Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man returns to Vegas – Part II

Click here for part one of Travelin’ Man returns to Vegas.

Everything was going so well for Mickey Bey. For nine-plus rounds he dominated onetime lightweight title challenger John Molina with superior hand speed, perplexing mobility and pinpoint punching. Exploiting Molina’s slow-starting tendencies, he steadily built an unassailable lead after nine rounds – 90-81, 89-82 and 88-83 – by out-landing his slower but heavier-hitting rival in every round.

From a statistical standpoint, Bey’s dominance had grown with every passing round; in rounds six through nine Bey out-landed Molina 120-63 overall, 44-7 in jabs and 76-56 in power shots, including a 31-14 bulge in the ninth that included 21 connects to the body.

During the first 90 seconds of the 10th, Bey continued to strafe Molina with crisp, clean combinations and at one point he had connected on more than 80 percent of his power punches, an almost unheard-of level of accuracy.

To Bey it must have seemed so easy. His confidence was soaring, and he had plenty of reason to feel that way.

Then, all of a sudden, Bey allowed himself to relax mentally. After landing a volley of body blows he looked over Molina’s shoulder and shot out his right glove in triumph at ringsiders, one of whom was his promoter, pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather Jr. He dropped his hands and stared insolently at Molina. His supporters repeatedly shouted the Money Team mantra of “easy work” and for nine rounds and 95 seconds it had been. The crowd had long accepted the notion of a lopsided decision victory for Bey and now the fighter was behaving as if the scorecards had already been rendered. All the while Molina continued his steady, unrelenting and, to some, seemingly quixotic pursuit of a miracle finish.

Showtime analyst Steve Farhood spoke for many when he opined that Molina needed to hit a nine-run homer to win this fight.

Luckily for Molina, he was a boxer and not a baseball player, and he knew better than most that his chosen sport is one of the very few that allows for the equivalent of a nine-run homer. Molina’s history was more than enough to back up his self-belief. He was that one fighter that has repeatedly destroyed the most reliable adage regarding statistics, that the fighter who landed more punches in a long fight would most likely go on to be the winner. Consider the following:

* Three years and eight fights earlier, Hank Lundy comprehensively out-boxed Molina through 10 rounds and despite tasting a formidable warning shot that floored him in round eight, the confident Lundy felt comfortable enough to shuffle his feet and drop his hands while stationed near the ropes midway through round 11. Leading 98-91 on two scorecards and 97-92 on the third, Lundy had reason to feel cocky. But Molina somehow cracked a hook to the temple that scrambled Lundy’s circuits and an overhand right that snapped them off moments later. When referee Ricky Gonzalez leaped in to save the semi-conscious Lundy, Molina made mincemeat of “Hammerin’ Hank’s” 18-0-1 record as well as his connect leads of 285-168 (overall), 86-72 (jabs) and 199-96 (power). 

* Two fights after beating Lundy Rob Frankel out-landed Molina 171-107 in total punches and 120-34 in connected jabs, but Molina emerged with a five-round corner retirement victory after he opened a multitude of nasty cuts on Frankel’s face.

* Three fights after that, Dannie Williams’ 46-45 lead in total connects was rendered meaningless after a monstrous Molina right hand sent Williams spinning to the canvas and getting up on the wrong side of the ropes. The result: TKO 4 for Molina.

*And on the other end of the scale, Molina actually out-landed Andrey Klimov 192-166 overall and 133-105 in power shots in his most recent fight before facing Bey, but Molina ended up on the short end of a majority decision.

Molina is one of the few fighters these days that is nickname-free but if the stories of his fights can be captured in two words they would be “CompuBox Kryptonite.” That’s because when he leads he loses and when he trails he triumphs. The final numbers for his fights only serve to illustrate the depth of his mathematical holes as well as the freakishness of his points defeat to Klimov.

Still, despite being briefly stunned by Molina several times, it was obvious Bey either didn’t know about Molina’s history or he didn’t respect it. That strain of athletic arrogance ultimately proved to be his downfall.

Shortly after Bey lowered his guard both physically and emotionally, Molina connected with a massive hook to the temple that caused Bey’s upper body to fall forward and his eyes to glaze over. That was all Molina needed to see, for after that he pounced behind a succession of hammering blows that had Bey reeling and grasping at straws only he could see. Three more flush blows to the head put the finishing touches on Molina’s improbable comeback, a comeback that overwhelmed the senses and left truisms in tatters.

The scenes around ringside illustrated the immediate aftershocks of Molina’s incredible turnaround. Nearly everyone around ringside was standing and dozens of faces were frozen in jaw-dropped amazement. Those who could speak used various forms of the word “wow” to express their sentiments. The aftermath created an emotional tidal wave so strong that ringside security broke up a potential fistfight between two female patrons.

Three more fights were staged after the unforgettable main event and surely those fighters must have felt like an opera singer asked to perform after Pavarotti or the chef asked to prepare the dessert following a main course created by James Beard, “the Dean of American Cuisine.” What fight could have possibly topped the ending of Molina-Bey on this night?

As for Bey, he must have felt like snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis, whose hot-dog move just before the finish line caused her to fall and blow a sure gold medal in the 2006 Winter Olympics or Willie Shoemaker, who lost a certain Kentucky Derby victory in 1957 aboard Gallant Man when he misjudged the finish line and stood up the stirrups too early. Bey might also be able to relate to MMA great Anderson Silva, whose taunting of Chris Weidman led to a stunning second round TKO a few weeks earlier or, in his own sport, Nate Campbell, whose hands-down teasing of Robbie Peden in their first fight spawned a YouTube moment for the ages as he was knocked into dreamland with Peden’s next punch.

However, Bey can take comfort in the fact that Shoemaker went on to add three Kentucky Derby victories and become one of history’s greatest jockeys, that Jacobellis proceeded to capture two gold medals in the world championships and four consecutive golds at the X-Games, that Campbell eventually became a three-belt lightweight champion and that Silva remains among the very best his sport has ever produced. The moral: One bad moment need not inflict a permanent stain.

For all of its jurisdictional chaos, boxing at its core is the ultimate edge-on-your-seat sport, for no matter how large a lead is built during the course of a contest the other fighter always has the theoretical ability to create sporting miracles with a single punch.

In boxing, as long as there is opportunity there is possibility.

Those who have repeatedly conjured great escapes – Matthew Saad Muhammad, Arturo Gatti, Sugar Ray Robinson and Danny “Little Red” Lopez being four – are revered long after their careers, and lives, end. When Molina decides to hang up his gloves for good – and the Bey victory ensures that said career will last a few fights longer – his calling card will forever be his ability to turn long-term vexation into instant celebration.

While Molina-Bey represented the fistic highlight of the weekend, other events and circumstances colored The Travelin’ Man’s short visit to Vegas:

Friday, July 19: Remaining on East Coast time, this day began at 5:30 a.m. following several hours of sketchy slumber. It was tough to fall completely asleep because my mind’s hamster wheel continued to churn about the busy day to come.

Not only was I to work the CompuBox keys for the Badou Jack-Farah Ennis/John Molina-Mickey Bey doubleheader, I also was slated to do a pair of interviews. The first one was to be with Randy Gordon and Gerry Cooney on their Sirius XM radio show “Friday Night at the Fights” because Cooney was ranked 10th in my recent rundown of boxing’s best left hook artists. The second was to be with longtime boxing man James “Smitty” Smith, who was putting together a video feature about CompuBox for his long-running show “In This Corner” that will be aired sometime after the Mayweather-Alvarez fight. For me, that’s a pretty full plate but one I surely would enjoy cleaning.

Once I finished my morning routines I walked to the business center and printed out my boarding passes for the trip home (Las Vegas to Atlanta and Atlanta to Pittsburgh aboard Delta Airlines), the first leg of which was scheduled to leave at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m. Along the way I briefly ran into Showtime analysts Steve Farhood and Raul Marquez as well as production manager Gordon Hall, who were having breakfast at one of the Hard Rock’s many restaurants.

A couple of hours later I called my colleague, punch-counting dean Joe Carnicelli, to make sure he arrived safe and sound. He had, but because his room wasn’t ready he said he would go directly to The Joint (the venue for tonight’s fights) to begin our pre-fight procedures. I decided to meet him there at our call time of 12:30 p.m. and within a few minutes everything was electronically ready. That done, I prepared for the whirlwind of events to come.

In my mind’s eye, the lineup of events seemed workable. I’d wolf down my share of the crew meal at Mr. Lucky’s between 3 and 3:20 p.m., walk to the elevator and return to the quiet of my hotel room by 3:25 in order to conduct the 3:30 interview on Sirius XM, which was expected to end around 3:45. I then would return to The Joint, where Smitty and his producer Jon Hait would conduct separate on-camera interviews with Carnicelli and me and film us counting an untelevised undercard bout. If all went as expected, everything would be done by 6:00 p.m., one hour before the opening bout on the ShoBox telecast.

Remember what was written about the best-laid plans of mice and men? Yep, that happened to me.

The unraveling began when the waitress at Mr. Lucky’s told us that every meal was going to be served at the same time instead of first-come, first-served. Because of that, I ended up sipping a half-glass of Diet Coke and ate three onion rings before rushing out of the restaurant at 3:20.

I reached the quiet of my hotel room at 3:25 as anticipated but for whatever reason my cell phone didn’t ring until 6:37. Worse yet, there wasn’t enough time left in the segment to get me on the air so the audience was told I would be interviewed in the next block.

That didn’t happen. Instead, heavyweight contender Johnathon Banks was interviewed in that next block, after which Allan Scotto read questions submitted by the show’s Twitter followers. All the while Smitty, who by now was at ringside waiting for me, was desperately trying to reach me on my cell phone, which, of course, was occupied. While Scotto was talking on my cell, I used the hotel phone to alert Smitty about my time crunch. We both agreed that if I wasn’t interviewed in the next segment that I should hang up and text my regrets to the host. When it was announced that Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini would be the focus of the following segment, I did just that. Randy Gordon responded by inviting me onto next week’s show, an invitation I gladly accepted.

The interview for “In This Corner” went far better. Everything was set up at ringside and the interviews went off without a serious hitch. Joe and I counted the first three rounds of Ronald Gavril’s five round TKO over the switch-hitting Jas Phipps for Smitty’s cameras and just before airtime both he and Jon declared the venture a total success.

*

Everyone, especially fighters, have habits and patterns that emerge over time. A big part of the CompuBox pre-fight analyses involves identifying each fighter’s tendencies, assessing how they might mix on fight night and offering a prediction on the outcome. Few fight cards have ever confirmed tendencies more strongly than the Jack-Ennis/Molina-Bey doubleheader.

During CompuBox’s research for Jack vs. Ennis, it was noted that both men depended more heavily on their jabs than most fighters. In fact, Jack had established an all-time CompuBox record for super middleweights by landing 40 jabs in round one of his fight with Eddie Caminero, that he averaged 45.6 jabs per round in out-pointing Don Mouton and that he landed a sky-high 49 percent of them in his most recent fight against Michael Gbenga. As for Ennis, he, like Jack, depended on his big stick but because he didn’t throw nearly as many punches per round, I thought he’d end up getting out-hustled.

“Because both men have historically thrown more jabs than power shots, this may well be a jabbing contest from start to finish,” CompuBox  wrote at the start of the “prediction” paragraph. “Both are accurate power hitters and their lanky, long-muscled physiques are similar. Two decisive differences may well swing the fight: Jack’s far busier trigger and his more diverse game. Because Jack will likely begin and end most of the exchanges and because he works the entire anatomy he will score more points and, over time, he will score a mid-to-late rounds TKO.”

The fight unfolded according to their tendencies. First, it turned out to be a jabbing contest because of Jack’s 507 total punches, 336 – or 66.3 percent – of them were jabs while it made up 387 of Ennis’ 485 punches (79.8 percent). As a point of comparison, the typical super middleweight’s offense is 43.6 percent jabs and 56.4 percent power shots.

Also, because Jack threw a larger variety of punches and assumed the role of aggressor, he was able to dictate the action and land a higher percentage of his punches (36 percent to 22 percent overall, 31 percent to 20 percent jabs and 44 percent to 31 percent power). That, in turn, led to connect advantages of 180-109 (total), 104-78 (jabs) and 171-98 (power).

But the most important difference between the two was Ennis’ slow trigger along with his distribution of punches. In two previous CompuBox-tracked fights he averaged 45.1 punches per round — well below the 54.3 super middleweight norm — while in seven CompuBox-tracked bouts Jack averaged 69.7. While the cautious nature of the contest caused Jack to slow his pace to 50.7, Ennis could only muster 48.5, which was actually an improvement on past efforts. Because the jab made up such a big part of his offense, and because he was the one backing up most of the time, Ennis sent a negative and defensive message to the judges while Jack moved forward behind a more diverse offense. Therefore, Jack was rewarded with a near shutout decision (100-90, 98-92 twice). 

As for the main event, CompuBox wrote that Molina’s biggest drawback was his extremely slow starts. Antonio DeMarco seized on that flaw and parlayed that into a record-setting 44-second TKO. Molina began the Williams fight by throwing 16 and 27 punches in the first two rounds but, unlike DeMarco, Williams failed to get out of the gate quickly as he responded with just 30 and 45 punches respectively. That allowed Molina time to warm up properly and Williams ended up getting clocked in the fourth. The pattern held against Klimov as Molina threw 26 and 31 punches in the first two rounds but after firing 50 in the third Molina kicked into high gear and averaged 87.3 the rest of the way, out-landing Klimov 139-38 in rounds four through eight. The slow start and the somewhat slower finish enabled Klimov to win enough rounds to take the majority decision.

So how did Molina start against Bey? By throwing 15 punches and landing none of them.

As for Bey, it was noted that he fights best when he stays within his boxing style and picks his punches from a distance, enabling him to thoroughly exploit Molina’s vulnerable defense. For nine-and-a-half rounds Bey did just that, landing 48 percent of his total punches, 38 percent of his jabs and an astronomical 60 percent of his power shots. In all, Bey out-landed Molina 253-145 overall, 111-15 in jabs and 142-130 in power punches.

“Though both fighters are 30, they are on diametrically opposed career paths,” read the prediction section. “Besides Molina’s 1-2 slide and slow-starting ways, his defense is extremely porous and thus vulnerable to Bey’s sharp-shooting. There is one wild card that may help Molina – when Bey decides to stand and fight he becomes vulnerable. As Hank Lundy will tell you, Molina is the last guy with whom to stand and slug and if Bey foolishly tries to do the same he’ll meet the same fate. Don’t expect Bey to do so, however. He’ll probably pick away at long range and capture a unanimous decision.”

Right scenario but the wild card also came into play. Unbelievable.

Of course, CompuBox is not always right when it comes to predicting outcomes – no one is – and sometimes the vagaries of meshing styles can cause past tendencies to be thrown out the window. But it’s rare indeed when each fighter on a card is able to follow his past behavior so closely.

*

After Joe and I packed our equipment we headed back to Mr. Lucky’s for a post-fight meal. With no time pressures in play this time I was able to eat in peace, or as peacefully as one can in a packed casino. I ordered the classic Reuben sandwich with fries, two pickles (Joe gave me his) and a Diet Coke and it more than satisfied my growling stomach. In fact, I was stuffed. Joe and I said our goodbyes in the elevator, after which I waddled to my 16th floor room.

Seeing it was just past 11 p.m. I had a decision to make. The first choice was to stay awake, finish my writing and, because I have yet to do much more than rest my eyes on planes, tough out the travel day to come. The second option was to delay my work in order to steal a few hours of shuteye. I opted for the latter because I knew I had plenty of tasks awaiting me at home, tasks that required maximum alertness. Within minutes I was in bed and with that, the war with my whirring consciousness began.

Saturday, July 20: It was a struggle, but I managed to get four-and-a-half hours of decent rest, and, at times, full-out sleep. I stirred awake a few minutes before my goal time of 3:30 a.m. and by 4:15 I was ready to check out of the hotel, catch a taxi and head to the airport.

As I approached the registration desk I couldn’t help but notice the center bar area to my right was still bustling at full tilt. The twenty-somethings drank, mingled and gambled with gusto, burning up energy, money and brain cells at speeds only accessible to the young. For them, the previous day was still going strong while for me a new one was dawning.

A good omen: My cab driver, a native of Niagara Falls, New York, is, like myself, a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates. We spent the 10-minute ride discussing our teams’ prospects for the upcoming season, the recoveries of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu and the fortunes of division rivals Baltimore, Cincinnati and Cleveland. When I told him I was flying to Atlanta, he perked up even more because he then said he was a Braves fan too.

A Braves fan? Really? The same franchise who ended the Pirates’ playoff run in 1992 with Sid Bream’s bottom-of-the-ninth slide into home plate? The play that began the Bucs’ record-setting 20 straight years of sub-.500 seasons? That franchise? Heresy, I say. Heresy.

One good thing – perhaps the only good thing – about having to catch a 6 a.m. flight is the really short lines in the security area. The one person in front of me completed his business the moment I arrived and that same gentleman waved me ahead of him at the conveyor belt because he knew emptying his bags would take quite a while. I cleared security by 4:35 and was at my gate at 4:50.

The flight departed 13 minutes late but landed on time, an increasingly frequent scenario. During the Vegas-to-Atlanta flight, which had more people aboard than the 130 credited to my hometown, I happened to be seated next to a couple from Marietta, Ohio – one of the towns served by the newspaper for which I previously worked. Imagine the odds.

The signage at Atlanta’s airport briefly confused me, for the arrow pointed toward a dead-end area in one of the food courts. A helpful airline employee pointed me in the right direction: Toward an escalator that took us down toward the tram that stopped at my intended terminal.

The boarding process finished without incident but shortly before we were supposed to take off Mother Nature decided to intervene. Torrential rains along with frequent lightning strikes kept us inside the plane for two hours. To their credit, the flight crew couldn’t have performed more professionally. The pilot provided us frequent updates while the flight attendants offered two water services. After more than 90 minutes had passed, an announcement was made that we could leave the plane and re-enter as long as we had boarding pass in hand but there was one caveat: The moment the crew received permission to push out, the doors would be shut then and there.

Although I was famished and the closest food outlet was a McDonald’s outlet was 50 yards from the gate, I initially hesitated. I didn’t want to take the leap only to be stranded in Atlanta and separated from my bags. But then I overheard someone say that the equivalent of a “two-minute warning” would be given over the loudspeaker at the gate so passengers could hustle back to the plane. At that I arose from my seat, walked toward the front of the plane and planned to confirm this with one of the flight attendants. Before I could get one word out, I was told by said flight attendant that our push-out was imminent.

Dozens of people piled back into the plane and within 10 minutes we were airborne. We touched down in Pittsburgh shortly after 7:00 p.m. and, thanks to my close-in parking spot, I was on the road 20 minutes later. I made a pit stop at a drive-through a half-hour after that and at 10:15 p.m. I was finally home. The longer-than-anticipated journey home left me feeling a bit drained so I decided to put off the most urgent matters until the next morning.

Following a week off, my next trip will take me to the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut, where NBC will televise a tripleheader featuring Tomasz Adamek-Dominick Guinn, Eddie Chambers-Thabiso Mchunu and Curtis Stevens-Saul Roman.

Until then, happy trails.

*

Photos / Tom Casino-SHOWTIME, Naoki Fukuda

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.com to arrange for autographed copies.

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