The Travelin’ Man Goes to Villa-Lopez Part I
Thursday, May 9: Few circumstances in life are more powerful than a first impression. Within moments of meeting someone for the first time, both parties form judgments about the other person’s appearance, demeanor, intelligence, social standing and honesty through prisms formed by their unique life experiences, then, based on the information collected during that brief time, decide whether to like them or dislike them. Moreover, once that decision is made, it is nearly impossible to effect a change of opinion. More times than not, it requires an avalanche of contrary – and often irrefutable – information to force someone to rethink their initial position. Such are the ways of human nature – fair or not.
Virtually everyone connected with the sport of boxing – whether it be fan, writer or insider – plays this game every time he or she sees a young fighter perform for the first time. It’s a fun and mostly harmless exercise; we watch the debutante ply his or her trade for a few moments and make instant assessments about the athlete’s current skill set as well as project how far those talents (or lack thereof) will take them. Once the fighter is slotted – future journeyman, gatekeeper, contender, “nearly man,” short-term champion, multi-division titlist or Hall of Famer – each assessor keeps watch on the athlete’s progress to see if he or she fulfills or defies projections. If the athlete becomes great, those who deemed him as such early on will express pride at their perceptiveness (“I told you so”), but that pride is magnified for those who saw greatness that others did not and that greatness becomes reality (“I really told you so!”). Conversely, if the boxer falls short of expectations, those who rendered positive projections tend to heap scorn on the athlete because he or she dared to deviate from their visions, especially if they had expressed those visions in print or on TV or social media. Just as we project their successes onto ourselves, many of us think their failures will negatively reflect on us. In reality, no one really cares what any other person thinks that much, but, once again, such are the ways of human nature – fair or not.
“ShoBox: The New Generation” is a series that specializes in creating first impressions for the mass audience, but they don’t get on the air unless they make a positive mark on Executive Producer Gordon Hall. I got a small taste of Gordon’s decision-making process earlier this year when he invited me to exchange observations about an undercard fighter who was on his “ShoBox” radar (that fighter not only made the cut, he also won his ShoBox debut). While Gordon is a TV executive by trade, he is a boxing man who also is armed with uncommon powers of observation, not only in terms of identifying a fighter’s technical assets but also how those assets would play before the Showtime cameras. More often than not, the fighters who resonate with him – as well as the resulting matches he recommends – result in good television. It’s no wonder that the Boxing Writers Association of America named him its 2016 winner of the Sam Taub Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism.
Following a period in which a group of fighters had made multiple appearances on the series – viewers saw nearly the entire career arc of Adam Lopez, who has appeared a record seven times — the series has returned to its roots by introducing viewers to a new group of fighters. For example, of the six athletes featured on this episode emanating at the Omega Products Event Center in Corona, Calif. – bantamweights Saul Sanchez and Brandon Benitez, super lightweights Michael Dutchover and Rosekie Cristobal, and, in the main event, Ruben Villa and Luis Alberto Lopez – five will be making their series debut. Villa is the only returnee, and his January 11 victory over Ruben Cervera made such a powerful first impression that he has been elevated from the co-feature to Devin Haney’s decision win over Xolisani Ndongeni to the “A-side” slot in the main event.
Interestingly, Villa holds an amateur win over Haney, and his victory over Cervera – at least statistically – gave us a clue as to the skill level Villa needed to pull it off: Villa out-landed Cervera 180-59 overall, 105-23 jabs and 75-36 power while creating accuracy gaps of 41%-11% overall, 36%-9% jabs and 51%-13% power. Villa’s defensive skills limited Cervera to single digits in total connects from round three onward (his highest was nine in the third) while the Californian’s attack topped 20 total connects in all but two rounds, with 34 in round six being his high-water mark. But the most impressive aspect of Villa’s game against Cervera was his jab, which recorded 36% accuracy and 10.5 connects per round. To put those numbers into perspective, only three active world-class fighters tracked by CompuBox over a long period have landed 30% or more of their jabs: Gennady Golovkin (31.6%), Anthony Joshua (31.1%) and Deontay Wilder (30.4%), and only GGG has averaged more than 10 landed jabs per round (10.3), with Naoya Inoue next at 8.7.
Of course, those names have faced far better opposition than Villa has to this point, and their statistical sample sizes are much larger (and thus more reliable). Only time will tell if Villa’s abilities will elevate him into their realm, and his fight with Lopez will either amplify or disqualify the impressions he made against Cervera in January. At the end of my assessment of Villa-Cervera, I said Villa appeared ready to take the next step up the ladder and that I hoped I would be at ringside to see that next step. Thankfully, that will happen tomorrow night.
The route getting from home to destination, as is usually the case, was a story in itself. Today’s itinerary will have me take an 11:39 a.m. flight on American Airlines from Pittsburgh to Dallas Fort-Worth, then, less than an hour after landing at DFW, board a flight to Ontario, Calif. Once there, I’ll take a taxi to the crew hotel, the Springhill Suites in Corona, which is less than a half-mile from the outdoor fight venue.
Because of the unexpected traffic jams I faced during my last outbound trip to Pittsburgh, I gave myself an extra half hour to get to the airport and thus departed at 6:35 a.m. under excellent conditions – a clear sky and a temperature in the low 60s. The time cushion came in handy because I encountered a massive backup on West Virginia Route 2 that stretched for more than a mile in both directions less than a half-hour into my drive. The reason: An accident involving a tractor trailer near Choo Choo’s Restaurant in New Martinsville that required the presence of multiple rescue units and police cars. Because all traffic lights were shut off in the lower end of town, it was left to officers to direct traffic, and since West Virginia 2 is a main artery, there was no choice but to wait for the clog to clear, which ended up taking nearly 30 minutes.
Once I cleared that bottleneck, I faced another in the form of an ongoing construction project on the New Martinsville bridge I use to access Ohio Route 7, then a third thanks to more roadwork at the I-470 bridge that connects Ohio and West Virginia. After clearing that, I faced a final, but less severe, jam on Interstate 376, the final route on my way to Pittsburgh International Airport. Despite the quartet of delays, it took me just 2 hours 36 minutes to arrive at the airport, about 20 minutes more than usual. Thanks to my finding a good parking spot quickly, I was able to arrive at the gate about an hour before boarding was scheduled to begin – with emphasis on the word “scheduled.”
Due to reasons not told to us, American Airlines effected a plane switch for the Pittsburgh-to-Dallas leg. Unusually, our replacement plane was larger than the original aircraft, but the process of switching some seat assignments and printing new boarding passes still pushed back the start of boarding. With my connection window in Dallas being just 30 minutes, I was a little concerned about making the plane bound for Ontario, but experience told me that the pilots would do their best to make up the difference while in the air.
After settling into my aisle seat in row 12, I awaited the arrival of my two seatmates. Both had connections to Texas Christian University; the young lady occupying the middle seat was a sophomore Horned Frog while the woman sitting near the window had a daughter attending there. While the student spent most of the flight wearing her noise-reduction headphones, I chatted with the mom, who bore a slight physical resemblance to actress Patricia Richardson (who portrayed Jill Taylor on the long-running series “Home Improvement”) but who could be Richardson’s twin in terms of her mannerisms, facial expressions, vocal tone and especially her voice inflections.
When I pointed this out to her, she said, with a Richardsonian lilt accompanied by a downward tilt of the head, “I get that all the time.” She then told me she recently had dinner with “Home Improvement” star Tim Allen and his real-life wife as part of an outing in Cabo San Lucas arranged by sportscaster Jim Rome. I asked her if Allen spotted the resemblances to his longtime co-star, but she opted to focus on other memories of that dinner. Based on my observations, however, that had to be the first thing Allen noticed about her.
The plane encountered rough air about halfway into the two-and-a-half-hour flight, and the shaking prompted the young student to express her concern. I did my best to calm her by telling her several things about turbulence that pilots had told me, and my assurances seemed to do the trick.
I had no idea how deeply the departure delay in Pittsburgh had cut into my connection window until I deplaned in Dallas. Thankfully, my connecting gate was less than 200 yards from my arrival gate, and, even then, I arrived just two minutes before the boarding process started – and, unlike many flights, this boarding process began precisely on time. In all, I was inside DFW less than 10 minutes, and as I took my window seat in row 10, I knew how fortunate I was to be there.
I spent both flights reading Shane Ryan’s book “Slaying the Tiger: A Year Inside the Ropes on the New PGA Tour,” a 414-page tome thick enough (and entertaining enough) to help me through the 10-plus hours I’ll spend in the air over the next few days.
Once I landed in Ontario at 3:39 p.m. PDT – two minutes earlier than advertised – I boarded one of the three taxis parked at the edge of the terminal building. My driver – a native of Iran – intended to turn onto the ramp leading to Route 60 but access was blocked by a trio of police cars that surrounded a big rig. Having no choice but to go another route, the ride lasted about 45 minutes thanks to rush-hour traffic that crawled at best and inched at worst.
As we neared the Springhill Suites, I spotted an In-N-Out Burger outlet that appeared to be within walking distance of the hotel, a sight that definitely piqued my curiosity. As a West Virginian, I had heard nothing but high praise about the exclusively West Coast chain’s fare, and though I’ve been to California more than a few times over the years, the circumstances never quite lined up for me to give it a try. Either there was no outlet in the town we worked, or, if there was one, I didn’t have a rental car and the location was too far away for me to walk to it. Now, however, the stars had lined up and I was eager to indulge.
Before going on, allow me to provide some context: The first time I had heard of In-N-Out Burger was in 1991 when I interviewed featherweight legend (and future Hall of Famer) Danny “Little Red” Lopez for a “where is he now” feature I did for THE RING (the title of the story was classic: Danny “Little Red” Lopez: A Man of Construction Still Bent on Destruction). During our conversation, Lopez, who had spent some of his retirement working a jackhammer and a chipping gun for a construction company, mentioned that one of the things he did during his years away from the ring was filming commercials for In-N-Out. Because of my unfamiliarity with the franchise, it took me quite some time to confirm the spelling with Lopez, and that process – along with the fact that Lopez was one of my childhood heroes – planted the desire to eat there one day. It wasn’t until I started working West Coast shows that the interest was rekindled, and, since then, I was looking for the time, place and situation to do it. Now, here it was.
I broached the subject with the two ladies that checked me into my room, and both were eager to provide input. One suggested that I order fries with a “Double-Double” (described as a sandwich with two beef patties on freshly baked slow-rising sponge dough buns, freshly sliced or grilled onions, lettuce, tomato and a secret spread that has been unchanged since 1948) while the other advised me to order it with a milkshake instead of a soft drink. Armed with those recommendations, I was off.
Thanks to my revived walking regimen, I covered the quarter-mile trek with little trouble, but what was troublesome was the trio of roads I needed to cross in order to get to the outlet. Despite the presence of crosswalk buttons at one location, there was no clear line-of-sight path I could use to get to the other side. So, I had to improvise, and the result was a real-life version of the classic video game “Frogger.” Thankfully, I didn’t get squashed.
Look, I’ve already waited nearly 30 years to try In-N-Out; it was almost fitting that I had to give a little bit extra to do so.
Once inside, I took my place in line (I was second), ordered as I was recommended to, and waited for my food to arrive. As I did so, I took note of the malt-shop style uniforms, the staff’s crispness and coordination and the limited menu (three types of burgers – the Double-Double, the Cheeseburger and the Hamburger – to go along with the fries and the various beverages). This outlet lived up to the mission statement described on the company’s website: “the freshest burgers, fries and drinks in a friendly, sparkling-clean atmosphere….(using) the same basic menu our guests have enjoyed since 1948, and we’ve been serving everything up the same exact way: Fresh, made-to-order and with only the highest quality ingredients.”
Once my number was called, I got my food, chose a stool at the end of a long table (and next to the trash bin) and prepared to dig in. The burger was partially wrapped in a pouch to ease consumption and to limit messiness while the generous portion of fries poured over the limits of its container. As I prepared to take my first bite, I couldn’t help but savor the end of anticipation that had been building since the days when George H.W. Bush was president. I almost didn’t want to break that chain, but, after traveling thousands of miles and successfully dodging three layers of rush-hour traffic, I had no choice but to break it.
The theme is this article has been “first impressions,” and while I was happy to remove dining at In-N-Out from my “to do” list, I also believe my extremely high expectations diluted the actual experience. The burger was good, but not the very best I’ve ever had (that honor belongs to one I consumed in Omaha on my 50th birthday). The fries were well made but were a bit bland and somewhat cold. The shake was flavorful but much too thick to drink with a straw. On the positive side, the staff was friendly and the service was top-notch. I am open to the possibility that I didn’t get In-N-Out’s best pitch, and perhaps one day I’ll give it another try – maybe even during this trip. But there’s no impression like a first impression.
Once I returned to the room, I spent the remainder of the evening relaxing in front of the TV and catching up on all the news I missed while going coast to coast. Remaining on East Coast time, I opted to turn out the lights shortly after 10 p.m.
Saturday, May 10: How strange: I was mostly out for the next seven hours and awakened feeling refreshed, a trend I’ve also been experiencing at home. Has age deepened and lengthened my quality of sleep? Maybe so, maybe not. Whatever the reason, I’ll certainly take it.
After answering some boxing history questions for ESPN (a new part of my job with CompuBox is addressing such queries), I spent most of the morning cranking out words on the laptop. I met CompuBox colleague Dennis Allen in the lobby at noon, and because the venue is so close to our hotel, we were sure to make our 12:30 call time with ease.
I’ve long been uneasy with working shows outdoors because, more often than not, the conditions have been less than ideal. The last open-air card I worked was in Carson, Calif., in February, where sunset brought forth bone-chilling cold. Other outdoor shows I worked produced scorching heat, torrential rain, and even a brief power outage during the main event. Happily, my experiences at today’s venue – the Omega Products Event Center – have been largely good, and tonight’s forecast couldn’t be much better: Partly cloudy and temperatures in the mid-60s and a maximum five percent chance of precipitation.
But as our three-person carpool was about to walk out of the hotel, we realized that the five percent prediction had turned into 100 percent reality as a cold and persistent mist formed puddles in the concrete parking lot and brought into question whether the open-air show would even take place. Those questions were intensified when we reached ringside and saw that the ring was protected not by a solid roof but by a mesh covering that could not shield any of the electronic equipment from the elements. Even worse, it would not have kept the raindrops from hitting the ring surface and endangering the safety of the fighters.
If worse came to worst, Dennis and I would have been OK because there was enough room inside the production truck for us to count from there, but the move had to be decided upon with at least an hour’s notice.
In the end, however, no extra moves needed to be made.
The mist continued for another half-hour before stopping, and, from there, the weather – and the card’s prospects – brightened considerably. By 2 p.m. I was told with confidence that the rain would hold off for the duration and that the original ringside configuration would be retained. Yes, the ring would still be covered in plastic and the equipment would be under tarps for a few more hours, but the show would go on.
After returning to ringside following the crew meal, the process of readying the area for the show was well underway. Dennis and I soon saw the green lights we wanted to see and confirmed the connections we wanted to confirm. Only two undercard fights were staged before the TV lights were turned on, and both – Petr Petrov’s second round stoppage of Ruben Tamayo and Steven Acosta’s four round decision over Jose Emmanuel Lopez – were chronicled via stream by broadcasters Beto Duran and Rich Marotta. Before the show, I introduced myself to Beto and complimented him on his work – I genuinely enjoy his breezy yet informative commentary – but I was particularly happy to see Rich looking so well following a series of health challenges. I had met Rich several years earlier and created an instant connection by bringing up the series of cards he did at the Marriott Hotel in Irvine, Calif. during the 1980s (some of which I have on VHS) while also mentioning the name Dave Yonko, a portly redheaded heavyweight who was regularly featured on the series because his fights, more often than not, created excitement. Although I’ll see the fights live, I’ll make sure to seek out their broadcast once I return home.
But before doing that, Dennis and I have a show to count. We looked at the bout sheet and made our usual predictions of how many rounds we would work. With virtually no information beyond the records on the rundown, I guessed 24 rounds while Dennis said 18. Which of us would be proven correct? We shall soon see.
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 18 writing honors, including first-place awards in 2011 and 2013. 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 “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” (also available on Amazon). To contact Groves use the email [email protected] or send him a message via Facebook.