Saturday, January 14th was not just a great night of boxing, it was a great night for boxing.
How good was it?
To my mind, it was the best evening of fisticuffs since…Jesus, I honestly don’t know.
In a single evening, you had contenders for round of the year, knockout of the year, and fight of the year. All from different fights. Not only that, but you had a very competitive and entertaining women’s bout that was carried live on Showtime. The type of exposure the women’s game rarely (and unfairly) sees.
Sneaking in around the dinner hour, the scrap between the highly ranked (#2 WBC Middleweight) and regarded, Ukrainian, Levgen Khytrov (14-0, 12 KO’s), and the undefeated, yet sizable underdog, New Yorker, Immanuwel Aleem (16-0-1, 9 KO’s) was expected to be a showcase for Khytrov. Aleem, coming off a draw against Demond Nicholson, had other plans.
Aleem hurt Khytrov badly in the first round and knocked him down in the third. The latter being a fabulous stanza where a badly hurt Khytrov got up off the canvas and briefly looked as if he wanted to quit. Aleem pressed his advantage and had his well hailed opponent on the brink. Then just as quickly as Aleem pulled ahead, he suddenly lost it at the close of the round when Khytorov landed a combo that had Aleem swaying against the ropes. It was a round so brutal any echoes you might have heard from Ward/Gatti fight one, round nine, were not flights of your imagination.
Khytrov followed up with a strong 4th and 5th and appeared to have the fight under tentative control. Aleem looked tired and was throwing less and less. Looking for spots to unload, while taking heavy punishment from Khytorov. Then Aleem landed a brutal right hand sending Khytorov to the canvas once again. The Ukrainian fighter rose, but a flurry of blows forced referee Eddie Claudio to stop the fight at the 1:20 mark.
The result was considered a significant upset, and perhaps it was. With your own eyes though, it looked like two evenly matched, if somewhat limited, high quality fighters who seemingly couldn’t miss each other when they threw. It was a hell of a fight, and round three will linger on in the diehard’s memory for no small amount of time.
WBO Junior Featherweight Champion Amanda Serrano (30-1-1, 23 KO’s) followed the Aleem/Khytrov war with a rugged unanimous decision over challenger, Yazmin Rivas (35-9-1, 10 KO’s). Serrano’s superior skills held off the very game Rivas to carry the 10-round fight. Perhaps more significant than the entertainment value of the fight (which was high), was the fact that this was the first women’s title fight to be held on American television since ESPN2 presented the IBA Middleweight Championship scrap between Mary Jo Sanders and Valerie Mahfood on March 30, 2007. Nearly a full decade.
Showtime has promised more femme fights going forward, and it’s good to hear. Not only is it a progressive move to televise women’s bouts, but anyone who watched the Serrano fight, the Heather Hardy bout last August, or Claressa Shields at the most recent summer Olympics would be hard pressed to argue against the quality of the matches and the fighters.
We also had us a four on the floor, drum beater of a coming out party for the electrifying 22-year-old Super Featherweight named Gervonta Davis. Davis had been storming through his previous opponents (16-0, 15 KO’s), but the level of competition was sketchy. So, as he took to the ring against undefeated IBF Champion, Jose Pedraza (22-0, 12 KO’s), there was a real question regarding whether he was ready for the step up. Was he ever. Much was made by the Showtime crew of Pedraza’s decision to fight in close against Davis, thereby neutralizing his natural height and reach advantages. While that criticism was certainly fair, it cannot take away from the gifts Davis put on display. Fast, hard hands, and a ring generalship that belied his youth was evident early on.
Davis, in with a fighter five years his senior and with fancier scalps on his resume, was never in trouble once in the fight. He methodically broke down Pedraza with work to both the head and the body, and displayed supreme confidence throughout. While ringside scorers had the fight relatively close going into the seventh round, it was already beginning to look like a matter of time well before Davis closed the show with a thunderous right hook that sent Pedraza on his back and nearly out of the ring. It was a hellacious, KO of the year quality blow that may end up being docked a few points because Pedraza was able to regain his feet just inside the count before the referee quickly, and correctly, waved off the hostilities.
Regardless, this was a true “Star is Born” moment. When Davis’ promoter, the ever-loquacious, Floyd Mayweather Jr., was asked if Davis was the future of boxing by Jim Gray in the post-fight interview, his response of “Abso-F@#$ing-lutely” was not all hype. Certainly, Davis has more to prove, but on this night, much was shown. And what was on view was glittering.
The undercard left much for the headliners to live up to. And you could be forgiven if you thought the Super Middleweight title tilt between Brit, James Degale (22-1, 12 KO’s) and Swede, Badou Jack (20-1-2, 12 KO’s) was unlikely to produce fireworks. There was every reason to believe the fight would be competitive, but what came next was much more than that.
For twelve thrilling rounds, Degale and Jack asked much of the other. Degale dropped Jack in the first with what at first appeared to be almost a slip. The replay showed better though, as the straight left Degale landed to Jack’s chin was both firm and true. After that the fight seesawed back and forth with both fighters landing heavily. As the bout wore on though, Jack’s superior activity was beginning to overtake Degale’s meaningful spurts. Jack’s steady pressure began to weaken Degale and culminated with a massive right in the final round that put the Brit down on his cheeks. Degale bravely pulled himself up and even finished the fight with an eye-catching flurry.
No one likes a draw, but the majority version the judges found was not unfair in the general sense, even if it had to be tough for Jack to swallow. Especially when you consider the bogus draw he was handed by the official scorers against Lucian Bute last April. The punch stats were clearly in Jack’s favor too, and when he matched Degale’s knockdown with his own in the twelfth, he had to be feeling good about himself going to the cards. As well, if you just based the fight on whose face looked better and who still had all his teeth, you would have chosen Jack with ease.
Still, boxing is scored round by round, and not by pure accumulation. While I had Jack by two, the result was hardly a robbery. Beyond that, both fighters gave a great account of themselves and are more appealing now than they were walking in. Jack in particular earned a great deal of respect from this viewer. He is more than I thought he was.
Speaking of pure accumulation, that’s what this night offered not only the viewer, but the sport itself. Four excellent fights. High drama. Equality. Action. Knockdowns and knockouts. Four wars and no mischief or malfeasance.
The only sour note of the evening was Floyd’s second post-fight interview, claiming his man, Jack, had been robbed. Wearing a shirt made from a table cloth pulled from a square dance mixed and a jacket that looked like a scene from Tron, the Money man claimed “This is bad for boxing when it’s all said and done.”
In more ways than one, nothing could be further from the truth.