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The Travelin’ Man returns to Philadelphia-part II

25
Oct

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Please click here for part one

 



Saturday, October 18: I don’t know why but I slept longer (seven-and-a-half hours) and sounder (awoke only twice) than usual. Like most people, I have trouble sleeping away from home though I end up functioning just fine while on the job. With my call time five hours away, I spent most of the morning catching up on my writing and by 11 a.m., I had added most of the muscles, vessels and skin to the writing skeleton I sketched out the night before.

Once I printed my boarding pass at the business center, I began my journey to the 2300 Arena. The doorman hailed a cab and stored my laptop bag in the taxi’s trunk but when I told the driver where I wanted to go, he expressed great confusion. I gave him the exact address that was printed on my NBCSN production memo but that didn’t help. I briefly thought about exiting the cab but then he had a flash of inspiration. He showed me a card that had the address of his workplace on the back.

“Is this the street you’re talking about?” he asked in heavily accented English.

“Ah, yes it is,” I said brightly, relieved the confusion was resolved. He drove me through several narrow side streets that occasionally were clogged with vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists – all the while speaking Russian with a friend on his hands-free phone – before stopping on what appeared to be a sparsely-used patch of road.

“This is close to where my workplace is,” he said. “Is this where you need to go?”

I looked to my right and saw nothing familiar. Then I looked to my left and saw the entrance to the 2300 Arena.

“That’s it!” I exclaimed. “Thanks for getting me here. It would have been a long and very confusing walk.”

The front doors of the arena were locked so I walked around the block in hopes of finding the TV truck. Five minutes later, I did just that and after securing my wristband credentials for myself and CompuBox colleague Aris Pina (who was about to catch a ride from New York City to Philly with a couple of friends), I made my way to the arena floor. The CompuBox work station was situated near the blue corner instead of ring center but all was well because it still afforded us a perfectly clear sight line. After the pre-fight electronic checks were completed, I joined the other members of the NBCSN team for the crew meal.

As I ate, a friend of mine stopped by to say hello. Ryan Bivins, a writer and avid video collector, was less than an hour away from making his professional debut against fellow debutante Darryl Gause in a four-round, light heavyweight contest. I almost didn’t recognize Ryan because he wasn’t wearing the glasses he sported while visiting with him on press row. Dressed in a light blue shirt and sweats, Ryan was smiling and relaxed.

He said he felt ready to go and when I asked him what kind of fighter he was, he replied, “I’m a boxer but I can really hit too.”

“I’ll take your word on that,” I replied.

I wished him good luck and we went our separate ways – he to the dressing area and me to ringside with Aris, who arrived a few minutes after Ryan left.

At age 28, Ryan was older than most boxers making their debut but his opponent was four years older. Unfortunately for Ryan, Gause was slightly bigger, somewhat stronger and far busier. Ryan began each round doing the right things by energetically circling to his left and firing jabs but by the 30-second mark, he showed signs of flagging. Gause took advantage by forcing an inside fight and hammering Ryan’s ribs with both hands. In round one, Gause out-threw Ryan 69-36 and out-landed him 17-9. Of his 16 power connects, 12 were to the body.

The gaps closed in rounds two (60-51 thrown and 17-13 landed) and Ryan had his best round in the third by prevailing 17-14 in total connects despite being slightly out-hustled (55-46 in punches thrown). But the larger strategic and pacing patterns continued throughout and in round four, Gause finished strongly (21-14 in total connects and 21-10 in landed power shots) to take a deserved unanimous decision (40-36 twice, 39-37).

The total margins were small – Gause led 69-53 in total connects and 65-31 power, including a 40-17 lead in body connects – but Ryan managed to neutralize Gause’s jab (4 of 52, 8%) while landing his own (22 of 90, 24%). Having had my own in-ring encounter more than seven years ago, I can certainly relate on some level on what Ryan was trying to attempt and I can say he performed much better than I did. He may have lost but now he can say he made the attempt.

By doing what he did, Ryan helped his cause as a boxing writer because fighters grant more leeway to scribes who have actually tried to do what they do. And if the writer is smart, he’ll gain even more appreciation for the effort, dedication and talent required to achieve success in this toughest and most humbling of sports.

The next fight between welterweights Anthony Abbruzzese of south Philadelphia and Anthony Prescott of Cherry Hill, N.J. was one of violent shifts of momentum. Prescott dominated round one by out-landing Abbruzzese 21-7 overall (including 19-6 in power connects) while in round two, Abbruzzese turned the tables by landing 44% of his power punches, out-landing Prescott 26-11 overall and 24-9 in power shots. Round three saw Prescott take back the momentum (22-11 overall, 17-8 power) and this time, he kept it as he eked out a 16-13 edge in overall connects and 15-11 advantage in landed power shots in the final round. All three judges turned in 39-37 scorecards favoring Prescott, whose record rose to 5-3-2 (2) while the favored Abbruzzese fell to 3-1 (2).

While it is true that cautious matchmaking is the rule of the day on most days, from time to time, a fighter’s handlers are willing to take a calculated risk. Such was the case with the management of Philadelphia lightweight Gerald Smith, whose four fights paled to fellow Philadelphian Victor Vasquez’s 26. The lure: Smith sported a 3-1 (1) ledger while Vasquez’s was 16-9-1 (7), including a recent 2-4 stretch that saw Vasquez lose twice by TKO.

In the end, Smith’s fast-twitch reflexes were no match for Vasquez’s aggression, industriousness and body punching. Vasquez out-landed Smith 11-3 in round one and proceeded to build on his edges in subsequent rounds. In rounds four through six, the total connect margins favoring Vasquez were 48-12, 35-4 and 29-6. Not only was he busy, his accuracy was searing – 49% overall, 41% jabs and 53% power in round four, 42% overall, 29% jabs and 48% power in round five and 52% overall, 38% jabs and 56% power in the final round. Only Vasquez’s modest power and Smith’s determination to finish caused the fight to go the entire route. The scores were tighter than the numbers (59-55, 58-55 twice) but Vasquez was correctly judged the victor.

Philadelphia’s Tyrone Brunson made worldwide headlines in March 2008 when he scored his 19th consecutive first-round KO to start his career, breaking the mark established by the late Edwin Valero just 25 months earlier. Since then, Brunson had fallen on hard times as he has gone 3-2-1 (2) in his last six fights but he did revive a spark of the glory days this past June in the Dominican Republic when he crushed local fighter Jansel Mateo in 93 seconds.

Because of Mateo’s 0-1 record coming in, Atlantic City’s Decarlo Perez represented a big step up for Brunson and that gulf was never more evident than in round two. After shading the first round 12-8 in total connects, Brunson flew out of his corner, bulled Perez to the ropes and tried to take him out with a fusillade of power shots. It was the kind of attack that fueled his historic KO streak at the start of his career and at times, it appeared Perez showed the slightest signs of wilting. Brunson out-landed Perez by a whopping 22-1 margin in the first minute but once Perez’s head began to clear – and the lactic acid had built up inside Brunson’s arms – the tide began to turn.

With the pace at a more manageable level, Perez’s sharper punching took over. In the final two minutes, he out-landed Brunson 14-10 and from that point forward, the rout was on. Perez out-landed Brunson 38-7 in round three and landed 52% of his power punches to Brunson’s 22% in creating a 31-4 connect gap. Matters only worsened in the fourth (46-7 overall, 16-3 jabs, 30-4 power and a 49%-36% bulge in power accuracy) and the conclusive fifth (30-10 overall, 27-2 power and a 49%-18% gap in power precision).

It’s a story veteran fans have seen played out many times: arm-weariness from a ferocious attack eventually claiming an overanxious fighter’s bid for sudden victory. As Brunson’s attack slowed, Aris and I said almost in unison, “He’s done.” And indeed, he was done. Brunson deserves credit for trying to jumpstart his career with an ambitious attack on national TV. But Perez deserves even more plaudits for showing admirable resourcefulness and excellent skill in methodically dispatching his tiring opponent.

Aris and I took a break from counting when middleweights Roberto Lopez and Robert Sweeney waged their four-rounder between the three pre-taped “Future Stars” fights and the start of the live broadcast on NBCSN. It didn’t take long for me to regret that decision for Lopez and Sweeney produced a festival of volume punching that would have been fun to count. The southpaw Sweeney managed to blend lefty guile with a robust body attack while Lopez doggedly pursued from first bell to last. I thought Lopez had done enough to win one round and one of the judges agreed. The other two, however, saw Sweeney a 40-36 winner, also a plausible score. Still, it was a good, well-matched and well-waged battle on both sides.

When Ghanaian Osumanu Akaba filled in for the injured Jerry Belmontes on one week’s notice, he was a mystery to virtually everyone – especially his opponent, Edner Cherry. Other than an overseas telecast of Akaba’s 12-round loss to Ricky Burns in September 2008 – a fight not uploaded on YouTube – no footage was available for Cherry or his brain trust to study. If fighting with an on-the-fly game plan wasn’t difficult enough for the “Cherry Bomb” to handle, Akaba added another layer to the challenge by coming out of his corner in a southpaw stance.

Following a first round that saw neither man do much offensively – Cherry was 4 of 44 overall while Akaba was 3 of 26 – the Bahamian quickly identified the path to victory. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the celebrated “Cherry Bomb” right hand that scored many of his 18 previous knockouts but rather a trio of looping lefts that registered three knockdowns and a second-round TKO.

In round two, Cherry dispensed with the jab (0 of 12) in favor of power shots that landed at a 45% clip (15 of 33). Akaba, confronted with Cherry’s power, could only muster seven connects in 29 attempts, including 6 of 21 in power punches (29%).

“That was the first time I found out that he was a southpaw,” Cherry said after the fight. “We changed up in the second and started to set the right hand and looked to catch him with a left and that set up the ending.”

The onetime 140-pound title challenger now is seeking a crack at one of the 130-pound belts owned by Takashi Miura (WBC), Takashi Uchiyama (WBA), Rances Barthelemy (IBF) or Orlando Salido (WBO). The latter two appear to be the most viable options given all parties’ familiarity with viewers in this part of the world but one would think Cherry would be willing to travel to the Pacific Rim if the deal is sweet enough.

Boxing has long been a sport built on contrasts but the main event between Steve Cunningham and Natu Visinia took that concept to new levels. The eight-year age gap between the pair (38 versus 30) would have been the most significant stat in most fights but here, the biggest story was the 73-pound disparity between the 205-pound Cunningham and his 278-pound rival.

Several other layers of intrigue also were in play. The first was their diametrically opposed styles – Cunningham, the scientific boxer vs. Visinia, the aggressive power-hooker. The second was the huge difference in ring experience – 33 fights and 238 rounds for Cunningham, 10 fights and 21 rounds for Visinia. Finally, the vast gap in punching power – eight knockouts in 10 victories for Visinia and 12 knockouts in 27 wins (including zero in six heavyweight fights) – created an air of suspense that hung from first moment to last.

Everyone knew Cunningham was by far the more skillful fighter and one could easily envision a lopsided points win if technique alone was the determining factor. But Visinia’s overwhelming size and massive power exerted a mandate of perfection on Cunningham, especially when one considered that the lighter man’s chin had trouble holding up to cruiserweight punching, much less against heavyweights. When Cunningham faced a similar situation against the 6-foot-9 behemoth Tyson Fury 18 months ago, Cunningham shockingly dropped the giant in round two but from that point forward Fury used his incredible advantages in size and upper body strength to wrestle, grapple and exhaust Cunningham into a seventh-round KO loss, the only such defeat of his career. Fury achieved this result with a 44-pound weight pull, which approached nearly half of Visinia’s advantage. As easily as one could foresee a scientific Cunningham win, one could also predict a Visinia victory based on sheer physicality and prodigious one-punch power.

The fight began well enough for Cunningham as he rode his accurate jabs to an early lead. In round one, he landed 11 of 28 (39%) and the rhythm continued in rounds two (9 of 32, 28%), three (17 of 41, 41%), four (13 of 38, 34%) and five (12 of 32, 38%). That jab set the table for pinpoint power punching (57%, 40%, 62%, 58% and 42% in the first five rounds) that established massive connect leads of 123-43 overall and 62-5 in jabs. The results of Cunningham’s statistical superiority could be seen in Visinia’s increasingly bloody face, especially the crimson dripping from his mouth.

For all of Cunningham’s effectiveness, it also was obvious that every time Visinia connected, the difference in power not only could be seen on TV but heard and felt at ringside. Seated less than five feet from Visinia’s corner, I could see how much the Samoan’s force made Cunningham’s body shudder. Therefore, no matter how much punishment Cunningham dished out, Visinia always was a single punch away from undoing all of his opponent’s handiwork.

That moment almost happened late in round five when a cuffing right that glanced off the ear drove Cunningham to all fours. But Visinia’s success was fleeting and from that point forward, Cunningham showcased all the skills, as well as several full-powered bombs that shook the powerful Pacific Islander.

Cunningham went to town in round six by landing 54 of 87 overall punches (62%) – including a breathtaking 75% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts (36 of 48) – while Visinia could land only six of his 31 blows (19%). The level of punishment declined slightly in the seventh but even so, Cunningham landed more punches (33) than Visinia threw (32) and he still connected with 52% of his total punches and 60% of his power shots. Cunningham inflicted enough pain to persuade Visinia’s corner to surrender between rounds seven and eight.

In all, Cunningham led 210-54 in total connects, 95-8 in landed jabs and 115-46 in power connects. He was razor-sharp throughout (47% overall, 39% jabs, 57% power) and save for a few scary moments, he minimized Visinia’s damage (21% overall, 9% jabs, 28% power). The pace was slow in terms of volume (35 punches per round for Cunningham, 32 for Visinia) but the flow of action and the level of suspense never diminished.

“I did what I had to do: box smart,” Cunningham said, “but I fought when I had to and walked him down. That led to the TKO. I was a shark tonight. I saw blood in the water and was a shark tonight.”

Speaking of feasting, Aris and I normally would have joined the others in eating our share of post-fight pizza but we had a good reason to opt out. Aris and his friends, Dock Holiday and Ray Oliveira-trained fighter Scott Sullivan planned to drive back to New York City right after the fights – and they kindly accepted my request to drive me back to the hotel. By the way, Holiday was aptly named; the renowned “Doc” Holliday was an Old West gambler among other things and this Dock Holiday was the lucky patron who won two gloves signed by Cunningham and Visinia.

Famished, I ordered a turkey wrap, chips and a Diet Pepsi from room service and spent the rest of my waking hours catching up on the sports news of the day, which included West Virginia University’s upset of fourth-ranked Baylor, Florida State holding off a last-ditch Notre Dame drive in the latest “Game of the Century” and the twin victories of Gennady Golovkin and Nicholas Walters over Nonito Donaire and Marco Antonio Rubio, respectively.

Sunday, October 19: I stirred awake six-and-a-half hours after turning out the lights and after getting ready for the day, I settled my hotel bill and headed out in search of a cab to the airport. Thanks to the doorman who helped me yesterday, that objective was easily achieved.

The ride began with an unusual request from my driver.

“My native language is Creole,” he began. “Would you mind if I talk with my friend in my language?”

“I don’t mind at all – as long as you aren’t talking bad about me,” I joked. He laughed but it was obvious that more than a few past passengers had voiced objections. It was nice of him to ask.

Once again the TSA Pre-Check brand of airport screening proceeded wonderfully and after glancing at the flight monitor, I realized that a 9:40 a.m. flight to Pittsburgh was about to leave from the same gate as my 11:45 a.m. bird. I hustled down the concourse and reached the gate just as the agent informed a couple in front of me that the flight closed just one minute earlier.

“OK,” I thought. “At least I have some extra time to get some work done.”

The good news about the flight home was that I was bumped up to first class. The bad news was that I was seated in row one, which meant that I had to find overhead space for both of my bags instead of just one. By the time I boarded, virtually all the storage space in first class was taken but there was just enough crevices remaining to accommodate my luggage.

The hour-long flight was smooth but my drive home was lengthened by a half-hour due to a crossing train that held up traffic on West Virginia Route 2. I pulled into the driveway shortly before 4 p.m. and after checking emails, I spent the next few hours tackling several CompuBox-related research projects as well as re-recording boxing shows off the DVR.

As of now, my next trip is scheduled to begin November 7 when I make my first return to Bethlehem, Pa. since my extremely eventful outbound trip in August. There, heavyweights Amir Mansour and Frederic Kassi will top a NBC Sports Network-televised tripleheader on the following day that will also showcase light heavyweights Vasily Lepikhin and Jackson Junior as well as welterweights Dmitry Mikhaylenko and Ronald Cruz.

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 email the author at [email protected] to arrange for autographed copies.

 

Photo courtesy of BoxingSphere’s YouTube page

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