By Graham Houston
It’s so much more enjoyable when the TV networks offer simply good fights rather than having an A-side attraction meeting an outclassed opponent, so, for me anyway, Saturday’s presentations by HBO and Showtime got top marks. HBO’s tape-delay show from Macau, for instance, featured Juan Francisco Estrada, Mexico’s excellent young flyweight who is emerging as one of boxing’s bright new stars, against unbeaten Filipino Milan Melindo. Flyweights on network TV? Perhaps programmers are finally realising that the little men often provide the best fights.
Although the scores were wide in favour of Estrada, I thought that this was a tense, always entertaining fight, and the boxing was of the highest quality.
Estrada showed a match-winning left jab, a jolting weapon that kept Melindo contained and piled up points, and some of Estrada’s moves and combinations really were a delight to watch. This was an even fight on all three judges’ cards after four rounds but then Estrada pulled right away from his opponent.
Melindo is a dangerous, competent fighter but in the later rounds Estrada was outclassing him. Cut over both eyes, and down in the 11th, Melindo did well to make it to the finish.
Evgeny Gradovich’s featherweight title fight with Mauricio Munoz of Argentina was one-sided arithmetically but nonetheless entertaining. Gradovich’s high punch-output and tremendous stamina makes him tough to beat — he just keeps the punches flowing, round after round, and I like the way he comes right back with piston-like punches whenever the other man seems to be coming on. It happened time after time in Saturday’s fight — Munoz would make a bit of a rally, and then Gradovich would regain the initiative almost instantly.
All right, Zou Shiming’s six-rounder was a showcase fight, but the whole Macau event was built around Shiming and I can tolerate watching a two-time Olympic gold medallist learning the ropes as a professional if two solid title bouts are the back up.
Showtime’s Knockout Kings II promotion, meanwhile, was simply outstanding — three highly entertaining fights, highlighted by 12 astonishing rounds of almost non-stop punching between lightweights Omar Figueroa and Nihito Arakawa. As one of the commentators mentioned, it seemed like a punch was being thrown every second.
I don’t think that this was a candidate for fight of the year because Figueroa was winning just about every round, but you couldn’t take your eyes off it: Figueroa had blood flowing from a cut on the bridge of the nose and one wondered if he could maintain the absolutely blistering pace for round after round. Arakawa was incredibly tough and brave, seemingly ready to “go” several times but always coming back punching, and I was glad to see the Japanese fighter at least have the satisfaction of finishing the 12 rounds.
Keith Thurman showed mental toughness and maturity in his welterweight title fight with Argentina’s dangerous Diego Chaves. Each man was capable of hurting the other and in the early rounds it looked as if the fight could go either way, but Thurman’s superior boxing technique gradually asserted itself. When Chaves went down from a left hook to the body in the ninth, the fight was essentially over, although the Argentinean fighter gamely fought back before getting overwhelmed in the 10th.
We often talk about the “old days” in boxing but the heart and the toughness of some of the fighters we saw this weekend would have fitted right into any era. Former welterweight champion Andre Berto, for instance, was brave beyond the call of duty in battling with a compromised shoulder — and almost winning — against Jesus Soto Karass. It was cruelly unfortunate for Berto that he had fought well enough, one-handedly, to be even on the scorecards after 11 rounds only to get stopped in the 12th, but all credit to Soto Karass for a gritty, determined and competent fight — it’s amazing really how Soto Karass has turned his career around after looking a semi-shot fighter just 18 months ago.
Yet while Soto Karass is a deserving fighter, there was a hint of unfairness about what we were witnessing. Soto was inflicting punishment from both sides, left and right, while Berto could fire effectively from the left side only.
In a war of attrition such as this, giving and taking, the fighter with the two-fisted firing power was always likely to be the winner.
It’s always going to be a judgment call by the corner whether or not a fighter should be pulled out. Berto dropped Soto Karass with a left hook to the body in the 11th, and if Berto had somehow managed to win the last round he would have won the fight. So, looking at the fight this way, the corner was correct to let Berto continue.
Now, I know Berto would never quit, but sometimes a fighter needs to be saved from himself. Berto was taking a lot of hard shots and he was fighting at a disadvantage. The last-round stoppage, with a battered and hurting Berto crumpling from a left hook, wouldn’t have happened had Berto been withdrawn from the fight several rounds earlier, even though he was still very much in the fight.
There is such a thing as an honourable surrender. Great old-time champions Marcel Cerdan and Willie Pep were both retired by their corners after suffering shoulder injuries in title fights.
Then again, Tyrell Biggs boxed his way to victory after suffering a broken collarbone against Jeff Sims and Danny Williams found a match-winning left uppercut against Mark Potter after suffering a dislocated right shoulder. Jesus Chavez fought from round three onwards with an injured right shoulder against Erik Morales — but Chavez was competitive when essentially restricted to using just the left jab and hook.
I just had the sense with Berto, in the brutal sort of fight in which he was engaged, that it would have been better for his long-term future for the corner to have called it a day long before the end, perhaps even after the fourth round, but these decisions are very difficult to make and a chief second is probably going to get criticised whichever choice he makes. If Berto had been retired after four rounds the fans would have been deprived of seeing what, in its way, was a classic fight. I just wonder, however, if Berto is going to be the same fighter after his third war — and one in which he was a handicapped fighter — in his last four bouts.