The Travelin’ Man’s World Tour – Oxon Hill, Maryland: Part two
Please click here for Part One.
Saturday, May 20 (continued): In what had been a chaotic, violent and turbulent night at the fights, WBC featherweight titlist Gary Russell Jr. provided a much-needed injection of excellence inside the ring and serenity beyond the ropes.
His seventh-round TKO over mandatory challenger Oscar Escandon at the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, was an exciting, if lopsided, trench war that showcased the Maryland product’s considerable offensive firepower and defensive prowess while Escandon’s determination and tremendous grit gave the champion the canvas onto which he applied his brutal art.
Russell, normally a long-range boxer with superb speed of hand and foot, not only chose to play the 5-foot-1 Escandon’s inside game; he showed him how to do it better. The 2008 U.S. Olympian’s swift combinations consistently cut through the challenger’s guard and his well-placed power shots, especially his uppercuts, connected with telling force. A right hook dropped Escandon in the third, then, after the challenger summoned enough of a rally to stay in the fight, Russell finished the job in the seventh with another right hook that caused Escandon to dizzily retreat and fall for the second time, as Russell unleashed his follow-up assault. This development prompted referee Harvey Dock to immediately end the fight at the 59-second mark.
The CompuBox statistics further illustrated Russell’s dominance. He prevailed 198-110 overall and 180-93 power, while also creating percentage gaps of 39%-20% overall and 46%-24% power. His power accuracy never dipped below 40%; his 41% in round six was his low, while he twice exceeded 50% (52% in the first, 54% in the third) while Escandon only reached 30% in a full round once (30% in the first). Escandon’s other full-round power figures (23%, 27%, 25%, 16% and 21%) proved that Russell, even in a fight in which a combined 126 power punches per round were swapped (nearly 55 above the combined featherweight average of 71.4), can still be a slippery target.
As wondrous as his performance during the fight was, his post-fight demeanor was diplomatic and calming.
“I want to apologize for the gladiators,” he told Showtime’s Jim Gray, shortly after the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to Russell’s now 58-year-old father. “Sometimes emotions build up and get the best of us. I apologize for the incident that occurred.”
It was the kind of in-ring performance that, in a normal sport, would enhance Russell’s marketability and asking price but boxing, as we all know, is anything but normal. More often than not, boxing’s powers-that-be pride themselves on their ability to “marinate” an event until it reaches what they believe is the peak of perfection. Most times these efforts fall flat because one or both of the combatants lose along the way or the fighters’ respective peaks are spent preparing for the big fight instead of fighting the big fight.
Like fellow southpaws Erislandy Lara and Guillermo Rigondeaux, Russell is too good for his own good and that’s a shame. Yes, WBO super featherweight titleholder Vasyl Lomachenko decisively affixed Russell’s lone defeat but that fight is part of the resume that has led many to declare him Roman Gonzalez’s successor to the pound-for-pound throne. Maybe a rematch with “Hi-Tech” could be in the cards but, for now, the unification game needs to begin at 126 pounds, one of several divisions that boast tremendous depth. Imagine the fireworks Russell could produce with WBO counterpart Oscar Valdez, IBF colleague Lee Selby or WBA kingpin Leo Santa Cruz. “Mouth-watering” would be only one of the adjectives that could be used.
Others could describe the Andre Dirrell-Jose Uzcategui post-fight incident that preceded the Russell fight: Repulsive, abhorrent, ugly and, in the case of at least one member of Dirrell’s family, potentially criminal.
Through seven rounds, the power-punching Uzcategui was seemingly on his way to a vital victory in this, the IBF super middleweight title eliminator to determine the next challenger to titleholder James DeGale. Uzcategui’s aggression and heavier hitting appeared to be gradually wearing down the 33-year-old Dirrell, who showed flashes of his prime but lacked the strength and consistent pop to hold off his 26-year-old pursuer. Then, in the waning moments of round eight, Uzcategui trapped Dirrell near the corner pad and launched a three-punch combination. The first blow, a left, was thrown slightly before the bell. But the final punch, a massive left to the jaw, connected clearly after time had run out and left the Michigander flat on his face and struggling to recover his faculties.
It was a scene that conjured memories of Dirrell’s ill-fated “Super Six World Classic” tournament fight with Arthur Abraham in March 2010. Fighting brilliantly before his home area fans in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, Dirrell, who had slipped on the wet canvas, was struck with a flush power shot while on the ground. The flagrant foul resulted in an 11th round disqualification win for the American but the aftereffects caused Dirrell to take a momentum-killing 21-month layoff. One could argue that Dirrell has never fully recovered from that punch.
With that searing memory in mind and fearing the worst was at hand again, members of Team Dirrell lashed out with a fury. Brothers Willie and Anthony, the latter being the former WBC super middleweight champion, had to be restrained at ringside and while Willie was escorted from ringside, Anthony, who pushed a security guard during the scuffle, was allowed to enter the ring. Shortly after the fighters embraced (during which Uzcategui told Dirrell he was sorry and Dirrell told Uzcategui he forgave him), Dirrell’s uncle and chief second Leon Lawson Jr. stormed the ring, walked to Uzcategui’s corner and connected with a flush left hook to the jaw and a right to the neck, which, in turn, reignited memories of James Butler’s infamous post-fight sucker punch of Richard Grant in November 2001 at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City. While Grant fell to the ground with blood pouring from his mouth, Uzcategui took Lawson’s punches almost unflinchingly, after which he fixed a quizzical stare. That alone should serve as a testimony to the Venezuelan’s chin as well as a further source of embarrassment for Lawson. Butler was arrested, charged and spent four months behind bars for the act while, as of this writing, Lawson (who somehow escaped the arena) has been charged with first and second degree assault by the Prince George’s County District Court, which, according to reports, could (but probably won’t) result in a maximum $2,500 fine and 35 years in prison.
Given what happened to Dirrell in the Abraham fight, one could extract the reasons why Dirrell’s male family members reacted the way they did. However, their actions, especially Lawson’s, served as an accelerant to an already explosive situation and the ramifications bled into the Russell bout in the form of a fight in the crowd that required further attention from venue security.
For all the criticism deservedly heaped on Team Dirrell, the fighter tried his best to turn the temperature down.
“I love Uzcategui and I love his camp,” Dirrell told Gray. “I forgive Uzcategui with all my heart. I don’t want to win (an interim IBF title) like this. I wanted to win fair and square but I forgive him.”
He also attempted to engineer damage control for his family members.
“I’m very apologetic for what my coach (Lawson) has done. But he loves me. You know that’s my man; that’s my brother. That’s my uncle; that’s my coach. He cares about my well-being first. I don’t understand why he did that because, like I said, I feel fine. But, you know, this is just the way the cards are dealt sometimes. I’ve got to deal with this. Jose’s got to deal with this loss. My uncle’s got to deal with whatever you all are going to do with him but please forgive him. I’m going to stand up like a man. I’m going to come back as soon as you all let me and I’m going to put on a hell of a show.”
But to what will Dirrell come back? The bizarre circumstances created an open question as to whom merits a crack at DeGale because, while the official result is a win, Dirrell’s body, in effect, suffered a knockout loss. Meanwhile, Uzcategui, despite being ahead on two scorecards (77-75, 77-74, 76-76) and on the stat sheets (99-71 overall, 61-32 power) his DQ also removes him from an immediate shot at “Chunky.” A rematch is a remote possibility, though I could see promoters using the incident to hype it.
After all, it’s been done before.
One example is the two-fight series between Riddick Bowe and Elijah Tillery that took place within a 46-day period in 1991. The first fight resulted in a first-round DQ after Tillery, reacting to an after-the-bell jab by Bowe, kicked Bowe three times and ignited melees both inside and outside the ring, including one between the respective managers during a post-fight interview. Coincidentally, that fight took place at the Convention Center in Washington, D.C. The rematch, staged at Atlantic City’s Convention Hall, saw Bowe move his record to 28-0 with a more conventional fourth round TKO. Another interesting fact: The rematch was staged on the pay-per-view undercard of James Toney-Mike McCallum I, which meant the chaos of fight one likely resulted in more money for both men in the rematch.
The atmosphere inside the MGM National Harbor was already poisonous because of a top contender for 2017’s worst verdict: Rances Barthelemy’s unanimous decision over hard-luck Belorussian Kiryl Relikh, who has now lost back-to-back fights in the eyes of six jurists but won in the eyes of many more sets of orbs. The first offense took place in Glasgow, the hometown of then-WBA super lightweight titlist Ricky Burns, who won 118-110 and 116-112 twice, despite Relikh out-landing the Scot in nine of the 12 rounds overall and 8-3-1 in power connects. The second happened seven months and 3,400 miles to the west against Barthelemy and the statistical evidence is damning.
After Barthelemy forged a 37-31 overall connect lead in the first two rounds, Relikh proceeded to out-land Barthelemy in nine of the final 10 rounds overall to build overwhelming connect leads of 248-137 overall, 58-46 jabs and especially 190-91 power. Relikh was, by far, the effective aggressor and his 9-2-1 round-by-round lead in power connects illustrates his degree of command. Along with his forward movement, Relikh averaged nearly twice as many punches per round (80.8 vs. 43.4), out-jabbed the taller man (31.7 thrown/4.8 connects per round to 24.2 thrown/3.8 connects per round), was much more aggressive in his punch selection (49.2 power shots per round to Barthelemy’s 19.2) and nearly matched Barthelemy’s accuracy (26.3%-25.6% overall, 15.8%-15.3% jabs, 40%-32% power). He also tied Barthelemy 1-1 in knockdowns as his came in the fifth while the Cuban’s occurred in the eighth.
Yet Barthelemy not only was the winner, he was the dominant winner in the judgment of veteran Maryland officials John Gradowski (116-110) and Don Risher (117-109), as well as New Jersey’s Henry Grant (115-111) .
When I heard on the headsets “Barthelemy, unanimous decision” moments before ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. told the rest of the world, I couldn’t contain my astonishment. Neither did the entire Showtime broadcasting crew, whose more sensible eyes had judged Relikh a comfortable victor. Yes, this was a title eliminator but, in this case, the “winner” should be eliminated from immediate title consideration while the “loser” should be moved to the front of the line. Hard work, especially in America, should result in reward and, if there’s any fairness left in “The Sweet Science,” Relikh, not Barthelemy, should face IBF/WBA titlist Julius Indongo next.
Relieved that the Russell fight didn’t yield a third straight outrage, Andy and I packed our belongings, headed directly to Showtime’s designated production office and waited for production supervisor Angelika Sztejn to arrange for a van to take us back to the hotel. While we waited, I grabbed some small snacks and stuffed them in my already swollen laptop bag.
Once we arrived at the hotel, we said our goodbyes and began the rest of our respective evenings. While Andy took the elevator up toward his room, I swung by the business center to print my boarding pass, which I couldn’t do because my 12-hour window began while I was inside the MGM. No matter: My frequent flier “juice” enabled me to be in row four on the window. Then, me being me, I spent the next half-hour conversing with a hotel employee about the possible Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Conor McGregor showdown, the latest “must-see” fight among the general public but one this observer wishes will never happen. My only other comment about it for now is something I’ve written before: If Mayweather gets his guaranteed nine-figure purse, and if it generates enough money to cover expenses for the network who buys it (most likely Showtime), then I will declare Mayweather the greatest self-marketer to ever walk the earth.
I got into the elevator with a couple, a man and his beautiful, but obviously inebriated, female companion. She overheard my rather detailed discussion with the hotel employee and, with a discernible haze in her eyes, she peered at me and asked, “Are you a celebrity?” I told her, “That’s nice to hear but, no, I’m no celebrity.”
“Oh yes, you are,” she insisted. She then formed her hands into a U-shape, as if to observe me through a camera lens. It was a bit bizarre, to say the least, and her companion, the sober one, offered a quiet apology for her behavior before heading down the hall.
With emotions still stirring from the fight card, I opted to start writing most of the words you’ve read to this point instead of immediately inputting the night’s data into the master database. After completing both tasks, I watched a bit of TV to catch up on everything I missed – sports and otherwise – before turning out the lights a little after 3 a.m.
Sunday, May 21: Following five hours of decent slumber, I spent the next couple of hours polishing my copy, after which I packed, headed down to the lobby and arranged for a taxi to take me to the airport. I saw a trio of Showtime crew members in the lobby, one preparing to drive home to Connecticut and the two others planning a crabbing trip before catching their late-afternoon birds. As for me, I just wanted to get home.
A female hotel employee called a cab for me that arrived about 10 minutes later. During our 15-minute drive, the cabbie, a native of India, and I discussed a myriad of subjects that helped make the trip seem that much faster. I must have made quite the impression because, by the time I paid the fare, he said, “I hope to see you again.” That’s a pretty nice thing to hear from someone who is accustomed to shuttling dozens of people every day.
I passed through security with ease and got a late-morning breakfast (a turkey sandwich) from one of the side stores near Gate 35X. The time passed quicker than normal, though the audio from CNN threatened, but didn’t succeed, to break my concentration. When you’re a professional punch counter, you learn to block out most distractions and do the job that is before you. Last night’s card was positive proof of that.
The boarding process also tested my patience – as well as everyone else’s. After sitting on the bus that would take us to our plane for about 15 minutes, an airport employee ducked her head inside and told us we would have to return to the gate because our aircraft had undisclosed mechanical issues. Following a 45-minute wait, we went through the ticket authorization process a second time and, yes, this time, the plane was ready for us. As was the case on the bus, space was extremely tight in every possible way – legroom, spaces between seats and overhead storage – but the aircraft fulfilled its prime directive: Successfully transporting us to Pittsburgh.
Actually, the 45-minute flight was fun because the man sitting across from me was a reporter for The Washington Post, which, given my previous career at The Parkersburg News, offered a terrific opportunity to talk shop. However, the conversation centered mostly on boxing and baseball (his favorite sport), probably because he noticed my black Pittsburgh Pirates T-shirt. Though not in a mean-spirited way, he brought up the 2014 National League Wild Card Game between the Pirates and San Francisco Giants (his favorite team) at PNC Park, a game in which opposing pitcher Madison Bumgarner’s complete game shutout contributed mightily to the Giants’ smashing 8-0 victory.
The plane landed with time to spare and, as I neared the escalator leading to the tram, I passed a nearby bar that was showing Game 5 of the NHL’s Eastern Conference final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators. The Pens scored their first goal the very moment I glanced up at the screen and, by the time, I reached my car 15 minutes later, the Penguins had added three more goals. With the game practically in hand already, I thoroughly enjoyed the drive home, as I listened to the remainder of the contest on Sirius XM Channel 91. For the record, the Penguins won 7-0 to take a 3-2 series lead.
For that reason, I had an extra pep in my step when I pulled into the driveway. As always, a lot of work awaited my attention and time management will be a must. That’s because, in less than three days’ time, I will begin the second leg of “The Travelin’ Man’s World Tour” – Sheffield, England.
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 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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