The Travelin’ Man returns to Detroit: Part one

By Lee Groves

Thursday, March 9: For the fourth time in five weeks, “The Travelin’ Man” ventured away from the Home Office to work the CompuBox keys. This time I’ll be counting a “ShoBox” quadruple-header in Detroit, topped by Claressa Shields’ second pro fight, a scheduled six-rounder against 23-fight veteran Szilvia Szabados, billed as the first main event on U.S. premium cable involving female boxers.

It is hoped that Shields’ entry into the pro ranks will spark a revival of women’s boxing in the United States, a segment of “The Sweet Science” that has remained in the shadows since Christy Martin, Lucia Rijker, Ann Wolfe and Laila Ali faded from prominence a decade or more ago. Moreover, Shields will also bear the burden of reviving the Detroit boxing scene, which thrived in the 1980s, when the late, great Emanuel Steward cranked out champions at a dizzying pace but faded into obscurity since. That’s a lot to ask of a 21-year-old, even if that 21-year-old is the only American boxer to win gold medals in back-to-back Olympics.

Based on her action-packed style, her charismatic personality and her compelling back story of overcoming a difficult upbringing, she appears well-equipped to not only handle the jobs before her but to do so with enthusiasm. The first step toward fulfilling her objectives is scoring an eye-catching knockout before her home state fans and a curious worldwide audience.

“I’m going to be aggressive,” a confident Shields said earlier in the day. “I’m not going to be nervous and I’m not going to freeze up. I’m going to go right out there and hit (Szabados) in the face with a right hand. I’m embracing all of this. I grew up and heard, when I was young, that women can’t fight. I’m ready to show everyone just how wrong that is on Friday night.”

While many U.S. fans may need the object lesson, such is not the case for the rest of the world, where the women’s game is performing quite nicely.

Thanks to DirecTV’s Spanish-language package, I am a regular viewer of Argentina’s weekly “Boxeo de Primera” series on TyC Sports (Channel 469) and it is rare when female fighters aren’t shown at least once per show. In fact, they have topped numerous telecasts and the pomp and circumstance that precedes their most important bouts are just as robust for them as they are for the men.

Not only has the channel chronicled the careers of outstanding Argentine fighters such as Marcela Acuna (who, at age 40, recently stopped countrywoman Yesica Marcos to win the vacant IBF super bantamweight title), Yesica Bopp, Erica Farias, Daniela Bermudez, Ana Esteche, Edith Matthysse (sister of Lucas), Victoria Bustos, Debora Dionicius, Carolina Duer and Anahi Sanchez, it also showed Cecilia Braekhus’ recent decision victory over Klara Svensson. An additional good sign: The demand to see bouts like Braekhus-Svensson had to be there or else TyC (short for “Torneos y Competencias”) wouldn’t have bothered to show it. That’s the power of concerted and consistent marketing and hopefully Shields’ performances will prompt those in power to better advertise the women’s game in general.

Thanks to other cable outlets, I’ve also watched (and enjoyed) the extraordinary skills of Layla McCarter (who recently signed with Mayweather Promotions), the incredible story of 49-year-old Alicia Ashley (who will defend her WBC super bantamweight belt against Fatuma Zarika in Nairobi, Kenya next month) and the recent deeds of other standouts such as Jackie Nava, Amanda Serrano, Heather Hardy (who defeated Shelly Vincent on NBC Sports Network last year) and Jessica Chavez, among many others. So, despite the near-blackout of women’s boxing on U.S.-based channels, other stations have allowed me (and many others) to keep up to speed. Thanks to Shields, more American fight fans will have a reason to do the same. But for this to continue, Shields will have to do what Martin, Rijker, Wolfe and Ali did to maintain interest: Win, keep winning, and do so in impressive fashion.

I suspect Shields will do just that in one day’s time but I can’t be certain because there wasn’t any recent footage of Szabados for me to assess. In fact, the only fight on the card with sufficient video from both fighters is the 10-round co-feature between Antonio Nieves and Nikolay Potapov, who were originally supposed to fight last August but didn’t because Potapov fell out. Alejandro Santiago stepped in for Potapov and fought Nieves to a draw many thought Santiago should have won, while Potapov scored two quick knockouts in his native Russia over badly overmatched foes (their combined record was 12-53-3).

The other two fights on the telecast – scheduled eight-rounders between bantamweights James Gordon Smith and Joshua Greer Jr. and welterweights Wesley Tucker and Edward Williams – were also mysteries to me because of a shortage of available video. Their combined records of 47-2-2 look good on paper but I won’t know much of anything until the one-minute mark of round one, if not sooner.

*

Soon after assembling my belongings for packing yesterday afternoon, I learned about the passing of Lou Duva, whose life in boxing touched more than seven decades and whose lifespan extended nearly 95 years. The outpouring of affection further illustrated what we, who love boxing, already knew: He was one of our tribe’s most beloved members.

His bulldog visage, thick physique and aggressively clipped New Jersey speech projected the side that demanded respect from those in his sphere of influence. But once Duva allowed his magnetic personality to fully express itself, the initial intimidation melted away and was replaced by warmer emotions, emotions that would produce different effects. Fighters and employees wanted to work harder for him because they knew it would please him and because he himself toiled so intensely. Writers and broadcasters flocked to him because quotes flowed from him like Niagara Falls and his in-ring histrionics inevitably led to controversy. Fans were drawn to him because of his gift for storytelling as well as his array of one-liners that had his listeners in stitches.

I was one of those listeners. When I began attending the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s Induction Weekend in 1993, Duva was an annual fixture who lit up every room he entered and every event he attended. More than once I heard attendees shout, “Looooooooooou!” upon his arrival because everyone present knew they were just a few of his words away from their day being brightened. As wonderful a boxing man as he was, he was an even better “people person.” While he was a man of great accomplishment – he worked with 19 fighters who won major titles and was inducted into the IBHOF in 1998 – he projected a jovial everyman persona that established an instant connection.

One example of his earthy humor took place during his introductory speech for Jeff Fenech, who was about to be inducted into the IBHOF. “He’s the only guy I know who steps out of the shower to take a pee.” Veteran cornerman Richard Schwartz gave me that quote and it was just one of thousands Duva uttered over the years that caused gales of laughter. Had Duva chosen stand-up comedy instead of boxing, he would have had one-line artists Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield shaking in their shoes. Lucky for us, in boxing, Lou went another way.

Duva was also known to pull a prank.

“They had an annual picnic on the grounds of the Main Events offices to celebrate Lou’s birthday and part of it was a softball game between the Main Events staff and fighters versus the media,” recalled CompuBox President Bob Canobbio, an avid softball player. “The game was about to start and Lou said, ‘It looks like the writers have the advantage because we’re missing a couple of players. I’ve got to do something about that.’ He disappeared; then, all of a sudden, he came out with Major Leaguer Manny Sanguillen, who ended up playing for them.

“That’s the range of Lou,” Canobbio continued. “Lou knew everybody and everybody knew Lou.”

Canobbio also appreciated the push Duva and his son Dan gave to CompuBox during its infancy.

“We started the year after they signed the 1984 Olympians,” he said. “Dan knew Logan (Hobson) from Logan’s days at United Press International and he knew me because I did freelance work for HBO. Once we started compiling data on the fighters, I pitched the idea to Dan that we could come to the training camps with Evander (Holyfield), Pernell (Whitaker) and Meldrick (Taylor) and track their sparring sessions. Dan was all for it and Lou, though he was an old-school trainer, never objected to it.

“We traveled to camps in Virginia Beach and Houston. In fact, Evander Holyfield picked us up at the airport in Houston and gave us a lift to the training camp, which was really cool. During the sparring sessions, we would track things like Whitaker’s jab and Taylor’s defense. Then, as time went on, and we started getting data on more fighters, we pitched the idea of doing scouting reports on future opponents. Again, Dan and Lou embraced it and made use of it because they saw genuine interest and value in our data.”

They also went the extra mile as far as promoting the fledgling company.

“One time when Mark Breland was fighting at Ice World in Totowa, New Jersey, Lou and Dan hired us to work the fight. Breland had that great jab and they actually asked us to provide printouts between rounds to monitor how his jab was doing. It was more of a publicity thing – it was early in Breland’s career and it wasn’t exactly a tough fight – but it worked. Jon Saraceno wrote a story for USA Today and Wally Matthews ran a story too. Lou and Dan did whatever they could to help get CompuBox recognized and accepted and, for that, we are eternally grateful.

“Lou was this gruff-looking guy but he had a heart of gold and would help anybody,” Canobbio concluded. “He was larger than life but never came off that way because he was about family and fighters. He was truly a man of the people.”

*

I awakened at 7:30 a.m. with the intent of leaving an hour later, an extremely early departure since my initial flight from Pittsburgh to Charlotte wasn’t scheduled to leave until 1:49 p.m. I felt a need to do it because of what happened on my last three in-bound trips: A multi-car pileup on “Two Mile Hill” that blocked traffic in both directions, during my initial drive to Pittsburgh International Airport for the Miami, Oklahoma show last month, massive construction that forced me to improvise on the streets of Cincinnati and, on the first leg of the Temecula, California, trip, the aftermath of a head-on collision in Powhatan Point, Ohio, that forced me to back-track, drive 36 miles out of my way and arrive at my gate in Pittsburgh just five minutes before my first Southwest flight began boarding. Based on that, I couldn’t take any chances.

So what happened? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Under sunny skies, a temperature in the low-40s and lighter-than-usual traffic, I arrived in Pittsburgh ahead of schedule. It took me a while to find a parking spot in the extended lot but I ended up in a decent spot (eight spaces away from the 12C sign, a five-minute walk from the terminal entrance). There was no line at the TSA Pre-Check entry point and I even avoided the “random screening” beep as I walked under the metal detector (that happened to the woman who was directly behind me). I arrived at my gate – B-26 – about 90 minutes before boarding, so, after making an “I’m all right” call home and conducting a phone interview with Canobbio for this article, I walked to one of the food courts and enjoyed a leisurely brunch while reading my latest library acquisition: “Furious George” by longtime NBA coach George Karl. The book seemed fitting because, like Lou Duva, Karl’s passion for his chosen sport occasionally crossed lines and resulted in trouble.

While seeking out flight requests a few weeks earlier, I was surprised that none of the airlines I frequently use offered direct flights from Pittsburgh to Detroit. So, I ended up requesting (and receiving) an American Airlines flight from Pittsburgh to Charlotte’s Douglas International Airport as well as a 4:25 p.m. bird from Charlotte to Detroit’s Metro Wayne County Airport. I chose Charlotte because (1) I’d likely be flying south of any potential snowstorms and (2) Charlotte is one of my favorite airports in general. If all goes well, I would meet carpool counterpart, video man Ted Conniff and drive to our crew hotel, the MGM Grand Detroit on Third Avenue.

Both flights left on time, experienced virtually no turbulence and landed early. Ted walked into the Avis facility just as I had finished reserving my rental vehicle, a gray Jeep Renegade. Because my Magellan didn’t recognize Third Avenue in Detroit (my only option was Third Street), I asked Ted and his phone, armed with Google Maps, to serve as navigator.

Despite following its directions to the letter, Google Maps caused us to miss the entrance to the MGM Grand Detroit the first time through. However, it also helped us get a second bite of the apple, which almost went awry when the voice began offering directions that made little sense to us. Ted then took over, and his line-of-sight suggestions got us where we needed to go: The valet parking area in front of the hotel.

After dropping off the Jeep, thanking Ted for his efforts and saying hello to some Showtime staffers departing for a night on the town, I walked to the registration desk to check into my room. Once I gave them my last name, a look of confusion crossed the employee’s face.

“I’m sorry, Sir, but I don’t see your name on our list,” she said.

“That’s weird,” I replied. “I have a production memo that proves I am with the Showtime group. It also has some names and numbers you can call in order to address the issue.”

I was asked to step to the side while the matter was being handled so that those behind me in line could check into their rooms. Meanwhile, I returned a call from punch-counting colleague Andy Kasprzak (who initially called during Ted’s “line of sight” navigation) and, after explaining what was happening, he told me that when he called the hotel, before he left this morning, he discovered his name wasn’t on the list either. He then called production coordinator Nikki Ferry, who rectified the problem. A few minutes later, Nikki confirmed my Showtime link to the hotel staff, after which I was given the keys to my fourth-floor room.

Once I finished unpacking and making a few phone calls, I took the elevator down to the casino and sought a mid-evening snack. I spotted a food court at the far end, chose one of the several outlets there and took my place in line. I then noticed a familiar face three spots ahead of me.

That face belonged to Claressa Shields, who, hours earlier, checked in at 159 1/2, a full seven-and-a-half pounds lighter than she scaled for her pro debut against Franchon Crews last November. After each of us placed our orders, I walked to the waiting area and said hello to her as well as her female friend.

“I saw you wearing your Showtime T-shirt and told (Claressa) that you might be working the fight,” her friend told me. In person, Shields looked even younger than her 21 years and her frame appeared more welterweight than middleweight. Also, her demeanor was friendly and easygoing, not that of a hardened combat sports veteran who was about to engage in the 80th fight of her boxing life (77-1 as an amateur, 1-0 as a pro). She also didn’t reveal her identity or tout her accomplishments to anyone; she was just another face in the crowd.

After I told her I would be the one counting her punches tomorrow night, she smiled and said, “Make sure you get all of them.”

“I will,” I said.

I’ve often talked about “coincidences” that occur on many of my trips but this one was quite striking. I could have picked any other moment to leave my room and chosen any other restaurant on the property (and there are many) but the confluence of circumstances resulted in me being just three places behind a two-time Olympic gold medalist and the star boxer on the show that I am working. As Rocky Graziano often said, “Someone up there likes me.”

After consuming my bounty, I relaxed for the rest of the evening, which ended shortly before midnight.

Friday, March 10: I stirred awake at 5:30 a.m. and decided to doze for an hour more before officially starting my day. I spent most of the next six hours writing most of the words you have read so far as well as conducting some peripheral research for CompuBox. I then headed downstairs to print my boarding passes, returned to the room to finish other work and rest my eyes before heading down to the third floor and the MGM Arena.

Our work area was nearly finished by the time I arrived at 3 p.m. and we got our green light soon after returning from the crew dinner held at the Palette Eatery, a buffet. Four fights were staged before Showtime’s cameras were turned on and, as usual, they produced some interesting results.

* The opening heavyweight local turf battle between Marcus Carter and Henry Wright proved that one can’t judge a book by its cover. Carter, who had scored three knockouts in his three previous fights, scaled a soft-looking 259.8 pounds while Wright, making his professional debut, was a sculpted 211.6. But when the fight started, it was clear the bigger Carter had the quicker hands, the swifter feet and the better technique. A right hand sent Carter staggering across the ring late in the third and the fight ended 72 seconds into the fourth.

* The next fight between local welterweights Larry Ventus and Darryol Humphrey was intriguing to me because both entered the ring with losing records (8-11-1 for Ventus, 3-8 for Humphrey). Such fights usually go one of two ways: A watchable scrap because each is fighting a man of similar skill or an awful bout that highlights the reasons behind their records. To me, this fight was more option one than option two but it also was unexpectedly lopsided. Ventus scored a pair of knockdowns in round two, thanks to right uppercuts to the pit of the stomach, while a right to the chin produced a third in round three. A series of right hands scored the fourth and final knockdown but, to Humphrey’s credit, he made it to the final bell. It isn’t often that a four-round fight produces 40-32 scores across the board but, here, it validated just how dominant Ventus had been.

* Andy and I counted the next bout between welterweights Bakhtiyar Eyubov and Gilbert Venegas because I felt I would need the data for future research. But it’s a bonus when our practice fight turns out to be wildly entertaining. Eyubov, operating behind a Frazier-esque bob-and-weave, averaged 108 punches per round while Venegas answered with his own 92-punch-per-round attack. As usual, Eyubov’s jab was a mere rumor (8 of 44, 18%) but he more than compensated with his ferocious aggression and incredibly prolific power punching. His totals for the first four rounds: 50 of 103, 53 of 119, 35 of 123 and 44 of 105. Wow!

But while Eyubov did a good job of emulating “Smokin’ Joe’s” style, he couldn’t replicate Frazier’s torque, monstrous power or underrated ability to slip under punches. For that reason, Venegas not only survived; he nearly out-landed Eyubov in round four (43 of 108 overall to Eyubov’s 44 of 112) and actually did so in rounds five and six (35 of 109 to 24 of 86 in the fifth, 37 of 98 to 33 of 97 in the sixth). Eyubov’s early dominance allowed him to survive Venegas’ late charge, as he led 242-191 overall, but the round-by-round breakdowns suggested a much closer fight than the official scorecards (60-54 twice, 59-55). Yes, Eyubov is an exciting fighter to watch but his defensive numbers (34% overall, 26% jabs, 39% power) may prevent him from rising to the heights he wants to reach. If Venegas, who dropped to 15-27-5 (with 8 knockouts), could force Eyubov to extend himself, what will a higher grade fighter do?

The final pre-TV bout between bantamweights Jarico O’Quinn of Detroit and Szilveszter Kanalas of Hungary lasted just 83 seconds as the 21-year-old O’Quinn clocked his 18-year-old adversary with a wicked right to the temple that caused him to slump forward and motionlessly take the subsequent 10-count. If ever a fighter lived up to his nickname, it was “Fast and Furious” O’Quinn, who advanced his record to 6-0 (with 5 KOs) at the expense of Kanalas, (14-5, 10 KOs).

With the preliminaries now history, Andy and I readied ourselves to count a show that, because of inadequate available past footage, I deemed the “Mystery Meat Card.” But now, all will be revealed. Will the meal taste good? Or would it produce indigestion?

*

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.” To order, please visit Amazon.com. To contact Groves, use the email l.groves@frontier.com.

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