The Travelin’ Man goes to Houston: Part two
Friday, Dec. 11 (continued): When I heard over the headsets that Brooklyn-based Russian Ivan Baranchyk had once scored a knockout in three seconds (Angel Figueroa on June 20), I was reminded of a fight that took place more than 18 years earlier that would have ended the same way had a count not been applied – Jimmy Thunder’s thunderous one-punch KO over Crawford Grimsley on USA’s “Tuesday Night Fights” in March 1997.
The two fighters walked toward each other and, even before USA’s cameras had time to cut away from the close-up of Grimsley to a long shot of the ring, Thunder had landed the one and only punch – a right to the jaw. The blow instantly anesthetized Grimsley and the referee, onetime fighter Monte Oswald, opted to count over him. Under today’s safety-first sensibilities, this fight probably would have been waved off instantly, just three seconds after the opening bell. Instead, the official time was 13 seconds, still among the quickest in boxing history but somewhat less historic than it could have been.
Baranchyk took a comparatively geologic 148 seconds to finish off Shadi Shawareb, a late sub for Andrew Ruiz. The change in opponents was, at best, a lateral move for Baranchyk, for the 9-0-2 Shawareb had a similar record to the 9-0 Ruiz, and, like Ruiz, his ledger had been built on sub-par competition (Ruiz’s nine pro opponents were a combined 21-37-5 while Shawareb’s were 25-43-4). Two more factors that made Shawareb an even longer shot: He was coming off a career-long 146-day layoff and was fighting outside Oklahoma for the first time. Those facts, combined with Baranchyk’s pedigree, led many to predict a quick ending, an ending that came to pass.
Statistically speaking, Baranchyk was 27 of 50 overall (54%), 7 of 15 jabs (57%) and 20 of 35 in power shots (57%) while Shawareb was 11 of 85 overall (13%), 4 of 44 jabs (9%) and 7 of 41 in power punches (17%). Based on his high output, Shawareb tried his best to win but the gulfs in talent and power simply were too wide, even without the hiatus. As for Baranchyk, he appears, at least at this point in his career, to have “heavy hands” and I look forward to seeing more from him in 2016.
Boxing has long been a sport in which contests can be turned by a single punch and the middleweight clash between Steed Woodall and Steve Rolls further proved that truism. Following a relatively even first two rounds (Woodall led 26-25 overall and 14-10 jabs while Rolls earned a 15-12 edge in landed power shots), Woodall seemingly took command of the fight 75 seconds into the third when he landed a cuffing hook to the ear and sent the off-balance Rolls to the floor. Rolls tried to convince referee Laurence Cole that he had tripped over Woodall’s leg (the replay proved he didn’t) but if there was any question about his state, it was confirmed moments later when Woodall’s next landed punch, this time a right, caused him to totter sideways toward the ropes. Woodall maintained his advantage for the rest of the round, a round that saw him out-land Rolls 21-9 overall, 8-3 jabs and 13-6 power. As he walked toward the corner following the round-ending bell, Rolls knew he had to find a way to reverse matters – and quickly.
As Woodall continued to move forward behind double jabs, he did so with his left hand at chest level. A little more than a minute into the round, Rolls began to find his timing with the right hand. At first, they landed with relative softness but, as the seconds rolled past, they started to connect with more force. After Rolls’ second powerful cross, Woodall began to initiate clinches.
“Steve, he’s hurt; keep bombing him,” someone from Rolls’ corner shouted and, a split-second later, Rolls landed his hardest right yet. With 22 seconds remaining in the round, Rolls connected with yet another lead right but, this time, it was followed by a blurring barrage of hooks and crosses that had Woodall reeling along the ropes. Referee Cole instantly recognized Woodall’s plight and he didn’t hesitate to intervene – and rightfully so. Rolls was on such a roll, however, that he managed to land one last left to the jaw, the last connect on what would be a 25 of 65 effort (38%) to Woodall’s 5 of 32 (16%) in the round.
Rolls’ surge enabled him to take the lead in overall connects (59-52) and power shots (43-28), negating Woodall’s 24-16 edge in landed jabs.
One of the most difficult decisions a chief second will ever face is when he should concede defeat and pull his battered fighter out of a match. In sports, as in life, the natural urge is to press forward, even if the cause appears irreversibly lost. That’s because history is replete with examples of miraculous reversals and, in boxing, in which a fight instantly can be turned by the next landed punch, a handful of fighters have crafted Hall of Fame careers based on their extraordinary recuperative powers. Matthew Saad Muhammad, Arturo Gatti and, though not in the Hall, Kelvin Seabrooks, repeatedly thrilled fans with their Lazarus-like comebacks and the memories of their heroics are what drive other athletes to try and duplicate their deeds and, in part, trainers to give them the green light to pursue them.
But there are some fights that can’t be salvaged. The vast majority of boxers can’t be relied upon to gracefully concede because of (1) the mindset that they either already have inside them or, for others, is drilled into them from the first day they step inside a gym and (2) the public backlash that usually follows (“quitter,” “bum” and “overrated” are the mildest critiques). Thus it is the chief second’s job to recognize the situation and then take action, putting the fighter’s well-being over the quixotic pursuit of victory.
The most famous example of a chief second’s compassion was when Eddie Futch stopped the “Thrilla in Manila” between rounds 14 and 15 despite his strong belief that his fighter, Joe Frazier, was still winning (he wasn’t; the judges had Ali well ahead). In that moment, Futch proved his extraordinary technical prowess was exceeded by his humanity. Five years later, Futch’s “Thrilla” counterpart, Angelo Dundee, famously – and passionately – argued with Drew “Bundini” Brown moments before pulling an aged Ali out against a prime Larry Holmes. “I’m the chief second,” Dundee yelled to referee Richard Greene. “I stop the fight!” Ali and Frazier’s legendary reputations weren’t affected by their acquiescence to Dundee and Futch, respectively, and the trainers weren’t negatively branded either. In fact, they were hailed.
The final two fights of this “ShoBox” quadruple-header offered a stark contrast in terms of how a pair of chief seconds handled a similar situation. Undefeated lightweight Bryant Cruz built a big early lead against late-sub Dardan Zenunaj, thanks to his incredible volume (106.3 per round in the first three rounds) and fluid combination punching but the Belgium-based native of Kosovo patiently walked through the fire and continued to apply heavy physical and mental pressure. Zenunaj’s stoic relentlessness paid off 75 seconds into the fourth when a hook to the side of the head suddenly floored Cruz. When referee Sam Garza asked Cruz if he was all right, the fighter said brightly, “Sure, I’ll show you.” And, at least in terms of activity level, he did show Garza (and everyone else) as he maintained his 106-punch-per-round pace in rounds 5-7. But from that knockdown onward, Cruz, with blood collecting inside his mouth, had the look of a man trying to hold back an avalanche – and the cramped confines of the 16-foot ring only made his situation worse and Zenunaj’s better.
Zenunaj and his corner recognized that while Cruz remained active, his strength was ebbing thanks to their fighter’s robust body shots. I saw the same dynamic unfolding as I was tracking Cruz’s activity. The previously wide statistical gaps close considerably in the sixth (Zenunaj trailed 32-30 overall) and exploded in his favor in the seventh as he went 40 of 101 overall to Cruz’s 24 of 95. The last minute was particularly telling as Zenunaj fired with gusto (his corner yelled, “He wants a way out; give it to him”) while Cruz, his mouth now hanging open, pushed his punches instead of snapping them as he had in earlier rounds.
In the round’s waning moments, Zenunaj connected with a flush, three-punch combination that drove Cruz to the canvas for the second time. Cruz took the eight-count on one knee and his snappy “Yes, sir” indicated that his verbal skills remained intact. But just as Futch did with Frazier, Cruz’s chief second, Ronnie Shields, saw the bigger picture; he looked into Cruz’s immediate future and anticipated career-changing disaster if he didn’t act immediately.
As soon as he climbed into the ring, Shields looked into Cruz’s eyes and said, “I’m going to stop it.” Cruz, though disappointed, did not argue. But Shields went a step further. He not only stopped the fight; he also tried to heal the hurt by telling him why he stopped it but doing so in such a way that did not diminish his fighter’s bravery or his self-respect.
“You did all you could do, baby,” Shields said. “I cannot let you go out there and get hurt; you understand? You did the best you can, baby. Look, it’s part of boxing. I can’t let you sit there and take punishment. It’s one of them days, baby.”
The final statistics were heavily in Cruz’s favor (237-177 overall, 65-39 jabs, 172-138 power) but only because Cruz threw so many more overall punches (754-555) and jabs (345-152). But the power punch output was razor-close (409-403 Cruz) and the 36-18 bulge in Zenunaj’s favor in round seven, along with the late knockdown, told Shields all he needed to know. To him, it didn’t matter that Cruz would lose his undefeated record via TKO and that his charge would take a step back in terms of his career trajectory. Shields saw that the momentum was clearly with Zenunaj and his act indicated that he didn’t believe Cruz had the punching power or the necessary energy to hold off his bigger and stronger opponent for much longer. In short, Shields put his fighter’s future well-being ahead of short-term business concerns and, for that, he not only should be congratulated, he should be praised – and emulated.
Jesus Ramos, the chief second of junior welterweight Abel Ramos, faced a similar situation during the second half of his fighter’s crossroads match against sensational prospect and adopted hometown favorite Prograis, a Houston-based native of New Orleans. Prograis’ southpaw stance and mercurial hand speed created a gradually growing statistical lead in the first four rounds (66-37 overall, 23-13 jabs, 43-24 power) but, from round five onward, the gulf separating the two widened considerably. In the fifth, Prograis’ combinations opened cuts under and over the left eye while an accidental butt created a third slice on the scalp. From there, Prograis dramatically upped his work rate (from 70.2 over the first five to 93.3 over the final three) and out-landed him 126-24 overall and 116-18 power over the same stretch.
After his charge was battered in round six (50-11 overall, 47-8 power), Jesus Ramos indicated, though the translation of Raul Marquez, that he was thinking of stopping the fight but would give him one more round on the condition that he would try to throw more punches and to “throw them hard.” Threatening to stop a fight is a motivational tactic that has occurred innumerable times throughout the years and is a gambit generally accepted in boxing.
But nothing changed in the seventh as Abel Ramos mustered 8 of 54 overall to Prograis’ 37 of 102. This time, when Ramos, the fighter, returned to the corner, his trainer changed course. Instead of making good on his threat to stop the fight if nothing changed, he said, “You got three rounds left,” meaning he would allow the fight to go the full route – if the fighter could stand it. Not only that, Marquez translated the trainer as saying, “You’re doing good,” – not once but twice.
This was the point in which Jesus Ramos crossed the line that Shields wouldn’t. It was clear to virtually everyone that while his fighter had unlimited bravery and fighting spirit, he no longer had the physical capacity to reverse the massive momentum Prograis created for himself. Prograis now was in full flight, firing and landing combinations at will and delivering the kind of sustained punishment that prematurely drain primes. But Ramos, the trainer, apparently saw something in Ramos, the fighter, that no one else did and, by allowing him to come out for round eight, he was gambling that those assets would somehow rise to the surface. Much as Ramos, the fighter, tried to summon those assets, they never came close to manifesting themselves. Prograis was simply that good and Ramos was simply that eroded.
Several ringsiders called for the fight to be stopped, some audibly and some (in my case) silently. Then, between rounds eight and nine, mercy finally (but reluctantly) took hold when Ramos, the fighter, said he could no longer see out of the left eye. But, even then, it appeared there was much hesitation in pulling the trigger, for Ramos, the trainer, first tried to find out whether the record would show the defeat as a technical decision loss due to an accidental butt or a cut-induced TKO. Then, the inspector requested that the corner ask the fighter if he wanted to “try one more time?” Only when the fighter shook his head “no” was the fight finally stopped. It shouldn’t have been so complicated.
One can speculate about the possible motivations behind the chief second’s behavior – the loss of his fighter’s undefeated record, the damage to his career path, the automatic medical suspension that comes with a TKO loss and/or the severe cut, the pride-damaging sting of defeat for the team – but his prime directive should have been his fighter’s safety and nothing else.
Barry Tompkins spoke for many (including myself) when he said, in round eight, “I think they’re really putting their fighter at risk and I just think it’s flat-out wrong.” And it was.
Only the passage of time will reveal how much long-term damage was inflicted to Abel Ramos. At 24, he is still chronologically young and hopefully, after a suitable convalescence, he’ll be able to bounce back. That’s the best-case scenario. But other similarly young fighters were never the same, like the 23-year-old Meldrick Taylor after his punishing first loss to Julio Cesar Chavez or the 22-year-old Fernando Vargas after his brutal contest with Felix Trinidad. Granted, Taylor’s and Vargas’ fights against Chavez and Trinidad were far more competitive (Chavez-Taylor I was named “Fight of the Year” by THE RING) but they do serve as proof that suffering a sustained beating during a loss can lead to the ruination of young fighters, even elite ones.
By his actions, Shields showed yet another reason why he is considered among the best trainers in the game. He is someone whose priorities are in order. Let’s hope Ramos can learn from Shields’ example.
I drove Aris back to the hotel and, thanks again to his GPS, we arrived at the hotel without much trouble (I added the word “much” because of the two left turns in my immediate vicinity. I chose the wrong one, lengthening my drive by about five minutes). After saying our goodbyes, I bought a snack from the lobby mini-store, completed some CompuBox-related tasks and turned out the lights shortly after 1:30 a.m.
Saturday, Dec. 12: My nearly five-hour slumber was much more restful this time and my mental alarm awakened me at 6:15 a.m., 15 minutes before my goal time. After getting ready for the day, I checked out of my room, settled the hotel bill, found my car on the fifth floor of the parking garage and drove away at 7:30.
The signage on Interstates 610 and 45 was so good, in terms of guiding me toward the airport, that I didn’t even need my GPS (which didn’t “find” me anyway). After dropping off the rental car, I took the bus to the terminal but, in Houston, the TSA Pre-Check line only offered partial benefits; while I walked under a simple metal detector with my shoes on, I still had to dig out my laptops and place them inside separate trays, a process I feared slowed the queue.
I had intended to get some writing done while awaiting my 10:20 a.m. flight to Charlotte but, as usual, I ended up engaging in enjoyable conversation with people in the area. An athletic-looking African-American noticed my “Eat, Sleep, Breathe Boxing” IBHOF T-shirt – an effective ice-breaker I’ve found – and, in just a few seconds’ time, I learned his identity: 7-1 (2) Houston fighter Nelson Ramos, who told me he had fought on the undercard of a Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. (he cited the Andy Lee bout but it actually was the brutal 12-round win over John Duddy) and that he affixed the first loss on Tyrone Selders’ record in Oct. 2010. He hadn’t fought since May 2014 (a four-round unanimous decision win over Keyon Thomas at cruiserweight, nearly 30 pounds more than in his previous fight nearly three years earlier) but he said he was pondering a ring return at some undetermined point in the future.
As much as I enjoyed the conversation I didn’t get any work done – and I probably wouldn’t get a chance to write for the rest of the day, given the short turnaround time between flights and the two-and-a-half hour drive home.
My 15th row seatmates on the Houston-to-Charlotte leg were an interesting lot: In the center seat was a woman from Houston who works as a paramedic/firefighter, while the man seated on the window was a native of Cleveland who had fully assimilated himself – mind and soul – to his adopted hometown of Philadelphia.
When I asked the woman about common mistakes people make, she cited calling 911 for the wrong reason.
“Some people call an ambulance to take them to the hospital for a headache even though they have four cars in the garage,” she said. “You can pay the $500 to do that but why? You can drive yourself and save the money while also freeing up the ambulance.”
Unlike the shaky outbound flight two days ago, this journey was free of turbulence and the plane landed in Charlotte quickly enough for me to make my fairly narrow connection window. I needed just about every minute because, as was the case on Thursday, my connecting gate (this time E-32) was among the group of gates at the end of the concourse. I was assigned row 25 on the aisle but, because I had no seatmate, I eventually moved to the window so I could rest my head as well as my eyes. That process also was made easier by the smooth air throughout the flight, which landed a few minutes past 4 p.m.
With the temperature in the mid-60s I left my windbreaker jacket inside the laptop bag and instead enjoyed the unexpected December heat wave as I walked toward my car. After making a couple of phone calls, I began the two-and-a-half hour drive home.
I pulled into the driveway at 7:15 but while a pile of work awaited my attention, none of it required me to finish it right away. Instead, I spent the evening relaxing and recuperating from the long journey. While several shows were being recorded on the DVR, I watched TyC’s live broadcast from Buenos Aires topped by a ShoBox-like match between the 13-0 Horacio Cabral and the 12-0 Sebastian Aguirre, won by Cabral via 10-round unanimous decision.
I won’t have much time to recover from this trip, for, in six days’ time, I’ll begin my final trip of 2015. A bonus: It will take place at the Turning Stone Casino and Resort in Verona, N.Y., a few miles east of my “home away from home,” the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota.
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 e-mail the author at [email protected] to arrange for autographed copies.