Lee Groves

The Travelin’ Man returns to Quebec City: Part two

Photo credit: Amanda Westcott/Showtime

Photo credit: Amanda Westcott/Showtime

For part one, please click here.

Saturday, Nov. 28 (continued): In part one, I discussed the psychological power of home ring advantage and, for Lucian Bute, that phenomenon helped push him to his best performance in several years. The hesitancy that had been so noticeable in his fights against Jean Pascal, Denis Grachev and Carl Froch was replaced by determination, more consistent aggression and a willingness to pull the trigger more often. In my eyes, the 35-year-old Bute fought as well as he possibly could at this stage of his career.

Because the 29-year-old James DeGale fought as well as he could, Bute’s effort still fell short of the mark, both in terms of the judges’ scorecards (117-111 twice, 116-112) and the CompuBox statistics (211-140 overall, 183-100 power). DeGale’s extraordinarily energetic start created a solid foundation as he bolted out of the corner and unleashed a blizzard of blows. In the first three rounds, DeGale averaged 76 punches per round and, in the third, he fired 90 punches and landed 27, both highs for the fight. Unfortunately for Bute, he couldn’t come close to matching DeGale’s kinetic pace as he mustered only 32 punches per round in the first nine minutes. As a result, he fell behind 72-30 in overall punches and 59-24 in landed power shots, deficits he never overcame. That said, Bute’s targeting was razor-sharp as he landed 62%, 55% and 42% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts in the first three rounds and that precision enabled him to remain competitive for the remainder of the contest.

Although DeGale throttled down his attack in subsequent rounds – few 168-pounders could have maintained his early hot pace for 12 rounds – the dramatic peaks and valleys that marked his fight with Andre Dirrell were not nearly as obvious here. Only once did DeGale decelerate to the point of concern (9 of 32 in the seventh) but, even then, Bute couldn’t summon a potentially fight-turning surge as he went 9 of 39 – the lone time in the fight in which DeGale didn’t out-land his challenger. Only once did Bute throw more punches than DeGale in a given round (61 to 53 in the 11th) but the more precise champion still prevailed 19-17 in overall connects. Finally, as was the case in the Dirrell fight, DeGale came up with the goods in the final two rounds as he held off an inspired Bute stretch drive by leading 37-33 overall and 35-24 power.

The width of DeGale’s victory suggests the judges weren’t at all influenced by the crowd, which wasn’t exceptionally loud or boisterous during Bute’s ring walk but was at its most intense during the actual action, especially in the 12th.

Both men proved a point with their performances; although Bute is no longer the world’s best 168-pounder, he does remain a viable name at the top reaches of the weight class while DeGale stamped himself as a fighter good enough to perform at his best, no matter where a boxing ring is situated or whether the fans inside the arena love him or loathe him. That ability to shut out his surroundings and stay on point, no matter what, is something not all championship-level fighters can achieve (Brian Mitchell, boxing’s ultimate road warrior, was among the very best at doing this) and that talent surely will serve him well in subsequent fights.

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Some fighters have a talent for eking out close fights while others seem snake-bit by them. Light heavyweights Eleider Alvarez and Isaac Chilemba occupy the two extremes and, after their title eliminator completed the scheduled 12-round distance, each lived up to their previous reputations as Alvarez won (and Chilemba lost) by majority decision.

In statistical terms, Alvarez has lived on the edge for some time. Three months ago, he captured a surprisingly wide unanimous decision (117-111 on all three cards) from Argentine Isidro Ranoni Prieto despite being out-landed 219-195 overall, 78-61 jabs and 141-134 power. Those margins largely were the result of a huge activity gap as Alvarez averaged just 40.2 punches per round to Ranoni’s 70 but the three judges appeared to be more persuaded by Alvarez’s harder punches and his superior accuracy. A similar dynamic was in play in Sept. 2013 when two judges saw Alvarez a clear winner (99-90, 97-92) against faded middleweight Edison Miranda, who out-landed Alvarez 222-200 overall, 89-71 jabs and 133-129 power. However, Alvarez countered by scoring an eighth round knockdown, landing 51% of his power shots to Miranda’s 37% and by performing better in the second half of the fight (118 overall connects) than he did in the first half (82). One judge, Richard DeCarufel, appeared to possess the keenest discernment as he saw Alvarez a 95-94 winner. In the spirit of the “Star Wars” saga, the Force – and the Forces – is with Alvarez.

Conversely, Chilemba again was the hard-luck “nearly man.” His jab is among the very best in the business and, against lesser opponents like Michael Gbenga (10.2 connects per round), Denis Grachev (13.1 per round) and Vasiliy Lepikhin (9.2 per round), it is decisive and dominant. But when he steps up the degree of difficulty, his gifted left hand is trumped by two fatal maladies – slow starts that create deep mathematical holes and questionable verdicts that benefit the hometown fighter, which was the case in March 2013 when he drew with Tony Bellew in their initial encounter despite out-landing him 171-114 overall, 76-49 jabs and 93-65 power before Bellew’s home fans in Liverpool.

In the first six rounds of the Bellew rematch, staged in London, the slow-start curse struck. During that stretch, Chilemba trailed 121-87 overall and 79-66 power but, in rounds 7-12, the Cameroon native’s surge (70-57 overall, 54-43 power, 359-320 in total punch attempts) caused Bellew to decelerate dramatically (from 73.5 per round to 53.3). It wasn’t enough, especially in England, to overcome the early deficit.

Such also was the case against Alvarez. In round one, Chilemba was a mere 3 of 28 in overall punches to Alvarez’s 12 of 41 and in the first three rounds, Alvarez built a 32-15 lead in overall punches, despite averaging 36.7 punches per round. That’s because Chilemba’s pace was a mere 32.7. Both men perked up in the fourth by throwing 60 punches each (Alvarez led 18-14) and in the seventh and eighth rounds, Chilemba was going stride-for-stride with the adopted hometown favorite (11 of 42 for Alvarez and 11 of 57 for Chilemba in the seventh, 15 of 54 for Alvarez and 15 of 48 for Chilemba in the eighth).

Chilemba finally kicked into another gear in the ninth, 10th and 11th rounds, out-throwing and out-landing Alvarez in all three rounds and creating a decisive 58-32 gap in overall connects in the process, including 26-16 in the 11th. With the fight still hanging in the balance and with the momentum seemingly in Chilemba’s corner, the moment of truth had arrived. Would Chilemba step forward or would Alvarez snatch victory from possible defeat?

Chilemba certainly tried as he out-threw Alvarez 62-56 in the 12th and out-jabbed him 4-1. But Alvarez led 16-15 overall and 15-11 in power shots to take the round on all three scorecards and, with it, the decision. Had Chilemba won the 12th, he would have secured a draw.

Alvarez showed admirable grit in winning the 12th and creating the necessary margin to get the “W.” But one can’t help but feel for Chilemba, a world-class campaigner who has, so far, repeatedly bumped his head against an unseen ceiling, sometimes one of his own making and sometimes one that resulted from unfavorable circumstances. Here’s hoping Chilemba will continue to push ahead and that should he get another chance at advancement, that he would push himself just a little bit harder.

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Junior welterweight Amir Imam is a young fighter with an old soul. In fact, Imam’s is borderline Paleozoic. Though just 25 years old, Imam harbors a deep admiration for ring men who were at their best decades before he was born. His nickname, “The Young Master,” is an homage to “The Old Master” Joe Gans and when he entered the ring to face Adrian Granados, Imam and his team wore headbands that not only bore the name of Hall of Famer Larry Holmes but also that of his birthday (Nov. 3, 1949). Was that at the suggestion of Imam’s promoter, Don King, who backed Holmes for much of “The Easton Assassin’s” career? Even if it were, the fact that Imam would honor Holmes at all distinguishes him from his chronological peers.

Granados probably knows nothing of Battling Nelson, the rugged all-action Dane who starched an aging Gans twice during a 67-day stretch in 1908 but, at least on this night, the Illinois native of Latin extraction played the role of “The Durable Dane” perfectly as he swarmed in behind a hyper-active 92.1-punch-per-round attack, absorbed everything Imam dished out after suffering a first-round knockdown and swallowed him whole with his indefatigable fighting spirit in the late rounds. As usual, Imam was the marksman as he landed 39% of his total punches, 48% of his power shots and averaged 5.0 jab connects per round but, unlike Imam’s other opponents, Granados would not be deterred by his deficits in height, reach and sharpness. Granados continued to tear after Imam and, in the end, his unconquerable energy won out.

In rounds seven and eight, one could almost see Imam approaching the wall, hitting the wall and surrendering to the wall, albeit with some reluctance. The final two rounds saw Granados throw 200 punches to Imam’s 81 (including a 94-31 gap in the eighth) and rack up connect gaps of 75-32 overall and 62-22 power (including canyon-esque gulfs of 43-12 overall and 36-10 power in the eighth). Granados even out-jabbed Imam 7-2 in the eighth, the final nail in Imam’s pristine pro record.

It would be too simplistic to call this a triumph of will over skill because Granados’ moves were executed with purpose and forethought, just as Nelson’s were against Gans. Neither were pretty fighters inside the ring and neither sported a glittery resume of success (Granados was 16-4-2 coming in while Nelson’s career mark was 67-31-25 with seven no-decisions and one no-contest) but while their levels of accomplishment and standings in history are far different, the competitiveness that drives them forward inside the squared circle transcends time, nationality and circumstance.

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When Imam entered the ring, he stood at the doorstep of a world title opportunity because he was the mandatory challenger to WBC titlist Viktor Postol, a status he risked – and ultimately lost – by fighting Granados. In the immediate aftermath of the Granados-Imam result, my mind immediately searched for other instances in which fighters lost guaranteed title shots by taking one tune-up too many.

Two examples instantly popped to mind. The first took place Oct. 28, 1987 at the Las Vegas Hilton’s outdoor arena when lightweight Frankie Randall fought Primo Ramos for the vacant North American Boxing Federation lightweight title. Thanks to Cornelius Boza-Edwards’ loss to WBC lightweight king Hector Camacho one month earlier, Randall (31-1-1, 26) was “The Macho Man’s” new mandatory challenger and he theoretically would receive the next crack at the belt. Instead, the unheralded Ramos (31-5, 21) drilled Randall with a massive hook to the jaw late in round two. Flat on his back and barely able to move, Randall was counted out by referee Davey Pearl. Camacho ended up vacating the belt and instead of Ramos, Jose Luis Ramirez and Terrence Alli were chosen to fill the vacancy in July 1988 (Ramirez won by unanimous decision).

The second instance occurred Feb. 13, 1983 at the Sands Casino in Atlantic City when top middleweight contender Frank “The Animal” Fletcher met Wilford Scypion for the United States Boxing Association belt. Since coming to prominence with a fourth round KO of Caveman Lee in July 1980, Fletcher had rolled off nine straight wins to earn the number-one ranking and a potential showdown with champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Fletcher’s relentless aggression and blood-and-guts mentality made him a small-screen star on NBC’s “SportsWorld” series and he earned his top ranking the hard way as he turned back the likes of “Slammin’” Sammy NeSmith (TKO 6), the 19-0 Norberto Sabater (UD 10) and high-quality foes Ernie Singletary (TKO 8), Tony Braxton (UD 12), Clint Jackson (UD 12) and James “Hard Rock” Green (TKO 6).

Scypion, a hard-punching Texan with a 25-3 (20) record, was a decided underdog who was best known for his role in a ring tragedy. On Nov. 23, 1979, he stopped Willie Classen in the 10th round at the Felt Forum in New York, the third consecutive KO loss for Classen and the second in just 45 days. Five days later – on November 28, 1979, exactly 36 years ago – Classen died of his injuries. Scypion continued his career, going 12-3 (7) but, while he notched excellent wins against Curtis Parker and Mark Frazie (both UD 10s), the losses came in nationally-televised bouts against Mustafa Hamsho (a bizarre DQ 10), Dwight Davison (UD 10) and Green (PTS 10). Scypion came into the fight on a four-fight win streak and thanks to his resilience, superior size and heavier punch, he toppled Fletcher from the summit with a 12-round decision victory. He, not Fletcher, earned the crack at Hagler, who, in turn, cracked Scypion in four rounds.

As we waited for the Showtime Championship Boxing portion of the quadruple-header to begin, I asked Aris and Steve Farhood for more examples. Aris came up with this gem – the first meeting between Ray Mercer and Jesse Ferguson, Feb. 6, 1993 at Madison Square Garden. Mercer, a onetime WBO titlist, was promised a $1,000,000 payday to challenge champion Riddick Bowe, who was making his first defense of the championship against Michael Dokes in the main event. Instead of working hard in the gym and preparing himself to crush “The Boogeyman,” as Bowe watched in the dressing room, Mercer scaled an unsightly 238 and was thoroughly out-hustled in losing a 10-round decision. The veteran of the US Army was in a position to know better, for when he fought the aged and overlooked Larry Holmes in Nov. 1992. he was positioned to meet Evander Holyfield for the championship. Instead, the crafty veteran dug deep into his bag of tricks and captured a 12-round points win.

Both Ferguson and Holmes went on to fight for the title (both lost) while Mercer was forced to pick up the pieces. After the Ferguson loss, it was alleged that Mercer offered Ferguson $100,000 to “go down.” Although much talking could be heard on the video, nothing was ever proven and Mercer subsequently out-pointed Ferguson in a rematch.

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With the fight card over, Aris and I packed our belongings and followed the rest of the crew toward an area where several vans were waiting to take us back to the hotel. As I walked off the arena floor, I noticed that a lot of healing had taken place. Because I had spent most of the last 11 hours sitting down, the pain in my ankle had virtually disappeared, as did the reddening around my knuckle. Yes, the bruises around the ankle had widened and had become a deeper shade of purple but now I had full and pain-free range of motion. Because I was so focused on my work, I didn’t bother to notice how much better I was feeling until now.

Aris and I shared our shuttle with broadcasters Jim Gray and Raul Marquez (who, along with Alejandro Luna, handled the Spanish-language broadcast for Showtime). Our young female driver – the same one who drove me back to the hotel the previous day – embodied the concept of “local knowledge” as she accessed dozens of alleys and side streets to avoid the traffic leaving the Videotron Centre. We arrived at the Fairmont a little after 1:50 a.m. and, because I still had some CompuBox-related work to complete, I said my goodbyes and took the elevator to my fifth-floor room. Once those tasks were finished, 45 minutes later, I immediately turned out the lights in the hopes of gaining maximum slumber time.

Sunday, Nov. 29: Thanks to my “mental alarm,” my eyes snapped awake at 7:35 a.m. and, after getting ready for the day, I still had nearly 90 minutes of work time before my intended hotel departure time of 9:30 a.m. With my mind so intensely occupied, that time flew by and, before I knew it, I had to go.

The check-out line was unexpectedly short and a taxi was hailed for me in short order. Though my driver was of Algerian extraction, he and I spent most of the drive discussing the differences between French and English, in terms of pronunciation and grammar. I’ve had a lifetime fascination with foreign languages and, though I purchased plenty of lesson books during my childhood, I lacked the patience to become fluent in any of them. Though I can speak enough Spanish to get by, thanks to my almost constant viewing of Spanish-language boxing shows, my French is almost nonexistent beyond their words for numbers. Although I wish I can expand my limited knowledge of other languages, I don’t think, given my work schedule, this fact will change anytime soon. That’s too bad.

Because I’m not a member of the Global Entry program, I needed to go through the “shoes-off, laptops out” method of security screening. That took me a little longer to execute than was previously the case, probably because of rust caused by my firmly ingrained TSA Pre-Check habits. Despite having the box of maple cream cookies inside my laptop bag, my belongings drew no additional questioning.

I had intended to spend my waiting time catching up on my writing but, after turning to my right and spotting a Showtime crew member seated three seats down, I decided to strike up a conversation with him. The man turned out to be Martin Bell, a member of the replay unit who had been in the business for more than 35 years, many of them spent with ABC. He regaled me with stories about Alex Wallau, Howard Cosell, Chet Forte, the glory days of “Monday Night Football” and, of course, boxing-related tales. Because I knew many of the main characters in his stories, I helped fill in several details that had long slipped from his memory. It was a most enjoyable conversation and, had it not been for the boarding announcement, it probably would have lasted much longer.

Just before boarding the aircraft, I chatted with James “Buddy” McGirt, who seconded Chilemba. Though he is an extrovert’s extrovert, McGirt is also thoughtful, intelligent and well-spoken, traits that came through as we discussed the reasons behind his fighter’s loss.

The Quebec-to-Newark flight left on time and landed on schedule but, had it not been for my TSA Pre-Check status, I never would have made my connecting flight to Pittsburgh. The multiple layers of customs screening and the long-but-quickly moving lines still took considerable time to get through and, even with the truncated inspection of my luggage, I arrived at my connecting gate just 12 minutes from the scheduled start of boarding. Looking at the longer queue at the non Pre-Check area, I knew I would have missed my flight.

To my delight, I received my first First-Class upgrade on United and thus I was seated in row two on the window. The already long day of travel, combined with my shorter-than-usual sleep cycle, caused me to spend part of the flight resting my eyes because I knew I wouldn’t have that luxury once I deplaned. Aside from a few small bumps in the latter stages, this flight was uneventful and it landed well within the advertised arrival window. Not bad at all for one of the heaviest travel days of the year, “the coming-home-from-Thanksgiving” leg of the holiday weekend.

As I walked toward my car, I had never seen so many empty spaces in this portion of the parking lot. In fact, there were pockets of three and four spaces that were unoccupied. Still, one of the SUVs that bracketed my car on Thursday was still there but the space to my right was open, allowing me ample room to maneuver my way out.

During the two-and-a-half hour drive home, I alternated between listening to the Steelers-Seahawks game on AM and, when the signal faded away, to Christmas music on FM. I pulled into the driveway at 8:42 p.m., ending yet another Travelin’ Man adventure.

The next one will start in less than two weeks’ time. This time, I will be trekking to the potentially far warmer climes of Houston, Texas, where, on Showtime’s “ShoBox” series, a junior welterweight match between the dynamic Regis Prograis and fellow unbeaten Abel Ramos will top another quadruple-header.

Until then, 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 13 writing awards, including 10 in the last five 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 l.groves@frontier.com to arrange for autographed copies.

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