After months of nothingness, quality boxing returns this weekend, and it returns in style. The Showtime doubleheader Saturday features one can’t-miss bout and one that figures as a potentially nice scrap, kicking off a high-quality two-month stretch. If things break right, the card could be a healthy down payment on the reparations owed boxing fans for enduring a dismal 2010, which is not to say that we’ll be excessively grateful for getting what is rightfully ours.
The headliner, a featherweight showdown between Juan Manuel Lopez and Rafael Marquez, maps out as dynamite in every scenario but one: the young stud Lopez delivers a sad, prolonged beating against a beloved boxer in Marquez whose hard miles from multiple Fights of the Year, we discover, have caught up to him. But if Marquez has very much left at all, we’ve got a guaranteed slugfest on our hands between two boxers who punch like the dickens. Adding to the potential drama, both have an air of vulnerability, Lopez because he has been wobbled or dropped by lesser powers than Marquez and Marquez because of the aforementioned hard miles. As if that weren’t enough, it’s also an installment in the Puerto Rico-Mexico rivalry, so national pride on the line. The ingredients are there for a Fight of the Year-caliber matchup. And the winner comes away with arguably the best win of his career.
The undercard bout has a similar young gun/grizzled warrior dynamic, although it’s not an exact mirror. Super middleweight Allan Green’s heart hasn’t always matched up to his physical talent, and as such he doesn’t have the same kind of top-notch wins as Lopez. And unlike Marquez, we know the 41-year-old Glen Johnson still has something left because he just gave hell to a young opponent in his very last fight. If Johnson isn’t weight-drained from shrinking down from light heavyweight, and if Green can keep his confidence up for at least a while, we could be in for a good one. Like in the headliner, the victor has a serious professional reward on the other side: guaranteed entry into the innovative but troubled Super Six tournament.
A dueling HBO card Saturday night is less compelling. Mercurial Zab Judah makes his official return to the deep junior welterweight division against Lucas Matthysse, while mercurial lightweight Robert Guerrero faces Vicente Escobedo for some reason.
[TQBR Prediction Game is in effect, with these four fights ending the 4.0 stretch. Don’t forget the rules.]
JUAN MANUEL LOPEZ-RAFAEL MARQUEZ
It’s debatable whether Lopez beating Marquez, or Marquez beating Lopez, would be a career-best victory. Marquez — the Mexican in this edition of the rivalry — has beaten Israel Vasquez, a more accomplished fighter in his career than Lopez is now. Marquez is the biggest-name opponent of Lopez’ career, but if Marquez proves shopworn, nobody will be too impressed. But consider that Lopez — the Puerto Rican in this rivalry — inhabits this site’s pound-for-pound top 10. Then Marquez beating him this late in his career would be a triumph not unlike Bernard Hopkins’ late-career defeat of the young and acclaimed Kelly Pavlik. And consider that Marquez’ inactivity, then the absence of marquee wins since returning to the ring, is all that keeps him out of this site’s pound-for-pound top 20. If Marquez is anything like his old self and Lopez wins, Lopez gets quite a name on his resume.
There were signs in his last two bouts that Marquez was at least something like his old self. Coming off his three legendary wars with Vasquez, when those two men did things to their bodies in pursuit of victory that were borderline inhuman, there was cause for worry. After a long rest from 2008 to 2009, Marquez returned against journeyman Jose Francisco Mendoza. He looked rusty or shot early, but came on strong a couple rounds into the bout for the knockout win. Then, in a perfunctory fourth bout with Vasquez, Marquez looked fresh, aggressive and sharp against Vasquez, but the key word there is “looked” — by comparison to the very shot Vasquez, Marquez almost had to look great.
Put me in the “believer” category, but with a hefty helping of doubt. I saw signs of the old Marquez, the real Marquez, against both Mendoza and Vasquez. He appeared powerful at featherweight, a good distance from the bantamweight division where he spent most of his career and the junior featherweight division where Vasquez was evidently the bigger, stronger man of the two. He and his brother Juan Manuel Marquez put together combinations as well as anybody in the sport, and Rafael did just that in his last two fights. He also landed accurately and hurt his opponent when he connected. Marquez will never confuse anyone for a defensive fighter, but he’s good at working his jab to stultify his opponent’s offense and gets his gloves up when he cares to do so. He’s an offensive fighter, a good one, with power in both hands that he can deliver just the same to head and body. What’s at issue is whether the weak competition fertilized a false impression that Marquez was “back,” if you will.
Lopez is about as “here” as he’ll ever be. There’s no questioning his own offensive ability. Both Marquez and Lopez are versatile, intelligent boxers with power. It sounds delicious to me even as I think and type it. Lopez has shown he can fight going backwards by knocking out Daniel Ponce De Leon, that he can overwhelm an opponent with volume by stopping Gerry Penalosa and that he can slug aggressively and box patiently from one round to the next in his most recent fight by knocking out Bernabe Concepcion. Along with his knockout of Steven Luevano, those are his four best wins, and he’s been sensational in all of them.
But there are moments with Lopez where, a la Puerto Rican kinsman Felix Trinidad, he is teetering on the brink of disaster. He has defensive lapses, such as when Concepcion dropped him in the 1st round after Lopez moved in for the kill. He fought foolishly by going toe-to-toe against hard-headed Rogers Mtagwa, although he blamed his late-rounds wobble that almost ended in a knockout loss on trouble making the junior featherweight limit. This makes any potential opponent of Lopez’ who can punch very hard a live underdog. When that opponent is Marquez — who hits harder than anybody Lopez has faced, and has more technical ability to deliver those hard punches than anyone Marquez has faced — the underdoggery gets live-r.
I think it’s real, but I don’t know. I’m tempted to pick Marquez here, but he’s the physically smaller man at 5’5″to Lopez’ 5’7″ and with fewer accomplishments at 126 than Lopez. Back when Vasquez and Marquez were duking it out, before Lopez showed any of the vulnerability he’s revealed since, I would have picked Lopez to beat both of them. All things being equal, I see Lopez being a younger, bigger version of Marquez, down to the similar occasionally shaky chins and a determination to fight back when under duress. It’s almost unfathomable that if one connects solidly on the other, a vicious brawl doesn’t break out. And in that formulation, I’ll take the bigger, 27-year-old clone over the smaller, 35-year-old one, by 6th round knockout. But it’s that kind of fight where anything can happen. Those kind, you can’t miss.
ALLAN GREEN-GLEN JOHNSON
Green, 31, has alternated between spectacular, like in his knockout of Jaidon Codrington, and dogsh*t, like in his comprehensive decision loss to Andre Ward earlier this year. He has speed and power. He has a solid technical foundation — he’s neither exceptional nor awful on defense, and his long jab sets up glimmers of a skillful offense, like the patient counterpunching and measured aggression of his knockout of Carlos De Leon, Jr.
Instead of keeping Ward at the end of that long jab, Ward bullied him all over the place, and to many, myself included, Green seemed like he almost submitted. It pointed to a mental weakness that is in evidenced elsewhere in the excuses he made after the Ward loss, the lackadaisical moments against Donny McCrary where Green almost got KO’d, and the bizarre habit he showed against Edison Miranda of staring down at his own feet. At least one of his past excuses was legitimate: He did have a bunch of his colon removed after the Miranda fight, so he was actually sick. But the rest is hard to explain. He talks big, and often entertainingly, but he hasn’t beaten anyone too impressive, and twice, against Ward and Miranda, he hasn’t delivered when given the chance.
Johnson has been far more consistent. It might be his best trait, other than being a gentlemanly Jamaican. You know he’s going to come forward, throw a lot of punches and cleverly pressure weaker-willed, weaker-chinned into places in their soul they don’t want to go. His style creates action, and if you can hang with him — his power is merely good — you can edge him out on close scorecards, the way so many have, including recent opponent Tavoris Cloud. His experience far outstrips that of Green, having beaten the likes of Roy Jones, Jr. and Antonio Tarver and countless others who got a decision win in name only.
But he has shown signs of slowing down. Against Chad Dawson in their second meeting, he was helpless. It took him a while longer than usual to heat up against Yusaf Mack. His vaunted chin was dented by Cloud, and there was a stretch in the bout where Johnson actually appeared tired. Rarely do 41-year-olds move DOWN in weight, which could be his undoing. When older fighters like Oscar De La Hoya and Chris Byrd have tried it recently, it has been disastrous. While it might seem like a good sign that Johnson has been at or near (depending on which report you read) 168 pounds for a week or two, it might actually be a bad sign. De La Hoya tried to hard to get down to welterweight too quickly and it cost him, just as it could cost Johnson to be too low in weight too soon.
When the fight was signed, I thought Johnson was automatic as long as he could make weight. Green himself has acknowledged Johnson got the better of him more often than not in past sparring, and Green’s mental makeup seemed tailor-made for Johnson’s wrench-tightening style. But the weight question looms large. It doesn’t loom large enough, however, for me to gamble on the unreliable Green. Whether Johnson can knock off anyone else in this tournament, I have my doubts. But Green, yes. Johnson by unanimous decision.
ZAB JUDAH-LUCAS MATTHYSSE
Judah is finally reformed from the lazy, lawless potential-waster, if his team’s story is to be believed, by a new trainer and new promoter. He’s ready to storm the 140-pound ranks, in he waters swam by the likes of Timothy Bradley, Devon Alexander, Amir Khan, Marcos Maidana and others. We’ll see. But we might not see against Matthysse.
Matthysse is one of the maybe-powerful South Americans whose record might be inflated, might not. His brother, Walter, was most certainly powerful. The buzz on Lucas is that he’s the better boxer of the two, and from what I’ve seen, it’s accurate. I wonder about his power, though, given that his knockout of Vivian Harris was totally phony, the result of a bad stoppage. Harris, in his next fight — a real knockout loss to Victor Ortiz — looked totally shot. Why couldn’t Matthysse knock THAT guy out genuinely? Other than that, there’s not much of note on Matthysse’s record.
Judah might have slowed a touch as he’s gotten older but he’s still more physically gifted than almost anyone in the sport. You just can’t count on him. In the rematch against Cory Spinks a few years back, he put it all together, and it was a real treat. He showed toughness nobody knew he had against Miguel Cotto. Other than that, it’s been up and down. He really bothered Floyd Mayweather early, then faded. Against Joshua Clottey, he had his moments early but effectively begged out of the fight. He hasn’t beaten anyone but journeymen since the Clottey loss in 2008, although his last opponent, Jose Armando Santa Cruz, was once a lightweight contender — but was fighting at 143 pounds. Judah performed well in that fight, but Santa Cruz’ poor speed, unsuitability for the weight and widely-known general inferiority clearly hindered him there.
Judah has laid an egg or two when he takes a lightly-regarded opponent lightly, as in his shocking loss to Carlos Baldomir. You never know when Judah won’t show up at all. But that’s probably the only way he loses to Matthysse. Judah should win this one on speed alone, probably by unanimous decision.
ROBERT GUERRERO-VICENTE ESCOBEDO
The moments of Guerrero looking like The Truth are fewer and fewer these days, for causes unknown. How he got dropped by an ancient Joel Casamayor in his last fight is beyond me. But Escobedo ain’t done much other than struggle to beat an old Carlos Hernandez, although he wasn’t out of his depths completely in a loss last year to Michael Katsidis.
So what’s the point of this being on HBO? This is a a weak undercard fight on a pay-per-view card, at best. If the network and promoter Golden Boy still believe in Guerrero — and his charisma and personal story about his wife overcoming leukemia might be what they’re focusing on — put him in against somebody who’s more proven than Escobedo.
Escobedo isn’t bad, per se. He has some talent. He fights like a third-generation photocopy of the Marquez brothers and has some speed and guts, or at least he did in the bouts against Hernandez and Katsidis that I’ve seen. I don’t hold his Katsidis loss against him much. But I don’t see him posing a challenge to even the version of Guerrero who struggled against Casamayor.
I’ll take Guerrero by passionless unanimous decision. (Now watch this one turn into the fight of the night.)