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The Travelin’ Man goes to Shawnee, Oklahoma: Part one

26
Sep

Thursday, September 20: It’s difficult to believe that it has been nearly two months since my last Travelin’ Man trip to Los Angeles, which saw me (as well as colleague Dennis Allen) count the “Showtime Championship Boxing” card topped by Mikey Garcia’s decisive decision victory over Robert Easter Jr. to retain his WBC lightweight title and annex Easter’s IBF belt. Today I will add a new city to my travels – Shawnee, Oklahoma – and the card to which I will be trekking is a “ShoBox: The New Generation” quadrupleheader headed by an intriguing crossroads contest between junior lightweights Jon Fernandez and O’Shaquie Foster and supported by scheduled eight-round contests between junior lightweights James Wilkins and Misael Lopez, lightweights Wesley Ferrer and Steven Ortiz and featherweights Irvin Gonzalez and Carlos Ramos. The combined records of the eight combatants: 81-2.

The Wilkins-Lopez bout was a late addition to the card and that positive alteration is emblematic of the general state of boxing these days. During the annual State of the Union address, U.S. presidents are almost obligated to say, “The state of our union is strong” even when it doesn’t seem to be but I truly believe the “State of the Sweet Science” is strong. Not too many years ago, boxing’s power brokers in America willingly ceded ground in September and October because of the perception that their sport couldn’t compete with either the start of football season or the Major League Baseball playoffs and its culminating World Series. And why not? Football was a financial powerhouse that overwhelmed everything in its path while the World Series remained a touchstone event on the sports calendar even as the regular season waned in influence. Boxing knew its place and it scheduled accordingly.

Over the past three years, however, boxing’s movers and shakers sensed a sea change in the sporting landscape. With the rash of negative stories surrounding the NFL and its players – as well as the long-term injuries associated with the sport – “The Shield’s” grip on the public was loosening. The advent of Premier Boxing Champions in 2015 signaled the sport’s first grand attempt to greatly expand its sphere of influence on television and while the ad-buy formula enabled it to be seen on networks that hadn’t aired boxing in decades, the master plan faltered, then was altered. But that effort planted an indirect seed for what followed: ESPN’s twin deals with Golden Boy Promotions and Top Rank, the grand success of the World Boxing Super Series’ first season and especially the vast expansion of streamed cards, such as those on the recently launched ESPN+ service, Facebook Watch and the debut of DAZN (which will happen just two days from now with a card headlined by the heavyweight championship match between IBF/WBA/WBO titlist Anthony Joshua and Alexander Povetkin).

A wonderful benefit of these streamed shows is that most show cards from start to finish, meaning undercard fighters whom otherwise would have fought “in the dark” were now being seen. Over time these fighters will become familiar with their target audiences, not only as athletes but also as people, thanks to social media and the story lines forwarded by the broadcasters (Top Rank’s Crystina Poncher has long been among the very best at providing insights into these fighters, thanks to her presence at the training camps and her excellent reporting).

Two more positive developments that have strengthened boxing are the increasing frequency of high-level matches and the revival of the heavyweight division in the post-Klitschko era. Joshua and WBC counterpart Deontay Wilder are powerful, athletic and charismatic figures who also happen to be big punchers and the contenders who reside below them in the rankings are compelling as well. It long has been written that “As the heavyweights go, so does boxing” and, at least for now, the division and the sport are in peak condition.

These developments have created a positive vortex that is building upon itself and, unless something cataclysmic happens, it looks as if it will continue for years to come.

In other words, boxing is no longer cowering before any other sport – and that’s the way it should be.

These changes have certainly increased my workload at CompuBox. Not long ago, CompuBox’s only clients were HBO, ESPN and Showtime but now the company is conducting research for TV One in Germany, ESPN+, the first season of the WBSS and Golden Boy’s recently launched Facebook Live series. In September, I researched 13 shows and 31 fights and I’ve already completed several shows in what looks to be a crowded October. This research is what I’ve been doing for most of my two months in the Home Office and, while it’s a lot of work, it also provides joy, purpose, a sense of accomplishment and a deep education into today’s boxers.

As someone who began following the sport in 1974, I recall the landscape during what I believe was its most recent Golden Era, which I peg between the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s. Based on the reasons stated in these previous paragraphs, I believe boxing is in its best place in a generation. And being the eternal optimist, I believe the best days of this cycle are still in the future.

 

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Before I departed for Shawnee, I logged onto BoxRec.com to look at the city’s boxing past. According to the site, the city hosted 17 cards between January 1911 and October 1930, then only one show in November 1988 until starting its recent run in October 2003. Two fights of historic note occurred in Shawnee, which is 35 miles east of Oklahoma City. First, on July 1, 1926, 43-year-old Sam Langford scored the final victory of his career, a stoppage over a 23-33-12 fighter named Young Jack Johnson.

Second, on September 25, 2004, Riddick Bowe emerged from a nearly eight-year retirement to stop Marcus Rhode. Bowe-Rhode was, according to BoxRec, the fourth fight card staged at the Fire Lake Casino as well as the last it would host until June 2014, when local super middleweight George Tahdooahnippah out-pointed Codale Ford over six rounds.

Since that bout, the Fire Lake Casino has hosted seven more shows and this ShoBox quadrupleheader, the eighth, will be the first that will be nationally televised. Each fight has a defined story line but I am most intrigued by the main event between Fernandez and Foster, a pair of juniior lightweights who have had extremely contrasting experiences on the ShoBox series.

Fernandez, a lanky Spaniard I call “The Human Wood Chipper” for the effects of his long-armed high-volume attack, couldn’t have been more impressive, as he blew out Ernesto Garza III in three rounds and Juan Reyes in two, while Foster proved himself an enigma in his appearances against Samuel Teah (an eight-round decision defeat, in which he appeared to freeze), an impressive seventh round TKO over over Lavisas Williams, in which he scored four knockdowns, and a split decision loss to Rolando Chinea, in which he showed well but was out-hustled. Foster has won three straight since the Chinea loss, the most recent of which was an eight-round majority decision over Frank De Alba that saw Foster start strong, De Alba rally in the middle rounds and the pair trading heavily at the end. Tied at 115 total connects entering the 10th, Foster produced a better eighth round, in terms of stats (29-22 overall, 25-21 power), which probably helped him nail down the decision – and, with it, a fourth ShoBox appearance.

Each is fighting the best opponent of his pro career – a ShoBox staple – and I believe Foster will maximize his chances of victory, if he can slow the pace to a comfortable level and force Fernandez to box with him. Based on what I’ve seen of Foster so far, he tends to go with whatever flow is given to him; when he faces high-volume fighters like Chinea, he produces high volume in return (he averaged 80.1 punches per round to Chinea’s 91.6) but when he encounters a more modest pace (like against Teah, who averaged 58.9 punches per round), he adjusts and fights within that sphere instead of imposing a more intense environment (here, however, he averaged only 31 punches per round). Thus I believe Fernandez will draw Foster into a big-numbers punch-out and win an exciting decision.

 

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As is often the case with me, getting from Point A to Point B was an involved process – a two-and-a-half hour drive from Friendly to Pittsburgh International Airport, a pair of flights from Pittsburgh to Dallas Fort-Worth and from DFW to Oklahoma City and a 45-minute drive from OKC to Shawnee. Because my first flight was set to depart at 11:31 a.m., I arose at 5:50 a.m. (a little less than two hours earlier than normal) and left the house at 6:45. The temperature was comfortable (64 degrees Fahrenheit) but the driving conditions for most of the trip were challenging, due to dense fog. The fog lifted only a few minutes before I arrived at the airport and, for the second consecutive trip, I was forced to park in the outermost parking lot, a place I’ve dubbed “the hinterlands.” I parked five spaces from the 18B sign, a place I soon learned was one of the best places to be in that part of the property because the walk was a nearly straight shot from car to terminal entrance.

The TSA Pre-Check line, while moderate in length, moved quickly because two agents handled the inflow of passengers and, once I boarded the aircraft and settled into seat 22A, I began reading “Mat Tales: True Stories from the Bizarre, Brutal World of Pro Boxing” by Dan Sisneros. Within its 161 pages are 32 stories that involve the rich and famous (Marvelous Marvin Hagler-Vito Antuofermo II, Michael Dokes-Mike Weaver I, Lennox Lewis-Oliver McCall II, Evander Holyfield-Riddick Bowe II and the two Riddick Bowe-Andrew Golota foul-fests), the obscure (Marvin Jones-Ramon Luis Nicolas, in which a cell phone has a starring role, and the chair-throwing riot that concluded the Marco Antonio Avedano-Sebastian Lujan affair, among others) and the downright weird (the “sudden exposure” Sharmba Mitchell experienced against Rafael “Bazooka” Limon and the bizarre plot twists that unfolded when John Jackson and Casey Ramos met in April 2011).

Full disclosure: I provided quotes for two of the fights – the Jackson-Ramos bout and Donald Curry’s butt-marred disqualification win over Tony Montgomery – but that still didn’t stop me from enjoying the book’s contents. Each bout strengthened memories and I was even present at one of the profiled bouts – the Nate Campbell-Isaac Hlatshwayo fight, in which an announcing mix-up regarding the verdict produced a strange post-fight scene. Sisneros’ book was brief enough – and absorbing enough – that I finished it during my three hour layover at DFW. For anyone looking for a fast and fascinating read about fights big, small and strange, Sisneros’ book is a terrific option.

Both flights were smooth and uneventful and soon after I completed paperwork on the rental car, I walked over to space B-14 in the Avis lot and realized I was assigned a hybrid model, which I had never previously driven. Upon learning this, my mind flashed back to a few years earlier when I couldn’t figure out how to get a Prius out of its parking space, which forced me to request an exchange. Fortunately for me, it didn’t take long for me to decipher this car and I completed the drive to the crew hotel without any major issues.

Once I checked into my room, I was a bit disappointed with certain aspects. First, there was no clock radio – a rarity, if not a first. Second, the electrical outlet nearest to the desk didn’t provide power to the laptop, which resulted in my having to plug in next to the bed and working from there. Third, the light fixture next to the bed did not have any discernible on-off switch. And it wasn’t just me who had a tough time figuring that thing out; after ordering room service, I asked the delivery person if she knew how to operate the lamp. She was as flummoxed as I was but when she offered to have someone come up and take a look I declined. The answer was probably very simple and I didn’t want to look even more stupid than I already felt.

Finally the menu of TV channels was quite limited and didn’t include stations I normally watch. As for the stations that were available, they had programming that didn’t pique my interest. In this age of the internet, however, that issue was solved quite nicely as I was able to get streams of the channels I wanted to see.

I suppose I could have asked to change rooms but I chose not to do so because (1) in spite of these rather minor issues, the room itself was quite nice; (2) I found a couple of work-arounds, which included using my cell phone’s clock to keep track of time and (3) after a long day of traveling and after unpacking and settling in, I wasn’t in the mood to make a fuss. I later learned that these issues with the room weren’t exclusive to me, so, all in all, they were minor nuisances.

With my belly full and my eyes growing heavy, I switched off the stream and settled down a little before midnight local time.

Friday, September 21: I stirred awake five hours later but decided to doze for another 90 minutes before officially starting my day. I spent most of the first six hours adding to the article you’ve read so far and, when I got to a good stopping point I headed down to the lobby and printed the boarding passes for tomorrow’s flights. When I did so, I saw the sunny sky and mid-80s temperature had been replaced by steady rainfall and a chill in the air appropriate for the first day of autumn. Knowing I had parked my rental about 200 feet away from the hotel entrance, I texted CompuBox colleague Andy Kasprzak and told him that instead of meeting in the lobby and walking to the car that I would drive up to the hotel entrance and meet him there. There was no need for both of us to get drenched. Besides I knew he would do the same for me…right?

The four-bout undercard began at 7 p.m. with heavyweights George Arias and Byron Polley, fighters who were on diametrically opposed portions of the pugilistic spectrum. Arias, a 26-year-old Bronx-based Dominican, was 11-0 (with 6 knockouts) and was coming off a eight-round decision over Tyrell Wright exactly five months earlier, while Polley, a 38-year-old native of St. Joseph, Missouri, was 30-23-1 (13) and had lost his last four fights inside the distance. Polley’s last outing, a three-round TKO loss to the 14-0 Trey Lippe Morrison, was one in which Polley’s desire to compete shone so brightly that he earned his share of applause. Including Arias, Polley’s last five opponents boasted a record of 89-2.

After five minutes and 18 seconds of ring action, Arias added a win at Polley’s expense. A hook from Arias persuaded Polley to take a knee in round one and a jab-cross-hook to the temple scored the second and final knockdown in round two.

Next up was a scheduled six-round junior middleweight contest between Shawnee’s own Dennis Knifechief (11-8-1, 6 KOs) and Tulsa’s Christopher Barnes (4-7-1, 3 KOs). Knifechief repeatedly drove Barnes backward with pressure and volleys to the body, one of which resulted in a knockdown near the end of round two. The local’s body work also netted a pair of knockdowns in the fourth, the latter of which resulted in the end of the bout.

Middleweight prospect Ardreal Holmes, a lanky southpaw from Flint, Michigan, moved his record to 7-0 (with 4 KOs) after decisively out-pointing Houston’s Rick Graham, whose record eroded to 6-21-3 (with 2 KOs). A right hook to the top of the head scored the bout’s only knockdown in round one and, from there, he sailed to victory – at least in most eyes. While two judges saw it a 40-35 shutout, the third jurist turned in a 38-37 scorecard.

The final non-televised fight on the show lasted only 89 seconds as an accidental butt opened a gash over the left eye of Wichita, Texas, super middleweight David Lujan, a development that led to his fight with Bo Gibbs Jr. being declared a no-contest. Gibbs’ record is now 20-1 (with 8 KOs) with one no-contest while Lujan’s is 4-9 (with 1 KO) with one no-contest.

With that, the stage was set for the second half of the eight-fight show to begin – one that would feature more than its share of interesting plot twists.

 

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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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