After The Game: The Tricky Art Of Picking Winners

Predicting the future has always been a tricky task. It follows, then, that any attempt to make a buck out of such a thing would be a fraught and dangerous pastime, especially when it comes to sports. For every Herb Lambeck and Lem Banker there’s a John Daly somewhere cursing the saints amid a pile of betting slip confetti.

Throughout 2010 I cobbled together in-depth previews for over forty boxing matches, returning a successful pick rate somewhere in the neighbourhood of 75%. Whilst this was good enough to generate corn over the period, it wasn’t a great haul by any stretch of the imagination. The sad truth of the matter is that by merely siding with the betting favourite each time out, I could have weighed anchor somewhere close to that eventual tally (albeit with less profit). There’s a reason you’ll never find a bookmaker with holes in his socks.

Ever the sore loser, here follows an examination of last year’s incorrect selections. This isn’t designed to mitigate poor judgement, or to help you identify with me by wallowing in a good old bout of self-deprecation. Rather it’s a genuine crack at offering a hand to fellow dice-throwers out there who may be looking to steal a march and take a pinch from boxing’s odds makers in 2011.

1. Andre Dirrell vs Arthur Abraham (super middleweight)

The pick: “I go for Abraham to chase Dirrell down, landing an accumulation of heavy punches which will see Andre at first grinning, then running….I can see Dirrell looking for a way out of the contest after around 8 or 9 rounds yet venture he’ll hang on grimly to see the final bell after having been dominated by the sheer physicality Abraham will bring to bear…”

The reasoning: This was the first of two misfires involving Abraham thanks mainly to an overestimation of his effectiveness as a super middleweight. Looking at the outings of both men prior to this one, we appeared to have ourselves a talented boxer in Dirrell who had shown out after being roughed up by Carl Froch, and a mean spirited slugger in Abraham who tended to start slowly before steadily reeling his opponent in. If Dirrell thought Froch was rough, he was going to have nightmares with the slow burning German.

Why it all went wrong: Dirrell affects me in the same way that nails down a blackboard and country music affects others. This instantly had me pulling for Abraham, who had appeared quite the endearing skull thumper throughout the numerous Fight Camp 360 infomercials Showtime had been churning out. After witnessing the American’s shenanigans against Froch first hand there was very definitely a hankering on my part to see Dirrell straightened out.

Dirrell’s physical advantages were totally ignored. His confident demeanor during fight week was overlooked too, as was the Michigan man’s superior boxing ability and the fact he held home advantage overseas. Still, sans the outrageous ending this one could still have borne fruit.

2. Kelly Pavlik vs Sergio Martinez (middleweight)

The pick: “I fancy that Martinez will sweep the early sessions as Pavlik strives to find his rhythm…..As Kelly comes into the fight, he’ll begin finding his man against the ropes…..Despite coming down the stretch like a steam train, he’ll be unable to stop Martinez, yet he’ll do enough to nick a close points verdict after a nail biting battle.”

The reasoning: Both men were on a luckless run. Pavlik was the naturally bigger man at and the harder puncher, whilst Martinez was the swifter of the two and the more skilful. The Argentinean’s defeat at the hands of Antonio Margarito, a tall and rangy stalker, weighed heavily on the decision to switch horses at the last minute.

Why it all went wrong: This was looking pretty sound logic until a combination of events conspired to alter the fight’s final third. After Martinez swept the opening four rounds, Pavlik responded in kind by taking rounds 5 to 8. In round 9, Martinez sliced open Pavlik’s face, putting the champion into his shell whilst helping to coax out his own second wind. Martinez roared down the home straight whereas Pavlik stumbled over the line, claiming afterwards that his seeping wounds had blinded him. Whether it cost him the fight entirely is difficult to say.

3. Shane Mosley vs Floyd Mayweather (welterweight)

The pick: “Mosley can spin things his way….by landing a hurtful punch or two…..Mayweather will neither fall, nor crumble, but instead will fire back, just as he did against Corley. The second half of the contest will largely belong to Floyd…It will be the judges who I feel will knock out Floyd Mayweather. I have a feeling that Mosley will have his hand raised, perhaps controversially.”

The reasoning: It had been a while since Mayweather had signed for a bout he had a chance of losing, which grated a whole lot. Agreeing to face Mosley, even a 38-year-old version, seemed like a dangerous match in comparison, which probably inflated Shane’s threat unduly. The fact that Mayweather had engaged in an easy run of bouts sparked the idea he could be surprised (and even fold) under heavy fire. The Mosley that took apart Margarito could provide that heat.

Why it all went wrong: A classic case of overthinking one’s pick. Like a hungry dude at a buffet looking to take their merry time with things, the preview post was stretched out throughout fight week, offering cases for both men’s chances. This resulted in an overemphasis of strengths and a dizzying amount of nitpicking, which did nothing more than mask the scent.

Here again personal feelings clouded the pick. Floyd’s quite obviously difficult to love, whereas who doesn’t have a fondness for Shane Mosley? Surmising that the judges might give Mayweather a raw deal was illogical, and predicting a controversial ending was dumber again. A combination of sentimentality, bias and unfounded assumption turned this one bad.

There’s also a hefty clot of blame mud to be tossed in the direction of’s Doug Fischer who not only backed up the unlikely notion of a Mosley triumph but influenced the ridiculous amount of supposition crammed into the preview piece. Most of the time, simple is better, and if you’ve managed to figure out that one guy will win most of the rounds don’t then go all M. Night Shyamalan on yourself and predict some twisty turny ending based on nothing more than a whim.

4. Michael Katsidis vs Kevin Mitchell (lightweight)

The pick: “Whilst I wouldn’t raise an eyebrow unduly at the sight of either man hitting the deck, I fancy the bout will go to the scorecards….Mitchell can nick a close and tremendously hard fought verdict with the judges…..”

The reasoning: Mitchell was on a good little run, whereas Katsidis had been pushed hard by Californian Vicente Escobedo in his previous fight. There aren’t many promoters with timing as deft as Mitchell’s marketing man Frank Warren so when the London based matchmaker moved to import Katsidis, it was difficult not to raise an eyebrow and conclude that he had the inside track.

Why it all went wrong: Form is one thing, pedigree is another; not every rising contender manages to make the jump into world class. Despite losing both encounters, Katsidis had proven against Juan Diaz and Joel Casamayor that he could hang tough with the divisional big dogs. Presuming that Mitchell would be able to do the same based on the limited resume he’d compiled to date was a reach, and prudence is always wise in pickles such as these.

Also, despite the number of welts and scars he’d accumulated Katsidis was still only 29 with a mere 28 outings to his name. That’s a little too soon for the rubber band to have snapped.

5. Tyson Fury vs John McDermott (heavyweight)

The pick: “I’ll go with McDermott to register a huge upset and win over the distance.”

The reasoning: Alarm bells are useful allies and the crescendo which peeled out over the airwaves during fight week left those in earshot feeling like hunchbacked campanologists. Fury was away from home and was woefully heavy. He hadn’t trained correctly (by his own admission) and had severed links with respected trainer Brian Hughes just prior to the fight in order to complete “preparations” with his uncle. Add in the furore which surrounded the referee’s decision to award the first meeting to Fury and we’d wandered onto a banana skin colony.

Why it all went wrong: The ingredients were very definitely there for the upset, make no mistake. Folly came from putting the chips on McDermott, a bonafide hard luck story who almost certainly has a stash of cracked mirrors tucked away in his basement. As Fury unraveled on cue, “Big Bad” John inexplicably caved in, forever sealing his nearly man status. Even when a guy does everything possible to blow a fight, the other fellow must have the right stuff to be able to capitalise.

6. Ricky Burns vs Roman Martinez (junior lightweight)

The pick: “I’m not at all convinced he (Burns) can keep the tough little battler he faces here at bay for the full twelve rounds and whilst he may have sufficiently sturdy whiskers and enough savvy to last until the final bell, he should be well beaten in this, the biggest fight of his career.”

The reasoning: Burns had been a canny enough operator on the domestic front yet hadn’t fought anywhere close to the level of Martinez. After slipping up earlier in the year by picking Mitchell over Katsidis, it was time to side with common sense.

Why it all went wrong: There was nothing logical about Burns winning; this was truly the stuff of dreams. The Coatbridge stylist clambered off the canvas to master a wild yet fearsome adversary and if tipsters had the ability to predict nights such as these, then the sport would be a poorer hotchpotch for it. This was a golden wrong turn, one worth losing a few bob over too.

7. Rendall Munroe vs Toshiaki Nishioka (junior featherweight)

The pick: “I like Munroe to triumph on points and he can be found at a really rather terrific 13/2.”

The reasoning: After researching Nishioka, he showed as a left hand happy knockout merchant who could possibly be outworked. Munroe possessed good whiskers, was brawny for the weight and had a brilliant engine, which seemed perfect attributes for the task ahead.

Why it all went wrong: Those first three words say it all: “I like Munroe.” I was pulling for Rendall more than any other fighter last year and his working class fable was impossible not to buy into. Like Mitchell and Burns before him, Rendall’s foray into the upper reaches of his division was a leap of faith and more often than not, those things can result in the jumper finding there isn’t any water in the pool when they splash down. A higher class of resume along with home advantage should have pointed towards a Nishioka victory; pre-empting fairytales isn’t a healthy grown-up endeavour.

8. Sergio Martinez vs Paul Williams II (middleweight)

The pick: “In another entertaining battle, I pick him (Williams) to do just that (box to a disciplined decision win). He has the finer pedigree of the pair and showed in the revenge win over Carlos Quintana (the only man to have beaten him thus far) that he can make improvements second time around the block.”

The reasoning: Williams had suggested he would be better prepared this time around after a late opponent switch prior to fight one had seen Martinez step into the breach. “Maravilla” had performed superbly in that one and still went home a loser. If Williams could improve some, he could triumph again.

Why it all went wrong: Nothing Williams and trainer George Peterson said pre-fight indicated they had been working on boxing a careful, strategic fight. Williams spoke only of issuing a beating to his former foe, of punishing him and fighting harder than he had the last time they met.

Common sense dictated that Williams would be better served using his height and reach to help box his way to a repeat victory and, although fighters talk up all kinds of nonsense prior to fights, listening to what they’re saying can help figure out their likely course of action.

Williams went right at Martinez, just as he said he would, and was knocked dead. Just because you manage to figure out a man’s best method of victory doesn’t mean they will, too.

9. Carl Froch vs Arthur Abraham (super middleweight)

The pick: “I have a hunch that the more compact and direct punching of Abraham will edge him home to a tight and contentious decision win.”

The reasoning: This one was utterly perplexing until ten seconds had elapsed in the opening round. Froch had been tough but hittable; Abraham had tended to crunch anything he’d managed to hit. That was about as insightful as it got, so the “contentious win” tack allowed for some wiggle room whichever way the decision went.

Why it all went wrong: Froch had led us by the hand pre-fight by laying into Abraham’s pedigree as a super middleweight, yet there was something odd about this match which left many a decent judge wrong-footed.

The beauty of internet based betting is that you can bet “in-play.” After having no real clue who would win up unto the bell, once they came together it seemed obvious pretty quickly that Froch would triumph. The Briton, like the aforementioned Burns, also fought out of his skin, which is never easy to call.

10. Michael Katsidis vs Juan Manuel Marquez (lightweight)

The pick: “Marquez, as one might expect, has been busting up considerably of late…Katsidis will be hitting with such fury…the champion could wilt physically rather than mentally. Against the grain, I have a feeling that might well be the case, with a protesting Marquez pulled from the fray by his corner men late on.”

The reasoning: Fighters over the age of 37 rarely win a significant contest (yeah I’m onto you invisible boxing truisms). After Shane Mosley underlined the fact in bright red pen against Mayweather in May, it seemed a good time to draw a similar line under the endless ring exploits of Mr. Marquez.

Why it all went wrong: Once more this pick was tinged by a longing for the fight to go one particular way (the Aussie’s) and hinged on an idea that Marquez might suddenly age mid-fight. Whilst Marquez was prone to busting up, never once had he come close to being retired in his corner, why would that suddenly change now? In addition, whilst Katsidis had been competitive in his two most significant fights to date, he’d ultimately fallen short, which, as is so often the case, would be the way the cards fell once again.

To wrap, then:

* Being unable to suppress the leanings you have as a fan is a killer. Deciding that a fighter has a chance and then hoping like hell they’ll go ahead and seize it (because it would make you happy) can muddy the waters and misguide you into thinking you’re actually on the right horse. Become a cold fish and weigh up each fighter’s prospects without listening to feelings, hunches or unfounded intuition.

* Form can be misleading. Choose class instead. If one boxer has a pretty record but hasn’t beaten a top contender, why would they suddenly get the jump on a guy who’d shown a proven ability to mix it at the top of the tree?

* Home advantage is often overlooked. Make sure you pay heed to it yourself. It worked for Burns and Nishioka and almost had Dirrell home and dry too.

* Don’t talk yourself out of a correct pick. Keep things simple and guard against changing stances at the last minute. Overthinking can bamboozle you out of the win.

* Even if a guy sets himself up to lose, make sure his opponent has enough ability to allow karma to do its thing.

* Listen closely to each man’s fight plan and don’t project what you feel a fighter should do onto their patter — try to determine what they’re likely to do instead.

Finally, accept that you can’t win ‘em all. Disqualifications, injuries, off nights and heroic efforts can all leave you dead in the water, but look at it this way: Excitement comes from seeing the unexpected.

Besides, nobody likes an affluent know-it-all.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board ( He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.