulders to freaking hepatitis, for chrissakes, but his history and advanced age are cause for hand-wringing.
Chances of postponement: Not very likely. Ibragimov needs to beat Holyfield in the highest-profile bout of his career to capture the public's imagination, and Holyfield's on something of a holy mission to become a five-time heavyweight champ.

Oleg Maskaev-Sam Peter
Oct 6
Heavyweight (200 lbs. +)
Risk factors: Maskaev and his handlers did virtually everything they could not to take this fight, and conventional wisdom is that they're worried the aging Maskaev is going to get splattered in a high-risk, low-reward battle that could end his marketability just as it had reached its improbable peak.
Chances of postponement: Low. Peter's team played hardball to force this match to happen. Anyone think that if it's postponed any other word besides "lawsuit" is the first to pop into the Peter crew's mind?

Vitali Klitschko-anyone
No date
Heavyweight (200 lbs. +)
Risk factors: The last few years of Vitali's career are marked by fight postponements, cancellations, retirements and un-retirements. That he's returned to training already after screwing up his back may bode well, but I rate...
Chances of postponement: almost certain. Too bad, too. Vitali has always been the more passionate of the formidable Klitschko brother duo, but his big brother Vladimir is just not as fragile. Sorry to say it, but Vitali is an old gray mare in boxing years, and maybe worse, because he just can't climb into the ring anymore come fight night.

Kid Rock-Tommy Lee
No date
No weight limit set
Risk factors: For one, the fight just hasn't been set yet. For another, proposals to put feuding rock stars into the boxing ring have traditionally gone nowhere. Remember Axl Rose-Vince Neil?
Chances of postponement: I don't think this fight is going to happen. I hear tell the little one they had at the Video Music Awards wasn't much to watch anyway.

Miguel Cotto-Shane Mosley; Floyd Mayweather-Ricky Hatton; Jean-Marc Mormeck-David Haye; Juan Diaz-Julio Diaz; Manny Pacquiao-Marco Antonio Barrera
Assorted dates
Assorted weight classes
Risk factors: Thankfully, not very many. All of these guys are pros who have little history or delaying or canceling bouts, even when they've had injuries or weight problems. Could Juan Diaz, college student/boxer, oversleep studying for a test the next week? Could Ricky "Fatton" spend too much time in the pubs? Could Shane Mosley injure his tooth again, the one he wiggled after KOing Vargas as he explained why he couldn't fight Mayweather in the fall? Could Floyd strain an achilles doing the foxtrot on "Dancing With The Stars?" Maybe, but I doubt it. No, I think all these big, exciting fights are pretty close to a sure thing.
Chances that I'll wuss out and end on a positive note: Already did.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

What If The "Bible Of Boxing" Was Owned By A Promoter?

Answer: It is now, per the good discussion with Dammrod in the comments section of yesterday's post. Golden Boy Promotions has purchased Ring Magazine and the affiliate boxing pubs that, together, constitute the biggest print journalism outlets in the sport.

But what does it mean?

Ring's sterling reputation was tarnished severely only once, interestingly enough when promoter Don King paid to have the magazine's highly-respected rankings of fighters manipulated to his advantage. So, in one sense, it's good that this time, the whole thing is out in the open. And Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions is taking steps to build a wall
between its promotional operations and the magazine so as to maintain its editorial independence. This, too, is a good thing. And so far, in its short and very prosperous rise to power, Golden Boy has avoided getting caught up in any major promotional scandals, save that wacky incident in the airport this year where De La Hoya himself showed up to greet Filipino boxing sensation Manny Pacquiao with a suitcase full of cash in hopes of stealing him away from a rival promoter.

But all of that is cold comfort. As a journalist by trade, it's hard to imagine a worse owner for the industry's leading magazine than perhaps the industry's leading promoter. As I said to Dammrod: "It'd be like if Lockheed Martin owned Defense News, or if Sallie Mae owned the Chronicle of Higher Education." It is my sincerest hope that Golden Boy lives up to its promise to be a more ethical kind of boxing promoter, but power tends to corrupt, and promotional companies, for all the good they do, have quite frequently been a negative force on the sport, at points practically ruining it. Too often, they rob their fighters. Too often, they've shown they'll do anything to get ahead, even if it means breaking the law. When they get too flush with their own riches, they turn into bullies and end up dominating whole networks, shutting out fighters who don't play by their rules and pushing bad fights that only serve the promoter's own interests and not those of the boxing viewing public. Boxing journalists must, must, must serve as a check on those tendencies.

Can they, I wonder, if they are wholly paid for by the very people they are meant to check? I can't imagine how. In journalism generally, corporate ownership has not led to the type of scandals many feared when the trend began, although there have been a shameful handful. I can only say that none of this is ideal, and watch closely, as all fans of the sport must, to ensure that the people watching out for wrongdoing don't get involved in wrongdoing themselves. The Ring, by virtue of its history, has earned my trust until it loses it, but right now, I am looking at the magazine with a very skeptical eye.

The cover to the first issue of The Ring. The logo's hardly changed. But now that it's changed hands, and those hands are a boxing promoter's, can the magazine ever be the same?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Tribute To The Gatekeeper

Boxing, sometimes called "the hardest game," is filled from top to bottom with unfathomably difficult jobs in the ring. I don't mean the cutmen and trainers and other folk whose work sometimes goes unheralded. I mean the unofficial "jobs" of various boxers. From the bottom -- the guys who make their money as cannon fodder to help better boxers build their records -- to the top -- the guys who win a championship and only fight the very best -- there isn't really an easy one in the lot.

Fulgencio Zuniga's defeat of Victor Oganov in a super-middleweight (168 lbs.) battle on Showtime Sept. 2, which I only recently witnessed in replay via On-Demand, has me brimming with admiration for the boxing job known as "gatekeeper." These are the guys who make their living being a particularly stern test for up-and-coming young fighters, often just before they get a big title shot. Gatekeepers are usually ranked in the top 10 of some of the organizations that hand out belts, but not always. Zuniga, like other gatekeepers, shares a number of characteristics with his gatekeeping peers. He is tough as nails. He has a quirky, difficult style. He is not amazingly gifted, but he has enough talent and savvy to give anyone a rough night (as he did most notably against a personal favorite of mine, Kelly Pavlik).

Lost in Zuniga's defeat of Oganov was just how much of Oganov's loss had to do with Zuniga. The broadcast team acknowledged it throughout, but most of the press on the fight focused on how bad Oganov looked. Justly, sure. The Russian had been heralded as a potentially major sensation, with a 26-0 record that was composed entirely on knockouts. In the fight, though, he looked amateurish. He demonstrated some power, but just as many of his blows were delivered like slaps and would threaten no one. Oganov mostly stood around in front of Zuniga doing nothing while Zuniga hit him without fear of getting hit back. It's understandable that the story of the fight was the puncturing of Oganov's balloon. But Zuniga worked his ass off for that win. Even after a first round knockdown, Zuniga never stopped pressuring Oganov, kept moving at odd angles to prevent Oganov from attacking him, and by the ninth, Zuniga knocked him out for a win that took guts, intelligence and plenty of effort.

That gatekeepers routinely fight the best up-and-comers despite their lack of world-class ability, knowing going in that they are there to lose, shows a kind of bravery that is rarely recognized. Of course, some of them may not have a choice. They're not good enough to fight for a title, usually, and that means their biggest purses are going to come against some phenom. More often than not, they do lose. And they take a terrible beating in the process.

The ones who at least do well will find themselves on TV again, soon to test another young, strong guy on his way to stardom. But sometimes they win, like Zuniga did. And when they do it frequently enough, they do sometimes graduate to the job of "contender." I'll be rooting for Zuniga to do just that.

Fulgencio's win had to do other Zunigas, such as Daphne, proud. I know it did me, and I think it did boxing.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Dresses, Egomania, Ripoffs And Knuckleheads

Upon my return from a work trip, I find boxing still in its late summer doldrums prior to its outstanding fights just around the corner. And so, random thoughts...

  • A brief bit of bragging: The Ring's William Dettloff, a writer whose work I admire, recently penned an item on Ricardo Mayorga as boxing's ultimate villain. That would be the same topic of a blog entry by yours truly not so very long ago. I can't claim that Dettloff saw my piece, but if I was ahead of such a tremendous fight scribe by that much, maybe I'm getting the hang of this thing. I still recommend his piece, because it makes many different points than mine, all of them thoughtful.
  • A brief bit of self-deprecation to compensate: I struck out on yet another fight prediction, picking Kendall Holt to defeat Ricardo Torres. But it seems what I underestimated was not Holt, but Torres' home-court advantage in Colombia. The 11th round stoppage by the referee, which I'd read about but only just now viewed, was very questionable. Holt was ahead on two of the three scorecards when Torres dropped him. Holt was undoubtedly hurt, but was on his feet, was trying to hold, and was even throwing a punch when the referee stepped in to call it off and give the win to Torres. Things had become extremely chaotic after Torres knocked down Holt, with fans showering the ring in beer, and Holt, slipping on his feet, may have looked more hurt than he was because of it -- not to mention that it's up to the referee to make sure the mat is not dangerous to the fighters. There better be a rematch of what looks and sounded like a solid rumble up to that point, and it better not be in Colombia. Let me know what you think of the stoppage, captured here.
  • There's something very disturbing and simultaneously crafty about the bet between Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya that will result in one or both of them playing ring card girl in the final fight of next weekend. The gist is that two fighters from Leonard's "Contender" TV show will take on two fighters from De Le Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions. If Contender fighters go 2-0, De La Hoya ascends to ring card girl duties for the headlining fight between Juan Manuel Marquez and Rocky Juarez, and Leonard will do the same if Golden Boy fighters go 2-0. In the event of a tie, both will do the ring card girl thing. I wonder what happens in the event of draws or no contests, but I do not wonder what either man looks like in a bikini or dress or whatever. According to USA Today, this has generated interest in what was otherwise a decent but not must-buy pay-per-view event. I can't for the life of me imagine why, although the main event and the scrap pitting Sergio Mora against Kassim Ouma could both be nice. But as I've said before in the aforementioned blog entry on Mayorga's antics, I don't much care what generates interest in boxing, so long as interest is generated, and therefore I commend both men for putting their masculinity on the line for their sport. And maybe if Leonard wins the bet, Mayorga finally gets to see De La Hoya in that "Golden Girl" dress he taunted him with last year.
  • I find myself torn over the strange impulse I have to watch Zab Judah fight a nobody tonight in the final Friday Night Fights of the season on ESPN. I'd previously only watched Judah in hopes that someone would hit him so hard he'd do that funny dance he does when he gets clocked but good. That's because Judah is one of my least favorite kind of athletes, the gifted knucklehead. Now that he's on a three-fight losing streak, I should have no interest in him whatsoever, but Judah's got to be the most marketable guy in boxing on a three-fight losing streak. He finally showed some guts in his grueling loss to Miguel Cotto this year. And at his best, he's always been a captivating talent. Plus, Cotto and Shane Mosley are going to be in the studio to hype their superfight on Nov. 10. On the other hand, IFC is airing all the new chapters of R. Kelly's "Trapped In A Closet" at around the time Judah will be paving the way to another big welterweight (147 lbs.) fight. Or it'll be around the time he's getting clocked and looking silly as he flops around like a fish out of water, something you can't discount happening when Judah's in against a nobody.

And then, Judah did what has since become best known as the chicken dance, to be viewed here, although I have compared it to both a fish and funny puppet flopping around, and others have called it the rubberman dance.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Reflections On Mike Tyson

I've spent several hours this afternoon viewing "Fallen Champ: Mike Tyson," a documentary produced in 1993, two years after Tyson raped a beauty queen named Desiree Washington. It's a remarkable piece of work for a great many reasons. For instance, the numerous off-key defenses of his actions with Ms. Washington are shocking. On one hand, two of his bodyguards say, respectively, "'People say we touch women's asses. Well, people want to be touched," and "We get accused of reaching out and grabbing women. But if I grab you, that means you're close enough for me to reach you, and that says a lot"; on the other hand, there are the ministers, among them Louis Farrakhan, mocking the idea that Ms. Washington might not have wanted to be forced into sex. In the audience, Don King laughs along at this bit of unhilarity. Such scenes illustrate perfectly one of the central premises of the film, the notion that Mike Tyson was a troubled youth who, when positive role models were supplanted by destructive ones, became dangerous to himself and others outside the ring. (Even with good role models, Tyson was fragile. The first half of the documentary contains amazing footage of Mike at 15. In on scene, following a quick knockout of his opponent at the Junior Olympics, he had to be coaxed back into the building for the next fight by trainer Teddy Atlas. Tyson was outside crying for what appears to be no reason.)

This insight into Tyson, about influences and his fragility, is not original, although the film adds tremendous depth and contour to it. What I found most compelling were two insights contradictory to conventional wisdom, one of which I have long subscribed to and the other of which I had never heard uttered.

The first is a challenge to the orthodoxy on Tyson that I was glad to see someone else besides myself espouse. The traditional line of thinking goes that as soon as anyone stood up to him without fear -- Buster Douglas originally, then Evander Holyfield and others -- Tyson was revealed as a sub-par heavyweight who thrived on intimidation. The bully theory is kind of accurate; the look of terror in his opponents' eyes was at times palpable, and can't have been conducive to victory. But that, along with the sheer power he was blessed with, was only part of what made Tyson great. In reality, Tyson was once a skilled boxing technician who gobbled up fight footage like candy and tied his legendary power to ring intelligence, compounding the threat he posed. By the time Tyson faced Douglas, his boxing technique had long faded. Watch early Tyson, even Tyson from the start of his heavyweight reign, and compare him to the fighter who stepped into the ring in Japan. He was a different boxer. Douglas hit him at will. Early Tyson got hit cleanly only on rare occasions, because of his constant, almost manic head movement. Early Tyson was a ferocious body puncher who also set up his biggest punches with a jab. By the Douglas fight, he swung for the home run almost exclusively and neglected the body, ignoring the old boxing maxim that "if you kill the body, the head will die." Although the documentary does not make some of those points explicitly, it features the first experts I've ever heard making the point that it was more than a bad divorce with Robin Givens and a brave Douglas that did Tyson in that night -- it was rust on his skills that accumulated then culminated in one of the greatest upsets in sports history. Tyson, always a small heavyweight at about 5'10", would have had trouble with the tall Douglas anyway, even if he had maintained that excellent technique, and if his unbeaten reign had survived Holyfield in this hypothetical world (I think it would have), then Lennox Lewis (at least, a seasoned Lewis) probably beats Tyson. Too bad we never got to see if I'm right.

The second revealing point the documentary made to me -- more a question it raised than an argument, per se -- is that Cus D'Amato, the trainer and father figure to Tyson credited with turning him from an armed robber into a semi-dignified champion, may not have been the saintly influence he is thought to have been. Certainly, Cus deserves a great deal of credit. But numerous examples in the film suggest D'Amato's willingness to let Tyson get away with indiscretions may have been too generous. When Tyson threatened a teacher with violence, he was not severely punished by D'Amato. Teddy Atlas said of this incident that it established in Tyson's mind that there were no repercussions for treating people with disrespect. When Tyson sexually propositioned a much younger girl, Atlas took matters into his own hands, apparently threatening Tyson at gunpoint, apparently in part because Atlas was close to the girl in some way. Atlas probably went too far. But rather than work out the differences and righting both wrongs, Cus kicked Atlas to the curb and stood by Tyson. D'Amato died in 1985, shaking Tyson right to his core. It no doubt was one key element of him becoming a "Fallen Champ." But it is clearer to me now than it was before that had Cus lived a few more years, it would not have stopped Tyson from doing something that would have landed him in jail eventually. And that makes all those hypotheticals about what "might have been if" so much more distant, to my lament.

Too bad this version of Mike was never to return.