The Travelin’ Man goes to Shreveport, Louisiana: Part One

Friday, January 10: Five weeks ago, I ended my travels for 2018 on a high note as I witnessed (and counted with CompuBox compatriot Dennis Allen) the dramatic draw in Los Angeles between WBC heavyweight titlist Deontay Wilder and “the man who beat the man who beat the man” Tyson Fury. In the five weeks since, the activity inside the Home Office has been intense and constant because – thanks to CompuBox’s associations with ESPN/ESPN +, DAZN (for both Matchroom Boxing’s U.S. shows and Golden Boy Promotions’ cards), Facebook Live and Showtime – my research workload has been voluminous. My days have been packed with preparing statistical packages, writing analyses and conducting research counts off video that not only fill out a given fighter’s numerical profile but also familiarize me with that fighter’s style and habits, which, in turn, help me gauge how he or she might fare against the upcoming opponent. All of this is great fun for a boxing and stats nut like me but the sheer volume of it all challenges my time-management skills and ability to focus (both of which have held up quite nicely).

If the CompuBox work wasn’t enough to fill my days, I have also tended to my ever-expanding private video collection, which, during a three-day period last week, was massively reorganized. I also found time to research and write a RingTV.com retrospective of the David Tua-David Izon Olympic/pro series in connection with next week’s Olympic rematch between Rau’shee Warren and Nordine Oubaali and I spent part of New Year’s Day assembling and chronicling my tax information from 2018 to ease the preparation process for my tax person. Ah, the glamorous life of the independent contractor.

Before I knew it, it was time for this Travelin’ Man to hit the road (and the skies) again. Today’s destination is a new city for me – Shreveport, Louisiana – and the reason I’m traveling there is a “ShoBox: The Next Generation” tripleheader headlined by a scheduled 10-round showdown of undefeated lightweights in Devin Haney (20-0, with 13 knockouts) and Xolisani Ndongeni (25-0, with 13 KOs). The other two televised bouts pit featherweights Ruben Villa (14-0, with 5 KOs) and Ruben Cervera (10-0, with 9 KOs) as well as heavyweights Frank Sanchez (10-0, with 8 KOs) and Willie Jake Jr. (8-1-1, with 2 KOs) in eight-rounders.

Along with lightweight Teofimo Lopez, welterweight Jaron Ennis, featherweights Shakur Stevenson, Tugstsogt Nyambayar and Michael Conlan, junior welterweight Vergil Ortiz, heavyweights Joe Joyce, Efe Ajagba and Daniel Dubois as well as a few others whose names escape me at the moment, Haney is viewed as an ascending force in and out of the ring. Mainly due to Haney’s precociousness, the lead of my CompuBox analysis for Haney-Ndongeni referenced a classic line from a U.S. Army ad campaign: “We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day.” If ever a fighter on the current scene embodies this saying, it is Haney.

Consider: Before turning pro at 17, Haney compiled a 130-8 amateur record that includes seven national titles. He is one of a handful of teenagers ever to promote a fight card (at 19 years 320 days he was the promoter of record for a card topped by his own decision victory over Juan Carlos Burgos last September) and Haney was deemed talented enough by Floyd Mayweather Jr. to have him be one of his sparring partners before Mayweather’s contest with Conor McGregor. Also, at 17 years 148 days, he became the youngest fighter ever to compete at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas when he fought Rafael Vazquez on the Manny Pacquiao-Tim Bradley III undercard. Finally he has already had 20 pro fights and is the subject of an upcoming documentary, as well as the epicenter of an aggressive marketing campaign. Some of his most ardent supporters have compared him to Sugar Ray Leonard, while others have been merely impressed by what they’ve seen so far.

For me, this fight with Ndongeni marks the first fight of the most important phase of Haney’s career – his drive toward his hoped-for first championship. Now ranked eighth at lightweight by the WBA and 10th by the IBF and WBC, Haney is angling for a mandatory slot and the time has come for him to make his case to fight the division’s better occupants. (I believe his first target may be the winner of the February 2 Richard Commey-Isa Chaniev bout for the IBF strap vacated by Mikey Garcia). In Ndongeni, Haney will be facing someone who wears the psychological armor of the undefeated and has his own dreams of glory. He too spent time within the Floyd Mayweather orbit, as he spent four months working out at the Mayweather Gym in Las Vegas and, at 28, is in the latter stages of his chronological and physical prime. No longer is Haney facing a grizzled veteran with a spotty recent record such as Juan Carlos Burgos, a recently KO’d campaigner with a glossy ledger in Mason Menard or carefully chosen athletes whose intended mission was to pad Haney’s record and his highlight reel. To me, this is a fight that could start to shape Haney’s ultimate identity as a fighter.

In November 2016 in Corona, California, I had a chance to see – and count – Ndongeni. On the undercard of the ShoBox card topped by Taras Shelestyuk’s 10-round decision win over Jaime Herrera, Ndongeni comprehensively outpointed Juan Garcia Mendez in his 10-rounder. Although the fight was not televised, the fighters’ records (21-0 for Ndongeni, 19-1-1 for Garcia) persuaded me to have this fight counted and if you look closely at the bottom right of this YouTube video, starting at the 5:59 mark…

…you can get glimpses of Andy Kasprzak and me doing our work from ringside.

Ndongeni’s effort against Mendez told me several things about the South African. First, Ndongeni used his legs constantly to maintain range against the advancing Mendez, a plan that worked well throughout, as it helped set up his single-strike counters. Second, I was impressed by the speed, effectiveness and versatility of his jab; of his 7.9 landed jabs per round, an unusually high 4.9 of them hit the body. I was also struck by his work rate (75.9 per round) that helped limit Mendez to 53.3, as well as his finishing kick (58-13 overall in the final two rounds and a 33 of 101 burst in terms of overall punches in round 10). His final leads of 218-88 overall, 79-24 jabs and 139-64 power reflected the lopsided scorecards in his favor (99-91 twice, 98-92).

But while Ndongeni boasts several strengths, some areas of concern also surfaced. First, despite being taller than the Mexican, Ndongeni often bent his upper body down so as to match Garcia’s height, perhaps to better eye his target. Against better fighters (such as Haney), that habit would mean putting his own head into the opponent’s line of fire – and paying a price for it. Second, he was briefly jolted by a right hand in round eight. Third, while his defensive numbers were excellent (17% overall, 15% jabs, 17% power), his accuracy on offense wasn’t the best (29% overall, 20% jabs, 37% power). Finally he never came close to scoring a knockdown despite landing a fight-high 42 total punches and 27 power punches in round five or producing his 33 of 101 surge in the 10th.

With all these factors working against Ndongeni, I couldn’t help but think about the degree of the professional risk he was taking: Not only was he fighting far away from home and not only was Ndongeni fighting an undefeated fighter who was the perceived “A-side” of the show, he was competing against the show’s promoter of record. There’s adversity and then there’s this.

With these factors in mind, I wrote the following prediction: The 5-foot-9 Haney stands one inch taller than Ndongeni, which will hurt the South African’s ability to assert control through constant movement from the outside. He also appears to lack the pop to seriously endanger Haney’s chin. Finally, while Ndongeni produced excellent defensive numbers against Mendez, he may not be so fortunate against Haney because, unlike Mendez, he has the size, speed and talent to attack from multiple angles while using multiple approaches. In short, Haney can do what Ndongeni can do, and he can probably do it better. Haney by wide decision.

As for the other two bouts (Villa-Cervera, Sanchez-Jake), I didn’t have access to sufficient footage to assess styles and stats, so all I had to go on was what was posted on BoxRec. As for Villa-Cervera, I deduced Villa was the favorite because while both are undefeated, Villa is a southpaw fighting in his home country while Cervera, a Colombian, has an impressive KO record (nine stoppages in 10 fights) built on the backs of fighters with sub-par records (Villa is the first Cervera foe with a ledger above .500 and the Colombian’s first six opponents were winless). Meanwhile I pegged Sanchez to be the favorite over Jake because of his immersion in the Cuban amateur system and his nine-year age advantage (26 to 35). In terms of recent opposition, the record of Jake’s last five opponents (28-46-7) was bad but the ledgers of those who fought Sanchez was even worse, in terms of total losses (48-88-6). The only recent Sanchez foe with a winning record was Garrett Wilson (UD 6 on October 20, 2018), a man recognized for investing maximum competitiveness to his fights.

So after sifting through the available information, I made a guess as to how many rounds colleague Andy Kasprzak and I will have to count during the telecast – 22. I thought Sanchez would stop Jake in round two, while Villa and Haney’s fights would go the distance. Over the years, I’ve had nights when I hit the number on the nose and others when I was wildly off-base. Such is the nature of gloved prizefighting and I accept either scenario as just part of the game. Would I be seen as a seer after this or would I be just another guy in the crowd who got it all wrong? We shall soon see.

 

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If I had my druthers, every initial outbound flight would take place during the afternoon because it allows me to awaken at a reasonable hour and, if I’m lucky, get some work done before heading out the door. Such was the case today; because my first flight from Pittsburgh to Dallas was set to leave at 3:20 p.m., I had the luxury of waking up at 8 a.m. and completing research on a February 2 fight just before my goal departure time of 10:45 a.m.

What wasn’t ideal was the weather: A dusting of snow on the ground, a temperature in the mid-20s and a biting wind that made it feel even chillier. Once I started driving, however, everything fell into place.

Have you ever had one of those drives in which everything worked out perfectly? Today’s trip to Pittsburgh International Airport was one such example. Every traffic light I encountered was green; the cars around me drove at speeds that didn’t occupy either extreme and the detour on the access bridge to I-470 that was in place for my last few trips was no longer there. As a result, this usually 2 ½-hour drive was completed in just two hours, six minutes.

The good vibrations continued with my search for a parking spot. Ignoring the “section full” sign in the “extended” section of the lot (how can they possibly know that every spot is filled at every given moment? They can’t, so I roll the dice), I scanned the car bumpers on both sides of me in search of a vacant spot. As I was about to conclude my opening sift, a woman was approaching her red Nissan car that happened to be parked directly underneath the “11A” sign – one of the very best locations in relation to the terminal entrance. Spotting me, she made eye contact and pointed to her car as if to say “I’m about to leave here…would you like to wait and take my place?”

Would I? She didn’t have to “ask” twice.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune as I pulled into the space and prepared to gather my belongings. Just moments earlier, I had wondered if any “real people” were parked in these prime spots or whether they were occupied by airport workers or other persons of status. Now I had my answer and had it not been for my fortuitously timed drive to the airport, I wouldn’t have been at the right place at the right time to be virtually handed this parking space. Thanks to this positive twist of fate, my walk in the wintry conditions lasted less than two minutes.

Wonders never cease.

My passage through security proceeded flawlessly and, after making an “I’m all right” call, I purchased a sandwich and a diet drink that I hoped will hold me until I arrive at the crew hotel, which, I’m told, is a nine-minute walk from the arena.

By the time we began boarding the aircraft, the blowing snow had created near white-out conditions. And because of the below-freezing temperature, our plane needed to undergo de-icing, a development that sparked a smidgen of concern. The reason: My connection window for my Dallas-to-Shreveport leg was 57 minutes, which, in reality was 27 minutes if the indicator is the start of boarding and 47 minutes until the flight is closed to passengers. Narrow but manageable, if all goes to plan.

Except it didn’t go to plan; the de-icing took 30 minutes to complete, which, in theory, whittled my connection window to virtually nil. That said, experience told me that pilots will throttle up their speed in order to close the time gap and when the pilot told us via the intercom that he expected us to land in Dallas just five-to-eight minutes later than advertised, I knew that was what was being done. That eased my mind a bit and though there were a few episodes of minor turbulence, the Pittsburgh-to-Dallas leg proceeded well. It also helped that I was seated in row 11 on the aisle, just a few rows behind First Class, because that would help me exit the plane quickly.

The pilot more than made good on his promise, as he landed at 5:34 p.m. CST, three minutes ahead of schedule. However the extended taxiing to the gate and the slowness of the unpacking by my fellow passengers cut into the margin and, because our arrival gate was in Terminal A and my connection gate had been changed to B-38, the quickest way for me to get there was to walk up the escalator and take DFW’s Skylink train, a godsend for travelers like me who are forced to race the clock.

It was 5:54 p.m. CST when I boarded Skylink and, thank goodness, my gate was just two stops ahead. It was slightly past 6 p.m. when I exited the train and, for the first time in a while, I thought I was home free because, according to the clock, the boarding process was just a few minutes from starting.

Reality, however, presented a far different story.

Not only had boarding started, it was about to admit Group 7 passengers – the next-to-last last subset. I was in Group 4 and with so many people already inside I was concerned I wouldn’t have any overhead space to stow my clothes bag.

That was a secondary concern, though; the big story was that, from all appearances, I had just made it under the wire. Once I boarded the aircraft, I discovered that I did have room to store my bag but also that someone was already sitting in my assigned seat (4A). After admitting she was confused about the seating protocol she offered to relocate but I asked her to remain where she was because (1) there was an open window seat in row 4; (2) she was already settled in and (3) I was just grateful to be on the aircraft at all.

I expected the jet to start moving immediately but, for a reason no one stated over the intercom, the Dallas-to-Shreveport flight departed about 30 minutes later than expected. Aboard with me were fellow Showtime crew members Mike Shea (stage manager) and Jeff McGinnis (audio assistant), with whom I was to share a taxi to our crew hotel.

All went as planned; the plane touched down in Shreveport without any problem and the cab ride proceeded uneventfully. Once I checked into my third-floor room, I spent the remainder of the evening catching up on all the news and sports I missed during this longer-than-expected travel day. Shortly after midnight CST, I turned out the lights.

 

Friday, January 11: I first awakened a little more than four-and-a-half hours later and dozed for the next 90 minutes before choosing to arise for good. Once I completed the normal morning routines, I spent the next few hours catching up on my writing and, when I reached a good stopping point, I headed downstairs to seek directions to the venue (the StageWorks of Louisiana).

Before I did that, however, I spotted Executive Producer Gordon Hall, as well as broadcasters Steve Farhood and Barry Tompkins seated at a nearby table having some morning coffee. They greeted me warmly and, for the next hour, we engaged in very enjoyable boxing talk. Afterward Shea (who was to be on the same Saturday morning flight to Dallas as I was) asked about how we would get to the airport. The solution: Upon checking in, I was told that the hotel offered a shuttle to the airport as long as an advanced time could be arranged. Since our flight was set to leave at 10:39 a.m. – and because Mike and I are inveterate early birds when it comes to arriving at the airport – we settled on an 8 a.m. shuttle.

I returned downstairs not long afterward to print out my boarding passes, then, after putting my travel documents away in my room, I began my “walk rehearsal” to the arena. I suppose I could have used my phone’s GPS to guide me but I preferred to access local knowledge. That local knowledge came in the form of a doorman, who told me to walk four blocks to Texas Street, then take a left. My walk, however, revealed other options. On the outbound leg, I turned after only three blocks upon seeing the venue’s exterior in plain sight, then, on the return to the hotel, I found that my left turn should take place after only two blocks. In this case, trial and error followed by discovery ended up creating better results than local knowledge.

CompuBox colleague Andy Kasprzak and I met at the arena shortly after 2 p.m. and, after returning from the dinner break a couple of hours later, all was in place in terms of our electronic connections. As is usually the case, I passed the time by chatting with ringsiders, which, besides Andy, included the timekeeper (who not only was charged with ringing the bell but also recording the judges’ scorecards into a computer) and the night’s ring announcer “Dynamite” David Hardy, a man with prodigious pipes who saw this appearance – his first on ShoBox – as a potential professional turning point.

The five untelevised undercard fights yielded several interesting developments:

* The opening bout between light heavyweights Darius Lewis of Baton Rouge and Texarkana’s Courtney Pitts was one in which the stocky Lewis and the willowy Pitts took turns stunning each other. In the first minute of round one, Lewis’ hook hurt Pitts while a one-two by Pitts turned the tables in minute two. Then in round two, the round proceeded in reverse order: A short hook by Pitts propelled Lewis into the ropes but Lewis rebounded strongly in minute two. This time, Lewis made it stick as a hook ended matters at the 1:26 mark, raising Lewis’ record to 2-0 (with 2 KOs) and eroding Pitts’ to 1-1 (with 1 KO).

* The third bout between middleweights Gregory Alexander of Baton Rouge and Longview, Texas’ Ariel Juarez produced one of the most cringe-worthy endings I’ve witnessed from ringside. Near the end of round one, Juarez connected with a blow that floored Alexander heavily in front of me. During the fall, Alexander’s leg was caught beneath him and, as he pulled himself upright by the ropes, it was clear he had suffered a significant injury to his right leg. The fight was stopped at the 2:53 mark, and it took several minutes for the medical personnel to tend to the damage (which, to me, appeared to be a dislocation of the knee). Alexander yelled as the physicians tried to remove his boot and he was eventually taken out of the ring on a stretcher. Longtime viewers of boxing will become long accustomed to seeing knockdowns and knockouts but the sight of broken bones or other serious injuries beyond the usual scope of pugilism still evoke strong sympathetic responses. That certainly is the case with me as I enter my 45th year of watching boxing and that will continue to be the case if I’m lucky enough to watch it for another 45 years.

* The final non-TV fight between undefeated Chicago middleweight Mikey Dahlman and Kansas journeyman Chukka Willis saw Dahlman up his record to 7-0 (with 6 KOs) via four-round unanimous decision but the fight was split into two parts thanks to what happened during round two – the second rope from the top suddenly broke from the stresses of combat. It took the ring workers nine minutes to repair the damage and, because their work held up for the remainder of the bout, it appeared that issued was resolved.

Of course, that proved not to be the case but that’s another story for another time and that time will be when Part Two of this episode of “The Travelin’ Man Chronicles” is posted. Until then, all the best.

 

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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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