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The Travelin’ Man goes to Spence-Porter: Part One

Errol Spence Jr. (left) and Shawn Porter. Photo credit: Leo Wilson/Premier Boxing Champions
30
Sep

Thursday, September 26: Just four full days after returning from Midland, Texas, this Travelin’ Man will begin the second leg of what will be a three-week swing. This middle juncture, however, will be significant on several levels.

First, my destination – Los Angeles – is, by far, the stretch’s best-known and best-chronicled locale, as even residents of Midland and Flint, Michigan, will concede.

Second, this will be my first ringside gig for FOX, the first non-Showtime road assignment since December 2016 when, for HBO, I trekked to Omaha to chronicle a card topped by Terence Crawford-John Molina Jr. as well as the network’s same-day broadcast of Joseph Parker-Andy Ruiz Jr. from New Zealand. Incidentally Molina will be fighting Josesito Lopez on the pay-per-view portion of this card, which gives this trip a circle-closing feel.

Third, I will be working with two CompuBox colleagues for the first time in nearly a decade, for while Dennis Allen will “work the keys” with me, broadcaster/punch counter Dan Canobbio (son of CompuBox founder Bob Canobbio) will operate the CompuTrack program, which breaks down numbers based on ring positioning (ring center, along the ropes) and proximity (long-range, up close).

Finally the main event of this show – Errol Spence Jr. vs. Shawn Porter – will be among the year’s most anticipated pairings, not just because both own a piece of the welterweight title (Spence has the IBF belt while Porter has the WBC strap) but also because both are at or near their physical peaks and because there are contrasts on multiple levels. While Spence is a tall, technically sound southpaw with an excellent jab, a vicious body attack and one-punch power to all targets, the shorter and right-handed Porter possesses enormous physical strength, unquestioned mental toughness and underrated speed and boxing skills, a brew that will likely address all remaining questions about Spence’s worth as a fighter, as a pay-per-view attraction, as a pound-for-pound entrant and as a potential future Hall-of-Famer. The last part of the statement will require much more than a victory over Porter but if he is to be considered for a plaque a few years down the road, this will be the fight that will pour the foundation for his candidacy. And if Porter emerges victorious, it will surely enhance his chances, given the conventional wisdom surrounding this match.

That’s because while Porter is widely respected, he is seen to be a prohibitive underdog to Spence. The fight picks article posted by RingTV.com is typical of the pre-fight narrative, for only one of the 21 people asked – trainer and former light heavyweight title challenger John Scully – picked Porter to win. That’s because Spence – at least so far – has passed “the eye test” and, aside from the middle rounds of his title-winning effort against Kell Brook, has been utterly dominant. Meanwhile the always gritty Porter has fallen short against Brook and Keith Thurman in competitive contests and was pushed hard in his two most recent fights against Danny Garcia and especially Yordenis Ugas. Also, Porter has a history of cutting around the eyes and while he fought admirably under those circumstances, it will give Spence another potential path to victory.

Spence-Porter will be the 11th welterweight unification fight since October 2, 1967, when WBA/WBC beltholder Curtis Cokes stopped Charley Shipes, who, coming into the fight, was recognized as champion by California. Emile Griffith vacated the welterweight championship after dethroning middleweight champion Dick Tiger and Cokes earned his designation by stopping Luis Rodriguez in a title eliminator, halting Manuel Gonzalez to win the WBA and WBC belts and successfully defending against Jean Josselin (W 15) and Francois Pavilla (KO 10) while Shipes earned California’s nod by stopping Percy Manning in December 1966, nearly 10 months before meeting Cokes.

The unification match was staged on Shipes’ “turf” at the Oakland Arena in Oakland, California, and once the bell sounded, Cokes proved his superiority beyond doubt as he bloodied Shipes’ nose, cut his right eyelid and scored four knockdowns with his razor-sharp right crosses. With Cokes well ahead on the scorecards (7-3, 6-3 and 6-2 under the California scoring system), the fight was stopped following the second knockdown in round eight and, according to the Oakland Tribune, “Cokes was unmarked and wasn’t even breathing heavily.”

The next unification match – the September 16, 1981 showdown between WBC champion Sugar Ray Leonard and WBA counterpart Thomas Hearns – remains the example of two welterweight champions meeting each other at the peak of their respective powers. The 22-year-old Hearns, a 7-to-5 favorite, thanks to a rush of late money, was 32-0 (with 30 knockouts) thanks to his freakish frame (6-feet-1, 78-inch reach), extraordinary hand speed and pulverizing power while the 25-year-old Leonard was 30-1 (with 22 KOs) and the owner of every physical, emotional and intellectual tool a fighter could ever want. Best yet, the fight exceeded the considerable hype as it unfolded in four distinctive acts – the tension-filled early rounds that saw Leonard box and Hearns stalk, the sixth and seventh rounds in which Leonard nearly snuffed out “The Hit Man,” the five recovery rounds in which Hearns turned from bomber to boxer and Leonard from boxer to pursuer and the classic come-from-behind crescendo in which Leonard’s desperate rally resulted in a 14th round TKO. Not only was the opening installment of Leonard versus Hearns deemed THE RING’s “Fight of the Year,” it was chosen as the ninth greatest title fight of all time in 1996.

While the September 1999 meeting between IBF titleholder Felix Trinidad and WBC counterpart Oscar De La Hoya had all the physical and stylistic ingredients of a Leonard-Hearns repeat, the fight came nowhere near its press clippings in terms of ring action and the debatable majority decision favoring “Tito” was a fitting end to what had been a sour night. Had Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao taken place in May 2010 instead of May 2015, the fight could have approached Leonard-Hearns I in thrills, chills and fistic fulfillment but age and injury (especially on Pacquiao’s part), Pacquiao’s back-to-back losses to Juan Manuel Marquez and Timothy Bradley and Mayweather’s willingness to let the fight marinate for years to maximize his advantages resulted in the ring showcase and financial windfall the man named “Money” wanted but also in a nightmare for the fans who paid “dream fight” prices only to get something far less than that.

The only major upset of the group could well have been the third round stoppage WBA titlist Ricardo Mayorga scored over the WBC’s Vernon Forrest – a pound-for-pound entrant thanks to his twin wins over former No. 1 Shane Mosley – in January 2003, though IBF titlist Cory Spinks’ decision victory over Mayorga (now the WBA/WBC champion) in December 2003 also qualified as a mild surprise. The May 2014 match between the WBC’s Mayweather and the WBA’s Marcos Maidana was on track to becoming the biggest surprise of them all through six rounds as the Argentine’s swarming tactics helped him gain a mathematical and statistical foothold but because Maidana was unable to sustain his energy level throughout – and because Mayweather began striking with incredible accuracy (he landed 63.8% of his power shots in rounds 7-12) – “Money” came away with a majority decision win in perhaps his most difficult fight since the first Jose Luis Castillo fight more than 12 years earlier.

If Spence-Porter could be equated to any of the 10 unification fights that preceded it – at least in terms of pre-fight narrative – it would be to matches such as Donald Curry-Milton McCrory in December 1985, Simon Brown-Maurice Blocker in March 1991, Mayweather-Pacquiao in May 2015 and, to a lesser degree, Keith Thurman-Danny Garcia in March 2017 because while all participants were seen as worthy of occupying the big stage, one was viewed as markedly better than the other. Curry, Brown, Mayweather and Thurman were favored over McCrory, Blocker, Pacquiao and Garcia and conventional wisdom was largely justified inside the ring, though Garcia’s much stronger finish considerably tightened the final scoring.

How will Spence-Porter fit in with the aforementioned fights? We won’t know until the flavor of the fight is established inside the ring but my guess is that it will be ranked in the upper half of the list because of the clash of styles and their mutual winning mindsets.

 

*

 

The first part of my journey to Los Angeles was a familiar one, probably because my flight from Pittsburgh to Dallas Fort Worth was the same as last week’s first leg. Unlike then, when I spent most of the day playing catch-up, today saw me hit my marks in terms of when I left the house and when I arrived at the airport. My cause was further helped by finding an excellent parking spot just 178 steps from the terminal entrance. (Yes, I did count the steps; first, because I was curious, and second, I do count things for a living.)

For whatever reasons, the flight that was set to leave at 11:39 a.m. was pushed back a half-hour. Because my original connection window was relatively small (77 minutes from landing to the scheduled departure of my flight to Los Angeles, 47 minutes from touchdown to the start of boarding), I was concerned that I was pushing it in terms of getting to my connecting gate in time. I need not have worried: The flight landed at 1:35 CDT – just five minutes later than scheduled – and once I boarded the Skylink tram at DFW, my gate (A-17) was the second stop on the journey. When I arrived at A-17, I glanced at the gate monitor and saw that boarding would begin in 18 minutes – plenty of time to stop by TGI Friday’s and get something to eat on the plane.

In terms of conversation, both flights were quiet ones. Although I can chat with the best of them, every seatmate is different and one can get an immediate read on whether they want to talk or not. If they do, great. If they don’t, I’m good with that as well. As for these flights, I spent the time either resting my eyes or making progress on the book I had brought with me last week: Mark Kram Jr.’s “Smokin’ Joe: The Life of Joe Frazier.”

As the years have progressed, my appreciation of Frazier has grown considerably. As a child of the late-Muhammad Ali era, I had seen Frazier as the ultimate arch-rival and the supreme threat to Ali’s rule that had been ultimately vanquished by the barest of margins. My perspective changed as I grew older and more educated but my regard for Frazier deepened once I began counting his fights off video a few years ago. The narrative that had been formed about Frazier’s faults – especially his lousy defense – was altered by the data I collected. While Frazier’s struggles were best illustrated by his five fights against Ali and George Foreman (fights in which he was out-thrown by 26.3 punches per round, out-jabbed by more than five-fold and struck by 44% of their power punches), his considerable virtues were on display against everyone else in the study – Oscar Bonavena (twice), George Chuvalo, Buster Mathis Sr., Manuel Ramos, Jerry Quarry (twice), Jimmy Ellis (twice), Terry Daniels, Ron Stander and Joe Bugner. In those fights, the output was nearly even (Frazier led 56.4 to 56 in total punch attempts per round) but Frazier inflicted far more damage in terms of total connects per round (27.4 to 13.8), landed power punches per round (24.3 to 11.2) and especially accuracy (49% overall, 53% power).

Of course, body punching made up a big part of Frazier’s offense in this sample (43.7% of his total connects were to the flanks) but the most surprising aspect of Frazier’s game was his jab. No, he didn’t throw it much (his 10.9 attempts per round is nearly half the 20.5 heavyweight average) but he was very accurate with it (28.4%) and he actually landed more jabs per round (3.1) than that of his opponents in the latter sample (2.5). That last stat is an extension of another surprising part of his game – his defense. His bob-and-weave allowed many blows to be slipped despite the limited vision in his left eye and, as a result, those fighters not named Ali and Foreman had a tough time hitting the target consistently. In fact, Frazier’s defensive numbers in this sample (25% overall, 11% jabs, 34% power) are all below the heavyweight averages of 33%, 25% and 41% respectively.

Many of these stats are spelled out in “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers,” which, by the way, is available on Amazon and is well worth the time and investment. Still, I was stunned by what the numbers unearthed as I counted them and hopefully they will result in Frazier’s fistic reputation being further enhanced. It certainly was with me.

 

*

 

Once the plane landed in L.A., I decided to take a taxi to the crew hotel. With the time being past 4 p.m., I expected a long line at the taxi stand and a lengthy drive to the destination. The first half of the equation couldn’t have gone better, for when I asked the person manning the area where the line for the taxis began, she pointed to me and said, “Right here.” Five seconds later, a taxi pulled up to the curb and she said, “…and there’s your taxi.” While traffic was bumper-to-bumper for much of the way, it was less congested than it had been during past visits because we seldom stopped moving. I arrived at the hotel shortly before 5 and was inside my 23rd floor room a few minutes later.

The Westin Bonaventure is among the most sprawling properties I have experienced in my travels. Not only is the 1,538-room structure divided into four separate towers, there are also food courts on two floors as well as a fair number of stores and restaurants. The rooms are clean and comfortable and the view of the city was excellent. One negative is that the floor plan was difficult to follow, especially for a guy like me whose gyroscope goes haywire inside casinos. That said, the hotel is, for me, a 20-minute walk away from the Staples Center while for a younger person, it might be a 15-minute walk away.

Even before I deplaned, I knew a ton of work awaited me and, as soon as I settled in, I tackled the various assignments and questions. All the work was finished in three hours and all parties were left satisfied. As for me, I was physically and mentally ready to call it a day, so the next few hours were devoted to channel surfing and relaxing. At 10:15 p.m. PDT – or 1:15 a.m. body clock time – I decided to close the curtain on this travel day.

 

Friday, September 27: I awakened just minutes before my target time of 5 a.m. PDT and once I finished the morning routines, I spent the next few hours catching up on my writing. Dan and I agreed to attend the weigh-in but although we arrived well before the scheduled 11 a.m. start, the undercard fighters were already stepping on the scale. Along the walls was “radio row” and Dan, who is making his mark as a broadcaster on several platforms (FS1, Inside Boxing Live, Broadway Boxing), was scheduled to be interviewed from 12 noon to 2 p.m. One of the shows represented at the weigh-in was Sirius XM’s “At the Fights,” hosted by Randy Gordon and Gerry Cooney, and as soon as the opportunity presented itself, I stopped by to say hello. Many movers and shakers in the boxing business were roaming the floor while the FOX broadcasting team of Kate Abdo, Ray Mancini, Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia worked the live broadcast from an elevated platform. I spotted many familiar faces on the arena floor and several, including boxing judge and longtime friend Steve Weisfeld as well as International Boxing Hall of Fame Executive Director Ed Brophy, stopped by to say hello.

The appeal of attending weigh-ins are lost on those who don’t understand boxing’s attraction in general but, for me, it is an opportunity to size up the combatants physically and emotionally. Every so often, clues emerge. One clue is how drawn some fighters are in comparison to foes who looked ripped and ready to roll while another is the psychological byplay between the combatants. One example of the latter that struck me was the face-off between WBC super middleweight titlist Anthony Dirrell and challenger (and former titlist) David Benavidez. The photographers at ringside wanted a photo of the pair holding each side of the belt but Dirrell, the defending champion, wanted none of it. Instead, he snatched the belt away, murmured, “It’s my belt,” and wrapped it around his right shoulder. Benavidez didn’t object. Also, Benavidez was the first to offer a handshake, which Dirrell accepted. Was Benavidez’s behavior simply an extension of his general temperament? Or was it something more? The fight will ultimately answer that question and Benavidez is favored to win because of his youth, strength, combination punching and fierce competitive streak.

As for the main event fighters, both looked primed and the behavioral contrasts were stark. While Porter flashed his million-dollar smile and appeared to revel in the big-fight atmosphere, Spence was intense, business-like and focused on becoming the first man to affix a “KO by” on Porter’s record. If the intent was to elevate the level of anticipation of fight night, it worked – at least for me.

While Dan attended to his media responsibilities, I walked to the Staples Center to conduct the customary day-before electronic tests inside the production truck. When I approached the security checkpoint, I made sure to wear the temporary credential I had been given at the weigh-in and to explain who I was as well as my role. As I successfully walked under the metal detector, the female agent had trouble finding my name on the approval list. Luckily for me, technical producer Colin DeFord, with whom I’ve worked many shows, was standing nearby and, after vouching for me, he helped the agent find my name on the list. With that, I was given a pink wrist credential and was permitted to proceed.

My timing was off; most of the crew was at lunch, so I hung around with some of the senior staff who were inside the truck. About an hour later, the people I needed to see arrived and, within five minutes, all was done. On my way back to the hotel, I chatted with Dan and “PBC Face to Face” host Brian Campbell as well as judge Mike Ross, who introduced me to fellow judge Rey Danseco, who is also a sports editor, journalist and TV commentator.

Once I returned to the hotel, I purchased dinner (and a late-night snack) at the Subway outlet and spent much of the evening relaxing and writing – which is how I spend most evenings, by the way. Work is never far from my mind because, for me, work is fun. Shortly after 11 p.m., the lights – and my lights – went out.

 

Saturday, September 28: I awakened a few minutes before 5 a.m. and spent the next few hours getting ready for the day and getting some more work done. My life has become a never-ending series of tasks that need to be completed, so much so that when I wake up, I spend a few minutes mentally identifying and organizing that list. Once I reached a good stopping point, I took an elevator down to the business center, printed out my boarding passes and stopped by the registration desk to check if a taxi would be available at 6:15 a.m. (I was told it would be.)

I headed out to the arena at 10:15 a.m. with an eye of arriving at 11 – two hours before the doors opened to the public and a little more than two hours before the first undercard fight began. The streets were slightly dampened by overnight rain but despite having to take a detour due to an event being staged at a nearby property, I arrived at Staples 10 minutes ahead of schedule. After clearing security, I stopped by the truck to pick up bout sheets, then at ringside to set up shop and conduct a pre-card electronic test that couldn’t have gone better.

The opening fight of the 14-bout show began shortly after 1:07 PDT with a scheduled six-round light heavyweight fight between Dallas’ Burley Brooks and Sonora, Mexico’s Fabian Valdez. As the shorter, softer southpaw Valdez skittered about the ring like a waterbug, Brooks made it clear that the left hook was to be his weapon of choice, for, in lifting his record to 4-0 (with 4 KOs), he scored three knockdowns with hooks to the body, another uncounted knockdown with a hook to the chin and the final official knockdown with another hook to the chin. The fight was mercifully stopped two minutes 35 seconds after the opening bell and, with that, Valdez’s record dropped to 3-5.

Next up was a scheduled eight-round featherweight tilt between a pair of Dallas fighters in Fernando Garcia and Juan Antonio Lopez, the former a 12-1 (with 7 KOs) right-handed prospect, the latter a 14-7 (with 6 KOs) southpaw journeyman. Unlike Brooks-Valdez, Garcia-Lopez was much more competitive as Garcia fared better at long range while Lopez prospered in the trenches. The bout’s most significant punch was a Lopez left high on the head that buckled Garcia’s legs late in the third and the remainder of the bout was nip and tuck, though Garcia picked up a cut on the bridge of his nose in round four. Lopez’s inside work scored enough points for him to earn the upset unanimous decision win.

Because I indulged in the crew meal, I missed out on another upset in the following fight as Alfonso Olvera raised his record to 12-6-3 (with 4 KOs) at the expense of Amon Rashidi, whose record fell to 7-1 (with 5 KOs) thanks to an eight-round unanimous decision.

The streak of upsets ended in destructive fashion as Flint junior middleweight Leon Lawson III upped his ledger to 12-0 (with 5 KOs) with a second round 10-count KO over Tijuana’s Alan Zavala, who fell to 15-6 (with 13 KOs). Moments later Fabian Maidana, the younger brother of former beltholder Marcos Maidana, pulverized Mexican Ramses Agaton by scoring three knockdowns in just 127 seconds, the first from a right cross to the jaw and the other two with delayed-action rights to the belly. With the win, Maidana advanced to 17-1 (with 13 KOs) while Agaton declined to 21-11-3 (with 11 KOs).

An extended volley of unanswered power punches in round three prompted the inspector in Brandon Maddox’s corner to bound onto the ring apron and halt the Detroit middleweight’s fight with Misael Rodriguez in round three, vaulting the Chihuahua native to 10-0 (with 4 KOs) while eroding Maddox’s record to 7-3-1 (with 5 KOs).

The final non-televised fight pitted junior lightweights Joel Valenzuela of Los Mochis and Charles Clark of Dallas in a scheduled six-rounder – with the emphasis on the word “scheduled.” That’s because a pair of hammering left crosses left Clark sprawled against the bottom rope, prompting the fight to be called after just 66 seconds. Standing on the ring apron in Valenzuela’s victorious corner was none other than a smiling David Benavidez, who will be fighting in approximately three hours’ time. Upon seeing this, I couldn’t help but think, “Will he be smiling when his fight with Anthony Dirrell is finished?” And will we, as fans, be left smiling as well?

 

*

 

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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