Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man returns to Vegas – Part II

 

RingTV.com’s resident historian Lee Groves finishes recounting his CompuBox assignment to the recent Showtime-televised card headlined by Lucas Matthysse’s action-packed TKO of Olusegun Ajose in Las Vegas.

Click here to read part one.

Saturday, September 8: Remaining on East Coast time I stirred awake around 5:30 a.m. and arose at 6 despite knowing a long day was ahead. That’s because punch-counting partner Joe Carnicelli and I were working not one, but two, telecasts – two undercard bouts to be aired on Showtime Extreme followed by two more on the main Showtime channel. The task of reporting to the venue at 10 a.m. was greatly eased by the fact that everyone on the crew was staying at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, which also housed The Joint, the site of the fights. Simplicity is good.

Preparation is a key to success, and the production team that worked this card rehearsed every aspect of the presentation multiple times to ensure there were no hiccups during the live broadcast. For Joe and I there wasn’t much to do once our brief checklist was completed, so we passed the time by chatting amongst ourselves and with others who came by ringside.

Due to the early start time of the Showtime Extreme broadcast – 4 p.m. local time – and the truncated five-bout card, no undercard fights occurred before the TV cameras were switched on. The opening bout pitted junior middleweights Daquan Arnett and Jesus Tavera, the former an undefeated prospect based in Orlando, Fla., the latter a Mexican who accepted this bout on two weeks’ notice. The difference in pedigree was instantly evident as Arnett connected with frighteningly flush power punches that forced Tavera to abandon his aggressive fight plan. By round two Tavera was on the retreat, which only served to give Arnett even more momentum. Tavera staggered under a barrage of combinations in rounds two and three and only his innate toughness kept him off the floor. By round four the fight’s end was only a matter of time and that time came at the 1:34 mark.

Arnett couldn’t have asked for a more dazzling display, both aesthetically and mathematically. Arnett was 103 of 180 overall (57 percent) and landed a high number of jabs (18 of 49, 37 percent) and especially power shots (85 of 131, 65 percent). In rounds one and two Arnett landed a mind-boggling 68 percent and 69 percent of his power shots respectively, effectively setting the table for the subsequent annihilation. Meanwhile, Tavera landed only 19 percent of his total punches (30 of 161), 31 percent of his power punches (29 of 94) and a measly 1 percent of his jabs (1 of 67). The victory lifted Arnett to 7-0 (4) and dropped Tavera to 3-3 (1).

The next bout paired veteran junior middleweights Ishe Smith and Irving Garcia, two thirty-somethings hoping to re-ignite careers pockmarked by long layoffs. For Smith this was his fourth fight since August 2009 while for Garcia, who had gone 1-4-2 in his last seven, this was his fourth outing since May 2009. Smith, long dogged by critics who labeled his performances “boring,” produced an excellent, action-packed start by pounding Garcia’s body, opening a cut on the bridge of the Puerto Rican’s nose (via an accidental butt) and dropping him with a right in the final minute of the first round. His power punching accuracy was impressive and effective – he topped 50 percent six times in 10 rounds – but it still wasn’t enough to put away the gritty Garcia, who never stopped trying to win.

As dominant was Smith was – he out-landed Garcia 264-149 overall, 75-51 in jabs and 189-98 in power punches – elements of why he has struggled in terms of marketability were still evident. Just when Smith was on the verge of scoring an eye-catching knockout – a scenario that appeared imminent multiple times – he decelerated his attack just enough to allow Garcia to recover. After throwing 72 punches in each of the first two rounds, his output dropped to 60 in the third and after firing 77 and 72 in the sixth and seventh he slowed to 52, 59 and 56 in the final three when it became clear Garcia was going to survive.

It’s difficult for a fighter to change his nature, and from this vantage point Smith’s is to be precise, correct and defensively responsible – three positive assets that can turn negative when mixed with an overly-cautious mindset. But Smith is caught in a quandary: Gunning for knockouts, and getting them, means more TV dates and bigger purses but when one isn’t gifted with one-punch KO power doing that isn’t the wisest option. Still, there was much to like about “Sugar Shay’s” outing. He pushed the pace, threw snappy punches, scored a knockdown and kept command for the vast majority of the fight. As a result, the judges rewarded him with a lopsided decision victory (100-89 twice, 99-90).

Serving as the bridge between telecasts was a six-round junior featherweight bout between Vegas-based Melinda Cooper (21-2, 11 KOs going in) and San Antonio’s Celine Salazar (4-0-2, 1 going in). The action was brisk throughout with Cooper fighting on the retreat and Salazar boring in. In the end, Cooper’s counters trumped Salazar’s body work, at least in the eyes of the two judges who saw her a 60-54 and 59-55 winner. The other judge, more impressed with Salazar’s harder punches and come-forward attack, turned in a 57-57 card.

The second half of the two-station quadruple-header began much like the first half did as undefeated middleweight prospect J’Leon Love used wickedly effective jabs and scorching straight punches to dominate Ramon Valenzuela before Valenzuela’s rough-house tactics prompted an eighth round disqualification from referee Jay Nady.

Unlike many up-and-comers, the 24-year-old Love’s jab was a bona fide weapon instead of a mere range-finder and it nicely set up his quick-fisted combinations. At times Valenzuela got close enough to land clubbing rights to the body and the side of the head and in round five he managed to out-land Love for the only time in the fight (19-18). But Love’s command of range and space was such that the 21-year-old Chicagoan’s success was spurious at best and his frustration bubbled over in the seventh.

In that round, the abrasion on Valenzuela’s cheekbone turned into a slice and his overzealous attempts to turn the tide included grabbing Love’s leg and lifting it into the air, a move that drew a point penalty from Nady. When he did it again in the eighth, Nady waved off the fight.

 “I felt I had him,” Valenzuela told me the following morning just inside the Hard Rock entrance. “I was getting inside and I landed some good right hands. I felt him getting weaker. The cut under my eye was because of a head butt, not a punch. He was holding me down and I was trying to shake him off and they took a point from me.”

Before I could ask any more questions – and gather more answers – Carnicelli arrived and asked me whether I was ready to catch a cab with him to the airport. Our flights – his to Phoenix and mine to Pittsburgh – were scheduled to depart 10 minutes apart, so I was ready to go when he was. Once we arrived at the terminal we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.

To be truthful, the writing was already on the wall for Valenzuela, for the man he beat as an amateur drubbed him as a pro. Love landed 43 percent of his overall punches (155 of 360) to Valenzuela’s 25 percent (80 of 318) mostly because his jab effectively dictated geography. Love landed 67 of 184 jabs (36 percent), which led to 50 percent marksmanship on his power shots (88 of 176). That, in turn, limited Valenzuela to 16 of 107 in jabs (15 percent) and 64 of 211 in power punches (30 percent). The only category Valenzuela led was connected body shots (47-27).

The main event between junior welterweights Lucas Matthysse and Olusegun Ajose (who has also fought as Ajose Olusegun) was a high-stakes, all-or-nothing, career-defining showdown because the winner would be in a position to force star fighters to meet him while the loser would have years of reputation-establishing effort snatched away. This phenomenon was particularly true of the long, lean Ajose, a classic high-risk, low-reward proposition who was forced to fight eliminators and take long layoffs because the big-money players refused to recognize his mandatory challenger status. He knew that a single stumble would be a potential career-killer, and against Matthysse he fought with life-and-death intensity.

Matthysse, although better known in the U.S., is also a danger man for the big-money elite. Burned by controversial decision losses to Zab Judah and Devon Alexander, Matthysse adopted a take-no-prisoners approach and the result was three straight knockouts over Sergio Priotti, Angel Martinez and, most notably, former two-division titleholder Humberto Soto, who he spectacularly stopped in five rounds three months earlier.

The contrasting styles and the clashing career paths promised plenty of compelling combat and, happily, the fight more than lived up to the buildup.

Ajose, knowing Matthysse’s history of slow starts, was more active (65 punches to 50) and successfully commanded range with accurate jabs to win round one. But once Matthysse got his motor running in round two it took all of Ajose’s experience and guile just to survive, much less fight back. During the final minute of the second, Matthysse had Ajose on the verge of a KO loss as he landed 19 of 32 power shots in that span. From that point forward Matthysse was in full beast mode as he came at Ajose in waves of power-punching punishment.

From ringside, Matthysse’s blows emitted a thumping sound not present in Ajose’s but when the Nigerian whipped in combinations they had a sharp, shotgun quality to them. They carried far less power than Matthysse’s but they were serious punches that were worthy of respect. Both men’s conditioning and resolve were something to behold as they gave and took with almost inhuman stoicism.

After Ajose somehow summoned the energy to narrowly capture a spirited eighth, Matthysse turned up the heat even more in the ninth by landing 31 of 72 punches overall and 29 of 55 power punches. The effects of Matthysse’s throttle-up manifested themselves in the 10th as Ajose finally showed signs of cracking. Sensing the finish Matthysse produced a fearsome final attack that left Ajose reeling, then on the canvas for the first time in his career. The weight of Matthysse’s attack and Ajose’s erosion persuaded referee Russell Mora to stop the fight the moment Ajose hit the canvas.

Matthysse’s domination was reflected in the final CompuBox numbers as he landed 290 of 689 punches (42 percent) to Ajose’s 153 of 561 (27 percent) overall and 263 of 542 (49 percent) to 110 of 311 (35 percent) in power punches. In the final two rounds Matthysse out-landed Ajose 75-33 overall and 70-16 in power shots.

Matthysse’s overpowering performance should result in a fight between him the winner of the Danny Garcia-Erik Morales rematch next month, and the Argentine should be granted much consideration against either one. He is hitting his stride at exactly the right time in his career and that’s because he wasn’t shunted aside when he suffered the controversial losses to Judah and Alexander. He cashed in his chips when given the opportunity against Soto and he followed it up with his smashing victory against Ajose.

If there is any justice in boxing – and given the endless political shenanigans one has to wonder – Ajose should not be tossed aside so quickly. He showed immense courage, skill and tenacity in the most important fight of his career and though he lost most of the rounds he forced Matthysse to work for every one of them. Had the Argentine been any less of a talent he wouldn’t have gotten by Ajose. Because he was, Matthysse should be lifted to the highest of heights, but if Ajose chooses to continue he also should be rewarded for his sterling effort and fighting spirit.

My evening of boxing wasn’t quite over – after returning to the hotel room I watched the HBO triple-header that saw Vitali Klitschko stop Manuel Charr on cuts, Antonio DeMarco’s surprising annihilation of John Molina and Andre Ward’s sensational legacy-enhancing stoppage of Chad Dawson in a rare RING champion-versus-RING champion encounter.

The first wave of September fights, I thought, was a rousing success and the good news was that a tsunami of action awaited in seven days’ time. For this avid boxing fan, life was good.

Saturday, September 9: After all the excitement of the previous evening I only logged four hours of sleep and I spent the first couple of hours getting ready for the day and polishing up whatever writing I could. As mentioned a few paragraphs earlier, Joe Carnicelli and I shared a cab to the airport (he paid over my objections) and we said our goodbyes after clearing security.

This time my boarding pass read “C 33,” which, under Southwest’s boarding policy placed me 153rd in line. Resigned to occupy a middle seat, I chose one in row four so I could leave the plane in a timely manner. The tight quarters – and the fact my seatmates’ laptops occupied too much space – prevented me from getting any writing done during the flight, so I was content to either read or rest my eyes in preparation for the long drive home.

I pulled into the driveway a few minutes before 8 p.m. – just enough time to check whether the program I sought to record was either a first-time airing or a repeat (it was a repeat). I spent the rest of the evening catching up on all I missed – including the final three quarters of the Broncos-Steelers game on NBC.

It was Herman’s Hermits who famously sang “second verse, same as the first,” and such will be the case next week as The Travelin’ Man returns to Las Vegas to work the Showtime card topped by Saul “Canelo” Alvarez-Josesito Lopez. It will be my first taste of a truly huge fight weekend in “Sin City” and I can hardly wait for it to arrive.

Until then, happy trails.

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Photos / Tom Casino-SHOWTIME (Matthysse, Love) and Tom Hogan-Hoganphotos (Arnett, Smith)

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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