The Travelin’ Man’s road trip to Bethlehem-part II
Saturday, November 8: Howard Cosell often said of Ron Lyle that “if he could do nothing else, he can punch.” In the most positive manner possible, the same can be said about Amir Mansour, especially after his one-punch knockout of Frederick Kassi.
The right hook that flattened Kassi connected with a crack that could be heard around ringside. Trapped on the ropes with nowhere to move and no room to pull back, Kassi was forced to take the full force of Mansour’s massive blow. It left him face-down and motionless on the canvas, prompting referee Gary Rosato to wave off the fight without a count and the medical personnel to spring into action. More than five minutes passed before Kassi was allowed to be lifted onto a stool, on which he rested for nearly another minute before walking over to congratulate the victor.
THE RING’s Douglass Fischer called it a candidate for “Knockout of the Year” and as someone who saw it live, I would concur. The arcing punch instantly anesthetized a thick-necked 233-pound athlete who had been fighting pretty well to that point. But power – especially heavyweight power – is the ultimate equalizer. It can snap off synapses and render everything good or bad that had transpired, moot.
For Mansour, however, just about everything preceding the final blow was good. Seven months after losing a pulsating 10-round decision to Steve Cunningham – and with his conqueror doing color commentary for NBC Sports Network – Mansour showed he had more than just power left in the tank. Following a slow start that saw him throw 31 punches, Mansour steadily cranked up the volume and eventually zoomed past the heavyweight norm of 45.6. After throwing 58 in the second, he fired 63, 78, 76, 74 and 72 punches, a fiery pace for any big man much less one three-and-a-half months past his 42nd birthday. Not only was he active, he was accurate as he landed 40% or more of his power punches in four of the final six rounds, peaking at 48% in the sixth and 49% in the seventh.
Kassi deserves some of the credit for Mansour’s activity, for he ended up throwing three more punches overall (455-452) and was in the process of having his best round before “Hardcore” lowered the boom. To that point, Kassi landed 22 total punches and 18 power shots, both highs for the fight – and there was still a little less than a minute left in the round.
In the end, Mansour led 144-112 overall, 30-29 jabs and 114-83 power and was slightly more accurate across the board (32%-25% overall, 16%-13% jabs and 42%-36% power). But it was the 144th landed punch and the 114th connected power shot that told the whole story.
The card began with 18-year-old junior middleweight Nick Valliere facing 1-6 Philadelphian David Navarro, who, at 37, is more than twice his opponent’s age. The New Jersey southpaw tore into Navarro from the jump, wailing in wide body shots and left crosses to the jaw while Navarro did his best to wait out the storm. The youngster’s form was crude to say the least but it was effective as he landed 37 of 90 punches, including 36 of 82 power shots, in round one while Navarro was 11 of 43 and 10 of 36 respectively. The vicious pattern continued in the second as Valliere cranked 75 punches to Navarro’s 53 and out-landed him 36-13 but in the third, the teenager’s pace dropped to 51 while many of Navarro’s fight-high 14 connects were spearing shots that popped Valliere’s head straight back. In the fourth, Navarro actually out-threw the tiring Valliere 57-43 but because he trailed 17-11 in landed punches, he probably lost the round. Valliere, leading 112-49 overall and 109-38 power, won a unanimous decision though two judges gave Navarro one round. The now 3-0 (2) Valliere, who landed 43% overall and 46% power to Navarro’s 23% in both categories, is long on desire but short on technique. The good news is he has plenty of time to sharpen his craft and smooth out the rough edges.
Next up was a four-round welterweight bout between Cherry Hill, N.J.’s Anthony Prescott and Easton’s Arturo Trujillo. Unusually, the 5-0 (3) local fighter was brought in first and introduced first while the 5-3-2 (2) Prescott was given the A-side treatment. Perhaps it was because only three weeks earlier, he impressively out-pointed the previously undefeated Anthony Abbruzzese over four rounds on the Steve Cunningham-Natu Visinia undercard in Philadelphia.
Confronted by a taller southpaw with a bigger punch, Prescott couldn’t produce another dose of magic. A crunching left cross dropped Prescott near the end of round one and Trujillo added a second knockdown in the bout’s closing moments. While the first two rounds were fairly close in terms of the numbers (Prescott led 16-13 in total connects), Trujillo pulled away in the final two rounds. In the fourth round, Trujillo went 33 of 93 overall while the brave but bone-weary Prescott was 4 of 21 overall and trailed 26-3 in power connects. That huge round helped Trujillo forge connect leads of 68-33 overall, 17-7 jabs and 51-26 power as well as 39-35 scores across the board from the judges.
(One personal memory from this fight: Trujillo’s corner drenched its charge with water between rounds three and four and when Prescott landed a solid right at the beginning of the round, the spray splattered my notes at ringside and both of us punch-counters felt droplets on our faces. Thankfully, the laptop stayed dry.)
Super bantamweight Anthony Caramanno, despite hailing from Staten Island, drew a huge response from the Bethlehem crowd upon his entry into the ring and based on records alone, the 2-0 prospect was favored to beat Philadelphia’s 0-3-1 Omar Carroll. Any veteran observer of the sport will tell you, however, that when it comes to someone who has Carroll’s profile, the city of his birth, not his record, is the key factor. That’s because there’s something special about Philadelphia fighters; no matter what style they employ or what their record reads, there’s an undeniable grit that must be respected.
Although Caramanno was the man coming forward, Carroll’s feints, mobility and timely punching managed to slow the pace to one more suited to fighters 100 pounds heavier – 42.8 punches per round for Carroll and 31.8 for Caramanno. While the first two rounds were closely contested, Carroll pulled away in the final two by out-landing Caramanno 23-12 overall and 22-11 power to score a split decision that should have been unanimous. Carroll’s surge powered connect advantages of 35-23 overall and 33-20 power in a fight in which the jab was an afterthought. For the record, Caramanno held a 3-2 connect edge in that category.
Russian light heavyweight couldn’t have created a better first impression on the U.S. market when he starched favored New Zealander Robert Berridge in five rounds three months ago at the Sands. His sharp, quick and pugnacious attack resulted in a fifth-round TKO that included three knockdowns.
Lepikhin’s next assignment was Jackson Junior, an undefeated fighter only because his March 2013 fourth-round TKO defeat to Umberto Savigne was changed to a no-contest due to, according to the commission, “results found during the post-fight drug screening.” That said, the Brazilian boasted 13 knockouts in 15 wins and promised to either confirm Lepikhin’s talent or expose his shortcomings.
Though Junior lost a 10-round decision, he did a little of both. Lepikhin, 17-0 (9), wasn’t as spectacular as he was against Berridge but there were plenty of moments in which he showcased the long-armed combinations and above-average infighting skills for a man standing 6-foot 3¾. But Junior had plenty of moments too. He successfully forced an inside war and his heavy hands created havoc at close range. In fact, the infighting in round seven was so intense that neither man threw a single jab.
Lepikhin broke the fight open in that round by out-landing Junior 25-7, then followed up with a 47-21 bulge in the final three rounds to sew up a unanimous (97-93 twice, 96-94) decision. Statistically, Lepikhin led in all phases (165-95 overall, 35-8 jabs, 130-87 power) and was the more precise puncher (34%-22% overall, 17%-14% jabs, 45%-23% power).
Of all the fights on this card, the one I was most looking forward to as a punch counter was the junior middleweight fight between Dmitry Mikhaylenko and Bethlehem’s own Ronald Cruz. That’s because Mikhaylenko averaged an insane 128.4 total punches and 104.9 power punches per round during his most recent outing against Sechew Powell (UD 8). His 839 power punches and 302 power connects were the eighth most by a junior middleweight in a CompuBox-tracked fight and the fact that he did it in an eight-rounder was particularly impressive. Is it any wonder that Main Events moved to sign Mikhaylenko after that performance?
His first assignment under the new promotional banner was Cruz, who had gone 3-4 after winning his first 17 fights. Following back-to-back losses to Kermit Cintron in Bethlehem and Errol Spence in Las Vegas, Cruz was desperate for a win and was willing to put everything on the line to get it. Cruz did his best to keep up with Mikhaylenko’s supersonic pace as he rebounded from a 48-15 pasting in round one to narrow the gaps to 46-32 in round two and 37-30 in round three, then surpassing Mikhaylenko 43-29 and 31-25 in rounds four and five. But Mikhaylenko responded not by winding down but staging a surge. He went 39 of 87 in the sixth to Cruz’s 30 of 89, then kicked up to 55 of 116 and 46 of 118 in the final two rounds, all of which were his highest totals of the fight. While Cruz held off Mikhaylenko in the seventh by landing 36 of 93 overall, he couldn’t do so in the eighth as he slumped to 11 of 53. After the brutal eighth, Cruz’s corner mercifully – and correctly – stopped the fight.
Mikhaylenko averaged 107.3 punches per round against Cruz, nearly double the 57.7 junior middleweight norm and out-landed Cruz 325-228 overall, 110-37 jabs and 215-191 power. He’s not a big puncher but over the long haul, he’s one of the most punishing fighters in the sport. As for Cruz, he should feel no shame about his performance this night. He fought with honor and determination but he simply found himself in the ring with a bigger, stronger force of nature.
I jumped into action the moment the truck gave me the green light to shut down and pack up following the Mansour-Kassi fight. Famished, Andy and I filled up on pizza from a local vendor before saying our goodbyes. I had no trouble relocating my car, nor driving back to the Fairfield Inn. Since there was no diet soda to wash down the pizza at the arena, I bought a 20-ouncer in the lobby, took the elevator up to my room and hoped I didn’t miss too much of Sergey Kovalev-Bernard Hopkins.
I joined the fight during the final minute of round two and was stunned to hear Jim Lampley refer to the knockdown of Hopkins in the opening session. Although I predicted Kovalev to win by decision, I was somewhat surprised by two developments: one, how much bigger Kovalev was than Hopkins and two, how well Kovalev executed his thoughtfully aggressive game plan. Kovalev’s height and long arms allowed him to control distance in ways that Beibut Shumenov, Karo Murat, Tavoris Cloud and Jean Pascal could not yet he still produced enough power to force Hopkins to cover up and severely limit his output. When Kovalev chose to crank up the volume, he showed he could have overwhelmed “The Alien” but Hopkins’ occasionally powerful counters showed why Kovalev was wise not to try it.
Kovalev’s lead grew with every passing round and the final statistics reflected his command – 166-65 in total connects, 45-25 in landed jabs and 121-40 in power shots. Of a possible 36 rounds in a CompuBox fight profile, Kovalev amassed a 32-1-3 bulge that included 12-0 sweeps in overall connects and landed power shots. Hopkins’ lone statistical triumph was a 1-0 jab connect lead in round two.
Kovalev’s tactics persuaded Hopkins to limit his average output to 14.1 punches per round over the first 11 and, after throwing 40 in the final round, 16.2 for the fight. Not satisfied to rely on his insurmountable points lead, Kovalev gunned for a knockout in the final session. His 38 total connects and 29 landed power shots in round 12 were the most achieved by a Hopkins opponent in 41 CompuBox-tracked fights, replacing Roy Jones’ 27 total connects and 25 landed power shots in round six of their first meeting in 1993.
“Krusher’s” victory was so overwhelming that even Hopkins could not find fault with it.
“The better man was Kovalev,” a thoughtful and respectful Hopkins conceded. “He had a good game plan, nice and rangy. He stayed outside when he got hit with punches. When he did get hit, he stepped back and didn’t try to engage in a fight. He fought a great technical fight; he used his reach and he used his distance. I know that was the key to the fight. Every time I tried to get him to trade punches with me, he did it on his terms and when I tried to pull him into fighting my fight, he took a step back and I had to reset. He’s going to be around for a long time and I got respect for a guy who comes to fight and who wants to fight everybody. That’s what boxing should be about.”
Hopkins’ willingness to fight Kovalev is also what boxing should be about. No matter whether he decides to retire or fight on, Hopkins’ r├®sum├® is one for the ages – 20 defenses at middleweight, two reigns at 175, “miracle” wins over Felix Trinidad, Kelly Pavlik and Antonio Tarver and the title of history’s greatest over-40 fighter. In a March 6, 2013 article for RingTV.com, I rated Hopkins number two but the moment he decisioned Tavoris Cloud to win his second light heavyweight belt, I believed he deserved to jump past Archie Moore because not only did he break his own record for oldest man to win a major boxing title, he did it in dominating fashion. His subsequent wins over Karo Murat and WBA titlist Beibut Shumenov only served to raise an already stratospheric bar.
Hopkins may well be the last of a dying breed in terms of attitude. In an era in which division-hopping is seen as the ultimate demonstration of greatness, Hopkins embodied the old-school standard of staying put and cleaning out his division. He also wasn’t afraid to take on risky opponents and while his record took some lumps, his body of work will ultimately speak well for him. Also, his extraordinary discipline between fights and his thirst for technical knowledge should serve as a model for fighters going forward. Hopkins’ methods may not be flashy enough for today’s athlete but the results are beyond argument: first-ballot Hall-of-Famer and holder of records that may never be approached, much less surpassed.
If Hopkins chooses to fight into his 50s, he has more than earned the right to try. If Hopkins opts to bow out as gracefully as he conducted his interview following the Kovalev fight, then he – and we – should take the time to reflect upon and appreciate everything he has accomplished.
Now that he’s the owner of three belts, Kovalev finds himself in a powerful negotiating position in relation to RING and WBC counterpart Adonis Stevenson, who has been the target of countless barbs for what appears to be his blatant avoidance of “Krusher.” If he impressively disposes of Kovalev’s countryman Dmitry Sukhotsky Dec. 19 in Quebec City, Stevenson vs. Kovalev will achieve its zenith in terms of timing, fan interest and money-making potential for all concerned. Will this dream fight come to fruition like Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns I, Julio Cesar Chavez-Meldrick Taylor I and Marvelous Marvin Hagler-Hearns did or will outside issues relegate it to the “What might have been” Hall of Fame whose members include Lennox Lewis-Riddick Bowe and Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao?
I turned out the lights short after watching the first episode of “24/7: Pacquiao/Algieri,” which put the cap on another enjoyable boxing-centric day.
Sunday, November 9: Up at 8 a.m., I briefly considered doing some work for CompuBox’s fantasy game before leaving but tossed that idea aside when I saw the hotel’s internet connection was too slow to reliably play streaming videos. After choking down a bowl of Frosted Flakes – I always have trouble eating anything for at least two hours after waking – I packed my belongings and checked out of the hotel at 9:30.
The first order of business was filling the gas tank because the orange “low fuel” light had come on during my drive back from the venue. Even though I knew I could drive at least 30 miles more, I opted to fill up at the station a few hundred feet from the hotel, especially since its price for regular unleaded was $2.99.
Unlike Friday, today’s driving conditions were excellent: virtually cloud-free skies and temperatures in the low-50s. Once again, the radio was my constant companion and this time, my channel of choice was the Steelers’ football network as I listened to the hours-long pre-game show, then the dismal 20-13 defeat to the Jets. Eager to get home and start my work for the fantasy game, I made only one pit stop to pick up lunch and my only other pause was to pay the $16.95 toll for my hours on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
I arrived home a few minutes past 5 p.m. and thanks to my car’s cruise control, I completed the 388-mile journey in fine shape. Once I finished unpacking, I tackled the two counts needed for the fantasy game – Artur Szpilka’s 10-round decision over Tomasz Adamek and the draw between Robert Stieglitz and Felix Sturm.
By the time you read this, I’ll probably be in the midst of – if not already done with – my next journey to San Antonio to work the HBO Latino doubleheader pitting Oscar Valdez against Alberto Garza and Gilberto Ramirez versus Fulgencio Zuniga.
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.