Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man goes to Hallandale – Part I

Thursday, Nov. 15: Less than five days after ending my “double dip” to Indio, Calif., and Los Angeles, the Travelin’ Man returned to the road and the air. This time the destination was Hallandale, Florida for a ShoBox card that featured a constantly shifting cast of characters.

The main event was supposed to feature unbeaten junior middleweight Omar Henry against the 21-1 (12) James de la Rosa, but that changed last week when De La Rosa bowed out and 20-0 (14) Dominican Juan Ubaldo Cabrera was inserted. Then, less than 72 hours before the first bell all hell broke loose:

  • The Henry-Cabrera clash was canceled because of gall stones that led to Henry’s hospitalization.
  • The scheduled co-feature pitting Cuban lightweight prospect Angelo Santana and Johnny Garcia (himself a sub for onetime titlist Paulus Moses) was elevated to the main event.
  • In order to fill the co-feature void, a junior middleweight fight originally slated for the untelevised undercard – Joey “Twinkle Fingers” Hernandez vs. James Winchester – was bumped up to co-feature status.

No job in boxing is more stressful than that of matchmaker, and the twists and turns of this card alone illustrate why. To find late subs that satisfy the demands of both the other fighter’s management and the network that airs it is almost miraculous because each party has diametrically opposed agendas. The fighters’ brain trust wants to navigate the path of least resistance because even in the post-Gatti era a single loss represents a brutal blow in terms of career progress and money-making prowess. Meanwhile, the networks are servicing a different audience – the viewing public – and thus wants to televise the most competitive and compelling matches possible.

Matchmakers who do their job well are treasured, and rightfully so. It requires supreme knowledge of styles, a vast network of contacts and a quantity that is ever-so-rare in boxing – the ability to foster cooperation. To overcome all the obstacles that come with short-notice switches such as these is worthy of, at the very least, a public tip of the cap.

While the matchmakers for Don King Productions scrambled to fill the gaps, I had to do my own hustling. My duties for CompuBox include compiling pre-fight research for fights that will be aired on the various networks we serve, and that includes – if at all possible – bouts that are arranged on very short notice. Thus, the elevation of Hernandez-Winchester prompted me to get cracking on profiling their fight.

Fortunately for me I had access to the most recent fights for Hernandez (KO 4 Brandon Baue on the lone boxing card aired on the Pursuit Channel) and Winchester (L 8 Michael Medina on the Sergio Martinez-Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. undercard), so I was able to compile punch-counts and offer style tidbits in my statistical recaps. I finished those late Wednesday night and during the early hours of this day I completed work on the statistical package. Since I still had some time to burn before leaving for the airport I also whipped up an analysis for the upcoming Bryant Jennings-Bowie Tupou fight that is scheduled to air Dec. 8 on NBC Sports Network.

It made for a very busy morning and despite all the short-notice work I still was able to leave for the airport at my intended departure time of 11:10 a.m.

The itinerary called for me to fly from Pittsburgh to Charlotte (my favorite airport outside of “The Steel City”), then from Charlotte to Fort Lauderdale. If all went well I’d meet up with video man Jim Delano and drive to the hotel in nearby Hallandale.

Of course, not all went well. After all, I am the Travelin’ Man.

My first hurdle surfaced minutes after I cleared security in Pittsburgh. According to the flight monitor the departure time for the Pittsburgh-to-Charlotte leg was moved back from 3:30 to 4 p.m., shrinking my connection window from 63 minutes to 33. Most flights begin boarding 30 minutes before departure, so at best I would arrive at my gate in Charlotte during the early stages of the boarding process. Unlike Philadelphia’s airport, Charlotte’s doesn’t have a reputation for chronic delays and being that I was seated in the middle seat of the next-to-last row I wouldn’t be able to deplane for quite a while.

For once I was just like W.C. Fields, who famously quipped “all things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia” because then I’d likely get a break in terms of getting on the next plane. Then again, the last time I flew out of Philly my connection to Pittsburgh actually departed on time and I was forced to juggle my schedule.

It’s just another portion of Murphy’s Law: When you want the clock to stop, it goes; when you want the clock to go, it stops.

After a while I noticed that no information regarding the flight or the time of departure was posted on the monitor at the gate where I was seated, which struck me as strange. Just by chance I looked around and realized two things: First, my gate had been moved across the hallway without a single announcement over the loudspeaker, and second, the departure time had been moved back another 30 minutes, which meant I definitely would miss my connecting flight to Fort Lauderdale.

Because this happened a few weeks earlier I knew what to do next – go to the ticket counter at the new gate to see if I could be booked on the next Charlotte-to-Fort Lauderdale flight. Because I didn’t know about the gate change until very late in the process, I found myself at the back of a line that was at least a dozen people long. As I waited for the queue to shorten I left messages regarding my status on CompuBox president Bob Canobbio’s home and cell phones.

Once I reached the ticketing desk I quickly was re-booked on the 8:05 p.m. flight from Charlotte to Fort Lauderdale, restoring the hour-plus window I enjoyed earlier. What’s more, I was placed on the first-class upgrade list, meaning if there were any no-shows in that cabin I’d be among the first to fill a vacancy. Once I was re-booked I called Canobbio, after which I contacted Showtime Production Coordinator Nikki Ferry. I asked her for Delano’s number so I could let him know I wasn’t going to be there for the carpool, but Ferry said there was no need because she’d take care of that detail.

The flight to Charlotte was virtually turbulence-free and it landed very close to the anticipated time. When I looked at the flight monitor, I realized my original flight to Fort Lauderdale had not yet departed so, just for fun, I walked to the gate to see if I still could have boarded.

Nope. Even though the plane was still at the gate the doors were closed. Just as well.

Now that I had the luxury of time, I walked over to the food court and ordered dinner. Since there were no vacant tables I asked the woman already seated at one four-chair spot if I could join her. She said yes and we ended up having a terrific 30 minute conversation that only ended because her flight to Atlanta was about to leave. After that I was joined by a soon-to-be-retired employee of IBM who was returning to South Carolina following a business trip. We hit it off so well that I stayed until almost the last possible moment before leaving for my gate.

By the time I arrived the boarding process had already begun. When I presented my pass a curious thing happened.

“Are you flying alone?” the gate agent asked.

“Yes I am,” I replied.

“We can’t have you sitting in a middle seat,” she said. “I’m going to give you one on the aisle.” Less than 30 seconds later I was moved from 5B to 5D, the first row of seats before first class. After everyone boarded I learned that no one in row five occupied a middle seat and that the aisle seat had been open anyway. It would have been awkward to be seated in the middle without anyone on the aisle, and had that happened I would have moved over anyway.

After landing in Fort Lauderdale, I grabbed a cab and took the 25-minute trip to the crew hotel in Hallendale. I arrived a little after 10:30 p.m. and despite the long and eventful travel day I still needed a few hours to wind down. It wasn’t until nearly 1:30 a.m. that I finally turned out the lights on another day in the life of the Travelin’ Man.

Friday, Nov. 16: While I was waiting for my travel issues to be resolved in Pittsburgh, I logged onto Facebook and let everyone know about the trip I was about to take – and some of the ensuing troubles.  One of the respondents to my posts was Kerry Collias (married name Colman), a high school classmate whom I hadn’t seen since graduation day in May 1983 but with whom I’ve kept touch via Facebook since signing up nearly 18 months ago to promote my book “Tales From the Vault.” She told me she lived very close to where I was staying and graciously invited me to have lunch with her the following day. I couldn’t have said “yes” fast enough. But before I talk about the visit with Kerry, allow me to provide context about my high school days.

For some people high school represented the pinnacle of existence but for me it was a burden I wanted to shake off at the first opportunity. That’s because of the unique social dynamic that existed – and still exists – in high schools. One’s standing is determined not by the content of one’s character or the brilliance of their achievements but rather the label that others affix to you – jock, cheerleader, preppy, geek, outcast, etc. And, as you might have guessed, I was on the fuzzy end of the lollipop in that regard.

The last thing anyone wants to be in high school is “different,” but with my flaming red hair, freckles, thick glasses, skinny physique and excellent test-taking skills I couldn’t help but be “different.” From time to time I was victimized by bullies because my 5-foot-9, 126-pound frame lacked the necessary musculature to deal with my enemies physically. Most of the time I just put my head down, tried my best to ignore their taunts and hoped they’d walk away due to sheer boredom – a modified version of the “rope-a-dope” if you will. But other times I couldn’t help but react with the only weapons I had at my disposal – words.

Occasionally I paid a physical price for my insolence but one time I was able to turn the tables on one of my antagonists. During one gym class in my freshman year someone happened to bring two pairs of boxing gloves to class and the teacher thought it would be a good idea to conduct impromptu three-round bouts on the basketball court – two scenarios that never would be allowed to happen in today’s litigious society.

The person who brought the gloves and one of the bullies fought the first three rounder, which the bully won by a very nondescript, almost non-physical, decision. There was enough time left in the class to hold a second bout and, to my surprise and horror, my next door neighbor – who had seen me box various kids around the neighborhood – volunteered me.  I was thrilled and mortified at the same time; thrilled for the chance to box but mortified that I had to box against him. As I trudged onto the court I noticed the looks on my classmates’ faces; they were getting ready to see some real carnage.

To make a long story short, I ended up experiencing the single greatest moment of my high school life. While the bully knew how to fight, he didn’t know how to box. Thank God I did, for when I saw the huge lane down the middle of his squared-up defense, I blasted his face with hard, pinpoint jabs and occasional hooks. Even through eyes blurred by extreme nearsightedness, I could see dozens of jaws dropping toward the floor. After my classmates overcame their initial surprise, they began cheering for me. Following the first round the gym teacher took one look at the bully’s reddened visage and stopped the fight.

My victory was a shocking and yet very popular outcome, for two of my classmates came out of the bleachers, hoisted me on their shoulders and carried me around the gym. A few hours later the bully approached me, humbly shook my hand and promised never to bother me again. He was true to his word and we actually became friendly.

Despite my troubles I liked most of my classmates and most of them liked me – or at least I thought they did. Though she would probably disagree with me, I perceived Kerry to be one of the more popular members of our high school class. In my eyes she had it all – intelligence, exceptional good looks and popularity. She was a cheerleader, a member of the track team and acted in a play or two in her spare time. She knew and hung around with those who were perceived as the “cool kids” yet she never flaunted that status over anyone else.

She went on to graduate from Marshall University – where everyone bleeds green and white – and for the past several years she has worked in the pharmaceuticals industry from her home office in southern Florida. And, as this picture shows, the years have been extremely kind to her. Perhaps she found what the explorer Ponce de Leon supposedly couldn’t – the Fountain of Youth.

Another one of her terrific qualities is her punctuality, for she pulled up in her red car 10 minutes before our noon appointment. Over the next two hours we talked mostly about what is rather than what was. She took me to a restaurant that served Cuban food and offered al fresco dining, which has its pros and cons. The bright sunshine and 70-plus degree temperatures made for a pleasant backdrop but from time to time she shooed away mouthy birds that insisted on adding their two cents to our conversation. We lingered over our meal until she noticed that the right side of my face was starting to redden from the intense sunlight. The “Curse of the Redhead” struck again.

I also learned that my perceptions of her didn’t match her version of reality. She didn’t think of herself as popular and during a reunion/retreat several years ago involving a number of our female classmates she realized that virtually everyone else saw themselves as outcasts. This dynamic reminds me of the plot line of Akira Kurosawa’s classic movie “Rashomon,” where the same scenario was replayed through each character’s eyes – which then was followed by the most objective version – to illustrate how our viewpoints can be skewed by self-interest.

We then stopped at a Panera bread shop to pick up a post-lunch treat and afterward she gave me a scenic tour of the immediate downtown area before returning to the hotel shortly after 2 p.m. I then tended to several boxing-related tasks – compiling judges information for a couple of upcoming HBO telecasts and detailing fights I have for fighters involved in a future show on another network. It’s nice to be needed.

At 4 p.m. I met punch-counting partner Joe Carnicelli in the lobby and he drove us to Gulfstream Park located five minutes from the hotel. Little did we know that we were in for a most unusual adventure.

*

Photos / Tom Casino-SHOWTIME, Lee Groves

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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