Tuesday, February 23, 2021

February 20, 2021 Boxing Thoughts


While much of the focus of the Boxing world on Saturday, February 20, 2021 centered on the MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas, NV for the highly anticipated battle for the WBC Jr. Lightweight world championship between champion Miguel Berchelt and undefeated former WBO Featherweight world champion Oscar Valdez, a bout that was thought to be a Fight of the Year candidate, which will be discussed later in this column, this day in Boxing also saw two fighters return to action.


This observer is speaking of course of a card that took place at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT, which was promoted under the Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) banner. While this event was also notable for the Jr. Welterweight debut of former IBF Lightweight world champion Robert Easter Jr. in scoring a twelve round unanimous decision over Ryan Martin, the card was highlighted by two fighters returning to competition after lengthy absences. First to make a return was former multi-time Heavyweight world title challenger Dominic Breazeale, who faced top Heavyweight contender Otto Wallin in a twelve round bout.


As some might recall, Breazeale last fought against then WBC Heavyweight world champion Deontay Wilder in May 2019. A bout where Breazeale was knocked out in the first round. Perhaps due to both what happened to him in that fight as well as the ongoing global COVID-19 epidemic, Breazeale had been out of the ring for nearly two years. In Otto Wallin, Breazeale faced a legitimate test in his first fight back from a lengthy layoff. Some may recall arguably the performance that put Wallin on the map of top Heavyweight contenders when he put forth a very difficult fight against undefeated Heavyweight champion Tyson Fury during a period of time where Fury was in between his first and what eventually became his second reign as a recognized world champion in the division when Wallin met him in September 2019. Wallin would lose a twelve round unanimous decision to Fury on that night, the lone defeat in Wallin’a career, but Wallin’s performance in which he badly cut Fury over the right eye that required forty-seven stitches to close after the fight, firmly established him as a force in the division.


The question going into this fight was simple, what effect did both Breazeale’s knockout loss at the hands of Deontay Wilder as well as the lengthy stretch of inactivity have on him. Perhaps another question some might have asked was whether or not Breazeale would be ready for a fighter of Wallin’s caliber coming off of that layoff.


What occurred when the two Heavyweights squared off can be best described as a Boxing match where the primary difference was one fighter’s tentativeness to let his hands go. This fighter was Dominic Breazeale. Although Breazeale’s pace would increase in the later rounds, he simply let the fight get away from him and Wallin’s greater activity and counter punching were the story of the fight as he would box his way to a convincing unanimous decision victory. 


Whether or not Breazeale’s hesitation to let his hands go throughout the fight was a reaction to what happened to him against Deontay Wilder, the length of inactivity, or a combination of both, the outcome of this bout was more a case of what he was unable to do as much as it was what Wallin was able to accomplish. The key for Breazeale will be to increase his activity both in terms of fighting more frequently as well as his punch output in future bouts. For Otto Wallin, this victory will likely put him in the mix to face either Tyson Fury or Anthony Joshua, the division’s two world champions once their rumored two-bout series, which will determine an undisputed world champion in the division runs its course.


The second fighter to return to action on the February 20th card at the Mohegan Sun was former four-division world champion Adrien Broner. Broner, who has become known for his struggles outside of the ring as much as he is known for his success and setbacks inside the ring in recent times, was like Breazeale, returning from a lengthy absence having last fought in a twelve round unanimous decision loss to future Hall of Famer Manny Pacquiao in January 2019. 


After two years out of competition and setbacks outside of the ring, Broner returned to the ring against undefeated Jovonie Santiago in the Welterweight division. This bout had an appearance on the surface of one that would allow Broner to get back in the win column against a largely unknown fighter. In Santiago’s fifteen previous bouts however, he did have one notable win in the form of former WBO Jr. Welterweight world champion DeMarcus Corely, who Santiago scored a unanimous decision over in 2017. Despite the victory over Corely, most would say Corely, who will be competing under Bareknuckle Boxing rules on a Bareknuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC) card in March, was several years removed from when he was regarded as one of the best fighters in the sport in the early 2000’s.


Santiago would make a good account of himself against Broner however, in a fight between the more active fighter in Santiago and the more accurate fighter in Broner. What was particularly impressive about Santiago’s approach and overall offensive output in this fight was how he put an emphasis on landing to Broner’s body consistently throughout. Although Adrien Broner has not been known as an offense-first fighter, particularly as he has moved up in weight from the 130lb. Jr. Lightweight division, he showed he still had the timing and accuracy particularly in his ability to counter punch when he did let his hands go in this fight.


While the bout between Broner and Santiago, much like the Breazeale-Wallin bout that preceded it did not offer much in the way of highlights, it was competitive and ultimately saw Broner win a controversial unanimous decision. What made the outcome of the fight “Controversial?” The simple answer was the overall activity of Santiago offensively in landing 207 of 697 total punches compared to Broner’s 98 of 338 total punches according to CompuBox


Although the three official judges are the only ones who can speak for what they based their scoring on, this observer felt that Santiago was too active throughout the entire fight to not get the decision victory. A few aspects that one should consider is even though yours truly remains firm in my stance that Jovonie Santiago did enough to win this fight based both on what I saw with my own eyes as well as the statistical evidence that seems to support this stance, such statistics are not available to the three official judges as they score a bout nor are such statistics used as criteria in determining a winner of a bout that goes the distance. The statistics do more often than not however, serve as an accurate illustration of what occurs during a fight.


While I do not want to question the judges decision, I will simply say I feel differently. Despite the loss, Santiago will likely get another opportunity against a contender in the division based off of this performance. Adrien Broner meanwhile still has the name recognition to secure lucrative opportunities going forward. This victory for Broner however, will likely not quell the criticism he has faced in his career. The bout against Santiago did succeed in helping Broner work off ring rust and the key for him going forward even as the times remain uncertain due to COVID-19 will be to try and be as active as possible.


Now we come to what was to date the most anticipated bout of 2021, the WBC Jr. Lightweight world championship bout between Miguel Berchelt and Oscar Valdez. This was the kind of encounter the Boxing world thrives on. Two world champions with one having gone up in weight to challenge the other for his crown. When you throw in both Berchelt and Valdez had crowd pleasing styles, this had all the ingredients of a memorable battle.


While some had pointed out similarities between this fight and several other memorable battles between Mexican warriors as both Berchelt and Valdez are, I found myself thinking of what type of fight this would be rather than drawing comparisons to battles of yesteryear. In terms of punching power, I felt the edge would go to the champion Berchelt based largely on his having a career knockout performance of over 83% in his thirty-seven win, thirty-eight bout professional career. In contrast to Berchelt, I felt if Valdez, who entered unbeaten in twenty-eight previous bouts with a slightly lower career knockout percentage of nearly 80% could get the fight into the middle and late rounds, the advantage would be on his side.


The primary reason I felt this way was in keeping in mind that Valdez had only fought two times since relinquishing his WBO Featherweight world championship to move up in weight to the 130lb. Jr. Lightweight division. Although success had followed Valdez up from the 126lb. Featherweight division, he had not faced a fighter with the type of punching power Miguel Berchelt is known for and on this basis, I thought Valdez might look to out box Berchelt and possibly get a stoppage late in the fight if he were able to withstand Berchelt’s power.


Sometimes no matter how many fights one sees or in my case, covers as a writer/journalist and Boxing historian, what can happen inside the ring can leave you surprised when all is said and done. What stood out to me early on was not only Valdez’ ability to out box Berchelt as I felt would be his strategy at least early in the fight, but it seemed as though he had more steam on his punches than the naturally bigger fighter Berchelt. Something I frankly did not anticipate. 


Valdez was almost systematic in his approach early and what was developing into a masterful Boxing performance quickly evolved as Valdez would show he could do a bit of everything that often makes up a great fighter. A left hook to the temple of Berchelt in round four staggered the champion. Valdez had now not only established that he could out box the champion, who was a significant betting favorite going into the fight, but he could also hurt him. The effects of the left hook as well as Valdez’ follow-up offense resulted in a technical knockdown as another left hook staggered Berchelt into the ropes in the closing seconds of the round and it was ruled that the ropes held him up. The fight would continue.


An aspect of Valdez’ performance that might be overlooked, particularly amongst casual Boxing fans, is how solid he was defensively as well as what he was able to do offensively. Following the knockdown in round four, Berchelt attempted to step up his pace and aggression by trying to walk Valdez down. This approach by the champion had little success as Valdez was able to use lateral movement to evade the majority of Berchelt’s offense. While Valdez had clearly built a big lead in my eyes through eight rounds, I wondered whether or not the constant movement would eventually lead to fatigue, which is always a danger against a fighter who has punching power as Berchelt has. 


In round nine, a combination highlighted by a right uppercut from Valdez sent Berchelt down for the second time in the fight. At this stage in the bout, I felt the fight could have and perhaps should have been stopped. Although no one should ever take anything away from the heart fighters show while in battle, this was a case where I felt the contest had been decided and outside of a puncher’s chance, there was no way for Miguel Berchelt to turn things around on the scorecards. It was also evident that gradually the champion was suffering a beating.


What occurred in round ten was exciting, thrilling, and quite scary. A perfectly timed counter left hook to the head from Valdez on a charging Berchelt knocked the champion out cold in the closing seconds of round ten. To his credit, Referee Russell Mora immediately stopped the fight. Berchelt was down for several minutes before leaving the ring under his own power and then being taken to a local hospital for observation.


What was no doubt a front runner for “Knockout of the Year” as exciting as it was, was one that should not have occurred in this observer’s eyes. While some may say they disagree with my point of view, the sport has dealt with many tragedies over the years and while I will not go through the list out of respect for the reader as well as time constraints, a commonality of many of those tragedies were fights being allowed to go on longer than they should have as more often than not the fighter who was knocked out had sustained a prolonged beating before the knockout occurred, not unlike what happened here in this fight. 


In fairness, Referee Russell Mora did tell Berchelt after the first knockdown in round four that he needed to show him something and following the second knockdown in round nine, he did go to Berchelt’s corner between rounds nine and ten and informed the corner that he would not allow Berchelt to continue taking punishment. Mora’s decision to stop the fight following the third knockdown in which Berchelt was out cold before he hit the canvas was the appropriate call. One may wonder as I do however, as to why Mora did not stop the fight sooner.


Fortunately, this story does have a happy ending as Berchelt was released from the hospital the day after the fight with no serious damage. One does have to wonder what the long-term effects of suffering that type of knockout will have on Berchelt if he chooses to return to the ring down the line.


For Oscar Valdez, the sky may indeed be the limit after scoring the biggest victory of his career in becoming a two-division world champion. What should also not be overlooked is Valdez also showed he is a humble champion after the fight in stopping his celebration, waiting to see if Berchelt was okay, and then showing respect to the former champion in an exchange of words and embracing Berchelt. A true display of “Class” between two great fighters that this observer hopes will be remembered along with the dramatic way this fight came to an end. 


“And That’s The Boxing Truth.


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