Start the Insanity: Fan-Friendly Warriors Rios and Kovalev Glove Up

Photo Credit: Ed Mulholland

Photo Credit: Ed Mulholland

By Eric Raskin

Inside a 20' x 20' ring where leather-encased fists fly at your face is no place for a sane person. Stated bluntly: Everyone who pursues the sport of boxing is at least a little bit crazy. And that doesn't have to be meant in a pejorative way; "crazy" can be a term of affection or admiration. Regardless, it is undoubtedly a term that applies to anyone who punches people violently in the head and gets punched violently in the head as part of his job description. All boxers are crazy.

But even by those elevated standards, there's something about Brandon Rios and Sergey Kovalev that suggests they're both a little extra crazy.

In this case, again, "crazy" is mostly a compliment: Rios and Kovalev are both offense-minded, fan-friendly action fighters whom people tune in to watch in part because they just might have a screw loose. Rios makes no effort to conceal his craziness; he smiles like the Joker when punched, howls when his arm is raised in victory, and unfurls F-bomb after F-bomb with no regard for how many toddlers are in the room. Kovalev has a crazy streak that reveals itself more sporadically, but when you see it, you know it. For example, would a sane person grin maniacally while wearing a T-shirt featuring a picture of his own face grinning maniacally, accompanied by the words "I WILL KRUSH HIM"? Would a sane person move in for the knockout, stop for a quick groin feint, and then continue punching?

Rios and Kovalev, two of boxing's most popular whack jobs, return to the ring this Saturday in co-headlining bouts on a split-site Boxing After Dark doubleheader at 9:45 PM. But where the similarities end is with the level of danger each faces. Kovalev is a prohibitive favorite to add a 25th win to his undefeated ledger at the Revel Resort in Atlantic City. Rios is at extreme risk of suffering his third consecutive defeat at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.

At the end of 2012, Rios had a record of 31-0-1, was coming off a Fight-of-the-Year-caliber TKO of Mike Alvarado, and was simply one of the hottest commodities in boxing. But he cooled off in 2013. He lost a narrow decision to Alvarado in their rematch, dropped a not-remotely-narrow decision to Manny Pacquiao in Macao, and then got suspended for testing positive for a banned stimulant in his postfight drug test. He returns not having tasted victory in more than 21 months, and with his face-first style, he's hearing whispers that he's already on the downside at age 28.

"I know that a lot of people think I am done but I believe I am far from being finished," said Rios, a media-friendly fighter who never plays it close to the vest. "Pacquiao was a very difficult fight for me … he was just too fast."

In Diego Chaves, Rios will find himself in with an opponent who has little in common with Pacquiao stylistically, but who nevertheless presents plenty of his own challenges. The Argentine, best known to American audiences for a competitive 10th-round TKO loss to Keith Thurman last year, is a puncher/warrior from the Rios mold, with 19 knockouts among his 23 wins. The 28-year-old bounced back from his lone defeat with a quick knockout of a journeyman in Buenos Aires in February, and from the moment the Rios fight was signed, Chaves became one of the trendiest upset picks (at least, it would be an upset in terms of their respective name recognition) in recent boxing history.

Photo Credit: Ed Mulholland

Photo Credit: Ed Mulholland

"Chaves is a tough fighter and I expect a good, hard fight and one the fans will enjoy," Rios said. "I know I could have fought an easier opponent but I want to show everyone what I am still capable of doing against a top-level guy. It's do or die for me and I will do what I have to do to win this fight."

Don't expect a lot of jabbing in this welterweight 10-rounder. While Rios' career high of 107.3 punches thrown per round (against Urbano Antillon) and Chaves' career high of 107.4 (against Jorge Miranda) are unlikely to be repeated, there is definite potential for a high-output slugfest that boils down to how strong each man's chin is and whether Rios, a fierce puncher at lightweight, can carry his power with him to 147 pounds.

There are not as many questions swirling about Kovalev's fight with Blake Caparello taking place on the opposite coast. The light heavyweight known as "Krusher" is facing his third undefeated opponent in four fights, but Caparello, like Cedric Agnew before him, is taking a dramatic leap up in class against the 31-year-old Russian. Kovalev is in a neck-and-neck race with Gennady Golovkin to see which destructive force from the former Soviet Union can have a harder time convincing elite opponents to fight him; in the meantime, he's staying busy, building a fan base, and trying to say the right things.

"Blake is undefeated. I am taking him serious," said Kovalev, unbeaten with 22 KOs among his 24 victories. "I just get in to box and to win. Blake has an advantage because he is coming to get the title. He is hungry and has nothing to lose. It is my job to keep the title. More pressure on me to defend the title."

The Australian Caparello (19-0-1, 6 KOs) hopes not to follow his countryman Daniel Geale's lead and become a quick knockout victim, and to that end, he'll try to disarm Kovalev with his southpaw style. Kovalev, after all, looked slightly less monstrous than usual when trying to figure out Agnew, also a southpaw, back in March, landing a modest 27 percent of his punches according to CompuBox. Caparello pumps out plenty of right jabs (how regularly they land is another story) and will mug and hug as needed to survive.

The Aussie acknowledged recently that "Sergey Kovalev is the biggest puncher in boxing." So we know Caparello holds his opponent in high regard. And he has wondered aloud whether the opposite is true. Caparello posited during the prefight buildup that the Krusher might be looking past him, especially with talk of a Kovalev-Bernard Hopkins showdown beginning to gain steam.

 Kovalev insists, however, that he's focused solely on the fight in front of him. If that's true, it would appear to be very grim news for Caparello.

And it forces you to wonder if Caparello, rather than Kovalev or Rios, is in fact the craziest person on Saturday's fight card.

 ***

 Kovalev-Caparello isn't the only battle of unbeatens on this weekend's HBO broadcast; from Vegas, the show opens with rising junior welterweight Jessie Vargas (24-0, 9 KOs) making the first defense of his belt against Russian southpaw Anton Novikov (29-0, 10 KOs). The challenger is an unproven commodity, which is precisely what could've been said of Vargas prior to his last bout, in which he scored a mild upset over previously undefeated Khabib Allakhverdiev. In a crowded 140-pound title picture, the winner of this fight establishes himself as worthy of entering the discussion for major fights. And before you dismiss that as overstatement, remember that Chris Algieri was no more established that Vargas or Novikov one fight ago, and he's now set to challenge Manny Pacquiao.


HBO Boxing Podcast - Episode 15 - Golovkin-Geale Postfight and Rios-Chaves/Kovalev-Caparello Preview

HBO Boxing Insiders Eric Raskin and Kieran Mulvaney look back at Gennady Golovkin's thudding KO of Daniel Geale and look ahead to the fights between Brandon Rios and Daniel Geale, as well as Sergey Kovalev and Blake Caparello, August 2nd at 9:45 PM.

Highlights: Gennady Golovkin vs. Daniel Geale and Bryant Jennings vs. Mike Perez

Golovkin Stops Geale in Third Round to Retain Title

Photos: Will Hart

By Kieran Mulvaney

Daniel Geale was supposed to give Gennady Golovkin his toughest challenge yet. Instead he ended up the Kazakh's latest victim.

The middleweight champion overcame a spirited challenge to drop the Australian twice and raise the question anew of who in the middleweight division can survive his heavy-handed assault. The nature of the conclusive punch also left ringside observers shaking their heads at what Golovkin might produce next.

Geale, himself a former middleweight titlist, had the right idea. He was busy from the opening bell, moving from side to side, firing a fast jab, trying not to stand in front of Golovkin, but taking the opportunity to land left hooks and overhand rights behind his jab whenever possible. But Golovkin needs little invitation to land his vaunted punches, and a right hand behind a left hook sent Geale into the corner. Geale, showing a confidence bordering on foolishness, dropped his hands to show he was unhurt. Golovkin landed another pair of thudding punches, but Geale – after falling to the canvas as the result ofslipping on a ringside camera strap – responded with a right hand of his own to underline his determination to be more than cannon fodder.

Golovkin came out firing in the second round (on the heels of a first one that lasted, oddly, for four minutes), and a straight rightthat landed with Geale's back against the ropes clearly hurt the Australian. He remained on his feet, but a follow-up barrage was enough to put him down. He rose, seemingly unhurt, and returned to the attack, landing sharp combinations but catching a counter uppercut from the champion for his trouble.

By the third round, Geale was still showing good defensive movement, but Golovkin's thudding punches were clearly taking their toll, leading the Australian's punch output to drop drastically. He did, however, have one last strong punch in him; it just so happened that throwing it led to his demise. He backed to the ropes and uncorked a right hand that landed flush, butGolovkin, even as he was on his back foot from Geale's punch, coiled to throw a right of his own. It landed on Geale's chin, and a follow-up left hook dropped the challenger to his back.

Geale was on his feet in a couple of seconds, but it was immediately apparent that the effects of the punch were continuing to make their way through his system. He staggered backward drunkenly, tried to walk it off as referee Michael Ortega administered a count, walked from one side of the ring to the other, failed to raise his hands when instructed by Ortega, and then shook his head to signify he was done.

It was Golovkin's seventeenth consecutive knockout win, and his twenty-seventh in 30 outings, raising his career KO rate to 90 percent.

Golovkin, as ever, was succinct in his summation.

"I was very happy with my performance," he said. "From now on I want only unification fights."

"There are a lot of fighters who can punch but can't take a shot,"said Golovkin's promoter Tom Loeffler afterward. "Gennady has shown he can do both. Geale can punch. You saw he put Darren Barker down with a body shot. Gennady is very confident and very collected. He fought a very confident fight and slowly tracked him down."

Slowly, of course, is a relative term. Barely 15 minutes after entering the ring, Geale was back in the locker room wondering what had hit him, and a boxing audience was left wondering what, and who might be next.

One Punch Makes the Difference as Jennings Wins Split Decision Over Perez

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

By Kieran Mulvaney

In heavyweight action, Bryant Jennings remained undefeated with a close 12-round split decision over formerly unbeaten Mike Perez. The fight would have been a draw had it not been for one errant Perez punch in the final round.

The Philadelphian looked tight at the beginning, flicking out jabs but throwing little of consequence through the first three rounds. Perez, far more experienced with a background in the Cuban amateur system, was evidently more relaxed, taunting Jennings and smiling at him, stepping back out of the range of his opponent's occasional straight right hands and looking to land a southpaw left hand through Jennings' guard.

The fourth round was the first that could legitimately be scored for Jennings, largely on the basis of a right hand to the jaw at the frame's conclusion that was the most impressive punch so far in a fight that was resolutely failing to live up to expectations.

A two-punch Jennings combination in the fifth ended with a right hand that shook Perez, as the tide began to turn. Jennings was finding it easier to time Perez who became progressively more stationary as his extra bulk (he weighed in at 242.2 pounds to Jennings' 226.6) slowly took its toll. The Cuban émigré's tactics increasingly involved throwing some punches and falling forward onto Jennings to tie him up, but Jennings, wise to the plan, sought to unload swift, short combinations as his foe fell on to him, a right hand in the eighth proving particularly effective. At the same time, consistent Jennings body punches contributed to slowing down Perez.

Even so, largely because of his early points advantage, Perez was still in the fight when the bell rang to start the twelfth. Jennings, sensing as much, came flying out of his blocks, looking to put the fight beyond any doubt with some hard combinations. About halfway through the round, Perez leaned on Jennings against the ropes; the American's head and shoulders were well over the top rope and as referee Harvey Dock broke up the fighters, Perez landed a sneaky right hand that earned him a rebuke and a point deduction that would be the difference between a draw and a loss. One score of 114-113 for Perez was countered by scores of 115-112 and 114-113 for Jennings.

"He wouldn't trade with me," said Jennings. "I wanted him to stand in there and fight. I was expecting the inside pressure of Mike Perez. The decision didn't matter, as long as I get the win."

Watch: Golovkin, Geale, Jennings and Perez Weigh-In

Golovkin, Geale, Jennings and Perez weigh-in ahead of Saturday’s doubleheader on HBO beginning at 9:30pm ET/PT.


Cordiality and Hints of Tension as Fight Night Approaches

Photos: Will Hart

By Kieran Mulvaney

Tom Loeffler chuckled at Wednesday's press conference as he introduced Gennady Golovkin as the A-Side' of Saturday's middleweight title fight – a pointed reference to the tension between Miguel Cotto and Sergio Martinez over that same phrase when they met here at Madison Square Garden last month. But the Kazakh's promoter knows what it's like to be on the other side of the equation at the Mecca of Boxing; so too does Golovkin's trainer Abel Sanchez, although the fortunes of their respective 'B-side' fighters varied greatly.

Loeffler was manager of featherweight Kevin Kelley when the "Flushing Flash" was the chosen opponent for the U.S. debut of Naseem Hamed in 1997; after a seven-minute wait while Hamed made his way to the ring, Kelley knocked the Brit down three times in less four rounds, but was dropped hard three times himself en route to a stoppage loss. Six years previously, Sanchez was the trainer of "Terrible" Terry Norris when Sugar Ray Leonard unadvisedly dropped down to junior middleweight to take on the younger, faster fighter and was soundly thrashed over 12 rounds.

There's been plenty of water under the bridge since then for all concerned, of course, but it seems safe to say that, even for the defeated Kelley and certainly for the victorious Norris, those Garden nights shine brightly among the memories of their careers. Of course, the venue alone, even the World's Most Famous Arena, does not a great fight make; nor is a storied site a prerequisite for an electric event. Terence Crawford and the people of Omaha underlined that latter point just a few weeks ago; and, as Golovkin's opponent Daniel Geale told Inside HBO Boxing this week, "it doesn't matter if it's someone's backyard or the Mecca of Boxing, I'm going to do my thing." Or, as heavyweight Bryant Jennings – who fights Mike Perez in the co-main event – put it: "I could be fighting in a cave 1,000 feet below sea level; the ring's still going to be there."

Even so, to headline at the Garden is to perform on the biggest of boxing stages, and for the winner of both of Saturday's televised fights, victory will almost certainly mean a launch pad to even bigger and better things. It is therefore to the credit of all involved that Loeffler could joke about A-sides safe in the knowledge that nobody involved would take umbrage, or that Jennings could say complimentary things about Perez even as he promised victory.

Of course, the presence of goodwill doesn't in any way equate to the absence of ambition, and as Saturday night grows ever closer, the tension rises and so does the bluster. "What is good about Jennings?" asked Perez rhetorically at a Friday morning meeting between fighters and the HBO broadcast team. "I don't know. I see nothing." Jennings countered that, "I have a size advantage, I have a reach advantage. I have an advantage, period." Even Golovkin – who smilingly acknowledged that "I am a gentleman outside the ring" – got in on the act. "I have a predator instinct," he said. "It's inside. I feel it inside. Killer instinct. I see blood, I wait … and then I finish him."

By the time the four fighters stepped on the scales to weigh in on Friday afternoon, the niceties seemed fully dispensed with: Jennings and Perez standing nose to nose, Golovkin and Geale staring coldly into each other's eyes. But then each pair broke apart, each boxer shook his opponent's hand, and they took different exits from the stage, away from each other's sight until Saturday night, when they will look at each other across the ring, the bell will ring, and they will fight.

The weights from Madison Square Garden:

Gennady Golovkin: 159.8 lbs.

Daniel Geale: 159.2 lbs.

Bryant Jennings: 222.6 lbs.

Mike Perez: 242.2 lbs.

 

With a Title Shot on the Line, Jennings and Perez Have Questions to Answer First

Photos: Ed Mulholland/Will Hart

Photos: Ed Mulholland/Will Hart

By Nat Gottlieb

In the co-featured bout of Saturday night's World Championship Boxing card at 9:30 PM, two unbeaten heavyweight contenders on the verge of a title fight will step into the ring in what should be an all-action affair with much at stake. Bryant Jennings vs. Mike Perez has the potential to be one of the best heavyweight fights in recent memory. But despite their stellar credentials, each fighter brings some heavy-duty question marks with them into the ring. The answers will go a long way toward bringing some clarity as to who will eventually take over the world title that Vitali Klitschko vacated.

Perez, a standout Cuban amateur who defected to Ireland in 2007, seemed to be on the verge of stardom when he took on another unbeaten heavyweight from Russia, Magomed Abdusalamov in November of last year. The fight proved to be thunderous brawl. Although Perez (20-0-1, 12 KOs) won a relatively close unanimous decision, his triumph was dampened when the Russian later was diagnosed with significant brain damage that has left him severely disabled.

Perez was shaken by the outcome, and still refuses to talk about it. From his silence comes speculation that Perez might never be the same boxer again. The speculation only escalated after Perez's next fight, barely two months later. Taking on heavy underdog Carlos Takam at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Perez looked nothing like the wrecking machine he had been in his previous 20 fights, and escaped with a lackluster majority draw.

Longtime boxing writer, William Trillo, who has seen several of Perez's fights, was ringside in Montreal for the Cuban's bout with Takam and says he "looked tentative about letting his punches fly. He wouldn't be the first fighter to go downhill after beating a guy into a comatose state. It's a shame. He was on the verge of superstardom."

The questions surrounding Jennings (18-0, 10 KOs) are of a different nature. He came to boxing relatively late, at the age of 24. Like a lot of late starters, Jennings was involved in other sports. At Ben Franklin High School in Philadelphia, he played football, basketball, ran the 200 meters and threw the shot put. After graduation, Jennings took a job as a mechanic at the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia to support his fiancé and young son – a job he still works at in between training for fights.

One benefit of his participation in other sports is that Jennings is an unusually athletic heavyweight whose style more resembles fighters from the lower weight divisions. In addition to moving well in the ring, he has excellent hand speed and a strong jab helped by his exceptionally long reach – at 84 inches, it's three inches longer than Wladimir Klitschko's. He is also that less common heavyweight today with a sculpted body (sort of the anti-Chris Arreola).

The downside to his late start is he is still something of a work in progress. His trainer, Fred Jenkins recently said: "People need to know that Bryant Jennings is still learning how to fight. On his skill level, he's at a B working on a B+. Each fight is a learning experience for him."

Jennings' promoter Gary Shaw says he would compare his boxer, who is 6'2", to a certain former heavyweight champion. "He reminds me of Evander Holyfield in terms of his athleticism, although he didn't have the amateur experience Holyfield had," Shaw says. "I consider him a small heavyweight, like Holyfield. But both fight bigger than their size." Worth noting is that while Holyfield was a half inch taller, his reach was just 78 inches, six shorter than Jennings'.

In his last fight, Jennings faced Artur Szpilka, an undefeated Polish boxer who had beaten a mediocre string of opponents. Although he scored a 10th round knockout, Jennings didn't look as sharp and crisp as he usually does – a fact that could be attributed to ring rust.

After a breakout year in 2012, in which he fought five times on national TV, Jennings had just one fight in 2013, due to promotional problems that were resolved when Shaw bought out his contract last year. When he entered the ring against Szpilka, it was just his second fight in two years. "Everybody has ring rust," Shaw says. "This time when he fights I guarantee you he won't be rusty."

But Jennings may face another obstacle. He was originally scheduled to fight Perez on May 24, but the Cuban sustained a shoulder injury while training and the bout had to be postponed until July 26. Jennings has been in the gym since April, could he be affected by overtraining?

Come fight night, there will be answers to those questions, and a new contender for the heavyweight title.