Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man returns to Mohegan Sun – Part I

Friday, Aug. 2: Ever since I began flying on a regular basis six years ago, a handful of destinations have become territorial touchstones. They include Montreal (the city outside the United States I’ve visited most often), New York City (the site of numerous driving travails as well as the scene of a few personal triumphs), Indio, Calif. (where I’ll be going this week) and Foxwoods Casino in Mashantucket, Conn. (a frequent venue for ESPN shows during the early days).

Another perennial landing spot is the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn. In fact, I traveled there this past January to work Sergey Kovalev’s overpowering third-round TKO over former light heavyweight titleholder Gabriel Campillo, a study of how statistics can be a precursor to reality. The pre-fight analysis provided substantial evidence that Campillo was one of boxing’s slowest starters while Kovalev was among its quickest. In round one both lived up to their pasts as Campillo went 2 for 12 overall while Kovalev was 24 of 90. The gap closed to 30 of 83 for Kovalev to 9 of 41 for Campillo before Kovalev’s three knockdowns in the third ended matters.

This trip to the Mashantucket Pequot nation provided me the opportunity to work a NBC Sports Network-televised tripleheader that pitted heavyweights Tomasz Adamek and Dominick Guinn (a late sub for the injured Tony Grano), middleweights Curtis Stevens and Saul Roman and cruiserweights Eddie Chambers and Thabiso Mchunu.

While Adamek, Stevens and Chambers were viewed as sizeable favorites, two of the bouts struck me as intriguing. Based on recent history, Stevens-Roman promised to be an explosive encounter, for Stevens proved against Elvin Ayala two fights ago that he can still crack with the left hook while Roman prevailed in a scintillating multi-knockdown war against Jose Pinzon, a ninth-round TKO victory worthy of being named dark horse Fight of the Year, if not the outright winner for 2013.

Stevens-Roman also interested me because of the potential for psychological drama. Stevens had long been regarded as a fighter who shut down mentally if he didn’t get an early knockout but in his most recent fight, a solid eight-round decision over Derrick Findley, Stevens showcased previously unseen wrinkles in his game by scoring quick-fisted combinations and maintaining a tight focus throughout the fight. The onetime “Chin Checker” who seemingly based his entire self-worth on early knockouts was now a mature, well-rounded campaigner capable of accessing multiple gears based on the situation.

But if Stevens had his druthers, he’d still prefer the sensational one-punch KO because in recent months he has campaigned heavily for a fight with WBA beltholder Gennady Golovkin, who most observers believe is Sergio Martinez’s heir apparent for the title of world’s best middleweight. From his perspective, a highlight-reel KO would be the perfect preamble to a showdown in November or early 2014.

For me it was a challenging fight to handicap. On the one hand, with six knockout losses among his nine overall defeats the 33-year-old Roman rightly could be viewed as a likely candidate for the “B-side” of that reel. On the other hand, given the fortitude he showed against Pinzon, Roman also could test Stevens’ resolve even more than Findley did. I could easily imagine Roman surviving the early blitz and utilizing his own above-average power (31 knockouts in 37 wins) to test Stevens’ chin and willingness to set aside frustration. Because Roman is a step up from Findley, a similar show of mental strength by Stevens would represent another valuable step in his fistic renaissance.

The other fight that piqued my interest was Chambers-Mchunu because of Chambers’ move down from heavyweight to cruiserweight. The 6-foot-1 Chambers long had appeared to be a perfect fit for the 200-pounders but because the pay rate at heavyweight has always been far superior, “Fast Eddie” chose to campaign in the land of the giants.

It’s a tribute to Chambers’ talent that he prevailed 36 out of 39 times but his loss to Wladimir Klitschko drove home the hard reality that he’ll never be the best of the best in his chosen weight class during his fated era.

Fighters who move down in weight are relatively rare but even more so are heavyweights who voluntarily boil down to cruiserweight. Those who had met with mixed results.

Orlin Norris arguably was the most successful, for after losing a 12-round decision to Tony Tucker in June 1991, Norris shed 23 pounds in 10 weeks and began his cruiserweight career with an eight-round nod over James Pritchard. After winning his next six fights – five by knockout — Norris won the vacant WBA cruiserweight title by stopping Marcelo Figueroa in six rounds and while registering four successful defenses he was considered by many to be the best 190-pounder on earth. Nate Miller’s come-from-behind eighth round KO convinced Norris to return to heavyweight, but by then his mark among the cruiserweights was indelible.

Osvaldo Ocasio, who fell several times to Larry Holmes’ shotgun jabs during his seventh round TKO title-fight loss in March 1979, also prospered at cruiserweight as he decisioned South African Robbie Williams in Johannesburg to win the vacant WBA belt and recorded three successful defenses against Eddie Taylor (W 15), Randy Stephens (W 15) and John Odhiambo (KO 15) before returning to South Africa and losing the title to Piet Crous (L 15). After a highly questionable points win over Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Ocasio received a shot at Evander Holyfield’s WBA and IBF belts and was stopped in 11. That bout effectively ended his run as a contending fighter, for he put on more than 30 pounds and became a trialhorse, winning just two of his final 11 fights.

Former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks twice campaigned at cruiserweight and both efforts ran the gamut, much like his life beyond the ropes. Following his KO loss to Larry Holmes in June 1981, Spinks dropped six pounds to 194 and won a 10-round nod over journeyman Ivy Brown in February 1982. Eight months later he outscored Jesse Burnett over 12 rounds to win the vacant NABF cruiserweight belt but next time out perennial cruiserweight titlist Carlos DeLeon, who was between reigns, drubbed “Neon Leon” into a sixth round TKO.

Spinks floated between the two weight classes over the next few years, but gave the cruiserweights one final shot in March 1986. Four months after stopping the 15-1-1 Kip Kane at 213, Spinks worked off 23 pounds to challenge WBA king Qawi – a onetime light heavyweight titlist – for his belt. Spinks couldn’t cope with Qawi’s sharp combinations and underrated defense and a hammering series of blows prompted referee Mills Lane to intervene in round six. That beating was enough to convince Spinks that cruiserweight was no longer the weight class for him.

The most graphic example of weight loss by a longtime heavyweight was by longtime IBF titlist Chris Byrd. He ended his amateur career with a silver medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona as a 165-pounder and following a highly successful career among the big men that also included a brief reign as WBO king, the 37-year-old Byrd believed he could successfully campaign in a new weight class – light heavyweight.

After an 11th round TKO loss to Alexander Povetkin in October 2007 as a 211 ¾-pounder, Byrd emerged nearly seven months later as a barely recognizable 174-pounder against Shaun George. Cosmetically, Byrd looked lithe and ready but once the bell sounded it was clear his physical transformation didn’t extend to his ring work. Dropped in round one, the stalking Byrd walked into counter rights all fight long and his Walcott-esque walk-away moves did nothing to deter George, who added two knockdowns in the ninth to score the TKO.

Ten months after the George loss, a 194-pound Byrd seemingly found middle ground and stopped German Mattias Sandow in Stuttgart. However, Byrd chose not to pursue the cruiserweight path, deciding instead to retire with a victory.

While a loss to the obscure Mchunu would represent a significant setback, it’s unlikely it will end Chambers’ cruiserweight experiment. Thus, only time will tell whether Chambers will be categorized with Norris and Ocasio or be grouped with Spinks and Byrd.

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The day’s itinerary seemed simple enough: Drive from Friendly to Pittsburgh, board a plane to Hartford and drive to the Mohegan Sun. The execution of said itinerary, at times, proved problematic.

The drive to the airport was quite enjoyable because the area was bathed in sunlight, the mercury remained in the 70s and the humidity was barely noticeable. I sailed through the security line and the pre-flight meal at Subway also unfolded without incident. But, as regular readers of the Travelin’ Man Chronicles know, something had to happen. That something occurred approximately 15 minutes before I was to board my 1:39 p.m.

According to the gate agent, the plane that was to take us to Hartford was still on the ground in St. Louis. Because a new plane had to be assigned – and because the replacement plane had to have the same flight number – the conflict had to be reconciled in terms of paperwork and as far as tracking by air traffic control. Those logistical concerns caused us to board the plane 20 minutes later than scheduled but another issue delayed matters further.

Because our aircraft was a streamline Embraer jet that held less than 50 passengers, proper weight distribution was vital. Front-heavy or rear-heavy groupings could adversely affect the plane’s ability to maneuver, thus a proper balance had to be struck before take-off could ensue. A particularly heavy-set man spotted one of his buddies seated in the row directly in front of me, so after a few minutes of conversing in the seat beside him he settled into his seat one row up. When it came time to take off, however, the flight attendant told him he needed to move toward the rear of the plane to ensure proper balance. Two things were clear: One, he was reluctant to do so and two, words weren’t going to make him budge.

At this point my solutions-oriented instinct kicked in. I spotted an empty seat directly across the aisle from my assigned spot and asked the flight attendant if the weight issues would be resolved if I moved there. He said yes. Not only that, my shift allowed the heavy-set man to occupy my previous spot and be near his friend. Problem solved.

As I waited for the plane to take off, I couldn’t help but think that sometime in the near future pre-flight weigh-ins will have to take place. Just imagine the madhouse scene at airport gates across the world: One group of passengers would be jumping rope in rubber suits to shed those final pounds while others are walking around and spitting into empty cups. Those that couldn’t drop any more weight would be haggling with the gate agents.

“C’mon let me on the plane,” one would say. “Tell you what, I’ll pay the airline an extra 20 percent on top of the air fare. Just let me fly!”

Sure, you’re laughing now (or at least I hope you are) but anything’s possible.

The dual conflicts caused our plane to depart 20 minutes behind schedule but our 3:08 p.m. touchdown was just nine minutes later than advertised. Aside from a few choppy moments following take-off and just before landing, the flight was not worthy of notice.

The rental car shuttle took me to Hertz, where I was given a white Dodge Avenger. I was hoping to arrive at the Mohegan in time to catch the weigh-in, which was to begin around 5:00 p.m. The timing looked promising, for I left Hertz at 3:45 to begin what was scheduled to be a one-hour drive. If all went well, I’d have enough time to drop off my bags in the room and return downstairs to the arena.

The beginnings of rush-hour traffic in Hartford, as well as the idiosyncrasies of several drivers, impeded my progress. On at least three occasions, I found myself behind a motorist traveling more than 10 mph under the 65 mph speed limit and I couldn’t get around him because a dozens-long line of cars flew past me in the passing lane. Without the ability to pass safely, I was forced to hold my powder behind the slow poke for several long minutes.

Despite my issues I arrived at the Mohegan at 5:00 p.m. Once I reached the head of the line at the registration desk I asked about the location of the weigh-in. After a few phone calls I was told it was being held at The Cabaret instead of the arena because Beyonce Knowles (or just Beyonce to most) was scheduled to perform there in a few hours’ time.

I took the elevator to my 24th room floor, dumped my bags on the bed and headed back downstairs. Moments after hitting the casino room floor I turned to my right and recognized promoter Jimmy Burchfield walking with a small group of associates.

What a wonderful coincidence: I couldn’t think of a better person to lead me to the weigh-in location than Rhode Island-native Burchfield, the president of Classic Entertainment and Sports (CES) and one of the most prolific and successful New England-based promoters. He had staged numerous cards at the Mohegan Sun so if anyone knew his way around the place it was him. Another good sign was that if he was on the way to the weigh-in that meant I wasn’t late. 

My close proximity to Burchfield ensured hassle-free entry into the Cabaret (where the weigh-in was relocated thanks to Beyonce) and I settled into a seat a few rows from the stage. I chatted with a fan from “across the pond” that I met at the Mohegan in January and we both snapped photos of the fighters as they weighed in and engaged in the customary side-by-side poses.

None of the fighters breeched their contracts in terms of weight, but to me the most interesting moment was provided by Chambers. His face was clearly thinner and more angular than in past years and the fact that he weighed 196 while still wearing a T-shirt and sweats indicated his true weight was in the low 190s. His light-hearted mood projected a quiet confidence that, to me, portended a happy ending come fight night.

I also noticed that heavyweight Vyacheslav Glazkov’s 220-pound physique looked markedly trimmer than in the recent past, though his poundage was identical to that in his last fight against Malik Scott. His opponent Byron Polley was aptly nicknamed “The Bear” given that the far shorter Missouri native nevertheless scaled 34 pounds heavier. The good news for Polley is that, at 254, he weighed 14 pounds less than in his last fight and 22 3/4 pounds fewer than his career high 276 ¾ against Alexander Ustinov (KO by 2) in March 2009.

After the weigh-ins concluded I spent most of my time chatting with fellow writer Alex Pierpaoli and during our conversation ring announcer Joe Antonacci stopped to say hello. Once I returned to my room, I decided to return to the casino’s floor level to buy a turkey sandwich, chips and Diet Coke to go at The Original Soupman, a franchise based on the famous “Seinfeld” character. I then spent the next couple of hours watching Friday Night Fights on ESPN2. Just like the shirt I was wearing said, I “eat, sleep, breathe boxing.”

The hustle and bustle of the day kept me awake, so I returned to the casino a little after midnight and stopped by Johnny Rocket’s to sate my growling stomach. The overflow from the just-concluded Beyonce concert created shoulder-to-shoulder traffic that was difficult, but not impossible, to navigate.

Once I got my food I wended through the casino to find the hotel elevator. Along the way I spotted Saul Roman walking with two of his seconds. I called out the fighter’s name to get his attention, after which I introduced myself to him and his crew. Roman’s face lit up when I mentioned the fantastic Pinzon fight and we spent the next several minutes discussing several aspects of the Stevens match. They exuded understated confidence in their chances yet were mindful of Stevens’ dangerous left hook as well as his tendency to let down after failing to score the early knockout. I mentioned the encouraging signs he showed in the Findley match and while they took note it appeared they still needed convincing. After all, every fight is a story unto itself, including the physical and psychological dynamics.

It had been an eventful and enjoyable travel day, one that actually was extended to 3:00 a.m., which was when the lights finally went out.

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Photos / Lee Groves, THE RING

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 three 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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