Undefeated heavyweight contender Kubrat Pulev took on two-time world title challenger Tony Thompson on Saturday, in Germany. It was awkward. This awkwardness was not a surprise. Both of their styles are awkward by nature and Thompson is a southpaw on top of that. There was tangling of the arms, stepping on the feet, landing on the back of the head, head-locking, shoving to the ground, and one very sweaty ref in Randy Neumann. Not only was it awkward but awkwardness only gets magnified by the size of these big men, both above 6'3, both above 250 pounds. That's one mountain of awkwardness. Thompson, ever the rarity, taking this tough fight less than two months from his last, another big fight with Britain's David Price, got a rusty Pulev while he may have been overworked himself, considering his age.
Kubrat was forced into inactivity during a nightmarish wait as other potential opponents flirted with the idea of facing him, then, teases that they were, turned their backs on him for a supposedly better deal. Odlanier Solis, Tomasz Adamek and Tyson Fury, all were supposed to be in this eliminator tournament to face Champion Wladimir Klitschko with Kubrat. Each of them failed to take this opportunity for one reason or another. Solis didn't make it to fight one, whereas Adamek and Fury both won a fight in the tournament, then dropped out rather than face Pulev. Adamek went on to nothing much and Fury went on to sign for a major all-British clash with David Haye. Because of this, though Pulev won his first round of the tournament against undefeated giant Alexander Ustinov, he was forced into nearly a year's inactivity, after a fast track career from his debut in late 2009.
Well, Pulev defeated Thompson. Many Bulgarian flags were waved in the German crowd. But it was no more easy than it was pretty. The 41-year-old Thompson hasn't been easy for anyone but Wladimir Klitschko, and only then in a rematch, the first time giving Wlad a long, messy night. Thompson is a "super heavyweight" southpaw who throws in volume, mixes shots to the head and body well, has a gangly matrix of a defense, takes a whale of a shot and fires back at unexpected angles. He's not outstandingly powerful or fast. He's just a fully fledged, honest to goodness, pain in the butt fighter, who uses his own confusing style with great success. Similarly, Pulev isn't flashy, doesn't deliver sensational kayos, isn't spectacular to even some well-trained eyes, but his winning ability keeps being proven, time and again, as he's stepped up in competition.
My post fight analysis:
Early on: Thompson was confident, stuck jabs to Pulev's body (an uncommon heavyweight tool) , throwing off Pulev's best offensive weapon-the jab, and being exactly the type of crafty old vet and southpaw jinx that can derail good looking prospects in the worst way. The same way Thompson derailed The Gentleman Beast, David Price. Thompson had the early rounds on my card. The difference to Price was, Pulev had the punch resistance, the professional poise, and the intellect to do what Price didn't with Thompson in front of him. He took Thompson's best shots, stood strong, adjusted, found a way to land straight right and left combinations, the same way Wladimir did in his rematch with Thompson, to eventually even assert his own jab a bit when he couldn't at the start. He made it through the rough patches any way he could. Judge Mickey Vann very interestingly didn't see the patches as being particularly rough, as evidenced by his 118-110 scorecard for Pulev.
Middle: While the older man tired through the middle of the fight, Pulev even tested the referee's limits with his grabbing and head-locking, frustrating Thompson, nullifying his attempts to bull his way inside. Personally, I thought referee Neumann was far too lenient on this tactic with Pulev. It was blatant and often for a few rounds. In the end, tactics like that are the responsibility of the referee. The fighter employing the tactics, all competitors will understand, will take their breaks where they can get them, in general. Thompson couldn't outmaneuver Pulev's grabbing overdrive in the mid-rounds but the fight stayed reasonably competitive, even with Thompson no longer controlling it. Pulev's tactic worked in allowing him to blunt and tire Thompson and get down to the stamina rounds, where the younger man was favoured.
Late: Once Pulev got through the rough start, his herky-jerky lead hand feinting began to noticeably disrupt Thompson as much as the grabbing tactics. The straight right and left combos were snapping Thompson's head back on occasion. Pulev's deceptively efficient footwork remained solid, the rust was shaken off, A tired Thompson was no longer much of a puzzle, even though he was still able to sneak shots in and not be walked over, no matter how tired he was. Pulev earned the lead on my card and then the final bell came not long after doing so. Unspectacular but efficient.
Summary: Thompson, who doesn't have particularly fast feet, especially later in the fight, probably got the worst of it when Pulev jumped in with the aforementioned straight right and left combos. It makes me think Pulev paid close attention to Thompson/Klitschko II, as I referenced earlier. Thompson likes to lean back and throw his arms in the way, sometimes leaning back to bait you into one of his straight left counters (which Pulev did get tricked into running straight into, a few times, showing an awfully solid chin) and when Pulev was able to find the right moments to jump in, Thompson was blasted. While Pulev won decisively enough, Tony "The Tiger" Thompson, in his forties now, with some love handles, was never completely out of the fight, despite the rounds he dropped late. Pulev was getting some breaks from the referee, and a bit from Thompson's age, but he still thwarted a crafty adversary and got a decisive win. He earned his shot at the winner of October's Klitschko/Povetkin mega fight. He earned it the honest way.
It's funny, as I described Pulev and Thompson as both awkward to look at in their styles and messy and difficult for other fighters, it occurs to me it's strange they were the ones to get this eliminator. They'd earned it but it's strange that it came down to those two men. Thompson's post fight interview after the Price rematch may have endeared him to many, as he assured us his training abstinence was going to come to an end and he would break his wife's hip that night, to an amused British television audience and Pulev has his Bulgarian following (can you name another Bulgarian heavyweight contender, ever?). Yet, that said, neither are men who carry much fandom inside the boxing world. No, they're not fan favourites and not only are they not well known and in demand for fans, but they're exactly the type of low-risk/high reward fighters that other contenders haven't wanted to bother fighting or calling out.
Think about this: Even those who like Thompson (he's a likable guy) were all over the Internet proclaiming how awful it would be to see him win against Pulev. Why? Because, unlike Pulev, we've seen Thompson lose against Wladimir Klitschko- twice. People have no interest in Thompson/Klitschko III. They moan and groan when it's brought up. I've seen a total of zero fans who wanted Thompson to get a third shot at the title. Men like Tyson Fury, David Haye, Dereck Chisora, even Tomasz Adamek still, are the wanted contenders right now. They're wanted by other contenders and wanted on television. Pulev and Thompson somehow found each other in an eliminator match when nobody else wanted either of them, it seems. It really was the battle of the unwanted heavyweight contenders.
Pulev's career - appropriate challenges prevail:
Now, to Pulev. The chance he earned is for Wladimir Klitschko's title. However, his fight may not be against Wladimir Klitschko. Wladimir has what could be his toughest fight to date since David Haye in 2011 against Alexander Povetkin. This fight is about five years in the making. It's one of the biggest fights in boxing in 2013 and while Americans may not be aware of its gravity, this is an enormous event in Europe. My honest opinion is that I would favour Kubrat over neither Povetkin (also undefeated) nor Klitschko (who hasn't been defeated since April of 2004) but I caution anyone against writing Kubrat off against either man, as I would writing off Povetkin against Klitschko. You never know when someone's style will do the trick on you. Especially the unusual styles.
Pulev's been brought along the right way. He hasn't been allowed to look like a monster against twenty fighters with more kayo losses than wins. He's not been built up to look like superman with record padding like many heavies are these days. He was given appropriate challenges at the appropriate times, at every turn. His career is the opposite of someone like David Rodriguez or Denis Boytsov, both strong fighters but who have extended ridiculously deceptive undefeated streaks and high kayo ratios without stepping up their competition level much. Kubrat, contrarily, was treated like he could be champion one day, from day one. As a result, nobody thinks he's superman. Because he hasn't been feasting on guys that have no business in the ring with him. He also has had a real career to learn from, with real experience, a real background to prepare him for a title shot. Let's take a brief look at his career:
Debut year, 2009:
In his third match only he faced a man with a 17-2 record, then later a notorious round-survivor/ perfect trial horse in Zack Page. Instead of a waste of time knocking out the most vulnerable F-level fighters to pad his record, he actually faced a man likely to extend him, like all prospects need, before his debut year was up.
He faced a former European champion/World title challenger in Matt Skelton and one of the most well known gate keepers and one time hot prospect in Dominick Guinn (who has still never been stopped and just fought Adamek).
He added Derric Rossy and Travis Walker to a solid list of names for any prospect these days.
The year he became a serious contender, he'd begun by stopping yet another former European champion in Michael Sprott, then earned a top ten Ring ranking by taking then Ring-ranked heavyweight Alexander Dimitrenko, handing him his first stoppage loss via eleventh round jab (highly unusual) and winning the first part of his aggravating eliminator tournament by stopping undefeated Alexander Ustinov...again, via jab, in the eleventh round. I kid you not.
Wins the eliminator against the already exhaustively described Tony Thompson.
So, in his eighteen professional fights, there's scarcely a single name that I don't recognise and about five fighters who were never stopped before facing Pulev. Kubrat doesn't have a high kayo ratio? No, and perhaps deceptively so. If they wanted to start him out on tomato cans feasts and never stop until he had a 30-0 record with an 80% kayo ratio, then feed him to Klitschko with no experience to fall back on, they probably could have. But, they did the opposite of that and the results, given the context, have been pretty damned good, even if they were ugly at times. Now he's got a shot at the title and the meaningful level of professional experience to give him a shot at actually winning it. Congrats to Pulev. While I'm at it, congrats to Tony Thompson for commanding his own respect with a strong start and a scene-stealer after the final bell. It was the only time I've ever seen a fighter take his trunks off in the ring and walk around for the photographers. Good man, Tony!
Work that bag,
Basement Gym Boxing