So continues our marathon coverage of one of the biggest fights of 2010, Manny Pacquiao versus Joshua Clottey on March 13, culminating in a live blog on fight night. Previously: Why and how Pacquiao-Clottey matters. Next: Keys to the fight.
Everyone knows Manny Pacquiao. Not everyone knows Joshua Clottey, the man Pacquiao is fighting Saturday.
Clottey (above left against Miguel Cotto, photo by Howard Schatz) has a very good reputation, for the most part. Some boxing writers consider him one of the 20 best boxers of today, and he’s one of the top men in the welterweight division, clearly. He caught some flack for his showing at the end of the fight against Cotto, but there are a lot of people who thought he got robbed in that bout. And it wasn’t that long ago that there was a highly viable theory that Clottey was underrated, the best fighter in the division not to be recognized as one of the best.
Yet the more I look at Clottey, the less convinced I am. I’d had that thought prior to Pacquiao trainer Freddie Roach saying the same thing in the “Road to Dallas” documentary that aired Saturday (I swear! Ask the people I hung out with Saturday night, away from the television, when the documentary was airing). But that Roach said it made me feel confident about it, too. I think Clottey has become overrated.
This requires a bit of a preface, a disclaimer. I think Clottey’s a really good boxer. I think he’s a dangerous fighter for Pacquiao to take on, by virtue of his size and style. But when I look at his record and his review the video, I see a fighter who’s a full notch below the best of the best.
The best win of Clottey’s career is probably his 2008 9th round technical decision over Zab Judah. Now, Judah’s a talent. But Judah hadn’t had a win over a non-journeyman since 2005, when he knocked out Cory Spinks. Judah was ranked in the top 10 of the division at the time, but there were a lot of smart people who think he didn’t deserve to be. He’d been beaten by Floyd Mayweather, Miguel Cotto and Carlos Baldomir from 2005 to 2008. He was competitive in all of them, but Judah’s downward slide was clearly in full force. And you know what? It was a close fight, Clottey-Judah, even under the circumstances. Two judges gave Clottey the fight by a mere point.
The second best win of his career is over… well, there’s a big drop off from the win over Judah. Is it Diego Corrales, who was moving up two divisions and had the look of damaged goods? Is it Shamone Alvarez, a decent welterweight but nobody who ever really much sniffed the top 10 of the division?
You can point to the almost-wins over Cotto and Antonio Margarito, but those only go so far. Clottey couldn’t beat Cotto with one of the worst handful of cuts I’ve ever seen a boxer persevere through. Against Margarito, Clottey was doing well early before claiming hand injuries and slowing down. Clottey was ahead on the scorecards against Baldomir before being disqualified.
I’m doing something here that is reminiscent of the kind of thing I hate in boxing — systematically diminishing a fighter’s accomplishments. Honestly, you can do it with any fighter. But I’m doing it here despite fundamentally liking Clottey, and thinking he’s good. It’s only, as I said, that I think he’s a notch lower than some of the best guys.
Cotto knocked out Judah, and Floyd Mayweather beat Judah more easily than did Clottey. Margarito and Pacquiao both knocked out Cotto. There’s nobody on my pound-for-pound list whose best win is over Judah, and I don’t think there ever will be. Almost-wins count for something, but only if the boxer has a proven record of beating top competition on the scorecards or via knockout.
That’s steering us toward the root of where Clottey’s problems lie. His style, as I mentioned, is difficult, and he’s a dangerous opponent. His excellent defense, good counterpunching and rock-solid chin have made him a handful for the elite boxers he’s faced. Yet they also are part and parcel about why he hasn’t exactly excelled on the top, top level.
There’s a feeling out there that I’ve long argued against that Clottey allowed Cotto to win in the late rounds, that he somehow took his foot off the gas. In actuality, as I see it, Cotto just exploited the flaws in Clottey’s style in those late rounds. Clottey does good work behind his high guard, cutting off the ring and firing counters. But that style often requires Clottey to set his feet, wait for his opponent to punch, then return fire. Cotto, in the final couple rounds against Clottey, took advantage of that by moving and initiating contact and forcing Clottey to cover up, then moving again, preventing Clottey from planting. Clottey didn’t know what to do, so he did what he always does, which is more of the same. He didn’t give the fight away any more than any other fight he’d ever been in. His style did, with a little help from Cotto.
Judah, a less fundamentally sound boxer than Cotto, also exploited Clottey’s style. Merely by punching at Clottey, he outworked him and won rounds. Clottey’s style is economical to a fault. He doesn’t take a lot of chances, thinking defense-first the way he does, and if you can hit him and get out of the way, you can have a lot of success against him. If Judah’s footwork was better, and if he wasn’t in the midst of a career slide, and if he wasn’t inclined toward finding a way to lose despite his talent, maybe he wins that fight.
That’s another issue with Clottey: He kind of finds ways to lose or get taken out of his game, rather than fighting through it all. There’s a little bit of bitch in Clottey, at least compared to the top-notch guts of some fighters. I don’t doubt his hand injuries against Margarito, but any number of fighters routinely injure their hands and fight through it, from Mayweather to fighters who lacked Clottey’s talent, like Arturo Gatti. In the Judah fight, he winced and hammed it up when Judah landed a low blow. He spent about a half hour recovering from Cotto’s body slam. I don’t know if the disqualification against Baldomir was justified or not, but there’s a trend here, no?
What I’m trying to establish is that while I think Clottey’s a legit foe for Pacquiao, that he’s definitely worth of being top-5 at welter, that his style presents unique problems to his foes and that he’s good enough to hang with the best of the best… the best of the best he ain’t. Or, at least, he hasn’t proven himself to be in his career so far, owing to a variety of defects in his game and a dearth of wins against said best-of-the-best.
It doesn’t mean that Pacquiao beating him will be insignificant or anything like it — it’s be another huge win in a historic career. It doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t win against Pacquiao; sometimes, non-super fighters beat super fighters by virtue of the dynamic between those two fighters, and sometimes non-super fighters become super fighters with one key win.
But it’s a handicap.