Scouting Report Special Edition - From Prospect To Contender - Part 2 of 2

Thank you once again for checking back in. Two days ago we started a discussion about the challenges a prospect faces regarding his strengths and weaknesses. We covered how even a good-looking prospect can have trouble breaking through to the world level if he doesn't manage to minimize or protect his weaknesses. We gave examples of highly-touted prospects who looked good overall but failed to make it big due to one big weakness they were never able to fix or overcome. Conversely, we gave examples of how some of history's great fighters successfully managed some of their deficiencies, and we even delved into how even a not-so-hot looking prospect can make it big by taking maximum advantage of their biggest strengths, even if there aren't many of them.

But, I would like to take the opportunity to extend the discussion towards one of my favourite topics - dealing with the other man in the ring.
Because while strengths and weaknesses are important and are the core of most boxers' gym work (and pretty much the bread and butter of our Scouting Reports), most of the stuff we judge, like hand-speed, footwork, head movement, reflexes, power, movement ... could literally be judged in front of a mirror, or a heavybag. It is such a theoretical thing to say: 'this guy has fast hands' or 'this guy puts his bodyweight behind his punches'.
But this week, when researching failed prospects of different types, I ran into a common theme. When prospects failed at some point in their career, it oftentimes wasn't a case of something they couldn't do at all ever, but more often a case of something they didn't do in the ring. The same guy you see in the gym or in front of poor opposition throwing combinations, changing angles, hitting hard, being active... the same guy all of a sudden doesn't throw as much as he is used to, gets passive, can't pull the trigger, starts taking punches and the next thing you know he is taking a beating and not firing back enough or at all. And I would like to attempt an explanation of that, try to figure out why even prospects with all the tools sometimes can't quite put it all together in the ring.

My theory is based on the idea that every high-level boxer has a style, a list of things he is used to do, a gameplan he usually pulls off. They are used to fights going a certain way. And if you've been following this series at all, you see this very clearly in the videos we post of each prospect's early bouts. If we post 5 or 6 or 7 early fights for each guy and you watch them all, they kind of look the same for most prospects. It's like you're watching the same fight 5 or 6 times. Because if a young fighter fights visibly inferior opposition, they will be able to use their naturally superior gifts to make the bout look pretty much the way his pad-work or heavybag work looks in the gym.

We saw Oleksandr Usyk, a stick-and-move ice skater of a fighter. We saw Brian Castano, who likes to jump in and unload on opponents from close range. We saw Jose Carlos Ramirez who likes to lean to the left and attack the opponent's liver.
But the biggest challenge is when two boxers meet in the ring, who are both gifted and who are both used to having the match go a certain way. To me, this is the first real test a prospect faces, and a very good indicator of whether he will actually succeed at the world level is how he deals with what I call ... drumroll ...

The 5 Challenges of Gameplan Disruption

1) How Much Of Your Gameplan Are You Able to Maintain?

This is probably the most complex and at the same time the most subtle test a fighter needs to pass. Most of one's early opponents, like most heavybags, tend to stand right there in front of you and let you get off as many of your preferred moves as you like.

But there a several things a quality contender can do to prevent you from settling into your rhythm. From subtle angles, movement, preventing you from establishing range, to sheer aggression and attacking you so much that you can't find an opening to unleash your own offense. What's even worse is that many opponents downright specialize in neutralizing gameplans. Guys like Bernard Hopkins, Richar Abril, Anselmo Moreno, heck, even Floyd Mayweather or Erislandy Lara love nothing more than to move awkwardly, use crappy angles, unorthodox shots, 'broken rythm' punching or movement, 'shifting' to intentionally confuse and disorient opponents.

And it oftentimes works against even the most experienced opponents, guys who've seen dozens and dozens of styles in the ring and in the gym. Watch Juan Manuel Marquez - Manny Pacquiao 3 and notice how Marquez uses the straightforward technique of constantly circling his back foot clockwise to manoeuvre his torso away from Pacquiao's power left hand. Whether you scored the fight for Marquez or Pacquiao, it is undeniable that Pacquiao feels considerably more awkward in the ring against Marquez than against other fighters, and has trouble throwing and landing his punches. And remember, Marquez isn't even a spoiler-by-trade, he wants to draw you in and exchange. In fact, Marquez is a bit of a brawler at heart, and even he can frustrate an opponent's rhythm. Not to mention specialists like Carlos Molina (like when he frustrated James Kirkland) or Richar Abril (Brandon Rios bout anyone?).
But, predictably, not all prospects fail their first awkwardness test. For an example of a young fighter successfully managing to keep and impose his fighting style against a spoiler, watch Abner Mares successfully bully Anselmo Moreno and trap him against the ropes with bullrushes, nullifying his lateral movement with sheer speed, offensive anticipation and stubbornness. And then watch Leo Santa Cruz learn that lesson and use his judo-like shoulder 'throw' to get Mares to over-shoot his attacks and end up off balance.

2) How much damage are you able to inflict with the part of the gameplan that you do manage to squeeze in

This part is the easiest for a prospect to navigate. Even assuming that the opponent takes, say, two thirds of your gameplan away, fighters should learn to concentrate and maximize the (fewer) opportunities that they do manage to create for themselves. Let's look at a few examples of succeeding and then failing at this game.
When Carl Froch faced George Groves the first time, it was a big surprise to see Froch thrown off his game significantly by Groves' insistent and quirky attacks. Froch didn't let go of his hands nearly as much as he usually does, he was forced back and he was more inaccurate than usual. But although he was losing rounds, he did sneak in at least a little amount of power in each of them, and by the later rounds, Groves was really beginning to feel the pain, although he was still controlling the action and his gameplan had not yet been derailed. Whether you agreed with the ultimate stoppage of the fight or (more likely) not, it is clear that by the late rounds Groves had accumulated quite a bit of punishment even though Froch wasn't as active or as accurate as usual.
As a counter-example, how about Jorge Linares's bout with Antonio DeMarco, where Linares had 11 rounds to basically do his thing more or less at will, yet didn't manage to get DeMarco out of there, didn't break his will and didn't tire him out enough to prevent a powerful comeback rally in the 11th that ended the fight.

Or how about Erislandy Lara's bout against Canelo Alvarez, where he managed to get his moving / eluding game going pretty well, above expectations actually, but didn't manage to turn it into too many clear rounds. Potshotting worked for him, but only to the tune of not getting caught or trapped, but not to the level of embarassingly slapping Canelo around from the back foot like Floyd did. And even if you scored that bout for Lara, you have to admit that he was hardly getting enough power punches in to make things definitive.

3) What backup plan can you come up with should your main plan not work

This one is pretty straightforward. As much success as prospects or young contenders have with their style, you can't really assume that said style will always be enough to win every bout you are ever part of. It's not inconceivable, of course, but very improbable. So ideally encountering an opponent who can nullify your style shouldn't be a dealbreaker and fighters should train for the eventuality that they will have to switch to something different.
As an example of successfully pulling this off, how about Viktor Postol's victory over Matthysse? Our own Scott Christ's sum-up of the fight tells the entire story:

Early on, Postol also used a lot of well-timed clinching to aid his cause, but when referee Jack Reiss put a firm stop to that, Postol was able to use his hand speed, timing, and accuracy to frustrate Matthysse, moving around and cleverly outboxing him for a lot of the fight.

Examples of failure to do so costing a fighter victory could probably be every fight ever lost by anyone. But for a straightforward example, how about Gary Russell Jr. failing to pull anything else out of his bag of tricks when his handspeed clearly didn't help him win rounds against Vasyl Lomachenko.

4) How much of your opponent's gameplan can you take away

This is an important aspect of defense that perhaps doesn't get discussed enough.

From a technical standpoint, a good defense means avoiding incoming punches by dodging them with upper body movement, or absorbing them with a tight guard, or moving away out of their range by using fleet footwork etc...

But from a tactical standpoint, an even better plan is to get your opponent to stop throwing at all. There are numerous ways to do this. Subtle ways include constantly changing angles, moving in directions and in positions they are not used to, peppering them with shots from unusual positions. A more traditional approach is to set traps and counterpunch them until they start being reluctant to throw for fear of returning fire. Or you can just do the grab-and-hold and foul, or keep them outside of their preferred range if you have the length and the jab... Or heck, it even works to just attack them so brutally they become too desperate defending themselves to start organizing much of an offense.

But the point is, most boxers should be at least partially trained to employ some form of opponent neutralisation. The more you let an opponent do what he wants, the more likely it is that you will start taking damage. This art of opponent neutralisation is very much associated with veteran fighters. The younger a fighter is, the more likely it is that he doesn't know how to adapt their neutralisation techniques to each opponent. Which makes prospects especially vulnerable in this category.

Quick examples of this art:

How about Tyson Fury frustrating Wladimir Klitschko so much he wasn't even throwing anymore. Fury failed to get his game going. He also failed to hurt Wladimir with the little punching he was managing. But he sure as heck took everything away from Wladimir and that's what won him the bout.
On the flipside, how about the Juan Manuel Lopez - Orlando Salido fights? Juanma managed to get much of his offense going. He was also visibly doing a lot of damage to Salido with it. But his inability to stop Salido's offense ultimately cost him, because he let Salido tee off as much as possible. And to his credit he also managed to take a lot of that punishment but all up to a certain point. Because when 9,10 or 11 rounds have passed and your opponent is still throwing and landing at will, the damage takes its toll.

5) How much of the damage your opponent does inflict can you withstand

This one is probably the mother of all prospect-killers. It's Mike Tyson's 'Everybody's got a plan until they get hit'. Every prospect who got blown out by the first puncher to put hands on him can fit into this category, and we gave plenty of examples in our previous piece: Tyrell Biggs, Pete Rademacher, Willie De Wit, Billy Fox were all mentioned as guys whose career sort of fell apart after the first beating they took, but let's throw a few other names in there for fun: how about Johnny Bumphus, Engels Pedroza, or how about 1988 Seoul Olympics Gold Medalist Andrew Maynard? If you haven't heard too much about these fighters... now you know why.
But recent history actually provides the perfect example for this category: huge heavyweight prospect David Price was a wrecking ball that knocked out all British contenders in his path and was even laying a bit of a beating on veteran Tony Thompson until Thompson landed a few power punches. And as it turns out, this wasn't even an isolated event, as Price proved repeatedly in subsequent bouts that even if his opponent managed to land even a teeeny-tiny bit of power, it would be enough to take Price out, even if they weren't otherwise able to disrupt his plan.
Obviously there were plenty of prospects who did encounter adversity early and proved they could take it. Heck, we recently covered Evander Holyfield who found himself in a dogfight in his very first professional fight and would continue to do so for the rest of his career, never floundering in front of adversity. And other young fighter who proved their toughness early were James Toney, Gene Fullmer, Carmen Basilio, Randall 'Tex' Cobb, Juan Laporte, Daniel Zaragoza, Timothy Bradley, Arthur Abraham etc...

Now, given that the conversation about gameplan disruption has shifted away from our initial point (young prospects), let's circle back to that, shall we? The problem with prospects versus my "5 Challenges of Gameplan Disruption" is that in their early, developmental bouts, most prospects only get to test out one of these in-ring situations, which is no.2: how much damage are you able to inflict upon a target that doesn't have the tools to prevent you from following your gameplan. And that is all nice and well, as we've seen in all of our videos, prospects manage to beat up hapless journeymen quite a bit. Hurray for violence! And the reason they are able to do that is that 90% of the opponents they face are kind of used to being pushed around and beat up and don't have the ability or the physical/technical tools to even attempt to impose a gameplan of their own.

But most prospects do not fail at this level. They rarely get blown out by a journeyman or a gatekeeper. The biggest challenge and the biggest failing point for prospects is when they first step up to the fringe world level. Where they first encounter a veteran fighter who is used to imposing his gameplan and his way of fighting on other competent contenders. Opponents who themselves come in thinking the bout will go the way they are used to see it go. And this is the point where you will see technically and physically brilliant fighters get frustrated and beaten up by technically and physically inferior fighters. And the answer is not technical. The fact of the matter is, most of the time it won't be a case of going back to our scouting reports and say: 'well it was his lack of head movement that did him in'. The answer to the riddle of why inferior fighters beat superior prospects is almost always tactical: they managed to take away their strengths while maximizing their own strengths through tactical adjustments.

And we have had visible clues of something like this happening in some of our previous scouting reports. We saw Callum Smith, a fighter with superb physical and technical gifts, and with a very clear and successful plan be pushed into abandoning said plan by fighters such as Nikola Sjekloca and Cristopher Rebrasse, who are continental-level contenders at best. At no point was Smith at a technical or physical disadvantage, but he let himself be pushed away from his strengths and had to grit his way out of the situation instead of boxing himself clear.

So in closing, I would like to reiterate once again the opening idea of this 2-part piece. Scouting what a prospect can and cannot do is a great start to try and tell where he is headed. But the real test is not what he can do in the ring but what he does do in the ring. And paying little to no attention to tactical training is a sure-fire way to end up with a fighter that can do spectacular things, yet surprisingly just does not do them when faced with tactical gameplan disruption challenges.

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