Competitive on paper, or in theory, or in the minds of boxing fans who were split on the outcomes, Amir Khan-Paulie Malignaggi and Victor Ortiz-Nate Campbell turned into junior welterweight mismatches in reality, producing two fights on HBO Saturday where the loser never won a round and the younger, more physically talented fighters controlled things without taking major risks.
Khan stopped Malignaggi more convincingly even than Ricky Hatton did, in the 11th round. Ortiz gave Campell the kind of tactical beating he’s never taken before for a unanimous decision. But I bet people will find fault with both performances. I won’t much agree.
AMIR KHAN-PAULIE MALIGNAGGI
Before the fight, I said I didn’t see how Malignaggi could win, and he never was really in the fight. He landed some punches, as Khan’s moderately marked and cut face proved, but he never won a round. Khan was faster, longer, stronger, better technically. Nothing Malignaggi could have done would change that, even if some on the HBO team thought Malignaggi wasn’t using his legs enough. What would he have done with his legs, pray tell? Stayed further away, where the taller Khan could pepper him with even more punches where the shorter Malignaggi couldn’t punch him back?
Khan’s jab was money, and when he fired combos, he landed those, too, on the defensively-astute man from New York City, where the British Khan was making his U.S. debut. Khan has a shaky chin, but Malignaggi doesn’t hit hard enough to do anything about that, so Khan fought with impunity and because he was the better boxer, Malignaggi wasn’t going to outbox him. It was a pretty simple fight, when you take that into consideration. Anything Malignaggi can do, Khan can do better, and that’s what he did. Malignaggi’s team had pointed out in the HBO pre-fight meetings that Khan tends to reach with his punches, and that made me notice it, but Khan was too fast and got his gloves up too quickly for Malignaggi to take advantage when Khan was out of position.
From the start Malignaggi was hot, emotionally, probably from the weigh-in scuffle, but reckless aggression got him nothing nor did a more controlled countering strategy. As the fight went into the later rounds, there increasingly was less reason for the fight to continue, as Khan was piling up surgical punishment and Malignaggi got hurt more and more. Before the 11th, he fended off the doctors who were reluctant to let him continue, but when Khan landed a sequence of painful shots, referee Steve Smoger stepped in and stopped it, wisely. Unlike with the Hatton fight, Malignaggi protested less about the stoppage, but perhaps on reflex, he continued punching at Khan even with the referee holding him up.
Malignaggi is a tough dude who’s done a lot in his career with less than some, but it’s true: He’s a B+ fighter and he simply won’t beat fighters as talented as Khan. At 29, he may still have some boxing in him, and because he’s so authentic and gutty, it’ll be hard not to root for him even though he can be a bit of a bitch sometimes with fans who dare challenge him. I’m not sure what he does next — maybe he’ll be forever confined to fights where he’s thought not to pose much of a risk, losing some (like against Khan) and winning some (like against Juan Diaz).
It’s Khan who has the more interesting future. There will be people who will say, “Of course Khan beat Malignaggi, he can’t punch.” And that’s fair, except for a good number of people gave Malignaggi a good shot at winning this. Stylistically, though, a big puncher is the one likely to do Khan in, if he gets done in. He says he’s not afraid to fight Marcos Maidana, the hard-hitting South American, and as much as Maidana would threaten Khan’s chin, Khan’s boxing skills would be a haunted hayride for Maidana, too. Would that Khan’s team had the same confidence in him that he has in himself; they’ve done everything they can to shield Khan from Maidana. Khan’s plan that he threw out there in the post-fight interview — to fight Maidana, then for the winner of that fight to face the winner of Timothy Bradley-Devon Alexander — is like a junior welterweight wet dream. I’ll believe it’s possible when I see it.
VICTOR ORTIZ-NATE CAMPBELL
Campbell might have won the 1st round if not for a borderline knockdown by Ortiz, and he had a few moments where he connected on Ortiz, mostly when he got his back to the ropes and Ortiz’ hands were left foolishly down, and HBO’s team said he winced at a body shot at one point, although I didn’t see it. But other than that, it was all Ortiz. Or all not-Campbell. Or both. Yeah, both.
At 38 and a division above his best weight, Campbell had trouble getting his punches off, and he had trouble hurting Ortiz when he landed. Of course, here’s something that exacerbates all that: a younger, faster, more physically imposing boxer. Early against Bradley, the same set of conditions made Campbell look bad, and Ortiz did much the same. Ortiz did most of it moving backward, occasionally stepping forward to land seriously hurtful combos — really crisp, accurate, powerful shots — but then staying on his bicycle to keep Campbell from planting and tying him up when he got too close.
If Ortiz had decided to take a few more risks, maybe he could have knocked out Campbell, but then, Campbell is hard to knock out, and taking more risks might have let Campbell into the fight a little. I might have liked to see Ortiz go for it a bit more, but I can’t blame him too much. This was his third fight since the Maidana knockout loss, and everyone agrees that what Ortiz did wrong there was that he decided to punch it out with Maidana instead of using his boxing skills. So he’s changed his style, adapted it to focus more on boxing intelligently, and now that’s going to piss people off, too. I suppose if you quit in a fight and say the things after that Ortiz said following the Maidana fight about not wanting to take punishment, people are going to be inclined to think the worst of you.
My thinking is that you don’t see boxers with Ortiz’ physical combination of speed and power very often, and his boxing skills were already good and are getting better, especially defensively. If he can get his head right — and I think it’s on its way to being right, even though there will always be lingering doubt from the Maidana performance until he wins a grueling war — he has a lot of tools upon which to build a pretty good career. Campbell was supposedly capable of putting the pressure on Ortiz to test his mental state, but it never happened, in part because Campbell couldn’t and in part because Ortiz wouldn’t let him. I’d say Ortiz is just about ready for a top-10 junior welter now, maybe (maybe!) even someone with a lot of power.
Khan and Ortiz are a very young 23 years old each. Both are very, very talented. It’s fine to question whether Khan has the chin or Ortiz has the heart to make the most use of that talent. All I’m saying is that I’m inclined to think they can both go pretty far despite not being perfect, and there’s lots of time for them to shake off the negative identities they have with many in the boxing world. Write them off at your own peril.