Tuesday, March 29, 2022

End Of March 2022 Thoughts

 Originally, this column was intended to focus strictly on the landscape of the 126lb. Featherweight division that took a significant spotlight during the month of March in the sport of Boxing. Due to circumstances beyond this observer's control however, this column will be expanded to include some of the other events that took place during the last full week of March. This is due in part to technical issues that yours truly experienced during what was expected to be coverage of the RJJ Boxing card, which took place on Thursday, March 24th in Nayarit, Mexico. Unfortunately, due to those technical problems, coverage of that card will be limited to the following results.


In the opening bout of the card, which took place at the Palenque de la Expo, Lightweight Marco Moreno scored a four round unanimous decision over Jonathan Zuniga. Featherweight Hector Cruz scored a six round unanimous decision over Miguel Hernandez. Jr Lightweight Armando Almanza scored an eight round decision over Edgar Vargas. The lone stoppage on the card came when Light-Heavyweight Lester Martinez scored a fifth round stoppage of Jaime Lopez. Jr. Welterweight prospect Salvatore Tapia closed out the evening by earning an eight round split decision over Emiliano Cruz.


While not the usual type of coverage that the reader can expect here on The Boxing Truth® in a full Boxing card being summarized in one paragraph, hopefully such coverage will only be reserved for when circumstances unfortunately warrant it, which was the circumstances this time around. With the brief summary of the events that took place in Mexico on March 24th concluded, it is now time to discuss three specific bouts that took place on Saturday, March 26th. While the Featherweight landscape, the original intent of this column will instead serve as the conclusion, three other bouts took place on this particular evening that will be discussed, two of which, had a similar storyline that coincidentally took place on the same card.


This observer is referring to the card that took place at the new Resorts World Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, NV where two bouts that can be described as “Crossroads Fights” took place. First it was rising Jr. Welterweight prospect Josue Vargas, who was returning to the ring for the first time since suffering a first round stoppage loss in October of last year at the hands of top contender and former world title challenger Jose Zepeda.


For Vargas’ first bout back since that loss he faced Nicolas Demario in a scheduled eight round bout. Although this had all the appearance of a “Comeback Fight” in the sense that it was meant to be a way for a fighter in Vargas’ position to step back in after suffering a knockout loss, without being tested too much, the largely unknown Demario proved to be a more difficult opponent than some may have anticipated. For a large portion of this fight, Vargas was able to out work Demario, but Demario’s ability to catch Vargas with hard counter punches proved to provide a difficult test for a fighter coming off of a knockout loss.


It was Demario’s counter punching ability that led to a knockdown of Vargas in round five. There were also moments where Vargas ended up on the canvas that were not ruled knockdowns throughout the bout. This one knockdown as well as Demario having periodic moments throughout, did give an impression that he was competitive and in the fight in terms of having the potential to win it. It was later in the fifth round however, where Demario would do something that arguably should have resulted in a disqualification loss against him in biting Vargas on his shoulder resulting in a point deduction and subsequently nullified the potential advantage he would have had on the official scorecards.


While Vargas would be able to secure a victory in this bout via an eight round unanimous decision, the story that comes out of this fight is obviously biting incident in the fifth round. Although biting incidents in Boxing do not happen often, they have happened periodically throughout the sport’s history most notably in the mid-1990’s in two separate incidents that occurred in Boxing’s Heavyweight division. First the May 1995 encounter between Andrew Golota and Samson Po’uha where Golota bit Po’uha on the neck in the fourth round, which did not result in a point deduction or even a warning by Referee Eddie Cotton, who was out of position and did not see the foul occur, despite Po’uha telling the referee that he was bit. Video replays would confirm this, but Golota would ultimately stop Po’uha in the fifth round. Perhaps the most notable biting incident not just in that time period, but in the history of the sport occurred in June 1997 when in a highly anticipated rematch Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield on one of his ears. Referee Mills Lane deducted two points from Tyson in the third round of that fight when he bit Holyfield. It would be moments after the deduction when Tyson seemingly looking for a way out of the fight, would bite Holyfield a second time on the same ear resulting in immediate disqualification.


Although the Tyson-ear bite incident is still talked about and ridiculed to this day, it is the event that is almost automatically thought of whenever there is an instance where one fighter bites another during the course of a fight. Should Demario been disqualified for his biting foul? As someone who is as old school as they come, I believe the point deduction was appropriate only because rules and regulations as they stand dictate such protocols. Perhaps the various state athletic commissions, international regulatory boards, as well as the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) should revisit the issue of protocols when biting occurs and maybe indicate that biting, which was not even allowed in the early incarnation of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) where fights were fought essentially under a no holds barred format, should be grounds for automatic disqualification. As of now, a point deduction for a first offense of biting is the appropriate call under the rules, but obviously, the decision of how many points will be deducted will be the decision of the referee at the time a biting foul occurs until such time as the rules are changed. Both due to the biting incident in this fight as well as the difficulty Demario gave Vargas throughout, it was not the type of performance Vargas was likely looking for in his first fight coming off of a knockout loss, but he did what he had to do and got the victory.


The second bout that occurred at the Resorts World Hotel and Casino also featured a fighter looking to bounce back from a knockout loss.  In February of last year, Miguel Berchelt defended his WBC Jr. Lightweight world championship against Oscar Valdez in what was one of the more anticipated fights of the year. A fight in which Berchelt, a fighter known as one of the sport’s “Knockout Artists” suffered a brutal knockout loss at the hands of Valdez and the loss of his world championship. While it was known that Berchelt had recently recovered from a bout with the COVID-19 virus prior to that bout, he handled the defeat to Valdez with class and did not use that bout with COVID-19 as an arguing point for a performance in that fight in which he was not himself and Valdez simply took advantage of the opportunity and knocked him out in the tenth round after dropping Berchelt in rounds and nine before landing the blow that would immediately end the fight and send Berchelt to the hospital in the tenth round.


Although there is still much that is unknown about the COVID-19 virus and the long-term effects it could have on those who contract it, it was clear to me as I watched that bout that Berchelt was not the aggressive seek and destroy pressure fighter that he had built his reputation on. Whether that was due in part to his bout with the virus prior to that fight or simply it not being his night when he faced Valdez is something that no matter what Berchelt might say, will likely be debated amongst Boxing fans. As Berchelt prepared to make his comeback from that loss, he would do so in a new weight division in moving up five pounds from the 130lb. Jr. Lightweight division to the 135lb. Lightweight division to face Jeremia Nakathila.  Nakathila was taking a step up in class by fighting a fighter of Berchelt’s caliber in being a former world champion, but like Berchelt, Nakathila had established a reputation for being able to score quick knockouts in scoring knockouts of over 75% of his opponents in his twenty-two wins going into the bout. Nakathila had previously failed in attempting to step up in class when he lost to current WBO Jr. Lightweight world champion Shakur Stevenson via twelve round unanimous decision in June of last year as a Jr. Lightweight


The obvious question that I had in mind going into this fight was how would Miguel Berchelt look. To be more specific, the type of knockout he had suffered at the hands of Oscar Valdez was such that it could ruin a fighter both in terms of how that fighter approaches a fight and in terms of that fighter’s ability to take a punch going forward. Despite Berchelt having been stopped twice before prior to facing Valdez, it was a severe knockout and even though Berchelt had scored knockouts in thirty-four of his thirty-eight career wins registering a career knockout percentage of 82%, the severity of what had happened to him the last time he stepped into a ring to compete was something I personally could not ignore.


From the opening bell, Berchelt looked what is sometimes referred to within the sport as “Gun Shy.” In that he hesitated to throw punches. While I thought for a brief moment that perhaps he as a normally offense-first fighter was being more cautious in hesitating to let his hands go, it did not take long for that brief thought to be replace with concern for Berchelt’s well-being. To be frank, what I saw in this bout can be summed up in two words “Target Practice.” Nakathila established the distance in which the fight would be fought and quickly found at home for his right hand. Seemingly whenever he threw his right hand whether it was to the body or head, it connected. Nakathila also mixed in combinations, which kept Berchelt preoccupied with trying to defend rather than throwing punches. A knockdown would be scored by Nakathila in round three as a result of a double jab to the head of Berchelt.


Although the jab is the most elementary of punches, it is perhaps the most effective weapon in a fighter’s arsenal when executed properly. Despite doing his best and for a time holding up to the punishment he was sustaining, Berchelt had increasing difficulty maintaining his balance and his legs would shake even when he would miss a punch. With the fight increasingly going one way, Berchelt had what amounted to a last gasp in the fifth round when he momentarily stunned Nakathila with a left hook and finally opened up with an offensive burst.


In round six, Nakathila had regained control and after knocking Berchelt’s mouthpiece out and across the ring with a right hand, Referee Russell Mora took Berchelt to his corner to have the mouthpiece put back in, but did tell both the fighter and his corner that Berchelt needed to show him something. Three words that usually when uttered by a referee is an indication that the referee is close to stopping the fight. Although Berchelt would make it out of the sixth round, Mora would do exactly that after the round was over putting an end to six rounds of a mostly one-sided beating that Berchelt had suffered.


Even though no one can take anything away from Jeremia Nakathila’s performance in what was the biggest win of his career, as someone who always is concerned for a fighter’s long-term welfare, I was not thinking that I had just seen what could be a star-making performance by Jeremia Nakathila. I was instead thinking I could be seeing what should probably be the end of a fighter’s career.


It has become a habit of this observer to state on a regular basis that I have spent most of my life covering Boxing and by extension combat sports. While this has exposed me to just about everything that the sport of Boxing has to offer and can be seen, both good and bad, I often hesitate when making a statement on when a fighter should retire because I have never been in the ring and thus I understand how someone can question how I could say something like a fighter should retire because obviously, I have never been in a boxer’s position. As someone who has seen and covered fights on every level imaginable in the sport, a proud Boxing Lifer as I often say, I saw signs in this fight that have me concerned for Miguel Berchelt going forward.


Signs such as his ability to take a punch, also known as punch resistance, being significantly diminished in addition to obvious problems in being able to maintain his balance. Although I would very much like to dismiss what I saw by saying that a fighter had what I often refer to as a bad night at the office, I cannot. It is also important for me to state that I am not a medical doctor and I do not have a background in the medical field. Having said this and keeping in mind that Miguel Berchelt had to have passed all medical screenings required by the state of Nevada in order to be granted a license to compete against Jeremia Nakathila, I believe based on what I saw not only in this fight, but also his previous bout against Oscar Valdez that perhaps more testing might be required before Berchelt is allowed to box again. As for what type of testing, I will leave that to those who have a background far more than yours truly to analyze, but I believe Berchelt would be risking long-term damage if he were allowed to continue his career without further extensive medical testing based on what I observed in his previous two fights.


This is not a criticism of the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) or the current medical screening protocols, which are in place. For a sport that has already had enough tragedies throughout it’s history however, I would much rather see one prevented than seeing more extensive medical screenings/testing implemented in response to a tragedy that could be prevented.


Now, we come back to the subject that was originally intended for this column. The Featherweight landscape. Not so coincidentally in regard to that subject, March 26th featured a rematch for the IBF Featherweight world championship between two-division world champion Kiko Martinez and former IBF Featherweight world champion Josh Warrington. This was a role reversal from their first fight in May 2017 where Warrington, then an undefeated WBC regional champion defeated Martinez via twelve round split decision.


In the roller coaster world of Boxing, a lot can change in five years. Warrington went from an undefeated world champion to relinquishing his crown due to the various politics that surround the sport, to suffering his first defeat by a stoppage at the hands of Mauricio Lara, to having an inconclusive outcome in their rematch in September of last year. Martinez meanwhile, had become the definition of a grizzled veteran, who some might refer to as a gatekeeper, a term that this observer does not necessarily view as respectful, but more or less a fighter that was not expected by some to become a world champion again in his career.


Martinez proved those that had given him such a label wrong when he knocked out Kid Galahad in November of last year to win the IBF crown. Sometimes when a rematch takes place several years removed from the first encounter, you do not necessarily know what type of fight might occur when two fighters enter the ring to renew competition. The first fight between these two was very close and competitive where Warrington was able to edge Martinez out for the decision victory. Given the skillset and overall experience of both fighters, I felt, despite the near five years between the first fight and the rematch that we could see a tactical battle.


What we ended up seeing however, was a grueling battle where one fighter showed tremendous courage, while the other showed not only that, but also determination. It appeared as though this might have been a short rematch as Warrington dropped the champion hard in the first round with a hook to the head. To his credit, Martinez was able to get up and survive the round. As the fight progressed and Warrington continued to dish out punishment, Martinez would suffer three cuts over the course of about including two around his eyes and a gash on his forehand. The champion was able to weather the storm and was also able to find periodic success as the bout progressed including what was revealed in the days following the fight, breaking Warrington’s jaw during the fight. Despite the “Game” effort by Martinez, it would not be enough as Warrington would be able to stop him in the seventh round to regain his world championship.


As for what this will do for the landscape of the 126lb. Featherweight division, there are several possibilities that could await Warrington in his next bout. One possibility could be a third fight with Mauricio Lara after an accidental clash of heads led to a no contest in the rematch last September, a possible third fight with Martinez, or a potential encounter with Leigh Wood who is coming off a thrilling come from behind stoppage of previously undefeated Michael Conlan earlier this month. Wood currently holds an interim/regular championship designation in the World Boxing Association’s (WBA) Featherweight ratings. Current WBA world champion Leo Santa Cruz has not competed in the division in recent times, so there is an obvious possibility that Wood might be named WBA champion in the near future, which would open the possibility of a potential showdown with Warrington to be a unification bout.


 There is also the possibility that Wood, who came from behind in a fight he was losing on the scorecards to stop Conlan in the final round, could see a potential rematch with him before a possible showdown with Warrington. The fight, which ended in scary fashion with Conlan being knocked out of the ring and for a time out cold, was a very competitive and exciting fight and there should be interest in seeing a potential rematch between the two. Despite the knockout loss, Conlan, who was hospitalized for a time after the fight in a true fighter’s mentality expressed interest in a rematch the day after the fight took place.


For a division that has historically been one of Boxing’s most storied and most competitive weight classes, it appears some interesting times are ahead for the Featherweights, Who will emerge out of the pack to be considered the number one fighter in the division, which also includes WBC world champion Mark Magsayo, and WBO world champion Emanuel Navarrete as the current world champions in the division, remains to be seen.


“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”


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