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The Heavyweight Bogeyman

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When a heavyweight is defeated in the manner that undisputed heavyweight #1 Wladimir Klitschko defeated Alexander Povetkin at the end of 2013, he usually has the good grace to disappear.

Ernie Terrell went 7-4 after Ali spent fifteen rounds turning his face into luncheon meat in their infamous “what’s my name!” encounter from 1967; behind the hideous beating he absorbed against a furious Rocky Marciano in their 1953 rematch, the excellent Roland LaStarza managed just 3-4 before hanging them up for good.

It is physical, yes.

Professional athletes of this standard, whether they are a surgeon of Ali’s calibre or a cannonball of Marciano’s density, do damage. They shift organs. They grind bone. But it is also psychological. Fighters, in reaching the summit of their personal Everest only to be confronted by an animal so in excess of their own evolutionary prism that they are, in essence, chanceless, perhaps don’t want to climb again. Every blow absorbed, every meal missed, every first step taken by a toddler to whom the fighter is a stranger, is for a reason in the beginning – The Title, The Title, but when The Title seems no longer a possibility it becomes easier to stay down, to clinch instead of punch, to run instead of box. Terrell and LaStarza found the end of their string in the ring of the dominant champion that bloodied their respective eras, and with that string providing a definitive measurement of their abilities, certain realities had to be accepted.

Yesterday in Moscow, Povetkin reversed this trend, finalising his rehabilitation with a sensational first round knockout over #10 heavyweight Mike Perez.

Perez is an impressive scalp almost regardless of circumstances. A superb body-puncher capable of deploying a high workrate (when he’s in the mood), Perez is a rarity in the modern heavyweight division on two different scores and his technical gifts and counter-punching ability certainly put him in the “handful for anyone” category despite certain doubts concerning his temperament (and his commitment to training). These doubts deepened after the injury tragically inflicted upon Magomed Abdusalamov by Perez during their rousing 2013 encounter in New York. In the wake of this contest, doubts surrounding Perez’s already questionable temperament deepened, but he was desperately unlucky against Bryant Jennings the following summer, missing out on a draw by virtue only of a point deduction in the final round. Jennings had been pushed to the absolute brink by a more talented fighter who could not match his athleticism. That said, Jennings adapted superbly, eschewing his reach advantage to come inside and make a fight of it after being cleanly out-boxed over the first three rounds.

Neither man was disgraced in that contest, but what it meant for Perez was that he was to enter his showdown with Alexander Povetkin last night in Moscow with, having knocked out cruiserweight journeyman Darnell Wilson in two rounds earlier this year, and drawn with the ranked Carlos Takam in January of last year, a 1-1-1 ledger for 2014 and 2015. Despite the bad luck, tragedy and slick counter-punching that had defined his previous 30 months in the ring, a loss would have sent Perez bumping roughly down the ladder to gatekeeper status.

More shockingly, a loss would have had the same impact upon Povetkin.

Re-watching Perez-Jenkins this morning, I was struck by how efficiently Harvey Dock managed the Cuban’s fouling early in the fight. Every time, without exception, that Perez placed his forearm or any weight across the American’s neck or back, the referee stepped in to separate the two. What would Povetkin have given for such a referee the night of his contest with Wladimir Klitschko?

Luis Pabon was the third man in the ring the night of Povetkin’s shot at king Klitschko, and as the champion over and over again drew the Russian in with his enormous reach before placing his full 241lbs on the smaller man’s back, crushing him, literally, with his superior size, the referee neglected to act. It was an exhausted Povetkin who was repeatedly barrelled to the canvas by the champion as the fight descended into a physical and technical mis-match. Much spleen was vented in the aftermath concerning Wladimir’s solution to Povetkin’s rushing tactics, but the scorecards of the three judges, bereft of any instruction from Pabon to remove any points from Wladimir’s total, sang out their scores as a choir: 119-104. Povetkin had been outclassed and had absorbed a horrific beating in the process.

When he returned, Povetkin did so against the perfect opponent, Manuel Charr. The enormous Lebanese, who boxes out of Germany, was neither ranked nor particularly dangerous, but he was known, courtesy of his crack at Vitali Klitschko’s alphabet strap, and he was durable. He promised a comeback victory and a good workout. Povetkin’s triumph was no surprise but the manner, perhaps, was. Charr, who had been stopped just once on a cut, was blasted out in seven, the finishing left-hook/right-hand combination so spectacular as to remind one of Joe Braddock’s near decapitation at the hands of Joe Louis. Returning to ranked competition, Povetkin did a similar job on Carlos Takam, dropping him in the ninth, following fluid combinations with a monster right hand, before landing a glorious left hook to end proceedings in the tenth.

This performance pricked my ears a little; Povetkin, perhaps, was not going to go the way of Terrell and LaStarza. But what was his role to be? That was decided in last night’s contest with Mike Perez.

Perez came out showing measured aggression, probing with the jab before launching a two-handed attack over the top. Povetkin gave ground and then re-took his territory in the middle of the ring. When he threw his first one-two it was clear that Perez was surprised by the speed with which Povetkin punched; he made no attempt to counter. When, after leading with his own one-two seconds later he was caught by a lightning-fast right-hand to the top of the head, Perez lost his feet. He stammered backwards, hurt, and not just physically but neurologically – he was suffering not from messages of pain but from messages of disaster, his nerve endings alerting his brain to the fact that he no longer had complete control over his body.

It is worth reiterating at this point that Perez, like Charr, like Takam, has never been stopped; his chin was tested by Magomed Abdusalamov, among the hardest punchers in the division when he repeatedly reached the Cuban’s chin; Jennings, too, repeatedly landed clean, crisp shots to little affect. But here was Perez, grasping for the canvas. Seconds later, when Povetkin stepped out of a half clinch to give himself room for the shortest of right hands, Perez was suddenly on the ground looking up. Closed-faced, he defeated the count, and stepped tenderly towards the gallows. A sweeping left sent Perez crashing into the ropes and out of the rankings and made Povetkin once more the preeminent heavyweight in the world with a name other than Klitschko.

Generationally, it makes no sense. On paper, Povetkin’s time had come and gone. In reality, he looks better than he did before Wladimir beat the contendership out of him. He almost looks faster but in reality it is a new sharpness that appears to have gripped his offense. The punches that Povetkin is throwing are absolutely deadly.

His ability to absorb the beating that Terrell and LaStarza could not is partly a matter of physiology. He is made of different stuff and that stuff has reacted differently. Partly it is circumstantial; such is Povetkin’s promotional support in Russia that he was able to reintroduce himself immediately to good money – and to draw ranked fighters to the Moscow fortress that served him no advantage against Klitschko. But I wonder, too, if he is not driven by a certain sense of injustice. As I wrote in coverage for that fight, “if heart is the greatest attribute to which a fighter can lay claim, then Povetkin was a great opponent indeed, for in the eighth he showed as much as any heavyweight who has ever stepped into the ring.” Povetkin really tried against Klitschko and to a degree was let down by an incompetent referee. After the fight he made all the right noises, calling Wladimir the better fighter, but having reviewed the footage it must irk him that his heart-fuelled stab at the title was rendered chanceless by officiating. Perhaps the top of the mountain holds no fear for him, despite the agonies he suffered there, for this very reason.

Regardless, such was the margin of the defeat of Povetkin by Wladimir Klitschko that despite his ranking above some of the other top heavyweight contenders by virtue of his wider and deeper resume, he was not really in any discussion over who is to meet Wladimir Klitschko next. Even when he was restored to the #1 contender’s berth ahead of the likes of Tyson Fury, Deontay Wilder and Bryant Jennings, nobody expected Wladimir to drop everything and rematch Povetkin at the expense of the next generation; but Povetkin’s destruction of Perez in mere seconds has made him something new, even though that thing has yet to take on any real form. Ethereal in his identity, without a belt, or a route to the legitimate heavyweight king, Povetkin has become a bogeyman to the division and most especially to the two men jostling for a shot at Klitschko next. Do not expect to hear talk of either Tyson Fury or Deontay Wilder matching the #1 contender in an attempt to cement their own status as contenders. They will both neatly sidestep the man policing the world heavyweight title and wait for the call. The reason is a sound one: he would beat either one of them.

Povetkin will haunt Wilder and Fury now until they have had their title shots, or have been shorn of any belts. He will dog Wilder’s comeback. He will be made to lurk but will do so in the full glare of the #1 contender’s slot that has been made his until such time as he is beaten, something that only Wladimir Klitschko can do, but equally, something he has already done and something he is unlikely to do again any time soon. The champion has his own problems.

Made to look, for the first time, old, by Jennings, who in turn was made to look limited by Mike Perez, who in turn has been blasted out in mere seconds by a vastly superior Povetkin, Klitschko is poised at the far edge of an illustrious career. This combination has ushered in a game of thrones for the biggest seat in boxing. The heavyweight division is much maligned, but in my view the last few months have made it fascinating once more, a twisted web. In the middle of this web sits an ageing spider that has been preying upon all manner of intruders into his domain for an incredible eleven years – arranged around him are suitors positioning themselves in the belief that they are the right man to take advantage of his advancing years.

Should someone surprise us by doing so, or if Wladimir should reach the end of his ride, Povetkin’s haunting of the division will end with another title shot.

What price, King Povetkin?

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In a One-Sided Beatdown, Batyr Jukembayev TKOs Shopworn Ivan Redkach

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In a One-Sided Beatdown, Batyr Jukembayev TKOs Shopworn Ivan Redkach

The noted trainer Brian “BoMac” McIntyre had two fighters on tonight’s ProBox card in Plant City, Florida, and brought along the ace of his stable, Terence Crawford, to provide moral support.

The main event, contested at 140 pounds, had an Eastern European flavor pitting Kazakhstan’s Batyr Jukembayev against LA-based Ukrainian Ivan Redkach. Jukembayev, Crawford’s stablemate, needed no moral support as Redkach fought a survivor’s fight for as long as it lasted. A 33-year-old southpaw, the Kazkh won every second of the fight until the mismatch was halted at the 2:18 mark of round five.

It was the fifth straight win for Jukembayev (23-1, 17 KOs) whose only defeat was inflicted by Subriel Matias, the current holder of the IBF world title at 140. Redkach (24-7-1) was stopped for the fourth time including a fight with Regis Prograis where he succumbed to a phantom low blow. Now 38 years old, he should not be allowed to fight again. His showing tonight bore stark evidence that he is completely shot.

Co-Feature

In the co-feature, a 10-round junior lightweight affair, Jonhatan Cardoso, a 25-year-old Brazilian, advanced to 17-1 (15) with a split decision over LA’s Adam “Bluenose” Lopez. This figured to be a fan-friendly fight and didn’t disappoint. Both fighters threw punches in bunches although Lopez’s workrate declined in the late rounds.

Lopez, now 17-6-1, is better than his record. His first five losses came against opponents who were collectively 109-6 at the time that he fought them. The son of the late Hector Lopez, an Olympic silver medalist for Mexico and a three-time world title challenger, “Bluenose” doesn’t have a signature win, but has a signature moment. He knocked Oscar Valdez down hard in their first of two meetings, a fight he took on 1-day notice when Valdez’s original opponent was scratched after coming in 11 pounds overweight. As a pro he has limitations, but is a high-octane fighter who rarely has a bad fight.

Two of the judges favored Cardoso. Their tallies were 99-91 and 96-94. The dissenter favored Lopez 97-93. The scores were all over the map, but the right guy wn.

Also

In the TV opener, Omaha-bred junior welterweight Charles Harris Jr scored a unanimous 6-round decision over Oceanside, California’s Kyle Erwin. The judges had it 58-56 and 59-55 twice.

A protégé of “BoMac,” Harris Jr., who began his pro career in Mexico at age 16, improved to 9-1 (7). It was the second pro loss for Erwin (7-2) whose lone prior defeat was the result of a cut.

In an unrelated matter, today (May 22) was the day that Ryan Garcia’s B-sample would be opened and analyzed. So we were all led to believe.

Confoundingly, it appears that opening the urine specimen and testing the contents aren’t performed on the same day. Dan Rafael enlightened us. “Will take a few days for results but certainly possible it could stretch into early next week due to weekend and holiday,” Rafael tweeted today on his Fight Freaks Unite platform.

Why wasn’t this made known beforehand so that fight journalists could plan their day accordingly? I place the blame on the New York State Athletic Commission.

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Oleksandr Usyk from a Historical Perspective 

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Oleksandr Usyk flipped the heavyweight division onto its head this past Saturday night in the Kingdom Arena, Riyadh, travelling a long way from home to seal his greatest victory. Usyk, small by modern heavyweight standards, towers over most men at 6’3″ and 220lbs and sporting a reach that lineal champions Ezzard Charles or Joe Walcott would have killed for. Things have changed though, and in the middle rounds of his war with Tyson Fury, Usyk suddenly appeared tiny. Fury, a giant at around 6’8” and over 260lbs seems a heavyweight for this century. Usyk, a journeyman in the most ancient sense of the word, feels like a throwback to a more savage time. His greatest achievements have taken place on foreign soil. The last time he boxed at home was almost a decade ago and given the situation in Ukraine and given Usyk’s 37 years, it is unlikely he will ever box there again.

Usyk took chances in the seventh and especially the eighth to take charge of a fight that seemed to be slipping away from him. In the vertigo inducing ninth, it was he, not Fury who appeared the giant. Usyk draped the Englishman over the ropes like so much fresh meat and tenderised him to within an inch of unconsciousness, the sheer hugeness of Fury perhaps preventing a referee’s intervention on behalf of his opponent, and not for the first time. Against both Deontay Wilder (the first fight) and Otto Wallin, a more squeamish official would have stepped in and stopped the fight, and here, too, there was a case. If Usyk seems a throwback, then Fury has been refereed like one, spared stoppages likely to be inflicted upon his peers, he was allowed once again to continue boxing, as Joe Louis was against Max Schmeling, or Jack Dempsey was against Luis Pirpo. But with Fury buckled at the knees, Usyk seemed the true heavy man in the ring.

In historical terms, Usyk is not a small heavyweight. He would have dwarfed “The Galveston Giant” Jack Johnson in the ring and loomed large over “Big” George Foreman. Usyk has every attribute necessary to make an unpleasant evening for Joe Louis, but it should be noted that while his footwork and speed and technical excellence would be the source of the discomfort, his excess of height and reach are the wildcards. Usyk would seem two to three weight classes bigger than Rocky Marciano, mainly because he is, and the towering Sonny Liston would look up. Circus strongman Jess Willard and the mob-sponsored Primo Carnera would both look down on Usyk – but not by that much. Usyk would stand eye to eye with Muhammad Ali but prime-for-prime he would outweigh him by ten pounds, as he would Larry Holmes. We must skip Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield and reach all the way into the Lennox Lewis era before we find men from history that truly out-size Usyk on a consistent basis.

Size, as Usyk has proven, is far from everything. Big by historical standards, he is small by modern standards. What else is now true in the wake of the seismic fistic events of Saturday night? Firstly, Usyk is unquestionably ranked the #1 heavyweight in the world. Of this, there can be no dispute. Accounting for his two wonderful defeats of another “super” heavyweight, Anthony Joshua, he is 3-0 against the rest of the top five and sitting unassailably at the head of the heavyweight table. More, and I have been surprised to see it disputed in some corners, Usyk is now almost as equally unassailably the pound-for-pound number one. The only fighter breathing the same air as Usyk right now is Naoya Inoue. Inoue has been operating at or near the highest level for longer, but the level of his opposition has not been as rarefied. Comparing the first phase opposition defeated by Naoya to the murderer’s row of cruiserweights that Usyk ran into during the Super Six series can lead to only one conclusion. Although Naoya’s busy, weight-class-bursting style has topped him out for most of the past two to three years, only one of these men has consistently been beating bigger, taller, longer opposition at the highest level, and that is Usyk. It is not a matter of opinion – he is the smallest man in my heavyweight top ten.

01 – Oleksandr Usyk

02 – Anthony Joshua

03 – Joseph Parker

04 – Tyson Fury

05 – Filip Hrgovic

06 – Zhilei Zhang

07 – Agit Kabayel

08 – Daneil Dubois

09 – Martin Bakole

10 – Joe Joyce

Usyk lives among giants now and where there is parity of height (Kabayel) he is the lighter man by 15 pounds. This is not true of Naoya, who despite his weight-hopping, still manages to run into fighters of the same height and of shorter reach. The opposition argument is narrow, but the relative size opposition is not and there is no pound-for-pound credential more significant than that of consistently out-fighting bigger men. Usyk has done so and will continue to do so for as long as he fights. There is simply no smaller man in his class.

Not since the heyday of Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield has a lineal heavyweight champion consistently fought bigger men and not since Mike’s hype-infused prime has a heavyweight menaced the number one pound-for-pound spot. Usyk has not enjoyed anything like the same machine support as Mike did; indeed, he has laboured in the shadow of more prominent men until such time as he thrashed them. He is a true manifestation of pound-for-pound glory in the unlimited class. Where does this leave him in terms of all-time standing?

I am reluctant to rate active fighters for reasons that are obvious enough; Usyk could be pole-axed in three by an irate Fury in a December rematch and all this ink is for naught. But what I am willing to do is play let’s pretend and imagine Usyk as retired and consider his place in heavyweight history now.

Usyk’s raw numbers are low-grade at just 22-0 with 14 knockouts. Worse, most of this was built in the cruiserweight division and not the heavyweight division. Against men weighing in as heavyweights, Uysk is essentially 7-0, and only 3-0 against ranked opposition. On the other hand, one of these victories came against Daniel Dubois, now ranked, and the 3-0 was posted against Tyson Fury, generally held to be the best or second-best heavyweight in the world, and Anthony Joshua, ranked behind only Fury at the time of his first fight with Usyk. So, when he stepped up, he stepped up to tackle the best in the world and has become lineal as a result. It’s a hard ledger to wrestle with, but fortunately we have a career that is comparable in the shape of Gene Tunney.

Tunney, a career light-heavyweight, earned a heavyweight legacy built of essentially one man: Jack Dempsey. Past-prime and inactive, Dempsey was ripped apart by Tunney in their legendary first fight and did better in a losing effort against the genius “Fighting Marine” in a rematch, much like Joshua did against Usyk. Tunney then boxed the limited but game Tom Heeney and retired. The rest of his heavyweight career was spent beating great middleweights like Harry Greb and limited losing-streak gatekeepers like Charley Weinert and Martin Burke. One thing that must be noted is that Tunney is matching men who are smaller than Usyk’s cruiserweight opposition to his heavyweight credit. Men like Mairis Briedis and Murat Gassiev would have been big men in Tunney’s era, but they aren’t counted towards heavyweight legacy for the Ukrainian – either would constitute Tunney’s second-best heavyweight scalp, I think. Tunney’s wider resume does not necessarily include fighters who compare that favourably even to Dereck Chisora or Chaz Witherspoon, the men who make up Usyk’s second layer of opposition.

The point is, Tunney was made a legend for defeating a champion. Both Fury and Joshua were active, physically enormous fighters that Usyk simply unmanned with a type of genius Gene Tunney would have stood to applaud. Tunney appended to his light-heavyweight career the important part of a heavyweight career – the part where you fight and beat the champion, and it has made him a stalwart of heavyweight history. This, Usyk too has achieved, but I have been more impressed with Usyk’s summit than Tunney’s. To be direct: Usyk should rate higher at heavyweight than Tunney.

What that means is that the top twenty at heavyweight is the minimum Usyk can expect from history’s eye should he retire undefeated. In such a case, I would place Usyk in this sort of company:

18 – Ezzard Charles

19 – Oleksandr Usyk

20 – Jersey Joe Walcott

21 – James J Corbett

22 – Peter Jackson

23 – Ken Norton

24 – Max Schmeling

25 – Vitali Klitschko

26 – Riddick Bowe

27 – Gene Tunney

Also illustrative of a point is Tunney’s career pre-heavyweight. Tunney, every bit as brilliant as Usyk in the ring (although notably smaller, and successful against notably smaller opposition), laced up his gloves on close to ninety occasions and his level of competition dwarfs that of Usyk. That is no indictment. All it really means is that Usyk isn’t among the thirty greatest fighters ever to have drawn breath, like Tunney is. He can join an enormous and star-studded cast that includes Mike Tyson, Bernard Hopkins and Carlos Monzon in that. I do think, though, that Oleksandr Usyk’s career, were it to end tomorrow, could be readily compared to that of Evander Holyfield and that means that an unbeaten Usyk, lineal cruiserweight and heavyweight champion of the world, current pound-for-pound king, is within spitting distance of a list that captures the fifty greatest fighters in history.

56 – Ruben Olivares

57 – Wilfredo Gomez

58 – Vicente Saldivar

59 – Oleksandr Usyk

60 – Evander Holyfield

61 – Ted Kid Lewis

62 – Lou Ambers

63 – Rocky Marciano

64 – Abe Attell

65 – Manuel Ortiz

A retired Naoya Inoue would join him in the top seventy, I think, and a retired Bud Crawford the top ninety.

Boxing is dead, haven’t you heard?

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank

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Another Victory for Ukraine as Berinchyk Upsets Navarrete in San Diego

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Whether it was inspiration or perspiration, Ukraine’s Denys Berinchyk motored past Mexico’s Emanuel Navarrete by split decision to become the WBO lightweight world titlist on Saturday.

Just hours after his fellow countryman Oleksandr Usyk became undisputed heavyweight world champion, Berinchyk joined the club.

“This is a great night for all people of Ukraine,” Berinchyk said.

The undefeated Ukrainian Berinchyk (19-0, 9 KOs) gutted out a win over Navarrete (38-2-1, 31 KOs) who was attempting to join Mexico’s four-division world champion club in San Diego. The lanky fighter known as “Vaquero” fell a little short.

Through all 12 rounds neither fighter was able to dominate and neither was able to score a knockdown. Just when it seemed one fighter gathered enough momentum, the other fighter would rally.

A butt caused a slight cut on Navarrete in the 10th round. That seemed to ignite anger from the Mexican fighter and he powered through the Ukrainian fighter the next two rounds.

In the final round Berinchyk bore down and slugged it out with the Mexican fighter as both relied on their weapons of choice. For most of the night Navarrete scored with long-range uppercuts and Berinchyk scored with overhand rights.

After 12 rounds two judges scored it 115-113, 116-112 for Berinchyk and one 116-112 for Navarrete. Ukraine gained its third world titlist in one a week. Berinchyk joins Usyk and Vasyl Lomachenko as world titlists.

“He’s a very tough guy,” said Berinchyk of Navarrete.

Welterweights

A battle between undefeated welterweights saw Brian Norman (26-0, 20 KOs) knock out Giovany Santillan (32-1, 17 KOs) in the 10th round to become the interim WBO titlist.

For nine rounds both welterweights engaged in brutal inside warfare as each tried to beat the sense out of each other.

Norman worked the body early as Santillan targeted the head. Neither fought more than two inches from each other.

The younger Norman, 23, connected with a right cross during an exchange that wobbled Santillan in the eighth round. From that point on the Georgia fighter began setting up for his power shots. Finally, in the 10th round, uppercuts dropped Santillan twice. In the second knockdown Santillan went down hard as referee Ray Corona stopped the fight immediately at 1:33 of the 10th round.

Other Bouts

Heavyweight Richard Torrez (10-0, 10 KOs) knocked out Brandon Moore (14-1) in the fifth round for a regional title.

Lightweight Alan Garcia (10-0) defeated Wilfredo Flores (10-3-1) by decision after eight.

Photo credit: German Villasenor

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