In huge step-up fights Saturday night on HBO, junior welterweight prospect Victor Ortiz and junior middleweight prospect James Kirkland took the wrecking ball to opponents who were meant to provide stiff tests. Mike Arnaoutis and Joel Julio came tumbling down in the 2nd and 6th, respectively, and now Ortiz and Kirkland are now fully graduated to contender status while maintaining their profiles as boxers everyone ought want to watch. Junior lightweight Robert Guerrero, the third star in the making on the card, got cut by a head butt in a more difficult than expected fight against Daud Yordan, and upon (surprisingly) complaining that he couldn’t see, the referee stopped the fight for a no “decision” ruling.
Guerrero gets an “incomplete” grade, while Ortiz gets and A+ and Kirkland gets an A- from me. And even though it was a mostly good night for Golden Boy’s youngsters, the way it unfolded meant the card didn’t quite live up to its promise.
JAMES KIRKLAND-JOEL JULIO
The Kirkland-Julio fight was the best of the three contests. The first few rounds, it was living up to its potential Fight of the Year hype. You could feel the air of danger the two men posed to one another, both big, big punchers landing big, big punches early on.
I don’t understand, however, why Julio was dancing away so much. Was that his version of trying to use his superior technical skills to outbox the cruder Kirkland? It didn’t, by my eye, appear to be the right way to do that. Julio was landing some good right hands going backwards, but how much harder might the punches have been had he planted and asked particularly firm questions of Kirkland’s unproven chin? I would blame the cut Kirkland opened over Julio’s right eye with a left hand in the 1st, but Julio was already skipping around and backing up by that time.
Kirkland wasn’t having that dancing stuff. Too pretty for him. He practically speed-walked Julio down and didn’t give him a moment to breathe. Here’s the moment where I brag once again about calling a fight exactly right, because dammit, the end of 2008 had my prediction record badly whiffing and I’ve now hit back-to-back grand slams. I thought Kirkland would beat Julio to the punch, that he wouldn’t give Julio any room to box him and that he’d knock him out around the middle of the fight. That’s the way it went.
The cut was clearly bugging Julio as his eye swelled badly, and his conditioning didn’t seem the greatest for having hired a conditioning coach before the fight, and generally speaking it looked like some of the fight went out of him really early. It’s too bad, because there were some mouth-watering exchanges that made me think, “yeah, this is gonna be a good one.” And Julio had chances to catch Kirkland with big shots since Kirkland was keeping his hands too low at times and not moving his head as much as he should have. But Julio slowly faded, and Kirkland never went away. He took everything Julio hit him with, and with seeming ease. Julio apparently called it quits in the corner after the 6th, although the HBO team originally said the corner halted it.
Next for the loser: I know I was saying, “Hey, if Julio loses, remember he’s only 24.” But his effort was bewildering. I disapproved of his game plan and was surprised by how quickly he looked discouraged. I wonder if he needs a wholesale makeover. Right now he’s kind of hovering around at junior middleweight the way fellow Colombian power hitter Edison Miranda is hovering around super middleweight — a dangerous puncher who looks to be a notch below the best competition he’s fought.
Next for the winner: I’m thinking we all need to convene and have a charity fundraiser to put together the kind of money that would be needed to make Kirkland-Alfredo Angulo happen next. Gary Shaw, Angulo’s promoter and Kirkland’s former promoter, said during the week that he wants that fight to happen and thinks it would be one of the best fights anyone had ever seen, but believes it needs to simmer a little. I get where he’s coming from on that, but the fan in me is feeling a little greedy. I do think, whatever happens, Kirkland does need to work on his D a bit more and use his jab a bit more, none of which he did as poorly in this fight as his reputation would suggest, and at some point I can see a particularly skillful boxer giving him fits. But I don’t see why it’s not time, even at 24, to throw him at one of the other junior middleweight wolves, any junior middleweight wolf. (With his trainer, Ann Wolfe, who gave Kirkland good advice that Kirland ignored too often.)
VICTOR ORTIZ-MIKE ARNAOUTIS
What made Ortiz’s 2nd round knockout of Arnaoutis so outstanding was that Arnaoutis went the distance with big puncher Ricardo Torres and oft-big puncher Kendall Holt. I saw no signs in this fight that those two men turned Arnaoutis into damaged goods physically. I just saw more signs that Ortiz could be the future of the division, and that the day is coming a lot sooner than even I expected.
I might caution that Arnaoutis may not have been damaged goods physically, but he was extremely cautious. It was hard to tell if that’s because he tasted Ortiz’ power early or this was built in to the strategy or if the Holt and Torres losses contributed or what. He landed two of eight power punches in the whole fight. Ortiz’ defense was effective, and he was countering Arnaoutis, so that may have dissuaded Arnaoutis too.
Whatever was happening to Arnaoutis, Ortiz was explosive. The overhand left that wobbled Aranoutis was a sweetheart of a blow, and with Arnaoutis covering in the corner, the right hook/right uppercut combination was also tasty. The way Arnaoutis’ head bounced was enough for the ref to stop the fight, and while HBO’s team questioned it and Arnaoutis (according to Lennox Lewis) did too, I felt like it was borderline but worthy of stopping on a judgment call.
Next for the loser: Arnaoutis has now definitively gone from prospect to trial horse, but while I’m not particularly down on him, I never much thought he was headed for the big time.
Next for the winner: I think Ortiz should be in the discussions for fights with low to mid-top-10 junior welterweights. What’s the point of continuing to fight guys like Arnaoutis — and again, he was a big step up, so I’m not at all badmouthing this fight — if Ortiz is just going to blow them out? If Golden Boy decided not to rush the 22-year-old and get him more rounds, I’m fine with that, but Ortiz very much strikes me as ready for moving up another level of dangerousness, maybe a fight with a Juan Urango or Herman Ngoudjo. I think he’s the real deal.
ROBERT GUERRERO-DAUD YORDAN
This one was a little quizzical. Guerrero looked to be winning even though Yordan was landing the occasional pretty good shot, but a big head butt opened up a cut over Guerrero’s right eyebrow. Guerrero complained to the ref, then the doctor, and the doctor was skeptical about Guerrero saying he couldn’t see. But the ref decided to stop it anyway.
Truth be told, it was a very deep gash, and it may very well have been going into Guerrero’s eye. But while I’m not usually into questioning the toughness of a fighter who calls it quits, I was surprised Guerrero didn’t even seem to want to make a go of it. Was he detecting Yarden was going to give him a harder night than he expected? What was the deal, exactly?
I do think the referee should have warned Yordan for holding early in the 2nd, because he was initiating a lot of clinches, and I mean a lot, to keep Guerrero from getting his usually formidable inside game working. It was an attempt to clinch Guerrero that led to the head butt, and the holding was just uglifying the fight too much for my tastes given how excessive it was.
Next for the loser: I guess you can say that by having some moments against a fighter like Guerrero, he might have a little bit more to offer than much of anyone expected. I’m pretty sour about him excessively holding like that, but I can’t say I’d complain a whole awful lot if he got a shot at another big fight.
Next for the winner: I’m guessing that cut will sideline Guerrero for a while. The thought was that he would move on to Humberto Soto soon. I’m just left kind of befuddled by Guerrero’s performance. The pattern for Guerrero is one of constantly taking one step forward and one step backward, and I’ll leave an eyebrow raised at him even as he continues to intrigue me.