Like the one well-struck golf shot in an otherwise maddening round, the fights at the MGM Grand on Sept. 15 offered a welcome diversion from the political sewage that swirls around my favorite sport. It was an evening filled with action, atmosphere and accomplishment. Many of the winners prevailed with breathtaking style while most of those who lost did so with pride-filled gallantry. There were surprises (the butt-induced eight-round technical decision that enabled Daniel Ponce de Leon to annex Jhonny Gonzalez’s WBC featherweight belt), displays of savagery (Leo Santa Cruz’s withering body shots in stopping Eric Morel) and bursts of brilliance (Saul Alvarez’s combinations versus the game but out-gunned Josesito Lopez and the supreme violence that was Marcos Maidana-Jesus Soto Karass).
And just a few miles away at the Thomas & Mack Center, Sergio Martinez scored a lopsided decision victory while a badly beaten Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. almost pulled off “The Miracle at the Mack” by dropping Martinez and nearly stopping him in the fight’s final 90 seconds. As the stricken Martinez struggled to regain his feet, countless souls around the globe experienced a mass flashback to March 17, 1990 when Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. snatched victory from Meldrick Taylor’s grasp with the ultimate last gasp. Though Chavez Jr. fell short of duplicating his father’s Houdini-like escape, he proved he has a champion’s persistence and perseverance. He will never reach the peaks Julio Sr. conquered, but he showed his detractors that he inherited a fair share of his grit. Because of that, he earned a respect that was completely separate from his father and even his most ardent critics were left impressed.
But whatever luster Chavez’s effort engendered largely evaporated on Wednesday when it reported that Chavez Jr. tested positive for marijuana, the third known instance that Chavez has been linked to banned substances or alcohol abuse. The declarations of heroism uttered immediately after the fight reverted back to the judgmental adjectives of “pampered,” “spoiled,” “lazy,” and “undisciplined.” According to THE RING’s Lem Satterfield, Chavez will have the opportunity to explain himself before the Nevada State Athletic Commission, and if his story doesn’t pass muster he will be subject to a $3 million fine (his entire purse) and a potential year-long suspension that may prove crippling to his career.
Before this unfortunate information came to light, this past Saturday night proved to be a positive one for boxing. It served as the climax to a long and eventful day for the Travelin’ Man, the details of which will now be presented.
Saturday, Sept. 15: Following six hours of in-and-out slumber, I hoisted myself out of bed at 6:05 a.m. Two-and-a-half hours later I met punch-counting partner Joe Carnicelli in the MGM Grand’s lobby, where a boxing ring with a giant golden lion at its center was situated.
The years of working cards in Las Vegas have equipped Joe with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s nooks and crannies, especially when it comes to finding good meal deals. At his recommendation, we drove to the French Market Buffet at the Orleans Hotel and Casino, where two people could consume an all-you-can-eat menu for less than $10 each – including tax. Because of my night owl ways I don’t usually eat breakfast food, but the price was right and the company was better.
An hour later we waddled out of the Orleans and picked up our credentials at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, after which we went our separate ways for a few hours. I stopped by the hotel lobby to do some people watching and take in the sights. Aside from the thousands walking to and fro, I spotted a fair number of boxing celebrities walking around the casino and signing autographs. At noon I saw Earnie Shavers and Roberto Duran scribbling away and posing for photographs and at 2 p.m. six Mexican champs (Pipino Cuevas, Humberto “Chiquita” Gonzalez, the original Rodolfo “Gato” Gonzalez, Danny “Little Red” Lopez, Daniel Zaragoza and Erubey “Chango” Carmona) were slated to relieve them. Of those, the one autograph I wanted was Carmona’s because I had acquired the rest during various Hall of Fame weekends. It wasn’t to be, however, because I needed to return to ringside by then.
The hustle and bustle of a big fight week in Vegas is unlike anything else in our sport but this weekend’s situation was unprecedented – two major cards staged two miles apart with a pair of the sport’s strongest rivals (HBO versus Showtime and Golden Boy versus Top Rank) butting heads like two overheated rams.
On one level the situation was patently absurd. Fans and media were forced to choose which card they would watch or chronicle live, watering down both events’ potential live gates and TV ratings and inflicting further damage to the sport’s already tattered reputation among mainstream sports fans. But on another level the dual cards were a boon for the sport’s hard cores who couldn’t make it to Vegas – at least those fortunate enough to own multiple satellite receivers and DVRs. Theoretically those fans could enjoy a marathon night of fistic action by watching the live and recorded broadcasts back-to-back. Better yet, at least on paper, the lineups from top to bottom were above average in terms of compelling style matchups (Chavez-Martinez, Roman Martinez-Miguel Beltran Jr. and Guillermo Rigondeaux-Robert Marroquin on HBO’s side; Gonzalez-Ponce de Leon and Maidana-Soto Karass on the Showtime side). The eternal optimist in me chose to believe in the latter because too much boxing is always better than no boxing at all.
Because Joe and I chose to indulge in the catered meal Showtime provided the crew, we missed Eddie Gomez of the Bronx up his record to 10-0 (7) by stopping San Antonio’s Quinton Whitaker (9-10, 5 KOs) in three rounds. But we arrived in time to see Mexican Sergio Thompson use a barrage of body shots to dispose of Puerto Rican journeyman Carlos Claudio in two rounds. The victory raised Thompson’s ledger to 23-2 (20) and lowered Claudio’s to 15-9-3 (8).
The first televised fight on Showtime Extreme saw another Mexican prospect (unbeaten 19-year-old junior featherweight Andres Gutierrez) defeat a Puerto Rican veteran (the 12-5-4 Carlos Valcarcel, who lost his last three fights coming in), this time by a 60-54, 59-55, 59-55 decision. Gutierrez, a pro since age 15, showed uncommon poise in methodically hunting down the mobile Valcarcel and several fourth-round body shots forced him to involuntarily lift his leg. But Valcarcel also exposed vulnerabilities in Gutierrez, mainly his susceptibility to point-blank power flurries in general and left hooks in particular. Valcarcel landed 61 percent of his power punches in round three and 43 percent of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts overall, numbers too high for a prospect at this stage of his career.
Still, Gutierrez put forth an effective performance and the CompuBox numbers showed it. He out-landed Valcarcel 161-99 overall, 27-17 in jabs and 134-82 in power punches, landed 40 percent of his total punches and 43 percent of his power shots. He also out-landed Valcarcel in every round, topping 30 connects three times – including 34 in round two. Conversely, Valcarcel exceeded 20 connects three times, with his 21 in round five being his best. The Guadalajara-based Gutierrez raised his record to 23-0-1 (19).
Every so often a swing fight turns out to be a gem, and such was the case when junior lightweights Francisco Vargas of Mexico City (11-0-1, 9 KOs coming in) and Houston-based Victor Sanchez (3-3-1, 0 coming in) tore into each other for four action-packed rounds. From first bell to last both men sprayed bullets at an incredible pace and helped set the tone for the four fights to come.
The back-and-forth action hardly reflected the lopsided decision that went to Vargas (40-36 twice, 39-37). Sanchez averaged an extraordinary 130 punches per round to Vargas’ 108 – the junior lightweight average is 57.6 – but Vargas’ superior stamina and accuracy enabled him to repel Sanchez’s spirited attack. Despite throwing 91 fewer punches (442-533), Vargas held connect leads of 167-138 (total), 27-9 (jabs) and 140-129 (power) because he landed 38 percent of his total punches to Sanchez’s 27 percent, 27 percent of his jabs to Sanchez’s 9 percent and 41 percent of his power punches to Sanchez’s 28 percent. The difference in pedigree emerged in the final two rounds as Vargas retained his snap and exploited the openings caused by Sanchez’s arm-weariness. Despite his obvious fatigue, Sanchez managed to unleash 162 punches in the final round, out-landing Vargas 43-36 to bring a rousing end to the contest.
I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I love counting high-octane fights like these. The tremendous volume enhances my ability to focus, allows me to achieve an excellent rhythm and causes time to pass more quickly. When that fighter combines volume with force, I find myself hitting the buttons with a little more zest. My eyes still widen with wonder whenever I see triple digits in the “total punches thrown” column at the end of the round. The next fight on the card gave me several chances to do just that.
In winning the vacant belt from Vusi Malinga, Santa Cruz threw 1,350 punches, landed 410 of them and connected on 327 power punches, which ranks fourth, eighth and fourth all-time among bantamweights tracked by CompuBox. In retaining his IBF bantamweight title against Morel, Santa Cruz exceeded the 100-punch mark four times with 108 in round one being his high water mark. Two elements separate Santa Cruz from most volume punchers – first, his blows, especially those thrown to the body, strike with incredible force and second, his power punching accuracy is off the charts.
Consider his round-by-round power numbers: 37 of 68 (54 percent), 51 of 69 (74 percent), 50 of 78 (64 percent), 65 of 87 (75 percent) and 48 of 81 (59 percent). Most of these connects were extraordinarily flush and their snappiness generated power that reverberated through Morel’s frame. Morel tried to go blow-for-blow in round one (he was 24 of 100 to Santa Cruz’s 41 of 108) but in round two the 36-year-old slowed noticeably while the 24-year-old Santa Cruz picked up steam (54 of 94, 57 percent to 17 of 73, 23 percent).
From that point forward it was only a matter of how much punishment Morel was willing to absorb and, to his credit, he looked like he wanted to go the distance. But his corner wisely and mercifully ended Morel’s attempt to become the oldest 118-pound titlist in boxing history by saying “you’re taking too much.” The stoppage loss was Morel’s first in his 16-year career, a career whose path has been mortally damaged by consecutive losses to Abner Mares and Santa Cruz. Morel, now 46-4 (23), was reportedly considering retirement.
As for Santa Cruz, now 21-0-1 (12), his back-to-back title-fight triumphs against Malinga and Morel have cemented his place as one of boxing’s most exciting and compelling performers – as well as a potential star. Any card that includes Santa Cruz will be well worth watching because volume plus power equals money.
Ponce de Leon, another supreme volume puncher with power, cashed in big against the favored Gonzalez, who had won 12 straight and logged four successful WBC featherweight title defenses since his one-punch, three-round loss to Toshiaki Nishioka in May 2009. The threat Ponce de Leon posed to Gonzalez’s reign was graphically illustrated in his most recent outing against Eduardo Lazcano in May. In winning a 10-round decision Ponce de Leon fired 1,364 punches, landing 518 of them. Had the fight been scheduled for 12 – and had Lazcano lasted the distance – the Mexican was projected to throw 1,636 punches, perilously close to Antonio Margarito’s all-time CompuBox record of 1,675 against Joshua Clottey in December 2006.
Against Gonzalez, a far more skilled and threatening opponent than Lazcano, Ponce de Leon slowed his pace to 83 per round but it was more than enough to cause Gonzalez to focus more on defense than offense. Ponce de Leon’s far superior activity (he led 661-412 in punches thrown) was the reason he led 141-133 in total connects and 120-92 in landed power shots. It may also have been the driving reason behind his large lead on the scorecards (79-72 twice, 77-74). Both men were heavily damaged by head clashes – a frequent occurrence in right-handed vs. southpaw match-ups. Ponce de Leon suffered a nasty gash on the hairline in round two that pumped blood throughout but the crescent-shaped slice over Gonzalez’s eyebrow prompted the early finish.
By itself Ponce de Leon-Gonzalez was a decent scrap but it suffered mightily in comparison to the three wars that preceded it. Scattered boos were heard around the arena but Ponce de Leon’s aggression and hard work kept those catcalls to a minimum. Ponce de Leon, now 44-4 (35), deserves credit for bouncing back from two straight losses to Adrien Broner and Yuriorkis Gamboa, the latter of which, ironically, was an eight-round butt-induced technical decision. One can only guess what the next move will be for Gonzalez, whose record dropped to 52-8 (45).
For all the terrific action that unfolded this night, the best of the best was Maidana’s pulsating and sometimes acrimonious eighth round TKO over the rugged Soto Karass. After losing to Devon Alexander in dreary fashion in February, Maidana (now 33-3, 29 KOs) hired Robert Garcia as his chief second and the effects of his handiwork were immediately evident. In an almost Rocky III-like transformation, the brawling Maidana began the fight by pumping a prolific and extremely effective jab. In round one Maidana landed 22 of 59 jabs, shattering his previous personal record of 13 connects and 51 attempts set in rounds two and 11 against Andriy Kotelnik. But Soto Karass’ ceaseless pressure forced Maidana to abandon his newfound science and it wasn’t long before the action became chippy.
Following the third round bell a scuffle erupted between the fighters and it nearly extended to the two head trainers who tried to break it up. In round four, referee Kenny Bayless deducted points from both fighters for low blows and hitting on the break and Maidana hit Soto Karass after the bell ending round five. An angry Soto Karass trashed talked Maidana at the start of round six and proceeded to channel his fury into his best round of the fight, out-landing the Argentine 37-17 overall and 32-8 in power shots. The pro-Soto Karass crowd roared its approval and their favorite continued to ride the wave in round seven, a round that saw Maidana docked a second point for low blows.
“I didn’t care when they took away the points,” Maidana said later. “I knew I would come back.”
Did he ever. With the lightning-like suddenness that marked his best days at 140, Maidana’s monstrous right hand sent Soto Karass through the ropes in a scene that mirrored Jack Dempsey’s tumble against Luis Firpo. Maidana capitalized on the momentum shift in round eight as he landed 10 of his 11 power shots to persuade Bayless to intervene. Many in the crowd, including Soto Karass, felt the stoppage was premature.
“It was a war like I predicted it would be,” Soto Karass, now 26-8-3 (17), said, “but I think the ref stopped it too soon.”
Maidana’s increasing grip on the fight was evident in the CompuBox numbers, for he was 213 of 539 overall (40 percent) to Soto Karass’ 179 of 748 (24 percent) and led in jabs (68 of 240, 28 percent to 36 of 328, 11 percent) and power punches (145 of 299, 48 percent to 143 of 420, 34 percent). Thoughts of “Fight of the Year” ran through my head as both men maintained their hyperkinetic pace and the emotion of their battle extended to the crowd, which howled their pleasure and displeasure in electrifying fashion.
As loud as they were during the Maidana-Soto Karass war, they were even more so when Canelo entered the arena. Only four other times have I heard louder receptions: For Lucian Bute in Montreal before his fight with Sakio Bika, for Kelly Pavlik in Youngstown before his bout with Marco Antonio Rubio, for Joe Mesi in Buffalo prior to his blowout of DaVarryl Williamson and for Miguel Cotto in Madison Square Garden before his victory over Muhammad Abdullaev. As Alvarez walked down the aisle and into the ring to accept the plaudits, I thought, “this is what an icon must feel like.” To inspire tens of thousands of people to robustly cheer your very presence is a sensation precious few people can relate to because most of us toil in anonymity. To follow those cheers with a worthy performance is an even rarer gift.
Sure, Alvarez was a heavy favorite to keep his belt against Lopez, a natural 140-pounder who was the fourth choice of opponent after Paul Williams, James Kirkland and Victor Ortiz. There was a school of thought that Lopez could produce his second consecutive giant upset because he was slightly taller and that he carried enough power at 147 to break Ortiz’s jaw. They also thought his reservoir of courage would carry him through once Lopez established a foothold in the fight.
Any thoughts of an Alvarez stumble were extinguished once he began flashing his superlative combinations. It is one thing to observe them on a two-dimensional TV screen but seeing them less than 30 feet away is a completely different proposition. The speed, power, leverage and placement was a sight to behold, as was the unpredictable up-down-and-up-again punch sequences whose fluidity could have only been achieved with hundreds of hours of practice.
Like Santa Cruz before him, Alvarez’s power-punching accuracy was uncanny – 16 of 23 (70 percent) in round one, 14 of 27 (52 percent) in the second, 20 of 30 (67 percent) in round three, 18 of 32 (56 percent) in the fourth and 36 of 50 (72 percent) in the fatal fifth. In all he was 104 of 162 (64 percent), which fueled his 140 of 269 (52 percent) performance in overall punches.
And like Morel against Santa Cruz, Lopez lacked the equipment to deal with the tsunami that washed over him but possessed enough heart to showcase the full range of his opponent’s talents. Lopez adhered to the fighter’s code of battling back at every turn but even he came to realize that his task was beyond his capabilities. One sequence near the end of round four perfectly captured Lopez’s plight: Lopez, already down in rounds two and three, summoned up the energy to fire an nine-punch combination that didn’t even merit a change of facial expression. A few moments later Alvarez unleashed a nine-punch explosion that left Lopez sprawled near the ropes.
One bright spot for Lopez – and a point of study for future Alvarez opponents – was that he landed 40 percent of his power punches. Then again, perhaps Alvarez didn’t respect the naturally smaller man’s power and thus was more willing to walk through them, an argument that has weight given the fact that Matthew Hatton, Ryan Rhodes, Alfonso Gomez and Kermit Cintron landed 26 percent, 30.8 percent, 30.5 percent and 19.4 percent respectively, well below the junior middleweight average of 37.3 percent.
As Joe stowed away his equipment I kept tabs on the Martinez-Chavez fight via the tweets on ESPN’s boxing site. Variations of the “man versus boy” theme were suddenly replaced by “OMGs” and declarations that Chavez might have lost the fight but won the night. The power of Chavez’s rally was such that the prospect of staging a rematch – an incomprehensible notion just a few minutes earlier – had real legs. Such are the fickle fates of fisticuffs.
I grabbed some snacks from the production area and returned to my room to reflect on what I had just seen. I caught up on the rest of the results at the Thomas & Mack, which, given the gulf between Top Rank and Golden Boy, might as well have taken place on Pluto. The event’s afterglow required a couple of hours to recede, and at that point I switched off the lights.
Sunday, Sept. 16: After awaking at 6 a.m. and spending a couple of hours catching up on my writing, I checked out of the MGM Grand in hopes of catching a quick taxi to the airport. One look outside ended any hopes of doing that, for the queue was at least three dozen strong. Thankfully, enough of those folks were in groups of two, three and four and 10 minutes later I was on my way.
The time pressure I felt melted away when I looked at the flight monitor. It said my departure time had been pushed back 25 minutes to 10:35 a.m., which reduced the stress of snaking through the long line at the security checkpoint. Once I found my gate I turned on the laptop and grinded away. Before I knew it, it was time to embark and despite having “C-26” on my boarding pass (meaning I was the 146th person to get on the plane), I managed to find a window seat in the very last row, guaranteeing me a chance to write while in flight.
I finished up my work at 4:15 p.m. Eastern Time and spent the rest of the flight either reading or looking out the window. Unlike the last three trips to and from Vegas there was virtually no turbulence and we landed ahead of our 5:25 p.m. arrival time. I pulled into my driveway at 8:15 p.m. and spent the rest of the evening catching up on what I missed the last several days. Despite the effects of the cross-country trip, I found the energy to square up my bookkeeping as well as edit and burn most of the boxing shows I recorded over the weekend. I knew, however, that I made only a small dent on my “to-do” list.
As of this writing I don’t know when or where my next trip will be, save that it will be in October and that I’ll be working with frequent punch-counting partner Andy Kasprzak. By then I’ll be more than ready to return to the road – and to the air.
Until then, happy trails.
Photos / Nick Laham-Golden Boy Promotions (top Alvarez pic, Maidana, Vargas), Josh Hedges-Getty Images (De Leon, Santa Cruz, Guttierez) and Tom Casino-SHOWTIME (Alvarez)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange for autographed copies.