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Articles of 2008

HOPKINS: I'll Be Missed When I Leave Boxing

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Joe Calzaghe and Bernard Hopkins fielded questions from the media at their final organized press conference on Wednesday.

I took a look at selected quotes, and tried to make some sense of them as we head to the Saturday showdown.

I like to see if a fighter tips his hand, verbally, prefight. Is he fixated on a KO? Are his replies curt, which could signify that his game face is on, or curt because he is tight, and full of apprehension? Does he share a gameplan? Is that meaningful, or does he share his strategy only to attempt to swerve his foe with a spurious blueprint? First, I look at Hopkins’ responses, then Calzaghes.’

After being handed a cane (a “present” from Enzo Calzaghe) Bernard Hopkins:  I'm going to find something to do with it. Something kinky. 
Um, OK. This is a time honored tradition in boxing, and in prison for that matter, trying to show superiority towards a foe by threatening them with unwanted orifice exploration. Unfortunately, I’m having trouble removing this image from my head.

BH: This is going to be my third assassination of a southpaw in the last year and a half.
I’d hardly call his wins over Tarver and Wright assassinations, but let’s not quibble.

BH: There is nothing for me to hype. Even my worst critics have to bow down and admit that I'm in great shape. The times have changes where 43 is not what it used to be.
Bow no, admit yes. I will not be bowing with that cane image in my mind.

BH: I don't have days off. I don't do anything to my temple—my body—that's why I'm here. It comes from discipline that I got from a dark place 20 years ago.
The prison experience was indeed a most formative one for Hopkins. This is not mere hyperbole.

BH: Being an underdog, that's not a negative to me. That's a positive. Everything I have I had to fight for.
It’s true, Hopkins chooses foes and causes that he knows will keep him amped. Being an underdog has had him doing that extra sprint when his mind is telling him to call it a day.

BH: I was just handling my business and I'm watching the Calzaghe-Kessler fight. And after he wins, what does he say? “I want to fight Bernard Hopkins.” So I put my teeth in, I rocked back in my rocking chair, took a pop of Geritol, and I call Richard Schaeffer and told him to make it happen.
It appears Hopkins is maintaining his sense of humor. I wouldn’t expect anything else, he’s the consummate pro. But wait…the teeth thing. Was he joking?

BH: Joe is not a spring chicken. I'm already a senior citizen. He's knocking on the door.
This is clever. Politicians do this all the time. Lower expectations by degrading yourself, or your chances, and when you perform well, people are pleasantly surprised.

BH: I'll be able to show the world how I'll be missed when I leave the sport. You're going to see this athlete and man. It's going to be an eye opener. And every time I'm not supposed to win I step up.
He’s right, he will be missed. We all pontificate and wag fingers about his race comments, and flag stomping and the like, but say what you will, he is interesting, and we keyboard tappers like that. Thing is, smart money doesn’t usually make the wily vet much of an underdog. Against Trinidad, many thought he’d get bombed out, and against Taylor, many thought the youngster would be too vibrant against the “old” guy. But you see Hopkins as an underdog at your peril if you are a bettor.

BH: The competition that American and British fighters face is night and day. They get the residue of U.S. fighters.
Oh, snap. That’s mean. And somewhat true. Hey, hold the emails. I’m just saying, Frank Warren and others of his ilk are pretty smart about the types of Americans they import to build up their fighters’ resumes.

BH: I'm up for this fight for a lot of personal reasons. For me it's a cultural fight.
Uh oh, here we go again. This time, is Hopkins playing it smart and coding his remarks?“A cultural fight” could be his slick way of saying that he won’t let a Caucasian beat him. (By the way, I was curious and had to check it out. The Clinton Mitchell who beat Hopkins in his debut fight is in fact, black. Ted Panagiotis the matchmaker remembers Mitchell from when he fought RL Fredericks in 1998. So Hopkins has never lost to a Caucasian, for what it’s worth.) Or, maybe, he's just referring to the fact that Calzaghe represents the UK and he is representing the US.

BH: If he throws 1000 punches he's opening himself up to get hit 1000 times.
This remains to be seen. Bernard has a point. Even flurryers can get frustrated against his dipping and slipping and clinching and clutching and butting and the like.

Joe Calzaghe: It's my 11th year as world champion and I finally have arrived in America. Bernard was champion for nearly 11 years. I'm tremendously confident for this fight.
Question is, how will Joe do out of his homeland, away from the familiar faces, and judges, and sights and sounds and helpful fans shouting for their guy? As far as the confidence level goes, he does look loose, which is good. But Hopkins can make you tighten up real quick after you get a few rounds of his confounding style annoying the heck out of you. Joe is confident now, let’s see how he is in say, round four, on Saturday night.

JC: Bernard has never been stopped and that's something that I think I can do.
Volume is Joe’s greatest asset, not pop. I will not use the nickname I’ve employed before, Slappy Joe, out of respect to his hardcore fans, who might sap too much of our bandwidth as they flood my inbox with hate email. But my guess is no, Joe will not be able to put enough punches together on the slippery defensive master, and stop him for the first time.

JC: I have no respect for my elders come this Saturday night.
I like it that Joe is able to get into a humorous vein so close to fight time. Of course, he could well turn old on Saturday, so
I think the age edge may well be a wash.

JC: I want to be the first person to knock him out and to put him into retirement.
That’s some good motivation, to send Hopkins into promoting full time…if that motivation doesn’t make Calzaghe press too much, set down on his punches more than he’s used to, and gas himself. Bernard is ultra-wise in picking foes; he knows how much pop Joe has, and wouldn’t have signed on if he thought his chin would be in peril.

JC: I'm going to cut 1000 punches down to 500 or 600 punches and make them more powerful and punish him.
I’ll believe it when I see it. Fighters tend to revert to previous form when the going gets tough. Their muscle memory kicks in, and they do what they’ve done before, what feels comfortable. And Joe is comfortable being a swarm specialist, throwing five, six, seven punch combos. His output will likely not be at typical levels because Hopkins will clinch frequently, though. But Joe will have thrown more than 800 punches by the time the final bell rings on Saturday.

JC: If I bring my A-game against anyone in the world I win. All I have to do is bring my best.
He may well be right. An in shape, injury free, relaxed, motivated Calzaghe could show Hopkins that he’s not an overhyped UK import.

JC: Bernard had to go to prison to be hard. To me that's a sign of weakness. I don't have to go to prison to be hard. He's been to prison, big deal. In the end you're going to see a grown man cry.
Only a fella that’s been locked up, and seen what goes on in there can truly know what the experience does to you, so I have disagree with Joe. The Graterford education is a big deal. The majority of those incarcerated find themselves back in the prison population, but Hopkins bucked that trend. He used the experience to his advantage, and does so to this day. And I can say with certainty that we will not see Hopkins cry. The man does have a hardness to him, and let’s just say that his peepers don’t leak easily. Hopkins doesn’t reach for the Kleenex box when he watches a particularly poignant Gray’s Anatomy, OK?

JC: When I walk in the ring I'm going to be the home fighter…with the support from my fans.
True enough.  Vegas won’t sound like Millenium Stadium in Wales, but the decibel level will favor Calzaghe, and that’s helpful. If he were fighting an American with a larger fanbase of ticket buyers, coming over here could be a more worrisome exercise. But Hopkins, while he has driven PPVs well in recent years, doesn’t have an outsized fan club.

We shall what, if anything, all this means, on Saturday, on “free” HBO, no less. As always, I hope for an entertaining bout, first and foremost. But I expect that Calzaghe’s volume will prove to be the difference and that the Welshman will leave Vegas with a hard-fought, unanimous decision win, a bunch of welts on his face and newfound respect for Bernard Hopkins, boxing’s best senior citizen.

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Articles of 2008

The Bernies! 1st Annual Year-End Awards

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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.

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Articles of 2008

The Ronnies! The First Annual Year End Awards

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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.

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Articles of 2008

TSS Boxer Of The Year: Manny Pacquiao

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It wasn’t supposed to go down this way. The little guy who started out as a 106 pounder was supposed to be outweighed by about 15 pounds come fight night. The script, of the Little Guy Fights Hard, Comes Up Short, Is Admired For His Massive Pluck-genre, called for Manny Pacquiao to fight in valiant fashion for a few rounds, and then succumb to his brawnier foe, Oscar De La Hoya. It would be a moral victory for PacMan, and of course he could be consoled by the career-best payday he’d earn for absorbing an excess of telling blows.

But most of us “experts” didn’t handicap the fight correctly, as we underestimated the size advantage Pacquiao enjoyed in the heart department.

That’s no slight to De La Hoya, who has always fought gamely and sought out the stiffest challengers. But Manny Pacquiao’s impersonation of David, as he slayed boxing’s Goliath of earning power and iconic status, De La Hoya, earns him the nod as TSS Boxer of the Year for 2008.

There were some other worthy contestants for the prize. A vote for Wales’ Joe Calzaghe, who took down two future Hall of Famers, in Bernard Hopkins (April) and Roy Jones (November), would not be scoffed at. And anyone at the arena on the October night Bernard Hopkins showed 43 ain’t nothing but a number as he dismantled the favored flavor-of-the-month Kelly Pavlik had to think B-Hop wrapped up Boxer of the Year honors. What about Mexican-American Antonio Margarito, who took a piece of Miguel Cotto’s heart in July and rudely thrust loss number one at the Puerto Rican welterweight?

A March win over Juan Manuel Marquez, for the WBC super featherweight crown, was a narrow triumph, but Pacquiao clicked into higher gear when he destroyed David Diaz, the WBC lightweight champ, in June. Those triumphs served as a modest launching pad for his December performance.

One criteria for Boxer of the Year, in our eyes, is the impact that fighter’s presence in the game causes. Pacquiao’s win certainly did transcend the sport. No, not so much here in the States. My periodic quizzes of non boxing sports fans still show that the name “Manny Pacquiao” has yet to penetrate the consciousness of the non-hardcore fight fans that swarm TSS. But in his native Philippines, where the nation ground to a halt when he stepped into the ring against De La Hoya, that win was probably the athletic event of the century. And that win wasn’t just a win.

It was a lesson in perseverance, in defiance against odds and legions of naysayers. It was an affirmation of what any Pinoy man or woman gifted with a bit of talent and even more heart and guts can do.

Pacquiao’s win was a rousing reminder of why boxing matters, because more than any other sport, it mirrors the experience that is adult life. We toil, often for nothing more than the promise of better days ahead. We labor, and with the aid and encouragement of a select group of friends and family, soldier on through illness, and setbacks in the emotional realm. We take on a substantial challenge, perhaps a Sisyphean one, and find ourselves failing, once, twice…can we will ourselves to get off the canvas, and keep fighting? Ideally, we do plod forward, in the fashion of Pacquiao, even if the majority of people view our chance of succeeding as negligible. Along the way, when met with misfortune, we search for role models to emulate, or occurrences that validate our quest. Fight fans saw that role model, Manny Pacquiao, on December 6, and will always be able to draw on that special occasion when David made Goliath quit on his stool in a Las Vegas ring. And his graciousness in victory, as he took time to applaud his foe, and help lessen the sting of defeat by reminding De La Hoya of the breadth of his accomplishments, only cemented the superlative status of Pacquiao’s win.

Manny responded to being named TSS top fighter for 2008. “I always try to do my best when I go into the ring,” he said. “Oscar was always one of my  favorite champions and he still is today. It was an honor to go into the ring and face him. I am very happy to be recognized as the Fighter of the Year by TheSweetScience.com.”

Team TSS wishes to thank Pacquiao for his service to the sport and for acting as a superior ambassador for the sweet science.

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