For all the good that has happened in boxing in 2017 – and it truly has been a banner year for the sport – we present you the curious case of Austin Trout.
Trout will fight Jarrett Hurd on Saturday on Showtime at the Barclays Center in New York for the IBF super welterweight championship. It is the same belt Trout fought for in his last outing, a narrow loss to Jermall Charlo in Las Vegas.
But it has been 17 months since Trout was in the ring against Charlo, who surrendered his belt and is campaigning as a middleweight now.
Charlo won a unanimous decision over Trout by scores of 116-112 twice and 115-113 on May 21, 2016, at The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas. Hurd won the title that Charlo vacated in the interim by knocking out Tony Harrison in an exciting fight in February.
Trout, whose 30-3 record includes a win over the legendary Miguel Cotto and a near-miss against the equally legendary Canelo Alvarez, is as perplexed as anyone as to why he has been inactive.
There is nothing to point to as a reason for him being sidelined for so long.
“Actually no, there was no reason for the layoff, no injuries, no nothing,” Trout said. “I really can’t tell you why I’ve had such a layoff. I’m not happy about it, but it is what it is. I thank God I’ve been in the gym and keeping in shape, call it vanity or not, trying not to get fat and trying to keep this beach bod so I’m still sharp. We’ve knocked all the ring rust out in camp. It’s time to work.
“I’ve been trying to get a fight, especially after Charlo dispatched Julian Williams [in December 2016]. I felt my stock grew and I should have been put right back in. But things happen and things don’t happen for reasons.”
Boxing hasn’t had a year in which it’s sold as many pay-per-views as in 2017. Television ratings are up dramatically and there have been numerous sensational fights.
All is not well, though, when one of the best fighters in the world and a former champion can’t find regular work.
Those heady days in 2012 and 2013, when Trout defeated Cotto and then lost to Alvarez and Erislandy Lara, seem so long ago. Those three were big names and difficult opponents, but they brought with them good paydays and the possibility of a significant reward.
Had he not defeated Cotto, he never would have gotten the Alvarez fight and it’s possible, if not likely, he would have faded into oblivion. There’s not a lot of demand for slick southpaws who don’t have a title belt. Had Cotto beaten Trout, Trout would have been toxic to most managers looking for an opponent for their fighters. He was a tough guy who could either beat their fighter or make them look bad (or both), and he wouldn’t have been all that known.
The win over Cotto, a lock for the Hall of Fame when his fighting days are through, put Trout in a different spot in his career.
But even that wears off eventually. Trout couldn’t find work because of the usual boxing ills: he’s not a slugger; he’s a smart, technical boxer and not a crazy brawler; and he was largely affiliated with Showtime, so rival HBO didn’t touch him.
It’s all but impossible for boxing to become a mainstream in the American sports landscape, given what has transpired over the last five decades or so. But neither does it have to be scraping at the fringes, hoping against hope to have a great fight at the right time.
And it all comes down to matchmaking: Put on the best against the best, make the fights the fans want to see, and try to educate the audience on the nuances of the sport.
Some fighters, even great fighters, are considered boring because they’re not willing to take two punches to land one. They think about defense and value making an opponent miss as much as they do scoring themselves.
The parts of boxing that comprise “The Sweet Science” are the ones that are least appreciated by general sports fans: subtle head and foot movements, parrying punches, rolling punches, slipping them and counterpunching.
Pure slugfests are what will attract the attention of the mainstream, and fighters with elite boxing skills who will never be happy to be in a slugfest – think Guillermo Rigondeaux, the two-time Olympic gold medalist from Cuba whose only had 17 fights in eight years as a pro because of his defense-heavy style – aren’t given as much exposure as others.
This is what has happened to Trout, though not many are willing to say that publicly.
In Hurd, he’s fighting the type of boxer the establishment is likely to pay attention to: A big, aggressive fighter with power who is willing, if not eager, to mix it up.
And so a guy like Trout, despite magnificent skills and plenty to offer, gets pushed into the background.
He’s a congenial guy and tries his best to put a good light on what has been an outlandish oversight.
“This is not my first time being laid off and for no good reason,” Trout said. “So I’ve been here before. Luckily, I stay in the gym, just looking on the bright side. Maybe they had me laid off for most of these times to keep me preserved. I don’t have as much wear and tear as most guys my age, and fighting as long as I have, I’m still fresh. My legs are still strong and I’m ready to take full advantage of my physical peak that I’m in right now.”
But great skills and fresh legs don’t mean much without opportunity.
We’ll know boxing has turned the corner when fighters like Trout regularly get work and don’t have extended layoffs simply because of the style they employ.
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