The Travelin’ Man’s World Tour – Sheffield, England: Part two
Saturday, May 27 (continued): I will carry plenty of memories from Errol Spence’s title-winning 11th round TKO of Kell Brook. One will be Spence’s composure in the face of an enthusiastic but adversarial crowd that he eventually quieted, from his beaming, stress-free smile as he walked toward the ring to his weathering of Brook’s mid-fight rally to his own heartbreaking surge in rounds 9-to-11 that won him ownership of the IBF welterweight championship. Another will be the ear-splitting rendition of “God Save the Queen” from the 27,000-plus, who gathered at the legendary Bramall Lane Football Ground in Sheffield, the oldest stadium in the world that still hosts soccer matches, yet was the site of a boxing card for just the third time in its 162-year history. A third will be the experiences I had preceding the match such as walking the cobbled streets, appreciating the blend of old-world architecture and modern-day amenities, enjoying the food and friendly, helpful people, the massive (and comforting) security presence that addressed (and neutralized) invisible but very real threats, the crowd’s energetic singing of “Sweet Caroline,” as well as interactions with members of the “Showtime Championship Boxing” team, in situations professional and personal.
Another set of vivid memories were created by Mother Nature. The possibility of rain that forced everyone to make contingency plans but which, thankfully, ended up being little more than occasional spitting spurts. The bone-chilling cold accompanied by wind so strong that the flags atop the stadium were blowing at full length nearly the entire day and defied the graphic stating it was 61 degrees at the start of the 10:15 p.m. broadcast. The windbreaker and my father’s Graybar cap that was barely enough to stave off the elements. All in all, however, everything associated with the broadcast, and the event itself, worked out well.
Despite the challenges, I still wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. The inconveniences paled in comparison to the historic whole that saw the ascension of a new boxing force in Spence, the bravery of a proud warrior in Brook, before injury forced him to give in, and the reshuffling of a vitally important weight class in welterweight. Just two days earlier, Greg Bishop of Sports Illustrated opined that boxing is far from dead, a 180-degree turn from the publication’s stance of recent years. He is stating what we who follow boxing have known for a while but the attitudinal turnaround is still a welcome development because the more outlets that consistently cover boxing, as the serious sport it is, the better.
Spence carried the day on the strength of his snapping southpaw jab, which landed with impressive frequency and helped create openings for his combinations. In his last four fights, Spence had averaged 7.2 landed jabs per round against opposition not nearly as good as Brook but, here, he produced 7.8 per round against his best opponent to date. Those jabs may well have contributed to Brook’s orbital bone break under the left eye, his second such injury in his last two fights. Another part of Spence’s success was his body work, which accounted for 69 of his 163 landed power shots as well as 71 of his 246 total connects, the latter number being the second-highest total ever landed against Brook (Carson Jones’ 269 remains number one). A third element was his power accuracy; in four past CompuBox-tracked fights Spence landed 42.7% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts but, against Brook, he landed 44%, thanks mostly to his 72 of 128 performance (56%) in rounds 9-11.
Meanwhile, Brook’s jab was held in check (14 of 115, 12%), thanks to Spence’s lefty stance, while his power shots, which landed at a 37% rate, failed to rattle the ambitious American. Worse yet for Brook, the eye problems that led to his downfall against IBF/WBA/WBC middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin made a return visit against Spence, except, this time, the previously healthy left eye was victimized. The pain from Brook’s injury and from Spence’s blows in round 11 forced the hometown hero to repeatedly dab at the orb before taking a knee. Recognizing Brook had reached his limit, referee Howard John Foster waved off the contest at the 1:47 mark.
In all, Spence out-landed Brook 246-136 overall, 83-14 jabs and 163-122 power, while also leading 39%-31% overall, 31%-12% jabs and 44%-37% power. Brook topped 20 total connects just once (21 in the fourth), while Spence passed that threshold seven times, including 42 in the 10th, the highest single-round total ever recorded by a Brook opponent. For the record, Brook came within one punch of equaling Emmanuel Lartey’s record of 137 connects against Spence but the final result rendered that moot.
For Spence, the future is not only bright; it’s blinding. At 27, Spence is in the chronological prime of his career and, if he remains active – a question mark in this age, when two fights a year is the norm at the highest levels – Spence has the opportunity to maximize his massive potential many saw in him, even before the 2012 London Olympics.
It is fitting that Brook, a native of England’s “Steel City,” demonstrated a steely determination in the midst of Spence’s assault, while the Texan showed style, talent, poise and grit.
George Groves demonstrated similar qualities in defeating former titlist Fedor Chudinov for the vacant WBA super middleweight belt, and he did Spence one better by overcoming injury to do so. Groves revealed several days later that he fought with a broken jaw from round three onward, making him only the second fighter in recent memory to win a world title with such an injury (Tim Austin’s eighth round TKO over Mbulelo Botile in July 1997 to win the IBF bantamweight title was the other). But for “Saint George,” the word “persistence” should be added because he finally reached his personal summit in this, his fourth attempt at major boxing honors. The manner by which he achieved his goal is also noteworthy, for Groves overcame a slow start (and the injury) to produce a blistering sixth-round rally that had the air of catharsis. The memories of failed title shots against Carl Froch (twice) and Badou Jack were replaced by a dervish-like attack that had the partisan crowd in a rapturous roar and the fighter in a state of profound relief.
“I can put those losses to bed and get on with my life,” Groves declared. “I’m usually a character who is normally well-rehearsed but, this time, I have no words. What a tremendous atmosphere tonight; the crowd showed me so much respect. I’m over the moon.”
The numbers Groves produced in round six were both saintly and satanic: Connect gaps of 32-1 overall and 26-0 power, 58% overall accuracy and 70% precision on his power punches. That surge allowed him to create connect gaps of 142-97 overall and 111-55 power to offset Chudinov’s 42-31 lead in landed jabs as well as percentage gulfs of 36%-25% overall and 47%-23% power to counter his opponent’s 27%-19% edge in jab accuracy. Groves’ final-round rush was a continuation of what he achieved in rounds four (32-14 overall, 30-13 power) and five (22-21 overall, 17-11 power) and his efforts effectively kept the Russian volume puncher in check. In fact, Groves actually threw four more punches than Chudinov (398-394).
The undercard produced triumphs for three 2016 British Olympians – Joe Cordina, Anthony Fowler and Lawrence Okolie – all of whom stopped their opponents in the first round. It also logged a stunning upset as heavyweight Lenroy Thomas, despite losing a point for low blows in round eight, managed to win a split decision over local big man David Allen Jr.. According to BoxRec.com, Allen’s father, David Allen Sr., was on the docket the last time Bramall Lane hosted a boxing card. In July 1984, Allen stopped Granville Allen in five rounds in support of Herol Graham’s fifth-round TKO over Lindell Holmes. But while the result was disappointing for Allen Jr., it was a triumph of the spirit for Thomas, who told reporters, after the fight, he had been living out of a dumpster for the past year and was making ends meet at a fast-food outlet. Boxing has long been the province of dreamers but, for Thomas, it was a win that could help deliver him from his wrenching reality.
Sunday, May 28: At show’s end, Dennis and I packed our belongings and decided to make the 15-minute walk back to the hotel instead of riding the Showtime shuttle, which likely would have been blocked by fans streaming out of the stadium. Despite the late hour, the streets were eminently safe.
Realizing my wake-up time to make the airport shuttle was less than four hours away, I decided to stay awake instead of attempting to achieve semi-shuteye. To combat impending fatigue, I drank a couple of glasses of diet soda at the hotel bar – something I’ve cut back on in recent weeks – then wrote most of the words you’ve read thus far after returning to my room. Once I reached a good stopping place, I watched some TV to catch up on the news I had missed, while at Bramall Lane, then started to get ready for the long trip home.
I opted to go downstairs at 5:15 a.m., in case there was an open seat on the 5:30 shuttle and, if not, I’d be there in plenty of time to catch my assigned 6 a.m. ride. Fortunately, for me, there was room inside the van and, after taking my seat beside Steve Farhood, we were off to the airport.
After arriving in Manchester, our group went its separate ways, for most of my seatmates were flying on United, while I was coming home on American (via British Airways).
The layout of the entrance area left me at a loss as to what to do next because my 10:50 a.m. flight to Philadelphia was the only one on the flight monitor that featured no gate or terminal guidance. I approached the nearby information desk and was told that I needed to take the elevator up to the “departures” floor, take a right and go into the pink-colored “fast-track” line, the equivalent of TSA Pre-Check. But while my Pre-Check privileges got me into a shorter line, they didn’t prevent me from going through the full security protocol. Not only did I need to remove both laptops, I was asked to put my gels into a second plastic bag separate from other items I had in my primary baggie. I also put my windbreaker onto the long tray and, after cleaning out my pockets, I proceeded through the simple metal detector. I reassembled myself and my belongings at the designated repacking table, after which I sought out a monitor to get updated information as to where I should wait for my plane. It offered nothing.
A woman who was handing out advertising fliers provided clarity: At Manchester’s airport (as well as several others, I’m told), all passengers in the terminal gather at a centralized lounge/food court instead of walking to individual gates and waiting there. Each flight is listed in chronological order on multiple sets of side-by-side monitors and information regarding the status of each flight is constantly updated. Passengers are told when gates are expected to open by five-minute intervals and, when the gate information is certified, the flight is highlighted within a green neon box. While confusing at first, this system is quite efficient and effective.
While I waited, I bought a British BLT and a small bag of cheddar chips at one of the food court outlets, while keeping a sharp eye on the monitor. At 9:45 a.m., the monitor instructed us Manchester-to-Philadelphia passengers to walk to Gate 44, which, I learned, was one of the most distant in its part of the terminal. Just as well: The exercise helped me stay alert.
When I handed over my passport and boarding pass to the gate agent, I was asked to step to the side and wait for further instructions, a development that left me a bit confused and concerned. A few moments later, I was asked a series of questions:
“How long have you been in England?”
“Since Thursday morning.”
“Why were you here?”
“To work last night’s fight between Kell Brook and Errol Spence.”
“Where was the fight held?”
“At Bramall Lane in Sheffield.”
At that point, she thanked me and allowed me to proceed down the jet bridge. I was glad my mind was still sharp enough to pass the impromptu quiz show.
I settled into seat 11G, the fifth-row left-side aisle seat in coach, and waited for my seatmate to arrive. That seatmate turned out to be a bright 21-year-old bespectacled blonde with the quintessentially British name of Victoria Abbott. She was on her way to Connecticut to begin work at a summer camp for youths, something she has done for the past several years. Her accent was precise and easy for my American ears to understand and, even at her tender age, she already was a seasoned world traveler, as well as a veteran of the workforce. She began her working career at age 14 and her various gigs helped her greatly, in terms of paying for her education.
My primary objective for the seven-and-a-half hour flight was to get enough rest, so I could be sharp for the final two-and-a-half hour drive home from Pittsburgh but, after getting about 90 minutes of shuteye, my plans changed for two pleasant reasons: The three food service runs capped by a cup of chocolate ice cream and the fascinating conversation with Victoria, which lasted for the flight’s final three hours.
The plane landed smoothly and, after deplaning, I headed toward customs, where I handed over my declaration form and went to a self-serve kiosk that produced a paper ticket to hand over to the immigration officers. That done, my luggage underwent the TSA Pre-Check security screening and, after retrieving my belongings, I walked to Gate A 18 to await my 3:41 p.m. fight to Pittsburgh.
For the second consecutive flight, the act of handing over my boarding pass caused a slight delay. This time, the reason was a happy one because, then, I learned I had been upgraded to first class.
My seatmate was one of the lucky few to have gotten out of Heathrow in London, which was victimized by a massive computer system power failure that canceled hundreds of flights and left thousands stranded. When I told her where I had just been, her face lit up in recognition because her job often took her to London, Manchester, Sheffield and other areas within England. The subsequent conversation made an already short flight seem even briefer.
After landing in Pittsburgh, I headed straight to my car, turned on the SiriusXM radio and commenced the final leg of a journey that would total approximately 8,043 miles. I arrived home a little after 7:30 p.m. and, given the rigors of the past several days, was in better shape than I thought I would be.
However, there will be no rest for the weary. As usual, many tasks need to be completed before the third leg of this “Travelin’ Man World Tour” – Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
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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