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The Travelin’ Man returns to Oxon Hill, Maryland – Part one

01
Jun

Friday, May 18: For most of us, life is a constant series of in-the-moment episodes in which we react to whatever circumstances befall us. There are no time machines to transport us back to happier times or to take us to a place where we can see how our lives turned out. In a way, however, I have been living in the past, present and future simultaneously for the past three days.

“How can this be true?” you may be asking. Here’s how:

This past Tuesday afternoon, an incredibly intense weather system blew through our area; I say “system” because I have yet to hear a definitive characterization of what occurred. Was it a tornado? Was it a derecho (defined as a “widespread, long-lived storm associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms”)? Or was it some other irregular meteorological circumstance? In any case, the combination of hurricane-force wind and biblical downpours caused the spring-time equivalent of a winter “whiteout” in that, for the majority of the 30-minute event, I could see nothing but white outside my window. Once the system cleared out and our visibility returned, the aftermath was stunning: Fallen power lines, uprooted trees and roadside drainage ditches so flooded that the overflow swept up a neighbor’s trash receptacle and took it 100 feet down the partially submerged highway. What it also did was take out our internet service, our electrical power and our landline phone access.

Because I had invested in a whole-home generator that runs on natural gas, our power problem was being addressed the moment it kicked on. Thirty seconds after doing so, our electricity was restored. That’s how I was living in the present.



How I was living in the past was that my use of the internet was severely limited because my smart phone was my only portal to it, thanks to its wireless access. Its small screen and slow uploading speeds limited my use to retrieving email, the sending/receiving of texts and using Facebook’s Messenger function. For the most part, this circumstance drove me back to the days before the Worldwide Web became an indispensible part of daily existence – a period that encompassed the first 35 years of my life. As is often the case with modern amenities, I wondered how I got anything done without them. That certainly was the case here, and, as someone who loves to keep busy, the forced idleness was driving me nuts.

As for how I was living in the future, there will come a time when all of us – no matter our age or our level of technical expertise – will be forced to become cord-cutters, as landline phone service will become obsolete. I believe that day will come sooner than we think, and, based on my experience here, I am not looking forward to it.

For me, it was the worst of all worlds; to do my CompuBox work in the most efficient manner, I need web access to a computer that features at least two large-screen monitors as opposed to a tiny phone screen, and, because my smart phone is the family’s only one, the ability for all of us to communicate with the outside world was prohibitively hindered. But as inconvenient as this situation is, I am comforted by five things. First, it won’t last forever. Second, these problems are decidedly “first world” in nature. Third, none of the homes in our area were damaged and no lives were lost. Fourth, an army of power and electric trucks were swarming our area. Finally I soon will be able to escape all of it thanks to my job as “The Travelin’ Man.”

This brings me today’s order of business: Trekking from my home office in Friendly, West Virginia, to Oxon Hill, Maryland, where Showtime will air the first half of a split-site doubleheader featuring WBC featherweight titlist (and local hero) Gary Russell Jr. and mandatory challenger Joseph Diaz Jr., which will be counted live at ringside. Then, Showtime will air a fight between WBC light heavyweight king Adonis Stevenson and Badou Jack, in Toronto, that will be called and counted off monitor. Thanks to colleague Andy Kasprzak (who took an early afternoon flight to Washington, D.C., so he could do the customary electronic checks and attend the 4:30 p.m. format meeting), I had the luxury of taking a 3:02 p.m. flight from Pittsburgh to our nation’s capital. My internet issues at home forced me to secure and print my boarding pass from the Sistersville Public Library located five miles away.

Because of potential delays due to storm clean-up, I left the house 15 minutes earlier than originally planned. Sure enough, traffic was stopped for 15 minutes, thanks to debris removal on West Virginia Route 2 between Paden City and New Martinsville, but my cushion allowed me to arrive in Pittsburgh shortly before 1 p.m., well before my scheduled 2:32 boarding time. After clearing security and taking the tram to the “secure” part of the airport, I glanced at the monitor and was surprised to see the word “boarding” flashing next to my flight. Even though I suspected this was “fake news,” I still strode toward my gate with heightened urgency.

When I arrived, the scene was as expected – a blank gate screen, no gate agent, no ongoing boarding process, no aircraft and only one other early bird passenger. Once a gate agent arrived, a half-hour later, she said the malfunction had been in place all day and that nothing could be done about it for the time being.

The aircraft arrived at the gate on time but once we boarded, I (as well as the other passengers) was thrown a curve ball. For whatever reason, the row numbers placed just below the overhead bins jumped from 10 to 16, as if the middle section of the aircraft had been cut out and the two ends jammed together. I, of course, was assigned seat 13B but there was no 13th row available. My solution: On the original seating map, I was situated in the aisle seat behind the exit row, so I sat there. That seemed to be the right move, for neither the flight attendants nor my fellow passengers raised a fuss.

During the 75-minute flight, I thought about tomorrow night’s card, which, I believe, features two intriguing fights, in terms of the style contrasts, as well as the difficulty in predicting an outcome. Yes, the champs (Russell and Stevenson) will be fighting on friendly turf but their lengthy layoffs (364 days for Russell, 323 days for Stevenson) and the talent of their respective challengers even the scale. Thanks to their association with Premier Boxing Champions, long breaks between fights have become routine, as Stevenson will be fighting for only the third time since September 2015 and Russell for the third time since winning the title from Jhonny Gonzalez in March 2015. Somehow, once both entered the ring, they still performed as if they were rust-free.

The proof: In crushing Oscar Escandon, in May of last year, Russell, who then was coming off a 13-month layoff, averaged a robust 80.3 punches per round to Escandon’s 88.2, scored knockdowns in rounds three and seven, was much more accurate (39%-20% overall, 46%-24% power), led 198-110 overall and 180-93 power and scored the seventh round TKO in an entertaining but lopsided shoot-out at the MGM National Harbor, the same site on which his fight with Diaz will be staged. As for Stevenson, he looked sharp and powerful in crushing Andrzej Fonfara in two rounds last June at Montreal’s Bell Centre. His lethal left cross scored one knockdown in the first and prompted Fonfara’s trainer Virgil Hunter to climb onto the ring apron and stop the fight after a series of them landed on his reeling fighter. Despite emerging from a nearly 11-month layoff, Stevenson landed 48% of his total punches and an astronomical 67% of his power shots. The latter figure was no surprise, for “Superman’s” 55.3% power punch accuracy in his last nine fights is the best among world-class fighters tracked by CompuBox. That said, Stevenson is just a few months away from his 41st birthday and he’ll be facing Jack, a better all-around fighter than the gutty but defensively challenged Fonfara, and a 34-year-old who is coming off a career-best fifth round TKO over Nathan Cleverly to win a subordinate WBA light heavyweight belt he subsequently vacated.

So who do I think will win?

Diaz’s ability to surge in the second half of fights is among the strongest CompuBox trends in the entire sport, as he has produced dramatic throttle-ups in at least nine of his CompuBox-tracked fights. Therefore I believe he will dramatically increase his chances of victory if he gets past the opening six rounds without taking too much fire. However that “if” is a big “if” because Russell is, by far, the most talented and gifted fighter Diaz has yet faced as a pro – and that may apply, even if one includes his amateur opponents. Russell has several factors working in his favor: (1) He has proven he can perform well despite long layoffs; (2) he’ll be fighting at home and (3) he has shown himself capable of generating much higher volume than Diaz, while maintaining elevated accuracy. Additionally Russell is much harder to hit than Diaz’s previous opponents; in his four post-Vasyl Lomachenko fights, Russell has been struck by just 18% of his opponents’ total punches, 13% of their jabs and 21% of their power punches, while landing 37% overall, 21% jabs and 49% power. Few fighters today are better at the “hit and not get hit game” than Russell, and his punching angles will be enhanced by facing a fellow lefty in Diaz. Finally Russell is among the sport’s most versatile fighters and I see him adjusting well to whatever Diaz will bring. Although I foresee a Russell decision victory, I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets the TKO thanks to the “culture shock” the 2008 U.S. Olympian will deliver to his 2012 Olympic counterpart, in terms of opponent resistance.

As for Stevenson-Jack, I normally shy away from favoring fighters who must fight perfectly in order to win against those who only need one power connect to turn everything around. I might end up regretting it but I’m going against the flow and picking Jack to win on points.

My reasoning: Jack had long complained about the rigors of making 168 and, while scaling 174 ¼ against Cleverly – his debut at 175 on a world-class level – he looked and performed sensationally. He beat Cleverly at his own volume-punching game (88.4 per round to Cleverly’s 81.8), jabbed excellently (11.6 connects per round) and landed 50% of more of his power shots in rounds three, four and five. In round five, Jack finished the fight by producing personal bests of 130 punches thrown and 98 power punch attempts, and out-landing the Welshman 38-14 overall and 32-10 power to expand his final leads to 172-82 overall, 58-38 jabs and 114-44 power. His vaunted body punching, absent in recent fights, returned with a vengeance, as he led 43-4 in that category.

My only concern is a biggie: Jack was hit by 44.9% of Cleverly’s power punches. As previously mentioned, Stevenson is boxing’s most accurate power hitter, as well as one of its most dangerous. If Stevenson connects with his big left cross, he can erase all of Jack’s good work, even if the knockout drop is executed in round 12. However I believe Jack’s elevated defensive numbers against Cleverly were the result of Jack’s disrespect for Cleverly’s power and that he will tighten up his defense considerably against Stevenson. He’s capable of doing just that, for in his four 168-pound title fights against Anthony Dirrell, George Groves, Lucian Bute and James DeGale, Jack tasted only 31% of their power shots, while landing 47% of his. Finally Jack will also remember that Stevenson knocked out the only man to have stopped Jack (Derek Edwards) and thus will fight with the proper level of caution but do so without being too cautious. For these reasons, I believe Jack will box his way to victory.

 

*

 

The plane landed in Washington at 4:18 and, upon deplaning, we were asked to board a bus that would take us to the terminal. Our departure was delayed for several minutes because a passenger was unable to retrieve his luggage and he complained long and loud about it. Thanks to pairing valet tag numbers, it was discovered that someone had grabbed his suitcase by mistake, and, once the exchange of belongings was made, order was restored and our bus was allowed to proceed.

After waiting a few minutes in line, I boarded a taxi and headed to our crew hotel. As usual in D.C., the highways were congested, so I didn’t arrive at the hotel until nearly 6 p.m. In the meantime, Andy told me all was well, in terms of conducting the usual day-before electronic checks, and that the format meeting proceeded routinely. The only news was that the Stevenson-Jack fight will start no earlier than 11:15 p.m. – even if the Russell-Diaz fight ended in round one.

Upon entering the hotel, I was greeted heartily by Ahmed, an employee with whom I conversed extensively about boxing the last time I was here. He checked me into my fifth floor room, and, after making several “I’m all right” calls, I spent the remainder of the evening catching up on work, channel surfing and consuming my room service meal. For me at least, this waking cycle ended at 12:15 a.m.

 

Saturday, May 19: As is usually the case – either at home or away from home – I slept fitfully. My mind is like a hamster wheel that is always turning and, unlike much of my life, my dreams (at least the ones I remember) usually depict unpleasant circumstances that cause me to jolt awake. At 7 a.m. I decided to get up for good and get ready for the day, after which I spent several hours catching up on my writing, as well as with other work duties I felt were pressing. I also caught up on some of the CompuBox research I missed, thanks to our Internet woes and, by the time I finished, I felt much better about my situation.

At 2 p.m. I headed downstairs to print my boarding pass but the business center computer kept kicking me off. Every time I tried to log onto the American Airlines website, I got a dialog box stating that several programs had to be closed down in the name of user safety. The “check-in” page would appear for a split-second, then disappear. I rebooted the computer several times, to no avail, and the same scenario unfolded when a helpful hotel employee tried it. When Andy arrived a few minutes later, he walked directly to the business center to print his pass.

“You’ll be a better man than I if you’re able to get your boarding pass,” I said. “I tried four times to get mine and I was shut out.”

Guess what? Andy was a better man. He got his pass without any issues. The probable reason: He was flying on United, whose website was completely functional.

After arriving at the arena and successfully setting up shop, he showed me how to acquire a smart phone-friendly boarding pass but advised that I also get a paper pass at the airport.

Our pre-card procedures were completed nearly seven hours before airtime but Andy and I busied ourselves by watching the Josh Warrington-Lee Selby fight on Showtime’s Facebook page, a fight in which Warrington won the IBF featherweight title before his passionate home fans in Leeds. That the decision was split instead of unanimous was puzzling to everyone but Canadian judge Alan Davis, who voted 115-113 for the brave but outgunned Selby. Davis, a judge since December 2000, and, according to BoxRec.com, was judging his 11th title fight since 2008, does have experience at this level, so perhaps he was just having an off night, as we all do from time to time. Thankfully he was outvoted and the right man won the fight but what if one of the other jurists had been off his game as well? The answer: Outrage, a far-too-common circumstance in our sport. In Leeds, however, a verdict against Warrington after that effort might have sparked something far worse than mere anger.

Following the crew meal, Andy and I arrived at ringside, just as the first fight of the evening was ending. There, Roanoke super middleweight Reuben Simmons scored a first-round corner retirement over Ayron Davis to raise his record to 3-0 (2), while Davis’ declined to 0-2 (both losses by stoppage). Of the five undercard fights that followed, Andy and I counted three because we felt we might need the data for future use. Two of the bouts involved Russell’s brothers junior welterweight Gary Antuanne and bantamweight Gary Antonio, who scored stoppage victories over Wilmer Rodriguez (KO 1) and late-sub Jonathan Lecona (TKO 5) to raise their records to 6-0 (6) and 11-0 (9) respectively.

Like their WBC champion brother (who served as chief second for both bouts), the other Garys are high-volume southpaws, who fire blinding and blistering combinations. Gary Antonio scored knockdowns in rounds one, four and five because he mixed in the kill shot amid his flurries. In round one, it was a left to the body, while in round four, it was a series of right hooks. As for the final knockdown, it took place just 16 seconds into round five and the final blow was indistinguishable from all the others. In those 16 seconds, Gary Antonio threw 18 punches and landed eight, including 7 of 13 power shots. That capped an effort that saw him land 134 of 420 punches (32%), 31 of 193 jabs (16%) and 103 of 227 power shots (45%). Lencona, also a southpaw, did his best to resist and he achieved a measure of success, in that he landed 30% overall, 29% jabs and 31% power. His volume, however, couldn’t match that of Gary Antonio, as he threw 172 fewer overall punches, 88 less jabs and 84 fewer power shots.

As for Gary Antuanne – a 2016 U.S. Olympian – we didn’t get to see much of him, as his bout lasted 174 seconds. In that time he scored two knockdowns, thanks to an overhand left to the jaw and a combination capped by a nauseating right-left to the body that kept the portly Rodriguez down for the 10 count. The final numbers further illustrated Gary Antuanne’s domination – connect leads of 23-3 overall, 7-1 jabs and 16-2 power and percentage gaps of 34%-19% overall, 16%-14% jabs and 64%-22% power.

The final bout we counted was the 10-round super middleweight contest between Immanuwel Aleem and another late-sub in Juan De Angel. The fight’s first 11 ½ minutes were hypnotizing, in a negative way, and each man probed for openings and found few of them. But in the final seconds of the fourth, Aleem opened the floodgates by flooring De Angel with a hook to the temple. From there Aleem landed whistling power shots that gradually chipped away at De Angel’s resolve. His breaking point occurred sometime during round six, for after that, he decided to remain on his stool.

The victory was critical for Aleem because he was coming off a crushing KO loss to Hugo Centeno Jr., last August, the first loss of his career and the follow-up to his Closet Classic sixth round TKO victory over Ievgen Khytrov in January 2017. In the final two rounds, Aleem out-landed De Angel 34-15 overall and 30-12 power to extend his final leads to 72-43 overall, 14-12 jabs and 58-31 power as well as 25%-16% overall and 40%-21% power (they tied at 10% jab accuracy).

In other action, Barbados junior lightweight Cobia Breedy (who bears a strong facial resemblance to the late Baby Jake Matlala, thanks to his goatee and shaven head) raised his record to 11-0 (4) at the expense of Christopher Martin, who fell to 30-10-3 (10), after losing a shut-out six-round decision.

With all the undercard action in the books, it was time to take in the main event. The styles suggest a pulsating and action-packed affair was at hand but would the fight live up to expectations?

My answer: A definite yes. For details, please read Part Two.

 

*

 

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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