Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man: The Stretch Drive Ends – Part II

Click here for part one.

 

Saturday, Dec. 14 (continued): I’ve written many times that boxing is the sports world’s ultimate proving ground. That’s because it’s true: The boxing ring exposes a person’s physical, emotional and psychological state more graphically than any other venue because one is forced to react and behave instantly and instinctively. Everyone will see what’s inside a fighter’s core that day, good or bad.

A subset of this truism is that boxing is also the supreme lottery ticket, for a fighter can reshape his career path with a single positive performance or even a single punch.

For most of the fighters involved on this day’s card, redemption and opportunism were key words. Heavyweights Amir Mansour (an 8 ½-year jail sentence) and David Rodriguez (a long facial scar incurred in a knifing incident) overcame difficult life circumstances just to step between the ropes. Others, like cruiserweight-turned-heavyweight Steve Cunningham and opponent Manuel Quezada, light heavyweights Ryan Coyne and Lionell Thompson (who met in the co-feature), and heavyweights Darnell Wilson, Kelvin Price (who fought Mansour in the main event) and the 0-1-1 Aaron Leonard, sought to regain their winning touch following recent blemishes.

Still more, like middleweights Trent Laidler and Vincent Floyd (who debuted against one another) and heavyweight Andrew Peurifoy (who fought Leonard in the “walk-out” bout) wanted to make a good first impression in their maiden voyages. The only fighter on the card whose mission was to maintain what he had was southpaw super middleweight John Magda, who wanted to notch his fourth consecutive victory (and fourth straight KO) against 2-8 tough guy Jess Noriega, whose place within the boxing firmament appeared obvious.

The opening fight started with an immediate bang, for Laidler dumped the southpaw Floyd on his behind in the first 15 seconds with a sharp one-two to the chin. Because punch-counting colleague Aris Pina and I were stationed next to Floyd’s corner, we were privy to every word uttered by his seconds, a constant stream of instruction, criticism and encouragement. Their charge arose from his early adversity and battled Laidler tooth-and-nail for the remainder of the round – and the remainder of the bout.

After Laidler out-landed Floyd 21-18 in round one (including 19-10 in power connects), the second was a true swing round as Laider prevailed 32-28 overall and 29-27 in power shots and led 52%-51% in power percentage but Floyd was more accurate overall (47%-40%). Rounds three and four saw Floyd hit his stride as he out-landed the tiring Laidler 54-33 overall and 46-18 in power shots, including 61%-32% and 49%-37% bulges in power percentages. After the final bell I turned to Aris and said “this looks like a draw-ish fight.”

There was reason to feel that way. Floyd landed more (100-86 overall, 17-10 jabs and 83-76 power) and was more precise (44%-33% overall, 30%-12% jabs and 49%-42% power), but Laider’s first round knockdown and close second round might work in his favor. The wide disparity in judging reflected the difficulty in scoring as Debra Barnes saw Laider a 40-35 shutout winner while George Hill saw it 38-37 for Floyd. But Joseph Pasquale’s 38-38 card proved decisive and confirmed my initial impression.

The night’s most exhilarating ending unfolded in the next fight as the 39-year-old Wilson broke a five-fight losing streak with a one-punch, left-hook knockout of the previously 36-0 (34) Rodriguez that was reminiscent of his June 2007 KO of Emmanuel Nwodo, which still ranks among the most explosive I’ve ever seen live.

While Wilson remained dangerous throughout, the 36-year-old Rodriguez’s far superior volume (315 punches to 134) and initiative created a seemingly unassailable lead. Through five rounds Rodriguez led 123-64 in overall connects, 48-4 in landed jabs and 75-60 in power connects but while Rodriguez landed 54% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts (including 73% in round five), Wilson remained dangerous as he connected with 51% of his still potent power punches. Still, it appeared the undefeated prospect was poised to make a successful comeback following a two-year layoff.

Early in the sixth and final round, a Wilson right hand sliced Rodriguez’s left eye and the spurting crimson ignited the “Ding-a-Ling Man” of old. As the blood splattered Rodriguez’s face and chest (as well as our papers at ringside) Wilson swarmed in behind vicious combinations in the hopes of scoring a miracle KO. With just five seconds remaining Wilson landed a crushing hook that sent Rodriguez crashing back-first. The thud Rodriguez’s fall created around ringside and his prone, unmoving body moved referee Lindsey Page to immediately – and correctly – wave off the fight. The time of the stoppage: 2:59 of round six. Talk about pulling oneself out of the fire.

Round six was the only time Wilson out-landed Rodriguez (22-15 overall and 22-10 power) and in the final minute he landed 9 of 11 power shots, which translates to an incredible 82%. With the victory Wilson breathed new life into his career, although one ringside wag commented that all Wilson did was “stamp his ticket for another trip to Europe to fight some undefeated prospect.” If that’s the case, then I say to him, “From one Travelin’ Man to another, I wish you safe passage and good luck.”

An interesting coincidence: For Wilson the victory ended a 2-12 skid which begun in February 2008 with a 12-round decision to…NBC Sports Network analyst B.J. Flores.

The 37-year-old Cunningham needed no last-second heroics to snap his own two-fight losing streak as he out-classed journeyman Quezada from first bell to last. The two-time cruiserweight king fought like a man with something to prove, not only to his critics but also to himself. Cunningham uncharacteristically seized the role of aggressor and proceeded to pepper Quezada with precision jabs and sizzling combinations while also employing smart footwork in both directions. Cunningham oozed confidence throughout while Quezada was frustrated and ineffective.

The 80-72 scores from all three judges reflected Cunningham’s dominance, as did the CompuBox stats that saw Cunningham amass connect advantages of 172-30 overall, 115-12 jabs and 57-18 power. Cunningham’s jab was tremendously effective as he averaged 16 connects and 49 attempts, far above the heavyweight averages of 5.7 and 19.7. Interestingly, Cunnigham’s 25 landed jabs  in round six was the most by a fighter tracked by CompuBox in 2013.  Cunnningham’s command grew with every succeeding round, for in rounds 6-8 he out-landed Quezada 43-6, 35-5 and 31-4 while averaging 90 punches per round to Quezada’s 29.

Granted, this fight was designed to be a way for Cunningham to get back on the winning track and Quezada, who had lost his last three fights after rolling off 18 straight wins between 2006-2009, simply didn’t have the tools to cope with Cunningham’s talent, much less his amped-up desire to fight in a more TV-friendly manner. However, it’s one thing for the field to be prepared but another to plow it to perfection. Watching Cunningham plant his pugilistic seeds was a pleasure.

I felt similarly about Thompson’s performance in winning a lopsided 10-round decision over Coyne. He proved he indeed had gotten past last year’s savage KO loss to Sergey Kovalev by completely out-boxing his aggressive but ineffective southpaw opponent. Thompson’s movement, sharp punching (50% power accuracy to Coyne’s 28%) and 60.6 punch-per-round pace limited “The Irish Outlaw” to 38.6 punches per round and created connect deficits of 224-70 overall, 62-19 jabs and 162-51 power. If one can boil this fight down to one sentence it would be this: Coyne’s style was completely right for Thompson while Thompson’s style was completely wrong for Coyne, especially following an eight-month layoff which saw him lose his then-undefeated record against Marcus Olivera in an IBF title eliminator.

The main event featured many contrasts: Height (Mansour 6-foot-2, Price 6-foot-8), stance (Mansour southpaw, Price orthodox), style (Mansour winging power puncher, Price long-range boxer) and recent fortunes (Mansour undefeated in 19 fights, Price 1-1 in his last two, including a KO by 3 against Wilder). Based on the videos I watched during the pre-fight research, I looked for Mansour to live up to his nickname of “Hardcore” because of his constant aggression and explosive spurts and for Price to keep his distance throughout behind a busy jab. Because most fighters’ habits are indelibly ingrained, that’s exactly what happened.

Price’s movement wasn’t nearly enough to hold off Mansour’s charges and in the first four rounds he trailed 82-33 in total connects, 81-28 in landed power punches and averaged just 35 punches per round to Mansour’s 47. He also was the far more accurate fighter as the overall connect gaps were 52%-17%, 44%-24%, 38%-30% and 47%-23%, mostly due to Mansour’s steady body attack that set up looping head shots that landed with authority. At times the action was awkward and sloppy but the energy expended was undeniable.

Price mounted a mini-rally in round five, managing to out-land Mansour for the only time in the fight (11-10). That effort was trumped by a crunching right hook that floored Price in the final minute. Round six was clearly a recovery round for both – Mansour from his round five exertions and Price from the result of Mansour’s exertions. Mansour registered his lowest totals for punches thrown (28) and connects (9) but still managed to out-land Price by three.

Price enjoyed several moments of success in the seventh, including a scorching right to the head that represented his high-water mark. But with seconds remaining in a round that saw Price land his highest percentage of power shots (12 of 25, 48%), the roof caved in as Mansour landed a scorching right hook that floored Price for the second and final time. Although Price regained his feet and tottered toward his corner, his seconds and the ringside physician correctly determined his night’s work was finished.

For Mansour it was a good night’s work statistically as he out-landed Price 115-62 overall and 114-52 in power shots. He landed 42% of his total punches and 47% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts but did taste 40% of Price’s power shots, a potential red flag for future fights. As for whom his opponents might be, Mansour uttered one name above all others – Deontay Wilder. Given Price’s height it appeared a good dress rehearsal for Mansour in terms of dimensions but not necessarily one style-wise; Wilder throws harder and more frequent jabs and boasts genuine fight-ending power. Mansour admitted after the bout that he was sloppy and if he wants to beat Wilder he’ll have to tighten up his technique and his defense considerably.

Other notable undercard happenings included:

  • Magda out-worked the out-gunned Noriega over six rounds by firing constant combinations to all available targets and out-landing him 192-62 (overall), 36-5 (jabs) and 156-57 (power). He also far out-distanced him in terms of precision as he landed 48% of his total punches and 60% of his power punches to Noriega’s 21% and 30% respectively. Noriega put forth an honest and worthy effort and appeared determined to do his best from bell to bell. It just wasn’t enough to win this day.
  • College basketball fans of a certain age (of which I am one) will recall Nolan Richardson’s “40 minutes of hell” offense when he coached at Arkansas. His constant fast-break offense and pressure defense broke the wills of numerous opponents and that formula enabled the Hogs to go all the way in 1994. Heavyweight Aaron Leonard applied many of those same principles but his “110 seconds of hell” was enough to blow out the debuting Andrew Peurifoy, who was floored by a big right hand and belabored by Leonard’s ceaseless follow-ups. Referee Page was forced to intervene, which ignited a post-fight celebration as explosive as his in-ring performance.

Aris put it best when he turned to me and said, “North Philly don’t play.”

*

After leaving ringside, Aris was in the mood to get a hamburger so I packed up my stuff and headed out of the arena. Along the way we ran into Cunningham and congratulated him on his sterling performance and said hello to several other acquaintances. We ended up stopping at Gallagher’s Burger Bar, where we ordered the eight-ounce burger (cooked medium well), fries and beverages. As we ate Aris used his cell phone to keep us apprised of what was happening at San Antonio’s Alamodome.

As we continued to follow the Maidana-Broner fight we heard a cheer from the bar area behind us. Three fellows were huddled around a cell phone that had the “Showtime Everywhere” app, which enabled them to watch the fight live. The cheer was prompted by Maidana’s first knockdown of Broner in round two and at that Aris and I rushed over and peered over the trio’s shoulders. Aris had already finished his meal while between rounds I returned to my table to steal a few bites. During the later rounds Antonacci joined our group, and the six of us must have been a sight to the other patrons.

Because Broner so modeled himself after his hero Floyd Mayweather Jr., his beat-down at Maidana’s hands was cathartic for many because not only was “The Problem” solved it also unleashed some of the pent-up energy reserved for a potential Mayweather loss – a loss we probably will never see given “Money’s” mix of supreme ring talent and intelligent self-matchmaking.

With my fistic and gastric appetites thoroughly sated, I returned to my room briefly before going to the business office to print out my boarding pass, an effort that was somewhat hindered by a locked door and problematic Internet access – even at this for-pay venue. I spent the rest of the time watching SportsCenter to catch up on what I missed (Jaimis Winston winning the Heisman, Mack Brown resigning as Texas’ coach, etc.) and turned out the lights shortly before 2 a.m.

Sunday, Dec. 15: For me this day’s cycle began following six hours of pretty good sleep. After pulling back the curtains I noticed particularly intense waves rumbling in from the Atlantic Ocean but by 9:15 a.m. the sun broke through. Traffic along my section of boardwalk was extremely light, probably because of the temperatures that barely exceeded freezing.

I spent much of the morning making headway on my writing responsibilities. On a hunch I tried to gain Internet access but, of course, that effort was in vain. I resigned myself to the fact that I won’t be re-connected until I returned home.

While conditions in Atlantic City were benign, I wondered if my return to Philadelphia’s airport would be similarly so. Highlights of yesterday’s snow-covered Army-Navy game at Lincoln Financial Field indicated not. However, the driver I was scheduled to meet at 11 a.m. did not indicate any weather-related changes in plans, a possibility given the unstable weather forecast as of yesterday, so I paced myself accordingly.

Being a confirmed early bird I checked out of the hotel at 10:30 and asked my scheduled driver via text where I should meet him. “I’m going to get gas then we can meet right in front outside,” he replied. He pulled up exactly at 11 a.m. (I love punctuality) and he got me to the airport shortly after noon, which gave me plenty of time to get ready for my 1:50 p.m. flight to Pittsburgh. Aside from a light dusting of snow, conditions were perfect and thus I didn’t anticipate any delays.

There weren’t. No fresh snow had fallen on the Atlantic City Expressway or the Walt Whitman Bridge and I arrived at the airport shortly after noon. Although the flight departed six minutes later than advertised it landed 15 minutes ahead of schedule. For the second straight week I needed to scrape snow and ice off the car before leaving the airport but the drive home was pleasingly serene. I pulled into the driveway at 6 p.m. and spent the rest of the evening enjoying some of the fight cards I didn’t have the chance to watch live.

With that a most memorable stretch drive came to an end, for my next trip will take place in a month’s time when I will work the HBO-televised card in Montreal topped by Lucian Bute-Jean Pascal.

Until next year, happy trails.

*

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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