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

Danny Garcia nails Brandon Rios with an uppercut. Photo by Stephanie Trapp-SHOWTIME
01
Mar

Please click here to read Part One.

 

Saturday, February 17 (continued): If one watches boxing long enough – and if one is blessed with a good memory – he or she will learn that history repeats itself inside the squared circle. For me, and for several other veteran ringside observers, the aftermath of Danny Garcia’s final punch against Brandon Rios proved that truism.

A split-second after absorbing Garcia’s rifle-shot right to the jaw – a counter over a lazy jab – Rios’ body sagged, then listed awkwardly back and to the right. After his right leg folded beneath him, Rios slammed the canvas back-first and it looked, at least for a moment, like he was out cold. Of course, Rios wasn’t. He lifted his head from the canvas at two and he managed to get to his feet by referee Kenny Bayless’ count of eight, a rueful smile creasing his face. But when Bayless commanded Rios to walk toward him, the truth of his condition was revealed as his legs broke into a stuttering skip. Seeing this, Bayless and Rios’ corner simultaneously waved off the fight, ending what had been a compelling contest at the 2:25 mark of round nine.



Over the next few minutes, the wise old heads around ringside confirmed to each other that a shared but dormant memory had just been resurrected. On July 29, 1994, defending IBF super middleweight titlist James “Lights Out” Toney more than lived up to his nickname, as he stopped former light heavyweight champion “Prince” Charles Williams at 2:45 of round 12, with a single counter right to the jaw – also a hair-trigger counterpunch over a soft jab. The impact of the blow caused Williams’ body to sag, rotate to the right and slam into the canvas with his back. But while Rios managed to get to his feet, Williams wasn’t so fortunate. While Williams began to stir at Joe Cortez’s count of three, his motor functions couldn’t connect the next dot quickly enough. Williams was still on all fours when Cortez reached the count of 10.

If one looks closely, subtle differences in the way Rios and Williams fell can be spotted – one was that Rios’ back hit the canvas flush while Williams’ right arm slightly broke his fall – but the similarity in big-picture images couldn’t be denied.

Had it not been for George Foreman’s history-shaking knockout of Michael Moorer, Toney’s one-shot destruction of Williams may well have been awarded “Knockout of the Year” by THE RING Magazine and its rival KO Magazine. But while Reverend Foreman’s miracle won in 1994, Garcia’s titanic blow, as of this writing, has vaulted into the top spot for the 2018 award – at least for now.

“I just noticed, when I was getting my punches off, (Rios) was standing in front of me and I just let it go,” Garcia told Showtime’s Jim Gray. “I wasn’t looking for that shot; I was just boxing, to be honest with you. I was letting my hands go, just like every other knockout. I let my hands go and the punch lands.”

The fight-ending punch closed the curtain on a fight that saw Garcia out-land Rios 188-109 overall, 57-37 jabs and 131-72 power, as well as create accuracy gaps of 31%-18% overall, 17%-13% jabs and 46%-22% power. But while Garcia was a heavy favorite to dominate Rios, he won his rounds in atypical fashion. First, Rios’ aggression and work rate (67.2 for the fight, 73.1 in rounds 3-9) forced Garcia to fight more energetically than usual. In Garcia’s last five fights, he averaged 45.3 punches per round – well below the 57.1 welterweight average – but against Rios, he threw a robust 68.2 per round. Second, Rios was expected to utilize the better body attack but Garcia produced a lead of 72-22 in landed body shots. While Garcia is a productive body puncher – 40.3% of his landed punches against Samuel Vargas, Robert Guerrero and Paul Malignaggi struck the flanks – Rios’ body work against Aaron Herrera, in his comeback fight, following the TKO loss to Timothy Bradley was telling (79 of 301 landed power shots and 87 of 375 total connects) and, given Rios’ height and reach deficits, one would think trench warfare would have been a big part of his blueprint. Thanks to Garcia’s sharpness, it wasn’t.

Although Rios got off to a slow start – he threw just 39 punches in round one before accelerating to 54, then 74, in rounds two and three – he did his best to impose his style on Garcia and, at times, he produced positive moments. But those in the know had reasons to make Rios a -2000 underdog on fight night and one of those was Rios’ sub-par defense. In Rios’ last five fights, opponents landed a combined 44.8% of their power punches. Garcia’s total: 45.6%. Still, my impression from ringside was that Rios had properly prepared himself for the task. His post-weigh-in body wasn’t bloated and his will to fight was as strong as ever. The final result wasn’t caused by bad Rios; it was produced by good Garcia.

“I’m mad because I don’t go out like that,” Rios told Gray, who will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in June. “I’m a warrior and I got back up and I was ready to continue but I guess the corner stopped it. I know they love me and everything but, you know, I was still breathing and I was still walking around and I got up fine. They can stop it when I’m almost f**king dying. I’ll die in that ring; that’s the kind of warrior I am.

”I got lazy with the jab and he came over with the right hand and caught me,” Rios continued. “It was my fault.”

At the time of the stoppage, Garcia was ahead 78-74 (Dave Moretti) and 79-73 (Glenn Trowbridge and Steve Weisfeld). Rios said he would respect the wishes of his team, in terms of whether he continues in the sport, but it was clear he would continue if the decision were his alone. If, as expected, he returns to the ring, the perfect match would be against Victor Ortiz, who, earlier in the evening in El Paso, Texas, fought Devon Alexander to a draw many thought he should have lost.

The big knockout by Garcia ensured a full plate, as far as potential opponents, but, while Garcia would love a rematch with WBA/WBC welterweight titlist Keith Thurman, so would Shawn Porter, who got into the ring and confronted “Swift” during the post-fight interview. Reading between the words, I got the impression that Garcia didn’t want anything to do with fighting Porter next – at least not yet – for while he said he’d fight Porter in Porter’s own gym and in the street, he said nothing about fighting him in the ring, where it counts. As for Porter, I felt he did want to ink a fight with Garcia and his frustration with his current situation was palpable.

 

Shawn Porter (left) and Danny Garcia. Photo credit: Stephanie Trapp/Trapp Photos/Showtime

 

To be truthful, I feel for Porter. Thurman has made it obvious he wants a well-compensated tune-up for his first fight back, following elbow surgery and, given the severity of his injury and the length of his recovery, one can see why. But in this age of twice-a-year schedules for elite fighters, primes are being frittered away, especially the primes of those fighters associated with Premier Boxing Champions, in which long layoffs among its stars are the norm. Porter, who turned 30 last October and has fought just twice since losing to Thurman in June 2016, is deeply aware about the passage of time and how quickly his windows of opportunity are closing. Thurman’s matter-of-fact manner and unshakable stance regarding his ring future has enraged fans and prospective opponents alike and Porter’s anger surely was reignited by a testy press conference staged earlier in the evening, as well as a face-to-face interview with Showtime, in which Thurman repeated his unpopular but understandable 2018 blueprint.

“Later this year, we want to do a nice fight for you guys.” Thurman told Gray. “I don’t know if we’re going to unify more titles this year. I just want to be more active. I really want to get this elbow back and feel good. Shawn is a potential fight for later this year (but) I’m not coming off of surgery fighting Shawn Porter. I’m not coming off surgery fighting anybody at the top of the welterweight division, when it comes to the Top 5 and things of that nature.” When asked about his pool of opponents should he, as expected, win his May 19 warm-up – Porter, Garcia or IBF counterpart Errol Spence Jr., Thurman said “We’re going to have to pick one. You got three but you can only fight one at a time. Whatever we do, I think the fans are going to like it.”

Thurman is asking fans and media to be patient with him and their reward will be a fight against one of the “big three” by the end of the year. Team Thurman’s choice of opponent for May 19 will determine how his comeback is perceived but if he follows through with the second half of his promise, I believe all will be forgiven.

*

 

I’ve counted several of David Benavidez’s fights from ringside and, every time I do so, I question whether he really is as youthful as he says. At 21 years 67 days, Benavidez is the youngest current champion in boxing as well as the youngest fighter ever to win a share of the 168-pound title but, inside the ring, he has the poise and the offensive arsenal of a seasoned pro. During the late stages of his first fight with Ronald Gavril last September, Benavidez was confronted with rounds 11 and 12 for the first time and, though the Vegas-based Romanian kept coming from first bell to last, Benavidez was the one who produced an impressive sprint toward the finish line. But in the final minute of the 12th, Gavril flipped the script by flooring the off-balanced youngster with a left hook and imposing one last threat to his potential coronation. Others in his situation might have been rattled but Benavidez proved he was made of sterner stuff by getting up, resuming his attack and finishing the job. His reward was the vacant WBC super middleweight title but the back-and-forth action suggested a rematch was in order.

Benavidez said he didn’t feel 100 percent during his first encounter with Gavril and he offered compelling proof of that by battering the ultra-tough Romanian over 12 punishing rounds in the rematch. Benavidez expertly controlled distance with his jab, as he averaged 42.3 attempts and 11.3 connects per round – well above the division averages of 23 and 4.6 respectively – and he also dictated ring geography by determinedly avoiding the ropes. But the part of his game that made the biggest imprint with me was his combination punching. Not only did he throw his bouquets with above-average speed, his unpredictable patterns were executed with scintillating fluidity. For example, moments after sending Gavil reeling into the ropes with a right uppercut-left hook early in round four, Benavidez fired a right cross, a hook to the body, a hook-cross-uppercut, a right to the body and another right uppercut with the confidence that comes with muscle memory. The assault continued for the remainder of the round, one that saw Benavidez land a fight-high 43 punches and 36 power shots. Incredibly, Gavril, though stunned, ended the fourth with 60 punches thrown and 17 connects, his bests of the fight to that point.

Benavidez piled on the punishment for the remainder of the bout but, no matter how much incoming he absorbed or how badly his face was marked, Gavril kept coming, kept trying and, incredibly, never hit the floor. Many other super middleweights would have been discouraged by Gavril’s relentlessness but Benavidez’s mentality held firm and, as a result, he won a lopsided unanimous decision and confirmed Benavidez’s contention that he may have been under the weather the first time around.

The final numbers were in line with the scorecards submitted by Julie Lederman (119-109), Glenn Feldman (120-108) and Robert Hoyle (120-108). Benavidez out-landed Gavril 315-176 overall, 135-86 jabs and 180-90 power, while also being the more accurate hitter. Benavidez increased his work rate from 71.9 punches per round in fight one to 78.5, while Gavril’s fell from 68.1 to 63.1, but the most striking difference was Benavidez’s power-punching accuracy. In fight one, Benavidez landed 31% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts but here he connected on 41%, which was more in line with the 51% he landed in the four fights before the first Gavril match. Better yet for Benavidez, he produced more offense without sacrificing much his defense; in fight one, Gavril landed 23% of his power shots but in fight two, he connected with 30%, still below the 37% super middleweight norm and well down from the 38% Benavidez allowed in the four fights before meeting Gavril last September. The most outstanding part of Gavril’s performance – besides his grit – was his body punching. Of his 176 total connects, 134 were to the body and, most interestingly, the split between body jabs and power body connects was divided at 67 to 67.

“I knew (Gavril) was going to come in aggressive but, like I said before, he’s a one-trick type of pony. He don’t know how to do nothing else but pressure,” Benavidez told Gray. “So I used that to my advantage: Jab, box him all day and when I saw the opening, I took it. I didn’t knock him out but he’s a tough son-of-a-gun.”

When asked if there was still bad blood, Benavidez indicated there still was, even after 24 rounds of war.

“I don’t really care,” he said. “I mean, I have the belt around my waist. Look at his face and look at mine.” But while Benavidez’s face was virtually unmarked, the scraped knuckles of his left hand and the swollen second knuckle of his right hand were proof he also incurred damage. If a fighter is to be hurt, however, it’s best that the damage was caused by hitting his opponent too much.

One statistical clue, in terms of how the right hand injury affected his work, could be seen in rounds nine through 12. While his work rate remained stellar (77.3 per round, including a fight-high 102 in the ninth), Benavidez threw nearly twice as many jabs (201) than power shots (108), a marked reversal from the previous eight rounds (307 jabs, 326 power shots). But Benavidez’s versatility was such that he dramatically increased his jab connects per round from 8.8 per round in the first eight stanzas to 16.3 in rounds 9-12, including a fight-high 23 of 65 jabs in the 12th. Meanwhile in the final three rounds, Benavidez’s power numbers were 8 of 28, 8 of 20 and 2 of 10, a marked drop-off from the 50 attempts and 23 connects he recorded in the eighth.

The 24 rounds Benavidez fought against Gavril represents 31.6% of his total rounds as a pro but those 72 minutes of combat have done wonders for his overall development. Is he the best super middleweight in the world? Time will tell but his size, skills and savvy suggest he’ll be trouble for any 168-pound boxer on the planet, including counterparts George Groves (WBA), Caleb Truax (IBF) and Gilberto Ramirez (WBO). As for Gavril, he enhanced his standing as a tough guy with talent and tools and a hard nut for anyone to crack. Will the punishment he absorbed against Benavidez prove disastrous in the long-term or will future successes show that Benavidez simply had Gavril’s number? We won’t know that until Gavril meets a suitable opponent but let’s hope he’ll take a well-deserved rest first.

*

 

In Part One, I detailed the back stories that made welterweights Yordenis Ugas and “The New” Ray Robinson easy fighters for whom to root. The ring, however, has no room for sentimentality. It magnifies strengths, exposes weaknesses and serves as the stage on which dreams are furthered or crushed. In less than seven rounds, Ugas continued his improbable march toward a title shot at the expense of Robinson, who suffered a trip/knockdown in round one, had a point taken away after hitting the Cuban expatriate after the bell in round four and was stopped moments after being floored a second time in the seventh.

The centerpiece of Ugas’ offense was a tremendous body attack, which accounted for 49 of his 95 total connects, 17 of his 23 landed jabs and 32 of his 72 power connects. It helped Ugas deaden Robinson’s lively legs enough to cut the distance between them and then, in turn, to impose his superior shot-for-shot power.

“I felt like I was the stronger fighter by far and (Robinson) didn’t hurt me,” said Ugas. “He lost a point for hitting me after the bell sounded, and knocked me down, but even that didn’t hurt me. He was very awkward and his style threw off my timing. Luckily I was able to land body shots that I knew were hurting him. I was able to dictate the pace and was never in trouble.”

A hallmark of Robinson’s previous fights was his volume. In three fights previously tracked by CompuBox, Robinson averaged 76.4 punches per round, well above the 57.1 welterweight average, but despite his long-range approach, his power game was much more effective than his jabbing (47.3 thrown/16.9 power connects per round; 29.1 thrown/3.6 jab connects per round). Also, for a natural southpaw, Robinson used his right hand much more often than his power left and his right hook scored more than its share of knockdowns.

Ugas’ superior defense blunted much of Robinson’s attack as he allowed just 17% of Robinson’s total punches, 10% of his jabs and 28% of his power punches to penetrate. Robinson did his best to force a fast pace as he averaged 69 punches per round, through the first six stanzas, but Ugas’ doggedness, heavier fists and sapping body blows proved a most sour brew.

Entering the seventh, Ugas led 60-52, 60-53 and 59-54 but the stats were somewhat narrower (95-75 overall, 72-51 power for Ugas, 24-23 jabs for Robinson), only because Robinson averaged 67.6 punches per round to Ugas’ 46.9. Ultimately Ugas’ accuracy gaps (32%-17% overall, 15%-10% jabs, 51%-28% power) accurately reflected the action within the ring.

The bout was billed as an IBF eliminator, despite the fighters’ low rankings by the organization (No. 11 for Robinson, No. 14 for Ugas), so, at least in theory, Ugas put himself in position to fight Spence in the near future. However Carlos Ocampo, Spence’s highest-rated contender, could be “The Truth’s” opponent, June 16 in Dallas, so it appears Ugas’ title shot will have to wait until the fall or early winter, if then.

Ugas’ candidacy faces two roadblocks, in addition to the one described in the aforementioned sentence. First, will the Robinson victory move him up the rankings sufficiently to force Spence to fight him? Going from No. 14 to a title shot is a rather steep climb unless the champ perceives that fighter to be easy money – and Ugas is nobody’s idea of easy money. Second, two bigger name fighters in Jessie Vargas (No. 4) and Devon Alexander (No. 6) are rated higher than Ugas and both fought recently. Earlier in the evening, Alexander fought a draw with Victor Ortiz many said he deserved to win (he did lead 155-137 overall and 136-114 power in the CompuBox stats), so will the rancor over the decision vault him into a fight with Spence? Vargas, for his part, emerged from a 13-month layoff, with a shut-out 10-round decision over Aaron Herrera last December and, like Alexander, he has won belts in two weight classes. Finally while all three fighters are under the Premier Boxing Champion banner, Ugas probably won’t draw the same money as a challenge from Alexander or Vargas would. Skill for skill, Ugas is right there but the hard fact is that perception is reality, especially in boxing. Ugas’ name on the marquee probably won’t generate enough cash to persuade Spence to pick him over everybody else.

In some respects, boxing is sports’ ultimate meritocracy but, in reality, politics plays a significant role, in terms of who gets opportunities, and when they get them, and, for the aforementioned reasons, Ugas may end up on the outside looking in.

*

 

Once I finished packing my equipment, I stopped by the production office to engage in brief post-fight chatter, after which bought a late-night meal at a convenience store near one of the hotel elevators. I then returned to my room, spent the next hour inputting the night’s figures into the master database, consumed my bounty and turned out the lights shortly after midnight.

 

Sunday, February 18: I stirred awake five-and-a-half hours later and, after getting ready for the day, I spent some time catching up on emails, as well as going a couple of rounds on the laptop before checking out of my room at 7:30 a.m. After doing so, a hotel staffer summoned a taxi for me but, because I travel so lightly, I didn’t need him to stow my belongings.

The drive to the airport lasted less than 10 minutes but the time passed even faster because my cabbie was one of the friendliest and chattiest characters I’ve come across. Despite the early hour, his energy level was off the charts and it was tough for even me to get a word in edgewise. A native of Los Angeles, this gray-haired and somewhat heavy-set man was a human Super Ball that didn’t stop bouncing until we arrived at the Southwest entrance. If I wasn’t awake before, I sure was now.

My boarding position on my Southwest flight was somewhat better than was the case two days ago (B-29) but I still decided to pay the $50 upgrade fee, once I discovered I would be moved up to A-7. To prevent my being moved from my paid-for position on the aircraft (a scenario I described in Part One), I chose a window seat in row six, buckled the seat belt and waited for my seatmates to arrive. They ended up being a mother and her four-year-old child whose name I learned was J.T. because she had to say it so often. For the most part, J.T. was a good kid but, as is the case with most four-year-olds, he was squirmy, easily distracted and very vocal. Experience told me that the best thing for me to do is to let the mother handle her child; she didn’t need any input from me and if she did, she would ask me. From time to time, I did pick up items that fell off J.T.’s tray table but, other than that, I spent most of the flight reading Mike Tyson’s latest book that addressed his relationship with trainer Cus D’Amato.

The plane landed in Pittsburgh shortly after 4:30 and I reached my car at 5 p.m. exactly. Following a couple of phone calls to alert those whom cared that I had arrived safely, I spent the next two-and-a-half hours driving home and the next six after that watching the ESPN and FS1 cards I had recorded on my DVR. Once a boxing nut, always a boxing nut.

This past weekend was one of the busiest in the history of CompuBox, which marked the 33rd anniversary of its debut on Friday. Operators did the ESPN card on Friday as well as three cards the following day – the World Boxing Super Series main event between George Groves and Chris Eubank Jr., the FS1 card topped by Alexander-Ortiz and the show I worked in Vegas. The hits will keep on coming in March, which could be one of my busiest travel months in years. Stop one for my version of “March Madness” will take place March 3, when I will work the card topped by WBC heavyweight titlist Deontay Wilder and challenger Luis Ortiz at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, while Bob Canobbio and family will count the HBO-televised card headed by Sergey Kovalev-Igor Mikhalkin at the Madison Square Garden Theater.

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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