The Travelin’ Man goes to Cruz vs. Mattice: Part One
Thursday, February 13: It only seems like yesterday that I pulled into the driveway following my most recent journey to Allentown, Pennsylvania.
There’s a good reason for that – it almost was yesterday when that happened.
Because I returned home late Sunday night – and because I arose at 7:45 a.m. today to prepare for my next trip – I felt a bit like those NFL teams that have to execute the Sunday-to-Thursday turnaround, except I don’t have to deal with any of the bumps and bruises. I also felt a little déjà vu for two reasons. The first: I spent much of last Sunday inside Philadelphia International Airport thanks to mechanical issues that pushed back my original departure by a little more than three hours. Because this episode of “ShoBox” – a quadrupleheader topped by Thomas Mattice-Isaac Cruz and supported by Ra’eese Aleem-Adam Lopez, Montana Love-Jerrico Walton and Derrick Colemon-Joseph Jackson – will be staged inside the 2300 Arena, I not only will be returning to Philadelphia International Airport, I will be staying inside Philadelphia International Airport, specifically the Marriott. The second: Three of the eight fighters involved on the card are ShoBox staples: Love (who will be making his third appearance), Mattice (who will be featured for the sixth time) and especially Lopez, who will be fighting for a record-breaking eighth time on this platform. Conversely Cruz, Aleem, Walton, Colemon and Jackson will be making their ShoBox debuts and because there is relatively little recent footage of them, I will be forming my first impressions at ringside tomorrow night.
One byproduct of ShoBox’s mission statement – pairing prospects in their toughest fights to date – is that those who appear multiple times will likely have their previously pristine records dinged. Such has been the case with this trio: Love entered his February 2018 ShoBox debut against Samuel Teah 8-0 (with 4 knockouts) and enters this match with the 16-0 (with 6 KOs) Walton with a 12-0-1 (with 6 KOs) ledger thanks to his eight-round draw against fellow alum Kenneth Sims Jr. five months after his majority decision victory over Teah. Meanwhile Mattice – who made his debut against Rolando Chinea on the same show as Mattice-Teah – was 10-0 (with 8 KOs) and is now 15-1-1 (with 11 KOs) due to his two-fight series with Zhora Hamazaryan (a disputed split decision win and a more well-received draw), his February 2019 points defeat against Will Madera and his upset cut-induced eighth round TKO over Michael Dutchover last September.
Incidentally Mattice is one of the few fighters in ShoBox history to have returned to the “A-side” after having been relegated to “opponent” status. In his most recent outing, Mattice met the 13-0 (with 10 KOs) Dutchover in Dutchover’s hometown of Midland, Texas, as the unquestioned “B-side” thanks to Dutchover’s 106-second destruction of Rosekie Cristobal on the Ruben Villa-Luis Alberto Lopez undercard the previous May. Everyone – including Mattice – knew what was supposed to happen but the “Gunna Man” flipped the script and walked out the winner. However that result would not have happened had it not been for referee Robert Velez’s correctly rendered determination that the fight-ending cut over Dutchover’s eye had been produced by a punch, for had he ruled otherwise, Dutchover, who was ahead on the scorecards, would have escaped with a split decision victory. Given that Mattice out-landed Dutchover 181-121 overall thanks to his 97-18 lead in landed jabs, was the much more accurate fighter (41%-25% overall, 33%-8% jabs, 54%-38% power) and out-landed the local hero in each of the final six rounds, boxing was spared yet another debatable result.
But no fighter in ShoBox history has traveled the route Lopez has, not only in terms of appearances but also because he is the only fighter whose rise, peak and decline were documented by the series. On March 30, 2015, the 24-year-old Lopez – then 9-0 (with 4 KOs) – spectacularly stopped the 11-0 (with 3 KOs) Pablo Cruz in two rounds, then rose through the ranks with victories over Eliecer Aquino (MD 10) and Mario Munoz (UD 10). Those victories raised his stock to the point where Jonathan Guzman – who won the vacant IBF junior featherweight title only one day earlier – flew from Osaka to Mashantucket, Connecticut, just to scout Lopez, who was in line to be his first challenger. But that never happened because Lopez fought B-side Argentine Roman Reynoso to a split draw and the pain for Lopez was increased because Guzman went on to lose the belt in his first defense against Yukinori Oguni.
From there, Lopez’s descent steepened – a brutal ninth-round TKO loss to Daniel Roman (who won the WBA junior featherweight title in his next fight), an eight-round draw against Glenn Dezurn in July 2017, an eight-round unanimous decision defeat against Jorge Diaz in November 2017 (which was not on ShoBox) and an eight-round unanimous decision loss to Arnold Khegai in May 2018 – his seventh ShoBox appearance but his first as the “B-side.”
Lopez used the next 13 months to rest and reset, after which he earned this eighth appearance by scoring three straight wins against modest competition – a six-round unanimous decision over the 5-3 (with 4 KOs) Andres Balderas, a first round KO against the 0-10-1 Obed Fernandez (both in Allende, Mexico) and most recently a six-round unanimous decision over 18-9 (with 14 KOs) journeyman Rafael Reyes in November. Tomorrow’s opponent, Ra’eese Aleem, is actually six months older than the 29-year-old Lopez and has been in the pro ranks for five months longer but his 15-0 (with 9 KOs) record has been built carefully as only one of his first 10 opponents had a winning record. Aleem proved his readiness for the next level by out-pointing the 8-0-1 Marcus Bates over eight rounds in April 2018 and has since added wins over Alcides Santiago (TKO 5), Derrick Wilson (TKO 5), Ramiro Robles (TKO 1) and Saul Hernandez (TKO 3). Despite Lopez’s recent struggles, he still represents a step up the ladder for the Las Vegas-based native of Muskegon, Michigan, who will be fighting inside the 2300 Arena for the third time in his last six fights.
Based on the footage I’ve seen of Aleem – I counted the Bates bout off video – he appears to have a fast-running engine as he averaged 75.2 punches per round (well above the 60.5 junior featherweight average), possesses nice pop (he scored the fight’s only knockdown 70 seconds after the opening bell, prompting Bates to fight defensively for the remainder of the contest), wields an effective jab (he averaged 8.2 connects per round and 29% accuracy, better than the 4.2 and 17.9% division norms) and pounds the body well (he led 52-5 in landed body shots). Therefore it was no surprise that he defeated Bates by near-shutout margins (80-71, 79-72 twice). If ever there is a crossroads fight on this show, this is it. For that reason, while I’m looking forward to seeing all the fights on this show, Aleem-Lopez is the most intriguing to me.
For the first time in a while, the Snow Wars that have plagued most of my 2020 trips have eased – at least for now. The previous evening’s forecast called for a light dusting of snow but by the time I left the house at 8:30 a.m. to catch my scheduled 1:05 p.m. bird to Philadelphia, not a flake was in sight. Better yet, traffic was so light that I arrived at the airport in just 2 hours 6 minutes – and only 10 minutes after the drizzle had turned to flurries.
However while my meteorological surroundings were better, the delays associated with flying to and from Philadelphia remained the same. Mechanical issues linked to the plane’s ability to pump out hot air through the wings prompted a boarding delay of nearly 90 minutes, then, after entering the cabin and having our plane undergo the de-icing process, the tower at Philadelphia International Airport ordered a ground stop due to weather issues, forcing our aircraft to wait on the runway.
Patience is definitely a virtue for a frequent flier – or any flier, for that matter – because unforeseen circumstances twist itineraries into pretzels. Situations such as these are often made worse by the lack of updates by the pilot (which wasn’t the case here) and the often-cramped quarters with which we passengers must cope (which definitely was the case here). My claustrophobic situation was made worse by the slightly reclined seat occupied by the rather large gentleman seated directly in front of me. Being the non-confrontational type – an ironic trait given my line of work – I assumed a “Live and let live so I can live” attitude and passed the time by either resting my eyes or reading more of the book I began last week (Kevin Cook’s “The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless ‘70s, The Era That Created Modern Sports”).
Finally at 4:13 p.m. – three hours and eight minutes later than scheduled – American Airlines Flight 5304 from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia was airborne. It touched down 50 minutes later and, given the longer-than-expected day, I was particularly grateful that the crew hotel was located inside the airport. All I needed to do to access it was to board a shuttle bus from Terminal F to Terminal B and, after exiting, follow the signs.
Once I checked into my room on the fifth floor and made my customary “I’m all right” call, I ordered room service and spent the remainder of the evening channel-surfing on the regular TV channels and watching classic tennis videos on YouTube TV. Longtime readers of the “Travelin’ Man Chronicles” know that while boxing is my favorite sport, I also am a fan of tennis, baseball, track and field, billiards, bowling, ski jumping and even Australian Rules Football (I have an affinity for the West Coast Eagles and Hawthorn Hawks). I’m still trying to learn the rules of rugby and have given cricket a watch along the way. To me, the drama of competition is the big hook but, for reasons I’m still trying to figure out, I’ve spent much less time watching American football (college and the NFL) in recent years. I still love the Pittsburgh Steelers but most of my Sundays are spent either traveling, writing, researching or tending to my ever-expanding sports video collection (which, due to my frenetic travel schedule, has not been updated in a while). Perhaps the passion will return but, as of now, it’s dormant. Such are the cycles of life.
Friday, February 14: Speaking of passion, today marks this year’s observance of Valentine’s Day and, for me, it began at 6:45 a.m. – just four-and-a-half hours after clicking off the light. Following the morning routines, I settled in for a few hours of writing but, as I did so, I received a text from Rachel Charles, who invited me to have breakfast with her at the Aviation Grill, the restaurant located in the Marriott’s lobby.
Rachel has long been one of my favorite people in boxing because of her seemingly boundless energy, ever-present smile and enthusiasm. My first contact with her occurred nearly 16 years ago when I was a part-time researcher with CompuBox and she was a publicist with Goossen Tutor Promotions. One of my duties with CompuBox in the early days was assembling “training camp notes” for HBO’s on-air talent and before one show, I was given the number for Goossen Tutor. When I dialed it, I heard Rachel’s bright, bubbly English-accented voice on the other end. She not only was efficient and helpful – that was part of the job description – she added layers of pleasantness and personality that helped separate her from the pack. She clearly was a people person and because I was one as well, we hit it off immediately.
I didn’t meet her face-to-face until I had begun traveling to HBO shows as a full-time member of CompuBox. As soon as we introduced ourselves, we reacted more like longtime chums rather than colleagues in the boxing business. The last time Rachel and I spent any significant time together was in May 2013 in Miami, Oklahoma, 11 days after I worked an HBO show in Buenos Aires topped by Sergio Martinez-Martin Murray. Back then, Rachel was trying on a new hat – promoter. This show was her first as a co-promoter and the stakes couldn’t have been much higher: Her fighter, seventh-ranked southpaw and junior welterweight Cleotis Pendarvis, was facing Dierry Jean, rated No. 2, for a potential title shot against Lamont Peterson. The avalanche of last-minute details she had to address pushed our hoped-for lunch back to the afternoon of the fight but once it happened, the wait was more than worth it. Unfortunately for Rachel, her fighter Pendarvis was stopped in Round 4.
The other strong memory I had from this visit to Miami (pronounced MY-am-MUH) was my first face-to-face encounter with four-time heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, who was the headline guest for this promotion. I don’t usually ask for photos with the fighters I meet but because it was Holyfield – and because I didn’t have my copy of Harry Mullan’s “The Great Book of Boxing” with me – I asked for – and was granted – the photo-op, though “The Real Deal” didn’t exactly looked thrilled to do so. By the way, on the day Holyfield was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, I was privileged to be seated beside “The Real Deal’s” wife, a pleasant and engaging lady.
When I saw Rachel emerge from the elevator, it was as if we had last seen each other six-and-a-half days ago instead of six-and-a-half years ago. Although she has been in the U.S. for nearly 30 years, she still has the unmistakable (but very easily understood) Birmingham accent and her association with boxing is stronger than ever. She is the Vice President of Operations and Press with Sheer Sports Management and the fighters with whom she works include Ronald Ellis, Aaron and Steve McKenna, Victor Morales, Scott Alexander, Roney Hines, Jason Quigley, Jose Haro and Brett McGinty. Tonight two of her fighters will be fighting in back-to-back bouts: Heavyweight Norman Neely in the final non-televised bout and junior middleweight Derrick Colemon in the opening bout of the telecast.
We spent nearly 90 minutes catching up as I ate a small breakfast (two eggs, three slices of toast, orange juice) and we probably could have continued for several more hours were it not for our respective duties.
For me, those duties began when I met driver (and veteran cameraman) Gene Samuels and CompuBox colleague Andy Kasprzak in the lobby at 2:30 p.m. Once there, Andy and I set up shop, after which he did his thing and I did mine – talking to ringsiders such as Marc Abrams (this year’s co-winner of the BWAA’s John McCain-Bill Crawford Courage Award with Adonis Stevenson), referees Eric Dali and Gary Rosato, ring announcer Thomas Treiber, timekeeper Madra Clay (who was seated to my immediate left), as well as veteran scribes J.R. Jowett and THE RING’s Joe Santoliquito (who is also the president of the BWAA). Although Rachel and I had a server at the Aviation Grill take a picture of us at breakfast, she asked a photographer friend of hers to snap another one in which we were in our business togs.
One of the many reasons Philadelphia is the soul of pugilism is that, unlike other cities, a majority of the audience shows up to watch every fight on the card, not just the ones on TV. The 2300 Arena was already buzzing and bustling by the time the show began at 7:31 p.m. with a scheduled four-rounder that pitted Brazilian bantamweight Eduardo Diogo against Philadelphian Jerrod Miner. Most times, predicting a fight between participants with records of 1-0 (Diogo) and 1-9-2 (Miner) is a perfunctory exercise, especially when the undefeated fighter possesses marked advantages in height and reach. However when the fighter with the underwater record hails from Philadelphia, that alone is enough reason for the prognosticator to invest more thought. That’s how much respect the label of “Philadelphia Fighter” has earned over the decades, for that fighter – no matter the style – boasts a higher level of skill, grit, knowledge, toughness, pride and resolve, intangibles that can propel a fighter with an inferior record past an overconfident fighter with a superior record.
Sure enough, Miner proved competent and capable, if not victorious. He provided enough professional resistance to keep Diogo occupied and engaged for two rounds but, starting midway through the third, the American’s energy supply began to ebb, allowing the Brazilian to seize control. More and more, Diogo maneuvered Miner to the ropes, where his heavier body shots began to take hold. But Miner remained on his feet and did not appear overly winded; he was just being out-performed.
Only in the final 15 seconds, when a solid right landed during an exchange along the ropes, did Miner appear buzzed and even then, he easily made it to the final bell. The decision was unanimous (40-36, 39-37 twice) and while the expected winner won and the expected loser lost, it was hardly a blowout and certainly not a mismatch.
Next up was a scheduled six-round welterweight fight and this time the Philadelphian was on the “A-side” of the equation as Rasheed Johnson faced Monterrey, Mexico, journeyman Omar Garcia. This time, the local fighter towered over his shorter, squat opponent and his combative attitude was on full display in the opening seconds. As Garcia advanced to ring center and attempted to touch gloves, Johnson – having already touched gloves during the final instructions – landed a smacking hook to the jaw and proceeded to hunt the KO behind his long jabs, arcing hooks and straight right hands. Johnson began and ended every exchange and during those rare times when Garcia maneuvered him toward the ropes, the local product smartly pivoted away and returned to ring center.
Johnson accelerated his assault at the start of Round 2 and Garcia answered with singular bombs that harmlessly hit arms and elbows. Late in the second, Garcia landed his best punch to date, a winging overhand right that struck the target. Unfortunately for the Mexican, that blow had virtually no effect on Johnson; he shook off the punch unflinchingly, then whirled away from the strands and returned to ring center.
The determined Garcia managed to work his way inside Johnson’s long arms more often in the third and he enjoyed brief pockets of success thanks to body blows that knifed through the guard. Johnson answered by working the jab, both to the head and body and in the round’s waning moments, he tried to steal the round with a final flurry. If there were one round that could have belonged to Garcia, it was this one.
The fourth started with Johnson working the left hand furiously and, from time to time, he connected with rights over the top. Small markings started to sprout under both of Garcia’s eyes and he began to take on the weathered look that can only come from ring combat.
Then, with startling suddenness, the fight ended thanks to a vicious body punch that left Garcia writhing under the ropes near Johnson’s corner and struggling to take in his next breath. Referee Eric Dali tolled 10, and, just like that, Johnson was 7-3 (with 3 KOs) and Garcia was 6-11 (with 1 KO). The time: 2:42 of Round 4. The good news was that Garcia’s crisis proved temporary; within a minute, he was already seated on a stool and he soon was up on his feet, disappointed but fully recovered.
Following a lengthy intermission, the show resumed with a Philadelphia turf war between welterweights James Martin and Vincent Floyd. Another endearing mark of a Philadelphia fight crowd is its knowledge as well as its willingness to express it immediately and at high volume. As soon as it became apparent that Floyd was a southpaw, someone in the crowd instantly shouted “Southpaw killer!” which, for the uninitiated, meant he wanted Martin to dart inside and throw the straight right hand. And being a smart Philadelphia fighter, Martin applied the advice moments later.
Soon, Martin mixed in short hooks to the body and, at the 1:53 mark of the opening round, he scored a knockdown. Floyd arose and Martin continued to pour on the pressure, landing rights to the chin and driving hooks to the body. Between rounds, Floyd’s corner tended to a tiny slice over the right eye.
Following more of the same in Round 2, Floyd’s game picked up in the third as he managed to move Martin back from time to time and, at one point, landed a hard right during an exchange. But just as it appeared that Floyd had found his rhythm, that rhythm was broken by a right cross that snapped the southpaw’s head backward. Martin followed that blow with a solid right-left-right. If the war wasn’t on before, it certainly was now.
The exchanges were brisk in Round 4 but while Floyd offered stiff resistance as well as light but scoring blows, Martin’s connects carried more power. The attrition of battle began to show on Floyd’s face as a small swelling under the left eye became a cut in the round’s final seconds.
The fifth round was waged mostly at ring center and at a range where both men could land solidly. Martin’s right uppercut/left hook sent Floyd’s mouthpiece flying shortly after the one-minute mark and, from there, he began separating himself in an even more definitive manner. His confidence was such that he turned southpaw at the one-minute mark of the final round, then proceeded to connect solidly with a right hook combination to the head and body. Satisfied at his versatility, Martin switched back to right-handed and cruised to the finish line.
The decision was unanimous for Martin, now 6-1, as Steve Weisfeld and Dewey LaRosa turned in 60-53 scores while Lindsay Page submitted a 59-54 card. The result eroded Floyd’s record to 4-9-1 with one no-contest (with 2 KOs).
The last fight of the non-televised show pitted heavyweights Norman Neely (Rachel Charles’ fighter) against Nicoy Clarke in a Paterson-versus-Jersey City pairing scheduled for four rounds. Despite being shorter and sporting a thicker physique, Clarke was the man on the move throughout while Neely pursued. Neely’s quicker hands and somewhat harder punches piled up points and generally controlled the proceedings.
The fight’s most noteworthy development occurred in the final round. A few hours earlier, two adhesive decals bearing the name of one of the promotional companies involved in this show were laid down on the area directly in front of the neutral corner pads. I thought at the time that this could prove hazardous should the action proceed a certain way.
Guess what? The action proceeded in that certain way.
Moments after Neely staggered Clarke with a sudden and supercharged burst of power shots, the retreating Clarke’s shoe managed to rip one of the decals off the canvas surface. As if Clarke didn’t have enough to deal with at the moment, he somehow had to get this large, balled-up, sticky item off his shoe. The situation was resolved quickly and though Clarke managed to survive to the final bell, he still lost a unanimous decision (40-36 twice, 39-37) that eroded his record to 2-6 while lifting Martin’s to 6-0 (with 5 KOs). Given what happened during the final round, the decal located in the other neutral corner was peeled off.
All that remained was the scheduled 34 rounds that will make up the upcoming episode of “ShoBox: The New Generation.” I looked forward to the stories that were about to be told – aesthetically as well as numerically.
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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