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The Travelin’ Man goes to Fundora vs. Zepeda: Part One

The WinnaVegas Casino & Resort in Sloan, Iowa
26
Jun

Thursday, June 20: Even before I returned home from my 27th consecutive International Boxing Hall of Fame Induction Weekend, I knew tons of work awaited my attention at the Home Office. That’s what happens when you lay everything aside for nearly a week and while I had plenty of fun in Canastota, I knew the time had come for me to buckle down.

And buckle down I did: After pulling several long days inside the Home Office that included changes to all four shows CompuBox is doing this week – the Thursday Golden Boy Promotions Facebook show, the Showtime card and the DAZN stream on Friday and Sunday night’s FOX telecast – I buttoned everything up about 90 minutes before going to bed Wednesday night, ensuring that I could begin my latest Travelin’ Man adventure with a clear mind and an enthusiastic spirit.

Today I will be trekking to Sloan, Iowa, to work the aforementioned Showtime telecast – the latest episode of the long-running series “ShoBox: The New Generation.” There, CompuBox colleague Andy Kasprzak and I will chronicle the tripleheader topped by junior middleweights Sebastian Fundora and Hector Zepeda and supported by a pair of lightweight contests (Michel Rivera vs. Rene Tellez-Giron and Yeis Solano vs. Elias Araujo, a late sub for fellow Argentine Jose Romero). As is usually the case with ShoBox, all three bouts offer interesting style contrasts and story lines but the main event is particularly intriguing because of the presence of Fundora, who, at 6-feet-5 ½ inches, is very likely the tallest junior middleweight in boxing history. Off the top of my head, I can only think of one other fighter who came close to Fundora’s height – the 6-foot-4 Guillermo Jones, who unsuccessfully challenged Laurent Boudouani for the WBA belt twice in a three-and-a-half-month span in 1998 and eventually became a titlist at cruiserweight.

Another name that immediately came to mind when pondering parallels to Fundora’s physique and style was a welterweight of recent vintage – former WBO titlist Paul Williams. Standing a “mere” 6-feet-1, his 79-inch reach was just one inch shorter than Fundora’s and his blend of southpaw stance, “Punisher’s” mindset and extremely high volume presented a similar set of issues to the 147-pounders of his day as Fundora’s assets present to today’s prospects. To give you an idea of how unusual Fundora is for fighters in his weight class, ponder this: Zepeda, Fundora’s opponent, stands 6-feet tall and owns a 71 ½-inch reach – above average dimensions for a 154-pounder and well-suited to his stick-and-move, points-oriented approach – yet, against Fundora, his tools and normal methodology would do him little good as he would be facing deficits of five-and-a-half inches in height and a mammoth eight-and-a-half inches in reach.

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I remember hearing an axiom that suggested if you think you’re the very best at something, it’s very likely that there’s somebody among the seven billion people on Earth who is better than you are. For Zepeda, at least in terms of height and reach, he will be facing that somebody. And worse yet: He’s left-handed too.

The question is, is there a 154-pounder boxer who is even taller and longer than Fundora?

 

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I awakened shortly before 6:30 a.m. with the intention of leaving the house at 7:15, arriving at Pittsburgh International Airport by 9:45 and reaching my gate by 10:15 in order to comfortably await my first flight of the day, an American Airlines journey to Charlotte that was scheduled to depart at 12:06. While I gave myself extra time due to longstanding construction on the I-470 ramp I use to re-enter West Virginia from Ohio (the detour adds six miles and 10 minutes to my usual drive), I didn’t anticipate the change I encountered less than 10 minutes after leaving home. A mudslide between Sistersville and Paden City closed West Virginia Route 2 to all through traffic heading to New Martinsville (the next city north of Paden City). There was, of course, a detour in the form of West Virginia Route 18, a narrow two-lane road that features dozens of tight turns and precious few opportunities to pass, should one be unlucky enough to be stuck behind a slow driver. Fortunately for me, that didn’t happen. Once I drove on Route 18 for several miles, I took a left turn onto another road that allowed me to re-enter Route 2 in New Martinsville. In all, this added three extra miles and 10 minutes to this drive but, thanks to light traffic the rest of the way, I arrived at the airport and at my gate by my predetermined times.

Every so often, I experience neat coincidences in terms of the people I meet in airports and the circumstances surrounding them. Today provided a couple examples.

I was searching for an open seat at Gate B 36 in Pittsburgh and found one with a couple of spaces on either side from someone else. Not long before, I received a text from American Airlines that the flight’s departure was being pushed back to 12:28 and the announcement over the loudspeaker that our plane had just arrived sparked a conversation between me and the woman to my right, an attractive strawberry blonde named Debbie who said she was 60 but looked at least 15 years younger. She told me about her 23-year-old daughter, an aspiring musician who is bound and determined to achieve her dreams.

“She told me she has no ‘Plan B’ because she believes having a Plan B means you’ll never work hard enough to achieve your ‘Plan A,’“ she said.

As someone who has already achieved many of his professional dreams, I told her an abridged version of my story and assured her that if I can do it, her daughter can as well – as long as she identifies and seizes upon any opportunities that she will encounter. Shortly before we were to board, I noticed the seat number on her boarding pass – 10C. Mine read “10A,” which meant we would be seated in the same row on the same side of the plane during our flight to Charlotte, ensuring that our conversation could continue for at least another 90 minutes, which, for the most part, it did.

Imagine: Of all the people I could have sat beside at the gate, I positioned myself near my future row-mate, a row-mate who happened to have a dream-chasing daughter who could benefit from hearing my story. And I wouldn’t have known about any of this had I not struck up a conversation. It’s a good thing that I ignored the advice about never talking to strangers.

Another neat coincidence: Our middle-seat occupant was another age-defying woman (early-60s) named Lauri, whose petite and trim physique reflected her status as a professional dietitian. Upon learning Lauri’s line of work, Debbie said she long needed advice on how to successfully apply new eating habits, advice that Lauri offered freely.

Debbie and I allowed Lauri to exit first because she had a very tight connection and, because the delay didn’t adversely affect my own connection window, I remained on the plane until nearly everyone else had departed. Better yet for me: My connecting gate was less than 200 feet from my arrival gate.

As I awaited the flight to Omaha – which was set to depart at 3:45 – I noticed that my name was listed first among the “upgrade requests” on the gate monitor. My status on American allows me to be automatically entered for such upgrades but when I didn’t hear my name over the loudspeaker, I assumed I would remain in my 13th row aisle seat. When I approached the counter to offer my boarding pass, the gate agent said, “One of the first-class passengers didn’t show up, so since you’re first on the upgrade list, I’m giving you a new boarding pass” – one that bore the seat number 1A.

Because my new seat was in row one, I had to find room in the overhead bins for both my laptop bag and my clothes bag and, because I was the last person to enter the first-class cabin, I felt lucky to find enough space to stow all my luggage. Before doing so, however, I dug out my reading material for this trip – Randy Gordon’s newly released Rowman & Littlefield book “Glove Affair.”

I first heard about “Glove Affair” from Gordon himself several months earlier and when he told me about the subjects he would cover – his friendship with Alexis Arguello, his bird’s-eye view of the infamous Luis Resto-Billy Collins Jr. glove tampering scandal, the tumultuous Eddie Flanning/Rahim Tayib incident while serving as an analyst for ESPN and his time with Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton, among other subjects – I knew this was a book I had to have. I couldn’t have chosen a better place to get my copy than where I did: Sharing a table with Gordon at the IBHOF’s card and memorabilia show. Not long after I paid for the book, Randy wrote a much-appreciated inscription, then began his autograph with the sweeping “R” that mimics The Ring Magazine’s iconic logo, which he told me was a nod to his stint as the magazine’s editor-in-chief.

Once I began reading, my lofty expectations not only were met but were exceeded. That’s because Gordon is an expert storyteller and his level of detail – both in terms of the nuts and bolts but also the emotions conveyed in the incidents he recounts – powerfully transports the reader to that time and place. Chapters three, five and six, in particular, are more than worth the price of the book. I’m not even finished yet and already I have a verdict: Two gloves up.

I am on record as stating that Gordon’s name should be placed before the IBHOF voters in the Observers category and I hope I’ll see his name – as well as that of broadcaster Tim Ryan, who, with Gil Clancy, comprised one of the very best broadcasting teams in the sport’s history – on that particular ballot in October.

By the time I landed in Omaha, I was already halfway through the book and could hardly wait to read the rest of it, which I planned to do on my way home on Saturday. In the meantime, I was supposed to meet my CompuBox colleague Andy Kasprzak, whose plane landed in Omaha just a few minutes earlier, at the Avis building. That’s exactly where he was when the rental car bus arrived at the facility, and, as soon as I punched in the address for the WinnaVegas Casino and Resort on my phone’s GPS app, we were on our way.

We arrived at the hotel a little more than an hour later and, after settling into my second-floor room, I took the elevator down to the lobby in hopes of getting a mid-evening meal. That meal was happily delayed when I spotted ring announcer Thomas Treiber and referee Mark Nelson chatting in the lobby.

“Hey, Travelin’ Man,” Mark cheerily shouted when he spotted me. I was at ringside when he worked the show at the Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, New York, during Hall of Fame weekend, but our respective work responsibilities prevented us from visiting. Still, he let me know that he read and appreciated the write-up of the card I presented in Part Two of my three-part IBHOF retrospective.

Mark and I first met in March 2018 during a Showtime card in Deadwood, South Dakota, a trip which included a visit to Mount Rushmore with Fightnews.com scribe (and great friend) Boxing Bob Newman and WBC official Mike George. Mark and I hadn’t seen each other since then and it was great catching up with him as well, as with Thomas, who was fresh off last week’s Josh Warrington-Kid Galahad show in Leeds. I may be known as “The Travelin’ Man” but that’s not because I have logged the most miles but because I’m the only one who writes about his travels and takes his readers along in the process. In terms of miles traveled, Thomas and Mark leave me in their dust.

During our conversation, I shook hands and briefly spoke with promoter Sampson Lewkowicz, someone I’ve known about for many years but with whom I spoke at length for the first time only last week during the morning hours of Induction Day. His is another name I would love to see on next year’s Non-Participants ballot because of his prodigious eye for talent as well as his promotional and matchmaking skills. One of his most famous clients, former middleweight champion Sergio Martinez, is scheduled to be one of the first-year eligibles for the IBHOF Class of 2020 and wouldn’t it be fitting to have Martinez and Lewkowicz immortalized on the same day and sitting on the same stage?

Once we said our goodbyes, I finally got my meal at one of the casino’s outlets, returned to my room and completed the winding-down process shortly after midnight.

 

 

Friday, June 21: The first day of summer in Sloan was a bit unsettling as a swath of storms appeared poised to strike the area. The radar map detailing the location of these storms was the first thing I saw when I turned on the TV shortly after 6 a.m. and the picture looked quite grim. Thankfully because the events center at the WinnaVegas is connected to the hotel, I won’t have to venture outside until tomorrow morning.

After spending a couple of hours writing and polishing copy, I took the elevator down to the first floor, walked to the events center and grabbed a copy of the schedule that stated that my call time wasn’t until 2 p.m. As I stepped into the elevator to return to my room, I looked down and noticed that a most unusual guest had literally hopped into the lift with me – a tiny puke-green toad. I didn’t know how the creature had gotten into the hotel but it was clear by his actions that my little friend dearly wanted to find a way out of the elevator and back outside but wasn’t smart enough to figure out how. So after I put my schedule on the desk in my room, I returned downstairs, informed a hotel employee about the presence of our guest and saw that the employee was taking the toad (who was inside a pair of Styrofoam cups) outside, safe and sound.

After informing the staff about the creature – which I initially misidentified as a frog – I laughed off my error by paraphrasing a line made famous by DeForest Kelley while portraying “Star Trek’s” Dr. Leonard McCoy: “I’m a punch counter, not a zoologist.” Upon hearing that, one of the members of Lewkowicz’s team asked me about the mechanics of doing fights with CompuBox, a question of which he had long pondered. Once I explained how we do what we do, he said that my answer greatly enhanced his knowledge about the process as well as his appreciation for it. With that, I returned to my room and worked on my copy until it was time to print out my boarding passes for tomorrow’s flights from Omaha to Charlotte and from Charlotte to Pittsburgh.

Once I finished that, I worked until I reached a good stopping point in the writing, then answered some e-mails, caught up on the boxing news I missed and surfed Facebook. Soon enough, it was time for me to head downstairs and begin another phase of what had already been a long work day. By this time, the stormy gray sky had turned partly sunny, a sight that lifted my mood even more as I packed my laptop bag, stowed my cell phone and walked toward the arena.

The bad weather had scrambled the travel fates of several Showtime staffers, including a key audio person who arrived less than 90 minutes before I came to the arena. Tired and frustrated as all of them must have been, they still performed their tasks with their trademark professionalism, skill and good humor.

One of the pre-card rituals I engage in is seeking out Showtime Senior Vice President Gordon Hall and exchanging thoughts on the televised fights, which we did following the crew meal. He also offered background and context regarding the one fight that was changed – Yeis Solano vs. Elias Araujo.

“It’s a very common story in boxing when a fighter falls out and this scenario happens on ShoBox more often than not for more high-profile fights,” he said. “We had problems getting (Jose Romero) into the country and the replacement fighter, in this case, Elias Araujo, was presented to me. Araujo fights out of the Fundora camp. There was footage available on him and he has a really pleasing style. At 20-1, he’s more of a veteran fighter who started boxing later in life – he began his amateur career at 25 and turned pro at 28 – and he doesn’t come in as your typical ShoBox fighter. Yeis Solano, on the other hand, is a prospect that, under the original scenario, was going to come in as the B-side in a prospect versus prospect match. To be clear, A-side and B-side doesn’t really matter as long as both are prospects and they have good amateur backgrounds. I knew Solano was a good fighter and I knew Romero was a good fighter but, when Araujo was presented, a fighter whose aggressive and brawling style makes for great fights, I figured we’ll make Solano the A-side as the prospect taking on his toughest test to date against the B-side veteran who has had more fights, faced tougher competition and has a blemish on his record. It’s an important fight for both at this point of their careers, with Solano looking to advance his career with a step-up win and Araujo facing a prospect in what can be called a ‘must-win’ situation. To me, Araujo comes in as the slight favorite and I think that this not only could be a better match than we originally planned but also it could be the best fight of the night.”

All the green lights I needed to see were lit a few minutes past the 3 p.m. crew meal, and, in looking over the bout sheet, we counted the opening bout of the card, a heavyweight four-rounder between amateur standout Roney Hines of Cleveland (6-0, 5 knockouts coming in) and Memphis journeyman Grover Young (13-26-3, 9 KOs). The raw numbers portended a mismatch – especially since Young had gone 1-11-2 in his last 14 – but a deeper look at Young’s record revealed two reasons why he could be a worthy opponent: (1) Only six of his 26 defeats – including just two since 2014 – were by KO, so it was very likely he could take Hines the distance and (2) he’s a southpaw.

While the predictable outcome came to pass – a 39-37 unanimous decision for the far taller Hines – the thicker Young offered what fellow scribe Steve Kim calls “professional resistance” and was never seriously threatened in terms of becoming a KO loser. That said, the 24-year-old Hines used tight pivots to maneuver around the 30-year-old Young, a tremendous work rate (94.8 punches per round, more than double the 44.8 heavyweight average) to keep Young focused on defense and a prolific jab (48 attempts/9.5 connects per round) to help pile up connect leads of 100-44 overall, 38-16 jabs and 62-28 power. Better yet, the taller Hines produced a good body attack as he led 35-13 in landed body shots but his high work rate did take a toll on his accuracy (26% overall, 20% jabs, 33% power). His defense, however, limited Young to 19% overall, 22% jabs and 18% power. All in all, a good performance by Hines against a rugged and willing competitor in Young.

The next fight saw St. Cloud, Minnesota, junior welterweight Joe James (now 5-0, 2 KOs) win a four-round majority decision over Omaha-based debutante Emeka Ifekandu, who produced a strong fourth round after being stunned at the end of round three. Meanwhile the stare-down of the night was followed by the only TKO of the non-televised undercard as Lincoln, Nebraska, super middleweight Jack Freriks successfully debuted at the expense of Randy Mast (now 1-2), who was stopped at the 1:48 mark of round three a moment after being dropped by a hard right.

If you attend enough boxing matches, you’ll eventually see something you haven’t seen before and, for me, one of those sights occurred when Springfield, Missouri, lightweight Nate Morrow danced and lip-synced to the ring walk music of opponent Jose Jacobo of Grand Island, Nebraska, who eventually raised his record to 6-1 (with 1 KO) and eroded Morrow’s to 1-2 (with 1 KO), thanks to a four-round unanimous decision (40-36 twice, 39-37). That score line also applied to the final non-televised fight of the night that saw Des Moines, Iowa, cruiserweight Tristan James (3-2-2) outpoint debuting Peoria, Illinois, product Anthony Holloway over four rounds.

Shortly before the evening’s fights began, the green lights that were so welcomed a few hours earlier suddenly turned red. The technical crew did everything they could to fix the issue and I even switched to the backup laptop just in case that was the cause. However nothing could be done and, as a result, a number of graphics – including those depicting the punch stats – could not be shown. In my 12-plus years of working shows at ringside, this is the first time that I’ve experienced a complete shutdown in terms of the connection between CompuBox and the production truck.

But every issue has a Plan B and, for me, that plan was to first inform my boss Bob Canobbio of the problem (to which he replied, in part, “Do the best you can”), then to advise Steve Farhood (to whom I pass my notes between rounds) to refer to the stats screen off the monitor that is usually situated a couple feet to his right and let him know that I’d be feeding him plenty of notes between rounds.

Happily the issues didn’t keep Andy and me from doing our appointed punch counts and we were in near agreement as to how many rounds we might work tonight; I said 20 of 26 possible rounds while Andy guessed 21. We also thought we would see an excellent night at the fights and I couldn’t wait to get started.

 

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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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