Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man goes to NYC – Part I

Friday, April 19: It’s been nearly six weeks since the Travelin’ Man last hit the road but over the next several weeks I’ll more than make up for lost time as no less than six trips are scheduled through mid-June. Thousands – actually tens of thousands – of miles will be added to my various frequent flier accounts as I’ll work the CompuBox keys in three countries and two hemispheres. Needless to say, I can hardly wait for the adventures to begin.

Step one in my odyssey is an old friend – New York City. In less than 24 hours’ time I’ll be at ringside at the Madison Square Garden Theatre, Madison Square Garden’s venue-within-a-venue, to work a card topped by across-the-pond heavyweight Tyson Fury’s U.S. debut against two-time cruiserweight king Steve Cunningham, who many thought did more than enough to avenge his previous defeat to Tomasz Adamek last December. Just as Adamek-Cunningham was billed as an IBF eliminator for the number-two slot, so is Fury-Cunningham, which, to me, is a nod to the post-fight firestorm. That’s because if Cunningham pulls off the surprise, he, not Adamek, would earn a fight with number-one contender Kubrat Pulev. The winner of that match would theoretically face RING heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko should Klitschko, as expected, beat Francesco Pianetta. Here’s another note: Just as Cunningham is fighting his second straight eliminator, so is Fury, who decisioned Kevin Johnson in a fight advertised as a step toward fighting WBC titlist Vitali Klitschko.

Ah, the joys of boxing politics.

Only someone as tough-minded as Cunningham would believe that fighting a 6-foot-9 giant would be a suitable reward for “losing” to Adamek. But opportunity is everything in boxing and “USS” appeared eager to fire his guns and take his chances. Cunningham and his backers are convinced he will exploit any and all perceived weaknesses – and they aren’t afraid to speak their minds. On the other hand, the 24-year-old Fury is equally sure he will steamroll his older, far smaller opponent, especially since the 36-year-old Cunningham’s chin wasn’t exactly stone-like at cruiserweight. Time, as they say, will tell.

While I’ve worked more than a dozen times in the Big Apple, this assignment is one that is personally significant. The reason: I’ll be working with my boss, CompuBox president Bob Canobbio. The first – and so far only – time we joined forces at ringside happened on Jan. 27, 2005 at Michael’s 8th Avenue in Glen Burnie, Md., where the Ballroom Boxing series took place. Because this was one of my earliest punch-counting assignments, Bob’s overriding purpose that night was to assess my performance under “game conditions.” Meanwhile, my goal was to impress him enough to warrant future opportunities.

Of course I was a bit nervous; after all, even before I first met Bob in 2001 I wanted CompuBox to be a big part of my future. I knew in my bones that this was the job for me; as a kid I was a certified “numbers nut” and the thousands of hours I spent excelling at video games honed my hand-eye coordination to the finest point. Combine those assets with my passion for boxing and its history and I knew I was a natural fit. All I had to do was to convince Bob of the same thing and I was fully aware that this show would be the vehicle to create a powerfully positive first impression.

This regionally televised card was the perfect training-wheels job for two reasons. First, since the show wasn’t broadcast live but rather “live to tape,” any potential miscues could be corrected in post-production. Second, my one and only responsibility was to track my fighter accurately. On virtually every other show, the “second banana” has one major between-rounds responsibility: Recording the round-by-round stats on a printed-out form so that he can pinpoint any notable trends sought by the lead operator. Since I didn’t have to do that here, I had the luxury of letting my mind wander between rounds.

During one between-rounds segment my mind wandered toward one of the ring card girls – a striking, statuesque redhead who looked like the human equivalent of Jessica Rabbit, right down to the red evening gown. The next thing I heard was Bob saying “Focus…. focus.” Bob’s shorthand message was loud and clear: “Focus on the task, not on your surroundings.” That was enough to get me back on track, but more importantly it was a lesson learned. Being a successful punch-counter requires intense and long-lasting concentration and there’s no room for waywardness in any form. Thank God I was smart enough to not only realize that but put it into practice from that day on.

The remainder of the evening went very well and over the next several years Bob gradually transitioned more responsibilities to me. That process continued once I began working for him full-time in March 2007 and last spring Bob allowed me to take a major step forward when he turned over much of the pre-fight research responsibilities over to me.

I won’t lie: Juggling those tasks with my RingTV.com work and tending to my ever-expanding DVD collection has been a time management challenge. I consider myself lucky to have such great bosses in Bob and Doug Fischer at RingTV.com, for they give me enough breathing room to pull it all together week after week, month after month and year after year.

In recent years, Bob’s contributions to the sport have begun to garner recognition. In the past two years the BWAA has nominated him for the Marvin Kohn “Good Guy” award and the John F.X. Condon award for “Long and Meritorious Service.” He didn’t win, but I’m sure he’ll get more chances. Also, CompuBox’s first computer is currently residing inside the pavilion in Canastota and perhaps the company – and by proxy its co-creator – will join it someday. As someone who knows Canobbio pretty well, I believe he’s worthy of all these honors. Here’s hoping that speculation will eventually turn into reality.

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But before I have the pleasure of working alongside Bob, I have to get to New York. Regular readers of the Travelin’ Man Chronicles know that getting from Point A to Point B and back isn’t the easiest thing for me and at times that was the case here.

In order to avoid the rush-hour traffic in Manhattan I booked the 6:10 p.m. flight from Pittsburgh to LaGuardia. The two-and-a-half hour drive to the airport was uneventful despite West Virginia’s typically changeable springtime weather that alternated between drizzle, rain, blustery winds, overcast skies and partial sunshine. My quest to find a suitable parking space was far more eventful – and frustrating. At least a half dozen cars circled the same chunk of real estate and at one point I saw the rarest of rarities: A returning passenger walking toward a vehicle parked in a prime spot with his keys out. Knowing he was seconds away from climbing into his car and pulling away, I whipped my car around the corner, drove the length of the lot and circled toward the soon-to-be-vacated spot. But alas, two other cars saw the same thing and by the time I wheeled into position a large gray truck was already poised to snatch it away.

“Drat and double-drat!” I thought. Or words to that effect.

It took 10 more minutes to find another spot and though it was in a decent place its location was nowhere near as desirable as the one that got away.  After noting its location on my ticket, I exited the car and began my drizzly five-minute trek toward the terminal building.

The aircraft that was to take me to LaGuardia was delayed in D.C. due to weather issues. That, in turn, caused the plane to miss its initial take-off window. I was finally airborne at 7:08 – nearly an hour after the original departure time — and while most of the flight was smooth there was one extremely jarring sequence. Approximately 30 minutes outside New York the plane ran into a squall that caused it to rockily slice through the air. The unpredictable up-and-down and side-to-side sensations caused me to lock an iron grip on the seat in front of me. Visions of the aircraft tumbling out of control flashed through my mind and more than once I asked God to help the pilots keep us safe. The fact that you are reading these words now is evidence that those prayers were answered affirmatively. Still, if I wanted to ride a roller coaster, I would have stopped by nearby Kennywood Park to sample “The Exterminator.”

Shortly after landing at 8:15, I sent a text to longtime friend, boxing historian and fellow punch-counter Aris Pina, who moved to New York City several years ago. When I learned of this trip one of the first things I did was to ask Aris if he could take me to Jimmy’s Corner, one of the Big Apple’s shrines to “The Sweet Science.” For years I had heard about the unique ambiance, the hundreds of posters and photos that hung on the walls and the welcoming presence of owner Jimmy Glenn but it wasn’t until now that I felt it was the time to pay a visit. My hotel was located less than 15 blocks away – easy walking distance now that I’ve dropped 21 pounds since the turn of the year.

The taxi ride from LaGuardia took a little less than 30 minutes to complete and after unpacking I texted Aris to let him know I was ready to go. Within 15 minutes we began our journey back in time.

The exterior of Jimmy’s Corner is just like any other hole-in-the-wall tavern, but it’s the boxing-themed interior that sets it apart. People lined the bar from end to end and the narrow entryway made navigation a challenge.

“There’s Jimmy,” Aris said, pointing to an older gentleman standing atop a mini-staircase approximately 30 feet away. “Let me introduce you to him. I think you’ll really enjoy talking to him.”

The years have been kind to the octogenarian, for he more than kept up with my blizzard of questions. One query was this: “Of all the fighters you’ve worked with, who was your favorite both as a fighter and as a person?”

“Floyd Patterson,” he replied.

For me, it was the perfect answer because Patterson was one of my very favorite fighters when I was a boy. That he was the first fighter ever to regain the heavyweight title was the original draw, but other factors like his ring style, his enormous power for his size and his complex character sealed my admiration. Now I was speaking with a man who had a direct link to Patterson. From that point forward my natural inquisitiveness kicked into overdrive.

By the end of our conversation I knew I had made an excellent first impression. A love of boxing is a unifying force that can bridge generations and that certainly applied here. After Glenn gave me his business card, he ushered Aris and me to a tiny two-seat table located near a flat-screen TV perched above us.

For the next hour, as old-school jazz played on the jukebox and Friday Night Fights flashed on the TV, Aris and I yakked about fighters whose names are brought up only when we get together – Hilario Zapata, Slugger White, Luis Estaba, Freddie Castillo and Jose Napoles among them. We discussed one of Aris’ all-time favorite fighters in Salvador Sanchez and what might have happened had he lived past age 23. We talked about our mutual encounters with Carmen Basilio, Kid Gavilan and Sugar Ray Leonard during various Hall of Fame weekends and noted that another one was just around the corner. After we finished our beverages we slowly made our way toward the exit, making sure to linger over any picture or poster that caught our eye or conjured a story. That, to me, is a part of boxing’s magic.

I stopped by a McDonald’s to indulge in my monthly splurge – a Big Mac and fries that I brought back to the hotel room and ate while I watched the final hour of Friday Night Fights. I couldn’t think of a better way to unwind.

Once I switched off the lights shortly after 2 a.m., I had a tough time falling asleep, which shouldn’t have been a surprise considering that I was in “The City That Never Sleeps.” The wail of sirens, the blare of car horns and the dissonant street arguments made slumber a difficult chore but the day’s wear and tear finally quieted my mind enough to put a period on yet another day.

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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 10 writing awards, including seven 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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