Lee Groves

The Travelin’ Man goes to Montreal-part II

Stevenson-Fonfara-fight-635

 

Click here for part one

Saturday, May 24 (continued): Adonis Stevenson has come a very long way in his life and career, much further than anyone serving a two-year prison stint and turning pro at 29 could have ever hoped to expect. The longtime super middleweight captured a crown at 175 in the second-fastest time ever recorded in a divisional title fight and, at 35, he was one of the oldest men ever to win his first championship. His feats in 2013 – four wins, four knockouts and two defenses of the lineal title – earned him THE RING’s “Fighter of the Year” and “Knockout of the Year” awards.

And yet, as one scanned the Bell Centre when Stevenson came down the aisle to defend his belt against the unheralded Andrzej Fonfara, one could see he still has much to prove.

Plenty of seats were occupied but not quite all of them. Abundant cheers rained down on him but only a few fans were standing while doing so. The chants of “Su-per-man” didn’t bounce off the walls with the same force as the “Boo-Tays” had in years gone by. Yes, they wanted Stevenson to win but the reluctance to jump in with both feet could still be seen – and felt.

As for Fonfara, the doubts surrounding his standing as a title challenger were profound and almost universal. Despite his number three ranking in the IBF, his 25-2 (15) record and 13 straight wins – 12 of which came by knockout – the vast majority of observers pegged him as a sacrificial lamb to be slaughtered in the name of creating a highlight reel moment for Stevenson’s Showtime debut.

The odds-makers had Stevenson a nearly 10-to-one favorite and most who placed their money on the champion felt they wouldn’t have to wait long to collect their payoff.

In a fight that saw not one but two comebacks, Fonfara proved his worth as a serious contender by continuing to tear after Stevenson even after the champion’s thunder produced knockdowns in the first and fifth rounds. Stevenson conquered mid-fight fatigue, a left hand injury and a shocking ninth round knockdown to rally strongly in the final three rounds and cement a dominant-yet-difficult points victory. He showed the power that destroyed Chad Dawson and Tony Bellew while also showcasing the skills that flummoxed Tavoris Cloud yet exhibited enough vulnerability to lend suspense to any and all future fights.

The CompuBox numbers reflected the war that unfolded. They combined for 1,403 punches thrown (790-613 for Stevenson), 546 total connects (329-217 for Stevenson) and 417 landed power punches (260-157 for Stevenson), plus they connected at a higher-than-average rate across the board (42%-35% overall and 59%-40% power for Stevenson, 27%-20% jabs for Fonfara). Best of all, Fonfara earned his fair share of cheers from the Bell Centre crowd while the ovations for Stevenson were louder, longer and more accepting. Both had points to prove and though Stevenson was the only one with a belt strapped around his waist, they walked out of the ring with the satisfaction of having proved them.

How strong was Stevenson’s late-round comeback? After being out-landed 30-10 overall and 21-4 in power punches in round nine (both of which were his lowest connect totals of the fight), the Haitian/Canadian “Superman” threw 81 punches, landed 46 total punches and connected on 42 power punches in round 10, all of which were highs for the fight. He followed up with a nearly-as-strong 11th by out-landing Fonfara 41-24 overall and 39-22 power and survived a last-ditch Fonfara rally (32-30 overall for Fonfara, 29-29 power) in the 12th to sew up the victory. The cornerstone of Stevenson’s attack was his body-punching, which saw him land an incredible 138 times to Fonfara’s flanks.

“I came back strong,” Stevenson said in the post-fight interview. “I showed the world that I go down but I still come back strong because I am a true champion.”

Had Stevenson stayed with HBO, he probably would have fought WBO counterpart Sergey Kovalev sooner rather than later and if this version of the “Superman” had stepped between the ropes, the “Krusher” would have been renamed “Kryptonite” sometime inside the distance. But Stevenson and trainer Javan “Sugar” Hill would not have let that happen, for Hill would’ve demanded his fighter be in prime physical and mental condition and the fighter would have complied. With those variables in play, who knows what would have happened? All boxing fans hope is that the fight eventually takes place.

Stevenson and manager Al Haymon have been highly criticized for their move to Showtime just when it appeared the Kovalev fight was about to become reality (and if Kathy Duva and Main Events have their way, it may still be around the corner). From a business standpoint, one can see why: with Showtime’s Bernard Hopkins about to unify his IBF and Beibut Shumenov’s WBA belts, the path would be clear for a three-belt champion to be crowned in rather short order if he chose to jump networks. If Stevenson is that man (and that’s no sure thing given Hopkins’ supreme ring I.Q. and ability to gum up opponents’ offenses), then he’d be in a far more powerful negotiating position should he opt to gun for Kovalev’s single belt.

The only question is whether Stevenson is willing to fight Kovalev at all. Despite his reluctance to state it publicly, the guess here is that he does – but only on his terms. Stevenson will turn 37 in September and this title run may well be his one and only. Kovalev represents the greatest risk of that run coming to an end – and that end most likely would be executed in breathtakingly violent fashion.

Capitalism is all about maximizing profit and by joining Showtime, Stevenson has given himself the best chance of building his war chest before having to engage in the ultimate war. If he beats Kovalev, he makes history and his value in future fights will soar. But if he fails, at least he has enough money in the bank to live comfortably for many years to come. Given the proximity of the Kovalev fight, had he stayed with HBO, a much different scenario would have unfolded both in terms of career path and finances.

It would have been great if Stevenson-Kovalev had happened late last year or early this year. But in the long run, would it not be better for a Stevenson-Kovalev fight to be for the undisputed light heavyweight championship instead of for just two belts? If Main Events’ efforts to force a Stevenson-Kovalev match fail, perhaps a Kovalev-Jean Pascal fight could be staged in close proximity to Stevenson-Hopkins in order to raise awareness and, if Kovalev wins, exert enormous public pressure for the definitive fight to be made. And if Kovalev beats Stevenson, as most experts believe he will, then it will be Kovalev who will be the light heavyweight king of the mountain, both in terms of prestige and money-making power.

Our short-term gratification has been foiled for now but if the cards fall correctly, the long view may well become the best view.

*

Some undercard notes:

*  Philadelphia junior middleweight Julian “J-Rock” Williams’ performance against rugged Michael Medina would have made his predecessors proud. He was aggressive, accurate and supremely effective from first bell to last en route to an eighth-round KO that lifted his record to 16-0-1 (10) while lowering Medina’s to 26-5-2 (19). The CompuBox numbers reflected Williams’ effectiveness on offense and defense as he prevailed 214-95 in overall connects, 51-9 in landed jabs and 163-86 in power connects while landing 55% of his total punches, 38% of his jabs and a sky-high 64% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts.

The foundation for his KO victory was built in rounds four through six when he out-landed Medina 103-43 overall and 82-39 power. Williams fought into the eighth round for only the second time in his career and seemed to be stronger than was the case early on. This performance proved beyond doubt that Williams is ready to take the next step up the ladder for Medina came into the fight having lost three of his last six fights and off a career-long 444-day layoff. Let’s see how Williams does against stiffer competition. The guess here: quite well.

*  Light heavyweight Eleider Alvarez may be nicknamed “Storm” but his recent fights have been stormy for the wrong reasons. Three tougher-than-expected 10-round decision wins over the faded Edison Miranda, the gritty late sub Andrew Gardiner and the tricky Alexander Johnson revealed little of the wrecking-ball impact he showed in stopping Nicholson Poulard (TKO 3), Danny McIntosh (KO 8) and Daniel Regi (TKO 2). At least thus far, one can assume the elevation in competition has revealed Alvarez to be a calculated and cautious scientist who does carry dangerous one-punch power but, for reasons only known to him, chooses not to unleash it that often.

To be fair, Johnson’s southpaw style presented issues and limited Alvarez’s effectiveness (38.1 punches per round, 36% power accuracy and a 102-79 overall connects lead built entirely on his 42-19 bulge in landed jabs. They tied at 60 in power connects). One can say he’ll do better against a more aggressive opponent but that argument is rebutted by the issues he experienced against the ultra-rugged Gardiner. In a crowded light heavyweight class, Alvarez must find a way to step up his game and stand out – which is possible given the destructiveness of his earlier knockouts – or else he may get lost in the shuffle.

*  Statistically speaking, Jermell Charlo relies on his jab far more than most fighters. In eight previous CompuBox-tracked fights, the jab comprised 60.9% of his total output while it makes up only 42.3% of the typical junior middleweight’s volume. At 5-foot-11 and owning a 73-inch reach, this is just smart boxing. But his wide unanimous decision victory over Charlie Ota may have revealed another reason for his single-minded devotion to long-range fighting – a less-than-sturdy chin. A straight right to the jaw suddenly dropped Charlo in the third and while he used his legs and timely clinching to avoid further problems, the incident unearthed a variable that will surely be factored into pre-fight analyses for some time to come.

Most of the fight was waged to Charlo’s liking: lots of long-range boxing and more downtime than demolition. Neither man was particularly active (36.2 punches per round for Charlo, 41.5 per round for Ota) or accurate (29%-19% Charlo overall, 17%-17% jabs, 20%-20% power) and the 115-111 and 118-109 (twice) scores across the board reflected Charlo’s comprehensive control and Ota’s inability to capitalize when the chance arose.

*  David Lemieux is a beast when he presses the action and blasts both hands to the head and body but he’s far less than that when he attempts to box and maintain a tight defense. His three-round blast-out of onetime title challenger Fernando Guerrero illustrated both sides of Lemieux’s ring personality, which have yet to blend into a fluid unit. The peaks and valleys are stark but the aftermath of the peaks made the wait through the valleys worth it.

In all, Lemieux out-landed Guerrero 54-22 overall and 49-19 in power shots, plus he connected on 48% of his hooks, crosses, uppercuts and body shots. The only potential issue in future fights: Guerrero managed to land 40% of his own power punches, my personal red line in terms of defensive vulnerability.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful for fans to see Lemieux go to war against James Kirkland in the near future? Given Kirkland’s excruciatingly slow starts, Lemieux could win – but only if he gets “The Mandingo Warrior” to crumble in round one. After that, he has big problems because once Kirkland gets his motor running, he proceeds to run people over. Fights with Curtis Stevens, Peter Quillin and Felix Sturm would be interesting and a war with Gennady Golovkin will be guaranteed fireworks for as long as it lasts. Does Lemieux have the right stuff to overcome his past maladies against Marco Antonio Rubio and Joachim Alcine, men who rode out the early storm and emerged victorious? Here’s hoping we get the chance to find out – and soon.

*

It had been a long night at ringside but the Lemieux bomb-out made it much shorter than it could have been. Aris and I grabbed some snacks in the production office (a ham and cheese sub, a Lays mini-bag, a bag of carrots and celery and a can of Diet Coke for me) after which we walked back to the hotel. I reached my room at 12:19 a.m., consumed my bounty and switched off the lights at 1:15 in the hopes of getting enough rest to be functional in a few hours’ time.

Sunday, May 25: It took me at least an hour to drift off but I still awoke within two minutes of my 5 a.m. goal time, which was created because I needed to be at the airport at 6:30 to catch my 9:32 flight to Philly. Once I finished my morning routines, I headed down to the lobby at 5:45 to check out, hopefully exchange my currency (the posted one-to-one ratio sounded fantastic) and meet Aris, who was going to the airport with me. While I did check out successfully, I learned that the hotel only changed over U.S. money to Canadian, not the other way around, a disappointment considering how customers are swindled during both parts of the process. Aris, meanwhile, arrived at 6:05.

The ride to the airport was pleasingly uneventful but when I unloaded my laptop bag, one of its straps finally succumbed to years of overstuffing and severe weight by snapping off. After Aris printed out his Air Canada boarding pass, we ran into Hall of Fame ring announcer (and master linguist) Jimmy Lennon Jr., who helped us decipher the French-only custom form we needed to fill out before continuing the multi-layered screening process.

Once we finished, we had to go our separate ways because his gate was located to our right while mine was on our left. Too bad Aris couldn’t have come with me because my wait for the Montreal-to-Philly leg to start was quite fun.

When I arrived at Gate 82, a half-dozen boxing types had already arrived. Always eager to engage in boxing talk, I found an empty seat, settled in and opened the conversation by asking, “Were you guys at the fights last night?”

“He actually fought,” the trainer said, pointing at the lean athlete seated directly across from him.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Julian Williams” he replied.

“Oh, yeah,” I said in recognition. “You fought a terrific fight last night. I’m Lee Groves of RingTV.com and I was one of the punch-counters.”

“If you don’t mind, could you tell me my numbers?” he asked. After reading them to him and the trainer, who I soon learned was Stephen Edwards, the conversation blossomed from there. A one-time matchmaker and frequent IBHOF attendee soon joined us, as did broadcasters Steve Farhood and Brian Custer later on.

I was struck by Williams’ attention to detail when it came to developing his craft and taking care of his body as well as his knowledge of fighters whose careers unfolded long before he ever thought of becoming a boxer. The group threw out names like Jeff Chandler, Johnny “Dancing Machine” Carter, Terry Norris, Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Quenzell McCall, Wesley Mouzon, Robert “Bam Bam” Hines, Evander Holyfield and Meldrick Taylor while also discussing matchmaking scenarios involving Williams and talking about various factors surrounding the upcoming Saul Alvarez-Erislandy Lara fight. Another name that came up was Matthew Saad Muhammad, who, unbeknownst to any of us, had died of ALS (known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) at age 59.

It was almost as if the spirit of Canastota had descended as we verbally immersed ourselves in all aspects of the “Sweet Science.” I was tempted – however briefly – to ignore the boarding announcement that came over the loudspeaker more than an hour later. I had assumed most of us were going to be on the same flight but I ended up being the only one who had to tear away from the confab.

Two good omens on the Montreal flight: first, the flight attendant bore a facial resemblance to Nonito Donaire and, second, the name of the co-pilot was “Tyson.”

I spent the majority of the Montreal-to-Philly leg resting my eyes, which were burning with fatigue. One thing I will never do again – nor should anyone else: exchange currency in Philly. I had $70 of Canadian money to change over but my face fell when I heard I was only getting $48.95 back. The reasons were found on the receipt: a $1.2302 purchase rate that plunged the total to just $56.90, then a $7.95 “service charge” taken from that total. She must have seen my reaction – or maybe she was too lazy to make change – but I ended up getting an even $49 back. Thank goodness for small miracles…very small miracles.

Thanks to a first-class upgrade, I had a comfy aisle seat in row two but instead of taking a planned nap, I spent much of the time chatting with the flight attendant, whose name – believe or not – was Pandy, who, in conversational terms, lived up to the potential delightfulness of her name.

Although we experienced some significant turbulence during our descent into Pittsburgh, the plane landed nearly a half-hour ahead of schedule. Brilliant sunshine and temperatures in the low-80s provided a perfect backdrop for the drive home, which ended at 5:45.

I wanted to start catching up on the tasks that awaited my attention but at 6:30, the pace of the last three days finally caught up with me. I catnapped in the Home Office’s easy chair for about 90 minutes but that failed to lift my eyes’ heaviness. So I ended up going to bed at eight, which was where I remained for the next 13 ½ hours.

The good news is that I’ll have plenty of time to catch up on my work – and my sleep – because my next trip will begin in eight days: my 22nd trip to the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s induction weekend.

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 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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