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Emanuel Navarrete‘s all-Mexican junior-lightweight title showdown with Oscar Valdez was highly anticipated as a potential firefight by boxing fans. It lived up to the billing, in a gruellying back-and-forth that saw Navarrete overwhelm his opponent to clinch a tough but clear decision.
Let’s get one thing clear before we start, since this is a technical breakdown: you’d never teach what Navarrete does. He makes so many technical errors- with his footwork, with his defence, even with the way he throws many of his punches- that it’d seem that he should be eminently exploitable.
For someone with very respectable technique and great concentration like Valdez, you’d think there are routes to find. And yet, ever since breaking through to the world stage in 2018, Navarrete has proven impossible to take advantage over. It’s no fluke either- he simply consistently offers problems that his opponents can’t work out.
How does he do it? Let’s take a look.
The answer isn’t simple, but it can be summed up simply: it’s his attack. Navarrete has a truly extraordinary arsenal of punches at his disposal. He can throw and land from pretty much anywhere – at distance, in close, whether off-balance or not. They’re hard, thumping punches too, even though he doesn’t seem to put all that much effort in. And they come in volume- he threw over a thousand punches against Valdez, and delights in throwing extended combinations.
His size does help – even in his fourth division, he was clearly much bigger than Valdez. The length advantage in particular is of use, because he can throw certain shots long before the usual counter to them is open to his opponent. But even beyond that, he just has such a variety of tools that no opponent so far, since he broke through at world level, has been able to deal with it while also maintaining an attack.
That last part is a pretty key feature: his attack, for the most part, is his defence. Rarely has there ever been a fighter who lives as strongly by the old adage. It’s not just a case of just throwing everything and hoping to scare his opponents off, either. He picks his shots well, even while throwing hundreds of them.
At range, he has a very busy jab- one which his height does give him an advantage in. Not just in the obvious way that a reach advantage makes landing a jab easier. He also has a habit of bringing it back slowly, leaving it obstructing his opponent’s path.
That is often a dangerous game because it can be thrown over the top of, but Valdez was usually too far out to take advantage. He’d have to have slipped under the jab to get in closer before the punch finished, and that was mostly too risky because Navarrete’s other range punch is a ludicrous, almost Naseem Hamed-esque uppercut that is far too dangerous to duck onto.
Between those two tools, Valdez had his work cut out closing distance enough to even really work at all. He did try jabbing his way in, as you’d expect, but Navarrete focused on countering the jab early on and the volume of that punch dropped hard after four rounds or so. That left him with a problem since Valdez’s jab is very good and usually a pretty key tool for him, especially in his more recent fights under Eddy Reynoso, where he’s really polished the tactical and defensive sides of his game.
On several occasions throughout the fight, though, he would work his way in close, and the champion’s response was to let him get a couple of shots off, then pick his answering shots to find the gaps they left. Even though Valdez’s defence is tight and perfectly credible, he couldn’t keep the shots at bay and attack.
And even on the occasions that he did tuck up, let Navarrete go first and try to be the one countering, he’d often find that after a couple on the guard, the champion’s long limbs would start working around the edges. The end effect in either case was it was unsafe for Valdez to stay in close, even though that was the range he needed to be at.
What that meant was Valdez was ultimately left picking single shots and hoping to do enough damage to end the fight. He had a couple of openings: Navarrete was particularly open to a left hook upstairs, and once in close if he did have to concede the exchange he’d curl up in his guard in a way that left him open to chopping right hands. He’d also, frequently towards the end of the fight, try a huge leaping right hook.
The problem with that was that, despite Navarrete’s balance being all over the shop, he appears to have an extremely good chin. Valdez did manage to buzz him once or twice, but to do so he had to put so much onto the shots that he himself was off-balance, and by the time he straightened up Navarrete had got himself safe.
You can see how Valdez would find it hard to follow up the right hook from this position.
It was a similar story with bodyshots- Valdez had some success with them and at times focused on them, clearly trying to wear at his opponent’s stamina. Because he couldn’t get into exchanges in close, though, and because Navarrete’s long, long arms made it difficult to work past his guard once he got it in place, he had to throw them from further than you’d normally expect.
What he’d find himself doing was stepping to one side of Navarrete – a sensible tactic, as Navarrete’s dreadful footwork leaves him vulnerable to being turned- then almost strafing across and landing a bodyshot as he passed him, before returning to safety on the other side. Because of the manner of the move, though, Valdez would himself have to reset before following up, so even shots that Navarrete felt were hard to follow up on before he recovered.
The ultimate story of the fight was that Valdez- a smart, smooth, and very focused fighter- adjusted frequently and found ways to get himself back into it every time he seemed out. But he could only keep a given tactic going for a few minutes at most before Navarrete found intercepting punches to deal with it. Even when he managed to use his superior footwork to get him off-balance, the shots Navarrete could throw as he recovered would do damage.
There were moments throughout where Valdez would default to just popping and moving at range, but even then after a few moments of chasing the champion would calm himself down and reduce himself to just enough volume to get points on the board without endangering himself.
One final note: the injuries. Valdez’ right eye started swelling early on and was totally closed by the end, a target of frequent left hooks by Navarrete. His face was a mess in general, in contrast to the seemingly unmarked champion. That didn’t tell the full story, since Navarrete did eat a lot of shots himself- but that ability to wear damage is also a pretty solid advantage.
Valdez face showed the damage he took in the fight
On the other side, Navarrete clearly injured his hand in the middle rounds, and stopped throwing it entirely in round nine. And then… started throwing it again. That’s quite unusual. Obviously boxers fight through hurt hands all the time, but usually when it gets to the stage where they’re not throwing with it, it’s mostly out of commission for the rest of the fight and they have to work around it and use that hand purely for defence.
Navarrete tried that in round nine and it didn’t work, so he gritted his teeth and went to work again. Not just tactically, either, but throwing full-pelt combinations with both hands. That shows a grit and determination that just adds to the problems opponents face in breaking him down. Valdez is used to his own focus and toughness getting him through fights (fighting through a broken jaw against Scott Quigg in 2018, for example), but he found his match in that respect here.
All in all, both fighters showed terrific toughness and spirit. What Navarrete shows, though, is that you don’t have to be technically slick to be smart. Because that’s perhaps his biggest advantage- his opponents think that because he makes so many errors, he must be easy to fool. Because he only has one real gameplan, surely it must be possible to break him out of it and make him uncomfortable. And yet when they try, they find him adjusting nonetheless. And then throwing lots and lots of punches.
Don’t get it wrong. So long as he keeps taking on the challenges, a fighter like him will eventually be beaten. He must, eventually, reach a limit. But it’s going to be fun seeing him find it.
What’s next for Emanuel Navarrete and Oscar Valdez?
Well, before anything else, a well-earned rest. Both need to heal after a war like that.
After that, a rematch would be an attractive proposition. Valdez, of course, wants it, and Navarrete said he’ll leave it up to the fans- who will surely be happy with the idea. Boxing could do with a great modern multi-fight rivalry, so it’s certainly something to hope for that they can give us a showcase like this again.
Beyond that, for Navarrete, a lot comes down to the old spectre of boxing politics. It’s a very exciting division with multiple champions, so unifications would be desirable. Of those, though, Joe Cordina fights on a rival network – it would be doable, but hard to make. O’Shaquie Foster isn’t tied down to any broadcaster, but has a mandatory due, so that would have to happen first. Hector Garcia hasn’t fought since jumping up a weight and losing to Gervonta Davis in January, so whether he returns to this division is open to question.
Beyond that, there are other good options. Two-time former title challenger Shavkatzdon Rakhimov would be an excellent opponent, another tough and aggressive fighter with the mobility to test Navarrete’s footwork. Robson Conceicao and Kenichi Ogawa, another former title challenger and title holder, respectively, would also welcome another bite at the cherry. There’s certainly a number of ways Navarrete could go.
Valdez too will want shots at other belts. As an experienced and recognisable name, he’ll probably be an attractive opponent to many. That said, at 32 and after several wars, he does have to pick his route carefully. That isn’t to say he’s in ‘he should retire’ territory yet, but he has to pick the fights that secure his legacy, at this point. Whether that’s the money fights that give him security to retire, or opponents that allow him to put on memorable classics is up to him. He probably still has time for a bit of both, and in this division he shouldn’t be stuck waiting.
Lets hope he can deliver more classics on this level as he goes, though.
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