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The Travelin’ Man goes to Corona: Part two

Undefeated welterweight Taras Shelestyuk connects with a left hand upstairs on Jaime Herrera at the Omega Products International Events Center in Corona, California on November 4, 2016. Photo credit: Esther Lin/Showtime
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Please click here for Part One.

 

Friday, Nov. 4 (continued): Everyone who has ever absorbed a liver shot will never forget it. I experienced mine during a backyard boxing match during my teen years and my reaction was much like what lightweight Vitor Jones Freitas displayed a little less than two-and-a-half minutes into his fight with Manuel Mendez.

Up until that moment, the grandnephew of two-division titlist Acelino Freitas had controlled the action with his movement and counterpunching. He had thrown far more punches (62 to 19) and landed more often (11-5 overall and 10-2 power) but Mendez erased everything with his next – and last – punch. The concise blow cut into the right side of Freitas’ body and, for the Brazilian, the aftermath was intense and agonizing. He stayed on the canvas long after referee Tom Taylor completed his 10 count; in fact, he probably wouldn’t have been able to make a 100 count – nor would he have wanted to even try.

Even more than three decades after the fact, I could relate to what Freitas must have been feeling. For me, the first two minutes were nothing short of terrifying because, for the first time in my life, I had lost complete control of my body. All of the air was forced out and I strained mightily just to draw in my next breath. Meanwhile, the right side of my abdomen felt as if it were on fire. It was as if a thousand tiny needles were pricking my liver from the inside out. Finally, there was a tingle in my legs that suggested that my nervous system had just been severely compromised. While all this was going on, my psyche was undergoing a mighty stress test. For a few moments, I actually contemplated the possibility of my own death.

Just before I reached my physical and mental breaking points, I began to recover. I took in a couple of deep breaths – which meant that my ribs weren’t broken – and the tingle in my legs soon disappeared. When I felt stable enough I rose to my feet. The needles-and-pins in my side took longer to physically fade away but the imprint they left will remain for the rest of my life.

But as horrific as my experience was, it was even worse for Freitas because his occurred in front of several hundred people on site and countless more watching on television. Worse yet, it forever removed the title “undefeated” from his job description. Weeks of preparation were wiped away just 152 seconds after the start of his job assignment. A knockout loss is bad enough but a first-round knockout loss is as bad as it gets in this sport. Therefore, it was no surprise that Showtime’s cameras later captured Freitas weeping in his dressing room. Acelino and his older brother Luiz, the two people best equipped to help Vitor cope with his changed fistic circumstances, were there with him.

The next contest was a scheduled 10-round cruiserweight showdown between Constantin Bejenaru and Stivens (a.k.a. Steve) Bujaj, who was a target of playful jesting by Showtime’s resident storyteller John Beyrooty several hours earlier. Bujaj, who was entering the building as John, Andy and I were chatting in the shaded area near ringside, took the ribbing with a smile. Bejenaru-Bujaj was as odd as Mendez-Freitas had been explosive. First, neither was a local draw as Bejenaru was a Catskill-based Romanian southpaw with an aggressor’s physique and a counterpuncher’s mindset and Bujaj was a New York City-based Albanian bomber with a boxer’s build. Second, the strangeness continued from first bell to last. Accidental butts opened a cut on the high left side of the Bejenaru’s scalp and created a hematoma on the right side of the skull that eventually grew to dangerous proportions. He also suffered a fifth round knockdown thanks to Bujaj’s nifty counter hook and incurred a point penalty for hitting on the break in the ninth. Moreover, Bejenaru was accused of both butting and biting by Bujaj, who looked rattled in the early going by Bejenaru’s swirling southpaw awkwardness but justifiably gained confidence in the middle and late rounds.

In terms of statistics, the most critical factor in the outcome – Bejenaru by unanimous decision – was the gulf in activity, especially in the first four rounds. There, Bejenaru averaged 56 punches per round while Bujaj threw just 33.8. That, in turn, created connect gaps of 58-28 overall and 42-23 power, gaps that survived Bujaj’s mid-rounds rally and carried him to the points victory. Bejenaru led 128-86 overall, 22-8 jabs and 106-78 power as well as 28%-26% overall and 32%-27% power (Bujaj prevailed 22%-19% in jab accuracy).

The bitterness continued in the post-fight presser.

“He’s a dirty fighter,” Bejenaru declared according to a Showtime press release. “You look at all (Bujaj’s) fights, all he does is lead with his head. I was affected by his headbutts but there was no way I was going to stop. He complains a lot, but all he did was foul. It felt to me like he bit me on the left ear after. That’s how he fights.

“The sport is boxing, not swimming, and he flails his punches like a swimmer, a street fighter, not a pro fighter,” he continued. “He caught me with a clean shot on the knockdown but I got right up and wasn’t hurt. This win is a big step in my career. It will help me continue to rise me up in the rankings on my way to a title shot.”

Bujaj, who repeatedly yelled at Bejenaru in the late rounds, also held tightly to his fury.

“Hell yeah, I’m mad,” he said. “The scoring was bad. I knew what I was getting into by fighting in his back yard but I definitely thought I won. I knocked him down. He never hurt me.”

Up until now, Taras Shelestyuk’s long-range boxing had been utterly dominant. In his last three fights, he had nearly doubled his opponents’ output (80 vs. 42.5) and nearly tripled their total connects per round (34.1 vs. 9.6). He averaged a sky-high 12 jabs per round to his foes’ 1.9 and was far more precise in all phases (43%-23% overall, 31%-12% jabs and 54%-28% power). Two fights ago against Aslanbek Kozaev, Shelestyuk’s connect leads bordered on the absurd (408-98 overall, 159-23 jabs and 249-75 power). Despite his supreme control, Shelestyuk still had to answer questions about his punching power – he failed to floor Kozaev despite the massive punishment he dished out – and his ability to fight at close range. Jaime Herrera, an unquestioned aggressor who proved himself more than capable of upsetting others’ well-laid plans, surely would administer an adequate test.

That he did.

Shelestyuk’s familiar formula controlled the first two rounds as he averaged 73 punches per round to Herrera’s 40 and out-landed him 58-14 overall, 20-0 jabs and 38-14 power but the Illinois resident weathered the early storm and imposed his strength in rounds three through five. The intense inside fighting led to a 36-17 lead for Herrera in rounds four and five and, in rounds four through seven, Shelestyuk’s work rate dropped to 55.8. The momentum had clearly swung to Herrera and, for the first time in his pro career, Shelestyuk was given a choice: Rally or recede.

The seventh saw Shelestyuk stabilize his situation by out-landing Herrera 17-12 overall while the eighth through the 10th offered proof he had turned the corner in a positive way, for his work rate increased from 58 in the seventh to an average of 81 in the final three rounds. The most telling moment was how Shelestyuk reacted to his corner’s urging to pick up the pace in round 10. His answer: a fight-high 100 punches and 30 overall connects that far outdistanced Herrera’s 10 of 38. Those final nine minutes proved decisive as Shelestyuk prevailed 96-93 on the cards of Jerry Cantu and Jack Reiss, as well as 95-94 on Edward Hernandez Sr.’s.

“After five rounds, I started to find my rhythm,” Shelestyuk said. “I started out-boxing (Herrera). I made some mistakes in there like pulling straight back. This fight will make me better.”

As the final credits began to roll, Andy and I disassembled our work station, packed our belongings and headed to the makeshift production office for a couple of slices of pizza and, for me, a diet soda. I accepted Andy’s offer to drive back to the hotel, which took about 20 minutes to complete. I had planned to do some more writing once I returned to the room but, by the time I finished uploading the show’s data to the master database, I realized it was just five hours before I needed to arise for the next day. So, at 11:30 p.m. local time, I turned out the lights and tried to get at least a little shuteye.

 

Saturday, Nov. 5: I stirred awake 15 minutes before my goal time of 4:30 a.m. And, following the morning routines, I polished off the rest of Part One. I then packed my belongings, checked out of the hotel and began the drive toward Ontario International Airport. Aside from a slight directional hiccup at the start of the trip that was easily made right, the drive was uneventful.

I filled up the rental’s tank at a Chevron station on Airport Drive, boarded the shuttle bus and walked into the terminal shortly before 7 a.m., less than an hour before my scheduled boarding time for my Ontario to Dallas Fort-Worth flight. As I was packing away my phone, wallet and keys into my laptop bag (which was sitting on the conveyor belt), a man jumped ahead of me, put his luggage on the conveyor belt and took what should have been my spot in the queue.

Do you know what they say about karma? Well, the line-jumper was stopped for a random supplemental search while I breezed past him. Had he not taken my place in line, I would have been the one who was delayed. Served him right.

The way home was fairly routine: An 8:25 a.m. PDT flight from Ontario to DFW, a 2:30 p.m. CDT bird from DFW to Pittsburgh and the two-and-a-half hour drive home. If all went well, I would pull into the driveway precisely at 9 p.m. EDT, the start of the Jessie Vargas-Manny Pacquiao pay-per-view telecast.

The first flight was a pleasant experience, an on-time departure, no noticeable turbulence and a successful (if somewhat rough) landing. It was made much better by my seatmate Kimberly Melchor, a criminal defense attorney for The Van Noy firm in Dayton. Her travel day, at least thus far, was on the other end of the scale. For reasons she couldn’t fathom, she overslept her phone’s 4:15 a.m. alarm by an hour. She did her best to make up the time but she missed her flight by just a few minutes. Her new itinerary consisted of three flights (Ontario to Dallas, Dallas to Memphis and Memphis to Dayton) instead of the previous two and would get her back to Dayton six hours later than originally planned. She hoped to rework her itinerary again in Dallas and hopefully she’ll be successful.

(Epilogue: The good news is that she arrived in Dayton safe and sound. The bad news was that a fourth flight – from Memphis to Charlotte, then Charlotte to Dayton – was added to her schedule while in Dallas. “Four flights in one day and the longest layover was 20 minutes!” she wrote in her email. “And, once I got to Dayton, I tracked my checked bag and it was still in Charlotte! It got dropped off at my house around 2 a.m.” What a day that must have been.)

Meanwhile, thanks to Skylink, I arrived at my connecting gate with plenty of time to spare (28 minutes before boarding, 58 minutes before departure). Once I boarded the aircraft, it became clear that the long days and short nights were affecting my sharpness because I not only settled into the wrong seat but also the wrong side of the aisle. After laughing it off, I found my proper spot (window seat in row 28).

For the second straight flight, my area had no middle-seat passenger. And, for the second straight flight, I had a delightful seatmate with whom I conversed for the entire flight. Angela, who has spent most of her time recently in California, had already made a great first impression by wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers shirt underneath her jacket and amplified it with a bright and cheerful personality highlighted by a smile that could light up a South American soccer stadium. As was the case during the first flight, the lively back-and-forth bent my perception of time in a most favorable way and, before I knew it, I was back in the Steel City.

After deplaning, I looked at the flight monitor to catch the time. It read 6:20 p.m. EDT, which meant I would arrive at my car around 6:40 and make it home 10 minutes after the start of the pay-per-view. But thanks to lighter-than-usual traffic and my excellent luck with the remaining traffic lights (all but one stayed green) I pulled into my driveway at 8:57 p.m.

As of this writing, I don’t know when my next journey will take place. In fact, this probably will be my final trip of 2016. If it is, then it’s been an excellent year. The destinations were varied (Tucson, Atlantic City, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Miami, Oklahoma (twice), Verona, New York (twice), Washington, D.C., Mashantucket, Connecticut, Rochester, New York and Corona, California) and, thanks to the “Travelin’ Man” series, preserved for all time.

The year 2017 (and March 4 specifically) will mark the 10th anniversary of my going full-time with CompuBox. At the time I was offered the job, I was told that it could last two years or it could go on for 20. Thankfully, the gig is now on the long side of the equation and, if I have my way, it will continue for as long as I am able – and for as long as the Canobbios will have me.

Until next time – whenever that is – 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 15 writing awards, including 12 in the last six 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 email [email protected].

 

 

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