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The Travelin’ Man returns to Sloan, Iowa: Part one

The WinnaVegas Casino & Resort in Sloan, Iowa
26
Jul

Thursday, July 19: When I arrived home from the Detroit tripleheader that included the penultimate fights for Claressa Shields and Christina Hammer before their expected four-belt showdown, it marked the end of a stretch in which I had been away from home 13 out of the last 19 days – one of my longer road trips since starting “The Travelin’ Man Chronicles” more than 15 years ago. As a result, tons of work had piled up – both in terms of CompuBox research and in transferring stored fights to DVD. Even before I walked through the front door, I knew how I’d be spending most of the next 26 days: Turning that mountain into a mole hill. I’m happy to say I succeeded on all counts, though it took me until yesterday evening to reach that point. Still, peace of mind is peace of mind, so, when I woke up at 6:30 a.m. I was more than ready to begin my next journey.

Today’s destination is somewhat familiar territory; for the second time since February I’ll be trekking to the WinnaVegas Casino & Resort in Sloan, Iowa, this time to chronicle a “ShoBox: The New Generation” tripleheader, topped by welterweights Jaron Ennis and Armando Alvarez, and supported by welterweights Montana Love and Kenneth Sims Jr. as well as lightweights Thomas Mattice and Zhora Hamazaryan. The combined record of the telecast’s combatants is impressive – 77-1 (50) – but the longtime mission of ShoBox is to identify which prospects should advance to the next level, while also unearthing the weaknesses that strategic matchmaking had concealed.

Love and Mattice are making return appearances – both to ShoBox and to Sloan – and each will carry happy memories. Love was originally scheduled to face Avery Montes on February’s untelevised undercard but, after Wellington Romero injured his back in training less than a week before facing Samuel Teah, Love was approached about taking Romero’s place. Love took the fight without hesitation, and he justified his confidence by scoring an eight-round majority decision victory. Meanwhile Mattice fought Rolando Chinea, who had beaten O’Shaquie Foster and Kenneth Sims Jr. on ShoBox’s air, thanks to his all-action style. Through six rounds, it appeared his 105.5 punch-per-round attack would propel Chinea to another big win but, a minute into round seven, Mattice stunned Chinea with a powerful right, during an exchange along the ropes, and the sight of Chinea’s stricken form ignited an explosive flurry that led to the fight being stopped. How combustible was Mattice’s rally? Mattice out-landed Chinea 20-3 in the fight’s final 29 seconds.

As for Sims, his ShoBox memories are mixed; in January 2017 he won an eight-rounder over Emmanuel Robles in Atlantic City but, six months later, in Miami, Oklahoma, Chinea defeated him by majority decision. Worse yet for Sims, the Chinea loss – which occurred one year and six days earlier – was his most recent ring appearance. Will the combination of ring rust and recent defeat result in further erosion, or will he return to the ring with a burning desire to make things right?

If he is to re-establish his winning ways, Sims will need to better modulate his extraordinary output. In five CompuBox-tracked fights with Francisco Lopez, Gilbert Venegas, Robles, Israel Villela and Chinea, Sims averaged a scorching 86.5 punches per round in the opening two rounds. After that, however, his pace slowed to 63.3 in rounds three through five, which enabled his opponents to catch their breath long enough to spot openings in his guard, and get back into the fight. In rounds six through eight, Sims caught his second wind, and throttled up to 86.7. These statistical factors were not lost on Love, who, I learned later, cited this very trend when describing his fight plan. If Sims could fight at a more even pace – even if it’s in the 70s – he might be able to avoid the mid-fight slumps that have made some of his fights more difficult than they should have been. However fighters are creatures of habit, so, if Sims decides to come out blazing again, I’ll be interested to see if he’ll be able to maintain it without burning out.

Ennis, Alvarez and Hamazaryan will be appearing on ShoBox for the first time. Video footage gave me an idea of how Alvarez and Hamazaryan might approach their assignments but Ennis, at least for me, is a blank slate, in terms of his recent form. According to Fight Fax, the 21-year-old Philadelphian boasts a sparkling 20-0 (18) record but needed just 47 rounds to assemble it, meaning his fights to date have averaged 2.4 rounds. As is usually the case with glossy records such as Ennis’, it was built on a somewhat unsteady foundation, in terms of opposition. Only five of his 20 opponents came into their fights with Ennis off a victory, and, in Alvarez, he will be facing his first undefeated opponent. Additionally Ennis will be engaging in his second scheduled 10-rounder. The first took place just 49 days ago against 38-year-old Mike Arnaoutis, who Ennis stopped in round two.

Besides his active schedule, another plus for Ennis is he is well-traveled. While this will be his first fight in Iowa, he has performed in Utah, Virginia, New Mexico, North Carolina, the District of Colombia, Indiana and New Jersey, in addition to his native Pennsylvania. Of course, his amateur pedigree has fortified his ability to fight well away from home, for he was a 2015 National Golden Gloves champion, had been ranked first in his weight class and lost to eventual 2016 Olympian Gary Antuanne Russell in the box-off, one of only three losses in his 61-fight career. Finally while the issues concerning his level of opposition are concerning, they are overridden by geography – he’s a Philadelphia fighter. Historically fighters from the “City of Brotherly Love” – even those with lousy records – are consistently talented and battle-tested, so much so that, even sight unseen, they deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Interestingly Jaron is the third member of the Ennis family to appear on ShoBox. Derek was stopped by Allen Conyers in two rounds, in February 2007, while future titlist Badou Jack out-pointed Farah in July 2013. Will Jaron break the Ennis ShoBox curse?

If he does, he’ll have fulfilled a tall order – figuratively and quite literally. At 6-foot-1 and owning a 79-inch reach, Alvarez will boast advantages of three inches in the former and two inches in the latter. He, too, has fought in different locales (Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kansas), and, unlike Ennis, knows what it is like to compete in lengthier bouts. The Ennis contest will be his eighth straight scheduled for 10 rounds or longer, and he had fought past six rounds three times (UD 8 against Anthony Abbruzzese in November 2016, TKO 8 against Jakmani Hurtado in May 2017 and UD 10 versus Gabor Gorbics in September 2017). If Alvarez can weather Ennis’ opening wave, it will be intriguing to watch how the Philadelphian will react.

Although the 22-year-old Hamazaryan is five years younger than Mattice, he enters the ring armed with the experience gained from 290 amateur bouts, of which he won 200. He once was ranked the best amateur in Armenia, and will be fighting for the second time since signing a promotional deal with Thompson Boxing Promotions. His first fight against Sergio Ramirez in February was also his first following a 15-month layoff, and, in round one, it was clear he needed time to work off the rust. The squared-up Martinez repeatedly forced Hamazaryan against the ropes, and pounded away, out-throwing the prospect 67-46 in total punches, and out-landing him 13-5. But Hamazaryan quickly regained his footing by knocking Ramirez off his with a well-timed counter right to the jaw, in round two. Still, entering the final round, each man had landed 35 total punches. Hamazaryan erased all doubts about the outcome as he out-threw Ramirez 96-53, out-landed him 32-4 in total punches, and 31-3 in power shots, and won the unanimous decision. If he is to beat Mattice, he will probably do it without an effective jab because he landed just one of his 61 attempts against Ramirez.

So how do I think the fights will turn out? While Hamazaryan’s technique is raw and his defense penetrable, I believe his pressuring tactics will trouble Mattice just as Chinea’s had. If he can work his way inside Mattice’s excellent jab and remain mindful of his opponent’s quick-strike power, he should hustle his way to a decision victory. As for Love vs. Sims, I think that Sims will adjust his pacing enough to pound out a points win, while, in the main event, I favor Ennis’ power to break down the willowy Alvarez and score the night’s only knockout.

 

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From time to time, travel days assume a theme, and, for me, “patience” was the key word. While the drive to Pittsburgh International Airport was pleasant – the sunny surroundings and mild temperature had a lot to do with that – I had a tougher time than usual finding a parking space in the extended lot. After sifting through the two lots nearest to the terminal, I decided to cut my losses and head to the “hinterlands,” my term for the outermost lots. Usually the hinterlands offer plenty of open spaces but, for some reason, I had to search hard for a decent spot. I ended up parking directly underneath the 19C sign – an easy-to-remember location – and, as I walked toward the terminal, I took some comfort in the fact that Saturday’s forecast predicted a 10 percent chance of rain.

The day’s itinerary was as follows: A 12:05 p.m. flight to Charlotte, a 2:54 p.m. bird to Omaha, then a 90-minute drive from Omaha to our crew hotel in Sioux City, located approximately 23 miles north-northwest of the WinnaVegas Casino & Resort in Sloan. While the Pittsburgh-to-Charlotte leg was completed without any issues, the Charlotte-to-Omaha step was more complicated. A confluence of issues involving flights bound for Chicago, Philadelphia and West Palm Beach, as well as a delay involving our aircraft, caused American Airlines to ask Omaha-bound passengers to move from Gate C2 to C7, from C7 to C9 and from C9 to C 10.

After landing in Omaha, I was to meet the other member of my carpool, veteran audio man Mike Sena, whose flight from Denver was scheduled to land just four minutes after mine. Unfortunately his plane’s departure was delayed significantly, so I spent an extra two-and-a-half hours in the terminal. I suppose I could have been upset about this turn of events but I wasn’t; delays are just part of the traveling game, and getting angry wasn’t going to make Mike’s plane go any faster. I spent the extra time walking around the terminal, reading a few more dozen pages of the book on Tiger Woods written by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, and finalizing the paperwork on the rental car with Avis.

Mike’s plane landed two minutes earlier than the new 6:50 p.m. arrival time, and, within a half-hour, we boarded the rental car bus that took us to the Avis lot. Once on the road, we used Mike’s phone to guide us to the crew hotel. As we proceeded on Interstate 29, Mike, who has worked with many luminaries in the music business as a sound engineer, played recordings of his own compositions over the loudspeakers. When I asked who was performing the vocals, he replied, “I am.” Not only that, he played virtually all the instruments, and, all in all, he was quite good. He laughed when I said, “If you ever come out with your own release, I will forever associate your music with driving the plains of Iowa.”

We arrived at the hotel shortly before 9 p.m., and after checking in, I ordered room service and spent the remainder of the evening watching the replay of the first round of the Open Championship, known to us Americans as the British Open. At 12:45 a.m., I opted to switch off, and shut down another day in the life of the “Travelin’ Man.”

 

Friday, July 20: I awakened five hours later, and spent most of the morning catching up on my writing. I can’t speak for other scribes but the process of formulating one’s thoughts is one that makes time pass very quickly. The three hours I spent writing the majority of the words you’ve read so far felt more like half that, and, as soon as I reached a good stopping point – this one, for the record – I headed down to the lobby for a mid-morning snack, which turned out to be a single banana because I usually don’t like to choke down food so early in the day. I returned downstairs to print out my boarding pass, met punch-counting colleague Andy Kasprzak in the lobby at 1:30 and arrived at the WinnaVegas shortly before 2.

Upon reaching the production truck, we were greeted by technical manager Paul Tartar, who told us, “Your timing is perfect. Everything is ready for you at ringside.” Indeed it was – we had a power strip to plug in our equipment, and the wires needed to link with the production truck were in place. Shortly before the crew meal staged at the casino’s buffet, we got the green light that signaled that all was well electronically.

The evening’s program began with a pair of “Brawl for All” contests, an equivalent of the Toughman contests that remain popular in my home state of West Virginia. These bouts were scheduled for three one-minute rounds, and both contests delivered, in terms of intensity and sustained action. (The technique, as is usually the case in such contests, wasn’t a priority.) The first fight saw female heavyweight Maria Torres of Norfolk, Nebraska, win a decision over Mariah Villegas of East Moline, Illinois, while, in fight two, heavyweight Dustin Dayhoff of Le Mars, Iowa gained a measure of revenge by winning a unanimous decision over Shalyn Joseph of Macy, Nebraska, for I was told by one of the timekeepers that Joseph had beaten Dayhoff in the semifinal of another Brawl for All tournament.

The first pro-style boxing match saw Chinese southpaw Meng Fanlong up his record to 13-0 (with 8 knockouts), at the expense of St. Louis light heavyweight Chris Eppley (11-5, 10 KOs), who was stopped in 140 seconds. A straight left to the pit of the stomach – a punch that caused Eppley to emit a loud “Oof!” – sparked the fight-ending flurry that drove the American to the canvas.

The six-rounder between heavyweights Darmani Rock of Philadelphia and Ohio’s Marquis Valentine was as much verbal as physical. At first, the conversation was lighthearted; in round two, the 296¼-pound Valentine fielded a couple of punches, dropped his arms and said, “Ha, ha…Whatcha doin,’ man?”, a remark the 264½-pound Rock answered with a small smile. As the fight continued, however, the tone grew more serious; Valentine uttered another “Ha ha” in round three, and, this time, Rock remained stone-faced. In round four, Rock put even more mustard behind his jabs, and, in round five, Rock began muttering back at Valentine, who, by this time, was complaining loudly about being pushed down and being elbowed. “Did you see that (stuff)?” he asked referee Adam Pollack at one point. He did, and no more complaints were lodged.

After all the jabs – and the jabbering – Rock walked out of the ring with a unanimous decision (60-54 twice, 59-55) to lift his record to 12-0 (with 7 KOs), while Valentine slipped to 5-3 (with 2 KOs).

The final two undercard bouts lasted a combined 131 seconds. Cleveland heavyweight Roney Hines impressively dispatched St. Joseph, Missouri’s David Becker (1-2, 1 KO) in 68 seconds to win his pro debut (he even found time to score three knockdowns), while Chinese big man Zhang Zhilei (19-0, 15 KOs) needed just 68 seconds to produce a 10-count knockout over German Eugen Buchmueller (11-3, 8 KOs), who, during the first 20 seconds, managed to land several clean punches before being dispatched, thanks to a left cross to the chin.

The brevity of the final two fights meant the untelevised portion of the show ended 52 minutes before airtime, which gave the live crowd plenty of time to raid the concessions. As for Andy and me, we trekked back to the production office to grab a small snack. When we returned to ringside, we engaged in our usual pre-fight game of predicting how many rounds we’ll get to work tonight. Andy, playful as usual, said “two.” As for me, I guessed 20 – the first two fights going the eight-round distance and the main event lasting four. There have been times when my predictions were remarkably accurate but, as of late, I was in a slump. Would that slump continue? And more importantly, will the fights live up to the stylistic intrigue?

 

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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 newly released book “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” (also available on Amazon). To contact Groves about a personalized autographed copy, use the email [email protected] or send him a message via Facebook.

 

 

 

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