The Travelin’ Man goes to Shields vs. Habazin (Take three): Part Two
Please click here to read Part One.
Friday, January 10 (continued): After months of build-up and a pair of postponements, Claressa Shields and Ivana Habazin finally got the chance to settle their differences inside the squared circle. In the end, Shields backed up her big talk by scoring a comprehensive 10-round decision victory in Atlantic City against an opponent celebrated for her speed, defense and boxing skills.
One can excuse Shields if she believes this to be a case of déjà vu. That’s because the last time she entered the ring, she scored a comprehensive 10-round decision victory, in Atlantic City, against a fighter celebrated for her speed, defense and boxing skills (Christina Hammer) in a match that had once been postponed due to Hammer’s stomach ailment of undisclosed cause.
For Shields, the dynamics that dictated the Hammer fight at Boardwalk Hall held firm against Habazin at the Ocean Resort Casino two miles away. She was quicker than a fighter who banked on quickness, used her jab to neutralize a fighter known for her jab and demonstrated more technical skill than the fighter whose game was built around technique. At the same time, Shields struck with more force, connected with better accuracy, hammered the body and, most importantly, controlled her emotions in an environment where emotions could have easily spun out of control. As for Habazin, she, like Hammer, honored herself by trying her best, never giving up and living up to the fighter’s code despite the beating she absorbed.
“I was (trying to punish her),” Shields said in Joe Santoliquito’s fight report. “I wanted victory.”
The foundation for that victory was a body attack that left Habazin’s sides beet red.
“Before the sixth round, Andre Ward (who was seated in the first row) said, ‘Sis, take her to the body,’ and I was like, ‘All right,’” she told Showtime’s Jim Gray, a 2018 IBHOF inductee. “I hit her there because she had her elbow up. I punched through her instead of at her.”
Indeed, she did. Two scything rights to the ribs followed by a crunching left to the side drove Habazin to a knee – the first knockdown Habazin ever suffered as a pro as well as the first knockdown Shields has scored as a pro. Shields added another right to the side after Habazin took that knee – an act that should have resulted in a point penalty – but referee Sparkle Lee, perhaps focused more on Habazin’s state at the moment, opted to administer the count and nothing more. Habazin arose and survived the round, a round that saw Shields land a fight-high 17 body shots (one more than the 16 Habazin logged in the entire fight) as well as a fight-high 22 total connects (nearly half of the 46 Habazin landed over 10 rounds).
In all, Shields landed 68 body punches – which broke her previous high total of 63 against Tori Nelson – and that versatile attack set the tone for her overall dominance, both aesthetically and statistically. Shields averaged 51.6 punches per two-minute round (the equivalent of 77.4 over three minutes) while Habazin logged 28.5 (or 42.8), out-landed her 141-49 overall, 21-15 jabs and 120-34 power, prevailed 27%-17% overall and 38%-18% power and registered double-digit total connects in each of the final nine rounds while limiting Habazin to single digits until the last round when she landed 12 punches to Shields’ 13. Shields out-landed Habazin in every round in terms of total punches and power shots while also neutralizing Habazin’s jab, which landed no more than three times in any given round.
A final measure of Shields’ impressiveness can be found in this stat: It took Shields just two rounds to land more total punches on Habazin (20) than either of Habazin’s last two opponents each did in 10 full rounds (19 by Gifty Ankrah and 16 by previous conqueror Eva Bajic). Moreover Shields surpassed their combined total of 35 in 20 rounds with her second landed punch of round four.
To me, the fight might have been lost for Habazin in the opening seconds. Instead of establishing her strong suits of speed, mobility and defense – assets that could have caused a frustrated Shields to overcommit and create countering opportunities – the Croat moved toward Shields, backed her to the ropes and tried to induce a firefight. To me, this was a quixotic strategy because Habazin, a former titlist at 147, was trying to impose her strength and power against someone who had excelled at 160 and 168. It is difficult for a fighter to reverse a baseline style once it is established and, for Habazin, like it or not, it was aggressiveness or bust. And against Shields, it went bust.
What does this victory mean for Shields’ overall career and her place in history? For a while now, Shields has declared herself the “GWOAT,” which she says means the “Greatest Woman of All Time” but I interpret to mean the “Greatest Woman (Boxer) of All Time.” While it remains to be seen whether she’ll go down as the GWOAT of boxing, Shields can make a strong argument that she is now the GWOT – the Greatest Woman (boxer) of Today.
For years, that honor belonged to Norway-based Colombian Cecilia Braekhus, the undefeated and undisputed welterweight champion since 2014 and the holder of two major belts (the WBA and WBC straps) since March 2009. By out-pointing Victoria Bustos last November, “The First Lady” defended her WBC portion for the 25th consecutive time, which is the same number Joe Louis recorded in setting the all-time, all-divisions record for the longest uninterrupted string of defenses involving the four alphabet belts (IBF, WBA, WBC, WBO). If she continues to reign through November 27, 2020, she will break Louis’ record for the longest single continuous reign in terms of time (which stands at 11 years 255 days). Of course, Louis’ deeds supersede those of Braekhus because of the differences in depth between the genders and because Louis defended an undisputed championship from start to finish. However, in terms of raw numbers, what she has done is extraordinary.
At 38, Braekhus is writing the final chapters of what will be a Hall of Fame career and, to me, one of those chapters should involve a welterweight title defense against Shields. If made now, this pairing would be one of the few that would guarantee a historic outcome; for Braekhus it would be a chance to make a 26th consecutive WBC defense against arguably the best opponent she has yet faced (and probably for the largest purse of her career) while for Shields, it could add two more accolades to her already impressive resume – a fourth divisional championship and a chance to join Amanda Serrano as the only other fighter regardless of gender to capture a fourth belt in descending weight order. Shields did say she could make 147 if need be and, to me, that “need” is defined as a large enough payday to justify the effort. For me, if the fight can be made, it should be made. The time window, however, is closing fast.
But it probably won’t happen. Mark A. Jones – one of the foremost experts of the current women’s boxing scene as well as a keen historian – tells me that Braekhus hopes to fight undisputed lightweight champion Katie Taylor in a 144-pound catchweight contest, a much more advantageous pairing in terms of size difference that also would bring the big purse a Shields fight would have generated. As for the number of title defenses, Jones points to Regina Halmich’s tenures as a junior flyweight, flyweight and junior bantamweight of the WIBF, whose belt, according to Jones, was as legitimate in the women’s game as the IBF, WBA, WBC and WBO belts are in the men’s. In all, Halmich logged 28 defenses of the WIBF flyweight belt over two reigns, 10 defenses of that body’s junior flyweight title and captured its 115-pound belt three times. That, her 54-1-1 (with 16 knockouts) record and her 12 ½ year undefeated streak to close out her career, was why she was one of the three women I voted for in the inaugural IBHOF ballot.
Several other fighters also can lay claim to the GWOT label – Taylor, seven-division champion Serrano, former WBA lightweight monarch Delfine Persoon (who I believed should have been deemed the winner over Taylor last year) and longtime mini-marvel Yesica Bopp, who has logged 21 defenses of the WBA junior flyweight title since June 2009 (a reign that included a nearly two-year break from the sport due to childbirth. According to Jones, the WBA maintained her status as champion throughout that period so her reign is just three months shorter than that of Braekhus).
No matter how one decides to rate Shields or how to assess her performance against Habazin, it can be said that the athlete named “T-Rex” for her unusually short wingspan extended her symbolic reach in terms of her place in women’s sports.
Should Shields decide to return up the scale, she could meet Sweden’s Elin Cederroos, who opened the telecast by defeating Alicia Napoleon-Espinosa to add her WBA crown to the IBF belt she already owned. The hope had been for Napoleon-Espinosa to face Shields for the Flint native’s undisputed middleweight championship but Cederroos spoiled that plan by keeping the fight at long range, being the far more active fighter (74.2 punches per two-minute round to Napoleon-Espinosa’s 43.2), scoring the fight’s only knockdown with a hook to the chin late in round two and absorbing the New Yorker’s accurate power shots with aplomb. Both ended the fight bloodied as Napoleon-Espinosa was cut over the right eye in Round 9 while Cederroos bled from a cut on the side of the nose in Round 10.
“I’m so happy,” Cederroos told Gray. “I showed that I can box and take a war but when I relaxed, the punches just came. It feels so wonderful, Alicia was a great opponent. She’s so professional. We had a fight in the ring and I hope now we are friendly.”
Perhaps they will be but, with the sting of defeat so fresh, Napoleon-Espinosa wasn’t in the friendliest mood.
“I didn’t think I lost,” she asserted evenly but not bitterly. “I thought that it was fairly close but I thought I was ahead. It is what it is but I don’t think that I lost this fight. Congratulations to my opponent. Congrats on the fight with Shields because that was what I was looking forward to.”
Statistically speaking, Cederroos’ victory was wider than that of the 95-94 scores submitted by judges Mark Consentino, Larry Layton and John McKaie. The Swede prevailed 179-138 overall, 61-42 jabs and 118-96 power while also leading 7-1-2 in the round-by-round breakdown of total connects – relevant because clean punching is a key judging factor and because fights are scored round-by-round instead of in totality. Napoleon-Espinosa was more accurate in all phases (32%-24% overall, 21%-19% jabs, 41%-28% power) and she was the much more effective body puncher as he led 72-11 in connects but Cederroos’ command of distance prevented the shorter and more powerful American from imposing her kind of fight. In my eyes, Showtime scorer Steve Farhood’s 97-92 score for Cederroos appeared on the mark.
When asked about a potential showdown with Shields, Cederroos was refreshingly honest.
“I doubt it,” she said with a long, nervous laugh. “Not the next fight. I want to focus on this fight, go back home to Sweden and train. I want more belts (at 168), build up my name, marketing and experience.”
It was the smart answer – and the right answer. Remember, Cederroos was the underdog against Napoleon-Espinosa thanks to her sparse resume (seven fights, of which only two came against fighters with winning records) and relative inexperience (two years in the pro game after turning pro at 32). Should she be matched against Shields next, she would be an even more prohibitive underdog due to her vast lack of experience when compared to Shields’ and the fact that she is a full decade older than the 24-year-old American.
It would have been easy for Cederroos to display bravado and call out Shields in her moment of triumph but by refraining, she showed even more intelligence during the post-fight interview that she did during the fight. After all, her ultimate objective, should she want to do so, is to not only meet the GWOT but to beat the GWOT and to do so, Cederroos would need more time, more experience and more than a little bit of good fortune.
By appearing on an episode of “Special Edition,” welterweight Jaron “Boots” Ennis was already stepping up in terms of his TV platform as his four previous appearances were on the “ShoBox” series. After scoring a fourth round TKO over Bakhtiyar Eyubov – nicknamed the “Bakha Bullet” for his bulldozing bob-and-weave style – Ennis showed he was ready to step up his level of competition.
To illustrate why I feel this way, allow me to describe the fighter he defeated.
I had seen Eyubov compete seven times at ringside between January 2016 and June 2019 and, in every round of every fight, he provided opponents and fans an entertaining and uncompromising style. On the positive side, the stumpy Kazakh brought never-ending forward motion, exaggerated upper body movement and an energetic work rate. In fact, in those seven fights, he averaged 71.5 punches per round, well above the 56.8 welterweight average, and he connected with above-average accuracy in terms of total punches (38% compared to the average of 30.1%) and power shots (40% compared to the 37% divisional norm). His all-or-nothing approach is best illustrated by the following stat: In those seven fights, power punches made up 92.3% of his total punch attempts and 96.7% of his total connects – far above the welterweight norms of 58.5% and 71.9% respectively. For Eyubov, the jab was almost a foreign concept.
But as robustly as he performed on offense, he paid the price on defense. His opponents averaged nearly 10 more punches per round (81), landed more total punches per round (28.7 to 27.4) and connected on 41% of their power punches. Also, the effects of his all-out style were starting to take a physical toll. He had won just one of his last five fights since June 2017 (a seventh round TKO over Nicholas Givan on the Shields-Hannah Gabriels undercard) and the four bouts counted by CompuBox (NC 1 Maurice Chalmers, TKO 7 Givan, D 8 Jose Luis Rodriguez and L UD 8 Brian Ceballo) the numbers against him were more lopsided: 73 punches per round to his opponents’ 86.7, percentage deficits of 38%-37% overall, 22%-11% jabs and 46%-39% power and a total per-round connect gap of 32.8 to 27. The Ceballo fight was the worst of all as Eyubov trailed 257-99 overall, 65-5 jabs and 192-94 power as well as 32%-21% overall, 16%-7% jabs and 48%-24% power. In the eighth and final round, the gaps were 59-15 overall, 17-0 jabs and 43-15 power in terms of connects and 132-80 overall, 52-10 jabs and 80-70 power in terms of punches thrown.
Meanwhile Ennis had been on fire coming into this fight: 14 consecutive knockouts – all within four rounds – and his performances in his last four fights that were aired on Showtime were blow-torch outings in which he was barely challenged. His combined numbers for those bouts further illustrated his dominance: 65.2 punches per round to his opponents’ 35.4, connect gaps of 21.3 to 6.0 overall and 18.3 to 5.2 power and percentage gulfs of 33%-17% overall and 45%-19% power. His numbers are only superseded by his physical tools – a 74-inch reach on a 5-foot-10-inch frame, blinding hand speed, a body attack that comprised 43.2% of his total connects (well above the 29% CompuBox average) and a mean streak that is pure Philadelphia.
Ennis’ assets combined with Eyubov’s fusion of aggressiveness and erosion could only produce one result in theory. That theoretical result became reality as Ennis scored a pair of knockdowns in round one – a round that saw Ennis land 41 of his 105 total punches and 39 of his 85 power shots – after which he pummeled the ever-advancing Eyubov for the remainder of the contest. Yes, it was a war – 164 of their 171 combined connects, an eye-popping 95.9%, were power punches – and there were times when Eyubov struck Ennis with looping shots he shouldn’t have been hit with but the numbers offered a convincing counterpoint: Connect leads of 114-57 overall and 108-56 power, percentage gaps of 41%-27% overall and 47%-28% power, a 33-22 gaps in landed body punches, 87.8 punches per round to Eyubov’s 65.8) and, of course, his 15th straight inside-the-distance victory.
Even before the first bell, those in the know knew this was a match that warranted extra scrutiny in terms of ring safety and between Rounds 3 and 4, New Jersey commissioner Larry Hazzard Sr. gave Eyubov one more round to prove he was still alright to fight. He was given just 34 seconds and in those 34 seconds, Ennis out-landed his opponent 12-4 overall and 11-4 power. Some questioned the timing of the stoppage but, to me, it only spared the out-classed Eyubov an ugly inevitability.
“We knew he was coming to fight and bring pressure, so we mixed it up,” Ennis said. “He was a good fighter but he wasn’t really that strong. I was getting hit a little too much but that’s how we did it to get the knockout.
“I was too hyped,” he continued. “Once I calmed down and got into my rhythm, that was it. He was taking a lot of punishment. He definitely was a great fighter though. I appreciate him taking the fight because a lot of guys don’t want to fight me.”
Although he won’t turn 23 until June, Ennis is ready to attempt a leap up the ladder. He needs an opponent competent enough and confident enough to expose the deeper layers – the intangibles – that separate champions from hopefuls. But whom might that opponent be? That answer will come soon enough and Ennis promises to be ready for him.
“I’ve been ready,” he said. “We have been wanting all the guys. They keep running. They can’t run no more. I’m right here.”
The show ended almost three hours after it started, and because the Draft Kings people only need data from “Showtime Championship Boxing” shows in 2020, I didn’t need to race back to my room, enter the night’s data and email the files to them. The post-fight meal was in the same room as the crew dinner that had been staged earlier in the day and I spent time visiting with the on-air talent as well as graphics ace Mike Teodoru. On our way back to our hotel rooms, Mike and I chatted with several boxing people we met by chance. One of my favorite aspects of these trips has always been these face-to-face conversations because of the wisdom and perspective they provide. Only the late hour – and the impending need to catch our flights the next day – prevented us from staying together as long as we really wanted.
Once I returned to my room, I entered the night’s data – including the non-TV fights – into the master database, then turned out the lights shortly after 3 a.m.
Saturday, January 11: The five-and-a-half-hour slumber was a restful one but because I wanted to give myself plenty of time to get to the airport, I didn’t get much writing done once I finished the morning routines. I departed the hotel two minutes ahead of my 10 a.m. goal time and it was a beautiful day to drive on the Atlantic City Expressway. The 48-degree temperature near the ocean rose to 64 in just a 15-mile interval, then to near 70 by the time I arrived in Philadelphia.
After turning in my rental vehicle, the timing that had been so good two days ago turned south as I just missed the bus leaving for the terminal. No matter; another one arrived 10 minutes later and I cleared security with plenty of time to spare.
For me, First-Class upgrades happen just frequently enough for me to appreciate them every time I get them. The extra leg room, the wider and plusher seats, more frequent attention from the flight attendants and the multiple servings of snacks all hit the spot with me but the descent into Pittsburgh was a bit choppy thanks to high winds. Thankfully I had finished eating and drinking by then or else I might have spilled something on my clothes.
The drive home was pleasant and free of incident but once I unpacked, I found it difficult to keep my eyes open. Still, I watched the undercard fights on ESPN, then switched over to the “Mother Ship” at 10. By the time that card was over, I was too sleepy to watch the replay of the DAZN show. Not to worry, though; that’ll come in due time.
Meanwhile my return to the road is scheduled for this coming Thursday and the destination will be a familiar one: The WinnaVegas Casino and Resort in Sloan, Iowa. There, the “ShoBox” series will mark its 250th episode by airing a tripleheader featuring junior bantamweights Jarico O’Quinn and Oscar Vasquez, super middleweights Vladimir Shishkin and Ulises Sierra and junior welterweights Shohjahon Ergashev and Adrian Estrella.
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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