When a matchup is billed as a superfight, the last thing fans expect is a one-sided affair. But when two young, undefeated stars of boxing met last weekend, that’s exactly what they got.
Ryan Garcia has fast hands and snappy power. He has height and reach. He has the toughness to take hard shots and keep coming. And, if the DAZN commentary team is to be believed, he has previously expressed a preference for fighting southpaws.
After last Saturday’s showdown with fellow knockout artist Gervonta Davis, fans have to wonder if he’s changed his mind on that last score.
Despite all his attributes, Garcia found himself outfoxed and outboxed by the much shorter Davis, en route to a 7th round KO via precision body shot. He threw 60 more punches than Davis, but landed less accurately and a lot less effectively. The reason for this gap had nothing to do with speed, power, or determination, and everything to do with positioning.
Fighting a southpaw is all about positioning
Watch any contest between an orthodox fighter and a southpaw—sometimes called an ‘open stance’ or ‘open guard’ matchup—and the commentators will talk about the battle for foot position. “The man who gets his lead foot outside of the opponent’s lead foot wins,” or so they say.
But dogmatically telling a fighter that outside foot position will let him beat a southpaw is about as useful as insisting that he won’t get knocked out if he keeps his hands up. Is a high guard a bad idea? Of course not. Keeping at least one glove glued to the chin certainly will help to obstruct some of the stray punches that come a fighter’s way.
Likewise, gaining outside foot position on a southpaw does create a nice lane for the straight right hand. But just as there is a lot more nuance to the art of defense than “keep your hands up,” outside foot position is but one small part of the battle for position in an open stance fight.
A question: What is the single most important objective in a fight? Is it landing punches? Avoiding damage? Controlling the pace, location, and direction of the contest?
How about… facing the opponent?
It may sound like a ludicrously basic concept—it is—but that does not undermine its importance. In fact, it is the pursuit of this fundamental objective—facing the opponent while preventing the opponent from doing the same—that occupies the vast majority of an elite fighter’s time and energy throughout a bout. Ever watched a fight and wondered, “Why do they keep circling, circling, circling? Why don’t they just hit each other?”
Well, there’s the answer. Positioning is everything; and good fighters fight for position above all else.
To understand what I mean by “facing the opponent,” let’s look at a couple of stills from Saturday’s superfight.
Notice that, in both of these examples, Ryan Garcia’s left foot is located to the inside of Gervonta Davis’—meaning, more or less, between Davis’ legs. And yet the contrast between the two positions could not be more stark.
In the first frame, Garcia’s whole body is lined up behind his lead foot, which bisects Davis’ body neatly down the middle. The lead foot can be understood as an extension of the lead hand: where the toes of Garcia’s left foot point, his jab will follow. By keeping those toes aimed at Davis’ center-line, Garcia ensures that his jab has a direct path to the target.
Likewise, Garcia keeps his own center-line obscured and his chin out of reach, everything hidden behind his lead shoulder. This security is enforced by the threat of the jab: any time the opponent tries to rush in, that well-placed lead hand will be there to meet him, holding him at bay like a stickup artist’s gun. With positioning, offense and defense are often one and the same. In this frame, Garcia has all the options, and therefore all the initiative. Despite the fact that it is Davis who has his foot on the outside, Garcia’s position is undeniably superior.
Ryan Garcia’s position in the second frame is a mess. Now that we understand the elements of good positioning, the problems here should be obvious. He has overstepped on the inside angle, and allowed Gervonta Davis to move towards his back. His center-line is not directly accessible, but he has gone too far in the other direction: he presents his jaw to Davis in profile, meaning that any punch sent his way will blindside him utterly. Better to face the opponent squarely than to not face him at all, and that is the position into which Garcia has put himself here.
Gervonta Davis’ first knockdown
It was in just such a position that Garcia found himself just before Gervonta Davis delivered the first of two knockdowns in the bout.
Garcia pursues Davis recklessly, overzealous in his attempts to find a home for his best punch, the left hook. This is a powerful weapon against southpaws, more dangerous than the oft-recommended straight right because it travels a shorter path and is more difficult to see coming.
The shot loses some of its innate sneakiness, however, when a fighter throws it five hundred times in a row with little variation. After a routine feeling-out phase in the first round, Garcia spent the second coming after Davis with reckless abandon. The uptick in aggression did succeed in making Davis uncomfortable, but at the cost of feeding the talented counter puncher a whole lot of data, while more or less demanding that he put it to use right away, lest he be run over.
Notice that Ryan Garcia actually takes a hard step to the inside of Gervonta Davis’ lead foot every time he throws the hook. This is a viable maneuver—only watch the first round of Miguel Cotto’s 2014 fight with Sergio Martinez to see it executed to perfection—but not one without risk.
This cross-step brings Garcia’s chin closer to Davis’ left hand, which is, after all, the whole reason for the conventional wisdom about outside foot position. All Davis has to do is duck the left hook—easy enough when it’s been shown to him a half dozen times in quick succession—and he finds his left hand perfectly aligned with the target without even having to take a step of his own.
The knockdown slowed Garcia’s roll right the hell down, and allowed Davis to teach him a thing or two about the subtleties of open stance positioning.
Take this moment from round four, for example.
The sequence starts with both fighters in a neutral position, lead foot opposing lead foot, both center-lines well protected. Garcia attempts to change this with perhaps the most typical maneuver in all of boxing: the jab and pivot.
But there is something subtly wrong with Ryan Garcia’s move. As he jabs, he steps straight into Gervonta Davis, planting the lead foot that will act as the fulcrum for the pivot. But in order for that pivot to create an angle—which is really just a snappier term for any position in which a fighter faces an opponent who is not facing him—Garcia would need to step in diagonally. In other words, gain outside foot position. That way his pivot would carry him around Davis, forcing the other man to reset in order to take that angle away.
Instead, Garcia ends up giving Davis the very angle he was looking for. Instead of circling around Davis, he ends up standing right in front of him, only now he is no longer facing him.
It is a tiny error, as errors go. The compromised position lasts only a fraction of a second. But that is all the time a technician of Davis’ caliber needs. Gervonta moves preemptively: making as if to slip Garcia’s jab, he moves his back foot a few inches to the left. In the same movement, he drops his level and loads up his left hand. His right foot hardly moves at all, because it hardly has to. He simply rocks back onto his heel and twists as his bodyweight transfers from one leg to the other, bringing the left hand with it.
Freeze the sequence just before Davis delivers his left straight to the body, and a less disastrous version of the position that saw Garcia knocked down in round two can be seen. Garcia has kept his balance and posture this time. He is able to see Davis’ strike coming, and the impact is nowhere near as catastrophic. But for that brief moment, Ryan Garcia put himself once again into a position in which Gervonta Davis was facing him while he was not facing Gervonta Davis.
The fight was not all bad news for Garcia. After his amateurish aggression in round two, he managed to work himself slowly back into the fight. He paid more attention to his jab, and trying to get that punch on target forced him into better positions whether he was aware of it or not.
Ryan Garcia’s late fight adjustments
By round six, he was finding moments like this one.
Another missed left hook leaves Ryan Garcia in dangerous waters, but he quickly pulls back out of range. Gervonta Davis gives chase, but Garcia immediately establishes a strong angle, aligning his jab with the center-line of Davis, who has squared up as he moves forward. Neither of the two jabs Garcia throws do any damage, but they don’t need to. The threat is enough to force Davis to block, and set alarm bells ringing in his head. His center-line is exposed, Garcia has him in his sights, and he can feel the danger of his position.
As Garcia goes fishing with another jab, Davis parries and slips hard to the right, preparing to pivot and reset at a safer angle. Unlike Garcia in our previous example, Davis leads into the pivot with a step, but he is a long way away from safety.
Above, I mentioned that a strong position creates a strong initiative. The better positioned fighter has ready access to all of his weapons, and that threat means that the opponent has no choice but to reset. With nothing more than a threat, Garcia forces Davis to move, and that initiative allows him to get the jump on him.
He does so by beating him to the new angle. Because he starts from the superior position, Garcia is able to pivot more efficiently than Davis. Instead of withdrawing his deflected jab, he uses that same hand to control Davis’ head, letting him feel the exact location of his target while obscuring Davis’ view of the follow-up shot, a solid right hand to the temple that knocks Davis back on his heels before he has even finished pivoting.
Moments like this were enough to suggest that this fight, though certainly a crushing disappointment for Garcia, could very well be an important learning experience for a young fighter still bursting with potential. It was not as competitive as a superfight should be, but neither was it hopeless. Going forward, Garcia should understand that a few trick shots and a lot of guts aren’t enough to beat a truly elite southpaw, or any elite fighter for that matter.
It’s not too late for Garcia to go back to square one, and that may be the best course of action if he hopes to realize his potential. Before a fighter runs, they must learn to walk—but they’ll find it hard to do either unless they know how to stand.
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