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.


BOB said...

Taylor - Pavlik: I had Taylor ahead by 2 when he got KO'd. I really thought Pavlik was gone in the 2nd, a lesser ref would have stopped the fight.

Berto - Estrada: There were some great exchanges in this fight. Had Estrada had a better corner man pointing out Berto's flaws he would have had a fighting chance. Berto is not ready for the next level, plus he reminds me of Nate Robinson from the Knicks.

Tim -- said...

Bob: Yeah, Smoger has a reputation for letting guys either get the tar beat out of them before stopping it too late, or, depending on your perspective, letting guys get every chance to recover. Worked out toward the latter, this time around.

And Berto couldn't look more like Nate. Good call.

Dammrod said...

Taylor-Pavlik is the kind of fight that reminds me of why I became a fight fan in the first place. The strength, skill, heart, and drama on display that night served as a visceral example of why their is no sport quite like boxing.

As a Taylor fan I'm disappointed, but I'm glad that the fighter to finally beat Taylor was a guy like Kelly Pavlik. I congratulate the new Middleweight Champion of the World on a well-earned victory.

Tim -- said...

Hey, Dammrod, I'd be proud of your guy. As The Ring's online columnist wrote, and as I've said indirectly, Taylor showed us a lot in losing. I think he'll be more popular for having fought the way he did in defeat than he would if he had won ugly. My predicted outcome was accurate, but the method -- a blowout -- never came to fruition. It's because Taylor exhibited all the same characteristics you listed for the fight.