Thursday, June 29, 2006

Top 25 Heavyweights (As of July, 2006)

By JE Grant

There are only a few moves in this month’s list. Headliner Calvin Brock took a tough win over previously undefeated Timor Ibragimov and had to show some resolve in doing so. I found it surprising that many bloggers criticized his performance for being boring. Yes there were too many clinches and few booming exchanges, but Brock is proving himself solid in nearly all departments. He’s a solid “B” student in all subjects, though not especially stellar in any. Any of the alphabet titlists are going to have trouble with him.

Dominick Guinn may have finally lost his big chance. He went from showing some of the talent that was evident in the early part of his career against Audley Harrison to blowing it bigtime against Tony Thompson. We just can’t figure out what happened there.

July is shaping up to be important to the future shape of the division. Williams - Skelton will likely decide which man gets a world title shot in the very near future. It is likewise the case for the S. Ibragimov – Austin eliminator. Shannon Briggs, apparently next in line for Klitschko, may be in action in July. Also scheduled for July action are Ruslan Chagaev and Jameel McCline.

Note also that many of the heavyweights below the top 25 such as Chazz Witherspoon, Alexander Dimitrenko, Paolo Vidoz, and JD Chapman will also mix it up in July.

All-in-all a solid month upcoming for the heavyweights.

* * *

1. Wladimir Klitschko, Ukraine – IBF Champion (Last month #1) Shannon Briggs in November? That’s what we’re hearing and say what you want about Klitschko but he is certainly not avoiding big hitters in defense of his title. Briggs may be past his best day but he has been active and winning.

2. Hasim Rahman, USA – WBC Champion (Last Month #2) An August date with Oleg Maskaev awaits. Rahman will have a chance to avenge the most brutal loss on his record to date. A loss in this defense means the entire heavyweight division belongs to fighters from the former Soviet bloc nations. A win means riches are on the way.

3. Serguei Liakhovich, Belarus – WBO Champion (Last month #3) If you ever hoped that promoter Don King would really strive to unify the alphabet titles you now have all the evidence you need to make an assessment. Liakhovich is scheduled to take on Kevin McBride in August. King’s other heavyweight titlist, Nicolay Valuev is for some reason not a possibility. Liakhovich beat a legitimate top guy in Brewster and now he moves to the club circuit? What gives?

4. Lamon Brewster, USA (Last month #4) While continuing to heal from eye surgery Brewster has nothing to do but wait for a doctor’s verdict. His boxing future hangs in the balance.

5. Calvin Brock, USA (Last month #6) Beating Timor Ibragimov in June was a solid step toward a title shot. Ibragimov showed talent and toughness that caused Brock to make adjustments --- and he did so smoothly. Forget the blather of the B.A.D. crew from HBO about whether he will be a major draw with his style (could the team of Lewis-Charles-Kellermen have worse chemistry?), because if he keeps winning they will come – in droves. We can’t know how he will do against Rahman or Klitschko until he climbs into the ring. What we do know is that he belongs among the elite.

6. Chris Byrd, USA (Last month #5) With seemingly nowhere to go in the heavyweight division he could have a realistic shot at the undisputed cruiserweight belt. Wonder if he’s considering it?

7. Samuel Peter, Nigeria (Last month #7) Good money and even a better opportunity awaits when he meets James Toney. Look for this fight to be his coming out party.

8. James Toney, USA (Last month #8) "Lights Out" is risking getting his lights put out when he faces Sam Peter. He gives away size (though knowing him he may pack on 20 more pounds), power (as in he has none and Peter can blow people away), and more than a decade in age. Don't be surprised if he ends up in the third row.

9. Danny Williams, England (Last month #9) Beating Matt Skelton in July will almost certainly mean a title shot. Since losing to Vitali Klitschko, Danny has proven himself resilient against pretty good opposition. No one will steamroll him including the new crop of eastern Europeans.

10. Nicolay Valuev, Russia – WBA Champion (Last month #10) Obivously no one was shocked to see Owen Beck go down in flames against the “Beast.” Charitably we can say the selection of Beck as a first defense was unfortunate. In reality, this fight had no business being called a championship bout. If we see such matchmaking as the wave of his future as a titlist, I’ll be glad that the bouts are not shown on American TV. Come on big Nick, go for the big-time and defend against fighters who have fought their way into contention.

11. John Ruiz, USA (Last month #11) The number 1 WBA contender will probably score a rematch with Valuev even if he has no intervening fights. If we could only figure out why……

12. Sultan Ibragimov, Russia (Last month #12) Ray Austin should provide a stiff test when they meet in July. Never mind that this is some kind of eliminator, it is just a solid match with two fighters who could legitimately compete for a title some day.

13. Oleg Maskaev, Uzbekistan (Last month #13) He has the opportunity to close out the long-time American stranglehold on the heavyweight championship – despite its fractured nature – against the formidable Rahman. One last chance.

14. Shannon Briggs, USA (Last month #14) Briggs has been busy enough to have earned his chance against Klitschko, but if he comes in fat (as he did his last time out), he will get out-worked and may in fact be looking up at the lights before the night is through. He has time to get ready. Only time will tell the tale. It’s still not clear if he’ll take a July tune-up.

15. Ruslan Chagaev, Uzbekistan (Last month #15) Chagaev gets chance to make a minor addition to his tough-guy reputation when he meets British journeyman Michael Sprott in July. Sprott brings a lot of rounds of experience and may provide a test.

16. Ray Austin, USA (Last month #16) The “Rainman” gets a chance to become a “Rainmaker” if he can get past Sultan Ibragimov in July. A win will gain a lock on a title shot.

17. DaVarryl Williamson, USA (Last month #18) Still basking in his May win over formerly undefeated Mike Mollo. The 37 year-old needs to make a move soon on the big guys. He doesn’t have very many big days left in the tank.

18. Fres Oquendo, USA (Last month #19) Nothing is scheduled for Oquendo since his May win over Javier Mora. He needs activity to build his stamina. He’s likely many months away from major competition.

19. Matt Skelton, England (Last month #20) He gets one more shot at the big time when he meets Danny Williams in July. A loss mean permanent relegation to the club circuit.

20. Luan Krasniqi, Germany (Last month #21) A top rating by the loopy WBO means he’ll likely get another shot at the organization’s belt. What is the love affair the organization has with Krasniqi? He has never defeated a legitimately rated top 10 fighter. Clearly there is some talent there, but he hasn’t come through in the crunch.

21. Jameel McCline, USA (Last month #22) A quick stoppage of Marcus Rhode in June was nothing more than staying active. McCline is likely being considered by someone higher on this list as a career builder opponent. That means a big payday for “Big Time.” A return to title contention? That’s another story altogether. He’ll face Terry Smith in July.

22. Tony Thompson, USA (Last month unranked) How has this man escaped notice for this long? He dropped a decision early in his career as he amassed a 28-1 (17 KOs) record. Since then he has sprinkled in wins over Zuri Lawrence and Vaughn Bean among a list of names you’ve likely never seen before. With his big win over the hot-and-cold Dominick Guinn, however, he has undoubtedly secured a solid payday.

23. Dominick Guinn, USA (Last month #17) Oops, he did it again. In losing to Tony Thompson – who was supposed to be a mere bump in the road – he has once again deflated his career. This time it may be permanent.

24. Audley Harrison, England (Last month #23) The former gold medalist returned to the win column in June by stopping Andrew Greeley. Harrison will have to turn on the activity burner and win often against all comers. Now is the time to set things right. There is no tomorrow.

25. Monte Barrett, USA (Last month #24) Has the man retired? We’re closing in on a year of inactivity and 16 months since he last won.

Prospects, fringe contenders, and others who need mentioning listed in no particular order. Don’t read the fact that they are listed here as an indication a ranking is imminent. Regular readers should also note that I’ve taken off some names that were here in months past but who still rate attention, such as Roman Greenberg and Tye Fields. I’m trying to highlight activity and when such fighters have bouts scheduled you’ll likely see them reappear:

Joe Mesi, USA (Last month #25) – Maybe I was just a little too quick to put Baby Joe back into the top 25. His win over the now 3-8 (1 KO) Stephane Tessier was troubling despite the fact that it was a shutout. Mesi was exceedingly slow, oh-so-easy to hit, and he also seemed a bit gun-shy. He’ll need to improve dramatically if he wants to be seen as a viable contender again.

Paolo Vidoz, Italy – Many viewers of this column in the boxing blogs and websites have thrown stones at me (figuratively, thankfully) for not listing the “Titanium Jaw.” The 35 year-old gets a chance to show his wares in July against the once-beaten Vladimir Virchis in defense of his European title.

Eddie Chambers, USA – My special enclave of heavyweight watchers tell me it’s time to get this 26-0 heavweight mentioned in the same breath with contenders for the throne. His June thrashing of middle-of-the-road journeyman Ed Mahone coupled with a decision over Robert Hawkins last fall, means there may be some fire under the smoke. He’s also only 24 years old. He can’t be far away from taking on a solid name fighter.

Chazz Witherspoon, USA – A TV fight on Showtime in July provides him an opportunity to showcase his abilities. Little does he know how quickly popular he can become by being impressive. America awaits a return to prominence. Is this the guy?

Alexander Dimitrenko, Ukraine –The giant, undefeated 23 year old will be return to action in July. No opponent has been announced.

Alexander Povetkin, Russia – The promising Russian broke down and stopped Livin Castillo on the Valuev-Beck undercard. Despite having only an 8-0 record, perhaps he should be the Russian with a title belt.

Timor Ibragimov, Uzbekistan – He showed a bit of skill and some heart in his loss to Calvin Brock. He also came up short in overall ability. If he can’t get some more kick in his punch, he’ll remain relegated to the second tier. Nevertheless, he’ll be tough to get past for anyone.

Gonzalo Omar Basile, Argentina – Now 23-1 (his only loss was in his pro debut), Gonzo has won 9 fights in 2006 alone. The only drawback for the 32 year-old, however, is that he has not met any heavyweight that resembles a “name” in the division. It will take big step up in opposition for us to gauge his talent.

J.D. Chapman, USA – Trained by the cerebral Jeff Mayweather (yet another Floyd Jr. relation in the game), the youngster is busy. He’ll be back in the ring in July. Though now 23-0, he has some much to learn; but at 23 years old he has some time to gain experience.

Malik Scott, USA – Set for a July date with James Walton on the Baldomir-Gatti undercard. Hopefully we see the youngster in with a stiff test soon. He’s now 24-0 (10 KOs) and has gone to decision in each of his last five bouts.

Kevin McBride, Ireland – He’s apparently a lock for Serguei Liakhovich in August. Hopefully Liakhovich ends the embarrassment early. The WBO is trying to gain respect among the alphabets. Note to WBO: This won’t do it for you. (Yes, I realize that gaining respectability among the alphabets is not an especially high bar).

Jean Francois Bergeron, Canada – A June win over Andy Sample (KO 1) doesn’t really show us much. With his name I’m assuming French is his first language. Please forgive my French --- I’m trying to convince the 32 year old that it is time to get going: Combattre une allumette importante de boxe maintenant.

Denis Boytsov, Russia – Yet another Russian star may be emerging here. The 20 year-old is now 14-0 (14 KOs). He is young enough to have plenty of time to prove he is the real thing. He is still maturing and filling out his frame. He weighed a career high 216 his last time out.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

So far it just ain’t so, Joe

MONTREAL – Former top heavyweight contender Joe Mesi continued his brain injury-stalled career scoring a 6-round decision over Stephane Tessier Friday night.

Despite winning a near-shutout, Mesi was far from impressive in almost any respect. His 3-7 opponent Tessier was ponderous, almost impossible to miss, and a winner by knockout only one time in his career. He also lost his previous five fights in a row.

Mesi in the past was noted for quick hands, high volume, and continuous pressure, all of which helped him amass a 29-0 (25 KOs) record and a top rating.

That 29th bout, however, changed everything. Enroute to winning a 10-round decision over one-time cruiserweight titlist Vassily Jirov, he narrowly escaped a knockout loss as he twice peeled himself off the canvas to barely escape with the nod.

Of course it is now well known that after the bout he was diagnosed with a brain injury that resulted in a nationwide medical suspension.

After court action that threw the suspension out, he was granted a license in Puerto Rico where he returned to action after a two-year layoff to win an 8-round decision over 40-something Ron Bellamy in April.

In an attempt to stay busy and avoid possibly hostile boxing commissions, Mesi took his show on the road to Montreal.

Apparently Tessier was not the originally selected opponent, but what was important for Mesi was simply to get back into the ring to work him back into boxing shape.

He has a very long way to go.

Against Tessier, Mesi was clearly overweight at 239. He was also very slow-fisted, almost as easy to hit as the slow-moving Canadian, and more than a tad bit tentative.

Of course some will say that he was never in trouble and the bout was never in doubt. And, why should it have been? Mesi is now 31-0, and Tessier slips to 3-8.

Perhaps it is unfair and too early to decide that Mesi’s comeback is doomed, but he gave no indication that he is on an upward glide-path. He was heavier in this bout than he was against Bellamy --- and 12 pounds heavier than he was against Jirov two years ago.

It could be that a trip to Mackie Shilstone’s miracle factory in New Orleans is in order. Mesi certainly needs the boost.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Taylor-Wright: A young champion ventures past Hopkins’ era

By JE Grant

Jermain Taylor’s stock has risen tremendously in the run-up to his defense of his middleweight championship against Ronald “Winky” Wright and not for anything he’s done lately.

You see, Taylor’s two close struggles with the ancient wonder Bernard Hopkins has to be viewed through the prism of Hopkins’ crushing win over the consensus number one fighter in light-heavyweight division Antonio Tarver.

So comprehensive was Hopkins’ win that he captured all but one round and the outcome of the bout was never in doubt. The vaunted punch of Tarver did not slow Hopkins or even make him go into a defense mindset.

Such a defensive posture was ever-present against the young bull Taylor. Whatever one thinks of the decisions (and there are plenty of arguments about the outcome of both bouts) it is clear that Hopkins did everything he could to avoid the sharp punching of Taylor and he took almost none of the chances necessary to pull away the judges’ collective eyes.

Against Tarver, Hopkins risked it all on numerous occasions, often leading with right hands and leaving himself open for counters – if only briefly.

Yes, there must be something different about the way young Jermain hits that led the crafty veteran Hopkins to decide on a largely survival strategy. If Tarver has a big punch, Taylor must have something much greater in order to have forced Hopkins into a cocoon.

It may very well be the case that Taylor already hits harder and faster than the either Hopkins or Tarver. Winky Wright is sure to find out.

Since the two wins over Hopkins, Taylor seems more inclined to build on his gains than rest on them.

He added Emanuel Steward and the Kronk family to his team. Multiple blistering sparring encounters in the halls that spawned Thomas Hearns, Hilmer Kenty, the McCrory brothers and many others, ensure focus and discipline that may close the gaps that remained in the young champion’s game.

Taylor has 24 rounds under his belt in his two championship bouts against the best fighter in the division for the last 12 years.

Combined with his new preparation regime this may provide a hurdle that is too high for any potential contender to clear. Any contender that is, who is unable to take the champion out of his zone. Any contender who fights conventionally and attempts to out-speed or out-punch him.

The one person who just may have the right ingredients to take him out of his zone and will not worry about trading quick punches or scoring a big knockout is his opponent Saturday night, Winky Wright.

Wright has made a career of confounding stronger opponents with a high guard from his southpaw stance. He adds to the mix a willingness to move closely to his opponent and land punches consistently while not getting pounded in return. He is not a runner.

While Taylor shoots a sharp jab and a hard, though sometimes looping, right hand, Wright may prove able to make only slight movements, block those big shots, and counter with his pesky right jab and straight lefts.

That remains the unknown variable coming in. Sure, Wright smoked past Felix Trinidad, a reputed puncher, but Trinidad was not a proven hitter at middleweight – he made his mark as a welterweight. Likewise, his twin wins over Shane Mosely represented victories over a very hard punching lightweight, turned hard punching welterweight, turned average punching junior middleweight. Chances are that Mosely would not strike fear in any of the top middleweights.

No one can expect that Wright will puncture Taylor’s grill (he hasn’t scored a knockout win in four years). To be victorious, however, he must have enough pop to keep Taylor from setting and throwing with abandon.

Power, then, is what makes this encounter interesting. Taylor has it. Wright doesn’t. How both fighters can apply their considerable talents will dictate the course of the bout.

PREDICTION: Taylor will press the bout early. While Wright will not shrink from the fight (and he will likely once again prove the sturdiness of his chin), the sting and volume of the younger champion (Taylor is 27, Wright is 34) will lead to one of two scenarios. Either Winky is overwhelmed and stays behind his high hands, or the proud former undisputed junior middleweight king attempts to outfight the young king. Either way, Wright loses. This won’t be a repeat of the master Winky teaching a lesson to the strong, though one-dimensional Trinidad. Not even close. Taylor has boxing ability and can adapt. Not that it will be easy --- and we can be glad for that. A fighter who for any reason goes to sleep against Winky will get outworked and confused. A fighter who falls behind against Winky will see desperate attempts to get back into the fight thwarted by one of the smartest ringmasters in the game today. It is possible for both or either circumstance to befall Taylor. It will be a tough fight and probably more entertaining than most of Wright’s boxing clinics. This time, however, it will be the champion dictating the fight and the tempo. Look for his jab to be the difference. Winky will very likely learn why Bernard Hopkins didn’t go into the pit with Taylor.

Taylor by decision.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Tarver-Hopkins: A light-heavyweight struggle in the twilight of greatness

By JE Grant

When Antonio Tarver, the one true light-heavyweight champion, meets Bernard Hopkins, once the true middleweight champion, Saturday night, we will witness a major event misplaced in time.

A fight that five years ago would have been a mega-event, is now relegated to simply being a major attraction. With both fighters in what has to be the final stages of stellar careers, some of the luster is gone. Fortunately for millions of pay-per-view fans both champions are dedicated to winning – a factor that often overrides the physical diminished abilities of the combatants. Just take a relook at Ali-Frazier III.

Fresh from a movie-making stint as the character Mason Dixon in the latest incarnation of the Rocky series, Tarver has endeavored to drop a significant amount of weight – as much as 50 pounds by some unconfirmed accounts – and refocus on the game that brought him his initial fame.

The southpaw champion went from credible contender to world-beater almost overnight in 2003 when he lost a highly controversial decision to then-pound for pound king Roy Jones. So brilliant was Jones that he rarely lost any part of any round. On top of that, he had most recently won a heavyweight belt.

Tarver was unmistakably different from everyone who had ventured into the world of Roy. Unafraid and totally committed to the attack, he pressed and pounded the undisputed king of boxing. Perhaps not believing their eyes, the judges allowed Jones to maintain his title reign with majority decision.

The strong effort was not lost on anyone. A much-anticipated rematch resulted in one of the most stunning finishes anyone at ringside could have imagined. Beginning with the stare down at ring center when Tarver so famously responded to the referee’s question, “do you have any excuses this time Roy?,” it was clear that the night would be different.

After a tentative opening round of their rematch, Tarver exploded on the chin of Jones in the second round and watched in wonder – with much of the sporting world – as the ten-count put the first real loss on Jones’ multi-title career.

Since that spectacular performance, a pair of classic struggles with perhaps the second best light heavyweight, Glen Johnson, as well as a rubber-match decision over Jones, has solidified his place as the top fighter in his weight class.

At 37, Tarver is in the twilight of his moneymaking campaign, and a win over Hopkins merely adds luster to an already formidable record.

It is true that at 37 we normally would not expect that Tarver would enter the ring as the youngster but the 41 year-old Hopkins gives him plenty of breathing room.

The “Executioner” has long proven his ability and willingness to maintain a high level of conditioning and resilience. After dropping his pro debut, ironically at a career high of 177 pounds, he moved to middleweight and has hovered at or near the 160-pound limit for every fight since. Even as he aged his body seemed immune from the extra pounds that usually creep aboard a fighter’s frame.

Five years of winning after that loss in his debut brought him to his next and most convincing loss, a decision to Roy Jones for a vacant middleweight belt.

For the next 12 years he would remain undefeated, win and unify the middleweight title, and successfully defend his championship 20 times. As champion he defended against greats such as Felix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya, as well as a string of also-rans. He was often criticized for opponent selection (such as his decision to face Robert Allen three times, one of which was ruled a no-contest due to injury, and the other two which were not competitive). Nonetheless he adhered to the cardinal rule for champions – win, win, win.

Win, that is, until meeting Jermain Taylor. Losing close decisions to Taylor were perhaps the first hints that his 40-something body was finally showing the effects of age. While his was very competitive in the bouts – many thought he won both – it was clear that he was not able to put punches together with as much consistency and energy as in years past.

No one would have criticized him if he simply rode into the sunset as a former champion with plenty of money, an already underway second career as a promoter, and his faculties intact. Not bad for an ex-con from the very mean streets of Philadelphia.

Of course the single-mindedness that enabled him to persevere through prison and a long climb to the world championship, continues to drive him.

It had indeed landed him an opportunity for history and prestige for the ages.

It also provides him an opportunity to go out on his shield, crushed by a bigger, younger, and much stronger puncher.

PREDICTION: In this fight it won’t be age that is served, it will be size. Tarver is likely the slower puncher of the two but he is willing to get close and occasionally throw with abandon. He has faced the stiff punches of Glen Johnson and the desperation of Roy Jones and has proven unrelenting. He even fought hard against Eric Harding despite a broken jaw. It is unlikely that the cagey Hopkins has anything in his arsenal that will keep Tarver at a distance or cause him to slow his attack. Of course Hopkins won’t go quietly into the night. He will fight hard in spots but won’t be able to sustain the kind of attack necessary to take the heat out of Tarver. When he can’t punch, however, he will prove hard to hit squarely or often. Look for a retreating Hopkins to give it a strong go but lose out to the heavy hands of Tarver. Antonio Tarver by clear decision.
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