A Peek Behind the Curtain


Way back on December 8th of 2012, former Pacquiao opponent Erik Morales tweeted a controversial phrase (since deleted) that has given some fans the impression that they got a peek behind the proverbial curtain that night.  After losing 2 of their previous bouts and earning a draw in the first, Juan Manuel Marquez (of Mexico) was ready to step back in the ring with the Filipino superstar.  He ended up getting a win despite taking heavy punishment through six rounds, with a one-punch fight-ending shot in the last second of the round.  That’s when a fighter whom both knew, now serving only as a spectator, posted his thoughts on Twitter: “The Mexican pharmacy was better.”

Why would Morales assume Marquez (or Pacquiao, for that matter) was using performance enhancing drugs, ever?  Well, Morales had some experience in the ring with one of them.  Specifically, he fought Mr. Pacquiao three times between 2005 and 2006.  He lost more (2) than he won (1) of the three-fight series, but it wasn’t until a couple years later that Pacquiao’s career suddenly took off when he moved up two (or three) weight classes–from Super Featherweight to Junior Welterweight–in just over a year and a half.

Can small, talented guys who bulk up make these kinds of jumps?  You’d be tempted to say “sometimes,” except it’s really just him and a couple other guys in history.  But, okay, he did.  And he started his meteoric rise at the 50-fight mark.

He had already fought 50 times professionally, and reached the age of thirty before this life-changing evolution.  He started taking on much stiffer competition, too, starting with veteran 130-pounder David Diaz, and then leaping light years ahead to brutally dominating Oscar de la Hoya in 2008, and damn-near decapitating Ricky Hatton in 2009.  It wasn’t long before he dismantled the just-past-his-prime Miguel Cotto.  With those fights, he lined himself up with the most successful fighter of the era, Mayweather.

Now the question becomes, can small, talented guys who suddenly bulk up (at the age of 30) make these kinds of jumps with this kind of success?  Not naturally–at least, that’s the assumption.  For someone to develop professionally for 13 years before suddenly becoming the outstanding fighter in the world is unheard of, and unrealistic.  To add to the incrimination, Manny’s physical appearance changed dramatically during that time, most notably, his cranium seemed to swell three sizes, kinda like the Grinch.  Except the Grinch was lanky and had superpowers, whereas Manny is ostensibly human with short arms and legs.

This past Saturday–I still can’t believe I’m writing this–Pacquiao again turned in an age-defying performance, this one a full ten years after the one I’ve just described.  His opponent, Keith Thurman, wasn’t a past-his-prime legend like De la Hoya, and he wasn’t an overexcited tyrannosaurus like Ricky Hatton.  He is, and fought like, a well-rounded welterweight champion.  Thurman is known for his moniker One-Time because he has had so much success knocking his opponents out with a single punch.  Granted, it’s been a while since that name applied.  It’s been at least four years since Thurman stopped anybody, with one punch or otherwise.  Still, Thurman has been one of the big four welters for years.

The tension has been building as he, Errol Spence, Terence Crawford and Shawn Porter established themselves as legitimate champions and satisfied their mandatories.  Now, Pacquiao steps back into the mix and Mayweather initiates another back-and-forth via Twitter.  This, after Mayweather suggested in a tweet last year that he was already negotiating a rematch with Pacquiao.

Against Thurman, Pacquiao showed superior speed and power, but mostly speed.  Fans would have expected the speed advantage, but he looked stronger, too, from the first round when he knocked Thurman down with a flurry.  The biggest red flag, though, may have been his stamina, which by all accounts should be the first asset to go as a fighter ages.  In rounds 11 and 12 Thurman ignored his corner’s demands and fought conservatively, but Pacquiao seemed to be at his peak output, putting together combinations and footwork without ever really letting off the gas.  The split decision should have been unanimous, and I’m not sure I have much interest in seeing Thurman face any of the champions, anymore.  He should have a more gradual decline than Ricky Hatton, but he’s already past the summit.

It’s all starting to sound terribly familiar and far-fetched.  So, is Pac back on the ‘roids?  Was he ever?  HGH?  We may never really have irrefutable evidence one way or the other.  It’s a pretty safe bet, though, that banned substances at some point contributed to the meteoric rise and fall and rise of Manny Pacquiao.  We’ve seen what it looks like when it’s done naturally in Bernard Hopkins, and B-Hop’s physique never transformed as dramatically or as late in his life as Pacquiao’s.  I’m sure part of the mystery is just an overhyped Keith Thurman overlooking a still-dangerous smaller man, but I have a feeling another part might be boxing fans’ second peek behind the Pacquiao curtain.

 

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Thurman-Pacquiao


This Saturday Keith Thurman will take on Manny Pacquiao in a pivotal fight for both boxers.  Many expect a declining Thurman to succumb to the pressure from the legendary fighter.  Thurman turned in a less than stellar performance against Josesito Lopez, earning only a majority decision in what should have been a fairly one-sided win, and his previous victory over Danny Garcia, while significant, was also close enough to be controversial.

Pacquiao, on the other hand, has been on something of a comeback run since his loss to Jeff Horn, with exciting wins over Mathysse and Broner.  Though both those opponents have name recognition, their styles and body types are much more suited to Pacquiao than Horn’s.  Not to mention the disparity in skill between Mathysse or Broner and Thurman.

Thurman hasn’t showed the instinct to push himself when he’s needed to at times, but then again, he’s undefeated.  Pacquiao will be the truest test of Thurman’s skill and ability this far into his career.  An aging Pacquiao will be fast and fluid (barring any yet-to-be-disclosed injuries) but still less powerful and resilient than Thurman.  He’s just too young and strong, and talented.  If it comes down to determination and instinct, Pacquiao will take the win, but I don’t think that will happen.

If Thurman wins, it will be a good farewell for Pacquiao.  Fighting the best in his division, the Filipino congressman should get back to politics after such an accomplished career in boxing.  There’s nothing left for him to achieve, and it’s unlikely that the toll on his body would be worth fights against Terence Crawford or Errol Spence, and he wouldn’t be likely to win those anyway.

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Andy Ruiz Jr. Is My Hero, and He Should Be Yours, Too


This past Saturday I tuned into the fight card at Madison Square Garden on DAZN (which was uncharacteristically functional).  There were a couple of very decent undercards, with Ireland’s Katie Taylor struggling against a very tough opponent, and coming away with what was probably a gift decision.  Then, Callum Smith did what everyone expected to poor Hassan N’dam, who will likely retire after the loss.

Smith is, for whatever reason, considered a potential opponent for Alvarez.   While Alvarez did take a fight and win a title at 168 over Rocky Fielding, and by knockout no less, Smith is a large, talented super middleweight, at 6-foot-3 with a 78″ reach.  That’s a 7-inch height advantage and an 8-inch reach advantage.  Rocky Fielding was a big guy but probably nowhere near as talented or as physically challenging as Smith.  The win over Jacobs, a large middleweight, was a real accomplishment for Alvarez (who started as a welterweight) but is no indicator that Alvarez should be jumping across divisions when he has plenty of marketable opposition in his own.  That said, the suggestion did provide my fellow spectator and I with some good conversation.  It would be a hell of a fight for Canelo.

Gearing up for the main event, my friend and I ordered Chinese food, expecting the fight to be wrapping up by the time it arrived 45 minutes later.  The biggest mass of muscle in boxing, Anthony Joshua, at 6-foot-6 and about 250 pounds, was taking on the relatively unknown Andy Ruiz Jr., who stood 6-foot-2, 260 pounds with nothing like his opponent’s chiseled physique.  It was a temporary distraction from the biggest fights to be made with fellow champions Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury, but if the fight was entertaining, then the distraction could be forgiven.

If Joshua were inexperienced or incompetent the physical disparity between the two fighters could be discounted, but in this case, the result was certain.  Ruiz looked to be the most out-of-shape professional fighter I had ever seen, including Butterbean.  Having won his most challenging matches with a practiced holding-and-hitting technique, Joshua hadn’t inspired any loyalty in us, but we were excited to see another knockout.  And we expected it to be brutal.  Ruiz acted incredibly confident coming into the fight, completely unconcerned, but that wasn’t surprising.  Most opponents for top heavyweights behave that way until they get into the ring and their attitude makes an abrupt shift (see David Haye).

So much of boxing is subjective and amorphous, but certain aspects are immutable.  Everybody can get hit, nobody’s perfect.  Even more certain, though–as fundamental as any element of the sport–is that the stronger, more skilled, smarter fighter always wins.  If the opponent is superior in any one of those areas, the fighter has to compensate.  Conditioning and size are two of those cut-and-dried areas.  In the amateurs, no matter what your corner tells you and no matter how hard you’ve trained–if the bell rings and the guy across the ring has a couple inches of muscle and a couple inches of reach on you–you’re gonna be concerned.  It stands to reason, then, that a top-tier athlete who defeated the best of the previous decade would be an overwhelming force against a small, out of shape nobody.  Hence, anticipation was low.

The fight began and the food arrived.  We were ahead of schedule, and thought we might be cleaning up by the time Joshua got his knockout, but we were already satisfied with the quality of the card.  The knockout, we hoped, would prove as satisfying as the General Tso’s we had just consumed.  With fights like these, the majority of the excitement often comes from speculation about the winner’s next bout, so we were already talking Fury and Wilder and the winner of the big three when the first knockdown came in the third round.

It was a hell of a combo–a quick right uppercut (he only held a little) and a vicious left hook not so different from the punches that felled the great Klitschko–that put Ruiz where we expected to see him all night.  Ruiz popped right back up and looked steadier on his feet than he should have been, but Joshua closed in with aggressive combinations.  Ruiz threw competent counterpunches that seemed to push Joshua back, but surely the next flush punch would settle the dispute.  Except the next flush shots all came from Ruiz, who fired back through a tidal pool of flab, rippling out in waves of power that first buckled the leviathan’s knees and then sent him sprawling.

Joshua got back up and assumed a defensive posture, though began firing back with powerful combinations.  The third round was ending–with only ten seconds to go–Joshua was stabilizing, and the fluke of momentum had run its course, or so we thought.  The defensive posture turned into what looked like an escape attempt, with every punch from Ruiz finding some part of Joshua and pushing him back noticeably.  At the triple tap signifying the final ten seconds, my eyes flicked down to the corner of the screen to see the countdown fading out with only seconds to go.  For the moment my eyes were away from Ruiz, he was launching a final assault as if he knew time was short.  Just as the bell for the end of the round was to be rung, Joshua went down again.  Shaky but coherent, Joshua the Giant righted himself and Roly-Poly Ruiz waddled back to his own corner, looking no more winded than his opponent.

Grateful to have witnessed such an outrageous twist, my friend and I exchanged high-fives and fantastical scenarios in which absurdly obese superheros took over Marvel and DC comics.  When Round 4 started, we didn’t know what to expect, but we figured Ruiz would soon show his true colors.  He did, but only in the sense that he continued to do what he had done in the previous three rounds.  His punches were more accurate than Joshua’s (which were never all that wild) and clearly (impossibly) more effective.  Joshua didn’t exactly stagger, but he was knocked off balance at least once, and consistently moved backward from the fat little Mexican in front of him.

By Round 5, Joshua seemed to be increasing his output and his accuracy.  Every jab looked like it could put Ruiz through the ropes, and it seemed like Joshua’s uppercut-hook combo was just around the corner.  I don’t know if that formidable combination would have ended the night for Ruiz because Joshua never threw it.  Every time he tried to get aggressive, Ruiz fought like a Mexican.  Most closely resembling Cris Arreola, Ruiz used the same approach seen from Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. to Antonio Margarito.  But for once, the Mexican–fat and with a size disadvantage–who stood to trade punches with an elite-level fighter, came out on the better side. The punches that had previously pushed Joshua back were now landing flush as Joshua swung desperately with his own shots.  None seemed particularly effective, and finally, in Round 7, Ruiz put him down again.  This time Joshua looked truly hurt, and not just dazed.  He went down a fourth time almost immediately after, looking so helpless I actually expected the referee to call it without a count.

Joshua survived the count, barely, and got to his feet, saying he was ready.  When the referee questioned him, however, Joshua’s response was less than convincing.  The fight was called with minimal objections from Joshua’s corner, and the man across the ring celebrated with about the same enthusiasm any amateur fighter displays after a win.  He had just won 7 heavyweight titles.  The laws of physics had been violated, at least four times, it seemed.

I had to watch the fight a second time to make my brain believe my eyes when the little fat man pushed that giant monster back, made him look helpless.  I don’t have any delusions that Superman will have a beer gut in the next DC franchise film, nor that Ruiz will run through the division and unify the belts.  In fact, I very much expect Joshua to come back and win the rematch by unanimous decision, if not by stoppage or knockout.

In that sense, Ruiz’s miracle really was a fluke.  But it’s the exception that proves the rule.  Boxing is a sweet science.  Just like a chemical combination, when any part of the pugilistic mixture is out of balance, you’re likely to see variation in the result.  In this case, there were many things out of balance.  You could point to Joshua’s overconfident approach, Ruiz’s deceptive form, or any number of other conditions as the cause for the surprising upset.  Only when examined together can the threads be strung into a coherent narrative and given meaning.  To reduce the fight to a single aphorism is an injustice, but if forced, it could be said that Ruiz “just wanted it more.”

As an amateur, I spent a lot of sleepless nights worrying about how big, how experienced and how strong the guy standing across the ring would be.  My reach is two inches below the average for my height and I’ve never been any kind of athlete, much less a runner.  I’ve gotten concussions from bigger guys and from smaller guys, but there was one thing that kept me going back to the gym to train for the next fight, as scared as I was: I wanted it more.  I didn’t want it more than everybody, and I didn’t want it enough to win every fight, but I trained harder and had better results than most.  There are a lot of aspiring athletes out there who have suffered similarly, and Andy Ruiz Jr. is now our Patron Saint of Redemption.  He wanted it more.  Never before has there been so striking an example.

Image result for andy ruiz jr

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Harold Lederman


http://www.espn.com/boxing/story/_/id/26725075/beloved-boxing-voice-lederman-dies-age-79

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Update: Jacobs Fined, Violated Weight-Check


An interesting wrinkle has been added to the story of the Alvarez-Jacobs showdown, with Jacobs coming into his second major fight in a row unable to make the pre-fight weight check.  Alvarez insisted on a weight check separate from the official weigh-in, at which the fighter must make the 160-lb limit, but has time to rehydrate his body safely before the bell rings.  The weight check corresponds to a contractual agreement which penalizes either fighter for exceeding 170 pounds.

Unsurprisingly, Alvarez, who fought for years at 154, made the limit.  According to ESPN, Jacobs didn’t even attempt the agreed upon weight check for his 2017 title fight with Golovkin.  In that fight, he exceeded expectations and, on some scorecards, even won the match.  The repeated pattern with Alvarez probably doesn’t mean much, but it could mean that Jacobs knows he’s not meant for 160, and he’s going to use every advantage those extra ounces can give him.  Even if that’s the case, Alvarez doesn’t have to worry.  Every advantage size provides can be negated by skill, and that’s where Alvarez was always going to shine.  Watch for Jacobs to look for a knockout, capitalizing on any staggering better than he did against Golovkin.  This development leads me to believe Jacobs can’t win without it.

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Patience Makes Perfect


Tonight Saul Alvarez takes on Danny Jacobs in what is probably the best fight to be made in boxing.  Alvarez has all but secured a place in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, and Jacobs has proven himself to be one of the most talented, capable middleweights of the last ten years.  Each has had a fight with Golovkin–who was for so long the Wladimir Klitschko of the middleweight division–and each has lost one (Canelo won his second).  They’re even both in their primes, which happens so rarely with the mega-talents.

It’s going to be a great fight, there isn’t much more to say than that, but as always, it’s interesting to explore the possible outcomes compared with the expected result.  In this case, almost everybody has Canelo winning the fight.  Most of them by decision, because Jacobs is decidedly tough to knock down, and even tougher to keep down.  If boxing promoters want to keep streaming network subscriptions and PPV numbers up, they have to at least pretend it’s competitive, so there’s a lot out there suggesting that it will be.  For the most part, the suggestion that we might see an epic battle is justified.

Alvarez has superior technical ability, and far greater defensive skill, but he’s naturally smaller than Jacobs.  Jacobs is actually somewhat large for a middleweight, standing almost 6 feet tall with a 73-inch reach.  Alvarez, who has good reach for his height, stands 5’8″, with 70.5″ reach.  If he’s not careful with his counterpunching, Jacobs could gain an advantage just by using straight, accurate punches and staying out of Canelo’s range.

Alvarez has a solid jaw, but so does Jacobs.  Before fighting Golovkin, Jacobs’ only loss came by knockout in his first big step up in competition, against Dmitry Pirog.  Still undefeated, Pirog was a formidable opponent, but has one of the lowest knockout ratios of any boxer.  This would suggest that Alvarez has a shot at knocking Jacobs down and/or out, even with his size disadvantage.  Jacobs also like to trade punches and values aggression over pacing, so the chances get even better.  Alvarez has been knocked down, but never from a punch that looked like a glancing blow.  He has the choice between his two major styles: circling and counter punching, or bully-fighter.  If Alvarez sticks to one or the other throughout the fight, I think he’ll have more trouble than if he blends the two to adapt in different rounds.  The bully strategy won’t work as well against Jacobs as it did Golovkin, but I think it’s necessary to get Jacobs’ respect.  The circle and counter strategy will work well, but if he underestimates Jacobs’ reach and determination, he could get knocked down, or even out completely.

Alvarez needs to use a good strategy tonight, but there’s a reason he’s so universally favored.  The real difference, I think, will be in who can keep a cool head, observe the mistakes their opponent is making, and then capitalize.  Both fighters are too good to make many mistakes, and both fighters are too good to come in less than physically prepared.  If history is any indicator, Alvarez will be the one to keep the cool head, to put the pedal down when he needs to–to avoid a late-round stoppage caused by underestimating his opponent (as Jacobs did with Pirog).  I expect a unanimous decision for Alvarez.

On the undercard tonight we’ll get to see Artur Beterbiev putting his talent on display, gradually moving up the ranks.  Expect an early, brutal knockout in this one.

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You’re Kill-ering Me, Kubrat


http://www.espn.com/boxing/story/_/id/26387399/pulev-ordered-explain-reporter-kiss-california-state-athletic-commission

 

“There ain’t no motive for this crime
Jenny was a friend of mine
So come on, oh come on, oh come on”…

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Priced Out


This past weekend Errol Spence Jr. dominated Mikey Garcia in the first ever Fox network pay-per-view.  The undercard fights were insignificant and uninteresting, and the price was predictably high.  On a night when boxing fans had the choice of two other broadcasts, one on DAZN and one on Facebook, the Spence fight was rather unappealing.  While the pay-per-view event boasted the more well-known fighters, the other two events–which could be seen for a combined price of $5–probably offered equal if not greater entertainment value (Gary O’Sullivan’s mustache alone). The “Facebook Fight Night” card was accessible from Flogging Molly’s Facebook page for some reason, which made it hard to find, and the audio quality was terrible, but the commentary and the fights themselves were just as good as anything you’d see on television.

Promoters are only getting more greedy, so we can’t hope for fights like this to be offered for free any time soon.  We can, however, expect Errol Spence to start fighting legitimate opponents.  Garcia is a great lightweight and a valid entrant on the pound-for-pound list, but he’s a lightweight.  Now Spence is “calling out” Manny Pacquiao, who was at one time a formidable welterweight, but at 40 years old only vaguely resembles his former self.  Spence is undefeated in 25 fights; he’s at the top of the rankings in what might be the most competitive division in the sport, but his biggest opponents so far are Kell Brook and Chris Algieri.  Until he starts making legitimate defenses of his title, I remain extremely skeptical that Spence belongs in the ranks with Keith Thurman, Shawn Porter, and least of all, Terence Crawford.

The Pacquiao fight would be a repeat of the Garcia farce, pairing Spence against a safe opponent for a meaningless, boring result.  If that fight is made I would recommend checking punk bands’ Facebook pages to see if they might be broadcasting a fight–it’d probably be better than Spence-Pacquiao.

 

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Spence-Garcia


Tomorrow night Mikey Garcia jumps up two weightclasses to face Errol Spence Jr. for his IBF welterweight title.  Should he earn a victory, Spence will move on to face other champions in the division like Keith Thurman, Shawn Porter and Terence Crawford.  He’s expected to win, and he should, because Garcia’s last fight was at 130 pounds.  Tall for a lightweight, he’ll look more comfortable at welter than he actually is.  Garcia’s undefeated in 39 fights, and he’s fought the best of his division (except Lomachenko), so it’s understandable he’s looking for a challenge.  Why he decided to skip over the formidable competition at 140–before ever facing Lomachenko in his own division–is beyond me, but we can expect a good effort on his part.  That said, Garcia’s fighting style will be more difficult for Spence than, say, a Chris Algieri.  Garcia should win a few early rounds, and if he’s smart, stay competitive in the middle, or even late rounds.

For Spence’s part, he’ll use his size and power to push Garcia around and discourage his combinations.  By the later rounds, we’ll probably see Garcia staggered, and it’ll be an accomplishment if he stays on his feet.  Next, we can hope for each of them to go back to fighting the opponents we should be watching them with tomorrow.  Garcia will likely stay on top, while I doubt Spence will prove equal to the other great champions in his competitive division.

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Median Middleweights


Saul Alvarez changed the middleweight landscape with his (second) defeat of the 160-lb class’ long-time ruler, Gennady Golovkin.  While many think the first fight may have been best ruled a win for Golovkin rather than a draw, it’s hard to argue that both should go to Golovkin.  After signing a lucrative deal with DAZN to be the star of a growing stable of impressive talent, Alvarez had the option of completing the trilogy with Golovkin, or looking for a lesser talent.  Instead, he chose to gamble on a fight with Daniel Jacobs, who may be just as dangerous as Golovkin.

Undefeated prior to his second match with Alvarez, Golovkin has finished almost all of his 40 fights (85%) by knockout.  One in which he was unable to do so was a match against Daniel Jacobs.  Scores were close on all three cards, and ringside analysts were split, slightly favoring Golovkin.  Had Jacobs’ performance matched his usual intensity, there may have been a different result.  He started the fight uncharacteristically slow, but won the early rounds (so maybe it was the right choice), and he finished the last round with very few punches, as if he assumed victory was assured.

It’s hard to predict how he’ll perform against the incredibly adaptive Alvarez.  He was easily dismantled by the formidable Dmitry Pirog, but so was just about everyone else.  He got a late-round stoppage against gatekeeper Caleb Truax, and went on to destroy Peter Quillin and Sergio Mora (twice), but faded against Golovkin.  He’s won all his fights and looked good doing it since then, but hasn’t managed a knockout or a stoppage.  Alvarez showed in his last fight that he knows how to build a strategy on inside fighting, but against Jacobs, it seems more likely that he’ll look for timing, distance and counterpunching opportunities.  With Alvarez employing a measured strategy, Jacobs will fail if he tries to overwhelm his opponent as he did with Quillin.  He may even struggle to win rounds, given Canelo’s unequaled defensive abilities at middleweight.

Usually, Jacobs wins rounds by backing his opponent up and showing the judges that his punches hurt more, but even if he manages that in the ring, the stoic Alvarez is likely to disguise his discomfort well.  If I were in his corner, I would tell Jacobs to employ neither strategy and go for the middle path: start cutting the ring off with intense offensive pressure and keep moving forward through the third minute of round 12–then you’ve got a shot.  But he won’t.  Jacobs has shown stamina problems in the past, and would have to be better than the best we’ve ever seen him to compete with the version of Alvarez we’ve seen in the last few fights.

That said, it should be an interesting one.  Canelo has trouble adjusting to fighters who can adjust.  He’d rather take on the monstrous Gennady Golovkin–who moves one speed and one direction at all times–than the unconventional Erislandy Lara.  If Jacobs can disrupt Canelo’s plod-and-pummel rhythm, he might be able to surprise him with a combination good enough to push him back, or even hand him the first legitimate knockdown of his career.  I see it for Alvarez by close unanimous decision.

Luis Ortiz was successful this past weekend in defeating the unimpressive Christian Hammer.  He now claims to be ready for a rematch with Wilder or a fight with another top heavyweight.  I’d assert that he’s the gatekeeper who’s yet to be proven unfit for such competition.  With very few exceptions, guys who can’t lose their guts for championship fights don’t win, and their careers don’t last long.  I’d venture to guess both are true for King Kong.  If the fight(s) were made: Wilder by KO, Fury by KO, Joshua by KO.  For now, though, he gives us another exciting heavyweight to watch on undercards.

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