Stevenson, Kovalev Annihilate Challengers, Remain on Collision Course

by Kieran Mulvaney

Tony Bellew (left), Adonis Stevenson (right) - Photo Credit: Ed Mulholland

Before Saturday night's light-heavyweight double feature, the talk was of the prospect that the two favorites, Sergey Kovalev and Adonis Stevenson, could be on a collision course in a mouth-watering light heavyweight clash for the ages. After both men disposed of their foes with consummate and concussive ease, the talk turned to shouting.

Kovalev's turn was first, and it was the briefer of the two outings. Whether for reasons personal or geopolitical, Ismayl Sillakh, the Ukrainian challenger for the Russian's world title belt, seemed from a distance to have gotten under Kovalev's skin, as evidenced by the way the defending champion taunted him verbally in the first round as he stalked him around the ring. The rangier Sillakh sought to keep his opponent at a distance -- a fine strategy in principle against a knockout artist who goes by "Krusher," but difficult to pull off for long. Indeed, shortly after hearing the bell to begin the second round, Sillakh was likely hearing a lot more of them, courtesy of Kovalev's right hand.

The first right made its mark about 30 seconds into the second frame, and looked to have landed somewhere around Sillakh's left ear, scrambling his equilibrium and depositing him on his back. Sillakh was swiftly to his feet, but even as referee Marlon Wright completed the mandatory eight count, Kovalev was like a pit bull straining on an invisible leash, snorting and growling and desperate for an opportunity to rip apart his prey. As soon as Wright waved them back together, Kovalev flew across the ring, landed another right hand that effectively ended the fight and nearly decapitated Sillakh in the process, and somehow found time to land two straight follow-up lefts to help his falling opponent to the canvas, where he then lay, under the ropes and wondering where he was for a while.

Wright didn't even bother to count; he could have started reading "Moby Dick" and Sillakh wouldn't have been vertical before Ahab disappeared beneath the waves. It was a frighteningly impressive performance for the Chelyabinsk-born Floridian, who moves to 23-0-1 with 21 knockouts. Asked by HBO's Max Kellerman whom he would like to fight next, Kovalev initially proffered the "whoever my promoter wants me to fight" stock answer until, after Kellerman gently pressed, he smiled and said, "Adonis."

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Speed Kills in Macau as Pacquiao Returns to Form

by Kieran Mulvaney

[Click for Slideshow] Photo Credit: Will HartBrandon Rios shook his head and smiled every time Manny Pacquiao hit him flush. Sunday morning at The CotaiArena in Macau, he shook his head and smiled a lot.

They say that, in boxing, speed kills, and Pacquiao's speed killed any hope Rios had of walking away from Macau with an upset victory in front of an energized sellout crowd of over 13,000. Long before the final bell rang at the end of 12 one-sided rounds, Rios must have felt like Bill Murray with a swollen face, each frame much the same as the last as the American was forced to endure a succession of painful, pugilistic Groundhog Days.

The rounds took on a familiar rhythm. In the first, Pacquiao connected with a left uppercut and a strong left hook. At the end of the second, he exploded with combinations. In the third round, he showed nice footwork, turning Rios as he looked for a clean shot. The fourth saw Pacquiao land a straight left, then a combination that snapped back Rios' head. In the fifth, another big straight left. And so it went.

Early in the fight, there was a sense from ringside that Pacquiao's punches, though fast and landing with repetitive accuracy and effectiveness, did not carry quite the explosive power of years past.  It seemed then that Rios was perhaps the less vulnerable and more heavy-handed of the two, that a Rios combination to Pacquiao's jaw might have an effect similar to the right hand that Juan Manuel Marquez landed to render the Filipino unconscious at the end of their December contest. Maybe that was the case, but Rios never had a chance to put the theory to the test, never came close to landing testing blows, and was obliged instead to chug after his opponent in an increasingly futile effort to cut off the ring and get his foe where he wanted him.

Pacquiao was having none of it. He moved effortlessly from one side to the next, his footwork setting up his offense and proving to be exceptionally effective with a defense that left Rios punching at air on more than one occasion.

And while Pacquiao may not have detonated the kind of blow that left Ricky Hatton prone or Miguel Cotto wanting no more, he landed enough that, by the end of the contest, Rios had a badly swollen right eye and a slow blood trail from his left  for his troubles.

"All I can say is, many Manny punches," smiled Pacquiao's trainer Freddie Roach. "He fought the perfect fight. He let him off the hook. I wanted him to knock him out. But I was very happy with his performance."

Indeed, there is a case to be made that, if Pacquiao's punches weren't always quite as heavy as they once they had been, that that was by design, the result of a decision not to become too excited or to over-commit and risk walking into a counter punch of the kind that Marquez threw. The evidence for that supposition came in the final round, when Rios, seemingly badly hurt, staggered backward into a corner and Pacquiao, knowing victory was his and risk was unnecessary, backed away.

At the end, there was no doubt. The winner was clear, and it was Pacquiao – amazingly, the future Hall-of-Famer's first conclusive win since early 2011. And yet, even in his latest finest hour, the congressman from Sarangani province turned his thoughts elsewhere.

"This isn't about my comeback," he insisted. "My victory is a symbol of my people's comeback from a natural disaster, a national tragedy. It's really important to bring honor to my country with this win."

Undercard Recap: Gradovich Overpowers Dib Yet Again

by Kieran Mulvaney

Photo Credit: Will HartIn the co-main event, Evgeny Gradovich retained a featherweight belt with a ninth-round TKO victory against the man from whom he first took the title, Australia’s Billy Dib. Gradovich, who bills himself as “The Russian Mexican,” steadily ground Dib down with his relentless, suffocating offense, knocking him down in the sixth round. Dib was game and did his best to return fire, but by the end he appeared to be wilting from every punch that landed.

After eight rounds, as Dib struggled to respond to commands, his trainer said to him in the corner, “Billy, I love you, but one more punch and it’s over.” It took only 1 minute and 10 seconds of the following frame for him to fulfill his promise, stopping the contest as Gradovich landed another combination. 

Undercard Recap: Ruiz Looks Deceptively Quick; Hamer Quick to Quit

by Kieran Mulvaney

Photo Credit: Will Hart

In heavyweight action, Tor Hamer began relatively brightly against undefeated Andy Ruiz, probably taking the first two rounds behind a crisp jab, as the two big men exchanged hard punches that echoed with an entirely different and deeper thud to those of the flyweights who had preceded them. In the third round, however, Ruiz began to assert control; even so, it was a shock when Hamer quit on his stool at the end of the round, citing two hard body shots. Then again, maybe shock isn’t the right word: it’s the second time now that Hamer has done just that. It’s fine for a man to look out for his health – commendable, even – but one wonders if an alternative, less dangerous, profession might be a wise choice for Mr. Hamer. Still, Ruiz moves on; he may not be a body beautiful, but as former trainer Freddie Roach told reporters this week, “That fat kid can fucking fight.”

After the fight, Hamer's disappointed promoter Lou DiBella took to Twitter to vent his frustration with his fighter. "This is an embarrassment. Sorry to the fans" he tweeted. "By the way, Tor, you are released."

Undercard Recap: Chinese Hero Shiming Impresses in Third Professional Fight

Photo Credit: Will Hart

Earlier in the week, Zou Shiming’s trainer Freddie Roach sounded less than enthusiastic in his assessment of his fighter’s progress since turning professional. He’s likely to be a lot more satisfied by Zou’s third paid bout, in which the local hero came close to stopping Mexican Juan Toscano, especially in a dominant third round, before settling for a wide, unanimous decision to move to 3-0. Zou bounced on his toes, straightened up his punches, and darted in and out as he raked Toscano with right hands that opened up a nasty gash on his opponent’s cheek, much to the delight of the CotaiArena crowd.

“I’m getting better all the time,” said Zou.  “I went to Manny’s camp, and worked on my lower body strength from my hips on down, so I was able to sit on my punches better.  I really think I’m getting better.”

Undercard Recap: Verdejo Batters Overmatched Yet Tough Opponent

Photo Credit: Will Hart

In the opening bout of the telecast, hot lightweight prospect Felix Verdejo remained unbeaten with a unanimous six-round decision against Thailand’s Petchsamuthr Duanaaymukdahan. The Thai fighter was no match for Verdejo’s blistering hand speed and combinations, and twice came close to being floored by Verdejo right uppercuts. But Duanaaymukdahan was game and kept coming until  the end, earning the appreciation of the crowd and of his opponent.

“I’m glad he came to fight,” said Verdejo, who improves to 9-0 with 6 KOs. “He challenged me. He took a lot of punishment. I got a lot of good punches in. I got a lot of good quality rounds.”

Rested, Not Rusted, Ward Routs Rodriguez

by Eric Raskin

Andre Ward - Photo Credit: Will Hart (Click for Slideshow)

Andre Ward is not ranked first on any pound-for-pound lists at the moment. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t the best fighter in the world. It just means he doesn’t have the track record, visibility, or activity this year of Floyd Mayweather. But to watch both undefeated boxers’ last couple of fights, you’d be hard pressed to separate them, to point to one as clearly superior to the other. Ward is that good.

Edwin Rodriguez, a bigger, harder punching, undefeated contender, discovered that first-hand on Saturday at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California, where the lineal super middleweight champ Ward had the crowd ooh-ing and aah-ing with every flush punch, of which there were plenty. In his return to the ring after surgery on his right shoulder and a 14-month layoff, Ward was as masterful as ever, shutting down Rodriguez’s theoretically dangerous offense and, if not for some aggressive refereeing and dubious judging, shutting him out as well. The official final tallies were 118-106, 117-107, and 116-108.

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Broner Plays the Heavy In Front of Hometown Crowd

By Kieran Mulvaney

Adrien Broner lost a title and then won a fight. He also won the opportunity to keep moving on to bigger and better things; though the way he did so won’t sit easily with all of his fans. But at the end of the day, his record will show he became the first man to stop Vicente Escobedo, and the controversy that surrounded this fight will fade away, leaving only another victory on Broner’s unblemished record.

The drama began on Friday, when Broner tipped the scale at 133.5 pounds, three and a half pounds above the contracted 130-pound-division limit. That meant immediate forfeiture of his title belt, and the situation incited fury from Escobedo’s team. That afternoon, overnight and through much of Saturday, they insisted the weight difference was too great and that they would bolt. Not until a few hours before HBO’s Boxing After Dark was scheduled to air was an agreement finally reached and the fight officially given the go-ahead by both sides.

When the bout began, the size difference was soon apparent: Broner solid and muscular, Escobedo relatively wiry. Evident too, however, was a gulf in skill and class. Escobedo, a credible contender, was simply no match for Broner’s speed or his repertoire of moves. 

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Garcia Topples Khan

By Kieran Mulvaney

Amir Khan - Photo Credit: Ed Mulholland

There was some talk, before Amir Khan stepped into the ring with Danny Garcia at the Mandalay Bay on Saturday night, that with a victory he could not only erase last December’s controversial loss to Lamont Peterson, but potentially even set himself up for a December megafight with Floyd Mayweather.

One huge counter left hook from Garcia was all it took to blow that idea to pieces.

Suddenly it is the undefeated but unheralded Garcia who is talking about the big money fights, and Khan who is looking at a career that has suddenly reached a crossroad.

Khan started brightly, landing long right hands behind a swift and stiff jab. The difference in hand speed was apparent, Khan’s immense advantages making Garcia’s punches look ponderous and painfully slow. But Garcia, despite looking slightly overwhelmed in the early going, kept his composure. Although a Khan left hook opened a cut by his right eye, his defense was tight, and as the minutes ticked by, he almost visibly grew in confidence.

In the third, Garcia gave up trying to exchange combinations with his speedier opponent and began targeting his body with thudding shots. But it was a shift back to Khan’s sometimes suspect chin that paid dramatic dividends. 

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Filipino Flashes of Brilliance

By Eric Raskin

Jeffrey Mathebula, Nonito Donaire - Photo Credit: Will Hart

Ring announcer Lupe Contreras noted before the opening bell that the Nonito Donaire-Jeffrey Mathebula fight was dedicated to the memory of LeRoy Neiman, a man who, depending upon whom you ask, was either an iconic talent or the most overrated artist of his time. It was quite appropriate then that the boxing match dedicated to fight fanatic Neiman would feature pound-for-pound lister Donaire, with all of his polarizing qualities on display.

The fans at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California were treated to “Filipino Flashes” of brilliance from the 122-pound titlist, but they also watched the prodigious puncher somehow go the 12-round distance for the third time in row. In the end, Donaire won a clear-cut unanimous decision over Mathebula to unify a couple of alphabet belts, but it wasn’t the statement fight we’ve been waiting for since he shockingly flattened Fernando Montiel in two rounds 17 months ago.

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