The Travelin’ Man returns to Cleveland: Part one

By Lee Groves

Thursday, November 9: Two months have passed since my most recent trip and, with everything that has transpired, those two months have felt more like two years. Every day has been so stuffed with activity tha, when I checked my desktop folder of already-published Travelin’ Man stories, I had long forgotten where I had been (Las Vegas) and what fights had taken place on the telecast (J’Leon Love TD 8 Abraham Han, Caleb Plant UD 10 Andrew Hernandez and David Benavidez SD 12 Ronald Gavril to win the vacant WBC super middleweight title and, at 20 years 271 days, become boxing’s youngest world titlist).

The main culprit for this amnesia is a happy one for me, as well as for the boxing industry in general – an unusually overflowing number of U.S.-televised bouts in September, October, November and December, for which I needed to conduct CompuBox research. In past years, this most pugnacious of sports chose not to compete against the MLB Playoffs (especially the World Series) or against the meat of the NFL campaign. This year, however, has been different – very different.

One only has to look at the November slate to appreciate the degree of the surge. Along with last week’s Showtime tripleheader (Deontay Wilder-Bermane Stiverne II, Shawn Porter-Adrian Granados, Sergey Lipinets-Akihiro Kondo) and HBO’s showing of Dmitry Bivol-Trent Broadhurst the same afternoon, the lineup included the “ShoBox” quadruple-header, for which I am in Cleveland to count, televised cards on ESPN and HBO the following evening, a ESPN show November 16, a November 17 Premier Boxing Champions card on FS1, a Bounce TV broadcast on November 18, a PBC/FS1 card on November 21, an HBO tripleheader on November 25 and a ESPN card November 30. According to the ESPN.com schedule, December will feature at least nine more U.S. televised fight cards that will conclude just nine days before Christmas. Needless to say, my DVR will be operating at full throttle.

Conversely, one of the sports to which boxing previously yielded is facing a series of crises that is exerting extraordinary – and potentially existential – pressure.

While baseball continues its gradual slide in the sporting hierarchy (mostly because younger viewers consider it too slow and boring to watch it in sufficient numbers), the NFL, long the unchallenged powerhouse of the American sports scene, is reeling under the weight of social and medical controversies that have produced a flood of negative headlines and an exodus by disenchanted former fans as well as by concerned legal guardians. Because of this, there is talk that ESPN may not renew its “Monday Night Football” deal after the 2021 season while NBC, CBS and Fox will also think hard about what they’re willing to spend next time – if they’re even going to spend at all. If the current dynamic persists, it’s virtually guaranteed that the combined payout to the league won’t come close to the collective 63.3% jump (from $1.9 billion to $3 billion) that occurred during the last round of negotiations.

If the financial hit is severe enough, it could ignite a downward spiral that could squash the game from the top down as well as from the bottom up. At the NFL level, less money from the TV networks would mean less money for the teams to spend on players, whom will resist a slimmer pay structure. If there’s less money to spend on players, the owners will have a harder time enticing enough of the elite talent needed to present an attractive product to the paying public, which, by the way, would have to come in greater numbers to make up for the TV money shortfall. That, of course, defies all economic sense. Why would a larger group of people shell out hundreds of hard-earned dollars to view an inferior product? The answer: They won’t.

Meanwhile, from the other end of the spectrum, the pool of top-shelf talent will shrink because parents, frightened by the possible long-term effects of the game, will tell their boys to play other sports, a scenario that eventually broke America’s decades-long grip on the heavyweight championship. That will negatively affect the number of blue-chip players at the high schools that serve as feeder programs for the colleges, whom, in turn, provide the talent for the NFL. The ceaseless flow of negative stories that has haunted the NFL, for at least the last seven seasons, may soon be producing a sea change that could turn into a tsunami.

Boxing, on the other hand, is enjoying an improbable renaissance in 2017. Beginning with the excellent but controversial James DeGale-Badou Jack title unification January 14, the fight game has produced a steady stream of outstanding matches that, more often than not, lived up to or even exceeded the anticipation. Those who love big events were wowed by the spectacle of Anthony Joshua-Wladimir Klitschko that was witnessed by more than 90,000 at Wembley Stadium, of Joshua-Carlos Takam that set a new all-time indoor attendance record of 78,000-plus, and of Gennady Golovkin-Saul Alvarez, the biggest “real” boxing event of the year that also produced one of the year’s better fights, as well as one of its most debated decisions.

The general public got a major dose of spectacle with the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Conor McGregor build-up and those who spent $99.95 to legally purchase the high-definition broadcast (and the millions of others who watched illegal streams) got a somewhat better fight than expected, especially in the first three rounds, when McGregor was at his best. Another long-ballyhooed match came to fruition when Alvarez met Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in a catchweight contest in which “Canelo” routed the outclassed “Junior.” The light heavyweight title rematch between Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev produced a surprise TKO ending for Ward and the welterweight title unification match between Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia featured many tense moments before “One Time” emerged with two belts.

Fans who love robust action reveled in fights such as Srisaket Sor Rungvisai-Roman Gonzalez I, Miguel Berchelt-Francisco Vargas, Takashi Miura-Miguel Roman, Leo Santa Cruz-Carl Frampton II, Dillian Whyte-Dereck Chisora, Jezreel Corrales-Robinson Castellanos, Jarrett Hurd-Austin Trout, Juan Francisco Estrada-Carlos Cuadras, Oscar Valdez-Miguel Marriaga, Jorge Linares-Luke Campbell and George Groves-Fedor Chudinov, which saw the “Saint” overcome a broken jaw, in round three, to score a sixth-round TKO that earned him a major title in his fourth attempt.

There also was a fair share of upsets such as Robinson Castellanos-Yuriorkis Gamboa, Jeff Horn-Manny Pacquiao, Tony Bellew-David Haye and Alberto Machado-Jezreel Corrales, among others. Additionally, fans got to appreciate the pound-for-pound talents of Terence Crawford (who briefly held the undisputed junior welterweight championship, after destroying fellow two-belt titleholder Julius Indongo in three rounds), Vasyl Lomachenko (who bedazzled Jason Sosa and Marriaga before persuading them to stay on their respective stools), Naoya Inoue (who looked every bit the “Monster” in stopping Ricardo Rodriguez and, in his U.S. debut, Antonio Nieves), Mikey Garcia (who crushed Dejan Zlaticanin to win his third divisional crown and solved Adrien “The Problem” Broner) and Errol Spence Jr. (who dominated and dethroned Kell Brook before Brook’s home fans in Sheffield, an event I witnessed firsthand).

As great as the action inside the ring was, the atmosphere surrounding the sport also brightened considerably. While ESPN mulls its future with the NFL, it dove into boxing with both feet as it inked separate multi-year, multi-platform deals with Golden Boy Promotions and Top Rank. The ratings – at least so far – have been more than satisfactory to all involved, thanks to the level of matches provided. Then there is the World Boxing Super Series and its super middleweight and cruiserweight tournaments that have offered high-quality fights and produced intriguing semifinal matches. In those semifinals, which will take place in January and February, the cruiserweights will see WBO champ Oleksandr Usyk versus WBC titlist Mairis Briedis as well as the IBF’s Murat Gassiev against Yunier Dorticos while the 168-pound tournament will see WBA titlist George Groves fight Chris Eubank Jr. and Callum Smith meet Juergen Braehmer.

CBS and Fox also aired boxing shows in prime time, always a positive development in terms of the sport’s reach among casual viewers. Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Boxing, one of Great Britain’s most successful promotional companies, recently began to expand into the U.S. market by signing Daniel Jacobs and putting on a card topped by “The Miracle Man” versus Luis Arias at the old Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. Yet another sign of health is the revival of the heavyweight division led by IBF/WBA titlist Joshua (a Hearn fighter) and WBC counterpart Wilder, whose one-round destruction of Bermane Stiverne seven days after Joshua stopped Carlos Takam stoked long-dormant interest and ignited talks of a potential unification super-fight for sometime next year.

If I had my druthers, I would have Joshua fight WBO titlist Joseph Parker and Wilder meet Takam either in spring fights held a week or two apart or on the same card in the U.K., after which the winners (ostensibly Joshua and Wilder) would meet in the late summer at a venue capable of seating at least 100,000. That way, all the belts will be at stake before the largest possible live audience.

In the waning days of 2013, 2014 and 2015, I wrote articles that expressed optimism that the upcoming year would see boxing make the necessary moves to regain its rightful place in the sport’s pantheon. That optimism became reality in 2017 because many of the ingredients were identified and acted upon: A steady diet of excellent match-ups, terrific in-ring action and increased visibility on television, as well as the internet. I have every reason to believe that the momentum will continue in 2018, and, if the sport’s power brokers play their cards right, that surge will continue for years to come.

*

While I may have forgotten where I had been two months earlier, I couldn’t possibly forget one event that happened just six days after returning from Vegas. On September 15, the CompuBox family lost one of its most valuable and beloved members when Joe Carnicelli died of cancer at his Arizona home. He was 75.

I learned of his death through fellow punch-counter Dennis Allen and, though I knew Joe had been ill for several months, the news still produced a wave of sadness and loss. After taking a minute or two to compose myself, I wrote the following on Facebook:

“For those who do not know of Joe, he was, along with Saul Avelar, part of the first team hired by CompuBox to take the load off co-creators Bob Canobbio and Logan Hobson, and, in one of those early years, worked more than 50 shows. I learned of their names due to the frequent mentions made by ESPN Top Rank Boxing announcers, so by the time I actually met Joe in the early 2000s he was a quasi-celebrity to me. Over time, I was fortunate enough to have him become a cherished friend as well as a colleague, and I had the pleasure to work more than a dozen shows with him over the years, including the Froch-Kessler rematch in London. One of my brightest memories of that trip was dining with him at a London eatery chosen by him because of the Gelato there. It was my first taste of Gelato, and it was everything he said it would be. Because of his years on the road, Joe knew how to eat well and do so economically. But that was just one part of the man I knew.

“Another was his deep knowledge of sports, and not just boxing. Like me, he was an avid tennis fan and we spent many a meal discussing the sport and its history. As the national sports editor at UPI he covered dozens of championship events, including Super Bowls involving the favorite team of my youth, the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s. More than once I asked him about Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, “Mean” Joe Greene and other members of the squad and he gave me insights into how they were as interview subjects that I never would have gotten otherwise. His wealth of knowledge made him an extraordinary and fascinating conversation partner and I never failed to pepper him with queries whenever we were together.

“I also learned while working with him that Joe knew everyone and everyone knew Joe. And they liked him very much. He was a professional on the job and he was a people person off it. Although I have tried to do so here, words can’t fully illustrate how deeply I will miss him.

“I knew something was wrong with him the last time I worked with him earlier this year, and while he acknowledged something was wrong he chose to keep the details private. From my experience, I suspected it was some form of cancer and that’s what it turned out to be. All I can hope for is that the process was as quick and merciful as possible. But no matter how it happened, Joe is now at peace. His physical body is stilled but his soul and the memories produced for those lucky enough to have known him will live on.

“You have been a friend, a mentor and an inspiration and I mourn your passing.”

The sting of death for those of us left behind will dull but will never disappear. As I near my 53rd birthday I know the reaper will visit those I love more often. On June 7, my sister and I lost our father and my mother lost her husband, also to cancer. Life will never be quite the same, and I think about my dad at least once a day. But I also know that as long as I am breathing, I will have the chance to experience the best life has to offer and I know that those who have passed before me would want me to enjoy those episodes to the fullest. And so I shall.

*

The weather in West Virginia the past few days has been typically gloomy but today the sun broke through the gray and brought moderate warmth with it. As has been the case with past trips to Cleveland, I opted to drive instead of fly. Why drive two-and-a-half hours to Pittsburgh International Airport when I could cut out the middleman and simply drive for four?

After rising at 7:30 a.m. and finishing the usual morning routines, I spent the next few hours doing research for the January 12 ShoBox topped by IBF/WBC titlist Claressa Shields and unbeaten four-division belt-holder Tori Nelson. I counted Nelson’s two most recent fights against the previously undefeated Alicia Napoleon (UD 10) and the 4-9 Latashia Burton (TKO 2), then packed my belongings, got into the car, punched in the crew hotel address in Cleveland on my smart phone and took off.

I am so glad my phone has Google Maps, which has, in effect, retired my long-trusted Magellan GPS device. I have long had an aversion to urban driving because of all the one-way streets and tightly-packed traffic, so I felt some trepidation as I began the journey. Thankfully, that part of the trip didn’t begin until I entered the Cleveland city limits and even then, thanks to Google Maps, I flawlessly executed the final crucial final turns to the crew hotel, which I located on the first attempt. The hotel offered only valet parking, so I got my ticket, surrendered my keys, approached the front desk and checked into my room, which happened to be on the eighth (and uppermost) floor.

Although it was nearly 4 p.m., the first signs of impending nighttime were starting to show, so I decided to stay in and get some work done instead of sightseeing. I ordered room service and spent the rest of the evening at the laptop, on the bed watching TV or in thought. Maybe those tasks, in addition to the long drive, expended more energy than I thought because I ended up turning out the lights at 11:30 p.m. – three hours earlier than usual.

Friday, November 10: Though I stirred awake three times during the night, I arose after eight hours of rest/slumber. Following the morning routines, I toyed with the idea of making the 15-minute walk to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That idea vanished about two minutes into the trek when the 29-degree temperature and biting headwind kicked in. I’ve long hated cold weather but Cleveland Cold is downright nasty.

After finishing some more writing in the room I returned downstairs with the intention of buying a beverage. As soon as the elevator door opened, I saw ShoBox executive producer Gordon Hall standing across from me. I had asked to interview him the previous evening – a request he accepted – so it was good that fate stepped in.

For me, the most intriguing part of this show is the fact that all eight fighters on the televised portion – Luis Rosa, Yuandale Evans, Radzhab Butaev, Janer Gonzalez, Junior Fa, Fred Latham, Charles Conwell and Roque Zapata – would be making their ShoBox debuts.

“It’s healthy to have repeat fighters on ShoBox and work to develop them and help to get them recognized but it’s also good for ShoBox to continue to develop new talent,” Hall said. “In speaking with the promoter – in this case, Lou DiBella – I said I was interested in trying to get some fresh blood. We looked at what was available to us and I think this card encapsulates everything that ShoBox is about, from having a 5-0 former U.S. Olympian and amateur standout in Charles Conwell to having Luis Rosa, who is a mature prospect on the verge, with a victory, of becoming a fringe contender. You can say the same of Yuandale Evans, as well. In the case of Junior Fa, once I heard that he had beaten (current WBO heavyweight titlist) Joseph Parker twice in the amateurs, right there that’s something that sparked my interest. I did a little research on him and was able to match him against another undefeated heavyweight in Fred Latham, who was a Pennsylvania Golden Gloves champion and undefeated. It’s a nice little match-up for us, with probably a little more of the emphasis on Fa, but with the heavyweights, it can all end with one punch. The heavyweight division is wide-open, there’s a transition happening and a lot of new blood trying to get into the division, so it’s worth trying to see what we may have there.”

The pairing of Butaev and Gonzalez is particularly intriguing to me because, at least in terms of combined amateur experience, it is a poor man’s Lomachenko-Rigondeaux pairing.

“Butaev had over 400 amateur fights (462 to be exact) and has a very pleasing style,” Hall said. “We’ve seen (Ievgen) Khytrov, (Ivan) Baranchyk, (Sergiy) Derevyanchenko, (Dmitry) Bivol, a number of these Eastern European fighters come on ShoBox and, while offense is obviously in their vocabulary, we’ve found, in the infancies of their careers, that defense is not always (there). We’ll see what Butaev has but I do know he makes for exciting fights. Yaner Gonzalez is someone that is undefeated, from Colombia, and had 300 amateur fights and also has had 20 fights as a pro. He is represented by Alex Camponovo at Thompson Boxing. With Colombian fighters, you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get. They can have these big, great records but it doesn’t necessarily mean that, when they come to America, it’s going to translate or that they’re going to be a star or someone that’s going to even make it, for that matter. But in the case of Butaev only having seven fights as a pro, Gonzalez having 20 fights as a pro and with Ruben Guerrero (father of Robert) as a trainer, he’s not coming in to lose.”

While the three undercard bouts offer interesting pairings, the stakes in the main event between Rosa and Evans are much higher.

“In our main event, the winner, no doubt, becomes a fringe contender at 126,” Hall opined. “Both of these fighters have had their time, where they were somewhat highly regarded, fell off the radar and now come together in a very important fight for both of them. It’s sort of a crossroads fight.

“So what you have on this ShoBox is this: Not only do we have eight fighters we haven’t seen before but we also have a card that shows a little bit of everything we do with this series. We have fighters in the infancy stage, other fighters who are a little farther on in their careers and others who are on the verge of turning from prospect to contender.”

As a CompuBox researcher, I entered this card with little idea of how the styles meshed because of the lack of recent footage. In fact, the only fight that had enough video for me to assemble an analysis was Fa-Latham. Hall’s mission at ShoBox not only has been to match rising prospects but also to pair pleasing styles. With so little available footage, how did Hall gather enough information to help his decision-making process?

“I’ll give you a perfect example: Yaner Gonzalez, the Colombian,” Hall said. “I found out who represented him: Alex Camponovo. I called Alex and said, ‘Tell me the skinny on this kid Gonzalez.’ He told me, ‘The kid can punch. He did have time off a couple of years but he fought this past September on one of our cards. He looked good. I can tell you that he has been in camps in California for three months and has been looking good. He’s a boxer who carries a punch.’ There are certain people in boxing like Alex, who you can trust. Alex brought us Daniel Roman, who ended up beating Adam Lopez and went on to win a title (in September against Shun Kubo). When you don’t have footage, you have to rely on finding out who represents them, who knows about them, who has seen them in the gym and try to get an honest opinion of what they are. I saw footage of Fa, Latham and Butaev and I was already familiar with Rosa and Evans. Conwell had fought on a (ShoBox) undercard in Miami, Oklahoma (KO 2 Rick Graham on July 14) and he appears to have the package. He’s a good boxer and he’s got some power.

“I saw footage of Roque Zapata; not the most attractive fighter but, while he’s come in as the underdog, he’s upset several Philadelphia fighters (a four-round decision over the 3-0 Isaiah Wise and a six-round nod over the 10-3 Fred Jenkins in back-to-back Philadelphia fights),” Hall continued. “I called (J) Russell Peltz and other people and asked them, ‘What do you think of this guy?’ Peltz said, ‘Gordon, this kid throws a ton of punches. He’s always going to be pressing the action and he’s going to make a good fight.’ I said it often: I really don’t care who wins the fight; I want to help to expose fighters in both giving them exposure and also exposing them, should they not be what they are supposed to be. I want to give the viewers at home a story line of why these kids could be something special and then hopefully provide them with a fight that’s worth watching.”

As Gordon and I wrapped up the interview, a Veterans Day parade was passing by the hotel, so we spent a few minutes watching the proceedings from the warmth of the lobby. A couple of hours later, I returned to the lobby and met punch-counting colleague Andy Kasprzak, then completed the 10-minute drive to awkwardly-named Cleveland Masonic Temple Live. The tiny, 16-foot-ring was appropriate for the intimate setting but, while the venue offered excellent sight lines, it didn’t offer much heat. I was thankful I had dressed warmly.

After getting the green lights I needed, I spent the next few hours chatting with Andy as well as other ringsiders, such as the seemingly ubiquitous ring announcer Ray Flores (who told me he had already logged more than 80,000 frequent flier miles this year and would be working many of the cards I listed at the start of this article) and, at least briefly, with promoter Lou DiBella. For an event whose attendance was in the hundreds, there was a notable number of boxing figures at ringside besides DiBella: Hall-of-Famers Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and promoter J Russell Peltz, recent title challengers Antonio Nieves and Terrell Gausha, 110-fight veteran Craig Houk and one-time contender Angel Manfredy among them.

The five-fight undercard began with a pair of spidery 7-0 welterweights in Cincinnati’s Boubacar Sylia and Brooklyn’s Marlon Brown. Though their styles were similar, the major difference was the power behind Sylia’s right hands. A right uppercut-right cross combo floored Brown in the first, while subsequent blows opened a gash over the New Yorker’s right eye, prompting Brown’s corner to stop the fight between rounds four and five.

Next up was local heavyweight Alante Green, who raised his record to 2-0-1 (1) with a 72-second knockout over late-sub Antwaun Taylor, who, after suffering two knockdowns, fell to 4-6 (1).

The following fight very nearly produced a stunning upset. Undefeated Cleveland super welterweight Fred Wilson Jr. had dominated the first three rounds against the much shorter southpaw Cory Dulaney by landing peppery long-range combinations but, in the fourth, Dulaney dramatically turned the fight when he pushed Wilson into the ropes and nailed him with a short right as he boomeranged off the strands. Wilson managed to regain his feet but was shaky for the remainder of the fight, which he won by split decision (39-37, 38-37 Wilson, 38-37 Dulaney).

The undercard fighter who drew the loudest support was local super middleweight Isaiah Steen, a long and lean athlete nicknamed “Z-Wopp,” who owned a record of 9-0 with seven stoppage wins. According to my bout sheet, he was to meet 52-fight veteran Milton Nunez but instead he fought 26-27-3 Ecuadorian Eduardo Flores. Though far shorter and sporting a much softer physique, Flores lasted into the third round, thanks to some slick survival tactics and a midsection that seemed filled with sand instead of organs. That didn’t stop Steen from attacking the body and his steady work was rewarded when a body shot dropped, then stopped, Flores in the third.

The final fight of the undercard saw Cleveland middleweight Willie Nelson drop Alexis Hloros three times en route to a stoppage win, at 2:46 of round one. A one-two followed by a hook to the body scored the first knockdown, while an overhand right to the temple netted the second, moments later. The final tumble occurred, thanks to a crisp left uppercut to the jaw that triggered the three-knockdown rule, raised Nelson’s ledger to 26-3-1 (16) and lowered Hloros’ to 18-7-2 (12).

Andy and I used Nelson-Hloros as our rehearsal fight and the stats reflected the bout’s lopsidedness as Nelson led 16-3 overall and 14-1 power, as well as 48%-14% overall and 58%-25% power.

While the undercard provided interesting action, the four fights to follow promised even more. I couldn’t wait to start counting it.

*

Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, West Virginia. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 15 writing awards, including 12 in the last seven 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 (available on Amazon)” and the co-author of the upcoming book “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers.” To contact Groves, use the email l.groves@frontier.com.

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On the cover this month: Mikey Garcia

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