Replacement Killers

By Andrew Harrison, Victor Ortiz became the latest rising star to hit the buffers recently, outlasted and outwilled by the game Argentine, Marcos Maidana. As boxing searches in vain for the next generation of star fighters to replace its old guard, the little acorns it badly needs to cultivate into mighty oak, are being felled before they pass the sapling stage.

Ortiz, the prospect of 2008 as voted for by Sports Illustrated joins Andy Lee, Amir Khan and Alfredo Angulo, highly touted apprentices all, whose seemingly assured surges towards the upper echelons of the sport were halted of late.. Boxing continues to provide travails as well as travels for those still journeying towards mastering its art.

‘It didn’t hit me until I was on my way to the ring,’ Ortiz said. ‘I was like, ‘Whoa.’ It just really messed with me, and I didn’t perform. … I just fought a dumb fight. I didn’t listen to my corner.’

At the beginning of last year, Detroit doyen Emanuel Steward raised eyebrows along with expectations when he claimed that his fourteen fight middleweight prospect from Limerick, Andy Lee, was already equipped to dethrone champion Kelly Pavlik.

‘In my mind, Andy is the best middleweight in the world,’ Steward offered. After just one more successful outing however, the Kronk prospect was stopped on his feet after he began to take a bit of a thumping from unfancied Texan, Brian Vera.

‘It was my own fault’ Lee reflected, ‘I didn’t listen to Emanuel’

In September of last year, 2004 Olympic stand out Khan, making his first appearance on PPV, suffered a traumatic 54 second upset defeat at the heavy hands of Columbian puncher, Breidis Prescott. Khan was blasted to the canvas within 30 seconds of the off, after electing to stand firm and trade with his brick fisted opponent.

‘Sometimes I let my heart rule my mind and it showed’ Khan lamented.

Alfredo Angulo meanwhile, touted in some quarters as the next great Mexican fighter, dropped a unanimous decision in May to former welter titlist Kermit Cintron. ‘El Perro’ fought tenaciously against the power punching Cintron, however his lack of experience saw him outhustled by the Puerto Rican, his late charge down the stretch not enough to close the gap.

‘I just couldn’t get going the way I normally do’ said Angulo.

As one ‘next big thing’ after another falls short of expectations, where are we to apportion blame, poor matchmaking perhaps? Are promotional outfits mollycoddling their prospects, or rather throwing these prospective champions to the lions too early (as would appear to be the case with Angulo)?

Just prior to losing their unbeaten records, Ortiz had notched a ledger of 24-1-1 (the defeat was a disqualification); Khan was 18-0 whilst both Angulo and Lee had tallied 15-0 slates. All four were privy to extensive amateur educations; Khan, Lee and Angulo were 2004 Olympians, Lee actually defeating Angulo 38-23 in the first round of the middleweight competition (Lee was eliminated by countback in the very next round; Khan meanwhile took silver at lightweight). Ortiz, despite losing out in the trials was still a decorated amateur (oddly losing to Khan along the way) meaning all were well versed in the sport’s fundamentals and were at around the stage that one would expect an amateur star to step up their competition level.

There is of course the theory that today’s sanitised form of amateur boxing, the tap and run method of points scoring, has robbed our young fighters of the grounding it once used to grace them with. Once over, a quality amateur pedigree established a prospect with a base which enabled them to quickly transfer their success over into the paid ranks; it also provided promoters with a handy watermark.

Consider this; the 1984 Olympic Games furnished professional boxing with Evander Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor, Mark Breland, Virgil Hill and Tyrell Biggs. Pro graduates from the Olympic crop of ’88 included Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis, Roy Jones Jr, Ray Mercer, Kennedy McKinney and Michael Carbajal. Barcelona 1992 saw the emergence of a new boxing superstar in Oscar De la Hoya along with Joel Casamayor and the Summer Games in Atlanta four years later gave us current heavyweight champ Wlad Klitschko, Floyd Mayweather Jr and Fernando Vargas.

In 2000 former HBO bigwig Lou Dibella, in a bid to emulate the success of Main Events in signing the fab five of 1984 (Whitaker, Breland, Holyfield, Taylor and Biggs), snapped up six Olympians, none of whom, unlike most of their predecessors, had managed to grab a gold medal. Ricardo Williams Jr, Clarence Vinson, Michael Bennett, Jerson Ravelo, Jose Navarro and Jermain Taylor were contracted to long term deals after Dibella stumped up a reported $2.75 million in payment fees.

‘This group is as strong as the ’84 Olympians. They just couldn’t beat the computer’ said a jubilant Dibella, referring to the much maligned amateur scoring system.

Despite Lou’s optimism, the group proved almost a complete bust. Heavyweight Bennett had an unhelpful knack for getting knocked out; Vinson, Navarro and Ravelo all picked up various defeats without ever truly threatening world class and Williams, the biggest disappointment of the lot wound up serving jail time in 2005 for drug trafficking after compiling a 10-2-0-1 record (‘Slick Ricky’ has won five straight since his release against modest opposition).

So what happened? Was this just a poor crop (save Taylor) or did the amateur programme which Dibella bemoaned fail to prepare them sufficiently for the harsh realities of the pros?

A quick progress check on those turning pro after taking gold in 2004 indicates moderate success, without notably, a single star emerging as yet. Odlanier Solis and Alexander Povetkin have attained contender status at heavyweight whilst Andre Ward has belatedly started to make strides at super middleweight. Yuriorkis Gamboa is currently on the cusp of big things at featherweight whilst compatriot Guillermo Rigondeaux has only just started out.

In the same space of time, Holyfield had already unified the cruiserweight division and had gone on to invade the heavyweights. Whitaker had taken a lightweight title, Bowe and Lewis had annexed all three major title belts at heavy, even Jones who was criticised for treading water had beaten Bernard Hopkins for his first title. 1996 team mates Floyd Mayweather, Fernando Vargas and David Reid were even quicker, the trio romping to world titles in just 45 fights combined.

Although the success of Olympic groups has regressed, the amateur system still fleshes out the professional ranks with world class fighters. Dibella’s disaster is perhaps better explained by the lucrative signing fees and instant publicity which he granted his charges. In the case of Williams at least, becoming an instant millionaire without yet throwing a punch in the pros, robbed him of his work ethic.

One look at arguably boxing’s top three rated pound for pound fighters, shows men who came up the hard way and importantly, away from the limelight. Manny Pacquiao, Juan Manuel Marquez and Bernard Hopkins avoided the special fanfare the likes of Ortiz and Khan were afforded, scrapping for paydays and exposure as they gradually carved out hall of fame careers.

There is a considerable burden placed upon these ‘sure thing’ prospects, not only to win but to look spectacular in doing so, to reveal themselves as the next ‘golden boy of boxing’. As illustrated above Lee, Khan and Ortiz all admitted to being seduced into fighting recklessly and discarding their game plans but can all three cases be attributed solely to the impetuousness of youth and inexperience? Partly perhaps, rather more likely each of them succumbed to the pressures of being pushed onto centre stage and attempting to live up to their marketing campaigns.

Khan was chastened almost instantly, Ortiz and Lee on the other hand very nearly provided explosive wins before they ran out of gas in their haste, finding themselves drawn into a battle of wills with opponents who had more appetite for that type of battle. Whether a more measured approach would have been sufficient for the paying public however is another matter.

Middleweight gold medallist from Beijing, James DeGale was roundly booed on his pro debut for having the temerity to box against his Georgian opponent rather than looking to bomb him out quickly. One has to wonder if the wrath of the spectators that night will alter DeGale’s method for future engagements, especially if he is (as Khan and Ortiz were) expected to carry a big show, to be an attraction.

Defeat is not the end of the world of course, however losing on such a grand stage could severely hinder the aforementioned quartet and the aspirations they once held for superstardom. Boxing desperately needs fresh stars in order to thrive, especially in the current climate however the sport’s powerbrokers may need to allow budding starlets to bloom in their own time and away from the bright lights, or risk losing them as they wilt under the glare.

Article posted on 17.07.2009

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