The Travelin’ Man goes back to Las Vegas: Part one
Friday, April 6: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The most beautiful 11-letter word in boxing is “unification.” That’s because divided championships have been the rule for more than a half-century, a business model that has worked brilliantly for the four “major” organizations (thanks to the nearly constant inflow of sanctioning fees) but has made following the sport a chore for those like me who have chosen to become fans, media members and historians.
In my 44 years as a boxing aficionado, the championship divide has split twice. In 1974, only the WBA and WBC offered title belts recognized by the boxing mainstream but, as a result of controversial WBA conventions in 1982 and 1988, the IBF, then the WBO, came into being. Both entities struggled to gain credibility and each eventually achieved it by different routes. The IBF quickly gained status by bestowing its belt on already established champions such as Larry Holmes, Aaron Pryor, Donald Curry and Marvelous Marvin Hagler, while the WBO did so after several of its champions with star power – Naseem Hamed, Johnny Tapia, Chris Eubank, Joe Calzaghe and Darius Michalczewski, for example – assembled long and respected reigns while also succeeding in unification fights (Michalczewski vs. IBF/WBA titlist Virgil Hill, Hamed vs. the IBF’s Tom Johnson and the WBC’s Cesar Soto, Tapia vs. the IBF’s Danny Romero and Calzaghe against WBA/WBC counterpart Mikkel Kessler).
Happily for boxing, as a whole and for its fans, unification fights have become more frequent. Last August, Terence Crawford became just the third fighter in the four-belt era to hold all available “major” sanctioning straps by stopping fellow two-belt titleholder Julius Indongo (Bernard Hopkins and his successor Jermain Taylor, albeit briefly, were the other two), while Anthony Joshua joined Gennady Golovkin in the roll call of three-belt champions by out-pointing Joseph Parker last weekend. The sport has also seen a surge in two-belt unifications in recent years and that trend will include the main event of the card that brings me to Las Vegas for the second time in 2018 – WBA junior middleweight titlist Erislandy Lara against his IBF counterpart Jarrett Hurd, a fight that will pit Lara’s science against Hurd’s size and sock.
As if Lara-Hurd isn’t appetizing enough, the co-feature of this “Showtime Championship Boxing” tripleheader, at the Joint inside the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, is an IBF super middleweight title rematch between champion Caleb Truax and James DeGale, the man from whom Truax won the title in one of 2017’s most startling upsets. The televised opener will pit top 154-pound title contender Julian Williams (who has won two straight since his KO loss to then-IBF junior middleweight titlist Jermall Charlo in December 2016) and upset specialist Nathaniel Gallimore, who scored back-to-back stoppage wins over the 12-0 Jeison Rosario and the surging 17-1 Justin DeLoach, last April and July, respectively. As far as the untelevised undercard, one fight is particularly intriguing to me – a super middleweight meeting between former 154-pound titlist Sergio Mora and action star Alfredo Angulo in a scheduled eight-rounder that should provide a preview of sorts to what may happen with Lara and Hurd, given Mora’s slick boxing and Angulo’s uncompromising pressure.
Returning to the subject of unification in today’s game, there’s no question that the ideal would be one undisputed champion in every weight class, like it was during the sport’s “Golden Age.” That has been the stated desire of countless writers and opinion makers for decades and it’s something I would love to see as well. Anything that could bring order to this most disorderly of sports would be most welcome. Should that ever happen, casual fans – at least over time, and if the champs are properly marketed – would be able to identify the champion of a given weight class and fights involving that champion, especially if pitted against a credible challenger, would carry enormous meaning.
“Unfortunately,” as Sugar Ray Leonard once famously said to Marvelous Marvin Hagler during a public retirement ceremony in November 1982, “it’ll never happen.”
Why? First, such a system would require the creation of a single administrative entity that controls all aspects of the sport headed by an individual whose rulings would be obeyed by everyone under that entity’s command. That would require a ceding of power by those currently in control – Mauricio Sulaiman (WBC), Gilberto Mendoza Jr. (WBA), Daryl Peoples (IBF) and Francisco Valcarcel (WBO) among them – as well as of the enormous money the current system generates for their respective organizations. A large part of life on Earth is the pursuit of money and it would be difficult to find one person – much less four – who would be willing to surrender a highly profitable existence so a larger ideal could come into being.
This reality was best expressed during phone interviews I conducted with then-WBC President Jose Sulaiman and then-IBF counterpart Bob Lee in 1988 for my first feature that ran inside THE RING Magazine. While Sulaiman was willing to consider the idea as a concept, he was secure in the knowledge that he would never have to give up his control because at least one of his counterparts would never give up theirs.
“If a merger was possible, I would definitely favor it,” Sulaiman said in the December 1988 issue of THE RING. “I would present my resignation and the others do the same thing, and if we have a world vote to decide on one organization and one president, I would do it without hesitation.”
“I don’t think it would serve a useful purpose if Jose, (the WBA’s) Gilberto (Mendoza Sr.) or I resigned,” said Lee, two paragraphs later. “What could be gained by it? It would put someone who is not as knowledgeable in charge.”
Moreover who would be the person trusted enough and respected enough by all concerned to head this overarching organization? One poll conducted in THE RING a couple of decades ago had then-editor Steve Farhood topping a hugely divided list. Some have suggested Teddy Atlas, in years past, while former champion and current trainer Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, who has spent years working toward the creation of a boxer’s union, has said he would like the job. Could this person be a current administrator, such as a member of the British Boxing Board of Control, the European Boxing Union, the Oriental and Pacific Boxing Federation or officers in other global entities? Could it be someone outside the current power structure but whom knows and cares about the sport and its well being? Would this person be elected or appointed? If it’s the former, who would do the voting and, if it’s the latter, who would be doing the appointing?
In any case, this person – male or female – must be above and beyond reproach or influence, be willing to address all issues wisely and decisively and be willing to stay on the job long enough to establish a template, reputation and guide for successors to follow. That’s a very tall order. Will it ever be pursued?
In order for this cataclysmic change to take place, a meeting of the same scope would have to be arranged, perhaps a convention (or a series of conventions) in the vein of the original U.S. Constitutional Convention held in 1787, in Philadelphia, in which a new boxing universe could be created. Representatives from one end of the sport’s spectrum to the other could gather to hammer out a reformed structure, create a unified series of rules and protocols and elect the first slate of representatives (for a potential board to advise the head person), as well as the first person who would oversee the sport. It sounds like a gigantic undertaking because it would be but if there’s the will to do it, the path by which it could be created can be paved.
A major caveat: The only way this would ever happen is if the proposed new system promised to deliver more money to the sport – and those who currently rule it – than the current one. As I said before, cash is king, especially in boxing.
The other overriding reason that a single-champion concept won’t work in today’s boxing environment is the enormous per-fight purses that the sport’s biggest stars earn, even after taxes. Most of us take the road of least resistance in most situations, and, for fighters who make seven and eight figures every time they step in the ring, why should they assume more physical risk than absolutely necessary when only one fight or two will suffice, in terms of financial stability? When Oscar De La Hoya announced he would be fighting five times in 1997, he was hailed by fans and media alike for his old-school approach, especially when he actually followed through by beating Miguel Angel Gonzalez in January (UD 12), Pernell Whitaker in April (UD 12), David Kamau in June (KO 2), Hector Camacho in September (UD 12) and Wilfredo Rivera in December (TKO 8). But while De La Hoya raked in tens of millions of dollars and raised his standing in the sport, it proved to be a one-time venture, as he fought twice in 1998, three times in 1999, twice in 2000 and 2001, once in 2002 and twice in 2003 and 2004, a schedule that was in line with his other top-flight counterparts.
The hard reality is that had past greats like Willie Pep, Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore and Harry Greb made today’s money for every fight, they would have adopted the same twice-a-year schedule today’s fighters follow because they would have made enough to pay not only their own bills but also those of their families and neighbors – a big reason they took up the sport in the first place. Conversely if today’s fighters were making the paltry purses Pep, Robinson, Moore and Greb were paid in days gone by, they would have had to fight 20 times a year just to survive.
This gets to another reason why a single-champion concept will be difficult to pull off in today’s era: If left on their own, the champions, under today’s pay scale, won’t defend more than twice a year (if that), which, in turn, would greatly limit opportunities for the challengers below them. Proof of this scenario can be found during the very early days of boxing when champions clung to their titles for years without defending them at all (which is how the idea of a sanctioning body was spawned). It also can be seen with champions who are with Premier Boxing Champions. Since winning the WBC featherweight title in 2015, Gary Russell Jr. has fought once in 2016 and 2017, while WBC light heavyweight king Adonis Stevenson has fought just four times since 2014. This problem would be solved if the single controlling entity (and, by extension, its leader) had enough clout – and credibility – to force its champions to defend every three months against the consensus top challenger, while also prompting the contenders below to fight each other (or ambitious prospects deserving of a crack at a Top 10 spot) every so often to justify their spots in the pecking order. With 17 weight classes to manage these days, that would require a 24/7/365 (or 366 every four years) effort but if this concept is to work, that is what is necessary.
For these reasons, and because boxing has long been a sport made up of independent-minded capitalists who do not wish to share power (even if it’s for a greater good), the best we, as observers, can expect under today’s environment is for champions to unify belts but not keep them unified. Case in point: Terence Crawford. As soon as he united the four 140-pound title belts by beating Indongo, he vacated them in order to cease the weight-making strain on his body, as well as to chase new goals (and bigger purses) at 147, both of which are legitimate reasons but reasons that leave a sour taste for observers and historians who wish to see belts remain together.
Another gambit that was used to prevent lengthy unified runs was done to Michalczewski – the lineal champion – after the then-WBO titlist added Hill’s WBA and IBF straps in June 1997. The WBA, IBF and WBO demanded that he defend against their respective mandatory challengers, all three of which were different fighters, all within 90 days, just to keep the belts together. Michalczewski responded by keeping his WBO strap and dumping the other two, which is exactly what the WBA and IBF wanted him to do.
But that hasn’t been the case with every champion who manages to unite belts. When a star fighter with big financial clout merged belts, those demands weren’t made of them because the organizations didn’t want to miss out on their cut of what would be a very large pie. That dynamic continues today. Keith Thurman, a charismatic fighter with power and star quality, has been allowed to keep his WBA and WBC welterweight title belts intact despite not having fought since uniting them in March 2017 due to elbow surgery and its aftereffects. Will that still be the case now that Thurman has pulled out of his scheduled May 19 tune-up with no replacement date in sight? (After the fact note: No, it’s no longer the case. Thurman has reportedly vacated the WBC belt, with Shawn Porter and Danny Garcia set to fill the void with Thurman having the option to fight the winner, once he returns). Also, the aforementioned Adonis Stevenson, a big puncher who generates big money in Canada, hasn’t fought in 11 months, has fought only once in 2016 and 2017 and hasn’t made a mandatory defense since facing Tony Bellew in November 2013. Eleider Alvarez has been the mandatory challenger since 2015 but Alvarez contributed to the problem by accepting step-aside money so Stevenson could fight Sakio Bika, Thomas Williams Jr. and Andrzej Fonfara. The WBC said last December that it will address the issue of Stevenson’s “unacceptable” reign in due time…but will it? We’ll see. (After the fact note No. 2: It has been announced that Stevenson will meet Badou Jack on May 19. Given the challenging nature of the fight, it appears the issue has been addressed quite adequately).
This brings us back to Lara, Hurd and their unification fight: If Hurd beats Lara – especially if it’s by spectacular KO – he might generate enough star power for the sanctioning bodies to justify relaxing the mandatory defense rules for him and not giving him the Michalczewski treatment. But if Lara, whose cautious defensive style has been panned, wins by his usual scientific means, it’s likely he would be coerced into giving up one of those belts because his next fight likely won’t generate sufficient cash. It may not be fair, and it may not be right, but, in life, the love of money usually ends up superseding fairness and rightness.
Following a very busy 26 days at home – which helped me overcome the stresses of my Deadwood/San Antonio odyssey last month – I began my trek toward Las Vegas. As was the case the last few times I flew to “Sin City,” I opted to take the only direct flights emanating from Pittsburgh – a 5:20 p.m. Southwest flight on Friday and an 8:15 a.m. bird on Sunday. Because of the late departure on the outbound flight, I was able to spend most of the morning wrapping up research for two late-April fights, leaving me just one more fight in April to do, once I return from Vegas.
I toyed with the idea of leaving at 1 p.m. but recent mudslides in my area due to extremely heavy rain have closed widely traveled roads and might do so again. In case that happened, I wanted to give myself enough time to take an alternate route without having to stress myself in doing so. Thus I left the house at 12:10.
It’s a good thing I chose to depart then. While I avoided the dreaded mudslides on Route 2 North — I learned later that a major slide, the second in less than a week had occurred several hours later – I did run into a significant bottleneck: A traffic jam that began two-and-a-half miles outside Washington, Pennsylvania, on Interstate 70 East. It took 75 minutes just to get to Exit 18, my usual exit on my way to the airport. Because I opted to leave early, I still arrived slightly past 3:30, a little more than an hour before boarding. As has been the case lately, I found an excellent parking spot in the extended lot (the eighth spot from the front of 11A) and I passed through security without even being asked about having a second laptop inside my bag.
The plane departed on time but a significant headwind added an extra hour to the normally four-hour flight. I spent much of the flight reading John Feinstein’s new release, “The First Major: The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,” which was timely, given that the second round of the Masters was being played, but the most memorable part of this flight was provided by one of our flight attendants.
As a rule, Southwest’s attendants are the friendliest and most engaging in the industry but this one, a female named “Scooby,” was at another level. Before takeoff, she told a couple of corny jokes over the intercom (“What do you call a grizzly with no teeth? A gummy bear.”) and during the safety instructions she said – on three occasions and with increasing emphasis for comedic effect – “Bringing your own alcoholic beverages onto the aircraft is strictly prohibited.” Following the food service, she left a cardboard sign on the cart (which ended with “Love, Scooby”) that invited passengers to take whatever was left (“Scooby snacks?”) and, during the descent, she led the cabin in a series of stretching exercises (which we did) and ended the show by singing a travel-themed ditty.
Once I landed, I took a cab to the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, checked into my second-floor room inside the Casino Tower and walked inside the casino area before deciding to order room service (the Reuben, fries and Diet Coke certainly hit the spot after a long travel day with limited food intake). At 11:15 – or 2:15 a.m. body clock time – I turned out the light.
Saturday, April 7: I awakened five hours later and decided to snooze for another hour before officially starting my day and, following the morning routines, I spent most of the time typing most of the words you have read so far. I did stop long enough to go to the business center and print out my boarding pass for tomorrow morning’s flight and I also spent some time looking at the extensive exhibits on the casino floor. Some that stuck in my mind included a sequined Dodgers baseball uniform worn by Elton John, following a massively attended two-concert appearance at Dodgers Stadium, an electric guitar signed by the members of Metallica and the impossibly tiny platform shoes worn by Prince during one of his tours. But the creative process, being what it is, the work on the laptop took up almost all of the time between awakening and having to leave for the fight venue at 1 p.m.
Once there, the necessary electronic connections were achieved and I was soon joined by CompuBox colleague Dennis Allen, a Las Vegas resident who arrived at ringside fresh off a soccer match, in which his son scored two goals. It’s clear that athletic talent runs in the family, for Dennis compiled a 22-5 (11) record between November 1992 and June 2001.
Because there might be some data to be gleaned for future fights, Dennis and I counted the final undercard fight of the evening between Mora and Angulo. At 37 and 35 respectively, “The Latin Snake” and “El Perro” are long past their best but the mesh of contrasting styles proved timeless and, in the end, Mora won by split decision. Mora’s speed and mobility controlled the first three rounds – Mora led 56-35 overall, 24-6 jabs and 32-29 power during that span – but Angulo, who looked terribly slow and inaccurate early, turned the fight around, starting in round four when he went 32 of 116 overall and 31 of 80 power and maintained that manic pace for the remainder of the contest.
In terms of the final decision, the swing rounds may have been the sixth and seventh. In the sixth, Angulo was 21 of 93 overall to Mora’s 17 of 61, while, in the seventh, Mora was 19 of 71 to Angulo’s 17 of 84. A case could be made for either man in those sessions and the final numbers ended up close. Angulo led 143-140 overall and 128-90 power, while Mora prevailed 50-15 in landed jabs. Mora, as expected, was more accurate (29%-19% overall, 21%-6% jabs, 37%-26% power), plus his long-armed punches were more easily seen. Angulo, also as expected, was much more active, as he averaged 92.6 punches per round to Mora’s 59.5. Angulo’s offense was heavily tilted toward power shots (495 of 741 punch attempts, or 66.8% of his total output), while Mora’s was almost perfectly balanced (235 jabs, 241 power punches). As for the judges, Adalaide Byrd saw Angulo a 77-75 winner but she was overruled by Ricardo Ocasio and Tim Cheatham, who turned in identical 78-74 scores for Mora. As for me, a draw would have been a fair result.
With the undercard complete, Dennis and I settled in for what we thought would be a long yet interesting night at the fights. We weren’t disappointed on either count.
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 16 writing awards, including 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 e-mail [email protected].
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