The Travelin’ Man goes to Monroeville-Part II
Friday April 18 (continued): The noise began to build even before welterweight Sammy Vasquez entered the ring. The lightweight bout between Alexei Collado and Bunola, Pennsylvania’s Rod Salka may have been the advertised main event but for many in the packed venue inside the Monroeville Convention Center, Vasquez was the reason they paid their money and he was the man for whom they were ready to invest their full vocal power.
The roar that greeted his ring walk might not have matched that of Lucian Bute’s in Montreal, Joe Mesi’s in Buffalo or Sergio Martinez’s in Buenos Aires but that’s only because hundreds of voices at full strength can’t match that generated by tens of thousands. But the feeling behind their cheers was equal and the object of their affection surely felt it as deeply as Bute, Mesi and Martinez. Also as certainly, the veteran of two combat tours in Iraq wanted to give them a performance that would adequately repay them for their kindness.
His opponent, Juan Rodriguez Jr. of Union City, N.J., was treading somewhat unfamiliar territory. First, he was fighting away from the New Jersey-Philadelphia hub for the first time in his 11-0 (5) career. Second, he was facing a fellow southpaw, so the usual advantages were snuffed out. Finally, Rodriguez was making a giant leap in quality of competition for all of his previous opponents – save for his pro debut against a fellow debutante – had either entered the ring with a .500 record or worse. His previous five opponents alone carried a combined record of 17-29-3 and only his most recent foe, the 3-3-1 Emmanuel Medina, was Rodriguez’s only rival who entered the ring coming off a victory. Still, Rodriguez, who was coming off a career-long 370-day layoff, was defiant. Wearing a bright red robe bearing the words “We did not come here to lose” and wearing a black t-shirt declaring himself a “one-man army,” he dearly wanted to silence the horde who wanted to witness his destruction.
But his destruction is exactly what they got.
Just 26 seconds into the fight, Vasquez followed a light double-jab with a smashing left to the chin that dropped Rodriguez heavily on his behind. Initially dazed and surprised, Rodriguez arose at four and by referee Gary Rosato’s count of six, his eyes had cleared sufficiently to allow the fight’s continuation. But the smothering 16-foot ring offered no relief and neither did Vasquez, who cut the ring off and scored a second knockdown with a pair of lefts. This time, Rodriguez took every spare second to rise and his slack-jawed stare signaled to all that the end was near. A blizzard of blows capped by more power lefts caused Rodriguez to collapse onto the bottom strand of rope. Because Pennsylvania has no automatic three-knockdown rule, Rosato correctly counted over Rodriguez. Then, just as correctly, he waved off the fight at “seven” when Rodriguez spat out the mouthpiece, boxing’s universal sign of surrender.
The war veteran had won another battle and the stats illustrated its lopsidedness: 23-2 in total connects, including 19-2 in landed power shots and a 73-18 bulge in thrown punches. It was as complete a victory for “The Who Can Mexican” and he and his fans could have hoped for while for Rodriguez, nicknamed “The Beast,” it was a beastly setback.
The eight-round co-feature between junior welterweights Felix Diaz and Emmanuel Lartei Lartey was more competitive, both in terms of matchmaking and, ultimately, inside the ring. Lartey had won 15 of his previous 17 fights and in back-to-back fights, he easily defeated the 12-1-1 Michael Anderson and the 13-0 Jonathan Batista. Another piece of good news for Lartey: since coming to America, he had won five of his six fights and at 5-feet-8 inches, he would enjoy advantages in height (two inches) and reach (one-and-half inches).
The bad news for Lartey, however, was compelling. The Ghanaian was coming off his lone defeat against U.S. Olympian Errol Spence Jr. (UD 8) and Diaz was a two-time Dominican Olympian who struck gold in 2008. And like Spence, Diaz is a southpaw who is accustomed to handling taller opponents. He dominated the 6-foot-2 Larry Smith and his 12-inch reach advantage by neutralizing the jab and burrowing inside with looping blows.
Diaz didn’t enjoy nearly the same success against Lartey, a fellow lefty with a penchant for producing tough-to-score rounds. But Diaz’s crisper punching and better work at close range enabled him to earn two of the three 77-75 scores the judges submitted. Statistically, Diaz’s leads were small but notable: 126-90 overall and 107-71 power to offset the 19-19 tie in landed jabs. As he did against Smith, Diaz did an excellent job of nullifying the jab as Lartey landed just 8% of his 250 attempts and he also was the more accurate competitor (31%-20% overall, 12%-8% jabs, 43%-37% power). At age 30, Diaz doesn’t have an abundance of time to create his mark in the sport, so a move up the ladder in terms of level of opposition will need to be made.
The main event between lightweights Collado and Salka presented an odd storyline. Normally Salka would be given the A-side treatment but because Collado is the promoter’s fighter, he was given the star treatment – top billing in the advertisements, a small ring that would compliment his slugging style while hindering Salka’s stick-and-move tactics and the privilege of entering the ring last and being introduced second. The crowd, however, was solidly in Salka’s corner and one couldn’t underestimate the two-pronged power of positive reinforcement and geographical familiarity.
Salka is used to being overlooked. In his last fight against Ricardo Alvarez – the older brother of Saul “Canelo” Alvarez – Salka out-threw (83 per round to 50.1) and out-landed (174-136 overall, 85-48 jabs, 89-88 power) the favored fighter and appeared to have done enough to spoil the party. The judges, however, saw it differently as two favored Alvarez while the other scored it a draw. The public and press, however, believed their own eyes and bestowed Salka with his proper credit.
Like then, Salka, in terms of optics and presentation, was behind the eight-ball. Just as well, Salka, a speedster nicknamed “Lightning Rod,” fought much like his cornerman, former IBF lightweight champion Paul Spadafora, by using his legs to dictate distance and his faster hands to pile up points. But unlike then, Salka showed off his pop by scoring a third-round knockdown and by the ninth round, he had seemingly built a commanding margin.
“If I am throwing 100 punches a round, I feel confident that I will win,” Salka told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in its Wednesday edition. He didn’t quite reach that mark – he threw 664 in the first nine rounds – but he answered Collado’s fight-high 32 of 116 rally in the 10th with his own 25 of 94 effort, both of which were bests for him, and was rewarded with a somewhat-closer-than-reality 96-93 (twice) and 96-94 decision. The CompuBox stats saw Salka a comfortable 180-148 leader in total connects, mostly because he outslugged the slugger in terms of power connects (131-104) and by also being the more precise puncher (24%-23% overall and 42%-31% power).
Some websites declared the result an upset but in my mind, it was anything but. First, although Collado had scored 16 knockouts in his 18-0 record, his stoppages were produced more by attrition than by Tyson-esque destruction. Despite averaging 97 punches per round against Cristian Faccio, he failed to hurt his opponent seriously and the stoppage was more of a referee basing his decision on a fighter’s chance to win rather than by any severe punishment he absorbed. Also, Collado’s 10-round decision over Franklin Varela was far closer than British referee Shaun Messner’s 99-91 card indicated. While Collado had outlanded Varela 55-41 and 42-32 in power shots over the first four rounds, the final six saw Varela prevail 101-63 overall and 81-52 power. Finally, while Collado dominated short-notice sub Guillermo Sanchez (156-35 overall, 135-30 power), he still failed to score a knockdown and the sequence that saw referee Charlie Fitch stop the fight marked the only time Collado visibly hurt his opponent.
Meanwhile, Salka’s performance against Alvarez was impressive given his B-side status and he showed sneaky power in stopping trial horse Emmanuel Lucero in five rounds. His jab was a dominant weapon against Alvarez (8.5 connects per round) and despite the big difference in power stats, Salka was the naturally bigger man as he campaigned at 135 and 140 while Collado spent a lot of time at 122 and 126. And then there was that hometown advantage, even if the ring dimensions didn’t suit his game.
All of these factors foreshadowed a Salka victory and though I have been in a slump in terms of picking fights recently (Tim Bradley over Manny Pacquiao, Daniel Ponce de Leon over Juan Manuel Lopez, Paul Malignaggi over Shawn Porter), I was confident I had this one correct.
Salka said before the fight that if he won, he would fly to California and issue a face-to-face challenge to the winner of the WBC lightweight title fight between champion Omar Figueroa and challenger Jerry Belmontes the following Saturday at Carson’s StubHub Center. That tactic certainly worked for Antonio Tarver against Roy Jones, for his boldness allowed him to blaze a far more lucrative and praise-worthy career path.
After packing up the equipment, Aris and I headed to the production office where tons of pizza and soda awaited us. I wolfed down three slices as Aris, Showtime analyst (and in my mind, future IBHOF inductee) Steve Farhood and I talked the “Sweet Science.” Steve posed an interesting question to us: If we were to have one currently unavailable fight film surface, which would it be? My answer: Tony Zale-Rocky Graziano I. Throughout my four decades as a boxing fan, I have repeatedly read fight stories that painted pictures of pure savagery but few top what happened during this ring classic. Zale dropped Rocky in round one only to have the challenger return the favor in the third. Graziano then pummeled Zale to the point of near unconsciousness when the champion cranked in a trademark body shot that scored a second knockdown. Despite his incredible rally, Zale was still so dazed from the battering he had absorbed that at round’s end, he started to walk toward the wrong corner. Still, Zale summoned the energy to finish the job and save his championship in round six courtesy of another ferocious hook.
With most fights being available on TV or the Internet these days, the yearning for an unseen classic is, thankfully, a rarity. Better yet, the fights we see today are delivered in vivid, crystal-clear, high-definition TV instead of the fuzzy, unreliable signals delivered by rooftop antennas, unsophisticated cable systems or rabbit ears. Since I lived in a rural area, interference from neighbors’ electric fences occasionally compromised the signal and from time to time, ghost images from a faraway station would obscure the action. But when one loves something the way I loved boxing as a child, the efforts to peer through the interference was just another obstacle to overcome and, in a small way, it helped prepare me for some of the challenges I would face in adulthood.
In recent years, I’ve been able to cross off some of the “wish list” fights. Late last year, I learned through a friend that a complete version of Eder Jofre’s off-the-floor, majority decision victory over then-WBC featherweight champion Jose Legra had surfaced and when I sat down to watch it, I did so with wide-eyed, childlike fascination. The fact that Jofre-Legra finally came to light gives me hope that other bouts on the list like Saensak Muangsurin-Saoul Mamby, Sugar Ray Robinson-Kid Gavilan I and II, any complete Harry Greb fight (especially against Mickey Walker) or fights featuring Luis Estaba and Fritzie Zivic will someday be made available.
Because of the show’s 10:45 p.m. start – and because two of the three fights went the distance – I didn’t return to the hotel room until 1:50 a.m. And being one who needs time to wind down after a show, it wasn’t until 3 a.m. when I finally turned out the lights on a lengthy and eventful day.
Saturday, April 19: With the rays of a new day pouring through my window pane, I stirred awake at 7:30 a.m. and snoozed for another 45 minutes before hauling myself out of a most comfortable bed. After getting ready for the day, I spent the next hour surfing the net and tapping away on the laptop. The plan: start the three-hour drive home at 10 a.m. and return home in time to get some work done before spending the evening watching the cards televised by Showtime Extreme and Showtime. While doing that, I’ll be recording cards on Argentina’s Torneos y Competencias channel (TyC), Azteca America and UniMas.
For me, the boxing carousel never stops – and I thank God every day for that.
Come Monday, I will begin tackling all the CompuBox-related work that awaits me, which I expect will consume most of the days until my next scheduled trip – Floyd Mayweather vs. Marcos Maidana in Las Vegas.
Until then, happy trails.
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 12 writing awards, including nine in the last four years and two first-place awards since 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at [email protected] to arrange for autographed copies.