Megafights in Short Supply: If Only Boxing Were More Like College Football

Megafights in Short Supply – Big-time college football teams play a minimum of 12 games a season, sometimes 13, 14 or even 15 if a conference championship showdown, bowl or cherished berth in the College Football Playoffs are involved. Fans of an elite program annually are obliged to sit through the occasional blowout victory, with the home powerhouse pummeling an overmatched opponent offering itself up for sacrifice in exchange for the kind of financial guarantee that helps the designated victim cover its bills. But the obligatory drubbings are always interspersed with high-drama clashes with strong league, traditional or similarly potent rivals from other areas of the country.

This upcoming season, for instance, Alabama plays Western Kentucky in Tuscaloosa, but, being a member of the Southeastern Conference’s deep and talented Western Division, the Crimson Tide is required to play LSU, Ole Miss, Arkansas and Auburn. Ohio State opens against Bowling Green, but closes its regular-season schedule with tough Big Ten clashes against Michigan State and Michigan. Clemson has an obvious gimme against no-chance South Carolina State, but must travel for its annual showdown for Atlantic Coast Conference supremacy against Florida State.

In the wild, wooly and weird world of professional boxing, top-tier fighters, at best, might enter the ring three times in a given year for bouts that count on their records, and the spate of alphabet-soup sanctioning bodies that pass out championship belts as if they were bottles of cheap hooch on Skid Row make the bonehead administrators with the NCAA look like organizational geniuses.

Megafights in Short Supply

Heading into 2016, there were three – count ’em, just three – potential matchups that conceivably could be sold to the public as legitimate megafights. Two involved WBA/IBF/WBO light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev: a unification rumble with WBC titlist Adonis Stevenson (33-0-1, 26 KOs) and an even more attractive pairing with former WBA super middleweight ruler Andre Ward (29-0, 15 KOs). The other would have pitted WBA/IBF/IBO (and WBC interim) middleweight king Gennady Golovkin against then-WBC 160-pound champ Canelo Alvarez (47-1-1, 33 KOs).

Seven-plus months into the year, Kovalev-Stevenson continues to gather dust on the drawing board, with no sign that anything more volatile than snide remarks ever will be exchanged between the two. Alvarez defended his WBC middleweight belt with a sixth-round knockout of bulked-up former IBF super lightweight champ Amir Khan on May 7, then voluntarily relinquished that title to go back to the super welterweight division, where he will challenge England’s Liam “Beefy” Smith (23-0-1, 13 KOs) on Sept. 17 in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. It’s a matchup that likely will draw a big on-site crowd, given Canelo’s burgeoning popularity, but is not nearly as compelling as a clear-the-deck slugfest with “GGG” would have been.

Barring a semi-miracle, that leaves only one of the Big Three bouts on every fight fan’s wish list still in play for 2016. Nov. 19 has tentatively been penciled in for Kovalev-Ward, but if recent history has demonstrated anything, it is that the biggest fights actually being made are like our biggest dreams — like, say, winning the Powerball Lottery – increasingly destined to go unfulfilled. We keep getting promises that something great is on the way, but often we must settle for very good or less than that.

For his part, The 32-year-old Ward – who will be fighting for only the third time in 33 months because of contractual snags and injuries – must get past Colombia’s Alexander Brand (25-1, 19 KOs) in Saturday night’s HBO-televised main event from the Oracle Arena in Ward’s hometown of Oakland, Calif., before he can move up to Kovalev. But, although anything can happen inside the ropes once the bell rings, it would appear that Brand, a one-dimensional brawler whose artificially inflated record has been compiled against lackluster competition, has about much chance of pulling the upset as Sham did of passing Secretariat down the stretch of the 1973 Belmont Stakes. Virtually every sports book, both in Nevada and in Europe, aren’t even accepting wagers on the apparent mismatch, making Brand anywhere from an 85-1 to 500-1 underdog. Oh, and did we mention that Brand also is 39?

“He’s no bum,” Ward, fishing around for positives, said of his tuneup opponent. “He’s the type of guy who puts his head down and swings for the fences. Those are very dangerous guys. To be honest with you, it’s easier fighting the top guys with more form and more technique than it is fighting a guy who has nothing to lose.

“I’ve seen tape of him. He loads up on a lot of shots. He doesn’t have a lot of nuance about him. He’s not trying to set things up. He’s just swinging hard.”

Said Brand, bristling at the notion he is nothing more than a prop to remind everyone of how good Ward is, or at least used to be: “Whatever Ward brings, I’m going to have something for him.”

Check out an in-dpeth breakdown of the upcoming Andre Ward fight with analyst Kid Hersh at The Boxing Channel.

Funny, but Brand’s bold talk is reminiscent of what then-IBF heavyweight titlist Charles Martin said before his one-sided, two-round dethronement by Anthony Joshua on April 9 in London. With all due respect to Joshua, the feeble resistance put up by Martin suggested that the paper champion from St. Louis might just as easily have been taken out by referee Jean-Pierre Van Imschoot.

As much as fight fans dare to believe that Kovalev-Ward will soon be signed, sealed and delivered, there is an old saying that must be observed until fight night arrives and the first punch is thrown: There’s many a slip ‘tween the cup and the lip.

A generation ago, the dream fights that never went beyond the talking stage included Mike Tyson-Riddick Bowe and Bowe-Lennox Lewis. Now, it would seem, Golovkin-Alvarez and Kovalev-Stevenson are headed toward the same fog-enshrouded swamp, and maybe Kovalev-Ward as well.

That is not to say that some excellent, fan-friendly bouts haven’t taken place in 2016. Francisco Vargas retained his WBC super featherweight crown on an action-packed majority draw against Orlando Salido, who gave nearly as good as he got; Keith Thurman held onto his WBA welterweight title on a rousing, 12-round unanimous decision over Shawn Porter, and, only last week, Carl Frampton dethroned WBA super featherweight champion Leo Santa Cruz on a majority decision that showcased each man’s considerable skill set. But none of those fights, as good as they were, rose to the level of absolute must-see attraction.

There are, as always, roadblocks that must be cleared before the huge fights can take place. HBO and Showtime might have worked together to put on Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao in 2015, but that fight was five years in the making and both men had lost something off their fastballs by then. The old Cold War between the premium cable networks since has gotten a bit frosty again, and the alphabet sanctioning bodies are similarly disinclined to come to the table and make nice for the greater good of a sport still crying out for peace in our time.

Within this framework of near-constant suspicion and innuendo, a guy like Stevenson – a Showtime fighter who, to be fair, looked pretty good in scoring a fourth-round knockout of Thomas Williams Jr. on July 29 – is fooling no one when he loudly bleats about getting it on with the Kovalev-Ward winner, if indeed there is one. The self-proclaimed southpaw “Superman” turns 39 on Sept. 22 and his window of opportunity for demonstrating that he really is good as he claims to be keeps inching a little more shut with the passage of time. Nor is Kovalev, a key member of the HBO lineup, getting any younger; he’s 33 and, for a change, looked something less than awesome in going the distance against Isaac Chilemba, his only fight to date this year.

It is if the powers-that-be – whether TV or sanctioning bodies’ executives, sanctioning bodies’ bigwigs, promoters desperate to protect their most valuable assets or, maybe, even certain fighters themselves —  are tearing a page from the Mayweather-Pacquiao playbook, putting off until tomorrow (or next year, or maybe a few years after that) what could and should be done today.

Case in point: Golden Boy president Oscar De La Hoya, who is putting in Alvarez, his 25-year-old superstar, with another bulked-up welterweight, Kell Brook, instead of Golovkin, who boxes well, punches really hard and is 33 and edging toward the back end of his prime with many of his preferred opponents ducking him as if he were a low overhang.

Some months after De La Hoya lost his WBO middleweight title on a ninth-round knockout to Bernard Hopkins on Sept. 18, 2004, the “Golden Boy” admitted that, career-wise, he had tried to go a bridge too far. He had turned pro 12 years earlier as a lightweight, and in B-Hop he was going against not only a full-fledged middleweight, but one who just might be one of the finest 160-pounders ever.

“What was I thinking?” a smiling De La Hoya said of his perhaps dubious decision to swap punches with Hopkins. Still, he allowed, “Well, at least I dared to be great.”

With his promoter’s hat on, De La Hoya said that Khan also was “daring to be great” when he took on Canelo, but wouldn’t the same hold true for the red-haired Mexican sensation? Wouldn’t Alvarez dare to be great by demanding that he be allowed to throw down with Golovkin now, or very soon, instead of with someone like Smith, who’s a nice enough fighter but nothing to make the average fight fan’s pulse race?

Leave it to Hopkins, who has a disturbing habit (at least to some) of saying what he thinks without filtering it through political correctness, to describe the difference between De La Hoya (now his business partner) the fighter and De La Hoya the businessman.

“Look, Oscar has made or might make some decisions he might be criticized for – no, he will be criticized for – but so what?” Hopkins said before the Alvarez-Khan fight. “He is in the business of being a promoter. As a fighter, he dared to be great. As a promoter, he can’t dare to be stupid. He has to make the right business move for his fighter, and the fact is that `Triple G’ stands to gain more from winning that fight. Of course, if Canelo wins, he becomes even more of a megastar than he already is. But he’s a megastar already.”

Oscar, however, isn’t the only one playing the waiting game until everything lines up just so, and to his company’s advantage. Boxing, on the whole, has become too cautious to dare to be great on a regular basis; it feeds fans a steady diet of Clemson vs. South Carolina State with no conference mandate to put Florida State on the schedule until the non-risk-takers are good and ready.

And if Kovalev-Ward doesn’t happen on Nov. 19, for whatever reason? No problem. Ohio State is playing at Michigan State that day. Should be a good game.

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-oubobcat :

As a die hard Buckeye fan who is not missing Kovalev-Ward, I hope that the game is scheduled in the afternoon and not in the prime time slot. Well if Ward loses to near 100-1 underdog (or more than 100-1 underdog depending on what you read) Alexander Brand tonight then I guess I won't have that issue.