Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man goes to Philadelphia – part I

Friday, Dec. 7: As has been the case the last several months, the weeks between my Travelin’ Man stints have been saturated with boxing-related tasks. In fact, the itinerary was so jam-packed that I soon forgot was a true day off feels like. Then again, when you love what you do, you realize that days off are a bit overrated.

This time the days between last month’s Indio/Los Angeles “double-dip” and today’s flight to Philadelphia were largely spent compiling pre-fight research for December boxing shows to be aired on HBO, Showtime and NBC Sports Network, three of the five networks CompuBox currently serve (ESPN and Epix are the others). Whatever time was left was devoted to “tending the garden,” the term I use to describe the editing, burning and chronicling of my ever-growing DVD collection. The best way I can characterize this ongoing experience is to repeat an oft-used phrase: A historian’s work is never done – and thank God for that.

The centerpiece for today’s trip to “The City of Brotherly Love” is a NBC Sports Network doubleheader featuring super featherweights Jerry Belmontes and Eric Fields as well as heavyweights Bryant Jennings and Bowie Tupou at Temple University’s McGonigle Hall. It’s the first show I’ve worked at this venue and for this network, so I saw it as an opportunity to meet new people as well as re-connect with a host of familiar faces such as ring announcer “Generous” Joe Antonacci, the recently retired scribe Bernard Fernandez and veteran boxing nomad Jack Obermayer, who I’ve dubbed “The Original Travelin’ Man.”

Still, when I learned last month I was traveling to Philly, I experienced a brief mental shudder. Before I explain why, I’d like to stress that I don’t, and never have had, anything against Philadelphia or those who live there. In fact, the 76ers have been my favorite NBA team since the days of Dr. J, Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney, Caldwell Jones and Bobby Jones and Philadelphia’s boxing pedigree amongst U.S. cities is unparalleled – always a plus with me. My troubles with Philadelphia are purely logistical; along with New York City I’ve had more trouble navigating its streets than any other locale, GPS or no GPS.

At this moment I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken wrong turns within Philly’s city limits or recount every snafu I’ve had at its airport. On several occasions I’ve had seatmates from Philadelphia nod their heads knowingly after mentioning my navigation woes. One even admitted that she had problems getting around despite living there for years.

Even when things go right in Philadelphia they end up going wrong for me. A couple of months ago I was hung up in Syracuse because of a procedural snag during the security process and because I had a tight connection in Philadelphia I was hoping that the airport’s notoriously frequent flight delays would crack my window a bit wider. But wonder of wonders, the plane I was supposed to catch actually left on time, so I ended up staying a few extra hours in order to board the next flight out.

However, any anxieties I had about driving Philadelphia’s streets again were rendered moot when I learned that rental cars were out and taxis were in. In fact, even if rental cars had been available I would have opted for the cabs. A few days earlier I asked the producer in charge of travel if I could forego a rental car this time around and after I explained why he gave his consent.

I left the house at 11 a.m. amidst stone-gray skies and light drizzle in the hopes of arriving well before my scheduled 3:20 p.m. flight. The drive proceeded without incident – at least until the incident happened.

Just after I re-entered West Virginia from Ohio via the bridge on Interstate 470, I started my way up a steep incline that stretches for more than a mile. About a quarter mile up my car suddenly lost power and the usually smooth ride became far rougher. When I glanced down at my dashboard not only was my “check engine” light on, it was blinking.

Uh oh.

My eight-and-a-half year old Subaru had been remarkably reliable through its 129,000-plus mile tenure so this was a major surprise. I pulled over into the trucks-only lane because I couldn’t drive faster than 45 mph. As I struggled up the hill my mind quickly assessed potential options:

* Should I pull into a gas station and inquire about any nearby Subaru dealerships?

* Should I call my mechanically-inclined but perpetually-worried-about-my-trips father and seek out his advice?

* Should I contact Triple A, for whom I had recently mailed an application to join, but would they honor my request for service even though the cash hadn’t reached them yet?

* Could I pull off any of these options and still catch my plane or would I have to contact NBC’s travel people and have them change my flight?

* Or should I just keep going as far as I can, hope I reach the airport and deal with the consequences when I return Sunday afternoon?

But as soon as I reached the top of the incline and started going downhill, the light switched off and my car resumed normal operations. I greeted this lucky break gratefully but cautiously because the ride was still a bit rough at points. Therefore, I decided to keep going while making sure not to push the engine too hard when going up hills and coasting down them at every opportunity. Anyone who knows West Virginia – nicknamed “The Mountain State” – knows that there are plenty of hills.

To my relief I arrived at the airport shortly before my goal time of 1:30 p.m. and once I got inside the terminal the first thing I did was walk to the Salvation Army’s red kettle and dropped in some money. I knew the episode with my car could have taken an endless variety of disastrous turns, so this was my small way of saying “thanks.”

The security lines were much shorter than usual in general and the “preferred access” queue was only four people long. I breezed through the security process, let my loved ones know I was OK and promptly made a car appointment for the following Wednesday. My mechanic said a faulty spark plug might be a likely cause but that he would have to look at my vehicle to make sure. Since it was almost time for my 3,000-mile oil change I decided to add that to his “to-do” list.

Although I was among the first to board the aircraft, my aisle seat was located three rows from the back. My seatmate was a Philadelphia native who works with Heinz and when I described my issues driving around his hometown, he gave me the nod I had seen several times before. He said he had his own troubles getting around Pittsburgh because of the many one-way streets in the downtown area. I, too, had my battles with them when I attended the Paul Spadafora-Leonard Dorin fight in 2003, where I had one of my CompuBox training sessions during the untelevised undercard. By the way, the draw versus Dorin remains the only blemish on Spadafora’s record, which increased to 47-0-1 when the 37-year-old out-pointed Soloman Egberine at the Mountaineer Casino Racetrack and Resort in Chester, W.Va. last weekend.  But, as usual, I digress.

The flight departed about 20 minutes later than scheduled because of a combination of weather issues and air traffic snags both in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The 45-minute flight had some mild turbulence but I got through it by eating the Subway turkey breast sandwich and Lays potato chips that served as my mid-afternoon snack and reading my latest pickup from the local library – Jackie MacMullan’s biography about Larry Bird called “Bird Watching: On Playing and Coaching the Game I Love.”  Not exactly the best choice in reading material given my final destination but because the Celtic icon has been retired nearly two decades I figured it was safe.

I was told the airport-to-hotel cab ride would take 25 minutes but rush-hour traffic extended that journey by 10. The first two people I recognized in the lobby were Bryant Jennings, who was wearing a burgundy sweat suit, and trainer Jeff Mayweather, who was to be the chief second of Jennings’ opponent Tupou. I had interviewed Jeff on several occasions when doing training camp notes for CompuBox as well as for a MaxBoxing.com story I wrote several years ago about fighters who turned to writing. When I asked him about the match, he felt good about his fighter’s chances, opining that Tupou’s superior power would be the difference.

I spent the next couple of hours recapping the day’s events on the laptop, after which I returned to the lobby to seek out some boxing talk. I spotted a couple of boxing people – one who appeared to be in his early 30s, the other a generation older – seated at a small table just as SportsCenter was reporting on the Pacquiao-Marquez weigh-in.

“So what do you guys think of the fight tomorrow night?” I asked.

“Which fight? The one here or the one there?” the younger man said.

“Both,” I said. “Which fighter are you guys working with?”

“Jerry Belmontes,” the younger man said. It turns out he was Belmontes’ assistant trainer while the older gentleman was a Vietnam veteran who serves as the Texan’s cut man.

“As for the fight, I’m hoping Marquez wins because he’s Mexican,” the assistant trainer said with a smile. “But I think Pacquiao will win because of the politics.”

For the next 90 minutes the three of us discussed many aspects of the sport – in-ring techniques, training methods, how the assistant trainer’s son chose boxing over promising careers in football and basketball and our respective life stories. The cut man provided a unique travel tip that he has faithfully followed since his military days four decades earlier: He collects business cards at every single hotel in every single city he has visited. This ritual began when he visited Thailand and after venturing out he was unable to make his way back to the hotel because he couldn’t tell anyone where he was staying. The business cards allow him to transcend language barriers, plus they spark memories whenever he glances at them.

When the subject turned to Belmontes vs. Fields, they were acutely aware of the challenges facing them – an undefeated fighter with relatively little punching power (five knockouts in his 17-0 record) traveling to Philadelphia to fight a Philadelphia fighter. Historically Philadelphia fighters have proven themselves tough to beat no matter the record, but Fields, a substitute for onetime title challenger and fellow Philly fighter Teon Kennedy, who had to bow out because of an injured ankle, boasted a more-than-respectable 16-2 (9) ledger.

“We are good with the change because Kennedy is a southpaw while Fields is right-handed,” the assistant trainer said. “Our plan is to take it to Fields for the first five rounds, slow down in the sixth and seventh, then come on strong in the eighth, ninth and 10th. We know he’s fast and punches well to the body but we know what we have to do.”

I remarked that not too many management teams would risk an undefeated record to fight a Philly fighter in Philly, even if he’s a sub, but their strategic reasoning appeared sound. Still, I thought Fields’ speed and better power would pose a challenge and I wondered what would happen if Fields caught fire early and gave the crowd a reason to pump up the volume.

As we were wrapping up the conversation Belmontes’ father Sal, who had trained his son for his entire pro career until the two-fight association with Derrick James that ended earlier this year, joined us briefly, as did Belmontes himself. The fighter appeared relaxed, confident and ready to go.

I returned to my room and watched the overtime period between the Sixers and Celtics. Happily for me, Evan Turner’s 13-footer with 3.9 seconds remaining lifted the 76ers to a 95-94 victory, capping a 26-point, 10-rebound night. The game was the first half of a home-and-home series that will be completed in Boston the next night, so there was relatively little time to enjoy the win. After that I switched to HBO West to watch the final episode of 24/7 as well as the replay of HBO’s Weigh-In Live program. At 1:30 a.m. I turned out the lights on another eventful Travelin’ Man day.

Saturday, Dec. 8: Six-and-a-half hours after the previous day ended this one began, at least from my perspective. The dreary weather that enveloped the greater Philadelphia area not only persisted, but a little bit of fog was also thrown in.

I spent the first few hours surfing the web as well as applying touches to the previous day’s writing. For me the writing process is always one that requires constant reads and re-reads because I almost always find a new (and hopefully better) way to express the original thought. More often than not, what you read here is almost entirely different from the way I first wrote it.

Two great things about writing for a web site: One, there are no space limits and two, if there’s a major mistake it can be corrected almost instantly.

The fog had long lifted by the time punch-counting partner Andy Kasprzak and I left for the arena a little before 2 p.m. but the stony gray skies remained. Our cab driver was straight from Central Casting – a portly, world-weathered 73-year-old with a voice that sounded like he had gargled shards of glass morning, noon and night for the past half-century. A onetime stand-up comic, he regaled Andy and me with a series of ethnic jokes that would have fallen flat even during the era when they were thought to be funny. It also didn’t help that the cabbie’s targets were Italians and Poles because the family of Andy’s mother was based in Abruzzo, Italy while his surname was decidedly Polish.

Andy bravely chuckled at his jibes and told me afterward that he and his family loved to tell Polish jokes too. As for me, I did my best to change the subject by kicking into interviewer mode. Knowing that most people’s favorite subject is themselves, I asked him about his stand-up career, how long he had been driving cabs and his golf game – anything to keep him from telling more jokes.

He was so wrapped up in the conversation that he drove a few hundred feet past McGonigle Hall.  Luckily for us it was no longer drizzling and within five minutes we were inside the venue. I would have probably walked past it but Andy was smart enough to spot the TV trucks parked nearby.

The set-up procedure went well and the catered meal hit the spot. The fight card began at 7 p.m. but I couldn’t have known I was in for an exciting yet unusual night at the fights. To find out why, check out Part II.

*

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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