Thursday, January 16, 2020

January 10th-11th, 2020 Weekend Thoughts

The first weekend on the 2020 Boxing schedule featured some significant events. For the first time in this observer’s memory, the sport of Women’s Boxing was featured predominantly across two major network platforms over a two-day period. This was highlighted by three world championship fights in the Jr. Middleweight and Super-Middleweight divisions.

Two of these world championship bouts took place on January 10th at the Ocean Resort and Casino in Atlantic City, NJ. The first of these two bouts, which bookended a tripleheader broadcast in the United States by Showtime, was a unification bout for the World Boxing Association (WBA) and International Boxing Federation (IBF) Super-Middleweight world championship between undefeated IBF world champion Elin Cederroos and WBA world champion Alicia Napoleon-Espinosa.

This fight carried with it an element of the unknown. Despite the encounter being a world championship unification bout, Elin Cederroos was largely unknown, particularly here in the United States. In fact, this fight represented her debut in the United States after competing the majority of her career in Spain. The native of Vasteraas, Sweden however, showed that she was a world-class fighter and quickly established herself as a force to be reckoned with. Although Cederroos entered this fight with only eight pro fights and was at an experience disadvantage compared to Alicia Napoleon Espinosa, Cederroos displayed a skill set that was beyond what one would think of a fighter with under ten fights.

Napoleon-Espinosa meanwhile came into the fight having won twelve of her previous thirteen professional fights and had successfully defended her WBA crown three times. In contrast to Napoleon-Espinosa, Cederroos was making her first defense of her IBF championship and the question that surrounded her beyond what she would bring into the fight to combat Napoleon-Espinosa was what effect if any would fighting in the United States for the first time have on her.

As is the norm for most bouts in Women’s Boxing, this fight did not have much of a feeling out process due to the rounds only being two minutes in duration. It quickly became a battle of a fighter who was punching in volume against a fighter who was trying to control distance and use her reach. Cederroos would score a knockdown of Napoleon-Espinosa with a short left hook to the head that was behind a right hand in the second round. In what appeared to be a delayed reaction, Napoleon-Espinosa was knocked into the ropes and it was ruled by Referee Benji Esteves that the ropes had prevented her from being completely knocked down thus the ruling of a knockdown being scored.

Over the first half of the fight, I felt Cederroos was able to control the tempo of the combat due largely to her ability to use her reach to control the distance between herself and Napoleon-Espinosa. This along with several right hand leads, her ability to time Napoleon-Espinosa, and mixing her offense to the body and head is what became the story of this bout. Although Napoleon-Espinosa also had an advantage in terms of hand speed in addition to overall experience, she had trouble negating Cederroos’ reach and appeared to only get on the inside in sporadic bursts.

As the second half of the fight began however, the two fighters appeared to slightly switch roles. Napoleon-Espinosa began timing Cederroos as she came forward and appeared for a time to shift the momentum in her favor. Cederroos’ greater activity and ability to outwork Napoleon-Espinosa ultimately resulted in her winning a ten round unanimous decision. It was a decision however, that was separated by a single point on all three official scorecards and one might argue that had a knockdown not been ruled against Napoleon-Espinosa in the second round that this fight would have been a draw.

Although I had Cederroos winning this fight by two points when all was said and done 95-93, it is an illustration of how competitive not only this fight was, but also the competitive nature of Women’s Boxing as a whole. What the future may hold for both fighters will be discussed later in this column.

The second women’s world championship fight to take place in Atlantic City was a battle for the vacant World Boxing Council (WBC) and World Boxing Organization (WBO) Jr. Middleweight world championship as undefeated two-division world champion Claressa Shields attempted to become the first fighter female or male to become a three-division world champion in under ten fights as a professional against two-division world champion Ivana Habazin.

Sometimes describing what happens in a fight can be as simple as saying one fighter was a higher skill level than the other. For ten rounds, Shields used her hand speed, jab and precision timing to dominate the combat. A main focal point for Shields’ overall success in this fight beyond those attributes was how effective she was in going to the body of Habazin throughout the fight with both hands. This included a knockdown as a result of a left hook to the body in round six.

Although Habazin was not discouraged and was able to periodically get Shields pressed on the ropes, she generally smothered her punches and simply could not find a way to get into a consistent rhythm over the course of the fight. The end result of a ten round unanimous decision not only put Shields in the Boxing history books, but also presents some interesting possibilities for the other Women who competed over the two day period.

The final women’s world championship bout of the weekend was a battle for the WBC Super-Middleweight world championship between champion Franchon Crews-Dezurn and undefeated former WBC Heavyweight world champion Alejandra Jimenz at the Alamodome in San Antonio, TX as part of a card broadcast by digital sports streaming network DAZN. This bout was supposed to take place over Mexican Independence Day weekend in 2019, but was delayed due to Jimenez having to pull out of the fight because of issues securing a visa to travel from Mexico for the fight. With those issues resolved, the bout could proceed.

This fight also had a history element attached to it because it represented the first time that a former Heavyweight world champion not only moved down in weight to challenge for a world championship in a lower weight class, but in this case the fighter in question, Jimenez was coming down three weight divisions from where she was a Heavyweight world champion. Although it is somewhat common to see fighters in Women’s Boxing compete in multiple weight classes based on what ever opportunities that might be available to them, this was a rare time in this observer’s memory that I could remember seeing a fighter move down so significantly in weight to challenge for a world championship in the entire sport including men and women.

There were two examples however, that did come to mind. The first being a fight that I covered back in November 2003 when after moving up in weight to win a Heavyweight world championship earlier that year, Roy Jones moved back down in weight to the 175lb. Light-Heavyweight division to challenge Antonio Tarver for his WBC world championship. Coincidentally, the second example that came to mind was also a WBC world championship fight. I speak of course of the February 1991 encounter that saw Sugar Ray Leonard move back down in weight to the 154lb. Jr. Middleweight division after holding world championships as high as the 175lb. Light-Heavyweight division in his career, to challenge Terry Norris for his Jr. Middleweight crown.

While I won’t dive too deeply into a history lesson for the reader, prior to challenging Norris, Leonard had not fought in over a year and in his last bout prior to that fight in December 1989, he successfully defended his WBC Super-Middleweight championship in his third encounter with Roberto Duran. Even though in the case of Roy Jones, he regained his Light-Heavyweight crown via controversial decision over Tarver in the first of what became three fights, Jones was never the same fighter after moving back down in weight and it was this decision to move back down that began a steady decline of his Boxing skills and reflexes.

As for Sugar Ray Leonard, he too suffered significant decline, but unlike Jones who eventually lost two of three bouts to Antonio Tarver, Leonard was dominated over twelve rounds by a younger and seemingly stronger Terry Norris and suffered a terrible beating in the process. The loss to Norris signaled the end of Leonard’s career for several years before he attempted at age forty to make one final comeback that was ill-advised in 1997 when he moved back up to the 168lb. Super-Middleweight division where he was stopped in five rounds by the late Hector Camacho Sr. In similarity to Jones, who I covered from the mid-1990’s when I began covering the sport through the end of his career, I also covered the Camacho-Leonard fight and in the interest of honesty with the reader, I regard that fight as one of the saddest events I had seen in the sport much less covered because quite frankly, Leonard should not have taken that fight.

Although these two examples have no direct connection to what Alejandra Jimenz was attempting by challenging Franchon Crews-Dezurn, the commonality between Leonard and Jones was, despite their greatness and standing as legends in the sport, neither fighter was the same once they made the decision to move down in weight. Nevertheless, this being the first time I can remember seeing a fighter drop down so significantly in weight in terms of Women’s Boxing, it did bring up those memories for yours truly.

The fight between Crews-Dezurn and Jimenz was a grueling back and forth battle where both fighters had their share of moments. Even though Alejandra Jimenz showed no negative effects from the significant drop in weight, what did concern me was with the fight being fought at such a high pace from the outset, what effect would fatigue have on her as the fight progressed.

It was also fair to ask the same question as to what effect would the pace have on the champion. A conundrum that can exist in women’s bouts due to what is usually a high pace in which fights are fought is to determine who has the upper hand. This fan create difficulty when scoring a fight. From my perspective, even though both fighters had moments in many of the rounds throughout the bout, it was Jimenz who brought the fight to Crews-Dezurn, consistently applying pressure and attempting to use her natural size as a naturally bigger and stronger fighter to walk the champion down.

Although Crews-Dezurn landed several hard, thudding punches throughout the fight, she was unable to keep Jimenz from coming forward and did not seem to hurt the challenger with her offense. In comparison particularly over the second half of the fight, Jimenz seemed to be in better condition while the champion appeared to be fighting the effects of fatigue. At the end of the ten round world championship bout Alejandra Jimenz had successfully become a two-division world champion in scoring a split decision over Crews-Dezurn.

The central question that surrounded two of the three Women’s world championship fights was whether winners would emerge that could be potential opponents for now three-division world champion Claressa Shields. This observer believes that two opponents have emerged in the form of Elin Cederroos and Alejandra Jimenz. While it would not shock me to see rematches made of the two fights where both women emerged victorious, it is important to remember that Women’s Boxing is in a long overdue growth period and an argument can be made that though rematches of these two fights are warranted, fighters will opt for the option that will benefit them most financially and in the case of Alejandra Jimenz, her decision to move down in weight from Heavyweight was perhaps driven by the potential to seek more lucrative opportunities. In 2020, the most lucrative opportunity for a fighter in Women’s Boxing is a potential fight with Claressa Shields, who has emerged as a star in the sport. In my mind, it is a question of who will get the opportunity first rather than if either will get an opportunity.

Although Women’s Boxing was featured significantly over the weekend, there was also the story of undefeated former WBO Jr. Middleweight world champion Jaime Munguia, who after successfully defending his title five times chose to set his sights on moving up six pounds from the 154lb. Jr. Middleweight division to the 160lb. Middleweight division was one that was also featured. Munguia began his 2020 by facing Middleweight contender Gary “Spike” O’Sullivan in the main event that followed the Crews-Dezurn-Jimenz bout.

Munguia has in a little more than a year and a half established himself as one of the sport’s rising stars. The question that usually follows a fighter as they move up in weight however, is usually always the same. Will the fighter be as effective at a heavier weight as they were in a lower weight class.

In Gary O’Sullivan, Munguia faced a fighter who was a credible opponent to test the waters of the Middleweight division. Even though Munguia was favored significantly going into the fight, it always interests me to see what a perceived underdog has to offer.

O’Sullivan had won thirty of thirty-three professional fights going into his encounter with Munguia. An argument could be made however, that O’Sullivan had only lost to top-level competition and thus it was understandable how some might have felt that he had little chance against a fighter like Munguia, who had established himself as a “Knockout Artist.” It nevertheless was of interest to this observer to see what O’Sullivan could do.

It was crucial in my eyes that Munguia establish himself early in this fight. What I mean by that is he needed to show that he would dictate the combat, despite it being his first bout in the Middleweight division. In some ways, this was a more tactical version of Jaime Munguia than had been the case in some previous fights. It did not take long to notice that Munguia was using more head movement than had been the case in previous bouts and he was also throwing and landing more combinations in spurts than is usually the norm.

O’Sullivan however, showed that he was not intimidated and was more than willing to mix it up with Munguia. Although it was Munguia who generally was the fighter getting his punches off first, O’Sullivan had some of his best moments when he was able to catch the former Jr. Middleweight world champion in between his punches.

As this fight progressed, the question that I had in mind was whether or not O’Sullivan would be able to withstand Munguia’s attack for twelve rounds. Gary O’Sullivan did succeed however, in testing Munguia, which is something that has not been said much in regard to previous Munguia opponents. While some might be critical of this and point to this fact as a potential deterrent for Munguia as he continues to campaign as a Middleweight, this is what you hope to see a fighter deal with as they move up in weight.

It may be indeed true that fans who can at times be fickle will point to a fighter in Munguia’s position being tested as a red flag, but if you are involved in a fighter’s camp whether it be as part of his corner team or his promoter, you do want the question of whether or not your fighter can take a flush punch and a heavier weight to be answered quickly as to hopefully silence any critics. Despite O’Sullivan’s willingness to engage with Munguia, I wondered if Munguia would be content in simply trying to box his way to a decision rather than attempt to go for a knockout.

While Jaime Munguia’s performance in this fight, one that would eventually lead to an eleventh round stoppage, was not perfect, it is a fight that is crucial in a fighter’s development. If the reader is a little confused by this observer’s use of “A Fighter’s Development”, allow me to explain further.

It is true that more often than not you hear the word development used in the beginning stages of a fighter’s career as a way of describing the fighters progress. An old saying that this observer truly believes in however, is a fighter should never stop learning, even those fighters who achieve the status of becoming a world champion. In this case, Jaime Munguia showed the ability to be a tactical boxer for much of this fight, but he also made some mistakes in his approach both in terms of offense in some of his body punches being ruled as low blows, which resulted point deduction in the sixth round as well as in some aspects defensively in allowing himself to be caught by counter punches from O’Sullivan in exchanges.

Although the end result of a victory ultimately means mission accomplished for his debut as a Middleweight, the twenty-two year old is still very much learning and that can only benefit him going forward as he looks to get into world title contention in a second weight class. Whether or not Munguia will be an opponent for either the three current Middleweight world champions, Saul Alvarez, Demetrius Andrade, or Gennady Golovkin as this year progresses remains to be seen.

What the four fights that were highlighted and discussed in this column should indicate is not only that the sport as a whole has a ton of momentum, but also in the case of Women’s Boxing, the sport continues to progress. Although Boxing as a whole has no shortage of flaws and/or negative aspects attached to it, it is good from time to time to embrace the good that the sport has to offer.

“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”

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