At the start of 2009, HBO decided it was going to be in the Juan Diaz business and the Robert Guerrero business, investing in them as part of a list of young fighters the network thought had a chance of becoming stars. Even though both have suffered setbacks, HBO is staying in the business. Diaz, the young Mexican-American lightweight with the college degree, suffered a knockout loss to Juan Manuel Marquez in February, but he’ll headline Saturday night against Paulie Malignaggi. Guerrero, the young Californian junior lightweight with the touching back story about a wife who survived cancer, took heavy fire for seemingly trying to get his March fight against Daud Yordan stopped because of a cut he suffered when the going got tough, but he is fighting Malcolm Klassen on the same card Saturday.
Really, I’m torn over this whole thing. On one hand, boxing needs to build up its young stars, telling people their stories outside the ring; on the other, those youngsters also need to deliver inside it. On one hand, the boxers who get the better of their HBO-“chosen” opponents deserve to be spotlighted; on the other, it’s ridiculous the way boxing tosses its promising athletes to the side if they slip up once or twice. I think whether I can live with this card depends on whether two of the three fights of the evening — in the third bout, 2009 Prospect of the Year candidate Daniel Jacobs, a middleweight whose business HBO is thinking of getting into, takes on Ishe Smith in the toughest competition of his career — are gobs of fun to watch. On paper, all three young stars-in-the-making are in tests of a sort, but only one has a really strong chance of being an exciting match-up.
JUAN DIAZ – PAULIE MALIGNAGGI
This isn’t the fight that has a strong chance of being exciting. Diaz is always a good time, but Malignaggi, who’s a select taste as it is, hasn’t been in top form in more than two years. At his worst, he takes his fights to Stankonia pretty quickly.
Diaz is just 25, but he has the career of a much older fighter. He won his first alphabet title belt in 2004, and he’s been in a lot of wars. His style kind of demands it. He doesn’t punch that hard, so he tries to drown his opposition in a tidal wave of punches. You can’t do that without getting hit a lot. Thus, fun is created. He climbed into a fair number of top 10 pound-for-pound lists in 2007, but in 2008 he ran into someone he couldn’t drown: Nate Campbell. Some saw a lack of toughness in Diaz slowing down and going into survival mode as he blinked blood out of his eye from a bad cut, and some saw a limitation in his straight-ahead, no-power technique. But he rebounded from that decision loss with a more subtle, technical victory over Michael Katsidis, then went back to his old self against Marquez. It almost worked early, but the naturally Marquez was too smart and precise, and when Diaz got cut again, he lost his composure again. This time, though, Diaz threw caution to the wind and just got knocked out.
It’s my view that most every boxer is badly bothered by a cut. Only a select few rise above it. Those fighters are often the toughest of the tough and elitest of the elite. If there’s a legitimate question about Diaz vis-a-vis cuts, it’s whether he can learn to overcome. He already is operating with something of a handicap by not having much punching power and fighting in the fashion he does, so the margin of error is lower for him to rejoin the elite. One way to deal with that margin of error is to add dimensions to his game, and he says he’s focused on improving his technique, something he has more time to do with college out of the way. Some, I think, wrote him off on the toughness tip, but I saw a toughness increase from the Campbell to Marquez fights — when the going got rough against Marquez, sure, he lost his mind, but he didn’t back down, either, the way he did against Campbell. The kid is 25. Why would anyone write off his ability to toughen up? I need more evidence before I do that.
Malignaggi probably isn’t going to test Diaz’ toughness. He makes Diaz’ punching power look like the destructive force of a volcano, and he’s abandoned the flashy combinations he used to employ to win fights and generate what power he had. Some of that isn’t Malignaggi’s fault. He has the most brittle hands in the business, and he readily admitted after his last HBO fight, a loss to Ricky Hatton, that he was scared to throw his right hand for fear of re-injuring it. If Diaz has done more with less, Malignaggi has done a whole lot more with a whole lot less. What Malignaggi had to get to the top, he used — speed, reflexes and giant balls. Why would anyone want to make a living punching people if they broke their hands every time they fought? Without the ability to throw combos anymore, Malignaggi has had to rely on those balls even more, since he no longer can keep anyone off him and barely could to begin with. He wanted to continue against Hatton because of said balls, not because he had a remote chance of victory before his trainer pulled the plug in the 11th round. All Malignaggi accomplished in that fight was to hold Hatton excessively in hopes of not getting knocked clean out, though.
Really, Malignaggi has become fairly useless, and I say that as someone who once defended him. He blamed his trainer, Buddy McGirt, for his poor showing against Hatton. He’s already laying the groundwork for how he’s being set up to lose, complaining about the referee and assigned judges for the fight in Diaz’ backyard of Houston. When Malignaggi is backing up his talk, I can live with his big mouth. Now his mouth just says whiny stuff. He hasn’t looked good since he beat Lovemore Ndou in 2007. What he can test is as follows: Has Diaz honed his boxing skills enough to catch up to a somewhat tricky slickster? Is Diaz’ confidence in OK shape? And can he hang with a naturally bigger man, even a light-hitting one, since the fight is at the chuckle-worthy catchweight of 138.5 pounds?
I say Diaz’ll do fine, even if he has to end up resorting to his old all-volume approach. Unless Malignaggi completely reverses the course of his career, he’s not going to be busy enough to beat Diaz by decision. I expect Diaz will pull out a fairly easy UD, but how he answers the questions I mentioned is what will be most interesting to me.
MALCOLM KLASSEN – ROBERT GUERRERO
Guerrero is so inconsistent, and Klassen so hard to find footage of, that I won’t have a prediction for this fight. Mainly because of Klassen’s footage deficit, really. I do think, based on what little I’ve seen, that this could end up being a war.
It depends on what version of Guerrero shows up. He loses to Gamaliel Diaz, then comes back and destroys him in a rematch. He loses to Orlando Salido (later changed to a no contest because of Salido’s positive drug test), then takes on the appearance of a tremendous talent against Martin Honorio and Jason Litzau. He’s in the midst of a lull, having looked not so hot against Yordan and subsequently in his Friday Night Fights rebound fight, even though he won the latter. We’ve hashed and hashed and hashed over his actions during the Yordan fight, when he appeared to appeal to the ref to stop the bout because of a cut from a head butt, a conclusion that ensured the bout would be a no contest. Whether you thought Guerrero did anything wrong or not, plenty of people did, and it hurt his rep. At his best, though, he’s an aggressive and versatile boxer-puncher with power, smarts and a mean streak that serves him well.
That actually kind of describes Klassen, at least based on his knockout of Cassius Baloyi, the fight I watched. Klassen probably has a speed edge over Guerrero, and his focus on throwing lots of punches left him open to shots he might not have otherwise had to absorb, which could be dangerous with Guerrero as compared to what most agree was a visibly aged version of Baloyi. Klassen doesn’t have the same kind of knockout record Guerrero does, although it’s worth noting that Klassen wasn’t knocking out much of anybody early in his career and definitely is now. Klassen’s performance against Baloyi was described as the best of his life, so it’s hard to say whether that’s who he is now or whether he just had a good night. About two years ago, he got beat by Mzonke Fana, a quality junior lightweight; Klassen reportedly faded in that fight, so stamina could be an issue in a prolonged exploration of the trenches.
Like I said, no prediction, but there are some of the basics. All in all, Klassen may be the best fighter Guerrero has ever faced, so we’re talking perhaps the toughest test of his career. Good Guerrero better show up. If Bad Guerrero doesn’t stay home, HBO may rethink whether it wants to stay in the Guerrero business. (Guerrero seems to be taking this pretty seriously so that Good Guerrero shows up — he’s been sparring with Shane Mosley for this fight.)
DANIEL JACOBS – ISHE SMITH
Jacobs has been one of my favorite young fighters for a while now. He’s fast, powerful, exciting and fairly well-schooled. He’s not all the way there yet — he has some things to learn still. But you can usually see him learning mid-fight. He’s the easy Prospect of the Year for 2009 if he wins this fight.
Smith doesn’t always win, but he doesn’t make it easy on much of anybody — he’s a tricky, difficult opponent to fight. This daring matchmaking should come as no surprise. Jacobs has been moved very quickly for
a prospect. He’s been a pro for barely a year and a half, and he’s already got 17 fights on his resume. He’s been stepping up one fight after the next in 2009, and he has passed all his exams with flying colors. Smith is a massive step up. The last time Smith was brought in as an “opponent” for a prospect, he pulled out the victory over Pawel Wolak.
Jacobs has a lot more going for him than Wolak ever did. For one, he’s bigger — Smith has primarily fought at 154 for his career. For another, Jacobs has a better pedigree. One of the things Jacobs does well — throwing lots of punches — is probably the surest way to beat Smith, who for most of his life has been far too conservative in his punch output. Smith bucked that a little against Wolak, but I think Jacobs will force him back into his shell and win a fairly wide and possibly unappealing decision as Smith goes into full defensive mode. Nonetheless, a Smith win isn’t out of the question at all.
What I wonder is: Would anyone write off Jacobs entirely if he lost to someone like Smith? Probably, even though Jacobs would probably come out of that loss a better fighter for having fought it. Ah, the frustrations of this sport I love.