The Travelin’ Man returns to Las Vegas: Part Two
Friday, February 28 (continued): As I watched the long, lanky Keith Hunter apply his high-volume stick-and-move game plan against the stocky, blocky aggressor Sanjarbek Rakhmanov, an image flashed inside my mind – one that bore the marks of sacrilege.
Although Hunter and Rakhmanov are countless parsecs away from the talents and accomplishments of Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta, their body frames and their contrasting approaches did, at certain times and at certain angles from my ringside vantage point, remind me of photos I had seen of the early fights between “The Sugar Man” and “The Bronx Bull.” There, the elegant and highly skilled Robinson, his trim and smoothly-muscled physique and his closely cropped hair bearing a thin part, sought to slice and dice a broad-shouldered and maniacally determined opponent who wanted nothing more than to corner his quarry and inflict as much punishment as possible.
While some of their battles were more closely contested inside the ring than portrayed on the official scorecards, Robinson ended the series ahead five fights to one. And nearly 11 months after he captured a somewhat debatable eight-round split decision over Rakhmanov, Hunter upped his lead to 2-0 with a much more convincing 10-round unanimous decision at Sam’s Town Resort & Gambling Hall in Las Vegas, which also served as the site of their initial meeting.
In some ways, Fight Two strongly resembled Fight One. In the original, Hunter scored a second round knockdown while in the sequel, he registered a third round knockdown. Also, Hunter was the much more active fighter in both contests (92.3 punches per round to Rakhmanov’s 41 in fight one, 107.5 to 39.3 in fight two). However as big a part as the jab played in Hunter’s blueprint, Rakhmanov’s jab was the more effective weapon in both contests. In Fight One, Hunter averaged 56.1 attempts and 4.8 connects per round but landed a paltry 9% of them while Rakhmanov averaged 5.4 connects, despite only 18.4 attempts per round, and connected at an impressive 29% rate. In Fight Two, Hunter averaged 66 attempts and 4.6 connects per round for 7% accuracy while Rakhmanov averaged 18.9 attempts and 5.1 connects per round for 27% accuracy.
So why was Hunter able to perform much more effectively this time around? Reason one: Hunter was much better on defense. In Fight One, Rakhmanov landed 42% of his total punches and a sky-high 51% of his power shots but in the rematch, he connected on just 31% overall and 35% power. Second: Hunter was slightly more accurate with his blows (15% overall and 25% power in Fight One, 17% overall and 33% power in Fight Two) but his power shots landed with more force over the entirety of the rematch. Third, and most importantly, Hunter performed far better in the second half of the rematch than was the case in Fight One. In the earlier fight, Rakhmanov out-landed Hunter 80-62 overall and 61-40 power in Rounds 5 through 8 to extend his final leads to 136-110 overall, 43-38 jabs and 93-72 power but here, Hunter prevailed 90-69 overall and 68-47 power in Rounds 6 through 10 to extend his final leads to 181-123 overall and 135-732 power to offset Rakhmanov’s 51-46 lead in landed jabs. In Round 10, Hunter landed a fight-high 32 in terms of total connects and a fight-high 31 landed power shots, three more than the combined 28 he logged in Rounds 7, 8 and 9. Hunter was clearly in much better shape in Fight Two, showing he could extend his early-round energy beyond the fight’s opening rounds. Finally Hunter showed a fighter’s grit by producing his biggest numbers, despite an injured left hand.
What is next for Hunter? The word is that the fight that should have taken place tonight – Hunter versus Malik Hawkins – could happen this summer. Based on this performance – and Hawkins’ struggles against Darwin Price, despite winning in Round 5 due to Price’s injured knee – one must make Hunter the early favorite.
Like Hunter’s father – Mike “The Bounty” Hunter – super middleweight Genc Pllana banks on his ability to throw off his opponents’ rhythm. “Atrocious” is the most common word used to describe his technique but Pllana is that rare fighter who does everything wrong but still gets the right result. That certainly was the case in Pllana’s unanimous decision victory over Kevin Newman II, a fighter who was advised by Roy Jones Jr., a man who didn’t always follow the textbook in his pursuit of immortality.
When such fighters win, they are called geniuses. When they lose, they are called “bums.” Win or lose, they are forever unique and they seem to take pride in their uniqueness. Even though Pllana is listed by BoxRec as a native of Kosovo, his nickname is “The Sexy Albanian” because most people mistake him for being Albanian. He doesn’t seem to mind either part of the nickname; his attitude seems to say, “Let them think I’m from Albania and especially let them think I am sexy.” In fact, it was reported on the broadcast that the thing he wants fans most to say about him the day after the fight is that he was sexy.
One common denominator with fighters such as Pllana is the effect he has on those who have the misfortune of fighting him. Opponents often say to themselves that they would not fall victim to a trickster’s tactics but, once the bell sounds, the hard reality that they are about to be victimized becomes apparent – and too late to stop.
That trait was certainly true of Mike “The Bounty” Hunter Sr. In a MaxBoxing.com article I wrote in March 2008, Bob Spagnola – a longtime trainer who was friends with Hunter’s trainer as well as the fighter’s father – said this: “Guys look at guys and size them up. When they looked at Bounty they said, ‘This guy isn’t going to do that to me,’ but he did it to everybody. He had a great set of legs and used them. He used his balance and agility to take chances and he broke the rules of defense and positioning and how punches are put together. Though he expended a lot of energy, he could go like that all day.”
To those who watched Pllana do his thing against Newman – including Newman himself – that must have sounded familiar.
Pllana’s madness has a method. While opponents are unfamiliar with his approach, Pllana is very familiar with how opponents attempt to address him. Through his experience, Pllana apparently has created a mental map from which he could address – and avoid – most of the punches that will come his way. Although his left glove dangles below his belt, his right glove is often planted against his cheek and his leaned-back stance enables him to take some of the steam off his opponents’ punches. His off-kilter rhythm also acts as a deterrent to opponents in terms of throwing punches. While Pllana averaged a healthy 60.2 punches per round, Newman – who was out-thrown in every round – logged just 31.5. When Newman did decide to throw, he landed; in fact, he prevailed 30%-12% overall, 31%-9% jabs and 30%-16% power while also leading 96-74 overall thanks to his 59-31 lead in landed jabs, a lead mainly gained by the one punch that consistently penetrated Pllana’s guard – the jab to the body. Of his 59 landed jabs, 50 – or nearly 85% – were to the torso. Given all we know now about Pllana’s style, it is fitting that the one punch in boxing that is used the least would be Newman’s most effective weapon. Potential opponents should take note of that, as well as Newman’s connect rate when he decided to throw. Based on this, it can be surmised that an opponent who ignores all the razzmatazz and cranks up the volume may be able to crack the code.
On offense, Pllana’s ability to limit his opponents’ output allows him to be the initiator. He chooses when to move, when to punch, when to lay back, when to jab and when to launch his flailing flurries. The opponent, burdened enough with the quirks of Pllana’s violations of textbook pugilism, is further hampered by being stuck in a reactive state.
The CompuBox round-by-round breakdown of total connects – which often mirrors the official scoring – was nowhere near the mark here as Newman prevailed 7-2-1 but of the seven rounds Newman led, four of them were by three or fewer connects – a close enough margin to qualify as a “swing” round. Had those rounds gone to Pllana, which they apparently did, the margin would be 5-4-1 in Pllana’s favor. By the way, Pllana prevailed 96-94 on the scorecards of veteran judges Tim Cheatham, Patricia Morse Jarman and Glenn Trowbridge.
The Spagnola quote regarding Hunter was part of a two-part series I wrote for MaxBoxing.com titled “The Kings of Funk.” There I profiled not only Hunter Sr. but also Marvin Camel, Manuel Medina, Gypsy Joe Harris, Emanuel Augustus, Kirkland Laing and future Hall-of-Famer Naseem Hamed. By beating Newman, Pllana may someday join this most unusual brotherhood.
In his maiden appearance on “ShoBox: The New Generation” junior welterweight Richardson Hitchins showed he could out-style a fellow stylist in Kevin Johnson. The scores of 97-93 (twice) and 96-94 reflected the reality that the 2016 Haitian Olympian was a degree better than Johnson in just about every department and for those like me who like thinking-man’s boxing, it was a good watch.
Against Nick DeLomba, Hitchins dearly wanted to produce another kind of watch, one that would see him dominate, overwhelm and stop a man whose aggressive, high-volume style seemed perfectly suited to his strengths. For three rounds, HItchins seemed well on his way to doing just that as he out-landed DeLomba 78-13 overall, 29-7 jabs and 49-6 power while averaging 66.3 punches per round to DeLomba’s 34.7.
But starting in Round 4, DeLomba, perhaps perceiving that he had absorbed Hitchins’ best, adjusted to his environment while Hitchins, knowing he had seven more rounds to fight, moderated his approach but still piled up the points. In Rounds 4 through 10, Hitchins dropped his average output from 66.3 to 55.1 punches per round while DeLomba’s rose from 34.7 to 49 but Hitchins’ saving grace was his accuracy as he produced overall precision gaps of 33%-17%, 36%-11%, 33%-26%, 31%-20%, 28%-17% and 35%-21% in Rounds 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10. The only round in which DeLomba prevailed was the fifth, a round that saw him lead 13-12 in total connects and 25%-16% in overall accuracy. Any doubts about Hitchins’ stamina and command were answered in the 10th as he out-threw DeLomba 60-42, out-landed him in every phase (21-9 overall, 5-3 jabs, 16-6 power) and connected on 62% of his power punches to DeLomba’s 23%.
In all, Hitchins was more active (58.5 punches per round to DeLomba’s 44.7), accurate (33%-18% overall, 22%-13% jabs, 43%-21% power), the superior body puncher (60-29 in connects) and the more prolific hitter (192-81 overall, 64-21 jabs, 128-60 power). The CompuBox round-by-round breakdown of total connects had Hitchins ahead 9-1 and the judges (Adalaide Byrd, Chris Flores, Ricardo Ocasio) agreed by submitting 100-90 scorecards.
The main criticism that may come in terms of Hitchins’ performance was that he unloaded his best guns and failed to seriously shake DeLomba, much less put him away. While that fact may hurt Hitchins once he raises the level of competition, I don’t believe it should take away from the excellence he displayed in this match.
One-punch knockouts are to boxing what home runs are to baseball, slam dunks are to basketball, 100 mile-per-hour slap shot goals are to hockey and long touchdown passes are to football – the most exciting parts of a given sport. However there is more to boxing than a crunching right hand, a smashing hook, a piercing uppercut or a wind-robbing body punch and if everyone could do it, they wouldn’t be as special as they are. For fighters like Hitchins, winning is the main objective. If that win is produced inside the distance, all the better but it should not the be-all and end-all when assessing a fighter’s ability. It remains to be seen whether the decision win was caused more by Hitchins’ lack of power or by DeLomba’s above-average chin and will to fight. Perhaps it might be both.
The telecast went off the air two hours 50 minutes after it began and it was well after midnight by the time I finished inputting the night’s numbers into the database and arranging a 4:45 a.m. taxi to the airport with the valet. Because I was granted my request for a 6:30 a.m. flight from Las Vegas to Phoenix, I had a decision to make: Remain awake to guarantee I would not sleep past my 3:30 a.m. wake-up time or turn out the light and risk oversleeping but reap the benefits of a short rest and a morning shower. My original choice was to stay awake and I went as far as to get a late-night snack at the food court. But once I finished the meal, my eyes grew so heavy that I could not avoid closing them. So, at 1:15 a.m., I switched off the light but kept the TV on so I would hopefully occupy that netherworld between consciousness and slumber.
Saturday, February 29: The gamble paid off: My eyes opened at 3 a.m. and I spent the final half-hour in build-up mode. The morning routines had me feeling better than I had a right to expect and, at least so far, this travel day was proceeding perfectly. After packing my belongings at 4:15, I headed down to the hotel registration desk to check out of my room, fully expecting to see a fairly sizable line because of the counterintuitive popularity of 6 a.m. flights. I was pleasantly surprised to see that only one set of customers was ahead of me and, even then, the clerk waved me in and completed the check-out process.
The valet instructed me to either wait inside or sit outside on a nearby bench so the taxi driver could more easily see me. I opted to sit on the bench and the crisp pre-dawn air helped me stay alert. I was pleasantly surprised to see that my taxi had arrived early and was even more surprised to see that, for the third consecutive trip from Sam’s Town to Mc Carran International Airport, my driver was Pranjit, one of the friendliest and most talkative drivers I’ve met in my travels. Upon seeing me, his face lit up in recognition and he greeted me with such familiarity that it surprised the man loading my luggage into the cab. As was the case for the previous two rides, this trip to the airport was quite enjoyable and all too brief.
Thanks to my “gold” status with American, I received a free upgrade to First-Class on the flight to Phoenix. This proved to be a most fortuitous development, for my seat mate was an Australian with quite the catchy name – Dominique Fazzari. She was in the middle of a lengthy trek from her native Melbourne to Mexico, her vacation destination, but, despite the jet lag she must have been feeling, she was friendly and eager to answer all my questions about the land Down Under.
I’ve had a strong affinity for Australia ever since childhood. I don’t know if it was because of the accent or the fact that it was so far away from America but my interest and affection for the continent-nation was unmistakable and unshakable. During my early teen years, I faithfully listened to Radio Australia on shortwave and I even had a letter I wrote to the station read on the air. (It was about the content of its TV programming.)
So imagine my joy when CompuBox President Bob Canobbio told me about possibly working a one-night, eight-man pay-per-view heavyweight tournament in Melbourne in 2007. In a flash I filled out the online form to secure my work visa and even derived happiness from reading the travel itinerary: Pittsburgh to Chicago, Chicago to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Melbourne. An interesting sidelight was that I was to depart on November 27 and land on November 29, which meant that I would skip over my 43rd birthday. (To me, that meant I reserved the right to remain 42 for an extra year).
Mind you, at this point, I hadn’t even experienced a flight plan that involved changing planes and here I was about to embark on a multi-plane, multi-continental journey.
But it wasn’t to be. As the weeks went by, several big-name fighters chose to opt out and, while the promoters were able to find suitable replacements for the first wave of cancellations, the subsequent lineup shifts resulted in such severe dilution that the event no longer made financial sense. Bob informed me of the event’s cancellation just three days before I was to depart.
I don’t have a “bucket list” but if I did, a trip to Australia would be at the very top. Ideally it would be a journey connected to a major sporting event such as the Australian Open in tennis or an Australian Rules Football Grand Final and since I have several friends Down Under, I also would take time to visit them. My attitude is this: If it’s meant to happen, then it will happen. If not, I still have a great life.
In any case, my brief brush with Australia through Dominique was a most enjoyable one. She, like many Aussies, is a knowledgeable sports fan (she supports the Essendon Bombers in the Australian Rules Football League while I have an affinity for the West Coast Eagles and Hawthorn Hawks) and the range of our talk included the recent spate of wildfires, the country’s governmental system, the nation’s geography, the intensity of the Australia-New Zealand rivalry (which is purely rooted in sports) and the accents that are as varied as those in the U.S. Any weariness I felt going into the flight was long gone by the time we touched down in Phoenix shortly after 8:30 a.m. MST.
I received a break of sorts as my connecting gate was less than 300 feet away from my arrival gate and I spent the next hour catching up on the writing I probably should have done the previous evening. However, me being me, I ended up chatting with my seatmates – John and Susan Pusiteri from Pennsylvania – for the entire four-plus hour flight. As was the case with Dominique, I was told at the end of the flight how much they enjoyed talking with me because it made the flight much more pleasant and much less stressful. I could say the same for them.
Because of the time of day, my walk from terminal to car was made tougher because the sun was positioned directly into my line of vision. More than once I had to wipe away tears caused by the combination of sunlight and wind but I managed to reach my car with fairly decent dispatch. The two-and-a-half-hour drive home was uneventful and soon after arriving home, I logged onto DAZN and did my best to watch the show topped by Mikey Garcia’s unanimous decision victory over Jessie Vargas. I say “did my best” because my lack of sleep was finally catching up to me. Once I finally went to bed, I ended up sleeping for the next nine hours.
As was the case for my trip to Philadelphia, I will have a little less than 12 days to work with before my next journey. There, I will travel to a new destination – Hinckley, Minnesota – to chronicle a “ShoBox” quadrupleheader topped by junior welterweights Brandun Lee and Camilo Prieto and supported by welterweights Brian Norman Jr. and Flavio Rodriguez, lightweights Alejandro Guerrero and Jose Angulo and featherweights Aram Avagyan and Dagoberto Aguero.
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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