The Travelin’ Man goes to Atlanta: Part Two
Saturday, December 28 (continued): To be considered great by fans, media and historians, boxers must utilize and showcase a wide range of in-ring assets. Of course, there are the self-evident physical tools of speed, power, timing, leverage, footwork and so on but the traits that provide points of separation are the intangibles – intelligence, fortitude, resilience and resourcefulness being among them.
Until Saturday night, Gervonta Davis had prospered largely on his considerable physical gifts, gifts that had helped him build an enviable record of 22-0 (with 21 knockouts) that included 13 consecutive stoppages. And Yuriorkis Gamboa, especially during his prime years, used his extraordinary hand speed and shocking power to become a two-belt featherweight titlist and to craft an excellent 30-2 (with 18 KOs) mark. However their fight at the State Farm Arena in Atlanta forced both men to dig deeply within themselves and to find the wherewithal necessary to achieve their objectives. Yes, Davis extended his KO streak to 14 by stopping Gamboa in the 12th and final round and, yes, Gamboa suffered the stoppage defeat most experts thought he would suffer but both have reason to feel proud of how they continued to compete despite neither being 100 percent physically.
Despite his denial during the post-fight interview, it was evident to this observer that Davis’ performance – for which he gave himself a “C-plus” – was directly linked to his trouble making the 135 pound limit. He initially scaled 136 ¼ at yesterday afternoon’s weigh-in and when I saw the video of him at the second weigh-in, it was clear the effort required to squeeze down to 134.8 had taken a considerable toll on him. Even after rehydrating to 146, Davis’ energy level was not nearly what it had been in previous fights and, because of that, “Tank” fought with one eye on Gamboa and the other on his internal gas tank. He was explosive when he needed to be explosive – after all, he scored knockdowns in rounds two, eight and 12 – but he also produced long stretches in which he did little more than milk the clock. The proof can be found in a little-known feature of the CompuBox program – the minute-by-minute breakdown of punches thrown and landed. Consider:
* Of the 34 completed minutes fought (the fight ended at the 1:17 mark of round 12), Davis threw 10 or fewer punches 19 times (or 55.8% of the sampled minutes), five or fewer punches on 11 occasions (32.4% of the time) and he failed to throw or land a single punch twice (the opening minutes of rounds seven and eight). The typical lightweight averages 19.7 punches per minute, which meant Davis fought at nearly half that rate for more than half the fight.
* Davis is regarded as one of the sport’s best finishers and history suggests he likely would have finished Gamboa in round two had he been at full strength because 91 seconds still remained by the time referee Jack Reiss allowed the fight to continue. However during the minute in which he scored that knockdown, Davis was just 4 of 8 overall and 2 of 4 power and he seemed hesitant to unleash the firepower necessary to finish the job (he was 6 of 19 overall and 6 of 14 power in the final minute). For the first time in his career, Davis had to ask himself whether he had the necessary energy to go 10 more rounds had he chosen to go for the KO and failed to finish the job. The prudent side of Davis decided that he should refrain from unloading his full weaponry against his more experienced opponent and to revisit his options should another opportunity arise.
* The second knockdown occurred with just 15 seconds remaining in round eight, a round in which Davis did not attempt a single punch in the first minute but one in which he went 7 for 11 overall and 5 of 7 power in the final 60 seconds. Davis was not able to launch another punch for the remainder of the round because the bell sounded a split-second after Reiss called for the fight to continue. As for the final sequence of punches that led to the fight-ending knockdown in the 12th, Davis went all out only because the finish line was almost on top of him and because the penalty for failing to finish Gamboa would have been minimal.
* When Davis decided to let his hands go, he did so very effectively. His most productive minutes were the second minute of round five (9 of 19 overall, 9 of 18 power), the first two minutes of round nine (7 of 18 overall and 5 of 13 jabs; 8 of 19 overall and 8 of 17 power) and his efforts in round 12 (6 of 15 and 6 of 12 power in the opening minute, 6 of 8 overall and in power in the truncated second minute). That tells me Davis may well have scored the KO had he not been forced to keep track of his stamina, especially against an aged and injured opponent.
* For the fight, Davis averaged a miserly 28.1 punches per round, well below the still-modest 44.6 he averaged in his previous six fights. However Davis also maintained his high standard, in terms of power accuracy, as he landed 47.9% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts against Gamboa, slightly below the 50.4% he logged in his six previous fights. All of this should show that while Davis had a tougher night than usual, he still had all of his skill and power. The only difference was he had to be careful in terms of how he doled them out. Better yet, Davis produced an excellent effort on defense as he limited Gamboa to 13% overall, 3% jabs and 21% power, well below Gamboa’s averages of 22% overall, 10% jabs and 35% power in his last six fights.
Here’s a final piece of positivity from Davis’ perspective: The two items he lacked against Gamboa – smart weight reduction and maximum fight-night energy – are correctable and well within his control. Hopefully he will use this fight as a cautionary tale that will cause him to take positive action in the future.
As for Gamboa, he stated after the fight that he had suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon – a diagnosis that was later confirmed. For the Cuban to fight more than 10 rounds with such an injury is a heroic demonstration of grit against anyone, much less a heavily-favored opponent who also was 13 years his junior. Yes, his notoriously shaky chin failed him three times but the fact that he hauled himself upright each time despite the injury is worthy of every laudatory adjective. That said, Davis’ depleted condition gave Gamboa enough breathing room to use his wiles to survive as long as he did.
Gamboa was the far more active fighter as he averaged 54 punches per round (slightly above the 50.4 he logged in his last six fights) and he produced pockets of success against his younger opponent. At age 38, however, he simply couldn’t strike the target often enough even against a compromised opponent to pose a serious threat. He’s still more than good enough to beat fighters of similar vintage (just ask Roman Martinez) but against the young guns – especially those who are elite – he no longer has what it takes to take what they’ve got.
At the end of Part One, I posed the question of whether Davis will end up more like his mentor Floyd Mayweather Jr. or his good friend Adrien Broner. While the final answer won’t be known for years to come, Davis’ effort against Gamboa reminded me of Mayweather’s May 2001 decision victory over Carlos Hernandez…
…a fight I deemed the most challenging of his career in a May 2007 article I wrote for MaxBoxing.com. While Mayweather was declared a wide winner by the judges (119-109, 117-109, 116-111), he had never been in such sustained danger of losing as he was in this fight. The reason: In round six, he injured the knuckles of his left hand on Hernandez’s forehead. The pain was so intense that Mayweather recoiled and touched his left glove on the canvas, a sight that prompted referee Dale Grable to mistakenly issue a mandatory eight-count – the only count assessed against “Money” in his entire career.
Mayweather was uncomfortable and discombobulated by his new circumstances because they offered a severe test of how well he could function when he was not in absolute control. He bit down on his mouthpiece and winced during several clinches and even turned southpaw to limit the damage to his left hand. He pumped right jabs and pivoted away whenever Hernandez closed the gap. He switched back to right-handed to keep Hernandez off balance and he even used long looping lefts to the body to show the challenger that he still had to watch out for both hands.
Knowing he had conjured a successful Plan B, Mayweather was utterly buoyant between rounds eight and nine. Under incredible stress, he had quickly restructured his entire fighting style to suit the situation before him. It was an exceptional demonstration of resourcefulness, mental acuity and courage under fire. It wasn’t beautiful to watch but if offered a great study regarding the mental strength required of elite athletes when unexpected roadblocks are thrown at them.
“Tonight was a rough night,” Mayweather told HBO’s Larry Merchant. “I hurt my left hand and, later on in the fight, I hurt my right hand. So I tried to win the best way I know how. I used my legs and boxed more. He was tough but I think if I had both my hands, I could have eventually gotten him out of there. I came into the fight with two messed-up hands, I took shots of Novocain before the fight. It was a real rough night but the main thing is that I got through it.”
The same could be said of Gervonta Davis against Yuriorkis Gamboa and the same could be said of Yuriorkis Gamboa against Gervonta Davis. It will be up to Davis to determine whether the rest of his career will proceed similarly to that of his mentor and it will be up to Gamboa, his team and his family to determine what the next step will be.
As for how Davis will fare against Vasiliy Lomachenko, Teofimo Lopez and Devin Haney, I am reserving final judgment because we haven’t yet seen a completely ready, strong and healthy version of Davis at lightweight. No one should use this performance to gauge Davis’ success against the cream of the crop because one would think Davis’ conditioning and preparation would match the challenge of facing elite competition. Consider the case of Lopez’s last two fights; family issues and weight-making troubles clouded his victorious but comparatively unimpressive performance against Masayoshi Nakatani, so much so that his subsequent showdown with IBF lightweight beltholder Richard Commey was deemed a genuine pick-‘em fight. However the Lopez who came into the ring against Commey was far superior to the one who had faced Nakatani and the result was a sensational second round TKO. That’s because the challenge, opportunity and threat Commey posed was sufficient for Lopez to work himself into the best physical and emotional shape possible, and I believe Davis will do the same once he gets a similar opportunity.
The chief supporting bout that saw Jean Pascal score a split decision over Badou Jack was another fight that did not follow the script. And because it didn’t follow the script, it turned out to be far more entertaining – and far more controversial – than one could have expected.
Pascal has long been known for his low-output/high-accuracy approach. His 31.7 punches per round in his last eight fights is the lowest among world-class boxers tracked by CompuBox but he has stayed mostly on the winning track thanks to his 40.3% power precision over those same eight bouts as well as his accurate body punching (38.8% of his total connects, well above the 29.5% CompuBox average). Pascal’s most recent bout against Marcus Browne was a perfect blueprint for his path to victory: Slowing the pace to a comfortable level (36.3 punches per round to Browne’s 34.7) and scoring huge with singular power shots (he scored one knockdown in the fourth and two in the seventh).
As for Jack, he had once been known as a volume specialist but, in recent years, he had earned a reputation as a slow starter (37 and 39 total punches in the first two rounds against Lucian Bute, 22 punches in round one against James DeGale, a paltry 15 in round one versus Adonis Stevenson and 17 in the opening frame against Browne). Still, he showed against Nathan Cleverly that he was still capable of high work rate as he averaged 88.4 punches per round to Cleverly’s 81.8, jabbed strongly and accurately (11.6 connects per round and 31% accuracy) and produced a career-high 130 total punches and 98 attempted power shots in the fifth and final round. One worrisome factor entering the Pascal match was the scar on his forehead, the remnant of a gruesome cut against Browne that required nearly 100 stitches to close. One could surmise that Jack would lower his work rate in order to protect that particular target.
So what happened when the opening bell sounded? Pascal assumed the role of aggressor, unleashed 54 punches in round one and controlled the first five rounds thanks to a fourth round knockdown. As for Jack, he again started deliberately (37 and 35 punches in the first two rounds) but he found his rhythm in round three and maintained it for the remainder of the contest as he threw 55 in the third, 58 in the fourth and averaged 56 in the final 10 rounds, including fight highs of 67 in the 11th and 75 in the 12th. Rounds eight through 12 belonged to Jack as he out-landed Pascal 141-76 overall, 60-19 jabs and 81-57 power, scoring his own knockdown in the 12th and had the Haitian-Canadian nearly out on his feet on several occasions.
Because Jack won his rounds by more convincing numerical margins, he ended the fight with connect leads of 244-155 overall, 120-35 jabs and 124-120 power while also beating Pascal in his own accuracy game by prevailing 39%-28% overall, 34%-13% jabs and 44%-43% power. Pascal also turned the tables on Jack, in terms of body-punching prowess, as he led 80-39 in body connects but because Jack was so convincing in the second half, most thought him to be the winner.
All three judges submitted 114-112 scores but while Julie Lederman voted for Jack, Nelson Vazquez and Barry Lindenman voted for Pascal, a verdict that was roundly booed. Jack out-landed Pascal in 10 of the 12 rounds in terms of total connects and while four of the 12 rounds were decided by four or fewer connects, the split was 2-2.
In retrospect, Pascal won this decision thanks to what happened in the final moments of round four. Jack had dominated most of the round (he led 24-8 overall, 8-1 jabs and 16-7 power) but in the waning moments, Pascal scored a knockdown, turning a potential 10-9 round for Jack into a 10-8 round for Pascal. Had Jack remained upright, the three-point swing would have earned him a slim but unanimous decision.
For whatever reason, Jack, like Adrian Granados, can’t seem to get a judicial break. Officially Jack has gone 1-2-3 in his last six fights (2-2-2 according to BoxRec as a failed drug test by Lucian Bute turned a draw into a disqualification win for Jack) but it can be argued that Jack could have been 5-1. As for Pascal, he is a strong candidate for “Comeback Fighter of the Year,” for he promised his family that his December 2017 fight with Ahmed Elbiali would be his last, no matter the result. He returned to the ring eight months later against Steve Bosse (TKO 8) but appeared done after losing a comprehensive decision to WBA titlist Dmitry Bivol in November 2018. His twin wins over Browne and Jack in 2019 have injected new life into the 37-year-old’s career and he has certainly earned another opportunity to parlay his victory into a more substantial and lucrative fight.
The opening bout of the Showtime telecast set the table for the surprises to come as Lionell Thompson, a career-long light heavyweight making his debut at 168, produced a career-best result by decisioning former IBF super middleweight titleholder Jose Uzcategui over 10 rounds. Despite being five years older than the 29-year-old Venezuelan, Thompson was quicker with his hands and feet, displayed a powerful jab (25.1 attempts/8 connects per round to Uzcategui’s 16.4/2.1), scored the fight’s only knockdown in the opening round and used his intelligence to out-fox as well as out-box his favored opponent. He appeared to have done much the same in February 2018 against Edwin Rodriguez on the Danny Garcia-Brandon Rios undercard but those jurists favored the larger Rodriguez’s ineffective aggression over Thompson’s savvy. The Uzcategui match followed a similar pattern but this time – perhaps thanks to the first-round knockdown – Thompson was rewarded with scores of 96-92 from Nola Oliver and Harold Hunt and 95-94 by Max DeLuca, margins that were narrowed by a baffling point penalty against Thompson for excessive holding in round four.
Like Davis, Thompson showed excellent resourcefulness after suffering a nasty gash over the right eye in round three and the point penalty in round four. He didn’t let the injury negatively affect his game plan, one that resulted in final connect leads of 124-75 overall and 80-21 jabs that enabled him to overcome Uzcategui’s 54-44 lead in landed power shots. Thompson was more accurate in all phases (32%-20% overall, 32%-13% jabs, 33%-24% power) and prevailed 9-1 in the CompuBox round-by-round breakdown of total connects.
It was a rather long night at the fights – the Showtime telecast alone lasted nearly four hours – and I, along with CompuBox colleague Andy Kasprzak, was more than ready to get back to the hotel. But while Andy was able to leave ringside quickly, I wasn’t so fortunate. The reason: I was unable to reach my laptop’s power plug. The power strip I had been using was on the floor in front of me and because of the tight quarters, the only way for me to reach it at the time was to crawl under the table. (The Spanish Showtime team of Alejandro Luna and Raul Marquez to my left was still on the air while Leonard Ellerbe, who was doing ringside interviews with several media members, unknowingly blocked my path to the right.) With crawling being the only option, I gingerly positioned my 55-year-old frame into a kneeling position but as soon as I made my next move, I felt a sharp cramp in my right hip. This boldfaced reminder of my age prompted me to stop, get to my feet once the pain stopped, then wait for the obstacles to clear. When they didn’t, I asked a nearby technician to help me pull the plug, which he did.
I thought this would be the last of my departure’s frustrations. I was wrong.
After stopping by the Hawks’ practice course (the site of that afternoon’s crew meal) to have a post-card sandwich, I couldn’t easily find my way out of the building. After fruitlessly circling the exterior maze just outside the arena floor, I decided to retrace my steps and begin again. I saw my path out once I returned to square one but, once I exited, I realized I had another obstacle to overcome: Rain.
To this point, the weather had been overcast but dry, so the wet stuff was a bit of a surprise to me. Thankfully I knew my path back to the hotel but because of the darkness, I couldn’t find the elevator I had previously used. I ended up trudging up six flights of stairs with my 20-pound laptop bag in tow. Even worse: I had ascended one floor too far, so I was forced to backtrack in order to reach street level.
As I reached the bottom of the stairs, an older Caucasian woman flipping through dollar bills said something that sounded like, “You’re just like all the other greedy white men who don’t want to help anybody out.” I looked back at her with a confused expression as if to say, “Are you talking to me?” Apparently she was since I was the only white man around. “You know who you are,” she said. “Indeed I do, madam,” I thought before turning and walking away. “If your objective was for me to give you money to prove I’m not a ‘greedy white man,’ that’s a rather stupid way to do it.”
The rain continued to fall steadily as I walked toward the Westin and SMT man Daniel Baker – who is much bigger, stronger, faster and younger than I – caught up and accompanied me for the final 100 yards. By the time I reached my room, I was soaked to the bone and because it was now 2 a.m. I wanted nothing more than to get out of my wet clothes and go to sleep. But I chose not to because I still had two more tasks to complete: Enter the night’s data into the master database and send the files to the Draft Kings people, then print out the boarding pass I sought at the arena but couldn’t get because my phone was unable to connect to the arena’s WiFi. The first task took about 45 minutes to complete, after which I headed downstairs to complete the second, which took less than five minutes to finish.
Yes, I was drenched. Yes, I was miserable, at least at the moment, but because I chose to keep my mind on the job at hand instead of on how I was feeling, the work eventually got done. And because the work eventually got done, I felt so much better when I was free to fully enjoy the bottle of Coke Zero (no calories, no sugar, of course) I had picked up at the post-fight meal and the joy of knowing that all my day’s work was complete. At 3:30 a.m., I finally turned out the light.
Sunday, December 29: Despite my fatigue, I still ended up sleeping for just five hours but they were five uninterrupted hours. With a check-out time of 11 a.m. and with my only flight of the day not taking off until 2:02 p.m., I had plenty of time to get some writing in before packing my items, settling my bill and checking out. One of the hotel staffers helped me secure a taxi to the airport (I tipped, of course) and another put my bags in the trunk (I tipped, of course). Because my cab driver was from Ethiopia – and because I was a huge track-and-field fan who knew more than most Americans about his nation’s deep running tradition – we spent the entire trip talking track.
With Atlanta being one of the largest and busiest airports in the country, the journey through security was more involved and time consuming than usual. The TSA Pre-Check lines – there were two of them – each consisted of hundreds of passengers but because TSA supplied plenty of officers to pass us through, the queue was almost in constant motion. Once I was passed through to the conveyor belts, each piece of luggage had to be placed in a tray that is supplied from underneath (a difference from most airports). After doing so, passengers are then told to push the tray forward onto a second track that leads to the X-ray machines. Passengers are then asked to walk under the metal detector, then retrieve their luggage from the other side. It’s a different process but it’s also very efficient.
I took the “plane train” to Terminal D and though I could have taken the extra time to have a relaxed lunch, I opted to walk to my gate and await my flight to Pittsburgh. I was so early that the previous flight set for the gate – a 1:40 p.m. bird bound for Little Rock, Arkansas – had not yet boarded.
Soon after settling down and getting to work, a young and physically imposing African-American gentleman sat in the row of seats 90 degrees and to the left of me. His wardrobe was striking: A red sequined track suit, black tennis shoes with dozens of rubber studs and a black bandana wrapped around his head. Some people might be intimidated into silence upon seeing someone like him but I’ve never been one to pass down a potential time-passing conversation.
“Those are some great shoes you have on,” I said, a remark that brought forth the hoped-for “Thank you” and smile. And off we went. I learned his name was Jonathan and our chat drew the attention of the woman seated to his immediate right, an older Caucasian woman, whom, like me, wore black from head to toe and, unlike me, sported a large hairdo as well as a syrupy Southern accent. The woman, who introduced herself as Dorothy, soon joined in our conversation and when they started speaking to each other, they realized they were from the same town: Hot Springs, Arkansas. Once they established that common link, they then asked about people and places they knew, specifically a person named Antoine. Her question about Antoine – and his answer to it – caused them to realize they had an even closer tie: Dorothy happened to be Jonathan’s landlady. And get this: They hadn’t seen each other in more than two years.
“I leave them alone and they leave me alone,” she said.
Another neat connection was this: She was in Atlanta to witness her LSU Tigers destroy the Oklahoma Sooners while he was there to see Gervonta Davis fight. The two competing events brought this pair to the same city and had boxing as a sport not been so bold as to put on a show in this city at this time, the groundwork for this meeting would not have been built.
In the most recent installment of the Travelin’ Man Chronicles, I described a chance meeting between brothers that required a lot of coincidental gears to fall into place. For that, I used the term “godwink.” Now, for the second consecutive trip, I bore witness to another – and it all started with my willingness to compliment a stranger’s shoes.
Jonathan and Dorothy soon boarded their flight to Little Rock, leaving me and other early-bird passengers to await the next boarding process. Experience told me that in large airports such as Atlanta, gate changes are always possible, so when I reached a good stopping point in my writing, I sought out the nearest monitor to see if I was seated in the correct place. As I gazed at the monitor and found my flight, only then did I realize that I had mis-remembered my gate number – something I’ve never done in nearly 15 years of air travel. My destination had always been D 14 but when I was walking toward my gate, my mind told me I should walk toward D 10. The realization that I had been seated at the wrong gate all this time added another layer to the improbability of what just happened; if I had walked to D 14 as I should have, I wouldn’t have been able to ignite the chance meeting with Jonathan and Dorothy.
Armed with the correct information, I proceeded to D 14 and arrived a good 15 minutes before boarding. No harm, no foul.
I took my window seat in Row 16 and greeted my seatmates with my usual hearty “Hello, neighbor.” The person seated next to me replied similarly while the person on the aisle remained silent and focused on his phone. Midway through the flight, my more vocal neighbor reached down for his bottled beverage only to find that it had rolled underneath his seat. The cramped surroundings prevented him from retrieving it, so I suggested that he ask the person seated directly behind him to help. My seatmate was a bit hesitant to do so, so I did it for him.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said to the bespectacled 30-something man behind us. “My friend’s beverage bottle rolled underneath the seat. Are you able to see it?”
“Yes, I can,” he replied, and moments later all was resolved.
For the third time in less than two hours, my ability to initiate conversation with strangers garnered a positive result. One of the many lessons I’ve learned in life is that most people are essentially good and want to be helpful and one of the best ways to draw out those traits is to be friendly and honest. This approach has worked far more often than not and happily, we got the desired result this time.
The plane landed in Pittsburgh at 3:27 p.m. and the steady rain that was falling made me thankful that I had been directed to park in the “long term” lot instead of the “extended” one. Still, the two-minute walk drenched my International Boxing Hall of Fame windbreaker jacket but I knew that it wouldn’t take very long for everything to dry out once I got going. And that’s what happened.
I arrived home shortly before 6:45 p.m., an act which officially ended my final journey of the decade. The New Year promises to be a busy one, in terms of travel, for I am scheduled to make three trips in January. The first will commence on January 9; the destination will be Atlantic City and the main event will be the second attempt to get two-division titlist Claressa Shields and former IBF welterweight titlist Ivana Habazin into the same ring. The first attempt, which took place last October in Shields’ hometown of Flint, Michigan, was short-circuited at the weigh-in because of a horrific sucker-punch attack on Habazin’s trainer James Ali Bashir that resulted in life-threatening injuries. Shields’ older brother Artis Mack was arrested and arraigned for the attack, one that will serve as the promotional centerpiece.
Until then, happy trails!
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 “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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