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The Travelin’ Man goes to Sands Bethlehem Event Center: Part two

15
Mar
Photo credit: Amanda Westcott/Showtime

Avtandil Khurtsidze celebrates his 10th round stoppage over previously undefeated Antoine Douglas. Photo credit: Amanda Westcott/Showtime

 

Please click here for part one.

 

Saturday, March 5 (continued): Ever since turning pro nearly six years ago, Julian “J Rock” Williams has been methodically building the foundation for something better. Starting with his first round knockout over Antonio Chaves Fernandez in the South Philly Arena, Williams assembled his resume inside the ropes while, in the gym, he conditioned his body, refined and expanded his technique and absorbed the knowledge that surrounded him. Fueled by a thirst for excellence and armed with a deep respect for his Philadelphia boxing heritage, Williams destroyed his early competition, overcame early setbacks (a draw against Francisco Santana in his seventh fight and a butt-induced no-contest against Hugo Centeno Jr.) and passed each test with a pleasing blend of two-fisted power, attention to detail and uncommon patience.



After stopping Italian import Marcello Matano in round seven of their IBF junior middleweight title eliminator, Williams was well aware that he stood one step away from achieving his first career-defining objective – winning a major championship. But Williams knows nothing is guaranteed, especially when one is a high-risk mandatory challenger. So during the post-fight interview, Williams sought to create a second foundation, one that would pressure IBF titlist Jermall Charlo to fight him instead of vacating the crown.

“He’s already laying his groundwork for the past couple of fights, saying he’s had a hard time making weight,” he charged. “I walk around heavy too. It hurt me to make the weight too. Step up and fight me. It’s a big fight. The fans want to see it. It’s two of the best junior middleweights in the world and we’re both in the prime of our careers. Step up! It’s about legacy. It’s about money. It’s about greatness. I want to be great. I don’t really care about being a star; I want to be a great fighter and a Hall-of-Famer and a two-division champ. Step up and fight me. All y’all are turkeys at 154; all y’all are turkeys.”

If he has his way, that 36-second rant will be parlayed into a scheduled 36-minute battle with the older (and harder-hitting) Charlo twin and if Williams must travel to Houston, he’ll do it without hesitation. For him, the only geography and real estate that matters is the patch of canvas he and Charlo may share sometime soon.

Williams handled Matano’s movement and scattered Pop-a-Shot punching with his usual aplomb. He faithfully worked the jab to pinpoint proper range, then, starting in round three, began to break Matano down with accurate power punching, especially to the body. Matano tried to fend him off by turning up the volume (from 25 per round in the first two to 63.3 in rounds 3-through-6) but Williams’ heavier hands and superior precision proved unstoppable. A tightly delivered hook ignited a flurry that had Matano flopping and flailing and, when another volley rendered the Italian defenseless, referee Gary Rosato wisely jumped in and stopped the fight at 2:24 of round seven.

While Matano felt a need to accelerate his pace, Williams opted to maintain his output (46.5 per round in the first two, 50 in rounds 3-6) while dramatically increasing the accuracy. In rounds one and two, he landed just 24% and 29% overall and 33% and 27% power as he assessed Matano’s herky-jerky style but once he identified what he needed to do and how he needed to do it, his level of performance rose noticeably. Overall, he landed 43% in the third, 56% in rounds four and five and 42% in the sixth, while his hooks, crosses, uppercuts and body shots followed suit (64%, 67%, 59% and 48%). The results of Williams’ handiwork bloomed in the seventh as he landed 40 of his 61 total punches (66%) and an astonishing 38 of his 50 power punches (76%).

J Rock’s win over Matano was a triumph of fundamentals over flash and the same dynamic will be needed for Williams to beat Charlo. Charlo, however, has weapons Williams has not yet seen as a pro: A terrific jab, commanding and confident mobility and excellent power that can come out of nowhere. If the match can be made, it’ll be a fascinating – and potentially explosive – clash of styles.

*

When it was announced that Antoine Douglas was to fight Sam Soliman, boxing insiders knew the 23-year-old prospect would be in for a long and frustrating night because, even at age 42, the Australian’s fusion of unpredictable movement and even more unfathomable punching angles would present previously unseen challenges. When Soliman’s aging and surgically repaired knees continued to bark at him, he took his doctor’s advice and withdrew in mid-February.

In stepped 36-year-old veteran Avtandil Khurtsidze, a 5-foot-4 fireplug that sprays punches and melts wills. It is rare that a late sub represents an upgrade in competition but the native of Kutaisi, Georgia was just that. Since losing a disputed decision to Hassan N’Dam in Oct. 2010 Khurtsidze had won his last eight to raise his record to 31-2-2 (20) while Soliman had lost his last two and, at least in recent outings, hadn’t exhibited Khurtsidze’s volume or consistency. Still, the conventional wisdom was that Douglas’ massive height and reach advantages, along with his juggernaut offense would effectively neutralize Khurtsidze’s all-out attack, and one look at the roomy 20-foot-square ring surface indicated that scenario was the most likely one.

For the first 15 seconds, Douglas kept Khurtsidze at bay. But once Khurtsidze trapped Douglas on the ropes and fired both hands at the head and body, the tenor of the fight instantly – and permanently – changed. Within a minute, Khurtsidze succeeded in drawing Douglas into a cramped, pressurized punching match that turned the American’s assets into hindrances and Khurtsidze’s shortcomings into strengths. In round one, Khurtsidze unleashed 135 punches and landed 35 while Douglas, at 17 for 50, struggled to keep up.

When Douglas returned to his corner after the tactically disastrous first round, trainer Dennis Porter rightfully told his charge that he had to box, use the jab and force Khurtsidze to reset. Both men knew what had to be done but, while Douglas tried to execute the blueprint, he couldn’t sustain it for long. Within seconds, Khurtsidze closed the distance and resumed his brutally masterful infighting.

In rounds four through six, Douglas bravely went punch-for-punch with Khurtsidze and he achieved a measure of success as he out-landed him 77-71 overall and 74-67 power during that stretch. However, that success was achieved without the benefit of the jab, the one punch that could have turned the tide in Douglas’ favor. For the fight, Douglas threw just 88 jabs and landed 10 while Khurtsidze was a mere 6 of 28. Those extremely low jab numbers for both men (neither landed more than two jabs in any round) was numerical proof of Khurtsidze’s superior ring generalship. Not only did that generalship test Douglas’ strategic acumen, it also gauged his stamina and mental fortitude in ways seldom seen during his pro career. At 23, Douglas, who suffered a third round knockdown, was undergoing the ultimate acid test.

Unfortunately for Douglas, the acid began eating away at him, starting in the seventh. In that round, Khurtsidze launched 108 punches, scored his second knockdown of the fight and landed more shots (45) than Douglas, who landed 15 punches out of 40. Despite the destructive tenor of the bout, a visibly tiring Douglas tried his best to stave off disaster in the eighth as he managed to out-land Khurtsidze 26-23, thanks to frequent but softer right hands. The rally proved short-lived as Khurtsidze turned the fight for good in the ninth by going 35 of 99 to Douglas’ 10 of 32. From my ringside position, I sensed Douglas was nearing the end of his limits; his face had a dull expression and his movements seemed forced and without snap. Meanwhile, the lively Khurtsidze was in his element and was having his way. His corner twice invoked the name of his stylistic and spiritual inspiration – Mike Tyson – then sealed the exhortation with a kiss on the forehead.

Khurtsidze channeled the specter of “Iron Mike” by landing a scorching hook to the jaw, then mercilessly battering him with unanswered punches until referee Benjy Esteves Jr. pulled him away and stopped the slaughter. With victory secured, Khurtsidze immediately dropped to his knees, emitted a triumphant bellow and pounded the canvas with savage intensity. He was rightfully proud of his effort, which saw him out-land Douglas 282-183 overall and 276-173 power, including 52-11 overall and 46-9 power in the final two rounds. Douglas was more accurate (35%-34% overall, 40%-34% power) but he didn’t have any answers to Khurtsidze’s extreme pressure tactics.

The exciting performance will surely enhance Khurtsidze’s standing and may result in higher quality fights that I hope will be available in the US. For Douglas, it was the kind of extended beating that could leave a fighter, even a 23-year-old one, in tatters. Douglas’ stamina was questioned following his late fade against Michel Soro (D 10) and the Khurtsidze fight represented the first time Douglas had fought past round six since then. That said, I don’t think a lack of conditioning can be blamed; rather, Khurtsidze’s success and drive should be credited.

A good sign for Douglas is that he bounced back with five victories and four knockouts following the Soro draw. But this blemish came with a far higher price tag in terms of physical punishment. In any case, Douglas should take a long rest before deciding to press onward.

*

Middleweight Tony Harrison was on his own comeback trail, for his bout with former title challenger Fernando Guerrero was two fights removed from a ninth-round TKO loss to Willie Nelson eight months earlier. Like Douglas, Harrison is a long, lean offensive machine capable of generating big numbers as well as TV-friendly (and opponent-unfriendly) knockouts. After all, 18 of his 19 stoppages were completed in three rounds or less.

Following the Nelson loss, Harrison reconfigured his game by making the jab a centerpiece weapon. In his most recent fight against Cecil McCalla, Harrison averaged 41.1 jabs per round and logged an impressive 10.5 connects per round, more than twice the 4.9 middleweight average. That jab success helped Harrison limit McCalla to just 25 punches per round (less than half the 55.3 division norm), elevated his power-punching percentage to 64% and produced an impressive five-round streak of at least 70% power precision (including 83% in the ninth). For all his success, however, McCalla shook Harrison with a right hand in the ninth and, for a moment, he looked as if he would be victimized by a come-from-behind knockout for the second straight fight. This time, though, Harrison boxed his way out of trouble, then won the 10th to secure the decision.

Like Harrison, Guerrero, at his best, is a volume-puncher with power. However, he had lost three of his last six and all the losses came inside the distance. Worse yet, with his four-inch height and four-and-a-half inch reach deficits, he would have little choice but to risk his chin by burrowing inside while also hoping that his southpaw lefts would dent Harrison’s.

They didn’t. Harrison scored a second round knockdown en route to a stoppage victory in round six. They key to victory was Harrison’s jab, which landed with regularity from the start. He went 6 of 28 in round one, then reached double-digit connects in rounds two (14), four (12) and five (11) before closing escrow in the sixth, which, interestingly, was the only round in which he failed to land a jab. (He was 0 for 12.) Harrison’s command of distance prevented Guerrero from launching his own attack – he averaged just 20.3 punches per round in the first three – and only in round five (61 punches) did he manage to make a dent. Harrison replied with two knockdowns in the sixth, capping off a performance that saw him out-land Guerrero 109-51 overall, 52-18 jabs and 57-33 power. The only concerning stat was that Guerrero landed 37% of his power punches but, otherwise, it was a good performance that made the case for future showcases.

*

Andy helped me pack my belongings during the closing credits and, a few minutes later, we joined the others outside the production office to munch on pizza. I then walked to my car on the sixth floor of the Sands’ parking garage and drove back to the Courtyard Marriott with little trouble. After taking nearly an hour to upload the stats from the five fights Andy and I counted onto the master database, I realized it was well after 2 a.m. Though my mind wanted me to continue working, I bowed to the will of everything else and soon turned in for some much-needed shuteye.

Sunday, March 6: I stirred awake a little after 7 a.m. and snoozed until 7:30. My plan this morning was to finish writing a Hall of Fame-themed feature for THE RING magazine and I was relieved to learn that check-out time wouldn’t be until noon. I ended up needing every minute, for I finished the last sentence of the rough draft at 11:48, hurriedly packed my belongings and checked out with just four minutes to spare.

Thanks to relatively light traffic, I was able to use the cruise control for most of the trip, which lasted exactly seven hours. There are few activities I enjoy more than driving interstate roads while sipping on soda and listening to classic rock FM stations, so, despite the 400-plus mile drive (and two gas tank fill-ups, one at the start and one 10 miles from home), I felt pretty good after arriving home. After editing and emailing my RING feature, I spent the rest of the evening watching (and re-recording) a few of the boxing cards I saved on the DVR.

As always, my workload is forever expanding and contracting but it’s never completely eliminated. If all goes well, it’ll be under control by the start of my next trip, which will take me to Miami, Oklahoma, to count a “ShoBox” triple-header topped by Regis Prograis’ junior welterweight bout with Aaron Herrera.

Until then, happy trails!

*

Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, West Virginia. 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. To contact Groves, use the e-mail [email protected].

 

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