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The Travelin’ Man goes back to Atlantic City: Part one

Fighters Network
01
Feb

Friday, Jan. 19: Since returning home from Omaha five weeks ago, the Home Office had been abuzz with activity and production. While the Christmas/New Year’s season offered me a chance to take an extended breather, I didn’t do so because that’s not how I’m wired. To feel good about a given day, I need to be doing something that I think will move the ball downfield – even just a little bit. Call me a workaholic, if you wish; the label fits. When you love what you do for a living, why waste time and be idle when you could be indulging in your lifelong passion? My current fusion of boxing, writing, statistics and history – and being paid while doing it – is a professional circumstance so perfect that I view sleep as a necessary interruption to my fun.

For me, a successful day is one in which I formulate a “to-do” list, then do my best to fulfill it, if not exceed it. Some days are devoted to conducting pre-fight research for CompuBox. Depending on how much needs to be done for a match, I could finish one fight or three. As long as progress is being made, I’m happy.

When I’m not doing research, I’m tending to my massive sports video collection, much of which consists of fights from most eras. I’ve spent many hours transferring recordings onto DVDs, which now number nearly 8,500 discs. Space may soon be an issue as I’m just about to finish filling my 22nd storage unit and my second book shelf. But, if I move some things around, I should create enough room to accommodate future units for years to come.

From time to time, I may be asked to answer a query involving some part of boxing history or to do some fact-checking for various boxing-related ventures. While most people’s lives consist of a constantly evolving subset of episodes, that dynamic is even more so for me. Because of that, boredom hasn’t been an issue for a very long time; in fact, it may never be again.



The best part of my existence is the autonomy I have, regarding my schedule. When I want, or need, to work, I work. When I need to take a break, I do so. Although I work best in the morning, I’ve also toiled during the late-night hours because the quiet helps the creative process. Because I complete most of my various jobs well before the requested deadlines, there’s no need for my bosses to look over my shoulder. The freedom is overwhelming – and much appreciated.

So, like most days, I’ve spent the last five weeks alternating between these various assignments and, so far, I’ve maintained the juggling act pretty well. But now it was time to indulge in yet another fun part of my professional existence: Traveling.

Today’s destination was a familiar one: Atlantic City. There, I, along with punch-counting colleague Andy Kasprzak (who, by the way, did not prevent me from indulging in the post-show pizza last year because, apparently, there was no pizza to be had),was to work the keys for a “ShoBox” tripleheader topped by a 12-round super bantamweight title eliminator between third-rated Adam Lopez and fourth-ranked Daniel Roman with the winner in position to fight WBA “world” champion Nehomar Cermeno (as opposed to “super” champion Guillermo Rigondeaux). The other bouts paired super middleweights Ronald Ellis and Christopher Brooker, as well as super lightweights Kenneth Sims Jr. and Emmanuel Robles. On paper, all three bouts featured pleasing style contrasts along with ShoBox’s usual crossroads career ramifications.

The main event was unusual in that the competitive dynamic was a mystery to me – as well as almost everyone else. While there was plenty of footage on Lopez, who was making his fifth ShoBox appearance, there was no readily available recent video on Roman. The only fight of his on YouTube was his four-round draw against Jensen Ramirez, which took place 22 fights and nearly six years ago. What was known is that Roman had won his last 13 fights and that his victims included Jonathan Arrellano (UD 8), Pedro Melo (TKO 2), Erik Ruiz (UD 10, a recent conqueror of Hanzel Martinez) and Christian Esquivel (KO 5, the same round in which he was stopped by then-future titlist Jonathan Guzman in May 2015).

Meanwhile, Lopez had been in the title picture for several months. With Guzman, just two days removed from his title-winning KO over Shingo Wake in Osaka, seated at ringside last July 22 to scout a potential opponent for his first defense, Lopez fought a draw against 18-1-1 Argentine Roman Reynoso, whose squat physique disguised his ability to maintain a stick-and-move fight plan. The verdict caused both men to go their separate ways; while Lopez stopped the 14-8-4 Carlos Valcarcel (a loser of four of his last six) in the eighth round last Nov. 16, Guzman returned to Japan and surprisingly lost his IBF super bantamweight belt to Yukinori Oguni by unanimous decision on New Year’s Eve. So while Guzman was licking his wounds, Lopez again found himself one fight away from a crack at a belt, albeit one of the WBA’s subordinate straps.

More was known about the other two fights on the card. To me, Ellis-Brooker was most intriguing because this match paired fighters with contrasting styles (Ellis the boxer vs. Brooker the brawler) and had taken opposite career paths. Ellis (then 13-0-1, 10 knockouts) had traveled the customary road prospects took – a series of reputation-building contests before stepping up the degree of difficulty – while Brooker (11-2, 5 KOs) had gone the “anyone, anytime, anywhere” route that usually resulted in challenging fights but also pockmarked records.

Ellis’ step-up fights against Jerry Odom and Oscar Riojas had mixed results, in terms of the official record (D 8 Odom, UD 8 Riojas), but the Odom result was a bit unlucky from Ellis’ perspective because he threw more (76.3 punches per round to Odom’s 58-8), landed more (154-131 overall, 40-22 jabs and 114-109 power) and out-performed Odom in six of the eight rounds, according to the CompuBox round-by-round breakdowns. That said, Ellis’ lead in the raw numbers were largely the result of his 36-14 outburst in round three and, because his lead in the other five rounds was four connects or less, the match was close enough to be interpreted in different ways (Ellis’ flashier combinations versus Odom’s stronger connects). Meanwhile, Riojas’ southpaw stance and ultra-defensive approach presented a stylistic puzzle to Ellis, and while Ellis’ jab was largely neutralized (he landed 11 in the fight), he still won going away (102-31 overall, 91-20 power) by being the effective aggressor and dictating the action and pace (64.4 per round to 41.8) from first bell to last.

Meanwhile, Brooker was coming off a 10th round TKO at the hands of Ronald Gavril last October, in which Brooker forced a fast pace (65.3 per round to Gavril’s 48.7) and scored a fifth-round knockdown. But Gavril’s jab worked better (18.7 thrown/5.4 connects per round to Brooker’s 29.5/2.9) and Brooker had trouble drawing a bead for most of the contest as he landed just 17% of his total punches, 10% of his jabs and 23% of his power shots. The fight turned irreparably in the 10th when Gavril scored two knockdowns and prompted the stoppage with just 56 seconds remaining in a fight that saw Gavril prevail 129-107 overall and 52-28 jabs while Brooker led 79-77 in landed power shots.

If Brooker could produce anything close to the fast start he achieved against Leo Hall (37 of 68 overall), in December of 2015, and if he could generate his usual excellent work rate, an interesting and potentially upsetting night for Ellis may be in the offing. But if Ellis can neutralize Brooker’s charging tactics, he is capable of producing a career-lifting performance. It should be fun to watch – and count.

Like Ellis-Brooker, Sims-Robles would likely feature the boxer-aggressor dynamic. And, like Brooker, Robles was coming off a loss, a split decision defeat to Steve Claggett that probably should have been unanimous for the Canadian, given the statistical gulfs (244-159 overall, 46-17 jabs, 198-142 power). But Robles maintained an incredible pace of 106.3 punches per round, despite staying on the back foot for most of the contest, a continuation of the insane pace he set in scoring a four-round stoppage of Gerardo Cuevas (123.2 per round), the son of Hall-of-Famer Pipino Cuevas.

In Sims, Robles would be facing a highly decorated amateur (two-time national PAL champion, 2013 U.S. national champion, Silver Gloves champion, Junior Olympic bronze medalist, 2012 Olympic Trials semifinalist and three time Ringside world champion), who was stepping up in several ways. First, he was engaging in his first scheduled eight-rounder. Second, he was set to face a mobile southpaw. Third, he was facing an opponent with a 15-1-1 (5) record, a far better ledger than that of his other 10 professional opponents (36-62-10, a .281 winning percentage).

Yes, Robles was coming off a loss and, yes, he was a late sub for another southpaw in Wellington Romero. But Robles still represented a significant step up. If there was to be a “ShoBox Surprise,” it might happen here but I believed Sims’ ability to switch-hit (I think he actually fought better as a lefty) and his better shot-for-shot power would result in a points victory.

Returning to the theme of setting and achieving goals during a given day, this day’s objectives were to arrive safely and hopefully get some work done after settling in.

Today’s itinerary was straightforward: Drive to Pittsburgh International Airport to catch the 1:15 p.m. American Airlines flight to Philadelphia, then meet audio ace Mike Sena and Mary “Queen of Stats” Swinson for Mike’s 90-minute drive to Atlantic City.

This travel day went extremely well: I left the house at 8:36 a.m. and arrived at the airport two hours and 15 minutes later, then found a parking spot within five minutes of entering the extended parking lot, boarded a plane that left on time, experienced no turbulence and landed 15 minutes early, met Sena at the rental bus pickup zone and waited inside the rental car for Swinson, whose plane arrived a half-hour later. We had no problem finding the Walt Whitman Bridge, New Jersey State Route 42, the Atlantic City Expressway or our crew hotel, Bally’s Atlantic City.

Better yet, shortly before I found a spot in line at Bally’s registration desk, I ran into newly-minted Hall of Famer Steve Farhood, who was on his way to the weigh-in on the sixth floor. By the time I checked into my room, unpacked, resolved the hotel’s puzzling free WiFi protocol and made my way to the sixth floor, I just missed the final weigh-in. But it wasn’t wasted time, not by a long shot.

After chatting with ShoBox’s executive producer Gordon Hall and ring announcer Thomas Treiber, analyst Raul Marquez, who was speaking to another boxing person at the time, asked me to help him jog his memory regarding a name. Following a brief description I came up with the name of the man he sought: Longtime matchmaker Ron Katz. Shortly after solving the puzzle, Marquez excused himself but I continued to talk with his former conversational companion, who turned out to be Bruce Blair, a former Temple University boxer and longtime conditioner who had been associated with Hasim Rahman, Jason Estrada, Charles Murray, Kennedy McKinney, Al Cole and Ray Mercer, among many others. Our conversation, which lasted more than 90 minutes, took us from the sixth floor to one of the bar’s inside Bally’s, where we had a couple cups of diet sodas.

Once we said our goodbyes, I was on my way back to the room when I heard Treiber call out my name. He wanted me to join his conversation with Guy Taylor, the matchmaker for Roy Jones Jr. Boxing, and, of course, I eagerly accepted the invitation. One major topic of conversation was the welcome news regarding Golden Boy Promotions’ new association with ESPN and ESPN Deportes – 18 shows in 2017 and 24 more in 2018. After more than a year without regularly scheduled boxing, “The Worldwide Leader in Sports,” which has covered “The Sweet Science” since its inception in 1979, was back in the game.

Boxing has long been the most resilient of sports and just when it appears its TV options will dry up for good another network (or networks) step up and strike a deal. I wish I had a dollar for every time boxing has been declared “a dying sport” because, if I did, I would have had a bankroll that might rival that of the investors who financed Premier Boxing Champions. I am convinced that boxing will always be with us because just about everyone can relate to it on an intensely personal level. Because most of us have been involved in a fist fight sometime in our lives, we are able to project ourselves into the action we see on screen or live inside the arena. As the action unfolds before me (at least when I’m not punch-counting), I think about strategies each fighter can employ and imagine myself giving advice to one fighter or the other. To me, every fight is a puzzle to solve and no boxing match is truly identical to another.

Like my talk with Blair, the one with Treiber eventually moved to another locale, in this case, the Dunkin’ Donuts outlet, where Taylor joined us later. As usual, the subjects, though all boxing-related, were wide-ranging and thoroughly enjoyable. I eventually returned to my room, then, after returning downstairs to get a late-evening snack, I spent the rest of the evening watching the Australian Open tennis tournament on ESPN2. Shortly after 1:30 a.m., this day finally came to an end for me.

 

 

 

Friday, Jan. 20: Following six hours of decent slumber, I got ready for the day and spent most of the first few hours on the laptop expanding and polishing the rough draft I had written the previous day. When I reached a suitable stopping point, I headed downstairs to print out my boarding pass and to get a light lunch at a sub place inside the hotel.

Of course, the boarding pass issue would provide the first complication of this trip. I used my room key to access the business office on the sixth floor but, once I checked into my flight and prepared to print the ticket, the printer indicated that a cartridge needed to be replaced. I walked out of the business center and asked the female hostess at a nearby restaurant if there was a handy hotel employee who could address the issue. I was told to return to the registration desk downstairs.

Once I did, I was told that they didn’t handle issues like that, but they did offer to print my pass from their printer in the office located behind the desk. The job eventually got done but it ended up taking nearly a half-hour because the employees had to work through several firewalls.

With pass in hand and lunch in a sack, I returned to my room and watched the inauguration. By this time, President-elect Donald Trump became President Donald Trump and was about to begin his inaugural address. Being a history fan, I soaked in that scene like I had during such speeches dating back to 1977, when Jimmy Carter was sworn in.

With that portion of the ceremony complete, I returned to my work until it was about time to think about making my 3 p.m. call time at Bally’s Grand Ballroom on the sixth floor.

As is my habit, I arrived 15 minutes early and all was well electronically four hours before airtime.

The opening contest of the nine-fight card – a scheduled four-rounder between bantamweights Malik Jackson and Christian Foster – began a little after 7:15 p.m. It didn’t take long for Jackson, of Washington, D.C., to lift his record to 2-0 (2) while dropping that of his lanky opponent from Alexandria, Virginia, to 0-3. A right to the side of the head scored the first knockdown while a left cross left Foster crumpled near his corner. That sight prompted referee Benjy Esteves Jr. to stop his count at five and award the TKO at the 2:20 mark of round one.

The night’s highlight-reel knockout came in the next fight between Philadelphia heavyweight Darmani Rock and New Haven, Connecticut, journeyman Solomon Maye. After winning the first four rounds with ease, Rock connected with a titanic right to the jaw that caused Maye to pitch forward and land on his face. The “Timber!” knockout was registered 34 seconds into the fifth, raising Rock’s record to 7-0 (with 5 KOs) and dropping Maye’s to 3-8-2 (with 3 KOs).

Next up was super bantamweight contender Stephon Young, who, because of an opponent merry-go-round, was knocked off the televised portion of the card. He was originally set to face Daniel Rosas, then Elton Dharry. But after Dharry fell out less than a week before the show, his scheduled eight-rounder with Uzbekistan’s Olimjon Nazarov was relegated to the deep undercard. In retrospect, it would have been a nice TV fight because the relatively unknown Nazarov gave the fourth-rated Young a far better fight than anyone had a right to expect.

Nazarov’s high and tight guard consistently picked off Young’s blows and his body volleys hit the target with surprising consistency. Because Nazarov had four rounds, in which he built significant connect leads (10-3 in the second, 15-9 in the fourth, 27-14 in the fifth and 23-14 in the eighth), he led 113-80 overall, 15-10 jabs and 98-70 power while being the more accurate hitter overall (27%-18%) and in jabs (26%-5%), a strong case could be made for him winning the fight. The judges, however, saw matters far more differently, as Young was deemed a 78-74 winner on two cards and was ahead 77-75 on the other.

How could that be? The numbers may offer an explanation. First, Young threw 38 more punches and activity does count for something in the modern era of judging. Second, Young was the slightly more accurate power puncher (28%-27%). Third – and perhaps most tellingly – 54 of his 70 power connects, many of which were piercing, easy-to-see left crosses, were to the head while the majority of Nazarov’s 98 power connects (47) were to the body. Finally, Young may well have taken the closely contested first (which Nazarov led 5-4 overall), third (in which they tied at 12 total connects), sixth (in which Young led 11-8) and seventh (in which they tied at 13) rounds. Thus, a draw was at least possible. It also didn’t hurt Young’s cause that he was an American fighting in America. An interesting factoid: Nazarov had won all his previous fights staged in his home country but all of his four defeats (two in Ukraine, two in the U.S.) were by decision. That’s probably why he didn’t act surprised or put up too much of a fuss when the decision was announced.

As good as the ending between Rock and Maye was, it was soon topped by the one produced in the next contest between local welterweight Anthony Young and York, Pennsylvania’s James Robinson. After Young built a substantial lead in the first four rounds, one further aided by a point penalty against Robinson for excessive holding in the fifth, the roof nearly caved in during the final moments of the bout. A series of overhand rights to the temple sent Young tottering across the ring and a final one drove him to the canvas an instant before the final bell.

Referee Benjy Esteves Jr. handled the situation perfectly as he allowed the stricken Young to try and regain his feet even though the bell had already sounded. Young did but the drama wasn’t quite over as he staggered toward the neutral corner and remained upright, despite stumbling over his own foot. But stay up he did, which gave him the privilege of hearing the unanimous decision in his favor (57-55, 58-55 twice). A less experienced ring official might have stopped the fight the instant Young hit the ground but Esteves, who is starting his 25th year as the third man, kept his cool and allowed the drama to unfold naturally. For that, he deserves kudos.

The final two fights of the undercard saw Philadelphia southpaw welterweight Keenan Smith raise his record to 10-0 (with 4 KOs) by fifth-round corner retirement over Waco, Texas’ Marquis Hawthorne (4-6, 1 KO) and bantamweight power-puncher Leroy Davila advance to 5-0 (with 3 KOs) by decking Ohioan Anthony Taylor (4-1, 1 KO) once in the first and twice in the third before Esteves stopped the bout at the 53-second mark.

Because the Davila-Taylor bout was shortened from six rounds to four – an announcement made to both corners just moments before the pre-fight introductions – the bout ended less than 10 minutes before airtime. Given the match-ups to come, I believed Andy and I still had another 28 rounds to count (one 12-rounder and two eights) but, as I told a crew member earlier in the day, many people can make an educated guess about what may happen in a boxing match but no one, not even the fighters, can truly know what will happen until it does. So, with 10 p.m. fast approaching, I was ready to see – and chronicle – the events to come.

*

 

 

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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