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The Travelin’ Man returns to Las Vegas: Part one

Fighters Network
17
Sep

Thursday, September 7: One of the many perks of my jobs with CompuBox and RingTV.com is that every card I work for the former and write about for the latter has the potential of producing something unique and, from time to time, historic. Such will be the case here, for the main event of this “Showtime Special Edition” tripleheader that I will do with colleague Dennis Allen pits David Benavidez versus Ronald Gavril for the WBC super middleweight title vacated by Badou Jack. The historic component is twofold. First, should Benavidez win, he will, at 20 years 270 days, become the youngest fighter ever to win a version of the 168-pound championship, snapping the mark that is currently held by Darrin Van Horn, who was 22 years 58 days old when he stopped Lindell Holmes in the 11th on May 18, 1991 in Italy. Second, Benavidez would replace WBO junior flyweight titlist Kosei Tanaka (22 years 91 days) as the youngest major titlist in the sport. According to Oddschecker.com, Benavidez is a heavy favorite to do so, as the margins range from 10-to-1 to 25-to-1.

The route toward this pairing for the vacant belt was, charitably speaking, circuitous. Former WBC titlist Anthony Dirrell, ranked second, was slated to fight first-rated Callum Smith. Smith opted to participate in the “World Boxing Super Series,” instead of fighting Dirrell and was replaced by the fourth-ranked Benavidez. The Benavidez-Dirrell pairing was scuttled when Dirrell withdrew from the fight due to an unspecified injury. He then was replaced by Gavril, rated sixth. Once this merry-go-round stopped spinning, it was finally time to fight.

While the “eye test” and the numbers point to a Benavidez win, there is one factor that could spell trouble for the youngster: Defense. While Benavidez dishes out plenty of punishment – in six CompuBox-tracked fights, he has landed nearly six more punches per round (24.1 vs. 18.8) and five more power shots per round (19.8 vs. 14.6) – he absorbed 37.2% of his opponents’ power shots, including 44% of Denis Douglin’s and 42% of Francy Ntetu’s. Two potential reasons: First, he is willing to sacrifice defense for offense, in pursuit of scoring the knockout (something he’s done 17 times in his 18-0 record) and, second, has a profound confidence in his ability to take punches from his fellow super middleweights because, as an amateur, he weighed approximately 250 pounds (one ringsider, a longtime friend of Benavidez’s, placed the weight at 285). Happily for him, his blueprint has worked out well, so far, and one positive sign is, in the fights that have gone longer (TKO 7 Ntetu, TKO 10 Douglin and TKO 8 Rogelio “Porky” Medina), he landed 45% overall, 27% jabs and 51% power and demonstrated a strong finishing kick. He out-landed Medina 91-41 and 85-37 in the final four rounds and bested Douglin 16-1 overall and 15-1 power in the final round.

Still, Gavril, a Vegas-based Romanian, may be the best foe Benavidez has yet faced, thanks to his amateur pedigree and success as a pro and, along with being aligned with event promoter Floyd Mayweather Jr., he should enjoy plenty of adopted hometown support, as well as sound advice from an experienced and savvy trainer in onetime light heavyweight champion Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. Like Benavidez, Gavril lands punches with power and impressive accuracy (40% overall, 35% jabs, 47% power in his five CompuBox-tracked fights), plus, he holds the all-time CompuBox record at 168 for jabs landed in a round (42 in round two of his May 2016 bout with Juan Novoa, a fight in which Gavril landed an incredible 82% of his power punches and averaged 22.1 jabs per round). But while Benavidez struggles with defense, Gavril can be floored by punches to the temple. Christopher Brooker scored a knockdown with a hook in round five but Gavril turned the tide by hurting Brooker in the sixth and putting him away after scoring two knockdowns in the 10th.



Prediction? To borrow a line from Mr. T’s Clubber Lang in “Rocky III,” the prediction is “pain” – and a Benavidez TKO win in the later rounds.

Two other super middleweight fights make up the rest of the televised portion of the card as J’Leon Love will meet Abie Han and Caleb Plant will fight Andrew Hernandez, who is fighting on just eight days’ notice after Alan Campa dropped out. Love and Han once were staples on TV but following losses to Rogelio Medina (KO by 3) and Sergio Mora (split decision) respectively they have been fighting “in the dark.” Since the Medina defeat, Love has won five straight (three by knockout) while Han has won three in a row after losing a split decision to Fernando Guerrero in his first post-Mora bout. Like Benavidez-Gavril, Love-Han should be a thriller because Love is a give-and-take machine who has shown impressive resiliency, while Han avidly looks to apply his power. However, Han’s numerical history suggests trouble against better opponents; Glen Tapia, Marco Reyes and Mora landed nearly three more punches per round while incurring accuracy deficits of seven percentage points overall and 12 percentage points in power. He, too, is a tough cookie because, in part, he managed to beat Reyes and give Tapia and Mora as much as they could handle in registering their victories.

As for Plant-Hernandez, it may end up being a better match than Plant-Campa might have been because Hernandez (who fights the scale as much as his opponents, due to his willingness to accept fights on short notice) is more than capable of springing upsets. For proof, one need not look any farther than his May 2016 encounter with the then-17-0 Arif Magomedov. Despite shedding 40 pounds in four weeks, Hernandez still had the energy to average 101.2 punches per round (including 10.5 landed jabs), as well as score a 10th round knockdown to seal the victory. However, Hernandez has lost two of his last five fights, a three-round blow-out against Jesse Hart and, in his most recent outing, a lopsided eight-round decision against mobile high-volume southpaw Patrick Teixeira just 41 days before the Plant fight.

The guess here is that Plant, with the benefit of a full training camp, will execute a disciplined fight plan en route to winning a clear-cut decision.

The untelevised portion of the show will include the return of former middleweight titlist Peter Quillin, who is fighting for the first time since his lightning-quick destruction at the hands of Daniel Jacobs in December 2015. Returning as a super middleweight, Quillin will meet Dashon Johnson, who is better than his 22-21-3 record suggests. After all, he very nearly stopped Jesse Hart in the final seconds of their March 2016 fight in Philadelphia (a 10-round unanimous decision loss) and, in recent fights, he has been promoted by Hall-of-Famer J Russell Peltz, an old-school type who matches his fighters with uncommon fearlessness. Including the Hart bout, Johnson has gone 3-3 against opponents with a combined 96-19-5 record, including a TKO loss to Love in September 2016. He is coming off a decision defeat to the 15-1-1 Aaron Coley, in March, but Johnson’s best effort can prove troublesome. Two questions: Will his best be seen here? And will it be good enough to consume “Kid Chocolate?” The predictions: Probably and probably not.

*

It’s been more than three years since I’ve been in “Sin City” – I worked the first Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Marcos Maidana fight in May 2014 – but I’ve been told that more trips to Vegas, as well as other West Coast locales, will be in my future. Many people don’t like to travel – and for good reason – but I not only like it; I love it. I guess it’s because I did very little of it during the first 28 years of my life. Up until that point – my first trip to the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s induction weekend in 1993 – I had only stepped foot in three states other than my native West Virginia: Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. I was actually jealous when my sister traveled to St. Louis to visit a friend from college in the early 1990s but had I known what life had in store for me, a decade-and-a-half later, I would have just wished her well and waited my turn. And what a turn it has been: 40 states and trips to Canada, England, Argentina, the Bahamas, Germany and one accidental border crossing into Mexico the day before the Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.-Andy Lee fight in El Paso, Texas. Thanks to some quick thinking and even faster talking, my colleague and I not only were able to re-enter the U.S., we were able to receive perfect directions to the hotel we had failed to locate the first time around.

Thankfully, my route to Vegas was a direct shot from Pittsburgh and, because it was scheduled to depart at 3:15 p.m., I didn’t have to alter my sleep cycle. A bonus: Sunshine and 58 degrees at the time I left the house at 10:30 a.m.

I had originally planned to depart at 11 a.m. But, when I checked into my Southwest flight, my boarding pass read “C-32.” For those unfamiliar with Southwest, its seating protocol calls for passengers to line up in three groups of 60 passengers – Group A, Group B and Group C – and take whatever seat is available once entering the aircraft. My C-32 designation meant that I would be the 152nd person to board, which would likely mean a middle seat near the back of the cabin.

But Southwest does offer a chance for passengers like me who want to escape that fate – its “Business Select” program. When available, one can guarantee himself a slot between A-1 and A-15 by paying a $40 fee. Given my current place in the pecking order, that was a deal worth pursuing. So, in order to give myself the best chance of moving up, I left the house a bit early.

A good sign: I found a parking space quickly and within 200 steps of the terminal entrance. Good sign No. 2: There wasn’t any line at the Southwest ticket counter. And Good Sign No. 3: Because I was the first person on the Pittsburgh-to-Vegas flight who sought an upgrade, I was given a boarding pass with “A-1” printed on it.

A-Freaking-1…talk about a bargain!

Of course, I wasn’t the very first passenger to enter the cabin – military personnel, passengers with wheelchairs and people traveling with small children were allowed, as always and appropriately, to board first – but I was the first non-pre-board person to do so. I spotted an empty seat on the aisle of row three and asked the people already seated – a mother in the middle and her daughter beside the window – if they were saving this seat for anyone else. When they said no, I stowed my laptop bag in the overhead bin, my clothes bag underneath the seat in front of me and settled in.

On almost every trip, I experience an intriguing coincidence that suggests that something beyond mere fate might have lent a hand. This one was a doozy.

As we were exchanging life stories late in the flight, the mother mentioned that “although my name is Marilyn, my grandchildren and great-grandchildren call me ‘Triple G,’ which stands for ‘Great Grandma Grenda.’”

Imagine that: Of all the people I could have sat beside on this flight – and, with Southwest, you, and not the airline, make that choice – I ended up being seated next to an elderly Pennsylvania woman who happens to share a nickname with three-belt middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin. I told her and her daughter Lois about the coincidence and neither had no idea who Golovkin was, his standing in the sport or the fact that he was less than 10 days away from the biggest fight of his career against Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. So it wasn’t a case of the kids granting her a nickname they already knew about; the coincidence was totally organic. Astonishing.

The flight landed at 4:30 p.m. PDT, 20 minutes earlier than advertised. I secured a taxi almost instantly because the usually jammed queue was non-existent. Upon exiting the cab, I immediately walked to the production truck because technical manager Paul Tarter needed my laptop to properly link it to some new graphics that will be featured on tomorrow night’s telecast. About 90 minutes after checking into my fourth-floor room in Paradise Towers, Paul called my cell and asked me to return to the truck, where the final steps of the process were completed.

Famished, I stopped by a convenience outlet near the Paradise Towers elevator and purchased a mid-evening (late-evening for my East Coast self) meal, after which I assembled CompuBox research for Saturday’s “World Boxing Super Series” bout between WBO cruiserweight titlist Oleksandr Usyk and Marco Huck. I turned out the lights shortly after midnight local time, satisfied that I had fulfilled every possible obligation.

 

 

Friday, September 8: I slept for most of the next six-and-a-half hours – though I did awaken at 3:30 a.m. with a headache that required two Advil to quiet – and I spent most of the morning hard at work. Besides writing most of the words you’ve read so far, I also conducted research connected with tomorrow night’s HBO “SuperFly” tripleheader, featuring Wisaksil Wangek-Roman Gonzalez II, Naoya Inoue-Antonio Nieves and Carlos Cuadras-Juan Francisco Estrada. Once that was done, I headed downstairs to print out my boarding pass but I didn’t know where the business center was located. After asking two hotel employees, I learned it was located across from the Pink Taco restaurant. Though I was able to check into my flight – I drew B-34 this time – the employee, for whatever reason, was unable to print out the pass. So, as a result, I’ll need to get up 30 minutes earlier than planned in order to complete the process (which will hopefully include another $40 Business Select upgrade).

My call time at the The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino was noon, with the crew meal set for an hour later. After eating it at Mr. Lucky’s restaurant (a word to the wise: Their portions are huge – much too huge for me), I returned to ringside and eventually got the green lights I needed to indicate all was well electronically.

The opening bout saw 19-year-old Bronx-based Puerto Rican welterweight Josue Vargas raise his record to 9-1 (5) with a fourth-round stoppage at the expense of 21-year-old compatriot Alexander Charneco, who dropped to 4-4 (4). Another 19-year-old scored the next victory on the card as Sacramento lightweight Xavier Martinez increased to 9-0 (5) by notching a fifth-round corner retirement against 23-year-old Phoenix product Jesus Aguinaga, who took everything Martinez could throw until the end, which downgraded his ledger to 5-6-2 (0).

The most painful knockout of the evening was delivered in bout three between Dominican middleweight Jeison Rosario and Brooklyn-based Frenchman Salim Larbi. After Rosario built a nice lead, thanks to his boxing skills and combination punching, he drove a hook to the liver that caused Larbi to emit a loud growl as he fell to the canvas. Most fighters wouldn’t be able to arise from such a punch, especially after registering such vocal distress, but the 30-year-old Larbi somehow regained his feet. Unfortunately for Larbi, his stand only lasted a few seconds longer as a combination to the breadbasket scored a second knockdown – and a second “Uggggghhhh…” Referee Vic Drakulich stopped his count and waved the fight off, raising the 22-year-old Rosario’s record to 14-1 (11) and eroding Larbi’s to 20-8-2 (7), including his fourth inside-the-distance defeat.

The final fight of the untelevised portion of the show was Quillin-Johnson, which Dennis and I counted. While Quillin walked out with a decisive eight-round decision (79-72, 79-73, 78-74), the route getting there wasn’t as easy as the scores might have indicated. The fight began with Quillin backpedaling behind a busy jab and Johnson pursuing but barely punching. Quillin’s punch distribution illustrated his cautious approach, for of the 177 punches he threw in the first three rounds, 116, or 66.5%, were jabs. That stands in contrast to the 56%-44% split in favor of power shots thrown by the typical 168-pounder (29.9 of 53.0). Meanwhile, Johnson averaged just 25 punches per round in the first nine minutes, less than half the divisional norm.

The reason for Quillin’s methods became clear late in the third when Johnson landed an overhand right to the temple. The former WBO middleweight titlist’s eyes widened and his legs wobbled, proving that the time off didn’t improve his ability to absorb a sudden and well-timed power shot. Quillin retained enough of his senses to ride out the storm but the lateness of the round also helped his cause, as did Johnson’s failure to follow up his advantage in round four. (He threw just 36 punches to Quillin’s 44, landing 12 to Quillin’s 11.)

From time to time, mid-fight changes in strategy yield dramatic results and that’s what happened in round five when Quillin moved inside and initiated a trench war. The tight quarters didn’t give Johnson the room to land his looping punches with full power, while they helped Quillin land quick up-and-down combinations, especially with the left hook. In round five, Quillin out-threw Johnson 79-26 and out-landed him 49-1 overall, and in power shots. In stark contrast to the first three rounds, all but six of the 105 punches thrown that round were power shots.

From there, Quillin pulled away as he out-landed Johnson 68-38 overall, 21-2 jabs and 47-36 power to sew up the decision. In the end, Quillin prevailed 182-78 overall, 56-8 jabs and 126-70 power, as well as 38%-31% overall and 51%-31% power. Johnson’s only statistical successes came in round four (when he out-landed Quillin 12-11), the three rounds in which he led in power connects (one, four and eight) and his 32%-24% advantage in jab accuracy.

As Dennis and I waited for the televised part of the show to begin, I chatted with several ringsiders, including “In This Corner” host James “Smitty” Smith and his producer Jon Hait, as well as timekeeper Steve Esposito and ring announcer Ralph Velez.

As I said in the opening paragraphs, I expected an entertaining night at the fights. Would my expectations become reality? Read Part II to find out.

*

 

 

 

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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