Monday, April 22, 2013

NBC Afternoon at the Fights

A big 'thank you' to the folks at NBCSports Network for showcasing boxing Saturday afternoon. This was a tough ratings slot because they were forced to go head-to-head with the opening round of the NBA's playoffs. While the NBA certainly holds the upper hand with viewers, boxing as a sport benefited greatly from the sheer number of channel surfing NBA fans who got their first taste of free professional boxing on Saturday afternoon. Thankfully, they were treated to a pair of entertaining fights.

The middleweight fight was interesting if only because it was a stylistic match up of the stolid, tough flat-footed brawler  vs. the smooth  fleet footed counter puncher. The outcome was predictable as Curtis Stevens used slick counter-punching to dominate a game Derrick Findley over eight hard rounds. Findley displayed plenty of grit and determination but was in the end simply too slow to cause Stevens any concerns. Each round seemed a replay of the first - Findley walking in, absorbing punishment before throwing one heavy handed blow that missed as often as it landed. He was considerably stronger than Stevens but lacked the ability to throw effective combinations and was often caught flat footed and in an awkward, defenseless position after attempting a combination. Stevens, who hadn't fought in nearly two years was tentative in the early going but by the third had found his rhythm, pumping jabs and combinations in spurts that did little to slow Findley's advance but nonetheless won him round after round.

The main event between Tyson Fury and Steve Cunningham was dramatic and I wasn't sure if what I was watching was WWF wrestling or a heavyweight boxing match. The match up was billed as a "voluntary" IBF eliminator match but, as an unnamed AP boxing reporter noted, it was actually an opportunity to "showcase (Tyson) Fury to American boxing fans." And, oh my, what a match up it was!

After the referee had issued the customary command to "touch gloves and come out fighting" it was clear that the British bad boy from Manchester had come to America to earn a reputation as a fighter and not a gentleman as he pounded Cunningham's gloves in a very unexpected and unsportsmanlike manner. Nonplussed, Cunningham glared at the British giant for a moment before returning to his corner with a determined look of controlled indignation.

Fury trash talked throughout the fight. From the opening bell Cunningham endured boasts, taunts and shouted commands of "Come on you pussy!" all the while pounding his chest in simian displays of aggression that begged Cunningham to come forward and "fight like a man." But Cunningham, an undersized former Cruiser weight champion of considerable ring experience, was immune to the bluster. He fought a somewhat tentative first round but those familiar with the tactics of the ring would have noted the smaller man's measuring feints and jabs which were clearly gauging the distance between fist and jaw.

The opening seconds of the second round revealed Fury to be a victim of his own overconfidence as he all
but offered his chin up to the fistic gods as a sacrifice. Just 18 seconds into the round Cunningham pounced with economical precision and sent Fury to the canvass with a lightning quick overhand right. Fury, realizing that the American was not to be underestimated, took the full 8 count before rising and spent the better part of the next three rounds getting his legs back beneath him. The British giant used his immense size to tie up the smaller man at every opportunity, laying on Cunningham often and using rough house tactics when in the clinch. Please allow me to pause while offering an aside:

There is something about Manchester fighters that I don't care for. Whether it's Ricky Hatton's leaping low blow to the groin of Kostya Tszyu in a 2005 title fight or Fury's blatant head butt in the fifth round of this fight, it always seems that the boys from across the pond resort to dirty tactics when things go against them. That kind of reaction is to be commended in a bar fight but not in a boxing ring. The recent crop of British hopefuls, which includes Fury, employ a kind of grab, clinch and foul strategy that American fans just aren't used to but British fans seem to revel in. But, back to the fight...

My observations aside, it must be noted that Fury did survive the knockdown and began to do what he does best - he turned the contest into a "dog fight." He effectively stalked the crafty Cunningham for the next three rounds employing a swiftness of foot I would not have credited the 6'9" goliath of possessing. He did not rely on his length alone in negating Cunningham's quickness; he used an adequate jab to keep Cunningham at the desired distance, he cut the ring off in a calculated attempt to maintain that distance, and placed real power behind all of his clubbing blows whether they landed flush or not.

As the fight went on those crashing fists continued to rain down on the much smaller Cunningham who found that Fury did not tire like most big men. Instead, Fury seemed to gain steam with each ensuing round. Fury's aggressive stalking maneuvers forced Cunningham to stand and fight. Cunningham's work on the inside was masterful, punishing and precise, but once again Fury surprised me - where skill and talent were not enough he proved to be a willing mixer with a reserve of endurance that the heavyweight division has not seen since Marciano. I'm not saying he's in Marciano's class, I'm saying that for someone so large his endurance was astonishing. He threw more than two times as many punches as Cunningham, a crafty ring veteran who is known as one of the division's better combination punchers. And what's more, Fury appeared to be getting stronger albeit sloppier.

He must have sensed all of this as well because he did not try to aim his punches. He maneuvered Cunningham into the ropes time and again and simply tried to land glove on skin whether it be arm, neck, shoulder or side. His punches were sloppy but delivered with murderous intent and though he is still a raw talent his power and endurance are a wonder.

While my recall may be termed 'gushing with praise' there is a dark side to Fury that I am not enamored with. The fifth round was the beginning of the end for Cunningham. Fury had just about regained control of the fight when he employed brutal tactics typical of a Manchesterton; in a clinch along the ropes he leaned into his opponent during the break and stuck his forehead into Cunningham's cheek and deliberately attempted to cut his opponent in a blatant head butt. Cunningham responded with a rally of his own, ripping a combination to the Englishman's head but it was clear to see that his punches now lacked the steam of the first few rounds.

The sixth was a repeat of the fifth, remarkable only for the intense pace of the action. Cunningham was

clearly the more skilled pugilist countering with  precise power that would have felled most other heavyweight contenders, but it was the aptly named Tyson Fury who was going to be the clear winner. His mauling attack was simply too much for the brave but undersized Cunningham and his chin, criticized after the fight because of the knockdown, was good enough to allow him to plunge in recklessly, time and again, without fear. The bell to end the sixth found Fury manhandling Cunningham in yet another clinch.

The seventh round was a contest of wills that found Cunningham wanting. Cunningham, visibly shaken by Fury's relentless onslaught and too tired to run, tried desperately to fight off the ropes. For much of the round he gave as well as he got but Fury's power had sapped what little energy he had left. Fury's shots were launching the former champion into the ropes with jarring frequency and with 15 seconds left in the round Fury sent a ferocious chopping right hook behind a stiffening forearm (borderline illegal) that put the brave warrior on his back. With blood spurting from his mouth, staining the canvass ruby red, he watched the referee begin his count. He struggled for a brief second to rise before falling back with an anguished grimace and lay back clearly demoralized. It was clear he possessed the warrior's desire to rise one more time but it was equally clear that he would not win this contest.

Tyson Fury was announced the winner at 2:55 of the 7th. He celebrated his win by kicking up his heels (literally) and then proceeded to give a rather bizarre post fight interview.  He chastised the crowd over the loudspeaker for not cheering more loudly for Cunningham. He demanded they recognize Cunningham's effort though whether that was to increase the perceived value of his win over the former champ or to truly recognize his courage can be debated but it seemed a genuine nod of respect.

His post fight interview was a riotous calamity of jokes, swagger, and singing. When asked by the ringside reporter, "What do you see here in the first?" he replied " Well, aside from Tyson Fury looking sexy as usual..." He followed up his comedy act with a thank you to Madison Square Garden, New Yorkers, and Americans in general before belting out a song for the crowd  in a wavering singing voice that must be viewed to fully appreciate.

Fury is his best promoter. He is brash, arrogant, irreverent and convinced of his own greatness and it is that list of ingredients that will provide him a recipe to stardom. He is a new and exciting face for a sport that sorely needs personalities. As long as he wins he will continue to be a significant draw both here and in Europe. Judging by fan reaction to the bout across cyberspace he is either loathed or loved and that is a potent promotional combination.

As for his talents  - I saw many flaws. He doesn't fight well going backward, his jab can be lazy and he is ripe for a counter cross from either side as his hands rarely come back quickly from a jab. His main assets are his endurance and size - and maybe heart. He is very quick of foot for a big man but his hands are slow and he has a bad habit of swinging for the fences off the wrong foot. He was constantly off balance but I suspect that Cunningham's high skill level had a lot to do with that. He's only 24 and as the old saying goes, 'you can't teach size.' All in all he's a tough and willing mixer whose style and personality will put butts in seats. Could he beat either of the Klitschko brothers? Not a chance in hell... right now. In 3 or 4 years - we'll see.

What an afternoon of boxing!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

2013 PCA/ACA Conference a Success

From the frying pan and into the fire...having just finished the fourth and final volume of Tales of the Ice House: The Collected Boxing Stories of Robert E. Howard, I turned my attention to the 2013 PCA/ACA conference held in Washington, DC this past weekend. My paper considered the impact of John L. Sullivan and the cult of masculinity upon the creation and execution of Howard's uproariously funny boxing character Sailor Steve Costigan.

Joining me in the nation's capitol were fellow Howard-heads Mark Finn, Jeff Shanks and the legendary Rusty Burke and many a night was spent discussing the state of Howard Studies with our new friend - John L., he of the single barrel variety. He swore up and down he "couldst lick any son of a bitch in the world" and he done so - just ask Mark Finn.

I rubbed cuts and traded jabs with some very interesting academics about all things Howard,  Pulp, and gender and was doubly pleased to learn that Howard is now being studied seriously in institutions of higher learning throughout the world. The feedback I received was both positive and serious with inquiries ranging from mere curiosity to the best way to acquire the texts as formal reading requirements for certain classes.

Understand, these folks were not asking about Howard solely because of Conan, but were instead interested in learning about his other creations as well - specifically Sailor Steve Costigan and his iron man brothers. Thanks must go to Shanks, Finn, Burke and the other Howard scholars who had paved the way in years prior - well done fellas! I just hope I helped advance the Howard cause for Sailor Steve Costigan and Mike the bull dog in a manner that does them proud.