Lee Groves

The Travelin’ Man goes to Las Vegas-part II

Money-635

 

Click here for part one

At long last, Floyd Mayweather Jr. was administered the acid test all legends must endure before completing their fistic résumés. He was cut. He was roughed up. He was pushed to the maximum from first bell to last. He absorbed the most punches of his career. And for the third time in his professional life, the decision wasn’t unanimous but the majority verdict was enough to push his record to 46-0.

It was the arguably the sternest test of Mayweather’s 18-year professional career. Despite “Money’s” statements to the contrary about voluntarily giving the fans the brawl they wanted, the reality as seen by this observer was that Maidana’s piranha-like ferocity forced the pound-for-pound king to tap his deepest resources and engage in a spellbinding war.

The last time Mayweather was this close to defeat in optical terms took place 12 years ago last month when Jose Luis Castillo became the first (and still only) fighter ever to out-land him in 38 fights tracked by CompuBox. Averaging just 42.2 punches per round to Mayweather’s 37.3, Castillo nevertheless earned a 203-157 connect bulge overall in a most surprising manner: by being more accurate than boxing’s ultimate sharpshooter.

Castillo landed 40% of his total punches to Mayweather’s 35% and an extraordinary 46% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts to Mayweather’s 44%. Mayweather’s precise jabbing (31%-23% and 91-30 connect gap) was exceeded by Castillo’s cavernous 173-66 margin in power connects. But when the scorecards of Anek Hongtongkam, John Keane and Jerry Roth were totaled, Mayweather was a resounding winner (116-111 and 115-111, twice, respectively). The eyes of most observers, however, believed differently.

Statistically and aesthetically, Maidana amplified Castillo’s blueprint by tearing into Mayweather with a magnetically savage attack that struck all available legal targets – as well as several illegal ones. The conventional wisdom going in was that Maidana needed a fast start to give him any chance of winning and trainer Robert Garcia said as much by declaring his man needed to average 100 punches per round to maximize his chances. And wouldn’t you know it: in round one, the WBA titlist fired exactly 100 punches and in the process, he out-landed his WBC and RING counterpart 26-20. Unfortunately for the Argentine, that was the only time he reached triple digits.

Still, Maidana maintained the overall connect lead for nine rounds, a monumental feat given the historic nature of Mayweather’s dominance over his opponents. But like Castillo before him, the judges, at least two of them this time, saw a different fight than most observers. Burt Clements (117-111) and Dave Moretti (116-112) saw Mayweather a definitive winner while Michael Pernick’s 114-114 scorecard most accurately captured the bout’s competitiveness.

Given Maidana’s supreme effort, why did Mayweather emerge victorious? As accurate as Mayweather has been through all the years, he summoned an otherworldly level of excellence against the rampaging Argentine. If his percentages for the fight weren’t impressive enough (54% overall, 34% jabs, 65% power), the round-by-round breakdowns were even more amazing. Consider:

In overall punches, Mayweather reached the 50%-59% level six times (59% in the third, 54% in the sixth, 57% in the seventh, 51% in the eighth and ninth and 54% in the 11th), 60%-69% twice (60% in round two, 67% in round 10) and topped off at 70% in round four. Mayweather’s power precision was even more spectacular as he ranged in the 40s once (45% in the fifth), the 50s twice (57% in the first, 58% in the eighth), the 60s five times (67% in the third, 65% in the sixth, 69% in the seventh, 60% in the ninth and 63% in the 11th), the 70s once (76% in the 10th) and the 80s twice (82% in the second, 80% in the fourth).

It is extremely rare that a fighter touches the 70% range once in a career but for Mayweather to reach and exceed that threshold four times in the same bout is beyond sensational.

With Maidana leading 125-98 in total connects and 110-74 in landed power shots through six rounds, the South American appeared on the way to a mind-blowing upset. But as Mayweather said after the fight, he adjusted, adapted and rallied.

Mayweather out-landed Maidana in five of the final six rounds overall (132-96) and in power punches (104-75) while the Argentine slowed his pace from 78.5 punches per round over the first six to 64.5 in the final six. That slowdown – and Mayweather’s ability to maintain his historically high precision in the stretch drive – proved to be the difference between victory and defeat.

The final numbers showed Mayweather with a slim 230-221 lead in total connects and a 52-36 gap in landed jabs that trumped Maidana’s 185-178 edge in power connects. Maidana supplanted Castillo’s records for total connects and landed power punches by a Mayweather opponent, mostly because he took far more swings (858 overall and 540 power for Maidana, 506 and 377 for Castillo).

The bout’s high drama quotient will surely make Mayweather-Maidana a “Fight of the Year” candidate and calls for a second meeting in the immediate aftermath were virtually universal. The question of the moment is this: Can the second act ever reach the heights of the first?

The opinion here is that while the styles will always make for a compelling spectacle, it is difficult to imagine Maidana duplicating last Saturday’s level of success. If Mayweather gives Maidana the immediate rematch he gave Castillo (the only rematch of Money’s career), it should indicate a supreme confidence that Fight Two won’t look anything like Fight One. With time to analyze and with 12 fresh rounds to work with, the most likely result will be a comprehensive Mayweather victory if the Castillo rematch is any guide. Despite the closer scorecards (115-113 twice, 116-113) beyond the ropes, the action inside them indicated a more clear-cut delineation between the fighters.

In spite of promises made at the post-fight press conference, nothing in boxing is concrete until the contracts are signed and the boxers are in the ring. After all, it looked for months like Amir Khan was to be the one standing across the ring from Mayweather, not Maidana.

Speaking of Khan and his rugged decision victory over Luis Collazo, there were plenty of other sights and sounds surrounding the marathon card that can best be told in Travelin’ Man mode:

Saturday, May 3: The three previous days, exciting and eventful as they were, only served as a lead-up to this day – mega-fight day. It only happens two or three times a year in boxing but the all-out effort and stagecraft invested into a boxing event radiates a sense of importance and impact that one can feel, not just see. I knew from the very start that I would be sitting in on history and because of that, I felt an enormous sense of responsibility to be on point at all times. I also hoped that the events inside the ring will justify the elaborate preamble as well as attract new disciples to “The Sweet Science.”

I stirred awake at 6:30 a.m. and opted to snooze for another hour before finally starting the usual morning routines. After spending an hour polishing up my previous copy, I packed my laptops and began tackling today’s checklist.

Item one: Get my day-of-fight credential. Item two: Print my boarding pass. Item three: Get to ringside; hook up the laptop and wait for the action to begin.

The first task went smoother than expected. Although my call time wasn’t until 10 a.m., I left my room at 9:15 to avoid potentially long lines at the credential office. I felt much better when a fellow writer coming from the other direction near the food court told me to get my pass as soon as possible or else face a long wait, which meant I wasn’t going to face one now.

Before reaching the escalator that would lead me where I needed to go, I passed through a battery of metal detectors that were not yet functional and spotted several security officers, one of which had a bomb-sniffing dog on a leash. My blue temporary credential earned me a wave-through and a smiling “Good morning” from one of the female guards.

After going down the escalator and walking toward the office, I heard someone to my right yell, “Lee!” It was production supervisor Tiffany Rutkin, who was seated at a long table with several other Showtime employees. She shuffled through a thick stack of laminated photo IDs, which thankfully included mine.

With the new ID around my neck, I walked to the arena floor, found the CompuBox work station and chatted with punch-counting colleague Joe Carnicelli after he arrived a few minutes later. Once he and I reached an appropriate pause, I glanced at my cell phone and realized it was a few minutes past 10 a.m., the earliest time I could check into my outbound flight to Pittsburgh. Experience taught me that the earlier a passenger checks in, the better seat (or in this case, the better spot in line) one can get.

The boarding pass station in the MGM Grand’s lobby consists of nearly a half-dozen computer screens and multiple printers but wouldn’t you know, I had to pick the one that froze up the moment I tried to move the cursor? Another screen opened up several minutes later and this time, I acquired my document with no trouble. Although I checked in mere minutes after the 24-hour eligibility window began, I still drew C-9, which, on Southwest Airlines, meant I’d be the 129th person to board. Two days earlier, I snatched a window seat in row eight despite being the 96th passenger in line but I doubted I’d be able to avoid a middle seat location this time. Oh well, at least I tried.

I returned to the arena floor, where Joe and I successfully completed our pre-fight duties within moments. From that point forward, all we could do was wait.

As I scanned the scene at ringside, I couldn’t help but notice the contrast between the current quiet and the cacophony to come. Two workers tended to the ring ropes while the talent for one Spanish-language TV network rehearsed their remarks in front of a camera. No more than three dozen souls occupied the arena floor and the stands were vacant. It’s eerie to be inside a place solely designed to accommodate large crowds when it is empty, especially when one knows that same place will be rocking in just a few hours’ time.

The first fighters entered the ring at 2:10 p.m. before less than two dozen spectators but to welterweights Ladarius Miller and Richard Colas Quesada, it was an important moment in their lives. Combat is combat, no matter the number of witnesses. The pre-fight butterflies are the same; the pain from the punches is identical and the results will be part of the permanent record. And for the record, Memphis’ Miller, a southpaw, raised his record to 2-0 (1) with a 10-count knockout 58 seconds into round three.

Following super middleweight Lanell Bellows’ bloody second-round TKO over Thomas Gifford – the lanky Gifford’s nose spewed blood long before a pair of brutal right hands floored him and caused an instant stoppage by referee Jay Nady – I walked to Studio 6 to indulge in the crew meal. Among my table-mates were Showtime Spanish-language announcer Alejandro Luna, translator Felix DeJesus and Carnicelli, who arrived a few minutes after me. Joe and I returned to ringside to watch the rest of the undercard and make sure all remained well before we went live at 6 p.m. local time.

Because of the meal, I missed Ashley Theophane’s fourth round TKO of Angino Perez but I did see Ronald Gavril’s fourth-round TKO over Tyrell Hendrix, Anthony Ogogo’s third-round stoppage of Jonel Tapia and Andrew Tabiti’s fourth-round triumph over John Shipman.

The pay-per-view portion began with J’Leon Love’s off-the-floor decision victory over Marco Antonio Periban, a fight that featured dramatic shifts of momentum and was a referee’s split-second decision away from a far different result.

Statistically speaking, Periban’s fortunes rose and fell in time with his output. In putting together a 20-0 record, Periban had been known as a volume puncher but in his three most recent fights, his work rate fell in direct relation to the rise in his level of opposition. Against Love, Periban struggled in those rounds where he was mired in the 40s and 50s (which, unfortunately for him, were seven of the 10 rounds) while his fortunes soared when he turned on the jets. He stunned Love in rounds three (83 punches) and especially in round five (89 punches) when he had Love on the verge of a TKO.

With Love trapped on the ropes and taking a series of unanswered blows, Nady jumped in as if he were about to stop the fight, then, for reasons only known to him, changed his mind. That decision instantly – and irrevocably – changed the course of the contest. Love quickly regained his senses and it wasn’t until the final round that Periban regained his mojo by throwing 66 blows and out-landing Love 18-11.

Several already-established patterns regarding Love were affirmed against Periban. One, he is an offensive juggernaut who banks on a highly effective jab and precise cluster bombs. Despite throwing 197 fewer punches (355-552), Love led 136-132 in total connects and was the far more accurate athlete (38%-24% overall, 37%-17% jabs, 41%-31% power). Second, Love has a vulnerable chin because he now has suffered a knockdown in three of his last four fights. Finally, Love has the wherewithal to win despite adversities that include the aforementioned knockdowns and severe cuts around the eyes. Love has walked a dangerous tightrope to this point and odds are he will pay the price for it one day. But happily for him and his fans that day was not May 3.

On paper, Adrien Broner vs. Carlos Molina (the one who lost to Amir Khan 16 months ago, not the IBF junior middleweight titlist) appeared to be a massive mismatch. Not only had Molina come off a long hiatus, it was the second straight fight in which he fought following a relatively lengthy break. Molina owned a .368 knockout percentage to Broner’s .759 and though he’s a good inside fighter, his defense while in that posture was leaky.

But in the ring, it was a much different story. Broner, along with WBO super featherweight titlist Mikey Garcia, is among the sport’s slowest starters and that trait surfaced again in the first three rounds as he threw 44, 36 and 39 punches to Molina’s 52, 56 and 61. Once Broner’s engine warms up, however, he can be devastatingly effective and that was also proved. In rounds four through seven, he averaged 79 punches per round (topping off at 96 in round seven) and out-landed Molina 128-71 overall and 113-66 power during that stretch. Broner’s bursts didn’t floor Molina but then again, he stayed on his feet against Khan as well. The final stats saw Broner out-land Molina 237-150 overall, 65-21 jabs and 172-129 power and land 39% overall, 30% jabs and 43% power to Molina’s 27%, 11% and 35% respectively. Despite his sluggish start, Broner ended up throwing more punches by fight’s end (614-550).

During the post-fight interview Broner called for a fight with Manny Pacquiao, which, in the current political and television landscape, is not possible, especially if the “Pac-Man” re-signs with Top Rank. What may also be impossible is for Broner to curb his impulse for outrageousness. Showtime’s Jim Gray rightly chastised Broner for a profane and racial comment that the fighter and some of his supporters thought was funny but at age 24, barring a transformation experienced by Las Vegan Andre Agassi, Broner probably will remain who he is in terms of emotional maturity and temperament.

Then again, why would Broner want to change? He’s wealthy, well-known, a three-division titleholder and highly successful in his profession. In his mind, toeing the line behaviorally means being lost in the shuffle in this short-attention-span, antihero-worshipping popular culture. Mayweather became the world’s richest athlete only after donning the villain’s hat, spewing venom against his more beloved opponents and then backing up his words by beating them. Seeing this, Broner wanted not only to emulate Mayweather’s success but amplify it by committing acts that made even Broner’s role model shake his head.

Like Ivan Pavlov’s dogs and B.F. Skinner’s “war pigeons” proved, positive reinforcement has the power to shape behavior. There may come a time when one must answer for his actions but based on the financial rewards and career advancement Broner has received thus far, that time is not now because of the culture best represented by reality TV. Only a seismic shift toward old-school standards that retains its grip for an entire generation will cause the current environment to fall away. However, given that most of us follow the path of least resistance, a return to a higher standard that includes the reintroduction of shame is an uphill battle at best and a pipedream at worst.

In out-pointing former WBA welterweight titlist Luis Collazo, Amir Khan tried his best to secure his place as Mayweather’s next opponent. On several levels, he did more than enough: he won big on the judges’ scorecards (119-104 twice, 117-106), scored three knockdowns against a foe with a usually reliable chin and dominated statistically (264-140 overall, 63-30 jabs, 210-110 power). He doggedly stuck to his long-range fight plan and, save for one occasion in which he was clearly buzzed, he managed to stay out of trouble. Finally, he landed an impressive 50% of his power punches, a threshold that usually translates to an impressive victory.

But when the target is a Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight, the usual norms don’t apply. As effective as Khan was against Collazo, several instances of sloppiness marred an otherwise successful outing. The occasional ugliness resulted in both fighters being penalized in round eight, Khan for holding and Collazo for low blows. Given the orthodox-southpaw pairing and Collazo’s status as a respected and experienced ex-champion, Khan aesthetic and logistical difficulties were inevitable.

In a very real sense, Khan was in a no-win situation as far as looking good enough to guarantee a Mayweather fight. Here’s the crux of Khan’s problem: there is convincing and then there’s convincing – and while Khan reached the former, one must wonder if his outing was worthy of the italicized standard. Though Khan performed before a sell-out crowd and tens of millions on pay-per-view, in reality, he was putting on a show for an audience of one – Mayweather. And that’s a tough audience indeed.

You know that a fighter is the star of an event when the wireless password at ringside is “Mayweather46.” You also know he’s the star when he’s allowed to stage a ring walk that included clowns, stilt walkers, rhythmic gymnasts, jugglers, Lil’ Wayne and Justin Bieber while specially-made Mayweather currency fluttered from the ceiling. As expected, Maidana’s arrival was greeted with booming cheers and chants while Mayweather received perhaps the most robustly positive reception of his career. The electricity continued to build with every passing second and it reached ever more skyward as both fighters awaited the opening bell.

Maidana’s manic opening-round attack was a pleasure to count yet at the same time, I felt an immense responsibility to achieve the highest degree of accuracy. I instantly realized that if Maidana kept up the pace, he could pull off something truly legendary and in that vein, I wanted my numbers to be – pun intended – right on the money. With my focus so intent on Maidana, I had no idea that Mayweather was being so incredibly accurate, especially since the Argentine took the blows so unflinchingly.

As Maidana continued to pour on the pressure, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Pernell Whitaker’s classic brawl against Diosbelys Hurtado. Like Mayweather, the vast majority of Whitaker’s previous big-time fights were virtuoso performances in which he rarely lost a minute of a round, much less an entire three-minute session. His only blemishes to that point were a split decision to Jose Luis Ramirez in their first meeting (one of the worst decisions of the 1980s) and a draw against Julio Cesar Chavez (one of the worst decisions of the 1990s) but Hurtado’s quirky style and shocking power pushed “Sweet Pea” to the brink of disaster. Whitaker was already signed to defend his WBC welterweight title against Oscar De la Hoya in a mega-million dollar extravaganza but a mix of knockdowns and point penalties placed him one, two and five points down entering the 11th round.

With everything on the line and needing a huge rally to save himself, Whitaker hurt the Cuban expatriate and unleashed an animalistic assault that left his rival draped over the ropes. Referee Arthur Mercante Jr. declared Hurtado unfit to continue and with that dramatic finish, Whitaker filled the final blank spot on his fistic résumé – a comeback KO victory.

While Mayweather didn’t stop Maidana, he was forced to confront the reality that his treasured zero was in mortal danger of disappearing. Showing remarkable poise and resourcefulness, Mayweather elevated his already sublime game while remaining true to his in-ring persona. Just as Maidana out-landed Mayweather in five of the first six rounds, he did the same to Maidana in five of the final six, including the last four. When everything was on the line and after absorbing all of Maidana’s thunder, Mayweather had the right stuff to rise above his circumstances and produce when he absolutely had to produce.

Still, a genuine sense of anticipation enveloped the MGM Grand as we all awaited the decision. Indeed, the tension defined the very concept of “The Moment.” Would it be the moment Mayweather triumphed over extreme adversity or would it be the moment Maidana etched his name into fistic lore?

The emotional rollercoaster peaked when Pernick’s 114-114 score was rendered but plunged when ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. said “overruled by judges Burt Clements who sees the bout 117-111…” I didn’t have to hear Dave Moretti’s 116-112 score to know that Mayweather, his generation’s supreme defensive genius, had just dodged a speeding bullet. The shrieks of joy from Mayweather’s fans were soon overrun by the throaty boos of Maidana’s backers but on the whole, in my opinion, it was a great fight for the overall health of boxing.

I alerted Joe that Maidana had landed the most punches ever by a Mayweather opponent and at that point, he went to work. He gave the info to the writers immediately behind us, which included Kevin Iole of Yahoo! Sports and Dan Rafael of ESPN, passed a note to Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer (who used it to open his remarks to the ringside press) and informed Showtime’s public relations team and Golden Boy’s publicist Marylyn Aceves. Carnicelli’s hard work (and dedication) resulted in the stat receiving massive play in the post-fight coverage.

Carnicelli wisely advised me to stay at ringside for a while to allow the crowd to clear out, after which we walked across the hall to grab a post-fight meal. A few minutes after getting a chicken fajita, rice, tortilla chips, two peanut butter cookies and a can of Diet Coke, one of the food servers delivered shocking news. Her friend texted her that gunshots were fired somewhere inside the MGM Grand and that there were numerous injuries.

As the story ferreted itself out the reports of gunfire eventually were tamped down but the final product still painted an ugly picture: the loud bang caused by a falling partition near the Starbucks in the food court ignited a stampede that injured 50 and hospitalized 24. Because there is only one way out of the MGM Grand's arena – one that, by design, funnels into the food court and the casino – this scenario was bound to happen.

“People were running like crazy, trampling one another and running each other over,” a highly-placed eyewitness told me the following morning at the Las Vegas airport. “Everybody was running for it and people were jumping behind the yogurt stand to get underneath the metal countertops. They were freaking out and it was scary. I was eating at Emeril’s restaurant at the time and they immediately shut the gates. People had smashed into the bar and some of them were bleeding because of shattered glass. It reminded me of the scene after the [Mike] Tyson-[Evander] Holyfield rematch. There was only one way out and there were so many people trying to get out. It was a tense situation and the fact that there was a lot of drinking going on only made it worse.”

The worst had already passed by the time I walked into the post-fight press conference. Mayweather had the look of a man who had just endured a very tough night at the office and his initial “hard work” chants had a revealing weariness to them. That energy returned, however, following a few confrontational questions that put Mayweather on the defensive. The pound-for-pound king was both complimentary and critical of his opponent and at one point, said, “Next time don’t hit me in the d–k so much.” Maidana, nonplussed as always, fired back in kind by saying, “Next time let me use my gloves.”

With all four TV fights going the maximum 44 rounds as well as my decision to indulge in the lengthy post-fight festivities, I didn’t get back to my room until nearly 2 a.m. and didn’t turn out the lights until almost three. With a 10 a.m. direct flight to Pittsburgh on the immediate horizon, I knew I had to stuff eight hours of slumber into just three-and-a-half.

Sunday, May 4: And I did just that. The urgency of the tasks at hand propelled me through the morning routines and I hit all my chronological targets with a sniper’s precision. I arrived at the airport at 7:45 a.m., reached my gate by 8:15 and passed the time by either tapping away on my laptop or conversing with seatmates about the previous night’s fight.

Resigned to my fate as a middle-seat occupant, I made the best of the situation. I found a vacancy in the middle of row three between two slim attractive women and ample overhead space for my luggage. The flight, which departed 20 minutes later than advertised, was bumpy during the ascent and descent but unruffled in between. I spent the majority of the flight reading Springs Toledo’s excellent new book “The Gods of War,” which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in well-crafted prose.

It took me a half-hour longer than usual to drive home because 1) I needed to fill my car’s gas tank and 2) I picked up a package of carrots at the New Martinsville, W.Va. Wal-Mart and the person in front of me in the checkout line had a full cartload of groceries. Once I arrived home, I spent considerable time retelling the stories I chronicled here, then began to tackle the formidable to-do list that awaited my attention for the five days I was gone. It wasn’t until 2 a.m. that I finally turned out the lights on the day – and capped off a most memorable week in my life.

The next trip on the schedule is a ShoBox doubleheader on May 16 emanating from Foxwoods Resort in Mashantucket, Conn. The card will feature 130-pounders Joel Diaz Jr. and Tyler Asselstine and junior middleweights Frank Galarza and Sebastien Bouchard. I’ll need every bit of that time to whittle down the workload but being an optimist, I see it as a great way to occupy my time before the next adventure begins.

Until next time, happy trails.

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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 12 writing awards, including nine in the last four years and two first-place awards since 2011. 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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