Saturday, June 27 (continued): In many ways, the boxing ring is sport ’s greatest inquisitor. The heat of competition forces fighters to confront the toughest issues in a most vivid way: Am I in shape? Did I prepare for every circumstance? How will I react if I get in trouble? Am I ready to take the next step up or will I be forced to move down or worse, move on?
The answers generated within are often intense and impactful. Career paths and, by extension, lives are altered. Each fight represents a fork in the road for both combatants and the quest for each is to force their way onto the more prosperous path while knocking the opponent onto the less desired one. Once the assignment is conquered, the cycle begins again.
As the athletes navigate toward their ultimate destinies, clues to the puzzle are offered. For 2012 U.S. Olympian Errol Spence Jr., Ronald Cruz represented an opportunity to test his wares against someone who had faced tougher competition and had mostly succeeded against it, for two of his three losses (Antwone Smith and Kermit Cintron) could have gone the other way. For Cruz, who just two years earlier had been the recipient of blue-chip treatment in terms of fight locales and favorable matchmaking, the Spence fight was a roll of the dice in America’s gambling capital. After spending his entire career fighting in his adopted home base of eastern Pennsylvania, Cruz was thrust thousands of miles west as well as into the “B-side” of the matchmaking equation. A victory over Spence would be a big score while defeat, especially a comprehensive one, would be the equivalent of the dreaded snake eyes.
For middleweights Dominic Wade and Nick Brinson, the issues were just as important but had a different hue to them. Each wanted to extend his victory rolls at the expense of the other; Wade entered the ring with a sparkling 15-0 (11) mark while the 16-1-2 (6) Brinson had gone 9-0-1 in his last 10 fights, including a seven-fight winning streak that included an important, off-the-floor decision victory over touted power puncher Jorge Melendez.
Of the two, Wade was making the bigger leap. First, it was his first scheduled 10-rounder and to this point, he had never fought past round six. Second, Brinson sported the best record of any opponent in terms of win percentage and recent success, for his 15 previous foes had a combined 143-126-9 ledger, which translated to a .514 winning percentage. Of those 15, just six came into their bouts with Wade off a victory. Meanwhile, Brinson had his own issues to address: this was only his second fight since the Melendez victory a year earlier and according to a source, the layoff was caused when his Albany-based promoter Ares Promotions went “belly up.” Since then, Brinson decisioned journeyman Lester Gonzalez, who had gone 0-6-2 in his last eight fights and was a late-sub for Chris Chatman.
As expected, Wade started the fight well as he out-landed Brinson 57-37 overall, 23-14 in jabs and 34-23 in power shots over the first four rounds. Those bulges were largely the result of activity as Wade averaged 55.3 punches per round (including 70 in the third) to Brinson’s 33.8. From the fifth round on, however, the tenor of the fight changed. Perhaps concerned about going the full 10 rounds, Wade throttled back his offense considerably as he declined from 55.3 per round to 40.5 while Brinson kicked up his output from 33.8 to 57.2, including a 73-punch round in the 10th. During that span, Wade’s connect lead narrowed to 75-72 overall and 40-29 in jabs while Brinson prevailed 43-35 in power connects.
Ironically, the power-punching Wade’s saving grace may well have been his defense, which held Brinson to 23% overall, 22% jabs and 23% power, below the middleweight norms of 32%, 23% and 38% respectively. Wade’s arms, elbows and gloves blocked most of Brinson’s power volleys and he countered just enough to maintain the statistical leads he created in the early rounds. In the end, Wade out-landed Brinson 132-109 overall, 63-43 jabs and 69-66 power and besides his defense, two other factors were decisive: his 37%-23% gap in power accuracy and his busy jab (27.7 thrown/6.3 connects per round) which allowed Wade to keep Brinson at bay for long stretches.
With the 10-round distance addressed, the next task for Wade should be building the confidence and conditioning to maintain a strong pace from first bell to last.
As for Spence and Cruz, the questions surrounding each man were answered in most emphatic fashion. Spence entered the ring wearing a red t-shirt with the message, “When you wanna succeed as bad as you wanna breathe,” and his superlative effort reflected that sentiment. Cruz bravely withstood the assault, which opened a cut above the right eye in round two and sliced through his guard with uncomfortable regularity.
Spence’s round-by-round power percentages were particularly impressive and – from Cruz’s perspective – alarming: 55%, 54%, 63%, 64%, 64%, 55%, 47%, 59%, 72% and 49%. As I wrote a note regarding Spence’s 72% accuracy in round nine, I made sure to circle the specks of Cruz’s blood to emphasize the punishment being meted out.
And what punishment it was. Spence, averaging 86.5 punches per round to Cruz’s 40.1, out-landed Cruz 335-71 overall, 53-6 in jabs and 282-65 in power punches. If the volume wasn’t enough, the accuracy gaps only added to Cruz’s agony: 39%-18% overall, 14%-8% jabs and especially 58%-20% power. Spence averaged 28.2 power connects per round – more than double the 13.0 welterweight average – and he accumulated 30 or more total connects in each of the final eight rounds, topping 40 on three occasions. If any doubts existed about Spence’s stamina, they were dispelled in the 10th round when he threw 113 punches and landed 42, both of which were highs for the fight.
More than a few times I overheard ringsiders, even veteran ones, calling for the fight to be stopped and they had every reason to feel that way. The situation surely put Cruz’s corner in a terrible spot. Its fighter was losing every round and absorbed terrible punishment in the process but through it all, Cruz maintained his earmuffs defense and while his face was bloodied, his spirit to fight and the sturdiness of his legs remained strong. After round eight, the fighter and his corner briefly contemplated stopping the fight but opted instead to not “let your dreams go away.”
The most difficult decision a corner can make is to authorize an immediate loss in order to cut its losses later. That’s because boxing is one of the few sports in which a fighter can erase nine rounds of futility with a single punch in the 10th – just ask George Foreman about his fight with Michael Moorer – and losing corners and fighters cling to that eternal hope, no matter how bad the beating becomes. But there’s a reason special moments like Foreman-Moorer are mythic; the odds against such spectacles are overwhelming. Barry Tompkins was entirely correct when he declared during round eight that Cruz “is not going to win this fight. I don’t care if this fight goes 30 rounds, he’s not going to win this fight” and that “If I were in Cruz’s corner, I’d say, ‘Forget about it,’” because his record and his performance in the fight to that point bore that out. By letting the fight go on, Cruz’s corner signaled to its fighter that the old adage of “Live to fight another day” was not an option in a career path sense. This was to be his very last stand and if that stand didn’t pan out, the end of his viability as a fighter was at hand.
Cruz was lucky that Spence didn’t own Gennady Golovkin-like power because the punishment administered in rounds eight through 10 was immense – 40-8 in the eighth, 39-5 in the ninth and 42-7 in the 10th, which added up to a cavernous 121-20 connect gap. Cruz upheld the unwritten code of unyielding courage under fire and here’s hoping he won’t end up paying too high a price for his fortitude.
As for Spence, he confirmed opinions that he is the most advanced of the 2012 U.S. Olympians and that he is ready to make another move up the ladder. He may or may not score the knockouts marked by his “Godzilla” phase but his plethora of other skills will more than make up for that. Of the four men who fought on the televised portion of the 12-fight card, Spence made the strongest statement and I, for one, am looking forward to witnessing future installments of his story.
After packing my belongings and saying goodbye to Dennis, I joined Smith and his group at the Hard Rock’s Center Bar, where we all shot the breeze about what we just saw. After that, I stopped by the Fuel Café to buy a sandwich and a Coke Zero, returned to my room to catch up on everything I missed in the sports world and turned out the lights shortly after midnight.
Saturday, June 28: Once again, the mattress did its magic – five-and-a-half hours of solid slumber. I could have slept quite a bit longer but I wanted to make a big push on the writing front before heading to the airport. I ended up doing just that as I cranked out more than 1,000 words and made even more progress after I reached Gate B-21, where my flight to Pittsburgh was to depart. I also benefited from a 45-minute delay, which granted me the necessary time to buy a late breakfast at a sub outlet a few hundred feet away.
As I munched away, I heard an announcement over the loudspeaker that piqued my interest: for $40, any passenger could move up into any of the first 15 spots in line. Given that I was to be the 123rd person to board, I took the deal and was glad I did. I ended up being the eighth person in the queue, allowing me to take a third row window seat and more than enough room (and time) to stow my belongings.
More often than not, Southwest’s flight attendants find a way to spice up the mandatory pre-flight instructions. This particular rundown snuck in a few snappy lines such as “This is a non-smoking and non-complaining flight” and “Once you secure your vest, it’s kick-paddle, kick-paddle, kick-paddle.” One unforgettable preamble from a few years back included instructions sung to the tune of Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel.”
I spent the next four hours alternating between reading, resting my eyes and looking out the window. I was particularly struck by one section of the Rockies in which the thin strings of snow resembled icing atop a cake. Maybe that sub didn’t fully sate my appetite.
It was a good thing I moved up in line because, according to one passenger who stopped by our area, the middle and back portions of the plane were stiflingly hot. Conversely, the air conditioning at my seat was so effective that I had to close the vent.
As expected, the plane experienced turbulence during at least two junctures and at the end of the latter, it dipped slightly but noticeably. After touching down, the flight attendant said over the loudspeaker, “Pshew…welcome to Pittsburgh.” At that I turned to my seatmate, a flight attendant for another airline returning from vacation, and asked, “Wait a minute; did she know something we didn’t?” That got a laugh but I still wondered.
I began the drive home a half-hour later amidst sunshine and mid-80s temperatures. I made excellent time because (1) traffic was light and (2) I made a briefer-than-usual pit stop to fill up the gas tank and buy a soda. Following a most enjoyable ride that I spent listening to a series of classic rock FM stations – a continuation the Hard Rock theme – I arrived home around 8:45 and settled in for the live HBO doubleheader featuring Matt Korobov’s unanimous decision victory over Jose Uzcategui and Terence Crawford’s thrilling KO victory over Yuriorkis Gamboa. After that I transferred two more shows from the DVR to the hard-drive recorder and turned out the lights at the customarily late hour.
Since my next trip won’t be for another four weeks – I’ll be working the card marking ShoBox’s 200th episode in Verona, N.Y. – and because there’s little research work left to do for July, I’ll have some time to catch up on some long undone projects. I thought when I left the newspaper business seven years ago that I’d have much more time on my hands to address tasks such as this but, to my surprise, my days have been fuller than ever. But whether I’m busy or whether I’m idle, I’ll do my best to enjoy the ride.
Until next time, 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 email the author at email@example.com to arrange for autographed copies.
Photo by Esther Lin/Showtime