HEAD TO HEAD ANALYSIS
Skills: Bute, a versatile and athletic southpaw, is the “boxer” by definition in this intriguing matchup, but that doesn’t mean Johnson is without skill. The 42-year-old veteran has underrated technique, footwork and defensive prowess. However, we all know Johnson’s strengths are his volume punching and relentless pressure. He’s at his best when he’s smothering opponents with combinations. Bute also delivers good combinations, an ability that is aided by quick reflexes and impeccable timing. He’s a sharp shooter whether he’s stalking his opponent behind an educated jab or sticking and moving.
Power: The more impressive knockout ratio belongs to Bute, who has ended 82.76 percent of his fights by KO. The 31-year-old boxer-puncher has stopped his last six opponents — including granite-chinned Fulgencio Zuniga and Librado Andrade — but it should be noted that those two impressive knockouts were produced by well-paced body shots. It should also be noted that Johnson, who has only ended 51.47 percent of his bouts by stoppage, fought at light heavyweight from June of 2001 until last November — and he mostly faced world-class opposition. The “old man” is not a KO puncher but he’s still got some pop on his punches as evidenced by recent stoppages of young fringe contenders Yusaf Mack (TKO 6) and Allan Green (TKO 8).
Speed and athletic ability: Bute is arguably the most athletically gifted super middleweight in the world. Only Andre Ward and Andre Dirrell can match the Romanian’s natural gifts of speed, reflexes, fluid footwork and hand-eye coordination. Johnson is a solid, all-around athlete with good physical strength and excellent stamina, but he doesn’t possess any “elite-level” attributes.
Defense: Part of Johnson’s amazing longevity is due to his ability to limit the number of clean punches that reach his noggin during fights. Johnson does this the old fashioned way, by keeping his hands up and catching as many in-coming blows with his gloves as he can, and he does a damn good job of it. Bute often leaves his lead hand (the right) down by his waist, but he remains an elusive target thanks to his in-and-out footwork and his head-and-upper-body movement, which is aided by uncanny reflexes.
Experience: Bute has a lot of world-class experience, including nine IBF title bouts under his belt so far, however it pales in comparison to Johnson’s impressive body of work. The 18-year veteran of 68 pro bouts has faced 10 fighters who have held world titles, including future hall of famers Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones Jr. and such 175-pound standouts as Antonio Tarver (twice), Chad Dawson (twice), Julio Gonzalez, Montell Griffith, Tavoris Cloud and Clinton Woods (three times).
Chin: Bute has a decent set of whiskers but he was stopped in the amateurs and nearly suffered a final-round knockout at the heavy hands of Andrade after he ran out of gas in a fight that he dominated for 11 and half rounds. Bute was dropped and in bad shape in that first bout with Andrade but aside from that one moment, he’s generally avoided serious trouble in the ring. Johnson doesn’t avoid anything with his hard-charging style, and yet, apart from his 11th-round TKO loss to Hopkins back in 1997, he’s gone the distance with some of the roughest sluggers and hardest punchers of the past decade without problem. A more impressive stat is that Johnson has remained on his feet for all 68 of his pro bouts. He may get wobbled once every blue moon but he doesn’t get knocked down.
Conditioning: Both fighters are 100-percent dedicated to the year-around preparation required of world-class pro boxers. With the exception of the first Andrade fight, Bute has proven the ability to stick-and-move with intensity for 12 rounds, a distance he’s fought five times. Johnson knows he has to be in shape to press his opponents for 12 rounds, a distance he’s fought 14 times, as well throw the high volume of punches that he normally does.
Wear and tear: Johnson is a well-preserved 42, but 68 bouts is a lot of pro fights. The 464 rounds he’s fought is are a lot of rounds. Eighteen years is long time in the pro game.
Corner: Johnson‘s trainer, Orlando Cuellar, has worked with seven world titleholders during a career that has spanned 30 years. Cuellar, a native of Cuba now based in Florida, also currently trains former Cuban amateur standouts Luis Franco and Yan Barthelemy. Cuellar has been with Johnson since the “Road Warrior” began to turn his career around in the early part of the last decade. Stephane Larouche has been equally good for Bute and the two have many years together, forging a rapport that is likely as tight Johnson and Cuellar have. Larouche is an excellent young trainer, perhaps the best in Canada, where he has worked with numerous world-class fighters. That includes former lightweight titleholder Leo Dorin, former super middleweight beltholder Eric Lucas and former 122-pound titleholder Steve Molitor.
Outcome: Despite being familiar foes — they have sparred around 100 rounds — both Bute and Johnson will start fast in hopes of imposing his style on the other. Johnson will press Bute hard in an attempt to get the titleholder against the ropes. Bute will stand his ground and try to catch the in-coming challenger with hard combinations punctuated with body shots. Both will have their moments in the early rounds. Johnson will twist Bute’s head with sneaky hooks and almost knock the crowd favorite off balance with grazing right hands. Bute will partially pierce Johnson’s guard with uppercuts and momentarily freeze the grizzled veteran with accurate body shots. However, neither man will be seriously hurt by the best punches of his opponent, which will encourage both seasoned pros to settle down during the middle rounds. Johnson will continue to press forward behind his pumping jab, but not at top speed. Bute will limit his exchanges with the older-but-stronger man and utilize more lateral movement, which will prevent Johnson from launching his vaunted right hand and also keep the challenger from backing him to the ropes. The cautious pace will suit Bute’s style more than Johnson’s, and sensing this, the former champ will step up his aggression in the late rounds. He’ll have his moments, but so will Bute, who will give his fans a thrill and a scare by going toe to toe with Johnson in the final round.
Prediction: Bute scores a close, but unanimous decision.