In his first title defense on March 9, WBC welterweight titlist Shawn Porter, 30-2-1 (17), won a controversial twelve-round split decision over Cuban Yordenis Ugas, 23-4 (11). It was also the second fight in a row that Porter—who usually fights as an all-out attacker and swarms his opponents—changed his tactics and fought as a boxer, using his legs while circling left and waiting for the right time to go in behind his left jab. The style transition is an odd one for Porter, as nearly all attackers swarm their opponents because they are usually shorter and have a reach disadvantage, which leaves them no choice but to force the fight on the inside if they want to be effective.
Porter and his trainer-father Kenny seemed to understand that and they trained accordingly. The one thing they never solved, however, was Porter’s lack of a finishing punch, something that’s almost requisite for an attacker. And the lack of a game-changing shot led all of Porter’s bouts against top-tier opposition to go the distance and tax him physically whether he won or the two times he lost. Fortunately for Porter he’s a gym rat and always showed up in top condition and that helped him overcome some of his opponents’ skill and stylistic advantages.
Then he fought Danny Garcia for the WBC title in September of 2018. Garcia was a basic counterpuncher with solid fundamentals. In most cases a good attacker will overwhelm a good counterpuncher by keeping him under pressure and forcing him to open up just to stem the assault—versus gaining the time and room needed to counter (e.g. Joe Frazier versus Jerry Quarry in 1969). Then, in an unexpected move, Porter decided to box and use the ring to force Garcia to follow and pursue him. That’s never been Garcia’s strength and he was completely caught by surprise and was out of sync for most of the fight. Porter was aided by his quicker hand and foot speed along with Garcia’s anticipated predictability. The jab and combinations in unexpected waves from Porter befuddled Garcia and forced him to lunge and reach, compromising some of his technique. The style change worked beautifully against Garcia, and perhaps led to a false sense of accomplishment on the part of Porter and his team.
Against Ugas, Porter’s new out-style didn’t serve him as well. And one has to conclude that, in between the Garcia and Ugas fight, Porter’s father decided that his attacking style might not get it done versus the two alpha fighters at 147 (Errol Spence and Terence Crawford). Kenny Porter must’ve thought his son isn’t big enough or strong enough to blast ahead and go after Spence, Crawford, and perhaps even Keith Thurman without walking into some of their best stuff on the way in—and the law of averages says he will eventually run into something he might not recover from. So knowing that Shawn Porter is a good athlete who played football and wrestled at a high level in high school (but lacks the power to make the best at 147 do anything they don’t want to), maybe it made more sense to at least try to implement some of his athleticism into his boxing style?
It didn’t work out as well against Ugas, however, as it did Garcia. Ugas’s more upright style, along with his equal or greater skill, allowed him to see everything Porter was trying to do. His reach and hand speed forced Porter to have to think and process his attacks. In addition to that, Porter’s ability to make Ugas miss had him posing too much instead of making Ugas pay after he missed. Adding to the conundrum was how Ugas found Porter often with counters after Porter cut loose with an attempted flurry and was moving out—and that evened out most of the exchanges. Luckily for Porter, Ugas lacked the confidence to initiate the action and go first, forcing Porter to punch when he wasn’t ready or set to. Instead, Ugas was almost satisfied with the presumption he was the alpha fighter and Porter was reacting to him (instead of the reverse).
The problem, and it was reflected in the scoring, was this: Ugas just didn’t get off enough. The eventual difference on the scorecards was that Porter’s flurries led to him to land a few clean punches off the draw; and when he opened up inside, despite not landing clean, he appeared to be doing more. And because Porter was trying to process and think his way through to the perfect opening, the fight featured too many lulls (with both fighters staring and waiting for the other to do something so they could react to it). This created more touches by one fighter, and in that regard Porter had the slight edge and Ugas let a perfect opportunity slip away on a night Porter wasn’t fighting to his strengths. Porter escaped with a disputed win and keeps his title for another fight—but that may be short lived for the new Shawn Porter.
After the fight Porter said, “I have no complaints about this fight. I wasn’t frustrated at all. The game plan was executed and we stuck to it. We studied Ugas, we knew that moving our feet that he would be thinking. We kept on for twelve rounds and we felt comfortable. I felt comfortable before they announced the decision.”
“I think I allowed him to counter me. I picked up on it but I wasn’t capitalizing. I slipped in the last round.”
Yes, moving his feet kept Ugas thinking, but it also hindered Porter’s effectiveness because he was thinking too much. He was so fixated on not getting dragged into a firefight that he squandered openings. In this bout, Porter’s pressure would have aided him well and reduced the chances that Ugas could nail Porter with the clean right hands he landed as Porter was finishing up.
Porter has to fight instinctively, and his instinct is to attack. Granted, in past fights his extra aggression sometimes smothered his offense; but at the same time it suffocated his opponents and they couldn’t hit him. Porter’s previous style suited him best because it was natural and allowed him to fight and, in most cases, disrupt his opponents flow and tempo. There are title holders at 147 who would be favored over him that he couldn’t beat, but that wasn’t a style issue.
Fighting as a swarmer is a style no fighter would choose because it’s the hardest way to make a living as a boxer. Basically, they’re forced to do so because of genetics. In recent memory only Roberto Duran and Marco Antonio Barrera successfully morphed from an attacker into a formidable counterpuncher while maintaining their natural fighting instincts. In other words countering became as fluid and natural for them as it was to pursue. Against Danny Garcia, Porter had the time to think and process his attack because Garcia wasn’t applying the mental or physical pressure to make him rush. That wasn’t the case with Ugas. Instead, Ugas carried the fight to Porter and made him react. And it left Porter with two choices: either cut loose offensively when he felt out of position or move and get out of there. Luckily for Porter, Ugas wasn’t getting off as he was walking him down.
There are some big-money fights down the road for Shawn Porter—against the Spence–Garcia winner, Manny Pacquiao, and perhaps a rematch with Keith Thurman. On paper it might sound plausible for Porter to attempt to box Spence. The problem with that is this: while looking for clean shots, Spence will be coming after him and making him punch when he doesn’t want to and out of necessity. Counterpunching is Mikey Garcia’s game, and he’d apply the type of pressure that would force Porter to get a little wild and, at the same time, not be able to get much on his shots. And, as we’ve seen with Pacquiao and Thurman, they’re used to their opponents moving away from them, and they know how to go get them if needed.
The reality is that, even fighting as the aggressor, Porter would most likely lose to Spence, Garcia, and Pacquiao. And it’s fifty-fifty versus Thurman. That said, he’d give himself the best chance to beat them fighting in his natural style. It was quite obvious against Ugas that when Porter fights as a mover looking for clean shots he has to think his way through too much and he’s departing from who he is. The upper-tier opponents named would seize on his trepidation and have him fighting out of sorts. For Porter to get the best out of his ability, then, he must fight and be naturally reactive instead of overthinking.
Porter’s attempt to reinvent himself stylistically is admirable, but hopefully the Ugas bout showed him (and his father) that his best chance to beat the other titleholders is to fight to his strengths and let fate decide the rest. Because if Porter is on the attack, his opponents have to adjust to what he’s doing—and we’ve seen he’s not at his best if he waits and reacts to them.