Who’s under more pressure to win?
Mikkel Kessler is under a great deal of pressure to beat Carl Froch after he was beaten up by Andre Ward. Photo / Alexis Cuarezma-FightWireImages.com
We know what pressure does to pipes. Enough trainers, commentators and trainers-turned-commentators have spelled that out for us over the years.
But what pressure does to fighters isn’t so predictable. It can go in one of two extreme directions. For some, pressure busts them as surely as it does a pipe. But for others, pressure inspires them, pushes them to perform at their highest levels.
We’re entering into potentially one of boxing’s biggest years ever, a year that could theoretically be loaded with the kinds of fights that fans dream of. And the bigger the fight, the greater the pressure.
Looking at the various fights that either are already signed for 2010 or, barring unprecedented levels of stubborn stupidity, will be signed for 2010, one of the interesting questions to consider is this: Which fighter is under more pressure to win? Every elite fighter wants to win, but in most major bouts, there’s one who needs to win more than the other. So here’s a look at five fights possibly awaiting us in the new year and an exploration of which of the combatants is under more pressure to prevail:
Manny Pacquiao vs. Floyd Mayweather: What a relief to talk about this fight in terms that don’t involve drug testing, posturing promoters or law suits.
The fight is almost certainly going to happen, but there have been tense moments along the way. Big deal. Don’t negotiations for every Pacquiao fight “collapse” at least once before the fight is signed? When a fight has been “on” one day and “off” the next enough times, a lot of fans lose interest until something is official. But what we have remained interested in all along is the matchup. We care about how Pacquiao and Mayweather’s styles are going to mesh. We care about what the fight means in a historical sense. And we care about what losing would mean to either man.
And one look at the zero at the end of Mayweather’s record tells you to whom losing would be more devastating and, in turn, who is facing the greater pressure to win. Mayweather is a great boxer; of this, there is no doubt. But his claims of all-time greatness are constructed largely on the foundation of his perfect record, and if and when that vanishes, his “greatest of all-time” argument goes from ringing hollow to not ringing at all. The reality is that a fighter doesn’t need a perfect record to be considered the best, but Mayweather has painted himself into a unique corner where perfection does matter for him.
He also faces the pressure of being the naturally bigger man. If Pacquiao loses, he can say size had something to do with it (even if that isn’t true, he can say it) and move back to 140 pounds, where he is the lineal champion. He can remain enormously popular and a sensational attraction even as the No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. That’s not something we can as safely assume with Mayweather. So in the end, it’s “Money” who needs the win more desperately than Pacquiao does.
Shane Mosley vs. Andre Berto: As much as Mosley wants to keep winning, in hopes of forcing the public to demand that the Mayweather-Pacquiao winner fights him, the truth is that, from a legacy standpoint, it’s all gravy from here. He’s accomplished plenty, with titles in three divisions and two separate career-defining wins nearly a decade apart. Pressure is something Mosley felt when he was trying for his first title against Philip Holiday. It’s something he felt when he was trying to break through to the elite level against Oscar De La Hoya. But at 38, it’s not something Sugar Shane has to concern himself with anymore.
Berto, on the other hand, stands in a spot similar to the one Mosley stood in when he faced De La Hoya nearly 10 years ago. Berto has an alphabet belt, but nobody who understands the “one world, one champion” concept views him as the welterweight champ. He’s beaten several fringe contenders. Now he’s stepping up to the big leagues. It’s a classic make-or-break situation. Win, and you’re one of the brightest young stars in the fight game. Lose, and you go back to the middle of the pack. Lose emphatically, and the “next Jeff Lacy” columns start popping up all over cyberspace.
“He’s a future Hall of Famer, just came off a tremendous fight with (Antonio) Margarito,” Berto said of Mosley at the kickoff press conference back in November. “I’m the young buck of the crew.”
That pretty well sums it up. It’s a guy whose Hall of Fame resume has already been built against a guy with almost no resume to speak of. Mosley is favored to win, but the underdog, Berto, is the guy facing the heavier load of pressure.
Kelly Pavlik vs. Paul Williams: Among the fights under discussion here, this one is by far the furthest from reality. It’s a fight that makes complete sense for both fighters and the fans, and a contract between the two was successfully hammered out in the past. But for the moment, there are no serious negotiations going on, no date picked out, no reason – other than simple logic regarding what’s best for the sport and for all involved – to assume this middleweight championship fight will happen.
But if it does, the pressure will be squarely on the champion. Pavlik’s reign has been a disappointment. In the two years and three months since he knocked out Jermain Taylor to become the hottest thing middle America had produced since Britney Spears, Pavlik has made three title defenses, against Gary Lockett, Marco Antonio Rubio and Miguel Espino. Next in that sequence would presumably be Shemp.
It’s not entirely Pavlik’s fault that his title challengers have been significantly weaker than the last couple of guys he fought before winning the middleweight championship (Jose Luis Zertuche and Edison Miranda). The division isn’t deep with worthy contenders, he’s had health problems and two of his three challengers have been alphabet mandatories. But the fact remains that due to his spotty schedule and his one-sided loss to Bernard Hopkins, Pavlik has lost the respect of the boxing public. He needs to beat a serious threat, like Williams, to get it back.
If Pavlik loses to Williams, his title reign is a mere blip on the radar of middleweight lineage. Williams can afford the loss because he can just drop down to 154 pounds and become the man to beat there. Pavlik can’t afford a loss to anyone right now, not even a pound-for-pound entrant like Williams.
Arthur Abraham vs. Andre Dirrell, Carl Froch vs. Mikkel Kessler: We’re lumping these two together because the theme is so similar. These are second-round Super Six matchups involving a fighter with high hopes but zero points. There’s no debate about who’s facing the greater pressure in each fight. It’s Dirrell and Kessler, the guys who need to win in order to (a) avoid a second consecutive defeat on their records and (b) position themselves for a semifinal berth.
For Dirrell, it’s a case of a talented prospect potentially losing any forward momentum he was developing by taking on the two best opponents of his career back-to-back. Physically, he can recover from losing (certainly Dirrell’s loss to Froch wasn’t overly punishing). But mentally, going from 18-0 to 18-2 can prove devastating, instantly eroding a young man’s confidence and/or determination.
For Kessler, another loss – particularly one against a straight-forward fighter like Froch – would be suggestive of a veteran of 44 fights suddenly having lost a couple of steps at age 30. In a way, the Dane is under more pressure than anyone else in the Super Six right now, since he was favored at the outset to win it all. After being routed by Andre Ward, Kessler is now in desperation mode. Maybe Froch will present just the right style for him to get back on track. Or maybe Kessler is at just the right point in his career to enable Froch to pull off the upset win.
Israel Vazquez vs. Rafael Marquez: For the most part, the pressure is off. Vazquez and Marquez have both taken something out of each other and their fourth fight is more about pride and a paycheck than it is setting up future opportunities. Sure, the winner could move on to a significant fight at featherweight while the loser could be done at the world-class level. But this fight is really about legacy – and in two senses, the legacy pressure is on Vazquez.
First, he currently leads the series 2-1. If Marquez loses to him again, well, no big deal, he would be the loser in this series even if there hadn’t been a fourth fight. But if Vazquez loses, he loses his lead in the series.
And second, Vazquez’s Hall of Fame hopes are less secure. By virtue of his long reign at bantamweight, his legendary wars with Vazquez and the reputable Marquez name, Rafa is pretty much a sure thing for Canastota. Vazquez could be on the path to induction also, but he’s less of a lock than Marquez. A win in this fourth fight moves him a step closer; a loss moves him a step farther away.
Maybe that’s not pipe-busting pressure. But it’s still a level of pressure that Marquez won’t be feeling. And it’s up to Vazquez to channel that pressure into something that drives him to victory once again.
ÔÇó Looking at the recently announced schedule of ESPN2 Friday Night Fights cards for the first couple of months of 2010, there’s no question which date is most appealing: Feb. 19, when Fernando Guerrero takes on Jesus Gonzalez and Shawn Porter meets Damian Frias. What’s so special about this show? It’s basically a ShoBox show disguised as an FNF broadcast. And when was the last time you saw a bad ShoBox show?
ÔÇó No disrespect meant to everyone who has voted in the polls on RingTV.com and Yahoo! Sports, but these results have reinforced my belief that you can’t let the fans determine award winners. The editors of THE RING still select the magazine’s official awards, and that’s as it should be. It’s all well and good to let the public have its say, but the fact that Juan Carlos Salgado-Jorge Linares got only six percent of the vote for Upset of the Year demonstrates clearly the flaws in letting the public choose official awards. Shane Mosley-Antonio Margarito was infinitely more mainstream than Salgado-Linares, so even though it was a far less shocking result, many fans voted for it based purely on awareness. Along similar lines, I’m convinced Round 3 of Pacquiao-Cotto got some help in the Round of the Year voting because those fighters are much better known than Marcos Maidana and Victor Ortiz or Luis Carlos Abregu and Irving Garcia. Popularity contests are fine for unofficial purposes. But, at the risk of sounding like a snob, the official decisions should be made by the experts.
ÔÇó I sure hope Danny Green’s hands were wrapped legally for his fight against Roy Jones. Two things the sport of boxing doesn’t need right now are another cheating controversy and an excuse for Jones to keep fighting.