by David P. Greisman
It wasn’t the main event of the evening. The combined pay of the two boxers involved was just about the same amount owed to one of the fighters in the main event. Yet it was the bout that knowledgeable fans were excited about. It was the most important match on the card, and that is because it was the most intriguing one.
In one corner was Gary Russell Jr., the 26-year-old American who was an accomplished amateur who represented the United States in the 2008 Olympics but who never actually competed at that year’s tournament, passing out in his room before his first bout. The boxer was a free agent who had a working relationship with Golden Boy Promotions, turned pro more than five years ago, and had been brought along at a maddeningly slow pace.
In the other corner was Vasyl Lomachenko, the 26-year-old Ukrainian who captured Olympic gold in 2008 and 2012, just part of an amazing amateur career in which he lost only once. He worked now with Top Rank Inc., had competed in the semi-pro World Series of Boxing in 2012 and 2013, officially turned pro last year and had challenged for a world title in what could either be considered his second pro fight or his eighth.
The differences in amateur accomplishments and professional upbringings alone made this an interesting pairing. What made it additionally compelling was that this was a fight that normally wouldn’t have happened, yet was made.
Far too often, up-and-coming fighters are kept away from each other. This happens when they are prospects, so that no opposition can serve as an obstacle to them becoming contenders. This continues while they are contenders, so that they can become titleholders. And the situation remains even when they are titleholders, so that they may pile up defenses and pull in paychecks.
This is the case whether they are with the same promoter, who would rather have two moneymakers instead of one, or with different promoters, who would rather have one moneymaker instead of none.
Top Rank and Golden Boy already weren’t working with each other, the product of an extended rivalry that wasn’t just about the competition of business, but also about the chief executives’ conflicting personalities.
It took a purse bid mandated by the World Boxing Organization to bring the sanctioning body’s No. 1 and No. 2 ranked featherweights together. Golden Boy bid slightly more money for the right to promote the bout. It’s possible that neither promoter felt the other would allow its fighter to participate. It’s also possible that each was confident that its fighter would win, while also believing that this bout was the best available option for them.
Russell’s development had been gallingly gradual, to say the least. He’d turned pro at 20 years old but had continued to face woefully outclassed foes for years. But his growth as a potential star had been even slower, thanks to a combination of inactivity, injury and inability to be in fights deserving of significant spotlight. He was a boxer with ultra-fast hands whose team was moving him at a snail’s pace. Fights with Daniel Ponce De Leon and Jhonny Gonzalez didn’t happen. The WBO had nevertheless named him the mandatory challenger to then-titleholder Orlando Salido.
He just needed to wait for Salido to face Lomachenko first.
Lomachenko was allowed to challenge Salido on the strength of his amateur career, his “pro debut” win over Jose Ramirez last October, and the fact that his promoter wanted to make the fight, was willing to pay for it, and the WBO could get its sanctioning fee cut from it.
The fight took place this past March. Salido came in quite overweight, rehydrated incredibly, and scored a combination of legal and illegal blows on Lomachenko, who was still able to battle back, hurt Salido late and drop a split decision.
Salido had dropped his title at the scales. The WBO ruled that Lomachenko could fight for the belt again, this time against Russell. Top Rank has multiple featherweight titleholders, but this option was immediately available.
The last time Top Rank and Golden Boy fighters had fought was November 2012, when 154-pounders Erislandy Lara and Vanes Martirosyan met in a World Boxing Council-mandated elimination bout. That bout also went to purse bid, and Top Rank won the right to promote it. As with Lomachenko-Russell, it was a bout in which the pairing made the most sense for both fighters and both promoters.
The fighters just needed to make the most of it.
A second loss for Lomachenko would be a setback. A defeat for Russell, meanwhile, would validate those who’d been critical of his development.
In the end, Lomachenko proved himself, while we learned the truth about Russell.
Lomachenko showed that the skills and intelligence cultivated during his extended amateur career were enough to compete at a higher level in the professional ranks. Though he’d struggled at times against Salido — a very good fighter who has given many trouble even when not overweight and fouling with regularity — Lomchenko boxed well against Russell.
Lomachenko handled Russell’s hand speed, using good movement and defense to make him miss nearly everything thrown. CompuBox had Russell going 83 of 806 on the night, a paltry connect rate of about 10 percent. Most of those shots were jabs. Russell was 18 of 425 in that category, a connect rate of just 4 percent. Even if you took those out of consideration and included just power punches, Russell was still a mere 65 of 381, a 17 percent connect rate. That’s fewer than six landed power shots per round over the course of 12 rounds.
Lomachenko still took portions of rounds off, but he still threw nearly 600 punches on the night, an average of about 50 per round. He won by majority decision, taking eight of 12 rounds on two of the three judges’ scorecards. The third judge somehow saw the bout a draw.
Russell, meanwhile, looked exactly like a boxer who had gotten by on his natural talent and careful matchmaking for far too long, and who hadn’t been forced to make the kind of adjustments we see other prospects make over the course of the earlier stages of their careers.
That doesn’t make Russell a fraud. It just makes him what we suspected him to be: someone who was protected to the point that it was detrimental to his development.
Approaches like that being done with Lomachenko are rare for a reason. It’s the boxers with the lengthy and highly accomplished amateur careers who can succeed quickly in the pros, as we’ve also seen with 122-pound champion Guillermo Rigondeaux. The rest still have kinks in their game that need to be worked out so as to keep them from getting knocked out.
The loss may end up being beneficial to Russell. Without the burden of keeping that zero at the end of his record, and without the desire to slow his development until a lucrative title shot surfaced, his team can now do what they should’ve been doing before — give him challenges to overcome, not opponents who underwhelm.
It’s meaningless to rise through the ranks if you haven’t done so by showing that you can rise to the occasion.
The 10 Count
1. Those who watched Vasyl Lomachenko top Gary Russell Jr. were upset when the scorecards were read and they heard that judge Lisa Giampa had the bout a 114-114 draw.
A look at the scorecards shows that Giampa gave all of the first four rounds to Russell, whereas judges Max DeLuca and Pat Russell (no relation to the fighter) only found one apiece for the Olympian from Capitol Heights, Maryland.
With that said, that means that Giampa was in the minority for half of those.
- Both Giampa and DeLuca scored the first for Gary Russell.
- Giampa was the only judge to give Gary Russell the second.
- Both Giampa and Pat Russell scored the third for Gary Russell.
- Giampa was the only judge to give Gary Russell the fourth.
Those two rounds in the minority were the difference between her 114-114 card and the 116-112 turned in by DeLuca and Pat Russell.
The three judges agreed with each other for almost every round that followed. All gave Round 5 to Lomachenko, Round 6 to Russell, Round 7 to Lomachenko, Round 8 to Russell, and rounds 10 to 12 to Lomachenko.
They disagreed on Round 9, which DeLuca and Pat Russell gave to Gary Russell, and which Giampa, in the minority, gave to Lomachenko.
Had Giampa agreed with her colleagues on that one, she actually would’ve had Gary Russell the 115-113 winner.
2. I don’t know what Lisa Giampa was thinking with her scorecard for Lomachenko-Russell, but maybe she can do a better job at taking us into the mind of a boxing judge than Chuck did…
3. While Vasyl Lomachenko’s win over Gary Russell Jr. was seen as the true main event for us boxing aficionados, it wasn’t the actual headliner.
That spot belonged to Robert Guerrero vs. Yoshihiro Kamegai, a fight that was viewed as being a return bout for Guerrero after a long layoff but turned into a highly competitive scrap that was the best bout on the show by far.
While matchmakers and network executives are likely gloating about the entertaining nature of Guerrero-Kamegai, I’m more dubious about any such claims when we have a clear A-side getting dragged into a tough war with a B-side, one who has no affiliation with the promoter or broadcaster, or who isn’t at all part of the long-term planning.
We’re not quite halfway through 2014, and this has already been a year full of surprises.
Among them, though not necessarily an exhaustive list: Chris Algieri’s win over Ruslan Provodnikov, Miguel Cotto’s destruction of Sergio Martinez, Lucas Matthysse’s struggles with John Molina Jr., Adonis Stevenson’s difficulty with Andrzej Fonfara, Floyd Mayweather’s competitive clash with Marcos Maidana, Danny Garcia’s close encounter with Mauricio Herrera, and even Juan Manuel Lopez’s rematch win over Daniel Ponce De Leon.
Let’s not go overboard with the praise, though.
“Showtime has aired 22 fights on pay-per-view and ‘Championship Boxing’ so far this year. 21 of them were won by the favorites,” tweeted Carlos Acevedo of boxing blog The Cruelest Sport. “And the other fight — Sergio Thompson-Ricardo Alvarez — who knows what to make of that one? So, basically, the favorites — all of them (except Lomachenko) Golden Boy Promotions and Haymon fighters — win 100 percent of the time on Showtime.”
I don’t think it’s just a Showtime thing either. The favorites tend to come out on top, given the way that promoters, matchmakers and networks work these days. That’s not an excuse, but rather an indictment of the way business is conducted.
4. Adonis Stevenson hit Chad Dawson so hard that he knocked Dawson out of the sport for a year, off of HBO and into a preliminary undercard bout.
It was there, on the Showtime Extreme portion of this past Saturday’s broadcast, that the former light heavyweight champion was paid just $15,000 for his first bout back since the first-round loss to Stevenson.
Except Dawson got fined $3,000 for coming in nearly four pounds heavier than the 179-pound weight limit for the bout with George Groves. And then Dawson likely had to pay his trainer, team and sparring partners.
He got the comeback win, stopping Blades — who unsuccessfully challenged Zsolt Erdei for a world title back in 2007 and now fills the role of designated opponent — in the opening round.
It was a meaningless win, aside from the result of the return.
Scott Christ of the Bad Left Hook boxing blog tweeted an image that showed the physical differences between Dawson at the weigh-in for his June 2013 fight with Stevenson and Dawson at the weigh-in last week. That can be seen at http://bit.ly/badchadflab .
On fight night, Dawson added another 19 pounds, coming in just above the cruiserweight limit at 202.
He was coming off consecutive losses to Andre Ward (back in September 2012) and Stevenson. He had lost his championship. It’s understandable when boxers want to step away from the ring, given the demands the sport takes from the time they are young. It would be understandable if Dawson’s time off was spent relaxing, recuperating and spending more time with his family.
But it doesn’t look as if the time off brought back Dawson’s hunger and passion. And this is a dangerous sport to continue if you’re in it for the wrong reasons. We’ll see if a bigger fight brings out a better-looking fighter, aesthetically speaking.
5. Earlier this month I’d wondered how Ruslan Provodnikov would do, ratings-wise, in his first boxing broadcast as the A-side.
Now we know: Provodnikov’s loss to Chris Algieri on June 14 averaged 1.046 million viewers, peaking at 1.1 million, according to a report by BoxingScene’s Jake Donovan.
It’s possible that his lead-in helped. The rebroadcast of the previous week’s pay-per-view main event in which Miguel Cotto stopped middleweight champion Sergio Martinez had an average of 970,000.
It seems as if many of those viewers stuck around.
The first live fight on the show, featuring 154-pound titleholder Demetrius Andrade vs. Brian Rose, averaged 882,000 viewers. And then more folks either tuned in for the live headline bout — or watched on DVR to see Algieri pull off the upset.
For comparison’s sake, Provodnikov’s war with Timothy Bradley in March 2013 averaged 1.232 million viewers, and his October 2013 win over 140-pound titleholder Mike Alvarado (which had the rebroadcast of Bradley vs. Juan Manuel Marquez as its lead-in) averaged 1.181 million.
Now the question is whether Provodnikov will return as the A-side, or if he’ll again be the B-side against a more notable fighter (which isn’t the worst position to be in). It’ll also be interesting to see how Provodnikov does as a ratings draw and whether he’ll be hurt by this loss to Algieri.
He’s still an incredibly entertaining fighter, and this defeat shouldn’t diminish that, but this is a society and a sport in which people jump on and off of bandwagons.
6. I can’t say I’ve made the phone calls or sent the emails myself, nor have I seen the reporting from anyone else, and so I’m left wondering about the drug testing for this coming Saturday’s lightweight title fight between Terence Crawford and Yuriorkis Gamboa.
Gamboa, of course, was implicated last year as being among several professional athletes who allegedly received performance-enhancing drugs from the Biogenesis clinic in South Florida — the same scandal that caught up star baseball players Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun, among others.
That’s not to say that Gamboa is still using PEDs, or that other boxers who haven’t been implicated are clean. We just don’t know, given the sorry state of drug testing in this sport. But it seems to me as if any athletic commission licensing a boxer that has been connected to banned substances in the past should institute rigorous testing to ensure that no further cheating is going on.
Ideally, the commission would pass the cost of that testing on to the athlete or the promoter. Commissions won’t, of course, not when doing so would likely mean losing the revenue from the fight to another state — one that wouldn’t be requiring such testing.
I also don’t know why Crawford and Top Rank didn’t require Gamboa to undergo more stringent drug testing. Or if they have, there’s been no public reporting about it that I’ve seen.
7. Louisiana newspaper The Daily Comet — great name, by the way — caught up with former middleweight title challenger and Bernard Hopkins victim Robert Allen, who once lived in the newspaper’s coverage area. Allen has been retired for seven years and is now training boxers in Atlanta.
Buried at the bottom of the story was this sad news:
“Allen said all the years of boxing and training to keep his body in top shape has led to several health aliments he suffers from today. He suffers from occasional memory loss and he sometimes struggles to get his words out quickly and clearly.
“ ‘It was more from the training,’ he said. ‘It takes a toll on you. It's not really the boxing. It's the constant training to keep your body at certain weights. All that for years and years takes its toll.’ ”
We’ve learned a lot about the many football players now suffering from ailments thanks to their years in the sport. There’s been no such comprehensive survey of boxers, though I imagine that Allen’s condition is unfortunately all too common.
The full story can be found at http://bit.ly/robertallencomet .
8. Boxers Behaving Badly update: Kelly Pavlik pleaded guilty last week to a charge of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated for an incident dating back to last December, according to the Youngstown (Ohio) Vindicator.
He was sentenced to 12 months of probation, must pay court costs, and must choose between spending three days in jail or instead taking part in a three-day intervention program for people who drove drunk.
Pavlik had turned down a plea deal back in March. A trial had been scheduled for May, but then postponed. This past week was supposed to bring an evidence suppression hearing, but instead Pavlik entered his guilty plea.
The 32-year-old retired last year after a planned fight with Andre Ward was postponed due to Ward suffering an injury in training camp. His last bout was in July 2012, a decision win over Will Rosinsky. That brought his record to 40-2 with 34 knockouts.
9. Some more quick thoughts from Saturday’s Showtime broadcast:
- It’s weird to say this, but Robert Guerrero didn’t do himself a favor by fighting the way he did against Yoshihiro Kamegai. While it was another entertaining fight involving Guerrero, it also left him with a cut and swelling over his left eye that could potentially keep him sidelined for a little while he heals.
There are numerous opponents for Guerrero at welterweight who are promoted by Golden Boy and/or managed by Al Haymon. I’d actually be intrigued by the possibility of Guerrero facing someone who’s not — Manny Pacquiao.
Meanwhile, Devon Alexander put forth the performance he needed with his win over Jesus Soto Karass, showing a style that was far more entertaining than we’d seen in his wins over Marcos Maidana and Randall Bailey, as well as his title loss to Shawn Porter.
I’m wondering if we’re about to end up in a situation similar to last year — where it would make sense for Alexander and Amir Khan to fight each other, with the winner in good position to challenge Floyd Mayweather.
10. Headline last week on Fight News: “WBA Vice President graduates from law school.”
Great. Now he has a second profession in which no one will trust him…
“Fighting Words” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. Pick up a copy of David’s new book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsamazon or internationally at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsworldwide . Send questions/comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org