The Travelin’ Man goes to Flint, Michigan: Part One
Friday, October 4: Entering this day – the final leg of a three-week travel swing – I believed I would be trekking to Flint, Michigan, to chronicle a three-fight show aired by Showtime and topped by Claressa Shields vs. Ivana Habazin for the vacant WBC and WBO junior middleweight titles. The bout would also be supported by a 10-round heavyweight bout between Jermaine Franklin and Pavel Sour as well as a 10-round welterweight contest pairing Jaron Ennis and Demian Fernandez.
The stage was set for a glorious memory for the self-described “Greatest Woman of All-Time,” for the titlist at 168 and 160 was heavily favored to become the third fighter in boxing history to win a major alphabet championship in a third weight class in descending order (Amanda Serrano and Naoko Fujioka were the others), was expected to gain that third title in fewer fights than any boxer, male or female, ever has (Shields was to engage in her 10th pro fight while male record-holders Vasiliy Lomachenko and Kosei Tanaka won theirs in fight 12) and she would have made the attempt in the city of her birth, a city that is still recovering from a water supply crisis that made national headlines in 2015 but is also the site of ongoing revitalization projects.
It would have been quite the sight had Shields been victorious and it probably would have made for good TV. However it was not to be thanks to one of the most vicious, vile and disgusting acts ever to occur at a boxing event, one that led to the cancellation of Shields-Habazin but not of the card altogether. After a period of consultation, it was decided that Ennis-Fernandez would become the new feature bout while Franklin-Sour would open the telecast.
I was talking to CompuBox president Bob Canobbio at Gate D5 inside Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport when he told me someone on Twitter had just reported that something horrible had happened at the weigh-in staged at the Dort Federal Events Center. By the time I landed in Flint a few hours later, the scope of what occurred became evident: Shortly after Habazin’s trainer James Ali Bashir insulted Shields’ older sister…
…a man struck Bashir from behind. The semi-conscious Bashir’s face hit the floor with enough force to break several bones and cause blood to gush from his mouth. With Habazin crouched over him and yelling for someone to “get a doctor,” the assailant ran out of the building. Bashir was wheeled out of the building and was eventually transported to Henry Ford Medical Center in Detroit to undergo surgery while the assailant was arrested by authorities (Note: Sgt. Tyrone Booth of the Flint Police Department confirmed an arrest had been made but, as per policy, could not confirm the suspect’s name until a warrant had been officially sworn out. No timeline for that swearing out could be given, so The Ring will refrain from revealing the name).
After the incident Shields, told her side of the story…
…saying she was not present when the attack took place, that she was acting as a peacemaker, that she had not yet seen video of the incident, that she expressed concern for Habazin’s coach, that she would never condone or recommend anyone to take such action and that no one from her team had anything to do with the incident. She also, in passing, challenged Habazin to go through with the fight.
Habazin responded with a Facebook post that vividly laid out her counter-argument, hinted that the fight will only be postponed, not canceled and that, if she had her druthers, the match would not take place in Flint.
“I was in the hospital until 2 a.m. – 12 hours,” she wrote. “My immediate concern was to look after the well-being of my coach. I think most people with a heart would do the same. We have been receiving threats and people are saying I am scared to fight because Claressa is going to beat my ass. We don’t feel safe here.
“Claressa showed concern for my coach and she said she is sorry,” she continued, “but then she called me out saying I can’t be looking for excuses and that I can take another coach. Seriously? I have this message for her: You can run your filthy mouth all you want. When my trainer recovers, it will be just you and me in the ring. I want to see how tough you are when the entourage you hang out with aren’t there to help you. You’re going to find out just how scared I am of a classless fighter like you. Our day will come, Claressa!”
In boxing’s perverse universe, a fight that would have been overshadowed by the Gennady Golovkin-Sergiy Derevyanchenko card on DAZN, had it taken place as scheduled, has suddenly become a more marketable fight. Whether the incidents happened right before the match or whether the episodes occurred months before the actual meeting, boxing history is replete with examples of out-of-the-ring violence that was shocking in the moment but served to inject energy into the subsequent promotion. The following are just three examples that immediately popped to mind.
At a press conference staged five days before Riddick Bowe met Larry Donald in December 1994, “Big Daddy” slugged “The Legend” with a flush left-right to the face…
…prompting Donald – who suffered a cut inside the mouth, took the punches almost unflinchingly and didn’t retaliate in kind – to file assault and battery charges. Following the fight – which Bowe won by uneventful 12-round decision – another scuffle between the camps broke out when a process server attempted to give Bowe papers detailing the charges that Donald brought.
Given the styles, accomplishments and personalities, Marco Antonio Barrera’s classic February 1996 fight with Kennedy McKinney needed no extracurriculars to build the anticipation but at a press conference held the Tuesday before the match…
…a pumped-up McKinney (a native of Hernando, Mississippi) rose from his seat, walked toward Barrera and shouted that “The Baby Faced Assassin” could not beat him in “my town” of Inglewood, California. The normally stoic Barrera responded by throwing a light right at McKinney’s face, then connected with far more harder ones in much greater numbers on fight night en route to a 12th round TKO.
But one of the ugliest incidents that led to a future fight took place at the Vitali Klitschko-Dereck Chisora post-fight news conference in which David Haye first challenged “Dr. Ironfist” for a title shot, then engaged Chisora in a war of words that soon escalated into a full-scale brawl…
…in which Haye’s trainer Adam Booth was cut on the forehead and over the left eye while trying to break up the scrum. Although Chisora’s boxing license was revoked, the red tape was eventually cleared and the fight was made. More than 17,000 tickets were sold on day one and 30,000 attended the July 2012 match, which Haye won by fifth round TKO.
In other words, pro wrestling personality Eric Bischoff was right on target when he titled his 2007 book “Controversy Creates Cash.”
The common link between these three incidents is that they were face-to-face confrontations, which stand in stark contrast with today’s event, a behind-the-back ambush of an unsuspecting victim that ended with the attacker turning his back and running away. In more than 45 years of observing the sport, I recall two sucker-punch incidents that come close to the outrageousness that occurred at today’s weigh-in.
The first happened at a fight card televised at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City by ESPN two months after the September 11 terror attacks. Because it was a benefit to help the surviving first responders, scores of heroes were seated throughout the building and many were appropriately at ringside. Super middleweight Richard Grant had just scored a 10-round unanimous decision over James Butler, repeating the four-round points win he earned at Yonkers Raceway more than four years earlier when both were novice pros. Grant’s tactics thoroughly frustrated the larger and slower Butler and, moments after the decision was announced, Butler, now ungloved, approached Grant, who thought his opponent wanted to shake hands. Instead, Butler hit the Jamaican with his taped right hand…
…and Grant was left sprawled on the canvas with blood pouring out of his mouth. Because the punch occurred after the fight had officially ended, Butler was arrested by police and charged with aggravated assault. While Grant suffered a dislocated jaw and cuts that required 26 stitches to close, Butler was sentenced to four months at Rikers Island.
The second incident took place in Oxon Hill, Maryland, on May 20, 2017 – and unlike the Butler-Grant episode, I was at ringside. More than any of the episodes recounted here, this is the closest parallel and, at the time, I described it as “repulsive, abhorrent, ugly and…potentially criminal.” For those who haven’t guessed already, it was Leon Lawson Jr.’s attack against Jose Uzcategui moments after the Venezuelan’s eighth round disqualification loss to Andre Dirrell, Lawson’s nephew. I described the incident thusly:
“Through seven rounds, the power-punching Uzcategui was seemingly on his way to a vital victory in this, the IBF super middleweight title eliminator to determine the next challenger to titleholder James DeGale. Uzcategui’s aggression and heavier hitting appeared to be gradually wearing down the 33-year-old Dirrell, who showed flashes of his prime but lacked the strength and consistent pop to hold off his 26-year-old pursuer. Then, in the waning moments of round eight, Uzcategui trapped Dirrell near the corner pad and launched a three-punch combination. The first blow, a left, was thrown slightly before the bell. But the final punch, a massive left to the jaw, connected clearly after time had run out and left the Michigander flat on his face and struggling to recover his faculties.
“It was a scene that conjured memories of Dirrell’s ill-fated “Super Six World Classic” tournament fight with Arthur Abraham in March 2010. Fighting brilliantly before his home area fans in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, Dirrell, who had slipped on the wet canvas, was struck with a flush power shot while on the ground. The flagrant foul resulted in an 11th round disqualification win for the American but the aftereffects caused Dirrell to take a momentum-killing 21-month layoff. One could argue that Dirrell has never fully recovered from that punch.
“With that searing memory in mind and fearing the worst was at hand again, members of Team Dirrell lashed out with a fury. Brothers Willie and Anthony, the latter being the former WBC super middleweight champion, had to be restrained at ringside and while Willie was escorted from ringside, Anthony, who pushed a security guard during the scuffle, was allowed to enter the ring. Shortly after the fighters embraced (during which Uzcategui told Dirrell he was sorry and Dirrell told Uzcategui he forgave him), Dirrell’s uncle and chief second Leon Lawson Jr. stormed the ring, walked to Uzcategui’s corner and connected with a flush left hook to the jaw and a right to the neck, which, in turn, reignited memories of James Butler’s infamous post-fight sucker punch of Richard Grant in November 2001 at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City. While Grant fell to the ground with blood pouring from his mouth, Uzcategui took Lawson’s punches almost unflinchingly, after which he fixed a quizzical stare. That alone should serve as a testimony to the Venezuelan’s chin as well as a further source of embarrassment for Lawson.”
Like Bashir’s assailant, Lawson Jr. ran from the scene of the crime and somehow made it out of the building. Lawson, who was immediately suspended by several administrative entities, eventually turned himself in to authorities and, on June 2, 2017, a judge dismissed all felony charges against Lawson in favor of a single count of misdemeanor assault. Lawson was eventually reinstated and has been working the corner of his son, undefeated junior middleweight prospect Leon Lawson III.
Now that this has happened, what will the professional ramifications be? For one, Shields will lose her six-figure purse and the opportunity to make history in her homecoming fight as a pro. Second, her successful effort to make 154 will go to waste. Third, the financial impact on the promoters and Showtime will be significant. Fourth, this may result in a “one-and-done” for Flint in terms of televised boxing. As for the personal impacts of this abominable event, the suspect will be prosecuted while Bashir, once he recovers, will probably file a succession of lawsuits against a variety of parties.
Will this pairing be made again? As I said earlier, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is. And if it is, every precaution should be made to ensure that something like this never happens again.
Every other aspect of this travel day was terrific and I spent much of it with International Boxing Hall of Fame executive director Ed Brophy. His reason for being in Flint was the same as it was last week in Los Angeles: To collect memorabilia (specifically hand wraps) from the main event fighters. But while he secured the wraps of Errol Spence Jr. and Shawn Porter, the horrific events at today’s weigh-in rendered this trip moot because we were later told that the main event was canceled but that the rest of the show would go on.
I thought that was a good move; why should everyone else associated with this card – Ennis, Fernandez, Franklin, Sour, the fighters on the non-televised undercard and all of their respective teams as well as the officials working the card – be denied their paydays and have their efforts go to waste? Yes, the luster of this card is immeasurably lessened by the absence of Shields in the main event but each of these people have their own lives and careers to further. Who knows what doors will be opened by this shift of circumstance?
Saturday, October 5: After going to bed at 1:45 a.m., I awakened five-and-a-half hours later. Following the morning routines, I searched the web for updates on the weigh-in incident, then headed downstairs to get a glass of orange juice as well as ask other Showtime crew members what they saw and thought. Stories were plentiful; rumors were rampant and much care was being taken by those in charge in terms of how the incident would be addressed on air.
Colleague Andy Kasprzak drove me and videotape man Martin Bell to the Dort Federal Events Center and the pre-fight electronic checks couldn’t have gone better. In fact, we were ready to go six hours before airtime but, in the meantime, Andy and I said hello to several ringsiders and watched the deep undercard fights, the first of which began at 6:26 p.m. and saw Scottish middleweight Hannah Rankin – who lost to Shields on points in November 2018 – score a shutout six-round decision over 42-year-old Erin Toughill, who was stopped in three rounds by Laila Ali in June 2005 and was engaging in her third comeback fight following a 12 ½-year retirement. On paper, this was a mismatch as Rankin was 13 years younger and miles fresher but inside the ring, it was less so. Toughill pushed the fight throughout and provided competitive resistance but Rankin was quicker, busier and just a bit better in every round.
The next bout matched two area cruiserweights in Saginaw’s Robert Simms and Detroit’s Demetrius Banks and, despite the disparity in records (9-3, 3 knockouts, for Simms and 10-8-1, 5 KOs, for Banks) the styles produced an entertaining contest in which the solidly built Banks was the harder hitter and Simms was more mobile and quicker of fist. The action picked up considerably starting in round four and by the end of the six-rounder, Simms’ left eye was swollen. The decision was unanimous and the two judges whom had Simms ahead 58-56 appeared closer to the mark than the jurist who had the fight a 60-54 shutout.
The third fight of the card pitted welterweights Jacob Bonas, of Detroit, and Norfleet Stitts, of Fort Wayne, in a scheduled four-rounder. It was Bonas’ first match since June 2017 but, with twin brother Joseph among those rooting for him at ringside, Bonas showed few signs of rust as he pounded out a 40-36 decision on all three cards, raising his record to 4-0-1 (with 2 KOs) while eroding Stitts’ to 1-4.
The only knockout of the undercard was the heavyweight match between Kazakhstan’s Izim Izbaki – a 6-foot-6, 240-pound southpaw – and Flint’s Troy Albring, five inches shorter and the clear underdog despite his being the hometown product. The fight ended 90 seconds after it began as a left cross from Izbaki deposited Albring in the neutral corner above our workspace while a right to the body scored the second knockdown moments later. When the action resumed, Izbaki connected with a straight left to the pit of the stomach that made Albring wince and made referee Ansel Stewart halt the proceedings. With the win, Izbaki advanced to 3-0 (with 2 KOs) while Albring dropped to 0-3.
Andy and I counted the final fight of the non-TV card between Detroit junior bantamweights Jarico O’Quinn and James Gordon Smith. The last time I saw Smith was in March 2017 at the MGM Grand, in Detroit, on the undercard of Claressa Shield’s victory over Szilvia Szabados. Smith was 11-0 (with 6 KOs) with one no-contest at the time while opponent Joshua Greer was 11-1-1 (with 4 KOs) and the pair put forth a most explosive contest. In round one, they combined for 148 total punches thrown, 58 total connects and 52 landed power shots while the second was equally volatile (152 combined punches thrown, 50 total connects and 43 landed power shots). For me, two images were the most vivid. The first was the one-punch knockout that ended the fight in round six, about which I wrote the following:
“Just as Smith slightly dipped his knees and prepared to throw a right hand, Greer beat him to it with a beautifully delivered cross to the jaw. Gordon Smith never saw it coming and, upon impact, his limp body slumped to the floor, his right leg bending grotesquely underneath him before rolling onto his stomach. Referee Harvey Dock correctly waved off the fight.”
The second was what Greer did immediately after the knockout: He climbed the ropes and held up a large white pillow with the words “Night, Night!” scrawled in black ink. That pillow would soon become his trademark and, since the Smith fight, Greer has won nine straight (seven by KO) and has considerably upgraded the quality of pillows he uses in his post-fight celebrations. As for Smith, he has fought only three times, stopping Yaqub Kareem in 23 seconds, losing an eight-round decision to the 13-0 Christian Carto and, most recently, winning a six-round decision over journeyman Jonathan Lecona in February.
O’Quinn occupied the “A-side” of the equation thanks to his 12-0-1 (with 8 KOs) record and wins over middling opposition, including a fourth round TKO over the aforementioned Yaqub Kareem in June 2018. As for O’Quinn versus Smith, the bout was pleasingly action-packed. Smith succeeded in being aggressive, pushing O’Quinn away from ring center and connecting with power shots that appeared to register with the prospect, but O’Quinn ultimately won the 10-round decision because he scored the fight’s only knockdown from a sweeping right to the jaw early in round six, bloodying his opponents’ mouth in round seven and connecting with far superior precision with his power punches.
Smith was the more active fighter as he averaged 60.2 punches per round to O’Quinn’s 49 but O’Quinn’s accuracy gaps of 35%-20’% overall, 20%-16% jabs and especially 42%-21% power led to final connect leads of 170-123 overall, 33-15 jabs and 137-108 power as well as scorecards reading 96-93 across the board. The CompuBox round-by-round breakdown of total connects – relevant because clean punching is a key judging factor – had O’Quinn ahead 8-1-1 but four of the eight rounds O’Quinn led were achieved by three connects or fewer. Also, O’Quinn led by just 44-42 in landed body shots.
With that, the stage was set for a truncated televised card. Could the four fighters turn their elevated stage into a career-enhancing event?
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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