In boxing, "deserve" is a word with little meaning. With the right promotional connections, with the right adviser, with the right name, with the right country of origin, you can skip directly to the front of the line. This Saturday on HBO, the two A-side boxers are the recipients of boons they have not truly earned, but for opposite reasons. One is the beneficiary of all that is ugly about the sport — a spoiled, lazy child who showed no respect for the rules to get a win he did not "deserve," but who got it anyway because he had a famous father and influential godfather. The other is exemplary — fighting for a title in just his second pro fight, he has done nothing in the professional game to "deserve" such a high-caliber foe, but because of his talent, bravery and exceptional amateur record, he is getting one anyway, and it looks all the world like a truly excellent bout on the merits.
It must be said of Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., the headliner Saturday, that he did for a time rise to the level of a top middleweight contender. The famous last name got him on the map; his considerable bulk and natural punch resistance gave him a good start to build upon; and the improvement he demonstrated under trainer Freddie Roach moved him from hype to reality. He was moments away from dethroning the division's champion, Sergio Martinez in the final round of their 2012 meeting, although indicators of a lackaidaisical training camp could have robbed him of a win he might otherwise have snatched. It was his next fight that set up this one: a decision win over Brian Vera few thought he should've received, a outcome for which he needed an ever-shifting weight target and bad judging to get even that tarnished "W." This rematch will, apparently, shed light on whether a properly prepared Chavez can earn a victory outright — and whether Vera, who fought as well as ever in the first bout, can deal with Chavez at full power.
The undercard bout is more enticing, and without the foul aftertaste. In recent years, we've seen a few Cuban amateur greats, Guillermo Rigondeaux and Yuriorkis Gamboa, do battle with much more advanced competition than new pros usually tackle. But Vasyl Lomachenko, a Ukranian amateur great, is putting them to shame Saturday with his second opponent, Orlando Salido. As much as they thrived early on, both Rigo and Gamboa hit speed bumps on the road to pro acclaim, none of them as merciless to one's chassis as Salido has demonstrated he can be. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find an opponent who could be any more dangerous to a new professional. He's not a man you get rid of easily, and while he can be outboxed, the longer the fight goes, the more fearsome he gets. If Lomachenko isn't ready for life in the ring without headgear, Salido will reveal that shortcoming painfully.
JULIO CESAR CHAVEZ, JR. – BRIAN VERA II
If Chavez was going to rip off Vera, at least by giving him a rematch he snags Vera a second paycheck. When I said above that it was his name and godfather (WBC boss Jose Sulaiman, since deceased) that got him the win, I didn't mean they did so directly. Whatever was going through the minds of the judges who thought Chavez beat Vera, consciously or unconsciously they favored him, and that can be traced back to their perception of him as the fighter who ought to have won as the big name, the man with the following, the man with the institution behind him.
Ideally, Vera would be coming into this fight with the win he deserved and forcing Chavez to get even. It's not totally clear to me why this fight is happening under the circumstances, but I gather it's that Chavez couldn't be taken seriously for a harder fight without first definitively beating Vera, a fringe contender at best prior to the Chavez loss.
That's not to denigrate Vera as a fighter. He has gotten awfully far on grit and determination. He's a difficult man to wound, and he has sprung upsets on the likes of Andy Lee and Sergio Mora. Moreover, against Chavez, Vera boxed as intelligently as he ever has, actually making use of the concepts known as "head movement" and "counterpunching." Trainer Ronnie Shields practically turned him into a slickster! Vera kept the stiff-legged Chavez in the mud with constant activity — both circling the ring and throwing punches in volume. When Chavez would get close and land something, Vera would throw combinations to nullify Chavez's harder punching. Chavez did wound him at least once, but Vera recovered well.
Even at his best, Vera didn't dominate the fight — a number of fans and writers could've lived with a draw. Chavez most certainly wasn't at his best, repeatedly negotiating changes to the weight limit before settling on 173 pounds. This fight is set for 168, and there are big financial penalties should Chavez exceed it. Eyewitnesses have said Chavez looks to be in shape this week. His lead left to the body and hooking shots up top with both hands were impressive against Vera. All he needs is more of it this time and he can hurt Vera and/or win rounds more clearly. If he has trained properly, that's an achievable goal.
Vera said he's added even more wrinkles this time, and I'm inclined to believe he has. That makes me want to pick him, plus I don't like predicting winners from people with poor work habits who are saying "this time" they're ready. But the combination of a slightly improved Vera and perhaps greatly improved Chavez, along with all the same institutional backing Chavez gets, makes it hard to pick Vera. I'll go with Chavez by a narrow decision, but a less controversial (if still debatable) one.
It's like the Game of Thrones commercials HBO keeps running — just substitute out the setting of Westeros for boxing: "If you want justice, you've come to the wrong place."
VASYL LOMACHENKO – ORLANDO SALIDO
The featherweight Lomachenko made a big impression in his pro debut, and he certainly has considerable tools. He hurt Jose Ramirez to the body repeatedly, including with the shot that finished him in the 4th. He's no lumbering Eastern European — his hands are lightning fast, and he throws world class combinations with them. He does damage with a combination of power and punch placement, which is immaculate. Defensively, he has good head movement and can dodge punches with slight body adjustments. And to make everything that much trickier, he's a southpaw.
But he got hit more than I expected him to by Ramirez. He took body shots early. He also got cornered at times and hit. The abrasion on his face was evidence of the damage done. Ramirez was a fantastic opponent for his pro debut, but he hasn't exhibited any of the power or veteran savvy Salido has. If Ramirez can hit Lomachenko like that, Salido can, and we'll find out a good deal about Lomachenko's chin here.
In a lot of ways, Lomachenko is like a more offensive-minded, quicker and less cautious version of Mikey Garcia, who carved Salido up pretty well. At least, he did for a while. Salido began to get into that groove he gets into over the course of a fight. He's not a defensive wizard but he has a few tricks up his sleeve, and used timing, willpower and cleverness on both ends to work his way into the bout. If the bout hadn't been stopped due to Garcia's broken nose, we don't know whether Salido would've gotten to him.
And we don't know if Salido can do the same to Lomachenko. That's one of the things that makes this bout so fascinating. It could go any which way. Lomachenko could demolish Salido and prove he's the prodigy Top Rank clearly believes him to be, to match him this adventurously this early. Lomachenko could dominate to start, then Salido could give him the Salido treatment in a fight to the finish with a close result. Salido could prove too much, too soon for Lomachenko's pro career and stop him.
As good as Salido looked in his last fight against Orlando Cruz, though, it must be remembered that he was fighting Cruz and that he has struggled more and more frequently as he has aged. The high points are still very recent, like against Juan Manuel Lopez in 2011 and 2012 — but he has had a couple close calls, too. He also has been talking about moving up in weight for a while now, a complaint he issued again this week.
Given all this, I'll submerge my nagging notion that Salido is going to beat up Lomachenko. I expect it to look like Salido-Garcia, only with Salido getting started a bit later and Lomachenko not being as gravely threatened as a result. Lomachenko by decision.