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The Travelin’ Man goes to Oxon Hill, Maryland: Part one

Fighters Network
17
Apr

 

Thursday, April 13: In the 33 days since returning home from Detroit, one ironic fact about daily life has been proven time and again: Change is a guaranteed constant.

The winds of change have blown hard through the boxing world. Just 30 days ago, Roman Gonzalez was the consensus No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter, while Gennady Golovkin, he of the nearly nine-year, 23-fight knockout streak, was the unquestioned monarch of the middleweight division and one of the sport’s most feared punchers. That all changed March 18 at Madison Square Garden, where “Chocolatito” lost his WBC super flyweight belt by debatable majority decision to former titlist Srisaket Sor Rungvisai and “GGG” was pushed to a polarizing points win against Daniel Jacobs, in defense of his IBF, WBA and WBC titles.

The fallout in THE RING’s pound-for-pound ratings yielded a startling revision and a historic prospect. The former was that Gonzalez tumbled from first to fourth, despite the widespread belief he had done enough to remain undefeated. The latter was that Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev (previously rated second and third) vaulted into the top two spots, making their June 17 rematch the first time since Julio Cesar Chavez-Pernell Whitaker, in 1993, that THE RING Magazine’s No. 1 and No. 2 entrants will meet head-to-head to decide the mythical pound-for-pound championship.



For the record, I saw Gonzalez a 114-112 winner against Sor Rungvisai and Golovkin prevailing 114-113 against Jacobs. Both fights had plenty of swing rounds and thus shouldn’t be construed as “robberies,” a designation I reserve for fights such as Lennox Lewis-Evander Holyfield I, James Toney-Dave Tiberi, the first Jorge Paez-Troy Dorsey fight and Alfredo Escalera-Tyrone Everett. Those were fights that inspired virtual unanimity, regarding the wretchedness of the official decision.

In other words, “robberies” aren’t in the eye of the beholder. They just are.

Like Golovkin-Jacobs and Sor Rungvisai-Gonzalez, Ward-Kovalev I – which I scored 115-112 for “The Krusher” – was also a faux robbery that was, in reality, fodder for lively two-sided debate. While the dispute over Fight One will never be settled, the rematch will likely resolve all outstanding issues. My preliminary pick: Ward on points.

Why? The element of surprise that helped Kovalev build a huge early lead shouldn’t apply in the rematch. Ward showed in the second half of Fight One that he could adjust even under extreme duress, while Kovalev couldn’t shift his strategic gears as fluidly. With eight months of video study and 12 fresh rounds at his disposal, I believe Ward – who hasn’t lost a boxing match of any kind since age 12 – will again find a way to walk out the winner.

The theme of change has also extended to my own life, though in a peripheral way.

How?

I bought a new car.

More precisely, I traded in my previous vehicle – a 2005 Subaru Impreza that had just eight miles on its odometer when I purchased it in June 2004 – for a 2017 Subaru Legacy that had logged only 6.8 miles at the time I test-drove it. The common denominator is I purchased both vehicles, as well as the model I owned before those, at Louis Thomas Subaru in Parkersburg, West Virginia.

For my money, figuratively and literally, Louis Thomas Subaru is top-notch in terms of the assortment and performance of its vehicles, its service department and the quality of its sales personnel. Open since 1971, the dealership has been run by the Thomas family throughout its existence. In fact, three generations of Thomases can be seen when one walks through the showroom and, as has been the case for the last few decades, Louis Thomas Sr. heads the chain of command.

Still, I entered the process with mild trepidation only because I purchase cars so infrequently. But after conducting research on various websites as well as the Kelly Blue Book page, I had narrowed my search to a couple of models and had a number in mind for the trade-in value.

I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. The salespeople were friendly, knowledgeable and practiced a low-pressure selling approach, those handling the paperwork (Lou Sr. and finance manager Andy Thomas) were efficient and meticulous and a fair price for the trade-in was reached within moments. Lou Thomas Jr., the dealership’s sales manager and resident technical expert, gave me a thorough tutorial on the vehicle’s electronics and helped link my smart phone with the Bluetooth.

The entire episode – which included test-driving two models – took a little more than three hours to complete. As I drove off the lot, with the new-car smell enveloping the interior and bright early-spring sunshine surrounding me, I experienced the strange brew of euphoria over my newest acquisition and a smaller sense of loss from handing over a vehicle that had served me so well for so many years.

My old car, which now sits in the dealership’s used car lot across the street, probably has a few more good years left in it but I sensed that the time for change had arrived. A few months earlier, I asked Randy Marlow, Subaru’s service manager for more than 20 years, the difference between my car and the new models. In essence, he said it was night and day, in terms of the electronics, the engine quality, the handling and the safety features. I now know that to be true and I look forward to having the new Legacy be a part of my future travels.

So, with the new Subaru safely parked in my driveway, I prepared for my next journey. This trip will be unique because I’ll be flying to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington, D.C., staying at a hotel in Alexandria, Virginia, and working in Oxon Hill, Maryland. I can’t think of another trip in which the various legs took place in three separate geographical entities.

The 10-fight card, topped by a “ShoBox”-televised tripleheader topped by a 12-rounder between WBA “interim” light heavyweight titlist Dmitry Bivol and Samuel Clarkson, will take place at the sprawling MGM National Harbor casino and resort, which opened last December to considerable fanfare. According to the Washington Post, approximately $1.4 billion was invested into a property, that is expected to generate between $40-45 million in annual tax revenue for Prince George’s County. If true, it would mark a most welcome change for an area that had been overshadowed by its two more prosperous and developed neighbors in Fairfax and Montgomery counties.

Even better, the facility has made a deep commitment to boxing. The Vasyl Lomachenko-Jason Sosa card was the MGM’s debut event and, following tomorrow’s ShoBox card, it is scheduled to host another show May 20. With the area boasting three champions in WBC featherweight titlist Gary Russell Jr. (who is set to fight Oscar Escandon on the May 20 show), IBF junior middleweight beltholder Jarrett Hurd and IBF junior lightweight titleholder Gervonta Davis (and a fourth, if one counts “regular” WBA welterweight titlist Lamont Peterson), the MGM National Harbor couldn’t have been completed at a better time.

As for the main event of this show, Dmitry Bivol-Samuel Clarkson is a classic crossroads fight because the 26-year-old Bivol (9-0, 7 knockouts) will be facing his best opponent yet in Clarkson, a southpaw who is only three months older but has a 19-3 (12) pro record and a taste for spoiling well-laid plans. For proof, just ask the 15-1 Lavarn Harvell and the 13-1 Jerry Odom, both of whom fell to Clarkson in rounds two and three, respectively. In fact, Clarkson has won his last nine – which Clarkson pointedly said was Bivol’s entire pro career – and, given his past problems with making contracted weights, the fact he scaled 173.4 for this fight is a highly encouraging sign. A potential problem is his chin, for he was dropped twice by Jesse Hart (L 8) in the fourth, floored once by the 27-1 Cedric Agnew in the second (Clarkson went on to win on points) and was decked by the 2-0 Jas Phipps in the final round of what would become a six-round split decision defeat. In all, Clarkson comes into the fight with six career knockdowns against him. But a potential strength is his uppercut, which accounted for all three knockdowns against Odom and could be a devastating weapon, should he be able to force trench warfare.

Based on the videos I used in conducting the pre-fight research, Bivol is best at long range – not a surprise, given his lengthy amateur career – but has also shown sneaky power, a good work rate (59.3 punches per round in four CompuBox-tracked fights), a terrific jab (7.6 connects per round) and excellent defense (10% overall, 5% jabs and 15% power against his four foes, well below the division norms of 31%, 22% and 38%, respectively). Can Bivol translate this level of performance to a higher grade opponent? The Clarkson fight promises to provide a preliminary answer.

The undercard, televised and otherwise, offers intriguing story lines. The televised co-feature will pit undefeated Baltimore welterweight Malik Hawkins (10-0, 7 KOs) against the 13-0-2 (7) Carlos Soto, a late sub for Juan Ruiz, who, in turn, was a late sub for Taras Shelestyuk, a fight I saw as far too ambitious for Team Hawkins, given the Ukrainian’s vast experience and Hawkins’ level of pro competition thus far. Soto, who is fighting for the second time in 70 days following a 30-month layoff, appears to be a more appropriate assignment.

The televised opener between 8-0 (6) Baltimore super bantamweights Glenn Dezurn Jr. and 5-0 (3) New Jersey native Leroy Davila is a mystery to me, as far as the styles because no recent complete footage was available for either. However, Dezurn boasts a unique side story in that he’s married to Franchon Crews, best known for being the first professional opponent for two-time Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields. In fact, Crews has sparred with her husband on numerous occasions.

The “dark” portion of the card has a couple of recognizable names: Joey Dawejko (who will fight Rodney Hernandez in a scheduled eight-round heavyweight bout), Hasim Rahman Jr. (the son of the former undisputed heavyweight champion, who will make his pro debut against fellow debutante Ralph Alexander) and Justin Hurd, the younger brother of Jarrett Hurd, whose opponent, even entering fight day, remains unknown.

Speaking of the Hurds, the person who checked me into the crew hotel said he was a cousin of theirs. That interesting coincidence came at the end of what would be a somewhat more eventful travel day than I had anticipated.

*

 

On the surface, today’s itinerary was unusually succinct and convenient, for I only needed to board a flight from Pittsburgh to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington, D.C. Better: The flight was set to depart at 3:17 p.m., meaning I wouldn’t have to operate on short rest. In fact, I spent the first couple of hours of my day doing research for one of the two May 20 cards.

Staying on the theme of change, another difference from my most recent trip has been the weather. Spring has finally sprung.

Bathed in sunlight and with temperatures in the low-60s, the buds on surrounding trees were just starting to sprout; the grass was markedly greener and the birds were in full song, a contrast from the gray skies, barren branches and nearly silent surroundings of last month. Still, I brought along my IBHOF windbreaker just in case conditions in D.C. weren’t as amenable.

I thoroughly enjoyed the maiden trip to PIT with the new car, though the parking space near the 13E sign in the extended lot was a bit farther from the terminal entrance than on recent trips. The TSA Pre-Check line was also somewhat longer than usual and after walking under the metal detector, the accompanying buzzer meant I had been selected for a “random” search. After one of my laptops underwent some extreme vetting, I was allowed to proceed.

The departure time was moved back about 10 minutes but the flight itself was fairly smooth and uneventful. Seated on the aisle in row seven, I spent the 50-minute flight reading the first 37 pages of David Goldblatt’s “The Games: A Global History of the Olympics.” I’ve been an Olympics nut since watching my first Games in 1976, which, of course, included the U.S. boxing team headed by Sugar Ray Leonard, Howard Davis, Leo Randolph and the Spinks brothers as well as other stars like gymnast Nadia Comaneci, diver Greg Louganis, boxer Teofilo Stevenson, decathlete Bruce Jenner, track men Alberto Juantorena, Edwin Moses and Lasse Viren, as well as swimmers John Naber and Kornelia Ender. I still have a large full-color picture book from those games that I purchased as an 11-year-old.

I was once approached about working the 2012 London Games as a researcher for NBC but scheduling conflicts persuaded me to turn down the gig. Thankfully, a year later, I was able to travel to London to work the Carl Froch-Mikkel Kessler rematch.

The plane landed at 4:30 p.m. and, according to the production memo, the hotel shuttle was supposed to swing by twice an hour. Entering the airport at Terminal D, I walked to terminal B and waited at the designated pick-up area. One Sheraton bus did pull up but it was for the wrong location. After waiting nearly 45 minutes, I decided to go to the other location detailed in the memo, the baggage claim area in Terminal A.

I caught a bus and boarded a second one before the hotel shuttle finally arrived about 90 minutes after I landed. I arrived at the hotel a little after 6:30 and, after being checked in by the Hurds’ cousin, I found my fourth floor suite and unpacked. I had originally planned to get something to eat at one of the area restaurants but I now didn’t have the energy to do much else than order room service and spend the rest of the evening relaxing. Shortly after 1 a.m. I decided to call it a day.

 

Friday, April 14: I arose at 7:30 a.m. and, after completing the morning routines, I spent the next several hours chronicling the events of the previous day. Once I reached a good stopping point, I headed downstairs to print out my boarding pass.

For whatever reason, my difficulties with lobby computers continued here. First, neither of the two computers at one station were able to log onto the internet. A helpful hotel employee was able to fix the problem when he logged onto one of the computers at a nearby table but a second one arose when I attempted to print my ticket – the printer jammed. After another worker provided a most welcomed assist, I had my pass in hand.

A little after noon, I walked across the street to the Harris-Teeter grocery store and purchased a small turkey breast sub and a bottle of Diet Pepsi because the crew meal was just four hours away. At 2:30, I met punch-counting colleague Andy Kasprzak – today’s driver – and ace cameraman Gene Samuels in the lobby. When producer Richard Gaughan joined us, Gene decided to ride with him, leaving Andy and me to our own devices.

Speaking of devices, we decided to use my phone’s GPS to help us get to the MGM. The program passed a crucial trust test, for it helped us avoid most (but not all) of the massive traffic issues and got us to our destination in good time. Such good time, in fact, that we were told we had arrived at our work station at ringside at precisely the right time. Not long after all the electronics were connected, I went to the production truck to double-check the order and the spelling of the names. On my way there, I ran into executive producer Gordon Hall and engaged in one of my favorite activities of each trip: Discussing the nuts and bolts of the televised card with the driving force behind the ShoBox series. It’s no wonder Gordon received the Sam Taub award for excellence in broadcasting from the BWAA, for his deep knowledge of each fighter never fails to impress me. I’m just glad I was able to keep up with him.

Back at ringside following the crew meal, Andy and I chatted with ring announcer Ray Flores (a fan of the “Travelin’ Man” series and whose travel schedule leaves me in the dust), writers Dan Rafael and Gary “Digital” Williams, photographer Mike Greenhill and newly-minted Hall-of-Famer Steve Farhood. I also spoke with referee Kenny Chevalier, who was assigned to work Dezurn-Davila. I’ve known of Chevalier for quite a while, for he (along with referee Malik Waleed, judges Bill Holmes, referee/judge John Gradowski – who was working this card – and John Risher, as well as broadcasters Larry Michael and Jon Saraceno) was a fixture on the old “Ballroom Boxing” series emanating from Michael’s Eighth Avenue in Glen Burnie, Maryland.

One of my first punch-counting assignments was the January 27, 2005 card topped by Lamont Pearson’s eight-round decision over Ivan Alvarez and Chevalier officiated the co-feature that saw future 130-pound titlist Roman Martinez stop Mario Lacey in five and Mike Dietrich’s four-round decision over Royphy Solieau. This was the first time I’ve ever spoken to Chevalier and his eyes lit up when I mentioned the Ballroom Boxing series. It’s too bad the series is no more but the opening of the MGM signals much better days are just around the corner.

The card began with Russian heavyweight Sergey Kuzmin’s third-round corner retirement win over Keenan Hickman (a late sub for Carlos Cotto). Next up was our “test count” that paired heavyweights Joey Dawejko and Rodney Hernandez, who bore a strong resemblance to a young John Ruiz.

This was a fight of extreme contrasts, for Hernandez tried to overwhelm Dawejko with volume, while the Philadelphian launched singular smart bombs that connected with impressive frequency. In the opening minute of the scheduled eight-rounder, Hernandez fired 43 punches and landed 15 while Dawejko went 4 of 9. But Hernandez eventually slowed his pace and because of Dawejko’s far superior accuracy (57%-29% overall, 50%-33% jabs, 60%-28% power), he trailed just 21-17 in total connects and 16-12 in landed power shots.

The pattern continued in rounds two through seven and, entering the eighth, Hernandez clung to a 121-120 lead in total connects. In the final 60 seconds, Hernandez seemed to pull away as he out-landed Dawejko 17-5 to establish leads of 31-16 in the round and 152-136 for the fight. Unfortunately for Hernandez, the surge didn’t get him across the finish line in first place. Rather, in their eyes, he and Dawejko crossed it simultaneously. John Gradowski saw Hernandez a 78-74 winner, Don Risher turned in a 77-75 scorecard for Dawejko and Lynne Carter’s 76-76 submission sealed the draw.

While Hernandez was the far more active fighter (56.1 punches per round to Dawejko’s 35) and the more prolific power hitter (112-91), Dawejko was extraordinarily efficient (49% overall, 38% jabs, 57% power to Hernandez’s 34%, 28% and 37% respectively). Judicially speaking, Dawejko-Hernandez was a matter of philosophical preference, not a “robbery.”

My efforts to enter this fight into the master database from ringside – a task I usually do at the hotel after the show – caused me to miss the next fight between super featherweights Michael Dutchover and Eder Amaro Fajardo, which saw the Texan Dutchover stop Mexico’s Fajardo in the third. But I made sure to watch the next undercard fight because it featured California super featherweight Ruben Villa, a southpaw who has already caught the eye of important boxing people.

I soon learned why. For someone engaging in just his fifth pro fight, Villa, a two-time National Golden Gloves champion, demonstrated excellent footwork, exceptional balance, notable patience, fluid combination punching and impressive concentration. His opponent, the 2-0 Luis Diaz Torres, was at a loss and would soon incur his first loss. A salvo in the final round caused Diaz to totter backward, prompting the referee to intervene.

The final untelevised fight marked the debut of Rahman Jr., a southpaw who, like his heavyweight champion father, looked fit at 234 1/4. He also flashed his dad’s KO punch, for a straight left dropped Alexander heavily along the ropes a little more than 30 seconds into the fight. However, Rahman Jr. also landed a solid right hand on the fallen Hernandez, a move that, under different circumstances, would have resulted in a penalty, if not outright disqualification. Because it didn’t, the record will show that Rahman Jr. scored a 40-second knockout victory.

The length of the previous fights caused the scheduled eight-round light heavyweight fight between Travis Reeves and Taneal Goyco to be pushed back until after the ShoBox telecast. This happened even after Justin Hurd’s fight was canceled because an opponent could not be found.

A common game around ringside is to predict how many rounds the three televised fights would last. The guesses ranged from 18 (Andy) to 24 (me). I used to be pretty good at this game but lately I have lost my touch. Will I regain it here?

As it turned out, none of us were even close.

*

 

 

 

 

 

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 seven 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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