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The Travelin’ Man returns to Detroit: Part one

27
Jun

Thursday, June 21: If my work window between the end of Hall of Fame Weekend and last week’s journey to Frisco, Texas, was short, it was a full day tighter between Sunday night and today, the day I am set to leave for Detroit to work a “Showtime Boxing Special Edition” tripleheader, topped by two-belt super middleweight titlist (and Great Lakes State star) Claressa Shields moving down to 160 pounds to fight WBA/WBO 154-pound titlist Hanna Gabriels for the vacant WBA and newly-created IBF middleweight belts. Adding to my challenge is that this week’s “to-do” list was no smaller than last week’s: Research for Saturday’s ESPN+ show involving WBC junior lightweight titlist Miguel Berchelt and Jonathan Barros, as well for the main event for ESPN’s June 29 “Golden Boy Boxing on ESPN” bout between welterweights Rashidi Ellis and Alberto Mosquera, assembling and printing the production memo and the pre-prepared slips that I will pass to the TV talent during the show, transferring last week’s boxing shows from the DVR to my DVD recorder’s hard drive (from which will come the DVDs) and trying to find a good space between thunderstorms to get in 90 minutes of mowing.

Because the time (and my energy supply) was finite, I managed to finish the “must-do” part of the list (the research, the printing and the mowing), while leaving the rest for the future. Maybe my efforts took more out of me than I thought, for, on this day, I somehow missed my goal wake-up time of 6:30 a.m. by five minutes – which, despite my never using an alarm clock, almost never happens.

One of the great perks about my current career is, on most days, I wake up, work and go to sleep on my own schedule. The only time outside forces determine my movements is on these trips, in which I must abide by airline schedules and call times at the venue. As for today, I have a direct flight from Pittsburgh to Detroit on Delta (the only airline to offer such a route) that, if all goes well, will leave at noon. My objective, as far as when I want to arrive at the airport is 90 minutes before boarding time, meaning I would board at 11:30, arrive at the airport at 10 and leave the house at 7:30 a.m. And despite my mini-hiccup, in terms of sleeping in, I left the driveway precisely at 7:30.

Despite three construction delays on my route, I arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport at 9:40 a.m. but any buffer I created was eaten up by the time spent looking for a parking space. Although none existed in my usual lot – the perpetually wrong sign stating it was filled was correct this time – I did find a good space on the opposite side of the extended parking lot. As a result, it took less than 500 steps to get from car to terminal entrance – which is especially good if it rains Saturday afternoon.



Usually Pittsburgh International isn’t crowded on the Thursday of a non-holiday week but that certainly wasn’t the case today, as the TSA Pre-Check queue stretched to nearly 50 passengers. A possible reason: Today is the official first day of summer. Although the line moved fairly quickly, the time felt as if it moved much faster, thanks to my chat with Joyce, a Diamond-level frequent flier on Delta, who is just months away from retirement. We found common ground discussing today’s declining quality of perks for frequent fliers, as well as talking about our favorite airports. (We both like Pittsburgh, Detroit and Dallas-Fort Worth, among others.) By the time we cleared security, we ended up exchanging business cards.

While I have decent frequent flier clout on American Airlines, that’s not the case with Delta because the only time I fly is when my destination is Detroit. Thus I was pleasantly surprised to see I was placed in Zone 1 for this flight, which, due to mechanical problems that rendered the bathroom in the rear of the cabin out of order, was pushed back nearly 30 minutes. No matter: First, I don’t use airplane restrooms, even on the longest of flights. Second, once we were seated, the pilot told us he and his co-pilot would make every effort to land in Detroit on time, and one of the announced methods was topping off the tank, so they could reach and maintain maximum speed from start to finish.

It worked: We touched down in Detroit at 1:09 p.m., 15 minutes earlier than advertised and just 34 minutes after wheels up.

The next step was to take a taxi from DTW to the crew hotel – the Courtyard Detroit Dearborn in Dearborn, Michigan – but getting to the taxi stand required lots of steps on my part because the airport is so sprawling. Once I did, however, it was easy: I told the woman working the stand where I needed to go, and, within seconds, I was directed to my cab driver, who completed the 14.8 mile trek in a little more than 20 minutes.

I checked into the hotel – and, for the first time in a while, my last name was spelled correctly. As I was being given a first-floor room, I asked whether room service was available. The hotel employee said no but she said several restaurants offer delivery and that there was a strip mall with several options within walking distance. So after putting away my belongings, I walked to the strip mall and stopped by Kerby Koney Island, where I bought a combo meal, walked back to the hotel and watched the second half of the Croatia-Argentina World Cup match (which Croatia stunningly won 3-0 on a trio of second-half goals).

After resting my eyes a bit – obviously the meal stirred the Sandman – I headed back to the lobby for some soda, also known as “wake-up juice.” However I was pleasantly detoured by a group of Showtime folks seated at a nearby table, among them Joe Jacovino, Joie Silva and CompuBox colleague Andy Kasprzak. They congratulated me on the release of “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” three weeks earlier, after which we shifted into general bull session mode. Over the next couple of hours, the cast of characters at the table shifted and it broke up, when it came time for the group to head out to dinner. I was invited to join them but turned them down because (1) I had already eaten and (2) I had to catch up on my writing and research.

My research centered on how dominant Shields has been, both in her pro career, as well as since the start of the 2016 Olympics, in which she won the second of her two gold medals. Consider:

* Coming into the Gabriels bout, Shields has out-landed her opponents 760-177, in terms of total connects, and of those 177 punches landed by her opponents, 81 were by Tori Nelson, Shields’ most recent antagonist.

* In 31 professional rounds, no opponent has yet to out-land Shields, either in terms of total connects or landed power shots. In fact, only one opponent – pro debut opponent Franchon Crews, in round two – landed more jabs in a given round, and that margin was just 3-2. Yes, five opponents have tied Shields, in terms of landed jabs in a round, but that’s a pyrrhic victory at best.

* In the 2016 Rio Games, Shields out-landed her opponents 178-57, in terms of total punches, and none of them (Iaroslava Iakushina, Dariga Shakimova or Nouchka Fontijn) managed to out-land Shields, in terms of overall punches or power shots in any of the 12 rounds of combat. So coming into this fight, Shields has out-landed her opponents, in terms of total connects in 43 straight rounds since the start of the 2016 Olympics, which may be as impressive as her current 56-fight winning streak (a note: Shields’ rounds streak may be even longer but I’ll need to get footage of her fights preceding the Rio Games to certify that). As a point of comparison, the longest such streak amassed by current WBA and THE RING Magazine lightweight champion Vasiliy Lomachenko – who many say is boxing’s best pound-for-pound fighter among the men – is 46 consecutive rounds, which began in round two against Gamalier Rodriguez and ended when Guillermo Rigondeaux forged a 2-2 tie in round one. Additionally undefeated three-division titlist Terence Crawford – who is also atop several pound-for-pound lists – is currently on a 39-round streak dating back to round four against Viktor Postol. Also the streaks of Lomachenko and especially Crawford are more significant, given the level of opposition (Lomachenko shut out Romulo Koasicha, Roman Martinez, Nicholas Walters and Jason Sosa, while Crawford blanked John Molina Jr., Felix Diaz, Julius Indongo and Jeff Horn), so, while the stats are not exactly apples-to-apples, it’s an interesting measure of sustained dominance.

* Finally not only has no pro opponent out-landed Shields in any round, none have out-thrown her in either total punches or power shots. Nelson came close a few times (she trailed just 39-37 in power shot attempts in round nine and 47-44 in round 10) but she couldn’t overcome Shields’ activity. As for her three Olympic opponents, Iakushina exceeded Shields’ total output twice (51-50 in round one, 49-48 in round three) and Fontijn did it in each of the final three rounds of their Olympic final (47-43, 56-39 and 45-33), and even managed to tie Shields with 19 attempted power shots. But the Netherlands native couldn’t match Shields’ accuracy (24%-12% overall, 28%-13% power) or shot-for-shot impact.

Her command over her pro opposition thus far justifies the leap Gabriels represents, in terms of opposition. The native of Costa Rica is a current two-belt titlist at 154, has logged more than three times the number of rounds as a professional (108 to 31) and, in her most recent fight, she avenged her only pro defeat by out-pointing Oxandia Castillo. In counting her fights against Castillo (the rematch), Kali Reis and Katia Alvarino, I saw a highly skilled and resourceful fighter capable of giving Shields her greatest challenge by far. Even at 35, her hands are quick and her movement nimble, dimensions Shields has yet to experience as a pro.

That said, I believe Shields has what it takes to take what Gabriels can give. Two pillars make up my argument: Punch output and chin. Shields has averaged a robust 66.5 punches per two-minute round in her five pro fights – the equivalent of 99.8 over three minutes – while Gabriels has averaged just 34.7 per two-minute round, in her last three fights, including a paltry 26.7 in her rematch win over Castillo. Can Gabriels, at her age, amp up her volume, and, if she can, would she be able to sustain it for 10 rounds? Regarding Gabriels’ chin, her only defeat was a smashing two-round TKO against Castillo, and, in the rematch, the Dominican powerhouse came within an eyelash of doing it again (and in round two, no less), as she floored Gabriels with a crushing right cross. This time, Gabriels arose, lasted out the round, found her rhythm in the middle stanzas and nearly knocked out Castillo with a tremendous ninth round assault (31 of 62 overall, including 20 of 33 in power shots) en route to the decision victory. Moreover Shields is well known for her very fast starts and that, combined with Gabriels’ deliberate nature, her unsteady chin, the 12-year age difference and the fact that Shields is coming down in weight and Gabriels is coming up the scale, could produce an explosive outcome. If Shields asserts her dominance early, she could score the first knockdown of her professional career and notch her third victory inside the distance.

If all goes as planned, Shields will meet WBC/WBO middleweight titlist Christina Hammer, who wants to produce a favorable comparison to “T-Rex” by beating Nelson even more decisively than Shields did in January. Based on her 10-round victory over Kali Reis in November 2016, Hammer will use her mobility and prolific jab (24.4 attempts/3.8 connects per two-minute round) to slow the pace to a comfortable level (she averaged 39.7 punches per two-minute round and limited Reis to 33.4), and pick apart Nelson (who will turn 42 in August) over the long haul. Nelson’s best chance of pulling the upset is to close the distance, cut off the ring, force Hammer into a brawl and drain the German-based Kazakh’s gas tank with her excellent body attack, one that left Latashia Burton with the dry heaves after just two rounds. Should she drag Hammer into deep water, Nelson raises her chances of a victory because Reis, in rounds nine and 10, out-landed Hammer 16-11 overall and 15-9 in power shots.

However given the occasion and the stakes associated with this bout, I believe Hammer will stick to business and score a points victory over the rugged Nelson.

The telecast will open with a scheduled 10-rounder between light heavyweights Umar Salamov and Brian Howard but, due to a lack of footage on Howard, I have no feel, in terms of how the styles will mesh. I do know that both men have one loss each on their records (Salamov by decision to Damien Hooper in Australia, two fights ago, and Howard by third-round KO to Harvey Jolly, four fights ago) and that Howard is coming off a string of lengthy layoffs – eight months, 13 months, 12 months and 33 months respectively. However in his three-fight comeback, he beat two undefeated fighters – the 12-0 Alex Guerrero by first round TKO and, in his most recent bout, the 8-0 Shawndell Terell Winters inside two rounds. Can he pull off a hat trick against Salamov, whose nation is currently hosting the World Cup? My guess is no but, in boxing, you never know for certain. After all, earlier this evening, former WBC lightweight titlist Dejan Zlaticanin was starched inside two rounds by Roberto Ramirez, who Ladbrokes cited as a 10,000-to-1 underdog. Aside from Larry Merchant’s unofficial declaration that George Foreman was a “zillion to one” underdog against Michael Moorer, I can’t think of a more lopsided betting quote, formal or informal.

Once the research was completed, I spent the remainder of the evening relaxing and channel-surfing, after which I drifted off to sleep.

 

Friday, June 22: I awakened at 7:30 a.m., and, after the morning routines, I walked to the lobby to break the fast. There I saw executive producer Gordon Hall, blow-by-blow man Barry Tompkins and producer Richard Gaughan in an informal powwow they invited me to join. They didn’t have to ask twice, and, for the next little while, fights were analyzed, stories were told and rumors were forwarded.

One concern regarding Shields was how much weight she put on between fights.

“A lot of people don’t know and I really don’t like to be open about it but I got up to 183 pounds,” said the 23-year-old Flint native. “I hadn’t fought since January. I was 183. Now I’m 160, as we sit here and talk about it. That’s 23 pounds.”

She said she melted off the weight thanks, in part, to a diet of grilled chicken, asparagus, rice, grilled turkey and turkey burgers but sneaked in Chili’s chicken tenders on her “cheat day.”

For someone so young to pack on so much weight between fights – especially when knowing that the next fight will be contested in a lower weight class than normal – was surprising, and hopefully it won’t become a chronic issue. This time, however, Shields (with the help of new chief second John David Jackson) boiled down to 159.6, the same poundage as Gabriels, thanks to the decision to leave Flint and train in Florida, where there were far fewer interruptions.

“Being in Flint for my last camp, you wouldn’t believe all the things I had to deal with,” she said. “Just stuff that shouldn’t be happening to a world champion. It was stressful, and I was stressed even the week of the (Nelson) fight (in January). I had to get out. I was focused on my diet for this fight. I don’t have much family in Florida and didn’t have any distractions.”

We, as fans and observers, only see what happens on fight night but one can only imagine the pressures Shields endures on a daily basis, not just the professional but also the personal. If all goes well over the next year-to-18 months, Shields can become the financial epicenter of women’s boxing, which brings its own set of issues. The decision to train away from home was a wise one, and, to me, an encouraging sign that she has the maturity to address present and future storms as well as she has weathered those in the past.

After going over to the Koney for takeout, I met Andy and ace cameraman Gene Samuels (our carpool driver) in the lobby at 2:30 p.m. We arrived at the venue about 20 minutes later, and, after the connections were certified, I skipped the crew meal and hung out at ringside.

One of the people that stopped by was Salita Promotions President and COO Dmitry Salita, who I met more than a decade ago through super-fan Keith Stechman. I had sent Salita footage of potential opponents during his pro career, a gesture he had not forgotten. So when I asked him to sit down and discuss tonight’s card, he was more than happy to do so.

“I feel that tonight’s card is a ceiling-breaker of sorts,” he said. “We have two women’s title fights on Showtime, a major network, and I feel this card will drive women’s boxing throughout the whole world. To me, someone who has watched women’s boxing consistently since the mid-1990s, this is the biggest night in women’s boxing history, up to now. And if Claressa and Christina Hammer win, there will be another ‘biggest night in women’s boxing history,’ in addition to that. We have all the makings of a women’s super-fight, which has never been done before. While Laila Ali fought Christy Martin, that wasn’t (a true super-fight) but Christy Martin and Lucia Rijker unfortunately never happened. Christina and Claressa have a deep underlying level of competition and, because of that, I feel their promotion is going to exceed that of most big fights.”

Salita said that staging this fight at the Masonic Temple, which can seat more than 4,000, was an important step in strengthening Shields’ connection with the local fans, while also expanding her brand worldwide.

“As a promoter, I feel it’s my obligation to Claressa to build her fan base close to home,” he said. “It’s very important for the fans to have a relationship with the fighters, as they develop, as they go along, as they go through their ups and downs and their challenges. For Claressa to be a real star and to have the strong following I believe she can have, it’s very important to have as many of her fights, at this stage, as close to home as possible. We’ve had offers from different casinos, and it would have been the easy way to pick up a check, and check out. However for Claressa and for the network, it was important to stage the fight in Detroit. This will be a great event; it will be powerful and I believe it will be electric.”

Salita, who went 35-2-1 (with 18 knockouts) during his 12-year career and knows well about the struggle to make weight, wasn’t concerned over Shields’ dramatic weight gain between fights.

“As someone who has experienced this, being 23 years old, having a long training camp in Florida, I don’t think it was a problem,” he said. “Claressa didn’t really dry out (to make this weight); she’ll put on five or six pounds (after the weigh-in) and I think she’s going to be fine. I think it’s going to do her better to be at this weight because I know she was on a meal plan and she really planned for this. (Fighting at 160) is going to be good for her. She’s going to be quicker, and maybe she’ll be a harder puncher.”

When asked if a fight with undisputed welterweight champion Cecilia Braekhus at 154 is the next logical big step, should Shields defeat Gabriels and Hammer, Salita replied, “That’s the plan.” And if Shields does sign to fight the undefeated Norwegian, could she make 154?

“Yes, I do,” he said quickly and confidently. “I think she can make 154 with no problem. Training with John David Jackson is an excellent experience for her, and training with him can only help her. She’s around other great fighters, and communicating with them on how to make weight – there’s a whole art to it – I think that’s going to help her.”

As for what happens should Shields complete the sweep, that’s anyone’s guess. Here’s mine: I believe the grand plan is to make Shields – on a much smaller financial scale, of course – the female equivalent of Floyd Mayweather Jr., in that she will make top dollar, while also generating career-high paydays for her opponents and lifting the women’s game to a level of prominence not seen in a generation (at least in the American market). Shields’ financial clout will be such that she, like Mayweather, will dictate all terms (including location), and that, in effect, will revitalize Michigan boxing in general and Detroit boxing in particular. From that will come further moneymaking opportunities beyond boxing (some of which she’s already exploited) and, over the next few years, she will make enough money – and create enough celebrity – to retire at a relatively early age.

Will it work out that way? Perhaps. I believe the line of succession will be Gabriels, Hammer, an interim opponent, then Braekhus, a plan that, barring rematches, would take 18-to-24 months to complete. By then Shields will be 25 and at the height of her powers chronologically.

That said, there is a massive roadblock to her golden road, even if everything works out perfectly, and it’s one that has dogged women’s boxing throughout its history: A shallow pool of viable opponents, especially in the higher weight classes. Unless a hotshot or two emerges in the next couple of years, Shields may be forced to either cut her career short or plow through a succession of overmatched opponents, neither of which is an attractive option.

But before she and her team can even think about a long-term plan, she must complete its first step – beating Hanna Gabriels.

 

*

 

The fight card began with Russian heavyweight Apti Davtaev raising his record to 15-0-1 (with 14 KOs), at the expense of Kentuckian Cory Phelps (16-11-1, 8 KOs), who was floored once in the first (by a right cross) and twice more in the second (right/left/right, right cross) before the bout was stopped at the 1:17 mark. The knockout of the night belonged to Detroit welterweight Joseph Bonas, whose counter left hook sent Michael Klekotta flying before hitting the canvas with a clatter. The contest lasted just 49 seconds, and the result lifted Bonas to 4-0 (with 4 KOs) while dropping Houston’s Klekotta to 1-3 (with 1 KO).

Hammer and her team were at ringside for these two fights, and left during the bantamweight bout that saw Detroit’s Jarico O’Quinn overwhelm West Bloomfield’s Yaqub Kareem with a 21-punch assault that left him slumped along the ropes in round four. Though Kareem arose, his stagger-step prompted the stoppage, which upped O’Quinn’s mark to 9-0-1 (with 6 KOs) and eroded Kareem’s to 14-10-1 (with 1 KO).

Andy and I used the next fight between welterweights Bakhtiyar Eyubov (14-0, 12 KOs) and Nicholas Givhan (21-2-1, 11 KOs) as our rehearsal fight, and, as has been the case throughout his 15-fight pro career, Eyubov didn’t disappoint, in terms of volume and power punching, as he scored a seventh round TKO victory. Averaging 97 punches per round – and twice exceeding the 100-punch-per-round plateau (100 in the first, 102 in the fifth) – Eyubov’s relentless power punching and aggressive bob-and-weave tactics wore down the ever-moving Givhan, and prompted the no-knockdown stoppage exactly one minute into the stanza. In all, Eyubov out-landed Givhan 276-143 overall and 272-88 power, while landing 45% of his total punches and 46% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts. Yes, Eyubov is not defensively adept as Givhan landed 39% of his total punches, 40% of his jabs and 38% of his power shots but Givhan simply couldn’t keep up with the Kazakh’s non-stop attack. One notable stat: Of Eyubov’s 614 punches, 597 – or 97.2% – were power shots, as were 272 of his 276 total connects (98.6%). Jabs? Who needs a stinking jab? Certainly not Eyubov – at least so far.

The next fight, a junior middleweight, between Flint’s Leon Lawson III (7-0, 4 KOs) and South Carolinian Javier Frazier (8-3-1, 4KOs) (won by Lawson by a lopsided decision) was notable for two reasons. First, Lawson was fighting for the second time in 20 days, and the third since May 11. And second, the presence of Lawson’s father – Leon Lawson Jr. – in his corner.

For most of us, the last time we saw Lawson in a boxing ring was in May 2017, when, after Jose Uzcategui was disqualified for punching Andre Dirrell after the bell in their first fight, Lawson charged into the ring, sucker-punched Uzcategui and somehow escaped ringside and managed to avoid arrest for several days. Lawson was charged and indefinitely suspended by the WBA, WBC and the Maryland commission for his actions, and he wasn’t in Dirrell’s corner for the March 3 rematch in Brooklyn, which saw a battered Dirrell retire on his stool after round eight.

So imagine my surprise when I saw Lawson working his son’s corner. Raul Marquez confirmed his identity, as did Steve Farhood, when I brought it to his attention. I hadn’t heard any news about Lawson being reinstated and I wasn’t able to approach the commissioners, as they were occupied with their respective duties.

(Note: I subsequently contacted the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs – the controlling body in Michigan – to seek clarity regarding Lawson’s status. Public Information Officer Jeannie Vogel offered this response via email: “Michigan does not license corner men or seconds, so there is no prohibition on someone working in that capacity in Michigan that may have had issues in other states.” Given that other jurisdictions test corner people for their level of competency before granting licenses, this practice does not speak well for the state.

A subsequent check of the Maryland court records reveals that while the second-degree assault case was closed with a $145 fine this past May 17, a court proceeding, with Uzcategui listed as the plaintiff and Lawson as the defendant, is set to begin in April 2019. So it appears Lawson’s legal issues have not yet been resolved.)

The final bout of the undercard saw Aslambek Idigov (13-0, 5 KOs) outpoint Detroit’s James Ballard (10-2, 3 KOs) over 10 rounds, at light heavyweight, with the scores being 100-90 twice and 97-93.

With that, only the three televised fights remained. By now, most of the seats were occupied and fans were looking forward to seeing the plot twists that the two women’s fights were sure to provide.

 

*

 

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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