If ESPN2 airs a better main event this year than the one it has coming up this weekend on paper on Friday Night Fights, I’ll be mighty surprised. Glen Johnson (#3) and Yusaf Mack (#7) are two of the top Ring magazine-ranked light heavyweights in the world, and the winner will get a shot at alphabet title holder Tavoris Cloud (#6). So we’re talking a quality fight here, in the significance category. But wait, there’s more! I think it has the makings of a good brawl with a dosage of skill. So it could be a quality fight in the action category, too.
It’s a fight worthy of an HBO undercard, even if HBO, as the fight was originally scheduled, foolishly wasn’t going to air it on the canceled Jan. 30 card headlined by welterweights Shane Mosley and Andre Berto. One of the few good things about that fight getting canceled is that it means Johnson-Mack got bumped to another night, and FNF was there to catch it for us.
(I’m only going to announce this so high just this once to remind everyone who’s participating, but this preview and prediction piece triggers the prediction game. Remember the rules. Now, on to the actual preview.)
Now, I don’t want to get carried away. Johnson is coming off his most decisive defeat since getting knocked out by Bernard Hopkins in 1997, a one-sided outclassing at the hands of Chad Dawson last year in a rematch that made Johnson look a bit long in the tooth. Mack is coming off the best win of his career, a split decision win over Chris Henry last year on FNF, but he looked mighty shaky in spots. But I like the match-up. Dawson’s more cautious hit-and-don’t-get-hit style made Johnson look bad in the rematch, and Henry’s ugly mauling tendencies helped spoil a good match-up on paper with Mack. Johnson put on a Fight of the Year honorable mention kind of fight against a bolder version of Dawson in their first meeting in 208, and Mack put on a Fight of the Year honorable mention kind of fight against a pressure fighter, Librado Andrade, in 2008.
Johnson is nothing if not a pressure fighter. What’s fair to wonder is whether he’s too old to bring the same kind of ferocious pressure to bear in 2010 that he showed as late as the first half of 2009 against Daniel Judah. “The Road Warrior” is 41 now, and as the name implies, he has a lot of miles on the odometer. It’s not so much that he’s taken beatings. He’s better than you might think defensively, rolling with punches to the point that he’s hard to hit cleanly. It’s just that throwing punches at the rate he does, stalking relentlessly… it just might be a young man’s game, is all. Against Dawson in the rematch, he looked far more plodding and not nearly as vivacious, something that may have had to do with Dawson being smarter, more safety-minded and one year improved. But it’s a worry. Johnson still came forward, but he was having trouble getting off, and while he’s never been fleet of foot, he wasn’t ever close to Dawson all that much, even. Johnson has had trouble with stick-and-move before, a la the Antonio Tarver rematch, so maybe that had something to do with it, too. If Johnson’s at his best, he’s a strong, educated boxer who won’t leave you alone, and you’ll either get outworked in a loss or go down from the accumulated blows.
Mack isn’t in Dawson’s league skill- or talent-wise, but he is kind of like a bolder version of him. Mack has some slickness, enough that Andrade told Mack after their fight that if Mack hadn’t scored that 1st round knockdown, Mack could have cruised to outboxing him. Instead, the knockdown woke Andrade up and gave Mack the illusion that he could hurt Andrade. Mack is no light puncher, but then, he’s not a knockout artist, either. He was able to wobble Henry a couple times, but I think Mack is wrong if he believes — as he says he does — that it dissuaded Henry from coming at him hard. Henry fought poorly that night, as much as if not more than Mack fought well. And Henry never really stopped coming. Mack did have the speed advantage in that fight, and he’ll have it here, too. Mack’s chin has been a liability in the past, but both of his knockout losses came at 168 pounds to pretty good punchers, and Mack said he was having trouble making weight for those fights. Defensively, he does a version of the shoulder roll, which works for him versus single shots, but gets him in trouble against combos for some reason. And while he has some of that aforementioned slickness, he also gets a little wild in spots. Mostly, his weakness is his endurance. In every major fight, he seems to run out of gas, which he did against Henry despite moving up to 175.
Running out of gas is very much what a pressure fighter is trying to make you do, so that susceptibility is what makes me think Johnson is going to come out on top. What gives me some pause is that I really do think Johnson has crossed over to that other side of the hill. Mack is in his prime at age 30. Instead, I think what’s likely to happen is that Mack will have more success early against Johnson than boxers historically have had against younger versions of Johnson. But in the end, I like Johnson to crack through by the middle of the fight and control the second half to the point that if there’s any doubt, Johnson fighting in his adopted Florida should be enough to get him the win on the scorecards. Give me Johnson by unanimous decision in 12.