The Travelin’ Man returns to Tucson: Part two
Please click here for Part One.
Friday, Jan. 22 (continued): One of the most difficult feats to achieve in sports – and in life – is fundamentally transforming an observer’s first impression. Once an opinion is established, it’s almost impossible to reverse it.
As I walked into the Casino Del Sol’s community center to work the “ShoBox” tripleheader topped by the 10-rounder between middleweights Rob Brant and DeCarlo Perez, I was convinced Perez would walk out the winner. My opinion was supported by several pillars:
* First, a little less than five months earlier, Perez comprehensively out-pointed the 23-0 Juan Ubaldo Cabrera, thanks to his superior hustle (76.7 punches per round to Cabrera’s 55.4) and late-round strength that saw him create connect leads of 107-71 overall, 88-84 power in the final four rounds.
* Second, Perez was an Atlantic City native who sharpens his tools inside the hard-bitten gyms in Philadelphia, where he has sparred with Julian Williams. Moreover, Perez’s promoter is Hall-of-Famer J Russell Peltz, a man who has long believed that tough matchmaking creates equally tough fighters who devour peers with carefully crafted records. I felt Brant was one such example, for, while Brant sported an 18-0 record, only four of his foes entered their matches off a win and nine came in with multiple defeats.
* Third, Brant barely survived his first leap up in competition last October against Louis Rose, against whom he won a majority decision. Brant dominated the early rounds but the man who had yet to fight past round eight found rounds nine and 10 to be difficult hurdles. With his gas tank sputtering and Rose’s kicking into overdrive (110.5 per round), Brant was out-landed 54-31 overall and 44-23 power. Rose’s finishing kick fell just short but it succeeded in creating doubts about Brant’s stamina. That’s not an issue any fighter would want against Perez, whose volume-attack in rounds nine and 10 (91 and 89 punches respectively) helped digest Cabrera as well as Jessie Nicklow (117 and 109 punches in round nine and 10) and Tyrone Brunson (89, 96 and 80 punches in rounds three through five).
Based on this information, I was sure I had pegged this fight correctly. But then the opening bell sounded.
From first second to last, Brant was a man hellbent on erasing past templates and creating new ones. He raced out of the corner and took the fight to the startled Perez, who said he wanted to start fast and finish even faster. In round one, Brant unleashed 97 punches, landing 35, while Perez could only muster 17 of 69. Perez tried to up the energy in round two as he cranked 89 punches but Brant would have none of it as he threw 68, out-landed his foe 30-19 and landed 44% of his power punches to Perez’s 32%. Brant upped the ante further in the third when a right hand scored the first knockdown and he finished the job in highlight-reel fashion in the fourth when another right left Perez draped over the middle rope. In just nine minutes and 39 seconds of action, Brant produced the biggest win of his career to date while also forcing doubters like me to reassess past impressions.
The final stats showed Brant with leads of 92-51 overall, 30-11 jabs and 62-40 power as well as percentage gaps of 39%-21% overall, 31% -9% jabs and 45%-33% power. Brant proved beyond doubt that he is a dangerous force in the early rounds but there is still one unanswered question: Can he sustain this level of performance and activity in the late rounds? If he can, he’ll be a tough out for his fellow middleweights. He’s not yet ready for the jump toward the upper reaches of the division but there’s no denying that, on this night, the man nicknamed “Bravo” produced a bravura performance.
Brooklyn has produced more than its share of outstanding heavyweights and four – Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe, Shannon Briggs and Michael Moorer – captured versions of the world championship. Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller hopes to join that roll call one day and, based on current evidence, he has the potential to pull it off. He certainly has the raw materials (6-foot-4 height, 78-inch reach and knockout drops in both fists, especially in the right hand), the killer instinct (entering his fight with Donovan Dennis, he scored 13 knockouts in 16 fights, all within four rounds) and a personality that is even larger than his physique. Miller impressively disposed of Akhror Muralimov (KO 3) in his ShoBox debut four months earlier and the talk going in was that he would produce a similar result against Donovan Dennis, a bomb-throwing lefty who was coming off an eighth-round TKO loss to Andrey Fedosov in the 2015 “Boxcino” final eight months earlier.
Miller’s offensive began seconds after he entered the ring as he strode toward Dennis and fixed a hard stare. I certainly felt the heat emanating from Miller’s eyes from my ringside position and to Dennis’ credit, he stood his ground and unflinchingly returned the gaze.
Miller’s massive 56-pound weight advantage was graphically evident as they advanced toward ring center but Dennis landed the first punch, a short left to the chin. He also effectively executed his plan of staying on the outside, poking out jabs, making Miller miss and firing occasional counters over his opponent’s lunges. But everything changed at the 1:39 mark when Miller uncorked a massive right that nearly decapitated Dennis and a follow-up right that sent him crashing back-first to the canvas. Blood began trickling from Dennis’ right nostril as he took referee Tony Zaino’s eight-count and when a cluster of punches capped by a right uppercut floored him a second time, the fight looked all but over. Dennis somehow navigated his way through the round’s final 50 seconds, thanks to timely clinching and occasional left crosses that caught Miller coming in, but, for all the world, it looked like the fight’s end was just moments away.
Stunningly, it wasn’t. Yes, Dennis continued to absorb blows that landed with frightening force but they didn’t come nearly as frequently. The jab was a virtual non-entity (Miller landed just 16 in the first five rounds) and Dennis managed to out-hustle and even out-land his larger opponent (14-13 in the second, 20-11 in the third and 18-16 in the fourth, averaging 56.3 punches per round to Miller’s 43.3 during that stretch). Dennis’ survival skills had succeeded in creating an environment by which a deeper examination of Miller’s talent could take place.
As the fight swung into the final moments of round four, Miller appeared sluggish and one had to wonder whether he would have sufficient energy to be effective in the later rounds. While it’s true that Dennis’ mouth hung open and his body appeared close to collapse, I sensed that if he could hold it together for a little while longer, he might be able to mount a rally. That vision went out the window when Miller landed an overhand right to Dennis’ jaw, after which he landed six more punches before the bell.
From then on, Miller regained his earlier form and the punishment he dished out in all phases inflicted considerable damage. In round five, Miller went 26 of 45 (58%) overall and 22 of 35 (63%) power to Miller’s 17 of 51 (33%) and 15 of 38 (40%) respectively and the gaps grew wider in the sixth (24-11 overall) and especially in the seventh and final round. There, Miller, now basking in a second wind and showing how much he was enjoying it by chattering at him, landed 39 of his 67 total punches (58%) and 35 of 50 power shots (70%) while the courageous-but-spent Dennis eroded to 8 of 35 overall (23%) and 7 of 20 power (35%). The final four punches – two rights, a hook and a right – crashed against Dennis’ unprotected head and prompted Zaino to leap between the two and stop the fight.
As Zaino wrapped his arms around Dennis, the stricken fighter looked as if he had tapped every possible resource and had nothing more to give. Although stopped for the second consecutive time, he had honorably lived up to the fighter’s code. He fought off a far bigger, stronger and harder-hitting man longer than anyone had a right to expect, given what happened to him in round one and he and his team should be proud of his effort.
As for Miller, he proved he could carry his power – and his finishing touch – into the later rounds and his output in the final two rounds should be a source of encouragement. That said, Miller’s weight should be a major point of concern. Now that he’s established himself as a fighter to watch, he will face increasingly stiffer opposition, opposition with similar courage to that of Dennis but whom also will have the skills to push Miller even harder. At 274 ¼, Miller had enough in the tank to turn Dennis back but, in my view, it would behoove Miller to shed at least 20 pounds, if not more, so he will have the cardiovascular capacity to maximize his already above-average work rate.
As I watched Miller’s post-fight interview (which was the talk of the truck), I couldn’t help but think of Chris Arreola, another fighter who had enormous work rate, immense power and captivating personality. Arreola would be the first to say he squandered his opportunities due to his inability to stay in prime shape and Miller would be wise to use Arreola’s story as a cautionary tale.
One could say that I’d like to see more of Miller while also seeing a little bit less.
The scuttlebutt around ringside as well as inside the casino coffee shops was that welterweight Bakhtiyar Eyubov possessed extremely heavy hands but was largely untested. How could he not be? In nine pro fights, he logged just 13 rounds, which translates to just 1.4 rounds per fight. Promoter Dmitry Salita touted “The Bakha Bullet” as the second coming of Gennday Golovkin and in this, his ShoBox debut, he delivered a powerful performance by stopping Jared Robinson in three rounds.
Like Perez for Brant, Robinson was viewed as the best opponent Eyubov had faced to date but it took the Kazakh 14 seconds to show off the cement-brick nature of his hands as a scorching hook sent Robinson tumbling to the canvas. Robinson, resourceful enough to have climbed back into the ring after falling head-first onto a cement floor, scrambled to his feet but suffered a “but-for-the-ropes” knockdown a couple of minutes later, thanks to a cuffing hook to the ear. At round’s end Eyubov, landed 36 punches – all power shots – to Robinson’s 14.
Eyubov’s early-round power continued in the second. This time, it took him 13 seconds to floor Robinson, this time with a hook to the jaw that sent him sprawling. The Kazakh gunned for the finish but, from time to time, Robinson landed nifty counters inside Eyubov’s wide punches, especially right uppercuts and tightly-thrown hooks. To Eyubov’s credit, he walked through the punches and continued to remorselessly blast away and the result was a 30 of 60 round that overshadowed Robinson’s 15 of 64.
The end came in the third, courtesy of a 17-punch outburst that prompted referee Rocky Burke to intervene. The attack was pinpoint as Eyubov landed 17 of 23 punches in the round, which translates to 74% accuracy. For the fight, Eyubov out-landed Robinson 83-36 – and all 83 of his connects were power shots. Robinson tried his best but Eyubov’s tank-like aggression proved too much.
After plowing through three slices of pepperoni pizza with Eyubov-like efficiency, I headed to my fourth-floor hotel room, despite wanting to hang around a bit longer. Knowing I was supposed to meet my two cab-share partners – video ace Jim Delano (who also rode with me on Thursday) and LEVS operator Steve Bires at 5:45 a.m., I hurriedly prepared for bed, answered a Danish writer’s email query about Mikkel Kessler’s chances for Hall of Fame enshrinement (deserves a look but depends on whose names surround him) and turned out the lights at midnight.
Saturday, Jan. 23: I slept for three-and-a-half hours and dozed for one more before officially beginning this day. I’m always happy when I’m able to wake up without a phone call from the front desk or the nerve-shattering sounds of an alarm clock, especially when I know my sleep window is so narrow.
A brief check on American Airlines’ website brought good news: Both flights – including my Phoenix-to-Pittsburgh leg – were still listed as being on time. Considering the epic effects of winter storm Jonas up and down the eastern part of the country, I considered myself very fortunate.
After checking out, I walked to the designated meeting place for our cab share – the nearby valet desk. Ever the inveterate early bird, I arrived 10 minutes before our appointed time.
While composing a text to Jim to inform him of my location, my cell phone buzzed. It was Jim, who said he wouldn’t be able to join our group because the hotel failed to fulfill his requested wake-up call. A few minutes later, Jim called back, saying that Steve just texted him to say is flight was delayed.
“Go on without us,” Jim concluded. He didn’t have to tell me twiceÔÇªI was out the door within moments.
My cab driver, Joe Bustamante of VIP Taxi, is also an early bird. He poked his head inside the door just minutes after I arrived to let me know he was there for a pickup, a pickup that turned out to be me and me alone. After stowing my luggage in the trunk, Bustamante surprised me by saying, “You’re a big man; sit up front with me.”
I don’t recall too many times when I sat in the front seat of a taxi (it usually occurs when we have three or more in our group) but being invited to do so as a solo was a first. We got along famously during the 15-minute drive, which was executed with the smoothness and efficiency of someone who had previously been a professional truck driver for a quarter-century.
Remember in part one when I mentioned that Jim and I were our cab driver’s final customers because he was going to sell his vehicle the following morning? Bustamante said he was going to be the one who’ll buy it from him. Considering the number of taxis and taxi drivers in a city the size of Tucson, the odds of me meeting both ends of the sale must be astronomical.
I arrived at the airport so early that I briefly considered switching to the 6:50 a.m. flight to Phoenix but decided to stay put. given the chaos the airlines must be experiencing due to the storm. Leave well enough alone, I thought. Anyway, the wait at the gate would allow me to get more work done.
Despite my truncated sleep cycle, I felt perfectly alert and thus the words flowed freely from brain to fingertips to Microsoft Word document. I was so lost in thought that the announcement indicating that the boarding process was able to begin jolted me. How could 90 minutes elapse so quickly?
Thanks to my first-class upgrade, I munched on a small bag of popcorn and consumed a cup of Diet Pepsi during the 30-minute flight, which was executed without any hitches, save for a much harder than usual landing. When the flight attendant issued the standard caution regarding opening the overhead bin because items may have shifted, I immediately asked, “You think?” (a line which got the intended laugh). I need not have worried; most bins are so stuffed with luggage that nothing short of an explosion would displace anything.
As is often the case with me, the arrival gate was located at one end of a concourse while my connecting gate was situated at the end of another – and Phoenix is not a small airport. Even with moving sidewalks, it took 15 minutes to complete the walk, leaving just 15 minutes to get some more work done before boarding the next flight.
During the midst of my research, I couldn’t help but notice the mass of humanity surrounding me and it only got worse once the boarding announcement for my flight began. That’s because the three gates adjacent to us also were in the process of moving passengers out – a rarity at most airports but, I’m told, a regular occurrence in Phoenix. Despite the clamor, the various gate agents did a good job of controlling the various queues and my fellow passengers allowed those of us with higher boarding priority easier access to the check-in counter.
I settled into my eighth-row aisle seat and awaited the arrival of my seat-mates. A young businessman had the window seat while an older woman was assigned the middle seat. While we waited for the plane to take off, I learned that the woman was a fellow West Virginian (from Martinsburg in the eastern panhandle) who was just returning from a two-week trip to Fiji that was part vacation, part business (she was part of a team that helped kids with artistic pursuits). She showed me several photos on her phone, one of which depicted an area that was located on both sides of the International Date Line. Imagine a wall that contains a narrow floor-to-ceiling strip, out of which one can see native foliage. On the left side of the window is a colored wall with the word “yesterday” while on the other side a different colored wall bore the word “today.”
Could you imagine getting a phone call from a friend on the other side of the wall asking to you to meet him later today? Or trying to make a doctor’s appointment for tomorrow? The confusion would be immense but the woman assured me that the entirety of Fiji operates under a single time zone.
Another photo she showed me was that of her car, which was buried under a mountain of snow. I wondered if that was the way it would be for me in Pittsburgh, for, earlier in the day, I read an email from my sister saying that Friendly had gotten between 14 and 17 inches, far exceeding the predicted 5-to-8. If Pittsburgh had suffered the same fate, would my fellow travelers be able to identify the location of their cars in the airport parking lot? I, of course, won’t have that problem because I always write the precise location of my spot in relation to the nearest sign on my parking ticket. In this case it was the eighth spot before the 13E sign in extended parking, so, as long as I’m about to count, I’ll be covered (though hopefully my car won’t be).
Most of the flight was smooth and we landed in Pittsburgh 11 minutes ahead of schedule. I dreaded the potential digging out process but, as I scanned the cars, I noticed none of them were completely buried. Not only did I find my car with ease, it took less than three minutes for me to clear the snow, most of which covered the trunk.
Another pleasant surprise: Aside from the slushy roads in New Martinsville and Paden City (located 15 and 10 miles from home respectively), the highways were in exceptional shape. I pulled into my thoroughly shoveled driveway shortly after 7:30 and I spent the next several hours watching the FOX-televised tripleheader that saw Dominic Breazeale escape Amir Mansour, Sammy Vasquez TKO a surprisingly sluggish Aron Martinez and Danny Garcia outpoint Robert Guerrero.
My next trip, which will begin Feb. 18, will offer me no respites from the wintry chill, for I’m scheduled to work a ShoBox quadruple-header in Atlantic City topped by unbeaten super bantamweights Adam Lopez and Mario Munoz.
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.