At the Jahnsportforum, Neu Brandenburg, Germany
Steve Cunningham (24-2) vs. Yoan Pablo Hernandez (24-1)
(The Ring magazine #1 cruiserweight vs. unranked)
(IBF cruiserweight belt)
Yoan Pablo Hernandez - Another in the seemingly endless conga line of talented former Cuban amateur boxing stars to make his way to freedom and a professional career. Hernandez is taking a slightly different path, emulating former world cruiserweight champion Juan Carlos Gomez, signing with a German promoter and fighting out of Europe. The 6’4” southpaw was not as elite an amateur as Gomez, coming up short in international competitions such as placing second at the Pan American Games. One reason Hernandez did not fare well in the amateurs is that he was shrinking down to an unnatural weight, boxing at 175 pounds. Moving down from heavyweight in a less than a year had to hurt his body. Did win a Junior World Championship but in lone Olympic appearance (drawn tough against Russian world champion Evgeny Makarenko), was eliminated in the second round and in the face of tough matchmaking, has not escaped a professional loss either. Hernandez has a world-class trainer in Ulli Wegner, who guided Sven Ottke and Arthur Abraham to titles, working with him. At 26, Hernandez is in his physical prime. Like many Cubans, is a busy puncher but is not overly powerful despite a big left hand that he launches as the payoff punch. Hernandez’s lone setback came against former champion Wayne Braithwaite, when Hernandez got too comfortable after knocking Braithwaite down in the first round. In the third round, Hernandez was caught flush by a Braithwaite hook and lost via the three knockdown rule. Hernandez was also stopped in the amateurs by compatriot and current stablemate Odlanier Solis, so his chin has question marks. When allowed to box from a distance, establishing a rhythm and punching fluidly, Hernandez has the look of a world-beater. However, Hernandez can be drawn into firefights and loses form, looping punches and standing still too long, and is eager to fight his way out of tight spots instead of holding or circling. 12-round distance should not be a problem since Hernandez has navigated it twice already. Says he has been training constantly since February because of scheduled bouts getting cancelled and is in the best shape of his life. I believe Hernandez has rebounded from his loss mentally and if he has learned from it, there is no reason he cannot win a title like similarly flawed David Haye did in recent division history.
Steve Cunningham - Seldom are nicknames as appropriate as “USS” Steve Cunningham’s, who earned the moniker by serving in the United States Navy. It is also apt because Cunningham is an American boxer adrift in a sea of foreign challengers, facing European foes in five of his seven world title fights. Cunningham’s two losses (controversial split decisions to Krzysztof Wlodarczyk and Tomasz Adamek) were to Polish boxers and the trend of fighting in Europe is likely to continue if Cunningham gets past Hernandez. What speaks well of Cunningham’s skills is that he defeated the other three reigning cruiserweight titlists (Marco Huck, Guillermo Jones and Wlodarczyk) and now has the powerful promotional backing of Germany’s Sauerland Promotions. Might have claim to the most chiseled and well-proportioned body in all boxing, looking like one huge rippling mass of sculpted muscle. Cunningham is not your typical Philly banger, preferring to use movement and a stiff jab to frustrate opponents into mistakes. At 35, is past his peak physically, but has mentally matured in victory and emerged from his “Fight of the Year” setback to Adamek a smarter fighter. I classify Cunningham as a volume-punching technician, sometimes too patient, looking for opponents to make mistakes to capitalize on. This is where Cunningham was proven vulnerable by Huck and Wlodarczyk as his punch rate drops and he clinches needlessly on the inside. Definitely battle-tested, engaging the best the division has to offer in the other man’s hometown. Though relatively inactive recently, only four fights in the last four years, Cunningham is a workout fanatic and sparred with Wladimir Klitschko in the latter’s preparations for David Haye. Victories in Germany and Poland were hard-earned and Cunningham showed as much mental as physical strength in European campaigns. Cunningham is rightly proud of his current status, “I’m a true world champion. I’ve fought in South Africa, Germany and in Poland twice. I’m more popular in Europe than I am in America right now.” That motivation, combined with punching accuracy from a distance, is key to road wins. Cunningham needs to cut off the ring, keeping Hernandez near the ropes, using superior lateral movement and experience to make Hernandez fight off his back foot. Veteran trainer Naazim Richardson will have a good strategy in place and Cunningham is motivated knowing a big payday against Marco Huck awaits the winner.
Verdict- This should be an evenly-contested fight between two high-level practitioners with intangibles like judges’ preferences and which boxer the neutral fans get behind playing roles. Hernandez’s southpaw stance could give Cunningham trouble early and combined with a slight speed advantage (more quickness than pure hand speed) for Hernandez is a concern for backers of Cunningham. Put it all together and I give a slight edge to the challenger, who is more flawed than Cunningham but is entering his prime while Cunningham is trying to hold on to it. For five rounds, I see a jab-counterjab affair with Hernandez finding his rhythm first and unleashing straight left hands to put exclamation points on a higher connect ratio. This comes down to who the judges favor aesthetically and I believe Hernandez’s smoother and more eye-catching combinations win the day over the blue-collar Cunningham. I like Hernandez in the 114-112 or 115-113 range…with a rematch likely.
At the Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, NJ
(HBO) Sergio Martinez (47-2-2) vs. Darren Barker (23-0)
(For The Ring magazine World Middleweight Championship)
(WBC “Diamond” middleweight belt)
Darren Barker – Londoner displays a calm confidence and physical presence in interviews as well as shared press conferences with Sergio Martinez. Barker’s backstory is compelling, overcoming the tragic death of his younger brother and a brutal beating outside the ring that nearly ended his career. Grew up in a fighting family (father was an ABA champion), boxing from age 12, the high point of Barker’s amateur career was winning the highly competitive Commonwealth Games. Ended with a 55-13 record, representing England in international meets, to include a close quarterfinals loss to Andre Berto at the AIBA World Championships. Nickname of “Dazzling” is over the top but Barker is slick and seemingly always a step ahead of his opponent in thought or action. Martinez is Barker’s first world-class opponent in live fire circumstances but he reportedly held his own, sparring world champions Carl Froch and Mikkel Kessler. A solid physical specimen, 6’0½” tall with the bulk of Barker’s mass stretched tightly over his torso and chest, he sports good balance, a straight downward jab, and puts shots together fluidly. “Stylish” is a good description, preferring to move his feet to get to the target instead of blasting through a guard. Punches are accurate in reverse mode but the level of opposition has not made him think fast or react reflexively the way Martinez will. Steve Bunce, one of England’s most respected boxing scribes, evaluated Barker thus, “A tradesman and he’s got a fine boxing brain. You can argue that next to Ricky Burns, he’s got the best brain in the country - better than Carl Froch, Amir Khan, David Haye. He’s not as devastating or colorful but he’s a better thinker than all of those.” Barker ran of a string of victories upon turning pro, 14-0, stopping nine foes, but could not focus after his younger brother died in a car accident and took ten months off. Has battled injuries as well, needing a hip operation (and 12 months off from boxing) after sustaining a severe beating trying to save a man being assaulted by a gang of thugs. Barker was knocked down twice before stopping sub-.500 trial horse Conroy McIntosh, which is worrying. Went 12 rounds three times and says he is in the best condition of his life with no nagging injuries. At age 29, this fight comes at the right time for Barker mentally and physically, so one must wonder if this Barker has the bite to hurt Martinez.
Sergio Martinez – This Argentine ass-kicker has achieved “pound-for-pound” status the hard way. What makes Martinez great at this moment in time is that he retains the ambition of an indomitable challenger. Martinez carries a positive chip on his shoulder and will not be satisfied until he is considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Formerly based in Spain, Martinez was robbed of a victory over Kermit Cintron by both the referee and judges and most think Martinez deserved a win over Paul Williams in their first meeting before pulverizing Williams in the rematch. An excellent, all-around athlete, Martinez drew interest from lower-division Argentina soccer teams and was a competitive cyclist in his youth. As an amateur boxer won two national titles and represented Argentina in international boxing competitions, gaining the nickname “Maravilla” (“Marvelous One”). Only real loss in 14 years was a seventh round stoppage to Antonio Margarito and revelations about Margarito’s hand wraps call that loss into question. Displayed consistent improvement in his offensive arsenal since and after the Margarito setback, punched his way to 29 wins in Europe, Argentina, and America. Those victories have come against a variety of styles, mostly on the road, which forced Martinez to learn and implement an impressive array of blows and wicked punching angles. Brandishes a variety of skills and has the willingness to absorb punishment to land his payload. Punching power is magnified by the short distances and unconventional angles from which they are delivered. Martinez is not heavy-fisted or a pure banger but vexing ring generalship infuses his punches with extra sting. Making Martinez doubly difficult are non-tendencies, such as leading with either hand and releasing punches from varying distances. Is an undersized middleweight but Martinez makes up for it by being more athletic than given credit for. Resilient (took some flush punches from Williams) and smart, Martinez came back to outpoint hard-hitting Richard Williams after being dropped early in their first fight. In rematches, Martinez dominates showing adaptability and a good learning curve. Has defensive holes but those are hidden by a herky-jerky style and sudden pivots Martinez uses that freeze opponents into inaction. Has shown a good chin and superb fitness to survive the first Williams war and like a shark, Martinez is constantly in motion and switching directions. Is a well-preserved 36 years of age, mostly because he did not start boxing until his late teens and is not showing signs of slowing. Martinez has a zestful boxing style, taking chances with his hands-down bravado and rapid-fire darting attacks that rival Manny Pacquiao in their uniqueness.
Verdict – I usually ignore amateur results but I think Barker’s loss to Andre Berto is a useful comparison here. Barker dealt well with Berto early but faded late and could not fend off the mix of speed and sharp angles when his legs tired. I see the same against Martinez with Barker doing well early but slowly reeled in by the more dynamic Martinez. This is too big a skill chasm to traverse for Barker who has not faced a former or faded world champion to prepare himself for what Martinez brings to the fight. Martinez will figure out Barker’s weaknesses, enabling him to get to a chin that has been dented by much weaker opponents. Until that point, Barker does a respectable job holding off Martinez with his jab. Barker is two inches taller and has done well against southpaws but lacks the speed and vision to connect consistently on Martinez. Instead, Barker concentrates on a tight guard and keeping proper distance. Once Martinez begins to land his punches from awkward angles, doubts and hesitation arise in Barker. In the sixth round, Barker begins to throw a right hand but pulls it back and…boom, Martinez connects and sends Barker down for a seven-count. Barker gets back on his feet but needs rescuing from a swarming Martinez by the referee. In the end, Barker loses but does not look like the 9-1 underdog he legitimately is because of Martinez’s skills.
Prediction record for 2011: 87% (119-17)
Prediction record for 2010: 85% (218-40)