This Friday, December 12th, current WBA Light Middleweight champion Erislandy Lara (19-2-2, 12 KO's) defends his belt against former IBF champion Ishe Smith (26-6, 12 KO's) in an intriguing matchup of a very specialized counterpuncher versus a defensive veteran. The two were originally scheduled to fight last March, but Lara pulled out in favor of an opportunity to fight Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, one of the most recognized names in boxing.
A Little Backstory
The champion Erislandy Lara's story is one of new beginnings. The Cuban is one of the most avoided boxers in his weight class; no one in his division wants to fight the crafty southpaw who sports an impressive a 320-10 amateur record and won the 2005 amateur world championship. Lara, however, could not turn pro after his stellar amateur run due to Fidel Castro's ban on Cuban professional sports, so he, like a several other Cuban boxers, defected to America. He first attempted to leave in 2007 after the PanAmerican Games, but was caught by Brazilian authorities and subsequently suspended indefinitely. Two years later, Lara managed to escape to Mexico, smuggled in a tiny speedboat for over 120 miles, linked up with American promoters, and began to fight professionally, but in doing so, left behind his entire family and two sons.
The challenger Ishe Smith's story is one of revival. A talented 1996 Olympic hopeful, the Las Vegas-born fighter began his professional career with an outstanding 15-0 record, and quickly gained publicity through a boxing-based reality show, The Contender. However, Smith's career crumbled as quickly as it was built. Irregular matches and unimpressive performances, coupled with personal issues and divorce led to a downward spiral in the former prospect's life.
While battling for custody of his kids and suffering financial troubles, Smith even contemplated taking his own life, but held on and eventually, in 2012, pound-for-pound great Floyd Mayweather brought Smith in as a sparring partner. Floyd saw championship potential in the struggling boxer and signed Ishe under his promotion. Smith won his next two fights before winning the IBF Light Middleweight Title from the gritty Cornelius Bundrage in 2013. Smith would lose the belt in his next bout by a close split decision, but his career resurgence was nothing short of spectacular.
I could probably write an entire novel on the nuances of Lara's incredibly specialized counterpunching game, but for the sake of this preview, I'll boil it down in to three main parts: excellent ring movement and distance control, potent left hand setups, and a solid movement-based defensive system.
Lara (white trunks) outmaneuvers his opponent, Alfredo Angulo, while landing punches and taking nearly no damage
This sequence is one of the best illustrations of how effective Lara's elusive style is when he melds all three aspects seamlessly together. As a counterpuncher, Lara is constantly trying to create collisions with his opponent by forcing them to chase him and walk into his punches. The Cuban's movement is on display in this clip as he starts off with a slick right hook while pivoting away from Angulo's advance. Lara's nimble footwork then continues to keep the Cuban just out of range of his slower opponent's punches while he peppers Angulo with shots of his own.
When Angulo finally manages to push in close to Lara, the Cuban throws a vicious left uppercut and circles out to his right again, resetting the distance. This causes Angulo to chase after him, and walk into a perfectly timed straight left hand, after which the Cuban ducks under his opponent's returning flurry and moves to create even more distance between them. Lara's slick footwork and ability to control and reestablish distance are what make him an incredibly frustrating opponent; you will not look good fighting Erislandy Lara.
Compared to his dynamic counterpunching defense, Erislandy's offense is looks quite stationary and simple, yet remarkably effective. His offensive game consists almost entirely of setting up his powerful straight left with a jab, and then clinching afterwards to nullify any return fire.
Jab-left-clinch. All day long.
Lara starts with a right jab to gauge distance, then immediately fires his left hand through his opponent's guard, and clinches his opponent to neutralize their counterattack. Rinse and repeat. Though simple, Lara's speed and impeccable timing allows him to land this effective 1-2 combination over and over again without taking much return damage.
Similar to Lara, Ishe Smith is a defense-minded counterpuncher; however, Ishe's defense consists of a high guard, constant head movement, and level changes to duck and avoid taking damage as opposed to Lara's footwork and movement.
Smith (dark gold trunks) constantly leans or ducks to avoid punches, and even when throwing punches, keeps his head on the outside of his opponent's shots
Unlike Lara's effective, but one dimensional offense, Smith is comfortable throwing combinations and almost always fights behind multiple jabs. Whereas Lara will plant his feet and wait for an opportunity to throw his two punch combination, Ishe likes to use 2-3 jabs with his left hand to both advance on his opponent and bait them into reacting to his offense, which he'll use to look for counterpunching opportunities.
In this sequence, Ishe uses his jab to set up his opponent (Ryan Davis) for more damaging punches. Notice how Davis' right hand is constantly swatting at Ishe's left hand even before Ishe throws his left jab. Smith realizes that just by feinting, he can get Davis to react and throw out his right hand in an attempt to block more jabs. Seeing that his opponent's reactions became predictable, Smith sets up Davis by throwing two solid jabs into his outstretched hand, and then when Davis attempts to preemptively block what he thinks will be another jab, Smith throws two looping left hooks that swing right around Davis' extended blocking hand. Very clever stuff.
I sometimes joke that Erislandy Lara embodies the true meaning of Christmas: He likes to give a lot more than he receives. Other than Guillermo Rigondeaux, Lara is one of the best examples of the Cuban hit-and-not-get-hit style in professional boxing today. The Cuban southpaw possesses tremendous athleticism, great footwork, slick reactions, and a great sense of distance and timing. Lara is excellent at causing his opponent to question their game plans because he so good avoiding his opponents' punches while landing his sniper-like left hand.
Watching Lara fight, it is easy to see that Lara's knowledge of lead foot placement is second to none. Erislandy Lara fights out of a southpaw stance (with his right hand forward) and such knowledge of foot placement is essential for setting up his strong left hand. For those of you unfamiliar with standard southpaw vs. orthodox tactics, here's a crash course:
Picture 1 illustrates a standard southpaw vs. orthodox matchup (orthodox on top, southpaw on the bottom). Notice how the two boxers' front hands are close together (and get in each other's way), but their back hands (typically their power hands) are much further apart. If the southpaw wanted to throw his stronger left hand from this position, he has to cover a much greater distance and would be very open to counters from the orthodox fighter.
The southpaw-orthodox fight is a constant positioning battle to reduce the distance the power hand has to travel. This is accomplished by stepping outside the opponent's lead foot, as seen in Picture 2. Once the southpaw is outside the orthodox opponent's lead foot, his left hand is much closer to the target and lined up straight through the opponent's guard.
Lara not only uses his lead foot to set up his left, he is also constantly aware of where his opponent's feet are to open up further offensive opportunities.
Watch Angulo's lead left foot as he steps in to pressure Lara. He steps in inside of Lara's lead foot, setting himself up for Lara's left hand, and the Cuban seizes the opportunity to rock Angulo with a blistering punch straight through Angulo's high guard.
As I've said before, Ishe is very good at causing his opponent to react to his jab to create more offensive opportunities. Through forcing his opponent to move, Smith can land effective punches by predicting where his opponents will be, and then intercepting them with punches.
In this sequence, Ishe pushes Davis back with jabs while advancing towards the left side. Davis sees this and attempts to circle out to his left, only to run directly into Ishe's looping right hook. The right hook, for an orthodox fighter, is a slow punch because it is both thrown with the back hand, and, being a curved punch, travels a much greater distance than a straight punch (basic geometry). However, Smith throws it knowing that his offense will force Davis to try to circle out to his right side, and uses the hook to intercept his opponent's movement.
Ishe Smith is also a great body puncher. He mixes body shots well in his combinations, and is effective at using head slips to set up his blows without taking damage up close.
Ishe rolls under Davis' punches, using his motion to throw strong punches to his opponent's torso, and then attacks Davis' head while he hunches over to block the bodyshots.
Attacking the body is a great way to slow down opponents by disrupting their breathing and racking up long-term damage. The forehead is designed to take trauma, but the abdomen is not. A good punch to the head will rattle you for maybe half a minute, but a proper body punch is something you'll still feel the next day.
First off, for how effective Lara's minimalistic offensive game is, it is highly predictable. It is very easy to tell when Lara is looking to throw his hard 1-2 combination because he will break from his constant movement, plant his feet in a very wide, bladed stance, and wait.
Every. Single. Time.
This is seen several times in his fight with Canelo Alvarez; if Lara couldn't get Canelo to chase after him, Erislandy would plant his feet in a wide stance and wait for an opportunity to set up his left hand. If he was pressured or disrupted, Lara would circle away, create some distance, adopt the same stance, and wait....again.
Lara (white trunks) eats a jab from Canelo and move away. Seeing that Canelo is slowly walking him down rather than chasing, Lara plants his feet again and waits to set up his 1-2 combo, only to be uprooted once again by Canelo's power punches.
I keep on stating that Lara looks his best when he can blend his slippery movement with his accurate counterpunching game. However, especially in the later rounds, Lara has the tendency to shift between two "modes". There is "Active Lara Mode" in which the Cuban looks great, using his movement and range control to set up punches and counterstrikes, and there is "Defensive Lara Mode". This is when Lara uncharacteristically adopts a tight high guard, moves into his opponent, and attempts to either throw a left hook or left uppercut as his opponent proceeds to whale on the suddenly stationary Lara.
Can you spot the mode shift?
Though Lara's defense is tight, it is never good to give an opponent opportunities to land free punches.
Ishe Smith is a crafty veteran, but he lacks both athleticism and stopping power. Out of 26 wins, he's only stopped 12 opponents. Yes, he did knock out his last opponent, journeyman Ryan Davis, but Davis lost over half of his fights by knockout and is nowhere near the top 50 in his weight class.
Smith also has the tendency to drop his hands when he throws combinations, especially when he changes levels and alternates between strikes to the body and the head.
In this sequence, Smith hits a nice level change under Davis' jab and moves in closer with jabs of his own. Once he has Davis backed up to the ropes, Ishe begins to unload punches to the head and body, but eats a very wide and telegraphed left hook from Davis that he could have easily blocked if his hands were up. For a precision puncher like Erislandy Lara, Smith can't afford to leave any openings, especially if he tries to close the distance on the Cuban counterpuncher.
Though Smith has good head movement and can actively avoid shots while throwing punches, he has a habit of ducking low and to his right when he predicts his opponent will jab and try to move forward.
This is effective because Ishe ducks low enough to avoid his opponent's punches, and despite being quite exposed, he uses his opponent's step in to get close enough to clinch and nullify further offense. Against an opponent as accurate and patient as Lara, however, this could be incredibly dangerous. Should Lara be able to bait out Ishe's low duck with a body feint, Ishe will put himself directly into the crosshairs of the Cuban's dangerous right hand.
Lara (black and red trunks) feints with his body and causes his opponent to cover up and attempt duck away from a nonexistent punch, giving Lara an opportunity to drop him with a powerful left straight.
What to Look For
Both of these men are defense-oriented fighters, but on paper, Ishe Smith has the more diverse offense. Look for him to try to close the distance with his jab to set up combinations with a lot of body punches in the early rounds to try to slow Erislandy Lara down. The Cuban, on the other hand, will likely start with a lot of movement to try to frustrate Smith with his distance and ring control get him to walk into Lara's dangerous left hand.
This is a bout that Lara should win decisively. He possesses speed that far outstrips Ishe Smith, who does not have the stopping power to threaten his movement. So long as Erislandy can continuously outmaneuver Ishe and not give up later rounds in "Defense Lara Mode", this looks to be a long, frustrating night for Ishe Smith.