The past weekend in boxing, we saw an example of some adventurous, refreshing matchmaking and an all-too-typical example of the unscientific practice.
One of the criticisms of the sport is that fighters with glistening records too often take on opponents who are overmatched.
It's found currency among MMA types who hate boxing and it's not without merit. But it also must be stated that it's a convenient trope for the MMA crowd, almost as if to rationalize the fact that there's necessarily a lot of parity but just a couple superstars in that still young sport.
There are way more professional boxers around the world than MMA fighters and therefore more gradations in talent level. And there's a logic to having a fighter progress slowly up the ranks.
Bernard Hopkins, at 45 an ageless wonder, would be the first to admit he's still learning in the ring. Throwing two guys in the ring who are both 5-0 is nice once in awhile, but if both of those fighters look as if they've the potential to be 20-0, it's going to mean a lot more fan interest and bank at that point.
As well, in boxing, there are five possibilities as far as fight length is concerned - from four to 12 rounds. Throwing guys into 10- to 12-round fights before they're ready isn't likely to provide the most entertaining product, even if they match up talent-wise.
But like I said, there has been recognition that the argument has merit and, in the past couple of years, there have been more matchups of rising or undefeated fighters - fights like Danny Jacobs against Dmitry Pirog and Victor Ortiz and Marcos Maidana jump to mind.
The most recent example came Friday when Ismayl Sillakh defeated Yordanis Despaigne by unanimous decision in a battle of unbeaten light heavyweights.
The fact that these two had just 22 combined fights heading in may, superficially, seem to go against my argument, but both of these guys had hundreds of amateur fights to learn the craft before turning pro.
It was a terrific scrap. Despite having only four knockouts to his name, Sillakh showed pop dropping Despaigne in the second and cutting him around both eyes.
Despaigne showed tons of heart. He pounded his chest with bravado several times after getting hit and he even staged a bit of a rally in the middle rounds.
He definitely seems like he could handle either of Belbeit Shumenov and Gabriesl Campillo, who've split two bouts for the WBA light heavyweight crown (Shumenov of Kazakhstan is the current belt holder).
But it also appears like several Cuban fighters before him, the 31-year-old may, ultimately, see his pro career hindered by the fact that he couldn't bolt for freedom earlier than in 2009. This is a guy who beat Canada's Jean Pascal in the 2004 Athens Olympics and fought 300 amateur bouts - were he from a country that allowed pro boxing, he'd likely have made that leap after the Games.
The typical example of matchmaking came Saturday, when Saul Alvarez pounded on the smaller Matthew Hatton - younger brother of Ricky - for 12 rounds in a nominal junior middleweight bout in Anaheim.
Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions is banking on the red-headed Mexican to be a staple in big fights for years to come and he's already drawing good-sized crowds.
Alvarez is one of the thickest fighters, pound for pound, that I've ever seen in the ring, rivalling Mike Tyson. The natural 154-pounder is grimly determined and has the right offensive instincts, as far as where to place his punches and in what sequence.
But the matchup proved nothing. As game as Hatton was, he's a 147-pounder and not a junior middleweight. They handed out a belt at the end for a vacant "title" but Alvarez needs bigger scalps before we can really call him a champion.
At this point, he reminds me of a prime Yori Boy Campas and a bit like Miguel Cotto, though not quite as talented. He'll likely be in a number of exciting bouts, but his defensive liabilities seem like they'll prevent him from achieving elite status.
Whose sport is dying?
This week saw not one, but two columns emanating out of Toronto from sportswriters usually supportive of boxing that read quite a lot like epitaphs for the sport:
It was curious timing, given that there was no big "black eye for boxing" story making the rounds. In fact, the previous two weekends saw a candidate for Fight of the Year and the almost certain pick for Knockout of the Year.
(The columns also came just a couple of days after an interesting and somewhat depressing piece in the New York Times that provided anecdoctal evidence that cutbacks to school and municipal athletic programs amid tough economic times in the U.S. have led to an uptick in the less costly - or free - youth boxing participation in some areas.)
The electrifying KO happened when Nonito Donaire demolished longtime top fighter Fernando Montiel in two rounds, with a shot that sent Montiel's legs into an involuntary spasm.
The compelling bout occurred when Brandon Rios, summarily outboxed and hit hard for the first four rounds against Miguel Acosta, rallied to break down his opponent, winning by stoppage in 10 rounds after scoring a couple of knockdowns.
Donaire is Filipino-American and, along with Manny Pacquiao, it's reasonable to expect that, in five to 10 years, we're going to see a wave of their compatriots following in their footsteps.
Despaigne is Cuban and Acosta is Venezuelan. Sillakh is a brown-skinned Ukrainian, bemusingly nicknamed the "Black Russian."
Montiel, Alvarez and Rios are Mexican or Mexican-American, the demographic that helps drive the fight game.
I guess the point is that maybe it's a bit out of place for white guys from Ontario to sound the death knell for a sport that is dominated by other ethnic groups. It's probably true that boxing lost a good percentage of a generation of Caucasian fans with its various ills.
But last I checked, other demographics get to participate in and choose what sports they want to follow.
(Photo of Ismayl Sillakh courtesy Mark Ralston/Getty Images)
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