Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man returns to Los Angeles – part I

Wednesday, Dec. 12: When I last left you the car troubles I detailed in last week’s column were limited to a check engine light that was constantly illuminated and a cruise control sensor that blinked all the way home from Pittsburgh. Otherwise everything checked out: The engine ran smoothly, it handled the numerous inclines as expected and I pulled into the driveway safely. I had every reason to believe all would be well – and be well soon.

I believed wrong.

I didn’t realize this until later, but sometime during the drive home my rear right tire picked up a screw and by Tuesday afternoon it was completely flat. A few rounds with a tire pump offered a temporary fix and when I took the vehicle to the area dealership I asked the service department to add this to his growing to-do list.

Ninety minutes and a few hundred dollars later most of the issues had been rectified. Besides replacing portions of the gasket, installing new spark plugs and wires, checking my fluids and changing the oil, it was discovered that the local mechanic who last changed my oil had failed to tighten the cap, which, miraculously, was found elsewhere in the engine block instead of on a freeway. Needless to say, that garage will be minus one previously loyal customer.

As for the punctured tire, I was advised to visit the nearby Mahone tire outlet and, being the boxing nut I am, I immediately thought of heavyweight Ed Mahone, whose fights often were aired on the old Prime Ticket telecasts during the 1990s. Anyway, the folks at Mahone not only removed the screw and sealed the tire they also scraped away excess rust that had accumulated around the rim. Additionally, I was advised to get a realignment job and have the tires rotated in a pattern called “x-rotation.” I hope to have everything completed sometime next week.

The drive home from Parkersburg was pleasingly uneventful. All the lights that were supposed to illuminate illuminated while the ones that needed to stay dark stayed dark. All appeared on track for me to begin a unique Travelin’ Man adventure.

Friday, Dec. 14: The reason why I call this trip unique is not because I’m traveling to Los Angeles – my last visit there was just 34 days ago – but because punch-counting partner Joe Carnicelli and I were to work a day-long network tripleheader at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.

The first leg would have us count the first live boxing card aired on CBS since July 20, 1997, when Bernard Hopkins successfully defended his IBF middleweight title against the undefeated (32-0) yet somewhat green Glen Johnson. The main event matched IBF bantamweight titlist Leo Santa Cruz (who decisioned Victor Zaleta during my last visit to L.A.) against Alberto Guevara.

Next, Joe and I would count a crossroads encounter between Shawn Porter and two-time 135-pound titlist Julio Diaz on Showtime Extreme. Finally, the day would end with us working the Showtime Championship Boxing tripleheader capped by Amir Khan-Carlos Molina.

It was a card I was looking forward to working, but all thoughts of looking ahead were tossed aside the moment I turned the ignition key.

Instead of cranking, it croaked. I turned the key a second time and all I got was the “rrr-rrrrr-rrrr-rrrr-rrrr” I heard the first time around.

Thank God I had options. First, I called my mother, who runs the medical records department at a nearby hospital, to see if I could borrow her car. Of course, she said yes. Next, I asked my father if he could drive me to the hospital to execute the car switch. Of course, he said yes. The plan called for Dad to pick up Mom when her shift ended a few hours later while also calling Subaru to potentially make another appointment to address my new set of problems. I could have done the latter myself but I had a plane to catch and I didn’t want to break any state laws by using my cell phone while I was driving.

The drive to the airport was trouble-free, which, considering my luck lately, was most welcome. When I called my parents to let them know all was well, they told me the reason my car failed to start was because my battery was dead. One new battery later, all appeared OK – for now.

According to the itinerary, my direct flight from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles was scheduled to depart at 7:27 p.m. ET and land at 9:39 p.m. PT. The timing worked out almost perfectly; for while the plane departed a few minutes late, it landed exactly as advertised.

For the first time ever, I changed my seat during my Internet check-in. Until now, I just accepted whatever seat I was assigned because I’m not the picky sort; as long as I get to my final destination it didn’t matter where I sat. But when I saw I was given a middle seat in row 25, I knew a change was in order. The last time I occupied a middle seat for a cross-country flight, the constant struggling to find a comfortable sitting position caused stiffness and occasional pain in my shoulders and neck. I didn’t want to endure that again if I could help it, so if there was a way for me to avoid it, I would gladly take it.

As I scanned the available seats, there only was one on the aisle – in row 32, the next-to-last row. Good enough for me, I thought, and within seconds the change was made.

Curiously, the only noticeable bouts with turbulence took place during each of the two beverage services. It was as if Mr. Murphy and his ignoble law were having a little fun with us, for the shaking, rattling and rolling made drinking out of the plastic cup without spilling anything a challenging chore. I somehow managed to avoid making a mess.

Another positive development was that the baby seated behind me and to my left was the quietest, best-behaved traveler his age I’ve yet encountered. His mother surely had a lot to do with that, for during the rare times he began to fuss, she knew exactly how to calm him down. Some people were meant to be parents and this woman clearly was one of them.

Although the runway was wet from rain, the pilot landed the aircraft with feathery smoothness and his hard braking didn’t result in any hydroplaning. Like the mother seated behind me, the pilot was a pro.

Even the cab driver was pleasant and knowledgeable about local issues, for he described, in detail, the problems surrounding the billion-dollar rail project that was supposed to ease traffic congestion around LAX. The only problem – he was a “low talker.” For those who didn’t watch “Seinfeld,” that’s the term for someone unable to generate sufficient volume to be heard easily. I strained to hear him above the cab engine, the screeching of tires and blare of car horns, and my somewhat diminished hearing capacity but I made out enough to make sense of what he was saying.

I arrived at the hotel at 10:30 p.m. and immediately recognized this was the same hotel I stayed at during my last visit to “The City of Angels.” Within 10 minutes I was in my room on the ninth floor.

It had been a long travel day but I still had enough gas in the tank to spend an hour on the laptop and another hour catching up on everything I missed. By 12:30 a.m. – 3:30 a.m. body clock time — I finally turned out the lights and prepared for the long day to come.

Saturday, Dec. 15: The rigors of the previous day must have been more demanding than I thought because I slept soundly for the next six hours. After resting for an extra 30 minutes, I began my customarily morning rituals. Once I finished those I pulled back the curtain and was greeted with fabulously luminous sunshine, the kind that rarely touches West Virginia in mid-December.

A few days earlier Carnicelli – one of the deans of the CompuBox roster – asked me via e-mail to meet him in the lobby at 8:30 a.m. because our call time at the Los Angeles Sports Arena was 9 a.m. for the 1:30 p.m. start on CBS. If all three Showtime Championship Boxing fights went the distance – an extremely unlikely prospect – Joe and I would be at the venue for more than 14 hours.

I was hoping to meet Joe in the lobby but instead I ran into him on the elevator going down.

“Of all the elevator joints in all the towns in all the world, I walk into yours,” I told Joe, a line which got the hoped-for chuckle.

Joe said we were supposed to park in Lot 16 but when the security guard checked the approval list we weren’t on it. Once Joe showed him our production memo, however, he waved us through.

As Joe and I wandered the environs in and around the Los Angeles Sports Arena, the first thing he said was that decades-old memories were sparking. That’s because this is the first fight card he has attended here since January 29, 1983 when he covered Roberto Duran’s fourth round TKO over Pipino Cuevas for United Press International the night before the Washington Redskins beat the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII.

“Yesterday when I came to do the early set-up, I remember coming into the arena and saying ‘hmmm…it’s coming back to me.’” Joe said. “Arenas have their own look, configuration and seating and I found that it hasn’t changed that much in 30 years, even though they say it’s been refurbished. I guess they hadn’t gotten to the floor yet.” I agreed, because the tiny stones embedded in the concrete looked a lot like my driveway back home.

“We were here all week to cover the Super Bowl,” Joe continued. “Saturday morning is usually the (Pro Football) Hall of Fame announcement and cleaning up our last news stories and updates and all that before the game at the Rose Bowl. I already had my credentials and I figured since I was already going to be here and because I was UPI’s boxing writer and the executive sports editor, I wanted to cover the Duran-Cuevas fight too.”

By the time Joe arrived at the arena it already had been a busy day.

“I’m pretty sure I played in the media tennis tournament in Manhattan Beach earlier that day, then I picked up a friend of mine, Ron Cohen, who worked with the Jets,” he recalled. “He hadn’t been at a live fight before and I got him a ticket. The traffic getting to the arena was brutal and the parking was bad. We were scrambling to make it on time and security had to chase away two guys who took our seats because they figured we weren’t going to show up. We were sitting near the ring apron – this was during the days when reporters actually sat at ringside – and when we settled in Jimmy Lennon Sr. was just getting ready to bring Duran and Cuevas into the ring. I whipped out my trusty Olivetti typewriter, a model that was very popular with reporters at the time because they were so lightweight.

“It was a very raucous crowd, very pro-Cuevas, and everybody thought this was going to be the rebirth of his career after his losses to Thomas Hearns and Roger Stafford. That’s because Duran looked to be on the downside after losing to Wilfred Benitez and Kirkland Laing and beating Jimmy Batten on the Pryor-Arguello I undercard. It looked that way early on but then the ‘old’ Duran surfaced. He took the best shots Cuevas could throw but he manhandled him after that and stopped Cuevas in the fourth.”

Needless to say, the throng that packed the arena to see the resurrection of Cuevas couldn’t believe their eyes.

“The crowd was stunned,” Joe said. “I had to start dictating the story, go to the dressing room to do interviews and so on. I didn’t want to hang on too long because I had to catch an 8 a.m. media bus that was headed to the Super Bowl. We had to be there three or four hours before the game or else we weren’t going to get in. That’s because there was only one access road and more than 100,000 people that had to use it.”

Just before leaving for L.A. Joe watched the Duran-Cuevas fight on YouTube and noticed a familiar face at ringside – his own.

“I was sitting in the lower left-hand corner on the apron and if you look closely you can see me,” he said. “The shirt I was wearing was my favorite one, a blue velour shirt that was loose and comfortable. By this time it wasn’t too stylish because it had some blood stains I picked up a couple of years earlier in Houston. I remember wearing that shirt at the Astrodome, where they had the doubleheader featuring Thomas Hearns-Pablo Baez and Sugar Ray Leonard-Ayub Kalule that preceded the Leonard-Hearns superfight. I was seated in the corner where they had five straight losers between Baez, Kalule and Jerry Cheatham, who got blasted out by Tony Ayala Jr. By the end of the night I had blood stains all over it. No matter what I tried I could never get them out. I wore it a couple of more times but it didn’t look too dressy anymore. All of that came to mind when I watched the video.”

I had my own memories of the Sports Arena, though this was my first visit. During my early taping days I recorded the rematch between IBF super middleweight titlist Chong Pal Park and challenger Vinnie Curto. After coming back from a commercial break there was a far-away shot of the ring and in the upper left hand corner stood a buxom blonde who appeared to be completely nude. For a good 10 to 15 seconds she stood on the ring apron, flipping her hair and strutting her stuff as the crowd hooted in pleasure. A few moments later several security officers surrounded her, covered her with an overcoat, gently led her down the ring steps and escorted her out of the arena. As for the fight, Park retained the title by 15th round TKO.

Over the next few hours Joe and I readied ourselves for what we knew would be a long day – and night — of work.

*

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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