If we were to compile a pound for pound list on sheer talent alone, Jorge Linares would probably feature somewhere around the top as a result of his smorgasbord of just about every positive boxing attribute imaginable – decent height, reach, handspeed, footspeed, hand/eye co-ordination and power. Linares was once thought of as one of boxing's hottest prospects, but now, after his second round knockout defeat courtesy of Sergio Thompson – his second technical knockout loss in a row – it seems Jorge Linares is now destined to join boxing's “what could have been?” list.
So how does a fighter, who is blessed with all the talent in the world, suffer consecutive TKO losses at the hands of far less talented fighters?
Linares' promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, believed he has the answer when he took to Twitter after the bout.
“Linares needs a new trainer. He has so much natural ability but has no defense. Jorge needs a new trainer, someone that is going to pay attention and teach him defense! Freddie Roach was just too busy and I was told he didn't train him for this one. If you do not get hit, you do not get knocked out. If Linares had defense, he would be untouchable. If I had no chin I would do everything in my power to learn the craft of defense.”
De La Hoya does make an interesting point. While I wouldn't go as far as Oscar in saying that Freddie can't teach defense, I would say that there seems to be certain defensive areas that Roach has missed in the tutelage of his fighters.
Looking at Linares, Amir Khan and Manny Pacquiao, we can see a fighters who ARE defensively responsible when attacking. A fighter is at his most vulnerable at the time of his attack, so by being overly aggressive, a fighter may be caught off balance and find it difficult to transition back to defense. This is where Roach has done a terrific job with Linares, Khan and Pacquiao; their balance issues have improved under the guidance of Freddie Roach.
Also evident in Roach's fighters is the ability to move away from danger after an attack, so as to reduce the risk of a counter attack. In other words, Roach has taught his fighters how to maintain defensive concern after the completion of their attack. Roach has embedded this into his fighters through an emphasis on great footwork. If you look at Pacquiao, his ability to move off after an attack is his main form of defense. It's the same with Khan and it's the same with Linares.
Defense is not only used when under pressure from an opponent. It is also used when a fighter is on the attack. This is the area in which Roach clearly excels. On the other hand, there does appear to be an area in which Roach seems to have either neglected, or has a distinct lack of understanding of: defending on the inside.
Yes, Roach has worked with some great defensive fighters in the past. Marlon Starling and James Toney were indeed defensive specialists. But Toney was already well schooled under Bill Miller and Starling, a naturally gifted counterpuncher, didn't need any defensive refinement.
Even fighters who operate at a distance have to posses some understanding on how to defend in close, Muhammad Ali and Wladimir Klitschko being prime examples. At their best, they are keeping the fight at arms length, either on the end of a jab or a straight right hand. Their objective? To prevent their opponents from breeching their optimum fighting space. That's why we have never seen them mount much in the way of offense on the inside. However, one of the reasons that Ali and Wladimir were able to dominate is because of their ability to prevent an inside fight from occurring by tying up on the inside and locking their opponent's arms up. From a defensive standpoint, they had knowledge on inside fighting.
I believe this knowledge is missing in Jorge Linares', Amir Khan's and quite possibly Manny Pacquiao's work as a direct result of the type of fighter Freddie Roach was… an offensive blood and guts trader who sometimes took five to land his one. If we focus on Khan and Linares in particular, they don't seem to know how to react when confronted with severe pressure.
So how does a fighter defend in close?
The best defensive fighters have a good variety of defenses against every punch available. They are able to mantain relaxation amid heavy fire. If a fighter is putting severe pressure on them, panic is no option. They stay calm and allow their defensive skills to take over, slipping, rolling, elbow blocking, half arm covering, hip rotation and the ability to tie up. I've never seen Linares and Khan display any of these defensive attributes.
A trainer like Freddie Roach likely never had much use for these techniques as a fighter because his entire emphasis was on attack. This could be the reason why Roach was never considered a great fighter. There always comes a time when offense is not always enough.
If we take a look back throughout history, more often than not, the defender has gotten the better of the attacker; James Corbett got the better of John L Sullivan, Gene Tunney got the better of Jack Dempsey and Jack Johnson got the better of Jim Jefferies. The modern era is no different. The ability to defend, and in particular the ability to defend in close, cannot be overlooked.
Telling times lie ahead.
The next couple of months could prove to be very detrimental for Freddie Roach. He has two fights coming up, against two proven inside fighters, against his two prized assets – Amir Khan and Manny Pacquiao. During their first bout, Amir Khan's lack of an inside game was brought into light from the third round onwards as his opponent, Lamont Peterson – who normally operates as a boxer – took on the persona of the brawler and swarmed all over Khan, throwing nothing but power shots in close. As was evident during his win over Marcos Maidana, Khan had no answer to Peterson's severe pressure. Khan's only response was to push his opponent off which eventually led to a two point reduction against him. If there have not been any improvements made to Khan's inside game, then it is not hard to imagine Peterson utilising the same strategy that won him the fight last time out.
While Freddie Roach deserves an awful lot of credit with regards to his transformation of Manny Pacquiao's offense– namely his two handed attack and balance issues–is there any evidence of him improving Pacquiao defensively on the inside?
Against Antonio Margarito, a slow plodding fighter, Manny found himself on the ropes on more than one occasion. If we take a look at those instances when Pacquiao's back was up against the ropes, his only answer for defense was more offense. There were also occasions early in the Miguel Cotto fight when Pacquiao's back was against the ropes. Pacquiao's response to his opponents offense in that fight was to cover up and wait for Miguel to stop throwing. It is no coincidence that between rounds during most of Manny Pacquiao's fights, you will hear Freddie Roach tell him to keep off the ropes. Apart from those two occasions that I've mentioned, Pacquiao's offense has been so overwhelming of late, and his footwork has been so good, that we have not seen him forced into an inside fight. While he is considered the underdog, Timothy Bradley's footspeed, stamina and inside game could provide the perfect foil for Pacquiao's offensive. If Pacquiao is forced into an inside fight, I'm not sure I can envision him competing with Bradley in close.
These next two fight's could be THE defining fights of Freddie Roach's illustrious training career. A win in both of them for Khan and Pacquiao, and the two Linares defeats will merely be deemed as unfulfilled potential in a promising young fighter. However, unless there have been significant steps taken with regards to improving his fighters' inside knowledge and ability, we could be in for two of the biggest back to back upsets in recent memory. Suddenly, Freddie Roach, who is considered by many as the finest trainer in the sport, would be faced with the ominous notion that a gaping hole in his tutelage may have resulted in the demise of his two star pupils, culminating in three high profile defeats in a row as a result of his neglect on the inside nuances of boxing.