Lee Groves

The Travelin’ Man returns to Mohegan Sun – part I

Friday, Jan. 18: Ever since I left the Parkersburg News copydesk in March 2007, my life has alternated between two realities. The first largely has been spent inside my home office, either churning out articles for various boxing web sites (RingTV.com being the latest), conducting pre-fight research for CompuBox, recording and chronicling bouts onto DVDs and watching countless hours of TV. I have the rare luxury of setting my own pace from day to day and fortunately for me most days I decide to set a fast and productive one.

During these times I don’t leave the house very often. On Tuesdays I take part in my bowling league on a team coincidentally called the “KOs” (that’s what persuaded me to join) and on Wednesdays I venture out to buy groceries and engage in my weekly four-mile mall walk to stay what can loosely be termed as “in shape.” Otherwise, I’m a homebody who enjoys serenity and solitude.

From time to time, however, the second reality kicks in – that of “The Travelin’ Man.” That world is one comprised of adventure, stimulation, fun and almost total immersion in my favorite sport. To date, this part of my life has taken me to 32 states as well as Germany (twice), the Bahamas (once), Canada (dozens of times) and one accidental crossing into Mexico last year. That life also affords me the opportunity to rub elbows with people I only read about in magazines and watch on TV as well as witness behind-the-scenes events I otherwise wouldn’t experience. During these trips, I am much more sociable and willing to try new things (at least within reason). I also find that my senses are heightened, for I try to absorb every aspect of my visits so I can adequately describe them in my articles.

Each side serves as the perfect counterbalance for the other. When I’m at home I look forward to the next trip and when I pull into my driveway following another journey I appreciate the comfortable routines of home life.

It’s been more than a month since my last trip (a two-network, three-show trek to Los Angeles) so I was more than ready to begin my first odyssey of 2013. In some respects, this one was a blast to the past, for my last visit to the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn., took place in March 2009 when I worked an ESPN show topped by Delvin Rodriguez’s 12-round decision over Shamone Alvarez.

Upon rising at 7:45 a.m., the weather in Friendly, West Virginia was both typical and atypical – temperatures in the low 20s but under intense sunshine, a rarity in my area during the winter months. The car troubles that dogged me during my last trip – misfiring spark plugs, blinking and illuminated dashboard lights, a flat tire – were long gone. Because my driving habits are so ingrained, I correctly predicted that I would arrive at Pittsburgh International Airport at 11 a.m. but it required an extra 15 minutes of scanning parking spaces before finding a decent spot. For the record it was directly under the “14E” sign several hundred yards from the terminal entrance. You can only do what you can do, I guess.

The security lines were unusually long, even at the “preferred access” queue my “silver” status on US Airways allows me to access. It took 20 minutes to reach the head of the line but less than three to complete the screening process. No matter; I had plenty of time before my scheduled 1:39 p.m. flight to Hartford.

The flight departed on time but it began with a bang – literally. Just as the plane began to tilt upward, the drawer that stores ice for the drinks not only opened suddenly but also zoomed off the metal rails that held it in place. The drawer crashed to the floor with a mighty clatter and its splattered contents created quite the mess. Of the 29 people seated on the plane (including the two pilots), only two saw the episode in its entirety – the flight attendant and your humble occupant of seat 2A. Wisely, she waited until the plane had reached its cruising altitude before trying to clean the area.

“I’ve been working here 12 years and that’s something that has never happened,” the flight attendant, named Nancy, said later. “You just witnessed a first.”

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that. For whatever reason, weird stuff happens when I’m around, either to me during trips or to others in my proximity. I don’t know whether it’s a gift or a curse but, being a glass half-full type, I prefer to think of it as a plus, especially since it gives me more material to write about. Otherwise, I’d probably go daffy from constantly looking over my shoulder for the next crisis to erupt.

The flight was pretty smooth save for some mild turbulence during our approach into Hartford. I stopped by the Hertz counter to pick up my rental car – a white 2013 Hyundai Elantra with less than 700 miles on the odometer – and began what I hoped would be an hour-long drive toward Uncasville.

When it comes to driving in unfamiliar areas, I wear a belt, suspenders and a parachute by carrying Mapquest directions and not one, but two GPS units in case one conks out (by the way, that’s happened). Thankfully, the Magellan “found” me instantly and perfectly guided me to the hotel.

I had hoped to arrive sometime around 4:20 p.m. but rush-hour traffic on Interstate 84 pushed it back to 4:40. The reason why I had my eye on the clock was because I wanted to attend the weigh-in that, according to the production memo distributed by NBC Sports Network personnel, was scheduled to begin at 5. Thus, I had just enough time to pull into the parking lot, check in and immediately hop back into the car to drive to the casino. After informing the hotel clerk where I was going she gave me a slip of paper with directions so precise that I successfully navigated it without any electronic help, which, given my history, qualifies as a minor miracle.

According to the memo, the weigh-in was to take place in front of the arena’s box office area, information that proved to be correct. My reasons for being at the weigh-in were two-fold; one was to check out the fighters as they stepped on the scale but my primary purpose was to do a favor for a longtime friend.

For more than a decade, fellow collector and Fightnews.com scribe Boxing Bob Newman has traveled to dozens of conventions staged by the major sanctioning bodies, primarily to report on the goings-on. When he’s not dutifully collecting information for his readers, he also collects autographed photos for both himself and me. For example, a few weeks ago he mailed me rare autographed pictures of Satoshi Shingaki, Chong Pal Park, Azumah Nelson, Xiong Zhao Zhong and Terronn Millett and over the years he has provided me priceless autographs of, among others, Samart Payakaroon, Soo Hwan Hong, Saen Sor Ploenchit, Welcome Ncita, Leopard Tamakuma, Nico Thomas, Ellyas Pical, Alexander Povetkin, Chan Hee Park, Jung Koo Chang, Anthony Mundine, DeMarcus Corley, Rosendo Alvarez, Julian Jackson, Leo Cruz, Lucian Bute, Acelino Freitas, Koichi Wajima and Sjamsul Anwar, who beat Thomas Hearns in the amateurs. Like me, he has a high regard for the lesser known fighters and without his considerable assistance and determination, my photo collection would be far less comprehensive.

When I told him I was working the Gabriel Campillo-Sergey Kovalev card he informed me that Campillo was a highly desired hole in his collection that now could be filled. Given all he had done for me, I told him I’d be happy to help him out – and help myself in the process.

I normally would have scheduled my flight to Hartford for late afternoon, but to ensure I’d be at the Mohegan by 5 I booked the 1:39 flight. A couple of weeks earlier Newman mailed me two superb photos of Campillo and asked me to have the fighter sign in silver ink in the top left hand corner of the photo. On the Wednesday before this trip I stopped by an area Office Depot and bought four silver Sharpies – just in case a few of them didn’t work (and that’s happened before too). I also packed my copy of Harry Mullan’s “The Great Book of Boxing” – the one with more than 300 signatures — in the hopes of adding Campillo’s name to the roster.  

Both of us knew Campillo’s manager Sampson Lewkowicz, who is best known for guiding Sergio Martinez to a top spot in the pound-for-pound rankings. I had interviewed Lewkowicz several times as part of my CompuBox duties but it had been a few years since I last spoke with him. My strategy was to contact Lewkowicz on the day before I was to leave, mention Newman’s name as a mutual friend and then make my pitch about having Campillo sign following the weigh-in. When I called Lewkowicz’s cell, I got his son Nathan, who was incredibly receptive to my request given that we had never spoken before. He said the best time to have Campillo sign is after he had a chance to re-hydrate, which was my intent anyway. At the end of our talk he guaranteed he’d let his father know I was coming.

I arrived at the weigh-in precisely at 5 but the festivities didn’t begin until 5:31, exactly when the commission intended to start it, I learned later. The first two men to be weighed were Campillo and Kovalev, both of whom weighed 175 on the nose. I swung behind the stage and approached Lewkowicz, whose face lit up in recognition after telling him who I was and explaining my purpose. He said he would get me into the rules meeting and have Campillo sign my items after the fighter completed his responsibilities for NBC and the commission.

Of course, there was a snag: Campillo left the area during a time when Lewkowicz and I were otherwise occupied. Lewkowicz proposed a new plan – have me call his cell in one hour’s time, when he and the fighter planned to have dinner, and he’d inform me which restaurant to visit. To pass the time I talked with Kovalev’s trainer John David Jackson and Michael Mazzulli, director of the Mohegan Tribe Department of Athletic Regulation. Mazzulli, who is very friendly in conversation but very firm when conducting his official duties, gave me, at my request, an interesting printout that detailed how to properly re-hydrate following weigh-ins. I also spent some time watching old fight films playing on a screen about 50 feet away, where the Connecticut Boxing Hall of Fame exhibit is situated. For whatever reason, one of the security guards prohibited me from watching the films from a closer distance, but being the law-abiding type I complied with his request.

I called Lewkowicz at the appointed time and he let me know he and the fighter were seated not at a restaurant, but in the hotel lobby.

“Please get here as quickly as you can,” he said. His command was my wish.

I asked one of the casino staffers the quickest way to the hotel lobby and she said “go up the escalator and go straight as far as you can. You can’t miss it.”

Obviously she didn’t know who she was talking to. But she was correct – I couldn’t, and didn’t, miss it.

Lewkowicz and Campillo were seated around a table and I couldn’t pull out my items fast enough. Lewkowicz told me that Campillo’s English was somewhat limited so I tried out my very rudimentary Spanish and somehow – and successfully – communicated my instructions. As you can see by the accompanying photo his signature is among the better ones in terms of quality and legibility. The final result was well worth the effort that preceded it.

After thanking Campillo and Lewkowicz I took out my cell and called Newman. I was hoping to talk to him live but I ended up leaving a message. My mission completed, I strode through the casino with a little more pep in my step and drove back to the hotel to begin the rest of my evening.

I ordered room service a little after 10 p.m. and alternated between cable news channels and ESPN’s coverage of the Australian Open. The matches must not have been compelling because I caught myself nodding off a little after 1 a.m., so at that point I decided to turn out the lights for good.

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Photo / 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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