With six major televised fights ahead this weekend, we’ll split them in two for a shortened version of the usual preview and prediction column. Today: The Saturday HBO card. Tomorrow: The Saturday Showtime card and the Friday ESPN360.com card. [UPDATE: Please, since the Vitali Klitschko-Kevin Johnson fight airs on tape delay on HBO in the United States, NO SPOILERS in the comments sections of ANY blog entries until after the fight airs, probably around midnight Eastern time. However, if I can find a real-time stream of the fight, I’ll put up a “results” post with a generic headline that will not give away the results on the main page, and that entry will only be for people who want to A. know the results as soon as they happen and/or B. talk about them.]
JUAN DIAZ – PAULIE MALIGNAGGI II
The Stakes: This is a rematch of one of the most controversial fights of the year, which also was a surprisingly enthralling battle between two light punchers. In the first, many believe Malignaggi was “robbed,” although everyone agrees it was a fight with a lot of close rounds. Certainly, the card that had Diaz 118-110 was shocking in that judge Gale Van Hoy is the only person who thought anyone won the fight by that much. Malignaggi’s post-fight rant made him a folk hero when he said called “boxing is bullshit.” Some bad blood built up with Malignaggi calling Diaz a “pussy” when it looked like the rematch wouldn’t happen, but it will, and the winner gets vindicated one way or the other. Both are top-10 level junior welterweights, so there’s a climb in the rankings for the victor, too.
The Strengths: Diaz is as relentless as they come. He has surprisingly quick hands, and puts together showy combinations to the head and body, with his left hook being his most effective punch. When he wins, it’s usually because his opponents can’t keep pace with him and/or fold under the pressure. Malignaggi is a quick-fisted, quick-handed boxer with nice reflexes. He’s been the more skilled, all-around better man technically in every contest he’s been in (except maybe the Ricky Hatton fight). For someone who poses in all of his pictures with the “Paris Hilton face,” he’s got a pride and toughness that stands out.
The Weaknesses: Neither of these guys can punch a lick. Fortunately they make up for it with lots of combos when they’re at their best, which they were the first time they fought. Diaz and Malignaggi both slap with their punches, Diaz because he’s more interested in quantity than quality and Malignaggi because of his hopelessly fragile hands, which break or are injured in nearly every fight. Diaz leaves himself open pretty often on defense because of his focus on offense, and while he can handle people with moderate to good skill levels, he’s had huge problems with the guys with the highest skill levels, including Malignaggi. He also has shown the tendency to wilt when things are going poorly. Malignaggi is woefully inconsistent, looking like one of the best boxers at junior welterweight sometimes and looking like he doesn’t even deserve to be in the top 20 other times. He seems to need to have some imagined or real slight to fight up to his capabilities.
The Prediction: With the differences between these two men so slight in the first fight, what might appear to be small changes to the terms of the fight this go-round could be huge in the end. The original fight was at a limit of 138.5 pounds. This one’s at 139, closer to Malignaggi’s usual weight and a tad farther from Diaz’ usual lightweight limit. A tiny 18-foot ring aided Diaz in closing the distance against Malignaggi, but a more standard 20-foot ring will give Malignaggi more room to maneuver. Instead of Texas hacks like Van Hoy giving the hometown boy the decision on Diaz’ home turf of Houston, three judges from three different states at a fight in Chicago means he won’t get the same benefit of the doubt (or, in one case, the same outright bias) on the scorecards. In fact, the judges may subconsciously feel the desire to give Malignaggi a make-up call. Malignaggi’s inconsistency probably won’t come into play as he thinks he was as wronged in the as Montresor thought he was in “The Cask of Amontillado.” Meanwhile, it’s hard to imagine how Diaz does better than he did the first time — improve his jab, maybe? He says he’ll work on lateral movement and moving his head, which could help, but how much? I had Diaz winning the first fight narrowly. I think Malignaggi wins this a bit more decisively.
VITALI KLITSCHKO – KEVIN JOHNSON
The Stakes: The Klitschko brothers have ruled the heavyweight division for years with an Ironfist and Steelhammer — their nicknames, if you put “Dr.” in front — with Wladimir the division champion but Vitali probably the better overall fighter. Everyone else is, frankly, waiting for them to “age overnight” or retire. Johnson is, by today’s standards, a good American heavyweight, arguably the best. If he were to beat Klitschko, it would be as jaw-dropping an upset as any this year.
The Strengths: Jabs. Both have really good ones. Both want to keep them in your face all night long, and are able to do so with an 80-inch reach in Klitschko’s case and an 82-inch reach in Johnson’s case, the best for a Klitschko opponent since Lennox Lewis. Johnson scores with his. Klitschko scores with his and hurts with his, plus it’s a vital component of his biggest asset, i.e., “using his height well,” a difficult-to-master skill in boxing but a formidable one once mastered as well as Klitschko has mastered. Both are deceptively tricky defenders, with Klitschko fighting with his hands down but having what trainers have called an uncanny knack for knowing when a punch is coming and an ability to move back or to the side, and with Johnson doing some of that shoulder-roll stuff. Johnson probably has the speed edge, although Klitschko’s not slow, and Klitschko definitely has the power edge, although Johnson has suddenly started knocking people out. Klitschko has a proven ability to take a punch.
The Weaknesses: If Vitali had any that any present-day heavyweight could exploit, somebody would have figured it out by now, right? Honestly, the best remaining hope, and it’s a dwindling one because he’s stayed so healthy lately, is that the injury problems that kept him out of the ring for a few years suddenly resurface. Maybe with a torn knee muscle or broken back, he’s beatable. I suppose Lewis’ comparable size years ago gave him fits, so hypothetically Johnson’s reach could bother Vitali, too. Johnson’s major problem is that he’s got 1/100ths of the experience Klitschko does. Dude fought in a six-rounder as recently as 2007. That inexperience also makes it hard to evaluate him accurately: He’s rarely faced anyone who really came close to him on the scorecards, so his weaknesses are not readily apparent. You could point to a lack of power, or a slow start in his last fight, but he has been rectifying the first and definitely rectified the latter with a big knockout finish.
The Prediction: Klitschko by knockout. He has the highest knockout ratio in boxing (39 wins, 38 KOs) and while we don’t know how well Johnson can take a punch against an elite foe, Klitschko gives a lot of people their first knockout losses. It’s what he does, literally without fail except in one win. Johnson may have some elaborate “if he can outjab Klitschko and if both of Klitschko’s shoulders somehow become simultaneously removed from their sockets…” kind of scenario to victory, but I really would flip my lid if Johnson beat Klitschko. It’s almost unimaginable. Johnson would get huge props if he lasted to the bell or even late into the fight, and if he won a round or two.
VICTOR ORTIZ – ANTONIO DIAZ
The Stakes: Until a few months ago, Ortiz was the frontrunner in the “Next Oscar De La Hoya” sweepstakes, with De La Hoya, his promoter, endorsing him for the part — an eloquent, handsome Mexican-American with a touching back story who takes boxing by storm. Then Marcos Maidana beat him up in one of the best fights of 2009, one that concluded with Ortiz effectively quitting and Ortiz making remarks where he gave off the vibe that he thought he was above getting beaten up and didn’t want to box anymore. It’s hard to imagine him blowing things any worse, but he’s still talented and maybe he realized the error of his ways. Diaz, by contrast, is in the midst of a career comeback that began in 2008, and while beating Ortiz would give that comeback some small measure of legitimacy, ultimately the focus of this fight is Ortiz, not him.
The Strengths: Ortiz has two-handed power, quicks, a great finishing instinct and he’s pretty skilled on offense. Diaz is an experienced boxer-puncher who was pretty good in his prime — he beat Micky Ward, Ivan Robinson and Emmanuel Augustus, and has rumbled with the likes of Shane Mosley and Antonio Margarito in losses, giving Margarito a good run for his money. He’ll have a size edge — they’re fighting at 144 pounds, higher than Ortiz has fought before — to Ortiz’ youth edge — Ortiz is 11 years younger at 22.
The Weaknesses: Ortiz’ mental toughness is in serious question right now. His defensive focus, ability to take a shot and all-around composure in the ring ought to be, too, until he proves otherwise. Diaz has not, by most accounts, looked all that good in his comeback. In four fights, he has eked out a victory over trial horse Felix Flores and semi-prospect Javier Castro.
The Prediction: I’ll generally take the fresher, sharper fighter over the older, past-his-prime fighter every single time, but I have the slightest sense that Diaz might be more of a test for Ortiz than intended. They know each other from sparring — in fact, after Ortiz’ loss to Maidana, Diaz called him to tell him he’d get back on track and not to worry. Now Ortiz has to get back on track against Diaz, who’s naturally bigger and may have enough left in the tank and enough size to crack Ortiz’ resolve. I strongly favor Ortiz to win anyway, maybe easily and maybe not. I just have a weird spidey sense tingle on this one.