Tuesday, February 1, 2022

King And Arum Bring Boxing Back To An Unappreciated Era With A Head To Head Night Of Boxing


January 29, 2022 in the sport of Boxing was one where two interesting cards took place courtesy of two Hall of Fame promoters and longtime rivals Don King and Bob Arum, who inadvertently took the sport back in time in producing two Boxing cards that would go head to head against each other on competing platforms. Unlike decades ago when King and Arum would rival each other on competing premium cable networks and pay-per-view distributed through cable and satellite providers, this head to head encounter of competing Boxing cards would take place in the streaming realm with Arum staging a card in Tulsa, OK that was broadcast on digital subscription-based sports streaming network ESPN+ and King staging a digital pay-per-view card that was broadcast on FITE from Warren, OH.


Beyond the throwback scenario of the two ninety year old promoters competing one more time against each other for the Boxing audience, each card had intrigue for different reasons. As readers may recall, this observer previewed these two cards here on The Boxing Truth® and days prior to the events taking place. While that column began focusing on Don King’s event, this column will begin with Bob Arum’s card, which took place at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tulsa, OK.


The main event of that card was billed as an elimination bout in the World Boxing Council’s (WBC) Jr. Lightweight division between top contenders Robson Conceicao and Xavier Martinez. In previewing this bout, yours truly stated that it was one that arguably pitted two fighters at very similar stages in their careers against each other. An encounter between two boxer/punchers that appeared to be well- matched. In the early rounds, it appeared as though the well matched encounter this bout appeared to be on paper would materialize. There are times when a fight seems to develop a pattern.


This fight was one where a pattern emerged rather quickly in the early rounds. Conceicao usually coming forward and throwing punches in varying numbers of combinations and for a time Martinez throwing back offense. It created an impression at least for this observer that the early rounds were closely fought and that there could have been a difference of opinion as to who was getting the upper hand. While Conceicao was clearly the more active of the two fighters, Martinez seemed to land the harder punches of the two, particularly when he was able to get on the inside where he was able to land hooks to the head of Conceicao that momentarily stunned him.


As the fight progressed into the middle and late rounds however, Martinez’ ability to immediately answer with offense began to decrease. This was due to Conceicao's lateral movement and ability to keep Martinez at distance and largely unable to get his punches off. Beyond sporadic success in the middle and late rounds during moments where he was able to get on the inside, Martinez was unable to turn the ebb and flow of the combat in his favor as Conceicao would go on to earn a convincing ten round unanimous decision in a fight where I unofficially scored it seven rounds to three in his favor. With the win, Conceicao appears as though he may be headed towards a rematch with current unified world champion Oscar Valdez, who is the only fighter to hold a victory over him as a professional. Obviously, a rematch with Valdez will depend on whether or not Valdez, the current WBC Jr. Lightweight world champion is successful in his unification bout against current WBO world champion Shakur Stevenson, which is scheduled to take place in April.


This brings us to the pay-per-view card promoted by Don King, which took place at the Packard Music Hall in Warren, OH. Two bouts in Boxing’s Cruiserweight and Heavyweight divisions co-headlined this event. First, a battle of undefeated Heavyweights saw top WBA contender Trevor Bryan engage in a twelve round slugfest with undefeated, but largely unknown Jonathan Guidry.  The taller and heavier Bryan tried to use his 268lbs. and long jab to keep the shorter Guidry at distance where he could not get his punches off. For a period of time this strategy was proving to be successful for Bryan who holds an interim/regular champion designation in the World Boxing Association’s (WBA) Heavyweight ratings, but Guidry was able to force exchanges of offense throughout the twelve round bout.


It was in these exchanges that Guidry had the most success as he was able to connect with hard hooks with both hands to the head of Bryan. Despite being a relative unknown going into this bout, Guidry also showed that he could take Bryan’s punches as there were several instances throughout where the two Heavyweights traded punch for punch with each other with neither fighter really backing down.


Although this continued in the later rounds, fatigue on both fighters began to slow the pace, which was reasonably quick for a Heavyweight bout, down and it was Bryan who seemed to have a bit more left in him. A knockdown in the closing seconds of the twelfth round sealed a twelve round split decision for Bryan to remain unbeaten in now twenty-two professional bouts with Guidry suffering his first loss in twenty professional fights. Bryan is in a unique position currently in the Heavyweight division as he holds an interim/regular designation in the WBA’s Heavyweight rankings. While the WBA in it’s wisdom has created confusion amongst Boxing fans with such a structure because they do not acknowledge that it is a designation and promote fighters who hold such designations as “World Champions,” in reality, Bryan is the WBA’s number one contender and should be viewed as it’s mandatory challenger to current undefeated unified IBF/WBA/WBO/IBO Heavyweight world champion Oleksandr Usyk.


The problem Bryan and all would be contenders in the division currently face is both fighters who hold the respective portions of the World Heavyweight Championship are currently tied up. Undefeated two-time Heavyweight world champion Tyson Fury, who currently holds the WBC world championship in the division will be making the second defense of that world title in April against current WBC number one mandatory challenger Dillian Whyte. Usyk meanwhile is heading towards a contractually-obligated rematch against the man he took the unified portion of the Heavyweight championship from last year, Anthony Joshua.  While certainly things are rarely “Set In Stone” in Boxing for a variety of reasons, the belief at least among some is that the two winners of those bouts, which are both being targeted for April, will lead to an encounter for the Undisputed world championship later this year if circumstances including, but not limited to the ongoing global COVID-19 epidemic allow for such a plan to occur. What this means for a fighter in Trevor Bryan’s position is that for the immediate future, he is essentially the odd man out of this equation and will likely have to wait until at least 2023 before he might get an opportunity to fight for potentially the Undisputed World Heavyweight Championship. Another potential issue Bryan might have is the question of whether or not he will want to be active in that time and thus risk his mandatory challenger status. There also is a potential issue in that Bryan’s promoter Don King has promoted Boxing cards sporadically over the last several years and while some of that could be attributed to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis at least in regard to the last two years, a question that should be asked if Bryan wants to remain active during that time is whether or not King will be promoting cards more frequently if circumstances allow him to do so.


The main event of this card was a battle for the WBC Cruiserweight world championship between champion Ilunga Makabu defending his title against WBC number one contender Thabiso Mchunu. This was a rematch from a fight in May 2015 in which Makabu scored an eleventh round knockout of Mchunu.


In previewing this bout, this observer stated that this rematch had generated significantly more interest in the weeks leading up to it due to what could loom ahead for the winner. I am speaking of course of a possible encounter with current Undisputed Super-Middleweight world champion Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, who has expressed interest in moving up two weight classes to test the waters in the Cruiserweight division.


For those who might wonder why a potential encounter with Alvarez would spark increased interest in a world championship fight that would not have otherwise been able to benefit from such publicity, it is important to keep in mind that despite the accomplishments of fighters like Evander Holyfield and most recently Oleksandr Usyk, who both started their careers as Cruiserweights and both went on to become undisputed world champions of the division, the Cruiserweight division has never been viewed as a career destination for most fighters and thus has never been viewed as the most lucrative option available as most fighters use the division as a way to test the waters before moving up to Heavyweight as both Holyfield and Usyk did or as a fallback option for fighters who are unable to effectively compete as a Heavyweight. In this case, the interest lies in the fact that Saul Alvarez has won world titles from the 154lb. Jr. Middleweight division to the 175lb. Light-Heavyweight division after starting his career as a 140lb. Jr. Welterweight. Much like the late great Henry Armstrong and Manny Pacquiao, Alvarez has made a career out of fighting and defeating fighters that are theoretically bigger and stronger than him. With his sights set on trying to continue to make history, Alvarez is looking to add becoming a world champion in the Cruiserweight division to the list of his accomplishments in what is turning out to be a Hall of Fame career.


What this means for a fighter in Ilunga Makabu’s position is, despite not being particularly well-known here in the United States, he has something that is on Alvarez’ radar, a world championship in a division that Alvarez is eyeing. This essentially gives a fighter in Makabu’s position essentially a lottery ticket to fight the current biggest marquee draw the sport has to offer. With this in mind, in the days prior to this rematch, I found myself wondering aloud as to whether or not this fight would be more about the potential business aspect of a possible fight with Alvarez more so than what takes place inside the ring. If the reader is confused, allow me to elaborate.


It goes without saying that there is an overabundance of hype that often accompanies Boxing for better or worse. In this case, and in the spirit of truth and honesty with the reader, this was as much about whether or not Alvarez could see something in either Makabu or Mchunu that might discourage him from testing the waters of the Cruiserweight division or seeing conditions and styles that might make a challenge for a Cruiserweight world championship ideal, as much as it was to see who would get the upper hand in a rematch between two of the best fighters in the division. As is often the case whenever there is a fight taking place that has a storyline of what might follow that frankly overshadows what will occur inside the ring, I approached this bout with the mindset of no expectations. My reasoning was simple, the business of the sport of Boxing has many twists and turns that can be akin to a soap opera or more bluntly a primetime television drama. In simple terms, unless it was “Set In Stone” that the winner of the Makabu-Mchunu rematch was signed to fight Alvarez next, I just viewed it as a world championship bout between a champion and a number one contender.


What occurred in the fight itself was underwhelming if one prefers toe to toe battles, but was entertaining for those who appreciate Boxing skill, timing and tactical fights. An encounter that largely consisted of the two fighters standing in close and looking to counter each other, both fighters were able to have periods of effectiveness, but from my perspective despite the champion Makabu applying consistent pressure throughout and being the fighter coming forward, it was Mchunu that seemed to land the cleaner, more effective punches particularly when he was able to land his right hook. It was also noticeable the occasional stagger of the champion when he would get hit with those shots. The fight was however, extremely close due to both fighters being able to have success in many of the same rounds as well as the measured pace in which the bout was fought. At the conclusion of the twelve round world championship bout, I felt that it was a draw, but was certainly not surprised to see a split decision rendered. Although Makabu would retain his world championship via twelve round split decision, likely based on the consistent pressure he was able to apply throughout as well as his own counter punches, it was as close a fight as one could call where a winner was declared.


As for what this could mean for Makabu moving forward, obviously, he is still a potential opponent for Alvarez until otherwise announced. How successful would the champion be against a fighter of Alvarez’ standing in the sport, it is important to remember that if that fight were to happen, Makabu would be the naturally bigger man fighting at his natural weight between 190lbs. and 200lbs. What may end up making this fight a reality however, is the fact that Mchunu was able to hit the champion cleanly with hard shots and do so more than occasionally. While it is indeed true that styles make fights, if one views a possible Makabu-Alvarez bout objectively, it is not hard to envision Saul Alvarez watching Makabu’s rematch with Mchunu and feeling encouraged as opposed to discouraged in the potential openings that he might have seen, which if he does move up to fight Makabu, he could very well exploit with his skillset.


For now, the important thing to keep in mind if you are Ilunga Makabu is he retained his world championship and whether or not some may feel that he lost his rematch with Thabiso Mchunu, he was able to hold onto the one thing that is of interest to Saul Alvarez even though from Alvarez’ position he could likely make more financially by not moving up to Cruiserweight, a world championship in what would be a fifth weight division for him. Whether or not Alvarez still sees Makabu as the best option to try and accomplish that goal after the champion’s second victory over Thabiso Mchunu remains to be seen.


As for this the latest chapter in the decades long rivalry between Don King and Bob Arum, who knows whether the two will continue to stage cards coincidentally or not against each other as 2022 progresses. It is however, refreshing, despite what one might think of either King or Arum, who each have their respective share of critics, to see two cornerstones of the sport of Boxing continuing to promote cards at the age of ninety. Regardless of one’s opinion of Don King and Bob Arum, both men have played a major role in the sport over the last fifty years and are both responsible for some of the most historical events and bouts in Boxing history. With the sport heading ever more in the direction of streaming in terms of how Boxing is broadcast, it is only right that two of the major players in Boxing promotion who were pioneers in terms of first staging major Boxing events via closed-circuit distribution, to premium cable/satellite networks, to pay-per-view, be involved in the next innovation of bringing Boxing to the ultimate authority in the sport, the consumer. 


Although no one can say if Arum and King will continue to go head to head in the streaming realm, they each provided what turned out to be a memorable night of Boxing to close out January 2022 featuring a combination of a world championship fight on one card, along with a mix of rising prospects and contenders that were featured on both of their events. It goes without saying that those prospects in theory will go on to become the future stars in the sport and if Arum and King can each continue to develop those fighters and it leads to further opportunities throughout the entire sport, Boxing will ultimately benefit from it. Why criticize what would be a good thing for Boxing?


“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”


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