By Graham Houston
Andre Dirrell, who failed narrowly to win the WBC super middleweight title from Carl Froch in the U.K. last October, will be on home ground in Michigan when he takes on Arthur Abraham in the second-round stage of Showtime’s Super Six tournament on Saturday. Fighting at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit won’t be of much help to Dirrell, though, if he doesn’t let his hands go more than he did when losing the split decision to Froch. The Froch fight looked winnable for Dirrell but he let the British fighter bully him — and perhaps intimidate him, too. If Dirrell has learned from that experience he has a chance of winning on Saturday. It is up to Dirrell. Being elusive without throwing punches won’t get the job done.
Abraham is the favourite. He is undefeated and powerful, and the only fighter to win by KO so far in the tournament. Dirrell has the height and reach advantages and he is slicker and faster, but Abraham looks much the tougher, stronger and heavier handed of the two boxers. Dirrell’s southpaw stance (with switches to the orthodox posture) might trouble Abraham, but perhaps not for too long — “King Arthur” has a way of figuring things out and finding a way to hit and hurt his opponents.
I picked Dirrell to beat Froch and although the fight was close I thought he gave away too many rounds by being overly anxious to avoid contact. It creates a bad impression for the judges when a fighter is on his bicycle and seems more anxious not to get hit than to do the hitting. Perhaps this fight was a learning and maturing experience for the 26-year-old Dirrell. Sometimes if a boxer falls a little bit short in a big fight he can examine his performance and come back with a better showing the next time. Dirrell now seems to accept that he could — and should — have done more in the fight with Froch. We will soon find out if he can give an elevated performance.
Abraham is a highly capable and supremely confident fighter. He knows he can knock out just about anyone he can hit. His tactics will be what they were in his dramatic win over Jermain Taylor — to advance with gloves up, blocking punches on his high guard, closing the distance, keeping pressure on his opponent, and exploding into action with bursts of fast, hard punches.
Dirrell will have to be prepared to box 12 rounds at a fast pace and maintain almost constant movement while at the same time seeking to land enough punches to win rounds.
I think Dirrell might be able to do this. He now knows, after the fight with Froch, that he can go the championship distance and still have stamina in hand down the stretch. Two judges gave Dirrell the last three rounds in that fight although the 10th became a 9-9 round when the American boxer had a point deducted for holding. It was Dirrell who landed the best punch of the fight, a left hand that rocked the tough British fighter in the 10th round. If Dirrell had started fighting with a bit more conviction a bit earlier, he would most likely have won the decision. This thought might have been nagging at Dirrell in the weeks and months since the fight. He has the chance of putting things right on Saturday, and he seems mentally and physically up for the massive challenge that faces him, but we cannot know how well he will keep his form and focus when Abraham is moving tank-like in his direction.
Yet as talented and dangerous as Abraham is, there have been signs that a boxer with the right blend of speed, skill and power can beat him. Abraham tends to lose the early rounds. Taylor was doing very well against him for the first few rounds. Even the modestly talented Mahir Oral raced into an early lead on the scorecards, although this was when Abraham was having problems making weight for middleweight title defences and he was clearly conserving energy.
It is quite conceivable that Dirrell could be up on the cards after three or four rounds. Then Abraham figures to start increasing the pressure and punch-rate. It is how Dirrell responds under heavy attack that will most likely decide the fight.
If Dirrell thinks defensively and goes into a running and grabbing style, daring to punch only when he feels he can get in and get out, then Abraham will run him out of the ring and either overpower him late in the contest or take a wide win on the cards.
However, if Dirrell steels himself to fire back, to throw punches with meaning, to mix up movement with combinations and single left-hand shots of the type that briefly stunned Froch, then he can pull off the upset.
Speed and athleticism will be Dirrell’s main assets. He might be able to rattle off punches while Abraham is tucked up behind his stonewall defence — scoring points just by being busy — and then use his legs to dance away from danger. Dirrell has enough authority in his left hand to make Abraham at least show some respect. If Dirrell can duck and dodge his way through Abraham’s barrages and come back to score sharply, he can keep the German fighter from ploughing right through him. The crowd was against him in Froch’s hometown of Nottingham, but in Detroit the fans will be behind Dirrell, roaring every time he lands a punch of any significance, cheering when he makes Abraham miss, doing their best to will him to victory.
If Dirrell can put rounds in the bank early and then simply stay in the fight in a competitive way, with rounds going back and forth, he can come away with the decision.
I think that Dirrell can do it. Abraham has never met anyone with a style quite like Dirrell’s. Sometimes a fighter meets an opponent who presents what some call a “bad style match-up” for him, and my sneaking suspicion is that Dirrell might be a bad style match-up for Abraham.