- Joe Tessitore, Boxing
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The more you analyze sports, the more you analyze the human psyche. I know my ringside partner Teddy Atlas says it all the time, but it is so true and very worth repeating: Boxing is more mental than physical.
In fact, considering all the different events I'm fortunate to broadcast, I'm convinced that all sports are more mental than physical. At a certain level, everyone has talent and athletic ability. It's the mental side that determines what will happen.
I don't care if it's a thoroughbred horse deciding to dig down deep and give a stronger push against a rail-riding rival, or if it's a gritty tennis underdog refusing to feel fatigue in the fifth set. The will to win, the desire to determine your own fate and the ability to convert nervous energy into productive focus is critical.
This week, "Friday Night Fights" (ESPN2 Friday, 9 p.m. ET) features a boxer whose career seems entirely defined by the mental aspect of the game.
Jason Estrada's early résumé reads like that of a future multimillionaire pay-per-view kingpin. His life is playing out differently: Estrada is trying to escape from under the weight of his own motivational missteps.
The Providence, R.I.-based heavyweight is lingering as a prospect rather than surging. He is 11-1 (2 KOs) as a three-year pro. That follows an amateur career that saw Estrada win two National Junior Olympics, three U.S. National Amateur Championships, gold at the Pan-Am Games. He also earned a trip to the 2004 Olympics.
Estrada is promoted by Jimmy Burchfield, who has given him TV exposure and the landscape to succeed. He fights in and around Providence, a hometown that can carry a fighter to riches. Just ask Vinny Pazienza and Peter Manfredo what Burchfield is capable of in southern New England and beyond.
Yet with everything lined up, Estrada hasn't shown that he wants it all.
It started in Athens. Instead of bringing home a medal, the fighter brought home disappointment. The fact that he was a poorly conditioned 262 pounds was bad enough.
"If I'm going to lose, I'm going to lose getting hit as little as possible," Estrada said after losing in the Olympics.
Comments like that are inexcusable in the fight game. That was worse than any scale he's ever tipped.
Everyone deserves a second chance, and that's what this week's "FNF" is all about. Estrada takes on former heavyweight contender Lance "Mount" Whitaker (32-4-1, 27 KOs).
At 27, Estrada may finally be getting it. He checked in at a much more fit 240 pounds for his most recent fight. That's a good sign, as is the fact that he's challenging himself with a new training regimen.
"I'm not really doing the traditional three-minute rounds with a minute rest," Jason explained. "My dad has had four guys coming in, and we're doing 24 minutes straight sparring. I don't get any rest. That's going to get me in the best possible shape I can be in."
There's the mental side of Estrada coming through. He is making a decision to be better.
Now he has to make the right decisions in the ring. For many of Estrada's critics, the decision to engage in the fight more is at the heart of it all. It's something he feels he did well in winning a recent unanimous decision over Charles Shufford.
"He made me stay busy," Estrada said. "If he landed one, I had to come back with two, or at least one cleaner punch."
Whitaker has proven in his career that he can be the cleaner and harder puncher. He once knocked out recent heavyweight titlist Oleg Maskaev. The problem is that the 6-foot-8, 270-plus pound Whitaker hasn't shown that kind of skill set in more than five years.
Now Whitaker -- who once changed his name to GOOFi (You really can't make up the world of boxing!) -- is back after a two-year break. That road for a heavyweight return is being mapped out by adviser Henry Herrera. "Lance has a goal. His goal is to bring all the championship belts back to the United States," Herrera told ESPN.com.
Based on the last glimpse the sport had of Whitaker, that seems unrealistic. However, based on Estrada's inconsistencies, maybe the first step on that path could be a productive one.
"He knows that it's a tough road," Herrera said. "He knows that this fight with Jason maybe should have been made two or three months down the road at this particular time in his career. But he has the enthusiasm to get back in and do the work necessary to get to next level."
There's nothing wrong with a big, tall, powerful heavyweight thinking he still has a chance at 35, and there's nothing wrong with another heavyweight not having punching power. There is, however, something very wrong with any fighter not having the mental motivation to put forth his best possible effort.
It has been noted that both of these men have sinned against that code in the past. I expect them to bring out the best in each other and to make sure those past mental errors are fading in the rearview mirror of their careers.
Joe Tessitore is the blow-by-blow announcer for ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."
Jason Estrada made some mistakes early in his career. Now, he's making the decision to be better -- and it all starts in his head.