When the Old Grey Lady herself profiles a boxer, that boxer has officially made it. The New York Times turned its spotlight on consensus middleweight (160 lbs.) champ Kelly Pavlik this week, a rare bit of “Paper of Record” attention to the sport. The Times rehashed not only the obligatory “boxing is struggling” line it offers every time it ventures around pugilism, but also the by-now familiar tales of Pavlik’s whiteness, his humbleness, his savior status to downtrodden Youngstown, Ohio and how Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton dueled over his endorsement… which he gave to Clinton, for what it’s worth now. The piece leaves out any extensive examination of what has made him so popular with boxing fans: He’s as sensational to behold in the ring as they come. Saturday, he gets his career-best payday for taking on a 15-1 underdog on HBO, so the timing’s slightly less than ideal, since, although Pavlik has earned a soft touch with his amazing run of late, “rising superstar gets himself a mismatch” isn’t the optimal news peg. But, hey, the Times didn’t emphasize that either, and overall, it was a positive tale. I’ll take it.
Setting aside issues of boxing’s profile and esteem, the good news for hardcore fans is that, airing on that same HBO card is what I, among others, expect to be an epic junior featherweight (122 lbs.) brawl. In one corner is cult favorite and belt-holder Daniel Ponce De Leon, recently named by Ring magazine one of the top-10 most powerful punchers in all of boxing. In the other is the less experienced, but more polished, Juan Manuel Lopez, a 24-year-old phenom that Ring not long ago named the future of the division and who hits plenty hard himself, having scored 19 knockouts in 21 fights. If Pavlik clobbering Gary Lockett doesn’t sate connoisseurs of high-quality boxing action — and I like Pavlik enough to stomach one well-deserved mismatch — then De Leon-Lopez almost certainly will.
The HBO card dukes it out with a Showtime card the same night, which I previewed here. It’s HBO’s turn.
DE LEON – LOPEZ
De Leon sports a crude-looking style, slinging punches like he’s a shot putter or something instead of a professional fighter. And when it comes right down to it, he’s just not that good at boxing. But as they say, in this sport, power is the great equalizer. And De Leon has it in abundance.
So far, it has only let him down once, in 2005, when he ran into the most physically strange boxer of them all — Celestino Caballero, a 5’11” dude who somehow fights at 122 pounds. Cabellero took every big punch De Leon had to offer, and returned considerable fire, handing De Leon his first loss and denting his iron jaw. I should say, by the way, that De Leon’s power has let him down twice, but the second time he got bailed out. Most everyone thinks that he lost last year against Gerry Penalosa, who exploited all the crude habits of De Leon and countered his clumsy punches all day long. The judges instead rewarded De Leon’s raw aggression. De Leon rebounded quickly when he demolished highly-touted prospect Rey Bautista in just one round.
Sounds like foreshadowing for highly-touted prospect Lopez, right? Maybe, but Lopez and Bautista are very different fighters. Bautista and Lopez share utmost confidence in their own prodigious punching power, with the difference being that Lopez has more technical prowess. When he feels he needs to, he can abandon seek and destroy in favor of hunt and peck, while Bautista has a more straight-ahead methodology. What’s more, Bautista showed in the fight before the De Leon bout against Sergio Manuel Medina that he could be rattled by big punches. If anyone’s done the same to Lopez, I haven’t seen it or read about it. That said, one item of concern for Lopez is that Bautista, at 21, had fought more often and against better competition than Lopez has at 24, by my reading of their records. De Leon is way better, despite his limitations, than anyone Lopez has tackled before.
And so there’s some good intrigue here in the match-up — the pure puncher against the big puncher who can box, the untested blue chip prospect against the flawed but potent veteran, two men trying to claw their way to the top of a loaded division that Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez call home. There should be plenty of heavy leather traded, with likeliest of outcomes being someone ending the fight detached from their ever-lovin’ senses.
My prediction: My call is for “Juanma” to separate De Leon from his aforementioned senses late in the fight. Certainly, De Leon has proven he can take a helluva punch. But Juanma’s got the speed and technique that Penalosa troubled him with, plus power equal to or greater than Caballero. I expect Lopez to suffer some hairy moments, but find his rhythm after that and establish his savvy boxing skills to put De Leon down for the count.
Confidence: 52%. I’m high on Lopez, but this is just a gigantic leap up on competition for him. De Leon is tough, mean, experienced and has C4 in his mitts. If Lopez doesn’t take control of the fight relatively early after weathering a surefire De Leon early storm, De Leon will just keep stomping and stomp him down until there’s no more stomping left to do.
My allegiance: De Leon’s fun; Lopez is fun and pretty. I’ll take the sweet science with a dose of dynamite over plain old dynamite any day.
PAVLIK – LOCKETT
Pavlik’s the known quantity here. Lockett’s only a known quantity over there, in Wales, from whence he hails. That, as much as anything, is probably why Pavlik’s such a dramatic betting favorite. But there are other gulfs besides.
Pavlik has fought tremendous, tremendous competition over the last two and a half years, and only once did any of those top competitors avoid getting put to sleep in frightening fashion. Pavlik’s knockout of Jose Luis Zertuche is still the kind of thing that gives me willies as a boxing fan — it was an amazing sight, but it effectively ended Zertuche’s career, so devastating was it. Pavlik’s knockout of Jermain Taylor to win the title was so definitive that referee Steve Smoger, who’s notorious for giving a hurt fighter every chance to fight on before intervening and calling a halt to matters, didn’t even bother counting. In those fights, and against Edison Miranda, Pavlik’s opponents had their moments. Like De Leon, though, Pavlik has the equalizing might of raw punching power on his side. Thankfully for boxing fans, he never stops believing in it. Even after Taylor decked Pavlik in the second so badly that some people still think Smoger should have stopped the fight, Pavlik in the very next round went back to fighting like he was the one who was going to score the knockout. The result was the 2007 Fight of the Year, according to the Boxing Writers’ Association of America.
Lockett, like a lot of people before him, believes that the key to beating Pavlik is the simplicity of Pavlik’s approach. It is true that Pavlik relies heavily on a classic one-two: left jab, straight right, goodnight. What Taylor found out is that not only is that ample, but Pavlik has some nuance to his game, too. For one, he’s got a fantastic uppercut. For another, he is a fantastic combination puncher. And if he gets you hurt, there is only a 0.5% chance that he won’t find a way to put you on the ground. He’s the best finisher in boxing. In their rematch, Taylor fought his best fight in years, avoiding until nearly the end of the fight any Pavlik blows that might send him on the mat. In that fight, we learned that, holy cow, Pavlik can even defend himself when he bothers to try.
A mega-skilled, crafty type like Joe Calzaghe — whose father, Enzo, trains Lockett and may next put his son in against Pavlik — could one day carve up the pride of Youngstown, Ohio, because “better skills than you think” doesn’t equal “amazing.” Lockett, from what little footage of him is available on YouTube, is no Joe Calzaghe. He’s got good hand speed, which, more than raw strength, is what Taylor used to rock Pavlik’s world in that second round. Lockett’s record of 21 knockouts in 30 wins suggests he’s got some pop, too. Alas, the solitary big name on his ledger is Kevin Kelly, and then it’s the wrong one — Kevin Kelley with that extra “e” is the former, great “Flushing Flash.” It’s fair to say that power might be an illusion. Even worse for Lockett, Pavlik is the bigger man, with a better reach, a height advantage of several inches and a record of hitting hard even when he steps up to super middleweight (168 lbs).
So, yes — it looks dismal for Lockett, even taking into account the ways he thinks he can win. He could score a moral victory, and take Pavlik down a peg, by making the betting favorite look bad. The degree to which Lockett can play spoiler is about the only drama here. An upset would crank the drama up to 11.
My prediction: Pavlik by early knockout.
Confidence: 99%. My one percentage point there is purely a reflection of the unavailability of Lockett fight tape, especially since Enzo Calzaghe became his trainer.
My allegiance: You gotta love the underdog. In the end, though, Pavlik is my boy, and is a great, great thing for the sport of boxing.
CORRECTED: Reference to Kevin Kelley.