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.

7 comments:

JimPanzee said...

MY ALLEGIANCE: Pavlik.

hehe. When I write my first book, this quote is going on the cover.

BOB said...

As I have stated before I hate Taylor!! That being said, I still think he finds a way to make it go the distance and Pavlik has not had to do that against quality competition. So my call is Taylor by decision. But I am pulling for a Pavlik KO.

Dammrod said...

MY ALLEGIANCE: Taylor

Taylor was one of my favorite fighters when he was an up-and-coming middleweight. He was exciting, and he dominated all his competition. Not now, of course. Now he has become a frustrating fighter, but I stay loyal to the fighters I become fans of. When Lacy lost almost everyone jumped off the Lacy Bandwagon, but I'm still a Lacy fan. Win, lose, or draw I will remain a Taylor fan and wish him the best.

That said, I like Pavlik a lot. Great guy with an exciting style. No matter who loses, boxing as a spectator sport wins. If Pavlik wins then we have a new exciting middleweight champion. If Taylor wins then that means he finally got his act together. This looks to be a great fight.

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

Jimpanzee: You have my copyright permission. I hope you noticed the allusion to you in my original post about the suspected blowout.

Bob: Sound points. Viable prediction.

Dammrod: For the record, I'm still a Lacy fan. He fought bravely but was outclassed by a more experienced and versatile Calzaghe. I think Lacy still is a fundamentally exciting fighter. I can't say the same for Taylor, but I respect your allegiance.

JimPanzee said...

I did notice the favorable allusion to me in the first post. I also just had a tiny email exchange with Team Pavlik in the hopes of scoring one of those great posters. They have graciously thanked me for my support but do not have posters to sell.

I really like that you and dammrod have been posting your allegiances rather than your predictions. Something about this fight seems to have everybody doing the same thing...refusing to come down substantially on one side or the other in terms of skill, power, ring intelligence, etc but instead voting for who they'd like to see win and why.

Or they are doing what B.O.B. says, predicting one but rooting for the other.

In any case, I'm rooting for Pavlik for namesake reasons and because I think he'll win, but I expect Taylor to have put some real effort into his training regimen (his stated lack of respect for Pavlik notwithstanding). So that might send the fight to him. I just doubt it.

dammrod said...

jimpanzee: Good observation on how this fight has divided fans between Team Taylor and Team Pavlik. This only increases the drama. Now let's hope there are no last minutes injuries.

tim: Us Lacy fans are much harder to come by after Calzaghe beat him. He's still a young, strong fighter with time to improve his craft.

P.S. Go Taylor!

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

Jimpanzee: Too bad. Maybe if Pavlik wins, they'll start selling posters. As for Taylor's training regimen -- I try not to buy into the notion that someone is training really hard THIS TIME, but in this case, for the first time, Taylor IS secluding himself for training. He's prone to not wanting to stray too far from home, and as such can maybe argue that he has been distracted in past training.

Dammrod: Here's hoping Lacy comes back strong from that injury.