Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 Houston Boxing Awards

What a bizarre two years it has been for Houston boxing. On Jan. 1, 2015, the fourth largest city in the United States was devoid of any professional world titleholders. But by Dec. 31, 2016, there were three; all were compressed in the same division and two had identical DNA.

Houston professional boxers went 4-1 in world title fights in 2016, three of which involved the same above-mentioned genetic makeup. Right beneath the world championship stage, there was a hive of activity with a multitude of Bayou City prospects and contenders clamoring to get to or remain there. Some were more successful than others but all made dramatic marks in either reaching or falling short of their goals.

Many of this year's awards came so compellingly close to the wire that some ended in a tie and a runner-up had to be declared in each category. Two new awards, Trainer of the Year and Event of the Year, were also included in 2016.

And the awards go to:

Fighter of the Year
Jermall Charlo

Last year's winner outdid himself and the other contenders in 2016 to walk away with the award for the second year running. In May, Jermall Charlo, Jermell Charlo and Erislandy Lara became early frontrunners for this award when they all overcame tough challenges in world title fights on the same card. But Jermall ended the year with a stroke of pugilistic genius that propelled him past the rest of the competition.

Impressive enough as Charlo's victory was against Austin Trout, it paled in comparison to his next title defense seven months later against Julian Williams. Charlo (25-0, 19 KOs) dropped Williams (22-1-1, 14 KOs) in the second round with a perfectly-timed jab but Williams held his own, rocking and socking Charlo with clean punches throughout.

But as both fighters were fighting on even terms, Charlo upped his game in the fifth and executed a catch-and-counter that dropped Williams face first to the canvass. It was a maneuver virtually unprecedented on the world stage given the level of difficulty coupled with its split-second delivery. Charlo picked off an incoming right cross with his right glove and in a blink of an eye, returned fire with a right uppercut, which is one of the hardest punches to land let alone deploy as a fight-ending counter.

Charlo's body of work at this early juncture of his career speaks volumes about his potential as a future great. He has dropped and stopped opponents with every punch in the sweet science - left jab, left hook, left uppercut, right cross and right uppercut. In addition, he has scored knockdowns in three of his four title fights with a mere jab. Charlo, 26, has been almost exclusively a head hunter, though, so it'd be interesting to see if he can be equally devastating with body punches.

Runner-up: Jermell Charlo

Given his superior ring generalship and experience, Jermell Charlo (27-0, 13 KOs) was favored to beat John Jackson (20-3, 15 KOs) for a vacant world title. But the usually aggressive and brutish Jackson ventured off script to morph effectively into a stick-and-move stylist and throw Charlo off his game plan. Going into the eighth round with a five-point deficit on all three judges' cards, Charlo was forced to improvise and he did just that, stringing together a concoction of long and short punches that violently put an end to Jackson's bait-and-switch.

Honorable Mention:
Erislandy Lara
Regis Prograis
Miguel Flores

2015 winner: Jermall Charlo

Fight of the Year
Craig Baker KO8 Steve Lovett

Competition for Fight of the Year was so intense this year it could easily have been a four-way tie. But Baker KO8 Lovett topped the list on account of its level of suspense, brutal end and both fighters hailing from the Houston area.

Baker (17-1, 13 KOs) and Lovett (15-1,12 KOs) were a dead-even matchup on the tale of the tape and it pretty much played out that way in the ring. Both were similar in style, size and experience but ultimately, it was Baker's superior poise and discipline that sealed his victory.

For three rounds both fighters were equally impressive in landing stiff jabs and identical combinations. But towards the end of the fourth, a huge counter left hook dumped Baker heavily to the canvass. Lovett seized the momentum and continued to rock Baker in the fifth with solid left hooks and straight rights.

In the sixth, though, Baker began making subtle adjustments, tightening up on his defense and firing compact and calculated punches in combination. Lovett, on the other hand, kept trying to duplicate the single one-punch success he had in the fourth.

By the seventh, Lovett was beginning to unravel as Baker dominated the exchanges with cleaner, crisper shots. An accumulation of direct hits from Baker, particularly with the right uppercut, had Lovett reeling and out on his feet before Baker sent him crashing to the canvass and unable to beat the count with two seconds remaining in the eighth round.

Runner-up: Miguel Flores W10 Ryan Kielzweski

Flores vs. Kielzweski was basically a showdown between two undefeated featherweight contenders since Kielzweski's only prior defeat was daylight robbery. Kielzweski was deemed to be the superior boxer and Flores (21-0, 9 KOs) the more dangerous puncher, particularly with left hook downstairs. But for 10 action-packed rounds Kielzweski (26-2, 8 KOs) held his own in the trenches and Flores did some nifty combination punching from long range. Flores' higher punch output ultimately tipped the balance on the scorecards, earning him a hard-fought 10-round unanimous decision.

Honorable mention:
Jermell Charlo TKO8 John Jackson
Jermall Charlo KO5 Julian Williams
Erislandy Lara W12 Vanes Matiryosan

2015 winner: Edwin Rodriguez KO3 Michael Seals

Knockout of the Year
Jermall Charlo KO5 Julian Williams
Deontay Wilder KO9 Artur Szplika

The two knockouts that tied for this award, both with world titles at stake, could not be more diametrically polar. One was the result of an educated split-second reflex maneuver and the other a raw, neanderthal club-swinging exchange. While the Houston fighter emerged victorious in the first encounter, it was the Bayou City boxer who was stopped in the co-winner.

Charlo KO5 Williams

Charlo dropped Williams with a crunching left jab in the second round, but the fight was suspenseful and evenly contested throughout until its scintillating end. Midway through the fifth round, Charlo deflected an incoming right cross with his own right and instinctively returned fire with an uppercut from the same fist that dropped Williams face first to the canvass. It was a meticulously executed catch-and-counter maneuver for the ages. Williams struggled to beat the count but the fight was essentially over at that point; Charlo's follow-up flurry that put Williams down for good was basically a formality, like an inconsequential garnish to an immaculately-broiled filet mignon.

Wilder KO9 Szpilka

For eight rounds, Wilder and Szpilka were both measured and disciplined in executing their respective game plans. Wilder got the better of the exchanges on account of his superior reach and technical proficiency, but Szpilka defiantly held his own with tenacity. In the ninth round, though, both fighters inexplicably opted to hurl haymakers with reckless abandon at the exact same moment, Wilder with is right and Szpilka with his southpaw left. Spzilka's Hail-Mary missed while Wilder's landed rendering Szpilka unconscious on the canvass for several minutes.

Runner-up: Craig Baker KO8 Steve Lovett

When a fighter drops and seriously hurts the other in an even fight, it typically marks a turning point in favor the one who didn't hit the canvass. Instead, the knockdown (the first in his career) that Baker survived in the fourth round ignited a mix of composure and sense of urgency that enabled him to elevate his game to the next level. Baker didn't make the same mistakes again and foiled Lovett's follow-up assaults to stop him in the eighth in cerebral yet violent fashion.

Honorable mention:
Jermell Charlo KO8 John Jackson
Thomas Williams TKO2 Edwin Rodriguez
Eugene Hill KO2 Nick Guivas
Mason Menard TKO9 Bahodir Mamadjonov
Pablo Cruz TKO4 Lavale Wilson

2015 winner: Saul Alvarez KO3 James Kirkland

Prospect of the Year
Miguel Flores

Miguel Flores surpassed Craig Baker for Prospect of the Year as narrowly as Baker-Lovett surpassed Flores-Kielzweski for Fight of the Year. It was Flores' busier fight schedule and higher level of competition that won him the award at the finish line.

Flores (21-0, 9 KOs) went 3-0 in 2016. He was expected to defeat his first two opponents of the year, but when matched against Ryan Kielzweski (26-2, 8 KOs) in August, it was a virtual tossup. The feisty and talented Kielzweski proved to be a solid mettle detector that forced out a skill set, level of poise and adaptability that Flores never had to pull from his sleeve before.

Runner-up: Craig Baker
In his impressive come-from-behind KO of previously undefeated Steve Lovett, Baker revealed dexterity to overcome adversity, recuperative prowess and a formidable arsenal from long range and up close and personal. Baker might be the most underrated, overlooked prospect in the red-hot light heavyweight division of 2017.

Honorable mention:
Ryan Karl (13-0, 9 KOs)
David Perez (8-0, 4 KOs)

2015 winner: Regis Prograis

Round of the Year
Jermell Charlo vs. John Jackson (Round 8)
Thomas Williams vs. Edwin Rodriguez (Round 2)

Round of the Year ended in a tie between a Houston fighter who dramatically turned the tide in a fight in which he was badly losing on the scorecards, and one who was gunning for an early knockout but had the tide abruptly turned against him.

Jermell Charlo vs. Jackson (Round 8)

Jermell Charlo (28-0, 13 KOs) was thrown a curve ball when Jackson (20-3, 15 KOs), usually a seek-and-destroy fighter, unexpectedly reinvented himself as a slick boxer-counter puncher in this bout for a vacant world title. Utilizing a circle-and-ambush strategy, Jackson forced Charlo to assume the role of aggressor. Like a roadrunner against a rattlesnake, Jackson patiently picked, pecked and pitty-punched his way to a comfortable 69-64 lead after seven rounds on all three scorecards.

But Charlo took the judges out of the equation in the eighth round. At center ring, Charlo struck with a pinpoint one-two that froze Jackson in his tracks. Seizing the moment, Charlo followed up with two left hooks that sent Jackson reeling discombobulated into a corner, prompting the referee to call a halt and save Jackson from further punishment.

Williams vs. Rodriguez (Round 2)

Rodriguez, a player in the 2015 Round of the Year, was also part of this year's award. But while he came up on top of the fight in question last year, he ended up on the losing end in 2016.

Last year, Rodriguez answered the opening bell swinging with reckless abandon and dropped Michael Seals in the first round only to taste the canvass twice himself when Seals returned fire with equal ferocity. Surviving the round by the skin of his teeth, Rodriguez somehow found the guile to stop Seals in the third round.

In 2016, Rodriguez hurt southpaw Thomas Williams in the second round, and again, he went for broke in trying to knock Williams out. Williams, though, did his homework and knew Rodriguez was a sitting duck when throwing caution to the wind. He carefully covered up, reset and blasted Rodriguez to the canvass with a right hook-overhand left. 

Runner-up: Miguel Flores vs. Ryan Kielzweski (Round 10)

After nine competitive fast-paced and action-packed rounds, Flores and Kielzweski had enough left in their tanks to save the best for last. The fight was close enough that both boxers knew they had to finish strong to steal the verdict and they let their fists fly. The result was a microcosm and sped-up version of many of the previous rounds in which Flores landed the more picturesque combinations while Kielzweski connected with cleaner, harder single shots.

Honorable mention:
Jermall Charlo vs. Julian Williams (Round 5)
Deontay Wilder vs. Artur Szpilka (Round 9)
Craig Baker vs. Steve Lovett (Round 8)

2015 winner: Edwin Rodriguez vs. Michael Seals (Round 1)

Upset of the Year
Thomas Williams TKO2 Edwin Rodriguez

Rodriguez (28-2, 19 KOs) was riding an impressive four-fight winning streak since his 2014 loss to Andre Ward, while Williams (20-2, 14 KOs) was still in damage control mode following his embarrassing TKO loss to a faded Gabriel Campillo, also in 2014.

Rodriguez came out swinging wildly in the opening round, looking to decapitate with every shot, while Williams calmly covered up and stood his ground. The writing was on the wall. Rodriguez hurt Williams in the second round and daringly moved in for the kill abandoning any semblance of defense. Rodriguez was begging to be countered and Williams gladly obliged with a southpaw right hook followed by a monster haymaker left that sent Rodriguez crashing violently to the canvass.

Rodriguez beat the count on spaghetti legs as the bell sounded to end the round but the referee nevertheless opted to wave the fight over, denying him the opportunity to recover and repeat the brink-of-disaster comeback he pulled off in the 2015 Fight of the Year.

Runner-up: Justin DeLoach W8 Junior Castillo

Southpaw Castillo (12-1, 10 KOs), a 2012 Olympian from the Dominican Republic, was favored to defeat DeLoach (16-1, 8 KOs) on account of his Olympic pedigree. But the speedy and savvy DeLoach dropped Castillo twice en route to a unanimous eight-round decision.

Honorable mention:
Anna Alimardanova (Azerbaijan) W4 Virginia Fuchs at Women's World Boxing Championships
Ingrit Valencia (Colombia) W4 Virginia Fuchs at Americas Olympic Qualifier

2015 winner: Virginia Fuchs W3 (twice) Marlen Esparza at the US Olympic Trials

Comeback of the Year
Craig Baker

Baker was coming off a one-year layoff following his first career loss, a third-round TKO to Edwin Rodriguez which was widely viewed as a premature stoppage. He was pit against undefeated Steve Lovett, who by contrast, had kept himself busy by fighting five times in 2015.

Baker hit the canvass hard in the fourth round courtesy of a Lovett left hook and looked to be in trouble again in the fifth. But he braved the storm, caught his second wind and tweaked his game plan to seize control of the fight in the seventh and systematically blast Lovett away in the eighth.

Runner-up: Juan Diaz
Diaz lost to Baker in this category because, he won two fights in 2016 he was expected to win, while Baker upped his game to defeat an undefeated prospect in a 50-50 fight. Nevertheless, Diaz looked impressive in his two TKO wins in 2016 after an 18-month layoff due to a rotator cuff injury.

Honorable mention:
Junior Castillo
Medzhid Bektemirov
Radmir Akhmediyev

2015 winner: Cornelius White

Trainer of the Year:
Ronnie Shields

Ronnie Shields was 3-1 in world title fights in 2016. He started the year on a losing note when Artur Szpilka was brutally KOed by Deontay Wilder for a heavyweight title in January. But Shields rebounded strongly in May when two of his charges, Jermall Charlo and Erislandy Lara successfully defended their titles on the same card. Shields' ended the year with fireworks when Charlo scored a spectacular highlight-reel knockout against Julian Williams.

Honorable mention:
Aaron Navarro
Bobby Benton
Juan Lopez
Derwin Richards

Event of the Year:
Charlo twins make history

While twins have held world titles at the same time before, Jermall and Jermell Charlo became the first siblings born minutes apart to claim titles concurrently in the same division in the history of the sport. On the same May 21 card in Las Vegas, Jermall successfully defended his world title against Austin Trout and Jermell knocked out John Jackson to win a different version of the 154-pound crown.

Runner-up: Tie
Marlen Esparza signs with Golden Boy Promotions
Professional boxing returns to Downtown Houston

Esparza turns pro
After losing her third consecutive bout to crosstown rival Virginia Fuchs, twice in last year's Olympic Trials and in the finals of the 2016 USA Boxing nationals, Marlen Esparza, a 2012 Olympic bronze medalist has opted to go pro. She is the first female boxer to sign with Golden Boy Promotions.

Boxing back in downtown
Promoter Lou Savarese brought boxing back to downtown after a four-year hiatus when he staged a card at the Ballroom at Bayou Place on Dec.1.

See 2015 Houston Boxing Awards at:

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Charlo-Williams afterthoughts

Jermall Charlo's Catch-and-Counter KO of Julian Williams is one for the ages

Jermall Charlo's momentary lapse of sportsmanship should not detract from the masterful maneuver he executed to win the fight. The level of difficulty of the catch-and-counter Charlo used to separate Williams from his senses cannot be overstated.

It is hard enough to pull off the catch-and-counter with the same fist, let alone score a knockout with it. And the uppercut is probably the hardest punch to set up, let alone deploy as a split-second reaction counter. But it seemed almost second nature to Charlo when he blocked an incoming right cross with his right glove and instantaneously returned fire using the same hand with pinpoint accuracy to seal his victory.

The maneuver was not just brilliant, it might well be unprecedented in the history of championship-level boxing. If there are any readers out there who know of a similar catch-and-counter sequence that led to a stoppage in a major fight, please post a comment and tell us about it.

Charlo's latest victory also unveiled some other interesting qualities about the fighter:

-- When a fighter drops his opponents with a mere jab in three out of four title fights, make no mistake about it; it is the real deal. Not since Mark Breland has a fighter been able to not just stun, but seriously hurt other men of equal size with the most basic punch in boxing. Pound for pound, Charlo might have the best jab in the sport today.

-- With his latest win, Charlo has scored knockdowns and knockouts with every punch in the book - left jab, left hook, left uppercut, right cross and right uppercut. The only weapon that has yet to emerge from his arsenal is body punching.

-- He has a pretty decent set of whiskers. Charlo's punch resistance was a question mark before the Williams fight but he absorbed everything Williams landed with aplomb, unflinchingly returning fire with composure each time he was nailed by a clean shot.

-- In the process of passing the chin test, the fact that Williams was able to connect with flush punches throughout the encounter exposed the holes in Charlo's defense. Slicker, more experienced fighters the likes of Canelo, Triple G and Danny Jacobs might be able to exploit the chinks in Charlo's armor more effectively than Williams.

-- Charlo appears overly concerned about his public persona and what his opponents, the media and fans say about him. Against Williams, he was able to contain his frustrations until after the fight was over but as his stardom grows, he might find it harder to keep his emotions in check.

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