The Travelin’ Man goes to ShoBox at Sam’s Town: Part one

Thursday, April 4: After six trips in 52 days to begin 2019, the last 31 days mostly have been spent inside the Home Office. But while this Travelin’ Man has been grounded, that doesn’t mean I’ve been idle. When I’m not trekking to Shreveport, Las Vegas, Rochester, Carson, Mulvane (Kansas) and Brooklyn (my 2019 itinerary to date), I spent the majority of my time either doing CompuBox research for upcoming cards or tending to my vast and ever-growing sports video collection. In terms of the research, March 2019 was unprecedented in terms of what I completed: Assembling data on 42 fights requiring 628 rounds to be counted (314 on both sides), statistical packages for 45 matches, analyses for 27 bouts and various boxing-related research and proofing for ESPN and Fox.

It sounds like a lot – and it is – but, for someone who loves boxing, statistics, history and analyzing styles and trends, it has been great fun. Every day has a purpose and I wake up each morning looking forward to meeting (and striving to surpass) the goals I set for myself. The sheer volume of fights is a strong indicator that boxing in general, and CompuBox in particular, is in a very good place.

Still, for all the work I’ve done, I am still just 16 days ahead of schedule, as I am currently working through the two shows on April 20 (the Terence Crawford-Amir Khan ESPN pay-per-view show and the FOX card topped by Danny Garcia-Adrian Granados). The schedule for the remainder of the month offers no respite and neither does May’s slate. That said, I still find time to relax and let my mind wander from place to place and from subject to subject. In its way, the quiet time is just as productive and meaningful as the work time.

I said last month that the date of my next journey would arrive with stunning swiftness and when I awakened at 7:50 a.m. I knew that to be true. Today’s assignment is to fly from Pittsburgh to Las Vegas on Southwest, then take a taxi to a new venue for me – Sam’s Town Hotel and Gambling Hall. There, Showtime will televise a “ShoBox: The New Generation” tripleheader that pits junior lightweights Andres Cortes and Jahmal Dyer, junior lightweights Xavier Martinez and John Vincent Moralde and, in the main event, featherweights Angelo Leo and Neil John Tabanao. For the first time in a while, every fighter on the card is making his ShoBox debut and, save for Martinez, all are making their first appearance on national TV in the U.S. In the cases of Leo and Martinez, their most recent bouts took place on the untelevised undercard of the Showtime-televised tripleheader in Carson, California, that saw Javier Fortuna outpoint Sharif Bogere, Mario Barrios stop Richard Zamora and Gervonta Davis blow out late-sub challenger Hugo Ruiz in one round. On that show I watched Leo score an eight-round decision victory over southpaw Alberto Torres to improve his ledger to 16-0 (with 8 knockouts) and Martinez stop Deivi Bassa in round five to up his record to 13-0 (with 9 KOs). For the record, the combined records of the six TV fighters is 87-7 (50).

Having followed the sport since 1974, I lived through the era in which Las Vegas and Atlantic City (and its casinos) dominated the U.S. boxing scene, at least in terms of staging widely recognized world title fights. For that reason, the entirety of my April travel schedule will have an old-school feeling for me because not only will I fly to Las Vegas twice to chronicle cards staged within casinos (the April 27 show will be held at The Cosmopolitan), I also will be traveling to Atlantic City to chronicle the historic women’s showdown between Claressa Shields and Christina Hammer for the undisputed middleweight championship. Although that fight won’t take place inside a casino, it will be staged at historic Boardwalk Hall, also known as “The House that Arturo Gatti built.” That show will mark my first in Atlantic city since January 2017 (Daniel Roman TKO 9 Adam Lopez topped that card) and my first at that venue since February 2016 when the same Adam Lopez out-pointed Mario Munoz; Christopher Brooker won a majority decision over John Magda (a math correction changed that result from a draw); O’Shaquie Foster stopped Lavisas Williams and Ronald Ellis drew with Jerry Odom.

A generation ago, Las Vegas and Atlantic City were the places where big-time boxing took place in the U.S. and the vast majority of those shows were staged inside casinos because the business model made financial sense to both sides. Casinos used their ready-made revenues to build arenas and to pay site fees to promoters and networks to gain access to the event. They then used that event to rake in additional cash from the fight crowd, which, in turn, helped finance the bid for the next big bout. All three sides of the equation were largely happy with the arrangement (except those fans who lost big at the tables) and, as a result, this was the template for more than two decades.

How dominant were Las Vegas and Atlantic City on the major championship boxing scene in America? Of the 1,546 widely recognized world title fights staged in the U.S. between 1978 and 2005, 623 (or 40.3%) were held in either Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Of those 623 bouts in the two cities, 469 (or 75.3%) were presented on casino properties and, in the head-to-head race, Las Vegas was the unquestioned winner as its casinos staged 362 cards to Atlantic City’s 107, a percentage lead of 77.2% to 22.8%. Of the 154 events staged on non-casino sites, the race was much closer but Vegas still led 87-67 (56.5% to 43.5%). Before conducting this study, I assumed that Atlantic City would have been somewhat closer in the head-to-head competition but these numbers show that “Sin City” was the overwhelming winner.

As for the card at hand, the newness of the fighters resulted in little footage to study. While there was footage of Leo to assess, there was no recent action of Tabano’s. Therefore the main event, at least for me, will be a clean slate. As for the two co-features, there was enough recent video to assess the factors that might influence the result.

Martinez’s June 2017 eight-round decision victory over Prince Smalls – the son of onetime prodigy Tiger Smalls – was billed as the prospect’s toughest test yet because Smalls entered the ring with an 11-0-1 record, boasted advantages in height and reach and benefited from having his father working the corner. However the competitive portion of the match ended seconds after the opening bell as Martinez dominated from start to finish and earned 80-71 scores across the board – and he earned a 10-8 round from all three officials without scoring a knockdown. That probably occurred in round seven, when Martinez nearly floored Smalls with a hook to the jaw and proceeded to out-land him 34-1 overall and 28-1 power en route to final connect leads of 176-38 overall, 83-20 jabs and 93-18 power.

Xavier Martinez vs. Prince Smalls Image courtesy of Mayweather Promotions on Twitter - The Travelin’ Man goes to ShoBox at Sam’s Town: Part one

Xavier Martinez (left) vs. Prince Smalls. Image courtesy of Mayweather Promotions on Twitter

The fuel that powered Martinez’s dominance was his extraordinarily accurate jab, which confused the taller and rangier Smalls at every turn. Martinez registered double-digit jab connects in each of the first four rounds (13, 13, 13 and 14) while adding a fifth in round six (12). It landed with 38% accuracy and helped set up his other blows to the point where he landed 40% of his total punches and 41% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts. Meanwhile Martinez proved to be an unsolvable riddle for Smalls as he landed just 10% of his total punches, 7% of his jabs and 15% of his power shots. Smalls landed no more than eight punches in a given round (rounds five and eight) while Martinez’s worst round was the fifth, in which he landed 13 punches. So much for the “crossroads fight” for Martinez. He didn’t have to choose a fork in order to achieve victory; he simply devoured the meal whole and left the ring fully sated.

As far as Moralde, his numbers suggest that he has defensive issues that may dovetail perfectly into Martinez’s marksmanship – at least the level of marksmanship displayed against Smalls. His inability to block body shots appeared to be the Filipino’s Achilles Heel because in losses to Toka Kahn Clary (TKO by 7) and Jamel Herring (L UD 10), Moralde absorbed dozens of body shots. The proof: 83 of Clary’s 146 total connects (56.9%) and a nauseating 119 of Herring’s 258 total connects (46.1%) struck Moralde’s flanks and, in the case of the Clary fight, the body punishment played a big role in his corner pulling him out of the fight between rounds seven and eight. That shouldn’t have been much of a surprise, given Moralde’s claim that trying to make 126 as a late replacement took too much out of him, a statement backed up by the fact that he was out-landed 84-18 overall and 76-18 power (including 47 body shots to Morale’s three) in the final three rounds. Moralde simply had nothing left in the tank and, as a result, he was out-landed by Clary 146-40 overall and 128-38 power and trailed 31%-12% overall and 38%-15% power.

The Herring fight was even worse for Moralde because the beating was administered over 10 full rounds. There, he was out-landed 258-82 overall, 32-9 jabs and 226-73 power and trailed 40%-18% overall, 13%-7% jabs and 56%-22% power. Herring exceeded 50% power shot precision in every round except the 10th (in which an accidental butt opened a cut over Herring’s eye) and, again, the later rounds were particularly troublesome as Herring led 122-36 overall and 116-32 power in rounds six through 10.

Jamel Herring John Vincent Moralde Photo credit Mikey Williams Top Rank - The Travelin’ Man goes to ShoBox at Sam’s Town: Part one

Jamel Herring (left) vs. John Vincent Moralde. Photo credit: Mikey Williams/Top Rank

The good news for Moralde is that Martinez – unlike Clary and Herring – is a right-handed fighter. So too was Ismael Muwendo, against whom Moralde scored knockdowns in rounds one and five off counter left hooks and won a unanimous eight-round decision in May 2018. There was, however, as much sobering news as there was encouraging news. First, had the two knockdowns not occurred, the fight would have ended in a majority draw instead of a unanimous decision win for Moralde. (The scores were 76-74, 76-74 and 77-73 Moralde). Second, like the Clary and Herring fights, Moralde faded in the stretch and was eventually overtaken statistically. In the final three rounds Muwendo lifted his work rate from 68.8 punches per round to 79.6 while Moralde’s slipped from 53 to 50.3 per round, resulting in Muwendo out-landing Moralde 58-47 overall and 51-36 power to take final leads of 113-107 overall and 96-86 power. The CompuBox round-by-round breakdown of total connects – relevant because clean punching is a vital key in judging fights – had Muwendo ahead 4-3-1 after sweeping the final three rounds. Finally just like the Clary fight, body shots played a major role in the wearing-down process of Moralde: Of Muwendo’s 113 total connects, 54, or 47.8% – were body shots while only 18 of Moralde’s 107 connects (16.8%) struck the flanks.

One fight may be an aberration while two fights may be reason to maintain a much closer watch on the trend. But what about three fights? That is an out-and-out truism and, if Martinez is smart, he will concentrate his attack on Moralde’s body in the hopes that his late-round fade will be that much more magnified. And tomorrow, Martinez will have 10 rounds with which to work.

So in short, Martinez will need to attack Moralde’s ribs to exacerbate his opponent’s well-documented late-round erosion while Moralde will need to hurt Martinez with his heavy left hand early to deter him from launching that body assault.

For me, the most intriguing contest of the televised card is the opener between Cortes and Dyer. Boxing is often a sport built on contrasts and this contest offers plenty of them. One is their respective career trajectories; Cortes is the classic early bird while Dyer is the quintessential late bloomer. Cortes’ interest in boxing began at age four by watching his older brother and, after 130-20 amateur career, he left home at age 16, turned pro in Mexico at 18 and will make his ShoBox debut at 21, thanks to a 10-0 (with 6 KOs) start. Cortes is fighting just 78 days after his most recent outing, a third round corner retirement over Eder Fajardo on the undercard of a rare non-TV show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, his hometown. And talk about familiar surroundings: His fight with Dyer will be the sixth time in his eight U.S. fights that he will compete at Sam’s Town.

While Cortes has been precocious, Dyer’s career took longer to percolate. He turned pro at the late age of 25 and, after winning his first four fights against spotty competition, he was shockingly stopped in four rounds by the 0-3 Vanderley Miranda in February 2018. But Dyer didn’t allow that defeat to derail him. Instead he has won five straight and, in his most recent outing, he scored his own upset over the 7-0 Carlos Dixon. Striking while the iron is hot, Dyer is fighting Cortes just 34 days after beating Dixon and will already be engaging in his third fight of 2019. It is clear that, after a deliberate start, the 27-year-old Dyer is doing what he can to launch his career into the stratosphere and a victory over Cortes would epitomize the traits of timing, circumstance and opportunism.

The in-ring styles offer another compelling contrast – supreme attacker against concise counterpuncher. If Cortes’ third round TKO over the 5-0 Omar Castillo last October is any indicator, Cortes will provide high-octane action from bell to bell. He averaged 111.6 punches per round against Castillo – nearly twice the 57.7 junior lightweight average – while Castillo somehow mustered 53.3 punches per round in response. But because Cortes incorporated far superior accuracy (39%-11% overall, 22%-7% jabs, 50%-15% power) with his volume, the attrition proved too much. A series of unanswered power punches prompted the stoppage, closing the curtain on a fight that saw Cortes out-land Castillo 105-14 overall, 23-5 jabs and 82-9 power. He also prevailed 34-3 in body connects, a number that surely accelerated Castillo’s erosion. If he is to beat Dyer, who fights well on the retreat and owns an excellent jab, he’ll need to repeat this blueprint.

Meanwhile I believe Dyer’s shocking defeat against the winless Miranda was more “good Miranda” than “bad Dyer.” The markedly taller and rangier Miranda succeeded with counter crosses and uppercuts and looked much better than his record suggested. Dyer answered Miranda with faster hands and a more effective body attack (he led Miranda 11-1 in connects). Entering the third, the fight appeared up for grabs as Miranda led 34-30 overall, thanks to his 20-11 lead in landed jabs. In the third, however, a long right cross stunned Dyer, after which another right over Dyer’s jab made him wobble so badly that referee Benjy Esteves Jr. immediately stepped in and held up Dyer before he could hit the floor. Miranda’s surge (15-4 overall, 5-1 jabs, 10-3 power) increased his final leads to 54-40 overall, 27-16 jabs and 27-24 power. Strangely Miranda has not fought in the nearly 13 months since while Dyer has fought five times and will soon fight for a sixth time against Cortes. Incidentally according to BoxRec.com, should all go well against Cortes, Dyer is slated to fight on May 4 against an opponent to be named later.

Because of the Miranda defeat, Dyer was cast as the “B-side” against Dixon, who, like Miranda, was taller, longer and skilled. But skills went out the window in a wild round one that saw both men staggered, throw a combined 178 punches (Dyer led 105-73), land a combined 58 total punches (Dyer led 38-20) and land 43 power shots (Dyer led 28-15). But while Dyer won the pulsating first, the roles gradually shifted as the fight proceeded. When the action got hot and heavy, Dixon performed better but when the battle retreated to long range, Dyer prospered. The reason: Dyer’s jabbing. Despite being a bit shorter and a bit more solidly built, Dyer averaged 51 attempted jabs per round to Dixon’s 33.7 and landed 9.3 per round to Dixon’s 7.2. That and Dyer’s superior work rate (78.8 per round to Dixon’s 63) led to final connect leads of 121-109 overall and 56-43 jabs while Dixon prevailed 66-65 in landed power shots, despite a huge rally by Dixon in the final round (29-13 overall, 17-5 power).

Unlike Miranda and Dixon, Dyer will be facing a shorter pressure fighter, which should dovetail nicely with his countering style. The key, I believe, is whether Cortes can generate a high-volume attack against Dyer. Despite his great success in trading with Dixon in round one of their meeting, he performed better when the pace slowed and when he was given more room to operate and he’ll need to slow the pace to a more comfortable level, if he is to maximize his success against Cortes. The result also will be determined by the distance between the fighters; if Cortes can close the gap, bully Dyer against the ropes and hurt him with combinations, he’ll win. If Dyer can induce a long-range fight in which the pace is moderated and his excellent jab comes into play, he’ll take a big step toward victory.

As is usually the case with ShoBox, the matches, on paper at least, are compelling and offer interesting story lines. However before I can enjoy this tripleheader, I’ll need to get to Sam’s Town.

 

*

 

Old Man Winter’s grip on West Virginia is slowly loosening and after finishing some research – a luxury given my 6:40 p.m. departure time from Pittsburgh – I began my trek shortly after 2 p.m. with an eye on arriving at 4:30. No thanks to an unexpected detour on the I-470 East ramp (construction that began last fall apparently has resumed), I was taken several miles off track but still arrived at the airport at 4:35. I managed to find a decent parking spot, after which I walked to the Southwest counter in the hopes of securing a Business Select upgrade.

For those who don’t fly Southwest – and for new readers of the Travelin’ Man Chronicles – I need to explain what I mean about Business Select and why it was important for me to get it. Southwest, unlike other airlines, does not have assigned seating. Instead passengers are divided into three groups of 60 and are defined as “Group A,” “Group B” and “Group C.” Upon boarding the aircraft, passengers are allowed to sit wherever they wish but the options shrink with every succeeding place in line. Based on my experience, Group A passengers are guaranteed to snag their desired window or aisle seat, while many in Group B should feel OK about their remaining options. Group C passengers, on the other hand, will likely end up in an undesirable location, such as the very back of the plane, near a bathroom or in the middle seat – a dreaded location especially if one is about to take a cross-country flight. Additionally overhead space recedes to the point where Group C passengers will have to check their luggage and I learned early on that avoiding baggage claim is always the best policy.

Because I drew “C-18,” I would theoretically be the 138th person to board after military personnel, wheelchair-bound passengers and other early boarders. Seen another way, because there are usually 175 people on this route, I was 42nd from last in line.

However Southwest does offer an “out” for passengers like me; it’s called “Business Select.” For a fee – between $30 and $50 depending on the destination — I could guarantee myself a place between A-1 and A-15. I could have opted to buy it during check-in but I chose not to do so because I wanted to pay for the upgrade myself and not put it on Showtime’s tab.

Happily upgrades were still available and, after paying $50, I was given a new boarding pass bearing the designation “A-8,” which meant that I had jumped 130 spots in line. I don’t know about you but, to me, that’s the definition of getting bang for one’s buck.

Upon boarding, I took the window seat in row four and settled in with my bottle of Diet Coke and my latest library acquisition – “Joy in Mudville: The Big Book of Baseball Humor” edited by Dick Schaap and Mort Gerberg. Published in 1992, this 424-page collection of diamond stories surely will keep my mind occupied on the long trip out as well as the journey home.

Although the pilot warned of significant turbulence during ascent and descent, the shaking was relatively subdued. My two female seatmates – one a 22-year-old West Virginia University college student and a college professor at Pitt closer to my age – serenely occupied themselves, the former by resting her eyes and the latter reading a thick book written by Leo Tolstoy.

The aircraft landed in Vegas at 8:12 p.m. PDT – 18 minutes earlier than advertised – and the taxi line was far shorter than had been the case in previous visits. I also had the good fortune to draw one of the most conscientious taxi drivers I’ve ever met; not only did he load my luggage into the back of his cab with dispatch, he pushed forward the front passenger’s seat as far as it could go to ensure maximum leg room for me and asked if the air conditioning level was OK.

I soon learned that his name was Peter and that he was a native of Ukraine, which instantly prompted me to bring up the names of Vasiliy Lomachenko, Aleksandr Usyk and Oleksandr Gvozdyk. Not only did he know these names, the deceivingly young-looking 73-year-old displayed a vast knowledge of sports that spanned the gamut. For the first time in memory, I was engaged in a conversation that included Soviet-era sporting heroes such as gold medal sprinter Valery Borzov, the legendary figure skating duo of Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitzev, the great weightlifter Vasiliy Alexeev and the dominant “Russian Five” of ice hockey lore (Viacheslav Fetisov, Alexei Kasatonov, Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov). While many believe Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe to be hockey’s GOATs (Greatest Of All Time), Peter made a strong argument for Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr, whose careers were cut short by injury or illness yet produced historic numbers, thanks to their incredible talent. Although Sam’s Town is seven miles from the airport, I wished the ride had lasted a bit longer.

Once I checked into my fifth floor room, I scanned the directory for potential dinner options. However my plans immediately changed when I discovered the property included a bowling alley. Longtime readers of The Travelin’ Man Chronicles may know that I was a league bowler for nearly two decades and by the end of my run, I carried a respectable 165 average. Four years ago, however, the bowling alley nearest to my house – Bruce Lanes in New Martinsville, West Virginia – was closed, then converted into a Microtel Inn. My heavy work schedule and the fact that the next nearest bowling center was 35 miles away in Parkersburg, resulted in my not having bowled since. I was curious to see how much rust I had accumulated since my final shot at Bruce Lanes – a strike to polish off a 190 game.

When I paid for my shoes, the clerk told me these lanes are among the best in Las Vegas in terms of quality and quantity; it boasts 56 lanes, automatic scoring, a snack bar, a cocktail longue and a full-service pro shop. Before starting my first game, I was asked to look into a camera and make a “happy face,” a “sad face” and a “best side” pose. I had no idea why such poses were necessary before stepping onto the approach but I soon learned the reason: Depending on the result of the frame (strikes, spares and less palatable results), animated graphics with our pictures inserted in the cutout portions flash on the overhead screen. Because I didn’t go all-out on my facial expressions, the cartoons had an off-kilter look to them. I’ll know to do better next time.

Soon it was time to start bowling and the first game was a disaster. My timing and balance were horribly off; the oil pattern was completely unfamiliar to me and, instead of my customized ball, I used a 14-pound house ball. Because my balance was so bad, everything I threw went left of target and since there were bowlers on each side of me, I felt a bit embarrassed by my sub-par performance. I had to mark in the final two frames just to reach 100.

As I prepared to start the second game, my competitive nature stirred and I implemented several adjustments to my approach, my initial ball position, my target on the lane and my level of focus, all of which were lacking in game one.

Guess what? I started game two with five consecutive strikes. My score by the fourth frame – 118 – was already higher than the entirety of game one. And thanks to the speed indicator, I learned that I had increased the speed of my shots from the low-13s in miles-per-hour to above 14. Little by little, the rust was falling off and the memories of past lessons and pre-shot routines were coming back to me.

For those few minutes, I was so locked in that I briefly contemplated the possibility not only exceeding my career best game of 262 but also a perfect 300. While I didn’t achieve either of those scores, my 210 was far better than I had any right to expect.

At the start of game three, reality re-entered the picture in the form of a tightening right quad, a stiffening lower back and the weariness that comes with bowling at such a fast pace after not doing so for so long. By the time I finished game three – I logged a pitiful 110 – I knew I was done. Because of what I did in Game Two, however, I knew I still had some game in this aging body and that my consistency would return, should I choose to re-commit to the sport. All in all, I limped away feeling pretty good about my return to the lanes.

What I also did was work up a mighty thirst, so I stopped by the food court and purchased the largest diet soda I could buy, returned to my room and relaxed for the rest of the evening, which, for me, concluded a few minutes after midnight.

 

Friday, April 5: The combination of the cross-country trip, the exertion expended during bowling, the extremely comfortable bed and pillow, and the fact that I went to bed at the equivalent of 3 a.m. resulted in six solid hours of slumber. I arose renewed and refreshed and after completing the morning routines, I spent much of the next few hours tapping away on the laptop. I took one brief break to acquire tomorrow’s boarding pass, which, to my disappointment, bore the designation C-38. I knew then that I would need to leave for the airport a few minutes earlier in order to seek out another Business Select upgrade.

With my call time at the arena being noon, I headed down to the food court at 10:30 a.m. (1:30 p.m. body clock time) to enjoy a leisurely lunch. I had intended to eat at the Subway outlet but because I could eat Subway’s fare any time, I opted to stop at the casino’s Sport Deli, where I ordered a BLT on wheat, a small bag of chips and a diet soda that hit the spot. I arrived at the arena shortly before noon and met Dennis, who was on his lunch break from his regular job, soon after.

Following the crew meal (which was held inside the Firelight Buffet), I returned to ringside and prepared for the broadcast, which Dennis and I guessed would comprise of 22 rounds of action. Would we be proven correct? Or would this year of the unexpected continue?

 

*

 

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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