Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man goes to Philadelphia – part II

Saturday, Dec. 8 (continued): As I scanned the bout sheet I took note of something unique to Philadelphia – the specific delineations of neighborhoods and the significance they carry. For example, three fighters were listed as being from North Philadelphia while one hailed from West Philadelphia. When I mentioned this to ring announcer “Generous” Joe Antonacci, he lived up to his nickname by bringing over Bernard Fernandez, a New Orleans native who is as identified with “The City of Brotherly Love” as any boxing writer alive.

“Every neighborhood is listed because Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods,” said Fernandez. “The biggest drawing fights when Russell Peltz was director of boxing at the Spectrum were two Philly guys, and they were always paired according to neighborhoods. It could have been West Philly vs. North Philly, South Philly vs. Germantown or any combination of Wayne, Liberty, Port Richmond or all the others because that was standard. Maintaining neighborhood pride was a big thing and one of the reasons why Russell’s been so successful is that he understood that and in every such fight he made sure to identify the neighborhood.

“When I came here in 1984, the first thing I realized is that I had to get the neighborhoods straight,” Fernandez continued. “I’d snag the guys out of the ring and ask them where they were from, and I did that because they wanted to have that known. Sometimes you run into fighters who want to have it broken down further. For example, Ivan Robinson was from Nicetown, a subsection of a North Philadelphia neighborhood. I’m not sure that kind of thing was important in other cities but it works in Philadelphia. Philadelphia fighters have a certain cache, like Mexican fighters also do. If you don’t know a particular fighter but if you know he’s from Philadelphia, you know that fighter has to live up to that heritage.”

Before returning to his spot at ringside, he offered a final tale from years past.

“Russell once had a light heavyweight named Tommy Pfeiffer, who often sold 300 tickets at the Blue Horizon. He was known as ‘The Punching Plumber from Clifton Heights.’ He had a lot of things going for him as a drawing card. First, there were no other fighters from Clifton Heights so a lot of people from there would come to see him fight. I don’t know if they had a lot to be proud of otherwise. Second, he was Irish so he wore green trunks. And third, since he was a plumber a bunch of guys from the plumbers’ union would come. So he had the trifecta going: Clifton Heights, being Irish and the plumbers union. If you can get a four-round guy who can sell that many tickets, they’re golden.”

Just before the card started Antonacci showed me the prototype of Issue One of the revived “Joe Palooka” comic book series, which will be launched after the turn of the year. Though small in size it looked to be an excellent product. I was particularly impressed with the quality of the drawing and the vividness of the color. I felt I didn’t have time to read it in full but I’m sure that aspect measures up as well. Antonacci bought the rights to Joe Palooka a few years ago and this represented the culmination of his efforts.

As I scanned around ringside I spotted several familiar faces: Gabriel Rosado, Yusaf Mack, New York Golden Gloves director Brian Adams, Tomasz Adamek, Steve Cunningham and someone I could have sworn was former NFL player Vai Sikahema, who, for my money, was one of the greatest body punchers in NFL history. For those who wonder why I say that, check out this clip:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sglasPrb9k

The first fight pitted welterweights Josue Rivera (0-1 coming in) and Hasan Young (1-1-1) in a scheduled four rounder. The patrons had little time to enjoy the contrast between the crouching, wide-swinging Rivera and Young’s more classic style once Young lined up his hooks to the temple. One of them 80 seconds into the fight caused Rivera to fall forward onto his knees and a second one moments later produced the same result. A five-punch flurry by Hasan ended matters at the 1:52 mark, capping a 16 of 27 (59 percent) power punching performance.

The night’s second bout produced one of the most unusual post-fight episodes of my boxing life, one I’m almost certain will never be duplicated. Here’s what happened:

Philadelphia featherweights Anthony Burgin (1-0, 1 KO) and the debuting Kenneth Brown were scheduled to fight a four-rounder. Brown, a 5-4 southpaw, was forced to deal with a five-inch height deficit and an equally daunting reach disadvantage.

Within seconds of the opening bell, I noticed that the fleet-footed Brown was circling to his left – a cardinal sin because the left-handed Brown was circling directly into the right-handed Burgin’s power hand. Moments later, Brown’s chief second noticed the same thing and began yelling “you gotta jab and move to your right! You’re moving the wrong way!” That got no reaction from Brown so the assistant trainer joined in with an even more urgent tone. No matter how many times they repeated themselves, Brown insisted on moving in the wrong direction for the remainder of round one, which saw Burgin’s constant pressure built a 14-7 lead in total connects.

Despite the talking-to he received in the corner, Brown persisted in his futile strategy in round two, which began with him taking a flush jab to the face.

“Do what I tell you!” the chief second shouted, his exasperation growing with every passing second. By now the knowledgeable crowd was pleading for Brown to move to his right because Burgin continued to nail him with power shots (12 of 22, 55 percent en route to a 13-6 total connects advantage in round two).

Brown tried to implement his corner’s advice early in the third by barreling inside and briefly moving right, but Burgin’s power and aggressiveness dissuaded him from pursuing it further. Instead Brown reverted to what felt most comfortable to him but his results didn’t get any better. The connect gaps in round three were more pronounced as Burgin led 14-4 overall and 12-4 in power shots.

The effects of Burgin’s stamina-sapping attack became obvious in the final round as his amped-up pressure broke Brown’s will to fight back. As Burgin unleashed a 98-punch attack that yielded 35 connects and 30 of 77 power punches, Brown went into full survival mode as he went 0 of 2 overall and didn’t throw a single punch in the final two-and-a-half minutes. And, of course, he was moving the wrong way the entire time.

After the lopsided decision for Burgin was announced (40-36 across the board), Brown walked down the steps and talked with a few well-wishers in the front row. I felt badly for the chief second, a trim African-American man whose brow was furrowed with frustration. His fighter had just suffered a resounding defeat despite his emphatic efforts to verbally steer him in the right direction and all of the wisdom he attempted to impart fell on deaf ears. I waited for the proper moment to address him and as soon as I spotted it, I spoke up.

“I’m sorry about the result,” I said. “You were telling him all the right things and I don’t know why your fighter didn’t listen to you.”

What the trainer did next absolutely stunned me. He stared hard into my eyes for a few seconds, turned away, tugged on his fighter’s arm, brought him over and said to me “tell him what you just told me.” And then he walked away.

Never in a million years did I think I would be faced with this situation — addressing a Philadelphia fighter, one-on-one, moments after he suffered a defeat due to a definitive lapse in judgment. Even though I outweighed him by 100 pounds, I knew he was younger, stronger, much more athletic and, because he just lost his pro debut, a potential emotional powder keg. I knew I had to strike the right balance and I only had one chance to do it. I had to get the message across but I also wanted to do so in a way that would affect him positively. As Brown looked dead into my eyes, I perceived he was open to whatever I was going to say to him and I wanted to do it in the best way possible.

“I know you were in tough tonight because your opponent was bigger, stronger and coming at you hard,” I began. “I’ve been in there before and I know what it’s like to hit and be hit. Boxing’s a hard sport and you have to be tough to even climb those steps. However, I was listening to your corner and your trainer was giving you exactly the right advice. For whatever reason you chose not to follow it. I think the best thing you can do now is to use this as a learning experience. You certainly have speed and you can use that to your advantage, but the most important thing is to continue to work hard and especially listen to your trainer. He knows what he’s doing. I wish you all the best in the future.”

I don’t know if I got through to him – only his efforts in future fights will bear that out — but Brown seemed to appreciate my words. He smiled, shook my hand, thanked me and left for the dressing room.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that in my life,” Andy told me.

“Me neither,” I replied. “I just wanted to console the trainer and then this happens. Mind you, I’m glad I got to talk to him but that was kind of weird. I just hope he listens to his trainer next time.”

Other notable undercard notes include:

*One of the most impressive performances belonged to undefeated super middleweight Jesse Hart, who raised his record to 4-0 (3) with a unanimous decision over Steven Tyner (3-9-2, 2). Hart, whose father and trainer was 1970s middleweight contender Eugene “Cyclone” Hart, fired impressive jabs to set up repeated chopping rights to the side of the head. Through it all Tyner continued to chug forward and take a beating that would have felled others.

Hart’s CompuBox stats were incredible. In round one – one of the most impressive three-minute stretches I’ve ever seen live – Hart was 54 of 88 (61 percent) overall, landed 24 of 50 jabs (48 percent) and connected on 30 of 38 power punches (79 percent). In the following three rounds Hart out-landed Tyner 33-9, 39-4 and 37-5 overall en route to connect gulfs of 163-25 (total), 86-8 (jabs) and 77-17 (power). He landed 51 percent overall, 46 percent of his jabs and 57 percent of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts while limiting Tyner to 19 percent overall, 13 percent jabs and 23 percent power.

Along with the numbers, Hart’s technique was superb. The 6-2 Hart towered over Tyner and fought exactly the right fight — shooting strong, pinpoint jabs from long range and using them to set up combinations. Despite his dominance, Hart took things as they came instead of pressing the issue or becoming frustrated when Tyner (0-5-1 in his last six) refused to submit.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Top Rank plans to push Hart toward bigger fights next year by upping the level of competition. He appears ready to make that jump.

“They said they have a lot of big plans for me,” Hart told the Inquirer. “They said we’re going to take off. I think Vegas will be the main stage for me.”

*The unusually named light heavyweight Todd Unthank-May (5-0, 2 coming in) was thought to be in a record-building fight against the 4-4-1 (2) Taneal Goyco, but Goyco had a mighty surprise for everyone in the four-rounder’s opening moments. Goyco’s very first punch — a corking overhand right — crashed against Unthank-May’s jaw and sent the undefeated battler crashing butt-first near the neutral corner pad. At that moment anything seemed possible, but Unthank-May brushed himself off and fought his way back.

While Goyco fought well in the first minute of every round, Unthank-May dominated the other two minutes with his straighter blows. That formula served Unthank-May well, for the final result was a 38-37 win across the board. Every prospect eventually faces a day when their resources are unexpectedly tested and here, Unthank-May showed he had the resilience and resources to deal with adversity. But one can also look at this fight from a negative standpoint – how will his chin stand up to stronger punchers?

*Vineland, N.J. featherweight Joshua Arocho (3-6-2, 2) scored a minor upset over previously unbeaten Alex Barbosa (4-1, 1), who clearly paid tribute to the recently deceased Hector Camacho by wearing bright red loincloth trunks with the word “Macho” across the beltline and trying to emulate the Puerto Rican’s fast-twitch southpaw style. As the aggressive Arocho belted him with looping power shots, Barbosa responded with grins as often as he did with punches.

“Stop that smiling s__t and let your hands go,” Barbosa’s corner yelled. The stats say he didn’t do so often enough, for Arocho led 260-228 in total punch attempts and 60-56 in total connects. That, and Arocho’s constant aggression led to a 40-36 (twice), 39-37 victory.

*The final two fights of the undercard saw Angel Luis Ocasio and Jason Sosa score two round knockouts over Esteban Rodriguez and Isaac Suarez respectively. Suarez landed 58 percent of his power punches while Ocasio connected on 50 percent of his, but both men also absorbed 40 percent of their opponents’ hooks, crosses and uppercuts.

The two televised fights featured plenty of ebbs, flows and action. The fight plan Belmontes’ team laid out to me the previous day (“take it to Fields for the first five rounds, slow down in the sixth and seventh, then come on strong in the eighth, ninth and 10th”) didn’t pan out as Hunter scored a second round knockdown and gained even more strength down the stretch. Hunter out-landed Belmontes 208-150 largely on his success in the final four rounds, which saw him build a 91-43 connect advantage overall and a 46-23 bulge in landed power shots.

As for Bryant Jennings, the fact that he could flatten a 253-pound, in-shape power puncher like Tupou speaks loudly about his improving power. Through his first 14 fights Jennings had scored only six knockouts but given his 35-second win over Chris Koval and his fifth round stoppage of Tupou – one produced by a volley of clean power shots – he must be respected in that area of the game. Jennings landed an impressive 56 percent of his hardest blows (59 of 90) and out-landed Tupou 70-47 overall, including 33-12 in the final two rounds.

“Bye Bye’s” ascension through the heavyweight ranks in 2012 mirrors that of the “Fight Night” series on the NBC Sports Network. Both are getting excellent reviews and both are poised to achieve even more in 2013. I’m looking forward to seeing how their respective stories will unfold.

All of us went upstairs to grab a share of the pizza that was our post-production meal. As I dug into my second slice, Brian Adams reacted to something he read on his phone.

“Pacquiao was just knocked down in the third round,” he declared. The texts were coming from his son, who, a few minutes later, broke the even more dramatic news of Marquez’s sixth round knockout victory.

It took several minutes for my mind to wrap itself around that concept. That’s because of all the possible scenarios I rolled inside my head, an off-the-floor one-punch knockout that left Pacquiao lying face-first on the canvas was one I didn’t even consider. Pacquiao hadn’t been knocked out since 1999 and against far larger men his chin showed remarkable resiliency. It certainly hadn’t been dented in three previous fights against Marquez and I had no reason to believe it would be different coming into Saturday night’s fight.

After shaking off the initial shock, my next thought was “there goes Money Mayweather’s $100 million payday.” Marquez’s KO win officially sandblasted whatever shine the “dream match” still had and virtually guaranteed that Mayweather-Pacquiao would join Lewis-Bowe, Trinidad-Norris and Pacquiao-Valero as among the greatest fights never to materialize. And even if Mayweather-Pacquiao were made – that would require an equally emphatic KO in fight number five – it no longer would have the mystique that it would have had in early 2010 when Pacquiao was fresh off his TKO of Miguel Cotto and Mayweather had just whitewashed Marquez.

Because we knew that taxis would likely be unavailable at 1 a.m., Andy and I fortunately caught a ride with Sports Media’s Tom Gianakos, one of the fortunate few who had a rental car. I couldn’t wait to get back to the room to catch up on the Marquez-Pacquiao IV aftermath and by 2:30 a.m. I had fully satisfied my information fix.

Sunday, Dec. 9: Though I stirred awake at 7:30, I decided not to get up until 9 simply because I needed more rest. I met Andy in the lobby at 10:15 and by 11:10 I had cleared security.

When I looked at the flight monitor to ascertain my gate I noticed that I had arrived in time to theoretically catch the 11:45 flight to Pittsburgh, whose gate (B8) was located very close to the one for my 1:30 p.m. bird (B9). So, just for kicks, I walked over to B8 to see if I could leave town a bit early.

Although I had to give up my first-class upgrade, I was able to do just that and less than 15 minutes later I was boarding the plane. It didn’t matter that the aircraft departed 25 minutes after the advertised time because I landed shortly after 1:10 p.m. It clearly was the most uncomplicated visit I ever experienced at Philadelphia International Airport. Maybe the worm has finally started to turn.

My next concern was the state of my car, for in Part One I mentioned that the check engine light had flashed briefly while ascending a steep incline but turned off on the subsequent descent. When I turned the ignition key the bag was mixed: The good news was that the car started and it drove with its usual smoothness but the bad news was my check engine light was illuminated for the entire trip while my cruise control light flashed on and off without ceasing. It looks like my mechanic has some work to do come Wednesday afternoon.

I pulled into my driveway at 4:02 p.m., which gave me more time to tackle several time-sensitive projects that would have been made tougher by fatigue had I stayed on my original timetable.

The turnaround between trips will be short, for by the time you read this I’ll be preparing myself for a return trip to Los Angeles to work CBS’ first live boxing show since Bernard Hopkins-Glen Johnson in the early afternoon hours (local time), a late-afternoon Showtime Extreme telecast and an early-evening card for Showtime Championship Boxing. It surely will be a long, work-intensive day but since when have I been afraid of hard work, especially when it comes to my favorite sport?

Until then, happy trails.

*

Photo of Jesse and Eugene Hart from Philly Boxing History

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.comto arrange for autographed copies.

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