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Sunday, June 26, 2005
Boxing--- The crowd in Atlantic City, New Jersey hated Floyd Mayweather, Jr. with a passion before his fight with hometown favorite Arturo Gatti on Saturday night, but somewhere around the middle of the fight, that hatred turned into respectful silence and an unspoken sense of awe. If Gatti was the boxing hero of the Atlantic City crowd, Mayweather seemed downright superhuman by comparison with his extremely lopsided TKO victory over Gatti.

Though it's tempting for many people to bury a fighter right after a big loss, especially a one-sided loss, the fact remains that Arturo Gatti is a great fighter. He's not a bum, as many people with knee-jerk reactions are now suggesting. He's a great fighter who was just completely out-classed by a far greater fighter. In dominating Gatti the way he did, Mayweather didn't just "beat a bum who isn't that good anyway."

Despite all of Mayweather's pre-fight trash-talking about Gatti, you could tell that Mayweather really did respect Gatti as a fighter and understood the gravity of what he had just accomplished when he fell to his knees and had an emotional celebration right after the fight was stopped.

As MaxBoxing's Thomas Gerbasi wrote after the fight, "Arturo Gatti has unquestionably been the most popular fighter of this era," but after Saturday night's fight, "Floyd Mayweather, Jr. left no doubt that he is the best fighter of this era." There is a difference between those two places in the boxing hierarchy, and Mayweather's performance reminded everyone of what that difference is.

Substance Beats Style as Mayweather Joins Hopkins and Wright with Victories over Boxing Superstars
As I've said before, I tend to prefer substance over style in sports, particularly in boxing. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the "popular, exciting fighter with the huge fanbase" as much as the next guy, but there's just something more appealing to me about the "under-appreciated, superior fighter who is one of the best in the world and doesn't get his fair share of recognition."

In the past twelve months, it has been rewarding to watch three of the best boxers in the history of the sport finally get their due on a national mega-fight, pay-per-view stage, and to see each of them get that recognition by defeating three boxers who were at the very least over-appreciated, and at the most over-rated. First we saw Bernard Hopkins finally get the respect that he deserves from the legions of Oscar De La Hoya fans when Hopkins dominated De La Hoya last summer. Then just last month, the flashy and extremely popular Felix Trinidad got completely shut out by the far superior Winky Wright (which I wrote about here). And now we've seen Arturo Gatti's loyal fans stunned into silence by the superior boxing skill of Floyd Mayweather, Jr.

How Mayweather Sets Himself Apart From the Dominance of Hopkins and Wright
All three of those fights were dominant performances by superior boxers, but there's something that sets the Mayweather-Gatti fight apart from the other two fights. Bernard Hopkins did indeed dominate Oscar De La Hoya, but no one is going to argue that it was among the most one-sided fights in boxing history. Winky Wright's victory over Felix Trinidad was one of the more dominant performances you'll ever see, but one could still say that it was accomplished primarily on a tactical level and that it didn't have as much of the visceral edge that many boxing fans need to see in order to understand what a dominant performance they just witnessed.

On the other hand, in the whole style vs. substance discussion, Floyd Mayweather, Jr. has both the style and the substance. Mayweather not only dominated Gatti from a tactical standpoint on Saturday night, but to be blunt he also just plain beat the crap out of Gatti. As dominant as Hopkins and Wright were in their fights against Da La Hoya and Trinidad, you can't really say that they beat the stuffing out of De La Hoya and Trinidad in the way that Mayweather beat the stuffing out of Gatti. In addition to being a showcase of technical brilliance, Mayweather vs. Gatti was also a vicious beating in a "Raging Bull," Sugar Ray Robinson vs. Jake LaMotta kind of way.

What was so beautiful about Mayweather's performance is that he not only landed tons of clean body and head shots to elicit the ooh's and aah's from the crowd; he not only thoroughly out-slugged one of the best sluggers in the game; but he also dominated the fight from a tactical standpoint at the same time. Yes, Mayweather beat the stuffing out of Gatti, but he set it up with the constant use of one of the best jabs in the sport.

The Most Important Factor: Freakish Speed on Both Offense and Defense
Even more than the jab, the main factor that prevented Gatti from landing a single significant punch in the entire fight was Mayweather's almost freakish speed. Mayweather has superhuman reflexes with his defensive upper body and head movements, in addition to superhuman hand speed with his punches, and that's a nasty combination for anyone to go up against.

So, not only could Mayweather get completely out of the path of any Gatti punch before the punch was even there, but in the time it would take Gatti to brace himself for the counter-punch, Mayweather would have already landed a three-punch combo in retaliation. Five- and six-punch combos from Mayweather were not rare in this fight, and they were delivered at the speed of most other boxers' two- or three-punch combos. During one particular exchange, I counted what I believe to be a nine-punch combo that landed for Mayweather in a span of two to three seconds. As Gatti said after the fight, "It was the speed... he was too f---ing fast."

Gatti's Corner Does the Right Thing and Stops the Fight
It was apparent almost from the first few exchanges that Gatti was not in Mayweather's league and was going to have an extremely hard time beating him. The only question was whether Mayweather would get tired from throwing (and landing) so many punches, but as the HBO commentators pointed out, this is a guy who spars 10-15 minute rounds in training, so it wasn't likely that he was going to get tired anytime soon.

In the sixth round, it became all the more clear that the fight was a lost cause for Gatti, as he was no longer able to intelligently defend himself, and his eyes were starting to swell shut from the sheer amount of punishment he had taken. Gatti's head trainer Buddy McGirt knew that the fight needed to be stopped after the sixth round and wasn't about to send Gatti out to take more punishment, which can result in serious injury or death in boxing. Even as Gatti continued to show the heart of a champion that has made fans love him, asking McGirt to give him one more round, McGirt did the right thing and stopped the fight as he told Gatti, "I'm stopping it... I'm stopping it... no more, your eyes are swelling shut... we've got to stop it."

It's nice to see a corner in boxing that's not full of slimeballs, which is just the opposite of the despicable display from several of Mike Tyson's cornermen in Tyson's last fight when it was clear that the fight needed to be stopped (which I wrote about here).

A Great Addition to the HBO Announcing Team
Max Kellerman made his debut with HBO as a top-level analyst working alongside Bob Costas, while the fights themselves were still called by Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, and Roy Jones, Jr. Kellerman was as insightful as always and was a breath of fresh air to the broadcast. The person who normally works alongside Costas on HBO pay-per-views, Emanuel Steward, wasn't on the broadcast team on this particular night because he is the head trainer of Vivian Harris, who was fighting on the card (Steward is also the trainer of the Klitschko brothers). Steward is very good as a broadcaster as well, and I hope that HBO can have Costas, Kellerman, and Steward all on the air together for future boxing broadcasts.

Vivian Harris' Shocking Loss in the Semi-Main Event
Unfortunately for Steward, his fighter Vivian Harris came into his second-from-the-top fight with an overconfident and arrogant attitude. Harris is a boxer who is constantly lauded by boxing pundits as someone who is underrated and can't get any of the top fighters to fight him, but he didn't do himself any favors with his performance on Saturday night.

It was clear that Harris completely overlooked his opponent, Carlos Maussa. Harris clearly thought he would have no problem plowing right through Maussa with a reckless, balls-to-the-wall, all-offense style, and he did have Maussa hurt in the first two minutes of the fight, before Maussa turned it around and almost finished Harris in the last minute of the first round. I might understand pride getting the best of someone at the beginning of a fight, especially when they're heavily favored to win as Harris was in this case. However, it's harder to explain the fact that even after Maussa almost finished Harris at the end of the first round, Harris still went with a reckless, haymaker-happy strategy for several more rounds instead of reverting to the more traditional boxing style that has given him so much success in his career.

In addition to being arrogant and underestimating his opponent, Harris also appeared unwilling to listen to his corner's pleadings to slow down and stop fighting so recklessly. He almost seemed defiant, wanting to disagree with anything Emanuel Steward had to say, just for the sake of disagreeing. After the sixth round came to a close and Steward asked Harris to sit down on the stool in the corner, as every corner-man asks after every round, Harris defiantly said, "No, I don't want to sit down!" and gave Steward a smart-ass look. Steward looked frustrated and said, "You gotta start listening to me at some point, because you're losing the fight."

Harris remained defiant and still seemed to be blowing off anything that was said by any of his corner-men before the seventh round. Then in the seventh round, having wasted so much of his energy in previous rounds with his reckless offense, Harris let his guard down and got caught with a perfect hook to the chin that gave Maussa the knockout victory.

When it comes to upsets in boxing, this could be a case study: Anatomy of an Upset. Favored boxer comes in cocky and overconfident; favored boxer tries to plow right through underdog opponent; underdog opponent withstands early storm and takes control of the fight from increasingly frustrated favored boxer; underdog opponent eventually catches favored boxer with his guard down and knocks him out. That's practically the template for a big upset in boxing, and it describes Harris vs. Maussa to a tee.

At the same time, Carlos Maussa' victory over Vivian Harris wasn't just about Harris' arrogance and mental breakdown over the course of the fight. It was also the result of Maussa having a lot of heart and a great chin, as he had to absorb an insane amount of clean punches to the head in order to survive the early storm. In fact, it was Maussa's willingness to take punishment, and the fact that he was able to take it without going down, that helped lull Harris into a slugfest that was outside of his normal fighting style.

While everything I wrote about the "Anatomy of an Upset" in boxing applies to Harris vs. Maussa, in this particular case Harris would have still won the fight if everything had been exactly the same, except Maussa didn't have an amazing chin. Unfortunately for Harris, Maussa did have an amazing chin, and Harris was forced to pay the price for his arrogance.