Monday, June 22, 2009

Steelhammer's Labor

Racial and national identity are fundamental parts of boxing; there is a reason the crowd at the Cotto/Clottey fight last week was split roughly ninety-nine to one in favor of Cotto, and it wasn’t just the fighter’s respective sense of the moment. It doesn’t really bother me; boxing is more affecting and true because it’s unfair. What happens among the three men in the ring on fight night might be on the level, but just about nothing leading up to or following the final bell is. It’s dirty and slimy and mercenary and unjust and it’s lovely.

I like it because I’m a racist too: I don’t like robots. Or to be more exact I just have no feeling about them, they leave me empty and unmoved, and really, what else is there?

Wladimir Klitschko won the Ring Magazine heavyweight championship on Saturday, defeating Ruslan Chagaev due to corner stoppage following the ninth round. I read about it on the internet because though I turned on the television in my apartment to ESPN Classic at 4 in the afternoon I dozed off somewhere around the fourth round; it was a dreamless and unsatisfying sleep.

This has been the hardest article I’ve yet had to write, the first time where posting my thoughts actually feels like a labor. I wrote half a preview before I scrapped it, not that I had something better to do but I had nothing really to say. I sort of wish I had posted it, because my pick was, believe it or not, a corner retirement after round ten. But really, even I’m not impressed, it’s like predicting tragedy in a man’s future or that the flesh-eaters will take over the Earth; distasteful and unfulfilling inevitabilities better left unsaid.

It’s not that Wladimir Klitschko is a bad man, and I don’t even blame him for his style or as many do for his lack of killer instinct. It’s a man’s labor in there, and it’s not for me to judge the moral rectitude or character of one who manages to win in convincing fashion. Efficiency and contemplation are virtues and as such should be commended. He does what he needs to win, and even if it’s not captivating or ennobling it might become so over time… Every old boxer someday becomes respectable.

It’s also not that his opposition is so poor. He seems to want to make the best fights he can, and if he’s not facing killers many other heavyweight eras have shared the same malady.

It’s really not anyone’s fault, it’s just that the activity he engages in bears little resemblance to what I recognize as boxing. To me there is romance in the word, there is rhythm and grace and dance. It is the sweet science… what a beautiful phrase.

But with Klitschko it is only science, and that not one of chemical reactions or even high level mathematics; but a science of stress tests and heat indexes and blunt force.

Jab, jab, jab… move, hold, jab, jab, jab, right hand. Jab, jab, jab, step back, hold… jab, jab, jab, evade. Wait, jab, jab, jab, straight right hand. It’s impressive, the discipline and focus and brutal efficiency. Klitschko is a man with no loose ends, the very limit of his capacity reached and made real. There is not a person in the world that could step into the ring and whip him.

And I just don’t care.

There has been talk that his union with legendary trainer Emmanuel Steward, while improving his work in the ring, has robbed him of excitement and aggression. Steward, who excels with tall fighters possessing great jab-right hands, (Tommy Hearns, Lennox Lewis) has managed to improve Wladimir by reducing his options. No more hooking off the jab, and even the straight right has been curtailed, a backup option used only when the risk of a counter is minimal.

An intelligent tactic, right and just considering that Klitschko’s weakness is his ability to absorb a shot, to roll through adversity. He has rarely even lost a round in his career, but when he has the results have been disastrous. Three knockout losses, all the result of exhaustion and panic attacks as much as they were huge punches.

Following his latest and most spectacular flameout to Corrie Sanders - Boxer/ gentleman farmer/ semi-pro golfer – Klitschko has curtailed his aggressiveness and become a fighter with the sensibilities of an insurance agent. It is a brutally effective, rule driven style that his German fan base loves, but viewers with more romantic sensibilities find cold and uninspiring. I mean, I know there is something there to hold on to, a weirdly homo-social relationship with his brother, a knockout artist with a fragile chin, a heavyweight champ with anxiety attacks; it all sounds like an HBO series.

But when the network pulled their coverage from the show following the withdrawal of the original opponent, David Haye, I think most American fans were pleased, hopeful that money can be better spent than with yet another predictable Klitschko match up. And hopefully it will… I’d love to see them go after another Hopkins fight – hell, I’m much more excited for the Darchinyan-Agbeko Bantamweight fight on Showtime, or pump more money into that weird vampire show they’ve got. I just don’t want to see it anymore.

And that’s the great thing about boxing; there are no rules for fandom. I was terribly disappointed with the finals match up in the NBA playoffs, barely even watched it. But as someone who loves the league I still have to confront the reality of what happened, recognize its meaning as the crowning of the one true champ. In boxing it’s more subjective and personal, I can frame things in a way that provides meaning to me, and it’s much easier to work things to conform to your sensibilities/delusions.

So I don’t mind if you tell me that this Klitschko is a great champion, he very well may be. I choose my own realities in the ring; and I’m fine with the cruiserweight division and Thomas Adamek; as far as I’m concerned he’s the one the can whip any man in any room he’s in.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Ten lashes

My piece on Clottey is up on Nomas, and reading it over again I was pretty hard on him in ways I generally try not to be. Meaning it takes unbelievable courage and skill to get into that ring at the lowest level, let alone the places Clottey has gone. But there was something about the way he fought that was so galling, disheartening, and unseemly that I still feel myself seething as I type. It’s one thing for a man to think better of it and crack a little once he’s been to the mountaintop – De La Hoya or Barrera– but to carelessly crash into the shoals after a long and arduous journey is true tragedy.

Now I may be giving Clottey too much agency, too much credit for self-knowledge and choice, but I don’t think so. The pain is in the knowing, and I think Clottey did. I wondered on nomas if Clottey had ever read Hamlet, because the contentment he might find in his role as poor soul, as the aggrieved, might be a short lived pleasure. If he might agree with Hamlet that, “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” I imagine Clottey slept better than I did on Saturday night, but I suspect it won’t be long before the demons come.

* I’m heartbroken over the delay in the Mayweather/Marquez fight. I was really looking forward to it, two masters at the height of their craft, a rare gift. There has been talk that it’ll be delayed until September, but the details need to be worked out. This obviously makes the likelihood of a Pacquiao/Cotto match increase considerably, as I doubt Pac wants to wait until next year to get into the ring again.
The fight makes sense for Bob Arum, both Pacquiao and Cotto’s promoter - he will not have to share the promotion fee and is guaranteed a winner – but I can’t help feeling a little uneasy about the whole thing. I think Pacquiao will win, I always felt he matched up well with Cotto, but we’re so close to serendipity, Mayweather/Pacquiao, that I don’t want to risk it.

There are certain people with patience, who wait to eat their meal in the proper order; but we have the most delicious desert waiting in the kitchen, and I fear our appetite may be spoiled before it gets to the table.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Coming back to you

I have a long and serious take on the fight which will come out tomorrow, hopefully on Nomas and when it's up I'll link to it. The fight really hit me hard. I just wanted to say a few things about Cotto first, since my thoughts are mainly on Joshua Clottey.

Miguel Cotto is a terrific fighter, but he's not as terrific as I wanted him to be and because of that I find it hard to forgive him. For guys like Arturo Gatti, Ricardo Mayorga, or even to a certain extent the younger Manny Pacquiao there is something enobling about their struggles and great fights, that pushing up to and over the limits of their capacity. But when you were burdened with the initial expectations of greatness that Cotto had, there is an entirely different feeling when the displays of vulnerability are so overt. It feels a little like a betrayal.

I never wanted to see bravery from Miguel Cotto, I wanted to see excellence. And I don't buy for one minute that he was damaged from Margarito, or that his skills have deteriorated, I just think he was never quite what I wanted him to be. It is ultimately my fault but still inextricably defines the ways I see him.

I was happy he won the fight, even though I scored Clottey the winner by a point. Cotto earned the win and he deserves keep his seat at the big boys table. He is an exciting fighter and I even admire the way he cheats to win; you always know it means something to Cotto, that the fight is important to him.

But I can't stop being angry at him for being a supporting actor instead of a lead. There are too few special champions and I so wanted him to be one. To be like Trinidad; fine and moving and a master.

So I think the thing to do is recalibrate, to celebrate him for what he is instead of what I wish him to be. And who knows, maybe he will be more than I now expect and that will add a new dimension, maybe there will be a different profundity to his career that will ultimately be more compelling. I think he will lose to the special ones, Mayweather and Pacquiao, but I've thought that for a while, and in his fragility and nakedness we may come to love a noble champion instead of a great one.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Dress Sexy at my Funeral: part 2

I heard a person who would know say that if you want people to think you’re a genius never smile when being photographed. There’s something about Miguel Cotto’s impassive demeanor that makes me think he must be gifted in some special way, like a cyborg or some ancient tree.

Which is not to say that he’s mechanical, I think he’s a natural fighter. If a guy like Andre Berto always seems like he’s thinking it through, analyzing, Cotto has none of that, the remorseless implementation of the computer age, a CPU over clocking to its maximum capacity. He’s much the opposite of his fiery compatriot, his predecessor on the throne, the quintessential Puerto Rican slugger, Felix Trinidad, who's fighting was a joyous, alcoholic, and celebratory dance. Cotto is as serious as the tomb, and it’s moving and intimidating, but it’s not humanizing.

That’s why it has been hard for me to get a handle on him since the Margarito humiliation. If you build someone up as special they’re bound to disappoint, but with Cotto there was never much to hold onto, just the steely imperturbability, the stately march of commerce across the heartland, how could that break down? It wasn’t that he was thought invincible before then, he’d been seriously hurt against lesser lights like Demarcus Corley, Ricardo Torres - and more understandably Zab Judah and Shane Mosley – but there was always the feeling that he could hold it together, that even if he lost he wouldn’t be broken, that the center would hold.

All that came crashing down against Margarito, and it’s one of the great tragedies of the handwrap disgrace; we don’t know fully if the machine was brought down by an overload of its’ processors handling too difficult a task, or by a virus introduced to the system.

Cotto clearly has the higher ceiling than Clottey; he can do more things well. Cotto is better schooled, more athletic, and a stronger puncher, but it’s hard for me to feel sure about him anymore now that I know he is all too human. Like a boy’s realization that his father is not an unerring oracle, or seeing his idealized woman fray around the edges it is a cruel blow and one there is perhaps no full recovery from.

In his first fight back from the Margarito loss Miguel Cotto faced Michael Jennings, a domestic level British fighter. He crushed Jennings, beating him to the body and landing with the thudding, hurting power that is his hallmark. It was everything one could want in a comeback fight, but the way I watched was totally different than before, like checking to make sure you’re boozy friend doesn’t embarrass himself at the wedding.

We’ll see if he ever gets to be the special someone we all hoped, Josh Clottey will be a good test. I hope Cotto wins the fight on Saturday, it will make the welterweight picture much more interesting in the future, with four genuine articles – Mayweather, Mosley, Pacquiao, and Cotto- within striking distance. I think he will win, Clottey is a fine fighter, but like I said before he has only one speed, and I don’t think it’s enough to smash through Cotto. I’m not even that worried about the sort of insidious wearing down of the circuitry that Margarito managed against him, Clottey doesn’t exert that sort of will and has only scored one stoppage in the last five years.

I see a competitive match, but one in which Cotto lands the more pleasing punches and wins the fight clear. Clottey seems to me one of those people in the world forever fated to be found wanting on the big stage, it’s not a flaw of character but one of destiny. I think Cotto’s got more on his horizon, but I can’t help but feeling it will be one of ultimate disappointment. When results alone are all we see, it is harder to be forgiving to someone so gifted. There didn’t ever seem to be much personal given from Cotto, he was a purely unemotional investment, and as such truly vulnerable.

My German professor used to say, “Mensch ist nicht Machine;” Man is not a machine. That’s very true, but when you’re neither, even great success means you might ultimately be less than both.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Clottey vs. Cotto: Part 1

Ben Tackie, Ike Quartey, and the great Azumah Nelson; I’ve never really gotten a good explanation as to why Ghana seems to produce fighters. It’s not particularly big, prosperous, or fucked up, (at least in relation to it’s neighbors) but it creates tough men, seemingly all from Accra, and all with a similar style. Maybe it just goes back to the professor, Azumah Nelson, and the type of grit that breaks stone.

The fighter currently carrying the baton is Joshua Clottey, who looks to stand and be counted on Saturday on HBO against Miguel Cotto. I’ll look at him later in the week, but Clottey first, because to me he represents a mathematical constant, a fixed value against which to measure the worth of men. Like a cardboard sign at the fair saying “you must be this tall to enter,” Clottey is the fighter you need to be able to beat if you want a seat at the big boys table.

I’m being a little unfair to Clottey, he is a champion in his own right, but there just seems to be something missing when he fights, that little bit extra that captures the imagination and screams special above the roar of the crowd. I have no doubt he would grind the Cintrons, Angulos, and Urangos from last week, but a guy like Berto, well it would be interesting. Part of me always roots for him, African fighters never seem to get a break; with no natural constituency built in they have to wait to become mandatories for titles.

But Clottey doesn’t seem to do himself many favors. Aside from a terrific chin, he simply doesn’t have any superior qualities. He has decent power, a nice defense behind a consistent high guard, applies pressure well, and has a good jab. He also seems to have one speed; he fights in fourth gear, round after round. If he has an opponent hurt, he stays in fourth gear, if he’s behind, he stays in fourth gear, if he’s winning the fight, he stays in fourth gear.

There’s certainly something to be said for consistency, for bringing the fight round after round and staying within oneself and the things you do well. But there is more to be said for inspiration, for explosion, and the testing of limits. This is where Clottey falls short for me; in a division of specialists he is an allaroundman. Now it is not necessarily a fighters purpose to inspire by actions, winning can do the trick just as well, but I wonder if Clottey, who if he was in a video game would have stats of 7.5 in each statistical category, will have what it takes to join the table with the rest of the welterweight killers. He's at the precipice, a win announces him as a player in the hottest division in the sport. He probably won't get a fight against Pacquiao, Mosley, or Mayweather, but he'll get a high perch from which to shout insults as they swing above him, and all it takes is a win.

A look back at some of his notable fights.

Josh Clottey DQ 11 Carlos Baldomir 1999: I’ve never seen the fight, but from all reports Clottey was winning comfortably against the future (briefly) welterweight king. Clottey was DQ’d for head butting, and from what I’ve seen in later fights it is not that surprising. He’s not a dirty fighter, but he’s rough.

Josh Clottey UD L Antonio Margarito 2006: The fight in which he was introduced to the public and seemed to fix his standing in my mind. Margarito was starting to get a little buzz as something special, and was expected to roll over Clottey, but dominated the first four rounds, making Margarito look slow and awkward. Fans of his point to those first four rounds as the example of the fighter he could be.

Then something happened, Clottey began complaining about his hands and seemed to stop fighting. I would never question a fighter’s courage, but Clottey seemed content with his performance, with lasting the distance. Margarito amped up the pressure and Clottey withstood it admirably, taking punches which later opponents (namely Cotto) would crumble under, but there never seemed any desperation, any fierce urgency from Clottey. Margarito was tough, but so crude, and Clottey had all the tools; he just somehow couldn’t seem to do it, to make it happen. He was comfortable just passing through, lasting with his high guard. Again, his hands were hurt, I’m sure it was serious, but there didn’t seem to be any contingency plan, and that was a disappointment.

Josh Clottey UD 12 Diego Corrales 2007: In hindsight it’s unbelievable Corrales’ promoters made this fight. Chico was coming off his two apocalyptic fights with Castillo and a beating from Joel Cassamayor and moved up two divisions to fight Clottey. Clottey came into the ring at 170 and muscled the fragile but brave Corrales around. Clottey dominated the fight, scoring two knockdowns, but again he seemed content to pass through. Corrales was a chipped window and Clottey had the hammer but he refused to throw it. Again we saw consistent pressure, he was in total control, but he seemed unwilling or unable to push that extra bit. Corrales brought all he had to the fight, landing some big punches, but he was badly outgunned. It was his last fight as he died in a motorcycle accident soon afterwards.

Josh Clottey UD 12 Shamone Alvarez 2007: Another example of Clottey’s limitations. He was fighting Alvarez, a good ESPN level fighter, but never tried to stretch to make something happen. He lost a few rounds, but he won most, and he never seemed particularly invested either way. To me it was a disappointment.

Josh Clottey TD 9 Zab Judah 2008: Clottey’s last fight, nearly a year ago, against the rapidly fading Zab Judah. Judah started off strong, using his superior speed to land some serious punches on Clottey, but he ate them without visible difficulties. After that is was a matter of time and pressure. Judah wore down against Clottey's onslaught. He never really pressed or risked anything, almost seemed to take joy in the stalking of the rapidly deteriorating Judah. When a cut opened over his eye Judah used the opportunity to go to the scorecards in hopes that he had won enough of the early rounds to squeeze out the decision. He didn’t, and Clottey got the technical decision win.

Clottey often claims he is disrespected and underappreciated, and he’s probably right. If he was fated to be born in different geography he likely would have had more fans and gotten the big fights sooner, but it’s hard to feel for a guy who doesn’t seem to be willing to push for the moment himself.

It’s not necessarily a flaw in character, maybe he simply can’t push himself further because that’s all he’s got, but whatever the cause like Popeye always said, “I‘am whatI’am.” Clottey is what he is; we’ll look at what Cotto is later in the week.

Monday, June 1, 2009

I want it too

**** Update **** Check out my guest post on the excellent boxing blog nomas. It's a real pleasure to be writing there as I've long been a fan of their stuff. I'd like to particularly thank Large for inviting me to participate. I think the piece is pretty good, it's a call to get a little bit of perspective in regards to Floyd Mayweather, a subject I intend on returning to frequently as we aproach his fight with Juan Marquez. ****

Although I watch virtually every fight televised on the major American networks and try to catch the big ones overseas online, it’s tough to get too excited by the mediocrities. Even though two evenly matched fighters can engage in entertaining theater it’s hard to place too much investment into an event without the highest stakes.

That said a few thoughts on HBO’s fights this weekend which featured three honest pros and one maybe will be.

* The undercard saw Kermit Cintron, former welterweight strapholder moving up to junior middleweight to take on HBO prospect Alfredo Angulo. I find there is an element of bad conscious now in watching Kermit Cintron fight. It’s a little uncomfortable and wrenching, like walking through the pound and seeing dogs half-mad from hunger and abuse.

Kermit was the house fighter a few years ago, the guy they were pushing as a potential something, but then he got his guts ripped out by Antonio Margarito, twice. The fights were brutal, debilitating, and unmanning. Margarito, one of the few fighters I find constitutionally unsympathetic, mowed Kermit down. He ate punches like they were nothing and left Cintron in a heap; there was no science or craft or strategy, just pure pressure till the pipe broke. And Cintron really shattered, curling up and literally crying in the ring, the kind of assault that makes a man rethink his choice of work.

And nothing he had done since indicated Cintron had been duly rehabilitated. I saw him fight on the undercard of a live show last year and though he won he was uninspired and lifeless. He challenged for a Junior Middleweight belt against the average Sergio Martinez and was both knocked out (which the ref blew) and decisioned. (which the judges blew with a draw)

Damaged goods; that’s what most, myself included, thought. And that’s where the bad conscious comes in; I can’t help but think about Margarito and those gloves when he fights now. He was never the most fluid or natural guy to begin with, the announcers always point out that he didn’t start boxing till he was nineteen, and maybe it’s just projection but it sure looks like it. I doubt he ever had much of a chance to be something special, but maybe he would have had a chance without the plaster. I don’t like talking about Margarito and the hand wraps, boxing is hard enough to rationalize without the unthinkable, but something in the retreating, panicked way he fights, like a dog flinching at a raised hand, really flavors the tragedy of the thing, like some far-fetched Hollywood script. I still can’t believe it happened, still can’t believe they loaded his gloves; it’s the worst thing a person can do in sport. What compares, putting a banana in the tailpipe of a racecar? There’s nothing.

So though the fight was scratch and sniff, a forgettable affair, there was something of the beauty of redemption in Cintron hanging on against the Margarito-light Angulo. Cintron didn’t fight that well, he used his superior speed to pepper the stuck-in-mud Angulo for the early rounds and in the late rounds he seemed to just barely be holding on, one blow thrown in anger away from crumbling. But he didn’t crumble, he survived, his face and style that of a desperate man, to the final bell, and earned his win.

Would he have held up better against the similarly limited Margarito without the perhaps illegal hand wraps? To be honest, I don’t think so. But there is no way to know, and that’s got to be galling to him. It’s a brave man who steps into the ring, particularly one who is already seemingly cracked and unwhole. I don’t think Cintron will ever beat a world-class fighter - I don’t think he did Saturday – but there was something a little touching to know that while the broken may not fully heal, it can be mended.

* It wasn't only the studded dog collar that made Angulo look like a Mexican sex freak. It was the dog collar plus the thin porn moustache. Not a good look, Alfredo. And no, I certainly wouldn't say it to his face.

* In the main event rising Welterweight titlist Andre Berto fought junior welterweight belt holder Juan Urango. I try not to be too negative on guys who beat adequate opposition by clear margins, but there wasn’t much to get excited about here. Berto has some of best handspeed in the sport, and it was very apparent against the strong but slow Urango.

Berto landed at will but held just as much, and it was unclear exactly why. Berto had no problem fighting at distance, and his superior speed made it easy to stay there, but he frequently and seemingly purposefully dove in and held, making the fight virtually unwatchable.

My fighting hero James Toney says something like, (insert virtually unintelligible guttural mutterings) “All these chumps was taught to fight, I was born to fight.” I can’t help feeling a little like that about Berto, he’s got all the gifts, all the tools, but something seems missing, that special inspiration separating a good fighter from a great one. Like Cintron there seems to be a hitch in the proceedings that keeps him in the atmosphere, slightly, but definitively below the sainted heroes; Mayweathers, and Marquezes and Pacquiaos and Mosleys. I may be wrong, a curmudgeon unwilling to acknowledge the new; Berto is young, strong, and fast, but I wonder if what James is talking about can ever be learned.

*Not to kill the guys, because it's borderline entertaining, but the announcing on the B.A.D. crew has entered into car-wreck territory. Starting next time I’m beginning a new feature tentatively called, “The Wisdom of Lennox Lewis.” And don’t worry, Max Kellerman will get his due as well.