The Super Six tournament is back on Showtime Saturday, and right on time. Several second round postponements, a fighter withdrawing and some counterprogramming from industry giant HBO knocked some of the stuffing out of the concept for some. But if you ask me, nothing sells the idea of the tournament better than it doing what it does: matching the best fighters against the best fighters in one of boxing’s best divisions, super middleweight.
After its own postponement, Arthur Abraham-Andre Dirrell is the second round bout that’s afoot this weekend. I don’t expect it to be the best fight of the tourney, but it comes with perhaps the most interesting strategic landscape of any potential match-up. Abraham (photo above, credit Howard Schatz) is the tournament favorite, arguably a top-10 pound-for-pound fighter, and Dirrell started at the back of the pack, barely a top-10 168-pounder if at all. But by virtue of Dirrell’s particular talents — his blinding speed of hand and foot, in particular — I’d once posited that he was exactly the kind of boxer who might finally be the one to decode Abraham’s patient, powerful assassination style.
Was I right, or have things changed? It’s an interesting enough question that it’s the show I’ll be watching live Saturday, with HBO’s card the same night confined to my DVR.
Abraham has turned himself into one of those kind of puzzles, like a Wladimir Klitschko or Floyd Mayweather, where it’s hard to imagine him losing. Every fight looks the same, as with those two men and their respective styles. In Abraham’s case, it goes like this: For up to four rounds, he simply stands in front of you and blocks your punches with his high guard, occasionally punching back. He says it’s how he sees what you’ve got, how he figures you out. Then he starts to tag you with power shots, where even if you outwork him he wins the rounds with those accurate, mean hooks from both hands and a vicious straight right. Increasingly, he amps up his volume, and what punches you land aren’t hurting him. Desperation begins to take hold as Abraham grows stronger and stronger. Late in the fight, you’re on a highlight reel getting knocked out savagely. With the exception his struggle with Edison Miranda the first time around, when Abraham fought through a severely broken jaw, that’s how it’s worked against every top-10 middleweight he’s fought — a lot of them — and the one top-10 super middleweight he’s fought, Jermain Taylor.
As Eddie Chambers found out last weekend against Klitschko, just because it looks simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. Abraham’s style isn’t too sophisticated in its variance, although he’s intelligent about finding his opening on offense and not getting hit back too much. But it’s really effective. Based on how he has looked against everyone he’s ever fought, he clearly has pound-for-pound talent and the kind of toughness you find only in the truly elite, does Abraham. I’m given pause by two things. One is that he’s never beaten anyone who could be considered a pound-for-pound opponent. Taylor was still a viable super middle, but he wasn’t a pound-for-pound guy anymore. Miranda was tough, but not even in Taylor’s class. Kingsley Ikeke, Kofi Jantuah, Howard Eastman, Khoren Gevor — these are all good, legit top-10 fighters who inhabited Abraham’s division, but candidly it wasn’t that good a division when he was there. The other reason I’m given pause is I don’t think Abraham has fought anyone who has the ability to turn his style into a liability.
You can almost win the first four rounds against Abraham just by being there. You don’t have to get much through his high guard, even. You just have to outwork him. Usually, he’s inflicting some damage in those first four rounds, and usually he begins to turn things by no later than the 4th. I’ve seen him lose the occasional late round as well, when he takes a breather. That’s five rounds you can viably win by exploiting his style. One more and you’ve got yourself a draw. One more after that and you’ve got yourself a win. All you have to do is stay on your feet. Easier said than done.
Dirrell, on paper, has the kind of gifts that would make it so he could win those first four rounds, win a couple more, and then use his legs to survive. He’s one of the quickest boxers going, plus he’s a good defensive fighter who rarely gets hit cleanly and has shown he can take a pretty good shot when he does get caught. Adding to his advantages, he’s 6’2″and has a reach of 75″, four inches taller and three inches longer than Abraham. In theory, Dirrell should be able to get in, connect with quick flurries — especially to the body, where Abraham’s easier to hit and where Dirrell is very good at landing solidly — then get back out and stay out of range.
What’s problematic is that Dirrell hasn’t yet passed a test against a world-class opponent, let alone someone like Abraham. He’s got tons of talent, but Dirrell won’t tell us how Abraham fares against a pound-for-pound guy, because Dirrell is too unproven to be that. Dirrell, in his last fight, lost to Carl Froch, the extremely tough but somewhat limited Brit. I personally think he got ripped off, did Dirrell, and a lot of people share that view, but some believe Froch legitimately deserved the decision. And the reason they cite is that Froch was “making the fight,” coming forward, while Dirrell was circling backward and countering. Judges sometimes don’t like that kind of thing. They didn’t like it when Dirrell fought Froch, the first top-10 168-pounder Dirrell had ever faced. And Froch isn’t as fast as Abraham, or offensively gifted, or anywhere near as good on defense. That means there’s less wiggle room.
I think this is a very difficult fight to call. Abraham can probably ensure a win on the scorecards if he starts faster than usual. He tends to do only as much as it takes. That might be good enough. On the other hand, if Dirrell can be aggressive enough for enough rounds, instead of giving the judges reason to be annoyed by his circling, he can take it on the cards. The survival part is harder, sure; Dirrell’s faced some big punchers, like Victor Oganov and Froch, but they were far clumsier and slower than Abraham, whose speed is pretty good and who’s solid technically. There are other variables: With the fight in his native Michigan, I think Dirrell’s likelier to avoid a letdown on the scorecards even if he’s a little cautious, and there’s also an intriguing sub-strategic point in whether Dirrell can effectively counterpunch Abraham since counterpunching is usually his preferred method of attack.
If I have to make a choice, I’m going with Abraham by late knockout. When in doubt, it makes sense to go with the proven commodity. But if Dirrell walks away with the decision, it will be an upset that I about half saw coming.
[The TQBR Prediction Game is in effect. Remember the rules.]