The Travelin’ Man goes to Los Angeles: Part Two
Saturday, July 28 (continued): For the first eight minutes and 34 seconds against IBF counterpart Robert Easter Jr., WBC lightweight titlist Mikey Garcia – boxing’s proudest promotional free agent – was not in full control of his surroundings.
Easter’s prolific jabbing and constant movement – as well as Garcia’s cerebral perfectionism – resulted in Garcia not throwing a punch for the first 60 seconds, and firing only two in the first minute-and-a-half. While Garcia stalked and surveyed, Easter piled up punches and points, and appeared to easily win the first two rounds. According to CompuBox, Easter threw more than twice as many punches (102-45), and out-landed the heavily-favored Garcia in every phase (24-6 overall, 17-3 jabs, 7-3 power). It looked like, at least early, that Easter had found the blueprint by which he could score a monster upset. All he had to do was to continue doing it for the next 10 rounds – a task much easier said than done.
Through his first four comeback fights following his two-and-a-half year quest to break away from Top Rank and seize command of his own destiny, Garcia had quieted those who criticized his achingly slow starts by being more proactive against Dejan Zlaticanin, Adrien Broner and Sergey Lipinets, the details of which can be found in Part One. Against Easter, however, the fists that produced 30 knockouts in 38 fights – though none since January 2017 – were largely silenced.
That concerning pattern continued through the first two minutes of round three, as Easter out-threw Garcia 35-14 and out-landed him 7-5. But as the clock ticked under the 30-second mark, Garcia finally spotted the opening he wanted to seize upon: Following a hard jab, Garcia snapped a right cross over Easter’s egregiously lowered left, after which he floored him with a whistling left hook. Easter regained his feet even before referee Jack Reiss turned toward him and counted “three” but, in that instant, the fight’s dynamic had been dramatically reset. With two flush punches to the jaw, Garcia confirmed not only that he owned enough power to hurt Easter but also that he could deliver his power from the proper range, and do so without losing balance, leverage or positioning. That knowledge bolstered Garcia’s already robust self-confidence, and established the foundation for his subsequent success.
Entering the fight, three statistical questions were on the docket. Two of them had been already answered – Garcia’s early volume (anemic) and Easter’s jab success (sizeable, at least at first) – but the third remained in question: Given Easter’s willowy frame, would Garcia break precedent and target the body more? That was a legitimate query because in Garcia’s last nine fights, only 13.9% of his total connects were to the body. Starting in round six, he began to formulate a response, as four of his nine power connects struck the flanks, but the real answer occurred in the ninth when Garcia finally let loose with his entire arsenal. In his best round of the fight, Garcia unleashed 88 punches, landed 32 overall and 22 power shots, of which nine struck the body – all highs for the fight. Though that trend didn’t last – Garcia landed only 28 body shots among his 176 total connects (15.9%) – it told Easter that Garcia was willing to expand his hitting zone, which, in effect, forced Easter to defend more area and thus become more hittable.
And Easter indeed became more hittable. In rounds nine through, 12 Garcia out-landed Easter 95-34 overall and 58-13 power, and, in doing so, Garcia connected on 42%, 47%, 53% and 44% of his power punches, a far cry from the power accuracy Garcia logged in rounds five through eight (25%, 32%, 26% and 14%). Also as if to twist the knife further, Garcia, in spite of his eight-inch reach deficit, found much greater success with his jab, as he out-landed Easter 37-21 in the final four rounds. Better yet for Garcia: In Easter’s previous 11 CompuBox-tracked fights, the most jabs an opponent ever landed in a given round was eight (Argenis Mendez, round two); Garcia broke that mark three times – nine in round four, 10 in round nine and 14 in round 11.
Garcia’s surge in the fight’s final third enabled him to pull away on the scorecards, as well as the stat sheets. Garcia led 176-129 overall and 99-40 power, and was the more accurate hitter in all phases (32%-25% overall, 27%-26% jabs, 38%-24% power). Yes, Easter’s 343 jab attempts and 89 landed jabs are the most ever by a Garcia opponent tracked by CompuBox (Matt Remillard’s 338 attempts and 79 connects were the previous marks) but that offered little solace for the wide scorecards (118-109, 117-110, 116-111). Another plus for Garcia: Despite his deliberate start, he ended up throwing more total punches than Easter (555 vs. 507), and that’s because Easter’s output dropped from 48.7 per round in the first seven rounds to 33.2 in the final five.
Moments after the decision was announced, the focus turned to a potential showdown between Garcia and IBF welterweight king Errol Spence Jr., who was at ringside. Spence arrived at press row not long afterward, and the subsequent scrum kept Dennis and me in place for several minutes later.
“It will be a challenge because (Garcia)’s defensive, and he’s very smart in the ring, but I’m always confident in my ability and I know I’ll come out with the victory,” Spence said. “He wants to be pound-for-pound number one (but) I don’t know if he has welterweight power. I’m excited. I can box. I can walk him down. Me, personally, I’m always confident.”
Spence should be. After all, he’ll own significant height and reach advantages (three-and-a-half inches and four inches respectively), and when one adds his southpaw stance, consistently high work rate, extraordinary accuracy and genuine one-shot power, all factors point to an overwhelming victory for “The Truth.”
While I will join the herd in picking Spence to smoke Garcia, I, along with other veteran observers, know history tends to repeat itself. As I type this, my mind, as it often does, drifts back to the 1980s when Sugar Ray Leonard built his legacy by pursuing – and conquering – adrenaline-pumping challenges.
Like Leonard before his fights with Thomas Hearns (fight one) and Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Garcia draws strength from those who dismiss his chances against Spence. It’s a dynamic Garcia hasn’t yet felt as a pro, and, while many elite boxers like Garcia would take umbrage at his chances being so universally dismissed, the fighter himself is actually thrilled by it. That’s because Garcia has been the prohibitive favorite going into virtually every fight of his professional career, and, because he has disposed of every opponent with the expected ease, he feels his successes have been taken for granted and will ultimately be diminished by historians.
Entering his first fight with Hearns, Leonard rightly believed the result would strongly define his place in what would become the era of “The Four Kings.” He had already split two fights with one of them (Roberto Duran), and, while the manner in which Leonard conquered Duran superseded how Duran defeated Leonard (Leonard not only won but made boxing’s ultimate macho man quit), Leonard still felt he had much to prove against the fearsome Hearns, who was a 7-to-5 favorite on fight night thanks to a flood of late bets. His come-from-behind 14th round TKO over Hearns was an instant classic that enabled Leonard to become an undisputed champion, in addition to becoming an undisputed crossover superstar. While Leonard’s place in the sport reached a stratospheric level after the Hearns win, it wouldn’t last because he fought just twice more over the next six years (TKO 3 Bruce Finch, an off-the-floor TKO 9 over Kevin Howard).
When Leonard re-emerged from a nearly three-year layoff to challenge Marvelous Marvin Hagler – the longtime undisputed middleweight champion and pound-for-pound king, who hadn’t been defeated in more than 11 years – the doubters returned in force. The reasons made sense but after Leonard’s brilliant (but controversial) split decision victory, his legend was secure, and his collective deeds were (and still are) looked upon with awe. Garcia hungers for that same adulation, and he believes a victory over Spence not only would cement his Hall of Fame plaque, it also would engender Leonard-esque worship. His comments before the Easter fight about a potential Spence match echoed those that Leonard had uttered in 1986 and 1987 about challenging Hagler:
Leonard: “I don’t want a career; I want one fight. Nobody believes me because I’ve contradicted myself before. But all I want is this one fight. I’ve never lost the feeling for fighting Marvin. Marvin was always there and I’ve always wanted to fight him.”
Garcia: “I really look forward to taking on someone like Errol Spence for that reason because everybody says, ‘Don’t do it; it’s the biggest threat, the biggest challenger. I’m way out of my league trying to go there.’ That’s what actually excites me, and motivates me the most. I want to prove to everybody the kind of fighter I am. I haven’t had those opportunities yet. I’ve been fighting champions and undefeated champions but it seems like I’m always the favorite. It seems like my accomplishments don’t get enough credit sometimes because, ‘Well, you’re supposed to win. You’re supposed to beat that guy.’ But a fight with Errol Spence is a whole different league, and that’s why I’m really interested in getting that fight.”
But if Garcia is looking for genuine challenges, he need not look any farther than The Ring Magazine/WBA counterpart Vasiliy Lomachenko, and, if he wants a preamble, he could face the winner of August 25’s WBO lightweight title fight between champion Raymundo Beltran and Jose Pedraza. In a perfect world, it makes sense for Garcia to look toward the Beltran-Pedraza winner because, should he win and become a three-belt titlist, he would generate enormous negotiating power.
But boxing’s world is never perfect, and politics lie at the heart of it all.
Ask virtually every champion what he wants to do next, and he’ll always say, “Unify the titles.” So why doesn’t Garcia want to unite the 135-pound belts, as Terence Crawford did at 140 and The Ring cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk did at 200?
The answer: Lomachenko, Beltran and Pedraza are promoted by Top Rank – the entity Garcia spent years trying to escape. Conversely Spence fights under the Premier Boxing Champions umbrella (and Garcia, though a free agent, has fought on PBC cards), and, with no big-money fights looming at 140, Garcia sees Spence as his easiest-to-secure, as well as his most lucrative option, within his self-imposed limits.
I applaud Garcia for daring to be the greatest he can be. If he wants to become the best fighter of his generation, he needs to break through the noise, and make as much history as possible in the approximately three years that remain of his physical peak. I understand why he’s doing what he’s doing; given all the time and effort he sacrificed in breaking away from Top Rank, he’s not about to put himself anywhere near Arum or his fighters but, to me, a Spence fight should represent the culminating fight of a long and storied build-up toward immortality that has, so far, been immaculate. By jumping up two weight classes to face a younger, bigger, stronger, faster and harder-hitting opponent at his positive peak, Garcia is jumping ahead several hundred pages in his well-crafted novel.
Five different books have carried the title “A Fool’s Errand;” let’s hope Garcia’s next fight won’t inspire a title of the same name.
Although Luis Ortiz is from Cuba, he received a hero’s welcome when he stepped inside the ring at Staples Center. His stirring but failed effort against WBC heavyweight titlist Deontay Wilder in March – along with his daughter’s ongoing battle with Epidermolysis Bullosa (a skin condition that causes blistering and erosion) – has made the fighter nicknamed “King Kong” a sympathetic figure but his potential for producing in-ring mayhem has made him a “must-see” fighter throughout his eight-year professional career, one that has seen him score 24 knockouts in 28 victories. At 31, opponent Razvan Cojanu is nearly eight years younger than Ortiz, and he too is coming off a failed heavyweight title challenge, as he lost a unanimous decision to then-WBO titlist Joseph Parker, as a late sub for Hughie Fury. Unfortunately for Cojanu, that fight took place 14 months ago, and, after the first-round bell sounded, the ring rust that encrusted the Romanian was obvious, as he threw just 19 punches in the opening session compared to Ortiz’s 46. Because most of those punches were tentative jabs (0 of 37 for Ortiz, 1 of 12 for Cojanu, as opposed to 4 of 9 power shots for Ortiz and 2 of 7 for Cojanu), it took only two minutes for the boo-birds to start their hooting.
After nearly five minutes of mind-numbing “action,” Ortiz ended up numbing Cojanu’s mind and body – to great effect. Ortiz connected with a vicious right hook-left cross to the face that caused Cojanu to pitch forward and crash knees-first to the floor. Cojanu twice tried to grab for the ropes to help haul himself up, and, both times, he came up short and plopped to the canvas, prompting referee Jerry Cantu to wave off the bout, and Ortiz to climb the ropes and pound his chest. The joy he felt from the victory was increased exponentially around the arena, when Ortiz revealed to Showtime’s Jim Gray and translator Felix DeJesus that, five days earlier, a cure for his daughter’s illness had been found.
Ortiz’s pyrotechnics overshadowed the fact that, up to that point, the fight had been pedestrian and heavily jab-oriented – 58 of Ortiz’s 77 punch attempts, as well as 21 of Cojanu’s 34. However Ortiz’s pulverizing right-left lifted his power accuracy to 42% (8 of 19), while Cojanu’s was a mere 15% (2 of 13).
The televised opener between Mario Barrios and Jose “Gato” Roman was a nice, if lopsided, table-setter for the action that followed. A hook to the top of the head scored the fight’s first knockdown in the fourth, while a withering series of uppercuts registered the second (and final) knockdown in the eighth. In between, Barrios’ sickening body attack (61 of 133 total connects and 58 of 104 landed power shots) systematically drained Roman’s gas tank. The evidence: In the final two rounds, Barrios averaged 76.5 punches per round to Roman’s 22, and out-landed him 51-8 overall and 44-6 power, extending Barrios’ final leads to 133-46 overall, 29-12 jabs and 104-34 power and his percentage gaps of 32%-18% overall, 16%-10% jabs and 44%-26% power. The victory lifted Barrios’ record to 22-0 (14), and will certainly move him up from the No. 4 spot in the WBA’s welterweight rankings.
Although his physique is that of a boxer (5-foot-10½, 70-inch reach), his style is predatory and eminently watchable. Hopefully I’ll be at ringside when his title shot comes.
Dennis and I walked to the catering area that was shielded by a black curtain and a security guard, and had a small post-fight snack (a turkey sandwich and a can of Diet Coke for me). We soon were joined by Hall-of-Famers Al Bernstein and Steve Farhood, and it didn’t take long for the conversation to circle back toward history that reached back decades. I don’t know about them but I certainly had fun.
After returning to the hotel, I spent the next 45 minutes entering all the night’s data into the system. Because my goal wake-up time was fast approaching, I skipped the winding-down process, turned out the light at 11:45 p.m. and waited to drift off to sleep.
Sunday, July 29: It took a while but when the sandman arrived, he did so with force – so much so that I awakened five minutes later than my 4:30 a.m. goal time, a fairly rare occurrence even though I don’t use an alarm or a wake-up call. No matter; I finished the morning routines and the packing process in plenty of time. Given L.A.’s open-all-night reputation, I assumed a cab would be waiting in front of the hotel but I assumed wrong. The situation was easily rectified as the clerk who checked me out of the hotel called Yellow Cab, and, within 10 minutes, my ride to LAX was secured.
Very light Sunday morning traffic turned what had been a 30-minute drive from airport to hotel two days ago into a 20-minute trip today. Once I cleared security, I approached the agent at Gate A 13 if an upgrade was available. Indeed it was: For $40, I moved up from the middle of the B group to A-2. That said, the airline failed to inform us that the gate for the LAX to PIT flight had been moved 100 feet down the concourse. I only found out after checking a nearby flight monitor, after the display at my gate flashed the name of a city other than Pittsburgh. When I boarded the aircraft, I chose a window seat in aisle five.
While I picked my seat and settled into it with dispatch, the same couldn’t be said of my fellow passengers, who lingered and lollygagged in the aisle. When the situation became too bogged down, one of our flight attendants – a middle-aged, heavyset African-American man with an endearing lilt to his voice and superb comedic timing – addressed the situation firmly yet humorously.
“I don’t want to get anyone mad but could you please hurry it up?” he asked. “You’ve got to get your tush in a cush, so we can push. We are going to Pittsburgh, not Osaka, and we are Southwest, not Delta.”
If this had been said by someone else and with a different tone, the reception might have turned hostile. But with him, who carried the nickname “Youngblood,” it not only got laughs but it also produced the desired result – people got their tushes into cushes and we pushed out in fairly quick order.
The four-hour flight ended at 3:53 p.m., and, within 40 minutes, I was in my car and headed home. Once I arrived there, however, my work day wasn’t quite done: With thunderstorms in the forecast for the entire week and with just enough sunlight remaining to get the job done, I spent the next 90 minutes mowing the lawn. This provided a nice example of perspective: Less than 14 hours earlier I was hanging out with a couple of Hall-of-Famers following a big fight card in Los Angeles; now I’m back in West Virginia, cutting the grass.
Like I said in Part One, life is good…very, very good.
Epilogue: Three days after arriving home, I received word about when my next trip would begin: September 20, the day before a “ShoBox” card in Shawnee, Oklahoma. That means this trip to Los Angeles will my final one of the summer, and that I’ll be spending most of the next two months hanging around the Home Office. Being an optimist at heart, I see this long break as an opportunity to catch up on all my duties, and, by the time September rolls around, I’ll be more than eager to get back in the air and on the road for CompuBox.
Until next time, happy trails!
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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