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The Travelin’ Man goes to Baltimore: Part One

Royal Farms Arena, Baltimore, Maryland
29
Jul

Friday, July 26: For boxing, the last seven days have illustrated why those who love it love it so much and why those who hate it hate it so much.

Manny Pacquiao’s thrilling split decision victory over Keith Thurman was boxing at its best on several levels. First, a beloved icon defeats a younger, stronger and determined champion with a fusion of speed, savvy and strength that defied his age (40), his years in the pro ranks (24) and the number of rounds (486) and fights under his belt (71). Second, boxing history is replete with examples of legends being brutally humbled by lesser-loved but better-equipped opponents; however Pacquiao turned that history on its head by turning back the clock and clocking Thurman time and again. Third, Thurman – a betting underdog and the “B-side” of the promotion despite being a champion near his chronological prime – fought hard to keep his belt after being floored in round one and he even got the better of Pacquiao at times. Finally after the split decision against him was announced, Thurman was the epitome of class, honor and dignity amid circumstances that would have seen others complain, pout or lash out. As a calm, smiling and thoughtful Thurman expressed his post-fight remarks without a trace of bitterness, I believed he was expanding his universe of admirers.

Manny Pacquiao (right) vs. Keith Thurman. Photo by Wendell Alinea/Team Pacquiao

Manny Pacquiao (right) vs. Keith Thurman. Photo by Wendell Alinea/Team Pacquiao

As a prognosticator, I was a bit disappointed with the final result because I foresaw a commanding Thurman decision victory. But as a historian, I was amazed by all Pacquiao achieved, not just inside the ring but also by the records and fresh factoids he established. Consider:

* By winning Thurman’s WBA’s title, Pacquiao became the first fighter ever to win widely-recognized versions of the 147-pound title on four occasions, breaking his tie with three-time winners Jack Britton and Emile Griffith.

* At 40 years 225 days (including “leap days” lived), Pacquiao became the oldest fighter ever to win a widely recognized belt at 147 and the first to do so after age 40. The previous record holder was Randall Bailey, who was 37 years 279 days old when he stopped Mike Jones in 11 for the vacant IBF belt – a fight that happened to be on the undercard of Tim Bradley-Pacquiao I.

* Pacquiao now holds the Nos. 1, 4 and 5 spots in terms of oldest fighters to win a widely recognized 147-pound world title. He was 36 years 333 days old when he decisioned Jessie Vargas in November 2016 and 35 years 125 days old when he defeated Bradley Jr. in their second of three meetings in April 2014. Pacquiao also became the only fighter ever to win widely recognized 147-pound belts three times after age 35.

* Pacquiao is now the first and only fighter in boxing history to win widely recognized world titles as a teenager and as a 40-year-old. He was 19 years 357 days old when he won the WBC flyweight title from Chatchai Sasakul and was 40 years 225 days old when he dethroned Thurman.

* Pacquiao is the 30th youngest fighter ever to win a widely recognized world title and, by beating Thurman, is the fifth oldest individual to do so. The four men ahead of him are Bernard Hopkins – who won three shares of championships at 49 years 106 days, 48 years 65 days and 46 years 137 days – George Foreman at 45 years 310 days, Thulane “Sugar Boy” Malinga at 42 years 19 days (he won an earlier belt at 40 years 92 days) and Cornelius Bundrage at 41 years 36 days.

* Pacquiao became the second fighter ever to extend his championship arc past 20 years (20 years 233 days as of July 20). He won his first major title on December 4, 1998 and his latest on July 20, 2019. Only Foreman’s 22 years 163 days is longer (he won his first belt on January 22, 1973 and relinquished his last on June 29, 1995) but Foreman was retired for more than a decade while Pacquiao has been active throughout.

* Finally Pacquiao is likely to become the first fighter to hold a widely recognized belt in four different decades because he’ll likely not fight again until 2020.

However as exciting and historic as Pacquiao-Thurman was, it could not – and should not – supersede the sadness, shock and horror of what transpired the night before 2,400 miles east of Las Vegas and on the same night as Pacquiao-Thurman, 6,100 miles southeast of “Sin City.” In a fight staged in Oxon Hill, Maryland, and streamed live on ESPN +, junior welterweight Maxim Dadashev was stopped following 11 rounds of combat with fellow unbeaten Subriel Matias on the undercard of Teofimo Lopez-Masayoshi Nakatani while in Buenos Aires the following evening lightweight Hugo Santillan fought a 10-round draw with Eduardo Abreu on a card aired live on Argentina’s TyC (Torneos y Competencias) channel. In both matches, Dadashev and Santillan dominated the first four rounds only to be walked down and punished by Matias and Abreu from round five onward. The post-fight scenes were wrenching; Dadashev being helped from the ring, vomiting and being placed on a stretcher and a faltering Santillan being held up by his trainer/father before collapsing to the canvas the moment after the draw decision was announced. Both underwent surgery but both eventually succumbed to their injuries. Dadashev was 28 while Santillan was just 23.

The boxing world was already in a state of mourning following the sudden death of Hall-of-Famer Pernell Whitaker – who was killed July 14 at age 55 after being struck by a car in Virginia Beach, Virginia – but the demises of Dadashev and Santillan served to drive home the reality that death can strike anyone who dares to fight another person inside a boxing ring, even when the event is sanctioned, offers a full complement of medical personnel and equipment and is overseen by astute and compassionate chief seconds like Hall-of-Famer James “Buddy” McGirt, who recognized that Dadashev had taken enough punishment and stopped the fight between rounds 11 and 12.

It is fights such as Matias-Dadashev and Abreu-Santillan that pierce the consciences of even the most seasoned observers. We wonder why we continue to invest our passion and devote our lives to a sport that has been so lethal to so many since the turn of the 20th century. In 2019 alone I have been ringside at two shows in which one of the combatants had to be transported to the hospital for trauma – Zab Judah after his 11th round TKO loss to Cletus Seldin, June 7, at the Turning Stone Casino during the IBHOF’s Induction Weekend, and two weeks later in Sloan, Iowa, when Argentine lightweight Elias Araujo lost a punishing eight-round split decision to Yeis Solano. Thankfully both are still with us. But the fight that shook my fandom to its core was Delvin Rodriguez’s 11th round TKO of Oscar Diaz July 16, 2008, in San Antonio, a fight for which I was ringside as one of the three “Punch Track” operators. After collapsing to the canvas, Diaz was removed from the ring on a stretcher, underwent brain surgery and was in a coma for the next two months. He remained in a compromised state at a nursing home until his death at age 32 in February 2015, a tragic and truncated end that was directly tied to his choice to box for a living.

Maxim Dadashev. Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank

Maxim Dadashev. Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank

There are many reasons men and women opt to become boxers, and once they make the commitment, they – and the people around them – assess the pros and cons of continuing on a fight-to-fight basis. Thanks to a more rigorous medical protocol, especially in the busiest and highest profile jurisdictions, boxing is as safe as it can be without disturbing the elements that make it so compelling to the masses. However the risks will always remain and, as a result, more names will be added to the roll call of ring tragedies. Maxim Dadashev and Hugo Santillan are simply the latest additions to that roll call and the fact their deaths came within two days of each other only intensifies the pain.

The only guaranteed way to prevent another ring death is to institute an immediate worldwide ban. But if boxing is to be banned, then, in order to maintain moral consistency, other violent and dangerous sports should be ended with the same dispatch. Since none of that is going to happen, we observers should hope that every competition is strictly supervised at all levels and that all participants will receive the appropriate amount of care – preventative as well as on-site.

That said, I do believe there is a way for fans and observers to foster a better environment for those in the line of fire: Eliminate the stigma attached to fighters who are removed from lost causes and from the trainers who have the courage to make that determination. On the same card as Solano-Araujo in Sloan, chief second Romulo Quirarte Sr. and son Romulo Quirarte Jr. were criticized for stopping Hector Zepeda’s fight with Sebastian Fundora after round four because they believed their fighter would not be able to reverse the negative tide. Yes, fans were denied a definitive end but Zepeda (who didn’t argue with the decision) was spared the sustained punishment that surely would have been inflicted. To the credit of ESPN’s commentary team of Joe Tessitore, Timothy Bradley Jr., Andre Ward, Max Kellerman and Mark Kriegel, they unanimously hailed McGirt’s decision to stop the Dadashev fight and it’s good that other announce teams have offered similar leeway. Viewers, whether they like to admit it or not, are often influenced by opinion-makers on TV and if those opinion-makers continue to create a climate of tolerance in this regard, that climate, over time, will be adopted by more and more fans.

Hugo Santillan. Photo courtesy of the WBC

Hugo Santillan. Photo courtesy of the WBC

WBC/WBO junior welterweight titlist Jose Carlos Ramirez expressed this hope in a story posted by Keith Idec on BoxingScene earlier in the week.

“We’re by ourselves inside that ring,” he said, “and sometimes coaches and fighters, they don’t want to stop fighting, even though it’s best for them to stop fighting. But they won’t want to stop fighting because they’re more focused on the criticism that might come afterwards than their own health. So hopefully the fighters understand – and the fans and the community of the boxing world – learn now to understand the boxers a little bit more and what they go through.

“Hopefully people do learn from this,” he continued. “Hopefully this can make people more compassionate about the sport of boxing, rather than the negativity that a fighter might come across through social media and stuff like that. Boxing’s an amazing sport and fighters are going to go out there and not be concerned about what could happen. Fighters will go out there and try to do everything they can do to win. I just hope the fans respect that. It’s a shame that tragic events have to happen like this for people to find out what’s really within their own hearts, what are their own principles and morals.”

If fans and media want to do something positive to honor the memories of Dadashev, Santillan and the hundreds of fighters who died before them, I suggest they do this: Remember them the next time a boxer tells his corner he can’t fight anymore or the next time a trainer tells a referee or a ringside physician his charge is unable to continue. Refrain from calling them “quitters” or questioning their courage and judgment. Make it OK to live and fight another day. Bestow the benefit of the doubt until contrary evidence is unearthed.

If this attitude becomes the default instead of the exception, then boxing will be blessed by the best of all worlds – the freedom to fully appreciate thrilling fights such as Pacquiao-Thurman and a more tolerant and understanding environment in which tragedies such as Abreu-Santillan and Matias-Dadashev hopefully will be made rarer than they already are.

 

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Like everyone else in the boxing business, I continued to move forward following the events of this week. For me, the next three days will be highlighted by my latest Travelin’ Man adventure, one that will take me to Baltimore. There, native son Gervonta Davis will risk his WBA junior lightweight title at super featherweight against mandatory challenger Ricardo “El Cientifico” Nunez and will be supported by a 10-round lightweight showdown between former champions Yuriorkis Gamboa and Roman Martinez as well as a 10-round lightweight contest between Ladarius Miller and onetime 130-pound titlist Jezreel (a.k.a. Jezzrel) Corrales.

Davis-Nunez will break a lengthy title-fight drought in Baltimore, for it will be the city’s first championship fight of any kind since light heavyweight king Bob Foster stopped Mark Tessman in 10 rounds at the Civic Center on June 27, 1970. Also, Davis will be the first native of Baltimore to risk his title at home since Harry Jeffra retained his NYSAC featherweight championship by outpointing Spider Armstrong over 15 rounds at Carlin’s Park 79 years ago.

By the way, Nunez should not be confused with another active fighter from Panama named Ricardo Nunez. That Nunez is actually the challenger’s older brother and while they share the same first and last names, their point of separation is found in the middle name. The full name of Davis’ challenger is “Ricardo Antonio Nunez Perez” while the older brother’s is “Ricardo Adolfo Nunez Perez.” Cheekily the nickname of Davis’ 26-year-old challenger is “El Cientifico” (“The Scientist”) while his 31-year-old sibling’s is “El Matematico” (“The Mathmetician”).

Got it? Good.

For me, the route – on paper, at least – was uncomplicated and direct: A two-and-a-half hour drive from home to Pittsburgh International Airport, a 11:50 a.m. Southwest flight from Pittsburgh to Baltimore Washington International Airport (a.k.a. BWI) and, after picking up my rental vehicle, a drive to the crew hotel, the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront on Aliceanna Street. Also, today’s responsibilities numbered three – drive from the crew hotel to the venue, successfully test the electronic connections between my laptop and the production truck and drive back to the hotel.

Sounds easy, right? In practice, however, it was anything but.

First, finding a parking space in Pittsburgh’s extended parking lot took far longer than expected. As I continued to sift row after row and lot after lot, I actually thought there were no unoccupied spaces among the thousands that were allotted. Finally after nearly 30 minutes of searching, I found one space in an unfamiliar section of the extended lot and, after noting its location on my ticket, I began my walk toward the terminal.

I ended up cutting things much closer than I normally would – I arrived at the gate just 35 minutes before boarding was set to start. Another departure from routine is that, despite drawing B-38 on my Southwest boarding pass (which would, in theory, make me the 98th person set to board in their open-seating protocol), I chose not to buy a Business Select upgrade that would have placed me between A-1 and A-15. The reason: It only takes 41 minutes to fly from Pittsburgh to Baltimore and even in the unlikely event I ended up in a middle seat, the agony wouldn’t last very long.

I need not have worried; I actually snagged an aisle seat in row 16 inside a cabin that was only three-quarters filled. The flight was smooth but getting around Baltimore ended up being a test of patience and nerve.

As someone who is accustomed to driving on interstates and country roads, I detest urban driving with its narrow lanes, one-way streets, honking horns and bumper-to-bumper conditions. However because I was assigned a rental vehicle, I had little choice but to hope that my Google Maps app on my cell phone would successfully guide me through the three drives I had to make – from airport to hotel, from hotel to venue and from venue to hotel.

The good news was that Google Maps worked to perfection. The bad news is that each drive was executed amid the worst congestion I’ve experienced in years, if not ever. This was especially true for the trips to and from the venue, the Royal Farms Arena on Baltimore Street. The raw distance is a little more than a mile but the drive to the arena took 50 minutes to complete while the drive back to the hotel lasted more than an hour. By the way, the electronic check in the production truck took less than five minutes from start to finish but I remained inside the arena long enough to learn that Davis made weight on his first try (he scaled 129 ½ to Nunez’s 128 ¾) while Yuriorkis Gamboa scaled 0.6 pounds over the 134-pound catchweight against Martinez. The Cuban was 2.1 pounds lighter when he returned to the scale, an impressive figure to drop in such a short period of time but one that puts into question how effective he might be against Martinez.

I spent the remainder of the evening in my hotel room relaxing, catching up on the news and sports I missed as well as enjoying a room service meal. For me, the day ended shortly after 1 a.m.

 

Saturday, July 27: Following five-and-a-half hours of restful slumber, I spent most of the morning writing most of the words you’ve read thus far. I took a break to print out my boarding pass and in the lobby I met punch-counting partner Andy Kasprzak, who was checking into his room. After giving him his credential, I finished my work and knowing the hard drive that was ahead, I opted to leave for the arena at 12:40 p.m. in the hopes of arriving by my 2 p.m. call time.

Guess what happened? Traffic was only moderately clogged and I arrived at the arena shortly after 1 p.m. I was OK with the extra-early arrival because I take great comfort at being where I need to be, even if it’s long before I need to be there. Over the years I’ve become an expert at killing time because I can always think of something productive to do – even if it’s just staring into space and letting my imagination wander.

I parked my rental vehicle – a white Jeep – near the elevator on Level 4 of the garage, then had to walk around the perimeter of the arena to access the one entry point assigned to those of us working the show. Once my laptop bag was searched and once I walked underneath the metal detector without setting off alarms, I made my way to the CompuBox work station. Power was already available and, within an hour, Sports Media aces Andy Vanderford and Jerry Collender confirmed that all the connections were successfully established.

Andy and I counted only one of the six off-TV fights – a scheduled 10-round junior lightweight fight between Jayson Velez and Hector Suarez. The reason: Velez is currently rated third by the WBA at 130 and with mandatory challenger Ricardo Nunez fighting Davis, a victory could mean a future title shot.

Although Suarez sported a journeyman’s record of 12-10-2 (with 6 knockouts) – the result of an ongoing 0-6-1 slide – his slight advantages in height and reach as well as his willingness to engage proved to be a useful exercise for Velez, who peppered the willowy and willing Suarez with jabs (37 attempts/7.9 connects per round) and up-and-down combinations throughout the fight. The contest ended in round seven due to a laceration inside Suarez’s mouth, ending a fight in which Velez averaged a robust 94.5 punches per round to Suarez’s 58.6, led 266-74 overall, 53-28 jabs and 213-46 power and prevailed 42%-19% overall, 21%-16% jabs and 55%-21% power. Velez’s body attack was superb as he landed 126 body shots to Suarez’s 25. Although Velez never came close to flooring Suarez, his domination was beyond dispute and should serve as an excellent preamble for the hoped-for championship fight.

As for the rest of the time spent at ringside, I chatted with The Ring writer Joe Santoliquito, ring announcer Ralph Velez (who handled all of the fights not aired on Showtime’s main channel) and said hello to the Showtime Spanish announce team of Alejandro Luna and Raul Marquez as well as Spanish interpreter Felix DeJesus. In the back I ran into former three-belt lightweight champion Nate Campbell, who I hadn’t seen in several years. Nate and I are friends, so much so that, a few years ago, Nate graciously gave me one of his robes. It hung in my closet for a few years but the more I thought about it, the more I believed it right to donate the robe to the IBHOF.

I also spent a few minutes increasing the sentimental value of one of my books. While looking for another book this past week, I came across my copy of “The Ring: Boxing in the 20th Century” co-authored by then-publisher Stanley Weston and Steve Farhood, then the magazine’s editor-in-chief. Since I work with Steve on virtually every show I do, I decided to take the book with me to have it autographed. Steve being Steve, he not only autographed it, he included an inscription that was much appreciated.

Despite the long hours at ringside – and the 20 minutes I spent at the crew meal – I was never bored. Soon enough, it was time for the televised portion of the card to begin and the scuttlebutt at ringside was that we would likely work 22 of the 32 scheduled rounds. My guess was 23 – 10 rounds each for Miller-Corrales and Gamboa-Martinez as well as three rounds for Davis-Nunez with the “A-sides” all winning. However because boxing is boxing, all we could do now was count the punches, assess the aftermath and hope that no one would get seriously hurt.

 

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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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