by David P. Greisman
Boxing fans can be a tough crowd, skeptical from the outset and difficult to impress. We’ve seen enough careful matchmaking and followed far too many prospects that were built up strategically only to crash down spectacularly.
So a fighter who has been blasting through his opposition but gets caught clean a few times is suddenly described as flawed and soon to be exposed. A boxer who gets knocked down has a questionable chin. Yet a fighter who hasn’t floored his opponent may have too little power.
There’s not often gray area, just black and white. Still, such skepticism tends to be born from observation and repetition. Sometimes these skeptics are proven right.
Deontay Wilder had his doubters years before he won a heavyweight world title. While he was the lone American male boxer to win a medal in the 2008 Olympics, Wilder was still admittedly raw at the time. He’d arrived very late to the sport, lacing up the gloves out of necessity at 19 years old, a young father of a baby daughter born with a birth defect called spina bifida. He thought fighting could earn him money to support her needs.
Less than three years later, he had a bronze medal hanging from his neck. Less than three months afterward, he turned pro.
His development was gradual, as is the case with nearly all prospects signed with powerful promoters and any manager who has at least half a clue. Wilder knocked them all out quickly. The level of opposition rarely ever advanced beyond designated fall guys, however. He’d only just faced Audley Harrison, once the super heavyweight gold medalist in the 2000 Olympics, long since the disappointment who lost when he stepped up, and by that time was a 41-year-old who tended to be knocked out early when he did so.
Wilder added Harrison to the list, the 28th opponent he’d faced and the 28th person he’d knocked out. Sixteen of those fights had ended in the first round. Twenty-two of those fights had ended within two rounds. Twenty-six of those fights had ended within three rounds. And all 28 of them had ended within four rounds.
He still appeared amateurish at times with his technique. His power continued to be evident — next came former heavyweight titleholder Sergei Liakhovich, done in one round; then journeyman Nicolai Firtha, out in four; followed by skilled boxer and fringe contender Malik Scott, gone after two shots barely 90 seconds after the opening bell; and then journeyman Jason Gavern, finished following the fourth.
Wilder was in line for a title shot having barely beaten anyone of significance, never mind anyone of recent accomplishment. This being boxing, people questioned how his power would translate against the upper echelons of opponents. And this being boxing, they questioned his chin as well, recalling how Harold Sconiers had dropped Wilder in Wilder’s 13th pro fight, and also how Wilder had gone down in defeat as an amateur against Krzysztof Zimnoch.
He was expected to have a test in titleholder Bermane Stiverne, who had powered through Chris Arreola twice, the rematch earning him the belt vacated when Vitali Klitschko retired, the one title not held by Vitali’s younger brother, Wladimir, the division’s true champion. Arreola also had a thin résumé at heavyweight, though he was Stiverne’s best win.
Wilder boxed well en route to a wide unanimous decision. Stiverne afterward went to the hospital with a condition related to overtraining, which may have helped explain his lackluster effort. Wilder himself needed medical attention for a broken hand.
“I think I answered a lot of questions tonight,” Wilder said afterward.
He had. There were few questions expected to be posed when he returned against Eric Molina this past Saturday on Showtime. Those few: How quickly would Wilder get Molina out of there? How many fans would show up for Wilder’s homecoming bout in his native Alabama? And how soon would Wilder get back in there with someone more worthy of fighting for a heavyweight title?
Molina, a 33-year-old who was 23-2 with 17 KOs, may have been faintly familiar to boxing fans due to one of those blemishes on his record. He lost to Arreola by first-round technical knockout on a Showtime card back in February 2012. Since then, he’d won five in a row, including a stoppage of DaVarryl Williamson last year and an eighth-round technical knockout of Raphael Zumbano Love in his last appearance.
It was easy to see this as a showcase, given that Wilder had just defeated Stiverne, who had beaten Arreola twice, who made quick work of Molina.
“People don’t think I have a shot, and that’s fine. I’ve used it as motivation,” Molina said on a conference call a week and a half before the fight. “I’ve definitely trained hard. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, and I’m not here to convince people to give me a shot or not. I know what I bring to the table. I know the size and strength that I bring to the table, and I don’t have to convince nobody to root for me or to give me a shot or to believe in me.”
For a few moments, Molina had people believing that he might be about to pull off a remarkable upset.
Molina landed a right hand in the third round that momentarily staggered Wilder. He had already lasted longer than he’d lasted against Arreola. Now it was suddenly reasonable to wonder whether he could exploit Wilder’s flaws and hurt him again.
But Wilder recovered and then rebounded, scoring a knockdown of his own in the fourth, two more in the fifth, and finishing the fight with one last flooring in the ninth.
“First and foremost, I believe in myself. My confidence has always been over the top, no matter what opponent I get in the ring with,” Wilder had said before the fight. “A definite advantage I have is my speed, my footwork and the power that I bring. My defense is remarkable with my footwork. My athleticism kills a lot of the fighters, and that's what I'm going to bring to the ring.”
He got through the rough moment against Molina. Nevertheless, this fight should serve as a reality check.
Boxing fans can be a tough crowd, skeptical from the outset and difficult to impress. There’s not often gray area, just black and white. There needs to be gray area, though. Wilder getting hurt by Molina isn’t meaningless, but it also doesn’t prove that he’s a flawed fraud.
Wilder still has his flaws, which is not at all a surprise. In the era of 17 weight classes each with four major world titles, a boxer can be a work in progress while still having a belt around his waist. Divisions are not always deep. The lower one goes in the rankings — and sanctioning bodies allow voluntary defenses to go against someone as low as No. 15 — the easier it is to make a fighter’s reign and run of sizable paydays last longer.
Wilder’s tightening up his offense, is no longer windmilling anywhere near as often with wild shots, and is learning how to fight more tactically. It’s defensively where he still looks like someone who hasn’t been in this sport very long and hasn’t learned how to watch out for and then adjust to veteran tricks. He still pulls away with his hands down and his chin out, essentially inviting disaster.
Fighters do get hurt. Andre Ward got dropped early in his career by an often underrated and overlooked journeyman named Darnell Boone, who has surprised and even beaten other up-and-comers in the years since. Ward rose from the canvas, won, and recognized his mistake and how to avoid making it again.
Wilder may yet have a questionable chin. Or he may just be a heavyweight in a division where fighters who catch you clean can knock you out. He’s sturdier with 219 to 229 pounds on his frame than he was when he was a gangly and less-experienced 6-foot-7, 200-pound amateur getting rocked by Zimnoch. He may never have granite lining his skull and jawbone.
Neither does Wladimir Klitschko, who suffered three embarrassing technical knockout losses earlier in his career and has now been atop the heavyweight division for several years.
Wilder will nevertheless need to scrutinize his performance closely and make adjustments accordingly — and quickly.
That’s because his mandatory challenger is Alexander Povetkin, who won gold at super heavyweight in the 2004 Olympics and whose lone loss as a pro came in a one-sided decision defeat against Wladimir Klitschko in 2013. Since then he’s scored three-straight knockouts, dispatching Manuel Charr in seven, Carlos Takam in 10, and Mike Perez in just 90 seconds.
He’s shorter than Wilder by five inches. And while Povetkin couldn’t put the tall Klitschko in danger, Wilder doesn’t have the same skillset and experience Klitschko does.
Wilder could get away with mistakes against Molina. That may not be the case against Povetkin.
The 10 Count
1. Any negotiations for a fight between Miguel Cotto and Canelo Alvarez will center on the same thing that pretty much all negotiations involve: the numbers that each fighter is to receive, and the numbers they believe justify those demands.
That’s likely why Cotto vs. Canelo didn’t happen when their camps were first bouncing back proposals and counterproposals earlier this year. I also believe Cotto wanted to keep himself available as a potential opponent for Floyd Mayweather Jr. had Mayweather not been able to consummate the deal with Manny Pacquiao.
Mayweather and Pacquiao ultimately got together because they could make more money with each other than anyone else. That is what Cotto and Canelo will hopefully understand this time around, rather than worrying too much over percentage splits.
Sure, Alvarez got a huge rating on HBO last month when he beat James Kirkland, pulling in more viewers than had seen a boxing broadcast on the network since 2006. And yes, he’s been getting great ratings on HBO since he was a prospect and contender, and is a huge star among Mexican and Mexican-American fans alike.
And yes, Alvarez had more fans for his wins over Kirkland and Austin Trout — about 31,000 and 40,000, respectively — than come to Cotto’s fights.
But Cotto is also a proven commodity. He continues to pull in strong ratings. The 1.597 million who saw him top Geale earlier this month is in line with the audiences that watched him in the past, including the 1.555 million who saw him take out Delvin Rodriguez in October. When Cotto fought on Showtime, his bout with Austin Trout peaked at 1.4 million. And Cotto has a history of bringing big crowds to Madison Square Garden.
Canelo didn’t have huge pay-per-view buy rates for his wins over Alfredo Angulo (at least 350,000) and Erislandy Lara (less than the Angulo fight). Cotto’s rematch win over Antonio Margarito in 2011 had a buy rate of about 600,000, while his win over Sergio Martinez did 350,000 buys.
They need let battling it out in negotiations keep them from battling it out in the ring. Put the two of them together on pay-per-view and in a sizable venue in a good location for both of their fan bases, and there will be more than enough revenue to go around.
2. The man who Miguel Cotto beat to become middleweight champion has announced his retirement.
Sergio Martinez made the announcement this past weekend at the annual International Boxing Hall of Fame festivities in Canastota, New York, ending a career that began in 1997 and didn’t begin to reach its potential and its peak until more than a decade later.
I recall my first time seeing Martinez, on the non-televised undercard to Sergio Mora vs. Vernon Forrest 1 and Paul Williams vs. Carlos Quintana 2. Those who had arrived early at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut were treated to a firefight between Martinez and Archak “Shark Attack” TerMeliksetian. Martinez ultimately scored a stoppage, and four months later he was on HBO, impressing with the way he dismantled Alex Bunema.
He went on to be robbed twice on the same night against Kermit Cintron — robbed first of what could’ve been a knockout ruling, then later on the scorecards, which somehow had it a draw. Martinez came up short on the cards later in 2009, battling it out with Williams and losing a close majority decision, though one judge had it criminally wide for Williams.
Four months later, he was the true middleweight champion. Martinez dethroned Kelly Pavlik, then went on to make six successful defenses, knocking Williams cold, stopping Sergiy Dzinziruk, Darren Barker and Matthew Macklin, then outpointing Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Martin Murray. He was getting his greatest moments later in life, headlining HBO in his late 30s, using his skill and speed to help him score stoppages of larger men, then getting big paydays with the Chavez pay-per-view and a homecoming in Argentina against Murray.
It was a great story, made even greater when you realized that early in his career he had fought outside of Argentina for his first time in 2000 and lost a technical knockout to Antonio Margarito. He spent about five years, from 2002 to 2007, fighting in Spain and the United Kingdom before coming to the United States and working his way up toward prominence.
Yet he hurt his knee and hand against Chavez, came back too soon to face Murray, and still wasn’t wholly recovered when he fought Cotto last year, no matter what Martinez and his team had said beforehand. Cotto concussed Martinez early and clobbered him for the better part of nine rounds. It wasn’t the loss that had Martinez mulling retirement, but the poor condition his knee was in. He is 40, an age that is hard enough in a young man’s sport when one is completely healthy.
Perhaps he should’ve retired even before he faced Cotto, but he is making the right call at the right time now. He waited a year, gave his body time to heal, saw specialists, and likely consulted with his family, friends and team members. He was able to wait and see if his body would hold up, but also whether the hunger was still there.
Martinez retires at 51-3-2 with 28 KOs.
3. It felt like we’d just met Nicholas Walters, and now he’s without a featherweight world title. The good news for him is that he’s still undefeated. The good news for us is that we’ll very likely see him back.
It was unfortunate — and unprofessional — that Walters came in overweight for his bout with Miguel Marriaga on Saturday’s broadcast of HBO’s “Boxing After Dark.” It was something that people saw coming.
“He’s bone dry,” tweeted boxing observer Michelle Rosado on Friday after Walters tipped the scale at 127.4 pounds, 1.4 pounds over the limit. “Been in [a] sweat suit all week and has been killing himself. Doubt he can spit.”
Walters came back later and was 127 pounds, losing his belt on the scales.
He blamed a long layoff, the eight months since his stoppage win of Nonito Donaire allowing him to gain far too much weight between bouts. It also might just be that he had been boiling himself down to featherweight for too long, couldn’t do it anymore, and probably shouldn’t have continued to fight at 126 pounds, although there was plenty of reason for him to try.
And the conspiracy-minded, who given the goings-on in our sport aren’t always crazy with their ideas, wondered of the reason Walters hadn’t appeared on a planned date in March was because he was so overweight back then, and not because of the reason announced in February that he’d come down with the flu.
Walters had only gained wider recognition when he knocked out Vic Darchinyan on the undercard of a boxing card in Macau. He then went on to beat Donaire in an enjoyable breakthrough for his career. HBO was perhaps hoping for a unification bout with his Top Rank stable-mate Vasyl Lomachenko.
We’ll see if Walters can squeeze down to 126 once again. If he can’t, we’ll likely still see him back on HBO. He’s entertaining and skilled, and was able to use his attributes and his size advantage to take a decision over Marriaga.
There isn’t as much available in the 130-pound division, at least not in the United States, and even guys like Javier Fortuna and Jose Pedraza are aligned with Al Haymon and are likely out of reach. Maybe Lomachenko would be willing to face Walters at 128 (if he can even make that) or 130. Or maybe Lomachenko will aim for the vacant belt instead.
4. Last week, one of the best female boxers in the world tried out to become a professional wrestler.
Ava Knight — a former 112-pound titleholder who also challenged for belts at 108, 115 and 118 — was one of 40 people invited to try out for WWE’s new season of its “Tough Enough” reality competition. More than 11,000 people sent in audition tapes. The tryouts were intended to narrow down those 40 to a cast of 13.
Knight was cut on the first day.
“Not mad tho!!” she tweeted afterward. “During the process I saw the fire these guys had for this & I frankly didn't feel it. My [heart] is boxing.”
It’s funny because Knight probably tried out for this because of what boxing isn’t doing for her. There’s a movement calling for WWE to give its “Divas” a chance to wrestle beyond two-minute matches, take part in poorly conceived storylines, and be more than eye candy while the arena audiences take bathroom breaks. The strange thing is WWE’s developmental system has done a better job of this than its “major league” programming has done.
That’s more than can be said about boxing in the United States. In this era when mixed martial artist Ronda Rousey is one of the biggest stars in her sport, networks and promoters are the ones not giving female boxers a chance.
“The United States is sadly the worst place for women to fight,” Knight told me last November. “You don’t really have a fair chance here. Europe, the women get treated very well. Even in Mexico, they’re not looked at the same as we are over here, kind of like a sideshow or the beginning of a show. In Mexico, we’re main events, we’re pay-per-views, we’re main events on televised fights. We get a lot of credit. But over here it’s kind of hard. Money-wise, you’re looking at four or five times more when you go away.”
5. After Erislandy Lara defeated Delvin Rodriguez last week, he called out three big names: Miguel Cotto, Gennady Golovkin and Floyd Mayweather Jr.
None of those will happen.
Lara has the skill to compete at the highest levels. He just doesn’t seem to grasp that it doesn’t matter how easy he can make it look so long as people can tell he’s holding back from doing more. And that’ll keep him from reaching the heights of popularity that would give stars like Cotto, Golovkin and Mayweather reason to take the risk.
Lara basically carried Rodriguez the 12-round distance, winning a shutout on all the scorecards when the result need not have involved the judges. Lara put Rodriguez down in the sixth round and very well could’ve done the same again and again until it was over. For all of Rodriguez’s heart and determination, his limit falls far below the level of guys like Lara and Miguel Cotto, who needed less than seven minutes to finish him in 2013.
Alas, Lara tends to approach his bouts wanting to make his opponents miss as much as possible — a rational approach in a hurt sport — while irrationally doing enough to win rounds and not enough beyond. Rodriguez’s offensive output dwindled as the fight went on. It became fruitless, as little was going to land anyway and he was going to get socked in return. Lara was exceedingly accurate with his power shots, landing 157 of 254, or 62 percent, according to CompuBox.
Yet those in attendance booed, because Lara should’ve been doing more. You can engage with the fans without engaging in a firefight.
6. Boxers Behaving Badly: Former light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver owes the mother of his daughter a significant amount of money that went unpaid over a significant amount of time — $669,000 in total accumulated at $6,000 a month, and the last time he’d paid any money was in 2012 when a judge told him he could go to jail otherwise, according to Florida television station WFLA.
Now he’ll likely be losing some property, including his home, to help pay back that debt.
“A family court magistrate in Tampa [last week] held Tarver in contempt for not supporting his teenage daughter. The magistrate ordered Tarver to hand over a $10,000 cashiers check, his Land Rover, his home and even a luxury watch that Tarver insisted was a ‘knock off,’ ” the article said.
Tarver said he hasn’t been able to afford the child support and labeled his ex-girlfriend “a money-hungry woman who just feels like I owe her the world when I'm only obligated to take care of my daughter, and that’s all I want to do.”
Tarver’s girlfriend works as a night nurse.
Tarver is now 46 and still fighting as a heavyweight. It was just announced that he will face Steve Cunningham in August on a Spike TV broadcast of “Premier Boxing Champions.” He last fought in December 2014, knocking out Johnathon Banks and, according to the article, getting paid $40,000.
WFLA also reported that Tarver got about $500,000 for his bout with Lateef Kayode in 2012, though articles from that time say Tarver got $1.1 million, a number that of course is before tax and payments to his team members. Tarver tested positive for a banned steroid in that cruiserweight bout but was only fined $2,500.
Tarver had racked up enough gambling debt in four days in July 2012 — three gambling markers at the Wynn Las Vegas worth a combined $200,000 — that he was arrested last year in Florida on an open warrant out of Nevada, TMZ reported at the time. He went free after apparently having his debt covered by boxing adviser Al Haymon.
That wasn’t his first time running out on gambling debts. Tarver had been loaned $100,000 by the MGM Grand and $50,000 by the Bellagio in 2009, only paying them back 10 percent of each of those debts, TMZ reported last year. He is 31-6 with 22 KOs and the one no contest resulting from the Kayode draw being overturned due to Tarver’s use of a banned substance.
7. Between the loss to Bernard Hopkins back in 2006 and his various legal troubles since then, it’s fair to say Antonio Tarver hasn’t had the best of luck with the judge, the jury, or “The Executioner.”
8. Boxers Behaving Badly, lightning round edition:
- Simon Vallily, an undefeated 29-year-old cruiserweight from the United Kingdom, is facing charges of violating a restraining order, harassment, and criminal damage, according to the Teesside Gazette. He “is accused of damaging a door and destroying a television, kettle and a toaster,” the article said. Vallily last fought in April, a points win that brought his record to 7-0 with 1 KO.
- Chad Bennett, a 42-year-old junior welterweight form Australia still fighting after nearly 16 years, has been accused of grabbing his girlfriend by the throat, shoving her and threatening her, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He last fought in April, a win that brought him to 36-4-3 (27 KOs).
- Vincent Thompson, a heavyweight from the United States, has been sentenced to seven years in prison for his role in getting two minors, including his stepson, to rob eight banks in the state of Washington, according to the Federal Way Mirror. The 32-year-old is 13-2 with 2 KOs. He appeared on ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights” a couple of years ago. His two defeats came in his last two fights, with the most recent loss coming in a January 2014 decision dropped to Travis Kauffman.
9. Boxers (and Others in Boxing) Behaving Goodly, lightning round edition:
- Welterweight fighter Robert Guerrero announced via news release that he would donate $100,000 to the Breathe for Caley Foundation, a charity that grants second wishes to chronically ill children.
- Former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield participated in the filming of a public service announcement encouraging people to get checked for prostate cancer, according to New England television station WLNE.
- Manny Pacquiao helped give out food and school supplies to children in the Philippines, according to British newspaper The Daily Mail.
- A husband and wife, both of whom are military veterans, have opened a boxing gym in Pennsylvania that is free for disabled veterans and first responders, according to the Beaver County Times.
- Matchroom Boxing, the British promotional company, has donated money to help keep the Golden Gloves amateur boxing club in Liverpool going despite the club losing its location, according to the Liverpool Echo.
- Members of the police and fire departments in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Jersey City, New Jersey, will fight each other this Saturday in a fundraiser “to help the Christian Boxing Academy afford a location and equipment for its after school boxing program,” according to The Jersey Journal.
10. Andre Ward is fighting on Saturday. That means the cicadas are returning this year, right?
“Fighting Words” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. Pick up a copy of David’s 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 [email protected]