Monday, March 21, 2022

Thoughts On Berlanga-Rolls And Cobbs-Rocha

The evening of Saturday, March 19th in the world of Boxing was highlighted by two bouts in two different locations that arguably featured the same storyline. Two rising prospects in separate weight classes each facing their toughest opponents to date in their respective careers. Undefeated Super-Middleweight prospect Edgar Berlanga headlined a Boxing card at the Theater in Madison Square Garden where he faced Middleweight contender Steve Rolls in a scheduled ten round bout. For the twenty-four year old New York native Berlanga, a fighter who has quickly developed into one of the sport’s hottest prospects due to beginning his career with sixteen consecutive knockouts, this represented not only on paper what would be his toughest test, but also a significant step up in caliber of opposition against a fighter in Steve Rolls who had only lost one time previously in his career and that loss came at the hands of “Knockout Artist” Gennady Golovkin during the brief period of time where Golovkin was between two reigns atop the Middleweight division.  


Although Rolls would be stopped by Golovkin in the fourth round of their encounter in June 2019, he did give a good account of himself and was out Boxing Golovkin prior to the time where he was caught and subsequently stopped. In this case, the thirty-seven year old Rolls, a former United States Boxing Association (USBA) Middleweight champion, had a significant experience edge over Berlanga and one could say, despite Berlanga’s track record of scoring quick and often devastating knockouts, he is still a work in progress and not yet on the level of Golovkin, who was a former longtime world champion at the time when Rolls fought him.    


Despite a scenario that amounted to what is referred to as a home team advantage in team sports in favor of Berlanga as the crowd in attendance was heavily in his favor, Rolls succeeded in finding a way to take the atmosphere of the crowd out of the fight almost immediately. He did this by implementing a tactical strategy that had an emphasis on lateral movement, giving angles, and looking to take advantage of openings that the younger Berlanga might give him. What should also not be overlooked in terms of Rolls’ approach was the use of a consistent jab that varied in both the force in which it was thrown as well as how he would mix levels by jabbing to the head and body of Berlanga. 


While this strategy was not necessarily the most entertaining if you were one expecting a lot of action based on Berlanga’s having scored sixteen knockouts in his eighteen professional fights prior to this encounter, it was effective in taking an enthusiastic hometown crowd out of the fight. What it also did was in a way expose Berlanga’s strategy in that he seemingly had a headhunter mentality from the outset looking to walk Rolls down and try to end the fight with every punch he threw. Even though this gave the impression that Rolls may have been building a lead on the scorecards as the fight progressed, Berlanga still landed the harder, more effective punches when he did let his hands go including during an exchange of right hands in the fifth round where he was able to avoid Rolls’ right hand while landing his own, which seemed to momentarily stun Rolls. 


It was indisputable that Berlanga was the consistent aggressor throughout this fight, but from my perspective, he seemed to have one strategy and did not appear to know how to adapt when it became evident that, that approach was not going to necessarily work as he intended. An element that was absent from Berlanga’s offense for virtually the entire fight was the use of a jab as he came forward. The jab is the most elementary punch that can be used throughout combat sports, but it is also one of the most underappreciated weapons that a fighter can have in their arsenal. Not only in terms of being able to establish and maintain distance between themself and their opponent, but also as what is often referred to throughout the sport of Boxing as the “Table Setter” in using the jab to set up other punches and combinations in a fighter’s arsenal. 


The absence of a jab from Berlanga not only limited opportunities to land punches as he pressured Rolls throughout the fight, but it also allowed Rolls openings to land his own jab and move to keep Berlanga chasing him. Although Rolls did not appear to hurt Berlanga at any point in the ten round bout, I felt the fight ended up being far closer than it might have otherwise been at the end of the bout simply because Berlanga limited himself offensively. Despite this, I did feel that Berlanga did just enough to earn a victory on the scorecards based largely on the effect his punches had on Rolls whenever they did land. It was no surprise to see Berlanga earn a ten round unanimous decision, but doing so margins of six rounds to four, and seven rounds to three on two scorecards. 


Although two scorecards coming out seven rounds to three or 97-93 in points might give an appearance of a lopsided bout in favor of Berlanga, the reality is all three scorecards were narrow and round by round, the fight was close. While this does not take away from Berlanga, who retained his North-American Boxing Organization (NABO) championship with this victory over Steve Rolls and should maintain his top-ten ranking in the NABO-affiliated World Boxing Organization (WBO) Super-Middleweight rankings, this should be observed both by Berlanga and his handlers as a close call that might require more time in the gym and to be more specific, training in situations where he will have to make adjustments if he is not able to get to an opponent quickly. 


 The victory over Rolls marked Berlanga’s third consecutive bout in which he had to go the distance. It should not be viewed necessarily as a negative because it is crucial that a fighter know how to go rounds and know how to go deep into fights as the competition level of their opposition increases over time. What this should be viewed as is an opportunity for Berlanga to not only learn from what was a so, so performance, but also the need to add more tools to his arsenal.  


While Edgar Berlanga passed his test against Steve Rolls in New York, unbeaten Welterweight prospect Blair Cobbs faced a test of his own in Los Angeles, CA as he faced fellow prospect Alexis Rocha at the USC Galen Center. Although this bout differed from the Berlanga-Rolls bout from the standpoint of Rolls being much older than Berlanga, this fight between Blair Cobbs and Alexis Rocha did have an element of one fighter being more experienced than the other as Rocha came into the bout with twenty professional fights compared to Cobbs’ sixteen. Rocha also had previously held the WBC Continental America’s championship in the Welterweight division, so this was a step up for Cobbs. Cobbs meanwhile had previously held the North American Boxing Federation (NABF) championship in his career so this was a case where both fighters had achieved success on the regional championship level of the sport, but where one fighter had slightly more experience than the other.  


This also appeared to be a bout where the styles of the two fighters would produce an entertaining fight as both are action-first fighters and like to mix it up with their opponents. It was no surprise given the styles of the two fighters as well as both having high knockout percentages to see exchanges from the opening bell. When fights are fought at such a quick pace as this one was, the challenge for an observer and more importantly those who score a fight in an official capacity is to distinguish which fighter is getting the better of what can be heated exchanges of offense. 


In this case, the fight seemed to follow a pattern, Rocha trying to cut the ring off from Cobbs, who tried to use his lateral movement to offset Rocha’s pressure. Although there were several exchanges throughout the fight where both fighters had their moments, it appeared at least in my view that Rocha had a little more power on his punches, particularly when he was able to land his left hand from the southpaw stance.  


As the fight progressed, Rocha had increased success in finding a home for his left hand on Cobbs’ head. Although Cobbs remained on the move for much of the fight, the dynamic changed in that he became more and more defensive whereas with the success he was having, Rocha became more aggressive. It seemed that Cobbs did not have an answer to avoid Rocha’s left hand. Despite being able to make him miss periodically, Cobbs was unable to land anything to disrupt the pattern of Rocha pressing forward and landing power shots. 


With the combat increasingly giving the appearance of one fighter gradually breaking the other down, I did wonder whether or not Cobbs would be able to turn the tempo in his favor. Even though the circumstances were different, much like Edgar Berlanga, Cobbs did not appear to have a plan B. Unlike Berlanga, who was still able to do enough to gain a victory in his bout against Steve Rolls by landing the more effective punches, Blair Cobbs could not land anything to discourage Alexis Rocha from coming forward. It was also noticeable that Cobbs’ activity also began to decrease as the fight went on. 


 In round eight after administering significant punishment for several rounds, Rocha would finally get to Blair Cobbs dropping him with a flush left hand to the head followed by a right uppercut that sent Cobbs down and badly hurt on the canvas. To his credit, Cobbs was able to get up, but at this point he was in defensive mode and barely managed to survive the round after sustaining more punishment from a Rocha barrage in the closing seconds. 


At this point in the fight, I felt that had the eighth round had more time in it, Referee Rudy Barragan would have stopped the fight. As it was, I was surprised not only based on what had been happening throughout the fight, but what had happened in round eight that the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) allowed Cobbs to come out for the ninth round.  


It was in the ninth round that the fight would come to its conclusion. Rocha connected with a right hook to the jaw that set off a barrage of punches that went unanswered that gave Barragan all the justification needed to stop the fight, which he did. Although I was surprised that the fight was not stopped between rounds eight and nine, it is important for me to be honest with the reader who may not have seen this fight, that both Rudy Barragan and Cobbs’ trainer Hall of Famer Freddie Roach each told him that he needed to show them something or they would stop it. Roach in particular appeared as though he was seconds away from stopping it when he told his fighter shortly before a CSAC physician went into the corner to examine Cobbs that he was getting killed out there. 


Freddie Roach is one of the best trainers not just in the sport currently, but in Boxing history. Roach learned his trade after his own career as a fighter under the learning tree of his trainer the late great Hall of Famer Eddie Futch. Both Roach and Futch have at times made the difficult decision to pull their fighters out of fights to protect the fighter from themselves. While some may criticize Roach for allowing his fighter in this case Blair Cobbs to talk him into letting him come out for the ninth round, there have also been times where Roach has given his fighters the benefit of doubt and given them a chance. While those chances have not always resulted in come from behind victories for his fighters, Roach understands a fighter’s mentality and it is in some ways good that he treats such situations on a case-by-case basis. 


While I feel Roach would have been within his rights to stop this fight as I have seen him do before under similar circumstances, I can appreciate that he wanted to give his fighter the benefit of doubt, while also telling his fighter repeatedly that if he did not show him something in the next round, he would stop it. Although Rudy Barragan did just that before Roach could, if the referee had delayed his stoppage, I believe Freddie Roach would have thrown in the towel.  


For Alexis Rocha, this victory will likely move him up the rankings towards a potential world title shot down the line. As for Blair Cobbs, sometimes fighters do not pass the first significant test that is put in front of them. Despite being stopped in this fight by Alexis Rocha, Cobbs did show a lot of heart by getting up from a knockdown that would have ended the night for most fighters. He also did show a true fighter’s mentality by arguing with his trainer and with the CSAC physician to let him try and fight on.  


Although we live in an era where no matter what a fighter does, they are always under a microscope and criticized either for their performances in the ring or for their conduct outside the ring, if one is objective, they should tip their hat to Cobbs for the heart he showed in this fight. While one loss will certainly not be a career ender and will be something that Cobbs can learn from in the long-term, hopefully, he will not rush himself back into the ring and will allow himself to physically and mentally heal from the punishment he suffered in this fight. Hopefully, after he has taken some time to both digest and reflect on things, Cobbs can begin the rebuilding process. He does have one of the best trainers in the fight game in his corner that can help in that process when the time is right. 


“And That’s The Boxing Truth.” 


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