(Carl Froch hits Arthur Abraham right above his ill-conceived white see-through trunks/red underwear combination; credit: Tom Casino, Showtime)
What a wild night of fights. Carl Froch put on a master class in upsetting and outclassing Arthur Abraham. Juan Manuel Marquez put on a master class in stopping Michael Katsidis in a terrific brawl. Jason Litzau scored perhaps the upset of the year against Celestino Caballero. Andre Ward beat Sakio Bika in the most foul-filled fight of 2010. And Andre Berto scored a one-punch knockout of Freddy Hernandez.
Where to even start.
CARL FROCH-ARTHUR ABRAHAM
“Exposed” is an overused word in boxing, but two fights in a row now, super middleweight Arthur Abraham has had vulnerabilities in his style, well, exposed. What’s surprising is who did it this time: Carl Froch, who comprehensively outboxed Abraham despite having a reputation — clearly, as of today, undeserved — as a crude technician. Froch took the unanimous decision and never lost a round, despite one judge who found one to give to Abraham.
Froch was superb, including on defense, an area he often has neglected. Almost everyone in the Super Six tournament has had his shining moment. Andre Ward’s was when he dominated Mikkel Kessler. Abraham’s was when he scored a nasty knockout of Jermain Taylor. Kesslers’s was when he rebounded from the Ward loss to beat Froch. Glen Johnson’s was when he knocked out Allan Green moving down in weight at an advanced age. Andre Dirrell’s was when he bounced back from the Froch loss to comprehensively outbox Abraham.
Froch not only took Dirrell’s game plan, something few predicted he’d be able to do, but he improved on it. Abraham is a heavy hitter and sound defensive fighter, but it’s dumfounding how easily Froch kept Abraham away by keeping him busy at a distance. Abraham freezes the moment a punch is thrown at him. Froch kept Abraham’s high guard busy, working around it, in the middle, and under it, with his body punches really hurting Abraham in particular.
Abraham wasn’t exposed as a fraud, the way the word “exposed” is usually used in boxing. It’s just that his style can be beaten by another style, and he doesn’t know what to do when that style comes at him. There was some discussion on Showtime about whether Abraham is too small for super middleweight. He has super middleweight power and a super middleweight chin, but he is awfully short and stubby for the division, and his style makes it difficult for him to compensate for that.
And all credit due to Froch for how he did this. Abraham is always dangerous with that power, and in the 12th, he seemingly wobbled Froch. But Froch stayed out of harm’s way beautifully otherwise and put on a masterful boxing exhibition. He fought a disciplined fight, even when he got tagged and usually would feel compelled to throw the playback out the window, something that’s rare for him. You have to consider him for a pound-for-pound top-10 spot coming off this win, because you’d be hard-pressed to find very many boxers who have put together a stretch of difficult fights that Froch has, and Froch has come out on top in many of them, none more impressively than Saturday.
In the Super Six, this was Froch’s moment.
JUAN MANUEL MARQUEZ-MICHAEL KATSIDIS
Marquez fights are as beautiful as violence gets. His combinations are perfect diving/gymnastic/ice-skating sequences, something that you have to see in slow motion to truly appreciate. Saturday on HBO, he used those combinations to stop the top challenger to his lightweight championship belt, Michael Katsidis, in the 9th round. It was a borderline call — Katsidis might have made it out of the round had not referee Kenny Bayless saved him. But at the moment of the stoppage, Marquez was putting all kinds of beautiful on him.
Things were a bit dicey for Marquez in the third, when a Katsidis left dropped the champ. But true to Marquez form, Marquez took the knockdown as an excuse to fight even more ferociously. Yet even when Marquez is full of animal pride, he is more like a highly-calibrated natural predator, employing ferocity in the service of skill. The 3rd round was a Round of the Year candidate because aside from the knockdown, Marquez perhaps did the most damage in that stanza.
And the fight itself was a wonderful one, one you earmark for Fight of the Year candidacy at the end of 2010. Katsidis might not have won but a round or two of the nine, but his pressure made every moment of the fight a brawl, even when both men were putting on an uppercut exhibition that defied the word “brawl.” Both men landed clean, hard, flush, well-executed shots in overbrimming quantities, and it’s amazing it took nine rounds for one man to get to the point where he couldn’t continue, and even then it was, as mentioned, a borderline call.
Your heart goes out to Katsidis, who fought on despite the recent death of his brother. There’s really no good reason at all to discount Katsidis for this performance; he hung in there with the best lightweight alive, and one of the five finest boxers of today, and demonstrated tremendous boxing ability to go along with his usual determined, energetic, win-at-all-costs thrill ride. He just came up short, is all, and if you’re a boxing fan and don’t want to see or hear from Katsidis again as soon as possible, you are some kind of lunatic. When Marquez is gone, he very well could become “the man” in the division, especially because he’s evolved his game so much over the years.
As far as auditions for a fight with Manny Pacquiao go, Marquez performed — am I overusing this word for him? — perfectly. He was exciting, he was vulnerable, he was dangerous enough to pose something of a threat, especially considering the two close fights between Marquez and Pacquiao already. Nobody really thinks Marquez wins that fight, because Pacquiao has evolved and gotten better, and bigger — the fight might have to be at welterweight, where Marquez has proven himself ill-suited. But for age 37, Marquez is as fresh and as impressive as any athlete you’ll ever find, the man who puts to rest the whole Grecian Urn debate.
JASON LITZAU-CELESTINO CABALLERO
Litzau was a 13-1 underdog, according to HBO, but I don’t know where they found those odds. You would have to search far and wide for almost anybody who thought the junior lightweight brawler could upset a fighter who inhabits some folks’ lists of the best 10 boxers active today. And that’s even after Caballero came in overweight by 1.5 pounds, a sign that perhaps he didn’t take the fight seriously enough. The other sign was the way he fought.
But Litzau took it seriously. And with his height — Caballero’s used to having a big advantage there — determination, and unexpected nuance, Litzau brought Caballero’s argument for a big-money bout with Juan Manuel Lopez and Yuriorkis Gamboa crashing down. If it wasn’t the Upset of the Year, it sure is on the short list. How many other fights have happened this year of this profile where the concern was that one man would get seriously hurt, and he’s the one who won?
Caballero, who often wins with work rate alone, wasn’t engaged enough for many of the rounds, and he was sloppier than usual in most of them. Litzau has exhibited a tendency to get knocked out the last couple years, but nothing Caballero landed budged Litzau. The 1st round was a Caballero round, but in the 2nd Litzau demonstrated some real spunk, and before long, he was winning rounds by outworking Caballero and landing the more telling blows, often after moving deftly with his feet to get into position for a big shot.
I had it a draw, and feared that Litzau’s relative inactivity in the final two rounds stood to hurt his chances of victory. One judge had it for Caballero, 96-94, and another had it for Litzau by the same margin. When the 97-93 scorecard was read, you had to assume that Caballero — the “A-side” in the fight — would get the victory. Instead, Litzau got a shocking upset decision and the kind of moment I’m sure you live for if you’re a boxer. Whatever your pleasure as a boxing fan, Saturday night offered it, but at my get-together of boxing friends, Litzau’s victory was the moment that got us shouting.
ANDRE WARD-SAKIO BIKA
It’s never a good thing in a boxing match when the most telling blows landed were head butts, elbows, forearms and rabbit punches. But we got the fight we expected with two rough super middleweights, and more of a fight from Bika for Ward than the one-sided dominations that have marked Ward’s rise to the ranks of boxing’s best.
Bika, unlike Kessler and Green before him, refused to recognize early on that he was going to lose, and while I hesitate to say either of those men quit against Ward, Bika sure was putting on a more spirited effort than either of them did. Ward had trouble with Bika’s wild swings and natural strength, and only after Bika began to tire late and settle down did Ward truly tame him. The one judge who had it 120-108 for Ward wasn’t watching the fight I was, where I found three rounds to give Bika and a couple more marked “close.” But Ward got the unanimous decision victory, to go along with cuts over both eyes and on the bridge of his nose, cuts that came about because of a combination of fouls and clean shots from Bika.
I both admire the bizarre choice of Ward opponent for this fight and wonder if it was a good idea. Bika is ranked legitimately as the #6 man in the division, and because this fight was inexplicably outside the Super Six tournament, he amounted to an unnecessary risk. I admire that. What I wonder is, if you want to make Ward appealing the masses, whether you could pick someone more certain to make Ward unappealing to the masses than Bika. Few who watched this fight is going to be pining for more of Ward, and that has as much to do with Bika’s rough-housing as it does Ward’s, but together, we’re talking about a seriously ugly affair.
But in the end, Ward showed that he can take clean shots from a big puncher — not many landed from Edison Miranda, Green or Kessler, among his biggest-punching opponents, and more than a few did from Bika — and that he can gut it out against an opponent who won’t be easily bent to his will.
Next up in the Super Six semi-finals, per Showtime, is Ward-Abraham and Froch-Johnson. Ward might out-Froch Froch out-Dirrelling Abraham, but Froch-Johnson is a wonderful bout on paper.
ANDRE BERTO-FREDDY HERNANDEZ
Nobody really thought this fight would be competitive, but then, nobody probably predicted a 1st round knockout in which 12 total blows landed. Berto is, everyone knows, overpaid by HBO for all fights but against weaker competition in particular, but Hernandez had never shown any indication of not being able to take a punch, so this wipeout is no more or less a vindication of HBO’s policy on Berto than anything else.
Everyone expected Hernandez to lose, just not like this. Berto just landed a killer right hand directly on the button, and although Hernandez got up, the referee appropriately waved it off.
As auditions for Pacquiao go, this wasn’t up to Marquez’ snuff. Berto did deliver a TV-friendly knockout, and as a top-ranked welterweight who’s young and speedy, he is a different look than some of Pacquiao’s recent competition. But Saturday, he merely did what he was supposed to, albeit a little better than anyone expected, and I doubt he created much of a clamor for Pacquiao-Berto in the doing.