Snow Wars: Part two – The Travelin’ Man returns to Verona
Friday: January 12 (continued): When Claressa Shields was declared the winner of her IBF/WBC female super middleweight title defense against Tori Nelson, I sensed a feeling of satisfaction in the wide view but a tinge of angst under the microscope.
Make no mistake; there was much to like about Shields’ performance. She went the 10-round distance for the first time in her five-fight professional career, two rounds more than her previous long of eight against Sydney LeBlanc. She maintained an excellent work rate from beginning to end and kept her poise whenever Nelson pinned her against the ropes and blasted away. Thanks to her youth, superior technique and athletic ability, she dominated a fighter with four times as many pro fights as she had coming in.
The stats further illustrated Shields’ control of the bout; she threw more (63.2 punches per two-minute round – the equivalent of 94.8 over a three-minute round – to Wilson’s 40, or 60 per three-minute round), landed more (225-81 overall, 39-11 jabs and 186-70 power) and did so with far better accuracy (36%-20% overall and 44%-20% power to off-set Nelson’s slim 21%-19% lead in jab precision). Shields landed 20 or more punches in eight of the 10 rounds and never connected on fewer than 17 (round one) while Nelson reached double-digit connects only three times, and never more than 12 (round seven). Finally through five fights, Shields has out-landed her opponents 760-177 – a better than four-to-one margin.
However, both Shields and her critics will find fault with one particular phase of her performance – her inability to generate enough shot-for-shot power to score either a knockdown or a knockout against a 41-year-old who has a son the same age as the 22-year-old Shields and who has fought most of her career at lower weights. While Shields has two TKO victories in her 5-0 record, she has yet to put any of her opponents on the floor.
In her pre-fight interview with Steve Farhood, she predicted she would score a TKO in five or six rounds, while I believed she’d get the job done even quicker (round four). She certainly tried her best to dent Nelson’s chin but, despite her flush combinations, Nelson’s legs held firm and her mind remained clear enough to continue attempting to implement her game plan.
“I landed every shot that I thought possible to land,” Shields told Farhood. “She was just tough. You know what I mean: 17-0, two knockouts; she wasn’t a pushover. A lot of times, when I did see shots opening and I went for them, I got headbutted. So I stopped trying to go in because I didn’t want to get headbutted again and get cut. She was definitely tough and she (brought) a good fight.”
Nelson certainly did. Yes, she lost every round on all three scorecards but she was never overwhelmed as was Nikki Adler, Shields’ most recent victim. She showed toughness, grit, competitive drive and self-belief, plus she enjoyed pockets of success, which is about as much as anyone could have asked of her in this fight. Despite the lopsided defeat, Nelson left the ring with a big smile on her face and she deserved to do so. Here’s a stat that should offer more encouragement: Nelson landed nearly as many total punches against Shields (81) than Shields’ four previous opponents combined (96). One thing is for certain: Nelson exceeded expectations and, at least for that, she should be congratulated.
Junior welterweight Shohjahon Ergashev was a mystery to me because there wasn’t enough recent footage to judge his form or ability. Following his third-round demolition of the previously undefeated Sonny Fredrickson, he is a mystery no more. The Uzbekistani lefty was aggressive, powerful and predatory, especially with his vaunted left cross that repeatedly shot through the lanky American’s guard. After the pair split the first two rounds – Ergashev the first, thanks to leads of 26-13 overall and 26-5 power and Fredrickson the second, by a smaller margin (13-12 overall) – Ergashev put the hammer down one minute into the third, when he landed a crunching left that sent shockwaves throughout Fredrickson’s body. The sight of the bloodied American reeling toward the corner pad ignited an avalanche of southpaw lefts – 14 in all – that connected with frightful accuracy, prompting officials in Fredrickson’s corner to jump onto the ring apron and stop the fight.
Ergashev’s surge expanded his final leads to 61-31 overall and 61-18 power, which meant the Uzbekistani didn’t land a jab in the entire fight. Not that he tried much, for only 30 of his 134 punches were jabs. He did, however, boast excellent accuracy, as he landed 46% of his total punches and 59% of his power shots, while limiting Fredrickson to 24% overall, 21% jabs and 28% power.
As mentioned in Part One, an insider said he thought Ergashev could be “something special” and that this fight would go a long way in confirming his belief. It’s too early to declare him a future champion but, at least here, he did look like something special. More than one person I spoke with after the card said that, of all the fighters on the card, Ergashev was the one they wanted to see again. I’d like that as well.
One thing I got wrong in my pre-card assessment was that Ergashev-Fredrickson would be the most competitive fight on the card. That honor belonged to the middle fight on the three-bout telecast, Jesse Angel Hernandez’s 10-round split decision victory over rugged Ernesto Garza III. I believed Hernandez would use his height and reach to pick apart the defensively challenged Garza, who, in three previous fights tracked by CompuBox, absorbed 47.1% of his opponents’ power shots while Hernandez landed 36% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts in his three CompuBox-tracked bouts. One prediction I did get right was that plenty of punches would be exchanged, for if one added their respective three-fight averages (78.7 for Hernandez, 71.3 for Garza), one could have expected 150 punches per round to be exchanged. Here, they averaged 172.8.
This was a fight that saw two distinctive shifts of momentum, followed by a sensationally even final round. Garza dominated the first three rounds by fighting even harder than his profile – 99 punches per round in the opening nine minutes to Hernandez’s 71.7 – while also scoring a second round knockdown with a left to the jaw. In round four, not long after the “ShoBox” announce team advised Hernandez to attack Garza’s body, Hernandez turned the bout by unleashing a robust body attack that accounted for 20 of his 37 total connects. He also dramatically increased his power accuracy (from 32% and 43% in the first two rounds to 58% and 65% in the third and fourth). Hernandez maintained the edge by out-landing Garza 131-91 overall and 111-86 power in rounds 4-7 but, in rounds eight and nine, Garza somehow shifted to an even higher gear by throwing 111 punches in each round and out-landing Hernandez 61-39 overall as well as 56-33 power.
The 10th was total war; the junior featherweights exchanged 197 total punches (110 for Garza, 87 for Hernandez), of which 154 were power shots (86 for Garza, 68 for Hernandez). But thanks to a surge in the final seconds, Hernandez not only out-landed Garza 40-38 overall, he also created a 286-286 tie in terms of total connects, a CompuBox rarity. The rangier Hernandez, not surprisingly, held a 38-24 lead in landed jabs, while the gutsy Garza prevailed 262-248 in power connects. Garza (who reminds me of 1980s ESPN Top Rank Boxing cult hero Tommy Cordova. Look him up on YouTube, especially his fight with future Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach) was the more active fighter, as he averaged 100.9 punches per round to Hernandez’s 71.9, but Hernandez was the more accurate man in all phases (40%-28% overall, 17%-9% jabs and 50%-36% power).
Given the dynamics, it was no surprise the decision was divided. Wynn Kintz saw Hernandez a solid 97-93 winner, while Tom Schreck turned in a 95-93 score for Garza. The deciding card belonged to Don Ackerman, who scored it 95-94 for Hernandez.
While Hernandez improved to 11-1 (7) and Garza declined to 9-3 (5), both showed well. Hernandez showed resiliency in surviving Garza’s two significant waves of momentum and answering with his own dynamic surges and he proved he could operate well in the trenches, as well as at long range. Garza exhibited more dimensions than was the case when I saw him fight Jon Fernandez, who I call “The Human Wood Chipper” for his meat-grinding combinations. Garza also demonstrated better defense and forced an even hotter pace than usual, while Hernandez mixed in some good long-range boxing with his natural urge to slug it out. Garza will go as far as his heart and style will take him but, if Hernandez is to advance further, he should consider using more of his natural assets to keep opponents at a safer distance. To borrow an old commercial catch phrase, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
As soon as the show ended, Andy packed his equipment and left ringside immediately because his plan was to drive home and beat the storm that was moving north-northeast. It was a smart plan, for, in Massachusetts, the temperature remained warm enough to keep the precipitation in the form of rain. So if he could get through the first part of the drive, he would be home free. As for me, I had a slice of pizza in the production office, while chatting with the on-air talent and higher-ups about the card. We all agreed it had been an excellent telecast.
Once I returned to my room, I spent the next hour inputting data from the five fights Andy and I counted, after which I turned out the lights at 2:05 a.m.
Saturday, January 13: I awakened after four somewhat fitful hours of rest/sleep but, once I got going, I felt much better. I checked the American Airlines website to check on the status of my 10:45 a.m. flight to Philadelphia and was surprised it still was listed as “on time.” I texted production supervisor Nikki Ferry and carpool partner Joe McSorley that all was well and that I would meet Joe in the lobby at 7:30, as agreed. Meanwhile just seconds after waking up, Andy texted CompuBox president Bob Canobbio and me and told us he had arrived home safely and, in reply, I told them all was also well on my end – at least so far.
After completing the morning routines, I spent a few minutes on the laptop updating the story, then headed down to the lobby to check out of my room and wait for Joe. Early bird that I am, I arrived well before the appointed time and gave Joe the option of doing the same, if we wanted to give ourselves a head start.
We needed every minute we could spare; one local news station reported the temperature had plunged into the mid-teens and more than a foot of snow had already fallen. Even worse: As I looked out the window shortly before 7 a.m., it was still snowing, plus the wind appeared to be blowing at a significant clip. “How could our flight still be on time?” I wondered. “And will Joe and I get to the airport OK?”
Joe arrived in the lobby just before 7:30 and, after exiting the parking garage elevator, we got our first taste of the meteorological challenge that awaited us. Although my rental vehicle was on the fourth floor and was theoretically shielded from the worst, the structure didn’t spare the area from everything. A dusting of snow covered the floor and the semi-enclosed space failed to blunt the wind’s strength. Good thing the car was parked in the sixth-nearest space to the door.
When we finished stowing our belongings in the trunk and on the back seat, we exited the garage and quickly discovered the roads on the casino property had been barely touched, which made it difficult for me to tell where the road began and ended. Luckily, my best guesses ended up being correct and we soon were headed onto Interstate 90 West toward Syracuse.
Whenever I encounter conditions such as these, I have two rules of thumb: First, be humble. This is not a time to show off and try to impress anyone; the best way to impress is to end the drive with us and the car in one piece. The second is related to the first: Respect the conditions. If they dictate that I have to drive 25 miles-per-hour to get from Point A to Point B, I’ll happily do it. If others are offended, I just let them pass and do my best to ignore any honks and fingers. Safety is paramount. Joe not only understood my tactics, he agreed with them and wholeheartedly encouraged them. Because my entire focus was on driving, we used his phone to monitor our location in relation to the airport.
Despite the best efforts of the road crews to stay ahead of the storm, I-90 was still a mess. Only one lane was somewhat accessible and I used whatever tire tracks I saw to properly position the car. My speed ranged from 25 to 45 mph and, while more than a few vehicles whizzed past me in the snow-covered lane to my left, I stuck to my own business and did not deviate.
Our slow and steady approach won out; we arrived on the airport property shortly before 9 a.m. but our usual route to the rental car garage was inaccessible because of significant construction. We failed in our first attempt to find the garage, due to inadequate signage, but, by following another vehicle, we eventually found our way.
More complications awaited us at the security line. The TSA Pre-Check queue was closed due to short staffing, which forced me to undergo the complex unpacking and repacking process I paid the federal government to avoid. Out went the first laptop. Out went the second laptop. Off went the winter coat. Out with the plastic bag filled with gels. And so on. And so on.
The only concession to my Pre-Check status was that I was given an orange card that allowed me to keep my shoes on and to walk under the simple metal detector instead of undergoing a full body scan.
Ever mindful of the people stacking up behind me – and the luggage that stacked up behind my belongings on the conveyor belt – I rushed through the repacking process and ended up misplacing my boarding pass. No problem: All I had to do to get a new one was show my photo ID at the gate. But before doing that, Joe treated me to breakfast as a thank-you for completing the long and demanding drive.
We finished about 10 minutes before our scheduled boarding time but once we settled into our seats (I was seated at 4A, Joe at 5A), it took more than an hour for our plane to leave the gate area. As far as I could tell, the delay happened for two reasons. First, the plane needed to be de-iced. Second, our runway had to be sufficiently plowed. I didn’t care; I was just happy that I would soon be getting out of Dodge.
Once we were airborne, all went well. As we approached Philadelphia, the dramatic change in weather was graphically evident: Partly sunny skies, no snow on the ground and a temperature just below freezing. The late departure shrunk connection windows considerably and, as soon as I heard over the loudspeaker that our arrival gate was in Terminal F, my heart sank. That meant I likely would need to catch the shuttle bus in order to reach my next gate and, from time to time, that meant several minutes of waiting for the proper bus to arrive – minutes that, at the moment, were precious.
But to quote Hall-of-Famer Rocky Graziano, somebody up there must like me. A quick look at the master monitor confirmed that the connection gate was B-4 and, as I approached the pickup area, I saw that a new bus for the A and B terminals was just arriving. I was the fifth person to get on the bus, which left the area less than three minutes later. According to Gate B-4’s monitor, I arrived just one minute before the scheduled start of boarding – with emphasis on the word “scheduled.”
In reality, I had more than enough time to reach the gate, for our aircraft arrived 21 minutes late and also left behind schedule. The pilots made up nine of those minutes in the air but the larger point was that we landed safely. My work, however, was hardly finished.
The first task was to get to my car, which, if you recall Part One, was parked about a quarter-mile away from the terminal entrance. If the long walk in an eye-watering headwind that made the 19-degree temperature seem even colder was bad enough, I dreaded the prospect of having to dig my car out of the seven inches of snow that had fallen in Pittsburgh the past two days.
The good news: I finished the chilly walk in reasonable shape and, to my shock, no snow was on the car. The bad news: The driver’s side was caked with ice that froze the door shut. Because I didn’t have any de-icer to unlock the door, I improvised: I used my physical key to chip away at the ice and used the remote key to unlock the door. Also, I was able to get the key inside the lock deep enough to work on it and pulled on the handle just hard enough to gain entry.
Once inside, I realized the ice was too thick for me to see outside and that the power windows were immobilized. I blasted the defroster and turned the driver’s side vent toward the window and, after a few minutes, the ice began to melt. I then returned outside and used the scraper to restore visual access to everything on my left side as well as a small sense of normalcy. So after making a few phone calls, I began the final journey home about 20 minutes after reaching the car.
The major roads were in pretty good shape but once I reached the homestretch, conditions steadily worsened. The final hurdle was my own angled 150-foot driveway, which was blanketed by six inches of snow. I accelerated my speed just before arriving at the bottom of the driveway to give myself an extra bit of momentum and, thanks to my car’s four-wheel drive, I made it to the top with relatively little skidding. With that, this nearly three-hour drive was over, as was my 11-plus hour white-knuckle travel day.
I will have a little more than three weeks to recover, which is a good thing because my next destination – Sloan, Iowa – may be just as difficult as Verona ended up being. If nothing else, I again proved that I can conquer a challenge as long as I have the correct attitude and more than a little bit of help.
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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