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

Please click here to read Part One.

 

Friday, January 11 (continued): After winning a lopsided decision over the previously undefeated Xolisani Ndongeni, Devin Haney looked directly into a TV camera and told the world, “I’m a f*****g contender!” Not just once but twice.

While some experts whom have been burned by fool’s gold in the past may see Haney’s pronouncement as premature, he presented a compelling case for himself. First, against a 25-0 fighter whose best traits are defensive in nature – excellent mobility, a prolific and versatile jab and a knowledge of slipping, blocking and avoiding punches – Haney landed 237 total punches, 40 more than his previous personal best of 197, which he accumulated against Enrique Tinoco in September 2017.

As previously stated, one measure of a prospect’s worth is his ability to raise his game even as his level of competition is raised. By many measures, Haney did just that against Ndongeni. Consider:

* In his four most recent bouts against Tinoco, Hamza Sempewo, Mason Menard and Juan Carlos Burgos, Haney averaged 51.7 punches per round. Against Ndongeni, he averaged 59.

* Haney averaged 7.1 jab connects per round in his four previous bouts. Against Ndongeni, he landed 8.5 jabs per round.

* Haney connected with 28.7% of his jabs in his four previous CompuBox-tracked fights. Against Ndongeni, he landed 31.8% of them. As a point of comparison, former unified middleweight titleholder Gennady Golovkin tops the current CompuBox categorical leaders chart (which tracks the progress of confirmed world-class fighters) with 31.6% jab accuracy and only two other fighters in those rankings have topped the 30% mark (IBF/WBA/WBO heavyweight titlist Anthony Joshua with 31.1%, WBC counterpart Deontay Wilder with 30.4%).

* “The Dream” averaged 41.9% power accuracy in his recent string of bouts but versus the South African, Haney connected on 47% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts. He also produced a knockdown in round two, something he didn’t score against Burgos.

* On defense, Haney’s previous four opponents landed 19.5% of their total punches, 10.5% of their jabs and 25.2% of their power punches. Against Ndongeni, Haney yielded 19.9% overall, 15.5% jabs and 23.6% power. The fact that he was able to stay close to his statistical history on defense while fighting his best and most skillful opponent to date should speak volumes. Additionally Haney emerged from the ring with an unmarked face, which wasn’t the case against Burgos, as an accidental butt produced a cut on the forehead.

* Haney also displayed a strong finishing kick. After a closely-fought first three rounds, in which Haney led 47-33 overall, 21-17 jabs and 26-16 power, Haney, just as he had in his step-up fight against Burgos, began asserting himself in round four, as he led 22-9 overall (including 16-4 in landed jabs), and was never seriously challenged statistically again. In the final three rounds, Haney out-landed Ndongeni 97-44 overall, 20-11 jabs and 77-33 power, while also throttling up his work rate from 53.7 in rounds one through seven to 71.3 in rounds eight through 10, including a fight-high 77 punch attempts, 39 total connects and 35 landed power shots in round 10. Even more impressively, Haney achieved these numbers against an opponent who was still trying hard, for Ndongeni also increased his work rate from 57.6 in rounds one through seven to 72 in rounds eight through 10.

* Not only did Haney accrue his best raw numbers in round 10, he gunned for the knockout until the very end. In the final 60 seconds of the fight, Haney out-landed Ndongeni 23-3 in total connects. Had the fight gone another minute, he might have scored that treasured TKO.

* Finally in the Travelin’ Man I posted following Haney’s fight with Burgos, I stated the following:

“Because Haney is being gauged by a higher standard – one befitting a potential face of the sport – one should level a minor criticism: The absence of a steady body attack. While Haney led 145-56 in head connects, he landed just 35 punches to the body, which represented 19.4% of his total connects. This was somewhat surprising because, in his last three fights, 25.8% of Haney’s total connects were to the body, a bit above the CompuBox average. Burgos’ long and lean torso was available to hit, but Haney opted to gun for the head so he could score the eye-catching knockout. Should he choose to watch video of Leonard, Haney will learn that varying his targets eventually will produce the desired results.”

Devin Haney vs Xolisani Ndongeni Rosie Cohe SHOWTIME - The Travelin’ Man goes to Shreveport, Louisiana: Part Two

Devin Haney (left) takes it to previously unbeaten (25-0) Xolisani Ndongeni. Photo by Rosie Cohe/SHOWTIME

Did Team Haney read my article? I don’t know. Or did they come to that conclusion themselves? That’s more likely. For whatever reason, Haney’s body attack was much better in the second half of the Ndongeni bout. After landing just eight body shots in the first four rounds against the South African, Haney recorded 58 in rounds five through 10 and reached double-digit connects three times (10 in the fifth, 12 in the eighth and a fight-high 17 in the 10th). In all, 66 of his 237 total connects (27.9%) and 65 of his 152 landed power shots (42.8%) struck the body, both above the all-division’s CompuBox average of 26%. A willingness to listen to criticism, then act on it, is a trait that is all too rare and, to Haney’s credit, he wholeheartedly sought to turn a weakness into a burgeoning strength. The next step is to see if Haney can launch and sustain a body attack throughout an entire contest, if the opponent’s style allows it. If he can, then another part of his fistic evolution will be complete.

So is Devin Haney an effing contender? The statistics speak loudly in his favor and he certainly made his case for being the first defense for whomever emerges victorious between Richard Commey and Isa Chaniev, who will vie for the vacant IBF belt on February 2. As for me, it can’t be argued that his hard work is in the process of maximizing his elevated talent, a talent that makes it difficult to remember that he’s just two months past his 20th birthday. The only question is whether he can remain strong at 135 pounds long enough to secure his shot at a belt. My guess is yes. Will he succeed in that shot? He’s making it harder to say no.

 

*

 

One of the few fighters to have beaten Haney in the amateurs was Ruben Villa and while I never saw their amateur bout, Villa provided evidence as to why he might have during his eight-round decision victory over Colombian Ruben Cervera. The highly technical southpaw used a superb jab (29.5 attempts/10.5 connects per round and 36% accuracy) to methodically pick apart the willing South American and excellent mobility to create punching angles and to exploit Cervera’s slow feet. All three judges turned in 80-72 scorecards, the only sensible tally, given how the fight unfolded.

Ruben Villa vs. Ruben Cervera Photo credit Rosie Cohe Showtime - The Travelin’ Man goes to Shreveport, Louisiana: Part Two

Ruben Villa vs. Ruben Cervera. Photo credit: Rosie Cohe/Showtime

Cervera did his best from first bell to last and, from time to time, he connected with flush, straight rights to the chin. That alone showed that Cervera has some ability, for landing such punches against a fighter with Villa’s amateur credentials and technical skills require a measure of talent. Another measure of his willingness to fight was his 68.9 punches per round to Villa’s 55.4 but his output was far superseded by Villa’s accuracy gaps of 41%-11% overall, 36%-9% jabs and 51%-13% power, gaps that led to connect gulfs of 180-59 overall, 105-23 jabs and 75-36 power. Villa’s defensive skills limited Cervera to single-digits in total connects from round three onward (his highest was nine in the third), while the Californian’s attack topped 20 total connects in all but two rounds, with 34 in round six being his high watermark.

Some fans might not appreciate a fighter like Villa who doesn’t score a lot of knockouts (he has five stoppages in his 15-0 record). I am one who does, for I know how hard it is to develop an arsenal of punches and to then execute them during live competition. Villa appears ready to take the next step up the ladder and I hope I will be at ringside to see that next step.

 

*

 

At the end of Part One, I referenced the rope-breaking incident that took place on the final untelevised fight between middleweights Mikey Dahlman and Chukka Willis and wondered if the strands would hold up for the rest of the evening.

The answer: The one that broke earlier did but all the others did not.

Following round one of the ShoBox opener between heavyweights Frank Sanchez and Willie Jake Jr., the three ropes that didn’t need to be fixed during the Dahlman-Willis bout snapped from their supports and prompted a 14-minute delay. Once the action resumed, Sanchez, a 26-year-old Cuban now living in Miami, floored the 35-year-old Jake with what appeared to be a partially blocked right to the face and a cuffing left. With Jake lying on his stomach, it became clear to referee Bruce McDaniel that he wasn’t going to beat the 10-count, so the veteran official waved off the bout at the 2:59 mark, closing out a fight in which Sanchez prevailed 28-15 overall, 2-1 jabs and 26-14 power, as well as 31%-21% overall, 8%-7.7% jabs and 39%-25% power.

The three televised fights ended in 22 rounds, just as I had predicted. As I stated in Part One, I’ve had nights like this when I look like a genius and I’ve had nights in which I appear far less than that. All we can do is enjoy the good, accept the bad and keep everything in context.

 

*

 

After indulging in some post-fight pizza and a can of Sprite (the diet drinks were already gone), as well as some excellent conversation, I walked back to the hotel and entered the night’s numbers into the master database. With an early rising time on the horizon (my intended wake-up time was 6:45 a.m. to catch the 8 a.m. shuttle that I arranged the previous evening), I couldn’t execute my usual “winding down” process before going to bed. So, at 1:10 a.m. CST, I tried my best to catch some shuteye.

 

Saturday, January 12: My night’s rest was one of fits and starts. I first awakened at 4:40 a.m., then again at 5:55. I intended to coast into my anticipated 6:45 wake-up time but, because I had a rare dream, I snapped awake and, to my surprise, the clock read 7:18 a.m.

Uh-oh.

For one of the rare times in my life, my “internal alarm” missed wide of the mark. After my initial shock, I shifted into hurry-up mode and, in the end, I was able to arrive at the lobby at my goal time of 7:45. I checked out of the room and spotted graphics guru Joe Jacovino across the room. As he and I chatted, other members of the Showtime crew arrived, all of whom were booked on the 10:39 a.m. flight to Dallas.

Only two other people in our group decided to join me inside the shuttle, audio man Jeff McGinnis being one of them. Our van driver was a Haney fan and we spent some of the drive discussing the fight. Once at the airport, I headed to the TSA Pre-Check security line.

This time, the process was hardly routine. Usually my laptop bag is the source of attention because, from time to time, some screeners don’t like the fact that I have two laptops inside it while others let it pass through without mention. Here however, the screener’s attention was on my clothes bag. He took it out of the X-ray once, then again when he looked at it a second time.

“Bag check!” he barked.

I looked at the summoned TSA agent quizzically, wondering what could be in my bag that could be of concern. It turned out to be the box that contained my bar of soap; something about it rubbed that TSA agent wrong. After the exterior was swabbed and analyzed, I was allowed through. Both the agent that swabbed the box and I shrugged our shoulders and moved on.

The delay at the TSA Pre-Check checkpoint resulted in my getting through slower than my non Pre-Check peers and our group decided to have breakfast at Tailwind Concessions, a nearby eatery. Being someone who doesn’t eat breakfast often, I only had a bottle of orange juice but the conversation with Executive Producer Gordon Hall and Haney documentarian John Isbell was more than fulfilling. Shortly after 10 a.m., we walked toward Gate 5 and, a few minutes later, my name was called over the intercom. The reason: I was upgraded to First Class.

As luck would have it, I was seated next to Producer Richard Gaughan, a genuine good guy and an excellent conversationalist. Although I had a copy of Verne Lundquist’s autobiography in my bag, I had no need to read it as Rich and I chatted from takeoff to touchdown. The conversation was so involved that I had to chug half a glass of Diet Coke (which gave me “ice cube headache”) and gobble a half-bag of popcorn so I could dispose of the refuse before landing.

While the plane pulled up at the gate in plenty of time, our deplaning was delayed several minutes because the plane’s exterior sustained a significant scratch from the air bridge in Shreveport. While I didn’t see anything upon departing, that reason was certainly a new one for me.

I spent the next hour writing many of the words you’ve read so far, then, when I got to a good stopping point, I went to a convenience outlet and bought snacks for the flight. When I returned to the gate, I spotted a young man wearing a blue West Virginia University jacket, which I used to break the ice. It turns out he was a 22-year-old member of the U.S. Army – a nice coincidence, given the Army ad slogan I mentioned in Part One to start my Haney-Ndongeni analysis. We chatted until my group number was asked to board and, after I gave him my business card, I asked him to keep in touch.

The flight to Pittsburgh was delightfully uneventful but, once I landed in Pittsburgh, business picked up in a big way. Winter Storm Gia had struck Pittsburgh with force, leaving four inches of snow on the cars in the parking lot – and counting. It took me 15 minutes to clear the white stuff off my car, mostly because by the time I finished one section of the car, the area I had just cleaned was starting to cover up again.

When I am asked to drive in wintry conditions, I follow this motto: “If you respect the conditions, the conditions will respect you.” If other motorists object to my driving between 45 and 55 miles-per-hour, even though I’m in the slow lane, so be it. If they think they can successfully and safely navigate while driving 65 to 75, then God bless them. To me, however, they’d be putting God to a foolish test, which, I’ve learned, is a no-no.

The roads were decent until I reached Powhatan Point, Ohio – about 50 minutes away from home under normal conditions. After that, the roads were snow-covered and hard to define in terms of identifying the lanes and assessing how slippery the pavement might be. The last mile of the drive proved to be the most challenging because the Department of Highways hadn’t plowed Friendly Hill, a road featuring steep angles and several hairpin turns. Although I navigated that successfully, the toughest hill was yet to come – my own driveway.

My driveway is only about 150 feet in length but its steepness and blacktop covering makes it difficult to deal with during the winter months. When I called home 30 minutes earlier, I was told that the driveway was covered with a half-inch of snow, which, in the past, my four-wheel drive Subaru could handle if I got a good speedy run on it. When I arrived however, I was so accustomed to my overly cautious driving style – which, to this point, I had been doing for three hours – that I didn’t build the speed I wanted. As a result, my car reached the halfway point, then stopped and began slipping backward.

I jammed my foot on the brake once it began sliding downhill, which successfully kept me in place. I tried to advance a couple of more times but my efforts only earned me a couple of feet of territory – but no more.

Just as I was about to set the emergency brake and walk the rest of the way, two young men instantly raced onto the scene – Jake Rice and Evan Maxwell. They are a pair of neighborhood teens who have helped us in the past – mowing the lawn, weed-eating the property and shoveling the driveway from time to time – and they just happened to be outside when I tried to ascend the driveway. With shovels in hand, they leapt to action as if they were a NASCAR pit crew and cleared off rows of snow with stunning speed while also spreading road salt to melt the ice. Ten minutes later, I was asked to try again and, because of their hard work, I was able to easily reach the top of the driveway.

I thanked them profusely and they reluctantly accepted payment for their work. Argue with me if you want but I believe Someone was watching over me. It was rather unusual for anyone to be outside at 10 p.m. in 20-degree weather and they just happened to notice my plight. No one at the house alerted them I was coming either, which makes their presence – and presence of mind – that much more amazing to me. I am very lucky to have such great neighbors and their parents should be proud of how they’ve turned out.

With my first trip in the can, it won’t be long before I begin my second. This coming Friday morning, I will begin a trek that will take me to Las Vegas, where Manny Pacquiao and Adrien Broner will headline a Showtime pay-per-view telecast.

Until then, 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 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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