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The Travelin’ Man returns to Detroit…again – Part one

15
Aug

Thursday, August 3: As usual, the 19 days since returning home from Miami, Oklahoma, had been jammed with activity, activity mostly connected with the upcoming book “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers,” which is coming together splendidly. When I woke up this morning, however, my attention was seized by the news that Wladimir Klitschko had announced his retirement after 21 years in the professional ring. In doing so, he turned his back on a potential November 11 rematch with IBF/WBA titlist Anthony Joshua in Las Vegas, a guaranteed eight-figure payday and the opportunity to join Muhammad Ali, Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, Michael Moorer and older brother Vitali as fighters who have won recognized pieces of the title on at least three occasions.

At first blush, Klitschko’s decision was a mild surprise but, upon further reflection, it shouldn’t have been. “Dr. Steelhammer” has long been known for his meticulous preparation in training, his precise and carefully executed fight plans and his calculated career planning, and this announcement struck me as another example of his big-picture thinking on several levels.

First, up until the Joshua fight, Klitschko’s template, especially in American circles, was of a boring, clunky, over-cautious tactician, who dominated a putrid talent pool and put self-preservation above exciting observers. Moreover, he was seen as a line-jumper because he, at age 41, got an immediate crack at not one but two sanctioning body titles (Joshua’s IBF and the vacant WBA “super” belt) despite a career-long 17-month layoff and a career-worst performance against Tyson Fury in his most recent bout.

That thinking shifted dramatically last April 29 when Klitschko overcame a fifth round knockdown to score his own in the sixth, then went hammer-and-tongs with his chiseled 27-year-old opponent until the 11th, when Joshua’s youth, strength and power seized control for good. Two knockdowns later, the fight was stopped and a new era in heavyweight boxing was confirmed.

In many quarters, Joshua-Klitschko was hailed as the most exciting heavyweight championship fight in years, and some went back to the first Riddick Bowe-Evander Holyfield fight in November 1992 for a suitable comparison. While many were impressed with Joshua’s resiliency, even more praise was heaped on Klitschko, not just for how he competed but also for the manner in which he handled the loss, both immediately after the bout and following his retirement announcement. “My HEART is at PEACE as I pass the torch to @anthonyfjoshua – the next generation,” he tweeted to his conqueror. “Good luck little bro, I’m proud of you!”

“Respect champ,” Joshua tweeted in response. “We lit up the scene in April! (You’re) welcome to give me any advice on how to keep this going for the next 10 years.” With that, Klitschko closed the circle, took a bow and walked off the stage, knowing he could have performed at least one more time and knowing that more than a few observers wanted to see more from him. After all, Joshua-Klitschko II was viewed as just another compelling matchup in what has already been a superlative year for boxing.

Second, Klitschko’s retirement ensured that the final in-ring memory was of him competing on one of history’s grandest stages – London’s Wembley Stadium before more than 90,000 patrons – instead of a much smaller venue in Las Vegas. Joshua would have been heavily favored to stop Klitschko again and history suggests the end would have come even sooner and in more lopsided fashion. That would have been an anti-climax but, by retiring now, Klitschko ensures that the positive vibes from April’s performance will be part of his narrative for years to come.

Finally, Klitschko ends his career as an active fighter the way every great champion should: Healthy, wealthy and on his own terms.

Now that his in-ring resume is complete – I believe we’ll never see a comeback – how will he be perceived by historians? How does he stack up against other heavyweight legends, in terms of resume and in head-to-head matchups? I’ll leave it to others to speak their minds but here are my impressions:

Numerically speaking, Klitschko’s resume is extraordinary. He was 25-3 (19) in heavyweight title fights. His 18 consecutive defenses of the IBF belt during his second reign is the third most in division annals behind Joe Louis’ 25 and Larry Holmes’ 20 and his nine years and 222 days as IBF titlist is the second longest continuous tenure behind Louis’ 11 years 255 days. If one adds his initial WBO reign from October 14, 2000 to March 8, 2003, Klitschko owns the all-time record for most time spent as a heavyweight titlist – 12 years and two days – and his title defense total swells to 23. According to Boxrec.com, Klitschko’s 64 victories is the sixth highest total behind Ezzard Charles (95), Primo Carnera (88), George Foreman (76), Larry Holmes (69), Max Baer and Joe Louis (66 each) and Gene Tunney and Roy Jones Jr. (65 each), while his 53 knockouts (according to Boxrec) or 54 knockouts (according to Fight Fax) trails only Carnera (71), Foreman (68) and Fitzsimmons (57).

Some will not declare him an all-time great because he lacked a defining fight against a fellow legend. In this respect, Klitschko is a victim of timing and circumstance. The closest he came to such a match was in “Oceans Eleven” when he and Lennox Lewis shared a ring (Hollywood, of course, had the bout end in a riot) and the best big man of his era was older brother Vitali. The pair disappointed many in the boxing world when they opted to put brotherly love over sibling rivalry and the result was twin-towers dominance that lasted years.

Virtually any long-term reign is comprised of many lower-to-mid-level challengers. Joe Louis had his so-called “Bum of the Month Club” and the most threatening opponents to his reign came from a light heavyweight (albeit a great one) in Billy Conn and Jersey Joe Walcott, an opponent so lightly regarded that their first match was nearly deemed an exhibition. In his second reign, Muhammad Ali faced more than a half-dozen fighters who were double-digit underdogs while Larry Holmes faced seeming no-hopers such as Lorenzo Zanon, Scott LeDoux, Lucien Rodriguez, Leroy Jones, Scott Frank, Ossie Ocasio (a future cruiserweight titlist) and Alfredo Evangelista. Not everyone is a superstar but, to become a superstar, one has to go through the gauntlet time and again and make real the dominance expected of him. Louis did it. Ali did it. Holmes did it. And Klitschko did it.
As for the head-to-head matchups, I believe Klitschko’s physique (6-foot-6, 240 pounds, 81-inch reach), command of range, jackhammer right cross, intelligence, patience and herky-jerky rhythm would have presented problems for anyone, even those who occupy the highest rungs of heavyweight history like Louis, Ali, Holmes, Jack Dempsey, Tunney, Marciano, Lewis, Holyfield and Mike Tyson. However, his greatest weaknesses, his vulnerable chin and his ability to recover from a knockdown, are two of the most damning faults a fighter could have, especially a heavyweight fighter. Four of Klitschko’s five losses were by stoppage and in three of them (Ross Puritty, Corrie Sanders, Lamon Brewster), Klitschko came into the fight as a heavy favorite. Even so, once Klitschko fully incorporated Emanuel Steward’s blueprint following the Brewster defeat, he went more than 10 years between the three knockdowns he suffered in the first Samuel Peter fight to those he incurred against Joshua. Therefore, warts and all, I believe Klitschko would do just fine in the “dream match” game.

While his place in history can be debated, virtually all will agree that Klitschko is one the best people ever to hold a heavyweight title. He has invested countless hours doing charity work and, in this age of trash talk, Klitschko largely remained above the fray when he was confronted with it. He doesn’t have a police record, is a solid family man and, in public, he carries himself with a regal yet approachable bearing. Class tells both inside the ring and beyond the ropes and, in both arenas, Klitschko has had an abundance of it. His announcement starts the countdown clock for his Class of 2023 candidacy for the International Boxing Hall of Fame and, God willing, I’ll be there to place my checkmark across from his name.

*

 

I’ve been told by some readers that they particularly enjoy the “Travelin’ Man” installments in which I encounter the all-too-frequent vagaries associated with getting from Point A to Point B, via airplane or automobile. While my outbound trip to Detroit had some issues, once I arrived in Pittsburgh, the two-plus hour drive getting there couldn’t have gone better.

First, the weather at 9 a.m. was wonderful: Partly sunny and 72 degrees. The route I usually take was free of bottlenecks and wrecks, and, for the first time in a while, I was able to secure a parking spot in the nearest lot, in relation to the terminal entrance. The TSA Pre-Check line was pleasingly short. I wasn’t pegged for a “random” search when I walked through the metal detector and nothing was removed by those inspecting my bags.

Because of the frequent flier miles I’ve built up over the past decade, I usually fly American Airlines (which acquired US Airways several years ago) but, thanks to my last trip to Detroit in March, I learned Delta offered several direct flights to “The Motor City.” I asked for, and received, the 1:38 p.m. flight, which meant I didn’t have to arise at an abnormally early hour. My only concern was that I’d draw a bad seat due to my low Sky Miles total but, when I checked in, I was given a pretty decent spot – 15th row on the aisle.

After buying a breakfast sandwich at a nearby convenience outlet, I settled into my seat at Gate D-80 and waited for the boarding process to begin. At this point, the mild problems began.

First, the gate agent told us that bad weather caused the plane to leave Minneapolis later than scheduled, a development that initially pushed our departure time back 30 minutes. Second, once we boarded the aircraft, we were held at the gate for several minutes because air traffic control in Detroit ordered a ground stop due to that same weather system. Third, after we were allowed to leave the gate and proceed to the runway, Detroit’s tower again ordered our plane to remain in place but, even as the pilot was informing us of the news over the loudspeaker, it reversed course and allowed us to proceed.

“Are we on an airplane or a roller-coaster?” I asked my seat mate, who laughed.

A word about Delta: One of my beefs with the airlines is that passengers are often left in the dark when it comes to the reasons why a flight is delayed. Here, at least the gate agent in Pittsburgh and the pilot on our flight made the extra effort to keep us up-to-date on our situation as well as how it affected those passengers with tight connection windows. In that vein, the gate agent announced that all those passengers would be automatically booked on the next available flight, while retaining their original seats, surely a stress-reducer for them. Moreover, the flight attendants, without prompting, asked those of us without connections to remain in our seats, so those who needed to get off the plane quickly could do so. Even better: That instruction was largely heeded.

This experience may persuade me to give Delta an extra look as far as future trips. I certainly will patronize Delta the next time I need to go to Detroit.

So why was I going to Detroit? The reason: To work a “ShoBox” doubleheader featuring super bantamweights Vladimir Tikhonov and Jesse Angel Hernandez and, in the main event, a title fight between WBC women’s super middleweight titlist Nikki Adler and her challenger, two-time Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields. Not only will Adler’s belt be on the line, the winner would also become the IBF’s first titlist. A third fight, pitting undefeated super lightweights Bakhtiyar Eyubov and Sonny Fredrickson, was also scheduled but illness forced Fredrickson out and a foe suitable enough to make air couldn’t be secured in time. As a result, Eyubov was left off the card.

Although the circumstances were tilted heavily in Shields’ favor, in terms of home ring advantage and the quickness with which this title opportunity arrived for her, the conventional wisdom going in was that Adler represented a sizable leap upward for the Flint native. Yes, Shields had won her last 54 fights dating back to May 2012 and she looked impressive in beating her three professional opponents (Franchon Crews, Szilvia Szabados and Sydney LeBlanc) but the 30-year-old Adler was 16-0 (9), stood a half-inch taller at 5-foot-8 ½, boasted an effective jab, threw well to the body and had demonstrated above-average accuracy (38% overall, 31% jabs, 43% power in her last two fights against Elene Sikmashvili and Mery Rancier). Also, while Shields had overwhelmed her opponents with volume (68.2 punches per two-minute round) and forceful hitting, she had yet to register a knockdown. Conversely, Adler stopped Sikmashvili in the ninth with a nicely delivered right cross over the low left jab, a punch that persuaded Sikmashvili to arise only a split-second after the 10-count was finished.

Despite those factors favoring Adler, I felt three others would result in a late-round TKO defeat for her: Adler’s 13-month layoff, the vast difference in speed and the electric pro-Shields atmosphere inside the MGM Grand Detroit’s arena. Support like that lifts athletes to a higher level of performance when everything else is relatively equal but if the ability gap is already tilted toward the local favorite, the ear-splitting cheers, most times, would result in an even larger gulf. Shields had long performed well when expected to romp through her competition, even in the biggest moments in London and Rio. I expected more of the same here because, at least so far, she has been that good.

As for Tikhonov and Hernandez, I was impressed with the Russian’s output (nearly 82 punches per round), technical skill, straight punching and strategic command in the two fights I saw (TKO 8 Nikoloz Kokashvili, TKO 3 Alexander Saltykov) while Hernandez’s dogged aggression in his six-round split decision loss to Ray Ximenez was striking. Given the styles, however, I thought Tikhonov’s speed and ring craft combined with Hernandez’s durability will see him to a decision victory, especially since Ximenez used many of those same assets to beat Hernandez.

Shortly before I boarded the aircraft in Pittsburgh, I looked to my right and saw an elderly gentleman with a cane whose shaved head, grizzled features and cauliflower ear struck me as familiar. When I heard the gate agent mention his name, I knew I was right: It was Bruno Sammartino.

For the uninitiated, Sammartino is on the short list of the greatest professional wrestlers to ever live. The native of Pizzoferrato, Abruzzo, Italy was dubbed “The Living Legend” for good reason: He held the World Wide Wrestling Federation championship (the forerunner of the WWF, now the WWE) for a record 4,040 days and his first reign, 2,803 days (seven years and eight months), is the single longest continuous tenure of the modern era. Known for his brute strength and unyielding toughness, Sammartino once finished the final 15 minutes of a 1976 match with Stan Hansen, despite suffering a broken neck from a botched body slam. As a child, I often watched him and others on the weekend cards aired on Channel 9 (WSTV, now WTOV) and, because he was a champion virtually all that time, his exploits were seared into my memory.

As I aged, I “wised up” about the realities of pro wrestling but, despite the scripted matches, I still appreciated the physical demands asked of the athletes. That point was driven home one day during my early teens when a neighbor briefly applied a standing figure-four leg-lock so painful that I thought he had broken my left kneecap. While I escaped serious injury, the reality check was delivered.

With all that in mind, I approached Sammartino, who was in the third-row aisle seat in First Class, shook his hand and quietly said, “It’s an honor flying with you, Mr. Sammartino.” His face brightened and he said, “Why, thank you.” He looked like he wanted to talk more, and so did I, but, with dozens of other passengers behind me, we left it at that and I proceeded to my seat in coach.

Once we were in the air, all was well and we landed in Detroit at 3:33 p.m., only 38 minutes later than advertised. After deplaning, I took a cab to the MGM Grand Detroit and, during the drive, as is my habit, I chatted with the driver, a native of Senegal, who has been in the U.S. for the past 18 years and is now an American citizen. He said he learned English by watching Eddie Murphy and Chris Tucker movies, as well as practicing with helpful co-workers. While he caught on fairly quickly, he said he became fluent after four years. With that, he became tri-lingual as he already spoke French and Wolof (which is spoken by 40% of Senegal’s population).

After checking into my 12th floor room and unpacking, I headed down to the food court and bought an early-evening meal. On my way there, I encountered Sherman, who was manning security at one of the casino entrances. Noting my black ShoBox t-shirt, he asked if I was working tomorrow night’s fight. After saying I was, he said he asked management to work this fight, the first he would be seeing live since Sugar Ray Leonard stopped Pete Ranzany in August 1979. Although I believed him, he cemented that belief when he provided correct details about where it was held (Caesars Palace in Las Vegas) and several of the celebrity ringsiders, as well as fight details. We talked a bit more on my way back from the restaurant, after which he promised to chat more at the fight. I spent the remainder of the evening relaxing in my room, after which I turned out the light at 1 a.m.

 

 

Friday, August 4: I awakened six hours later and I spent the next seven hours catching up on the work I chose not to do the previous evening. The only break I took was to go to the business area to print out my boarding pass and, as is often the case, I had issues. One of the two computers at the work station had a sign over the screen indicating its printer was out of order but, since there was a second one with no such sign, I decided to use it. Unfortunately, that printer wasn’t working either and, just as I was about to ponder my options, I spotted Steve Farhood and Barry Tompkins. Steve said he was told to consult the concierge but I decided to approach the front desk instead. The female employee not only printed out my pass, she placed it inside an envelope. I passed on the tip to Steve via email.

After getting some more book-associated work done – I’m currently making my first editorial pass over the manuscript – I packed my laptops, entered the elevator, went to the third floor and headed to ringside.

Because I didn’t yet have my credential, I underwent a rigorous security protocol before gaining entry to the arena and, over the next several hours, I repeated the process three times. I also got quite a workout because, to get from the arena to the production truck, I (and everyone else) had to go up and down a long flight of stairs before taking a turn toward the parking lot. I recall making this trip at least a half-dozen times but the cool breeze made that journey a bit easier…but only a bit.

The green lights we wanted to see were achieved a few hours before the arena opened to the public and, while punch-counting colleague Andy Kasprzak and I waited for the action to begin, I opted to chat with several ringsiders, which included longtime official Frank Garza and timekeeper Dan Graschuck, who entertained me with numerous stories about the old Kronk Days, as well as his many meetings with Muhammad Ali, who, for years, resided in Barrien Springs, Michigan.

The Eyubov-Fredrickson scratch reduced the lineup to just six fights, four of which went untelevised. The first fight of the evening was a scheduled six-round bantamweight contest featuring 14-6-1 (8) Nigerian Yakubu Kareem and the 11-1 (6) Detroit product James Gordon-Smith, last seen being knocked out by macho “pillow fighter” Joshua Greer Jr. on ShoBox. Suspecting we might see Gordon-Smith again down the road, we decided to use this bout as our “practice fight.”

Thing was, the practice lasted only 23 seconds. Smith produced the knockout of the night when he connected with a smashing right over Kareem’s low jab. The blow caused Kareem to fall into the ropes as if in slow motion before crumbling to the canvas. Kareem tried to regain his feet but his legs lacked the energy to complete the job.

“Well, I’m all warmed up,” Andy said with a grin and a trace of sarcasm in his voice. “How about you?”

“Yep, I’m ready to go,” I joked.

The next fight saw Lansing super welterweight Antonio Urista score a six-round majority decision victory over Serdar Hudayberdiyev of Turkenistan. Forty-nine days earlier, Urista won a unanimous decision over Hudayberdiyev at Detroit’s Masonic Temple and, while Hudayberdiyev appeared to have the edge in rounds two and three, Urista, nicknamed “Wee Wee,” pulled even in the fourth and fifth and pulled out the close win in the end.

On paper, the six-round super welterweight fight between Detroit’s Domonique Dolton (17-1-1, 9) and Brockton-based Virgin Islander Antonio Chaves Fernandez (9-32-4, 3) was an utter mismatch. However, the southpaw Fernandez was on a two-fight winning streak (including a six-round majority decision over the 6-1 Andy Gonzalez two months ago) and he was only six days removed from a third round KO win over Nate Charles in Skowhegan, Maine. Long, lean and mobile, he looked as if he would present an interesting puzzle to the local lad. He did but Dolton’s in-and-out movement and timely blows enabled him to win every round on every scorecard. For Dolton, it’s upward and onward while, for Fernandez, it’s on to the next town.

A similar “mismatch” seemed in the offing between 7-0 Detroit bantamweight Ja’Rico O’Quinn and 2-3 San Antonio-based Mexican Jose Elizondo but, while O’Quinn got off to a good start, Elizondo’s strength and pressure gradually wore the quicker man down. Elizondo floored O’Quinn late in the fourth round and did it again with a right cross in the sixth. While an upset appeared to be in the air, the reality was that two judges saw it a 56-56 draw. Word at ringside was a rematch might be staged in the near future.

With that, the two TV fights remained. The equipment was ready. The announcers were ready. And the counters were ready. For what, however, was still unknown.

*

 

 

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 (available on Amazon)” and the co-author of the upcoming book “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers.” To contact Groves, use the email [email protected].

 

 

 

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