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The Travelin’ Man goes to Shields vs. Habazin (Take three): Part One

Claressa Shields (left) and Ivana Habazin. Photo credit: Stephanie Trapp/Trappfotos
13
Jan

Thursday, January 9: As the world marked the dawning of a new year as well as a new decade, I couldn’t help but think about my life’s journey so far. With the arrival of January 1, 2020 – an astonishingly futuristic-sounding date during my childhood – I marked the start of my seventh different decade on Earth, my sixth different decade as a boxing fan (the first fight I saw was Roberto Duran-Esteban DeJesus II on March 16, 1974) and my fifth different decade as a published boxing scribe (my initial fight report for The Ring Magazine was printed in the “Rings Around the World” section of the January 1988 issue while my first feature – “The Alphabet Wars: Who’s Zooming Who?” with a sidebar titled, “WBA: Why Bother Answering?” – appeared in the December 1988 issue). That’s staggering to me and I’m sure that many others of similar vintage were stunned by the passage of time and how quickly it seemed to pass.

That’s because of a dynamic I first noticed in my late-20s – the vivid recollection of certain events and the realization that said events had taken place two decades earlier. The effect was twofold: It compressed my concept of time and it made me feel older than my actual age. If I felt that way then, just imagine how this makes me feel now.

The good news is that I am in generally good health and that I’m in a good mood most of the time. And I will need every bit of both as I begin what, for me, will be an ambitious travel schedule: Three trips in January and three more in February. The first of the January journeys will bring me to Atlantic City to chronicle (with CompuBox colleague Andy Kasprzak) a “Showtime Boxing: Special Edition” tripleheader that will feature a women’s 168-pound unification fight between WBA titlist Alicia Napoleon-Espinosa and IBF counterpart Elin Cederroos, an action-oriented welterweight bout between lights-out talent Jaron Ennis and relentless aggressor Bakhtiyar Eyubov and the emotionally charged main event between two-time gold medalist and two-division monarch Claressa Shields and former IBF welterweight beltholder Ivana Habazin.

This will be the third attempt to pair Shields and Habazin. They originally were scheduled to meet last August 17 for the vacant WBO junior middleweight title in “T-Rex’s” hometown of Flint, Michigan, but a knee injury to Shields pushed the fight back to October 5, again in Flint. The stakes were raised for that meeting as the vacant WBC belt was added to the mix, a mix that, for Shields, was filled with potential history. Not only was she attempting to become to become the third fighter in boxing history to win a major alphabet championship in at least three weight classes in descending order (Amanda Serrano, who did so in four divisions, and Naoko Fujioka, who did so in three classes, were the others – no male fighter had ever achieved this feat), she also was trying to win that third divisional belt in fewer fights than any boxer, male or female, ever has (10 fights compared to 12 by Vasiliy Lomachenko and Kosei Tanaka). Better yet for Shields, she would have made the attempt in her first professional fight before her hometown fans.

The stage had been set for a most glorious night for Shields but a most inglorious event the day before the match led to the fight being postponed a second time. At the site of the weigh-in, Habazin’s trainer James Ali Bashir was struck from behind and injured so severely that emergency surgery had to be performed. His very survival remained in question for many days afterward but eventually the tide turned in Bashir’s favor. Artis Mack – Shields’ older brother – was arrested and charged with one count of “assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder.” Mack’s lawyer Frank Manley said in a statement that, “a video shows inflammatory rhetoric leading up to the incident may provide context to the alleged assault,” and while the video did show Bashir insulting Shields’ older sister, it should not overshadow the fact that a vile, vicious and potentially lethal assault occurred shortly afterward.

As Mack’s case proceeded through the legal system – and as Bashir continued his recovery – Habazin needed a new chief second. She turned to onetime fighter Steven Upsher Chambers, who served as an assistant to Bashir. Habazin said in a YouTube video uploaded by Fighter iQ…

…that Bashir was scheduled to undergo a second surgery in a couple of months and, due to his weekly medical appointments, could not be at the gym regularly enough to completely fulfill his responsibilities as the head trainer. She said that the knowledge Upsher Chambers accumulated during his 15-year career (25-6-1, 6 knockouts) and his past work with her provided a seamless transition and she hoped his expertise will help her continue to sharpen her game.

One area for which she needs little help is defense: In her last two fights against Gifty Ankrah and Eva Bajic – fights that went a combined 20 rounds – Habazin was hit by just 35 total punches. The 16 she allowed against Bajic is the lowest total ever recorded by CompuBox in a 10-round fight, breaking her own record of 19 that had been achieved against Ankrah. As for the men, Serbian Bogdan Mitic connected with just 24 total punches in his 10-round defeat against Frankie Gavin in March 2015. The videos of the Ankrah and Bajic fights showed Habazin to be a lightning-quick technician who relied on a darting jab, lively legs and sneaky power but will the fact that she hasn’t fought since December 2018 negatively affect her timing?

For Shields, the main question was whether the former 168-pound titlist and the undisputed middleweight monarch could successfully make the 154-pound limit, especially after having undergone three training camps with that objective in mind. She made it the first time in Flint shortly before the disgusting incident that followed and she made it with room to spare when she scaled 153.4 here:

Habazin, wearing a sweat suit and tennis shoes, was handed a small bowl of ice cream shortly after stepping on the scale, an act which reminded me of the Big Macs Hall-of-Fame bantamweight champion Jeff Chandler used to eat during his weigh-ins. As Habazin happily dug into her dessert – and eagerly tried to dig into Shields’ psyche – New Jersey commissioner (and Hall-of-Famer) Larry Hazzard Sr. announced Habazin’s weight at 152 ½. Even more happily: Aside from a few mild verbal exchanges, the proceedings went off without a hitch.

Although both women declared that emotions would have no bearing on this fight, it’s impossible to believe this to be true, especially given the contest’s violent and deeply personal back story and the back-and-forth they’ve had in the press and on social media. Because Habazin’s style is so technical, I believe it would be vitally important for her to adopt a cold, calculating mindset in which she will use her emotions to sharpen her focus, to add snap to her punches and to elevate her skills to their maximum. Shields – whose most recent fight against Christina Hammer was staged at nearby Boardwalk Hall – has greatly improved her skillset and execution under trainer John David Jackson but remains someone who fights with energy, passion and aggressiveness. In her nine professional fights Shields has averaged 54 punches per two-minute round (the equivalent of 81 over three minutes) to her opponents’ 37.3, out-landed them by nearly three-to-one in terms of total punches (1,291-463) and has been the far more accurate hitter in all phases (34%-17% overall, 16%-12% jabs and 44%-20% power). Moreover Shields has crafted an 86-1 record as an amateur and pro, including 60 consecutive victories dating back to the 2012 World Championships in China when England’s Savannah Marshall scored a 14-8 victory.

Fast, furious and armed with a deeply ingrained winner’s mindset, Shields will be difficult to dislodge physically and mentally. She’s also the naturally larger fighter who, despite not yet having scored a knockdown as a pro, strikes with more consistent force than Habazin. For these reasons, Habazin will have her work cut out for her tomorrow night but given everything surrounding this match, I believe it still will be a fascinating watch.

I thought the same about the two fights that would precede it. Ennis (24-0, 22 KOs) has been nothing but spectacular in his previous appearances on Showtime and Eyubov (14-1-1, 12 KOs) – who, at 5-feet-5, is five inches shorter – is an all-action bob-and-weave warrior whose sole focus is to inflict as much punishment as possible even when he’s absorbing tons of incoming. Napoleon-Espinosa versus Cederroos featured a similar “Mutt and Jeff” differential in height – the 5-feet-5 ½ Napoleon (12-1, 7 KOs), like Eyubov, will face a five-inch height deficit against the 7-0 (4 KOs) Swede – but unlike Ennis-Eyubov, the smaller fighter is perceived to be the betting favorite. All in all, I believe an excellent evening at the fights is at hand and, as always, I appreciate the opportunity to be at ringside.

 

*

 

Every so often, circumstances demand that this Travelin’ Man change his circadian rhythm in order to accommodate a flight’s departure time. Left to my own devices, I usually arise at 7:55 a.m., take small naps at 2 and 7 p.m. and go to bed between 2 and 3 a.m. but because I was assigned a 10:27 a.m. bird from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, I needed to arise at 5:15 a.m. in order to leave the house by 6 and arrive at the airport by 8:30. While some might opt to stay awake all night to guarantee success, my inability to fall fully asleep on planes – even during the longest of flights – prevents me from going that route. Instead, I fight off the urge to take the 7 p.m. nap in favor of starting my bedtime routines around 11 in the hopes of falling asleep by midnight and waking up by 5 a.m. since my natural sleep cycle lasts five hours.

Sometimes the process goes smoothly and then there are times like last night when I’m unable to drift off to sleep for more than an hour because my mind’s hamster wheel was still spinning so speedily. Still, I managed to awaken near my goal time and was ready to leave the house by 5:55. Despite the air temperature being a chilly 19 degrees, my windshield required only a squirt of de-icer in order to establish clear vision. Better yet: The weekend forecast called for the mercury to soar toward the mid-70s.

One positive byproduct of my early departure was the absence of school buses that (rightly) hold up traffic in both directions and, because of that, my only brief traffic jam was from the rush-hour traffic at the I-376 entrance from I-79. I arrived at the airport at 8:15, found a decent parking spot at the nearest lot in relation to the terminal entrance and sailed through security. After having a small breakfast at the food court, I arrived at my gate with 38 minutes to spare.

Thanks to my frequent flier clout (such as it is) on American Airlines, I chose a window seat in row seven because, on most planes, there is enough space underneath the seat in front of me to stow my laptop bag. (That isn’t always the case for aisle seats.) As for my seatmate – a middle-aged businessman – he seemed to be a pleasant sort based on the cell phone conversations I had no choice but to overhear but he appeared to be so much in “work mode” that I opted not to bother him with idle chit-chat. Although regular readers of “The Travelin’ Man Chronicles” know that I’ll talk with anyone about almost anything, I’ve also learned to “read the room” in terms of my seatmates. If they want to talk, great. If they don’t, I have other ways to keep myself occupied. Here, my diversion is one of the two books I brought to read: “Bruno Sammartino: An Autobiography of Wrestling’s Living Legend” by Sammartino, Bob Michelucci and Paul McCollough.

I received this book as a Christmas present and it carries added significance for me because I briefly spoke with Sammartino while boarding a Delta flight to Detroit in August 2017, just a few months before his death in April 2018. And the reason I was flying to Detroit? To cover Shields’ fight with Nikki Adler.

Isn’t it interesting how life’s threads manage to stitch together? And I didn’t even know about this connection until I started writing this article.

Once I landed in Philadelphia, I headed outside to wait for the Avis bus to appear. Last time, the wait was a long one but today my timing could not have been better as the bus stopped just moments before I reached the pick-up zone. The positive trend continued inside the Avis facility when I noticed I was to be the next person to be helped. When I was summoned to the counter and after giving my name, the Avis employee asked me to repeat my name, then got on the intercom to inform her colleague that “the person on your list” had just arrived.

“Uh-oh,” I thought. “I’m on somebody’s list? Had I done something wrong? Will I be placed in a back room and be interrogated about a past event for which I have no knowledge? And if I don’t answer in the correct manner, what will happen then?”

But before my mind was allowed to conjure even more dire scenarios, I was informed that the “list” I was on was a “welcome list” for new customers. That puzzled me because I, through Showtime, had been using Avis for years but if they wanted to welcome me, who was I to stop them? I was just happy I wasn’t being dragged into a back room.

In any case, I was given an upgraded vehicle (a gray Jeep Cherokee) at no extra charge and my vehicle was parked directly in front of the entrance so I wouldn’t have to search for it in their lot. Given the chilly weather and the breeze that made it even chillier, this was a most “welcome” scenario.

Thanks to Google Maps, my 75-minute drive from Philadelphia to the crew hotel – the Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City – was pleasingly uneventful and once I checked into my 26th floor room (which had a terrific view of the Atlantic Ocean), I ventured out in the hope that I would make the weigh-in. I knew my chances were small given that it was 1:40 p.m. – 40 minutes after the scheduled start – but experience told me that most weigh-ins start later than advertised. After a hotel employee informed me of the weigh-in’s location, I spotted Executive Producer Gordon Hall, who told me the event was over but filled me in on a few details such as Habazin’s ice cream gambit.

I returned to my room to retrieve my laptop bag, then headed out to get a mid-afternoon snack before reporting to the arena for the customary 4 p.m. check of the electronics. Along the way, I spotted Mauro Ranallo – “The Voice” of Showtime Boxing as well as of the WWE’s NXT brand. We spent a few minutes chatting about this and that before he was politely called away by the upper crust of network management.

While the Ocean Casino Resort is one of my favorite places to stay in terms of the amenities and the quality of the rooms, its multi-leveled figure-eight configuration is difficult to negotiate – and I found out I was not alone in this assessment. My frequent scratch-and-sniff detours made it impossible for me to retrace my steps to ease my return to where I had been, so, knowing this, I gave myself extra time to get from Point A to Point B. I chose to purchase my meal at Rocco’s Italian Kitchen and Market because (1) I had eaten there during a past visit; (2) the food arrived quickly after submitting my order and (3) during my ill-fated attempt to make the weigh-in, I remembered that Rocco’s was just an escalator trip away from the venue entrance.

As hoped, the electronics check at ringside was completed within three minutes. With that, my official responsibilities for today had ended.

I returned to Rocco’s to get my late-evening snack because it was one of only three restaurants that were still open. The food and drink I consumed obviously stirred my system, for it wasn’t until a little after 1 a.m. – nearly 20 hours after I first awakened – that I turned out the lights.

 

Friday, January 10: Staying true to my sleep cycle, I arose at 6:30 a.m. and spent most of the first five hours writing most of the words you’ve read so far. I ended up leaving the room a bit earlier than usual because – thanks to the recent merger between CBS and Viacom – everyone associated with the show was mandated to attend a nearly 90-minute seminar titled, “Maintaining a Respectful Work Environment.” During the event that was presided by two facilitators, we were presented four scenarios that depicted increasingly offensive episodes. Based on the question-and-answer periods that followed, I came away with this rule of thumb: Stick to business while on business. I’ve also found that following “The Golden Rule” – treat others as you would like to be treated – also works very well.

Although my call time was officially 2:30 p.m. – six-and-a-half hours before airtime – I decided to report to the arena early just in case I could complete the set-up process ahead of time. Guess what? Thanks to the help of my crewmates, I was able to do just that.

After completing all the pre-show preparations, I returned upstairs in the hopes of printing out my boarding pass for tomorrow’s flight. A hotel employee advised me to approach the concierge, which proved to be sound counsel since the facility had no formal business center where guests could print their own passes. Here I learned I had been granted a free upgrade to First Class and because I had been so helpful in terms of helping the concierge navigate the American Airlines website more fluently than otherwise, I also made a new friend.

Upon returning to ringside, I said hello to several ring notables such as Class of 2015 IBHOF inductee Nigel Collins (who, along with Steve Farhood, helped me get my start as a boxing writer), Class of 2020 inductee Lou DiBella, longtime scribe (and perhaps future Hall-of-Famer) Dan Rafael and trainer Derek Gionta, who I first met a few years ago and who was set to work the corner of one of the deep undercard fighters.

As is often the case, the hours seemed to pass quickly, especially since Andy and I counted two non-TV undercard bouts involving heavyweight Apti Davtaev (who stopped West Virginia southpaw Keith Barr in three) and welterweight Joseph Bonas (who halted the willowy Glenn Mitchell in two). Before I knew it, the time had come for the three-fight TV portion to begin and I was looking forward to what drama this 18-foot-square stage was about to produce.

 

*

 

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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