The Travelin’ Man’s World Tour – Montreal: Part one

By Lee Groves

Friday, June 2: Just days after soaking in the atmosphere of Errol Spence-Kell Brook in Sheffield – both in terms of crowd support and the windy weather – this Travelin’ Man began the third leg of a four-part “world tour” that will, by its end, rack up more than 10,000 miles by car and air. Today’s destination will be Montreal, from where Showtime will televise an important light heavyweight doubleheader between top contender Eleider Alvarez and former champion Jean Pascal, as well as the rematch between WBC titlist Adonis Stevenson and Andrzej Fonfara, who gave Stevenson the sternest challenge of his nearly four-year reign before losing by unanimous decision in May 2014.

Once again, Stevenson and Fonfara will fight at the Bell Centre and, if the rematch is anywhere near their tumultuous first act, fans and media alike will be treated to yet another “2017 Fight of the Year” contender. That’s because their first fight produced not one, not two, but three comebacks. Stevenson looked every inch the 10-to-1 betting favorite, as he floored Fonfara in rounds one and five but the challenger managed to mount a mid-fight rally, as Stevenson struggled with fatigue as well as an injury to his potent left hand. That rally reached its zenith in round nine, when Fonfara floored Stevenson with a short right and improbably put himself within reach of a huge upset, as well as the realization of his ultimate professional dream. With his grip on the crown dangerously loosened, Stevenson dug deep and produced a stirring surge as he connected on 42 power shots in the 10th and 41 more in the 11th. With the finish line in sight, Fonfara somehow rose up in the 12th by leading Stevenson 32-30 in overall connects and tying the champ with 29 landed power shots.

In all, they combined for 1,403 total punches (790-613 for Stevenson), 546 total connects (329-217 for Stevenson) and 417 landed power shots (260-157 for Stevenson). They also hit each other with startling frequency as Stevenson landed 42% overall and 59% power, while Fonfara answered with 35% overall and 40% power. But Stevenson’s strong start, the two knockdowns and his robust stretch drive allowed him to capture a fairly wide decision (116-109, 115-110 twice) but the two-way action was such that calls for a rematch were made even before the final bell. Fonfara proved himself a viable contender, while Stevenson answered questions about his resiliency while further certifying his awesome power.

In the three years since, Stevenson has fought just four times (KO 5 Dmitry Sukhotsky, UD 12 Sakio Bika, TKO 3 Tommy Karpency, KO 4 Thomas Williams Jr.) and will be fighting for the first time in 10 months, not a beneficial schedule for a champion who will turn 40 in September. Meanwhile, Fonfara has only been slightly busier and his career path has been much bumpier. After out-pointing Doudou Ngumbu over 10 rounds in November 2014, Fonfara scored back-to-back career-best victories over Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. (TKO 9) and Nathan Cleverly (UD 12) in a bout that rewrote the CompuBox light heavyweight record book. Eight months after conquering Cleverly, Fonfara met obscure Long Island power-hitter Joe Smith Jr. in front of the former’s adopted home fans in Chicago. Smith, however, destroyed the pre-fight narrative by dropping and stopping Fonfara in just 152 seconds. Smith went on to obliterate another pre-fight story line, six months later, by halting the 51-year-old Bernard Hopkins in what many thought would be “B-Hop’s” victorious farewell, while Fonfara scored a dramatic come-from-behind 10th round TKO over comebacking Hopkins conqueror Chad Dawson on the Keith Thurman-Danny Garcia undercard last March.

Logic would dictate that Smith is more deserving of a Stevenson fight, given his back-to-back upsets and his head-to-head result with Fonfara. Smith, however, is signed to fight Sullivan Barrera July 15 in a bout that could draw a direct line to the Andre Ward-Sergey Kovalev II winner and, as stated earlier, Stevenson vs. Fonfara II boasts an appealing pairing of fistic predators. So, at least in this instance, boxing’s incongruous thought process appears to have worked out well.

While Stevenson-Fonfara II promised fireworks based on history, Alvarez-Pascal, based on past data and the styles, could be a stinker. Although the 22-0 (11) Alvarez has demonstrated pulverizing one-punch power from time to time – his spectacular five-round KO of Lucian Bute in February was the latest example – his fights against Isidro Prieto, Isaac Chilemba and Robert Berridge were tepid distance affairs, in which the Colombian did just enough to get by. Even the Bute fight was a tense war of nerves before Alvarez suddenly lowered the boom. In those four fights, Alvarez averaged just 41.3 punches per round – well below the 52.3 light heavyweight average – and he landed just 1.2 more punches per round overall than his opponents (13.7 vs. 12.5). His saving graces were his power accuracy (42% vs. 33%) and, in the case of Prieto and Chilemba, both of whom narrowly out-landed Alvarez (199-195 for Prieto, 151-147 for Chilemba), his perceived place in the divisional hierarchy.

During his best years, Pascal, too, was a careful but unorthodox boxer capable of sudden pyrotechnics but that version of Pascal hasn’t been seen against a high-level opponent in nearly a decade. As age slowed his reflexes, his punch output and his ability to avoid bombs have eroded significantly. His last six fights saw him win a lukewarm decision victory over an even more reluctant Bute (at least until Bute’s extraordinary 44 of 98 burst in the final round), two stoppage losses to Sergey Kovalev, a hotly disputed 10-round decision over Yunieski Gonzalez, a two-round no-contest against Roberto Bolonti that could have resulted in a disqualification, thanks to Pascal’s blatant hitting-on-the-break foul, and a three-round blowout over Ricardo Ramallo in his most recent fight, last December.

Even in his prime, Pascal was a low-volume, high-accuracy fighter in the mold of Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Andre Berto but his trigger has been downright miserly in recent years. He averaged 36.5 punches per round against Bute, 27.2 in his first fight against Kovalev, 39.7 versus Gonzalez and a near-comatose 15.4 in the Kovalev rematch. Like Alvarez, Pascal has prospered, thanks to his ability to land power punches at a high rate. He landed 57% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts against Bute and 47% against Gonzalez but against Kovalev, he landed just 30% in fight one and 33% in the rematch. Thus, a key to assessing Alvarez’s future prospects will be how well a past-his-best Pascal performs with his power shots.

One more point of intrigue: Alvarez-Pascal is not the customary pairing of a young hungry prospect versus a fading former champion because, at 33, Alvarez is just 18 months younger. Therefore, because time is not on Alvarez’s side, this may well be his only genuine drive toward a title shot and he can’t afford any missteps. But their shared reluctance to let a punch go, combined with Pascal’s do-or-die standing in the sport could increase the odds of that misstep actually happening.

*

As is usually the case, my route to my ultimate destination wasn’t a direct one: Pittsburgh to Philadelphia to Montreal, then a cab drive to our crew hotel, the Marriott Montreal Chateau-Champlain, which was just a five-minute walk from the Bell Centre. Because my first flight was scheduled to depart at 10:55 a.m., I arose at 5 a.m., left the house at 6 and arrived in Pittsburgh at 8:15. Ground traffic in Philadelphia forced our aircraft to remain on the runway in Pittsburgh for nearly 20 minutes but I was unconcerned because I had a robust 90-minute connection window.

Once in Philadelphia, I boarded a bus in order to access Terminal F without having to go through security a second time. My timing was fortuitous because I was the last to board the latest bus, even though that bus, unusually, wasn’t stuffed to the gills. My gate, 38F, was one of six at the far end of the terminal.

When we were summoned to the podium to present our boarding passes and passports, I spotted a familiar and friendly face. That face belonged to veteran writer/broadcaster Dave Bontempo, who, along with Canadian boxing maven Corey Erdman, would be doing the English-language international call. Like me, Dave has never lost his enthusiasm, despite his many years in the business and his ethics – both personal and professional – are top-notch. He is someone I’m proud to call a friend and I believe he deserves to have a place on a future International Boxing Hall of Fame ballot.

Following an unusually hard landing in Montreal, we needed to go through immigration and customs. In past years, this process required more than an hour to complete as thousands waited in line to be seen by immigration officers. Happily, for us travelers, the procedure has been changed. Now, passengers have access to dozens of kiosks that direct us to scan our passports, insert our customs forms and answer a few questions on the touch screen before proceeding to the immigration officer, who passed me through after I answered three simple questions. From beginning to end, the process lasted a little more than 15 minutes.

Although Dave was seated several rows behind me on the aircraft, he caught up to me at the currency exchange counter. Since our hotels were fairly close, in terms of proximity, we agreed to share a cab and, for an extra $3.50 each, the driver offered to drive us to both locations. The congestion in downtown Montreal – both human and vehicular – extended the length of the ride considerably and thus I arrived at my hotel shortly after 5 p.m. Because my punch-counting partner Andy Kasprzak had a simpler route to Montreal – he drove – he attended the format meeting in my place. The pre-card electronic check, however, was moved back to Saturday afternoon because a concert at the Bell Centre required Showtime’s production truck to be moved several miles away. No matter: Those checks, at least lately, have been completed within a few minutes.

While checking out Facebook, I saw that Showtime Boxing was streaming the Stevenson-Fonfara weigh-in. I thought about walking to the casino where it was being held but I figured the event would be over by the time I got there. So, on the stream, I saw Fonfara scale 174 ¼ to Stevenson’s surprisingly light 173 ½. For the record, Alvarez and Pascal each weighed 174 ½.

I had planned to spend part of the evening walking around the immediate environs but then I saw that the SiriusXM 93 boxing show hosted by Randy Gordon and Gerry Cooney was about to begin, so I logged onto the website and listened to the two-hour live stream. The centerpiece of this show was the one-year anniversary of Muhammad Ali’s death and the interviewees included Teddy Atlas, Evander Holyfield, Larry Holmes, Jerry Izenberg and Gene Kilroy. Once the show ended, I ordered room service and watched a pair of CFL opening-week contests before turning out the lights at the unusually early hour of 11 p.m.

Saturday, June 3: I stirred awake at 2 a.m. and spent the next four-and-a-half hours in a state of semi-slumber before finally deciding to get out of bed and begin the day. I spent the first few hours polishing copy, after which I began my postponed walk around the environs. Unlike yesterday, conditions were cool, cloudy and occasionally drizzly. As I waited for the precipitation to slow down, I spotted members of Teams Stevenson and Fonfara engaging in friendly but competitive banter. After the Stevenson people left, I introduced myself to the two Team Fonfara members and talked about tonight’s match. One was a bearded, bespectacled 31-year-old friend of Fonfara, who took up boxing to drop some excess weight while the other was 2-2 super middleweight Pawel Ruminski, who, in his pro debut, scored this six-second knockout of Siarhei Krapshyla:

Upon viewing the video on Ruminski’s cell phone, I knew that I had watched it just a couple of weeks earlier while fiddling around on YouTube. What were my odds of a chance face-to-face with the purveyor of that KO? I’m not sure there’s a number that small.

I confined my 30-minute walk to La Rue de Gauchetiere so that my faulty gyroscope would not result in my getting lost. As the walk came to a close, I noticed I could see my breath, quite the sight for early June.

I returned to my room to rest a little, after which I returned downstairs to print out my boarding passes for my 11:50 a.m. Montreal-to-Philadelphia flight and the subsequent Philadelphia-to Pittsburgh bird.

Nearly three hours later, I met Andy in the lobby and walked to the Bell Centre. Our arrival at ringside was perfectly timed, for our work station was ready for the pre-fight testing (which went perfectly) and had readily available electrical outlets. With that task completed, we were ready for our night at the fights to begin. Unfortunately for us, there were still five-and-a-half hours to go before the telecast.

Following the crew meal, Andy and I returned to ringside and watched the three-fight undercard that saw middleweight Christian Mbilli stop Cesar Ugarte (4-2, 2 knockouts) in two to raise his record to 4-0 (4), super middleweight Dario Bredicean out-point 15-14-2 (6) journeyman Manuel Garcia over eight to advance his ledger to 14-0 (4) and super welterweight Mikael Zewski notch an eight-round decision over a determined Fernando Silva (15-11-3, 6 KOs) to go to 28-1 (21) in his first ring appearance in nearly 20 months.

The stage was now set for Alvarez to face Pascal and Stevenson to re-do his to-do against Fonfara.

*

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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