Doug Fischer

Stretch Drive: Travelin’ Man in Atlantic City – Part II

 

Click here for part one.

 

Saturday, Dec. 7: It is fitting that Guillermo Rigondeaux’s clinical 12-round dissection of Joseph Agbeko took place inside Boardwalk Hall’s Adrian Phillips Ballroom, for that’s where another supreme ring scientist practiced his craft on HBO’s airwaves a generation earlier. Pernell Whitaker, also a southpaw and an Olympic gold medalist, showcased his superlative skills in decisioning Freddie Pendleton, Julio Cesar Vazquez and Gary Jacobs while also stopping Jake Rodriguez and going 11 life-and-death rounds with Diosbelys Hurtado, who, like Rigondeaux, is Cuban.

It is also appropriate that the ballroom was the venue for James Kirkland’s violent sixth round TKO over home state hero Glen Tapia, who showed nearly limitless bravery under Kirkland’s incredibly withering assault. It was here in November 1999 that one of HBO’s most unforgettable endings occurred when Oleg Maskaev dumped Hasim Rahman almost directly onto my boss’s lap.

“The force of Maskaev’s punch drove Rahman head first through the bottom rope,” recalled CompuBox president Bob Canobbio. “He skimmed the shoulder of HBO’s play-by-play man Jim Lampley and landed on the table that supported the CompuBox computer, knocking the machine to the ground. I was torn between checking on Rahman’s condition (as his nearby family members staged a near riot) and checking the status of the computer to see if it was still functioning so we could post the final stats for the fight. The computer survived and so did Rahman. Seventeen months later he upset Lennox Lewis to win the heavyweight title.”

It was a night that pleased boxing fans of all stripes, for while Rigondeaux-Agbeko and Kirkland-Tapia covered the extremes, Matthew Macklin’s 10 round decision over Lamar Russ produced an interesting boxer-puncher mixture while Matt Korobov’s off-the-floor ninth-round TKO over Derek Edwards and Toka Kahn-Clary’s six-round decision over Ramsey Luna provided more than a few stirring plot twists, all of which will be covered later.

*

As Andy and I scanned the bout sheet we indulged in one of our favorite games: Guessing how many combined rounds the televised portion of the card will go. I went first: 10 rounds for Macklin-Russ, six rounds for Kirkland-Tapia and 12 rounds for Rigondeaux-Agbeko for a total of 28. Andy then went on a limb by guessing 18 with Macklin-Russ the only fight going the distance. He theorized that Rigondeaux would feast on a ring-rusty and aging Agbeko to the point that the difference in class would create an early ending.

Who would have thought I’d get it right on the number? Good for me, but I don’t have a future as a Vegas oddsmaker. I’d worry so much about getting it right that the stress would eat me alive. Besides, I love what I’m doing now.

One of the usual pre-telecast routines is to do a rehearsal fight as if we were live. All the bells and whistles would be deployed – commentary, graphics and punch-stats among them – and we couldn’t have asked for a better practice bout than the scheduled six round junior lightweight fight between Clary and Luna.

The southpaw Clary looked sensational in the first three rounds as he used angles to set up bouquets of combinations while also effectively avoiding most of Luna’s fire. In the opening nine minutes Clary out-landed Luna 88-47 (including 74-43 in power connects) and was the more accurate combatant as he led 32%-22% overall and 40%-24% power.

Just as it appeared the fight would be a preview of Rigondeaux-Agbeko it turned with stunning swiftness in round four. Luna’s dogged aggression finally paid off when he connected with a hair-trigger blow that caused Clary’s eyes to roll and his legs to collapse. After Clary arose Luna stormed in for the kill but couldn’t quite close the deal. At round’s end Luna led just 22-19 in total connects but he had seized a boatload of momentum. Meanwhile Clary had reached a crisis point that begged the following question: What kind of fighter will he choose to be? Will he fold under pressure or will he stand up, fight back and get over the hump?

The answer came in rounds five and six when Clary and Luna engaged in a thrilling toe-to-toe war in the trenches. In round five they fired a combined 231 punches (Luna 117, Clary 114) of which they landed 75 overall (with Clary leading 38-37) and 72 power punches (36 each) while in the sixth and final round Clary led 106-103 in total punches and Luna prevailed 31-30 in total connects and 29-27 in landed power punches. At fight’s end Andy and I looked at each other in amazement and we agreed this was probably the best rehearsal fight we had ever counted.

The judges (as well as HBO’s Steve Weisfeld) saw the fight the same – 57-55 for Clary. Given his early dominance the verdict seemed just and the final stats reflected it as Clary led 175-137 overall, 24-7 in landed jabs and 151-130 in connected power shots. Clary also was more precise (32%-26% overall, 15%-10% jabs and 39%-29% power). It was the kind of fight which enhanced the reputations of winner and loser, and it will be interesting to see what happens to each the next time out.

*

The next bout we counted was Korobov-Edwards, which proved to be a compelling physical and psychological encounter. As was his habit, Korobov began the fight strongly by whipping combinations that hurt Edwards multiple times. In the first two minutes Korobov landed 30 punches to Edwards’ three and a Godzilla-like blowout appeared imminent.

But as the round swung toward the final minute Edwards lashed out with a combination that floored Korobov and had him badly hurt. The sudden turnaround left me breathless and jolted Andy from his counting doldrums as his man raked Korobov with heavy blows. Somehow, Korobov managed to last out the round and as I looked at the action screen I couldn’t have imagined a more deceptive stat: Korobov has out-landed Edwards 43-16 but as he sat on his stool he appeared on the verge of competitive extinction.

Between rounds my mind flashed back to the previous day’s weigh-in when I discussed the fight with Korobov’s trainer Charles Mooney. He sensed danger because Edwards had previously campaigned at light heavyweight and even cruiserweight and thus was accustomed to absorbing the blows of naturally bigger men. It didn’t matter to Mooney that Edwards had gone 1-2-1 in his last four fights or that he had 13 knockouts in 30 fights; in his eyes Korobov was confronted with a potential handful. His instincts proved more than correct, for Korobov was pushed to within seconds of complete disaster.

Andy and I expected Edwards to jump on Korobov the moment round two began but to our surprise – and disappointment – the upstart failed to get started. Edwards threw just 27 punches in the round, landing only two, while the recovering Korobov carefully forged a 40-punch round that featured 12 connects. It was a most curious choice by Edwards given the career-boosting opportunity that lay before him: An upset KO victory over a carefully groomed Top Rank prospect.

Fighters are separated by the smallest of degrees and Edwards’ inability – or perhaps unwillingness — to step up the pressure personifies why some fighters rise to greatness while some are left striving for it.

Rounds three through seven followed a similar pattern: Korobov doing just enough to win every round and Edwards’ sub-par volume permitting him to do so. During that stretch Korobov out-landed Edwards 59-28 overall and averaged 49 punches per round to Edwards’ 31. Korobov finally turned up the jets in the eighth when it became clear Edwards’ tank was near empty, prevailing 26-4 in round eight (including 18-2 in the final minute) and finishing the fight early in the ninth with two left crosses that left Edwards in a heap.

With the victory Korobov advanced to 22-0 (13) but the final product was a mixed bag at best. His offensive bursts were quite impressive and they paved the way to a highlight reel finish but one must question how he will react to a strong punch delivered by a higher-grade adversary. As for Edwards, whose record dropped to 26-3-1 (13), this fight was an agonizing case of “what might have been.”

*

If one prefers to see a glass half-full, as I prefer to do in most situations, one can say Matthew Macklin maintained his status as a solid middleweight contender amidst a scenario when a loss would have effectively extinguished his title aspirations. Going into Saturday’s fight Macklin had gone 1-3 (including two stoppage losses) in his last four fights and a loss to Russ, a late sub for the similarly lanky, boxing-oriented Willie Nelson, would have been crippling. Macklin overcame whatever pressure he might have felt by applying pressure himself and gradually pulling away en route to a deserved points win.

Despite throwing 134 fewer punches (504-638), Macklin prevailed 177-122 in overall connects, 119-81 in power shots and even out-jabbed the taller man 58-41 even after throwing 141 fewer. Macklin hit (35% overall, 25% jabs, 44% power) and wasn’t hit as often (19% overall, 11% jabs, 31% power), which, the last time I checked, was one of the main objectives of boxing.

However, there were down sides to Macklin’s performance. Like Tony Bellew one week earlier, there is a hard-to-discern aspect missing from Macklin’s game that prevents him from vaulting into the elite class. He doesn’t have the savage one-punch power of Gennady Golovkin (who stopped Macklin in three in the Briton’s last fight) or the boxing skills of Felix Sturm (who was graced with a split decision win that shouldn’t have been) or Sergio Martinez (who overcame a sterling Macklin effort before prevailing in 11).

Macklin asserted before the fight that he intended to emulate the prime Ricky Hatton’s aggression and at times he succeeded. For whatever reasons, however, he couldn’t sustain it and that allowed Russ to stay in the fight long enough to show his own potential as a long-range boxer. After solidly losing rounds three through eight, Russ found a second wind at points in the ninth and even managed to out-land Macklin in the 10th (16-15 overall and 8-5 power). Would a truly elite fighter allow a late-sub with far less experience on the world stage to accomplish that, especially after hurting him in the final minute of the ninth? Of course, styles make fights but other assets have been known to be trump cards. Experience is one. A huge gulf in technique is another. And power is a third.

If one can encapsulate the past several paragraphs into one sentence it is this: Macklin is known as “Mack the Knife,” and while the blade is sharp in some areas, it is duller than it should be in others. Still, Macklin’s promoter Lou DiBella made a legitimate point when he swung by ringside and told press row that a rematch between his fighter and the newly crowned Sturm (who blew out IBF king Darren Barker in two rounds earlier in the day) is one that makes sense. I agree, and given what happened the first time they met I would be fascinated to see it.

*

The conventional wisdom surrounding Kirkland-Tapia was that it could be the fight of the night, but one couldn’t have imagined that a potential fight of the year was unfolding – at least for three rounds.

One would think such of firefight would be stressful for us punch-counters. I can’t speak for my colleagues but I love doing them. The constant stream of blows sharpens my focus and allows me to achieve an even better rhythm. It may sound nonsensical, but high-volume shootouts are easier for me to track than contests in which punches are rarely thrown. During high-octane fights the years of muscle memory kick in and the enhanced focus enables me to perceive what I’m seeing that much better. My fingers don’t stumble over one another and I find myself not blinking at all lest I miss something. It sounds difficult but it actually isn’t – it’s fun!

It takes two to create a great fight and Tapia did his best to hold up his end of the bargain. One of boxing’s greatest ironies is that Kirkland, for all of his prodigious volume, ranks with Mikey Garcia, Lucas Matthysse and Adrien Broner as among boxing’s slowest starters and knowing that, Tapia did the exact right thing by swarming in behind dozens of power shots in an attempt to end the fight quickly. His attack quickly blemished Kirkland’s face and buckled his legs and why not: In the first minute Tapia was 17 of 42 overall and 12 of 30 in power shots to Kirkland’s 5 of 14 and 4 of 11 respectively.

But Kirkland somehow survived Tapia’s opening wave without going down and once he regained his bearings the second part of the “Mandingo Manifesto” kicked in: You may beat him up early but if he survives, he will destroy you.

In the final minute of round one Kirkland was 13 of 36 overall and 13 of 33 in power punches to Tapia’s 8 of 17 and 6 of 13. That surge laid the groundwork for the brutality to come — and what brutality it was. Once Kirkland warms up, he becomes a relentless, impervious, unstoppable machine. In many ways Kirkland reminds me of 1980s middleweight contender Frank “The Animal” Fletcher because they share a left-handed stance, a stocky body type, a never-say-die attack and a reachable chin. But of the two Kirkland is more talented and a far heavier puncher.

Kirkland shifted into overdrive in round two by going 53 of 123 (43%) overall and 49 of 103 (48%) in power shots while Tapia was a more than-respectable 27 of 87 (31%) overall and 24 of 72 (33%) in power punches. But Kirkland’s withering attack really started to take effect in the third when he landed 61 of 116 power punches (53%) to Tapia’s 23 of 76 (30%).

Most fighters would require a rest after cranking out those numbers, but not Kirkland. Thanks to trainer Ann Wolfe’s extreme conditioning methods, Kirkland’s attack accelerates and then swallows his opponents whole.

In round four Kirkland landed 73 of 130 power punches (56%) to Tapia’s 15 of 55 (27%), prompting a visit from referee Steve Smoger and the ringside physician. Tapia’s trainer Alex Devia was keenly aware of the heavy punishment his fighter was absorbing and after consulting with the physician Smoger told Tapia he would stop the fight if he continued to take more flush head shots.

With those words ringing in his surely aching head, Tapia reacted like a warrior by fighting as hard as he could to start round five. In the first minute he landed 7 of 30 punches overall to Kirkland’s 10 of 24. But Tapia couldn’t sustain it and as a result Kirkland ran over him in the final two minutes by going 54 of 105 overall and 48 of 94 in power shots against Tapia’s 11 of 54 and 10 of 49 respectively.

Because I was tracking Kirkland, my eyes were focused on where his punches were landing on Tapia and in doing so I saw numerous flashes of duress in Tapia’s face. He was on the verge of being overwhelmed but his will refused to let him capitulate.

When I passed a note to Jim Lampley detailing the stats for round five, I added an underlined one-word commentary which conveyed my growing unease – “dangerous!” It was clear Tapia’s courage was too robust for his body, and my mind momentarily flashed back to similar fights in which excessive valor resulted in premature death.

Both Smoger and the ringside physician thought seriously about stopping the fight between rounds five and six but Devia’s pleading – which included the highly questionable and desperate statement “this is a sparring session, Steve” – apparently proved persuasive. But Tapia was tapped out and the final punch that caused the “Jersey Boy” to slump into Smoger’s arms was particularly scary.

Did the fight go too long? Yes, by about 38 seconds. While time will tell – and Tapia’s post-fight medicals were clean – I believe those 38 extra seconds may cost Tapia dearly in terms of the length of his prime, the final total of his career earnings and his long-term health. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen, but given the beating he absorbed it’s a distinct possibility.

Statistically, Kirkland-Tapia was a tour de force and it earned several spots in the all-time CompuBox rankings for 154-pounders:

  • Their combined 192 power punches in rounds three and five ranked fifth all-time and their 185 in round four rated 10th.
  • Their 88 combined power connects were the fifth most ever tracked by CompuBox in divisional history.
  • Their 94 combined total connects in round four tied for eighth most with round nine of Kassim Ouma-Darrell Woods in October 2002.
  •  Finally, Kirkland established a new all-time record for 154 pounders by landing 73 power shots in round four.

Kirkland’s numbers were astonishing: In five rounds and 38 seconds of action, Kirkland landed 305 total punches and 287 power shots – more than fellow volume-puncher Leo Santa Cruz landed in 12 rounds against Alberto Guevara last December (291 and 210 respectively). “The Mandingo Warrior” averaged an incredible 123.6 total punches per round, of which 110 were power punches, the former more than doubling the 58.2 junior middleweight average and the latter nearly quadrupling the division norm. Kirkland also quadrupled the divisional average by landing 54 power shots each round. Simply incredible.

But Kirkland wasn’t just prolific, he was precise. He connected on 47% of his total punches, 25% of his 72 jabs and 50% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts while tasting 30%, 28% and 31% respectively.

With the sensational victory Kirkland re-inserts himself into the 154-pound title picture while re-establishing himself as must-see TV. At age 29, Kirkland has achieved a unique triple-play in that he emerged from three two-year layoffs by scoring impressive knockouts. Better yet, Kirkland is still young enough to achieve his goals and if his post-fight comments are any indicator he is poised to take us on a most thrilling ride. I can hardly wait to see what happens in the next chapter.

*

Ever since Rigondeaux’s signature victory over previous pound-for-pound entrant Nonito Donaire in April, the boxing industry has engaged in a raging debate regarding the Cuban’s worth as a TV attraction. All sides agree that the two-time Olympic gold medalist is a supreme talent; the dispute lies in how he applies it.

If Rigondeaux had fought at the same time as Joe Gans and Jack Johnson, he would have been lionized as a fistic genius, for their fights pre-dated television and thus avoided the scrutiny that comes with a vision-dominated culture. But because “El Chacal” fights in the era of worldwide digital TV, talent and technique aren’t nearly enough to satisfy the masses. One must either be incredibly entertaining like James Kirkland, extraordinarily media-savvy like Floyd Mayweather Jr. or outrageously outrageous like Mayweather disciple Adrien Broner.

For someone who carries himself so regally, Rigondeaux has proved to be a deeply polarizing figure and the comments reflect how intensely both sides feel about their positions. As for me, while I love fights like Corrales-Castillo I as much as anyone – heck, I wrote a book about 100 great under-the-radar wars – I also appreciate what a wonderful craftsman like Rigondeaux brings to the table.

Why is that? Call it an appreciation of “pugilistic correctness.” Over the past several decades boxing has experienced a slow but steady decline in terms of technical ability. Aside from a few notable exceptions, today’s talent pool is a more ragged lot than that of previous generations. The jab has virtually disappeared as a genuine weapon and veteran observers can quickly pick out mistakes in terms of footwork, punching technique and defensive principles. Therefore, when these observers see a fighter who does most of these things correctly, they take notice.

To me, and to those of us who are fascinated by the innermost working of the Sweet Science, the Cuban is a delight. For anyone who wonders about the definition of “ring generalship,” one need not look far beyond Rigondeaux. He is always several steps ahead of the opponent and he uses every tool at his disposal to thoroughly control what happens inside the ring. What he does also dictates how his opponents react and more often than not they end up behaving in a way that eventually leads to their demise.

The tools Rigondeaux uses to do this include ring positioning, exquisite punch selection, knowledge of range, savvy opportunism and a vast storehouse of memories that he can tap at any time to address any situation. One could say Rigondeaux is boxing’s equivalent of caviar; not everyone likes the taste but those who do love it intensely.  

What are the elements of his game that stand out to me? First, I notice his by-the-book southpaw stance. Like Daniel Zaragoza and Hilario Zapata, Rigondeaux’s body is turned in such a way that very little of the target area is exposed to the opponent. Too many fighters today square up to their opponents, which makes them more hittable than they should be.

The position of Rigondeaux’s left glove on defense shields both his chest and his chin while his slightly extended right hand rests below chest level at a point where he either could throw a jab to the head or a hook to the body. Although his feet are wider apart than most, his ability to execute subtle positional shifts remains unaffected, no doubt the result of decades of muscle memory. If his opponent inches forward, Rigondeaux instinctively moves back by the same margin so that his preferred range is maintained.

Against Agbeko, Rigondeaux used the jab not as a weapon but rather a way to dictate distance and to lull opponents just enough to surprise them with sudden left crosses or scything body shots thrown with bolo-like flair. Even at age 33 and with more than 400 fights in his fistic history, Rigondeaux’s reflexes remain supple enough to execute the movements his wizened brain commands him to do. His eyes are firmly fixed on his opponent’s chest muscles, for their tell-tale twitches tell him what punch is likely to be launched. Though his body line is straight up and down, Rigondeaux changes his altitude just enough to throw off his opponent’s targeting system.

On offense, Rigondeaux’s hand speed remains above average though he throws no more than two or three punches in a single burst. But when he strikes, he strikes hard, he strikes accurately and he strikes with discouraging effect. For those who question the Cuban’s power, Rigondeaux has scored knockouts with single body shots, a talent that is extraordinarily rare for anyone, much less someone regarded as a supreme technician.

All these traits result in a package that is psychologically intimidating to opponents and that can be seen in their dramatically lower punch outputs. Like Bernard Hopkins and Floyd Mayweather Jr., Rigondeaux’s intelligence is a weapon as much as other fighters’ hooks, crosses, uppercuts and body shots. Their knowledge and execution create the threat that is equal parts physical, mathematical and emotional and it forces the opponent to make a decision. In Rigondeaux’s case, if an opponent opts to be overly aggressive one risks exhaustion from missing too many punches and becoming a KO victim by being hit with a punch he doesn’t see. But if an opponent approaches too cautiously, his reluctance results in a double-edged sword: First, he voluntarily takes himself out of his best chance of victory by not fighting his best fight and second, the less demanding pace plays right into Rigondeaux’s wheel house of thoughtful, careful, scientific boxing.

Agbeko, though capable of doing the former, ended up doing the latter. The Ghanaian averaged 113.4 and 91.2 punches per round in his two fights with Yonnhy Perez, numbers that far exceeded the bantamweight average of 61.4. Against Rigondeaux, Agbeko averaged just 29.1 punches per round and worse yet for him, 205 of his 349 punches – or 59% — were jabs, which mirrored his extremely respectful attitude. It was obvious something made Agbeko fight so conservatively and to me it was Rigondeaux’s polish, both in terms of style and his ability to inflict punishment that is not easily seen by audiences but definitely felt by his targets.

It’s obvious that Rigondeaux’s style isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and his army of critics would compare watching his fights to drinking raw sewage. His fights defy the term “fight;” they are more like symphonic performances that require intense focus on the components that make up the whole rather than the raw, obvious violence that shape virtually all other boxing matches.

Fights involving Rigondeaux, Hopkins and Mayweather force viewers to dig beyond the superficial in order to access the sublime. To do that, one must be willing to put in the extra effort and for most viewers, especially casual fans, it requires too much work. After all, a sporting event is supposed to be a diversion from work, not another reason to work. Because there is no escaping that in fights involving Rigondeaux, Maywweather and Hopkins, the tidal wave of complaints are inevitable: “He’s too boring.” “Better bring a pillow to the arena to watch him fight.” “He should never be on TV again.” And so on…and so on.

This schism applies to other sports. A minority of baseball fans revel in 1-0 pitcher’s duels while the vast majority digs the long ball and nothing else. Pockets of basketball fans appreciate defensive screens, perfectly executed pick-and-roll plays and solid fundamentals while the masses cheer only for the thunder dunks that are shown endlessly on the sports highlights shows. A remnant of football aficionados notice how the offensive line’s carefully choreographed blocking patterns set up the running back’s 70-yard touchdown run or the fore-checking that creates the goals that everyone else sees. Every sport has their minority of sophisticates and boxing is no different.

Like HBO analyst Max Kellerman, Rigondeaux’s most ardent supporter, I appreciate the Cuban’s technical genius but I can also see why others might not. He will never land a spot on Lampley’s “Gatti List” and he’ll likely never grace the cover of THE RING unless he wins a Fighter of the Year award, but one can’t deny Rigondeaux is incredibly good at what he does. Excellence deserves to be recognized, if not always appreciated.

Perhaps someone like Vasyl Lomachenko will help bridge the gap between the two sides, for like Ricardo Lopez a generation ago he sets up his thrilling knockouts with a highly sophisticated brand of boxing. That mix surely will bridge the gap between the connoisseurs and the more traditional fans. Here’s hoping  Rigondeaux and Lomachenko will meet someday – and someday soon.

*

Photos / Jamie Squire-Getty Images (Rahan-Maskaev), Chris Farina-Top Rank (Rigondeaux, Kirkland)

Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 10 writing awards, including seven in the last two years. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at l.groves@frontier.com to arrange for autographed copies.

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