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Pacquiao vs Algieri: Vasyl Lomachenko, Jessie Vargas, and the Covered Lead

For too long orthodox fighters have been fed misinformation about the methods essential to defeating a southpaw opponent. On November 22nd, Vasyl Lomachenko and Jessie Vargas helped to disprove the myths of open stance fighting.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

It's always enlightening to analyze open stance matchups--those in which an orthodox boxer meets a southpaw--likely because there is no end to the misinformation on the subject. One of the most widely proliferated myths is that which surrounds the lead hand, a weapon which is supposedly all but nullified by an opponent who stands in the opposite stance to one's own. Time after time, fighters are taught to eschew the lead in these matchups and opt for the supposedly more useful rear straight instead. And since the lead hand is the jab hand, and so much of modern boxing science is built on the foundation of this one weapon, is it any wonder that so many orthodox fighters fall to pieces when faced with a slick southpaw?

The concept falls apart under even slight scrutiny, but it simply refuses to go away altogether. Fortunately, there are plentiful examples of fighters utilizing their leads to tremendous effect in open stance bouts. Saturday's HBO pay-per-view was replete with fighters who skilfully employed what I call the "covered lead."


Why the term "covered lead?"

Well, the traditional wisdom is that jabs are nullified in open stance because of the position of one fighter's lead in relation to the other's.

From this basic neutral position, both fighters must bypass the other's lead hand to score with the jab. This obstacle doesn't preclude the jab entirely, however, any more than most boxers' tendency to keep their right hand close to the jaw negates the effectiveness of a good left hook. All that's needed is a bit of misdirection.

November 22nd, on the Pacquiao-Algieri undercard, two fighters showed just how effective the lead hand can be in an open stance fight.

The first was Jessie Vargas, a skilled if somewhat inconsistent fighter, who made brilliant use of his jab (as well as the left hook and uppercut) to dismantle the tough and eternally game Antonio DeMarco. Early in the fight, Vargas used his long jab to keep DeMarco off-balance and tentative, leading to a convincing decision win down the stretch.

When southpaws and orthodox fighters meet, they often exchange pawing jabs, both fighters extending their lead hands to check that of the opponent. When the fighters do intend to land their jabs, this usually turns into a sort of game, with both fighters fighting to get their lead glove on top of the opponents, whence they can slap the obstructing limb down and throw the jab over the top. The orthodox Vargas, having fought a number of skilled southpaws in his career, knows this game well, and convinced DeMarco to play along with him.

Above, you can see Vargas (in the red) extending his left arm and tapping down on the top of DeMarco's right hand, as if testing to see whether or not he can throw the jab over the top. After a few taps, DeMarco starts to catch on, and raises his right hand to achieve that top position himself. Vargas touches his palm a few more times, to convince Vargas that he is merely playing the game with him, and then suddenly steps in with a hard, and very straight jab that shoots in under DeMarco's hand, catching him clean on the jaw. DeMarco starts feinting his own jab, but he still responds to every one of Vargas' touches by lifting his right arm and catching the punch in his palm, so Vargas steps in once more and jabs him in the chest.

The other fighter on the Pacquiao-Algieri card to make excellent use of a covered lead was Vasyl Lomachenko, the Ukrainian super prospect who met Thai journeyman Chonlatarn Piriyapinyo in one of four open stance bouts that night. Lomachenko, a southpaw, always makes excellent use of his lead against orthodox fighters, but his performance on the 22nd was particularly impressive, as he broke his left hand mid-way through the bout and was forced to use his right hand almost exclusively for the rest of the night.

Above, you can see Lomachenko sticking Chonlatarn with a perfectly timed jab as the Thai marches forward, demonstrating another method of getting past an opponent's pesky lead hand. In the last sequence, the jab was thrown from a more or less neutral position, with the toes of both fighter's feet being pointed directly at one another. Because the jab follows the line of the lead foot forward, it becomes necessary to go over or under the opponent's lead hand when attacking in a straight line. By positioning his lead foot to the inside of the opponent's, however, Lomachenko manages to bypass his lead hand altogether.

The clever thing about Lomachenko's footwork is that he moves in such a way that his opponent ends up doing a lot of work for him. Chonlatarn, determined to land his right hand, spent much of the bout vying to get his left foot outside and past Lomachenko's right. But in doing so, he lined up Lomachenko's dangerous jab. Check out the diagram.

When one fighter attempts to step outside the lead foot of his opponent, he is positioning himself for a rear-handed punch. Not only does the step shorten the distance between his rear hand and the opponent's chin, but it lines the rear hand up, placing the center-line of the opponent's body directly in front of the rear shoulder, from which the punch can be quickly and effectively driven home.

This is, however, a limited and one-dimensional strategy--one which far too many orthodox fighters rely on thanks to the aforementioned "jab myth." As a result, Chonlatarn was completely unprepared for Lomachenko's stinging jab, which the Ukrainian threw nearly every time he attempted to line up his rear hand. In the GIF above, you can see Lomachenko circling to his right, forcing Chonlatarn to turn to keep up with him. When Lomachenko suddenly stops, the Thai seizes the opportunity to position his feet for the rear hand, lining himself up for Lomachenko's quicker right hand in the process.

Lomachenko took frequent advantage of little angles such as this, throwing both preemptive punches and reactive counters. When countering, Lomachenko made free use of both hands, selecting his punches based on the body position of his opponent.

Here, Lomachenko counters a Chonlatarn right hand. As the Thai lunges forward with his punch, Lomachenko pulls back and watches it sail harmlessly by. From this vantage point, Lomachenko has a clear path to the right side of Chonlatarn's body and head, which prompts him to counter with his left hand. A rear-handed hook to the body and a short left uppercut to the head drive the Thai back to the ropes. As Chonlatarn retreats, he pulls his head back over his right leg, and in the process shows Lomachenko the other side of his head. The Ukrainian capitalizes, now punching with his right hand. His lightning jab catches Chonlatarn twice before he can manage to fully reset himself.

The covered lead can be dangerous as a long-range jab, but it is the hook which makes a case for being the most dangerous weapon in any open stance encounter. Lomachenko used his right hook to great effect.

The right hook is particularly dangerous against an opposite-stance opponent for two reasons: first, it starts much closer to the target than the cross, which means it can strike with greater immediacy; second, its arc is very often concealed by the opponent's own lead hand, another reason for the term "covered lead." With his own left shoulder and glove concealing the punch, Chonlatarn was almost completely unable to avoid it.

Above, you can see Lomachenko simply threatening with the left hand, touching Chonlatarn's gloves and prompting him to cover up. Once the Thai obliges, Lomachenko is able to sit down on a series of hard right hooks that slip, unseen, around Chonlatarn's left hand and throught he gap in his defense, clipping him hard on the side of the jaw.

In boxing, few things are more feared than the southpaw. Time after time, orthodox fighters convince themselves to deliberately limit their set of tools, eschewing the jab to land the supposedly more effective right hand, despite the fact that the southpaws consistently use covered lead tactics to great effect against them. What works for one will always work for the other, given the right understanding--but first, the myth of ineffective jab needs to die. The more we study fighters like Lomachenko and Vargas, the more real that possibility becomes.

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