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Articles of 2008

Hatton Wins, Says: I Felt The Pressure

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They’re probably still singing in Manchester, but it might be a little off key.

Ricky Hatton took a one sided unanimous decision over game Juan Lazcano, but not without taking plenty of bruising shots himself. The wide scoring margin may have been accurate, but it didn’t reflect how hard Hatton was pressed in his “Homecoming” performance during a grueling if unspectacular fight that looked much easier for the UK icon on paper.

“I’ve got the talent to make things much easier for myself but I end up making it exciting,” said a lumpy but unfazed Hatton afterward. “That’s why the crowd comes out.”

Hatton was serenaded by around 56,000 cheering chums on a brisk evening at the City of Manchester Arena, for his first gloved up appearance since losing to Floyd Mayweather, Jr. last December. That defeat didn’t seem to lessen Hatton’s overall appeal one British bit.

Both fighters weighed in at 139 ¾.

The 5’6 Hatton came out looking psyched up and animated, but had trouble getting on tagging track. The 5’9 Lazcano found the range first and used his seven inch reach advantage to score with left counters, and bloodied Hatton’s nose as he rumbled inside.

Hatton dug more to the body as the bout turned into a mauling waltz by round three. Lazcano kept defensive elbows in tight and Hatton looked frustrated.

Hatton backed Lazcano to the strands more and more and took control by the fifth frame. As Lazcano’s offense faded, Hatton’s increased. Hatton got through with cleaner conks by the midway point and started to dominate.

Lazcano seemed tentative and troubled as the eighth round began but he never stopped throwing, and Hatton appeared stunned as the session wound down.

In the tenth, Lazcano had a nick over his left eye from what was ruled a clash of cabezas. Then, after Hatton was rocked by a trio of left hooks, referee Howard Foster called a break in the action for Hatton to tie a shoe. Foster seemed to warn Lazcano for everything that side of not being British.

Hatton sealed the deal with good rights in round eleven and pounded Lazcano around the ring to close the show. They hugged and mugged to the finish line.

Scoring: Phil Austin 120-108, Marcus McDonnell 120-110, Pat Russell 118-110.

“Believe you me, I felt the pressure coming back from a knockout,” said Hatton. “It brings on a lot of demons. I think I hurt him, but then I put myself at risk (attacking). He put punches together very well and caught me a few times. Now the hardest ones out of the way, and I’ll continue to do my fans proud.”

On this side of the proverbial pond, Versus Network stepped up their already deep boxing coverage for a midday brunch and crunch broadcast stateside. All that was missing was the local tea.

Hardware up for grabs was Hatton’s IBO Light Welterweight belt, but the contest was mainly to position Hatton for even bigger and better things.

“Not everyone can afford to travel to America,” said Hatton, now 44-1 (31). “This was a gift to my fans for all their unbelievable support.”

Hatton continued to mention his desire for another shot at Mayweather, perhaps by the end of the year in an even larger venue.

That may be too short a time frame For Floyd’s wide-ranging dance card, but team Mayweather are wise businessmen that know how much a rematch would be worth on either side of the Atlantic, or a specially made island somewhere in between. Hatton and Mayweather will probably meet again by this time next year.

In the mean time, Hatton is tentatively set to face Paulie Malignaggi, who squeaked by Lovemore N’dou in the featured undercard advertisement. Despite an off night, based on Malignaggi’s slick style and respectable showing against Miguel Cotto, Hatton should think more than just twice about potential risk-reward repercussions or concussions.

Some Hatton haters considered a Lazcano a legitimate threat, but while the Hispanic is definitely a quality fighter in the 140 pound division, there was no real reason to cause “Panic” amongst the Manchester faithful.

The best I’ve seen Lazcano look was in a losing effort against Jose Luis Castillo. To me, a subsequent, uninspired victory over Ben Tackie (who also took Hatton the distance) indicted Lazcano, who was no match for the English bulldog’s boxing bite. Lazcano, 37-5-1 (27) fought worthy of the massive moment.

Hatton is immensely popular amongst the hometown blokes whether he’s downing pints or dropping contenders. After further stories about how he balloons up and down in poundage, maybe the endorsement rich Hatton could be a spokesman for both weight-watchers and various hops based beverages. Hatton even made his entrance in an image mocking fat suit.

It says here there’s still a chance Hatton faces Oscar de la Hoya, co-promoter of today’s Lazcano gala.

No, I haven’t been hitting the stateside suds too hard myself. Dodger Stadium could barely contain a Ricky meets Oscar party. Consider this month’s De la Hoya – Steve Forbes soccer stadium scene times ten, with better odds for a De la Hoya farewell victory than he’d have against Mayweather or Cotto.

Concession sales, especially around the kegs, would be through the open air roof. Mix Tecate with Guinness and call it a Baja Bulldog Beer.

Don’t forget the typical Hatton wonderland singing, cash registers and all.

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Articles of 2008

The Bernies! 1st Annual Year-End Awards

Bernard Fernandez

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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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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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