Opening Bell: Lara now must-see TV
What's going on here? Suddenly, Erislandy Lara is in highly entertaining fights? Yes, sir.
That certainly was not usually the case. Lara, for years, was one of the most frustrating fighters to watch because his tremendous boxing skill level and southpaw style typically did not translate into entertainment value.
Lara, who held a junior middleweight world title for four years, generally would win his fights, but booing was the norm during them. Lara was a former amateur standout for the Cuban national team and was groomed in its hit-and-run style of boxing, which can be highly effective to win decisions but not fans.
Just ask anyone who had the misfortunate to sit through Lara's bout against Terrell Gausha or his two fights with Vanes Martirosyan, among others. Lara begged for a fight with Canelo Alvarez and was granted one but cost himself the decision that was there for the taking in their 2014 nontitle bout because he simply spent too much time running and not enough time actually fighting.
But now that Lara is 35 and in the twilight of his career, he has become an increasingly fan-friendly fighter, judging by his past two fights, most recently Saturday night in Brooklyn, New York. His boxing IQ is still off the charts. His willingness to fight top opponents remains intact. And he can still compete with anyone.
However, what made him so tough, so maddeningly difficult to fight, was his legs. He could move back and forth, side to side and make opponents miss, make them look foolish and befuddled. But now that his wheels are not what they once were -- and that is very obvious -- he is forced to stand in the pocket more. That leads to more leather being swapped, more punches landing and more fan-friendly fights. This is what happens when fighters get a little past their best days. It's good for us, the fans, but not necessarily good for the fighter.
The situation is the key reason why Lara's April 2018 world title unification fight with Jarrett Hurd was so exceptional and the eventual fight of the year. Hurd was bigger and stronger and extremely aggressive, and Lara, with his legs not quite the same anymore, had no choice but to stand and fight. It made for a tremendous battle. The style almost paid off for Lara, too. He lost by split decision only because of a knockdown in the final minute of the fight.
And it was more of the same when he challenged secondary junior middleweight titlist Brian Castano in the Showtime-televised main event from Barclays Center on Saturday.
In Castano, Lara was up against an aggressive stalker six years his junior. Once again, Lara (25-3-3, 14 KOs), of Houston, bit down and fought with everything he had once he could no longer move like he did in the first few rounds. Although it was no fight of the year, it made for a very entertaining battle that was ruled a split draw -- 115-113 for Castano, 115-113 for Lara and 114-114.
Castano (15-0-1, 11 KOs), 29, of Argentina, achieved the draw by winning the final three rounds on all three scorecards, a sure sign that the older Lara faded just enough down the stretch against an opponent with more gas in his tank but not necessarily in his heart.
I have been a critic of Lara over the years because, when he was in his prime, he was talented enough that he didn't have to bore us to tears, his 10th-round stoppage of Alfredo Angulo in an exciting battle in 2013 being the exception. He could have, in my view, engaged lesser opponents a little more without putting himself at any undue risk.
Now that he is older and he can no longer move around the ring so effortlessly for 12 rounds, his fights are tougher and more interesting. He can still compete at a high level, but the wear and tear of a long amateur career and a nearly 11-year professional career is taking its toll. Lara may take it as a sign that he should consider winding things down, but until he does, his fights, especially when matched with an aggressive opponent, have become must-see TV.
'King Kong' dilemma
Heavyweight contender Luis "King Kong" Ortiz finds himself in a holding pattern.
Last March, he finally got a long-overdue shot at a heavyweight world title and came oh-so-close to dethroning Deontay Wilder in their 2018 fight of the year candidate. Ortiz survived a fifth-round knockdown, then nearly knocked Wilder out in the seventh round, only to get knocked out in the 10th round of a great battle.
On Saturday night, on the Castano-Lara card, Ortiz returned to the same Barclays Center ring in Brooklyn where he had faced Wilder and won his third fight in a row since that defeat, as he soundly outpointed the game Christian Hammer by scores of 100-90, 99-91 and 99-91.
The southpaw Ortiz, a Cuba native fighting out of Miami, has been active, and while he hasn't defeated elite opponents in the three fights since, he has beaten respectable opposition in Hammer, Travis Kauffman (by 10th-round knockout in December) and Razvan Cojanu (by second-round knockout in July). Yet Ortiz finds himself no closer to another title opportunity.
Ortiz (31-1, 26 KOs), who turns 40 on March 29, would love a rematch with Wilder or a shot at unified titlist Anthony Joshua. But Ortiz is not at the head of the line to fight either.
Wilder, the easier fight to make given their ties to Premier Boxing Champions, is likely to fight mandatory challenger Dominic Breazeale on May 18 and then hopes for a rematch with lineal champion Tyson Fury after that or even a Joshua fight for the undisputed world title. Joshua is slated to fight Jarrell "Big Baby" Miller on June 1, and after that perhaps they can finally get the Wilder fight together. If not, Joshua, with three belts, will almost certainly have a mandatory opponent to deal with.
So Ortiz, who didn't look great against Hammer (24-6, 14 KOs), 31, of Romania, is going to have to bide his time for another title opportunity, even if time is not on his side.
Fights you might have missed
Saturday at New York
Bantamweight Gary Antonio Russell (13-0, 11 KOs) TKO6 Jose Maria Cardenas (16-4, 13 KOs).
Russell, 26, of Capitol Heights, Maryland, a good prospect and one of the fighting younger brothers of featherweight world titlist Gary Russell Jr., had an easy night's work against Cardenas, 22, of Mexico, on the portion of the Castano-Lara undercard that Showtime streamed on its social media platforms. Russell dropped Cardenas with a series of right hands to the left ear area midway through the opening round and dominated all the way. Russell put him away early in the sixth round of their scheduled eight-rounder, nailing him with multiple left hands to the head until referee Shawn Clark waved off the fight 22 seconds into the round. Cardenas lost his second fight in a row but suffered the first knockout loss of his career.
Saturday at Columbus, Ohio
Heavyweight Junior Fa (17-0, 10 KOs) KO1 Newfel Ouatah (16-3, 9 KOs).
Fa, 29, of New Zealand, made short work of Ouatah, 33, of France, in a fight that Fa's team expected to at least get into the middle rounds. But the 6-foot-5, 254-pound Fa, who is not known for being a particularly big puncher, scored four knockdowns in the first round to get the stoppage at 2 minutes, 51 seconds. The fight was Fa's fourth in the United States since 2017 and a co-promotional deal with American promoter Lou DiBella.
Friday Hollywood, Florida
Bantamweight Ricardo Espinoza (23-2, 20 KOs) TKO10 Ricardo Nunez (29-9, 23 KOs).
Espinoza, 21, of Mexico, looms as the mandatory challenger for the 118-pound world title held by Zolani Tete. With Tete in the semifinal stage of the World Boxing Super Series, Espinoza's title opportunity is not going to be available for a bit. So he remained active by taking on former flyweight world title challenger Nunez, 31, of Panama, in the main event of the Boxeo Telemundo card. Nunez made Espinoza work hard for the victory in a tough fight, but ultimately the younger, fresher, stronger man got the job done. Espinoza hurt Nunez with a right hand in the 10th round and followed up with a barrage of punches that left him defenseless along the ropes until referee Frank Gentile waved off the fight at 1:23. Espinoza, who has kept an exceptionally busy schedule, won his 13th fight in a row since May 2017. Nunez lost his third bout in a row and fourth of his last five.