Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man returns to Fantasy Springs – Part II

Chris Arreola enters the ring for his fight against fellow American heavyweight standout Seth Mitchell at the Fantasy Springs Casino’s Special Events Center on Sept. 7 in Indio, Calif. Arreola, who was in a must-win situation, scored a first-round stoppage.

 

Click here to read part I.

 

Saturday, Sept. 7: If a man chooses to step inside a boxing ring, he must be prepared to learn the truth.

That’s because boxing is a sport that reveals everything about an athlete on a given night – good and bad. For prospects, the truth is known when a similarly ambitious opponent lays bare the weaknesses so carefully concealed during the “Godzilla Phase,” the time in which carefully matched opponents are crushed in movie monster fashion. For veterans already stung by the loss of numerical perfection it reveals whether they still have what it takes to compete at the highest levels. But while the negatives are unearthed, everyone also receives further illumination about the strengths. We, and they, find out whether those strengths can serve as the building blocks to future greatness for prospects or provide sustained majesty for those who have already proven their worth.

For Chris Arreola, Seth Mitchell, Rafael Marquez and Efrain Esquivias – as well as the fans who watched them perform – certain truths were revealed. Avid observers of the sport already suspected some of them and their performances only served to cement them. But there were others that surprised and delighted as well as ones that saddened and sobered. The boxing ring is neither for those who have fragile constitutions nor for those who possess delicate psyches. It reveals what a person is, not always what he believes himself to be, and if that gap between perception and reality is too wide it can have a shattering effect.

The truths revealed on Sept. 7 include:

When he is motivated and in reasonable shape, Chris Arreola is one of the world’s most dangerous heavyweights and one of its most dynamic finishers.

Coming off a resounding defeat to Bermane Stiverne in late April, Arreola was well aware that he was nearing the cliff’s edge in terms of his time as a marquee attraction. He knew one more defeat would relegate him to gate-keeper status as well as fights on lower-paying TV platforms. Realizing major changes in his training regimen were urgently needed, Arreola trained away from his home area to minimize temptations and maximize dedication and focus.

More than any other fighter, Arreola’s weight is a reliable barometer to future performance aesthetically and statistically, and when he scaled 242 that number was on the cusp of the line that separated effectiveness from sluggishness. The average heavyweight throws 45.6 punches per round but for Arreola weight and output follow a nearly hand-in-hand pattern:

Arreola (229 lbs.) KO 7 Damian Wills: 84.8 punches per round

Arreola (234 lbs.) KO 3 Nagy Aguilera: 82.4 punches per round

Arreola (239 lbs.) W DQ 3 Chazz Witherspoon: 61.3 punches per round

Arreola (240 ½) KO 3 Raphael Butler: 66.1 punches per round

Arreola (247) L 12 Bermane Stiverne: 27.8 punches per round

Arreola (250 ½ lbs.) L 12 Tomasz Adamek: 44.3 punches per round

Arreola (251 lbs.) KO by 10 Vitali Klitschko: 33.1 punches per round

Arreola (254 lbs.) KO 3 Travis Walker: 39.1 punches per round

Arreola (255 lbs.) KO 4 Jameel McCline: 39.8 punches per round

Arreola (263 lbs.) KO 4 Brian Minto: 52 punches per round

The reason for the pattern is clear; when Arreola is in proper condition, he has the cardiovascular capacity to impose – and maintain – a pace few heavyweights can match, or sustain. When his weight is elevated, however, he doesn’t have the physical wherewithal to execute that special aspect of his game.

Against Mitchell, Arreola proved that at 242 he can generate all the offense he needs – at least for one round and when he manages to hurt his opponent early. Here’s the good: In 146 seconds of action Arreola fired 56 punches, which projects to a 69-punch-per-round pace. The reason for caution: Arreola threw just 11 punches in the opening minute, which projects to a 33-punch-per-round pace.

“The Nightmare” only opened up when Mitchell showed vulnerability and once that occurred, his output increased dramatically. He fired 28 punches in the second minute (landing 13) and in the 26 seconds of the final minute he threw 17 and landed nine. If one extrapolates the pace set in the second minute to an entire round, it comes to 84 punches and 39 connects, which, given Arreola’s power, are numbers no heavyweight – including the Klitschkos – could withstand. In other words, when Arreola hurts a man, he stays hurt until he goes out.

But what if Mitchell had managed to survive Arreola’s opening assault? Then what? Would Arreola have needed to throttle down or would he have had the capacity to continue to fire at a fast rate? We’ll never know because of the next truth:

Seth Mitchell has the build and attitude of a heavyweight, but not the chin of one.

During his “Godzilla Phase,” Mitchell was a prospect capable of producing big numbers and highlight reel knockouts. His most impressive statistical performance came against Hector Ferreyro two years earlier when he averaged 79.7 punches per round, out-landed his foe 116-23 overall, 44-9 in jabs and 72-14 in power shots and connected on 53% of his total punches, 41% of his jabs and 64% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts.

The first sign of trouble occurred against Arreola victim Chazz Witherspoon, who, despite having 22 knockouts in 30 victories, was not known as a one-punch knockout artist. Nevertheless, he managed to hurt Mitchell badly and nearly have him out on his feet but to “Mayhem’s” credit he survived, scored two knockdowns in the third and score the stoppage win.

Then came the two fights with Johnathon Banks, a onetime cruiserweight title challenger whose heavyweight performances were marked by extremely low outputs that reflected a phlegmatic ring presence. He averaged 32.8 punches per round in beating Nikolai Firtha, 34.5 in decisioning Saul Montana and a paltry 21.8 in drawing with journeyman Jason Gavern. Based on this, observers believed his low-key style was perfect for Mitchell’s high-octane firepower.

Wrong. Inspired by the recent death of longtime trainer Emanuel Steward, Banks shocked the boxing world by blowing out Mitchell in two rounds, which spawned a rematch that either would certify or reverse the original result. Although Banks returned to his slow-paced ways (21.8 per round), something he blamed on injuries to both hands early in the fight, he nevertheless hurt Mitchell on several occasions. Even more revealing was that Banks actually out-landed Mitchell 90-87 and connected on 47% of his power shots to Mitchell’s 39%. Mitchell won the 12 rounder, but he hardly impressed.

Mitchell’s shaky chin combined with Arreola’s proven power made “Mayhem” a 4-to-1 underdog, and in the end the smart money was indeed smart. The knockout losses to Banks and Arreola along with the shaky performances against Banks and Witherspoon guarantee that future opponents – if there are future opponents – will gun for Mitchell’s chin like a starving tiger targets a slab of raw meat.

It is the rare heavyweight that succeeds despite a vulnerable chin – Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson come to mind – and if Mitchell wants to achieve his dreams he has a lot of work ahead of him. But at age 31 and with his prime athletic years spent in football instead of boxing, the odds against a Mitchell resurrection are prohibitive.

Every outstanding boxer’s time at the summit eventually ends, and that time has come for Rafael Marquez.

Not too many years ago, age 38 was considered ancient for a heavyweight much less a featherweight such as Marquez. In his most recent ring appearance, the possible future Hall of Famer looked shopworn as Esquivias’ volume and accuracy shredded, dropped and stopped him early in round nine.

“He has to go,” Marquez’s Hall of Fame trainer Ignacio “Nacho” Beristain said after the bout. “His reflexes are no longer the same and the legs are no longer working. He knows that he must walk away. I told him he should not fight anymore and he said he would think about it. But I think that there is nothing to think about – and he must walk away.”

(Editor’s note: On Sept. 20, Marquez announced he would do just that, saying he wanted to spend time with his family and that there were no more reasons to continue boxing.)

If one looks at the statistics of his last several fights this was a result that appeared inevitable. The only surprise is that Marquez hit rock bottom against a decided underdog in Esquivias.

The first manifestation of Marquez’s decline was his tendency to start quickly only to fade down the stretch. In the first two rounds against Cristian Mijares Marquez led 40-17 in total connects and 27-14 in landed power shots but in rounds three through nine Mijares out-landed him in every round (169-103 overall, 129-67 power) despite throwing fewer punches (453-366 overall, 239-237 power). One year earlier against then WBC 122-pound king Toshiaki Nishioka, Marquez again dominated early (85-44 in the first five rounds) but in the final three rounds Nishioka out-landed Marquez 89-42 overall and 73-43 power en route to a unanimous decision. Finally, against Juan Manuel Lopez, Marquez held his own in the first four rounds (he trailed 63-59 overall and 54-39 power) but from round five on “JuanMa” kicked it into overdrive and in the final three rounds he landed 141 power shots, including 64 in the seventh and 44 in the eighth and final round.

But the most graphic indicator of Marquez’s slide was his defensive numbers, especially against his opponents’ power punches. One strong CompuBox rule of thumb is that a fighter who tastes 40% or more of his opponents’ power punches bears watching. He fielded 45% against Lopez, 49% against Nishioka and 51% against Mijares. Even in his last victory over a top name, his dominant third round TKO over a faded and criminally cut-prone Israel Vazquez, Marquez still absorbed 40% of Vazquez’s power shots. These two negative trends converged against Esquivias.

Marquez began the fight well enough, for in the first two rounds he averaged 78 punches per round and out-landed Esquivias 54-23 overall, 24-14 jabs and 30-9 power. After that, the fight changed. In round three Esquivias upped his work rate from 54 per round in the first two to 85 in round three while Marquez’s work rate dropped to 61. He out-landed Marquez 24-19 and would do the same for every round after that.

The connect gaps grew at an alarming pace (34-24 in the fourth and 49-15, 56-20, 49-17 and 47-10 in rounds five through eight) and though Marquez tried to fight his way through it the mounting damage proved too much. A jolting lead right to the chin dropped Marquez early in the ninth and though he pulled himself off the floor referee Raul Caiz Jr. correctly and mercifully stopped the contest, which had cease being a competitive fight several rounds earlier.

The sustained beating he absorbed was ugly numerically as he was out-landed 283-159 overall, 225-99 in power shots and took 46% of Esquivias’ hardest blows. After doing an in-ring interview for Showtime, an examination in the dressing room revealed troublesome reactions as well as a damaged right orbital bone that required surgery. With Marquez’s announcement, any thoughts of putting him in with Leo Santa Cruz were scuttled. Let’s hope that Marquez remains happy in retirement, so happy that one day soon we will witness him giving his acceptance speech in Canastota.

Efrain Esquivias behaved like a fighter; fought like a fighter and created more opportunities for himself with a superlative performance against a big name.

It would have been easy for Esquivias to treat Marquez like an icon instead of just another guy standing across the ring from him. After all, Marquez was a hero to Esquivias just like Joe Louis was to Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali was to Larry Holmes. But Esquivias, Marciano and Holmes had to temporarily divorce themselves from reality in order to do what had to be done – create their own stars at their icon’s expense.

As soon as the fight was over, they were free to continue loving their heroes and each conducted themselves with class, honor and heartfelt admiration. But during combat they were brutal, merciless and clinical. Esquivias’ stats reflected just how well he was able to compartmentalize his feelings.

Following his slow start in the first two rounds (54 punches per round), the normally high-volume Esquivias cranked up his engine and let the punches fly. In rounds three through eight, Esquivias averaged 103 punches and 43.2 connects per round, far above the featherweight averages of 58 and 17.4 respectively. Esquivias topped the 100-punch mark in each of the final four completed rounds, topping off at 122 in the sixth and in rounds four through eight he out-landed Marquez 199-59 in power connects, a sickening margin by any standard. Esquivias was relentless and remorseless despite knowing he was beating up a man he admired since childhood. Only boxing can put an athlete in such an agonizing and conflicted position and yet Esquivias handled it the only way he could if he wanted to win and advance.

Esquivias probably got this opportunity based on what happened two bouts previously against Jhonatan Romero . The taller Colombian laid waste to Esquivias over 12 brutal rounds by out-landing him 367-101 overall, 89-22 jabs and 278-79 power as well as connecting with 46% of his total punches and 59% of his power shots. Given these numbers one could hardly blame Team Marquez for viewing Esquivias as an easy mark but a further look at the numbers revealed the potential storm to come.

Against lesser opposition, Esquivias was a punching machine that never stopped throwing. He averaged 92.7 punches and 62.7 power punches per round against Jonathan Alcantara and though Ephraim Martinez actually out-threw Esquivias (123.2 to 76.1), Esquivias was far more accurate (45%-20% overall, 30%-10% jabs, 45%-26% power). The better skilled fighters like Romero and Rico Ramos managed to limit Esquivias’ output and Team Marquez figured their man could do the same. Instead, the ring revealed the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – that Marquez, at this point in his life, no longer had the gifts of his prime and that he was primed to take a brutal beating.

Speaking of Ramos, the onetime WBA 122-pound titlist, one other truth emerged from the undercard – never, ever count “Suavecito” out in a fight.

Ramos looked all but beaten entering the 10th and final round against undefeated Carlos Velasquez, but in the fight’s closing minute the ex-titlist nailed Velasquez coming in with a clean hook to the jaw that stretched him for several frightening minutes. The blow brought back memories of Ramos’ title-winning victory over then-champ Akifumi Shimoda, who won the previous six rounds with ridiculous ease before being dethroned by a single punch. In fact, RingTV.com’s deadline reporter Mark Ortega declared that Velasquez had just been “Shimoda-ed.”

*

For the second consecutive broadcast, a Showtime-televised main event ended with a first-round knockout, making it a short work night for Joe and me in terms of televised punch counting. But since we arrived at the arena more than eight hours earlier, it wasn’t exactly a brief workday.

Once I returned to my room I ordered room service, caught up on all the news I missed and turned out the lights at 11:30 p.m.

Sunday, Sept. 8: Following five hours of in-and-out slumber I got up at 4:30 a.m. and by 5:15 I was in the lobby ready to check out of my room. One of my many quirks is that I am an inveterate early bird and I figured I wouldn’t see Showtime Vice President of Production Gordon Hall until shortly before our agreed-upon 5:30 a.m. meeting time. But even before I reached the registration desk Gordon was calling out my name. Usually I’m the one waiting on someone else to show up but here the reverse was true. Seeing no reason to linger, we mutually agreed to head out to the airport earlier than scheduled.

Gordon’s friendly, soft-spoken demeanor is diametrically opposed to the image often attributed to executives. He acts as his own driver and with the help of a cell phone GPS we arrived at Palm Springs International Airport with nary an issue. Among the subjects discussed along the way was, of course, Mayweather vs. Alvarez and all of the juicy side stories that surrounded it. The discussion made a brief drive seem even briefer.

Once Gordon dropped me off at the airport, I sailed through security and found my gate. It’s funny how life works sometimes: When I ran into Gordon in the lobby a day earlier, I asked him about two people on the flight list who were scheduled to be on the same outbound flight from Palm Springs to Phoenix, especially videotape technician Joann Wolfinger, who was one of the fortunate few to be assigned a rental vehicle. After giving me a brief description of Joann, who I didn’t know, he asked when my flight was scheduled to leave. When I told him he offered to take me himself because his bird was slated to depart only 20 minutes later than mine. That, as they say, was that.

Guess who my seatmate was on the flight to Phoenix? Joanne Wolfinger. Coincidence? Perhaps. But I prefer to believe that circumstances like these are the result of something beyond mere chance. I choose to think that because it has happened far too often in my life to think otherwise.

The hour-long flight seemed far too short as Joanne, whose career has spanned several decades and involved a spectrum of sports, told stories from the very earliest days of ESPN, where she worked from 1979 to 1981, and I told her tales of my various travel adventures. Being an ESPN-phile, I particularly relished hearing inside info that I otherwise never would have known about the network’s infancy.

When we landed in Phoenix we saw an extremely unusual sight: Rain, and lots of it. This was no scattered misting but rather a heavy and steady downpour that left me drenched following the 50-yard open-air walk from airplane to terminal. “Valley of the Sun” indeed.

As if the message wasn’t delivered loud and clear the first time around another coincidence greeted me on the Phoenix-to-Pittsburgh flight. The couple that occupied the middle and window seats was coming home from a trip to Las Vegas and during our conversation the girlfriend mentioned they were returning home to West Virginia.

“Did I hear you right?” I asked. “Did you say you were from West Virginia?”

“Yes,” the boyfriend replied.

“What part of West Virginia?” I asked.

“We’re from Parkersburg,” he said.

“Imagine that,” I said. “I used to work at your hometown paper, the Parkersburg News and Sentinel.”

Who would have guessed that I would be seated beside a couple from my home area on a flight headed out of Phoenix? Cue up the “Twilight Zone” theme song, please.

Although the weather issues delayed the Pittsburgh-bound bird, I landed in the “Steel City” only three minutes later than scheduled. The sunny skies and comfortable temperatures that I left a couple of days earlier had stuck around and as a result the two-and-a-half hour drive home was most enjoyable.

Once I pulled into the driveway at 7:14 p.m. I knew more work was ahead of me. The controversy surrounding the draw between WBO lightweight titlist Ricky Burns and hard-luck challenger Raymundo Beltran demanded that a punch count be conducted as soon as possible, so after a few minutes of recovery and unpacking I found the video and began the counts. A little less than two hours later the final figures were in: Beltran had out-landed Burns 214-173 overall and 174-106 in power shots. Considering the eighth round knockdown one had to believe Beltran had done more than enough to earn the decision and the unsettled silence in Glasgow’s Scottish Exhibition Centre the fans suspected their man had just been given a gift.

Looking at the round-by-round figures, however, there might be a reason why the judges may have subliminally given Burns just enough rounds to escape – Beltran’s throttling down the volume in the final two rounds.

Up until round 11, Beltran had maintained a steady pace and in rounds eight through 10 he threw 81, 67 and 65 punches to Burns’ 55, 58 and 54. But in rounds 11 and 12 Beltran let off the gas by throwing 47 and 44 punches while Burns increased his pace to 77 and 52. Beltran still out-landed Burns 21-19 overall in the last six minutes but the combination of Beltran’s slowing and Burns’ acceleration might have been enough to give the hometown fighter the last two rounds he needed. I do not have the round-by-round scoring breakdowns but I wouldn’t be surprised if the judges had awarded those rounds to Burns.

As of this writing, I do not know when my next trip will be. But until then, happy trails.

*

Photos / Alexis Cuarezma-Getty Images

Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 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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