Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Audacity Of Imperfection

By Jeff Pryor

Being undefeated in the last year was not as enviable a position as it historically has been in the sport of boxing. For whatever reason, be it a first brush with tough competition, overconfidence or sheer karma, undefeated records were being waived off faster then a bout at Millennium Stadium.

If you had an "0" in your record at the beginning of 2008 and still have one now at the dawning of '09 you are one of the lucky few (Lucian Bute I'm looking your way). But, while losing your unblemished ledger is never an optimal situation in a sport where a single loss can devastate a career, not all losses are created equal. Here's a look at some of the more noteworthy first losses over the last year and who fares best and worst coming off that initial drawback. I've ordered the losses roughly in how damaging I feel they were, starting with the least.

Miguel Cotto: We won't no for sure until Cotto fights again just how much effect that first loss has had on him. What we do know is that status-wise, the effect has been very minimal. He is still considered a top twelve pound for pound fighter and his drawing power likely won't diminish one iota after the brutal fight of the year candidate that he and Margarito put on this past July. Mentally however, there could be residual effects from the TKO loss in which Cotto, a man accustomed to breaking wills, had his own busted in two. In the long run, being knocked flat on his back may have been better for Cotto, at least then he could say it was a great punch and leave it at that .Instead he will have to rectify within himself that he was forced to take a knee in the face of more punishment from the indomitable Margarito assault. If he can overcome that and get back to his winning ways against Michael Jennings and then even the score, a tall order, against Margarito later in the year, that first loss will be a faded blip on the radar.

Paul Williams: Getting blasted by looping overhand rights for 12 rounds against Carlos Quintana was not the best way to start out the year for Williams. Out of that loss however, something good came to the fore; Paul Williams can accept a loss like a man and move on. He didn't blame his performance on having to drain his 6'1" frame to 147lbs or cite the possibility of some nefarious poisoning scheme to which he was a victim, he just knocked Quintana cold within the first two and a half minutes of the rematch. Then laid out his next opponent inside a round, and then moved on to the Junior Middleweight division and grabbed a title. Does all that completely wipe out his listless, there-to-be-clocked-all-night performance from February of '08?....Not really, but sports fans are fickle. Boxing fans especially. And it's fair to say that Williams' star is pretty close to being back to where it was just after his career making turn against Margarito. If he can entice a showdown with Pavlik at 160lbs or Margarito late in the year, he will have solidified his position as one of the handful of fighters the sport's immediate future may rest on.

Juan Diaz: Nate Campbell out-Diazed Diaz. It must have been a sobering realization for "The Baby Bull" when it finally hit him, (probably within the first half of his inaugural losing effort), that the 36 year old fighter was outworking him. Heretofore Diaz was always pushing his opponent, delivering more than they could handle and generally dispiriting them with an avalanche of punches and energy. Campbell came in with the right plan and sapped that energy from the start, leveling shot after shot at the deceivingly soft midsection of Diaz, and crowding the kid close, making it a gritty in-fight. Like Cotto, Diaz, who is used to breaking his opponents will, was having the tables turned on him. Unlike Cotto, Diaz never broke and soldiered on to the bitter end with one eye entirely closed, his peeper garishly replaced by a nasty cut ripped across the eyelid drawn like a shutter. Like Williams, Diaz had no excuses and came back to form against Katsidis later in the year. Ironically, it is Campbell who is the forgotten man after their clash early in '08, while Diaz looks to have no lingering mental issues from the loss and should draw a packed house in his hometown when he participates in the biggest fight the division has to offer, in the first part of '09 against Juan Manuel Marquez.

Michael Katsidis: Being that his first loss was a legitimate fight of the year honors worthy candidate, he was mostly forgiven for the way he bounced off the floor after the crisp counter by Casamayor. Since then he's been in the ring with Juan Diaz. In that bout, a battle of once defeated pugilists, he again came up shy. I'm not sure any of that matters though. Katsidis is the kind of fighter that you want to see fight. He'll never be a pound for pound entrant, he may never rule a division, but when he fights... he fights. It's hard to imagine a match-up that wouldn't produce sparks with Katsidis in one of the corners. He needs a marquee win to get back in the mix, but as long as he brings it, there will be a place for him. A showdown with former belt holder David Diaz would be just the thing to propel one of the brawling bruisers back into the championship sweepstakes.

Sergio Mora: Still struggling for respect amongst hardcore boxing fans, on the heels of his upset championship win against Vernon Forrest, struggled mightily to make weight in the rematch, came in 2 pounds over and then looked like warmed up barf in the ring. Without a rematch against Forrest, which no one wants to see and "The Viper" is denying him, he may not immediately have the big fight he is looking for. As with all the other first time losers recently, winning is a cure for all. Among the exciting 154lb crop of prospects and contenders like Angulo, Kirkland (both of which have had brutal gym wars with Mora), as well as Vanes Martirosyan, John Duddy and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr there are some interesting match-ups to be had and a win against any of those names would catapult him back to the top of the division.

Kelly Pavlik: Hey, there are worse things you could do than to lose your undefeated record to ring legend, Bernard Hopkins. Still, the complete domination that the 43 year old "Executioner" foisted upon the Youngstown prize fighter raised eyebrows and called into question the validity of Pavlik's burgeoning super stardom in the sport. In fact, Pavlik may have been done a disservice by both his handlers and the boxing media in the build up to the fight where few gave Hopkins much chance,
(the editor of this site and yours truly excluded, to gratuitously pat ourselves on he back) and in doing so raised highly unrealistic expectations for Pavlik. This made his eventual undoing that much more dramatic to the bewildered boxing world who had arrived at Atlantic city expecting to see the crowning of a new crossover superstar for the sport. All that said, a return to 160lbs and a dominating performance against Marco Antonio Rubio will wash much of the foul taste from the mouths of disenfranchised "Ghost" fans. Whatever may have been exposed in regards to the technical liabilities of Pavlik, no doubt his unwillingness to quit was on display too as he swung away in the 12th round as the final seconds of his undefeated career ticked away. Redemption for the blue collar fighter no doubt lies at the feet of Arthur Abraham in what would be a terrific battle between the two best 160lb fighters in the world. A win there and all is forgiven.

Amir Kahn: Few first losses were as quick, decisive and unexpected as Kahn's 1st round knock out loss to Breidis Prescott this past autumn. In 54 seconds a life was changed and a promise filled career derailed. Not just a prospect to be watched, many had tabbed the UK youngster to be a pound for pound force for years to come. As sometimes happens, little known Columbian prospects have other ideas. Kahn has already fought since, blasting out Oisin Fagan, however, little known Irish prospects rarely provide the same surprises their Columbian counterparts do. With his speed and technical abilities Kahn may yet prove to be the star once predicted, certainly in the UK he will maintain a strong following for the foreseeable future. The real questions will be answered when he is put back in with a dangerous puncher and the durability of his chin may be further tested.

Andy Lee- The future of the Middleweight division. Championship ready by the end of the year... hell... ready for Pavlik right now!! Well, as it turns out everyone got just a little ahead of themselves. Andy Lee's loss to Brian Vera on a night when ESPN's Friday Night Fights was frothing at the mouth with superlatives for the Irish import was a good reminder that everyone's the future of the sport until they lose, from the 1-0 starry eyed kid to the 16-0 darling, all it takes is one loss and you're damaged goods. Now Lee will likely have to work his way into a title shot, maybe not much, because he has Manny Steward's name to get him in the door, but it's no longer the cakewalk that it was shaping up to be. That punch that knocked Vera down in round one may have been the worst punch Lee ever threw; it gave him a false sense of confidence and invincibility. This one will be like all the rest... he must have thought. Vera wasn't like all the rest, he refused to play the part. And while cracking someone with everything you've got, again and again had always worked for Lee before, it just wasn't going to that time. Not that night. Not against that guy.

Among other first time losers Eddie Chambers, Sultan Ibragimov, Jean Pascal, Joachim Alcine, James McGirt Jr. and Aaron Williams are some of the more prominent. Each of them are fairly young and can likely work themselves back into position for bigger and better things. The key for their future success, much like those boxers listed above, will depend upon whether they learned from their losses or whether they have simply learned how to lose. Will Eddie Chambers continue to be satisfied with merely outclassing foe's, but not outworking? Will Ibragimov get more aggressive if that's what it takes? Will Jean Pascal work on defense as opposed to relying on athleticism? While the foe's that delivered the first losses to these newly imperfect fighters deserve much of the credit for their upheaval, for every name mentioned here, from the superstars to the prospects, the key to renewed success is internal. It's up to each to realize what their failings were and correct them as best they can.

One last chunk of food for thought on the undefeated woes of the newly defeated. Several notable fighters nearly (maybe should have) lost their perfect records over the course of the last year or so. Chad Dawson was pushed hard by Glen Johnson, but escaped with a hard fought victory, Joe Calzaghe survived a first round knockdown and scraped by with a lackluster split decision against Bernard Hopkins and Lucian Bute got a little help from his friends in Quebec after a hard-charging Librado Andrade had him literally holding on for dear life for much of the second half of the fight and groggily rising from the canvas as time expired. All of these fellows had a bad scare, and none of them wish to give their opponents rematches. Sometimes, in and out of the ring, you do what you've got to do to stay undefeated, such is the perceived value of that empty loss column. The fact that Dawson, Calzaghe and Bute are, along with , Arthur Abraham, Andre Berto and Ivan Calderon among the few major names left with an undefeated record in the sport says something about the level of matchmaking that's been going on over the last few years. Along with all those prize fighters listed above, just the year before we had prominent undefeated fighters like Ricky Hatton, Jermain Taylor, Mikkel Kessler, Allan Green, Edison Miranda, Tomasz Adamek and Librado Andrade. All went up against other undefeated fighters and came up a little short, but when two perfect records face off, something's got to give and it's to their credit that they took the challenge.

It would behoove the sport if everyone; from the fighters to the fans, the promoters to the networks, the trainers to the media, remember that a loss doesn't end a career, in most cases it makes the career all the more interesting. Outside of Marciano (and Floyd would like to think, himself) how many of the greatest prize fighters to ever live never lost? None. Zero. In the long run that statistical "0" is more important than the empty slot next to some undefeated flavor of the week, because it says that the greats took chances, challenged themselves and fought the best. When all is said and done, no great story can exist without a conflict within it's plot and often in life,and in boxing, it is a slight imperfection which makes things most interesting.

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