Saturday, May 25, 2019  |

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The Travelin’ Man goes to Villa-Lopez II

Photo by Dave Mandel/SHOWTIME
13
May

Friday, May 10 (continued): Taking part in his first nationally televised main event – and scheduled to fight 10 rounds for the first time – Ruben Villa was already taking on his share of new challenges. Adding to that burden was his opponent Luis Alberto Lopez, a Mexicali resident with a 17-2-1 (8 knockouts) record who also happened to be a living, breathing violation of fistic fundamentals. His straight-armed thrusts and off-kilter punching rhythms broke through often enough to redden Villa’s face in short order and his helter-skelter attack created an environment chaotic enough to test the “A-side” fighter’s ability to adapt to his environment. 

Through two rounds, Villa was pushing himself to keep up as Lopez had forged a narrow 40-39 lead in total connects thanks to his superior work rate (76.5 punches per round to Villa’s 57). Moreover, not only had Lopez nearly matched the consummate jabber in terms of connects (trailing by just 22-19), he also had established a 21-17 edge in landed power punches against a fighter who had posted impressive defensive numbers in his ShoBox debut in January. Against Ruben Cervera in Shreveport, La., Villa allowed just 11% of his opponent’s total punches to connect as well as only 9% of his foe’s jabs and 13% of his antagonist’s power punch attempts. Through the first six minutes, Lopez was faring better than Cervera had — 26% overall, 28% jabs and 25% power — and his face radiated the confidence of a man who was executing his plan. 

To Villa’s credit, he kept his cool, executed his own plan and waited for his chance to fully impose his tricks and his talent. While Lopez wasn’t achieving the stratospheric percentages that he recorded against Cervera, he still was landing more accurately than Lopez: 34% overall, 28% jabs and 47% power. The key figure for Villa was the 28% jab accuracy, because, more than most fighters, Villa relies on his jab to set the table for the rest of his game. If the jab doesn’t land well, his pinwheel pivots and multi-targeted combinations wouldn’t be nearly as effective. But because the jab was landing well, he had good reason to expect that his time to shine was just around the corner. 

The seeds of that moment may well have come sometime during round two, because from round three onward Villa’s rightward spirals, crisp counters and blazing combinations enabled him to open the locks to Lopez’s style, establish clear superiority and register a vital 10-round decision victory. In round three, Villa out-landed Lopez 22-9 overall despite being out-thrown 62-50, while consolidating that advantage in the fourth (31-10 overall, 17-2 jabs, 14-8 power). While Lopez continued to chase Villa with vigor – he averaged a robust 79.9 punches per round for the fight that included 47.2 power attempts per round – Villa’s scientific sophistication ruled the rest of the contest. 

The CompuBox statistics aptly illustrated the degree of his control: In rounds 3-10, Villa out-landed Lopez 181-102 overall, 103-43 jabs and 78-59 power, created percentage gaps of 38%-16% overall, 34%-17% jabs and 46%-15% power and led 38-7 in landed body shots on his way to total gaps of 220-142 overall, 125-62 jabs and 95-80 power, percentage leads of 37%-18% overall, 33%-19% jabs and 46%-17% power, and a 51-7 bulge in landed body punches. Moreover, Villa kept Lopez below 16 total connects in rounds 3-10 while Villa topped 16 connects in rounds three (22), four (31), five (19), six (33), nine (27) and 10 (18). 

While Villa’s superiority was unanimously acknowledged by the judges, the degree of domination varied. While Lou Moret (98-92) and Max DeLuca (97-93) saw Villa a clear victor, Fernando Villarreal was not as emphatic with his 96-94 scorecard. Still, the correct fighter won, and, in doing so, Villa proved that his scintillating performance in January was rooted more in reality than in favorable matchmaking. In other words, Villa further certified the positive first impression he created in January, and he did so by raising his game against a more challenging opponent who fought to win from bell to bell.

At 22, Villa should be in no hurry to tackle the featherweight champions – Leo Santa Cruz (WBA), Gary Russell Jr. (WBC), Josh Warrington (IBF) or Oscar Valdez (WBO). Instead, as Raul Marquez said in his post-fight comments, if Villa is to be considered an “A” fighter, he should be matched with an “A-minus” fighter in order to give him the seasoning he will need down the line. 

Given the technical skill he displayed against Cervera and Lopez, can you imagine what a truly seasoned version of Villa would look like? Speaking for myself, I’m looking forward to seeing that.

*

Anyone who has ever taken a liver shot will never forget it. Mine happened during my teen-age years when I was sparring with a friend in the back yard, and the moment his hook struck that special spot I knew our session had met its end. I never saw it coming, but its effects were unmistakable: The sudden exit of oxygen, the sensation of a million tiny needles pricking me from the inside out, the inability to move my legs and the panic that comes with the possibility that I might not live to see the next minute. The sense of control that comforts us all was suddenly taken from me; I struggled to take my next breath while also wondering if I would be able to stand up. Forget about getting up within 10 seconds; I just wanted to get up, period.

Photo by Dave Mandel/SHOWTIME

Just as I thought that I had met my end, normalcy gradually returned to me. After managing to muster my first breath, the second one came a bit easier, and the third even more so. The needles pelting my right side was replaced with a mild numbness and the feeling slowly returned to my legs. Convinced that I was now going to live, I silently went through the check list to see if all was well again. I shook some life into my legs and I took a deeper breath just to see if I could. Only when I felt that all was right again did I try to regain my feet. While the process felt like far longer, it probably took about a minute to complete. In any case, had this been a real fight, the good fellows at Boxrec would have posted the “KO by” long before I regained my senses. 

Ever since that day nearly 40 years ago, I still feel a small sympathy pang whenever I see a fighter fall from a liver shot, and such was the case when Michael Dutchover’s hook to the ribs felled Filipino Rosekie Cristobal just 106 seconds after their super lightweight fight began. As soon as I struck the “body power connect” button for Dutchover, I sensed that my work for this fight was finished. Roughly 10 seconds later, it was, closing the curtain on a fight in which Dutchover out-threw the lanky southpaw 52-21, out-landed him in all phases (12-5 overall, 1-0 jabs, 11-4 power) and prevailed 6-3 in body connects. The percentage gaps were just a matter of record (24%-23% Cristobal overall, 4%-0% Dutchover jabs, 38%-31% power) because the Thompson Boxing prospect finished the late-sub for Ramon Mascarena in most resounding fashion. 

The ringside scuttlebutt was that the rangy Filipino could have been troublesome due to his lefty stance and his penchant for fouling (two of his three previous losses were by disqualification), but Dutchover, now 13-0 (10) to Cristobal’s 15-4 (11), put an end to all that with one well-placed punch – the liver punch. 

*

The opening bout of the telecast provided the best sustained two-way action as Saul Sanchez stopped Brandon Benitez 19 seconds into round eight. Neither felt the need for a feeling-out process as their heavy punches quickly produced swellings under the eyes for both men. At the end of three rounds, Sanchez pounded out leads of 53-46 overall, 12-7 jabs and 41-39 power while averaging 48.7 punches per round to Benitez’s 53.3. But it was in round four that Sanchez began to separate himself as he out-threw Benitez 72-49 and out-landed him 22-14 overall as well as 21-12 power, and that set the stage for what happened in round seven – leads of 36-18 overall, 36-17 power, and, most importantly, a 20-3 lead in landed body shots. Benitez – who Dennis said was Leo Santa Cruz without the smile – was ripe for the taking and Sanchez seized on the moment by firing a barrage capped by a right hand that prompted referee Raul Caiz Jr. to intervene at the 18-second mark. Some might say the stoppage was a bit quick, but I’m not one of them. 

The final numbers had Sanchez ahead 145-94 overall, 22-16 jabs, 123-78 power and 68-31 in landed body shots. Sanchez was more active (56.8 punches per round to Benitez’s 53.5) as well as more accurate (36%-25% overall, 21%-15% jabs, 42%-29% power). In terms of table setters, Sanchez-Benitez certainly fulfilled its role. 

*

I waited until the credits had finished rolling before shutting down my laptop, and once the packing process was completed Dennis and I waded through the crowd watching the first of two “walk-out” fights and walked out to his rental car. He asked if I wanted to get something to eat, and, after I said yes, he suggested In-N-Out because he knew I had wanted to eat there for the longest time and had not yet told him I had indulged yesterday. Still, I wanted to give it another try for two reasons: (1) to form a more complete opinion, and (2) I was famished. 

As Dennis drove toward the outlet, I asked what he preferred to get. He replied, “a Double-Double with grilled onions instead of chopped onions along with fries and a soft drink.” I decided to get the same, and once we arrived at the Springhill Suites, we said our goodbyes and resumed our respective evenings. 

Being one to always put work before pleasure, I chose to enter the night’s stats into the master database and inform the Draft Kings people that they were ready to be used before indulging in my meal. Yes, the food had cooled down a bit by then, but from first bite to last I knew that I made the right choice by giving In-N-Out an immediate second try. The burger was delicious and the fries, while cold and limp, were helped considerably by the ketchup. This time, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and that may be because I lowered the bar on my expectations. While it is true that first impressions can be overpowering – and sometimes irreversible – there is something to be said for second chances, too.

The meal perfectly set the stage for the winding-down process, a process that concluded shortly after midnight. 

Saturday, May 11: My eyes popped open at 4:30 a.m. and I decided to rest them for another half hour before officially arising. Following the morning routines, I spent the next two-plus hours catching up on my writing, after which I packed my belongings and headed down to the lobby to check out of my room, expecting to wait a few minutes for my ride to the airport, a car service I had arranged yesterday to arrive at 8:30 a.m. 

My timing was perfect: Although I arrived at the registration desk 10 minutes before the car service was to show up, the driver had entered the building just a minute earlier than I did. Saturday morning traffic in Corona was much less severe than was the case when I arrived late Thursday afternoon, and, as a result, I arrived at Ontario’s airport in less than 20 minutes’ time. 

*

As I boarded the plane bound for Dallas and took my window seat in row nine, I had no idea that a giant of boxing who also had been a longtime friend had passed over to the other side. Not long after deplaning at DFW and taking my seat at Gate C-10, I received a group e-mail from Ring Magazine Editor-in-Chief Douglass Fischer bearing a subject line that hit me like a howitzer: “Harold Lederman’s Passing.”

If ever there was a universally beloved figure in this backstabbing, rough-and-tumble sport, it was Lederman, who died of cancer during the morning hours at age 79. His passion for “The Sweet Science” permeated every cell of his being, and despite decades of exposure to the sport’s ugly underbelly, he always managed to embody good cheer, enthusiasm and humanity.

It was my great privilege to work several HBO telecasts with Harold, who was always quick with a breezy “hiya, Lee,” a good word and a novel piece of boxing trivia. If anyone would know about the nooks and crannies of boxing history, it was Harold, for his home was stuffed to the gills with memorabilia collected from his decades of ringside adventures. According to Boxrec, Lederman judged fights from November 1967 to August 1999 and, by his count, he had judged more than 100 world title fights on six continents. His most memorable fights as an “official official” including the following:

*Emile Griffith W 10 Dick Tiger II (8-2 Griffith)

* Ken Buchanan W 15 Ismael Laguna II (10-5 Buchanan)

* Esteban DeJesus W 10 Roberto Duran I (6-3-1 DeJesus)

* Muhammad Ali W 15 Ken Norton III (8-7 Ali)

* Matthew Franklin KO 12 Marvin Johnson I (49-35 Franklin)

* James Scott W 12 Eddie Mustafa Muhammad (9-2-1 Scott)

* Roberto Duran W 10 Carlos Palomino (99-90 Duran)

* Larry Holmes KO 12 Mike Weaver I (106-103 Holmes)

*  Eusebio Pedroza W 15 Rocky Lockridge I (144-142 Lockridge)

* Donald Curry W 12 Marlon Starling I (116-112 Curry)

* Wilfredo Gomez KO 14 Lupe Pintor (125-121 Gomez)

* Michael Dokes D 15 Mike Weaver II (143-143)

* Larry Holmes KO 10 David Bey (87-82 Holmes)

* Michael Spinks W 15 Larry Holmes I (143-142 Spinks)

* Evander Holyfield W 15 Dwight Muhammad Qawi I (144-140 Holyfield)

* Michael Spinks KO 5 Gerry Cooney (39-37 Cooney)

* Azumah Nelson W 12 Jesse James Leija IV (116-112 Leija). 

This list, of course, is not complete, but it should illustrate the depth and breadth of his judging experience on the official side of the street. Fittingly, the two final fights of his tenure as a licensed judge – Trina Ortegon W 10 Suzette Taylor and Eric Morel KO 1 Franco Espitia on August 6, 1999 in Columbus, Ohio – saw him judge with his daughter Julie, who he took on many of his global excursions and has crafted her own outstanding judging career. 

His vast experience led to a decades-long association with HBO as boxing’s first “unofficial official,” but it was his ebullient, everyman personality that stamped him as something far beyond his sober role. His reading of the pre-fight rules – which was often capped by a hearty “Jim!” to fellow Hall of Famer Jim Lampley — and his lively in-fight explanations of his scoring became a beloved staple of HBO broadcasts while also creating a level of fame and adoration that was uniquely his. Whenever he was in public, he would happily sign autographs, take pictures and talk boxing for as long as possible. He took to his unofficial ambassador role with typical relish, and that relish had an unmistakably positive effect. Harold was just being Harold, but his actions made more than one person think the following: If this guy loves boxing so much, how bad could boxing be?

For many years, Harold juggled his HBO gig with his role as a pharmacist (he had an office in Orangeburg, New York, which, of course, received a five-star rating on a e-Healthscores.com web page). Sometimes the strain of maintaining his schedule would wear on him, but the promise of an upcoming night at ringside would pull him through. 

As time went on, Harold became a character of the sport in the best sense of the term. His high-pitched New York accented voice was oft-imitated, and he created an indelible link to boxing fans with his self-deprecating manner as well as his deep knowledge of the sport and its history. Part of that knowledge was collected during countless nights sitting ringside at small club shows, and the attention he invested in the deep undercard fights was as intense as the energy he devoted to the high-profile fights he judged for HBO. I had the pleasure of watching several of those undercard bouts with Harold, and he would often provide me with a factoid or a story about one of the fighters in the ring. Harold knew everyone, and everyone knew Harold. And loved him.

My connection to him is both personal and professional, and in both he had a profound impact. After watching Danny “Little Red” Lopez throw (by my unofficial count) 1,781 punches against Genzo Kurosawa in 1974, I reported my discovery on a private boxing chatroom board. Harold happened to be a member of the room, and, he, in turn, referred me to CompuBox president Bob Canobbio. Canobbio told me years later that this was the one and only time Harold had ever recommended someone to him in terms of a future hire, and, for that, I will be eternally grateful. 

Harold also played an indirect role in improving the book I wrote with Canobbio entitled “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers.” Originally, “Numbers” was going to be a rather simply written narrative accompanied by numbers, but that all changed one spring day when I was charged with answering an unrelated history question. While perusing the September 1976 issue of “World Boxing” in search of that answer, I came across the following quote by Harold regarding the judging of Muhammad Ali-Jimmy Young:

“I think Jimmy Young won the fight,” he said. “It really shouldn’t matter that it’s a heavyweight championship fight. The winner should be the man who does the most. I think Young did more. Ali just didn’t do enough to warrant his winning the fight.”

Before then, I did not know that Harold had commented on the fight, and I thought the future readers of our book would find that as interesting as I did. That one quote – one which could not be found on the Internet — not only prompted me to scour all my back issues for Ali-related quotes and factoids, but also to purchase hundreds of other back issues that covered the Ali era at the following IBHOF induction weekend. As a result, the narrative inside “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” was made far richer, and I have Harold to thank for it. 

The members of the now-defunct boxing chatroom had so much affection for Harold that, to a person, he is always referred to as “Our Harold.” We treasured the fact that he would spend some of his time with us, and each time he did, he would invest his full range of knowledge without ever talking down to us. Because of that trait, I say this: Not only was Harold a real boxing guy; he was a real boxing guy. That’s why I count his induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2016 as one of my happiest days; for many of us, it was an honor that should have been bestowed on him many years before. But every event has its season, and all of us were glad that Harold was alive and healthy to enjoy his well-deserved day in the sun.

Then again, Harold had already experienced several other “days in the sun”; he was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997, the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame in 2005, the New York State Boxing Hall of Fame in 2014 and the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame in 2015. He was twice honored by the Boxing Writers Association of America as he won the Marvin Kohn Good Guy award in 2006 and the Sam Taub Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism in 2008.

I could go on and on about the virtues of Harold Lederman, and I’m sure my fellow scribes will fill in every blank. I, along with everyone else in the boxing community, will mourn his passing. I will never forget what he did for me personally and for what he did for boxing in general. His final days were said to have been spent in pain at hospice, and the fact that his earthly pain has ceased is a source of comfort. For if anyone in this world deserves to have everlasting joy and peace in the next one, it is Harold Lederman.

In closing, I will pass along a quote from promoter Lou DiBella that should serve as the quintessential description of the man and his spirit: “Harold lived boxing, Harold loved boxing, and Harold died boxing. He was one of a kind and there will never be another like him in boxing.”

*

Soon after receiving the bad news about Harold’s passing, I, along with everyone else scheduled to fly to Pittsburgh, received another body blow when it was announced that a four-plus hour delay had just been imposed. The reason: Bad weather across the southern half of the U.S. caused a ripple effect that grounded planes and shifted itineraries, and, as a result, the plane that was originally set to take us from Dallas to Pittsburgh was still grounded in Tampa – and would not push out for quite a while. 

About a half hour later, it appeared that we had been given a reprieve; another plane had been secured to take us to Pittsburgh, with the only caveat being that we would have to walk from Gate C 10 to Gate C-37 – a fairly lengthy trek, but one that wouldn’t require four hours either. Once we arrived, the monitor indicated that boarding would begin in just two minutes. The collective relief among us passengers was hard to miss. 

Unfortunately, relief soon would be replaced by confusion, then frustration. The change in planes also precipitated a shift in personnel – and one of the flight attendants on the new crew was still in transit. The departure time of 6:39 p.m. was pushed back to 7:15, then to 7:45, then to 8 p.m., then to 8:20, then to 8:50. Finally at 9:21 p.m., the flight attendant arrived at C-37, which prompted a rousing ovation from the hundreds of passengers at the gate. 

I passed the time the way I always do: Either writing on the laptop or by chatting with fellow passengers. Children have long been told not to talk with strangers, but I’ve always had a knack for breaking the ice with a humorous observation that would lead to extended conversation. Not only have these conversations made my travels more enjoyable over the years, I’ve also created several long-lasting contacts that remain to this day. 

Once I boarded the aircraft, I was evident that our new bird was an upgrade from our original one. The seats were a bit more comfortable, and the back of each seat had a monitor that allowed us to watch movies, play games and follow our flight path from start to finish from multiple angles. I opted for the third option, which held my attention and piqued my fascination for the entirety of the flight. 

I landed in Pittsburgh at 12:24 a.m. EDT, and not only did the late hour produce a challenge, the torrential rain presented another. While somewhat shielded by a hat and my IBHOF windbreaker, the five-minute walk to my car left me drenched. Once in the car, however, all was well again as I turned on my Sirius XM radio and sated my appetite with a stop at a 24-hour drive-through. For those who believe that three is significant number, it was fitting that I pulled into the driveway at 3:33 a.m.

With that, another Travelin’ Man adventure came to a close. It had been a long and draining day, both physically and emotionally, and I was happy that it was over. Because plenty of work awaited my attention, I accelerated my winding-down process and turned out the lights an hour later. 

Happily, I will have several weeks to catch up on my work at the Home Office. Even more happily, my next Travelin’ Man journey, God willing, will mark my single favorite week on the calendar – the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s Induction Weekend. 

*

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.

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