Wednesday, March 2, 2022

The Close Of February 2022 In Boxing


Over the last few days, this observer has made a point of it to point out to his readers as well as those who follow me across social media platforms that Boxing is truly a 24/7 365 day a year entity and at times there is no stop in what goes on throughout the entire sport even if there is no action taking place inside the ring on a particular day. This point was in reference to the announcement on Friday, February 24th that Saul “Canelo” Alvarez had agreed to return to digital subscription sports streaming network DAZN, but with the added twist that DAZN would be introducing a pay-per-view platform in seemingly reverting from its sales pitch as being a “Pay-Per-View Alternative” for consumers who are tired of paying inflated pay-per-view prices with little value attached to such fees. Although I have already shared my thoughts on this subject, which I stand by as a frequent critic of the pay-per-view model, and even though the subject and potential backlash from DAZN’s subscribers for their venturing into pay-per-view will likely remain for better or worse, a big story through the Boxing news cycle for the foreseeable future, the final weekend of February 2022 did feature action inside the ring that saw the return of world champions and top contenders.


While this observer had planned to cover the Boxing card headlined by WBO Cruiserweight world championship fight between champion Lawrence Okolie and WBO number four contender Michal Cieslak, which took place at the O2 Arena in London, England on February 27th as it’s own separate piece of content, I made a decision that this would be better suited to be covered as part of this column seeing as it’s subject is what occurred in the final weekend of February in the sport. As for what occurred inside the ring, the first topic that will be covered concerns the return of undefeated Undisputed Jr. Welterweight world champion Josh Taylor, who returned to the ring after a lengthy absence due to both an injury suffered while in training as well as a bout with COVID-19, to defend his crown for the first time as undisputed champion against undefeated WBO number one contender Jack Catterall in Taylor’s home country of Scotland.


Taylor, who was making the third defense as a world champion since winning the IBF Jr. Welterweight world championship in May 2019, but his first since fully unifying the championship by defeating previously unbeaten WBC/WBO world champion Jose Ramirez last May, seemed to have all the advantages going into this fight with the unbeaten, but untested Cattreal. Height, punching power, as well as hand speed.


Although there were a lot of things that seemed to favor the champion, what a lot of people including oddsmakers, who had Taylor as a significant favorite going into the fight, did not factor into the equation was a fight plan implemented by Catterall that emphasized timing and elusiveness. In the interest of honesty with the reader, this was at times not the most entertaining fight to watch. This was due to an awkward style that Catterall used that including staying close to the champion, using lateral movement to deflect much of Taylor’s offense, but only attacking at opportune times, particularly with a right jab followed by variations a left hand either, straights, hooks, and overhands from the southpaw stance as the champion came forward that he would not see coming.


The fact that both fighters are southpaws as well as frankly a bad meshing of styles made this an ugly fight in the sense that there was almost as much grappling akin to a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fight as there was Boxing. Nevertheless, Catterall’s awkwardness proved to be effective in minimizing the opportunities that Taylor could land his punches. This in addition to the success he had in landing the left hand off of his jab gave the appearance that while it was not the most entertaining bout to watch, it was the challenger dictating the tempo of the combat, despite the elements of it being a fight designed as a homecoming for the champion as well as a hostile crowd.


As the fight progressed, I felt that Catterall’s approach, while not necessarily smooth, was carrying the fight as I felt he won several of the rounds over the course of the first half of the twelve round world championship bout. With the fight moving into rounds seven through twelve, I felt that while not impossible, Taylor would have a significant deficit to overcome in terms of scoring. A reason for this was even though he was aggressive at times, Catterall was able to make him miss with the majority of his offense and if one views a fight with an objective mindset, it becomes very difficult to justify scoring a round for one fighter when whatever punches they do land, does minimal damage and does not score knockdowns, which can have an impact on the scoring of a bout.


In contrast to the champion, despite attacking in spurts, Catterall seemed to be out working and out landing Taylor. The highlight for the challenger came when he was able to score a knockdown of the champion, the first of Taylor’s career in the eighth round with a short combination to the head. An element that would increasingly become part of the story of this fight however, would be the involvement of Referee Marcus McDonnell, who became overly involved at times and appeared to fail in terms of being able to control the rough housing/grappling between the two fighters. This unfortunately included deducting points from both fighters at seemingly inappropriate times. First deducting a point from Cattreal in round ten for holding, which was followed by deducting a point from the champion at the conclusion of round eleven for tapping Catterall on the stomach, a common practice throughout the sport seemingly under most circumstances as a sign of sportsmanship between the two fighters as if to say “Good round.”


It is important for me again in the interest of honesty with the reader as I always am, to point out that this was the first time in my recollection that I can remember seeing Marcus McDonnell officiating a bout on the amateur or professional level of the sport. This does not necessarily mean that I have not covered a fight or a full Boxing card over the past two and a half decades that I have been covering the sport where McDonnell may have officiated bouts. I bring this up because as ugly as this fight was to watch, due largely to the grappling/rough housing involved between the two fighters and McDonnell’s in ability to control it, I feel that the decision by McDonnell to deduct points was not appropriate in either case, considering what he had allowed from both fighters throughout much of the fight without deducting points, but issuing stern warnings from time to time.


The opinion of yours truly notwithstanding as someone who has covered Boxing on every level possible and keeping in mind that I cannot recall at least at the time of this writing seeing McDonnell work a fight before, it is certainly not the first time I have seen what I refer to as a strict “By The Book” referee. Under most circumstances, referees who earn that moniker are the type with a strict adherence to rules and regulations giving fighters very little leeway to get away with things in the process. While McDonnell seems to fit this moniker based on what I observed in this fight, I feel he made a mistake as far as when he chose to deduct points as there were moments during the course of the bout particularly in the middle and late rounds where seeing as he did admonish both fighters, point deductions may have been appropriate. I can also not recall ever seeing a point deduction issued for a fighter seemingly saying “Good round” to his/her opponent at the end of a round.


Although I cannot personally recall as of this writing seeing McDonnell officiate prior to this fight, which given how many fights and Boxing cards I cover year in and year out, I would not be surprised if I were told that I had covered a fight before in which he was the referee, after some time following this fight, I did do some due diligence and Marcus McDonnell has been a referee in the sport since 1988, having officiated nearly 1100 bouts in his career. It would therefore be irresponsible of me to suggest that McDonnell’s officiating in this bout was a result of inexperience, as obviously the research I was able to do shortly after this bout in an effort to jog my memory, shows that the man is indeed experienced. It was clear however, that the two point deductions issued by McDonnell proved to have a significant impact on this fight as Taylor would go on to win a twelve round split decision, but with two differing scorecards, one in favor of Taylor and the other in favor of Catterall being separated by a single point, with each scorecard coming out to 113-112.


While an argument could certainly be made that had it not been for the point deductions, this fight could have ended in a draw, which would mean Taylor would have still retained his championship, I believe that the point deductions at minimum eliminated clarity in the scoring if not led to a change in the outcome, whether that outcome had been a draw or perhaps Catterall winning the decision. The bottom line, no matter how one chooses to view this fight, Josh Taylor had a bit of a scare in this bout and for a fighter who is trying to earn opportunities against some of the biggest names in the sport, which would then lead to more lucrative paydays for him, this was not the type of performance or victory that builds a strong argument as for his getting those opportunities.


As for this observer, I feel Jack Catterall did enough to win as I scored the fight 115-111 in his favor. It was certainly not the worst fight I have seen or covered in a lifetime of covering Boxing, but I do feel that the styles of the two fighters simply did not mesh well and if Taylor and Catterall were to meet in a rematch, the fight would probably be fought in a similar way as this fight was.


Stop number two on our journey discussing the Boxing events that concluded the month of February takes us to Las Vegas, NV where the Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) group of promoters presented a card headlined by undefeated Jr. Lightweight contender Chris Colbert as he faced fellow unbeaten contender Hector Garcia in a scheduled twelve round bout. Garcia, who took the fight on short notice, was not particularly well known prior to this fight, but quickly proved he belonged in the ring with Chris Colbert, who has been one of the rising contenders in the sport in recent years. Garcia dominated the bout over twelve rounds including scoring a knockdown of Colbert, the first time Colbert had been dropped in his career to earn a convincing unanimous decision victory.


An obvious story coming out of this fight is was this a case of Colbert being under prepared for an opponent on short notice as he was scheduled to fight WBA Jr. Lightweight world champion Roger Gutierrez, who had to withdraw from the bout after testing positive for the COVID-19 virus. This made the bout between Colbert and Garcia an elimination bout to determine who will challenge Gutierrez. Although Hector Garcia won this bout and did so convincingly, there is the obvious possibility now that the PBC will look to secure a rematch between he and Colbert as soon as possible as Colbert has been a fighter they have been developing over recent years and the fact that this fight occurred on limited notice gives for better or worse, an opportunity to sell a potential rematch as giving both fighters adequate time to prepare.


While this observer is as old school as it gets when it comes to Boxing and feel that Garcia should get the opportunity he earned to fight Gutierrez as soon as Gutierrez is medically cleared to return to competition, the sport and to be more specific, the business that surrounds the sport does not always work in a simple structure like a fighter who wins an elimination bout will get a title shot at the earliest possible opportunity. I know that I have used this phrase more than a few times now, but for better or worse, there are business interests in play and whether Boxing fans or those of us who cover the sport agree with it or not, there are times where the business interests take priority over what a fighter has earned. Even though more often than not, a rematch of an elimination bout occurs after some form of controversy happened in the elimination bout, Hector Garcia won this fight clearly, there was no controversy attached to it, and by all rights, he should face Roger Gutierrez next. Whether or not, he does, remains to be seen.


One of the best fights of the year took place on the undercard of Garcia’s victory over Colbert as unbeaten Jr. Bantamweight contender Fernando Martinez scored a thrilling twelve round unanimous decision over longtime IBF Jr. Bantamweight world champion Jerwin Ancajas to win the championship. Martinez set a very aggressive pace from the opening bell and the two fighters went toe to toe for virtually all twelve rounds. When it comes to fights like this, there often is not much you can offer in terms of analysis, as this was simply a toe to toe battle with Martinez generally getting the better of the action. Although this was clearly a star-making performance for Martinez, particularly here in the United States where many of Boxing’s lower weight divisions, like the 115lb. Jr. Bantamweight division, do not always get consistent television exposure, my concern is that his style is such that even though it will often lead to entertaining bouts as this one was, it does not necessarily translate to a long career as defense is usually not a priority and it will often lead to fighters taking significant punishment over the course of a fight as was the case for both fighters in this fight, but more so for Ancajas. It will be interesting to see if Martinez adapts a new approach with more emphasis on not putting himself in positions to get hit as easily as he was in this fight. Despite Ancajas indicating after the bout that he would look for a rematch with Martinez per a rematch clause in the contract for the bout, he may want to take time to heal from the sustained beating he took over the course of the fight. Both fighters quite frankly need the rest after a grueling fight like this where 1381 total punches were thrown between the two fighters and the majority of them were landed by Martinez who landed 427 total punches of 833 thrown to Ancajas’ 170 of 548 total punches according to CompuBox statistics.


A bout that was in the middle of the card between Martinez’ victory over Ancajas and Hector Garcia’s win over Chris Colbert, saw undefeated Jr. Welterweight contender Gary Antuanne Russell score a tenth round stoppage over former WBC Jr. Welterweight world champion Viktor Postol. Russell controlled the majority of the bout and was able to get a stoppage late in the tenth round that was seen as controversial by some simply because there was less than thirty seconds remaining in the bout and Postol did not appear as though he were in enough trouble to warrant a stoppage at that point in the bout. For Russell, the victory is likely one that will put him in line to face undisputed world champion Josh Taylor at some point, assuming that Taylor is not moved into a rematch with Jack Catterall later in the year.


This brings us to the final bout that will be discussed in this column and I am speaking of course of the card that took place in London, England where Lawrence Okolie defended his WBO Cruiserweight world championship against Michal Cieslak. In what was a convincing performance by the undefeated champion Okolie, which saw him score a knockdown of the challenger in round five, the champion was able to box his way to a twelve round unanimous decision in what was his second title defense. While historically, the Cruiserweight division has seen many of it’s more prominent world champions ultimately venture towards the Heavyweight division in search of greener pastures, most recently former undisputed world champion Oleksandr Usyk, who went on to become the current unified Heavyweight world champion, the current state of the 190lb.-200lb. Cruiserweight division is one of limbo. Despite Saul “Canelo” Alvarez’ next two fights being announced taking place in the two divisions below Cruiserweight, there are still ramblings that Alvarez will ultimately venture into the division to continue seeking greater accomplishments.


For a fighter in Okolie’s position as a current world champion who has a promotional agreement with Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Boxing, and Matchroom Boxing's firm alignment with DAZN as it’s broadcast partner and the network’s new agreement with Alvarez, the possibility is there for Okolie to eventually get an opportunity against Alvarez, assuming of course that everything that has been drawn up on paper with Alvarez potentially winning his next two fights goes on with no issue or a loss.  As always in the world of Boxing, the Boxing fan should always expect the unexpected even as what goes on outside of the ring with networks vying for the best fights for their respective platforms even if it is not in the best financial interest of the consumer who supports the sport, is just as compelling as what goes on inside the ring.


“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”


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