Boxers Facing the Most Concerns in 2014
Sergio Martinez is an established champion, and Adrien Broner a rising star. But both men will start 2014 with the eyes of the boxing world watching them closely.
Boxing is a sport that leaves little margin for error. At the world-class level, small details can have gigantic implications.
Age-related deterioration that would go completely undetected in a regular person can be cruelly obvious in a boxing star. Behaviors and attitudes that would be considered normal for most young men show up as a crippling lack of discipline in the fight game.
When you make your living trading punches with other trained fighters, there are always reasons to be concerned.
Last April, Guillermo Rigondeaux turned in what might have been the year's most impressive display of technical boxing, beating pound-for-pound star Nonito Donaire with ease while unifying the WBA and WBO super bantamweight titles.
But that outstanding performance has failed to pay off for Rigondeaux where it matters most, with the broadcasters and the paying public. Even his own promoter, Bob Arum, was telling ESPN's Dan Rafael last July that HBO "throws up" every time he mentions Rigondeaux to the network.
George Foreman once famously said that boxing is like Jazz, because "the better it is, the less people appreciate it." Consider Rigondeaux Exhibit A.
I still hold out hope that more fans can learn to appreciate what we are seeing with the immensely talented Cuban. And Rigondeaux has fight-ending power in both hands, so the potential is there for him to have exciting fights, if only the proper opponents can be found.
Nonito Donaire's loss last April to Guillermo Rigondeaux sent him tumbling from his spot high up in the pound-for-pound rankings. Although he did manage a Round 10 knockdown of the Cuban star, Donaire was otherwise completely outclassed by Rigo.
Donaire has been one of the most exciting fighters in the sport in the past five years. He's recorded multiple highlight-reel stoppages of world champions and future Hall of Famers.
But even in his return fight in November against Vic Darchinyan, Donaire looked far from spectacular. He seemed to spend the entire fighting looking to land the one or two big punches that could end things quickly.
Eventually, he found those punches, stopping Darchinyan by Round 9 TKO. But the energetic Darchinyan had built a lead on the cards.
Donaire should be a long way from finished in the sport. But fighters often grow old quickly, especially athletic punchers like Donaire.
As he enters 2014, a lot of fans are wondering if he has entered the downside of his career.
Between 2010 and 2013, Abner Mares emerged as one of the sport's most exciting and talented young fighters. Last May, Mares stopped tough veteran Daniel Ponce de Leon by Round 10 TKO, making him a three-division world champion.
Mares' stock was running so high before his August defense against Jhonny Gonzalez that his promoter, Richard Schaefer, even told Boxing Scene that Mares deserved to be the pound-for-pound No. 2 in the world, behind only Floyd Mayweather.
Everything came apart in a hurry once he got in the ring with Gonzalez, though. The former world champion blitzed Mares in the opening round and shocked the boxing world by recording a Round 1 KO.
Almost anybody can get caught with a big punch at the world-class level, so it's wrong to write Mares off based on this single slip.
On the other hand, it's a brutal setback to return from. Mares had reached such a high place in the sport, his fall could not help but be steep.
He'll have some tough climbing in front of him in 2014.
Ricky Burns has been a terrific story in the sport over the past few years. The WBO lightweight champion is a domestic star in the United Kingdom who managed to elevate himself onto the world stage.
That's made him a big draw in his native Scotland, and regional stars like Burns are very good for the health of the sport.
But 2013 was a tough year for him. In May, Burns was far behind on all three cards when the inexperienced Jose Gonzalez quit on his stool with a busted hand after Round 9.
In September, Burns faced the well-traveled Raymundo Beltran and was extremely lucky to save his title with a draw. A lot of boxing fans will tell you that was the worst decision of the year in 2013.
Some of them would probably even do it in a Scottish brogue.
Burns fought almost the entire way against Beltran with a busted jaw and had a titanium plate inserted during a post-fight operation. That's a testament to his heart and toughness, but it doesn't mean he didn't deserve to lose the fight.
Things won't get any easier for Burns in 2014. In March, he faces unbeaten Terence Crawford, perhaps the most skilled young fighter in the division.
This was supposed to be the year Adrien Broner showed the boxing world that he was indeed the future. And it's true that Broner spent a good chunk of the year strutting and preening his way through public appearances.
But inside the ring, 2013 certainly did not go the way Broner planned. In June, he barely escaped with a split-decision win over Paulie Malignaggi. I thought Broner deserved to win, but I also thought it was clear that he wasn't the pound-for-pound top 10 fighter that his promoter's magazine, The Ring, was holding him up as.
In December, Broner was beaten up when he faced Marcos Maidana, getting knocked down twice and suffering the first loss of his professional career. I actually thought Broner showed a lot of heart and resiliency during the fight.
What he didn't show was an ability to make adjustments and use defensive movement to get out of Maidana's way or to throw enough punches to slow the Argentinian down. Broner landed some clean, flush punches on Maidana, but it was obvious that he doesn't have Earth-shaking power as a welterweight.
Broner irked many fans by quickly leaving the ring after the decision was announced, rather than waiting to do the traditional post-fight interview. I often think it's unfair to put a microphone right in front of an athlete who has just received a bunch of head trauma, so I'll personally give Broner a pass on that matter.
But for Broner to break through in 2014 and finally reach the level he's been telling everybody he belongs at for the past couple of years, he's probably going to need to do some growing up.
Sergio Martinez fought just once in 2013. In April, he made a homecoming to his native Buenos Aires to defend his lineal middleweight title against unbeaten, but unheralded, Martin Murray.
Martinez was knocked down in Round 8 and escaped with a close, unanimous decision. After the fight, Martinez went in for surgery, making 2013 the second straight year he has gone under the knife.
The next time Martinez steps into the ring, he will be 39 and will have undergone multiple surgeries in the past two years. This is not an ideal situation for any fighter, let alone one who relies on an athletic style to the degree Martinez does.
Every boxing publication and website I read has been speculating that Martinez's first fight back will be against three-division world champion, Miguel Cotto. Cotto is a future Hall of Famer, but it's hard for me to view him as a credible threat to Martinez, who will have Cotto beat by three inches in height, seven in reach and will have considerable advantages in explosiveness and athleticism.
If Martinez is serious about remaining the lineal champion at middleweight, he's got a lot more reason for concern than Cotto, though. Gennady Golovkin and Peter Quillin are both undefeated, both have belts and both have high KO percentages.
They also both deserve to fight for the lineal title. In 2014, Martinez ultimately needs to defend or get out of the way.