Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man returns to Canastota – Part II

Click here for part one.

 

 

Electrifying. Absolutely electrifying.

That’s the best way I can encapsulate the sights, sounds and emotions that swirled about the Bell Centre as Adonis Stevenson, his camp and his people celebrated his thunderous 76-second knockout over Chad Dawson to win the WBC light heavyweight title. The ear-splitting roar that greeted Stevenson’s greatest triumph threatened to crack the building’s foundation but even if their sonic booms had succeeded everything would have turned out OK. After all, they had a “Superman” in the house.

As Stevenson was carried about the ring, he wore an expression that mixed unfettered exhilaration with profound disbelief at the brevity of his achievement. Dozens of people directly behind me surged toward the ringside barricade with a battery of camera phones recording the historic moment. Flash bulbs lit up the interior while others hugged, jumped up and down, waved their arms and high-fived one another as they relived what they had just seen. The very best form of nationalistic pride poured out in waves, and yet the focus of their adoration wasn’t a native Canadian but rather a Haitian-born product who took the time and effort to prove himself worthy of their unconditional love.

It took only one cracking left to the head to send “Bad Chad” toward the canvas – and toward professional oblivion. As he struggled to reassemble his scrambled synapses, the sands were running out on his time at the elite levels of boxing. After Dawson struggled to his feet, his lips said he was all right but his listing body and half-closed eyelids told referee Michael Griffin something entirely different. With one wave of his arm, Griffin simultaneously ended one man’s run at the top while signaling a new beginning for the other.

At age 35, which a generation ago was considered ancient for a boxer in any weight class, Stevenson is in the midst of his career zenith and his smashing victory has thrown open the doors to a most lucrative future. One potential dance partner – former 175-pound titlist Jean Pascal – stood near the corner pad wearing a tailored suit with one arm draped over the top rope, surely surveying the new environment that was set before him. He approached the new champion and whispered something in his ear that made both men smile before breaking away.

Another one, also wearing a suit befitting his status as an HBO analyst, stood by himself holding a microphone waiting to offer his thoughts on what just occurred. For the second consecutive HBO broadcast, Andre Ward was called out by the winner of a network main event. Carl Froch did so after avenging his 2010 loss to Mikkel Kessler and two weeks later Stevenson added Ward to his hit list. Such is the life of a man in demand.

Rarely has a fight’s punch stats been so meaningless: Dawson landed two punches while Stevenson connected on three, but only one really mattered. HBO’s Jim Lampley put it best when he told me the following, a megawatt smile gracing his face: “Emanuel Steward is on a heck of a winning streak.”

It was a sensational end to what initially looked like a horrendous night at the fights on America’s two major premium cable boxing networks. On Showtime, Jermell Charlo won a dreary 12-round decision over Demetrius Hopkins while on HBO Yuriorkis Gamboa snoozed through a points win against Darley Perez that left the Bell Centre drowning in boos.

But the action picked up considerably on both channels: On Showtime, Marcos Maidana and Josesito Lopez surpassed the loftiest of expectations during the fantastic six-round war that saw the Argentine strongman prevail while Erislandy Lara was dominant, then dropped twice, then came back to break Alfredo Angulo’s orbital bone before breaking his will to fight in scoring a drama-soaked 10th round TKO. As for HBO, Stevenson-Dawson quickly erased the aesthetic stain that had been Gamboa-Perez.

It was almost fitting that upon my return to the hotel, a battery of fire trucks with all lights flashing were stationed in front of the building. Firemen in full uniform armed with axes and hoses circulated about the lobby. When I asked a hotel clerk what was going on, she smiled and said “everything is under control…for now it’s a false alarm.” In fact, the action had happened on the sixth floor, the location of my room. A few minutes later, it was determined someone had mistakenly pulled the alarm and we were allowed to resume our normal activities. It was an exciting end to a most exciting night.

The cauldron of emotions that enveloped the Bell Centre was the high point of this phase of the Travelin’ Man’s latest boxing odyssey, for this trip to Montreal was sandwiched by two visits to the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s Induction Weekend. The first visit was described in Part One while the second will be recounted in Part Three. In the meantime, the following will describe everything that happened in between.

Friday, June 7: All in all, I slept OK – I only awakened twice in six hours before finally arising at 5:20 a.m. The hard rain that dominated the opening day of the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s 24th annual Induction Weekend – and the start of my 21st consecutive visit — had largely stopped but the 55-degree temperature ensured that I saw my breath once I ventured outside. What month is this again?

The second part of my potentially four-phase journey was about to begin: Flying from Syracuse to Montreal through Philadelphia to work the CompuBox keys for tomorrow night’s HBO doubleheader featuring WBC light heavyweight titlist Chad Dawson against local favorite Adonis Stevenson and a junior lightweight showdown between Yuriorkis Gamboa and Darley Perez. Although I abstained from making an official pick because I was working the fight, I thought the 7-to-1 odds against Stevenson were absurd. Consider:

First, Dawson was coming off a horrific KO loss to Andre Ward in his last fight at 168, a bout that inspired some (including myself) to utter the “S-word” when describing “Bad Chad”: Shot. Second, the bout was being staged in Montreal, Stevenson’s adopted hometown, and the Bell Centre had hosted seven of Stevenson’s last nine fights, including his five most recent contests. Third, in terms of attrition, Stevenson appeared a young 35 while I projected the defending titleholder to be far older than his chronological age of 30. Fourth, Dawson had become a reactive fighter rather than a proactive one; he tended to mirror his opponent’s pace rather than set his own, something that wasn’t the case when he was at his best several years ago. On the other hand Stevenson had set the tone in his fights and I felt he wanted to go after Dawson early to start what could be an overwhelming wave of momentum before his home fans. Finally, Dawson wouldn’t enjoy the southpaw’s advantage since Stevenson is one as well and the challenger also boasted far more one-punch power. I’m not usually one to pick upsets but these variables persuaded me to make the leap of faith. It appeared the betting public was as well, for there was enough late Stevenson money to push the odds against Stevenson to below 2-to-1.

I arrived at Syracuse Hancock International Airport at 6:45 a.m., well before my scheduled 9:10 a.m. US Airways flight bound for Philly. But when I went through the security line it was discovered that my sunscreen container was listed at 4 ounces – 0.6 ounces too much to pass muster. I was given two choices: Surrender my recently-purchased sunscreen and pass through or reassemble myself, return to the parking lot, leave the sunscreen in my car and go through security a second time. Being that this fair-skinned redhead needed the 100-plus SPF protection for Induction Sunday (the forecast called for partly sunny skies ) and because I still had plenty of time at my disposal, I opted to make the long trek back.

When I returned 10 minutes later, the line that had been four people when I first arrived had grown to more than 50. I suppose I could have jumped the line and showed the gate agent my already-approved boarding pass but, holding to my West Virginia upbringing, I went to the back of the line and politely waited my turn. I summoned a TSA agent and showed her my papers but after describing the woman who first screened me, I noticed she was no longer there. Five minutes later I reached the head of the queue, where I was told that I could have stood to the side and avoided the wait. Live and learn.

When I looked at the flight monitor to ascertain my gate, I noticed my departure time had changed from 9:10 a.m. to 9:25 a.m., shrinking the window to reach my 11:19 a.m. bird to Montreal to a sliver. I held out hope that Philadelphia’s notorious congestion would give me a little more wiggle room on the other side of the connection equation – not that anyone would want to see me wiggle.

Acting on a hunch, I approached one of the gate agents and asked whether he thought I could make my connecting flight under the current parameters. He didn’t, especially since my plane out of Syracuse now wasn’t scheduled to arrive until at least 10 a.m. because of Tropical Storm Angela’s trek up the East Coast. Thus, I was taken off my original flight and placed on the next plane that was to leave at 1:40 p.m.

A few moments later, however, the gate agent called an audible: Seeing that the plane that was to take me to Montreal was to arrive in Philadelphia 50 minutes later than anticipated from Manchester, N.H., I was re-booked on my original flight but he also reserved a seat on the 1:40 p.m. flight in case I didn’t make the connection. Another stroke of good luck: My connecting gate was located in the same concourse as my arrival gate.

As it turned out, the aircraft arrived in Syracuse slightly after 9:25 a.m., which eased the time pressure a bit. When I wended my way through the sky bridge a random thought crossed my mind: “I sure hope my plane isn’t a turbo prop.” That’s because I’ve never had a turbulence-free flight on a propeller-driven aircraft and with a storm in our midst, the bobbing and weaving could be epic.

Guess what type of plane I saw when I emerged on the other side? You got it.

I silently groaned as I walked toward the back row and settled into my aisle seat. Seated to my left was fellow author Gayle Callen, who was on the first leg of a journey that would take her to Dayton. While there she was scheduled to conduct a book signing/Q&A session at 7 p.m. Unlike me, she wasn’t concerned about flying on a turbo prop; in fact, she assured me that she had never experienced a bad flight on such an aircraft. The matchup was set: My bad history versus her perfect history.

Aside from a couple of disconcerting dips, the flight was stunningly smooth, at least from my perspective. It was, by far, the best turbo-prop ride I’ve ever experienced. Gayle, on the other hand, said it was her worst. Go figure.

After deplaning I glanced at the flight monitor and I was surprised to see the words “on time” on my Montreal flight – meaning I had precious few minutes to get to my gate. I broke into my best power walk and hustled toward my destination, which was located about 500 yards away. Thankfully the boarding process hadn’t started yet and the queue to have our passports confirmed was less than 10 people long. In all, I was inside Philadelphia’s terminal less than 15 minutes, which meant I had dodged a huge logistical bullet.

The 90-minute journey to Montreal was smooth and uneventful, for this time I was flying on a full-fledged, propeller-free jet. I passed the time by reading Jim Kaplan’s recently published biography about my great-uncle, Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Grove, who is considered by many historians the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time, if not the best pitcher of any persuasion. “Why the difference in the surname,” you may be asking. Simple: His original name was “Groves” but along the way he (and the sportswriters of the day) eventually dropped the “s.”

Although punch-counting colleague Aris Pina was to fly in from New York, we originally were scheduled to land at approximately the same time. Given our multiple time shifts (his flight also was delayed 30 minutes), it was a relief that I spotted him five minutes ahead of me in the customs queue. Once he finished the process, he waited for me to complete mine before we headed for the airport exit to share a cab to the hotel.

Once there, we agreed to meet in the lobby at 3:30 and walk over to the Belle Centre, which was just two blocks away, to conduct our usual pre-fight routines. Unfortunately, the crew was a bit behind in their work so it was decided that we should come in early the next day.

Both of us were famished, for I hadn’t eaten anything substantive since my late-night snack nearly 18 hours earlier while Aris had only consumed some morning munchies. We found our way onto St. Catherine Street and after walking up and down a few blocks we decided to eat at the first diner we had passed. I ordered a club sandwich, fries and salad while Aris chowed down on a cheeseburger and curly frites. Thoroughly sated, we walked back to the hotel, which helped burn some of the calories we just consumed. Aris, already short on sleep, was eager to get some rest while I surfed the web, updated my Facebook page and went a few more rounds on the laptop.

For the second straight night I retired at a relatively early hour – 11 p.m. That’s because I knew this might be my last chance to sleep for quite a while.

Miles at Day’s End: 8 (by car, grand total 575), 621 (by air)

Saturday, June 8: Following an unusually restful slumber I arose at 8 a.m. and while the gray skies and cool temperatures remained the rain had stopped. After getting ready for the day and spending some time on the laptop I took the elevator down to the lobby to print out my boarding passes.

Because I dearly wanted to return to Canastota in time to see the entire Class of 2013 induction ceremony, I booked a 6:30 a.m. flight out of Montreal. Given the recommended three-hour window fliers should give themselves for international travel and the anticipated late departure from the Bell Centre following the HBO doubleheader, I knew I was in for another battle against sleep deprivation. I liked my chances, though – if I could function well enough to drive my car home from the airport following my trip to London two weeks ago (where I stayed up 34 straight hours, slept nine, then was up 47 more hours), I’m sure the natural high I get from being in Canastota will pull me through the long day ahead on Sunday.

But wouldn’t you know: Getting my boarding passes turned out to be an adventure in itself. When I logged onto the US Airways web site and entered my information I got a message indicating that while my reservation was found, it was “out of sync.” I was instructed to dial a 1-800 phone number to reconcile it, but I had a problem: My cell phone doesn’t work outside the United States. Thank goodness a member of the hotel staff allowed me to use their land line (and even dialed the number for me).

Here’s the reason why my itinerary was thrown off track: When I boarded yesterday’s flight in Philadelphia, I saw the gate agents cross my name off the passenger list on their hard copy but they failed to do the same thing in their computer system. Therefore, to the computer, I never boarded my flight in Philly and thus my itinerary flow was interrupted. A few keystrokes from the US Airways agent on the phone restored that flow, enabling me to access Sunday’s flight info and print out the passes.

“With all the bad weather yesterday in Philadelphia, the workers there were scrambling to get everybody on their planes,” the agent explained. “When you boarded your flight, they probably said ‘whew, he’s on the plane’ and simply forgot to update the computer.”

With my boarding passes safely tucked away in my laptop bag, I met Aris in the lobby at 11 a.m. in search of sustenance. We returned to St. Catherine Street and turned right onto Mansfield, where we walked into the Ben & Florentine restaurant. Since this was my first meal of the day I ordered eggs, sausage, potatoes, apple sauce, two slices of toast and a Diet Pepsi while Aris got the Black Jack pancakes, which are topped by bananas, strawberries and chocolate chips.

For my second straight international trip, a boxing event is being staged in conjunction with another marquee sporting event. In London it was the final of the Champion’s League soccer final between German teams Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, which Bayern Munich won 2-1 on a late goal by Arjen Robben. In Montreal it was the Formula One Grand Prix race, which was to take place Sunday following a four-day event build-up. In the hotel lobby one could see several racing-themed paintings as well as a beautifully detailed charcoal portrait of the legendary Brazilian Ayrton Senna, who died following a crash at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994.

As I made my way down to the lobby to meet Aris and several HBO folks headed for the Bell Centre, I spotted a hotel employee snapping a photo of the Senna portrait with her camera phone. When I asked her to confirm that the subject indeed was Senna (it was), she told me the artist was standing less than 20 feet to my right. Always willing to recognize excellence, I walked over to him and introduced myself.

The artist’s name is Armin Flossdorf, a native of Germany whose works, to me, boasted a Leroy Neiman-esque flair in terms of bright colors and artistic flourishes. Slight in build and fluent in English, he told me (after I told him of my boxing-related work) that he had created several works depicting Wladimir Klitschko fights, particularly last year’s third round TKO over Jean-Marc Mormeck. He broke out his laptop and showed three sketches to me, saying that his images were a combination of photos that were taken and what occupied his mind’s eye.

This meeting just brings home the point that each of us possesses different gifts; the first trick is to identify it and the second is to find a way to profit from it.

Aris and I arrived at the arena shortly after 3 p.m. and our postponed pre-telecast checks went off without a hitch. With little else to do, Aris and I spent the next few hours chatting at ringside while awaiting the 6:45 p.m. dinner call. Once we returned to ringside the night’s action had already begun. We missed the first bout, which saw two-time Olympian Artur Beterbiev make a successful pro debut by disposing of Christian Cruz, now 12-12-1 (10), in two rounds.

The second round of a scheduled eight-round heavyweight bout between  Montreal’s Didier Bence and St-Come, Quebec’s Eric Barrak was nearing its end by the time Aris and I reached our ringside position. My partner decided to get in some practice while I spoke with longtime friend Dave Bontempo, who was working the international broadcast.

Apparently I missed some pretty compelling – and controversial – action. The bitter back-and-forth during the fight-week build-up boiled over in round five when a frustrated Barrak (who had been floored in round three) intentionally butted Bence in the fifth, a move that prompted a one-point penalty. Bence responded the way he should have; by landing a wicked hook-right that ended matters at the 1:55 mark. The victory raised Bence’s record to 9-0 (3) while Barrak dropped to 7-1 (6). In rounds three through five Bence was incredibly accurate, landing 47 of 91 punches overall (52 percent) including 37 of 52 power shots (71 percent) and 20 connects to the body.

Next up was a junior lightweight showdown between Puerto Rican Jose Pedraza and Mexican Sergio Villanueva, a pair of youngsters who sported excellent records. The bout was aired on a tape-delay basis on HBO Latino and the action proved worthy of the platform.

Most of the early rounds were waged at long distance, enabling the long, lean Pedraza to pick Villanueva apart with accurate jabs and spearing lead rights. In round two Pedraza mixed in nicely delivered up-and-down combinations that landed with 62 percent accuracy, illustrating just why his nickname is the “Sniper.” Although Pedraza continued to lengthen his lead even after switching southpaw starting in round four, Villanueva kept pressing forward and trying to slow down his supremely precise rival. The round-by-round connect gaps were cavernous as Pedraza prevailed 40-13 in the third and 48-14 in the fourth and Villanueva’s offensive futility was made worse by the Puerto Rican’s slippery upper body movement.

Pedraza tried to end matters in the fifth as a left cross to the body dropped Villanueva. The end appeared near as the Puerto Rican’s follow-ups caused Villanueva’s face to involuntarily flinch. But while he winced, he also didn’t wilt. Pedraza increased his attack even more by landing a stratospheric 74 percent of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts in round six, an attack that set up the finish in round seven. A left cross caused Villanueva to sink to the floor with 40 seconds remaining and a right hook to the ribs forced him to crumble moments later. As Villanueva struggled to his feet, the inspector shouted “ref!” to get referee Jean-Guy Brousseau’s attention. When Brousseau glanced over he saw Villanueva’s chief second raising his hand in surrender. The time of the stoppage was 2:59,  raising Pedraza to 13-0 (9) and dropping Villanueva to 25-3-2 (13).

Pedraza’s final CompuBox stats were devastating: He out-landed Villanueva 268-68 overall, 73-10 in jabs and 195-58 in power punches and landed 48 percent of his total punches, 34 percent of his jabs and 56 percent of his power shots. Meanwhile, Villanueva connected on 22 percent of his total punches, 13 percent of his jabs and 25 percent of his power punches and the 102 body shots he absorbed eventually led to his demise.

For Pedraza it was an excellent yet workmanlike performance. His jab smartly set the table for his well-placed power shots and he didn’t show any signs of frustration when Villanueva refused to yield. Those who want to nitpick might cite Pedraza’s inability to put away his opponent earlier, but Villanueva entered the bout with solid credentials and at age 21 he has ample time to develop further. As for the 24-year-old Pedraza, he’s ready to take another step up.

The next contest saw middleweight David Lemieux (now 28-2, 27) continue the comeback trail against the badly overmatched Robert Swierzbinski, who was dismissed in 141 seconds via the three-knockdown rule and dropped to 11-2 (3). A right to the short ribs at the round’s midway mark began Swierzbinki’s descent and a pair of hooks – the first to the temple and the second to the ribs – caused the final two trips. In all, Lemieux landed 61 percent of his power shots and out-landed his foe 18-6, the kind of mismatch that fueled his precocious ascent three years ago. This record-building exercise proved something we already knew but hopefully it will set the stage for another test at a higher level.

“He’s hits hard,” one ringsider commented as he approached our work station. “He telegraphs his punches, but he hits hard.”

The final pre-TV contest saw an entertaining scrap between Quebec junior middleweights Sebastien Bouchard and Francesco Cotroni, who provided a back-and-forth boxer-slugger struggle en route to a six round decision that the slugger Bouchard (now 7-0, 2) won and the boxer Cotroni (7-2, 4) lost. Bouchard’s occasionally wild-swinging aggression trumped Cotroni’s elusiveness as he prevailed in all three CompuBox phases (88-67 overall, 78-57 power and a 10-10 jab connect tie broken by Bouchard’s 13-9 edge in connect percentage).

Gamboa’s victorious yet disappointing performance continues a Jekyll-and-Hyde story line that has sustained itself throughout his career. The Hyde portion is the power-punching wild child who excites fans with explosiveness and athleticism but who also gives his trainers migraines by suffering flash knockdowns and taking insane risks. The Jekyll side is the one fans and viewers saw here: An overly cautious boxer content to control distance and score points in the fashion that helped him win two Olympic gold medals.

The statistical differences between the two styles are startling. In nine CompuBox-tracked blowouts of four rounds or less, Gamboa landed 35 percent of his total punches, 45 percent of his power shots and a combined 70 percent of his 47 punches per round were power shots. But when Gamboa goes 10 rounds or more, his average output going into the Perez fight rose from 47 to 56.1 per round but his accuracy dropped to 26 percent overall and 36 percent power. That pattern continued against Perez as he averaged 59 punches per round but landed 18 percent overall, 9 percent of his jabs and 35 percent of his power punches. But for all the numbers, the fan reaction to both styles couldn’t be more different. If the fans love you, they’ll pay to see you and promoters will pay you more. Conversely, if Gamboa continues to fight in this style the size of the paychecks and the television platforms on which he will perform will recede accordingly. It’s an unenviable Catch-22 for Gamboa: Excite and potentially get KO’d or bore, win and tread water. Only he can determine his career path and time will tell which way he wishes to go.

As for Perez, he appeared hesitant to unleash out of respect for Gamboa’s speed and KO ability. But his far superior accuracy enabled him to get within striking range in total connects (129-113) and he actually led 62-41 in landed jabs. Gamboa’s 88-51 lead in power connects in addition to his slight lead in power accuracy (35 percent to 33 percent) pretty much sealed Perez’s fate. Although boos rained down on the Cuban expatriate, his reply was to point to the scoreboard (116-111 twice, 115-112) and the “interim” WBA lightweight belt that was strapped around his waist.

HBO analyst Max Kellerman addressed the situation correctly by saying that at age 31, we may be seeing the version of Gamboa we’ll see for the rest of his career: A man caught between styles who will forever struggle to find his ring identity. One equivalent case may be that of Acelino Freitas, an extraordinary bombs-away slugger that began his career with 29 consecutive knockouts and created massive buzz for himself in the process. But once he tried to learn his sport’s more subtle arts under trainer Oscar Suarez, the early magic that defined Freitas was irreparably ruined. He was a confused fighter who squelched his innate beast to please his brain trust and Gamboa appears fated to repeat Freitas’ path.

The sour mood that Gamboa’s overcautious performance created vanished into the ether once Stevenson landed his bomb for the ages. The crackling energy extended to Montreal’s streets as news of their adopted countryman’s exploits spread, making one of North America’s most beautiful and cosmopolitan cities one that was consumed by the raw energy only boxing can create.

Once I reached my room at 1 a.m. the die had already been cast – there will be no sleep tonight. That’s because a 3 a.m departure from my hotel was necessary to catch my plane back to Syracuse, and the final day of the IBHOF’s 24th annual Induction Weekend.

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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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