1. How good is Sergio Martinez?
CHRIS MANNIX: The first thing I thought after watching Martinez pulverize Paul Williams on Saturday was man, I wish he was five years younger. With his skill, style and good looks a 30-year-old Martinez would be the face of boxing. A 35-year-old Martinez is still great but he has a shelf life and is fighting in a division that right now doesn't have any viable opponents. Still, there's no doubt that Martinez is the class of the 154- and 160-pounders. He is powerful and tactical, quick and strong. As middleweights go, Martinez is the complete package.
RICHARD O'BRIEN: The honest answer is we don't really know. Yes, he looked like a world-beater last Saturday night, lumberjacking Williams in the second round. Certainly that was a spectacular left hand and the knockout of the year from a guy who has just 25 KOs in his 46 wins (against two losses and two draws). Martinez is very smart and controlled. He said afterward that he was waiting for Williams to make a mistake and that's exactly what happened, as the 6-foot-2 Williams was leaning low and looping his punches, and Martinez scoped him and timed him perfectly. Now boxing fans and pundits are proclaiming Martinez one of the sport's best, pound-for-pound. But outside of Williams (to whom he lost by majority decision last year) and a possibly-shot Kelly Pavlik, whom has he beaten? Sure, he probably should have gotten credit for a KO of Kermit Cintron instead of a majority draw, but consider that Martinez's previous 10 opponents before Cintron brought an average of 11.2 losses into their bouts against him. I think all the tools are there and that this is one very exciting fighter, but, really, Martinez, even at almost 36, is still a work in progress.
BRYAN ARMEN GRAHAM: Rich brings some important levity to the conversation, but I'm convinced the late-blooming Martinez ranks among the top three boxers in the sport today on current form. With a single punch, he blew away one of the top five pound-for-pound fighters in the world. His advanced age doesn't guarantee he'll stay in that elite class, but he's a young 35 (having not picked up the sport until his 20s) and seems to be at or near his physical peak.
Martinez said Saturday that he wants to fight three more times before hanging up the gloves for good. Sadly, it's highly unlikely he'll attract Manny Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather into the ring -- the risk/reward just doesn't make sense for either of them. But other attractive options exist, among them Miguel Cotto, James Kirkland, Antonio Margarito and a rubber match with Paul Williams. He could also go about trying to unify the fractured middleweight championship, taking aim at Dmitry Pirog, Felix Sturm and Sebastian Sylvester -- not exactly box-office draws but fights HBO might pony up for.
2. What's your thumbnail analysis with predictions for the weekend's three big fights: Juan Manuel Marquez-Michael Katsidis, Andre Ward-Sakio Bika and Arthur Abraham-Carl Froch?
MANNIX: Marquez and Katsidis are rarely in bad fights and this one should be no exception. Katsidis is fighting with a heavy heart after the death of his brother last month and is a bit too much of a free swinger to hang with Marquez, who blends power and technique as well as anyone at 135 pounds. It will be exciting but I expect Marquez to end it in the later rounds.
Ward has proven to be the class of the Super Six and shouldn't have any trouble with Bika, a good puncher with a solid chin who doesn't have the skills to match Ward in the ring. Fighting in front of his home crowd in Oakland should be a boost to Ward, too; I expect an easy decision win.
Part of me hopes Abraham and Froch fight in front of 75 people in Helsinki; the way those two complained about the venue for this fight was evidence that neither one is a true champion. That said, I like Abraham's power in this one. King Arthur has a history of starting slow and he could be in trouble if Froch wins the early rounds and just tries to survive the later ones. But I've always believed Froch to be vastly overrated and I think Abraham stops him in the later rounds.
O'BRIEN: I like to begin every assessment of a Juan Manuel Marquez fight with a found look back at his 2007 just-for-fun exhibition thumping of Mannix. Alas for Marquez, he can't expect to be fed a patsy every time, and in Katsidis he will have just a bit more to worry about. Marquez's two wins over Juan Diaz showed that his skills remain superb and, though he's 37, Marquez figures to be -- as always -- in top shape. Still, Katsidis, 30, is just the sort of aggressive, reckless puncher who could throw Marquez off his game and make him look old suddenly. Still, I expect Marquez's superb skill and experience will, despite some dangerous moments, win out.
As far as Ward-Bika, Oakland should be treated to an impressive win by its hometown hero. Ward has evolved into a top-flight fighter, and while Bika is tough and skilled enough to make it a show, I don¹t expect much more.
Abraham has promised to send Froch into retirement and he could just make good on that pledge. Both men are coming off frustrating losses and will be eager to re-establish themselves as marketable forces. Both are also tough guys who can and will throw big punches. In the end, though, Abraham brings more to the table. Look for Froch, who sagged at times against Kessler, to fade in the middle rounds as Abraham continues to pour it on.
GRAHAM: I give Katsidis an decent shot of upsetting Marquez and shaking up the lightweight division in one of the year's more entertaining action fights ... I just wouldn't put money on it. Look for Marquez to bide his time early, break Katsidis down with counter-punching in the middle rounds and finish the job with a late TKO.
Ward, the WBA super middleweight champion who's been a staple in the Top 10 of SI.com's pound-for-pound ratings for months, should have an easy time against Bika, an awkward pressure fighter (and former Contender winner) who's a 6-to-1 underdog. The former Olympic gold medalist Ward is just a different class of fighter and should excel before a hometown crowd.
With Abraham and Froch, you've got two accomplished fighters each coming off losses. Froch's reach and workrate should give Abraham trouble, but I like King Arthur -- a notoriously slow starter -- to pick it up in the middle rounds and close the show with a late stoppage.
3. Showtime announced it's going to hold a bantamweight tournament with Vic Darchinyan, Yonnhy Perez, Abner Mares and King Kong Agbeko. Who is your favorite to win? And does the unraveling of the Super Six undercut the value of tournaments as a way of generating interest and producing meaningful fights?
MANNIX: Talk about four guys evenly matched. I don't see one clear-cut favorite in this tournament but I'm going with Perez, who has already beaten first round opponent Agbeko pretty handily and is too big for Darchinyan. A Perez-Mares final should be interesting -- the two fought to a draw just last May.
I like this tournament a lot more than the Super Six. If we learned anything from Showtime's first tournament it's that the round-robin format just doesn't work. Quick, single-elimination tournaments are the way to go and this bantamweight tourney will provide two exciting, meaningful shows for the network to air over the next few months..
O'BRIEN: Four fighters rather than six. Both semifinals on one night. Showtime moved quickly to set this one up, and its compact format should ensure that this tourney avoids some of the headaches that have befallen the Super Six saga. All four of these guys are accomplished and compelling fighters. They¹re not strangers to each other, either, as Perez outpointed Agbeko in October 2009 in a good fight; then in May, Perez and Mares fought to a draw; while Agbeko beat an uninspired Darchinyan in ¹09. When he's up, Darchinyan can be an electrifying fighter, and I wouldn't count him out, but my call is that the more disciplined Mares prevails and that Perez again beats Agbeko to set up a Perez-Mares final sometime in the first half of 2011.
When packaged like this, tournaments have the potential to ramp up the excitement and focus in any division. Good for Showtime for making it happen.
GRAHAM: I had high hopes for Showtime's Super Six tournament, but it seems to have fallen victim to its own grand ambitions. The compact format of the network's upcoming four-man, two-night bantamweight event is much more realistic and accessible for non-hardcore fans.
I'll pick Perez and Mares to advance to the final in the Dec. 11 semifinal doubleheader with Perez bringing home the championship in the spring.
4. The World Series of Boxing began Friday. Can a worldwide amateur boxing be a long-term financial success?
MANNIX: I like the idea of the WSB but I think it will be a while before it catches on, if ever. Face it, boxing has fallen out of the eye of mainstream media. The WSB will attract some hardcore fans, much like the NBA's D-League has. And if it produces entertaining fights and a few stars, maybe it will grab a foothold. But it will be years before that happens. Don't get me wrong, I'm in favor of anything that helps develop young fighters properly. But right now it's hard to see the WSB becoming a financial success.
O'BRIEN: It¹s almost impossible to remember, but there was a time not all that long ago when people in this country cared about amateur boxing. Fighters such as Sugar Ray Leonard, Mark Breland, Roy Jones Jr. and Oscar De La Hoya were stars before they ever threw a punch for pay. Boxing was one of the marquee prime-time events of every Olympics, and the U.S. against such Iron Curtain powers as the USSR and Cuba drew viewers on network TV. But the decline of the U.S. amateur program has left the sport almost invisible in this country, even as various rules changes have made the actual boxing far less compelling to hardcore fight fans.
That said, the success or failure of the World Series will not hinge upon drawing viewers in the U.S., but in Europe and, especially, in Asia. With corporate sponsorship following there, the Series could thrive. What I wish, though, is that some of the money finds its way back to the U.S. amateur program, which remains so sadly diminished from what it once was.
GRAHAM: While I can't see the WSB standing out in the crowded American sports zeitgeist, the three U.S.-based teams -- the Memphis Force, the Miami Gallos and the Los Angeles Matadors -- make up just one-quarter of the league's franchises. I certainly hope the rest of world can get behind it, because the idea of amateur boxers getting paid (in money and experience) while retaining their Olympic eligibility is a worthy one. And with backing from American marketing and management giant IMG, you know the WSB will be given a fair opportunity to make a splash.