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Hamed-Soto / Morales / McCullough Report
Heaven and Hell in Detroit

By Thomas Gerbasi

It was a study in contrasts at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit last night, as four combatants of the 122-126 pound divisions battled in two completely diverse matchups. In the main event, the expected star of the show, Sheffield, England’s Prince Naseem Hamed, survived a mugging from WBC 126 pound champion Cesar Soto to win a comfortable unanimous 12 round decision. This fight had to be the ugliest that this reporter has ever had the misfortune to witness. But more on that later.

I would be remiss if I didn’t first report on the fight which may not have been the headliner on the marquee, but which stole the show from the flashy Prince. Erik Morales, the latest successor to Julio Cesar Chavez, remained unbeaten (35-0, 28 ko’s) as he pounded out a 12 round unanimous decision over Ireland’s Wayne McCullough (23-3, 14 ko’s) to retain his WBC junior featherweight title. But though the scores may have seemed lopsided (116-112 twice, 118-110), this was one of the most competitive and entertaining fights in recent memory.

McCullough, who has been plagued by an inability to win "the big one", looked to change things from the opening bell. Using an aggressive style remininscent of that used in his close loss to Daniel Zaragoza, "The Pocket Rocket" found little problem catching Morales, though to be fair, many shots were deflected by his gloves and shoulders. Morales warmed up late in the opening stanza and started to establish a pattern of landing solid right hands. These right hands seemed to momentarily halt McCullough’s forward progress, but the Irishman would then pull off a little showboating dance and resume hostilities with Morales.

This give and take action continued through the early rounds, much to the delight of the Detroit crowd. By the fourth round though, Morales had started digging vicious shots to McCullough’s body, and Wayne seemed to be weakening. In round five, McCullough repeatedly looked to referee Frank Garza for help, protesting that Morales’ body blows were kidney shots. The referee ignored these pleas, and this reporter figured that McCullough would only have a couple of rounds of reserve left in his body.

But McCullough’s heart refused to give in. With what must have been a feeling that this was his last chance to compete at the upper levels of the sport, McCullough dug in and stood toe to toe with Morales. Erik seemed to take a couple of rounds off as Wayne slammed hooks and crosses through the Mexican’s guard. Unfortunately, McCullough’s lack of explosive firepower led to his shots being brushed off by the harder hitting Morales.

In the ninth, Morales established his dominance again, but McCullough refused to back down. This led to action over the last which displayed the very best of the Sweet Science. Morales’ shots were accurate and debilitating, while McCullough’s were plentiful and annoying. The final round ended with both men throwing punches, and while the unanimous decision was not in doubt, McCullough proved that he could still fight at the elite level of the sport. As for Morales, a proposed bout with countryman Marco Antonio Barrera has to be one of the most anticipated bouts for boxing purists in a while. And it should live up to expectations.

As for the main event, over the 12 rounds of tedious, ugly street brawling, WBC champion (and I use the champion term lightly) Cesar Soto showed the crowd and the worldwide television audience what is wrong with boxing today. Soto, who was looking to add the WBO belt to his WBC hardware, showed up to survive. Not to win, not to fight, but to put his head down, headbutt, hold, and basically do whatever he could to go twelve rounds. And while the viewers of this farce were the biggest losers, new WBO /WBC champion Hamed didn’t fare too well either. Booed by a crowd packed with members of the largest Arab community in the United States, Naz has now struck out in two of his three US appearances, the other dud being his 12 round snoozer over McCullough.

After his usual flashy entrance, which seemed shorter than usual, Hamed came out at the opening gong looking to establish his speed and superior skills. He did this quickly with some flashy combinations. Soto responded by grabbing Hamed and thrusting his head in his face. I should have turned off the television right there. Throughout the remaining eleven rounds, that was the pattern: Hamed tries to punch, Soto grabs him and brawls. Referee Dale Grable earned his pay for the next year trying to sort out this bout, which would have been booed if it was held in a barroom. Grable was forced to deduct three points from the fighters during the bout (2 from Hamed, 1 from Soto) for fouling, and he could have taken points on dozens of other occasions. And I’m being generous.

Hamed’s vaunted punching power was not on display last night, and in fact, the only time Soto was hurt (and the only entertaining part of the bout), was when Hamed lifted up the WBC title holder and bodyslammed him in round five. This cost Hamed a point, and the only drama was seeing whether Naz was going to be disqualified.

What little fighting was done was done by Hamed, and thus the lopsided scores of the three judges (114-110, 115-110, 116-108). This reporter had it 118-108.

Soto’s display was a disgrace, and we hopefully won’t be hearing from him anytime soon. As for the Prince, let’s hope the party’s over. We’ve seen the dancing, we’ve heard the boasts. Now let’s see some fights against top drawer competition, fighters who want to win and who want to fight. Then the real Naz can show up.

Hamed and Soto stink out the joint
By Chris Bushnell

When Naseem Hamed stepped through the ropes to battle featherweight co-titlist Cesar Soto, all sign pointed to a classic style matchup:  southpaw vs.conventional, power vs. output, rangy boxing vs. come-forward aggression.

However, replacing the sweet science was a nearly unwatchable contest in which points were deducted for flagrant fouling, an abundance of "final warnings" from shrill referee Dale Grable brought no DQ, and Cesar Soto was on the canvas nearly a dozen times...although never from a knockdown. 

Naseem Hamed may have won another world championship, but he did nothing to stem the growing exodus of his fan base.

After the requisite confetti cannons and choreographed pyrotechnics, both fighters stood in the ring, ready to unify their respective claims to the 126 lb. championship.   Soto wasted no time when, at the opening bell, he charged Hamed.  Bullying in with both hands flying, Soto fired rapid punches to the Prince's midsection before getting tangled in the evening's first sloppy clinch.  Hamed quickly answered with several blistering left hands from the southpaw stance that swiped Soto's face and cooled his aggression.  Immediately wary, Soto's high output, rapid-delivery style evaporated in the face of his opponent's power.  Encouraged, Hamed fired even more sharp lead lefts, and banked the first round with ease. 

The action hinted at in the opening stanza melted away by the second round, as Hamed devolved into the one-punch-at-a-time offense that drew catcalls in his fight with Wayne McCullough.  Soto offered little in return, although the second round saw his only seriously effective punch of the night when a long left hook caught Hamed leaning straight back.  The punch nearly inverted Hamed's skull.  Another Soto hook later in the same round caught Hamed flush, but it was the last clean punch Soto could conjure.

During the second round, referee Dale Grable began a ceaseless plea for clean breaks.   He was not successful.  As Hamed and Soto wrestled with each other, the older Grable was unable to secure a break by command, and only slightly more effective separating the fighters physically.  Despite warnings to both fighters, the clinches continued to dominate the fight.

In the third, Grable risked losing his voice from barking "Break" so frequently.   While both fighters shared blame for the waltzing, the bulk of the problem often seemed to lie with Soto, who bullied in on Hamed with an ultra-tight defense, threw no punches, and then appeared to hold Hamed during the attempted breaks.  Grable was losing control of the fight, and not making it any easier on himself by repeating "One more time and I'm taking a point".  It was an empty threat until the fourth round.

A point was finally deducted in the fourth, but not from Soto.  After one chaotic entanglement resulted with Hamed's left arm around Soto's head, the frustrated Hamed cinched the headlock and mugged to the crowd.  Grable now took a point from the Prince for "unsportsmanlike conduct".  But he hadn't seen anything yet.

In the fifth round, Naseem again found himself losing a point...but for a much more egregious foul.  As the two fighters came together, Hamed ducked and was soon tied up with Soto hovering over his back and leaning down on him.  Alone, it's not an uncommon position for fighters to be stuck in, but what happened next was anything but usual.  Rather than be leaned on, an agitated Hamed quickly stood up.  Soto was lifted off his feet and draped across Hamed's back.  But he didn't stop there. Continuing his ascent, Hamed spun and flipped Soto
head over heels and onto his back in a flip that rivaled Naseem's ring entrance.   Simply put, Hamed body slammed him. 

For a moment, chaos reigned in the ring.  Grable grabbed Hamed by the wrist and began walking him to a neutral corner, looking as though he were going to call what would have been a completely appropriate disqualification.  Soto's cornermen immediately entered the ring, a move worthy of disqualification on it's own, and Grable was in the eye of a tornado of controversy.  Order was quickly restored, with Soto's team ordered back to their seats and Hamed suffering his second point deduction of the evening.  But now the wrestling match was on.

In the following rounds, Hamed occasionally punched and Soto occasionally got hit.   But mostly, the two grappled.  In clinch after ugly clinch, the two men shoved each other around the ring, into corners and onto the canvas.  Soto was down a half a dozen times on his own, and on several other occasions managed to pull Hamed down with him.  It was ugly. 

Most of the blame falls on Soto, who rarely attempted punching his opponent as he rushed in with his head down.  One particularly flush headbutt caused the third point deduction of the night, this time from Soto in the eighth.  But Hamed cannot be spared indictment, as his answer to Soto's tactics was often more return shoving.  As both men walked the tightrope of disqualification every single round, referee Dale Grable could do little more than offer repeated warnings.  Unfortunately, perhaps, he seemed unwilling to DQ either man in the biggest fight Detroit had seen in some time.

Hamed flashed his brilliance only once in the fight:  a ninth round flurry that saw him brilliantly hit Soto flush, then quickly step around him and fire again.  As Hamed darted from one side to another, he broke not only Soto's nose but his will to win.   Behind on the cards from his inability to land, Soto seemed content to simply go the distance.  Even in the twelfth and final round, after trainer Miguel Diaz implored his man to turn it around, Soto could not be bothered to punch.  Instead he stared at Hamed, who clowned his way to the final bell under a hailstorm of "boo"s.

At the end of the fight, Hamed lifted Soto's title by wide scores of 116-108, 115-110, and 114-110, but had little to be proud of.  Forced to battle the rough housing Soto, Hamed could do little more than oblige his desire to dance.  None of the fancy footwork, combination punching, or "wicked" power Hamed promised surfaced.   It was a night both men will seek to purge from their memory, but one that will stick in the fight fan's mind for a long time. 

For Soto, his eighth loss is a serious setback, but for Hamed this performance may be even more catastrophic.  After capturing the imagination of the U.S. audience with his thrilling win over Kevin Kelley two years ago, The Prince has looked anything but spectacular in consecutive wins over McCullough, Ingle and now Soto.  He desperately needs an impressive victory over a name opponent to keep his status as a top draw.   Let's hope that he does the right thing and faces the winner of the undercard bout, Erik Morales.

Before Hamed and Soto stunk out the joint, Erik Morales and Wayne McCullough waged a brilliant ebb and flow battle that was everything boxing fans like:  clean punches, shifting momentum, and bravery and courage in the face of pressure and exhaustion.   Although he was far from invincible, Erik Morales' stock rose after his gutsy championship performance over the Pocket Rocket.

Wayne McCullough's best moments have always come when he's used a high volume of punches to make up for his lack of punching power.  Once the opening bell rang, McCullough began an barrage of punches in this, his third title shot since leaving his bantamweight championship behind.  Jumping on the slow starting Morales, McCullough found success in backing up the champion and catching him with left hooks upstairs and down.   Morales answered with several blistering right hands of his own, but not enough to keep the challenger from
winning the opening round.

McCullough continued his attack in the second, brawling freely with Morales.  The rugged Irishman would charge Morales, perpetually firing punches into his guard.   While many were blocked, some found their way through, and Morales knew he had to answer or else risk giving up the pace to McCullough.  Using pin point accuracy and effective timing, Morales fired his long arms across the distance to great effect.  A beautiful one-two followed by a left uppercut momentarily stopped McCullough in his tracks, and kept the round close, but McCullough kept coming and banked another stanza.

Luckily for Morales, McCullough could not keep up his furious pace for every minute of every round, and in the third, Morales capitalized on the short breaks Wayne would take to catch a breath.  In these moments of passivity, Morales would quickly set his feet and fire laser guided bombs straight to McCullough's head.  The crisp head snapping work Morales did turned the fight back in his favor, and he backed McCullough across the ring, landing punches along the way.

The fourth round began a string of very close rounds as McCullough would back Morales to the ropes, unload on him, and then allow Morales to answer back. Whichever man landed first soon found himself on the receiving end of a retaliatory blow, and the action was back and forth all night.  Morales landed some of his most crippling shots in the fourth as he dug repeated right hands to the body that could be heard in the cheap seats.   It was a good investment on Morales' part, because by the end of the fourth he found himself completely exhausted.

Beginning the fifth with his mouth open and his chest heaving, Morales was in a precarious spot: controlling the fight with clean punches, but tiring badly against an opponent whose stamina never seemed to waver.  Again going to the body, Morales' right hands to the body drew complaints from McCullough, who thought he was being punched in the kidneys.   It's possible that Morales had cracked Wayne's ribs as his fearsome punches landed legally, yet the pain extended around McCullough's back. 

As the fight continued, Morales never ceased picking off McCullough, although his fatigue grew with each round.  In the seventh and eighth, with Morales hitting McCullough's forehead at will, the fight was still extremely close, as McCullough would inevitably keep firing punches until one would land, sending a very tired Morales back to the ropes.  

As Morales' condition worsened, and his mouth opened wider and wider, the fight grew closer.  McCullough pressed the issue throughout, looking for the one punch that could send Morales to the canvas.  Lacking the power to drop Morales, McCullough's task was fruitless.  In fact, late in the fight, his best punches seemed to only momentarily awaken the weary Morales into answering back with some big right hands of his own.

With the fight relatively close going into the championship rounds, Erik Morales proved why he deserves to be mentioned among the game's pound for pound best as he ignored his fatigue and pressed forward, summoning the will to win that only true champions possess.   In the eleventh round, McCullough was looking for one specific opening.  As he waited, he leaned over, and as he leaned over, Morales hit him.  Eight consecutive punches bounced off McCullough's forehead unanswered as he stood looking for an opening.   With 30 seconds to go in the round, McCullough found an opening, and nailed Morales with a left hook that stunned him.  Morales responded just as McCullough was inspired, and both men stood toe to toe to close out the frame.

As the final round began, both men began where they left off, immediately returning to a phone booth war.  Face to face, each man fought their hearts out.  Both were landing punches, and the Detroit audience rose to it's feet as
the battle continued through to the closing bell.  While Tapia-Ayala seems to have the award locked up for 1999, expect this fight to poll a close second for Fight of the Year.

Morales retained his title by scores of 118-110 and 116-112, scores that rewarded his crisp clean punching over the course of the fight.  ( scored the bout 116-112 for Morales).  Fighting on pure courage and determination, Erik Morales (35-0/28) closed the show like a champion, and deserves the accolades this fight will garner him.  His willingness to box or brawl, his WBC title and unblemished record, and his increasingly difficult time making 122 make him the perfect next opponent for Naseem Hamed.  Let's hope that the acrimonious Arum-Hamed relations can be overcome to make this bout a reality.  After tonight, the fans deserve it.

Editor, Boxing
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