Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man goes to Verona – Part II

  

In the second installment of his two-part Travelin’ Man on his recent Compubox assignment for HBO’s Boxing After Dark doubleheader in Verona, N.Y., Lee Groves continues his group visit to the International Boxing Hall of Fame outside of the annual Induction Weekend as well as the notable happenings on fight night.

Click here for part one.

Saturday, Sept. 1: The dawn of the new month started with me assuming a new role – tour guide.

Punch counting partner Andy Kasprzak had never visited the International Boxing Hall of Fame and just before he flew out of Boston he asked me via e-mail to show him around. I cleared the visit with the best sources possible – executive director Ed Brophy and media relations chief (and nephew) Jeff Brophy during my stop on Friday – and at 9:45 a.m. we met in the lobby to begin our journey.

We arrived 25 minutes later and for the next two hours we were in boxing nirvana. We gazed at the championship belt awarded to Carmen Basilio for beating middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson and the trophy awarded to Bat Battalino after yet another ring success. We surveyed the statues of Basilio and his nephew, onetime welterweight king Billy Backus; marveled at the rows of framed fight posters matched with their event tickets and even checked out the unique exhibit devoted to the late, great Bert Randolph Sugar – a typewriter, fedora and a cigar propped between a bronzed representation of his fingers.

The undisputed highlight was a tour of the archives that were described in Part One, and although this was my second go-round in the last two days I still was blown away by the depth and breadth of the history that lay before me. Andy and I took the tour with members of the HBO staff, including production coordinator Tami Cotel and “unofficial official” Harold Lederman. If the IBHOF had collected a dollar for every time someone said “wow,” they would have been well on their way to collecting the funds needed for the research library building they hope to erect within the next five years.

Among the many priceless items shown to us were signatures of John L. Sullivan and James J. Corbett inside one photo album as well as hundreds of press service photos of fights from the 1940s onward, but the moment that stopped me in my tracks was of a far more personal nature. As Andy and I scanned the jam-packed book shelves he said, “hey, there’s a copy of your book.” I didn’t even think to look for it during yesterday’s visit but lo and behold there it was – a copy of “Tales From the Vault” on the second to bottom shelf, near the end. Andy suggested that I pose for a picture, so I gave him my digital camera, pulled out my book ever so slightly, knelt down and smiled.

I was stunned yet overjoyed, for in my own way I had made the Hall of Fame.

After perusing the archives we all trekked to the gift shop to look at, among other artifacts, the ring that had graced Madison Square Garden for decades, Danny “Little” Red Lopez’s Native American headdress and the original CompuBox computer – dual floppy disc drives and all.

It was a thoroughly satisfying visit, which Andy’s subsequent e-mail to me reflected. With his permission here is a portion of what he said:

“I’ve had some amazing thrills in my life, but my first trip to the International Boxing Hall of Fame will always rank right up there with the very best. My first visit would have been special under any circumstances, but being there with you, getting the VIP tour from the Brophys AND palling around with Harold Lederman really can’t be topped. The Brophys couldn’t possibly have been any nicer or made a first-time visitor feel any more welcome.”

Andy and I could have spent all day taking in all of the memorabilia but there was business that had to be addressed – counting the fights at the Turning Stone Casino. But before HBO’s cameras were turned on the live crowd was treated to some lively undercard action.

Based on records alone, the night’s opening fight between light heavyweights Ryan McKenzie and Borngod Washington looked to be a mismatch as McKenzie was 9-0 (9) coming in while Washington was a dismal 3-11 (1). But inside the ring this scheduled six-rounder was an entertaining scrap from start to finish.

The first round was topsy-turvy as McKenzie’s shotgun jab sent Washington’s mouthpiece flying only to have Washington’s wicked overhand right drop McKenzie in most dramatic fashion moments later. McKenzie regained his feet but once the action resumed he operated with poise as he smartly picked away from long range for the remainder of the round.

A new crisis arose for McKenzie in round three as an accidental butt opened a gash over the left eye. Encouraged, Washington kept storming ahead and in round five the duo engaged in a thrilling and extended exchange near Washington’s corner. Any thoughts Washington had of pulling the upset ended in the fight’s final minute when a whistling overhand right dropped the journeyman on his face. Washington gamely arose but referee Charlie Fitch waved off the fight just 24 seconds short of the scheduled distance.

McKenzie could draw encouragement from his ability to overcome an early knockdown and a nasty cut but the fact those crises came against a confirmed journeyman might be cause for pause. In the end, McKenzie preserved his perfect record and the experience against Washington will surely come in handy in future outings. The confidence one derives from hard-earned experience is a powerful mental weapon in the midst of chaos and that armor has helped countless champions pull through when it counted the most.

The evening’s most action-packed bout was produced by middleweights Taureano Johnson (now 11-0, 8) and Cleven Ishe (3-9, 1), which saw Johnson prevail by fourth round TKO. From the very start Ishe engaged Johnson in a brutally draining inside war in which jabs were seemingly outlawed. The proof: Of Johnson’s 140 total connects, 138 were power shots while 82 of Ishe’s 100 landed punches were either hooks, crosses, uppercuts or body shots.

Ishe did his best to keep up with Johnson’s savage pace – he was out-landed 43-30 in round one but tied at 34 in round two – but the strain caught up to him starting in the third. Johnson’s knifing body shots chipped away at Ishe’s stamina and eroded his effectiveness. In round three Johnson doubled Ishe’s connect total (38-19) and connected on 59 percent of his total punches and power shots compared to 31 percent overall and 29 percent power for Ishe. Johnson’s attack also sliced Ishe’s face and soon the crimson flowed from the nose and left eye. At the 2:23 mark of round four, referee Dick Pakozdi (a onetime golfing partner at the IBHOF event) stopped the action and led Ishe to the ringside physician, who stopped the fight.

While the crowd voiced its displeasure, the numbers illustrated the wisdom of the stoppage. Johnson landed 61 percent of his power punches in round four and 58 percent for the fight while the game Ishe landed 36 percent of his total punches and power shots in the shortened final round. Johnson showed no signs of slowing and it wouldn’t have been safe to allow the considerable limits of Ishe’s heart to dictate when the fight should end.

The final pre-TV fight was the soul of brevity as Tony Luis (now 15-0, 7) blasted out 16-21-1 (11) journeyman Andres Ledesma with a flush hook to the liver 1:57 into round one. Luis set up the final blow with a jab and a hook aimed at the head and after Ledesma raised his guard just enough, Luis drove in the searing body hook. Upon impact Ledesma’s body froze for a moment and as the waves of pain reverberated his face creased into a grimace and he collapsed onto all fours. It was apparent to this observer he wanted to rise but his will’s desire was overridden by the rest of his being. At that he was left to shake his head in resignation as Fitch tolled the final seconds.

The co-feature between longtime WBO junior middleweight titlist Sergiy Dzinziruk and rising prospect Jonathan Gonzalez marked the second consecutive HBO telecast in which weight issues were a major story line. The contract called for both to weigh 154 but Gonzalez, who was desperately trying to sweat off weight in a rubber suit, scaled an exasperating 163. Dzinziruk, informed that his opponent would not even come close to the mandated poundage, was allowed to weigh in at 156 ½.

The fact that Gonzalez would miss weight so badly was not surprising. This past February I worked Gonzalez’s most recent fight in Santa Ynez against Billy Lyell and a source familiar with his camp told me that Gonzalez weighed more than 190 a month before the fight and had to drop eight pounds in the final days just to make 156. When I heard of his weight difficulties here, an oversight turned into a trend that, if left unchecked, will short-circuit his aspirations. For the record, Gonzalez told HBO’s Max Kellerman that he took training seriously but his efforts to shed weight were hindered by a hectic travel schedule.

Here’s the counterargument: True professionals find a way to work around difficulties. As illustrated in Christian Guidice’s excellent biography, Alexis Arguello dealt with numerous outside distractions but that didn’t stop him from whipping himself into exquisite condition every time out. The good news for the 23-year-old Gonzalez is that he still has plenty of time to change his mindset but transforming one’s habits and character is one of the most difficult feats for human beings to pull off. Time will tell whether Gonzalez will be one of those rare gems that surmount the flaws of his athletic youth, but at this point he has a lot of proving to do.

The fight itself was nip-and-tuck in terms of in-ring action and statistics. At first the story line was Gonzalez’s power punching and the imposition of his size and strength on Dzinziruk but by the later rounds the narrative shifted to the closeness of the fight as reflected by the CompuBox numbers, which were breathtakingly close. From round six onward the fighters swapped the lead in terms of total connects, with the margin no more than four (in round six) and no less than one (in rounds seven, nine, 10 and 11). Only Gonzalez’s final surge in the final 30 seconds enabled him to seize a 170-166 lead.

When Andy and I heard the words “it’s a draw” through the headsets, we let out a cheer because our numbers mirrored what the judges saw. Besides the two CompuBox operators, the three judges and the referee are the only other groups of people charged with the responsibility of focusing every second of every round. When the math matches up, it serves as validation.

No such concerns were necessary during the main event, where Gennady Golovkin tore through gritty Grzegorz Proksa like a hot knife through butter before registering an impressive fifth round TKO. Golovkin created a dynamic and compelling first impression on U.S.-based audiences by unleashing a swarming, power-laden offense combined with a highly effective and efficient defense. Unlike most aggressive fighters, Golovkin seldom falls off balance and despite averaging 68.6 punches per round (compared to the 58.9 middleweight average) and out-landing his opponent 101-38 (total), 27-9 (jabs) and 74-29 (power), he tasted just 18 percent of Proksa’s overall punches, 11 percent of his jabs and 21 percent of the Pole’s power punches. That combination of devastating offense, excellent defense, daunting physical and mental strength and a deep wellspring of experience will be difficult for anyone to overcome.

His eye-opening performance against Proksa’s baffling southpaw weave opened the door to several intriguing matches that could make the middleweight division the most compelling in boxing. Earlier in the day IBF titlist Daniel Geale did what many thought was impossible – beat longtime WBA king Felix Sturm by split decision in Germany and return home to Australia with two belts. A Golovkin-Geale pairing would produce excellent action for as long as it lasts, as would a fight with recently stripped WBO titlist Dmitry Pirog, who Golovkin originally was scheduled to fight this night. Perhaps the ultimate fight will be against the winner of September 15’s lineal middleweight title showdown between Sergio Martinez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. because Martinez’s smarts and Chavez’s brute strength will pose considerable challenges for Golovkin. Here’s hoping that boxing’s poisonous and petty politics won’t stand in the way.

The first post-TV bout pitted cruiserweights Rayshawn Myers (now 4-14-1, 3 KOs) and Brian Clookey (4-0-2, 2 KOs) in a scheduled four-rounder. The journeyman Myers won the first round by staying at long range and catching the aggressive Clookey with hard, straight punches that reddened his left cheek and produced a small mouse underneath. The action was a bit gangly and disorganized but Myers appeared to get the better of things, especially when he ended round one with a flurry.

Both men made adjustments in round two. Clookey worked more behind the jab while barreling inside while Myers turned southpaw from time to time. Clookey had trouble penetrating Myers’ lean-back loose-limbed style but at one point in round three Myers tried a Jersey Joe Walcott walk-away move only to be nailed with a jaw-jacking left to the face.

The final round was Clookey’s best as he cranked up the pressure and scored with wide left hooks. A strong right brought a mocking grin from Myers, who employed boxing’s version of the four corners offense to preserve what he thought was a lead. The judges, however, rendered a different verdict. Don Ackerman saw Myers ahead 39-37 while Wynn Kintz saw Clookey leading by the same margin. Tom Schreck determined the final result, for his 38-38 card created a split draw that was not well received but was fair.

Next up was baby-faced power puncher Jorge Maysonet Jr., who raised his record to 9-0 (8) by scoring two knockdowns and obliterating fellow junior welterweight Bryan Abraham, 6-14-2 (6) in 84 seconds.

The evening’s final bout pitted light heavyweights Shawn Miller and Richard Starnino, which offered plenty of contrasts in terms of appearance and style. Miller was bronzed, well-muscled and shaven skulled while Starnino was a pasty stocky southpaw who could pass for a Vinny Paz tribute artist, both in appearance and in ring style.

Starnino (now 9-10-2, 2 KOs) tried to employ all the fast-twitch dips, shifts, rolls and skitters in Paz’s playbook but Miller (9-4-1, 4 KOs) responded with pressure, power and persistence.

Miller took the first two rounds to adjust to Starnino’s spoiler tactics before shifting gears in round three, where he used sheer volume to blast through Starnino’s trickery. Miller’s biggest round was the fourth where he landed double hooks to the body and fired nicely thrown combinations. Miller finished the fight with a 13-punch flurry that served as an exclamation point to what appeared to be a lopsided victory.

“It’s a draw!” one wag shouted, a remark that drew bitter chuckles around ringside. He need not have worried about the judges’ competency, for they deemed Miller a 40-36 winner across the board.

It was nearly 12:30 a.m. when I finally made it to the production truck and I was pleasantly surprised that there was some food left. I stuffed two half-sandwiches into my laptop carrying case and gratefully consumed them back at the hotel a half-hour later.

Because of the day’s tension and excitement it took me quite a while to wind down. It wasn’t until after 2 a.m. that I turned out the lights and tried to get some shut eye.

Sunday, September 2:  The changing tides of fortune continued to swing wildly in both directions. Here’s how:

First the bad: My troubles regarding electronic equipment continued. I left the hotel at 8:30 a.m. and at about 8:32 I heard three warning beeps emanating from my rental car’s dashboard. I glanced down at the odometer and saw an illuminated gold-colored upside-down horseshoe, an exclamation point tucked within it. That symbol told me nothing regarding the nature of the problem, and because the car otherwise operated normally I decided to continue driving toward the airport in Syracuse. I had planned to fill the gas tank at one of the New York State Thruway’s service areas but I chose not to because I didn’t want to risk shutting off the engine and not having it restart.

Forty-five minutes later I pulled into Hertz’s rental car return area, told my story to the garage attendant and showed him the warning light.

“Oh, that means one of your tires has low pressure,” he said. “Go to the counter, explain what happened and I’m sure he’ll void the refueling charge.” It was, and at three-eighths of a tank at more than $9 per gallon, HBO saved a few bucks.

Now the good: Moments after arriving at my gate I was approached by one of the US Airways gate agents.

“Which flight are you supposed to be on?” she asked.

“The 11:54 a.m. to Washington’s Reagan Airport,” I replied.

“Do you have your boarding pass?” she queried.

“Sure,” I said, digging into my pocket and handing it to her.

“You don’t have any checked bags do you?” she said.

“No,” I said.

“Thank God. Here, I’m going to put you on this plane that’s about to take off for D.C.,” she said. “They’re about to close the cabin but there’s plenty of room for you on this flight.”

She wasn’t kidding – including crew members there was about 15 people aboard. After confirming that this plane indeed was flying to D.C. – experience has taught me I couldn’t be too careful – I was asked to sit in the seat of my choice as long as it was at least halfway back to ensure proper balance. I chose one of the window seats in row nine and quickly settled in. Less than two minutes later the flight pushed out of the gate and I was on my way to the nation’s capital more than two hours earlier than expected.

Imagine that: This early bird ended up catching the early bird to D.C.

Once I landed I had hopes of catching lightning in a bottle again and avoiding a nearly five-hour layover. The monitor said the next flight to Pittsburgh was about to board but by the time I emerged from the shuttle bus and reached the gate I was told I was 10 minutes too late.

While initially disappointed, I quickly saw the bright side – a long, relaxing lunch and an opportunity to catch up on all my writing responsibilities. By 3 p.m. I had achieved all my objectives but soon my eyes grew heavy and I struggled to stay awake long enough to hear the boarding announcement. Once I settled into my seat I was able to rest my eyes and recharge my batteries, resulting in a smooth drive home to West Virginia.

The next two weekends will see me travel to the same city – Las Vegas – where HBO and Showtime will present dueling shows that will keep DVRs working overtime. I will be working the Showtime cards with CompuBox dean Joe Carnicelli, which is always a pleasure. It’ll be nice to hang around the Home Office for a few days but the desire to roam will return right around the time I start packing on Thursday.

Until then, happy trails.

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Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won seven writing awards, including four in the last two years. 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. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at l.groves@frontier.com to arrange for autographed copies.

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