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The Travelin’ Man returns to MiamiÔǪOklahoma: Part two

30
Mar
Photo by Esther Lin / Showtime

Undefeated junior welterweight Regis Prograis (left) fires a left hand to the body of Aaron Herrera on March 25, 2016 at the Buffalo Run Casino and Resort in Miami, Oklahoma. Photo by Esther Lin/Showtime

 

Please click here for Part One

 

Friday, March 25 (continued): The last several editions of “ShoBox: The New Generation” have been on the long side in terms of elapsed time. For example, the March 5 tripleheader in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania surged past the two-hour mark as 23 of the 32 scheduled rounds were fought while the Feb. 19 quadruple-header in Atlantic City clocked in at 3 hours 9 minutes because all but one of the maximum 34 rounds were required. I also worked the series’ 200th show in Verona, NY. on Aug. 5, 2014, which holds the record for longest show in franchise history at 3 hours 19 minutes thanks to 33 of 34 rounds being waged, as well as a brief power outage and a lengthy glove-replacement time-out.



But in Miami, Okla., – at least on this night – matters were handled swiftly, decisively and destructively. The four televised fights required only 12 rounds to complete and the broadcast, from beginning to end, lasted 1 hour 44 minutes and that included plenty of fill material. Additionally, it is rare that one fight on a card ends with an old-fashioned, 10-count knockout but rarer still when multiple fights end that way. On the televised portion alone, it happened in three of the four bouts and the punches that produced them should vault them into the “Knockout of the Year” sweepstakes.

The tone was set from the first non-televised undercard bout as Russia’s Radzhab Butaev destroyed Wichita’s Robert Seyam in just 79 seconds to produce a most emphatic professional debut while dropping Seyam’s ledger to 2-5 (2 knockouts) and inflicting his third consecutive KO defeat. In a perplexing plot twist, the next bout involved established 154-pounder Willie Nelson – who was last seen scoring a stunning ninth round TKO over then-undefeated Tony Harrison on ESPN2’s air last July – meeting 15-8 journeyman Jonathan Batista with nary a camera rolling. Thus, only those inside the Buffalo Run Casino and Resort saw him blast Batista out in round two of their scheduled 10-rounder. The 6-foot-3 Nelson towered over the retreating 5-foot-9 Dominican and systematically walked him down before polishing him off.

“With the fight, the big thing was he wasn’t a real big killer,” Nelson said of Batista, whose record dropped to 15-9 (8 KOs). “He didn’t have much speed so I could get in there and take my time. I’m just using this fight as a stepping stone.” That it was.

The next three contests – including the televised opener – involved fighters within a group called “The Four-State Franchise” (named for the four states within easy reach of Miami: Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas). Twenty-nine-year-old welterweight Jesse Cook, the older brother of TV curtain-raiser Dillon by four years, crushed Detroit-based journeyman Larry Ventus to raise his ledger to 16-1-1 (11 KOs) while dropping Ventus’ to 6-10-1 (3 KOs). A flurry of punches dropped Ventus to a knee near the end of round one and a huge uppercut precipitated the second and final knockdown in round two.

“Honestly, he didn’t give me as much as I was expecting,” Cook said in a story written by Jason Peake of the Joplin Globe. “I landed a couple of good shots to the body that hurt him and I’m satisfied.”

So was the sold-out crowd, who showered Cook and his fellow “Franchisers” with roof-rattling cheers.

The next member of the group to step into the ring was James McKenzie “Kenzie” Morrison, whose father was former WBO heavyweight titlist Tommy “The Duke” Morrison. While the younger Morrison’s physique is lankier and less bulky, one look at his face confirms the 25-year-old’s family lineage. Once the opening bell sounded, the 227-pounder also showed some of his dad’s ferocious power as he scored three knockdowns in the first and scoring two more in the second to finish off Oklahoma City’s Kris Renty (now 2-6, 3 KOs).

According to ringsiders, Morrison has been working on improving his boxing skills and, during the fight, he utilized some lateral movement and flashed the jab.

“I spent a lot more time in the gym coming into this one,” Morrison, now 7-0-1 (6 KOs) told the Joplin Globe. “It’s turning into a science for me and it really helped my defense too. I knew I’d be a little quicker than (Renty) and maybe in a little better shape than him. And I was really able to use that to my advantage tonight and I was able to implement some of the things I’ve been working on in the gym. I was able to knock off some ring rust too.”

It’s much too early to tell whether Morrison will ever approach the heights achieved by his father, especially since he’s still fighting carefully chosen competition. The Duke set a high bar during his 20-year career in my eyes, possessed the third-hardest hook in boxing history behind Joe Frazier and Pipino Cuevas and amassed 42 knockouts in his 48-3-1 record – 33 of which ended within three rounds.

I was at ringside for his second-to-last fight against John Castle, which took place Feb. 22, 2007 in Chester, West Virginia on the untelevised undercard of Humberto Soto’s third-round TKO of Humberto Toledo, which was aired on the now-defunct Versus channel (for the record, this show also marked my debut as a “lead dog” operator for CompuBox). It was Morrison’s first fight in more than 10 years but he presented enough proof to the West Virginia State Athletic Commission to convince officials that he was fit to fight despite being HIV-positive. Here is what I wrote about that bout:

Morrison, in a nod to his ‘Rocky V’ past, came in to the song ‘Eye of the Tiger.’ He wore a red robe with yellow lettering that featured lightning bolts and the letters ‘TCB’ (‘Taking Care of Business’). When he shed his robe he revealed a tightly muscled body, and one could see the veins popping through his shins. The aging process had hardened Morrison’s face and from a distance his skin had a leathery look to it. His hair was somewhat thinner and his face was framed with a light beard. He, like Castle, sported a black headband.

Castle began the bout on the move while Morrison slowly stalked him. The Indianapolis native flashed quicker hands while keeping up a busy pace and several times he caught Morrison with clean, hard punches. One of them appeared to stun ‘The Duke’ and the crowd voiced its surprise. Morrison appeared slow and hesitant to pull the trigger and when the bell sounded to end the first round it was apparent that Castle had won it – and not by a little.

Morrison was still working through 10-plus years of ring rust and by nature he is a man not comfortable performing before big crowds. Those elements combined for a not-so-stellar start to his comeback. There was also another worry – a small pinpoint cut had opened on Morrison’s forehead. But his corner didn’t have to work very hard to close it, and was not a factor as round two began.

Castle continued to score well in the early stages, through he was careful not to engage Morrison in a shootout. But Morrison showed why he was once one of the boxing world’s most fearsome punchers as he uncorked a beauty of a counter hook to Castle’s jaw midway through the round. Castle crashed to the floor and though he managed to rise, referee Dave Johnson stopped the fight at the 1:49 mark. It could be argued that Morrison lost all but 10 seconds of the fight, but the 10 seconds he won was all he needed.”

To most of those who packed the arena, the real main event was next up. As super welterweight Dillon Cook walked toward the ring, fans waved placards bearing his first name and emitted ear-splitting cheers. Though he hailed from nearby Joplin, to them, Cook was representing Miami to all those who were watching on TV and, should he be victorious against, by far, his best opponent to date, his success would be their success. Conversely, his failure would be seen as their failure. Thus, a lot was at stake for everyone concerned. They knew of his amateur triumphs – six Golden Gloves titles, four regional Silver Gloves titles, a Junior Golden Gloves National title and a Heartland title – and they’ve seen his previous six fights at Buffalo Run, none of which were televised. This one would be and they yearned for him to take the next step up the ladder.

But, in a wider sense, Cook wasn’t the only compelling storyline. In the other corner stood once-beaten Justin DeLoach, who, at 22, was three years younger but was talented enough to win a Silver Gloves title at age 13. He was only the second of Cook’s 17 opponents who had a winning record and the second to come off a win, so he represented a significant step up in quality of opposition for the local hero. But the bigger story was the man who helped him prepare for this fight – former two-time welterweight titlist Paul Williams, who was making his debut as a trainer.

Paralyzed from the waist down since suffering a motorcycle accident in May 2012 – just weeks before facing Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, for what would have been the richest purse of his career – “The Punisher” saw much of himself in the 6-foot-1 prospect with the seemingly endless reach. DeLoach’s athletic gifts, as well as the talents of persuasion of Williams’ longtime trainer George Peterson, enabled Williams to take the proverbial first step toward a new life in boxing.

While Peterson would be the one climbing the steps to impart advice, Williams is considered the main man. He had seen things DeLoach had not yet seen and their similar builds amplified the value of his stylistic advice. Cook also represented a day of reckoning in terms of opposition but DeLoach had the benefit of facing winning fighters in two of his last three fights, following his lone loss to Cesar Vila (TKO by 3), and beating them all, One by stoppage.

As Williams watched the action from ringside, the fruits of his work played out against Cook. Playing the same volume game as his mentor, DeLoach fired 76 punches in round one to Cook’s 42 and outlanding him 17-11. The pattern continued in round two (19 of 66 to 7 of 43) but Cook closed the gap considerably in round three (DeLoach led 17 of 65 to Cook’s 16 of 51). The rally proved short-lived, for DeLoach emphatically ended matters late in the fourth when Cook circled directly into the path of a crushing right to the jaw. The punch caused Cook to fall in sections, spit the mouthpiece out and stare at the canvas with a glazed, empty expression. It wasn’t until referee Gerald Ritter’s count of nine when Cook even tried to get up. By then, it was far too late. Just like that, it was over. The time of the KO was 2:47.

The stats further illustrated the action inside the ring: DeLoach threw nearly 100 more punches (276-180) and thus landed more overall (76-44). He doubled up Cook in landed power shots (65-31) and was more accurate overall (28%-24%) and in power punches (36%-31%). Cook did land more jabs (13-11) despite throwing fewer of them (81-94) and he was more precise in that category (16%-12%) but that offered no solace for the overwhelmingly disappointing result.

“It’s a bummer,” Cook told the Joplin Globe’s Peake in the dressing room. “Stuff happens; I guess. I knew he was going to be tough and I got caught. I’ll get back in the gym and I’ll train harder. I’ll watch the tape and see what I need to improve on.”

DeLoach, of course, was delighted.

“I’m happy with my performance,” DeLoach told Showtime’s John Beyrooty. “This was a great experience fighting a guy like this in his backyard. I enjoyed the crowd and their enthusiasm. It motivated me. I got a little lazy in parts of the second and third rounds but I listened to my corner and picked it up on offense and got my punch count up and going again. This was a great win for all of us. I’m ready to do this again.”

And we’re ready to watch him do it again.

Meanwhile, the crowd was stunned into near silence and it would take a lot to ignite even a percentage of their previous volume, especially since they felt no personal connection to any of the six fighters whom would follow. To them, those six were strangers and, if they were to impress the crowd, they would have to produce fireworks.

Happily for them – and everyone else – those six did just that.

Brooklyn-based Ukrainian southpaw Ivan Golub was a five-time national champion with an impressive 270-32 amateur record and through 10 fights, nine of which were fought on the East Coast, he produced eight knockouts, seven in three rounds or less. But Golub was no stranger to this part of the country, for his pro debut occurred at the Ameristar Casino in St. Charles, Missouri. There, he won a four-round decision. Here, he scored a sixth round corner retirement against previously undefeated Marlon Aguas – and it was a victory achieved only after experiencing a brief scare.

Moments after scoring a knockdown from a right to the body, Golub moved in for the finish. Instead he moved into a short right that hit him as he charged inside. This knockdown was much more forceful but, after tumbling to the floor, Golub hustled to his feet and seemed fine after taking Gary Ritter’s count. Over the next three rounds, Golub transformed “seemed” into “definitely” fine as he dominated the action by going back to the sport’s foundational punch: The jab.

Though he was the fighter moving forward, he dictated range with a prolific and accurate right jab that forced Aguas to retreat and set up his subsequent bombs. In rounds 3-5, Golub averaged 49.7 jabs per round (more than double the 24.3 super lightweight average) and 11.7 landed jabs per round (nearly triple the 4.8 norm). That, in turn, led to overall connect leads of 68-23 overall and 33-23 power in those rounds and set the table for the finish in round six. A right/left to the jaw drove the weary Aguas onto the ring apron. The Ecuadorian managed to regain his feet but his inert expression and unfocused eyes rightly persuaded his trainer to stop the fight between rounds.

The final numbers reflected Golub’s dominance; 123-45 overall, 57-6 jabs and 66-39 power and percentage gaps of 28%-26% overall, 22%-12% jabs and 38%-31% power. Golub was far more active (72.7 per round to 29) and the jab was excellent (43.5 thrown/9.5 connects per round). Most importantly, Golub reacted well to the second-round knockdown by regaining his senses quickly and resuming his attack.

It is extremely rare for a fighter to pitch a perfect game statistically but Ivan Baranchyk, a Brooklyn-based Belorussian junior welterweight, became a member of that exclusive club when he bombed out Nicholas Givhan in 21 seconds. He landed all three of his punches – a jab to the body, a crushing hook to the jaw and a right that clipped Givhan’s chin on the way down. Givhan, who was trapped under the bottom rope, lacked the motor skills to free himself in time and was counted out by Gary Ritter. For the record, Givhan, whose record dropped to 16-1-1 (10 KOs) while Baranchyk’s rose to 10-0 (9 KOs), threw three punches and landed one, a jab.

Going in, the conventional wisdom was that the main event between Regis Prograis and Aaron Herrera would be the evening’s longest fight because the fusion of Prograis’ attrition-fueled volume punching and Herrera’s toughness and experience projected to an interesting but lengthy clash of styles. But, every so often, the “experts,” of which I am considered one, are made to look foolish. Yes, I had the right winner but I never thought Prograis would polish off Herrera in such short order. After all, while Herrera sported a 29-4-1 (18) record, his only KO loss occurred against the heavy-handed welterweight Selcuk Aydin, who required eight rounds to put Herrera away.

In his first two ShoBox appearances against Amos Cowart Jr. and Abel Ramos, Prograis proved himself to be a dazzling combination puncher who racked up huge numbers in scoring eight-round victories, one by TKO and the other on points. In those bouts, Prograis averaged 97.4 punches per round (nearly double the 58.6 junior welterweight average) and whipped in jabs with waterfall-like fluidity and intensity (53.9 thrown/12.9 connects per round). Cowart and Ramos tried their best to keep up but they fell far short of the mark as they averaged a combined 52.6 punches per round and landed 25% overall, 16% jabs and 31% power to Prograis’ 38% overall, 24% jabs and 57% power.

So what happened? Prograis connected with a wicked left cross to the chin that sent Herrera retreating across the ring, then, the moment Herrera’s back hit the ropes, Prograis whipped a right to the solar plexus that kept Herrera almost motionless, even after referee Gerald Ritter stopped his count to motion Prograis to the neutral corner and then counted “10.”

As I told Prograis afterward, “I thought your first two fights were impressive. This one was even better.”

This time, the jab was merely a table-setter as he landed just 1 of 36 (3%). But the power shots more than made up for it as he landed 6 of 9 (or 67%). This performance revealed a different dimension to Prograis, one that must be taken into account by future opponents. Of all the prospects I’ve seen in recent years on ShoBox, I have been most impressed with Prograis. In his first two appearances, he showed slickness, smarts and volume but, here, he took out an experienced opponent with a single body shot. In my eyes, Prograis is not far from the Top 10 at 140 pounds and that vicious body shot could be the final punch he throws as a ShoBox fighter because he looks ready to graduate to the other two Showtime boxing series (“Showtime Special Edition” and “Showtime Championship Boxing”). That, however, is not my decision to make.

*

With the show ending so early, it took a while for the post-fight pizza to arrive. After consuming two slices of pepperoni, Andy and I needed to tackle our next issue – our ride back to the hotel. My original plan was to drive Ted Conniff’s car back to the hotel, try to park it near the same spot he did and leave the keys at the registration desk as he did for me. But, at Nikki Ferry’s suggestion, I instead returned the keys to Ted, who, unbeknownst to me, was seated to my immediate left during our crew meal. She said Andy and I should be able to find a ride without any trouble and, in the end, she was right.

We, along with Thomas Treiber, found our driver in technical director Rick Tugman, who also would be my ride to the airport in a few hours’ time. Once I returned to the room, I still had plenty of work to do – uploading the stats onto the master database and compiling the judges’ information list for HBO’s co-feature pitting Joseph Diaz Jr. and Jayson Velez, all of which took about an hour to complete. Knowing I needed to catch a few hours of shuteye, I switched off the lights a little after 2 a.m. with the hope of awakening around 7:30.

Saturday, March 26: When I stirred awake and saw that it was 6 a.m., I felt a sudden need to get some work done before checking out of the room. So I snoozed for another 15 minutes, after which I officially began my travel day.

After cranking out a few more hundred words, I packed my belongings and took the elevator down to the lobby at 8:15, 15 minutes before I was set to meet Rick. Most of the time, I am the early one but, here, Rick had beaten me to the punch as he was already polishing off a small bowl of Rice Krispies by the time I spotted him. Since Rick wanted to fill up the rental car’s tank before dropping it off in Tulsa – and because he, like me, likes to arrive at the airport well before boarding time – we decided to leave a few minutes early.

The 90-minute drive was thoroughly enjoyable as Rick told me about the highlights of his career, which included working several years with legendary director Sandy Grossman, who earned eight Emmys for his work that included 10 Super Bowls, 18 NBA finals, five Stanley Cup finals and Olympic hockey before passing away at age 78 in April 2014. Better yet, since our gates were both in the A-concourse, and located only three gates apart, we were able to spend even more time.

As we waited to make sure he wouldn’t be able to board an earlier flight, whose doors had just closed when we arrived, Rick showed me a video of the last 10 minutes of the final “USA Tuesday Night Fights” telecast in 1998. Then we walked over to TGI Fridays for brunch, where I told Rick about my limited but extremely eventful experiences with trying to box. Just before I got up to leave so I could catch my flight, an African-American man seated with his female companion asked, “Are you really a boxing writer?”

“Yes I am,” I replied. “I write for RingTV.com and I’m known as the ‘Travelin’ Man.'”

“I have a question for you,” he said. “Who do you think is the better middleweight champion: Bernard Hopkins or Marvelous Marvin Hagler?”

“It depends on what you’re really asking,” I said. “If you’re talking about a head-to-head fight between them, that’s a toss-up because both were terrific fighters. Hagler is the most versatile fighter of my lifetime; he could box right-handed or southpaw. He could box or bang and he fought and beat a lot of terrific fighters. But if you’re talking about middleweight championship reigns, then Bernard has it over Hagler, as well as everybody else. He is one of only a handful of fighters who held a title for 10 years or more and he recorded a record 20 title defenses. Hagler held the belt for more than six years and recorded 11 defenses. Both beat some great fighters along the way but, strictly speaking about reigns, I pick Hopkins.”

As I was speaking, I already knew I was in the danger zone because one of my biggest weaknesses is, once a knowledgeable boxing fan like this gentleman begins firing questions, I will talk with him as long as he can stand me. And, for once, I didn’t have the time to fully indulge. With only 10 minutes remaining before my on-time flight was slated to board, I reluctantly excused myself but not before shaking his hand and thanking him for the talk.

The Chicago-bound flight departed on time, and I was pleasantly surprised to see producer Richard Gaughan and production manager Joie Silva enter the aircraft and settle into their fourth-row seats. A few words about Gaughan: The tone of an operation is set by those who occupy the top rungs and Gaughan, one of ShoBox’s “core four,” along with analyst Steve Farhood, director Rick Phillips and executive producer Gordon Hall, is, like his compatriots, excellent at his job while also being an excellent human being. He’s the kind of guy you work with, not work for because he makes you feel like a colleague instead of a subordinate. Without fail, he greets me by name with a smile as well as a firm handshake and, after the show, he makes sure to say some form of “Good job.” The same goes for Phillips, Farhood and Hall.

When I worked at The Parkersburg News and Sentinel, between 1990 and 2007, such gestures were all but alien, especially for those of us who worked on the copydesk. Compliments were few and far between while criticisms were a multiple-time-per-day event. We were governed by fear and that atmosphere spawned turnover, supervisor-employee tension and stress. That’s why I remain so appreciative to CompuBox president Bob Canobbio, who not only delivered me from that situation by offering me a full-time position as his writer, researcher and punch-counter but, in the process, always treated me like a friend more than an employee. Those of us lucky enough to work with the ShoBox crew – headed by people like Richard, feel the same way.

Coincidentally, my seatmate in row nine was a redheaded lady, who was to be on both legs of my journey, so, following our smooth flight from Tulsa to Chicago, we made the long walk from Gate G2A to Gate L10. We reached our destination with time to spare despite the relatively narrow connection window and boarded a few minutes past the scheduled time.

I was seated on the aisle in row 20 and, by the time I arrived, my seatmate, a Robert Morris University professor, was already in her seat. She was on the final leg of her journey from Moscow that included flights to Seattle and Chicago, a process that thoroughly messed up her body clock but not enough to keep her from chatting with me for the entire flight. One of the best perks of my job is the chance to speak with successful people and learn how they reached their current lot in life. Over time – and through personal experience – the route usually includes initiative, drive, performance and perception (“perception” meaning the ability to perceive a life-changing opportunity and the courage to grab it when it materializes). She, like I, have lived the blessings that come with merging passion with profession and neither of us can envision the day when we’ll retire.

The plane landed in Pittsburgh on time and the two-and-a-half hour drive home was made even more enjoyable by bright sunshine and cloudless skies. With the usual classic rock blasting and a large diet soda in the cup holder, I returned home the very minute I predicted I would be. I spent the rest of the evening watching the boxing I missed and reflecting on the fun I had over the last few days.

The next trip is scheduled to begin April 14 and the destination will take me to Verona, New York to work a ShoBox quadruple-header topped by bantamweights Nikolay Potapov and Stephon Young.

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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