Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man returns to Los Angeles – part II

Click here to read Travelin Man returns to Los Angeles - part I.

 

Saturday, Dec. 15 (continued): As punch-counting partner Joe Carnicelli and I awaited the start of the first live telecast of our three-network day, I couldn’t help but realize that this was potentially a monumental day in recent boxing history, at least in the larger sense.

The reason: This show was being aired on CBS, a network that hadn’t shown live boxing since then-IBF middleweight titlist Bernard Hopkins stopped the 32-0 Glen Johnson in 11 rounds in 1997. It also was a rebirth of sorts for the Los Angeles Sports Arena, which was staging only its second boxing event since October 6, 1996, when Jose Luis Lopez stopped Yory Boy Campas in five rounds in the main event.

During my formative years as a boxing fan, CBS, NBC and ABC showcased boxing on weekend afternoons – and occasionally prime-time – almost every week of the year. That began to change in the mid- to late-1980s when a confluence of events inside and outside the ring caused the networks to change their attitude toward “The Sweet Science.” Despite the protests from committed viewers and the consistently good ratings the sport produced, boxing gradually vanished from terrestrial television in America. Several attempts were made to revive boxing’s over-the-air network presence – a late-summer series on CBS, a dual-network venture involving NBC and Telemundo and a short-lived prime-time series on Fox – but all eventually sputtered and died.

Over the past several years boxing’s power brokers have talked about returning the sport to free network TV in the U.S. but no action had been taken – until now.

CBS Corporation – the owner of CBS and Showtime – decided to take the network plunge by scheduling the Leo Santa Cruz-Alberto Guevara IBF bantamweight title fight for CBS. Not only that, Golden Boy Promotions announced that admission to this portion of the card was free to the public.

In my opinion, this two-prong strategy to attract potential new fans to boxing was brilliant. Not only would boxing be showcased on a platform with the largest possible audience, the local crowd was granted free access to sample the wares of up-and-coming stars. In my eyes this was a win-win, not only for the event in question but also for the sport’s long-term trajectory.

With countless entertainment options available to the public at large, boxing needs to take bold steps to re-introduce itself to an audience that was largely shut out for the better part of a generation – the casual sports fan. Even in a television universe consisting of heavily specialized channels, the big broadcast networks still draw the largest viewership. To take full advantage of the situation, several moves were made:

First, CBS scheduled its return to boxing during a time when college football was resting up for the coming blitz of bowl games. Second, CBS couldn’t have asked for a better fighter to showcase than Santa Cruz, an all-action banger who, because he’s still establishing his star, remained an affordable option. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the fight itself had to be competitive and compelling. That proposition seemed a bit dicey because Santa Cruz’s challenger was a largely unknown presence, at least to American fans. No video of Guevara was readily available, so few had any idea how well he could fight.

Happily for everyone involved the long and lean Guevara delivered a strong effort before losing a decisive decision. His mobility and ring craft revealed potential weaknesses in Santa Cruz and he even managed to limit the defending titlist’s vaunted volume – at least for the first two rounds. Guevara actually out-threw Santa Cruz 83-77 in round one and held him to just 59 punches in the second. But once Santa Cruz found his groove starting in round three Guevara assumed the look of someone trying to hold back a tidal wave.

Though Santa Cruz out-landed Guevara in every round, the margins were most pronounced in rounds seven through 12. During that span, Santa Cruz out-landed the challenger 176-65 overall and 133-44 in power shots and to Guevara’s credit he continued to try his best despite being badly out-gunned. In the end Santa Cruz piled up connect gulfs of 291-158 (total), 81-46 (jabs) and 210-112 (power) and blasted in 78 body shots to Guevara’s 32.

While Santa Cruz didn’t produce the highlight reel performance he surely wanted, he showed why he is considered to be one of the fastest-rising stars in boxing – and why he should be a cornerstone of future telecasts on free TV. His all-action style combined with the compelling back-story involving his family that was excellently chronicled in the pre-fight profile (another positive aspect of boxing coverage in the 1970s and 1980s that was revived here) should give viewers more than enough justification to continue following his progress.

There’s even more reason for boxing fans to feel good about the state of their favorite sport, for NBC returns to the fold just seven days later with Tomasz Adamek-Steve Cunningham II, a heavyweight rematch of their epic 2008 cruiserweight title fight won by Adamek. This is a rematch worth watching and I urge all boxing fans – and casual sports lovers – to tune in and check out the action.

Inside the ropes boxing has always had the power to grip the populace with its unique blend of action, drama and human interest stories. The sport’s struggles in recent years have almost always been caused by forces beyond the ring and for many years boxing’s power brokers have struggled to find a way to duplicate the glory days without access to the big networks. They couldn’t, for boxing marginalized itself by depending too heavily on pay-per-view, which served to antagonize existing fans while also driving away potential devotees because they couldn’t afford the extra cost. Instead of grooming new attractions via free TV, they chose to rely on a small group of fighters whose star power transcended their limited TV environment.

Ironically, boxing may save its future by returning to what worked in the past.

The potential return of boxing to terrestrial TV will open up numerous avenues for “tweeners,” matchups that are too pricey for ESPN but too unknown for HBO, Showtime and pay-per-view. If their life stories are told compellingly – as was done for Santa Cruz by CBS and for Bryant Jennings by NBC Sports Network – and if the profiled fighters continue to win, the sport as a whole will create the environment by which a solid bench can be readied for when the Pacquiaos, Mayweathers, Martinezes and Marquezes of the world move on.

Finally, the exposure that only the free networks can provide may be able to fix other big-picture problems. For one thing, it will help sell boxing to gifted youngsters who are still exploring their athletic options. If they can be convinced that boxing will deliver them fame, fortune and TV time, maybe some of them will opt to pursue pugilism instead of baseball, football and basketball, sports that are given 24/7/365 coverage on multiple sports networks. That, in turn, may enhance America’s presence in the heavyweight division, a vital cornerstone when it comes to attracting casual fans. It may also lead to more coverage of amateur boxing, both at the Olympics on the flagship network as well as the tournaments leading up to the games, both of which may cause persuadable athletes to take a second look at boxing. If networks show it and sell it, the future boxing stars will come.

In short, a long-term commitment to boxing on the most accessible platforms may cause a dramatic reversal of fortune in terms of boxing’s presence in mainstream society. That’s why it’s so important that the CBS and NBC ventures succeed. If fans show their support by watching and purchasing products from  those entities that opt to buy advertising time, they will give the networks all the ammunition they need to continue this most positive trend.

*

Once I returned from the crew meal (which included a talk with Steve Farhood’s older brother Bill) I ran into several e-mail/Facebook friends such as the lovely and talented boxing publicist Rachel Charles (owner of the “Pitch INK” PR firm), longtime broadcaster Rich Marotta (who’s been working on opening the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame for the past several months) and RingTV.com Editor-in-Chief Doug Fischer (who was the analyst on one of the international broadcasts). I was surprised to run into longtime cruiserweight titlist Johnny Nelson, who was doing commentary for Sky Sports and who sat to my immediate right during the broadcasts. We compared notes on Khan-Garcia and agreed “King Khan” would put on a royal performance. I also had Al Bernstein sign my copy of his book, which I received as a birthday present.

My only regret is that I didn’t get to meet Sky Sports ringside analyst and former WBC lightweight champion Jim Watt, who, for my money, assembled one of the best late-career renaissances in boxing history by winning the title at age 30, retaining the belt four times and honorably losing it in his final fight to future Hall of Famer Alexis Arguello. Watt just seemed too busy at all times for me to comfortably approach him, especially as a stranger. I hope I have the chance to meet him in the future.

As I headed toward the back of the arena I heard a voice calling out – “Hey, Travelin’ Man!” That voice belonged to Raymundo Dioses, a columnist for 3 More Rounds.com who recognized me from the photo that accompanied one of my articles about visiting the International Boxing Hall of Fame. It was nice to be identified by sight from my articles here on RingTV, but it also was a very new experience. We chatted about Marquez’s KO of Pacquiao last week (he was there) as well as his grandfather, who fought during the 1940s and 1950s.

Several notes about the fights I witnessed:

* Errol Spence’s third-round TKO over Richard Andrews showcased an impressively varied offensive attack as he shifted his punches from head to body (45 of his 95 power connects were to the flanks) and fired every legal punch in the book. Once the tough but overwhelmed Andrews retreated to the ropes and absorbed more punishment referee Thomas Taylor had little choice but to intervene. Spence landed 44 percent of his total punches and 54 percent of his power shots, out-landing Andrews by 100 (113-13) in just 6 minutes 44 seconds.

* Shawn Porter’s draw against veteran two-time lightweight titlist Julio Diaz was a tough, entertaining scrap that showcased both men’s strengths and vulnerabilities. At 32, “The Kidd” is no longer a kid and early on his punches were somewhat telegraphed but once he got his engine going in round four he proved he remains a tough nut and a fun fighter to watch (and count). As for Porter, what we see is probably what we’ll get from now on – very fast hands, mobile feet and an eagerness to engage on the plus side, marginal defense and cut-prone brows on the minus side. In terms of CompuBox numbers, Porter led 208-173 mostly because he threw so many more blows (725-558) but Diaz stated his case by landing more power shots (155-145) and being the more accurate man (31 to 28 percent overall, 39 to 35 percent power).

* Twenty-year-old Jorge Silva wasn’t considered to be a major threat to derail Alfredo Angulo’s comeback because he was a defensively-challenged welterweight who was coming off a 10-round draw against Yoshihiro Kamegai. However, his feistiness and grit carried him far against the heavily favored Angulo and enabled him to expose several unsettling chinks in “Perro’s” armor. His 28-7 bulge in power connects in round one and his 31-17 gulf in round seven showed Angulo can be tagged again and again with looping shots, a trait that may prove fatal against harder hitters. But on the plus side for Angulo he bounced back strongly in rounds eight through 10 by throwing 89, 80 and 127 and out-landing Silva 117-62 (total) and 96-49 (power) down the stretch. The victory guarantees the Angulo train will keep rolling for at least one more fight but Silva also proved himself an attractive option for TV executives and matchmakers alike.

* If anyone ever wondered what Mark Breland would have looked like as a heavyweight, one needn’t go further his protégé, 2008 Olympic bronze medalist Deontay Wilder, who stretched his record to 26-0 (26) with his third-round, one-punch KO over Kelvin Price. At his best, the 6-foot-2 Breland used long, snaking jabs to set up the titanic right crosses that left his amateur opponents either quivering on the mat or quivering in the corner awaiting the first bell. The 6-foot-8 Wilder used the same game plan against Price and the final result must have made Breland smile a nostalgic smile.

Granted, Wilder’s opposition has been wanting and hopefully that will change in the near future. Still, Wilder’s KO string from the start of a career is among the most prolific in ring annals. With his 26th straight knockout in the books, Wilder surpassed the 25 registered by John L. Sullivan and had already left Alex Stewart (24), Mac Foster (24), Herbie Hide (22), Frank Bruno (21) and Mike Tyson (19) in his wake. George Foreman’s best KO streak during any portion of his career was 24 while Rocky Marciano’s best was 16, Ken Norton’s was 14 and Sonny Liston’s was 11.

If Wilder scores a knockout in his next fight, he ties current WBC titlist Vitali Klitschko’s 27 straight from the start of a career among heavyweights. The all-time record KO start is held by Billy Fox, who scored 36 straight between 1943 and 1946.

* One can excuse Khan’s management for fighting Molina, a shorter, naturally lighter man with modest power, especially after suffering two consecutive losses that included a crushing KO to Danny Garcia. But while the ultimate outcome – a 10th round corner retirement – was a success, the underlying metrics were largely positive with one potential cause for concern.

Offensively, Khan looked terrific and his blistering combinations were set up by prolific and impressively accurate jabs. In a fistic landscape where double-digit jab connects per round are rare, Khan not only exceeded that threshold nine out of 10 rounds but also registered 20 in round two and 23 in round eight. In fact, his 312 total connects were perfectly distributed – 156 jabs and 156 power shots.

Also, Khan landed 46 percent of his total punches, 39 percent of his jabs and 56 percent of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts – far above the junior welterweight averages of 29.8, 20.6 and 36.2 respectively. His 15.6 jab connects per round more than tripled the 5.1 division norm, good news for the 5-10 Khan. Finally, Khan introduced a wrinkle that could help him down the road – moving to his right immediately after landing a combination. Since most fighters are right-handers whose power lie in their crosses, that maneuver lessens Khan’s risk of getting nailed while transitioning from offense to defense while also briefly throwing his opponents off-balance.

For all his plusses on offense, there were several unsettling moments on defense. In round three Molina landed 59 percent of his power shots (13 of 22), a round that saw him reach double-digit connects for the only time in the match. One can only imagine how Khan would have reacted had he been in front of a dangerous puncher. Then again, had he been Khan likely wouldn’t have put himself in that predicament.

For Khan, the Molina fight was a “get-right” moment, a chance to re-establish his winning ways before embarking on the next set of challenges. He reminded everyone about why his talent created such a stir eight years ago and why he remains a viable attraction today. One more tune-up fight – perhaps across the pond – may be in order before he makes his next big run. Then again, Khan has never been afraid to take a risk.

*

The fights ended at 10 p.m., exactly 13 hours after Joe and I first entered the Sports Arena. After we returned to the hotel and freshened up a bit we walked across the street to the IHOP to get a late-night (for this Easterner anyway) meal. Joe ordered his usual quesadillas while I experimented with a Philly cheese steak and fries. I know, I know, eating a Philly cheese steak at an IHOP in Los Angeles is like ordering sushi in Uruguay but it was late and it was there.

Of course, I ended up eating too much. Once Joe and I waddled back to the hotel I retrieved my itinerary, printed out my boarding pass, returned to my room and tried my best to wind down soon enough to get some decent shuteye. That time didn’t come until 1:30 a.m. – or 4:30 a.m. Travelin’ Man time.

Sunday, Dec. 16: What’s going on here? For the second consecutive night I actually slept soundly on the road and woke up feeling refreshed. I felt like I could do yesterday’s boxing marathon all over again.

I met Joe in the lobby at 8 a.m., for his flight to Phoenix and mine to Pittsburgh were to leave about an hour apart. The ride in his rental car saved me $65, which was how much I spent (including tip) to get from airport to hotel two days earlier.

For the second straight flight I was able to change my seat assignment to avoid the middle seat jinx. This time I shifted to a window locale but as soon as I boarded the aircraft it became apparent I wouldn’t be able to get any writing done during the flight – the quarters were simply too tight.

My seatmates and I ordered Angus cheeseburgers for our mid-flight meal – that and a noodle dish were the only items available by the time they got to row 25 – and it was a miracle that none of us made a mess. Somehow we avoided bumping elbows and I managed to forge enough space on my tray table to accommodate food, drink and the golf book I brought with me – John Feinstein’s “The Majors.”

I landed in Pittsburgh at 6:45 p.m. ET and 30 minutes later I reached my loaned vehicle. I listened to the remainder of the Steelers-Cowboys game on the radio and arrived home a little after 10 p.m.

After unpacking I went about ascertaining the state of my car. To my chagrin, I learned I was back at square one – check engine light staying on, cruise control sensor blinking, engine missing and so on. It was utterly baffling to me that I had the same problems despite all the trouble and expense to rectify it. But those were matters to address for another day; I was just glad to be home.

With that, the Travelin’ Man’s journeys for 2012 came to an end. I am penciled in to work a Jan. 19 show at the Mohegan Sun and I hope that 2013 will provide even more fun and adventure.

Until then, happy trails.

*

Photos / Esther Lin-SHOWTIME, Tom Casino-SHOWTIME, Jeff Gross-Getty Images

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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