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The Travelin’ Man goes to Midland: Part One

La Hacienda Event Center in Midland, Texas
Fighters Network
25
Sep

Thursday, September 19: As human beings, we are happiest and most comfortable at home. It is the place where we can decompress from the stresses of daily life and the place where we feel most at ease. In a wider, geographical sense, home is where we form our first friendships, forge our strongest ties and build the foundation of who we will become as people. For most of us, a poem first printed in 1829 best states this dynamic: “Home is where the heart is.”

This deep affection extends to sports, so much so that “home field advantage” automatically moves the betting line in the direction of the team who has it. Favorites are seen as even bigger choices while underdogs are viewed as lesser ones. Even though virtually every member of a given team wasn’t born in the host city, the positive reinforcement they receive from the home folks still has the power to lift an athlete’s performance level as well as enhance the competitor’s sense of self. That’s because most of us spend our lives pursuing approval from others and when we get it, we feel our best at all levels.

Another part of this phenomenon is the pride and joy spectators feel when their favorite team wins or when an athlete from their hometown reaches the pinnacle of his or her profession. These emotions are especially powerful in places where this success is extraordinarily rare. The proof: In countless small towns around the world, the sign announcing one’s arrival in a certain place is accompanied by another stating that this is the “hometown of (fill in the blank).”

Ask most boxers what their ultimate dream would be and they will tell you it would be winning a world title at home. There are few better moments in life than reaching the summit in front of friends, family and fans and the emotions of that moment will lift their spirits for the rest of their lives. The next best thing would be winning a big fight at home and, for 21-year-old lightweight Michael Dutchover, a native of Midland, Texas, now based in Santa Fe Springs, California, the objective will be defeating Thomas Mattice in the main event of a “ShoBox: The New Generation” telecast staged at Midland’s La Hacienda Event Center.



“The West Texas Warrior,” who enters this fight with a record of 13-0 (10), earned this hometown spotlight four months earlier in Corona, California, by scoring a one-punch, first round, body-shot knockout of late sub Rosekie Cristobal as the co-feature of Ruben Villa’s commanding 10-round decision victory over Luis Alberto Lopez – a home area main event for Villa, a native of Salinas, California. Now Villa’s scheduled 10-round fight with Enrique Vivas will be the co-feature to Dutchover’s main event.

“I always dreamed of fighting here professionally,” Dutchover told Oscar LeRoy of the Midland Reporter-Telegram. “I’m making my dream come true on Friday night. It’s like ‘Friday Night Lights.’ I haven’t been home since December, so it’s good coming back to see my family. I’m just happy to be back home in Midland.”

Dutchover is hoping to put Midland on the map in terms of boxing notoriety for, up to now, the city’s association with “The Sweet Science” has been sparse at best. According to BoxRec, Friday’s card will be only the 10th ever staged in Midland and few fighters of note have ever appeared there. Donnie Fleeman, a native of Midlothian, Texas, who is best known for being Cassius Clay’s fifth professional opponent, twice fought in Midland. The first saw him stop Haywood Crosser in three rounds on July 30, 1957 to lift his record to 17-1 (12) while the second, staged at the Midland High School Gym on March 24, 1958, resulted in an eighth round KO win over Ray Augustus to advance his ledger to 19-1 (14). On that same show, future Hall-of-Famer (and Dallas native) Curtis Cokes entered the professional ranks by out-pointing Manuel Gonzalez over six rounds.

For whatever reason, Midland did not host another boxing show for nearly 30 years. On February 9, 1985, at the Chaparral Center at Midland College, lightweight contender and Levelland, Texas, native Robin Blake prepped for his title shot against IBF champion Jimmy Paul by out-pointing Adolfo Medel over 10 rounds – a bout that was shown nationally on CBS.

Subsequent Midland shows were held in June 1999, June 2000, July 2001, August 2009, October 2016 and July 2019 – the last two of which were staged at La Hacienda Event Center – but Friday’s show will shine the strongest national spotlight on the city since Blake-Medel nearly 35 years ago.

Mattice, who will be making his fifth appearance on “ShoBox,” represents a significant step up the ladder for Dutchover, not just in terms of size (at 5-feet-9 and with a 73-inch reach, Mattice will have advantages of one-and-a-half inches and six inches respectively) but also in terms of style. Mattice has a busy and effective jab (29.4 attempts/6.0 connects per round in four CompuBox-tracked fights) and he is well versed in terms of fighting against aggressors because all three previous ShoBox foes fit that profile (Ronaldo Chinea, Zhora Hamazaryan twice and Will Madera). He also has a busy trigger (55.5 punches per round in his four CompuBox-tracked fights, including 76.1 per round during his decision loss to Madera) and he doesn’t forget the body as 29.1% of his total connects hit the flanks (slightly above the 28.5% CompuBox average). Finally Mattice has proven comeback capacity, for he produced a dramatic come-from-way-behind seventh round TKO win over Chinea in his ShoBox debut and he fought hard enough to convince the judges that he merited a split decision win and a draw against Hamazaryan, despite the numbers stating he should have lost both fights by wide margins.

But while Mattice is a good body puncher, Dutchover appears to be an overwhelming one – an unusual virtue for a 21-year-old. Against Ruben Tamayo (a long, lean southpaw who, at 5-feet-10 inches, is built similarly as Mattice), body shots made up 69.1% of Dutchover’s total connects and he led 38-5 in the raw totals en route to his third round KO victory. Body shots also made up 50% of his total connects in the brief fight against Cristobal. Other positive traits include a busy work rate (72.6 punches per round against Tamayo and 52 punches in 106 seconds against Cristobal, which translates to 88.3 punches in a three-minute round) and a balanced attack (97 jabs and 102 power punch attempts against Tamayo; 23 jabs and 29 power punches thrown against Cristobal). That said, Dutchover’s jab wasn’t an effective weapon as he averaged just 2.9 connects in his 35.4 attempts per round against Tamayo and landed just one of his 23 jabs against Cristobal but his balanced punch distribution indicates an ability to keep opponents guessing as to what is coming next.

It will be interesting to witness how Dutchover handles the pressure of being the main event fighter in his hometown while also being opposed by the best fighter of his young career. It also will be intriguing to see how Dutchover performs in the second half of the fight because, to this point, he hasn’t fought past round six. Will he thrive under the “Friday Night Lights”? Will he melt under them? Or will Mattice make him melt?

I am also looking forward to chronicling Villa, a classy southpaw who uses footwork, knowledge of angles and a superlative jab to score points, pick opponents apart and thoroughly frustrate them. While it is unusual for a natural left-hander to wield a world-class jab, Villa’s, at least against his current level of opponents, has been upper crust. Consider: In his three CompuBox-tracked fights against Jose Santos Gonzalez, Ruben Cervera and Luis Alberto Lopez – fighters with a combined record of 50-8 with one no contest – Villa has averaged 34 attempted jabs and 11.4 jab connects per round, far above the featherweight averages of 23.3 and 4.1 respectively. However its most striking feature is its 33.5% accuracy. To put into perspective how impressive that figure is, only three world-class fighters listed among the CompuBox categorical leaders land 30% or more of their jabs – Gennady Golovkin (30.9%), Anthony Joshua (30.5%) and Deontay Wilder (30.1%). Moreover Villa’s plus-21 in the plus-minus rating (a 37%-16% differential in overall connects) would be well above the plus-17.3 held by current leader Vasiliy Lomachenko, Villa’s role model.

Of course, the true test of Villa’s ability will take place in future fights against enough good opponents to qualify him for the categorical leaders list. The 17-0 (9) Vivas, based on his 10-round decision win over Edixon Perez last November, will challenge Villa’s talents from start to finish thanks to his high work rate (90.7 punches per round), his aggressive punch selection (power shots comprised 75% of his total output versus Perez), his punishing body attack that made up 54.2% of his total connects (143 of 264) and his relentless pursuit. The contrast in styles appears neon-bright – exactly the formula needed to produce a compelling match.

Twenty-eight days ago, while seated ringside at the card in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, executive producer Gordon Hall told me that junior welterweight Brandun Lee was on his ShoBox radar before Lee’s scheduled six-rounder against Francisco Medel. Therefore punch-counting colleague Andy Kasprzak and I counted the bout. But Lee didn’t give us much to do as he blew out the 13-20 (8) Mexican journeyman in 31 seconds to raise his record to 16-0 (14). I’m not sure if his bout with the 10-1-1 Milton Arauz will offer any more insight because only three of Arauz’s 10 wins came against fighters with winning records and because Arauz is coming off a six-round draw against 31-6-5 (19) gatekeeper Winston Campos (by far the best opponent to date) just 48 days earlier. To me, this has “showcase” written all over it but I’ve been around long enough to know that anything – and I mean anything – can happen once the opening bell sounds.

 

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For me, this trip to Midland represents several firsts. For one, this will be my maiden visit to this city of approximately 132,000, the onetime home of former U.S. presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Second, I will be working with a new CompuBox colleague in Ben Chan.

We at CompuBox have operators with a wide variety of interests and beyond-the-ring gigs and in future installments I will offer profiles of them (perhaps these profiles can be called “Behind the Keys”). Ben’s story is the one who sparked this idea and by reading on, I hope you’ll realize why I believed his was a tale worth telling.

 

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Roadwork has long been a part of a boxer’s regimen but Ben, a 37-year-old native of New York City, takes it to an entirely different level thanks to his passion for ultra-marathoning. The sport is just like it sounds; instead of running a traditional marathon of 26 miles 385 yards, ultra-marathoners participate in single-day events as long as 100 kilometers (62.1 miles) and multi-day events that cover even more ground.

Ben began the sport at the relatively late age of 31 and he did so, in part, to help a friend whose health was in peril.

“I started running in 2012,” he recalled. “Prior to that, I wasn’t into running or any kind of physical activity. I wasn’t in bad shape – I walked a lot – but in 2011 a friend of mine who had diabetes had renal failure and he needed a new kidney. I was tested and we were a match. Right before I went under the knife, a few friends and I signed up to do a 12-mile mud run obstacle course, which we ran a few months after the operation. We had a lot of fun but we decided it would have been a lot more fun if we had trained. In the fall of 2013, I did a relay race in which I ran about 16 miles and afterward, one of my friends talked me into running a marathon.”

CompuBox's Ben Chan runs in a Brooklyn marathon in 2017

CompuBox’s Ben Chan runs in a Brooklyn marathon in 2017

But Ben didn’t pick just any marathon to make his debut. He chose the Los Angeles Marathon, which, in its 33-year history, has become one of the largest such events in the country.

“I started training for L.A. on Thanksgiving Day 2013 and I did my first run right after Thanksgiving dinner,” he recalled. “I trained through the winter in New York City but on the day of the marathon, it was 83 degrees, which, at the time, was the hottest it had been on marathon day in eight years. Worse yet, the organizers ran out of cold water. They had room temperature water but not cold water.”

To compensate, Ben improvised as far as how he maintained his energy.

“I remember, at mile five, there was a guy who was always out on the course making and handing out chili dogs,” he said. “Every runner would run past the guy because you don’t want to eat that kind of food during competition. Marathons were new to me, so I stopped by, grabbed one and had a few bites before ditching it. Around mile 15 or 16, the course runs past a frat house and, by then, they had run out of cold water. The guys at the frat house were handing out cold beer. I usually don’t drink alcohol but this time I took one and it tasted really good. That shows how much of a newbie I was.”

After completing four marathons in 2014, Ben decided he could compete in ultra-marathons, an attitude he attributes to “hubris.” Just like his first foray into 26-mile races, Ben set his sights high in terms of his debut competition.

“My first attempt at an ultra was a 50-mile race at Bear Mountain, New York, about the hardest such race there is within driving distance of New York City,” he said. “I was pulled out by officials at the 20-mile mark, probably because I wasn’t going fast enough in the judgment of the course sweeper. The first 50K race I finished was in 2016 – again at Bear Mountain – and finishing that race was my proof that I could do the ultra-marathon. About a month later, I finished a 100K race around New York City with a time of around 19 hours. The winner of the 100-mile race did so in under 15 hours.”

Having run both disciplines, Ben contends the differences between traditional marathons and ultra-marathons go far beyond the measured distance.

“When you train for anything that’s marathon distance or shorter, you set your mind to either avoid hitting the wall or overcoming one wall,” he said. “With ultras, you go in understanding that there will be several walls consisting of very high highs and very low lows. Therefore a big part of the training is mental and the goal is achieving an even keel no matter what. To that end, I have some mantras I repeat to maintain my focus and to bring myself into the present such as, ‘You are here,’ and ‘You are doing this.’ The other thing I do is to break down the course into bite-size pieces so it become granular. I say to myself, ‘I need to get from this tree to this rock, then from this rock to this house,’ and so on. I’ve never boxed before but I suppose the fighters do the same thing by focusing on the round and on winning moments in the round.”

Another important factor in completing races is maintaining energy through food and drink.

“A lot of people see ultras as eating events with some running in between,” he joked. “You have to keep on top of your caloric intake or else you won’t be able to finish. If I feel myself going into a dark place mentally, I eat some sugar in the form of candy and though I normally don’t drink regular soft drinks, I do so in events for the calories and sugar.”

Like boxing, ultra-marathoning is a venture in which a person can discover his true limits of willpower.

“From my experience, your brain will tell you that you are done way before you are physically done because the brain is trying to protect your body,” he explained. “It’s very easy to wave the towel when it comes to ultra-marathons. It’s very easy to give into the pain and to submit and the reason why I really love ultras is because it’s about problem-solving, about going into that pain cave and coming out the other end. Ultras is about how much pain you’re willing to accept and, for a lot of ultra-marathoners, the physical pain threshold is much higher than the mental pain threshold. We train to push past the mental signal that most people would use to justify stopping.”

The longest distance Ben has run in a single day is 100 kilometers and this past August, he took part in his overall longest event, the six-day, 120-mile TransRockies Run.

Ben believes his running experiences help him better relate to the challenges faced by the boxers he counts.

“I understand that boxing is completely different than running but I do think I have a window into what is happening in the fighters’ heads, especially when they get into trouble in the ring or when they start to tire later in fights,” he said. “I can relate to facing what one might perceive as insurmountable odds or pushing your body and mind to places they’ve never been.”

Although Midland represents his first CompuBox assignment on the road, he has been part of the company for nearly a decade. His journey began in June 2007 when Miguel Cotto fought Zab Judah at Madison Square Garden.

“I got into CompuBox through Punch Zone (the program HBO used to break down a fighter’s total connects into five separate scoring areas),” he recalled. “The Puerto Rican Pride Weekend and the Boxing Writers Association of America dinner were taking place at the same time and I was really excited to meet Manny Pacquiao, who was being honored as ‘Fighter of the Year.’ I was seated at the same table as Doug Fischer, who was then writing for MaxBoxing.com and we hit it off. After the BWAA dinner, Doug and I went to Jimmy’s Corner to hang out and talk with other writers. Aris Pina (a young historian and future CompuBox operator) was also there. We connected and decided to stay in touch. A few months later, I got an email from him saying HBO is working on this new software called Punch Zone and was wondering if I was interested. I jumped at the chance and at the end of 2009, I counted my first fight using Punch Zone and I have been part of the family since.”

When it became clear HBO was transitioning out of boxing and that the Punch Zone program would be discontinued, Ben began training with the CompuBox system at the end of 2016.

“(CompuBox President) Bob Canobbio brought me in slowly,” he said. “He had me training with his son Dan for a few years before the controls felt natural to me. I did a handful of fights at ringside for some cards around the New York area and, over time, I got good enough so that I can be trusted traveling to shows. Bob’s been great in terms of investing so much patience and time and making sure I was comfortable. I was really excited when I heard I would be traveling to this show. This is my first time in Texas and I’ll enjoy the experience as much as I can.”

 

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Some travel days assume a theme and, for me, much of today was spent trying to play catch-up. Because my first flight from Pittsburgh to Dallas Fort-Worth was scheduled to leave at 11:39 a.m., I planned on rising at 6:30 a.m. and leaving the house by 7:15. Instead I awakened at 6:35 and departed at 7:25 and, thanks to a traffic jam on Interstate 70 East, I didn’t arrive at the airport until after 10. Moreover I had a tough time finding a parking space in the extended lot and after finding a spot at the rearmost area, I ended up arriving at my gate 25 minutes before boarding – about an hour later than customary. While I never felt in danger of missing my flight, I did feel the discomfort associated with not adhering to my schedule. Such is the angst of the punctual man.

Me being me, I focused more on the positive aspects of the nearly three-hour drive, such as the clear sky and the temperature that began in the upper-50s and rose into the 60s. I was also glad that my plane arrived at DFW 16 minutes quicker than advertised, which was a good thing because it was a long walk between my arrival gate and my connecting gate – a connecting gate which changed from B-46 to B-47 while my plane was still in the air.

Once at B-47, other issues pushed back the departure time by more than a half-hour. First, the crew that was to be on the Dallas-to-Midland flight was still in transit and arrived a few minutes after the original departure time. Then once that crew arrived, it was discovered that a captain was not among them, so that created a second delay. I spent the extra time chatting with Showtime stage manager JT Townsend and senior audio man Joe McSorley. Once I boarded the plane and settled into the window seat in row five, I soon was joined by an attractive and lively lady I later learned was Michele McKenzie, another member of the audio team who had worked Showtime bouts since its inception in 1986 but a person I hadn’t met until now. The back-and-forth was entertaining enough that I didn’t need to read the book I brought with me – “Smokin’ Joe: The Life of Joe Frazier” by Mark Kram Jr.

Thanks to the delay, the plane landed 29 minutes later than scheduled but I still met Ben at the AVIS counter less than two minutes after he arrived. With him as my navigator, we found the crew hotel without any trouble.

After consuming my room service meal, I was suddenly struck by an overwhelming fatigue that moved me to turn out the lights at the unusually early time of 9:45 p.m.

 

Friday, September 20: Because I chose to turn in so early, I feared I would snap awake and stay awake at an ungodly early hour, which, in turn, would throw off my body clock for all of today. While I did stir awake at 2:30 a.m., I managed to get back to sleep and awaken by my target time of 6:30. Thanks to the added rest, my time at the laptop was particularly productive and when I reached a good stopping point, I headed downstairs to seek out a late breakfast.

Instead I spotted Christy Martin – the greatest fighter West Virginia ever produced – and her wife (and onetime ring opponent) Lisa Holewyne seated at a table on my way to the lobby. After they graciously waved me over, they told me they were asked to work with a couple of “B-side” fighters on the deep undercard and they accepted. Although they were successful fighters between the ropes – they had a combined record of 74-24-5 (39) – Martin and Holewyne are still earning their stripes on the other side of the ropes. As is the case with everyone on the training, managerial and promotional side of the game, they are just one great fighter away from breaking through.

After saying goodbye to Christy and Lisa, I chatted with ring announcer Thomas Treiber, returned to my room, then bumped into Thomas again at the business center when I sought to print my boarding passes for my two Saturday flights from Midland to DFW and DFW to Pittsburgh. All in all, it was a fun and productive day and, at 1:50, I met Ben in the lobby to drive over to the venue – La Hacienda Event Center.

We arrived at the venue shortly before our 2:30 p.m. call time and by the time we reached ringside, the crew had not yet lifted the ring lights to the ceiling. Soon enough, all the connections we needed for the show were made and we counted two of the four non-TV fights to collect data for future use as well as work out the kinks all rookie road operators experience. For Ben, those kinks were few and by airtime, we both were ready to roll.

 

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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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