Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man goes to St. Louis – Part I

Thursday, October 11: It’s been nearly a month since my most recent trip to Las Vegas for the card topped by Saul Alvarez-Josesito Lopez. Each day has been a whirlwind of boxing-related activities, whether I’m conducting pre-fight research for CompuBox, tending to my ever-growing collections, pondering my ballot for the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s Class of 2013 or writing about it on RingTV.com.

I can’t remember the last time I spent an entire day away from the sport – either in action or in thought – since joining CompuBox full-time in March 2007, and I have no plans to disengage anytime soon. That’s because boxing has a way of digging deep into one’s being. What may seem like a sickness to outsiders is actually the cure for those who choose to embrace it.

One never knows what will happen from day to day beyond what’s scheduled. On this day my itinerary called for a drive to Pittsburgh International Airport followed by a direct flight to St. Louis, where a ShoBox doubleheader featuring undefeated super middleweights Jonathan Cepeda and Lamar Russ as well as lightweight prospect Jose Pedraza against late sub Tevin Farmer was to be staged. After that, as is often the case with my Travelin’ Man adventures, the story began to tell itself.

The US Airways jet that was to take us to the “Gateway to the West” was unusually narrow – one-seat rows on one side and two-seat rows across the aisle. Anyone taller than 5-9 (I’m 5-11) had to be careful to avoid bumping his head and mincing steps were required to maneuver into one’s assigned seat.

The issues regarding the cramped quarters were lessened greatly by the company I kept during the 95-minute flight. Sam Shapiro, an adviser to fighters such as Cleveland-based junior middleweight Willie Nelson and lightweight Dannie Williams, occupied the single seat in the emergency exit row one row ahead of me while Showtime senior audio man Doug Deems sat across the aisle in the window seat. Deems was to be the driver in our three-man carpool but I had no idea what he looked like until I saw him walking up the aisle clad in a ShoBox jacket. Their conversation regarding Nelson piqued my interest and, always eager to talk boxing, I quickly jumped into the conversation.

Shapiro mentioned Williams, a native of St. Louis, was going to be fighting on the untelevised undercard against 6-10-2 (5) journeyman Raynell Griffin, who had gone 0-8-1 in his last nine fights against competitors boasting a combined record of 108-18-3 (.838). Shapiro labeled this fight a tune-up for better fights down the road. Moreover, it also was a chance for his fighter to get back on the winning track following his ESPN-televised 10-round loss to Hank Lundy on March 30.

The personable Shapiro and I also swapped stories and opinions regarding Nelson, who has won three straight since a ShoBox-aired majority decision loss against Vincent Arroyo in April 2011, a fight that saw the Cleveland resident fight hard and well despite suffering three knockdowns. Back-to-back decision wins over two previously unbeaten fighters – Cuban Yudel Jhonson and John Jackson, son of two-division titlist Julian Jackson – have revived his fortunes.

Once we landed in St. Louis, Deems and I swung by baggage claim where we awaited the arrival of technical director Rick Tugman, the third member of our carpool. Through a text to Deems, Tugman told us he was already in the area and once Deems retrieved his bag we were on our way to the Ameristar Casino in nearby St. Charles.

The drive took less than 15 minutes and the route was so straightforward that even a Travelin’ Man could navigate it without a GPS (not that he’d try such a foolish thing). On my way to the elevator after completing the check-in process I ran into former undisputed middleweight champion Jermain Taylor, trainer Pat Burns and other members of Team Taylor. The weigh-in was to take place in less than an hour’s time so I did nothing more than say a quick hello before departing.

According to the production memo, the weigh-in procedures were to begin at 4:30 p.m. at the Amerisports Bar and Grill, and, being a boxing geek, I showed up early. Looking inside, however, I saw no signs of preparation for a special boxing-related event – no scales, no seats for reporters, nothing. I chalked it up to my very early arrival so I walked around the environs to pass the time. I later learned the weigh-in had been moved across the way to the Bottleneck Blues Bar because the Amerisports was showing Game 4 of the National League Division Series between the Cardinals and the Washington Nationals, which the Nationals won 2-1 to push the series to a decisive fifth game. While I missed the actual weigh-ins I was there in time to take part in the press conference that followed.

Before that occurred, I circulated around the room and greeted a number of familiar faces, including DiBella Entertainment’s Joe Quiambao, trainer Jack Loew and ring announcer Thomas Treiber. I spotted Burns, who, like Loew, I had known for years through my “training camp notes” interviews for CompuBox, and gave him my best regards. He told me that Taylor had just weighed in at 161½ and, interestingly enough, he had gotten to that poundage with uncommon ease.

“On Monday Jermain weighed in at 166 and though the contract called for us to weigh 163 I didn’t care; I wanted Jermain to weigh 161,” Burns said. “Last night he ate a bowl of pasta and chicken and this morning – the day of the weigh-in – he had pancakes and eggs.”

When I asked Burns what he attributed Taylor’s success in making weight so uneventfully – not always a given with “Bad Intentions” – Burns replied, “Jermain is now training the way he’s supposed to train, and that’s because he has gone back to the pre-Hopkins regimen in terms of running, boxing gym time, strength training and diet. In essence, he’s living the life of a boxer.”

Burns had trained Taylor during his rise to potential stardom, which peaked with his first victory over Hopkins that ended “The Executioner’s” historic 10-plus year, 20-defense reign. Burns and Taylor parted ways following the second victory over Hopkins when the Arkansan replaced him with Emanuel Steward in 2006, then his original coach Ozell Nelson the following year. Following a disastrous stretch that saw Taylor lose four of five fights, including a KO loss to Kelly Pavlik (fight one) and back-to-back 12thround stoppage defeats to Carl Froch and Arthur Abraham, Taylor retired for 26 months. He had good reason to do so, for he suffered a concussion, short-term memory loss and bleeding on the brain following the frightening KO against Abraham.

It looked as if boxing fans had seen the last of Taylor, but in September 2011 the Nevada State Athletic Commission granted Taylor a license after passing a battery of tests. Since then he reunited with Burns, returned to middleweight and registered wins over Jessie Nicklow (KO 8) and previously unbeaten Caleb Truax (W 10), who decked Taylor in the ninth round of a fight the ex-champ was winning handily.

During his long hiatus, Taylor realized he needed to reach back into his past to enhance his present and future.

“I was thinking to myself that I let my career go down,” Taylor said in a one-on-one arranged by Burns. “I knew the only way to get back was hard work and I needed Pat Burns to do it because he keeps me on my toes. After the fight with Abraham – at the end of 2010 – I realized I missed boxing. It’s something I’ve been doing since I was 12 years old. It’s all I know.”

When asked how it felt getting back into the sport, he replied “it feels great. I’m going to get in there and kick some butt and I know my opponent (Raul “Michi” Munoz) will try to do the same thing to me. I haven’t heard much about him except that he comes to fight. The thing is, I come to fight too. I believe 2013 is going to be my year and I’m going for a championship at 160.”

In past years, obvious tune-up fights such as Taylor-Munoz not only would have been televised but would have also been billed as the main event. But here, Showtime decided to air highlights between the two co-features, a move that placed quality control over name recognition. After all, the 36-year-old Munoz had lost six of his last nine, five by knockouts, and his 22-15-1 (16) record included 11 stoppage defeats. The projected outcome was crystal-clear and Showtime, to its credit, wanted no part of a live showing.

Still, the news of his demotion in terms of TV coverage must have been humbling to the former world middleweight champion. Taylor addressed the issue with class.

“It doesn’t bother me a bit,” he said. “In this sport, that’s how it is, especially since I don’t have the belts. Now, if I had the belts I’d feel bad about it but now I don’t.”

The press conference was held a few minutes later, the highlight of which was a verbal exchange between Farmer, a feisty Philadelphia southpaw with a spoiler’s style, and the translators for the unbeaten 2008 Olympian Pedraza. Taylor got a laugh from the assemblage when, in the midst of the barbs, he good-naturedly asked “I’m going to go eat… do you have any more questions for me?” When it became clear there were not, he departed the dais to applause.

Following the press conference ended I hung out with Treiber and, at times, with Showtime graphics man Joe Jacovino, after which Treiber and I walked to the Amerisports Bar and Grill for dinner. Upon entry, Treiber and I were hailed by people at two separate tables, his by a group of fighters and their teams, me by Jacovino and Tugman, who had ordered their meals some time before. Jacovino was already eating his while Tugman was awaiting his.

Because several other members of the production crew was to stop by at various times, we, with permission from the servers, borrowed some extra tables and created a makeshift conference table. I ended up ordering a chicken club sandwich with a side of waffle fries and what ended up being two large glasses of Diet Coke. The sports bar had five large banks of screens with five programs on each screen. On the upper left was a WNBA playoff game while college football occupied the two smaller screens on the bottom row. The Pittsburgh Steelers-Tennessee Titans game was shown on the upper right hand screen while the large center screen beamed Game 4 between the Baltimore Orioles and the hosting New York Yankees.

Jacovino is one of many who believe sports fans and their actions have a direct effect on the outcome of a live contest, a dynamic that author (and fellow New York sports fan) William Goldman describes as his “power.” Jacovino believed with all his heart that if he moved from his chair his beloved Yankees would lose and his refusal to compromise was, in his mind, a demonstration of his deep commitment.

To be honest, a small part of me believes this too, for twice I tried to hex the Titans’ field goal kicker to help my Steelers. The first attempt nearly worked as the ball doinked off one goal post before barely going in while the second had no effect whatsoever.

The equation was made even more interesting when fellow graphics person Mary Swinson – as ardent an Orioles fan as Jacovino was of the Yanks – later joined us. Whose “power” would prevail?

The competitive tension on the field mounted as the game moved into the later stages of regulation, then into extra innings. When Swinson moved to another chair to enhance her view of the screens, Jacovino saw it as a seminal shift, though he didn’t know at the time whether it meant good news or bad from his perspective.

It’s funny: I’ve witnessed this phenomenon amongst fans of baseball, basketball and football but I’ve yet to see someone watching boxing do it. That’s because boxing is the ultimate one-on-one sport, the sport that encourages self-reliance like no other. It’s ultimately up to the fighter to decide whether to haul himself out of bed to do his morning run, to eat the proper foods, to obey his trainer’s advice, to accept his motivational tactics and to do his best to execute his team’s instructions during combat. It’s the fighter that decides how he reacts to adversity; does he fight on or does he give up? The fans’ cheering can lift a fighter’s spirit and the support of his loved ones give him strength to soldier on and motivation to perform, but the final decision in terms of what happens next is up to the fighter. Boxers know, and by extension their fans know, that assuming a “lucky position” on the sofa can’t make our favorite fighters throw a better jab or enhance his punching power. All we as fans can do is pray that all turns out well and that everyone exits the ring safely.

But, as usual, I digress.

The theme of superstition continued as Jacovino and Swinson occasionally asked questions of the “Magic 8 Ball” app on Swinson’s phone. A sample:

Question: Will A-Rod hit a home run this inning?

Answer: Answer hazy, ask again later.

Of course, we all knew the answer was no. His .129 average with runners in scoring position in playoff games made that prediction easy. By the later stages an embittered Jacovino began referring to Rodriguez as “A-Fraud.”

Swinson, knowing an early rising time awaited her, left the bar after the 12thinning. One inning later the game was over as his Yankees fell short. Jacovino, who had not budged from his seat for more than four hours, was disappointed but not crushed since there was a Game 5 still to play. A few minutes later, Swinson sent a sympathetic text to her colleague. Meanwhile, I had my own disappointment to deal with, for the Steelers lost on a field goal as time ran out, which, of course, helped Swinson’s Ravens against their divisional rivals. So in effect Mary executed a rare double “power” whammy.

My stomach more than filled, I waddled back to my room and spent the next several hours winding down by alternating between SportsCenter and a replay of the vice presidential debate between incumbent Joe Biden and aspirant Paul Ryan. Shortly after 2 a.m. I switched off the lights on another fascinating day.

*

Photos / Joe Murphy and 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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