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March 25, 2010

Big Fight Preview: Super Six World Boxing Classic, Arthur Abraham vs Andre Dirrell

by Matt O'Brien

This Saturday, March 27th, the second round of the inaugural Super Six World Boxing Classic tournament commences at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan. The combatants will be current tournament leader – and in many eyes, favourite for the crown – ‘King’ Arthur Abraham (originally from Armenia but based-in and fighting out of Germany) and American Andre ‘The Matrix’ Dirrell.

One thing you cannot accuse tournament producers Showtime of is failing to provide genuine world class, competitive fights. Proving the worth behind the pre-tournament philosophy that a defeat does not mean the end of a fighters career, this bout loses none of its intrigue despite the American Dirrell losing a close split decision in his last fight (away from home against WBC champion Carl Froch). The contest is a classic match-up of styles; featuring a slick, fleet-footed boxer in Dirrell against the explosive yet unorthodox power-puncher in Abraham.

The Armenian – a former IBF world champion a divsion south at 160-pounds – comes to the fight undefeated and riding a serious wave of confidence, having spectacularly knocked out Jermain Taylor in his last fight with just under ten seconds remaining on the clock. It was the Armenian’s thirty-first consecutive victory, with twenty-five of those wins coming by kayo – showing his reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous punchers to be well deserved. His stoppage victories include wins over world ranked fighters Edison Miranda and Jermain Taylor. Following pre-tournament favourite Mikkel Kessler’s surprise defeat in the first round to American Andre Ward, ‘King’ Arthur now finds himself at the top of the Super Six table  and widely regarded as the man who will go on to win the entire tournament. (UK’s Sky Bet currently have Arthur Abraham and Andre Ward as joint favourites at 6/4).

For the American Dirrell, the tournament so far has been somewhat of a disappointment. His perfect 18-0 (13 K.O’s) record received its first blemish in October of last year, Britain’s Carl Froch posting the first ‘L’ on Andre’s card. The decision in that fight was a highly controversial split-points loss, with Dirrell fighting away from his home country for the first time as a pro, and in the WBC champions back yard no less. Many at ringside had Dirrell winning the fight, with the challenger himself convinced that he was the victim of some home town cooking that night. He is adamant that he should have continued in the tournament as an undefeated fighter, were it not for the botched scorecards of two of the ringside judges and some dubious refereeing.

It is a view that carries some merit. Although Dirrell was heavily criticized in some sections of the boxing press following the defeat for his somewhat negative, safety-first style, I personally had him edging the fight – and this even after the American was deducted a point, apparently for excessive holding, in what seemed a contentious refereeing decision at best. There’s no doubt that the American fought a largely defensive-minded fight in his first world title shot, angering fans and some reporters alike with his back-pedalling strategy, refusing steadfastly to engage Froch in out-and-out warfare.

This should not necessarily count against him though. The name of the game is to hit and not get hit – not to slug it out with your opponent until the last man is left standing. Such a shoot-out would have suited the champion perfectly, and so it seems to me that Dirrell fought the correct strategy in refusing to grant him that luxury. At times in the fight he made Froch look a very frustrated fighter – the Brit resorting to hitting behind the head, hitting on the break and throwing his opponent to the canvas, amongst other transgressions – as he struggled to find his rhythm and catch the challenger with any meaningful shots. The man who calls himself ‘The Matrix’, Dirrell, showed why he was widely regarded as one of the most talented fighters going into the tournament, displaying some incredibly slick footwork and defensive prowess, as well as lightning fast hands.

Where the American failed in that contest however, was his lack of aggression. Despite his typically-American brash, in-your-face pre-fight confidence, I sometimes get the impression that inside he lacks some of this outward bluster. It showed in his lone defeat – not throwing enough punches and failing to stamp his name on a fight frankly he was capable of winning but let slip from his grasp. In the end the fight boiled down to how you define effective aggression. Did you prefer Froch’s bombs-away, attacking style: forcing the action in every round but often missing wildly and rarely connecting with anything flush? Or did you prefer the low-volume counter-punching of the American: landing the faster and more accurate shots, but almost always fighting off the back foot and not quite throwing enough leather?

It was a classic example of the subjective nature of how to score a round in boxing. For me, the emphasis should be on effective – raw aggression alone should not score points; landing punches – even in a defensive posture – should. Dirrell certainly made Froch miss often, but he suffered on the scorecards because he failed to press the action enough when he had the opportunity. If he cannot overcome this deficiency in his next fight, and really commit to his offense as well as defense, he may be in for a very long night.

It was interesting when on Showtime’s behind-the-scenes ‘Fight Camp 360‘ episode screened in February, Dirrell was seen watching a video of Abraham’s brutal twelfth round knock-out of fellow countrymen Taylor, proclaiming loudly:

“that man is dangerous, period!”

Perhaps this gives us a look into some potential self-belief ‘demons’ lurking in Andre’s psyche; perhaps it just shows a healthy respect for an opponent who is most definitely as Dirrell described: dangerous.

As for the Armenian Abraham, it is difficult not to like his style – both in and out of the ring. In the ring he comes to fight each and every time; his explosive style meaning he is rarely in a boring fight. Out of the ring his gentlemanly demeanour, genuine personality and jokey, playful attitude shine through his broad smile on camera. Where the Armenian absolutely does not joke around though, it is clear, is in the gymnasium. Like his opponent on Saturday, he will come to the ring a finely tuned athlete, prepared for twelve hard rounds of action.

When he says his ‘dream’ is to become a star in America, you really do believe every word in his voice. Much kudos must be given to Abraham for stepping up to the plate in this regard. Already a mega-star in his adopted homeland of Germany, he could’ve easily followed the paths taken in recent years by other talented eastern-bloc fighters such as Dariusz Michalczewski and Sven Ottke – defending his title in Germany in front of huge crowds against a string of mandatory challengers, becoming incredibly rich in the process, without ever testing himself in the lion’s den by stepping in with the biggest stars across the Atlantic. By signing up to the Super Six tournament, Abraham thereby separated himself from these German stars of the previous generation and made a huge statement of intent: he aims not only to go on to win the tournament, but also to make himself a legend in the boxing mecca of America in the process.

Most are picking the Armenian to coming one step closer to doing just that in this fight, and he starts as a big favourite, even fighting away from his home in Europe for only the second time. I am not so sure though. I fancy Abraham to destroy ninety-nine percent of fighters who elect to stand in front of him and trade, but I fear his unorthodox, power punching style may be found wanting against a pure boxer in the mold of Dirrell. It is telling, I think, that Jermain Taylor was able to find some success early-on in his fight with double-A, landing jabs and right hands through his peek-a-boo guard before somewhat inevitably fading later on in the fight.

All the big questions in this fight though need to be answered by the American. The old adage in boxing is that ‘a good boxer beats a good puncher’. The question though, is just how good a boxer is Dirrell? Can ‘The Matrix’ live up to his Olympic bronze-medal winning potential and announce his arrival as one of American boxing’s next generation of stars? Or is he destined to be over-shadowed by Olympic teammate and fellow tournament compatriot, Andre Ward, by putting in another safety first, half-hearted performance? The answer, I think, will be emphatic.

Either Dirrell will punctuate his undoubted advantages in hand speed and footwork by committing himself to some eye-catching offensive work and out-box Abraham for a clear decision win; or else he will fight reluctantly and only in spurts, being comprehensively dominated by the Armenian strong-man. I see no middle ground here – as in the Froch encounter – where the fight may be controversial and largely a matter of which scoring philosophy you adhere to.

Somewhat tentatively then, I am going against the grain here and choosing the American’s speed over the European’s power. In an absorbing contest, if not thrilling, Dirrell should for the most part out-box Abraham en-route to a competitively fought, yet clearly won decision.

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