The Travelin’ Man returns to Philadelphia…again: Part One

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Thursday, November 15: Up until recently, fall in West Virginia had been tame. Temperatures in the 60s, more sunny days than not and an absence of the crisp chill that tells us Old Man Winter has crossed into the Northern Hemisphere. The leaves of the sugar maple in front of my house remained full and green – not a one had fallen to the ground – while the other trees in its vicinity had already completed their autumnal cycle.

Then with startling suddenness, everything changed. The mercury struggled to reach the mid-40s during the day and plummeted into the low 20s at night. The stone-gray sky that is a staple of most days between October and March returned, and, more often than not, the gloominess was such that I needed to turn the lights on inside my Home Office in order to see well enough to work, even during the afternoon hours. On Tuesday, our area got its first round of snow flurries, which didn’t last long and didn’t stick to the ground.

The following day, while watching the Weather Channel, I first heard about Avery – the first named storm of the season – and its potential for wreaking havoc up and down the Eastern Seaboard as well as in the Midwest. If the forecasts were correct, the worst of it was going to strike today – my first travel day in nearly two months – and Avery’s path included two cities that will be in my path: Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

The reason for Pittsburgh’s citation is obvious – that’s the airport from which I fly on virtually all of my Travelin’ Man adventures – but the reason for mentioning Philadelphia is that I, along with punch-counting colleague Andy Kasprzak, will chronicle the “ShoBox: The New Generation” card topped by a scheduled 10-rounder between welterweights Jaron Ennis and Raymond Serrano and supported by a pair of eight-rounders between junior featherweights Arnold Khegai and Jorge Diaz as well as junior welterweights Kenneth Sims Jr. and Samuel Teah.

All three matches feature compelling story lines, with the strongest radiating from the main event. Ennis, at age 21, is one of the sport’s brightest young prospects and he showed why nearly four months earlier in his ShoBox debut against the 18-0 Armando Alvarez, as he scored four third round knockdowns on the way to an overpowering TKO victory that lifted his record to 21-0 (with 19 knockouts). To me, what makes his match with Serrano so attractive is that Serrano also hails from Philadelphia and, to boxing fans, there’s nothing quite like a Philadelphia turf war, especially if that turf war takes place below heavyweight.

For fans of a certain age – and I, just days away from age 54, fit into that demographic – the mention of a Philadelphia-versus-Philadelphia fight conjures memories of reading about middleweights “Bad” Bennie Briscoe, Willie “The Worm” Monroe, Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts and Eugene “Cyclone” Hart (the quartet was nicknamed “The Iron” by Marvelous Marvin Hagler, who beat them all but also lost to Monroe and Watts), of watching fights such as Jeff Chandler-Johnny “Dancing Machine” Carter and of witnessing the heroics of action heroes such as Matthew Saad Muhammad and Frank “The Animal” Fletcher against fighters from other towns. I read about the violent gym wars and the hard men that emerged from them and I learned that civic pride was such that the fighters were introduced by neighborhood rather than by city. That pride also demands that if Philly stands across the ring from Philly, each will dig deep for the best possible effort and, more times than not, one can throw the record book out, in terms of predicting whom will win or what might happen.

Boxing, at its core, is a sport that reveals all about an athlete’s sporting character and conditioning but the label “Philadelphia Fighter” demands a higher standard for desire, ferocity and courage. So while Ennis enters this fight as a clear favorite over Serrano (who began his career 18-0 but has gone 6-5 with one no-contest since), I believe Serrano, who will compete against a fellow Philadelphian in front of a Philadelphia crowd, will invest his best effort in pursuit of victory. However it won’t be enough, for I (along with most other observers) predict Ennis’ blend of youth, talent, power and momentum will result in a victory registered well inside the distance.

As for Khegai, a Ukrainian of Korean heritage now based in Philadelphia, I wasn’t at ringside for his most recent appearance at the 2300 Arena – an impressive eight-round decision over Adam Lopez in May – but in watching the show from home, I was impressed with his jab, body punching and accuracy against a version of Lopez who was desperate to return to the winning track after going 1-2-2 in his last five. I knew little about Diaz except that he also defeated Lopez on points over eight rounds in his most recent outing, a result that no doubt earned him this ShoBox appearance. Unfortunately that fight took place 363 days ago and, before that, he had lost his last two fights by KO, the first against the 18-0-1 Abraham Lopez by ninth round corner retirement, and the second against the 15-0 Carlos Castro in just 138 seconds. On paper, this looks like a record-builder for Khegai and I believe that’s what will happen inside the ring as well.

Like Khegai, Sims and Teah are ShoBox alums but their experiences on the series have inflicted scars, both physically and professionally. Sims lost his undefeated record after losing a majority decision to Rolando Chinea in July 2017, then suffered a draw against Montana Love that the stats say he should have won. The evidence: Sims led Love 211-159 in overall connects, 33-27 in landed jabs and 178-132 in power connects, prevailed in the CompuBox round-by-round breakdowns in all phases (6-2 overall, 5-2-1 jabs, 6-1-1 power) and was ahead 33%-30% in overall accuracy and 23%-14% in jab precision. Love, however, was the portrayed A-side, landed a higher percentage of his power shots (39%-36%) and finished stronger in the final round (41-38 in total connects despite being out-thrown 116-96). As for Teah’s ShoBox experiences, he scored a mild upset over the then-undefeated O’Shaquie Foster in November 2015 that, given Foster’s superb showing in beating the previously undefeated Jon Fernandez two months ago, looks much better in context but he, too, suffered setbacks on the series as he fought Demond Brock to a draw, then lost a majority decision to Love in February 2018 (the fight that vaulted Love to the A-side against Sims).

Given this scattered history, it will be interesting to see how this fight plays out. One of the strongest CompuBox trends is Sims’ volcanic starts, his mid-fight lulls and his garrison finishes but, in recent fights, he has tried to marshal his energy better. In his most recent fight against Andrew Rodgers on October 13, Sims threw a modest (for him) 77 punches in round one, while fending off a frenetic 103 from Rodgers. But Rodgers, who still trailed Sims 32-29 in total connects in the opening three minutes, lacked the conditioning to continue the maniacal pace and Sims focused less on volume and more on accuracy. In rounds 2-6, Sims threw 50, 44, 53, 45 and 65 punches and, as a result, Rodgers, through tired, actually averaged more punches per round than Sims (62 to 55.7). However Sims reaped the benefit of excellent accuracy, as he landed 47% overall, 38% jabs and 52% power while taking just 22%, 8% and 27% respectively. Those gaps led to connect leads of 158-82 overall, 41-8 jabs and 117-74 power. His jab was excellent (17.8 thrown/6.8 connects per round) and his vaunted body attack was still there (he led 83-39 in body connects). At times, Sims’ command was such that he toyed with Rodgers and the judges’ scorecards reflected his level of control (60-54 twice, 59-55).

Since his loss to Love (a last-minute replacement for Wellington Romero), Teah has scored a pair of first round stoppages over the 19-12 Orlando Rizo and the 8-3 Zack Ramsey. While Teah represents a sizable jump in class for Sims, when compared to Rodgers, I believe Sims’ high revving motor, excellent hand speed, all-targets attack and new focus on accuracy over volume will help him hustle his way to a competitive points victory.

But before I can enjoy the action, I have to get to Philadelphia. And given the conditions, that won’t be an easy task.

Just before leaving the house, I checked the American Airlines website to see if my flight, which was scheduled to leave at 12:53 p.m., was still on time. It was. Still, I left the house at 7:45 a.m. with an eye of arriving at the airport at 10:15 a.m. because, while the temperature at home was 36, I knew that as I traveled north, the mercury could drop and the wet roads could turn to icy ones. I believe the best way to handle such conditions is to slow down and respect them and that belief has kept me safe for the last 27 years.

It was a good thing I gave myself extra time to get to the airport because I encountered an unexpected detour. Normally I cross into Ohio via the bridge in New Martinsville, West Virginia, then cross back into the Mountain State via the I-470 East overpass but, today, road construction prevented me from accessing the overpass directly. Instead those of us who wanted to use I-470 East had to drive on I-470 West until arriving at the first exit, at which point we could loop around and head toward the overpass. That added about 15 minutes to my drive but, since I had a large time buffer, I wasn’t concerned in the least.

Thankfully the temperature never fell below 33, so I had no issues with ice. Better yet, I found a parking place that was relatively close to the terminal entrance, so my walk through the chilly rain lasted less than five minutes.

When I made my flight requests to Showtime several weeks earlier, I discovered, to my chagrin, that American Airlines had dramatically cut back on its weekend Philadelphia-to-Pittsburgh flights. Up until recently, these flights were available on an almost hourly basis but now there were only two such flights on Saturday, one that departed at 8:04 a.m. and another at 4:29 p.m. Thinking that a fairly long drive from hotel to airport was in the cards following a late night at the fights, I opted to take the later flight. However when the production memo arrived earlier this week, I learned that the Showtime crew would be staying at the Marriott located on the property of Philadelphia International Airport. So once I arrived in Pittsburgh, I approached the American Airlines check-in counter to see if I could get booked on the 8:04 flight. “Why not?” I thought. “I’ll be near the Philadelphia airport anyway.” Unfortunately that flight was booked solid but I was given a number to try late Saturday night to see if vacancies can be exploited.

In finding out, however, one of the AA agents recognized me as someone he helped before and the salesman in me used that opportunity to tell him about “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers,” of which I happened to have a copy inside my laptop bag. Because that copy was intended for someone else, I didn’t make the on-the-spot sale but hopefully I planted the idea of a future purchase inside his head (and, by mentioning it here, inside yours).

After returning downstairs, I saw that the TSA Pre-Check line was unusually long – it stretched about 150 feet – but the queue moved quickly because two TSA agents expertly handled the influx. Once through, I settled into the gate and awaited the aircraft’s arrival. By now, the effects of Avery had clamped down and resulted in the departure being pushed back from 12:53 to 1:45, then strangely from 1:45 to 1:30.

The boarding process went smoothly and, after taking my aisle seat in row 11, I was soon joined by a slim, raven-haired, 50-something flight attendant who bore a resemblance to “Gilligan’s Island” star Tina Louise (she took the window seat) and a middle-aged African-American man (the last person to board the aircraft) who took the middle seat. Just moments after the plane reached the runway, the pilot got on the intercom and announced that Philadelphia, which was now being pounded by Avery, had ordered a ground stop and that the next update wouldn’t come for another hour. During the break, “Tina” arose from her seat and helped the crew serve water to the passengers, while the man next to me continued to pore over his laptop and listen to music on his headset. As for me, I alternated between reading and resting my eyes, which had now grown weary.

The ground stop was lifted at 3 p.m. sharp, 62 minutes after it had been imposed and the pilot told us to expect turbulence “since there is considerable weather between us and Philadelphia.” He was right; the plane rumbled and rocked at two points during the 61-minute flight. While I wasn’t very concerned about the shaking aircraft, I couldn’t help but steal a glance or two at “Tina” because if anyone could be a reliable barometer of such things, she could. As expected, she was perfectly serene.

The announcement that the aircraft was starting its approach was made fairly quickly but the interval between that and touchdown was longer than usual. That’s probably because the glut of planes in Philly’s air space was such that we had to circle before being given a place in line to land. The reasons behind that thinking were made even clearer; the visibility was so bad that I couldn’t see anything but gray outside our window until less than a minute before landing. Several inches of snow had already fallen and the winds surely tested the skills of our pilot. The feathery touchdown told everyone that he was more than up to the challenge and, upon leaving the plane, I made a point of thanking the crew.

Not knowing the lay of the land, I assumed I would next have to go to the Avis rental car center and drive to the hotel. Imagine my surprise when I saw a sign pointing the way not only to “ground transportation” but to the “Airport Marriott.”

“You mean the crew hotel is inside the airport?” I asked myself. Indeed it was.

I was one of a few people on the crew to have a rental car reservation because I was charged with driving Andy and cameraman Gene Samuels from the hotel to the 2300 Arena. So upon checking in, I asked the clerk about rental car parking and she said the hotel uses an outside garage that costs $24 per night. I soon learned there was no need for that because the Avis facility was located across the street from the hotel. At this point, I hatched a plan: Wait until tomorrow to rent the car, have Andy and Gene meet me at the Avis facility, drive to the arena and – since the hotel, Avis facility and airport were in the same place – return the car right after the show. The only alteration was suggested by Gene via text: Pick him and Andy up at the hotel entrance.

With that, I settled into the room, ordered room service and spent the rest of the evening catching up on the news and sports I missed during the course of the day. I turned out the light shortly before midnight.

 

Friday, November 16: Unlike most nights, I slept rather soundly and got up at 6:45 a.m. I spent the next several hours writing the words you’ve read so far and when I reached a good stopping point, I headed downstairs to make sure all was well before leaving for the venue.

The reason: Since I didn’t pick up my vehicle last night, I was concerned Avis would treat my reservation like the airlines would if I missed the first leg of my journey on the appointed day – cancel it completely. So I braved the blustery conditions and walked over to the Avis facility, where, thankfully, my reservation was still in the system. Ninety minutes later I returned to Avis and picked up my vehicle (a red Jeep wagon) but circumstances unfolded in such a way that I ended up driving to the arena by myself.

It had been quite a while since I last worked a show at the 2300 Arena, which, given its gritty surroundings and austere interior, was the perfect place to host this card. Thus my unfamiliarity with the area resulted in clunky, scratch-and-sniff driving even with the help of Google Maps but, in the end, I managed to find the arena as well as the designated parking area for Showtime personnel.

Once inside the arena, I walked to my work station and set up shop. The electronic hook-ups proceeded well and, as a result, the counting crew was ready to go five hours before our 9:30 air time. While I waited, I said hello to several ringsiders, including jack-of-all-trades Marc Abrams, judge Steve Weisfeld and referees Gary Rosato and Benjy Esteves Jr.

The evening’s opening contest, at cruiserweight, between Reading’s David Stevens (who was making his pro debut) and the 0-0-1 Judd Brown proved interesting for several reasons. First, Brown sported Muay Thai style trunks as well as, according to Esteves, an MMA protector so thin that it appeared he was working, so to speak, without a net. Second, after arising from an early knockdown produced by a hook, Brown absorbed a series of body shots that prompted him to pick up his leg as if he wanted to deliver a knee strike. Remembering where he was – and what rules under which he was fighting – he refrained from following through. A four-punch combination produced a second knockdown that prompted referee Rosato to instantly end the fight at the 2:56 mark of round one.

The next bout pitted light heavyweights Benjamin Sinakin, of Philadelphia, and Darren Gibbs, of Ferndale, Michigan, and it didn’t take long for Sinakin to live up to his nickname of “The Jewish Bulldog” as he vigorously pursued Gibbs behind punches launched from all sorts of angles. A flurry dropped the southpaw Gibbs along the ropes in the final minute of round one, after which another volley highlighted by a right uppercut caused Gibbs’ upper body to slump, a sight that prompted Esteves to intervene just 143 seconds after the opening bell.

Puerto Rican lightweight switch-hitter Christian Tapia – who, to me, bears a strong resemblance to baseball Hall-of-Famer Roberto Alomar Jr. – upped his record to 7-0 (with 6 KOs) by forcing a corner stoppage between rounds three and four against long, lean Clevelander Darnell Pettis, whose record dropped to 3-13. Tapia’s hard and frequent jabs impressively set up the rest of his attack and, by round three, he bloodied Pettis’ mouth and was connecting with a high percentage of his blows.

The most explosive ending of the undercard was produced by Bronx junior middleweight Gledwin Ortiz, who scored the first victory for the blue corner with a beautifully executed one-punch knockout over Philadelphia’s Kieran Hooks at 2:27 of round one. The decisive punch – a picturesque right cross to the jaw – was delivered without an introductory jab and left Hooks flat on his back as well as separated from his senses. Legendary cornerback/safety Ronnie Lott loved to inflict what he called “woo hits” that leveled his opponents and, had he been at ringside (or if he had been watching the Fight Night Live stream on Facebook Live) he surely would have let out a big “Woo!” after Ortiz connected with the final punch. I know I did.

As he was being examined, Hooks was heard to say, “I didn’t even get hit,” which, as Hall-of-Famer Larry Merchant told Marlon Starling following his bizarre KO loss to Tomas Molinares, is an indicator of how hard he did get hit. The win lifted Ortiz’s record to 6-2 (with 5 KOs) while dropping Hooks’ ledger to 3-2-1 (with 1 KO) but one scene during the aftermath created another strong imprint with me. Hooks, no doubt chagrined and embarrassed, tried to leave the ring even before the result was announced but Ortiz, in a display of sportsmanship, climbed out of the ring, hugged his opponent and whispered several encouraging words before returning to have his hand raised.

Andy and I chose the scheduled six-round junior lightweight fight between undefeated Floridian Gadwin Rosa and 113-fight veteran German Meraz as our rehearsal fight because it pitted a prospect against a Mexican gatekeeper known for his durability (only eight KO losses in 50 defeats). In the end, the fight followed the script, as Rosa won a lopsided six-round decision (60-54, 59-55 twice) but, to my eyes, Meraz performed more successfully than the raw numbers might have indicated. Rosa won the fight due to his aggressiveness and harder punching, especially in the first three rounds, but Meraz was able to suck Rosa into his thinking-man’s game by slowing the pace to a more comfortable level and getting in his share of punches. In the first nine minutes Rosa established his dominance by averaging 63.7 punches per round to Meraz’s 50.3 and out-landing him 46-27 overall and 41-15 power. But in the final three rounds, Meraz’s maneuvers slowed Rosa’s pace to 46.7 punches per round, while Meraz throttled up to 55.3. The margins favoring Rosa thinned to 24-22 overall and 20-19 power and, if one took away Rosa’s leads of 10-3 overall and 9-2 power in the fourth, Meraz actually led 24-14 overall and 17-11 power in the bout’s closing six minutes.

Thanks to Rosa’s early efforts, he ended the fight ahead 70-49 overall and 61-34 power to offset Meraz’s 15-9 lead in landed jabs and he was the more accurate hitter overall (21%-16%) and in power shots (42%-21%). But although the judges saw Rosa a decisive winner, one can make the case that Meraz could have trailed by a smaller margin, thanks to a 5-5 tie in round five, in which he out-threw Rosa 56-46 overall in addition to the sixth round he clearly won (14-9 overall, 13-6 power and a 65-51 lead in total punches thrown).

The final fight of the undercard pitted junior welterweights Branden Pizarro of Philadelphia and Allentown-based Trenton, New Jersey, southpaw Jerome Rodriguez and although they occupy opposite parts of the fistic spectrum, in terms of record (12-1 for Pizarro, 7-10-3 for Rodriguez), the pair provided the best sustained two-way action of the show thus far. To my eyes, the judges picked the right winner in Pizarro (whose glittery trunks bore the words “The Gift”) but the gap between them seemed closer than the scores of 60-54 (twice) and 59-55 might have indicated.

With that, all that remained were the three ShoBox-televised fights. Before the show, several predictions were made regarding the number of combined rounds that would be fought. My guess was 16 (five, eight and three) while Andy’s was 21 (eight, eight and five). Which one would be proven correct?

 

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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 16 writing awards, including 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 newly released book “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” (also available on Amazon). To contact Groves about a personalized autographed copy, use the email l.groves@frontier.com or send him a message via Facebook.

 

 

 

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