Twice-Bitten: Felix Sturm stares down a do-or-die rematch

felix sturm03.04.07 - by Gabriel DeCrease: Felix Sturm has lost two boxing fights, and those losses, both for better and worse, are the fights that he is presently most known for. Say what you will about the how’s and why’s, but if he does not dominate in his upcoming rematch with Javier Castillejo, he will be sentenced to live out what might have been a brilliant prime in the no-man’s-land of the bottom-half of the divisional top-twenty. That, after all, is where former alphabet-soup hard luck cases go to die. Guys like Robert Allen (who will appear here again later), Howard Eastman, and Rodney Jones can tell you all about it. I think they are sailing a ghost ship somewhere out there together. Javier Castilliejo should be there to, flying a tattered, bootlegger’s banner, but he is not. Therein lies the latest sticky situation Felix Sturm finds his career troubled by.

Remember when…Oscar De la Hoya ordained himself a middleweight-contender, the boxing sanctioning bodies acquiesced without even having to be told, the matchmakers went to work, the public grew giddy with anticipation of yet another addition to the legend of the sport’s only remaining crossover star.

The levelheaded minority remembered that De la Hoya was once a heavy-handed, fleet-footed super-featherweight. They wondered if perhaps boxing middleweights might be too brawny, broad, and powerful for Oscar to handle—especially when suffering the depreciation of skills that comes with unnaturally bulking-up at a late juncture in one’s career. But, alas, the insignificant outcry of the sensible was drowned out by the sensationalism that follows De la Hoya’s celebrity wherever it happens to appear.

De la Hoya needed a title—any title would do—to up the marketability of a unification match, enrich the drama, and create the illusion of a legitimate middleweight boxing showdown with Bernard Hopkins. Hopkins, by the way, sung arpeggios of De la Hoya’s 160-pound credibility at every press-conference, and in every interview, it was, after-all a small price to pay for B-Hop to get the set-for-life payday he had been whining about being denied for a decade running.

The tune-ups were booked. Hopkins was set to whoop on poor, pitiable Robert Allen for the third time, and De la Hoya found his perfect patsy in the unheralded, under-experienced German boxing Olympian, Felix Sturm who had picked up the WBO strap via narrow split-decision over just-happy-to-be-here champ Hector Javier Velazco. De la Hoya thought he found himself a tailor-made chump handpicked from the far-reaches of Euro-obscurity. De la Hoya and his management were looking across the ocean with too many ugly, and risky, stereotypes clouding their judgment. That fight-culture from which they thought they were luring Sturm was one where nobody really dug deep and fought their heart-out. Those assumptions proved nearly-fatal.

On that night in June of 2004, Hopkins toyed with, and ultimately dispatched, Allen in an anti-climactic sparring session. Then Oscar was up to handle his end of that lucrative two-step plan. It was obvious from the outset, Sturm was not in on the secret that he was supposed to go quietly, and highlight the ease with which Oscar’s greatness could transcend the poundage between multiple weight-classes.

If I am to give a conservative and even handed report of the fight, I will say this: A bloated, immobile De la Hoya was winded starting at the end of the first-round, landed his best punches on Sturm’s elbows, and did a very bad impression of a comebacking Ray Leonard by flailing, not flurrying, in the closing seconds of each round. Sturm, on the other hand, looked a natural, well-conditioned 160-pounds, and his jab was pretty much attached to Oscar’s forehead throughout. Sturm seemed coolly in control; never rocked, never baited out of his range-finding fight plan that started with the jab and worked progressively through an impressive arsenal of punches toward short, crisp left-hands on the inside. Sturm probably deserved the fight by four-rounds. De la Hoya made an argument for himself with passable conviction whenever Sturm hit flat spots in trying to wait Oscar out.

It was no surprise that De la Hoya got the nod after the final bell. Everybody knew there were too many zeros and dollar-signs attached to the boxing mega-fight with Hopkins for Sturm to get a fair shake. Regardless, he had done the work, well, at that. And got the gift of instant credibility as a top-fighter served-up in front of millions of viewers around the globe. And all he had to do was put the leather steadily on a guy whose best work had long since been done between 130-140-pounds. The sham was mutual to a certain degree. Hoaxes abounded that night. Even Robert Allen got a little undue credit for hanging with B-Hop long as he did—when, if Hopkins so desired, Allen could have been going out on a stretcher inside three-rounds.

Nevermind the De la Hoya fiascos that came after. Sturm—who, incidentally took that misleading struggle with Hector Javier Velazco on two-days notice—went back home and began tearing through opposition that was, at worst, solid and game, and, at best, just outside the top-tier. In order, after, De la Hoya, Sturm scored wins over Robert Frazier, Hacine Cherifi, Bert Schenk, Jorge Sendra and Maselino Masoe—picking up the WBA middleweight boxing title in the process. And he looked good in every fight, even scoring a second-round knockout over then highly-touted prospect Schenk in a display of uncharacteristic punching-power. Sturm was looking like a guy who deserved a real shot at world-class middleweight opposition that was not occupying the division as a celebrity guest.

Then came the fall….

You probably remember the other Felix Sturm highlight when, in his very next fight, in July 2006, with all the wind of a string of promising victories under his wings, he was floored in the second by Javier Castillejo, who by-the-by was dominated at 154-pounds by De la Hoya and dropped in a middleweight boxing bout by an overstuffed and decidedly un-feroz Fernando Vargas, that is, Vargas 2.0, the one who has been disappointing us and producing a paucity of thrills over the last few years. I have watched Sturm v. Castillejo over-and-again. It boggles my sense of the order of the pugilistic universe. Sturm had been in with fighters as good as Castillejo before. Maybe it was just the inopportune timing of a career-defining performance from a haggard veteran. Maybe Castillejo, because of his experience, looked completely past the intimidating skills of the up-and-comer and saw the Achilles' heel.

Whatever it was, Castillejo’s pressure-oriented style got through. He was willing, and able, to absorb a technical drubbing somehow sensing that Sturm was not able to endure a few well-timed grizzly punches in close quarters. Sturm tried to knuckle-up and trade in the second and he was sent to the seat of his trunks. And this was no flash-knockdown. Sturm was rocked—slipping, unsteady on his was back from queer-street. Sturm showed class and control by controlling the boxing fight from that point on and rotating away from head-on confrontations. He threw his jab from all angles when necessary, recognizing that single, stinging jabs would not be sufficient to deter the shockingly motivated, energetic, and hard-to-tremble Castillejo. In the tenth, Sturm stopped for just a moment, against the ropes, and before he could redirect and keep moving Castillejo pounced and unleashed a flood of vicious uppercuts that caught Sturm a little more cleanly with each attempt. The points-lead the German technician had built was poured-out in that moment, like so much water on the ground.

Flash forward. The boxing fight is stopped. Sturm’s jaw is busted in-two. Castillejo has the title and the belt. And everyone begins to wonder why they gave Sturm so much credit in the first place. The questions began to fly with abandon. Was Felix really jobbed on the De la Hoya decision? How many of his opponents were overrated, over-the-hill, or untested? Was Sturm lucky to get far as he did without getting washed? Does he deserve another shot? Could he even win a rematch?

I think so. And theproof will soon be in-the-puddin’, as they say. Sturm, after a somewhat inconsequential, mildly confidence-building tune-up win over Gavin Topp, is scheduled to have a rematch with Castillejo on April 28, 2007. The Spaniard, notably, lost the title he took from Sturm in his very next fight to the unheralded, unspectacular Mariano Natalio Carrera. Castillejo lost by eleventh round technical knockout. In that fight, Castillejo, a boxing veteran of nearly 70 pro-bouts looked his old hot-and-cold self, unable to mount a strong attack without being derailed by bad timing, punching himself out, or getting whacked on his way in or out. The result was subsequently changed to a no-decision as Carrera tested positive for a weight-loss drug called Clenbuterol. Before looking into what Clenbuterol was, exactly, I hoped desperately it was a steroid. At least then I could make the unfortunate series of events more explicable as I turned my attention to pulling for Sturm in the rematch, because after all…

In short, and without too much confusing contextualizing, I think Sturm is a phenomenally well-conditioned technical boxer with the potential to be a dangerous puncher when he commits solidly, but not recklessly, to seizing an opening. He has a controlling jab and the potential to be a confident ring-general. But his chin is beatable. That means he has to recognize that vulnerability and adapt to it with a renewed devotion to self-control and the fine art of setting the pace in a fight. My personal predilection for Sturm, and probably the basis for all my hopeful boosting on his behalf comes as a reaction to seeing him—against “The Golden Boy”—fight a confident, natural, determined fight, his way, believing all the while that even when you are in the ring with a legend, you are still just two fighters—both able to lose, both able to be humbled. Sturm did all that in amidst the circus of a set up in which he was to be the fall-guy in a showboating, self-congratulating, exploration of the power of fame and recognition to rig a fight and dress a hoax up as a gladiatorial spectacle. Maybe it’s just the failed fighter in me that protests that sort of thing—maybe it’s the purist. And perhaps, maybe Sturm’s rise to the occasion against De la Hoya was his version of the upset brilliance Castillejo sprung, in turn, on him. But I don’t think so. Sturm is better than that. No Ali, perhaps, but maybe something more like Floyd Patterson—a smooth operator liable to offset the boxing odds in favor of a puncher’s chance. Still, the kid’s got the right moves.

Whatever the case, this is a crossroads boxing fight, of sorts. For Castillejo retirement looms no matter the result, and a victory might never earn him a big-time shot, or payday. On the other hand, if Sturm can really dominate Castillejo, and put his technical superiority—and the speed that seems reluctant to switch gears fluidly in that tragic first fight—to such good use that it wears down the champion, Felix can, perhaps, prove to himself that he is able to adapt to the process of learning from and overcoming the mistakes that so often leave a fighter banged-up, holding up his trunks with drawstrings instead of a title-belt, and unable to believe in his own talent. If he loses, well then he will likely have to spend crucial, potentially peak-performing years, fighting too-often or too-infrequently, on short notice, in everyone else’s backyard on the long road back to serious contention. He might well find himself in the position of pulling a Baldomir (or, humorously enough, a Castillejo), at best, unless he makes a flawless run at a title reign now. After the decision loss to De la Hoya, no matter how questionable, and the meltdown loss to Castillejo, it should be clear to Sturm that he has little or no room for error. His second chances are used up, that is, if he is looking for much more than a carreer as a fringe contender, or, worse, a trial horse.

Article posted on 03.04.2007

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