Boxing Commentary: Positively Alice In Wonderland
29.06.07 - By Carlos Acevedo It is exceptionally difficult to develop fighters today. Years ago it was more acceptable for boxers to suffer losses on the way up, and, consequently, they were matched harder than they are now. A few defeats usually meant tough competition, and if a fighter failed to win a world title, he could still earn a decent living along with a measure of fame as a club fighter, so long as his bouts were entertaining. It may be hard to believe, but once it was possible for clubfights in New York City to average 8,000 to 10,000 fans per show.
Article posted on 30.06.2007
And this was on a weekly basis. Today, the availability of fugazi titles and the fickle demands of television executives forces managers and promoters to coddle their fighters. If a boxer can somehow sham his way into the ratings of some shady sanctioning body, then a big payday (and a possible “championship”) is just around the corner. So borderline prospects, a strange boxing cottage industry, are often overhyped and fed a steady diet of overcooked stiffs.
Iffy matchmaking affects fighters and box office receipts for club shows. Take, for example, the “Broadway Boxing” series—presented by DiBella Entertainment—in New York City. In the last few weeks two DBE prospects were knocked out in upsets at the Manhattan Center. Nothing is worse for a promoter than a showcase match that takes on a life of its own. A matchmaker at this level must make as competitive a fight as possible without realistically jeopardizing the favorite or producing a blowout that would embitter paying customers. “Broadway Boxing” often walks the fine line between the two. Only three main events so far can be considered quality match-ups: an elimination match between Silence Mabuza and Ricardo Vargas, and two fights between Michael Warrick and local product Jeffrey Resto. Both fighters were solid fringe contenders, and each match was an excellent brawl, with Warrick winning the first by decision and Resto prevailing in the second via thrilling last round TKO. Since then every headline match has been, more or less, a heavy favorite against a heavy underdog. Part of the problem is budgetary—it takes an awful lot to run a regular series of boxing cards profitably in New York City these days, and purses are kept to the bare minimum to ensure black ink—but the real issue here seems to be one of philosophy: promoters, and not just DiBella Entertainment, mainly want to showcase talent. Despite this criticism, it should be noted that DBE does a much better job at the local level in New York City than any other promoter who has tried his hand at it since the New York State Athletic Commission was cleaned up a few years ago and fights began to appear regularly again in the Big Apple. On one hand, DiBella is doing well by his fighters; they are kept active, earn a paycheck, and are given some exposure on HDTV and on MSG cable; but on the other hand, their skills may atrophy facing mediocre competition regularly, and the crowd may be left nonplussed at the end of the night.
Of course, no one can argue with the success DiBella has had in maneuvering Jermain Taylor to an undefeated record and the middleweight championship or with his skillful handling of Paulie Malignaggi. But these fighters generated buzz that was, more or less, equivalent to their achievements in the ring as they progressed. Taylor appeared in several high profile bouts on HBO, and Maliniaggi, in addition to his charisma, faced a decent mix of prospects and journeymen on ESPN2. A fighter like Curtis Stevens, on the other hand, is a different story. Super-middleweight Stevens ran off 14 consecutive, and, at times, explosive, wins against a motley collection of day laborers and piñatas before running into Marcos Primera, a creaky trialhorse who readily admits to entering the ring with little ambition outside of putting food on the table for his family. Stevens was knocked out in the last round of a fight he was dominating. He complained bitterly about the stoppage, of course, which may have been premature, but it was a bad sign to be staggered by a fighter who was 3-11-1 in his last fifteen bouts going into the match and who had made his pro debut as a welterweight. Primera now stands at 20-17-2 and is a danger to himself each time he steps into a ring. Stevens won the rematch handily and, then, in his last fight against untested Andre Dirrell, he looked positively meek in losing a 10 round decision. Dirrell is not a crowd pleaser, but he neutralized Stevens with incessant movement and pot-shots. After the fight, Stevens mocked Dirrell, who, with only 11 pro bouts, had never been past 8 rounds before, but somehow managed to last 10 with “Showtime.” The truth is that Dirrell stepped up from soft competition to win and Stevens did not. Stevens landed less than 50 punches in the fight.
A few weeks before that, at a “Broadway Boxing” card at the Manhattan Center, DiBella hopeful Gary Stark, Jr. was knocked unconscious for several minutes by Andres Ledesma, who came into the ring on a 4-fight losing streak. Stark is a talented boxer who stormed Ledesma recklessly from the opening bell and neglected his defense completely. He fought, in fact, as if he knew he was in the ring with a pushover. Stark paid dearly for his carelessness and collateral damage will follow for the public as well (and, by extension, the sport). Perhaps now DBE “prospects” will be matched with even softer opposition and the grassroots base DiBella is trying to build may erode.
I attended the last “Broadway Boxing” card with a friend who had never been to a boxing match before. When the fights were over I asked him if he would be interested in returning for the next card and he replied, simply, “No.” Why? It probably had something to do with the fact that there were less than 39 minutes of boxing the entire night and that many of the matches were ludicrously non-competitive. A quick rundown of the card, staged at the Manhattan Center, follows.
Luis Ruiz, 1-0, won a hard-earned majority decision in a 4-round scrap against Bruce Burkhardt, 0-1. It was a sloppy, but entertaining fight, with Ruiz the more skilled of the two.
Prospect Henry Coyle was stopped in 29 seconds by Omar Bell. There is not much to say about this fight, except that it ended quickly.
Thomas Davis, 11-5-2, attired in pink shorts and still living off of his shot-in-the-dark knockout over Kendall Holt a few years ago, quit after two rounds of being bounced all over the ring like a Superball by Nicaraguan Jose Varela, 21-2. Davis, who alternated between flouncing like a blind krump dancer and leaning against the ropes like a cigar store Indian while Valera pounded him, used a cut over his right eye as an excuse to throw in the towel. Not content with fighting oddly , Davis, 152, quit that way as well, sauntering over to the opposite corner and clumsily lifting Varela up in some sort of perverse celebration that only Davis can fully understand or appreciate. Both Varela and the crowd pitilessly abused him. Varela, who weighed in at 152, for his part, showed gravitas in doling out a steady beating.
Next was a scheduled 6-rounder between Jaidon Codrington and late substitute Carl Cockerham. Codrington, looking to rebound from his devastating KO loss to Allan Green two years ago, was scheduled to face a much tougher opponent in Omar Sheika. But Sheika withdrew because of weight-making difficulties and DBE decided that a live substitute was out of the question. From the opening bell Codrington disdainfully attacked Cockerham, fully aware that his opponent, 0-5-1-1 in his last seven fights, posed little, if any, threat. Poor Cockerham also suffered the indignity of having the audience laugh at some of his comical exertions. There were times when he resembled a man trying to escape an invisible strait jacket. But the joke was nearly on Codrington when Cockerham, without a victory in over four years, suddenly landed a left hook that put Codrington on queer street. With only four knockouts on his record, Cockerham appeared shocked by his own audacity. He pressed forward awkwardly and threw tons of leather, but never managed to land another telling blow. Codrington recovered and managed to spin Cockerham against the ropes where he released a volley of punches that convinced referee David Fields that this was as good a time as any to protect the house fighter. Although Cockerham did not appear to be hurt, just winded, Fields jumped into the fray and awarded a TKO victory to Codrington as the crowd erupted in boos and catcalls. Cockerham, an honest pug, should have been given the opportunity to continue. His record now falls to 12-14-3.
Buddy McGirt, Jr., 15-0, entered the ring to face a boxer, Delray Raines, who would be hard-pressed to go two rounds against a member of the Pro Bowlers Tour. Raines, who fights out of Paris, Arkansas, and bears a slight resemblance to Gomer Pyle, led with his enormous lantern jaw for the entire fight—all 66 seconds of it. McGirt knocked out Raines with a vicious right hand in a disgraceful mismatch. Raines, now loser of three straight, gives circuit fighters all over the Deep South a bad name. As with many “prospects,” it is impossible it tell if McGirt, Jr. can fight or not.
In the fateful main event, Edgar Santana, fighting out of Spanish Harlem, suffered an upset knockout defeat at the hands of Harrison Cuello, the Bronx. Santana is one of the strange “prospects” who never seems to fight anyone, and seems to exist in some kind of parallel boxing universe. He has never been on Showtime or HBO or even, to my knowledge, ESPN2. Incredibly, Santana has never even fought for one of the many trinkets—IBC, IBA, FECARBOX, Continental Americas, etc.—floating around boxing like so much confetti at a parade. He is a decent fighter and seems like a nice guy, but he does not excel at anything in particular, except, perhaps, selling tickets. He has a good right hand and always appears in top condition, but Santana is already 28 years old and has lost three times to fighters not used to winning very often. Years ago, this kind of resume would earn someone a niche as a good clubfighter. Today it is an excuse to “maneuver” or “guide” a fighter God knows what or where.
Cuello, 14-5-2, and coming off a brutal KO defeat at the hands of Randall Bailey, entered the ring with and a nifty red Stetson and a look of determination. He also had a solid fanbase at ringside cheering him on. Cuello boxed purposefully, confusing Santana with his movement and his southpaw stance, flicking his jab out consistently and controlling the rhythm of the fight from a distance. Although his offense consisted mostly of one-twos that were parried or slipped, Cuello was doing most of the work while Santana stalked ineffectively, throwing an occasional counter here or there, but nothing of significance. Santana, now 21-3, appeared blasé. In the third round he left himself open for a split second and was caught flush by a straight left that dropped him with a thud. Santana gamely struggled to his feet before the count reached 10, but was in no condition to continue. Cuello celebrated exuberantly.
So what happens next? Now Santana is faced with the task of rebuilding something that was never fully constructed in the first place. Does his loss to Cuello mean he will be fighting even lesser competition? Although he has never reached the kind of regional stardom that John Duddy or even Mike Stewart has in recent years, Santana is a popular figure in New York, but will that fan base stick around for more non-competitive matches? Supernatural paradoxes, like those seen on “Psychic Detectives” run through this entire Santana affair. Consider this: Because he was a “prospect” (and perhaps, more importantly, because he was a ticket-seller) Santana was matched with weak competition, because he was a “prospect” he fought nearly 50% of his fights at the Manhattan Center on a local cable network, and because he was a “prospect’ his skills never got past the “prospect” stage because he was just too potentially good to face a decent opponent. In fact, Santana appeared to be regressing from the time I saw him outpoint boxing space cadet Derrick Moon in 2005. He seemed stale against Cuello and was unimpressive in a much tougher than expected scrap against Dario Esalas in March at Madison Square Garden. Esalas had been knocked out in 4 of his last 5 fights (including once by a fighter with a record of 1-16) and was making his first start in two years. Ernesto Dallas, Santana’s manager, spoke to Jason Gonzalez of the Sweet Science after the fight. “We still have a loyal fan base,” Dallas said, “but we lost a lot of leverage on the business end. He is still a popular fighter with the fans, it’s just going to be a little difficult to justify why Santana should be on a major cable network.” But did he deserve to be on HBO anyway? Santana was already turned down by HBO as an opponent for Arturo Gatti due to his thin dossier and lack of development. Santana would have been better off losing on HBO or Showtime against a decent fighter in a competitive match for a decent payday than getting flattened against a journeyman for short money. Paul Malignaggi, like Azumah Nelson against Salvador Sanchez, proved that a loss to a top-flight fighter can actually boost a reputation. Before his fight with Miguel Cotto, Malignaggi had never been on HBO, but he has since fought there twice. His loss to Cotto was worth more than all the wins put together by Santana, Stevens, and Codrington combined. Or think of Edner Cherry, whose exciting style keeps him in demand despite a few high profile defeats. Sometimes it pays—for the fighter and the promoter--to take risks in boxing, which, after all, is a high-risk occupation.
The boxing economy is a small mystery in itself, but the world of prospects is positively Alice in Wonderland by comparison. There is talk of Codrington, along with Curtis Stevens, joining the upcoming season of “The Contender” on ESPN. It somehow seems appropriate that fighters so carefully stage-managed in their short careers should eventually wind up on a smoke and mirror “reality show” where careful editing, slow motion shots, sound effects, and five-round fights will make things even more illusory. In boxing, and with prospects in particular, it seems, things are bound to become, as Alice herself would say, “curiouser and curiouser.”
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