This writing appeared on the boxing website ucnlive.com.

 

11/2016

November Narratives

 

The month of November saw the rising tides of populism and nationalism finally breach the sea wall of the federal government. Like many casual fans of the sport of boxing, the voters in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania had become tired of the status quo. Whether it's politics or boxing; discontent can flow from corrupt decisions, figures that wear out their welcome, or a disregard for the feelings of the masses. The realm of politics allows this discontent to be expressed every election cycle at the ballot box. While in the sport of boxing, discontent can be expressed by fans changing their viewing and spending habits. Boxing consumers seem to have soured on expensive PPV’s just as large swaths of voters seem to have soured on opaque international trade agreements.

Yet despite two of the three marquee bouts in November being relegated to PPV, most diehard boxing fans probably welcomed the uptick in activity after a barren fight schedule in October. Fans witnessed the return of an aging legend who never really left; an anticipated showdown between two of the best fighters on the planet; and a fight that many who follow the sport had been dreaming about for some time. The storylines flowing from the results of each bout have the potential to blossom into something special over the next calendar year.

The November 5th fight between Manny Pacquiao and WBO welterweight champion Jessie Vargas wasn't exactly a match up boxing fans were clamouring for. Most would have rather seen Pacquiao take on WBC and WBO super lightweight champion Terence Crawford in what would have been a true ‘crossroads’ match - the young hungry lion getting a shot to make his name by taking out a legend. With both fighters being promoted by Top Rank Promotions, the fight seemed easy to make. Yet as is usually the case; Top Rank President Bob Arum decided the popular choice would not be his choice. You’d be hard pressed to find an individual in a position of power who cares less about the opinions of the masses than Mr. Arum.

At the age of thirty seven Manny Pacquiao is not the two fisted, whirlwind assassin he once was. Yet he is still one of the best fighters in the world. ‘Old Man Pacquiao’ is still a class above the Brandon Rios’, Chris Algieri’s, and Jessie Vargas’ of the world. Yet Pacquiao’s value as a boxing commodity has been somewhat diminished since his poorly received mega bout against Floyd Mayweather. In the week leading up to Pacquiao’s bout with Vargas, a coworker of mine (who is of Filipino descent) said that he would never pay for another Pacquiao PPV after Pacquiao’s performance on May 2nd, 2015 (the date of the infamous Mayweather bout). Whether it’s fair or not, the name ‘Manny Pacquiao’ by itself doesn’t carry the same promotional buzz it once did.

Though Pacquiao has lost much of his marquee value; his overall career position still allows for the potential of a significant impact on the boxing landscape. As a legend still fighting at the top of the sport, Pacquiao will (most likely) eventually be pitted against an equally skilled - yet younger opponent. The result of the bout could yield one final legendary night for Pacquiao, or a moment where a young star leaps into the consciousness of the wider public. Either result would be good for the sport of boxing. Pacquiao’s victory over Jessie Vargas on November 5th kept this potential alive. Let’s hope Bob Arum decides to capitalize on it in 2017.

Waiting for potential to be capitalized on is something boxing fans are used to - with ‘waiting’ being the key word. Yet only two weeks after Manny Pacquiao dispatched Jessie Vargas, fans were treated to a matchup between two fighters who had fully realized their potential as prize-fighters. Yes it is true that the November 19th PPV matchup between light heavyweight champion (WBA, WBO, and IBF) Sergey Kovalev and former super middleweight title holder Andre Ward didn’t sell well at all. From a business perspective, both have failed to fully realize their potential as profit generators. However, from a purely in ring standpoint; it would be hard to argue that their November 19th bout didn’t just live up to its potential - it exceeded it.

Most who watched the bout agreed that Kovalev dominated the first half of the encounter. Similarly to when Juan Manuel Marquez fought Manny Pacquiao for the first time; Andre Ward’s sensibilities needed a quick adjustment to withstand the level of incoming firepower from his opponent. After a rocky first two rounds, slowly Ward began to steady himself in the fight. By the middle and late rounds, some observers had Ward getting the best of a tiring Kovalev. Many who scored the fight ringside, from home, or simply went off their gut instinct felt Kovalev had done enough to win a decision victory. Yet the three most important people watching that night felt differently. The three ringside judges all scored the bout 114-113 for Andre Ward. As the outrage on social media erupted one was reminded of the exasperation over the US Electoral College in the wake of the Presidential election. Popular opinion doesn’t always pick a President; and it sure as hell doesn’t determine who wins a fight in Las Vegas.

For what it’s worth, I felt Sergey Kovalev won the fight. After watching twice; a Kovalev victory by one, two, or three points seemed acceptable. From an extremely general perspective one can view the fight in two halves. Kovalev won the first half; and was even with (or slightly behind) Ward in the second half. Thusly, Kovalev should have gotten the nod via decision. Yes, this is a very, very basic way of looking at the fight; but the point can be understood after looking at the judges scorecards. The way all three judges had Andre Ward sweeping rounds against Kovalev in the second half of the fight (like he was a prime Wladimir Klitschko jabbing and dominating an inferior opponent to a boring unanimous decision) didn’t seem to coincide with what took place in the ring. And all three judges viewing a close fight in such a similar fashion is akin to three poker players at three different tables drawing a royal flush at the same time. It could happen, but the chances are rather remote.

Nevertheless, what’s done is done. There is an old saying that ‘any attention is good attention’. Hopefully, the controversy surrounding the Kovalev-Ward decision can be bottled and used to promote a much warranted rematch in 2017. Hopefully, the anger Kovalev feels towards the judge's decision will generate some authentic ‘bad blood’ between himself and Andre Ward. Fight fans usually welcome authentic grudge matches with open arms. Sergey Kovalev and Andre Ward remain two of the best fighters in the sport. The dynamic between the two has the potential to develop into a true rivalry. Let us hope that by the end of the first quarter of 2017 Andre Ward has silenced the controversy surrounding his win; or we are headed towards a third and final rubber match in the fall.

Finally, while 2017 might see Manny Pacquiao, Sergey Kovalev, or Andre Ward add chapters to their respective legacies - there is another man who fought in November who is poised to begin to write a legacy of his own. On November 26th, WBO super featherweight champion Vasyl ‘Hi-Tech’ Lomachenko took on Nicholas ‘Axe Man’ Walters in a bout that was (thankfully) broadcast on regular HBO, not PPV. The bout not starting until around midnight East Coast time probably mitigated any benefits that came from staging the bout on regular HBO, but this is besides the point. Lomachenko-Walters was a fight die hard boxing fans had been hoping to see come together for some time. The power of the ‘Axe Man’ colliding with the “Hi-Tech’ virtuosity of Lomachenko had the potential for thrilling entertainment.

Yet the storyline of November 26th wasn’t that of a pitched twelve round battle. It was the tale of a coming out party for a fighter whose potential now seems tantalizingly immense. Vasyl Lomachenko dominated Nicholas Walters to the point that Walters quit in seeming embarrassment at the end of the seventh round. Walters (who is Jamaican) unwittingly added the phrase ‘no more mon’ to the boxing lexicon in the white flag section that includes Roberto Duran’s ‘no mas’. Make no mistake, Lomachenko made Walters quit - this wasn’t a case of a fighter simply not showing up.

Where Lomachenko goes from here into 2017 is one of the more intriguing questions in boxing at the moment. His skill and approach in the ring are evolving; yet the results so far have lived up to his ‘Hi-Tech’ moniker. Like a specially designed malware virus Lomachenko begins to slowly probe and decode his opponent. Round by round he builds until the system is so overwhelmed it succumbs to the will of its attacker. Of course the issue at hand is whether the exponential in ring tactics of Lomachenko can be translated into exponential ratings and profits. In the realms of sports, entertainment, and creativity even the most brilliant practitioners can sometimes fail to secure mass appeal.

Lomachenko’s promoter (Bob Arum, again) is in the difficult position of having a diamond in the rough but no clear path to polish it. There is a decent list of quality opponents in and around Lomachenko’s current weight class (130 pounds). Yet promotional politics will most likely reduce the amount of truly viable options such a list contains. Interestingly enough, the potential that ‘Old Man Pacquiao’ kept alive for a legendary night in 2017 could provide the opportunity Arum (and Lomachenko) are looking for. Bob Arum seems to be toying with the idea of a Pacquiao-Lomachenko bout sometime next year. The big obstacle being the weight difference between Pacquiao and Lomachenko (Pacquiao would have to move down in weight significantly while Lomachenko would have to move up). Arum’s been quoted in various outlets saying Lomachenko is ‘technically the best fighter he’s seen since early Muhammad Ali’. Even going so far as to say Lomachenko’s skill set surpasses those of Alexis Arguello, Floyd Mayweather, and a guy named Manny Pacquiao. If a fight does come together between Pacquiao and Lomachenko next year, we can be assured of the result that Mr. Arum would prefer. Most likely whichever Las Vegas judges are assigned to the fight will know Arum’s preference as well.

So there we have it. November was an interesting month for the sport of boxing and a consequential one for the country at large. The political storylines reaching their apex in November will play out for at least the next four years. The boxing storylines flowing from November could play out through 2017 or they could simply fizzle out and dwindle into nothing. In boxing, many stories end before they even begin. Remember when 2016 was supposed to be the ‘year of the heavyweights?’ Well that storyline gave way to a stalled career for heavyweight contender Luis Ortiz, an injury to WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder, and a meltdown by (former) unified (IBO, WBO, IBF, and WBA) heavyweight champion Tyson Fury. If boxing narratives were household objects they’d probably be made of fine china, not cast iron or lumber. So all boxing fans can do is hope. Hope that an eventful November contributes to what seems to be a promising and (hopefully) busy 2017. We all know a busy boxing schedule can be a beautiful thing. But a busy boxing schedule with authentic and compelling narratives? Well that can turn into something special.