Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man: Santa Ynez Part II


Click here for part one of this Travelin’ Man column.

Thursday, February 16 (continued):If I were to use a phrase to encapsulate this trip to Santa Ynez, Calif., it would be “unfamiliar familiarity.” Here’s why:

  • I’ve served as CompuBox’s “lead dog” – the operator responsible for overseeing the laptop set-up, entering the fights into the database, suggesting stats to the truck and writing notes to the broadcasters – many times over the last five years. I know the mechanics of the job and have proved my ability to navigate them well. But this show represents the first time I will be the “lead dog” for a premium cable telecast on the level of HBO and Showtime – the Major Leagues of televised boxing in the United States in terms of budgets and high-profile fights. I’ve worked a handful of premium cable shows before, but only as a helper instead of the main man. So despite my experience and past competency, the butterflies that come with doing something new were very much in evidence.
  • I’ve used a GPS device to help combat my tendency to get lost in cities I’ve never visited before, but just two days before leaving for Santa Ynez I replaced my trusty Magellan with a new-and-improved Tom Tom.
  • And I’ve driven dozens of rental cars in my time, but the networks we served only had us use National. This time, Avis was the provider and the car I was given proved to be a mystery to me.

There is an unsettling awkwardness whenever unusual twists are included in otherwise routine tasks, and that’s what I endured after landing in Santa Barbara. First, I had issues with the Tom Tom. It took several minutes for the device to lock onto a usable signal — a bad sign. Then, for whatever reason, I couldn’t get to the screen where I could enter the address I wanted. For several long and occasionally frustrating minutes I found myself going in electronic circles. I’m not one to give up easily, however, and eventually I stumbled onto the proper screen. Once I entered the required information, the unit flawlessly guided me to my intended destination.

Then there was the rental car – a keyless ignition model. For those who don’t know, such a car requires the driver to press down on the brake and then punch an ignition button in order to start and stop the engine. The only thing given to the driver is a device that locks and unlocks the vehicle. Once I figured out how to start the car and how to get the GPS to work, another issue popped up: The engine was roaring much too loudly for the low speed I was moving. The tachometer zoomed up to 5,000 at 40 miles per hour – a very unhealthy scenario given the nearly 40-mile trip that lay ahead.

I pulled off the side of the road and fumbled around for an overhead light. Once I found it I looked down at the gear shift. It was indeed in drive, so I made sure all was firmly in place before I proceeded.

When I pressed down on the accelerator the same thing happened. I considered returning to the airport and exchanging cars, but I first wanted to give it one more try. I again pulled off the road, turned on the light and spied the gear shift. This time I noticed there was a small notch on the right hand side directly across from the “D” designation, so I maneuvered the stick into that slot.

Problem solved.

I was told later that newer models have modified gear shifts in which the driver has the option of going through the gears like a stick shift or go with the automatic mode. Being that the only stick shift I ever drove regularly was a riding lawn mower, I went with the automatic.

All was right with the world: I had landed in Santa Barbara safely, my rental car’s engine was purring and the GPS performed its duties without a hitch. After I pulled into the hotel’s parking lot I was hoping that the final result of my first premium cable “lead dog” assignment would end just as happily.

Friday, February 17: As is usually the case away from home I didn’t sleep well. I stirred just three hours after turning out the light and for the next two hours I couldn’t stop the hamster wheel swirl of thoughts that flooded my mind. At 7 a.m. I gave in, got up and began my usual morning routines.

Once I completed those I spent the next several hours catching up on the writing I probably should have done the previous evening but didn’t have the energy – or willingness – to do. Meanwhile, my punch counting partner, the legendary “lead dog” Joe Carnicelli, was flying in from his adopted hometown of Phoenix. A couple of days earlier he graciously invited me to tag along as he searched for the perfect Danish pastry in Solvang (Danish for “Sunny Fields), which is located about five miles from the Chumash Casino Resort.

We arrived at the casino a little after 1 p.m. to complete the set-up process and at 2 p.m. we indulged in a delicious and wide-ranging buffet. Knowing we wouldn’t get the chance to eat again for at least eight hours Joe and ate two platefuls. I went for the staples – mashed potatoes and gravy, macaroni and cheese, rice, salad and a bowl of clam chowder (“what, no meat?” my mother asked when this committed carnivore told this story). Because we had less than an hour available to us – and because I’m usually a slow eater – the forced fast pace filled me up very quickly.

The night’s action featured six professional fights as well as several exhibitions involving area youth boxers. One such fight was the pugilistic equivalent of serial screamers Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka as each fighter grunted after every single punch. At times they howled simultaneously and they often matched pitch.

The first professional fight paired featherweights Azat Hovhannesyan and William Fisher in a scheduled four rounder. This match was a simple case of proactive versus reactive; the 1-1 Hovhannesyan initiated every exchange while the slower and less gifted Fisher, winless in four fights, had little choice but to follow and fire back as best he could. Hovhannesyan’s arsenal was too diverse for Fisher to process and the gulf between them grew with every passing second.

That gulf became dangerous in the third as Hovhannesyan unleashed what looked like 50 straight punches with sparse reply from Fisher. More than one person around ringside asked what referee Marcos Rosales was waiting for as the beating went on and on. A right hand produced the first knockdown late in the third while another followed in the fourth before the belated TKO came just 17 seconds before the final bell. The courageous but outclassed Fisher left the ring with a purplish plum-sized lump under the eye and perhaps more damage that won’t emerge until years after the fact. 

It is fights such as these that forces one to wonder why boxing is worth so much time and passion. For me, the answer is simple: At its best, boxing is a sport that produces unmatched drama and heroism. But then there are bouts like Hovhannesyan-Fisher in which the loser’s toughness far exceeds his body’s ability to fully express it. In such cases, it is a referee’s duty to ensure that the critical line between competition and carnage is not crossed. In this scribe’s opinion that point of demarcation came in the third as Hovhannesyan hammered Fisher without pause. The question “what is the point” repeatedly flashed through my mind and I know I wasn’t alone.

A quicker, more destructive and, ironically, more merciful ending occurred when featherweight Roy Tapia (now 3-0, 2 KO) of East Los Angeles crushed Brice Yoeneke (now 0-6) with a right-left-right that left the North Las Vegas product flat on his back just 143 seconds after the opening bell. It required some time for Yoeneke to arise from the canvas but appeared fine once he did.

The CompuBox numbers further illustrated the devastating nature of Tapia’s attack. In the final minute – or rather the fight’s final 23 seconds – Tapia went 11 of 20 overall and 10 of 17 in power shots to put Yoeneke away.

Roman Morales raised his record to 9-0 (6 KO) after stopping durable and defiant Coloradan Ernie Marquez, whose ledger slipped below the .500 mark (9-10-2, 3 KO) at 2:23 of round four. In all, five knockdowns were scored: A right to the head delivered the first in round two, a pair of rights from the orthodox stance and a left cross as a southpaw registered two more within a 30-second span in the third, a counter right yielded another in the fourth and a right-left combo that left Marquez on his face was the finisher.

Willowy Rufino Serrano of Santa Maria, Calif. (now 12-3, all wins by decision) outscored rugged Tabasco, Mexico resident Rodrigo Aranda over six rounds, dropping Aranda’s record to a dismal 8-17-2 (2 KOs). Serrano used superior movement to set up singular, scoring shots while also neutralizing Aranda’s attempts to cut off the ring. Nicknamed “El Animal,” Serrano was a matador that picked at his prey from first bell to last.

To me, Aranda was the more interesting story. To look at him, one would think he was Manny Pacquiao’s right-handed and far less talented Mexican half-brother. And to see him fight, one could tell that he is a better fighter than his record indicates. From time to time he landed several strong-looking rights and attacked the body well in spurts. So why has he experienced so little success?

Aggressive matchmaking is one culprit. His last 10 fights – all losses – came against opponents with a combined 83-13-6 record. Second, the 19-year ring veteran is 38 years old, though he looks several years younger. The final reason was best summarized by Carnicelli, who said “he’s good enough to compete, but not good enough to win.” He lacks the power to seriously hurt his more esteemed opponents, plus, one must wonder if Aranda truly believes in himself or whether he’s simply the victim of “the way things are.”

The televised co-feature saw Puerto Rican Jonathan Gonzalez turn back hard-bitten veteran Billy Lyell to raise his record to 15-0 (13 KOs) and lower Lyell’s to 24-11 (5 KOs). The Youngstown native did what he always did: Put forth a good, honest effort and applied enough of a test to gauge his opponents’ potential before losing a competitive decision. He lacked the power to seriously hurt Gonzalez but he exposed enough flaws in the 22-year-old Puerto Rican’s game to rethink his place in the game.

The CompuBox stats revealed that while Gonzalez out-landed Lyell 242-179 overall, 50-47 in jabs and 192-132 in power shots, they were largely the product of his superior activity as he averaged 62 punches per round to Lyell’s 48. Gonzalez’s primary problem is his woeful lack of defense, which has been covered nicely by his above-average chin and general toughness. Lyell managed to land 46.6 percent of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts, which is one-fifth higher than the junior middleweight norm of 37.3 percent.

The other problem is that Gonzalez may no longer be a junior middleweight — or at least he wasn’t on this night. One source told me that Gonzalez weighed more than 190 less than a month before the fight and had to lose eight pounds in the final days. This lack of discipline may be the byproduct of youth or it might be indicative of something deeper in his emotional makeup. Only time, and Gonzalez’s decision-making, will decide his ultimate fate.

For all his flaws, there is still much to like about Gonzalez. He has an aggressive style that pleases live crowds as well as TV executives and despite his physical issues he was the one who came on stronger in the late rounds. In rounds six through 10 Gonzalez upped his work rate from 59.2 over the first five to 64 while Lyell declined from 48.6 to 46.6, out-landing Lyell 112-80 overall and 89-65 in power shots.

Gonzalez has the tools and the fortitude to go far, especially if he pays more attention to himself between fights and works on sharpening his defense. The greatest blessing Gonzalez has is that he’s  still young enough to make any serious lifestyle changes stick.

Thomas Dulorme, the other rising star, more than lived up to his billing by dusting Ambriz in 132 seconds. Given the vast difference in strength and power Dulorme did exactly what was expected — and more. That’s because Ambriz was a career 140-pounder who had gone 0-1-1 against Juan Santiago, Dulorme’s original opponent, while Dulorme was a career welterweight with frightening power. The result was obvious coming in and it is to Dulorme’s credit that he produced the expected fireworks.

The CompuBox stats amplified his dominance, for Dulorme landed 16 of 55 overall (29 percent) to Ambriz’s 8 of 35 (23 percent). Also, Dulorme connected on 52 percent of his power punches (12 of 23), but Ambriz did land half of his (5 of 10). That may be due to Dulorme’s hyper-aggression once he hurt Ambriz because in his three previous CompuBox-tracked fights he was hit by a combined 26.1 percent of his opponents’ punches and 36.8 percent of their power shots, both of which are below the welterweight averages of 32.7 percent and 39 percent respectively.

Dulorme needed to produce an impressive performance to raise his stock and he did just that. Two fights earlier he went 10 rounds with veteran southpaw DeMarcus Corley, which at the time was a somewhat disappointing performance given the hype. But Dulorme’s showing was helped by the fact that Corley upset the previously undefeated Gabriel Bracero on January 21, dropping the prospect three times yet earning only a narrow decision in Bracero’s back yard.

By and large, my worries concerning my “lead dog” duties were unfounded. Save for a moment or two of uncertainty mostly due to rust, everything went smoothly. Joe’s advice and preparation taught me a lot and I’ll get the chance to apply those lessons in just seven days’ time in Las Vegas.

With the show coming to a somewhat expected explosive ending, we proceeded to address our growling stomachs at a small café at the corner of the casino. Then Joe and I returned to the hotel, after which I spent a couple of hours catching up on the writing I needed to get done.

Once I finished I had a decision to make. There was fewer than three hours before I had to start getting ready to go to the airport. Should I steal a few winks and risk falling into an unintentionally deep sleep that could take me past the point of no return? Or should I stay awake and try to drive an hour to the airport in a somewhat groggy state? That was the box I placed myself in and I struggled to make the call.

In the end, I arrived at a compromise: I rested my eyes with the lights and TV on, making sure I kept tabs on the clock radio situated to my right. I noticed that 30 minutes had passed between glances and on the final one an hour had gone by. I got up for good at 3 a.m. after a little more than three hours of sleep. I was cloudy, but functional and that state improved once I finished my morning rituals.

By 3:50 a.m. I was on the road and I reached the airport by 4:35. I ran into a couple of people who worked the previous night’s card and the vigorous boxing talk no doubt helped me overcome my general fatigue.

Although I hadn’t slept well in more than two days, I still couldn’t fully fall asleep during either flight. However, I did get plenty of rest, especially on the four-hour flight from Phoenix to Pittsburgh. That allowed me to regain enough freshness to drive the two-and-a-half hours home and take care of the multiple recordings I needed to supervise. Once I finished all my tasks, I was stone cold dead to the world for the next nine hours.

My next journey was set for the following Thursday, with Las Vegas being the destination. Until then, a pile of work awaited me: I needed to research and write a feature for RingTV.com about 10 notable St. Louis title fights. I also needed to edit my hard drives and burn DVDs from the weekend’s boxing telecasts as well as take care of some last-minute punch-counting work and research for CompuBox. And that was only the tip of the iceberg.

For me, the boxing merry-go-round never stops spinning — and for that I’m very thankful. Until next time, happy trails.



Photos of Dulorme and Gonzalez / Tom Casino-Showtime

Photos of Morales / Dwight McCann-Fightwireimages.com

Photo of GPS system  / iStockphoto.com-adventtr

Lee Groves can be emailed at l.groves@frontier.com. 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 five writing awards, and an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. and the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics.” To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author to arrange for autographed copies.

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