Lee Groves

The Travelin’ Man at the BWAA Dinner – Part II

Wednesday, June 6: I stirred awake at 4:50 a.m. and I simply couldn’t get back to full-blown sleep because the rising sun’s rays were already peeking through the crack in the curtains. I remained in that halfway place where one’s body is totally relaxed but where one’s thoughts are running 200 mph laps around the cranium. At 7 a.m. I finally decided to get started with what promised to be a most monumental day.

For those who didn’t read Part I, I learned a few weeks earlier I won a first-place award in the Boxing Writers Association of America’s annual writing competition and, after quite a bit of cajoling from my friends, I changed my travel plans and decided to drive into the Big Apple. Because of my many troubles navigating New York City by car, I took every precaution – two GPS units as well as printed directions.

I left the hotel in Allentown, Pa., a little after 9 a.m. and I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful driving day – bright sun, puffy clouds and temperatures in the high 60s. But as tranquil as the weather was, that’s how much turmoil there was during the drive to come.

My first problem was a common one – it took my TomTom approximately 15 minutes to “find” me. Thankfully the directions I transcribed from Mapquest helped me through the first four driving maneuvers and once the GPS zeroed in, all was well.

The next set of issues hit about 15 minutes before my scheduled arrival – tightly-packed late-morning traffic. Driving in the greater New York metropolitan area is not for those that are claustrophobic or impatient. Within an area normally reserved for two lanes of traffic, three were assigned. Cars from both sides came within inches of my mirrors and for a while I felt like Luke Skywalker navigating inside the Death Star. 

There also was the fear of making the wrong turn because once you do that in New York you are cooked. Unlike back home there are no mistake-covering U-turns and even if there were, a vehicle was always hot on the back bumper.

Just before I reached the Lincoln Tunnel I feared I had made a disastrously wrong turn, for I found myself driving within lanes that appeared to be reserved for “EZ-Pass” customers. My concerns were allayed when I saw a sign indicating a $12 toll for non EZ-Pass patrons.

Within the tunnel the pace of traffic slowed dramatically. Although the Lincoln Tunnel measures 1.5 miles in length, it required at least 20 minutes to come out the other side. Fortunately for me I was situated in the left lane, which was where I had to be to begin what should have been the final four turns.

Note the phrase “should have been.”

Yes, more trouble loomed.

That was because once I reached Dyer Avenue, my TomTom went NutsNuts. For whatever reason the unit lost the GPS signal that had guided me so perfectly to this point. Then, once it did click in, it gave me contradictory, inaccurate instructions. The colored portion of the path denoting where I should go broke off into multiple forks.

In other words, my worst nightmares were coming true.

I was left to fend for myself. The bumper-to-bumper traffic caused by multiple construction projects actually helped me because it gave me time to think and plot my next moves. The TomTom came back to life just often enough to get me within a block or two of the Central Parking garage on West 48th Street. After that, I swiveled and craned my neck in search of helpful street signs, of which I saw precious few. When I spotted one for West 48th Street, I knew I was close. After making the turn I saw a Central Parking Garage on my left, uncertain if it was THE garage I was seeking. My doubts were fueled when, after pulling into line, I asked the person next to me if they knew whether the River City Apartments were located nearby.

“I’ve never heard of River City Apartments,” he replied.

Uh-oh.

Still, I had my fill of driving for today. If I was in the wrong garage so be it. I could deal with the consequences later.

When the parking attendant approached my car, I asked him if the apartments I sought were close by.

“Yes, they are located right behind us,” he said.

Eureka!

By the grace of God (or Lady Luck if you prefer) I had stumbled onto my intended destination. Since I wouldn’t have access to my car until I was ready to leave the following morning, I had to remove my belongings – two suitcases, my laptop case and my suit – and lug it all to the hotel. “Velcro Hands” set in quickly and I had to set down my haul more than once. Ten minutes later – a little before noon, my intended arrival time – I found the hotel.

The goal was reached, but some unseen force had plenty of fun with me along the way.

The hotel clerk informed me my room wouldn’t be ready for another three hours so he stashed my belongings in a locked storage closet. To pass the time, I made several phone calls – to my parents, to my boss at CompuBox Bob Canobbio and to longtime friend, fellow boxing historian and Big Apple resident Aris Pina. A couple of weeks earlier Aris invited me to have lunch with him – his treat – as soon as I arrived at the hotel.

Aris arrived about an hour later and we ended up dining at Subway – which was fine by me because I had added about 10 pounds since last year’s IBHOF festivities. Our talks were always boxing-filled and the arc of discussion spanned decades. Though Aris is 20 years younger than I, his knowledge of fighters from the 1920s and back supersedes mine and I always walk away impressed. He wouldn’t be attending the dinner, but he let me know he’d be there in spirit.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn my room was ready one hour earlier than expected but another plot twist was waiting – the keys didn’t work properly. Though they slid into their respective locks, I couldn’t get the door knob to turn. No matter what I did, it wouldn’t budge. A helpful maintenance man literally unlocked this mystery – for now – but I wondered what would happen when I returned from the dinner.

I spent the next hour tapping away on the laptop and catching up on the events of the day before changing into my suit at 5 p.m. and departing for the Copacabana at 5:30.

Up until this day, I associated the Copacabana with two things – the place Barry Manilow sung about during his 1970s heyday and the infamous 1957 incident involving New York Yankees players Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Hank Bauer, Yogi Berra, Johnny Kucks and guest of honor Billy Martin, who was celebrating his birthday. The players were angered when a group of apparently intoxicated bowlers hurled racial slurs at Sammy Davis, Jr., who was performing on stage at the time. Martin was particularly sensitive to the insults because his roommate at the time was Elston Howard, the first African-American to join the Yanks. The subsequent fracas made headlines and led to a lawsuit against Bauer, which was unsuccessful.

From this day forward, I will associate the Copa with one of the greatest nights of my life thus far.

I walked down 49th Street, took a left onto 7th Avenue and a right onto West 47th street, where the Copa supposedly was located – “supposedly” at least in my mind. I was a bit confused about the club’s whereabouts and a friendly doorman noticed the unsure look in my eyes. After pointing me in the right direction, he commented that in my pinstriped suit I looked like Hall of Fame singer Elton John. That, my friends, is a first for me and because I respect John’s talents so much I took it as a complement.

Once I learned the doors wouldn’t open for another 15 minutes, I spent the extra time chatting with my fellow early birds, which included several New York boxing officials and members of Ring 8.

Once the 6 p.m. cocktail began it didn’t take long for the room to fill up. Some of the people I chatted with included Canobbio, BWAA president Jack Hirsch, Showtime producer Gordon Hall, longtime IBHOF attendee Mustafa Terens, fellow writers Jack Obermayer and J.R. Jowett, Chicago-based husband-and-wife promoter-and-manager team Wasfi and Cynthia Tolaymat as well as former two-division titlist Tracy Harris Patterson, CES executives Jimmy Burchfield and Michael Parente and DBE head man Lou DiBella.

The most memorable meeting, however, was with Dewey Bozella, this year’s winner of the Bill Crawford Award for courage in overcoming adversity. I could only imagine the righteous mental anguish he endured while serving 26 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit and the fortitude to refuse multiple instant-release offers that demanded he first admit guilt. Of all the winners to be feted this night, he was the most deserving.

He also delivered the night’s most riveting speech, especially when he told the story of meeting his brother’s murderer face-to-face. Bozella resisted the urge to exact vengeance and instead asked the man why he did what he did. His response: He was 15 years old and he didn’t know any better. At that, Bozella extended his hand. Not only did he forgive the man, he promised to protect him from harm. When questioned by his disbelieving peers, Bozella said he did what he did to test his own character – a test he passed with marks far beyond that of an average person. 

Don Elbaum, who won the John F.X. Condon Award for long and meritorious service, took Larry Merchant’s advice to dispense with the usual “thank-yous” to do what he does best – tell stories about his many years in boxing, both as a fighter and as a promoter.

Colin Hart, who was awarded the Nat Fleischer award for excellence in boxing journalism, was overwhelmed by the honor because of the prestige of those who preceded him. He also expressed appreciation for the American writers who gave of themselves to help him when they could have chosen not to do so.

Neither Fighter of the Year Andre Ward nor his Trainer of the Year Virgil Hunter made the trip. Promoter Dan Goossen explained the fighter couldn’t be there because “family always comes first,” even when it prevents him from making career-enhancing appearances. Ward’s wife was expecting the arrival of the couple’s fourth child and the two-belt 168-pound titlist (and RING champ) didn’t want to risk making a cross-country trip and possibly missing the birth.

Delvin Rodriguez and the recently-retired Pawel Wolak shared the stage in accepting the Ali-Frazier Fight of the Year honor while Steve Farhood issued a playful but scorching satiric tribute to broadcast partner Al Bernstein, who won the Marvin Kohn Good Guy Award.

My portion of the program was brief, and happily no speeches were required. Farhood and Fernandez took turns introducing each winner. Fernandez got in a good-humored dig by billing me as “undoubtedly the best boxing writer in Friendly, West Virginia” and event emcee David Diamante was among the first to congratulate me as I stepped on stage.

Being a first-timer I asked Diamante where the awards were located and he directed me to a nearby table. We fished out our awards and certificates and posed for photos both onstage and in front of a side-stage wall saturated with BWAA logos. Canobbio was among those taking pictures and I was pleasantly surprised my visage didn’t damage his camera. He promised to e-mail me the photos, which I hope won’t morph into a web worm.

I must admit, the first-place plaque is a masterpiece and as soon as I return home it will occupy a prominent place on the Home Office’s wall.

Another memorable speech belonged to WBC heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko, who with his brother Wladimir won the James A. Farley Award for honesty and integrity in boxing. He told the story of being inspired to box after seeing Mike Tyson destroy Trevor Berbick in 1986 – a bout Klitschko said was among the first professional boxing bouts beamed into the old Soviet Union. He told his friends he would someday win Tyson’s belt, a notion that made them scoff.

“One thing my friends didn’t know,” Klitschko said with a knowing smile, “is that I have a long memory.”

Eighteen years later he invited his chums out for dinner. Unbeknownst to them, Klitschko brought along a bag containing one of his heavyweight championship belts, something they were convinced he would never own. He relished their apologies for ever doubting him.

The point of the story was to illustrate just how powerful dreams are, especially those that seem out of reach. This is a tale I know well, for I never could have guessed that someday I would be standing on a stage accepting a national writing award before a few hundred members of the boxing fraternity.

Recently deposed light heavyweight champ Bernard Hopkins was among the last to speak. Earlier I enjoyed a brief one-on-one with him, where he dispensed wisdom on the focus and discipline a fighter needs to achieve maximum success. As he spoke his eyes burned with intensity and his words carried the force of hard-earned experience. He meant what he said and the fact he lived what he spoke only added to the impact. His speech reflected many of the same talking points he shared with me minutes earlier.

When it was announced the dinner was over, I briefly chatted with fellow writer Robert Mlandich and then exchanged my table ticket for a gift bag. As I walked back toward the hotel I felt a bit self-conscious carrying all this stuff in a three-piece suit. This time my room key worked as intended and for the next several hours I did my best to recall as many events as possible. As terrific as this experience had been, I still had plenty to look forward to – my 20th consecutive trip to the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s Induction Weekend.

Thursday, June 7: Following a 90-minute catnap I readied my escape from New York by hoping to leave while the traffic monster was still asleep. I lugged my two trips’ worth of baggage in one giant effort and the trek was made longer because the shortcut between the hotel and the garage entrance was fenced off.

I reached the garage at 4:35 a.m., paid the $51 bill and seven minutes later I was off. Just as I had hoped, traffic was virtually non-existent and it was a good thing because my TomTom never “found” me. I had to rely on the longhand directions written on the steno pad lying on the passenger’s seat. I followed each step faithfully and 50 minutes later I had reached the New York Thruway.

With that, one adventure ended but another was on the way. The many stories surrounding the IBHOF festivities will be published in a future edition of THE RING magazine.

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Photos/ Lee Groves, Aris Pina, clubzone.com, Bob Canobbio 

Lee Groves, a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va., can be emailed at l.groves@frontier.com. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won seven writing awards, including a first-place for News Story in 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.” To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author to arrange for autographed copies.

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