Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man Goes to London – Part II

 

Click here for part I.

Saturday, May 25: My plan to combat jet lag worked beautifully. I stayed awake until 11:30 p.m. local time and that enabled me to achieve stone-cold slumber for the next nine hours. I didn’t care that my third-floor hotel room was less than 20 feet from two sets of busy elevated train tracks, for I was Dead. To. The. World.

When I pulled back the curtain I saw something that had been conspicuously absent thus far – sunshine. Yes indeed, the sun does shine in London, but the temperature remained a chilly 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, at that same moment back home in Friendly, West Virginia, the mercury was at an unseasonably low 34 degrees F. Global warming? What global warming?

After getting ready for the day, I took the elevator down to the lobby to print my boarding passes for tomorrow’s journey home. For reasons that remain a mystery to me, the printer locked itself into a loop and churned out copy after copy. My unfamiliarity with this copier combined with my history of trouble working with strange machines prompted me to summon the business center’s attendant, who pressed a few buttons and got it to stop. After thanking her, I picked out the pages I needed while she shredded the rest.

On my way back to the room I spotted punch-counting colleague Joe Carnicelli chatting with longtime boxing official Pete Podgorski in the lobby so, me being me, I dropped by and joined the conversation. Podgorski, a onetime amateur standout, carried the nickname “The Polish Hammer” during a pro career that saw him amass a 22-15 (16) record between 1977 and 1986. Since then he has become a prominent referee and judge, and a busy one at that. Just last week he refereed the Will Tomlinson-Malcolm Klassen bout in Australia, after which he attended the IBF convention in Berlin. As for tonight, Podgorski was to be the third man in tonight’s main event – the 168-pound unification bout between IBF titlist Carl Froch and WBA king Mikkel Kessler.

Podgorski’s “Da Bears” accent gave away his Chicago roots but his words confirmed deep knowledge and experience. Any doubts about whether Froch and Kessler would be in good hands would’ve been washed away by anyone eavesdropping on our conversation.

After saying our goodbyes to Podgorski, Joe and I had lunch at Carluccio’s, where I had mixed olives, chicken Milanese, a Diet Coke and gelato for dessert – all of which hit the spot. It had to, for the HBO crew meal wasn’t for another nine hours.

On this day London was the epicenter of European sport, for not only was Froch-Kessler II on the schedule, Wembley Arena – a 40-minute tube ride from the O2 – also hosted the all-German Champions League soccer final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. For the record, Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben scored the game winner in the 89th minute to lift his team to a sensationally dramatic 2-1 victory. As Joe and I enjoyed our meal we saw clumps of supporters for both teams walking past us, surely buzzing with anticipation for what was to come.

According to the HBO production memo, a group of five was to board a bus at 2 p.m. that was to take us to the O2. The memo specifically instructed us to congregate in the hotel lobby to await our driver and Joe, HBO production associate Curran Bhatia and I did so at 1:45.

The reasons for what happened next remain unclear but the final result was just the same – disaster.

At 2:02 we, after not seeing our driver in the lobby as expected, walked down one floor to the main entrance and looked outside to locate our vehicle. Seeing none, we asked one of the doormen about the bus’ whereabouts.

“You mean the one that just left two minutes ago?” he asked.

Uh-oh.

One story is that the bus driver didn’t know he was supposed to meet us inside and instead waited for us to come to him. Only one person in our group was on the bus and, seeing no more people coming, he decided to leave in the name of sticking to his schedule. The other story – one we are more inclined to believe – is that said member of our group (someone who should be thankful I don’t know his name), told the bus driver that no one else would be coming and told him to leave without us. We now had something in common with 1988 U.S. Olympian Anthony Hembrick, who was disqualified from the games for literally missing the bus.

Curran fired off e-mails to inform those who needed to know that we were stranded but after a few minutes’ time we decided to get a cab. The three of us were joined by Matchroom’s media affairs chief Anthony Leaver, who, at first blush, struck me as an outgoing, well-spoken, knowledgeable fellow who can more than hold his own in any conversation. He also proved himself an all-around excellent chap by picking up our cab fare.  

We arrived shortly after 2:30 p.m., still plenty of time before the 8 p.m. crew meal, much less the 11:15 p.m. main event. While awaiting the first fight of the evening I said hello to several ringsiders, one of which was Boxing News editor Tris Dixon, who greeted me by plopping a copy of the latest issue on the table from behind. Knowing a prime memorabilia opportunity when I saw one, I asked him to sign it for me (a request that he said made him blush. Nevertheless, he complied).

Tris and I first met 13 years ago during the International Boxing Hall of Fame weekend. Both of us were in far different places in our lives and we couldn’t help but marvel at just how far we have come. Despite our respective ups and downs, we clung to our deeply-held boxing dreams and through a combination of hard work, initiative and “seizing the day” we have reached levels that seemed otherworldly back in 2000. I, for one, couldn’t be more proud of him.

I also introduced myself to commentator Steve Bunce, whose work I’ve observed and admired for the last several years, and said hello to another familiar face – longtime WBO cruiserweight champion and current Sky Sports commentator Johnny Nelson, who was bouncing lightly on his toes inside the ring to gauge its firmness.

“It seems like home doesn’t it?” I yelled out.

“Yes it does,” he replied, accompanying his remark with a wide smile, a furrowed forehead and an exaggerated nervous shake of the legs. He’s probably very happy to be on the safe side of the ropes and he’s more than earned his respite from ring combat. I spotted other notables such as Ricky Hatton and Sky Sports broadcasters Bob Mee, Ian Darke, Spencer Oliver and Jim Watt but didn’t get the chance to speak with them. Until next time, I’ll continue to admire their collective efforts from afar.

The working conditions were cramped, but unlike last month’s show in Buenos Aires, Joe and I at least had a table. Because four TV networks were carrying the fight (HBO, Sky Sports 1, Denmark’s Channel 3 and a Spanish-language station whose identity I couldn’t ascertain), space was at a premium. On most HBO shows, the CompuBox operators are seated one row behind the broadcast team but this time I sat to Jim Lampley’s immediate left. This arrangement certainly made passing notes to him much easier but I also had to make sure my elbows stayed tucked in. There’s nothing like practicing good boxing technique to get one ready for a night at the fights.

The most disadvantaged person of the lot was our stage manager, who had to spend the entire show crouched between Lampley and me to hand him cue cards and report Harold Lederman’s round-by-round scoring to the production truck. Only his youth and zeal allowed him to go the distance without getting the bends. At age 48 I surely wouldn’t have been so fortunate.

I couldn’t have imagined a more fitting location for an HBO crew meal staged in London – inside a replica of a double-decker bus. I didn’t see any ladder leading to the top level or else I would have checked out the view from there. In any case, my meal consisting of steak and onion pie (a dish Max Kellerman heartily recommended to those of us behind him in line), chunky chips (thickly cut French fries) and rice more than filled me up.

Joe and I returned to the arena just before round six of the Tony Bellew-Isaac Chilemba rematch, which was billed as a WBC light heavyweight “silver” title bout as well as a final eliminator for the winner of the Chad Dawson-Adonis Stevenson fight set for June 8. From our vantage point Bellew’s forward movement and heavier punching enabled him to win a comfortable decision (116-112 twice, 117-111) and avenge the March 30 split draw. At the same time, however, Bellew failed to create an indelible imprint in terms of creating a clamor for him to face either Dawson or Stevenson. Jurisdictionally it has to be done but will anyone really want to see it? Time will tell.

Two notable moments from the remainder of the undercard included:

* The ring announcer mistakenly (or perhaps Freudianly) left out a couple of words while introducing the scheduled four-round super middleweight contest between undefeated prospects Callum Smith and Ryan Moore by saying it was slated for “three minutes.” Perhaps he knew something we didn’t, for Smith raised his record to 6-0 (4) by stopping Moore (now 3-1, 2) in 85 seconds.

* I noticed an unusual “tell” from 20-year-old Danish southpaw Micki Nielsen, who stopped journeyman Paul Morris (now 5-17-2, 3) in four rounds: A split-second before the southpaw throws a power shot, especially the left cross, he scrunches up his face. I don’t know if a fighter’s hands are fast enough to take advantage of such a cue, but as of now it’s there to be exploited.

Moments after German light heavyweight Enrico Koelling raised his record to 6-0 (0) with a six-round decision over Lithuanian Vygaudas Laurinkus (now 2-7-2, 0), super middleweight contender George Groves scored a dominant five-round TKO over Noe Gonzalez Alcoba to raise his ledger to 19-0 (15) while dropping Gonzalez to 30-3 (22). The defeat was Gonzalez’s second in the last four fights and the main reason was Groves’ monstrous activity advantages.

Through the first four rounds Groves averaged 77.3 punches per round (well above the 54.5 division average and his previous four-fight average of 50.7) and 32.8 connects each round (nearly double the 16.9 norm) while Gonzalez could only muster 24.3 punches and 7.8 connects per round. In the end, Groves out-landed Gonzalez 135-32 (total), 72-4 (jabs) and 63-28 (power) and his accuracy gaps were more than noteworthy (42%-32% total, 36%-25% jabs, 52%-34% power). Maybe Groves’ performance was enhanced by the quality of opponent, for while the 34-year-old Uruguyan came in with a glossy record he had been stopped in two rounds by Adonis Stevenson three fights and 13 months ago.

Despite his overwhelming dominance, Groves was judicious in terms of punch selection as he threw more jabs (200) than power punches (120). That stands in stark contrast to the more balanced approach he showed in his four previous CompuBox-tracked fights in which a combined 52.1% of his total punches were power shots. His quantum leap up in punch output is another reason to feel good about “Saint George’s” chances going forward, for over the past several years boxing has become a volume-puncher’s game.

The 25-year-old Hammersmith resident is correct when he says he’s entering his peak as a fighter and his sparring sessions with Froch, and most recently Kessler, have unquestionably enhanced his skills. I don’t know if George and I are related but if we are, I’d like to tell him, “well done Cousin George, you did the family proud.”

The atmosphere inside the O2 built to a stunning crescendo during Froch’s walk down the aisle. At ringside I wore double-muffed headphones whose speaker shells were so large that I looked like Princess Leia, but their purpose was simple – block out as much surrounding noise as possible so we can hear the voices inside the truck. They did a very good job but I couldn’t help but take them off during the ring walk so I could take in the entire effect. And what an effect it was, for the noise was incredibly intense.

The reception Froch received ranks in my personal top 10 in terms of crowd noise. For me the topper remains Lucian Bute’s ring walk at the Bell Centre before his bout with Sakio Bika, where the cheering actually drowned out a live band amplified by a public address system. I’ve also been to Miguel Cotto fights at Madison Square Garden, Joe Mesi fights at Buffalo’s HSBC Center, Paul Spadafora bouts in Pittsburgh and Sergio Martinez contests in Buenos Aires and Froch in England has earned its spot. In fact, because of the indoors-vs.-outdoors dynamic, the 18,000-plus inside the O2 made even more noise than the 50,000 who congregated at the Martinez-Murray bout one month earlier. But both crowds were united by their desire to see their hero win and their heroes responded by prevailing in impressive fashion.

Another tie that bound the two crowds was the fervor and passion with which they sung their respective national anthems. One can read Part II of my Buenos Aires Travelin’ Man to gather my thoughts regarding the crowd there, but as for the O2 crowd I was equally impressed. One particular section of people to my right pumped both fists skyward with each syllable and bellowed the notes at full throttle. As an American, I perceived this to be a show of patriotism but someone else surmised this could have been a form of intimidation, as if to say “how dare you be patriotic in front of us? Here is our answer to you singing your anthem and saluting your flag in front of us. You are in our country now and this is how we feel about it.” Whatever the reason, it still made for an excellent table-setter for the action that followed.

Froch-Kessler II was a better fight than the original in terms of sustained action and clean, hard punching. However, Froch rightfully won by a comfortable margin because he set a tempo that Kessler simply couldn’t match. While “The Viking Warrior” managed to strike Froch with occasional bombs, those bombs came too few and far between to offset Froch’s more consistent work.

On the surface, Kessler’s 55-percent power punching accuracy in a loss was labeled a CompuBox anomaly and in one respect that is true. One rule of thumb regarding CompuBox figures is that if a fighter lands 50 percent or more of his power shots, not only does he win the vast majority of the time he probably prevails by knockout. The fact that Kessler lost despite his excellent power accuracy may be interpreted by some as a CompuBox failing, but other numbers in the rematch actually confirm a stronger CompuBox credo: The man who throws more and lands more over the course of a fight usually ends up winning the decision.

Froch threw 1,034 punches in the rematch (86.2 punches per round) while Kessler mustered just 497 (or 41.4 per round), which enabled the Cobra to amass decisive connect advantages of 261-194 overall, 126-104 in jabs and 135-90 in power shots. To further illustrate the disparity in activity, Kessler’s highest punch output in a given round (58 in round 11) was far fewer than Froch’s lowest (71 in round nine).

Kessler’s superior accuracy in every category (39%-25% total, 31%-19% jabs, 55%-37% power) was the only reason why he remained in the fight at all. In fact, had Kessler lifted his output to the division average of 54.5 while maintaining his precision, he would have increased his chances of winning considerably.

But all the could-have-beens or should-have-beens can’t change the reality that Kessler lost – and Froch won – because of Froch’s decisive volume advantage. So from this fight another CompuBox truism emerged: Extreme volume, especially if it doubles the opponent’s, usually trumps frugal but supreme accuracy.

The cornerstone of Froch’s mid-30s success has been his prolific jab. He averaged 55.7 jabs and 10.5 connects each round in the Kessler rematch, well above the 23.7 and 5.3 divisional averages. His 19.3% accuracy is only slightly below the 22.1% division norm, so the combination of frequency and precision makes Froch’s jab a most formidable weapon.

The formula Froch used to beat Kessler really began with his Super Six fight with Arthur Abraham, his first bout after the Kessler loss. Froch boxed beautifully that night, firing 51.6 jabs per round, landing 23% of them and keeping Abraham’s gloves in his pockets (28.5 punches per round). The result: Connect gaps of 267-79 overall, 140-52 jabs, 127-27 power, a virtual shutout on the scorecards (120-108 twice, 118-110) and a new blueprint for success.

Froch applied this formula in stopping Yusaf Mack (43.3 jabs per round, 21% accuracy) and Glen Johnson (41.4 jabs per round, 13% accuracy) but he was still able to turn up the old aggression when need be, for he landed 54% of his power shots but threw just 14.2 jabs per round in destroying Bute.

From a statistical standpoint, the primary reason Froch lost to Andre Ward – who, courtesy of his wins over Froch and Kessler, was at ringside doing commentary for HBO – was because Ward managed to take away Froch’s work rate (56.9 per round for Froch, 47.8 for Ward) and jab (20.8 per round, 19% accuracy) while amplifying his best assets: Versatility and accuracy. Ward’s overwhelming precision advantage (42% in all three phases to Froch’s 23% overall, 19% jabs and 25% power) enabled him to record cavernous connect advantages (243-156 total, 107-47 jabs, 136-109 power) en route to the decision victory.

But when Froch can work his plan and take away his opponent’s best weapons, he is a dangerous force. The Kessler rematch illustrates this truth. Because the 6-foot-1 Froch is the same height as Kessler and because his 75-inch reach is one inch longer, Kessler couldn’t rely on the one weapon that defined his prime: The jab. Once Froch seized the jabbing initiative and maintained it round after round, Kessler, who at his best was a thinking man’s boxer who dominated from the outside, was forced to become the slugger. Since Kessler couldn’t fight in the style best suited to his cerebral temperament, and because Froch could fight his best style in his home country (where he’s now 27-0), the outcome was decided long before the final bell.

Sunday, May 26: Shortly before 1 a.m., Joe and I left the arena as part of a six-person group inside one of HBO’s hired vans. Included in our group was Ward, who was seated to my immediate right. Quiet and cerebral, Ward is a gracious and thoughtful presence, low-key in approach but also one who knows what he wants and the terms he will accept before coming to a final decision. Given Froch’s victory – and the improvement he showed in stopping Bute and Mack and avenging his loss to Kessler – Ward acknowledged during a post-fight interview that a rematch with Froch, even in England, was a viable option.

Much has changed since their December 2011 meeting in the Super Six final. While Froch has improved his game, injuries have largely kept Ward on the shelf. His lone fight in the past 17 months was a destructive 10-round TKO over Chad Dawson, which provided grist for both supporters and detractors. For his backers, the victory lifted his standing in the pound-for-pound rankings but his critics say Ward feasted on a spent force made even weaker by weight-making issues. Froch’s recent success combined by Ward’s inactivity may serve to add intrigue – as well as market value – to a potential rematch.

So what would happen in a second Froch-Ward fight? Firstly, it depends on where it’s held. If it is staged in the U.S., especially in Oakland, Ward would have an edge but if it’s held in the U.K., Froch’s advantage would be overwhelming. That’s because Froch feeds off the home crowd’s energy like few fighters can and his 27-0 record speaks as loudly as his audiences. But while Froch will surely feel better about a second act at home against “S.O.G.,” he still has issues regarding Ward’s style. Because Ward has no outstanding single quality to target, Froch is forced to address all aspects of Ward’s game. Given Ward’s abilities, that a formidable task. One potential answer, however, is simple in theory but tough to carry out – seize the initiative and maintain a high work rate, come hell or high water. As for Ward, he must continue to do what he has done: Control the pace, impose his style and make every punch count. That formula has served him well, and one overriding fact must be remembered when assessing this fight: The 29-year-old Ward hasn’t lost a fight in 17 years.

*

The traffic jam outside the O2 was one for the ages. Hundreds of pedestrians – some of which were obviously intoxicated – darted in and out of traffic as thousands of cars crawled toward extremely limited exit roads. One portion of the clog saw three lanes of immobilized cars for as far as the eye could see, in this case about 100 yards. The chaos made what had been a 20-minute drive 12 hours ago into one that lasted twice as long.

Our group returned to the hotel at 1:45 a.m. At first I opted to return to my room to catch up on my writing but after a few minutes I realized the well was a bit dry. Instead, I went down to the lobby to soak in the sights and scenes of the post-fight party.

The adjacent restaurant was buzzing with activity as nearly 100 people ate, drank, conversed and celebrated what they had just witnessed. The festivities picked up even more energy when the freshly stitched Froch and his team joined in at 3:20 a.m., parked themselves on bar stools and accepted countless plaudits.

I hopped from conversation to conversation, listening to some and initiating others, most notably with two-division titlist turned trainer Joey Gamache, who is now working with several fighters under Wilfrid Sauerland’s banner.

By the time the party began breaking up at 4:30 a.m., I decided it would be futile for me to steal a catnap, especially since I was slated to catch my van to the airport at 7. Even at this early hour the first rays of sunlight could be seen in the sky, a result of our northern longitude.

For the second consecutive day, confusion reigned regarding our transportation. Our memo indicated that our group of seven was to board a bus to the airport but instead three cars were sent. What made it worse was that three members of our group did not get to the lobby in time. Knowing what it felt like to be stranded without a ride, Joe, Curran, HBO’s media relations man Kevin Flaherty and I tried our best to hash out a solution but none was to be found. In the end, the same person who drove Joe and me to the hotel two days earlier took us to Heathrow and because our vehicle was the first to leave we had no idea what happened to the rest of our group.

What had taken nearly 90 minutes on Friday required just 45 minutes today, which gave us plenty of time to navigate the multi-layered security procedures required for international travel. One departure from U.S. norms is that Heathrow’s flight monitor didn’t list a gate for our flight to Charlotte. Instead it stated that a gate would be posted in 40 minutes’ time. Wouldn’t you know it: Our gate happened to be the one that required the longest walk. At least we got in our morning exercise.

Since we were flying into a headwind, the 4,100 mile flight took nearly nine hours to complete. We landed at 2:02 p.m. Eastern Time and I reached my gate for the Pittsburgh flight more than an hour later because of perhaps my biggest travel pet peeve: Going through security a second time in a sleep-deprived state following a long international flight. My unpacking speed was a bit slower than usual and the TSA agent actually called me on it. Not exactly a mood enhancer if you ask me.

The good news regarding my Charlotte-to-Pittsburgh flight was that I received a first-class upgrade, my first since my return to flying a couple of years ago. The bad news is that first-class service, at least on this flight, is nowhere near what it used to be. While I appreciated the wider, plusher seats, the food service – or the lack of it – was not. In years past, first-class passengers were offered a bowl-full of snacks and each person was allowed to take as much as he wanted. Not here. No bowl was provided, much less extras. My stomach growled its complaint but it went unsatisfied. I’d like to think it was because of the flight’s brevity, but I really believe it’s due to cost-cutting measures.

I dealt with my hunger on the drive home by going through a fast-food drive through. I pulled into the driveway at 8:45 p.m. and, because I wanted to get a jump on my editing to-do list, I ended up going to bed at 2:45 a.m. – more than 47 hours after I last fell asleep.

Being a person who likes to look at the bright side of everything, I considered this good practice for my next trip – one that combines my 21st consecutive visit to the International Boxing Hall of Fame with a trip to Montreal to work the HBO-televised card topped by Chad Dawson-Adonis Stevenson. My ambitious schedule promises to be short on sleep but long on excitement.

Until then, happy trails.

*

Photos / Scott Heavey-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.com to arrange for autographed copies.

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