by Fox Doucette
Welcome to another edition of The Southpaw, where if it’s good enough for Teddy Atlas, it’s good enough for me:
Repeat after me: “Styles Make Fights.” That three-word maxim is the single biggest predictive catchphrase in the Sweet Science when it comes to trying to get a call right in advance of a big fight.
Last week, we saw an unexpected application of that particular bit of wisdom when Deontay Wilder decided seemingly out of nowhere to work his jab, control distance, use his opponent’s aggression against him, and flat-out box when previously he’d been the kind of guy whose entire fight plan and indeed apparent skill set involved blasting his opponent out of the ring in four rounds or less. Bermane Stiverne was completely unprepared for what came at him, flummoxed by the angles he saw, expecting George Foreman and getting Muhammad Ali (sure, that’s overstating the point, but in broad strokes…)
The net result was, if you knew going in that was what Wilder was going to do, academic. I’m willing to bet that not even Deontay Wilder’s fans were expecting what we got last Saturday night. Teddy Atlas predicted an early KO win, basing his pick on past performance and operating on the belief that Stiverne’s chin wouldn’t hold up against the assault. “Wilder by decision” had to be the longest-odds choice, and a wide unanimous decision in which he boxed circles around his opponent? If you’d bet on that ahead of the fight, people would tell you “Go home, you’re drunk.”
Which brings me to another application of “styles make fights”, this time one outside of boxing proper but nonetheless called by any sportswriter with a forum and an angle a “heavyweight fight”. Fine, then. If the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks want to have a heavyweight fight, let’s see if perhaps boxing punditry can’t maybe give us a satisfactory result that you can take to Vegas with you to win a few bucks.
Your intrepid columnist lives in Seattle, and that means listening to a crowd of football fans who may very well be drunk in the daytime and who seem to believe that (a) Marshawn Lynch is Bo Jackson from Tecmo Bowl and (b) the defense is comprised of eleven guys who all have the power of a defensive lineman and the speed of a cornerback. Let us disabuse ourselves of this notion right now, because fan loyalties may work well enough in the echo chamber of a commuter bus (gods know that back in Boston, plenty of people seem to believe that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are an invincible pairing against any Super Bowl opponent not starting Eli Manning), but when the teams actually snap the football, both sides will have strengths and weaknesses that can be exploited.
That said, and getting back to the boxing metaphor at hand here, the Seahawks have the equivalent of a fighter’s tendency to protect his head with his gloves in a way that tends to leave him a little too open to a body punch, with the elbows up rather than in tight where they should be. Seattle plays a Cover 3 that does a good job of taking away the deep ball, but it comes at the expense of leaving the middle of the field open in a way that’s going to create a matchup problem against New England’s tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronk will be able to feast on that seam behind the front seven and in front of the Hawks’ secondary, and this is where the Patriots will throw a barrage of hooks to the body, Gronk going into that seam for a plethora of first downs delivered on target by Tom Brady to keep the chains moving and wear down the Seattle defense. If they can work that spot, the guy with the 87 on his back might just set a Super Bowl record for catches by a tight end.
The problem here is that the Patriots can’t run the ball to save their lives; like any big punch, it’s vulnerable to a counter shot, in this case Seattle selling out on the running game to get pressure on the quarterback, countering those body shots with quick jabs and hooks up top, in this case linebackers dropping back into coverage and taking away that part of the field knowing that New England’s running game isn’t good enough to keep the front seven honest. If this happens, the defense will be able to get the job done well enough for Seattle’s wretched offense to get enough shots in to win the fight on points, much the same way as the defense kept them alive against Green Bay in the conference championship game.
The thing is, you sell out on the run, the run tends to open up and get more yardage than it would if you’re stuffing the run and daring the pass to beat you over the top; nobody gets past the Seahawks secondary and lives to tell the tale, and the deep ball is going to be shut down all night…unless that seam comes apart, forcing a safety to do what the linebacker can’t and leaving the deep ball over the middle open as Seattle tries to take that underneath pass away.
The bottom line is this. At the end of the day, New England is Deontay Wilder here, a team that can learn to box overnight in a title fight and use that strategic advantage to keep their opponent perpetually on the back foot, rack up the points, and keep the opposing offense off the field…just like Bermane Stiverne lost the ability to throw back effectively after Wilder hurt him in the fifth. Grab and keep a lead and the opportunities for your opponent to use its strength begin to ebb away. That’s what’s going to happen here. Expect the New England Patriots to win their first Super Bowl in ten years, providing a bookend to the Brady-Belichick era and giving sports fans in Boston something to talk about besides the moronic 2024 Olympic bid…which is another story for another time.
And hey…if Teddy Atlas can predict football games on Friday Night Fights, why not the Tribune’s FNF scholar doing it on The Southpaw?
FINAL SCORE: NEW ENGLAND (-2) 24, SEATTLE 17.
Fox Doucette writes the weekly What If series and covers ESPN Friday Night Fights for The Boxing Tribune. His weekly opinion column, The Southpaw, appears on Thursdays. Fan mail, hate mail, and a gig writing about the NFL can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.