Just the Facts

There’s no compulsion to editorialize on this one. A fight card this great speaks for itself, and for once, the $80 price tag was well deserved. The Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder trilogy is now rightfully being compared to the greatest heavyweight rivalries in the history of the sport: Ali-Frazier, Bowe-Holyfield.

The night began with an incredible undercard worthy of headlining most events. Julian J-Roc Williams showed his true colors yet again, turning in a disappointing performance against Vladimir Hernandez, who poses a significantly smaller threat than previous opponents Jeison Rosario and Jermall Charlo, both of whom defeated Williams. Edgar Berlanga looked similarly careless in his fight against Marcelo Coceres–who managed to knock down the young brawler in a disturbingly vulnerable moment of distraction–but Berlanga got the decision. Coceres has little reputation and no hype surrounding him after this third loss, but it’s worth noting that his first loss came from none other than recent-Canelo-challenger Billy Joe Saunders. The scores were close, and I would have given at least one more round to Coceres, which could easily have resulted in a momentum-breaking draw for Berlanga.

The main card was the icing on the cake of that extremely satisfying undercard. The first course served up Efe Ajagba taking on Cuban stalwart Frank Sanchez, who managed to derail Ajagba with a poorly timed shot to the head after Ajagba had already been knocked down. Ajagba finished the fight, but was unable to recover enough to even the score cards.

In what could be called the co-feature, Robert Helenius met Adam Kownacki for the second time. Though Helenius did not appear as well conditioned as he did in the first fight, Kownacki, by contrast, was in significantly better shape than in their first meeting. These two alterations in the formula contributed to another competitive fight between two solid heavies. Helenius stuck to his improved technique, though, and managed a second dominant win with a 6th round stoppage. Analysts commented that both men are too far below the elite level to challenge for a title, but I think that’s a premature judgment until we see them against Anthony Joshua (or Andy Ruiz Jr.).

You’ve already read the result and/or seen the highlights of the epic third battle between Wilder and Fury, who headlined the pay-per-view event. If anything, journalists undersold the drama. In the lead-up to the fight, Wilder outrageously claimed that Fury had loaded his gloves to win the second fight, this after using the excuse that his (Wilder’s) stamina was sapped wearing a heavy costume to the ring. For his part, Fury refused to deny the accusation, and, in a moment of rare poise, seemed the more level-headed of the two. Both men came to the ring heavier than previous fights, especially Wilder, who still looked chiseled from stone, whereas Fury looked almost as flabby as he did before his transformation. Despite the extra pounds, Fury fought an impressive, consistent fight and earned his win. Wilder, despite fierce determination and a slightly greater emphasis on technique, was able to mount neither a comprehensive defense nor an overwhelming offense. Both men are skilled enough at this point in their careers that their obvious flaws only make them more entertaining to watch, hence the multiple knockdowns for each fighter. From here, both have good options based on their stellar performances. Let’s hope we get to enjoy more of this level of performance from both athletes.

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Caleb Plant Conspires to Cancel Canelo Clash

The weigh-in for the Saul Alvarez super-middleweight unification fight is still weeks away, but the action got started early at a news conference today. ESPN reported on the incident with a telling clip that shows Alvarez shoving Plant, then standing still while Plant composes himself and throws a big left hook, which Alvarez was only able to narrowly avoid because of his superhuman reflexes and unsurpassed training discipline. Boxers often stage fake displays of aggression at weigh-ins and news conferences to arouse some interest in less consequential events. Alvarez-Plant is hardly in need of any promotional push given the historic nature of Canelo’s challenge, his pound-for-pound status and his incredibly large and loyal fanbase. Even Caleb Plant has a modest following and generates interest whenever he performs. In this case, I doubt promoters, trainers or anyone on Canelo’s team had anything to do with the stunt.

It’s possible that Plant conceived of and executed this farce completely under his own auspices, but that begs the question, was this incident a farce? In the sense that most pre-fight public altercations between contracted boxers are fake, I would speculate that this was not a stunt, but instead a rare, genuine attempt at attacking an opponent. As the ESPN article reports, Canelo and his team have been suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs in the past, which Plant has taken up as a battle cry recently to bludgeon his opponent’s team with slander. While it’s certainly impossible to accurately judge an athlete’s use of PEDs from his or her physical appearance, guys like Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez showed visible muscle growth and even skeletal changes between fights around the time of public suspicion about their use of PEDs, whereas Alvarez has had the same sturdy, stocky frame since his early days as a pro, 16 years ago. On the contrary, this accusation seems conspicuously timed to affect the outcome of the fight. Even more conspicuous are the details of the incident itself. As familiar as fans are with pre-fight promotional antics involving shoving at press conferences, you have to believe champion boxers are even more familiar. Certainly, enough to know that shoving is primarily symbolic and doesn’t imply any actual threat. Why, then, did Plant take a moment to compose himself before throwing a measured punch directly at Canelo’s eye after being shoved only once?

Plant is an experienced professional fighter and probably has some idea of the threat Canelo poses, despite his team’s efforts to shield him from that reality. He’s probably well aware that mind games will have little effect on such a seasoned fighter (especially one who is innocent of the alleged crime), but he knows what major delays can do to a fighter’s composure and momentum. Plant knows that if the fight were delayed, he could use the time between to launch a social media campaign casting doubts on Canelo’s integrity in regard to banned substances and his courage in response to the fight’s postponement. How better to achieve such an effect than to inflict a fight-stopping injury on your opponent? A quick hook on an ungloved fist would do the trick, for sure. So, is it really a coincidence that Plant can be clearly seen to incite the scuffle verbally, then calmly compose himself to prepare for the punch? This was no wild haymaker, like the ones you see at so many heavyweight press conferences and weigh-ins. This was a carefully released, fast hook meant to land directly on his opponent’s eye, where he was most likely to open a cut that would directly impact the fight.

Ironically, in all of the posturing and theater involved in pre-fight promotional events, this false flag incident might be the most real of them all. For once, the fighter actually meant to hurt his opponent and delay the multi-million dollar event for which he had signed a contract. There’s only one possible explanation for that: fear. Plant is finally facing the enormity of the legendary figure in front of him, and he’s cowed. He’s scared. He’ll do anything–even going so far as to endanger the event itself, not to mention his subsequent earnings–to avoid the exposure he knows is coming when the two of them get in the ring. While I previously predicted that Plant would provide an impressive performance, pushing Canelo to his limit, I must now revise that estimate. Given Plant’s pre-fight accusations and lack of poise, the mental aspects of the game might be enough to overwhelm this ordinary athlete when confronted with the uncanny abilities of Saul Alvarez. Hopefully, we’ll get to see Canelo bat him around for a few minutes before he brings the fight to a close. Of course, Plant could take a page from Bernard Hopkins’ book and try letting Canelo work him on the ropes so he can leap outside the ring and get a no decision. Somehow, though, I don’t think this mediocre actor has the chops for that kind of role. He’d tap his understudy on the shoulder, if he had one. When the players do take the stage, be ready–there’ll be no encore for this performance.

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This past Sunday PBC on FS1 treated viewers to a semi-decent card headlined by Jesus Ramos Jr. and Brian Mendoza. When the broadcast started all three commentators (Lennox Lewis, Brian Kenny and Joe Goosen) were very animated and almost breathless, later explaining that they had just called a very contentious fight on the undercard between Kyrone Davis and Martez McGregor. For whatever reason, my DVR hadn’t recorded the undercard and the brief highlights they showed from the aforementioned fight weren’t enough to give much context. Fortunately, FS1 rebroadcast the first half of the card and I was able to see a couple of good knockdowns in the early fights, gearing up, of course, for the allegedly heated main event.

The first couple of rounds between Davis and McGregor were very ordinary, with both men looking competitive and formidable but nothing spectacular. It was somewhere in round 3 or 4 when McGregor started to get an attitude and appeared, at moments of inactivity, to be yelling at both his opponent and someone in the crowd. It wasn’t until about halfway through the fight that McGregor threw a blatantly intentional elbow on the follow-through of an uppercut. Without prior warning, and without first taking a single point, the referee decided to penalize McGregor for two points on that single foul. This started the argument between Goosen, Kenny and Lewis.

On this penalty, Goosen was squarely on the side of the referee’s decision. It was blatant and intentional, he said. Kenny and Lewis, on the other hand, commented that they were a little confused as to why he hadn’t taken one point first, especially since there was no warning. Their verdict, after much deliberation, ended up being “unfortunate, but fair.” McGregor now had a deep hole to crawl out of, even if he had been ahead on points before, which was arguable.

This sequence of events inspired even more animated vitriol from McGregor, who seemed to take every opportunity to yell at the ref, or his opponent or someone outside the ring. To be fair, his stamina had not waned and his technique looked impressive at times throughout the 8-round contest. Davis, though, wasn’t wasting time trying to influence the scorecards with talking. He stayed busy the entire fight, overall more accurate than his opponent but with less dramatic impact on his punches. Davis may have been feeling McGregor’s power, too, because he had begun holding (especially the left arm) after the action died in close-quarters exchanges.

After one such incident, with his left arm pinned, the referee called “break!” and McGregor threw a punch about a full second after the call. Having boxed myself, I’m pretty aware of how that feels and how much time a fighter has to react, but I wasn’t a great athlete. There have been many fighters over the years capable of making adjustments and movements in the ring so fast that I couldn’t even see them. Any time there’s a countable pause after an official calls “break,” that’s a somewhat intentional foul. This one was easily declared a foul, and of course, McGregor wasn’t shy about communicating his frustration, even going so far as to stare down and get in the face of his opponent after the final bell, prompting Brian Kenny to say “he’s got to comport himself a little better than that.” Too true. That kind of bad sportsmanship is almost unheard of, despite the fact that every boxing match is about punching your opponent until he or she quits.

The controversy came when Goosen, Kenny and Lewis tried to work out how fair this second foul call was (for a single point, this time). Kenny and Lewis were distracted, watching a replay of the previous round when the call occurred, so they commented that they needed to see it again. Goosen, on the other hand, was completely confident in his appraisal that the referee should not have taken a point because the rules say if your arm is pinned, “you have the right” to throw the other hand and work out of it. As the analysts bandied back and forth, Kenny insisted that when the referee tells you to stop fighting, you simply stop fighting. Lewis agreed. Goosen’s classic reply went something like: “Brian–look–he can tell you to do backflips and that doesn’t make it right.”

Just another great example of the undercard outshining the main event, both in terms of skill level and excitement generated by the outcome. Both these fighters will be memorable when we see them again, and this kind of controversy can serve to highlight an otherwise uncelebrated fighter. For fans, it’s just as enjoyable to watch the fight as it is to argue with the commentators, especially when you can agree with them on one foul and disagree on the other. Good stuff from PBC.

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It’s going to be very interesting over the next week or so to find out the pay-per-view numbers on Ugas-Pacquiao. Attendance at the venue was good, but fans aren’t likely to cancel plans to attend a fight so close to the event, even when one of the main attractions pulls out. Apparently, Pacquiao-Thurman got around 500,000 PPV buys, and I’m sure Pacquiao-Spence would’ve (or should’ve) done something similar. Given the lack of exciting undercard fights and even greater lack of any star power from Pacquiao’s opponent, though, I would expect the numbers for Ugas to be a lot lower.

Ugas was a low enough level of opponent that we have to reevaluate Pacquiao’s viability in the sport. He’s doing the same as he prepares for a run at the Presidency in the Philippines. If he selects another opponent carefully, he can go out on a better note.

Speaking of which, Oscar sure picked his opponent carefully for the upcoming certain-to-disappoint pay-per-view. Belfort will receive a mix of attention from all different types of fans because even though he’s not a boxer, he’s much closer to his competition physique than De La Hoya. That being said, Oscar looks quite a bit better than I expected after a few months in the gym. He hasn’t been at his peak for 20 years, but even if his performance has decayed significantly, he probably still has a long way to go before he’s a pushover. We can only guess as to Belfort’s boxing skill.

In any case, don’t be fooled by Oscar’s delusion that he’s meant to be in the ring because he still loves it. Guys in much better shape, who took a lot less time off, have found themselves in fights they couldn’t handle. Younger, stronger, more talented guys–like Pacquiao, for one.

In my previous post I compared Pacquiao’s condition on fight night to that of Sergio Martinez when he fought his last fight against Cotto. The skill levels might be different, but the comparison fits here, too. Martinez was a much younger, fresher fighter. The exceptions that De La Hoya has in mind are guys like George Foreman or Bernard Hopkins (who beat Oscar 17 years ago), guys who continued to fight well into their 40s and–in B-Hop’s case–50s. What they have in common, though, is that all these over-the-hill competitors encountered difficulty with age relative to the challenge their opponents presented. That’s why Martinez was so thoroughly dismantled (by Cotto), why B-Hop got stopped by the fresh Joe Smith Jr. but held on for a decision loss against the faded Kovalev, and why Pacquiao ended the fight on his feet. How much of a challenge a former MMA star presents, we have yet to see. Tyson and Jones Jr. have both floated the idea of getting back in the ring again since their exhibition, but I doubt De La Hoya will be so eager.

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Small-Scale Revolution

In the ten-plus years I’ve followed the sport closely, I’ve never known boxing to have such a scarcity of major fights on the schedule. Recent reports assure us that Canelo and Plant have finalized a deal for November after pushing back the September 5th date for the third year in a row. In late September, Anthony Joshua will test himself against a skilled but much smaller opponent in Oleksandr Usyk, and finally, Tyson Fury will meet Deontay Wilder for the third time in October. The Pacquiao-Spence fight was downgraded to a gatekeeper test against Yordenis Ugas and it’s impossible to determine, as it is with most of the other fights, how the result could significantly affect either competitor’s career path.

In a sport that increasingly concerns itself with revenue and monetary value, the emphasis in boxing promotions is on novelty fights like Jake Paul-Tyron Woodley. This farce is actually being broadcast as a Pay-Per-View, undoubtedly billing the viewers between $50-$80 per household. The undercard for this poorly constructed joke consists of more filler, with two 8-round bouts. One matches has-been David Haye and never-was Joe Fournier, and in the other, two former MMA fighters making an attempt at boxing. At least the viewers of the Jake Paul fiasco will get to see Daniel Dubois, Amanda Serrano and Ivan Baranchyk, but in every case, the real boxing is consistently being shoved off-stage for the spotlight to shine on something between professional wrestling and martial arts.

The pandemic and its subsequent neuroses, along with a plethora of social media and cultural trends, are undoubtedly part of the cause behind this trend. Boxing has dabbled in sideshow entertainment since the 60’s and beyond–boxing historians might say–and I wouldn’t dispute it. There is a difference, however, in how the sport is perceived by the public and how its highest honors are awarded. With the confusing progeny of the sanctioning body belt system (champion in recess, special champion etc.), it’s difficult for anyone, longtime fan or first-time observer, to figure out who matters and what to watch. This problem is exacerbated by irresponsible sports journalism like the articles ESPN has been releasing recently, one even suggesting that Yordenis Ugas should be ranked number three welterweight in the world because he beat a faded Pacquiao. I said it about Cotto-Martinez and I’m saying it again, it doesn’t matter who the opponent was if they’re not that same fighter anymore on fight night.

Yes, Ugas beat a once-great fighter, and yes, that fighter is one of the best ever. It’s understandable to think that those superlatives ought to mean something significant about the victor’s talent, but his record proves that they don’t.

About five years ago, Ugas beat Bryant Perella and Levan Ghvamichava, then had no significant fights at all until losing to Shawn Porter in 2019. Admittedly, he came back strong with a win over Omar Figueroa Jr., but then tapered off his competition before the Pacquiao fight.

Keep in mind, he wasn’t slated to fight Pacquiao. He was scheduled for yet another stay-busy opponent who wouldn’t have made any difference to his legacy, and he lucked into the role of Pacquiao’s opponent because the intended fighter suffered an injury. He doesn’t deserve to be in the same conversation with the top welterweights (who are some of the best boxers of any weight class) in the world. To make things more confusing, the article goes on to speculate about whether Pacquiao has somehow (with a loss to a mediocre fighter) eclipsed Mayweather, in whose shadow he’s always previously fought. He hasn’t, and it doesn’t take expert analysis to understand why.

Then again, if Mayweather keeps performing unimpressively in fights against Social Media stars, maybe Pacquiao has a shot, after all.

Putting recognizable names on the card is not the only component necessary to revitalize a sport, and make no mistake, boxing needs revitalization. Viewership was already low with the rising popularity of UFC and boxing has struggled to establish a position in the sports marketplace over the last decade, at least.

Now, promoters have slowly whittled down decent matchmaking during the pandemic (which started out strong with competitive cards) until half of the highly anticipated upcoming fights involve social media stars. De La Hoya-Belfort and Jake Paul-Tyron Woodley might both draw young, slack-jawed viewers, but these fights have no relevance or significance in boxing. The children whose parents buy those pay-per-view fights will text and DM their friends and acquaintances for a couple of days before and after the fight about what happened, but then they’ll never tune in again because there will be no connection to the normal competition of the sport. It’s called prizefighting, not moneygrabbing.

After wading through fake fight cards and less exciting boxing, viewers are then treated to the promotional safety net of foregone conclusions, scheduled to be acted out with reliably lucrative boxers like Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury and Saul Alvarez. These might all seem like decent fights, but in reality, Joshua won’t be derailed completely if he loses to Usyk (who likewise won’t be catapulted to stardom by an, albeit, unlikely win) and neither Fury nor Wilder (despite their appropriately evocative names) is likely to put on the kind of performance necessary to change their rankings much. Even the big unification fight for Canelo–which isn’t signed yet, by the way–is essentially a sure thing. Plant is a very capable opponent, but nobody really believes anybody in any weight class adjacent to 168 can handle Alvarez in his current form. Just another stepping stone for one of the sport’s cash cows.

I’m still hopeful for the future of this uniquely adaptive, most dramatic of sports. To regain its place, boxing will need to evolve through smart business decisions and carefully calculated risks. No more shortcuts, no more fights for prizes as meaningless as Likes and Instagram followers.

Boxing, fighting–as a sport, as a profession, as an occupation–has always been compelling because its result is determined by the use of the greatest force for the highest stakes. When one fighter exerts a stronger force of will upon another, whether its despite his size, or his skill, or his background–or because of it–fans get to see a small scale revolution taking place. The underdog overcoming the odds to physically defeat his opponent. It’s a spectacle that might not be unique in sports, but it’s unique in boxing in the particular manifestation, so accessible to us, that as viewers, we often feel after a fight like we’ve experienced a shred of the glory those athletes achieved. That kind of magic isn’t possible with casual athletes dipping toes into the sport and it isn’t possible with geriatric retirees shoving their way into a promotion for a final shot a glory. Fans, please, take a stand. Withhold your interest, your clicks and your follows. De-fund fake fights so we can get back to what we love about this sport and what it teaches us about humanity. Let’s take back the magic.

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Slump Season

A drought has set in over the summer of 2021. The wildfires of oblivion have waited patiently for an opportunity to rush in and consume the few remaining structures supporting potentially meaningful boxing matches, with Canelo struggling to finalize a deal with Plant, Fury unable to make a deal with Joshua, and then the pandemic-related delays to Teofimo Lopez-George Kambosos and Fury-Wilder III. It’s left fans with a barren, charred landscape for their sport in the remainder of this season. I hope you’re all fans of Olympic-style competition, because it’s the best we’re going to see for a while.

That being said, Keyshawn Davis is proving to be a prospect worth watching as one of the first professional boxers to make a big impact in the Games. Fighting out of Nofolk, VA, Davis obviously has my support as a native Virginian. The problem for me, as a viewer, is that boxing is rarely featured on a prime time broadcast slot (or at all), so I’m relegated to the vast database of streaming events, which makes it very difficult to locate a specific fight. They are usually bloated to several hours long with lengthy sections of dead air between fights, and very little meaningful commentary (not to mention watching the same commercial for the 17th time during every break between rounds). If you’re able to click the progress bar and find an action-packed fight segment, you’ve just won the lottery–it doesn’t happen often.

On top of these obstacles to entertainment, some of the fights currently on the schedule are nothing more than promotional scams perpetrated by fringe celebrities and former athletes. In September, Oscar De La Hoya will be facing an ostensibly worthy opponent in former UFC star Vitor Belfort. Again, my appreciation for UFC competition has increased since watching the collection of “greatest fights” released on Hulu (along with Anderson Silva’s dominant performance over JCC Jr.), but it’s also given me an idea of the limits to these athletes’ abilities in boxing. Granted, Silva is a far sight from Ben Askren, but the upcoming bout between De La Hoya and Belfort is specious at best. Belfort’s career has been very successful in MMA in terms of wins and losses, but there have been multiple interruptions, last-minute opponent substitutions, and a hell of a lot of weight fluctuation. He’s the larger man in the fight, but the last time he tried to compete at the UFC middleweight designation (up 185 pounds, the same limit set for this bout) he fainted and then had seizures from his unhealthy weight-cutting practices.

This is yet another example that demonstrates the incompatibility or at least the incongruence of UFC and boxing career records. Boxing, even with the precipitous ascent in UFCs popularity over the last 20 years, is such a better established sport with such a longer, richer history and superior metrics for determining champions, that the two are almost impossible to compare. Without getting into specifics again, this disparity makes it difficult to judge not only the outcome of some of these fights, but their significance in the sport as well. Silva looked incredible against the consistently lazy, undisciplined JCC Jr., but will Oscar De La Hoya put in a similar performance? If we’re judging by conditioning and age (four years his opponent’s senior), there’s a strong possibility he will perform just as abysmally as his Mexican compatriot.

Oscar is coming in thirty pounds heavier than he did in his fight against Mayweather, forty pounds heavier than his dehydrated fight weight (for which he blamed his loss) against Pacquiao. That, combined with his age, ought to mean that no legitimate athlete (with a two inch height–and presumably similar reach–advantage) trained in boxing could lose to De La Hoya. As we’ve already seen, though, MMA fighters in boxing are harder to predict than normal fighters. They don’t stick as closely to technique and their conditioning is never close to their boxing counterparts. They all seem to have the idea that eventually they’ll have an opportunity for a takedown or that their opponent will become so winded, there will be a gap in their defenses big enough for an easy knockout. Neither of those situations should arise in this fight, but Oscar’s physical condition makes anything possible.

Of all the fighters to return to the ring for these social media fueled affairs, Oscar seems the least sincere about the effort. Roy Jones Jr. was basically an active fighter until 5 years ago, Tyson was in good condition and took his time returning to the ring. Mayweather has lost several steps, but has stayed active enough to be more than adequate for the amateurs he’s made matches with recently. De La Hoya’s reign came after Tyson and Jones debuted, but he wasn’t far behind either of them, and while they stayed relatively close to fighting shape in between training for fights, Oscar has had nothing like their recent ring activity. It’s just been announced that the fight will be a sanctioned boxing match rather than an exhibition, but it’s hard to know what to expect other than a flabby shell of the former Golden Boy. One thing is for sure (or as close as you can get in boxing), which is that this will not be a “good fight.” There will be no supreme talent or athletic ability on display, and we have to hope neither of these old guys is pushed to prove his heart.

Hopefully, this firestorm of frivolous fights will burn out the dead wood boxing fans have been subjected to for too long. There are at least three unusually competitive and exciting divisions in the sport right now, but we’re not getting any of the benefits; none of the fights are being made. While pandemic restrictions account for some of the delays, the sport’s promoters and matchmakers have shown desperation in their attempt to capitalize on every opportunity, from WWE soap-opera crossovers to fake celebrity YouTube “stars” and former MMA competitors with nearly as many losses as wins. As the dust settles, perhaps fans will be treated to a new generation of green, untested fighters, some of whom might rise from the ashes like a phoenix from the ruins of our former monoliths. This time, we hope, they’ll be comprised of fighters who want to practice the art of boxing, rather than athletes who want to make some money and increase their Twitter following by fighting on TV.

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you’re not a boxing fan if you only watch the “big fights.” Especially now, in an age when YouTube stars, retired boxers and MMA fighters command the highest purses and the biggest audiences–who could say with a straight face that Mayweather-Paul was even worth watching based on the performances we saw in the ring, much less worth the price tag? I watched Paul enact his farcical fight with Mayweather at a Buffalo Wild Wing, surrounded by kids barely old enough to drink (some not old enough) who booed and cheered the “action” as if anything of consequence were happening, as if anything (even an official win) were on the line. Last night’s undercard on ESPN, and later, the main event on Fox, exemplified this seemingly oxymoronic inconsistency.

Before going any further, I should update my recent commentary on MMA fighters in general, and UFC fighters and MMA fighters in boxing, specifically. The most recent pay-per-view sham perpetrated against boxing fans featured Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., the most consistently disappointing, lazy fighter in the sport, fighting former MMA legend Anderson Silva. Though I was familiar with his reputation, the only experience I had had actually watching Silva compete was when he snapped his tibia and fibula fighting Chris Weidman in one of the strangest, most severe injuries I’ve ever seen in fight sports. This bizarre event should not, of course, have influenced my somewhat arbitrary dismissal of the fighter competing in boxing. That being said, he had competed professionally in the sport twice before (at a much younger age) with unimpressive results.

Yet, the opponent’s spotty background does nothing to reduce the error of expecting Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. to perform like a professional. He came in overweight again, even at a relaxed catchweight of 182 (there’s no such weight class), and looked inexplicably amateurish in his technique. In the past, when Chavez was clearly undisciplined in his conditioning and his technique, you could at least see the underlying talent and natural athleticism that had carried him that far in his career. In this match, Silva looked like a trained, natural boxer, where Chavez looked like he had learned a few combinations but wasn’t sure how he had gotten himself into that situation. An impressive win for Silva and an indication that not all MMA fighters are as inept as Ben Askren.

Getting back to less hyped boxing broadcasts, a quick glance at the events of this past weekend is all that should be needed to support my case. The biggest events were on Saturday, of course, with Gervonta Davis moving up two weight classes to impressively dominate Mario Barrios, and Vasiliy Lomachenko returning from his loss to Lopez to completely destroy the formerly formidable Masayoshi Nakatani. No doubt, these cards included some action and some surprisingly competitive rounds, but the main events themselves were dismal affairs showing fans more of the same inconsequential exercises they’ve seen these fighters in already. No significant tides have shifted and neither headliner’s career will take a new direction because of these results.

By contrast, on Sunday night’s unheralded lineup there were at least four upsets and two spectacular knockouts, not to mention an absolute barn burner between two undefeated Cruiserweights in Brandon Glanton and Efetobor Apochi. In that bout, both men came out with disparate styles and the intent as well as an expectation that they would punish their opponent. The action went back and forth with big exchanges, but in the end, the right man won the decision. This one was expected to produce some action, as the fight was billed a co-main event (albeit on a Sunday night card), yet the real standout for me was the main event on the undercard broadcast between Nathaniel Gallimore and Leon Lawson III. In this ostensibly unremarkable matchup, we had a guy in Gallimore with an ambitious, impressive history of opponents with whom he’d had mixed success, plus an outrageous haircut. In Lawson, fans are seeing a six-foot five technically sound boxer fighting at 154 pounds. The physical disparity alone is enough to hold your attention.

As the fight wore on, the oldest and most important maxim of the sport showed its influence: styles make fights. The incredibly long and ungainly Lawson became distraught at the damage he was taking inside, so resorted to wrestling tactics and holding to discourage Gallimore, who began retaliating with punches behind the head and even headbutts when both his arms were pinned by his opponent. At times it looked as if the shorter man would succumb to the enormous reach advantage of his opponent, at others, it appeared that Gallimore was too tenacious for Lawson. The fight was exciting and the cards were close, but in the end, once again, the right man won.

All of this was capped off with a wonderfully satisfying, if somewhat brief, main event in David Morrell vs. Mario Cazares. Both fighters are expected to do big things in the sport, but the coming out party ended up being decidedly oriented toward Morrell, who managed to stun his opponent with a setup shot about 2 and half minutes into the first round, followed shortly thereafter by a single, devastating knockout punch that should be among the nominees for knockout of the year. Unfortunately for Morrell, he’s currently campaigning in the same division as Canelo and Caleb Plant, and if he wants to move up, he’ll be facing Beterbiev, Bivol and Joe Smith Jr. The prospects for him aren’t great in either case, but there’s always the chance he can outlast Canelo or move down instead.

Looming in the distance is the final showdown between the heavyweight giants Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury, rendered something of a caricature by Wilder’s “BOMB SQU-A-AD” routine. Two of the largest, most powerful men in the sport, they’ll also generate the most interest for any (legitimate) fight of the year, the result of which is admittedly difficult to predict. Aside from that, we’ll have to hope that promoters don’t get too enamored with the new trend of matching MMA fighters, social media stars, and nearly geriatric boxers to clean up the schedule for the fall.

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Showtime is presenting tomorrow (Sunday) night’s exhibition between Jake Paul and Floyd Mayweather. The size disparity is supposed to make this fight interesting between a YouTube star and one of the best boxer’s in history, but if you recall the result of the McGregor mismatch, you should know what to expect here. Even if Mayweather struggles in the fight, it will mean nothing for Paul’s boxing career and nothing about Mayweather’s place in history. The more likely scenario is what we saw against McGregor, with Mayweather taking time to get comfortable with his opponent’s size and then getting a stoppage in the middle rounds.

For some reason, after crippling the highest quality boxing show in history on HBO, Showtime has been gradually fading out in terms of relevant fights. This summer’s lineup may be the best example yet, with tomorrow night’s farce featuring only one legitimate bout, between Badou Jack and Dervin Colina. Jack is on the decline after losing to a couple of gatekeepers, while Colina has never faced a significant opponent. The undercard features former football player Ochocinco in a four-round exhibition. Later this month we’ll see one of the Charlos taking on another anonymous opponent and then Showtime will hang a pay-per-view price tag on a Gervonta Davis title attempt in late June. Having finally defeated a name opponent (though one clearly past his prime) in Leo Santa Cruz, Davis apparently now expects to get superstar status without any significant wins.

July 3rd, Showtime will be perpetrating Chris Colbert vs. Yuriorkis Gamboa, and then in late July the other Charlo will be facing yet another soft touch in Brian Castano, whose most important contest came to a draw against Erislandy Lara. In a similarly pointless match, August 14 will see Guillermo Rigondeaux dusted off for a fight with John Riel Casimero. While Rigondeaux might very well be a legitimate talent in the division, he hasn’t had a significant fight since losing to Lomachenko in 2017. In late August, Showtime will present yet another pay-per-view, this time headlined by Jake Paul and Tyron Woodley. But they’re still not done with us. Before the end of September, they’ll show two more wastes of airtime with David Benavidez vs. Jose Uzcategui and Stephen Fulton vs. Brandon Figueroa.

Just to be clear, I subscribe to every other service that provides boxing content, but I am completely comfortable ignoring the provider that will be showing the majority of fights this season. Their analysts are acceptable at best, with Al Bernstein and Jim Gray being the standouts, whereas HBO was littered with brilliant talent like Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, Harold Lederman, Roy Jones Jr., and Max Kellerman. Insightful analysis from guys like that is the reason I fell in love with this sport and committed so fully to it when I had no experience with it whatsoever. People who truly love the sport and understand it show the rest of us how to love it, but Showtime doesn’t do that.

Next week, ESPN will present Shakur Stevenson as he returns with another irrelevant opponent. He’s been showing more developed technique in recent fights but has yet to face a legitimate name. The following week we’ll be treated to Naoya Inoue and Mikaela Mayer defending their titles. In late June, in another welcome change of pace, we get Lomachenko-Nakatani, which should be both entertaining and competitive, but there’s nothing else on ESPN’s schedule for the rest of the summer, and there will likely be very few additions.

Thankfully, there are two semi-competitive fights slated for the remainder of the year and we can still expect Canelo to come through with a unification fight against Caleb Plant, if for no other reason than because he seems to have hit his peak performance and frequency of fights. His current reign might be the best single reason to follow the sport as it stands. The two interesting fights on the schedule differ significantly in terms of weight class but not much with regard to status. On August 21st, Manny Pacquiao will be taking on Errol Spence in an ill-advised last stand, with this fight either catapulting him with finality to legendary status, or further bolstering the career of Spence, whose resume is otherwise somewhat thin. Best of all will be July 24th, when Tyson Fury will finish his trilogy with Deontay Wilder, who was expected to lead the division until he was dethroned and embarrassed by Fury in their first two fights. Fury looks better than ever, seemingly having taken great care in developing himself since his fight (declared a draw) with Wilder in 2018, so I don’t think Wilder has much of a chance. The speculation from boxing analysts purports that Wilder will come into the ring ready to box and use technique better than we’ve ever seen, but I’m skeptical. Wilder has fought his entire career as if he were trying to live up to his own name, and it’s unlikely that he can successfully complete such a dramatic turnaround so late in his career, especially after having settled into a sense of dominance before the loss to Fury–his style is already firmly engrained–and having had no other opponents since being stopped in February of 2020.

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The next two weekends kick off what should be an action-packed summer for the sport. Saturday, on pay-per-view, a fight card featuring prominent Mexican fighters will culminate in the (perhaps overdue) showdown between Andy Ruiz Jr. and Chris Arreola. Both have lost a significant amount of weight and improved their physiques since their previous bouts, most notably Andy Ruiz, who has lost something like 30 pounds since his embarrassingly corpulent attempt at a title defense in December of 2019 against Anthony Joshua. Ruiz is the younger, more technically sound fighter, and even though his last fight was a one-sided loss, he did make it through the duration, which Arreola likely would not have.

In contrast, Arreola made his campaign to transform his body over a decade ago and he’s been less successful ever since. He still comes into the ring flabby, but with an improved physique comparatively. He’s lost every time he’s approached elite level opponents, and even, at times, when he’s been confronted with the B+ fighters like Adam Kownacki. Ruiz shocked the world with his dominant win over the physically flawless Anthony Joshua, but the rematch looked a lot more like what we expected. Obese men have never been able to compete at the highest levels of any sport, even heavyweight boxing. The fact that Arreola, Kownacki and Ruiz have had as much success as they have is a testament to their technical ability and an indictment of that of their opponents. Bermane Stiverne is an important exception in some ways, but the fact that Arreola was competitive against him in two fights goes a long way to explaining why Stiverne never reached the pinnacle of the division. Of all three, Arreola is the oldest, the most physically worn, and the least technically skilled (especially defensively).

That being said, as of April 2021, Arreola absolutely looks the best of the three in terms of physique. Is it possible he’s settled into his new body in a way that Ruiz has not had time for? Could his fierce determination carry him through one more crucial gateway fight? Chris Arreola has never been short on heart or courage when facing almost insurmountable obstacles like Vitali Klitschko and Deontay Wilder. The fight is guaranteed to produce fireworks, and Ruiz will have to be both strategic and brave to weather his opponent’s onslaught. If he blinks first, if Arreola smells blood and goes about finishing Ruiz the way he used to finish his opponents–with the tenacity of a shark in a feeding frenzy–there could be a huge upset. Of course, it really would be huge, which is why the betting odds are so drastically skewed for Ruiz. I would love to see Arreola have one last triumph, and I wouldn’t even necessarily discount him fighting for a championship, but historically, he’s struggled with technically sound fighters. Ruiz is skilled and fast enough that I don’t expect any surprises.

The following weekend features what may end up being the most important fight of the year. Saul Alvarez will be making his attempt to unify the super middleweight titles against the final remaining belt-holder, Billy Joe Saunders. Saunders is an undefeated, well-built, capable fighter. Unfortunately, his opposition thus far in his career has been easy enough to carry him to a title a little sooner than he probably should have been. He won the middleweight championship by majority decision from the notorious underperformer Andy Lee, then went on to a showdown with fellow 160-pound brawler David Lemieux. Having won these fights convincingly (though with very few stoppages and knockouts, even as a larger fighter) Saunders moved up to super middleweight and claimed a vacant title in a fight against Shefat Asufi. He’s had one subsequent fight with an equally anonymous opponent, and one legitimate win over the aging Martin Murray. The fates have forsaken Saunders now, though, as he’s faced with the unstoppable force of Canelo Alvarez who has dominated every significant fighter in every division between welterweight and light heavy over the past decade.

No speculation necessary here. He doesn’t have the power to stop Alvarez, but he’s a competent enough opponent to make the fight interesting for a few rounds. Look for a mid-fight knockout as Canelo’s power becomes apparent with each precise shot. Saunders is less accurate and unimpressive defensively. If he can use his weight and height advantages in the early rounds to tire Alvarez, he may be able to get past round 6, otherwise it’ll be an early celebration for yet another milestone in Canelo’s career.

Michael Conlan fights tomorrow night. I always support the Irish fighters, but like former Saunders opponents Gary O’Sullivan and Andy Lee, there’s often a disparity between heart and technical ability that renders their trajectory into a bell curve. At fight number 15 in his pro career, this is where we’ll start to see if the fighter is developing and learning to perfect his craft the way legends like Alvarez have, or if he’s yet another star burning too bright to avoid an inevitable descent. The following month we’ll be treated to Teofimo Lopez and Evander Holyfield on the same card, and then Mayweather’s next farcical exhibition. Though less important, these fights will undoubtedly bring new viewers to the sport.

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Crossover Complacency

UFC legend Frank Mir beaten by ex-boxing champion Steve Cunningham on Jake  Paul vs Ben Askren undercard
Steve Cunningham dominating flabby-Frank Mir

I’ve taken opportunities in the past to trivialize UFC competition, but after all these years and with the recent trend of crossover fights, I realized I really ought to settle down and do some heavy-duty hating. I’ve tried to keep an objective view of my own ignorance on the subject and steered clear of direct comparisons, but since getting into the JRE podcast and finding UFC events on Hulu, I’ve managed to watch almost all of the UFC’s greatest fights of the past 25 years (because that’s how long UFC has existed) and they’re really not that impressive.

First thing’s first, let’s get it outta the way–yes, MMA fights are more like street fights than boxing matches. Are they exactly like a street fight? Not at all. Let’s quickly go through the major holes in this commonly held misconception. MMA competition in general, and the UFC specifically, is touted by many of its fans for being “like a real fight” because the gloves are smaller and kicks and wrestling/submission moves are allowed. I would argue, though, that you don’t stand back and kick someone’s hamstring in a street fight. It’s one of the most common moves in MMA, but it doesn’t exist outside dojos and martial arts competitions. Beyond that major strategic discrepancy, there are plenty of procedural ones: there are no official breaks or rest periods in real fights and, in a real fight, if you lose consciousness while someone sits on your chest punching you in the face, nobody rushes in to pull them off of you.

Now that that’s settled, let’s address another aspect of the perception that MMA is more “real”: Points. Boxing has ’em, MMA has ’em. Boxing is widely criticized for the subjectivity of its judgments, whereas the UFC suffers from less controversy over scores. This is probably because boxing commentators spend a lot more time dissecting the rules and particulars that lead to those decisions. They closely review the basics for the viewers and discuss finer points amongst themselves. In closely watching about two dozen UFC fights, not once has anyone I’ve seen mentioned scoring criteria or how punch stats are tallied. I have heard, however, different commentators at the end of multiple fights declare “I have no idea who won!” That’s not a good thing when the scores are less reliable than the viewers’ impressions.

The UFC also seems to have avoided the sanctioning-body-boondoggle that has led the entire sport of boxing into an exercise in eye-rolling whenever a mandatory challenger is announced. Some of these organizations have special champions, champions-in-recess, Super champions, and even gemstone-themed champions to pad lackluster fight cards and add to their coffers with sanctioning fees. Hats off to the UFC on dodging that one. That being said, boxing’s rigidity in officiating has resulted in some positive outcomes. For example, while some boxers may pad their record for a period of years, it’s always clear the level of competition they’ve faced past a certain point, and the (win/loss/knockout) numbers actually mean something. The man hailed as the current best in boxing (retired) is 49-0 (plus Conor McGregor) whereas Ronda Rousey was being called the greatest female fighter in history (of any sport) after 12 wins, which is still her total. That was in August of 2015. By November of that year, she’d taken her first loss, and after another loss over a year later, she retired. Since Ronda, the UFC has touted two or three other women as the greatest of all time. There’s plenty of debate in boxing, but at least we’ve got numbers and consistent names in the discussion. It all speaks to a deeper, more substantive legacy for boxing, and a well-timed money-grab for Dana White and the UFC, whose fans would have you believe that their youth and reliance on technology make them more objective in their choice of sports. On the contrary, I would speculate that a bunch of kids who’ve never been in a fight or done any real athletic training and who have their eyes glued to Pokemon Go! are in the least objective position to judge these competitions and their value.

Jake Paul earns first-round knockout victory over Ben Askren - Sportsnet.ca
YouTube star dominating UFC “legend” Ben Askren

Even though I’ve gained some respect for and interest in MMA fights, I’m not adjusting my stance as being firmly on the side (or in the corner) of boxing as the superior athletic competition, the better form of entertainment and the sport with the most significant history. One of the primary factors I would point to is consistency of conditioning. Conor McGregor is one of the few UFC fighters in the history of the sport who looks, even during fights and at weigh-ins, like he’s a professional athlete. Most of the fighters in the UFC, even now, are nowhere near the kind of conditioning of a top player in professional sports like football, basketball, tennis, soccer, and boxing. Legends of the cage like Dan Severn or Chuck Liddell were only ever in decent shape compared with the true physical peaks of athletes in other sports. If the recent crossover fights are any indication (Frank Mir and Ben Askren), MMA fighters are less concerned with conditioning overall, but they suffer from the delusions of grandeur imposed on them by their sport. This is the physical manifestation of misplaced confidence and complacency.

Where I’m not impressed is that Ben Askren should be ashamed of himself. He walked in there looking like a fat slob, I’m serious. He looked like somebody’s grandparent. I mean, it was pathetic. It really, really was…See, I don’t hold that against a heavyweight…but there was no excuse for Ben Askren to walk into the ring looking like that. — Stephen A. Smith, ESPN

UFC rounds are longer than boxing rounds–five minutes to boxing’s three–but from what I’ve seen, nobody in the UFC can actually finish five minutes at anything close to full capacity. It’s really laughable; in almost every one of the top-25 greatest UFC fights of all time that went the distance, the fighters were barely able to stand by the end of the contest. By contrast, most boxing matches that go 10 or 12 rounds don’t leave the competitors unable to move around effectively or at least show flashes of their original technique (Bowe-Holyfield fights being exceptions). Professionals in other sports are expected to play near peak performance for the entirety of the game, not just for the first quarter or the first period.

All of this is relevant right now because of the recent trend of crossover fights, especially of UFC stars trying their hands at boxing. Neither sport has been exceedingly successful in crossing over to the other–and that could change with Claressa Shields’ upcoming MMA debut–but with fighters like Oscar De La Hoya and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. making these matches, they’re hard to ignore. That brings up another misconception MMA fans like to perpetuate, the myth that a mixed martial arts athlete masters many disciplines, while a boxer masters only one. That’s not true at all. A truly great boxer masters most of the art and science of boxing; what passes for a great UFC star might have a rudimentary understanding of punching, but not boxing, and never has any of them mastered it.

The clearest example of this discrepancy between the two disciplines is probably Floyd’s fight against Conor McGregor, in which Floyd seemed to be concerned about the power and reach of his opponent for much of the duration, but in the end dominated McGregor to the point of absurdity. McGregor is a very athletic and capable puncher, but he was inaccurate, off-balance, and unable to measure out his stamina. As much contact as he was able to make that night, he couldn’t land anything truly significant because he doesn’t know how to punch all that well, much less embrace the art of boxing. He resorted to back hands and arm punches, and he was often uncomfortable when warned about his technique (because in the UFC, you can pretty much hit your opponent anywhere).

None of this is to say that there aren’t glaring exceptions on both sides. There are boxers who aren’t in great shape even at their peaks (Andy Ruiz), whose stamina leaves something to be desired even though they’re highly ranked (Amir Khan), and there are UFC stars who are and have always been in very impressive shape, who might last through an entire fight looking like they can still walk back to the dressing room unassisted.

All joking aside, though, I do see a substantial difference in the fans’ and analysts’ abilities to break down the sport and infer motives and causes for confusing exchanges. Maybe this is simply the result of one sport existing for well over a century, televised and analyzed on multiple networks, while the other has existed for far less time, with its greatest exposure all coming from one network. All I know is that there are a lot of strange explanations for fighters’ behavior coming from all the commentators I’ve heard on UFC. Whether it’s a low blow, a smile, a taunt or a stagger, analysts consistently mangle the details (Rogan included) that a boxing commentator like Joe Tessitore or Teddy Atlas, Sergio Mora or Andre Ward would unravel like a knot in their shoelaces.

Fans of the UFC and MMA can enjoy the increasing momentum of their sport’s popularity, as well as the perception that it’s more modern and real than boxing, but they shouldn’t expect to see success for any of their athletes crossing over, just like boxing fans won’t expect it from ours. Claressa Shields, though, might defy those odds.

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