October 19, 2015

Big Drama Show — KO goes to Madison Square Garden for The Sweet Science‏

KOD at MSG covering GGG in NYC for TSS
By Jeffrey Freeman

Saturday morning, 6am.

When the alarm bells went off bright and early in Boston to awaken me for my big day in the Big Apple, I'd already been yanked from my slumber just a few hours prior by a 2am "Amber Alert" that sent my iPhone into a buzzing frenzy. For some reason, I thought it was going off like that because I had some new Twitter followers. After a quick shower and an even quicker breakfast (protein shake fruit smoothie) I logged onto my computer only to find that my popular KO Digest "friend page" on Facebook was being converted by the powers-that-be into a Facebook "like page", a virtual disaster for my ability to communicate with my loyal online audience. 

As easy as it would have been to let this social media mishap spoil my pilgrimage to the Mecca of Boxing, I did my very best to not let it bother me too much; downloading a copy of the old KO FB page to my hard-drive and allowing the long process of conversion to begin. During this extended period while that was slowly taking place in cyber space, it was as if the KO Digest page on Facebook was in a strange state of pugilistic purgatory, technically knocked out before the fight even started. Are you serious?

When I arrived at the Amtrak station in Westwood, Mass after a short drive from Boston, I parked my 1997 Ford Taurus SHO (that stands for Super High Output) in the MBTA parking lot and took the short walk to the terminal. As I rounded a corner to have a seat in the lobby, who did I see but fellow Sweet Science boxing writer extraordinaire Springs Toledo. I told Springs about my Facebook situation (Toledo once referred to KO Digest as the "pied piper" of boxing) and he told me about the new boxing book he's writing, In The Cheap Seats. That's certainly a very appropriate name for his work in progress considering that Springs was traveling to the same fight card I was traveling to, but with a paid ticket in his pocket for the cheap seats and no press pass to speak of. As my Acela Express train rolled into the station at 8:25am, we said our goodbyes and I took a quick selfie with the well dressed, award-winner from the Boxing Writers Association of America. As it turned out, Springs was taking the next train (8:55am) bound for Penn Station.

Yes, his seat was indeed a little bit cheaper. Holy Toledo, he even rode coach.

Good boys and girls
On the fly-by four hour train ride to midtown Manhattan, I sat with a young college student from Boston University named Jennifer. She was traveling to New York City for a student conference in the Capital District where she was planning to meet up with her new boyfriend Blake. I asked her if she knew anything about the Gennady Golovkin fight at MSG or if she'd even heard of the popular puncher known in boxing circles as Triple G. "Is he in the UFC?" she asked with a puzzled look on her face. Not surprisingly, Jennifer had no idea who or what I was talking about. Golovkin might very well be on the verge of becoming a crossover star in the larger sporting world, but he's still an unknown commodity among college freshmen and pretty girls with crushes on pretty boys.

During the second half of the trip, in between checking emails and working on this travel log, I continued to deal with my now suddenly defunct social media outlet in an effort to get the page up and running again for the busy day ahead. By 11am, there was still no KO Digest on Facebook and I was starting to get concerned messages from friends and readers in the boxing community wondering just what the hell was going on with their trusty KO Digest. I tried to explain as best I could but having to do so just reminded me of how frustrated I was with the whole situation. The timing could not have been worse for me but boxing is nothing if not a struggle for all involved. 

After a pleasant ride that went by like no time at all, my train rolled into Penn Station right on time at 11:45am. When that first blast of New York City air hit me in the face during the escalator ride up and out of the underground station, I was immediately struck by how cold and windy it was outside. I was expecting brisk weather but not quite early winter conditions. I put on a light jacket and made a loop around the historic venue to have a look around. It was still a little early in the day for the big boxing crowds to start filling in around Penn Station but I did hear a few folks already talking about the middleweight title fight on tap in the big room.

Freedom is not free
I have to say, no trip to New York City is complete for me without first going down to Ground Zero for a show of respect to all the lives lost and forever destroyed on September 11, 2001. As a Disabled American Gulf War Era Veteran, I'll never forget 9/11. On that fateful morning fourteen years ago, I was proudly wearing the uniform of my country as a United States Army soldier.

Seeing the site now turned into a squeaky clean memorial is meaningful but to also see how it's become commercialized and capitalized, well, that makes me feel dirty on the inside and even colder on the outside. I'm reminded of Bernard Hopkins and Felix Trinidad in the wake of unimaginable tragedy. Fortunately, by 1:30pm, the sun was starting to warm up the day and my spirits along with it.

If the heart and soul of boxing is the art of talking about boxing, that's just what I managed to do for a few hours during the afternoon with a fellow named Art from Long Island. Art was enjoying his coffee and doing a little people watching when we struck up a conversation at the 7th Avenue Starbucks location. Before you knew it, others around us had jumped into the fray and we talked about everybody from Muhammad Ali to Hector Camacho to Rocky Marciano ("Rocky is Rocky!") to Floyd "Money" Mayweather. As the banter heated up, I heard a wiseguy wisely say, "If Mayweather is one of the guys in the ring tonight, you're not gonna see a fight." I assured them there would be no shortage of action in the Garden tonight before heading over to TGIF's for a last minute bite before the fights. Not surprisingly, more great conversations went down around me at the bar while I scarfed back a Pepsi and some overpriced tuna wontons. The bartender overheard our debate about Mike Tyson and piped in that he lives next-door to a guy in Brooklyn who was Big George Foreman's first professional opponent, Don Waldheim. In boxing, it's a small world.

Everybody knows somebody. Waldheim was knocked out by Foreman in the third round in 1969. The rest is history.

KO JO is the original road warrior
From there, it was over to 31st & 8th to pick up my media credential at 5pm sharp. The line wasn't very long and it moved pretty quickly. As I was waiting outside to pass the security checkpoint, former heavyweight championship challenger Gerry Cooney emerged from the entrance and I couldn't help but shout out, "Gentleman Gerry, we loved ya!" Cooney counter-punched quick with, "I love you," before he asked me how I got so big. Cooney is 6'6. I'm 6'11. I told Gerry that I, like he, ate my spinach. Of course, that didn't help the big fella when he was poleaxed by "Big George" in 1990. With my press pass in hand, I headed over to the media room where I was accompanied by Derek Bonnett and Jason Pribila from the website Seconds Out. Derek could hardly contain his excitement over getting to cover his "favorite fighter" Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez. I was very happy to see "KO JO" Jack Obermayer in the house wearing a Panamanian paper hat and a plaid shirt. I asked Jack how he's feeling these days. Jack described himself as "weak" but for doing what he's still doing with what he's got (cancer) I'd say he's pretty damn strong.  Keep punching Jack.

After a quick pow-wow with my esteemed editor-in-chief, Michael "Call Me Woodsy" Woods, popular referee Steve Willis made an unexpected pass through the media room and I told Willis how glad boxing fans were that he was assigned to cover the main event, Golovkin vs. David Lemieux. Willis is an intense (bug-eyed) third man in the ring. In any fight he works, the action is always written all over his wonderfully expressive face. I could only envy the unique perspective he'd have of the fisticuffs in just a few short hours.

Credentialed Coverage
Unfortunately, my dream of sitting ringside in press row proper at Madison Square Garden for a big time prizefight was dashed when I took a closer look at my red media credential. Section 327, Row #2, Seat 6. That's "up there" but really not a bad view at all in a dedicated media section stationed above the ring in the newly renovated MSG. That would be my point of view for the night ahead but by no means am I complaining. It's a privilege and an honor to cover professional boxing on its biggest stages and to do so for one of the most well written and well read boxing websites in the entire world, The Sweet Science. With nothing but gratitude, I made my way up to my seat at 7:30 by taking an escalator all the way up to the ninth floor. The arena was not yet half-filled as undefeated Lamont Roach, 9-0, battled Jose "Flash" Bustos, a 7-6 junior lightweight from one of the most dangerous places on Earth, Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Bustos lost a wide unanimous decision and nearly got knocked out in the final round but he held up like proud Mexican fighters tend to do.   

At 9:30, the legendary Roberto Duran appeared on the jumbotron and the now near-capacity Garden gave the Panamanian icon a loud reception while the smiling "Hands of Stone" blew kisses to his adoring fans from ringside. Duran famously defeated New Yorker Davey Moore at this venue in 1983, destroying the young WBA junior middleweight champion with a cruel precision still talked about reverentially to this very day. In town during fight week, "Cholo" was asked about Golovkin and something apparently got lost in translation. Duran thought the reporter was asking him about Andrew Golota, the "Foul Pole" of boxing and scapegoat of the infamous 1996 riot that took place right here in the aftermath of Golota's foul-filled bout against New Yorker Riddick Bowe. When the jumbotron showed American Presidential candidate Donald Trump in the locker room pressing the flesh with Pound-for-Pound candidate Gennady Golovkin, the reaction was mixed to say the least.

GGG and Trump
By 10:00, the heavyweights were in the ring. While undefeated Cuban Luis Ortiz and Argentine punching bag Matias Ariel Vidondo plodded around the ring like Tony "TNT" Tubbs and Francesco Damiani, I decided to take a quick walk around the upper levels of the building. I'm glad I did. It was there I ran into Chip Mitchell, a Facebook friend (and KO Digest reader) who crossed into my real world tonight with some kind words and an unexpected gift. Without warning, Mitchell gave me a silver necklace with a silver boxing glove on it. "Keep doing what you're doing sir," he told me as if he knew I needed to hear it. I thanked him and went back to my work station to watch Ortiz stop Vidondo with a straight left hand in the third round of a clumsy mismatch. To my immediate right, Stefan Oliva, a young deadline writer from an Argentine newspaper (its name escapes me) scrambled around as he tried to file the disappointing story of his countryman's face first defeat. 

In the co-main event, World Flyweight Champion Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez and Brian "Hawaiian Punch" Viloria didn't exactly light the joint on fire but they did put on a very high quality title fight with a definitive result. Viloria was knocked down early in the bout and was getting batted around at will by the smooth punching Nicaraguan. There's a good reason why Gonzalez, who draws comparisons to his idol Alexis Arguello, is seen as the number one pound for pound boxer in the world today following the recent retirement of Floyd Mayweather. Nobody out there today is as technically perfect in the ring as Gonzalez. To his credit, Viloria did his best to avoid a bad beating but he was catching one whenever Gonzalez let his hands go. In the ninth round, Gonzalez let them go and didn't stop until referee Benjy Esteves stepped in at 2:53 with Viloria on the ropes taking punches from all angles.

God Bless America
By 11:30, Golovkin and Lemieux were in the ring and the Garden was rocking with spontaneous chants of "Triple G ... Triple G" ringing out to start the fight. Golovkin was patient in the first round, using his stiff left jab to spear Lemieux, keeping the Canadian honest and his vaunted left hook home. People talk all day about Golovkin's offense but his defense was good enough to easily avoid the wild power of Lemieux in the second round by just leaning back away from it. In the third, Golovkin landed a hard left hook to the liver, left hook to the head combo and he finished it up with another flush jab to the face of Lemieux. The pace picked up in the fourth round and it looked like Golovkin might lower the boom but Lemieux stood in there like a champion and took the abuse while returning fire. Back on his heels in the fifth from more Golovkin jabs, Lemieux wasn't landing much and when he did, Golovkin walked through it. After a knockdown of Lemieux by Golovkin in the fifth from a body punch, the round ended with Lemieux on unsteady legs. Lemieux showed his grit in the sixth as the blood began to pour from his nose and mouth.

In the seventh, referee Steve Willis brought the bloody Lemieux to see the ringside physician and the fight resumed after a cursory look by the doctor. In fact, it was referee Willis that was taking the closest looks at Lemieux and as the IBF middleweight champion was getting smashed about the head by Golovkin, the horrified look on Willis' face told the story of the fight. In the eighth, Willis had seen enough carnage for the night and he jumped in to stop the one-sided fight at 1:32 of the frame. With the win, Golovkin improved his record to 34-0 with 31 KOs. Golovkin now has 15 successful defenses of his WBA middleweight title, 21 consecutive stoppages in the ring, and of course, sole possession of the IBF 160 pound title that he won tonight from David Lemieux.

Look at GGG with his four belts
At the post-fight press conference, middleweight Tureano Johnson (decision winner over Eamonn O'Kane on the undercard) said he's the one to beat Golovkin in the future. "He can hit me with all he's got. I can knock him out too," the Bahamas bred boxer claimed. "I have a cast iron chin," he told the press. When the black and blue Lemieux hit the stage, he gave credit to Golovkin but the ex-champ did say he thought the stoppage was a little premature. Golovkin, smiling with four belts spread out before him, wrapped up his experience in the ring against Lemieux: "It was not an easy night but it was a good night."

At 2:05am on Sunday morning, I filed this write-up with The Sweet Science and made my way back down to Penn Station for the long train ride back to Boston.

In the end, Golovkin was right of course, it wasn't an easy night but it was a damn good night.

Written by Jeffrey Freeman, originally published on The Sweet Science