The Travelin’ Man Chronicles: The Winter Wars begin in Sloan – Part Two
Please click here to read Part One.
Friday, January 17 (continued): In the early rounds of Vladimir Shishkin’s decision victory over Ulises Sierra, I noticed that the Russian was throwing his right hand almost exclusively. The jab that had been so prominent in his eighth round TKO win over DeAndre Ware last August (8.9 connects per round and 30% accuracy) was largely absent and the numbers backed up my observation: In Round 1, he tried just seven jabs (landing none) compared to 42 power shot attempts while in Round 2, he threw just two jabs (landing neither) and 50 power shots. The trend continued in the third (one for eight with the jab and 21 of 49 in power punches) and the fourth (1 of 16 jabs and 17 of 33 power). Despite his virtually one-handed approach, Shishkin still managed to out-land Sierra 67-44 overall and 65-31 power during that period and he made up for the loss of his jab by carving large circles around his slower opponent and striking with impressive timing and precision.
After the fight, Shishkin’s trainer Javon “Sugarhill” Steward told Showtime analyst Steve Farhood that his charge entered the ring with a left bicep injury, which explained why he was so sparing with the left hand during the early rounds. It also illustrated the remarkable nature of what he did in the remaining six rounds.
In Round 5 – almost as if he flipped a “Screw it” switch inside his head – Shishkin unleashed the entirety of his arsenal. In that round, he landed 12 of 30 jabs to go with his 23 of 39 power punches while Sierra was 10 of 63 overall and 8 of 36 power. Including Round 5, Shishkin out-landed Sierra 182-77 overall, 71-20 jabs and 111-57 power for the remainder of the fight, including margins of 101-43 overall, 40-10 jabs and 71-33 power in Rounds 8 through 10. Moreover Shishkin’s output was outstanding; in Rounds 1 through 4, he averaged 51.8 punches per round (just below the 52.6 super middleweight average) but during Rounds 5 through 10, he throttled up to 80 per round, including 91.3 in the final three rounds. Sierra tried his best to cut off the ring and offer resistance but Shishkin was too quick of hand, too nimble of foot and too talented to be bested.
In all, Shishkin led 249-121 overall, 73-33 jabs and 175-88 power while also prevailing 36%-21% overall, 30%-15% jabs and 40%-25% power. He also managed to land 73 body punches to Sierra’s 31, a category that Sierra needed to win if he was to earn the upset.
Shishkin’s performance in the final six rounds reminded me – at least in a small way – to what Larry Holmes did in his title-winning effort against then-WBC heavyweight titlist Ken Norton on June 9, 1978. Like Shishkin, Holmes entered the ring with an injury to his left bicep, an injury – according to Holmes’ autobiography “Against the Odds” – suffered in a public sparring session at Caesars Palace six days before the fight. Physical therapist Keith Kleven treated the injury with deep massage, ice and ultrasonic hot-water treatment and Holmes was deemed fit to fight by Dr. James Garrick, a Phoenix-based specialist brought in to monitor the situation.
According to a count I conducted off video a few years ago, Holmes not only led 115-77 overall and 41-27 power through seven rounds, he also prevailed 74-53 in landed jabs. Starting in Round 8, however, Norton chipped away at the lead, out-jabbing Holmes 79-68 in rounds 8 through 15 and finishing strong in the final two rounds (92-59 overall, 75-46 power) to end the fight even with 290 total connects. Still, Holmes managed to out-jab Norton 142-132 in a fight he won by the barest of margins – 143-142 on two cards while trailing by the same score on the third.
While Holmes’ feat was more impressive in terms of context (classic 15-round heavyweight championship winning fight versus 10-round reputation-builder) both were called upon to perform under the hot lights and they answered the call by being resourceful, then by being victorious. The best fighters are often those who can still win even without their best stuff and while Holmes crafted a Hall of Fame career as much on courage and other intangibles as on his considerable skill that included arguably the best left jab in history, Shishkin can say he has the right ingredients – and the “right” ingredients – to prevail even when all is not well.
Undefeated junior welterweight Shohjahon Ergashev was expected to defeat Adrian Estrella – especially since the Mexican had lost three of his last four fights – but a heavily favored fighter can still enhance his standing by the way he wins. Just ask Deontay Wilder; he entered his May 2019 match against Dominic Breazeale as a prohibitive favorite but after his sensational one-round, one-punch KO demolition, “The Bronze Bomber” ignited talk that he might be the greatest one-punch KO artist the sport has ever seen. Against Estrella, Ergashev connected with a beautifully timed and exquisitely placed body shot that left Estrella writhing on the canvas and struggling to take his next breath. Referee Paul Parry administered the 10-count and the fight ended just 92 seconds after it began.
The optics of the knockout rendered the stats moot but, for the record, here they are: Both threw 14 punches but while Estrella missed all of his, Ergashev connected on five and his only landed body shot ended the match. Neither man connected with a jab and both barely tried as Ergashev attempted four jabs and Estrella threw seven.
I have seen Ergashev compete three times live and several more occasions on video and each time his mindset is the same: Mow down the opponent as quickly, efficiently and violently as possible. He is like a coiled spring eager to uncoil because he knows good things happen when he does. Yes, a good argument could be made that the mantis-like Mykal Fox might have done enough to win their February 2019 match (I explained why in a past Travelin’ Man) and because Fox has won three times since (including a solid 10-round decision win over the 7-0 Fazliddin Gaibnazarov less than three months after losing to Ergashev), that stands as Ergashev’s best win to date. Personally I wouldn’t mind seeing a rematch to gauge Ergashev’s growth as a fighter and see if Fox could mix a little more aggression into his game. Then again, I’m a boxing writer who wants to see a story line completed, not a matchmaker working for someone with a specific result in mind. For that reason, I don’t foresee Ergashev-Fox II anytime soon, if ever.
The telecast’s opening fight stole the show as bantamweight Jarico O’Quinn went to war against Oscar Vasquez and came out a convincing 79-73 winner on all scorecards. The route to this lopsided result, however, was paved with plenty of two-way action as Vasquez doggedly pursued the Detroit native, trapped him on the ropes from time to time and commanded him to answer every second of every round. O’Quinn, determined to out-brawl the brawler, did just that as he averaged a robust 88 punches per round to Vasquez’s 59.3 and out-landed him 250-198 overall, 14-4 jabs and 236-194 power in a very high-contact fight (Vasquez led 42%-36% overall, 32%-11% jabs and 42%-41% power). One stat that illustrated how much of a trench war this was: Power shots comprised 82.4% of O’Quinn’s total output and 97.3% of Vasquez’s.
O’Quinn faced similar pressuring tactics three months earlier against James Gordon Smith on the non-TV undercard of Jaron Ennis-Demian Fernandez in Flint, Michigan, and he handled it by scoring the fight’s only knockdown with a sweeping right early in Round 6, bloodying his mouth in the seventh and connecting much more accurately with his power shots. Smith was more active (60.2 punches per round to O’Quinn’s 49) but his boxing skills and precision punching (35%-20% overall, 20%-16% jabs, 42%-21% power) won him 96-93 scores across the board. Did the fact that he tasted a much higher percentage of Vasquez’s power punches than he did against Smith create a byproduct of confidence in his chin and his desire to give a great show in his national TV debut or was this the result of Vasquez being a higher grade of opponent? O’Quinn’s talent is obvious and it will be interesting to see how the next few chapters of his fistic life unfold.
Saturday, January 18: Although the fight card was over, another battle was about to begin: The battle to return home. I didn’t know it yet but I was about to embark on one of the longest and most dangerous drives of my life. And I wasn’t alone: Because several members of the crew were staying at the WinnaVegas, they had an even longer trek ahead if they wanted to board their respective flights in Omaha. Some couldn’t secure a way out of the area until Sunday and, given what was about to unfold, they may have been the lucky ones. Of course, Showtime couldn’t have known anything like this was going to happen – heck, even the online weather forecasts I consulted had wrongly predicted on Thursday that the worst would be over by Friday evening – but when confronted with this complication, everyone involved did all they could to help all of us out.
For me, this part of the story – and I emphasize that I was just one of many people who were directly affected by this situation – began the moment senior production manager Joie Silva gave me the keys to the car she had been assigned earlier in the week. With all the chaos regarding travel reservations, she needed people to return the surplus cars to Omaha and, thanks to my new itinerary, we were in a position to help each other.
She told me the car was parked in the lot directly across from the WinnaVegas’ hotel entrance and, thanks to hitting the “unlock” button on the remote, I quickly confirmed its location. Because the vehicle had been parked since Wednesday, it was caked in snow and ice. Fortunately for me, a combination ice scraper/brush was in the back seat, so, with the defroster running at full blast, the ice that had built on the front and rear windshields was cleared within minutes.
My first objective was to return to the Marriott in South Sioux City, Nebraska, so I could prepare myself for the drive to Omaha. The road from the casino to the Interstate 29 on-ramp was snow-covered and unplowed but because it was completely straight and virtually devoid of oncoming traffic, it was easy for me to navigate. The road conditions weren’t much better once I got on I-29 but because the wind wasn’t blowing much – and because I drove at a speed that was suitable for the conditions – I completed this part of the journey in routine fashion.
During this drive I hatched a plan: With my 6 a.m. flight to Philadelphia International Airport scheduled to board at 5:30 a.m., I wanted to be inside the airport in Omaha by 4:30. Under normal conditions, it would have taken me 90 minutes to complete this drive but after consulting with one of the local hotel employees earlier in the day, I decided I would need three hours to safely arrive by my goal time, which meant I should leave the hotel at 1:30. I figured I had enough time just to enter the night’s numbers into the master database before I had to leave; forget about changing clothes, showering or even taking a catnap. For me, the mindset was “Get the job done. Pack your belongings; maximize your chances of success and hope for the best.”
I finished entering the data at 1:20 and had checked out of the hotel by 1:25. But once I stepped outside, I realized conditions had worsened considerably. The wind was blowing so hard that the flags in front of the hotel were fully extended away from the pole and as I walked toward the car, tiny snow pellets stung the right side of my face. As I prepared to open the door, this thought flashed to mind: “Are you sure you really want to do this? If you are not careful, you could end up dying tonight.” Had that happened, it might have been somewhat fitting: Noted boxing historian meets his end the day after what would have been Muhammad Ali’s 78th birthday in the state where Rocky Marciano’s plane went down.
In a flash I answered my own question: Yes, I really wanted to do this because I needed to do this. I needed to bring the car back to Omaha on time; I needed to be in Omaha to board the flight that had been arranged for me and had been denied to others that had wanted it and I needed to be back home so I could get back to my loved ones and my work responsibilities. Also, based on many past experiences during my college years at Fairmont State, my time at the Parkersburg News and as “The Travelin’ Man,” I was confident I had the driving skills and the respectful mindset to pull this off.
Being from West Virginia, I’ve driven through my share of terrible weather but this three-hour drive was as challenging – and, at points, as distressing – as any I’ve experienced. At times, the blowing snow was so severe that it reduced my visibility to just 10 feet, forcing me to slow to a near-stop because I wasn’t certain where the road ended and the ditch began. My field of vision was so narrow that I had problems perceiving any identifiable landmarks, resulting in my becoming disoriented. However those instances were brief and infrequent, so I was able to continue slogging forward.
One major advantage I had was that, for many miles, I was the only car on my side of the interstate. That gave me the latitude to pick out the very best driving line at any given moment, even if that line was in the passing lane.
There were times I was joined by other vehicles and they proved to be helpful. During one sequence when I was at a near-stop, a car passed by me on my right side, a sight that told me I needed to veer a bit to my right to avoid driving off the road. One motorist smartly settled in behind me so he could remain on line and, after about 30 minutes, he passed me and I used him to keep me in line. A few minutes later, we came upon a tractor-trailer and we ended up forming a mini-convoy for a few miles.
During those long stretches when I was the only car in the area, I had plenty of time to think. In doing so, I came up with an excellent coping mechanism borne from a conversation I had with CompuBox colleague Ben Chan last September while working a show in Midland, Texas. Ben, an ultra-marathoner, told me the following about how he handled the monumental distances he had to cover in his competitions:
“When you train for anything that’s marathon distance or shorter, you set your mind to either avoid hitting the wall or overcoming one wall,” he said. “With ultras, you go in understanding that there will be several walls consisting of very high highs and very low lows. Therefore a big part of the training is mental and the goal is achieving an even keel no matter what. To that end, I have some mantras I repeat to maintain my focus and to bring myself into the present, such as, ‘You are here,’ and ‘You are doing this.’ The other thing I do is to break down the course into bite-size pieces so it become granular. I say to myself, ‘I need to get from this tree to this rock, then from this rock to this house,’ and so on. I’ve never boxed before but I suppose the fighters do the same thing by focusing on the round and on winning moments in the round.”
The concepts behind this quote came to mind during this ultra-marathon drive and my way of applying it was to treat each approaching green mile marker as a mini-triumph. “All right,” I said to myself as I spotted the telltale marker, “I am one mile closer to the end and I can’t wait to experience how happy and proud I’ll feel when this is all over.” I repeated this cycle mile after mile and it helped me break down this enormous drive into smaller and easily-handled pieces while also maintaining my focus and high motivation.
Mercifully the bad weather began to clear about 15 miles outside Omaha and soon I came upon much better road conditions that allowed me to reach near highway speeds by the end of the journey. I arrived at the rental car drop-off location at 4:35 a.m. and cleared security a few minutes later.
I had done it. I had arrived safe and sound and was more than ready to catch up on some rest on the long 6 a.m. flight to Philadelphia. I soon was joined at the gate by Showtime crew members Joie Silva and Joe McSorley as well as judge Steve Weisfeld and all of us felt fortunate to be where we are and to have seats on this flight.
But after settling into those seats, we noticed that the plane had not moved for a very long time after undergoing the mandatory de-icing process. Weisfeld, an even more experienced and savvier traveler than I, sensed something was terribly amiss and he was proven right; thanks to a mechanical issue regarding one of the flaps, the plane was forced to return to the gate and we passengers were told to return to the terminal more than 90 minutes after initially boarding the aircraft.
We immediately formed a line in front of the counter at Gate A-6 and once I got to the front of it, I received mixed news. The bad: If I were to arrive home at all today, my only starting point was this flight to Philadelphia because all other flights and seats were either cancelled or sold out. Also, as the minutes ticked by, it became clear that I would miss my 12:55 p.m. flight to “The Steel City.” The good: Thanks to my status with American Airlines, I would be automatically rolled over to the next available flight – and, at least today, there were several outbound flights and all of them had plenty of empty seats.
That said, there was no telling when our plane from Omaha was going to leave. At first, it was set to depart at 8:22 but the gate agent admitted this was simply a “placeholder time” that would be used while the scope of the flap problem was assessed. After that, the departure time was pushed back to 8:52, then 9:30, then 10:25. I received another text from Global Travel to personally address my issues, an offer I gladly accepted. The agent informed me that, as we were speaking, the airline had rebooked me on the 4 p.m. Philadelphia-to-Pittsburgh flight because they believed I might be able to arrive in Philly in time to catch it.
Finally at 11:17, I and everyone else got the announcement we all wanted to hear: The aircraft was authorized to fly us to Philadelphia and that we would begin boarding soon. But after entering the cabin for the second time, we again remained on the runway for an uncomfortably long time. Weisfeld, who was seated next to me, thought we were going to be called back to the gate – this time for good – but, happily, the tower gave us the green light to proceed.
Over the past few hours, as we all waited for word at the gate, many of us formed a bond forged by shared experience. That, combined with our collective lack of sleep, left some of us in a state of punch-drunk giddiness and others, like me, in a better mood than one might think. During our second wait, the cabin took on the air of a school bus, with the orderly and attentive kids seated near the front and the jokesters near the rear.
The pilot warned us of choppy air during ascent and descent and he was proven right – though, to me, the turbulence wasn’t that pronounced. We touched down in Philly at 2:26 p.m. EST amid a mix of fog and light snow. Thankfully American Airlines Flight 5297 was still listed as being on time and even more better, my arrival and connecting gates were both in Terminal F, meaning I didn’t have to catch a shuttle bus.
I called home to let everyone know all was well, then I contacted CompuBox President Bob Canobbio to address several notes I saw in my email. During this call he informed me that he had won the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service from the Boxing Writers Association of America after many years of being a nominee.
“I guess I’m the not the Susan Lucci of boxing anymore,” he said with a chuckle.
The field he bested this year – as was the case in all of the other years – was a formidable one: Hall of Fame trainer/broadcaster Teddy Atlas, Hall of Fame ring announcer Michael Buffer, historian Henry Hascup and BoxRec founder John Sheppard.
Call me biased if you want but Bob is very deserving of this award because he has been, and remains, one of the sport’s true innovators. Also, along with Doug Fischer at RingTV.com and at The Ring Magazine, I couldn’t have asked for a better boss. The sheer joy I felt at hearing the news was all the fuel I needed to make it the rest of the way home.
The plane touched down in rainy Pittsburgh at 5:36 p.m. and I pulled into my driveway at 8:47, ending a most epic journey. By the time I turned out the lights, I had remained awake for nearly 41 consecutive hours.
As much as I love to travel – and I do I am grateful that my next trip won’t begin until January 30 and that my final destination will be in a much more temperate part of the country: Shreveport, Louisiana. There, CompuBox colleague Andy Kasprzak and I will chronicle a “ShoBox” card topped by a scheduled 10-rounder between featherweights Ruben Villa and Alexei Collado and supported by a welterweight contest between Taras Shelestyuk and Alejandro Davila, as well as a lightweight match between Jerry Perez and Zhora Hamazaryan.
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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