The Travelin’ Man goes to San Antonio-part II
Saturday, November 15 (continued): From my ringside position inside San Antonio’s Alamodome, I joined countless others in witnessing the fusion of boxing’s past, present and future.
The past and present were merged by Wladimir Klitschko, whose astonishing longevity at the sport’s highest levels continued with his fifth-round knockout over consensus mandatory challenger Kubrat Pulev, a victory that inched him ever closer to the hallowed records of Joe Louis and Larry Holmes. Mexican super middleweight Gilberto Ramirez (who stopped veteran Fulgencio Zuniga in eight) personified the near-future and blossoming prospect Oscar Valdez (who broke down willing journeyman Alberto Garza before finishing him off in seven) is poised to make his biggest impact later in the decade.
No matter the perceived state of the sport, boxing continues to produce an uninterrupted assembly line of attractions. Few have ever – or will ever – reach Klitschko’s level of success but enough newcomers will emerge from the pack to keep the storylines churning.
Ramirez and Valdez certainly did their part and played their roles with relish. Ramirez is a manager’s ultimate nightmare – a 6-foot-2 ¾-inch, volume-punching southpaw who also has numbing power. Ramirez averaged 86.1 punches per round to the willing Zuniga’s 64.4 and out-landed him 259-67 overall, 57-8 jabs and a withering 202-59 in power shots. He also created cavernous accuracy gaps of 39%-13% overall, 26%-4% jabs and 45%-20% power in becoming only the third man to stop the Colombian. The other two: Kelly Pavlik and Lucian Bute both went on to win major titles. I, for one, believe Ramirez has the tools to join “The Ghost” and “Le Tombeur” in the roll call of major titlists.
The hallmark of Valdez’s career thus far has been his accuracy. In five previous CompuBox-tracked fights Valdez landed a combined 48% of his total punches, 32% of his jabs and 55% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts. Sure, his level of opposition has been of the record-building variety but as of late, the degree of difficulty has been raised. Rugged journeyman Juan Ruiz – who has never been stopped in 38 fights – took Valdez the full eight rounds in July but absorbed tons of punishment in the process. Not only was Ruiz out-landed – 253-83 overall, 39-3 jabs and 214-80 power – Valdez’s punches tore holes in his defenses as he landed 46% overall and 54% power while tasting just 21% overall, 3% jabs and 26% power.
Valdez continued that pattern against Garza as he prevailed 143-80 overall, 51-11 jabs and 92-69 power while achieving his enviable blend of high-end precision (44% overall, 40% jabs, 47% power) and nearly air-tight defense (16% overall, 5% jabs, 24% power). The Ruiz and Garza fights made clear that his string of dazzling one-punch knockouts will be a thing of the past. His current form reminds me of Leo Santa Cruz, someone capable of high volume but who has lately throttled down his volume in favor of accuracy and attrition. As for now, I really like what I see.
Recently, RingTV.com’s Editor-in-Chief Doug Fischer posed a provocative question: Is Klitschko great? The query produced an explosion of reaction from both sides and each cited credible points to support their positions. As someone who witnessed the careers of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Mike Tyson and Wladimir’s big brother, Vitali and studied those of John Sullivan, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles and Rocky Marciano, I believe “Dr. Steelhammer” is worthy of being called great – and for multiple reasons.
First, Klitschko’s statistics are overwhelming. His 17 consecutive defenses of the IBF belt is third all-time behind Joe Louis (25) and Larry Holmes (19; 20 if one counts his unsanctioned defense against Marvis Frazier) and with the Pulev victory, that part of his reign likely will extend past nine years, second only to Louis’ 11 years 255 days. But if one includes Klitschko’s WBO reign from October 14, 2000 to March 8, 2003 – and in most quarters WBO title fights now are included in the statistics – his totals swell to 22 successful defenses and, as of November 15, reigns totaling 10 years, 354 days.
While Klitschko still has much more work to do to surpass Louis’ records for one continuous reign, he is within striking range of becoming boxing history’s longest-reigning champion in terms of time. If he is still champion on August 9, 2015, his combined reigns will total 11 years 256 days – one day longer than Louis.
If Klitschko is in a particularly ambitious mood, he could create a fascinating confluence of events: If he makes a pair of successful defenses next February and May, Klitschko could schedule a defense in Europe that begins shortly after midnight local time on Sunday, August 9, 2015 (which would be late-Saturday in the U.S.). And wouldn’t it be perfect if the opponent that night was Klitschko’s WBC counterpart? If all those scenarios come to pass, Klitschko, should he win, would achieve the ultimate trifecta: Surpassing Louis’ all-divisions record for championship longevity, equaling the Bomber’s all-divisions mark for successful defenses and becoming the undisputed heavyweight champion.
I admit that’s a lot of “ifs” but one can’t deny this set of circumstances surrounding a single event would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in potential revenue, provide much-welcome positive coverage for boxing in the mainstream press and create an untouchable legacy for Klitschko himself. For him, it would be the crowning moment of all crowning moments.
Other compelling statistics courtesy of Boxrec.com include:
* Klitschko’s 63 career wins are the most of any heavyweight champion who won his title in the 21st century, six ahead of Shannon Briggs and 13 clear of Nikolai Valuev and Hasim Rahman. Among all heavyweight titlists, Klitschko’s victory total places him 10th behind Ezzard Charles (93), Primo Carnera (89), Gene Tunney (79), George Foreman (76), Jack Johnson (70), Bob Fitzsimmons (69), Larry Holmes (69), Max Baer (67) and Joe Louis (66).
* His .9545 winning percentage is sixth among heavyweight champions behind Rocky Marciano (1.000), Michael Spinks (.969), Vitali Klitschko (.958), Louis (.957) and Riddick Bowe (.9555) but among titlists who have fought 50 or more times, “Dr. Steelhammer” rates second behind Louis. To claim the top spot in that sub-category, however, Klitschko will need four more victories without a loss.
* Klitschko’s 53rd career knockout on Saturday vaulted him to fourth all-time behind Carnera (71), Foreman (68) and Bob Fitzsimmons (59) and broke his three-way tie with Louis and Charles.
* His .803 knockout percentage places him eighth among heavyweight champions behind Marciano (.878), older brother Vitali (.872), David Haye (.852), Frank Bruno (.844), Foreman (.840), Herbie Hide (.811) and Tommy Morrison (.808). For titlists with 50 or more fights, however, Klitschko rates second behind “Big George.”
A side note: At .769, Klitschko’s persistent tormentor Shannon Briggs is right behind him on the winning percentage list. He was at ringside Saturday to hurl even more taunts but there’s no word that his efforts have drawn him closer to his highly-desired showdown with the heavyweight division’s king of pain.
* In CompuBox terms, few fighters can approach Klitschko’s long-term dominance. In his last 12 fights, Klitschko has out-landed his opponents 1,563-468, a nearly 3¾-to-1 margin. His defensive numbers are equally outstanding: In his last 22 bouts, he tasted 100 or more punches only twice – Tony Thompson’s 150 in their first fight in July 2008 (the most ever landed on Klitschko in 31 CompuBox-tracked fights) and Samuel Peter’s 100 in their initial meeting in September 2005.
During his run of 17 straight defenses, his opponents landed a combined 24.6% overall, 20% jabs and 30.2% power, well below the division norms of 36.1%, 28.4% and 42% respectively. Finally, of his last 22 bouts, Klitschko has been hit with 12 or fewer punches in a fight four times – 12 vs. Ray Austin, 10 each by Alex Leapai and Eliseo Castillo and a measly three by Jean-Marc Mormeck. What makes this feat even more impressive is that (1) three of those results took place during championship competition when challengers try to bring their A-game and (2) Klitschko was days from his 36th birthday against Mormeck and his 38th against Leapai.
* One mark of a great champion is his ability to improve in rematches and, statistically speaking, Klitschko qualifies. Klitschko avenged his loss to Brewster by knockout (though Brewster’s connect total rose from 43 to 70 in the process) while in fight two, Thompson’s connects plunged sixfold (from 150 to 25). Klitschko’s success in rematches continued against Chris Byrd (who landed 122 in their October 2000 meeting that Klitschko won by decision but only 51 in their April 2006 fight that ended in seven) and Peter (100 in fight one, 35 in the rematch five years later). Incidentally, Klitschko began both of his heavyweight championship reigns by beating Byrd.
* Finally, Klitschko has successfully navigated boxing’s twisted politics thanks to his ability to generate huge crowds and huger money for all concerned – especially the Alphabets. In an era when unified champions are stripped for arbitrary reasons, Klitschko has managed to retain his iron grip on three recognized belts for three-and-a-half years and seven defenses. Only Bernard Hopkins can approach him in this regard, for after beating Felix Trinidad, he registered six defenses of at least three belts (and one defense of all four) over the next 46 months before dropping them by split decision to Jermain Taylor.
Klitschko’s greatness, however, travels beyond the statistical. His exquisitely conditioned 6-foot-6 frame and 81-inch wingspan would present a formidable challenge to any of his predecessors, as would his supreme command of distance, his combination of empirical and athletic intelligence, gargantuan two-fisted power and his underrated hand speed. His only demonstrated flaw – his thrice-dented chin – hasn’t crumbled in more than nine years, when Peter registered three official knockdowns in their first meeting.
His style is not pretty to watch but against Pulev, the clunky approach obscured the quality of the knockdown punches. Though known for his destructive right hand, it was Klitschko’s left hook that produced three of the four knockdowns and each was delivered with blinding speed, impeccable timing and perfect placement. The lone right-hand knockdown opened a cut under Pulev’s left eye while the final left hook created a gash and a mouse under the right orb.
The knockout punch was particularly well-executed: Seizing on a split-second opening, Klitschko generated massive momentum by springing inside off his back foot while, at the same time, channeling that momentum from legs to shoulder to fist. The punch was compact and yet it carried enough force to anesthetize a 6-foot-4¾ , 246-pound athlete talented enough to give Klitschko a few moments of anxiety.
The final dimension of Klitschko’s greatness is his persona, which consists of above-average intelligence, social awareness and a regal dignity. The avid chess player is fluent in four languages (Ukrainian, Russian, German and English) and holds two college degrees, including a doctorate. He and brother, Vitali have helped a variety of children’s charities (which earned them humanitarian awards in 2002 and 2007) and also worked with UNESCO (the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). On most occasions, Klitschko answers hostility by ignoring his tormentor or smiling at him, though he did pour a glass of water over Briggs’ head at a restaurant after his adversary helped himself to some of Klitschko’s meal.
Boxing couldn’t ask for a better role model and ambassador than Klitschko, yet in America, he is criticized or ignored. The reasons are fourfold; (1) though he lives in America, he’s not American-born and U.S. fans tend to root most passionately for their own; (2) his dreary decision victory over Sultan Ibragimov in Madison Square Garden in February 2008 cast a permanent cloud on his appeal; (3) his dominance over what is perceived to be a sub-par talent pool and (4) the messy, clinch-filled way he goes about his business rubs action-craving Americans the wrong way. Knowing these factors can’t be repaired at this point of his career, Klitschko has fought exclusively in Europe ever since and has made a very nice living doing so.
Given the statistics and the in-ring results, the question of Klitschko’s greatness should be beyond argument – and yet, in many quarters, it is. As for the quality of competition issue, all long-reigning champions have their share of lay-ups and Klitschko is no exception. No weight class in history has had top-to-bottom superstars and all a champion can do is beat whomever is placed in front of him. He’ll receive his just due if he meets and defeats enough fighters perceived as credible threats but if the cupboard is bare, the cupboard is bare.
As for Klitschko, he has beaten fighters who have been thought of as true challenges – David Haye and Alexander Povetkin being the two most recent examples – but he won so easily that, in the aftermath, they were reconfigured as frauds. Floyd Mayweather Jr. knows this scenario all too well.
The other major objection: All three of his losses were knockouts to massive underdogs Ross Puritty, Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster. The counterpoint: Klitschko is one of boxing history’s greatest bounce-back fighters. As HBO’s Max Kellerman aptly pointed out, no heavyweight champion has ever shown as much vulnerability at such an advanced stage of his career – Puritty was Klitschko’s 25th fight while Sanders and Brewster were his 42nd and 45th opponents respectively – only to go on and enjoy a decade of dominance. One would have to look long and hard to find similar career paths in other weight classes. One possible parallel is Eusebio Pedroza, who suffered KO losses in his 10th, 16th and 17th fights to undefeated fighters Alfonzo Perez, Alfonso Zamora in a bantamweight title fight and Oscar Arnal, only to win the WBA featherweight title from Cecilio Lastra four fights later and put together a seven-year, 18-defense reign.
It has often been written that history tends to repeat itself but in the case of Wladimir Klitschko, we should sit back and enjoy his brand of history while it lasts, for the odds are good that we’ll never again see its likes.
Instead of taking a cab back to the hotel, Aris and I chose to walk and a half-hour later, we were safely back at the Hilton. I spent the rest of my awake-time catching up on all the other sports news I missed before turning out the lights a little after 1 a.m.
Sunday, November 16: I began this day six hours after it ended but the plan I had for it changed in an instant.
The adventure began when my cell phone rang at 8:38 a.m. It was an automated call from US Airways informing me that my noon flight from San Antonio to Charlotte had been canceled due to the ripple effect of another cancelation. Specifically, a lack of personnel for an earlier flight caused the cancelation that led to my flight’s cancelation. Only in aviation does this make sense but sense or not, I was suddenly flightless.
I jotted down the number to contact US Airways’ reservations department and after a brief wait, my itinerary was reworked. Instead of arriving in Pittsburgh through Charlotte at 5:54 p.m., I was re-scheduled to get there through Chicago at 8:20, which meant that if all went well, I wouldn’t arrive home until well after 11.
Yes, it wasn’t what I wanted – especially since it appeared I had lost my TSA Pre-Check perks – but I preferred to focus on the fact that I once again had a way home.
After informing family and employer of my changed plans, I called Aris – whom I was scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. and whose first flight was at 1:30 – that we now had 45 extra minutes to get ready for our trips home. I then walked down to the lobby to check into my new flights and I was pleasantly surprised that, even on short notice, I was able to improve my seating position.
Aris and I took a cab to the airport and, fortunately for us, the check-in counters for our respective airlines were located next to each other. While he headed toward his gate, I walked to the check-in counter to see if I could restore TSA Pre-Check to my boarding pass.
A wonderful coincidence: Standing two places behind me in line was veteran broadcaster and long-time friend Dave Bontempo, who manned last night’s international broadcast. He also was booked on the ill-fated San Antonio-to-Charlotte flight but unlike me, US Airways didn’t alert him via cell phone. As a result, he didn’t know he had to pick up the pieces until he read the flight monitors. Knowing this was a potential hazard of the flying experience, “Davey Boy” took everything in stride.
My good luck continued when the ticket agent successfully added my TSA Pre-Check privileges. With some extra time on my hands, I decided to wait until Dave finished his business before going through security.
Dave received a mix of news. Although he had a confirmed seat on the 6:35 flight to Chicago, he was third on the stand-by list to be on my 1:35 bird. He held out some hope but experience told him he’d probably have a long wait ahead of him.
As I approached the TSA Pre-Check entrance, I noticed it was blocked off. The reason: It was closed for the moment. It was here where I learned another wrinkle about Pre-Check: It has limited hours in some airports and here, it wasn’t set to open for nearly an hour.
The TSA agent was very helpful; he affixed a red stamp to my boarding pass that told his co-workers that I could leave my shoes on while passing under the less-stringent metal detector. Because of that, I assumed that I also had all of the other Pre-Check privileges, so I left both of my laptops inside my carrying case. That, apparently, wasn’t allowed. Another favorable break: Instead of having me go back through the metal detector, go to the back of the line and unpack the laptops myself, the agents allowed me to stay where I was while they did the work for me. I thanked them for their kindness.
Luckily for me, Dave and I were set to leave from the identical gate, which gave us plenty of time to engage in some serious boxing talk. Better yet, I spotted Aris seated at our gate because the departure gate for his flight to Houston was directly across the way from ours and he chose to wait for me to arrive. I invited him to join Dave and me and for the next 90 minutes, we covered all things pugilism – past, present and future. Because of unexplained issues, the 1:35 p.m. flight was pushed back to 2:05 but none of us minded the delay.
Aris soon walked across the hall to catch his plane and Dave learned that he’d have to wait a few more hours to leave San Antonio. As for me, the trip home officially began.
I had feared the delay in San Antonio would dangerously shrink my connection window at O’Hare but it didn’t turn out that way. Even after making the long walk from Terminal H to Terminal L, I made my connection with ease. In fact, deteriorating weather conditions forced the plane to undergo de-icing and to sit on the runway for an extra hour.
While we waited for our plane to depart, I overheard a conversation that took place one row back and to my left. The mother of several small children was conversing with a member of the military who had just won a grueling “Soldier of the Year” competition for the 102nd Brigade. Nineteen-year-old Joshua Cushing described how he performed several astonishing physical feats such as running 12 miles while carrying a 75-pound backpack en route to winning his multi-day regional contest. Not only that, he recounted how he lost more than 100 pounds in the recent past and as proof, he produced a photo of his former self.
I’ve met many interesting people during my travels but Cushing must rank near the top of that list.
Aside from some turbulence over the Great Lakes, the Chicago-to-Pittsburgh leg was uneventful. I dreaded, however, the long walk back to my car that was parked in the “Hinterlands.” How long was that walk? When I started, misty rain was falling but by the midway point, it had turned to snow flurries.
The wet and potentially slippery roads forced me to slow down, extending my usual two-and-a-half-hour drive by 15 minutes. I pulled into the driveway shortly after 12:30 a.m., bringing to a close a long but interesting travel day.
My journey, however, wasn’t nearly as long or as interesting as Aris’. First, his flight from Houston to New York was canceled and he was stranded in Texas overnight. Second, he waited two hours for a hotel shuttle to pick him up. Third, following a few hours’ rest, he returned to the airport by 6 a.m. Fourth, he drew a middle seat. Fifth, after his plane touched down and he reached up to grab his luggage, a fellow passenger doing the same thing accidently elbowed Aris in the face. In all, Aris’ odyssey took 26 hours to complete.
The next stop on the Travelin’ Man Chronicles will take me to a new state – Nebraska – to work an HBO-televised card topped by Terence Crawford-Raymundo Beltran.
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 10 writing awards, including seven in the last three years. 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 by Mikey Williams/Top Rank Promotions