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Couldn't Get Ahead: Reflections on an Exasperating Year of Boxing, Part 2

Jacob Mazer concludes his look back at a largely down year for the sport of boxing.

Chris Hyde/Getty Images

A couple years back, Rolling Stone ran an article concerning the dying days of E. Howard Hunt, the arch-duke of C.I.A. spooks who'd dirtied his hands in every covert creepshow from the Arbenz coup in Guatamala to the Bay of Pigs to the Watergate break-in. Hunt, the article reported, had given a deathbed testimony to his once estranged son St. John Hunt, confessing his involvement in the assassination of John F. Kennedy and tracing the web of conspiracy up the ladder to Lyndon Baines Johnson. To boot, the younger Hunt had caught it all on tape, though these were not available to the public.

Around that time, I had the Kennedy assassination in the brain. I was living in New Orleans, regularly warming Lee Harvey Oswald's old barstool at Le Bon Temps Roule, hanging around 531 Lafayette St. imagining a hungover Guy Bannister slithering out of his P.I. office, stalking up and down Canal picturing Oswald passing out leaflets for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, New Orleans division. I'd racked up astronomical late fees at the public library, all on books about Oswald, and I'd resolved to paint thirty-three pictures of the assassin.

The consensus was that the ostensible confession tapes delivered nothing solid, but it had to mean something coming from Hunt himself. I was certain some new doors on the case would be opened. Surely the moment of truth was nigh. The thought sent me into a haze of exhilarated anxiety that lasted for a couple of months. I imagine it was similar to the feeling of the early Christian millenarians, believing that the messianic age would be starting up any day.

Time passed. I never paid my library fees. I managed to paint only two pictures of Oswald and they were both lousy. The Hunt confession receded back into the quagmire of ontological uncertainty that's come to characterize the Kennedy mystery. I left New Orleans. Life on planet Earth rarely delivers conclusive denouements. Maybe this is why we watch boxing.

Of course, the sport has its own set of disappointments and unsolvables. The last few weeks have produced new signs that the long-awaited Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight might finally be coming. It's in the air. But until there is definitive confirmation, I say treat it like word of smoking gun evidence in the Kennedy case and believe it when you see it. For the moment, let's leave it there.

Last week, I began a reflection on the year of pugilism past. I devoted most of that column to grousing about mismatches and the creeping shadow of Al Haymon across the boxing landscape. But maybe we can recuperate this calendar cycle as a transitional period. Despite 2014's low barnburner yield, there have also been plenty of interesting developments that prime the way for what looks to be an exciting 2015. Here are a couple of things that made me take note.

There were two high-profile fights in 2014 that held big questions on paper but proved one-sided in practice.

In 2013, after a decision loss to Austin Trout, it appeared that Miguel Cotto's best days were behind him. In June, Cotto bored through Sergio Martinez, claiming the WBC middleweight title and likely retiring the man who had held it for the last four years. The immensity of this accomplishment comes with a qualification- Martinez, thirty-nine years old, coming off knee surgery and a fourteen month layoff, did indeed look old, hobbled, and rusty. But I was impressed not just by the fact of his victory but by its manner, which to my eyes indicates that Cotto is still adding new touches to his game and is a live player at middleweight.

First of all, we know that his power translates to 160-pounds. But I was particularly impressed with Cotto's feet in the ring, which is evidence of his fruitful relationship with new trainer Freddie Roach, who excels at developing mobility. Cotto's distance control was superb and his footwork was as sophisticated as I've ever seen it. Facing the southpaw Martinez, Cotto repeatedly worked his lead foot inside his opponent's, blasting him with a looping left hook from outside his field of vision. Beautiful stuff.

Light heavyweight Sergey Kovalev had been scoring high marks on the eye-test for some time, but in November he jumped into the deep end against the ever-tricky Bernard Hopkins and emerged looking like the real deal. Kovalev has power in both hands and a brain inside his skull. He staunched Hopkins by pressuring and outworking him, but did so without overcommitting or stepping into the veteran's web. Kovalev is not resting on his laurels either, and looks to have a great year ahead of him. In March, he'll fight Montreal's hard-hitting Jean Pascal, who is a threat of a totally different sort, and the once-averted showdown with WBC titleholder Adonis Stevenson seems to lie ahead.

It has felt like stagnant waters in the heavyweight division for some time. When was the last time we saw Wladmir Klitschko really challenged in the ring? Maybe against Tony Thompson six years ago? I view the apparent trajectory of UK heavyweight Tyson Fury towards the Ukrainian champion as a very promising development. Despite his 6' 9'' height, Fury is fleet-footed. He has a great jab and he works well out of an orthodox and a southpaw stance. He also knows how to work in clinches, which is important, because a fight with Klitschko means there will be clinching, and not just every once in a while. Fury as not been in the ring much over the last few years for various reasons, but after calmly decimating Dereck Chisora a few weeks ago, he stands as a mandatory challenger to the Ukrainian.

Will it happen in 2015? Fury is scheduled to fight Christian Hammer in February. It looks like Klitschko is going to fight Bryant Jennings in April, and there's been some speculation that, should he win, his next opponent will be the victor of the Deontay Wilder - Bermane Stiverne matchup. But he and Fury seem to be on a path of convergence.

There has been a swell of good fighters coming to prominence in the featherweight division. In 2014, Jamaica's Nicholas Walters did a number on Vic Darchinyan, then did did a number on the first guy to do a number on Darchinyan, Nonito Donaire. Neither opponent was in their best years, but all things considered, Donaire was not that far removed from a great run, and Walters cut a swath through him.

One name floated as a potential Walters opponent is Ukraine's Vasyl Lomachenko. Lomachenko, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, is only four fights deep into his professional career, but is making a fast ascent. In his third professional fight, he soundly outboxed the hyped speedster Gary Russell Jr. to win the WBO Featherweight title. His fourth fight, against Thai veteran Chonlatarn Piriyapinyo, saw him finding novel ways to fight with one hand, having injured his left in the seventh round. I'm excited about this guy- he's showed versatility, athleticism, craft, and a game spirit that is a very welcome presence in any division.

There are other good fighters at featherweight -- I'm thinking of Abner Mares and Jhonny Gonzales -- but let's not forget that lurking four pounds south is El Chacal, Guillermo Rigondeaux, who even in his current exile from major network bills remains one of the best fighters in the world. The popular sentiment is that the Cuban fighter is a boxing maestro but doesn't have the style to attract an audience. That's not the most generous line, but repeat it enough times and it starts to build into a legend. The core boxing audience knows him, other boxers certainly know him, and they understand that facing him means credibility and that beating him would be a big statement. I do think Ridondeaux's reputation as a dangerous and avoided fighter is growing, and that his best moment is yet to come. If he can't find good opportunities at 122-pounds, perhaps he will consider seeking them a few pound up, where a lot of fighters look hungry.

The welterweight division has been a talent-loaded weight class in this era and looks to stay hot in 2015.

That Amir Khan has talent and potential has never been in doubt. The question is, how much does his weak chin (and moreover the bouts of recklessness that get it touched) limit that? Lately, under the tutelage of Virgil Hunter, Khan has been more focused and defensively responsible. He shut out Devon Alexander two weeks ago in an impressive and controlled fight. Has he come into his own?

Keith Thurman has had some buzz behind him for a while now, building a reputation as carrying a punch to be reckoned with. In his bout with Leonard Bundu on the Khan-Alexander undercard, Thurman displayed some new wrinkles to his game. The power-puncher fought a heady match against the little-known but crafty Bundu, boxing well off his back foot, switching fluently between stances, and displaying patience. Thurman looks to be more than a pair of heavy hands; let's hope he gets some bigger fights in the coming year.

Thurman is one of several fighters stepping into the higher levels at 147 pounds. Danny Garcia has indicated that he may move up to welterweight if big fights don't materialize at junior welter. Kell Brook's defeat of Shawn Porter in August brought the English fighter into the mix as well. He's a skillful boxer with power- here's hoping the machete he took to the leg during his post-victory vacation doesn't nip his new success in the bud.

These days, the ambition of everyone at welterweight is a showdown with Floyd Mayweather, which promises more prestige and more green that just about any other matchup. Mayweather has stated that he will retire at the end of 2015, giving him just two more fights. The World Boxing Council plans to hold an eliminator tournament matching the best fighters at 147-pounds and 154-pounds- the divisions in which Mayweather holds titles- to determine who will hold the vacated belts, or, if Floyd stays in the game, to produce a qualified opponent. Who knows how this will actually play out, but it points in the direction of fights between accomplished fighters, which was something sorely missed in the year past.

Alright, let's do Mayweather-Pacquiao.

There's talk going around that this time it's for real. Maybe it is, maybe it ain't. If there's any single factor which gives the buzz more gravity, it's that Mayweather's retirement is on the horizon and the Pacquiao fight is an important legacy match.

The rest, as I see it, is ineffables. I think that one reason the sense of anticipation is so strong right now is that the Pacquiao-as-white-hat, Mayweather-as-black-hat narrative is getting a lot of traction these days. Ironically enough, I attribute some of this to Pacquaio's brutal knockout loss to Juan Manuel Marquez in 2012. The sight of the felled Pacquiao gave the Filipino fighter a sense of precarious vulnerability that hadn't been there before. Since then, it has cast his recent victories in the light of a comeback march, one posed against Mayweather's dominance. It's one of these curious chemistries of boxing, that Pacquiao, a titan in the sport, is cast in an underdog role.

Let's be frank- gossip has also been a main ingredient. We hear about Pacquiao giving audience to Manila's poor in his home like Daenerys Targaryen in Mareen, while on the other side of the globe, we hear that Floyd has been some kind of a cyber-witness to a murder-suicide. Mayweather has fueled his bad image with some major-league public boorishness over the last year, from tweeting personal information about ex-girlfriend Shantel Jackson to his no-big-deal comments about the Ray Rice domestic abuse scandal. The latter struck an especially bitter chord considering Mayweather's own history of violence against women. (It should be noted here, if only because it is so frequently glossed over, that this record is not theoretical. There is a well-documented history, and he's been found culpable by a court of law, despite Mayweather's Schroedinger's cat-like proposition that "everything has been allegations, nothing has been proven, so that's life.") There's a lot of desire out there to see Floyd get some kind of personal comeuppance, and it gets sublimated into fight speculation.

There is a dimension of boxing that concerns culture and myth; there is another that concerns only the practice of the craft. Sometimes they overlap, sometimes they don't. Whatever conclusion you draw about the accuracy or relevance of the public image of these men, should they meet in the ring, the pressing question is, what will happen? Is it even a competitive fight?

For what it's worth, here's my opinion. Floyd Mayweather is really, really good at boxing. He's excellent in the middle of the ring and he's excellent on the ropes. His hands are fast, his punches are crisp, his defense is first-rate, and he has a protean adaptability to ring scenarios. It seems impossible to beat him.

That said, Pacquiao brings some relevant pieces to the table. Even late into his career, he has exceptional hand and foot speed, which he uses to find awkward and unusual angles. He's known for his straight left, but he has power in his right hook as well. He works in bursts, staying outside the pocket, darting in to deliver combinations, then exiting again, a manner which sometimes makes a counterpuncher's job difficult. Mayweather's metier is to read his opponent's patterns and work off of them, and I think Pacquiao's speed and angles give him a lot of different variables to solve. Whether that's enough for Pacquiao to win, I don't know, but I do think Manny is in that fight in a real way.

That's my take at least. I'm interested to hear yours- not just about Mayweather-Pacquaio, but about what you see coming to bear in 2015.

I don't know whether we'll see Floyd fight Manny this year. If we do, I don't know who wins. I don't know who is really responsible for the Kennedy assassination either. I feel a little more zen these days. I can live without knowing the truth about Lee Harvey Oswald or the identity of the three tramps or the E. Howard Hunt connection. And I suppose I can live not knowing who wins Mayweather-Pacquaio too, but I hope I won't have to.

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