By Oliver Goldstein
Saturday night sees Timothy Bradley face Diego Chaves at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas on HBO World Championship Boxing (10:00 PM ET/PT), in a fight with all sorts of questions following it. To begin with: what kind of fight is this? Is it a comeback for Bradley (31-1, 12 KOs), with all the suggestion that loaded term comes with, a polite re-entry into vague competition after his first defeat? Is it a step-down? A step sideways? Or will his fight with Chaves (23-2, 19 KOs) produce another humdinger to add to his recent list of them?
Such unsureness speaks volumes about Bradley’s awkward position in boxing right now. In consecutive fights, the Palm Springs fighter has faced Manny Pacquiao, Ruslan Provodnikov, Juan Manuel Marquez, and Pacquiao again. Given Bradley can boast three official wins in four of those bouts, he might expect something less provisional, and more certain, about his current standing. But those fights produced more question marks than full stops: the only definitive point came in Pacquiao’s slashing win this April. Hence Bradley finds himself not quite on the outside looking in, but nor on the inside looking out. Where Pacquiao can pick and choose his way through the division, Bradley must hunt for scraps.
And make no mistake: Chaves, from Buenos Aires, Argentina, represents exactly that. There is no glamour in a meeting with Chaves, who lacks the profile to command heavy mainstream attention, and yet is skilled enough to provide a proper challenge. With losses to Keith Thurman and Brandon Rios in his previous two televised US fights, Chaves is an understandable underdog. But this basic reading of the fight does little justice to Chaves, who gave Thurman some serious looks last year, and provided Rios a taciturn inspection in August. And given that Bradley’s previous “comeback” fight confounded all expectations, when Ruslan Provodnikov almost took him out to harvest, such a victory cannot be taken for granted.
The latest in a generation of hard-punching Argentine welterweights, Chaves needs a signature win to warrant comparison with Marcos Maidana and Lucas Matthysse for reasons other than nationhood. As he stands today, his career mirrors more closely that of Luis Carlos Abregu, another willing, limited brawler. At his best, Chaves keeps his right cocked high with his left slung low, rolling from punches with a closed shoulder defense, before returning fire with a lead overhand right and a left uppercut following. Such a pattern regularly proved too complex for Rios, whose head was round-housed throughout by Chaves’s shots. Rios, never one for calm at the best of times, was further troubled by the Argentine’s fond taste for the nasty stuff: thumbs to the eyes, insistent headbutts (Chaves leads with his head whenever in the clinch), and frequent elbows all found their target.
But it is equally true to note that Chaves’s good qualities fade often into his bad: what makes him a capable fighter also makes him fallible. His willingness to foul might have irritated Rios, but it also cost him the fight, as a mosquito’s buzzing might eventually cost it its life. Even more problematic is the speed at which his closed defense devolves into openness: against Thurman, Chaves’s proclivity for straight lines meant his opponent was often able to step across into range. With this, Thurman’s jab became an increasingly insistent weapon, whether fired to the body and backed up to the head, or dangled out as a feinting prelude to hooks and uppercuts thrown off it. In the tenth, "El Distinto" was stopped.
Nonetheless, this has all the makings of a troublesome night for Bradley. Known mostly for an approach that allies contemplation with raw athletic potential, an approach that refuses to sanction defensive order like Floyd Mayweather and Andre Ward, but that is elusive to the point of awkwardness all the same, Bradley has proven increasingly schizophrenic in his mindset through recent bouts. Only against Marquez has Bradley looked much like Bradley (when he entered contact just about enough times to prove victorious); against Provodnikov, his gauche offense saw him almost dragged out to the dogs, while a positive first round in his second tangle with Pacquiao preceded a psychotic search for an unlikely knockout thereafter. On the surface, Bradley’s thick physicality suggests he is still the same fighter — but whether he remains mentally-prepared is a question that needs answering. Chaves, ultimately, is a good bet to ask him; Bradley hopes to be ready with answers.