The Travelin’ Man: Back to Verona – Part two
Saturday, Dec. 19 (continued): You know a card is deep when the untelevised walk-in bout features the 15-2 Steve Martinez and the 29-5-1 Jorge Melendez in a scheduled 10-round junior middleweight crossroads match. As previously stated in Part One, Andy Kasprzak and I didn’t get back from the HBO Latino crew meal in time to witness it but I got a firsthand account from longtime friend, Syracuse native and Fightnews.com writer/photographer Boxing Bob Newman, who I ran into while making my way around ringside. He also had an early Christmas present for me: A personalized autographed photo of one-time heavyweight fringe contender and two-time New York Golden Gloves champion Eddie Gregg. When I returned to my work station, I gratefully (but carefully) stuffed the envelope inside my laptop bag.
Next up was the first bout of the HBO Latino broadcast, Yuriorkis Gamboa’s 10-round decision over Hylon Williams Jr., Gamboa’s first fight in 13 months. Although his career has been star-crossed, in many respects, the two constants for Gamboa have been his electric hand and foot speed, as well as his ability to land singular but staggering power shots from inconceivable angles. Like former IBF middleweight titlist David Lemieux, I believe Gamboa is at his best when he overwhelms his opponents with rocket-fueled combinations but, for whatever reason – the quest to become a more complete fighter, the desire to please his trainers and management team, his habit of being nailed by opponents while in wild-man mode – Gamboa has long been a fighter caught between styles.
That duality was on display against Williams. Even though he was just four days short of his 34th birthday, it was clear the 2004 Olympic gold medalist still has the skills to defeat all but the very best. His peppery combinations had Williams at a loss and, when he shifted into high gear – which usually occurred at the start of rounds – he looked as if he could score the stoppage. But Gamboa’s storms departed as quickly as they had arrived, which prevented him from fully consolidating his advantages.
Still, Gamboa was statistically dominant as he out-landed Williams 137-65 overall, 41-20 jabs and 96-45 power and was the more prolific (57.1 per round to 34.4) and precise puncher (24%-19% overall, 16%-13% jabs, 31%-24% power). Gamboa’s occasionally dervish-like attacks kept Williams on the defensive (he ranged between 25 and 39 punches per round) while Gamboa’s peaks and valleys were more volatile (46 in round seven to 78 in round five). All in all, it was a nice ring return for “El Ciclon de Guantanamo”).
The next contest was another intriguing, day-of-reckoning match between middleweights Gabriel Rosado and Joshua Clottey, whose styles and temperaments occupy diametrically opposed positions of the spectrum. Rosado: A fiery, proud, volume-punching Philadelphian who is long on courage and determination but short on unscarred tissue above his eyes. Clottey: A composed, thoughtful but equally proud Ghanaian with an often impenetrable defense but a seeming inability to shift to a higher gear, even when falling behind on points. At the Turning Stone Casino last night, I spoke with a couple of Clottey’s corner people, who assured me their man was fully prepared to crank up the output.
Unfortunately for Clottey, he didn’t.
The first three rounds saw Clottey earn a slim 44-38 advantage in total connects, thanks to his better accuracy and superior defense but, once Rosado found his groove in round four (19 of 95 to Clottey’s 13 of 49), the African ex-champ couldn’t match his opponent’s surge. In rounds four through 10, Rosado averaged 88 punches per round to Clottey’s 43.7 and out-landed him 128-89 overall and 115- 81 power en route to clear advantages statistically (166-133 overall, 20-18 jabs and 146-115 power) and judicially (97-93 twice, 96-94). In other words, Rosado won because he was still able to fight like himself and Clottey lost because he fought too much like himself.
The final HBO Latino bout pitted light heavyweights Vyacheslav Shabranskyy and Yunieski Gonzalez, both of whom were fresh off contests that tested their mettle. On June 30, Shabranskyy overcame two first round knockdowns to score a spectacular third round TKO over the previously undefeated Paul Parker while Gonzalez pushed Jean Pascal to a narrow and somewhat controversial 10-round decision for the Haitian-Canadian. Their 10-round slugfest, which Shabranskyy won on a majority decision that should have been unanimous, allowed the channel to end 2015 on a high note, especially after an action-packed final round that saw them land a combined 54 punches, a fight high.
The final numbers were heavily in Shabranskyy’s favor as he prevailed 261-178 overall, 115-61 jabs and 146-117 power and was more accurate on all phases (32%-30% overall, 31%-26% jabs and 33%-32% power. The most influential stat was that Shabranskyy averaged 82.1 punches to Gonzalez’s 60.3 because, in a fight in which the percentages are close, activity often determines who wins the round. That truism proved out here, for Shabranskyy out-landed Gonzalez in nine of the 10 rounds, including each of the final eight.
While undefeated super middleweight D’Mitrius Ballard pounded out a methodical six-round shutout over Fabiano Pena, a pair of Bernards – Hopkins and Fernandez – stopped by our work station. I intended to introduce Andy to Hopkins during a pause in their own conversation but I made the mistake of calling out “Bernard” to get the champ’s attention. Both Bernards snapped their heads around and Hopkins, ever the teacher, instructed me to do as follows: “If he and I are together and you want one of us, call him ‘Older Bernard’ and me ‘Younger Bernard.'” For the record, “Older Bernard” approved of the stipulation.
Everyone agreed that the 10-rounder between Nicholas Walters and Jason Sosa was a highly entertaining scrap. But virtually no one outside of judges Tom Schreck, Wynn Kintz and Don Ackerman believed the action was worthy of a draw (Kintz and Ackerman), much less a 96-94 win for Sosa (Schreck). After the stunning verdict was announced, I learned the vast majority of the ringside media had Walters ahead by scores ranging from 100-90 to 98-92, mostly because they felt Walters’ accuracy, robust body punching and superior shot-for-shot power trumped Sosa’s relentless but less effective aggression.
That’s precisely the picture the CompuBox numbers painted. While Sosa successfully forced the long and lean Walters to fight in the trenches, thanks to his impressive output (87.3 punches per round to Walters’ 62.2), the former WBA featherweight champion landed far more often (281-168 overall, 56-47 jabs, 225-121 power) and with much more precision (45%-19% overall, 30%-18% jabs, 52%-20% power). Moreover, Walters unleashed an impressive body attack as he landed 118 to the flanks to Sosa’s 39 and while two rounds were close (16-15 overall in round one, 22-20 in the fourth) the Jamaican out-landed Sosa in terms of overall connects in all 10 rounds. In the final three stanzas, Walters appeared to cinch the decision as he out-landed Sosa 91-44 overall and 71-26 power.
Despite the final result, I believe Walters and Sosa helped their long-term outlooks. Walters showed he could successfully wage an extended trench war in a higher weight class while Sosa, a decided underdog going in, proved himself an excellent TV fighter who could hang with the better names in his division. Conversely, the judges didn’t cover themselves in glory; some would say they covered themselves in something far less glorious.
Heavyweight fights are always a crap shoot because, more than any other division, they are capable of either producing incredibly compelling action or mind-numbing dullness. Luckily, Luis Ortiz and Bryant Jennings provided the former. The action see-sawed violently in the first four rounds (33-10 Ortiz in the first, 32-12 Jennings in the second, 25-22 Jennings in the third and 31-14 Ortiz in the fourth) before settling down in rounds five and six (14-11 Ortiz in both rounds).
At times, Jennings’ bustling bob-and-weave attack caused my mind to flash back to the days of another Philadelphia icon – Joe Frazier. As for Ortiz, I couldn’t draw a parallel in terms of style or physique. I mean, how many 6-foot-4 power-punching Cuban southpaw heavyweights can you name?
The beginning of the end occurred in round seven when Ortiz dropped Jennings face-first with a blistering uppercut. The moment “By-By” hit the floor, I was sure Jennings wouldn’t be able to get up at all, much less in time. Convinced I had no more punches to count, I sat back and waited for the fight to be waved off.
To my utter shock, Jennings not only got to his feet, he did so well with moments to spare.
“How did he get up?” I shouted to no one in particular. This was the third, and most stunning, comeback of the fight for Jennings and, as the fighters were called back to action, I briefly wondered whether Jennings could conjure a rally worthy of yet another Philly legend – Matthew Saad Muhammad.
Ortiz had other ideas. After a few more flush power shots, referee Dick Pakodzi had no choice but to jump in and save Jennings, who classily said after the fight that he had no objections to the stoppage.
The judges were grilled over Ortiz’s slim lead on the scorecards (58-55 by John McKaie, 58-56 by Glenn Feldman and 57-57 by Don Trella) but this time, the stats backed up the judges as Jennings held leads of 136-128 overall and 130-109 power thanks to his superior accuracy (42%-29% overall, 47%-41% power) and stickier body punching (81-46). Yes, Ortiz landed with more impact and he won his rounds in more dominating fashion but Jennings’ consistency also made its mark.
The heavyweight division is in a state of flux following Tyson Fury’s decision win over longtime king of the mountain Wladimir Klitschko and the ascension of WBC titlist Deontay Wilder. With this performance Ortiz, vaulted himself into the forefront of title consideration – as well as the list of contenders to avoid as long as possible. The Cuban’s combination of excellent volume (his 63-punch-per-round pace was well above the 45.2 heavyweight average), monstrous two-handed power and enormous self-belief will make him a serious threat to both Fury and Wilder, even at age 36. As George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Lennox Lewis and the Klitschko brothers proved in recent years, 36 is the new 26 in the land of the giants.
Andy and I began packing our things the moment the final numbers were shown (and after I passed on the final judges’ scorecards for Ortiz-Jennings to the production truck). Once we did, we beat a hasty retreat to race the crowds out of the Turning Stone (which we did). After Andy and I said our goodbyes, I bought a sandwich, a bag of Fritos and a bottle of Diet Pepsi (the late night snack of champions, I’m told) and spent some time decompressing from the long evening of counting – five fights, 47 rounds and more than five hours.
It took a while for me to wind down, for I didn’t turn out the lights until 2 a.m.
Sunday, Dec. 20: After five-and-half hours of rest, I awoke with a start, plowed through the morning routines and checked out of the room shortly before 8:30 a.m. When I stepped outside, the powerful breezes that had marked the two previous days had died down considerably and, unlike my previous drives on I-90, the Versa didn’t weave from side to side during my drive to the airport.
My return route was different than was the case two days earlier; instead of connecting through Charlotte, I’d be flying to Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC because that was the only route that would get me home at a somewhat reasonable hour. Yes, there’d be a longer-than-usual layover in DC but I saw that as an opportunity to catch up on my writing.
I dropped off the car in the Hertz portion of the parking garage, turned over my keys at the counter inside and headed up the escalator toward the security line. I saw several familiar faces there, including a few HBO staffers and trainer Rudy Hernandez, who still couldn’t figure out how his man Walters didn’t get the decision over Sosa. He wasn’t alone.
If there’s a man on this Earth that is more punctual than I am, it is Hernandez. The proof? I arrived at the airport two hours before boarding while Hernandez showed up three hours before his. Once we got through security, he offered to buy me a cup of coffee (I chose a bottle of Diet Pepsi instead) and invited me to chat to help burn off the extra time. Me being me, I accepted without hesitation.
Over the next 90 or so minutes, we swapped stories and discussed subjects that occasionally ventured beyond the squared circle. During the boxing part of our talk, he asked me the following question: “How much time is there in the corner between rounds?”
“If the fighter gets back quickly and if the trainers are ready to go, I’d say 40 seconds, 45 tops,” I replied.
“No, it’s actually 120,” Hernandez said.
“How’s that?” I asked.
“Because there’s 40 seconds for the chief second, 40 seconds for the second guy and 40 seconds for the third guy,” he said. “If any one of those three people mess up, that costs time for the fighter.”
“It’s like a pit crew in auto racing,” I said. “Every person has a job to do, whether it’s the guy putting on new tires, the guy with the gas and the guy washing the windows,” I said. “If someone doesn’t do his job, the driver will suffer.”
Hernandez’s eyes lit up in recognition. “There you go,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used that analogy.”
Great minds think alike.
I would have loved to stay even longer but, after glancing at my cell phone’s clock, I discovered it was about 10 minutes before my plane’s scheduled boarding time. After arriving at my gate, I spotted award-winning writer Dan Rafael of ESPN, who was traveling with his wife and young child. Just before our plane was to board, I recognized another familiar face – that of Bryant Jennings. The gate for his flight to Philadelphia was located to our immediate right and, as he approached the area wearing a black track suit, he appeared in good spirits. He twice shook my hand as I complimented him on his performance.
The Syracuse-to-DC flight left seven minutes later than expected but the pilot not only made up the time, he had us into the nation’s capital several minutes early. When I glanced at the flight monitor, however, I learned that my 3:02 p.m. flight would be pushed back at least an hour. Three of the 88 flights on the monitor were delayed and, of course, mine was one of them. Oh, well. That’s the breaks of modern aviation.
In the end, the delay was actually two-and-a-half hours but the good news was that I had made great progress on my writing. The flight was free of turbulence and it landed in Pittsburgh shortly after 7 p.m. I arrived at my car a half-hour later and pulled into the driveway at 9:35 p.m. With that, another year of travel came to a close.
My first trip of the new year will begin Jan. 21 and the final destination will be Tucson, Ariz., where a “ShoBox” quadrupleheader topped by middleweights Rob Brant and DeCarlo Perez will take place. A bonus: I will be working with Arizona-based Brooklynite Joe Carnicelli, who will be experiencing a relatively rare home game.
Until then, happy trails – and Happy New Year!
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.