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The Travelin’ Man returns to Las Vegas…again: Part one

01
Mar

Friday, February 16: Every so often, one comes across a boxing event bound by a beyond-the-ropes theme. Such is the case with the subject of this installment of the “Travelin’ Man Chronicles,” the “Showtime Championship Boxing” tripleheader featuring Danny Garcia vs. Brandon Rios, the rematch between WBC super middleweight titlist David Benavidez and Ronald Gavril and Yordenis Ugas vs. “The New” Ray Robinson, emanating from the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. While conducting the CompuBox research for this show, two words kept springing to mind: Redemption and ambition.

Both main event fighters hope a victory will not only soften the memories of recent setbacks but also re-establish their place near the top of the sport. Meanwhile Benavidez wants to consolidate last September’s title-winning split decision victory with an even better performance while Gavril, a Romanian who will be fighting in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas, seeks to avenge the defeat and add his name to the roll call of world titlists. Finally, Ugas and Robinson – late additions to the card – are inspirational fighters who want to seize the day on a large stage, as well as earn a potential crack at IBF welterweight titlist Errol Spence Jr.

For Garcia, the Rios fight is his first since losing his WBC welterweight title to WBA counterpart Keith Thurman nearly a year earlier, while, for Rios, the Garcia bout is his second since a brutal ninth-round TKO defeat to Timothy Bradley in November 2015, a result that led to a 19-month break from the sport. That hiatus ended last June when a seemingly rejuvenated Rios stopped Aaron Herrera in seven rounds, a fight in which Rios, for the first time since his rubber match against Mike Alvarado, almost two-and-a-half years earlier, recaptured the tornadic form that had defined his WBA lightweight title reign between February and December 2011.

Rios’ numbers against Herrera were jaw-dropping: 115.2 punches per round, connect gaps of 375-114 overall and 301-84 power, while landing 48% overall, 32% jabs and 55% power. Moreover, Rios twice exceeded his previous personal bests for punches thrown in a round (131) in rounds five (133) and six (144) while also surpassing his personal record for most total punches landed in a round (from 67 to 73 in round five) and tying his high-water mark with 60 landed power shots in round five. The sustained punishment weakened the rugged Herrera and that punishment ended after a right to the ribs put him down for the 10-count. But as good as Rios looked offensively, the 31-year-old also absorbed 49% of Herrera’s power shots. Against a sharpshooter like Garcia, that’s bad news.



As for Garcia, the Thurman fight was a nip-and-tuck affair in every way but, in the end, Thurman’s busier hands (47.5 punches per round to Garcia’s 36.2) and shot-for-shot superiority enabled “One Time” to earn the split decision. Also the round-by-round CompuBox breakdown reveals that, though Thurman out-landed Garcia in overall connects in each of the first nine rounds, while Garcia swept the final three, the difference was never larger than five punches either way. The same dynamic applied to landed jabs (where Thurman prevailed eight rounds to four) and in power connects (where Thurman led 7-3-2), which made the judges’ task a challenging one. Garcia’s surge enabled him to close the final gaps, favoring Thurman to 147-130 overall and 102-89 power, but “Swift” was the more successful jabber (45-41) as well as the more accurate hitter in all phases (30%-26% overall, 19%-15% jabs, 40%-37% power).

The loss ended a seven-fight run in which Garcia receded from the reputational heights he achieved with his consecutive victories over Amir Khan, Erik Morales, Zab Judah and, most of all, Lucas Matthysse. Yes, Garcia continued to rack up the wins until the Thurman bout but those wins weren’t received with the same zest or appreciation because Garcia lacked the sparkle that marked his Khan-Morales-Judah-Matthysse run. Many observers thought Mauricio Herrera’s hustle was more deserving of the “W” and, while Garcia looked sensational in crushing Rod Salka in two rounds, the angst over Team Garcia’s choice of fighting the unranked Salka turned this bout from a title defense to an over-the-weight non-title affair that confirmed the cynical predictions. Most were disappointed his fight with Lamont Peterson wasn’t the three-belt unification it should have been and wins over two courageous but fading forces in Paul Malignaggi and Robert Guerrero and a TKO triumph over Samuel Vargas didn’t lift the sense of gloom concerning his post-Matthysse career trajectory.

Was this lack of appreciation fair? Yes and no. No, because all Garcia can do is beat the men with whom he is matched and, with the exception of Thurman, he did that. He put in the necessary time and training, then executed to the best of his ability on fight night. That said, “yes” also applies because Garcia elevated himself to a stratospheric level by decisioning Matthysse, a fighter most (including myself) had picked to defeat him. The win also inserted him into the “pound-for-pound” discussion and, at 25, his future looked bright and the expectations were elevated to those enjoyed by elites. He was rewarded with the Herrera fight in his ancestral home of Puerto Rico and, in the pre-fight build-up, was painted as a potential superstar taking his next step toward immortality. The sub-par performance – and the controversial decision that followed – burst that bubble, and it can be argued that Garcia hasn’t completely righted himself in that regard.

So nearly a year after losing to Thurman, Garcia begins again – just like Rios will do. Which man’s comeback story will be bolstered and what damage will that bolstering do to the loser’s tale?

*

 

Last September’s brawl between Benavidez and Gavril was a terrific fight in a year of terrific fights and, with the victory, Benavidez, at 20 years 270 days, became not only the youngest current titlist in boxing but also the youngest fighter ever to win a share of the 168-pound championship, smashing Darrin Van Horn’s previous record of 22 years 258 days. Entering tomorrow’s fight, Benavidez – now 21 years and 67 days old – remains the sport’s youngest titleholder but Gavril’s performance in fight one, which included a dramatic 12th round knockdown, forced Benavidez to draw upon previously untapped resources while also doing more than his part to create a compelling match.

But while the decision was split, the CompuBox numbers from fight one painted a dominant picture for Benavidez, a picture reflected by the scorecards of Dave Moretti (117-111) and Adalaide Byrd (116-111). First, the raw numbers had Benavidez leading 222-162 overall and 157-73 in power connects, while Gavril prevailed 89-65 in landed jabs. Second, the round-by-round breakdowns had Benavidez out-landing Gavril in nine of the 12 rounds, in terms of total connects, and executing a surprising 12-0 sweep in power connects (Gavril prevailed 6-4-2 in landed jabs). Third, Benavidez was the more active fighter (71.9 punches per round to Gavril’s 68.1) as well as the more accurate one in every phase (26%-20% overall, 19%-18% jabs and 30%-23% power). Finally, though Benavidez had endured the toughest fight of his pro career to date, he still had enough strength and energy to come up big in the final two rounds as he arose from a 12th round knockdown and out-landed Gavril 66-35 overall and 53-14 power to extend his leads in those categories.

Another revealing stat: Gavril never achieved double-digit connects in power punches (his high was nine in round 11), while Benavidez exceeded that threshold seven times, including each of the final four rounds (which saw Benavidez lead 83-27 during that stretch).

Going into last September’s fight – for which I was at ringside – I thought this was going to be a wide-open shootout in which defense would be an afterthought, at best, at least for Benavidez. My reasoning: In seven previous CompuBox-tracked fights, Benavidez was struck by 37% of his opponents’ power shots, while landing 51% of his own. On the other hand, Gavril had performed much better defensively as his five previous foes landed just 23% of their power shots, while Gavril connected on 47% of his. But in their first meeting, Gavril still had good defensive numbers (he absorbed 26% overall and 30% power), while Benavidez tightened his defense considerably (20% overall, 23% power), yet there was more than enough action to satisfy the viewing audience.

Rematches are tricky to predict. Some produce virtual carbon copies of the original (the Sonny Liston-Floyd Patterson and Carmen Basilio-Tony DeMarco rematches ended within four and two seconds of each other, respectively) while others produce completely different outcomes (Antonio Tarver-Roy Jones Jr. II, Bobby Chacon-Cornelius Boza Edwards II and Israel Vazquez-Rafael Marquez II immediately come to mind). That said, baseline styles rarely change and some fights simply possess that special chemistry that results in pulsating action every time. My guess is that Benavidez-Gavril will be one of those fights.

*

 

The opening fight of the telecast features two athletes whose stories highlight the power of perseverance. Both Ugas and Robinson have risen from the proverbial ashes, in terms of their place in the sport, and each has overcome personal and professional adversities to a stunning and heartwarming degree.

Ugas, a native of Cuba, achieved impressive early success when he won the silver medal at the 2003 Cuban National Championships at age 16 and followed up with a gold medal at the U17 World Championships later that year. Other amateur honors followed – four consecutive Cuban National Championships, the 2005 Pan American title (not to be confused with the Pan Am Games), the 2005 World Championship gold and a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics – but after winning yet another gold at the 2009 World Championships, he defected to the U.S. in 2010 and launched a professional career. He won 16 of his first 17 pro fights before suffering back-to-back losses to the 9-0-1 Emmanuel Robles (a 10-round split decision) and the 13-0 Amir Imam (by eight round unanimous decision). Those setbacks resulted in a 27-month layoff and, when he returned, he was slated to fight rising prospect Bryant Perrella in what would be Ugas’ welterweight debut. Perrella was forced to withdraw three days before the bout due to an injured thumb but his substitute, the then 20-0 Jamal James, presented an even more challenging task due to his freakish height (6-foot-2) and a wingspan that looked far longer than its listed 70 inches. Moreover, James had won a 10-round split decision over Wale Omotoso just 27 days earlier, so, at least on paper, “Shango” was as fresh as Ugas was ring-rusty.

But once the bell sounded, Ugas demonstrated improbable sharpness, as he methodically exposed every flaw within James and won a 10-round unanimous decision. Forty six days later, Ugas met the now-healthy Perrella, and, as was the case against James, was perceived as an underdog against the volume-punching southpaw nicknamed “Goodfella.” Once again, Ugas made the “experts” look silly as his right hands sliced through Perrella’s guard with ease. A solid right floored Perrella in the fourth, after which a volley of blows prompted the fight to be stopped moments later. If there were doubts about whether Ugas’ return to form was real after the James fight, they disappeared after the Perrella performance.

Ugas continued to roll by beating Levan Ghvamichava over 10 furious rounds, then destroyed Nelson Lara in two rounds, two-and-a-half months later. His most recent fight took place on the largest stage of 2017, in terms of pay-per-view buys and pre-fight hype – the undercard of the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Conor McGregor show. This time, Ugas stepped in for Shawn Porter against Thomas Dulorme and their 10-rounder saw both men floored (Dulorme twice in round two, Ugas once in round seven) and Dulorme suffer two point penalties for low blows. Had it not been for the fouls, Dulorme, who dominated the second half of the contest, would have won a split decision. Because he did, Ugas escaped with a slim unanimous decision victory and, with it, an opportunity to secure his first major title shot.

As compelling as Ugas’ story is – and it is – Robinson’s may be even more so. According to a compelling and well-made YouTube video describing his life, Robinson, at age three, was thrown down a staircase by his abusive father and suffered injuries that required him to wear a body cast that extended from the waist down. What Robinson didn’t know at the time was that he also injured his neck and the effects of that injury didn’t surface until 10 years later, when his neck locked up after taking a punch from a sparring partner.

Robinson was fitted with a halo, after which the surgeon told him his fledgling boxing career was over. In fact, the doctor said even rough horseplay could result in paralysis. But after the halo was removed, the examining physician was astonished by the degree of his recovery, so much so that he green-lighted the resumption of Robinson’s ring career. From there Robinson, who took another year off as a precaution, won a slew of amateur titles before turning pro at age 20.

“The New” Ray Robinson won his first 11 fights in fine style but back-to-back losses to fellow unbeaten Brad Solomon (a majority eight-round decision) and future titlist Shawn Porter (a wide 10-round decision) took the wind out of his sails and prompted him to walk away from the sport – just as Ugas had following his two straight defeats. But Robinson soon tired of the 9-to-5 life and, thanks to promoter Brittany Rogers, who was about to stage her first show, he returned to boxing 14 months later by stopping Manuel Guzman in seven rounds. After the win streak grew to nine, Robinson was set to face Dmitry Mikhaylenko on HBO but a car accident injured his lower back and forced the fight to be canceled.

Following 18 months of therapy, recovery and training, Robinson resumed his career with a fourth round stoppage of Santos Benavides and extended his winning streak to 13 with triumphs over Edwin Palacios (TKO 2), Claudinei Lacerda (TKO 7) and Breidis Prescott (TD 7). Those victories have vaulted him to the No. 11 spot in the IBF’s rankings (Ugas is No. 14) but, if the meaning behind “elimination fight” holds true – he, along with Ugas, stands one fight away from a shot at the brass ring.

Given their stories, for whom does one root?: The Cuban exile who has assembled an unlikely winning streak after more than two years away from the ring or the American who has overcome multiple physical injuries to vault himself to this date of destiny? My answer: Both.

If the theme of redemption and ambition isn’t enough, in terms of the fighters on the televised card, the venue itself, Mandalay Bay, is continuing to recover from what occurred on its property last October 1: The deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. The figures remain staggering – 58 fatalities and an estimated 851 additional injuries. This card will be only the second staged on the property since that horrible day and it will be taking place just days after a school shooting in Florida, that, to date, killed 17. While the effects of what happened should never be forgotten, it’s certain that time and a string of safe events at the venue will help restore the confidence that was present last fall.

*

 

Today’s itinerary is pleasingly simple: Drive to Pittsburgh, board a direct flight to Vegas, take a taxi to Mandalay Bay, unpack and relax. Because the plane wasn’t to leave until 4:35 p.m., I not only got my usual rest but I also had time to tie up some loose ends. Thanks to a cold front, the nearly 60-degree temperature I saw when I awakened at 7:30 a.m. plummeted to 38 by the time I arrived in Pittsburgh, shortly after 10. For the second consecutive trip, my search for a parking spot was a brief one due to a vacant spot directly across from the 11D sign in the extended lot. Better yet: Just as I finished unloading my luggage from the car, a parking shuttle bus pulled up and its driver asked if I needed a ride. How could I say no?

After making about a half-dozen pick-ups, the bus’ first stop was the American/Southwest terminal entrance. As I was placing my luggage on the conveyor belt, I asked a TSA agent if I needed to unpack one of the two laptops inside my bag, something I was told to do in no uncertain terms a few weeks earlier. Unlike last time, when I was chided for not doing so, I was told that, in most cases, I wouldn’t have to do a thing. Fine by me.

For those who don’t fly Southwest, its boarding system is different in that it doesn’t provide assigned seats for its passengers. Instead, fliers are divided into three groups of 60 and are asked to line up in alphabetical and numerical order. Once a passenger is inside the cabin, he or she can take any available seat but those options dwindle with every succeeding passenger.

Because I don’t fly Southwest often, my assigned place was C-25, which meant I, in theory, would be the 145th person to board the aircraft. Because the aircraft holds only 176, that likely meant a middle seat or one that is next to a restroom as well as very limited – if any – storage space for my clothes bag. However there is an out: For a fee, one can become one of the first 15 people to board the aircraft and thus snag the seat of his choice. Up until a month ago, the upgrade fee had been $40 but though I was somewhat surprised by the $10 rate hike, I still gladly opted to pay. Just like that, I was moved up from C-25 to A-9, or 136 spots.

Although I preferred a window seat, I ended up choosing an aisle seat on the right side of row three. That decision would prove fateful. Here’s why:

During the final stage of the boarding process, a young couple insisted they be seated together and seeing no better alternatives at the moment, they asked me if I would move to accommodate them. Because I wanted them to look at other choices first, I tried to discourage them by saying, “Well, I did pay an extra $50 to have this seat.” But after a cursory glance on their part, they asked a second time.

Now, I could have been a hard nose about it and refused to move on the grounds that I paid for the privilege of entering the plane earlier. But being a peacemaker at heart, I chose not to fuss. If sitting together was that important to them, who I was to stand – or sit – in their way? Unfortunately for me, my only choice was a middle seat on the other side of row three, so, with a bit of reluctance, I gave way and settled into my new location.

It’s funny how life unfolds sometimes. Usually, having to move from a prime location to a dreaded middle seat for a four-and-a-half hour flight is reason to feel upset and put-upon. But thanks to the seatmate to my left, a pleasant retiree named Denise, the story turned out to be a happy one.

The ice-breaker was the book I chose to take with me on this trip: “Iron Ambition: My Life with Cus D’Amato,” by Mike Tyson (which happens to be a terrific read). Denise instantly noticed the cover and began peppering me with questions about the Hall-of-Famer. She said seeing his one-man show on HBO had reversed her negative opinion of Tyson and, from there, we were off to the verbal races. Over the next several hours we swapped stories about our respective lives as well as our shared faith. Meanwhile the couple across the aisle was silently hunched over their respective devices. So why did they want to sit together again?

Denise and I both marveled at the twist of fate that led to our meeting and, by the time we touched down, we promised to keep in touch. I may have sacrificed a nice seat on an airplane but, in exchange, I added a friend.

The plane touched down shortly after 6:30 p.m. Pacific Time and it didn’t take me long to find a cab to Mandalay Bay. But as we approached the property, we encountered a traffic jam of epic proportions.

“In my 26 years in Las Vegas, I have never seen traffic like this at Mandalay Bay,” the taxi driver declared. “I wonder why it’s like this.” A guess: A combination of the crowd about to attend a concert being staged there, as well as the arrival of the fight crowd for the Garcia-Rios card. In any case, it took about 15 minutes for our cab to get near enough to the hotel entrance to drop me off.

I wasn’t done with the long lines, though. The queue leading to the registration desk was more than 100 feet long but, thanks to a battery of hotel employees, it moved quickly. Within 20 minutes, I was at the head of the line and, after a few key strokes – and some nice boxing talk with the man checking me in – I was assigned a room on the 59th floor.

Once I finished unpacking, I headed to one of the food courts and ordered a ham and cheese sandwich that proved to be quite large – and quite filling. I caught the last few rounds of the Ray Beltran-Paulus Moses fight on ESPN, after which I spent the next few hours winding down. Once the clock radio read midnight, I opted to turn out the lights.

 

Saturday, February 17: Even though I first stirred awake at 4:30, I chose to doze until 6 a.m. and remain on East Coast time. After all, I’ll have to arise around the same time if I want to catch tomorrow’s 9:45 a.m. flight to Pittsburgh.

I spent most of the morning on the laptop, though I did venture downstairs to print out my boarding pass, as well as purchase a fizzy zero-calorie beverage. Following lunch, I headed down to Mandalay Bay’s event center, picked up credentials for myself, as well as for punch-count colleague Dennis Allen, got the necessary green lights and readied for the long night ahead.

A positive sign: Our work area was quite generous. Instead of the usual two stickers denoting spots for the two CompuBox operators, there were four in total – two for us and two more to my left, so I can spread out my notes and be able to properly place our laptops in relation to the monitors. Better yet: My spot was the last assigned place, although table space continued for another 15 feet. Yes, there were extra chairs in the area that made seating feel a bit cramped but, all in all, this was a very favorable arrangement.

The doors opened at 3:15 p.m. and due to the crew meal, Dennis and I missed the first three fights of the untelevised undercard that saw junior middleweight debutante Joey Spencer stop Uriel Gonzalez in two, middleweight Jonathan Esquivel halt Cameron Burroughs in the second and junior lightweight Sulaiman Segawa up his record to 9-0, at the expense of the previously 6-0 Brian Gallegos. I didn’t keep close watch on the two fights that followed (Andres Cortes UD 6 Fatiou Fassinou and Ladarius Miller TKO 1 Carlos Padilla) but that changed once light heavyweights Edwin Rodriguez and Lionell Thompson stepped between the ropes. Because I suspected we might see both of them on a future card – and because we wanted to make sure all the electronics were operating properly – Dennis and I chose to count this fight.

Like the six fighters on the televised card, Rodriguez was seeking to bounce back from a crushing defeat. Two fights earlier, “La Bomba” was bombed out by fellow blaster Thomas Williams Jr., a defeat that led to a layoff of more than 14 months. Rodriguez returned to the ring last July by crushing Melvin Russell in two rounds in Alexandria, Louisiana, but, because of the location and the larger crowd witnessing it, this was, in effect, Rodriguez’s true comeback fight.

At his best, Rodriguez used high volume and combination punching to dominate opponents but against Thompson, he plodded more than he punched, mostly because Thompson’s constant movement and sparse punching offered few offensive opportunities. As a result, Rodriguez threw just 13 punches in the first and 26 in the second and Thompson – who threw 32 and 35 punches – tied Rodriguez with 12 total connects.

As round three opened, Thompson’s demeanor changed markedly. Perhaps realizing Rodriguez was not the same fighter as before, Thompson throttled up his offense and began landing stiff, flush jabs that popped Rodriguez’s head back. Thompson’s 58 punches more than doubled his total for round two and led to leads of 14-3 overall and 9-1 jabs. Rodriguez, for his part, was still stuck in first gear, as he threw just 22 punches.

Rodriguez showed more urgency in the fourth, as he upped his work rate to 44, but he still trailed Thompson 16-11 overall and 9-4 jabs. Following the fifth, it appeared an upset was in the making, as Thompson led 56-34 overall and 34-11 jabs while Rodriguez held a slim 23-22 edge in landed power shots.

Unfortunately for Thompson, he couldn’t consolidate his good start with a similar finish. After throwing 52 in the fifth, his output in rounds 6-10 decelerated to 32.6 per round, while Rodriguez pretty much stayed the same (from 33.2 in the first five rounds and 50 in the sixth to 35.3 in rounds 7-10). Additionally Rodriguez tied Thompson with 11 total connects in the sixth and out-landed him 13-8, 8-5 and 8-7 in rounds 7-9 before Thompson rebounded with a 13-8 lead in the final round. Rodriguez’s improved second-half performance combined with Thompson’s erosion, in comparison to his earlier form, might have persuaded the judges to give Rodriguez most of the later rounds.

In the end, Thompson led 100-82 in total connects, mostly because he prevailed 55-34 in landed jabs. He also was the more accurate fighter in all phases (29%-23% overall, 24%-23% jabs, 38%-23% power). But Rodriguez led 48-45 in power connects, plus he was the man moving forward at all times. More often than not, at least in the U.S., ineffective aggression supersedes retreating ring generalship, so Rodriguez ended up winning by wider-than-reality scores of 97-93 (twice) and 96-94.

Although Rodriguez advanced his record to 30-2 (20), he did not produce his best performance. Thompson’s movement and superb jabbing had a lot to do with that but, even during the lulls, it appeared Rodriguez, who will turn 33 in May, didn’t have the energy and snap of previous years. The victory will likely result in a better paying fight against a higher grade opponent and that opponent will likely reveal whether tonight’s performance was the result of an off-night or a more permanent trend.

With that, the untelevised undercard was complete. Would the next three fights unfold as expected (Benavidez by TKO, Ugas and Garcia on points) or would they defy conventional wisdom?

*

 

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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