The recent controversial decision of Devon Alexander over Lucas Mattyhysse brought out a few backhanded compliments like: "No one gets credit for missed punches like Alexander." Conversely, Doug Fischer of THE RING magazine blames Matthysse for "taking his foot of the pedal" since Matthysse was in his opponent's proverbial backyard the logic goes that he "can't complain."
Now, is Devon Alexander a puppet of promotional invesment and is Lucas Matthysse a world beater robbed of his rightful place as champion? That’s for you to decide. But, this debate brings to mind a broader question.Which fighters know how to look like they are winning? And, how do they manage to pull of the semblance of victory when CompuBox and popular opinion differ?
The first thing to get out of the way are actually ones like this Alexander / Matthysse fight because if the result is simply a hometown-gift decision, then there is nothing interesting going on- only corruption.
However, when there is real strategy behind "appearing to win" I am interested in charting the variations.
"Finish strong and be flashy"
Muhammed Ali had a strong boxing I.Q. which complimented his physical talents. Especially later in his career he could throw combinations which might not have equalized the amount of punishment he took, but seemed to take over command of the ring. In addition to eye catching activity in spurts, Ali was well aware that saving something memorable for the last few rounds would help sway judges on a close fight.
"Flurries steal rounds"
Sugar Ray Leonard is infamous for his alleged-ed robbery of Marvin Hagler. I personally believe that Leonard won fair and square, and he did it in part with flurries. Some might consider quick arm punches amateurish, but what they lack in power they make up for in misdirection. They have the dual benefit of demonstrating activity and distracting an opponent from a hard punch that they didn't expect. The fact is flurries are useful for a judge that wants help where neither fighter has landed something significant in the round.
A young Oscar Delahoya was a great fighter to watch, partially because he had fast hands and powerful left hook, but partially because he just kept coming. In his controversial win over Pernell Whitaker, Delahoya may have been slowed by the defensive genius but not discouraged enough to stop throwing just because he missed or was blocked. Later in his career Delahoya failed against such opponents as the larger Hopkins and the slicker Mayweather Jr. but his active work rate always helped him seem competitive even in defeat.
"A good chin makes the other guy look bad"
Julio Cesar Chavez certainly discouraged his opponents with relentless pressure and heavy hands, but he also built up his hall of fame record by knowing how to take a punch. When you take a combination of punches to the head and continue coming forward it makes those punches seem less powerful even if they really had weight behind them. This strategy is a combination of rolling with the punches, a strong chin, and sometimes acting. If you compare Chavez fight with Roger Mayweather compared to Pernell Whitaker's fight with Roger Mayweather you'll notice that the Pernell fight seems a lot closer even though he threw more punches then Chavez against the mutual opponent simply because Pernell was more effected by getting hit.
"Don't get hit clean"
Floyd Mayweather Jr. throws very few punches for a winner, and this is testament to both his accurate punching as well as his ability to evade return fire. If you manage the feat, evading direct shots to your head really makes you look good. This might seem like a truism, but the fact is sometimes even a thudding body blow is harder to notice then a short jab toward the head. This is especially true in close fighting that might shield some judges eyes from the action. The shoulder roll technique also concedes that the opponent is throwing punches, but suggests they "shouldn't count" because they are being "caught" even when they do land. During the opening rounds of the Zab Judah fight, in which, Judah was much busier than Mayweather, but the commentators couldn't help but notice Mayweather's defense as well.
Bernard Hopkins is now honored for being a crafty fighter, but what does that mean exactly? Some people might suggests its simply a euphemism for what might be illegal clinching or rabbit punches. However, Hopkins is also crafty in subtle ways, he knows how to hold without looking like he is the one who wants to be holding. He knows how to throw a combination and then feint enough to catch his breath. He knows when to showboat to help win a fight instead of just as a way to laminate his victory. Hopkins drew on all of these techniques to bewilder and discourage Jean Pascal on his way to becoming the oldest boxing champion ever (in Pascal's backyard).
"Be loose and return fire"
Manny Pacquiao has had many incarnations, both literally and figuratively in the ring. Two, specific instance stand out as examples of Pacquiao looking like a winner without having to do very much more than his opponent. In what would be his coming out party George Foreman commented that Pacquiao didn't need to box the champion Ledwaba just to fight him. Pacquiao had an obvious strength advantage in that case, but his willingness to return a combination rather than reset his defense kept his lighter-weight opponents from gaining ground on the scorecard. The second instance was mentioned by Emmanuel Steward early in Pacquiao's fight with Miguel Cotto. Pacquiao's in-an-out movement and "odd angles" were eye catching and seemed to have purpose even before the punches were thrown in numbers.
"Write the narrative."
Willie Pep is an old time boxer who is still famous in part because of a legend of his own devising. Pep who was an elusive and quick fighter, claimed he would win the third round of his fight with Jackie Graves without throwing a punch. Crucial to the story is that he bragged this plan to a few reporters before the fight so they know what to look for. I find this technique is both used inside and outside the ring, outside the ring certain fighters will call or predict a certain fighting style which can frame the way people then judge the outcome. However, within the ring, each round is a story where both boxer's struggle for authorship. This debate is sometimes obvious when both fighters stand toe-to-toe until the bell, but sometimes the arch is more subtle. Its the difference between rounds that sometimes tells the tale. Has a fighter been pressuring the first two rounds then resorted to boxing in the third? If so, I think judges tend to attribute this to being the other guys choice, giving him the round even if the output is equal.
So, who actually won?
In the above examples, I purposefully chose not only winners, but champions who knew how to look like they were winning. In almost all of the above cases, not only did they look like they were winning but were certainly winning by every criteria including appearances.
This is crucial, because after all, ring generalship and halting your opponent are legitimate things by which a judge will score a fight. However, perhaps in all fights there are close rounds which don't truly belong to either fighter. In these cases, we can only imagine it is the superior winner-of-rounds that gets the score.
What other ways do you think fighters learn to look like they are winning?