Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man goes to Verona, N.Y. – Part II

Click here to read part one.

Saturday, Oct. 27: For me this day began at 8 a.m. after another sleep-stealing bout with my overactive imagination. My efforts to rest were indeed efforts because my mind is often flooded with thoughts coming from all directions. Exhaustion is the only vehicle by which I can fall into adequate slumber, which usually lasts between five and six interrupted hours. Despite all that, I awaken feeling somewhat refreshed and ready to tackle the day, which is scheduled to be an adventure in two parts – a return visit to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, then fight night at the Turning Stone.

I had planned to visit the Hall with punch-counting partner Andy Kasprzak but I later found out the toll of the previous evening’s travel caused him to oversleep. So at 11:30 I began the 15-minute drive west to Canastota under reluctantly sunny skies.

I reached the grounds just in time to witness the HBO delegation’s group photo in front of the Hall of Fame sign that hangs on the main museum building. Moments after my arrival Executive Director Ed Brophy gathered us around and delivered an impromptu tribute to Emanuel Steward, for whom the flags flew at half-staff.

Brophy, a curator by trade but always a fan at heart, did so because he recognized the weight and the timing of the moment – Steward’s HBO family happened to be at the very place he was enshrined in 1996 and that a major event was being staged less than 15 miles away just two days after his death. It was a bittersweet confluence of events but it was softened somewhat by the fact that a group of people who loved him dearly were gathered to enjoy a dose of boxing history, a history of which he was a major part. Brophy’s words were entirely appropriate and heartfelt, as well as appreciated.

We all walked to the gift shop inside the pavilion, where we browsed the items for sale and posed for various pictures. Since our last visit in early September, the Hall updated its Madison Square Garden ring exhibit by placing robes representing fighters who graced it on poles spaced around the perimeter. For those who couldn’t read the names on the robes, large-print nameplates were placed at the bottom of each pole. For me it was an excellent touch to an exhibit already rich in lore.

Our group then gathered for photos in front of the ring and we struck various poses, one of which was dubbed the “John L. Sullivan bare-knuckle pose.” Of course every person knew how to position his fists as soon as it was suggested. At another person’s request I posed with the original CompuBox computer, which is tucked in one corner behind the ring. Every time I see the old computer – dual floppy disc compartments and all – I often wondered what it was like to operate what was, at the time, state-of-the-art equipment but would now be considered an ancient relic. Those who hadn’t seen it before marveled at how Logan Hobson and my boss Bob Canobbio pulled it off with such “primitive” equipment. But pull it off they did, and the rest is history – hopefully a history that will lead to eventual Hall of Fame enshrinement.

I couldn’t leave the pavilion without buying something. I ended up getting two items; the first being “Fight Or Die: The Vinny Paz Story” by Tommy Jon Caduto and a gold-colored T-shirt depicting a prime Muhammad Ali and the phrase “Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee” in large block print. As soon as I saw it I knew I had to have it, not because I’d look good but because it was something I knew I’d wear on future road trips. For most of us what we wear represents who we are, and what I am, at my core, is a boxing fan.

After the HBO delegation departed I decided to linger for a while longer. I went into the museum and started looking around and the man at the cash register said “can I help you?”

“I’m just looking around,” I replied.

“There’s an admission fee,” he said with a harder edge in his voice. “$9.50 please.”

“That’s cool,” I said. Despite previous visits to the museum in which the fee was waived, I dug into my wallet and pulled out a 10-spot. At the moment I was about to hand the bill over, Ed and Jeff Brophy arrived to tell the register minder to wave off the charge.

Thanks, guys.

Over the next two hours I made sure to drink in every exhibit I visited – the statues of Carmen Basilio and Billy Backus, the elder Basilio’s welterweight and middleweight championship belts awarded by THE RING, the fist castings that included those of Benny Leonard, Jack McAuliffe and especially Primo Carnera, which invariably drew “wows” from everyone who gazed at it. I looked at some of the newer exhibits, such as the trunks Thomas Hearns wore during his historic Closet Classic against Juan Domingo Roldan (a fight covered in my book “Tales From the Vault”). I also spotted a white robe autographed by Arturo Gatti that I hadn’t noticed before.

A short time later Jeff Brophy, Ed’s nephew and chief of media relations, escorted me down to the basement where more treasures were stored. He showed me two submissions that were made earlier in the week – the bright orange robe Sharmba Mitchell wore before his final fight with Paul Williams in August 2006 and a box of memorabilia from the family of a recently-deceased local collector that included vintage programs and issues of THE RING dating back to the late 1920s.

I could have stayed at the museum until closing time – and beyond. The only thing that could have pulled me away was work responsibilities and such was the case here. I needed to be at ringside by 3 p.m. but I hung around until the last possible moment. I timed everything well, for I arrived at the Turning Stone’s event center precisely at 3.

Before I left the Hall’s grounds, however, I took a few moments to stare at the flags that were lowered in Emanuel Steward’s honor. A few images of past meetings flashed in my mind as well as memories of the many phone conversations we shared over the years. The time for sadness was appropriate, but a subsequent e-mail from Kasprzak astutely addressed how we all should feel once the initial mourning is completed:

“Your observation that those left behind to grieve Mr. Steward’s loss are at the beginning of a painful mourning is keenly felt,” he wrote. “But if I may say, we all will be similarly free of pain, forever and all too soon. In the time we have left, let pain give way as quickly as possible to joy and celebration of the singular accomplishments of an extraordinary human being, whose lust for life and amazing achievements are an example to us all.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

It didn’t take long for all the electronics to line up and following dinner Andy and I were ready to collect all the data we could. It’s our custom to count every fight on the card – not just those on TV – on the off-chance that one of the undercard fighters will hit it big enough to warrant analysis in the future.

Because of self-imposed space restrictions, I decided to limit my thoughts on the fight card to a few bullet points:

  • Interestingly enough, and perhaps fitting considering Steward’s West Virginia roots, the first two fights on the card included underdog fighters from the Mountain State, Charleston cruiserweight Kevin Franklin (who fought 20-1 Oklahoman Eric Fields) and Morgantown’s Eric Watkins (who fought 11-0 Bahamian Ryon McKenzie). Both fights went the full six and while Franklin and Watkins lost they fought with honor and grit. A smiling Franklin, who fought with an ugly mouse under his right eye since midway through round one, received a bigger post-fight ovation than his victorious opponent while Watkins’ persistent charges against the taller McKenzie drew admiring reactions throughout the arena.
  • The knockout of the night undoubtedly belonged to 24-0 Australian Joel Edward Brunker, who blasted out Dominican journeyman Carlos Fulgencio with a clean, crushing hook to the ribs. Fulgencio tried to rise but the pain proved too much and he was counted out 100 seconds after the opening bell.
  • The brother tandem of Alberto and Mauricio Herrera turned pro relatively late in life (age 27 for both) and in their early 30s they continue to provide crowd-pleasing fights every time out. Unfortunately for them, their fights have followed similar scripts as of late: They thrill crowds with all-out effort but because they lack one-punch power and fearlessly tackle fighters with better records they end up being disappointed by the judges. On this night younger brother Alberto lost a heartbreaking majority decision to still-undefeated Javier Flores to lengthen his run of futility to five in a row and eight of the last nine while Mauricio lost his second straight 10-rounder to the difficult-to-fight Karim Mayfield, who raised his record to 17-0-1 (10).

Alberto averaged 89.5 punches per round against Flores and unleashed 131 in the final round but because he was out-landed 234-185 overall and tasted 43 percent of Flores’ power shots while landing just 27 percent of his own, he didn’t get his hand raised.

And although Mauricio was placed in the “winners” red corner and was somewhat better known than Mayfield, he assumed the role of also-ran because he walked to the ring first and was introduced first. He fought like a winner as he threw more (683-589) and landed more (222-203 total, 68-56 jabs, 154-147) but because Mayfield landed at a higher percentage (36 percent to 33 overall, 38 percent to 32 power) and with more impact the “Hard Hitta” won comfortably on the scorecards (98-92, 97-93 and 96-94). The siblings may now be on a downward slide in terms of wins and losses but they are still worthy of admiration because of their work ethic and their desire to give it their best shot.

  • The bout that saw Miguel Vazquez retain his IBF lightweight belt against Marvin Quintero was a triumph of a fighter who is comfortably with his identity against a fighter caught between styles. Vazquez is a pure boxer who always plays to his strengths – mobility, accurate jabs, pinpoint crosses and ring savvy. Meanwhile Quintero, at his best, is a high-octane flame-throwing bomber capable of unleashing breathtakingly fast power combinations. But in viewing his past outings to conduct pre-fight research, I noticed his corner continually urged him to “box intelligently,” squelching his natural desire to slug. Therefore, Quintero was mired in a quandary; does he please his trainers or does he please himself? It’s usually best for a fighter to follow his corner’s advice but here the reverse might be the case.

Against the fast-moving Vazquez, Quintero would have been best served to go after his quarry early to see if he could inflict momentum-producing damage. Instead he stalked without success and ended up short-circuiting his quest. He threw just 17 punches in round one and failed to land a single one. Quintero’s overly respectful start removed his best chance for victory because it allowed Vazquez to establish the slower tempo he wanted. Quintero didn’t really catch fire until the final three rounds but by that point it was far too late. Vazquez out-landed Quintero 189-159 overall, out-jabbed him 53-18 and trailed the challenger just 141-136 in power connects.

As Quintero heard the split decision go against him, I couldn’t help but think about John Greenleaf Whittier’s oft-used quote – “For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these – ‘it might have been.’”

  • Dulorme’s seven round loss to Abregu was a surprise and yet not a surprise in hindsight. Insiders knew that Abregu was built in the ultra-aggressive, hammer-handed mode of fellow Argentine Juan Domingo Roldan a generation ago but many, including me, figured Dulorme had the power and class to reject Abregu’s challenge. But once I saw Dulorme’s eyes roll back in his head upon suffering the first knockdown in round three – his face was pointed almost straight at me as he did so – I knew all bets were off. Dulorme showed courage by hauling himself up and resourcefulness by making the switch to southpaw work for a while but that first knockdown pretty much wrote the narrative for the remainder of the fight.

Will this result kill Dulorme’s drive? Will he let one devastating defeat define him from this day forward? Or will he chalk it up to growing pains and dedicate himself to improving his already highly-developed craft? One is a road much more traveled while the other, if successfully trekked, could lead to greatness. As is always the case in sports, the ultimate decision is up to the athlete and only time will tell which road Dulorme will choose.

The show ended around a little after 1 a.m., one of the latest off-air times I’ve encountered to date. It took a while for me to pack my equipment because the plugs on the power strip had entangled themselves in the snarl of TV truck wires and longer still to find the hallway where the free food for the crew was located. I grabbed a flimsy snack box that contained two sandwiches on rye bread, a bag of Doritos, two chocolate chip cookies and a Diet Coke.

On my way back to the hotel I ran into Roy Jones and in my haste to shake his hand I dropped the snack box and the contents tumbled onto the carpet. Luckily for me, the food was encased in plastic wrap so no harm was done. Still, I was embarrassed at my uncustomary clumsiness, especially in the presence of a fighter known for his incredible coordination. He, of course, handled my pratfall like the southern gentleman he is by not recognizing it at all and proceeding with our conversation normally.

As we worked our way through the casino’s maze of hallways we exchanged insights about the fights we had just witnessed. The talk was enjoyable but all too brief, for we had reached the fork in the hall that forced us to separate. We wished each other safe travels and moved on to the next episode.

It was already 1:45 a.m. and by the time I consumed my meal and wound down enough to turn out the lights I knew I had to stuff in eight hours of sleep in a little more than half the time. Such are the fortunes of the glamorous boxing life.

Sunday, Oct. 28: The first two hours of this day proceeded like clockwork. My quest to awaken by 8 a.m. was successful and I arrived at Syracuse Hancock International Airport at my anticipated time of 10 a.m. But once I reached the security line, the clock’s gears gummed up.

Everyone who knows me, knows of me and works with me calls me by the name you read on my byline. Therefore, all my travel documents for this trip were booked under that name. However, the name that graces my “official” identifications is slightly different and the discrepancy led to another “Travelin’ Man Misadventure.”

The difference between boarding pass and ID did not pose problems in Pittsburgh, nor has it been an issue during most of the trips I’ve taken over the past five-and-a-half years. But here it threatened to derail everything.

“I’m sorry, I can’t let you through,” I was told by the TSA agent. “Do you have a piece of identification with ‘Lee Groves’ on it?”

I did – my Boxing Writers Association of America card. Unfortunately that was not good enough.

“You’ll have to repack your luggage, return to airline ticketing and get a gate pass with a name that matches your ID,” the security agent said. “Otherwise, we can’t let you through.”

Needless to say I was surprised and somewhat irritated. I knew extremely thorough screenings were the better of two evils but never before had it escalated to this point.

I repacked my things, went down the escalator and approached the US Airways ticketing line, which mercifully was short. Within three minutes I was at the head of the queue.

After explaining my problem and providing my various forms of identification, I was told that I couldn’t be issued a replacement boarding pass.

“Why?” I asked with a touch of exasperation.

“This wouldn’t have been a problem if this had been resolved in Pittsburgh when your trip started,” she said. “But now that you’ve already completed part of your round trip I can’t change it here.”

“Does that mean I won’t be able to fly out of here?” I asked.

“We’ll see what we can do,” she replied. “I’ll talk with my supervisor.”

While speaking with her superior she pulled the phone’s earpiece away and asked me to confirm my birth date, which I did to their satisfaction. Several tense minutes passed before it became clear to them I was who I said I was. The replacement boarding passes were printed out and soon I was on my way.

Even though I had cleared this unexpected hurdle another one loomed: The window between the time I was scheduled to land in Philadelphia and the scheduled departure time for my flight to Pittsburgh was just 34 minutes – and that’s only if the plane departing Syracuse left at the advertised time of 11:49 a.m., which, as I’ve learned long ago, was no guarantee.

During my previous stops in Philly I occasionally had to trek through several concourses to reach my connecting gate and I was concerned I might not be able to complete my task if that happened here. Another factor working against me was the location of my seat; 12C was only one row from the rear of the cabin.

While I waited for my identity to be confirmed, I asked the ticketing agent if she knew whether my arrival and connecting gates were in the same concourse. To my relief, they were. But at 11:15 an announcement was made over the loudspeaker than our plane arriving from Philadelphia was delayed due to air traffic and that the boarding time would be pushed back by at least 20 minutes, narrowing my window even further. I approached the gate agent and alerted her to my tight window.

“You should be OK,” she said. “The plane is supposed to arrive shortly after noon and since it’s a small plane it’s not going to take us long to turn it around.”

At 11:56 another announcement was made – that our aircraft bound for Pittsburgh had arrived but that we wouldn’t be able to board until at least 12:20. Between the boarding process and the time spent readying for take-off, the window was all but gone. My only hope now was that my flight to Pittsburgh would encounter similar delays. Otherwise, I was cooked.

Time’s inexorable march whizzed past 12:20 and it wasn’t until 12:25 that the boarding process finally started. Fortunately for me I was in Zone 1 but that didn’t make the plane leave any sooner. As it was it didn’t depart until 12:45, nearly an hour later than the advertised time.

As if that wasn’t enough, the Syracuse to Philadelphia leg featured the most intense, long-lasting turbulence I’ve ever encountered – probably because the outer bands of Hurricane Sandy were already battering the East Coast of the United States. For nearly 20 straight minutes the plane rocked side-to-side, up-and-down and diagonally at several points. Worse yet, the pilot came on the loudspeaker and told us more was in store.

I’ve been flying for more than seven years now and even I was rattled by the intensity of the shaking. I gripped the back of the seat ahead of me with one hand to stabilize myself but the seatmate to my left – someone on just the third flight of her life – barely moved a facial muscle. I was impressed and somewhat jealous of her serenity.

Besides Hurricane Sandy, another possible cause for the shaking was that the pilot was gunning the engine, for we landed in Philadelphia in a little less than an hour. But when I looked at the monitor to check the status of my Pittsburgh flight I spotted the dreaded “D” word – departed.

Drat.

I found the first customer service line, established my place in the queue and called Canobbio to alert him of my situation. He laid out a sequence of actions based on increasing levels of duress, such as “if this doesn’t happen, then do this.” The order was as follows:

  • Try to book another flight with US Airways.
  • If they are all booked, then call HBO Travel’s emergency number to see if they can book a flight on another airline.
  • If all flights are full, have them arrange a one-way car rental from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.

I could have added a fourth step – if none of these work, pray. Then again, I had already done plenty of that during the bumpy Syracuse-to-Philadelphia flight.

I reached the head of the customer service line within 15 minutes and, to my great relief, I was booked on the next flight to Pittsburgh, which was to leave at 3:35 p.m. It was the absolute best result for which I could have hoped. I was happy beyond measure to know I had a new way home even if it involved changing concourses and having to take a shuttle bus to get there.

I called Canobbio and the folks back home to let them know of my new plans, after which I took a shuttle bus bound for the B, C, D and E concourses, all of which were within walking distance. I reached my gate about 20 minutes before the scheduled boarding time and was content to wait my turn.

A few minutes later an announcement was made over the loudspeaker: “Since this is a full flight, everyone in Zone 5 must check at least one bag with a yellow tag because there will be no overhead space.” Of course, I was in Zone 5.

Double drat.

But then I noticed my boarding pass didn’t have my frequent flier number. I took a chance and asked the gate agent to add my information and print out another pass. To my delight the miles I accumulated this year bumped me up to Zone 1, which meant no visit to baggage claim in Pittsburgh. I entered the aircraft less than a minute later and had all the room I needed to stow my stuff.

The flight home had some bumps along the way, but they were nowhere near as strong or lasted as long. I even managed to rest my weary eyes for a time, which allowed me to be fresh enough to make the two-and-a-half hour drive home.

It had been a long, draining and demanding travel day and I was happy to be home. And yet I’m looking forward to my next journey, which will have me work two shows on two consecutive nights – a ShoBox telecast in Indio, Calif. on November 9, then a Showtime Championship Boxing quadruple-header topped by Abner Mares-Anselmo Moreno at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Life is good.

Until then, happy trails.

*

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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