HBO put on a very nice card last night, featuring rising star James Kirkland, and a genuine #1 versus #2 battle in the junior welterweight division between Ricky Hatton and Paulie Malignaggi. Both were united by one quality: arguably controversial stoppages.
Ricky Hatton (45-1, 32 KOs) TKO11 Paulie Malignaggi (25-2, 5 KOs)
Round one was close. Rounds two through eleven were not. After rocking Paulie in round two, Hatton took over, repeatedly stunning Malignaggi and preventing him from ever establishing a rhythm. Malignaggi looked awful in this fight. He was clinching a lot, which is not his game, his movement wasn't there, he was leaning in, his jab was mediocre. Malignaggi has been showing problems against pressure fighters -- unsurprising, since he has absolutely no pop whatsoever. He struggled in fights against Herman Ngoudjo and his rematch against Lovemore N'dou, both of whom got inside and mauled him. When fighters don't have to fear your power, what's to stop them from walking through you and bullying their way inside? Of course, Malignaggi didn't help by deciding to grab on the inside instead of slipping away.
But let's not take away from Hatton here. This was the best he's looked in a long time. Screw Mayweather and Lazcano -- this was a better performance than he put out against Collazo, Urango, and Castillo (the last merely because Castillo was clearly a shot fighter). After a lackluster performance against "the Hispanic causing panic" Lazcano (what a great nickname), folks wondered if Hatton's age and terrible training habits had finally caught up with him. It appears not. A fight with P4P #1 Manny Pacquiao may be on the horizon.
Oh, and the stoppage! Malignaggi's trainer Buddy McGirt warned him that he'd end the fight if Malignaggi didn't show him more. Malignaggi did not oblige, McGirt threw in the towel, and Malignaggi was furious, shoving McGirt away when the latter attempted to embrace him. You can see it both ways: Malignaggi, who takes huge pride in his toughness, was upset that he has a stoppage loss on his record when he wasn't really hurt. But he wasn't showing anything, he was getting beaten up all night, and, as Tim Starks put it, "fight for real or don't fight at all."
James Kirkland (24-0, 21 KOs) TKO8 Brian Vera (16-2, 10 KOs)
The "mandingo warrior" (how's that for a nickname?) tore through the tough and game Vera, who spent most of the fight smiling through tremendous punishment until referee John Kerry (not really, but the resemblance was uncanny) stepped in to stop it in the 8th. Vera was protesting he wasn't hurt, but this stoppage I think was clearly the right call: he had accumulated a lot of punishment and was not the type to show it willingly. Vera hadn't won a single round and had gone down three times. His heart had been proven -- no need for him to absorb any more shots.
I think the commentators were a bit rough on Kirkland: there's only so much you can do to knock a fighter out when they have the will of a Brian Vera, and Kirkland did what he had to -- apply pressure and pressure and pressure until finally something broke. Kirkland appeared to take his feet off the gas in the middle of the fight, leading some to question his conditioning. Given the savage training methods employed by Ann Wolfe, I'm guessing that wasn't the problem. Rather, I suspect he watched tapes of Vera's upset win over Andy Lee and decided it would not be wise to punch himself out against the incredible damage absorbing sponge that is Vera, giving the latter fighter a chance to catch Kirkland with something big. I think folks are reaching: Kirkland was firmly in control, showed great instincts, landed an insane percentage of his punches, and eventually scored the knockout. Plus, his last knockdown was a nice little Roy Jones throwback. He's an incredibly bright prospect.
I had a minor debate with some other boxing scribes prior to the fight, as to whether it's proper to characterize Vera as having a great chin. Certainly, nobody can question his heart. But what do you call someone who, as the commentators put it, "only" had gone down twice (this was in the middle of the fight) despite taking flush shot after flush shot from Kirkland? It seems a bit weird to extol the chin of a guy who got knocked down three times in route to a TKO loss. But there's something to be said for the amount of punishment it took to get him to that point. Certainly, it reinforces just the type of monster puncher Jaidon Codrington was, who put Vera away in two rounds and didn't leave any question about it (though to be fair, Codrington is two weight classes heavier than Kirkland, who was easily the smaller man in this fight).