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The fall-out from fights falling out

21
Jun

Chris John (left), here jabbing Rocky Juarez in their first fight, became the latest world-class fighter to pull out of a major up-coming bout due to sickness or injury. A fainting spell that led to the diagnoses of a blood ailment over the weekend canned the unbeaten featherweight titleholder's rematch with Juarez that was scheduled this Saturday. John joins David Haye, Floyd Mayweather, Kelly Pavlik, Andreas Kotelnik, and Fernando Montiel as top fighters who have canceled or postponed intriguing summer matches due to injury or illness. Photo by Chris Cozzone – Fightwireimages.com

An injury transformed the Boston Celtics from the defending NBA champs into a team lucky to make it into round two of the playoffs. An injury turned this year’s Wimbledon from the latest thrilling chapter in the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry into a likely one-man show. An injury suffered a year ago by Tiger Woods crushed golf’s ratings while un-crushing the hopes of every also-ran on the tour.

Injuries are everywhere in sports, and they often have history-altering impact.

But you can add up all of the injuries in all of the major sports in the last 12 months and it feels like nothing compared to what’s been going on in boxing the last few weeks.

There was David Haye’s back going out on him during a routine shadowboxing workout, spoiling his heavyweight title fight with Wladimir Klitschko.

There was Floyd Mayweather’s rib cartilage injury that postponed the summer’s most significant pay-per-view bout, against Juan Manuel Marquez.

There was Andreas Kotelnik’s tooth infectionÔÇöyes, tooth infectionÔÇöthat got in the way of an intriguing showdown with Amir Khan.

There was the double-postponement of Mike Jones vs. Larry Mosley, a relatively minor east coast fight, but an attractive one just the same. After Mosley pulled out with a back injury early in the year, it was rescheduled, only to need re-rescheduling when Jones strained his left biceps.

There was Ruslan Chagaev-Nicolay Valuev, which wasn’t ruined by an injury, per se, but it was a health issueÔÇöChagaev’s lingering hint of Hepatitis BÔÇöthat caused the Finnish boxing authorities to pull the plug 24 hours before the fight.

And then there’s arguably the most cursed fight card of modern times, this Saturday’s “Latin Fury 9” pay-per-view event from Atlantic City.

Here was the original line-up for the four-fight Top Rank PPV: Kelly Pavlik vs. Sergio Mora for the world middleweight championship, Juan Manuel Lopez vs. Olivier Lontchi, Fernando Montiel vs. Eric Morel and Paulie Malignaggi vs. Mike Alvarado. By any standards, it was a damned solid show with a little something for everyone.

But Pavlik-Mora was scrapped when a staph infection in the champion’s hand gave Top Rank a convenient excuse to call off the fight and iron out Pavlik’s contract issues. Malignaggi-Alvarado disappeared when Alvarado suffered an elbow injury. And Montiel-Morel bit the dust when the Mexican injured his hand.

With Pavlik off the show, it moved from the main room at Boardwalk Hall to the much smaller ballroom, and the televised card is now Lopez-Lontchi, Yuri Foreman-Cornelius Bundrage, Jorge Arce-Fernando Lumacad, and Vanes Martirosyan-Andrey Tsurkan.

It’s nobody’s fault, but over the last several weeks, the card went from a PPV no serious boxing fan could miss to one that fans will only order if they’re particularly invested in a specific fighter. Lopez is a rising star with a growing Puerto Rican fan base, Arce is a huge attraction with Mexican fans, and Martirosyan sells big with the Armenians.

As for Foreman-Bundrage, uh, maybe the Contender die-hards are salivating.

Seriously, though, the PPV numbers might not take a big hit because there are several popular fighters on the show. But for the ethnically ambivalent hardcore fight fan who just wants to see quality matchups that mean something to the world rankings, this card, much like Golden Boy’s “Lightweight Lightning” pay-per-view in April, has been decimated by injuries. And adding to the sense that the show is cursed, it’s not only up against a live HBO boxing doubleheader, but Showtime has decided to counterprogram also with a tape-delayed broadcast of Arthur Abraham vs. Mahir Oral.

Top Rank, however, has, to use an appropriate boxing clich├®, rolled with the punches. The matchmakers have done their best to fill the undercard holes, and the company doesn’t feel its bottom line will be significantly affected.

“There’s a lot of hope for this card on pay-per-view, we’re hoping for the 100,000-buy range, and it hasn’t been altered by the undercard changes,” said Top Rank publicist Lee Samuels. “With the Latin Fury shows, you can make money doing 100,000 units or close to it. The scope and the expectations changed when the Pavlik fight fell out, but once Lopez became the main event, all that’s changed is the undercard, and we think we’re fine on that front.

“For example, Montiel is a great champion, but Arce is extremely popular, and we were fortunate that he was training for a fight and we could move him onto this card. Lopez will carry sales on the eastern seaboard. We needed a southwest presence, and Arce gives us that. And we have a niche audience for Vanes Martirosyan. We’re really pleased with how this show looks right now based on what we’ve been through.”

Then Samuels added with a laugh, “Now, let’s just hope the show stays together.”

Samuels gave credit for preserving the show to Top Rank matchmakers Bruce Trampler and Brad Goodman, who never panicked when fight after fight got derailed. That’s because they’re veteran matchmakers who’ve seen it all.

“This happens,” Trampler said. “It happens every day, I deal with changes every day. Usually Monday is a sick-call day, when fighters call in and tell us they got hurt training over the weekend. I deal with changes every day, it’s part of putting shows together.”

Yes, injuries have always been a part of boxing, and matchmakers have always had to scramble as a result. But this particular rash of cancellations forces the question: Are fighters quicker to back out nowadays than they were in the past? The answer may be yes, but even if it is, that doesn’t necessarily mean today’s boxers should be criticized; it might just mean that boxers in the past were excessively stubborn, bordering on foolish.

“I agree that it seems recently, more fighters are pulling out of fights,” said veteran ringside physician and RING contributor Dr. Margaret Goodman. “However, in the past there should have been more fighters pulling out of some fights. It would have perhaps saved their career and even their life. It is tough for a fighter to turn down a TV fight or a nice payday. But there are times when their trainer, who knows them best, should have helped them make the decision to not fight. No fighter is ever 100 percent; that is a given. But certain conditions are just not conducive to going 12 rounds.”

Where the line is drawn on canceling a fight often depends on how much money is involved and what a fighter’s status is. An undercard fighter can pull out without destroying the whole promotion. A superstar fighting for eight figures might develop a higher threshold for pain in order to keep the event from collapsing.

Samuels cited a specific example in Oscar De La Hoya, who fought under the Top Rank banner for most of his career.

“Oscar always fought through his injuries,” Samuels said. “He was very injured going into the [Felix] Trinidad fight, he rolled his ankle, had a knee injury. And he’s fought with hand injuries and stuff. He just was one of those guys who battled through injuries to do these giant pay-per-views. And there are other fighters like him, especially when the big money is on the line. It leads me to believe that Mayweather’s rib injury must be really bad to postpone the show.”

That’s a logical conclusion to draw. But there are also plenty of conspiracy theorists who wonder if Mayweather is injured at all. After all, his fight with Marquez, scheduled for July 18 at the height of the uncomfortable Las Vegas summer, was reportedly off to a poor start at the gate. It’s widely believed that if moved to September 19, Mexican Independence Day weekend, it has a better chance of selling out and even flowing over to closed-circuit venues in Vegas.

And that’s not the only cancellation/postponement that has caused eyebrow elevation. As noted earlier, though Top Rank officially denies it, ESPN.com’s Dan Rafael reported that Pavlik’s hand injury was not significant enough to postpone the Mora fight, but his unresolved contract issues (which have since been resolved) were.

And some wondered if Haye was really hurt or if he (a) reconsidered the danger in fighting the much bigger, probably much better Wladimir Klitschko, or (b) was worried about getting paid as promised by the financially struggling Setanta Sports. The skepticism built in the days after he announced the injury, when it seemed to take unusually long for the Klitschko camp to receive a doctor’s report from Team Haye.

In Dr. Goodman’s experience, she’s found that concrete proof of injury is sometimes hard to come by.

“We would always make the fighter produce proof. However, certain conditions or the seriousness of them, such as a rib injury, muscle strain or pull, are difficult to confirm,” she said. “The doctor can only go by what the athlete is telling him. There have been many times in my experience when a fighter has pulled out of a card and offered proof when it seemed the situation was exaggerated or convenient.”

For boxing fans, there’s nothing convenient about what’s happened the last few weeks (except maybe for Chagaev being available to fill in against Klitschko this past Saturday). It’s been frustrating to watch a promising June/July stretch for the sport go south, especially because August is always a slow month in boxing. The summer, as a whole, will be a forgettable one for fight fans, and it’s not because quality matchups weren’t made.

The promoters, matchmakers and networks all did their part. The fighters’ bodiesÔÇöor perhaps in some cases, their mindsÔÇöjust didn’t cooperate.

Hopefully, like Lightweight Lightning two months earlier, this Saturday’s pay-per-view show will still deliver entertainment worthy of its price tag. And if not, you can’t hold it against the matchmakers. To criticize the effort they’ve made would be an unfair way of adding insult to injury.

RASKIN’S RANTS

┬À As Samuels reminded me, the off-TV undercard in Atlantic City this Saturday has Matvey Korobov, Demetrius Hopkins, Mario Santiago and Omar Chavez in action. It’s refreshing to see a promoter doing a little something with the untelevised portion of the card to ensure that first-time fight-goers aren’t also last-time fight-goers.

┬À Following up on last week’s column and the question of whether Wladimir Klitschko will be appreciated more after he’s gone, I think if he continues winning fights like Saturday’s bout against Chagaev, that’s exactly what will happen. It was a near-flawless but at the same time forgettable performance. If he keeps doing that against the best a bad heavyweight division has to offer for another three or four years, his reign will have been long and distinguished enough that we’ll look back fondly on it, conveniently forgetting how dull most of it was. Maybe Wladimir will be boxing’s answer to Ivan LendlÔÇöthe numbers are impressive, but we spent his whole prime wishing someone more colorful, like an aging Jimmy Connors or a young Boris Becker, would bump him off.

┬À As for last weekend’s not-so-forgettable fight, thank you, Jean Pascal and Adrian Diaconu, for letting it all hang out. You have to love it when a can’t-miss matchup turns out even better than you expected. And who knew Pascal, who I once labeled an extremely poor man’s Roy Jones, would have a little poor man’s Matthew Saad Muhammad in him and produce two Fight of the Year contenders in two years?

┬À So Mayweather-Marquez will probably happen in September, and Manny Pacquiao-Miguel Cotto is about 99 percent certain for November. If you’re Shane Mosley, who four or five months ago wanted nothing to do with young lions who lacked pay-per-view-ready names, aren’t you now thrilled if you can convince Andre Berto to fight you? Life just isn’t fair sometimes.

┬À On the one hand, thank goodness ESPN stepped in 11 years ago and rescued mid-level weekly boxing when USA cancelled Tuesday Night Fights; on the other hand, how much longer do we have to put up with Friday Night Fights getting bumped because a college baseball game can’t end within three hours of expectations? I’m no TV executive (if I was you’d probably see Artie Lange hosting a show on my network and Joe Buck banned from ever appearing), but unless the College World Series is pulling American Idol-level ratings, I’d consider showing some loyalty to the audience that tunes in for your boxing show every single week while I move the run-over of the baseball game to ESPN Classic.

Eric Raskin can be reached at [email protected]

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