The Travelin’ Man returns to Shreveport: Part One
Thursday, January 30: It has been 385 days since this Travelin’ Man worked his first show in Shreveport, Louisiana, and so much has changed for the fighters who took part in that “ShoBox: The New Generation” broadcast. Please consider:
* Devin Haney, then viewed as one of the sport’s brightest prospects, was in the main event against the 25-0 (with 13 knockouts) South African Xolisani Ndongeni, viewed as Haney’s toughest challenge to date. After earning a shutout 10-round decision, Haney looked into Showtime’s camera and twice declared, “I’m a f*****g contender.” Now, the “f-ing contender” is not only a major titlist but at 21 years 79 days as of this writing, is boxing’s youngest, thanks to his fourth round TKO victory over Zaur Abdullaev last September that won him the WBC’s “interim” belt and the sanctioning body’s move to name Vasiliy Lomachenko its second “franchise” champion. This move promoted “The Dream” to the WBC’s “full” titlist. Haney is currently recovering from surgery after dislocating his right shoulder against Alfredo Santiago (UD 12) last November. The WBC declared Haney its “champion in recess” and plans to fill the temporary void by matching Javier Fortuna (Haney’s mandatory challenger) with Luke Campbell, whose effort in losing on points to Lomachenko last August was deemed worthy enough to merit a second consecutive title challenge. Haney, if he so chooses, will then fight the winner.
* While Haney has fought three times since his victory over Ndongeni, “The Wasp” logged only one bout – a sixth round TKO over the 17-6-2 Mbena Rajab, September 28, in Johannesburg. He does not appear in any of the lightweight rankings nor does he have any fights scheduled in the near future, so it can be said that while Haney’s victory last year served as a launching pad, Ndongeni’s loss left him at a virtual standstill, especially when compared to the standing he had going into his fight with Haney. For a fighter who will turn 30 in May, the clock is ticking in terms of establishing his ultimate place in the game.
* Cuban heavyweight Frank Sanchez, who stopped Willie Jake Jr. in Round 2 not long after the fight was stopped for 14 minutes to repair three stands of broken ropes (the rope that didn’t break had been snapped during a non-TV fight between Mikey Dahlman and Chukka Willis), continued his rise by notching a trio of victories against Jason Bergman in July (TKO 2), Victor Bisbal in August (TKO 4) and Jack Mulowayi in October (UD 10 on the Showtime undercard of Robert Easter Jr.-Adrian Granados) that advanced his record to 14-0 (with 11 KOs) with one no-contest. As for Jake, he, like Ndongeni, has fought once since the Sanchez fight but, unlike Ndongeni, was stopped in four rounds by Stephan Shaw, who raised his mark to 12-0 (with 9 KOs) with one no-contest at Jake’s expense.
* Then there is featherweight Ruben Villa, who made his ShoBox debut on that show by impressively picking apart perpetual aggressor Ruben Cervera en route to a three-way 80-72 sweep that raised his ledger to 15-0 (with 5 KOs) while dropping Cervera’s to 10-1 (with 9 KOs) with one no-contest. While Cervera has gone 1-1 since then (Miguel Marriaga stopped him in three rounds exactly four months later but Cervera rebounded with a third round TKO win over Luis Carlos Lugo exactly five months afterward), Villa has become a ShoBox staple thanks to his technically sublime 10-round decision wins over Luis Alberto Lopez in May and Jose Vivas in September.
Of all the fighters who were showcased last year, Villa will be the only returnee and he will make his fourth appearance against Cuban Alexei Collado, arguably the biggest shot-for-shot hitter of his pro career with 23 KO wins in his 26-2 record. Also Collado comes into the Villa match on a seven-fight winning streak – six by KO – and will be coming off a 105-second stoppage win over Facundo Ased scored just 41 days before the Villa match.
Villa hopes the skills that enabled him to earn amateur victories over Haney and current WBO featherweight titlist Shakur Stevenson will get him past Collado. At least statistically speaking, those skills have been extraordinary.
In his 36 rounds against Jose Santos Gonzalez, Cervera, Lopez and Vivas – all of whom pressured Villa as Collado hopes to – Villa built a vast per-round connect lead of 19.3 to 11.8 despite throwing nearly 18 fewer punches per round (49.9 vs. 67.3) thanks to his hit-and-not-be-hit approach that earned him percentage gaps of 39%-18% overall and 46%-20% power. The centerpiece of his offense is his jab, which averaged 31.2 attempts and 10.6 connects per round, well above the featherweight norms of 23.3 and 4.1 respectively. His 34% jab accuracy is tremendous and to get an idea of how outstanding that figure is, consider the following: Among world-class fighters listed in the CompuBox categorical leaders standings, none average 10 landed jabs per round (Gennadiy Golovkin is the closest with 9.9) and only “GGG” has landed 30% or more of his jabs (30.5%). Also Villa’s plus-21.2 plus-minus rating (the difference between the fighter’s overall connect percentage and that of his opponents) would be well above the plus-17.3 rating that has earned Lomachenko – Villa’s stylistic role model – the No. 1 spot in the categorical leaders. The reason Villa is not on this list is that he has not yet faced enough world-class fighters to merit inclusion but he hopes a victory over Collado will get him closer to the fights that will get him there.
Villa will top a card supported by a scheduled 10-round welterweight bout between Taras Shelestyuk and Luis Alberto Veron, as well as an eight-rounder between lightweights Zhora Hamazaryan and Sulaiman Segawa. Both of these bouts were assembled on short notice because Alejandro Davila (Shelestyuk’s original opponent) injured his hand in training while Jerry Perez (who was to face Hamazaryan) was stricken by the flu this past Sunday night.
Veron, a 27-year-old Argentine with an 18-1-2 (with 9 KOs) record, fought just 13 days earlier and, by stopping Carlos Aquino in two rounds, he won the vacant South American welterweight title. However by taking this fight, he is rolling the dice in multiple ways. First, he’s fighting in the U.S. for the first time. Second, he’s fighting two weeks after his most recent outing. Third, he has traveled nearly 5,200 miles by air just to get to Shreveport. Finally he’s fighting the best opponent of his career in Shelestyuk and while Veron did win his most recent fight, he is still 1-1-2 in his last four after a 17-0 start.
Shelestyuk boasts a deep amateur pedigree (a 300-15 record and a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics after losing to recent world title challenger Egidijus Kavaliauskas in the semifinal) and a 17-0 (with 10 KOs) pro record. But Shelestyuk is now 34 and is emerging from a pair of lengthy layoffs – 328 days before this fight on top of a 20-month break caused by managerial issues. By accepting the younger and fresh-from-the-battle Veron as a substitute opponent – even with the disadvantages listed in the previous paragraph – Shelestyuk is also taking a gamble that is befitting of the ShoBox series.
The last time anyone saw Hamazaryan in a sanctioned boxing match was in September 2018 when he met Thomas Mattice for the second time. Statistically speaking, the eight-round draw in fight two was even more lopsided than the eight-round split decision Hamazaryan lost in fight one (he led 134-97 overall and 100-57 power in fight one and prevailed 150-93 overall and 118-63 in fight two) but because Hamazaryan did not score a knockdown like he did in the original and because Mattice managed to produce a great seventh round that served to stop Hamazaryan’s momentum, the draw in fight two wasn’t greeted with the same fury as the result in fight one. To me, both were wrongly rendered decisions but, because the 12-0 (with 9 KOs) Perez dropped out, the 23-year-old Hamazaryan will occupy the “A-side” of the equation against Segawa – a native of Uganda based in Silver Spring, Maryland, who was born exactly five years earlier than Hamazaryan. His southpaw stance will present a puzzle but, given that Segawa has gone 3-2 following a 9-0 start, one must think his is a style that should be unlocked. If previous fights are a guide, Hamazaryan will attack Segawa with brute force and torrents of leather, which should make for a highly viewable contest.
The venue may have changed from last year (StageWorks, then George’s Pond at Hirsch Coliseum now) but the prospect of a pleasing night of fights remains the same.
Since my rather adventurous return trip from Iowa detailed in Part Two of my most recent Travelin’ Man Chronicles, the Home Office buzzed with activity. In the last 10 days, I had assembled 33 statistical packages, written 24 analyses and conducted 12 punch counts, which, because I counted both fighters off video, totaled 172 rounds. That effort allowed me to enter this trip in a good place in terms of the research as well as a great frame of mind. That mood was enhanced by the fact that my first flight from Pittsburgh to Dallas wouldn’t depart until 3:31 p.m. and that the weather at all points of my journey was blizzard-free.
I left the house at 10:45 a.m. under an overcast sky and a temperature in the mid-30s and by the time I arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport, the mercury was almost touching 40. Dallas-Fort Worth and Shreveport were even warmer. Quite the shift from a couple of weeks ago. Little did I know that frigid conditions were about to return in a big way – but more on that later.
Shortly after boarding the Pittsburgh-to-Dallas flight, the pilot announced over the intercom that his co-pilot noticed that one of the wheels was flatter than it should have been – why that wasn’t seen beforehand, I don’t know – and that we may not be departing for another 30 minutes. Just like that, my connection window in Dallas theoretically had shrunk from a comfortable 42 minutes to just 12 and if my departure gate at DFW was too far away from my arrival gate, I could miss my flight to Shreveport. Fortunately the delay ended up being 20 minutes. Even better: The plane landed in Dallas at 5:47 p.m. CST – the original arrival time. That was a most positive development because my connecting gate required three stops on the Skylink above-ground tram and a fairly lengthy walk. As it was, I arrived with 12 minutes to spare, which meant that had the pilot’s prediction come true, I would have missed my flight by 18 minutes.
The plane taking us to Shreveport was far smaller than the one used for the Pittsburgh-to-Dallas leg and the quarters were much tighter. I was barely able to squeeze my laptop bag into the overhead bin and because I just managed to stuff my 5-foot-11 frame into the narrow space assigned to me, I felt sorry for the man across the aisle, who was approximately 6-foot-4. In order to work on his laptop, he had to tilt the screen upward at a 45-degree angle while stretching both legs into the aisle. The flight attendant could have ordered him to tuck in his legs to keep the aisle clear but, realizing the boarding process was over and that he wasn’t presenting a hazard for anyone else, she refrained.
We landed in Shreveport at 7:51, summoned the crew hotel’s shuttle service and arrived at the Hilton 55 minutes later. After checking in and settling into my third floor room, I ordered room service, went a few rounds on the laptop, caught up on the news and sports of the day and turned out the lights at 12:15 a.m.
Friday, January 31: How the days fly by. It doesn’t seem like the first month of 2020 is nearing an end but busy days add up and the calendar doesn’t lie. The six-hour slumber was fairly deep and I spent the next several hours writing many of the words you’ve read so far. For me, these trips offer little opportunity to go sightseeing, especially during those times I don’t have a rental car. It’s usually fly in, work the show, then fly home because there’s work that usually needs to be done during my down time and because we are required to report to the arena six-and-a-half hours before air just in case something goes wrong with the electronic connections.
However every so often, I decide to have lunch at a hotel restaurant and, shortly after 11, I headed down to the Market 104 restaurant on the ground floor. I’ve never been one to have a huge lunch, so I ordered a bowl of chili with tortilla chips as well as a glass of Diet Coke. I’m no food critic but I noticed this: While the chili was pleasingly mild throughout, the degree of heat gradually increased the closer I got to the bottom of the bowl. One could say this was “time-released” chili and I enjoyed every bite of food and every sip of soda.
After returning to my room, I rested my eyes for a bit before meeting veteran cameraman Gene Samuels (the driver) and CompuBox colleague Andy Kasprzak in the lobby for the 15-minute trip to the arena. Earlier in the day, I received a heads-up that the interior of George’s Pond at Hirsch Coliseum – the home rink of the Shreveport Mudbugs of the North American Hockey League – was going to be even colder than the outside temperature due to the building’s lack of a heating system. It was a good thing I wore a sweater and an IBHOF windbreaker jacket over my dress shirt and covered my head with a knitted winter hat because the scouting report proved more than correct. The prospect of spending 10 hours inside this building under these conditions would have been grim but, thanks to Banner Promotions founder Artie Pelullo, all of us did our jobs in relative comfort. While Pelullo provided the on-air talent with thick blankets and a space heater, Andy and I were kept warm by a second space heater placed underneath our work station. I was told that the inside of the production truck was the best place to be in terms of warmth, so, despite the conditions, the working environment was as good as it could be.
The card began with a scheduled four-round bout between debuting local welterweight Kam’Ron Hills and Fresno-based Haitian Gladmir Jacinto. To look at Hills – a long, lean lefty with a well-developed physique – it is difficult to believe he is just 16 years old. Once the bell rang, that disbelief was magnified as he approached his 22-year-old opponent with poise, then struck with power. A well-timed left cross to the temple, as Jacinto bent forward drove him to the canvas near the end of Round 1, scored the first knockdown while a right hook to the side of the head registered the second in Round 2. Hills closed the show with a crackling left cross late in the stanza, then a volley of blows that prompted Jacinto’s chief second to run onto the apron with towel in hand. The time of the TKO was 2:55.
Texas welterweight Steve Jones captured a shutout four-round decision over Baton Rouge’s Darius Lewis to raise his record to 1-0, while dropping Lewis’ to 3-1. The heavily-bearded Jones scored often with the right, so much so that he created a swelling around and a cut beneath Lewis’ left orb.
Next up was a four-round bantamweight fight between Bossier City’s Zack Albritton and San Antonio switch-hitter Frank Boston. The stocky, muscular and scrappy Albritton embodied his nickname of “Scratch” as he burrowed forward, occasionally trapped Boston on the ropes and never stopped his advance but, in my eyes, the four-round split decision that raised his record to 2-0 was confounding. The taller and more technically sound Boston connected with the cleaner punches, scored the fight’s only knockdown with a left cross in the closing moments of Round 2 and appeared to be the better ring general. To me, Keith Thibodeaux’s 39-36 score for Boston was most reflective of the action but his colleague’s cards for Albritton (38-37 and a puzzling 39-37 that apparently didn’t acknowledge Boston’s knockdown) held sway.
The ringside math regained its bearings in the next fight between featherweights Kenneth Taylor (Tyler, Texas) and Dartrell Smith (New Orleans) as Taylor scored knockdowns in each of the first two rounds, then sailed to an appropriately wide 60-52 (twice), 59-53 victory that raised Taylor’s mark to 11-1-2 (with 6 KOs) and eroded Smith’s to 4-1 (with 2 KOs).
The final bout of the non-TV undercard featured junior middleweight Jamykle (pronounced “Ja-Michael”) Wade of Monroe, Louisiana, who entered the ring with a record of 5-4-1 (with 2 KOs) while the challenger was Shreveport’s Blake Franklin (12-12-2, 3 KOs). For me, the most memorable moment occurred at the very end of what would be a sixth round TKO for Wade. From the moment I began working shows at ringside, I was concerned that a fighter would be driven through the ropes with such force that our laptops would be crushed and rendered inoperable and for more than 15 years, it didn’t come close to happening.
In the early moments of Round 6, Wade maneuvered Franklin toward my side of the ring, then connected with a hook to the body that caused Franklin to fall through the ropes directly in front of me. But because this particular ring had a generous apron – more generous than most rings I’ve seen – Franklin’s body did not suffer any additional damage and our equipment didn’t come close to being touched. Still, Franklin was unable to re-enter the ring in time and the fight was stopped at the 28-second mark of the round.
Given the chilly conditions at ringside, one could say our equipment dodged not a bullet but an ice ball.
With that, the undercard ended and we all prepared for the Showtime broadcast to begin. Twenty-eight rounds were scheduled and the expectation was that all 28 rounds would be used. As to what would unfold, that, as always, was up to the fighters.
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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