Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man goes to NYC – part II

Click here for part I of Travelin’ Man goes to NYC.

Saturday, April 20: I stirred awake at 7:35 a.m. after five-and-a-half hours of fitful sleep. The sounds of New York prevented me from achieving a satisfying slumber but the excitement of the day to come provided enough fuel to shake off any fatigue I otherwise might have felt.

Thing was, I had no idea how exciting things were about to get.

When I woke up I assumed I would be the “second banana” of the CompuBox crew while my boss Bob Canobbio would be the “lead dog” – my term for the operator responsible for selling stats to the truck and passing notes to the blow-by-blow man. Given the “second banana’s” lesser responsibilities – counting my fighter, filling out the round-by-round sheets and the final stats rundown to be distributed to the media – I anticipated a pleasant, relatively low-stress day at the fights.

That all changed with a single phone call that came in about 30 minutes before I was to leave for the arena.

“Lee, it’s Bob,” he began. “Something came up and I won’t be able to work the show with you today. I asked Aris (Pina) to work with you at the Garden.”

“So that means I’m now the ‘lead dog’?” I asked.

“Yes.”

One of my recurring nightmares is one in which I am back in college. It’s the day of mid-terms and I have no idea what my classes are, when they are or which buildings I need to walk toward. That nightmare stems from a fear of being unprepared and when Bob announced the change of plans I was certainly that because I assumed – correctly at the time – that Bob would bring all the necessary items. Therefore, I didn’t have the proper sheets printed out and I hadn’t put together the slips of paper I would pass on to the talent.

(An aside: I learned from veteran punch-counter Joe Carnicelli that writing the fighters’ names and the round number ahead of time saved 10 seconds of writing time, which allowed me to write more legibly).

With the clock ticking I had a lot to get done, but just as boxers have to adjust to ever-changing circumstances I had to do so as well.

Bob, as usual, came up with a solution: He would e-mail me the proper sheets, after which I would go to the business center and print them out. Simple, right?

Not so much.

I arrived at the lobby and asked where the business center was located. The answer I got stunned me.

“I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t have a business center right now because that area is under construction,” the hotel clerk said.

“I’m with CompuBox and I’m working this afternoon’s show at Madison Square Garden,” I replied. “I absolutely have to print something out now. Is there someplace I can go to get this done?”

“There’s the Hotel Pennsylvania located nearby and if that doesn’t work there’s a Staples a few blocks away,” she said.

“Do you think the folks at the Hotel Pennsylvania will let me use their business center even if I’m not a guest there?” I asked.

“It shouldn’t be a problem,” she said.

It wasn’t. I was lucky that a computer was available and after having some trouble navigating their cash/credit device I was able to print out what I needed. In the end, I arrived at the arena just before my call time.

Since Aris was coming to the venue 90 minutes after me, I stopped by the production truck to pick up our credentials as well as the updated bout sheets. After completing the usual pre-fight routines, Aris and I were ready to get to work.

While we waited for the bouts to begin, Aris and I chatted with various ringsiders such as ring announcer Joe Antonacci (who handled the undercard bouts while Michael Buffer worked the co-feature and main event), longtime boxing scribe/former New York Commissioner/current Sirius radio host Randy Gordon and several members of press row.

The six-fight card presented by Main Events and Hennessy Sports began with a six-round cruiserweight bout between once-beaten Albanian prospect Sevdail Sherifi and near .500 Youngstown journeyman Josh Harris. Records such as these usually establish who is who in the “A-side/B-side” equation but one of boxing’s many compelling aspects is the possibility of the “B-side” rising up and seizing the moment.

It didn’t look that way early on, for Harris didn’t throw his first punch until more than two minutes had elapsed. Meanwhile Sherifi busily picked away at Harris’ tightly-tucked shell and after the first round he registered 72 punches and 25 connects to Harris’ three punches and zero connects. No kidding, those were the numbers.

The pattern continued in round two; Sherifi moving and punching energetically and Harris stalking. But now Harris’ pursuit was more purposeful and his punches – especially to the body – carried noticeable force and landed with impressive accuracy. Though Harris was out-landed 22-11 overall, he landed 58 percent of his power shots (7 of 12), a trend that continued for the remainder of the contest. With the energy Sherifi was burning through and the rock-solid sturdiness Harris showed throughout, I felt a startling plot twist might be in the works.

In round three Sherifi prevailed 30-16 in total connects for Sherifi, but Harris landed 12 of his 25 power shots – 48 percent – to Sherifi’s  17 of 42, 40 percent. But the groundwork that Harris established reached full flower in round four. A searing left hook to the jaw shook Sherifi to his core shortly before the one-minute mark and with stunning swiftness the roles were reversed: Harris now was the buoyant pursuer while Sherifi was the persecuted prey.

Although dozens of blows rained down on Sherifi it was a near miracle that he didn’t go down until the round’s final seconds when an overhand right draped him over the lower strands of rope. Sherifi’s shakiness amidst severe pressure brought back memories of Juan Manuel Lopez’s memorable barely-conscious stand in the final round of his bout with Rogers Mtagwa, a round that saw Mtagwa go 36 of 79, including 32 of 70 power shots. Harris’ numbers were eerily similar as he went 36 of 60 overall and 32 of 46 power shots and the effects on Sherifi were nearly the same as Mtagwa’s was on JuanMa. The difference here was, unlike Mtagwa, Harris had two more rounds to inflict even more damage.

He needed only 19 more seconds as a flush overhand right caused Sherifi to fall forward into the arms of referee Danny Schiavone, who correctly called an instant halt. Although Sherifi out-landed Harris 82-64 overall, Harris’ superior accuracy (48 percent to 32 percent overall and 59 percent to 43 percent in power shots) as well as his 52-49 lead in power connects were pivotal. The victory advanced Harris’ record to 9-6-1 (7) while Sherifi’s declined to 9-2-2 (8).

The next bout between undefeated Philadelphia lightweight Karl Dargan and New York City trialhorse Edward Valdez presented a similar story line to Harris-Sherifi but here Dargan completed his expected task with impressive dispatch. But before he scored the second-round TKO that raised his record to 13-0 (7) and dropped Valdez’s to 12-10-2 (9), Dargan’s ability to adjust was tested. The advancing Valdez managed to land a heavy overhand right on Dargan’s jaw early in the first round that raised some eyebrows at ringside. Dargan, however, calmly shook off the blow and proceeded to use his speed and upper body flexibility to thwart any chances of a second one getting through. Dargan’s pinpoint leads and counters sliced through Valdez’s guard but it was an injury to the right hand that prompted Valdez to retire between rounds two and three.

Dargan, to say the least, was skeptical about the cause of the stoppage.

“He broke his hand when?” he asked. “He didn’t hit nothin’.”

Maybe it was the initial overhand right that caused the injury, or maybe one of the seven other power shots that got through. No matter, Dargan was as dominant statistically as he was fistically as he out-landed Valdez 50-12 and landed 49 percent of his power punches (26 of 53) to Valdez’s 22 percent (8 of 36.)

Along with his cousin Tyson, 6-foot-8 Hughie Fury successfully navigated his first fight on U.S. soil by putting away Minneapolis product Alex Rozman in one round to raise his record to 2-0 (2) while dropping Rozman’s to 1-1 (1). Fury showed off a fairly busy and accurate jab (6 of 24, 25 percent) and a versatile right hand that scored knockdowns in three ways – one to the temple, an uppercut to the jaw and a chopping one that drove Rozman to his knees to end the fight. Three of his nine power shots produced knockdowns – an impressive ratio that surely won’t continue once he steps up in competition. Still, Fury fulfilled his mission in excellent fashion and for that he should receive due credit.

The final pre-TV bout matched Adam Kownacki, a 6-foot-3 Brooklyn-based 263-pounder, and the much shorter, much older (at 37 by 13 years) 231-pound Jamaican Calbert Lewis. With a devoted section of supporters cheering his every move, Kownacki advanced to 5-0 (5) by stopping Lewis (0-3, 0) in round two by piling up connect bulges of 57-14 (total) and 42-10 (power) while maintaining an extremely high work rate (88 punches in round one and 63 through the 103 seconds round two lasted). For what it was, it was an interesting if brief encounter.

When NBC’s cameras began rolling live at 4 p.m. those who tuned in were in for a pair of bouts that boasted several intriguing angles. The eight-round middleweight co-feature pitted the rejuvenated Curtis Stevens, who was riding the momentum of two consecutive one-round blast-outs over Romaro Johnson and Elvin Ayala following a two-year hiatus, against the rugged Derrick Findley, who 56 days earlier had tested prospect J’Leon Love’s worth with his pressuring tactics. Meanwhile, the main event was a 12-round IBF eliminator for the number-two slot between the undefeated Tyson Fury and former two-time cruiserweight titlist Steve Cunningham, who many felt did enough to beat Tomasz Adamek last December only to lose a split decision.

Though Stevens and Fury were sizable favorites, this scribe believed several deeper questions could be answered. In regards to the co-feature the primary query was this: If Findley survived Stevens’ dangerous opening salvo, would he plunge the Brooklynite into a mental tailspin? There was reason to think this, for in past fights the onetime “Chin Checker” experienced a severe drop-off in form and enthusiasm when Marcos Primera, Andre Dirrell and Jesse Brinkley failed to fall before his prodigious early power. Findley’s record of durability – his only stoppage loss in his 20-9-1 (13) mark was a sixth round corner retirement to Andre Dirrell – indicated he had the toughness to test Stevens’ mental strength.

In beating Findley by wide decision (79-73, 78-74 twice), the 28-year-old Stevens (24-3, 17) showed emotional and stylistic maturity by incorporating quick-fisted flurries and tight semi-circling with his precision bombs. Another encouraging sign was that Stevens kept his composure even after suffering a flash knockdown in round seven (a call that was reversed post-fight). He also maintained an active and engaged work rate from first bell to last; his round-by-round output was 63, 74, 71, 92, 51, 68, 81 and 78, all but one of which exceeded the middleweight average of 57. Finally, Stevens answered questions about his stamina by finishing strongly. In the final three rounds Stevens out-landed Findley 88-31 (total) and 81-28 (power) en route to connect gaps of 208-109 (total), 32-14 (jabs) and 176-95 (power).

Findley, for his part, showed the desire to compete and performed particularly well in rounds two (tied at 21 in total connects) and five (he trailed 21-20) as well as putting Stevens on the floor in the seventh. The loss was Findley’s seventh in his last 10 fights but his doggedness against more celebrated foes will guarantee him further opportunities should he decide to accept them.

As brave as Findley was inside the ropes, I thought an even more courageous moment took place at the post-fight press conference held at ringside when he said – with Stevens standing just three feet to his right – that Stevens was not a puncher and that he had been hit much harder by Love last time out. Stevens again showed maturity by holding his tongue and letting Findley speak his peace. 

The main event posed different questions. First, would Fury up his salesmanship game to reflect being in the world’s premier media center? Second, how would he fare against a seasoned, if much smaller, opponent thousands of miles away from home? Third, would Cunningham’s mobility and sharp punching frustrate the bigger man and push him to places he didn’t expect to encounter until the “big one” down the road? The answers were decidedly mixed.

When it came to drumming up publicity and garnering attention for himself, Fury fed off his surroundings and created the intended buzz. At times he acted like a WWE heel and that behavior continued in round one as he hurled taunts and generally acted out. In this area Fury excelled, but one crucial element was absent – his ability to fill an arena with a majority of his partisans. Thousands of countrymen flooded into Boston to witness the “Hit Man’s” U.S. debut at the world-class level against then-WBA welterweight titlist Luis Collazo and they proceeded to turn the TD Banknorth Garden into Manchester West, complete with chanting, singing and pulsating atmosphere. Fury failed to re-create that level of excitement but the good news for him is that he still has the time – and following his win, presumably more opportunities – to build his brand on these shores.

As for question two, Fury ultimately got the result he wanted but the route getting there was rocky to say the least. From my ringside position, the right hand that dropped Fury in round two sounded like a rifle shot and the thud Fury’s 254-pound body created was just as jarring. I never would have thought that Cunningham, a modest hitter at cruiserweight, would generate enough heft to floor one of the sport’s biggest men. As Fury struggled to regain his equilibrium memories of another past fight came to mind – Gerry Cooney’s fifth round KO loss to Michael Spinks.

That led to the answer of question number three: Yes, Cunningham forced Fury to tap his deepest resources to pull himself through. He relied on most overwhelming bargaining chip: His massive size advantage. He smartly draped his 44-pound heavier body over Cunningham’s back and forcefully used his forearms and shoulders in occasionally illegal ways to press his advantage. The stresses of keeping Fury off him took its toll on Cunningham and one could fairly say that exhaustion had as much to do with his demise as Fury’s fury.

From a statistical standpoint the final three rounds were telling. During that span Fury landed 53 of the 82 power connects he’d eventually register and in all he out-landed Cunningham 59-39 to take slight leads in the final stats (106-91 overall, 24-22 jabs and 82-69 power). Fury landed 42 percent of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts but Cunningham connected on 43 percent of his, a sure indicator that Fury needs to work on his defense.

If one prefers to employ a half-glass-full perspective, he can hail Fury’s ability to bounce back from adversity. However, the half-glass-empty viewpoint is equally valid: That may be, but should Fury have had to show these traits in this fight? With all due credit to the ex-champion, who fought with honor, one would have thought Fury would face his “win off the floor” challenge against a Klitschko, not against a Cunningham. There now is very good reason to doubt Fury’s ability to take a full-blooded punch from a bona fide big man and those questions may dog him for the rest of his career.

I, for one, hope Fury will answer his skeptics affirmatively. Boxing in general, and the heavyweight division in particular, needs characters like Fury to raise the sport’s profile. Humorous bombast is in short supply these days and in this short-attention-span society, Fury’s mix of gargantuan physical assets and an equally gargantuan persona will pique the interest of the masses. All Fury has to do is keep winning and the world could potentially be his.

That said, from this point forward Fury will have much to prove. Only a succession of successes will turn the knockdown he suffered against Cunningham from a touchstone to an anomaly. Fury is intelligent enough to know all this, and here’s hoping he will do whatever is necessary to maximize his potential.

I had hoped to watch the Saul Alvarez-Austin Trout card in my hotel room but even though HBO and HBO 2 were available, Showtime was not. I texted Aris to see if he knew of any nearby places that might be showing the fight but after telling me he’d consult a friend he never got back to me, probably because said friend never got back to him. I contented myself by monitoring round-by-round updates on ESPN Classic, but those stopped after round seven. It wasn’t until I switched over to SportsCenter that I realized Canelo had captured the vacant RING title via unanimous decision. Since I had the fight recorded at home, reviewing the footage will be at the top of my “to-do” list upon my return.

Sunday, April 21: After arising at 7:15 a.m. amidst much quieter city noise, I spent most of the morning catching up on my writing responsibilities. When I reached a good stopping point shortly after 11, I finished packing and headed toward the door, where I spotted my hotel bill lying on the floor. When I opened it up I realized the hotel mistakenly billed my credit card instead of NBC’s, a matter that was quickly – and thankfully – corrected upon checkout.

As far as getting a taxi, I was the beneficiary of someone else’s neglect. The driver, who was standing outside his cab, waved me over and escorted me toward his vehicle.

This was a first – a cabbie hailing me instead of the other way around.

Apparently he had been waiting for nearly an hour for a fare and after four attempted phone calls he was met with the proverbial stone wall. Clearly fed up, he wanted to get back to work and I happened to be the first person to come along.

Traffic was fairly heavy for a late Sunday morning and at times the cabbie found it necessary to honk his horn to move things along. He nearly had a road rage moment with another cab when space got a bit tight but nothing came of the incident and I arrived at the airport well before my intended arrival time.

I was booked for the 2:29 p.m. flight to Pittsburgh but when I looked at the monitor I saw there was a 1:29 departure one gate over. After clearing security I walked to that gate and asked if there were any seats available. Indeed there were, and not only that there wasn’t the usual $75 move-up fee. Just like that I was getting home an hour earlier than expected. Given my jammed schedule over the next few days, every extra minute is a godsend.

As is usually the case at LaGuardia and other Northeast corridor airports, the sheer congestion of flights pushed the departure time back a few minutes. Aside from turbulence at takeoff and for 10 minutes before landing it was a smooth, uneventful journey. The drive home was equally pleasant and at 5:45 p.m. this installment of the Travelin’ Man Chronicles reached its end.

The moment I closed the car door started the countdown toward the next – and surely the most exotic – adventure yet.

Buenos Aires.

Until then, happy trails.

*

Photo / Julian Finney-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 10 writing awards, including seven 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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