A critical look at the past week in boxing
A spectacular knockout can mask problems. It’s difficult to be too critical of Joshua, who ended his fight against Robert Helenius with a monstrous right hand in the seventh round Saturday in London. That’s what he hoped to do, let the world know in dramatic fashion that he remains a heavyweight to be reckoned with. And his assessment of how the fight unfolded made some sense. He needed some time to figure out an opponent who took the fight on less than a week’s notice. He had good reason to be pleased afterward. It was before the knockout that the former champion, working with trainer Derrick James for a second time, still looked like a work in progress. He controlled the fight with his jab and power punches here and there but was hesitant to fully commit himself until he the perfect opportunity presented himself, making it seem as if he still doesn’t believe in himself wholeheartedly. Promoter Eddie Hearn described Joshua (26-3, 23 KOs) as a mature heavyweight. I think he still has his first fight with Andy Ruiz Jr. in his head, which isn’t good with potential fights against Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury on the horizon. We might never see the earlier version of Joshua again.
BIGGEST WINNER II
The WBO 130-pound champion had quietly become one of the most consistent fighters in the world over the past five years, remaining unbeaten since 2012 and collecting major titles in three divisions. The only missing ingredient was a victory over an elite opponent. Now he has that. And he got it done in emphatic fashion against Oscar Valdez on Saturday outside Phoenix. His awkward, swarming style was as difficult for Valdez to handle as it has been for others, as Navarrete, who fights like an angry octopus, threw more than 1,000 punches from all sorts of angles to win a one-sided decision. Valdez, a former two-division champion, had some good moments but failed to hurt Navarrete and couldn’t hope to keep pace with him. And Navarrete fought with an injured lead hand from the middle rounds on, making his performance even more special. Next up for the winner? He and his team could choose to seek unification against one of the other champions, Joseph Cordina (IBF), Hector Luis Garcia (WBA) and O’Shaquie Foster (WBC). Or he could target one of the big names at 135 if he dares. Navarrete probably wouldn’t beat the likes of Shakur Stevenson or Gervonta Davis but you can bet he’d make anyone’s life miserable for a while.
BIGGEST WINNER III
The slick Puerto Rican seemed to have reached his ceiling as a relevant fighter when he lost the IBF 118-pound title to Naoya Inoue by a brutal knockout and then ended up on the wrong end of a disputed decision against Reymart Gaballo in 2019 and 2020. Rodriguez had other ideas. Not only did he bounce back from a difficult stretch, he’s better than ever. At least that appeared to be the case on Saturday, when he dominated an overmatched Melvin Lopez (29-2, 19 KOs) to win a shutout decision and regain the belt he lost to Inoue. That followed victories over Roberto Cantu and Gary Antonio Russell, giving him three consecutive victories that leave little doubt about his ability. Rodriguez might be exactly what he says he is: the best bantamweight in the world. The only criticism I have of his performance on Saturday – and I’m quibbling to some degree – is that he could’ve knocked out Lopez (29-2, 19 KOs), who went down three times in the 12th and final round but survived to hear the final bell. Rodriguez (22-2, 13 KOs) needed to shift into a higher gear earlier in the fight to get a stoppage, which would’ve been a stronger statement. However, he waited until it was too late. That’s something for him to work on.
Valdez (31-2, 23 KOs) obviously is a capable fighter. You don’t win major titles in two divisions, as he has, if you don’t know what you’re doing. The problem for Valdez is that he doesn’t appear to have enough ability to compete with either a technical wizard like Shakur Stevenson or an elite brawler like Navarrete, both of whom defeated him handily. Valdez can still beat solid, second-tier opponents. And who knows? He could become a titleholder again against the right foe. I’m guessing that’s not how Valdez sees himself, though. I believe he sees himself as a pound-for-pounder, a coveted status he tasted on some lists after he knocked out the feared, but limited Miguel Berchelt in February 2021. I doubt he can get back there based on his performances against Stevenson and Navarrete. Again, though, he’s capable. In fact, he appeared against Navarrete to be more skillful – particularly in terms of defense – than he has ever been in spite of lopsided scorecards and a gruesome swollen right eye. The passion to succeed is there. And, finally, he’s only 32. Perhaps we shouldn’t write him off just yet.
Joshua’s post-fight interview might be further evidence of his mental vulnerability. He was asked about public criticism and responded, “People need to leave me alone. I do what I want. This is my time in this ring. Let me breathe a bit and let me keep doing what I do.” Leave me alone? Joshua is a top athlete and public figure. Criticism is part of the deal when you’re in that position. He has become wealthy in part because fans have lain out their hard-earned money to pay the exorbitant pay-per-view fees required to watch him fight. They have a right to say whatever they want. Joshua needs toughen up, in and out of the ring. … Joshua is expected to fight Deontay Wilder (43-2-1, 42 KOs) late this year or early next year, although no deal is in place. A few years ago, before Joshua’s loss to Ruiz, I would’ve picked him to beat Wilder because of his super boxing ability and formidable power. Today I would lean toward Wilder. Joshua remains the better technician but Wilder is a solid boxer, might be the hardest punching boxer ever and has 10 times the mental toughness of Joshua. I wouldn’t be shocked if Joshua wins a decision by boxing carefully but I think Wilder would catch him and end the fight early. Joshua vs. Tyson Fury? Forget it. Fury is much too good for his British rival. …
Gary Antuanne Russell (17-0, 17 KOs) maintained his perfect record and knockout streak by stopping overmatched Kent Cruz (16-1-3, 10 KOs) in less than a full round. The 140-pound contender is ready for the best in the division, including titleholders Subriel Matias (IBF), Rolando Romero (WBA), Regis Prograis (WBC) and Teofimo Lopez (WBO). How would Russell fare against that level of opposition? I see Russell as a complete fighter with elite punching power. I’m guessing that he can compete with anyone. … You gotta love longtime heavyweight contender Derek Chisora (34-13, 23 KOs), who outpointed Gerald Washington on the Joshua-Helenius card. The 39-year-old Londoner had lost four of his previous five fights but fought hard and with confidence to pump life into his career. It’s no wonder he’s a fan favorite. Washington (20-6-1, 13 KOs) isn’t the type to give up on himself but he has lost his last three fights and six of his last eight. Plus, he’s 41. Retirement might be his smartest move.