The Travelin’ Man returns to Las Vegas: Part two
Please click here to read Part One.
Friday, September 8 (continued): Since becoming a boxing fan in the spring of 1974, I have witnessed dozens of young fighters whose precocious brilliance signaled the possibility of genuine greatness. Some, like Wilfred Benitez, lived up to (and exceeded) that potential. On March 6, 1976, he shockingly dethroned longtime WBA junior welterweight champion Antonio Cervantes to become, at 17 years 180 days, the youngest fighter ever to win a major boxing championship (a record he still holds 41 years later) and, by 22, became boxing’s first three-division champion since Henry Armstrong in 1938. But for every Benitez, there are countless others who were weeded out by the rigors of the prize ring. For them, the skills and talents that dominated lesser lights were negated by older and wiser mechanics whose insights also exposed and exploited previously latent flaws.
Like Benitez and those innumerable other youngsters, super middleweight David Benavidez intrigued me upon first viewing. His size, offensive weaponry and especially his maturity, in terms of how he handled himself in interviews and how he plied his trade inside the ropes, was worthy of notice. But experience has taught me that as good as Benavidez had looked so far, more tests had to be passed before superlatives could begin to be used.
One major test was Benavidez’s encounter with 31-year-old Ronald Gavril for the WBC super middleweight title vacated by Badou Jack. With Jack sitting at ringside, Benavidez, at 20 years 271 days, passed that test by scoring a 12-round split decision over the tough and talented Gavril and, in the process, achieving two significant chronological distinctions: The youngest fighter ever to win a piece of the 168-pound belt (breaking Darrin Van Horn’s mark of 22 years 258 days) and replacing WBO junior flyweight titlist Kosei Tanaka (22 years 91 days) as boxing’s youngest current titlist.
Although I was impressed that Benavidez got the “W” at all, I was struck more by how he got it. In Part One, I stated that a potential problem for Benavidez was his leaky defense. The evidence: In six previous CompuBox-tracked fights, Benavidez absorbed 37.2% of his opponents’ power shots, including 44% against Denis Douglin and 42% versus Francy Ntetu. Here, Benavidez did a much better job of defending himself in terms of his opponents’ accuracy as Gavril connected on just 20% of his total punches, 18% of his jabs and 23% of his power shots. Yes, Benavidez suffered a knockdown in the final round but, from my ringside viewpoint bad balance was as much of a culprit as Gavril’s light but well-timed punch.
But the factor that elevated my opinion, concerning Benavidez’s future, besides his defensive improvement, was that he maintained the clear-headedness and the confidence that marked his past fights in this, the most pressure-packed and physically demanding fight of his pro career to date. Many young fighters’ psyches have withered when they met an opponent, whom absorbed their punches without being seriously hurt and a foe who did a much better job of slipping and blocking those power shots. In his six previous fights counted by CompuBox, Benavidez landed 50.6% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts but Gavril yielded just 30% for the fight. Had it not been for a 24 of 63 (38%) performance in the final round, Benavidez would have ended the fight in the 20s, in terms of power percentage. That kind of drop-off would test any fighter’s self-belief, especially one so young, but Benavidez kept his cool, worked his plan and never got frustrated with his relative lack of success. That’s important.
The most telling part of Benavidez’s performance took place in rounds 11 and 12. With the result still in the balance, Benavidez bit down and delivered the goods by out-landing Gavril 66-35 overall and 53-14 power, while averaging 91.5 punches per round to Gavril’s 76. Any questions about Benavidez’s stamina in championship conditions should be put away – at least until proven otherwise.
For the fight, Benavidez was busier (71.9 punches per round to Gavril’s 68.1), was more accurate (26%-20% overall, 19%-18% jabs, 30%-23% power) and prevailed 222-162 overall and 157-73 power to offset Gavril’s 89-65 lead in landed jabs. The round-by-round breakdowns revealed that Benavidez out-landed Gavril in nine of the 12 rounds overall, while pitching a 12-0 shutout, in terms of power connects (Gavril led 6-4-2 in jab connects). Though judges don’t have access to the stats and though their criteria takes into account more than just landed punches, the scorecards of Adalaide Byrd (116-111) and Dave Moretti (117-111) mirrored the numbers favoring Benavidez while Glenn Trowbridge’s 116-111 score for Gavril did not.
“I felt my performance was good except for the last round, when I got too anxious and wanted to knock him out,” Benavidez said. “I let my young side take over and I wanted to give the fans a great fight. I didn’t really feel hurt but it was a shock knockdown. I know to be careful and more cautious. It was a learning experience.”
When one thinks about old souls in young bodies, golf has Jordan Spieth and boxing has David Benavidez. Both are self-aware enough not only to acknowledge having “a young side” but also to consider it a negative that needs to be examined and altered. How refreshing. And for Benavidez to call a title-winning effort “a learning experience” not only indicates his humility but also a desire to reach an even higher standard. The best in any particular field believes more can be done, even after a performance many would consider excellent. That desire, no matter what field one chooses to occupy, is the foundation from which true greatness will emerge. For these rare individuals, winning a championship is not a destination where one can rest on his laurels but the beginning of a new journey that will take place on a higher plane.
At this point, it’s impossible to say whether Benavidez will achieve the true greatness I spoke of in the previous paragraph. Only time will reveal that. While he probably won’t achieve like Benitez did, his game is years ahead of his age. That’s a good sign. He also appears to have a good head on his shoulders, both physically and emotionally. That’s an even better sign. Let’s wait and see but, as of now, things are looking up for Benavidez.
Speaking of fistic discipline, Caleb Plant showed plenty of that in outscoring Andrew Hernandez over 10 rounds. In doing so, he showed a bit of everything – an effective jab (27.1 thrown/8.1 connects per round), that swelled and cut Hernandez’s left eye early, productive movement, impressive accuracy (37% overall, 30% jabs, 44% power), tight defense (16% overall, 14% jabs, 19% power) and the focus necessary to stick to a game plan from beginning to end. Hernandez did his best to push the pace – he averaged 53 punches per round to Plant’s 51.9 – but Plant smartly used his height and reach advantages to control the environment and prevent Hernandez from implementing the high-volume game that took away Arif Magomedov’s undefeated record. In all, Plant out-landed Hernandez 190-84 overall, 81-46 jabs and 109-38 power and the round-by-round breakdowns revealed he led in 29 of the 30 potential rounds in a CompuBox fight profile. Hernandez’s only statistical success was his 6-5 lead in landed jabs during round three.
“I boxed well and I dictated the pace,” Plant said after the fight, according to the Showtime press release. “I pressed when I needed to press and boxed when I needed to box. I felt I put on a great show for the fans. I want to be a star in boxing. I know, with hard work, I can accomplish anything.”
He also paid tribute to Hernandez, a late sub who fights often (this was his fifth fight of 2017 and his 13th fight since 2016) because he gives it his all, regardless of location, opponent or shortness of notice.
“Hernandez is tough,” he continued.” I sent him everything and he stood tall and my hat is off to him. He’s a tough competitor.”
While Hernandez respected Plant’s ability, he didn’t feel the same about the margin by which he lost.
“I felt Caleb won but I don’t think it was 10 rounds to none (on all scorecards),” he said. “But that’s not for me to decide. It’s up to the judges, at the end of the day. It only matters what they think. All respect to Caleb Plant on his performance tonight. He put on a solid fight and he’s got a great future. I was happy I was able to stay in there and last the entire 10 rounds.”
Hernandez deserves respect for giving his best, despite the obstacles before him and Plant merits kudos for not treating Hernandez like a late-sub but as the genuine opponent he was. While originally presented as a puncher, Plant, by going the 10-round distance in his last three fights, has added depth and versatility that should serve him well in future fights. If he can restore the KO kick of earlier matches, however, his star will shine even brighter.
The middle fight of the telecast, the crossroads bout between J’Leon Love and Abie Han, ended abruptly early in round eight when a monstrous clash of heads caused blood to cascade from Han’s forehead and crimson to leak from Love’s left eye. Han took, by far, the brunt of the damage and, though Han dramatically rolled on the canvas following the butt, this was a genuine reflection of the damage suffered and not a play to get a disqualification victory. Why would he even try such a thing? In my eyes, not only was the head clash a hard one, it can be argued that Han was winning the fight.
One piece of evidence is the CompuBox stats, which saw Han landing more (78-47 overall, 20-12 jabs, 58-35 power) and connecting more accurately (25%-17% overall, 16%-8% jabs, 30%-27% power) in a tense, low-volume affair (43.4 per round for Han, 37.2 for Love). The round-by-round breakdowns showed Han with a 6-0-2 lead in overall connects, a 5-2-1 gap in landed jabs and a 7-1 bulge in power connects. Not only that, Han appeared to be initiating most of the limited exchanges, as well as dictating the distance.
However, the three judges saw a different fight and, in Ricardo Ocasio’s case, a very different fight. His 79-73 scoring for Love was openly derided by the Showtime broadcasters (“criminal” by Barry Tompkins, “absurd” by Al Bernstein) while the 76-76 scores submitted by Patricia Morse Jarman and Tim Cheatham were closer to Bernstein’s 67-66 score (which didn’t include the partial eighth round). As for me, a 78-74 score for Han would have been more reflective of the action but, then again, that’s only my opinion. Another opinion: All that can be said about the result is that it’s pretty tough to beat the house fighter, especially in Las Vegas.
Sporting a long gash near his temple, an alert Han was taken from the ring while sitting up on a stretcher while Love was left to ponder his career path.
“I can’t rate my performance as great because I didn’t get a victory; I got a draw,” Love said. “I’m kind of rusty but I feel like I pressed the action and tried to take it to him. Other than that, I feel like I landed the cleaner shots.” Perhaps he did, in terms of shot-for-shot impact, but the stats illustrate that he didn’t land enough of those shots over the course of the fight to claim a draw, much less a lead.
The 29-year-old Love, who is fighting for the first time since stopping Dashon Johnson nearly a year ago, clearly possesses athletic ability and, at his core, is an aggressor who wants to do damage. But, like Yuriorkis Gamboa, he lacks the chin to successfully carry off that style, so he has smartly incorporated head movement, mobility and other defensive tactics to compensate. In doing so, however, he doesn’t give himself enough time to throw and land enough punches to win most rounds, at least in this fight. As of now, he is at a crossroads in his career and time is running out, now that age 30 is around the corner.
As for Han, his performance was a career enhancer and, as soon as he heals, he should get another TV fight. Hopefully it will be on Showtime, so I can be at ringside to count it.
Dennis Allen and I began to pack our belongings, as soon as we got approval from the production truck. After eating one of the mini-sub sandwiches that comprised the post-telecast meal, I returned to my room, spent the next hour entering the night’s data into the master database and turned out the lights shortly after midnight local time.
Saturday, September 9: I arose following a less-than-restful five-hour slumber and, mindful of having to get my boarding pass at the airport, I checked out of the hotel at 5:30 a.m., a half-hour earlier than originally planned. Fortunately for me, taxis are always lined up outside the Hard Rock, so I was able to easily get a ride to the airport.
This was one of those rare times I wished my cab ride lasted longer because the cabbie, an African-American gentleman, was very familiar with the boxing scene and thus made an excellent conversation partner.
Upon entering the airport, I couldn’t have known that I was about to begin one of “those” travel days, when distractions and delays would be the norm instead of the exception.
The first instance happened at the Southwest check-in counter, where I was told no upgrades to the A-line were available on my Las Vegas-to-Pittsburgh flight. Thus, I was stuck with my B-47 slot, which meant I would be the 107th non-pre-boarding person to enter the aircraft. With Southwest’s “open seating” policy, in which those at the head of the line got their choices of seats, while those in the back were usually stuck with middle seats, I resigned myself to the possibility that I might be squeezed from both sides for the nearly four-hour flight.
The second occurred at the security checkpoint, where, because of the early hour, those of us with TSA Pre-Check weren’t granted all the usual privileges for which we paid. While we did get to walk under the simple metal detector and were permitted to leave our shoes on and our gels in our luggage, we had to dig out all electronic devices larger than a cell phone and place them in separate bins. For me, that meant extricating two laptops and, although I did my best to complete the task as quickly as possible, I did so with the anxiety that came with knowing I was holding up the people behind me.
The third hindrance happened about a half-hour after arriving at Gate B-12. Because of the impending arrival of Hurricane Irma in South Florida, the resulting shuffling of flights created logjams at other airports that caused the plane that was to take us to Pittsburgh to leave its gate late. Other causes for its tardy arrival in Las Vegas were weather issues near the city – a highly unusual occurrence in a place known for perpetually sunny weather and warm temperatures – and an undisclosed maintenance issue that was addressed before it departed for Vegas.
Additionally, several of those redirected planes were arriving at nearly the same time, which forced the airport to juggle arrival gates – and not just for those of us wanting to go to Pittsburgh. For us, however, we were asked to change gates not once but twice – from B-12 to C-31 (a 10-minute walk) and from C-31 to C-11 (a three-minute trek). On top of that, our departure time was first pushed back by an hour, then another 25 minutes, due to last-minute luggage storage underneath the aircraft.
That said, things could have been much worse. I was told by a fellow passenger that Friday’s flights to Pittsburgh were delayed and then canceled. For all of the woes I’ve experienced since becoming “The Travelin’ Man,” cancelations have been extremely rare. Delays? Yes. Cancelations? Thankfully, not so much. As a glass-half-full guy, I chose to count my blessings instead of dwelling on delays.
One blessing: Despite my placement in line, I managed to secure an aisle seat in Row 15 of the 23-row aircraft. My two seatmates, a husband and wife, were two of the people displaced by Friday’s flight cancelation and both, especially the wife, who was experiencing her first plane ride, were anxious to get to “The Steel City.” Except for some mild turbulence here and there – and a noticeably hard landing – all went well during the flight.
Upon landing, I checked my email and saw I needed to send a final item to the HBO truck. So, after deplaning, I dug out my laptop, logged onto the gate’s Wi-Fi, sent the item and waited for confirmation that all was received before starting my trip home. That would end up being the final delay of the travel day and, in all, it resulted in my getting home at 9 p.m., two hours later than scheduled.
That still got me home well in time to watch the “SuperFly” tripleheader that saw Juan Francisco Estrada outpoint Carlos Cuadras over 12 (I had it 115-112 for Estrada), Naoya Inoue stop Antonio Nieves in six rounds and Wisaksil Wangek stop Roman Gonzalez in four. My analyses correctly predicted the first two fights but I got the main event wrong because I believed that “Chocolatito,” despite his injuries, did more than enough to win the first meeting and would be properly prepared and motivated in the rematch.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
From almost the very start, Gonzalez’s face didn’t radiate its usual confidence and the speed and power that defined his peak were startlingly absent. His punches lacked snap and his once-dazzling footwork was a shadow of its previous brilliance. Meanwhile, Wangek looked bigger and fought bigger still. He crackled with energy and punched with power that moved the aging Nicaraguan. During round three, my mind flashed back to the second fight between Aaron Pryor and Alexis Arguello (which, eerily, took place exactly 34 years earlier), a fight in which Arguello declared he would invest “the last drop of his blood” into avenging his previous defeat. Pryor-Arguello II was more competitive than Wangek-Gonzalez II but, in the end, Arguello, dropped for the third time, shook his head in resignation and chose to remain seated for the entirety of referee Richard Steele’s 10-count. Gonzalez, dropped hard for the second time in round four, wasn’t given the chance to duplicate Arguello’s dramatic exit. Rightfully so because Wangek’s final blow left Gonzalez in a semi-conscious state.
Many in the media, including me, thought Gonzalez was wrongfully denied the chance to continue his chase of perfection last March. But the Thai proved on this night that Gonzalez’s run could have ended in this, his 48th fight, even had he met someone else other than Wangek.
Given the erosion of the Nicaraguan’s skills that began to surface in the McWilliams Arroyo fight in April 2016 and became obvious during the Cuadras bout nearly five months later, the 30-year-old Gonzalez must seriously consider whether he should continue his in-ring career. Even he admits the rise to 112 and 115 changed him as a fighter and the back-to-back defeats to Wangek showed there is nowhere to go but down, at least against the upper crust at super flyweight.
Inoue, who, against Nieves, looked every inch the “Monster” he is portrayed to be, would be a heavy favorite to finish off what Wangek started and would likely be an underdog in rematches against Cuadras and Estrada. Gonzalez surely can’t return to 112 or 108, so he’s a man without a viable weight class. Ultimately, it is up to the fighter to decide when to call it quits but, at least from this outsider’s viewpoint, his positive options seem extremely limited. Whatever Gonzalez decides to do, I wish him well. As for Inoue, Wangek, Estrada, Cuadras and Nieves, I am looking forward to seeing how the rest of their careers unfold.
As was the case for my last trip to Detroit, I, as of this writing, do not know exactly when my next trip will be or where I will go. In the meantime, the tasks inside the Home Office will keep me plenty busy.
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 (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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