Can a boxer who is 33-1 and held titles in two weightclasses be considered a waste of talent?
The recent news that the “Khanqueror” Breidis Prescott will be taking on Khabib Allakhverdiev (and even in the world of terrible boxing nicknames “Khanqueror” stands out as one of the worst) made me think for a moment of the man Allakhverdiev beat to win the WBA 140lbs belt he now defends.
Mention the name “Joan Guzman” to most boxing fans and I’m sure the general reaction would be a shrug of the shoulders and a general look of confusion. Perhaps some will remember his first bout with Ali Funeka, a dangerous if limited South African, for a 135lbs belt which was famous less for the in ring action and more for the very controversial decision which saw a seemingly unmotivated Guzman escape with a draw. For those interested the bout is below, although I warn you it isn’t scintillating viewing.
Perhaps they remember the rematch where a fat Guzman (who came into the bout nearly 10lbs over the 135lbs limit) won a disputed, if not quite as controversial decision over Funeka, sealing it with a knockdown in the last round.
But once upon a time Guzman wasn’t just a fat 140lbs fighter flittering on the edges of the world scene and getting debatable decisions while failing drug tests. Once upon a time Guzman was seen as the heir apparent to the upper echelons of the P4P throne, a skilled, athletic powerful boxer who could both hurt and opponent with his fists and make them look silly with his skills. When Manny Pacquiao wasn’t the boxing superstar he is today but was instead the king of the 130lbs weightclass there was a real (and sensible) school of thought that Guzman was the man to beat him and challenges were made. When Pacquiao moved up to 135lbs to defeat the limited David Diaz and begin his accession from star to superstar there were some people who genuinely believed it was him, to use the parlance, “ducking” Guzman. Even as late as 2011 some (although it must be said these are generally people who dislike Pacquiao) continued to assert Manny had deliberately avoided the Dominican puncher.
When we talk about wasted talent there are some usual suspects and types who appear. Audley Harrison, the Olympic Gold Medalist who appeared to have every tool to succeed as a heavyweight until it became clear he was paralysed by fear at the very concept of being punched with intent. Rocky Juarez who for a while only ever lost in world title bouts (to the likes of Soto, Barrera, Marquez and Chris John) and had the infuriating habit of simply not throwing enough punches in close fights. Andrew Golota , a perennial title challenger who just couldn’t keep it mentally together against the best. Jorge Luis González, a standout Cuban amateur who simply never commited to the pros and was finally exposed in six brutal rounds by Riddick Bowe or, continuing the theme of heavyweight amateur stars who never lived up to the billing Duane Bobick, a man who saw his Olympic dreams trodden into dust by the rise of the legendary Teófilo Stevenson and then was demolished in a round by feared puncher Ken Norton in the paid ranks.
I don’t think Guzman belongs in that category. I think instead he belongs with the likes of Zab Judah, Fernando Vargas, the monster Edwin Valero (and there are thousands of words that can be written on the tragedy that his life became… for him but more for those around him), Riddick Bowe himself, perhaps even a man with as many accolades as James Toney.
These boxers all found success. In that group you can see those who held world titles, held RING titles, some who will almost certainly be hall of fame members. Yet all of them, for one reason or another, never quite lived up to the potential they actually had. This wasn’t the case of unreasonable expectations being placed on their shoulders… each showed so much for much of their careers that it was hard to imagining them not being even more successful.
Guzman is one of those.
Guzman was born on 1 May 1976 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic may be more famous for its baseball players than its pugilists but it has still produced some notable names; Eleoncio Mercedes (who scored one of the biggest upsets in boxing history to take the World Flyweight Title), Lightweight champion Carlos Cruz and Julio César Green. Guzman started boxing at age nine and compiled an amateur record reported to be 310 wins to 10 losses. Amateur records are notoriously difficult to verfiy but there was no doubt Guzman was an excellent amateur, winning a gold medal at the Pan-Am games even his Olympic dreams ended at the fists of future world champion Omar Andres Narvaez.
Guzman really came into his own as a professional however. He was fast, explosive, technically fairly sound and powerful. Nicknames including the term “Tyson” may be a bit of a cliche in boxing and rarely ring true but Guzman’s “Little Tyson” moniker at least rang somewhat true as he shocked opponents with his power, even if he didn’t finish them. He looked to be supreme at 122lbs, winning the WBO Super Bantamweight Title against an overmatched Fabio Daniel Oliva and then defending it against the former champion Agapito Sanchez ( a man who had drawn with Pacquiao in his previous contest) and handing a first loss to Fernando Beltran, finishing the first two. He pernamently moved up in weight in 2006, leaping up two weightclasses to take the WBO Super Featherweight belt against Jorge Rodrigo Barrios in a close decision before eventually having his signature performance against Humberto Soto for that belt late in 2007.
Soto may not be a household name but he is one that many boxing fans should recognise. He has in some ways a typical Mexican boxing record in that it’s long (71 bouts as of day, with Soto being 32 years old) and littered with early losses (at one point Soto was 13-4-2). The reason for this is simple; Soto had virtually no amateur career, turning pro at age 17 and taking on fully grown men. His appearance on the big stage began with a very close losing effort to Kevin Kelly… and while the Flushing Flash may not have been what he once was but he still had a 55-5-2 record to Soto’s own 22-4-2. Between that bout and the Guzman contest Soto won 20 bouts in a row, many by KO, beating the likes of Jorge Solis and Rocky Juarez and winning an interm WBC featherweight belt, the lone blemish being a no contest. The bout was sold as being almost a Pacquiao eliminator; most thought that the winner would get a shot at the man who ruled these lower weight divisions.
For the record, since the Guzman bout Soto has gone 18-2 with a long lightweight title run, the losses being an incredibly controversial disqualification loss to Francisco Lorenzo (who he soundly beat in the rematch) and at the hands of monsterous Argentinian puncher Lucas Matthysse up at 140lbs.
The bout was a forgotten classic. Soto, as is his way, put pressure on, chasing Guzman around the ring and trying to land punches, more than willing to take one to give one. Guzman showed a masterclass in defence and combination punching, avoiding most of what Soto threw with dips, dodges, twists and turns, even when trapped on the ropes and all he while battering Soto with hard combinations. While he somewhat took the last three rounds off by showboating, Guzman was the clear winner, an excellent performance in an excellent fight. At 30 years old Guzman seemed to be in his prime and with the world at his feet.
It was all downhill from there though.
No-one quite knows what caused the downfall but it’s first worth noting that Guzman rarely fought since that bout. Between his debut in 1997 and that bout in 2007 he stepped into the ring he fought 27 times… in the six years since he’s fought eight. He fought once in 2008, once in 2009, twice in 2010 and once in 2011. He spent far too much of his prime out of the ring and now, age 36, it’s hard to see him getting anywhere near his peak again.
His skills also deteriorated. He always had power but for much of his career he didn’t rely on it, instead incorporating it into an aggressive yet technical and athletic style. Since that Soto bout he appears to have done the opposite, leaning on his power at the expense of his other skills, his talent reduced to merely trying to find a way to land a big hook. The Guzman who had so excited us against Soto had been reduced to a crude puncher.
In some ways it didn’t matter… he was still winning. But his level of opposition left a lot of be desired. The 11-7-1 Jason Davis (in a bout later ruled a no-contest due to Guzman’s use of a banned substance), the 17-4 (and a weak 17-4 at that) Florencio Castellano, the 17-2 Jesus Pabon (who had been stopped in two rounds in his previous bout), the 25-15 Jorge Pimentel. For a boxer of Guzman’s calibre these simply weren’t the sort of opponents he should be facing… especially fighting as infrequently as he did.
And his weight was creeping up. After the Soto bout he immediately moved to 135lbs and looked fat in the first Funeka bout and missed weight in the second. He then went to 140lbs and simply hasn’t looked the same… slower, sluggish, less responsive, less active. He may have only lost once (his most recent bout where he was dropped and then accidentally injured in a bout for the 140lbs strap by the previously mentioned Khabib Allakhverdiev) but he’s 36 now, will be coming back from an injury and even in todays world where boxers can easily make it to 40 and still continue it’s hard to see where he goes. Wherever it is, it is unlikely to be towards the sort of superfights that we once assumed would be in his future.
Between 2007 and at least 2010 Guzman should have been a maor figure in the boxing world. The bout with Pacquiao may never have happened but that didn’t mean he shouldn’t have ruled supreme at 130lbs. His career since has been a waste, a waste of talent, a waste of potential and a waste of a man who really deserved better. Guzman is as talented a natural boxer as I’ve ever seen, with the possible exception of Roy Jones Jr. However pretty his record looks he should have achieved more than he did.
And that is why he’s arguably the biggest waste of talent I’ve witnessed in boxing, at least in recent years.