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The Travelin’ Man comes back to Verona: Part two

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Apr
Undefeated cruiserweight Constantin Bejenaru tags Alexey Zubov with left hand to the head. Photo: Rosie Cohe/Showtime

Undefeated cruiserweight Constantin Bejenaru tags Alexey Zubov with left hand upstairs. Photo: Rosie Cohe/Showtime

 

Please click here for Part One.

 

Friday, April 15 (continued): Not much was known about Louisiana lightweight Mason Menard going into this, his first nationally televised fight. No footage of his 31 previous fights was available on YouTube (or anywhere else I know) and that apparently was done by design. Because of that, no one, especially previously undefeated Dominican Eudy Bernardo, knew what to expect.



If one goes by the final result – a sensational but scary one-punch knockout in round three – Team Menard exploited something almost impossible to acquire in this age of social media: The element of surprise.

Looking at Menard’s record, one might think he was just another product of the “southern circuit,” where glossy records are routinely built against sub-par competition, then destroyed once the fighter ventures beyond familiar territory. Consider: Only 11 of his 31 opponents had winning records and 16 had suffered multiple losses going into their fights with Menard. Add to that his career-long 251-day layoff and one had justification to doubt his chances.

But like another product of Louisiana – junior welterweight Regis Prograis – Menard proved himself to be someone whose talent can travel. Sometimes, as is the case with Nebraska’s Terence Crawford, that talent soars to pound-for-pound levels.

The 5-foot-6 Menard easily solved his opponent’s advantages in height (four inches) and reach (seven-and-a-half inches) by slipping under the Dominican’s busy but inaccurate jabs (11 of 110, 10%), working over the Dominican’s wispy torso with both hands and coming over the top with bombs that struck with regularity (26 of 59, 44%). A scything right uppercut triggered a barrage that led to the first knockdown late in round two. Bernardo arose, returned to his corner and appeared fine as the third round started.

He wouldn’t stay fine for long.

A massive overhand right rendered Bernardo unconscious even before he hit the mat and referee Benjy Esteves Jr. rightly halted his count immediately, then called for medical personnel to tend to the stricken fighter.

The fight’s final moments were frightening to watch, even more so from my vantage point less than 10 feet away. Menard’s right hand stiffened, then anesthetized Bernardo’s body, which fell to the floor almost directly in front of me and made a cringe-inducing, concussive sound upon impact. I sensed most of that sound was caused by his head striking a canvas that was lightly padded, if at all.

As the EMTs worked over Bernardo, his breathing was heavy, his eyes were closed and blood was trickling from his mouth. He didn’t react at all as the medical personnel applied the neck brace, sought to clear his airway and tilted his body to get him onto the stretcher. I’m sure I joined many others when I bowed my head and said a silent prayer for his quick recovery (something Menard himself did in the middle of the ring, while on one knee) but, as he was led out of the arena, he still had not moved a muscle. Many feared the worst.

My mind’s eye was instantly transported back to the evening of July 16, 2008 in San Antonio when local welterweight Oscar Diaz fell victim to an extended beating administered by Delvin Rodriguez. He, too, was carried out on a stretcher and, though he survived emergency brain surgery, he remained in a coma for two months and remained in the hospital for five more before being released. Obviously, Diaz never fought again – in fact, according to his brother, he never walked on his own again – and he would live for nearly seven more years in an area nursing home before passing away at age 32 in Feb. of 2015.

That night caused me to doubt my love for a sport I had passionately followed for 34 years, to that point and, in many ways, defined my identity. In Nov. 2013, I wrote about the process by which I resolved my conflicted feelings and the main argument I used was the vastly improved devotion to fighter safety, which was graphically evidenced here by Esteves’ instantaneous decision-making and the medical personnel’s arrival seconds thereafter. Initial reports from the dressing room indicated Bernardo was semi-conscious but his arms were still flaccid; however, later on, it was confirmed that Bernardo had regained consciousness and would undergo a CT scan.

Boxing will always be an inherently dangerous sport and those like me who love it still must grapple with the rare occasions in which a knockout loser is forced to wage a second fight – the fight for his life. The risk will never be totally eliminated but those who choose to chase their dreams inside the squared circle freely assume the risks in order to chase the rewards, whether they are fame, fortune, self-esteem, security, legacy or all of the above.

Here’s hoping (1) Bernardo regains full health and (2) Menard will overcome whatever stress he felt and continue his career unabated. That’s what Sergey Kovalev did in the wake of his seventh round TKO victory over Roman Simakov in Dec. 2011. Simakov died from his injuries but, at least inside the ring, “The Krusher” has continued to live up to his nickname. Since then, he has gone 12-0 (11), captured three light heavyweight belts and registered career-defining victories over Nathan Cleverly, Jean Pascal (twice) and Bernard Hopkins. Moreover, in registering these wins, Kovalev’s thirst for combat has not waned and the results have enabled him to cement his place as not only one of boxing’s most successful fighters but also among its most exciting.

*

I am a firm believer that numbers can tell just about any story about a fight and such is the case for the main event between bantamweights Nikolay Potapov and Stephon Young, which was judged a draw. On the surface, Potapov was dominant as he out-landed Young 148-99 overall, 43-12 jabs and 105-87 power, and registered bigger connect numbers in eight of the 10 rounds overall, nine of 10 rounds in landed jabs and seven of 10 rounds in power shots. However, a deeper look into the stats might explain how one judge saw Potapov a 96-94 winner while the other two viewed the bout tied at 95.

Item one: Potapov’s lead in the raw numbers was largely a product of far superior volume (62.2 punches per round to Young’s 36.2). Young was actually the more accurate puncher overall (27%-24%) and in power punches (35%-34%) and, because his power shots landed with more force, he probably created a bigger impact with the judges.

Item two: In two rounds, Young surged heavily in the final minute of what had been Potapov rounds. In the last 60 seconds of round three, Young went 8 of 21 overall to Potapov’s 5 of 16, while, in round nine, Young closed with 11 of 26 to the Russian’s 4 of 21. More often than not, finishing kicks such as these can subliminally sway a judge’s opinion (though it shouldn’t) and, given the scores, that may have well been the case. Also, Young achieved superior power accuracy in four of the 10 rounds and the heft behind each connect might also have been pivotal in the decision-making process.

That said, I agree with Potapov when he said the most rounds he should have lost was four. Each fighter, however, was affected by shortcomings that marked their previous bouts. For Potapov, it was sub-par power (his last seven fights have now gone double-digit rounds), while, for Young, it was insufficient volume.

Both were well aware of their respective issues but while Potapov can’t do much to acquire knockout drops, short of sneaking horseshoes into his gloves, Young’s malady is more addressable in that throwing more punches is something within a fighter’s control. Young himself confirmed that sentiment a few days before the fight.

“This is a big opportunity for me,” he said. “I know I need to be more active and throw more punches against this guy.”

He knew what to do but why didn’t he do it? This dynamic was best captured by a proverb often quoted by Cus D’Amato, then Teddy Atlas: “People who are born round don’t die square.” Or, in other words, once somebody reaches a certain stage in life, it is almost impossible to change who he is, no matter how hard he tries. Fighters’ styles are usually an extension of their personalities and physical circumstances but if their temperaments don’t match up, the mountain becomes tremendously difficult to climb.

One story that illustrates this concept perfectly was originally told to THE RING’s Murray Rose, several decades ago, and published in Ronald K. Fried’s excellent book “Cornermen: Great Boxing Trainers.” The principals were trainer Ray Arcel and fighter Benny Valgar.

“Benny was a great boxer but he couldn’t punch,” Arcel told Rose. “He was on the way down and we were taking a trip around the country. One night, Benny looked around the arena and saw only a handful of customers. Benny looked at me and said, ‘Ray, what’s the matter? Why ain’t we drawing?’ I said, ‘Benny, the fans want action. They don’t want to see any of that fancy jab-and-run stuff. Get out there and slug.’ Benny said he would do that.

“The round started,” he continued. “Benny went out with a rush but did nothing but box. When the round was over, I said to Benny, ‘Why didn’t you go out there and slug?’ Benny turned to me and said, ‘I tried, Ray; honestly I did. My arms were willing but my brain wouldn’t let me do anything wrong.'”

I’m sure Young truly wanted to up his work rate against Potapov but one can’t instantly overcome a calculating temperament, years of muscle memory or a method of fighting that allowed Young to forge a 14-0-2 (6) record going into the fight. Once the opening bell sounded, the instincts of both men took over and, surely to Young’s chagrin, he slipped back into old habits.

Can Young will himself to acquire a more prolific trigger? At age 27 and with nearly five years of pro experience, the odds are against him. But a big part of solving a problem is recognizing that one exists and, because Young is aware of the issue and wants to change, there is a basis for optimism.

*

In part one, I detailed the process by which I count fighters but the showdown between undefeated cruiserweights Alexey Zubov and Constantin Bejenaru (which the latter won by unanimous decision) presented another important element to the job: Discernment.

Many Eastern European fighters like Zubov fight behind an extended lead hand that probes, flicks and waves in the air. For punch-counters, this presents a tricky situation: Is that thrust a jab or is it not?

For me, gauging the fighter’s intent is the key to making that determination. Did the boxer extend his arm fully toward the target and did he do so with at least a modicum of snap? If he did, that’s an official attempt, in my eyes. If not, then I consider it a feint and not worthy of being included in the stats.

As for the fight, one would have thought that the short and powerfully built Bejenaru would bore inside, Joe Frazier-style, and whack the body while the 6-foot-1 ¾ Zubov would stay on the move and catch his antagonist with long, easily-seen punches. But when the fight started, this “one” was proved wrong.

Using cagey, dual-directional movement and timely southpaw left crosses, Bejenaru all but froze Zubov. In rounds one and two, Bejenaru went 12 of 51 and 14 of 45 overall while Zubov was a mere 1 of 20 and 2 of 28. Zubov eventually loosened up in rounds three through six and scored a potentially fight-turning knockdown with a perfect counter right to the jaw in round seven. However, Bejenaru recovered and, most importantly to him, regained his strategic superiority and maintained it until the final bell.

Although Bejenaru’s connect leads were small (79-45 overall, 18-1 jabs, 61-35 power), the Moldovan out-landed Zubov in every round except for the sixth, when they tied with eight overall connects. He also was more accurate in all phases (25%-21% overall, 14%-11% jabs, 32%-28% power) in a fight that was extremely slow-paced (31.7 per round for Bejenaru, 21.9 for Zubov, both well under the 51.9 cruiserweight average).

*

Aris and I skipped the post-fight pizza (neither of us were hungry, thanks to Aris buying us popcorn and soda before the televised portion of the card) and, after saying our goodbyes, I headed up to the room to upload the night’s stats to our master database. I would have spent some more time trying to wind down but with the hour growing late (2:30 a.m.), I knew I had to at least try to get a few hours of sleep.

Saturday, April 15: For the next four hours, I alternated between resting and sleeping but, because I felt the need to get some writing done before I left the hotel, I felt fairly energized. After finishing the morning routines, I cranked out nearly 1,000 words over the next hour, so I felt pretty good about where I was at when I started the final phases of packing.

Because of the 45-minute drive to Syracuse airport and the time I would need to drop off the rental car, I felt leaving the hotel by 9 a.m. would help me arrive well in time to catch my 11:30 a.m. flight to Philadelphia. So, following the advice given to me the previous evening by hotel personnel, I called the front desk at 8:30 and hoped the rental vehicle would be waiting for me by the time I checked out.

But, as usual, there were complications. Because of Showtime’s carpooling system, I was charged with returning the rental vehicle that cameraman Gene Samuels used on Thursday and thus I had no idea what it looked like. Before the show the previous evening – moments after I returned the keys to Tim Arden’s car to him – Gene told me he used valet parking for his vehicle, which was terrific because that saved me the trouble of looking for a car I had never seen in the casino’s giant parking garage. The moment he gave me his claim ticket, I was all set.

Or was I?

All seemed well when I called the front desk and read the number on the claim ticket. And all appeared well when, after checking out, I approached the bellman and gave him my ticket. But a few minutes elapsed and, while several other cars arrived at the pick-up point, there apparently was no sign of mine. The bellman called the valet garage not once but twice to see what was going on and I couldn’t be of any help because I couldn’t provide a positive identification.

Moments after the second phone call, a blonde female employee approached us and asked about a red minivan parked approximately 50 feet to our right.

Guess what? Yep. It was my car. It had been sitting there the whole time. Still, despite the comedy of errors, I left the property precisely at 9 a.m.

The drive on Interstate 90 West was made more enjoyable by the cloudless skies and 59 degree temperature and, despite stopping at a travel center to fill the tank, I still made excellent time.

Thanks to my Pre-Check status, I breezed through security and arrived at my gate with time to spare. With the boarding process still several minutes away, I decided to buy brunch at a nearby convenience store (a turkey-and-bacon sandwich, a bag of Fritos and a bottle of Coke Zero) and, to my surprise, the boarding process was well under way by the time I returned to the gate.

In the end, however, I wasn’t even close to missing the flight. That’s because our departure was delayed nearly a half-hour due to the arrival of a “very important person.”

Guess who that person was?

Donald Trump.

Yes, that Donald Trump.

The Republican presidential front-runner was on his way to a campaign stop in Syracuse because the New York primary was just three days away but while he concerned himself with maximizing his delegate count, I was worried about my suddenly narrowed connection window. Originally it was a comfortable 69 minutes but, now, it was cut by nearly half. Worse yet, if the connecting gate was anywhere else but the F concourse, at which we would be arriving, I would have to catch a bus at Gate F 10 to gain access to the other terminals, a process that might be, given my situation, time-prohibitive.

Thankfully, everything worked out well. Following a very hard landing, a few minutes after 1 in the afternoon, I checked the flight monitor and saw my gate was F 29, which meant I had no bus to catch. I arrived at my gate with 23 minutes to spare.

Thanks to heavy gusts, the approach into Pittsburgh was quite bumpy but the pilots managed to produce a safe and relatively smooth touchdown.

One of the fruits of warmer weather is a surge in road construction projects and, during the first portion of my drive home, I ran into two that narrowed interstate access from three lanes to one. Fortunately traffic never came to a complete stop and, because I decided to skip the usual drive-in stop, I arrived home at my predicted 6:30 p.m. I spent the rest of the evening watching the boxing tripleheader on NBC (Krzysztof Glowacki UD 12 Steve Cunningham, Marcus Browne SD 8 Radivoje Kalajdzic, Errol Spence Jr. TKO 5 Chris Algieri), then the doubleheader on Showtime (Jose Pedraza UD 12 Stephen Smith and Gary Russell Jr. TKO 2 Patrick Hyland). What can I say? I just can’t get enough of “The Sweet Science.”

As springtime marches on, the frequency of trips has picked up. My next journey is scheduled to begin in less than two weeks’ time and there, in Washington DC, I will (God willing) be at ringside to work the “Showtime Championship Boxing” card featuring two 168-pound title fights: WBC titlist Badou Jack vs. Lucian Bute and IBF beltholder James DeGale vs. Rogelio Medina.

Until next time, 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. You can contact Groves directly at [email protected].

 

 

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