The Triangle Theory: Putting an old boxing Myth to bed
By Joseph Hirsch – One of the most abiding and false myths in boxing is what is known as the triangle theory. It’s a mistake both casual fans and experts get drawn into, as shown time and again, but most recently in the debate over who would win a fight between Mikey Garcia and Vasyl Lomachenko. I personally can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say that because Mikey Garcia (Fighter A in this instance) beat Orlando Salido (Fighter B) who got a decision over Vasyl Lomachenko (Fighter C), that means that Hi-Tech will automatically lose to Mikey Garcia. This faulty logic ignores another and truer precept of boxing: styles make fights.
Let’s revisit some ancient history to see this principle in action, just to examine why the triangle theory doesn’t prove anything except the boxing forecaster’s inability to learn about the future from the past …
Many moons ago Bernard Hopkins made his 21st title defense against Jermain Taylor, who was his junior by fourteen years at the time. Hopkins is now boxing royalty, but back in those days, even after a ten-year reign as a genius counter-puncher, it was normal to see B-Hop booed on his way to the ring. That Jermain Taylor had a large contingent of Arkansans supporting him didn’t help matters. The champ was treated like a challenger.
The first Taylor-Hopkins fight turned into one of those affairs that diehard boxing fans and experts love, while ringside commentators and some crowd members either boo or get listless. HBO commentator Larry Merchant had always been somewhat desultory in his treatment of B-Hop, but he was especially critical of the “Executioner’s” two fights with “Bad Intentions” Taylor. He complained at one point that watching Hopkins fight was like watching someone swim laps.
Hopkins didn’t win the early going of the fight, but Hopkins didn’t always win the first three rounds even in fights he ended up dominating. Youth was served as B-Hop was forced to respect both Taylor’s speed and power. Taylor’s main weakness was that he continued to fight from what Lou DiBella called his “bow and arrow” stance, in which his high guard remained tense and strangely wide, requiring him to burn up a lot of his energy and also making it easier for his opponents to see his punches coming. Even the master trainer Emanuel Steward couldn’t break Taylor of this bad habit that kept Jermain from realizing his true potential.
Bernard Hopkin, as usual, somehow managed to control the tempo of the fight even in the rounds he was losing. He was always blessed with the uncanny ability to spoil his opponent’s momentum, slow his work-rate, and generally frustrate the other man. Hopkins came on in the tenth, delivering some of those signature sharp punches he tends to throw while lunging in with his head down. The blows sounded like rifle cracks, and some thought the tide was turning. A legit scrap that broke out in the eleventh round did nothing to dampen the feeling that maybe, after all the tentative back and forth, we were about to be treated to a firefight.
It was not to be. The end was an anticlimactic split decision for Taylor.
Coming into the second fight, most of the talk was about whether or not Bernard Hopkins might retire after this match, win, lose, or draw. The talk sounds ridiculous at this great remove, but none of us were blessed with a crystal ball, and so we naturally didn’t know that Hopkins had another age-defying decade of good fights left in him.
Had he succeeded in besting Taylor in the rematch though, he would already have made a bit of minor history, becoming the 3rd oldest man in history to win a title, at the age of forty (after “Big” George Foreman and Sugar Boy Malinga).
The fight started out with both men giving each other respect, with a tempo that favored counter-punching. Jermain Taylor wasn’t as much of a natural counter-puncher as Hopkins, but the old vet’s caginess forced the aggressive young lion to tread softly.
Taylor held quite a bit and even rabbit-punched Hopkins, making it one of those bizarre nights in which the guy with a reputation for being dirty kept it relatively clean. Hopkins was demonstrating his maturity while not really showing his age. The two men were even money with the betting public, while the professional analysts thought Hopkins would win.
B-Hop swept the 8th round, enjoying a definitive three-minute stanza, and Taylor’s frustration started to show. Jermain was the bigger fighter (he was getting ready to campaign at super-middleweight) and he still had youth on his side, but he was not necessarily the better man in the squared circle that night.
Hopkins had a higher overall punch count when the fight was over, and he also led Taylor in power punches. Taylor’s jab had proved the difference with the judges, who awarded him a unanimous decision. In an ironic turn of events, Larry Merchant, who never had many nice things to say about Hopkins, was at least honest enough to award B-Hop a draw.
After this fight, Taylor’s star shined brighter while Hopkins receded a bit into the shadows, where he had spent a good part of his career (even as champion and after outclassing Antonio Tarver).
Jermain Taylor’s next fight was against Kelly “the Ghost” Pavlik, a fighter without too much speed, but a fighter who compensated for that with his awkward style and the right-hand power reserves he summoned from both hands. Pavlik was never as good as someone like an all-time great like Carlos Monzon, or even a respectable champ like Carl Froch (maybe Jesus Soto-Karass would be a better comparison) but he came from that same school of fighters who threw shots that looked easy to time, but, like changeup pitches, managed to disrupt the rhythm of faster fighters.
Pavlik came into the fight as an underdog, as usual. That he was treated too often as the B-side of cards was something he had in common with Hopkins, who, before he eventually fought Pavlik, credited Kelly as coming up the hard way without any soft touches on his resume. “The Ghost” had been brought into several previous fights as a stepping stone, a tough kid who could give up-and-comers some work on their march to title fights. Only somebody kept forgetting to hand Kelly the script before these matches he was supposed to lose, and he pulled off minor upsets against Fulgencio Zuniga and Jose Zertuche before getting everyone’s attention with a big win over Edison “El Pantera” Miranda, way before Miranda became known as a gatekeeper of the kind people thought Pavlik would grow into.
Taylor-Pavlik was a much rougher affair than Taylor’s previous two fights with Bernard Hopkins. Heavy leather was exchanged early, and in the 2nd round Pavlik went down hard, clutching Taylor’s arm as he fell to the canvas.
It looked like it was going to be a short night, but Pavlik weathered the storm and made it back to his corner to see the end of the round, bleeding but still game.
The third round was another barn-burner, and Jermain Taylor, who was never great off the ropes, allowed himself to be cornered. Kelly went to work spearing him with those looping shots and off-tempo overhand rights. Taylor had always had stamina issues, and his late round rally wasn’t enough to erase the impression that Kelly was pulling ahead.
Pavlik had gone from being on the verge of being knocked out to being in command of the fight. Many questions would be asked of Pavlik later, but in his prime (and despite his glaring deficiencies in some categories) his heart couldn’t be questioned, at least not on that night.
It also helped that Hall-of-Famer ref Steve Smoger was both fan- and fighter-friendly, since a more cautious official might have put a halt to the action in the second round and awarded Jermain the win via stoppage in the 2nd.
Taylor eventually went into the corner one too many times in the 7th and Pavlik dropped the heavy artillery on him. Taylor couldn’t cover up as he absorbed even more punishment than Pavlik had dished out in the 2nd. Jermain was clobbered until he went down in the corner and remained limp as a ragdoll, while Pavlik jumped onto the ropes and celebrated yet another upset victory, this time the biggest upset win of his career. Jermain Taylor, who looked like he was sleeping peacefully, had been ahead on the cards at the time a halt to the action was called.
The two men met for the rematch at a catch-weight of 166 (they’d actually first met in the amateurs when Pavlik was 17 and Taylor was 21). There was a lot of buzz around Kelly Pavlik going into this fight (again, none of us had our crystal balls, so we didn’t know how he would later implode in such spectacular fashion).
Pavlik was mentioned as a future opponent for everyone from Arthur Abraham to Joe Calzaghe (it’s a good thing that fight didn’t happen, since it probably would have been a blowout of Calzaghe-Lacy proportions). It’s also a good thing that a proposed match with Andre “S.O.G.” Ward never materialized, since Pavlik would have most likely also lost that affair by a large margin. A purported staph infection kept Pavlik and Paul Williams from meeting (Sergio Martinez eventually scalped both men, KO’ing Williams in brutal fashion). All of those potential fights were on the backburner, though, until the rematch with Taylor was done.
Pavlik-Taylor II was a more sedate, cautious affair than the first fight. Pavlik continued fighting in his plodding, mechanical style, catching with his right glove and shooting the jab. The pace of the fight was more suited to heavyweights, what former champ and commentator Paulie Malignaggi calls “Your turn, my turn,” in which, rather than jockeying for the play, each man lets the other unload before firing his own shots. It was fistic call-and-response, boxing’s version of Marco Polo.
This was the first time Pavlik was in deep waters, and the combatants were tied on Harold Lederman’s unofficial scorecard going into the championship rounds. It was a near clinch-free affair, unlike Hopkins-Taylor (or Hopkins vs. anybody), and there weren’t too many warnings issued.
Kelly Pavlik almost pulled a repeat performance, hitting Taylor so that his bow-and-arrow stance widened the same way it eventually would when Carl Froch had him in trouble in their war of attrition. But “Bad Intentions” stayed on his feet, while dropping a UD and suffering his second loss in as many fights to Kelly “the Ghost” Pavlik.
The world was Kelly’s oyster after this fight, and if he had wanted to stay at middleweight and take another mandatory after his cakewalk against Gary Lockett (whose face he battered into a crimson mask), he could have done that. Pavlik said he liked pasta though, and he no doubt liked the idea of a big payday against a faded name fighter at 170 lbs. Even if he lost his fight against Hopkins, he wouldn’t lose his title.
Very few people thought Pavlik would lose to Bernard Hopkins, though. Hopkins had lost twice to Jermain Taylor, who Pavlik had brutally KO’d once and had outpointed by a narrower margin in his next fight. When Bernard Hopkins declared in a presser that he was going to KO Pavlik, journalists laughed and changed the subject to when Pavlik would knock out the ageing lion and send him into retirement (Joe Smith wouldn’t do that for a long time, but experts are sometimes just fans who get paid to be wrong).
Kelly’s camp wasn’t shy about the gameplan, which was to try to KO Hopkins. The old “Wizard of Kronk” Emanuel Steward cautioned that Pavlik shouldn’t look for the knockout, that even when Bernard lost a fight he didn’t get KO’d.
Hopkins was again the underdog, and again he was booed by many on his way to the ring. The odds were 4:1 against Hopkins and he was about seventeen years older than the middleweight champ of the world. Hopkins was coming off a questionable loss to Joe “Pride of Wales” Calzaghe, but it was another “L” nonetheless. People wondered if he would even be able to go twelve with Pavlik.
The bell rang, and Manny Steward’s words hung ominously in the air. Pavlik had gone into the fight with the mindset that he was going to KO Hopkins; Steward thought he should have shown the elder statesman more respect, and he hadn’t, and ow it was B-Hop’s turn to teach him some respect.
What we were treated to that night was a one-sided clinic, vintage Hopkins like we hadn’t seen since his fight with Felix Trinidad. It could have been that Hopkins was fighting in Atlantic City (much closer to Philly) and he didn’t want to get embarrassed this close to home, or it could have been that the naysaying scribes at ringside had gotten under his skin, and he had something to prove to them as well as himself.
Whatever it was, he boxed circles around Pavlik and used lateral movement and feints to wrap Pavlik in a cocoon of self-doubt. Kelly couldn’t do much but stagger, absorb punishment, and bleed. Hopkins rarely had such a commanding lead in a fight, even a fight he was winning. By the 7th round the class difference was too wide for even Pavlik’s biggest booster to ignore. Even Larry Merchant couldn’t gripe about this B-Hop performance.
Things didn’t look like they were going to get better for Pavlik as he lumbered bloodily into the final rounds. Hopkins had gone more than nine rounds twenty-four times. Kelly had gone more than nine just once.
It was a landslide victory for Bernard Hopkins, who not only hadn’t resorted to trash-talking in the runup to the fight, but was strangely respectful toward Kelly Pavlik in the aftermath of the bloodbath.
Now, think about those three men (Taylor, Hopkins, and Pavlik) and remember the triangle theory. Plug in Taylor for the apex of the triangle, and Pavlik and Hopkins for the other two points at the base. You don’t have to know much about geometry to see my point. You just have to know a little bit about boxing’s history to know that because one man beats another who beat the third, that doesn’t say anything about how the other two men in the triangle match up. Styles make fights. If you don’t believe me, ask Roman Martinez, who also fought both Vasyl Lomachenko and Mikey Garcia. He lost to both men, but lost more definitively to the man who lost a decision to Orlando Salido.
The real question for Vasyl Lomachenko vs. Mikey Garcia is an age-old one about power versus speed. It’s a question for another day, and another article. The only question I’d leave you with now is this one: why do boxing fans (especially those who should know better by now) keep falling for the triangle theory?
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