Student Of The Game
By Nat Gottlieb Courtesy Of HBO.com
Photos By William Trillo
Chad Dawson has made four successful defenses of his light heavyweight title, but both his manager and promoter say he is still a work in progress. How much better can he get?
By rights, Dawson should probably still be an unbeaten contender. He has tremendous natural talent, but much of it is raw. That he has become a champion while learning on the job testifies to the God-given gifts the 26-year-old possesses: lightening hand speed and great athleticism.
Ironically, it was Dawson's athletic abilities that probably inhibited his progress as a boxer. At Hillhouse High in New Haven, Dawson played quarterback and wide receiver on the football team and point guard in basketball. It was his affinity for hoops that made him quit boxing in 1999 when he appeared to be on the verge of making the U.S. Olympic team.
Just 17 years old at the time, Dawson felt he had a better shot at going somewhere if he concentrated on basketball. Problem was, Dawson had difficulty concentrating because of outside distractions and wound up losing his spot on the team. In retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened to him.
Dawson turned pro in 2001, and now eight years later finds himself with a championship belt, a record of 27-0 with 17 knockouts and a position to become the sport's next big star. Not bad for a guy who is just starting to tap the reserves of his talent pool. "Chad is still young and has a lot to learn," said his promoter, Gary Shaw. "He doesn't understand at this point how good he is."
Apparently the prestigious William & Morris Agency does. Dawson's manager, Mike Criscio, recently brokered a deal with the agency, pitching Dawson not only for his boxing abilities, but his winning personality and good-guy commitment to family and friends.
"Chad loves his wife and kids," said Criscio, who also lives in New Haven and has known Dawson since he was eight. "He does everything for them. He even takes care of his brothers and sisters. His family is here (Las Vegas) right now staying for a week while he trains. He hates to be away from his wife and kids."
Dawson is scheduled to make his HBO debut on World Championship Boxing on May 9 in a rematch with former champion and Rocky Balboa nemesis Antonio Tarver (27-5, 19 KOs), whom he beat handily six months ago. The first fight with Tarver is a perfect primer in which to study all that is Chad Dawson -- and all that isn't.
Repeated viewings of the fight on YouTube showed that Dawson generally fought in spurts, spending seemingly endless amounts of time moving laterally around the ring and not throwing punches. Often when he did move in on Tarver, he would put his gloves up high and let his 40-year-old opponent throw a lot of wasted punches that Dawson blocked with his gloves and arms. In the moments when Dawson exploded out of his shell and let his fast hands go, he was brilliant, giving fans a small taste of how great he can be. Dawson was able to overwhelm Tarver with a blur of punches the ex-champion could barely see coming. But after pounding Tarver with pinpoint precision, he would dance away again. As strategies go, it was a sound one, and it paid off in the final two rounds. Tarver was exhausted, and Dawson dominated him at will, knocking the usually iron-chinned fighter down in the 11th en route to a unanimous decision by wide margin.
But the strategy made for a fight that often lacked excitement and sometimes seemed boring. "There's a lot Chad hasn't shown yet," Criscio said. "Every day of every week he is learning more. You're going to see a new and improved Chad Dawson against Tarver."
Part of the reason he is showing progress is because after parting with three other trainers, including Floyd Mayweather and Dan Birmingham, Dawson has found a fit with former light heavyweight champion Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, an excellent teacher. Dawson has had three fights with Muhammad, including victories over Epifanio Mendoza, former champion Glen Johnson and Tarver. In each outing, Dawson has shown noticeable improvement.
The 6'3" Dawson was still just a hot prospect when he moved up to the light heavyweight division in June of 2006 at the insistence of Criscio. "When I first got him he was fighting at 160. Then we had this fight and he had to lose 11 pounds quickly. He was in the sauna and got very badly dehydrated and nearly killed himself. I said, 'Chad why are you killing yourself to make 160? You're much bigger and stronger than that.'"
Criscio initially moved Dawson up to super middleweight, where he had three fights. "There was nobody there worth fighting, so we went to 175 and started chasing Tarver, Johnson and Jones. Nobody wanted to fight him."
Dawson got his big break when Shaw, who has a history of developing champions from scratch, got then unbeaten title holder Tomasz Adamek to agree to make the third defense of his belt against him. Dawson took advantage of the opportunity by scoring a convincing unanimous decision over Adamek, who in his next fight moved up to cruiserweight, where is now a champion and has yet to lose again.
If the best is yet to come, that's good news for Dawson and great news for boxing.