Every other year, Australia and England meet in the world of cricket for a series known as the Ashes. It's going on now, actually, and the two countries play for an urn full of the ashes of the stumps from the first time Australia beat its colonial masters at home, which England burned because they were so cheesed off about the whole thing.
This is to say: To a domestic U.S. audience, the upcoming HBO main event Saturday between Aussie Daniel Geale (left) and Brit Darren Barker (right) is rich with context that can only be detected in those two countries. In the United States, for the layman, it's a battle between two little-known, little-televised foreigners at middleweight who might some day figure as an opponent for HBO darling Gennady Golovkin. But that interpretation underestimates the match-up. Geale and Barker are top 10 talents, two 160-pounders trying to establish themselves as authentic challengers to the middleweight crown worn by Sergio Martinez and that he might not wear much longer as his age advances. While some see it as a talent mismatch, others, primarily in G.B., see it as a potentially close bout that Barker can win.
Throw in an undercard bout from the U.K. between foreign light heavyweights Nathan Cleverly (Wales) and Sergey Kovalev (Russia) and you have a doubleheader which might not make very much sense at all if you consider HBO as an entity purely focused on ratings. This card might end up the worst-viewed card of the year for the network, because U.S. audiences have shown a proclivity for ignoring fights between foreigners that haven't much been glimpsed on HBO or Showtime before. This would be something of an injustice. The more I watch past fights from Geale, Barker, Cleverly and Kovalev, the more convinced I become that this card will generate solid drama between four quality divisional contenders. There is, no matter what some might have you believe, something enjoyable in the act of discovering who is a challenger for the title of The Man in a division and who isn't, no matter how unrecognizable those men are to a broad audience.
The thing is, HBO is and always will be in the subscription business, which is indirectly correlated to the ratings business but not dependent on it. If HBO gets two solid opponents for Golovkin or light heavyweight champ Adonis Stevenson out of this, maybe it ends up being worth it. Maybe it makes no sense for HBO to swallow a bad rating for a night if that's all there is to it. Just speaking from the standpoint of a boxing purist, I am of the view that it's worthwhile to see who's better between Geale-Barker and Clevery-Kovalev. But I also see the potential for appealing style match-ups in both battles.
DANIEL GEALE-DARREN BARKER
For this fight, the opinions seem to be divided along the lines of Brits vs. everyone else. Even the most beautiful bouquets being thrown toward Geale acknowledge that he is merely solid, though, which means that whether you think Barker wins this bout boils down to your estimation of Barker. The risk of losing is worthwhile to both men because of the money to be earned by fighting in the U.S., in Atlantic City, where I'll be ringside Saturday.
My estimation of Barker is higher than those of most non-Brits. I do think his stiff challenge to Martinez in 2011 was partially about catching an aging fighter at the right time. But I also think he showed in that fight that he could hang with the elite of his division, and that he was smart enough to disrupt the machinations of one of the most scintillating talents in the whole sport. Barker lost by 11th round stoppage when he suffered a punctured eardrum, but he demonstrated the strategic aplomb and raw ability to hang with middleweight's best.
Geale is indisputably that. He squeaked by Sebastian Sylvester and Felix Sturm on the scorecards, Sylvester more squeakish than deserved and Sturm about as squeakish as deserved. Geale is plain enough stylistically and personally, but you don't beat those two men on German soil if you don't have a bit of the "oomph" needed to beat top contenders on their home turf. There are boxers who establish themselves by winning in style, and there are those who win just enough and just often enough that they prove themselves just as — or nearly — as capable as the former crowd. Winning tells.
Some seem to have noticed, and some seem to have not, that Barker post-Martinez is approaching the sport differently. He fought Martinez in a spoiling style, which made him persona non grata in some circles, but it was the most effective strategy for dealing with a gifted speed/power combination that thrived on counterpunching. Barker was holding his own through six. If he had fought differently over those first six rounds, he might have lost in the selfsame first half. Since the Martinez loss, and since a series of injuries that sidelined him during that period, he has two 4th round stoppage wins over Kerry Hope and Simone Rotolo that point to a change in approach. In both, unlike in the Martinez bout and before, Barker was very aggressive. Hope is a semi-contender at best, Rotolo something worse, but in demonstrating the capacity for more, Barker showed he could potentially handle an aggressive style from Geale. He is still primarily right-handed, save the left hook counter; he is still primarily a head hunter; he is still very good defensively, to the point that he doesn't get hit very often unless he chooses to, such as against the light-hitting Rotolo; he is comfortable on the inside despite usually having a length advantage over his opponents; he is not as fast at 31 as I once thought he was, but he's also sitting down on his punches more and demonstrating more power. He is a rhythm fighter, as he's been deemed by U.K. broadcasters, who takes some time dialing in the range, and he might have problems with late-fight fades.
Both Geale and Barker are all-around solid technically, each with some flaws but none glaring. Geale is faster than Barker, but less powerful. He throws more punches, at least compared to pre-Martinez Barker. His style is a bit more awkward, even though he can be slick at times, because of his funky footwork. Against Sylvester, he appeared quite the slickster; against Sturm, he appeared on the clumsy side. He throws more combinations than Barker, and he is the far better body puncher. Where Barker is something of a thinker, Geale is something more the natural. Both have high guards to block against punches, Barker with his long forearms and Geale with his hunched defense, but Barker depends more on is brain and Geale more on his instincts and reflexes. Where Barker is right hand heavy, Geale is more two-fisted, and he's more comfortable on the inside than Barker, who's better there than he should be for a taller man. Geale wants to be close. Barker tolerates it.
At worst, I don't see a way this fight isn't close. I wonder about Barker's "give," not that it's easy to fight through a punctured eardrum, but he has quit before at all and he was a bit too quick on the draw in the corner of Lee Purdy in his stoppage loss to welterweight Devon Alexander. But I also see a fighter who is smart, is more tough than not, has a length advantage and power advantage and has shown signs of being able to turn up his volume and make strategic adjustments when needed. Give me Barker by split decision or close unanimous decision — Geale wins the first couple, Barker wins the majority of the rounds until late, Geale makes a late charge — and then he becomes a possible spring opponent for Golovkin.
NATHAN CLEVERLY-SERGEY KOVALEV
After his rout of Karo Murat, Cleverly had the look of a fighter who could be the future of the light heavyweight division. Then came the close, difficult win over Tony Bellew and a retraction away from halfway decent competition. In the interim, Kovalev has taken on the mantle of "future of the division" that Cleverly abandoned. Such mantles are fleeting. It could all change around Saturday.
Kovalev's promise comes mostly from his NBC Sports wins, especially from his 3rd round stoppage of top 175-pound contender Gabriel Campillo. Campillo deserved wins over a whole stupid array of 175-pounders, among them Tavoris Cloud and Beibut Shumenov. But the judges didn't like his style, or so it would seem, in the decisions. Kovalev left no doubt about who won against Campillo. There was, though, some doubt about the quality of Campillo's camp for the Kovalev fight. Yet at the same time, you can't dispute that Kovalev has other wins of note — Darnell Boone dropped him in their first meeting, as Boone is prone to doing, and Kovalev avenged the loss in style; Cornelius White is no contender, but he might be a gatekeeeper of note. Kovalev also is responsible for the death of a fellow figther, Roman Simakov, but it hasn't shown the kind of ill effects on a boxer's competitiveness it sometimes does. Point being: Kovalev has been spectacular of late, but there is cause for doubt that his sometimes-wild combination punching KO power is as fearsome as it has seemed in recent battles.
There's Cleverly, to take advantage if it is an illusion. Cleverly is far faster and far technically superior to the ragged Kovalev. Cleverly also doesn't have a problem with his chin, which withstood the strong-but-not-elite punching power of Bellew and Murat. Cleverly also is versatile enough to play hide and seek or win a dust-up, although he's better at hide and seek. As much as Cleverly might have the air of a more proven contender, Kovalev has the better win of the two, over Campillo. Is Cleverly obviously better than Campillo? That's where I get hung up on Cleverly's chances. Bellew showed more technical capability against Cleverly than Kovalev can, but Kovalev's also a harder worker than Bellew with more power.
This means I envision Kovalev winning by late KO or close decision. Whoever wins is a viable contender for the champ at 175.