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The Travelin’ Man goes to Omaha-part II

12
Dec
Photo by Naoki Fukuda

Photo by Naoki Fukuda

 

Please click here for part one.

 

Saturday, November 29: Terence Crawford’s unanimous decision victory over Raymundo Beltran proved two truisms. One: Elite talent doesn’t always have to come from metropolitan hubs. Two: An excellent jab can control a fight like no other punch.

Born and bred in Omaha, Neb., Crawford is definitely not a product of the New York/Boston/Philadelphia corridor that has produced scores of contenders and champions nor is he part of the West Coast power structure that has spawned countless talents over the decades. Instead, Crawford hails from a part of the country its snobbish antagonists call a “flyover state” because that’s where they have to fly over to get to the places they deem important. But when 2014 comes to an end, Crawford will stand with Sergey Kovalev, Gennady Golovkin, Manny Pacquiao, Naoya Inoue (should he defeat Omar Narvaez on Dec. 30), Amnat Ruenroeng, Roman Gonzalez and Nicholas Walters as prime contenders for “Fighter of the Year” honors.

Crawford’s candidacy is a compelling one. He not only won his first major belt last spring but he did so by traveling to Glasgow, Scotland and dominating hometown hero Ricky Burns. Then he singlehandedly resurrected Omaha’s boxing presence by insisting that his first defense against Yuriorkis Gamboa be staged there. The combination of Crawford’s explosive ninth-round TKO victory and the region’s enthusiastic support in terms of numbers and volume resulted in a return trip to Omaha, for good TV is good TV no matter where it takes place. Finally, Crawford capped his career year by tossing a near-shutout over Beltran, the man who, in most eyes, should have been defending his WBO title against Crawford. In September 2013, virtually everyone other than judges Carlos Ortiz Jr. and Richard James Davies believed Beltran should have been the victor, for all he did was break Burns’ jaw in round two and score a knockdown in round eight. His reward: a scandalous draw and a license to carry Gibraltar-sized bitterness.

Until Crawford officially vacates his title, he will be considered boxing’s best lightweight. Not bad for a fighter who just 20 months ago was an unheralded late sub against Breidis Prescott, who was set to meet then-140-pound contender Khabib Allakhverdiev on HBO’s air. Allakhverdiev bowed out on less than 10 days’ notice due to an elbow injury and Crawford, against his brain trust’s advice, confidently stepped into the breach. Crawford’s brilliantly versatile attack undressed the unsuspecting Colombian to the point that HBO deemed him an out-of-the-blue star-in-the-making. The rest is now history and the good news is there is even more history to come, albeit at higher weights.

His standout performance against Beltran was the result of a busy and extremely effective jab. The average lightweight throws 24.4 jabs per round and lands 5.1 of them but against Beltran, Crawford averaged 36.3 attempts and 12.5 connects per round. In an era in which most fighters see the jab as a range-finder rather than a weapon, Crawford used it to swell Beltran’s left eye nearly shut and set up precise power-punching. Crawford reached double-digit jab connects in eight of the 12 rounds, including 20, 18 and 18 in rounds four through six and four more to close the bout.

One further illustration of Crawford’s jab-as-weapon mindset was his accuracy. The typical 135-pounder lands 20.1% of his jabs but Crawford exceeded that mark in every round but the seventh (15%). He landed between 30%-39% of his jabs three times (31% in the second, 32% in the 10th and 35% in the 12th), 40%-49% three times (41% in rounds six and nine, 42% in the 11th) and 50% in rounds four and five. That level of success is even more remarkable given Beltran’s status going into the fight (arguably the second-best lightweight in the world) and that in eight previous CompuBox-tracked fights, Beltran was struck by only 28.3% of his opponents’ punches, including 19% of their jabs. Beltran is not exactly a sieve defensively; Crawford’s talent only made it look that way.

The final statistics reflected Crawford’s in-the-ring excellence. He out-landed Beltran 243-96 overall, including 93-73 in power connects and a canyon-esque 150-23 bulge in landed jabs. He led 38%-26% in total accuracy, 34%-14% in jab precision and 46%-36% in the power department. Although Crawford has been compared to Marvelous Marvin Hagler in terms of his versatility and Pernell Whitaker in his execution from the southpaw stance, the 36% figure shows he’s not in their league defensively – at least, not yet.

While many can argue the draw verdict that allowed Evgeny Gradovich to retain his IBF featherweight title – most thought the champion won the fight outright – all would agree that it was an action-packed encounter. Velez’s performance in the first four rounds brought back memories of Manuel Medina, who used extreme volume, pesky jabs, up-and-down combinations and constant movement to confound opponents and win pieces of the featherweight title on five separate occasions, a feat only Sugar Ray Robinson can claim in regard to the middleweight belt. During that stretch, Velez averaged a mind-boggling 103.8 punches per round, out-landing Gradovich 92-69 overall, and managed to limit the high-octane champion to 60.3, including just 43 and 55 in the first two rounds.

Velez’s approach, however, required supreme conditioning because without the safety net of one-punch power, any erosion would result in a beating – and if Gradovich is good at doing any one thing, it’s dishing out a beating. Starting in round four, Gradovich cranked up his work rate from 61 to 82, averaged 79.6 punches per round and out-landed Velez 268-215 overall and 209-171 power.

Gradovich’s success, however, was the result of improving his own game rather than any diminution of Velez’s effort. In fact, Velez ended up out-throwing Gradovich 1,032-875. But because Gradovich out-landed Velez in seven of the final eight rounds he finished the fight with connect leads of 310-278 overall, 74-67 jabs and 236-211 power. He was more accurate overall (35%-27% overall) and in jabs (32%-14%) but was shaded 38%-37% in power precision.

While Crawford will exit the lightweight division to seek further fame and fortune, Gradovich is staying put at 126, which is great news for featherweight fans. Just like John McEnroe vs. anyone would make for a fantastic match in tennis – even today – Gradovich vs. anyone virtually guarantees a crowd-pleasing effort from at least one side, if not both.

That Gradovich is considered by some the fourth-best of the 126-pound titlists should be perceived as a tribute to the division’s quality rather than a slap at “The Mexican Russian.” The lineup of Gradovich, Walters, Jhonny Gonzalez and Vasyl Lomachenko is as good as it gets in this screwy four-belt boxing universe and any combination of the four may ignite a golden age that would revive the ghosts of other glorious, lower-weight round-robins (Cornelius Boza-Edwards, Rafael “Bazooka” Limon, Bobby Chacon and Rolando Navarette in the 1980s and Marco Antonio Barrera, Manny Pacquiao, Erik Morales and Juan Manuel Marquez in the 2000s).

Everyone outside the boxing power structure wants the titles to be unified and if the sanctioning bodies are ever in the mood to start unification proceedings, featherweight would be an excellent place to start.

*

The pair of 12-rounders pushed the end of the telecast past 12:30 a.m. local time and the post-fight meal ate up even more time. If I had been smart, I could have taken the sky bridge back to the hotel without having to brave the elements but instead I took the more direct route outside. The 61-degree temperature of 12 hours earlier had plummeted to 26 and the 30 mile-per-hour gusts not only cut through me like a machete but they also caused the chain attached to my credential to spin so wildly around my neck that it nearly strangled me.

Two straight days, two minor brushes with disaster. My 50s aren’t starting so well.

Worse yet, the travel math looked horrible. I was booked on the 7 a.m. flight to Charlotte, which meant I would need to catch the 5 a.m. shuttle in order to get to the airport by 5:30. I gave myself an extra half-hour to arrive at the gate because the Sunday after Thanksgiving is among the year’s busiest travel days and even with TSA Pre-Check, I suspected the lines would be longer than normal.

In order to make the shuttle, I’d have to arise at 4, just two-and-a-half hours after returning to my room. My usual winding-down process requires at least 90 minutes on most nights and even longer after working a telecast. For as long as I had already been awake to this point – more than 20 hours – it made no sense to get any real sleep because I feared sheer fatigue would cause me to miss all my time targets.

So I struck a compromise with myself: a one-hour catnap with the TV and lights on so I could at least rest my eyes. I then would start the day anew in the hopes that my normal morning habits would reset my circadian rhythm.

My plan worked to perfection. Though my eyes were bloodshot and burning, the rest of me was operating well enough. The shuttle’s occupants included all strata of fight people, including Jayson Velez and his team, one of Top Rank Promotions’ ring card girls and a couple of HBO crew members. With every passing minute, my energy level rose and by the time the van stopped by the US Airways terminal, I was feeling much better.

As expected, the lines at the check-in counter were extraordinarily long, as were the queues at the security screening area, including Pre-Checks. No worries, though; I still had plenty of time to make my flight, especially since my gate was located directly in front of the Pre-Check area.

An elderly wheelchair-bound woman called out her thanks to the group of military members half-a-dozen spots ahead of us. I noticed her clothing included West Virginia University’s “flying WV” logo, so at the first opportunity, I asked her if she was from the Mountain State. She was; in fact she lives in Vienna, just 35 miles from my hometown. Who would have guessed that I’d meet a fellow Mountaineer in the dead of night in Omaha?

I settled into my third-row window seat in first class and closed my eyes. Since I never fall fully asleep on airplanes – a quirk I have yet to shake in nearly a decade of flying – I knew the plane departed on time and landed 15 minutes early, though it took 18 more minutes to taxi to the connecting gate and several more minutes to gain permission to deplane. I then made the longest possible walk at Charlotte’s airport – outside gate E38A to Gate B15 at the other end of the property. Despite everything, I arrived a half-hour before boarding.

The Charlotte-to-Pittsburgh leg was equally uneventful – the only turbulence took place during the descent – and I got in an additional 90 minutes of valuable rest. Once I landed in Pittsburgh, I again walked the entire length of the terminal, after which I completed a fairly long walk to the car. All that helped me to reach the sharpness I needed to make the two-and-a-half hour drive home. I pulled into the driveway shortly after 4 p.m., giving me plenty of time to complete the Tyson Fury-Dereck Chisora II count for CompuBox’s ThrowDown Fantasy game and to re-record several cards from the DVR to the hard-drive recorder.

So much done and yet so much left to do. That all of it has to do with boxing is, to me, a blessing beyond measure.

The good news is that I’ll have 12 days to clear the decks, for my next trip marks a return to San Antonio. There, Showtime will kick off a tremendously busy weekend by televising a tripleheader topped by Erislandy Lara-Ishe Smith.

Until next time, 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.

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