Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man returns to California – part I

Thursday, Nov. 8: When I began working full-time for CompuBox more than five-and-a-half years ago, one of the more enjoyable perks was “doing doubles” – defined as working two shows during a given journey instead of the usual one. These occurred frequently during the years when ESPN 2 aired boxing shows on Wednesday and Friday nights and from time to time I found myself “working the keys” for both events.

The itineraries were rather involved – fly out to the first show’s destination on Tuesday, work the show on Wednesday, travel to the second show’s site on Thursday, work the keys on Friday and fly home on Saturday. The frequent flier miles accumulated quickly and I enjoyed the benefits that came with them: Prolific upgrades to first class, being among the first to board aircrafts and avoidance of middle seats on the larger planes.

The doubles ended after ESPN canceled the Wednesday night series and when the flying gigs screeched to a stop in 2010 I used my miles to attend the first two Florida Boxing Hall of Fame festivities.

Now I have come full circle. The traveling jobs resumed at the start of this year, which, in turn, amassed enough miles to regain many of the old benefits. And now I was about to work my first “double” in several years.

From time to time Showtime airs episodes of ShoBox: The New Generation and Showtime Championship Boxing on back-to-back nights but seldom were the sites in close proximity. By a quirk of good fortune – or maybe fortuitous scheduling – the shows were slated for Indio and Los Angeles, California. Because getting from show to show required only a two hour drive, punch-counting partner Joe Carnicelli and I were approved to work both gigs.

The schedule called for me to fly from Pittsburgh to Phoenix and Phoenix to Palm Springs, then, after working the card at the nearby Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio, hopping into a rental car early Saturday morning and being driven directly to the Staples Center to set up. After checking in to the hotel and a brief freshening-up period, Joe and I would work the Staples show that would encompass fights airing on Showtime Extreme and Showtime’s flagship channel. Finally, at a thankfully sane departure time late Sunday morning, I would take a direct flight from LAX to Pittsburgh and then drive home.

When I told my father about this itinerary he told me, “your butt will be dragging by the time you get back.” To be totally accurate, he didn’t use the word “butt.” Nevertheless, we’ll see in a few days if he’s right.

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As I pulled out of the driveway, my mind was still occupied by thoughts of Carmen Basilio, who died of pneumonia nearly 36 hours earlier. Several hours after writing my tribute to the former welterweight and middleweight champion, I dug out the DVD that contained his classic second war with Tony DeMarco and watched it in respectful silence.

At various times during that silence my mind drifted back to two occasions when I encountered Basilio – one directly and one indirectly. I’ll tell the two stories in order:

A little after 2 a.m. during one year at the International Boxing Hall of Fame weekend I found myself sitting alone at Graziano’s. It was at the end of a typically long and eventful day and I was about to leave and embark on the 30-minute drive back to the hotel. Just as I was about to depart my booth I spotted Basilio, who had just entered the area by himself. I called out his name to get his attention, which began what would become a 15-minute conversation. I told him how much I admired him and his career and asked about his recollections about certain fights. In a voice that was as craggy as his septuagenarian face, Basilio answered each query with his typical clarity and candor.

There weren’t the usual barriers between fan and legend as we sat at the table. We were just two men who loved to talk about our favorite sport. But because the hour was late and a long day awaited both of us we couldn’t let the conversation go to its natural conclusion – which probably would have lasted all night. But before he departed I broke out my copy of Harry Mullan’s “The Great Book of Boxing” and showed him a full-page black-and-white picture – an overhead shot of Basilio’s second fight with Sugar Ray Robinson that showed both of them cranking up power punches. I asked him to sign it and, as expected, Basilio went the extra mile. In large and eminently readable cursive he wrote the following: “To my pal Lee, Best Wishes Always, Carmen Basilio.” Of the more than 300 signatures that now grace that book, it remains among the most treasured because of the back story I just recounted.

The indirect story unfolded at the IBHOF’s annual golf tournament. I participated three times and because of the best-ball format I did just enough to avoid total embarrassment. Just after finishing my round I ran into Basilio’s wife Josie, who was breathing fire. I asked her what was wrong and she said she was upset for her husband. A few minutes earlier Basilio told her that someone in the other foursome had accused him of cheating and no matter what he said in his defense he couldn’t convince him otherwise.

Knowing Basilio’s history for truth-telling – even when it put him at great personal and professional peril – I thought the charge was outrageous and told Josie so.

“If there is anything that you don’t do with Carmen Basilio,” I said. “You don’t challenge his integrity.” Obviously this fellow didn’t know with whom he was dealing because if he had he wouldn’t have dared thought that Basilio would bend the rules during a just-for-laughs golf outing.

My protestations on her husband’s behalf seemed to calm Josie a little – but only a little. As I walked away I thought “God help this guy if Josie ever finds him.”

After watching Basilio celebrate his second consecutive KO over DeMarco – and the first of what would become five consecutive Fight of the Year honors by THE RING – I put away the DVD and retired for the night. The morning routines went smoothly and I left the house shortly after 1 p.m. with the intent of reaching Pittsburgh International Airport by 3:30.

A little more than a half-mile from the second of three major turn-offs – from Interstate 70 to Interstate 79 south – I ran into a massive traffic jam that came from three directions. According to the electronic road sign the source of the snarl was an accident clean-up and judging by the monstrous lines it was one that required lots of time and manpower. It took me about 10 minutes of inching forward to reach the exit lane and within moments I was freed from the tangle.

I arrived at the airport precisely at 3:30 and by 4 I had cleared security. Following a mid-afternoon snack at Subway, I walked to my departure gate and spotted senior audio man Doug Deems, a native Pittsburgher who was slated to work the Indio leg before jetting off to another assignment early the following week. We didn’t have much time to talk, for it was soon time to board.

The Pittsburgh-to-Phoenix and Phoenix-to-Palm Springs flights were mostly smooth except for the final 30 minutes of each that featured attention-grabbing turbulence. At one point a sudden dip caused several passengers to gasp and I did my best not to be one of them. Instead, I immersed myself in my latest literary pick-up – Mark Kriegel’s “The Good Son: The Life of Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini.”

My choice of reading material for this trip was not coincidental. Earlier in the week I saw a TV ad that said Mancini would be appearing at Fantasy Springs, and, of course, I wanted him to sign my copy. The only question was whether I’d get the chance since I’d be working during most of his stay at the fight card. At past cards I’ve worked, the celebrities often left ringside before the main event ended. So all I could do was cross my fingers and hope.

As Doug and I walked toward baggage claim he called the hotel to arrange a shuttle pick-up. The shuttle pulled up the instant we reached the pick-up point – an unusual example of perfect timing in this regard for me. The driver told us about the weekly street fair that was held in front of the hotel and that if we were hungry that was the way to quiet the pangs. She recommended a certain burrito stand but when I ventured out to find it I couldn’t. I asked someone to help point me in the right direction.

“I don’t know where it is,” he said. “But if you want to get something to eat get it quickly because they’re starting to pack up.”

After walking around for a few minutes without success I decided to stop by a stand that offered hamburgers, cheeseburgers and bratwursts. Being a relative rookie when it came to brats I decided to try that.

“What is the best way to top a brat?” I asked the preparer. She loaded it up with sauerkraut and cabbage. Along with the small bag of chips and can of Diet Coke, the $6 price was more than right in my eyes – and my stomach.

While flipping through the channels on the remote I ran across a most unusual station. In the tradition of the “Yule log” during the Christmas holiday, this channel featured an aquarium of fish with babbling water serving as audio. Being a person who prefers to sleep with white noise in the background (at home I use a fan), I decided to use this channel to help me achieve a deeper and better quality of sleep. At 11:30 p.m. local time – or 2:30 a.m. body clock time – I put this theory to the test.

Friday, Nov. 9: For the most part, the ploy worked. Although I woke up several times over the next seven hours the comforting audio prevented my mind from running wild and keeping me awake. As a result I felt well rested and I spent the next several hours surfing the web and tending to my writing responsibilities.

After reaching a good stopping point I went down to the lobby to get a snack to tide me over until the crew meal a few hours later. I spotted Showtime analyst and historian Steve Farhood as well as executive producer Gordon Hall and asked them about how they were coping with the after-effects of Hurricane Sandy (they’re fine). While discussing tonight’s Olympian-themed card Steve posed a challenging trivia question: Of all the American Olympians in recent years, which one suffered his first knockout loss in the fewest number of fights? My guess was 2000 Olympian Dante Craig – a good one given that his first KO defeat came in fight number three. Unfortunately for me, it was wrong.

Steve then gave me some hints:

  • He was a member of the 1988 team.
  • He was a southpaw.
  • He was tall.

The third clue caused the light switch to go off. The answer to Steve’s question was Kelcie Banks, who was stopped by Leonardo Moreno in his second pro outing. Banks was one of the most decorated American amateurs of all time and claimed a record of 460-86. He was expected to be one of the stars of the 1988 games but his dreams of gold ended before they began, for future 130-pound titlist Regilio Tuur of the Netherlands stiffened Banks with one right hand in the first round of the first fight.

After chatting for a few more minutes with longtime boxing man John Beyrooty I spotted punch-counting partner Joe Carnicelli in the lobby waiting to check into his room. We agreed to meet in the lobby at 11:30 and by noon we had arrived at the fight venue. We stuffed ourselves to Thanksgiving turkey proportions at the crew meal and found various ways to occupy ourselves as we waited for the action to begin. As soon as production manager Joie Silva gave us our credential – a green wrist band with the word “RING” on it – we were ready to roll.

This card that heralded the official professional debuts of five 2012 U.S. Olympic members revived memories of the “Night of Gold” staged on November 15, 1984 at Madison Square Garden. There, live in prime time on ABC, four gold medalists and one who should have fought for gold made their maiden voyages into the pro ranks. Some of the fights were artistic successes, such as Meldrick Taylor’s one-round demolition of Luke Lecce, Pernell Whitaker’s blast-out of Farrain Comeaux in two and Evander Holyfield’s tough but exciting six-round decision over Joe Louis look-a-like Lionel Byarm. Others, like Tyrell Biggs’ and Mark Breland’s six-round decisions over Mike Evans and Dwight Williams, were statistical but not aesthetic successes.

One other U.S. medalist fought on that card but because he wasn’t part of the Main Events stable his bout wasn’t televised. Silver medalist Virgil Hill, aptly dubbed “Quicksilver,” stopped Arthur Wright in two rounds to begin a journey that I believe should culminate with his Hall of Fame induction next June.

Looking at the bout sheet, Joe and I figured Terrell Gausha, Errol Spence Jr., Marcus Browne, Dominic Breazeale and Rau’Shee Warren were poised to impress. All of the matches were made on relatively short notice and the opponents – Dustin Caplinger, Jonathan Garcia, Codale Ford, Curtis Tate and Luis Rivera respectively – lacked the pedigree record-wise to pose a serious challenge. In the end, all of them lost – some in spectacular fashion – but all put forth the best effort they could within their skill sets. In other words, it was what it was.

I spotted two impressive trends during this portion of the card. The first was that Warren, the team captain at London, was joined by several teammates in the corner during the introductions, bringing back memories of the camaraderie the 1984 team exhibited during their early pro fights. The second was the emphasis on body punching. Seventeen of Gausha’s 35 power connects struck the body and the others made sure to include whacks to the ribs in setting up their victories.

Of the five, Spence, Browne and Warren were the most impressive in my eyes. Although Warren was the only one to go the distance he exhibited the good balance and punch selection that enabled him to make three Olympic teams. His lack of power, however, may hurt him in the long run since his weight class is populated by tough, durable fighters. As for Spence his combinations were tremendously accurate (he landed 66 percent of his power shots) and in round three he connected on an eye-busting 80 percent of his power shots. Browne was the only Olympian to meet an undefeated foe (Ford was 2-0) and his 51 percent marksmanship on his power shots led the way to a body-shot knockdown as well as the subsequent stoppage.

Gausha did what he needed to do against a clearly overmatched opponent fighting out of his weight class while Breazeale wasn’t in there long enough (66 seconds) for observers to get a definitive read on him. All in all, it was a good first night at the office for everyone concerned – except for the opponents, of course.

I noticed the crowd wasn’t as big as it could have been, and I believe two overriding factors were at play. First, the intent of this card was to showcase the house fighters, not to produce the tough compelling action. Who wants to pay hard-earned money to witness blowouts except for the favored fighter’s family, friends and entourage? Second, and most importantly, few people beyond the hardest of the hard cores knew who these Olympians were.

The “Night of Gold” was on prime-time TV because the fighters not only experienced the ultimate success at the Olympics but because their triumphs were a prominent part of ABC’s Olympic coverage. Before that, the “U.S. Versus the World” amateur boxing series was a regular part of the “Wide World of Sports” series and the U.S. Olympic trials and Box-Offs also were showcased. All of this coverage told an ongoing story, a story that allowed viewers to familiarize themselves with the boxers to the point that they could identify and root for them once the Olympics began. Their gold-medal success was a tremendous bonus but even so, their names were part of the semi-casual sports fan’s vocabulary.

Conversely, the 2012 team members were virtually anonymous. No American network – over-the-air, cable or satellite – televised dual meets or offered sufficient coverage of the major amateur boxing competitions that led up to the Olympics such as the world championships, the Pan Am Games, the U.S. trials or the Box-offs. As has been the case since 2000, CNBC was the home of Olympic boxing but the only way one could see all the bouts was to log onto NBCOlympics.com, whose stream was often unreliable.

Although the fights followed the script, the fact that these fighters were showcased was a good long-term development. The fact that there will be another Olympics-themed card in December is even better because regular telecasts featuring the group will help build these fighters’ name recognition like nothing else. But with opportunity comes responsibility; they must continue to perform at a high level against gradually more difficult opposition to justify continued investment in them.

Two fights were staged before Showtime’s cameras were turned on, the most interesting of which was Daquan Arnett’s three-round stoppage over previously unbeaten Jeremiah Wiggins. Arnett was coming off an impressive six-round decision over Dashon Johnson 27 days earlier and he was expected to do the same to the 10-0-1 (5) Wiggins.

Arnett dominated the first two rounds as he consistently landed rights over Wiggins’ low-held left. In the final minute of round two Arnett out-landed his rival 29-11 and appeared ready to put away his quarry. But Wiggins had a surprise in store early in round three in the form of a sneaky counter right to the chin that Arnett never saw coming. Upon impact Arnett’s face went blank and his eyes briefly rolled back in his head before his legs folded under him. Once Arnett regained his feet the suddenly rejuvenated Wiggins gunned for the finish and built a 17-2 connect advantage over the first two minutes. But Wiggins’ storm ran out of steam in the final minute, which saw Arnett pound out an 8-2 edge and vault back onto solid ground.

The fight ended in round four when, moments after his corner shouted “he’s hurt, he’s hurt,” Arnett heeded his corner’s advice and unleashed a fusillade of blows that caused Wiggins to take a knee. Referee Pat Russell took the gesture as a sign of surrender and stopped the contest.

In the end Arnett out-landed Wiggins 69-44 (including 16-8 in the fourth) and landed 52 percent of his power shots. Wiggins, however, landed 53 percent of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts and of his 39 power connects 27 were to the body. Therefore, one can say that defense may be an issue for Arnett in future outings.

The other untelevised bout between junior featherweights Manuel Robles of Los Angeles and Denver’s Kim Ibarra was long thought to be called off because of weight issues so it was a surprise to see them climbing through the ropes. Upon spying Ibarra’s thin torso Joe turned to me and said in a “Sixth Sense” manner “I see body shots.”

Of course, he was right. Robles’ hammers to the flanks caused Ibarra to hunch over. That convinced Ibarra’s corner to climb onto the ring apron and wave the towel at the 2:31 mark of round one, a move that caused Joe and I to look at each other quizzically.

Another Olympian – 2008 U.S. team member Gary Russell Jr. – topped the card and showed his debuting peers how it was done with his spectacular one-punch knockout of Mexicali’s Roberto Castaneda. Even though Castaneda entered the ring with a more-than-respectable 20-2-1 (15) record the third-round stoppage had an air of inevitability about it because Castaneda was a sub of a sub (James de la Rosa) of a sub (Vyacheslav Gusev).

Still, Russell produced a knockout worthy of being showcased on SportsCenter and one can’t ask for any more than that. Along with Shinsuke Yamanaka’s recent KO over Tomas Rojas, Russell’s show of power should be a top contender for knockout of the year. It will be interesting to see if Russell can maintain that level of performance once he elevates his level of competition.

After the cameras were shut down I shifted from work mode to fan mode. I spotted Jay Newman, best known for his association with Larry Holmes, sitting beside Mancini so I decided to briefly chat with him while the former lightweight champion happily signed and posed for photos. At an appropriate moment, Jay introduced me to Ray, who then signed my copy of his biography.

Joe and I stopped by the production truck and grabbed a couple of pizza slices before heading back to the hotel. I intended to get some writing done but for whatever reason I decided to defer that task until morning. At 11:30 p.m. I turned on the “Aquarium Channel” and with that another work day came to an end. The good news was that another day at the fights was on the immediate horizon and this card – topped by Abner Mares-Anselmo Moreno – promised even better quality action.

I could hardly wait to get started.

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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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