Lee Groves

The Travelin’ Man returns to Montreal – Part II

 

Click here for part one.

Saturday, Jan. 18 (continued): As an event, Jean Pascal vs. Lucian Bute met, and occasionally exceeded, the lofty expectations. The crowd that eventually grew to 20,479 began to line up outside the Bell Centre during the mid-afternoon hours and once inside they invested full-throated support – as well as top-volume displeasure – that lasted from top to bottom and from early evening to post-midnight.

Even the collective buzz of normal conversations was louder than some arenas during the peak of action. During the main event I occasionally had trouble hearing the production truck through my headset despite having the volume knob turned up full blast. It was that loud.

The customary collection of go-go dancers and ring card girls displayed their unique talents between rounds and more than a few national celebrities dotted ringside. Laser displays, ear-splitting music and cochlea-shaking receptions accompanied the main event ring walks and, at times, the cheers neared the record levels I experienced six-and-a-half years ago when Bute fought Sakio Bika inside this same building. Punch-counting colleague Aris Pina, who joined thousands of others in capturing the scene on his cell phone, told me he had goose bumps. I'm sure he wasn't alone.

As for the fight, the pre-amble mostly trumped the amble.

Based on post-fight media reports, the bout's highly strategic nature wasn't everyone's cup of tea. Lengthy stretches of surface inaction were broken by explosive bursts, the majority of which were produced by Pascal. The war of nerves was hardly a surprise, for that's what happens when two natural counterpunchers meet. Because neither was willing to give the other something to work with, the fight swung to Pascal because he decided to be the one to seize the initiative far more often.

For me, Pascal-Bute inspired memories of several notable fights. Their constant juking, feinting and counterpunching conjured shadows of the 1982 WBC junior middleweight title fight between champion Wilfred Benitez and challenger Thomas Hearns, which Hearns won by a majority decision that should have been unanimous. At the time, it was thought Benitez's wiles would get the best of the supposedly one-dimensional "Hit Man" but Hearns proved beyond that the stylistic transformation that occurred in the middle and late rounds against Sugar Ray Leonard 15 months earlier were genuine and everlasting.

The late Bert Randolph Sugar described that fight perfectly when he wrote the following in THE RING’s February 1983 issue: "Time and again the two men stood looking at each other, playing mind-bending games and feinting so much that it looked like the two were on the verge of becoming human pretzels." Likewise, Pascal-Bute was an intense war of nerves that required both to invest considerable brain power. Interestingly, both fights even had questionable flash knockdowns. While Michael Griffin ruled Bute’s eighth round tumble a slip, Octavio Meyran thought otherwise of Hearns' ninth round fall.

The outcome was largely decided by a gulf in physiology and psychology. Only a few weeks from turning 34 and still dogged by sub-par performances against Carl Froch and Denis Grachev, Bute was unable – or perhaps unwilling – to pull the trigger as he had during his spectacular knockouts of Fulgencio Zuniga, Librado Andrade and Edison Miranda between March 2009 and April 2010. Pascal's tactics and mobility paralyzed Bute to the point that he threw far fewer punches than even a man criticized for his extremely low outputs. Pascal managed to out-throw Bute in nine of the first 11 rounds en route to connect advantages of 167-101 overall and 132-63 power during that stretch. Pascal achieved these gaps despite averaging just 35.9 punches per round (well below the 53.9 light heavyweight average) and that's because Bute's per-round output was a mere 28.4. Five times Bute's volume fell below 30, including 15 in round one, 22 in round two and 19 in round six.

Granted the time and space to think and execute on his terms, Pascal produced a well-conceived, highly unorthodox and well executed fight plan that would have made idol and camp consultant Roy Jones Jr. proud. Time and again Pascal glided to his right — usually a dangerous move against a power-punching southpaw — and fired laser-like rights that struck with impressive regularity. The timing required to pull off Pascal's array of maneuvers was impeccable and his efficient effectiveness reached its peak in rounds nine and 10 when he exceeded the 70 percent mark in power connects (15 of 21, 71 percent and 16 of 23, 70 percent respectively).

Pascal's marksmanship against a man who had been a tough target in the past was praiseworthy. From round six onward, Pascal's overall connect percentage never dipped below 45 percent and exceeded 50 percent four times (50 percent in rounds six and seven, 51 percent in round nine and 58 percent in round 10). The jab, an oft-neglected weapon in the current era and usually tough to land against a lefty, soared past the 30 percent level four times (36 percent in rounds six and seven, 38 percent in the 10th and 31 percent in the 11th). Those precise jabs, in turn, enhanced his power percentages as he landed 50 percent or more from round four onward, an excellent demonstration of skill and command under the brightest of lights.

One notable example of his elevated ring awareness unfolded in rounds two, seven and 11 when Pascal, upon hearing the 10-second warning, made sure to position himself in his own corner the moment the bell sounded, a move that granted him maximum rest while forcing Bute to walk the length of the ring just to reach his stool.

Then came the tumultuous 12th, a round that saw Bute come tantalizingly close to extricating himself from the deepest of holes.

Knowing he was prohibitively behind on the scorecards, Bute was forced to confront his fistic mortality. He knew a knockout was his only pathway to victory, a pathway that required him to assume far more risk than his nature normally would permit. But while the first 11 rounds resembled Hearns-Benitez, the 12th conjured possibilities of reliving Davey Hilton's comeback KO in his first fight with Stephane Ouellet and, in an interesting twist, Bute's near disastrous finish in his first fight against Andrade.

Bute desperately propelled himself toward Pascal's corner, trapped his antagonist against the ropes and fired dozens of hooks, crosses and uppercuts. The supremely confident Pascal astonishingly chose this moment to encourage Bute even more by playing his version of possum. As Bute continued to bomb away, Pascal's head snapped and his facial expressions revealed flecks of authentic duress. The heavily pro-Bute crowd finally had reason to crank up the volume and they did so with pulse-pounding intensity. Plenty of time remained in the round and one had to believe that if Bute could keep it up he could — could — produce a miracle for the ages.

Pascal had other ideas. He fought his way out of the corner behind a series of lashing punches that extinguished any thoughts of a massive Bute comeback. All suspense regarding the ultimate outcome was snuffed out the moment the final bell sounded.

Numerically, Bute's rally was something to behold. He threw 98 punches – more than triple his 28.4 average output over the previous 11 rounds – and connected on 44, nearly as many as the 48 he landed in the previous four rounds and one more than the 43 punches Pascal threw.

The math was academic. Pasquale Procopio (118-110) and Jack Woodburn (117-110) saw Pascal a lopsided winner while Claude Paquette (116-112) viewed a slightly more competitive contest. The final CompuBox numbers also reflected Pascal's dominance as well as Bute's last-ditch stretch drive as he prevailed 187-150 overall and 151-102 power to offset Bute's 48-36 lead in landed jabs. Pascal also was the far more accurate fighter as he landed 43 percent of his overall punches and 57 percent of his power punches while Bute registered 36 percent and 40 percent respectively. Unlike most fights these days, the jab was a notable asset for both as Pascal landed 21 percent while Bute connected on 31 percent, which neared and exceeded the 23.6 percent light heavyweight norm.

Pascal's comprehensive victory allowed him to retain his standing as a top-flight contender as well as a prime candidate for a few more big fight nights against the elite names. RING (and WBC) champion Adonis Stevenson is reportedly slated to fight Andrzej Fonfara and expressed little interest in meeting Pascal right away. WBA titlist Beibut Shumenov and IBF counterpart Bernard Hopkins will attempt to unite their belts in the spring while the WBO's Sergey Kovalev is regarded by many as the best 175-pound boxer on earth.

As for Bute, his final round explosion may have earned him another opportunity to work out the physical and mental kinks. For long stretches Bute had the look of a man who saw openings but lacked the reflexes to let his punches go. Only Bute knows whether his hesitancy is purely mechanical or if its roots contain an elevated concern of being countered but his closing burst proved that he is still capable of throwing lots of punches given the proper motivation — and perhaps a more agreeable style.

*

Another fight with a psychological story line was the co-feature between Mike Perez and Carlos Takam. Perez earned his second consecutive HBO-televised fight following his action-packed – but ultimately tragic – decision victory over ill-fated bomber Magomed Abdusalamov just 10 weeks earlier. As Abdusalamov continues to wage his silent and expensive battle, Perez sought to move ahead – and partially move on – against the 29-1 Carlos Takam, a French-based Cameroon native whose last fight took place four weeks earlier.

The 10-round draw unfolded in two halves that couldn't have been more different. The first five rounds were disappointing for those expecting to see the dynamic 81.2-punch-per-round attack Perez used to break down Abdusalamov. Instead, they got a defensive-minded points-oriented boxer that won rounds only because Takam was doing even less.

During the first 15 minutes of competition, Perez averaged 47.2 punches per round — slightly above the 45.6 heavyweight norm — but the jab that worked so well against Abdusalamov (44 thrown and 14.1 connects per round, 32 percent) hardly made a dent against Takam's guard as only 13 of 156 (8.3 percent) penetrated. One positive aspect of Perez's game was his power accuracy; although he didn't throw many (16 per round), he landed 49 percent of them and twice exceeded 50 percent (54 in round three, 53 in round four). Similarly, Takam couldn't get untracked as he averaged 35.8 punches per round and was out-landed 52-41 overall and 39-27 in power shots. A dreary decision win for Perez appeared all but certain.

For whatever reasons, the action kicked up considerably the moment the bell for round six sounded. Takam more than doubled his output (from 36 to 82) and more than tripled his connects (from 10 to 33). His overall accuracy surged from 28 percent to 40 percent while the trench warfare also helped Perez's precision (from 23 percent to 39 percent overall and 44 percent to 51 percent power). From that point forward the ring geography and the statistics belonged to Takam as he led 132-102 overall and 129-86 power. Better yet, the first-half tedium became a compelling watch.

The draw verdict was justly rendered but in terms of career path it had the same air as Harvard's ferocious comeback against Yale in 1968 that spawned the famous headline "Harvard beats Yale 29-29." Takam enhanced his standing while Perez's eroded, mostly because of how much this performance paled in comparison to the Abdusalamov fight.

Unlike some pundits, I don't believe the Abdusalamov aftermath had much impact on Perez's performance. Before last December's fight I ran the numbers on Perez's May 2013 decision over Travis Walker and, like Takam in the first five rounds, "The Freight Train" allowed the Cuban expatriate to dictate the terms of battle, except that Walker allowed him to do so for the entire bout.

Left to his own devices, Perez averaged a ho-hum 36.2 punches per round, the majority of which were jabs (202 of 362 punches) while Walker averaged an anemic 22 punches per round and barely laid a glove on Perez — literally. After 10 sleep-walking rounds Perez cruised to huge connect leads (142-27 overall, 67-11 jabs, 75-16 power) and connected on 39 percent overall, 33 percent jabs and 47 percent power to Walker's 12 percent overall, 9 percent jabs and 17 percent power.

Therefore, I believe his performance Saturday was just an extension of his normal ring temperament while the Abdusalamov war was an aberration. When Abdusalamov roared out of the corner and forced a slugfest, Perez had no choice but to reciprocate to avoid being run out of the ring. Abdusalamov's leaky defense produced an environment for instant success, which, in turn, allowed Perez to get on a roll that lasted for the remainder of the fight. That performance spawned a powerful , and, based on the Takam fight, a misleading imprint. Perez is what he is: If he’s pushed, he’ll fight. But if he’s left on his own he’ll turn in less than scintillating fights.

A final note: Trainer/cut man Abel Sanchez deserves massive credit for controlling the nasty slice above Perez’s eye. His experience, knowledge and skill allowed his man to determine his own fate, which is as much as a fighter can ask of his cut man.

Because both fights went the full distance, and because there was considerable human traffic at ringside and motorized congestion outside the Bell Centre, I arrived at my hotel room at 1:37 a.m. I e-mailed the stats to my boss, consumed the late-night meal I picked up at the production truck and tried to get a few hours of shuteye.

Sunday, Jan. 19: I stirred awake at 7:30 a.m. after nearly five hours of slumber. While trying to catch up on some long neglected writing I got an e-mail from U.S. Airways indicating that my 12:35 p.m. flight to Philadelphia had been pushed back to 1:19 p.m., which shrunk my connection window from 108 minutes to 64 — if all went well.

With two laptops in tow instead of the usual one, navigating the multi-layered security procedures was a bit more labor intensive but that was mitigated by the sparse turnout. Because my sweater's material set off the metal detector I was subject to a second screening that I easily cleared.

With all my ducks in a row I proceeded toward my gate and prepared to do some more writing. But before I could get on a roll I spotted veteran broadcast journalist Dave Bontempo walking toward me. Bontempo, along with historian Don Majeski, worked one of the international broadcasts and over the past several years we've become good friends. He proved that friendship once again when, after hearing of my tighter connection in Philadelphia, he asked the gate agent during the boarding process if there were any seats closer to the front of the plane available. The right-side aisle seat in row two was just one of several and within a few moments I was moved up eight rows. Because the first row seat across from Bontempo was also vacant, he suggested I move up there during the flight so we could chat more comfortably, then move back to row two just before the final descent. As a result, the first aeronautical leg was most enjoyable.

For all of Dave's help, one logistical hurdle remained. Since this international flight was to pull into a gate in Concourse F, I was required to take a bus to reach my connecting gate, a process that usually takes 15-20 minutes. I received two terrific strokes of luck: First, I reached the bus line just before it was about to depart and second, my connecting gate required a shorter-than-usual walk. I reached my gate less than five minutes before the boarding process began and, since I was upgraded to first class, my window seat in row three was more than comfortable.

Both flights were virtually turbulence free, though strong winds made the plane sway unsteadily during the descent to Pittsburgh. The drive home was enjoyable and uneventful and shortly after 8 p.m. I pulled into the driveway. As soon as I put away my bags I got back to work, this time recording some of the seven shows I saved on the DVR onto my hard drive unit. I also braced myself for a busy Monday of writing, counting, organizing my receipts and other sundry tasks.

And to think, I'll get to do this all over again starting on Thursday. That's when I'll be returning to Resorts International in Atlantic City to work on NBC Sports Network card topped by Curtis Stevens-Patrick Majewski and Thabiso Mchunu -Olanrewaji Durodola.

Until then, 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 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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