Michael Katsidis often does his roadwork at 3 a.m. because he believes no one else in his profession – which is the profession of pain – is willing to do so. That’s how he sees boxing really – as a collection of decisions to do what others will not or cannot do themselves.
Visit his website and you can watch Katsidis celebrating this past Christmas morning in a way he believes his peers did not. The video starts with a traditional singing of “Silent Night’’ until, first quietly and then not so quietly, one begins to hear a different kind of Christmas carol.
“Let the bodies hit the floor! Let the bodies hit the floor!’’ the song finally screams out, heavy metal music banging behind the words until your head feels like it’s going to explode.
Those words grow louder as the images of presents under a tree fade and there is Katsidis, stripped to the waist and windmilling punches at his trainer Brendon Smith as if he is fighting for his life. It is an unconventional Christmas Day workout that ends with sweat pouring off the young Australian lightweight as he looks into the camera and says, “Joel Casamayor, here we come.’’
Saturday night Katsisdis will finally be in the presence of the man, a 36-year-old Cuban legend who many in boxing believe may still be the best lightweight in the world. They will not be exchanging gifts or pleasantries at the Morongo Casino Resort and Spa when they do finally meet, unless you consider their ability to cause the other pain with their fists a gift, which frankly it is.
It is a painful one but one that has blessed both and Saturday night they will turn those blessings on each other while trying to decide their own future fate and that of the other man’s. If 27-year-old Katsidis can hold on to the WBO 135-pound title through force of will as much as with his skills he will become one of the hottest names in boxing because his is a style meant for television. If he cannot, experience will have won out over youth as it often does because Casamayor is one of the cagiest boxers in the sport.
This will be slick savagery against the more obvious variety, the latter coming from a young man who lives to fight as much with his heart as his hands. As match ups go, it is fascinating warfare but for Michael Katsidis it is more than that. It is a warrior’s dream: a chance to trade blood and accept pain in exchange for a dangerous shot at glory.
“He’s the most determined fighter I’ve seen in a long, long time,’’ Smith said recently from Venice Beach, where he has been preparing Katsidis for the main event of a HBO Boxing After Dark event that could propel his fighter into the collective consciousness of American fans because he is a throwback to days when everything in boxing was black and white, including the color of blood on the screen.
“His will to win is second to none. Where he finds it from I’m unsure but I know he has the heart of a lion. Whoever he fights is in for a hell of a fight. He makes me proud, this young bloke.’’
Katsidis is 23-0 with 20 knockouts and, frankly, most of those victories have been one-sided stoppages. But his last two fights have packed within them the kind of danger and visual aids that can, if they continue, do for Katsidis what they once did for Arturo Gatti.
This is his hope and that of HBO executives and the promoter who made the match, Oscar De La Hoya.
“He’s a throwback like Gatti,’’ insisted Golden Boy Promotions matchmaker Eric Gomez, who made the Casamayor fight after first thinking he’d landed Katsidis a unification bout with Juan Diaz only to watch promoter Don King refuse to allow Diaz to face him and then see 36-year-old Nate Campbell batter Diaz to become unified champion.
“There’s not too much defense (with Katsidis). He relies on his punching power. He’s a crowd pleasing fighter. He gets cut. He gets up. He hits like a mule. Fans love the excitement.
“HBO is giving Katsidis this great opportunity to break through and please the public. He’s got the perfect set-up. He’s fighting an aging champion with a big reputation who’s been in a lot of wars. It’s the history of boxing – the young undefeated kid against the old lion. Now it’s up to him to deliver. If he can’t fight he’ll get exposed by Casamayor. If he can he’ll become a star after this fight.
“Excitement wise I’m sold on him 100 per cent. If he can stop Casamayor any non-believers, including myself, will become believers. If he can pull this off I’m excited about all the possibilities for him. Juan Diaz. David Diaz. Manny Pacquiao. Could you imagine a fight between him and Ricky Hatton down the line?’’
Not without a transfusion involved for someone but that is another night. First Katsidis must solve the riddle of Casamayor (35-3-1, 21 KO). Long regarded to be among the best lightweights in the world, Casamayor is coming off a lackluster performance against Jose Armando Santa Cruz in November when he was awarded a split decision few thought he’d earned. He insists that bad night was a result of a 13-month absence from the ring, not any slippage in skills and reflexes, but whether Casamayor is a shadow now of what he once was or whether that performance was indeed the predictable result of too long a layoff, Katsidis could care less about. He has been training for months for this and when the two finally met at the weigh-in Thursday he could not hold back.
The young Aussie stood so close to his elder during a photo shoot that their lips nearly touched. Then he snapped, “You’re nervous.’’ When Casamayor had the Aussie’s words translated he went into a rage but later Katsidis claimed he could “smell the anxiety’’ on Casamayor. Time will tell about that but it was the kind of bold statement that helped make Gatti one of boxing’s most beloved fighters.
But it takes more than talk to replace him in the public’s hearts and Katsidis has given them more than talk and showmanship. He’s given them his blood.
Just over a year ago, he was battering a brave Brit named Graham Earl so obsessively that Earl’s corner finally threw in the towel. Unfortunately for Earl, referee Mickey Vann was braver than they were and he threw it back out. Distracted for a moment, Katsidis let his guard down and Earl lashed out with a sweeping hook that wobbled him so badly Vann had to give him a standing eight count. It looked likely to become one of those odd reversal of fortunes that belong to boxing alone until Katsidis held on long enough to clear his head and roared back with a vengeance, dropping Earl twice and leaving him so listless in his corner after the fifth round that they stopped the fight before Vann could argue otherwise.
That bout was nominated for Fight of the Year and round 2 was selected by many media outlets as the Round of the Year even though it had not been widely seen outside of devotees of You Tube. More importantly it led to a July 21 fight for the WBO interim lightweight title against Czar Amonsot in Las Vegas that turned into the kind of a bloodbath that creates crimson-encrusted legends.
Katsidis and Amonsot were supposed to be preliminary entertainment before Bernard Hopkins and Winky Wright squared off at the Mandalay Bay Events Center but what they did to each other over 12 rounds was so startlingly gruesome it made the main event a walkout bout.
That night, Katsidis sustained a terrible gash over his left eye that bled like a waterfall for much of the fight. He had similarly deep cuts around his right, both above and below, and by the end of the night looked like someone had spilled a can of red paint on his face between rounds.
Yet he kept coming forward through the blood and the half-blindness, constantly pressing Amonsot until he dropped him twice and earned a unanimous decision so brutal that Amonsot may never fight again after suffering a brain bleed. When it was over, the crowd stood and roared. As their approval washed over him, Katsidis held his fist aloft, a gladiator bloody but unbroken who had paid a gory cost for glory.
“I said I was going to bring new blood into boxing and you certainly saw a lot of it tonight,’’ he said after it was over. That is the kind of flippant ignoring of the pain of victory that endeared Gatti to the boxing public for so long and it did not go unnoticed, which is why he and the Roman gladiator’s helmet he dons in the locker room before every fight will be on a big stage Saturday night in the biggest fight of his life.
“A fighter is something born within someone,’’ Katsidis (23-0, 20 KO) said. “Things have been against me a lot in life but something in me just says to get up and fight. I’m realistic. The reason I’m here now is I got up and made sacrifices other fighters might not make. I don’t blink. Every fight is the fight of my life.’’
Although Gatti won world titles and made millions, the price he paid was often assessed in the emergency room at the Atlantic City Medical Center or at Valley Hospital in Las Vegas. He understood the price he was likely to pay yet it never prevented him from accepting the same consequences the next time he fought until, late last year, his body finally gave out and he was badly beaten by young Alfonso Gomez to end his career the way it had to end – by being carried out on his shield with his face split and bloody.
Few fighters willingly seek to follow such a route despite the rewards but Katsidis is one. He does not go to the arena looking to come away bruised and bloody but he accepts it willingly, lightly really, as the cost of doing business.
That is why the gladiator’s helmet he wears into the ring, which would be little more than a prop for most men, tells his story. When he slides it on before he leaves the locker room he feels he is transformed. He is a Greek warrior back in the shadow of Mt. Olympus, where his family once lived before migrating to Australia.
“The moment I put on the helmet I don’t care if I get carried out,’’ Katsidis said. “That becomes my mindset. That’s why I hated the amateurs. They’re all running and dodging and slapping and moving about. Real fighting is what I was born to do. Nobody pointed me to this. Boxing was something that chose me.’’
On Katsidisthegreat.com, his website, there are an assortment of clips that show him in battle but the most chilling is one in which the voice of a phony Australian “gladiator,’’ the actor Russell Crowe who won the Academy Award for his portrayal of such a man, is heard to say in a low, rumbling voice “Now they will know why they are afraid of the dark. Now they will learn why they fear the night.’’
On the screen, in black and white, flash the faces of some of boxing’s best fighters – Floyd Mayweather, Jr., Diego Corrales, Miguel Cotto. After them comes the Australian gladiator who is stalking them. After them comes Katsidis, with fists and blood flying.
“Once you get in the ring there are no lies,’’ Katsidis said. “If you cut corners you know the difference. If you don’t want to be there I can see it.
“I’ll be proud to fight someone like Joel Casamayor. He’s a legend. He can do everything. I’ll have to fight the fight of my life. I’m ready to do that. I’ve been waiting for this all my life.’’
Now it is here. If Michael Katsidis can handle it he may become more than a champion. He may become a star.
“I’m honored and flattered to be compared with Arturo Gatti,’’ Katsidis said. “If it takes people relating me to someone else for them to follow me, then it’s all well and good, but I’m at war here. Arturo Gatti won’t be in the ring with me. I’ll be in there alone. I made the sacrifices. This is my religion.’’
One that, like many of the religions of old, demands bloody sacrifices be made at its altar. Michael Katsidis has no problem with that. None at all.
The Bernies! 1st Annual Year-End Awards
Editor Michael Woods has requested that I write an article listing my personal end-of-the-year awards in boxing for posting on TSS. Normally, there would be no problem with such an assignment, except that I have been in Los Angeles since just after Christmas to chronicle the 95th Rose Bowl between the Penn State Nittany Lions and USC Trojans. As I increasingly tend to concentrate on one thing at a time, shifting from a football mindset to a boxing one on short notice might tend to leave me more dazed and confused than usual.
So, no, my Fighter of the Year is not Southern California assistant coach Ken Norton Jr., son of the former heavyweight who once broke Muhammad Ali’s jaw. Prospect of the Year is not USC free safety Taylor Mays, although, at 6’3” and 230 pounds, this physical freak of nature (no one that size should be able to run 40 yards in 4.29 seconds) certainly looks as much like the next Lennox Lewis as the next Ronnie Lott. Nor will my Knockout of the Year nod go to any one of the many savage hits USC linebacker Rey Maualuga laid on some poor schnook of a wide receiver coming across the middle.
If he would consent to shave his head, I could make a decent case for 82-year-old Penn State coaching legend Joe Paterno as the winner of an Angelo Dundee lookalike contest, although JoePa is leaner and a bit more irascible than the perpetually sweet-natured Ange. But if the Nits are losing a close one in the fourth quarter, it wouldn’t be that difficult for me to imagine Paterno, still a bit gimpy after undergoing recent hip-replacement surgery, calling down from the press box and telling quarterback Daryll Clark on the headset, “You’re blowing it, son.” And we all know of such utterances are miraculous rallies launched.
So without further adieu, here are my picks for boxing’s best of 2008, stained as they might be by thoughts of blitz pickups, bubble screens, seal blocks and fade patterns in the red zone.
FIGHTER OF THE YEAR: MANNY PACQUIAO As something of a contrarian, I hate to always go with the obvious choice. A little voice in my head kept telling me to give more consideration to the superb years turned in by Antonio Margarito and Paul Williams. And, well, it is true that, upon closer inspection, Margarito’s comeback stoppage of the favored Miguel Cotto probably is more impressive than Pac-Man’s start-to-finish domination of the empty vessel that was Oscar De La Hoya. Williams, meanwhile, won bouts in three separate weight classes and won titles in two of them. But Pacquiao is now the little big man of boxing, and his conquest of Oscar is only the cherry on top of the ice-cream sundae. He outgutted pound-for-pound rival Juan Manuel Marquez for a split decision and the WBC super featherweight title and then bludgeoned David Diaz for the WBC lightweight crown. With his ridiculously easy TKO of De La Hoya, Manny even had some enthusiasts comparing him to the legendary Henry Armstrong. Such comparisons might be overblown and premature, but for now homage must be paid to 2008’s ruler of the ring, King Manny of the Philippines.
FIGHT OF THE YEAR: ISRAEL VAZQUEZ-RAFAEL MARQUEZ III In boxing, first impressions are not always the ones that count the most. For many fans, the greatest fight in any given years is always the most recent really good one, which is why there is so much late support in this category for the Dec. 11 pairing of Steve “USS” Cunningham and Poland’s Tomasz Adamek, in which Adamek wrested the IBF cruiserweight championship from the ex-sailor on a rousing split decision. Another strong contender is the welterweight showdown in which Antonio Margarito, trailing on two of the three official scorecards entering the 11th and what proved to be final round, finally wore down WBA 147-pound champ Miguel Cotto en route to win on an absolute pip of technical knockout. But, for me, the third pairing of Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez has to be No. 1. These guys don’t know how to do anything except to draw the best out of each other, and the round-by-round, punch-for-punch action in each instance is about as good as boxing ever gets. Vazquez retained his WBC junior featherweight title on a razor-thin split decision, but, really, both of these gallant warriors walked away winners in my book.
KNOCKOUT OF THE YEAR: KENDALL HOLT KO1 RICARDO TORRES From my experience, individual knockout preferences tend to be separated by categories. Are you more impressed by, say, the emphatic, one-punch variety? A stoppage that occurs when a fighter who has gone down himself and seemingly is in trouble somehow regains the upper hand before delivering the takeout blow? Or an ending that is the result of a sustained combination of punches, each landed shot adding to the accumulation of damage? My vote as 2008’s king of KOs goes to Kendall Holt’s one-round, roller-coaster ride in which he regained the WBO junior welterweight title from Ricardo Torres. Torres twice put Holt down in the first half-minute, but he left himself open moving in for the big finish and wound up catching a huge right hand that rendered him unconscious along the ropes. Elapsed time: 61 seconds. The list of potential runners-up is long, but I’ll go with David “The Hayemaker” Haye’s second-round wipeout of Enzo Maccarinelli and Edison Miranda’s turn-out-the-lights third-round knockout of David Banks. Really, would Haye now be considered such a threat to the Klitschko-dominated heavyweight division had he not knocked the snot out of Maccarinelli in their cruiserweight unification bout? Miranda clipped Banks with the sort of bomb that leads to everything fading to black for the clipee, at least for the next 10 seconds.
ROUND OF THE YEAR: KENDALL HOLT KO1 RICARDO TORRES For my money, this was a nearly dead heat between the minute’s worth of spills and thrills in Round 1 of Holt-Torres II and the sustained fury in Round 4 of Vazquez-Marquez III. Can I call it a draw, Mr. Woods? No? OK, I’ll throw my support to Holt-Torres, if only because so many rounds of Vazquez-Marquez III could be included in this category. It’s like three actors from the same film being nominated for an Oscar; they tend to split each other’s vote. Not much chance of that happening when you cast your ballot for boxing’s top round to a fight in which all the action was compressed into 61 seconds of ups, downs and hairpin turns.
UPSET OF THE YEAR: BERNARD HOPKINS UD12 KELLY PAVLIK There is a movie now in theaters, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” in which star Brad Pitt is born into this world as a prematurely aged infant who, miraculously, gets younger as he gets older. A fantastic tale, no? Except that Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins seems to be actually living the life of Benjamin Button. B-Hop, who turns 44 on Jan. 15, was a 5-to-1 underdog in his 170-pound catchweight bout with undefeated middleweight titlist Kelly Pavlik, the guy who once and for all was going to demonstrate that the Philadelphian is as susceptible to the natural laws of diminishing returns as all normal human beings. If this keeps up, Bernard “The Baby” Hopkins will need to be burped and changed when he’s, oh, about 95. For now, though, he is boxing’s ageless wonder, the sipper of a Fountain of Youth that apparently runs beneath his Delaware estate. There are no runners-up in this category. Hey, Hopkins would have pulled the upset of the year had he eked past Pavlik, but he toyed with the hotshot kid as a cat might play with a mouse.
PROSPECT OF THE YEAR: VICTOR ORTIZ The smooth southpaw is 21 years old, 23-1-1 with 18 victories inside the distance. Sure, there are other up-and-comers who are similarly young and bearers of shiny records, but this junior welterweight looks like the real deal. And for all of you who haven’t seen him yet, consider this a heads-up to monitor the progress of welterweight Danny Garcia, who’s 10-0 with seven knockouts. He’s my early projection to win top prospect designation for 2009.
BAD DECISION OF THE YEAR: NIKOLAY VALUEV MD12 EVANDER HOLYFIELD Yeah, Commander Vander needs to be sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of his suburban Atlanta mansion and sipping an ice-cold beverage while enjoying his retirement from the ring. At 46, he’s merely a shadow of his once-magnificent self. That said, however much is left of him was more than enough to expose WBA heavyweight titlist Valuev as the pituitary-gland fraud that he so obviously is. Shouldn’t a 7-foot, 310-pounder be scarier than this? Guy looks like Frankenstein’s monster, but moves slower and hits like Mr. Softee. “No one roots for Goliath,” the late Wilt Chamberlain once observed, but apparently three non-neutral judges in Switzerland were more inclined to reward a robotic Russian giant for doing nothing than to hand a fifth version of the heavyweight title to a more active American who, if only fighting by memory, deserved better than this heist by pencil.
TRAINER OF THE YEAR: FREDDIE ROACH A disciple of the late, great Eddie Futch, Roach told us exactly how Pacquiao-De La Hoya would unfold, and he prepared Manny to follow the script to utter perfection. Then again, Roach is no stranger to getting his fighters ready to deliver bravura performances. He was voted the Boxing Writers Association of America’s Futch-Condon Trainer of the Year for 2003 and 2006, and the exit polls should soon have him being projected for a third such honor for 2008. Runner-up nods go to Javier Capetillo (Antonio Margarito), Rudy Perez (Israel Vazquez) and Naazim Richardson (Bernard Hopkins).
EVENT OF THE YEAR: END OF SOLO B0XEO ON TELEFUTURA Coming on the heels earlier in the year of the cancellation of ESPN2’s Wednesday Night Fights, the termination of this eight-year series, which gave needed exposure to fighters on the rise, is a dark day for boxing, maybe as dark or darker than the day when the USA Network pulled the plug on its Tuesday Night Fights in 1998. Runner-up is Pacquiao-De La Hoya, which had 1.25 million pay-per-view buys and generated $70 million in PPV revenue despite a weak economy, again demonstrating that a good fight, or the prospect of one, always resonates with the public. Unfortunately, even those numbers have a downside. Although all available tickets were snapped up just 17 minutes after they went on sale, mainly of the costly ducats went to speculators who hoped to resell them at a profit. Some scalpers got scalped, proving, at least, that there is at least occasionally justice in the world.
INSPIRATION OF THE YEAR: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF SHAUN NEGLER Bernard Hopkins’ most devoted fan, 18-year-old Shaun Negler, was given no more than a couple of weeks to live as cancer ravaged the body of the Philadelphia teenager, a former amateur boxer. But Shaun refused to yield to the inevitability of his death for over three months, or just long enough to see his hero, B-Hop, dominate Kelly Pavlik, on TV. He slipped into a coma the next morning and passed away five days later.
The Ronnies! The First Annual Year End Awards
The end of the year is a time for nostalgia and remembrance and so it is in the boxing world as well.
We pine for the Golden Days when boxing was king and we remember back to a time when the heavyweight division really made a difference rather than being in such a sorry state that it is a part of the business largely ignored by the sporting public.
Clearly boxing has begun to lose the attention of the mainstream fan that it once had for an assortment of the same old reasons: too few compelling matches, too many champions, dysfunction and disaster in the heavyweight division and a general inability for the sporting public to see the sport’s best fights without having to shell out an additional $50 or more at a time when the economy is tighter than Willie Pep’s defense.
Yet for all its warts, boxing remains the most compelling sport. It is a test of the will and the skill of two men stripped half naked and left to compete in the most primal way – with their wits and their two fists. No one else to blame (although they sometimes try) for failure and no one else to praise (although they sometimes try) for success.
While 2008 may have been a disappointment in boxing’s boardrooms it was not in the ring, where there were enough rising stars and compelling moments to make us yearn for what comes next while wanting to revisit what has already begun to fade into memory one last time before we move on.
FIGHTER OF THE YEAR: Manny Pacquiao
Some years there is a debate over this issue that can get as heated as a round between Israel Vasquez and Rafael Marquez but this is not one of those years.
This year there is Manny Pacquiao and then everyone else. Or, perhaps more accurately, there is Manny Pacquiao and nobody else.
That is no disrespect to fighters like Antonio Margarito, Chad Dawson, Victor Darchinyan, Joe Calzaghe, Juan Manuel Lopez, Paul Williams and the comebacking Vitali Klitschko. They all achieved major accomplishments in 2008. It is just that Pacquiao accomplished more than all of them in a year when he was quite often, and quite justifiably, compared to Henry Armstrong.
Sugar Ray Robinson is universally regarded as the greatest boxer who ever lived but Armstrong could not have been far behind. Among his many accomplishments was a 10-month stretch between October of 1937 and August of 1938 in which he won and held world titles at featherweight, welterweight and lightweight. That came at a time when boxing was a purer sport, one with only eight weight divisions instead of the current 17, and with only one champion rather than present pile of (depending on how many different organizations you can stomach) upwards of 100.
To have 100 champions is to have none, which is what makes Manny Pacquiao so remarkable. Whether he has a sanctioned belt or not, he is a champion in the eyes of the public, something he emphatically proved this year by winning a hard-fought split decision from Juan Manuel Marquez in March to win the WBC super featherweight title. He then moved up to 135 pounds and stopped WBC champion David Diaz to win the WBC lightweight championship with a spectacular ninth round knockout of a brave but beaten Diaz.
Then he completed his remarkable trilogy by stopping six-time world champion Oscar De La Hoya in eight rounds in December without losing a minute of the fight to lay claim not to a portion of the welterweight title but to claim he had been the man to retire boxing’s Golden Boy.
Unlike Armstrong’s situation, there was no welterweight title on the line when Pacquiao squared off with De La Hoya but he dominated the driving force of boxing, a 35-year-old De La Hoya who had not fought at the 147-pound limit in 7 1?2 years, while moving up three weight classes in less than a year.
De La Hoya was a better than 2-1 favorite in large part because he had lost a close split decision to then pound-for-pound champion Floyd Mayweather, Jr. 18 months earlier and so the consensus was that De La Hoya’s size advantage and his proven skills against Mayweather would prevail.
Not even close.
Pacquiao dominated the fight in the same way he had Diaz in his only fight at 135 pounds, winning every minute of every round until a disheartened De La Hoya finally quit on his stool after the eighth round.
Pacquiao was too fast, too slick, too powerful, too aggressive, too everything for De La Hoya to handle. Remarkable as that performance was that alone did not win him my nod as fighter of the year but when you combine it with capturing world titles in two other weight classes over a 10 month period and again dropping Marquez to gain a razor-think edge over his nemesis and doing it all while moving up over 20 pounds in the process, it is impossible to think of anyone who did more since the days when Henry Armstrong roamed the ring.
TRAINER OF THE YEAR: Freddie Roach
Roach is the man who prepared Pacquiao for all those victories and so you could stop right there and have a hard time coming up with another trainer to make this a debate.
Certainly Antonio Margarito’s trainer, Javier Capetillo, has done an admirable job as well this year but Roach was the first man to believe Pacquiao could defeat De La Hoya and he convinced first himself and then his fighter of it by showing him a plan Pacquiao could believe in and then training him perfectly.
While De La Hoya was drawn and at weight far too soon (more than three weeks before the fight he already weighed 145) and the strain to maintain it for so long proved to be more than he could handle, Roach had Pacquiao perfectly prepared at 142 1?2 pounds.
Roach made no mistakes in readying Pacquiao for any of his three title fights while also maintaining a jammed gym in Hollywood, CA. where he trains some of the world’s top fighters.
That now includes a reclamation project which has only begun to bear fruit. Roach has been asked to retool young Amir Khan, the British Olympic sensation in Athens, who was knocked cold in one round by a none descript fighter brought to England to serve as mere cannon fodder for the well protected Khan.
Now Roach has been asked to revive his career by teaching him how to protect a vulnerable chin and to date he’s 1-0 with him. But regardless of how successful he might be with Khan, in the end Freddie Roach will be remembered for what he did with Manny Pacquiao – which simply put was to help turn him into a legend.
PROSPECT OF THE YEAR: James Kirkland
This is a tough call because although Kirkland has the kind of power that makes not only champions but ticket sellers, he did not stand alone this year among rising stars.
There was also Victor Ortiz, who is not called Vicious for nothing; the Cuban sensation Yuriorkis Gamboa, who is an all-offense kind of guy who is 12-0 with 10 knockouts but who has already been down four times in his career and thus makes every fight a potential adventure; Devon Alexander, the best fighter in promoter Don King’s shrinking stable, who is 17-0 with 10 knockouts and this year was particularly impressive defeating former world champion DeMarcus “Chop Chop’’ Corley and ex-title contender Miguel Callist.
Alexander has probably been in with the more difficult competition, Ortiz probably has the most charismatic personality and Gamboa’s loose defense makes him the most intriguing fighter in the group yet in the end it is Kirkland who seems to have the greatest upside primarily because he tends to put people on their backside.
Kirkland (24-0, 21 KO) is trained by Ann Wolfe, a demanding and hard-nosed former women’s champion who seems to understand power punching is what sells tickets. Kirkland comes into the ring not only with bad intentions but with concussive ones and thus far he has left with his hand held high and his opponent’s head hung low most of the time.
He was 3-0 this year, all victories coming by knockout. Although his level of competition needs to be stepped up, thus far he seems to have as much upside as any young fighter in the world. What he does with it is up to him but he has already said “No 154 pounder can beat me,’’ and he intends to prove it in 2009.
FIGHT OF THE YEAR: Antonio Margarito TKO11 Miguel Cotto
It was a tough choice between Margarito’s stoppage of Cotto and Israel Vazquez’s split decision over Rafael Marquez in the third fight of their trilogy. That night Vazquez was down in the fourth round and wobbled in the seventh before rallying to the point where he hurt Marquez badly in the 11th round during a three minute assault. Vazquez then came out for the final round sensing he needed to do something spectacular to win and he did. He overwhelmed the tiring Marquez, finally dropping him late in the round for his margin of victory.
Yet as stirring as that fight was it was overshadowed by Margarito’s late rally to beat down Cotto and cement his position as the best welterweight in the world.
Early in the fight Cotto boxed slickly and effectively, landing solidly enough to control for a time Margarito’s relentless stalking of him. He also seemed at times to cause him problems with his speed and movement but as the rounds wore on and Margarito refused to take a backwards step Cotto, the smaller man by far, began to wear down and be hurt by Margarito’s body shots and nasty uppercuts on the inside.
Margarito, trailing on the scorecards in the late rounds, continued to stalk Cotto regardless of what he was being hit by before finally beginning to bust up Cotto’s bloody face late in the fight. Along with it he broke his spirit.
By the 11th round Cotto was weary, wary and in retreat, by now fully aware that despite having hit Margarito with flush shots that time and again snapped his head around as if he was a bobble head doll he could neither hurt him nor dissuade him from pursuing him and throwing howitzers back at him.
Margarito finally dropped Cotto early in round 11 and when Cotto got up he was a beaten man in full retreat. Margarito followed him across the ring but before he could nail him another flush shot, Cotto simply took a knee without being hit, the universal sign of surrender. As he did, his cornermen rushed into the ring and stopped the fight, crowning Margarito as the king of the welterweight division.
ROUND OF THE YEAR: Holt-Torres II, Round 1
Although you could make a strong case for Round 4 of the Vasquez-Marquez II fight (and many others have) my vote goes to the 61 seconds that constituted the entirety of the rematch between Kendall Holt and Ricardo Torres.
Most 12-round title fights don’t pack in as much drama and action in 36 minutes as these two did in the 61 seconds their match lasted beginning with Torres dropping Holt barely 12 seconds into the fight with a massive overhand right. When Holt (25-2, 13 KO) arose he was clearly in trouble and Holt didn’t waste a lot of time trying to keep him there.
He swarmed Holt, finally dropping him a second time when after a flurry of punches both of Holt’s gloves touched the canvas. The fight was now 32 seconds old and Holt appeared to be getting old.
But as Torres charged him wildly to try and finish him off, the two collided heads accidentally and Torres came out the worst for wear. After their heads slammed together, Torres was both cut and dazed and when Holt realized it he rallied himself and went after Torres with vengeance in his heart.
This time he landed a flurry of punches himself that drove Torres to squat on the lowest rope, out on his feet before he slumped to the floor completely out of it. By the time he came to, he learned he’d been on the wrong end of the Round of the Year.
STORY OF THE YEAR: Sadly it is not about a fight or a fighter but rather about the continuing economic collapse of boxing, at least in the short term.
A year ago boxing seemed to be in a revival. Attendance and pay-per-view sales were up and the suits that run the business side of the sport finally seemed to understand that interest in boxing wasn’t dying, interest in the boxing matches these guys were putting on was dying.
But just as 2007 was a revelation, 2008 became a disappointment. Pay-per-view numbers were down significantly as the larger economy began to crumble and both ESPN2 and Telefutura cancelled their regularly televised boxing shows, a sign that the long-term health of prize fighting as a main stream sport is seriously being compromised.
ESPN2 moved to pull the plug on its summertime, Wednesday night series, retaining the Friday Night Fights with Teddy Atlas at ringside but still giving up a sizeable share of a shrinking market.
Then Telefutura, which was doing about 40 shows a year, stunned the boxing world when it announced it would no longer do live televised boxing either despite gaining a consistently high rating because the cost of those shows could not be justified in light of other debt taken on when the network was sold.
That meant the sport had lost two of its main venues for showcasing young talent and getting them some recognition and a much-needed spotlight among fans. Those opportunities are gone now and no one is stepping up to take their place, which is alarming long term.
Worse, it appears the public has grown weary of watching old stars in decline, even though HBO in particular continues to try and foist them off on the public.
That’s why Calzaghe vs. Jones, Jr. and Hopkins vs. Pavlik did so poorly on pay-per-view, barely cracking 200,000 household buys. The public wants new faces, new stars. They want to see guys like Andre Berto and Andre Ward and the Dirrell brothers and Amir Khan and many more, rather than old shadows of fighters who used to be great but the cable networks would rather try and capitalize on old reliable names believing that sells more than the sport itself.
This is nonsense but it’s been their formula for short term success for some time. Unfortunately, while they line their pockets the sport deteriorates because fans neither know who the champions are, nor who the young faces on the rise might be.
The December showdown between De la Hoya and Pacquiao did do near record box office and PPV numbers but even that success seemed a Trojan Horse, a reminder of what the fight game used to be and still could be with proper promotion and long-term thinking but which it is a far cry from at the moment.
COMEBACK OF THE YEAR
You have to hand it to Vitali Klitschko. Admittedly the heavyweight division is in a steep decline but he did come out of a 4 1?2 year layoff during which he ran for political office, performed charity work in Africa and paid little attention to boxing beyond watching his younger brother, Wladimir, win two of the four bogus world titles.
Then he decides it’s time to earn a paycheck again and, without a tuneup, comes back and batters Samuel Peter so badly it appeared Peter was the one coming off a long layoff.
Eventually Klitschko made Peter quit on his stool to lay claim to the WBC title belt and arguably the title of true heavyweight champion because, frankly, I’d like his chances against his brother if the two ever met. They won’t, they insist, and it’s probably true. Sadly, it’s also the only really compelling fight in the division unless young David Haye proves his chin is as strong as his punch… which we know it isn’t.
DISASTER OF THE YEAR: Bernard Hopkins dec. Kelly Pavlik
As admirable a job as the 43-year-old former middleweight champion did in undressing and exposing Pavlik’s modest boxing skills, Hopkins did his sport no favors by knocking off one of the few boxing stars who had begun to get national recognition in magazines and on television while crossing over into the consciousness of the general sports fan after twice beating up Jermain Taylor.
Although the lopsided Hopkins victory keeps him alive in the sport, boxing suffered overall because what it needs right now is not the resurrection of another old face but the spawning of fresh new ones that young fans can relate to. Kelly Pavlik was one of those until Bernard Hopkins made that face all but unrecognizable by exposing his limited boxing skills.
No one knows where Pavlik will go from here but boxing goes back to the drawing board in 2009, a sport in search of a new identity and some new faces the public will latch on to. Until that happens there’s always Manny vs. Ricky Hatton and then, perhaps, the return from exile of Floyd Mayweather, Jr. to square off with Pacquiao by the end of the year in what would figure to be a blockbuster affair.
It is that kind of hope that keeps fight fans believing that next year, which soon will be this year, is going to be better than last year.
Avila’s List Of Boxing’s Best In 2008
Fighter of the Year
In 2008, Manny “Pac Man” Pacquiao accomplished something that was last seen in October 1937 to October 1938 when the great Henry Armstrong won the featherweight, lightweight and welterweight titles in a year’s span. Pacquiao won junior lightweight, lightweight world titles and beat an elite welterweight boxer all in the same year.
Many said that Armstrong’s feat would never be repeated, but Pacquiao came very close to the feat, though not in the same weight divisions. All that was missing was a world title in the welterweight bout.
The super charged Pacquiao last fought as a featherweight in 2004 and had been residing in the junior lightweight division for the last several years. Earlier this year he beat Mexico’s Juan Manuel Marquez in a fierce battle for the WBC junior lightweight title that ended in a split decision win. He then dominated David Diaz for the WBC lightweight title in June and finally capped the year with another dominating win over a former Pound for Pound champion Oscar De La Hoya several weeks ago.
It may be another 70 years before you see someone duplicate Pacquiao’s feat.
A few other candidates should be mentioned in this category. Welshman Joe Calzaghe had the best year of his career when he beat Bernard Hopkins in a close battle last April. He followed that win with a one-sided beating of Roy Jones Jr. last November in Madison Square Garden. Though Jones is not nearly the fighter he was before 2004, you can’t say Calzaghe had youth on his side. He’s 36 and Jones is 39.
Mexico’s Antonio Margarito also had a pretty good 12 months. The Tijuana Tornado collided with Kermit Cintron again and stopped the power puncher a second time and won the IBF welterweight belt. Proving he wasn’t concerned with keeping a belt, he lit after Miguel Cotto, the WBA welterweight titleholder, and beat him up in 11 rounds. Fans could never call Margarito’s style pretty, “brutal” might be a more appropriate word.
And finally there was Australia’s Vic “The Destroyer” Darchinyan. After getting knocked loopy a year ago, the Armenian slugger returned with knockout wins over Russia’s Dimitri Kirilov and Mexico’s Cristian Mijares. He also showed he could box very well in dominating Mijares in his last fight. A very impressive showing for Darchinyan.
All of the aforementioned fighters had a great year, but Pacquiao’s year will go down in history as one of the all-time great 12 months.
Fight of the Year
Without a doubt Israel Vazquez-Rafael Marquez III is the Fight of the Year. Their third encounter proved to be the best of the trilogy that began in March 2007 and ended in March 2008. In my eyes the only trilogy that matches it would be Tony Zale-Rocky Graziano’s three middleweight encounters in the 1940s for sheer mayhem.
The Mexico City warriors lit up the Home Depot Center with 12 rounds of fury that held the crowd in awe and ended in a split decision. A left hook from Vazquez that sent Marquez reeling into the corner (and correctly ruled a knockdown) in the final 10 seconds of the last round, proved the deciding factor and the coup de grace for the three epic battles. Boxing fans will be talking about these three collisions for decades. It was pure and scientific violence at its best and exemplified why boxing is called the “Sweet Science.”
Other candidates for Fight of the Year were Pacquiao’s return match with Mexico’s Juan Manuel Marquez last March. A fifth round knockdown of Marquez proved to be the deciding factor in this nip and tuck battle between two remarkable fighters.
In third is Antonio Margarito’s bludgeoning win over Puerto Rico’s Miguel Cotto. When they entered the ring Cotto was the 3-1 favorite and undefeated. It was a classic Mexico vs. Puerto Rico war and it did not fail to incite the fans present at the Las Vegas fight this past summer. In the end, Margarito proved he would walk through fire to win the fight and did in bludgeoning fashion.
Round of the Year
The rematch between Kendall Holt and Ricardo Torres for the WBO world title was held in Las Vegas in front of a small number of journalists at the Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino. Many fight reporters were busy attending a mixed martial arts fight card across the street and missed one of the most electrifying matches in years. The two junior welterweights tore into each other with homicidal punches and no jabs. Holt was dropped twice but recovered and ultimately knocked out Colombia’s Torres with a right hand and a simultaneous accidental head butt. All this took place in a mere 61 seconds. It was one of those fights that if you blinked too much, you missed the fight.
In second place was Riverside’s Chris “The Nightmare” Arreola and Florida’s Travis “Freight Train” Walker heavyweight clash. In most heavyweight bouts you can count the number of blows fired on one hand. You can sleep through most of their bouts, but not this one. Walker dropped Arreola in the second round with a perfect right hand to the chin. Then, 30 seconds later, Arreola returned fire and landed a crunching left hook. The crowd went crazy. Arreola proved he could take a punch and come off the deck to win a fight. He’s poised to fight Wladimir Klitschko in April or May.
Knockout of the Year
Venezuela’s Jorge Linares has been impressing boxing fans with his fighting prowess and immense physical talent. Against Mexico’s iron chinned Gamaliel Diaz he proved he can punch with the best. In the eighth round, after missing with a left, Linares pivoted on his left foot and beat Diaz with a right hand to floor the Mexican fighter in crunching fashion. Diaz legs were short circuited by the punch and down he went. It was a decisive victory for Linares who is not as well known as his fellow countryman Edwin Valero. But that knockout woke up the eyes of boxing fans that saw the fight on pay-per-view.
Coming in a second was Robert “The Ghost” Guerrero’s right uppercut, left cross combination to turn out the circuits on Jason Litzau in another featherweight contest last February for the IBF title. Guerrero is slated to fight in January 24, at the Staples Center.
Ironically, both Linares and Guerrero are moving up to the junior lightweight division. Will they be fighting each other in 2009? Wow.
Upset of the Year
Palm Spring’s Timothy “Desert Storm” Bradley’s victory in London against the feared Junior Witter for the WBC junior welterweight title grabs him the honor of being the best of the area for 2008. While other junior welterweights avoided Witter, Bradley traveled to London where he was given a room with no air conditioning, no bed and stalled at the airport, then proceeded to out-box and knock down the feared Witter. It was a fairy tale come-to-life for a boxer who never had fought outside of California. Bradley is set to meet Kendall Holt in a junior welterweight unification bout.
Worst result of the Year
Canada’s Lucian Bute retained the IBF super middleweight world title but it really should be in the hands of California’s Librado Andrade. If not for a horrible, if not purposeful, mishandling by the Canadian referee, the title should have changed hands by knockout. When Andrade knocked down Bute he looked done. But the referee wasted 17 seconds telling Andrade to go to the neutral corner, though he was in the corner. Bute won by decision, but only because the referee interfered on his behalf.
Trainer of the Year
It’s difficult to surmise the best trainer of the year because it really depends on the fighter to win or lose a fight. The trainer can’t fight the fight for their charge, but he can prepare someone and give strategy for a fight.
Freddie Roach has to win this year for his guidance of Manny Pacquiao. It was Roach who spotted the weaknesses in Oscar De La Hoya and surmised that Pacquiao could beat the East L.A. boxer. Last summer Roach debated with me the reasons and every point he made came true. Even his strategies worked perfectly.
In second place is Floyd Mayweather. The trainer was perfect in big fights. First he guided De La Hoya to victory over Steve Forbes in May, then, he guided Ricky Hatton to victory in November. Both fighters looked their best in years. Could Mayweather have made a difference for De La Hoya in his fight? Hard to tell.
Promoter of the Year
I’ve got to go with Goossen-Tutor Promotions. The California-based promotion company worked hard in 2008 to find new ways to work for its fighters that include venturing to the Cayman Islands last June to stage a boxing show. They also put on a fight card featuring Paul Williams and Chris Arreola in a brand new venue, the Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California. Maybe 2009 could be the year for Goossen-Tutor as both Williams and Arreola are primed for major fights. They also signed Olympian Shawn Estrada and lightweight prospect John Molina.
California’s Pat Russell is this year’s best referee. He did a masterful job in the Israel Vazquez-Rafael Marquez III fight last March and is always in top form for any fight. He rarely makes bad decisions in the ring and is one of the more respected referees in the world. Those gray hairs don’t mean he’s losing a step, they’re signs of wisdom.
In close second is Nevada’s Tony Weeks. In the past three years he’s climbed to the top of the ladder with his great handling of prizefights. The only thing Weeks does that can be corrected is his staying in one position too long. But his calls in the ring are right on and always on time.
Third place is a tie between California’s Jack Reiss and Nevada’s Kenny Bayless. Both are very fair and stay out of the action unless necessary.
Jerry Roth of Nevada has to be on the top of any list of boxing judges. He has a way of scoring fights that is consistent. He likes boxers who throw a lot of punches and make a fight happen. In the past five years he’s been the top judge out of Nevada and is a welcome sight for any big fight.
Max DeLuca is another consistent and sharp-eyed judge. In most fights it’s easy to judge the winner. But when you have two elite fighters who are good defensively, then you want DeLuca scoring the fight. The California judge can spot who is landing and who is blocking with the best of the judges. There wasn’t a fight he scored that could be called a bad decision.
Tom Kaczmarek wrote a book on how to score a fight. It shows. He’s very consistent and has that ability to surmise when a boxer is actually landing blows, not just hitting his opponent’s gloves and arms. Kaczmarek has been very good for a long time. He’s the best of the East Coast judges in my opinion.
Most Entertaining Fighter
It’s always very close but this year it goes to Ricardo “El Matador” Mayorga. The Nicaraguan prizefighter is a massive personality though he doesn’t speak English. When he’s on the main event there is nobody who can light up a press conference like this former two-division world champion. Crowds, journalists and macho Latinos love his persona. Win or lose he’s a gracious fighter once the party is over. I’m going to miss Mayorga when his career is over. Another thing, is this guy can fight. He never takes the easy way out. People forget he beat Fernando Vargas and Vernon Forrest twice. And he gave Shane Mosley all he could handle. Don’t sleep on Mayorga.
Runner up has to be Emanuel Augustus. When he gets in a groove and starts shaking and baking he’s fun to watch and probably perplexing to fight. Too bad he never won a world title. He’s now residing in Las Vegas. It’s a perfect spot for him.
This is a difficult choice. Most prizefighters have guts to spare, but I got to pick Verno Phillips for this category. When nobody wanted to fight Paul Williams it was Phillips who took up the challenge without hesitation. This guy has been fighting for a long time. Heck, I remember seeing him fight at the Inglewood Forum back in 1994. In November, against Williams, the much smaller Phillips took blow after blow and never quit. Man, I was in awe of the kid. I’m glad the fight was stopped because Phillips was not going to surrender. He was intent to go out on his shield. Luckily, he was able to walk out of the ring. And it was his birthday that night.
Ready for world titles
Abner Mares, 23, from Mexico, has a lethal combination of speed, power and boxing skills. The former Mexican Olympian should be fighting for a world title in 2009. In the past 16 months he decisively beat several good fighters in Chino Garcia, Diosdado Gabi and Jonathan Arias. He’s ready for anybody holding a bantamweight belt.
Urbano Antillon from Maywood, California has blown through the competition in the last two years. Most people think he’s the same young teen who was teetered against Ivan Valles at the Olympic Auditorium. Folks, wake up, you’re asleep in class, that was six years ago when he was 19. Now he’s 26 and seems to have rocks in his gloves. A lightweight title should be his as soon as he gets an opportunity.
Andre Dirrell from Flint, Michigan has height, speed, and boxing ability. He seldom gets hit so it’s difficult to surmise if he has a world caliber chin. But otherwise, Dirrell should have a super middleweight belt wrapped around his waist in the next 12 months.
Prospects to watch
John Molina continues his trek toward becoming a contender in the talented lightweight division. The hard-hitting Covina fighter remains undefeated and recently signed a promotion contract with Goossen-Tutor.
Philadelphia’s Danny Garcia a junior welterweight seems to have a lot going on. He’s got all the tools. The only thing left to see is if he can take a big punch.
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