Boxing Travels - The Road Home from Turning Stone

"Left, right, which way do we go?"

There was no answer. My traveling companions were passed out. One in the passenger seat, with the printed directions still clutched in his hands and the other sprawled out in the back seat. An understandable state, given it was almost six in the morning.

They had fallen asleep in the few short minutes it had taken to fill up the car at the gas station outside the Turning Stone Resort & Casino in Verona, New York. As well as gas, I had topped up the wiper fluid. It was that sort of weather, with a layer of snow on the ground, dirty sludge would be kicked up by the other tires on the road, sticking to the windshield and making visibility an added obstacle. It was still dark outside. Freezing cold too. The temperature gauge on the dashboard indicated it was -17 °C (1 °F) outside. The heat was on in the car, but my hands still felt the bite.

We were heading home from a night at the fights. A rare treat, as attending a good live card isn't easy. Sure, if you live in one of the few remaining boxing hubs, the options are better, but for most North American boxing fans, there are very few quality shows within a reasonable driving distance. Reasonable in this case, should have been a little under 4 ½ hours from my home in Toronto. At least that's what Google Maps indicated, though Friday afternoon traffic, exacerbated by the miserable conditions leaving the city, turned the outward journey into a grinding 8-hour trek.

"Wake up!"

Not knowing where to go wasn't the issue. The car had a GPS, and even without the technological help, heading towards the traffic lights and following signs towards the I-90 was simple enough. What I needed was conversation, more specifically, boxing chatter. I still wanted to talk about what we'd seen.

Both featured bouts had ended in knockouts, and it had been exhilarating to watch the final moments of drama unfold through the finishing push of the winning fighters. But now, hours later, perhaps due to the lonely road and gloomy darkness outside, or just fatigue from the journey setting in, what stuck in my mind were the images of defeat.

Part of the appeal of making the trip was to see Tony Luis, a Canadian junior-welterweight from Cornwall, Ontario. A tireless working combination puncher, Luis had performed well, but seen his undefeated record slip away at the hands of Jose Hernandez. It had been a terrific, high contact fight, with Luis hustling his way forward and the lanky Hernandez looking to pick his spots to fire back with heavy hooks.

Luis had taken Hernandez's power well for much of the fight, but a left hook sent him stumbling with about a minute left in the eighth round. He was up quickly and tried to fight back, but never fully recovered his legs, and when a left hand snapped his head back along the ropes, just above where we were sitting, the towel came hurtling through the air.

Seeing the declaration of surrender from his corner, Luis opened his arms in surprise, only for Hernandez, unaware it was over, to land a final parting shot. Describing the perilous moments between the punch that hurt him and the stoppage, Luis explained that his head was clear but his legs just wouldn't respond. It had been something he'd never experienced before.

I'd never spoken to a fighter immediately after a bout, never mind one that had suffered such a setback. I write about boxing, but don't consider myself much of a journalist. I'm a boxing fan and a historian, but rarely chronicle anything to do with the modern game. Sifting through old newspaper archives and reading about fights from long ago is more my speed, so when the opportunity was presented to talk with Luis, I was a little hesitant.

I couldn't imagine his disappointment, and figured he probably just wanted to get going. He'd already sat behind the table at the front of the room, microphone in hand, answering questions from the gathered throng. But he stuck around a little longer for me, and was unfailingly polite in talking about his loss. I had wished him luck on bouncing back, but as I drove home, I wondered if he would be better off calling it quits. He was bright and articulate, with an easy going manner, and though he had an aptitude for fighting, I couldn't help but think that someone with his brains could succeed at any number of professions that don't involve getting punched in the face.

In the main-event, Sergiy Dzinziruk, once one of the best junior-middleweights in the world, had been knocked out by Brian Vera. In his prime, Dzinziruk had been a precise puncher, able to off-set the rhythms of bigger hitters with ring smarts and a sharp jab. The smarts were still there, but his reflexes had faded and his legs looking every bit those of a man about to turn 37-years-old. He was a sitting duck for Vera's crude, but effective skills, and the underdog's right hand continually found the mark.

Almost finished off in the first round, Dzinziruk had admirably battled his way back into the fight, but continually struggled to keep Vera at a comfortable range. Trapped in a corner early in the eighth, he'd managed to escape and even hurt Vera with a digging left to the body, but in the tenth, stuck in the same situation, he couldn't come up with a similarly hurtful blow. With his back against the corner padding, he started to crouch down, slowly sinking to the canvas. He was on his feet to hear the count, but referee Benjy Esteves could sense Dzinziruk had no more to give and the fight was correctly stopped.

It was thrilling to see Vera, a man who's paid plenty of dues, get the victory, but there was something all too sobering about the way Dzinziruk accepted his fate as a fighter now belonging to the past. I thought about his resigned look as I drove through the morning, counting down the miles, as the darkness slowly made way for the light of the new day.

"We're back," I announced, loudly, as we exited the highway upon arriving back in the city. I turned up the radio, to make sure my companions woke up. They were pleased to be back too, and the conversation quickly turned to the next trip.

Maybe Detroit. Or even Brooklyn. Possibly Turning Stone again. All long treks. But it was boxing, and for all the trouble going and coming, the thought of another adventure was still impossible to resist.

e-mail Andrew Fruman

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