The four boxers in HBO’s doubleheader on Saturday have… reputations. Some of it’s fair, some less so. In the opener, there are the two “quitters,” Nate Campbell and Victor Ortiz. Ortiz out-and-out quit against Marcos Maidana last year and hasn’t lived it down. Campbell claimed to be seeing spots from a head butt he suffered last year against Timothy Bradley, and while he didn’t quit, he did loudly make it known he couldn’t see. Amir Khan recently somewhat pouted his way out of the U.K., and made some contemptible-sounding remarks about how great it is to fight over the hill boxers — plus he’s got that shaky chin. Few have questioned Paulie Malignaggi’s heart, but nobody’s ever believed in his power, which is nonexistent. That makes Khan and Malignaggi the “wimps.”
But these boxers, they also have their redeeming qualities. It seems lately nobody has anything good to say about anyone in the sport; there is only doubt and criticism. The arc for the quitters is the reverse of the arc for the wimps. Campbell, until last year, was a borderline top-10 pound-for-pound fighter. In every fight but one where he felt his eyesight was at permanent risk, he’s been a gritty hard ass (OK, and that once, against Robbie Peden, he was stupid, but sticking one’s chin out and taking a flush punch isn’t the act of a coward). Ortiz’ heart is an open question, but in 2008, his physical gifts, boxing skills and the way he was slicing through well-regarded journeyman had made him the consensus Prospect of the Year. Khan has rebuilt a career left in shambles in 2008 after his 1st round knockout loss to Breidis Prescott, turning in a 2009 campaign that got some honorable mentions for Fighter of the Year, including via this site. Malignaggi’s career was in such disrepair in 2008 that he contemplated retiring, coming off a stoppage loss to Ricky Hatton where he was afraid to fire punches for fear of damaging his brittle hands, but in 2009 he rallied with a hero-making rant after a close loss to Juan Diaz and a clear win in the rematch.
The best part about these four boxers is that their talents help make the division they inhabit, junior welterweight, one of the best couple divisions in the sport. And they all have storylines, the good ones and bad ones above and more. Khan is the Muslim Brit of Pakistani heritage who wants to take over America, and Malignaggi is in his way. Malignaggi is the mercurial loudmouth so proud about defending his home turf of New York City that he isn’t likely to go easy. Campbell and Ortiz fight for redemption, and for contention in a deep division, with Campbell trying to restore himself as the colorful favorite of hardcore fans and Ortiz trying to prove that all that “next Oscar De La Hoya” talk from his promoter wasn’t completely off base.
VICTOR ORTIZ-NATE CAMPBELL
I find this to be the more attractive of the two bouts for the evening. Both have so much to prove. Granted, the winner may not get much credit; either Ortiz will have beaten up an old man, or Campbell will have beaten up an empty hype job. But the loser has so much to lose, so I would expect both men to fight with the urgency of an unbroken series of exclamation points.
Ortiz has rebounded with two wins since quitting in the Maidana fight. Against Antonio Diaz, he won by cutting Diaz open and forcing a stoppage, while against Hector Alatorre, he won via a sudden surge of energy in the 10th round to KO his man. Many thought Ortiz looked less-than-stellar in those fights. It’s not a reach. But what I saw was a fighter trying to adapt his style toward more technical boxing in the Diaz fight and work on his defense in the Alatorre fight. Both his defense and technical boxing skills failed him in the Maidana fight, when he swung for the fences against as pure a power puncher as there is in the sport today and nearly pulled it off early before succumbing by the middle rounds.
At his core, he’s still a very powerful, very fast specimen. When he turned it on against Alatorre, who had never been stopped despite fighting a range of solid prospects and capable veterans, it was over. He’s still better offensively than he is defensively, a converted southpaw who puts his short, compact punches together well — his jab and hooks and uppercuts with both hands are the business. He still is too easy to hit with exceptionally clean power shots, as Alatorre showed. The heart issue is the biggest one. As quickly as he ascended, so quickly did he fall. But he’s only 23. He’d had a pretty hard life as a youth. He’s faced a ton of criticism since the Maidana fight. I’m open-minded about whether that was a one-time heart failure or crippling heart disease.
Campbell, at his best, is the kind of man to test Ortiz’ heart. In his finest performances, his thrashings of Kid Diamond and Diaz, he took a couple of youngsters to the School of Hard Knocks. It may be no coincidence that neither man’s career ever fully recovered. Campbell is a mean-spirited fellow in the ring, who gets an almost sexual arousal from hurting his opponent with body punches. He can box, but he wants to grind it out. He picks off shots with his gloves, then goes right back to hammering his man to his body. His speed and power are both fine, but his best weapon has usually been his determination.
Unfortunately for Campbell, he may no longer be at his best. He’s 38, not a major issue as far as wear and tear goes since he had a late start in the sport, but 38 in boxing usually doesn’t align closely with one’s physical prime. He was good at junior lightweight and lightweight. In his one stop at 140, though, he didn’t look so hot. Maybe it was ring rust. Maybe the weight isn’t good for him. Maybe it was running into a tough, quick, stamina-rich youngster named Timothy Bradley. But he wasn’t making Bradley wilt the way he did those other youngsters, and when the 3rd round arrived and Campbell got the wrong end of a head butt, the fight was stopped shortly thereafter, a no contest. He hasn’t been in the ring since then, in August of last year. And we all know what long layoffs do to 38-year-old men, a la Shane Mosley — they may not be the reason for a loss, but they sure don’t help against younger, faster opponents.
It’s my suspicion that Ortiz’ heart failure was not a permanent condition. It’s also my suspicion that for Campbell, 140 and 38 are unlucky numbers. If Ortiz has heart disease and if Campbell is at his best can exacerbate it, but those are not the “ifs” I’m going with. I can envision Ortiz knocking out Campbell, but more likely, I think he dishes out a surgical unanimous decision.
AMIR KHAN-PAULIE MALIGNAGGI
As someone who loves speedsters, I’m somewhat looking forward to this fight, too. And both men are egomaniacs, so I don’t see either man backing down or punking out. But with Khan fighting more defensively these days and Malignaggi usually looking to counter rather than being the aggressor, this might end up being a fight with more posturing than punching. If I’m wrong and it’s more like the Naseem Hamed-Kevin Kelley fight is eerily parallels, I’ll be overjoyed. And it’s definitely the more meaningful of the two fights — Khan is ranked #3 in the division by Ring magazine, and Malignaggi is #5.
Khan possesses both the more impressive physical attributes and Olympic pedigree. He’s easily one of the fastest men in the sport, particularly of hand. He shows flashes of authentic power when he sits down on his punches rather than trying to score and move. Defensively, he has come a long, long way. He doesn’t get hit cleanly very often anymore, since he puts his gloves up following flurries rather than letting it all hang out so he can get clobbered. And his quick feet make it so he can evade when he’s being stalked.
This Khan, rebuilt by trainer Freddie Roach, turned in a stellar 2009. The old Khan charged forward recklessly, a bad move when you’ve shown that you can be rocked even by lesser punchers than the likes of Prescott. This Khan outboxed and outworked an old and blown-up lightweight version of Marco Antonio Barrera to win a technical decision. This Khan outboxed and outworked Andriy Kotelnik in the finest performance of his career to take a wide decision over a man who’d only ever lost close fights and had beaten good opponents like Maidana. This Khan dismissed unproven prospect — but mandatory title challenger — Dmitriy Salita in one round. All the while, he hid his chin capably, but you still wonder what would happen if someone hit him just right.
Malignaggi hit Diaz just right in his last fight, but didn’t follow up and knock him out. Instead, he made funny faces and wiggled. To be fair, Malignaggi probably hadn’t wobbled an opponent with a punch since he knocked down Lovemore N’dou in 2007, and he hasn’t knocked anyone out since 2003, so hurting Diaz was, for Malignaggi, probably like that Looney Tunes episode when a tiny version of Wile E. Coyote caught the regular-sized Road Runner but had to ask what to do next. Still, it was a big moment for Malignaggi in a big fight. He won it fair and square, unlike the loss against Diaz the first time around when lots of people thought Malignaggi won. In those fights, Malignaggi fought like he had a chip on his shoulder, the prime condition for Paulie to fight in, and the condition he has for this fight.
When Malignaggi isn’t motivated, he’s a light-hitting, single shot stick-and-mover, as he was against Hatton and in the rematch with N’dou. When he’s properly motivated, he puts his shots together, works his jab, outquicks and outsmarts his opponent, and relies on a good sense of spacing and nice reflexes to put on a show of what a boxer can do when he can’t hurt a fly. He hits hard enough to keep people from rushing him, but he really needs all that fancy stuff, combined with a lot of energy and determination, to win fights.
“What happens when feather fists meet glass chin?” isn’t the same kind of eternal question as “What happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object?” but it’s what we have here. The feather fists aren’t likely to hurt the glass chin, so that turns this into a matchup of boxing ability, stamina and speed. I like Khan in at least two out of those three categories, boxing ability and speed. He’s the more technically solid of the two men, with Malignaggi being a little unconventional, and the edge in speed will be something Malignaggi hasn’t dealt with before. I’m really not sure how Malignaggi wins this fight, to be honest. Khan has the power to hurt Malignaggi, but Malignaggi’s not been down for the count before against superior punchers like Hatton and Miguel Cotto, so I don’t think he’ll get hurt for good. Khan by ugly unanimous decision.
[TQBR Prediction Game 2.0 is in effect. Remember the rules.]