The Travelin’ Man returns to Detroit: Part two

By Lee Groves

Please click here for Part One.

Friday, March 10 (continued): For someone about to turn 22, Claressa Shields has already authored plenty of history. She is the only U.S. boxer – man or woman – to win gold medals in back-to-back Olympics and her fourth-round TKO over Szilvia Szabados marked the first time a female boxer ever headlined a card aired on premium cable in the United States. Also, Shields’ win allowed her to become the new NABF middleweight titlist in only her second professional fight.

Those who see life from the positive side will hail the brevity and execution with which Shields achieved her objectives. Those more negatively inclined will say she won the belt virtually by default since (1) she was the only North American in a match for a North American title and (2) the talent pool is so shallow. Both have legitimate points.

For me, the most indelible memory will be the ear-splitting reception Shields’ ring walk inspired. Nearly everyone inside the MGM Grand Detroit’s events center was standing, clapping and bellowing at full throttle as she approached the ring, then sang along to her entrance music after she stepped between the ropes. When I removed my headsets to gauge the noise level, it was obvious this crowd was punching far above its weight. It also helps when boxing luminaries like Andre Dirrell, Anthony Dirrell, Bronco McKart and Hall-of-Famer Thomas Hearns are contributing to the cacophony.

Shields was determined to put on a show while Szabados – the overlooked party of the second part, who had lost two of her last four fights – dearly wanted to spoil that show. In a way, both were successful. As promised, Shields went out and tried to hit Szabados in the mouth with her first right hand (which missed), then proceeded to issue a frightful beating that confirmed her pedigree, her superior talent, her standing in the sport and her being placed on the fast track. Meanwhile, Szabados defiantly took every punch without hitting the floor, while radiating a desire to do her best. Unfortunately for her, the talent gap was light years in width. Recognizing that, referee Harvey Dock intervened a moment after a flush right cross-left hook combination swiveled Szabados’ head.

The numbers further illustrated Shields’ dominance as she out-threw (265-137), out-landed (95-11 overall, 7-1 jabs, 88-10 power) and out-distanced Szabados, in terms of accuracy (36%-8% overall, 8%-6% jabs, 49%-8% power). In round one alone, Shields landed 31 of 91 punches in two minutes, which would have translated to an incredible 47 of 137 over three minutes.

After failing to score her highlight-reel knockout in round one, Shields slowed her pace, as she went 20 of 57 and 23 of 64 in rounds two and three, while going 21 of 53 in the 90-second fourth. Her deceleration didn’t negatively affect her power accuracy, as she landed 54% in the second (19 of 35), 42% in the third (21 of 50) and 51% in the fourth (20 of 39).

“I was going to get the clean shot in one round and she was going to go but the ref stopped it in the fourth,” Shields said. “But a knockout is a knockout.”

True. But one must add a caveat.

As impressive as her performance against Szabados was – and it was – one must wonder how her power will register with the better opponents she will inevitably face. Here’s why: Szabados was coming up in weight (from 151 to 158) while Shields was coming down (from 167 to 159 1/2), so Shields had the decided edge in physical strength and, one would think, in shot-for-shot power. Yet Shields failed to score a knockdown. Also, two fights earlier, Szabados was floored in round one by 40-year-old, 150-pound Mikaela Lauren before being stopped in round six. Does Lauren hit harder than Shields? According to BoxRec, the stoppage of Szabados was her 13th knockout in 28 wins, so, at least in comparison to her peers, Lauren is a modest hitter.

So what are we to make of this?

Shields said, after the fight, that a knockout is a knockout and, in literal terms, she is correct. Her pro record now reads 2-0 with one knockout. However, fairly or unfairly, those who are promoted as potential superstars are held to a higher standard. They are expected to justify the bigger dollars and the larger push and, in boxing, the ultimate “show-me” sport, that means putting bodies on the floor and making them stay there. Shields hasn’t done that yet as a pro.

Still, there are mitigating factors favoring Shields. Baseball players will tell you that hitting home runs isn’t easy and boxers will say the same thing about scoring knockouts. Also, the other fighter wants to win too and because a victory over Shields would be a life-changing event, every opponent Shields will face will produce her very best effort. Even going rounds with Shields, in a loss, will improve their standing in the sport, so there is plenty of motivation for her opponents to remain upright. That’s what Franchon Crews did, one fight prior, and that’s what Szabados did.

Watching her live at ringside, Shields can punch and, to me, her blows were delivered with significant speed and force. That’s why I believe Shields’ power will increase with time and that she will eventually score her fair share of knockdowns and knockouts. One must remember that Shields is still in her very early-20s, and one ringsider told me she may boil down to 154, which will further magnify her power.

Shields may be encouraged by the following historical comparison: Sugar Ray Leonard, who was heavily promoted following his gold medal performance at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, didn’t score a knockdown in his first two professional fights either. In fact, he failed to score a knockout.

After Leonard won six-round decisions over 8-11-3 trial horse Luis Vega and 10-1 prospect Willie “Fireball” Rodriguez (who suffered a standing eight-count in round three), questions about his power began to circulate. Like Shields, Leonard was also very young (he was 20) and his body had not yet matured. So how did Leonard respond? By stopping eight of his next nine opponents and eventually becoming one of the “Four Kings.” His junior welterweight physique matured into perhaps the most perfectly proportioned 147-pounder this side of Sugar Ray Robinson. Father Time served Leonard well. Maybe Mother Nature will do the same for Shields in terms of fight-ending power.

Of course, Shields is no Sugar Ray Leonard. Then again, few are but there is historical precedent for almost everything in boxing and the Leonard-Shields link is as strong as any.

While one can point to her power-hitting as a potential point of criticism, Shields has plenty of strengths. First, she has a dynamic trigger. Against Szabados, Shields averaged 70.7 punches per round, which would translate to 106.1 per round, over a three-minute round, and 48 power punches per round, or 72 over three minutes. Other assets include a ferocious fighting spirit, an enormous (and well-justified) belief in herself, a willingness to initiate and sustain exchanges and, most importantly, an eagerness to promote her brand, as well as the cause for women’s boxing in America.

So, while there are issues to be addressed, Shields has time on her side. The growth process should be interesting, and fun, to watch. I wish her the best.

*

In terms of two-way action, the opening bout of the telecast between Chicago’s Joshua Greer Jr. and Detroit’s James Gordon Smith was the perfect table-setter. From the first bell until the explosive finish in round six, the bantamweights eagerly engaged with Smith the aggressor and Greer as the counterpuncher.

Statistically speaking, the first round set the tone as they combined for 148 punches, 58 total connects and 52 landed power shots. Round two was similar (152 punches, 50 total connects and 43 landed power shots) and, thanks to a superior third round (23-11 overall, 18-9 power), Greer carried numerical advantages into round five (106-84 overall, 93-72 power and percentage leads of 43%-28% overall, 23%-16% jabs and 48%-32% power).

Early in round five, Greer irreversibly separated himself from Smith. After connecting with an overhand right to the jaw, Greer floored Smith with a piercing right uppercut, just 11 seconds into the round. Greer’s follow-up assault threatened to end the fight then and there but Smith fought through the fog and actually produced a better final minute (8-4 overall, 7-4 power) to close Greer’s lead to 29-18 overall and 28-16 power.

Gordon Smith continued his pursuit throughout the first 117 seconds of the sixth and he appeared to be making some headway.

Then, with startling suddenness, it was over.

Just as Smith slightly dipped his knees and prepared to throw a right hand, Greer beat him to it with a beautifully delivered cross to the jaw. Gordon Smith never saw it coming and, upon impact, his limp body slumped to the floor, his right leg bending grotesquely underneath him before rolling onto his stomach. Referee Harvey Dock correctly waved off the fight and, soon after, Greer climbed the ropes and held up a large pillow with the words “Night, Night!” scrawled in black ink.

Talk about truth in advertising.

Yes, Greer’s one-punch knockout will be overshadowed by others (including David Lemieux’s crushing left hook stoppage of Curtis Stevens the following day) but, in terms of execution and shock value, Greer’s ranks with the year’s best so far.

Greer’s surge in the final two rounds expanded his final leads to 151-113 overall, 17-14 jabs and 134-99 power as well as 45%-27% overall, 23%-16% jabs and 51%-30% power. Smith was the more active fighter (72.3 per round to Greer’s 59.3) but Greer, who did his share of pre-fight trash talk, couldn’t have asked for a better final word.

If Greer vs. Smith was a four-star appetizer, the welterweight tussle between Toledo lefty Wesley Tucker and Detroit’s Ed Williams was like chasing it down with a glass of castor oil. On paper, their records indicate excellence and accomplishment – 13-0 (8) for Tucker, 12-1-1 (4) for Williams – but the extreme contrast in height (Williams’ 5-foot-10 against Tucker’s 5-foot-5 1/2) and the southpaw/orthodox dynamic produced a fight dominated by lunging, grappling and, in Williams’ case, rabbit punching (for which he was twice docked a point).

The action was so ugly that I passed a note to Steve Farhood, which, with my permission, he read on air: “This is a fight that only Sammy ‘The Clutch’ Angott and Ernie ‘The Octopus’ Terrell would love.”

Had it not been for the two point penalties, the raw statistics might have foreshadowed a win by Williams, whose far superior activity (41.8 per round to Tucker’s 23.5) and light combinations led to connect leads of 56-41 overall and 31-0 in jabs. But the judges apparently were more impressed by Tucker’s headlong dives and more frequent and productive power punching (41-25 in connects, 31%-19% in accuracy).

In retrospect, it might be fitting that in this off-kilter fight the hometown fighter ended up losing 79-71, 78-72 and 77-73 on the scorecards. Tucker and Williams are probably good fighters but, at least on this night, their respective talents were smothered and snuffed out.

If Tucker-Williams was Angott-Terrell, the co-feature between bantamweights Antonio Nieves and Nikolay Potapov was a fight for the Albert Einsteins and Stephen Hawkings of the world. The conventional wisdom around ringside was that Potapov-Nieves would be a distance fight with plenty of speed, intelligence and long-range boxing and that’s exactly what happened.

If one turning point could be identified, it occurred, starting in the fourth, when Potapov allowed Nieves to take more of the lead, which allowed Potapov to negate the jab that had been so effective in the first three rounds (19 jab connects in the first three, 20 in the last seven). By fight’s end, Potapov actually edged Nieves 40-39 in landed jabs.

The final, raw numbers favored Nieves (119-107 overall, 80-67 power) because he was the more active fighter (64.5 per round to Potapov’s 50.4) but the round-by-round breakdowns indicated Potapov was ahead 5-4-1 overall and power, as well as 4-3-3 jabs thanks to leads of 25-19 overall, 10-7 jabs and 15-12 power in the final two rounds. Predictably, the cards were split: Frank Garza and Ansel Stewart favored Potapov 96-94, while Waleska Roldan saw Nieves ahead by the same margin.

*

While I was waiting for my laptop to power down, I spoke briefly with Andre Dirrell. The last time I saw him was at Michael’s Eighth Avenue in Glen Burnie, Maryland, on Jan. 27, 2005, where he and his brother Anthony made their professional debuts against Carlos Jones (TKO 4) and Henry Dukes (TKO 1) respectively as part of the old “Ballroom Boxing” series. It also marked the only time CompuBox president Bob Canobbio and I worked together at ringside; he was the lead operator while I, still a trainee, was working one of my first “live to tape” shows.

Dirrell’s face broke into a wide smile when I told him about various memories I had of the show, such as meeting his grandfather at a hallway just outside the ballroom and how he showed off Dirrell’s Olympic bronze medal.

“It was really nice meeting you,” he said. “I hope we meet again someday.”

“I hope I get the chance to count you,” I replied. That line earned the megawatt smile and a handshake.

Between waiting for my laptop to shut down (it had 55 updates to incorporate), the post-fight pizza (of which I had only one slice) and entering the data into the master database, I wasn’t able to turn out the lights until 2:30 a.m.

Saturday, March 11: After waking up at 6:15 a.m., I turned on the TV and tuned to a “flight monitor” channel to see if my flights were being adversely affected by “Stella,” the name for the latest winter storm. In doing so, I discovered that Delta – with whom I haven’t flown in years – offered direct flights from Detroit to Pittsburgh, including one that would take off at noon. So, I decided to leave the hotel earlier than planned to see if I could swing it. I had the freedom to do so because, thanks to the usual rental car “merry-go-round” at Showtime, Ted Conniff, my carpool mate for Saturday as well, got his own vehicle.

This trip to the airport may mark a sea change in how I will navigate in the future. Recently I downloaded Google Maps into my smart phone and had successfully tested it a couple of weeks earlier while driving a familiar route. During the crew meal, the previous afternoon, I got some pointers on how it worked. Since my Magellan didn’t recognize the address of the hotel anyway, I decided to use Google Maps to guide me to Detroit Metro.

Unlike the Magellan, I didn’t even have to know the exact address of either Point A or Point B. I just typed in Detroit MGM Grand as the starting point and Detroit Metro Airport as the destination, after which I hit the blue “go” button. There wasn’t any waiting for the device to “find” me, as was the case with the Magellan, and the directions were crisp and clear. They guided me to the airport property without a hitch and I turned it off as soon as I saw the road sign indicating the route to the rental car facility.

Anyone who knows me well knows this: I am loath to make a change, unless it’s made clear that the new way is the better way. Such may be the case here. Despite the issues Ted and I had with the final turns to the crew hotel the other day, Google Maps worked perfectly here. I won’t quite pull the trigger on shelving the Magellan for good but, at least, for the next few trips, I’ll rely first on Google Maps to see if the positive trend continues.

Once I turned in the Jeep Renegade, I saw that the direct Detroit-to-Pittsburgh route on Delta was a no-go. But the good news was that I was able to snag a seat on the 10:20 a.m. American Airlines flight to Charlotte, an improvement on my original 11:59 a.m. departure. In fact, I landed in Charlotte at exactly 11:59.

Just before my group number (four) was called for the Pittsburgh flight, I took my place in line. I happened to glance at the boarding pass of the gentleman in front of me and noticed his seat number was the same as mine.

Uh-oh.

It turns out that he had changed to an earlier flight in Atlanta the same instant I was doing so in Detroit and the respective computers slotted us into the same seat.

We both approached the “gate keeper” and showed her our dueling tickets. After a few key strokes, the dispute was settled.

The verdict: The seat was his.

The reason: I had been upgraded to first class.

Yes!

However, my seat was in the very first row, which meant I had to find space to store both my clothes bag and my laptop case. By this time, virtually all the overhead space in first class was filled, so, while I found a crack for my clothes bag above row six, I had to store my laptop bag in the main cabin above row nine. Unless I wanted to swim upstream like salmon, I would have to wait until most of the other passengers deplaned before I could retrieve my luggage.

Mitigating that minor unpleasant situation was my seat-mate Riley, a freshman at Duquesne University, who is studying radio and television broadcasting. Of course, we ended up talking shop for much of the trip and, during our conversation, she revealed her dream job would be to anchor a morning show. Based on her bubbly personality and people skills, I can definitely see that in her future.

The plane landed shortly before 3 p.m. and I pulled into the driveway at 6 p.m., exactly when I thought I would.

My next destination will be a relatively short trip for me, for, on April 14, the “ShoBox” series will emanate from Baltimore, Maryland. There, Taras Shelestyuk will meet Malik Hawkins while Dmitry Bivol-Samuel Clarkson will top the card.

Until next time, happy trails!

*

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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