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Articles of 2010

There’s Nothing Magical About Manny Pacquiao’s Improvement: Part 1

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During the lead up to Manny Pacquiao’s brilliant dismantling of Joshua Clottey, he’d received more than his share of criticism from people hinting that his blitz through the weight classes on his way to the WBO welterweight title had been assisted by various forms of chemical help. I think that the reason for Pacquiao’s being able to retain and even augment his effectiveness is far less mysterious, although much more rare, than his detractors might realize. Manny Pacquiao is one of the very few boxers in the sport’s history able to make dramatic improvements after attaining star status, during the very late stages of his prime.

In some circles, this is seen as a kind of magic. But there’s nothing magical about it. It’s now apparent that Pacquiao is not only one of the most physically gifted fighters we’ve seen in years, he’s also one of the smartest. As he’s had to take on increasingly large opponents, there’s been an inverse proportion in the balance between physical advantage and strategic superiority.

Pacquiao had already been a champion and was a world class fighter when he lost a decision to Erik Morales in 2005. He was good enough to fight on better than even terms with the likes of Marco Antonio Barrera and Juan Manuel Marquez. That he was able to do this as an essentially one handed brawler with bad balance was a real testament to both his power and his fighting heart. But trainer Freddie Roach understood that, without further technical development, especially as he moved up in weight, Pacquiao was going to reach a point of diminishing returns, and would be getting into tougher and tougher fights. Considering that he’d already engaged in a series of taxing encounters, it would be crucial for Manny to learn new skills.

This is the point where Pacquiao’s uniqueness really began to manifest itself. Instead of assuming that what he’d always done would be enough to carry him at the elite level (he was, after all, both a champion and a star), he dedicated himself to learning a repertoire of added techniques. With some things, he had to go back to the drawing board and start with the basics. That he was humble enough to do that tells you a lot about his character.

Although Pacquiao was a fantastic natural fighter, as a southpaw he had relied too heavily on the great power from his left hand. His right was severely underdeveloped. Even though it had power, Manny really didn’t know how to deliver with it, and he couldn’t use it to set up combinations. He threw lots of punches, but seldom put them together in tactical sequence.  Furthermore, his footwork and balance were adequate at best for a fighter of his accomplishment.

Starting with his 2007 rematch with Marco Antonio Barrera, we started to see steady improvement in every facet of Pacquiao’s game. By the time he took on Juan Manuel Marquez in 2008, he was able to engage a complete boxer/puncher in an exciting twelve round strategically sophisticated war – a chess match played out with high powered weaponry. His punches were now thrown straight. His right jab and hook were both solid weapons and he was capable of moving in and out quickly while maintaining excellent balance.

Three months later he was even better, taking on David Diaz for the WBC title in his first fight at lightweight. Diaz wasn’t anywhere close to being in Pacquiao’s league, but he was a strong, durable guy whose only previous loss had come to the murderously hard punching Kendall Holt at junior welterweight. Pacquiao administered a truly brutal beating to Diaz, systematically breaking him down, judging distance magnificently, remaining nearly untouchable, staying patient, and hurting Diaz throughout all nine rounds before firing off a perfect combination that left him lying in a pool of blood.

Like many, I assumed that 135 pounds was about as far north as Pacquiao could travel while remaining effective. His frame didn’t seem suited to carrying much more weight, even taking into account his junior middleweight legs. And it’s at about this point that Manny Pacquiao stopped being seen as a fighter and started being looked on as a mythical being. It’s where his detractors began to question how what he was accomplishing was humanly possible, and where his supporters began to attribute super human powers to him.

But, as I say, what happened next with Pacquiao isn’t mysterious at all. It’s just nearly unprecedented. Moving into the welterweight division, Pacquiao appeared to be punching harder than ever. The ability to do this runs contrary to conventional boxing logic. And, in fact, it wasn’t what was happening; appearances can often be deceiving.

What was really happening was that Pacquiao was now facing slower moving, less complete, and even possibly shot fighters. If you add in his recently acquired ability to throw punches in strategic combination and his newly found leverage, it’s no wonder that what he was landing was causing tremendous damage. He wasn’t actually punching any harder; he was just punching more effectively. And he was now punching the right guys.

Because I didn’t regard either Oscar De La Hoya or Ricky Hatton as legitimate barometers of Pacquiao’s progress (it was evident as soon as they stepped into the ring that both were shot), I thought of Miguel Angel Cotto as the first genuine test of how Pacquiao was faring at a higher weight. He looked great fighting Cotto. Initially, it appeared that taking shots from a hard punching, bigger guy might give him problems. But, by using his legs a lot in the first couple of rounds, in combination with being aggressive, Manny had things well under control by the third round. From that point on, Cotto’s style couldn’t have been better suited to Pacquiao. Too slow, too confused by the angles of Pacquiao’s punches, and too damaged from previous fights, Cotto was a sitting duck, taking a horrific beating until being rescued in the last round.

In spite of how impressive the win was, there was still a small lingering doubt as to how Manny would do against an undiminished, big, powerful, impervious-to-punches welterweight in his prime. Beating Joshua Clottey convincingly would erase any questions about how completely Manny Pacquiao had transformed into a viable welterweight champion.

It was in this fight that Pacquiao showed every aspect of the lessons he’d learned since 2005.  Without even scoring a knockdown, he fought the greatest fight of his life. Using a spellbinding combination of power, accuracy, footwork, hand and foot speed, aggression, and boxing skills, Pacquiao made a previously indomitable opponent give up within three rounds. Things grew so one sided that it was soon obvious Pacquiao was trying to make Clottey commit to anything.  The only possible chance he had to accomplish that was to give Clottey some free shots.  Joshua was just too freaked out to take them. He was being hurt constantly, he was scared, and he had no answers. He steadfastly refused to take the bait.

There are guys who'd have been content to take the easy decision. Even though he didn’t get it, don’t think that Manny wasn’t looking for the knockout all night long. He didn't take dumb risks, but there wasn't a moment when he wasn't trying to make something happen. That's just one more thing that makes him a great, great fighter.

Manny Pacquiao is at his very best at this point in time. He is a fighter who had rough edges and weak spots even after he was a world champion, even after he’d beaten fellow greats.  But, through hard work, good advice, diligence, and sound scouting by Freddie Roach, and a willingness to address his own liabilities, those rough edges and weak spots no longer exist. He’s clearly the best fighter in the world.

Any fighter is beatable, and someone will beat Manny Pacquiao someday. But for the moment, it’s hard to imagine who that fighter will be.

Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com

Articles of 2010

Judah To Fight Mbuza March 5 In NJ

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Totowa, NJ – Kathy Duva, Main Events CEO, announced their promotional firm won the purse bid held at IBF headquarters in East Orange, NJ, Thursday. The bid was for the right to hold the IBF's junior welterweight title fight between Zab Judah of Brooklyn, NY and Las Vegas, and South Africa's Kaizer Mabuza.

IBF Championships Chairman, Lindsay Tucker explained, “It is a 50-50 split of the earnings between the two fighters. Kaizer is ranked No. 1 by the IBF, and Judah is No. 2. Where the fight will be held is up to the winning bidder.”

Judah (39-6, 26 KOs) is promoted by Main Events and his own firm Super Judah Promotions, and Branco Milenkovic, of South Africa, promotes Mabuza (23-6-3, 14 KOs).

Kathy Duva confirmed the fight will take place at Prudential Center in Newark, NJ, late February or early March this year as part of Main Events' Brick City Boxing Series.  (Saturday Update: the fight is March 5th, in NJ at the Pru Center. The bout will be part of a PPV card.)

“We are very happy that Zab has the opportunity to fight for the IBF Junior Welterweight title right here in New Jersey.  Winning this fight will put Zab right in the mix with the winner of Bradley-Alexander and Amir Khan.” Duva elaborated, ” Zab will work very hard to win this fight so that he will be one step closer to his ultimate goal of unifying all of the Junior Welterweight titles by the end of 2011!”

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Articles of 2010

UFC 125 Preview: Frankie Edgar Vs. Gray Maynard

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Few predicted Frankie Edgar would grab the UFC lightweight championship last year but he did. Most felt he would eventually win it but Edgar not only took the title, he beat one of the best mixed martial artists in history to do it.

Edgar (13-1) has emerged from the milieu of nondescript MMA fighters to become one of the more brilliant performers for Ultimate Fighting Championship. Next comes a rematch with Gray “The Bully” Maynard (11-0) tomorrow at the MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas. UFC 125 will be televised on pay-per-view.

All it took was not one, but two victories over BJ Penn.

If you’re not familiar with Penn, he’s one of the most versatile fighters in MMA history and had been nearly unbeatable in the 155-pound lightweight division. That is until he clashed with Edgar. Until he met New Jersey’s Edgar, the Hawaiian fighter chopped down lightweight opponents with ease. It was only the heavier welterweights he had problems against. Namely: Canada’s Georges St. Pierre.

Edgar showed poise, speed and grit in defeating Penn in back-to-back fights. The world took notice.

“You know, if I keep winning fights, the respect will come eventually,” said Edgar during a conference call.

Now Edgar will find out if he can avenge the only loss on his record.

“I just think I grew as a fighter. You know, mentally, you know, physically I, you know, possess differently skills, increased – you know, I think I boxed and got better, my Jiu-Jitsu got better and, you know, just have much more experience now,” Edgar says.

Maynard seeks to find out if Edgar has added any more fighting tools to his repertoire. Back in April 2008, the artillery shelled out was not enough to beat the Las Vegas fighter.

“It’s a perfect time. He had the chance and, you know, he took it and the time is now for me and I’m prepared,” said Maynard (11-0). “Any time you’re going up against the top in the world, you evolve and change and so I’m prepared for a new fight, so it will be good. I’m pumped for it.”

Though Maynard’s record indicates he is unbeaten that’s not entirely true. He did suffer a defeat to Nate Diaz during The Ultimate Fighter series and subsequently avenged that loss last January.

The UFC lightweight title is in Maynard’s bull’s eye.

“Looking to take the belt for sure,” said Maynard. “We’ll see on January 1.”

Edgar versus Maynard should be a good one.

Other bouts:

Nate Diaz (13-5) faces Dong Hyun Kim (13-0-1) in another welterweight tussle. Diaz is the only fighter with a win over Maynard. Anyone watching TUF remembers Maynard tapping out from a Diaz guillotine choke. The Modesto fighter has a tough fight against South Korea’s Kim.

Chris Leben (21-6) fights Brian Stann (9-3) in a middleweight fight. Leben is a veteran of MMA and if an opponent is not ready for a rough and tumble fight, well, that fighter is not going to win. Stann dropped down from light heavyweight and we’ll see if the cut in weight benefits the Marine.

Brandon Vera (11-5) meets Thiago Silva (14-2) in a light heavyweight match up. Vera is trying to rally back to the promising fighter he was tabbed several years back. Silva is a very tough customer and eager to crash the elite. A victory by either fighter could mean a ticket to the big time.

Clay Guida (27-8) versus Takanori Gomi (32-6) in a lightweight bout. Guida has become one of the most feared fighters without a title. No one has an easy time with the long-haired fighter. Gomi lost to Kenny Florian but knocked out Tyson Griffin. Can he survive Guida?

Marcus “The Irish Hand Grenade” Davis (22-8) clashes with Jeremy Stephens (18-6) in another lightweight fight. Davis is a go-for-broke kind of fighter and is looking to get back in the win column after a tumultuous battle with Nate Diaz last August. Stephens needs a win too. In his last bout he lost to Melvin Guillard.

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Articles of 2010

Borges Looks Back, And Forward With Hope

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As the end of another year approaches, there’s no need to invoke Charles Dickens to describe what went on in boxing. It was neither the best of times nor the worst of times. It was just too much time spent on The Fight That Never Took Place.

For the second straight year the sport could not deliver The Fight, the only one fans universally wanted and even casual fans craved – the mix between Floyd Mayweather, Jr. vs. Manny Pacquiao.  No one has to be singled out for blame for that failure because this time there’s plenty to go around on both sides. The larger issue is what does it say about a sport when it cannot deliver its top event?

What would the NFL be without the Super Bowl? Where would major league baseball be without the World Series? Golf without the Masters? College basketball without March Madness?

They would all be less than they could be and so it was with boxing this year. Having said that, the sport was not without its signature moments. It was not bereft of nights that left those of us with an abiding (and often unrequited) love for prize fighting with good reason to hope for the future.

Three times promoter Bob Arum took the sport into massive stadium venues just like the good (very) old days and each time boxing drew a far larger crowd than its many critics expected. Twice those fights involved the sport’s leading ambassador, Pacquiao, who brought in crowds of 40,000 to 50,000 fans into Cowboys Stadium against inferior opponents Joshua Clottey and Antonio Margarito. Imagine what he might have done had Mayweather been in the opposite corner?

While both fights were, as expected, lopsided affairs, they showcased the one boxer who has transcended his sport’s confining walls to become a cultural icon and world celebrity. Pacquiao alone put boxing (or at least one boxer) on the cover of TIME and into the pages of such varied publications as Esquire, GQ, The Wall Street Journal, the American Airlines in-flight magazine and even Atlantic Monthly.

As history has proven time and again, that is what happens when boxing has a compelling personality to sell it and Pacquiao is that. Mayweather is such a person as well,  but for different reasons.

The one night he appeared in a boxing ring, he set the year’s pay-per-view standard against Shane Mosley while also leaving a first hint of dark mystery when he was staggered by two stinging right hands in the second round.

Mayweather was momentarily in trouble for the first time in his career but the moment passed quickly and Mosley never had another. By the end he had been made to look old and futile, a faded athlete who’d had his chance and was unable to do anything with it. So it goes in this harsh sport when the sands are running out of the hour glass.

As always there were some surprising upsets, most notably Jason Litzau’s domination of an uninterested and out of shape Celestino Caballero and Sergio Martinez’s one-punch demolishment of Paul Williams. The latter was not so much an upset as it was a stunning reminder that when someone makes a mistake against a highly skilled opponent in this sport they don’t end up embarrassed. They end up unconscious.

SHOWTIME did all it could to further the future of the sport, offering up a continuation of its interminably long but still bold Super Six super middleweight tournament as well as the launching of a short form bantamweight tournament which already gave fans to two stirring and surprising finishes with Joseph Agbeko decisioning Jhonny Perez and Abner Mares upsetting Victor Darchinyan in a battle of contusions.

While the Super Six has had its problems – including several of the original six pulling out – it also lifted the profile of former Olympic gold medalist Andre Ward from nearly unknown to the cusp of universal recognized as the best super middleweight in the world this side of Lucian Bute. If Ward continues winning he’ll get to Bute soon enough because that’s why SHOWTIME signed a TV deal with the Canadian and America may get its next boxing star if Ward proves to be what I think he is – which is still underrated and underappreciated.

HBO and HBO pay-per-view put on 23 shows, few of them compelling and many of them paying big money to the wrong people while doing little or nothing to grow the sport that has helped make their network rich. But they did have the knockout of the year – Martinez’s second round destruction of Williams – and some fights in the lower weight classes that were left you wanting more.

Two new names popped up who are causing the kind of fan reaction that also gives us hope for 2011 – American Brandon Rios and Mexican Saul Alvarez. They are two of the sport’s brightest young prospects because each comes to the arena the old-fashioned way – carrying nothing but bad intentions.
Aggression and knockouts still sell boxing faster than anything else and each exhibited plenty of both this year and left fans wanting to see more. Alvarez is already a star in Mexico without having yet won a world title and Rios is the definition of “promise.’’ Whether the star will continue to shine and promise will be fulfilled may be answered next year and so we wait anxiously to find out.

Backed by Golden Boy Promotions, there is no reason 2011 shouldn’t be Alvarez’s year and if it is people will notice and remember him because he has a crowd-pleasing style that is all about what sells most.

That is what boxing needs more of – fresh faces and new stars… so as fans we should root for guys like Alvarez, Ward, Rios and young Brit Amir Khan, who is a star in England but still a question mark with a questionable chin but a fighter’s heart here in the U.S.

Those guys and others not yet as well known are the future of boxing, a sport that for too long has been recycling the likes of Mosley (as it will again in May for one last beating against Pacquiao in a fight that's a joke), Bernard Hopkins (who can still fight although it is unclear why he bothers or where it’s all headed), Roy Jones and, sadly, even 48-year-old Evander Holyfield, who continues to delude himself but not many other people into believing he will soon unify the heavyweight title again.
If fighters like Ward, Alvarez, Rios, Khan, WBC welterweight champion Andre Berto and middleweight king Sergio Martinez continue their rise they could be the antidote for the art of the retread that Arum and Golden Boy have been forcing fans to buy the past few years at the expense of what boxing needs most – fresh faces.

The heavyweight division, which many believe determines the relevancy of boxing to the larger world, remains a vast desert of disinterest here in the US. The Klitschko brothers, Vitali and Wladimir, hold 75 per cent of the title belts but few peoples’ imaginations in the US, although to be fair they are European superstars and don’t really need U.S. cable TV money to thrive economically.

Each defended their titles twice this year, Vitali against lame competition (Albert Sosnowski and Shannon Briggs) and Wladimir against better fighters (Sam Peter and Eddie Chambers) but not competitive ones. Sadly, there is no American on the horizon to challenge them, a comment on the division and on our country, where the athletes who used to be Joe Louis or Muhammad Ali now opt for the easier and frankly safer road of the NFL or the NBA. Who can blame them considering all the nonsense a fighter has to go through to just make a living these days?

The one heavyweight match that would be compelling and might lift the sport up for at least a night would be either of the Klitschkos facing lippy WBA champion David Haye. The fast-talking Brit claims to not be ducking them but he’s had more maladies befall him after shouting from the rooftops how much he wants to challenge them that you have to wonder if Haye is simply a case of big hat no cattle syndrome.

For the sake of the sport, we should all be lighting candles each night in hopes our prayers will be answered and Haye will finally agree to meet one of them. It may not prove to be much of a fight but at least it will give us something to talk about for a few months.

Whatever Haye and the Klitschkos decide the fighter with the most upside at the moment however seems to be Sergio Martinez.  He has matinee idol looks, a big enough punch to put Paul Williams to sleep with one shot and a work ethic second to none. The Argentine fighter had a year for himself, starting with a drubbing of Kelly Pavlik followed by his demolishment of Williams. Those kinds of victories, coupled with his Oscar De La Hoya-like looks, are the type of things that if HBO or SHOWTIME would get behind him could allow Martinez to capture the attention of both fight fans and more casual ones.

In general, Hispanics fighters continued to dominate much of the sport’s front pages with Juan Manuel Marquez’s two victories in lightweight title fights leading that storyline. His war with Michael Katsidis is a strong candidate for Fight of the Year and his technical skill and calm demeanor make him the uncrowned challenger to Pacquiao. The two have unfinished business that should be settled this year if Arum stops standing in the way.

Two other fighters who gave us moments to remember in 2010 were Juan Manuel Lopez, who knocked out three solid opponents including highly respected Mexican warrior Rafael Marquez, and Giovani Segura, who won four times (that’s three years work for Mayweather) in 2010, all by knockout. Along the way, Segura defeated one of the great minimum weight fighters in history, slick Ivan Calderon, to win the belt on Aug. 28.

Lastly, boxing gave us another magical cinematic moment as well with the release of “The Fighter,’’ a film based on the life and hard times of junior welterweight scrapper Micky Ward. The film has won rave reviews and many awards and seems likely to have several of its actors nominated for Academy Awards, most notable Christian Bale for his sadly humorous portrayal of Ward’s troubled half brother, former fighter Dickie Ecklund.

Boxing has a long history of providing the framework for memorable movies and it did it again with “The Fighter,’’ a film that did more for boxing than any promoter did all year.

All in all, it wasn’t the best of years for boxing but it was a good year that picked up speed in the final months and, like that great golf shot you finally hit out of the rough on the 18th, left us with reasons to hope for a better year in 2011. If somehow it gives us Mayweather-Pacquiao, the emergence of Alvarez and Rios, the ascension of Martinez and Haye vs. the best available Klitschko in addition to the kind of solid performances that always come along, it could be a year to remember.

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