Friday, July 25, 2014

Opposite Ends of the Hype Line - Gennedy Golovkin and Mike Lee Both Fight This Weekend

It's a pretty good boxing weekend for one that doesn't include anyone named Mayweather or Pacquiao. Well, good enough for me to shake the dust of the keyboard and bang out some words about it. First up on Friday night, ESPN returns to the Windy City and features quasi-local boy Mike Lee. Sadly I do not have tickets or a press pass to attend. Then on Saturday, Gennedy Golovkin headlines a HBO Pay-Per-View in Madison Square Garden where he looks to add another victim to his hit list.

We'll begin with Golovkin, because he is the most interesting fighter on the list. Born in Kazakhstan, lives in Germany but training in Big Bear, California Golovkin has ascended rapidly up the “must watch” fighters list over the last two years. During that time (which coincided with his United States debut – a blistering TKO victory over Gregorz Proksa) he has gained a reputation, spearheaded by HBO Boxing, as the “Most Dangerous Man” in boxing.

It's easy to like a fighter who finishes off his opponents and Golovkin's string of 16 straight knockouts makes him as easy to like as apple pie on Thanksgiving. He can hit with both hands, throws power punches at will, has the agility and balance that rarely leaves him off balance all while commanding the ring like it's his personal dance space.

He's drawn a lot of comparisons to a young Mike Tyson (maybe we should call him Kazakh Dynamite much like Tyson was Kid Dynamite) for his power and the way opponents are starting to shy away from him. Of course, no one is flat out admitting that they won't fight him, but no one of note seems to be in a hurry to sign the dotted line for a fight.

Not only does he dole out his fair share of punishment, but he's not going to be confused with Winky Wright anytime soon when it comes to defense. He gets hit from time to time, enough so that you begin to wonder if this might be the time he pays the price for keeping his hands down.

I can imagine his opponents thinking, “Hey I just rocked him with a straight right. I can do this” right before they wake up staring at the bright lights and a mustachioed man in a blue shirt waving his arms over his head.

Maybe it's his love of cardigans or huge smile whenever he's being interviewed, but no one scheduled to face him is ever thinks that they're going to fall victim to his fistic bombarment. Granted no one on the professional level is ever going to admit that they're scared of getting hit by their opponent, but some of his victims have been extremely boastful prior to stepping in the ring.

Gabriel Rosado: “I'm gonna smash him”

Curtis Stevens: “I'm coming there ready. I'm not scared, obviously, because I asked for the fight.”

Osumanu Adama: “The difference with me is that I'm not scared of Golovkin”

The point being, you might not fear him going into the fight, but chances are your thoughts will change once your back is on the canvas and the overhead lights are swimming in your eyes.

For boxing fans, enjoy Golovkin for where he is at now in his career. He is getting popular, but he is not at the over-saturation point yet. Sure, there are folks on the internet who say he's overrated, but that's the cynical internet where God himself could come down, heal the sick and lame, end warfare and someone would write, “Ehhh. That's nothing, Buddha would mop the floor with that guy.

Nor has Golovkin risen to the point where he's become the pick and choose, fight two times a year superstar boxer. Remember how much fun it was to look forward to Manny Pacquiao's fights when he was laying waste to his opponents? When he was ripping up De La Hoya and Rickey Hatton? Those were fun days, before the “When Will He Fight Mayweather” talk really escalated or he got mired down by Timothy Bradley.

That's were we're at with Golovkin. His future fights aren't more important than his present fights. Who care's if he'll fight Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. or Saul Alvarez. All we want him to do is bust up Daniel Geale like a birthday pinata.

I agree that he hasn't fought the best fighters yet, but in this business you still have to work your way up the ladder. He's beating, straight up stole-his-money beating, everyone that enters the ring with him. So enjoy that now. Because it's going to change. It always changes.

I don't know much about his opponent, Daniel Geale. He was born in Tasmania (awesome) and lives in Australia (still awesome) and held both the IBF and WBA super-middleweight titles. His two losses were split decisions that were somewhat controversial and he's beat Felix Strum on points in Germany. Which is like beating Floyd Mayweather on points in Las Vegas. It just doesn't happen.

He seems like a nice fighter. Fairly competent on defense as he has never been knocked out and hasn't been down in a round since 2008. Of course, looking at his list of opponents, none of them has had the power of Golovkin. He is the requisite feel-good underdog. Unlike most fighters, he doesn't seclude himself in a remote fortress when he trains for fights, rather he stays at home with his family. He has even dedicated this fight to his mother who is battling non-Hodgkins lymphoma. And against almost anyone other than Golovkin I would be rooting for him.

Like those who stumbled to the mat before him, Geale isn't afraid of Golovkin. Of course, he can't allow himself to be. Or else the fight is already lost. Geale has to believe that he is different than everyone else who has fought Golovkin. That his defense is tighter. That if gets inside he can do serious damage where others have just annoyed the happy go lucky Kazakh.

Does he have a chance to win? Sure, I'm sure his trainer has developed a plan for him. Maybe not a knockout plan, but a “keep it close on the cards an squeak out a win” plan. Of course, even the best laid plans tend to go awry once a thudding left hook lands on your liver. That's when we'll see what Geale is really made of.

I've never had much good to say about Mike Lee. If I'd listened to my mother then I would never have anything to say about him. I'm sure Mike Lee is a good guy, I'm sure he works with charities and is nice to his mother. For some reason he just rubs me the wrong way – much like Lukas when he played for Liverpool.

Maybe I'm finding out that I have a bias against fighters who've graduated college. Especially fighters who went to Notre Dame. Or the fact that despite being from the area he's only fought in Chicago once (his pro debut). It's probably the Subway deal. You know the one. There are actual recognizable athletes saying how much they like Subway sandwiches and then there is the guy with boxing gloves around his neck.

Imagine if Subway had, instead of Ryan Howard, chosen Jesse Biddle to pimp their Sweet Onion Teriyaki subs. Sure, Biddle might be a star at one point, but right now he's just some face in the crowd. Boxing deserves more than that for one of the few commercials that has a national spotlight.

Despite my dislike of the fighter he is setting himself up for a nice little comeback story. The golden (domer) kid who has a nice contract with Top Rank boxing and a little money coming in from endorsements without really having accomplished in the ring was kind of riding the top of the wave.

Then it came crashing down. A couple of bulging disks in his back and some jaw issues sidelined him for almost two years. His contract with Top Rank expired and wasn't renewed. He left his Texas-based trainer, Ronnie Shields, and signed up with former heavyweight contender Chris Byrd. He TKO'd undefeated Peter Lewison in April and will look to do the same on Friday to Paul Gonsalves.

Those two fighters have a combined record of 13 and 3. In the previous 11 fights his opponents were 39 and 51. So he is stepping up his competition. Hopefully he steps up his work rate as well. He needs to be working regularly to make up for the missing years and for a relatively empty amateur career as well. If he does, then maybe he replaces Mike Jimenez at the top of my Best Chicago Fighters list.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Yzerman Fills in the Missing Pieces

When I go grocery shopping I wander the aisles putting things in my basket until I have what I need. Often I have to double back to pick up things I forgot to get the first time around.  When my wife goes shopping she has a list. She hits everything on that list in order with no wasted time looking at ice cream and wondering when they stopped making Pudding Pops. When it comes to free agency I'm like the Washington Capitals grabbing overpriced items at the checkout line.  Steve Yzerman is my wife.

It makes me smile to think that he woke up a couple of days ago, grabbed a pen and his “Things to Do” stationary and went to town.  He probably had himself a nice little Saturday.  After yesterday’s frenzy it probably looked a little something like this:

Big Steve’s To Do List

Draft a talented but troubled teenager - Anthony DeAngelo - check
Pick up a defenseman on the cheap - Jason Garrison - check
Clear up some cap space - Teddy Purell, BJ Crombeen, Nate Thompson - check
Chuckle at the thought of beat writers and bloggers not getting enough sleep - check
Drink one Heineken (Because Kid Rock rhymed it with my name in a song) - check
Wait for desperate GM’s to throw crazy money around in the first few hours of free ageny - check
Sign solid defenseman to a reasonable contract - Anton Stralman - check
Call Ecklund on a burner cell phone and say that “sources” tell me Yzerman is offing $49 million to Matt Niskanen - check
Chuckle - check
Replace rugged 4th line center that I traded the other day - Brian Boyle - check
Sign veteran back up goalie in case #1 goalie gets hurt a week before the playoffs (again) - Evgeni Nabokov - check
Throw a bone to Syracuse after raiding their team last season - Mike Blunden Mike Angelidis - check
Figure out a way to turn all my 2015 picks into Connor McDavid - pending

This is the upside of having a cold, calculating general manager running the organization.  He eschews the drama and gets things done.  Sure you have to deal with him passionately trading away or buying out fan favorites, but it’s worth it when he pulls off days like July 1st.

Once he started clearing space with his pre-July 1 trades, speculation that the Lightning would be major players in free agency started to mount.  Odd, since historically Mr. Yzerman didn’t dip too much into the market.  In the past he tended to target one or two players that weren’t among the top targets and then go about his day.

We hear about teams having multi-year plans all the time.  Every time a new general manager or coach takes over a struggling team we hear about a new “three year” or “five year” plan.  Most of the times those plans fizzle or the GM or coach gets axed before seeing it to fruition.  Mr. Yzerman has managed to actually build it as he wants to.

He came into a mess of an organization and immediately started stockpiling assets whether they were draft picks or young players.  The surprising run to the Eastern Conference Finals in his first year masked some deficiencies, most notably depth in the defense and goaltending. When Dewayne Roloson reverted back to a 98-year-old goalie the next season, the team struggled.

However, Mr. Yzerman didn’t waiver. Digging into his vault of draft picks and young forwards he brought in a couple of young goaltenders with promise.  While Anders Lindback didn’t pan out, he looks like he has a future all-star in Ben Bishop.  Meanwhile he kept getting rid of salary while not over committing to long term deals with veterans.

Last season, saw the influx of young prospects into the lineup.  They played well, enjoyed some good luck along the way and found themselves in the playoffs.  Montreal managed to expose some of the weaknesses that lingered on defense and in net, but the core of the future was established.  Now, Mr. Yzerman just had to add the missing pieces.

With a ton of cap space and the important parts of the team already under contract  (top six forwards, goaltender and top defense pairing) he could pick and choose what he needed this year to not only get back to the playoffs, but also be a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference.

Anton Stralman is the biggest piece of the puzzle that Mr, Yzerman acquired. He is the veteran (394 NHL games) steady presence that the team lacked last season. According to the scouting reports he won’t rack up the points, but he is good at getting the puck out of the zone. One thing that I’ve read over and over is that he is a “darling of the fancy-stats crowd”.  Which, to me, boils down to - he does great things in terms of puck possession. The basic tenant from the #fancystats crowd is that good things happen when you have possession of the puck.

With Stralman and Garrison in the fold the Lightning shouldn’t be booking flights out of  Syracuse to patch holes in the blue line during the season. Andrej Sustr will probably spend most of the season in New York where he will get to develop his professional game.  Radko Gudas and Mark Barberio will see their minutes reduced, which isn’t a bad thing for players in their second NHL season.

With seven healthy defensemen under contract (and Sustr soon to be re-signed) Mr. Yzerman also has the flexibility to cut someone loose.  The number one contender to be moved would be Eric Brewer. A team looking to add some depth in defense might be willing to take on his cap hit in exchange for a draft pick or two.  With Stralman eating up his minutes Brewer’s place in the line up is a little shaky.

Evgeni Nabokov is not the player he was five years ago, he’s also not commanding as much money as he was five years ago.  He is someone, however, that should be able to play 20 games a year (or more if needed) and not completely disgrace himself.  The Lightning were burned badly by not having someone ready to step in to back up Bishop last year. Nabokov fills that role without affecting the future prospects they have in the pipeline (and yes I’m avoiding looking up how to spell their names).

Brian Boyle is a nice signing.  He adds some size, but seems to do the same things that Nate Thompson did - win faceoffs and forecheck.  I would have liked to see Dominic Moore come back to the team to fill the role, but the Rangers had to re-sign at least one of their free agents.

The overall theme of the Lightning’s actions off-season revolve around goal prevention.  They didn’t add a lot of offense, in fact they sacrificed some in letting BJ Crombeen Teddy Purcell go.  I’m sure they are planning on Purcell’s production being replaced by having a full season of Steven Stamkos in the line up as well as adding Jonathan Drouin to the team.

It’s pure folly to judge how a team did in free agency before anyone has laced up the skates. However, if you’re a fan of the Lightning you should be encouraged on the moves that they made. None of the other teams in their division really strengthened their teams on the first day of free agency.  Granted Boston didn’t really need to add too much, but Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and Detroit mostly held serve.  Buffalo and Florida made a lot of noise, but nothing that would make them a serious contender next season.

There is going to be some pressure on the Lightning to succeed for the first time in a couple of seasons.  Simply making the playoffs isn’t the goal any longer, now they are expected to go deep into the post season.  At first blush the team Mr. Yzerman has assembled is built to do just that.