by David P. Greisman
He had just been recognized as the best heavyweight in the world, at least among amateurs. It didn’t take long for him to test himself against the best pro. Eight months after winning the gold medal in the 1956 Olympics, Pete Rademacher stepped into the ring against champion Floyd Patterson and lost via sixth-round knockout.
It was Rademacher’s pro debut.
It’s a story that’s been told time and again, one that stood out even in the different competitive paradigm of six decades ago. But other boxers were also moved quickly after acclaimed amateur careers.
Leon Spinks won the lineal heavyweight championship in his eighth fight, barely a year after turning pro; Floyd Mayweather Jr. won the lineal junior lightweight championship in his 18th fight, two years after turning pro; Sugar Ray Leonard won the lineal welterweight championship in his 26th fight, less than three years after turning pro; and Oscar De La Hoya won a title belt at 130 pounds in his 12th pro fight, 16 months after making his debut.
Most of today’s American Olympians are still budding prospects after four years, by the time the next cycle of potential, formerly amateur stars first get paid to step into the ring.
Luis Yanez. Gary Russell Jr. Sadam Ali. Javier Molina. Demetrius Andrade. Shawn Estrada. Deontay Wilder. Of the nine Americans on the 2008 squad, they are the seven who turned pro afterward. None has captured a world title yet. None has even beaten an opponent of note to prove that he belongs.
At least one — Russell Jr. — appears that he clearly does. But despite what he has shown of his blazing speed and formidable power, we don’t yet know for sure, not after 21 pro fights, and not after nearly four years after he made his debut on a January 2009 episode of Showtime’s “ShoBox: The New Generation.”
We can’t know until these Olympic stars step up from their parade of mismatches, challenging themselves with higher levels of competition, establishing themselves as contenders and then, if they are all that they are hyped up to me, entrenching themselves as champions.
Russell’s parade continued this past Saturday where it all began, on another episode of “ShoBox,” with another highlight-reel win over another overmatched opponent. Despite Roberto Castaneda’s record — 20-2-1 with 15 knockouts entering the bout — there was never any doubt that the 20-0 Russell would win, just a question of how, and how soon.
Russell dispatched of Castaneda via knockout within three. It capped off an evening in which the mismatch parades for the latest batch began.
Five of the nine members of the 2012 men’s Olympic team fought in what was essentially the pro debut for all (two had competed as part of the amateur/pro amalgam that was the World Series of Boxing). Four of them stopped their foes. All won convincingly. Only Rau’shee Warren went to a four-round unanimous decision against Luis Rivera, the blemish on the scorecards coming from what the referee had ruled a knockdown, but what had actually come from Warren hitting the canvas after missing a punch.
Visually and statistically speaking, they were drubbings. By CompuBox counts, the five 2012 Olympians landed 309 punches out of 710 thrown, a 44 percent connect rate. Their opponents, meanwhile, went 64 of 438, a 15 percent connect rate.
Obviously, this disparity was expected, and intended. Warren, a bantamweight who had competed in the Olympics in 2004, 2008 and 2012, was facing in Rivera a fighter who only had three pro outings, and whose only victory had come against a winless opponent. Dominic Breazeale, a heavyweight who could stand eye to eye with the Klitschko brothers, was in against a shorter, tubbier foe named Curtis Tate whose 4-3 record revealed only one win against a fighter who wasn’t making his debut at the time — and that fighter was 3-11-2.
Light heavyweight Marcos Browne had an undefeated opponent named Codale Ford, though Ford’s 2-0 record (with 1 no contest) showed victories against a debuting fighter and a 4-18 fighter. Welterweight Errol Spence’s opponent, a 3-3 boxer named Jonathan Garcia, had beaten a debuting fighter, a 3-0 fighter and an 0-4 fighter. And super middleweight Terrell Gausha’s opponent, the 2-3 Dustin Caplinger, had only defeated two men who had never fought pro before facing him.
These opponents Saturday night were steps backward for Olympians who had competed against other top amateurs over the years, and who had just spent years distancing themselves from others in their own country, and then testing themselves against the international elite (and not-as-elite).
These opponents Saturday night were understandable.
This was, after all, the beginning of their pro careers, and a different style of fighting — and scoring — than the way the amateur system has been in the past two decades. This was an introduction, both of themselves into the pro ranks, and of them to an audience that might not have watched them during the Olympics. Pete Rademacher was the exception; every other prospect of note will face overmatched opposition early on, then move up in quality as they garner more experience.
The problem is that this process seems to be taking longer and longer. The boxing public will only take so much buzz and hype for so long until they demand to see those expectations fulfilled. Fight fans like to watch prospects develop — as they did with Miguel Cotto in the early part of last decade following the 2000 Olympics, and as they did with Mayweather after 1996 and with De La Hoya after 1992.
Yet it’s when the television spotlight remains — and a low level of opposition is maintained — that we begin to get impatient.
There’s a difference between these Olympians and recent stars such as Mayweather, De La Hoya and Andre Ward. It’s not just in ability, but in accomplishment. In 2004, only Ward and Andre Dirrell won medals — Ward with gold, Dirrell earning bronze. In 2008, only the very raw Deontay Wilder got bronze. In 2012, the American men were shut out.
Many of these fighters need more time to develop. Thankfully, they’re no longer coming into the pros with as much fanfare as their predecessors, and so they’re not developing in a similar spotlight as did Mayweather and De La Hoya.
Some fighters can skate by on natural ability. Others must work out the kinks, learning what they can and cannot get away with, realizing what they must improve on. There’s a big difference between the Andre Ward who got dropped hard by Darnell Boone in his seventh pro fight — less than one year into his career — and the Ward who began to make his run through the elite of the super middleweight division in 2009, five years after he earned gold in the Olympics.
If there is one upside to the parade of mismatches that is about to take place, it is that the majority if it will take place on platforms such as “ShoBox,” ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights” and the undercards of broadcasts on NBC Sports Network, Telefutura and Telemundo. We can have our curiosity sated without having these prospects forced down our throats as the next biggest thing.
Some of them might be. But as with Gary Russell Jr., we won’t know for sure until the parade of mismatches eventually comes to an end and we see them prove it.
The 10 Count
1. A Klitschko Fight Worth Wach-ing:
No one expected anything other than a Wladimir Klitschko victory over Mariusz Wach — not with Klitschko’s ongoing domination over the best the heavyweight division has to offer (and also over the rest of those who somehow get title shots), and definitely not with Wach’s career-best victories having come over a pair of plodding big men, Kevin McBride and Tye Fields.
It was nonetheless a delight to see Klitschko hold such command over Wach for the 12-round distance (barring one moment in which Wach looked to land a good shot yet quickly found that Klitschko was not badly hurt, nor was he anything close to resembling the Wladimir Klitschko who had lacked confidence in such situations nearly a decade ago).
Normally we get see the champion in against smaller men who just don’t have the ability to solve the physical puzzle or the courage to try anyway against such a formidable foe. Wach, as the pre-fight marketing went, was the first opponent who’d stand taller than Wladimir.
Lot of good that did him.
Klitschko no longer was content just with following a strategy of keeping a smaller man at a distance, peppering him with jabs and then landing the occasional right hand. Not with Wach. Instead, Klitschko was in with a tall man whose best trait turned out to be his chin. That meant Klitschko had to keep his offense going.
It might’ve been the most sustained offense we’ve seen from Klitschko over the course of a fight since his first bout with Lamon Brewster.
It was delightful.
2. Also delightful was Leo Santa Cruz, who remains one of the great revelations of 2012, particularly over the past five months. We saw him in June, winning a vacant bantamweight belt against Vusi Malinga as part of a Showtime quadrupleheader. We saw him in September, defending that belt against Eric Morel as part of another Showtime quadruple-header. And now Santa Cruz was back on the network again, stopping Victor Zaleta in nine rounds as part of a three-bout broadcast.
Each time, he’s entertained. It’s a shame that the lighter fighters often get ignored by the mainstream audience, because Santa Cruz seems to fight like a lighter version of Antonio Margarito. He’s all activity, but he’s not just volume. The snap seems to remain on his shots over the course of a bout.
Santa Cruz is calling for Abner Mares, a fight that’s not going to happen yet. Santa Cruz wants more fights first, and Mares wants one fight most — Nonito Donaire.
Why not put Santa Cruz in with another castoff from Showtime’s bantamweight tournament? How about Joseph Agbeko or Vic Darchinyan?
3. Mares, meanwhile, impressed with his unanimous decision win over Anselmo Moreno.
It might be more fitting, however, to start calling him Abner Maul-es.
Moreno had long shown himself to be a smooth, skilled boxer. He never got the chance to show much more than glimpses of that ability against Mares, who did anything and everything he could to make Moreno uncomfortable.
What really did it for Mares was his foot speed. He was easily able to get inside on Moreno, keeping Moreno from using his great defensive moves. Instead, Mares would be able to punch whatever he saw, while also making Moreno worry about potential head butts and low blows.
There was beauty in both the workmanlike approach and the dirty tactics.
Mares wasn’t able to sustain the activity for a full three minutes of every round, and in those lulls in the action we were able to see Moreno exhibit his skills. That also happened later in the fight, as Mares began to tire and Moreno began to adjust. In the end, however, Mares was too much for Moreno.
He’s only 26. And he needs to hope that the rift between his promoter (Golden Boy) and Donaire’s promoter (Top Rank) gets fixed soon, even temporarily, so he can even have a chance to get the bout he wants.
We saw a Top Rank fighter and a Golden Boy fighter face each other on HBO this past weekend, when Vanes Martirosyan met Erislandy Lara. Yet that match was made possible by a purse bid for a sanctioning body elimination bout. Top Rank won the purse bid and promoted the card.
Mares and Donaire each have world titles. The only thing that will get them together would be Golden Boy and Top Rank executives agreeing on something aside from their mutual dislike for each other.
4. Both Martirosyan and Lara needed a win on Saturday to establish themselves as viable contenders to the world titleholders at 154.
They fought to a split technical draw in which neither man came out looking better.
Much of that was due to Lara.
He didn’t look overly comfortable against Martirosyan, and didn’t fight with the same confidence he had against Paul Williams last year or against Ronald Hearns earlier this year. Instead, he emphasized boxing more than he did punching, which did not match the heated rivalry that had developed between these two.
Boxing observers have long championed Lara’s cause as his promoter, Golden Boy, seemed to be keeping him away from their cash cow at junior middleweight, Canelo Alvarez.
Lara now has other business to attend to first.
Martirosyan, meanwhile, suffered a bad cut from a clash of heads. The wound brought an immediate end to the fight. And it will create another delay for a former Olympian from the 2004 games who is still in need of that signature win.
5. I like that Showtime is now including fight night weights for its tale of the tape, much as HBO has long done, providing a more accurate view of what we’re seeing in the ring (contrasted with what the boxers were on the scales).
6. And if I were a Showtime executive, I’d have Jim Gray standing by with a cameraman to badger whatever boxer refuses to step on the network’s scale.
7. Boxers Behaving Badly, part one: Four more years! Four more years! (For Scott Harrison, that is.)
The former featherweight titleholder had tried to start anew, returning to the ring after prison time halted his career. Alas, his past has caught up with him — Harrison has been sentenced to four more years behind bars for an assault case dating back to 2007, according to British newspaper The Scotsman.
Harrison, 35, has been found guilty of being part of a group that assaulted three men at a Spanish brothel all those years ago. He was just released from prison in September 2011 after spending two and a half years there for an incident in which he assaulted a police officer and another man and attempted to steal a car.
He had last fought in November 2005 before returning this past June. Harrison won that fight, and came out victorious again in September, bringing his record to 27-2-2 with 15 knockouts. Harrison had been slated to have his third comeback fight on Dec. 1. The newspaper article said that Harrison is expected to appeal.
8. Boxers Behaving Badly update, part one: A fighter Harrison beat back in 2005, Michael Brodie, has been found not guilty of one count of conspiracy to supply cocaine — a charge that came after police in the United Kingdom found a very valuable package of the drug in a taxi driven by the retired fighter, according to the Manchester Evening News.
The former 122- and 126-pound title challenger was arrested about a year ago. At the time, the newspaper said the kilogram of cocaine was worth about £268,000, or around $428,000. The most recent report said there was about £138,000 (or around $220,000) worth of cocaine. Yet the cocaine apparently actually belonged to a man who was a passenger in Brodie’s taxi at the time police stopped the vehicle and searched it. That man has pleaded guilty to criminal charges, according to the report.
Brodie, 38, last fought in 2009, a defeat that brought his record to 36-4-1 with 24 knockouts. He fought four times for world titles, going 0-3-1.
9. Boxers Behaving Badly update, part two: Peter Nightingale, a retired British boxer who once captured a regional title belt, has been sentenced to eight years in prison after being found guilty of killing another man in a social club in February, according to the Birmingham Mail.
The 42-year-old victim “died of severe head injuries,” the newspaper reported. Nightingale had been facing a murder charge but instead was convicted of manslaughter.
Nightingale, 43, fought from 1996 to 2001, capturing the British Boxing Board of Control’s Midlands Area welterweight title in 1999, according to BoxRec.com. He was 6-11-2 at the time. After several more fights, including a points loss to future junior-middleweight contender Jamie Moore (in Moore’s second pro bout), Nightingale left the sport at 11-14-3 (1 knockout).
10. I’ll be covering the HBO card in Atlantic City this weekend. My most important goal: to get an exclusive interview with Adrien Broner’s brush…
“Fighting Words" appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Follow David on Twitter at @fightingwords2 or send questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org