The surprises keep coming in boxing, and they simply won’t let up. Saturday’s upsets weren’t as dramatic as last weekend’s absurdity, but the two seesaw main events on HBO and Showtime presented yet more exhibits in the case for this sport’s greatness.
Victor Ortiz’ toughness, genuineness and everything else had rightly been the subject of brutal examination after he quit against Marcos Maidana two years ago, but he shook off the shame of that fight by decisioning Andre Berto in a move up to welterweight on HBO in a display of naked determination, stamina and punching power.
Orlando Salido, one of those tough contenders who couldn’t seem to get a win over an elite opponent despite repeatedly throwing scares into them, finally broke through against Juan Manuel Lopez on Showtime by scoring an 8th round stoppage against a featherweight foe who arguably was one of the 10 best boxers in the world.
And as if that wasn’t enough, there was controversy in abundance Saturday, with referees the instigators in two of Saturday’s four televised fights on the premier boxing networks. Those referees were just about the only people who didn’t cover themselves in glory, because even the losers of the main events emerged deserving some considerable measure of admiration. Both main events were sensational, producing Fight of the Year-style bouts and one surefire Round of the Year candidate.
VICTOR ORTIZ-ANDRE BERTO
There were four knockdowns in this fight (five depending on your point of view about whether Berto suffered another that was the result of either a trip or punch), distributed evenly. They came in pairs: In the 1st round, Ortiz did the damage with a left hand and a flurry that forced Berto to take a knee, and Berto returned the favor in the 2nd with his right that produced a flash knockdown. Berto very well might have never fully recovered from the first knockdown. The next three rounds belonged entirely to Ortiz, as he pounded a weary-looking Berto along the ropes.
But just when it would’ve been wise to abandon all hope for Berto, he roared back in the 6th with a right that badly hurt Ortiz. Eager to finish the job, Berto chased his wobbly opponent around the ring and got caught and dropped with another left for his troubles at the end of the round.
Berto would show flashes of life in a couple rounds thereafter — I gave him the 8th and 9th — with slick boxing, and Ortiz lost a point in the 10th for hitting behind the head. But for all the grit he showed by recovering in spots, Ortiz was simply that much more determined. He got a unanimous decision, with one judge seeing it fairly wide and the other two seeing it very close.
Right after Ortiz lost to Maidana and gave that bizarre interview where he wondered aloud whether he should be boxing for a living, I cautioned that people shouldn’t immediately assume Ortiz was through. When consensus Prospects of the Year lose in shocking upsets, they often bounce back — you don’t usually get to that level of acclaim without having some kind of steel reinforcing your resolve. But as he meandered back toward tough opposition in a cautious rebuild job, I began to question whether Ortiz’ circuitry had become permanently fried, with his last fight, a draw against Lamont Peterson, making me particularly inquisitive. He was caught between boxer and slugger, a power puncher who couldn’t figure out when to take risks, when not to and whether he even wanted to anymore.
There was never a moment in this fight where Ortiz exhibited any of this kind of central malfunction. The only moment he shied from contact was a wise one, as he tried to recover from being badly hurt by Berto in a 6th round that will be hard to beat for Round of the Year. Otherwise, he kept after Berto with wide-eyed focus, and he couldn’t be dissuaded by anything Berto did in return. While a move up to welterweight appeared to benefit his ability to take a shot, Berto is a fairly heavy hitter. This was the redemption of Ortiz, writ large.
Berto got his own taste of redemption, even in loss. An HBO favorite out of whack with his accomplishments, Berto has become one of the most unpopular fighters with hardcore fans. Early on in the fight Saturday, critics on Twitter saw Berto’s troubles as evidence that a diet of weak opponents on HBO had left him ill-prepared for this caliber of opponent (as if Ortiz was some kind of outsized killer coming in, reputationally speaking). How, then, do you explain his surges back to competitiveness? And if a boxer meets and overcomes trouble — as Berto did against Cosme Rivera and Luis Collazo — isn’t that the exact kind of preparation he needs when he next meets it? Berto’s stamina wasn’t up to snuff against Ortiz’ motor, and I suspect he might have taken Ortiz for granted in training camp. But he was in an exciting fight where he proved (if he hadn’t already) that he’s made of stern stuff. Aren’t those crucial ingredients in what we are supposed to want in a prizefighter?
I’ll happily watch the next two fights of these men because of what they did Saturday against one another. (Although maybe this now gets Berto a long overdue pay cut from HBO.) Perhaps Ortiz, with this victory, got himself in the sweepstakes for Manny Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather, with Mayweather on hand ringside. HBO’s Manny Steward even presented the possiblity that Ortiz would be competitive against them. Let’s not get carried away. But at no point since the loss to Maidana could you call Ortiz a worthy opponent for one of the two best boxers in the world. You can now.
ORLANDO SALIDO-JUAN MANUEL LOPEZ
Here’s where some of the controversial refereeing comes into play. When referee Roberto Ramirez stepped in to halt the fight, Lopez was no doubt hurt. But he was also punching back and dodging punches, a couple standards most referees use to decide whether to let a hurt fighter continue. I hate criticizing referee stoppages because I’d rather referees not be afraid to stop a fight when it’s necessary for fear of taking a beating in the court of public opinion. But this wasn’t a good stoppage by any standard, and Lopez deserved a chance to keep going as long as he was punching back and defending himself and wasn’t taking inordinate damage.
Salido, to his credit, put Lopez in that tenuous position. I had them swapping rounds through four, with Lopez fighting a bit more cautiously than we’re used to and Salido working hard to keep things competitive. In the 5th, he landed a left hook that froze Lopez’ head in midair, then dropped a heavy overhand right that put Lopez down hard. It was as badly hurt as we’ve seen Lopez in a while — he gets decked regularly, but only the late Rogers Mtagwa assault topped this in Lopez’ career.
Somehow, midway through the 6th, Lopez shook it off and began to work his way back into the fight. He even took the 7th. Remarkable stuff, really, from one of boxing’s most dramatic warriors. Salido seemed tired — he might have punched himself out some by trying to finish the show in the 6th. But he came back to life in the 8th, landing a combination that backed Juanma against the ropes and ending the sequence with the referee calling things off.
Salido’s toughness finally paid off for him in the win of his career. He was the #4-ranked featherweight, but many believed, based on his track record, that he was not in league with the men above him. Whatever the circumstances under which Lopez entered the ring and how the fight ended, Salido ability to take a punch and his relentlessness are like a metronome, and what it took for him to get this breakthrough win was to keep doing his thing and hope that he gets the right guy on the wrong night. He earned this win, no matter the asterisk of the premature stoppage.
Reports of Lopez gaining ample pounds between fights and an ongoing divorce can’t have helped Lopez here. Nor can technique that has deteriorated greatly since he first burst onto the scene against Daniel Ponce De Leon. In that fight, Lopez’ crisper, straighter punches undid the crude Mexican, as Lopez punched between De Leon’s wide blows. Saturday, the awkward Mexican punched between Lopez’ wide blows. Lopez is going to be fun no matter what, but if he wants to be fun and excellent, he needs to straighten more than a few things out.
It’s not clear where either man goes next. Maybe a rematch? I can’t help but wonder whether a fight like this — where Lopez loses to an opponent that was perceived as dangerous but that few picked to win — doesn’t damage the Lopez-Yuriorkis Gamboa significantly. There are two schools on this fight: Top Rank was wise to build this fight up slowly (the position of Top Rank and others); and that with two vulnerable, explosive fighters who weren’t going to get much bigger fighting separately, sooner is better (my position and that of others). I’m not going to claim any kind of victory with this. Maybe if Lopez comes back and avenges his loss to Salido, Lopez-Gamboa gets back on the slow track. But this was, at minimum, a bump in the road, albeit an exciting and unexpected one.
On the undercards:
- Junior welterweight Amir Khan got an easy technical decision win over Paul McCloskey on HBO, although the bout was marred by the referee stopping the fight in the 6th on a head butt-produced cut that wasn’t the worst in the world. Khan was sloppier than usual — reaching, out of balance, wide with his punches. Maybe it was nerves, maybe it was McCloskey’s unorthodox southpaw style. It wasn’t the kind of showcase Khan wanted in his return to the U.K., but he won and now he moves on. Khan wants Timothy Bradley next. So do I. It might not be a pretty fight, but it would produce a lineal, Ring Magazine champion at 140 pounds and both men are pound-for-pound talents.
- On Showtime junior lightweight prospect Luis Cruz offered some bona fides for himself as a real contender in the near future against minor TQBR favorite Martin Honorio, who gave Cruz a rough fight (isn’t that what he always does?) but got outboxed by a superior, counter-punching technician who was able to match him somewhat in the toughness department. Cruz wasn’t busy enough in the fight and it was close on one of the cards — on the other side of the spectrum, the 100-90 decision was pure home cooking, plain and simple — but before I wouldn’t have known what to think of his chances against Puerto Rican rival Rocky Martinez, his original opponent for Saturday before Honorio stepped in as a late replacement. Now, I like those chances very much.