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The Travelin’ Man goes to Los Angeles: Part One

05
Aug

Friday, July 27: Talk about a contrast: Just seven days ago, I was ringside at the WinnaVegas Casino and Resort in Sloan, Iowa (estimated population 983), counting a “ShoBox” tripleheader topped by Jaron Ennis’ third round TKO over Armando Alvarez, and supported by a pair of questionable verdicts (Montana Love D 8 Kenneth Sims Jr. and especially Thomas Mattice UD 8 Zhora Hamarazyan). Now I am preparing to trek to Los Angeles (estimated population 4.03 million) to chronicle a much higher profile “Showtime Championship Boxing” tripleheader at Staples Center. That show will be topped by the lightweight title unification between the WBC’s Mikey Garcia and the IBF’s Robert Easter Jr., and supported by a pair of 10-rounders (Luis Ortiz-Razvan Cojanu at heavyweight, Mario Barrios-Jose Roman at welterweight – though the contracted weight of 142 is much closer to junior welterweight).

Big fights. Big city. Big stakes. Needless to say, life is good – very, very good.

It had been years since I worked a show in L.A. (December 2012 to be exact), and, unlike most travelers, I was looking forward to the long outbound journey. Thanks to colleague Dennis Allen – who will be conducting the day-before electronic checks, and is set to attend this afternoon’s format meeting (tasks I normally do as the lead operator but, because Dennis lives in Las Vegas, it is much easier logistically for him to perform), I had the luxury of taking a direct 4:50 p.m. flight on Southwest, which not only allowed me to get full rest but also gave me a few extra hours to assemble research for a pair of mid-August ESPN shows before leaving the house.

For the first time since leaving for Hall of Fame Weekend in early June, I felt as if I had the wind at my back, in terms of my workload. The August schedule is lighter than June’s or July’s, and just last evening I finished updating my master video list. Yes, I love my work but I also love the feeling of being ahead of the game.

That may be why I decided to depart 20 minutes earlier than scheduled. That and the fact that when I printed out my boarding pass, I was chagrined to see “C-28” printed on it. Those who have flown on Southwest will understand why I felt that way but, for those who haven’t, here’s an explanation: Unlike most airlines, Southwest does not have assigned seating. Instead passengers are divided into three groups of 60 and are defined as “Group A,” “Group B” and “Group C.” Upon boarding the aircraft, passengers are allowed to sit wherever they wish but the options dwindle with every succeeding place in line. Those in Group A are guaranteed to snag their desired window or aisle seat, while many of those in Group B should feel decent about their remaining options. Group C passengers like me, however, are usually left with the seats no one else wanted, and, most often, those are the middle seats.

Sitting in the middle of a three-seat row is unpleasant in general because, by definition, one feels squeezed from both sides. In this age of limited legroom and shrinking seat width, in the name of stuffing more of them inside every aircraft, that discomfort is magnified. Now imagine experiencing this on a cross-country flight expected to last nearly five hours. By seeing “C-28” on my boarding pass, I would be among the final 32 people to board the plane, which virtually guaranteed me a middle seat (as well as very limited overhead storage options).

However Southwest offers an escape clause: For a fee, one can upgrade to “Business Select,” which enables purchasers to secure a new boarding pass that guarantees a spot between A-1 and A-15. The price varies depending on the route but, given my situation, I was willing to pay whatever it took. I hoped I could get to the counter in time to snag an upgrade, which is why I decided to leave the house early.

(Note: I could have secured a Business Select seat when I checked in online. However had I done so, I would have imposed an additional charge to Showtime, which booked and paid for the original ticket. It is one thing to accept a free upgrade from the airline based on one’s frequent flier status – a much rarer occurrence these days – but I feel any expense designed to increase my own comfort should come out of my own pocket. Besides by paying for it myself, I could claim it as a business expense on my taxes.)

Thanks to a mini-traffic jam one mile from the exit to Pittsburgh International Airport, I arrived on the property about 10 minutes later than I wanted but I made up the time by finding a good parking space in quick order. After clearing security, I walked directly to Gate A-9. With a little more than two hours before our scheduled boarding time, the gate area was already moderately populated, which made me question whether I had arrived too late.

“Hi, I’m on the 4:50 flight to Los Angeles,” I said to the gate agent. “Are there any Business Select seats left?”

The agent searched the network for nearly a minute but, once she finished, she said the following: “We have A-6 available for $40. Would you like to purchase it?”

My wallet came out faster than a prime Ali jab, and, within moments, I had my new boarding pass. For just $40, I had moved up at least 142 places in line, which, to me, is a fantastic bargain, considering that 175 people were set to board this 175-seat aircraft. In fact, I might have zoomed past even more places, considering that Southwest offers “family boarding” for groups including at least one child, age six and younger, before allowing the Group B passengers to board, and, on this flight, I spotted at least a half-dozen qualified units. In fact, I was seated next to one such group at the gate, and coincidentally they bore tickets bearing C-25, C-26 and C-27, the three people who would have boarded immediately ahead of me. had I kept my original boarding pass.

The boarding process for Southwest is not for introverts. Because boarding is done sequentially, passengers must find their proper place in line, and the best way to do so (if one doesn’t want to be the first one to take a place in line) is to walk toward one’s general area and ask anyone already standing there what number they have. I’ve never had a problem talking to strangers but I understand why others might.

Once I found my place in the queue, I (and my fellow A-group passengers) ended up standing far longer than expected. That’s because we needed to wait for another aircraft carrying our flight’s final flight attendant to arrive, and that airplane was running behind schedule. As a result, the boarding process began shortly after 5 p.m. – 10 minutes after our scheduled departure.

After the wheelchair-bound passengers and their companions were seated, we “Business Select” passengers were asked to board. I could have picked an aisle seat in case I wanted to get up and stretch my legs but I chose a window seat in row three so that I could immediately settle in and read my latest library acquisition: John Feinstein’s “Hard Courts: Real Life on the Professional Tennis Tours,” a 457-page tome guaranteed to occupy me not only on the way out but also on the way back.

The majority of the flight was graced by smooth air but there were four instances of very mild turbulence, thanks to weather systems over the Plains, Rockies and parts of Arizona. As is always the case with Southwest, the flight attendants injected an element of fun into their announcements, and performed their tasks as if they truly enjoyed what they were doing. During the descent, one female attendant told a series of “punny” jokes. Here’s one:

Question: “What did the daddy buffalo say to his boy when dropping him off for his first day of school?”

Answer: “Bye, son.”

Ba-dum-bum.

After deplaning, I headed out to get a taxi to the crew hotel, the Courtyard Marriott on Olympic Boulevard. A big plus: It is located within walking distance of the Staples Center. Because I left the airport shortly before 8 p.m. PDT, the traffic flow wasn’t quite as congested as it would have been a couple of hours earlier, so I arrived at the hotel within 30 minutes. Once I checked in and told everyone I had arrived safely, I headed downstairs to purchase a light mid-evening snack. In doing so, I ran into Dennis, who told me the electronic check was “one of the quickest ever.”

That remark immediately caused me to think about Joe Carnicelli, a longtime CompuBox employee who passed away from cancer, last year, at age 75. His great luck in terms of quick, trouble-free tests prompted us to call them “Carnicellis,” and I know that if he were still with us, he, an Arizona-based Brooklyn native, would have been working this show with Dennis instead of me. So while I’m happy to be at this card, I would have joyfully ceded my duties to him, if the option had been presented. And for however long I get to do this, I’ll feel that way about all West Coast shows.

I thought the meal would help me get ready to go to sleep but it only served to keep me awake a bit longer than usual. At 12:15 a.m. – 3:15 a.m. body clock time – I switched off the light.

 

Saturday, July 28: I decided to stay on East Coast time because my direct flight home is scheduled to leave at 8:25 a.m., which meant that, in order to arrive at the airport at a comfortable time, I would need to rise at 4:30 a.m. (or 7:30 a.m. body clock time, which is when I usually arise when I’m at home). So it worked out nicely when I stirred awake at 4 a.m., and decided to snooze until 5.

I spent much of the morning writing most of the words you’ve read so far, as well as conducting (and confirming) research done by ESPN regarding outstanding pro fighters with very little amateur experience. While they already unearthed names such as Billy Conn, Anthony Mundine, Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., Rocky Marciano, Hasim Rahman, David Benavidez, Roberto Duran and Larry Holmes, I added the name of Hall-of-Famer Jeff Chandler, who turned pro just four months after first walking into a boxing gym, and after having only two amateur bouts.

With that task done, I saw it was time for me to check into my flight, so I headed downstairs and printed my boarding pass. Despite the 24-hour check-in window having been open for just five minutes, I still got a Southwest ticket with “B-25” written on it, meaning I would be, at least in theory, the 85th person to board the aircraft. That’s almost middle-of-the-pack, in terms of boarding order, so I may well pay for another upgrade.

With some time to kill before meeting Dennis in the lobby, at 12:45 p.m. (our call time is 1), I spent some time thinking about the main event – the weekend’s top attraction, in terms of stakes, because it was a title unification contest involving a pound-for-pound star in Garcia and his titular counterpart, the tallest and rangiest fighter he had yet faced. Garcia has already assembled an astonishingly successful ring return after losing two-and-a-half years of his prime, due to promotional issues with Top Rank. In just four fights, he added belts at 135 and 140 to become a four-division titlist while also being just the third man to win belts at featherweight, junior lightweight, lightweight and junior welterweight. The other two: Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez. If Garcia retired today, he would merit a look, in terms of Hall of Fame enshrinement but, should he thrive in the game for a few more years, he will create an ironclad case for himself. A victory over Easter to unify at 135 would be an important step in the right direction.

Additionally Garcia has managed to improve what had been a flaw in his game – exceedingly deliberate starts – and he did so, as he neared age 30, a point in life in which most of us are pretty much what we will be for the rest of our lives, in terms of habits and mindset. To illustrate this change, let’s dig back into Garcia’s statistical history: Against Juan Carlos Burgos in January 2014, he threw just 25 punches in round one, and, in the first six rounds, he averaged just 35.3, well below the junior lightweight average of 57.6. He suffered a second round knockdown against then-WBO junior lightweight titlist Roman Martinez in November 2013, and averaged just 32.8 punches per round over the first five rounds. Against Orlando Salido in January 2013, he averaged 41.6 per round over the first five rounds, 47.3 per round in the first three rounds against Bernabe Concepcion in March 2012 and 39.6, the first three rounds against Juan Carlos Martinez in October 2011. The good news is, in most of those fights, Garcia dramatically upped his output and accuracy in later rounds, which suggested the slow starts were intentional rather than intrinsic.

In his comeback, however, he has made a concerted effort to change his methodology. Yes, Garcia was very pedestrian in his pacing against Elio Rojas, in his initial outing (15 punches in round one and never more than 35 in any of the five rounds it lasted) but, in his other three bouts, against Dejan Zlaticanin, Adrien Broner and Sergey Lipinets, he perked up his early game considerably. In round one against Zlaticanin, he fired 61 punches in the first (his second highest first-round total in 18 CompuBox-tracked fights behind the 81 he uncorked against Matt Remillard in 2011), ratcheted it up to 67 in the second and 48 in the truncated third. (It would have been 59, had the round gone the full three minutes.) Against Broner, Garcia threw just 13 punches in round one but, in the next three, he throttled up to 50 per round, and just kept getting busier the rest of the way. (He averaged an incredible 98 per round in rounds 10-12.) In his most recent outing against Lipinets, he threw a modest 39 in round one but then averaged 57 in rounds two through four, and maintained his pacing for the remainder of the contest (Garcia ranged from 51 in the 10th to 66 in the ninth.) So in some respects, Garcia appears to have found a happy medium, in terms of pacing: A thinking-man’s approach in the first three minutes, followed by a quicker escalation.

However while Garcia is more prolific, in terms of output, he also has become a more hittable target. Although Garcia has struck his opponents with 46% of his power punches during his return, his foes have hit him with 40% of theirs. Broner was particularly successful as he landed 45% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts to Garcia’s 47% but, because he was so severely out-hustled (33.3 punches per round to Garcia’s 65.3), he lost a lopsided decision. Lipinets was more accurate overall (28%-25%), and in jabs (23%-16%), but Garcia’s saving grace, once again, was his precise power hitting (46% to Lipinets’ 36%), which also produced the bout’s only knockdown in the seventh. That said, Lipinets’ connects were stronger, shot-for-shot, and I believe that experience may have persuaded Garcia to shed his IBF title at 140 in favor of meeting Easter at 135.

Speaking of Easter, he electrified audiences with his one-punch scorching of Argenis Mendez in April 2016. Since then, he has experienced a power outage. All four title fights against Richard Commey, Luis Cruz, Denis Shafikov and Javier Fortuna have gone to the judges, and, in two of those bouts (Commey and Fortuna), one judge voted against Easter. Moreover Shafikov’s robust body attack (106 connects to Easter’s 57) enabled him to out-land Easter 201-196 overall, and 181-153 power, which makes one question the validity of the lopsided verdict given to Easter in his hometown of Toledo (120-108 twice, 116-112). In his most recent outing, Easter edged Fortuna 130-120 in total connects, and 120-113 in landed power shots, but only because he was more active against his overweight foe (47.3 to 40.6 punches per round) and Commey tied Easter with 111 power connects (though he threw many more of them to do so – 422 vs. 283). The only title fight performance in which Easter truly shined was against Cruz, in which he scored knockdowns in rounds 10, 11 and 12, jabbed excellently (25.2 attempts/6.2 connects per round), was more active (50.4 per round to Cruz’s 43.1) and produced connect gaps of 70-30 overall and 56-26 power in the final three rounds. The Cruz fight showed that Easter could lift his game during championship competition but, as good as he was against Cruz, he’ll have to find an even higher level if he is to beat Garcia. The guess here is Easter will try hard to reach for his elite game but will not do so because Garcia is already elite and has been for years. Although I favored Garcia to win on points in the analysis, he could score a TKO win (round 10 perhaps), if the gap in talent is particularly severe.

As for the other two TV bouts, I like Ortiz to stop Cojanu in highlight reel fashion, and for Barrios to pound out a lopsided decision over Roman. My over-under in terms of how many rounds Dennis and I will work on the televised fights: 23.

 

*

 

I met Dennis in the lobby at the appointed time, and, after he gave me my credential, we joined a group of Showtime crew members for the short walk to Staples Center. Of course the weather was sunny yet comfortable, a marked contrast to the triple-digit heat roasting other parts of the southwestern U.S. Once Dennis and I found our work station, we set up our equipment, and completed all the pre-show checks in short order.

While waiting for the show to begin I chatted with a few ringsiders, including ESPN.com’s Dan Rafael, who was seated directly behind me. Another was ring announcer Ralph Velez, who was set to work all 10 undercard fights before Hall-of-Famer Jimmy Lennon Jr. would take over for the three TV bouts. Dennis and I watched the first fight he worked – welterweight Wesley Diana’s four-round decision over Evincii Dixon – before leaving too consume the crew meal.

When we returned, we counted a pair of undercard fights – lightweight Rey Perez’s upset KO win over Roberto Marroquin and junior welterweight Fabian Maidana’s seventh round KO over Andrey Klimov. We decided to work Perez-Marroquin because I felt we would see the latter in a future TV fight, and wanted to have his most recent information in the database, but Perez, who entered the fight with a journeyman’s 22-10 (6) record, suddenly broke open what had been a fairly even fight, early in the eighth and final round, when a power shot not only stunned Marroquin but also opened a gash spanning the bridge of his nose. After several more bombs connected, Marroquin’s chief second Robert Garcia asked for the fight to be stopped at the 1:03 mark.

To that point, the bout had several plot twists; an accidental clash of heads in round two created a knot on Marroquin’s left temple (an injury his corner impressively kept under control), while a strong right uppercut stunned Perez in round four and a right cross hurt Marroquin in the seventh. Entering the final round, Marroquin led 95-87 in total connects, and clung to a 3-2-2 rounds lead, in terms of total connects. But in round eight, Perez out-threw the still-hurt Marroquin 33-4, out-landed him 14-0 overall, as well as 12-0 in power shots, and seized final leads of 101-95 overall and 30-8 jabs, while cutting Marroquin’s lead in power connects to 87-71.

The victory breathed new life into Perez’s career, for he had lost six of his last nine fights against opponents with a combined 110-10-4 record (and one of those foes was 17-7-2). As for Marroquin, this loss is a significant setback, for it is the fourth in his last 10 fights and his first inside the distance. Should he decide to continue, the 28-year-old will likely be used as a steppingstone but, as Perez proved, struggling fighters are always one punch away from reversing course.

Maidana also illustrated that truism against Klimov because, through six rounds, their match was dictated more by brain waves than punishing punches. The booing began in round two, and continued over the next few rounds, as they probed for rarely-found openings. Maidana’s forward motion, diversified jab (18 of his 44 landed jabs were to the body) and stronger blows enabled him to gradually build a lead, and place him in position to win a comfortable decision. However late in the seventh, Maidana – the younger brother of retired Argentine power hitter Marcos Maidana – suddenly floored Klimov with a right cross-left hook to the jaw, prompting Klimov’s chief second James “Buddy” McGirt to ask for the fight to be stopped. It was Klimov’s fourth loss in his last five fights, but the first that happened inside the distance, while, for Maidana, it was his 12th KO win in his 16-0 record.

The stats illustrated the cerebral nature of the contest, as both men threw far more jabs than power shots (227 jabs and 105 power attempts for Maidana, 209 jabs and 46 power attempts for Klimov), and averaged 47.4 and 36.4 punches per round respectively, well below the 58.6 junior welterweight average. Maidana out-landed Klimov in five of the seven rounds, and thus built connect leads of 82-57 overall and 38-9 power (Klimov led 48-44 in landed jabs), while neither hit the target often (Maidana led 25%-22% overall and 36%-20% power while Klimov prevailed 23%-195 in jab accuracy).

After Jose Balderas (brother of 2016 U.S. Olympian Karlos Balderas, who stopped veteran Giovanni Caro earlier on the card) out-pointed Alfredo Candez to lift his record to 4-0, the televised portion of the show began. While Dennis and I agreed on who would win each bout, the only question was how long – and how impressively – it would take them to do so.

 

*

 

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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