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The Travelin’ Man returns to San Antonio-part I

15
Dec

Alamodome

 

Thursday, December 11: In my 40-plus years in boxing, I have experienced plenty of jam-packed periods in terms of televised action. This stretch, however, may top them all.

If one is a U.S.-based customer of DirecTV as I am, the next three days will have 10 live or taped televised cards – ESPN2 on Thursday, CBS Sports Network and Showtime on Friday and HBO, Showtime, Showtime Extreme, beIN Sports, FOX Deportes, Azteca America and UniMas on Saturday. My Genie DVR, designed to record six programs simultaneously, couldn’t handle Saturday’s workload but thanks to the availability of West Coast feeds and repeat broadcasts, I was able to record every show. Better yet, several other cards around the globe were aired, including a Thursday card in Russia topped by Fedor Chudinov’s second-round KO of Ben McCullough, Friday shows in Argentina, Australia, Thailand and Poland as well as Saturday programs in Denmark, England, Germany and Ukraine among others. Also, TopRankTV.com streamed five fights on the Timothy Bradley-Diego Chaves undercard.



Boxing has more than its share of problems but available action on multiple platforms isn’t one of them.

Also, the glut benefited CompuBox because three separate two-man crews were pressed into action. Andy Kasprzak and I will handle Friday’s “ShoBox Special Edition” telecast in San Antonio while the teams of Joe Carnicelli/Dennis Allen and Bob Canobbio/Aris Pina will work Saturday’s dueling Las Vegas shows on Showtime and HBO, respectively. It literally was all hands on deck for us but thankfully we had enough trained fingers to address the challenge.

Because I knew about this card for nearly a month, I was able to snag very agreeable US Airways flights: a Pittsburgh-to-Charlotte bird scheduled to leave at 1:55 p.m., then, following a leisurely two-plus-hour layover, a 5:40 p.m. flight to San Antonio that would have me in town three hours later.

But while the itinerary was straightforward, the packing process was less so because I had to account for multiple climates – high-20s in early-morning West Virginia and upper-50s in mid-evening Texas. Therefore, I left the house in layers: a heavy blue-jean jacket and sweater to handle the chill and a boxing-themed T-shirt to accommodate the warm wave to come. As someone who detests winter, I could hardly wait to escape my state’s grayish gloom, even for a couple of days.

I made excellent time on my drive to Pittsburgh International Airport – light traffic helped shave 20 minutes off the usually two-and-a-half hour trip – and after passing up two empty spots in the back portion of the extended parking lot, I somehow found a vacant space just seven spots from the front. I silently reveled in my good fortune during the 90-second walk to the terminal entrance because I sensed it would be short-lived.

Of course, it was. The good news was the mildly irritating turns didn’t last long.

When I approached the TSA Pre-Check line, it wasn’t moving because, at least for a couple of minutes, that station was unstaffed. Apparently, the agents were in the midst of a shift change. Then once the fresh agent was in place, our line suddenly split into two parts and when I reached the head of my queue, I was asked to have my boarding pass checked by the staffer to his left. I shrugged my shoulders and complied.

Then as I was passing under the less sophisticated metal detector reserved for Pre-Check passengers, the beeper sounded, which struck me as strange because I had placed my keys, loose change and cell phone into the tote tray with my heavy jacket.

“Do you have anything metal in your pockets?” the TSA agent asked after directing me to back up.

“No ma’am,” I replied.

“Then it was a random beep,” she said. “You’ll have to go through the other screener.”

So, with both shoes still on, I entered the full-body scanner, put my hands above my head for three seconds and walked out without further inquiry. As always, I looked on the bright side: At least I didn’t have to unpack and repack my luggage, which was waiting for me on the conveyor belt.

As I settled into my fifth row window seat, I overheard the pilot warning us about potential, mild turbulence throughout the entire hour-plus flight but it turned out not to be. The landing was smooth and the arrival was 15 minutes earlier than advertised. The connecting gate required a walk long enough that I considered it my mid-afternoon workout and I spent the next 90 minutes tying up loose work-related ends, checking my emails and web surfing.

Thanks to my frequent trips on US Airways, I was bumped up to first class for the Charlotte-San Antonio leg. Because this flight was scheduled to last more than three hours, we were treated to a more elaborate meal than usual. Of the two options presented, I chose the beef with mustard sauce, which was accompanied by mashed potatoes, salad with ranch dressing, biscuit, a can of Coke Zero and a warm chocolate-chip cookie so gooey that it had to be eaten with a fork. Airplane food, when it is served at all, doesn’t have the best reputation but I thought this meal was well-prepared and satisfying.

That said, I had a tough time maneuvering because the 20-something seated directly in front of me in row one insisted on reclining his seat, then pressing his socked feet against the wall to move it back even further. It was quite the tight squeeze but I managed.

Earlier this week, Expedia released the results of a 1,000-person survey detailing the most annoying behaviors of fellow passengers. A sky-high (pun intended) 67% cited “rear seat kickers” as their biggest peeve while “inattentive parents” (64%), “aromatic passengers” (56%), “audio insensitive” (51%) and “boozers” (50%) followed. Given the burst of incidents triggered by serial seat recliners a few months back, I was surprised that didn’t make the list. Of those listed, I’ve experienced screaming children most often, followed by seat recliners and seat kickers, though I suspected the guy sitting next to me on this flight might have loosed some man-made methane a time or two.

The plane landed in San Antonio at 7:40, 15 minutes before the advertised time and 20 minutes before the hotel’s hourly shuttle bus was to arrive – or, at least, so I thought. Once I reached the pickup area outside the terminal, I called the Omni Colonnade to alert them of my arrival. To my slight disappointment, I was informed that 8 p.m. denoted when the shuttle left the hotel instead of when it arrived at the airport, meaning the bus would arrive at approximately 8:20. With temperatures still in the high-50s, several hours after sundown, it at least was a comfortable wait.

With some time to kill, my boxing-oriented mind contemplated the question of San Antonio’s best boxers. Five immediately sprang to mind – Jesse James Leija, Robert Quiroga, John Michael Johnson, Mike Ayala and Tony Ayala.

Quiroga was the most accomplished in terms of a sustained title reign; he won the IBF super flyweight title from Juan Polo Perez in April 1990 and defended it five times against Vuyani Nene (TKO 3), Vincenzo Belcastro (SD 12), Akeem Anifowoshe (UD 12), Carlos Mercado (UD 12) and Jose Ruiz (MD 12) before Julio Cesar Borboa took it away via 12th round TKO in January 1993. His June 1991 war with Anifowoshe (also known as Kid Akeem) deservedly won THE RING’s 1991 “Fight of the Year” award but it also was the only such fight in which one of the combatants suffered career-ending injuries. Akeem collapsed moments after the unanimous decision for Quiroga was announced and though he survived for three more years, the effects of the blood clot in his brain never cleared. Akeem was just 26 when he passed away. Quiroga too would die young, for, at 34, he was the victim of a fatal stabbing perpetrated by a member of a motorcycle gang.

Quiroga was an all-action warrior with a termite’s tenacity but the tissues around his eyes weren’t stout enough to stand up to his style. He fought four more times after the Anifowoshe war, dropping an eight-round majority decision to Ancee Gedeon despite scoring a third-round knockdown. He was only 25 when he hung up his gloves.

Mike Ayala also notched a Fight of the Year performance when he challenged WBC featherweight champion Danny “Little Red” Lopez in June 1979. At times, he boxed brilliantly and fought savagely but he also absorbed an inhuman amount of punishment – perhaps because Ayala was high on heroin at the time. Still, the 21-year-old gave the future Hall-of-Famer everything he wanted from bell to bell and thanks to an error by referee Carlos Padilla, Lopez knocked out Ayala not once but twice.

Near the end of the 11th, Ayala went down from a hook and took the count on his haunches. Ayala began to rise just as Padilla waved his arms overhead to signal the end of the bout but while Lopez and his team celebrated the apparent victory, Padilla reversed himself after Ayala’s corner, the timekeeper and the WBC representative all said Ayala had arose in time. It was a most bizarre turn of events but the fight somehow picked up where it left off in terms of sustained action. Lopez went on to stop Ayala – officially this time – in the 15th.

Ayala challenged for major titles twice more but fell victim to WBC junior featherweight king Juan “Kid” Meza (TKO by 6) in April 1985 and to Louie Espinoza (KO by 9) for the WBA strap in August 1987. He did end his career on a positive note as he notched wins against Victor Navarro (TKO 5) and Lee Cargle (UD 10) in November 1990 and April 1991 respectively.

As good as Mike Ayala was on his best day, his younger brother, Tony was a superstar in the making in the early 1980s. Along with Bobby Czyz, Johnny Bumphus and Alex Ramos, Ayala was part of the “Tomorrow’s Champions” clique that was prominently featured on NBC during the early 1980s and of the four, “El Torito” was the most explosive as he splattered opponents with deadly left hooks. Not yet 20, Ayala was on a collision course for 1983 showdowns with Roberto Duran and then-WBA junior middleweight titlist Davey Moore. More than a few experts believed the prospect with the 21-0 (18) record had what it took to beat both. His potential was that brilliant.

Unfortunately for Ayala, he was even more violent outside the ring than he was in it. On New Year’s Day 1983, Ayala broke into the home of a New Jersey woman, then tied her up and raped her. Ayala was sentenced to 15-35 years in prison and it appeared his meteoric career was at an end. However, once he was released in 1999, after serving a little less than half the maximum sentence, the 36-year-old launched a comeback. Though he showed glimmers of his previous skills against his overmatched foes, Ayala no longer had enough to climb the mountain. Former 154-pound titlist Yori Boy Campas stopped Ayala in eight, then, following four wins, Anthony Bonsante’s 11th round TKO in April 2003 brought down the curtain on Ayala’s career.

Leija, who was born “James” but added “Jesse” to his ring moniker in honor of his father/trainer, epitomized steadiness both in and out of the ring. Leija didn’t possess immense power or overwhelming talent in any one area but the package of talents resulted in excellence. He went 47-7-2 (19) during his 17-year career, notching victories over Azumah Nelson (twice), Steve McCrory, Jesus Poll, Troy Dorsey, Louie Espinoza, Jeff Mayweather, Joel Perez (twice) and Ivan Robinson. When he lost, it was usually to far more talented fighters such as Oscar De La Hoya (who, at lightweight, towered over Leija), Gabriel Ruelas, Shane Mosley and Kostya Tszyu. Nelson holds a victory over Leija, as do Juan Lazcano and Arturo Gatti but even in the later stages of his career, he was able to push prospects into unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory. That asset was most conspicuous in July 2001 when Leija met the 32-0 Hector Camacho Jr.

The son of the “Macho Man” built an early lead with his speedy southpaw skills but an accidental butt halfway through round five opened a slice over the youngster’s right eye. Upon returning to his corner, Camacho Jr. immediately declared “I can’t see” and wanted the fight to be stopped even after referee Steve Smoger called for round six to start. Many thought Camacho Jr. attempted to game the system to get a technical decision win but though he was ahead on all scorecards the result ended up being a no-contest. While Leija went on to get high-profile fights with Micky Ward, Tszyu and Gatti, Camacho Jr., who, at 36, remains active, never regained the gloss he carried into the ring against Leija 13 years before.

Johnson is best known for his monstrous title-winning upset of then-WBA bantamweight titlist Junior Jones, who, like Camacho Jr. against Leija, came into the ring with a glistening 32-0 record and the air of potential stardom. His 11th round TKO victory took place just before another earth-shaking surprise: Michael Moorer’s off-the-floor majority decision over Evander Holyfield. Johnson’s time at the top lasted less than three months as Thailand’s Daorung Chuvatana scored a first-round TKO before Chuvatana’s home fans. Many thought Johnson’s career was finished after losing a 12-rounder to Angel Chacon in October 2002. But Johnson had another surprise in store as he dropped dozens of pounds, returned to the ring at age 45 in November 2013 and won a four-rounder against journeyman Steve Trumble. This past September, the 46-year-old put on a credible but losing performance against Ricardo Alvarez on a card nationally televised on FOX Sports 1.

Most may associate San Antonio for the Alamo, the Riverwalk and the NBA champion Spurs but its boxing history is also noteworthy. And for the second time in a month, the Alamodome will play host to a card televised on premium cable as Erislandy Lara meets Ishe Smith; Christopher Pearson duels with Steve Martinez and Badou Jack battles sub-of-a-sub Francisco Sierra.

*

The shuttle arrived a few minutes earlier than expected and I spent most of the 10-minute trip providing a primer on boxing’s scoring system to my young and curious, Scottish-born driver. Upon reaching the Omni’s registration desk, I was told that my original room on the 19th floor might be within earshot of a scheduled Saturday night Christmas party one floor above that would feature a potentially loud deejay. I figured that since the Showtime crew would be at the Alamodome for most of the evening, I’d be safe but that issue was rendered moot when a room on the fifth floor was found and secured.

I arrived in the room just 20 minutes before the start of ESPN2’s marathon quadrupleheader topped by Antonio Tarver’s seventh round TKO over Johnathon Banks and marred by Oscar Escandon’s highly questionable split decision over Tyson Cave. Moments after the show went off the air, I retired for the evening.

Friday, December 12: For me, the day began after five-and-a-half hours of solid slumber and 90 more minutes of tossing and turning. After spending much of the morning tending to my writing responsibilities, I sent a text to production coordinator Nikki Ferry. The issue: how punch-counting colleague Andy Kasprzak and I were to get to the Alamodome. A few minutes later, she provided my ride’s name (ace cameraman Gene Samuels) and his contact information. Since all of our call times were at 2 p.m., we agreed to meet in the lobby at 1:30.

All parties arrived on time and arrived at the venue on time. After Andy and I helped Gene unload his equipment, we found our ringside work station and successfully completed our pre-card electronic checks. Gene, Andy and I arrived at Meeting Room A – the site of our crew meal – precisely at the scheduled 4 p.m. start. During most shows, several dozen crew members already would be dining but this time, the three of us were the only ones present for at least 10 minutes. The silence was unsettling so we did our best to fill the air with words while we waited for the others to arrive. When they did, the experience returned to normal.

The Mexican-themed menu – as well as the cake for dessert – was delicious and by 5:30, I was back at ringside to begin the evening’s work. Andy and I didn’t count the first three fights of the nine-fight bill – Juan Heraldez’s two-round KO over Eric Butler, Ladarius Miller’s four-round points win over James Burns and Lanell Bellows’ third round TKO against Rahman Yusubov – but we tracked the next three fights involving Andrew Tabiti, Ronald Gavril and Ashley Theophane because we felt we might be seeing them in future TV bouts.

All three A-siders delivered. Tabiti blasted out Ernest Reyna in round one, as did Gavril against late-sub Jose Rodriguez. Theophane was particularly impressive in outpointing rugged Miguel Zuniga over 10 rounds because the Mexican kept coming at him despite absorbing a tremendous beating. Averaging 84.1 punches per round to Zuniga’s 71.4, Theophane landed 357 times to Zuniga’s 177, including a 300-124 bulge in power connects. Moreover, Theophane was on point from start to finish as he landed 42% of his total punches and 50% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts while taking just 25% in both categories from Zuniga. Yes, Theophane has below-average power in relation to his peers (11 knockouts in his 37-6-1 record) but effective boxing is effective boxing.

When Theophane and Zuniga exited the ring, they set the stage for the televised portion of the card to start.

*

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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