Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man Goes to Vegas – Part I

 

RingTV.com’s resident historian and Travelin’ Man Lee Groves hit the road and rode the skies for the third consecutive week, this time working the CompuBox keys for Saturday’s pay-per-view card headlined by Anthony Mundine’s seventh round TKO over Bronco McKart. This week’s destination is the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, less than three miles away from the Mandalay Bay where another CompuBox crew covered Danny Garcia’s huge victory over Amir Khan.

This two-part installment of the Travelin’ Man Chronicles will violate the well-known axiom “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” To find out the details of what transpired, read on.

Friday, July 13: I can hardly believe my good fortune. Less than two years ago it was difficult for me to imagine a time when regular travel again would be part of my life but here I am, trekking toward the West Coast for the third consecutive week – and working for a third different network.

Over the past several months, CompuBox’s roster of network clients has exploded. Along with stalwarts HBO and ESPN, the company added Showtime, EPIX, NBC Sports Network (the artist formerly known as Versus) and now Wealth TV, which was about to broadcast its fifth boxing show and its first with CompuBox, this time from the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. Two weeks ago I worked a ShoBox card in Indio, California and last week it was an HBO Boxing After Dark program emanating from Carson, Calif. It’s nice to see the frequent flier miles piling up again, which will place me on track for better seats and automatic first-class upgrades.

I got a small taste of that future today, for this time I had a direct flight to Vegas on Southwest. It had been several years since my last journey on Southwest, which is far different animal than its peers in several ways.

For those who haven’t flown before, most airlines follow a similar pattern in terms of boarding and in-flight service. The order that passengers enter the plane is determined by boarding groups or “zones”; the higher the number, the later one enters the aircraft. The zone number is printed on the boarding pass and one must listen closely to the announcements over the loudspeaker once the boarding process begins. Most flights have four zones but from time to time – as was the case with me last week at LAX – that number can be as high as seven (which happened to be my group number. That’s what happens when you decide to redeem your miles).

When I first began flying seven years ago, most airlines offered free snacks – small packages of peanuts, trail mix, crackers, chips and the like – along with the complimentary beverages like soft drinks, tomato juice, water, and so on. Because of surging fuel prices (among other factors) the airlines imposed an armada of fees and with that the era of free snacks – and free checked baggage – was over.

But Southwest – the airline industry’s delightfully crazy cousin – has always been different when it comes to policy and procedure. Instead of boarding by zone, Southwest passengers are separated into two or three alphabetical groups and as their respective letters are called they are instructed to line up in numerical order on either side of a series of poles bearing a range of numbers. For example, my boarding pass had “B-28” printed on it, which required me to wait until the A group consisting of approximately 60 passengers had boarded, then, after my group was called, to stand between the poles that read “20-25” and “26-30.”

In theory this sounds chaotic but in practice it works rather well. After a quick check of ticket numbers with fellow passengers we found our designated places within moments.

Every other airline uses assigned seating, but that’s not the case with Southwest. Once passengers enter the aircraft they are free to choose any unoccupied seat. Although I was the 88thpassenger to board I managed to grab an aisle seat in Row 11 – not bad at all.

Once the plane departed I was surprised to see the flight attendants walk the aisles with baskets of snacks with nary a credit card payment device in sight. Moreover, passengers were permitted to take whatever they wanted in whatever amounts they wished. In recent years the only time I saw this was during the rare occasions I sat in the first-class cabin but here that privilege was extended to the unwashed masses in coach. I ended up taking two small packages of peanuts and two bags of cheese-filled cracker sandwiches, enjoying every unbilled bite.

Another aspect that separates Southwest from other airlines is the sense of fun its employees project. I recall one flight where a female flight attendant who resembled a young Nancy Reagan sung the safety instructions to the tune of “Heartbreak Hotel” – and she performed it very well. Here, the instructions were sprinkled with sly, almost subliminal humor that drew the appropriate but somewhat delayed laughter.

Speaking of delays, the flight left Pittsburgh approximately 45 minutes behind its original 4:55 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time departure but landed only 15 minutes beyond the advertised 6:30 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time arrival. I spent most of that time reading my latest book purchase: “Lambert: The Man in the Middle…And Other Outstanding Linebackers,” another installment of author Jim O’Brien’s “Pittsburgh Proud” series.

Growing up in West Virginia I had the choice of following the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals. Since I came of age during the “Steel Curtain” era, the choice was very easy. For my money – limited as it is — the Steelers of the 1970s would have given any team in history a run for its money, even modern-day squads with their sophisticated offensive and defensive schemes. The unifying aspect that ties all sports together is “talent tells,” and the Steelers overflowed with Hall-of-Fame quality personnel – on the field, along the sidelines and in the coaching booth. A few years back, NFL Films presented three mythical tournaments that pitted teams from different eras in simulated games. Of those, the 1970s Steelers captured two championships. ‘Nuff said.

Lambert was well-known for his fire-breathing attitude, his relentless hard hitting and his frightful fang-toothed snarl. Being a boxing guy, that got me to thinking about which of today’s fighters came closest to duplicating Lambert’s volatile mix of intimidation ability, high-octane action inside the lines and consistent success.

As I looked through the RingTV.com rankings, several names caused sparks to fly inside my mind, but it took a while to find a fighter that fit all these categories.

Bernard Hopkins, who at 47 is the grand old man of boxing, is still capable of spewing enough verbal venom to go toe-to-toe with anyone on stage but inside the ring, especially in his later years, he couldn’t begin to match Lambert’s overt intensity. At one time Hopkins was an excellent knockout puncher but as he aged the meaning behind his nickname of “The Executioner” changed from one of brutality to one of clinically crafting and executing fight plans. Lambert, on the other hand, maintained his ferocity from his first pre-season game in 1974 to his final game a decade later.

Carl Froch also knows how to go face-to-face in the pre-fight buildup, and he’s had his share of action packed scraps against high-level competition. “The Cobra” falls just short of the Lambert standard only because not all of his fights were studies in pure violence like all of Lambert’s games. In a way, Froch is penalized by what normally is an asset — versatility.

Some fighters are the reverse – all-action inside the ropes but relatively little talk outside them. That applies to crowd-pleasers like James Kirkland, Alfredo Angulo, Mike Alvarado, Roman Martinez, John Molina and Orlando Salido. They belong on any list of “bring-it” fighters but their out-of-the-ring personalities aren’t part of the package they present to the public at large.

As I continued to peruse the rankings, I saw other names that neared the Lambert standard. “Hammering” Hank Lundy projects a burning drive to succeed and his war with Molina was really something to watch despite the unfavorable result (a come-from-way-behind 11thround TKO for Molina). He also has upped his game in terms of pre-fight chatter but after meeting him several weeks earlier I sensed his intent isn’t really to intimidate his opponent, but rather to pump himself up and to have fun with the entire process. The malevolent Lambert, on the other hand, was all business all the time.

Jorge Arce comes close to Lambert because he has maintained his ultra-intense, all-heart style through 68 professional fights spread over 16 years – or half his nearly 33 years on earth. But “Travieso” translates to “mischievous one,” and Arce’s happy-go-lucky persona and flashy showmanship is diametrically opposed to Lambert’s dark, scowling on-field demeanor.

For a short time Panamanian flyweight Luis Concepcion touched the Lambert ideal by trash-talking his opponents then spectacularly flattening them in the ring. “El Nica” scored four knockouts in four WBA “interim” title fights against Omar Salado, Roberto Leyva, Eric Ortiz and Denkaosan Kaovichit and he showed plenty of fire in losing his belt to Hernan “Tyson” Marquez. Unfortunately for Concepcion, he was unable to sustain his success at the top but to his credit he has rebounded from his one-round rematch loss to Marquez with two quick knockouts. It’s unlikely, however, that he’ll be a Hall of Famer like Lambert.

Of all the names I scanned, I felt that one fighter came closest to personifying the blend of athletic excellence, on-field performance and attitude Lambert exhibited – Brandon Rios.

Is he there yet? No. But the potential is there.

If ever a nickname matched a fighter’s mindset and approach, it is Brandon Rios and the name “Bam Bam.” Before the fight he rages at opponents with an assortment of barbs that probably were perfected years earlier in the streets. He has little regard for political correctness and every insult delivers an unmistakable message – “when you’re in the ring with me, you’re in for a night in Hell.” Moreover, from first bell to last, Hell is exactly what they get.

Hall of Fame sportscaster Myron Cope nicknamed Lambert “Jack Splat” for the way he flattened opponents and with 22 knockouts spread over his 30-0-1 record Rios possesses plenty of firepower. His war with Urbano Antillon ranks among the most intense short fights of the decade and the CompuBox numbers prove that beyond doubt. Averaging 107.3 punches per round – far above the 63.3 lightweight average – Rios landed 50.3 percent of his total punches, landed 42.1 percent of his jabs and an impressive 55.6 of his power shots in crafting connect bulges of 162-95 (total), 53-18 (jabs) and 109-77 (power) in less than three rounds of action. While he dished out plenty of punishment, he took his share as Antillon averaged 72.7 punches per round, landing 43.6 percent overall and 47 percent of his power shot.

Each man’s aggression was unquestioned – Rios averaged 65.3 power punches per round while Antillon fired 54.7, way above the lightweight norm of 38.6. In an all-or-nothing shootout, Rios emerged as the better, tougher man — just like number 58 did all those years ago.

Rios’ methods against Antillon weren’t isolated to that one effort. In 11 CompuBox tracked fights Rios averaged 78.1 punches per round, of which 57.4 (70 percent) were power shots. Both he and Lambert share incredibly high-revving motors and they inflicted major-league damage on their rivals. Lambert recorded 1,479 tackles (1,045 solo) in his career while Rios to this point has landed 45.2 percent of his hooks, uppercuts and crosses.

For all the assets they share, Rios and Lambert do differ in some areas. Rios has struggled mightily with weight while the 204-pound Lambert was vastly undersized for his position. From all accounts Lambert fiercely defended his privacy away from the field while Rios is open and outspoken. It remains to be seen whether Rios can duplicate his lightweight success at higher weights but one thing is clear: Whatever he does and however he does it – win or lose — it will be fun watching him do it.

*

After landing in Las Vegas, I grabbed a mid-evening snack at the airport’s Burger King. As I made my way through the terminal it was obvious where I was at because of the hundreds of slot machines in and along the aisle. I don’t know of any other airport in the world with such easy access to “action.”

A word to the wise: Allow at least an extra 30 minutes to get to one’s hotel via taxi after landing in Vegas. That’s because in order to secure a cab one first has to snake through a line consisting of six partitioned 100-yard rows. To the airport’s credit, the line is almost constantly moving and that’s because once one reaches the head of the queue he is directed to one of 20 taxi stands.

As my cab trekked down Tropicana Avenue, a plane making its final approach flew directly above us. Although it looked to be no more than 100 feet up, the cabbie didn’t blink.

I arrived at the hotel 10 minutes later but after checking in an uncommon sleepiness washed over me. I tried to stay awake enough to get some work done but my efforts were futile. Though it was only a little past 11 p.m. local time I opted to close the curtains on yet another travel day.

*

Brandon Rios photo / Al Bello-Getty Images

Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won seven writing awards, including four in the last two years. 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 at l.groves@frontier.comto arrange for autographed copies.

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