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The Travelin’ Man returns to San Antonio- part II: tackling a ‘weighty’ issue

15
Dec

 

Photo by Stephanie Trapp

Photo by Stephanie Trapp

 

Please click here for part one



Friday, December 12 (continued): Just before ring announcer Joe Martinez read the unanimous decision for Erislandy Lara against Ishe Smith, Smith’s friend and promoter, Floyd Mayweather Jr. stood at ringside and reassured his fighter that the wide points defeat would not affect their relationship.

“Ishe, keep your head up,” he said. “I’m proud of you and I’m still with you.”

At that, Smith peered down at the pound-for-pound king and said, “I just couldn’t catch that [guy].”

That’s a common refrain for Lara’s opponents. His excellent mobility, array of defensive maneuvers, command of distance and exquisite timing leave opponents tied in knots and eating his mathematical dust. Lara’s 119-109 (twice) and 117-111 points win is reflected in the CompuBox stats, which saw Lara prevail in all three categories (124-68 overall, 29-11 jabs, 95-57 power).

Smith promised before the fight that he’d go against his defensive-minded instincts and crank up the aggression and, for the most part, he was as good as his word. He continually moved forward and blasted away at Lara’s body during those rare times he pinned him against the ropes. However, Lara’s wizardry successfully slowed the pace to his liking (47.4 punches per round for Lara, 47.7 for Smith) and turned it into the chess match he wanted. While Smith limited Lara to 22% overall and 9% jabs, the Cuban’s straight lefts, especially to the body, repeatedly hit the target while his well-placed elbows blocked the majority of Smith’s body shots. That dynamic explains the 22 percentage-point gap in power accuracy (40%-18%), the fight’s most significant statistical difference.

Lara, Mayweather and Guillermo Rigondeaux are widely regarded as the sport’s best defensive stylists and when one looks at their last five CompuBox-tracked bouts, each can claim superiority in at least one area. For example, Mayweather is the best when it comes to plus-minus ratio, which calculates the difference between his success on offense and his opponents’:

Mayweather – Total: +18.9, Jabs: +16.1, Power: +22.8

Lara – Total: +12.9, Jabs: +15.3; Power: +16.9

Rigondeaux – Total: +8.5, Jabs +3.6, Power: +19.7

Meanwhile, Rigondeaux can claim to be the toughest to hit overall (15.9% vs. 18.1% for Lara and 22.5% for Mayweather) and the hardest to strike with power shots (22.2% vs. 27.6% for Lara and 29% for Mayweather) while Lara is unquestionably the most difficult to find with jabs (6.4% vs. 10% for Rigondeaux and 16.1% for Mayweather). Since the jab is the cornerstone of most fighters’ offenses, this distinction is particularly important but given the scrum of stats, it’s tough to tell which man can claim to be the best defender of the three.

One line of demarcation is chronological: Mayweather will soon be 38 while Rigondeaux is 34 and Lara, 31. Another is the quality of opposition faced; Mayweather by far has fought the most marquee names and their level of talent results in higher Mayweather numbers on defense. One could say that had Lara and Rigondeaux fought the same level of foes as Mayweather, their numbers wouldn’t be so glitzy. The proof: Lara took 23% overall and 38% power against Alvarez, his best opponent to date, while Rigondeaux absorbed 23% overall and 30% power against a less-than-his-best version of Nonito Donaire.

So who’s the best defender of the three? Probably Rigondeaux since his percentages in all three phases add up to 48.1 as opposed to Lara’s 52.1 and Mayweather’s 55.4. But in terms of marquee value, historical standing and career purses, Mayweather is not only light years ahead; he’s several universes in front.

*

Junior middleweight Chris Pearson suffered some growing pains in February against veteran Lanardo Tyner: his first fight beyond six rounds, the second knockdown of his career and a difficult final two rounds that saw Pearson lead only 18-17 in power connects. Even worse for Pearson, his split decision win turned into a no-contest because he (and Tyner) flunked the post-fight drug test.

Despite those difficulties, Pearson’s management team felt confident enough to increase the degree of difficulty in several respects. First, instead of a grizzled veteran, Pearson faced fellow prospect Steve Martinez, who was riding a four-fight win streak since suffering his only defeat against Denis Douglin nearly three years ago. Second, despite the stamina issues he showed against Tyner in rounds seven and eight, the Martinez fight was Pearson’s first scheduled 10-rounder. Third, the shorter, older Tyner was replaced by someone only nine months older than Pearson and, at 6-foot 1, three inches taller.

The first six rounds saw Martinez set a fast pace (66.2 punches per round to Pearson’s 42.8) and in the first three stanzas, he led 52-39 overall and 46-25 power. However, Pearson stayed the course in terms of pacing – he only broke the 50-punch mark once with 51 in the seventh – and he let his superior jab and marksmanship speak for him. Pearson’s patience paid big dividends in rounds 7-10 as he outlanded the tiring Martinez 71-39 overall, 21-4 jabs and 50-35 power to sew up a commanding decision victory (98-92, 97-93 twice).

Pearson’s surge in the final four rounds powered him to a 154-135 lead in overall connects that helped him overcome Martinez’s 119-104 power connect advantage, a gap that was mostly the result of far more attempts (453-244).

Pearson’s brain trust can feel good about how its client reacted to the multiple adversities he faced against Tyner. He did a much better job of managing his energy level and the result was a stronger fighter down the stretch instead of a weaker one. He stuck to his strategic blueprint even after falling behind early and despite a career-long 287-day layoff he was the sharper fighter (35%-22% overall, 25%-10% jabs, 43%-26% power). In short, he progressed under conditions that would have caused many others to regress and for that, he and his team should be encouraged.

*

While Lara is one of boxing’s best defensive fighters, Badou Jack is among its sharpest. Against Jason Escalera on August 30, he landed 48% of his total punches, 39% of his jabs and 65% of his power-punches en route to a near-shutout 10-round decision, a very nice bounce-back from a stunning 61-second KO loss against Derek Edwards in February. But Jack outdid himself against Francisco Sierra, who he stopped in six rounds after landing 52% of his total punches, 41% of his jabs and 59% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts, far above the super middleweight norms of 31%, 22% and 38% respectively. Better yet for Jack, Sierra landed only 16% in all three phases, resulting in connect gaps of 137-43 overall, 40-22 jabs and 97-21 power.

The most alarming statistic, however, was the 27¾ pounds Sierra gained between the weigh-in and the fight – an unheard-of number. Yes, Sierra was a sub of a sub (he stepped in for Bryan Vera, who took over for Samuel Clarkson) but it is difficult to fathom how a human being could gain that much weight in such a short period of time, then ask himself to compete inside a boxing ring. The effects on Sierra were obvious; his punches were far slower than Jack’s lasers; his reflexes were nearly non-existent and his feet moved as if they were in quicksand. Only his formidable fighting spirit remained intact but even that proved to be hazardous to his health.

Sierra’s massive weight gain is, in part, the result of a protocol that has been used and abused for decades now – day-before weigh-ins.

When the boxing world adopted this practice, the intent was noble. The powers-that-be no longer wanted to see depleted boxers risking life and limb so shortly after making weight and medical studies showed that fighting too quickly after crash-dieting heightened the possibility of significant brain injury. The objective behind the new standards was to allow fighters enough time to regain the vital fluids they lost during the drying-out process, which they hoped would result in healthier fighters and the most robust competition.

It was a nice theory. But soon, boxing people figured out ways to abuse the system.

Instead of training down to a suitable weight and using the extra hours to wisely fortify their strength, fighters dried out to artificially low weights, stayed there just long enough to gain the commission’s approval, then packed on the pounds in the hopes of crushing their naturally smaller opponents. The most infamous example of this abuse occurred in February 2000 when Arturo Gatti gained 19 pounds in 27 hours to Joey Gamache’s six and the result was a second-round knockout so brutal that Gamache suffered brain damage and was forced to retire.

While some fighters benefited from the added weight, others suffered dearly for it. In November 1994, James Toney officially scaled 167 for his showdown with Roy Jones Jr. only to gain 16 pounds in eight hours. He added another pound by the time he walked into the ring but instead of the added weight giving him extra power, it robbed him of speed and mobility. As a result, a perfectly-primed Jones boxed rings around his sluggish foe and earned a lopsided win on points. Jones-Toney was a massive disappointment for those hoping to see a showdown between two of the best pound-for-pound fighters on Earth. Even worse, Toney robbed himself of a potentially career-defining victory that would have surely generated millions of dollars in future earnings. Now, two decades later, the fight is best remembered as Jones’ emergence as an elite fighter instead of a possible “Fight of the Year” candidate.

But as bad as Toney’s weight gain was, it paled in comparison to Sierra’s. The formerly 172¾-pound Mexican scaled 200 against Jack and his bulk only served to prolong the beating he absorbed. Luckily, Sierra was able to leave the ring under his own power but this scenario should serve as a wake-up call to promote positive change – such as a return to same-day weigh-ins.

During boxing’s infancy, fighters competed against each other without regard to weight but that barbarous practice ceased with the creation of weight classes designed to even the playing field. Same-day weigh-ins in championship fights worked for decades because the fighters and trainers knew how to lose poundage properly and reach a peak at the correct moment. There wasn’t enough time between the weigh-in and the first bell to gain too much weight, so featherweights fought against featherweights; lightweights fought against lightweights and so on. Nowadays, a sanctioned featherweight title fight may involve athletes who, inside the ring, are actually junior welterweights or worse, a welterweight against a lightweight. In the case of Gatti-Gamache, it was a muscular middleweight versus a slight welterweight and the final result spoke for itself.

Under today’s system, weight classes are relevant for about two minutes – the amount of time each fighter stands on the scale and has his weight announced. To me, that’s farcical. If boxing returns to same-day weigh-ins, I believe common sense and sanity in terms of weight classes and their place in the sport will be restored. And as we all know, boxing needs all the sanity it can get.

Critics will contend that the sight of weight-drained boxers being carried out on stretchers and possibly pine boxes will return if the same-day weigh-in protocol returns. My retort: Boxers and trainers are highly adaptable people. If they can operate within the day-before universe, they also will adjust to a return to the same-day world. Plus, advances in training techniques and diet over the past couple of decades should ease the process. If a fighter can’t make weight in a healthy way, even with the modern-day improvements we enjoy today, then that athlete should no longer compete in that weight class – period. That’s how it was done decades ago and that’s how it should be done now.

Sierra probably thought he was doing himself a favor by transforming himself from a light heavyweight to a heavyweight overnight. But Jack showed Sierra that he really didn’t know jack.

*

After eating a slice of post-fight pizza, I caught a ride back to the hotel with stage manager Bob Spuck and went straight to my room to begin the winding-down process. I wanted to get at least six hours of sleep so I could be fresh for tomorrow’s long travel day – and hopefully tomorrow’s productive writing session. I turned out the lights at 2:30 a.m. and hoped my mind’s hamster wheel would stop spinning.

 

Saturday, December 13: It took a while but the tactic worked. I woke up exactly when I wanted to and after getting ready for the day I caught the 10 a.m. hotel shuttle to the airport. Once I found the gate, I spent most of the time compiling some last-minute information for tonight’s HBO show in Las Vegas, then spent most of the two-and-a-half-hour flight to Charlotte reading another 100-plus pages of Mike Tyson’s autobiography. Love him or loathe him, “Iron Mike” is never boring.

Halfway through the flight, I developed a raging headache, so once I deplaned, I entered the first convenience store in sight to purchase some Advil. I asked the cashier to cut open the packaging so I could access the three sets of two-pill containers, which she did. Unfortunately, it was left to me to get to the pills and since we passengers can’t carry scissors, I resorted to using my teeth to tear it open. Why must it be such a headache to treat a headache?

I was booked to take the 5:40 p.m. flight to Pittsburgh but when I saw another available US Airways flight set for 4:30, I toyed with the idea of switching flights despite having a first-class seat waiting for me. At this point, I would have sacrificed comfort for a 70-minute head start on getting home. But alas, by the time I reached the gate for the 4:30 bird, the boarding process had already begun.

The day’s final flight proceeded smoothly but once I left the plane, I received a fresh reminder that I was in Pittsburgh in December. For someone who hates winter as much as I do, there are few events more discouraging than stepping into the jet way and seeing one’s first breath. I was happy that I only had to walk 200 steps outside to reach my car and even happier when my car started.

I spent most of the drive home listening to Christmas music on various FM stations and I arrived home precisely at 10 p.m. But my boxing-oriented day was just starting because, for the next several hours, I watched the Showtime Extreme and Showtime “Championship Boxing” cards.

There won’t be much time to whittle down my to-do list, for in four days’ time, I will begin my final trip of 2014. That will involve flying to Quebec City (through Philadelphia) to work Showtime’s quadrupleheader topped by Adonis Stevenson’s WBC light heavyweight title defense against Dmitry Sukhotsky.

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.

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