The Square Jungle: On Berto-Lopez, Golovkin, Kovalev and PBC on ESPN
Despite the buzz he has generated over the last year or so, Gennady Golovkin, who faces Willie Monroe Jr. on May 16 at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., is stuck in a frustrating holding pattern. For reasons ranging from competition to marketability, there are currently only a handful of middleweights who matter: Miguel Cotto, Andy Lee, Peter Quillin and Daniel Jacobs. Three out of four are tied directly to Al Haymon or indirectly via one of his shell promoters. After torpedoing negotiations with Saul Alvarez for a blockbuster pay-per-view, Cotto seems uninterested in anything except cashing in on his status as one of the biggest box office draws in North America.
That leaves Golovkin to rummage through a bare division in search of fighters willing to take a gamble with their neurons. If Monroe, who apparently earned this shot by winning the inaugural “Encino Man”…er…”Boxcino” tournament last year, is the best K2 Promotions and HBO can come up with, they might as well throw everything at the only names that are, to an extent, free agents: David Lemieux (the target of a GYM lawsuit) and Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam. Fighting the least of the least is pointless. Golovkin is often compared to Marvelous Marvin Hagler, whose early title reign was largely devoid of stern challengers but with a few exceptions (most notably Caveman Lee), the men Hagler defeated during his championship run were legitimate contenders. Mustafa Hamsho, for example, was much maligned for his crude skills but the fact remains that he actually earned two fights against Hagler. En route to his first title shot in 1981, Hamsho defeated Wilford Scypion, Curtis Parker and Alan Minter. Later, Hamsho notched wins over Parker (again) Bobby Czyz and Wilfred Benitez, leading to a second gruesome beating from Hagler in 1984. Monroe appears to have some talent but he has had few chances to develop it and, against Golovkin, he will only see it stunted.
PBC on Spike TV made its debut last Friday, headlined by the Andre Berto-Josesito Lopez welterweight tussle and the broadcast was a marked improvement over the NBC card from the previous week. The Spike production had a livelier feel to it despite the absence of round card girls and the continued presence of a Hans Zimmer score more appropriate for Cirque de Soleil than a blood sport. Its bleached lighting also gave the show a raw feel, reminiscent of some alleyway rumble under a combination of lampposts and streetlights.
No matter how much Al Haymon is paying to run his infomercials across the dial, boxing is still untameable and its wild side showed up when a late substitute, Erick Bone, was flown in on short notice from Queens, New York to replace Roberto Garcia in the semi (or is that “Main Event No. 1”?). Shawn Porter, an ex-champion, yes, but no more distinguished in the ring for all that, took care of Bone in the fifth round.
Then came the “Heavyweight Explosion” portion of the card, in which Chris Arreola and Curtis Harper went at it like backyard fighters who ran into each other by chance in a Kentucky Fried Chicken parking lot. When these two behemoths crashed head-on in certain rounds, it looked like it would take the Jaws of Life to separate them. Arreola wound up with a decision victory after eight rounds of artless brawling.
In a way, Arreola is also part of the ’80s boxing theme that PBC promotes, since he would have certainly fit in with the roly-poly Breakfast (and lunch and dinner) Club of Tony Tubbs, James Broad, Tim Witherspoon and Greg Page. Against Harper, who looked like he was ready for a defibrillator after the first round, Arreola struggled to resemble even the mediocre pug who whacked out Manuel Quezada nearly three years ago. Most of the time, Arreola can whip the Kenny Getups, Willie Lasts and Dusty Trunks of the world even when he weighs over 260 pounds but against credible fighters, “The Nightmare” always turns into a daydream. Now, however, it looks like the set-ups are starting to knock him around, which is a sign that his expiration date is near. Maybe his lack of success in his biggest fights has something to do with having a trainer who is right behind him in line at the buffet table.
With a few exceptions, boxing strategy over the years has dwindled into a noted Bushism: strategery. What else can explain the fact that Josesito Lopez decided to box cautiously for the first few rounds against Andre Berto? Against Victor Ortiz, a far more dangerous fighter than Berto, Lopez attacked from the opening bell but instead of taking command early against Berto – who has been rocked or knocked down in the first round by Luis Collazo, Carlos Quintana, Ortiz, Robert Guerrero and Jesus Soto Karass – Lopez decided to box from the outside.
To make matters worse, Lopez opened by moving to his left and continued moving in that direction for most of the fight. Although Berto has made some slight adjustments to his jab – he no longer extends it and waves it around like a man washing a car window – he remains, more or less, a one-handed fighter. Berto throws a crisp right hand from both the perimeter and at close range and the fact that Lopez continually moved into its path is a sign that he was not properly prepared to face a specific opponent. By the sixth round, Lopez was alternating between retreating in a straight line and languishing to the left, a dead zone where he was cracked by a series of rights that left him on the canvas waiting for referee Raul Caiz Jr. to issue a count. Lopez rose on wobbly legs and was put down almost instantaneously by – What else? – a crashing right hand. Caiz halted the fight without a mandatory eight, as if disgusted by such a poor strategic display.
Lopez had his moments early – unloading left hooks to the body and coming over the top with looping rights – but he no longer has the durability to sustain punishment from welterweights. Ever since his management team – which includes Henry Ramirez, who also trains Arreola – risked his health and future by throwing him into the ring against Saul Alvarez in 2012, Lopez has looked ringworn.
After the stoppage, Berto, who has probably resurrected his career (at least by PBC standards), let out a primal roar and Hulked-up in the ring, where the overhead lights accentuated his impressive mass and vascularity. Hell, even the cords in his neck seemed as hard as Rebar and served as a reminder that Berto was busted for PEDs a couple of years ago. Berto will need that musclebound armor if the PBC widget formula winds up matching him with Keith Thurman or even Porter, for that matter. No matter whom he fights, however, Berto will have his moments and so will the audience, which is probably what can also be said for this Spike TV card.
Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev showed that the middle finger he flashed to Jean Pascal at their weigh-in doubles as a vulgar gesture to timidity in boxing when he stopped the brave Canadian in the eighth round on HBO last Saturday night. Now sporting 24 stoppages in 27 wins, Kovalev nearly kayoed Pascal at the end of the third round when a booming series of punches left “Rocky Blackboa” draped over the ropes like a pair of shorteralls on a clothesline.
Pascal showed extraordinary recuperative powers to answer the bell for the fourth round and real fighting spirit when he began taking the action to Kovalev in the fifth. But a ride-and-counter strategy against a straight puncher with TNT in both hands was a poor choice and Pascal was soon staggered again. In the eighth round, Kovalev sent Pascal reeling into a corner with some thunderous shots but before he could close the show, he slipped to the canvas. While referee Luis Pabon was tending to Kovalev, an addled Pascal stutter-stepped from one corner to another like a man who had a little too much Black Velvet for the night and was now paying the embarrassing price. What sent Pascal reeling initially was a towel John David Jackson was using to wipe the mat but Pascal was unable to regain his footing after his initial misstep. When Pabon resumed the action, Pascal made no attempt to emerge from the corner; in fact, Pabon motioned for Pascal to come out just before Kovalev pounced. Instead, Pascal groggily seemed to accept his fate and shuddered under two clean-up right hands before he was rescued from seeing the black lights in front of roughly 12,000 witnesses at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec.
With the win, Kovalev not only stopped one of the toughest light heavyweights in the world but also kickstarted fantasy talk about WBC titlist Adonis Stevenson again. Because Al Haymon, who has paper on Stevenson, is the manager, adviser, promoter, matchmaker and mastermind of Premier Boxing Champions (the Swiss Army Knife of shadiness), there is almost no way he would let one of his commodities outside of the fold. Like Leo Santa Cruz, whose competitive fire burns as brightly as a 20-watt fluorescent bulb, Stevenson can woof it up knowing full well that the chances of him ever stepping into the ring with anyone beyond the PBC universe is remote. Unlike the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao saga, in which a minimum of $250 million was at stake, a bout between Stevenson and Kovalev will not generate enough cash to overcome the roadblocks. Kovalev has two serious flaws that may one day interlock like a jigsaw puzzle against a more deliberate fighter than Pascal. Not only does Kovalev drop his left hand to his hip after he throws it but he also retreats in a straight line. For now, however, with a light heavyweight division nearly barren of threats, his reign of terror is likely to last a few more fights. Next up for Kovalev is Nadjib Mohammedi, a Frenchman who keeps his hands down and his chin in the air. Mohammedi has been given a step-aside installment plan by Main Events, which has paid him to appear on its undercards for the last year after signing him to a promotional deal. Almost 30 years ago, Top Rank Promotions’ Bob Arum did the same thing with Juan Roldan but Roldan once fought a caged bear for money. Needless to say, Mohammedi is no Juan Roldan.
Now that Al Haymon has co-opted ESPN, maybe we can start using the nickname “The Octopus” for Premier Boxing Champions, whose far-reaching tentacles threaten to gather up everything in the boxing sea from anemones to chum. PBC on ESPN may have some other ramifications as well. For one thing, the most visible reporter in boxing, Dan Rafael will now be writing about numberless fights produced by a partner of his company, ESPN. For Rafael, who showed his wishy-washy side when he was a commentator for Epix, this is probably not an issue. But for consumers and the public, some of whom (not nearly enough, unfortunately) actually care about the legal or ethical consequences of a sport too often in the shadows, there may be even less scrutiny in the future. Two years ago, ESPN stepped on a minor PR banana peel when it ceased its involvement in “League of Denial,” a PBS documentary on head trauma in the NFL. Because the NFL and ESPN are business partners, critical reporting is deemed a no-no, whether ESPN admits it openly or not.
Carlos Acevedo is the editor of The Cruelest Sport and a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in Boxing Digest Magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World Magazine and Esquina Boxeo. He is also a contributor to Remezcla and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization.