Archive for April, 2013

A latecomer to the pros

A latecomer to the pros

By George Ogier 

On Saturday night in Sheffield one of British amateur boxing’s most famous names takes what could be his last swing at professional success. The former Olympic champion Audley Harrison faces American puncher Deontay Wilder on the undercard of Amir Khan’s fight with Julio Diaz.

Plenty of column inches and internet forums have been devoted to the subject of Harrison’s failure to convert successfully to the pro game. In the city that is the home of GB amateur boxing it really is Audley’s final opportunity to make a dent in the rankings of the paid world.

Another boxer who is no stranger to Sheffield and the GB set up is London 2012’s boxing team captain Thomas Stalker. After failing to win a medal in the summer games Stalker took the decision to hang up the head guard and sign with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom team. However, three fights into his professional journey and many are starting to question whether Stalker has what it takes to fulfil his ambition and become a world champion.

Tom Stalker came to boxing late, only entering a gym at the age of 18. In spite of these tardy beginnings Stalker became one of the most successful amateur fighters this country has ever seen. ABA, European and Commonwealth titles were added to his CV as the Liverpudlian chased the big one, gold at a home Olympic games.

Stalker went into the Olympics as the AIBA ranked no. 1 light welterweight in the world. Controversy dogged Tom’s time at London 2012 with him being on both ends of disputed decisions. Some people felt that Stalker had been the benefactor of some generous judging in his round of 16 contest against Manoj Kumar. Conversely Stalker’s fans were furious when in the resulting quarter-final it was decided that Tom had lost a close fight to Mongolia’s Munkh-Erdene Uranchimeg.

The disappointment of London 2012 gave Stalker little appetite to put in another four years of preparation for Rio 2016. The opportunity to turn pro was there and cashing in on fame generated by the games was too big an offer to turn down.

In the past, decorated amateurs have turned professional in a blaze of publicity but for Tom Stalker the switch has been reasonably low-key. In an interesting twist Stalker made his professional debut at York Hall, fighting just before Audley Harrison’s recent Prizefighter triumph.

That night Stalker’s fans turned a corner of East London into a Liverpudlian enclave, all for just twelve minutes of action. Support will not be hard to come by for the popular Stalker but as a flat performance progressed the crowd matched it with a deflated atmosphere.

Stalker’s less-than-stellar showing against Kristian Laight was understandable. A first professional fight in front of a raucous crowd would make even the hardiest of souls nervous. The general feeling was that “The Captain” would improve, he just needed rounds.

Team Captain

Team Captain

Since that night in Bethnal Green Stalker has fought twice more in a short space of time. Points decision victories over Andrew Harris and Gyorgy Mizsei Jr have kept the former amateur busy but there is now a rumble of discontent from some fans over Stalker’s potential as a pro.

I watched Tom Stalker’s debut at York Hall from ringside and to be frank it was rather underwhelming. More worrying though is the fact that he doesn’t appear to have learnt anything from that experience. In Harris he faced a three fight novice with no wins and yet Harris was able to draw one round.

Mizsei Jr had lost a third of his fights against Eastern Europeans who would struggle to be recognised in their own homes and yet at times he made Stalker look silly. It is worth remembering that Tom himself is also a three fight professional novice. However, with the amateur pedigree that Stalker possesses his technical ability should be way beyond what we have seen so far.

Are we being too critical of Tom Stalker? Steve Bunce wrote recently in Boxing Monthly “It is not the job of Robert McCracken, his team and the GB funding system to prepare boxers for the professional business.” This is undoubtedly true and whilst there is often a chasm between the two codes many of the skills are clearly transferable.

One of the most disturbing things about Stalker’s time as a paid fighter is how easy he has been to hit. On Saturday it felt like every time Tom tried to move inside Mizsei Jr’s guard he was getting clipped. It all feels like it’s a bit rushed and perhaps that is at the root of the problem.

Tom Stalker is almost 29 years old and 95% of his boxing experience has been centred around the amateur sport. The cliché of “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is a well-worn one but it’s well-worn for a reason. Can Stalker learn the skills he needs to be a success in the pros? There is a feeling that the likeable Scouser may well have left it too late.

There is a counter argument that age is no barrier success. It was a mantra espoused by George Foreman as he made his comeback in the late 1980s. However Foreman was already an experienced professional and the only issue he really had was one of ring rust (and perhaps diet rust).

Stalker needs to learn and learn fast. However, the two or three years it might normally take a novice to get to domestic title level isn’t really an option here. The problem is that during Stalker’s three fights so far we have learnt that he isn’t going to slip naturally into this change of career.

In his desire to please the fans with eye-catching performances it seems like Stalker is forgetting the fundamentals that served him so well in the world of head guards and vests. It isn’t just fight to fight that Tom is forgetting these rules, it is during contests too. On Saturday Stalker’s trainer was becoming frustrated with the Liverpudlian’s seeming inability to stick to the game plan.

Another difficulty is Stalker’s apparent lack of power. You could forgive him for eating a punch or two if he was getting inside to land a knockout blow but that simply isn’t the case. Tom appears to be chasing a shot that will never come. At 28 it will be difficult to add a power game to Stalker’s armoury so he needs to box smart, something that seems like a distant dream at times.

Nobody can begrudge Tom Stalker’s desire to box in an Olympics held in his own country. Especially not when he was the world ranked no. 1 in his weight class and the team captain. Sacrifices had to be made by every fighter on the GB squad and Stalker was no difference. However, the sacrifice Stalker made to appear at those games might just be the dream of professional success.

Advertisements
There was huge anticipation for this fight

There was huge anticipation for this fight

By George Ogier

Another hotly anticipated title fight comes and goes and once again some fans are left feeling slightly flat. The hype surrounding Saturday’s contest between Nonito Donaire and Guillermo Rigondeaux had reached almost fever pitch but for many the event itself was a damp squib.

In the end Rigondeaux triumphed by unanimous decision and it was a result that most observers agreed with. Donaire struggled to deal with the Cuban’s cagey approach, finding himself on the receiving end of sharp counters for much of the night. Whilst the bout was far from a fight of the year contender are fans right to feel let down by the lack of action on such a big stage?

If you’re not going to even try to entertain, people won’t watch, won’t buy tickets and the TV nets won’t put you on”. ESPN’s Dan Rafael on Twitter

We live in an era where like never before, sport is big business. When rolling news channels became the norm sport got caught up in the need to provide constant dialogue. As a result the television networks now give us every possible news angle relating to the pastimes we love. To make this information overload palatable the networks tried to convince us all that sport is the most important thing on the planet.

One of the side effects of this change is that sport is no longer “just a game”. The win at all costs mentality filters down to the participants and it isn’t enough just to give a good account of yourself on the field or in the ring. As Tiger Woods’ latest adverts (misguidedly) tell us, winning takes care of everything.

Winning ugly has always been acceptable but now, with the huge sums of money on offer to certain teams and individuals, it has become far more prevalent. How many cup finals do we see where the teams are so terrified of making a mistake that the spectacle is thrown by the wayside? As fans we have bought into the “winning is everything” mantra peddled by the media and it now makes it difficult to complain when a sports event doesn’t live up to the hype around it. We want guaranteed victory from those we support but perhaps conversely we want to be entertained at the same time.

However, in spite of all this, was Guillermo Rigondeaux’s performance so bad? I don’t think so. El Chacal didn’t break the rules, he didn’t use spoiling tactics. In Nonito Donaire, the Cuban faced one of the biggest punchers in any weight division. Can we blame Rigondeaux for not opening up? It was simply a case of Rigondeaux out-thinking Donaire. Nonito himself said, “He played a beautiful boxing game, it was my mistake for not changing up”.

This seems to be the real problem at the heart of many gripes about the fight. What we saw on Saturday was boxing, what people wanted to see was fighting. There is a reason that Hagler – Hearns and the Gatti – Ward fights top many lists of the greatest contests of all time. They were wars with real heart on the sleeve action. They were also just one facet of what I think is the greatest sport in the world.

Rigondeaux simply out-boxed Donaire

Rigondeaux simply out-boxed Donaire

Boxing is ostensibly about the art of hitting your opponent and not getting hit. Guillermo Rigondeaux displayed both skills excellently on Saturday night. He came out on top in all the CompuBox stats against Donaire and deserved to win. In total, Rigondeaux landed 129 of 396 punches thrown while Donaire connected with just 82 of 352.

If we compare these statistics with a fight like Brandon Rios – Mike Alvarado II there’s a huge difference. Rios landed 241 of 823 punches and Alvarado managed 261 of 860. Obviously the punches thrown vary enormously but success percentages are comparable with Alvarado emerging victorious at 30% and Rigondeaux doing likewise with 33%. Most fans will say Rios – Alvarado was the better fight but I found Rigondeaux – Donaire no less compelling.

In reality it comes down to one question, should sport be viewed as entertainment? If people are going to make money selling a sporting event as a spectacle then yes. However, the entertainment should come from the struggle to succeed and not necessarily from the participants competing in a way that will please the fans. Often enough the former will result in the latter but I’m not convinced that the people involved should be held hostage to the art of entertainment.

When Guillermo Rigondeaux was growing up in Cuba I suspect that he had dreams of becoming a world champion. I am not convinced that he had dreams of getting Dan Rafael excited (that shouldn’t be anyone’s life goal). On Saturday night Rigondeaux cemented that wish. I can’t help but feel that anyone struggling to enjoy that doesn’t really like boxing, they just enjoy fighting.