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The Travelin’ Man goes to Allentown: Part One

PPL Center, Allentown, Pennsylvania
11
Feb

Friday, February 7: The last four days inside the Home Office have been extraordinarily productive, so much so that I finished all known research up until the weekend of February 28 by the time I was ready to leave for my next “Travelin’ Man” adventure – the second of three consecutive weeks on the road. Today’s destination will be Allentown, Pennsylvania, a part of the country around which I’ve worked several times but a city where I’ve never worked a show. That will change tomorrow when CompuBox colleague Andy Kasprzak and I will chronicle a “Showtime Championship Boxing” tripleheader topped by Gary Russell Jr.’s WBC featherweight title defense against mandatory challenger Tugstsogt Nyambayar and supported by a pair of 12-rounders pitting bantamweights Guillermo Rigondeaux and Liborio Solis and junior lightweights Jaime Arboleda and Jayson Velez in a WBA title eliminator.

The card will be staged at the PPL Center, which opened in 2014 as part of a massive redevelopment project in Allentown’s business district. It is the home arena of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the American Hockey League, was home to the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks indoor football team and served as the site of the final two home playoff games for the Arena Football League’s Philadelphia Soul due to the Wells Fargo Center hosting the Democratic National Convention in 2016. As far as boxing, this will be the building’s maiden voyage.

In reviewing my archives, I discovered that I’ve worked five previous shows in nearby Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, since August 2014 (a disputed MD 10 favoring Vyacheslav Glazkov over Derrick Rossy that aired on NBCSN), the most recent of which was in March 2016 when future two-belt 154-pound titlist Julian Williams stopped Marcelo Montano in seven, future WBC junior middleweight king Tony Harrison stopped Fernando Guerrero in six and future inmate Avtandil Khurtsidze scored one of his best wins as a late sub for Sam Soliman with a brutal 10th round TKO over Antoine Douglas at the Sands Bethlehem Event Center (now known as the Wind Creek Event Center). Nearly two-and-a-half years after the Mike Tyson devotee stopped Douglas, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for serving as a chief enforcer for the Shulaya Enterprise crime gang. His arrest – which took place not long after he stopped Tommy Langford in April 2017 – scuttled a scheduled about against then-WBO middleweight titleholder Billy Joe Saunders that would have paired one of the division’s most savage aggressors against one of its most scientific ring mechanics.

According to BoxRec, five active boxers are listed as being based in Allentown – and four of them are unbeaten: 14-0-1 (with 12 knockouts) lightweight Joseph Adorno, 8-0 (with 1 KO) featherweight Martino Jules, 4-0 (with 1 KO), junior featherweight Jeremy Adorno (Joseph’s younger brother), 4-0 (with 1 KO) and 6-0-1 (with 2 KOs) junior flyweight Harold Lopez. Of the group, only Lopez was born in Allentown (the Adorno brothers are New Jersey natives while Jules is listed as residing in Allentown with no birthplace given) and because he’s campaigning at 108, the 25-year-old Lopez has spent much of the last two years building his record in Puerto Rico against fighters with records of 0-5, 2-19-1, 0-0 and 2-4-1.

Of the group, only Jules was scheduled to be on this show and, like Lopez as of late, he will be facing a fighter with a losing record in the 10-30 (with 5 KOs) Mexican Pablo Cupul. Also scheduled to compete on the non-televised portion of the show are two of Russell’s younger brothers – 16-0 (with 12 KOs) bantamweight Gary Antonio (who will fight Jesus Martinez, a 27-10 Colombian southpaw in a scheduled eight-rounder) and 12-0 (with 12 KOs) junior welterweight Gary Antuanne (who will face 12-9-2 Mexican Jose Marrufo in a slated eight-rounder). In both fights, the chief second will be none other than their world titlist sibling, a demonstration of family devotion that also sends a message to the competition: “I am so confident that I can be the chief second of not one but two undercard fights and still be focused enough and prepared enough to beat you.” That formula has worked well so far but while it’s one thing to channel one’s inner Eddie Futch while preparing to fight a willing but faded Kiko Martinez (who he stopped in five last May), it’s another to do so not long before having to fight an undefeated (11-0, 9 KOs) mandatory challenger such as Nyambayar, a 2012 Olympic silver medalist who is hoping to join onetime WBA junior lightweight and WBA lightweight beltholder Lakva Sim as the only Mongolians to capture a widely recognized boxing championship.

But while the 27-year-old “King Tug” may well present a sterner challenger to Russell than the 33-year-old Martinez did, there are factors working in Russell’s favor. First, Russell has nearly as many rounds in championship competition (42) than Nyambayar has as a pro (50). Second, Nyambayar is coming off a career-long layoff of 1 year 13 days and will be fighting for only the second time since his May 2018 destruction of Oscar Escandon (KO 3). If anyone has proven himself expert at maintaining elite form despite long layoffs, it is Russell; in fact, his 266-day layoff since the Martinez win is his shortest since winning the belt via fourth round TKO over Jhonny Gonzalez in March 2015. Since then, his breaks between fights totaled 1 year 19 days, 1 year 34 days, 364 days and 364 days and yet he retained enough of his form to score dominant wins over Patrick Hyland (TKO 2), Escandon (TKO 7) and Martinez (TKO 5) while earning a close but unanimous decision over Joseph Diaz, the newly-crowned IBF junior lightweight champion courtesy of his decision win over Tevin Farmer January 30. One would think a rematch against Diaz would be the next logical step for Russell, should he beat Nyambayar, especially because Russell wants to move up in weight and because their May 2018 meeting was such an eye-pleasing contest.

Tugstsogt Nyambayar. Photo by Amanda Westcott/Showtime

Tugstsogt Nyambayar. Photo by Amanda Westcott/Showtime

How pleasing? Consider: The pair threw a combined 1,483 total punches and while Russell unleashed a personal best 992 total punches and 587 jabs (superseding his previous highs of 845 against Christopher Martin and 510 against Vyacheslav Gusev respectively), Diaz made the most of his 491 total punches by being the far more accurate hitter (39%-20% overall, 32%-10% jabs, 42%-34% power) and being much more successful in striking Russell than anyone not named Vasiliy Lomachenko. That accuracy allowed Diaz to get within 199-192 overall and to build a 151-138 lead in power shots but because Russell proved to be the stronger finisher (93-64 overall in rounds 7-11) – usually one of Diaz’s strongest suits – he emerged with scorecards reading 117-111 (twice) and 115-111 in his favor.

However that’s not where Russell wants to go should he win: His primary target is another newly-crowned 130-pound titlist in Leo Santa Cruz (the WBA’s beltholder) or, should that match not be made, to skip 130 and campaign at lightweight. But first, he must get past Nyambayar and that won’t be the easiest thing to do. He passed a gut-check in his most recent outing against another southpaw in Claudio Marrero, who limited Nyambayar to 42.4 punches per round to his own 59.5 but couldn’t hold off the Mongolian’s strong final round (13-5 overall, 12-5 overall). That surge allowed Nyambayar to gain a 119-114 lead in total connects and 109-102 in landed power shots as well as a 6-3-3 lead in the CompuBox round-by-round breakdown of total connects, relevant because clean punching is a key judging factor and because fights are judged round-by-round instead of in totality.

Gary Russell Jr. Photo by Amanda Westcott/Showtime

Gary Russell Jr. Photo by Amanda Westcott/Showtime

Can Russell, today’s authority in terms of shining despite a series of long layoffs, do so again versus Nyambayar, who, thanks to knockdowns suffered against Harmonio Dela Torre and Escandon, does not seem to have the sturdiest of chins? Or will Nyambayar rise to the challenge and do what Hyland, Escandon, Diaz and Martinez could not – exploit Russell’s long time away from the ring and knock the crown off his head?

 

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For me – and for everyone else who has worked the recent string of Showtime cards – the winter wars continued. Following the Sioux City Snowstorm and the unexpected ringside frigidness of Shreveport, Louisiana, more polar shenanigans will be at play today. Rain has been my area’s main source of precipitation this week but in the wee hours of this morning, the rain turned to snow and by the time I arose at 4:50 a.m. – a move made necessary thanks to being assigned a 10:27 a.m. flight from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia – more than an inch of snow had already fallen and more was on the way.

On days like this, the most dangerous parts of the drive occur in the first five minutes. The first challenge to overcome is my own driveway, which, when approaching from the bottom, splits off to the left into what is officially known as Hazel Avenue, the fork of the road my neighbors use to access their homes. My driveway that makes up the right fork is a modestly inclined 150-footer that reaches its steepest point at the very bottom, a portion that is particularly vulnerable to black ice. Because of this, it is best to coast the final 20 feet downward but, before doing so, one must make sure that no cars are coming from two directions – the main road to my left and from neighbors who might be approaching from Hazel Avenue to my right and behind me.

The second part is Friendly Road 6, a secondary road that leads to West Virginia Route 2, one of the state’s main arteries. It features two hairpin turns that Formula One drivers would find very familiar and when conditions turn icy, those turns have claimed more than their share of vehicles. At its worst, even lifelong residents like me find it impossible to navigate and I was concerned that might be the case this morning.

The garage shielded my car from the overnight snow, so I was spared the trouble of cleaning it off and cranking up the heater. The driveway, however, was lightly dusted so, to prevent skidding, I inched down the hill. One of the few benefits of leaving at 5:30 a.m. was that no cars were around on either Hazel Avenue or Friendly Road 6, so I managed to safely complete Part One. As for Part Two, the road, though unplowed, was not in bad shape because other cars had cut tire-wide pathways during the night that I was able to exploit.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I reached the bottom of Friendly Hill and though West Virginia Route 2 was wet, it was easily navigable. I did receive one unexpected scare a few minutes later when I spotted flashing lights in my rear-view mirror – blue ones belonging to a police vehicle.

“What could I have done wrong?” I thought as I looked for a place to pull over. “Was I following the rules too well?”

As there was no place to exit the highway to my right, I spotted a small parking lot to my left and activated my left-turn indicator to tell the police I intended to stop there. But before I could make my first move, the police vehicle turned his left-turn signal on and proceeded to pass me. As he did so, I allowed myself to exhale.

The snow continued to fall as I methodically drove up Ohio Route 7 North, Interstate 70 East, Interstate 79 North and Interstate 376 East. At 7:56 a.m., I received a text from American Airlines that my 10:27 a.m. departure was being pushed back to 11:10, which actually worked to my advantage because I was stuck in slow-moving traffic at that moment.

The conditions – which included limited visibility from time to time – turned a 2-hour-15-minute drive to one lasting more than three hours. Worse yet, I was forced to park in the furthermost reaches of the extended-stay parking lot and because it remained unplowed, I needed to carry my heavier laptop bag instead of using the wheels. Needless to say, I got a good, but unintentional, workout.

After clearing security, I prepared for a relaxed brunch at the food court but as I was finishing my meal, I glanced down at my cell phone and saw I had received another text from American: The departure time was moved from 11:10 back to 10:40 – meaning boarding would start in less than 10 minutes. But after power-walking to Gate B-36, it became clear there was no possible way our flight was going to board anytime soon. And once we did, it became clear there was no possible way our flight was going to leave anytime soon.

At 11:27, the pilot announced over the loudspeaker that we were staying put because Philadelphia ordered a ground stop due to winds measured between 30 and 45 miles per hour. Not only that, our plane needed to be de-iced before being allowed on the runway, a process that usually takes 15 minutes to complete.

A few minutes later, the pilot had another announcement; due to regulations regarding time spent on duty, he and his co-pilot were being switched to another flight to New York that was ready to depart. Also: Sixteen people inside the cabin were hoping to make a 1:05 flight to Hartford, Connecticut, and the delays all but dashed their chances of doing so. The soon-to-be-departing pilot gave those passengers the option of deplaning and driving to Hartford because Philadelphia had wiped out the rest of the day’s flights to Connecticut. At that, four people immediately left the cabin.

What a mess. But as unsettled as this process had been, I had reasons to be grateful. First, I didn’t have to fly to Hartford. Second, the new pilot – who arrived with his co-pilot at 12:12 – informed us that the weather conditions in Philadelphia, while still very windy, were better than those in Pittsburgh: Light rain and 52 degrees. I was happy that I was not staring down yet another long, white-knuckle drive in the snow.

Our plane finally left Pittsburgh shortly after 1 p.m. and while the flight was quite choppy at times, our new crew did a great job of managing the turbulence, landing the plane and keeping it on the runway.

My timing couldn’t have been better in terms of catching the AVIS shuttle bus (it pulled up just as I was leaving the building) and exiting the bus after it pulled up to the AVIS lot. (I was the next person to be served.) I was assigned a black Toyota Camry, which ably transported me to the crew hotel – the Renaissance Allentown that just happened to be connected to the PPL Center.

Despite the delays, there still was time to unpack and walk down to the production truck to conduct the usual day-before electronic checks, which were completed in less than five minutes. With that, my official duties for the day were completed and though I thought about attending the hockey game between the Phantoms and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (which the Phantoms won 5-3 to lift their record to 21-22-6 while eroding the Penguins’ to 24-18-8), I spent the rest of the evening writing and relaxing, so much so that I drifted off to sleep shortly after 1 a.m.

 

Saturday, February 8: Unlike most nights on the road, I slept soundly and deeply but the words that usually flow from brain to keyboard like water through a fire hose slowed to a trickle. Perhaps I was bogged down by the research I felt I needed to do in order to make the story the best it could be or maybe it was one of those rare days when I just wasn’t “feeling it.” However, as always, I pushed through the mental clog and reached a good stopping place by the time I needed to pack my belongings and head down to the arena.

Yesterday’s fortuitous timing continued as CompuBox colleague Andy Kasprzak exited his room seconds after I left mine and together we did our best to solve the labyrinth that is the PPL Center. We eventually found our way to ringside thanks to directions offered by two staffers and the paths they showed us revealed that Andy and I (1) had walked past every turn we should have taken and (2) we would have been hopelessly lost had we not chosen to seek help.

Once at ringside, Sports Media ace Andy Vanderford and audio master Adam Leifer helped get our work station up and running. Soon after the pre-show preparations were completed, Russell made his first appearance inside the arena. Hours before he was to work two fights in the corner, he oversaw the rehearsal of his ring walk to make sure the timing of the choreography melded with the music. Changes were made and by the fourth take, all was perfect. If ever a person embodies the saying “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” it is Russell and, so far, it has worked very well for him.

During the long wait at ringside, I said hello to Will Wright (with whom I’ve exchanged many emails but had seldom seen face to face) as well as timekeeper Fred Blumstein, BWAA President Joe Santoliquito (who was this show’s deadline writer for RingTV.com), Hall-of-Famer Nigel Collins (one of the men who gave me my start as a boxing writer) and veteran scribes J.R. Jowett and Frank Bartolini. The collective knowledge on press row is staggering and the memories imparted by each would have been an endless source of fun for me but, alas, duty called and I needed to get to work.

The crew meal caused Andy and me to miss the first two fights on the non-TV undercard (Marlon Bolen TKO 2 Larry Ventus, Rajon Chance TKO 1 Joseph Quintana) but we were there to count three of the remaining five undercard bouts. The first was Gary Antonio Russell’s sixth round disqualification win over Martinez, a battle of southpaws that pitted aggressor versus survivor. While Russell might have felt some frustration at his inability to blow away Martinez, Martinez was even more angst-ridden that he couldn’t slow the avalanche of leather that was coming at him. (Russell averaged 76.3 punches per round to Martinez’s 29.5.) That frustration boiled over in round five when he landed a low blow that prompted a time-out, then another in round six. Moments after the pair returned to action, Russell scored the fight’s only knockdown with a combination capped by a left cross and as he gunned for the finish, Martinez clamped down and refused to let go. By now it was evident that Martinez wanted out and referee Gary Rosato obliged by declaring the disqualification, closing the curtain on a fight in which Russell led 87-31 overall, 19-1 jabs and 68-30 power as well as 21%-19% overall, 8%-4% jabs and 35%-22% power.

After bantamweight Jonathan Rodriguez scored a six-round unanimous decision over Edson Eduardo Neri (3-5, with 2 KOs) to lift his record to 8-0 (with 3 KOs), Gary Antonio’s younger brother Gary Antuanne entered the ring against Marrufo. Unlike Martinez, Marrufo initiated a trench war that Russell eagerly accepted. A double right hand – the second of which was a hook to the jaw – profoundly scrambled the Mexican’s wiring and drove him to the floor. The war between Marrufo’s desire to regain his feet and his body’s inability to do so caused him to dizzily flop about the canvas, prompting the stoppage at the 2:12 mark of Round 1. Every one of Russell’s 22 connects and Marrufo’s 14 were power punches but because Russell led 45%-26% in accuracy – and because his punches carried much more force – this fight was short, sweet and complete.

Next up was Cincinnati junior middleweight Jamontay Clark, who sought to return to the winning track – at least officially – after a disputed draw against Sebastian Fundora last August many thought he should have won. His opponent was fellow southpaw Anthony Lenk, a 5-foot-8-inch native of Niagara Falls whose mission was singular – get inside the 6-foot-2 Clark’s mammoth 80-inch reach and inflict as much damage as possible. In Round 4, Lenk nearly pulled off the major upset as a power right jolted Clark’s nervous system and almost dropped him. Lenk pursued the kill but Clark’s survival skills saw him through the remainder of the round. Once Clark regained his equilibrium – and his boxing rhythm – he sailed to the points win (79-73 twice, 78-74) that lifted his record to 15-1-1 (with 7 KOs) and eroded Lenk’s to 16-7 (with 7 KOs). Clark won the bout with work rate (71.1 punches per round to Lenk’s 60.9), jabbing (33.5 attempts/7.4 connects per round to Lenk’s 14.5 and 1.4 respectively), accuracy (35%-18% overall, 22%-9% jabs, 46%-25% power) and body punching (64-30 in connects), all of which resulted in final connect gaps of 197-103 overall, 59-11 jabs and 138-92 power.

The final non-TV fight featured Allentown product Jules, who crushed Cupul 159 seconds after the opening bell with a series of unanswered power punches.

All in all, the undercard provided the ever-growing audience a good show. Will the final three fights of the evening do the same?

 

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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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