Thursday, April 25: When I took my first airplane ride eight years ago, a flight from Pittsburgh to Memphis for an ESPN2 show in Lula, Mississippi, I had no earthly clue that I would go on to visit 32 states as well as the Bahamas, Canada and Germany (as well as an accidental crossing into Mexico last year). I also had no idea that I’d eventually become boxing’s “Travelin’ Man,” not because I travel more than anyone else in the business (I’m not even close) but because I chose to chronicle all the weird and wonderful things that have happened on the road and in the air. Apparently a lot of you liked what you read because the good folks at RingTV.com still allow me to post articles about my comings, goings and everything in between.
So imagine my surprise – and exhilaration – when the following cell phone conversation took place six weeks ago during my weekly four-mile “mall walk”:
“Lee, it’s Bob,” began CompuBox president Bob Canobbio.
“Hey Boss Man, what’s up?” I asked.
“Good news,” he replied. “It looks like you’re going to Argentina. HBO is sending a crew to Buenos Aires to cover the Sergio Martinez-Martin Murray fight and you’re going to be working the keys with Dennis (Allen).”
“That’s unbelievable,” I said as my already fast pace quickened. “Thanks so much for the opportunity. I can’t wait to get going.”
For the next several minutes we discussed some of the logistics associated with the trip, like paying for an entry visa, making sure my passport information was in order and so on. All the while I felt as if I was walking at a record pace but instead of feeling tired, I was so energized that I could have powered the mall by myself.
When I hung up the phone I pumped my fist in celebration, which must have looked pretty strange to my fellow walkers. I didn’t care, for the bottom line was that I was penciled for my first journey outside North America since July 2008 when Wladimir Klitschko stopped Tony Thompson in their first fight in Hamburg, Germany. In terms of miles traveled and flying time, this would also be my longest trip ever and I couldn’t have been more thrilled.
As soon as I returned home I tended to as many pre-flight details as I could. Over the next few weeks I took care of other necessities like purchasing adapter plugs, readying my digital camera and finalizing my itinerary with HBO – Pittsburgh to Houston and Houston to Buenos Aires. I chose Houston because I wanted to be on the same flight as Dennis once it came time to leave for South America. After all, being with someone familiar in an unfamiliar country is a very good thing. Even as I tended to everyday business my mind never strayed far from making this trip because of the limitless potential for adventure and creating lifelong memories.
One never knows how a single decision can impact future events until said future events unfold. For example, I had the option of taking a later flight with a smaller connection window so I could wake up at a more comfortable hour or an earlier flight with a longer layover to increase my chances of making my connecting flight to Buenos Aires. Thank goodness I opted for the latter, for I couldn’t have anticipated that during flight week government-imposed furloughs of air traffic controllers began kicking in, which led to thousands of flight delays and wreaked havoc with travelers’ ability to make their connections. I didn’t care that I would spend four hours inside the terminal at George W. Bush Intercontinental Airport; I just wanted to be where I needed to be when I needed to be there.
Little did I know how much things would change over the next few hours, but more on that later.
I awoke at 7:30 a.m. amidst bright sunshine that obscured the unseasonably chilly 46-degree temperature. I made sure to pack a windbreaker and a Hopkins-Taylor I baseball cap just in case the Saturday night Buenos Aires forecast for rain and mid-50s conditions came true. Knowing the weather forecast was relevant for one major reason: Sergio Martinez’s first fight in his native land since he outpointed Francisco Mora over 10 rounds on Groundhog Day 2002 would be staged not at historic Luna Park, the Madison Square Garden of Argentina, but at the Estadio Vélez Sarsfield sports club, a 48,000-seat open-air soccer stadium that is home to one of the top teams in Argentina’s premier league.
The drive to Pittsburgh was a pleasant one and once I arrived at the airport I was greeted with three positive omens:
The three hour flight to Houston was unusually smooth and I spent the vast majority of it chatting with my seatmate, a vivacious 37-year-old named Marla who was on her first airplane ride. Remembering how I felt during my own maiden voyage I did my best to calm her nerves and reassure her that everything would be just fine. Long before we landed she told me she couldn’t have asked for a better seatmate and our multi-layered conversation made the time speed by faster than the plane itself.
But once I walked into Houston’s terminal the yin I had enjoyed to this point was about to go yang. Big-time yang.
While I was fortunate enough to avoid the furlough-fueled flight delays, Dennis wasn’t so lucky. His flight from Las Vegas to Houston departed one hour later than scheduled, shrinking his connection window to an impossible three minutes. Although I tried to talk the gate agents into possibly holding the flight to accommodate Dennis and several other HBO folks on the Vegas flight, I was told that this decision was out of their hands. The stakes were high: If they didn’t make this connection, the next flight to Buenos Aires was slated for 9:10 p.m. – tomorrow.
In that event, I would take care of the pre-fight routines in Dennis’ absence and though he would be arriving in town the morning of the fight, he’d have a few hours to catch some shuteye before leaving for the stadium. Not optimal, but workable.
Just as I braced myself for this scenario, everything changed. And then it changed again.
A few minutes past 8 p.m., a startling announcement was made over the intercom: Because two tires on our aircraft needed repairs, the Buenos Aires flight would be delayed.
Talk about a stroke of luck. Past experience told me that a mechanical issue like this one would have delayed our departure at least 30 minutes, if not more. Suddenly Dennis and his HBO mates had a fighting chance of making the connection. I called Bob to tell him about this turn of events and we began to breathe easier.
Less than 20 minutes after the first announcement, a second one completely changed the story line.
Bad news: The Buenos Aires flight was cancelled due to mechanical issues.
Good News: The flight had been rescheduled for 8 a.m. Friday instead of the usual 9:10 p.m. Until then, United gave us food and hotel vouchers for the nearby Park Inn and Suites.
Bad News: The hotel shuttle was completely full and we were told that it wouldn’t return to the airport for at least another 30 minutes. We didn’t want to wait that long so Dennis and I decided to take a taxi. Justin, an architectural student headed to Argentina for a class project, overheard us and asked if he could come along. Of course, we said yes.
Worse news: We happened to choose the one cabbie in Houston who didn’t know where the Park Inn and Suites was located. Because of that, our expected five minute ride lasted 20 and it took him a couple of tries – and a few phone calls – to regain his bearings.
By the time we reached the head of the line at the registration desk it was nearly 10:30 p.m. A very short night was ahead of us; Dennis and I agreed to meet in the lobby at 4:45 a.m. to catch the 5 a.m. shuttle, which, we were told, ran hourly. After spending the next hour chronicling the day’s events on the laptop, I turned out the lights at 11:15 p.m.
Friday, April 26: It took me at least two hours to fall into a stuttering slumber because there was no time to engage in my usual winding down process. Still, I managed to wake up at 3:45 a.m. – 15 minutes before my scheduled wake-up call – and after finishing my morning routines I felt surprisingly fresh and energetic.
Being a half-glass-full soul, I realized that while yesterday’s events were a hassle, it actually worked out better in the long term. Instead of flying all night and arriving at 8:30 a.m. in a bleary-eyed state, I got a decent night’s sleep in a comfortable bed. With any luck I’ll get to do the same tonight. Also, since Buenos Aires is only one hour ahead of Eastern Time, jet lag wouldn’t be a factor. Now all we need to complete the picture is a safe, on-time flight.
I’ll give you some time to laugh. Done? Good. Let’s move on:
Dennis and I caught the 5 a.m. shuttle, which was stuffed beyond capacity with passengers desperate to catch their flights. The van driver was as slow as our cabbie had been fast but the time elapsed from point A to point B was the same – 20 minutes. When we looked at the flight monitor we discovered our 8 a.m. flight had been pushed back one hour. While Dennis stopped by a coffee shop to re-energize his batteries, I went on to the gate to catch up on my writing and graze some of the voluminous reading material I stuffed inside my laptop bag.
Another really cool way I passed the time was talking boxing history with HBO analyst Max Kellerman. The subjects we covered included Sergio Martinez’s place among Argentine fighters (both of us have him in the top five), Nonito Donaire’s recent loss to Guillermo Rigondeaux and 1970s flyweight/bantamweight Orlando Amores, who Max knew personally and I knew of through his fights with Masao Ohba and Carlos Zarate, the latter of which we watched on Max’s phone.
Of course, the Buenos Aires flight failed to leave on time. Besides the one hour delay off the top, the plane didn’t depart Houston until 9:47 because, according to Dennis, (1) one of the overhead bins needed to be repaired and (2) an elderly woman and her husband – who was on crutches – wanted to sit in the exit row for the extra legroom. The flight attendants rightly told them they couldn’t sit there because they clearly were in no shape to help anyone in a potential emergency. A lengthy argument ensued but in the end the couple was re-seated.
For those who have never flown internationally, the planes are enormous in terms of size and seating capacity. Most planes used for domestic flights in the U.S. feature rows consisting of two (or sometimes three) seats down each side of the aisle. These birds, however, contain two separate compartments of two-seat rows down the left and right sides as well as a three-seat section down the middle. During one of my trips to Germany I drew the dreaded “middle middle” – middle seat in the middle aisle. Worse yet, the person seated in front of me suddenly went into full recline mode, which caused an entire cup of soda to spill on my jeans. Trust me, sitting for hours with soda-soaked pants is no fun.
This time I was more fortunate – I was seated in 25 L: Window seat, right side of the aisle. Each seat had a monitor with a myriad of entertainment options. Because I brought a lot of reading material – and because I’m a confirmed statistics freak – I opted for the flight path map. While some might find that boring I was fascinated by it. Besides the flight path, the various screens also presented the global day/night path and provided constantly updated facts and figures such as time to destination, air speed, altitude, distance traveled, distance to destination, outside air temperature, time to destination, local time at origin, local time at destination and estimated time of arrival.
The flight path took us over the Gulf of Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula, after which we brushed the east coast of Central America. Then we turned slightly southeast over Colombia, Brazil and Bolivia before we finally reached Argentina’s air space. As the minutes, hours and miles piled up, I realized like never before just how big this world really is. In all, I flew for 11 hours and 6,700 miles this day, making it the longest flight I’ve ever been on by more than two hours. When you add 118 miles of driving from West Virginia to Pittsburgh and the 1,116 air miles between Pittsburgh and Houston, the total swells to 7,934 miles traveled – one way! Now this was Big Boy traveling.
Aside from a few minor bumps as we crossed the equator – which instantly turned mid-spring into mid-autumn — and during our ascent and descent, the flight was stress free. We were served breakfast and dinner and I took advantage of the multiple beverage services to make sure I stayed hydrated, a must for flights like this. Once darkness fell – and after I discovered my overhead reading lights didn’t work – I decided to play a trivia game on the monitor. I ended up posting five of the top 10 scores, mostly because I kept nailing the sports questions.
We touched down in Buenos Aires at 9:55 p.m. local time and the flight seemed to take forever. After deplaning Dennis and I found our place in the customs queue, where we presented our passports and visas and provided them a thumbprint via scanner. In a departure from U.S. procedure, we placed our luggage on a conveyer belt for a final screening before leaving the airport.
HBO spared no expense in terms of providing transportation, for we had buses, vans and sedans from the airport to the hotel, from the hotel to the venue, from the venue to the hotel and from the hotel to the airport. For the first time ever, I actually saw a driver holding up a sign with my name on it, as if I was a big shot executive. It just added to an already surreal scene for me.
Once I found the driver and Dennis found his we went our separate ways and hit the streets of Buenos Aires. Since we arrived at the Hyatt at the exact same time, his driver must have hit speeds in excess of 120 km/h (74.5 mph) like mine did. Still, I managed to drink in my surroundings because I wanted to take as many mental pictures as possible. I noticed the gas stations whose prices for liters of gas read beyond eight Argentine pesos, the speed limit signs having black numbers within red circles and boasting metric measurements and the constant stream of 1980s music emanating from Radio FM Aspen – 102.3 on your dial.
Once I checked into my room and unpacked I opened the package of adapter plugs and pulled out the one that matched the downward angled shape of the outlet. After some initial issues getting my Americanized plug to fit into the adapter, I was up and running. I updated my Facebook page, sent some e-mails to Bob and the folks back home and spent the next hour wrapping up some loose ends. I turned on the TV to sample the local fare, then ended this day 18 hours and a world away from where I had started it.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org arrange for autographed copies.