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Is division jumping good or bad?

05
Apr

Winky Wright (right) fought Bernard Hopkins at 170 pounds in his last fight. He'll fight Paul Williams 10 pounds lighter on Saturday. Photo / Chris Cozzone-FightWireImages.com

In a span of two months last year, the business side of American boxing took two devastating defeats: Both the sport’s all-time pay-per-view king and its most marketable emerging star lost in one-sided fashion. Oscar De La Hoya’s million-PPV-buy days presumably came to a close at the hands of Manny Pacquiao, and Kelly Pavlik’s bid to become the mainstream face of the fight game in this country got shut down like a Youngstown steel mill when he played foil to Bernard Hopkins.

What did the two fights have in common, other than unfortunate outcomes from a business perspective? The fact that neither fight took place at the preferred, natural weight of any of the four fighters.

De La Hoya came down a division, Pacquiao moved up two divisions, Hopkins slid down half a weight class, and Pavlik jumped up a weight class and a half.

Is it just coincidence that these two fights involving weight-jumping turned out badly for boxing? Perhaps. But promoter and former HBO executive Lou DiBella thinks there’s more to it than that.

“All these made-for-TV, made-for-pay-per-view weight-class-jumping fights, they don’t help anyone,” DiBella said. “In all of these fights, one, or sometimes both, fighters are not fighting at their best weights. Usually one of them is compromising themselves to some degree. If there’s a worthy opponent for a champion in his own division, then why go two divisions away looking for a big fight? It destroys the whole purpose of weight classes, which is to have fair, competitive fights.”

This Saturday, we’ll see another case of manipulated mass at the elite level when Paul Williams meets Winky Wright in a middleweight bout on HBO.

Wright fought exclusively at junior middleweight from 1990 to 2004, had four fights as a middleweight, then moved up to a love-handled 170 pounds for his last bout, against Bernard Hopkins. Now he’s returning to 160 at age 37 after nearly two years out of the ring.

Williams has really scattered himself across the scale. His last three fights came as a welterweight (145¾), then a middleweight (157), then a junior middle (153¾), and now “The Punisher” again packs on a few to fight at middleweight.

Is it a fascinating matchup with a Top-10 pound-for-pound ranking likely at stake? Certainly. But DiBella isn’t convinced it’s the sort of matchup boxing needs.

“What (weight) is Winky Wright, every weight class is his weight class? Do weight classes matter anymore?

“Let me tell you something, Pacquiao-De La Hoya was every bit the farce it was predicted to be. The problem was rather than Oscar being too big, Manny actually morphed into the bigger guy that night. Oscar couldn’t do s— because he so depleted his body and f—ed himself up that it still was non-competitive.

“We’re injuring a sport that’s already challenged. It’s very depressing to me. The negatives of weight jumping are everywhere. None of these weight-jump fights have been interesting or competitive. Winky was too small for Hopkins, he was too big for Ike Quartey. The Oscar-Pacquiao fight wasn’t a good fight for boxing. It was a good fight for Manny.”

It seems odd to criticize fights that boxing fans, for the most part, looked forward to, fights that seemed competitive on paper going in, fights that matched one big name against another. But DiBella makes some valid points.

And here’s another one he didn’t make but could have: Doesn’t it imply to casual viewers that there aren’t enough quality fighters out there if the superstars are all reaching beyond their respective weight classes to make money? It reeks of a certain degree of desperation, like Major League Baseball introducing interleague play or the NHL adding the shootout. Not that those were bad ideas – most fans would say they were excellent ideas – and not that boxing’s weight-jumping trend is either. But they all feel a bit like the powerbrokers announcing, “We’re kind of struggling here, so let’s take a chance on something new.”

In boxing, though, this really isn’t anything new. From Henry Armstrong reigning in three weight classes at once to Mickey Walker challenging top heavyweights, there’s no shortage of historical precedent for these cross-class matches we’ve been seeing regularly of late. It’s a time-honored tradition that elite fighters look to spread their wings by seeking out new challenges.

That’s precisely how Williams’ promoter, Dan Goossen, sees his fighter’s situation.

“Paul does it basically out of necessity,” Goossen told RingTV.com “If we could have done it the old-fashioned way, where you give your body every ounce of ability to rule the 147-pound division and clean it out and go up in weight to ease a little stress on the body, great, we would have done it. But we weren’t allowed that luxury because, as everyone knows, other fighters are afraid of Paul. Fighters are coming out and saying, ‘I’ll fight anybody other than Paul Williams.’ So we came to the conclusion that the best thing to do for Paul is campaign in three classes and open up the pool of opponents available to him.

“I don’t want to see fighters put themselves in danger by fighting out of their natural weight classes, and maybe that’s what would have happened if Pacquiao had fought a prime 147-pounder. But he was fighting someone who was half the fighter he used to be. In Paul’s case, he’s more suited to fighting real 160-pounders than Manny Pacquiao is to fighting real 147-pounders.”

Williams, who claimed about a week ago that he weighed 156 pounds, downplayed the significance of poundage in his fight with Wright.

“The weight is not going to affect anything because I’m going to come in at a comfortable weight that I always come in at,” Williams said. “Remember, I’ve been in the ring with heavyweights, sparring heavyweights and all that stuff.”

So what’s the reality? Are weight-jumping matches a blight on the sport that render weight classes immaterial? Or are they just an intriguing outlet for matching the best against the best?

The truth is probably a little bit of both. If there’s a fight within your weight class that the public is demanding, then it’s typically best for boxing if that fight is made. But when you have two championship-level fighters like Williams and Wright who can’t land a bigger bout and need each other to further their careers, then a few inconvenient pounds shouldn’t stand in the way of a convenient opportunity.

RASKIN’S RANTS

ÔÇó A word of advice to B.J. Flores: If you want a successful career as a boxing analyst, you might want to consider having opinions and being willing to express them. It’s not enough just to be articulate, likeable and have a weird hairline that viewers can’t take their eyes off of.

ÔÇó Librado Andrade isn’t the best fighter in the world. But he’s the last guy I want to see across the ring from me if I reach round 12.

ÔÇó Shame on Showtime for presenting a graphic of the 140-pound “world champions” on Saturday and leaving the one and only true 140-pound champion of the world, Ricky Hatton, out of it. Just because Showtime has had its head up its rear with regard to the alphabet groups for the last two decades doesn’t mean it’s too late to extract said head from said rear. Ken Hershman, if you’re reading this, there’s still time for you and your network to stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution.

ÔÇó Separated at birth: Antonio Pitalua and El DeBarge.

ÔÇó Given that “Lightweight Lightning” was originally conceived as the start of an eight-man tournament, I, for one, wouldn’t mind seeing an HBO Boxing After Dark doubleheader featuring Edwin Valero vs. Michael Katsidis and Vicente Escobedo vs. Rolando Reyes. Those are perfect fights right now for all four lightweights and for the fans, who definitely got their 40 bucks worth out of Saturday’s PPV show.

ÔÇó Gotta love this quote from Winky Wright during a conference call a few days ago: “I’ve just been enjoying life, man. I had a newborn baby. My son’s probably like 21 months old, 22 months.” Nothing says “devoted dad” quite like a guy who reveals his kid’s age with a “probably like.”

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