Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man returns to Mohegan Sun – Part II

Read part one of Travelin’ Man returns to Mohegan Sun

 

 

Get me Golovkin.

In recent weeks middleweight bomber Curtis Stevens had been uttering various forms of this demand. And why not? As lineal champion Sergio Martinez nears the sunset of his career, the man known as “GGG” (which should stand for “Going, Going, Gone”) has, in many eyes, become “Maravilla’s” heir apparent to the title of world’s best middleweight, though WBO titlist Peter Quillin and IBF king Daniel Geale would object strenuously. Golovkin’s string of impressive knockouts has lit up TV screens for some time now and in boxing there are few commodities more attractive – or more potentially lucrative – than a genuine knockout artist.

Unless, of course, one arranges to put two KO kings inside the same ring and let them have at it.

Stevens couldn’t have asked for a better lead-up to a Golovkin fight than his scorching knockout of Saul Roman this past Saturday on NBC Sports Network’s Fight Night series. Ironically, it was a right hand to the jaw, not the vaunted hook, which initially hurt Roman but once Stevens smelled blood his money punch seized center stage. A laser-guided hook dropped Roman exactly one minute into the match and when Roman sought to slap on several clinches to ride out the storm Stevens didn’t go wild. Rather, he patiently sought his chance to strike again, and he did so in the right way.

Instead of waiting for a single opening Stevens opted to work for it by firing quick combinations with less mustard on them. The young “Chin Checker” of years past might have grown frustrated with Roman’s smothering tactics and an all-too-brief rally as the round’s final minute began, but the 28-year-old version of Stevens was secure enough to delay the finish until the correct moment presented itself. And when that moment came, he closed the show in spectacular fashion.

A split second after Roman landed a right to the body Stevens cranked an exquisitely short and explosive hook that laid out the veteran for nearly a minute. Only the now-resurgent Jesus Soto-Karass had ever scored a first round knockout over Roman and that was achieved more than a decade ago.

The CompuBox stats reflected Stevens’ dominance. He landed 34 of his 56 punches overall (61 percent), including 34 of 53 power punches (64 percent), while Roman was 8 of 29 (28 percent) overall and 6 of 21 (29 percent) in power shots.

Golovkin’s promoter, Tom Loeffler of K2 Promotions, was duly impressed. He told RingTV.com’s Lem Satterfield that Stevens is a candidate for Golovkin’s scheduled November fight on HBO.

“I think Stevens did what he needed to do to put himself in a position for a title fight,” Loeffler told Satterfield. “And he really seems to want the fight with Golovkin, unlike most of the middleweight division, like (Martin) Murray.”

Stevens, along with Main Events’ Kathy Duva and her matchmakers, has done an excellent job of re-establishing his brand since emerging from a 26-month hiatus prompted by a lopsided 12-round decision loss to Jesse Brinkley in January 2010. Three sensational first-round knockouts combined with a maturity-laden decision victory over Derrick Findley this past April have positioned Stevens for his first crack at a major title against an emerging pound-for-pound superstar in Golovkin. The matchup of middleweight master blasters should rank high on fight fans’ wish lists and the sooner it gets made the better.

Stevens’ fervent desire to fight Golovkin is striking to say the least. Does Stevens simply see the dollar signs that come with HBO exposure against a hot TV commodity? Or does he “see something” in Golovkin like Max Schmeling did in Joe Louis before his victorious first encounter in 1936?

From an observer’s viewpoint it’s tough to see the chinks in Golovkin’s armor. In nine fights tracked by CompuBox, Golovkin averaged 68.9 punches per round (well above the 56.8 middleweight average), connecting on 36 percent of his total punches as well as 40 percent of his power shots. For someone who fights so aggressively, Golovkin is deceptively hard to hit as his opponents landed a combined 21 percent overall, 14 percent of their jabs and 27 percent of their power punches, which is markedly below the middleweight norms of 32 percent, 23 percent and 38 percent respectively. Golovkin’s deep amateur pedigree accounts for much of this dynamic, for the 2004 Olympic silver medalist won 345 of his 350 fights and his victims included Andy Lee, Lucian Bute and Andre Dirrell.

A common criticism of fighters with Golovkin’s glossy 27-0 (24) record is the level of opposition, but that doesn’t hold much water here as his last 14 opponents boasted a combined 312-52-10 mark (.813). Moreover, of those 52 losses, only 20 occurred during the last six fights leading up to their meeting with Golovkin. At age 31, Golovkin appears to be at his peak and he’s smartly maximizing it by maintaining an active schedule. If Golovkin fights in November, it will be his fourth fight of 2013. And if Stevens fights in November, it will be his fourth as well.

The styles appear to be a natural fit and should they meet it promises to be an epic fireworks display for as long as it lasts. As often is the case, however, psychological strength may well determine the winner.

Golovkin hasn’t lost a fight since his 2004 Olympic final to Gaiderbek Gaiderbekov of Russia and he has yet to face a major crisis during his eight-year pro career. How will he react should he taste one of Stevens’ signature hooks? Will he be forced to dig deep as never before? If so, how many resources will be available? Will he stick to his normal game of high-octane offense and understated defense or will he take additional risks to score a particularly eye-catching knockout?

As for Stevens, Golovkin is, by far, the best opponent he’s yet faced. Has he truly shed his tendency to shut down if he doesn’t score the early knockout? How will he react to being hit by a fellow one-punch KO artist? Will he rise to the occasion or will he freeze as he did the last time he performed before HBO’s cameras when he lost a dreadfully dull 10-round decision to Andre Dirrell in June 2007?

Get me Golovkin, Stevens says. His command is our wish.

*

The other two fights on the tripleheader didn’t come close to matching the excitement or the intensity of Stevens-Roman, but both matches illustrated the meaning behind the nebulous term “ring generalship.”

Three of the four scoring criteria judges use to determine the winners of each round – clean punching, effective aggressiveness and defense – are self-explanatory but for whatever reason defining ring generalship has been far more elusive. The definition that fits best is “the ability of one fighter to impose his style and strategy on the other.” That’s what happened when Mchunu out-pointed Chambers and Adamek out-scored Guinn.

One would have thought the stocky 5-foot-8 Mchunu would have had to burrow inside the 6-foot-1 Chambers to achieve prime ring generalship but the South African and his brain trust came up with an excellent blueprint that, in hindsight, neutralized Chambers’ anatomical advantages while also exploiting his cautious ring persona.

Knowing Chambers is a counterpuncher by nature, Mchunu forced “Fast Eddie” to take the lead by constantly moving in semi-circles and pouncing on any openings Chambers gave him. Allowing Chambers to come forward also carried fewer risks than normal because the American’s ring temperament is more professor than predator.

This thinking-man’s approach has resulted in consistently below-average punch outputs. Chambers averaged just 38.5 punches per round in losing to Adamek, 22.8 in his stoppage defeat to Wladimir Klitschko and 36 in beating Derric Rossy for the second time. Even during his best recent wins his volume neared, but never exceeded, the 45.6 heavyweight average: 45.3 vs. Alexander Dimitrenko and 42.9 against Samuel Peter.

With Mchunu’s angles giving Chambers even more to think about, his distribution of punches became even less aggressive than normal. In eight CompuBox-tracked fights between 2007 and 2012, 54.3 percent of Chamber’s total punches were power shots but against Mchunu, he actually threw more jabs than power punches (227 versus 143, or 61.4 percent of his total offense). Worse yet, Chambers landed just 13 jabs over 10 rounds and his paltry 5.7 percent is by far his lowest in a CompuBox-tracked bout. As a point of comparison, Chambers landed 47 percent of his jabs against Samuel Peter, 35 percent against Alexander Povetkin, 34 percent against Dimitrenko, 29 percent against Rossy and 23 percent against Adamek. Heck, he even landed 34 percent of his jabs against Klitschko.

By taking away Chambers’ jab, Mchunu, in effect, defanged the vampire. Chambers without the jab is like a hamburger without the meat, a car without an engine or a politician without other people’s money to spend.

Mchunu, on the other hand, threw fewer punches per round (30.4) but was more aggressive in his punch selection as 160 of his 304 punches, or 52.6 percent, were power shots. Mchunu got away with slowing the pace because Chamber’s history suggested that he wouldn’t floor the accelerator, even when pressed. Because of that, the outcome of Mchunu-Chambers was entirely based on accuracy and in that regard the South African came out way ahead (30 percent to 15 percent overall, 19 percent to 6 percent jabs and 39 percent to 29 percent power).

That said, this result shouldn’t necessarily end the cruiserweight experiment for Chambers because the Mchunu defeat was a product of styles more than anything else. As has been the case throughout his career, Chambers will do better against come-forward fighters who put strength over science and in his new weight class he won’t face the big height and reach deficits that he encountered at heavyweight.

As for Adamek-Guinn, ring generalship took the form of initiative. The former light heavyweight and cruiserweight titlist simply had the faster trigger and was willing to fire it again and again while the 38-year-old Guinn’s abilities were encased in a mixture of ring rust and a historically phlegmatic temperament. Each round was a replay of the last as Adamek dramatically exceeded Guinn’s output while also showcasing faster hands, nimbler feet and eagerness to engage.

A telling stat is that Adamek’s lowest output (51 in round three) nearly doubled Guinn’s highest output (29 in round one). The activity gaps in the final five rounds were staggering: 77-17, 69-24, 77-16, 84-12 and 85-16. The connect gulfs in those rounds were equally cavernous as Adamek out-landed Guinn 81-33 overall and 66-21 power.

Averaging 70.5 punches per round to Guinn’s 20.3, it wasn’t surprising that Adamek out-landed Guinn 167-59 (overall), 37-18 (jabs) and 130-41 (power). One point of frustration from a viewer’s standpoint  was that Guinn actually landed at a higher rate when he actually chose to throw, as he landed 29 percent overall to Adamek’s 24 percent, connected on 20 percent of his jabs to Adamek’s 10 percent and trailed just 40 percent to 36 percent in power shots. Had he raised his output to 50 punches per round instead of 20, he would have fared much better and given the power in his right hand he might have been able to hurt Adamek. Then again, if Guinn were still capable of generating that kind of volume, he probably wouldn’t have gotten the call to replace the injured Tony Grano, who watched the fight from ringside.

All in all it was an interesting, and sometimes compelling, night at the fights. From the Travelin’ Man’s perspective, other events were also worthy of note:

*

Saturday, Aug. 3: Given my history of sleep issues on the road, this day began six surprisingly blissful hours after the last ended. I spent most of the morning catching up on the writing I failed to do the previous evening and once I reached a good stopping point, I took the elevator downstairs and sought to print out my boarding pass for tomorrow’s Hartford-to-Pittsburgh flight.

Of course there was a snag: The printer was out of paper. I asked one of the concierges to provide a refill and the instant she finished doing so it proceeded to spit out pages and pages of horse racing information. Two things were obvious; one, the previous user was boning up for his next bet and two, when his stuff didn’t print out the first time he kept hitting the “print” icon until he walked away in disgust. It happens.

I fished out my single-page pass out of the pile and began to head down the hallway. But a couple of steps in I spotted NBC Sports Network’s blow-by-blow man Kenny Rice, who was about to print his own passes. We spent the next several minutes swapping stories on various subjects, including boxer-wrestler matches of the past such as Muhammad Ali in separate contests against Antonio Inoki and Gorilla Monsoon, Chuck Wepner vs. Andre the Giant and Holly Holm’s recent foray into MMA, which has so far proven much more successful.

Rice then introduced me to color man B.J. Flores, who showed me a trailer of a commercial he just finished shooting. I also caught a glimpse of former lightweight king Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini talking to one of the hotel staff, but because he looked rather busy I chose not to disturb him.

I returned to my room to put away my boarding pass, then walked to the production truck to secure bout sheets as well as credentials for myself and punch-counting colleague Aris Pina. At that moment Aris was on a bus bound for the Mohegan and from time to time he provided updates via Facebook. The roads on I-95 were clogged and he wasn’t exactly thrilled with some of his traveling companions. I expected a text from Aris when he arrived at the Mohegan but it never came because I later learned that his phone service was temporarily cut off (it was restored a few hours later). So I was pleasantly surprised when he strolled into the venue a couple of hours later.

The pre-fight routines took a bit longer than usual but they were completed shortly before the 5 p.m. crew meal at the Seasons Buffet. After polishing my plateful of food, I returned for dessert and spotted something called a “chocolate banana mousse bomb.” The name alone convinced me to try it. A few dozen bites later, I felt a few dozen pounds heavier. Bullwinkle would have been proud.

Although Aris and I counted a single boxing card, we actually worked three shows. Two fights – Michael Brooks’ six round decision over Joseph “Chip” Perez and Tony Harrison’s two-round TKO over Gilbert Alex Sanchez – were pre-taped for the network’s Future Stars series while Vyacheslav Glazkov’s two-round stoppage over Byron Polley was to be distributed internationally. Finally, we did the live tripleheader featuring Mchunu’s upset decision over Chambers, Adamek’s dominant point wins over Guinn and Stevens’ crushing first-round TKO over Roman. It was a long, yet fun and fulfilling day at the arena.

As Aris and I waited for the action to begin, I heard a booming, high-pitched New York-accented voice calling out my name. It was the oft-imitated but truly inimitable Harold Lederman who, despite his many years in the industry, remains an enthusiastically devoted fan. It didn’t take long for Harold’s presence to draw a crowd of admiring luminaries but besides Harold and me, two decided to stick around: Hall of Fame referee Larry Hazzard Sr., who was serving as the “unofficial official” for NBC this night, and veteran trainer Don Turner.

It’s always great fun to talk boxing with those who are even more experienced in the game than I am but I quickly proved I could hang with them in terms of discussing the sport’s history. One trivia question Turner asked was this one: “Name the fighter who won the Val Barker trophy, then went on to win his first 65 professional fights.” The answer: Nino Benvenuti. The Italian boxer with the movie-star looks beat out Cassius Clay among others for the award at the 1960 Rome Olympics and he ran off his long winning streak over the next six years before Ki Soo Kim broke the string (and also won Benvenuti’s world junior middleweight title).

As much as I wanted the conversation to continue it had to end because Turner, Hazzard and I had to get to work.

Working such a long show challenges one’s ability to maintain intense concentration but our years of training more than helped us keep our focus from first bell to last. Between fights Aris and I chatted with each other as well as with other ringsiders, one of which was Mancini, who was seated one row behind us and two seats to our right. At age 52, the 5-foot-4½ Mancini still appears in magnificent shape, though he admits to being a middleweight these days. He’s still quick with a smile and whenever he’s asked to pose for a photo or sign an autograph, he always answers by saying – and actually meaning it – “it would be my honor.”

Between fights I asked Mancini to sign my copy of Harry Mullan’s “The Great Book of Boxing,” saying that I had more than 300 autographs inside.

“Well, it’s about to become 301,” Mancini replied with a smile.

The broadcast ended at 12:45 a.m. and after packing up my equipment Mancini was still at ringside mingling with admirers. I just couldn’t walk away from ringside without getting a photo with “Boom Boom.” The ever-gracious Mancini said yes in near world-record time and I had Aris, the son of a professional photographer, snap the photo.

Based on his interaction with me, I concluded that he poses for not one, but two photos with those who seek one out. The first picture is done with what he calls “the gentleman’s pose” in which we stand together for the standard shot. The second is the “fighter’s pose” in which the subjects strike the clenched-fists position that can only be brought off when the photo includes a fighter. Of course, the athlete – no matter what the age – looks completely natural while his counterpart appears somewhat stilted and out of his element. I, of course, didn’t even try to conceal the wide smile that reflected just how thrilled I was to be in Mancini’s presence.

Aris initially had problems taking the photo with my digital camera, which requires one to push the button halfway down to achieve the proper focus and lighting before actually snapping the picture. Through it all Mancini had the patience of Job and after a few tries the two moments were properly preserved.

By the time I returned to my room at 1:15 a.m. I had two options. The first was to return to the casino, attend the post-fight party and get in my writing, all of which would likely require me to stay awake all night. The second was to skip everything, go to bed immediately and try to get a few hours of valuable shuteye. I opted for the latter and here’s why:

At the time I requested my flights several weeks earlier, I didn’t know the broadcast was scheduled to begin at 10:30 p.m. and had Stevens-Duran had gone the distance we would’ve been on the air until nearly 1:30 a.m. Had I known, I certainly would have asked for the mid-afternoon flight to Pittsburgh instead of the one slated to leave at 11:30 a.m. But it was what it was, so in order to give myself enough time to be where I needed to be when I needed to be there with as little stress as possible, I needed to awaken by 7:30 a.m. I had to factor in the time necessary to complete the morning routines, check out of the hotel (there could be lines to wait through), find my rental car in the cavernous parking garage, complete the hour-long drive to the airport, catch the rental car bus, go through security, eat breakfast and find my proper gate. Doing all that on no sleep was out of the question, especially since it was avoidable. By skipping the post-fight festivities I missed out on some potentially terrific times, but then again, by this time I had already experienced more than my fair share.

Sunday, Aug. 4: When I awakened at 7:15 a.m. I knew I had made the right decision. I slept soundly and was more than ready to begin the day. As I made my way toward the check-out desk I noticed trainer Don Turner seated by himself reading a newspaper. I stopped to say hello, shook his hand, wished him a safe trip home and began to walk away.

But after a half-dozen steps a thunderous thought stopped me in my tracks: “Here is Don Turner, the architect of Evander Holyfield’s massive upset of Mike Tyson in 1996, sitting by himself at a table inside the hotel. Nobody is bothering him. What if you never get the chance to meet him again? You have your big book with you and you brought it for a reason. Why not ask him to sign it? All he can do is say no but knowing him he’ll probably say yes. If you walk away now, you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life.”

Knowing I had an extra few minutes at my disposal, I turned around and walked back toward Turner, who was still reading his paper. I set down my laptop carrying case, dug out a blue Sharpie as well as my big book and tried to find a spot for him to sign, all the while waiting for him to finish the story he was reading. Just as he was about to turn the page I seized the initiative.

“Excuse me, Mr. Turner. I hate to bother you again but would it be possible for you to sign my book?” I said. He accepted without hesitation and signed on a small section of the back cover.

After he signed he began to flip through the pages and he came across a series of photos depicting a prime Sugar Ray Robinson.

“Now there was a fighter,” he said, admiration dripping from his voice.

“The best fighting machine ever built,” I replied.

He leafed through several other sections of the book and we briefly discussed the fighters whose pictures we came across. Every so often we came across a photo that included the fighter’s autograph.

“Where did you get this book?” he asked.

“I got it nearly 20 years ago,” I said. “I’ve been bringing this book to the International Boxing Hall of Fame weekend every year since 1995 and since that time I’ve gotten some really great autographs. I’m really glad that I have yours.”

After saying our good-byes I walked toward the registration desk for the second time, feeling much better than I had just a few minutes earlier.

I feared that I’d have trouble finding my rental car since I hadn’t seen it in nearly two days. But my memory served me well and I reached it without any trouble. The weather was beautiful – partly sunny skies, temperatures in the 70s and little trace of humidity – and my trusty Magellan GPS led me to the Hertz drop-off spot. The security line was mercifully short and the plane departed and landed on time.

I pulled into the driveway shortly after 3:30 p.m. and though I was tired I still had plenty of tasks that demanded my immediate attention. Such is the life of the Travelin’ Man, and it’s a life I love.

By the time you read this I will already be on my next journey: A return to Indio, California to work a ShoBox card topped by Deontay Wilder-Sergei Liakhovich and featuring Jermall Charlo-Antwone Smith and Francisco Vargas-Brandon Bennett. I can hardly wait.

Until then, happy trails.

*

Photos / Rich Graessle-Main Events, Naoki Fukuda, Lee Groves, John Gurzinski-AFP

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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