The Travelin’ Man goes to Boston-part II
Saturday, May 23 (continued): Early on, it appeared James DeGale’s attempt to become the first British Olympic gold medalist to win a major professional boxing title was going off the rails. Following a tight, tense, first round that saw Andre Dirrell outland DeGale 6-3 overall, the American amplified his advantage by opening a cut over the Briton’s right eye. That, and the mouse created from it, presented a troubled picture.
It wasn’t as if DeGale didn’t have enough challenges on his plate. First, he was fighting for the IBF super middleweight title vacated by countryman Carl Froch in February. Second, he was competing on American soil for the first time in his pro career and the US just happened to be the home country of his opponent. Third, DeGale was looking to continue the UK’s rich legacy at 168, one that included Welshman Joe Calzaghe, Scotland’s Murray Sutherland (the inaugural IBF champion) and England’s Froch, Glenn Catley, Robin Reid, Richie Woodhall, Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank. Add the WBO reign of Ireland’s Steve Collins and the weight of history grew even heavier. Finally, he was facing Dirrell, whose only loss was a disputed split decision to Froch in “The Cobra’s” hometown of Nottingham and who possessed a unique fusion of ambidextrous speed and power. Through the first five-and-a-half minutes of action, Dirrell, who, like DeGale, was an Olympic medalist (bronze in 2004), had established the necessary foundation for eventual victory.
But with 25 seconds remaining in the round, DeGale turned the fight with a massive out-of-nowhere overhand left that left Dirrell sprawled on the canvas. Upon rising at three, the chagrined Dirrell’s eyes still appeared bright and alert. With immortality staring him in the face, DeGale pursued it with another left that snapped Dirrell’s head and crumpled his legs. The extra left while Dirrell was on a knee certainly didn’t help the American’s cause either. Within seconds, a round that was fated to be 10-9 for Dirrell now was 10-7 for DeGale – and had there been a few more ticks remaining, DeGale might have transformed its fate from a judicial one to an alphabetical one: TKO. The bell, however, saved Dirrell from that disastrous result.
After his assault narrowed Dirrell’s connect lead in the round to 12-11, the title appeared to be all but his. But for whatever reason – perhaps a fear of emptying the gas tank too early or maybe his cerebral ring temperament – DeGale lifted his foot off the accelerator in round three as he threw just 33 punches, allowing Dirrell to regain his equilibrium and set the stage for a fourth round that saw the American prevail 11-8 after DeGale threw only 22 punches to Dirrell’s 30. DeGale’s undulating pattern repeated itself several times, a trait that, if uncorrected, will lead to future disaster. After DeGale enjoyed his best statistical round in the sixth (16 of 46 to Dirrell’s 6 of 51), he allowed Dirrell to out-land him 8-7 in the seventh because he threw just 18 punches to Dirrell’s 54. DeGale surged again in the eighth as he threw 43 punches and led 17-16 but, in the ninth, he slumped to 22 punches thrown and enabled Dirrell to grab a 11-7 lead in total connects.
Therefore, although DeGale still had those two knockdowns in his back pocket, the stats remained extremely close. Through 10 rounds, DeGale held a slim 97-96 lead in total connects while the NBC broadcast crew of Kenny Rice, BJ Flores and Sugar Ray Leonard believed the momentum was squarely with Dirrell. With the result still in the balance, it was up to one man or the other to step forward and claim his legacy.
That man turned out to be DeGale. In what is now termed “the championship rounds” of 11 and 12, DeGale was more willing to let his hands go and to move in more aggressively while the tiring Dirrell, his face bloodied and raw, regularly glanced at the clock during the clinches. DeGale’s initiative paid off handsomely as he did just enough to earn a 114-112 lead on two scorecards (the other judge saw the fight a puzzlingly wide 117-109) as well as the IBF belt.
In statistical terms, DeGale’s 18-15 edge in the final two rounds enabled him to secure a 115-111 lead in total connects powered by an 83-65 bulge in landed power shots. The numbers reflected the chess-game nature of the bout (Dirrell’s 40.7 punches per round and DeGale’s 33.3 were well below the 54.1 super middleweight average), their defensive prowess (DeGale led 29%-23% overall, 23%-16% jabs and trailed 33%-32% power) and DeGale’s more fervent desire to engage (Dirrell threw more jabs than power shots – 290 vs. 198 while DeGale threw 262 power punches against 138 jabs). That latter trait, along with the two knockdowns, was why the man nicknamed “Chunky” (as a child) has now picked up a new moniker – “Champ.”
In an unusual programming move, the first two rounds of the Edwin Rodriguez-Craig Baker bout were aired on NBC while the third and final round was seen on NBC Sports Network, its basic cable counterpart. But that was where the atypical stopped, for Rodriguez used his customary high volume to break down and eventually stop Baker in a stoppage that was, to be kind, curiously timed. Though Baker wasn’t answering back (Rodriguez did out-throw Baker 20-2 and out-land him 10-0 in the fight’s final 22 seconds), he had his hands high and had enough control of his body to roll his torso while maintaining his guard. The ending left most scratching their heads but, in this day and age of extreme focus on ring safety, it wasn’t an uncharacteristic stoppage.
That said, Baker did have a history of bouncing back from difficult moments. In fact, his career-defining two-round TKO over Humberto Savigne – the fight that earned him this chance against Rodriguez – Baker absorbed heavy punishment in round one before suddenly lowering the boom in the next round. We’ll never know whether Baker would have launched a similar rally against Rodriguez but the best referees take into account a fighter’s past when making the call to stop a fight. In their eyes, fighters like Arturo Gatti, Matthew Saad Muhammad and Kelvin Seabrooks were given far more rope than most because of their extraordinary comeback capacities and those fighters rewarded that faith with genuine ring classics. Not everyone deserves that kind of consideration but, in my opinion, the special ones do.
Rodriguez, for his part, led all the way in terms of punches thrown (100-36 in round one, 82-49 in the second and 83-33 in the third) and punches landed (31-9, 23-14, 28-12) as well as boasting a 46%-24% lead in power percentage. Interestingly, Baker tied Rodriguez at 16 in jab connects despite throwing far fewer (40 vs. 122).
Danny O’Connor was supposed to fight Paul Malignaggi on May 29 but “The Magic Man’s” cut over the left eye during training forced the southpaw to change his plans. Instead, he faced New Hampshire-based Vermonter Chris Gilbert, a tough-minded aggressor that was proved to be well-suited for O’Connor’s speed and precision. O’Connor’s needle-sharp blows quickly reddened Gilbert’s face and the power of his body punches belied the modest .333 knockout percentage. Two such blows produced knockdowns in round two (though the second, which caused Gilbert to yell in agony, was ruled a push by the referee) and after a push was ruled a knockdown in round three, O’Connor scored two more knockdowns in the fifth to close the show. O’Connor piled up a 36-10 lead in body connects en route to massive leads of 109-29 overall, 45-11 jabs and 64-18 power, which included a 46%-12% gap in power percentage.
The final fight of the night saw Jonathan Guzman extend his record to 19-0 (19) with a fifth round KO over Mexican veteran Christian Esquivel, now 27-7 (20). The main storyline surrounding this fight was whether Guzman’s knockout record was genuine or built on the backs of opponents who had extremely bad records. After all, 12 of his 18 previous victims had two or fewer wins on their records, including eight who were winless. On the positive side, his last two opponents – the 22-4 Juan Guzman and the 17-12 Ernesto Guerrero – also fell to his fists but after looking at the Juan Guzman fight on YouTube, it appeared his knockouts were more the result of attrition than of genuine one-punch power.
Despite going 3-4 in his last seven fights – with all the losses coming by KO – Esquivel was far and away the most seasoned opponent Jonathan Guzman had yet faced. His slide began four years ago when he suffered an 11th round TKO to Shinsuke Yamanaka for the then-vacant WBC bantamweight title (a belt Yamanaka still holds) and since then, he scored wins against the 28-4-4 Jesus Ruiz (UD 12), the 8-3 Ricardo Roman (TKO 7) and the 20-12-2 Javier Franco (TKO 2), much better fighters than Guzman had faced to this point. The other three defeats came to former WBC flyweight king Malcolm Tunacao (TKO by 7), the 11-0 Shohei Omori (KO by 4) and the 19-0-1 Edivaldo Ortega (KO by 3). The last two came in his two most recent outings. Thus, Guzman had the canvas by which to prove his power.
Guzman showed he was no mad bomber as he sprinkled in power shots behind a technically sound and patient offense. He worked carefully for his openings and pounced only when he perceived the opportunity to strike – and not a moment sooner. Esquivel actually out-landed Guzman 20-15 in an active round one that saw Guzman throw 84 punches to Esquivel’s 77. But it was clear from the start that Guzman’s blows carried far more power and, from round two onward, that allowed the Dominican to gradually grind down the veteran. After hurting Esquivel several times, the Mexican’s corner wisely called a halt between rounds five and six. Averaging 76.8 punches per round to Esquivel’s 75.2, Guzman prevailed 104-75 overall and 81-47 power to offset Esquivel’s 28-23 edge in landed jabs. The key to Guzman’s win was his 43%-22% bulge in power accuracy, which only enhanced the effects of his shot-for-shot superiority.
It was an impressive performance by Guzman but to me, based on this performance and that against Juan Guzman, he will score most of his knockouts the way he did in Boston – methodically, intelligently and opportunistically.
Because I lingered at ringside to talk with Freeman and Tobey, I missed out on the post-fight pizza confab, so I grabbed a Diet Coke and three mini-Hershey bars and began the long walk back to the hotel. Although I completed the walk with hardly a hitch, I couldn’t say the same for my laptop bag. Less than five minutes away from the hotel, the pin broke on one of the extended handles that allow me to wheel the bag instead of carry it. Because I need to bring two laptops on every trip, using the wheels had been a Godsend and I dreaded the prospect of having to lug it all the way back to my car once I land in Pittsburgh. With that, the shopping list for my next trip just grew by one item.
After returning to my room and shipping off the stat files to my bosses, I bought a Caesars salad from the lobby’s market and happily munched away while watching the NFL Network’s “America’s Team” Memorial Day Weekend marathon. Shortly before 11:30 p.m., in the middle of the 1988 San Francisco 49ers profile, I drifted off to the point where I had to switch off the lights.
Sunday, May 24: My eyes snapped awake a bit after 5 a.m. but I chose to snooze an extra half-hour before officially beginning this day. After getting ready for the day, I spent the next several hours tapping out the cascade of words that flowed from my fertile mind. By 9:30 a.m., I had reached an excellent stopping point and, at that point, I checked out of the hotel and secured the cab that would take me to Logan International Airport.
Once I breezed through security and settled into my gate, I finished my work and readied myself for the Boston-to-Pittsburgh leg of my journey home.
By the time I spotted my third row aisle seat, my window counterpart had already taken his place. His big-and-tall frame encroached well past the invisible dividing line between seats but I compensated by angling my upper body slightly back and to the right. I was prepared to maintain this somewhat uncomfortable position for the entire flight – why bring undue attention to a person’s gargantuan size – but then I received a stroke of good fortune. When it became clear that everyone had boarded, one of the flight attendants, noticing that both seats in row two were unoccupied, approached me and said, “You can move up a row if you’d like.”
“Oh, OK,” I said casually. “Thanks.” Inside, I was relieved. I didn’t want to move up on my own and risk offending my seatmate, so I was hoping that the flight attendant would be sharp enough to give me an “out” where everyone’s dignity would be preserved. Thankfully she was.
Other than some mid-trip turbulence the flight was uneventful and, despite a somewhat late departure, we landed in Pittsburgh 15 minutes ahead of schedule, thanks to a shortcut for which the pilot received permission. Still dreading the potential long walk back to my car, I stopped at a couple of stores inside the airport to see if I could buy a new laptop bag on the spot.
I bought my current bag last May for $74.19, so I was hoping to spend around that for its replacement. The first store had a similar bag in stock, but when I asked for the price he said $179.99 plus tax. When I demurred, he advised that I check out the second store, which was less than 200 feet away. It, too, had a bag in stock but its price tag was a whopping $799. It took everything I had to keep a straight face before politely thanking the salesperson for her time.
Resigned to my fate, I caught the tram back to the “unsecured” portion of the airport and began walking toward the exit. As I did so, however, I glanced down and to my right and spotted the parking shuttle bus for the extended lot waiting for passengers. Since I had never used the bus before this trip, I didn’t know where the pick-up point was located. I hustled down the escalator, boarded the bus and asked the driver to include 19C on his list of stops. After stopping at 9F and 11U, I was the only passenger left, so I moved toward the front of the vehicle and chatted with the driver until we reached my destination. Me being me, I told the story of my broken bag and made sure to thank him for sparing me a very strenuous walk.
The two-and-a-half-hour drive home was enjoyable, thanks to the series of FM classic rock stations I programmed into the radio and I pulled into the driveway shortly before 5 p.m. I spent the rest of the evening watching/recording two of the nine boxing shows I had programmed into the DVR.
The vast majority of my trips are for business but my next scheduled sojourn will be purely for pleasure – my 23rd consecutive appearance at the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s Induction Weekend. Because several friends will be among the honorees, it will be a particularly enjoyable adventure. Needless to say, I can hardly wait for it to begin.
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 13 writing awards, including 10 in the last five 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.