Thursday, 22 December 2011

British Boxing Knocked Off The Pedestal Of Greatness

By Shane Thomas

These past two weekends have been damaging for British boxing. Starting the year with four World Champions, Britain is now down to one (although Ricky Burns should be officially confirmed as World lightweight champion in due course). Both Carl Froch and Amir Khan were dethroned in their encounters against Andre Ward and Lamont Peterson respectively. So where did Britain's two - now former - world champions go wrong?

Let's look at Khan first. The Bolton man went to Washington with many expecting him to have a comfortable defence against hometown challenger, Lamont Peterson. Khan had proven his mettle at the top level with victories over established names such as Paulie Malignaggi, Zab Judah, and the explosive Marcos Maidana (which some say was the best fight of 2010). This was set to be his last fight at light-welterweight, before moving up to welterweight, and a possible clash with Floyd Mayweather.

And it seems that he was so focused on future big money matches, he failed to see the trees for the wood. Khan started fast, repeatedly tagging Peterson in the first two rounds. But this was never going to be a quick fight, and Khan should have known this.

Lamont Peterson has a backstory that deserves his own blog post. From a young age, he was raised without any parental influence. He and his brother Anthony (also a boxer) lived on the streets of Washington as young children. From such an impecunious start to life, Lamont and Anthony's rise to such auspiciousness is an incredibly heartwarming tale. And when you've grown up on the streets (literally), taking a few punches doesn't seem that bad.

Peterson showed in previous bouts against Vcitor Ortiz and Timothy Bradley that he may not be the most skilled pugilist, but he's one of the most durable. In both fights, he was put down on the canvas, only to get straight back up again. Something of a metaphor for his life.

He upped the tempo of the contest, constantly pressuring Khan, forcing him back onto the ropes before unleashing a barrage of fierce body punches. Rather than use his speed to keep out of Peterson's reach, Khan inexplicably tried to take the American on in a slugfest. This was a treat for the watching public, as the two men traded shots in the centre of the ring. But this strategy was conducive to Peterson's strengths, rather than Khan's.

It turned out that the crucial aspect of the fight was Peterson's methods to apply pressure on Khan. He often led with his head, pushing the very boundaries of the sport's legalities. Khan responded in kind, by pushing Peterson off him as he was being forced backwards, also pushing the boundaries of what is permitted. The referee correctly adjudged Khan's action illegal and after repeated warnings, deducted him two points from the overall scorecard.

The bout ended on a split decision, with two judges giving the decision to Peterson by a single point, proving how important the deducted points were. While Khan has a case for feeling aggrieved by what he called "a hometown decision", the fact remains that he should never have let the contest become as close as it was. A fully focused Khan would probably have won comfortably, and a rematch is expected in the next few months. Despite his defeat, there's a reason why Khan will go into that as favourite.

However, there's no doubt that from Peterson's perspective, the match goes down as one of the more rousing sporting stories of the year. It put one in mind of a British boxing triumph of recent times; a high-pressure body puncher, in front of a raucous home crowd, as well as being the underdog against an established champion - anyone who watched Ricky Hatton beat Kostya Tszyu in 2005 can't fail to see the resemblance.

But if Khan was guilty of complacency, then Carl Froch's shortcomings were down to a more simple gulf in class.

Froch came up against Andre Ward in the final of the "Super Six World Boxing Classic". This was a tournament that began back in 2009, with the purpose of ascertaining the best fighter in the super-middleweight division. The competition was marred by withdrawals (mainly due to injuries) and convoluted planning, but the ends justified the means as the recognised best two men in the weight class, Froch and Ward, fought to win the tournament, as well as take the title of undisputed super-middleweight world champion.

Ward went into the fight as favourite. He was undefeated, and had won an Olympic gold medal in 2004. His path to the top was as gilded as they come. His slick, smooth style in the ring embodies the qualities that lead some to call boxing a "sweet science".

Froch on the other hand, is more of an old fashioned street-fighter. He relishes standing his ground in the centre of the ring and throwing bombs. The concept of defence is bordering on alien to the Nottingham pugilist. His guard is extremely low and he often gets hit throughout bouts. It's only his granite chin that has prevented him being knocked down more often in his career - so far only Jermain Taylor has successfully managed to put Froch on the canvas.

Many viewed the fight in Atlantic City as a boxer against a slugger. The build-up was relatively respectful, but Froch insisted on stating that Ward is a fighter who lacks power, and would be unable to knock him out. While there is truth to this statement, Froch seemed to forget that Ward never had to knock him out, just beat him.

And in one of the greatest displays of recent years, that's exactly what Ward did. The American's moniker is "S.O.G (Soldier of God)", but he wouldn't be out of place referring to himself as the "Surgeon General" from now on as he dissected Froch in 12 of the most one-sided rounds I can remember witnessing. Ward won by unanimous decision, and that two judges only awarded the fight to him by two points ranks along the best jokes I've heard in 2011. Even the third judge who gave it to Ward by eight points was probably being generous.

Those lucky enough to be in Boardwalk Hall last Saturday night bore witness to a boxing clinic. Ward did what Amir Khan failed to do the previous week, relying on his superior athleticism and hand speed to use his opponent as target practice, before retreating to a safe distance, clear from the danger of being caught with a counter-punch. Indeed, Ward was so quick and elusive that you could have been mistaken for thinking that you were watching an old Road Runner cartoon. And like Wile.E.Coyote, Froch looked lumpen, ill equipped, and ultimately hapless.

But we shouldn't wallow in Froch's failure, we should bask in Ward's triumph. There is no a fighter in the super-middleweight division that could have lived with Ward on the night. His display was near flawless, he's proven himself to be far and away the best in his weight class. And he can be named on the list of boxing's current pound-for-pound kings; Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, Sergio Martinez, Julio Cesar Chavez, and now Andre Ward.

The last fortnight - and arguably the calendar year - has given British boxing a firm reality check. Along with David Haye, Darren Barker, and maybe even Matthew Macklin & Martin Murray, Froch and Khan have been proven to be good boxers rather than great ones. And that's often more frustrating that not being any good at all.

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