Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Big Big Fight Everybody's Talking About Could Be A Scorcher

Finally. It's almost here. One of the biggest fights of the year. The most important super middleweight (168 lbs.) clash in more than a decade. A rare belt-unifying bout. The consensus champion against the consensus #1 contender. A rising star against boxing's longest-reigning champ. Neither has ever lost once. An event that will draw at least 40,000 fans to a stadium in England. Oh, and for the ladies: I understand that the two combatants are "hotties" who could also model if they wanted.

As close as this weekend is, I wish I could get in a time machine and travel forward to the exact moment this Saturday when the bell rings and Joe Calzaghe and Mikkel Kessler square off. That's how good this could be.

Calzaghe, 35, is the one who comes into Saturday night on top. He's been there for a decade himself, never losing his championship strap once he won it in October of 1997. For every one of those years until 2006, hardly anyone outside of his home base of Wales thought much of Calzaghe, even when he won an 2003 exciting up-and-down slugfest against Byron Mitchell or defeated moderate-sized fish like Robin Reid or Omar Sheika. That's because for every Sheika, there were two fighters that no one ever heard of. But in 2006, he shed his "protected champion" label with a drubbing of Jeff Lacy, whose convincing knockouts and muscular build evoked a smaller Mike Tyson. Calzaghe did it by doing perfectly all the things that make him a great fighter: a pesky southpaw stance; underrated power; punches that come from unconventional directions and that are thrown strangely; blazing hand speed; an iron jaw that easily took what little Lacy could land; and a mastery of distance and pace. Sure, Calzaghe looked terrible against Sakio Bika in his very next fight. But if there's one thing we've learned about Calzaghe, it's that he fights to the level of his competition, and Bika, while no slouch, was an awkward rough-houser who made Calzaghe fight him ugly.

Lucky for us, Calzaghe's in against an excellent fighter this weekend, so he should be at his best. He'll need to be versus Kessler. The 28-year-old Dane has serious one-punch knockout capacity; is technically adept; is as accurate as a heat-seeking missile; and moves his head just enough to stay out of severe harm while he does his own damage. The same way Calzaghe bludgeoned Lacy in 2006, Kessler this year unloaded everything but the kitchen sink on tough contender Librado Andrade. (How Andrade, and Lacy, for that matter, ever made it to the final bell, I will never know.) Before that, he blew out fellow belt-holder Markus Beyer via third round knockout with dozens of simple one-two, left jab-straight right combos. Kessler arrived at his championship belt in just 2005, when he traveled to Australia to unseat Anthony Mundine. Compared to the veteran Calzaghe, then, Kessler is practically a rookie.

There are knocks on both men, though. Some -- not me -- think Calzaghe's shelling of Lacy only proved that Lacy was overrated. Calzaghe, Lacy said before their fight and Kessler is saying now, slaps with his punches, which means he's won by knockout on several occasions not because he hurt anyone but because he created the illusion of having his opponent in trouble with fast, meaningless flurries that forced the referee to step in and call it a night. He does have a disturbing tendency to fight at his best only occasionally, and he's injury-prone. Meanwhile, Kessler's critics see a fighter whose level of competition is just as dismal as Calzaghe's. They say, as does Calzaghe, that Kessler is "robotic," moving only in straight lines and landing only the most predictable punches.

But most of these criticisms are unfair. Between them, Calzaghe and Kessler have steadily been polishing off their division's best, whatever their respective flaws, and now they're fighting each other. Saturday night, we will see one fighter solidify his legacy, or we will see the birth of an international boxing superstar, and I say whoever wins will have his righteous just deserts.

MY PREDICTION: Calzaghe. He made a fool of me for predicting that not only would Lacy win, but it would be a great fight. The only thing great about it was Calzaghe's performance. There's no one quite like him, so you can't prepare all that well. I say he will outfox Kessler with his trickiness and lateral movement en route to a decision closer than the one over Lacy but fairly clear.
CONFIDENCE: 50%. What a cop-out, huh? After watching Kessler shut out Andrade, I was certain Kessler would manhandle Calzaghe. Then, even after I changed my mind and decided to pick Calzaghe, I began noticing a lot of "boxing people" -- the sport's most insidery insiders -- were saying the younger, straighter-punching Kessler would do to Calzaghe what the slugging, looping-punching Lacy could not: Knock him clean out. I still don't know, but at least I made a pick at all, right?
MY ALLEGIANCE: Kessler. A lot of boxing fans have "types," fighters whose styles are especially appealing for one reason or the other. Kessler is mine -- technically sound guys with power who have, as their main weapon, dazzling combinations. And, when in doubt, I go with the better nickname. That means Kessler, "The Viking Warrior," would win my allegiance over Calzaghe, "The Pride of Wales/The Italian Dragon." If I wasn't already committed, that is.

Don't let the smiles fool you; they just got a case of the giggles trying to muster a showbiz stare down. True story. But I'm also not kidding when I say this should be a truly great fight.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Big Little Fight Nobody's Talking About Could Be A Scorcher

Across the ocean this weekend, they're on the verge of hosting a fight that might -- might -- break the all-time attendance record for an indoor boxing event. So it's no wonder that the boxing world is paying closer attention to the super middleweight (168 lbs.) battle scheduled in Great Britain between Joe Calzaghe and Mikkel Kessler than they are the meeting this weekend in the U.S. of A. between junior lightweights (130 lbs.) Juan Manuel Marquez and Rocky Juarez.

Don't get me wrong, I've got a tingling feeling in the pit of my stomach about Calzaghe-Kessler, and it's still days away. I'll get to that fight soon enough. But let's not overlook Marquez-Juarez. The most important thing about it is that its outcome could decide whether we get one of the most meaningful fights in all of boxing, a rematch between Marquez and Manny Pacquiao. But Marquez-Juarez could be a scorcher in its own right.

Marquez is probably my favorite fighter. He basically has every tool in the toolbox -- he throws astonishing combinations, has enough power to win by pretty knockout, looks good even when he's playing defense and has established his badass bona fides. His tendency to play it safe on defense has vanished entirely, silencing one of the most common criticisms of Marquez. The other most common criticism, which came in the form of a question about whether he had a boxing heart to go with his undisputed boxing brain, disappeared following his exciting 2004 brawl with Pacquiao. Pacquiao bum-rushed him in the first round, knocking Marquez down three times and making anyone watching think, "Man, this Pacquiao is something," and "That settles it -- Marquez isn't even in the same league" with contemporary Mexican legends Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera. Then, Marquez cooly and brutally began dissecting his faster, harder-hitting, more limited foe. Lots of those rounds after the first were pretty close, and the result at the end is still hotly disputed, but by the time it was announced as a draw, there was no way you could question Marquez' guts and unflappability. Some bad business decisions led to Marquez' team dismissing a rematch, then taking a bad fight overseas against Chris John that was scored as a victory for John but that most everyone thought Marquez won. But Marquez began scratching his way back up the mountain, and by the time he beat Barrera this year, finally, he had cemented his position as one of the five best fighters around, if weight class is ignored -- third best, according to The Ring. And he did it in a victory over Barrera that is a legitimate candidate for fight of the year in 2007.

Rocky Juarez, a former Olympian and highly-touted up-and-comer, was left for the vultures after he was upset in 2005 by Humberto Soto. But then he beat the tar out of the aforementioned Barrera in a 2006 fight first scored a draw, then a win for Barrera after some strange "calculation error," but many -- myself included -- thought it should have been a victory for Juarez. Since then, though, Juarez has failed to capitalize. He was thoroughly outboxed in his rematch with Barrera, then won a yawner against Jose Hernandez this year. But before we again banish him to the desert, let's meditate on the fact that Soto has proven since the upset that he's a far better fighter than his five losses at the time suggested, and that Juarez was a youthful underdog against Barrera. At this point, though, he is what he is: a dangerous puncher who can change a fight with one blow, as he did in 2003's consensus knockout of the year; a guy who can take a hellacious punch himself; someone with fast hands; but a plodder who just doesn't punch enough, a fact that sometimes gets him in trouble from a judging and entertainment standpoint.

If Juarez wins, he will have toppled a pound-for-pound great and proven his critics wrong. If Marquez wins, he will have cleared a path to the biggest money fight of his career. But if Juarez loses, he may not get another chance at a big fight, Pacquiao moves on to something else and an aging great will likely have trouble climbing once again to the top. I do think this will be a good fight -- both men have a lot on the line, and there will be intrigue in whether Juarez can land something big when Marquez takes risks to do damage.

MY PREDICTION: Marquez by decision. If Barrera beats Juarez, and Marquez beats Barrera, that stands to favor Marquez. Marquez has the same attributes Barrera had that troubled Juarez, but Marquez has faster hands than Barrera, one of Juarez's original advantages over Barrera.
CONFIDENCE: 80%. The stand-and-trade strategy of Marquez we've come to know and love the last few fights could backfire against the powerful Juarez, who also has the edge in age, 27 years young to Marquez' old-for-130 pounds 34. But I suspect if Marquez gets into a bind, he'll stick and move his way to a win to preserve the millions he might win vs. Pacquiao.
MY ALLEGIANCE: I already gave it away, didn't I? Marquez for his style and skill, over Juarez' power and plod. But even if I didn't like Marquez so much, I'd want him to win to make that Pacquiao rematch happen.

As good a fight as it was when Marquez and Pacquiao met, I only want to see one of these warriors raising their hands in victory in a rematch early next year. So I don't want to see any hijinks from Mr. Juarez Saturday.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Dogfighting Versus Boxing

It's amazing that months after Michael Vick went to jail, I'm still hearing and reading about how dogfighting is somehow morally equivalent to boxing. In the December issue of The Ring, editor-in-chief Nigel Collins writes an editorial on the subject steeped in caveats, but not so steeped that his actual point of view isn't clear. That point of view, boiled down? Cockfighting is dogfighting is bull-baiting is boxing.

But it's not. And it's important for me to be able to explain why, to myself if to no one else, as someone for whom boxing fandom has been something of an ethical quandary.

The key passages of Mr. Collins' piece:

"Michael Vick's involvement in illegal dog fighting reminded me of how closely boxing was associated with other so-called blood sports back in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the bare-knuckle era, it wasn't just dogs versus dogs. It was also dogs versus bears, bulls, and badgers, all of which were lumped together with prizefighting and often covered in the same periodicals by the same journalists."

Following that is a summary of his own experiences studying and attending animal fighting sports, where, he noted, successful bull-killing dogs were "were awarded expensive, often jewel-encrusted collars" instead of championship belts, as if that act of awarding a collar to a dog (which doesn't really want one unless he's been conditioned to, so it isn't really "awarded") is some kind of fascinating common link to a human winning a belt (who does indeed want one if he's a boxer).

He concludes with two paragraphs that sort of get to his point.

"I make no judgments here, but there is an underlying link between boxing and the other blood sports that a lot of folks don't want to think about. True, there are some fundamental differences. Boxers supposedly box of their own free will, whereas most of the animals involved have no choice. But there is also an underlying factor involved in both activities, without which neither would exist: the atavistic pleasure human beings derive from violence.
We all like to draw distinctions and set parameters, but it doesn't matter whether that pleasure comes from watching two men box or two animals fight. It springs from the same root, always has, always will. It's part of being human and the reason you're reading this magazine."

I think what Mr. Collins is doing here is disguising his actual opinion -- boxers "supposedly" box of their own free will? "Most" of the animals don't have a choice? Sounds like to me he's dismissing the main argument about why boxing and dogfighting are different, without doing so directly. Just to quibble, insofar as there is such a thing as free will, boxers do box of their own free will, a subject I'll address later in this blog entry; while animals might fight in the wild, to my knowledge, none of them sharpen their teeth or wear knives on their feet, and none of them on their own would fight in a ring surrounded by cheering fans until their masters pulled them apart, what with them not having human masters in their wild dog packs.

Incidentally, while I'm quibbling, it might be helpful to the history lesson to explain why the same journalists who covered boxing simultaneous to covering animal fighting no longer do, but I'll let a modern day sportswriter do so here. Succinctly, it's about the fact that humans have a choice that dogs do not. And of course, it's not as if the 18th and 19th centuries were the good old days of morality. Don't get me wrong, I'm as big a fan of the Founders of our country as you'll find. But when it came to respect for the rights of Earth's creatures, well, it was still a relatively new concept, what with slavery flourishing and 80-hour work weeks getting reimbursed pretty poorly for some of those who weren't slaves. I think we're doing a little better these days on those counts, and that's a good thing, right?

I don't deny that human beings do, in some cases, derive an "atavistic pleasure" from violence. But I think the key phrase there -- mine, not Mr. Collins' -- is "in some cases."

You see, not all violence is equal. It sounds strange that I'd even have to say that.

I doubt Mr. Collins derives "atavistic pleasure" from witnessing domestic violence. I doubt he would find much enjoyment in watching one man beating another man confined by ropes or chains. I doubt he would take any "atavistic pleasure" in staring at the murder of an innocent. I'm guessing he wouldn't even like be ringside to see a heavyweight knock out -- and likely kill in the doing -- a flyweight.

And yet, the sweep of his piece would almost seem to justify that, by saying that our enjoyment of boxing is essentially the same as anyone else's enjoyment of other "blood sports."

So let me explain my point of view on this, because it's something I've struggled with mightily. I think there are only a few circumstances where one can be on the safe side of morality in enjoying violence. (I should say that I'm not the typical boxing fan in this regard in that my appreciation of violence is secondary to my appreciation of boxing skill and strategy. My praise of fighters with knockout power is primarily because it makes them more interesting strategically, like a queen on a chess board.) Fake violence, for one, is safe from a moral perspective -- movie violence harms no one, although I would argue against producing lengthy pieces that appeal to a specific pathology, like, say, a film featuring extensive gratuitous sequences of child abuse. But in the sporting world, I would put that "safe" label on any kind of highly-regulated competitive event that guards as much as possible against death or permanent injury, via the introduction of such concepts as weight classes, where both competitors are there of their own free will. That would include boxing, kickboxing and even the Ultimate Fighting Championship which, although it bores me, has come a long way from its "human cockfighting" roots and as such is no longer banned across the country.

It's pretty simple, really. It's why we've arrived at those rules of engagement. It's why we're constantly debating whether there ought to be more rules to ensure more safety.

I think where enjoyment of boxing gets into its shadiest moral areas is on the periphery of the debate over free will. Either we have it or we don't, and while I can't begin to address that subject here, I can say with some confidence that humans are better equipped to rationally decide their fates than dogs, bears and chickens. Even still, the fact is that most boxers come from the lower economic classes. There are many exceptions, with modern day superstars like Oscar De La Hoya and Marco Antonio Barrera coming to the sport from middle and upper class backgrounds. I'm tremendously sympathetic to the fear that one's next meal might never come, having spent a brief period -- very brief -- sick, broke, jobless and virtually homeless. I can only imagine what it must be like for people in more destitute parts of the world. In situations like that, one can reasonably ask, is a boxer who fights to feed himself and his family, who by virtue of his particular mixture of nature and nurture is hardly equipped to do much else for money, really fighting of his own free will? I say, again, insofar as free will exists: "Yes." Boxing's a more legitimate way of making a living than crime, where a talent for violence could also come in handy. Boxing, in circumstances such as this, is a far better choice. And I can tell you that I lustily root to see those fighters succeed.

And, at any rate, a dog doesn't have the same options. When a dog has to fight to eat, it's because his master has imposed that condition on him, not because he's picked that choice from a variety of bad options.

We do all "like to draw distinctions and parameters." Indeed, we should. And we should because we can.

I mean, come on. Seriously.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Predetermined Tournaments, On The Rebound, Bad Omens And Unsolicited Advice

There are a few boxing-related topics I want to get to soon -- particularly, a topic that keeps coming up about whether some kinds of violence are more morally acceptable to derive enjoyment from -- but it's been another busy week for me and another slow week for the sport. So once again, I'll just throw out some more random musings.

(Incidentally, I said it over at The 8 Count, but I couldn't be more jealous about the fact that everyone but me has come up with some kind of catchy title for their random musings. Every writer has one -- I've seen "Final Flurries," "Speedbag," all kinds of stuff, but it's like I've got a mental block. All nominations welcome.)
  • I've got next to no interest in the heavyweight tournament that begins this weekend. It's not that I don't like the idea of four top fighters going at it single-elimination style for the chance to fight Vladimir Klitschko, one of the division's belt-holders. And it's not that I don't like the more veteran pair of the foursome. I think Calvin Brock's a decent fighter and nice guy; sure, he's a little cautious, but he also has a modicum of skill and has demonstrated serious KO power, as he did here for 2006's knockout of the year. And Chris Byrd, while boring, has tons of heart for being as small as he is when he really should move down to cruiserweight (200 lbs), plus he's sharp as a whip and should be a ringside analyst sooner rather than later. And finally, it's not that I don't like the chance to see the two promising younger heavyweights, Alexander Povetkin and Eddie Chambers, try to prove themselves. What I don't like is that I know how it's going to end: Klitschko knocking out whoever wins the tournament. He's already KO'd Brock once and Byrd twice, and no matter how good the two younger heavyweights are -- and I should caution I've only read about them, not seen either in action -- they are way, way, way too green to beat the best heavyweight in the world. Still: Good idea, bad place for it.
  • Two fighters I really like, Jose Luis Castillo and Edison Miranda, will be trying to rebound from tough losses in the next few days. Look, no matter how Ricky Hatton tries to talk up his defeat of Castillo in a junior welterweight (140 lbs.) showdown earlier this year, the facts are clear to me that Castillo is a shot fighter. Usually, this is where I make my plea that some fighter I like who's a shadow of his former self hang up the gloves. But Castillo poses no obvious risk to his own health. It's not like his reflexes have completely abandoned him, as they have for so many other shot fighters. So maybe he's only half-shot. Plus, the financial penalties he suffered for not making weight for the third fight between himself and Diego Corrales are so severe he has to work them off somehow. And it's not as if he's fighting some titan this weekend, unless somebody knows something about this Adan Casillas I don't. I feel a little guilty for wanting to see Castillo punished severely for his crimes against Castillo-Corrales III. At the time I thought it was justice for Castillo robbing us of a proper sequel to the greatest fight of all time, Castillo-Corrales I, since Castillo-Corrales II was a little bit of a sham because Castillo was trying to get away with coming in over weight. In retrospect, both men have shown since they were never going to be the same after that first battle. And yes, Castillo is to blame for us not getting the sequel, but he's now having to fight beyond when he should just to make enough money to deal with those enormous financial penalties. For a guy who came just within a whisker of winning the biggest fight of his life, and who performed heroically during it, and who gave us such a thrilling example of what humans can do with their bodies, I don't like that I ever rooted against him. Miranda, meanwhile, may never be the superstar HBO clearly wanted him to be, but I think he's still got good days ahead of him despite getting absolutely clobbered by Kelly Pavlik. He's rudimentary, but he's a power-puncher with an entertaining mouth, so I'd like to see him get back into position for another big fight. Like Castillo, he came out on the wrong end of an amazing bout -- against Pavlik -- and he's been unlucky, losing to Arthur Abraham in 2006 because of some of the shoddiest refereeing you'll ever see. But I'll always like fighters who make fireworks happen. That's Miranda.
  • Speaking of shot fighters, there is nothing encouraging at all about the fact that they're moving up the weight limit for the Fernando Vargas-Ricardo Mayorga fight, this time to 166 lbs. It had already been delayed when Vargas, who probably was about 100 lbs. heavier than the original 162 lbs. limit a few months before the scheduled date, was unsurprisingly diagnosed with anemia. One more problem with this fight and I won't be looking forward to it at all. As it was, I was only looking forward to it in a kind of "it might be a fun freak show, watching two loudmouth, over-the-hill sluggers swing until someone drops" way.
  • On the good news tip, Pavlik and Taylor are good to go for their rematch early next year, at the middleweight-ish limit of 166 lbs. Plenty's been said about this rematch in general, but I just want to add my two cents' worth on a subplot of the upcoming fight: Taylor needs to ditch Emmanuel Steward and bring back Pat Burns, his trainer before the more accomplished Steward swooped in to take over the helm. There's clearly some awful chemistry there, and Taylor, coming off a pretty nasty knockout loss, needs to have his head right. Steward, for all his accomplishments, just isn't the one to help him do it, based on the fact that for most of their relationship, Taylor has gotten worse, not better.

If this creature crosses Fernando Vargas' path, there's a good chance I won't even be remotely interested in his fight, which I don't plan to watch on pay-per-view.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Boxing All Over The World

Good news for Canada. Lucien Bute just won a title fight this past weekend, making him the second Canuck to strap a belt around his waist in 2007. Until ESPN's Dan Rafael reminded me
that Joachim Alcine -- another native son from maple leaf country -- had also won a title belt this year, I can't say I'd spent much time thinking about Canadian boxers. Oh, in the back of my mind, I understood that Arturo Gatti was a Canadian. But in reality, he was an adopted Atlantic City-ian, because that's where he had a cult-like following, where he was treated like a rock star who belonged to the people of A.C. But suddenly I found myself pondering the boxing tradition of a country where the word "fight" is more commonly associated with hockey.

From there, my mind wandered. I recalled a piece written in August on called "Thank God for Mexican Fighters." And about how Great Britain is undergoing its own sort of boxing renaissance. And a few other countries whose boxers were on the rise.

And then I thought about the big picture. In boxing, more than any other sport I've ever followed, where an athlete is from matters tremendously. It is not, in my experience, a negative force. At least not now. It could be, and has been. Jingoism tends not to infect combat between athletes from other countries, as counterintuitive as it sounds. More often than not, showdowns between cherished fighters from rival countries have been cathartic events that ease tensions instead of build them. When Mexican fighters meet between the ropes with Puerto Rican fighters, there's a palpable sizzle, but I'm not aware of any outward nastiness between the people of Mexico and Puerto Rico -- the two areas just have a rich boxing tradition, steeped in machismo, that make fights between their boxers magic. Sometimes such meetings take on a greater meaning, most famously when Joe Louis and Max Schmeling did battle amid rising tensions between Germany and the United States. Nothing before or since matched that for global implications, but today, when two fervent fan bases from different parts of the world gather to cheer on their gladiators, it's electric -- I envy anyone who was ringside when Mexican legend Erik Morales and Filipino hero Manny Pacquiao fought for a third time. One writer said it felt like having his head stuck in a jet engine.

But I can't say my mind wandered much farther than feeling like this would be a good topic to explore. Maybe in reality it's more a good topic to explore on an individual basis, to be delved into in pieces elsewhere, perhaps as I move into the interview-people-instead-of-just-spouting-off phase of my modest fight game writing hobby.

That makes the below list of countries or regions and the status of the fighters who hail from there, plus the characteristics and traditions each possess, little more than a sketchpad. For those who don't follow boxing regularly, it could offer an education. And if anyone wants to offer their own thoughts about the countries I mentioned and the ones I should've included, please do, along with any deeper insights about the link between national identity and the sweet science. You'd be doing me a favor.

A disclaimer because I could be meandering into dangerous territory: No one country can be stereotyped as having one kind of boxer. Nor do I, personally, have hostility toward any particular country. Where I've listed criticisms, they are usually the criticisms of others, not reflective of my own point of view.

Why not start at home? No country is more neurotic about its place in the boxing world. That no American stands atop the heavyweight heap is a source of considerable anxiety for the United States, so much so that it's among the most commonly cited reason people give me when they explain that they don't follow boxing these days. It's true that the rich contracts of the NFL and NBA have robbed American boxing of its once-dominant heavyweight talent base, and in a country where bigger is better, being the best at being big matters here.

But if Americans could just look a little lower, they'd see that there's a considerable source of pride in our boxing ranks. It's admittedly easier for me since I became a fan in an era when American heavyweights have always been peripheral figures in the land of giants. But if we could set that aside, we could peruse Ring Magazine's pound-for-pound top 10 list of the best fighters around regardless of weight class and notice two things: 1., there are no heavyweights from any country there, and 2., there are more fighters from the the United States and Mexico -- three each -- than anywhere else. In other words, the heavyweights just aren't that important anymore anywhere, and America is still pretty good at being the best.

America's Floyd Mayweather, Jr. is the best there is to the Bible of Boxing. Bernard Hopkins is Ring's fourth best. Winky Wright is sixth. Other lists -- and of course pound-for-pound is a subjective measurement -- might squeak Kelly Pavlik up there, or move Mayweather, Hopkins and Wright into different slots. But the fact remains, these are some good fighters.

The Mayweather-Hopkins-Wright trinity has something in common -- they're all slick guys, heavily-skilled and smart as all get-out. That, more than anything, seems to be the characteristic of the best American fighters these days. Their tight defense and abundance of caution can make them a little boring at times, sure. But Chad Dawson is in that tradition, and he's not boring at all, nor is Shane Mosley. And we have our share of sluggers -- see the aforementioned Pavlik, plus Jeff Lacy, Andre Berto and Juan Diaz, for starters.

And yes, I'm claiming Diaz as our own because he's from America, even though his heritage is Mexican. Interestingly, that leads into the next country. That Mexican-American Oscar De La Hoya -- a native of the United States and the sport's biggest superstar, indicator yet again that American boxing is in fine shape -- never "fought like a Mexican" has been a knock on him with that very big constituency south of the border for years. Among his characteristics? Slickness, and, yes, sometimes, caution.

I really don't mind saying it: Mexicans have been among the best and most entertaining fighters since I started following pugilism. Nearly every one of them are tremendous boxer-punchers, terrors who have ample skill -- foot movement, counter-punching, all the tricks -- but just as often decide to practice what legendary boxing writer Budd Schulberg calls "the manly art of no defense," usually when someone knocks the chip off their shoulder and they want to brawl about it.

Yet, with the retirement this year of legendary rivals Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales, both of whom have seen a decline in their abilities, I get the sense that Mexican boxing is moving on a slight downward slope. Yes, three of their own -- Israel Vasquez and the brothers Marquez, Rafael and Juan Manuel -- hold a place on Ring's pound-for-pound list. But while Juan Manuel is well-preserved, he's older than either Barrera or Morales, so the end of the road is not far off. Vasquez and Rafael have trended toward career-sapping wars, twice against each other this year and once more ahead in March, that they, too, may not last much longer. Jose Luis Castillo, he of the greatest fight of all time versus Diego Corrales, is still around, but a shell of his former self. Castillo is a literal link to the previous generation of Mexican fighters, serving as he did for so long as a sparring partner to Julio Cesar Chavez, the reason many of this generation of fighters, and even some from the one getting long in the tooth, fight at all.

There will, no doubt, be another generation of Mexican fighters on the way. Perhaps no boxing fans are more passionate than those who hail from Mexico, and inevitably among their ranks are those dreaming of becoming the next Marco Antonio Barrera or Erik Morales. But as the Barreras and Marquezes of the world fade away, budding talents or fan favorites like Jorge Arce, Fernando Montiel, Cristian Mijares and Daniel Ponce Deleon may have to prop up Mexican boxing until then.

The Philippines
The Philippines have to be considered one of the top two or three countries whose boxers are on the rise. Perhaps they've drawn their strength from siphoning it from Mexico. At times, they've done so directly. Manny Pacquiao, the most beloved person alive in the Philippines, has propped himself up on the scalps of legendary Mexicans, forcing Barrera into retirmenet and destroying Morales. In between, the "Pacman" has beaten enough other Mexicans to have earned the secondary nickname of "Republica Enemy No. 1." Meanwhile, Gerry Penalosa took a belt from Mexican Jhonny Gonzalez this year, not long after losing a decision that most thought he won against Deleon.

That Penalosa and Pacquiao took similar paths to glory in recent years is likewise fittingly symmetrical, since Penalosa was sort of the avatar of Filipino boxing who blazed the path for Pacquiao to make a name for Pinoy fighters. Penalosa may be getting old, but Pacquiao -- probably the second best fighter in the world, regardless of weight class -- and a bevy of other Filipino boxers are making their country as "now" as can be. Nonito Donaire scored what I considered to be the knockout of the year when he blasted Vic Darchinyan with a shot that proved boxing's little men -- even the 112-pounders -- have done away with the myth that there is no power in the lower ranks. Donaire won a title along the way. There are a handful of other Filipino fighters who are on their way up, and even the stray loss by Filipino boxer Rey Bautista to Deleon in a card this year pitting boxers from Mexico against their Pinoy counterparts doesn't diminish their accomplishments this year. The 21-year-old Bautista was way too green to be in against a murderous puncher like Deleon, and Rey will probably only get better.

Filipino fighters live by the mantra that speed kills.
A guy named Flash Elorde is one of their most celebrated fighters ever, if that tells you anything. That they often have some serious power, and the balls to stand on the inside to try and outlast their opponents with their quickness and fists of dynamite, makes them awfully dangerous. Just ask Darchinyan.

Great Britain
Stereotypically home to both ruffians and gentle tea-sippers, England has fighters who exhibit characteristics of both, often all at once. And like the Phillippines, they're in the elite of countries enjoying life climbing way up to the top of boxing these days.

Joe Calzaghe is the current longest-running titlist in all of boxing. Ricky Hatton has an enormous following in part because of a run that began in 2005 when he was named Ring's "fighter of the year" after securing what some consider the greatest victory by a British boxer ever, over Kostya Tsyzu. Both draw on a core reactor in their chests that give them energy reserves that make it look like they could fight for a full week straight; forget an hour or so. They differ slightly, sure -- Calzaghe throws tons of fast punches, Hatton never stops hitting and mauling his man. All three are likable, genial chaps, particularly Hatton, who more than any boxer gives off an air that makes you think you'd really like to be one of his drinking buddies. You can even almost hear Calzaghe's Wales accent in the recent invitation of Pavlik to attend his upcoming fight, as if it was all designed to help hype some potential friendly "fisticuffs" between Calzaghe and Pavlik one day in the future, not an invitation for Pavlik to get his face bashed in.

Throw in the exciting David Haye, who does not fit so snugly into the mode of his fellow "now" British sweet science stars, along with Junior Witter and Clinton Woods, and things are mighty pretty for the boxing Brits.

Strangely, not that long ago, Great Britain produced one of its finest champions ever in Lennox Lewis. But hardly anyone looked at that as much like a big deal. First, Lewis was never terribly popular, owing somewhat to his style -- tending toward caution -- and the fact that his background of having lived elsewhere first made him less celebrated in Great Britain than he might otherwise have been. It's a shame, but either way, England now has fighters who are eminently British, and fun to watch to boot.

Hulking products of the Soviet boxing system completely rule the heavyweight division. They inhabit six of the top seven slots in the Ring rankings. Yes, a number of them actually live in America, and some of them hail from former Soviet Union countries, but we're essentially talking about Russia here. Throw in the Ukraine and they have seven of the top 10 slots, and throw in the oft-injured/recently-unretired brother of the best heavyweight, Vladimir Klitschko, and maybe they take eight of the top 10.

Most Russian fighters are a little stiff and robotic, but they hit really, really hard, so they manage. Think Ivan Drago "getting his punch pressure measured by a computer" hard. That hard. And yes, they've been dogged by allegations of steroid use. The aforementioned Klitschko brother, Vitali, has admitted as much, saying he used them as an amateur in 1996, although he's tested clean as a pro. That said, some of the best Russian heavyweights have mixed in some fancy business with their sledgehammer punches, with Sultan Ibragimov having counterpunched his way to victory over Evander Holyfield recently and Ruslan Chagaev having done the same to Nicolay Valuev this year. Hell, even the 7'0", 300 lbs.+ Valuev has a pretty nice jab.

There are other Russian fighters, of course -- the aforementioned Tsyzu, one of the greatest 140-pounders who ever lived, resided in Australia but hailed from the USSR -- but Russia is all about the heavyweights. And they will be for a while, the way things are going. That is, unless promising Mexican heavyweight Chris Arreola extends his country's dominance upward from the lower weight classes where they have long reigned as kings.

(Having hit the five regions that has the greatest and most multitudinous array of champions and amazing fighters, I'll now go more quickly through some regions that are players but that aren't as predominant for one reason or the other.)

Puerto Rico
Miguel Cotto is their current superstar, and one of the biggest in boxing. He shares traits with his predecessor in boxing-mad, hero-worshipping PR, comebacking Felix Trinidad: He comes straight ahead. He hits very, very hard, even ruinously. He has a modicum of skill. And he sometimes strays below the beltline. While Puerto Rico has had its share of similar types -- the Puerto Rican-ancestored Kermit Cintron is of that mold, minus the fouling -- others fall into the slickster category, like Hector "Macho" Camacho, and current boxers with Puerto Rican backgrounds, such as Luis Collazo and Carlos Quintana. And by the looks of that lineup, it seems like PR is pretty good at churning out fighters who kick ass in the 140-pound range. The future? A combo slickster/power puncher prospect named Juan Manuel Lopez who, from what I've seen, could be the stuff of nightmares for his opponents sooner rather than later.

At the tip of South America, they tend to make them one, uniform way perhaps more than any other country: Power punchers, power punchers, power punchers. Their KO ratios are pretty jaw-dropping. Sometimes, they are illusions. They hit hard, no doubt, but they are propped up on deceivingly good records. Other times, they are legitimate, and get tossed aside after a setback because of the sour taste left in the mouths of boxing fans -- boxing fans who lust for Colombian fighters' promise of breathtaking knockout but have repeatedly seen that promise vanish into thin air the first time they're in against anyone with some skill. In this category of legit fighters currently rebuilding from the stereotype after setbacks are Joel Julio, Edison Miranda and Ricardo Torres. But these Colombians are a force to be reckoned with no matter what; just check out how Torres nearly snuffed out Cotto's supernova and Miranda took down highly-touted American Allan Green.

The diversity of African fighters is such that it's not possible to pinpoint a distinct African style; any attempt to do so is as foolish as thinking that all of Africa's countries are the same. That said, African fighters are not so much a force when you take them country by country, and only when you take them as a continent on the whole. Sam Peter of Nigeria is the second-best heavyweight around, and he's raw punching power incarnate, albeit one that is improving his all-around skills. Uganda's Kassim Ouma is merely the most prolific puncher in boxing, someone who wears down his opponent not with power but with sheer activity. Ike Quartey of Ghana, who made his living off a beautiful jab, is a force still. If there is one link, it's that African fighters tend to be smiling warriors -- on the way to the ring, you'll rarely see anyone grinning from ear to ear, but when you do, it's almost always a fighter from Africa.

(And now, no more than a sentence fragment for a few others)

Germany is home to bad boxing judges and over-protected fighters, but Arthur Abraham is for real... I wish I was able to see more fighters from Japan and a number of other Asian countries on TV, because they are all over the lowest weight classes... Yes, there is a good French fighter, and his name is Jean-Marc Mormeck... Australia actually has a number of quite good boxers, like Paul Briggs and Michael Katsidis, but I've not seen enough of each of them outside of Briggs to know first-hand... There are pockets of recent good boxing traditions in South America outside of Colombia, like Venezuela's Edwin Valero... Around Central America and Cuba, they make good fighters, but they seem to make them mean, too, like Panama's Roberto Duran from back in the day, Nicaraguan foil Ricardo Mayorga or Cuba's mouthy Joel Casamayor... I'm not even going to try to get into Poland or Italy, where they range from good when they leave to questionable and staying put... And, apparently, there's something good in the water in Canada these days.

CORRECTED: To reflect the actual nationality of Michael Katsidis.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Some "Contender," Some Promotional Tactics, Some Favorites And Some Not

Busy 60+ hour work week for me, sleepy week for boxing. Please find below a series of exceedingly quick, random thoughts (and, apologies -- not much background for the uninitiated to follow along, unless you click the links):

  • So much for making Kelly Pavlik the Thomas Hearns to your Sugar Ray Leonard, Sergio Mora. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy, huh?
  • Keeping on the "Contender" tip -- I can't blame Alfonso Gomez for having a rough time with Ben Tackie. He gives everyone a rough time.
  • Welcome back to the win column, Vic Darchinyan. I know it's philosophically inconsistent to dig Darchinyan but not Mora, but weird hard-punching Armenian assholes amuse me.
  • It's looking more and more like we're going to get Juan Manuel Marquez-Manny Pacquiao II at 130 lbs. There's hardly a fight I could want to see more.
  • On the down side, how in the world it is a good thing for boxing to schedule Pacquiao's next fight on HBO the same night as Israel Vasquez-Rafael Marquez III? Super-lame.
  • First Miguel Cotto, then Antonio Margarito, now Pavlik -- throwing out a pitch at a baseball game is a nice, new boxing promotion fad.
  • That whole "Dancing With The Stars" gig worked out as well for Floyd Mayweather as it could; he gets publicity but gets kicked off in time to focus pretty well on Ricky Hatton.
  • Once more into the "Contender" world -- I'd like to see Peter Manfredo and Jeff Lacy get it on. I like Lacy in that one, but I like it even better for his profile.
  • Comcast blows, so I wasn't able to catch the replay through the static, but I'm glad Dmitri Kirilov won a title last weekend. I thought he did against Luis Perez, but the judges didn't.

Mona Shaw is my new hero. I totally agree.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Score For Charismatic, Fun Boxers On The Verge Of Stardom Who Double As College Students


It wasn't the ultra-competitive fight I expected, but then it wasn't exactly unenjoyable, either. Juan Diaz' dominant performance Saturday night, which forced Julio Diaz' corner to throw in the towel in the ninth round, is mainly the reason it fell short in the competition department, and Juan also was the reason behind its enjoyability. This Juan Diaz -- he's really something, isn't he? I could watch him all day. His style might rightly be called "tornado-like," but he took it to near-literal levels when, as my friend Dave noted, he punched a complete circle around Julio at one point. Juan hit him a bunch, stepped to his left, then repeated until he'd come all the way around Julio. Juan's close proximity dulled Julio's power, because he just couldn't get the extension on his punches the way he needed. Juan's style -- reminiscent of this scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm -- is going to keep him from getting KO'd except for by all but the best power-punchers, guys who can knock a man out from an extremely short distance. We saw Kelly Pavlik do this to Edison Miranda, too. If a fighter can walk through the firestorm of a big puncher, it may be the best way, short of some fancy footwork, to defuse a bomb-thrower.

Julio may have fought the wrong fight by staying on the inside with Juan, but then, as Larry Merchant noted, he may not have had any choice. When Julio kept his distance a little, he did all right; that tactic put the fight in that rare category of "one-sided fight that's kind of competive." Only problem is, Juan would clobber Julio with eight punches in a row if Julio dared to hit him with three.'s Doug Fischer said Julio had the look of an overtrained or spent fighter. My eye's not good enough to tell. But Juan's punch volume, his head movement on the way in, his smart jab and his other attributes probably did as much to overwhelm Julio as anything else.

All in all, Juan Diaz impressed me more than Julio disappointed. Sure, Juan's a little chubby-looking. Sure, he doesn't hit all that hard. But what's it matter that he looks chubby if he can throw punches from morning to night? What's it matter if he doesn't hit that hard, if everyone he fights these days says, "I'm done, I quit. I don't want to fight this guy anymore tonight. It's too much of a pain in the ass?" Plus, I can't get enough of the college student storyline. Plus, he's likable as all get-out. After he won, he said, "I feel like King Kong!" How charming is that (even though it accidentally implies impending doom)? Young Diaz can be a breakout star under the right conditions. Make 'em happen, Don King.

Next for the winner: The three consensus options for Juan -- only 24 years old -- are fellow lightweight (135 lbs.) belt-holder David Diaz; lightweight Ring Magazine champ Joel Casamayor; and 130-pound sensation Manny Pacquiao. Pacquiao would mean the most money, so naturally that's who Juan was calling out Saturday after his win. But if I'm Pacquiao, I stay far away from Juan. Pacquiao's boxing skills have improved dramatically, but I don't think he has the slickness needed to outbox Juan, nor do I think he will carry enough of his power with the extra five pounds of weight he'd need to knock him clean out. Plus, I want Pacquiao to fight Juan Manuel Marquez. Casamayor, one of the most underrated fighters of our time, just might have the slickness necessary to outbox Juan, and we could settle all this business about whether Casamayor, as the so-called "linear" champ, or Juan, as the champ holding the most belts, is the best. I like this fight most, but Casamayor sounds like a bitch to negotiate with, so David Diaz is a good backup fight, assuming he doesn't end up in the ring with Pacquiao. Not much on the map, but a fight that would virtually guarantee non-stop excitement, is Juan vs. fellow all-action fighter Michael Katsidis. I'd take that one, too. Happily.
Next for the loser: Julio's already come back from three demoralizing losses, so I don't see why he can't come back from this one. I think he's going to have to take the route of all beaten champs -- get back in line, beat some contenders, look good doing it and before long he's up for another belt. Julio's likable, too, so I wish him the best.

"The Baby Bull" may not be that intimidating a nickname for Juan Diaz, as the image of the child above makes clear. Nor does a reasonable description of Juan as "pudgy-looking college student" sound all that scary. But scatter, yon boxers. Juan will make your Saturday evening seriously unpleasant.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Medicinal Mouthwash

Nothing to wipe the bitter taste out of my mouth left by yesterday's contemplation of Evander Holyfield-Sultan Ibragimov than looking forward to a far better fight, one that shows what's right about boxing these days: ESPN's Dan Rafael is reporting that two young, crowd-pleasing, pugilists with star potential are in discussions to meet in the ring early in 2008. That means the incredible string of fall and winter fights continues unabated, a string that some long-time boxing writers are calling the best in history. For a second, I'll defer the names of the two latest boxers to enlist for a great match-up, and ask you to follow along.

Many of the people I know will be more inclined Monday to ask my opinion of Saturday's Holyfield fight than of the much more interesting Juan Diaz-Julio Diaz fight also happening this weekend. That they will comes from a natural place -- they know Holyfield, but they don't know the Diazes. Likewise, when I mention to these same people some intriguing fight coming up, more often than not, they shrug it off and say, "Never heard of 'em."

There are only a few ways they will ever hear about a great fighter who began his career prior to the mid-90s, or hear about a thrilling fight that happened after the masses began tuning out in droves. One is me talking the ear off of everyone will listen, on this blog or elsewhere, and other boxing fans doing the same. People buzzed about the Jermain Taylor-Kelly Pavlik fight, and as a result, I was happy to find people asking me about it that following Monday morning.

Another way is if the sport handles its business properly. That's what it's been doing of late. Threatened by mixed martial arts, boxing has gotten savvier about promoting itself, but most importantly, the best are fighting the best almost every weekend these days -- something that the UFC was having no problem arranging, but that boxing was failing to do until recently. In the end, it's the chief way to break through people's unwillingness to give new fighters a chance. Forget that they would do it for another sport; people become fans of basketball players when they are no-names in high school, even. Forget that a general lack of open-mindedness prevents a great many people from wanting to listen to any band they haven't heard of until a radio station jams it down their throats. It is what it is.

The best way for fighters to become known is just to be in good fights. Word of mouth helped get people interested in Taylor-Pavlik, as I said before, but people now are going to want to see what Pavlik does next because it was a helluva fight.

I doubt most non-boxing fans have heard of Kermit Cintron or Paul Williams, both welterweight (147 lbs.) belt-holders. Maybe they caught Cintron's unbelievable knockout of Walter Matthysse on YouTube, where it was disseminated wildly. Maybe they've heard of him because he's willing to take on someone from the UFC to settle which sport is best. But probably most haven't heard of him. Williams is even lesser known.

If and when Cintron and Williams fight in early 2008, as ESPN reported they might, it should be riveting. The 27-year-old Cintron is one of the most powerful punchers in all of boxing, always a fan-friendly trait. The 26-year-old Williams puts on a good show, too -- at 6'1" and with a freakish 82-inch reach comparable to Muhammad Ali's, he has knocked out about two thirds of his opponents and embodies the phrase "action-packed," since he throws punches nearly every second of every round. Both are taking risks by fighting each other, since neither are the kind of foe anyone looking for an easy title reign might want to take on. That they are in talks to rumble is just one more reason the welterweight division is in the midst of a renaissance unlike any period since the days Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns roamed the weight class, captivating the public at large. Oh, and everyone in the division is fighting everyone.

In 2007 alone, Puerto Rican superstar-to-be Miguel Cotto defeated the ultra-talented Zab Judah in a sold-out Madison Square Garden. Floyd Mayweather and Oscar De La Hoya, both now welterweights, fought at the super welterweight limit (154 lbs.) in the biggest money fight of all time. An HBO tripleheader headlined by Paul Williams' gallant win over the tough, oft-avoided welterweight standard-bearer Antonio Margarito did good business in California. Next, in November, Cotto's fighting Shane Mosley, one of the last remaining big-name fighters from the 90s, in what on paper is the best fight of the year. And in December, Mayweather's fighting Ricky Hatton, a national hero in Great Britain, in a fight that's already sold-out one stadium and a closed-circuit facility to boot.

I apologize for sounding like a broken record by constantly revisiting some of these themes of how great the welterweight division is these days, and how great the fall and winter look for boxing fans. But, hey, it's a good record. And I'm trying to do my part by playing the role of a radio station trying to ram a great track down the throats of anyone out there in hopes that'll catch on and become a smash hit. Right now, boxing deserves it.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Old Evander Holyfield Vs. Someone Or The Other

There's something in me that is reluctant even to spend more than a paragraph on Saturday's pay-per-view fight between Evander Holyfield and Sultan Ibragimov. It's not an event that's terribly flattering to the state of boxing, which is otherwise on a serious hot streak. But the historic import -- which I'll get to in a second -- compels me. In the meantime, if you're just visiting Seven Punch Combo for the first time, please check out this post, this post and this post before you write off a sport that will allow a fossil to fight an anonymous foreigner for a title that both have mysteriously "earned" a shot at.

In one corner Saturday we have Ibragimov, another Russian heavyweight champ no one's ever heard of and who barely deserves his title belt. He got it in June by picking apart an asthmatic, Shannon Briggs, who won his belt the year before in one of the worst heavyweight fights you'll ever see, at least until Briggs knocked the previous champ through the ropes with only seconds remaining in the final round. And Ibragimov got his title chance by fighting to a draw with Ray Austin, who went on in his next bout to get KO'd in the second round against one of the few legitimately good heavyweight belt-holders around these days, Vladimir Klitschko. Why a draw gets anyone a title shot -- let alone both draw-ers getting title shots -- is beyond me. What little I've seen of Ibragimov, I've seen on the Internet. He's got decent hand speed and decent footwork and decent power. He's got a decent chin, but he was down against Austin. From what I've seen, he's a decent big man, I guess, but in another era of heavyweights, I'd forecast him as a not too troublesome, but moderately credible, stay busy opponent for another champion.

In the other corner we have the 44-year-old Evander Holyfield. Make no mistake: Holyfield is one of the greatest heavyweights ever. Even when he was winning in what was perceived as the lackluster 90s, he was winning against real serious heavyweights. When he began losing to them, he still earned my respect, because he clearly gave his all even as he was in the twilight of his career. When he began losing to people who weren't very good, I wanted him to quit. When he began losing to people who weren't very good and looking bad while doing it, I was grateful to see his boxing license stripped by the state of New York because I didn't want to see him die in the ring. Since then, he's looked revitalized beating people who aren't very good. Optical illusion, maybe. But a decent enough one for me to say to myself, "Hell, why not give him one more chance?" From the looks of his recent fights, his hand speed is back, a little, his power -- always on the light side for a heavyweight, given that's he's undersized -- has come back in spurts, he appears to have recovered the ability to defend himself somewhat and he's throwing good combinations again. No one seems to much doubt that Holyfield has performed better of late than he did prior to his license-stripping run. But is he good enough at his advanced age to defeat a decent heavyweight? And why does beating the people he beat get him another title chance?

If he does win, this will be a big story. Sure, most everyone is pissing all over this fight, given the shoddy state of heavyweight boxing. It remains to be seen if the big story of Holyfield's win would be a mostly good one -- a la George Foreman winning a title at age 45 -- or another black eye for the sport. Holyfield is under investigation for buying steroids (Really? They were for "Evan Fields?" And this Fields chap has the same birthday as Holyfield? And they were delivered to what looked like Holyfield's address?), so that could be a knock on the virtuosity that helped making him popular, thereby morphing the story from positive to negative. On the other hand, Holyfield would become a five-time world heavyweight champion. That's remarkable. For that reason, it can't be totally ignored. But if I was king of the universe, people would be talking more about the Juan Diaz-Julio Diaz shootout happening Saturday, not this.

MY PREDICTION: I don't know if it's sentiment primarily driving this, but I'm picking Holyfield by decision. At the conscious level, I've got some good reasons. He's way more experienced than Ibragimov, who's had just about 20 pro fights. Ibragimov seems eminently hittable, and, once hit, slightly hurtable. Austin's no world-beater, and he had Ibragimov on the deck. But Holyfield isn't a big puncher, either, so I see Ibragimov ending the fight on his feet, but narrowly out-pointed. I'm not totally crazy to make this prediction, even though Holyfield is a severe betting underdog -- veteran scribe Kevin Iole made the same call.
CONFIDENCE: 55%. Ibragimov is younger, fresher and the fight's in his home country. Biased judging is a real risk. Maybe, though, the crowd turns on Ibragimov the way they did Ivan Drago, and the judges are swayed. Either way. Can you tell I'm phoning this one in?
MY ALLEGIANCE: Not unlike Arturo Gatti's last fight, I'm torn. I've always liked Holyfield. I spent a lot of time saying so when this fight was announced. But unlike Gatti, I'm not convinced Holyfield will retire if he's beaten, so I don't even have a rooting interest in seeing Holyfield lose without suffering, a kind of mercy loss. He wants to unify the titles, nearly impossible in the fragmented heavyweight division. Some of them, such as Vladimir Klitschko, would probably pose serious threats to Holyfield's life. This ends badly, folks, whether it's this weekend or down the line. Until then, I guess I'll go with the Holyfield I know over the Ibragimov I don't.

At least the commercials for Holyfield-Ibragimov are cute.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

"Too Much Diaz In The Weight Class Right Now"

Suppose you have one Diaz -- let's name this one Juan -- who is the very definition of a pressure fighter. He keeps coming and coming, frustrating his opponents because he just... won't... get off of them already. Only problem is, he's shown before that he has trouble with guys who can move their feet, display a little slickness. And suppose you have another Diaz -- let's name this one Julio -- who has real knockout power, but he's also got, for lack of a better description, a little slickness; he can move his feet and control the pace of things until he catches his opponent with that KO punch. The only problem with this Diaz is, he's shown before that he has difficulty against guys who come at him throwing a lot of punches and swarming him, so-called pressure fighters. And suppose both of these Diazes are in their primes, and that they have a tendency to ditch the pretty stuff when they're in the thick of battle and see whether they can bomb out their opponents. What, do you suppose, would happen?

If you didn't get the telegraph there, you might be surprised to learn that you'll have a chance to find out Saturday, when the very non-hypothetical Juan and Julio Diaz face off on HBO for a chance to unify three different lightweight (135 lbs.) belts. While I couldn't blame anyone for pursuing their morbid curiosity about Evander Holyfield's latest attempt to re-win the heavyweight title airing the same night on pay per view, the Diaz vs. Diaz fight is free, and it's one of the top 10 fights I'm looking forward to in the jam-packed final quarter of 2007.

Juan, at age 24, is a college student and potential boxing superstar who sparked a bidding war last year between top promoters eager to sign "The Baby Bull" and keep him aboard until he follows his dream of running for office. One of the fights that no doubt made him a hot prospect was his spring 2006 sizzler against Jose Miguel Cotto, which I bet nearly exploded the CompuBox punch stat counters for all the fists a-flying. He rewarded Don King, the promoter who signed him later in 2006, with a victory this spring over Acelino Freitas, in what would be his biggest test. Freitas flummoxed Juan for a few rounds with some slick boxing before Freitas could no longer hold off the charges of the squat, aptly-nicknamed Baby Bull. And he really hurt Freitas a few times, too, suggesting that maybe Juan had finally begun to acquire some serious power to go along with his all-out energy.

While Juan's career arc has been a steep upward curve, Julio's has been a series of jagged lines. His 2005 TKO loss to a pressure-applying Jose Luis Castillo mere months before Castillo participated in the greatest fight I've ever seen against Diego Corrales was nothing to be ashamed of, but Julio, now 27, took it hard. Maybe it's because he'd steadily built his career back after a period where he lost two of three, one a disputed decision to Angel Manfredy in 2002 and the other a devastating first round knockout to Juan Valenzuela in 2001. Even his title-winning bout this year was strange, when Jesus Chavez had to quit because of an injury. In that fight, Julio relied on his pure boxing skills to build a steady lead, and while I've seen far less of Juan than I have of Julio, it's clear that the latter Diaz is fast. It's also clear that he's a warrior and that he hits very, very hard, with a complete variety of punches at his disposal.

Juan is the big betting favorite, as of now. But hardcore fans know this is no easy call, with the only certainty being that watching it unfold is a bright idea.

MY PREDICTION: Juan by close decision. He's undefeated and getting better with every fight, and he's been more active than Julio, who's had some long layoffs in his career. Rust, plus pressure from Castillo, did in Julio in 2005. I think it does Julio in again when the pressure comes from Juan, except Juan doesn't hit as hard as Castillo so Julio will lat until the bell rings.
CONFIDENCE: 55%. My lack of extensive exposure to either man leaves me hedging. More than one observer has said it would be foolish to underestimate Julio's power, and some think Juan could expose himself to a big blow when he goes nuts in one of his frenzies.
MY ALLEGIANCE: Julio delivered one of my favorite post-fight quotes this year, reflecting on the fact that he, Juan and David Diaz all had lightweight belts and he wanted to fight Juan next: "I'm hoping Juan Diaz finishes his homework and comes out to play. I just think there is too much Diaz in the weight class right now and we need to start getting rid of some of them." But I can't resist a college student-slash-boxer. Win one for higher education, Juan.

So much Ash, so much Diaz.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Paydirt Again just published an item of mine, the post just below. It's a great site edited by Michael Woods, who's among the handful of the best boxing writers out there. Enjoy.

Two Winners, Two Worries

On Saturday night, Manny Pacquiao picked up another big win against one of the best in boxing history, and Sam Peter returned for his own victory that, due to the peculiarities of title belt politics, means he made his first defense of an "interim" championship. Were the circumstances different, this might be cause for celebration for what were, going in, one of boxing's biggest superstars in Pacquiao and a potential savior of the desert-like heavyweight division in Peter. But circumstances matter.

What their opponents do next is moot. Marco Antonio Barrera is retiring following his second loss to Pacquiao, and Jameel McCline -- well, I don't really care what McCline does. Having watched the fight on replay, it was maddening to watch him backpedal in the fourth round after dropping Peter twice in the third, then refuse to throw the uppercut considering that Peter was practically begging for it by leaning down.

What Pacquiao did Saturday may very well have been about what he does next. All agree that Pacquiao fought cautiously, nothing like the whirlwind of fists we've come to love. Likewise, all agree he looked gaunt at the weigh-in the day before. One of his promoters, Bob Arum, is talking about Pacquiao fighting at lightweight (135 lbs.), up from the junior lightweight division (130) that he's dominated for the last couple years. His trainer, Freddie Roach, said: "We're trying to make him a better overall fighter, with a longer, better career." That goes hand in hand with Roach's confession that he knows Pacquiao, at lightweight, won't have the same power edge. Usually, I'd be in favor of a fighter having a longer, better career, but there are thought undercurrents here that have my furrowing my brow. I must start by saying the only fight I want to see Pacquiao in next is a rematch with Juan Manuel Marquez who fought Pacquiao to a dramatic draw in 2004. That's assuming Marquez gets through his Nov. 3 meeting with Rocky Juarez, it almost goes without saying. Not only do Pacquiao and Marquez have unfinished business, but they're two of the sport's five best fighters, pound for pound. Marquez only recently moved up to junior lightweight, so it could be a stretch to move up again soon at all if ever, no matter what Arum is saying about a possible Pacquiao-Marquez rematch in that division. No, I don't think this is about whether Pacquiao can make 130 anymore. I think it's about whether Pacquiao wants to make 130 anymore. Middleweight Jermain Taylor recently showed that his main problem making 160 lbs. was how hard he wanted to train making it, since he did it easily after concentrating full-time on doing so for one of the first times in his career. I think Pacquiao is in a similar situation; his distractions outside the ring prior to this weekend are well-documented. Worse still than the likelihood that a Marquez rematch may not happen anytime soon is the possibility that we've now seen the last of the Pacquiao who tries to blast out everyone he fights, replaced by a heavier, less powerful, more tactical thinker. Barrera pulled off the whole brawler-turned-boxer thing, but I doubt it will suit Pacquiao as well. Explosiveness is what made Pacquiao special. If he abandons it, 2007 won't just be the year we witnessed the ending for great warriors like Barrera, Diego Corrales, Jose Luis Castillo, Eric Morales and Fernando Vargas. We can add Pacquiao to the list, if only figuratively.

Peter, also from the seek and destroy school of fisticuffs, never stopped trying to do just that to McCline, even after landing on his back three times early in the fight. The worry about Peter is of a different variety -- that he was on his back to begin with. On one level, that he got back up showed considerable fortitude. Peter is still green, by heavyweight standards. Maybe he will learn lessons from the McCline knockdowns. But a granite chin is one of the traits, with his nasty knockout power, that made Peter such a formidable heavyweight, viewed as no worse than the second best behind Vitali Klitschko, whom Peter barely lost to in 2005. Anyone can "get caught," but regardless of Peter's claims that his knockdowns were mere slips, he was badly hurt in the third, and not by some lucky punch. Peter never figured out that the uppercut was his huckleberry, and never adjusted as such. A less reticent fighter than McCline, or a better conditioned one, would have made Peter pay. Fortunately for us, Peter has shown the ability to learn, as he showed in his rematch against James Toney last year. Nor should a Peter loss as a result of some of these mistakes be the end of him as an upper-tier heavyweight; he's still young, and could rebuild. Just one question: Can anyone still say, after Saturday night, that Peter has a granite chin, badly hurt as he was by a three-time also-ran? I, for one, am worried.

This is Peter Cushing. His name is Peter, like Sam, and he was gaunt, like Manny was on Friday. How I tied this all together is nothing short of a miracle, but maybe a bit of a stretch.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Three Career Endings: 1. Reflected Upon, 2. Wished For, 3. Accursed

A gentleman out of the ring except when it came to hated enemy Erik Morales, Barrera was a snarling, sneering and ruthless competitor between the ropes -- punching Juan Manuel Marquez when he was down, hitting Manny Pacquiao on the break Saturday, and mauling Naseem Hamed, pictured at right, by shoving his face into a ring post and more. Oh, and he was really, really good.

Saturday brought the end of one historic career, the next step in the car-crash comeback of another and the likely woeful conclusion to a third.
  1. Adios, Marco Antonio Barrera. Anyone who's followed boxing for the last decade or so knows that, with Barrera having retired after Saturday's defeat at the hands of Manny Pacquiao -- kryptonite to Mexican fighters and Barrera in particular -- the sport is losing one of its all-time greats, and one of the most entertaining warriors of any era. I briefly visited his list of accomplishments before, but it's worth revisiting more fully here, because it's truly worthy of awe when they're all stacked up. Titles at junior featherweight (122 lbs.), featherweight (126) and junior lightweight (130). Ring Magazine fights of the year and rounds of the year in 2000 and 2004. Fight of the year candidates in 1996, 2006 and 2007, if not more years. Persistent inhabitant of unofficial top 10 "pound for pound" lists of best fighters since around the turn of the century, and before that, on and off starting in the mid-90s. One half of one of boxing's greatest trilogies, where he won two of three versus Erik Morales. Sixty-three wins, including victories against Naseem Hamed -- in one of his greatest performances, a dismantling of the popular Hamed's legend -- Morales, Kennedy McKinney, Johnny Tapia, Paulie Ayala, Daniel Jiminez, Luis Freitas, Kevin Kelley and Rocky Juarez. Definitive losses against only Pacquiao and Junior Jones, and borderline losses that could have gone Barerra's way against Jones in their second meeting, Morales and Juan Manuel Marquez. Ring Magazine comeback of the year in 2004, one of several dramatic career rebirths. One of the top five -- or at worst, top 10 -- Mexican fighters ever, quite a big deal in a country with as strong a boxing tradition as any other on the planet. A first ballot hall-of-famer. I could say a great deal more about Barrera in an attempt to give him his due praise, but what he did in the ring kinda glorifies itself, doesn't it?
  2. Andrew Golota, please go away. "The Foul Pole" -- infamous for his in-ring meltdowns such as his two straight disqualifications against Riddick Bowe, which he earned by punching Bowe in the nuts endlessly -- is making yet another comeback bid in the wasteland that is the heavyweight division, with his latest and most noteworthy win coming this weekend over shell-of-Mike Tyson conqueror Kevin McBride. I was about to say the only fight I want to see Golota in is one where he's a sacrificial lamb and KO victim for some up-and-comer, but forgot my rule about wishing suffering on the mentally ill. I shouldn't villianize him. I just plain want him to go away.
  3. My condolences, Jose Antonio Rivera. It saddens me that Rivera probably is never going to get his one big chance, which looks farther away than ever after his knockout loss to Daniel Santos on Saturday. Rivera is about as lovable a person you'll find in a sport where the goal is to bludgeon your opponent into unconsciousness. He's nice and humble and has said time and again that all he wants before he retires is a major money fight to make it easier to provide for his family. He's a court security officer by day who has enough skill, heart and power to have spent much of his nighttime career just on the periphery of that fight, save for some awful luck. In 2004, he missed the money train when then-welterweight (147 lbs.) flavor of the month Ricardo Mayorga bailed out of a scheduled meeting. In 2005 he lost a title shot to Luis Collazo, weight-drained in part because he'd not been able to train full-time due to his day job. Beloved in his hometown of Worcester, Mass., he was given time off in 2006 to train for a junior middleweight (154 lbs.) title fight against Alejandro Garcia, which he won entertainingly but which nobody saw because it happened the same night that Oscar De La Hoya beat up Mayorga. Then, earlier this year, because of some complicated circumstances with the belt-sanctioning organization, he was forced into a mandatory defense and disastrous style matchup against the far slicker, faster Travis Simms. Now the road back to a title shot and subsequent millions is almost infinitely long for a 34-year-old with two straight KO losses, and ESPN writes that his career is probably over. He's getting into the boxing promotion business back in Massachusetts, and I wish him luck for once there -- although reports are that he's off to a rocky start, having run into some trouble with the state's boxing bureaucracy, poetically if cruelly.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Once I Was Blind, Now I Can See

There'll be ample boxing to talk about this week -- Marco Antonio Barrera ending his remarkable career, another must-see fight or two coming up Saturday, how the hell Jameel McCline gave Samuel Peter so much trouble when it took harder-hitting Vladimir Klitschko 12 rounds to hit "The Nigerian Nightmare" with a punch that had him reeling -- but there's something much more unimportant I want to address. I'm skipping over the more meaningful topics in part because I won't see the Barrera-Manny Pacquiao fight until next weekend, assuming they'll replay the $50 main event for free on HBO, and because I didn't catch but a few rounds of Peter-McCline despite my best intentions. The other reason is because I'm feeling like less of an idiot these days about the topic at hand, and I want to express my relief about it: Predictions.

Unless you're Las Vegas or a professional gambler, boxing predictions are more art than science. Ultimately, they matter very little. At most, one's prediction accuracy says a tiny amount about what one knows about the sport. But they're part of the fun of being a fight fan, at least for me.

And when I started up this blog, my prediction accuracy started in the gutter, then rolled around in it for a while. I went 1 for 5 in July, my first month online. That's Alex Rodriguez-in-October-level stuff. My confidence in my understanding of boxing was in shambles. Before I started the blog, when I made predictions in my head, my accuracy was damn good. But had I, like the aforementioned Yankee who kills it in the regular season but vaporizes in the playoffs, choked when it really mattered?

As it turns out, nowadays I'm more like a Yankee more famous for his fall performances, Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson. Since August 1, I've gone 6 for 6. Sometimes, I haven't been right about the exact nature of the victory. Take this weekend, when Peter had to gut out a decision against a three-time also-ran in the form of McCline, rather than knocking him out in the middle rounds as I haughtily scoffed that he would. Other times I've been pretty proud that my going against conventional wisdom ended up being such a dashing move. That would be like this weekend again, when, as I predicted, Barrera reportedly made a better showing than in his 2003 battering from the fists of Pacquiao, even though age and career arc both looked to solidly favor a Pac-Man blowout of the Baby-Faced Assassin. But ultimately, I'd rather be wrong about the reason my pick won, as I have sometimes since August, than right about the reason my pick might lose, as I was pretty consistently before then.

Of course, now that I've brought this to the fore, the fates will observe my hubris and make me pay. Anticipating this, I've got a plan to head them off at the pass. I'm going to predict the exact opposite of what I think will happen for the next few weeks, no matter how crazy I look. Trust me, 13-loss, Federico Catubay will KO Vic Darchinyan in one round! It's going to be a fun October, for a lot of reasons.

The "Real" Mr. October

This punk's got nothing on me.