As part of any really big fight week – and the matchup of top-shelf middleweights Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez on Sept. 16 certainly qualified – other marquee bouts sometimes are announced, the better to take advantage of the media feeding frenzy that invariably takes place when the waters are chummed and the sharks have gathered.
In the days leading up to GGG-Canelo, two important, highly intriguing and vastly different marquee pairings were added to the back end of the schedule for 2017, which already was shaping up as the best year for boxing in goodness knows how long. If the sweet science can be equated to music, and it frequently is, the Dec. 9 bout pitting WBO featherweight champion Vasyl Lomachenko (9-1, 7 KOs) against former WBA and WBO super bantamweight titlist Guillermo Rigondeaux (17-0, 11 KOs) at the Madison Square Garden Theater, to be televised by ESPN, is the pugilistic equivalent of Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman headlining a black-tie event with full orchestration at Carnegie Hall. The Nov. 4 heavyweight clash of big boppers Deontay Wilder (38-0, 37 KOs), the WBC champion, and Luis Ortiz (27-0, 23 KOs), at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, which will be televised by Showtime, is more like Guns N’ Roses and AC/DC sharing the stage outdoors in a ballpark before a sellout crowd stoked with bloodlust.
Toss in another recently announced celebration of the sweet science – the four-world-title-bout, Showtime-televised smorgasboard that takes place on Oct. 14 at Barclays Center, the highlight, at least to me, being the almost-unheard-of, early-prime showdown of young studs Jermell Charlo (29-0, 14 KOs), the WBC super welterweight ruler, and Erickson Lubin (18-0, 13 KOs) – and the year-long feast of fisticuffs remains an ongoing banquet for the previously famished. I will examine Charlo-Lubin at length next week, but for now my focus is more on Loma and Rigo, who have four Olympic gold medals between them and are arguably the two greatest amateur boxers ever, vis-à-vis Wilder and Ortiz, whose upcoming concert more suggests heavy percussion and the banging of cymbals than the symphonic strains of violins, cellos and harps.
For one man’s expert analysis into two much-anticipated fights that, at first glance, would seem to have little in common, I went to that unflinchingly honest teller of truth, noted trainer and longtime ESPN analyst Teddy Atlas, who used baseball, not music, as his preferred measuring stick. Some fans cherish classic pitching duels, others love to see home runs flying over the fence. Not every ballgame follows the same blueprint, and neither does every boxing match.
“It’s a very interesting fight, and it’s on my air, on ESPN,” Atlas said when asked about Lomachenko-Rigondeaux. “I saw all of their gold-medal matches when I called Olympic boxing for NBC. (Cuba’s Rigondeaux’s titles came in 2000 and 2004, Ukraine’s Lomachenko’s in 2008 and 2012.) Rigondeaux was just 18 years old – or supposedly so; you can’t ever know for sure with these Cuban guys – for his first Olympics, but I remember thinking he was the best amateur fighter I’d ever seen. Lomachenko came along later and he was damn good, too, but Rigondeaux stood out. He was so calm, so precise, so efficient.
“Both of these guys are fundamentally very good and very smart. They’re excellent counterpunchers and diverse as far as what they can do in the ring. They see everything and have superior ring presence. I think Rigondeaux has more natural physical attributes and, this might be surprising to some people, but he can punch harder. He’s maybe a better pure body puncher. Where Lomachenko has an edge is that he can create his own offense on the front end. Rigondeaux is better on the back end, waiting to turn an opponent’s aggression against him with his counterpunching ability. He’s a little like Floyd Mayweather that way.”
If it sounds like Atlas might be leaning, if slightly, to Rigo in this chess match involving southpaw grandmasters (hey, the similes keep a’coming), don’t jump to conclusions. Teddy put Lomachenko in his personal top 10 pound-for-pound list after his first pro fight, and he presently has him at No. 1, a nod toward Loma’s ability to adapt whereas Rigondeaux has stubbornly refused to stray too far from what worked so well for him in the amateurs.
“Some people question that I have Lomachenko at No. 1 after just 10 pro fights, but I know what I saw in the Olympics, I know what I see now and I know what I’m likely to see as he moves forward in his career,” Atlas explained.
“Lomachenko-Rigondeaux is a terrific fight, but it might be diminished somewhat because it’s maybe coming a little late for Rigondeaux (whose listed age is 36 and who has fought just three times in the last 33 months). Inactivity is a part of it. Maybe age is. But whatever the reason, I see some decline. It’s been hard lately finding credible opponents for Lomachenko (who’s 29), as dominant as he’s looked. Maybe Rigondeaux is the guy who can fill that role.
“The difference between these guys is that Lomachenko is a busier fighter; he’ll take more chances. In the amateurs he was a machine, all business. He’s still a machine, but now he’s even showboating a little bit. What that tells me is that he wants to be more entertaining, he wants to make big money. He not only wants to be the best fighter in the world, which he might already be, but the best entertainer, too.”
As far as Wilder-Ortiz is concerned … well, bombs away. If Lomachenko-Rigondeaux is a strong candidate to go to the scorecards, the heavyweight showdown figures to end with an exclamation point and without appreciable input from judges with pencils. You don’t have to be a mathematical genius like Archimedes or Pythagoras to figure out that two undefeated guys with a combined 60 KOs in 65 bouts will be looking to land a put-away shot, and the sooner the better.
“It’s not going to be a fight that goes the distance,” Wilder vowed during a press conference in New York on Sept. 20. “I’m thinking about three rounds. Come that night, it might be in the first round. You never know.”
Ortiz, who was unable to get a flight out of Miami , a residual effect of the havoc wreaked on Florida by Hurricane Irma, was listening via speaker phone and he opined that if anyone was apt to take an early snooze, it would be the champion.
“He does a lot of talking,” Ortiz replied when asked about Wilder’s bold prediction. “Wilder’s not going to knock me out in the first round, or the third round. He’s going to do a lot of running. He should be careful about what he’s saying because he’s going to embarrass himself. Wilder’s not a bad boxer. He wouldn’t be where he is if he was. But I think this time he f—-d up.”
Although Wilder – and Atlas, too, for that matter – envision, or at least hope for, a prompt unification matchup of Wilder and England’s Anthony Joshua (19-0, 19 KOs), who defends his IBF, WBA and IBO titles against Bulgaria’s Kubrat Pulev (25-1, 13 KOs) on Oct. 28 in Cardiff, Wales, also to be televised by Showtime, should both win next month – some megafights must undergo a patience-testing “marinating” process. For every Charlo-Erickson, served up piping hot fresh out of the oven, there is a corresponding Mayweather-Pacquiao, put on the back burner until the competitive juices have mostly dried up, even if the entrée, when it eventually becomes available, requires diners to pay premium prices to get a taste.
Lou DiBella, who promotes Wilder, said anyone expecting Wilder and Joshua to share a ring in, say, the first quarter of 2018 is likely to believe in the trustworthiness of politicians and used-car salesmen.
“It won’t happen next,” DiBella said. “If Wilder looks too good in beating Ortiz, that’ll delay Wilder-Joshua. Ortiz is sort of known as the boogeyman of the division. Everyone knows this is the toughest guy out there to fight. You haven’t heard Anthony Joshua screaming, `I want Luis Ortiz!’ You haven’t heard anyone screaming `I want Luis Ortiz!’”
So why then did Wilder scream for Luis Ortiz when he could have taken a presumably easier mandatory defense against Bermane Stiverne, whom he handily outpointed (his only non-KO victory) to win the WBC title on Jan. 17, 2015? DiBella said Wilder was obliged to pay Stiverne significant step-aside money to secure the date with the 38-year-old but still dangerous Cuban southpaw.
“A lot of people were shocked when they heard that Deontay wanted to fight Luis Ortiz – not only wanted to fight him, but insisted upon it,” DiBella said. “But great matchups make the sport. There’s no better theater than a great boxing match, and a great heavyweight title fight is different than anything. There is nothing like a great heavyweight championship fight.
“Deontay is not doing this for the money. A lot of people think this is a dumb economic move. It’s a legacy move. It’s a move to prove who is the best. We’re not afraid of Joshua. If he was available on Nov. 4 and wanted to fight (Wilder), we’d be fighting him now.”
Wilder is more optimistic about getting a quick, clear-the-decks bout faceoff with Joshua than DiBella, but he clearly is tired of being depicted as a lesser champion than his British counterpart.
“Ain’t nobody better than me,” Wilder said. “Ain’t nobody tougher. Ain’t nobody stronger, physically, mentally, spiritually. After this one (against Ortiz), y’all already know who’s going to be next. I’m ready to unify. I’ve been ready.”
“They’re heavyweights who are big punchers, No. 1, and No. 2, they have contrasting styles,” Atlas said of the appeal of Wilder-Ortiz. To me, Ortiz is much better technically and fundamentally. But when it comes to pure, God-given ability, namely power and physicality, it’s Wilder. His length and his size are great assets, as is his right hand. Big right hands historically have been the most effective punches against southpaws.
“Wilder still makes a lot of mistakes. Maybe he’ll make a mistake against Ortiz. But he’s got that eraser, the right hand, that can correct his mistakes.”
Atlas, as an aficionado of boxing, said the best thing for the heavyweight division, and for boxing, would be for Wilder and Joshua to clear their October hurdles and proceed to a fight that might not be well served by the marinating that often serves only to spoil the soup.
“I want to see the winner of Wilder-Ortiz to fight Joshua, and particularly if the winner is Wilder,” he said. “That would really get my attention. Now, Joshua isn’t without his flaws either. Like Wilder he’s a work in progress, but at the same time he’s the most polished and refined of the top heavyweights now. He’s got the most room to grow.
“I say strike while the iron is hot. Look, boxing is hot right now. Don’t wait until it cools off. I’m not a big believer in this marinating thing. You have to read the tea leaves or the road map, whatever you want to call it. Boxing is hot, very hot, right now. I don’t know if it’ll be as hot two years from now. If it’s possible to make (Wilder-Joshua) in the next year, don’t mess around. Just do it.”
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