by David P. Greisman
Entertainment is a matter of taste. I learned as much in my years managing a music store, where some customers would buy albums that you couldn’t pay me to listen to — even though that was part of my job description.
Sports is a form of entertainment. Some baseball fans like pitching duels; others prefer power-hitting exhibitions.
The same goes for boxing. Yet while tastes vary, they need not be exclusive. We can be awestruck by slugfests — there’s a reason why the trilogy between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward is being featured later this month on a special episode of HBO’s “Legendary Nights.” We can also appreciate the skilled clinicians who prefer to follow the maxim of hitting and not getting hit. Those who prefer boxing to brawling do have an uphill battle, though. This is a savage enterprise, and we are a bloodthirsty people.
I’m captivated by brutality and brilliance, by wars like the first fight between Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo, and by performances like Bernard Hopkins dissecting Felix Trinidad.
I’m not at all entertained by ugliness. I have tremendous respect for Wladimir Klitschko, for the way he rebuilt his career, for the way he regained his confidence, and for his reign as heavyweight champion. But I cannot respect the way he defeated Alexander Povetkin this past Saturday.
It’s a matter of taste. Klitschko’s fans have been coming to his defense since Saturday. I expect they will do the same with this article. I don’t anticipate winning them over, though I imagine most would agree with identical criticism were it to be applied to a different fighter.
I cannot come to Klitschko’s defense. And it’s not just about Klitschko, but about a tactic that we’ve seen far too much, a strategy that other fighters have gotten away with throughout the years. Klitschko, like Lennox Lewis, used clinching as a weapon, not just grabbing and holding Povetkin to keep him from punching, but also leaning down on him to wear him down, softening him for a more orthodox form of offense.
Klitschko’s long been the target of criticism from those who don’t appreciate his style. But the Povetkin fight was different. In recent years we’d seen Klitschko work from a distance behind his powerful and accurate jab, setting up his sledgehammer right hand and scoring technical knockouts and wide decisions.
That worked well against fighters who couldn’t get inside on a fighter as tall as Klitschko, a champion who is very smart, very skilled and very quick, who is able to keep his foes at bay or easily move away. In the early rounds, Povetkin looked like he’d present a challenge. He was fast and aggressive, and Klitschko looked a little uncomfortable at the outset.
And so Klitschko took the fight out of Povetkin — and took it away from him. But he didn’t do this with his punching, nor did he do this with generally acceptable defensive tactics.
The bout was contested for the International Boxing Federation, World Boxing Association, World Boxing Organization and International Boxing Organization world titles.
The WBA’s philosophy on holding is espoused in its referee’s manual: “This is one of the most obvious poor tactics in the sport of boxing. It not only infuriates the fans, but it negates action during the bout. Therefore, it should be addressed accordingly.”
The IBF and WBO both refer to the Association of Boxing Commission’s unified rules. The ABC’s referee’s guidelines note that unsportsmanlike conduct includes “the three key fouls: headbutting, low blow and holding.”
It shouldn’t even be necessary to support this argument by citing these regulations, not when the answer to what Klitschko did to dominate Povetkin is “He held him more than he hit him.”
It wasn’t entertainment. It was dreadful. And it might not even have been needed, not when Klitschko has shown himself to be superior to every single heavyweight he’s faced for the past nine years.
His skills and style, while producing fights that lack in drama, haven’t meant he’s lacked in fans. Klitschko sells out arenas, draws huge crowds to see him live and brings in big ratings for those watching on television.
He’s not alone. There are others who specialize in negating what their opponents do and are admired for their proficiency in doing so.
Bernard Hopkins is chief among them, though he is often graded on a curve these days, particularly as he is a 48-year-old man so adept at making younger, stronger foes look impotent. Sometimes his performances are exemplary. Sometimes they are excruciating.
Andre Ward has a supportive fan base in his native Oakland. He, like Hopkins, can be divisive. Entertainment is a matter of taste, after all, and Ward’s style has not appealed to everyone’s palate. The most buzz he’s received came when he broke from that mold in dispatching Chad Dawson last year.
Perception is dependent on performance, personality and promotion.
Floyd Mayweather is breaking box office and pay-per-view records on the strength of his stardom and marketing, on being an antihero and a villain, and also on being the best active boxer in the sport today and one of the best of this generation.
Guillermo Rigondeaux, meanwhile, is struggling to get back on television despite his decision win earlier this year over another of the best fighters around, Nonito Donaire.
The conversation about entertainment and expectations continued through HBO’s rebroadcast of Klitschko-Povetkin on Saturday evening and into its live showing of an undercard bout pitting lightweight Terence Crawford against fellow unbeaten prospect Andrey Klimov.
Klimov rarely threw punches, and while Crawford was active on offense, he didn’t appear intent on taking a chance against a passive but otherwise capable opponent.
This was Crawford’s third appearance on HBO; he’d been enjoyable to watch in March against Breidis Prescott and in June in his win over Alejandro Sanabria. Those victories informed the way many saw his fight with Klimov; we expect the best fighters to perform up to their hype, to validate the airtime and money being dedicated to them.
“If you’re faced with a world-class guy in front of you who’s basically trying to stink you out, and you can responsibly not let him do it, I think that says something,” said HBO’s Max Kellerman during the third round of Crawford-Klimov. He followed up on that in the fourth round: “If you have an awkward fighter with crazy punching power, I get it [not pressing the action]. But if that’s not the case, beat him up.”
Kellerman and HBO’s Jim Lampley had an exchange about the topic in the sixth: “Fans don’t want to see you do something easy. Give people a reason to watch,” Kellerman said, calling on Crawford to do a little bit more.
Said Lampley: “Just because the other guy seems to be feather-fisted and you can take his punch doesn’t mean you want to get hit, doesn’t mean you want to be careless about defending. Crawford is fighting a responsible fight.”
Kellerman responded: “A responsible fight, but something less than an inspiring fight.”
And Lampley seemed to agree by Round 7: “Nobody really wants to get countered, but sometimes it’s the price you pay to make the point you want to make and be an entertaining fighter.”
The fans booed throughout Crawford-Klimov. It wasn’t the first tactical boxing match to feel the ire of a crowd. This crowd had been spoiled throughout the undercard by knockouts and action fights. Crawford-Klimov represented a stark departure, and they also had an audience that was largely of Puerto Rican heritage also had no affinity for these two fighters.
Crawford, speaking in the post-fight press conference, shrugged off the booing.
“I already knew what they wanted. They wanted a fan-friendly fight, being that Miguel Cotto is the main event, and the type of fights that he be in,” he said. “They wanted us to slug it out and all that, but if I can get the job done easily and take less punishment and not be in a rough fight, that’s the smart thing to do.”
“My job is to go in there and fight and win,” Crawford added. “The crowd is not in there fighting. They can’t really tell me how to fight my fight.”
But Lampley and Kellerman had a point. It’s important to leave a positive impression with viewers when you’re still cultivating a following. Then again, sometimes those opportunities just aren’t there, and it’s best to win as you can and hope to put on a better show next time.
It’s highly unlikely that Crawford will be consigned to the same category as Rigondeaux. HBO has been intent on featuring him as a future star of the lightweight division.
“I’m not really worried about it,” Todd duBoef of Top Rank said in an interview with BoxingScene.com afterward. “He’s [Crawford’s] a very talented guy. I’ve been in fights where really incredible fighters ended up having an off night. I remember Floyd [Mayweather] didn’t look great against Carlos Rios. I think probably he [Crawford] was a little apprehensive because he felt he was fighting for a title coming up, and I think he’s still a young kid. It’s one fight. He looked great against Sanabria. He looked great against Prescott. He fought a good fight. You just can’t throw one fight against a whole body of work and say, ‘Oh, you’re done.’ ”
“The reality is we can give them the opportunity. They’ve got to capture the moment,” duBoef said. “And not every fight, you capture the moment. Guys have off nights. There are times when Lennox Lewis didn’t look so good. And obviously tonight, Klitschko did not look very good, and people criticized that. It doesn’t mean you give up on Klitschko, right? I think Terence is a young kid and has a lot of ability. I’m not worried about it. I think he’ll get hungry. I think he learned something from the fight. He probably knows he has to bring the action a little more.”
It was Klimov who stunk out the arena. He had landed a mere six power punches after four rounds, and just 22 shots in total after five. CompuBox had him landing just 45 out of 252 punches after nine rounds; a more spirited effort in the 10th brought him up to 57 of 290 for the entirety of the evening.
Nevertheless, the perception will remain that Crawford was at least complicit in the bout’s lack of excitement.
Entertainment is a matter of taste, but the prevailing taste is clear in boxing — and it will be up to Crawford to use his next performance to remove the bad taste from the mouths of those who watched this fight.
The 10 Count
1. Look, there was a time when I was masochistic enough to go back and count the number of times that Manny Pacquiao and Shane Mosley touched gloves in their fight (44).
But even I’m not crazy enough to subject myself to the agony of tallying up the number of clinches during Wladimir Klitschko’s win over Alexander Povetkin. Fortunately, a BoxingScene forum user named Daggum sacrificed himself to the cause, providing us with this unofficial but otherwise jaw-dropping number of hugs, clinches and “hold downs”:
As another BoxingScene forum member noted, that’s an average of 15 clinches per round, or one every 12 seconds.
For comparison’s sake, CompuBox saw Klitschko landing 139 total punches, or about 12 per round, or one every 16 seconds.
Klitschko threw 152 power punches, or about 12 per round, or one every 14 seconds.
And he landed 52 of those power punches, or a little more than 4 per round, or one every 42 seconds.
Clinches, hugs and holds downs came from Klitschko more often than a landed punch, more often than a thrown power punch, and at a far greater rate than landed power shots.
2. Klitschko deserves plenty of the blame, of course. Those who say Povetkin should’ve done more to fight out of those situations are glossing over the fact that he was being manhandled into positions that often made it more difficult to throw — which was Wladimir’s intent — and worked to tire Povetkin.
But you cannot point a finger at Klitschko without also pointing a finger at the man who allowed him to get away with the tactic: referee Luis Pabon.
Observers expected beforehand that Pabon would perform poorly in his duties. He’s consistent in that regard, but inconsistent in the ways he stinks at his job.
Here’s the criticism that some boxing writers had about Pabon’s refereeing in Povetkin’s close, disputed decision win over Marco Huck last year:
Dan Rafael, ESPN.com: “Pabon continually broke the fighters even when they were not in clinches and wouldn't let them fight on the inside, which cost Huck dearly because he was the one doing damage in tight quarters. Povetkin also made a habit of leaning over into Huck's right hands, yet Pabon routinely warned Huck for hitting Povetkin behind the head rather than telling Povetkin to stop bending over.”
Tim Starks, Queensberry-Rules.com: “In another pattern that began in the opening stanza, referee Luis Pabon warned Huck for holding down the head of Povetkin, who repeatedly ducked very low to avoid Huck’s big right hands.”
Adam Berlin, Boxing.com: “Every time Povetkin bent over and got hit, Pabon stopped the action, badgering Huck with warnings while Povetkin reset.”
Mike Coppinger, RingTV.com: “There was to be no in-fighting in this contest, the result of referee Luis Pabon’s repeated meddling. Pabon broke the fighters up every time they were close in proximity.”
I guess we should’ve been careful what we wished for. Last year we wanted Pabon to allow Povetkin and Huck to work in close. This past weekend, Pabon did too little to discourage all of Klitschko’s holding and leaning on the inside.
3. For all of our talk in recent weeks about poor judging, here’s a referee whose negligence of the rules is obvious, but who’s still getting high-profile gigs. This wasn’t just an off night from Pabon. This is the equivalent of C.J. Ross’s two scorecards from Manny Pacquiao vs. Timothy Bradley and Canelo Alvarez vs. Floyd Mayweather.
4. The gossip rags last week claimed that Wladimir Klitschko’s actress fiancée, Hayden Panettiere, was having an affair with a colleague from her TV show.
Publicists for both actors said the story was false, and I believe them. After all, if it were true, that man would be the bravest and most foolish dude around.
For what it’s worth, Panettiere was ringside in Russia to watch Klitschko fight.
And for those wondering, I heard about this gossip story from an acquaintance. No, really, I swear…
5. Look on the bright side: Even if this coming weekend’s fight between Timothy Bradley and Juan Manuel Marquez and the Nov. 19 bout between Mike Alvarado and Ruslan Provodnikov fail to live up to our lofty expectations, they still can’t be anywhere near as bad as Klitschko-Povetkin and Crawford-Klimov were.
I hope I didn’t just jinx us.
6. I liked how the HBO production crew caught up its viewers on what Klitschko had been doing in recent years, as most of them probably hadn’t been following his career via online streams the way us hardcore fight fans do. The highlight reel took four bouts and condensed them in a manner that made them, and him, look exciting.
If only the technology existed to do the same during live action, saving those of us who sat through Klitschko-Povetkin.
7. I’m not sure how it came off on television, but from my perspective at ringside, the crowd in Orlando for Miguel Cotto’s fight with Delvin Rodriguez was fantastic.
The announced attendance was 11,912. Tickets were priced affordably at $150, $100, $50 and $25, a good strategy for venturing into a new market.
The fans arrived in good numbers very early into the show, cheering loudly in support of undercard fighters from Florida and/or of Puerto Rican heritage. During Cotto’s introduction, I felt like I was back in Madison Square Garden for his 2011 rematch with Antonio Margarito.
According to NBC Latino, “close to 900,000 Latinos live in Florida, with most of them close to the Orlando/1-4 corridor. Today, Florida replaces New York as the primary destination for Puerto Ricans leaving the U.S. commonwealth.”
It was smart promoting. Top Rank and Cotto brought a big show to an area that hasn’t been a destination for big-time boxing, and they reached out to an ethnic and local audience on the strength of Cotto’s star power. In turn, they created fan bases for several of the prospects on the undercards, who could ultimately go on to headline smaller shows in the area.
That’s the kind of approach we’ve seen work well in Montreal. And it’s something that’s good for boxing. We need to develop more locales into healthy boxing scenes.
8. I was wrong.
Last week, I asserted that there would not be a rematch between Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Brian Vera following Chavez’s controversial win over Vera in their Sept. 28 fight.
While a rematch still isn’t official, both fighters’ promoters are talking openly about the possibility of having Chavez-Vera 2 take place in December.
I thought that Chavez’s team would move on in favor of a fight with super middleweight champion Andre Ward.
Ward faces Edwin Rodriguez in November. A Chavez-Vera rematch in December would still allow for a fight between Ward and Chavez, should each come out victorious — and should they be able to come to a contractual agreement.
9. There’s always so much to complain about in boxing — this past weekend was certainly no exception — and so it’s important that we remember to spotlight the good things, be they big or small.
That’s why it was great that one boxing-related story to receive mainstream attention this year was that of Boyd Melson, the 12-1-1 junior middleweight who was featured on an April episode of HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryan Gumbel.” Melson donates everything he earns toward research into curing spinal cord injuries.
And so I cannot write about this past weekend’s fights without mentioning Mike Rodriguez, who worked as the cutman for lightweight Andrey Klimov during Klimov’s loss to Terence Crawford on HBO’s “World Championship Boxing.”
Rodriguez was wearing a T-shirt representing the Chino Hills Bulldogs, a youth football team with a 10-year-old player, Tony Lazo Jr., who has brain cancer. Lazo is the son of one of Rodriguez’s colleagues at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department
“Team Lazo has adopted the motto of ‘No one fights alone,’ ” Rodriguez wrote in a statement sent to press. That motto could be seen toward the bottom of his shirt. “The support of both the law enforcement community and the fight community has been overwhelming.”
Rodriguez says donations can be made via to the Tony Lazo Fund via Wells Fargo Bank. For more information, Rodriguez is on Twitter (@boxerrodz).
10. BoxingScene.com headline, Oct. 6, 2013: “Klitschko: I Had to Torture Myself to Beat Povetkin”
Sure, but did you have to torture us, too?
“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 . Send questions/comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org Tags: Wladimir Klitschko , Alexander Povetkin , Klitschko-Povetkin , Klitschko vs Povetkin